If you don't know jack about wine, you're really missing out - but you've come to the right place. This stuff has fueled gatherings for thousands of years and made France, a country the size of Vermont, one of the world's most visited hot spots. Remember, one day you won't have the option of ignorance on this topic; you'll be expected to bring a bottle to friends' houses, to order at a nice restaurant, and to serve a respectable glass at your own dinner parties. We'll give you an overview of the pricey liquid, from how it's made to the important differences between colors of wine, their regions and vintages, and, of course, how you can best enjoy them.

    Learning the basics about wine and winemaking is useful because it allows you to (a) credibly evaluate the wines you taste and (b) impress your date.

    So what exactly is this stuff and why is everyone all up in arms about it? Wine isn't just high-octane grape juice. Making good wine is a process; if you don't believe us, try drinking some really cheap wine and you'll quickly learn why Monty Python claimed that it "opens the sluices at both ends." Fine wine involves taking a great grape vine, growing it in the right soil, ushering the grapes through the fermentation process, aging the wine properly, and releasing it at exactly the right time. In short, there are plenty of things to screw up. The English have been botching it for years.

    There are four major types of wine: red, white, rose (or blush), and champagne. As far as dining is concerned, we're going to focus only on the first two types, since champagne is its own animal and most wine advisers recommend chilled rosÚ only for a picnic on a hot day. And anything that comes in a can, a box, or a 40-ounce container isn't technically wine; it will be listed on the menu under the heading "Cheapskates."

    Essentially, wine is fermented grape juice, but with some twists. God left us with a few remnants of Eden when he gave us the boot, and one of the best is the fact that any fruit containing sugar will turn to booze if you leave it to ferment. In the process of fermentation, yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. Yeast is found all over the place, and in the wild, it lands on the skins of grapes. And although grapes will ferment naturally, vintners nowadays don't take any chances. They labor over the precise strain of yeast to be used in their recipes, because different choices will lead to different results.

    Most people believe that green grapes make white wine and red grapes make red wine. That is largely true, but you should know that white wine can also be made from red grapes. The inside of a red grape is essentially "white" - and most wines are made with just the inside of the grape. The red color in red wine is created by allowing the fleshy interior to mix with the pulpy skins during the crushing process, which infuses red wines with "tannin," an ingredient that gives red wine its distinctive flavor. So you can make white wine with red grapes - like White Zinfandel, a white wine made from a grape with a decidedly red exterior - but not red wine with green grapes. To top it off, most champagnes are made from red grapes. Weird, but true.

    The grapes are first crushed, with or without the skins, and then left to ferment. A disinfectant is used to neutralize any contaminants in the juice, such as mold and bacteria, that may have been on the grapes. The fluid, or "must," is then left to complete the fermentation process in either big steel vats or small wooden barrels. Fermentation in barrels requires a longer process and is harder to keep at the right temperature, but supposedly leads to a better finished product, for which you will, of course, end up paying more. Once the wine is properly fermented, the vintner plucks out all the little nibblets, and then matures the clarified vino. The better vineyards age the wine for years in oak barrels, which infuses the wine with positive woody hints. The lamer vineyards shove the stuff in a steel vat just long enough for it to be squirted into bottles with plastic spigots.

    Color is one of the major distinguishing features of wine. The main difference between red and white wine is that the grape juice used to make red wine contains skins, seeds, and stems. This is significant because leaving juice to mix together with the woody bits (known as maceration) causes the finished product to contain something we briefly mentioned earlier - tannins. If the term "tannin" bugs you because you don't really understand it, just think about a strong cup of tea. That woody taste is tannin. In wine, it can lend a wonderful complexity to red varieties.

    The reason you need to be aware of the differences between red and white wine is because of one of the oldest rules in fine dining: harmonize your food and drink. If you're going to be eating something delicate with subtle tastes, the Rule states that you should avoid drinking something with a strong flavor that will overshadow the food. Conversely, a hearty meal will often be best complimented by a strong wine with flavor of its own. But every single current guide to wine makes a point of saying that the Rule is out of date and the only hard-and-fast dictate of wine drinking is to choose something you enjoy.

    Nevertheless, there's a reason that the Rule evolved in the first place: it makes sense. If, for example, you're trying to pick up on the vague hints of Caribbean brine that delicately caress the primo slice of sushi you just ordered, slurping a bowl of tequila isn't going to help. Balancing food with drink may not be required anymore, but it's a good tip to keep in mind. A specific corollary of the Rule is that white wines tend to go best with fish and white meats, like chicken and pork; red wines go best with red meat and red sauces. Another adjunct to the Rule is that you should begin with lighter wines and progress to heavier ones throughout the course of the meal. This policy again reflects the idea that you should not overburden your palate: if you start with a strong drink, your taste buds will be shot and you won't be able to enjoy anything that comes after it. That is why aperitifs are typically light drinks and dessert liquids, like port, are rich and heavy.

    One of the main distinctions - after red and white - that's bandied about by wine drinkers is whether a particular quaff is "sweet" or "dry." Though imagining how a fluid can be dry is something of a logical stretch, just bear in mind that dry is nothing more than the opposite of sweet, and we all know what sweet tastes like. A related factor is the weight of a particular type of wine, which refers to the amount of alcohol present in a given sample.

    Keeping this simple matrix in mind, you will be well equipped to tackle any menu you face. If you want to buy time to consider what precisely you should choose from the wine list, tell the waiter you will decide on a wine once you have chosen your food. Then wait to see what your date orders. Next, simply ask your date whether he or she prefers red or white. If there's no preference, start with the Rule and suggest a wine that matches the overall color of his or her meal. Then simply toss out the ringer: "I think a Riesling might go well with your fish, though a Fume Blanc would also be a good choice if you'd like something a little drier." After your date closes his or her mouth and expresses a preference, you're golden. When the waiter returns, simply announce your collective choice: "We would like a Fume Blanc tonight, can you recommend one?" The waiter will direct your attention to a selection of your chosen wine on the list - and then all you have to worry about is the price.

    So we've gotten you past the threshold and into the land of respectable restaurant ordering. But as you will no doubt quickly learn, the universe of wine variables is vast. Once you have begun to get a grip on the color scheme, geography will be the next lesson. Anyone can make wine almost anywhere, but a few places have developed the process better than others. When we think of wine, we think first of France, Italy, and California. So when you are starting out, just stick to those regions. Sure, there is a wonderful universe of wines from Spain, Chile, Australia, Germany, and beyond, but we're looking to avoid embarrassment here, not to have you winning sommelier (wine steward) competitions. Now that you know how to finesse the red - versus - white debate at the table, here's another way to flex. Most fine restaurants, and many feeble ones, are either French or Italian. If they're neither, then they'll probably be American eclectic. So you'll obviously be on the right track if you order a native wine when eating the food. A quick guide to geographic specialties is in the bottle at left. Keep in mind that we're barely scratching the surface here and that each of those regions produces myriad other kinds of wine.

    Ultimately, you're going to have to be the one to sit down and start tasting. Begin with these basics to establish your landmarks in the vineyard universe, and then feel free to branch out to more esoteric wines.

    Everything you've just learned is going to enable you to make an intelligent wine choice the next time you're at a restaurant. Of course, if all goes well on that date, you may be looking to share another bottle of vino at your place. To do that, you're going to need to know how to open a bottle at home without stabbing your date with the corkscrew or drowning anyone in the process. Go to our web site, www.colleges.com, to learn how to properly open a bottle of wine.


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