A Wine Primer for Book Lovers

At the risk of boring those of you wine lovers who have read my pontifications on wine from my previous blog, I thought I would re-post the following on Books and Wines, both because I think it worthwhile to occasionally brush up on all things wine and for new readers who never had the misfortune of reading my previous blog. Besides, I find that book and literature lovers tend to also enjoy a good wine. Really, what is better then sipping a good Burgundy while reading Bronte, a good Bordeaux when reading Dickens, a Madeira when perusing Conrad, a Napa cab with Hemingway or a Barolo when reading Tacitus?  There is an art when matching a wine with a great writer, but we’ll leave that for another day!

This post defines what a great wine is, looks at reasons why some are so expensive while others are so inexpensive, where to buy, how to store and serve wine, how to drink wine (especially taste and smell), food and wine pairings and wine words to know.

Can a wine be considered great just because you or I think it tastes great?

No, that may make it enjoyable, but that does not make it an objectively great wine.

Why search for wine “greatness”?
  • Ultimately, to get the most out of enjoying wine, one must think objectively about the characteristics of the wine to evaluate it.
  • Over time, experience in doing so increases your enjoyment of wine by intellectualizing it, moving it from a drink to something worthy of contemplation.
  • Not every wine drinker seeks that holy grail of greatness in wine.  There is nothing wrong with that.
  • However, wine is unique as a beverage in offering that intellectual opportunity for exploration, depth of thought and connection to a time and place represented by each sip of what is in each bottle.
  • If you are not pursuing that opportunity, you are just drinking, not thinking.
So What Makes a Great Wine?

A classic definition (from Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible) includes:

  • Distinct Varietal Character (“typicity”), meaning that a Pinot should taste like a Pinot, etc.
  • Integration, meaning that the components of a wine are interwoven; no one stands out
  • Expressiveness, meaning that aromas and flavors are well defined and clearly projected
  • Complexity, meaning that there is something new every time you approach it; a multitude of sensations that constantly evolve
  • Connectedness, meaning the wine provides a sense of place; a bond between the wine and the plot of land it was born on.
Robert Parker’s definition expands and modifies this a bit.
  • The ability to please both the palate and the intellect
  • The ability to hold the taster’s interest
  • The ability to offer intense aromas and flavors without heaviness
  • The ability to taste better with each sip
  • The ability to improve with age
  • The ability to display a singular personality
  • The ability to reflect the place or origin
  • The passion and commitment of the producers

In short, a great wine is not just enjoyable, it must be worthy of contemplation.

A “Snobby” Statement

Agricultural wines generally cannot be great. Why?  Generally speaking, because the wines are super mass produced (standardization, uniformity, high yields, consistency on a mega large scale).  The result, at best, wine as a drink, not as an experience.  This includes about everything that you can find in a typical supermarket.  If it is enjoyable, and you are just trying to relax and not think, then who cares if it is ‘great’?  Drink up!!!

Viticultural wines are made in an attempt to be great. How?  The wines are produced by what could best be described as individualistic (caring about each grape, often small scale, natural).  The norm here is low yields and “hands off micromanagement”.  The intent is wine as an experience.  While you have to search these wines out (as they are typically not found in the supermarket), they best meet the need when the wine being enjoyable in and of itself is not enough.

Does Great Wine Mean Expensive?

Making a wine that fits into the definition of greatness is often inherently expensive to produce.  Typical reasons why include:

  • Avoiding utilization of mass production techniques, since the scale is not great enough OR to avoid the negatives of doing so.
    • Avoiding mechanization – since it can harm grapes, cannot distinguish enough between ready and not ready grapes, etc.   Also, some of the greatest vineyards are on slopes that make such mechanization impossible or too expensive.
    • Hand picking still produces the greatest end results.
  • Yields intentionally kept low.
    • The best grapes come from stressed vines.
    • Pruning done to keep bunches to a minimum so the vine focuses it’s energy on fewer grapes.
  • The best vineyards in the world are the best locations in the world to produce the wine’s they produce.
    • Location, Location, Location translates into $$$ for that location, which translate to $$$ for the wine.
  • The best wine’s in the world often use expensive equipment and/or processes for the best (minimal) handling and aging of wines.
    • Oak barrels (French, American, etc)
    • Minimal handling, careful temperature control, pneumatic bladder presses (& only taking free or lightly pressed juice), gravity assist, etc.

In short, the cost to produce is greater, which mean a more expensive wine.  The hoped for (but not often attained) end result being a wine that can be considered great.  Unfortunately, it gets even more expensive when such practices really do produce great wine consistently for specific producers.  Such producers then enjoy the ability to add a significant premium above and beyond their cost to produce (think French First Growth, California Cult Wines, etc.).   In short, unfortunately….yes, great wine is almost always expensive.However…. a wine is definitely NOT great just because it is expensive. There are scores of inexpensive, mass produced wines that may end up better, or at least more enjoyable, then wines many times their cost.  Also, there are many “Trophy” and “Cult” wines that sell at a premium that, in my opinion, are not justified when compared to wines much less expensive.

In summary, to be objectively great, a wine is almost always going to be relatively expensive due to what it takes to produce a great wine.  However, being expensive does not make a wine great.  So…. do your research when spending lots of $$$ on wine or you will be sorry!

Does Inexpensive Mean Bad Wine?

No!  Inexpensive wine should be bought to be enjoyed, not to expect contemplation or greatness out of.  If you enjoy the wine, it was a great purchase!   Just because an inexpensive wine can almost never achieve true greatness, does not mean they are horrid.  In fact, many achieve excellence.  Finding those values make even the biggest wine snob smile.  There are scores of inexpensive, mass produced wines that may end up better, or at least more enjoyable, then wines many times their cost.  You need to find these.  However, there are oceans of mass produced wine that is basically swill.  You need to avoid these.

Tips for Buying Wine

For wines at all price points:

  • If nothing else, know your vintages.  Great vintages result in better wines across the board.  An inexpensive Rhone from 2007 will likely be much better than one from 2008, for instance.  A Burgundy from 2005 will almost always be better than one from 2004.   There are easy cheat sheet vintage charts all over the web.  Here is one example.
  • Know which producers have good reputations for consistently producing decent quality wine.  If in doubt, ask a wine friend or a knowledgeable steward at a wine store, and rely on your own experiences.
  • Some varietals produce very good wines at lower price points then others (for instance, Malbec, Syrah and Italian varietals for reds, Sauvignon Blanc or Reisling for whites).  On the flip side, realize it is hard to find a decent Pinot that is inexpensive.
  • Patronize a wine store, rather than a supermarket.  In general, they have a much better set of wine at all price levels.
When you are looking for a special, expensive bottle of wine:
  • Know your vintages.  You do not want to throw down a couple hundred bucks on a special bottle only to find out later it comes from a horrid vintage.
  • Buy from a reputable source.  You often are better off ordering on-line.  Not only do you  get a much greater selection, but you will find much better pricing.
  • Just remember that if you buy on line, only ship the wine when the weather is appropriate (not much greater than 70 degrees or so).
  • If you do not have enough experience in knowing about the wine, do look at recommendations from Robert Parker (Wine Advocate), Wine Spectator, Steven Tanzer (IWC), Jancis RobinsonGary Vaynerchuk, other reputable critic, or from wine knowledgeable friends.
  • When buying locally, ensure the wine was stored properly in 50-65 degree conditions (more on that later).  Look for signs of poor handling, or heat damage such as a leaky cork, cork pushed up or down, stuck capsule, etc.
  • Once you purchase, make sure you store it carefully until you are ready to drink.
As far as buying on line,  I recommend the following web based wine retailers.  They ship pretty much anywhere.  With no tax and inexpensive shipping, you almost always save money versus buying locally.  All store for free when weather does not allow shipping.
  • Blicker Pierce (California) – Good pricing, good selection, great people to deal with.
  • Premier Cru (California) – Almost always the best pricing.  Especially good if in stock.  May have long wait times if it is a pre-order.
  • Vinfolio (California) – Decent pricing, wide selection, trustworthy provenance and good service.
  • Woodland Hills (California) – Decent pricing and very good service.
  • JJ Buckley (California) –  Good pricing, wide selection, reasonable service
  • K&L Wines (California) – Decent pricing, good selection and good service.
  • MacArthurs (Washington DC) – Good pricing, wide selection, reasonable service
  • Vinopolis (Portland) – Decent pricing and excellent service.
  • Zachy’s (New York) -Not the greatest pricing but huge selection, decent service, trustworthy provenance
  • Vintners Cru (California) – nice targeted high end selections with decent pricing, good service
  • Primo Vino (Colorado) – good service, good pricing
You Bought the Wine, now What?
Storing Wine
  • Wine must be stored from 50-65 degrees (54-57 is ideal).
    • 15 minutes in a hundred degree trunk, the wine is cooked!
    • More than a week on an 80+ degree countertop, you are taking your chances.
    • Long term storage in a refrigerator will mute your wine, dry out the cork, and risk permanent damage.
    • Therefore, if at the least you do not have a small wine refrigerator, do not buy more than what you will drink in the next week.
    • Better yet, buy a small wine refrigerator so you do not ruin your wines, and so you can keep some on hand.
  • Wine likes to sleep in the dark, on it’s side.
    • Direct light mucks with the chemical composition of the wine, over time breaking it down and ruining it (that is why wine is not  in clear bottles).
    • Do not leave out on countertops exposed to light.  Again, best is a wine refrigerator, else in a cool, dark spot.
    • Keep the wine on its side so the cork does not dry out.  If the cork dries out, oxygen will enter the wine, ruining it.
  • In a perfect world, wine would be stored at 60% humidity or so, in a vibration free setting.
    • Unless you store at a professional storage or have your own cellar, likely this is not achievable.
    • However, as long as the wine is kept on its side so the cork stays wet, and is not stored on a running washing machine, you are okay, unless you plan on storing the wine 5-10+ years.
Serving Wine
  • For a non-contemplative experience, more or less do what you want, and enjoy it!  Main thing is serve at the right temperature (more on that later).
  • For a contemplative experience, or when drinking any wines with a claim to greatness:
    • Temperature, Temperature, Temperature – Besides poor storage, nothing can alter the tasting experience of any wine more than it being served too warm or too cold (see here for a good serving temperature chart).
      • There is no greater cause of wine not tasting as good as it should than being served and drank at the wrong temperature.
      • For reds, too cold over emphasizes tannins and masks its core flavors and bouquet.  Too warm and the wines get dull, flabby and alcoholic.
      • For whites, too cold over emphasizes acidity and masks its core flavors and bouquet.  Too warm and the wines get out of balance, dull, flabby and alcoholic.
      • Most whites are served too cold, often straight from a refrigerator.
      • Most reds are served too warm, often from a non refrigerated wine rack. “Room Temperature” means a basement in Bordeaux, i.e., 60 degrees, not an 80 degree house in Phoenix!
      • Best to serve a few degrees on the cool side, and let the wine warm over the minutes it is being consumed (the warming process is great at exuding aromas)
    • Use ultra clean glassware – Never wash your fine wine glasses using soap.  No matter how clean you think it is, residue is left behind and this will impact the bouquet and taste of wine.  Always hand clean in warm water.
    • Use clear crystal/glassware (so the wine’s color, hue and clarity can be seen) with a wider bowl then upper glass (so the aromas are fed up towards your nose) with a thin rim (so the wine flows into your mouth without the weight of the glass interfering).
    • For real ‘high end’ tastings, use white tablecloths, clear white light, avoid perfumes, smoke, etc., and make sure to avoid foods that will clash with or negatively alter the wine.
Drinking Wine
  • Look closely at the wine.  Note its color, depth, hue and clarity.
  • Give the wine a good swirl, and not being shy, stick your nose into that glass and give it a good few sniffs.  Do this process a few times and continue to do so over the time the wine is in your glass.
    • Swirling the wine serves a critical function.  It releases aroma molecules which flow up the glass, into your nose.
    • Remember from high school science….90% of your taste actually comes from your sense of smell (which is why when you have a cold, you cannot taste anything).
    • Think about the aromas.  What do you smell?  This drives the complexity and stores the wine experience into your long term memory.  Use a wine “aroma wheel”  to help you classify what you are smelling.
  • Take a drink.  Finally!  But this is not slogging a beer! Swirl the liquid in your mouth, swallowing only after coating the insides of your mouth and tongue.
    • Take note of the weight of the wine.  Is it heavy, medium bodied or light bodied (think whole milk, 2% and skim)?
    • Note the initial sensation on the front palate, the flavors on the mid-palate and the flavors and length of the finish.
    • While the wine is still on your palate, breath in through your nose, which will amplify and merge the tastes and smells.
Basics on Food and Wine Pairings
  • Key to pairing is that you don’t want the wine to overwhelm the flavors of the food nor do you want the food to take over the subtle flavor nuances of the wine.
  • Balance flavors, weight and intensity.
    • A delicate dish should be matched with a subtle wine and a hearty meal with a sturdier wine.
  • Think about what you want the wine to do to the food and vice versa. Keep in mind that some dishes taste better if the wine contrasts with it.  Rules of thumb from the Oxford Companion to Wine:
    • sourness and saltiness in food suppress apparent bitterness in wine;
    • astringency in wine is suppressed by foods that are acidic, salty or fatty and accentuated by food that is sweet or spicy;
    • salty foods often make sweet wines taste sweeter
    • bitter foods often make wine seem more bitter
  • Some things are death to wine.
    • Vinaigrettes, Artichokes, Asparagus, Spinach, Ginger, Tomatoes , Indian, Thai or Mexican.
    • If you are having wine with these things, have a high acid wine such as Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Reisling or Beaujolais.
  • Wine tends to go well with foods that are traditional in that same region (this is also very true when matching cheese and wine)
See this for a great website giving you many wine options per any food you select.  Here are some basic recommendations (I think that is the website I used for this, but someone can correct me if I got it wrong):
  • Beef:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux, red Zinfandel, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Australian Shiraz, Super Tuscan, Barbaresco or Barolo
  • Lamb:  Bordeaux (especially Médoc), Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Barbaresco or Barolo
  • Pork:  Riesling, Cru Beaujolais, Rioja, Côtes du Rhône or New World Chardonnay
  • BBQ:  Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Shiraz, Petite Syrah or red Zinfandel
  • Hamburger or Sausage:  Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Shiraz, Petite Syrah or red Zinfandel
  • Chicken:  California or Australian Chardonnay, Riesling, dry Vouvray, white Burgundy, red Burgundy, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, red Zinfandel or Valpolicella
  • Feathered Game (guinea fowl, pheasant, squab, etc.):  Red Burgundy, Pinot Noir or Rioja
  • Pasta:  Pinot Grigio, Vernaccia, Barbera, Dolcetto, Chianti, Brunello, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc
  • Pasta with Tomato Sauce:  Brunello, Chianti, Morellino di Scansano, Salice Salentino or Montepulciano d’Arbruzzo
  • Fresh Water or Lighter Fish (trout, sole, etc.):  White Bordeaux, Meursault or other good white Burgundy or light white
  • Oily or Heavier Fish (mackerel, swordfish, tuna, etc.):  Rich Australian Chardonnay or Semillon, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir or Beaujolais
  • Shellfish (clams, mussles, scallops, oysters, etc.):  Muscadet, Vinho Verde, Verdicchio, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarinho, Chablis or Champagne
  • Lobster:  Semillon, white Burgundy, Champagne or Sauternes.  If buttered, California or Australian Chardonnay.
  • Salmon:  Rich Chardonnay, white Burgundy, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Beaujolais, Chinon, California or Oregon Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir
  • Smoked Salmon or other Smoked Fish:  Champagne or Riesling, Pinot Noir, Red Burgundy
  • Soft, Creamy Cheeses with washed rind (brie, camembert, etc.):  Beaujolais, North American Pinot Noir or well-aged St.-Emilion
  • Hard, Aged Cheeses (cheddar, aged gouda, manchego, etc.):  Cabernet Sauvignon, red Zinfandel, Brunello, Merlot, Rioja, Port, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry
  • Goat’s Cheese:  Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Vouvray or white Bordeaux
Describing Wine – A Wine Lexicon
All that is left is to talk the talk!  Actually, knowing the context of basic, often used wine words is good not because you can talk the talk, but because it helps you think about, understand and describe the wine you are drinking.    From the Chicago Wine School:
  • Acidic: or tart, sour. All wines contain some acids, predominantly tartaric. Raw, young wines are generally more acidic than older ones. improperly balanced wines may taste sour because of an abnormally high acid content.
  • Aroma: that portion of the smell of a wine derived specifically from the grape variety,such as Cabernet-Sauvignon or Chardonnay, as opposed to that portion of the smell derived from other sources (see Bouquet).
  • Austere: the more prestigious châteaux wines of PauiIlac and St. Julien are sometimes referred to thusly. It implies a sensation of pleasant bitterness from tannins. Think of crisp lemonade as opposed to cola or country well water as opposed to soft tap water. Beaujolais, Lietfraumilch, or most American jug wines would not be considered austere.
  • Balance: a balanced wine is one whose constituents–sugar, acids, tannins, alcohols, etc.–are evident but do not mask one another. A young red wine–tannic and acidic– is not considered balanced because these two characteristics mask the other flavor elements of the wine, which, given time, may display themselves.
  • Barnyard: very often in the smell of some Burgundies and Rhônes you can imagine an animal-rich, even fecal setting (the euphemism is “rustic”). Many do not want to put the wine in their mouth when faced with this odor. But be brave, what lies beyond can be glorious.
  • Big: a wine of more flavor, alcohol, etc. than others. A Barolo, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, late-harvest Zinfandel or the like is considered a big wine.
  • Bitter: one of the four basic taste sensations. Young, red Bordeaux or Cabernet-Sauvignons will taste bitter because of their relatively high tannin content. Tannin is a bitter element in wines.
  • Body: English wine authority Michael Broadbent puts it well in his Wine Tasting: “the weight of the wine in the mouth due to its alcoholic content and to its other physicai components. These in turn are due to the quality of the wine, to the vintage, its geographical origin, and general style. Wines from hotter climates tend to have more body than those from the north (compare the Rhône with the Mosel, for example).”
  • Bouquet: as opposed to aroma, bouquet is more encompassing. It is the odor which derives from the fermentation process, from the aging in wood and bottle process, and other changes independent of the grape variety used.
  • Character: a wine of good character is one which doesn’t just slip down the throat and say “bye-bye”; it says “stop a while, friend. You have just come upon an above-average liquid. Think on it”.
  • Chewy: a high-but-balanced acid wine with a greater than average tannin content is considered chewy. Some Bordeaux reds, especially St. Estèphes, California coastal mountain Cabernets or Shiraz wines are so described.
  • Clean: having no off-odors or off-tastes.
  • Complex: a complex wine is many-faceted; it contains not only acids, alcohols, tannins, etc., but more. Each sip brings another flavor, reveals another nuance.
  • Cooked: a smell, hot or burnt, often found in overly chaptalized French Burgundies and Beaujolais or poorly handed wines from warm climates.
  • Cork(y): said of a wine that smells more of cork than it does of wine. Such an odor will usually not dissipate, and, if noticed to excess in a wine, provides sufficient reason for returning it to the retailer or restaurateur.
  • Dry: a dry wine is one without noticeable sweetness. Technically, a dry wine retains little or no sugar after fermentation.
  • Dumb: usually refers to the odor, or lack thereof, in a wine of some future. Many young classic clarets or Cabernet-Sauvignons are considered dumb.
  • Earthy: not actually referring to a dirty or soil-like smell or taste, but to a characteristic of the wine derived from its special soil and climate. The iodine-like quality that many relate to red Graves wines, or the rubbery character many associate with Mayacamas Mountain Cabernets is called earthy, or possessing goût de terroir (taste of the ecosystem, if you will).
  • Fat: generalIy referring to a wine of higher than average alcohol and/or glycerin content.
  • Feminine: this term is often used to describe a wine of more delicacy than most: a Margaux as opposed to a Pauillac or a Mondavi Cabernet as opposed to a Ridge.
  • Finish: the sensual impression — long or short, strong or weak –that lingers after you have swallowed a wine; a.k.a. “aftertaste”.
  • Flat: usually connoting a wine without acid tang;
  • Flowery: a nebulous term referring to an indeterminate fragrance akin to flowers in general.
  • Fruity: a pleasant fragrance from ripe grapes made into wine; a berry-like quality akin to fruits in general.
  • Full: see big, a full-bodied wine.
  • Green: usually said of younger, raw, acidic white or red wine; a rough aspect that usually softens with age; also the appearance of a more acidic than average wine will be green-tinged.
  • Hard: akin to green, but indicative more of a high tannin level.
  • Harsh: A hard or green wine will generally soften with age; a harsh wine, because of its excessive astringency, probably will not.
  • Herbaceous: smelling or tasting of soil-covered herbs; sometimes used to describe Merlots.
  • Hot: a wine that reminds you more of alcohol than anything else is considered hot.
  • Masculine: akin to big and full.
  • Numb: akin to dumb but without connoting that the wine has promise or future; an overly chilled wine will be numb or odor-less. See dumb.
  • Oaky: term used to describe the flavor of wines that have been aged in small, usually newish wood barrels.
  • Prickly: a taste sensation derived from small amounts of residual carbon dioxide in wines. Often a prickly character can be noticed in white wines fermented cold (the lowering of the temperature tends to integrate more carbon dioxide than usual); its appreciation is relative to the individual taster.
  • Spicy: many wines will display distinct or nebulous (“what is that flavor?”) spicy flavors such as dill, basil, or the like. Often, any tangy character in a wine, such as that in a fairly dry Gewürztraminers, will be described as spicy.
  • Stemmy: a term applying either to wines actually having been fermented in contact with their stems, or to wines which, owing to an unusually brutal crushing or pressing, contain an excess of the bitter tannins of the stems.
  • Sweet: a basic taste sensation dependent mainly upon grape sugars, but also one resulting from alcohol, new oak and to a degree glycerin,. A sweet, as opposed to a dry wine is one which retains some sugar after fermentation has ended.
  • Tannin: a natural constituent of wines, especially reds. It is a bitter-tasting material which is partially responsible for preserving wines during their sometimes long aging periods. Bite a grape seed to experience the flavor of tannin or have a cup of tea, neat.
  • Thin: lacking in body or alcohol; a watery wine.
  • Varietal: term used to describe wines made totally or predominantly from a single variety of grape.
  • Vegetables: when a wine smells or tastes of something you have had in a salad, but you cannot pin that something down, it’s okay to call it vegetal.

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