Since part of the purpose of this blog is to help my friends pick out wine, I wanted to offer a visual for how reds move from light to dark. So I came up with this:
And though it is accurate, a quick search revealed that Wine Folly had done a much more informative and easy on the eye version:
Before going any further, I should make clear that I owe Wine Folly founder Madeline Puckette so much, even at this early stage of the game. Her text (written with Justin Hammack) The Essential Guide to Wine is an incredibly useful and thoughtful resource. Well organized and with enough information to educate— but not so much as to overwhelm— this book offers insight for the novice but ambitious wine drinker. I’ve actually gone so far as to print out pages for reference when I have folks over to do tastings.
Okay, back to the info.
If you look at the scale and commit a few names at a time to memory, you’ll eventually start associating names with colors and flavor profiles, especially if you take some time to look at maps. Those northerly latitudes will give you very different flavors than the warmer southern climes.
When I talk to people about why they drink whatever they’re drinking, (especially with red wines) it usually comes down not to fruit or acid or food pairing, but to boldness- “I like big wines” or “Petite Sirah is too much for me”. What does that even mean?
Boldness comes from a few things: the kind of grapes, the climate the grapes are grown in, when the grapes are harvested, and what happens during the crushing and fermenting. All of these things influence taste, aroma, and alcohol content. Those things contribute to where you get a sense of boldness (or not) from.
Taste is a combination of several factors: flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel. Mouthfeel is influenced by tannin content, acidity, and alcohol level. We’ve all had a red wine that sucked our salivary glands dry. Some white wines have a slippery or oily feel to them. I once had a Pinot Noir that went down like spiced silk. Alcohol content can add to these sensations, sometimes presenting a feeling of heat as the wine is swallowed. Other people get prickling sensations on their tongue or down their throat. The more sensation we perceive, the bolder a wine tends to come across.
Even more than grape variety, tannins are perhaps the most influential contributor to a wine’s boldness. A wine’s pigment and astringency come from the skins and seeds, which are rich in phenolic compounds called tannins. (There are other phenols that are not tannins, fyi. ) Wines that are bold tend to be tannic (there are notable exceptions, like certain jammy “fruit-forward” wines that have purposely been crafted to be less astringent, yet have to be considered bold because the flavors are gigantic).
The grapes are smashed, pressed (with few exceptions…looking at you, Beaujolais) and left to macerate for a length of time to get all of those wonderfully puckery astringent phenols out of the pulp, skins, and seeds. When the fermentation is finished, the wine is then usually transferred to another vessel, where it is carefully aged and fined- aka, problem solving to give the wine the best possible quality of taste, aroma, stability, clarity, etc.
The more sugar is in a grape, the more alcoholic the wine will be, by and large. Grape juice is turned to wine when yeast munches away at the sugar and leaves ethanol as a byproduct. Most dry red wine is fermented until all the sugar (or nearly all) has been consumed.
Since warm climates tend to produce grapes with more sugar, you’ll tend to get higher alcohol levels in wines from hot weather zones. Higher alcohol, bolder sensation during consumption. *makes sizzling sound*
There is also an evolutionary aspect to the distribution of bold wines to certain regions: the goal of the plant is to make more of itself, and that occurs when animals eat the fruit and then poop out the seeds (nicely put, Emily), thus essentially planting and fertilizing a copy of itself. Evolution dictates that plant native species enjoy eating will propagate robustly. The less sweet grapes didn’t make the cut with the animals of Gaul and Iberia. Like many of us, they preferred the sweeter fruit, possibly because it offered more calories.
How to proceed? Well, next time you’re drinking a glass of your regular, look up where it comes from. Then, either pick a region adjacent to it (so if you’re in Napa, try Sonoma, or heck, go crazy and head north to Willamette) and try a new variety from there. You can also spin the globe and try the same variety from a place that is in the same latitude but on the other side of the world! (the above map is helpful there) Maybe you’re drinking stuff from Bordeaux or Burgundy (which is undeniably a great plan for life), go bonkers and try a wine from Long Island or the Finger Lakes region of NY. Hell, if you’re feeling deeply nerdy, go geologic and see where the plates used to be. Go on a terroir matching spree- find shells and chalky soil from the same dried lake bed thousands of miles apart.
In conclusion, the end. Enjoy this wonderful gif of two dudes driving over a bumpy road in a car full of grapes. Whee! I’ll see you next time, to talk about drinking habits and why I may actually be a stealth European.