Wine: Become a Connoisseur in this Easy Lesson


By: J. Marlando


Both my wife and I are wine buffs; we'll enjoy a glass of wine and good conversation just about every night of the week. Sometimes we'll spend some time together sitting out by the pond and sipping on a nice Zinfandel or Chianti. We've also been fortunate enough to do some sampling in Europe and Australia but, being Americans, we  also drink a lot of domestic labels from our famous Napa Valley. 

Europeans fancy their wine much more than we Americans do, however. After all, a lot of people in the U.S. make drinking it only on special occasion while in places such as France, Italy and Portugal drinking wine is an everyday occurrence and enjoyed as casually as we drink coffee. And, in regard to this, most doctors will tell you that wine is healthy for us.. Drinking it in moderation that is!

wine can be exquisitely romantic too: There's nothing like candles, flickering on the tablewineCredit: www Your favorite vintage and your date (or mate) sitting across from you. 

Wine tasting can be fun too and we'll be talking about that a little later. In fact, the goal of this article is to turn you into somewhat of an expert by the time you've read the content that's about to unfold. There are some folks who are afraid of wine, after all.  This is mostly because the wine snobs have been advocating wine-snobbery for generations, making wine tasting and even drinking it more ritual than anything else. As a result, some people feel uncomfortable when the waiter pours a small amount in their glass so they can sample it before accepting the bottle. With this in mind, the question is,  what are you really looking for when you take that sample sip?  I'll be answering this question on a later page, just in case you don't already know.

As I said earlier, my wife and I have sampled wines in a lot of places but we happened onto a  fantastic Zinfandel made right here at home in Napa Valley, CaliforniawineCredit: This particular Zinfandel was not real expensive, around fifteen dollars as I recall but it had a wonderful body, an appealing  bouquet and tasted out of this world. Indeed, the moment my wife and I took that first sip, we exchanged glances and simply relished in the entire experience of drinking it. Afterwards, we rushed back to the store, where we had first discovered the wine and bought their last three or four bottles. After that, we were told that the label was sold out so we wrote the vineyard owners and wine maker, asking where we might buy more. They said we couldn't as they too were sold out. They sent me a free bottle of the same wine except it had been made in the current year instead of the year before.  It was, as said, the difference between night and day. Even though the wine was made in the same way, by the same folks, the vintage was different and thus, so was the taste. As I said,  the 2007 was  exquisite and wonderful while the 2008 was mundane and not nearly as good. This happens, so if you find a wine you truly love, buy all you can because there will never be another wine exactly like it. This is another reason why tasting can truly be important to your wine drinking experience.

With the above said let's get down to becoming wine experts. Indeed, remember what the good-old-boy said, why just yesterday I couldn't spell  connoisseur and now I are one.

A Touch of Wine History

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The history of wine is intriguing. No one really knows when our kind began to produce it but most suspect that it was first produced from wild grapes in prehistoric times. The earliest known wine making, however, take us back at least three thousand years to early Sumerian and Egyptian cultures. Wine drinking in China, however, dates back at least 7,000 B.C.  Later in history,  wine played a major role in ancient Greek culture and was part of everyday life. Wine was also associated with the deity, Dionysus, the son of Zeus in Greek religious mythology and also playing a major role in ancient Roman culture. When, at last Rome lost its power the Church took over all the major wine-making. Then, by the time of the middle ages, wine had become the popular drink for rich and poor alike so, for sure, it was on its way to becoming the industry it is today. In any case, we homo Sapiens have been drinking wine for millenniums.

Wine has been called the nectar of the gods, this title probably goes back to "Mead." That is, a kind of very early wine made of honey water and not grapes.wineCredit: Incidentally, the word "honeymoon" comes from the tradition of giving the newlyweds Mead to make sure there first night together went...well, as hoped for. Incidentally, You can still buy Mead today if you're interested.

The Secrets of Wine Tasting

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Wine tasting parties can be as formal or informal as you desire. Formal wine tastings are generally for professional buyers but sometimes for ostentatious elitists too. There are after all, a few wine enthusiasts who look down their noses at others who don't conform to their ideas

and concepts.

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There is a good reason to swirl your wine in the glass, however. This is not a ritual without a cause: Giving the wine a few swirls allows oxygen to mix with the wine which releases the scent or bouquet.

Once you're finish swirling and take a sniff, you're seeking the "nose""wineCredit: of the wine. This can be important since we all have limited taste. That is, we can only  taste sour, bitter, sweet and salt so when we really love the taste of something it is really the scent that we like so much. And, like everything else, what we are smelling will not be the same as the person next to us is smelling even though he or she is drinking the same wine from the same bottle. Actually this is what makes wine buyers and other experts so vital to the industry. Over the years they have acquired a more sensitive palate. In any case, what you are seeking from the bouquet is primarily to find out what the dominant factor is--is the scent that of citrus, oak, berry or something else? That guessing game can be a lot of fun from time to time but you have to be a pretty seasoned connoisseur to be able to accurately name the taste even some of the time.

A bit of extra information is to know that young, cheaper wines will have much more of a fruity taste with older, better wines having far more character. Easy, eh?

There is another secret to wine tasting, however. Oh, by the way, before we get into that you might want to know if spitting is necessary to savor the tastes of different wines? The answer is no. Indeed, the major secret to tasting is quite simply finding out if you like the wine or if you don't. If it taste good to you, then it's darn good wine...if it doesn't then you deem it lousy and that's what it becomes...for you.

When tasting, color plays a role too. Professionals can tell a young wine from an ageing wine by just looking at it but all that's really important to know is that the wine isn't cloudy. You want your wine--white or red--to be fresh and bright. If it's not, I don't suggest you pour the glass into your waiter's pocket, although you might feel like it, but do send it back.

The importance of Labels


There's not a heck of a lot that a person needs to know about what to look for on wine labels. For one thing, especially if you're spending more than a few bucks you want to know what you're drinking. When reading labels, however, what you'll most be interested in is wine's origins. In fact, not all, but the majority of labels are names of places, for example, Chablis pronounced "fa-bli" by the way, indicates a district of the northern BurgundywineCredit: region of France. Actually the grapevines around the French town of Chablis are almost exclusively Chardonnay, so now you can see how much where the wine come from plays a major role in labeling. Chianti arrives from specific regions in France, Italy and Spain. Sauternes wine arrives from the Sauternais region of Bordeaux. Burgundy is another French wine coming from the Burgundy region on eastern France. Actually red burgundy is made of  Pinot noir grapes while white is made with Chardonnay grapes. So Burgany is a place, a wine growing region and not the name of a grape or kind of wine it is.

There are exceptions, however. For example, my personal favorite, Zinfandel. Zinfandel is also called Primitivo and is a dark-skinned grape, probably originating in Puglia, located in the "heel" of Italy. No one really knows where the name of Zinfandel originated, however. Nevertheless, the grape arrived in the U.S. during the mid-1800s and makes an exquisite, robust red but also a rose and white wine. Because of the grapes high sugar content it can yield levels of alcohol that actually exceed 15%.

Another exception to the rule is that some wines are named combining their village name with the kind of grape. Riesling is a good example of this. Every now and then you can run into made-up names such as Lacrima Christi from Italy. (The Tears of Christ!)

And finally, of interest, there are some labels that have no connection whatsoever with where they are made. For a couple of examples, California Chablis, Spanish  Burgany and Australian Moselle.            

For me, what is ever as important as the name of the wine is the date. Remember, almost ALL quality wines are a product of a certain year; a certain vintage. Remember my Zinfandel experience--one year superbly good, a journey into wine ecstasy and the following year...back to mediocre. That's the truth on the grapevine, folks...One year gold the next year rust.

There is just one more point to be covered here. Now and then you will read a label that says something like "Flavors of strawberry or black berries." This absolutely does not mean that the wine has been artificially flavored. It is merely the winemaker attempting to tell you what flavors to look for when sampling the wine.

Knowing how to read wine labels is importantwuneCredit: but not vital. Most connoisseurs, however, enjoy having all the information they can get before uncorking a wine. And, if you are serious about the art of wine, you will want to know how to read their labels which can, incidentally, be a lot of fun in itself.

Fortified and Sparkling Wines


We'll take a brief break from classical, grape wine and talk briefly about fortified wines. My favorite is Port. Port makes a wonderful after-dinner drink but of course some folks prefer a good dry or cream sherry. Other fortified wines include Marsala and of course Vermouth. 

The dry wines in this category are tasty as before-dinner drinks or even a mid-day refresher. Just remember that these wines are called "fortified" because they all have extra alcohol added. As a result, a good fortified wine will offer up to 21% alcohol.

Oh yes, something I nearly forgot: The best Port is exported from Portugal and takes its name from the town of Oporto.  (Pronounced "Portu" in Portuguese). There is Port made in the U.S. too but most are mere substitutes without the depth of character and they are seldom as rich as the original.

I have never liked Champagne or sparkling wines very much but some folks adore them and so we can't leave them out of our lesson in  Connoisseur-ship. My wife, for example, loves the bubbly and nearly always makes it available for dinner guests.

One problem, however, is that, in general,  "the bubbly" is only served at events such as wedding or other large assemblies of people so its more subtle pleasures are seldom enjoyed as much as Champagne and other sparkling wines. Nevertheless a good Champagne can be savored no less than other fine wines if the consumer gives him or herself some quiet time and intimacy to simply sit back and enjoy.

Incidentally, brand names for "Champagne" are many world-round but true and original Champagne can only be made in the region of Champagne, France not far from Paris. 

Speaking of labels, most sparkling wine expert will agree that especially Americans find the name Brut appealing to their sensitivities. What Alexis Bespaloff, world renowned Connoisseur believes, however, is what most Americans really want is an extra dry Champaigne which Brut can imply. However, there is a world of difference between an inexpensive (cheap) Brut and a superior Brut. You might also note that some Champagnes are labeled "Blanc de Blancs." This means that the wine has been made of only white grapes--Chardonnay. This is unique to sparkling wines because most other kinds of white wines are made from black grapes.     

While we are exploring wines that are not table or traditional grape wines such a Burgundy or Merlot, the connoisseur needs to know that all brandy, including Cognac is also wine. Indeed, after a dinner party where excellent choices of wine has been drunk, a good brandy is often the after-dinner drink. Actually brandy is distilled wine.

Unlike other wines, brandies do not age once they are bottled, they only age in wood and so age becomes vital when you are selecting a good brandy. Read the labels although brandy labels can be misleading. For example such as "5-star" or "3 star." It's  VSOP (Very superior Old Pale) may be younger than the shipper wishes you to believe. They can in fact give this impressive title to a brandy that is merely four years old. And so, with this in mind, I suggest the best rule of thumb is to shop around and once you've found a brandy that you deem exquisite, stay with it.

Storing Wine


I know a lot of wine enthusiasts who collect wine. My friend Mark Pierce keeps his wine rack filled from his favorite Napa wines. I love it when he invites me over to sample a bottle or two. Like most wine collectors he's proud of his choices with some quite expensive and others under twenty dollars. Most wine is meant to be consumed shortly after purchasing it, just pop it open give it a couple of hours to "breath" and it's ready to be enjoyed. However, if you purchase, say, an excellent wine from Bordeaux, or Northern Italy or California, you'll delight in knowing that such wines do not come into their own for even fifteen years plus.

The truth, on the other hand, is that a great many wines are not going to improve in the bottle and are about as good as they get when the wine-maker delivers it from the keg into the bottle. Nevertheless, even a good wine should be consumed within three years after racking it. I know some collectors, however, that have large, impressive cellarswineCredit:, with bottles well over ten years old. I once had some special Bordeaux that I'd kept for over five years. I was anxious to share my grand prizes with some guests my wife and I had invited over.  But when I went to the wine cellar to collect a couple of bottles I was suddenly devastated. Those prize bottles of mine were cluttered with sediment. I looked at one bottle after the next and ended up throwing all of them in the trash. We ended up serving some Zinfandel that evening and everybody had an enjoyable time. I of course never mentioned my disappointment and tossing out what I hoped would be, if you will, my pride and joy.

I had made a vital mistake, however. I learned much later that even the most expensive wine will, over time, produce sentiment after a few years. This is a natural process and is not at all harmful. The professionals tell us, the best thing to do is take some cheese cloth and poor the wine into a different container so the sentiment can be thrown away and the wine you serve will be bright. What happens is once you disturb the bottle by taking it out of the rack, the sentiment will spread but then slowly fall to the bottom of the bottle. Nevertheless, its best to strain the wine into another bottle before serving for aesthetic purposes if for no other reason.

And speaking of the wine rack. (You can actually use an empty cardboard wine case or anything with slots but, for me, a traditional wine rack is most appealing and safest for your wine). It is, after all, essential to keep the bottles laying on their sides so that the cork stays wet and expanded. Also keep your wine out of the sun and even out of direct daylight. And, if you are very conscientious, keep your wine stored in a room that maintains a temperature between 55 and 60 degrees. Cold temperatures actually retard the wine's maturation! This also means to keep your wine away from heaters, stoves and so forth. And, be careful not to rattle your rack wine around since this too can harm the process of your wine's maturing properly. Don't worry, none of this is as difficult as it sounds: simply keep your wine rack out of daylight and do the best you can to keep an even temperature for your wine storage.

Random Q & A

Q:  What the heck are grape tannins?

A:   Grape tannins arrive from the seeds, stems and skins of grapes but also tannins are released into the wine from the wooden barrels it is fermented in.

Tannins are not restricted to grapes of course: They are common in nature and belong to bark, leaves, other plants, wood and most nuts. High tannins can also be found in tea leaves, spices like cinnamon, dark chocolate and even some beans.

For those who are interested, tannins are polyphenol.  For purposes here all we need to know is that both  phenols and polyphenols are important to the plants health and signals molecules in the processes of ripening and growing.

Q:   How much do tannins have to do with taste?

A:   A lot!

I favor  very dry red wines with the exception of Zinfandel which is typically lighter. Tannins are what give wine it's degree of dryness. My wife, on the other hand, does not like the dry taste.  In any case, the tannins is what gives wine its bitter and astringent tastes. This is why some folks stay with white wine, except for the tannins it picks up in the barrel, its pretty much tannin free.

Tannins are another reason to store your better wines over long periods of time. They mellow and so the wine gains a deeper, smoother character to relish in.

Q:    Just how important is it to "let wine breath" before drinking it?

A:    Absolutely, although red wines (especially the more complex ones) benefit much more than white wines.  Oxygen perks the wine, after all, and can smooth or mellow out a wine.        

Q:    How do I pick out a really good wine?

A:     Well, first of all, just because a wine is expensive doesn't mean it's superb or, for that matter, even good. I remember paying nearly a hundred dollars for a bottle of wine to celebrate a quiet evening at home with my wife. It was bitter and horrible! So horrible in fact, that we poured it down the sink and opened a nine dollar bottle of Zinfandel which was wonderful.

There is really no rule of thumb that can guide you to pick out a great wine because what I call great, you might think is mediocre and so on. This, however, is why tasting is important and trying different brand names while paying attention to the vintages. One of the fun but most frustrating elements in buying wine is that you can find a brand and bottle of wine that you absolutely fall in love with. When the year (vintage) changes, however, the taste and experience of that beloved wine can, if you will, never be the same again. So, with this in mind, if you find a wine that you dearly love, fill your rack with as much as you can afford. 

Here is one good hint about buying expensive wine: Remember my $100.00 bottle that ended up being so bad. Well, I was a pretty new wine enthusiast at the time and didn't pay any attention to the fact that the wine was on the shelf standing up. The cork was bone dry when we opened it and tasted it.

Q:   Should I never buy wine that's standing up?

A:    Not if you're purchasing an expensive, aged wine Remember, however, most wine sells for immediate consumption so it's just fine to buy wine off the shelf instead of from the rack. And yes, this applies to wines costing as much as $20.00 or $30.00 plus.

Q:    What is the protocol for serving wine?

 A:    Well, there really isn't any rules but there are traditions. Right off the top, you serve white and rose wines chilled. If you're serving an older, red wine that has been laying on its side for a long time you should stand it up and let it sit for an hour or more.

Red wine is supposed to be served at room temperature but I have my own opinion of that rule of thumb which I will share below.

Never serve red or white wine that has been left out over night. Red wines deteriorate in character and taste that's been left out but white wine can be saved for even a few days in the refrigerator. Incidentally, red wine left open can also be stored in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days. Refrigerated red wine is great to cook with.

Q:  What abut wine and food?

A:  If you're going to cook with wine, cook with a wine you truly like. As for so-called "cooking wine" have you ever tasted it? This applies to cooking with sherry as well. Don't go on the cheap just because you're buying wine to cook with.

You can, however, break some classical rules. The first one is that you don't have to serve white wine with fish. You can serve red wine if you prefer. (A Pinot Noir is light enough for fish). You can also shove many reds into the fridge and drink them cold as opposed to room temperature. After all,  wine is to be enjoyed.  That's the bottom line!


                                              wineCredit: w3ww     

Well, you, the reader, should be quite the connoisseur by now...especially if you put what you've learned to practice. The truth of course is that even the most knowledgeable wine professionals are still learning. So, if you are truly interested don't stop here, read more about wine and share information with other wine enthusiasts. Visit wineries if you can.

Both the making and collecting of wine is an art; an ancient art in fact that is a part of our human history and, as I suggested earlier in this text, probably pre-history.

I hope this article has opened some fun and fascinating widows and doors for you. In the meantime, a toast to all your tomorrows to come.




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