Before You Buy Your Wine

IMG_0063Okay then, now that you’re familiar with the basics, let’s explore some more facts about wine that will make you look like an expert and really impress your friends…

What’s in a Name?

Wine stores can be a bit overwhelming.  Usually the reds and whites are separated but after that you’re on your own.  Here are some tips:

Wines are grouped in two ways – either by the variety of the grape (for example Chardonnay or Merlot), or by the place or region where the grapes were grown and the wine was produced (such as California).

Wines named for their grape variety are called varietal wines.  The two most popular grape varietals are the white Chardonnay and the red Cabernet Sauvignon.  To keep wine labels honest most wine-producing countries have an appellation or wine-categorization system that, among other things, sets out the minimum percentage of the grape variety that a varietal wine must contain in order to be called by that grape’s name.

Vintage is the year the wine is made and is another thing that confuses most people before they buy.  Is there a big difference between wines of different years?  The answer lies in the quality of the grape harvests in those years.  Grapes and their crops are subject to droughts, pests, level of sun and rain levels, all of which affect the taste of the wine.  A good year that produces a plentiful harvest of excellent grapes is praised as a top vintage year.  Wine experts keep tabs on each year and rate how each varietal from each region fared.  These are called vintage charts and most wine stores keep one handy.

Wine “buffs” often toss around the French concept of terroir (pronounced ter-wahr).  It just means the unique combination of each vineyard’s natural factors:  soil, climate, altitude, length of seasons, and even the slope of its hill.  Changing these characteristics can produce strikingly different wines from the same grape variety.

Notes on Reading a Wine Label:

Wine labels provide technically accurate information about its contents.  They help narrow the choices down when deciding what bottle to buy.  A wine label will not necessarily show all the following elements but will almost always show the country of origin and the winery.

Country of origin:

The country that produced the wine.

County or region:

The locality that produced the wine.  American wines may list the state first before the region; for example: California, Napa Valley.




The winery.


The year the grapes were grown, harvested, and made into this wine.


The government-sanctioned locality designation that ensures minimum production standards.

Alcohol content:

The amount of alcohol in the wine.  Generally it is twice the concentration of beer and a fraction of that of distilled spirits.

Special terms:

The expressions “Estate Bottled” or “Produced and Bottled by the Winery” mean that the winemaker took great care to create a distinctive wine by controlling the process from growing to bottling.  Expressions such as “Reserve,” “Barrel-Fermented,” and “Cuvee” may sound good but have no fixed meaning and do not necessarily indicate that the wine is special.


About Wine bottles and Glasses:


The shape of the wine bottle can tell you right off the bat what kind of wine it is.  A Cabernet or Merlot wine bottle from Bordeaux or elsewhere has a distinctive shape that winemakers call high-shouldered.  French Beaujolais, red Burgundy, American Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay traditionally come in slope-shouldered bottles.  Tall skinny bottles are used for Riesling wines.


The shape and size of your wineglass can, believe it or not, have an impact on how a wine tastes.  As a result, wineglasses come in a variety of sizes and shapes.  The most important thing when choosing a wineglass is that it be designed to show off the aromas of the wine when you smell it.  A long stem is preferable so that in holding it, your hand is at a distance from the bowl.  Hands carry scents that might obscure those of the wine.

Speaking of hand placement, that is also an issue.  Glasses of white wine should be held by the stem.  Whites are served chilled and by keeping your hand away from the body of the glass, you’re not exposing the heat of your hand to the wine and therefore warming it at all.  Reds on the other hand are served at room temperature and can therefore be held by the body of the glass as it doesn’t matter that you might be warming it up.

The rim of the wineglass curves in slightly for two reasons:  to capture the aroma and prevent spills when swirling wine.  The glass should be clear and not colored to better view the subtleties of the wine.  Although specially shaped glasses can enhance appreciation of certain wines, such as dessert wines, an all-purpose glass with a long stem and a 12 ounce capacity should work for regular use.  Traditionally, whites are served in smaller glasses, and Sherry, Port, and Madeira in even smaller ones.  The narrowness of the champagne glass, called the flute, serves to focus the subtle aromas and show off the tiny bubbles.  It holds about six ounces of champagne.

Caring for wineglasses:

Wineglasses are fragile and should be handled carefully to avoid breakage.  Just as important is to keep them very clean.  Rewash them prior to use and rinse thoroughly.  Smell the glass, and make sure it doesn’t smell like detergent as you will taste it in your wine.

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