How to Become a Wine Snob

“Ahh but of course…I would say this one demonstrates rich chocolate notes with cherry undertones and a subtle vanilla aroma.” One says as they swirl around their smooth, round wine glass in the light with an upturned nose and a lip pucker of approval.

This is just a little hint of the many descriptions given to the flavor of wine that I read or heard while in Mendoza, Argentina. Who would’ve thought that wine could have so many different tastes? Not to mention, there are actual steps you take while tasting wine! This country girl sure had a lot to learn about wine culture, that’s for sure.

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The previous post I wrote about Mendoza focused principally on what I did while I was there, and I refrained on going too in-depth about wine because it was worth having its own post. Well, here it is! I learned so much about the wine-making process from four different bodegas I visited, and now I’m here to share their “secrets”! During the tours, I was eagerly scribbling notes in my travel notebook and pushing up my cat-eye glasses which made me resemble Rita Skeeter. Now if only I had a Quick-Quotes Quill…

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I see a resemblance…

All joking aside, it’s time for the facts. First of all, there are 3 steps of wine tasting that you take so you can feel all swanky and high-class. Here they are:

  1. Observe: Tilt the glass and put it up to a white surface so you can observe the colors of the wine itself. White wines should be very light. If they are yellowy, they aren’t good anymore. In any wine, red, rose or white, you don’t want brown. That means it’s all oxidized…aka, yucky. It should also have a sense of clarity, versus cloudiness.

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2. Smell: Swirl the glass to aerate (or oxygenize) the wine. This releases some of the aroma so you can take a quick smell. If it’s fruity, it’s good. If it’s too alcoholy—for lack of a better word—it may be an older wine, or just plain bad. Same goes for papery-smelling ones.

3. Taste: The best part (hopefully)! Don’t just swig it down like a frat boy, let it hit your palate evenly to get a better sense of the flavor and give it a light swish in your mouth. If you wanna be super fancy, purse your lips and take in some air so that flavor is even more accentuated.

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What is the body, or weight of the wine? Light, medium, full? Is it dry or sweet? How high is the alcohol content? Is it highly tannic? Older wines will have more of a tannic flavor. What about the acidity? And flavors? You can’t say grape! Apparently, there’s a ton of ways to describe wine flavors.

Lastly, what is the length and finish like? Does the taste linger a while? More than 10 seconds means it’s a good wine, and more than 30 means it’s a great one!

This site is really good at explaining it more in depth: http://bettertastingwine.com/winetasting.html

Congrats! You are now a Level 1 Wine Snob! 🙂

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Wine tastings for DAYS.

I REALLY like this infograph—it sums everything up and helps novice wine tasters accurately describe all the points just mentioned.

The Wine-Making Process

First of all, not all grapes were created equal. The uva fina (fine grape) is used for wine, and there are tons of different varieties like the Malbec, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Riesling—as you may have guessed, they give the wines their names. The kinds of grapes that you eat are called table grapes, and those are a completely different story. In Argentina, 70% of all wine comes from the Malbec grape. Of all Malbec wine, 85% comes from Mendoza. The word “Malbec” is French which literally means “bad beak”. Why did they choose that name? Apparently, this type of grape didn’t do so well in France, as it was a big hit among native birds. Hence the name. So they brought it to Argentina in the 1800’s and it fared very well—so well that it’s become a huge industry!

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In Spanish, a winemaker is called an enólogo and the whole science of study of winemaking is called enología. They analyze, test, and figure out new ways to cultivate and blend wines to achieve certain flavors. People go to school for this stuff!

There are two main ways to grow grapes—trellis (espaldero) and canopy (parral). That’s really a personal preference.

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Here, you see canopy in the background and trellis right in the front.

Once planted, farmers take special precautions to protect their harvest. One winery we visited planted roses all around the perimeter because in case of a plague or insect infestation, the roses would be the first to be ravaged, thus becoming a protective barrier for the grapevines.

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During harvest season, the grapes are plucked and pressed for their juice.  In smaller plantations like Di Tommaso, this is all still done entirely by hand. The mixture of the juice, yeast and sugar is placed into vaults for at least 6 months. These vaults are sometimes painted with epoxy (DiTomasso uses beeswax!) so that the walls don’t affect the flavor of the wine. In fact, way back when, when the wine was put into stonewalled vaults, the acidity of the wine disintegrated the walls causing there to be little stones in the wine. Oops!

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In the vaults, the temperature is carefully surveyed to ensure it stays at 17 degrees Celsius, and a 40% humidity is preferred. At the DiTommaso, these circumstances are naturally caused because their vaults are underground.

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Then the wine goes into the barricas, or barrels. The preferred oak of choice for these barrels comes from the U.S. or from France. The U.S. oaks create stronger, full-bodied wines where the French oak results in softer, milder wines. These barrels aren’t cheap either, at 1,000 euro or 1,000 USD a pop. That’s quite the investment! The funny part is, when these barrels are no longer usable by the winery, the value plummets to a mere 40 USD. Each barrel holds 225 liters, or about 60 gallons of liquid. When filled, they must remain COMPLETELY filled the entire time so that the wine doesn’t oxygenize—which would be bad!Fotor_14310204395704

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So once the wine goes into the oak barrels, they age for a certain amount of time. The time it takes results in the quality. Gran Reserva is the best it gets. That means it’s been aging in the oak barrel for at least five years. Reserva means at least over a year. If the bottle doesn’t even have the word “reserva” anywhere on it, that means it never hit the barrel or it was under a year in the barrel.

Once the aging is finished, it’s time to bottle it up and ship it off to the stores where it hits the shelves and reaches the consumer’s hands. Thirty years ago the wine was all sent to Buenos Aires to be bottled but due to a recent law, all wine must be bottled on-site.

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When you have the bottle of wine at home, here are some pointers. Whites are best chilled and reds at room temperature. Once opened, drink within a week and make sure they stay refrigerated during that time. Anything bubbly—finish it that day because it won’t be good after that. White wines are best when young so don’t let those age!

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Final Fun Facts

Within Mendoza, there are over 1,000 wineries and 20 varieties of grapes present.

A higher alcohol content is indicative of a higher quality wine.

The main economic export of Mendoza is actually petroleum—not wine!

Hopefully, this guide helped you in your quest to refine your senses and understand the world of wine. I know I learned a lot during all of those tours! Now go celebrate your graduation from this crash-course with a glass of wine and describe the distinct flavors with all this newfound knowledge!

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3 thoughts on “How to Become a Wine Snob

  1. Erika,

    This has to be the most comprehensive yet easy to understand explanation about wine making/tasting that I have every read. I took a brief workshop at a conference I attended years ago; while it covered most of what you describe, it was explained in a manner that seemed out of my league. Your explanation is so down-to-earth, even extra-terrestrials would understand it!

    You really should consider going into a profession that deals with travel narratives/chronicles. I can see you producing your own documentaries!

    Here’s my toast to you, with the last of a bottle of Santa Julia (Mendoza) Malbec that was given to me by an alumna (as of today!). I looked for anything that said described its “reserva” category, but found none. Perhaps it is “reserva fondo” (bottom of the barrel?), but it is still very good!

    Looking forward to your next post!

    Un fuerte abrazo,
    Rose

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback!! I’m glad I was able to explain it in a way that was easy to understand. That’s always my ultimate goal when I write!! 🙂

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