Basic Wine Facts and Terminology



What is Wine?

So, you’re ready to learn about wine; fantastic!  Most people often feel overwhelmed about the subject of wine… all the different regions, names, vintages.  It’s hard to keep it all straight.  Relax; the good news is that learning about wine is fun and fascinating.  So start tasting and get ready to explore the wonderful world of wine.

Wine by definition is fermented grape juice.  Fermented refers to the process of fermentation, which is the conversion of sugary grape juice into alcohol with yeast.  Yeast is a natural fungus that grows on grape skins.  In the late 1800’s, winemakers started adding sugar-eating yeast to the process, to better control fermentation.  Wine is fermented in wooden oak barrels or steel vats.  The next part is how long to age it and at what temperature, and that is decided by the vintner or winemaker.

There are about 25 varietals or varieties of grapes used in wine.  Each variety has a name.  The tricky part is sometimes a wine is named for the grape that makes it or it’s named for the region where the grape was grown.

Wine comes in two primary colors, red and white.  Pink or rose wine is considered a secondary hue, not a color in itself.  Wine comes in different styles:  still means no bubbles, sparkling which has bubbles, such as Champagne, dessert which is sweet-tasting wine and fortified that has extra alcohol added.

White Wine at a glance:

White wine is defined really by what it lacks and that is the red pigment that makes red wine.  White wine is rarely purely white or clear.  It’s usually light yellow to gold and is sometimes even pale green.  Popular whites include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio.  These will be discussed in detail later.

White wine is mostly made from the juice of white grapes but can also be occasionally made from the juice of red grapes but only the juice not the skins.  The juice of most red or purple grapes has no red pigmentation so a wine made with only the juice can be a white wine.

When compared to a red wine, white wine is often described as less full-bodied.  Whites can range from soft, meaning a smooth taste, to crisp or a little tart, to broad which is flavor intensive.

White wine is served chilled, but not so cold that the flavor is dulled.  Aim for about 45 degrees F which is about the average in most refrigerators.

White wine works well with lighter foods, typically white meat, fish, and cream-based pastas.  Because of the lighter body of white wine, it matches better with lighter fare than a red wine.  Really, it’s a matter of personal taste.

Red Wine at a glance:

Red wines are not always red.  They range in color from dark pink to ruby to purple to almost black.  To produce red wine, winemakers leave in the skins of the red grapes while fermenting the juice.  The skins contain tannin which is a natural substance that makes red wines taste “firm” and creates that puckering sensation in the back of the mouth.  To balance the tannin taste, have some soft creamy cheese with your red wine and see how well they pair up together.

The other major difference with red wine is that they’re usually more complex than whites.  Complex means that when you drink it, you taste more flavors and sensations in your mouth.  Complexity is something vintners create.  It usually depends on the grape varieties used and the vintage which is the year the grapes were harvested and turned into wine, the health of the grapes, the winemaking method, the wine’s acid level, and the amount of time spend aging in the barred or vat.

It takes about the same amount of time to make a red as a white but generally the red is aged longer.  There are no hard and fast rules about serving reds with meat, but the usually acknowledged rule of thumb is that because reds taste complex or full-bodied, they stand up well to food that’s equally full-bodied like steak lamb chops, and roast fowl.

Red wine should not be drunk chilled or cold because cooling makes the tannin taste bitter.  However, it should not be served too warm either.  Ideally, the wine should be about 65 degrees F and the bottle should feel slightly cool to the touch.

Pink Wine at a glance:

Pink wine, formally known as rose, and now referred to as blush are usually made from red grapes.  To make the wine pink, the winemaker leaves the grape juice in contact with the red skins for only a very short time.  In some cases, pink wine is made by combining red and white grapes or by blending red and white wine at various stages of the winemaking process.  White Zinfandel is a blush made with the juice from red Zinfandel grapes.  Why they are called white zinfandels instead of rose or pink remains a mystery.

Sparkling Wine at a glance:

A sparkling wine is infused with bubbles from carbon dioxide gas.  To create a sparkling wine that’s fizzy but not too fizzy and very high on taste requires a refined technique developed by the French called methode champenoise.  It requires the wine to be fermented twice.  In the first fermentation yeast is added to turn the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide and takes place in an oak barrel.  The second fermentation takes place in the bottle where a bit of sugar and wine are added and the subsequent bubbles are trapped in the bottle. Champagne is the most common example of this type of wine.

Dessert Wines at a glance:

Dessert wines are rich, intensely sweet wines.  They are almost all developed from grapes harvested late in the season and are therefore that much sweeter.  The flavors of many are further enhanced by the help of a fungus known in the wine world as noble rot.  It attacks ripe grapes late in autumn and causes the water to evaporate, leaving a very sweet flavor.  The flavors range from honey like to caramel, apricot, or peach.    They come from almost every wine-growing region of the world.  Generally they are not served chilled because they are low in acidity making room temperature ideal for maximum taste.

Fortified Wine at a glance:

Fortified wines are fortified or strengthened with alcohol, usually brandy.  Fortified wines include Sherry, Port, Madeira, and Marsala.  They can be either sweet or dry.  Dry varieties are best enjoyed as aperitifs, beverages served before dinner to stimulate the appetite, and sweet fortified wines double as dessert wines.  Fortified wines are often used in cooking, but they have strong flavors and should be used sparingly.  Some of the best fortified wines include:


Named for the Portuguese owned island where it is made.  Color ranges from pale gold to gold and can be dry or very sweet.


Italy’s most famous fortified wine, made in Sicily.  It has a rich flavor either sweet or dry.  Dry Marsala is used in chicken and veal dishes.  Sweet Marsala is used for desserts, such as Italian zabaglione.


Originally developed in northern Portugal.  It’s basically a sweet wine fortified with grape alcohol (brandy).  It’s the perfect after dinner drink.


Originally made in the Andalusia region of southern Spain.  They range in color, flavor, and sweetness from bone dry before meals and light to rich and creamy after dinner.

Vin Doux Natural:

From southern France.  They are high in natural sugar and then fortified with extra alcohol.  They’re always sweet and enjoyed as a dessert wine.

Ten Aromas or Flavors Associated with Wine:










Coffee, mocha, or chocolate

Basic “Winespeak”:


On the tip of your tongue, as soon as you put the wine into your mouth you can notice sweetness or the lack of it.  Dry is the opposite of sweet in winespeak.  Wines can be classified as sweet, dry or off-dry (semi-sweet).


All wines contain acid, usually tartaric acid which exists in grapes.  But some are more acidic than others.

Acidity is more of a taste factor in white wines than in reds, it’s the backbone of the white’s taste.  It gives it the firmness and structure in your mouth.

A larger amount of acidity makes it taste crisp and those without enough acidity taste fat and flabby.

The sides of the tongue  trigger the perception of acidity which is classified as tart, crisp or soft.


A substance that exists naturally in the skins seeds and stems of grapes.

Because red wines are fermented with their grape skins and seeds, tannin levels are far higher than in white wines.

Oak barrels can also contribute tannin to wines.

An example of tannin is when you take a sip of a red wine and rapidly experience a drying-out feeling in your mouth.

Tannin is to a red wine what acidity is to a white, a backbone.

It sometimes tastes bitter so you sense it near the back of your tongue and on the inside of your cheeks and between your cheeks and gums.

Classified as astringent, firm, or soft.


To determine between acid and tannin, pay attention to how your mouth feels after you’ve swallowed the wine.  Both will make your mouth feel dry but acid makes you salivate in response to the dry feeling.  Tannin just leaves your mouth dry.


The impression you get from the whole of the wine, not any one place on your tongue.

It’s the impression of the weight and size of the wine in your mouth, usually attributed principally to a wine’s alcohol.

Of course, all wines take up the same amount of actual space in your mouth but some seem fuller, bigger or heavier in the mouth than others.  Think about the wine’s fullness and weight as you taste it.

Classified as light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.


Flavor means its mouth aroma.  However, never ask for a wine by a particular flavor, that’s not proper wine etiquette at all.

Instead, refer to families of flavors in wine:

Fruity – make you think of fruits when you smell them or hold them in your mouth.

Earthy – think of mushrooms, leaves, and so on.

Spicy – cinnamon, cloves, black pepper or Indian spices.

Herbal – mint, grass, hay, rosemary

If you like a wine and want to try another wine that’s similar, one method is to decide what families of flavors in the wine you like and mention that to the person selling you the bottle.

Components of Wine:

Water – wine is mostly water, not added water but water gathered naturally in the grapes.

Alcohol – wine is ethyl alcohol, 10-15% by volume.  Fortified is usually 18-20% by volume.  It’s also an important flavor component.

Tannin – see details above.  Acts as a natural preservative.

Fruit – the beauty of the noblest grape varieties, both red and white, is their ability to produce wine with a complex aroma of fruits other than grapes, particularly when young.

Acid – see details above.

Sugar – residual sugar left over after fermentation.

Glycerine – the component that gives wine its desirable degree of viscosity (thickness).  It’s a complex alcohol, a by-product of the fermentation process.

Carbon dioxide – gas produced during fermentation, gives wine a slight fizz.  It’s a very important component of sparkling wines.

Oak – refers to oak treatment – barrel fermenting or barrel aging; new oak or old, charred oak, oak chips or French or American oak.  All adds a flavor component to wine.  Vanilla and tannin are two flavors given to wine by oak.

“Contains Sulfites”:

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a compound consisting of sulfur and oxygen that occurs naturally during fermentation.  However, it’s helpful to the winemaking process and additional amounts are often added to wine.  Its primary function is to inhibit wine from oxidizing during the winemaking process when it’s exposed to air.  It also helps prevent unwanted second fermentation in bottles of sweeter wines by inhibiting yeasts from consuming residual sugars.  Think of it as a food preservative.  With advances in technology, less sulfur dioxide has been needed.  This has become a problem to people with asthma who have had life-threatening reactions to it.  So, in 1988, the ultrasound government mandated that all bottles of wine containing ten parts per million of sulfites carry the warning “Contains Sulfites.”  Other less dramatic reactions to sulfites are headaches and or dizziness.  The maximum allowable level of sulfites in wines sold in the ultrasound is 350 parts per million but almost all contain less than half that amount.  Some wines are made with no sulfites added.

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