I’m sure this has happened to you: You’re driving down the road and you see a sign for wine tasting with words mentioning a winery ahead and you think, “I didn’t know they’re growing grapes in this area.” If you’re surprised you’re suddenly in a grape-growing region, it’s most likely that you’re at a winery rather than a vineyard. The difference between the two is vineyards grow grapes and wineries make wine. Just because it’s a vineyard doesn’t mean they also make wine, and you can have a winery that doesn’t grow any grapes.
When you take a sip of red wine and your mouth feels puckery and dry that isn’t because the wine is absent of sweetness. It’s because the wine is high in tannins, which are the mystery ingredient in wine. These make food taste better and help the food make the wine feel smooth. Your mouth is full of proteins. These proteins are in your saliva, and they lubricate your mouth. When you take a sip of red wine, the tannins attach to the proteins in your mouth.
Indulge me for a brief moment. Imagine it’s a warm day and you’ve put together the quintessential summer dinner: baked potato with butter, sour cream and chives, fresh green salad with tomatoes and blue cheese dressing, a perfectly barbecued steak, and to accompany this, a full-bodied California Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe this is a wine that cost $20. This is a simple meal, and oh so delicious. You pour the wine and take a sip before tasting anything else. The first thing you notice is a sharp burning in your throat and a harsh drying in your mouth.
The grapes we make wine out of come from sturdy plants. They don’t need much manipulation. They don’t need great soil or lots of water. In fact, if you plant them in rich, black, loamy soil, like the soils of central Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa, they suffer and grow poorly. These soils are too rich, too good and too well-suited to plants that need help to thrive. Wine grapes don’t need much help; all they need is heat and something akin to dirt. The grape that makes wine is not the grape you see in the grocery store. It is a special grape from Europe called Vitis Vinifera.
I’m going to make a bold statement: We are living in the greatest age of wine that human history has ever seen. Never before have we had access to so many different wines from so many different places at such affordable prices. We are truly living in a golden age of wine. In 1950s America, the common wine options at your corner liquor store were something like chablis, red burgundy champagne and sherry.