At some point in a person’s education about wine, there is a good moment – a point at which many mysterious matters suddenly become clear. The clouds part, stories that have been told fall into place, and the casual drinker becomes the devoted appreciator.
That is a golden time. Up to then all the chatter about wine has made no sense. Sensory evaluations, chemical discussions, nuances of taste and aroma, and just figuring out what is worth spending time with and money on has been a blur.
And, as it so often does in education and love, something clicks. That one key fact becomes the missing-link entry point to pleasures and joys. It is evident that the light in the tunnel is not an oncoming train but rather the first rays of …. of…what?
Because as soon as you think you are “getting” it, some dork pops off about RS, VA or TCA or tannins and you are back again rolling around in the darkness like some naïve child in a room full of Ph.D.’s. The language of wine, those words which give meaning to a completely sensual experience, has to be learned. It’s a lot like you never even went through the tasting phase of your education and instead had to show up for class on final exam day but had skipped the entire semester. Did not even buy the textbook.
You are once again feeling like wine is a topic you want to know about but the topic itself, and those who got to this point before you, are ready to shut the door and never open it again, at least not for you.
To try to make things better, and to move you along to opening a bottle of wine with curiosity or something, let’s spend some time with terms and succinctly identify a couple of aspects of wine and the terms used.
Terroir – a French term exclusively because in English we have no equivalent word. Terroir (tahr, wa) is simply everything. Temperature, sunlight, wind, soil, rain, the gentle touch of the winemaker, the genetics of the grapevine, the presence of birds and insects, whatever. Grapes are an amazing crop and they remember every single minute of every single day in their existence.
Dry – Many of you think that dry means not sweet. That’s true, sort of. However, a wine can indeed be dry and still be sweet. Dry merely means that all the sugar from the fruit has been converted through the fermentation process into alcohol.
Sweet – And now we are in a tricky bit. Some grapes, by their very nature, are sweet, fruit sweet (think Riesling). You can have a “dry” Riesling where all the sugar is now alcohol, but the wine can still be “sweet” because of the biological make-up of the grape. In effect, in grapes and therefore in wine there is sugar sweet, a condition enhanced by sunlight and temperature, and there is fruit sweet thanks to DNA. The issue here is both biological for the grape and the limitations of humans’ ability to actually taste more than five components of everything we put in our mouth.
Tannin – That quality of wine that gives the impression of being dry, chalky, astringent. Tannins come from a wide variety of sources such as the skin of the grapes, the seeds, the stems and even the wooden barrel used for storage and aging. That explains why red wines have higher tannin levels than white wines. And tannins provide qualities that allow the wine to age well.
As a side note many wine drinkers believe that tannins cause them headaches. The relationship between tannins and headaches is still being evaluated and debated. But if you are one of the users who believe that red wines cause you headaches, you should know that there are a lot of tannins in chocolate, nuts, apple juice and tea. If you are not bothered by headaches after enjoying those foods, then likely your headaches are not the fault of tannins. All wines have histamines that interact with blood circulation. White wines, however, have a higher level of histamines than red. So if you are not developing headaches from white wine, then likely the cause of your headaches are not histamines. Complicated, yes?
Grapey – You would think that calling a liquid made from grapes as grapey would be a compliment. Not true at all. Grape juice should be grapey. Wine should be more complicated, more elegant and actually not have grape flavors akin to grape juice or grape jelly.
Fruit Flavors – Cherry, strawberries, melon, peaches, apricots. Many newbies to wine hear descriptors about fruit flavors and aromas in wine and believe that those actual fruits were used in the making of the wine. Under no circumstances is this true. No fruit other than grapes is used in grape wine production. Sometimes wine is made from those fruits, and sometimes wine is combined with those fruits. That always happens with sangria, for instance. But, for the most part, whenever someone describes wine as having a fruit characteristic, it is only the grapes expressing themselves in a wide range of sensory experiences.
Acid – The pH value of wine is in the acidic range, not toward the alkaline side. Since the pH scale uses 7.0 as the mid-number, wine falls somewhere between 2.5 and 4.0. The most common acids found in wine are malic, tartaric and citric. Acid provides the pucker power of a wine, sometimes causing humans to make a face as the wine reaches the final stages of our tongues. The terms “tart” and “crisp” come to the fore. All wine has acid sensations. Sometimes, as the case with a bold cabernet sauvignon, the acids are masked by other components, such as tannins. But the acids are there and the more pronounced, to a point, the better the wine will pair with food.
Corked – Even wines sealed with a screw cap can be “corked.” When a wine is in this condition, the wine tastes and smells like old, soggy cardboard. This is caused by TCA, which is the result of bacteria decaying in the wine or in the cork, or both. Some people have high thresholds of experiencing this situation, while others can pick up minute quantities in the wine. TCA has no negative health issues only aesthetic issues. A corked wine is difficult to enjoy with its mustiness and a lack of brightness and freshness.
You can drink a corked wine and you won’t have any health issues. Why you would do such a thing is beyond me, but, hey, it’s your wine. Me, I would take it back to the seller and demand a refund of another bottle.
Life is too short to drink bad wine.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life," hosted by Tim every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcast episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/