A fact-filled, jargon free guide to wine, bursting with entertaining anecdotes, literary quotes and compelling humor that will teach you everything you always wanted to learn about wine but were too scared to ask.
Pure delight. "This book would be a highly recommendable primer on wine without the literary references as Alexander guides us through regions and grapes, plus how to truly appreciate this nectar. But the hefty chapter matching grapes with authors is pure delight: albariño and J.R.R. Tolkien, chardonnay and Jane Austen, and his personal favorite, gewürztraminer and Marcel Proust." - Minneapolis Star Tribune
The pleasures of great wine and great writers. Under the careful guidance of his father, Patrick Alexander began drinking wine with his meals at the age of five. At the same age, encouraged by his mother, he began a lifelong love-affair with books. The twin pleasures of wine and writing remained his passion for the next sixty-five years. He has raised his own children in many of the world’s great wine growing regions, from Bordeaux and Piedmont in Europe to the Santa Cruz mountains of California while researching and writing his definitive guide to the novels of Marcel Proust.
History of wine and some of the best wines. For the past six years, Patrick has been teaching a sold-out wine appreciation class at the nation’s No.1 independent bookstore, Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida. The Booklovers' Guide to Wine is based on this very successful class and blends Patrick’s passion for the culture and history of wine and his love of literature for the world's great writers. A literary twist on traditional food and wine pairings, this book explores how great wines and great writers can be combined to enhance the enjoyment of both. The book describes the history of wine from the time of Noah to the birth of two-buck Chuck.
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About the Author
Previously Director of the Wine Appreciation program at the University of Miami and a judge for the Florida International Wine Challenge, Patrick Alexander has been teaching these wildly popular and critically acclaimed classes at Books & Books for over four years. Patrick is also a published author and his writings include "Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time" and "The Nigerian Letter."
Mitchell is a co-founder of Miami Book Fair International and serves as the Chairperson of its Board of Directors. He also serves on the steering committee of the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, Miami-Dade College's literary center. Mitchell recently served a two-year term as President of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and continues an active involvement with the organization. He also serves on the Board of ABFFE, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.
Read an Excerpt
"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." – John Keats
What is Wine?
Wine is made from the fermented juice of fruit. Any fruit can be used to make wine, and some of it is no doubt delicious. However, for the purpose of this book, our discussion of wine is limited to the fermented juice of grapes made from the Vitis vinifera vine which is native to the Eastern Mediterranean but is now planted worldwide.
Fermentation is a naturally occurring process in which the yeast found in the grapes converts the natural sugars into alcohol. The more sugar the grape contains, the higher the level of alcohol.
There are seven basic categories of wine:
Red Wine: Made from dark-skinned grapes when the skins remain with the juice during fermentation.
White Wine: Made from grapes with the (usually pale) skins removed before fermentation.
Rosé Wine: Made from dark-skinned grapes when skins have been allowed brief contact with the juice during fermentation. Obviously, the longer the contact, the deeper the color will be.
Sparkling Wine: Wines which contain small bubbles of carbon dioxide, either as a result of a secondary natural fermentation or through post-fermentation injection. The most famous come from the Champagne region of Northeast France.
Distilled Wine: Brandy is made from fermented wines which have been distilled to 35-60 percent alcohol, and the name comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, "burnt wine." The best-known brandies are Cognac and Armagnac, two regions in Southwest France.
Fortified Wine: Made from fermented wine to which some brandy has been added, raising the alcohol level to about 18-20 percent. The most famous fortified wines are from Jerez (Sherry) in Southern Spain and Porto (Port) in Northern Portugal.
Raisinated Wine: Rather than fermenting the juice of the freshly picked fruit, the grapes are allowed to dry in the sun, becoming more like raisins before they are crushed and allowed to ferment. This process, which is called appassimento in Italian, concentrates the sugars and thus results in a far higher alcohol level as well as a sweeter wine. Historically, all the best and most expensive wines used to be made this way.
These different categories will be examined in more detail in the chapter on "How Wine is Made."
There are three external factors which affect the taste of wine:
Chemical: Perhaps the most important factor is the chemical composition of the wine. In fact, if the wine is bad, then all the other factors are irrelevant. But assuming the wine is good, that "goodness" is composed of all sorts of qualities, ranging from the type of grape to the minerals from which the roots have derived their taste, and the balance between the sweetness of the residual sugars and the acids and tannins of the skin.
Physical: Even a great wine will be disappointing if it is served at the wrong temperature, while an otherwise mediocre wine, served at the correct temperature and accompanied with food, will taste much better.
Mechanical: As a certain well-known glass manufacturer, Riedel, never fails to remind us in their advertising, each wine improves in the "correct" glass. Certainly, any wine will taste better in a wine glass that tapers toward the opening, rather than one that widens towards the top. The correctly-shaped glass is widest in the middle, where the maximum surface of wine is exposed to the oxygen in the air, releasing the volatile aromatic molecules that rise towards the top of the glass which, tapering to a narrowed opening, concentrates them for the human nose. In order to focus on the color and pleasures of the wine itself, the glass should be clear, un-decorated and certainly not colored.
Alright — four external factors: Dishwashing liquid! Assuming that you follow all the advice and suggestions in this book and put them into practice with a carefully selected wine in an expensive crystal glass, it will all be meaningless if the glass has not been properly rinsed. Wine glasses should be washed by hand if possible, using only the tiniest hint of dishwashing liquid, and then thoroughly rinsed so that no residue remains. The smallest hint of soap in a glass will destroy even the most robust and expensive of wines.
The moment the cork is pulled and the first glass is poured, chemical changes begin which will ultimately affect our appreciation of the wine. As soon as the wine is exposed to the air, it begins to oxidize and evaporate as tiny molecules of aroma are released into the air and give the wine its bouquet.
While it is true that the satisfying "pop" of a cork being withdrawn from a bottle, the clink of glasses, the charming gurgle of wine being poured, or the gentle fizz of bubbles in a flute of champagne all involve our sense of hearing, it is the other four senses which are more important for the appreciation of wine: sight, smell, taste, and touch. In my wine class, I make my students follow the same noisy ritual for every glass of wine we taste: swirl, snort, slurp, and slosh. It makes for a somewhat raucous and inelegant class, but establishes good tasting habits which can eventually be discreetly modified to socially acceptable levels.
It is very important to remember that just as we all differ in size, height, weight, hair color, and skin color, so too each one of us has a unique sense of taste. About 20 percent of the population have 150 tastebuds on each square centimeter of tongue. They are known as Supertasters; they react badly to any taste of bitterness and are very sensitive, usually avoiding most red wines and preferring sweet whites. At the other extreme, 20 percent of the population have only fifty tastebuds per square centimeter, and they are very tolerant of tannins and bitter tastes, usually preferring "big" red wines. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, with about one hundred tastebuds per square centimeter. We are known as "tasters" and can enjoy both sweet and bitter tastes, both red and white. Because of these fundamental and natural differences between us, when it comes to wine tasting, there are no "correct" tastes and no "correct" answers. Do not feel bad if your experience is different from your friends or from an "expert." Vive la difference!
Eyes / Sight (Swirl)
Our first contact with a glass of wine is with our eyes, which tell us immediately if it is red or white (or rosé). Sight is the most superficial of our senses, but, even before we taste the wine, our eyes give us a hint of the grape the wine is made from and also its age. Pick up your glass and swirl the wine around as you look at it. (Novices may want to practice swirling while the glass sits on the table, moving it in a circular motion so that the wine swirls around, but without spilling over the glass onto a smart white dress or shirtfront.) First look down into the glass, and then tilt it away from you at an angle, preferably against a white background.
By tilting your glass, you will see the variations in color from the center, where the wine is deepest and usually darkest, to the rim or meniscus, where the wine meets the glass and is thinnest. The darker the wine at the meniscus suggests a full-bodied, more intense taste, while a pale color suggests a more insipid wine. A white wine will often have a suggestion of green at the meniscus, a remnant of chlorophyll denoting slightly unripe youth.
A pale red color suggests a lighter grape, such as a Gamay or Pinot Noir, while a dark red suggests a heavier grape, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Zinfandel. A young red wine will show traces of purple, while an old red wine past its prime will be turning brown from oxidization. The best color for a fully mature red wine is a rich ruby.
A pale, almost translucent color tells us the white wine is probably made from a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc grape, while a darker, more golden color suggests a Chardonnay or a Viognier grape. Young white wine shows traces of green, which quickly become yellow as it ages. Except for certain wines like Chardonnay, Viognier, and Gewürztraminer, most wines never darken beyond a pale straw color. A good Chardonnay, on the other hand, will attain a deep golden amber when it is ready to be drunk. Very few white wines benefit from prolonged aging other than some Chardonnays, Rieslings, and late-harvest dessert wines, which will be discussed later.
Clarity: The wine, whether red or white, should be clear, not cloudy. Some white wines, such as Vinho Verde, Muscadet, and certain Pinot Grigios, have small bubbles visible, but otherwise (with the exception of sparkling wines), the wine should be clear. Obviously, there should be no sediment or impurities floating in the wine. On the other hand, tartrate crystals produced by tartaric acid are perfectly natural and indeed desirable results of fermentation, and can be seen resting at the base of some bottles of wine. Unfortunately, because so many consumers have mistaken them for broken glass or spoiled sediment and returned the bottles, most winemakers now remove them by cold-stabilization or extra-fine filtration which, especially with red wines, detracts from the complexity of the taste.
Legs: Also known as tears of wine, church windows, or curtains, legs refer to the band of clear liquid around the inside of the glass after you swirl it and from which droplets — or legs — reach back down the inside of the glass into the wine. This has nothing to do with the quality or even the sweetness of the wine, but is simply a reflection of the alcohol content. As wine is mainly a mixture of water and alcohol, which evaporate at different rates (and alcohol has less surface tension than water), this phenomenon will be more visible in wine with higher alcohol content. While it is agreeable to swirl a glass of wine and observe that "it has good legs," this has no significance concerning the wine's quality. Just because a wine has good legs does not necessarily mean it will make a great investment, any more than a person with good legs will necessarily make a great spouse.
Color: The color of a wine is a result of the varietal (variety of the grape used), as well as the age of the wine.
Red Wines: A Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, will always be darker than a Gamay, and a young wine will always be darker than an old wine, which, unlike white wine, tends to lighten with age. In general, red wines age from purple when young and ruby or garnet when mature, and become increasingly brown when old.
White Wines: A Chardonnay will always have a deeper color than, for example, a Sauvignon Blanc. White wines tend to age from green when young, to yellow or straw when older, to gold at their prime, and with an increasingly darker, brownish-tint when too old and oxidized.
Sight is the most superficial of all our senses and gives less information than taste or smell, but as we acquire more familiarity with the different grape varieties, the initial judgment based on the color of the wine in the glass will become increasingly informed and useful. Because of the modern taste for powerful, fruit-forward red wines which are usually darker in color, winemakers often use color as a way to imply quality. Adding a touch of such varietals as Alicante Bousquet, Malbec, or Petit Syrah, can make any red wine appear darker and more powerful. The truth is in the tasting. She may have good legs, but can she cook?
Nose / Smell (Snort)
The next and most important contact with wine comes through our nose. By gently swirling the wine around the glass, we are slightly heating it with the warmth of the hand while exposing it to the oxygen in the air, thus evaporating and releasing its aromas. These fragrances consist of the aromatic and volatile chemical molecules, including phenols, which rise to the rim of the glass where our nose captures them with a strong but gentle snort. The second thing to do after examining the color and clarity of the wine is to put your nose as close to the glass as possible and inhale deeply. This first "snort" of the wine is the most important; because of "smell fatigue," the second snort will not be as rewarding and the third even less so.
Smell is the most basic and important of all the human senses. It was our primal ancestors' first sense and is the core sense around which our brain and our consciousness eventually coalesced. Smell is an emotional sense, mixing memory and desire, rather than consciousness and calculation. Smell is the most voluptuous sense; a holdover from our most primitive instincts and the "reptilian" brain that alerts us to food, sex, and danger. Our sense of smell is the most powerful and most evocative of all our senses. The most privately personal and distant memories can suddenly be recalled by the smell of new-cut grass or mushrooms being cooked in some distant apartment. Marcel Proust wrote the world's longest novel, the seven volume In Search of Lost Time, based on the smell of a little madeleine cake being dipped into his cup of tea. It is no accident that the global perfume market was estimated to be worth $33 billion in 2015.
Eighty percent of what we call taste is in fact smell. While one in a thousand molecules can be identified by the tongue, the nose is so sensitive that it can identify one in a million molecules. In fact, it's not the nose that is so sensitive; it's the olfactory bulb which is located just behind the nose and between the eyes. The best way to locate the olfactory bulb is to swallow (or imagine swallowing) a large spoonful of very cold ice cream. That "brain freeze" pain you feel just between and behind the eyes is your olfactory bulb protesting the sensory overload of the cold ice cream.
When wine is exposed to the air it begins to evaporate; the phenols and aromatic molecules rise from the surface of the liquid, and are carried through the nose to the olfactory bulb. Wineglasses narrow towards the rim in order to concentrate these molecules as they reach our nose.
Pulling the cork, opening the bottle, and letting it breathe for half an hour before serving is one of the many, meaningless rituals associated with wine. The amount of wine exposed to the air is the half-inch diameter in the neck of the bottle. The rest of the wine is unexposed. Wine only begins to aerate when it has been poured into the glass, ideally half filling the glass to the widest part of the bowl and thus exposing the greatest amount to the air. By cupping the bowl with our hand and gently swirling, we are simultaneously warming and thus evaporating the wine while also aerating it as each swirl brings it into contact with more oxygen. The combined evaporation and aeration raise the aromatic molecules to the rim of the glass where our nose waits to capture them.
This is why, especially for good quality wines, pouring the wine into a decanter is recommended before serving. The very act of pouring it from the bottle will gently aerate it, and the extra exposure to the air the decanter provides will help the wine wake up and begin to reveal its characteristics, to "breathe" and come alive. Any red wine will benefit from aerating before drinking, and there are many inexpensive aerating gadgets on the market which will do this very simply without having to actually pour it into a decanter.
Scientists have isolated seventeen thousand individual smells, and of these, ten thousand can be detected by the human nose. Professionals (actually called "Noses") in the perfume industry, or the wine or tea industries, for example, are able to identify those ten thousand different smells, but even the rest of us can easily identify as many as 1,000. The only difference between the professional and the rest of us is training. To illustrate this point in my wine classes, I ask my students to close their eyes and imagine moving through their local supermarket. As they picture themselves passing the meat counter, the fish counter, the produce section — passing potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes, pears, apples, peaches, strawberries, and then reaching the cheese section — the students are able to imagine the different smells just by picturing the different sources. Even readers of this book, by closing their eyes and imagining a tour of their local grocery market, will be able to recreate in their minds the smells of the assorted produce. This just confirms how powerful the average person's sense of smell is without him even being aware.
Flavor: Smell and Taste are the senses that determine the flavor of the wine, and of these, the most important is smell in the nose (olfaction), which accounts for about 75 percent, while taste on the tongue (gestation) accounts on average for just 25 percent.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Booklover's Guide to Wine"
Copyright © 2017 Patrick Alexander.
Excerpted by permission of Mango Media, Inc..
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What People are Saying About This
"If anyone defined the phrase Renaissance Man, Patrick is just that person. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone with such a rich intellect, having such diverse interests, and able to pair his love of history, geography, economics, and alcohol with so much humor. I am proud that my bookstore inspired this book, and I am happy that my friendship made it possible."
- MItchell Kaplan, owner Books & Books