The wine world has never been easier to dive into – it's more diverse and accessible, no matter your budget, and less snob-driven than ever before.
There are still plenty of seemingly-nonsensical and insanely specific terms to navigate, sure, so it can be easy to get frustrated if you just want to learn the ropes and figure out the basics of what you enjoy drinking. But with a bit of learning and lots of tasting, you can find your go-to glass in no time, no matter your budget.
The First Step: Red vs. White
There's an incredible number of distinctions you can draw between different varieties of wine, but we’ll start with the simplest: red and white.
The distinction comes from what types of grapes are used (either red or green) and how long their skin soaks in the batch while the alcohol ferments. The more time a red grape wine is soaked on the grape skin, the deeper the color. That’s how pink wines like Rosé are made: their production allows the red grape skins to soak for just long enough to introduce a slight pink color.
Tasting Red Wine: Dry vs. Sweet
Red wines are, for the most part, made using red grapes, whose skin contains chemical compounds called tannins. You’ve probably heard people describe wines as “dry” before. Tannins are what’s responsible for this dryness, and once you’re familiar with what that means, it’s easy to pick out the kind of red wine you’re into.
The higher the tannin count, the drier your red is going to be. Dryness refers to the effect the wine has on your mouth and tongue; drier wines have a bold, bitter taste and produce a parched, puckery feeling along the edges of your tongue. They also produce a more intense and lingering aftertaste. Tannins contain high concentrations of valuable antioxidants as well, which is where the age-old advice to drink a glass of wine each night comes from.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is sweetness, which should be self-explanatory. So, when trying different reds, you’re going to want to picture the tastes along a spectrum from very dry to very sweet. Most beginners find their zone somewhere in between the two, but don’t be afraid to try out the extremes on the off-chance that one is perfect for you.
Notable styles to try: herbal Cabernet Sauvignon, soft and spicy Merlot, fruity Pinot Noir, peppery Zinfandel
Tasting White Wine: Acidic vs. Sweet
Tannins are still a factor in lighter whites, but they aren’t a key player like they are in red wine. Instead, the spectrum here runs between acidity and sweetness. The acidity of white wine creates a tart, sour taste instead of a dry, bitter one. Higher acidity means less sugar, which means a less sweet taste. White wines with lower acidity will contain more sugar, bringing about a sweeter taste. Easy, right?
You’ll sometimes hear people talking about white wine along the same dry-to-sweet scale as they will with red wine, and while that’s not technically incorrect, the term "dry" as it generally relates to whites refers to the wine’s acidity, not to its tannin level.
Notable styles to try: tart Sauvignon Blanc, crisp and simple Pinot Grigio, silky smooth Chardonnay, sweet and intense Riesling
Finding the Right Flavor Balance
When you’re tasting different wines and jotting down your thoughts about them, it’s important to pick out the specifics of what you like – and, maybe more importantly, what you don't.
Drinking a Cab Sav and can’t stand the bitter, puckery finish? You might want to head to the sweeter side of red wines. Sipping a Moscato and getting a headache from the sugary taste? Look for something more acidic next time. Keeping that balance of dry vs. sweet and acidic vs. sweet in mind will help you figure out where your preferences lie on those two spectrums.
That being said, there are a few major tasting notes you’ll hear wine lovers talking about after the first sip, and being familiar with these flavors will give you a head start on finding what wines you’re most attracted to.
Spicy – Usually accompanied by smoky or peppery flavors, spicy wines usually come with a warm, lingering aftertaste. Wine “spice” can come from either the grapes themselves, or the barrels the wine is aged in, and is most prominent in Malbec, Zinfandel, and especially Shiraz.
Fruity – This usually refers to berry and plum flavors, often with a bit of tartness – kind of like biting into a blackberry. If that sounds good to you, then go with a Merlot, Pinot Noir, or Zinfandel.
Sour – Tart tastes are usually more prevalent in white wines, and are reminiscent of a big bite into a ripe green apple. Chardonnay is an all-star in this category, followed closely by Sauvignon Blanc.
Floral – Flowery notes can really layer both the flavor and nose of both red and white wines, adding lots of complexity to otherwise simple profiles. What you’re looking for here are rose and lavender scents that hint at fresh, slightly bitter flavors. It's most common in Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Moscato, and Malbec, but can exist in some degree in nearly every style.
Oaky – This note is instantly recognizable, and (obviously) comes from the oak barrels the wine is aged in. The longer a wine is aged, the more likely it'll develop a woodsy, vanilla-tinged flavor. You'll find it most often in Chardonnay and older Cabernet Sauvignon.
Smoky – Smokiness is mostly contained in the aftertaste of drier red wines. Think of a slight burnt tobacco taste mixed with a bit of new leather smell. Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon often have it, though there's a big range – some are very subtle, but others are almost overwhelmingly smoky.
Citrusy – A less-common fruit note that’s usually only present in delicate white wines, citrus flavors are most featured in Riesling and Chardonnay. To identify citrus notes, think of the smell and taste of bitter lemon or lime zest.
Light, Medium, or Full-Bodied
Now that you’ve got the dry-to-sweet/acidic spectrum and some specific flavor notes under your belt, there’s one more thing to consider before you start sipping: what wine people call the “body.” It refers to the weight and texture of the wine – how it feels in your mouth, basically.
If you like your wine lighter and easier to sip casually – say, something you can drink a few glasses of on a warm afternoon – go for light-bodied wines. If you like to sit and slowly sip a heavier, oftentimes drier blend, a full-bodied wine is more your speed. But for beginners, it's best to start with medium-bodied wines and then move towards whichever direction attracts you when you decide how you feel about the wine’s weight. As a general rule, fuller-bodied wines work best in colder weather, as the added weight usually comes with some warming dryness, while lighter bodied wines work best when it’s hot out, because they tend to be sweeter and crisper.
See? Not so difficult. Once you understand those three elements, and how they work to define every sip you take, you’re just a few tasting sessions away from finding your favorite variety of wine – and ultimately, your favorite bottle.