We’ve already covered whisky facts to help you become a better grown-up, but now it’s time to crack open that bottle of off-licence Yellow Tail and have a swig of some weird and wonderful wine facts.
As a young(ish) person I didn’t really know what I was drinking when it came to alcohol. Too many nights were wasted swilling a pitcher of Fosters or some other kerosene-based lager. It wasn’t until I was a proper adult that I started to really appreciate wine.
Wine’s been around for a long, long time. For thousands of years, people have been drinking fermented grape juice. Usually it was mixed with water (we’re pretty hardcore these days) and it probably didn’t taste a lot like the commercially produced stuff we consume now.
You might be thinking: Why bother? I already know all there is to know about wine (there’s red, white and sometimes pink, right?). Or maybe you’re thinking: I hate the stuff. You might be right, but maybe you just haven’t met the right wine yet. I’ve had more than one friend swear they hate Merlot, only to discover one they absolutely love.
So, are you ready to be a better adult and shake off the chains of your local’s Chardonnay? Then read on, dear friend. The following facts will hopefully encourage you to delve deep into the wonderful world of wine.
DON’T BE A N00B
1) When ordering wine at a restaurant, whatever you do, don’t taste the sample the server pours for you. For those in the know, it’s embarrassing. Instead, only give it a good sniff. If it’s gone off (you’ll be able to tell), send it back. If it’s not, it’s your’s – whether you like the taste of it or not.
2) Speaking of wine that has gone off – it’s going to smell bad. Maybe it’s been corked (the cork has let in some nasty chemicals that interact with the wine – more on that below); maybe it’s just sat around for too long and has become vinegar. The important point here: don’t drink bad-smelling wine.
3) When storing a bottle of wine, the last thing you want to do is put it near a window. When you open it for that special occasion six months later, it’s probably not going to go well. Optimally, you’ll store your precious wine in a cool, dark place (think traditional wine cellars), preferably on it’s side if it has a real cork (being sideways will prevent the cork from drying out).
You just drink it, right? Wrong. If you want to look like you know what you’re doing, do the following:
4) Look at the wine, ideally in good light with a white piece of paper behind it. Try to figure out what colour it is: is it bright ruby? Brownish? Straw? Pale yellow?
5) Swirl and smell the wine. Get your nose right in there. Try to pick out some aromas (berries, herbs, minerals, etc). If your nose gets a bit tired and you can’t really smell much anymore, give your arm a sniff – your own skin smells neutral to you and will act like a reset for your nose.
6) Take a sip. This step can be tricky for some people, but try to suck in a bit of air with your wine in order to aerate it. It will sound funny – that’s okay. Swirl the wine all around your mouth to coat it (like you’re using mouthwash). Then spit or swallow. If you’re tasting a lot of wines, spitting is better (your tastebuds stay fresher and you get drunk less quickly). Does the wine taste light or full-bodied in your mouth? Is it smooth or oily? Stuff like that.
7) The finish. It might be long or short. You might get a bit of an alcohol burn. Maybe it’s really tannic. If it’s a well-balanced wine, you’ll likely want more.
8) After swirling wine around in a glass you’ll notice how it slips back down the sides. This effect is often referred to as “legs” or “tears”. The viscosity of the wine is an indication of how alcoholic it is: thicker, slower moving legs means a higher alcohol content.
9) Why do some red wines make me feel like I’m sucking on tea bags? That dry feeling is called tannins, a polyphenol (chemical compound) found naturally in a lot of organic stuff including grape seeds, skins and stems. So the longer the juice comes into contact with these parts of the grapes, the more tannic a wine will be.
10) If a bottle uses natural cork (not a screw top or synthetic cork), it’s susceptible to cork taint, aka the wine has been “corked”. Microorganisms can eat the cork and produce a chemical called Trichloroanisole (TCA). When TCA comes in contact with the wine, the wine goes off. Some people describe the smell as wet dog, others as soggy cardboard. Whatever bad smell it has, don’t drink corked wine.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IN Carménère, Sagrantino?
11) You can roughly divide the world into two regions: Old World and New World. Old World includes countries like France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. New World has the likes of Australia, New Zealand, United States, Canada and Argentina.
12) Generally (but not always – don’t sue me) Old World wine is defined by region. For example, red Bordeaux wines will consist of some concoction of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. You have to know what grape varietals are allowed in the region to know what goes into a wine from there.
13) That nice Chianti you enjoy with your fava beans? That’s made with the Sangiovese grape. Rioja? Tempranillo. White Bordeaux? Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and maybe Sauvignon Gris, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc, Ondenc and Mauzac. Yup, French wines can be hard to decode.
14) On the other hand, generally New World wines are defined by the varietals (type of grape). An Argentinian Malbec is what it says on the tin. You don’t need to know the location of a winery in Australia to know it’s a bottle of Shiraz – it will say Shiraz right on the label.
15) Not to complicate things, but sometimes places and countries don’t use the same words for the same thing. Here are a few common examples:
- – Syrah is Old World, Shiraz is New World
- – Pinot Gris is French, Pinot Grigio is Italian
- – Grenache is French, Garnacha is Spanish
- – Mourvèdre is French, Monastrell is Spanish
16) Think all white wines are made from white grapes? Think again! It’s contact with the grape skin that produces the wine’s colour. Red wine is made from black grapes while white wine can be made using either white or black grapes. So rosé is a result of a bit of skin contact from black grapes (or the other way to make a rosé is to add a dash of red wine to white wine. Eww). A white wine made from black grapes (e.g. sparkling wine made from Pinot Noir) just means that the grape skin didn’t get a chance to mingle with the juices before fermentation.
THE WINE-MAKING PROCESS
17) When grapes are fermenting, they’re turning sugar into alcohol. More sugar in the grapes allows for more alcohol. This is why you’ll sometimes see hot climate wines (lots of sun = juicy, sugary grapes) with a high percentage of alcohol, like an Australian Shiraz at 15+%.
18) If you want to get technical (who doesn’t?) the term viticulture refers to the science behind growing grapes (aka wino PhDs doing tests and stuff) and the term viniculture refers to growing the grapes (essentially, farming). It’s a subtle difference, but if you can bandy these terms around during a social gathering you’ll look like you know your wine onions.
19) Terroir is a wine term you hear often. There’s not really a direct English equivalent, but in essence it’s used to describe the environment the grapes and wine have been created in. It includes the sun, air, soil, rain, temperature, climate, elevation – everything (if you’re a cinephile, you’ll understand when I say it’s like the “mise-en-scène” of the wine).
20) Biodynamic is a trendy term for wine these days. It means farmers and winemakers use natural cycles and other old-school techniques in growing, harvesting and wine-making. The cycles of the moon, for example, will help them determine when to do certain things. Burying a cow horn filled with manure is another one. Does this affect the wine? You’ll have to try some biodynamic ones to figure that out.
21) Organic is another trendy term, sometimes used in conjunction with biodynamic (but not all organic wine is biodynamic). As with other crops, the grapes that go into making an organic wine aren’t subject to pesticides and other nasties.
22) Wine doesn’t have to be made from grapes. I know, right?! You can make wine from other fermented fruit, like pears, plums, cherries and even pineapple.
23) Champagne is French sparkling wine. Prosecco is Italian sparkling wine. Cava is Spanish sparkling wine. They are all bubbly, but made with different grape varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for Champagne; Glera for Prosecco; and Macabeu, Parellada and Xarel·lo for Cava.
24) Only sparkling wines created in the Champagne region of France are allowed to be called Champagne. Just because Champagne is elitist, doesn’t mean it’s the best: last year English sparkling wine beat Champagne in a professional blind taste test.
25) Did you know that wine can undergo a second fermentation? You can get this with some still wines, but the most common use of second fermentation is with sparkling wines. After a normal primary fermentation, the wine will be bottled with some more yeast and sugar so that it will undergo a second fermentation – and the carbon dioxide that is released during the fermentation process (now that it’s enclosed in the bottle and can’t escape) makes the bubbles.
26) Ever see words like Brut or Sec on a bottle of sparkling wine? Those terms are referring to the sweetness, or residual sugar level, of the wine. Different countries use different terms (Sec is French and Seco is Spanish, for example), but the terms are close enough that you should get the gist whether your bubbly is Cava or Prosecco. The scale is: Brut Nature (least sweet), Extra Brut, Brut, Extra-Sec (extra dry), Sec (dry), Demi-Sec, Doux (mild – the sweetest). Don’t ask me why they refer to mild as sweet, it’s just the way it is.
Good to know wine facts
27) Fact: there are countries with wineries that you would never associate with winemaking. Examples include India, Canada, Georgia, Hungary and even England (I can’t say the UK because Wales isn’t in on the party). The Romans have been making wine in the UK since yonkers, and today the most northerly vineyard is located in Yorkshire.
28) Dessert wine ≠ ice wine. Both are sweet, but they have very different production methods. Dessert wines are made like other wines, but will use high-sugar grapes or add extra sugar during fermentation. With ice wine, the grapes must be harvested at around -8°C, when the grapes are frozen. They are then quickly taken for processing. Because the grapes are so cold, most of their water content is frozen. Therefore when they’re crushed, the juice that comes out is really intensely sugary.
29) Because of the work involved in making ice wine, a teeny bottle of this sweet, sweet nectar is usually more expensive than dessert wines. In Canada, the average 375ml of ice wine will put you back $45.00 (£27.00). Only certain countries in the world can produce proper ice wine, as they have that weird combination of the ability to grow grapes plus super cold winters. The most popular/common ice wine producers are Canada and Germany.
Don’t forget: “In vino veritas” – in wine there is truth. The only way to know what you like and don’t like is to try a lot of different wines. And for the love of Dionysus, don’t let whatever ‘Spoons has on tap be your only opinion of the stuff.
When it really comes down to it, the best wine is the wine you like drinking. So forget all that poncy nonsense above. If you like it, that’s all you really need to enjoy wine. Cheers!