Ask Tom – Wine 101

I often hear from people who are interested in wine, but find some of the terminology confusing and the sheer number of different grape varieties, regions and styles bewildering.

In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some of these areas in more depth and answering questions, but for now, here is a very quick – and none-too-serious – run through some of the basics:

Wine Styles

Red wine – dark in colour, made from crushing whole bunches of grapes – skin, pips and stalks included. Doesn’t match well with salty foods.

White wine - pale in colour, made from the juice of pressed grapes, greater variety of styles than red wine.

Dessert wine – wine with deliciously high levels of natural sugar

Fortified wine – wine with added spirit, a higher alcohol content and sometimes (but not always) sweetness, such as sherry, port or Madeira

Sparkling wine – wine with bubbles in, can be achieved by various methods

Ros̩Рa pink wine that swings in and out of fashion as wildly as flared-trousers and Latino music

New World – 1) anywhere that is not in Europe 2) ripe, fruity, easy-drinking style of wine

Old World – opposite of new world

Grape Varieties

Cabernet Sauvignon – tough and tannic, like stewed tea, in its youth, it usually needs food, especially roast red meat. Oh and it’s possibly the greatest red wine grape in the world. Don’t try calling it “Cab” unless you are a professional wine writer or a sommelier.

Chardonnay 1) character in TV series “Footballer’s Wives” 2) neutral grape variety with an affinity to oak aging, but can also be produced unoaked

Gewürztraminer – if you like the flavour of lychees and rose petals, its spiritual home is northern Italy

Pinot Gris / Grigio – actually, the same grape; Pinot Gris is rich, aromatic and fat when produced in Alsace; Pinot Grigio is crisp and minerally when from Italy

Pinot Noir – thin-skinned, hedonistic, elusive people tend to like this grape variety; was the star of 2004 film, Sideways

Riesling – ancient and vastly-underrated late-ripening Germanic grape that makes crisp, aromatic, complex wines – Austrian versions in particular are full-bodied, food-friendly and completely dry. Can be petrolly, but not in the way that cheap lager tastes like aviation fuel.

Sauvignon Blanc – bit of a one-trick pony, this was the first really popular grape in the backlash against oaky Chardonnay, rapidly followed by Pinot Grigio; comes in ripe, tropical versions (new world, think Marlborough) or lean and steely (e.g. Loire) – in either case, it should taste of freshly cut grass, gooseberries, nettles but, if underripe, cat’s pee

Syrah / Shiraz, the same grape – produces a few rarified bottles in the northern Rhone and a lot of less elevated stuff in Australia


Australia – ripe, fruity bruce juice from down under; often branded, frequently discounted, can be enjoyable but generally about as subtle as Hugo Weaving in a dress; occasionally as serious as Mel Gibson in Hamlet (e.g. Penfold’s Grange, Hunter Valley)

Austria – reinvented itself in the mid-80s following a typically Balkan scandal involving tax and anti-freeze as a producer of top-notch dry whites, superb dessert wines and some decent reds

Italy – produces wine like they drive cars; idiosyncratic and chaotic, but like an Alfa Romeo, capable of greatness

France – frankly, the starting point for learning about wine; you cannot consider yourself in any way a wine enthusiast if you don’t have at least a nodding acquaintance with French wines. France is to wine what the electric guitar is to rock music or the internal combustion engine to motor sport.

Key France Sub-regions:

Alsace – Franco-German region with identity crisis but producing great rich, dry wines. And lots of timbered cottages with neat hanging baskets.

Bordeaux – produces more wine than Australia; most famous for its reds and dessert wines

Burgundy – the spiritual home of Pinot Noir; also produces Chardonnay

Champagne – expensive, over-hyped sparkling wine, but anything else doesn’t quite make the same statement, though, does it ?

Languedoc – the new kid on the French wine block, this southern region makes exciting and often good-value wines

Loire – northerly wine region producing crisp Sauvignon, light Muscadet and the occasional red

Rh̫ne Рsoutherly region divided into Northern Rhone (rarified and expensive Syrah) and Southern Rhone (ripe, fruity stuff)

Germany – hideously unfashionable wine-producing country yet capable of greatness; it’s time to forgive and forget Blue Nun

New Zealand – cooler climate, smaller vineyard sizes and high technical standards mean it’s rarely cheap, but quality can be very good

Portugal – produces port, which everyone has heard of, plus a load of table wines from obscure indigenous grapes

Spain – forget Rioja, inland Spain is the place for good, value wines; also produces the ultra-unfashionable but wonderful fortified wine, sherry, as beloved of your Auntie; comes in a range of styles from bone-dry fino and tangy manzanilla to rich, nutty, raisiny dry oloroso and deliciously sweet stuff

USA – basically, California; wines can be a bit textbook – well-made but without a huge amount of individuality – but that has not stopped them beating the Frenchies in competitions

Food and wine – wine and food

Wine matching – the complex and sophisticated art of having a glass of wine with your food and seeing if both taste better as a result

Food-friendly wine – a wine with the body, tannin and acidity to be enhanced and not overpowered by food

Wine-friendly food – food that tastes better with wine; generally, does not include take-aways, kebabs and pot noodles, but this does rather depend on the wines you drink

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

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About Tom Lewis

Tom Lewis is a wine writer and educator from Cambridge with a particular interest in Austria and France. His comments have been published on, Local Wine Events, as well as in the local press in his hometown of Cambridge, UK. When it comes to buying wine, Tom’s philosophy is to buy as close as possible to where it comes from. He writes a regular blog, the Cambridge Wine Blogger which launched in 2009 and is a presenter for the Cambridge Food and Wine Society. To read more of Tom’s work, please check out
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