The wine industry is complex and nuanced. Taste can be changed and controlled through the types of grapes used and the temperatures and types of soil they're grown in. If you have an interest in becoming more wine savvy but aren't quite sure where to start, there are a few wine tips and strategies you can use to refine your palate and find varieties you really love.
What to know about wine
As nuanced as the making of wine is, tasting it is equally as involved. Different types of wines should be used with different types of glasses for the best taste, and some foods complement one wine much better than another. Below is an overview of what to know about wine before choosing one.
Wine terms to know
Learning about wine can sometimes feel like learning a new language. If you'll be doing tastings, there are a few terms you may want to know before you go.
- Brut/sec: There are a few terms that provide a scale for the dryness or sweetness of a wine. From driest to sweetest they are: Extra Brut, Brut Nature, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux.
- Body: The “body” of a wine refers to the weight and texture of the wine in your mouth.
- Tannins: Naturally occurring molecules in grapes, tannins affect the astringency of wine. When wine dries out your tongue, it's high in tannins. Red wine is typically higher in tannins than white wine. The aging process, such as sitting in a wooden barrel, can add more tannins to white wines, such as Chardonnay.
- Finish: The flavors that linger and evolve in your mouth after taking a sip.
- Viscosity: Sometimes referred to as the “legs” of a wine, the viscosity can be seen by watching the speed of the droplets flowing down the side of the glass after taking a sip. Longer legs, or more viscous wine, is usually a sign of a sweeter wine with a higher sugar content, or a wine with a higher level of alcohol.
Styles of wine
There are thousands of wines being produced every year, but there are generally considered to be nine distinct types of wine:
- Sparkling wine: Often referred to colloquially as Champagne, sparkling wine is not actually Champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France. However, there are many comparable types of sparkling wine. For something most like Champagne, look for something at the Brut level.
- Light-bodied white wine: This type of wine is perhaps one of the most popular, as it's smooth, easy to drink and pairs well with many things. Wines that fit into this category include Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. You may want to look for a wine produced in a region with a cooler climate for the best taste.
- Full-bodied white wine: A full-bodied wine has a richer taste with a touch of creaminess to it. To get this taste and make this type of white wine different from the light-bodied wines, the wine is often aged in oak barrels. Warmer climates tend to produce the best full-bodied white wines, with Chardonnay being the most classic choice.
- Aromatic white wine: This type of wine gives off a strong aroma, and often has intense smells of whatever its primary flavor is, whether it's floral, citrus or herbal. Due to the perfumy smell, most of these wines will taste a touch sweet, but they do range from dry to sweet. Some of the popular types of aromatic whites include Riesling, Muscat and Torrontés.
- Rosé: Rosé wine gets its signature light pink color from the skins of red wine grapes. This type of wine can also range from sweet to dry, and you can even find sparkling rosés. A rosé can be made from a variety of grapes, from Cabernet Sauvignons to Zinfandels. A drier rosé may allow you to taste the subtleties of flavor a bit better, so you may want to try rosés made with Grenache, Pinot Noir, Syrah or Mourvèdre grape varieties.
- Light-bodied red wine: This type of wine is a little bit lighter in color than fuller-bodied reds — you are usually able to see through the glass to some degree. Light-bodied reds have a light tannin, which is the astringent taste that dries out your tongue. Some popular light-bodied reds include Pinot Noir, Gamay and Zinfandel.
- Medium-bodied red wine: If you're looking for a wine that's easy to pair with food, a medium-bodied red may be a good place to start. This type of wine is more viscous than light-bodied reds and has a higher level of tannins. Classic medium-bodied red wines include Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
- Full-bodied red wine: This type is the most viscous of red wines, with a high level of tannins and a rich mouthfeel. The tannins, while making the wine dry, also help cleanses the palate. For a good idea of how bold a wine can be, you may want to try popular full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec.
- Dessert wine: This type of wine is called dessert wine not because it pairs well with dessert, but because it can act as dessert all on its own. Dessert wines are quite viscous and historically were very sweet. Now, you can find these wines ranging from dry to sweet, however they will all be bold, fragrant and intensely flavored. You may want to try classic dessert wines like Port, Madeira or Sherry.
While no drinking vessel is going to ruin your glass of wine, you may be surprised to learn that certain glass shapes bring out the flavors of wine better than others. There are three parts that make up a wine glass: the bowl, which holds the wine, the stem, which is where you hold the glass, and the foot, for setting the glass down. While there are dozens of different types of glasses, you may want to focus on learning the six main categories first.
- White wine glasses: These come in varying shapes and sizes, but overall, white wine glasses have a smaller bowl to better preserve aromas and maintain temperature.
- Bordeaux glasses: These large glasses are best for bolder red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc or Bordeaux blends.
- Standard red wine glasses: These smaller glasses with narrow openings are best for medium- to full-bodied wines, such as Zinfandel or Malbec.
- Bourgogne glasses: The large, round bowl of these glasses are designed for lighter, more delicate reds, such as Pinot Noir or Gamay. These are shorter than the Bordeaux glasses to allow for the aromas to expand.
- Specialty wine glasses: There are different glasses for all kinds of specialty wines, such as the long and elegant Champagne flute or the short, narrow-mouthed Port glass. The names can often help indicate what a glass is best used for.
- Universal glasses: A few brands have created universal glasses that are usable with all wines. This may be a good choice if you'll be experimenting with different wines until you find your favorite. Not everyone agrees on a shape, so you may want to try glasses from different brands as well.
Wine pairing is a bit of an art form, with every aspect of both the food and drink considered. However, for beginners there are a few basic tips on choosing the wine that will go best with your meal.
- The wine should be more acidic and sweeter than the food, but they should match each other in flavor intensity.
- Red wines pair best with richer meats, like steak.
- White wines pair best with lighter meats, such as chicken or fish.
- A good rule of thumb is to match your wine to the qualities and flavors found in your sauce.
- White, sparkling and rosé wines will likely have contrasting flavors to the meal, while red wines will usually have more similar qualities to the food. For instance, rich red wine with a rich, juicy steak.
If you're new to wine or looking to become a little more knowledgeable about what you like, you may want to practice your tasting skills. Sommeliers concentrate on four steps when tasting wine: look, smell, taste, think.
- Look: Note the color, opacity and viscosity of the wine.
- Smell: Give the wine a sniff and try to categorize what you're smelling. Start with broader categories, such as citrus, tropical fruits, red fruits, etc. Then, try to identify primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. The primary aromas are the smells that come directly from the grapes and are generally fruity, herbal and floral. Secondary aromas come from the winemaking process and are generally yeast derivatives. These are usually easier to pick up in white wines. Tertiary smells come from aging and are usually warmer flavors like roasted nuts, baking spices, tobacco and cedar. If you need to give the scent a boost, try swirling your wine around in the glass to release all those aromas.
- Taste: Take a slow sip and note the taste, texture and “length” of the wine. Taste for the sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors of the grapes. Then note the texture, which can vary in richness. You'll also want to pay attention to the effect the tannins are having on your tongue — this will help you determine how dry a wine is. The “length” of the wine is how long the taste of the wine lingers in your mouth.
- Think: Ask yourself some questions about the wine. Did you like it? Was it balanced? Was it unique? What qualities stood out to you?
Finding your favorite wine
The best way to find your favorite wine is to get out there and try them! Research local wineries in your area and pay them a visit. Not only will you be able to do a tasting, but the experts on-site will be able to educate you on the grapes, winemaking and the aging process of specific varieties.
If you don't have any wineries nearby, see if local bars or restaurants offer wine tasting events. Or, set one up at home with some friends. Everyone can bring a bottle or two of wine and you can all taste test them together.
The world of wine is vast, but if you start with the basics and grow your knowledge, you'll have enough wine tips to choose the right wine every time. There's no wrong way to drink wine, so have fun with it and learn as you go!