Let’s forget appellations, residual sugar levels, and the Prädikat system for a minute and talk about something super important: you. Who are you?
What kind of wine drinker are you?
For comparison’s sake (and for a laugh), we’ve simmered down the essential traits of some popular fictional wine drinkers.
Which one of these characters most fits the bill for you?
Do you drink? Do you know things?
Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones (The Rogue)
The whole thing is a game anyways… isn’t it? Meet your match: The Imp – the Lannister’s brilliant but debauched intellectual schemer.
You’re the sort of person who always has a plan, a sharp comeback, and several bottles of the good stuff. Your smarts (and your attitude) have gotten you into trouble, but you always start with the best intentions. It’s true, you have a soft spot for the little guy… and, frankly, the opposite sex.
What’s in your glass?
A wine that matches your pizazz and contrarian nature is most likely a blend of three famous grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The “GSM” or Rhône Blend (named after a Southern French wine region) is equal parts fruity and earthy, with the right amount of funk.
You’re passionate and knowledgeable (and had a little too much to drink).
Miles Raymond – Sideways (The Highbrow)
From the New World to the Old, when it comes to knowing wine, it’s hard to stump you. You love this beverage because it reflects the ethereal nature of life. Of course, very few others share your level of understanding and conversations can be a bit –shall we say– tiresome?
Once you get on a rant, it’s hard to stop you. After all, you can only hold out so long before speaking your mind. You carry yourself with as much dignity as possible, even though there are occasional rumors that you’ve been seen drinking from the spit bucket…
What’s in your glass?
Pinot Noir: The only grape just as finicky as you are but fantastic-when-done-right is Pinot Noir. This grape grows nearly everywhere, but you can name the best spots for it (in the world) on your fingers.
Your family may be dysfunctional, but you’re still Queen Bee.
Lucille Bluth – Arrested Development (The Matriarch)
You won’t be argued with, and you can’t be reasoned with. Your plebs – I mean “people”– simply don’t have the capacity to perform at your level.
If a few friends or family members get thrown in jail or lose a hand in the process (as was the case with Lucille Bluth), well, they probably weren’t listening to you, now were they? People might see you as stuck up and overbearing, but you can’t help it if you know what’s right.
What’s in your glass?
Dry Riesling: If there is ever a wine that cuts through the monotony of life (and sometimes the gnawing voices around you) it’s Riesling. Preferably dry and definitely from Germany or Austria. This wine has nerves, baby.
Youth is wasted on the young. Thankfully, there are pills for that.
Eddy & Patsy – Absolutely Fabulous (The Perpetual Dandy)
So what if they say your best years are behind you? You aim to live, and to live fabulously.
You don’t care what other people say: you’ve still got it. And you won’t hear anything to the contrary. For better or for worse.
What’s in your glass?
Prosecco: Technically you would have bought Champagne, but you blew your salary on a new age rejuvenation treatment. Fortunately, there is some fantastic Valdobbiadene Superiore that will do quite nicely.
Your tastes are strange… Oh, so strange.
Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs (The Outsider)
You accept nothing but the best. Other people just don’t understand your obsession with certain things. They can be charming right up ‘til they’re not. And yes, it has gotten you into some trouble in the past.
Still, as long as you follow a moral code, you’ll be okay. Right?
What’s in your glass?
Natural Wine: If there is one movement that tickles your taste for the strange it’s natural wine. Natural wine is the only wine that embellishes and honors the strange, rotten-but-not, fermentation aromas derived from wild yeasts. If natural wine is the oyster of the wine world, then you are hunting for pearls.
Jay Gatsby – Great Gatsby (The Socialite)
You weren’t born into the wine life: you adopted it with gusto. And while your reasons for getting into it are purely social, no one can deny that you’re the life of the party.
As far as you’re concerned, as long as there’s wine to be had and music to be played, your parties can go as long as they need to. Just try to avoid obsessing over other people’s wives, would you?
What’s in your glass?
Champagne, Barolo, and Sherry: Why would you ever relegate yourself to one wine? Champagne gets the party started, Barolo gets the mental juices flowing, and Sherry for when things get serious. After all, a socialite is prepared for any outcome (as long as it involves people!)
Are we missing a character we all deserve to know? Add yours in the comments below!
Taste the difference between Champagne and Cava (and other high quality sparkling wines).
You can use these clues to find great quality sparkling wines made from around the world (and for better prices than those exclusively from Champagne!)
For those who love sparkling wines, you’re not going to want to miss this.
In this tasting, I pop a bottle of Champagne and compare it to a Spanish Cava and an Oregon sparkling wine.
For top-tier sparkling wines like Champagne, the secondary fermentation (the part that makes the bubbles) happens inside the bottle. By doing this, sparkling wines are able to age on the lees, under pressure for extended periods of time.
Did You Know? Bottle-fermented sparkling wines have about five atmospheres of pressure (~75 ft-lbs) inside a bottle?
Aging “en tirage” (as it’s called) is how you can get all those toasty, brioche flavors in sparkling wine. It is a result of autolysis.
Of course, if you’ve ever bought Champagne then you know how expensive it is! Fortunately, other wines use the same method.
Tips on What To Look For
Here are four big clues on what to look for on the label (or the winery site) for good sparkling wines:
Wines are often labeled “Traditional Method,” “Metodo Classico,” or “Espumoso” to indicate wine is made using the bottle-fermented method.
Wines should be aged in the bottle “en tirage” for at least 15 months to begin to achieve that toasty, autolytic character found in non-vintage Champagne.
In Cava, look for “Reserva” and “Gran Reserva,” as indicated by official circular stickers on the label.
Gaston Chiquet “Tradition Premier Cru” Brut NV
Really classic Champagne; “parmesan cheesy” aromas of fromage lead into toasted almond, baked apple, and citrus zest. On the palate, this wine is very explosive with acidity, leading into baked apple and almond notes. The finish sweetens up with white cherry notes and a long tingling acidic finish.
Aromas and flavors of lemon zest, lemon meringue, ginger, lemongrass, and Sichuan peppercorn with a slight beeswax note on the end invite us in. On the palate, very polarizing flavors of lime peel and lime juice that are counteracted with baked apple with a waxy, yellow apple note on the finish.
Aromas and flavors of peaches, rose pastille candy, white cherry, and mint. On the palate, exploding bubbles lead into a rich red-fruity body on the mid palate and end on a minty, crunchy, bitter note.
White wines are typically not fermented with their skins and seeds attached. Most white wine grapes go directly into a pneumatic wine press which gently squeezes the grapes with an elastic membrane. This is how it works:
Some white wines soak with the skins and seeds for a short period of time. This adds phenolics (like tannin) but overall, it increases the richness of white wines. (BTW, this is how orange wine is made!)
Juice and grape must is now transferred to fermentation vessels.
There are many different kinds of fermentation tanks. The three most popular types are wood, stainless steel, and concrete. Each has their own unique traits that affect how the wine ferments.
Next comes the most important part: the yeast.
Many winemakers opt to use commercial yeasts to better control the outcome of the fermentation.
Other winemakers develop their own local yeast strains or let nature take its course and allow “wild” yeasts ferment the wine naturally.
Either way, here’s essentially how it works:
Yeast consumes the sugar in the grape must and then poops out ethanol.
Grape must sweetness is measured in Brix and very basically, 1 Brix results in 0.6% of alcohol by volume.
For example, if you pick grapes at 24º Brix, you’ll get a wine with 14.5% alcohol by volume. (The actual concept is a bit more complicated, but this dirty fast version works!)
Red wines ferment a bit hotter than whites, usually between 80º – 90º F (27º – 32º C). Some winemakers allow fermentations to rise even higher to tweak the flavor.
White wines, on the other hand, need to preserve the delicate floral and fruit aromas, so they’re often fermented a lot cooler, around 50º F (10º C) and up.
While the wine is fermenting, carbon dioxide is released, which causes grape seeds and skins to rise to the surface.
Some winemakers control this by punching down the “cap” three times a day.
Other winemakers prefer to use “pump overs,” where juice from the bottom is gently poured over the top of the skins and seeds.
The choice of “punch down” vs “pump over” really depends on the type of wine grape and desired taste profile. Generally speaking, lighter wines use punch downs and bolder wines use pump overs. But, as with all things wine, exceptions abound!
When the fermentation is done, it’s time to rack the wine out of the fermentation vessel.
The juice that runs free (without being pressed) is generally considered the purest, highest quality wine. It’s called “free run” wine and is kind of like the “extra virgin” wine.
The rest of the wine is “press wine” and is generally slightly more rustic, with harsher-tasting phenolics.
Press wine is typically blended back into the free run wine. (Remember: the less waste, the better!)
Finally, the wine moves into what the French call “élevage.” Élevage is like a fancy way of saying, “waiting around.”
That said, a lot happens in the winery while we wait for wine to cure into something great.
Wines go into barrels, bottles, or storage tanks. Some wines will wait for five years before being released; others, just a few weeks.
Red, white, pink, orange… It seems simple enough! In fact, the color of a wine can tell us a lot about what’s going on inside the glass.
HUE: Take a look at the hue. If it’s a red wine, is it more pinkish or reddish? This simple color observation is often a big clue as to the variety(ies) and climate where the wine was made.
The generally accepted hues for red wines are: Purple, Ruby, Garnet, and Tawny.
White wines use: Straw, Yellow, Gold, and Amber.
Rosé wines use: Pink, Salmon, and Copper.
Next, take a look at the color from the edge to the middle of the glass. How opaque is it? This is the color intensity.
Also, how much does the color change from the rim to the middle? This “rim variation” is often an indicator of age in a wine.
VISCOSITY: Swirl your glass and take a look at how it forms tears (aka “legs”) on the side of the glass. Are they thick, slow-moving tears or fast ones? This tells us the wine is either higher alcohol, higher sweetness, or both. It’s actually a phenomenon called The Gibbs-Marangoni Effect.
CLARITY: Is the wine clear, cloudy, or turbid (cloudy and thick with suspended particles)?
When we taste wine, it’s all about the texture. We sense body, sweetness, acidity, and tannin on our tongues as presence, oiliness, tartness, and astringency. When you taste a wine, focus more on these textures and how they evolve from start to finish. After this is done, you can think about flavors!
Many sommeliers rank a wine’s traits with a ranking of 1 (low) to 5 (high).
Body: Does it fill your palate or is it barely there?
Writing your final conclusion in your wine tasting notes gives you a chance to tie it all together.
Here are some things to consider:
How did the initial taste compare with the finish?
How long did the flavor last on your palate?
Was the wine complex or simple?
Overall, was it a “yay!” “meh” or “bleh?”
We Are All Different, But Not That Different
In my experience, communicating with wine drinkers of all kinds, I’ve observed something like a bell curve when it comes to opinions. (I hope to research this with more data in the future!)
In the mean time, this is the general consensus that I’ve observed:
One side of the bell curve prefers fruity, sweet wines with noticeable acidity. (Generally white and sparkling wines).
The middle of the bell curve looks for dry wines with boldness, fruitiness, lush acidity, and a smooth finish. (These are usally red wines).
The other side of the bell curve looks for wines with minerality, tannin, earthiness, and subtlety. (These are all kinds of unique wines).
None of these choices are right or wrong, but they are often in conflict with one another. They also affect how some of us should use wine ratings.
In fact, some wine reviewers (such as Stephen Tanzer and Antonio Galloni) rate wines higher for their structure and minerality, where as others (like Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate) rate wines higher that demonstrate the more optimal fruit/ripeness profiles.
So, where does your palate fit into this picture? (Hint, hint: Take more wine tasting notes to find out!)
Each year a fresh set of stories about wine and health is published. While we don’t like to admit it, most of these headlines are taken at face value:
“A glass of wine is worth an hour at the gym.”
“Extra glass of wine a day ‘will shorten your life by 30 minutes.’”
These are actual headlines.
Suddenly, more of us choose to drink wine instead of go to the gym. Or, in the latter example, more of us conclude that wine is a death sentence. Oh my!
Time to hit the brakes. Let’s look at the topic of wine and health and where we stand in 2019.
TLDR: Two new, reputable medical studies on wine and health use big data to show that moderate drinking is best – if you drink.
On Wine vs. Death
In 2019, life still comes with a 100% risk of death. So, the question is more about how much wine increases our basic risk of dropping dead at any moment.
(long awkward pause…)
Two studies came out last year looking at alcohol consumption by crunching many (hundreds) of cohort studies with big data-style statistical analysis.
The reason none of these studies are direct is because asking people to drink wine for science is unethical. (For shame, I tell you!)
The first study showed that if you’re over 40 and routinely drink two or more glasses of wine a day, your risk of death increases by 20%. Oh no!
Oddly enough, the study also showed a bizarre correlation among non-drinkers, ex-drinkers, and moderate drinkers (those drinking just one glass of wine a day). Those who drank one glass of wine a day had a lower risk than a non-drinker and an ex-drinker of dying.
(BTW, there were many possible reasons for this… check this chart image for more detail).
On Wine vs. Disease
The second study showed how drinking increases general risk of disease. It measured outcomes of 23 disease conditions (including things like breast cancer and tuberculosis) and their relationship to alcohol use.
The study is fancy (i.e. it’s very hard to read) and was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In fact, it was one of the most cited studies in 2018. The most damaging thing in the study states:
“Our results show that the safest level of drinking is none.”
But wait! When we look at the absolute risk of this study (shared by British Statistician, David Spiegelhalter) we can see that risk increase is not significant for moderate drinkers:
If you drink zero drinks per day, your absolute risk of developing a health problem is 0.914%.
If you drink one drink per day, your absolute risk of developing a health problem is 0.918% more (0.44% more than non-drinkers).
If you drink two drinks per day, your absolute risk of developing a health problem is 0.977% (7% more than non-drinkers).
If you drink five drinks per day (1 bottle of wine), your absolute risk of developing a health problem is 1.25% (37% more than non-drinkers).
So, the conclusion made in the Bill and Melinda Gates study seems a bit extreme. An increased risk of 0.44% for having one drink per day is insignificant.
That said, if you’re a health-policy maker, the numbers look much scarier at scale. On a country-wide level, you’re dealing with the risk (and cost) of alcohol abusers (those five drink per day-ers), along with everyone else. Let’s not forget drunk drivers and people who cause crimes of aggression while drinking.
(Yep, I know. They’re ruining it for the rest of us!)
The two recent studies using big data analytics showed that moderate drinking (one glass of wine a day–regardless of sex) has an insignificant level of risk associated with it.
We also learned that drinking a bottle of wine by yourself in a day is still a terrible idea.
What was annoying about these studies was that none of them separated wine drinkers from other alcoholic beverage drinkers. This is a problem because wine is often singled out in other studies due to how it performs differently – better – than other alcoholic drinks.
Final conclusion: If you want to be healthier, you might reduce your wine consumption to a glass of wine a day.
Unfortunately, the overall mood in the studies this year was pretty somber. The conclusions are generally negative towards alcohol use – possibly to encourage or justify future policy changes.
One thing is for certain, though. All of this slogging through medical documents has given me a strong thirst…
Have something to add? Check out the sources (if you dare) and leave a comment below!
«Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies.» The Lancet.
«Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016» The Lancet.
We can thank the snarky British statistician named David Spiegelhalter for collecting all the absolute risks for alcohol consumption on the Wine vs. Disease article here.
Let’s hand it to Katherine Ellen Foley and Elijah Wolfson for crunching the data in «Margin of Inebriation» at Qz.com. Some of the data, we’ve re-compiled and visualized for this article.
Learn where wine flavors come from, how to smell them, and what flavors to expect in Cabernet, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Understanding the flavors in wine starts with a seemingly simple question:
Where do wine flavors come from?
Imagine yourself the size of a single atom floating on the surface of a glass of wine. Down at this level, the surface of wine is quite turbulent.
Ethanol molecules lift off from the surface of the liquid during evaporation, carrying with them a slew of other aromatic compounds. These compounds float into our noses and give wine its many flavors.
But this doesn’t explain why Pinot Noir juice smells nothing like Pinot Noir wine.
Wine flavors are created by chemical reactions during fermentation (when yeast turns sugar into alcohol). Fermentation creates hundreds of flavor compounds.
If cherries aren’t an ingredient in wine, then how come some wines smell like cherries?
At the atomic level, aromatic compounds in wine look identical to – or are mirror images of– smells you already know. When you sniff cherry in wine, you are smelling the identical aroma compounds that also waft from a freshly baked cherry pie. (Egads, now I’m hungry!)
Here are common wine flavors by category:
Red wines typically smell like various berries, cherries, and plums.
White wines typically smell like citrus fruits, tree fruits (peaches, apples, pears), and melons.
FLOWER / HERB
Both red and white wines can have subtle (or not-so-subtle) aromas of fresh flowers, roses, green herbs, leaves, green vegetables, and/or stems.
Don’t be surprised if you get whiffs of cheese, bread, milk, butter, bacon fat, petrol, nail polish, potting soil, or petrichor (smells like freshly wetted asphalt in the summer – side note: I’m addicted to this smell…).
AGING / OAK
Some wine smells come specifically from aging wine (or oaking it) and include vanilla, baking spices, pie crust, caramel, Maillard Reaction (the “brown butter” smell), tobacco, cedar, coffee, leather, creosote, and chocolate.
If I smell cherries and you smell pepper, who’s right?
Look at your nose. Now imagine (or look at) someone else’s nose. (Don’t stare!) They look pretty different right?
Differences in our physical attributes, along with how our brains process smells, partially explain why we each pick out different wine flavors and smells.
That said, each wine does have a “base set” of aromas that most people agree upon (who aren’t asnomiacs.)
BTW, if you have trouble picking out wine flavors, I highly recommend watching this video with a glass of Pinot Noir.
NOTE: For those who think their nose blows: I know a Master Sommelier with a below-average sniffer… So, don’t give up on your honker!
Get out and use your snout!
Next time you pick up a glass of wine don’t drink it! (Well, at least not at first). Take your time to pick out 3–5 wine flavors BEFORE you taste it. That’s the secret.
This, my friends, is how you become an amazing taster. Salut!
A Book Full of Wines to Sniff
Stop drinking wine blind. Wine Folly: The Master Guide (Magnum Edition) is your guide to the world of wine. Find out what to taste, how to taste it, and most importantly, where to find wines you’ll love.
Crianza (“kree-ahn-tha”) was formerly where quality started for Rioja wine. The increased aging allows Tempranillo-based wines to develop more complexity. Expect red fruit flavors and subtle spice.
Red wines: Aged for a total of two years with at least one year in oak barrels.
White and rosé wines: Aged for a total of two years with at least six months in barrels.
Reserva is where things start to get serious with Rioja. We suspect this classification will continue to be the benchmark moving forward because it also includes the new sparkler, Espumosos de Calidad de Rioja.
Red wines in this classification typically have fantastic balance between fruit and structure (e.g. tannin and acidity), with subtle aged flavors of baking spice and dried fruit. This is one of those bottles you must try aging in a cellar to see how it evolves!
Red wines: Aged for a total of three years with at least one year in oak barrels and at least six months in bottles.
Sparkling wines: Wines must be aged “en tirage” (on the lees) for no less than 24 months. Vintage-dated espumosos must be hand-harvested.
White and rosé wines: Aged for a total of two years with at least six months in barrels.
Gran Reserva Rioja
Red wines: Aged for a total of five years with at least two years in oak barrels and two years in bottles.
White and rosé wines: Aged for a total of five years with at least six months in barrels.
Gran Añada Rioja
What was once a bygone category has new life, thanks to the creation of Gran Añada bubbly!
We have a sneaking feeling that these wines won’t hit the market until 2020.
Sparkling: Wines must be aged “en tirage” (on the lees) for no less than 36 months. Vintage-dated espumosos must be hand-harvested.
New Regional Labeling for Rioja is Finally Here!
The biggest change to Rioja wines, by far, was the addition of a regional labeling regime.
Of course, there’s still quite a bit of discussion about whether or not this was the right thing to do.
Some argue that the best Rioja wines have traditionally been blends of multiple sites so regional specificity won’t help quality. Others say the new regulations are not stringent enough and Rioja should hold itself to higher standards.
Regardless, if you travel through Rioja, you cannot deny that there are a myriad of soils and microclimates. The idea that you can now officially notate a singular vineyard is going to make forward-thinking producers (and wine collectors) very excited.
You can assume that all wines labeled “Rioja” are a blend of grapes from all over La Rioja.
The largest Zona is Rioja Oriental, followed by Rioja Alta, and then Rioja Alavesa. Most wine books will tell you that Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa make the best wines, but that’s not always true.
In fact, I’d wager to say that if you’re a fan of richer styles of Tempranillo, you’re going to love a few producers in Rioja Oriental (for example, check out Ontañon and Barón de Ley.) The problem with Rioja Oriental is that a sizable proportion of its production is bulk wine.
Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa tend to have more minerality and elegance. Many of these wines are built to age 20 or more years.
Rioja can now label wines after the village or municipal area where they’re grown. If a vineyard straddles two municipalities, it’s allowed to blend up to 15% of the neighboring village’s grapes into the wine.
Viñedo Singular reminds us of lieu-dits (named vineyard sites) of Burgundy. For this classification, the producer must appeal to the Consejo Regulador to recognize a vineyard and allow it to be listed on the label.
On one hand, Viñedo Singular is really cool because we’ll finally get to learn the names of places where special vines are grown. With Viñedo Singular, wineries are encouraged to make single-vineyard wines (something that’s still quite rare in Rioja).
On the other hand, if you know Burgundy, you know there are well over one thousand lieu-dits. Thousands of Viñedo Singular will make this region more complex and difficult to understand.
Regardless, Rioja’s move towards site-specificity has inspired positive change to a slow-moving industry.