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The Four Pillars of Wine for Beginners

post #1 of 3
Thread Starter 

If you are a beginner in the wine world, there are four pillars that you should spend time getting to know.  They are Tannin, Alcohol, Acidity and Body.  Like "Y is sometimes a vowel, "Vintage" is often the 5th pillar.


Here's a quick course in the major wine pillars for all the beginners.


Cabs and Zin are good wines for beginners to start out with.  After all, Cabernet is the most popular wine in the world.  I like to think of it as the "Budweiser" of wines.  But, like beer, no one would ever suggest a Guinness to someone who has never tasted beer before, right?  Wine is no different.  That is why Cabs and Zins are good platform from which to take the plunge, so to speak. 


Cabernet is a good wine for beginners because it has good tannins and allows the beginner to experience those tannins without busting the wallet.  Most importantly, however, it allows the beginner to decide if they like wine with lots of tannin.  Tannin is what gives wine that slightly dry sensation.  However, tannin is often confused with alcohol which is what actually determines a wine's dryness.  Tannin is what gives wine its astringency and that touch of bitterness.  Tannin comes from grape skins and stalks.  Tannin is to wine as hops is to beer.  Some folks simply do not like beer with a lot of hops.  The same is true for wine drinkers and tannin.  For this reason, Cabernet is a good wine to familiarize the beginner with tannin to decide if high tannin wine is something they like. 


Zinfandel is another great wine for beginners because its a great wine to learn how alcohol effects the taste of wine.  Zin typically has a high alcohol content because it is made from fruit that is very ripe.  This is where the term "jammy" comes from.  NOTE: In the wine world, using the term "jammy" is like being that guy in the music store who insists on playing Stairway to Heaven.  NO STAIRWAY!   The high alcohol content gives the wine its "big" characteristics.  The higher alcohol content is what makes California Cabs and Zin seem "bigger" than their French counterparts.  Alcohol also determines a wine's dryness.  The higher the alcohol, the dryer the wine.


Another great "cornerstone" wine is Pinot Noir.  It teaches beginners what acidity is all about. It has low tannins and that allows for the acidity to stand out.  Acidity is that characteristic that makes you want to pucker like the way lemons do (just not as unpleasant).  But Pinots are something special.  Pinot grapes are notoriously temperamental and have thin skins (hence, the low tannins) which means they bruise easily.  They are more reactive to temperature and climate conditions than any other grape so consistency is always elusive.  But, Pinot Noir comes together in the glass like no other wine on Earth.  It is truly sunlight held together by water.  I usually recommend a beginner's first good wine to be a Pinot Noir. 


As for learning what "body" is in the wine world, Syrah is the way to go.  Syrahs are usually smooth and rich which is where their pronounced "body" characteristics live and breathe.  The same is true for Malbec, which is in the same category as Syrah.  These are the wines that turn your teeth purple.  Beginners should make a note of this wine because Syrah pairs nicely with lamb and many cheeses.  Once a few good Syrahs have been tasted, the next step in the category is French Rhone blends or a Malbec.  Keep that in mind for the next wine party. 


Once you are familiar with these four characteristics, then its time to start experimenting with different wines that have different combinations of these characteristics.  As the beginner becomes more familiar with the subtleties of these characteristics, their preferences will start to rapidly develop.  More importantly, the beginner will understand that every rule has an exception in the wine world.  For instance, one general rule is "you get what you pay for."  So, under this rule, the $65 bottle should be better than the $14 bottle.  Generally, yes.  But, I have had $14 bottles of wine that were better than the same wine from a different maker that costs 4 and 5 times the price.  Then again, I have had both $14 and $65 bottles of wine that were nightmares. 


This is where knowing your vintages comes in handy.  A cheaper wine from a better vintage is often better than a more expensive wine of the same varietal from an inferior vintage.  Knowing your vintages can save you lots of money (which, incidentally, is where my expertise comes into play).  Sure, anyone can find the $700 Bordeaux.  Just look for the big price tag.  But, why is it $700?  Often, the hefty tag is due to the reputation of the winery or wine maker.  But, even Jordan missed a few game winning 3 pointers.  The same principle applies in wine.  Wine makers may have god like powers, but, those powers do not extend to influencing the climate and soil conditions that effect grape growth and flavor.  Knowing what regions had good and bad years is very important.  These figures do not have to be memorized.  They are readily available with a simple google search.  But, being familiar with the good vintages and their respective regions can make even a beginner shine like a pro when it comes to picking a bottle for the dinner party from that huge wine list.   


Another good tip is when you order the wine, examine the cork.  You can be a show off and smell the cork if you like.  But, in reality, the reason for checking the cork is to make sure the end is stained with wine and the cork is soft and supple.  A dry, brittle cork is bad news. A cork end stained with wine means the wine was stored properly on its side and not standing up.  A supple cork means the wine was bottled properly and the likelihood that air got to the wine while being stored is practically nil. 


If you are the one that ordered the wine, the server will pour a modest mouthful in the glass.  Restaurants are usually dark so, checking the color is often difficult.  Swish the wine around in the glass and get your nose right in there and give it a good sniff.  Taste the wine immediately after giving it a good sniff and let it set in the mouth for a second or two before swallowing.  If you like it, give a nod and the server will pour for the other guests and come back to you last. 


Don't  be that guy who sits there and smells the cork, holds the wine up to the light trying to check the color in a dimly lit restaurant and for the love of god, do not suck air with wine in your mouth or swish it around like mouthwash.  Unless you are master somm who is being paid to rate a wine etc., you are pretty much signaling to the entire restaurant that you are complete tool (not to mention probably embarrassing your guests).   If you're in a top end restaurant, chances are very good the server knows more about that wine and wine in general than you do.  Its very tempting to go over board and show off a little when tasting a wine.  Someday, when I retire, Im going to publish a book that contains nothing but what servers say in the BOH about the guests they just opened a bottle for.  I'm pretty sure it will be a #1 best seller. 


If you are a beginner, these tips can help you along your way to getting to know wine and more importantly,  have fun with it.   After all, wine was given to us by the gods so we could add some fun to our drab, mortal lives, right?



"Wine is sunlight held together by water." - Galileo
"Wine is sunlight held together by water." - Galileo
post #2 of 3

I'm not a drinker so you can take me to task for any mistakes. 


I'm confused that you relate dryness to alcohol content. To the degree that alcohol increases as the yeast consumes the grape sugar, then yes, dryness (low residual sugar) and alcohol content are related. 


But grapes are not all equal in sugar (brix). So a wine from a lower sugar grape can have lower alcohol total and lower residual sugar. But by your explanation would not be as dry. 


Winemakers play other games with the sugar in a wine, sometimes adding extra sugar to create higher total alcohol or adding unfermented must later in sussreserve. 


So to me, judging dryness by residual sugar seems clearer than by alcohol content. Indeed sweet dessert wines can have high alcohol but would not be considered dry such as Ice Wine. 

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #3 of 3
Thread Starter 

Hi Phatch. 


That is a great question that is a tremendous point of confusion.  Thanks for asking. 


In technical terms, you correct.  The dryness of the wine is essentially the level of residual sugars left over after the fermentation process has stopped.  However, understanding the term "sugars" in the context of fermentation is essential to not getting it confused. Having said that, your method for determining a wine's dryness is 100% correct and spot on.  I do not mean to imply that you are wrong in any way.  However, over the years, when it comes to explaining this principle to beginners, I almost always lose them to confusion.  So, I have learned to simply explain it to them by simply stating that higher alcohol typically means a dryer wine.  


However, when someone who has a good understanding of wine, as you apparently do, I give them the following as an explanation.   


When the grapes grow, they accumulate sucrose, which is a byproduct of the photosynthetic process.  As the grape ripens, the accumulated sucrose is split into fructose and glucose. Depending on the grape varietal, up to 25% of the grape can consist of sugars. However, there are many types of sugars within the grape and not all of them are fermentable.  These residual sugars that are not fermentable, other than the sucrose and fructose, will determine the dryness of the wine.  When we think of "sugar", we think "sweet."  However, the sweetness levels of different sugars varies depending on the type of sugar.  The shorthand is alcohol and residual sugar levels share an inverse relationship.  Describing one is essentially describing the other.  That is precisely why your method is 100% correct as is mine. 


Yeast in wine making struggle to naturally produce an ABV above 13% - 14%.  Wine that has an alcohol content above 14%, like dessert wines, are almost certainly helped along during fermentation by the addition of extra added sugar.  This explains how you can have a sweet dessert wine that does not seem dry yet, has a high alcohol content.  The "sweetness" is actually not the grape's natural sweetness (or its natural residual sugars), but, rather, the added sugar, in most cases a syrup.  


Save for dessert wines, the fermentation process is either allowed to cease on its own naturally or it is deliberately stopped by the wine maker at some point along the way depending on his/her preferences and the type of wine that is being made.  In many countries such as France and Italy, in order to receive the state's endorsement i.e. Italy's DOC or DOCG, the wine maker must adhere to such criteria such as strict ABV levels depending on the wine that is being made. 


However, for the sake of the beginners, they would be safe in assuming a higher alcohol content wine is on the dryer end of the spectrum.  A great point in fact is a 14+% ABV Pinot Noir.  Pinot is categorized as a "semi sweet" red due to its inherent "sweetness," which means there are residual sugars left over after fermentation.   However, Pinots with alcohol at or above 14% can also have a "dry" characteristic caused precisely by the level of alcohol and lower residual sugars and, yet,  are still categorized as "semi sweet" wines.


Like I said, in the world of wine, there are always exceptions to the rules.  Dessert wines can be one of those exceptions to the alcohol vs. dry rule. 


I hope I have answered your question.  If you need anything else, please let me know. 



Edited by Virgil - 2/17/16 at 2:26am
"Wine is sunlight held together by water." - Galileo
"Wine is sunlight held together by water." - Galileo
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