Whether you buy wine for a collection or an exclusive dinner, you will want it to be not only prestigious and expensive but also pleasing to you and your guests. Even if you buy purely for investment purposes, you might want to set aside a bottle or two to give it a try with friends and family so chances are you would look for wines that you like to drink.
Getting the taste you expect requires at least knowing the basics which will help you to describe your preferences to the seller. As reading wine labels most often doesn’t little to help how to choose wine or makes a choice even more confusing, here is a short overview of the key wine characteristics to help you navigate through more than 10,000 known varieties.
Styles of Wine: Red, White, Rosé
Given the dominance of dry reds, whites and rosé are worth separate mention. Although it’s true that due to much higher tannins, red wines have better longevity and capacity to improve with age, there are several dry whites and rosé, such as Riesling, Semillon, and Provence Roses, which are great not only for consuming young but also for cellaring and investing.
While the primary contrast between reds and whites comes from the grapes, used to produce them, it is the fermentation process that makes all the difference. The fermentation of red wines goes with grape skins and seeds left for days and weeks while in the case of whites these are almost immediately removed.
The rosé spans the difference between reds and whites, with grape skins and seeds left for just a few hours to reach that trendy pink color. Finally, given an almost 50% rise in the consumption of rosé over the last few years, it also made a good investment.
Type of Wine: Still, Sparkling, Fortified
As it goes from its name, still wine includes none or a very tiny amount of bubbles produced by carbon dioxide left after the fermentation process. The sparkling wines are on the opposite side of the spectrum, containing lots of bubbles, created during the secondary fermentation process. Although most of the investment wines are still, profits from investing in fine sparkling wines are on the rise as it was recently evidenced by Forbes research.
Fortified wines are made by adding brandy, which stops fermentation and increases the alcohol content. Port, Sherry, or Madeira, just to name the few, offer the greatest longevity and can be stored for decades, improving in taste and quality over time, making a tremendous investment or an after-treat for your special guests.
Sweetness: Dry, Semidry, and Sweet Wines
Sweetness in wines is coming not only from the sort of grapes but also from residual sugar left during production. Dry wines have very little residual sugar (that’s why they are called dry) ranging from 0 to 10 gram per liter as most of it was turned into alcohol. Off-dry or semi-dry wines have it up to 35 gram per liter, and sweet and dessert wines make up for everything above that.
While residual sugar adds to the richness of wines, raising its ratio is often used by manufacturers to compensate for inferior grapes, making the wine taste more fruity and bold than it really is. Many people, especially ladies, have a particular preference for sweet wines, but more often than not, it is more taste- and health-worthy to seek the sweetness in better grapes than in higher sugar ratio.
Acidity lies on the opposite side of the sweetness spectrum. It is one of the basic elements of any wine, making it balanced. Too low acidity makes wine heavy or even dull, while high acid wines may taste harsh. Acidity opens wine flavors the same way as lemon accentuates the taste of foods, making it refreshing, zesty, and wet.
The best and most expensive wines are very acid at the beginning of their lifetime, with the acidity level decreasing during the aging process up to the moment when the wines are best to drink. So contrary to popular belief, sweetness in wine is not the only element to be looked for if you want a refreshing and crisp taste.
Tannins, scientifically called polyphenols, are those bitter-tasting compounds in red wines, making your mouth feel dry. Tannins come from grape skins, seeds, and stems as well as oak barrels, so they are barely present in white wines.
Despite their bitter and astringent taste, tannins are exceptionally good not only for wine, making it last longer, but also for our health due to their antioxidant and antimicrobial nature unless you have to avoid them for specific medical reasons. Most expensive red wines are highly tannic, including the most popular French Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tannins add complexity and structure to wines, giving them a balanced mouthfeel. On the other hand, if, after reading this description, you realize that highly tannic wines are not your best choice but you still prefer reds, look for moderate or low tannin grapes such as Grenache or Merlot.
Body in wine refers to its texture and how heavy it feels in your mouth. Unlike the sensation of sweetness, acidity, or tannins, caused by either presence or absence of one or more components, the body is the complex of all the above. It is described in such terms as light or thin, medium, and full-bodied or bold and is often compared to skim, medium, and fat milk to give the idea of the difference in mouthfeel.
The above three wine body categories are present in all reds, whites, and rosé. Although we are used to think of white wines as light-bodied due to their crisp and fresh taste, a best known white Chardonnay is bold and heavy, especially if oaked. In the same way, while most well-known reds, such as Merlot or Cabernet, are medium to full-bodied, there are not the less amazing and famous light Pinot Noir and Grenache.
Wine aromas are smells of the grapes, which are specific for each variety. These aromas are classified as fruit, herbal, and flower flavors as they are similar both in sensation and in molecular structure to those found in fruits and herbs.
Thus, classic Merlot would taste and smell plum, Cabernet Sauvignon would have raspberry and mint tones, and white Chardonnay will smell citrus and acacia. Each variety has its prevailing aroma, followed by more subtle tones that differ depending on climate and methods of grape cultivation.
Often confused with aroma and interchangeably, wine bouquet has a somewhat different meaning. While the grape is responsible for the primary fruity, herbal, or flower flavors, it’s the bouquet, which is secondary and tertiary aromas created during fermentation and aging process, making each wine absolutely unique.
A wine may have a subtle smell of cheese, mushroom, and bread as well as wild game or even bacon, given by the yeast, present during the fermentation. Finally, oxidation and oaking during the aging process add vanilla, caramel, nut, or smoky flavors creating the final bouquet.
Knowing the differences among grape varieties, for example, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, a key for selecting among wines, especially those from the New World countries, named after a grape variety they are made from. In comparison, the wines from Europe are normally called after the regions they come from, like Bordeaux or Burgundy, which refer both to provinces of Frances and to the wines made in these regions.
One of the easiest ways to learn how to choose wine is to keep in mind so-called classic noble grapes which are worldwide known, and grown, varieties, notable for the quality of wine produced from them. They are described more in detail in the “Sorts of Wine Explained” article; the next few lines provide just their short overview.
For reds, these include Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, listed from lightest and easy-to-drink to the boldest, and most pronounced. The list of whites, done in the same sequence include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
Summing It Up
The list above is non-exclusive as it could not physically mention all the varieties, different primary and secondary aromas, wine minerality, and other subtleties of flavors and tastes. Each of the described wine characteristics deserves a much longer story as centuries of cultivating vine just couldn’t fit into several paragraphs.
Still knowing the basics does help to navigate the endless choices offered by vineyards, wineries, and stores. Given the dominance of dry red wines, it also expands the options, helping to appreciate not so well-known but outstanding whites or rosé. The fine wines offer an exciting and almost endless journey, full of surprises and discoveries, so hopefully, our roadmap would make it at least a little more predictable and utmost pleasant.