We could think of it this way: the four basic flavor components in wine are sweet, acid, bitter, and tannin. We enjoy these flavors in drinks individually all the time. For sweet, think fruit juice; for acid, think lemonade; for bitter, think very dark cocoa or dark beer; and for tannin, remember your last cup of black tea. Add fizz and you have carbonated soda.
Wine combines all these flavors, including fizz occasionally – sounds disgusting, but isn’t! – in subtle, balanced doses, and fills them out with wonderful tastes like apple or cherry or plum. Spices, nuts, butter, cake, and more can also come to mind when you taste wine. Drinking wine with a meal makes all these flavor experiences even more enjoyable and more complex.
How did it all start? Of course it begins with grapes. Yeasts occur naturally on grape skins. At some point in prehistory, someone learned that when grapes are crushed and left in a crock, the yeasts act on the sweet juices and ferment them into alcohol. All that was left to do was to store the new elixir and drink it, and people have been doing so ever since.
According to author Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible, of all the thousands of grape varieties in the world, only about 150 make good wine consistently, wherever they are planted. Of these 150, only nine are the "noble grapes," that is, grapes which make excellent wines of distinct aromas and flavors, often able to improve with age. The noble white varieties are sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, semillon, and chardonnay; the noble red grapes are cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, merlot, and syrah.
All these are from the vitis vinifera species, and all seem to be native to Europe or Asia. Our own continent is the native home of another grape species, vitis labrusca, which includes varieties like the Concord jelly grape and the old-fashioned scuppernong. These make wines that are not valued much because they taste so cloyingly sweet and so Concord jelly-like, but the important vinifera types are now planted in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the wine industry from California to Argentina to Australia and back to Europe – and even to China – is booming.
Perhaps this is partly because more and more people realize that wine taken in moderation is a healthy drink, especially good, it seems, for the heart. It at least is made simply, from a healthful fruit, the grape. Contrast this with the carbonated pop we tend to down by the gallon, which always tastes exactly the same and floods the system with nothing but sugar water, color, and carbonation. If you are concerned with the effects of the alcohol, remember to serve water with your meal, too. Water for thirst, wine for pleasure, is a good rule of thumb. Some authorities suggest that people who get headaches upon wine drinking are actually not drinking enough water.
So where do you start, if you want to bring home a wine for dinner tonight? You can begin your adventure with an inexpensive bottle of Vouvray, which is a soft, pleasant, slightly sweet white wine from the Loire valley in France. Vouvrays are made from the chenin blanc grape (one of the noble varieties). It will probably cost from $8 to $12, and it should go nicely with a dinner of chicken, fish, a pasta with a simple creamy sauce, or a pork dish that is not too spicy with barbecue flavors. It would even be very good with turkey or chicken sandwiches. Whatever you have left in the bottle can be saved, refrigerated, for several days or up to a week. Just take it out of the fridge and let it warm up a half hour or so, so that the next time you drink it, it will not be ice cold.
And that is all there is to bringing the pleasure of wine into life. The writer Hugh Johnson, in Vintage: the Story of Wine, notes that wine is, along with pottery and bread and textiles, among mankind’s oldest possessions. When you start your adventure, you will be following in some very ancient footsteps indeed.