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Classifying Wines

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Wine Types

By Color

Broadly speaking—very broadly—wines divide into the basic types of "red" and "white". A third class is rosé wines, though there are far fewer of them. The color of a wine depends in part on the grape type used, but also on how the wine was made. The pigmentation of a grape is in its skin, not its flesh, so the color imparted to the juice (which will become the wine) depends in part on the skin color and in part on how long the skins are left in contact with the expressed juice. That is why white wine can be made from red-colored grapes, but not vice-versa (that is a generalization).

Leaving the skins in contact with the juice imparts more than simply color. The skin contact also tends to add tannin, which is an important component of red wines. Thus, red wines tend to be fuller-bodied than whites.

What are commonly called "rosé" wines are, as one would expect, something in between as far as grape-skin contact goes: they are typically made from "red" wine grapes, but with skin contact much reduced. Such wines can be vinified in styles that are all over the map. Not a few are made somewhere from well off-dry to outright sweet, while others are often described as "bone dry". Neither type (omitting the excessively sweet) is inherently superior: they simply serve differing purposes. As a very broad generalization, makers who go for the very dry style tend to refer to their wines as vin gris (literally "grey wine") rather than rosé, and vice-versa (but don't count on that).

Within the range classed as "table wines" there are also a few oddities that don't really fit the "color" classification in the sense that while they of course have a color, they fall to some degree outside the usual character of wines of that color. Such specialty wines live in little worlds of their own, from sparkling wines to dessert wines to things like the vin Jaune of the Jura. And that is just "table wines" (in the U.S., wines with not over 14% alcohol); there are also "fortified wines", such as sherry, vermouth, and port.

(In the United States, wines of up to 14% alcohol are classed "table wine" and taxed accordingly. Wines over 14% alcohol are classed "dessert wines", which is utterly ridiculous in that it includes a great fraction of modern red wines intended for table use, as well as famous apéritifs, none of which things are remotely "dessert" in nature. But the U.S. is a Puritan nation, and "fortified wines", much less "high-alcohol wines", sounds so dissipated.)

By Name

Color is the first thing we need to know about a wine, but it is only the barest of beginnings. We want to know much more exactly what the bottle we are considering holds. For that, we look to the wine's name.

We say "name" in a loose sense, because wines can be designated in two fundamental ways. One way—the way most familiar to most Americans—is by the name of the grape from which the wine was made. Wines sold in the U.S. by grape name are required by law to be made up of at least 75% of wine from that grape; but it is usual for varietally named wines to be 100% monovarietal.

The other form of designation is some name that does not specify grape types. Most, probably nearly all, wines from the Old World are so designated (examples include Rioja, Bordeaux, Vinho Verde, and suchlike). In the U.S., wines that are of less than 75% of any one grape have proprietary names and are generically referred to by the awful term "meritage" (which, believe it or not, was the winner in a contest to find a suitable term). In the EU, wines bearing a single grape name must be made 85% from that grape (it gets more complicated if multiple grapes are named on the label).

Old World wines have non-varietal names chiefly because the great majority (especially of reds) are blends, as for example "Bordeaux". Whether it's a Rioja from Spain or a Saint-Emillion from France, or any of the host of like products, an Old World wine will only rarely be monovarietal, and even when it is, will (usually) still be labelled with the standard name: for example, Greek Naoussa wines must, by law, bwe 100% Xinomavro, but are most are just labelled as "Naoussa". (That makes things difficult for the wine drinker seeking out specimen examples of this or that particular grape.)

Mind, in recent years, a few Old World winemakers, seeking to cater to the American market, have started producing varietally named wines; but they are still a distinct minority. It is important to know, however, that throughout the Old World there are regulations, usually ferociously exact, about exactly which grapes can go into a given kind of wine; sometimes the regulations go beyond what is allowed and specify what is required (that is, an X wine would be required to contain between, say, 50% and 65% of grape Y and at least 5% but not over 15% of grape Z, and so on). So even though no grape types appear in a wine's name, the savvy consumer knows at least which kinds are likely to be in it, and often the likely relative balance of those types.

(In recent years, some of the pre-eminent winemakers in Europe, notably in Italy and France, have revolted against what they feel is the ridiculous tryanny of archaic wine laws; they have done so by disdaining those laws, not breaking them: they make their super-premium wines as they please, then market them with labelling used for the lowest possible denominator of wine, as if the wines were cheap plonk. They rely on the reputation of their houses and their wines to draw customers, and so far they have been resoundingly successful. In consequence, there have been movements toward reform of the laws. The whole story is interesting, but far too long to properly explore here.

On this site, we have restrained our discussions by grape type, because in the end, even blends are controlled by what they are made of. If you have learned what a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot and a Cabernet Franc each taste like, you'll have an excellent idea what blends of those wines will taste like. Mind, in some cases it has been hard to locate Old World specimens that are wholly made of, or even largely dominated by, some particular grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon from France; New World types are easy enough to find, but vinification techniques tend to vary, and a Chilean Cab may not well represent a Bordeaux Cab-dominated wine. The individual grape-type pages detail such matters.

As to the grape types we cover, we have mostly followed the lead of Jancis Robinson as given in her eminently useful pocket guidebook Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes about which grape types can and do produce what qualities of wine. Mind: while it is our firm belief that any Vitis vinifera grape type can, giving some loving care by a winemaker, produce good-quality wine, and that there are always going to be a few odd specimens of such good wines from "bad" grape types, on the whole one is best to stick with what has been generally successful, the rare successful Susumaniello or whatever notwithstanding.





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