This is Your Beginners Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert
Picture this. You’re in the office, the day’s done, and you’re celebrating your boss’s 50th birthday with the rest of the crew from the office.
It’s a momentous occasion so naturally, they bring out only the best: a 15-year-old bottle of Nebbiolo.
You go to pick up your glass of wine only to realize…YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT WINE!
Ok, that’s probably not your first thought. Who cares about wine as long as it tastes good right?
Except, wouldn’t it be great to be able to impress people with your wine knowledge? To be the wine connoisseur of the office or the resident wine snob, and wow everyone with your knowledge from winemaking to weird fun facts.
Like the fact that rotting grapes can actually be a good thing!
If you want to learn the basics needed to survive your next office party, wine tasting, or a date with a wine snob, you’ve come to the right place.
If you’ve stumbled on this page wanting to know the difference between a Pinot and a Cabernet, don’t worry. When we’re done here, you’ll know more than just their color and that they taste like grapes. (Spoiler…grapes are the key ingredient)
In all seriousness, wine is very complex and few people realize how much time and effort go into making the best wines the world. That’s why we’re here to give you the 411 on wine.
The more you understand wine and its processes, the better you can appreciate your next glass of wine.
Wine Guide Outline
This is your chance to skip around and find the information you need right now!
- Introduction to the Wine Guide
- The Wine Basics
- The 6 Types of Wine You Have To Know
- Food and Wine Pairing
- Rules for Food and Wine Pairing
- Match the weight of the dish and the weight of the wine
- Wine can compare and/or contrast with a dish
- Alcohol increases the perception of heat or spice in a dish
- Fat and protein reduce the perception of tannin in wine
- Salt and acid also reduce the perception of tannin and acid in a wine
- Sweetness can also reduce the perception of sweetness in a wine
- Rules for Food and Wine Pairing
- Frequently Asked Wine Questions
Let’s start with the basics…
The first stop in our basic wine guide is understanding why people drink wine.
So why do people drink wine? Not for the health benefits, although in moderation it can be beneficial (depending on your definition of moderate).
People drink wine not only to taste it but to savor it.
Before we get into savoring wine we must understand how one’s senses function.
Taste Versus Flavor
Let’s get two things straight here.
First, there is a science to wine ‘tasting’ that you can perfect with enough practice and skill.
And second, DO NOT confuse taste with flavor. Yes, there is a difference.
What’s the difference you ask?
In terms of wine tasting, taste is a perception of that which we put in our mouths whereas flavor is a combination of taste and smell.
There are two ways in which the human body can smell: from the front through our nostrils and from the back through our sinuses. This process is also called retro-olfaction and is the primary way in which we can sense different tastes.
Have you ever tried to eat something when you had a stuffy nose but the flavor wasn’t all there? Here is a good exercise to do if you want to understand the relationship between taste and smell.
Next time you’re eating, hold your nose and pay attention to the flavor. Notice how it’s muted or nonexistent.
Then let go of your nose and notice how the flavor presents itself tenfold. That’s because you’re using your sense of taste along with your sense of smell through your sinuses.
The 5 Basic Tastes to Know
You can’t become a wine connoisseur without knowing the 5 basic tastes. They are as follows: salt, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami (think savory).
Now, obviously, not all wines are equal.
Different grape varietals produce different wines. Said varietals make characteristics such as tannin structure, acid levels, flavor profiles and body/mouthfeel more prominent in some wines as opposed to others.
Tannin is the one thing people will either love or hate about wine.
Tasting tannins are like licking a dry Popsicle stick. Another way to think about it is if you drink over-steeped black tea, that will get you the same taste that a tannic wine will.
Ultimately, what you end up with is a dry, yet strong and bitter mouthfeel.
On the one hand, you have tannin which will dry your mouth out and on the other, you have acid levels. The more acidic wine is the more it will taste sour and the more it will make you salivate.
Wine-making techniques influence flavor profiles such as what container the wine ages in, how long it ages and how it’s fermented. These flavor profiles are what make a wine seem sweet or what makes them taste savory like soy sauce.
The body of a wine relates to the alcohol content. This will affect how heavy a wine seems in the mouth, also referred to as mouthfeel.
So now that we know how to taste, let’s get more into knowing what we are tasting.
Viticulture is the term used to encompass everything that goes on in the vineyard. From year-round maintenance to grape cultivation.
Consider this your 10-minute history lesson on how the activities in the vineyard affect the wine on your table.
Our Good Old Friend Phylloxera
Pests have been the bane of many grape grower’s existences since the test of time (since the 19th century). Bear with me here, we must backtrack to a time where pests were a real thing and pesticide was about as useful as cheap perfume.
All you need to know, biological and scientific terms aside, is that there is a pest known to grape vines called phylloxera. This pest is native to North American and the vines in these locations are resistant to it.
Unfortunately, European vines cannot say the same.
The solution was to graft European roots onto North American roots, sort of like ‘meshing’ them together. Then you get what’s called a new ‘rootstock’ which is then used to create hybrids, crosses, and clones of various vine species.
Thanks to this neat grafting trick, wine is not totally dead in the old world so we can still import our fancy French wines.
You might hear mention of a wines ‘terroir’ and how reflective it is of its terroir. This is a fancy way of saying a wine is reflective of the place in which it was grown.
There are plenty of factors that go into a wines terroir. Mainly the climate, how much sunshine the grapes get, what soil it’s grown in, and the specific temperature at which it is grown.
Often times grape growers must control the temperature and humidity levels lest they run into issues.
The Good Kind of Mold
Say what now?
That’s right, molding food is not always something to dread.
Fun fact: there is good mold and it’s known as ‘Noble rot’.
This is where the forgotten strawberries in the back of your fridge scream in protest for even saying such a thing.
Some grape varietals are more susceptible to mold due to their thin skins. Noble rot draws the water out of the grapes and when this occurs, these grapes are then used to make sweet dessert wines.
In a way, winemaking is straightforward. You harvest grapes, you ferment them, and there you go!
That’s as straightforward as it’s going to get because it’s actually much more complex than that.
The 5 Steps in the Winemaking Process
Step 1: Harvesting
This is a critical step.
Harvest the grapes too soon and you get a wine that tastes like Jalapenos and is noticeably unripe. Harvest them too late and you run the risk of mold and over-ripening.
Some seasons will be warmer and thus need earlier harvesting and vise versa.
Then you have the option of harvesting by machine or harvesting the old fashion way by hand.
There are all types of factors that will affect how the resulting wine will taste, making this step one of the most important.
Step 2: Crushing and Pressing
Think back to the episode of I Love Lucy when Lucy’s in Italy stomping on grapes with the other ladies of the vineyard. This is one way to crush grapes aside from using modern machinery.
Granted modern machinery is much more sanitary.
Depending on whether the vineyard is making red wine or white wine, the skins and seeds are left in contact with the pressed juice.
Fun fact, this is where Rosé wine starts its journey.
Rose is simply grape juice that has had long enough contact with the skins to add a bit of color, but not long enough to ferment in them.
Step 3: Fermentation
And this is where things start to get hazy.
Fermentation is a whole other process and each winery will have its own method of fermentation to create their trademark brands.
Red and white wines ferment at different temperatures for different lengths of time with the help of several treatments (or none).
These treatments alter the resulting acid levels, alcohol, and overall flavor.
Some wines will undergo malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity levels, as is the case with Chardonnay. Others will undergo chaptalization where sugar is added to the grapes before fermentation to increase the alcohol content.
Some even have sulfur dioxide added into the mix while others will go through acidification and deacidification processes.
Step 4: Clarification
Otherwise known as racking.
Once fermentation is complete, wine is then filtered to get rid of skins, stems, seeds, yeast, and anything left behind during fermentation.
The wine then goes through additional fining using clay or in some non-vegan instances, animal products.Though using animal products seems like one wine trend that is phasing out.
To top it all off, winemakers transfer the wine into either oak or steel barrels.
Step 5: Aging and Bottling
The next and final step is somewhat optional.
Wine can be bottled and left to age. Or it can be left to age in oak or steel barrels.
6 Types of Wine You Must Know
Chardonnay is usually aged in either oak, concrete, or steel vessels. What ends up happening is that dead yeast, known as ‘lees’, settles out of the fermented wine.
There’s a technique called ‘batonnage’ to stir the wine and dead yeast together. This yeast is what gives Chardonnay it’s buttery bread taste.
Chardonnay also goes through malolactic fermentation to take away its acidity.
So where is it grown?
Chardonnay is most commonly grown in the Burgundy and Côte d’Or regions of France. In the US, California is known to grow Chardonnay.
Other international areas that grow Chardonnay include Chile, South Africa, and Bulgaria.
Some common flavors you will taste on the palate include:
- Tree fruit
2. Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc is one grape that translates the terroir very well.
If the grapes are grown in sand then the resulting wine is more herbaceous. Clay gives the wine more fruit and body and kimmeridgian gives the wine more mineral qualities.
Fermentation temperature tends to have an effect on wine flavor.
A colder fermentation will give the wine more elements of trees and tropical fruit. Raise the fermentation temperature and you get more terroir and mineral aspects.
Areas in France known to grow Sauvignon Blanc are the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. Other famous areas are California and New Zealand.
Sauvignon has a sharper taste than a Chardonnay, some flavors you’ll notice are:
- Green apple
- Passion fruit
- Wet concrete
3. Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is the one grape that is difficult to grow and make into good wine.
It is susceptible to fungal disease, clusters grow very compact, and the vines lose its vibrant fruit at high temperatures.
The vines like to grow in either limestone or clay. Limestone will give the resulting wine a lighter more aromatic feel because the clay will make the wine tannic and weighty.
Can you guess the international region known for its Pinot?
France it is!
You’ll see a lot of great Pinot’s come from Oregon as well as California and New Zealand.
Pinot is a great red wine to start off with. On the palate, you’ll get flavors of:
- Milk chocolate
These grapes are prone to rot and can over ripen very quickly, making harvest time a possible nightmare.
To avoid over-ripening, these grapes tend to do better in cool soils like clay.
The grapes have thinner skins than Cabernet grapes and tend to have softer tannins.
Bordeaux in France is popular for growing Merlot as is California, Italy and Washington state.
On the palate, you’ll see flavors such as:
- Black fruit
- Chocolate or baking spices
Here’s another fun fact for your repertoire.
Zinfandel was originally known as a table grape. It’s considered the ‘American’ grape, but its origin is uncertain.
The grape clusters like to ripen early and unevenly. Clusters are large and do well in warmer growing seasons.
What’s interesting about Zinfandel is that the grapes can be made into two different styles of wine.
One is a Rosé and is normally labeled as ‘White Zinfandel’ on the bottle. The second type is a typical red wine that is dry and concentrated.
California and Italy are most popular for growing Zinfandel and characteristics include:
- Cherry pie filling
- Black tea
6. Cabernet Sauvignon
Make no mistake about it, Cabernet grapes are a very hardy type.
They are not picky on the soil type they are grown in. They have thick skins and large seeds which hardens them against diseases.
These same skins are what gives Cabernet wines their strong tannins.
So if you’re not a fan of tannins, Merlot and Pinot might be a better option for you.
A warmer fermentation period and long soaks in the grape skins extract a lot of color and tannins. Wines then need some aging time to mellow out the tannins and color.
Go ahead and add France as a notable region that grows Cabernet. The left bank of the Bordeaux region, to be exact. Other regions include Napa in California and Australia.
Signature characteristics you’ll get on the nose and palate are:
- Black fruit
- Green vegetable element
- Cedar or wood chips
- Sweet hay if it’s from Napa
- Jam and minerals if it’s from Bordeaux
You’ll know a Cabernet is unripe if you get hints of green bell pepper so keep that in mind.
Food and Wine Pairing
One thing to note with food and wine is that not everyone will have the same opinion on what pairs well and what doesn’t.
This is a completely subjective gray zone to enter.
One person may think that a Sauvignon Blanc would go great with seafood, drizzled in a cream sauce. Whereas someone else might find that pairing blasphemous.
It’s left up to one’s personal taste palate and how they interpret their own food and wine pairings.
If you’re sitting there going, “Ok great…personal opinion matters big whoop…I still don’t know what to pair with what.”
Well…we’re getting there, sit tight.
Go To Rules for Food and Wine Pairings
That said, food and wine pairings have been whittled down to a science (an overly complicated one at that) but we’re going to simplify it for you.
Wine refreshes the palate between bites and elements in food or wine can compliment or take away from each other. So before you place in your wine order, think about the food you are going to eat along with your glass.
Match the weight of the dish to the weight of the wine
For example, it would be best to pair a bold meaty dish that is heavy in flavor with a rich red wine that is as bold or heavy in mouthfeel.
Wine can compare and/or contrast with a dish
Think about food combos that go good together: tomato and basil, peanut butter and jelly, you get the point. Same goes for wine and food.
They can pair well in the sense that they taste similar or they taste different but still taste good together.
One can also pair complex wines with simple dishes and vice versa or, if all else fails, pair the wine with food from the region the grapes were grown.
Alcohol increases the perception of heat or spice in a dish
Spicy dishes with chili peppers could pair with fruity dry wines low in alcohol.
Fat and protein reduce the perception of tannin in a wine
Some meat-heavy dishes could pair well with rich wines high in acidity that will cut through the protein and fat content.
Salt and acid also reduce the perception of tannin and acid in a wine
With this guideline in mind, you can pair an acidic dish with an acidic wine.
This will, despite what some might believe, decrease the perception of acidity levels all around. So a nice Sauvignon Blanc with a lemon drizzled salmon is one route to choose.
Sweetness can also reduce the perception of sweetness in a wine
So choose wisely, equate the sweetness of the dish to the wine lest you run the risk of one overpowering the other.
The takeaway here is that there will be some food combos that will pair better with others from a logical approach.
Ultimately, it will be up to the person to decide what works and what doesn’t work for them.
Frequently Asked Wine Questions
Here’s a quick list of some of the most common wine questions we’ve gotten from customers.
What is a good wine for beginners?
Many beginners prefer white wines to red wines in their initial wine tasting experiences. With said, whether you start with whites or reds comes down to your taste.
White Wines for Beginners
Tasting Riesling starts with intense aromas that rise from the glass (even when the wine is ice cold). This aromatic wine offers primary fruit aromas of orchard fruits like nectarine, apricot, honey-crisp apple, and pear. Besides fruit, you’ll often smell things like honeycomb, jasmine, or lime peel, along with a striking aroma that smells similar to petrol or petroleum wax (a natural compound called TDN). On the palate, Riesling has high acidity, similar to the levels in lemonade.Wine Folly
The primary fruit flavors of Sauvignon Blanc are lime, green apple, passion fruit and white peach. Depending on how ripe the grapes are when the wine is made, the flavor will range from zesty lime to flowery peach. What makes Sauvignon Blanc unique from other white wines are its other herbaceous flavors like bell pepper, jalapeño, gooseberry and grass. These flavors come from aromatic compounds called pyrazines and are the secret to Sauvignon Blanc’s taste.Wine Folly
Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio) is a pinkish grape mutation of Pinot Noir. It’s famously known for zesty white wines, but can also be used for rosé. Look to Northern Italy, Oregon, and Alsace for benchmark examples.Wine Folly
One of the world’s most popular grapes, Chardonnay is made in a wide range of styles from lean, sparkling Blanc de Blancs to rich, creamy white wines aged in oak.Wine Folly
Red Wines for Beginners
A rich, powerful, and sometimes meaty red wine that originated in the Rhône Valley of France. Syrah is the most planted grape of Australia where they call it Shiraz.Wine Folly
Petit Sirah is loved for its deeply colored wines with rich black fruit flavors and bold tannins. The grape related to Syrah and the rare French grape, Peloursin. The French call it “Durif” but this wine is rare outside of California.Wine Folly
Pinot Noir is the world’s most popular light-bodied red wine. It’s loved for its red fruit, flower, and spice aromas that are accentuated by a long, smooth finish.Wine Folly
Think you know a bit more about wine now that you’ve read our basic wine guide?
You are now well equipped for battle with small talk strangers, ice breakers at the company bar, and everything in between.
From knowing how it’s made to how to buy wine, the best way to appreciate a good glass is by knowing exactly what it is that you’re taking a sip of.
Where is it from?
How was it made?
What are you going to eat and drink it with?
More importantly, remember to savor and enjoy it in good company.
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