A Wine Primer

This page is for anyone looking to get a concise, fundamentals-based understanding of this ancient beverage—within a couple of minutes.

First some basics.

  • Wine is an ancient beverage, dating back to around 6,000 B.C. in Eurasian Georgia.

  • The word comes from the Indo-European for “vine”.

  • Wine is made by fermenting the sugars within gapes. Fermentation is the conversion of the sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide using yeasts and/or bacteria in an anaerobic (airtight) environment.

  • The flavor of wine comes primarily from the grapes that were used, which is affected greatly by the year those grapes grew. Things like soil quality, weather, etc. all have an effect on the taste of the grape, and therefore the quality of that vintage.

  • Other flavors seen in wines often come from the barrels it was made in, with oak being a dominant presence in many cases.

  • Grape types are called varieties.

We’ll now discuss the basic types of wine and the subtypes within them.

Red wine is called red because the grapes used to make them are dark. Grape types are called varieties, and here are a few along with their main characteristics.

  • Syrah (Shiraz)Shiraz is the Australian name for Syrah. They are the same grape, and tend to do well in California, Australia, and France. The flavor is fruity with a sense of pepper and roasting meat.

  • MerlotMerlots are known for being easy to get into, as they’re more subtle than the other reds. It’s grown all over, including California, Chile, and Australia. The taste often includes muted blackberry and/or plum.

  • Cabernet SauvignonCabernet is one of the most famous varieties, and is often blended with other grapes, including Merlot. It’s best paired with red meat, has a full-bodied taste, and is grown most successfully in California, Australia, and Chile.

  • MalbecMalbecs come from the French Bordeaux area, and is widely grown in Argentina where it’s the most popular red grape. Its flavor varies greatly based on where it was grown, but generally has hints of plum, berries, and spice.

  • Pinot NoirPinot Noir is a premier red grape that’s rarely blended. Delicate and fresh, it’s often eaten with salmon, chicken, and sushi. It’s most often produced in Burgundy France, Austria, and California.

As you may have surmised, white wine is called white because the grapes used to make them are lighter. Here are a few white varieties along with their main characteristics.

  • ChardonnayChardonnay comes from Burgundy, France (originally), but is now grown in California, France, Australia, and many other locations as well. Chardonnays are typically dry with citrus flavors..

  • Sauvignon BlancSauvignon blanc is grown in the Bordeaux region of France as well as New Zealand, and is often blended with semillon. Flavors include bell pepper or freshly mown grass.

  • Pinot GrigioPinot Grigio is mostly grown in Italy, but is also grown in California. It’s a dry wine with strong acidity and strong fruity flavor. Pairs well with Thai or other spicy cuisines.

  • RieslingRiesling is much lighter and crisper than something like a Chardonnay, and goes well with tuna and salmon. It’s a German grape with limited success in California.

Rosé wines are very similar to white wines, but with some of the color from reds added. They are widely considered to be the oldest type of wine made.

Sparkling wines contain significant amounts of carbon dioxide, making it fizzy. The carbon dioxide may be part of the fermentation process or may be done artificially through injection.

The most common confusion about sparkling wine centers around Champagne. Champagne is a region in France, where the genuine thing called Champagne is produced. Many other sparkling wines are called, and considered, to be Champagne, but are not. This would be like calling a wine Napa, and then having it get produced all over the world as “Napa” when it’s not from there.

Bottom line: Make sure the sparkling wine is actually from Champagne before you call it that.

Blends are wines that are made from a combination of grapes. Some are mixes of many grapes in nearly equal parts. Others are mostly one grape with just a bit of another.

Here we’ll list a few different characteristics that are commonly used to describe various wines.

  • DrynessDryness is a scale of sweetness, meaning that you have dry on one end and sweet on the other. Dryness or sweetness is accomplished by fermenting more or less of the sugar from the grapes. The more is fermented into alcohol, the more dry it is. The more sugar that’s left behind the more sweet it is.

  • SweetnessSee Dryness above.

  • TanninTannins are materials found in plants, with about half of the dry weight of a given leaf being tannin. Tannin adds bitterness and complexity to wine, and is found more in red wine than in white. You also get some tannin flavor from the wood barrels that wines are made in.

  • RoundRoundness is desirable in a wine, and generally means it’s balanced—hitting your mouth in many places at once. It means the high tannin kick is not present, like when a wine has fully matured.

  • BodyBody is a significance in presence in the mouth, like a weight and fullness.

  • AcidityAcidity is key to wine, as it gives it unique characteristics. Hot years produce less acidity than cool years.

  • AstringentAstringency is a harshness or coarseness, but the reasons can vary. Good wines that are too young, i.e. where the tannins have not yet been absorbed, tend to be astringent. But it can also come from the wine just not being made well.

  • AngularAngular wines are like trying to drink sharp triangles. They hit you in strange parts of your mouth while not touching other parts. They are the opposite of round.

  • BigBig generally means strong flavor that hits you in multiple parts of your mouth at the same time.

  • BrightBright wines are high in acid, and tend to make your mouth water.


Hopefully this has been informative. Contact me below if you think anything should be added or adjusted.

  1. There is also another main type of wine, called a Fortified, but it’s significantly less common.

  2. The Wikipedia article on wine.

  3. There are many more grape types than the ones mentioned as well, but I’m trying to keep this to the basics.

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