I find that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about wine. Far too often I hear people tell me they really like wine, but they don’t know anything about it. I also hear a lot of opinions about wines based on some percieved notions about how sweet or dry, or how dark or light a wine is. I also dislike wine snobery based on a single origin. For example, I recently had someone tell me they only drink Italian wines. I asked which type, and they said they didn’t care, it just has to be Italian. While I’m sure this is based on a good experience with an Italian wine, not all Italian wines are created equal. Also, this perspective on wine assumes all other wines are not fit for consumption, which I strongly disagree with.
Wine is basically fermented grape juice. Anyone familiar with bread baking will be familiar with how yeast works. Yeast is a living organism which, in the case of wine, occurs naturally on the grape skin (although some wine makers use lab grown strains of pure yeast instead of “wild yeast”). Yeast consumes the sugars present inside the grape, and converts it into carbon dioxide and alcohol. When the alcohol level hits around 15 percent, it kills off the yeast. Now picture the classic episode of I Love Lucy, with Lucielle Ball stomping on grapes. I bet you didn’t know all that science was going on at the same time.
As for grape types, red grapes traditionally need a slightly longer growing season, therefore wines from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the Napa Valley in California tend to be made from red grapes, while colder climates tend to favour white grapes. Remember, also, that it is the skin that colours a wine, so it is possible to drink a white wine made from red grapes.
The weather can also play a major roll in how a certain vintage (year the wine was made) turns out. Frost can wipe out a crop, drastically reducing the amount of wine produced in a certain area. Windstorms, too much or not enough rain, all wreak havoc on the outcome of a crop. Consider, also, that grapes have a higher amount of sugars, acids, and water at different stages in their growth. If you were to try a grape off a vine early in the season, it would be very dry and acidic. A grape pulled from the same vine later in the year will have had time to develop more sugars (called Brix by winemakers). Too much rain before a grape is pulled will give you a very diluted, watery wine. Not enough rain will give you the opposite effect. A wine specialist will want to keep this in mind when choosing a certain wine from a certain region, with a certain vintage.
For the beginner, I would suggest trying to get familiar with whatever wines are locally available to you. Try different wines from the same wine growing region until you find one or two that you personally like. If the “experts” are raving about a wine that you find tastes bad, then don’t drink it. One of the worst wines I’ve ever tasted was an award winning fruit wine from a highly esteemed winery. I’m sorry, but if I think it tastes like cough syrup, no amount of flowery description will make it taste any better.
So what do you do with a wine you have sampled but don’t particullarly care for? Use it to cook with, of course!