Holiday party fodder: Sound intelligent about wine in two minutes

Holiday parties present a plethora of “impress people” possibilities. Wine knowledge delivered with confidence can bring out your “inner coolness” as well as shut down that verbose braggadocio trying to appropriate your date. Armed with a wine label, you can take over the scene with these urbane tidbits, both useful and trivial.

Most wines carry a vintage date, meaning at least 95 percent of the grapes used were harvested in that year. Varying weather has a huge impact on a wine’s quality and complexity, especially in areas with often severe conditions and growing restrictions like France. Sunny and warm California and Australia enjoy consistent weather and fewer government hassles about vineyard management so vintage dates don’t matter as much. Cool factoid #1: 2005 was an outstanding vintage across France. Cool factoid #2: Most Champagnes and sparkling wines are non-vintage, indicating a blend of wines from several years. (Read more about vintages)

Appellation/American Viticultural Area (AVA)
The appellation (or AVA in the U.S.) tells you where the grapes were grown, pointing out the distinctive qualities of the soil and climate in that particular region. Those in the know call this concept “terroir” (pronounced “tare WAHR”). Practice this French word – it packs loads of coolness. European countries like France and Italy (aka “Old World”) label wines based on region rather than grape variety, realizing one vineyard can exhibit a drastically different personality from another 50 yards (or 47 meters) away. Thus a Burgundy, despite its reddish reputation, can be a pinot noir or chardonnay and a bottle called Corton can be either as well. But New World wines, in classic rebel style, operate differently, indicating both the grape and the region on the label, like Dry Creek Valley Cabernet. Cool factoid #1: South Eastern Australia is their largest appellation, growing practically every grape imaginable and many you can’t pronounce. Cool factoid #2: Napa Valley became the first AVA established in California, in 1981. (read “The ABC’s of AOC, AVA and Appellations“)

Alcohol Content
Knowing the alcohol percentage of a wine (printed on the label) allows assessments for food pairing, driving home, and getting your date drunk (not necessarily in that order). I find anything over 13.5 percent approaches “don’t drink with food” levels, where acidity often gets overruled and drowns out flavor in all but the heartiest dishes. European wines usually pack less heat, simply because the weather isn’t as searing (puerile fruit produces less sugar and thus less alcohol), but in recent years, the percentages have been sneaking up. All is not lost though – hotter wines make exceptional aphrodisiacs. Cool factoid #1: By federal law, a winery pays an additional tax to release a wine surpassing 15 percent 17 percent alcohol. Cool factoid #2: Zinfandel and viognier, two grapes requiring rich ripeness to attain characteristic flavors, traditionally contain the highest alcohol.

Dismiss those complaints of sulfites as an excuse to abstain. Most wineries add miniscule amounts of sulfur during winemaking to prevent bacteria from spoiling the fermenting juice. If someone complains about hangovers or allergic sniffles, tell them the real culprit is the histamines, a naturally occurring by-product found in wines, especially reds. Cool factoid #1: The FDA estimates that only 3 percent of people have a true sensitivity to sulfites. Cool factoid #2: There are more sulfites found on tomatoes at a salad bar than in most wines.



  1. Sweet – I totally already knew almost all this stuff! Parker, watch out.

    13.5% or more and you think it’s at the “don’t drink with food” level? I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve had a wine with more than 13.5% – but if memory serves me well, they were probably BIG, new-international style reds. I don’t particularly like drinking wines like that without food – I find them too powerful and unrefreshing (for lack of a better word). So for me, they’re only palatable with strong, red meat or game.

    It’s probably just a matter of taste though…some people quaff big reds like it’s fruit punch. If I’m drinking without food, I’d prefer to stick with something south of a Bourgogne.

    Kind regards,


  2. I am a wine maker in Florida. I just want to clarify a point. The government charges a higher tax on wines over 17% alcohol not 15%. That is probably why we are seeing some reds out of California with alcohol around 16 to 16.5%.

    Another comment on sulfites. Dried fruit contains over 100 times more sulfites than wine. Most people who “can’t drink wine because of sulfites” have no problem eating dried fruit. Always interesting.


  3. Thanks for the clarification Ron. Winemakers in California told me 15% a while ago so perhaps that’s the discrepancy. Getting under 15% might have proven too difficult in those hot climates!


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