Whether you’re just starting a job in the wine and bar industry or working as a server, this guide will walk you through all of wine’s basic concepts… and greatly improve your basic wine knowledge.
Here’s everything we’re going to cover:
- Wine’s Rich History
- Types of Grapes
- The Worlds Best Regions
- How To Make Wine From Grapes
- The Popular Types of Wine
Where to Start: The 4 Pillars of Wine
In simple terms, wine is derived from the fermentation of grapes. These aren’t your average grapes you’ll find in the grocery store either. Wine grapes are much sweeter, smaller, have different a skin texture, and contain seeds.
The differences in wine come down to 4 production factors such as:
1. Where the grapes are grown (region)
2. Which grapes are selected (quality)
3. How the grapes are harvested
4. The fermentation process
Essentially, these 4 factors make up the difference between the fancy wines served at fine-dining restaurants… and the cheap wines you’ll find at your gas station.
Are you a server or bartender?
If so, being able to suggest the best wine for a guest is a serving skill you should develop. Knowing wine’s tastes and aromas, as well as understanding which wines compliment different types of food, is all part of the job. The more you know about wine, the better chances you have at making more tips.
A Little History…
Wine is the oldest alcoholic beverage ever produced. Dating back as far as 8,000 B.C., partakers of wine believed that drinking alcohol was a religious experience. Christians, Jews, and even the ancient Greeks associate wine consumption with spirituality. Dionysos was the Greek god of wine, and Jesus drank wine with his disciples during his Last Supper.
Types of Wine Grapes
There are hundreds of different types of grapes used in creating wine, most of them being variants of red and white (hence red and white wine).
If you want to broaden your wine knowledge and expertise, the first thing you should do is learn about the key differences in red and white grapes… whether it be their taste or the level of tannins contained within them.
Red grapes are the most common form of grapes used in wine. The skins of these grapes don’t get removed during fermentation. Because of this, wine derived from red grapes is often drier in taste than white wine due to the tannins within their grape skins. Both red and white grapes provide great health benefits, but red grapes offer a bit more. Very dark red grapes (some even call them black grapes) are also used in red wines.
Fun Fact: Few people truly understand what tannins are. Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that come from the skins of grapes. They affect the taste of wine, with higher tannin levels creating a dry taste.
Tannins are also a natural antioxidant. They’re good for you and they keep wine lasting longer.
Before white grapes (which are really yellow-green in color) are fermented, their skins are removed. The removal of their skins prevent the tannins in the grape from affecting the wine. Leaving out the tannins creates wine of a lighter color. White wines are often sweeter than their red counterparts, and because of this are often used in cooking.
The Top 10 Wine Regions in the World
While wine is produced all over the world, this guide will only focus on the countries that make up the majority of wine production. The countries below are worlds leading wine producers:
- United States
- South Africa
Italy, France, and Spain have been the biggest producers of wine for centuries. Collectively, these three countries still produce close to half of all the wine in the world. The United States, however, is not too far behind.
Now you might have heard someone talk about the “character” of a particular wine. The terroir of a region is what makes up the wine’s character. Terroir is the culmination of the factors that can affect wine production, such as the type of soil used, climate conditions, and farming techniques.
Italy is the largest producer of wine in the world, though the crown often switches between them and France. While vineyard production has been down over the last several decades due to Italians lessening desire to drink wine, there are still over a million vineyards currently cultivated in the country. Twenty different regions in the country produce wine in Italy, each with slightly different climates all leading to slightly different tastes.
France is the second largest producer of wine in the world, and they too are cutting back on their vineyard production. Like the Italians, the French people drink less wine than in years past. Instead, they seem to be putting their money towards more expensive wines. There are many regions in France that produce wine, however these regions are less concise than in Italy. For the most part, the northern regions focus on white wine production and the southern parts focus on red wine. France’s wide range of climates have allowed for quite the diversity in wines produced.
While Spain doesn’t produce as much wine as the neighboring countries of Italy and France, the Spanish do surpass them in another category. Spain has almost three million acres dedicated to vineyards – the most in the world. However, the regions yield fewer grapes than Italy and France, leading to overall less wine production. While most regions in Spain produce red wines, the northwest regions produce most of their white wines.
#4 The United States of America
Most of the wine produced in America comes from only a few states. California leads the charge, producing 84%. While there are vineyards all over the country, the west coast of the United States is where most of it is produced.
How To Make Wine From Grapes
Below is the wine production process, starting with grapes and ending up with bottled wine.
Step 1: Harvesting Grapes
Picking the grapes used in wine production is no easy task, and is normally done in two different ways…
- Machine Harvesting
One issue harvesters run into are with grape stems. Removing grape stems can be a laborious process. If you’re going for speed, powerful technology can help streamline the cultivating process. Large mechanical harvesters strike grapes to dislodge them from their stems. But while these machines can cover a great area in a short period of time, they aren’t perfect. Leaves and other small debris can sometimes get collected.
- Manual Harvesting
Because of the inefficiencies of mechanical harvesters, many vineyards prefer using manual labor to pick grapes from their vines. Manual harvesting helps prevent selecting clusters of grapes that aren’t ripe or are moldy.
Step 2: Fermenting Grapes
Once the grapes are collected, the fermentation process begins….
Fermentation begins by gently pressing the pulp of grapes to release the liquid while at the same time adding yeast. During this process, the yeast converts most of the sugars in the grapes to alcohol. This process can take anywhere from one to two weeks.
Red wines need to ferment at much higher temperatures, usually between 80–90o F. White wines, on the other hand, ferment much cooler – around 50o F.
Step 3: Storage
From here, wine goes into a barrel, bottle, or even a storage tank. What happens next is something the French call “élevage.” This word describes what you’ll be having to do next – “wait around.”
This waiting around period can last for weeks or even years, depending on the producers preferences. There is some debate amongst the wine community about how long to wait, but studies have shown that after about five years the taste doesn’t change much.
The Different Types of Wine
There’s over 10,000 types of wines produced in the world… and while we can’t list them all, we’ll walk you through today’s most popular lineup.
Popular Red Wines
The most common wine consumed in America comes from the legendary Cabernet Sauvignon grape. The dark grape used in this wine has strong levels of tannins, creating a dry taste, making it the perfect compliment to red meat meals.
The Pinot Noir grape offers a lighter body with less tannins, resulting in a fruity tasting wine. Because of these flavors, Pinot Noir pairs very well alongside cheese. If you’ve ever been served wine and cheese, chances are the wine was Pinot Noir.
Merlot’s taste sits somewhere in the middle between Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. It’s mostly dry taste gets offset by a hint of fruitiness. The grapes used in this wine get their name due to their deep red color. In French, the word “merle,” means “little blackbird.” The tannins in this grape provides a smooth aftertaste.
Bold, rich wine with a dark fruit flavor. Often found and produced in Australia.
Popular White Wines
Chardonnays have a dry yet citrusy taste. Chardonnay pairs nicely with various types of seafood, including crab and lobster. This grape is one of the easiest to grow, making it the perfect kickstarter for those who are exploring new wine operations.
If you’re looking for strong fruity flavors with your wine, Sauvignon Blanc has you covered. In addition to the fruity flavors, Sauvignon Blancs have even been known to integrate mint/grass aromas into the fermentation process. The name comes from the french words for wild (“sauvage”) and white (“blanc”).
Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio)
Pinot Gris, also called Pinot Grigio, has higher acidity levels than other wines, leading to slightly spicier tastes. Many Pinot Gris also offer a subtle floral aroma to balance out its spicy flavoring. This wine goes best with food on the bitter side.
Sweet, fruity, and like the Pinot Gris but very high in acidity. Acidity levels combined with strong fruity flavors can be overwhelming for some.
Other Types Of Wine
These wines are quite popular in the U.S., although they’re still less common than both red and white wine. Think of Rosé’s as the middle sibling of red and white wines. Sometimes, rosé wine is created by simply mixing red wine with white wine.
Zinfandel (Red or Pink)
Grown only in California, this wine has a unique spiciness to it.
At the end of the day, wine is one of the easiest drinks to understand.
While many alcoholic beverages take some time for their tastes to be acquired, wine is one of the easier ones to adapt to.
The next step to increasing your wine knowledge is to taste and explore all the different types of wine, and see how they pair with various foods.