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Wine 101: Quick Facts for the Not-So-Knowledgeable Wine Lover

“Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized.” – Andr‚ Simon

Wine is much of an enigma. It plays an active role in most of our lives, yet most of us have very little knowledge on the subject of wine. When it comes to choosing wines, many purchase wine on price alone; others select by varietal; and still others rely on brand recognition. However, regardless of the decision-making process, most people enjoy their wine and many want to be able to talk intelligently about it.

So, where to start?

This week, The Harbus helps to clear up some of the obscurity in the world of wine.

Wine 101 – Some Facts…

Wine Production

* Wet vintages are a vintner’s worst nightmare. If it rains just before or during the harvest, the sugar, flavor and other desirable components of the grape are diluted, seldom producing an outstanding wine.

* Most areas in the world have one main harvesting period. However, in equatorial areas, such as Venezuela, there are two vintages each year and the vine is never dormant.

* Wine aging is a process of slow, controlled oxidation. Wine breathes through the oak staves of the barrel. A wine barrel is assembled from planks of white oak without glue, dowels or nails. The average age of a French oak tree harvested for use in wine barrels is 170 years.
* Egg whites, bull’s blood, and gelatin have all been used as fining agents to remove suspended particles from wine before bottling. Egg whites are still commonly used.

Types of Wine

* Almost all wine is derived from the Vitis vinifera species of grape. Riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz (syrah), merlot and cabernet franc are all cultivars of Vitis vinifera.

* Red wine’s color comes entirely from the skins of the grapes used. The juice of most wine grapes is clear, and red wines must be fermented with their skins in order to extract color. France’s champagne is made mostly from red grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier).

* Some of the finest sweet wines are made from rotten grapes. Botrytis cinerea, a fungus that develops in mild and humid weather, attacks grapes and causes them to shrivel by removing moisture and concentrates and intensifies both sugar and flavor.

* Chianti was said to have been created by Bettino Ricasoli, the “Iron Baron”, who was one of the founders of modern Italy. The wine was originally formed by combining two red grapes (Sangiovese and Canaiolo) with two white grapes (Malvasia and Trebbiano). Today, better Chiantis contain little or no white grapes and may include some Cabernet. They are deeper in color and flavor and more age-worthy.

Enjoying Wine

* Wine is one of the most complex foods, with more than 700 chemical compounds in total and over 200 that contribute significantly to its flavor.

* Restaurant waiters first pour patrons a sample of wine so the patron can determine whether or not the wine is “corked” or oxidized (corked wine smells like musty old newspapers; oxidized wine smells like a brown apple). Corked wine has been tainted by a chemical compound “trichloroanisole” (TCA) that may be within the cork. The term “corked” has nothing to do with fragments of broken cork (a common misconception). It is believed that the incidence of corked wine ranges from 5 – 10%. If it is corked or oxidized, all restaurants should provide another bottle as they are able to send tainted wine back to their distributors.

* Decanting is the process of aerating red wine to allow it to “breathe” or release its flavors. Simply drawing the cork and leaving the bottle to stand will not achieve this process; one must expose the full bottle of wine to air, which is best achieved by decanting it into another container.

February 22, 2005
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