Wine 101: Wine Basics

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Holly Goodson, Biochemist in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, Consulting Biochemist for Ironhand Vineyard in the St. Joseph River Valley
  • Andrew Waterhouse ‘77, Director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine & Food Science at UC-Davis

The first virtual event in the series Wine Behind the Curtain explained everything from how wine is produced to selecting, tasting, and aging wine, to becoming a stellar consumer of wine. This event was moderated by Holly Goodson, a biochemist in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame. Goodson was joined by Andrew Waterhouse ’77, the Director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine & Food Science at UC Davis and Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. This discussion began with a basic introduction to what wine is and how to taste it, followed by a deep dive into what distinguishes one wine from another and what might make  good wine go bad. The session concluded with an opportunity for the speakers to answer some questions from viewers.

Waterhouse introduced viewers to wine by holding a glass of red wine in hand, demonstrating how wine should sit in a vessel, how the sunlight should or should not seep through the wine, and how the wine might move about the glass. As he described the appearance and scent of the wine, he also detailed the chemical composition of wine, a mildly acidic hydroalcoholic solution of water, grapes, sugar, and other additions to bring the substance through the fermentation process to become alcoholic. Waterhouse discussed the proper way to judge a wine’s quality and how to properly taste it. The four-step “see-swirl-smell-sip” process includes looking at the wine, swirling the liquid within the glass to observe its color and move the aroma molecules about the glass, smelling the wine and identifying its different dimensions (for example, fruitiness), and sipping the wine. While some wines may have fruit infusions or additions, wine makers are required to declare those additions on the bottle, and most wines get their fruity flavor and aroma from fermentation rather than actual ingredients within the wine. Through fermentation, sugar is converted into alcohol and grapes, yeast, and fermentation bacteria combined through chemical processes result in interesting blends of aromas. 

Goodson and Waterhouse additionally discussed the different types of wine – dry wine, sweet wine, sparkling wine, port, and sherry – and how they are created through different methods of fermentation and grape growing. Certain wines require very limited exposure to oxygen, as interactions with oxygen can dramatically change the character of a wine. A wine that is dry means that all the sugar is fermented, while a sweet wine will be fermented for a shorter duration and still contain natural sugars when it is bottled. Different from flat wines, sparkling wine contains carbon dioxide and is fermented within a closed container so that it is bubbly like Champagne. The location and conditions in which grapes are grown are also factors in the type of wine. A wine is often defined based on where the grapes are grown– such as Bordeaux wine from Bordeaux, France– despite its fermentation, bottling, and distribution possibly occurring in other regions. Further, hilly and rocky growing sites are homes of high quality grapes, as the vines “struggle” to produce the best grapes. To explain how wine sellers label and sell wine, Waterhouse presented three different bottles of wine from increasingly specific regions in California and at increasingly higher price points. While location and price may be identifiers of more exclusive, small-batch wine, Waterhouse clarified that expensive wine ($50+) is not necessarily better than a less expensive wine ($10). Goodson also detailed how personal biological factors can influence wine preferences independent of price.

Finally, Waterhouse unpacked some of the problems and faults that can occur within wines and wine bottles of which to be aware. Corked, or TCA-contaminated, wine can smell like wet cardboard and temporarily harm a drinker’s taste buds if consumed. Over-oxidized wine can also be damaged; while not harmful, many wine lovers will choose not to consume a corked, over-aged, or unintended sherry-adjacent wine. Waterhouse explained how the innovation of new bottle closures such as screw caps or synthetic corks can help prevent tainted wine. However, Waterhouse also noted how these closures can complicate consumer-driven wine aging, a topic to be discussed to a greater extent in future episodes. 

To conclude the event, both speakers answered a few questions from the audience about which wines are appropriate to age at home and how to know if a bottle is good to drink. They also addressed wine ratings and teased how to pick a desirable bottle of wine, a popular question from casual wine drinkers that will be expanded on in future episodes. 

Visit the event page for more.

  • To properly taste a glass of wine, consumers should first look at the glass, swirl the substance to observe the color and activate the wine’s aromas, smell the wine, sip the wine, and, if at a proper and lengthy wine tasting, spit. (14:18)
  • The fermentation process chemically changes sugar into alcohol as well as the grape juice into the enjoyable aromas and flavors that differentiate wines. (20:49)
  • Different wines are defined by where their grapes are grown, how long they are fermented and oxidized, how much sugar remains in the wine when it is bottled, if the wine is carbonated, and if any infusions or juices are added to the wine between fermentation and bottling. (23:49)
  • The climate, water availability, and skill level of grape farmers and fermentors are some of the most important factors in producing good wine. Further, the best wines are made from grapes grown at difficult growing sites with rocky or hilly conditions that require the vines to struggle to produce fruit. (38:45)
  • Wine experts and wine-making students have mixed opinions on the cost vs. quality relationship of wine. Higher wine prices typically reflect scarcity or perceived good reputation; however, there is a plethora of fantastic wines that are relatively young, inexpensive, and accessible. (42:05)

  • “So what is wine? Yes, that’s a good question. Legally in the United States, if you sell something that’s labeled wine, what it means is that it’s the fermented product of grapes.” (Andrew Waterhouse, 10:43)
  • “Many people have experienced oversteeped black tea, and so that’s something that they’ll be very familiar with to understand what a tannic wine is. You get the same feel like you would from oversteeped black tea.” (Holly Goodson, 19:29)
  • “It’s kind of funny to me as a chemist that we talk about, you know, the fruity tastes of wine, and really most of those arise from the fermentation process.” (Andrew Waterhouse, 21:33)
  • “If you know anything about wine, you’ve heard of certain areas where wines come from. And certainly in the U.S., the most famous is Napa Valley, but you know you probably heard of Tont Burgundy, Bordeaux, and of course there are many, many other places that are famous for their wine. It’s because in that particular location the grapes that are grown there develop particular– well, it’s chemicals in the grapes– which then during fermentation produce wines which are remarkable.” (Andrew Waterhouse, 29:19)
  • “You hear this often in wine literature that, you know, ‘Our our site is really difficult. Our  vines really have to struggle to produce their fruit,’ and that is a fact. If you have a rocky hillside site and just enough water for the grapes to survive, they do produce really intensely flavored fruit.” (Andrew Waterhouse, 39:22)

Science and TechnologyAndrew WaterhouseCollege of ScienceDigest171Holly GoodsonMendoza College of BusinessNotre Dame Family WinesRobert Mondavi Institute

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