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Wine Tasting for Beginners

Whether you’re looking to become a more refined man or just have some fun, learning about wine is a fruitful activity (no pun intended!) that might pay dividends down the road even if you find out drinking wine isn’t really your thing. It’s a complex topic–many men and women have devoted their entire lives to the study of wine–however, the good news is you can get up to speed on the basics in no time at all. Let us get you started.

What is wine and how is it made?

You know a bottle of wine when you see one, and you can probably recognize it when you taste it, but what is wine exactly? Wine is an alcoholic drink that is usually made from the fermenting of grapes. There are many different types of wines–we’re going to focus on Red and White non-sparkling here. Humans have been producing wine for many thousands of years (up to 8000 years according to some estimates!) and it has become staple alcoholic beverage across much of the world.

There are five rough steps involved in the making of wine.

  • Harvest
  • Crushing (+Pressing for White wine)
  • Fermentation
  • (Pressing for Red Wine) Aging
  • Bottling

Harvest simply means growing and picking the grapes. As the name implies, crushing involves crushing the grapes creating a liquid-y substance known as must that is then ready for fermentation. If a white wine is being made, it will typically be pressed at this point–the process of separating the grape skin from the juice. Red wines will be pressed after fermentation (a main difference between a red and white wine).

In fermentation, sugar from the grape juice and yeasts, either added or natural, produce alcohol along with other byproducts.

Afterwards, the wine is pressed (if it was a Red) and then allowed to age. Once it has aged sufficiently, depending on the manufacturers desire, the wine is bottled. Once in the bottle it will often continue to age until it is ready to be sold.

How to Taste Wine

Now that you know the basics of how wine is made, let’s get to the basic concepts of wine tasting. There are four basic steps to wine tasting:

  • Appearance
  • Aroma (smell)
  • Taste
  • Finish

When you pick up a glass and get ready to taste–keep these steps in the back of your mind. Examine the wine’s appearance before tasting: a good way to do this is to tilt your glass and note the color and changes in color–these can tip you off as to the wine’s age.

When smelling a wine, try to spot any recognizable smells, such as wood, earth or fruit smells. We find the best way to really get a proper whiff of the wine is to aerate it first–hold the glass by it’s stem and gently swirl it.

At this point you’re ready to take a sip. The first characteristic you’re likely to notice is the sweetness. Sweet wines are called sweet, while wines that are not particularly sweet are called dry. You’ll also be apt to notice the body of the wine pretty early on. Is it “thick” or “watery”? Do you feel a dry-ish feeling in your mouth (a sign of high tannin content)?

As the wine covers more of your taste buds and combines with your sense of smell, you’ll start to notice some of the aromas you smelled manifest themselves as taste. That fruit smell might now reveal itself to be of a strawberry flavor, for example. The prominence of fruit flavors in wine is a crucial attribute to make note of. Wines where the fruit flavor is prominent are called “fruit forward”.

Wine Taste Factors

When it comes to your personal enjoyment of wine, it’s all a matter of opinion. If you like the taste of wine, then as far as you are concerned, it’s a good wine! There are no universal truths when it comes to a wine’s taste. One man’s trash can very well be another man’s treasure. Given that, you may think the whole idea of wine tasting is completely pointless. After all, what does all the fancy wine theory matter? If I like it, I like it! If I don’t, then I don’t.

The reason it matters is because wine tasting isn’t only about identifying whether the particular wine you’re drinking is good or bad, it’s also about learning how to predict whether a wine you haven’t tasted yet will be one you may enjoy. As you learn more about wine tasting, you’ll also be able to predict whether or not a bottle is something a guest of yours may enjoy, just by asking them a few questions. Prediction is the what wine tasting is all about. Ordering wine at a restaurant is much easier when you know what you like and what wines are likely to have those qualities.

Grape: Red vs White

The most fundamental factor that differentiates wine is whether the wine is red or white. The main differences between a red and white wine are the type of grapes they are made from and as we alluded to above, when the skins are separated from the wine in the production process.

Taste wise, typical qualities found in Red wines as they compare to White Wine include:

  • Complex flavors
  • Fuller body
  • Dry
  • Tannins
  • “Earthy”

White wine, as compared to red is typically:

  • “Fruitier”
  • Light
  • Refreshing
  • Sweeter
  • Low acidity

If you like a fuller, dryer flavor, with earthy tones and a complex aftertaste, Red wines are a good fit. White wines are typically more refreshing, served at a cooler temperature, lighter, sweeter, and have almost no tannins which means you don’t get the “dry mouth” feeling when you drink them.

Grape: Varietals

If only things were as simple as red vs white. Within the two main color categories (there are also ‘Roses’ we won’t cover in this article) there are plenty of varietals–different types of grapes and blends of those grapes that have characteristic qualities. Here are a few of the most common and their typical characteristics:

Red Grape Varietals

  • Cabernet Sauvignon — Arguably the most popular grape, known for a full body, a range of fruit forwardness (new world wines such as California Cabs are usually bolder more fruit forward than old world French Cabs), moderate acidity, and robust tannins.
  • Pinot Noir — The hallmark grape of France’s Burgundy region, “Pinots” are delicate, lighter bodied wines with large variants in quality and features.
  • Merlot — Merlots are generally medium bodied–somewhere in between a Cab and Pinot. Merlots are usually sweeter than Cabs with less tannins, but noticeably more full bodied than the delicate Pinot Noir.
  • Syrah — Syrah is a grape varietal commonly associated with the new world wines from all over the world. Syrahs are typically full bodied, fruit forward, and have relatively high alcohol content.
  • Other popular red grape varietals include: Malbec, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Cabernet franc, Zinfandel, and Grenache.

White Grape Varietals

  • Chardonnay — The world has a love hate relationship with this popular white wine grape. Chardonnays are typically medium to full bodied for a white, of varying degrees of sweetness, and often have a “buttery” texture.
  • Sauvignon Blanc — Another one of the popular white wine grapes, Sauvignon blancs are typically medium to lighter bodied wines with nice flavor profiles that can range from very fruity to quite earthy (for a white wine). Many wines from the Sancerre region in France (often called Sancerres) are made from Sauvignon blanc grapes.
  • Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio — A versatile grape varietal, known as Pinot Gris in France, and Pinot Grigio in Italy, this grape, the same varietal in both regions, is typically associated with different flavor profiles. French Pinot Gris is usually medium to full bodied with hints of spice and grassy flavors. Pinot Grigios on the other hand, are often light, crisp wines with a floral aroma.
  • Reisling — A grape most popular in Germany, Reisling wines are typically light bodied, crisp, and sweet–sometimes very sweet.
  • Other popular white grape varietals include: Gewurtztraminer, Viognier, and Moscato

Blends

In addition to the main grape varietals we discussed above, many solid wines are actually blends of multiple grapes. For example, many of the wines from the famous Bordeaux region of France are blends; typically Cabernet Sauvignon heavy in one region, Merlot heavy in the other. Cabernet Franc is a common grape often blended in with other varietals.

The Wine Maker

Color and grape don’t tell the whole story when it comes to wine. The wine maker is crucial. While taste alone does not explain the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and $1,000 bottle, there are definite differences between the first grows of a top tier wine estate and “two buck chuck”. Going into the different producers in depth is outside the scope of this intro, but suffice to say, they aren’t all the same.

Vintage

Last but not least, a wines’ vintage–the year the grapes were harvested–has a profound impact on flavor. Not only does the age of a wine impact its structure and flavor, the year the grapes were harvested also has a direct impact–weather conditions and climate at the time can dramatically change the character of a wine. For example, the heat wave that swept across southern Europe in 2003 led grapes to ripen too quickly leading to often high alcohol contents and unbalanced production.

Learning More

Our aim here was to give you a brief intro to the world of wine tasting. The next step is up to you. Wine, at the end of the day, needs to be experienced, not read about. Find a local vineyard and go on a tour, or simply go to a local wine tasting or wine tasting class to continue your journey.

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