It’s easy to get bogged down in flowery wine words, but the good news is — the pleasure of wine comes from drinking it rather than talking about it. Don’t worry about differentiating between smelling wet chalk or dill pickle (yes, they are real wine descriptions), but instead nail the basics so you can figure out what matters when picking a wine for dinner.
What a wine smells like — also called ‘the nose’. There are hundreds of aromas one could identify in a wine and it can be fun to look for them but don’t take this too seriously, there’s no right answer. What’s far more important for wine pairing is actually the structure:
Tannins are natural compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems called polyphenols. The more the grape juice is in contact with these, a process called skin contact or maceration, the more tannic the wine becomes. Tannins feel like a dry, bitterness in your mouth (think of strong black tea) and they add structure to the wine. A very tannic wine is great for strong dishes, like steak or stew, for example, but you wouldn’t want lots of tannins while eating something delicate like sashimi or salad.
All grape varieties have tannins naturally, but white wines are generally made without skin contact and have no tannins — the opposite to red wines. Some grape varieties are also naturally more tannic than others — Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is much stronger and more tannic than Pinot Noir.
Acidity makes wine refreshing but it can also be tart, like lemonade.
All grapes have natural sugar, which is why juice is sweet, but most wines are fermented until they are dry (with low or no sugar left). Some wines however, like Port, Amarone and Sauternes, are intentionally kept sweet, which is why they taste great with cheese or dessert. Sparkling wines have their own sweetness code (eg. Brut Nature is the driest, Doux is the sweetest).
A wine’s body is how mouth-filling it is. An Italian Pinot Grigio is typically light-bodied, and sips down as easily as water, whereas an Australian Shiraz is full-bodied and might feel like drinking chocolate!
Most wines have a vintage — it’s the year the wine’s grapes were picked. Port and Champagne however are normally blends of vintages (non-vintage), so when they are called ‘Vintage’ it means they were made in one exceptional year.
A rosé by any other name…
No need to blush if you are struggling with the multitude of names for rosé… The Spanish call it rosado, the Italians say rosato, the French say rosé but also vin gris when it is very light, and in the US it’s blush, or sometimes they just add ‘White’ in front of a red grape variety (White Zinfandel, White Merlot)! They all refer to pink wines made from red grapes with a short period of skin contact.
Although some of the aforementioned rosé wines certainly look orange in colour, orange wine is a totally different category referring to wines made from white grapes with skin contact. Ranging from a day to several months, the longer the skin contact, the more orange it looks in appearance and the more structured the wine becomes. Think of it as a mid-way wine with the aromas of white wine (blossom, citrus, tropical fruit) but with the structure of red (it has tannins!) You normally drink it chilled, and it’s great with bold or spicy dishes.
Wine that is tainted with the TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) chemical, which can come from the cork itself or by humid storage conditions. Although it won’t do you any damage, corked wine smells like mouldy cardboard and is best avoided.
To decant or not to decant?
An age old question. Decanting is simply pouring wine from the bottle into a larger vessel (usually a glass decanter) to give it more oxygen. I compare decanting wine to spraying perfume: perfume in the jar can be quite muted but when you spray it, the aromas open up; leave it too long, however, and the aromas fade.
With older or more complex wines, like a fine Bordeaux, an hour in the decanter normally makes it much more expressive. But wines that fade quickly, like Picpoul, should never be decanted — just enjoyed straight from the bottle.
Feel your own way through this by testing out your favourite wines at home: pour a bit in a glass, put the cork back in the bottle, and then in an hour come back to the wine in the glass and compare it to another fresh pour in a different glass. Which do you prefer? Ultimately, you are the boss!