Occasionally it’s a good idea to get back to the basics, and the beginning of the new year is as good a time as any. As they used to say when Johnny Carson hosted “The Tonight Show,” right here, on this one page, is everything you need to know about wine. Well, maybe not. Let’s just call this Wine 101. There are basically five categories of wine: red, white, rosé, sparkling and fortified. Most new world wine-producing countries (the United States, Australia, Chili, South Africa, etc.) identify their wines by grape variety, Chardonnay for example. That makes selecting wines much easier than in the old world (France is the primary example) where wine is primarily identified by the region of the country in which it is grown, Bordeaux for example. The vast majority of wine grapes, regardless of their external color, have clear or white juice. The color of wine, red, white and rosé, comes from the wine making process. Red and rosé wines are fermented after crushing, but before the juice is separated from the grape skins. This prolonged contact with the skins colors the juice and adds to the wine’s flavor and complexity. White wines are fermented after the juice is separated from the skins; therefore the juice remains clear or white. Certain grape varieties are traditionally used to produce red and rosé wines while others are traditionally used to produce white wines. Popular red wine varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah (Australians call it Shiraz) and Pinot Noir. Popular white wine grape varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Rosé wines can be made from both red and white wine grapes. Like red wines, they get their pink or rosy color from the juice being left in contact with the skins for some period of time. Sparkling wines are made primarily from either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes (or a combination of both). You can think of sparkling wines as basically carbonated versions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the bubbles coming naturally from manipulating fermentation during the wine making process. Champagne is sparkling wine that is made in a tiny area of France named Champagne. Beyond that geographic distinction, Champagne is no different than any other sparkling wine (despite what the French might think). Fortified wines, like Port, are something completely different. Port wine is typically richer, sweeter, heavier and higher in alcohol content than “regular” wine. This is achieved by the addition of a distilled spirit, similar to brandy, that kills the yeast and stops fermentation of the wine before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. Originally, the additional alcohol prevented the wine from spoiling so that it could survive long sea voyages. Port is commonly served in small quantities after meals. Blended wines are simply wines made from more than one type of grape. While a fairly recent arrival in the New World, almost all Old World wines are blends. One of the most famous blended wines is red Bordeaux, made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot grapes. Blended wines benefit from the differing characteristics of the grape varieties from which they are made. For example, a soft wine like Merlot or Cabernet Franc can be blended with a young Cabernet Sauvignon to produce a very pleasant wine retaining much of the flavor and complexity of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, but without some of its more difficult-to-drink characteristics. A wine’s vintage is the year in which the grapes were harvested and turned into wine. I find vintage to be less important than it used to be. In the past, viticulture and winemaking were much more an art than a science. This allowed large variations in the quality of wines from year to year, and made important knowing which years (vintages) were good and which were bad. While still an art, modern viticulture and winemaking is much more a scientific process. Modern methods have reduced, although not eliminated, year-to-year variations in the quality of wines, making vintage somewhat less important. There are certainly still great years (vintages), but fewer really bad ones. Feeling like an expert yet? There is one more thing you need to know, and it is very basic. You need to know what you like. And the only way to find out what you like is to drink a lot of wine (How bad can that be?). So sample as much wine as you can. Order wines by the glass; go to wine tastings and talk to other wine drinkers. When you encounter a wine you like, note the grape variety and where, geographically, it came from. Ask yourself what you liked about it and note that as well. Do this enough and you’ll be an expert, at least in knowing what you like. Cellar Notes If you think Zinfandel is white wine, you’re missing out on a great red wine. Zinfandel is considered, by most, to be a red wine grape but, like the majority of wine grapes, Zinfandel grape juice is clear and so can produce a white wine. In the early 1970s, a winemaker accidentally (literally) produced a very sweet white Zinfandel wine. He decided to bottle and sell it anyway. Today, white Zinfandel is one of the most widely consumed wines in the United States. Red Zinfandel, on the other hand, is a hearty, spicy, dry red wine known for its rich, dark color, medium tannin levels and a higher than average alcohol content. Zinfandel flavors include: raspberry, blackberry, cherry, plums, raisins, spice and black pepper. You can serve red Zinfandel with braised, grilled or roasted sausage, beef, lamb, pork and venison. It also works well with the spiciness of chilies and so can be served with a range of southwestern dishes. It is a great hamburger wine. If you are a trying to move from white to red wine, try the Sin Zin below. It’s not sweet, but its fruitiness, softness and big flavor may fool you into thinking it is. Sin Zin – Zinfandel Red Wine * Alexander Valley Vineyards * California, Alexander Valley 2004 * Spec’s $15 - $20 Zinfandel – Red Wine * Alexander Valley Vineyards * California, Alexander Valley 2004 * Spec’s $15 - $20 Three Valleys – Blended Red * Ridge Vineyards * Sonoma Country 2004 * Spec’s $20 - $25 Local oenophile David Dickson has been enjoying, learning and teaching about wine for nearly 30 years. He welcomes questions, comments and suggestions for columns at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Visit his Web site at www.lifeisacabernet.net.