Made from the grapes of a plant species called Vitis vinifera, wine is an alcoholic drink humans have been making for millennia. The diversity of the world’s wine regions, grape varieties and styles crafted make wine one of the most fascinating beverages on earth.
However, the sheer breadth and complexity of wine can make it an intimidating subject to approach. Yet when armed with a little information and an open mind wine becomes much more approachable.
The first step in getting to know wine better is being able to evaluate it and there is a well-defined approach to doing so based on sight, smell and taste.
In general wines are white, red or rosé but the devil is in the detail. Nuances in colour can reveal a lot about wine without even smelling or tasting it. For example, in white wine a lemon colour with hints of green can give clues about the variety, age and condition of the wine.
In their youth, wines such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling often present this colour. More golden or orange hues in white wines indicate age (which is not necessarily a bad thing).
In red wines, young wines display ruby and purple shades whereas more mature wines have garnet or amber tones.
While a little confusing, amber or brownish shades in white and reds can also be a sign that the wine is out of condition and probably not worth drinking. However, it’s worth smelling and tasting before drawing conclusions.
While it can look pretentious there is good reason for swirling the glass at this point. Swirling aerates the wine with oxygen that in turn allows it to release a medley of aroma molecules. The smells that come from the glass give us further insights into what we’re about to taste.
While less of an issue these days (because screw caps are more prevalent and protect wine better than cork), stale musty aromas or notes of damp cardboard indicate that the wine is in bad nick and not worth drinking. But if these faults aren’t present, then you’re likely to experience a number of aromas that come from the fruit or winemaking process– the trick is being able to identify and name what you smell.
While an extensive list of aromas exists, in the early days it’s easiest to focus on detecting the more obvious aroma
characteristics of each varietal to help you understand its identity. With a little practice, it soon becomes easy to impress friends by naming the wine without looking at the bottle.
Different grape varieties and wine styles have varying levels of sweetness, acidity and tannins that can help us work out what they are and sometimes where they were grown. While most wines are made dry, some contain sugar and can be classed as medium-dry, medium-sweet and sweet.
Riesling, Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Muscat Gordo Blanco are some of the varieties that are used to make sweet styles of wine. Acidity in wine makes the mouth water and keeps the palate refreshed. White wines are generally higher in acidity compared to reds.
Likewise, wines from cooler climates typically have higher levels of acidity than those from warmer locations. Tannins are naturally occurring molecules found in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes that create a taste of bitterness and a feeling of astringency in wine. Almost non-existent in white and rose wines, tannins are a key feature of red wines and contribute to its more robust nature.
Wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, and Malbec have high levels of tannins.
Food and Wine Matching
Food and wine have a long history of partnership at the table. Historically wine (as well as beer) was enjoyed with food as a safer alternative to local water with little attention given to specific pairings. Today food and wine matching occupies much more thought and is pursued with gusto because it has the capacity to enhance the dining experience.
The basic premise behind pairing food and wine lies in understanding the interplay between certain elements in food and wine and finding the right combination to create a match made in heaven. The sheer number of potential pairings and plethora of advice can be overwhelming, but there are some tried and tested combinations based on sound principles that are a good place to start.
SPICY FOOD AND SALTY RICH CHEESES LOVE WINE WITH SWEETNESS
While the heat from many Asian dishes can be quelled with beer certain wine varieties and styles can cool things down too. One of the best wines for the job is a medium-dry Riesling because the subtle sweetness in the wine helps alleviate the burn of the dish. Rich salty cheeses like Stilton or Roquefort also love sweetness. There is something irresistible about the contrast between sweet and salt (just think of salted caramel!) and this is where wines such as Port, Sauternes and Muscat come into their own.
FATTY FOOD LOVES WINES WITH HIGH ACIDITY
Acid in wine can heighten the perception of taste and ‘cut’ through the fattiness of dishes to help keep the palate fresh. This is why pairings such as duck and pinot noir or battered fish and Sauvignon Blanc work so well. The high acidity of both wines work a treat because they slice through the richness and underscore the taste of these foods to create a palate sensation.
PROTEIN LOVES WINES WITH TANNINS
Tannins can leave your mouth feeling dry. Different red wines have tannins that vary in quantity and personality, which is why some are approachable without food whereas others really require it. And meat and hard cheese is the perfect foil for highly tannic wines. This is because rather than bind to the proteins in your mouth, tannins cling to the protein in the food which helps bring out the fruit quality in the wine. This is why wines such as Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon work so well with steaks or hard cheese such as Cheddar.
Winning at Wine Bingo
The world of wine has a vocabulary that can be a little incomprehensible at times. So to counteract the confusion here’s a little guide to some of the common terms you’ll be able to call out on.
ALTERNATIVE VARIETAL: Basically any grape varietal other than mainstream ones such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon to name a few. Some examples include Vermentino, Arneis, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo all of which are being grown here in Australia.
NATURAL WINE: a contentious and legally undefined term used to described wines made with minimal intervention. All wines are made from grapes that are natural products which arguably makes these wines no better than any others.
TERRIOR: Pronouned ‘ter-waahr’, this is a French term with no literal English equivalent that loosely translates to mean ‘a sense of place’. In wine soil, climate and winemaking culture all contribute to its unique character – Terrior is the word that sums up this phenomenon.
CLONE: While it sounds sci-fi, in wine terms, a clone is simply a vine variety that has been selected for a specific attribute that occurred as a result of natural mutations. Different clones of a single variety can express different characteristics and this can contribute to the complexity of wines made from them.
MATURATION: Refers to a process of aging wine in oak barrels or wine bottles to improve the quality of very distinguished wines. Aging wine in oak imparts spicy, toasty, vanilla or cashew flavours and can help soften tannins. Bottle aging changes the chemistry of the wine and allows it to develop more complex, intriguing characters. Very few wines benefit from extended aging – it’s really the reserve of the very finest drops.
APPELLATION: known as Geographic Indication in Australia, appellation is a legally defined and geographically distinct area used to identify where grapes have been grown. They were developed to protect the distinct qualities of fruit grown from particular regions. In Europe strict rules apply for appellations while things are more relaxed here in Australia.