Once upon a time in my career, I ran a retail wine department.
I walked into that job with zero background in wine, outside of enjoying a couple of glasses here and there over dinner. And like most people only distantly acquainted with wine, I was very intimidated by the beverage.
Wine, as far as I knew, was something to be paired with certain foods by sophisticated connoisseurs and enjoyed properly only between 6:51 and 7:02 p.m. three days before the full moon, or some similar nonsense. The point is, I thought there were rules, and assumed breaking those rules would make me look crass. I feared being outsmarted by my drink.
I learned quickly that such assumptions were just a bunch of hooey. And over the years I was able to become a well-versed professional, having now paid enough in the service of wine to comfortably say, “whatever you like about the wine is what makes the wine good.”
But if you WANT to learn more, then know there is incredible history, tradition and majesty in the world of wine. There are centuries of stories and customs. And, considering the long timeline, there is a lot we have learned about making wine and drinking it. Much of that knowledge helps us, quite simply, find more of the wine we like.
Here are a few of those lessons I learned along the way:
Sweet wine is not necessarily bad or cheap. The wine world looks down on wine that is made sweet by adding sugar. But there are beautiful wines made sweet by unfermented residual sugar from the grapes. These sweet wines, called demi sec, late harvest, desert, botrysed… are very well respected and can be expensive. If you like sweet wines try an Italian Brachetto or Muscato d’Asti, German Auslese, French Sauternes or, my favorite, Vouvray.
The opposite of sweet is dry. Dry just means that all of the grapes’ sugar has been turned into alcohol. The taste most people refer to as dry is more likely “hot” or ‘tannic.” Hot refers to a wine which is high in alcohol without being balanced by other characteristics. Tannic is the bitter flavor that a lot of “big” red wines have. Red wines contain tannins from the red grape skins. Tannins help good red wines achieve their velvety, mouth-filling texture and make lesser red wines harsh and obnoxious.
Most of the big red wines (high in tannins and alcohol) need time to open up. If you ever have taken a bitter sip of your red wine right after the bottle has been opened but after an hour or two find that the wine tastes much smoother, it is because many of the tannins and other compounds in the wine have started to oxidize and break down. The air has mellowed your wine. This is as it should be. It’s the reason that you will see people swirling their red wine in the glass. They are trying to get their wine to open up a little more. Some people like the big, richness of red wine, others, not so much. Either way is fine.
There is so much to say and so little time, so let’s call this part one in my wine series. Look for more to come, and in the meantime, remember…“whatever you like about the wine is what makes the wine good.”
Paul Lencioni is president and owner of the Blue Goose Market in downtown St. Charles.