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Wine 101

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Wine 101 |

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.

Wine 101 |

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”)

Vintage is just the word winemakers use to say what year a wine was made. If you’re buying a wine under $10, it is highly likely that it was made within the past two years. Many winemakers make budget wines that are cheaper because they simply don’t store them as long. Aging in the barrels where wine are made has a major effect on wine (for better or worse), so it’s often the case that if you see a wine made more than 3 or 4 years ago, it might be a pretty good deal! Again, this takes a lot more in-depth learning on the winemaking process, but it’s something to consider.

6. Cost

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.)

8. Enjoyment

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!

Wine 101 |

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!

Wine 101 |

Maureen + Ali + friends toasting to the new year last winter in Oxford, England.

So tell us — what questions do YOU have about wine? We are taking ideas for this series!

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Maureen (a.k.a. Moe) lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband, Toby, and their two cats. She works full-time at a church in KC and does some freelance blogging on the side for World Bicycle Relief. A recent trip to Napa Valley and regular visits to her favorite local wine shop have helped Maureen to become an amateur wine connoisseur. Between good glasses of wine, she loves reading along with her book club, catching good movies on her day off, and planning her next globetrotting venture. Follow Maureen on Instagram or Pinterest (check out her "Wine & Beer Faves" board for recommendations!)

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30 comments on “Wine 101”

  1. This was such a helpful informative post!

  2. Great idea for a series Ali. I spend lots and lots of time educating people on the “mystery” of wine…which is not really a mystery at all. It’s all about fun and enjoyment, but I find so many people are intimidated when they come into the tasting room. The more and more folks who know more and love wine makes my job easier and helps my business flourish! I think posts like these help break down the barriers and relieve the snobbery that seems to surround opening a bottle. Drink what you love and enjoy it…that’s what I say.

  3. Thanks! I’ll be interested in following this series. I know some solid basics about wine, but when faced with the whole liquor store or being stared down by a sommelier, I clam up. I have close friends who know their way around the wine world (and are very opinionated about it), so I usually just follow their lead. But if this is any indication – I went to find a nice bottle of wine for Thanksgiving dinner, got completely overwhelmed, and left with really delicious beer instead.

    • Thanks, Iris! And don’t worry, I have NO problem with picking up delicious beer instead of wine….will have to throw in a beer post or two along the way!

  4. I love wine!! This is an excellent introduction into the world of wine!

  5. I love to drink wine, but know nothing about it! Thanks for the wine 101 lesson. I look forward to learning more! :)

  6. GREAT job, Maux! Really informative post, and I can’t wait to read more. Honored to have you pouring at the Madison Presents show last night, too. Can’t wait to see that 10 under $10 list! Maybe we should do a wine tasting video one of these posts?

  7. Well now I have a hankering for a glass of wine! Great post, Maureen!

    • indulge that hankering, my friend. Do it for me because my head cold is preventing me from doing the same… ;)

  8. Thanks so much for the informative post. Can’t wait to learn more.

  9. Most enjoyable introduction. I’m looking forward to your thoughts and experiences around all those Missouri wines surrounding us.

  10. That was such an informative post. I can’t wait to read the next one in the series. Thank you!

  11. Thumbs up, Maux. Also looking forward to that 10 under $10.

  12. It is nice to find an unpretentious and well-written article about wine. As a recovering economy and an influx of foreign dollars have flooded the American wine market, there is a growing disconnect between those who purchase wine as part of a near gluttonous lifestyle, and those who drink wine because, well…it tastes good. I’m glad to see Maureen address value and encourage readers to find reasonably priced wines. That category is where you’ll find some great surprises worth talking about and building a meal around. I can’t wait to see part 2 of this series.

  13. FUN and informative. so many good ideas here for the future – and your sparkling wine opening tip will come in so handy before the New Year! looking forward to your next post – and also look forward to a $10-$20 bottle list.
    Hope your cold is getting better – so sad to go days without vino!

  14. Thanks Ali! I’ve enjoyed wine for 4 or 5 years now, but typically stay with a traditional White Zinfandel mostly out of fear of exploration/disappointment. However, I’m finding over the last year my adventurous side is becoming predominate and I’m loving it! Tried a nice cranberry wine over Thanksgiving and just procured a tasty chocolate wine this past weekend. Truly want to be more educated on the topic of a “Good Wine.” :)

    • Thanks, Keanna! Check out the latest post in the series for a few recommendations…based on your liking of white zinfandel, you might start out with the “buttery” chardonnay I recommended or a velvety cabernet (like Goose Bump or Apothic Red)

  15. Good information. It’s intimidating going into the store and seeing aisle after aisle of wine. It’s also rare to talk with a store employee who knows more than what the wine was rated at the local county fair. I’m looking forward to your next installment!

    • Thanks! Hoping to do some store-specific posts like what’s offered at Trader Joe’s or Costco soon…

  16. Good stuff. I’m looking forward to advice on what to do when only half the cork comes out, blue teeth, and pumping the remainders.

  17. Great introduction to wine for the newbies! Cheers~