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Let's Re-Wine: Wine 101 Basics

Bar None

with Debbiann Spence-Minott

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Over the last two weeks the conversation has been centred on wines. But how much do you really know about wines? Before we move to more complex discussions on aging, character and taste profile, it is important to understand the basics. For my more advanced readers, this article will serve as a refresher or you might even learn something new. Either way, keep reading!

What is Wine?

Simply put, wine is grape juice plus yeast. The yeast (unicellular fungi) converts the sugars contained in the grape juice to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process is known as fermentation.

Where Do Wines Come From?

The species of grape used in wine production is known as Vitis vinefera. The Vitis vinefera species grows well in Mediterranean climates, which have four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Clearly, Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean's tropical climate would not qualify for growing the Vitis vinefera species of grape. In wine language, we say wine comes from either the Old World or New World. The Old World represents the first societies to produce wines. Based on history, the Egyptians and the Phoenicians were the first civilisations to produce wine using grapes. Then the Greeks understudied the Egyptians, and the Romans expanded wine production by planting vines in North Africa, Germany, Portugal, Spain, France and much of the Italian mainland. Today, the Old World is represented as Germany, Portugal, France, Italy, and Spain. The New World rose to prominence after devastation struck the European vineyards in the form of the Phylloxera disease, a microscopic root louse native to the eastern United States which eradicated all the vineyards within Europe. It was not until growers began replanting their vineyards with rootstocks from North America resistant to the pest that Europe's winemaking history was revived. As a result, wine merchants became interested in rootstocks planted outside of Europe giving rise to the prominence of the New World: The United States of America, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada and, in more recent times, China!

Colours of Grapes: Colours and Styles of Wine

Grapes can be classified as being either red or white: the red grape looks purple and the white grape looks green. However, wine has three colours: red, white, and rosé (pronounced rose-zay). There are three styles of wines: still or table wine (has no bubbles), sparkling wine (a wine with bubbles or effervescence) and fortified wine (a wine surrounded by a spirit).

Expanding Your Wine V-ocabulary


Have you ever heard the term 'varietal' and pondered its meaning? Let me explain using an easy comparison. As Jamaicans, we all know mangoes. We have different types of mangoes, correct? Of course! For example: Blacky, Stringy, Number 11, East Indian, Julie, and the list goes on. We can say these are different varieties of mangoes. They look, smell and taste different; however, they are still mangoes. Let's say we planted the same East Indian mango tree in two different places: Kingston and St Elizabeth. Based on the climate, and soil type we can expect the East Indian Mango tree planted in St Elizabeth will produce a sweeter fruit. We can use this same analogy with grapes. There are different types of grapes – in fact, over 10,000! They look, smell, and taste different and if we planted the same grape in two different places, the climatic and soil conditions will impact the quality of the grape.

Here Are 10 Examples of Different Types of Grapes:

1 Chardonnay — One of the best known white varieties, Chardonnay comes from Burgundy and Chablis regions of France. Chardonnay ripens mid-season allowing it to be grown in cool regions. Chardonnay's popularity resulted in extensive planting in California throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

2 Gewürztraminer is a white grape, but unlike other white varieties, it turns to a deep russet colour at ripeness instead of staying yellow or green. Cool growing conditions help to bring out the distinct floral-spicy aroma for which the variety is famous. Gewürztraminer makes a delicious dry wine; however, it is best known for its sweeter styles including harvest dessert wines.

3 Pinot Grigio — This is known as Pinot Gris in France and Pinot Grigio in Italy. Although it produces a white wine, the clusters have a light pinkish/brown colour. Pinot Grigio ripens in the early season and is popular in cool regions with short growing seasons. Pinot Grigio is currently one of the fastest growing varieties in the US in terms of consumption, due to imports as well as new plantings.

4 Sauvignon Blanc — Also known as Fumé Blanc this grows vigorous vines that produce tight clusters of thin-skinned berries. It has a distinct varietal aroma that runs the spectrum including vegetative, grassy, gooseberry, and melon. When grown under cool conditions, the varietal character can become very intense. France, New Zealand and California produce some of the best Sauvignon Blancs.

5 Riesling — Called White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling in the United States, it is the most famous variety grown in Germany. Riesling is similar in character to Gewürztraminer. In cool areas, the fruity qualities and tart acid that the grape is known for are preserved. It can be made in a number of styles from dry, tart table wines to sweet dessert wines.

6 Merlot (pronounced mer-Low) is from the Bordeaux region where it is sometimes made into a wine by itself, but more often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. It has similar flavours to Cabernet but has a softer mouthfeel and gets ripe earlier in the season. Merlots have become popular because the good flavours and the lighter body make them more approachable with novice wine drinkers.

7 Cabernet (pronounced cab-ber-nay) Sauvignon — The classic variety of Bordeaux is one of the most popular varieties grown worldwide. It is known for having excellent colour and tannins combined with complex flavour.

8 Sangiovese — This classic grape of the Tuscany region is the major variety in Chianti wines. The variety's thin-skinned berries leave it vulnerable to rain and high temperatures at ripeness, and it can sometimes have a light colour. It produces tart wines with medium body and cherry flavours.

9 Zinfandel — Native to Europe, Zinfandel is best known in California. It has large, thinned-skinned clusters that have a tendency to become overripe in hot weather, resulting in a high-alcohol wine that has a 'raisiny' character. It makes a full-bodied wine with blackberry and pepper flavours and light tannins.

10 Pinot Noir (pronounced pee-no nwa) — The primary grape of Burgundy, it has a reputation for producing excellent long-ageing wines. Pinot Noir has many clones, from those that are suited to sparkling wine production to 'Burgundy' clones for table wine. It ripens early and does best in cool conditions. It is a delicate wine and must be treated very gently at the winery so that the balance and flavour is not lost.


Viticulture – similar to agriculture, this is the practice of planting grapes for wine production.

Vineyard – the place where the grapevine is grown.

Vinification – the process of converting grape juice into wine.

Vintage – the year the grapes were harvested or picked.

Reading the Wine Label

When reading a wine label, you will typically find the following information:

• The brand eg Barefoot

• The varietal eg Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot

• Vintage year

• Alcohol content (usually ranging from 5 to 15.5% ABV)

• Region (where the grapes are grown)

• The producer (usually the name of the winery)

Wine & Food Pairing

There are a few guidelines to pairing, but the most important thing is if you like it!

General Guidelines

• Light-bodied wine with lighter foods (eg a Pinot Grigio with a salad)

• Fuller-bodied wine with heavier, more flavourful foods (eg Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel with steak)

• Acidic wine + acidic foods (eg Sauvignon Blanc with escoveitch fish)

• Sweet wine with sweet foods (Moscato or Port with dessert)

• It is not what you are eating but how the food is prepared

• Fatty foods tone down tannins in a red wine

• Spicy foods make tannins and alcohol more predominant (red wines and spicy foods, for example: curried goat, jerk chicken etc is typically not encouraged as the spice is intensified).


• Kung Fu Girl Riesling

• Apothic Red (a blend of Merlot, Zinfandel, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon)

• Round Hill Chardonnay and Merlot

• Menage a Trois

• 19 Crimes

• Barefoot Wines, Banrock Station Moscato (for newbies to wines)

So, when next you are in your favourite restaurant or out shopping, order or pick up a bottle of wine, show off your new-found knowledge, and bask in the experience.


Readers' Feedback:

Imagine if we embraced life's moments big and small, without reservation. Together, we might fill the world with contagious joy. Please share with me your wine experiences or comments on the above article at, or follow me on IG @debbiansm #barnoneja. Join me next week as we shift the conversation from wines to a more spirited dialogue, in our Cocktail City edition.


Debbian Spence-Minott

An Alumna of the US Sommelier Association

CEO of the Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines

President – Jamaica Union of Bartenders and Mixologists (JUBAM) Limited