Wine 101: mastering the basics and beyond

picture of a grapes on vines in a vineyard by Outshinery
9 min read

Wine basics

Wine grapes and varietals

  • Barbera: A red grape variety known for its bright acidity and flavors of ripe cherries, often used in wines from Italy's Piedmont region.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: A renowned red grape variety known for producing rich, full-bodied wines with dark fruit flavors, prominent tannins, and aging potential.
  • Carmenère: A red grape variety known for its spicy and herbal notes, particularly associated with Chilean wines.
  • Chardonnay: A versatile white grape variety known for its diverse flavor profiles, which can range from crisp and unoaked to creamy and oak-aged.
  • Chenin blanc: A white grape variety known for its high acidity and versatility, producing wines ranging from dry to sweet and still to sparkling.
  • Dolcetto: A red grape variety known for its fruity character, often used to make approachable wines in Italy's Piedmont region.
  • Gamay: A red grape variety primarily used to make Beaujolais wines, known for its light and fruity character, with flavors of red berries and floral notes.
  • Gewürztraminer: A white grape variety known for producing intensely aromatic and spicy wines with floral and tropical fruit notes.
  • Grenache: A red grape variety known for its fruity and spicy notes, commonly used in blends, including those from the Southern Rhône and Spain.
  • Grüner veltliner: A white grape variety known for its bright acidity and flavors of citrus, green apple, and white pepper, predominantly grown in Austria.
  • Malbec: A red grape variety known for its dark and fruity wines, often associated with Argentina but originally from Bordeaux.
  • Malvasia: A group of grape varieties known for their aromatic character, producing a range of sweet and dry wines, especially popular in Mediterranean regions.
  • Merlot: A red grape variety known for its soft and approachable wines, often used in Bordeaux blends and producing plummy, red fruit flavors.
  • Nebbiolo: A red grape variety known for its complexity, high tannins, and aging potential, used to make renowned wines like Barolo and Barbaresco.
  • Petit Verdot: A red grape variety used in Bordeaux blends to add color, structure, and dark fruit notes.
  • Pinot grigio: A white grape variety known for producing crisp, light wines with green apple and citrus flavors, commonly found in Italy.
  • Riesling: A white grape variety known for its aromatic and versatile wines, ranging from bone-dry to intensely sweet, with flavors of stone fruit, citrus, and floral notes.
  • Sangiovese: A red grape variety and the primary grape in Chianti wines, known for its tart cherry flavors and the backbone of Italian classics.
  • Sauvignon Blanc: A white grape variety known for its zesty, herbaceous wines with flavors of green bell pepper, gooseberry, and citrus.
  • Sémillon: A white grape variety known for its role in Bordeaux blends, contributing richness and body to the wines.
  • Syrah (Shiraz in Australia): A red grape variety known for its rich, dark wines with flavors of blackberries, plums, and spice, popular in regions like the Rhône Valley and Australia.
  • Tempranillo: A red grape variety and the principal grape in Rioja wines, known for its rich and earthy character, with flavors of red fruit and vanilla.
  • Ugni blanc (Trebbiano): A grape variety frequently used in the production of Cognac, Armagnac, and some white wines, known for its neutral flavor profile and high acidity.
  • Viognier: A white grape variety known for its floral aromatics, lush texture, and peachy flavors, often found in aromatic white blends.
  • White zinfandel: A style of rosé wine made from the Zinfandel grape, often exhibiting sweet, fruity characteristics and a pink coloration.
  • Xinomavro: A red grape variety from Greece, known for its structured and age-worthy wines, with flavors of red fruit, spices, and earthiness.
  • Zinfandel: A red grape variety known for its bold and fruity wines, often associated with California, with flavors of blackberry, raspberry, and spice.
  • Zweigelt: A red grape variety primarily grown in Austria, known for its bright red fruit flavors and suitability for both red and rosé wines.

Winemaking processes

  • Aeration: The deliberate exposure of wine to air, often through decanting or swirling, to enhance its aromas and flavors by allowing it to breathe.
  • Aging: The process of maturing wine in various containers, such as bottles, barrels, or tanks, to develop complexity, character, and integration of flavors over time.
  • Barrel fermentation: The winemaking process in which grape juice is fermented in oak barrels, imparting flavors, aromas, and textures to the wine.
  • Bâtonnage: The practice of stirring the lees (sediment of dead yeast cells and grape solids) in wine barrels or tanks, promoting texture and complexity.
  • Bottle aging: The method of aging wine in bottles rather than in barrels or tanks, allowing the wine to evolve and mature while in glass containers.
  • Carbonic maceration: A unique winemaking technique where whole grapes undergo fermentation inside sealed tanks filled with carbon dioxide, resulting in fresh and fruity wines with minimal tannins.
  • Decanting: The act of carefully pouring wine from its original bottle into a separate container, usually a decanter, to remove sediment and promote aeration, enhancing the wine's flavors and aromas.
  • Extraction: The process of extracting color, tannins, and flavors from grape skins during maceration, contributing to the structure and character of red wines.
  • Fermentation: The biological process in winemaking where yeast converts grape sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, creating wine.
  • Maceration: The stage of winemaking during which crushed grapes are soaked in their juice, allowing the extraction of color, flavor, and tannins from the grape skins.
  • Malolactic fermentation: A secondary fermentation process that converts the sharp malic acid present in grape juice into softer lactic acid, often used to reduce acidity and enhance texture in wines.
  • Press: The equipment used to extract juice from grapes after crushing, separating the liquid from the grape solids, which are typically used for other purposes.
  • Racking: The practice of transferring wine from one container to another, often used to separate wine from sediment, clarify it, and promote aging.
  • Solera: A complex aging and blending system used predominantly in Sherry production, involving the continuous mixing of younger and older wines to achieve consistency and complexity.
  • Süssreserve: A German winemaking technique that involves the addition of unfermented grape juice or partially fermented must to sweeten a wine, often used in sparkling wine production.
  • Vinification: The comprehensive winemaking process, encompassing all stages from crushing the grapes, fermentation, aging, and bottling.
  • Yeast: Microorganisms responsible for fermentation, converting sugars present in grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide, a critical step in winemaking.
  • Zymology: The scientific study of fermentation processes and their role in winemaking, encompassing the study of yeast, bacteria, and enzymatic reactions involved in fermentation.

Wine types and styles

  • Aperitif: A pre-meal drink intended to stimulate the appetite and prepare the palate for a meal.
  • Barolo: A prestigious red wine from Italy's Piedmont region, renowned for its robust flavor, high tannins, and aging potential.
  • Beaujolais: A wine-producing region in France known for producing light, fruity red wines primarily from the Gamay grape variety.
  • Champagne: A sparkling wine originating from the Champagne region of France, characterized by its effervescence and associations with celebration.
  • Dessert wine: A category of sweet wines typically enjoyed at the end of a meal, often paired with desserts or cheese.
  • Fino sherry: A dry and pale fortified wine from Spain, specifically the Sherry region, known for its delicate flavors and aging under a layer of yeast called "flor."
  • Fortified wine: Wines to which spirits like brandy have been added to increase alcohol content and stability. Examples include Port, Sherry, and Madeira.
  • Ice wine: A sweet wine produced from grapes that have naturally frozen on the vine, harvested in freezing conditions to concentrate sugars and flavors.
  • Jerez (sherry): A fortified wine produced in the Jerez region of Spain, available in various styles, including Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Pedro Ximénez.
  • Kabinett: A German classification for light and off-dry Riesling wines, often displaying a balance of sweetness and acidity.
  • Late Harvest: Wines made from grapes that are left on the vine longer than usual, allowing them to become riper and sweeter before harvesting.
  • Madeira: A fortified wine from the Madeira Islands, known for its durability, complexity, and wide range of styles, from dry to sweet.
  • Port: A fortified wine from Portugal, typically sweet and high in alcohol, produced in several styles, including Vintage, Tawny, and Ruby.
  • Quinta: A term frequently used in the context of Port wine estates or vineyards, often indicating a specific property or estate.
  • Rosé: A style of wine made from red grape varieties with limited skin contact, resulting in a range of pink hues and a wide spectrum of flavor profiles.
  • Sauternes: A renowned sweet white wine from the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, France, made from botrytized grapes and known for its rich, honeyed character.
  • Sparkling wine: A category of wine produced with natural carbonation, created through various methods such as the traditional method (used for Champagne), Charmat method, and carbonation through tanks.
  • Table wine: A term generally used to refer to every day, non-premium wines suitable for regular consumption.
  • Vermouth: An aromatized wine that is often fortified and infused with a variety of botanicals, herbs, and spices, commonly used as a component in cocktails like martinis and Negronis.

Wine terms

  • Barrique: A term indicating the use of small oak barrels (barriques) for aging wine, often associated with premium wines.
  • Crianza: A Spanish wine aging designation, indicating a minimum barrel aging and bottle aging period, typically used for wines like Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
  • Cru: A French term referring to a vineyard or wine-producing area recognized for its quality and unique terroir. It is often associated with Burgundy and Bordeaux, where various classified vineyards exist.
  • Grand Cru: A French term used to designate the highest-quality vineyards or wines within a region, often associated with Burgundy, where Grand Cru vineyards are regarded as the best.
  • Premier Cru: A French term designating vineyards or wines of excellent quality, typically found in regions like Burgundy, where Premier Cru vineyards are highly regarded but ranked slightly below Grand Cru.
  • Prädikatswein: A German wine classification system indicating the ripeness level of grapes at harvest, with categories such as Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, each representing varying levels of sweetness and quality.
  • Reserve: A term used to indicate a wine of higher quality and distinction, often associated with extended aging, although its use and meaning can vary by region and country.
  • Reserva: A quality designation often used in Spain, indicating that a wine has been aged longer than usual, resulting in enhanced complexity and character, particularly in regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
  • Superiore: An Italian wine designation indicating a wine of higher quality or a higher level of alcohol content, often used in conjunction with DOC or DOCG classifications.
  • Trocken: A German wine classification indicating a dry wine, particularly associated with Riesling wines.
  • Vigna: An Italian term used to designate a specific vineyard or plot of land known for producing exceptional grapes and wines.

Wine certifications

  • AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée): A French wine quality designation for wines from specific controlled appellations.
  • AVA (American Viticultural Area): A U.S. wine appellation for a specific grape-growing region, recognized by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
  • Bio Suisse: A Swiss certification for organic wines, ensuring compliance with organic farming practices.
  • Biodynamic certification: A certification verifying adherence to biodynamic farming principles and practices in grape cultivation and winemaking.
  • Demeter biodynamic certification: A globally recognized certification for biodynamic wines, ensuring strict adherence to biodynamic principles.
  • 6DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata): An Italian quality designation for wines from specific regions.
  • DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita): The highest Italian wine quality designation, reserved for top-tier wines from specific regions.
  • Fair Trade Certification: A certification ensuring ethical and fair trade practices in grape production and winemaking.
  • HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale): A French certification recognizing high environmental value in vineyard practices.
  • IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée): A European Union wine quality designation indicating geographical origin and certain production criteria.
  • ISO 22000: A globally recognized food safety management system certification, including wine production.
  • Kosher certification: Certification ensuring that wine adheres to Jewish dietary laws and is suitable for consumption by Jewish communities.
  • Organic certification: A certification verifying that wine grapes are grown using organic farming practices, with variations such as USDA Organic, EU Organic, and more.
  • PDO (Protected Designation of Origin): An EU wine designation ensuring products are made within specific regions.
  • PGI (Protected Geographical Indication): An EU designation ensuring products are linked to a specific geographical area.
  • Sustainable certification: Certifications like SIP (Sustainability in Practice) and others, recognizing environmentally conscious vineyard and winery practices.
  • VDP (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter): Germany's association of top-quality wine estates.
  • Vegan certification: Verification that wine production does not involve the use of animal-derived fining agents.
  • VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance): A Canadian wine certification for quality wines from specific regions, notably used in Ontario and British Columbia.
  • Wines of Origin (WO): A South African wine certification system based on geographical origin and quality.
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