On Borrowed Wine: The Basics

Some people are self-described winos. Some are labeled winos by others. And others make fun of you for drinking wine from a box when, secretly, there’s a box of white zin waiting for them in the fridge. I’m an I’ll-drink-anything-that’s-placed-in-front-of-me person. Great for parties, not so great to refine my palate.

After I felt like Hops and the City had run its course and I had a good, albeit nowhere near expert, level of understanding for picking out flavors in beer, I felt a void where “drinking and writing about it” used to be. Luckily, Syma Hajian and Pittsburgh Winery filled that barrel-sized hole in my heart.

Come along as Syma teaches me the fine nuances of the grape. We’ll discuss everything from the basics (and we’re talking basic, like, let’s-learn-terminology-and-understand-the-process-before-we-even-drink-anything basic) of wine making to identifying which grapes taste like what and getting to a competent level of appreciation for vintages and ability to discuss certain regions.

The Basics

Pittsburgh WineryWalking up to the Pittsburgh Winery in the Strip is nothing new (wow, way to start out sounding like the lush I really am). But this time, I approached it with new eyes. I wasn’t just enjoying a quiet moment during a lunch break or fueling myself for creative writing. I was here to learn. Admittedly, you should always be learning, but for some reason, I never considered learning about wine. Until now. Cue the ominous music.

I had many questions, all of them really basic. Like, has-she-been-living-in-the-boxed-wine-aisle-of-Wine -and-Spirits? basic. To that, I’d respond, “No, the Barefoot Wine aisle, thank you very much.” Joking aside, I do enjoy wine and drink wine that comes in actual bottles, but I don’t know that much about it. With Syma as my guide, I’m learning about the craft of wine making and tasting.

Since the beginning of time, wine has been made pretty much the same way. Grapes and yeast, baby. That’s all you really need to create wine.

Modern vintners have added things to improve upon the experience. This is where things like aging wine in oak barrels come into play. Another contemporary addition is sulfite to protect it, which helps keep it shelf stable. Smaller wineries don’t add much sulfite as the vast majority of wine they produce is meant to be consumed quickly. Those “big wine” makers, the ones akin to AB InBev, add a lot more so they don’t have to worry about anything funky happening in the bottle as it sits on the shelf.

Pittsburgh Winery makes dry wines. Dry means there’s no residual sugar. The grapes have been fermented until all sugar is gone. You check this by using a hydrometer. Congratulations, you just learned your first wine term! Dry = no sugar, ferment to zero.

Inside Pittsburgh WineryThey also use relatively new oak barrels to give the wine a particular flavor. Two flavors are imparted when wine is aged in oak barrels: the flavor from the wood and the flavor from the char inside the barrel.

While Syma hates when someone says a wine is “woody,” that’s a pretty spot-on description of what you’re getting from the oak barrels. You’ll also get a butteriness and a vanilla flavor. The char inside imparts flavors of a campfire – think smoke and cigar.

And because I learned from Syma and my teacher has this aversion, I also will henceforth dislike the use of “woody” when describing wine. I may even judge you if you use it.

Here’s something interesting about the barrels: the more you use the barrel, the less flavor the oak imparts. It makes sense. The more it’s used, the more flavor is taken from it.

To keep the wine as full-bodied as possible, Pittsburgh Winery only uses their barrels for about three years. And the liquid in them can only go from white to red, otherwise you get pink wine. I figured out the color thing all on my own! Impressed?

If you taste a wine, especially a red, that feels thin and underdeveloped, it’s likely because of two reasons. One is that the barrel was used too much. The other is that it wasn’t rested in oak.

True, there are other ways to age wine. There’s stainless steel that gives a clean, crisp flavor. Then, there’s concrete. You make an egg out of concrete and fill it with wine. Who wouldn’t love to get an egg like that in their Easter basket?! Wines aged in concrete come off crisp, though minerally, naturally, from the minerals in the stone.

Here’s another basic thing that I learned about the flavor. Skins make a difference, both in taste and appearance. The longer the skin is on, the more intense the flavor of the wine will be. If you’re making rose, you pull the skin as soon as possible to get that pink color. Unlike my brilliant knowledge of color theory would have led me to believe, it’s not from aging white wine in a red wine barrel.

If you’re making a white wine, you don’t have to pull the skins because they’re white, so leaving the skins on depends on the flavor the vintner wants the wine to have. The skins will impart a different flavor depending on when the grapes were picked. So, if the skins tasted “greener,” or whatever flavor the particular varietal has, and the vintner didn’t want that, she’d pull the skins.

Since Pittsburgh Winery makes mostly full, red wines, they leave the skins on the whole time to impart an intense, robust flavor. By contrast, a bigger and a cheaper winery, one that’s trying to get a value on the bottle, will try to stretch the juice out by filtering it and watering it down.

So, now that we’ve talked about the production of wine, what about tasting it? Those pretentious people who consume wine out of glass packaging make a big show about the process of tasting wine. I always thought it was because if they didn’t and someone caught them, they’d lose their membership to the country club. Turns out, it has a purpose.

Enjoying wine should be a full sensory experience. It stands to reason that the first thing you do is smell it. Give the glass a swirl to aerate it and open the flavors up, then smell it again. This will help you pick out notes in the wine.

Syma notes that sommeliers will swish it like mouthwash so it touches all surfaces of the mouth and they’re able to get a complete flavor profile. These sommeliers also can identify when and where the grape was grown, the types of pants the vintner was wearing when he made it, and the exact spot an oak tree was chopped down to make a barrel.

I’m not that serious and neither is Syma, so at this point, it’s okay to just put it in your mouth. If you want, you can also cleanse your palate between tastes to revisit the flavors. A good rule of thumb is to taste something at least three times. The first taste is to acclimate, the second is for foundation, and the third is to judge.

Speaking of those crazy people who can tell where something is grown, as luck would have it, that isn’t so crazy after all. Once you’ve tasted wines from a few locations, you can pick up flavors of the soils. California is nice and grassy. Eastern European wines are more minerally and like rocks. Chilean and Australian wines are entirely different altogether.

Wine Barrels at Pittsburgh WineryEven so, the process is the same. Ferment grapes. Press. Barrel. In the case of Pittsburgh Winery, they ferment to zero sugar and they don’t filter their wine. They do rack it, which means they transfer it from one barrel to another so the sediment falls to the bottom of the barrel. There can be sediment in the wine, but it’s just parts of the skin to preserve as much of the flavor as possible. It’s no big deal if there is.

Then, they bottle age it. This part is important because wine goes through bottle shock while it settles into its new environment and adjusts from an environment with lots of air to no air. If you bottle a wine, then try to drink it the next day, it’ll taste off. Because the elements in wine are constantly evolving in relation to each other and on their own, heat or motion can add stress to this process. The wine will “shut down” temporarily while it goes through this stress and the flavors will be muted or disjointed.

I will leave you with a final wine term lesson. Legs are produced on the glass by the alcohol in the wine. The higher the alcohol content, the longer the legs will be (AKA: they’ll be stretched out on the glass) and the longer they’ll stay on the glass.

There are so many nuances to creating wine, especially good wine. Pittsburgh Winery is a great resource here in Pittsburgh. Their wine leans toward a California style, so you’re getting a robust, dry experience. Until next time, I highly encourage you to go do your own research at Pittsburgh Winery’s home in the Strip.


Angelica is a copywriter creating content for fearless women entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh. She’s a storyteller by nature and loves finding the right words that connect with an audience. She’s previously written Hops and the City, an exploration of Pittsburgh’s beer scene in order to learn more about the craft and is eager to branch into various libations. Find her at angelicaross.co.






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