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Wine can be a complicated language to understand. Forget about the difficulties of tasting and describing it for just a second. When you first set out to learn a thing or two about wine, the first obstacle is getting past the complicated names listed on a label.

I first learned this lesson in a winery’s tasting room in Asti, which lies at the heart of the Italian Piedmont wine region. As I stared at the many bottles before me, I was admittedly a bit confused. Only a few of the names made any sense at all. The one with chardonnay listed on its label was easy enough to understand — my parents had similar looking ones from Napa Valley in their wine rack at home. And I recognized the word Barolo as a nearby town I had seen earlier on my Google Maps app. I wasn’t entirely sure about the moscato d’Asti and was only able to translate half of its meaning, figuring it was somehow related to the sweet moscato wine that was popular at home.

That’s when Roberto Bava, the winery’s manager and winemaker, noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Ah, you are a bit overwhelmed by all of the different names?” he asked.

Wine 101

The Sweet Spot

When a sweet wine is balanced, there's nothing like it


Sweet wines. Just hearing those two words being uttered is enough to prompt an obligatory eye roll from almost any wine drinker. Sweet wines? What kind of unsophisticated person drinks those?

Certainly not me. Well…I never used to, at least.

It wasn’t even that long ago that I rejected the idea of sipping on anything remotely sweet. One night my friend brought over a bottle of her new favorite wine, moscato, for me to try. I wasn’t too surprised. Almost every twenty-something I knew desired a glass of the sweet wine. But I was used to drinking the big, bold reds of Spain and affordable sparklers like prosecco, and sweet wines like moscato remained far off my radar.

“It’ll soon be one of your favorites, too,” she told me. I wasn’t so sure.

Now, I’m not one to ever turn down anything complimentary, especially if it’s wine, but I was disappointed in her latest obsession. At the time, we were in the middle of a moscato boom, the result of influential hip hop artists like Kanye West, Drake, and Lil’ Kim endorsing the slightly fizzy sweet wine. References of it in lyrics like “still over in Brazil sippin’ moscato,” and “lobster and shrimp and a glass of moscato,” caused its popularity to surge. According to a Nielson study, sales of moscato rose 73 percent in 2011. And that’s on top of the 100 percent spike the category saw in the year before.

Wine 101

Pucker Up

How acidity makes wines drinkable, refreshing, and able to age


I teetered on top of the enormous tractor, careful not to lose my balance as it shook from side to side. The vibrating machine hovered over a single row of vines at a time, shaking their perfectly ripe grapes free into the large bins below. I turned around to glance into the dark rows of vineyards lit only by the moon above.

“Why are we harvesting the grapes in the middle of the night, again?” I asked over the roaring sound of the tractor. “Is everyone here just nocturnal?”

“No, not exactly,” said Juan de Benito Ozores, director of the Alvarez y Diez winery, who was seated beside me. “You see, the fresh juice from the grapes, it would oxidize too quickly in the heat. We don’t want them to lose the perfect sugar and acidity levels they have right now.”

It was just past midnight in Rueda, a small white wine-producing region just a two-hour drive from Madrid. Though the timing was a bit odd to me, I had ventured there to watch the winery’s annual grape harvest, which started at ten o’clock at night and would finish just before sunrise.

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When we talk about bubbles and wine, the conversation inevitably always begins with champagne, heralded by many as the greatest sparkling wine in the world.  I’m talking about the real deal, of course — the fancy, elegant, complex sparkling wine that can only come from Champagne, France — not that $6 bottle of flavored Andre or $8 Korbel labeled as California “Champagne.”

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Floral. Earthy. Honeyed. Jammy. Tropical. Spicy. Herbal. There are infinite descriptors that wine professionals love to use when describing the way a wine smells. Some might sound a bit abstract, but you can actually find all of these aromas — and about 793 more — pouring out of almost any glass of wine. MORE

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I recently received a sample of a rather eye-catching bottle of wine. Included in the shipment was a news release. It invited me to celebrate the wine’s “bold new label,” which was “sure to grab attention at the next summer barbeque.” It also informed me that the wine was both “fun and unconventional” and that it “reflects the Wild West experimentation of the Paso Robles AVA.”

Wine 101

Tickled Pink

Embrace the sociable sophistication of real rosé


“That just might be the girliest thing I’ve seen you drink all year,” said my friend as I sipped on a vibrant pink glass of rosé at a local wine bar recently. This friend of mine trained in the army, still wears her sturdy combat boots, and doesn’t own makeup — the least “girly” girl I know. When I suggested she try my wine, she refused to let go of the grip she had on her own full glass, which she had ordered from the “Sociable Reds” category on the wine list.

I didn’t understand her hesitation. If she were truly feeling sociable, she would have at least sampled a sip. After all, there’s nothing more friendly and approachable than a chilled glass of pink rosé on a sunny, spring day. “Come on, you’ll like it,” I said. “I promise, you won’t turn into Barbie if you try it.”

“But it looks like Arbor Mist!” she said with a laugh. “Too sweet for me.”

Yes, the Spanish 2011 Celler el Masroig Les Sorts Rosat in my glass was undeniably bright pink in color. And yes, it did look dainty and feminine and flirty. But it was also everything a serious rosé should be — youthful and vivacious, with ripe, bold berry flavors, juicy acidity, and a hint of spiciness. It made me feel good when I drank it — revived and refreshed — and it was far from being too sweet.

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The first thing I wish I had known before I approached the car rental kiosk: Almost all cars in Europe are manual. The second: European car rental companies don’t really care about silly Americans like me that don’t know how to drive them.

Many young Americans are just like me. I learned how to drive in an automatic car. Five years have passed and I still cannot operate one with a manual transmission. At home, in my good old automatic, this is never an issue. But when I arrived in Europe last fall for a self-guided tour through wine regions in Spain, France, and Italy, my inability to manage a stick shift suddenly became a hindrance. Luckily, one rental company offered a solution to my problem: the Smart Car, which has an automated manual transmission and can be driven in either mode. It was extremely tiny, like a toy car — much smaller than any car I had ever driven. I wondered where exactly I was supposed to put my oversized suitcase. But while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride for a lengthy journey through wine country — certainly not very impressive to roll up to a winery in — the little car took me far.

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I am not a patient person. My mother says I’ve been this way from day one — born several weeks early, not willing to wait another minute to be part of the world. During my eighth birthday party, she joked with my aunt about her “frustrated little girl who wished she was turning 28 instead.” And before I even started my freshman year of high school, I eagerly narrowed down which colleges I would apply to years in the future.

Not much has changed. So while it’s a bit disappointing, I’m not at all surprised that the only wine I have ever bought with the thought of aging in mind is already gone. My inability to wait for anything, of course, interfered with the plan.

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“Oh no!” I heard my friend shriek from her kitchen. Had a mouse just run across her foot? Was an oven mitt on fire? Did someone put too much soap in the dishwasher? I couldn’t quite tell, but the loud slamming drawers and cabinet doors sounded rather serious.

“I can’t find it anywhere!” She came running back into the room, her hands full of various utensils. “What about a knife? Or maybe scissors?” she asked with a puzzled expression. “Do you know how to uncork a bottle with a fork?”

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“This one smells earthy. Strong herbal and tobacco notes, too,” said the older woman sitting across from me in the winery’s tasting room. She stuck her nose deeper into her wine glass, gracefully swirled it around a few times, and then took a few generous sips. “With ripe berries and nice oak flavors. Now, this is my kind of wine.”

“Really?” asked her husband. “Because it smells very oaky to me,” he said with a look of disgust before dumping his entire glass. Oaky. He spat the word out as if it were a curse.

“Well, I really love it,” his wife said, a bit puzzled by his response. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with this wine.”

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I’m a firm believer that size doesn’t actually matter. At 5-foot-9, I’m pretty tall for a woman, though I’ve never had a problem dating a shorter guy before. I’ve lived happily in apartments both tiny and large. And I don’t fear any size portion of food put in front of me.

The very same rule applies to my wine. I see nothing wrong with the powerful, dark fruity blasts of pleasure that complex red wines so generously offer. In fact, I often desire them. But with these big-bodied, bold-flavored deep reds, it’s not uncommon to also find heightened levels of alcohol, and not everybody loves punchier wines as much as I do. Others loathe them, running in the other direction when they hear the phrase “high-alcohol wines” being used.

Wine 101

The Joy of Tannins

Exploring one of wine's most ineffable traits


There’s no accessory I wear better than my pair of purple lips. You know the ones I’m talking about—the lips that barely hide the stained smile underneath. They’re a dead giveaway that I’ve been enjoying an intimate encounter with red wine, but that’s never a bad thing for me.

Others are eager to scrape their mouths clean of the evidence, though I don’t see why. Those stained lips are souvenirs of the tannins in sensational wines that should be worn with pride.

Chances are, you’ve already heard the talk about tannins. In the wine world, the word has gone viral and now appears almost everywhere—in wine reviews, on back labels, and as a part of tasting descriptions. Sometimes you see tannins identified as smooth and velvety, other times rich and lingering, or gripping and drying—but when it comes to wine what do those words all mean?