Wine Basics

By: Steve Pitcher
A wine glass, bottle and appetizer on a table.
Wine can accentuate the flavors in any meal. Marina Cavusoglu / Getty Images

Good wine is one of life's greatest pleasures. Whether you are a novice or a connoisseur, interested in simply sipping or expertly analyzing, enjoying a glass of wine can be a sublime experience.

Unfortunately, many people find wine and how to choose, serve, and describe it more intimidating than enjoyable. The very scope of the topic seems daunting. But never fear -- you don't have to take a class to appreciate the subtleties of fine wine.


Still, as with many things in life, a little knowledge goes a long way. Just as a musical performance is enhanced by knowledge of the composer or the piece, a bottle of wine is more enjoyable if you know something about it. Learn to taste the story in the wine, and you can transcend the intimidation.

To appreciate wine as something more than mere drink, all you'll need is conscious, deliberate awareness. Let's face it: It makes little sense to pay the premium for wines of character only to swallow them unconsciously. Each wine has a personality waiting to be discovered: You just need to decide whether you like it.

This is a very personal endeavor. Responses to wine are as individual as fingerprints. An aroma or flavor that is pleasing to you may not be so to another. The trick is translating your preferences into words. Accomplish this, and you will add new dimensions to your enjoyment of wine.

So, how to begin? You begin by understanding what's in your glass, tasting what's in your glass, and evaluating what's in your glass. Sampling wine and recording your impressions is an effective (and festive!) way to gain confidence choosing and evaluating wine. In this article, you will learn about all the aspects of wine and wine tasting. You will learn about the various varieties of wine and how they are made, as well as how to taste and appreciate wine.

In many ways, beginning a quest for wine knowledge is like entering a whole new world: a new language to learn, new techniques to master, and so many wonderful selections of wine to sample. Enjoy the journey!

Getting Started

As you set out to explore the world of wine, you might feel unsure about how to begin. Should you take a class? Join a wine-tasting group? Visit a winery? Buy a variety of wines and start sampling? There's not one set rule you must follow; rather, think of it as having unlimited choices! The following tips may help you find your way:

Find a guide. Every new journey benefits from the presence of an experienced guide. Whether you're exploring a mountain landscape, the wildlife of a faraway land, or the ins and outs of wine, an experienced guide can be your key to discovering hidden gems and expanding the horizons of your knowledge. You might try your local wine merchant, a wine-bar operator, a knowledgeable bartender, a wine educator, or even a friend who knows more about wine than you do.

Hit the books. This might seem like an obvious step, the wealth of available information can be a little overwhelming to even the most eager wine connoisseur. With books, magazines, newsletters, and Web sites offering opinions, evaluations, criticisms, and historical perspectives on everything from winemakers and vineyards to wineries and growing regions, you should have no trouble establishing a foundation for learning.

Visiting a winery can help you understand how wine is made.
Visiting a winery can help you understand how wine is made.
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Learn the language. Consider subscribing to a wine magazine (or two or three). Filled with pages of wine reviews, a good wine magazine offers a leisurely opportunity to learn the language of wine. Merchants' newsletters and offering catalogs are also good sources for building a wine vocabulary and learning about particular styles of wine and growing regions. What's more, these sales materials are usually mailed out free of charge, so arrange to receive several, including those from merchants beyond your hometown. By developing a rich wine vocabulary early on, you'll find it easier to express your impressions and preferences.

Taste as often as opportunity allows. This is the enjoyable part! There's no substitute for tasting, tasting, and more tasting. Try more than one wine at a time for the sake of comparison. Add a few friends to the mix for a truly festive time!

Treat yourself to good wine. The most vivid and memorable attributes of a varietal (a wine made from a specific grape variety, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay), a growing region, or a vintage are most easily discovered in wines of high quality. So, taste the best you can afford. That way, you'll get a more distinctive palate (or taste) memory. Occasionally splurge on a truly great wine: It's an excellent way to reward yourself!

Experiment with the unfamiliar. Life is too short to restrict yourself to the "vanilla" and "chocolate" of the wine world: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Take advantage of an opportunity to taste a wine you've never heard of. You may decide you don't like it, or it may prove delightful, opening up an entirely new avenue of wine exploration. Either way, you've added another dimension to your wine adventures.

Express yourself. It's difficult to know how or where to start describing a wine. And though it seems easy enough to sip and swirl the wine to judge its flavors, this can be a fleeting experience, one that may not add much to your taste memory in the long run. For this reason, it's a good idea to take some brief notes while you are sampling a wine, even if you never look at them again. The act of translating your instincts into words challenges you to make judgments and resolve uncertainties.

Enjoy yourself. Learning about wine should never be frustrating. After all, the goal here is to increase your enjoyment of wine.

Be patient. No one becomes an authority in a day, a week, or even a month. Knowledge comes with experience, and experience is only gained with time and patience. And there's always something new under the sun, even for the experts. Fortunately, the journey is as sweet as the destination.

Whatever you seek to learn, which wine to serve with dinner, the differences between Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, how to read a wine label, techniques for wine tasting, the first step of your journey starts here.

It's All About the Grapes

If you've ever glanced at a restaurant wine list or browsed the wine aisle of the grocery store, you know there are a lot of different kinds of wine out there. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Several hundred grape varieties are used to make the world's wines, resulting in different flavors, personalities, and qualities. The sheer variety can make choosing just one bottle a bit overwhelming, especially when they all look so enticing. Then again, isn't it fun to consider the possibilities?

The traits of the grape ultimately determine the wine's character.
The traits of the grape ultimately determine the wine's character.
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Although many kinds of grapes are used to make wine, only a fraction (the classic or noble grape varieties) produce truly superior wines. For red wine, noble grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Syrah; for white, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. Other noteworthy though less extraordinary grape varieties include such reds as Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel; and such whites as Gewurztraminer, various types of Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Semillon, and Viognier.

A varietal wine is made primarily or exclusively from one grape variety. The minimum required percentage of the named grape is regulated by law and differs from country to country (or from state to state in the United States). California law, for example, requires that a varietal wine contain at least 75 percent of the grape named on the label. So a California Merlot must be at least 75 percent Merlot grapes, and a California Chardonnay must be at least 75 percent Chardonnay grapes.

In the "New World," essentially the United States, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, most wines are named for the grapes from which they are produced. However, wines from "Old World" countries like France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain are usually named for the region in which the grapes were produced. So, a California wine made from Chardonnay grapes is labeled Chardonnay, but a French wine made from Chardonnay grapes might be called Chablis or Mersault (among other names), depending on the growing area.

If you are relatively new to the world of wine, it's best to explore the principal varietal wines first. Because these wines have a stronger flavor "personality" than those of lesser, more obscure varietals, they're more likely to make a lasting impression on your palate.

As you taste, keep in mind that wine grapes are products of the soil and climate of the vineyard in which they are grown; the same grapes can produce two wines that taste completely different; it all depends on where each vineyard is located. Viticulture practices (the way the vines are tended and how much fruit they are allowed to produce), the vines' age, the winemaker's skill and philosophy, and winery equipment also enter into the equation.

There are a lot of different wines out there to taste, and keeping them straight in your head can be difficult. In the next few sections we will explain the different varieties of wine in terms of taste and where in the world the grapes are grown. We'll begin on the next page with white wines.

White Wines

Chardonnay is considered the world's most popular varietal.
Chardonnay is considered the world's most popular varietal.

White wines tend to be lighter in taste than the red wines and are usually served chilled. Here are some of the traditional varietals:


The world's most popular varietal, Chardonnay (shar-doh-NAY) is considered to be the greatest white wine, though Riesling lovers will dispute this. Chardonnay is grown in virtually all wine-producing countries; the result is a wine that is difficult to characterize in terms of flavors and aromas. The style varies dramatically and can range from elegant, refined, and somewhat austere to full-bodied, rich, and opulent. It all depends on where the grapes are grown and the winemaker's techniques. Contrast, for example, the more full-blown Californian and Australian versions with their French counterparts, Chablis and the white Burgundies of the Cote de Beaune, which tend to be more restrained and exhibit higher acidity.


Of all the white wines, Chardonnay takes to oak-barrel treatment the best; oak-influenced aromas and flavors of toastiness and smokiness sometimes dominate Chardonnay's fruit flavors, which include (depending on the origin of the grapes) apple, pear, peach, white melon, citrus, and tropical fruits such as pineapple, papaya, guava, and banana.

Most Americans seem to prefer Chardonnays that have a rich, buttery mouth feel and layered flavors that result from barrel aging and malolactic fermentation, a winemaking technique that converts tart malic acid (think about biting into an unripe green apple) into rounder, softer lactic acid.

California wineries particularly noted for Chardonnay include Chalone, Chateau Montelena, Far Niente, Ferrari-Carano, Kistler, La Crema, Sanford, and Shafer.

French Chardonnay is named for the growing area (rather than for the grape). Examples include Chablis, Mersault, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny Montrachet, and Corton-Charlemagne. Frequently, the specific vineyard will be indicated on the label, along with the official quality designation premier cru, sometimes written as ler cru (first growth), or, even better, grand cru (great growth). Excellent producers include Domaine Leflaive, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Leroy, Morey, Pernot, Antonin Rodet, and Laboure-Roi.


Gewurztraminer is noted for its pungent fragrance.
Gewurztraminer is noted for its pungent fragrance.

Considered a noble wine in Alsace, Gewurztraminer (geh-VAIRTZ-trah-mee-ner) has the distinction of being one of the easiest wines to recognize and the hardest to spell and pronounce. It is spectacularly fragrant, with heady scents of lychee nut, rose petal, apricot, pear, and clovelike spice (gewurz is German for spice). The flavors are similar to the aroma and quite pronounced; the texture is soft and velvety.

Gewurztraminer is most often made in a dry or off-dry style, though sweet versions (designated vendange tardive or, even sweeter, selection de grains nobles) can also be found.

The best examples come from Alsace and are labeled with the name of the grape, sometimes also with a vineyard designation. Notable producers include Ernest Burn, Domaine Bott-Geyl, Josmeyer, Albert Mann, Trimbach, and Zind-Humbrecht. Most of the excellent American versions come from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, California. Look for such producers as Edmeades, Handley, Lazy Creek, and Navarro.


Another very fragrant wine (even more so than Gewurztraminer), Muscat (MUHS-caht) features grapey, floral aromas that smell sweet, though the wine is usually made in an off-dry style. The best examples come from Alsace and are made by many of the same producers who make fine Gewurztraminer.

Pinot Blanc

A dry wine similar to Chardonnay but not as complex, with aromas and flavors of white melon and citrus, usually made with little or no oak. Again, the best examples come from Alsace and are made by many of the same producers who make fine Gewurztraminer. Oregon Pinot Blancs are also quite good, offering clean, fruity flavors and mild spice; look for wines made by Amity, Foris, and WillaKenzie. Other respected names of Pinot Blanc (PEE-noh blahnk) include California's Au Bon Climat, Chalone, and Mirassou and Alsace's Zind-Humbrecht and Trimbach.

Pinot Gris

Pinot Gris is a dry wine with a broad flavor profile.
Pinot Gris is a dry wine with a broad flavor profile.

A dry wine whose broad flavor profile ranges from apple, pear, and peach to melon, citrus, banana, and tropical fruit. Occasionally, there's also a vaguely smoky, nutty, or vanilla taste that suggests oak, which may be enhanced if oak is actually used in making the wine. Pinot Gris (PEE-noh gree) is known for its inherently opulent texture and good acidity; few dry white wines are as silky smooth as a good Pinot Gris. The wine is called Pinot Grigio in Italy, where it is made in a leaner style with crisp acidity.

Long an important wine in Alsace, fine Pinot Gris is also made in Germany (where it's labeled Grauburgunder) and California and Oregon (where it may be labeled as either Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio). Notable California producers of Pinot Gris/Grigio include Byron, Navarro, Long Vineyards, Mosby, and Swanson. Respected names in Oregon Pinot Gris include Amity, Bethel Heights, Chehalem, Elk Cove, Erath, King Estate, Oak Knoll, Ponzi, Rex Hill, and WillaKenzie.


Regretfully underappreciated in the United States, Riesling (REECE-ling) is considered by most connoisseurs to be one of the world's greatest (if not the greatest) white wine. It can be made in the full spectrum of styles, from bone dry to incredibly sweet and rich. Unlike most white wines, Riesling can be cellared for many years, developing remarkable depth and complexity over time. Forward fruit, crisp acidity, purity, and low alcohol are Riesling's hallmarks.

Riesling is Germany's greatest and most important wine; superb bottlings are also made in Alsace and Austria, mostly in a dry style. Its aromas are fruity, but not grapey, and range from apple and lemon to peach and apricot, sometimes with a floral component (lemon blossom), sometimes with a minerallike edge that is usually quite complex, especially with age. When made with riper, late-harvest fruit, Riesling displays varying intensities of a honeylike character. The naturally crisp acidity gives the body a certain firmness and balances the residual sugar in the wine, so that it comes across as ripe rather than sweet, except when made in a dessert style.

In general, European Rieslings tend to be far more complex and flavorful than those made in the United States, mainly in California, Washington, and New York, because the special growing conditions found in the Old World can't be duplicated in this country. American Rieslings are made mostly in an off-dry to slightly sweet style. Dry-style Rieslings from Australia are quite impressive.

Germany's finest Riesling producers include Fritz Haag, Donnhoff, Gunderloch, von Simmern, Robert Weil, Kunstler, J. J. Prum, von Buhl, Burklin-Wolf, and Dr. Loosen. Highly recommended producers from Alsace include Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Schlumberger, Marc Kreydenweiss, Marcel Deiss, Hugel, and Domaine Weinbach. Austrian producers of excellent Riesling include Hirtzberger, Prager, Pichler, Jamek, Knoll, Nikolaihof, Brundlmayer, and Nigl. In Australian Riesling, look for bottlings from Grosset, Henschke, Leasingham, Leeuwin Estate, Penfolds, Petaluma, and Wolf Blass.

Sauvignon Blanc

A dry wine made in a variety of styles, sometimes called Fume Blanc (FOO-may BLAHNK) in the United States. In France, the wine is usually labeled with the name of the producer and the region (for example, Pouilly-Fume), though "Sauvignon" sometimes appears on the labels of wines from the Loire Valley.

The hallmark of Sauvignon Blanc (SAW-vee-nyonh BLAHNK) is a pleasant grassiness or green herbaceousness, which may be quite subtle or very pronounced, depending on the winemaker. This characteristic accents aromas and flavors ranging from white melon, citrus, and subtle fig to white peach and mango. Sauvignon Blanc can be made as a lean, racy wine with crisp acidity or as a barrel-fermented wine with another varietal, usually Semillon, blended in for a richer palate. White Bordeaux wines are prime examples of the latter style; New Zealand offers excellent Sauvignons of the racy style with quite obvious grassy qualities.

California wineries make Sauvignon Blancs in all possible styles. Some of them are especially noted for the wine, including Brander, Chateau St. Jean, Dry Creek Vineyard, Geyser Peak, Mason Cellars, and St. Supery.


An exotic, fragrant dry wine with an alluring array of aromas and flavors, Viognier (VEE-oh-nyay) makes for an intriguing drinking experience. The wine's heady perfume consists of all or some of the following: honeysuckle, citrus blossoms, oriental lychee nuts, very ripe white melon, freshly picked peaches and apricots, and ripe pears just after they've been peeled. Your nose tells you the wine will be sweet, but your palate is surprised to encounter a dry nectar offering flavors of ripe pear, lemon-lime citrus, almond, spice, peach, and apricot, sometimes with a honeyed nuance. Lush and sticky on the palate, with more body than most Chardonnays, the wine's aftertaste is not at all cloying, but fresh and vibrant, impelling you to take another sip.

Viognier originated in the Rhone Valley in France. Here the wine is labeled by producer and growing area. Chateau Grillet is famous for the varietal. In the New World (particularly California, where Rhone varietals are increasingly popular), Viognier has found a niche with distinctive bottlings (labeled as Viognier) from Alban, Bonterra, Calera, Jade Mountain, and Joseph Phelps.

White Zinfandel

Not a true white varietal, White Zinfandel (TZIN-fan-dell) is the product of winemaking techniques that quickly separate the juice from the skins of Red Zinfandel (which would otherwise provide color and tannin) when the grapes are crushed. This results in a blush wine, which is a white wine made from red grapes. Most White Zinfandel is made from grapes grown in California's San Joaquin valley. Although a popular drink (more than 20 million cases are sold each year), it's not considered a serious wine.

White Zinfandel is pink or coral in color, with a light body, usually somewhat sweet or at least off-dry, with simple aromas and flavors of strawberry or cherry and a note of citrus, such as orange zest. It may also be slightly spritzy.

Of course white wines only tell half the story. In the next section and you'll discover the elegant and flavorful world of red wines.

Red Wines

Black cherry is a large part of Cabernet Sauvignon's classic taste.
Black cherry is a large part of Cabernet Sauvignon's classic taste.
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Red wines are made from, you might suspect, red grapes, but they actually get their color from the grape skin that is used in the fermentation process. White wine, on the other hand, can be made from any variety of grapes because the juices are almost always clear.

Cabernet Franc

One of the main Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Franc (cah-burr-NAY FRAHNK) is somewhat similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but less distinctive. Although it can be found as a varietally labeled wine, it is more commonly used for blending; it adds a bit of blueberrylike fruit, a violet floral note, and some green herbaceousness. However, when tended carefully in the vineyard and treated with respect by the winemaker, it can be an exceptionally good wine. California wineries that bottle fine examples of Cabernet Franc include Beringer, Chimney Rock, Gundlach Bundschu, Imagery, Jekel, Lang & Reed, La Jota, Niebaum-Coppola, Pride, and Reverie.


A fair amount of Cabernet Franc is grown in Washington state, where it makes a medium-bodied wine with good acidity and bright red fruit flavors. Look for Badger Mountain and Columbia Winery.

In the Loire Valley of France, Cabernet Franc is made into a lighter wine called Chinon. In Bordeaux, it is a reliable blending component, achieving particular greatness when blended with Merlot as in Chateau Cheval Blanc (St.-Emilion).

Cabernet Sauvignon

The undisputed king of red wines, Cabernet Sauvignon (cah-burr-NAY saw-vee-NYONH) is grown throughout the winemaking world and displays a certain family resemblance wherever it is made despite nuances that come from variations in soil, climate, and other growing conditions. The wine's classic aromas and flavors are black currant (sometimes called cassis), dark berry, plum, and black cherry. Cabernet Sauvignon can display herbaceous qualities, sometimes dried herbs (anise and sage), sometimes green herbs (green olive and bell pepper), along with mint and cedar; the oak barrels used for aging the wine can impart spice and vanilla notes as well.

Young Cabernet Sauvignon is generally a ripe and powerful wine that may seem somewhat harsh and astringent because of its tannins (chemical compounds that come from the grape's skin and seeds when crushed to make the wine). Thanks to those tannins, Cabernet can age for many years, developing a softer texture, greater complexity, and more mellowness, elegance, and grace along the way. Winemakers can, and often do, employ techniques to make their Cabernets less astringent for the many consumers who enjoy young, robust, fruity wines.

In France, Cabernet Sauvignon is a principal component in the red wines of Bordeaux, where it is customarily blended with other classic varietals, notably Cabernet Franc and Merlot. These wines are not labeled varietally, instead bearing the name of the estate winery, such as Chateau Margaux or Chateau Haut-Brion, and the particular growing area (called an appellation) from which the grapes came, such as Graves, Pauillac, St.-Estephe, or St.-Julien.

In the United States, the best Cabernet Sauvignons are produced in California's Napa Valley. Well-respected leaders include Beaulieu Vineyard (BV), Beringer, Caymus, Far Niente, Groth, Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Shafer, and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.


Found wherever Cabernet Sauvignon is grown, Merlot (mehr-LOW) is one of the classic Bordeaux varietals. Although the wine bears a resemblance to Cabernet, it is plumper and softer, with pleasant sweet-fruit flavors that focus on currant and cherry (both red and black) fruit. It also exhibits less tannic astringency when young. The hallmark of fine Merlot is a rich, supple texture.

In Bordeaux, Merlot is blended into the wines of the region to tone down some of Cabernet Sauvignon's rougher, tannic qualities. It is the most important component in the wines of the Pomerol and St.-Emilion regions. Merlot can be found under a varietal label in wines from southern regions of France, such as Languedoc-Roussillon.

California and Washington grow most of the Merlot in the United States, producing wines in a variety of styles. Merlots that contain a fair amount (up to 25 percent) of Cabernet Sauvignon tend to be full-bodied wines that require some cellaring before they should be consumed. Another style relies less on the presence of Cabernet Sauvignon, yielding a softer, medium-bodied wine with less tannin and brighter, cherrylike fruit. Merlot specialists in California include Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Duckhorn, Mason Cellars, Matanzas Creek, St. Clement, St. Francis, Shafer, and Whitehall Lane.

Washington's Merlots are the state's best red wines and are generally made to be more approachable young than California's Merlots. Names to look for include Canoe Ridge, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Leonetti, L'Ecole No. 41, Northstar, and Snoqualmie.


Considered noble by the Italians, Nebbiolo (neb-bee-OH-low) is the grape variety used to make Barolo and Barbaresco -- powerful, dramatic, long-lived wines named after two important wine-producing towns in the region of Piedmont in northwest Italy. Wines made from Nebbiolo feature very deep color (almost black), high tannins and acidity, aromas and flavors of raspberry and dark berry, floral accents of violets and roses, exotic spice (such as star anise), a full body, and fine concentration of flavor. They are usually made in small quantities and are thus expensive. Names associated with the best of these wines include Antinori, Ceretto, Angelo Gaja, Pio Cesere, Albino Rocca, and Luciano Sandrone.

Petite Sirah is produced almost exclusively in California.
Petite Sirah is produced almost exclusively in California.
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Petite Sirah

Produced almost exclusively in California, this is a bold, tannic red wine with flavors and aromas of dark berry, blueberry, cinnamon-clove spice, and, often, black pepper. Sometimes called Durif (its true grape name), Petite Sirah (puh-TEE see-rah) should not be confused with Syrah, a very distant relative that makes classic, much more elegant wines. Producers best known for their Petite Sirahs include David Bruce, Concannon, Foppiano, Guenoc, Ridge, Rosenblum, and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

Pinot Noir

Close on Cabernet Sauvignon's heels as one of the world's greatest red wines, Pinot Noir (PEE-noh NWAHR) is made in much smaller quantities because the grape requires just the right growing conditions to produce excellent wine. Pinot Noir reaches its height of perfection in the Burgundy region of France, where it is labeled by the name of the growing region (such as Nuits-St. -Georges, Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle-Musigny, Pommard, or Gevrey-Chambertin), the producer, and the specific vineyard. The best of these wines will also have the quality designation, "premier cru," (or, "ler cru") or, "grand cru," on the label.

Classic Pinot Noir is a silky smooth wine with a soft, round, medium-full body. Flavors of ripe, sweet red or black cherry, plum, raspberry, currant, and spice correspond wonderfully with fragrant aromas, accented by notes of wilted roses, cola, and sometimes a mushroomy earthiness. Vineyard conditions and location have a greater impact on Pinot Noir than on any other red wine.

The best red Burgundy is very expensive and scarce, and quality depends very much on the success of the vintage. The most celebrated producers are Bouchard, de Vogue, Bruno Clair, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Domaine Dujac, Faiveley, Robert Groffier, Louis Jadot, Louis Latour, Domaine Dominique Laurent, Leroy, Meo-Camuzet, Denis Mortet, Mommessin, and Daniel Rion.

Fine examples of Pinot Noir can also be found in California, Oregon, and, to a lesser extent, Australia. California producers include Acacia, Au Bon Climat, David Bruce, Calera, Chalone, Dehlinger, Gary Farrell, Kistler, Rochioli, Saintsbury, and Sanford. For Oregon Pinots, look for the wines of Archery Summit, Bethel Heights, Chehalem, Domaine Drouhin, Erath, King Estate, Panther Creek, Ponzi, Rex Hill, and WillaKenzie.


This is the principal grape variety used to make Italian Chianti (kee-AHN-tee), as well as better renditions called Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserva, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino, all from Tuscany in northwest Italy. Outside Italy, Sangiovese (san-joe-VAY-say) may be varietally labeled.

The wine offers a sprightly, cherrylike fruit quality, hints of dried roses or violets, comparatively high acidity, and firm tannins.

Textbook examples of Sangiovese-based wines come from Italian producers such as Antinori, Castello de Brolio, Castello Banfi, Fontodi, Frescobaldi, Lanciola, Le Corti, and Nozzole.

Sangiovese is a relative newcomer to California vineyards, and success with the varietal has been spotty so far. Some of the better efforts are made by Altamura, Benessere, Flora Springs, Luna, and Swanson.


This variety is used to produce the magnificent wines of the Northern Rhone Valley in France, where they are labeled not by grape variety but by specific growing area and producer. Cotes-Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, and St. Joseph are considered the finest examples of the varietal. In the Southern Rhone Valley, Syrah (sear-RAH) is blended with up to ten other varietals to create the wine named for the region, Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

The hallmarks of a fine varietal Syrah are its deep, dark color and attractive, distinctive, complex aromas of dark berry, black cherry, plum, black pepper, brown spice, violets, dark chocolate, tar (actually akin to subtle asphalt), licorice, and leather (reminding one of a saddle shop or glove leather), and often a gamy or meaty smell that one might encounter in a butcher shop (fresh red meat or aged venison). The rich, generous flavors should correspond to the aromas. It has a softer, rounder, and fuller body than most other red wines; a smooth, supple texture; and none of the rougher tannins found in many young Cabernet Sauvignons, though the tannins are ripe and firm.

Northern Rhone Syrah producers include Paul Jaboulet Aine, Chapoutier, Bernard Chave, Jean-Luc Colombo, Delas Freres, Domaine Courbis, Domaine du Colombier, Domaine Desmeure, Pierre Gaillard, E. Guigal, Gentaz-Dervieux, Robert Jasmin, Rene Rostaing, and Sorrel.


Made from exactly the same grape variety as Syrah, Shiraz (Shih-RAHZ) is the name by which the wine is known in Australia, where it is the country's greatest wine, and South Africa, where several producers have been quite successful (Helderberg, Rust en Vrede, Slaley, Spice Route, Waterford). Some California Syrahs are also labeled as Shiraz. Shiraz was a town in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran), where the Syrah grape is thought to have originated. Respected Australian Shiraz producers include Jim Barry, Grant Burge, Chateau Reynella, Coriole, d'Arenberg, Elderton, Hardy's, Henschke, Jasper Hill, Peter Lehmann, Mount Langhi Ghiran, Penfolds, Rosemount, St. Hallett, and Yalumba.

Shiraz hails from Australia and South Africa.
Shiraz hails from Australia and South Africa.
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Syrah is a relative newcomer to California vineyards, but it has emerged in recent years as an exciting and successful development. Top-flight producers include Arrowood, Dehlinger, Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Foxen, Geyser Peak, Hanna, Havens, Lewis, McDowell, Meridian, Nyers, Joseph Phelps, Qupe, Swanson, and Truchard.

Some good-quality Syrahs are also made in Washington (Cayuse, Columbia, Columbia Crest, Covey Run, Glen Fiona, Hogue, Kiona, L'Ecole No. 41, Terra Blanca), Chile (Carmen, Crucero, Santa Rita, Vina Montes), and Argentina (Bodegas Balbi, Bodegas y Vinedos Santiago Graffigna, Finca Flichman, Luca, Vina Patagonia).


California claims this grape variety as its own and produces virtually all the Zinfandel (TZIN-fan-dell) to be found. Unlike other major grape varieties found in California, whose ancestry is pretty well documented, no one can say for certain where Zinfandel originally came from. Well suited to California's growing regions, Zinfandel is made into various styles of wine, most of which feature a spicy element.

Zinfandel's basic varietal profile features aromas and flavors of berry and cherry, almost always a certain spiciness, often black pepper or brown spice, and lively acidity. In a well-behaved claret (rhymes with "carrot") style, Zinfandel has mild tannins; a smooth, round texture; and various shadings of oak that come from the barrels used for aging--coconutlike scents when American oak is used, vanilla when the winemaker uses French oak. In a medium-full style, Zinfandel displays exuberant berry fruit and more intense elements of pepper, spice, and oak. Full-bodied Zinfandel is made from ultraripe fruit and is intensely flavored with medium-full or full tannins. Late-harvest and Port-like styles are also made; these are rich in body with raisinlike fruit and chewy tannins and are quite peppery and high in alcohol.

Check the alcohol level on the label to determine which style is in the bottle. Generally, the higher the alcohol, the bigger the style. Claret style is between 12. 5 and 13. 5 percent; medium-full is 13. 6 to 14. 8 percent; full-bodied is 14. 9 to 15. 9 percent; late harvest is 16 percent and higher.

Producers noted for excellent Zinfandel include Robert Biale, Cline Cellars, De Loach, Edmeades, Fife, Folie a Deux, Gallo-Sonoma, Greenwood Ridge, Hartford Court, Haywood, Hendry, Kenwood, Limerick Lane, Pezzi-King, Rancho Zabaco, Ravenswood, Ridge, Rosenblum, St. Francis, and Seghesio.

As you have probably gathered from some of our descriptions, many of these wines are mixed together to create different tastes and textures. In the next section, we will explore blended wines.


Blends are wines that are created by combining different varietals.
Blends are wines that are created by combining different varietals.
Publications International, Ltd.

Blends are wines that do not carry a single varietal designation. Some of the finest wines in the world -- from Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone Valley in France, for example -- are in this category, as are Opus One, Insignia, and Monte Bello from California wineries. In some cases, the wine label will include the varietal components of the blend, sometimes with exact percentages. This is frequently the practice in Australia and Washington.

The practice of blending different varietals together to create a particular style of wine is hardly new. Winemakers have known for centuries that finely honed varietal blending techniques can result in a complex wine in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Bordeaux and the Rhone have traditionally provided the models for these blends, yet modern winemakers have brought their own innovative concepts into play to entice the wine lover to try something new and exciting.



By tradition, and today by regulation, Bordeaux wines may be made only from certain, specified grape varieties. For red wines, that means Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Virtually no Bordeaux winemaker uses only one, very few use all five. For whites, Sauvignon, Semillon, and Muscadelle are specified, and at least two are almost always used.

Winemakers in other countries have used these two models in their efforts to emulate the successful wines of Bordeaux. In California, for example, a varietal wine must contain at least 75 percent of the grape variety named on the label. Winemakers who want to produce a wine in which no component reaches that level create their blend along Bordeaux lines. Most of these wines bear a fanciful name that the winery has the exclusive right to use. Examples of these "proprietary Bordeaux-style blends" include Insignia from Joseph Phelps and Monte Bello from Ridge Vineyards. Opus One, from the winery of the same name, is another example.

A small number of such wines, from Guenoc Winery and St. Supery, for example, are labeled simply as "Meritage" (rhymes with heritage), a word that was coined in 1981 to represent the concept of a California wine made as a Bordeaux-style blend.


This is a red blend similar in concept to the Bordeaux-blend model, however the grape varieties are those of the Rhone Valley, particularly the southern Rhone growing region known as Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Up to 13 grape varieties can be used, including Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsaut, Syrah, as well as a couple of white grapes, including Viognier.

California wines in this style, in which no one varietal comprises at least 75 percent of the blend, are labeled under a fanciful, proprietary name, such as Le Mistral from Joseph Phelps, Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant, and Fife Vineyards' L'Attitude 39.

New-Age Blends

Using any combination of grape varieties that strike their fancy, modern winemakers are creating some exciting wines that go well beyond the traditional blends mentioned above. They might combine Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah, for example, as Swanson Vineyards does for a wine called "Alexis. " In some vintages, Alexis may have more Syrah than Cabernet in its blend, other vintages will be just the opposite, and in still others it may be a 50-50 blend. Another example is "Paraduxx" from Duckhorn Vineyards, which blends together Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Merlot. There are no rules, and anything goes!

Wines referred to as "super Tuscans" are nontraditional blends and varietals from the Tuscany region of Italy, representing the creativity and energy of a new generation of winemakers. They are, for the most part, superior to the traditional wines of the region, such as Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino. Many super Tuscans are made from Bordeaux varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and from Syrah. Some blend the region's traditional Sangiovese with Cabernet or Merlot. Examples include Col d'Orcia's pure Cabernet Sauvignon called Olmaia, as well as the Sangiovese blend called Camartino from Agricola Querciabella. You won't find the words "super Tuscan" on the label because this is a category of wine, like "Bordeaux-blend."

Most of these New-Age blends (both reds and whites) have fanciful, proprietary names, like Alexis and Paraduxx, whereas others are labeled with the varietal components, sometimes giving the percentages, as is often the case with Australian versions.


Two or more grape varieties are always used to create Champagne.
Two or more grape varieties are always used to create Champagne.
Publications International, Ltd.

Two or more grape varieties are almost always used to create Champagne. For French Champagne, the varieties that may be used are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, exclusively.

Winemakers in other countries who make sparkling wine in the style of Champagne use these varieties as well.

However, when the wine is labeled "blanc de blancs," which means a white wine from white grapes, only Chardonnay is used to make the Champagne.

We have already alluded to some of the information you can get from a wine label, such as the percent of a varietal in a blended wine. In the next section, we will tell you how to decode a wine label and how it can help you pick the right bottle.

How to Read a Wine Label

Where the grapes were grown makes a big difference in taste.
Where the grapes were grown makes a big difference in taste.
Publications International, Ltd.

Often, the first clues about a wine come from its label. Unless you have the opportunity to taste before you buy, you'll have to answer all your questions about the wine (what variety of grapes it was made from, what vintage it is, what winery produced it) simply from the information on the label.

At First Glance

As the saying goes, you can't judge a book by its cover. But can you judge a wine by its label? It's tempting to choose a wine with an eye-catching label. The label seems to give the wine a personality -- all those colors and graphics beckon invitingly from the shelf, clamoring for your attention. And the sheer number of wines available, even at the local grocery store, is enough to reduce anyone to eeny-meeny-miney-moe. Imagine if choosing a quality wine were as simple as liking the label!


Although there is no guarantee that you will like a wine if you like the design of a label, you may be able to determine whether you'll enjoy the wine from the information on the label. Wine labels come in all shapes and sizes, some with a bare minimum of information, others with a wealth of data that explore virtually every aspect of the wine. Most labels fall somewhere in between. Learning to read the label can give you some indication of what to expect from the wine, just as the plot summary on a book jacket can help you decide if you'll enjoy the story within.

A Closer Look

At the very least, a close examination of the label will reveal the name of the wine and where the grapes came from. The label may also include information about when the grapes were harvested, the identity of the person or company behind the wine, the wine's alcohol content, and the bottle's net contents. Some of this information appears on the label facing the consumer, but most wines also have a "back label," which should be read as well.

Wineries must submit their labels to a government agency to ensure that they meet certain legal requirements. That's good news for anyone trying to learn more about a wine. Simply look to the label for answers to the following questions:

Who made the wine?

This is the most important piece of information on the label, because the quality of the wine depends to a great extent on the reputation of the winery. The better wineries also have a distinctive style, making the selection process much easier.

The label (usually the back label) also indicates the extent of the producer's connection with the wine. The highest designation is "grown, produced, and bottled by," which guarantees that the winery named on the label grew the grapes and produced and bottled the wine, making it a complete estate wine. If the label reads "produced and bottled by," the named winery crushed the grapes and made the wine. However, if the wine was fermented elsewhere, the phrase on the label may say "cellared and bottled by." The phrase "made and bottled by" reveals that the winery used grapes it crushed, along with wine that was fermented elsewhere.

What kind of wine is it?

If the name of a grape variety appears on the label, the wine was made entirely or predominately from that grape. When two or more grape varieties are listed, the wine is a blend of those grapes. Sometimes, however (as is the case with most Old-World wines), a growing region or appellation of origin is listed instead of a grape variety. In this case, it is still possible to determine which grape varieties were used -- it just takes a little more work on your part. You'll need to know, for example, that Chianti is made from Italian Sangiovese grapes, and Puligny-Montrachet is made from French Chardonnay grapes. Some people believe that naming a growing region can actually be more informative than naming a grape variety, because different growing regions have different soil, climate, and viticulture practices--all of which can alter the taste of a wine.

A proprietary or fanciful name, such as "Insignia" or "Opus One," may not be informative if you are unfamiliar with the wine. In such a case, the back label might provide more information. If a wine is labeled "Meritage," it must be a blend of two or more of the traditional Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Cabernet Franc.

Where were the grapes grown?

The growing area or appellation noted on the label provides the source of the grapes used to make the wine. It might be as broad as an entire state or region, such as California or Burgundy, in which case the grapes came from two or more growing areas within the borders of the state or region. More specific appellations include a county or subregion; a growing area within a county or subregion, such as Napa Valley (within Napa County); and a subappellation within a larger one, such as Oakville (an area within Napa Valley). An even more specific designation is the name of the vineyard within the appellation. As a rule, the more specific the designation of where the grapes were grown, the higher the quality of the wine.

How old is the wine?

The vintage date tells you the year in which the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. If no vintage date appears on the label or neckband, the wine was made from mixed vintages. Vintage can be a very important piece of information, or it can mean relatively little. Just as the same variety of grapes grown in two different regions can produce wines that taste different, so too can the year the grapes were grown affect the quality of the wine they produce. Weather conditions, such as rainfall amounts, temperature highs and lows, can affect how well the grapes grow and, consequently, how a wine tastes. However, because weather patterns don't differ as dramatically in some parts of the world as in others, the vintage date may mean very little for certain wines. It can be difficult to sort it all out. Luckily, wine publications do it for you, analyzing vintages on a qualitative basis. This information can be a handy shopping tool, especially when purchasing expensive wines.

How is the wine different from other wines?

Some special designations refer to production techniques that distinguish the wine from others, such as barrel fermented or unfiltered, which will make the wine more attractive depending on the consumer's personal preference. Other terms, such as reserve, private reserve, special selection, barrel select, old vines, and estate bottled, indicate a qualitative distinction. In some cases, a special designation has no legal definition; it means whatever the winery wants it to mean. A prime example is reserve, which has a legal definition in parts of Europe but none in the United States. The term implies that the wine meets higher standards for ripeness or aging, and this might be true for a wine so labeled, justifying its higher price tag. However, because use of the term is not regulated everywhere, wineries may put "reserve" on the label simply as a marketing ploy. The winery's reputation should provide some guide as to whether the designation is meaningful.

On American wines, use of the term estate bottled is legally restricted. This phrase indicates that the wine was bottled where it was made and the grapes for the wine came either from the winery's own vineyard or a vineyard on which the winery has a long lease. For French wines, chateau- or domaine-bottled means the same thing. Look for the phrase mis en bouteille au chateau on a Bordeaux wine and mis en bouteille au domaine on a Burgundy wine.

What's the wine's alcohol content?

This is usually stated as a percentage by volume, such as 12. 5 percent by volume. In general, the higher the percentage of alcohol, the stronger the wine.

How much wine is in the bottle?

The quantity is usually given in milliliters. A standard bottle is 750 ml, which is about 25 fluid ounces. A magnum, the equivalent of two standard bottles, is 1. 5 ml. European wines may indicate quantity in centiliters; a standard bottle is 75 cl. The quantity indication is usually on the back label of an American wine but on the front label of a French wine.

Examples of both an American label and a French label are provided below:

American Label

The following numbers correspond to the list below: 1. Abbey Winery, 2. Cabernet Sauvignon, 3. Napa Valley, 4. Stanley Vineyard, 5. 2000, 6. Reserve, 7. ALC. 13.5% by vol., 8. Produced by
The following numbers correspond to the list below: 1. Abbey Winery, 2. Cabernet Sauvignon, 3. Napa Valley, 4. Stanley Vineyard, 5. 2000, 6. Reserve, 7. ALC. 13.5% by vol., 8. Produced by
Publications International, Ltd.


  • The producer's name, in this case is fictional.
  • The kind of wine, in this case a varietal wine that is made entirely or predominantly (75 percent or more is the legal requirement in California) from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
  • The growing region, also called an appellation.
  • The name of the vineyard where the grapes were grown.
  • The year in which the grapes were harvested.
  • A special designation implying that the wine is of superior quality.
  • The wine's alcohol content. The law permits a variance of 1. 5 percent in this figure, so this wine could have as much as 15 percent, or as little as 12 percent.
  • An indication that the winery crushed the grapes and made the wine.

French Label

The following numbers correspond to the list below: 1. Chateau La Tour De Luz, 2. Grand Cru Classe, 3. 1999, 4. Graves, 5. Appellation Graves Controlee, 6. Societe Civile, 7. Mis en Bouteillg, 8. ALC. 12% vol, 9. 75 cle
The following numbers correspond to the list below: 1. Chateau La Tour De Luz, 2. Grand Cru Classe, 3. 1999, 4. Graves, 5. Appellation Graves Controlee, 6. Societe Civile, 7. Mis en Bouteillg, 8. ALC. 12% vol, 9. 75 cle
Publications International, Ltd.
  1. The producer's name, in this case a fictional Bordeaux estate.
  2. An indication of the wine's quality level; this wine comes from a superb vineyard according to an official classification.
  3. The year in which the grapes were harvested.
  4. The growing region, also called an appellation.
  5. An indication that the wine comes from a specified region and was produced from specifically permitted grape varieties according to strict controls and regulations.
  6. The name and address of the proprietor.
  7. An indication that the wine was bottled at the estate.
  8. The wine's alcohol content.
  9. Quantity of wine, in this case measured in centiliters. The "e" means in accordance with standard European Union measurements.

Now you know about all the various types of wines, where they are made, what type of grape they are made from, and even how to read the label. What we're missing is the most important aspect of enjoying wine -- the taste! Move on to the next section to learn the finer points of tasting wine.

How to Taste Wine

Wine is full of complex and mysterious nuances.
Wine is full of complex and mysterious nuances.
Publications International, Ltd.

Tasting wine is different than tasting just about anything else you can think of. All the swirling and sniffing might seem like an affectation, but these steps really serve an important purpose: helping us make sense of the complex and mysterious nuances of wine.

Learning the Language

Think about it: How many words can you come up with to describe how a banana smells and tastes? Could you describe it to someone who has never tasted one? Although a banana has distinct characteristics, it is difficult to explain to someone else. Its smell, texture, and taste are easy to recognize but hard to put into words.


The same is true for wine, though to a greater extent. Unlike the banana, which resembles a banana and not much else, wine doesn't smell or taste like grape juice; it's a collection of complex and intense flavors. So, to say, for example, that a glass of Chardonnay smells and tastes like wine is woefully inadequate. Wine smells and tastes like so many things that describing it can strain your everyday vocabulary. Fortunately, the world of wine has a language all its own.

Good wine can be enjoyed and appreciated without saying a word. But if you want to explain to someone else why you love or hate a particular wine, it's helpful to be familiar with the language. For example, you might say that a Cabernet Sauvignon smells pleasantly of ripe black currants and tobacco. Another taster might describe the same wine as leathery. There aren't actually currants or tobacco or leather in the wine. Rather, these are smells commonly encountered in wine; they express the essence of this particular wine.

Taking Memorable Notes

"Tasting" can mean anything from a simple sip to serious palate analysis. The occasion can be as casual as a glass of wine after work or as formal as an organized tasting. Whatever format you prefer, there is one golden rule: For the experience to have any lasting significance, you'll need to really concentrate on the task. The best way to do this is to make written notes, if only to scribble down the name and vintage of the wine and whether you liked it or not and why. Record your impressions in your personal wine journal so you'll have all your notes for future reference.

Taking successful notes is merely a matter of deciding whether you like what you taste, akin to the old adage, "I may not know anything about art, but I know what I like. " Just note what it is about the flavors that make the wine appealing or unappealing. This exercise, repeated over time, will lead to the development of a focused palate.

With so many wonderful selections of wine to sample and enjoy, you are embarking on an exciting, robust journey. And since each growing season provides a new vintage, your horizons will continue to expand. You'll find that each glass adds new dimensions and impressions for you to ponder.

By using the journal to document your tasting experiences, you will enhance your enjoyment. Taking notes will help you focus on the abundant characteristics of wine, enabling you to identify the aromas and flavors that make up a wine's charm. And, in the end, your notes will provide you with a valuable record of what you have enjoyed.

Journal notations should identify a wine's outstanding attributes or faults. Your notes can be as brief or as detailed as you like. You can pepper the pages with colorful wine lingo or take advantage of everyday adjectives. It's up to you. Then spend time mulling over what you have written. It should help you recognize which wines to choose for a truly enjoyable experience.

You'll be pleased at how much you learn from your own reflections, and you just might discover your favorites among the abundant wines of the world.

In addition to making notations, you might like to assign a numerical rating to each wine. Some people find it helpful; others find points of value too subjective to be meaningful. If you decide to assign point values, the following point ranges correspond to the various quality determinations (based on the widely used 100-point scale):

outstanding = 96-100 points

fine = 90-95 points

average/acceptable = 80-89 points

below average = 70-79 points

poor = 0-69 points

An Excercise in Taste

It is finally time to taste! However, you don't taste wine the same way you might taste a glass of soda or tea. Rather, tasting wine is a little like detective work. Each step in the process gives you another clue about the wine until you have enough information to isolate and identify each of the complex aromas and flavors.

After each step, jot some short notes in your wine journal. Putting your observations on paper requires you to focus on what it is you're seeing, sniffing, and tasting.

Initially, make sure your glass is less than half full. This way, you'll have the confidence to tilt and swirl it without spilling the wine.


Hold the glass by its stem to prevent the wine from being warmed by your hand and to keep the glass clean. Tilt the glass away from yourself slightly so that you are looking through the rim of the liquid. If possible, hold the glass over a white background, such as a tablecloth. Study the wine's appearance, noting its color and clarity.

Is the wine cloudy? Does it contain floating matter, such as cork particles, or other deposits, like sediment? Good red wine can be opaque, clear, or brilliant in appearance. Good whites should be at least clear, at best brilliant.

The color should be pleasing to the eye. Fine young reds exhibit deep, vibrant color, ranging from light purple to deep ruby. Good whites can be very light in color, though young wines will be greenish-gold, and sweet, dessert wines will be yellow-gold to amber-gold. If a wine is yellowish-brown and dull in appearance, it is either magnificently old or prematurely dead. Browning occurs in white and red wines just as it does in apples--as a result of oxidation.


Carefully begin to swirl the wine in the glass. To do this, set the base of the glass on a flat surface, grasp the base of the stem with thumb and finger, and, starting slowly, push the glass in tight circles on the tabletop. Gradually increase the speed of this motion so that the wine slides up along the inner surfaces of the glass. Just a few swirls will do. With practice (try it with water instead of wine to save slosh expense), you can confidently swirl the wine without using a tabletop. Simply hold the glass by the stem, and move it in a quick, circular pattern.

Swirling may look like an affectation, but it does serve a purpose. By swirling, you mix a little air with the wine, releasing its aromatic components.


Just after the final swirl, bring the glass to your nose and take a few good sniffs to prepare your palate for the taste of the wine. The first impression is the most important; let your mind wander through memory and grasp recollections as they pass. What does the scent remind you of? Is it sweet or floral? If sweet, from what? Is it fruity? What kind of fruit? If floral, what kind of flower? Your nose will become accustomed to distinctive smells rather soon, so the first few sniffs are important ones.

The wine's scent is called its nose, which consists of aroma and bouquet. Aroma describes the smells that come from the grape itself. As the wine ages, the aromas should evolve into a more complex bouquet of fragrances.

Scents you might encounter when tasting a white wine include apple, pear, peach, melon, grapefruit, lemon, mango, pineapple, butter, roasted grain, vanilla, honey, fresh-cut grass, asparagus, and bell pepper. For red wine, common aromas include blackberry, cherry, raspberry, black pepper, plum, tobacco, smoke, chocolate, mushroom, oak, coffee, and loamy earth.

The scent of pears is common in some white wine.
The scent of pears is common in some white wine.
Publications International, Ltd.

Occasionally, you might notice a "foreign" smell or an "off" odor, something strange. An unpleasant, wet cardboard smell is a sign that the wine may have been contaminated by a bad cork. A vinegary smell means oxygen has seeped into the bottle, rendering the wine undrinkable.

Now that you've looked at the wine and smelled it, it's time for the best part -- tasting it. But you don't want to swallow it just yet. Tasting is one thing, drinking another. A gulp only quenches a thirst or washes down food. A quick swallow probably means you haven't actually tasted the wine.


Take a small sip of the wine, holding it in your mouth. Some people slosh it around like mouthwash so that it reaches all parts of the mouth. Others draw a small amount of air into the mouth and over the wine (be careful not to dribble!). This little trick requires practice, but the process opens the wine, releasing the aroma up into the nasal passages in the back of the throat, so you can smell the wine again.

The taste should supplement the clues provided by your nose. Ask yourself whether the wine in your mouth (the palate) delivers what the nose advertised. After all, your sense of smell is much more effective and sensitive than your taste buds.

The principal tastes in wine are sweet (tasted by the tip of the tongue); sour, which will taste tart (think of lemons); and bitter (can taste like aspirin if it's really bitter).

So, what does it taste like? Describe the fruit taste. What does it remind you of? Is it fresh and bright? Most important, do you like it? This is a good time to jot down your flavor impressions--while they are fresh in your mind.

Also think about the wine's texture--how does it feel in your mouth? Would you describe it as silky, smooth, velvety, sharp, big, refreshing, round, rich, firm, intense, crisp, puckery, lush, creamy, lively, flat?

Does the wine have a drying effect on the sides of your mouth? Does it bite the tongue? If so, this astringency is probably tannin, which comes from the grape's skin and seeds and sometimes from the wood of the barrel in which the wine was aged. The sensation of tannic astringency is similar to the rough, dry way your mouth can feel after drinking a cup of black tea that was brewed too long.

Young red wines usually display some tannic astringency, which will dissipate and smooth out as the wine matures. If the wine you are tasting has significant tannins, making it uncomfortable to drink now, consider whether the wine seems to have enough fresh fruit character to survive in the bottle until the tannins begin to mellow.

The wine's level of acidity should also be evaluated. Acid can feel sharp in the mouth, or it can be a fresh, tangy sensation. Good acidity lifts the flavor of the wine and gives it a fresh, lively feel. Too much acid makes the wine taste tart or sour.

If the amount of acidity and tannin measured to the fruit in the wine seems equal or favorable, the wine is said to be balanced.


After you've drawn all possible flavor out of the wine, spit it out. Spitting a wine into a "dump bucket" is perfectly acceptable when tasting. After all, you want to be able to concentrate on the wines you are tasting, not get inebriated.

After the wine has left your mouth, try to determine how long the taste sensation lingers. This is called the wine's aftertaste or finish.

Finally, think about the overall impression the wine has made. Did it come on strongly, and then fade quickly in the mouth? Did the aromas you smelled match the flavors you sensed when the wine was in your mouth -- and after the wine left your mouth? Were the various components, including fruit, alcohol, tannins, acidity, of the same magnitude; or did one element overshadow or overwhelm the others? Did the wine seem simple or one-dimensional, or did it show some complexity?

Be sure to record your final thoughts in your journal. You'll want to remember if you liked the wine or not so you'll know whether to buy it again!

If you really want to punch up your journal with some wine terminology, move on to the final section where you will find an extensive glossary of wine vocabulary.

Wine Term Glossary

Appearance refers to the wine's clarity, not color.
Appearance refers to the wine's clarity, not color.
Publications International, Ltd.

For as many different types of wine there are for you to try, there are twice as many words to describe the experience. Here is a list of some of the words wine enthusiasts use when discussing their favorite drink:

Acetic: A vinegarlike smell that indicates the presence of too much acetic acid. It may also be the result of wine left exposed to air for too long. Also see volatile acidity.


Acetone: A smell resembling nail polish; caused by too much amyl acetate.

Acid, acidity: A natural by-product of all grapes and an essential component of wine that preserves its freshness, keeps it lively, and shapes its flavors. Too much acidity makes the wine sour or unpleasantly tart; too little results in a flat or flabby wine.

Aftertaste: The taste left in the mouth after the wine is swallowed. The longer a pleasing aftertaste lingers in the mouth, the finer the quality of the wine. Similar terms are length and finish.

Aggressive: Unpleasantly harsh in texture because the wine has excessive acid or tannins.

Appearance: Refers to the wine's clarity, not its color.

Aroma: The smell of a young wine that comes from the grapes and the winemaking process, including aging in oak barrels. As the wine ages, the aromas should develop into a more complex bouquet.

Astringent: A rough, dry, harsh, puckery feeling in the mouth that results from excessive tannins and/or acidity.

Austere: Lacks generosity and richness, simple. Also see lean.

Balance: Occurs when all the wine's components, including concentration of fruit, levels of tannin and alcohol, and acidity, are in harmony; no one component overshadows the others.

Berrylike: A noticeable berry fruit character in aromas and flavors that resembles blackberries, raspberries, black currants, and/or black cherries. Used when one or more of these fruits is sensed but cannot be isolated.

Big: A full-bodied, intensely flavored wine with a hefty feel on the palate; often highly alcoholic.

Black currant: A fruit characteristic often used as a tasting note when describing the aroma and flavor of red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Also see cassis.

Black fruit: Inclusive term for black currant, blackberry, and black cherry, used in wine description when one or more of these fruit characteristics is sensed but cannot be specified.

Body: Describes the weight and level of fullness of a wine in your mouth, such as light bodied, medium bodied, medium-full bodied, and full bodied. The higher the body level, the higher the concentration of fruit, alcohol, and glycerine (a minor chemical product of fermentation) in the wine.

Bold: Dramatic; quite obvious and impressive. A similar term is forward.

Bouquet: The evolution of the wine's aroma after it has aged in the bottle, developing complexity and nuance.

Brawny: A big, full-bodied wine with lots of flavor that's pleasant to drink but not particularly elegant.

Brilliant: A very clear appearance with no cloudiness or floating particles.

Buttery: The smell, and sometimes the taste, of melted butter. It may also describe the wine's texture, as in a "rich, buttery Chardonnay."

Cassis: French for black currant.

Cedar, cedary: The smell of cedar wood often found in bottle-aged Bordeaux red wines and Cabernet Sauvignons; an element of bouquet.

Chewy: A rich, full-bodied, tannic red wine with lots of flavor, similar to brawny.

Cigar box: Aroma of cigar leaf before burning coupled with a cedary smell reminiscent of the inside of a cigar box.

Claret (rhymes with carrot): An English word that refers to a red wine blended in the Bordeaux tradition, using at least two of the five traditional grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Closed: Offering little or no aroma; lacking intensity.

Complex, complexity: A combination of many subtle elements in aroma and flavor that add up to a wine of great interest and appeal.

Corked: Moldy or musty smell (sometimes like wet cardboard) that occurs when a wine has been spoiled by contamination from a flawed cork. If the wine tastes dull and leaves a dry aftertaste, it's probably "corked."

Creamy: A silky or slightly thick mouth feel.

Crisp: Firm, refreshing, pleasant acidity; most often used in relation to white wines.

Cuvie: French for blend. It may also refer to a specific lot of wine.

Deep, depth: Highly concentrated flavors and/or intense aromas. Well-made wines are often described as exhibiting good or excellent "depth of flavor" because they seem to have layers of flavors that are intertwined.

Delicate: Light- to medium-bodied wines, usually white (though Pinot Noir can sometimes be described as delicate), with subtle but pleasing flavors.

Dry: Having little or no taste of sugar (any sweetness results from the attributes of the fruit). Bone dry is absolutely devoid of any sugary quality.

Earthy: Refers to a wine that smells of mushrooms or slightly damp, loamy topsoil. Similar to how the woods smell after a light spring rain: a combination of wet leaves, tree bark, damp earth. Sometimes musty or dusty. When used in a negative sense, it means dirty and unpleasant or funky, reminiscent of a compost heap, caused by undesirable fermentation by-products that can smell of cooked cabbage and garlic.

Elegant: Exhibiting grace, balance, smoothness, complexity, and refinement on the palate; no rough edges.

Extract: Very rich, concentrated fruit flavors.

Fat, flabby: A full-bodied wine with a high level of alcohol and a lower-than-normal level of acidity, made from very ripe grapes, usually from a warm harvest. This can be a positive element when the flavors are bold, ripe, and rich. If the acidity is inadequate, a fat wine becomes flabby and is considered flawed.

Finesse: Describes a wine in which an extravagant element (such as very ripe fruit or the use of 100 percent new oak in fermentation and aging) is tamed into something more refined or delicate. A similar term is breed, which implies that a wine is harmonious and lovely, with overall characteristics reaching classical expectations of varietal character, balance, and structure.

Finish: The lingering flavors on the palate after a wine is swallowed. Similar terms are aftertaste and length.

Flat: Very low or deficient in acidity making the texture seem dull; can also refer to sparkling wine that has lost its bubbles.

Fleshy: Smooth and soft in texture, chewy, with a lot of fruit (also see generous). Rich texture (from the glycerine in the wine) and ripe fruit make the wine feel a little bit like syrup in the mouth. A similar term is fat, a combination of medium to full body and slightly low acidity, which makes the wine feel and taste more obvious and show less elegance.

Floral, flowery: An aroma reminiscent of flowers, such as roses, lemon blossoms, or jasmine. Associated mainly with white wines, though some reds, such as Pinot Noir, may also exhibit floral scents.

Focused: When the wine's aromas and flavors are clearly delineated

Forward: Aromas (usually) or flavors that are quite obvious, requiring very little time or effort to perceive or recognize, usually in young wine.

Fresh: A lively, clean, fruity character.

Full-bodied: Rich in alcoholic strength and fruit extract.

Gamy: A smell you might encounter in a butcher shop, something like raw venison or game birds. Often noticeable in mature Burgundian Pinot Noir, older Bordeaux reds, and Syrahs.

Generous: Offering more than a standard measure of flavors and aromas.

"Grassy" refers to the wine scent of freshly cut grass.
"Grassy" refers to the wine scent of freshly cut grass.
Publications International, Ltd.

Grassy: Often associated with Sauvignon Blanc, suggesting the scent of freshly cut grass.

Green: The smell of a wine (red or white) made from underripe grapes, sometimes vegetal.

Hard: Showing firm, astringent tannins or excess acidity, often applied to young red wines. Time may tame this characteristic. Opposite of soft.

Harsh: Rough, hard, astringent texture due to excess tannins and/or acidity. Considered a flaw.

Hazy: Cloudy in appearance.

Hearty: A wine that is not particularly elegant; contains lots of fruit, as well as noticeable tannins and alcohol. Usually used to describe red wines, such as Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. Sometimes the term brawny is used in its place.

Herbaceous: The smell and taste of fresh or dried herbs like thyme, lavender, or rosemary.

Hint: A very subtle or slight yet significant aroma or flavor component, such as "a hint of

Honeyed: Rich smell and taste resembling honey or honeycomb. Usually noticeable in white dessert wines, such as Sauternes or a Beerenauslese Riesling.

Hot: High in alcohol. A hot wine will leave a burning sensation at the back of the throat when swallowed.

Jammy: Concentrated, rich, quite ripe fruit flavors, like jam.

Leafy: A green or vegetal smell similar to herbaceous, but more reminiscent of leaves than herbs.

Lean: A wine without generosity or fatness, lacking in fruit. This is not necessarily a negative term, such a wine is often a fine match with food. Another word for the same thing is austere.

Leather, leathery: Tasting of dried fruit or having a fragrance that is similar to glove or saddle leather. This is not necessarily negative, provided you find the quality attractive.

Lively: The quality of being fresh, youthful, and fruity with bright acidity.

Long: Refers to the length of time the wine lingers on the palate after swallowing. A wine that leaves an impression of flavor on the palate for more than a few seconds (sometimes up to several minutes in great wine) is said to be "long in the mouth" or to possess great length.

Lush, luscious: Velvety; soft and round in texture with generous, rich fruit.

Meaty: Denotes a red wine with abundant, concentrated fruit and a "chewy" texture. It also refers to the smell of cooked or roasted meat.

Mellow: Soft, unaggressive, sometimes slightly sweet.

Musty: An unpleasant moldy or mildew smell that can be the result of using moldy grapes, poor or unclean tanks or barrels, or a bad cork.

Nose: The wine's smell, including bouquet in older wines.

Oaky: The aroma, and sometimes flavor, imparted to a wine from the oak barrels used to age it. It may be positive, as when the oaky character is toasty, vanilla, or moderately smoky. Negative characteristics are charred, burnt, or woody.

Off: Having a flaw or not showing true varietal character, something wrong with the nose or flavors. An "off" nose, for example, may exhibit a smell that is unpleasant or uncharacteristic of the type of wine.

Opulent: Rich and flavorful, bursting with character and complexities.

Oxidized: Flat, stale smells and flavors, sometimes resembling Sherry or old apples. Indicates that a wine has been exposed too long to air, either at the winery or in an open bottle.

Peppery: The aroma and flavor sensation of pepper spice, usually either black pepper or white pepper. Often noticeable in Syrahs and Zinfandels.

Perfumed: Aroma in fragrant white wine that is strong, usually sweet, and sometimes floral.

Plummy: The smell and taste of ripe plums found in rich, concentrated red wines.

Pronounced: A very apparent element in aroma or flavor. If a Sauvignon Blanc has a "pronounced grassy nose," it means that the wine smells very grassy or has a bell pepper quality that is impossible to ignore.

Pruny: Exhibiting the flavor of overripe fruit or raisins. Raisiny is also used in this context.

Racy: Lively and zesty with bright acidity.

Rich: High in extract with generous, full, pleasant flavors and a smooth, round texture.

Robust: Full-bodied and expressive with intense flavors.

Round: Texture that is smooth, not coarse or roughly tannic.

"Silky" is defined as firm yet soft in texture.
"Silky" is defined as firm yet soft in texture.
Publications International, Ltd.

Silky: A firm yet distinctly soft texture, not as opulent as velvety.

Smoky: Aromas and sometimes flavors imparted to the wine from the toasted oak barrels used for fermentation and/or aging. This characteristic may also be a product of the soil in which the grapes were grown, for example, in the red wines of Graves in Bordeaux and the Pouilly-Fume of the Loire Valley, which are made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Soft: Round and mellow, low in acidity, with no rough tannic edges. Opposite of hard.

Spicy: General term indicating aromas and/or flavors of one or more kinds of spice, such as clove, cinnamon, pepper, anise, and mint.

Stalky: A green, vegetal character suggesting the wine had too much contact with the grape stems. Another word that means the same thing is stemmy.

Strong: Powerful, alcoholic.

Subtle: Suggesting aromas and/or flavors that are understated but significant, as opposed to overt.

Sulfur, sulfury: A smell resembling a struck match. Sulfur is used in wineries to clean barrels and can taint the wine stored in them if improperly used.

Supple: Lush, soft, very round in texture.

Tannic, tannins: A wine's tannins, a mouth-puckering substance that is necessary for aging, come primarily from the grape's skins and seeds. If too much of this substance is in the finished wine, it will seem firm and rough in the mouth. A tannic wine is one that is young and unready to drink. Over time, tannins should mellow, becoming less noticeable.

Tight: A wine that has yet to open up and develop; not expressive in aromas and flavors but exhibits good acidity and a good level of tannins.

Tobacco, tobacco leaf: The scent of fresh burning tobacco or a high-quality cigar wrapper. Considered desirable in many red wines. Similar to cigar box but without any cedary overtones.

Vegetal: Green smells and tastes of plants and vegetables, such as bell pepper. In some wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, this is a varietal characteristic but only at reduced levels. When it is the dominant characteristic of the wine, it is a flaw.

Velvety: A rich, smooth, almost thick texture, more opulent than silky.

Volatile, volatile acidity: Commonly noted as "VA," this is the presence of an excessive amount of acidity, which imparts a vinegarlike smell to the wine. Also see acetic.

Entering the world of wine may seem intimidating at first. There are so many wines, and it's hard for the beginner to differentiate between them. Hopefully this article has shown you that the art of enjoying wine should be just that -- a joy. Now that you have the background information and the journal pages you need, it's time to hit the wineries.

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