Wine Basics everyone should know

Basic wine facts everyone should know

Have you ever been in a situation involving wine like ordering from the wine menu in a restaurant, picked up a bottle of wine on your way to dinner at a friend’s house, or attended wine tasting and you didn’t know what to do? You need not feel intimidated. There are a few basics everyone should know and there are a lot of things going on to help you on the outside before you even taste the wine on the inside.

Your first clue is the shape of the bottle

For example, the straight high-shouldered wine bottle is indicative of the Bordeaux region of France. You can look on a map to see what encompasses the region. By French law, it indicates they are a blend of certain types of grapes that are grown there and that are used to make the wine under specific procedures. In the United States, you’ll recognize the types as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the same shape of bottle and other countries use specific bottles for a specific wine too. American wines are mostly blends, even when they are labeled with a specific kind of grape. A Merlot, for example, may be blended with other types of grapes, but the Merlot grape is the main one used. 

What is all that stuff on the wine label?

Did you ever notice the wine from France has all kinds of codes and markings all over it, while some countries, including the US, have labels that just look pretty cool? That goes back to the laws and whatnot again. There’s a lot to learn from the label of the French wine and if you want to really get into it, get to know what each one means. In the meantime, there are a few things you need to keep in mind about all wines. If you’ve ever had a great bottle of wine in a restaurant and went to buy it in the store, but took it home and were disappointed, it’s probably because you don’t have the same vintage (the year the wine was made). When you ask who made the wine find out the vintage too. There are a lot of factors that make one year better than the next, but it mainly has to do with weather and length of growing season. There is kind of an exception to that rule and that brings us to the next thing to know:

Champagne only comes from France

That’s right; everything else that claims to be is simply sparkling wine – not that there is anything wrong with that. To name just one combination of factors in the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, it is the climate and the soil it is grown in or better stated, chalk; about 25 feet of it, in fact. There is no other place like it on earth. The roots are straining to find something good and will grow down 25 feet or so to get some nutrients and that makes it unique. Conversely, while the climate in Oregon, for example, might be just the same, but the soil is too good. That sounds crazy, but it has everything to do with the taste of the grapes; they need to work for it. 

So what is the exception about vintage?  

From year-to-year each Champagne House takes the juice from other years and mixes them to get as close as they can to the same taste as the year before. There is no vintage on the label for this reason. Hey, not so fast! Sometimes there is a year on the label. This is known as Vintage Champagne. What it basically means is that in one particular year, all of the stars have aligned correctly, the weather has been perfect, the growing season is exactly right, and the harvest has gone smoothly. They take the grapes from one particular year and blend them into one fantastic bottle of Champagne and the price reflects it too. This is because it only happens once in a blue moon (about four to ten years or so).

The best conditions for storing wine

Wine is typically stored between 53 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit in around 70 percent humidity and on its side to keep it happy. Why is this so? It keeps the cork wet, so that it doesn’t shrink and keeps the good stuff inside from going bad. If it gets too dry, the cork may shrink. If Goldilocks wouldn’t like it (too hot or too cold) the composition is going to change or lose its taste. It’s not until you decide on the bottle you want to serve that you stand it up straight.

Sediment in certain types red wine is a good thing because it has aged, but you don’t want to drink it. Stand it up for a day or so, to let the particles (tannins) sink to the bottom. When you pour it, make sure when you get near the end the dregs stay back in the bottle. Another way to prevent the sediment from slipping into your glass is to decant it. There are specific wine strainers that you can pour the wine through into a decorative bottle or carafe to serve it. If you’ve never done this before and you’re out at a nice restaurant and the wine expert guy (Sommelier) asks if you want it decanted, take him up on it. It is eye-catching and fun to watch.

What if you can’t drink the whole bottle?

There is a little gadget that is your friend. Meet the Vac-U-Vin. If you’ve ever heard that wine needs to breathe or that it needs to open up, this merely means that oxygen is getting acquainted with your wine and this is good, but not for too long. If you have any of those ornamental replacement corks, they make look pretty, but they aren’t going to do any favors to your wine. The Vac-U-Vin consists of a rubber cork with a self-closing slit in the top and a little plunger thing that fits over it to suck the oxygen out. The wine will stay pretty close to great for about two weeks, stored upright. For a wine served at room temperature, keep it that way; do not put it in the refrigerator. 

Does the right glass matter?

The short answer is yes, but some things are more important than others. If you’ve ever been in France and watched them drink red wine, you’ll notice the bottle is picked up and poured more often because the glass of wine at its maximum for reds is never more than a third full. Whites are about half and Champagne is about three-fourths full. Why is that? It goes back to the oxygen and what it does to the wine. If it is a full-bodied red, you want to swirl it around and give it a chance to get to know the oxygen, get engaged, elope, take a honeymoon in your nose, and live happily ever after in your mouth.  Since most white wines may be served right away, it isn’t as important. There isn’t any swirling going on at all with the Champagne, because it is doing the happy dance on its own when it is opened as the carbon dioxide starts its escape or effervesces. 

You don’t have to invest in costly glasses, but they should be made of just that: glass. Plastic, paper, Styrofoam, or anything other than glass is not acceptable and you won’t ever be taken seriously if you use them. Soap residue is a very bad thing, so washing the glass in really hot water should be sufficient for cleanliness.  What is the main thing people do wrong when it comes to wine? They hold the glass wrong. When you pick up your glass of wine to drink it, hold it by the stem. That’s why it is made that way as your hand emits a little heat. If you’re not used to holding the glass by the stem, it will seem really awkward at first and you’ll probably feel like the odd man out when everyone else is holding it by the bowl and putting fingerprints all over it. Rest assured, you are setting a good example by doing it right and you aren’t a wine snob either.

My wine is a liquid, how can it have legs?

Wine glasses are clear for a reason: to see the wine. It should be clear and not cloudy. There should not be anything floating around in it or sunk to the bottom of the glass. Swirl the contents and look at the side of the glass. Do you notice how the wine leaves rivulets or “legs” when it flows down the side? If the legs are longer does it make it better? Not necessarily so, although some people like to say it does.

Go to a good wine shop and make friends

Sure, some of the wines may be a little more expensive than going warehouse stores or huge beer and wine stores, but if a guy owns his own wine shop, he usually knows his stuff and you can learn a lot from him. Plus, there almost always is a bottle of wine open for tasting.

You don’t have to like everything

Go to a local vineyard for a wine tasting and you can easily differentiate the person who is there to merely get a free buzz. They usually like everything and are drinking it fast to get to the next pour. On the other hand, you may taste ten wines and only kind of like one. That’s just fine. If you really don’t like it, ask to have it poured out and if there are bland pieces of bread or crackers, take a nibble or too to clear your palate (refresh your mouth), so you can appreciate the next.  Swirl the wine and stick your nose a little into the glass and smell it. Do you like the smell? If not, your taste buds probably won’t like it either, but give it a real taste anyway and not some tiny sip.

How to go through the whole rigmarole in a restaurant

It is okay to ask for recommendations from the Sommelier. He will ask you several questions and help you in taste and price. The same bottle of wine in a restaurant is going to cost more than in the store. Remember that you’re in a restaurant and they usually are not non-profit organizations, so keep that in mind before you blow a gasket on the price.  When you are presented with the wine bottle, look at it and see same name and vintage you ordered. It almost always is, but check anyway. He will either hand you the cork or set it in front of you. Look at it and make sure it is not dried out and is intact. Give it a sniff. If it smells like wine and not something else, give him a nod. He’ll pour a bit of wine in your glass. Give it a look. If it is not clear or there are bits or cork floating in it or other things, don’t accept it. Ask for either another bottle or a different wine. Do the nose, and the swirl, and taste it. If it is not vinegar, give a nod or say that’s fine and he’ll finish pouring yours and then go around the table. Lastly, if you make a toast, always take a drink before setting the glass down. Some people really get offended if you don’t. Now enjoy your wine.