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Wine Primer for Beginners

For anyone interested in getting into wine, it can be tricky—trickier still when you do it for more than the alcohol percentage. And there is a lot to understand. But it’s also something that’s super interesting the deeper you dive into the industry, like all the different types of oak barrels? wine is kept in, fermentation periods, and how something as simple as the weather will drastically affect the flavour of the same varietal of grape. It’s weird, and sometimes a little too fancy, but it’s so much fun.

So, for anyone interested, below I’ve listed some basics about understanding wine.



Types of wine

There are over 10000 varieties of wine grapes in the world, and with that, over 10000 types of wine, not including the blends. But, for the wine beginners, here are a few worth checking out.

Cabernet sauvignon

A red wine, cab sauv is one of the most popular types of wine out there, and almost every winery you walk into on the west coast will probably have at least one. It grows best in dry, hot conditions, and is extremely popular in areas like Napa and Sonoma in California. It’s a more full-bodied, drier wine that’s excellent with heartier dinners.

And, fun fact, cabernet sauvignon is actually a hybrid grape made from sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc!

Cabernet franc

A very Canadian grape, cab franc is a little less well known than cab sauv, but still capable of making a wonderful wine. Cab franc is more winter hardy, and can survive well in the colder Canadian conditions of areas like the Niagara region. It’s not an overly popular grape, and you’re most likely to see it in blends, but in Canadian wine regions, you’ll find pure cab franc wines! It’s another excellent, dry wine, with more peppery notes.

Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon blanc is a white wine with characteristic citrus, lime, peach, and green apple notes. It leans towards being drier, but it can still retain a little bit of sweetness if you’re hoping for that. New Zealand styles of sauvignon blanc have been relatively popular lately, and are usually a little drier and lighter. This wine pairs well with cheeses, salads, seafood, and maybe even a summer barbecue!


One of my personal favourites, riesling is a crisp, fruity wine that appeals to people who like a little more sweetness in their wines. Originally from Germany, riesling grows exceptionally well in Canadian wine regions like Niagara and the Okanagan, and tends to be more winter hardy in order to survive in those climates. It tastes wonderful alone, but also pairs nicely with fruit, seafood, pork, and cheese.

Ice Wine

A Canadian staple, ice wine is without a doubt a dessert wine. It can be made from any grape, from cabernet sauvignon to riesling. A minimum temperature of negative eight degrees is necessary for a number of days before ice wine can be harvested, and it is usually harvested early in the morning (think 2 a.m.) by hand. Due to the freezing process, and the length of time the grapes have remained on the vine, the concentration of juices and sugar is extremely high in the grape. Each bottle of ice wine uses more grapes than a bottle of table wine, which only increases the concentrations of juice and sugar, leading to a super sweet, super fruity wine that tastes almost like fancy grape juice. And it is wonderful. Canada, as it happens, is also one of the world’s largest producers of ice wine.

Pinot gris

One of the more popular white wines, pinot gris is a nice, lighter wine with high acidity. It has some wonderful herby and tropical fruit notes, with lemon and green apple being most prominent, and it pairs well with cheeses and seafood. Although a popular grape on its own, pinot gris tends to also work quite well as a blending grape.

Pinot noir

Pinot noir makes an excellent red for beginners due to how light it is, especially in comparison to other, more fuller-bodied reds like cabernet sauvignon. Pinot noir is also another popular wine. Generally speaking, it has some lovely earthy notes, and even a little bit of cherry and tobacco (trust me) flavours. It pairs excellently with cranberry, turkey, and chicken, making it perfect for all those Thanksgiving leftovers your family left you with.


Champagne can be a tricky thing if you’re not familiar with it. There are a number of different sparkling wines (just generic “sparkling,” prosecco, the list goes on) but it can’t be true champagne if it’s not from France. True champagne is also done in the traditional method, meaning it undergoes a second fermentation process while in the bottle. The bottle is kept in cold temperatures, and turned constantly. This process normally takes around 24 months to complete. You can always tell if a champagne is made in the traditional method because the bubbles will all gather in a single line in the middle of the glass. In comparison, if the carbonation is artificial, the bubbles will be larger and will be scattered around the wine like in Pepsi.

Flavour-wise, champagne tends to be more on the dry side, with some lighter fruity notes. And champagne always pairs perfectly with special occasions.


Aside from the wines made from single varietals (one type of grape), you’ll be able to find a wide range of blends. These will vary in how they taste, how heavy or light they are, and what meals and occasions they work well with. You’ll be able to find white blends, red blends, and many rosés, too, tend to be blends.



How to hold a glass

Okay, I know it sounds a little silly, but when you’re drinking wine, unlike everything any movie has shown you, don’t hold it by the bowl. If you hold the bowl of the wine glass, the heat from your hand will warm the wine, which affects the flavour, due to the alcohol chemically reacting with the heat. Ideally, you would hold the glass by the stem, balancing it between your fingers. It feels weird the first time you do it, but it won’t affect the flavour, and it will look pretty fancy.



What is decanting, you might ask? It’s when you allow a wine to breathe by having oxygen interact with the alcohol. This brings out flavours in certain wines, particularly more fuller-bodied reds, and younger wines. Typically, you wouldn’t necessarily decant a white wine, but you might want to decant your red wine for a while before serving it. You can find decanters in stores or online, but you can also always just open the bottle and let it sit.



Temperature of your wine

I’ve already touched on this above, but the temperature of your wine is extremely important to the flavour and your general experience of it. Wines will taste different whether they’re at room temperature, below, or above it. (Although I don’t recommend keeping a wine above room temperature. Ever.) White wines, ice wines, and rosés are usually chilled before being served. Red wines, in comparison, should stay at around room temperature. Too warm, and they may start to taste funny. Too cold, and you won’t get as many of the flavours.


The wine “experience”

To fully enjoy wine, you have to participate in the “experience.” Every little thing you do with the wine will affect its flavour and, hopefully, enhance your love for it.

For starters, before you start drinking your wine, try swirling it around in your glass for a minute or two. This will bring oxygen into the wine and open it up, allowing more flavours to come through when you do drink it. Also, try taking a sniff before sipping; a number of wines have beautiful smells to them! I’ve had wines that smelled like flowers or like my favourite fruits.

Next up, if you can, you should watch out for the different types of glasses you can use. Every wine has its own glass, and each different glass will alter your perception of the flavour. You can, however, usually rely on general types of glasses like burgundy, bordeaux, aromatic, and champagne flutes. Some glasses are taller, some shorter, some thinner or wider, and all of these shapes will affect the wine. Taller, wider glasses (e.g., bordeaux) are better for red wines like cabernet sauvignon, because the width allows for more swirling of the wine, and the height of the bowl allows more oxygen in. In comparison, you would use an aromatic glass for wines like riesling, which can have much stronger smells, and don’t need nearly as much oxygen interacting with the wine.

Arguably, the most important aspect of all is what kinds of foods go well with different wines, and whether you can enjoy them alone. At the end of the day, this is only something that you can decide, but as a general rule, people usually base it off of what wines and foods complement each other. White wines like riesling or pinot gris will go well with seafood because they’re lighter and fruitier. Red wines like cabernet sauvignon would go well with something heartier like red meat, because the wine is so full bodied and heavy. But everyone is different, and at the end of the day, all wine goes well with cheese, and that’s definitely the most important part.


Sources: 1

Ria Boldt

U Vic '20

Ria is a slightly confused fourth year at the University of Victoria, with a major in tea drinking and a minor in freelance superhero-ing. When not busy she can usually be found reading, eating, or re-watching all of the Star Wars movies.
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