A Beginner’s Guide to Wine

A super basic introduction to all the different types of wine that exist, this beginner’s guide should help you out next time you’re daunted by a wine list.
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Being a wine expert isn't easy. But you can try to blag it with the help of this guide.

How much do you actually know about wine? C’mon, be honest with yourself. Do you really know the difference between a Merlot and a Pinot Noir? Or have you just seen Sideways too many times? Wine is a wonderful beverage with a great deal of depth and, as a result of that depth, the wine world can be a little complicated. You’ll find loads of intricate terms flying about (“what even is a tannin?”) and it’s easy to keep schtum at a restaurant if you feel like the sommelier is going to laugh at you for asking a question.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you should never be embarrassed to admit you don’t know anything at all about wine. Or anything at all about anything for that matter. Speaking to your somm at a restaurant is always the best way to get to grips with the specific intricacies of a certain wine list. However, if you want a little help when you’re in your local wine shop (or browsing a hip and trendy online wine merchant), here’s a quick cheat sheet that’ll give you a brief overview of the different types of wine that are out there, and what you should know about wine. Aside from the fact that it’s fermented grape juice. And it’s bloody great.

No, you don’t need to go on a WSET course to get to know the very basics. Save that for when you’re ready to commit to a lifetime of cork collecting and getting excited at the concept of terroirs. This guide is for the complete newbies who think that you can make rosé by mixing a bottle of white and red into a punch bowl. Spoilers: that’s not how you make rosé. But it’s also not completely far off either. Here’s everything you need to know about wine, at a very basic level.

Red Wine

This is, er, the red one you’ll have seen pretty much everywhere. Made from black and dark coloured grapes that are fermented with their skins on, red wine is the go-to vino for drinking with steaks and red meat. It’s the skin of the grapes used that give red wine its crimson hue with most (but not all) red wines being bold, slightly bitter, and dry due to the inclusion of seeds and stems in the fermentation process. What do I mean by “dry”? Well, you know how it sort of feels like you’ve sucked in your cheeks a little after taking a sip of red wine? That’s dryness. The more it feels like your cheeks are being stuck together, the more tannins that are in the wine. Red wine is best served at room temperature though some reds are also excellent when chilled.

Types of red wine to know:

Pinot Noir, Merlot, Beaujolais, Syrah, Rioja, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux.

What to say after sipping a glass of red wine:

“Oh, this has a great backbone, garçon.”

White Wine

This is, er, the white one. Contrary to popular belief, white wine can be made from both dark and light coloured grapes. This is because the skins are always taken off whenever the grapes are fermented for white wine. So Pinot Noir, for example, is a red coloured grape that’s occasionally used to make white wine and Champagne. Because its insides are still light and grape-coloured. Get it? It’s that purity of grape pulp – and the lack of any stems and seeds – which tends to give white wine its crisp, bright, and acidic flavour. White wine is best served chilled.

Types of white wine:

Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Müller-Thurgau.

What to say after sipping a glass of white wine:

“I’m getting some real minerality from this, are you?”

Rosé Wine

Rosé is an adorable pink wine that looks a bit like what you’d get if you blended up a bushel of bougainvilleas. Rosé is made in a similar way to red wine (using dark coloured grapes) except it only gets fermented for a short period of time on skins before the mix is separated, meaning less of that heavier flavour and colour gets into the wine. This is why rosé wines are typically light and more readily quaffable than big reds. There’s also a method of making rosé known as blending which involves (surprise, surprise) blending red and white wine together. But, like you would be doing that with two glasses at a fancy bistro, it’s rather frowned upon in the wine industry.

Types of rosé wine:

Provençal Rosé, Chiaretto, Grenache Rosé, Sangiovese Rosé.

What to say after sipping a glass of white wine:

“This tastes a little like rolling around in the grassy knolls of Provence with your lover, doesn’t it? No? Just me? All right, then.”

Orange Wine

Also known as skin contact wine, orange wine is a type of white wine that’s made like a red wine. Which, if you’ve read the above entries, means that it’s fermented with the skins and seeds and whatnot intact. The difference between orange wine and red wine is that the former only uses light coloured grapes. That extra skin contact (which is traditionally done in a large clay vessel called a “qvevri”) is what gives orange wine its amber colour and more intense flavour profile. It’s basically a white wine with a lot more personality. And just like your mate from uni who tends to get described as having “a big personality,” some love them and some absolutely hate them. I’m personally a big fan.

Types of orange wine:

Orange wine can be made from pretty much any white grape going but keep an eye out for producers like Staffelter Hof and Ancre Hill Estates. They make some great skin contact wines.

What to say after sipping a glass of orange wine:

“I feel as if I’ve just licked a battery. In a good way, mind.”

Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine is a fizzy carbonated wine – sort of like an adult 7Up, but classier. The carbonation in sparkling wine can either be provoked naturally (using old school techniques such as the French “méthode ancestrale”) or it can be added later during the fermentation process. These fun, frizzante wines are typically drunk on special occasions when you want to fill your ears with a satisfying “pop!” and fire a cork projectile at someone in a highly pass-agg manner.

Types of sparkling wine:

Cava, Champagne, Prosecco, Asti, Sekt.

What to say after sipping a glass of sparkling wine:

“It’s got a great bit of lift, this.”

Fortified Wine

Don’t worry, fortified wine isn’t a wine that’s had a moat or portcullis installed to protect it from neighbouring invaders. Fortified wine is simply a wine that has a distilled spirit (usually brandy) added to it in order to preserve it and give it some extra oomph. Fortified wines are typically drunk in small quantities owing to the fact they can be awfully sweet and have a significantly higher ABV than most other types of wine. These aren’t ones to go into blind – be prepared for what you’re getting into before getting a glass during your next dinner date.

Types of fortified wine:

Port, Marsala, Sherry, Vermouth, Madeira.

What to say after sipping a glass of sparkling wine:

“Well, it’s not for everyone, is it?”

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