For many Americans, wine is a subject that fills them with undue anxiety and apprehension. We’ve been scared away from the wine world because we fear that we will make a “wrong” choice. Many restaurant goers shy away from looking at a wine list fearing that they will pick a bad wine, or a wine that you shouldn’t drink with their particular meal. Well, I’m here to help demystify the wine world in the hopes that everyone will learn how to appreciate this beautiful drink.
Let’s start off with the basics. When most people say “wine” they mean wine made from grapes. Wine is essentially a term that describes fermented fruit juice, so under that banner you could include wines made from a wide variety of fruits. People have made everything from strawberry wine to apple and even peach wine. In general though, when people talk about wine, they are talking about grape wine.
Wine could not be a simpler concept. Grapes are harvested when they are ripe, i.e. full of sugar, and then they are pressed in order to extract their juice. This juice is then allowed to ferment for a given amount of time. Fermentation is essentially a process whereby the sugars present in the grape juice transform into alcohol. If the grapes are particularly high in sugar content, then the resultant wine could be very high in alcohol content. California wines are often described as “fruit bombs” and as “big” precisely because they are made from sugar-heavy grapes and then allowed to ferment fully, i.e. all of the present sugars are allowed to turn into alcohol. The resultant wines are therefore very strong (think 14 percent alcohol or more!) and often complex in flavor. Though one potential drawback of these big wines is that the alcohol component completely overwhelms all of the other flavors, viz. all you taste is the alcohol.
Grape juice that is allowed to ferment completely, that is one in which all of the sugars are allowed to convert to alcohol, is considered a “dry” wine. There is no more residual sugar left in the wine, and so the wine will not have a “sweet” taste. Some wines are meant to be sweet and so the wine makers stop the fermentation process before the sugars have completely converted. Depending on how much sugar is left in the wine, it may be considered a sweet wine or merely an “off dry” wine. One way to tell if a wine is sweet or not is to look at the label and determine the alcohol content. A dry wine will have an alcohol content of about 12 percent and up. An off-dry wine will generally have an alcohol content of around seven to nine percent, and a sweet wine will have an alcohol content below seven percent.
Sweet wines are often drunk as either an aperitif or as a dessert accompaniment. Many people enjoy a nice sweet wine with food, however, and it certainly isn’t “wrong” to order a nice German Riesling with your spicy Asian spring rolls for example. The main thing to remember about drinking wine is that you have to listen to your taste buds. Don’t think about the wine label. Don’t think about what someone told you to drink, and don’t think about how much the wine costs. Try a wide variety of wines from different countries and at different price levels. This is truly the only way that you will start to learn which types of wines appeal to you.