If you’re just getting into wine, it can seem overwhelming, confusing, and too complex to even begin learning about. But becoming familiar with fine wine is not as daunting as it may seem. A few wine basics and a willing palate are all you need to start appreciating great wine.
Someone who is just beginning to learn about wine will start at the same place as anyone who’s ever learned anything new – at the beginning. So, we’ve written a beginner’s guide to wine to help you feel more confident when purchasing your next bottle of wine.
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A BRIEF HISTORY OF WINE
People have been gathering and fermenting grapes to make wine for thousands of years.
Wine was an important cultural and spiritual drink for the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, but the earliest evidence of winemaking comes from an Armenian cave, dating back 6,100 years.
While there are thousands of wine varietals out there, they are all grown on the common grape vine known as Vitus vinifera. Wine can be fermented and sold either as a single varietal (one grape), or a wine blend, in which two or more grapes are blended together into one wine.
Red Wine vs. White Wine
Of the two basic classifications of wine, both can range widely in colour, taste, and smell. While red wine is typically made from red grapes, and white wine is typically made from white grapes, winemakers often blend the two. For example, Champagne is made primarily from Chardonnay grapes but is often blended with Pinot Noir (a red grape) and Pinot Munier (another red grape). Despite its red ingredients, the outcome is a complex and refreshing sparkling white wine.
In this beginner’s guide to wine you’ll learn about some of the major red and white varietals you’ll most likely encounter.
Red Variants to Know
Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most-planted grape and is grown in different climates all around the world. It’s characterised by its deep red colour, dark fruit notes, and ability to age gracefully. Cabernet is a cross between two other varietals from Bordeaux, France: Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It’s generally dry and higher in tannins than other varietals. The Meerlust Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 is a good example
Some of the finest and most well-known Cabernets hail from Bordeaux, but it is also the most-planted grape varietal in Napa Valley, California, where they are ripe, juicy, and age-worthy.
Pinotage is the resulting child of the 1925 cross between Pinot noir and Cinsault. It’s grown primarily in South Africa. It is known for bold flavours of black cherries, blackberries, and figs, making it an excellent companion at any braai (South African word for a barbecue). Despite the fact that it was not officially bottled and sold until 1961, it is now a leading grape in South Africa’s wine production. A popular pinotge is the Kanonkop Kadette Pinotage.
Merlot is one of the most popular grape varietals in the world, commonly used in blends but is also drank on its own. It is the most-produced grape in Bordeaux, France, but is grown all over the world, including the US, Italy, and Chile.
Merlot is known for its supple flavours of cherries and plums, often smelling of chocolate, berries, and vanilla, and typically has softer tannins than a Cabernet Sauvignon.
White Variants to Know
Chardonnay is not only one of the most popular white varietals – it is also one of the most versatile. Chardonnay can range from dry, zippy Chablis to creamy, richly oaked wines. Though France and the United States are the top producers of Chardonnay, it is grown all over the world.
Because it is easily influenced by different winemaking techniques, a great Chardonnay can be many things. When aged in oak barrels, it can be luscious, “buttery,” and full of vanilla. Chardonnays that have been fermented in stainless steel, rather than oak, tend to be more citrusy, full of apples and tropical fruits.
While poorly made Sauvignon Blancs can taste overly vegetal (think canned peas!), the best are refreshing, minerally, and full of white fruits. Sauvignon Blanc is the most-planted varietal in New Zealand, where it thrives in the warm island climate. It is also planted extensively in France, most notably in Sancerre, a region in the Loire Valley that produces lean, crisp, and refreshing wines.
Sauvignon Blanc explodes with gooseberries, melon, grapefruit, and peaches on the palate. Its herbal qualities make it an excellent pairing for vegetables, salty cheeses, and spicy food.
When it comes to Riesling, nobody does it better than Germany, where it is thought to have originated. Though they are known for being sweet, Rieslings can vary between the bone-dry and delectably sweet. Riesling grapes can be difficult to grow, as they do not flourish in warm climates like other grapes. Areas such as Germany, the Alsace region of France, and the northern US all have produced outstanding Rieslings.
With notes of lime, apple, honey, and petrol (a very common aroma), Rieslings will fare nicely with Asian and Indian cuisine, as well as shellfish and light meat.
Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s primary white grape, but is grown all over the world including in the Loire Valley of France, where it is bright, vibrant, and minerally. Great Chenin Blanc often arrives on the palate with a touch of sweetness that balances out its sharp acidity. In South Africa, it is grown on some of the oldest vines in the region, producing exceptional wines that can pair with everything from fish to cured meats and cheeses.
How to Taste Wine
There is a popular quip in the wine business: drinking is fun, tasting is work. While tasting wine can indeed be fun, it is a sensory experience requiring focus and attention. The more wine you taste and study, the more experienced and knowledgeable your palate will become.
But how do you begin to understand what you’re tasting? There are a few key factors that you can learn to identify in every wine you taste, which will help you to begin understanding all the aspects of a given wine. Those factors are colour, aroma, texture, and taste.
A wine’s colour will be the first thing you will notice as the wine pours out of the bottle and into your glass. However, it is not necessarily indicative of the wine’s quality or what it will taste like. While it is true that Cabernet Sauvignon is usually a dark purple and Pinot noir is typically a lighter brick colour, a wine’s colour will tell you much more about its age than its taste. As red wine ages, it becomes lighter in colour, like a fading brick. Conversely, white wines will become darker in colour as they age, eventually showing a deep golden brown.
Smell is arguably the most important sensory experience when evaluating wine. Because humans are far more sensitive to smells than to tastes, a wine’s aroma will give you far more information about the wine than, say, its colour.
At first, wines will present themselves to you as one single aroma. However, a diligent taster will eventually be able to pick out differentiating traits such as blackcurrants and cherries in red wines, or vanilla and peaches in white wines. The aroma of a great wine is complex, composed of many different notes that present themselves to you in layers. The best way to become better at identifying wines by their aroma is to take notes on everything you can perceive about the wine before you taste it, and then once more afterwards.
Texture, or “body weight,” is part of the tasting experience. It is the feeling of the wine’s heaviness in your mouth and is a great indicator of the wine’s makeup. A wine’s body is determined by its alcohol content. Grapes that have been grown in warm places and were left to ripen longer on the vine will yield a higher alcohol content, and therefore have a heavier mouthfeel. The converse is also true: grapes that did not ripen longer on the vine will yield wines that feel lighter and airy.
A great way to begin understanding texture is by tasting two wines side by side. Start with two reds: one Cabernet Sauvignon, preferably from a warm, sunny place such as Napa, California, and the other a Pinot noir from a cooler region such as Washington State. Consider how the two wines weigh differently on your palate.
Humans perceive five different kinds of tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Wines can express all of these characteristics, but taste will always be informed by aroma and body. When we describe a wine’s taste, we often resort to metaphors, such as, “this wine tastes like ripe cherries.” By comparing a wine’s taste to concrete foods (or even objects, plants, and fabrics), we can better express our ideas, both to others and to ourselves. Taking notes on the things a wine’s taste reminds you of is an excellent way to begin fully experiencing every layer a wine has to offer.
Wine Pairing 101
Pairing wine with food is not only simple – it’s an opportunity. If you know a few basic tips, you’ll be wowing your guests (and yourself) in no time.
There are a few ingredients to beware of when pairing wine with your dish. Foods with strong flavours and aromatic compounds are more likely to contribute to your wine tasting “off” or wiping out its impact. These include garlic, raw onion, vinegar, and hot peppers such as chilis. To combat this, chefs will often balance these racy flavours with cream, butter, or even bacon to balance them out with the wine.
The goal of wine pairing is to create a harmonious match between the flavours of your food and the qualities of your wine. You can create congruent pairings, in which the flavours and intensities of your food and drink are comparable (think tannic red wine with a piece of steak). But you can also build contrasting pairings, in which two opposite qualities (such as sweet and salty) complement one another. For example, next time you eat spicy noodles, try drinking a German Riesling alongside it. You’ll be amazed at how two seemingly opposite flavour profiles can balance each other out.
If you’re not sure where to start, remember a few basic rules of thumb:
- Red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel are typically paired with red meats such as steaks and burgers, as they balance out the tannins found in red wine. But don’t be afraid to get creative, as red wines are often versatile and able to be paired with a variety of dishes, from pork teriyaki to dark chocolate and vanilla ice cream.
- White wines are usually paired with lighter dishes such as chicken and fish. They’re also a great go-to pairing for various cheeses and a great counter-balance for spicy foods.
What About Dessert?
When it comes to matching food with wine, dessert can often be the trickiest part of the meal to get just right. Desserts that are too sweet can cause the wine to feel hollow and dull, such as cake with heavy frosting. It is best to pair desserts that are not overly sweet, such as crème brulee, with much sweeter wines, such as Sauternes or port. The more you experiment with desserts and dessert wines, the more confident you will become.
Top Wine-Producing Countries
Wine is produced all over the world, but Italy, France, and Spain are the world’s top producers of wine. Shopping for wine by country and region is a great way to familiarize yourself with new and exciting styles.
Here’s a few quick things you need to know about some important wine-growing countries.
Italy takes the cake for the highest volume of wine production in the world. Grapes are grown all over the country, from northern Piedmont and Lombardy to southern Campania and Sicily. Look out for Chianti Classico, a mostly Sangiovese blend from Tuscany, and Moscato d’Asti, a frizzante (lightly sparking) sweet white wine from the northwest Piedmont.
The historical significance of French wines cannot be understated. France is second only to Italy in wine production, and has had a profound effect on the evolution of winemaking. The country is divided into 11 major wine regions, which include Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône and Loire Valleys, and, of course, Champagne.
Although shopping for French wine can seem daunting, start with delicious, easy-drinking reds from Côtes-du-Rhône and crisp rosés from Côtes de Provence.
Spain is a major player when it comes to wine production. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Toro are just three of over 138 official wine designations. There are 77 varietals that are native to the country, including refreshing whites Albariño and Godello, and deep reds like Tempranillo and Garnacha (known as Grenache in the rest of the world).
When we think about wines from the U.S., our minds usually gravitate towards regions like Napa and Sonoma. However, wine is made in all fifty U.S. states. The most well-known wines come from California, Oregon, and Washington, producing new-world, fruit-forward wines that are big and juicy.
Zinfandel is one of the most influential grapes in America’s wine production, first gaining popularity during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. While the sweet pink wine known as White Zinfandel blew up in the 1970s, today the grape is well-respected and is comparable to deep, fruity Cabernets.
South Africa ranks eighth in wine production worldwide and has been producing wine since the Dutch East India Company planted French vines on the shores of Cape Town in the 1600s. The most legendary wine to come out of South Africa is arguably Constantia’s Vin de Constance, a sweet white wine that gained worldwide popularity and was favoured by King George IV of England, King Louis-Philippe of France and even Napoleon Bonaparte. Vin de Constance is still produced to this day.
Despite a rocky winemaking history due to political trade embargoes, today South Africa is recognized as a major player in the wine industry, and native grapes such as Chenin Blanc and Pinotage are highly sought.
Wines to Know and Buy
With endless options to choose from, picking out a great wine – whether for an important celebration or a weeknight dinner – can be impossible. Biltong Chief is a hub for premium South African wines, with a wide selection that is sure to help you find a perfect pairing for your next meal. We’ve selected four of them to showcase to you below.
Biltong Chief offers next-day delivery across Hong Kong for all online orders placed before 12 pm Monday to Saturday, as well as cold temperature-controlled delivery to ensure that your wines arrive at your door chilled and ready to pour.
Kanonkop is a fourth-generation winery in Stellenbosch, producing South Africa’s flagship red grape, Pinotage. The wine is filled with aromatics, bursting with red currants, strawberries, and rose petals. This medium-bodied wine will be a companion for many dishes, as its fine tannins and notes of spice will complement anything you can throw at it. Pinotage is such a popular South African variant that there is even a Pinotage Day.
Hailing from the Paardeberg Mountain in Swartland, A.A. Badenhorst expresses the true nature of the region through this impeccable red blend. The Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, and Tina Barocca grapes are harvested and fermented together, making a truly excellent “Family Red.” Blackberries, cherries, pink peppercorns, and violets will greet your palate. You can read more about AA Badenhorst Family wines on our wine producer feature article here.
From the legendary Constantia region, Klein Constantia has produced a Sauvignon Blanc that is bursting with life. Full of grapefruit, green figs, and saline, this wine is as punchy as it is refreshing. The blend of minerality and acidity makes this wine an excellent pairing for seafood, light meats, and cheeses.
A selection of must-try South African wines would not be complete without a taste of Chenin Blanc. Once again, Adi Badenhorst delivers a stellar, widely acclaimed representation of the native grape. The fermentation in old wood gives this wine an inviting aroma, with notes of orange blossom, honey, and white stone fruits.
The most important thing to remember when tasting, shopping, or learning about wine is that wine is for everyone. By trying new things and exploring out of your comfort zone, you will not only have a more enjoyable drinking experience, but you’ll gain more knowledge with every sip. If you still trying to work out what bottle of wine you should buy for a dinner party, don’t worry, we have a great blog here to help you with that.
Frequently Asked Questions about Wine
How should I store my wine?
It is important to never store wine in warm areas, such as inside a cabinet above a kitchen stove. Instead, store it in the basement or cool pantry. If you will be storing your wine for longer than a few weeks, it should be stored on its side rather than upright so that the cork will not dry out and fall apart.
Will my wine age?
The short answer is, that depends. The longevity of a wine is largely dependent on a balance of three things: sugar, acid, and tannins. Sweet wines with high sugar content (such as wines from Sauternes, France) and bold reds high in tannins (such as Barolos and Napa Cabernets) will age far better than, say, a dry sauvignon blanc.
Should I decant wine?
Decanting a wine not only exposes it to oxygen, but it also removes sediment from wine prior to drinking. Sediment is natural, and will generally begin to occur in wines that have aged for ten years or more. If you see crusty material forming on the inside of your wine bottle, it should be decanted.
What happens when wine is “corked?”
If you hear someone say a wine is “corked,” it means that the wine has been exposed to chemicals resulting in foul aromas. Most often, this is due to too much oxygen leaking through the cork. The average incidence of corked wine is estimated at just 1%.