Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

WINE + INFO: Wine 101

I love a good glass of wine, but I know very little about the beverage itself. Since there's a wealth if information available and since knowing about wine will make me sound REALLY COOL, I am resolved to learn, from the bottom up. So I got me the Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia (thanks, N + Z!), and a copy of "Wine for Dummies." Don't laugh! It's written by the first female master of wine and her husband, also a wine expert with excellent credentials, so I think they know something about the subject. Also at my disposal: a paycheck I get every two weeks, my tastebuds, and the internet. I figure I will be an expert in no time.

As I am a generous sort, I will offer the people on the other side of the internet (you) the opportunity to learn some stuff along with me. I start with the very basic of basics. Using my "Wine for Dummies," and Merriam-Webster, I was able to come up with a list of key glossary terms to start with, since I think it's very important for me to understand what wine is before I learn to drink it like a suave person.

Wine: The word "wine" comes from the Middle English "win" which comes from Old English "wIn," which is akin to Old High German "wIn," both derived from the Latin "vinum," which is from an unknown, possibly non-Indo-European source related to the source for the Greek "oinos," all meaning "wine." Wine is primarily defined as "the alcoholic fermented juice of fresh grapes used as a beverage." It could also refer to the alcoholic fermented juice of any plant product.

Okay, alcoholic, juice, grape, and beverage I've got down, but fermentation I really only understand as the process by which things become alcoholic, but I don't know how that transformation occurs. So ...

Fermentation: Defined as "an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of an energy-rich compound (as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid); or more broadly, an enzymatically controlled transformation of an organic compound." As relates to wine, what this means in English, is that yeasts that exist on the grapes convert the sugar in the grapes (the carbohydrate) to alcohol.

Another word I associate with wine is "sulfites." Almost all wine bottles have a little notation: "Contains Sulfites." All I know about sulfites is what my grandma told me a long time ago, which is that they could trigger my asthma. Most of the time they actually don't, but sometimes, usually if I am eating dried apricots, they do.

Sulfites: A sulfite is "a salt or ester of sulfurous acid." Personally, that means nothing to me. In wine terms, according to Wine for Dummies, sulfites act as an antioxidant, keeping the wine fresh; and they also inhibit yeast, keeping the wine from refermenting in the bottle. Many asthma sufferers, like myself, have sensitivities to sulfites, but the good news is that many wines have very few sulfites. A wine labeled "Contains sulfites" may have as few as 10-20 parts per million, which is the amount that naturally occurs in a wine, and as many as 150 parts per million. The legal limit is 350. Contrary to popular belief, white wines contain more sulfites than red.

Once upon a time I made the logical assumption that the color of wine was based on the color of grapes used to make it. After all, some grapes are yellow or light green in color and others are red or dark purple. Easy to assume that means white wine or red wine. And then rosés are ... a mix, right? Ha ha! No! As it happens, while red wines are made from dark grapes, and so are rosés, white wines may be made from either dark or light grapes. So where do the different colors come from?

Red Wine v. White Wine v. Pink Wine:

  • White wine is any wine ranging in color from faintly yellow to amber that is produced from the juice alone of light or dark grapes. It does not take on a red color because the skins are not involved.
  • Red wine is wine with a predominantly red color, which comes from the natural pigment in the skins of dark grapes. The main difference between white and red wines is that the grape skins give red wines tannin, which gives red wine that slight pucker, or firm mouth feel.
  • Pink wine, or rosé, or blush wine, is a light pink table wine which is made from red grapes by removing the skin after fermentation has begun. These wines can be sweet or dry.
Now just up there, I used the phrase "table wine." I used to see this designation on bottles of wine and think it meant wine that was just okay. I thought it meant "everyday wine," as opposed to wine you would keep special for company. Don't ask me where I got this idea. Left to its own devices, my brain creates its own elaborate explanations for things because it just can't stand to have a blank spot. The best I can come up with is that I think I maybe associated it with the phrase "house wine," as used in bars and restaurants, and thought it was maybe a household equivalent, like this is the wine you would keep for nightly use at your dinner table as opposed to fancy wines you keep in your cellar forever.

Anyway, that's not true. Almost every wine you drink with any dinner, fancy or not, is a table wine. The other types of wines are sparkling wines and dessert or fortified wines.

Table Wine: Table wine is "an unfortified wine containing not more than 14 percent alcohol by volume and usually suitable for serving with food." Most wine that you drink is table wine, although certain California wines or wines from warmer climates these days have up to 15.5% alcohol. They are still called table wines as a practical matter, but legally, for tax purposes, they are classified as dessert wines, since 14% alcohol is the legal limit for a table wine.

Sparkling Wine: Sparkling wine is "effervescent table wine." It's basically wine that contains carbon dioxide bubbles. Champagne, from the region of the same name in France, is the most famous of the sparkling wines, but almost every wine-producing country produces a sparkling wine.

Fortified Wine: Fortified wine, or dessert wine, is "a wine (as sherry) to which alcohol usually in the form of grape brandy has been added during or after fermentation." These wines will have more than 14% alcohol and are generally sweeter and often used as an after dinner drink, which is why dessert wine is the legal term for these wines in the United States. However, this is not always the case so some wine experts prefer the term fortified wine, since it avoids the assumption that such wines are sweet and are to be consumed as a dessert.


I'M JEALOUS!!! That's awesome. I want to know more about wine but haven't really known where to start. I love the "For Dummies" idea--my first Dummies book was about how to write grants and it was by far the best book on the subject I ever read. I bet the wine issue is great too. I'm going to be busy taking notes on your reporting. I think I'll have to pop open some nice Pinot to drink while I study. :)

said by Acme Instant Food at 12:47 PM Delete

I only like red wine. Therefore, apart from food-related norms, I choose to indulge in only the reds. Works for me!

said by Roonie at 3:12 AM Delete

I used to be the same way ... but some persistent sommeliers have shown me different recently. Up until now I found most white wines I tasted to be gross, but I've discovered some really delicate and fruity ones that actually work for me really well.

But I know exactly where you're coming from and I will still go for a red every time if I'm in uncharted waters.

said by Anonymous at 10:34 AM Delete

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