The wine industry is a world of its own—with its own language, culture, and intricate practices. Understanding and appreciating the art and skill it takes to create world-class wines enhances our enjoyment of it. Learning about wine is also the best way for you to enhance your social experiences, gain an improved sense of taste, and increase your confidence when purchasing quality wine. Although understanding wine may seem complicated, learning the basics of wine isn’t so hard when you take the right steps.
The wine experts at Theorem Vineyards have shared five tips to help learn the basics of wine.
#1: Learn About Wine Cultivation & History
Wine has played a significant role in history around the world. Learning the basics about appreciating wine starts with developing a fundamental understanding of what elements are needed to produce quality wine and why wine has remained relevant throughout history. Learn more about wine cultivation and wine history by reading The World Atlas of Wine, 7th Edition by Hugh Johnson or wine blogs like our From Grape to Table: The Life Cycle of a Glass of Wine. The Wine Bible from Karen McNeel is another wonderful book that is thorough, engaging and easy to understand. We also recommend you watch the Somm documentary that follows four men trying to pass The Court of Master Sommeliers exam—the most difficult tests in the wine industry.
#2: Learn the Language
The wine industry has a wide variety of terms that are important to be familiar with if you want to learn the fundamentals. Learning to describe the way a wine tastes or feels in your mouth can help you explain why you like certain wine. One way to do this is by learning to describe the five basic wine characteristics: sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, and body.
There are many wine tasting terms that are useful to know, some of which include:
- Astringent: A dry mouthfeel typically caused by tannins that bind to salivary proteins causing them to depart the tongue and mouth. It results in a rough "sandpapery" sensation in the mouth.
- Terroir: Originally a French word that is used to describe how a particular region's climate, soils, aspect (terrain), and traditional winemaking practices affect the taste of the wine.
- Tannin: A textural element that makes wine taste dry. It is a natural occurring polyphenol found in plants, seeds, bark, wood, leaves, and fruit skins. Tannins add both bitterness and astringency, as well as complexity.
- Malolactic Fermentation: A process in winemaking in which tart-tasking malic acid, naturally present in grape must, is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid.
Understanding the basics of tasting terms, region terms, and winemaking terms is key to gain knowledge about wine. We recommend Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack. This book covers the fundamentals of wine—how to taste wine, how to handle wine, and how to pair food and wine. It also covers all the basic wine terms, different styles of wine, and the different wine regions.
#3: Learn Wine Tasting Methods
There is a basic four-step wine tasting method that focuses a taster’s ability to separate and identify critical characteristics in wine and improve flavor and taste memory. This professional tasting technique involves looking at the wine color, smelling the wine’s aromas, tasting and isolating different flavors in the wine, and then evaluating if all the traits in the wine balance one another.
The four steps of wine tasting include:
- Look: You can learn to identify clues about a wine just by inspecting the color, intensity, opacity, and viscosity. You will see small differences in color and clarity of a wine based on several factors, including variety, production, and age. You can know what is inside a wine simply by looking at the concentration of color. Thicker skin varietals create darker and inkier wines. For example, Cabernet grapes have thicker skin, which creates a darker, opaque wine. Pinot Noir, on the other hand, has a much thinner skin and creates lighter colored wines. You can also identify alcohol and extraction in the wine based on the wine stains left on the side of the wine glass when you swirl it. Higher alcohol and extraction will result in more staining, but lower alcohol and less extraction is going to result to less staining.
You can also identify the age of the wine just by looking at it. As red wines age, they become lighter in color, especially around the edges of the glass. White wines become more golden amber when they age. If you tilt the wine in the glass, the colors around the edge of the wine will give you an indication of the wine’s age. White wines grown in a cooler climate tend to have flecks of green in the color. If it is grown in a warmer environment, those flecks of green aren’t present.
- Smell: By smelling the wine, you can notice rich aromas such as fruit or earthiness. Swirling the wine releases aroma compounds, allowing you to smell more subtle scents. When you smell the fruits in the wine it is a good exercise to try and identify if the fruit is underripe, overripe, or perfectly ripe. This will indicate where the wine was grown and the sort of climate it was grown in. For example, Theorem wines have a fresh, ripe quality from the fruit. This is due to Napa Valley’s abundant sunlight and high elevations. The ample sunlight allows us to ripen our fruit, giving our wines beautiful fruit aromas. The higher elevation brings a freshness to the fruit missing from hotter climates. Being able to identify specific characteristics in the fruit will take you a step closer to getting a better appreciation for wine.
- Taste: Coating your mouth with a larger sip of wine followed by smaller sips will help you isolate and pick out flavors. Try to pick out three fruit flavors on each sip. Another helpful tip is to try to focus on the wine’s tannins and acidity. You experience the tannins when you feel a gripping and drying sensation on your cheeks. You can experience the acidity in wine when you focus on how much you salivate after taking a sip. For example, a wine made from Cabernet will have big grippy tannins and moderate acid. On the other hand, a wine made from Pinot Noir will have less tannins, but higher acid. Focusing on these two elements will help you build your observational skills when tasting wine.
- Evaluate: Once you have tasted the wine, the first thing you should ask yourself is whether or not you enjoyed it! Enjoyment is always the most important thing when tasting wine. Not only because wine is primarily about enjoyment but also because it will help you develop a better understanding about what you actually liked and disliked about it. Ask yourself questions like: Did I like the ripeness of the fruit, or was it too tart? Did I like the strength of the tannins or were they too grippy? If you discover what you like and don’t like, the whole world of wine will start opening up for you because it is all be based on preference. Learning more about wine helps you obtain the tools to better communicate what you are looking for!
To learn more, check out James Suckling's Masterclass course on wine appreciation.
#4: Discover Different Wine Types
Once you learn the basic tasting techniques, it's time to practice! There are essentially nine overarching styles that define the scope of wine. We recommend tasting wine from each of the nine styles so you can get a sense of what makes each unique. Since you might not taste all these types at once, you can take notes of their wine characteristics to later compare differences. Tasting the nine overarching wine styles will completely change your sense of taste and wine appreciation. While you enjoy your glass of wine, do a little research on the region or the grape to learn more. It’s fun to drink wines from a variety of regions and learn about their qualities.
The nine styles of wine include the following:
- Sparkling Wine
- Light-Bodied White Wine
- Full-Bodied White Wine
- Aromatic White Wine
- Rose Wine
- Light-Bodied Red Wine
- Medium-Bodied Red Wine
- Full-Bodied Red Wines
- Dessert Wine
#5: Explore Wine Regions
Wine is made in virtually every country in the world. These countries are categorized as “Old World” or “New World.” Old World wines were made in regions with a long history of winemaking, such as Germany, France, and Italy. New World wines describe wine-producing regions such as the U.S. and Australia. Visiting these regions and learning about wine from the experts themselves can be very fun and rewarding. You get to hear stories about their passion, their challenges, and their victories while producing wine.
Enjoy Ultra-Premium Wines at Theorem Vineyards
Our team at Theorem Vineyards invites you to experience the process of winemaking with the wine experts at our historic Diamond Mountain vineyard . Our winery is nested on the northern slope of Diamond Mountain in the Napa Valley region. We offer singular experiences, with panoramic views, and lovely architecture. Our ultra-premium wines and breathtaking location will inspire you to continue growing your knowledge of wine.
We hope you join us at Theorem Vineyards soon! Contact us today at (707) 942-4254 or fill out an online form to schedule an appointment.