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Wine Lead Image
There are many variations of red and white wines to understand.
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Two styles of Chardonnay
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From light to full body reds
In our Wine 100 Series, we talked about where to buy fines in the Greater Akron area. But, how do you know what to buy? As I suggested, you need to read and research to see what wines the experts like, but that is only part of the equation. To pick wines, whether to enjoy with dinner or collect for the long run, you've also got to know quite a bit about the differences and similarities for literally hundreds of possible choices. In Wine 200, we'll try to clear up some of this fog.
Let's start with wine grapes. Every variety of grape makes a different tasting wine, and even the same grape, grown in different places, or vinted different ways, can make several different styles. It is possible for people with refined tasting experience to identify wines by variety, place, and style. I doubt many of us fall into that category of wine taster...I've been at it a long time, and I don't pretend to have such skills. Also, there are people who make fun of some expert tasters, calling them “wine snobs” or worse; I won't go that far, as experts can and do provide good advice.
But let's keep it simple. First, no “fruit” wines...no Peach or Strawberry stuff. It's OK if you like them, and want to buy and drink them. But I would like to stick to wines made from vinifera grapes. I am starting with five basic categories of grape wines: Red, White, Rose, Sweet and Sparkling. Yes, there is some cross-over here, as Roses, Sparkling, and Sweet wines are made from red or white grapes, but we're talking major categories.
The last sentence should make it clear that vinifera grapes come in either “red” (various shades of purple from deep magenta to nearly black) or “white” (in shades between gold and green). The color of a wine is determined not so much by the color of the grape as by the time the juice spends in contact with skins during winemaking; thus, you can make a light, or nearly white, wine from red grapes. Choosing wines you might want to drink or pair with food will be the subject of other posts.
Red wines have to be made from red grapes. You can't get a red color in a wine no matter how long you leave the juice on white grape skins. There are literally dozens of vinifera varieties, but as it turns out, you really can get by knowing about just two more than a dozen, seven reds and seven whites. That's because, on a worldwide basis, there are only a few that are so widely planted and revered for the wines they produce. And for our purposes, we will talk about even less than those fourteen.
One of the taste components of wine is “body”. This is the feeling of substance the wine has in your mouth, and it comes from the amount of alcohol and the amount of tannin in that wine. Tannin comes from grape skins, and is the “dry” taste, the backbone if you will, of the wine structure. Generally, the longer the grape juice is allowed to remain in contact with the skins after crushing, the more tannin it will absorb, and the deeper the color will become. Thus, wines with the “most body” are usually made from grapes that are dark purple, in a style where there is a long fermentation on the skins.
Viewed this way, it is possible to talk about wines in terms of the range from the most body to the lightest. In reds, this generally means starting with Syrah, then Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Barbera (and other Italian varietals) and Gamay. We'll ignore the fact that some varieties go by more than one name, and we'll disregard the grapes used in many parts of the world for blending to achieve certain flavor profiles. For the time being, I'm also going to ignore the hybrids, many of which are grown in our own Great Lakes region, but I will get back to them in another post.
With white wines, the most body is usually found in the two of the four major styles of Chardonnay wines, with Pinot Blanc usually next, then Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, Reisling, Pinot Grigio and Chenin Blanc. I personally think there are even more hybrid white wine grapes being used than reds, so you may encounter all different sorts of variety names, especially on imported wines. It is possible to make a white wine from red grapes, and white zinfandel is one of the most ubiquitous examples of this. Generally, such a wine will not only be light in color, but medium to light in body. The object is to make a wine which matures quicker, and is more accessible early in its life.
Rose wines can really only be made from red wine grapes. The only reason they are light in color is that they spend less time in contact with the skins. The aim in making Roses is similar to the target when making whites from reds...lighter, more accessible beverages. Between the two, I prefer Roses because of the color component; many of them simply beautiful to look at in the glass. Whether white zinfandels or Roses are a great match with food is often just a matter of personal taste. But there is a reason certain wines are usually matched with certain foods, and we'll get to that in upcoming posts.
Sparkling wines and sweet wines can both be made from either red or white grapes, although some varieties have proven more successful than others in these applications. Ever-popular Chardonnay is one of the most widely used in “Champagne” style sparkling wines, and this is actually the “fourth” major style for this grape. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are also widely used, especially in France. The best sparkling wines are made through a secondary, or natural, fermentation process, during which the bubbles are created in the bottle. I like to avoid the mass-produced versions made by simply injecting carbon dioxide into the wine the same way they make soda pop.
Sweet grape wines are generally made either by allowing the grapes to shrink naturally on the vine (OK, so some people call it rot!), or through waiting for the grapes to freeze. Either of these factors will cause the amount of water in the grapes to be reduced, producing a large amount of residual sugar after fermentation. These wines can range from massive body and cloying sweetness all the way down to the lighter Kabinet and Auslese Rieslings. It should also be noted that there is another type of sweet wines, known as “fortified” wines. These are Ports, Sherries, and similar types of wines aged for long periods of time in casks racked in the sun. They sweeten as the wine ages, but need to be fortified with alcohol from time to time due to this evaporation process.
In the next entry, Wine 202, we'll concentrate on just the red grape varieties, and talk about what makes one red different from another. We'll also touch on red wine food pairings. As always, your comments on these subjects are very welcome.