If all you know about wine is whether or not you like it, you’re long overdue for an education. A basic understanding of wine is a must in any gentleman’s alcoholic arsenal. Not only does it provide a serious sense of personal satisfaction, it also improves your palate, boosts your confidence in the face of the wine aisle, and enhances all kinds of social experiences.
We also hear the ladies love it when you can talk vino to them. Allegedly.
First, Let’s Get To Know The Jargon
The vast list of wine-specific terminology is easily one of the most intimidating aspects of learning your way around the wine cellar. Fortunately, unless you’re training to be a professional sommelier, you can get away with understanding just a few of the most basic terms. Here’s what you really need to know:
Jargon #1 – Tannins
Tannins are the textural elements that make a wine taste dry, like a grape’s seeds, skin and stem. Wood tannins can also dissolve into wine through contact, when it’s stored in wooden barrels. Tannin adds both bitterness and astringency, as well as complexity. Red wines tend to have higher tannins than white.
Jargon #2 – Terroir
Terroir refers to the place a wine comes from (think “territory”). The geography, geology and climate of a certain location all contribute to giving a wine its unique personality. The term can also be used to refer to the characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
Jargon #3 – Variety
Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot…these are all examples of wine labelled with a single kind of grape. The word “variety” refers to the grape itself, while “varietal” is used to describe the wine made from that grape variety.
Jargon #4 – Regions
A wine label will always indicate where a wine is made – aka it’s “region” – and the kind of grapes used. Different parts of the world naturally lend different characteristics to the wine produced there. Wine grapes mostly grow between the 30th and the 50th degree of latitude, in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Jargon #5 – Vintage
Vintage describes the process of harvesting grapes and creating the finished product. A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year. If you see “NV” on a wine list, you’re looking at a nonvintage wine that is a blend from the produce of two or more years.
The Common Aromas Found You Will Find In Wine
This is the fun part, the part where you get to sound as pretentious as possible while describing your vino. The wide array of fruity, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral and woodsy flavours perceived in wine are derived from aroma notes interpreted by the olfactory system (that would be your sense of smell, gents). Try these terms on for size next time you’re looking to get your wine snob on:
Fruity aromas come from citrus fruit, berries, tree fruit, tropical fruit and dried fruit. The full list is much too lengthy to include here, but some common fruits are apple, apricot, blackcurrent, cherry, fig, grapefruit, melon, peach, pear, plum, raspberry and strawberry.
2. Sweet & Wooden
On the sweet side, you’ve got chocolate, toffee, butterscotch, honey and vanilla. On the wooden side, look out for aromas like oak, pine, fir and cedar.
3. Spicy & Savoury
The spicy and savoury aromas are deep and rich. We’re talking tobacco, smoke, pepper, cinnamon, coffee, leather, truffles and yes, even bacon.
4. Herbal & Floral
On the other, lighter side of the spectrum are the herbal and floral aromas, which include eucalyptus, mint, cut grass, hay, and all manner of flowers and blossoms.
5. Dairy & Nutty
Dairy and nutty aromas incorporate notes of butter, cream, yeast, bread and biscuits, plus nuts like almonds, hazelnut and walnut.
Perhaps the most unusual aroma category, Mineral encompasses hints of flint, stones, petrol, chalk, damp soil, wet leaves and moss.
The Three Common Types Of Wine
Wine can be broken down into three primary categories that you’re probably already acquainted with:
Red wines are made from dark-coloured grape varieties, though the actual colour of the wine can range from intense violet to brick red to brown. The most popular red wines are Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
Despite their name, white wines are yellow, gold or straw-like in colour. Well-known varieties include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Sémillon, Muscato, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Gewürztraminer.
Also known as rosado or rosato, rosé is a type of wine that incorporates some of the colour from the grape skins, but not enough to qualify it as a red wine. Although it sometimes gets a bad rap, rosé may actually be the oldest known type of wine. The grapes most often used in making a rosé include: Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Zinfandel.
Then we have fortified / sparkling / champaign, what foods to pair these with and more, but we’ll save that for another article.
In the meantime, this handy little diagram should help explain the various types.
There you have the first instalment of our guide to wine. We’ll be adding to this series each week so keep an eye out for it.