Wine BasicsGrapes in Wine

Wine grapes are not like typical grapes.  They are smaller, with thicker skin, and contain seeds.  There are over 1300 known variations of grapes, but only 150 are used to make up the majority of wine we know and love.  The most common variation is cabernet sauvignon. 

It takes an entire year for grapes to ripen, and this is why wine is sold by year.  The year indicates
the season that the grapes were harvested and made into wine.  The word vintage originates from this harvesting process.  Vint in latin means winemaking, and age is the year it was harvested.  This is where the term 'wine vintage' or 'vintage of wine' comes from.  If NV - non vintage - is written on the bottle, this indicates that grapes from several years were used to produce that particular wine.  This is more commonly seen in Champagnes.

Single varietal wine is made with one variation of grape.  This is where most wines get their name, from the type of grape used to produce that wine.  There are different specifications, depending on the country, with the percentage of that varietal which is required in order to claim that it is of that variety.  Most European wines require that the wine be at least 85% to label it as single varietal wine.

When wine is made from several different varietals, it is called a wine blend.  Blends are made after the period of fermentation and aging.  If different grapes are fermented together, it is known as a field blend.  The most well known field blend is Port Wine.  However, it is most common that blends are created after the fermentation stage.  Another contributor to the name of a wine is by its blending process; only specific varietals blended at precise variations are deemed true.

Dry to Sweet

Some wines appear to be so dry that they seem to make your mouth stick to your teeth, as all of the moisture from your tongue has been sucked away.  Others are so sweet that the liquid seems to linger much like oil on your glass.  The unique flavors of wine depends on five prominent factors: acidity, alcohol, aroma, sweetness, and tannin.

Acidity of wine can range anywhere from a pH level of 2.5 to 4.5.  This means that wines can be as bitter as a lemon, or tart as greek yogurt.

wine oxidationAlcohol content gives wine the warming sensation.  This too can vary depending on fermentation periods and blending factors.  Alcohol by volume (ABV) can range anywhere between 5.5% all the way to 20%, from a light easy white to a strong port wine.  The most common wine ABV is between 10-15%.

Aroma compounds are what contribute to the various smells of wine.  This is what causes some wines to smell like flowers and others have a more fruit complex.  The complexities of the flavors come from the phenols, acidity, esters, etc. from the wine.  Each grape varietal generates a unique aroma compound at different levels. And the final aroma contributor is from the aging process.  Most wines are aged in barrels, and depending on the type of wood used to create the barrel, the various compounds released during the oxidation process of the wine is what gives it the uniquely rare nuttiness flavor.

Sweetness of wine, in contrary, is not actually determined by the sweetness of the grape itself.  It is determined by the amount of sugar used in production.  When wines are referred to as being 'dry', this usually indicates that no sugar was used.  Wines can also be extremely sweet, and meant to be served as a desert apertif.  These wines obviously require more sugar, in order to be given this effect.

Tannin is typically found in red wines.  This is what gives reds the astringent quality that is lacking in whites and rose.  Tannin in wines originates from the grapes and/or the wood barrel that it is oxidized in.  The grape tannin is found in the seed, skin, and stems of the grape.  Also, the thicker the grape skins, the more tannin is produced.  This is why tannin is more common in red wines than white, due to the longer contact of grape skins giving it time to dissolve in the juices of red wine, as thinner skins of grapes in white wines primarily get tannin from aging in wooden barrels.  The style used in winemaking can contribute to the tannin content of the wine as well.  Keep in mind that tannins also determine the aging quality of wines.  This is why red wines tend to age better than whites, as most whites typically only store well for 2 years.

Why do some wines taste drier than others?  Scientists claim that three of the five factors contribute most to wine dryness; aroma, tannin, and acidity.  Our noses are a primary contributor to the aromas of wine.  The sweeter the wine smells, the sweeter will be its taste.  Tannin uniquely effects flavor, depending on the palette of each consumer.  Some people have a higher sensitivity to tannin than others, based on the amount of protein contained in their saliva.  The more proteins there are, the less dry the wine appears to the consumer, the less proteins, the drier the taste.  Therefore, dryness of wines can vary from person to person.  A great way to reduce the taste of tannin is to pair these wines with salty and fatty foods.  High acidity will also contribute to the dry taste of wines.  The higher the acidity, the dryer the wine.  This is why some producers use sugar to counteract the acid flavors in the wine.

Wine and Food Pairings

Pairing wines with the correct foods can seem complex, however it is quite simple once the basics are broken down.  There are a couple of methods used to grouping tastes together.  Identifying the specific taste components in both wine and food is a great first step.  Also pairing complementary and congruent tastes together can be a quick way to establish groups.  Or there is pairing by the boldness of the two.  A bold wine will compliment well an equally bold dish.

Food can offer a wide variety of taste groups, but in working with pairing it with wine, it is only necessary to focus on 6 different tastes; acid, salty, fatty, bitter, sweet and spicy.  Wine offers three of these taste groups, being acid, sweetness, and bitterness.  Then pair each food dish with the wine that best fits the category.  Typically, red wines will be more bitter, and whites or rose will be more bitter.  If a wine is sweet, it will best be paired with sweeter tasting foods.

Another option is to find complimentary and congruent pairings of food and wine.  Complementary pairing, having fewer shared components, is finding the perfect balance of contrast in tastes, flavors, and even aromas.  Congruent pairing, having many shared components, tends to focus on accentuating the similar tastes found within the food dish and the wine.  Pairing in this manner can give you more options, depending on what flavors are being amplified.  Therefore, a good understanding of the taste components in the food is critical.  Then the combinations are endless, finding complimentary flavors, such as would be found in a salty/fatty and bitter, or congruent flavors like creamy sweetness.

Lastly, you can also consider the intensity of the flavors in wine and food.  Light food, however, can sometimes be deceiving as different accompanying sauces can offer a rich complexity.  Therefore, it is key to be aware of all tastes found within a dish before choosing the accompanying wine.  The fuller the wine, the better it will compliment richer food.  And light wines obviously go best with lighter foods.

As your tastes and pairings grow in understanding, the combinations can grow even stronger in the grouping of the various flavors found within the food which each wine can offer to enhance your palette experience.  But until then, you can stick with some simple guidelines which will offer you a more consistent pairing of your wines and foods:

  • -the wine should be dominant - the more acidic/sweet of the pair
  • -match the same intensity - neither should dominate the other
  • -focus on the sauce when pairing the wine, rather than the meat
  • -bitter wines go best with fatty foods
  • -red wines need to pair with full flavored (red) meats
  • -white wines go best with light (white) meats 

Keep in mind, finding the perfect pairings of wine and food can drastically enhance your meal experience.  Wine can open up the palette to savor all flavors found within your dish, instead of just the dominant one, therefore taking an ordinary meal to an extraordinary feast.