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WINE: A beginners' guide

Some people refer to wine as a science. Indeed, a lot goes into making wines and there are a lot of factors affecting the style, flavor and quality of a wine. Here is a beginners' guide to wine.


Wine is made from grapes (scientific term: "vitis"). There are 60 different grape species. Only one grape species, known as "Vitis Vinifera" is used to make over 90% of the wine we know and love. Under the "Vitis Vinifera" umbrella, there are known to be between 5,000 and 10,000 of different varieties and hybrids - commonly known in wine terms as "grape varieties". Common grape varieties which you may have heard of are: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling.


Here are some key wine terms you should know that are used to describe a wine:

  • VINTAGE: The year when the grapes were harvested.

  • BOUQUET: The sum of a wine's aromas; how a wine smells as a whole; a key determinant of quality.

  • DRY: Used to describe a wine with no sugar (opposite of sweet).

  • BODY: The weight of the wine in your mouth; light, medium, and full are common body qualifiers. Think of it like milk: a full fat milk feels heavy in your mouth, whereas skimmed milk feels like and watery.

  • TANNINS: Tannins are found primarily in the skins and pits of a grape; tannins are astringent and provide structure to wine; over time tannins die off, making wines less harsh.

WINE - what it is and how it’s made

Wine is fermented grape juice. An alcoholic beverage obtained from the juice of freshly gathered grapes. It can be white, rosé or red; it could also be still or sparkling. Wine is made in almost every corner of the world. There are many factors that determine its flavor, aroma and quality of the wine.

Grape Growing:

Wine is made in the vineyard. Simply, great fruit equals great wine. Imagine a chef trying to make a great caesar salad with rotten romaine lettuce? It can’t be done. Both the chef and the winemaker need spectacular raw materials to achieve spectacular results. The person that manages the vineyard is called a viticulturist; the decisions that they make have big impact on the finished product. The type of grape vine (clonal selection), how far apart the vines are in the vineyard (vineyard density) and how the plant is pruned and trellised is just a few of the things that will determine the quality of the wine. As with any agricultural product the weather will have a direct effect on the grapes in the vineyard.

During the growing season the plants are carefully tended to produce optimum fruit to make the best possible wine. There are several crucial times in the yearly growing cycle that will ultimately determine if it is a good vintage or a bad vintage: Bud-breakas the vine wakes up from winter, small buds develop on the vine becoming the shoots and foliage of the plants. Prior to this, the vine is very susceptible to frost, which can damage the vine and delay the growing cycle. Flowering as the leaves develop, tiny green clusters form on the shoots. These clusters develop into flowers, bloom and turn into berries. For optimal flowering the weather should be dry and frost free, but most important the temperature must be between 20°C to 25°C. A bad flowering will mean a small harvest. Fruit setafter flowering the clusters of small berries develop into clusters of green unripe grapes. Until each small berry expands into a grape they are very vulnerable to unfavorable weather conditions. Harvest in the weeks leading up to harvest the winemaker is constantly looking at the weather conditions to determine if the time is right to pick the grapes. If the winemaker waits until the grapes are perfectly ripe there is the possibility of rain (this can cause rot or fungal disease) or even hail (causing bruised fruit or destroying a large part of the crop). If the grapes are harvested too early the sugar levels may be low and the acids high. Any number of these events can occur and contribute to the overall quality of the fruit before it reaches the winemaker.

Wine Making:

A winemaker is a guide. Wine will make itself naturally. The winemaker is there to ease it along in the gentlest way possible. When the grapes are ripe they are harvested, for higher quality wines this is done by hand as opposed to machine harvesting large amounts of grape for inexpensive wines. The grapes are sorted to remove any damaged or mildewed fruit. The first step in winemaking is crushing. The grapes are crushed and the stems removed (although sometimes the stems are added to the must). The grapes are placed in the fermentation tank. Yeast is sometimes added to start fermentation. If the winemaker doesn’t add yeast, he is relying on the natural yeast present in the winery and vineyard.

Fermentation (converting sugar to alcohol) takes up to about two weeks (note: red wines are fermented on their skins for color, white wines are removed from their skins. The skin is what gives the red wine color as well as tannin).

When fermentation is complete, many wines are placed in oak for flavor. Whites stay in oak for a period of 8-18 months (approximately) and reds a little longer. Oak imparts flavor to the wine. Many white wines are not aged in oak. Those that aren’t oak aged either go to a stainless-steel tank or directly to bottle. In the oak barrel, all red wines and many white wines go through a process called malolactic fermentation. This is the process of changing malic acid (like an apple) to lactic acid (like milk). It softens the wine and adds complexity. Most wines are filtered or slightly fined (removal of excess proteins) before bottling.

Oak Aging:

There are three main types of wood used in winemaking worldwide:

  • Old Oak or Neutral Oak: Gives the wine “barnyard” flavors, but is usually neutral

  • French Oak: Imparts flavors of subtle, elegant vanilla

  • American Oak: Imparts coconut, dill, and rougher vanilla flavors

Knowing how a wine has been aged gives you more adjectives. The type of oak used is not always easy to determine (although some wine-makers put it on the back label), but you can usually determine whether or not a wine has been aged in oak by looking at the alcohol content. The alcohol content rule usually works because lower alcohol wines are lighter and oak treatment will overpower their flavors. Higher alcohol wines can stand up to the oak and oak can – if used properly – enhance the flavor of the wine.

A wine with 12.5% alcohol or less probably has not been aged in oak

A wine with 13% alcohol or more probably has been aged in oak.

Regional Climate

One of the most important factors in determining what a wine will taste like is the climate or weather where the grapes were grown.

Warm Climate = Low Acid and High Alcohol

Cool Climate = High Acid and Low Alcohol

To understand why this happens, think of tomatoes grown in a sunny part of your garden. They get very ripe, red and sweet. Grapes in a warm climate are the same. As they ripen, the acidity seems to diminish in contrast to the elevated sugar content.

So, the grapes from a warm climate are sweeter but the wines from a warm climate are not sweeter. Why? Because of the chemistry of winemaking. The formula for fermentation is:

Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + CO2


The more sugar there is in the grapes, the more alcohol there is in the wine.


A wine from a warm climate will be high in alcohol and low in acid.

Meanwhile – back in the garden: the tomatoes grown in the shady part of your garden stay green and tart. Grapes are the same. In cool areas, they stay less ripe. They have less sugar and the acidity is high. We know the formula for wine,

A wine from a cool climate will be low in alcohol and high in acidity.

So now you see how just knowing the weather can tell you about a wine in terms of alcohol and acid. However, that’s too technical... When talking about a wine to your friends, they just want to know what it’s going to taste like!

Alcohol doesn’t taste like anything but it has texture – generally speaking, the more alcohol in a wine, the fuller in body the wine will be, and low in acid gives a perception of smoothness.

A wine from a warm climate will be rich, round, full, smooth, mouth-filling

A wine from a cool climate will be light, crisp, mouth-watering, tart, …

Use your imagination and make your friends want to drink that wine when talking about it!

WINE REGIONS – Old World vs. New World:

In history, there are two worlds – the Old World with kings and queens and explorers and the New World with religious fanatics and prisoners. For example:

Old World:

  • Old World wine refers primarily to wine made in Europe but can also include other regions of the Mediterranean basin with long histories of winemaking. Common Old World countries include: France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain and Portugal

  • As the term “Old” suggests, countries in the old world regions have grown wines for thousands of years, which as a result means that the soil is fertile and contains much more minerality – which is reflected in old world wines

  • An Old World wine have predominantly earthy flavors such as wet stone, pine needles, smoke, tar, cigar, etc.

New World:

  • New world refers primarily to wines from countries that are relatively new to winemaking

  • Any country outside of Europe is commonly referred to as "New World", however, the main New World regions are: United States, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa

  • Since those countries are relatively more recent in terms of winemaking, the wines tend to have less minerality and have predominantly fruit flavors. You know what fruit flavors are.

You now have two descriptors for every wine you drink.

For example, to describe a wine from the Loire Valley (cool climate) of France (Old World) you can say, “It’s light and earthy.”

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