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The Very Basics for Wine Beginners

Even the most involved enophile has a few friends who don’t know the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. You want to help them learn to love wine too, but when you start talking terroir and vintage variation, they get overwhelmed. What’s elementary to you just might not be so basic to a newbie. Here are some common new-to-wine questions with some straightforward answers to help you help them:

When do they add the alcohol to wine? 

They don’t. Ethyl alcohol is the natural by-product of a fun little process called fermentation, in which yeast and sugar (like the sugar present in grape juice) interact to yield the only kind of alcohol that’s safe to ingest, ethanol, in addition to heat and carbon dioxide. That CO2 comes in handy if you’re making sparkling wine, as our friends in Champagne figured out some centuries ago. And NO, isopropyl alcohol is not for cooking or drinking – save it for boo-boos and other disinfecting purposes.

When do they add the butter to Chardonnay and the blackberry jam to Zinfandel for that matter?

See the answer above. They don’t, but don’t feel badly if you were confused on this point. While you can make ethyl alcohol from just about any organic product that contains sugar (wheat to beer, rice to sake, corn to whiskey, apples to cider, etc.) fine table wine is made only from grape juice. While Chardonnay wines that have undergone full “malolactic fermentation” might smell or taste buttery, at no point has anyone tossed any Land o’ Lakes into the mix. Ditto for that blackberry jam aroma in red Zinfandel. Wine enthusiasts often use these tasting terms to describe what they are smelling, but they are only descriptors, not ingredients in a recipe.

How long are you supposed to swirl the wine in your glass?

This one irritates me. I recently stopped in at a tasting room where the enthusiastic and entirely misguided dude pouring the wine assured the customer at the counter that she needed to swirl the wine for exactly 7.5 minutes for it to “taste right.” Nonsense! While most wines benefit from a little oxygen interaction, give that glass a swirl for a moment or two at most. What is important? Taking the time to smell the wine BEFORE you suck it down. Most of the enjoyment of wine takes place in your nose folks, so take time to sniff and think about your wine as much as you smell those proverbial roses.

I am allergic to sulfites so that must be why wine gives me a headache, right?

Nope, you’re not allergic to sulfites. Very few folks are and if you were, you’d have issues with everyday products like orange juice and dried fruits too. Sulfites are added to lots of things to protect against premature spoiling; because the federal government insists that wine labels bear sulfite warnings, many people assume this means they cause headaches. Usually, it’s over-consumption and dehydration that have you running for the Advil. Drink less and drink water. You’ll be fine.