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Beginner's Guide to Wine

A glass of good wine can be one of life's greatest pleasures but for someone new to wine it can be very intimidating.

If you go to the wine section in your local supermarket there are so many different choices - all with strange sounding names from foreign countries and with a wide range of prices! How on earth do you choose a bottle?

This page will help you gain a better understanding of wine basics so that you can buy and enjoy your wine with more knowledge and confidence.


The topics covered are:

If, having read this page, you would like to get to know more about wine then there are 3 books that I can recommend:

Wine for Dummies: A book is written by two real wine experts, who remember well what it was like to be a "wine newbie."

Discovering Wine: A Refreshingly Unfussy Beginner's Guide to Finding, Tasting, Judging, Storing, Serving, Cellaring, and Most of All, Discovering Wine

Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book 2009: Now in its 32nd edition, this is the UK's number one wine book. It appeals to both wine lovers and professionals alike, making it the key reference for enthusiasts, investors and collectors.


What is Wine?

A Simple Description

Take a large quantity of ripe grapes. Place them in a clean container and crush them. Leave for a while, drain off the liquid and you will have wine.

How does it work?

The ripe grapes are full of natural sugar and after crushing them, yeasts (natural single celled organisms) that live on the skin of the grapes convert this sugar into alcohol.

The riper, the sweeter, the grapes then the more alcohol you will have. Different types of grapes will give wines of differing tastes.

The process of converting of the sugar into alcohol is called fermentation.

Note that you could use other fruits in place of the grapes but the natural compounds found in grapes help make the best wine.

Mass Production

The above method is very simple and crude. If the vineyards used this method then you would be drinking some pretty terrible wine. Winemakers use a variety of techniques to produce high quality wines:

  • The type of container can be changed - stainless steel and oak are the main two. An oak barrel imparts 'oaky' tannic flavours into the wine.
  • The fermentation temperature can be altered.
  • Different, specifically grown, Yeast types can be used.
  • After fermentation the wine can be bottled immediately or left to age, or mature. The type of container can impart flavours into the wine.

All of the above can make a big difference to the taste of the wine but the biggest influence is the grape from which the juice is extracted. Riper, sweeter grapes give more alcohol but different grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonay etc) make different tasting wines.

How is Wine Named?

Wines are named in one of two ways:

  • From the name of the grape variety from which they were made (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc) or
  • From the place where the grapes were grown (Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Rioja, Soave etc.)
Wines Named from Grapes

If you buy a wine labelled Merlot (a grape variety) then it could have been produced in California, France, Chile or other places. Each of these locations has its own climate and growing conditions which affects the final taste of the grape when harvested.

On top of this, different fermentation and ageing methods in each country will affect the final flavour of the wine. On top of this different vintages (the year in which the grapes were grown) will have experienced different climatic conditions - the best vintage will have had ideal growing conditions (sun, rain etc). So the message here is that one Merlot is not the same as another, all that can be said is that the same grape was used so there will be similarities in the wines.

Wines Named from Places

Most European wines are named after the region in which the grapes grew. Many regions use a single grape in their production eg the Beaujolais region mainly uses the Gamay grape, the Burgundy (white) region uses the Chardonnay grape, but the grape variety is not shown on the wine's label.

Why name the wine after the region and not the grape? The taste of the grape depends on where it was grown - the type of soil, the amount of sun, the amount of rain, the slope of the hill, the direction of which the hill faces. Over several centuries the Europeans have found which grapes grow best where.

Wine laws have been created - you may have seen the words 'Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée' (often abbreviated to AC or AOC) on French wines. This is the highest classification for French wine. By law, these wines must be produced from grapes grown within a geographically defined area, comply with regulations concerning grape varieties, yields, alcohol content etc. Note that although AOC classification means these features are guaranteed, it is not a guarantee of quality.

The Three Colours

The first choice you will have to make when choosing your wine is the colour. Wine comes in three basic 'colours' - red, white and rosé. In general red wines are drunk as part of a meal rather than on their own, white wines are drunk chilled on their own and are more refreshing, rosé wines can be chilled and drunk the same way as white wines.

Red Wine

Red wine is made from grapes that are red or purple coloured. The juice from these grapes is clear - the red colour of the wine comes from the grape skins, and is absorbed during fermentation. The skins also give the wine tannin - a bitter, dry tasting substance that gives red wine it's character.

Winemakers have more ways of altering the style of red wines than they have for white wines. For example if the juice is left in contact with the skins for a long time then the wine will be 'heavier', more tannic. If the juice is drained off the skins early then the wine is 'softer'.

Red wines must not be drunk too cold as the tannins will taste really bitter - it will be like drinking a cup of cold strong tea.

Popular Red Wines
Name Description

Made from the Gamay grape. Medium red colour, soft tannins, fruity and fragrant with grape or strawberry flavours.

Cabernet Sauvignon This is the most popular red wine grape. Medium to dark red colour with strong tannins. As the wine matures the tannins soften and a strong flavor of blackcurrant develops. Good wines aged for longer may develop chocolate, leather or tobacco aromas.
Chianti Made from the Sangiovese grape. Medium ruby red colour with low to medium tannins. It has an earthy, smoky aroma and sometimes has an aroma of cherry fruit . It has a slightly harsh and bitter aftertaste.
Merlot The Merlot grape is often blended with the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, however Merlot is becoming popular on its own. Medium to dark ruby colour with soft tannins. It has a rich ripe plum fruit flavour with a fruity aftertaste that has a hint of vanilla.
Pinot Noir The grape used to make Burgundy wines. Light to medium red in colour with soft tannins. The aroma and flavour depends on the region. French wines are earthy with hints of roast coffee, prunes or plums. Californian wines, have a berry-like aroma of cherries or vanilla.
Zinfandel Deep red bordering on black in colour. It is a spicy, peppery wine, with a hint of fruity flavor such as berries or dark cherries.
White Wine

You probably know that white wine isn't really white it's yellow. White wine is made in one of two ways:

  • From 'white' grapes that are actually yellow, green grapes but basically any grapes that are not red or blue.
  • From the juice of red grapes (the juice is clear) but not the skins - very few wines are made this way, Champagne being one exception.

White wines fall into 3 basic categories:

  • Dry and crisp, no sweetness and no oaky character. (eg Soave, Pinot Grigio, Chablis).
  • Dry, full bodied and oaky. (eg Burgundies, Australian Chardonnays).
  • Off dry (slight sweetness). (eg many German wines).
Popular White Wines
Name Description
This is the most popular white wine grape. Pale to straw yellow colour. Its aroma depends on its region. Apple, citrus, butter and vanilla in wines from cooler regions but melon and tropical fruit aromas from warmer regions. Moderately acidic, full bodied and oaky.
Pinot Grigio
Also known as Pinot Gris. Yellow colour with a dry, rich, full-bodied, pear-like taste with creamy texture. It has a smoky or musky aroma.
Riesling wines have a fruity, floral aroma. High levels of residual sugar are balanced with high levels of acid. Usually low to medium alcohol content.
Sauvignon Blanc
Light to medium yellow colour with a tinge of green. It has herb-like grassy aromas and floavours, high in acidity. Light to medium bodied and dry.
Straw yellow color, almost green sometimes. Light with a hint of almonds and flowers. Low acidity.
Rosé Wine

Rosé wines are pink in colour. They are made from red grapes but dont end up red in colour as the juice only stays in contact with the skins for a short time - hours as opposed to days/weeks for red wines.

As contact with the skin is brief very little tannin is picked up so Rosé wines can be drunk in the same manner as white wines.

Desert Wines

In the UK, a dessert wine is any sweet wine drunk with a meal.

These are not the same as fortified wines (wine to which alcohol has been added after fermentation) drunk before the meal - sherry for example. Also they are also not the same as the red fortified wines (port and madeira) drunk after the meal.

Sparkling Wines

Sparkling wines are wines that have carbon dioxide gas trapped in them. When the cork is removed the gas in the wine escapes causing the bubbles to rise up.

The most famous sparkling wine is Champagne. It is made from specific grape varieties, produced in a specific way in a region of France called Champagne.

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