There are certain things you need to know in life to be a successful and functioning adult human: how to change a tire, how to play poker, how to do laundry, how to handle your finances, basic cooking skills (lustforcooking.com!), AND, basic knowledge of liquor and wine. This blog series is about wine. You don’t have to be a sommelier (sommeli-what?) to appreciate amazing wine. Unlike distilled liquors and beer which are designed to taste exactly the same with every single bottle you buy, every wine bottle is distinct. Not just every different wine label or different vintage; every single bottle tastes, smells, looks, and feels different. This is because wine is a living thing. Millennials drink more wine than any other generation. They are changing the wine industry and how wine is sold. If you want to keep up, keep reading.
So if you love wine but still buy bottles based on the picture on the label, then this is the blog for you. I’m not going to make you an expert or a snob, but I will make you wine-intelligent. In the next few posts I will give you enough wine knowledge to understand how to read a label, how to order, what makes a bottle good (or awful), which grapes are which and how they behave, how to taste wine, how wine is made, and provide just enough lingo to make sure you never sound like a jackass while out at a nice restaurant with your lady (or dude or whatever).
So you’re like, “Hey Dude, that’s all fancy and stuff, but I just want to know how to pick out a bottle to impress my date tonight.” Not. A. Problem.
Part 1: How to read a wine label.
Buying wine based on the pretty picture or clever name on the label is like buying a beer because the beer can turns blue when it’s cold. Wine label scribblings may seem random, but they actually contain key info that wine-intelligent people will examine to determine whether the wine is worth purchasing. And that is key. Wine is investment. Some investments go bad. Think of the label as the stock portfolio. Don’t be afraid to examine it and make a calculated risk. Here’s a basic label:
Please don’t sue me if you work for Aardvark. This is just an example. In this example, the label is giving you five (5) pieces of information:
Winery: Aardvark. This is the company that produces the wine. To be clear, wineries don’t necessarily grow or pick grapes. Many wineries don’t grow grapes. Wineries take grapes, most often grown by someone else, and produce wine with them. The best wineries are small and family owned, many going back multiple generations. “Bad” wineries are large corporate models that buy up small producers and sell cheap bottles en masse. Look up the winery you are buying from. It doesn’t take 1,000 employees to produce wine. The best wine typically comes from one lady (or dude) with her/his hands stained purple from playing with grapes all day.
Vintage: 2000. This is the year the grapes were harvested, meaning picked off the vine, not the year the wine was bottled or the year the bottle was released. Grapes typically grow from May to August of each year and they are generally harvested in September (with variations based on grape and location). The vintage is important, because weather greatly affects the process of growing grapes. Some years have better weather for grapes than others, and this will affect the quality of the wine. That’s what they mean by a “good year” or a “bad year.” In order to state the vintage, 95% of the juice used must be from that year’s harvest. Like scotch, wine gets better with age, but unlike scotch, wine peaks and eventually decays in the bottle. A rule of thumb is 2 to 10 years. You don’t really want a wine with a vintage less than 2 years ago. At 5-10 years you are almost guaranteed an amazing experience (depending on the grape), for an amazingly high price. After 10 years you are pushing your luck. More on how wines are aged in later posts. A trend as of this writing is un-aged, “natural” wines that are bottled and sold the same year they are harvested. Some producers probably do this extremely well, basically making Welch’s grape juice with alcohol (please don’t sue me Welch’s). But if you sense my sarcasm, it is because I believe the best wines mature in flavor with aging. Don’t be afraid of dust on the bottle.
Varietal: Pinot Noir. In wine lingo, “varietal” is a type of grape that has been made into wine. “Variety” is a type of grape still on the vine. This label is telling you that this bottle contains the varietal Pinot Noir that was harvested in the year 2000. In order for the winery to put a single varietal on the label, the bottle must contain at least 75% of that varietal. This is important, taken with the vintage, because some varieties do better in certain years. More on characteristics of varietals later. Different varietals age differently, and most importantly, taste different. Speaking of characteristics, American wines are categorized by varietal. In fact, this is a uniquely American concept. European wines are always based on region with multiple varietals from that region blended in each bottle. More on that later.
Appellation: Carneros. Napa Valley. This is the location the variety was grown. There are actual laws that govern which regions can call themselves an appellation. Different appellations typically specialize in different varieties based on their climate. This label is telling you that this bottle contains Pinot Noir grapes, harvested in the year 2000, from the Carneros Appellation in Napa Valley, California. In order to put an appellation on the bottle, the bottle must contain at least 85% of its juice from varieties in that appellation (if it just says the state, then 100% must be from that state). Certain labels may get even more specific and state that the bottle contains varietals not just from a single appellation, but from a single vineyard. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. After all that vineyard may contain horrible soil and grow crappy grapes. But what the winery is trying to tell you is that all the grapes come from the same soil, good or bad. Wine-intelligent people are obsessed with terroir, a word that means the differing characteristics of varieties that come from the specific soil in which they are grown. More on terroir later.
Alcohol Content: 13.8% by volume. Now the fun stuff. American wineries are required by law to put the alcohol content on the bottle. Wines range from 10% to 15%. This isn’t just a measurement of fun you’ll have after drinking the wine. It’s actually a clue as to the wine’s flavor. Wine is made by breaking down sugars in grape juice with yeast to make alcohol. The more alcohol a bottle contains, the less sugar. This means that dry (not sweet) wines will have a higher alcohol content than sweet wines. There are exceptions to this. More on how wine is made later.
Let’s briefly look at another label:
Apart from displaying a Caymus label as a not so subtle advertisement for an incredibly great winery (seriously) take a look at this label applying your new knowledge. Notice anything? No vintage right? That probably means that this bottle contains grape juice from multiple vintages. Not a bad thing. The label is telling you this bottle is Cabernet Sauvignon from multiple vintages produced by Caymus. Notice anything else? What the hell does “Estate Bottled” mean? In wine parlance, this means the winery (Caymus…delicious) grows its own grapes, and the wine in this bottle comes from grapes grown on the Caymus Estate.
A note on price: I’m deviating a bit here because the price won’t be on the label, but the heart of this post is how to pick out a bottle, and the price is crucial. Price of the bottle depends on many factors, including where you buy it. Wine is always cheapest in the grocery store. You can buy perfectly fine wine in the grocery store for as little as $10, but if you want to get serious, a good beginning price point is in the $15 to $30 range. An individual’s price point depends on experience (and, yes, funds). It’s true that the more you taste, the more expensive your taste will become. Not because you become a snob (hopefully), but because wine is subtle. Without a lot of experience to go on, anything over $30 is probably going to taste the same. And that’s OK! There are great inexpensive bottles out there. At a certain point wines hit a price cap and often get more expensive just based on the label. Don’t fall for it. I’ve had $30 bottles that were SO MUCH BETTER than a comparable $80 bottle. If buying at a grocery store or liquor store, decide your own personal price range and stick to it.
But the first time a more expensive bottle blows your skirt up, you’ll remember. And that’s when you’ll know that your own personal price point just went up. I recommend you save those glorious moments for wine-tasting at a winery (not arbitrarily buying from the grocery store). The only time you really want to shell out for a bottle is for an old wine, or for “limited reserve” or “small lot” wines, which are bottles the winery has set aside based on their belief that they have achieved top quality, and can’t be mass produced. These bottles are almost always sold only at the winery. So if you are buying bottles at the winery, take the winemaker’s recommendation and don’t be afraid to splurge. But really the most important reason to buy any expensive bottle is always because you LOVE IT.
More delicious wine knowledge is coming. Stay tuned to Lust For Cooking.