We’ll warn you right now. If you’re feeling the need to learn more about wines, you’re already a goner. It’s a passion that lasts a lifetime, with an infinite amount of territory to explore.
But don’t worry, because you don’t need to be certified by WSET or become a total wine geek to love wine. And it doesn’t need to become an all consuming pursuit, although in the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty sweet obsession to have.
For those of you, like us, that just want to build a foundation to help more easily discover wines they like, we humbly submit the Wine Basics Cheat sheet.
After this initial taste, we recommend you checkout some of the sources we include here and do your own exploration. Let’s get started.
1. Why they say good wine comes from good grapes
They do say that, really. It’s a reason many winemakers like to have a say in how the grapes they use are grown, either through owning the vineyards or through contracts with the growers. People get degrees in this stuff, so we’re not going to be able to do it justice in a cheat sheet, but there are a few concepts that can help you identify wine that tastes good to you.
The French have a term - terroir - that roughly translates into a sense of place. It conveys a belief that the place and climate where fruit is grown influence the taste of the wine. Further, a wine can have a taste that is characteristic of that terroir. The soil of the vineyard can have a big influence on the resulting wine. But it can also vary quite a bit depending on the vineyard site and micro climate.
It’s said that generally sandy soils produce more aromatic light wines and clay/limestone soils produce more robust , tannic wines. Our recommendation is to get to know the characteristics of the regions first, and judge by that metric. Tasting a few wines from a region is a good way to do that and pay attention to what the tasting notes have in common.
Deciphering the impact of climate and exposure is a bit more manageable. The amount of growing time a grape has and how warm it is will make a noticeable difference in taste. The rule of thumb is less growing time and warmth equals more tannin and acidity. More growing time and warmth equals more fruit and alcohol.
Exposure of the vineyard also makes a difference. Is the vineyard located where it will get a longer time in the sun? More heat equals bigger bolder fruit. Elevation can also have a similar impact in cooling down a vineyard site. Mountain fruit tends to lead to more layered wines that are less fruit forward, more crispness and tannin.
Pay attention to wind and fog. Their general patterns also influence the micro-climate of a vineyard. Many vine growing regions have large swings between day and night temperatures due to wind or fog - diurnal differences. This lets the grapes soak up tons of heat during the day and cool off at night. A combination that helps to build fruitiness while retaining more balanced acid and tannin.
Caveat all this with grape varietals themselves are adapted to variation in climate. Some fruit needs a longer season and some doesn’t. However, this basic info is helpful.
What these folks have to say is even more helpful:
GuildSomm: Climate, Grapes and Wine
Wine Folly: Wine 101 (sent after registering)
Man makes beer, God makes wine
So said Martin Luther, but perhaps there was a bit of hyperbole? The process of wine-making can provide a lot of clues into how a wine will taste. Here again, people study and practice their whole life to master this blend of science and art. But as simple wine lovers we will try to grab on to a couple basic ideas so we can identify more of the wines we love to drink.
One of the things you’ll hear about the first part of the wine making process is how the winemakers prepare the fruit for fermentation. Grapes are generally de-stemmed before fermentation which breaks the grapes, but sometimes winemakers will ferment some amount of whole clusters unbroken to extend the fermentation and add aromas to the wine. Generally this is also varietal dependent, often more common in Pinot, Syrah and other lower tannin varietals.
Juice contact time with the skins is another important decision that determines a wine’s flavor profile. This is called maceration, when compounds from the skin leach into the juice. Even some white wines spend time on the skins to develop flavors. This is also how "orange" wine is made. With red wines it’s a given that fermentation will occur with the skins and in the case of whole cluster some stems and seeds.
After the primary fermentation, some winemakers choose to force a secondary fermentation. This fermentation is the conversion of malic acid in the wine to lactic acid which adds to wine stability, reduces acid and adds a creamy feel, particularly in white wines.
After a wine has been fermented and separated from the skins, but before it has been bottled, there is a period of time referred to as elevage. During this time wines may be stored in barrels and come into contact with oak. One of the compounds from the oak that leaches into the wine breaks down and creates vanilla aromas. The age of the barrels makes a difference and so does the type of oak. French oak provides a broader array of aromas, American oak more intense vanillas. Barrels are toasted before use and the heat can caramelize wood sugars adding toast, coffee or tobacco aromas.
Want to learn more about winemaking, listen to the experts
GuildSomm - Winemaking (video)
Wine and other stories - The winemaking process
Wine Folly - How wine making process affects wine