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Wine Basics - Beginners guide to wine - Things I wish I knew



Hi all,

i just wanted to start a thread for those beginning their journey into wine, I thought I would pull together some ‘things I wish I knew’ when I started. Below are a list of facts, comments and observations that I have gradually learnt over the past 3 years or so (going from no knowledge to level 3). My idea is that this list can be added to by others in the community (or indeed challenged), I have pulled together 50 things as a starter which should cover some basics. This list is in no way exhaustive or conclusive, but are based on my experience so far.

  1. Most wines are dry but some wines can have different levels of sweetness even though it’s the same grape.

  2. Some grapes have different names in different countries, Syrah is Shiraz, Garnacha is Grenache etc.

  3. White Burgundy is Chardonnay, Red Burgundy is Pinot noir.

  4. Red Bordeaux is usually a blend, some are Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, some are Merlot dominant.

  5. Northern Rhone is Syrah (Shiraz), Southern Rhone is Grenache and many different blends such as Chateauneuf Du Pape.

  6. Beaujolais wine is made from the Gamay grape.

  7. ‘Left bank’ red Bordeaux is usually Cabernet Sauvignon dominant, ‘Right bank’ red Bordeaux is usually Merlot dominant.

  8. Alcohol, although part of the wine making process, is key to the general mouthfeel of the wine but shouldn’t be overpowering.

  9. Pinot noir grapes are fairly hard to grow well which is why they are usually more expensive but produce a lighter aromatic red wine with less tannins than other red wines.

  10. A good wine is a wine that is in balance regarding all aspects of the wine eg acidity, tannins, fruit and alcohol.

  11. Ensure you use a decent glass with a good bowl and is tulip shaped and only fill the glass to the widest part of the bowl. This then allows the aromas to be captured within the glass which enhances the overall wine’s experience.

  12. Buy vacuum stoppers to keep a wine fresher for longer, the contact with oxygen causes the wine to oxidise and lose fruit flavours and freshness. Using vacuum stoppers removes the oxygen from the bottle and will give you a few extra days to drink the rest of the wine.

  13. Decanting certain wines does help with ‘opening’ the wine up, decanting times can sometimes be half an hour to a couple of hours depending on the type of wine. Also be aware that you can’t ‘undecant’ a wine so it’s best to decant a wine slightly and then let it evolve in the glass by swirling.

  14. Don’t drink wine that is too warm, even red wines can be served too warm, putting a red wine in the fridge for half an hour before drinking can help the wine become more balanced.

  15. Don’t drink a wine that is too cold, if you overchill a white wine many of the flavours are lost, its best to chill down a white wine but then take it out the fridge 15 minutes before serving.

  16. A good vintage is when that region has good growing conditions and the grapes ripen well, this usually leads to a better quality wine. Good producers can still produce very good wine in poor vintages, but a vintage guide can give a good indication of how well a region has performed. There are some regions (usually in hotter areas) that don’t have much vintage variation as they are always able to ripen the grapes.

  17. The same grape will taste different depending if it’s a cool or hot country, cooler countries usually have better acidity and taste fresher. Hotter countries can produce a more fruity wine as the grapes are riper. You can have grapes grown in a hot country but in a cooler vineyard, for example further up a hill or cooled by winds.

  18. Some grapes work well with oak, there are different levels of oak use, some act as ‘seasoning’ for the wine, some act as a main flavour of the wine.

  19. There are different types of oak which give different flavours to the wine eg French oak or American oak.

  20. More skill goes into making a non-vintage Champagne than a vintage one as a non-vintage is carefully blended to produce the same style each year.

  21. Oak usually give smoke, vanilla and caramel flavour to the wine as added complexity with some grape types, such as Chardonnay, work well with oak flavours.

  22. Tannins (the mouth drying sticky teeth sensation) comes from the grape skin, red wines have more tannin due to how red wine is made. Tannins help give the wine structure and allow wines to age.

  23. The longer a red wine is kept, the ‘softer’ the wine becomes (as the tannins break down), some red wines need aging to make them more drinkable as it balances the wine with the other components.

  24. Drink dates are useful to understand if a wine is meant for early drinking or are meant to be aged.

  25. Don’t be scared to try odd grapes or odd regions, there are high quality wines from Austria and Uruguay to be had for example.

  26. Top Bordeaux chateau quality classification was made using the price each of the chateau commanded in 1855, some of the chateau don’t live up to their classifications these days – a 5th growth chateau can sometimes produce better quality wine than a 3rd growth.

  27. Aging wine and trying it at different stages of its development in bottle can be rewarding.

  28. Some older wines and some ports require decanting before drinking, this is due to the natural sediment that can accumulate in the bottle. Careful decanting allows for this sediment to be removed from the bottle ready to be served.

  29. Riesling is misunderstood, a lot of Riesling is dry and it’s very aromatic and complex, it can also product some of the top sweeter wines but there are varying levels of sweetness.

  30. There are many good alternatives to Champagne, Cava goes through the same process as Champagne but uses different grapes. There are also many other sparkling wines using other grape types, Prosecco being one of the main ones.

  31. There are various levels of quality within regions, the base level wines are usually good with simple flavours, the higher the quality, the more concentrated and complex the wine usually becomes.

  32. Each producer in Burgundy has their own style, if you find a style you enjoy follow the producer rather than the vintage.

  33. The more specific the location stated on the bottle, the better quality the wine usually is – and usually has a lower amount of supply. Some wines are from specific vineyards whereas some wines are from vast areas.

  34. A wine can taste very different when paired with food, some food pairings can work well however some food can make a wine taste more acidic or unbalance the flavours. This can be quite a fun thing to try finding a good food and wine pairing but when a good pairing is found it’s fantastic. An example is Champagne and fish & chips – the acidity of the Champagne cuts through the fat in the fish.

  35. Terroir is the name given to the combined factors that make a certain wine style unique, some grapes such as Riesling can vary greatly depending where it is planted in the world and can show its Terroir in its taste (much like a fingerprint).

  36. ‘Sur Lie’ means that a wine has matured on the dead yeast cells, the longer this happens the rounder and ‘breadier’ the wine becomes.

  37. To store wine properly the wine should be laid down (to keep the cork damp so it doesn’t dry out), in a cool dark location, away from vibration and doesn’t have much temperature variation.

  38. Screwcaps are usually found on new world wines where a fresher style is to be maintained, corks are usually found in most old world wines, corks are slightly permeable to oxygen so allows for a wine to mature and change slowly over time. However there are some partly permeable screwcaps on more premium wines which are specifically designed for aging.

  39. Muscat is one of the few grapes that actually taste of grape, most other grapes actually taste of other fruit.

  40. Buy a decent cork screw, especially important if opening older bottles as the cork can be more fragile, try and find one with a good foil cutter.

  41. Make notes or keep bottle labels of the wines you enjoy (and don’t enjoy), this helps build up a guide as to trends in which wines you enjoy and from which regions.

  42. White wine flavours can range (and not limited to) lemon and lime to peach and pineapple, red wine flavours can range (and not limited to) cherry and strawberries to blackberries and pepper.

  43. Sherry is a very underrated fortified wine, the majority made from the Palomino grape it has many styles all of them bone dry, the sweeter sherries are blends to increase the sugar content using another Sherry grape, Pedro ximenez.

  44. You don’t need to spend out big on good quality wines, I have found that wines ranging between £7-£14 can give very good value in terms of quality and complexity; wines costing £6-£7 are good for everyday drinking. Wines above the £15 price point are usually very high quality but quite specific in terms of style or rarer grape types which can be very enjoyable to drink and explore.

  45. There are many reasons why wine is expensive, factors can include the yield of the grapevines, if oak has been used, if wine has been aged at the winery, how difficult the grapes were to grow and harvest as well as certain ‘iconic’ wines with high demand.

  46. The longer a wine is aged, the more the primary fruit flavours reduce and the secondary flavours increase.

  47. Not all wines can be aged, red wines can age longer than white wines due to the tannin levels, however some sweeter styles of white wine can age.

  48. Only 7% of the value of a £4.95 wine is actually spent on the wine itself whereas 23% of the value of a £6.95 wine goes on the wine. A lot of the costs associated with a bottle of wine go towards the VAT and excise duty. This is why simply spending £1-£2 extra a bottle can yield a much better wine.

  49. Be careful of critics point score, a highly rated wine for one person doesn’t mean it’s highly rated for you but use them as a general guide.

  50. Have fun with wine and don’t take it too seriously, after all it’s just a fermented fruit juice.

Edit - we do also have guides on the main site for each of the regions:

Absolute Wine Novice - Any great books to learn the basics?
WSET Level 2 - Advice sought please

Thank you for your effort to put all this together Mitch. I enjoyed reading it. I would add:

1 Your taste or palate may change over time so it might be worth revisiting wines you didn’t like when you first started drinking wine a bit later on
2 Food can tame tannins so a red wine that tastes very tannic when tasted on its own may taste a lot nicer when paired with the right food (and there are lots of food and wine pairing books or web sites out there - the WS has one on its web site).


No worries - always rewarding to share things you have learnt :slight_smile:

I also thought of a mini step by step guide to help narrow down a wine or wine style as well:

  1. Start with common single grape type wines – look for simple wines with no oak.

  2. Work out what grape you most enjoy – a certain flavour, sweetness or body.

  3. Work out what you like about the grape type – “I like this wine because…”

  4. Look at regions which are known for that grape type.

  5. Look at the top blends of wine that include the grape as a main part eg Rioja or Claret

  6. Try the basic wine from that region, if you find it enjoyable look at the next level up in terms of quality.

  7. Once you understand the styles of wine you enjoy, look for less obvious grapes from obscure regions and explore other more interesting and fun wines.


+1 on temperature! It has such a huge impact on the perception of taste and is so often overlooked.

Mine big one to get early on is a basic understanding of the flavour indicators. How sugar, acid, tannin, aroma affect taste. The difference between fruity, sweet and fresh, what causes it and the ways these appear in tasting notes. I think a little bit of effort in getting to grips with this and a little bit of presence when starting to taste wine pays dividends quite quickly. Not because everyone wants to be a glass swirling wine snob, but because once one has a basic understanding of how the flavours work and how they are described, one can then use that knowledge to find wines he or she will like.

In other words, it saves those “I don’t like Chardonnay” and “I don’t like sweet wine” conversations from happening. With a bit more specificity, the whole world is opened up. Without this knowledge, an awareness that Burgundy is made from Chardonnay makes the difference between Meursault and Chablis moot.


Very good. :+1:

Don’t spoil your wine before you get it in the glass…

  1. I’d echo the comments on temperature. Possibly the most frequent gripe I have, overly warm red wine.

  2. Make sure your drinking glasses are clean & odour free. Give the glass a sniff!

-Tea towels washed with fabric conditioner often transfers the fragrance onto the glass. Always use a clean cloth for your wine glasses which hasn’t been “fragranced”. They’ll also be more absorbent and so dry better, or use kitchen roll to dry and polish your ,thoroughly rinsed, glasses.

  1. Favourite Fizz lost it’s sparkle? The glass may have traces of detergent in it. Make sure you thoroughly rinse all glasses, and use as little (or no) detergent to clean them.

Champagne type bottles don’t need to be stored horizontally to stop the corks drying/shrinking, although it’ll do no harm if you do.


In a restaurant:

-Don’t chose the second cheapest wine on the list. Owners often price their list to shift bottles they have over stocked. The second cheapest bottle is often the most popular, people not wanting to appear “thrifty” by going for the cheapest bottle!

-If given the wine to taste, it’s to see if the wine is faulty, not that you like the wine you’ve chosen.


Great call!!!


Also mentioned by wine folly - get the cheapest if you don’t know what to get:



What about the second cheapest Hermitage on the Rhone 2016 EP list?



I particularly like number 50. So easy to forget.


Ok. I Dont think I’ve heard this. I’m assuming it’s to do with the levels of CO2 between the wine and the Cork ?? Keeps the cork moist with less chance of drying out ? Also less chance of Cork taint .
However I believe more Champagne houses are moving towards Diam now so at least that wouldn’t be a problem. But surely being in an upright position for an extended period of time would contribute to drying of the Cork regardless of CO2 levels ??


Hi Leah. The degree to which a champagne cork is compressed is such that any drying out is irrelevant. Even a dry cork will maintain a gastight seal.

If you take one and leave it in water for about a month it will expand to it’s uncompressed form, the portion which remains outside of the bottle stays pretty much the same, the part which forms the seal will expand to a similar diameter to the head.

There’s no real benefit compared to horizontal storage, although if there’s a little sediment then a few months upright can help it to agglomerate around the punt and reduce wasteage.

If you’ve got a case of 92 Bollinger I’m not advocating storing it upright, but a year or two will have no adverse affects.


Thanks @Rowley_Birkin_II, this is good to know when I run out of rack space and interesting .:+1:


I’m curious @M1tch as to whether your recent dalliance with beers, and the experience of the community, have added to your list at all?


Also check glasses and decanters are free of flies, spiders etc. before use. The number of reported spiders in bottles rises dramatically at Christmas at the same time as people break out the good, if occasionally used, glassware…


Hi there - new to this forum thing after being a member since 2006.
major top tip I learnt from a friend a few months ago (he was awarded decanter letter of the month for this):
If wanting to try a new wine but not drink whole bottle:

  1. Get some stelvin closure half bottles from eBay (or previous purchases) and clean and dry.
  2. Decant (or even double decant) pouring the first pour off into the stelvin half bottle up to the very top and screw top on (some should leak as you screw home meaning no air in bottle at all)
  3. Enjoy the remaining half bottle you have left. The wine in the stelvin bottle can then be kept in the fridge if need be to prevent any oxidation and enjoyed again up to 3 days later for comparison.