The Learning Annex presents The Pleasure of Wine

By Ian Blackburn Allison Levine

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7645-4146-3

Chapter One

lesson 1

what is wine?

What Makes Wine Wine How Wine Is Made Wine Types

Wine is an amazing journey through time, history, religion, climate, love, war, and fashion. It lends itself beautifully to any level of involvement, from sipping a simple glass of rosť on the back porch to traveling to the great wine centers of Europe and coming home laden with exotic wines. Wine is one of the most rewarding hobbies you can explore: There's always more to learn, more to experience-more to taste!

Unfortunately, the subject of wine intimidates many people. Some folks have grown shy of wine because they believe that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to enjoy it.

In addition to presenting you with good, basic wine information, our goal in this book is to encourage you to trust your judgment. If you find that you like red wine with fish instead of white, or you discover that you prefer your white wines at room temperature instead of chilled, or you decide to serve a dessert wine with your meal, we want you to feel free to do so. Remember, wine is fun!


Strictly speaking, wine is the fermented juice of any kind of fruit (like peaches, pears, or mulberries), grain (for instance, rice in sake), or plant (such as dandelion). In this book, we're going to talk only about wine made from grapes. But wine is much more than its physical components. It's an adventure, a challenge to the senses, a chance to immerse yourself in the pleasure of the moment. It's an ever-changing kaleidoscope of culture and craftsmanship, art and agriculture. In places where wine has been made for centuries, it is interwoven in the history, the land, and the lifestyles of the people who produce it.

Wine is also the world's most romanticized beverage. Poets and sages across time have praised its effects on the human spirit. Wine is almost synonymous with celebration and good living; its mere presence on the dinner table brings a festive atmosphere to a meal. Ask yourself, have you ever had a bad day drinking Champagne?

The Sensations of Drinking Wine

Drinking wine is an adventure that affects the senses in a complex variety of ways. Before the wine even touches your lips, you drink it in with your eyes. You appreciate the color and clarity of a newly poured glass of wine, whether it's a golden Sauternes, a ruby red Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Riesling so sheer and pale that it's almost transparent. Wine catches the light, reflects and glorifies the world around it, and tells the stories of its journey to your glass.

Wine impacts your sense of smell most profoundly. Any given wine contains hundreds of aromatic compounds that manifest themselves in unique combinations, allowing the "nose" of the wine to inspire its own language. No one could set a limit on the number of terms one could use to describe wine, but we can recognize a common structure in most wines and then identify subtle nuances, depending on hundreds of variables.

Wine's flavor is not just its sensation on the tongue, but the combined effect on the taste buds and nasal receptors. Have you ever tried to drink wine when you had a head cold? It's disappointing. Without its subtle aromas, wine's flavors become one-dimensional. Your mouth tastes only the basics: the wine's relative sweetness, acidity (sourness), and bitterness. But your nose processes its complex aromas.

Your sense of touch is part of the wine-drinking experience, too. Wine lovers talk of the "mouthfeel" of a wine: whether it's light, medium, or heavy in body and whether it's oily, sheer (like silk in your mouth), angular, chewy, or any number of other descriptors. You can enjoy wine with four of your five senses (or all five if you can appreciate the sounds of people drinking great wine or the satisfying pock of a cork slipping from a bottle-a sensory delight that heightens the celebratory mood).

A tremendous part of the pleasure of a good wine lies in immersing yourself in the sensual experience of exploring the multiple layers of the wine's personality. Wine challenges you to develop your senses.

Wine's Personality

No two wines are exactly alike. Tasting a special wine from a special place, made by gifted hands, is a completely different experience than gulping down a cola, because today's cola tastes pretty much like last year's, and cola from a plant in Des Moines is indistinguishable in flavor from cola made in Poughkeepsie (assuming that it's of the same brand)-at least that's what we've been told.

Even the same grape variety grown in the same place can look, smell, and taste different from year to year. In fact, a wine can taste different from day to day. That's the mystery, beauty, and romance of enjoying wine: appreciating these subtle differences!

We should make a distinction here between fine wines and those that are made for casual drinking. Everyday jug wines can be a pleasure to drink, and if you just want a wine that tastes good, you can find one without having to spend your inheritance on it. But when wine enthusiasts gather to taste and obsess over wine, they're talking about fine wine crafted with pride to present an extraordinary experience.

You're probably reading this book for the latter reason, because part of the beauty of jug wines is that they don't require much information to enjoy. Your enjoyment of fine wine, on the other hand, grows with knowledge and experience.

The Stories Wine Tells

The story of a wine's creation can be as intriguing as the wine itself. Sometimes the joy of drinking a particular wine lies in understanding its special significance. Was the wine made under difficult conditions? Is the wine so rare that only the very fortunate have even seen the label? Has the wine taken on mythical dimensions, like that of a rare coin? In addition to its sensuous pleasures, wine can offer the intellectual satisfaction of uncovering a great story.

Wine's Place in History and Culture

Wine has touched many of history's greatest events. Jesus Christ presented it as his blood at the Last Supper, a moment reenacted throughout the Christian world to this day. Napoleon celebrated his conquest with it; Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence while sipping it. The Spanish Armada sailed with wine; the czars of Russia included it in their celebrations. Baseball teams celebrate with it; couples toast with it. Wine bonds us and allows us to crystallize special moments. Wine allows us to reflect and release. It adds soul to a new memory.

For centuries, wine has been the drink of choice of poets, novelists, playwrights, artists, and composers. Great minds across the ages have sung its praises:

"[Wine] awakens and refreshes the lurking passions of the mind, as varnish does the colours which are sunk in a picture, and brings them out in all their natural glowings." -Alexander Pope

"The soft extractive note of an aged cork being withdrawn has the true sound of a man opening his heart." -William Samuel Benwell

"Wine is Sunlight, held together by water." -Galileo

"He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes." -Genesis 49:11

"What is the definition of a good wine? It should start and end with a smile." -William Sokolin

"Nobody ever wrote a great novel drinking water." -Ernest Hemingway

"I cook with wine; sometimes I even add it to the food." -W. C. Fields

Wine's Magical Effects on Food

Wine is made to go with food; it can turn a meal into a memorable event. And food returns the compliment: A fine wine only gets better when served with compatible food. Individually, great wine and great food can be wonderful soloists, but the combination of good food and wine is like a well-practiced symphony. Wine enhances your enjoyment of the food, and food enhances your enjoyment of the wine.

The combination of wine and food offers so many dazzling possibilities that it can't help but come down to a matter of personal taste. In this book, we're not going to focus much on the food and wine pairings that wine experts recommend; we'd rather encourage you to find out which combinations you like best. Lesson 14 contains much more information about the marriage of food and wine.

Wine's Sociability

Wine loves company. It eases the collective mood and encourages conversation. Its festive presence lends an air of elegance to social events. Wine inspires and invites lively commentary and brings a built-in topic of conversation to any gathering.

Remember, though, that your enjoyment of a wine is a separate experience from your appreciation of it. You can judge the qualities of a fine wine empirically, whether you happen to like the wine or not. On the other hand, you can find a great deal of joy in a simple bottle of wine that would never be judged world class.


At its highest level, making wine has become an art form. With continued evolution and increased understanding, winemaking and farming techniques allow producers to make better wines every year. But viticulturalists and winemakers find themselves under enormous pressure, because expectations run very high. Consumers have been conditioned to expect that a winemaker will create not only a wine product, but also an epic experience, a personality-a masterpiece.

Some of the greatest wines in the world, though, are products of great restraint. The winemaker did little to "make" the wine, allowing the wine to "make itself" and to fully reflect the vineyard from which it came. Tom Mackay of Sonoma Valley's St. Francis Winery says, "We can only make great wine when we have great grapes."


Fine viticulture, or the growing of grapes for winemaking, seeks quality more than quantity. Fine winemakers would rather create a small amount of high-character wine that's a tribute to Mother Nature than produce a large yield.

Viticulturalists (grape-growers) and winemakers often work as a team. The vineyard manager may strive to create a crop that enables the winemaker to showcase the best qualities of the grape variety. Or the winemaker might try to craft a wine with certain attributes ideal to its type, like the tantalizing tannin of a fine Cabernet or the ripe stone-fruit flavors found in Chardonnay. In each case, they're working with a sensitive, often unpredictable set of variables at every step of the process, and the finished product is a testimony to their skill, their judgment, and a little good luck.

The elements of earth, wind, light, and water are Mother Nature's chess set. Her temperament is highly unpredictable: In certain years, she sets us up with high expectations only to punish us for our greed and disobedience, and in other years, we prepare for the worst and are pleasantly surprised. This combination of variables in a grapevine's environment is characterized and idealized by the French term terroir (tare-wah). Terroir can have subtle and not-so-subtle effects on a wine's character. A good wine can hint of certain things in its environment: For example, many German wines grown in slatey soils pick up mineral and wet stone flavors; rich red wines from the southern regions of Spain and Italy often carry the perfumes of the flowers that grow abundantly about the countryside. And in Napa Valley, a sweet dust can add a nice accent to the deep cherry flavors of the region's Cabernets and Merlots.

Most wine grapes prefer long, warm growing periods with plenty of sunshine during the day and cool temperatures at night. These conditions produce great complexity of fruit and acid. Grapes growing in otherwise marginal climates can thrive if they receive enough reflected sunlight from light soils and bodies of water. But too much direct, hot sunlight can cause the grapes to ripen prematurely. A light wind is generally a plus; it keeps the grapes from overheating (and maturing too quickly) and evaporates excess moisture. Too much wind, however, can shear off blossoms, leaves, and immature fruit and even stunt the vine's growth.

The optimal climatic conditions for a crop of wine grapes are a cold winter followed by a warm, wet spring and then a long, breezy, sunny summer-not too warm-with cool nights and moderate rain tapering to a warm, dry autumn. A cold winter allows the vines to go dormant and rest, which strengthens them. A warm, wet spring can produce a large set of blossoms, and a long, sunny summer and fall give the grapes plenty of time to develop lots of character. But it's never predictable, and getting it just right is almost always a challenge. Most grape growers will tell you, "I'd rather be lucky than good anytime."

How Wine Grapes Grow

Grapes grow only from flowers that have "set" on the vine-a process easily halted by untimely storms, wind, or excessive early heat. If the flowers set successfully, they produce clusters of tiny green berries that gradually swell and change color, becoming grapes. All grapes start out green. White grape varieties turn various shades of gold or pink; red varieties flush red, purple, or black.

Once the berries begin to grow, vineyard workers often cut away some of the burgeoning bunches (called crop thinning) so that the vine can focus all its energy on the bunches that remain. Over time, the vine begins to crop thin naturally; in the sense that older vines make fewer grapes with more concentrated flavors. It's a common theory that old vines make better wines.

Vines also produce higher-quality grapes if they endure a certain amount of beneficial stress. Broad temperature fluctuations, brief periods of drought, and depleted soil can force a vine to work hard, dig its roots deeper, and focus its efforts on producing a small crop of intense berries.

Harvesting Wine Grapes

Grape-growers aim to harvest their grapes when the sugars and tannins have ripened and the decreasing acids and increasing sugars have reached a balance. In general, the longer grapes stay on the vine (viticulturalists refer to the total number of days on the vine as "hang time"), the more concentrated their sugars become, and the less acid remains. A good wine-grower knows that sweetness and acidity complement each other; a sweet wine needs the sharp edge that acidity brings to avoid becoming syrupy, and an acidic wine needs some sweetness to temper its sour disposition.

Tannin, the bitter compound found primarily in a grape's skin (which, in red wines, is critical for providing flavor, structure, texture, and longevity) also needs to ripen. A well-trained viticulturalist recognizes the taste of ripe tannin.


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