Beginner’s Guide to Wine [Wine for Dummies in 2023]
Wine is a fascinating world, but most newbies often get confused by the wealth of information.
If you’re a beginner, this wine guide is for you.
From understanding the background of this fine drink to serving and tasting it, you'll find all the resources you need down below.
The Basics – Understanding Wine
The word “wine” comprises a host of varieties. There is white wine and red wine, fortified wine, sparkling wine, and each of these categories come with their own subsections and classifications.
But what is wine, after all? What is the unique reason we call these wines?
What are the main wine styles and the top wine varieties?
What is Wine Anyway?
Wine is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented juice. The most common is grape wine obtained from fermented grape must, but the beverage can be made from any type of fruit juice. Some recipes even use juice obtained from flowers or herbs, such as dandelion wine.
Grape wine, the beverage to which I will refer in this guide, is made from several varieties of grapes that belong to the Vitis vinifera species. These grapes are different from table grapes in that they are smaller, sweeter, and juicier.
Wines can be divided into single varietals and blends. Single varietal beverages are obtained from grapes belonging to the same variety, i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, etc.
Wine blends are made from grape juice belonging to more than one varietal, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot and Syrah. Single varietal wines are of a higher quality and are more expensive than wine blends, although there are some exceptions.
Depending on the grapes used and the vinification process, wine can further be divided into different styles.
The taste of wine is defined by numerous factors and there can be noted substantial differences between wines made from the same variety of grapes and by the same winemaker in different years.
These differences are explained by the vine’s susceptibility to climate and temperature changes, and this is why wines from certain years are considered better than others.
Temperature, vinification, aging, and even the way wine is served influences the tasting experience. From acidity to sweetness, tannins, aromas, and flavors, there are many properties to consider.
Alcoholic concentration is also important; varying from as low as 5.5% to over 20%, this characteristic defines the quality of a determined beverage.
Defining wine styles is much more complex than it seems. In broad terms, we can say there are five major styles of wine in the world.
Each of these styles come with its own categories and classifications, and all these ramifications define this fascinating world of flavors and aromas.
Among the most popular wine styles is white wine. Light and crisp or full-bodied and sweet, white wine is appreciated by wine lovers around the world.
Less popular than its red counterpart, white wine pairs well with a host of savory dishes and desserts, it’s an important ingredient in many wine cocktails, and is refreshing in the hotter months. White wines are rarely aged and most of them are consumed within two or three years from production.
White wine is typically classified as light-bodied, full-bodied, or aromatic.
More popular than white wine, red wine enjoys a higher notoriety and is appreciated by wine lovers and connoisseurs around the world.
The main difference between the two types is the color, but also the tannin concentration. Unlike white wines, red wines are prone to aging and some wines can be aged for over 25 years.
Red wines can be classified in light-, medium-, and full-bodied wines.
Less famous than red or white, rosé wine is often seen as a “go-to” wine for those moments when you’re unsure whether to pair the food with a red or with a white. But the world of rosés is much more diverse, and this type of wine is more surprising than you could expect.
Rosé wines are obtained through “dying” the wine with red grape skins for a short period of time and are produced as dry and sweet.
The grapes involved in vinification are the same used for red wines. Most rosés are made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah grapes, although the choice depends on the wine region.
Sparkling wine is often seen as the noblest expression of this beverage. Still associated with the Champagne region of France, sparkling wine comprises a wide range of dry and sweet versions produced in many wine regions around the world.
Undoubtedly, European sparkling wines are the most famous. From the classic Champagne to the zesty Prosecco or flavorful Spanish Cava, there are multiple options to choose from.
But sparkling wine is much more than this. In some ancient wine regions, such as Italy, traditional wines are often produced as sparkling, although they are characterized by a subtle fizz that produces a different effect in the mouth.
They are referred to as “frizzante”, as opposed to “spumante”, a term referring to the bubbly sparkling wine as intended in the USA.
Fortified wine is the least popular and is often appreciated by connoisseurs alone. Characterized by a high alcoholic concentration achieved through fortification, this wine has a balanced body and is typically sweet. Even the dry versions of fortified wine have sweet hints.
The fortification can be achieved through different methods and the higher alcohol concentration contributes to preserving the properties of the wine for a longer time. Most fortified wines are aged in oak barrels or casks for at least five years before bottling and have a long shelf life.
Fortified wine is produced above all in Europe. Port and Madeira are two of the most renowned fortified wines. Italy’s Vin Santo and Marsala are two exquisite fortified wines ideal to pair with desserts. This beverage is also served as an aperitif, and pairs with many savory and sweet dishes.
Top Wine Varieties
There are dozens of popular wine varieties in the world, but the best of the best come from Europe and the Mediterranean basin.
From white to red, these are the top wine varieties according to the experts.
Today, Chardonnay is cultivated in California, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and Australia, in addition to its home country and the established wine regions in Europe.
Chardonnay wines have a crisp flavor and fruity aromas. Ideal to pair with light pasta dishes, vegetables, poultry, and fish.
Also originating from France, Sauvignon Blanc is another classic. This light-bodied wine has a zesty flavor and herbal aromas. It pairs wonderfully with fresh cheeses and light dishes. Refreshing in the summer afternoons, this beverage is best served chilled.
Sauvignon Blanc is grown in France, Italy, Spain, but also in many other wine regions around the world.
Coming from Germany, Riesling is one of the most versatile whites. Riesling is one of the few white wines that can be aged and is characterized by fruity aromas and a balanced flavor.
Ideal to grow in the cool wine regions, Riesling is cultivated in Germany, northern Italy, and France, but also in Argentina and Chile.
Cabernet Sauvignon is probably the most famous red wine. Originating from the Bordeaux region, Cabernet Sauvignon is currently cultivated all around the world. The wines are characterized by fruity and jam aromas and balanced flavors.
Rich in tannins, Cabernet Sauvignon pairs wonderfully with fatty meats, game, and aged cheeses.
Pinot Noir grapes are surprisingly versatile. Cultivated majorly in France and Italy, Pinot Noir grapes are used to make sparkling, white and red wines.
Red Pinot Noir is a light-bodied wine characterized by a zesty flavor and fruity aromas that pair well with red meat, vegetables, and cheeses.
Ironically, due to the popularity of the grapes, Merlot isn’t one of the most popular wines. Many obscure wineries introduced on the market a wealth of poor quality Merlots that damaged the reputation of the wine, at least in America.
But Merlot is one of the noblest wines in Europe. Often blended with other grape varieties in high-quality blends, Merlot stands among the most popular reds in France, Italy, and Eastern Europe.
Wine Guide 101 – How to Serve Wine
Even the finest vintage disappoints when served in the wrong way. From the choice of the glass to the temperature and aeration, there are several things to consider when serving your beverage.
How To Choose The Right Wine Glass
Wine tasting glasses have a standard dimension with an opening of 60mm and a capacity of 420ml.
Obviously, you won’t fill the glass at full capacity. Typically only about 1/3 of the glass is filled with liquid, so there is enough space to swirl and aerate the wine.
Besides this standard glass, there are various types of white and red wine glasses designed to enhance the aromas of the various types of wine. Flute glasses are used for sparkling wines as Champagne and Prosecco. Fortified wine is served in smaller cognac-like glasses.
Wine Serving Temperature
Regardless of the type, all wine should be stored at the same temperature, at about 55°F. But reds and whites are consumed at different temperatures. Then, sparkling and fortified wines also have their requirements.
However, when it comes to chilling or bringing a wine to serving temperature, there is a general misconception that whites should be served very cold while reds should always be served at room temperature.
In broad terms, white wines should be served at 50°F or slightly lower temperatures. Red wines express their best characteristics at temperatures between 60 and 64°F, although there are exceptions.
Serve sparkling wines at the same temperature as whites, while fortified wines should be served at room temperature.
When and How to Decant Wine
When serving a wine, there is also a general misconception that red wines have to be decanted. That’s not necessarily true. Non-vintage reds can be served straight from the bottle and won’t benefit from decanting.
Things are different with vintage reds. These wines need decanting to release their flavors and aromas. The most useful decanters are those with a wide base that promote aeration. Decanting is also useful to remove wine sediment in the case of some non-vintage reds.
However, most restaurants that serve wine from a decanter do so just to serve wine in a stylish way, not because decanting brings a real benefit.
Wine Guide 101 – How to Taste Wine
Picking and serving wine should be clearer now. But tasting the wine is a great part of the whole experience.
Tasting the wine is a complex thing. Pouring the beverage into a glass and drinking it is hardly enough to understand and appreciate the organoleptic properties. Wine tasting starts with a visual inspection, followed by an olfactory examination and ending with the taste.
All these examinations must be in perfect balance, otherwise, you’re tasting a wine that is of poor quality. To conduct your wine tasting, invest in a diary and pencil and write down all characteristics.
The visual inspection assesses the aspect of the wine. Each wine has a standard color and viscosity, therefore you should check the color intensity, opacity, and the viscosity of the beverage. Non-vintage wines usually have a lower viscosity and clearer colors.
Vintage reds have a higher viscosity and are characterized by dark, almost opaque colors. Fortified wines are also viscous; the colors vary from dark gold to amber and brown, depending on the type of wine.
For sparkling wines, you should also observe the presence of bubbles, their behavior in the glass, and their size.
The next step is an olfactory inspection that assesses the bouquet of the beverage. Two things to evaluate are the intensity and persistence of the aromas.
Now, you probably remember how sommeliers swirl the wine before smelling, but the correct procedure involves a supplementary step. First, smell the wine without swirling the liquid and evaluate the primary aromas.
Then, swirl the wine to release all the other aromas and smell again. The aromas can vary from herbal and floral to fruity for white wines. Red wines are often characterized by red fruit aromas, hints of spices, chocolate, tobacco, smoked wood, and oak.
After the first two steps, you’ll get to actually taste the wine. At this point, you’ll have to evaluate the flavor but also the tactile sensations.
In terms of flavors, you’ll have to assess the sweetness and softness of the wine, its acidity, sapidity, and bitterness.
From a tactile point of view, assess the alcoholicity, consistency, and pungent sensations. Note down all impressions and then compare your tasting chart with the standards for the type of wine you’re drinking. With the time, you’ll be able to assess the quality of a wine without consulting the notes.
Popular Wine Regions to Explore
A good wine guide for beginners should also help newbies understand where to find the best wines to taste.
Check out the most popular wine regions in the world you should visit at least once in your lifetime.
Old World Wine Regions
In broad terms, the wine regions are divided into the Old and New World. The Old World refers to Europe and the Mediterranean. In these regions, the wine has been produced for millennia and the winemaking techniques have been established several centuries ago.
The Old World is famous for its exceptional wines that respect tradition while benefiting from the latest technologies.
These wines are rarely enriched with added sugars, and additives are almost never used. National and regional bodies regulate the winemaking, and the standards are set so high that almost all wines from these regions are outstanding.
Among the most popular wine regions in Europe, we can mention France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, but also a few countries in Eastern Europe that include Hungary, Romania, and Moldova.
As a beginner, the must-go-to wine regions are Bordeaux and Champagne in France, Veneto, Tuscany, and Apulia in Italy, Port in Portugal, and Rioja in Spain.
New World Wine Regions
New world wine regions include the Americas and Oceania. Both North and South America boast extensive wine regions that produce some of the finest wines in the world. However, these countries are known for their more relaxed winemaking techniques that focus less on traditions.
California is one of the most popular wine regions in Northern America. Argentina and Chile are the two main wine producers in South America. Argentina, above all, is renowned for its Malbec wines, although the country produces many other varieties.
Australia and New Zealand are two other important wine producers. Their wines are less popular than those from the regions mentioned above, but still worth trying.
Visiting these regions can only enrich a newbie’s knowledge and understanding of wine.
Learning about wine is a lengthy and heavy process, but we hope this wine guide can help you understand the basics of this world.
Certainly, in-depth study about each type of wine, tasting techniques, and winemaking procedures is essential, but this brief wine guide highlights the most important steps to follow in discovering this beverage.