The wine world can be a pretty daunting place! So many different grapes. So many different countries. So many different producers. So many different winemakers. And you just need to go in to a grocery store or wine merchant to see how many different wines there are!
How do you make sense of it all? How do you know what you'll like? How do you know what to buy? How do you know how much to spend? Is there only disappointment waiting after you've spent $15 or $30 on a bottle of wine, only to find you don't like it? Does that thought push you to buy something other than wine? We hope not!!
We've got quite a bit of experience in growing grapes, making wine and and selling our products, so we hope there's a few takewaways from our wine ed pages for you beginning enthusiasts and a few insights for you avid wine lovers. We'd like to help you make some more informed decisions about what you are buying, as we believe understanding 'wine' a bit more can greatly increase your enjoyment of this timeless beverage. Of course, we think you should always have Shaky Bridge on your shopping list!
So why are there so many different wines? First up, there is a huge number of different grape varieties in the wine world. They are all part of the vitis genus, primarily tracing back to Northern Hemisphere origins. There are a host of different species including Vitis Vinifera, Vitis Labrusca, Vitis Riparia, Vitis Rupestris and many others.
The predominant species for making wine include Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Labrusca. This is not to say you couldn't make wine from the others; but would you want to? Vinifera's origins are European while Labrusca is North American; specifically the Eastern US and Canada. We work only with Vitis Vinifera grape varieties of which there are plenty to choose from! There are thought to be more than 5,000 different varieties of Vitis Vinifera grape vines. Making wine from all of those would be a headache to be avoided and we are fortunate to have the benefit of time and a lot of help from other wine drinkers over the centuries to help us separate the bad from the good and identify which varieties make 'the best' wine.
We work with 5 different varieties of Vitis Vinifera at Shaky Bridge Wines. These include Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Riesling.
If you haven't heard this term before, you will undoubtedly come across it as you read more about wine or talk with your local wine merchant about different regions. 'Terroir' can roughly be described as giving a wine its 'sense of place' of where the grapes are grown and the wine made. Perhaps one of the most recognized example of this is in Champagne in France. There are many other regions around the world that make wine with bubbles, but there is something very unique about sparkling wine created in France's Champagne region.
Think of terroir (pronounced tare-wah) as a combination of factors that go in to making something very unique which represents the place it is from; that combination of geography, geology, climate and the biological presence of other plants, trees and grasses which can impact the flavor of the grapes and therefore the wine. The terroir of a region inherently plays in to the style of wine you will experience from that region, as the very ability to ripen your grapes will depend on the influences of your local terroir.
Situated where we are on the southern most extremes of grapegrowing on our planet, the Shaky Bridge style and selection of grapes we can successfully ripen in our climatic zone is very different to those producers further north in New Zealand, over in Australia or in any other winegrowing region around the world. Sure we can grow Pinot Noir here just as it can be grown in a number of different spots around the globe, but the Central Otago style of Pinot Noir is quite unique to the style of Pinot Noir wines from other regions. One comparitive tasting of a Pinot Noir wine from Oregon, Central Otago and Burgundy will bring this concept home with a resounding thud!
With all these different grapes, but with just a few that you see regularly on your store's shelves, combined with the local impact of terrior, is the wine made from one grape going to be the same no matter who makes it? The short answer is absolutely not; which is a great segue in to the concept of wine style.
When you think of 'bread' or 'music' or 'cereal', there is more than one style of these that come to mind; many more for some products! Wine or Chardonnay or Merlot or Pinot Noir should never be seen as being a homogeneous product. Finding your preferred style of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon or whatever other grape takes your interest is very much a part of tasting, learning and enjoying wine. As such, 'wine style' is an important notion to get your head round. Once you understand YOUR preferred wine style, your appreciation and enjoyment of wine will improve exponentially. But be warned; your 'preferred' style is not a static preference and it will change over time. I've seen new wine enthusiasts move from receiving complete enjoyment from a super sweet, frizzante styled Italian moscato wine, to wondering how they could ever drink such a wine as they talk about the attributes of their latest find in a full bodied, palate drying Napa Cabernet or an intoxicating, exotic, richly spiced Central Otago Pinot Noir.
It's not that one wine is necessarily better than the other in terms of quality, but more that the wine lovers preferred style of wine has changed over time. Getting a base line of your preferred style today is a pretty simple process. There are many wine tastings hosted by wine producers and wine stores, often for no charge, where you can taste away and start to hone in on what your palate finds pleasing and what it finds offensive. The more you taste, the more the nuances of each wine will speak to you. In similar ways to working out those muscles in the gym or getting that cardio developed through running or biking, the more you 'train' your palate, the more you will be able to discern between different flavors and different styles of wine.
As your palate develops, your preferred wine styles will not be limited to different grapes. There are reasons why winemaking is considered both art and science, as there are so many different combinations of ways to make wine. Inherent in the winemaking process is the chemical process of 'fermentation' (the science bit)*, in which grape sugars and yeast are transformed in to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Once this basic winemaking conversion has taken place, there are then a plethora of methods at the winemakers disposal to make a wine of their preferred style. Just as an artist 'sees' something that they choose to convey on canvas or some other medium in water colors, chalk or pencil scratchings, so do winemakers 'see' a style of wine that they think is best suited to their terroir and the raw grape material they are given to work with.
Chardonnay is a great example to consider here. Chardonnay is a fairly neutral grape variety, very open to the winemaking process and being made in very different styles. You can ferment Chardonnay without any oak influence to create a very fresh and crisp style, but you can also ferment Chardonnay with any amount of oak influence to completely change how the wine is experienced. You can also undergo a second fermentation known as "malolactic fermentation" in which lactic acids, such as those in milk and cream, absorb any malic acids, such as those in apples or a pear, to texturally change the wine from that crisp, fresh style to one that is creamier in texture. Add oak in to the equation as well and you have a polar opposite style to a wine not made with these procedures. You just need to decide what style you prefer!
If it sounds like we're suggesting you need to drink to train your palate, you completely understand where we are coming from! But Rome wasn't built in a day, not many people can run a marathon after going for a couple of training runs and it took Michelangelo several years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. You're not going to hone that palate in a few tasting sessions. Good things take time, but as you continue to taste wine and drink in moderation, you will continually be adding to your 'database' of wine style. It really is a fantastic journey and one that can be a lot of fun! When the occasion is right for you to go back to those sweet bubbles you used to drink all the time, you will appreciate how far your understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of this fantastic beverage has come!
* There are many more scientific processes involved in winemaking than fermentation. There are numerous multiple year university level courses around the world on offer for students to learn the science of winemaking and to become winemakers. Brevity in our discussion here, for the purposes of introducing these ideas, should not be construed as minimizing the very important role science plays in creating wine.
We hope you enjoy our wine ed pages and that you find some useful information here! Cheers!