Wine, so swanky

Origins, Nature, Variations

Wine is, simply, what happens when you leave grape juice out and it gets fermented by yeast. Not so simply is what happens to get good wine. Modern practices require close attention to growing conditions, species of grape, weather patterns, harvest times, types of yeasts, ageing techniques and a host of other considerations your typical winemaker spends more time in school learning about than most of the students who read this paper ever will.

Who was the first person to try that moldy grape juice? Depends who you ask. Hebrew mythology holds that Noah forgot a jar of grape juice in the back of the ark and when he latter stumbled upon it, voila! The Greeks hold that Dionysus invented grapes, and vicariously wine, by taking the bone of a bird, inside the bone of a lion, inside the bone of an ass, and planted it. Hence all the stages of drunkenness explained–to say nothing of the implications for the genetically modified food debate.

Realistically, wine goes back as far as you care to look, but if you really want to know I suggest signing up for a few archeology courses and then packing off to the eastern Mediterranean.

Of course, none of this means you can just go out and buy a jug of Welches to leave out and get moldy. The type of grapes used play a tremendous role in the wine that results, influencing the colour, tastes, smells and anything else you care to examine in your wine. This is why nearly every bottle out of the New World lists all the grapes in the bottle, though typically there is only one dominant variety. Some of the most common grapes are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz or Riesling among others.

Where does wine come from?

Anywhere but France. I jest. Wine is grown in almost any country that has the climate for it. Traditionally, Europe is where wine comes from, with Spain, France and Italy representing the bulk of wine production, though some of the best whites come from Germany. Any wine from Europe is affectionately referred to as being "Old World," while wine from anywhere else gets the somewhat obvious "New World" label.

Among the New World producers, California, Australia, Chile and South Africa are all prime examples of wine grown outside of Napoleon’s playground. Even our own humble nation of beer drinkers produces wine, some of which even goes on to win international recognition, though this is by and large for our Icewines–wine made from frozen grapes.

How to drink wine

In a glass is the preferred method. Some of the French drink wine out of juice boxes, and some prefer to drink straight from the bottle, but if it’s any good it deserves a glass.

Depending on the wine, you can go so far as to get wine glasses specifically designed for your style of wine. As a rule of thumb, wine glasses should be about as expensive per stem as the wine bottle (retail cost, not in a restaurant). For the $12 plunk you picked up for your buddy’s birthday, whatever’s around will do. For the $100 bottle you got for your boss, you’d be looking at the $120-a-glass Riedel crystal (Sommeliers Line) from Austria.

Once you’ve chosen your vessel, your next task is to open the bottle. In the event that you’ve never performed this operation before, there are fool-proof screw-pull models available on the market, so you have no excuse for screwing up this part and no, you don’t have to smell the cork, just look at it to make sure there’s no obvious damage, like crystals or rot.

Once opened, you may or may not choose to decant the wine, which simply involves pouring the bottle into a large glass bulb to let it breath and so that you can filter our any sediment. Ask your wine vendor whether or not this is necessary.

Next, pour about an ounce into your glass and examine the colour–which if you’re reading this will likely mean nothing to you at this point, but at least you’ll look like you know what you’re doing. Swirl that tiny bit of wine around in your glass so that you coat the inside and then stick as much of your nose in as possible and take a big sniff. This is where the games begin you see, because this is where you figure out what the wine is like.

Taste is a funny thing. When you bite into a candy and say it tastes like peaches, you didn’t actually taste peach. You probably tasted sweetness but that was about it. Everything else came from your olfactory gland when the aromas kicked back up your nasal cavity, so you really smelled peaches. This also means that next time you tell someone their beer tastes like piss, and they come back with "how do you know what piss tastes like?" you can simply explain that the smell conveys the taste of piss to you without the need to ingest any.

As such, a great deal is made of how a wine smells, or to use wine lingo, describing the nose or bouquet. Fruits, flowers, spices, all of these and more appear in wine for a rather interesting reason–as a wine matures, it undergoes a series of chemical transformations and often develops the same molecules that we associate with other things, such as apples or cherries [see wine lingo on following page].

Once you’ve described to the best of your ability the smell, take a small amount of the wine and let it sit on you tongue, then inhale over the wine. For a good reference on how this should sound and look, simply watch Silence of the Lambs when Dr. Lecter recalls eating the liver of a census taker with fava beans and a nice Chianti. That thing he does at the end is what you should be doing now, it’s called ventriculating the ethers, and it allows even more of the aromas to kick back into the nasal cavity, thus expanding the flavours of the wine.

Once again, describe how it tastes, compare what you think with those around you, or even what’s on the back of the bottle if there’s a label.

After this ritual is complete, the wine gods will be sated and you can fill your glass (not to the top mind you, a five to six ounce serving is recommended) and enjoy. Of course, this practice is for those wishing to examine and enjoy their wine, as well as those who’d like to pretend they are. If you don’t care, simply fill your glass and get a head start.

What wine to buy?

The food factor

Wine, above all else, is meant to be enjoyed with food. As such, the heights of epicurean delight are to be found by drinking your wine with a well-matched and well-prepared meal. Too often, and for too many people, this means restaurants. Of course, restaurants know this too, hence the highly-inflated prices of wine in fine dining establishments.

On the other hand, if you choose to fire up the old grill yourself, then your outlook is much brighter. The first thing to consider is the meal being planned. Some foods taste great with certain wines, and others would cause you to think you were eating regurgitated turnips with a chilled glass of battery acid. The key to this puzzle is experience. Actually, that’s more like the blunt hammer. The real key is principles.

Acidity in wine cuts through grease and fat in food. Spice in food needs to be matched in wine. Chewy meats need mucho tannin–tannin is the spongy feeling you get on the inside of your cheeks from a full-bodied red wine caused by the grape skin. The principles are long and have few exception, however the breadth and scope of such a lesson requires a full book, of which there are plenty available. In the event that you cannot imagine what would pair with your dish, the Sommelier (or wine waiter) at a restaurant, or the wine geek at your favorite store, should be able to help.

This of course brings us to the subject of wine stores. There is a discernible difference between what I would call a liquor store and a wine store, the first being neon lights, especially if they flicker. This is not snobbishness, it is simply a good indication of the care the store puts into the operation of their business. Next, I would look at the staff, and see if they look like the type who get paid minimum wage to sit around and make sure no minors are buying liquor, or whether they actually know something about their trade. A safe indicator to weed out the truly dangerous is if the staff pronounces the "t" in Merlot, which, for the record, is silent.

If you feel that the store is well staffed, then make a new friend and do it quickly, because the wine salespersons are your safest bet for finding you the right wine for your occasion. Often the staff have tasted many of the wines in the store and can recommend what they know is quality juice, which is infinitely better than letting your companion pick the wine based on whether or not the label is pretty.

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