If there’s one thing I learned on my recent wine course, it’s how much I didn’t know before it. And how much more there is to learn, it’s basically infinite. There were more than a few lightbulb moments, but also some things I thought everyone knew, but it turns out they weren’t so obvious. So I’ve put together this wine cheat sheet, a basic wine guide, the difference between Cava and Prosecco, the fact that Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same thing. That kind of stuff. It might help while navigating a wine list or reading a label. It’s wine for dummies (except that name is already taken).
Wine Cheat Sheet – get to know your sparkling wines
Wine not start with bubbles, our favourite party starter. We all know Champagne can only be called that if it comes from the Champagne region in France, right? Well, unless you’re American and have little regard for international law, then you can do whatever the hell you like. The grape varieties in Champagne are a blend of Pinot Noir (yep, a red variety), Meunier and Chardonnay and since the weather isn’t all that fab in Champagne, they also blend still wines from different years to create a consistent product.
So, if you see ‘vintage’ Champagne, that means there was a particularly good harvest and the finished bottle was made only from grapes produced that year. When it relates to wine, vintage means year, rather than old. You’ll notice they’re more expensive though, since it was from an exceptional year and therefore more rare. Plus, by law, these vintages must be cellared for a minimum of three years before going on the market. This is the time the wine spends on the ‘lees’, but this is just a wine cheat sheet, so we’re not going to go into that here.
So, what if it’s made in the same way as Champagne, but in another part of France? That’s Crémant.
Moving on to Spain and Cava. It’s much cheaper, so surely it can’t be the same thing? Well, it’s made in the exact same way as Champagne (the traditional method), but by law it doesn’t have to be aged for as long in the bottle before being released (9 months vs 15 months) and was made to be more of an everyday, affordable wine. It’s made from local varieties mainly from Catalunya.
Since the bubbles in Champagne have longer to integrate inside the bottle, before being sold, they last longer in the glass too. The above durations are minimums, but in practice most winemakers will hold them for much longer. Prosecco bubbles tend to dissipate even faster, don’t they? Not that my glass is ever full long enough to find out, but there’s a marked difference.
The reason being, Prosecco isn’t made using the traditional method like Champagne and Cava. The second fermentation (the one that adds the bubbles and raises the alcohol) happens in big tanks, before bottling and shipping. The grape used is called Glera and it’s made in the Veneto region, of which Venice is the capital.
If you’ve noticed some bottles of Prosecco have a normal cork with a string over it (rather than a Champagne cork), or even a screw cap, it’s likely you’re buying a frizzante. These have the least amount of bubbles, so there isn’t as much pressure inside the bottle. You’re only paying the same tax of that of a still wine too, so you’re almost certain to find cheaper bottles than full spumante. (Something like €3.18 on a bottle of still wine and €6.37 on a bottle of sparkling (do not quote me on those figures, I worked them out from the figures on the Revenue site that are handily in hectolitres)).
There are lots of other new world sparkling wines from California, South Africa, Australia etc. but let’s move on before we’re all fizzed out.
Wine cheat sheet – simple names and terms, what they mean and myths debunked
- Corked – the wine is spoilt due to a fault in the cork, you’ll know immediately – smells like wet cardboard
- Chablis – that’s a Chardonnay (more below)
- Sancerre – that’s a Sauvignon Blanc (more below)
- Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape
- Zinfandel and Primitivo are the same grape
- Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape
- ‘Cuvée’ means a blend
- ‘Dry’ refers to the sugar content in a wine
- ‘Brut’ means dry
- Riesling wines are definitely not all sweet, it’s complicated, but many are bone dry too!
- If asked if you want a sweet or dry wine while ordering, it’s more likely they mean ‘fruity’, than sweet, since most wines are dry
- Only white wine goes with fish – not true! See food and wine pairings below
- Older wines are better. This is, generally speaking, another myth. Lots of wines are meant to be drunk young and fresh. It depends on so many factors. Certain grapes, blends and vintages will age well, but not all wine is produced for ageing.
- Rosé is a blend of red and white grapes. NAH, just checking you’re still paying attention (rosé is actually made in the same way as red, but the juice has less contact with the skin which gives the colour)
Wine cheat sheet, food pairings – the basics
We’re not talking ten course tasting menus here, just the basics. What to order with:
Sweet food – a wine with as much sugar. Sweetness in food decreases the taste of fruitiness and sweetness in wine. There’s a reason they’re called dessert wines.
Salty food – pretty much everything, yay! Salt in food increases the body of a wine and decreases bitterness. Win win.
Spicy food – heat can increase the burning sensation of the alcohol in your wine, so go for something lower in alcohol that’s more rich and fruity, as chilli can decrease the perception of both.
You don’t have to stick with red for meat and white with seafood, if you choose wisely. You’re always trying to achieve balance when you talk about pairing food and wine and not overpowering flavours. For example, light reds can go with fish too. Choose something lighter, with lower tannins, such as Beaujolais. Similarly, if you prefer white over red, there’s no reason you can’t order a glass (or a bottle!) with your steak. Go for something more full-bodied, like an oaked-Chardonnay, for example.
Basic Wine Guide – how to read the label
This category in particular relates to French wine which usually doesn’t state the grape variety on the bottle. Great if you know you like Chablis or Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But not so good if you love Sauvignon Blanc but can’t figure out anything more than the stuff inside looks like white wine.
The region will be the first tell-tale. I’ll break down some of the main regions, varieties and famous names for red and white from France below
French red wine for beginners
If you see Burgundy, or Bourgogne, that’ll be Pinot Noir
Some of the premium names to look out for (these are areas, communes/villages etc) are:
Gevrey-Chambertain, Nuit-Saint-Georges, Beaune, Pommard
In Bordeaux, you’ll likely be drinking a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvingon, but there are of course single varietals as well as other grapes in the blend we won’t go into now. Some famous ones to look out for:
Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Passac-Léognan, Pomerol, Saint Emilion.
You might see the term ‘claret’ on generic bottles of Bordeaux red blends.
Côtes-du-Rhône will generally have what’s called the GSM blend or Grenache, Syrah and Mouvèdre. Look out for;
Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape, look out for Fleurie
French white wine for beginners
In Chablis, that’s 100% Chardonnay, almost always unoaked
A white Burgundy is also Chardonnay. Look out for:
Pouilly-Fuissé, Mersault, Montrachet and Mâcon
From Bordeaux, you’ve got mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon blends (and sweet wine too)
In the Loire Valley, more Sauv Blanc. Some of the best:
Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Touraine
Wine cheat sheet – How to serve and store wine
Unless you’ve got bottles like these guys, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about wine storage. The main things to remember are:
- store away from direct/strong light
- keep at a cool and constant temperature (10-15c)
- lie bottles flat on their side so the wine is kept in contact with the cork (doesn’t apply to screw caps)
- don’t keep that special bottle of bubbly in the fridge as the cork could dry out leading to the wine becoming oxidised
We generally serve our whites too cold and our reds too warm. The ideal temperatures for serving wine are:
Light white (e.g. Pinot Grigio, Sauvingon Blanc), chilled 7-10°c
Med white (e.g. Chardonnay), lightly chilled 10-13°c
Sweet wine, well chilled 6-8°c
Sparkling wine, well chilled 6-10°c
Light reds (e.g. Beaujolais), lightly chilled 13°c
Medium to full-bodies reds (e.g. Barolo, Burgundy), room temperature 15-18°c
I’m obviously no wine expert (yet), but I’ve learned a lot over the course of studying for the WSET Level 2 exam, any readers out there studying wine get in touch!
Remember, wine is to be enjoyed, throw the rules out the window, at the end of the day, taste is subjective and it’s a lot about perception. Drink the wine, eat the steak, have the hangover. Et cetera….