Types of Wine — I Asked a Bunch of Dumb Questions About Wine So You Don’t Have To


I’ve probably consumed more wine over the course of my life than any other alcohol (sup, Franzia!). But I basically know nothing about it other than it involves grapes.

So when I walk into a liquor store or wine store on a Friday looking for le bottle, first I check out the labels (naturally), then I pick red or white, then I stand in the aisle with two bottles in my hands for twenty minutes before putting them back and buying the same Sauvy B. I’ve bought every Friday for the last three years. Rinse and repeat.

Since this is a safe space, I’m going to go ahead and assume we’re all here for the same reasons, yes? Cool.

Because drinking should never be stressful and wine knowledge should be as accessible as the closest liquor store, I asked sommelier Victoria James, author of Drink Pink, A Celebration of Rosé and beverage director of New York City’s Cote, a bunch of dumb-ish questions about wine.

Side note: Cosmo makes wine now, and it’s so, so (SOO) good. Add to cart and lmk how much you love it—because you will.

When a bottle or menu compares a wine’s flavor to fruit, does that mean it contains fruit?

VJ: Nope! It’s just a flavor that you might pick up from its scent, which stems from various compounds. Things smell and taste different to everyone, so a wine that reminds one person of strawberry might taste like raspberry jam to you. It all depends on your palate.

What does a wine’s “body” mean?

Body refers to a wine’s alcohol and/or sugar content, two characteristics that contribute to its richness. You can assess a wine’s body—that is, what it will feel like in your mouth—based on its alcohol by volume (ABV). Just know that there may be some variance of up to 1.5-percent alcohol from what’s listed on the label.

The body of the wine is based on alcohol, not color—and the characteristics aren’t interdependent. Meaning: A light-colored wine could be boozy AF!

What do people mean by “dry wine”?!

Wine described as “dry” doesn’t taste sweet—but that goes for most wines since people can’t typically perceive the sugar when there are less than 9 grams of it per liter. The thing is, that characterizes almost all varieties save special dessert wines. Even when wine contains way more sugar, it still can taste dry due to its acidity, which offsets sweetness—like white sugar in tart lemonade. The term also tends to align with tannin content but is so widely misused that it’s become many sommeliers’ biggest pet peeve.

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Is “oaky” good or bad?

It all comes down to preference: “Oaky” is a term used to describe a wine that carries flavors—typically baking spices, vanilla, caramel, nuttiness, and sometimes coconut and dill, depending on the age and origin of the wood barrel in which it’s aged—and a certain creaminess that comes from oxygen moving through porous wood.

The longer wine spends in the barrel—something a sommelier can tell you since it won’t be on the bottle—the more oxygen gets in, and the smoother it will feel in your mouth. To impress a pro, ask whether about a barrel’s age and size: The newer the wood, the “oakier” the wine; wine aged in small vessels have more contact with the wood and therefore tastes oakier. Oh, and ‘unoaked” wine aged in clay, concrete, or stainless-steel barrels will have none of these qualities.

Why are you supposed to drink certain wines while eating certain foods?

These pairings often have to do with tannins, or organic compounds grape skins, stems, and seeds, create a ‘drying’ sensation in your mouth like over-steeped tea, which can contribute to a wine’s mouthfeel and whether you’ll like it.

Most red wines contain tannins—some high, some low—that stand up well to the rich flavor of fatty meats but make fish taste metallic. It’s why white wines, which contain almost no tannin, pair better with leaner proteins like poultry and seafood.

Some sommeliers bend the rules by pairing low-tannin red wines with fish—and you can, too! To assess a wine’s tannin content, look at its color: Sometimes, the darker the red, the more tannins it contains. And when it doubt, remember, “what grows together goes together,” meaning regional foods pair well with wines made nearby.

What’s the best way to pick a wine when you have no idea what to buy or order?

Common wines are named after the grapes they’re made from, like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, but grape variety is just one variable that affects the taste of wine and isn’t necessarily the best indicator of whether you’ll actually like it. It’s like ordering an entrée because it contains rosemary without knowing whether the dish is made with chicken or pork or whether it’s baked or fried.

Instead of worrying about familiar grapes, look at where the wines are from:

Wines from cooler regions, think Germany, Northern France, and Northern Austria, are lighter, have lower alcohol content, taste crisp and a little tart. Wines from warmer regions, like Argentina, California, Chile, Australia, Southern France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, are fuller-bodied, have higher alcohol content, fruity notes, and aromatic.

When in doubt, the best move is to describe or show a photo of a bottle you drank recently and liked to your server or sommelier. If they know the wine, they’ll be able to dissect its flavor profile and get a sense of your preferences.

Most importantly: Be explicit about how much you want to spend! It makes everyone’s life easier, since half the time a sommelier or waiter is just trying to figure out your budget when they approach a table to give a recommendation.

How do I properly taste wine?

Step 1: Swirl. Whether you’re drinking white, red, or sparkling wine, this lets it “breathe,” or releases the scents that contribute to your tasting experience. To avoid spills, keep the base of the glass on the table as you circulate it (in any direction) once or twice.

Step 2: Sniff. The scent of the wine contributes to the majority of its taste. Dip your nose into the glass, and inhale primarily through your nose, but leave your lips parted to permit the aromas to reach your mouth, too.

Step 3: Sip. Tasting is for identifying structure and re-assessing aromas promised on a menu or by the waiter or sommelier—but first you’ll need to get your mouth used to the pH of wine, which can be jarring if it’s your first glass. Take two to three sips to acclimate, taking care to swish and swirl it around your mouth before you swallow. On the last swig—and yes, it’s totally cool to finish the entire sample—assess the taste.

Step 4: Respond. This depends on whether you’ve ordered a glass or bottle.

What’s up with rosé, orange, and blue wines?

    When you bite into any grape, the juice is clear. With a few obscure exceptions, the color you see in wines surfaces when this clear juice is infused with grape skins. The longer the skins soak in the juice, the more color, which comes from pigments called anthocyanins, and tannin, i.e., organic compounds, are picked up.

    White wines, which can be made from white, red, or copper-colored grapes, contain juice without extended skin contact. (Exposure to oxygen, which moves through wooden barrels and corks, makes the drink darker, which explains its color variance.) Orange and rosé wines sit on grape skins for a bit, but not for as long as reds. Blue wines—oh God. These are not wines. They’re chemical concoctions.

    What’s the best wine glass?

    Some glasses with more surface area “heighten aromatics” and “promote breathing,” and some restaurants use special glassware for good reason, like serving a thick, sugary dessert wine that might otherwise stick to the sides of a big-ass glass. That said, casual wine drinkers don’t have to worry about these things at home, since most glass shapes and sizes are the result of clever marketing.

    Hand-Blown Universal Wine Glass, Set of 6

    Picardie Glass Tumbler 8.75 oz. Set of 6

    Williams Sonoma
    williams-sonoma.com

    $24.00

    Is there a huge difference between old wine ($$$) and new wine ($)?

    Not all aged wine is that pricey, but it certainly can be—holding onto inventory for longer leads winemakers to seek a greater return on their investment. As wine ages, it loses its youthful, fruity characteristics and becomes more earthy and mineral. If you like fruity wines, you don’t have to worry about wasting money on old wine!

    Is wine in a corked bottle always better?

    Quality and packaging don’t always correlate—it just reflects the choice of a winemaker. Wines meant for youthful consumption—think fruity!—are often sealed in screw-cap bottles to preserve their characteristics since corks let oxygen in, aging the wine more rapidly. The same goes for canned wines—some options are Vinny and Ramona, a wine cooler. Bottom’s up!

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