Want to shop around the wine store with confidence? Or just want to sound like a wine snob? We gotchu.
Wine. Is. Intimidating. I mean, I have a whole wine column and still get nervous shopping for new wine. Plus there’s so many different kinds! Bordeaux, Moscato, Riesling, Port. How the heck am I supposed to know which one is for me?
And don’t get me started on trying to order wine at a restaurant. A wine menu is a whole different language of it’s own.
But here’s the secret: Unless you’ve tried the wine before, you won’t really know if you like it or not. Picking up a bottle of wine blindly is a bit like gambling. So it’s ok if you don’t know what you’re doing!
However, I’m here to help you feel more at ease with wine. And you’ll learn some cool facts along the way.
Before we get started, I want to give credit to Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan. They are two wine writers and Masters of Wine that wrote Wine For Dummies, 7th Edition, where I got most of the info in this article.
Now go grab your wine glass and let’s dive in.
How To Describe Wine
You’ve definitely heard some different terms thrown around to describe wine before, like dry, oaky, tannic, full-bodied, etc. What do these terms even mean? Here’s a list of wine terms that’ll help you understand wine a little more:
- Aroma: This one is pretty obvious. This is the smell of the wine. Some wine experts might even use the term bouquet which means the same thing, however it’s usually applied to older wines.
- Body: You’ll hear this one often, used in terms like light-bodied, medium-bodied and full-bodied. More about this later in the article, but basically this describes the weight of the wine in your mouth.
- Crisp: This one only applies to white wines. This is a wine that is acidic and dry.
- Dry: This one is funny, how the heck can a liquid be dry? When a wine is described as dry, that simply means it’s not sweet.
- Finish: The impression a wine leaves after it’s been tasted.
- Flavor intensity: This one’s pretty self-explanatory, it’s how strong or weak a wine’s flavors are.
- Fruity: Don’t confuse this for “sweet”. This just means a wine has fruity aromas and flavors.
- Oaky: A wine that has oaky, or smokey flavors.
- Soft: A wine that has a smooth rather than crisp mouthfeel.
- Tannic: This one only applies to red wine. It’s a component that leaves your mouth feeling dry after drinking the wine.
Good Vs. Bad Wine
This headline is a bit misleading. Hear me out, some winos will say there’s no such thing as a good vs. bad wine because it all comes down to personal preference. And listen, I agree. However, there are definitely wine qualities that are for a fact good or bad.
Good Wine Qualities
The characteristics of a good wine include balance, length, depth, complexity, finish and typicity. Besides those characteristics, there’s also major wine components that contribute to a wine’s quality, like sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol. Whew, that’s a lot of info. Let’s break it down.
Balance is how the major wine components (sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol) interact with each other. When a wine is balanced, that means none of these components overpowers the other. This is super important, because the balance of a wine is a key indicator of quality. Another thing to keep in mind with tannin and acidity is that they are hardening elements. That means they make the wine taste firmer. Alcohol and sugar are softening elements, meaning they are more giving than tannin and acidity.
No, this doesn’t describe how tall the wine bottle is. Length refers to the impression the wine gives your palate. Most wines nowadays are short, meaning they make a big impression when you first taste it but it kinda just stops there. Here’s a tip: a long wine, meaning one that makes an impression across your entire palate, is a sign of a high quality wine.
This one is a bit confusing. Depth describes the dimension of a wine and how complex it’s aromas and flavors are. It’s hard to explain, but if a wine tastes “flat” to you, or it’s not complex, that’s a bad sign.
Complexity describes a wine that has a complicated DNA that is constantly revealing a new impression to you. The more complex, the better the quality.
This describes a wine’s aftertaste. If you can still taste the wine’s flavor profile after you swallow it, that’s a sign of a good wine. However, if the finish is more alcohol-y or bitter, or leave no impression at all, it may not be a good quality wine.
This simply means the characteristics of a type of wine. Every type of wine has it’s own unique characteristics. So the closer a bottle of wine is to the typical characteristics, or typicity, chances are it’s good quality. For example, if you buy a Cabernet Sauvignon and it doesn’t have the typical aroma of black currants, chances are it’s not a good Cabernet.
Bad Wine Qualities
If you open up a bottle of wine and it has any of these characteristics, congratulations! You just experienced bad wine. Although this stinks, it’s all part of the learning experience. Here are some bad wine qualities to look out for:
- Vinegar: This is part of the winemaking process, however with today’s technology no wine should taste like vinegar.
- Chemical or bacterial smells: Yup, this happens. If it smells like nail polish remover, rotten eggs, or garlic, it’s a bad wine.
- Oxidized wine: This one could be your fault. It was once a good wine, but you left it uncorked! Now it tastes flat.
- Cooked aromas and taste: This one is a shipping error. If a wine is improperly stored, or exposed to heat, it can taste cooked.
- Corky wine: A defective cork can cause the wine to smell like wet cardboard. This one is the most common bad quality.
Now that we know what makes a wine good vs. bad, let’s dive into the different styles of wine and where they come from. Keep in mind, these are just the more popular or well known styles. There are so many others that aren’t included (like rosé, vinho verde, vranc, and many many more!)
- Chardonnay: California, Australia, France, and many other regions.
- Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris: Italy, France, Oregon, California, and many other regions.
- Prosecco: Bubbly and comes from Italy
- Riesling: Germany, California, New York, Washington, France, Austria, Australia, and many other regions.
- Sauvignon Blanc: California, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, and many other regions.
- Soave: Italy
- Barbera: Most commonly from Italy, but can also come from other countries
- Beaujolais: France
- Bordeaux: France
- Cabernet Sauvignon: California, Australia, France, Chile, and many other regions
- Chianti: Italy
- Côtes du Rhône: France
- Malbec: Argentina, France, Chile and many other regions
- Merlot: California, France, Washington, New York, Chile, and many other regions
- Pinot Noir: California, France, Oregon, New Zealand, and many other regions
- Zinfandel: California
There are so many other questions I haven’t answered, like what is a sommolier? What are the typical characteristics of different wines? How do I pair food with wine? Why are wines rated on a point system and what do the points means? (Actually, I did answer that last one. Find out why wines are rated the way they are here!)
As much as I would love to answer all of these questions, I simply cannot fit everything in one article. However, I’ve included some infographics that you can screenshot and keep with you the next time you need a quick reference in the wine store or when ordering off a wine menu.