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I Took A Six-Month Wine Class, And Here Are The Coolest Things I Learned

Stop and smell the rosé.

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So over the past six months, I took a course at American Sommelier to learn more about it. After countless hours of studying, memorizing, and, of course, drinking wine, here are some of the coolest things I learned about the wonderful and oh-so-confusing world of vino.

1. All grape juice (red and white) is actually clear.

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When I first heard this, I was pretty tripped up. I had always thought that red grapes make red juice, which becomes red wine, and white grapes produce white wine. The truth is that all grape juice is clear. Red wine gets its color because the juice stays in contact with the skin of the grapes during fermentation. The longer a winemaker keeps the skin in contact with the juice, the darker the resulting wine. Same goes for rosé, which is typically made by keeping the skins in contact with the juice for a short period of time.

2. There are over a thousand different grapes in the world used to make wine.

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I used to think there were a few dozen grapes used to make wine — the usual suspects that you typically see on a wine list like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and chardonnay. Suffice to say...I was a bit off. There are over 1,000 different grapes that are commercially used to make wine. Just in Italy alone, there are hundreds of grapes I'd never heard of before — names like Rondinella, Grechetto, and Pignolo. That means there are a whooole lotta wines to try out there.

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3. All wine starts with soil.

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If you've ever heard that sommeliers lick rocks, it's not a joke. Why, you may ask? It's because the type and quality of the soil in which grapes are grown hugely impacts the final wine. For example, grapes grown in sandy soil create wine that is elegant, soft, and pale, whereas grapes grown in clay soil tend to producer wine that is bolder, muscular, and darker in color. I never really believed it...until recently. During a meal at Blue Hill Stone Barns, the sommelier handed me three glasses of Muscadet wine made from the same exact grape on the very same vineyard. The only difference was that the grapes were grown in three different types of soil — namely: granite, gneiss, and orthogneiss. Bullshit, I thought, before taking a sip of each. To my utter surprise, the three wines tasted so different I couldn't believe I was tasting the same grape, let alone from the same piece of land.

4. Winemaking is half science and half art.

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Viticulture, the science behind growing wine, refers to everything that happens in the vineyard (like choosing the types of grapes to plant, the soil to plant them on, how early or late to harvest). But after the grapes are picked, winemakers get creative. Think of painting: Two artists like Monet and Picasso can use the same fundamental skills but employ totally diverse techniques, which results in very different works of art. Well, same goes for winemaking. A winemaker will decide how long to keep the grape juice in contact with the skins, at what temperature to ferment the wine, and whether to age the wine in stainless steel or oak. These decisions, along with many others, will determine the final taste of the wine. That's how two bottles of wine grown within half a mile of each other on the same type of soil can taste totally different.

5. Riesling isn't necessarily sweet.

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About a year ago, you couldn't have given me a bottle of Riesling for free. I'd always thought it was a sugary-sweet dessert wine that tastes more like simple syrup than alcohol. But then I learned that Riesling can be dry and off-dry, and my life changed forever. Now, I always look for dry Rieslings from Germany, Austria, and the Finger Lakes. Look for a word on the bottle that says dry, "kabinet," or "trocken." These wines are crisp and refreshing and fragrant — a far cry from the sweet wines I once associated with Riesling. That being said, there's definitely a time and a place for a savory cheese plate paired with a glass of sweet Riesling.

6. Chardonnay doesn't have to suck.

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More breaking news! Like many people in the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) camp, I used to be turned off by chardonnay. I thought the varietal always tasted rich and buttery, qualities I'd like in my ice cream, but not in my wine. But then I realized that there are lots of different styles of chardonnay, many of which I really enjoy. I learned that there are two main ways chardonnay can taste buttery. One is when it's aged in new oak, and the second is a winemaking technique called malolactic fermentation, often called malo. Basically, malo takes tart acid and converts it to creamy, lactic acid. That big, creamy, buttery taste is most noticeable in wines from warm-weather climates like Napa Valley. The easy solution, I learned, is to opt for chardonnays from colder climates like Oregon and Chablis, France, which are often zesty and citrusy.

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7. Every country has different laws that regulate the wine industry.

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I always thought the wine industry was pretty straightforward, but as it turns out, there are a whole lot of rules. France implemented a quality assurance system (called the AOC system) back in the 1930s. Since then, each country has followed suit, making laws that regulate how wine can be produced and sold. They establish things like geographical boundaries, the types of grapes that can be used, aging requirements, and permitted winemaking practices. For example, in France, only five grapes can be used in a red wine from Bordeaux; in Italy, a wine labeled "Brunello di Montalcino" must be from the town of Montalcino in Tuscany, and it must be made with all Sangiovese grapes; in Spain, if you buy a wine labeled "Rioja Reserva," you know the wine has been aged for at least three years. The laws all differ by country and even region, but those are just a few example to the rules winemakers must follow.

8. Not all sparkling wine is created equally.

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What is the difference between a $150 bottle of Champagne and a $15 bottle of prosecco? As it turns out...quite a bit. Aside from the fact that sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is made in the region of Champagne, France, it also goes through a specific winemaking process called méthode Champenoise. This fancy process (also used to make Spanish cava and Italian Franciacorta) takes a lot of time and labor. Prosecco, by contrast, is made with the charmat or tank method, which is quicker and cost-saving. The other big difference is aging. Any bottle of Champagne you buy has already spent 15 months aging inside of the bottle. Prosecco, on the other hand, is sold right away for immediate drinking.

9. Great wine is all about "balance."

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There are a lot of fancy and seemingly confusing words that people throw around when they talk about wine. Listen to a wine connoisseur take a sip and they'll soon be singing about its acidity, tannin, sweetness, fruit, and body. What's important though, is that all of these elements work together to give the wine balance and complexity. In other words, they make drinking the wine enjoyable. If you taste a sweet wine that has no acidity, you'll think you're drinking maple syrup. If a wine has tons of tannin without any fruit, your mouth will dry up and you'll be reaching for the water. If you drink a wine with too much acidity, you'll feel as though the enamel is being ripped off your teeth. But when these elements play together, wine tastes GREAT.