Wine Basics 101
© by John Juergens
What I want to do here is give you a few basic wine characteristics that generally hold true for most wines. Either memorize this information or write it down and put it in your wallet for reference on your next hunting and gathering trip to the wine store. Eventually, this information should become second nature for you and you won't have to wander up and down the isles with your cheat-sheet in hand.
First, let's talk about sweetness, the single most important characteristic for the occasional wine drinker. You need to understand the basic terminology. While we all know what we mean by sweetness, the opposite or lack of sweetness is called "dryness". Many people confuse the term "dry" with other wine characteristics such as high alcohol content. Therefore, a wine can vary from dry -- that is, no sugar and no sweetness, -- to syrupy sweet, or anywhere in between.
Right up front I want to proclaim that it is okay to like and drink sweet wines. I do it all the time when I pop open one of my favorite dessert wines. And sometimes I enjoy an nice fruity German Riesling or a California Chenin Blanc with a touch of natural sugar in it. One of the maxims of the wine industry is that everybody talks dry, but prefers sweet. Blame it on the wine snobs for perpetuating the notion that only dry red wines are any good, and that if you prefer a little sweetness in your wines, well, you obviously don't know squat about good wine and probably never will. These are the kinds of people I would like to stake out spread-eagle on top of a fire-ant hill and douse with White Zinfandel wine. Excuse me for that outburst of objectivity and tolerance.
Anyway, back to sugar. Unfortunately, you usually can't tell from the label how sweet a wine is. Therefore, you have to have a basic understanding of the kinds of wines that usually have some degree of sweetness to them. Here's the basic list of wines by grape variety in roughly increasing order of sweetness: Gewurtztraminer, Chenin Blanc, any kind of Riesling (German or American), White Zinfandel and most other American blush or pink wines, Muscat, Sauternes.
On the other end of the sweetness spectrum, that is dryness, are white Sauvignon Blanc, white French Bordeaux, and most Chardonnay wines. Some of these wines can be bone-dry and taste as if they have been filtered through the Sahara Desert. However, wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes sometimes can seem slightly sweet because of fruit flavors and wood barrel aging, but in general they tend to have very little sugar in them. American and Australian Chardonnay wines are hugely popular because of their big fruity flavors, their relatively low acidity (see below), and because some producers leave just a little bit of sugar in the wine to give a subliminal suggestion of sweetness. Tricky devils.
There are very few sweet red wines other than the fortified (added alcohol) products like port wine and wine imposters like MD 20/20, and some of the very inexpensive wines that come in large jugs with handles. The reason for this is that red wine with a lot of sugar tends to get just plain icky. It becomes thick and cloying like cough syrup, and knocking back more than a glass of it can throw you into a diabetic coma. In addition, the sugar can obliterate many of the subtle elegant fruit flavors that come from red grapes, and it generally does little or nothing to enhance the flavors of food. This is somewhat analogous to heavily salted foods. Although salt can enhance the flavors of some foods, it can be overdone. Once you get accustomed to lower amounts of salt, you can appreciate more of the subtle flavors in the food.
I'm going to commit heresy here and I'll probably get kicked out of the Knights of the Vine, but there is nothing wrong with doing a little experimenting on your own by adding just a touch of sugar-- preferably fructose, which is available at all grocery stores-- to a nice dry red wine. For all of my wine friends out there reading this and getting ready to stone me to death with empty Merlot bottles, this really isn't so outrageous. One of the most delightful and refreshing wine drinks is the national drink of Spain, sangria. (I'm not talking about the Yago brand you find everywhere. I'm talking about the homemade elixir that has slices of fresh citrus fruit in a nice heavy dry red wine with a cup of sugar, half a bottle of seltzer water, and about four ounces of kick-ass orange liqueur such as Cointreau.)
The next characteristic you need to be concerned about is acid. All fruits contain some amount of acid; it acts as a preservative. Citrus fruits contain a huge amount of acid as do some varieties of apples. Grapes also contain a fair amount of acid, which is essential for a well-balanced wine. Wine without acid is a lot like drinking a flat Coke. I love the "official" term for this -- we call a low acid wine "flabby." Wine acid is the component that is associated with the tartness or crispness of a wine.
White wines have more acid than red wines; therefore, they tend to be more tart or crisp. The amount of acid is more important in white wines than red wines because red wines have other components that balance the acid and contribute to the taste and texture of the wine. Too much acid in a red wine makes it seem lean and harsh.
So, how does acid in a white wine taste? Take a lemon and chomp down on it. Let the juice coat the inside of your mouth. When you are capable of prying your fingers off the kitchen counter, notice the taste and tactile sensations in your mouth. The sides of your tongue and mouth should feel dry and puckery. Also, you should notice an increase in saliva production.
Wines with fairly high acidity include most Sauvignon Blanc products, French and Chilean Chardonnays. There are many inexpensive blended wines from producers such as Glen Ellen, Sabastiani, and others that are called "White Table Wine," or meaningless things such as "Proprietor's White." These usually are blends of all kinds of grape juice or wines that came from lower quality grapes. The wines frequently are manipulated to lower the acid and add a touch of sweetness to mask the off-flavors that are inherent in such wines. This is not a bad thing and these are not bad wines. It is just a way of salvaging lower quality fruit and making modest quality wines for a low price. Just about every winery makes wines such as this.
One final point for this installment is the counterbalancing effect sugar and acid have on each other. It is kind of like a see-saw. Higher amounts of sugar will soften the bite of acid and increasing the acid can keep a wine from being cloying. The rule-of-thumb is that the more sugar you have the more acid you need, and vice versa. For example, White Zinfandel is so popular because it combines a nice degree of sweetness that is balanced by just the right amount of acid to keep the wine crisp. The next time you taste a White Zin, notice that when you take a sip you first detect a sense of sweet fruit flavors. As the wine progresses back through your mouth, a tingling crispness or tartness develops on your tongue that cuts through and dissipates the initial sweetness. It's sort of like the sweet and sour effect you get with certain Chinese food dishes.
This balance between sugar and acid is what make some of the German wines so attractive as well. The trick is to find the balance that you prefer. In terms of food, you want to pair an acidic wine with acidic foods. For example, Sauvignon Blanc tends to go well with acidic foods such as salads with vinegar based dressings and dishes with acidic sauces. Chardonnay is better with less acidic foods.
In a future article I will discuss some of the basic characteristics of red wines to help build a simple rule-of -thumb guide to selecting wines of all sorts.
My wine picks of the week are: Rosemount Traminer/Riesling (white) and Forest Glen Sangiovese (red).