It’s Wine season! Yes, it’s Beer season as well, but in most of North America and Europe, September is harvest time for the grapes. As a Backyard Bartender, you need to have a passion for every type of drinkable alcohol, and that includes having a basic (or advanced) understanding of wines. So over the next couple of episodes, we’ll get you primed to be able to talk the talk, walk the walk, and become the hit of your own personal wine society. Today we’ll start with a very basic history of wine (thousands of years compressed into one paragraph), so you’ll have one more story to tell as you impress your guests with your encyclopedic knowledge of all things fermented.
History of Wine
Believe it or not, remnants of the oldest winery discovered exist in a cave in Armenia, and the winery dates back to the Neolithic period - 6100 years ago to be precise. Cave-men harvesting grapes, producing wine, drinking wine. Digest that if you can. At any rate, that early domestication led to the existence of over 10,000 varieties of Vitis Vinifera (the common grape) today. Fortunately, you don’t need to know them all. Only a handful actually taste good when fermented into wine, so we’ll get you up to speed on those grapes, in terms of the wines they produce, along with the characteristic tastes and smells associated with those wines.
Global grape production is a pretty solid indicator of wine popularity, and if we ignore grapes that are primarily used for local table wines, fortified wines, etc., the list narrows quickly.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are the most widely grown, widely known, and widely enjoyed grapes for red wine. The flavors and aromas of Cabernet Sauvignon wines include vanilla, currants, red fruits (strwaberries, raspberries), damp earth, and even green bell pepper if made from underripe grapes. Other characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon wine include high alcohol levels (awesome) and strong tannins (bitter compounds). These strong tannins soften over time, which is why many collectors (with deep pockets) age Cabernet Sauvignon in cellars for many years or even decades. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape used for the famous red wines from Bordeaux, on the west coast of France. It has also become a staple of the Napa and Sonoma county reds from California. Oh, by the way, just call it “Cab” (or call a cab is you’ve had too much Cab).
Merlot is a dark-blue colored grape, and if used alone, it will produce an inky purple wine with blue fruit (plum and blackberry) flavors. The tannins are much softer than those present in Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes Merlot an easy choice for novice wine drinkers. Those properties make it a natural for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon, as is commonly the case in Bordeaux and some areas in Italy. Because the grape is easy to grow, matures early, and has such desirable taste characteristics, Merlot is grown around the world and is on its way to becoming the most popular grape varietal on the planet. Those charactieristics are the reason that the wine was slammed in the movie Sideways - which, if you are serious about learning, you’ll watch today.
Tempranillo is native to Spain, and although the grape itself is black, it tends to produce a ruby-red wine with flavors of strawberries, plum, tobacco, and leather. The most famous examples of wines produced from Tempranillo are from Rioja, where the best wine (Reserva) is aged in oak barrels, resulting in a pronounced vanilla overtone to the wine. This adds a perception of sweetness, making Rioja Reserva very approachable to novice wine drinkers.
Chardonnay is the most common and well known variety of white grape in wine production today. The grape itself features flavors and aromas of yellow fruit (lemon and melon), and grass - yes, grass. The smell of a newly mown lawn. At any rate, most producers age Chardonnay in oak barrels, giving many Chardonnays a noticeable aroma and flavor of vanilla. Some other characteristics of Chardonnay wines are high acidity, golden color, and a velvety feel in the mouth. Although Chardonnay is grown and consumed around the world, some of the most famous wines produced from this varietal hail from Chablis, in the Burgundy region of France, where the wine takes on a minerally, refreshing edge.
Syrah is a red varietal that has been overshadowed in recent decades by the explosive growth of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The dark-skinned grape produces wines that are heavily influenced by the climate in which they are grown. The most famous wines produced from Syrah are those of the Rhone valley in France, where the cool climate results in wines that are peppery, with mint and blackberry flavors. Australia is one of the dominant new world producers of Syrah - called Shiraz in Australia (say it with an Aussie accent) - and the hot climate produces a fuller-bodied wine with jammy fruit flavors, along with spicy licorice and leather overtones.
Grenache is a hot weather varietal, almost black in color, and produces wines that have little tannin, and flavors of white pepper and red fruits (raspberry and strawberry). Because of the softness of this varietal, it is often blended with Syrah or Tempranillo to give it more acidity, color, and aroma. The Rhone valley wines blend Grenache with Syrah to produce their characteristic peppery wine, while Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the Southern Rhone is one of the most famous examples of red wines produced with a majority of Grenache grapes (balanced with Syrah of course). Grenache is also the primary varietal used in the production of dry rose wines from Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon in Southern France.
Sauvignon Blanc is a versatile white grape variety that creates white wines ranging in flavor from grassy to minerally to fruity. Sauvignon Blanc flavors and aromas include green fruit (green apples and lime), yellow fruits (gooseberry and melons), peppers, and smoke. Sauvignon Blanc tends to be more grassy when picked early (think lemongrass), more fruity when picked late. Sauvignon Blanc flavors also depend heavily on where the grapes are grown. The most famous wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes come from Bordeaux and the Loire valley in France. If you haven’t tried it, do so - you’ll recognize that pungent smell for the rest of your life. Oh, and if you need a way to remember what it smells and tastes like, there is a brand that captured the essense of Sauv Blanc in its name - Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush. It was an actual wine produced in NZ - everyone except for the US Dept of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (what an odd combination) thought it was a great name, but they insisted that the name be changed to Cat’s “Phee”! Seriously.
Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned, black grape most famously associated with the Burgundy region of France, where it produces some of the world’s most expensive red wines. The grape likes cooler climates, which has led to it thriving in the Pacific Northwest, New Zealand, and Northern California. The predominant flavor of a young Pinot Noir is of red fruit (cherries, raspberries, and strawberries), and the wine is usually light red in color and light-bodied. As Pinot Noir ages, it takes on complex flavors that have overtones of mushroom and earthy spices. In addition to producing red wines, Pinot Noir is also one of the main varietals used in the production of Champagne from France. Once again, see the movie Sideways to get a great appreciation of Pinot.
Other well-known varietals include:
Gamay Noir, which is the primary grape used in the production of Beaujolais red wines. Full of red fruit and floral (lilac and violet) flavors. If you’ve never had red wine, line up for Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November. It’s like drinking Hawaiian Punch.
Primitivo or Zinfandel, a native of Italy that produces robust reds as well as very sweet blush (rose) wines popular in the United States. BTW, do NOT try to impress anyone who has ever had a decent wine by serving them White Zin. You’ll regret it.
Riesling, a cool weather varietal common to white German wines, ranging from dry to sweet, and always exhibiting huge grape flavor. If you want a great dry Riesling, go for the Alsace region in France.
Gewurtraminer, a varietal also common to white German, as well as Alsace wines, also ranging from dry to sweet, but much more floral in character than Riesling (great with spicy Asian foods).
So What Does All That Mean?
Let’s suppose that one of your guests sits down at your backyard bar, and asks you to recommend a wine. If you know very little about wine, your response would be “red or white?”, or “what do you like?”. A little more knowledge and you might ask “sweet or dry”. Moving up the scale, you could ask “light or full-bodied”, but of course you might be putting your reputation at risk if you really don’t know your varietals. If you do know them, AND you have an idea about the geographical origin of the wines you have on hand, you are much better equipped to look like a super-star. Because now, you can ask questions like the following:
“Do you prefer a fruit-forward (apple, gooseberry, melon) white wine, with pronounced acidity/tartness?” - Sauvignon Blanc
“Do you prefer your white wine to be velvety smooth, full-bodied, with warm tones of vanilla?” - Chardonnay
“Do you like your (red) wine spicy?” - Syrah/Shiraz, Grenache
“Do you like an earthy, warm, full-bodied red wine with overtones of red fruits?” - Cabernet Sauvignon
“Do you like a fresh, lively, bright-colored red that bursts with fruit flavor?” - young Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir (Beaujolais)
Of course, the list goes on and on, but you get the picture. If you learn by trying the wines yourself, you’ll soon be able to talk the talk. Voila, instant sommelier!
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