The Basic Wine Essentials

Whether you are serving it to your guests while entertaining, using it to create luscious dishes, or simply enjoying its’ company, whatever the occasion, this libation reigns the kingdom of fine indulgence and has been doing so for centuries. The conception of wine has been dated as far back as 8000-4000BC in Mesopotamia. Having thousands of years to further perfect the wine making process, this sexy beverage is a palate pleaser like no other providing a continuous adventure for pleasure seekers in this arena where no bottle is quite like the other. Each and every wine has its’ tale to tell, so indulge and listen carefully, for this libation is quite capable of taking you to places you have most likely never been before!

Wine is an enormous subject that is constantly evolving which can often lead to intimidation. Where do you begin? The important thing is that you do! The enormity of wine is not justification for not trying any, but it is reason to be shy about it. So let’s get down to the basics and get you on your way to a life happily filled with wine!


Wine is created through the fermentation process of crushed grapes. Grapes are pressed to release their juices which are combined with yeast to initiate the fermentation process. This process converts sugar into alcohol and concludes once the alcohol reaches such a level as to kill the remaining yeast. This yeast is naturally occurring in the skin of grapes but is rarely used in today’s wine making process as isolated yeast strains now exist that can not only act as a fermentation catalyst but contribute a unique style to the wine as well.

What’s in a name?

Every wine is derived from either a single grape or from several. These grapes are also referred to as "varietals". Each varietal has a unique name which in turn represents certain characteristics. A wine characteristic refers to anything that reflects a resemblance to a scent, taste, or flavor and also includes mouth feel such as the weight of the wine when on the palate. Let’s use the chardonnay grape as an example. Chardonnay classically presents characteristics of citrus, pear, and pineapple to fig, honey, vanilla and butter. This wine can also be characterized as being full and rich, or simple and crisp. This variance in characteristics is what makes wine so mind-blowing and mind-boggling!

There are several factors that contribute to the final result of a wine. Geographic location of where the vines are planted, the weather of that region, the vines themselves, soil conditions and of course the actual wine making process. With all of these factors considered it is understandable why someone who may enjoy one chardonnay, may not enjoy the next. All the more reason to not give up and keep on trying!!

All varietals exude certain characteristics which can aid in determining one wine from another. This differentiation also contributes to your own approval and disapproval of certain wines. Some are light bodied and fruity, others are full bodied and earthy, whatever your style, there is bound to be a grape varietal that will satisfy.

Our chart below is an excellent tool to use when purchasing and/or tasting wine. The left column represents several popular wine varietals while the right column displays typical characteristics of that particular varietal.

White Varietal Characteristics

Riesling-Light; Sweet/dry. Tangy, fruity. Citrus, apple, pear, melon, nectarine, peach, apricot.
Gewurztraminer-Light; Sweet, dry. Grapefruit, lychee, apple, nectarine, nutmeg, clove, ginger, spice, floral.
Semillon-Med-Full; Often rich. Lemon, lime, honey, butter.
Chenin Blanc-Light; Off dry. Peach, pear, quince, melon, herbal tea, mineral.
Viognier-Light-med; Floral, honey, apricots, pear.
Sauvignon Blanc-Light-Med; Citrus, gooseberry, lemon, melon, herbal, bell pepper, grassy.
Pinot Blanc-Light-Med; Dry, crisp. Citrus, apple, pear, melon, sweet pea.
Pinot Gris/Grigio-Light; Fruitier and soft. Citrus, apple, pear, peach, melon, honey, vanilla.
Grigio; Crisper, more citrusy.
Chardonnay-Med-full; Dry, rich. Citrus, apple, tropical fruit, fig, honey, hazelnut, butterscotch, butter, popcorn.

Red Varietal Characteristics

Gamay-Light; Tangy, fruity, cranberry.
Pinot Noir-Light-Med; Cherry, strawberry, clove, mint, truffle, cloves, smoke, sage.
Sangiovese-Med; Sweet and sour, dark cherry, tobacco, earthy, almond, herbs, tea.
Barbera-Med-Full; Ripe red fruit, currant, cherry, herbal.
Cabernet Franc-Med; Dry, berry, fruity, herbal, smoky.
Grenache-Med; Black fruit, anise, smoky, herbal.
Cabernet Sauvignon-Med-Full; Cherry, plum, currant, pepper, bell pepper, cedar, vanilla, mint, chocolate, tea, tobacco.
Shiraz/Syrah-Full; Raspberry, spice, black pepper, blackberry, plum, tar.
Zinfandel-Full; Juicy, robust, jammy, berry flavors, spices.

Red vs. White

So what’s the deal with color? We all know wine to be red, white, and rose, or blush as some call it, but the juice is really all the same! Have you ever looked at the flesh of a red grape before? It is the same as a green grape, therefore if wine exists in a variety of hues then the color must come from….of course, the skin! Often white wine is made from red grapes, in fact, most great champagne would not exist without, so don’t be fooled, pink grapes do not exist! Yes, red and white grapes appear the same in juice form but when their skin is added to the wine making picture a whole other story begins!

The many gorgeous hues of red evident in red wine is a result of allowing red grapes to ferment with their skins, however color is not the only thing affected by the skin of a grape. I am sure you have tasted a wine, a red wine in particular that makes your mouth pucker; an astringent sensation on the palate if you will. What you experienced is known as "tannin".

Tannin is a natural substance found in the skins, stems, and seeds of grapes. You can experience this sensation in young whites however it is more commonly found in red wines. Allowing the juice to ferment with skins will in turn generate a higher level of tannin to exist in the resulting wine. It is no secret that many people have a preference for either white or red wine. A very tannic wine is often a reason for dislike especially if you are new to wine. There are several varieties associated with being quite tannic, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Zinfandel, are to name a few however in the game of wine you will not know until you try!

Every wine will possess its own unique color. A wine’s color can reveal its story, and to experienced blind tasters, provide necessary clues in pinpointing a correct assumption. Each grape variety generally exudes a certain range of hues however age and wood barrel aging will also have an affect on color. So evidently there is much more to color than just red and white!

Wine is an endless educational journey even for those most experienced in this subject so it is vital to explore and try new and exciting wines as often as your time allows!

So get out there, get tasting, and have fun!

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About The Author, Jennie Wills -
Jennie Wills has been a hospitality expert for 10 years leading to the successful launch of Discover how to turn your passion into a successful website.