Wine Basics & Beginner’s Wine Guide

So you’re stuck bringing a bottle of wine over to a friend’s house for a dinner party and have no idea what to buy or where to start. The world of wine can be a complex and intimidating place to the uninitiated, but don’t worry: we’ve got you covered with a few rules of thumb (price doesn’t always rule) that will turn you from rank amateur to, at least, skilled novice. These simple and smart guidelines will help you discover your palate and launch your long and tasty journey to understanding wine.

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Getting Started With Wine Tasting

Learning to taste wine is no different than learning to really appreciate music or art in that the pleasure you receive is proportionate to the effort you make. The more you fine-tune your sensory abilities, the better you’re able to understand and enjoy the nuances and details that great wines express. The time and effort invested in palate training is rewarding — and very, very fun.

How to Taste Wine

The ability to sniff out and untangle the subtle threads that weave into complex wine aromas is essential for tasting. Try holding your nose while you swallow a mouthful of wine; you will find that most of the flavor is muted. Your nose is the key to your palate. Wine aerators work wonders to improve the taste of cheap wine. Why? An aerator’s job is to introduce oxygen to wine that’s been stored in a low-oxygen environment (e.g. a wine bottle). Aerating causes alcohol molecules to be released into the air and these airborn molecules carry wine’s flavors into your nose. Once you learn how to give wine a good sniff, you’ll begin to develop the ability to isolate flavors — to notice the way they unfold and interact — and, to some degree, assign language to describe them.

This is exactly what wine professionals — those who make, sell, buy, and write about wine — are able to do. For any wine enthusiast, it’s the pay-off for all the effort. While there is no one right or wrong way to learn how to taste, some “rules” do apply.

First and foremost, you need to be methodical and focused. Find your own approach and consistently follow it. Not every single glass or bottle of wine must be analyzed in this way, of course. But if you really want to learn about wine, a certain amount of dedication is required. Whenever you have a glass of wine in your hand, make it a habit to take a minute to stop all conversation, shut out all distraction and focus your attention on the wine’s appearance, scents, flavors and finish.

You can run through this mental checklist in a minute or less, and it will quickly help you to plot out the compass points of your palate. Of course, sipping a chilled rosé from a paper cup at a garden party doesn’t require the same effort as diving into a well-aged Bordeaux served from a Riedel Sommelier Series glass. But those are the extreme ends of the spectrum. Just about everything you are likely to encounter falls somewhere in between.

“Good Wine” for Beginners

You have probably heard from both friends and experts many times that any wine you like is a good wine. This is true if simply enjoying wine is your goal. You don’t have to do more than take a sip, give it a swallow and let your inner geek decide “yes” or “no.” The end.

It’s true that figuring out what you like is an important component of wine tasting, but it’s not the only component. Quickly passing judgment about a wine is not the same as truly understanding and evaluating it. If you’re tasting properly, you will be able to identify the main flavor and scent components in every wine you try; you will know the basic characteristics for all of the most important varietal grapes, and beyond that, for the blended wines from the world’s best wine-producing regions. You will also be able to quickly point out specific flaws in bad wines.

Discovering Different Wine Types

A wine beginner might know the basic differences between a red and a white, but it’s also important to learn all the wine types and varietals. You can explore everything from Chardonnay to Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel in our guide to the most important red wine grapes and white wine grapes.

When pairing wines with food, you don’t need to drill down to the level of the fine nuances to make an informed choice. All you need are a few simple pairing rules. The most important thing to remember is to pair light wines with lighter foods, such as fish, chicken and creamy sauces, and match full-bodied wines with bolder foods, such as beef, game and tomato-based pasta sauces.

Traditionally, this rule has been simplified: white wines with fish and chicken and some pork, and reds with beef and game. That’s a good rule of thumb to follow for the beginner, but with a bit of experience, you’ll find you can break the mold a little — some nice light-bodied reds pair very well with fish and chicken, for example. If spicy foods are on the menu, go for a sweeter wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling or Pinot Grigio. If you want a wine just for sipping, Pinot Noir and Cabernets tend to be most accessible. Finally, if it’s a white you’re after, try a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling.

Exploring Wine Regions

Because soil conditions significantly affect the taste of grapes, a wine’s country of origin is critical to its flavor. That means that a French white can be radically different from a South African, for example. When it comes to picking a wine region, no one’s expecting you to know the finer details that set apart French and German whites, for example, but a brief geography lesson goes a long way.

Wine is made in virtually every country in the world. These countries are often referred to as “Old World” or “New World.” “Old World” consists of regions with long histories of wine production, such as Europe and parts of the Mediterranean. Some of the most well-known “Old World” wine regions include France, Italy and Germany, and these regions focus greatly on terroir — the unique characteristics of the soil and climate, which give their wine a sense of place. “New World” (as the name suggestions) is used to describe newer wine-producing regions, such as U.S., Australia and Chile. These regions tend to have hotter climates and generally use different labeling methods; they tend to use grapes rather than region on labels for recognition.

If you face a choice between Old World and New World wines, play it safe and go old-world. Countries such as France, Italy and Germany have produced wines for countless years. It’s a safe bet to assume that the winemakers there have perfected their processes. This, of course, is not to say that wines from South America or Africa aren’t good. They, and many other new-world producers such as the United States and Australia, make excellent bottles.

Reading a Wine Label

At first glance, a wine label can be confusing to those just getting started. Luckily, New World wine producers have made it easier on wine beginners by listing the grape(s) directly on the label. Old World regions have typically relied on the wine consumer to be familiar enough with the region to know, for example, that Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir.

Old World Wines might read like this:
Château Moulin de Grenet 2009 Lussac Saint-Émilion

New World wines might read like this:
Cakebread 2006 Merlot, Napa Valley

The French wine lists “Saint-Émilion,” assuming the consumer realizes that wines from Saint-Émilion are mostly Merlot. The wine from Napa, California, on the other hand, lists both the region and the grape variety. As you study more about wine, you’ll become more and more accustomed to all the wine varietals and the Old World regions that produce them.

Old World wine producers are slowly realizing that in order to compete on the global market, they need to make it easy on the consumer. But as much as times may change, a deep understanding of how to read a wine label will always be a useful skill.

There are a few important components of a wine label. Their placement may vary slightly but if you know what you’re looking for, they’ll be easier to spot:

  • Producer or Name
  • Region
  • Variety
  • Vintage
  • Alcohol Percentage

Basic Parts To A Wine Label

Producer or Name

The producer name is either obvious or in small text at the top or the bottom of the label (such as many French wine label examples). This is who made the wine. It’s important to note that some American wine labels that only have a Wine Name (such as Apothic Red) are branded wines from larger wine companies. Apothic Red is a branded wine by E&J Gallo–the producer.

Region

The region indicates from where the grapes were sourced to produce the wine. A wine from a larger (read: more vague) region is typically a value wine whereas a wine from a specific vineyard site often indicates a higher quality regional designation (i.e. “California” vs. “Santa Rita Hills” AVA). If a wine is from a specific vineyard site, that site will be indicated in quotations (i.e. “Les Suchots”) or located right below the region designation (ie Vosne Romanee Les Suchots). Generally, as you narrow the source to a specific site, the quality level becomes more refined and the price increases.

Variety

The variety refers to what grape or grapes are used in making the wine–Merlot for example, or CMS Blend (Cab, Merlot, Syrah). Many blends will not reveal the constituent grapes nor the percentage that each makes of the whole. If there is no varietal given, look for the Appellation, which can give you clues to what varietals were used based on the rules governing that region. There are 15 nations with officially regulated appellations, though the strictness of the rules and what matters varies wildly among them.

Vintage or Non-Vintage (NV)

The year that the grapes were harvested is the vintage. The vintage tells a lot about a wine if you are familiar with vintage variations. As a general rule, multi-vintage wines or “NV” wines are lower value wines, because they have the ease of pulling wine from multiple vintages to control the flavor.

Alcohol by Volume (ABV)

The alcohol level actually says a lot about a wine. Many European wine regions only allow their highest quality wines to have 13.5% ABV and above. In America, ABVs can be quite high (up to 17% on some dry wines) and the alcohol level is an indication of how rich/big the wine may taste. Many higher alcohol wines are made from riper grapes and tend to have more fruit forward flavors. Again, this is a generalization and there are exceptions to the rule.

Optional extras to look for when inspecting a wine bottle:

  • Vineyard
  • Estate
  • Reserve
  • Tasting Notes
  • History
  • Quality Level: AOC, DOC, etc.

Finding Wine Flaws

Rest assured, there are some truly bad wines out there, and not all of them are inexpensive. Some flaws are the result of bad winemaking, while others are caused by bad corks or poor storage. If you are ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant, you want to be certain that the wine you receive tastes the way it was intended to taste. You can’t always rely on servers in restaurants to notice and replace a wine that is corked. You are ultimately the one who will be asked to approve the bottle. Being able to sniff out common faults, such as a damp, musty smell from a tainted cork called TCA, will certainly make it easier for you to send a wine back.

Buying Wine

We live in an age in which sourcing wine has never been easier. Looking for a wine from Crete? The wine shop in your town will likely carry it, and if not, you can easily find a wine retailer online. It’s in the hands of the consumer to shop for the best deal or for the most elusive, rare bottle, which can often be shipped to your doorstep.

Savvy shoppers will stay on top of ever-changing wine shipping laws based on interstate policies. Some states cannot have wine shipped to them, while others have more relaxed laws. Before you can start investing in a full collection, you’ll need to discover your palate by embracing opportunities to taste and determine what you like. When dining out with friends or at a party, be open minded! A rich Cabernet Sauvignon might woo you initially, but you may also take a liking to exotic Rieslings depending on your mood. There is no better way to discover wine than by tasting everything.

Wine Serving Tips

Now that you have taken the time to learn how-to-taste wine, the regions and grapes of the world, reading a wine label and the essentials for buying wine, it’s time to drink it!

For starters, make sure that your wine is being served at its absolute best. To do that, pay attention to these three tenets of wine service: Glassware, temperature and preservation.

Glassware:

Each wine has something unique to offer your senses. Most wine glasses are specifically shaped to accentuate those defining characteristics, directing wine to key areas of the tongue and nose, where they can be fully enjoyed. While wine can be savored in any glass, a glass designed for a specific wine type helps you to better experience its nuances. Outfit your house with a nice set of stems you will reap the rewards.

Opening A Bottle Of Wine:

There are many different types of wine openers and the most popular with pros is the waiter’s friend. Most of us instantly get the logic of inserting a corkscrew into a cork and using a lever arm to hoist the cork out, however it’s the little details that bewilder us.

Wine sommeliers cut the foil at the bottom lip. This is the tradition because foils were previously made out of lead. Also, this method tends to reduce stray drips when pouring at the table. Foil cutters, on the other hand, are designed to cut the top of the lip. Cutting the top lip is more visually appealing and ideal for moments where the wine is on display (like at a wine tasting).

Poke the cork slightly off center. You want the radial diameter of the worm (the ‘worm’ is the curlycue part of a wine opener) to be centered so that it’s less likely to tear the cork. It takes about seven turns to insert the worm into the best spot, although wine openers vary. Basically, the corkscrew should be inserted into the cork about one turn less than all the way in. Some fine wines have long corks and you can go all the way in.

Temperature:

All wine is stored at the same temperature, regardless of its color. But reds and whites are consumed at quite different temperatures. Too often people drink white wines too cold and red wines too warm, limiting how much you can enjoy the wine. A white that’s too cold will be flavorless and a red that’s too warm is often flabby and alcoholic. Here is a key to ideal wine service temperatures:

Wine Service Temperatures

While this is a helpful guide, not everyone has a thermometer on hand. A good rule of thumb is to note that white wines should be chilled before drinking and red wines should be have time to rise in temperature. Ideally, whites should be between refrigerator temperature (40°F) and storage temperature (55°F) and reds should be somewhere between storage temperature and room temperature, which is often as high as 70°F. If your wine is in a temperature-controlled unit, at 53–57°F, pop your bottles of white wine into the refrigerator half an hour prior to service and take your reds out of storage half an hour prior to service. This allows time for your whites to chill and your reds to warm up. If you have yet to invest in a wine storage refrigerator and your wines are kept at room temperature or in the refrigerator, you’ll do the opposite. Put your reds in the refrigerator for half an hour and take your whites out of the refrigerator for half an hour. Dessert wines, sparkling wines and rosés are best enjoyed at a cooler temperature than whites. Refrigerator temperature will do the trick.

How To Hold A Wine Glass

Wine Preservation

Oxygen turns wine into vinegar. Thus the key is to reduce the amount of oxygen touching the surface when storing open wine. There are a few methods used to prolong shelf life, all based on minimizing exposure to oxygen either by replacing or removing the oxygen or reducing the surface area of the wine. With the necessary TLC some red wines can be stored open for up to a week.

To slow down the deterioration process, use a quick vacuum pump to suck out the excess air. The less air in the bottle, the longer the wine’s lifespan. Re-cork the wine after every glass pour. Keep the open wine bottle out of light and stored under room temperature. In most cases a refrigerator goes a long way to keeping wine fresh longer; even red wines. When stored at colder temperatures the chemical processes slow down, including the process of oxidation that takes place when wine is exposed to oxygen. Wine stored by cork inside the fridge will stay relatively fresh for up to 3–5 days. This is a good start, but I think we can do better!

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