Wine Basics

By Ryan Snyder on March 18, 2005

Category: Wine for Newbies

We know we like wine and want to drink it, but with thousands of bottles on the shelves, which wine should we choose? Which bottle should we take to a party? Which bottle should we order from the sommelier at a restaurant without the fear that he’ll scoff at our selection?

We’ve put together a list of the basic requirements for wine knowledge to get you started. Afterwards, you’ll be armed with knowledge and confidence when you walk into wine shops and restaurants.

Winemaking Basics

As we all know, wine is made from grapes. After grapes are harvested, they are placed in a clean container and crushed. Yeasts, which are necessary to produce alcohol, exist naturally in the vineyard and collect on the grape skins. Once the grapes have been crushed, these yeasts (or artificial yeasts added by the winemaker) interact with the sugar in the grape juice to produce alcohol, a process known as fermentation.

Fermentation requires time – wine can ferment for three days or three years, depending on the style of wine the winemaker is trying to produce. The winemaker must also decide which type of container to ferment the wine in. Oak and stainless steel barrels are today’s most popular choices. Each container will impart different factors into the wine’s maturation, and grapes from the same vineyard will produce vastly different wines when stored in different types of containers.

Introduction to Grapes

We’ll explore grapes more thoroughly in section 3, but first let’s separate the grapes into two categories: white grapes and black grapes. White grapes are never literally white, but instead are lighter-skinned grapes that can be green, yellow-green, gold or light-orange. Black grapes, called such because black is the opposite of white, are also never literally black. Rather, they are grapes with a red or blue tint, and range from light ruby to a deep indigo.

The grape has many parts both used and unused during the process of making juice. Winemakers have to decide which parts to keep with the wine after being crushed and which to remove.

The Stem / Stalk is often detached from the grape prior to crushing, a process known as destemming. Stems contain a high amount of tannins and are sometimes kept with the grape juice in order to transfer those tannins to the juice.

The Brush is the extension of the stem that is inside of the grape. When the stem is removed, the brush will remain inside the grape.

The number and shape of Seeds, also called Pips, will vary from grape to grape. Seeds also contain a high amount of tannins, and are often removed in the process of crushing the grapes.

Within the grape, the Pulp is the liquid center that is made up of mostly water as well as sugars and acids. The color of the pulp of most grapes is actually grey.

The Skin of a red grape is arguably the most important ingredient of red wine. Because the pulp of the grape is colorless, the tannins and color compounds of the skin are necessary to give red wine its beautiful color. The pigment is transferred into the wine when the skins are left with the juice during fermentation. This process is called maceration.

Types of Wine

Wines can be grouped into the six primary categories: white wines, red wines, rosé wines, sparkling wines, dessert wines and fortified wines.

White wines are wines that contain little or no red pigmentation. These wines are almost always made from white grapes, but can be made from black grapes as well. Winemakers can make white wine from black grapes because the juice in most black grapes is actually clear. White wines can be sweet or dry, or somewhere in between. Popular white wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio / Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc.

Red wines are made from black grapes and have a red or blue tint. Most grapes have colorless juice, so to make red wine the grape skins, which contain nearly all of the grapes’ pigmentation, have to remain intact with the juice during all or part of the fermentation process. Tannins are also found in the grape skins, and are transferred into the wine while the skins are in contact with the juice. Besides the difference in color, the primary difference between red and white wines comes are tannins. Found mainly in red wines, they provide a dry, puckery sensation in the mouth and in the back of the throat. They also help preserve wine, allowing most (but not all) red wines to be aged longer than white wines. Popular red wines include Beaujolais, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

Rosé wines are pink in color, and can be referred to as rosé, pink or blush wines. Rosés are made from black grapes, but don’t fully turn red because the grape skins are removed from the juice mere hours after contact. This brief contact with the grape skins gives the wine a pink color from the slight transference of red pigments from the skins. Rosés can also made by blending together white and red wines. This brief skin contact also ensures that a minimal amount of tannins enters the wine. Many rosés are sweet, with White Merlot and White Zinfandel serving as great examples. However, the best and most traditional European rosés are bone dry.

Sparkling wines, made from nearly any variety of grape, are wines that contain carbon dioxide bubbles. Carbon dioxide occurs naturally during fermentation, and winemakers around the world have developed special techniques to trap carbon dioxide in the wine. Sparkling wines are often referred to incorrectly as Champagne – Champagne is a type of sparkling wine, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Champagne is the name of a region in northeast France. By law, wines may only be called Champagne when they are made solely from grapes grown in the Champagne region and produced according to strict guidelines. Popular sparkling wines include Cava, Champagne, Crémant d’Alsace, Moscato d’Asti and Prosecco.

Dessert wines are wines which have a high sugar content, making them a popular choice with or as dessert. They can be made sweet from many different ways, such as harvesting the grapes very late when sugar levels are high or drying the grapes on straw mats to concentrate the sugars.

Others, including fortified wines, have Brandy or other spirits added to the juice during fermentation. The Brandy prematurely stops the fermentation process, thus leaving a high amount of sugar in the wine. Some fortified wines, including Port and Sherry, were originally designed to ensure the wine survived long voyages on 17th century ships. Popular dessert wines include ice wines, late harvest Rieslings, Madeira, Port, Sherry and Sauternes.