Wine for Beginners: Wine Basics for Those with a Curious Glass

by | Jan 26, 2021

Up-leveling your wine buying decisions from just the look of the label is a big step! Seriously. 

There’s a lot to know about wine…We, like you, have asked ourselves, “How do I even get started with wine?” 

That’s why we wrote this post—as an ultimate guide to wine for beginners. We want you leaving this post with a grasp on the basics to kick-start your own personal wine journey.

So, let’s pour ourselves a glass, take a sip, then top ourselves off because why would we want to sit down with a glass that’s not even full anymore, and dive in.

brooks-wine-logo-gold

Meet Our Partner: Brooks Wine

Brooks Wine believes making exquisite wine is more than an art, it is an act of stewardship and deep honor for the Earth, its peoples, and the connection between the two.

As a certified Biodynamic vineyard, Brooks works to maintain the delicate balances of nature and tend to all aspects of their vineyard, from the tiniest insect to the grapes themselves. They’ve cultivated a self-sustaining ecosystem with a diverse cast of plant and animal species in lieu of additives and harmful pesticides.

As part of their commitment to nature, they use only natural ingredients and practices throughout their entire winemaking process. As a Certified B Corp, Brooks’ commitment extends to every piece of their business, ensuring the production of their top-rated wines is one that is good for the taste buds, the environment, and the community.

Check out our friends at Brooks Wine, or learn about other Grow Ensemble partners here.

Wine Basics for Beginners

So class, where to start? To understand the wide world of wine and all its complexities, we first understand how and where it’s made. 

How is Wine Made?

If you need a full-process rundown on how wine is made, we’ve got your covered. But, here’s a basic Sparknotes version to leave you on solid ground for now. 

(*Check out the original post on How Wine is Made for all the steps and the quirks within each!*)

how wine is madeWhen you think about the winemaking process, you may have the urge to start with crushing grapes with your feet, but that would be skipping over a few of the most critical components— starting with the soil that determines grape quality and the vines that bring them to life.

Winemaking is an agricultural endeavor, so understanding the farming practices used means understanding the soil, which means understanding the grapes, which means understanding the wine…

And that’s what we are trying to do here, right?!?

Step #1 – Grow the wine grapes:

All wine starts in the field. This is where the important decisions are made, from what types of grapes to grow (aka “varietals”) and our favorite question, how will they be grown.

biodynamicSome vineyards, like our biodynamic-certified gurus at Brooks Wine, use biodynamic farming, meaning they focus on soil health and biodiversity and don’t use any pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. 

They meticulously analyze the site of each row to determine what type of grape can best thrive there and curate compost preparations to ensure the vines they plant are set up for success (given they have award-winning wine and some of the oldest vines in the Willamette Valley, it looks like it’s working!).

Step #2 – Harvest the grapes:

Have you ever eagerly picked a fruit from the vine or tree and bit into the most bitter trap you never expected? 

Poor harvesting practices, friend.

Harvesting grapes is all about the grapes having the perfect maturity, outlasting the heat but not risking a freeze, and for our friends at Brooks, it boils down to the expert taste test to determine when the moment’s right. 

Step #3 – Crush and ferment the grapes: 

Ah, finally! The juicy part! How wine is crushed depends on the type. Red wine sticks with the grape skins, while white grapes’ skins are separated (and like its pink hue, rosé falls in the middle of those processes). 

fermentationFermentation is where the alcohol content is determined as sugars from the grapes are, to different degrees, converted into alcohol. At this point it’s determined whether a wine will be classified as “sweet” or “dry.” Sweet wines are made when the fermentation process is stopped before all the sugars have fermented. 

Dry wines, on the other hand, are those that ferment until sugars have turned to alcohol. Wines can also be “off-dry” (still a tinge of sugars left). So, while you may identify “sweet” with fruity tastes, and think of “dry” as just, not sweet, remember: it’s all based on those sugar levels! 

Like in the field, this is a time when the road splits once again between conventional and biodynamic winemaking. Biodynamic is, by definition, the lowest intervention possible winemaking, so when the grape juice is flowing, vineyards like Brooks aren’t contributing artificial additives to the mix. 

That makes the process a little different: If the wine needs balance, winemakers like Brooks will opt for blending other biodynamic grapes to even it out. Where conventional winemaking often involves injecting yeast to manipulate the fermentation process, Brooks will let the natural yeast take its course to perfection.

Wine Regions

You may hear someone express a preference for wine from a specific region, and that can cause confusion because you may not know where that region is or why it matters.

It boils down to this thing called terroir. Terroir refers to the characteristics a wine inherits from the land it’s grown on. This points out the obvious: the health of vine a grape grows from and the type of soil that vine is rooted in affects the taste of the grape and therefore, the wine itself.

You can’t grow grapes just anywhere, they need certain climate and soil conditions in order to flourish. That is why there are specific regions all around the world that are famous for producing wines.

wine regionFrom Italy to California, there’s great wine to be had! Here are some quick regional examples to give you an idea of what all the fuss it about:

Champagne: Champagne comes from the Champagne region in France, East-North East from Paris. Since its origin is essential to its definition, other non-regional options you’d casually classify as “Champagnes” are actually “sparkling wines.” (An example you might know: prosecco is the sparking wine of Italy.)

The chalky limestone soil from the region is what gives many Champagnes their signature mineral taste.

Bordeaux Wines: Bordeaux wines are blends also from France. These range from areas with rockier soil to others with more clay-like soil. And since we know soil is a key component of wine, that affects the taste and the composition of these blends. 

One area may lend itself to a merlot-heavy blend, while another is dominated by a cabernet. All depends on the almighty Terroir

Argentinian Malbec: Fun fact: Malbec is one of the reds at work in a few of the Bordeaux blends. But, being the sun-loving girl she is, malbec found a home in Argentina. Today, malbec makes up ¾ of Argentina’s vineyards

The tannin content (a bitter-tasting organic substance found in grapes and other kinds of plants) in malbecs will vary based on the soil type. So Argentinian Malbecs are much more fruit-forward than their tannic French counterparts.

Benefits of Diving in at the Ground Level as a Wine Beginner

World-class vineyards like Brooks see terroir as the guiding principle to making exquisite wines, expressive of the land from which they come. 

These vineyards prioritize land stewardship and soil health through their biodynamic and regenerative organic practices to make sure expression of the land is uninhibited and preserved for generations to come. 

These responsible growing techniques not only propagate the healthiest vines and produce the richest wines, they also protect their growing region from erosion and climate change, ensuring wine-production well into the future.

To learn more about how to discern responsible growing practices and the characteristics of great wine, be sure to check out our complete guide on how to choose a good wine!

When your quest for new wines starts at ground level (and we mean the dirt), you’re opting for the best of the best in quality and sustainability. Here’s our case for why farming practices are the best Northern Star you could have next time you take to the wine aisle:

makes the best wineIt makes the best wine

You don’t have to be a sommelier to reason through what makes a good bottle of wine. Let’s quickly reverse engineer together how you end up with the most delicious glass of wine you can imagine. 

The wine in your glass is made from crushed and fermented grapes, so it makes sense that we are looking for high-quality grapes. 

High-quality grapes grow from strong, healthy grape vines. Healthy grape vines are those that have the nutrients they need for any specific varietal and that make them most resilient in the face of environmental threats like changing weather patterns, pests, and disease.

What’s the secret sauce that makes healthy vines that can produce healthy grapes? The soil they’re rooted in!

Yes, most winemakers rely on synthetic additives to compensate for less than excellent grapes or pesticides for vulnerable crops. But, grapes grown using biodynamic methods, are made with more focus on the real deal—actually building a sustainable vineyard that can follow the path we drew above on its own without chemicals or heavy intervention. 

Putting in the hard work up front, means enjoying the fruits of that labor in the bottle today and long down the road! No chemicals on the vines, means no chemicals in your glass.

You’ll be more open to developing your palate

The truth is that for a beginner, biodynamic wine might not taste any different from conventionally-made wine.  If your taste buds aren’t honing in on the sneaky nuance of your wines yet, you likely won’t find identifiable differences between biodynamic wine and conventional wine upon your first sips.

But the focus on the land and natural process is exactly why biodynamic wines do quite well in taste tests with wine experts who have developed the taste for higher quality and complexity. 

So knowing that these wines come from the earth herself may open you up to more curiosity exploring interesting and complex wine tastes. Instead of just looking for a smooth and easy sip, when you’re focused on tasting what the land produced, each varietal is another impressive feat. 

The point is, think outside the bottle! We are getting to know Mother Earth and all her great artwork! So enjoy the adventure!

Great conversation piece

You may have read this before (we say it all the time): the best wine is a shared wine.

land of the sommelierWhen you share wine, you’re not only sharing taste, but even more importantly, conversation. 

Unfortunately, wine talks can quickly veer into the land of the sommelier with precise descriptions and pre-sip sniffs that mark well-versed wine tastings which might make us newbies feel a little a little shy. 

We recommend approaching wine in a way that’s more universally relatable: agriculture and saving the planet. You may not be able to profile the acidity and tannins in each glass, but you and your guests are likely familiar with climate change and agriculture

Sustainable wine doesn’t mean sustaining the status quo; it means producing wine in a way that will allow us to maintain wine production into the future, and that requires farming practices that revitalize the land.

Plus, talking about how and where the wine was produced will sure give the impression that you know a thing or two about wine! This is a down to earth style anyone will sip with.

   Tip

If you need a talking point to kick off your discussion consider sharing about the power of soil to reverse climate change. Carbon emissions accelerate climate change, and while traditionally farmed land depletes soil and releases carbon into the air, biodynamic farming and regenerative agriculture create soil that retains its carbon-sequestering powers so it can remove carbon from the atmosphere to feed the roots that sit in it!

Types of Wine: Getting a Lay of the Land

The types of grapes in the world (and therefore the types of wine) are endless. Still, there are a few that come up consistently on the menus at our favorite restaurants or in the wine aisle at the grocery store that are worth having some familiarity with. 

types of grapesYou might agree with me…one of the biggest hurdles for being a “beginner in wine” is getting past all the jargon that you need to know to understand what a wine might taste like.

If we are just getting started in the world of wine, how would we know what a wine with lower tannins or medium body tastes?

It’s challenging to understand wine just by reading about it. Or, even when someone is telling you about it.

So, let’s start with something easy—here’s a list of some of the more common wines you are likely to come across along with three pieces of information that we think are helpful: 

1) anything you may want a heads up on so you can feel confident asking and learning more about each type (like the pronunciation and any notable facts), 

2) recommended pairings so you can imagine the flavor context, and

3) an expert description or tasting notes of a wine within that variety for some idea of what you may be able to expect with that type.

Scan through the whole list or jump to one that’s of particular interest to you; Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dessert Wine, Moscato, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, or Sparkling Wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon:

cabernet sauvignonHeads up: Pronunciation is “cab-er-NAY Saw-vi-nyawn.” This is what people are referring to when they ask for “a cab.” Cabernet sauvignon is the most popular red wine in the world.

Recommended pairing: hearty meats like pork, lamb, or beef, as well as sharp cheeses.

Tasting of: Tablas Creek 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon:

  • The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon is absolutely immediately identifiable as cabernet on the nose: tobacco, blackberry, dark chocolate, juniper and mint. The mouth is perfectly balanced between sweeter cocoa powder and black fruit and more savory elements of cigar box and eucalyptus. There is nice acidity on the finish tying everything together and keeping it fresh.

Chardonnay:

chardonnayHeads up: Chardonnay is a heavier white, so it’s a great white alternative to the pairings that would often meet a red option.

Recommended pairing: lighter meats (chicken for example), seafood, and vegetables.

Tasting of: Benziger 2018 West Rows Chardonnay:

  • Richly textured Chardonnay with bright and inviting flavors. Citrus and tropical fruits and a bright acidity are artistically crafted amongst a lavish and creamy mid palate enduring through the finish.

“Dessert Wine”

Okay, so this isn’t a specific type, but it’s a thing people say! So, let’s look at what we are looking for when someone requests you pick up a “dessert wine” on your way over. Dessert wine is exactly what it sounds: a wine for dessert. So, unlike the others in this list, these sweet wines can be red or white and are meant to last in the glass.

Heads up: There are many kinds of wines that can be considered a dessert wine. Also check out: Ports, Sherrys, Proseccos, Moscatos, Rieslings, and Madieras.

Recommended pairing: It’s the dessert all on its own!

Tasting of: Brooks 2018 Telesto Pinot Blanc:

  • This dessert style Pinot Blanc is decadent and full bodied, with a honeyed mouthfeel and prominent notes of golden pear, apricots and honey soaked golden raisins.
  • Golden pear, soaked sultanas, and candied yuzu notes followed by quenching acidity, a hint of flaked salt, and a juicy mouthwatering finish.

Moscato (Muscat):

moscatoHeads up: Particularly sweet moscatos are great dessert wines, but this wine type also has some range. Other types of this variety can be sweet but still light enough to enjoy with a light meal.

Recommended pairing: something light and fresh like a spring salad.

Tasting of: Brooks Wine 2018 Eola Springs Moscat:

  • Classic, beautifully expressive Muscat with a perfumed nose of citrus, peach blossoms, lemon and quince.
  • Super expressive aromatics of lemon drop, flint, orange blossom, and quince lift out of the glass; this wine smells as delicious as the fruit that came in the door! Thirst quenching and refreshing acidity.

Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris):

pinot grigioHeads up: The ‘t’ in Pinot and the ‘s’ in Gris are silent, so it’s pronounced “Pee-noh Gree.” A pinot is a great option in warm weather or for the casual meal. It’s an any-time-of-day wine—from ballpark to wine deck, she’s a crowd pleaser.

Recommended pairing: a salad, a more casual meal (french fries, anyone?), or sip as a light contrast to decadent desserts.

Tasting of: 2019 Brooks Estate Pinot Gris:

  • Bright and vibrant, this Pinot Gris has elegant notes of citrus blossom, meyer lemon, and starfruit with a subtly mineral finish.
  • Notes of Meyer lemon blossom and golden kiwi followed by thirst-quenching acidity and lingering saline minerality. This vintage offers both ripe fruit expression and bright acidity, as well as showcases the complexity this small block of old vines give.

Pinot Noir:

Pinot noirHeads up: Pinot noir has the same thing going on—the ‘t’ in pinot is silent, so it’s pronounced “pee-noh nuh-waar.” The Willamette Valley in Oregon is a prime location for these grapes to thrive, which is why low-intervention pinot noir made in the Willamette Valley is the *kisses fingers like a chef.* Like it’s cousin, pinot gris, pinot noir is happy to meet you wherever you are, ready to pair splendidly with any meal.

Recommended pairing: pork tenderloin, steamed mussels, cooked vegetables, or creamy dishes.

Tasting of: Brooks 2017 Janus Pinot Noir:

  • A beautifully elegant Pinot Noir dominated with bright red fruit notes of red currants, pomegranate, bing cherry and freeze-dried strawberries.

Riesling:

RieslingHeads up: You may attach rieslings to expected fruit flavors like lip-pursing green apple, but this white wine is actually extremely versatile when made well (as is Brooks’ specialty) ranging from dry to sweet and everywhere in between.

Recommended pairing: lighter meats like seafood, scallops, or chicken. Depending on the riesling, may also pair nicely with a cozy dessert.

Tasting of: Brooks 2017 Corral Creek Vineyard Riesling:

  • Beautifully bright and vibrant with notes of tropical and stone fruits, finishing with subtle notes of minerality and a hint of baking spices.

Sparkling Wine (“Champagne” not from the Champagne region of France)

Heads up: “En tirage” is the French term for the period of time a sparkling wine has rested in the bottle during its second fermentation. Sparkling wines are said to have a more distinct flavor the longer they sit en tirage.

Recommended pairing: a celebration, of course, and perhaps some coconut shrimp with chili dipping sauce…sounds like a good time to me!

Tasting of: Brooks 2016 Extended Tirage Sparkling Riesling:

  • This sparkling, bone-dry Riesling is gorgeous with bright acidity and ripe notes of pineapple, quince and golden apples from spending 44 months en tirage.

Whew! That was a mouthfeel! I mean mouthful…

Of course there are many, many other types of wine. But everyone has to start somewhere, and with some orientation from the info above, you’ll be able to explore the lay of the land more intimately as you start testing each out!

The Best Wine for Beginners

Every wine drinker needs a launching pad, and we think the vineyard is the best place to start. So the question then is what are we picking up once we’ve found the winemaker we trust?

Often, a “wine for beginners” can be synonymous with a wine that’s basic in quality and complexity. The idea is to ease you into the good stuff which will save you splurging on a fancy bottle before you are ready to appreciate each taste, tone, and texture the bottle has to offer.

As you get started (and for many of us, as we continue), price is determinative. When the story behind the wine is so interesting and world saving, and the process behind each bottle involves attention to every single detail, price and quality aren’t necessarily at odds.

This is another reason we love Brooks. Accessibility to high quality wines is their forte.

   Tip

If you want some guaranteed bang for your buck, consider less common wine varieties. We also highly recommend a wine club if you have the option. Wine club members get discounts on vineyard inventory and they often get access to more obscure, limited edition, or specially procured wines. You find a vineyard you like and trust, and they will take care of you. This makes for a spot-on gift for a wine lover.

Recommended to Get a Sense of Terroir

Sometimes you just have to taste it to understand it. Brooks has a few Terroir Trios that include three bottles of the same variety but from grapes grown in soils with different compositions. If you prefer reds, they have a pinot noir option, and if you prefer white, their riesling is ready for you!

If you want to start off with a mix or one bottle at a time…

Recommended Red Wine for Beginners

Brooks 2019 Runaway Pinot Noir— $28

red pinotThis easy-drinking pinot was a crowd pleaser for our holiday gifting. From seasoned wine connoisseurs to strictly special occasion sippers, everyone loved the Runaway Red!

Also, as you may have noticed, it’s got a pretty cool bottle that everyone commented on. Luckily this puppy is ready to go at room temperature, so it gets max display opportunity.

As all Brooks wines, this bottle came with tasting notes that were sent along with the bottle to really make popping the cork an experience.

Recommended White Wine for Beginners

Brooks 2017 Sweet P Riesling — $28

sweet p rieslingYou know how we keep going on and on about how healthy vines make great wine? Well the vines of these Brooks grapes were planted between 1974-1976. Amazing!

You can taste the perfection that’s accumulated with each harvest. This Sweet P Riesling is refreshing, crisp, and hits the perfect level of sweetness (a nice little sun-sitting companion without any sugar remorse).

If you prefer the drier taste, for the same price point, you can try the medium-dry  2017 Orchard Fold Riesling—still get the thirst quenching relief but accommodating us low-sugar intakers.

Here are those helpful tasting notes to check out as you try this lil Sweet P, and for the Orchard Fold.

Cheers to Starting Your Very Own Wine Journey! 🍷

For the Grow Ensemble team, wine is a delightful opportunity to sit with our friends and solve all the world’s problems, wine glasses in hand. 

Knowing what you now know about terroir, it’s easy to see why starting your wine discussions with questions about the land and growing practices of the vineyard is quite the sophisticated inquiry. (People are sure to see you as an expert!) And yet knowing how and where the wine is produced is also one of the most accessible entry points to better understand the complexities of wine.

If we want full cups today and tomorrow, and 50 years from now, we have to make sure the source of each glass is a winemaker who wants the same things and has the better-for-the-world process to prove it. Fortunately for all of us, caring for the land means for better-for-the-bottle as well! 

“Wine for beginners” looks different depending on where the beginner is starting from, and when we start with the planet, it’s a choose your own adventure opportunity from there. From Burgundy to new world wines, from grenache to sauvignon blanc—The world is your vineyard.

Annie Bright

Annie Bright

Grow Ensemble Co-Founder & Dir. of Partnerships

Annie Bright is from Corpus Christi, TX, and now lives in San Antonio. A life-long student, after getting her law degree, she has decided to pursue a master’s degree at the Fletcher School at Tufts. With a diverse professional history ranging from advertising and writing to education, and impact experience spanning from refugees to homelessness, she has an insatiable appetite for curating purposeful content for our posts and podcasts as well as using her brains and heart for leaving the world a better place than she found it.

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