Wine For Dummies

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With thousands of brands and labels available, from numerous locations around the world, there is a single ingredient in wine that must be “in there” every time – a quality grape.

Nature’s contribution is arguably the most important part of a great wine, since

  • soil conditions,

  • sunlight,

  • average temperature

  • and other factors start the process of making a great wine.

Entire books have been written on the subject of planting, growing and harvesting grapes. Of course, some families and businesses have amassed years of experience in this crucial beginning area.

Some important "need to knows"

For summary purposes, it’s probably enough to understand that certain types of grapes grow well in specific soils, in certain climates and so on.

There are “white” grapes and “black” grapes, from which different wines can be made. The names of the two types are rather misleading, as

  • white grapes are lighter in color (light green, yellow-green, gold).

  • Black grapes are dark red, dark blue, some have a purple hue.

Vineyard workers pay particular attention to harvesting and handling grapes for the best wines. Grapes are picked (harvested) in various ways, from hand-picking in smaller vineyards to careful mechanized methods in the larger vineyards.

When the grapes are taken from the vines to the winery, they must be “crushed” to get the juice from the grape. In many cases the stems are removed. However, a few wines are made with some of the stems in the mix because these stalks add tannins. This may also be the case with the seeds. Sugar and acid content is determined by the grape pulp, the bulk of the grape.

Tannins are bitter ingredients in the grape plant that give fruit and wine the tartness that causes the mouth to pucker. This is carefully controlled during the winemaking process. Red wine gets its color when the skins of darker grapes are left in during fermentation. More information about this part of the process can be found under the heading of “maceration.”


The process of making wine involves yeast, a live ingredient that works with added sugar to produce the alcohol in wine. Natural yeasts on the grape skin and added yeast are keys to the fermentation process. This part of the winemaking schedule can vary in length, depending on the type of wine being made, the desired alcohol content, the grape used and so on.

Traditional wine making allowed this process to take place in oak barrels. But today wine spends a great deal of its time in stainless steel barrels and other containers. Many wineries use massive steel tanks. The length of the fermentation process, the type of container used and other factors may produce different wines from the same grapes.

Types of Wine

Most of the information about wines lists six distinct types. The two basic categories are white wine and red wine.

In addition to these standards, winemakers create:

  • rose’ wines (sometimes referred to as blush wines)

  • sparkling wines, that have carbonation to make them bubbly

  • dessert wines that are made sweeter with additional sugar, either by allowing the grape more time before harvesting or even adding sugar

  • fortified wines are made “stronger” with added brandy or some other alcohol ingredient.

As mentioned earlier, there are really only two classic types of grape – “white” and “black.” The light green or gold grape is used to make white wines, of course. But winemakers can also use the “black” grape (red, blue, indigo) to make white wines by eliminating the skins from the process. Since the pulp is almost colorless, the wine won’t have color because the red tint is in the skins.

Classic white wines are generally made from the major (most common) white varieties:

  • Chardonnay

  • Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris

  • Chenin Blanc

  • Gerwürztraminer

  • Sauvignon Blanc

  • Semillon

  • and Viognier.

Where does the red color come from?

Using the so-called “black” grapes, winemakers produce red wines by leaving the skins during the fermentation process. As mentioned earlier, the tart character of wine generally comes from tannins in the skins and other parts. That’s one of the major reasons for red wine’s character. The nature of tannins also allows most red wines to age longer than a white wine.

Some of the major, traditional red-wine grapes are

  • Cabernet Sauvignon

  • Merlot

  • Pinot Noir

  • Syrah

Rose’ wines are usually the result of removing skins from the juice after a short time. This controls the depth of color as well as keeping the tannin content down. Winemakers also blend white and red wines to make a blush/rose’ wine.

The sparkling wine category (with carbonation) includes Champagne. That name can only be applied to wine from a particular region of France. All others are marketed as sparkling wines.

Fortified wines (Port, Sherry) were often made that way to help them “keep” for longer periods of time. Now, some people prefer fortified wines. Dessert wines are made sweet by the natural sugar that occurs when grapes remain on the vine or by added ingredients in the winery.

Sweet or Dry?

All of the information provided so far will help the novice gain a better understanding of what makes a particular type of wine what it is. But most people consider the “sweet or dry” question the most important.

While thousands of pages of complex scientific information are needed to explain the fermentation process, there are a few basics that will help the novice understand how a wine is made “dry” or “sweet”.

Fermentation is basically the process of yeast acting on natural and/or added sugars to produce alcohol. A very dry wine is one in which all the sugar has been used up during fermentation. Sweet wines can be produced by stopping the fermentation process at certain points, depending on the level of sweetness desired.

Some winemakers make a strong, sweet wine by adding sugar at the beginning of the process, which allows more alcohol to be produced and raises the sweetness. Others might add sugar at the end of the process to hit a certain spot on the dry/sweet scale.

According to encyclopedia information, the sweetness of a wine is determined by the level of residual sugar in the fermentation process. Residual sugar is the amount of sugars that remain unfermented in the finished wine.

Most nations have requirements for information on wine labels.

This required information includes:

  • brand name and address of producer,

  • type of wine,

  • alcohol by volume expressed in percentage,

  • net contents

  • and government warnings about alcohol use and sulfites.

A beginner in the wonderful world of wine can learn a lot with a careful reading of the label. It’s a good place to start.

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