Are you interested in wine, but you don’t know much about its history, its styles, or how it’s made? Are you bewildered by the wine jargon you read in wine reviews, or do you have trouble distinguishing between fine and poor-quality wines? If so, don’t worry. All wine connoisseurs started out in the same boat.
For wine beginners, I’ve condensed the wine essentials down to a few, simple facts.
1. Wine is Old: Because wine can occur naturally, it was probably discovered by accident. By around 5000 BC, it was being manufactured in Persia and the Middle East, and possibly in China. Wine soon spread through Egypt and Greece, and from there it spread through Europe, where the Roman Empire and then the Catholic Church made it a lasting part of Western culture.
2. How Wine is Made: Typically, wine grapes are harvested, crushed, and allowed to ferment. Over the first 1-2 weeks, naturally-occurring or man-made yeasts convert the grape sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After that, the wine is placed into vessels where it is allowed to age for anywhere between a few months to a few years. Some fine wines, particularly reds, are known for aging well, but most don’t significantly improve over time.
3. Wine Names: Most wines get their names from the types of grapes they’re made from, while others, particularly European varieties, may get their names from the regions where they’re from. It’s simple: Pinot Noir is made from Pinot Noir grapes; Chardonnay is made from Chardonnay grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, and so on. In practice, you’ll find many wines that are blends of more than one grape.
4. Types of Wine: Red wine is made from the skins and pulps of red grapes. White wine is usually made from the juice of white grapes, but it can also be made from red grapes when there is minimal contact with the skin. Rose wines are made when the juice of red grapes stays in contact with the skin long enough to fade to a pinkish color. Sparkling wines, such as champagne, are made by trapping some of the carbon dioxide that is released by the yeast. Sweet wines, also known as dessert wines, are made by ensuring that some of the sugars aren’t broken down during the process. Fortified wines are wines that are mixed with spirits (such as brandy) to give them special flavors and higher alcohol contents.
5. Balance: As a general rule, although there are exceptions, finer wines are more balanced than lesser-quality wines. By “balanced,” we mean a wine that is not too sweet but not bitter, not too acidic but not dull or flat, and which has a unique character that tastes natural, complex, and well-crafted. It takes time to learn how to recognize these qualities, and you’ll never develop this skill if you only taste poorly-made wines. If you can first identify a balanced wine, other subtler factors will develop with time.
6. Top Wine Makers and Exporters: The three largest wine producers in the world are France, Italy, and Spain, followed closely by the U.S., Argentina, and Australia. The largest exporters are France, Italy, and Australia. In general, wine grows best in temperate, balanced climates with both sun and moisture, not too close to the equator, but not too far north or south.