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Introduction to Wine

Introduction - Want to know about wine?

We know that wine can seem scary. Whether it’s gigantic restaurant wine lists, condescending wine waiters or pretentious “experts”, the world can sometimes appear full of embarrassing moments waiting to happen. Well, worry no more: corkhound.com can provide you with everything you need.

To start with, here’s a quick 5-minute lesson on the basics of wine. Granted, it includes some generalizations, but it will help you avoid the biggest mistakes and give you a foundation to work on…

Grapes – the raw material

  • Red wine is red because the skins of red (or black) grapes are left in contact with the grape juice after they have been pressed.
  • White wine can be made from white or red/black grapes – if making them from red/black grapes, the skins are removed as soon as possible so no colour is gained.
  • Rose can be made by either allowing the grape skins contact with the juice for a short time or mixing white and red wines.
  • Grapes that you buy in the supermarket are a different type of grapes used to make wine (they are a different ‘species’)
  • Grape types are referred to as ‘grape varieties’ or just ‘varieties’.
  • Each grape variety has different characteristics: some are sweeter, some are more acidic, some are darker in colour, some have more flavour, some are lighter in a terms of density (that is, some are like drinking water, while others are like drinking honey).
  • Wines can be made from a single grape variety or from a blend of 2 or more grape types (some wines are made from 14 different varieties).
  • There are loads of different grapes types: the most common white grapes are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier.
  • The most common red grapes are Shiraz (also known as Syrah), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Carmenere, Tempranillo, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese.

For more information on grape types, see our glossary.

 

Turning grapes into wine

  • Alcohol is obtained by fermentation: this is a process where the grapes’ sugars are turned into alcohol. So, the more sugar in the grape, the more alcohol can be achieved naturally.
  • If fermentation is stopped before it converts all the sugar in to alcohol, you will get a wine that is lower in alcohol and is sweeter.
  • Some wine-makers artificially add sweetness or acidity (although this isn’t allowed in all regions or for all wine styles).

 

“Vintages”

  • How good a bottle of wine is depends on many factors. These include how much care the grape-grower took in growing the grapes, the location of the vineyard, whether the best grapes were used in the wine (or whether any old grapes were thrown in), and so on. In addition to these factors, the weather also has an important role to play: if hail pelts the grapes, they may all be ruined. But if you have just the right amount of sun during the day, a nice temperature at night, and just the right amount of water, a very different wine will be obtained. It is for this reason that so much emphasis is placed on the year that the grapes were grown.
  • “Vintage” refers to the year the grapes (which were used to make the wine) were picked. It is usual for most quality wines to use grapes from one single vintage. A bottle of wine can only show a year on the bottle if the grapes used in the wine were from a single year.
  • The exception to the above rule about vintage is Champagne: these are usually ‘non-vintage’ (or ‘NV’). This ensures consistent quality is maintained because problems with a single year’s harvest are hidden by previous years’ grapes.
  • Because the weather differs from country to country, from region to region, and even from vineyard to vineyard, it is difficult to give generalizations for which are the “best” vintages. For example, 2000 may be a great year for some Bordeaux wines, but not so good for some Tuscan wines. However, we have produced the corkhound vintage guide to give you some guidance which you may find useful. Please don’t place too much reliance on this though: it is only a rough guide.

 

Ageing wines – the power of oxygen

  • Not all wines benefit from ageing. In fact, most wines are made for drinking immediately upon sale. White wines especially lose their freshness the older they get; and many reds do too. As a general rule, only expensive wines are going to benefit from being in your cellar (!) after you buy them.
  • The above rule applies to Champagne or other sparkling wines too: unless it is a vintage Champagne or sparkling wine (that is, it shows a year of production on it), it should be drunk sooner than later.

 

Letting wines breathe

  • Red wines (and arguably white wines too) benefit from having a bit of oxygen mixed with them before being drunk. This is why people let a wine “breathe” before drinking it.
  • Letting a wine “breathe” by taking the cork out does very little; you need to pour the wine out of the bottle into a carafe (or any container you have). If you want, there is nothing to stop you pouring the wine back into the same bottle to serve it – the wine will then have got some oxygen in it (but I’d rinse the bottle out first in case there is any sediment left in the bottle).
  • However, oxygen can also ruin wine: if too much oxygen is allowed contact with the wine, it turns the wine to vinegar. This is why wine tastes horrible after it has been opened for a week. The same effect is gained when a cork fails to keep a tight seal.
  • Screwcaps do not necessarily indicate a cheap or poor quality wine. Cork has inherent problems (see above for an example), while screwcaps keep wines fresh and safe: many of the best white wines now use screwcaps because they retain the wine’s freshness.
  • Getting a bit of cork in your wine glass does not mean that the wine is corked. “Cork Taint”, as it is known, is a chemical reaction caused by a chemical compound (called "2,4,6-Trichloroanisole") in cork which ruins wines. If you get a bit of cork in your glass, just fish it out and drink the wine. Certainly don’t call a waiter over and announce that your wine is corked!

 

Tell me more…

Now that you have started your discovery of wine, why not check out our ‘Tools’ section which includes:

How to taste wine - we all know how to "drink", but do you know how to "taste"?

Matching food and wine - which wine do you choose to go with which foods? And which foods do you pair with which wines?

Wine countries and regions - our guide to the different wine regions of the world.

Storing wine - how to store wine so that it doesn't turn to vinegar!

Serving wine - at what temperature should you serve different wines?

Vintages - which years are better than others by country/region.


For ongoing information, check out our news section and follow us on Twitter.

If you have a question that you think we should cover in Wine 101, please let us know.