From no clue to clued up: how to get smart about wine

From no clue to clued up: How to get smart about wine

Three tips to help you understand what's in your glass

Appreciating wine, for the novice, can be tricky. There's all sorts of things to consider, and a lofty price tag alone doesn't equate to high quality. Does a burning desire to become a wine tasting expert chip away at you? Or maybe you just want to know a little more about what's in your glass. Either way, we've got some tips, so you don't have to completely bluff it. These 3 basic tips are used by sommeliers, but are simple enough that anyone can pick them up.


First of all, have a good look at your wine, under neutral lighting with as little distraction as possible. You don't need to spent too long doing this. The appearance of a wine can tell you a lot about its characteristics, but a lot of that information can be found on the bottle itself.

Get a few different views if you can, directly above the glass, try tilting is so that the wine spreads out towards the rim. You'll be able to tell whether the wine is full-bodied, light-bodied, or whether it lies somewhere in the middle. You can get an idea of the grape variety too, and even find out what sort of climate the wine was made in. If you swirl the wine (carefully, keep a steady hand, and move the glass gently on a flat surface) you'll see if the wine forms tears, and if it does it suggests the wine has a high alcohol content.

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Wine often has nuanced aromas, but if you're overwhelmed by its power it can be difficult to detect. A good habit to get into is to alternate between small, short sniffs, and long ones, with deep breaths in between.

You can break this stage down into three, looking for primary, secondary and tertiary aromas, and given how much is going on in the glass, start broadly at the top. Primary aromas come from the grapes, and therefore are where the fruit flavours of the wine can be found. Secondary aromas come from the winemaking practise itself, and the yeast of the fermentation process. Common aromas at this stage are cheese rind, the distinctive smell of sourdough bread, or nutty aromas. The tertiary aromas come from the aging process. For example wine aged in oak, much like whisky, will give a vanilla aroma. At this stage, the whiff of tobacco, leather, roasted nuts and autumn leaves can come through.

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Now the most fun part of all tasting. Here, there are several things to look out for. The immediate thing you'll pick up on is sweetness. In some cases, for example with dessert wines and Riesling wines from Germany, the sugar levels are immediately obvious. With those wines, made from white grapes this is entirely normal, but if your red wine gives you a sugary kick (and isn't buckfast), then you might have a problem.

Acidity gives wine its tart and sour taste. Think about the pH scale, with 1 being battery acid and 14 being a strong alkali, the other extreme. Wine can have acidity levels of anything from 2.6 to 4.9, with the majority of wine having a pH of between 3 and 4. Levels of acidity in your wine will give you an idea of what kind of climate your wine was produced in. Wine with higher acidity tends to be produced in countries with cooler climates, in warmer temperatures grapes ripen, which takes away from the acidity, but adds to the sweetness.

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Next, Tannin, which is found in red wine, and is a characteristic that gives dry qualities of wine. They are dissolved into wine from two sources, grapes and wood. The former, comes from the skins, seeds and stems, and the latter comes from when wine is stored in wooden barrels. An oak barrel for example, will bestow smoothness upon the wine.

Alcohol levels are worth considering too, and not just for obvious reasons. They add body and texture to wine, and so the levels of alcohol in a wine alter the taste. Wine with an ABV level of 11% or lower, has more sweetness, while dry wines up to 16% ABV are rich. Riper grapes from warmer climates, make wines with higher alcohol content. Finally, and related to alcohol content, is the body of a wine. How does the wine feel, once you taste it? Literally, does it feel light, or does it feel heavier and fuller? A full bodied wine will have a rich sensation that lingers, a lighter body will feel watery, more refreshing. Dry white wines, with complex flavours, tend to be full-bodied.