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Let me say right away that I am NOT an expert on wine, just a fan. To me, wine is a beautiful and fascinating blend of nature, art, and science. All wines have some similarities: they start as fruit juice, generally grape but not necessarily, and over time they change into something more complex and interesting. But each wine is a bit different from the rest due to the grapes themselves, the containers used to age the wine, the blend of grapes used, the yeast, the length of fermentation, and the soil and climate or terroir where the grapes grow.
Wine doesn’t have to be complicated, and it should NOT be stuffy or pretentious. Wine “connoisseurs” have developed fancy wine talk to appear sophisticated, but don’t let them intimidate you. Wine is just expensive fruit juice. It’s also very personal in that your opinion is really the only one that matters. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good, and just because a wine receives high ratings from a wine magazine or shows up on wine lists at fancy restaurants doesn’t mean you have to like it. The best wine in the world is the one YOU like the best. I’ve tried $60 bottles of cabernet sauvignon that I didn’t like and $3 bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill that I loved. Try different wines and see what you like. You can easily spend the rest of your life trying new wines and never taste them all.
I’m designing this page as an introduction to wine. I’ll discuss some of the main grapes and styles of wine, a few wineries I’ve visited, and include links to a few good wine sites.
Types of Wine
There are two main divisions: varietals and blends. Varietals are named after the primary grape in the wine, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, or riesling. Most wineries outside Europe produce varietals. Consumers often prefer them because knowing the primary grape gives them a clue about the style and taste of the wine. Blends, as the name implies, use more than one primary grape. Popular in Europe, blends often take their name from the region of production, such as Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chianti.
Red wines generally come from red grapes. The winemaker ferments the grape juice with the grapeskins and seeds for a time, which adds body and tannins to the final product and darkens the wine.
- Cabernet Sauvignon – Popular in American wines, this is a bold grape used in strong red wines that often age well. It can leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste if drunk young due to the strong tannins, a compound in the grape skins.
- Merlot – Another popular grape in American wines, merlot also ages well but has a softer, fruitier flavor.
- Shiraz/Syrah – Called Shiraz in Australia and syrah elsewhere, this grape gives wine a spicy, bold flavor. My sister and brother-in-law love shiraz best.
- Tempranillo – This Spanish grape produces fruity, smooth wine that many Americans don’t appreciate yet.
White wines generally come from green or gray grapes. The winemaker separates the grape juice from the grapeskins and seeds before fermentation.
- Riesling – My favorite white grape, riesling produces a beautiful aroma or “bouquet” that can smell like fresh flowers, apples, pears, or peaches. Some wineries make their rieslings a bit sweeter than other whites, which is fine with me.
- Chardonnay – Perhaps the best-known American white, chardonnay includes some fruity aromas and smells but is generally drier than riesling and often aged in oak, giving the wine a smoky edge.
- Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris – Another dual-named grape, this one produces wine that’s generally in between riesling and chardonnay on the fruitiness and sweetness scale.
- Muscat – Often used in dessert wine, muscat produces an almost overwhelmingly sweet bouquet and very flavorful, sweet wine.
Sparkling wines go through a two-part fermentation process that gives them the bubbles. Generally speaking, “brut” signifies the driest sparking wine. “Extra dry”, strangely enough, is sweeter than brut. A few wineries produce an even sweeter variety than extra dry called “demi-sec” or an even drier variety than brut called “extra brut”. Either red or green grapes can produce sparkling wine. “Blanc de noirs” means white sparkling wine made from red grapes, often pinot noir. “Blanc de blancs” means white sparkling wine made from green grapes, often chardonnay.
- Champagne – The granddaddy of sparkling wines, all Champagne originates in the Champagne region of France. It’s generally quite good but pricy. Any sparkling wine that doesn’t come from this region is not technically Champagne, despite the
labels on many bottles.
- Sparkling White – Popular at celebrations but good anytime, many sparkling wines come from the various winemaking regions outside Champagne.
- Sparkling Red – Uncommon but interesting, a few wineries produce a sparking red wine.
Wineries to Visit
When we travel, Jenny and I love to visit local wineries. Some are quite large, but many are small and produce wines you’ll probably never see at your local retailer. You can find wineries in many places you visit if you pay attention, even regions such as Missouri and New Mexico that you might not normally associate with winemaking. Here are some that we’ve visited:
- Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington State – The largest and most beautiful winery we’ve seen, Chateau Ste. Michelle makes wines you can probably find on the shelf, including an excellent riesling. They sponsor wine events, a fascinating tour of the facility, and a wine club. The winery is in Woodinville, WA, a small city northeast of Seattle.
- Vivac Winery, New Mexico – Two brothers about our age opened Vivac Winery a few years ago in northern New Mexico near Santa Fe and Taos. Although small, they make great wines and have a classy winery that’s worth a visit.
- Torre di Pietra, Texas – Featuring stone architecture, friendly staff, low-cost tastings, great wines, and live music some nights, this beautiful winery near Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country is a great place to visit.
Here are some other useful wine sites: