This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
I was extremely intimidated the first time I attended a wine tasting. Everything from how it actually works (when exactly is it appropriate to squeeze yourself between people crowded around that tiny bar?), to nodding in ignorant agreement to everything the sommelier says, to pretending as if I can tell the difference between the wines, to what-the-heck-is-a-sommelier anyway?
While wine is a complex and varied topic that can take anywhere from years to a lifetime to get a grasp of, there are a few basic tips about wine and wine tasting that can help you to follow a conversation about wine and maybe even confidently contribute. But more importantly, they’ll help you discover what your own tastes are so next time you’re staring at 87 different bottles of merlot at Trader Joe’s, you’ll be able to make an educated decision on your purchase.
So, today we’re going to talk about Wine 101 — what’s the difference between different types of reds and whites? What are some of the basic key words you need to understand? Then, next week stay tuned for part 2 in the series — “The Five S’s of Wine Tasting”.
So, what are the basics you need to know about wine to keep up with that friend who goes to Napa every year, or at least to not have to pretend at that wine tasting? Here’s a quick Wine 101 based on what I find useful in my wine conversing, tasting, and enjoying. At this point in the discussion I am going to focus primarily on American grape varietals for reference. In future posts we’ll talk more about wines from around the globe.
1. White vs. Red
Well, hopefully you learned this concept with grape juice at some point around grade school, but when it comes to wine, here’s the basics. White wine is made from white, green, or pink grapes and the skin is not used in fermentation, while red wine originates from thicker skinned red, purple, or black grapes where the skin remains for fermentation. Grape varietal (a.k.a. species, breed, type) is the single most important factor in a wine’s texture, taste, and quality. But even within any single varietal of grape, there are endless factors that can affect the wine–climate, soil, and proper care being the first and foremost! To go in more depth into those topics, I recommend touring a local vineyard or planning that long anticipated trip to Napa Valley (or Italy, for that matter). We will be talking in more detail about specific white and red varietals in future posts too — stay tuned!
2. Dry vs. sweet
If you’ve never understood what “dry” refers to when it comes to wine, then hopefully contrasting it with the word “sweet” helps quite a bit. From a winemaker’s perspective, “dry” usually refers to the use of no residual sugar in the winemaking process. But that doesn’t really help us laypeople. For us, it basically means “not sweet” (which is not to be confused with fruity or smooth). The majority of the wines you most regularly hear of or find on a restaurant menu are considered dry wines–Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris…with the exception of Riesling or Gewurztraminer (that one is a whole ‘nother class just on pronunciation). Sweet wines are mostly considered “dessert wines” (for example, Moscato or Port, or for those of you Midwesterners, many wines made in my home state of Missouri*.)
*Missourians–don’t get me wrong, Missouri wineries have a lot of really great dry wines, despite the fact that they’re known for the sweet stuff. If you don’t like sweet wines, don’t let that stop you from visiting some of the great wineries around the state. One of my favorite wines of all time is a dry red made in Carthage, Missouri.
3. Bright vs. Bold: Words to Describe Wine
There are a ton of words used to describe dry wines. Remember how I said that fruity is not synonymous with sweet when it comes to wine? In both red and white wines, you can taste a lot of fruit without experiencing sweetness–many Cabernets, Merlots, Zinfandels, Shiraz can be very bold and fruit forward — smooth, soft, balanced, even “jammy”. Pinot Noirs, many white wines, and a lot of European wines (like Bordeauxs) may often be described as bright, acidic, spicy, light, or earthy. And of course, there are all the actual fruit and plant words that can influence the taste of wine — including every fruit on the planet, plus trees, soils, spices (like “black pepper” or “tobacco”.) One of the most exciting things about wine tastings (especially of quality wines) is experiencing all the different flavors and textures on your palette. All of these words and more can help to describe those flavors and textures. Understanding when you’re experiencing them honestly just comes with attention and experience. In some ways, describing wine can be like a Rorschach test–say the first word that comes to mind as you taste a wine–fruit? berry? spice? pepper? flowers? bitterness? velvety?
4. Location, location, location
Beyond grape varietal, where a wine is made has a major effect on the wine. Location is such an important factor that in France and Italy, wines are named based on where they’re made, not after the grape alone. A Bordeaux or Toscana, for example, can be a wide variety of wine types because those are the names of the regions, not the grapes. Of course, this is an endless lesson to learn and I haven’t begun to fully understand it, but it’s important to be aware of when you’re, again, looking at that wall of 87 wines!
5. Vintage (The “When” That Goes With The “Where”)
As in most areas of consumerism, the price of a bottle of wine does say something about its quality. But it’s up to you to learn your personal tastes and determine your favorite wines and what you’re willing to spend. You absolutely do not need to break the bank to enjoy a great glass of wine. Stay tuned for my favorite ten wines under $10 and more recommendations forthcoming! (Teaser: World Market is a great place to find good discounted wine).
7. Champagne vs Sparkling Wine
This is just a bonus and really refers back to #4. Sparkling wine and Champagne are the same thing at the most basic level–it’s only Champagne if it originates in Champagne, France–everything else French or Italian is either named after its region or, if American, is called Sparkling Wine. Stay tuned for a future post on how to quickly tell a “fake” sparkling wine from a real one made in the traditional method, plus how to properly open a bottle of it (i.e. not in a way that sprays half of it all over the walls and gives your Grandma a black eye.)
There are many ways to classify a glass of wine, but when it all comes down to it, the most important factor in tasting wine is whether or not you like it. That’s the fun of wine! Everyone has different palettes and favorites, and when we share those with one another, there are endless new things to learn and experience. We hope to “broaden your palettes” — as well as our own — in this series. So join us and be sure to share your tips and favorites along the way. Cheers!
If you’d like to go more in depth to the process of winemaking and all the different varietals, I recommend this fantastic little book that is only $2 called “101 Essential Tips: Wine”. It’s easy to read, super informative and really cheap!