Wine, in its many forms, is essentially fermented grape juice. Wine can be traced back to many cultures, and the earliest wine jugs can be traced back to 4000 B.C. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans and other early cultures all were winemakers, albeit in a crude form. Over the centuries, wine production was refined and revised. Better growing techniques, irrigation, and Louis Pasteur’s experiments with fermentation improved winemaking, and new techniques in both wine growing and winemaking keep evolving for the latest makers of our esteemed beverage.
Wine can be made from any fruit – there are wineries in every state, though not every one features wine from grapes – including normal fruits like apples and berries, and those as exotic as mango, kiwi and pineapple. But the grape is the best-known of all the fermented fruits. Different grapes make different types of wine, and the size of the grape can often determine the flavor; the smaller the grape, usually the greater concentration of flavor. Skin color and thickness give the wine its color and its aromatic qualities. Dark skinned grapes make most of the red wines we drink, but with varying contact with the skin during the winemaking process, some red wines can make beautiful roses (or blushes).
The acid to sugar ratio determines the wine’s sweetness and alcohol level.
The climates of particular grape growing regions affect the flavor, aroma, acidity and alcohol level of the wines produced. Precipitation levels also determine what happens to the wines as their grapes grow. An early frost will ruin a crop, and heavy rains or especially hot summers can over soak or over ripen a crop quickly. Cool nights and warm days are ideal, but the variations in temperature around the globe can change any wine ever so slightly, and growing conditions in certain areas often dictate the types of grapes grown and wine produced. Usual growing seasons are in the spring to fall months. In the spring, the buds bloom. The grapes ripen over the course of the summer, and depending on when the fruit hits its peak, the harvest happens between early to late fall. The seasons obviously flip-flop between northern and southern hemispheres.
Wine terms can be simple and complex. The more you taste and the more you know the more complex a beverage wine can be. It’s all a matter of taste and experience. The wine experts at U.C. Davis (not but 40 minutes from the heart of the Napa Valley), have created a Wine Aroma Wheel, which helps clarify what you are smelling and tasting. The wheel is made of three tiers: with general terms in the center (fruity or chemical), going to the most specific terms in the outer tier (e.g. grapefruit or strawberries). These terms are not the only terms that can be used to describe wines, but represent ones that are often encountered by wine experts. Novice tasters often complain that they can’t smell anything or can’t think of a way to describe the aroma of wine. Fortunately, it’s very easy to train our noses and brains to connect and quickly link terms with aromas.
There is no incorrect way to explain a wine. While many people might notice similar aromas and tastes like berry, cherry and plum, there isn’t anything incorrect about saying that a wine exhibits aromas or profiles of sweet pea, bramble, violet or tropical fruit.
Wine tasting is highly subjective process. Everybody has a different palate, but there are three general guidelines for judging a wine’s character. The nuances of a wine’s appearance, smell and taste will increase your tasting pleasure.
You can tell a lot about a wine by studying its appearance. Pour the wine into a clear glass, preferably a nice crystal, like Riedel or Spiegelau, and hold it in front of a white background and examine the color. The color of wine varies tremendously, even within the same type of wine – white wines are not actually white; they range from pale green to amber yellow to brown. More color in a white wine usually indicates more flavor and age, although a brown wine may have gone bad. With red wine, time may improve the wine. Red wines are not simply red. They range from a pale aubergine to a deep brick red. As wines age they can change color. A deep merlot may start to pale or become a rich adobe.