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Wine 101 Cheatsheet: A beginner’s guide to wine basics

By Ching Yuen 17 February 2020

Perhaps the most popular alcoholic beverage in the world, wine is almost like heaven in a cup. From single-varietals to wine blends, light-bodied whites to full-bodied reds, there is a whole world of knowledge about wines just waiting for you to explore. For beginners who are just starting to dip their toes into this endless ocean of fermented grapes, here’s a quick guide on how to read between the wines in celebration of Drink Wine Day!

If you’re in a hurry though, click to the section you want to skip to below:

Sparkling Wine | White Wine | Rosé | Red Wine | Dessert Wine

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Sparkling wine

Poppin’ bubbles till the wine sparkles! Sparkling wines are wines that contain carbon dioxide bubbles. Carbon dioxide gas is a natural byproduct of fermentation, and winemakers sometimes decide to trap it in the wine. Just about every country that makes wine also makes sparkling wine, and it is a technically challenging process. Whether it’s a celebratory occasion or a romantic dinner, there’s always a reason to pop out popular types of sparkling wine such as Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco.

Champagne: A specific type of sparkling wine (made from certain grape varieties and produced in a regulated way) that comes from a region in France called Champagne. It is such a beloved wine that EU regulations not only prevent any other EU country from calling its sparkling wines “Champagne” but also prohibit the use of terms that even suggest it. The same cannot be said in the US, as winemakers can legally call any and all sparkling wine “Champagne”—even with a capital C, if they wanted—as long as the carbonation was not added artificially.

Cava: The Spanish alternative to Champagne, it’s made in the exact same way as Champagne (the traditional method), but by law, it doesn’t have to be aged for as long in the bottle before being released (nine months versus 15 months). It’s made from local varieties mainly from Catalunya and intended to be more of an everyday, affordable wine.

Prosecco: Prosecco isn’t made using traditional methods like Champagne and Cava, but definitely among the sweetest and least expensive wines. Using a grape called Glera, the second fermentation (the one that adds the bubbles and raises the alcohol) happens in big tanks, right before bottling and shipping.

White wine

Wine becomes white wine in one of two ways. First, white wine can be made from white grapes (which are really more green than white but... oh well). The second way wine can become white is a little more complicated. The process involves using red grapes, but only the juice of red grapes, not the grape skins. In practice, though, very few white wines come from red grapes (Champagne is one exception).

Fresh, unoaked whites: These wines are crisp and light-bodied, with no sweetness and no oaky character. Most Italian white wines, like Soave and Pinot Grigio, and some French whites, like Sancerre and some Chablis, fall into this category.

Earthy whites: These wines are dry and fuller-bodied, and can taste unoaked or lightly oaked, usually with a lot of earthy character. Some French wines, such as Mâcon or whites from the Côtes du Rhône region, have this taste profile.

Aromatic whites: These wines are characterised by intense aromas and flavours that come from their particular grape variety, whether they’re off-dry (that is, not bone-dry) or dry. Examples include a lot of German wines and wines from flavorful grape varieties, such as Riesling or Viognier and, in some cases, Sauvignon Blanc.

Rich, oaky whites: These wines are dry or fairly dry and full-bodied with pronounced oaky character. Most Chardonnays and some French wines—like many of those from the Burgundy region of France—fall into this group.

Rosé

These wines are made from red grapes, but they don’t end up red because the grape juice stays in contact with the red skins of the grapes for just a few hours, compared to days or weeks for red wines. Rosé wines also absorb very little tannin from the skins; therefore, you can chill these wines and drink them as you would drink white wines.

The rosé wines that call themselves white are fairly sweet; they are sometimes referred to as blush wines, although that term rarely appears on the label. Wines labelled rosé can be sweetish, too, but some wonderful rosés from Europe, including Champagne (and quite a few from the United States) are dry (not sweet).

Light rosé: This flavour profile of rosé is considered to be the most versatile of all, with Provence and Pinot Noir typically categorised as the lightest rosés. These pale pink-coloured rosé wines usually have mint, grapefruit, or strawberry flavours which you can taste with each sip. 

Light, medium, and floral rosé: White Zinfandel and White Merlot rosés are few shades darker than light rosé, almost orange even! They are commonly associated with cherry, rose petal, and herbal flavours.

Medium, full, and round rosé: Rosés made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese grapes give off hints of raspberry, hibiscus, and white pepper, and is typically when the colour of the rosé only begins to turn dark.

Full, rich, and savoury rosé: When enjoying darker, nearly red-coloured rosé varieties, you’ll taste flavours like jam, bell peppers, or black peppers. Typically, Syrah, Montepulciano D'Abruzzo, or Tavel rosés are full, rich, and savoury.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Red wine

Unsurprisingly, red wines are made from grapes that are red or bluish in colour. The iconic and unmissable tint occurs when the colourless juice of red grapes stays in contact with dark grape skins during fermentation and absorbs their colour. Tannins are released from the grape skins, seeds, and stem when soaked in juice, creating a drying sensation in your mouth that is typical for red wines.

Soft, fruity reds: Reds like Beaujolais Nouveau and Pinot Noir wines have a lot of fruitiness and fairly little tannin, but medium to high acidity.

Mild-mannered reds: Medium-bodied and mild-mannered wines with subtle flavours are savoury more than fruity, like less expensive wines from Bordeaux, France, and some inexpensive Italian reds.

Spicy red: These reds are flavourful, generally fruity wines with spicy accents and some tannin, such as some Malbecs from Argentina and Dolcettos from Italy.

Powerful red: If you are looking for full-bodied and tannic reds, then you should keep an eye out for reds like expensive California Cabernets; Barolo from Italy; Priorat from Spain; and expensive Australian reds.

Dessert wine

Craving something sweet after a meal? Then it’s time for a dessert wine. To make a sweet wine, the fermentation process is stopped before the yeast converts all grape sugars into alcohol. There are several ways to stop the fermentation, including super-cooling the wine or adding brandy to it. What you get afterwards is a super-rich wine that is sweetened with natural grape sugars.

Lightly sweet wine: Expect these wines to be exploding with fruity flavours and well-suited for fruit-based and vanilla-driven desserts. Some general favourites and household names include Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc.

Richly sweet wine: Many of these wines can age 50-plus years due to the role that sweetness and acidity play in preserving fresh flavours. There are multiple ways to produce these wines, such as using late-harvested grapes that are concentrated in natural sugars or grapes with a bacteria known as Noble Rot that adds unique flavours of ginger, saffron, and honey. There’s also ice wine, which requires a vineyard to be frozen, from which grapes are harvested and then pressed while still frozen!

Fortified wine: When grape brandy is added to wine, you get fortified wine. Most fortified wines are higher in alcohol content (about 17–20 percent ABV) and have a longer shelf life after they are opened. Famous examples of this would be port, sherry, and Madeira.

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Ching Yuen

Editor

Having lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, and London sure is a fun fact whenever people try to guess Ching’s accent. She loves switching between all these language channels and her ‘mother tongue’ is just determined by how many drinks she’s had for the night! She loves movies, travelling, and exploring cities, from hidden alleys to gourmet dining, so feel free to hit her up if you need any suggestions for dinner!

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