Thousands of years have passed since wine was first produced and consumed, outliving the great civilisations it has helped build and shape.
To this day, the alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes contributes to agriculture and trade, and even plays key roles in the practice of different religions.
But what ultimately makes wine so loved even in countries that don’t produce them natively is how it brings people together. In the words of French wine merchant and gourmet André Simon, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilised.” From a fancy steak dinner with your partner to a relaxed Sunday afternoon barbecue with friends, or Netflix and Cheese night with friends right at home, a lovely bottle of wine just makes everything better.
If you’re new to wine, having to pick one from thousands of brands and varietals can be quite intimidating. While there are no hard-set rules — at the end of the day, you like the wine you like, and you can pair it with any food that fills the tummy as well as the heart — some fundamental guidelines can help a beginner appreciate and enjoy wine more.
What You See
When shopping for wine, the very first things one sees or looks at are the colour of the wine and the bottle label. The colours are mostly red, white or Rose, and then there are some specialty wines that have a different hue or luster. The bottle labels typically show the brand name, the country of origin, and the grape varietals present in the drink.
Here are the basics:
Wines come in three colors: red, white, and rosé, determined both by the pigment of the grapes from which the wine is made, and process of how the wine was made.
Red wine is made mainly from red or black grape varietals, and the solids are removed only after the fermentation process, giving the juice a darker color. For white wines, the grapes are pressed beforehand and only the juice is fermented — so yes, they can sometimes be made from dark grapes. Rosés are somewhere in the middle, with a fair amount of pigment but is neither red nor white.
There are also sparkling wines, made fizzy by significant levels of carbon dioxide in them. Although most are white or rosé (wine with some color from grape skins, but not quite red), winemaking countries like Australia and Italy also produce red sparkling wines.
Red wines tend to have bolder taste, stronger aromas, and more complexity compared to its white and rosé counterparts, which are often light, fresh, and fruity.
Old and New World
Old World generally refers to Europe, while New World are all the regions outside that — so wines from Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Greece, and other European winemaking countries and regions belong to the former, and all other origin places like Australia, USA, Chile, or South Africa fall under the latter.
As for winemaking styles, Old World wineries tend to put a premium on tradition, while their New World counterparts are generally more open to technology. However, with the more liberal sharing of ideas and trends across borders, the line between Old and New World winemaking styles get blurred. For this reason, there may be Old World wines produced New World-style.
The word ‘varietal’ is basically a grape variety, and there are over a thousand of them all over the world. A number of winemaking regions have their own endemic wine grape varietals, but most grow a mix of different grapes that are suited to the region’s climate, soil, and altitude.
Varietal wine’ is a term used to refer to wines made from grapes belonging to a single specified variety of grape. Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are the most-planted wine grape varietals in the world, which, by default, makes the wines produced with them household names.
But anyone who’s spent at least five minutes in any wine store or even just the grocery wine aisle would know that there’s so many more varietals and blends to consider. Each one has its own character, aromas and taste notes, and narrowing down an overwhelming number of choices is daunting, especially for a wine newbie.
So rather than choosing a wine based on varietals, the easier route to finding the so-called ‘right’ wine is through its tastes and food pairing.
What You Taste
A lot of people are intimidated by wine because of the complexity of its taste, but it is this same complexity that makes drinking wine an experience. That’s not to say that everyone should strive to become a wine expert; however, having a basic understanding of wine tasting will definitely add to one’s enjoyment of it.
Here are some things to look out for when you sip:
In winespeak, the body simply refers to the mouthfeel, which ranges from light to medium to full. All beverages have a certain weight or viscosity determined by the presence of components like sugar or fat, and when it comes to wine, the weight usually (but necessarily always) depends on its alcohol content.
Light-bodied wines, with alcohol levels under 12.5%, are refreshing, crisp, and easy on the palate, while full-bodied wines usually have an alcohol level north of 13.5%, which give them a rich, complex, and rounded character. Right in the middle are medium-bodied wines, with an alcohol level within the range 12.5% to 13.5%, making them flexible and reliable choices for most dishes and cuisines.
But since alcohol is not the only factor that could affect viscosity, don’t be surprised to find high-alcohol yet medium-bodied wines.
Tannins are polyphenols — organic micronutrients that are rich in antioxidants — found in the skins, seeds, and stems of wine grapes. The presence of tannins give wines its bitterness.
Red wines have more tannins than white wine, and again this is because of the process of how they are made; because the skins and other grape solids are removed only after fermentation, red wines retain tannins as well as pigments.
Moderate and regular consumption of wine, specifically high-tannin red wines, have been shown to have considerable health benefits such as lowering the risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Wines contain acids, which make the taste fresh, crisp, and refreshing in the right amounts, but can taste sour when overdone or when it’s not balanced out by the sweetness of sugars and the bitterness of tannins.
This can be likened to how citrus fruits taste: as the acidity goes up, so does the perceived sourness. As with most acidic fruits, the acid levels in grape wines tend to decrease as they ripen. For this reason, winemaking regions with shorter growing periods tend to produce high-acid wines.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Wines taste sweet when residual sugars remain after the fermentation process, where the alcohol is produced by the yeast consuming the sugars present in the grape juice.
The opposite of sweet wine is dry wine, and somewhere in the middle are the so-called medium-dry or off-dry wines, which have some faint hints of sweetness.
Flavours and Aromas
“Hints of blueberries,” “aromas of coffee,” “taste notes of chocolate,” — sommeliers and seasoned wine enthusiasts describe wines in such detail that could terrify a wine beginner. These flavours and aromas are the result of the origin region’s terroir and other factors in the winemaking process.
Having the capacity to detect such micro-tastes does add to the satisfaction of drinking wine, but not being able to distinguish them doesn’t take anything away from one’s enjoyment. For people that are new to wine, it’s enough to describe wine flavours and aromas in broad terms like fruity or flowery, spicy or smoky, or earthy or oaky. These are more familiar tastes that almost everyone could relate to and understand.
What Wine to Pair with Food
With a basic grasp of wine tasting basics, the next thing to do is to find what food will go well with different wines. The rule of thumb for food and wine pairing is “the lighter the food, the lighter the wine.”
The intensity of the flavours of the food should match and / or complement the intensity of flavours of the wine. Chicken, fish, and seafoods are usually paired with white wines, while heavy, savoury meats like beef and lamb go well with medium to full-bodied red wines. When pairing wine with saucy meat dishes, the better route would be to choose a wine to suit the sauce rather than the meat.
Cheeses are as complex as wines are; just as every kind of wine is unique, so is every kind of cheese. Again, the intensity of the flavour will serve as the broad guide for choosing the wine that will go with it. Another tip is to choose a wine that comes from the same place as the cheese, banking on the region’s traditions to easily find a good pairing.
Some sweet wines are desserts on their own, but they also complement other desserts of the same level of sweetness. For people on the opposite end of the spectrum — those who have a ‘salt tooth,’ their preferred foods are usually balanced out by crisp and fruity wines.
A word of caution: try not to get hung up on the idea that there is always a “right” food item for every kind of wine. At the end of the day, it all boils down to one’s personal preferences — what works for you, works for you.
How to Serve Wine
The wine’s serving temperature is important to its enjoyment, and luckily for wine beginners, the guide is fairly easy: the lighter the wine, the cooler it should be.
White wines can be refrigerated and served cold (7-14° C) to add to its refreshing character. Sparkling wines are best served at a cooler temperature (5-10° C). A nifty trick to keep your wines cool on a hot day is by using frozen grapes as your coolant rather than ice cubes, which water down the wine when they melt.
Light red wines like Pinot Noir and Burgundy are great when cool (12-17° C), while rich red wines likes Merlot and Shiraz can be served slightly cool (17-21° C).
As for the kind of wine glass to use for specific kinds of wine, even experts are divided on this topic. Our take is that it’s the wine that matters, not the glass. Go for universal glasses for the usual reds and whites, and opt for wine flutes for sparkling wines.
How to Store Wine
Not everyone has the luxury of having a wine refrigerator at home, and that’s okay because there’s always a workaround — especially if the wines are being stored just for later consumption and not for ageing. Sparkling and white wines can go in the fridge, and this goes for both unopened and opened bottles. As for red wines, just keep them in a cool, dry place away from light.
With the basics covered, now’s a good time as any to get started on your wine journey! Although there may seem to be one too many things to consider in choosing and drinking wine, try not to stress over the details — after all, wine is meant to be enjoyed. As you keep going, you’ll gradually up your wine knowledge.
Don’t forget that your personal taste remains the final arbiter of what makes wine “good” or “right.” Guidelines are not absolute truths; they are only intended to help you with two things: to narrow down your search for what could become your staples and favourites, and to add to your appreciation and enjoyment of the wine-drinking experience.
But there is one absolute truth with wine that beginners and seasoned wine drinkers (and even wine experts!) will agree on — wine is best enjoyed with good food and in good company.