This beginners’ guide to wine helps you get to grips with your favourite tipple.
With 1.14 billion litres of it sold in the UK last year (2011), wine is one of Britain’s favourite tipples – but how much do you know about this fruity nectar of the gods? It’s likely that you’re familiar with the origins that lie in the small and sweet-flavoured grape – but how does it go from vine to wine? Following harvest, the fruit is crushed and the natural yeasts that collect on its skin mix with the sugar in the grape juice. It then begins to ferment, and it is this process of fermentation that produces alcohol, which eventually – whether it be three days or three months later – becomes wine…
Pair with… seafood linguine
It may come as no surprise that, in most cases, white wine is made from white grapes (although it can be made with black grapes, too, as their juices also run clear). White wines tend to be lighter and more refreshing than reds, and are often eaten with light meals, which makes the age-old recommendation of ‘white wine with white meat’ (chicken, fish etc) ring true – although the rules can sometimes be bent. White wine is best served in narrow glasses (for the best concentration of aroma), at an optimum temperature of between 7-10°C (roughly an hour in the fridge should achieve this).
Pair with… a veg Stir-fry
Defined by its pink colour, rosé is made from black grapes – but doesn’t turn fully red as the grape skins are removed from the juice shortly after initial contact. It’s not only the colour of the wine that is affected by the short contact between grape skins and juice: the amount of tannins (a compound naturally found on grape skins that gives an astringent taste) that enter the wine is reduced, and so rosé wines tend to be much sweeter in taste than other red wines.
Pair with… Shoulder of lamb
Like rosé wines, reds are made from black grapes – however, in order to keep their deep red colour, the grape skins – full of anthocyanins (pigments) – remain intact with the juice for much of the fermentation process (the temperature of which is much higher when producing red wine compared to white, usually between 25-35°C). This process means that tannins are much more concentrated in red wine, which gives it its dry, puckery taste. Berries are sometimes added to the grapes, skins and seeds, too, when making red wine to intensify the fruity flavour. Red wines are best served in glasses that have a wider, deeper bowl and a narrower mouth which allows more of the wine to be exposed to oxygen –releasing fuller flavour and pleasant aromas.
Taste it like a pro!
Step 1: Read the label
The label can tell you much about a wine: the name of the producer; the country and region of origin; its classification, if appropriate; its age; the alcohol level; whether or not it has been fermented and/or aged in oak; and, increasingly – and most importantly as far as predicting flavour is concerned – the grape variety or blend of varieties used. Many consumer-friendly producers also paste a label onto the back of the bottle, which often tells you about the style of the wine, what to eat with it and how long to keep it. There may also be a symbol offering a guide to the sweetness of white wine (measured on a scale of one to nine, with one being bone dry) and, for reds, how light- or full-bodied it is (on a scale of A to E, with A being very light-bodied, E being extremely full-bodied).
Step 2: Look at the wine
Pour the wine into the glass until it is about one-third full. Tilt the glass against a white background so that you can see a gradual change in shade from the rim to the centre. A young red wine will have a vivid purple colour at the rim; as it ages, this colour fades to ruby and then to tawny. You can also judge the body of reds by looking into the wine –if you can see the bottom of the glass, then it is light-bodied; if you cannot, it is full-bodied. A very pale, watery-looking white wine will be either young or neutral to taste. A golden one will be either richer in flavour, more full-bodied, older or sweeter –or perhaps a combination of any of these. Wine of any colour that is cloudy should be treated with suspicion, because this invariably indicates a fault.
Step 3: Swirl and sniff
Making the effort to smell wine properly is part of the joy of drinking it. First of all, swirl the wine around the glass to wake up the aromas. You’ll slop it everywhere to start off with, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Now stick your nose right into the glass and take a steady, gentle, sniff as if you are smelling a flower. Try to think of what it reminds you of: it could be honey, blackberries or vanilla.
Step 4: Take a sip
Take a good slug of the wine, so that your mouth is about one-third full, and hold the wine in your mouth for a few moments – don’t swallow! Draw a little air through your lips and suck it through the wine to aerate it, bringing out its taste even further. This action also forces the aromas into your nasal cavity, which is critical because this is where your brain interprets all the flavour messages. Let the liquid roll over, around and under your tongue, and gently chew it so that it coats your gums and teeth. Note the body, texture, acidity, alcohol and sweetness and then relish the personality and flavour notes of the aromas that are now invading your nasal cavity. It’s also important to think about how the taste changes and develops after the wine has been in your mouth for a few seconds. Finally, swallow the wine or spit it out (to look like a real professional, practise spitting when you’re in the bath!) and enjoy the lovely aftertaste.
Step 5: Assess the wine
Jot down a few notes about the wine immediately after drinking because taste is often difficult to recall.
- Does it make your mouth water? If so, it is packed with natural acidity.
- How dry or sweet is it?
- Does a red wine make your mouth pucker? This means that the wine is high in tannin.
- How much alcohol and body does it possess?
- Does it taste like the wine has been in any contact with oak?
- Assess the balance, the finish and whether or not the flavour matched up to the promise of the aroma. And, of course, ask yourself if you like it!
Try to talk the talk with our vino savvy vocabulary
Acidity: Fruit acids are naturally present in grapes and are an essential ingredient in wine, giving it a refreshing zing.
Astringent: Where the effect of tannins is particularly noticeable. Body: Refers to the weight of the wine in the mouth.
Buttery: The aroma imparted from oak barrels.
Clean: Used to describe a simple, refreshing wine.
Complex: Wine that has layer upon layer of flavour.
Dry: Wine that is not sweet.
Finish: Also called ‘length’, this describes how long the wine’s taste lingers in your mouth after you have spat it out or swallowed. As a rule, the longer the finish, the better the wine.
Oak: Adds toasty vanilla flavours to a wine.
Palate: Posh term for taste.
Rounded: Flavours in a wine that are satisfying, with no sharp edges.
Supple: Smoothly textured.
Sweet: Any sugar left in the wine after fermentation will make it taste sweet.
Tannin: A mouth-puckering compound found on grape skins, in stalks, pips and in oak barrels. It adds depth and acts as a preservative.
Tart: Very sharp, unripe fruit flavours.
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