As you may already know, I was at my very first real wine tasting last weekend. I learned so much and I now feel a lot more confident when it comes to wine and choosing one to go with a certain dish etc. I was a complete newbie, I had absolutely NO IDEA about wines. Seriously. But Kurt, the winemaker who taught us how to taste wine (and whom I fell in love with after the seventh or eigth glass) was just so good at explaining how to tell certain characteristics of wine. So I thought I’d tell you what I learned and maybe it helps you next time you have to choose a wine.
First: We tasted reds, whites and dessert wines (red and white). We also had sparkling wine (champaign), but we didn’t really talk about this one, so I can’t tell you that much about champaign. (While I was studying in Paris I visited a champaign manufacturer and took a tour. I learned so much about how champaign is produced, but unfortunately I seem to have forgotten most of it… Rufus reminded me to tell you that of course champaign is only produced in the Champagne region north of Paris, France. Every “champaign” who is produced in a different region or even different country is not allowed to be called champaign. You can call them “sparkling wines”.)
Also: I don’t know if you have the same grape varieties where you live. So if I mention a type of wine or grape and you have no idea what I’m talking about, maybe this is just an Austrian varietal. We only tasted Austrian wines from Burgenland.
So, let’s go to the 11 things you should know about wine. I wanted to do 10 because it’s a nicer number, but I couldn’t narrow it down. These are just some random things I thought were good to hear before the actual step-by-step guide for the wine tasting (which will be my next blog post).
1. Look at the bottle
The bottle can tell you a lot more than the name and whether it’s a red or a white wine. Generally, wine should come in green bottles, because wine hates two things: heat and sunlight. The dark green glass protects the wine from both, since sunlight can really change the taste of wine even in an unopened bottle. This does not mean that wine in clear bottles is of inferior quality. It’s just not as protective as a dark bottle. Only rosé wines are mostly sold in clear bottles to show off the beautiful color.
2. Alcohol content in volume percentage
The label of the bottle must tell you how much alcohol the wine contains. Light wines contain less than 11 or 12 % alcohol. Stronger ones can have 13 or even 14 %. The alcohol content not only influences how quickly you will get drunk while tasting the wines (believe me, I know what I’m talking about), but also how long you can keept the open bottle amongst other things.
3. Acid content
In Europe (or at least here in Austria), the residual acid content is measured in gram per liter. This just means how much acid is still left in the wine. A high amount of acid means that the wine is dry and strong. We tasted a great Chardonnay with 7 gram acid per liter. Dry wines have about 6 gram acid per liter or more. Semi-drys between 5 and 6 grams of acid.
4. Sugar content
I’m a big lover of sweet wines. The sugar content is also measured in grams per liter. Sweet(er) wines have 10 grams or more. Dessert wines, which can be very sweet, can have 30, 40, 50, or 60 grams per liter. We tasted a dessert wine (“Beerenauslese”) with 122 grams per liter. It was so incredibly sweet, I can’t even describe it. For this wine, the grapes have to be hand-picked because only grapes with a special fungus are used. Kurt explained to us that this fungus is comparable to antibiotics. And it’s not possible to get more sugar into the wine in a natural way. So 122 grams is about the maximum.
5. Open bottles
At the wine tasting, I asked Kurt about open bottles and how long one can keep them. Well, needless to say the group laughed at me because obviously you’re supposed to drink the wine. Yet there may be occasions where you can’t finish a whole bottle or you just need a tiny amount (for cooking or a dessert for example). Therefore it’s important to know how long you can keep open wine bottles.
White wine does not stay good very long. If it’s a wine with little alcohol (which means less than 12 %), you should finish your bottle within three days. If it has more than 12 %, you could keep it 10 days maximum. Red wine can be kept in open bottles a little longer, up to three weeks. The same is true for dessert wines (they have much sugar which conservates the wine). “Beerenauslese” can be kept even longer if it has a large proportion of sugar. (I’m sorry, I couldn’t find a translation for “Beerenauslese” – if you have one, please let me know.)
An exception is Pinot Noir. This wine can go “bad” after only one hour. The grapes are very sensitive and the taste starts to change quickly.
BUT: “Bad” does not mean that you will get sick when you drink it. This just means that the taste and the smell will change and it won’t be the same. Of course you can still drink your white wine after a few days. But don’t expect it to taste exactly the same. Always keep open bottles tightly shut in your freezer.
6. The right temperature
I didn’t know a lot about wine before the tasting, but I knew that white wine should be served cold, while red wine should be served “warm”. A general rule is that whites should be served at 6 to 9 degrees Celsius. Red wines should be kept at room temperature for a while to breathe and adjust their temperature. You should drink them at 14 to 18 degrees Celsius.
7. The right glass
Wine glasses can be tricky. There’s a special glass for almost any type of wine. White wine glasses are generally smaller, red wine glasses are a lot bigger and round like bowls. But it’s totally fine if you only have one or two sets of wine glasses. Who can afford to buy a seperate set of glasses for every wine? At the wine tasting, we used smaller, a little rounded glasses for white and red wine. I’m really sorry I forgot what they were called, but I’ll ask and let you know.
8. How to hold it
I was told that a mistake many Americans make is to hold the glass by the bowl. You are not supposed to do this, except for certain types of red wine. Generally it looks more elegant and professional to hold the glass by the stem. There is even a special “grip” for wine tastings, where you hold the very bottom part of the stem between your thumb and your index finger and place your middle finger under the glass. But in general you can’t go wrong with holding the glass at the stem.
9. Wine and cheese
At the wine tasting I attended, we were not allowed to eat anything else with the wine except for bread and cheese. Other food would disturb your senses. The bread is there to neutralize your sense of taste. And the cheese was there so we wouldn’t starve whilst getting drunk and because it goes great with wine. Generally, cream cheese and all types of Dutch cheese go well with white wine (try cream cheese with lighter wines and a little “spicier” cheese types with heavier whites). Parmesan and spicier types of cheese go great with red wines (start with Parmesan and light reds and go over to spicier cheeses and spicier wines). With dessert wines try blue mold cheese like Gorgonzola. This may sound really weird at first, but it’s actually good. I’ll explain in my next blog post how to correctly taste wine with cheese. ALWAYS start with the lighter version. If you start your tasting with a heavy, dry red and a very spicy cheese, you won’t taste a light white with cream cheese anymore because the spices of the first two have covered your taste buds.
10. Wine and food
Okay, wine and food is a tricky chapter. After all, everybody has his/her own taste. But there are some ground rules you can’t go wrong with. Rich and dry whites go great with seafood, fish, also with Parmesan and everything with a creamy sauce. Oh, how I’m looking forward to drinking my 2010 Chardonnay to my favorite dish: Tagliatelle Salmone with a light cream sauce. Mmmmh.
Mild and fruity white wines go great with beef and veal. But beware of intensive, “strong” sauces. Fruity, fresh and dry wines (like Muskateller/Muscatel for example – I hope I got the right translation) go great with anything veggie or with vegetarian pestos (like Pesto Genovese for example – on top of noodles or together with a mozzarella tomato salad – one of my all time favorites).
Semi-dry, fruity reds go great with pizza and pasta. A strong, “musky” red works fabulously with venison.
If you’re having a dish with a lot of acid (like salads, fish with citrus sauces or anything like that), make sure the wine has a lot of acid (6 gram per liter or more) too. Otherwise, your dish would just cover up the taste of the wine and you wouldn’t be able to smell it anymore.
Extremely sweet dessert wines go great with – surprise! – desserts.
11. White, red, rosé – what’s the difference?
You know grapes, right? So white grapes are… uhm… green. And red grapes are some kind of purple-y color (or a deep blue, or burgundy). But if you cut a red grape in half you will see that inside its… again: light green. Wine is made from pressing the grapes. If you just press white and red grapes, the juice will be the same color: a very light yellowy-green, almost transparent. Because wine doesn’t get its color from the juice, but from the grape skins. So because the juice of white/green grapes is kept with the grape skins, the wine gets its yellowy-greenish color.
But how is rosé wine produced? Well, rosé wine is made of red grapes. But the grape skins are not kept with the juice very long. Just a few hours (this takes approx. 12 hours, if I recall correctly) until the wine has its rosey color. Then the skins are filtered, so the wine stays this beautiful rosé color.
Okay, these were the eleven things I wanted to mention before I publish part 2 of this mini-series, the step-by-step wine tasting guide. I mentioned several times that I’m by no means an expert, so everybody who knows more about wine than I do and who spots a mistake or disagrees with what I wrote here is more than welcome to leave a comment or correct me. I’m so much looking forward to your comments and to writing part 2 of “Wine tasting for Dummies”.