Why read this guide?
A little (extra) knowledge is a powerful thing.
This guide has been created to answer some of the most common questions about wine.
What is Wine?
Wine is the fermented juice of grapes. Grapes are crushed or pressed and the resulting juice, in conjunction with yeast, undergoes a chemical reaction turning the sugar in the juice into alcohol.
When we talk about wine we always mean wine made from grapes.
Wine can be red, white or rose, still, sparkling (like Champagne) or fortified (like port).
Champagne, sparkling, white, rose and dessert wines should be served chilled. While there are specific recommended temperature ranges for these wines, it is easiest to serve these wines chilled from the fridge. Red wines should be served at room temperature; they should not be served too hot or too cold. Do not keep red wine near sources of heat or under strong lighting.
Why bother about the temperature? Because it has a great effect on the flavour of wine - the warmer a wine is the more aromas are released and tannins taste softer. Too warm a wine, be it red or white, will result in the wine tasting sickly and dull, and too cool a wine, be it red or white, will result in the wine tasting pretty awful too - the fruit will be hidden by acid and tannins.
Opening Wine & Champagne
Opening a wine bottle? First, ascertain the closure your bottle uses:
Cork and synthetic closures
1. Hold the bottle firmly around its middle or neck;
2. Using a foil cutter, or the knife on your corkscrew, cut the foil around the glass ridge at the very top of the bottle and remove the disc of foil;
3. Place corkscrew into the cork ensuring it is in the centre, screw in leaving a couple of turns of the screw;
4. Lever the cork almost all the way out and ease the cork out gently with your fingers (try not to ‘pop’ the cork out from the bottle).
Stelvin closures or screw cap closures
The Wine industry is increasingly turning towards the use of screw caps (or stelvin closures to give them their correct name) for white and (some) red wines. This is because in the past there has been a high incidence of ‘corked wine’ . The screw caps provide an excellent seal which allows the wine to retain its youthful freshness and fruitiness (and excludes the infiltration of air which normally occurs with cork). Also, these bottles are easy to re-seal for wines being poured by the glass.
Champagne and sparkling wines
1. Avoid shaking or jarring the bottle before you begin to open it (otherwise the wine may gush when the cork is removed);
2. Hold the bottle firmly and keep the bottle at a 45º angle throughout the process (the angle allows a greater surface area of wine which will reduce the likelihood of it gushing when you remove the cork) and be sure to point the bottle away from yourself and anyone near you.
3. Sparkling wines often have a foil ‘hood’, loosen this without undoing the wire loop beneath, and remove, you will then have the wire harness to undo;
4. Undo the wire loop while at the same time placing the thumb of your other hand on top of the cork, holding it in place. Instead of removing the harness at this point, we recommend that you leave it on and remove it and the cork simultaneously;
5. Grip the cork, keeping your thumb on top and with the other hand hold onto the base of the bottle firmly;
6. Slowly turn the bottle (not the cork!) until the cork is loosened, then ease the cork out (you will feel pressure on the cork - you need to control the cork so it does not ‘pop’ out). When properly opened the cork should only make a whisper of sound something akin to a gentle sigh!
When pouring the wine try to hold the bottle above the rim of the glass. By turning or twisting the bottle as you finish pouring you should avoid (most) dribbles.
If you are using an ice bucket make sure it is clean, with 2-3 centimetres of water in the bottom with a couple of handfuls of ice.
How to taste wine!
Tasting wine and describing the flavours is very subjective, however, there are some basic ideas that will help you to describe the wine and maybe enjoy it a little more.
1. Start by having a look at the colour of the wine in the glass White wines can be anywhere from water-white to rich yellow, red from pinky purple to browny red. Swirl the wine around the glass - this helps to release aromas and also give you an idea of the weight of the wine as it coats the side of the glass.
2. Now smell the wine. Swirl the glass and really inhale the aromas. You might smell fruit, flowers, spices, nuts, minerals, toast, wood, chocolate, coffee, butterscotch and much more. Remember aromas and flavours are subjective and there is no ‘right’ description of a wine - only what your senses tell you.
3. Take a mouthful of wine Allow it to move around in your mouth. Do you like it? What does it remind you of? While you will taste similar flavours to what you smelled you will also sweetness, acidity and bitterness. These are contributing factors which will change the flavours of food.
The most prevalent grape variety in the world. It is fantastically flexible, producing many different styles of wine - steely and restrained such as many of those from Chablis, full rich and butter from the New World.
Chablis Style - minerally, steely, dry
Oaked - rich, butter, toffee, toasty, full-bodied
Unoaked - tropical, peach, fresh flavours
Chenin Blanc (shen-in blong)
A classic grape from the Loire, but nowadays widely planted in South Africa. Noted for its high acidity, Chenin in the New World tends towards tropical fruit flavours, apples, apricots, nuts and honey. In contrast, Chenin Blanc from the Loire is most famously made in Vouvray. Its flavour characteristics range from dry to lusciously sweet, crisp with high acidity, green apples, and slightly honeyed. Good Vouvray can age for decades.
Sauvignon Blanc (soe-veen-yon blong)
Originally famous via Loire wines such as Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, nowadays the New World produces its own star examples, most notably the extremely tasty New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The typical nose is gooseber-ries, or cat’s pee (on the nose rather than the palate!), grassy with tangy acidity, it can be very crisp and refreshing.
Regarded by many as the greatest grape of all. It is traditionally associated with Alsace and Germany where it makes both dry and sweet wines but it is also increas-ingly produced in Australia and New Zealand. Typical characteristics are floral, perfumed, and sometimes petrolly, with notes of citrus, lime and apples.
It is prized for its intense aromatics with a distinctive nose of apricots, peaches and honeysuckle. Increasingly Viognier is being produced in Australia and the US. It is also the sole constituent of Condrieu, which is regarded as the greatest white wine of the Rhone. Viognier also gets a look in the red wines of Côte-Rôtie albeit as a tiny percentage of the blend.
Pinot Gris/Grigio (pee-noh gree/gree-gee-oh)
Pinot Gris is known as Pinot Grigio in Italy (and increas-ingly in Australia). It produces a slightly spicy wine and has a delicate nose with fresh melon, nuts and follows through on the palate with crisp acidity. Pinot Grigio is the favoured wine by the glass because it is light, crisp, easy to drink and fairly easy to pronounce.
Pinot Blanc (pee-noh blong)
Pinot Blanc is a relative of the Chardonnay grape and it is grown predominantly in Alsace. It has fresh, appley, buttery fruit.
Semillon is one of the major components of Sauternes and Graves (White Bordeaux). It is often blended with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc in Australia and South Africa. Australian Semillon can provide a wonderful and interesting alternative to Chardonnay. It has ]flavours of grass, citrus, honey and toast, and can develop a very desirable waxyness with aging.
At its best in Alsace, very aromatic and spicy, it produces full-bodied wines with low acidity. It is the classic spicy food match, although Sauvignon Blanc and Dry Riesling are now considered as good a match.
Cabernet Sauvignon (cab-ur-nay soe-veen-yon)
It is strong and with great presence. Regarded as the greatest red grape, it is the mainstay of red Bordeaux and grown throughout the world. It can have strong tannins, and distinctive notes of blackcurrant, cedar, cigar box, pencil shavings, green pepper, dark chocolate and mint.
The classic red Rhone grape, it is widely planted in Australia where it is known as Shiraz. The grape makes dark, rich wines, full bodied with strong tannins, blackberries, black pepper, damson, leather, mixed spice, tar and game flavours.
Pinot Noir (pee-noh nwah)
Most famously associated with the great red wines of Burgundy, however, Pinot Noir is developing an excellent reputation and style in the cooler areas of the New World - especially in New Zealand, Australia and the US. Pinot Noir will often taste almost sweet with notes of raspberry, strawberry, cherry, cranberry, and violet, or be gamey with a nose of compost and manure.
One of the three main grapes of red Bordeaux, it is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon but less tannic, with plum, rose, rich fruitcake and spice on the palate.
With its origins in South West France, the ‘black wine’ grape of Cahors has become a key variety in its own right in Argentina. Argentinean Malbec produces a soft, full-bodied style with gallons of brambly fruit.
Like Malbec, Bonarda is a little known European grape, but is doing great things in South America. Bonarda is ruby red in colour, has an intense and appealing nose and a dry or sweetish flavour that is lightly tannic.
The main constituent of Côtes du Rhône (usually with Mourvedre and Syrah), it produces wines with warm, peppery fruit, herbs and raspberries. Also widely used in Spanish wines.
Also known as Cannonau and Grenache (see above)
Mourvedre is planted widely across South France and in Spain. Usually blended with Grenache and Syrah to add depth or soften a wine, Mourvedre has come to greater prominence with the increasing popularity of Rhone wines. This thick skinned grape provides a deeply coloured wine with savoury, game flavours. It is known as Mataro and Monastrell in Australia and Spain respec-tively.
Best known for making the juicy, light-bodied wines of Beaujolais, where over half the worlds plantings are found. Gamay is also grown in the Loire Valley, Switzer-land, the former Yugoslavia and to some extent in Italy and California. The wine is uncomplicated and ideal for an everyday red; with flavours of strawberry, cherry and bubble gum.
Pinotage was created in South Africa in 1925 by crossing the Pinot Noir with the Cinsault grape. The grape produces full-bodied wine with ripe, sweet fruit and an unusual nose of burn rubber.
Famous for the Tuscan wines of Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Sangiovese produces a medium to full, firm, dry wine, slightly spicy, with bitter cherry, spices, tobacco, choco-late and herbs. Sangiovese means ‘blood of Jupiter’.
Spain’s quality grape, and an essential component of Rioja. Without oak it can be quite fruity and spicy, however much of the wine produced from Tempranillo spends time in oak producing soft, tobacco-scented wine with strawberry, spices and soft buttery toffee.
Cabernet-Franc (cab-ur-nay fronk)
Nearly always blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is used as a single variety in the Loire and increasingly popular as a single variety in the New World. Cabernet Franc produces similar wines to Cabernet Sauvignon but less tannic and a little ‘greener’ with flavours green pepper, blackcurrant ber-ries and leaves, strawberry and chocolate.
An italian varietal that is responsible for the great wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. It can have notes of tar, liquorice, violet, rose, prune, bitter chocolate and fruitcake. It has the ability to age well.
The Cheat Sheet
Having a few handy words up your sleeve will help you to describe what you taste. Here is a list of wine words and their meanings to use as a reference.
Acid This is a component of all grapes; too much acidity will make the wine unbalanced and sharp or sour. However, if the wine has balanced acidity, it helps to keep the wine fresh, zesty and clean. Wine with good acidity (balanced) will be crisp, fresh, lemony and refreshing. Wines with too little acid will taste ‘flabby’.
Alcohol Helps to enhance the flavour and feel of a wine; bigger, full-bodied wines will be much higher in alcohol (14% or more) than light, crisp wines (11%).
Appellation A place name identifying a specific geographical area where grapes are grown and/or where a wine is produced.
Aromatic A common word that you will see in tasting notes, an aromatic wine will have a distinct pleasant smell e.g. Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier
Balanced All winemakers attempt to make a well- balanced wine, where all the elements of fruit, tannin and acidity are in harmony.
Barrel A huge topic but many quality wines are fermented and/or aged in barrels. These are made of oak. The most common sizes are 225 litres. There are two common types of oak used to make barrels, French and American. French oak gives more subtle toasty flavours while American oak gives much stronger vanilla oak flavours. Brand new barrels will give more oak flavour than a one- or two year old barrel.
Barrel Fermented Most wines are fermented in inert tanks and then maybe aged in oak. However, some wine are fermented in oak barrels. This is an expensive way of making wines and the end result is usually a wine with greater depth and complexity.
Buttery Many top Burgundies (and New World Chardonnays) are described as being buttery; this is because malolactic fermentation and oak ageing produce these creamy, buttery flavours.
Chewy Used to describe a wine (usually red) that has a lot of grape skin extracts such as tannin giving the impression of being really thick and full in the mouth.
Clean Simply, a wine that is free of faults, fresh tasting and pleasant although it can sometimes refer to a wine that is technically correct but not overly exciting.
Coarse Wine that is unsubtle and rough tasting is coarse - a bit too tannic, too acidic. Unbalanced might be more correct; rustic might be more diplomatic.
Complex A very good quality wine offering a myriad aromas and flavours, layer upon layer coating your tongue in explosions of flavour
Concentrated The wine’s flavours concentrate along the centre of your palate; often found in wines made from low yields or old vines.
Corked Wine Wine is dynamic, it changes when it mixes with air, and it also changes and develops within the bottle. Sometimes when wine is bottled, the cork used to stopper and seal the bottle can be infected with fungi (cork is a natural product, originating from cork trees, the cork is full of tiny pores and fungi can live in these pores) causing the cork to become infected with a foul smelling compound called trichloroanisole (TCA). In addition any porous material near or in contact with the wine can cause TCA taint - wood, cardboard etc. Infected cork is what produces the unpleasant ‘corked’ smell. Wine can also be affected by other factors which cause the wine to be dull and flat.
Decanting To decant or not has been a contention for some time. However, broadly, there are two reasons to decant - to remove sediment out of an aged bottle of wine (usually at least 5 years old), or to ‘open up’ a younger tannic red wine.
Earthy Many aromas and flavours fall under this description, in a positive way. Italian red, Pinot Noir and many older reds often leave an impression of wet clay, forest floor or sweet soil in the bottle or glass.
Floral Literally smelling of flowers
Fruity Smelling and tasting strongly of fruit. But which fruit? Some grape varieties have distinctive fruit aromas associated with them - the lychees of Gewurztraminer, the blackcurrant of Cabernet Sauvignon, the gooseberry of Sauvignon Blanc. Some wines, especially blends, just smell broadly of ‘red fruits’ or ‘citrus fruits’.
Full-bodied A wine that fills the mouth and seems to impose on the palate - in contrast with medium and light-bodied wines.
Gamey In similar territory to the earthy range of smells - gamey, leathery, meaty smells and flavours often ap-pear in older red wines.
Herbaceous Often used to describe the nose of a Sauvignon Blanc. It is a positive description. However, the term herbaceous can also be used to describe negative flavour such as when the grapes that made the wine were under-ripe - for example red wines grown in very cool climates may be herbaceous.
Hot Wine made from overripe grapes grown in warm climates can produce a hot-tasting burn of alcohol at the back of the throat. The fruit in those wines can also taste a bit jammy.
Lees The dead yeast cells, the bits of pulp, the seeds and some bits of skin and stalk that fall to the bottom of the tank, barrel or vat of fermenting wine. Also refers to the dead yeast cells that fall to the bottom of a bottle of sparkling wine after its second fermentation. Often a wine is left to mature on the lees for a time to gain extra flavour and complexity.
Long A wine that has a long finish is one whose flavours seem to go on for ages and ages, right down the back of your throat. The opposite, obviously, is a wine with a short finish, which is not as enjoyable.
Malolactic Fermentation An induced second fermentation in barrel or tank where the malic acid (acidity in green apples) is transformed into lactic acid (present in milk) by bacteria which softens the wine.
Mousse To sparkling wine what the head is to beer. A good sparkling wine should have a mousse that remains in the glass for the duration of the drink and the bubbles that form it (called the bead) should be as small as possible.
Oaky/Oaked A catchall term that covers all sorts of descriptions from the vanilla-like smell of old Cabernet Sauvignon, the toasty smells, and the spicy smells.
Oily Occasionally white wines like Viognier or Marsanne, aged Riesling or Semillon can have a slippery, oily texture to them that is actually very attractive.
Reserve Strictly refers to wines from previous vintages (years) that are used as important blending components in the production of, for example, non-vintage sparkling wine to give extra character and complexity to the new wine. Reserve is also used in many New World countries as a general indication of better-than-average quality (e.g. Show Reserve, Special Reserve) as well as a term to indicate an extended maturation or ageing (e.g. Reserva or Gran Reserva in Rioja).
Soft Smooth, elegant, well balanced, mature and approachable - all different ways of saying delicious!
Spicy Like smoky aromas, spicy characters can come from the grape varieties (such as the pepperiness of shiraz) or from the barrel; the clove and aniseed aromas of French oak.
Tannin Gives a distinctive texture and makes your gums go dry. Found in red wine, it is a natural preservative substance that comes from grape skins, pips and oak barrels. Tannin gives the wine backbone and good aging potential. Tannins will generally soften over time.
Terroir Term used to describe how the unique combination of soil, vineyards site, climate and grape variety and culture affects the taste of the resulting wine. For the French, the idea of terroir is sacrosanct. New World winemakers are coming to terms with the concept, planting varieties that suit the particular soil and climate of a vineyard site.
Variety/varietal Two words that are often confused. A grape variety is a type of grape. A varietal wine is made from one variety. Varietal is also used as a tasting term to describe a wine that smells and tastes varietally correct - blackcurrant Cabernet or peppery Shiraz for example.
Vintage (and Non-Vintage) The year in which grapes are picked that a vintage -designated wine is made from (non-vintage made from grapes picked over various years and blended together)
Woody Term used to describe the dusty smells and the dirty old barrel smells in wine
Yeast/Fungi The miracle workers of the biological world! They turn water (grape juice) into wine. There are micro organisms and there are micro organisms. Amoebas aren’t much fun on the whole. But yeasts are a different culture altogether. Yeast is the key that unlocks the intoxicating secret of the sugar in grape juice - it’s the yeast cells, already in the air or introduced by the winemaker, convert that sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. Without yeast, wine wouldn’t be nearly a much fun.