A beginner’s guide to wine
Last updated: 23/01/2018
The world of wine is full of variations, and, with so much choice in taste, style, ingredients, smell and colour, it can be overwhelming for many to know the difference between a Sauvignon and a Cabernet.
Furthermore, to get a good grasp on the complexities of wine, there are a few simple techniques and some moderate wine knowledge to remember.
Wine basics: Assess by sight
In order to be able to assess the wine thoroughly, the glass should be about one-third full in well-lit conditions. Follow these steps to evaluate the wine visually:
Look straight down into the glass, then hold the glass to the light, and finally give it a tilt, so the wine rolls toward its edges. This will allow you to see the wine’s complete colour range, not just the dark center.
A murky appearance may suggest that the wine has chemical or fermentation problems. On the other hand, it might just be that the wine is unfiltered or has some sediments in, due to being shaken up before being poured. A wine that looks clear and shows clarity is always a good sign.
Tilting the glass so the wine thins out toward the rim will provide clues to the wine’s age and weight:
If the colour looks pale and watery near its edge, it suggests a rather thin, possibly insipid wine. If the colour looks tawny or brown (for a white wine) or an orange or rusty brick colour (for a red wine), it is either an older wine or a wine that has been oxidised and past its prime.
Give the glass a good swirl and take note of the ‘legs’ or ‘tears’ that run down the sides of the glass. Wines that have more legs are seen to be higher quality, which generally indicates that they are bolder, riper and more mouth-watering. However, this is a contentious subject, as many believe that the legs are formed by physics, rather than quality.
With hundreds of types of wine to discover, it’s better to start with the basics. The colour of the wine is a good indicator of its type.
- Almost clear – Sparkling wine, Vinho Verde, Muscadet, Riesling.
- Green/yellow – Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, Gruner Veltliner.
- Platinum yellow – Albarino, Pinot Gris, Semillon, Gargenega.
- Pale yellow – Chenin Blanc, Muscato, Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer.
- Pale gold – Chardonnay, Roussanne, Viognier.
- Deep gold – ‘Noble Rot’ wines, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Semillon.
- Pale salmon – Rose of Pinot Noir, Carignan and Zinfandel.
- Deep pink – Rose of Merlot, Grenache and Sangiovese.
- Deep salmon – Rose of cabernet Sauvignon andTempranillo.
- Pale ruby – Pinot Noir, Gamay, Nebbiolo and Grenache.
- Deep violet – Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Barbera.
- Deep purple – Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Nero d’Avola, Aglianico.
Wine basics: Assess by smell
Now that you’ve taken a good look at the wine, you’re ready to take a good sniff. Give the glass a swirl, but don’t bury your nose inside it. Instead, you want to hover over the top, take a series of quick, short sniffs, then step away and let the information filter through to your brain.
There are potentially thousands of aroma components in a good glass ofwine, so forget about finding them all. Once you’ve taken a few short sniffs of the wine, try to seek out the below aromas, which will help you better understand the wine’s characteristics. Ask yourself these questions;
- How intense is the wine?
- What fruits do you smell?
- Do you detect any other flavours?
- Does it have a mineral smell?
- Is the wine oaked?
Wine basics: Assess by taste
Take sip of wine into your mouth and try sucking on it as if sucking it through a straw. This simply ventilates the wine and circulates it throughout your mouth. You’ll encounter a wide range of fruit, floral, herb, mineral, barrel and other flavours, and if you’ve done your sniffing homework, most will follow right along where the aromas left off (what?). Aside from simply identifying flavours, you are also using your taste buds to determine if the wine is balanced, harmonious, complex, evolved and complete.
- Balanced - Wine should have its basic flavour components in good proportion. Our taste buds detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter – a good wine should balance all four.
- Harmonious - A harmonious wine has all of its flavours seamlessly integrated. Young wines sometimes need time to blend completely together.
- Complex - A complex wine simply means that when you taste it, the flavour develops from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow. A complex wine will show many different flavours.
- Complete - A complete wine is balanced, harmonious, and complex with a lingering, satisfying finish. These wines have more to offer, in terms of both pleasure and training, than any others you will taste.
- Fruit - Cranberry, lime, lemon, gooseberry, passion fruit, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, plum, grapefruit, apple, pear, coconut, melon, nectarine, peach, mango, apricot, fig, pineapple blackcurrant, blackberry, blueberry, olive.
- Floral/Herb - Rose, hibiscus, white flowers, orange blossom, honeysuckle, grass, thyme, celery, jalapeno, lemongrass, ginger, saffron, eucalyptus, lavender, cinnamon, anise, sage, rosemary, vanilla, pepper, oregano, mint.
- Other/Oak - Smoke, tobacco, mushroom, beeswax, honey, caramel, almond, burnt sugar, leather, vanilla, clove, nutmeg, chocolate, butter, sandalwood, bacon fat, dill, black tea, graphite, dried leaves, coffee.
Wine and food pairing
Wine and food matching is the process of pairing food dishes with wine to enhance the dining experience. They say certain wines will enhance the flavour of a dish, but beware it’s also true that certain wines will completely conflicts with a dish.
- Salty foods - Foods such as anchovies, sushi, fries and certain meats such as shellfish suit most sparkling wines.
- Vegetable dishes - Foods such as salads, sautéed vegetables, roasted vegetables and certain meats like flaky fish and chicken suit dry white wines.
- Spicy cuisine - Foods such as Indian, Thai, Chinese and oily fish suit a sweet white wine.
- Creamy dishes - Foods such as cream soups, cream based pasta, quiche, creamy lasagne and meats such as rich shellfish, chicken and other poultry suit a rich white wine.
- Richly flavoured food - Foods such as Mediterranean cuisine, Moroccan, Indian and meats such as rich shellfish, pork loin, chicken and other poultry suit a rose wine.
- Mushroom driven dishes - Foods such as risotto, mushroom soup, cream based pasta, chicken pie, white pizza and meats such as pork and poultry suit a light red.
- Roasted food - Foods such as Italian, Spanish, roasted vegetables and meats such as pork, duck, lamb, cured meats and sausage suit a medium red.
- Rich meats - Foods such as roasted, smoked and barbecued meats suit a bold red.
- Sweets - Foods such as cakes, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, soft cheese and fruit suit a desert wine.
Easy pairing tips to remember
- Sweet with heat - Pair spicy foods with wines that have some sugar, such as a Riesling. Residual sugar actually cools down spice and creates a balance between the food and the wine.
- Smoke with oak - Pair grilled or charred foods go well with wines that have been aged in oak. Because oaked wines are often more intense, they can overwhelm the flavours in a dish, so they need to be paired with foods that match that intensity. Grilled/charred foods tend to tame that oak intensity and to bring out the fruit flavours of the wine instead.
- If it grows together it goes together - Pair foods of a particular ethnicity or region with wines from the same place like Spanish food with Spanish wine. Ethnic/regional pairings are typically a great match because the agriculture and grapevines share the same terrain, so they naturally have flavours that complement each other. However keep in mind the list above, you still wouldn’t have a Italian bold red for a creamy Italian pasta dish.
- Tannins pair well with fat- Panfried or fatty foods link well with wines that are high in acid such as Sauvignon Blanc or high in tannin like Cabernet Sauvignon. This is because the astringency of the tannins cuts through the viscosity of the fat.
Calories in wine
Alcoholic beverages aren’t required to state calories by law but that doesn’t make them calorie-free! Learn the calories of wine by the type they are (all calories are based on a serving of 175ml.
- Sparkling wine – 120-160 calories
- White wine – 110 – 170 calories
- Standard rose – 110 – 170 calories
- Light red – 120 – 180 calories
- Bold red – 150 – 200 calories
- Desert wine – 190 – 290 calories
With hundreds of different varieties of wines in the world, we've barely scratched the surface. There are so many wines to discover and enjoy. The key message is to go and explore and find what wine suits you!