You could spend your whole life learning about wine and still not know everything there is to know about it, but if you’re new to wine and looking for a place to start, knowing the basics will make it easier to learn which wines you love!
Different Types of Wine
Red wine is made from crushed, fermented dark-colored grapes, and most of the color of the wine comes from its contact with the grape skins. Because the skins are left in contact with the juice for a longer period of time than white or rosé wines, red wines tend to be more tannic. More on that below!
Believe it or not, not all white wine comes from white grapes. For example, pinot grigio grapes are actually a grayish-blue or purple color! White wine is made from the juice that’s been pressed from the grapes. Since the skin is separated from the juice prior to fermentation, it doesn’t have time to impart dark colors to the wine.
Rosé is most commonly made from pressed grape juice macerated with the skin of red or purple grapes for a short period of time. The contact with the grape skins gives rosé its distinctive color.
Orange wine isn’t made from oranges; it’s named for the color (though not all of them are actually orange either!) Orange wine is made in the exact same way as rosé, except the grape juice is rested on white grape skins. The skins still lend some color to the wine, which can range from pale yellow to deep copper. They also leach tannins into the wine, giving it funky, tannic, and sometimes bitter flavors not often associated with white wine.
Sparkling wine is effervescent or fizzy due to high levels of carbon dioxide in the wine. Sparkling wines can be white, rosé, or even red. Champagne, prosecco, and cava are all sparkling wines.
Fortified wine is a wine with a distilled spirit added to it. It can be sipped on its own or used in cocktails. Vermouth, port, and sherry are all fortified wines.
How to Talk About Wine
Learning a few simple terms will make it easier to talk about wine, which in turn will make it easier to describe and purchase something that you like!
A varietal just refers to the type of grape used to make the wine. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay, and viognier are all varietals; rosé and Chianti are not. Chianti is a blend named after the region in Tuscany where it is produced, and although you can have a “varietal rosé,” such as a rosé of pinot noir, rosé itself is not a grape, so it’s not a varietal.
Appellation can be somewhat confusing, especially since politics are involved and the rules change depending on where in the world you are. The most basic thing you need to know is that an appellation is sort of a “wine region.” The appellation of your wine refers to the geographic location where it was grown, and most appellations have their own set of distinct growing conditions.
The name of the wine isn’t always the name of the grape (the varietal); sometimes it’s the appellation or region! Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy are all regions, not grapes. For example, if you’re drinking a red Burgundy, it’s most likely pinot noir. If it’s white, it’s probably a chardonnay. Some wines, such as Bordeaux, can be made with a variety of different grapes, but they’ll always be made with grapes grown in that region.
Terroir is a French term used to describe the environmental factors that affect the way a wine tastes. Factors like the mineral composition of the soil, the amount of rain a region gets, the altitude, and the climate can all change the way the grapes, and consequently the wine, taste. You’ll often see terroir described as “the taste of the place.”
Dry vs. Sweet
Sweet, semi-sweet, and dry are all terms used to describe the sweetness of a wine. Dry just means “not sweet.” Off-dry means mostly dry with just a touch of sweetness.
All wines are acidic, but some are more acidic than others. More acidic wines will often taste crisp or even a little tart. They’re also more likely to make your mouth water or your tongue tingle. Sweetness can often mask acidity in wines, so we sometimes perceive sweeter wines as being less acidic, but note that sweetness and acidity do not fall on the same spectrum. A wine can be both sweet and acidic at the same time.
All grapes have tannins in their skin, but the number of natural tannins varies. Some winemaking processes add tannins during aging. Tannins can dry out your mouth, but the term “dry” refers to the sweetness of the wine, not the number of tannins. Think of the dry feeling you get on the sides of your tongue when you take a sip of over-steeped black tea — that’s tannin. Tannins will sometimes give a wine a bitter finish and they act as palate cleansers. That’s why big, tannic red wines are such a great choice to pair with rich food!
Wines are light-bodied, full-bodied, or something in between. This refers to how it feels in your mouth. Red wines are typically fuller than white wines, but there are exceptions. Grapes from warm regions will make fuller wines than grapes from cool regions. When you sip your wine try comparing it to taking a sip of milk. Does it feel light, like nonfat milk, or is it heavier and fuller-bodied, like taking a swig of heavy cream?
All wine has some amount of alcohol. Higher alcohol content warms your mouth and throat more. Most wine hovers around 12% alcohol by volume, but they can be as little as 5.5% or as much as 20%.
Many wines are aged for periods of time in oak barrels. As the wine sits in the barrel, changes in temperature and humidity cause it to leach into the wood and back out again. Just like with whiskey, this imparts the flavors of the oak on the wine. Oaked wines will often present vanilla, butter, coffee, caramel, or toffee flavors.
Stainless steel casks are an alternative to oak barrels. Wines rested in stainless steel will still mature and evolve in the cask, but the steel won’t affect the flavors present.
Certain varietals take better to oak aging than others, and some varietals, like chardonnay, are delicious both ways! Oak aging can add complexity to wines, but it can also mask brighter and more delicate flavors.
Old World vs. New World
Sometimes you’ll hear a wine described as “old world” or “new world.” That’s just a reference to where the wine was made. Old world wines are wines from traditional wine-making regions, primarily in Europe, parts of the Middle East, and some parts of North Africa; French and Italian wines are old-world wines.
New world wines are from places like North and South America, Australia, and South Africa. Wines from California or New Zealand, for example, are new-world wines.
How to Taste Wine
- Look at the wine. Look at the color, viscosity, and opacity of the wine. When you swirl the wine does it leave drips that trace down the inside of the glass? These are known as “legs” or “tears” and can indicate that your wine is higher in alcohol or sweeter.
- Smell the wine. Try to associate what you’re smelling with familiar foods or smells. Does your wine smell like cherries? Leather? Tobacco?
- Take a sip of your wine. Notice how it feels on your palate. Notice any flavors you can taste, and how long the flavor lingers before fading away.
- Breathe out through your nose with your mouth closed and notice any new flavors you can taste or smell.
- Collect your thoughts and keep practicing! Tasting wine thoughtfully takes practice, but it gets easier with time!
Some Tips on How to Choose a Perfect Bottle of Vino
When you’re at a restaurant and you’re looking for the perfect bottle of wine to pair with your food, your bartender, waiter, or other qualified staff can help you with that decision. However, when you’re shopping on your own, it can be a bit trickier.
If you know a lot about wine, maybe you won’t have a problem, but for those of us who are still learning, it takes a bit of research and planning. Not to mention, labels can be confusing and hard to read, so you don’t always know what you’re looking at.
The good news is that there are some simple ways to evaluate a bottle of wine and figure out what you like and what you don’t before you open the bottle. Everyone defines good wine differently. Here are some tips to help you find the bottle that’s right for you.
1. If you’re new, start with white or rose. You don’t want to overwhelm your palate with something too bold or tannic. You could develop an early distaste for bitter or dry wines if you dive right in instead of starting out slow. If you don’t like sweet things, try a light-bodied, dry white or rose.
2. Think about other flavors you like. Your favorite foods will help you decide what kinds of wines you’ll like. If you love berry flavors, you’ll likely enjoy a pinot noir or grenache. If you’re a citrus fiend, try an albariño. Identifying the flavors that you like in wine will only get easier with time and practice.
3. Why are you buying a bottle of wine? Is it for you to enjoy or are you going to share it with others? Are you planning a meal to go with it or using it while cooking? Wines serve plenty of purposes, and these purposes will influence how you buy a bottle.
- If you want something that’s sure to please everyone, grab a bottle of both white and red so they have options or choose wines that are more evenly balanced between sweetness, body, and acidity.
- If you’re pairing this wine with your meal, find one that complements your recipe. White wines go with lighter dishes like chicken and red wines go with heavier dishes like beef. When in doubt, remember “if it grows together, it goes together.” If you’re making ribollita, pair it with a wine from Tuscany!
- If you’re going to be mixing your wine with a cocktail or using it in a recipe with food, the flavors aren’t as important as if you’re going to be drinking it alone. Get a cheaper bottle so you don’t waste your good wine on flavors that won’t be as noticeable afterward. Just make sure it’s something you can still stand the taste of on its own, or any off flavors will end up in your boeuf bourguignon!
4. Read the label and know what you’re reading. You may find pretty pictures and attractive fonts enticing, but that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy what’s inside. If you know what to look for, reading it can be pretty easy.
- As a general rule, if the label has a lot of information on it, the better the wine will be as far as quality. That doesn’t mean it has the flavor you like, though. And of course, there are some stellar new winemakers who are more recently opting for minimalist labels. In any case, you should be able to find the information you’re looking for, either on the label or the wine maker’s website. If you can’t, move on to a different bottle.
- Refer to the back for any notes on acidity, tannins, sweetness, body, and alcohol.
- Look for descriptors like notes or aromas that sound familiar and you know you like. For instance, apple, citrus, or chocolate.
- The information may be standard, but the location of the information on the label isn’t always. Look around to find what you need.
5. Second-label wines can be a fantastic and affordable alternative. Many wineries are selective about which grapes they include in their wines. These are first label wines made from only the best grapes. They’re expensive and limited. If you don’t have the money or are just beginning your journey, you’ll find that second label wines are seemingly identical on an inexperienced tongue. They come from the same vineyard and may have only missed the first label by a small and insignificant (to you) mark. Plus, they cost a fraction of the first run.
6. Don’t stress about age. Not your age. The age of the wine. Older wine isn’t always better. In fact, some wines don’t age well at all, and that’s why you’ll find a newer vintage on the shelf. In general, bold red wines age more gracefully than lighter reds and most whites, though there are some white and sparkling wines that age beautifully. Rosé is usually meant to be consumed right away without further aging.
7. Ignore the price. If you can’t afford the wine, don’t buy it. Plenty of great wines have lower price tags. Determining which bottle of wine to buy based on price could lead to some great purchases, but a higher price tag isn’t always an indicator of better quality wine. All we’re saying is, don’t use price alone to choose.
8. Screw caps aren’t bad. Your bottle doesn’t have to have a cork to be good. They’re great for picnics, the pool, or backyard grilling sessions because you don’t need a bottle opener, and as an added benefit, they reduce the risk that your wine will taste “corked,” an unpleasant flavor and aroma caused by chemicals contamination.
Keep track of all the wines you try so you know what you like and what you don’t. Your selection process will refine itself over time and you’ll get better at predicting whether you’ll like what’s in the bottle or not based on these factors. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and most importantly, have fun!
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