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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

Clues for the Clueless: Wine FAQs, Part 1

Popular culture regularly lampoons wine snobbery, and such ridicule is often just––the wine world is loaded with elitism, highfalutin descriptors of aromas and flavors that make no sense to all but a few people, and an attitude of exclusivity and impenetrability.

But when I work in tasting rooms, I'd say that at least two-thirds of my guests aren't anything close to wine pros, and most of those people lean into or even apologize for their insecurity in their wine knowledge. How awful that an industry that is so intertwined with hospitality can play right into some of its own ugliest gatekeeping!

So for the next few installments of the Maestro's "Clues for the Clueless," allow me to offer a safe space of sorts where some of your most pressing questions about wine that you've been too embarrassed to ask might be answered. After all, while a reader of this blog might be judged for a general evisceration of time that could otherwise be used doing literally anything else, these FAQs actually offer something useful––an anonymous chance to brush up on some wine knowledge so that you might be able to rattle off a new fact at a dinner party or parlay with a tasting room host on your next visit to wine country.

I'll use some of the regular questions I get from tasting room guests as well as friends and family, and also some suggestions from other homies in the industry to give you a bit of a crash course on some basics and also some more practical wine chops.

For fun, I'll treat each entry like a little conversation I might have with a tasting room guest––it's like a free tasting room visit, especially if you drink a little wine while reading it!

Miscellaneous Basics

"Good" wine seems like it's so expensive; is a $50 bottle really much better than a $15 one?

This is a question I get all the time, and one to which there's no easy answer.

The key supply inputs to the price of a bottle of wine are the cost of land, cost of labor, and cost of production. In Napa Valley, for example, land is more expensive than almost any other wine growing region. So, to acquire land, or to own land, is an expensive affair that requires significant front-end capital; the same is true of the grapes grown on expensive land, which command a much higher price, and often exponentially so.

Vineyard land on the valley floor in Napa is some of the most valuable in the world––and the price of the bottles, as well as the price of the fruit, reflects it!

In California, labor is expensive, materials are expensive, the land is expensive, the power is expensive, the water is expensive––and the list goes on. This is why California wines, particularly from the legacy regions like Napa and Sonoma, command such high prices as opposed to, say, crianzas from Rioja or malbecs from Argentina.

The Mascot is Harlan's lower-end offering, but still sells for almost $200 due to the Harlan name.

Reputation certainly also inflates price. Napa is viewed as a luxury region because of the quality and price of the wines, and so the wines get more expensive to match that reputation, and the feedback loop repeats year after year. Some wineries can charge through the nose for wines that aren't much better than a bottle a third of the price simply because they are a well-known, sought-after brand. Some vineyards are also more valuable than others, and in places like Burgundy, where the grand cru vineyards are most prized, wines from two vineyards right next to each other might fetch wildly different prices just because of labeling.

Keep in mind if you find yourself scoffing at a price that making excellent wine requires an exceptional amount of work and expertise. Winemakers do menial cellar work for years before they can step up into a winemaking role. Harvest is a grueling affair. Even wineries on wildly expensive Napa Valley land making $200 bottles of cabernet are often operating right on the margins!

It takes a lot of work to make these merlot grapes into an amazing wine!

To craft an exceptional bottle of wine, you must take exceptional care. That's quite different from the corporate model of winemaking. That $10 bottle of Gallo cabernet on the second-to-bottom shelf at your local CVS might be wine, and might even be tasty, but the reason it's so cheap is because they used bulk juice (and often juice from concentrate) from the most inexpensive vineyards possible in places like the Central Valley where a vine can produce insane amounts of fruit, and threw it in a tank with cheap oak chips, all manner of stabilizing chemicals, and even food coloring.

Washington State is a great place for excellent wine at good prices, like this cabernet for less than $40!

So, at least in the abstract, you get what you pay for. A bottle of wine made in the classical style from a small family producer might be more expensive, but that's because the soil and vines are treated better; the skilled labor requires more investment; the materials, like the best French oak barrels, are far more expensive. And, of course, the quality of the fruit is so much higher.

That's not to say you can't find excellent bottles in the $10–20 range––price is never perfectly correlated with quality. If you're at the grocery store looking for a decent, low-priced bottle, skip the California offerings entirely, and instead seek out wines from inexpensive regions like Spain, Chile, or New Zealand; domestically, wines from Washington are often fantastic values. Look also for bottles bearing generic place names, like "Sonoma County" or "Loire Valley" rather than a specific appellation or vineyard site.

"And why are red wines pricier than whites?"

Red wines require more time and attention. They generally ferment for longer, and because they sit on the skins, need to be attended to often multiple times daily through various stirring methods like punchdowns (where the floating berries are pressed under the juice) or pumpovers (where the juice is pumped over the top of the berries). Moreover, they're often aged in oak, and often for a long time, which is an expensive investment for a winery!

White grapes go directly into a gentle press, and the juice is collected and moved to tanks and barrels.

Anything to which you add the need for more expertise and attention will tend to be more expensive. White wines are easier to make compared to reds, and it often shows in the price points!

"Speaking of red and white wines, someone poured me a white pinot noir! How is that possible?"

You're right that a pinot noir grape is a black-skinned or "red" grape, and the vast majority of pinot noirs are, indeed, red wines ("noir" means "black" in French). But the juice inside that dark skin? It's actually the color of white wine! Indeed, almost all the noble grape varietals, regardless of skin color, will produce a juice that's clear––there are a few exceptions, but it's rare.

The key is that when a red wine is fermented, the wine sits with the skins for a week or more and is stirred around usually at least once a day so that the juice gets contact with skins. This allows the flavors in the skins, the texture from the tannins in the skins, and the pigments in the skins to become part of the final wine, making a wine that is distinctly red.

Champagne is a great example of a white wine made with red grapes––pinot noir and pinot meunier are two of the three primary grapes in Champagne production!

Meanwhile, white wines are pressed off the skins right away, leaving just the juice inside the berries to ferment. This means that as long as the skins don't interact with the juice, you can make a white wine out of pretty much every varietal––cabernet, pinot, sangiovese––you name it! In fact, in recent years marked by wildfires where winemakers in California have worried about smoke molecules on the skins of the grapes, some intrepid producers are salvaging their vintages by making white wines from their red grapes. And not all white grapes are the color of white wines they produce––they can be green or yellow skinned, but can also be pink or even light purple depending on the varietal and where it's grown.

"So what's the deal with rosé? What about orange wine?"

Broadly, rosé is made from red wine grapes by allowing the juice to sit with the skins for a short period of time before being drained off and without skins for the remainder of the fermentation period. So, this will give the wine its characteristic pink color as well as imparting flavors you'd find in the skins but not the juice alone, like strawberry, cranberry, or the like.

The more adventurous among you might have come across a peculiarity known as "orange" wine––these are wines made not from oranges (thank god), but from white wine grapes that see some skin contact with the juice during the early stages of fermentation; essentially, the process is similar to how a rosé or even a lighter red wine is made, allowing the skins to impart tannin, various polyphenols, and the color of the skins, which can often give the wine an orange tint. If you see one, check them out!

"Rosés are sweet, though, right?"

Not necessarily. In fact, most of the "serious" wine you might encounter in restaurants or buy at stores is what we call "dry," which is the opposite end of the spectrum from "sweet." Some people think that "dry" means the grippy feeling you get on the palate when you drink a high-tannin red wine, but while that might be intuitive because it feels "dry," that's a function of tannin––"dry" in wine speak refers to low levels of residual sugar. All wines fall somewhere on this spectrum, but almost all dry wines, which is by far the largest segment of the market for wine as we know it, contain little to no residual sugar, because the yeast consumes all the sugar in the juice and converts it to alcohol.

Madeira is made by stopping fermentation by fortifying the wine with a grape-based spirit. Also ages well!

To make sweeter wines, either the fermentation is stopped before all the sugar was consumed or sugar is added after the fermentation is finished. This is either a feature of classical winemaking of certain varietals, like Rieslings, or a means of providing a sweet wine to the market for those palates that prefer it for everyday drinking, like "pink moscato."

This doesn't mean, however, that a given dry wine can't taste "sweeter" than another dry wine with the same sugar levels. In fact, the polyphenols, or aromatic and flavor compounds, in a given grape's skin are what give the wine the various flavors. If you taste or smell a fruit that taste or smells sweeter than another (like black cherry vs. cranberry), the wine might taste sweet to you, but that's a function of the natural flavor compounds in the grape's skin, not the sugar level of the wine.

"So if I taste or smell, say, cranberry in the wine, does that mean there's cranberry added?"

Almost always, and hopefully, no, unless you're drinking wine fermented with cranberries or digging at the bottom of certain shelves in your wine shop! The reason a wine might smell or taste like cranberry is within the skins (or juice) of the berries, there exist compounds that are shared between cranberries and the grapes used to make that wine, which gives the wine a smell or flavor that can resemble another fruit!

A handful of countless polyphenols!

Tons of polyphenolic compounds are present in a bottle, and the most dominant ones come to the nose first. But as a wine ages, or as it opens up in the glass, some of the more volatile compounds will subside and others will reveal themselves. And people's biology affects what they smell and taste! Someone might get blueberry on a wine, another might get plums, and they can be equally right! Moreover, wine is always engaging in various chemical reactions that alter the flavors over time, so a bottle of wine is never exactly the same as the last, and a wine that's consumed within a few years of being made will taste quite different than the same wine opened 20 years later.

"So, I should age wine?"

I've heard of studies that find that something to the effect of 90+% of wines purchased at grocery stores are consumed within 48 hours. The market for wine has shifted, like most of American consumerism, to immediate consumption. And wineries are responding––some of my favorite producers make wines that are meant to be consumed right away, and no later than three to five years after release. Others insist that a wine needs to age several years before it's ready to drink.

Marine Layer will tell you openly their wines are meant to be enjoyed young, and they are spectacular!

The key are the two most active types of compounds in the early stages of a wine's life cycle––tannins and acids. Tannins are the things, found in grape skins, that add that grip you might experience when drinking a red wine, which give the wine structure and texture; acids often present as bright, vibrant fruit character.

A wine that will age well is generally one with high tannin and high acid, so that as a wine ages and these compounds settle down in vigor, they're still present enough to keep the wine fresh and well-built. Losing the fresh, lively fruit character is the first kiss of death for a wine––acids not only make the wine delicious, but also slows various reactions that might ruin a wine. Meanwhile, tannins have chemical properties that prevent evaporation, which help retain "younger" flavors in a wine, adding complexity and allowing a wine to age more gracefully.

Various varietals will naturally have more acid or tannin, and the climate and soil type are also general determinants of the levels of these compounds in a wine. But growers and producers can control carefully for the ageworthiness of a wine. Fruit for a wine can be picked earlier for higher acid, and can spend more time on the skins in the fermentation tank for more tannin. Oak will also give a wine some tannin and structure.

These tempranillos from Pujanza are high-acid and high-tannin––perfect for extended aging, and best after several years in the bottle.

This is all to say a wine's ageworthiness depends on any number of factors. White wines generally should be consumed earlier, particularly if not aged in oak; wines from Europe, particularly the classic regions like Bordeaux or Rioja, often are built to age rather than drink right away; some red varietals, like nebbiolo, are naturally high in tannin and generally need more time to settle in the bottle. But the way a wine is made by each producer is the most important determinant.

I'm glad someone was around to age this 1981 Rioja for me!

Your best bet is, if you have a chance, to ask the pros at each winery about the ideal drinking window; if you don't have access to that, some websites and critics will provide drinking windows. And if a wine tastes "tight," like it's maybe a little too tannic and not very expressive (i.e., it smells/tastes like generic wine), a little oxygen goes a long way. Don't be afraid to decant it or swirl it vigorously!

Next time I'll address how to taste wine, and why we do the ritualistic wizardry that we do when tasting!

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