Drink Like a Sommelier: The Millennial's Guide to Wine | 22 Words

For as long as humans have persisted, we have found a way to get drunk. Let’s face it, it’s not only girls who want to have fun – this is all apart of an animal instinct. And we've found better and more efficient ways of doing so over time.

No matter what poison you pick (AKA which type of wine), there are a few things you should know about it. The more you know, the more grateful you can be. And the more grateful you are, the more you will want to know – funny how that works? That said, wine is dependent on a near dizzying number of factors and it may seem that all its secrets are held in some esoteric tome, written by sommeliers.

But surprise! You can up your game in a few simple ways, and that's what I'm here to teach you. Now, cancel that automatic wine subscription, and come get enlightened!

A Brief History of Wine

The first wine to appear,  a.k.a the second miracle behind the Big Bang, was created circa 9,000 years ago in China and further artifacts of winemaking have surfaced in Georgia and Iran, circa 8,000 years ago. Earthenware vessels from the Neolithic village of Jiahu, located in the northern Chinese province of Henan, have shown remnants of fermented rice, honey, and fruit beverage.

Winemaking Goes Pro

Though the first evidence of “wine-like" beverages were found in China, the ancient Georgian village of Gadachrili Gora reveals the first true wine, made from fermented grapes, circa 6,000 BCE . Located on a fertile mound of soil rich in grape pollen, the village contains earthenware vessels lodged in the ground and decorated with vinery scenes. Researchers found no trace of grape stems or seeds within the compound, suggesting that the Neolithic villagers cultivated their wine in the nearby valley. Further analysis revealed indicated that they drank the beverage seasonally, as they didn’t find any traces of pine resin or herbs, used during later periods to mask any spoilage. Vintners today engage in a similar process, using sulfites to balance the flavor of their wines.

Wine Goes Global

It appears that viniculture proliferated during the Neolithic era, as ancient cultures in the Southern Caucasus began displaying large scale wineries. In 2007, a team of researchers discovered the first proper winery, established 6,000 years ago within the Areni-1 cave in Armenia. In addition to desiccated vines, there was a long basin and clay vat embedded within the soil, drinking cups were also found, suggesting that the site was also used for ceremonial purposes. It’s likely that vintners used the basin to gently tread the grapes, allowing the smash to flow into the vat for further processing.

The Wine Cults

Viniculture was likely brought west by the Phoenicians or peoples from the Levant who cultivated the city-states of the Mediterranean. Eventually, the wine was integrated into ceremonial aspects of many cultures, including the Greek Cult of Dionysus and the Roman Bacchanalia. The former cult is dedicated to Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and the grape harvest. As the only Olympian born to a mortal mother (actually, his mother died before he was born but Zeus saved him by sewing him to his thigh, but that’s another story) Dionysus was seen as an outsider, which was elemental to his importance. He is a convivial character who is often depicted amidst ecstatic dance, and the festival that honored him, Dionysia, permitted a similar level liberation from self-restraint. In Roman culture, Bacchus is the equivalent to Dionysus, and the cult that honors him is Liber Pater, or “the free Father."

Winemaking Evolves

Although viniculture has seen many refinements, many of its foundational practices remain the same. In Georgia, vintners still engage in the same process their ancestors did, referred to as Qvevri in honor of the type of vessels used. Ancient Romans left us with the best-preserved evidence of their practices, including their growing methods and even the regulations they imposed to guarantee quality. Eventually, variations of the wine press replaced treading to mash the grapes, an invention is first seen in Egyptian culture during the New Kingdom. Stylistic differences also surfaced between cultures, as Greeks added sea water to their varieties, while the Romans stirred their wine using sticks wrapped in fennel to impart its flavor.

Winemaking Today

When preparing for harvest, there are three key factors to consider: soil, climate, and vine variety. When the grapes have been harvested there are five stages the grapes go through to transform into wine: crushing and pressing, fermentation, clarification, and aging and bottling (maybe we can an append an unofficial sixth stage: drinking).

Winemaking: Soil

There are five primary soil types used in winemaking, each characterized by their most prominent substance. These include sandy soils, clay soils, silt soils, and loam soils. Sandy soils have a refined texture and do not compact easily, causing them to easily drain water and retain heat. Wines grown in sandy soil yield lighter acidity and tannin content. Conversely, clay soils are inclined to be cooler and retain water, and also possess more alkaline qualities. This yields an intensely flavorful wine. Silt soil has a particle size in between sand and clay and can retain heat and water with ease. Wines cultivated in silt soil are typically lighter and smoother than other varieties. Lastly, loam soil has equal parts of sand, clay, and silt making it a highly fertile substrate. Ironically, winemakers exercise caution when growing their vines in loam because it can yield grapes that are bland in flavor.

Winemaking: Climate

As far as winemaking is concerned, there are three types of climates: Mediterranean, maritime, and continental. Mediterranean climates consistently maintain moderate to warm temperatures and receive little rainfall except during the winter months. This creates a long growing season, perfect for cultivating grapevines. Maritime climates, or regions located near large bodies of water, experience more rainfall, and humidity than a Mediterranean climate. This increases the grapes’ vulnerability to disease and growers must be cautious to prevent issues like mold or mildew from arising. That said, maritime climates are usually temperate, creating long growing seasons. Lastly, continental climates describe regions that are landlocked and experience a more drastic temperature shift throughout the year. The climatic variation that continental regions display often creates more variation between vintages.

Winemaking: Vine Variety

Vine varieties are often referred to based on their cultivars, or their chosen characteristics, rather than their taxonomic rank. There are over 10,000 varieties, but the majority of wines produced come from about 10 of these. In descending order of popularity, these include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Airén, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebbiano, and Pinot Noir.

Important Characteristics of Wine

There are four main profiles to consider when tasting wine: dryness, body, tannin content, and acidity. How dry the wine is, refers to its sugar content – the lower the sugar, the drier it is. This is determined by fermentation, or the process of yeast consuming the sugars present in the grape mash. A wine’s body describes its intensity, ranging from a very full-bodied wine to a delicate, light bodied wine. How tannic wine is referred to its tannin content, which are naturally occurring polyphenols in the grapes stems, seeds, and skins. Tannins are bitter tasting, often leaving a dry and astringent sensation after being consumed. A winemaker can lessen the tannin content of wine by removing the stems, seeds, and skins earlier on in fermentation. Acidity naturally refers to the level of acid in the wine. The pH scale (short for the potential of Hydrogen) is how we measure acidity, with 1 through 6 being acidic and 8 through 14 being basic or alkaline. Most wines are objectively acidic, measuring from 2.5 to 4.5 in pH. The lower the pH, the more tart it will taste. Depending on the objective of the winemaker, one or two of these factors will be emphasized in the end product.

Most Popular Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon

This variety is actually a hybrid between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, grown in Bordeaux, France. It grows particularly well in sandy soils and winemakers usually blend their product using several varieties. Although this creates a wide range of flavors, Cabernet Sauvignons are typically full-bodied as well as tannic.

Most Popular Wines: Merlot

Merlot is a thin-skinned grape, making it more finicky than other varieties. Climate has a big impact on Merlot, as those grown in cooler climates tend more towards being tannic than those grown in warmer climates. It’s an excellent wine for those who are new to wine, as it is generally well balanced.

Most Popular Wines: Airén

Airén is Spain’s most prevalent grape, producing a white wine that is slightly sweet, medium-to-light bodied, and very low in tannins and acidity. Because it can easily become too sweet, many winemakers blend Airén with other more dry varieties like Viura and Verdejo.

Most Popular Wines: Tempranillo

Hailing from the Spanish province of Rioja, Tempranillo stems from the word “Temprano," meaning early, relating to how early in the season it ripens compared to other varieties. Because of its neutral profile, Tempranillo grapes are aged in oak barrels. You’ll see four terms associated with this variety: Roble/Tinto, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Ordered from the least to most, these terms represent the length of time the wine was aged in the oak barrel, ranging up to 24 months with additional bottle aging. The end result? A full bodied, yet acidic and slightly tannic wine.

Most Popular Wines: Chardonnay

Chardonnay originated in the Burgundy wine region in France but has been globally cultivated since then. It enjoys growing in clay soil and due to its hastened ripening process, adapts well to a climate with an abbreviated growing season. Chardonnay is a white wine and is known for readily adopting characteristics of the terroir. Chardonnay aged in oak generally takes on a more full-bodied tone, whereas Chardonnay that is “unoaked" will carry a lighter, more acidic flavor.

Most Popular Wines: Syrah

Syrah’s origins lie in the Rhône Valley of France, but it is also commonly grown in Australia as of its import in 1832, where they refer to it as Shiraz. It grows well in sunny climates, requiring a longer growing season than most. It’s a pedal-to-the-metal full-bodied wine, with a relatively high tannin content.

Most Popular Wines: Grenache

Grenache (or Garnacha in Spanish) is a wine originally from Spain, though the French people have put their stamp on it. It’s a full-bodied wine with an intensely fruity flavor profile and those who enjoy a glass claim there are prominent notes of strawberry, plum, and even leather. Grenache is typically blended with other wines to add a more tannic and acidic flavor. Because it ripens late in the season, Grenache requires warmer climates like the Mediterranean to thrive.

Most Popular Wines: Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine originally from (you guessed it) Bordeaux, France. That said, it can grow nearly anywhere and has risen to the top of many vino’s lists of favorites. It’s intensely acidic and dry, often conjuring thoughts of green herbs and citrus fruit. Interestingly, the title traces back to the French word “Sauvage," meaning wild, due to its uncanny ability to grow like a weed.

Most Popular Wines: Trebbiano

Also known as Ugni Blanc, this white wine comes from Italy and although it’s a variety that is more genetically diverse than others, Trebbiano does have overarching traits. It is generally moderate-to-light bodied with a very low tannin content. Highly acidic, it is commonly used as a base wine in Cognac and Brandy. Generally speaking, it is best enjoyed when minimally aged, from 3 to 5 years.

Most Popular Wines: Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is from Burgundy, France, and although it is produced in numerous regions, the most coveted variety is grown on an east facing slope in Dijon. Pinot Noir is notoriously difficult to cultivate due to its tendency to grow in tightly packed clusters, leaving the grapes vulnerable to rot and disease. It’s a light-bodied, acidic wine with an understated tannin content, making it a lovely (albeit expensive) wine.

Rosé

What many believe to be a simple mixture of red and white wine, is actually much more complex. Rosé is created using one of three methods, including maceration, saignée, or uncommonly, blending. Maceration involves lightly crushing red grapes and then allowing the mixture to rest for several hours before removing the skins. This imparts only a slight tannic flavor, but the phenolics present in the grape skins protect the rosé from oxidation. Saignée translates to “bleeding" in French and as its name would imply, involves siphoning off some newly macerated red wine into a new vat to create rosé. The last method is blending, which requires a mixture of red and white wine. Typically, only about 5% red wine will be added to a batch of white wine to create this type of rosé.

Food and Wine Pairing 101

When pairing food and wine, there are six basic flavor profiles to consider: salt, fat, acid, bitter, piquant, and sweet. Additionally, it’s important to understand if you are pairing your food and wine to be congruent or to be complimentary. Despite these fundamentally simple concepts, it can be surprisingly complicated to get right. Here are some basics to get you started.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Salt

Pairing salty food with wine is a delicate topic – some parties insist that an acidic wine softens any excess saltiness, while others extol the virtues of pairing a sweet wine with a salty dish to get the salivary juices flowing. Which one is right? Try both out and see what you like.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Fat

Is your plate sporting a marbled steak? How about a rich sauce? Bring out the best in your meal by pairing it with a wine that packs a punch, otherwise, you risk making the dish taste too flaccid. Try a wine that’s either acidic, alcoholic, or tannic.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Acid

Just as sweet and salty foods can benefit from an acidic wine, acidic foods can use a little sweetness to ease their bite. Undecided between using a red or a white? A good rule of thumb: if the sauce or meal is light in color (take, for example, a lemon-tahini dressing) use white wine. In contrast, if your meal is dark in color like a balsamic reduction topped red meat, opt for a red.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Bitter

Bitter foods, such as an arugula or brussel sprout salad pair well with sweeter wines. Though if you add some sugar to your dressing, you may enjoy an acidic wine as well – just generally steer clear of the tannic wines, unless you want to amplify the bitter flavors in your food.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Piquant

Piquant is just a fun word for spicy, and when your meal delivers heat you’ll want something to douse the fire (just a little!). Avoid competing flavors with a wine that may have been aged in oak, is high in alcohol, or tannic. Instead, think like a beer enthusiast! You’ll want a light, refreshing wine that tends toward the sweeter side or is lighter bodied. Sparkling wine is another great option, as its bubbles play easily on the palate.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Sweet

What wine to choose for the occasion is a question of how big your sweet tooth is! You have the option of raising the bar and pairing your food with a dessert wine, or you can balance the scale by using an acidic variety.

Food and Wine Pairing 101: Congruent Vs. Complimentary

Congruent wine and food pairings are just that – their flavor profiles mimic one another and thus, have an intensifying effect. On the other hand, complementary flavors tend to balance one another out. The majority of the recommendations above are based on complimentary pairings. So if you can’t get enough of that velvety sauce, choose a congruent wine with a full-bodied and dry profile. But if the thought of this makes you cringe, go for an acidic wine that will cut through any cream sauce.

Wine is for Enjoying

Wine is a convivial art, a craft that has been poured over and perfected by connoisseurs for thousands of years. But it’s also simple, requiring very little other than a bottle opener and a fine glass to enjoy it. If even for a moment you become intimidated by the seemingly boundless acquisition of wine mastery, stop and smell the flowers – or is it black currant you’re sensing in that vintage?