18 September 2009

Getting into the Bottle

I have confession. I love wine. I love to drink wine. But what I love most is teaching about wine.

I teach a regular wine class for beginners at a wine store in NY called Bottlerocket. http://www.bottlerocketwine.com/ Most people come because they feel overwhelmed by wine and the hundreds, if not thousands of choices in restaurants, wine bars and wine shops. And what if you aren't multi-lingual? What the heck does it mean when a bottle says "Cahors"?

The truth is, wine is simple. I call this "The Two Things You Need to Know About Wine". All wine is either red or white. Wine is still or sparkling. Wine is dry or sweet. Wine is from either the Old World or the New World. All wine is labled either by its grape or geography.

So first, what is wine? Very simply, it is grape juice whose sugar has been converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast is the catalyst. The process is called fermentation.

If you are making a white wine, you press the grapes and allow the juice to run off the skins before fermentation. The color in your red wine comes from the skins which are left on the juice and leech their color into the juice. And yes, almost all grape juice is white (or clear).

Making still wine means that you've allowed the carbon dioxide (a gas) to blow off the fermenting vessel. For a sparkling wine, you trap the CO2, either in the fermenting tank (think Prosecco) or in the bottle (think Champagne) which forms the bubbles in the wine.

Dry wine is a wine in which all (or almost all) of the sugars in the grape juice have been converted into alcohol. Sweet wine is a wine that still has unfermented sugar left in the wine along with alcohol. (Both still and sparkling wines can be either dry or sweet.)

Old World wines come from Europe. New World wines come from places we couldn't get to until Christopher Columbus proved the world was round: The Americas, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

In the Old World, wines are generally labled by geography. Each geographical location has regulations regarding what grapes can be grown and used to make its wines. This is largely because of thousands of years of trial and error. The Europeans have figured out what grapes grow best where. So, if you're drinking red Burgundy, the wine will always be Pinot Noir. No other grape is allowed. Drinking white Sancerre? Always Sauvignon Blanc.

In the New World, geography is less important. There are fewer regulations about what grapes can be grown where, mostly because we've only had 500 years experience in winemaking, while the Europeans have about 5000. We're still learning which grapes are best suited to what place. So, it's about the grape in the New World. It's right there on the bottle. New World wines will tell you where the wine is from - California, Australia, Napa Valley, Margaret River - but the grape (or grapes) - Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon - is always listed, too, prominently and second only to the winery name.

Drinking wine is the ultimate sensual experience. Look, smell, taste, feel. What happens when you taste a wine you like? Very simply, the aromas and flavors light up the pleasure centers in your brain and make you happy.

What about a wine you don't like? I always start a wine class with a poll: Where did you grow up?, because regional and ethnic differences can play a roll in what wines you like.

I grew up on a farm where fresh foods - meat from our own livestock, vegetables from our garden, Mom's jams from wild berries, home baked bread - were served everyday. But, I also grew up in the south, where vegetables were likely served "casserole" style (read butter and cream), biscuits were made with Crisco and gravy topped the meat. When asked for a recipe in the south, the answer is usually, "I just added salt, pepper and sugar," (which is the secret to my scrambled eggs that my girlfriend's daughter loves more than any other).

I also grew up in the 70s and 80s, when canned was still in fashion, the hinterlands had few dining opportunities outside "fast food", and ethnic meant Italian. But, then I moved to NYC where you're ashamed to buy anything other than beans in cans, Zagats lists over 50 non-European restaurant categories and I haven't eaten any "fast food" in over 19 years.

Those experiences shaped my palate. As a child, I ate like the average American - salt, pepper, sugar and fat. As an adult, I learned to appreciate a wider variety of foods, because they were available (and ok, I do love to eat beautiful and exciting food).

Almost all of us start out drinking just one wine. One wine that tastes delicious to you, is priced fairly and available at the local liquor store. You drink it over and over again, because it's easy to keep drinking it -until one day, it just isn't as delightful as it seemed before.

(For me, it was a $9 bottle of Nuits-St-Georges -a red wine from Burgundy. And nearly 20 years ago, since you're unlikely to find delicious Burgundy that inexpensively in 2009! I drank that wine night after night until there literally was no more available in the whole city.)

So what now? How do you find another wine to take its place in the endless shelves of wines?

First: Drink what you love.

There is no judgment in wine tastes and anyone who tries to demean your taste is not your friend. If you like white wine, or sparkling wine or sweet wine, drink that.

Find a friendly wine seller. If you've been shopping regularly at a store and no one asks you if you need help or knows what you've been buying or what you like - stop giving them your money and find another store.

You should be on a first name basis with your wineseller. It is his (or her) job to know every wine on the shelf. It is also his job to know you, your tastes, what you like and to suggest other wines that you will like. If this is not your experience, refer to my earlier recommendation and find another wineseller.

Second: Be Adventurous

Here again, your friendly wineseller is invaluable. The wines you've enjoyed before will inform the route of your wine experimentation. If you have been drinking bright, electric white wines, you might not want your first bottle of red wine to be a heavy, inky wine.

Make a committment to yourself to try at least one new wine every week. That new wine might be a grape you love from a different country or something entirely new.

Happy Drinking - Decanted Diva

Next Post: Getting into the Glass