As a French person, I am regularly dealing with wine: at a restaurant, at a family dinner, when meeting friends, at a wedding, for an aperitif. Every occasion is good for a wine 🍷.
The moment people start to drink and comment, “It’s a good one, what do you think?”, is when it becomes embarrassing. I just answer “Yes, sure..sure.. 😬”. Actually, people tend to ask me this question quite often, even more when you are abroad and you are the only French person. The only problem is that I have no idea whether it is good or not. I just know that it is drinkable and if it didn’t turn bad.
Also, when I have the duty of buying the wine, I just go to the supermarket and I see thousands of bottles all around me, some are called “Bourgogne”, others “Chateau Lacaussade Saint-Martin”. I check the prices, pick a few ones randomly that are within my price range, scan them with the app Vivino, and select the ones with the best ranks.
Since last year I started the Learning Lab challenge (learning about one topic each month), so I decided to take advantage of it to learn about wine. My goal is to understand how it’s made, how to taste and enjoy it, what is a good wine (to avoid embarrassing moments), what to look when buying a wine and how wine and food pairing works. That is what you will find in this article 🥂🎉.
This learning preparation follows the Learning Lab methodology.
- Finding a mentor
Since it was the summer learning, I wanted to relax, so I got too lazy to look for a mentor.
- Defining the scope of the topic
As described above, my scope is the following: understanding the winemaking process, learning how to taste wine, what are the varieties and the wine names referring to, understanding wine/food pairing.
- Choosing a learning resource
I initially started learning about wine with the Wine MOOC in Coursera from the University of California, Davis. I did the introduction, and when I went to buy the recommended wine in the closest wine shop, the seller recommended me this book: Wine for Dummies (French); so I ended up reading it! I also did a wine tasting initiation course, that I got as a present.
- Defining a project
My project will be pretty simple: building some wine Flashcards for Anki. Since the wine topics have a lot of knowledge that should be memorized, such as the grapes varieties, or the wine designation (don’t worry I’ll explain this in the article), building Flashcards can be a very useful and helpful project.
What is wine?
Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from grapes fermented without the addition of sugars, acids, enzymes, water, or other nutrients
As you can read wine is a very natural drink, it is also very old. The first traces of vinification, the process of making wine, are dated from 6000 B.C. 😮 in Georgia.
Because pictures speak louder than words. You can find below an infographic describing the vinification process for Red, White, and Rosé wines.
The process is basically made of 5 steps:
- Maturation / Ageing
- Packaging / Bottling
Note that the fermentation process is either made with oak tanks or inside stainless steel tanks, which impacts a lot the taste of the wine. Also, notice that what makes the wine red is the skin of the grapes, this means it is possible to make white wine, with black grapes!
As concern sparkling wine, like Champagne, it is made the same way than White wine, but the gas created during the fermentation is kept and put inside the bottle.
Storage & Temperature
Wine is pretty fragile, especially for good, old and expensive wine. So there are a few rules you should know when you buy and store some bottles:
- Bottles should be kept lying flat to maintain the cork in contact with the wine in order to prevent it from drying out. If the cork is dry, the air will go inside and the wine will oxidate.
- Young red wine needs about 1h of aeration to be less strong and acid, so they should be opened in advance.
- Wine below 5€ can be drunk directly, they don’t need aeration because they don’t contain much tannin.
Regarding the wine temperature here are the rules to follow:
- Red wine temperature — 16–18 ° C / 60.8–64.4 ° F
- Great white wine temperature — 14–16 ° C / 57.2–60.8 ° F
- Simple white wine temperature — 9–13 ° C / 48.2–55.4 ° F
- Rosé wine temperature — 10–12 ° C / 50–53.6 ° F
- Sweet wine temperature — 9–12 ° C / 48.2–53.6 ° F
- Champagne temperature — 8 ° C / 46.4 ° F
Now we saw the basics, let’s see how to taste a wine like a sir!
How to taste wine?
Tasting wine follows a very simple process involving (almost) all your senses.
Step 1. The look (the robe) 👀
The first step in wine tasting is the look. If you taste different wines be sure to compare them with the same quantity and same type of glass. In order to check the look, also called robe, you need to put the glass in front of you with a 45° inclination. The background should be white, and it’s preferred to have a reflection of sunlight and not a direct exposure of the sun.
The goal is to describe two parameters:
- The clarity: Brilliant / Bright / Clear / Dull / Hazy / Cloudy / Sediment / Crystals.
- The color (white wine): dilute / pale straw / medium straw /yellow / light gold / medium gold / amber / tawny / adobe / brown.
- The color (red wine): light / medium / dark; garnet / ruby red / purplish-red / tawny / brown edge; rim variation.
The clarity tells you about how the wine is made, if you can identify a film, it may tell that it hasn’t been filtered. However, if it’s too cloudy, it may show that the wine turned bad and you will be able to confirm that with the next step.
The color can tell about the grape varieties used. For example, Pinot noir will be more Ruby, whereas Merlot will be dark. You can see below a palette of colors with the grape variety.
Also, the color (and the rim color variation) tells about the age of the wine. The older a wine is the more it will turn to brown (both for white and red wine), and the rim variation will be deeper. See below how the color change with age.
Step 2. The smell (the nose) 👃
Then comes the smell, also called the nose:
- Have a first quick sniff: this first sniff will help you identify if the wine turned bad. If it did it will smell like vinegar, rotten fruit, like cork, or eggy. Also, apparently you can even smell if it’s a young or old one, by analyzing the combinaison of aromas.
- Swirl your wine, it will bring some air and make the aromas easier to identify. You need a wine glass curved enough to avoid spilling the wine everywhere!
- Now, have another sniff, I personally have more than one, you should now be able to identify all kind of flavors: Fruity / floral / spicy / berry / jammy / raisiny / herbaceous / vegetal / grassy / nutty / minerally / fresh woody / vanilla / caramel / brown sugar / smoky-char / coconut.
This last step requires training. Also, try to be careful when you eat or smell anything, try to identify every single component. It will train your nose to better find the aromas of your wine. If you need inspiration, check the picture below! It can help you to identify the aromas and to put feelings into words. Another tip: if you want to be more focus on the smell: close your eyes!
Step 3. The taste (the mouth) 👄
Now, time to taste the wine, you take a sip, keep it a few seconds in the mouth, and chew it to have it going in every part of the tongue. Some parts are more sensitive than others. You can also make the air enter in your mouth to make it go to the retro nasals.
You will have to identify 4 elements:
- The basic tastes: Sweetness, Acidity (sourness), Bitterness.
- The Retro-Odors (the perception of smell when you eat): Do the retro odors confirms the flavors that you identify with your nose, do you add others?
- Mouthfeel: The wine’s weight (light body / medium body / full body), smooth or rough, astringent (dry), hotness from alcohol.
- Persistence: how long each aroma and feeling last, short (under 30 sec) / medium (up to a minute) / or long finish (a few minutes).
- The acid generates saliva in your mouth.
- The skin contains tannin, and this tannin brings bitterness to a wine.
- If you eat a grape and you separate the skin and the pulp, you will see that the pulp is sweet and sometimes a bit acid, and the skin is bitter and a bit acid. That’s where the wine basic taste comes from!
A good wine is a wine with a good level of tannin, acidity, and sweet. It’s a balanced wine!
Step 4. The global feeling 🙃
The last step is just to put a name on this experience, this feeling, how did you like this wine. You can write a description, or put a mark, or rank it compare to others.
If you are going to taste any wine, you should better spit this one. In order to stay focus and be able to fully analyze the next one! Also, you can drink water and eat some bread between each wine to clear the taste of the previous wine.
Wine is like an opera. You can enjoy it, even if you don’t understand it
Indeed, you don’t have to do this process every time you drink wine. It’s always good just to enjoy a glass of wine, relaxed without thinking and analyzing!
The new and the old world
The old world, is where the wine was “discovered” first, and then came to the new world. Usually the old world is described as the reference, how the wine should be. But if you think a bit, if the wine was discovered first in Australia or in the USA, their wine would be the reference!
The old world’s wine tastes usually fresher with less alcohol, more acidity, whereas the new world’s wines are more fruity, less acid and with more alcohol. The reason for that is simple: the sun. It makes the grape sweeter and therefore more fruity, and the sugar is turned to more alcohol.
But the other difference is in the naming:
- The new world’s wine: use the name of the grape variety to name the wine.
- The old world’s wine: use a designation of the country, region, district; sub-district, town, vineyard or plot to name the wine. There are many varieties of grape that are blended.
This naming difference seems not to be a big deal but it is. If you buy a Chardonnay from South Africa, you know that your wine is made with the Chardonnay grape variety. In the old world, if you want a wine made with Chardonnay you can buy a White Beaujolais or a Chablis. You need to be aware that these wines contain chardonnay, based on the definition of the designation!
There is a designation standard across the European Union to make it simple. Each designation has a norm defining varieties and the quantities that should be used to make the wine and the making process, if the winemaker doesn’t follow these rules, the wine cannot be called with this designation.
Let’s now talk about the grape varieties. since it’s the main ingredient of wine
There are more than 10 000 grapevines varieties 😮 (called Vitis).
Only a few ones are called nobles varieties because they can make a great and fine wine. If you only want to remember 8 of them, here they are and what taste they can bring:
- Chardonnay — Smoked, grilled, nuts, vanilla, apple, tropical fruits, pineapple, earthy, minerals, mushrooms (used for white wine, and sparkling wine like Champagne).
- Pinot noir — Low to medium acidity, red berries, cherry, earthy, wooden aromas (used for red wine).
- Cabernet-Sauvignon — Strong tannin taste, strong to medium strength, cassis, vegetal, violet (used for red wine).
- Merlot — Deep body, strong level of alcohol, low tannin taste, red fruits, plum, chocolate, mushrooms aromas (used for red wine).
- Syrah / Shiraz — Dark color, very robust, strong tannin level, violet, cherry, smoked meat, grilled pepper, tar, burnt rubber, strawberry (used for red wine).
- Chenin Blanc — Floral, lemongrass, herbs, fruity, apple, grapefruit, nut (used for white wine).
- Nebbiolo — Strong tannin and acidity, strong alcohol, strawberry, jam, earthy, wooden, tar (used for red wine).
- Sangiovese — Low to medium acidity, medium tannin, fruity, cherry, floral, violet, hazelnut (used for red wine).
- Riesling —Strong acidity, lemon, grapefruit, peach, apple, lime, lemongrass, flowers and minerals (used for white wine).
Now you know the nobles varieties, let’s talk about found and wine combination.
Wine & food pairing 🍷🧀
Food and wine pairing can be sometimes complicated. You need to know first what you will eat in order to find the perfect match. There are many websites and apps to help you with that (just google your meal).
In general, white wines pairs well with meat, and fish and red wines with red meat and cheese. But actually it’s more complex than that because not all the red and white wines taste the same. Also it depends on the sauces and the seasoning of your meal.
Nevertheless there are some basic rules to help you understand the wine and food pairing:
- A tannic wine reduces the feeling of sweet of the food; it seems sweeter and softer with a dish full of proteins such as meat; it seems less bitter but more tannic with salty dishes; it seems dry with spicy food.
- A sweet wine seems less sweet with salty food; makes salty dishes more enjoyable; it goes well with sweet food if they are themselves acid enough; it can make a sweet dish too sweet.
- An acid wine seems less acid with salty food; it seems less acid with slightly sweet food; it can make feel salty food saltier; it can balance too fatty dishes.
- The aromas of the wine can be complementary to the ones in the sauce or in the dish.
You should now have all the basics to drink and enjoy wine and mostly understand it without feeling embarrassed! 😀
Improve your Wine expertise with Flashcards
In order to remember the varieties taste, the varieties used in each designation, and some food-wine combination I made a few flashcards for Anki, feel free to use them: https://github.com/sandoche/Wine-Flashcards-Anki/releases/download/1.0/Wine-Learning-Pack.apkg
Feedback from this learning month
What went well
- No deadline, no pressure, I started the 10th of May and finished on the 10th of August (3 full months).
- I enjoyed a few drinks on terraces during this learning.
- I finally understand the wine (at least the basics), there is still a long way to go.
What to improve
- I could have been building the flashcards while reading, I did it at the end.
- I should have written notes for every wine I tried, I did this only for the first two glasses!
- I should have practiced more comparing different wines.
- I should have tried food pairing at least once, but I can always do it in the future.