Real Food Encyclopedia | Wine

Wine was an early, essential component to civilization as it developed all over the world. Fossilized wild grape seeds have been found at archaeological sites in what are now Greece and France indicating that winemaking was happening 12,000 and 10,000 years ago, respectively.

By medieval times, red and white wines had become the drink of all peoples and social classes in southern Europe, where grapes were cultivated. (In the North and East, less friendly climes to grape growing, beer and ale remained kings.)

We’d barely recognize the herby, vinegary taste of those wines, much less enjoy the grittiness afforded by the natural additives and spices used for flavoring and medicinal purposes.

California wine country saw its first grapes planted in 1839. It took another thirty years for commercial winemaking to get going, but get going it did. Unfortunately, between a grape surplus, phylloxera outbreaks and Prohibition, the industry in the US ground nearly to a halt by the early 1930s. Some vintners continued to produce sacramental wine, but most were wiped out. After World War II, the industry recovered, and as of the Paris Tasting of 1976, in which Napa’s finest were judged superior to French samples, California had arrived.

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Fun Facts about Wine: 

  • Dionysus is the Greek god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, ritual madness and religious ecstasy. He’s been credited with inspiring, among other things, early Greek theatre. (And a lot of hangovers.)
  • California wines became famous after the 1976 Judgment of Paris tasting, when Chateau Montelena’s bottle of 1973 Napa Valley Chardonnay beat out a slew of old-guard French competitors to take the honors for best Chardonnay. Stag Leap’s best-tasting Cabernet triumphed during the same event and the Napa Valley became a household name. California’s wines were repeat victors at anniversary taste tests, to the French’s chagrin.
  • “Champagne” is a fiercely guarded, trademarked term. In fact, only wines produced at one of the 300 officially recognized Champagne houses in France are allowed to bear the name on their label. Everything else is champagne-styled or sparkling wine.

What to Look for When Buying Wine 

Some wines are named according to the grapes used to make them (e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon) and others for the regions where different grape varieties are blended (e.g., Burgundy, Bordeaux). Here is a sampling of typical wines; there are a number of online resources to read about wines made from blends of different grapes.


Cabernet Sauvignon: Called “the King” of the grapes, it was the most widely planted premium red grape around the world until the 1990s, thanks to its ease of cultivation in many climates. The grapes are thick-skinned, grown on hardy, low yielding, late-budding vines and yield a remarkably consistent-tasting wine. Cabs are aged in oak barrels.

Merlot: The smooth drinking, medium-bodied and pretty plum-colored wine comes to us courtesy of the dark-blue grape that’s still the most-planted in Bordeaux. It’s possibly a descendant of Cabernet Franc, the third grape featured in Bordeaux wines. Despite a character’s constant dissing in an Oscar-winning screenplay, plenty of us do like Merlot; its popularity boomed in the last twenty years in particular.

Syrah (aka Shiraz): Another French grape (not to be confused with Petite Sirah!) Syrah/Shiraz is extremely popular in Australia, where it is the most-grown dark-skinned grape and has been a star since the 1860s. Back in France, Syrah originally became famous thanks to the Hermitage wines of its home region, favorites of the well heeled in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Zinfandel: A black-skinned grape now popular in California, which usually used to produce red wine. You may know this grape best from early forays into wine drinking, as it’s used to make white zinfandel. The grapes’ red skins are removed quickly after the crushing so that they don’t have a chance to pigment the wine, thus yielding a rosy-hued, somewhat sweet pour with a relatively low alcohol content.


Chardonnay: America’s most popular wine (white or red) and most-planted grape around the world. Its flavor is distinct based in part on where the grapes are grown — so California, France’s Burgundy region and Australian Chardonnays taste a bit different, from dry to medium-dry. Further, the style in which the wine is made affects its taste and finish (fermentation time and any oak-aging). A prolific grape that can produce affordable, drinkable everyday wines, it’s little wonder that Chardonnay is so ubiquitous.

Sauvignon Blanc: This green-skinned grape produces the other most popular varietal in the US. While grown throughout France, Sauvignon Blanc has come to more recent fame from New Zealand, California and Chilean winemakers. Thanks to the sandiness or stoniness of soils found in their vineyards, producers in New Zealand make a lot of on-the-ground decisions as to harvest time that makes for quite unique-tasting wines. (Sometimes, they’ll harvest in stages and mix the grapes from each interval.)


Bordeaux: Like Paris, the Bordeaux region of France has a Left Bank and a Right Bank. Left Bank producers tend to be the big estates — think Château Latour — and make Cabernet-heavy wines. On the Right Bank, smaller producers make blends that tend to feature more Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Burgundy: Burgundy is where things get even more interesting and complicated; this is a region of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Chablis in the north, with its “zesty” white wines, and Côte de Nuits is in the south, with its rich Pinot-based wines. To find out more, check out this great tutorial!

Champagne: So how did we get bubbly wine? Way back when, Northeastern French winemakers found that cold winter temperatures stopped the fermentation process of young wines, and dormant yeast cells would reawaken each spring as temperatures warmed, restarting the process. Fermentation yields carbon dioxide gas, pressure builds in each bottle, and that’s how you end up with that satisfying “pop!” of the cork. Modern methods for producing delicious, festive bottles of Champagne and sparkling wine are variations on that basic process.

Tuscany: Chianti is produced in central Tuscany and is sometimes called the Bordeaux of Italy. Once upon a time, it was made with a blend including green grapes. After a postwar production boom, in the 1970s Tuscan winemakers sought to reclaim Chianti’s reputation and snuck around legal restrictions, developing “Super Tuscan” wines whose blends drifted redder and redder. And even a little French. In the wake of this intrigue, some Super Tuscans were reclaimed as legally sanctioned Chiantis. It’s also an infamous companion to a dinner of liver and fava beans. (Go ahead, we’ll wait…)

Sustainability of Wine

Water Usage in Wine

Wine has a hefty water footprint, with one glass of wine (about a half a cup) requiring about 29 gallons to make (France: almost 24 gallons; Italy: ditto; Spain: 51.5 gallons.) Researchers at Stanford University (advising the state government on climate change’s likely effect on the wine industry) noted that while rising temperatures are the biggest long-term problem, in the near term, winemakers will have to deal with falling precipitation levels and overtaxed groundwater resources, as do all of California’s farmers.

Pesticides and Wine

A word on labeling: “organic” wines are those made without man-made chemical inputs and fertilizers applied to the vines; the terms refer to the grapes grown, not the overall vintner management. “Sustainable” wines are not necessarily made without man-made chemicals, but consider the overall habitat and ecosystem, including labor practices, in management. “Biodynamically-produced” wines are produced following the philosophy of 1920s Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, whose farming approach incorporates an attunement to spiritual or astrological forces in the cosmos. Like organic wines, they also don’t incorporate man-made chemicals into production.

If you spot roses growing in vineyards, you’re spotting the canaries in coal mines with regard to fungal infections or pests; vintners spray according to whether or not roses get sick. Some vintners grow mustard flowers or radishes amidst the vines, as the glucosinolates in the spicy plants are powerful pesticides. Falcons eat at least a small bird or two a day, helping to manage predators in the field.

In March 2014, a French winemaker was imprisoned for refusing to use pesticides on his field in the Côte d’Or region of the country; the government mandated their use as a measure in a decades-old battle against a bacterial infection. Whether in Long Island, California, Chile or New Zealand, a burgeoning movement of winemakers worldwide is keen on a more sustainable approach.

There is a growing interest in “natural” wines. There is no official definition for these but it usually means that the grapes have been raised organically and biodynamically, and that nothing has been added or removed during the processing (sulfites, additives, etc.). Taste-wise, they are often described as “funky,” and they look sort of earthy and cloudy.

Environmental Impacts of Glass Wine Bottles

The biggest environmental culprit in winemaking, arguably, has to do with the bottles, because of their weight. A life cycle inventory study commissioned by Tetra Pak (so, conflict of interest?) in 2007 found that delivering 1,000 liters of wine in Tetra Paks (think juice boxes) used less energy and produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than did plastic bottles or traditional glass bottles. That said, glass bottles are recycled more often than are plastic (though not as much as beer bottles). Moreover, there’s not as much of a market for green glass, and they’re seldom included in “bottle bills” that pay consumers for bottles sold to recycling centers. (In California, the recycle rate for those bottles is 84 percent.)

The biggest asterisk of all, in the interest of full disclosure: at least for now, nothing except a glass bottles yields an age-able wine. Boxed wines do fine for 6 to 8 months (for whites) and 10 to 13 months (of reds) but aren’t going to hold up in a cellar or for any length of time.

Labor Issues with Wine

The Delano Grape strike of the 1960s and 70s were about table grapes (the type we eat out of hand) but suffice it to say that they are grown under the same conditions; i.e.; it takes substantial heat to grow any kind of grapes. In 2008 there were heat-related deaths of two 17 year old farmworkers, who were pruning grapevines for West Coast Grape Farming, a company of which Fred Franzia of Two Buck Chuck fame, is a part owner. Their deaths sparked marches and calls for better working conditions, including access to shade and water during heat waves. A number of fair trade certifications have sprung up in recent years. More recently, California grape farms have struggled with labor shortages due to immigration crackdowns.

The Effects of Climate Change on Wine

Temperatures in the US have increased an average of one to two degrees since the 1960s; in 2014, grapes began budding a month ahead of schedule in Napa Valley. In the short term, a longer growing season means bigger, jammier, even better wines, so for the moment, global warming is not the biggest challenge for California’s wine industry.

Over the next 40 years, temperatures are expected to rise four degrees, which could trigger at least a 50 percent loss in arable land in the Napa Valley suitable for growing grapes. The French are dealing with the same problem; indeed, the wine industry there is already buying up land in southern England to use in a warmer future. In southern Australia, producers are looking to Tasmania and other regions as options. Growers at higher altitudes and closer to the ocean worldwide will likely weather temperature changes, as their microclimates should afford some protection. That said, because of subtle shifts in temperature and wine’s flavor being so dependent upon the soil in which grapes are grown, wines may taste different.

Wine Seasonality

Wine grapes are harvested in late summer/early fall, into October and even November. That’s only the first step in the process of winemaking, though. Wine is fascinating because it is both highly seasonal (its flavors will change from year to year) and yet not (it takes months to make even a young wine, and many are aged prior to retailing; you may continue to age it for years at home).

Wine and Geography

Wine is made from grapes grown on every continent (except Antarctica) in most climates and soil types. There are eighteen “noble grapes” which are internationally recognized varietals — and as a grape like Zinfandel or Malbec becomes more common, it may be added to the list.

Drinking Wine

Storing Wine

Here are the basics of wine storage for most of us: Not too hot, not too cold and not in the sun. (If you’re developing a serious collecting habit, investigate more precise guidelines.)

Cooking with Less Waste

Cooking with and Ordering Wine

Pro tip: The best advice when choosing a wine: talk to your friendly local wine shop manager or sommelier. They’re in the happy business of matching people and wines, so no matter — perhaps, especially — if you’re on a budget, sally up and ask. Remember, price alone doesn’t tell any wine’s whole story.

What kind of wine goes well with what kind of food? Simple answer: whites with poultry or fish, reds with red meat, some bubbly when you’re celebrating! Overall, when it comes to wine it helps to know if you’re looking to complement your food or enjoy that special bottle with some friends — so you’ll know what to avoid, if nothing else.

When it comes to cooking, another simple nugget: don’t cook with one you couldn’t drink. Period. Note I said “couldn’t” — no need to use the really, really good stuff, unless it’s going to be the star of your recipe, such as in Coq au Vin (a favorite version is courtesy of Ms. Julia Child). Some other meat-y classics: Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese sauce or steak with red wine sauce. Fish-y options: mussels with white wine sauce (aka “beurre blanc”) or a springy scallops and asparagus dish with white wine sauce.

Vegetarian and vegan options: this pasta with Provencal wine sauce is a quick, tasty favorite. Red-wine braised cabbage and onions hit the comfort food spot (especially paired with pierogis). Ditto pasta with tomato-mushroom sauce or garlic-butter-white wine pasta. As for dessert, think fruit poached in wine with some spices.

This winter, whether to fend off the effects of a polar vortex or to make merry with friends for the holidays, don’t forget to indulge in some mulled wine. Bonus: your house will smell spectacular afterwards. Jamie Oliver’s has a delicious take on this!

Wine Nutrition

Thanks to great publicity, the legend of the and the “French Paradox” has caused millions of Americans to turn to drinking Merlot, the velvety wine which was easy to pronounce, easier to drink and easy on the wallet (at least sometimes) in recent years. But wine’s health benefits when consumed in moderation, especially red wines, are a hotly debated matter among health care practitioners. The Mayo Clinic says that antioxidants in red wine, called polyphenols, may help protect your heart’s blood vessels; one in particular, resveratrol, may protect against obesity and diabetes, but the research cited had only been done on animals (rodents and pigs).

Johns Hopkins University researchers, looking at a set of older adults in Italy, didn’t find those benefits were due to resveratrol; bioflavonoids, on the other hand, which help reduce inflammation and blood clots, could be the handy helpers in our red.

The Yale-New Haven hospital, among numerous other publications and lifestyle sites, suggests that men drink one or two and women one serving of red per day to reap the most boosts while emphasizing a low/moderate consumption message — no binging! Researchers at the University of California-Davis have found “flavonoid favorites” like Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Syrah or Pinot Noirs have more of the antioxidant than do Merlot or any white wines.