What You Need to Know About Wine
As I was recently completely revamping my wineeducation.com web site I was confronted with the question: What does one really need to know about wine? This is a topic that both lovers and educators of wine have to consider. The minimum is of course to know how to get a liquid into your mouth and down your throat, I think most of us have that pretty well figured out. After that, knowing how to open a bottle of wine counts, but beyond the absurd, how much do you actually need to know? Somewhere between nothing, and everything.
There is an nearly limitless amount of knowledge that can be garnered about wine. Grapes, regions, vintages and so much more; however, does knowing any of it increase your enjoyment of wine? It probably depends on your personality. For those that enjoy all things technical, wine has plenty to offer. For those who have embraced the movement of knowing everything about where what you consume comes from and has gone through, every wine has a story. If you drink wine only for the buzz, to be sociable, or just because it tastes good, you might not want to know more than how to ensure that you chose an enjoyable wine.
There are a whole lot more grape varieties than most people imagine
No matter what your approach to wine you are going to want to explore, at least to some extent, the various grape varieties. For wines of the New World the varieties are listed right there on the label. For wines that hail from Europe, you are going to have to dig a little deeper into the regions, since it is the place, not the variety that is usually listed.
There are a whole lot more grape varieties than most people imagine. There are ten or so that are common in your local bar or restaurant, but another 10,000 that you have never heard of, and likely never will. For those who like to collect achievements, there is the Century Club, a free to join group for adventurous wine types that have tasted the 100 varieties they list. Not only am I not sure that I qualify, Jancis Robinson, who literally wrote the book on grape varieties says she may not have tried them all. So while you definitely may want to explore beyond them, be familiar with the red wine grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and the whites Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris (also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy).
You aren’t likely to learn all of the regions
A quick search for Wine Regions on Wikipedia brings up 67 countries that grow grapes for wine. Within any of these are there further subdivisions, and further subdivisions among those. There is no possible way to know, much less visit them all. I have spent several decades traveling to vineyard covered destinations around the globe, and while I have visited a huge number of the countries on the list, I have not visited them all, and I certainly have not hit every region in the countries I did go to.
It is safe to say then that you aren’t likely to learn all of the regions that wine may be made in, but getting a good handle on France may be a good idea. Most of the grapes you are going to run across can be found somewhere in France. Learn that Burgundy is about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and that Bordeaux is about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on the red side and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for whites, while Syrah can be found in the Rhone Valley, and you will have a good head start on regions.
Each vintage tells a tale that is recorded in vinous form
Vintages change every year, and for a goodly amount of wine that most of us consume, they don’t matter a lick. Vintages mostly come into play for top tier wines from places like Bordeaux and Burgundy where the weather varies greatly from year to year, and the prices being asked are so high as to demand studious regard. You don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars and years of aging only to be disappointed.
For much of the New World the weather mostly makes a difference that ranges from decent to great years, and rarely goes beyond the extremes to poor or exceptional. For wines that you are going to drink the day you buy it, technology has mostly taken the fear out of annual variation. Vintage charts are available for those that need them, and unless you are selling wine and need to know the vintages off the top of your head, being able to look up a vintage is good enough.
Leave grapes alone, and they rot in a special way
For those who love weather or technical aspects of wine, knowing what exactly happened during a growing season to warrant the vintage’s rating can make a fascinating study. A bit of chilly weather early in the year may define an entire harvest. A text book season can change over night with an untimely rain. Hail, frost, too much or too little sunshine, can all have an affect on quality or quantity of grapes. Each vintage tells a tale that is recorded in vinous form, to some extent or another.
Leave grapes alone, and they rot in a special way that more or less makes wine. Manipulate the way the grow, and how they ferment, and you turn happenstance into an art form. Viti / Vini is a culture of grape growing and wine making that fascinates many, and makes others want to scream and hide when it is brought up during dinner parties. If you are involved in the process professionally, you can never know too much, and every day there is more to learn. If the closest you ever get to mud on your boots and dragging hoses is to pontificate at the pop of every cork, be aware that your listeners remain apt, and that look in their eyes is not actually a furtive desire to strangle you.
How much do you need to know about wine? Very little.
Wine is food, good food, expensive food at times, and food we all like to share, but food none the less. How much you need to know depends entirely on how much you want to know. Know little enjoy a lot, know more, and perhaps enjoy it more, know everything and impress a very few. I have spent a lifetime devouring everything I could learn about wine, but even when I am teaching others about it, I try to temper my passion with empathy for my student’s desire to learn.
There are any number of books and websites those yearning to learn can read, and there may even be some that I didn’t write. As with wine, not all will be to your taste, but only by exploring will you find those that are.
How much do you need to know about wine? Very little. How much is there to know about wine? Quite a bit. Find your comfort level and share it and a glass of your favorite quaff, with those of similar temperament.