Know your wine before you plunge. If you are feeling satiated by my articles on food, then, here is something different for you. Let us talk about alcohol- the elixir of Gods from time immemorial. Even the pre-Vedic Hindu Gods and Goddesses used to immerse themselves in Sura and Somras. Often, I wonder, who that genius was who discovered alcoholic beverage for us mortals of the world. I pity those teetotalers who could never muster enough courage to have a swig or two (no offence meant) of this blissful drink.
Alcoholic Beverages- a Brief
Before we whine about wines and what the fuss is all about, a brief narrative on alcoholic beverages per se will be helpful, I guess. Alcoholic beverage can be defined as any beverage which typically contains (but not limited to) 3% to 50% of ethanol by volume (known as ABV). Well, there are some monsters fit for monsters only which contain more than 80% ABV. Denros Strong Rum, Balkan 176 Vodka, Absinthe Hapsburg Hardcore, Spirytus Vodka are a few from this category, the sales for which are restricted in many countries. What such outrageous quantity of ethanol will do to your grey matter is anybody’s guess. However, alcoholic beverages can be broadly classified into:
- Beer– Beer is an alcoholic drink fermented from grain mash. Mostly, it is made from barley and infused with hops which imparts its unique flavor. It is a naturally carbonated beverage, the carbon dioxide being produced during the fermentation process. The fermented mash is never distilled and gives an alcoholic content between 3% and 8% ABV.
- Spirits- Spirits are alcoholic drinks produced by distillation post fermentation. The base ingredients for producing spirits are usually, grains like malt, rice, corn or starchy produces like potatoes, tapioca or fruits containing sugar as in grapes. Whisky, rum, brandy, vodka, gin are examples of spirits. Alcohol content of spirits is kept not less than 20% and are usually in the range of 40% to 50% ABV, although some can be as high as 90% ABV.
- Wine- Wine is a naturally fermented beverage produced mainly from juice of grapes or sometimes from some other fruits like apples, peaches, strawberries, etc. Wine involves a longer fermentation process with natural yeast which grows on the grapes. The fermented liquid is aged for a long period of time (months and even years) resulting in an alcohol content of 9% to 16% ABV. Wine is an undistilled beverage. If distilled, it becomes brandy. The two main types of wines are still wine and sparkling wine (e.g.- Champagne) which can be further broken down into red wine (usually produced from red grapes), white wine (usually produced from white grapes) and rosé wine (produced from a mix of red and white grapes). Another class of wine known as fortified wine is a wine with higher alcoholic content of 18% to 20% ABV. Sherry, vermouth, port are some examples of fortified wines.
- Liqueurs– These are a very special class of alcoholic drinks which have a spirit base of whisky or rum or brandy or any other spirit, permeated or steeped with various herbs and/or other ingredients like fruit extracts, spices, etc. The recipes of liqueurs are strictly guarded secrets and the producers are often family owned businesses which had been producing and passing on the secret recipes to their following generations through several centuries. Some of the renowned brands are Tia Maria, Cointreau, Kahlua, Drambuie, Chartreuse and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Alcohol content of liqueurs typically varies between 15% and 55%.
The above information is just the basic structure for you to understand the different kinds of alcoholic beverages and what each category specifies. If I delve more into the details of each category, an entire encyclopedia would need to be written. Many of you are already quite well informed about alcohol, I am sure, but, my endeavour here is to help those individuals who have a taste for the finer pleasures of life but fall short of keeping pace with the elitists. So, the perfect subject of discussion is to know your wine.
Explore and Taste to know your wine
Oftentimes while watching a lifestyle show you may have wondered what those freaks called wine tasters do, rinsing their mouths with a sip of an expensive wine and making bizarre noises through their teeth. Well, let me assure you, they are not freaks. They are highly qualified masters who check the quality of wines in terms of clarity, aroma, flavour, body, balance, bouquet, harmony, note, etc. These may seem jargon to you, but the taster’s tongue and nose are supremely trained and attuned to each wine’s unique characteristics. If you are interested to know more about wine terminology, you can click here. But, why such a fuss to know your wine, when after all, the point is drinking and reaching a high? That, precisely is not the point. Wine is not supposed to be drunk like a fish. It is something extremely delicate and the right type of wine should ideally accompany the right kind of food such that they both enhance each other’s inherent splendour. Your choice of wine can either be a memory of fine dining experience to be cherished forever or you may end up ruining your dinner after spending a fortune.
Tasting wine and drinking wine are quite different. To understand wine you need to taste wine as frequently as you can. The more you do so, the more you will be able to appreciate its subtleties. Wine connoisseurs and enthusiasts break down what is going in your glass into five steps known as five “Esses”.
#1 See- This the first step while evaluating a wine. It is best done against a white background. Tilt your glass sideways. What colours do you see? Is it clear and brilliant or cloudy and dull? Remember, cloudy wine is a sure indication of sedimentation due to improper storage or handling. Is it thin and watery or is it thick and syrupy? These are the clues as to how the wine was made, grape variety, whether it was aged in oak casks and how long. A well-aged wine should be clear and thin. Young ones are more robust. As a general rule, color saturation tends to go hand in hand with flavor intensity.
#2 Swirl- Always make sure, you hold the glass by its stem and not the bowl. The reason being, the temperature of your hand should not get transferred to the wine (presuming, the wine is at the proper temperature) which may seriously affect the wine. Now swirl the wine around gently. This action breaks the surface tension of the wine and allows the aroma and flavour to blossom and fill the glass. Heavy wines will be deeper in color and generally more intense on the nose. Sweeter wines, being denser will leave thick, viscous streaks (called legs) down the inside of the glass when swirled.
#3 Smell- Now, don’t be shy and stick your nose into the glass and take a deep breath. What do you smell? Since aroma is a dominating part of your taste, this step is crucial. If you are new to wine tasting, start small. For whites- is it fresh and citrusy? Nutty? Floral? For reds- does it have a fruity smell? Is it more like raspberries or cherries or plums? Or is it earthy like mushrooms or gamey like meat? Now, if you can decode the basic aroma, dig a little deeper. Is this citrusy warm like a mandarin or is it cool like a lime? Is the fruit more like berries or peaches? The more time you spend with the wine, the more notes you will be able to discover.
#4 Sip– Here comes the fun and finesse part. It is here that the complex taste experience and characteristics of a wine actually unfolds. Take a small sip and slurp the wine through your teeth. Yes, it seems uncouth and noisy, but that’s perfectly fine. Now, move the wine around your mouth for several seconds before you swallow. What did you feel? Was the wine acidic (did it make your mouth salivate)? Or was it sweet? Was it tannic (bitter)? Tannic wine will create a drying sensation. How was the body of the wine? Was it light like water of thick like a syrup or was it somewhere in-between?
#5 Savour- Swallow and reflect on what you just tasted. What was your overall impression of the wine? What sort of flavours did you discover? Were they similar to the aromas that you found earlier before swallowing? The bouquet can be very different from the aroma you got on your palate. Did the wine seem balanced? Or did it have too much of something- too acidic, too bitter, etc.? Did the wine have a lingering finish? That is how long the taste of the wine stayed with you. Some wines can linger as long as a minute. In other words, could you keep tasting the wine for several moments after you swallowed?
Identities of individual wines depend on various factors like types of grapes used, climate, soil, topography of vineyard plantations, harvesting, production method and aging. Some of the most popular grapes for producing white wines are, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Albarino, etc. For reds, these are- Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah (also known as Shiraz), Malbec, Grenache, Sangiovese, Barbera, Tempranillo, Gamay, etc. Most wine bottles display the grape varieties on their labels from which that particular wine is produced. Hence, once you are through with wine tasting and know the grapes, you can have a fair idea of what to expect just by deciphering the label of the bottle.
Essentials to know your wine
France, as is admittedly the pioneer in production of luxury goods and fashion, also produces the best quality wines and the most expensive ones. Some other countries which produce great wines are Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA (California contributes 89% of the wine production of USA), Chile and Argentina.
In France, there is a governing body called the INAO: the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité. This branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture ensures quality for wine, cheese, and other food products. Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC certified by INAO is the highest and the most rigid class of wines in France. An AOC might be further specified for quality at this point, indicating a “Cru”, which refers to a specific vineyard or group of vineyards typically recognised for quality. A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year which was declared a very good grapes growing year. Hence, though not necessarily correct, the usage of the term “vintage wine” applies to any wine that is perceived to be old or of a very high quality.
Champagne is an AOC wine and is the only wine which is made by fermenting twice; once for production of alcohol and then again for carbonating the wine. It can be labelled as “Champagne” only if you are getting a sparkling wine made in the traditional method called Méthode Champenoise from grapes grown in the region of Champagne in France. The grapes should be Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and/or Pinot Noir. If it does not fulfill any of the first two criteria, it cannot be called Champagne but simply as sparkling wine. Champagne is often known as Celebration Wine because of obvious reasons. Champagne is never served in ordinary wine glasses but in special glasses called Champagne saucer (the bowl is spread out with a wide rim) or in Champagne tulip (the bowl is shaped like a tulip with a narrow rim) or Champagne flute. Champagne saucer is used during an informal gathering where it is supposed to be consumed quickly. But in a formal setup Champagne tulip or flute is used where guests are expected to savour the wine slowly. The slim bowl of the glass helps retain the aroma and effervescence for a much longer period. Some of the most famous brands of Champagne are Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Krug, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Taittinger, Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier, Piper-Heidsieck, and GH Mumm.
Some terms you will often find on the labels of a Champagne/sparkling wine bottles are:
- Brut– Brut means ‘dry’, that is, a Champagne with negligible or without any amount of residual sugar. Most of the highest selling Champagne/sparkling wine brands are “Brut”.
- Sec– Sec Champagnes are also dry but with a little bit of higher quantity of residual sugar than brut. Sec again can be categorised as Tres Sec which is the driest form, followed by Sec and Demi-Sec. Demi-sec contains significantly higher content of sugar, suggesting these are the sweetest of the sec varieties.
- Doux– At the extreme end of the scale we have Doux Champagnes. Containing over 50 g/l of residual sugar, these are sweetest types of Champagne that you can possibly buy.
Whatever you read above is just scratching the surface. But you are armed enough to commence your wine tour. Wine is like an enigma- the more you probe, the more will it reveal its secrets. So, sit back and enjoy the wondrous world of wines.