In this rather lengthy installment, I will try to explain some of the classifications of wine and the different standards used in the industry. Sugar Codes, wine styles, serving various wines, and most importantly – wine and food pairing.

Sugar Codes

There a couple scales in use for classifying wines based on the taste-perception of sweetness.  A very dry wine regardless of it being red or white, will carry some level of ‘pucker power’ but due to the winemaker’s art, this pucker-sensation on the palate is balanced by acidity. Also saying that a semi-sweet wine will have been balanced by the way it feels in mouth and its interplay with other influences like fats, oils, spices, salt, etc. These various numbers and such aren’t arbitrarily assigned simply based on the winemaker’s palate alone – these sugar codes are precisely related to the “grams per litre” of residual sugar left in the wine after the yeast has had its turn during fermentation.

(0) or (XD)Very Dry or Extra Dry
(1) or (D)Dry
(2) or (MD)Medium Dry or Off-Dry
(3) or (M)Medium
(4) or (MS)Medium Sweet or Semi-Sweet
(5) or (S)Sweet

For example, a wine is given a sugar code of 1.  This means the naturally occurring amount of sugar per litre left after fermentation is between .5 and 1.5 grams.

Wine Styles

The biggest differentiators for the styles of wines are: alcohol content, sugar content and bubbles.

Table Wine

By no means the sole factor in the consumption of wine, the alcohol content in a traditional table wine is between 7%-15%.

A ‘varietal’ table wine by definition contains a minimum of 85% of that grape shown on the label. The winemaker is intensely proud of his vineyards so in practice, this percentage is closer to 100%.   Single varietals contain only one grape: Chardonnay, for example.  A dual-varietal contains two grapes: Cabernet Merlot.  Varieties of grape used in this style of table wine lists the prominent grape first.

A ‘blended’ table wine is a final product obtained by blending all sorts of wines together to try and bring out the total desired characteristic. Generic wines that simply say ‘table wine’ or ‘red wine’ without showing any other varietal are blended wines.  Wineries will often apply proprietary names to their own particular formulation and these names cannot be used by other wineries due to copyrights.  In Europe, many blended wines take the name of the region they’re from, for instance Bordeaux, Chianti or Burgundy

Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine is a white or rose wine that has bubbles or fizz or carbonation in it.

‘Champagne’ is from the Champagne region of France so it is their prerogative to be the sole users of that labeling.

Once a wine is pretty much complete and bottled, a winemaker may choose to add a little bit of sugar and a little bit more yeast directly into the bottle.  This will cause a second fermentation to happen. Certain types of yeast will start gobbling up the new sugar and poop out more alcohol; other  types of yeast will gobble up that sugar and fart out carbon dioxide!  This CO2 will remain dissolved in the now-pressurized liquid and manifest itself once the bottle is opened. A third thing that happens during this in-bottle fermentation is the production of schmutz called ‘lees’. Much like the aroma of freshly-baked bread, this lees imparts its biscuity flavor to the wine.   One to three years later, its time to remove this solid part of the yeasts cells’ membranes.  During the process of ‘riddling’ or carefully rotating the bottle until it eventually ends up cap down, the neck of the bottle is dipped in a freezing solution and the bottle is uncapped. This mass of goo is expelled from the bottle, a tiny bit of finished wine added to top the bottle back up and the final cork is inserted and caged. This methode classique is obviously time consuming and extraordinarily labor intensive – but naturally, it is a labor of love.

Modern sparkling wine undergoes its second fermentation in stainless steel vessels.  Still a French invention, this Charmat Method creates larger bubbles, not as complex a flavor, but the wines are in a price range that make them affordable for any-time enjoying, not just at special occasions.

Fortified Wine

Sherries, Framboises and Ports are each different types of fortified wine.  A wine that has had alcohol added to it is classed as a fortified wine. Sugar codes of 8-15 are possible, alcohol content is typically 10-17% and are best served on their own. Rich flavors of nuts, veined cheeses, dark chocolate and cigars (if this is your thing) typically compliment this style of wine. Mmmm! Rich walnut brownies with an ounce of port wine is one of my favorite Yuletide treats!!

Dessert Wine

There are sweet wines and then there are wines that are sweet.  A sweet taste to a wine can be sickly and flabby – like sipping maple syrup.  Although sweeter than table wine, a dessert wine not only balances this sweetness with acidity – the grapes themselves have been allowed to hang on the vine much longer than the traditional harvest. They develop unique flavors, riper intensities and a richer depth.  There is a fine line in the Brix level at time of harvest between many dessert wines: Late Autumn, Late Harvest and Special Select Late Harvest are three categories for dessert wine and each has its own certain something.

Icewine

Each harvest, select rows of the winemaker’s finest grapes are intentionally left on the vine so they dehydrate and mellow. The vines are carefully shrouded to protect them from predators. In the dead of a frigid winter night, when the temperature is BELOW -8°C, the rock-solid frozen grapes are only then carefully handpicked. Even the machinery used to immediately press these frozen grapes is frozen outside – all of this to prevent any of the ice crystals in the frozen grapes from melting.  The resulting Icewine often carries rich and intense flavors of honey, peach and hazelnuts. Only Germany and Canada have managed to produce icewine of unrivaled quality and both countries have some of the most stringent regulations for its production than for any other wine.

Serving Wine

Temperature

A white wine is almost always chilled. Chilling a white wine lowers the perception of sugar and brings forward the freshness of the product; just don’t chill it too much or you’ll not taste anything! Half an hour to an hour in the fridge for most whites, twenty minutes in an ice bucket for sparkling wine and you’re ready.  Chilling a sparkling wine too long will make the cork rather difficult to remove.

Red wine is best served at just below room temperature or ‘cellar temperature’. Too warm, the alcohol evaporates very rapidly leaving a weak and feeble taste. The exception are some lighter reds, like Gamay or Beaujolais Nouveau – these young and fresh reds taste much better if lightly chilled.

Glasses

Even the most novice of wine sippers love to swirl a pretty wine about in the glass. It dances and glimmers in its ruby or golden way and invites itself to be tasted and enjoyed.  But wow!  That crystal chalice fills the mouth before it can be tipped far enough to get at the wine. I’d love to see the wine but this frosted orange-colored glass with green curly-cue pattern is kinda in the way…

Thin glass allows for a more intimate tactile appeal on the lips, a narrow rim keeps the bouquet and the wine in the glass as you swirl, perfectly clear glass allow for full appreciation of the wine’s color and condition, and a sturdy stem prevents your hands from warming the wine too quickly.  Avoid touching the rim with the bottle – chipping or cracking the glass isn’t a desirable thing.  A glass whose rim is wider than its bowl is inviting the wine to be anywhere but the glass; probably on your shirt, the table cloth and everywhere else.

Wine and Food Pairing

“The object of the game is to enjoy the meal. Therefore, drink the wine you like with the food you like…”  ~Harvey Steiman The Essentials of Wine.

That being said, there are a few basic guidelines that can more positively enhance this experience. We’ve all heard “red wine with red meat – white wine with white meat.”  What about pink meats like salmon or the not-white/not-red meat of pork ribs??  Strict adherence to this adage will have you missing out on some wonderful combinations.

There are two other ways of pairing wine with food:  Power Balancing and Component Interaction

Power Balancing

As the name implies, the object here is to create a balance in the food and wine by pairing light foods with light wines and heavier foods with heavier wines.  Heavy foods are rich in carbohydrates, dense proteins and fats – pairing this with a tannic red will enhance both the body of the wine and the texture of the food. A fresh light food with a fresh and crisp white will accent each other’s qualities.

Component Interation

This method is a little more fun but might get a little complicated, but here goes…

All wines have four basic elements that have an impact on the food we eat: acid, alcohol, sugar and tannin.

Very tart wines can taste less acidic with food that is slightly acidic – like squeezing fresh lemon on a piece of fish.  Sweetness in food will make an acidic wine taste even moreso.

Alcohol in the wine creates the sensation of ‘body’ on the palate. Full-bodied wines tend to have higher alcohol and lighter wines less alcohol.  Salty foods can make the wine taste bitter while hot, spicy foods can make the wine and palate feel even hotter!

Sweetness in the wine can soften the heat of peppery, spicy dishes. Sweet in the food such as onions, carrots or beets can cause a sweet wine to taste acidic. When pairing sweet wine with sweet food, the wine should be the sweeter of the two else it’ll taste flat and boring.

Tannin is that puckery bitter and dry sensation in the mouth most often associated with red wine and strong rangy tea. Fats and oils greatly mellow this tannin. Salty foods can make a tannic wine taste almost sweet.

My Favorite Pairing Resource…

FoodandWinePairing.org has assembled a fun and interactive tool for basic pairing with everything in mind above.  The authors offer a couple choices for wines based on the food you want.  Total dedication to helping you get the most enjoyable experience from both your wine and your food.  Yes, they even have a reverse selector.  You receive a bottle of wine at your birthday or at Christmas and want to know what to eat with it to get the most of such a thoughtful gift; they have that here too!  Go there and play around.  Its one of my favorite links. Their site doesn’t offer any reviews on any wines – just pure and honest pairings. I love their site!  =D

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In the fourth and final chapter I’ll present a basic overview proper “wine tasting” and offer tips and themes and how to organize your own wine tasting event!

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***a formal bibliography will be published when all parts of this essay are complete and posted.  If you’d like references clarified for any statement presented in this dissertation, email thevinoboy@thevinoboy.com

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~tvb