All right, you pretentious snob, here's your chance to load up on all the juicy factoids about wine that will blow away your friends and lovers. Anyone who drinks wine is something of a snob — how else do you justify spending 40% of the dinner tab on an accompanying beverage — but a few of us have the decency to be really big snobs. Once you've mastered the basics of wine, you can move on to wowing the party with your knowledge of specific strains of yeast, particularly good vintages, and the perils of storing bottles upright. We're here to move you into that stratosphere of wine connoisseurship with the help of some eno-trivia. Ultimately, you will learn the most about wine simply by drinking it, but we hope to kick-start your career as a truly knowledgeable sommelier.


By now, we assume that you know the basics of choosing a wine based on your preferences of color, dryness, and region. But if you want to increase your level of precision — and store of wine trivia — you should have a few more details about wine production at your fingertips. After all, it is the variation in production techniques that makes one wine different from another. A quick primer in winemaking, therefore, will allow you to announce impressively, "While I enjoy a full-bodied red, these new vintages seem to indulge in unreasonably long maceration, so the excess tannin makes them far too young." Of course, before you trot that statement out, you might want to know what the full-bodied reds are, what maceration is, and where tannin comes from. No worries, we're here to help.
  1. The Details of Production
  2. Leading Regions
  3. Classic Vintages

The Details of Production

We all have a basic understanding that wine is made from grape juice that is somehow chemically altered into an alcoholic drink. More precisely, though, the process is one largely dedicated to the regulation of sugar and tannin levels in the drink. The greater the percentage of sugar present in the grapes when they are harvested and then crushed, the more raw material there is to be converted into alcohol. Yeast is the active agent in converting sugar into alcohol, and the more sugar present in the grape juice, the more alcohol will result after the fermentation process.

Vintners are, therefore, highly preoccupied by the sugar percentages in their grapes as the time for harvesting approaches. This sugar content is measured by a unit known as the brix. What typically regulates the brix level of grapes is the amount of rain that falls immediately before the harvest. Think of how sweet a raisin is. Sucking all the water out of a grape will lower the degree to which sugar in the thing is diluted, and will jack up the brix level. Table wine is often about 22 brix, while dessert wines will have a much higher brix level. So understandably, vintners get very nervous about the weather close to harvest time. Why don't they just add sugar to the fermenting juice, which is known as "must"? Because experts and laypersons alike can often tell when the wine has been artificially sweetened — and it's just so gauche, darling!

When the grapes are harvested, they are pressed into juice. Machines have long since taken the place of pretty young maidens' legs, so ditch the romanticism. Once the juice has been extracted, the vintner then determines whether to make a batch of red or white wine. Since the juice of almost all grapes is the amber hue of white wine, a winemaker must consciously decide to make a batch of red wine. He or she does so by allowing the crushed grape pulp to sit together with the stems, skins, and seeds of red grapes. This process of maceration obviously adds the dark color to the juice, but at the same time, it imbues the must with tannin from the woody elements of the grape plant. Tannin is what gives red wine is distinctive flavor and what allows red wine, far more than white, to age gracefully over time.

Having thus collected the juice, the next step is to convert it into alcohol. The active agent in this process is yeast. Since yeast occurs quite widely in nature, it can often coat the skins of grapes and therefore convert any juice into wine "wildly." Vintners are clearly uninterested in leaving their expensive operations to chance, so they labor over what precise strain of yeast to use in their recipe since different choices will obviously lead to different results. Two of the most common types of yeast are Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces. The former is widely used in wine all across the world, while the latter — known in the biz as simply "Brett" — is typically confined to French wines and is reputed to create a meaty and gamey flavor.

Next, the nasty bits are removed from the juice by running the liquid through a bladder press or by swirling it in a centrifuge. A disinfectant is used to neutralize any contaminants, such as mold and bacteria, that may have been on the grapes — remember, they've just been sitting outside for ages, surrounded by bugs and dirt, and yeast isn't the only thing lurking on the skin. One alien that is particularly worrisome is acetic bacteria, which can turn wine into vinegar if not treated. The most common disinfectant is sulfur dioxide, which often leaves sulfites in the finished product. Many people are allergic to sulfites which is why bottles now contain labels warning of them. The fermenting "must" is then left to complete the fermentation process in either big steel vats or small wooden barrels — barrels call for a longer process and are harder to keep at the right temperature, but supposedly lead to a better finished product, which you of course will end up paying more for. Once the wine is properly fermented, the vintner still needs to pluck out all the remaining impurities, which can be done either by straining the product through cheesecloth or by introducing an element such as egg white, gelatin, or a type of clay called bentonite, which adhere to the impurities and pull them out of the finished product. All that remains to do now is to mature the clarified vino. The better vineyards will age the wine for years in oak barrels, which infuses the wine with positive woody hints.

Being familiar with this production process will allow you to engage more successfully in expert-like treatises upon any particular wine you may be considering. After all, a lower brix level might have eliminated the unfortunate sweetness of that new Merlot.

Leading Regions

Because the winemaking process remains relatively consistent across regions, the true source of regional variations comes from the quality and variety of the grapes grown there. Often a region will be known for a particular type of grape grown there, though any grape can be grown in any region. The different types of grapes that are grown in vineyards around the world are known as varietals.

The leading white varietals are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay grapes are considered excellent for making a refined wine that accompanies food well. California is thought to be an especially good source of these, as is the Burgundy region of France.

Sauvignon Blanc grapes — synonymous with Fume Blanc — are thought to produce a refreshing white wine that is good for dining al fresco. The Bordeaux region of France produces some very fine white wines with Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

The leading red varietals are Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. Zinfandel grapes can produce both white and red wines, though when referring to the white, the wine will usually be called White Zinfandel; just Zinfandel refers to the red wine. As with Chardonnay, California is considered a great region for Zinfandel, producing a spicy red wine that is full-flavored and robust.

Merlot grapes create a red wine that is slightly smoother and lighter than most, which agrees with many wine drinkers. If you are looking for a wine that will go over well in an eclectic gathering, try a Chilean Merlot.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are renowned for making a very heavy and rich red wine that accompanies hearty foods particularly well. Bordeaux is known for making excellent wines with Cabernet Sauvignon varietals, which age very well.

Pinot Noir is probably most famous as the varietal that forms the basis of champagne. As a red wine, though, Pinot Noir is slightly less robust than a Cabernet yet richer than a Merlot. Look for great wines with this varietal from Burgundy.

Syrah is a slightly less well-known varietal that has done particularly well in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. Again, this varietal creates a full red wine.

Classic Vintages

Once you have managed to whittle your choice down to a particular color, region, and variety of wine, the last decision you need to make is the vintage. In general, you should remember that white wines are typically ready to drink sooner, but also become too old more quickly. Red wines, on the other hand, take a few years to mature, but then last a good while longer. Oh, and wine everywhere had a tremendous year in 1990, so that's almost always a good choice. A good way to fake mastery of this element of the decision making process is to memorize a few classic years.

France: Reds Whites Too Young Anything after 1993 None Classics 1986, 1989, 1990 1989, 1990 Too Old Anything before 1977 Anything before 1987

Italy: Reds Whites Too Young Anything after 1993 Anything after 1993 Classics 1985, 1988, 1990 1988, 1989, 1990 Too Old Anything before 1984 Anything before 1981

California: Reds Whites Too Young Anything after 1994 Anything after 1997 Classics 1990, 1991, 1992 1994, 1995, 1996 Too Old Anything before 1983 Anything before 1987

If you decide to take your expertise to even greater heights, you should consult the Wine Enthusiast vintage chart. Also, most vintners will carry similar charts, which you can bring with you the next time you face the prospect of purchasing a bottle.