Around the world, millions of people drink wine. While the vast majority probably drink it just for the sake of getting drunk, interest in wine production, tastings, and pairings has seemed to surge. Just take a look at the number of wine events listed in our weekly roundups -- there's one almost every day of the week.
That being said, we've all seen that pompous person seated at the front of the class sipping, swirling, and spouting his mouth off -- yes, it's always a guy -- as if he knows everything about wine.
Here's your chance to figure out if he's legit or just a showoff. We caught up with Andrew Lampasone of Wine Watch to find out how to taste wine like a pro.
As the first part of our series on tastings leading up to the Sixth Annual Pairings on September 26, we're starting off by exploring basic wine production.
At its core, wine is made by adding sugar (from the grapes) and yeasts together, which convert into alcohol and carbon dioxide through fermentation.
A myriad of factors contribute to the aromas of leather or grapefruit or coffee that you so commonly hear about, including grape varietal, the climate of the growing region, length of time on the vine, fermentation process, aging practices, and a number of other factors.
Malo-lactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation process that turns harsher malic acid, a flavor associated with green apple, into softer lactic acid, kind of like the creamy texture of milk. Diacytiyle, a byproduct of the malolactic fermentation process, is the same compound that gives butter its buttery smell and taste. This process is common in the majority of red wines and some white wines, such as Chardonnay.
"The next time you notice that buttery aroma that many Chardonnays from California have, you will know that it underwent Malo-lactic," said Lampasone.
Barrel aging is exactly as it sounds. Wine can be transferred to oak barrels during the fermentation, or aging, periods. The contact with oak is intended to enhance the flavor of the wine and speed the aging process.
According to Lampasone, "White wines that have been aged in new oak for a period of longer than six months will have an apparent spice and dryness to them. A red wine aged in a new oak barrel will also have that spiciness and dryness, but it will also mellow out the tannins in the wine, as the oxidation process is faster in small barrels (more surface-to-wine contact) than in the bottle or in upright steel or wood vats."
Though identifying the presence of oak -- smoke, vanilla, caramel, coconut, cinnamon, or a variety of other smooth, spice-like aromas and the existence of tannins -- is a fairly straightforward process, different kinds of oak impart different flavors and effects. On a basic level, French oak is sweeter with soft vanilla overtones, and American oak is bolder and more intensely flavored -- French oak is less porous with a tighter grain, which allows less wine to seep into the wood. Slavonian, Russian, and Canadian oaks are also used for winemaking.
"Wine is fairly simple," said Lampasone. "It is 85 percent water, 11 percent alcohol and 4 percent other; however, wine has a staggering number of smellable elements. In their exhaustive study Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation, Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler, both professors at the University of California, write that 'Identified in wine aromas are at least 181 esters, 52 alcohols, 75 aldehydes and ketones, 22 acetals, 18 lactones, six secondary acetamides, 29 nitrogen-containing compounds, 18 sulfer-containing compounds, two ethers, 11 furans and 18 epoxides, as well as 30 miscellaneous compounds. Many of these are modified in various ways by aging and cellar treatment, and they can and do react with each other or have additive, masking or Synergistic properties.'"
Slightly overwhelmed? We know. Follow up next week for information on visual cues and how to properly taste wine like a pro.
Leave a comment if there is anything specific you would like us to address.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.