Wine Basics & Beginner’s Wine Guide

Whether you need to unwind after a long, hard day at work or you wish to congratulate yourself on a job well done, or you simply want to spend a quiet, Saturday night with your significant other, a good, tasty bottle of wine is exactly what the doctor ordered for most of us. Since time immemorial, wine has been an inseparable accompaniment to all sorts of festivities and has solidified its position as one of life’s more sublime pleasures.

Whether you’re a beginner or a long-time connoisseur, individual tastes vary widely, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to wine. Thus it is understandable, when in your quest to find the perfect wine for yourself you may find yourself lost and overwhelmed by the sheer number of varieties out there.

Although you don’t need a master class or an expert guide to find the ideal variety for you, it does help to have a basic knowledge of the types of wine out there, how to read a label on a bottle and how to properly savor a glass of wine and thoroughly relish its flavor, look and aroma.

This guide aims to break it down for you and provide a simple and easy guide to all of us out there who are getting started on this journey.

So What Is Wine Then?

Put simply, wine is made out of the fermented juice of certain types of wine grapes. They can be fermented with or without the skin of the grapes, or they can be fermented for a small time with the skin on and then without it for the rest of the process. The style of fermentation and the kind of wine grapes used determine the type of wine it will be.

Types Of Wine

Red Wine

This type of wine is made from dark reddish colored grapes which are fermented along with the skin. It is the skin which lends the red color to the wine. The different types of red wine include:

  1. Merlot
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon
  3. Pinot Noir
  4. Zinfandel
  5. Chianti (from Italy)
  6. Beaujolais (from France)
White Wine

They are made from either red-colored or green-colored grapes and are fermented after doing away with the skin. The most popular brands include:

  1. Chardonnay
  2. Sauvignon Blanc
  3. Pinot Grigio
  4. Riesling
Rosé Wines

They are usually rose-colored, medium-sweet wines, although some of them can be very dry as well. They are ordinarily derived from black grapes, with the skin included for the first few hours of fermentation which imparts a modest amount of pinkish color to the wine. The sweeter varieties are usually intended to cater to beginners, because of its light and sweet taste.

Sparkling Wine

Sparkling Wines include Champagne and other bubbly wines. They have in them, bubbles of carbon dioxide which is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. In this respect, they are much like sodas, which also make them an excellent choice for beginners.

Dessert Wine

Dessert Wines are the sweetest varieties of wine. They are intended to be served along with a dessert course or as an after-meal dessert itself. Popular dessert wines include:

  1. Madeira
  2. Ice wines
  3. Port
Fortified Wines

This type of wine is usually fortified with stronger spirits like brandy or others which are added during the fermentation process. The taste and strength largely depend on the kind of spirits added during fermentation. The primary types include:

  1. Sherry
  2. Port

So now that you are acquainted with the types of wines out there and have a basic understanding of their taste and composition, you need to know what to look for in a bottle of wine before you dish out your hard-earned cash and invest in something without any foreknowledge of its taste or strength. Unless you’re in luck and have an opportunity to sample the goods before buying, your only hints lie in the label on the bottle.

How To Read The Label On The Bottle

It’s the label and the shape of the bottle which lends it a personality. With the sheer amount of choices available in a supermarket, it may be tempting to choose the one with the most attractive label, the ones that stand out with pretty graphics and colors. We’ve all heard the adage of not judging a book by its cover, and that applies here as well, to the same degree.

The information on the label is your best judge of the taste and strength of the bottle in your hands.

A close inspection of the label will reveal a number of key details which are vital to selecting one out of the hundreds in front of you. Mind you, if you find a few details missing, there are bottles which also have a back label which could have what you are looking for. All you need to do is seek out these details.

The Name Of The Winery And Region of Origin

This could very well be the most important piece of info on the label. The quality and style of the wine depend to a large extent on the manufacturer. The more reputed ones, usually have a distinctive flavor which can make the whole process of selection a lot easier if you’re looking to buy something of that kind only.

The terminology used here can vary. But if it says, “grown, produced & bottled” it means the winery not only grew the grapes but also made and bottled the wine, making it a complete estate wine. If it reads “produced & bottled,” the winery on the label crushed its own grapes and then made the wine. But if the wine was fermented somewhere else, the phrase may read “cellared and bottled.” The phrase “made and bottled” indicates that the winery used its own crushed grapes, but the wine itself was fermented elsewhere.

The region of origin of the grapes might be as wide as an entire state or a particular region, in which case it means the grapes might come from two or more different vineyards in that state or region. It can specify a sub region with a lot of vineyards like Napa Valley, or it could be another level below like Oaksville, which is an area inside Napa Valley, particularly renowned for its high-quality vineyards. The most accurate appellation is the very name of the vineyard where it was produced. A general rule of thumb is the more specific the appellation, the better the quality of the wine.

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The Type of Wine

If the name of a grape features on the label, the wine was made out of crushed grapes of that type only. If two or more names appear, then the wine is a blend of those two varieties. Sometimes you may find the name of the place where the grapes were grown instead of a grape kind. For example, Chianti is made out of grapes grown in the Chianti region of Italy, Chardonnay from the Chardonnay region in France or the ever-popular Champagne from its namesake in France. Plenty of people believe naming the place of origin is more informative than the name of the grape because the climate, soil and agricultural practices of a site greatly influence the color and quality of a bottle of wine.

There are a few special kinds out there which a budding wine enthusiast like yourself might be unfamiliar with. For example, Meritage is a mixture of the more traditional Bordeaux types, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Merlot.

How Old Is It?

The vintage specifies the year in which the grapes used in the wine were harvested. If the vintage date is absent, it usually means the wine is of different vintages. This piece of information is important because different years generally have different amounts of rainfall, different climatic conditions which would influence how efficiently the grapes grow and ultimately affect the quality of the wine produced from them. Fortunately, weather conditions in most places don’t vary tremendously from year to year. Again the general rule of thumb is, if the wine is moderately old and has been stored in a reputable cellar for the duration of that time, it is likely to be of a superior quality than most.

What Distinguishes It From its Competition

Apart from the type of grapes used, production techniques can influence the quality of a bottle of wine to some extent. To beginners, this distinction wouldn’t matter much, but for the discerning customer, these labels can be of paramount importance. The only problem is, usage of these tags is not regulated worldwide, and manufacturers may add these labels as a mere marketing ploy. ‘Reserve’ or ‘prime reserve’ or combinations thereof usually means the wine meets certain standards for aging and ripeness, thereby warranting it’s higher price tag.

The term ‘estate’ means the grapes in the wine came from a vineyard owned by the winery itself. Chateau essentially means the same for French Wines.

Now that you know what to look for in a label, hopefully, your job of narrowing down your choices just become a lot easier. The aim is to identify a broad overall type which fits your taste and then sample different wines of that type itself. And with that, we move on to the most enjoyable part of your whole journey which is how to properly taste and appreciate a premium quality bottle of wine.

How To Taste A Glass Of Wine

Look & Swirl

Fill up about half a glass of the wine, so you can swirl it around without fear of it spilling over. Make sure the glass is clean and then hold it up against a clear background so you can properly inspect the color and texture of the wine.

A good wine should be completely devoid of any sediment or floating particulate matter and shouldn’t appear murky at all. The best red wines look crystal-clear opaque and are often brilliant in the display of its color. White wines, on the other hand, should be completely clear and transparent. The texture and turbidity of the wine should appear uniform throughout the bottle and shouldn’t contain any sedimentary build up. If the color lacks vibrancy and looks dull and yellowish in appearance, it is a sign of decay and low-quality preservation.

Sniff

Before you take a sniff, make sure you swirl the wine around a couple of times, so that all its fragrances and aromas get released. It could harbor a wide variety of smells depending on the wine ranging from floral and sweet to fruity and slightly bitter.

White wines tend to smell fruity like that of apples, peaches, grapefruits, mangoes, pineapples, vanilla, asparagus, honey, etc. When it comes to red wines, common fragrances include blackberry, raspberry, or stronger flavors like black pepper, tobacco or chocolate, oak or coffee, etc.

The odors to watch out for are any odors which seem out-of-place. For example, the smell of wet cardboard indicates that the cork has contaminated the wine. The ever-familiar smell of vinegar means oxygen has permeated the bottle, rendering it unfit for drinking.

Sip & Taste

Take a very small sip and swirl it around in your mouth, like you would with mouthwash. Experts tend to draw in a small gulp of air along with the wine. This air passes over the whine and carries the aroma into your nasal cavities one more time. The taste of the wine on your tongue should be in perfect harmony with the olfactory clues you received previously from sniffing it.

The primary flavors associated with are sweet, sour (like lemons) or bitter. It might also taste mildly acidic and may dry out the sides of your mouth. This astringency can usually be attributed to tannin which is a by-product of the grapes skin or maybe the wood of the barrel where it was aged.

The older a bottle of wine is, the more the acidity mellows out and distributes itself evenly, eventually amplifying the fruity flavor of the wine and lending it a fresh, vibrant feel. If the wine isn’t mature enough or is of substandard quality, the acidity will give it an undesirably tart and sour taste.

Conclusion

If you have the chance to taste a number of wines before you decide on one, make sure you spit it out once you’ve tasted it. You don’t want to get drunk before you even purchase the bottle.