Wine is undoubtedly gorgeous and great at lifting the spirits, but knowing how and what to choose can be a minefield to the uninitiated.
Different people take different approaches to choosing a wine: for some, grape variety is paramount; for others, region takes priority; many select by style, for example, a “light, fresh, fruity white”, and others simply by price.
Once you know about all of these, you can pick which factors are most important to you, or even take all of them into consideration when choosing wine.
White grapes, flesh only.
The flesh is pressed, separated from the skin, stalks and pips, and fermented in either stainless steel or oak.
Black grapes. The flesh is pressed and left to ferment with the skins, which give colour and tannin to the liquid, and sometimes stalks and/or pips are added to give further tannin and flavour.
Fermented in stainless steel or oak.
Black grapes (this is NOT a mixture ablack and white grapes, as is sometimes believed).
The flesh is pressed and left for only a short time on the skins, so a paler, less intense colour than red wine is given to the liquid, with much less tannin.
In many (especially cheaper) wines, chemicals are added both to the vines as they grow (eg pesticides), and to the wine as it ferments to preserve the flavours.
Truly organic wine uses no chemicals at all.
A number of wines exist, however which use organic grapes but still add chemicals at fermentation. These cannot describe themselves as “organic wine” but can include “organic grapes” on the label. If a wine does this, rather than simply call itself “organic” which would be in its marketing interests, chances are chemicals will have been added at fermentation.
Biodynamic wine uses astrology and phases of the moon to dictate its planting, growing and harvesting times processes. This might sound cranky but even the most hardened cynics have been unable to dispute the quality of wines made in this way – the pull of the moon, as it changes tide, for example, can make plants grow faster and fuller at particular times.
Vegetarian and Vegan
Most wines are made with a type of gelatin which comes from fish and is strictly, not vegetarian or vegan. Vegetarian and vegan wines are available, however, some of which are listed at this guide to vegan wine
All grapes used for wine come from a species called vitis vinifera, which has spawned hundreds of varieties. Just as with apples, tomatoes and most other fruits, each variety has its own special characteristics.
Different grape varieties have different inherent flavours, and react differently to their environment, altering the flavour.
Wines of all qualities can either be made from a single variety (the most well-known being chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot) or a blend of several varieties.
Read our handy reference guide to learn more about grape varieties.
All grapes need sun togrow.
As with all fruit, more sun means more natural sugar content and a fuller fruit flavour (vines can only be grown between 30 and 50 degrees either side of the equator).
Grapes tend to grow well on slopes facing the sun for as many hours of the day as possible.
In warmer countries, the fruit can develop fuller, sweeter, jucier flavours, whilst in cooler climates the grape tends to pick up more of the mineral and earthy flavours from the soil.
Grapes also need water, but not too much of it.
Almost all grape varieties enjoy a struggle and produce better fruit for it. Too much water absorbed through the vine makes its way into the grapes, thus diluting the flavour – less water forces the vines to dig their roots deeper into the soil, thus picking up its flavours and elements. A good year for grapes, then, is one that provides no more than just enough rain for growth.
Also, the higher up a slope the grapes are grown, the more water will drain away from the vine.
Different soil types not only contain different mineral elements picked up by the vines and transported to the grapes, but different irrigational properties.
Since vines like to dig deep for water, the best soils are those through which water passes quickly, such as gravel, chalk and limestone.
Vines do not like to get too cold, though, so soil which absorbs heat during the warm hours and radiates it back into the vines when the air temperature cools, is also beneficial.
Different grape varieties are best suited to different soils: some are versatile and can grow almost anywhere (chardonnay, for example), while others are fussier and thrive only in particular conditions.
The exact soil, along with the climactic conditions which affect it, in a particular location is known in the wine world as “terroir”: this is what gives vines, grapes and wines from specific regions their own unique characteristics.
Read our guide to wine regions to learn more.
Sugar levels in grapes (and therefore in wine) can change because of:
- the more sun, the sweeter the grape
- particularly for dessert wines, sometimes grapes are dried after they are harvested
- noblerot: a bacteria called botrytis which sucks water from the grape, leaving sugary flesh – a good thing for producing very sweet dessert wine.
Alcohol in wine arises from the fermentation of sugar. Grapes with a naturally high sugar content can produce wine either that is sweeter (leaving some sugar unfermented) or that is higher in alcohol (fermenting all the sugar).
All bottled wines display their alcohol content on the label, but alcoholic strength can also be seen by wine in the glass: swill the wine around the glass and, when the liquid has restored to its normal level, a clear, viscous substance will cling to the sides of the glass. This is known as the “legs” – the thicker it is – and, consequently, the longer it takes to travel down the glass – the higher the alcohol content.
Tannin is present in the skins, stalks and pips of grapes, and has the effect of puckering or drying out your mouth.
Red wines are fermented with their skins to give them both colour and tannin, whose levels are determined by how long their contact with the wine is. Sometimes, stalks and/or pips can be added during fermentation to increase tannin levels.
Tannin cuts through fat and oil, so red wines with high tannin levels often go well with red meats, game or rich stews.
The acid level in grapes varies: fruit grown in cooler climates tend to be more acidic than those from warmer temperatures.
Acidity in wine gives a sharpness and refreshing quality.
As vines age, the flavour of the grapes they produce becomes more concentrated. The amount of grapes they produce, however, decreases: so older vines give more in quality, less in quantity.
The best wines use at least some old vines and are consequently more expensive. Most cheaper wines will be made from young vines.
Wine can be fermented either in stainless steel – which does not alter the flavour of the liquid – or in wooden barrels. Oak is the most common wood used for barrels, which lend their flavour to the wine.
Different types of oak are used to give different flavours. Where the oak is from and its age affect wine differently: new French oak is considered to give the best qualities but is, of course, the most expensive, and so affects the price of the wine. Many cheap wines add oak chips to the wine as it ferments in stainless steel, to give it an oak flavour without the expense of oak barrels. If a label describes a wine as “oaked”, rather than “fermented in oak barrels”, it is likely to have been flavoured with oak chips.
The vintage of a wine is the year in which its grapes were grown and harvested. The climatic conditions of the year affect the grapes and therefore the flavours inthe wine.
Wine changes with time, even after fermentation is complete. Many improve: usually, the more complex the wine, the more fully its many characteristics can evolve over time – exactly how much time is optimum varies from wine to wine.
Other wines are best drunk young and fresh (Beaujolais, from France and Portuguese Vinho Verde, for example), and are made specifically with this purpose.
Right, now armed with the above information, you’re ready to head down to your nearest good wine shop such as Majestic Wineand select yourself a variety of bottles to try out – enjoy!