101 Basic Wine Facts for the Budding Sommelier

  • Wine
  • on MAY 16, 2016
  • 23139
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Wine is one of the oldest beverages known to man, and is enjoyed around the world. However, the whole culture around winemaking, wine tasting, and wine drinking can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated. Fear not: we’ve got a few pointers to make the whole experience go down smoothly.

The Grapes

  • Though you’ll commonly hear grapes referred to as “fruit,” botanists technically classify grapes as berries since each fruit forms from a single flower.
  • Researchers believe grapes have existed for around 65 million years, and that some of the grape varieties enjoyed by us today are directly descended from these primordial fruit.
  • Humans have been cultivating grapes for 8,000 years—since before recorded history. Archeologists believe the first grapes were grown in Eastern Europe and the fruit spread from there.
  • The Romans are believed to be the first to call different grape varieties by different names.
  • There are more than 8,000 grape varieties known to scientists, and more than 1,300 varieties are currently used to make wine around the world.
  • The grapes at the supermarket—known as table grapes—have much thinner skin and far more seeds than the varieties used to make wine.
  • Vineyards cover roughly 7.5 million hectares (almost 18 million acres) across the globe, with Spain, China, France, Italy, Turkey, and the United States being the top grape growing countries.
  • The largest wine producers, however, are France, Italy, Spain, the U.S., and Argentina. France produced 1.2 billion gallons of wine in 2014, according to statistics from The Wine Institute, a trade group. The U.S. produced just over 830 million gallons.


  • In general, the color of wine comes from the grapes used. Reds are usually made from purple or blue grapes, while whites are made from greener grapes.
  • When fermenting red wine, winemakers usually include the skin and other parts of the fruit along with the wine juice, causing the wine to taste bolder and look darker. White wines are made from only the fruit juice.
  • The majority of white wines are lighter and have a crisper, more citrusy flavor compared to reds.
  • Research shows that white wines keep lung tissues healthy.
  • White wines generally have less alcohol and fewer calories than reds.
  • Red wine should be served in glasses with a larger bowl so the bold aromas and flavors can emerge through mingling with oxygen in the air.
  • Wines aren’t just red or white: some unique wines are golden, pink, or even orange.


  • The region where a grape is grown is an important determining factor in how the wine turns out. Soil nutrients, the amount of sunshine, temperature variations, and the amount of moisture, fog, and other conditions deeply affects a wine’s flavor.
  • Grapes grown in sandy soil usually produce less acidic, “softer” wine. Soils with a lot of clay produce wines with deep, bold flavors.
  • Loamy soils, which are usually preferred for growing most plants, actually produce rather flavorless wines.
  • Grapes grown in warmer climates, like the Napa Valley, are usually more ripe when picked, making for sweeter wines.
  • Grapes grown in cooler climates, like the Chablis region in France, will be tarter.
  • Wine regions dot the entire U.S., but the states of California, Washington, and New York lead the country in wine production.
  • California is the fourth-largest wine producer in the world, just behind France, Italy, and Spain.
  • While sparkling wine, meaning a wine with carbon dioxide bubbles, can be grown anywhere, only sparkling wine grown in the Champagne region of northeast France can be called Champagne.

How to Taste

  • Although winemakers will claim a wine has certain flavors like blueberries, citrus, or even dirt, wines aren’t actually “flavored” with anything. The flavors come from the grapes and the process. Infused wines, meaning wines that have been mixed with other fruit juices, are actually flavored.
  • The first stage of wine tasting is looking over the appearance of the wine. Noting the color and viscosity with your eyes can give an idea of how the wine may taste. For reds, give the glass a quick swirl and hold it up to the light: bolder varieties, like Cabernet and Zinfandel, will leave telltale ‘legs’ that stream down the inside of the glass.
  • The second stage is called “in glass,” meaning that the aroma is noted. Don’t be shy— wine experts stick their nose deep into the glass in order to pick up the complex nuances.
  • The first aromas to hit the nose are associated with aspects of the grapes, while later aromas are connected to the winemaking process and how the wine aged.
  • Take a small sip of wine in order to get a good taste. Don’t glug, at least not yet. Roll the wine around your mouth with your tongue and note the different flavors. Pursing your lips and inhaling some air while the wine is still on your palate is also a nice way to spread the more complex flavors through your sinuses.
  • After swallowing, note the aftertaste, which is likely different from how the wine tasted when it first hit your tongue.
  • Draw some conclusions—was this wine too acidic? Too sweet? Too alcoholic?
  • If you want to be a true connoisseur, write down notes. Record the winery, the grape variety, the year, and your thoughts: that way, if you want to return to the same vintage later, you’ll have a solid base point for how your tastes have evolved.


  • Red wines should be served in wider glassware to support oxidation, which subtly supports flavor. White wines can be overpowered by oxidation, so serve in taller, less rounded glasses.
  • Wine is famous for complimenting food, and different wines pair well with different meals. In very broad terms, white wines pair better with fish, poultry, and vegetables; reds go better with red meat.
  • Sparkling and dessert wines generally go best with—you guessed it—sweet foods.
  • Some wineries will print food suggestions on the wine’s label.
  • Fine-dining tradition calls for starting with lighter wines, like a Sauvignon Blanc, and then moving to heavier wines with bolder flavors, like a Sangiovese, throughout the course of the meal.
  • As a general rule, white wines should be served before reds; younger wines should be served before older vintages; and dry wines should be served sweeter ones.
  • White wine should be served at 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, while red wines should be served slightly warmer, at 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. A good rule of thumb is to put a bottle of red wine into a refrigerator 20 minutes before opening it, and removing a bottle of white from the fridge 20 minutes before serving.
  • To be fully appreciated, sparkling wines should be thoroughly chilled to 43-48 degrees Fahrenheit. Invest in a Champagne bucket, fill it with ice, and dunk the whole bottle in (don’t ever open a warm bottle of bubbly).
Whether you’re uncorking some expensive Champagne in a lux hotel room or sharing a decent liquor store red at a barbecue, these facts will help you buy, serve, and enjoy that bottle. Gone are the days when wine appreciation was a snobby activity—with a little knowhow going in, it’s actually a whole lot of fun.


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