If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. You’re out with a hot date, and before you can ask if they have any siblings or who they’re voting for this upcoming presidential election, the server hands you a wine menu.
She comes back weirdly quick with the terrorizing question “Have you decided on wine yet?” You panic. You know you’ve gotta impress your date: dates are made for impressing. And right now you’re a big, open-mouthed bag of clueless skin. Not so attractive.
Don’t worry, you sweet little wine neophyte, I’m here to help you with this basic breakdown on vino – the who’s, what’s, why’s, and what the hell is a tannin? You can thank me later (by sending a bottle of wine … any wine [not Gewürztraminer]).
1. Back to Basics: What Exactly Is Wine?
Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from grapes or – gasp – other fruits! But modern culture has decided that grapes taste best. Without sugars, acids, or any other additives, grapes ferment as yeast converts the grapes to ethanol and carbon dioxide. Currently, over 250,000 different wines are released every year.
2. Why Do Wines Taste Different?
Many factors result in wines boasting different flavors, but namely, it’s the different types of grapes. You know how you have a favorite kind of apple? Like, you literally could not pay me to eat a Red Delicious (its name is sacrilege). But I go bonkers for a Honeycrisp.
The same is true for grapes – tons of different varieties (plus different strains of yeast) lead to tons of different flavors of wine. Additionally, of course, the type of soil used to grow the grapes, the kind of casks or barrels the wine was fermented in, and on and on.
The easiest way to describe wine is by fruit. Take a swig. Can you detect a particular fruit? That’ll help you narrow down what kind of wine it is.
If you’re drinking a red wine and it tastes like cherry and chocolate, you’re likely drinking a Pinot Noir. If you’re drinking white wine, it can taste of lemon or grapefruit or strongly of pear or peach.
What else do you taste? Wine can taste of the world: pepper, metal, tobacco, olives, even cat pee. All these things are perfectly adequate ways to describe wine. It’s an adjective lover’s dream drink!
When your bow-tied sommelier or a tiresome date waxes poetic about terroir, they’re talking about the set of environmental factors that affect a crop’s qualities.
Climate, soil type, surrounding plants, and geomorphology (which is somehow not a made-up word but rather means the study of landscapes) affect a wine’s terroir.
Human decisions such as pruning, irrigation, and harvest time also have an impact on a wine’s terroir. Lots at play here. Don’t get confused; you’re doing great.
Wine tannins are the presence of phenolic compounds which add bitterness to wine. These phenolic compounds come from grape skins and seeds, but can also be added via aging the wine in oak wood. Tannins add balance to wine and are a necessary structural, drying agent in wine.
6. Dry vs. Sweet
The amount of sugar that resides within the wine after the fermentation process determines whether it is dry or sweet. The less sugar, the drier the flavor of the wine.
High-acid wines will give themselves away by leaving a tingly sensation on your tongue. They are usually a little more “spritz” tasting and less full or round-bodied.
Speaking of which…
8. Light Body vs. Full Body
A lot of factors go into whether the wine is fuller or lighter-bodied, from the year it was harvested and bottled (its vintage), its country of origin, its viscosity, to the level of alcohol in the drink. All of these things will affect the body. A high-alcohol wine will taste fuller than a lighter-on-the-alcohol wine.
This term doesn’t mean that the glass is empty, rather it alludes to what your mouth feels like a moment after you’ve swallowed. What flavors or textures are happening on your tongue? Is it spicy, sweet, rich, minerally, rough?
It’s almost obscene how many different impressions a couple grapes and some yeast can give you, but that’s what’s so endlessly delightful about wine varieties. They’re like snowflakes. Delicious, drunk, expensive snowflakes.
At the end of the day, however, as chef and sommelier Claud Beltran of Pasadena’s Bacchus’ Kitchen says, “If it’s good food and good wine, it’s going to go well together naturally. Wine is a beautiful beverage, and it tastes good, and it makes you happy, so enjoy and don’t make it too difficult.”