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Wine 101 …the first in a series of articles about enjoying wine«Back to View Articles | Back to All Articles
This is the first in the series
11/1/2008 - Northern Neck Mystery Diner

Wine 101 …the first in a series of articles about enjoying wine.

Ever confused, frustrated, or intimidated by wine lingo?  Do you have trouble understanding bottle labels or wine lists?  How about the various varietals (type of grape) and blends?  Do you think life is too short to drink bad wine?  If so, this series of articles is written for you.

Wine is bottled poetry.” – Robert Louis Stevenson …and, parenthetically, equally confusing!  To begin unraveling the mystique, we really need to understand a bit of the language.  Yes this part may be a little boring, but try to stick with me while I explain a few of the very basic descriptors.

Click HERE to review the wine terms used in this article

Without some language, really shorthand, it’s tough to discuss wine.  So let’s go: (…related terms are grouped together)

  • BIG” A red wine that has highly concentrated and rich fruit flavors and “TANNINS” (tannic acid).  The wine is complex and bold.  It leaves an impression, usually good.
  • TANNIN” is a characteristic of red wines.  It gives a sense of puckering and drying in the mouth.  Tannins are very typical in young “BIG” red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon.  Too much is undesirable, some is very positive.  Tannins tend to soften with age and “BREATHING”.
  • BALANCE” is a term used to describe whether the taste is in balance among things like fruit flavors, tannins and acidity.  It means nothing dominates   …that the sensory characteristics are in harmony and compliment one another.  A wine in balance is analogous to a beautiful natural landscape.  If someone erected a billboard on a serene landscape, it would be out of balance.
  • ROUND” is similar to “BALANCE”.  A round wine has a good balance of fruit and tannins.  No sharp edges!
  • BODY” is the feel of the wine in the mouth.  It is related to the wine’s viscosity.  Does it feel thick or thin   …more like alcohol or syrup (exaggerated to make the point)?
  • EARTHY” means the wine has the aromas and flavors of soil, leaves, bark, minerals or leather.  It is usually desirable characteristic of “BIG” red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel if it is in “BALANCE”; not overdone.
  • ELEGANT” High quality wine that is light and graceful.  Elegant wines have finesse.  Many of the French red Bordeaux have this characteristic.   "ELEGANT” is like fine china.  “BIG” is like a vivid sunset.  “ELEGANT” is more feminine.  “BIG” is more masculine.  It’s a matter of taste!
  • SIMPLE” is a term used to describe lack of complexity.  It is often used to describe an inexpensive or young wine.  It is not necessarily an undesirable characteristic.  There are times when a simple wine is very appropriate   …a warm summer evening, a pizza, a casual chat with friends.  It depends on the circumstances and your taste.
  • BREATHE” simply means to uncork a bottle and let it set.  Usually appropriate for quality red wines...  Air enters the bottle and oxidizes some of the tannic acid, “TANNINS”, which tends to soften the wine   …especially young red wines.
  • CRISP” is used to describe white wines that are somewhat acidic.  It is a desirable trait that can be refreshing and light tasting if the acidity is in “BALANCE” or not over done.  French white Burgundy’s are “CRISP”.
  • BUTTERY” is on the other end of the white wine spectrum from “CRISP”.  It means the wine has a rich, “CREAMY” full “BODIED” taste.  Most California Chardonnays have this characteristic.  Again, it depends on your taste and mood.
  • CREAMY” wines have a soft creamy mouth feel.
  • OAKY” means the taste and aroma of oak from the aging barrel.  This is typical of most California Chardonnays.  It really depends on your taste whether this is desirable or not.  It, at times, can be way over done and out of “BALANCE”.

To print this list for future reference, click here

Okay, enough about the language of wine for now. 

I’ve never been able to devise a really clever way to classify wine.  Judging from the hundreds of wine shops I’ve visited, wine lists I’ve struggled with, and books I’ve read; I don’t think anyone has.  For an engineer, this is really frustrating!  So, here’s what I’m going to do. 

I’m going to organize this series of articles around the major wine grape varieties, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Zinfandel.  It’s a compromise since some countries, growing regions, and producers classify according to the grape, like Pinot Noir, others according to growing region, like Burgundy, and others a combination of region and grape, and then there are some that are totally marketing driven (like Yellow Tail, or Big Barn Red). 

For example, US wines are usually, but not always, labeled with the grape variety.  So if I want a California Pinot Noir, I’ll see it on the label.  In France, on the other hand, I’d look for a red Burgundy.  And then there are blends of two or more grapes and on and on and on.  In wine, there are no absolutes!!

I think using varietals will be okay.  The next several installments will be about Cabernet Sauvignon.  We’ll describe the California "Cabs", French Bordeaux, and "Cabs" from Chile, Virginia, and Italy.  I’ll tell you what foods, I think, compliment them.  I’ll have some suggestions and tell you where you can find them.

I’ll end for now with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:  “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”  Me too.

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