A Beginner's Guide To Wine

Long shrouded in snobbery, the world of wine is slowly becoming more democratic, with younger people starting to take more of an interest. If you’re keen to get to grips with the basics, we asked wine judge and sommelier at two Michelin-starred restaurant The Story, Jonathan Kleeman, to answer some questions for beginners…
ISTOCK/IRINA SCHPILLER

First things first, what are some of the main wines regions?

Before it comes to regions, there are two main ‘worlds’ to understand: the Old World and the New World. It’s purely a history thing, so the New World refers to the once-colonised areas like Canada, South Africa and South America, while the Old World is traditionally Europe, the Middle East etc. The good news is most of the snobbery around New World wines is already becoming a thing of the past – they too have long history of winemaking now. In fact, go back to 1960s through to the 1980s, it was actually Australian winemakers who came to France to help the locals better understand modern weather patterns and techniques. 

Any there any regions that are particularly noteworthy?

As far as the New World is concerned, California has some of the most expensive wines in the world. As for Europe, Burgundy and Bordeaux are French classics, while Piemonte and Tuscany are the equivalent in Italy. Australia and New Zealand are also very well thought of, as are any wines that come from monopoly-controlled areas or vineyards. It’s all a question of supply and demand, and every wine is specific to the area it’s made. 

Is it always the case that the older the wine the better?

Absolutely not – although the year itself is important. For multiple wines and vineyards, there will be better years, and it varies by producers. If you want to appear in the know, then years that are generally well thought of are 2005, 2009 and 2010. These were good years because they had good summers and growing conditions. That said, years with poor weather often result in low production, which can create rarer, more sought-after vintages.

What does the label on the bottle tell you?

Pretty much everything. It won’t necessarily be clear if it’s New World or Old World, but it should at least give you an idea of the region. On the more modern bottles, it’s common to see the grape variety listed, too. If the wine comes from a cooler climate country, then it’s likely to be lighter and be a bit more acidic, whereas warmer climates tend to produce richer and heavier wines. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good basic guide to bear in mind. 

Do you have any storage suggestions for different wines?

In general, all wines should be stored in the same way. Keep them out of sunlight, and ideally at a lower and consistent temperature, like in a cellar, where it generally stays around 12°C-14°C. It’s fine to keep whites and sparkling wines in the fridge, but you should be prepared to drink it – keep it in there for six months max. Also, if your wine bottles have corks in them, then don’t stand them upright. The corks need to be in contact with the liquid, otherwise they dry out and oxidise. 

How do you know if a wine is corked?

You’re looking for the smell of wet cardboard – it’s pretty distinctive. It is possible for some wines to only be a little bit corked, too, although if you leave it to air, it will get worse. Another tell-tale sign is zero fruit flavour – it’s a definite giveaway. 

Non-vintage’ refers to a blend of different champagnes from different years, something which is done when champagne producers want to make a consistent product.

What does the ‘body’ of the wine mean?

The body ultimately refers to the structure of the wine, and how complex it is. Full-bodied wines will taste heavier (think bordeaux, barolos, cabernet sauvignons), but there’s no clear link to hangovers or anything like that. Getting drunk or feeling hungover is actually all about the sulphates (which tend to be higher in white and sweet wines). One piece of dried fruit actually contains more sulphates than bottle of wine. A hangover just comes down to quantity consumed and the alcohol content. Generally speaking, wines have become more alcoholic in recent years. Bordeaux tends to be about 13.5%, whereas California wines come in around 15%. Being more alcoholic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however if you notice a burning sensation then it means the alcohol is not in balance – which is something to be concerned about.

And what about the ‘legs’?

This refers mainly to the sugar content, which is technically known as glycerol. If you swirl your glass, then you’ll see the wine creates arches as it moves back down to the base. If these arches move slowly and appear thicker, then the wine contains more glycerol. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but many consider it a good sign. 

What do people mean when they talk about the ‘finish’?

This is quite straightforward – it’s mainly about the flavour. You’ll hear people refer to the finish as either short or long, which translates into how long flavour sticks around for. The longer the finish, the more complex the wine. It depends on what you want, but it might mean the different flavours come out at different times, which makes it more of an experience. It might also be described as a dry or spicy finish – which again refers to the flavour. Just remember the finish could be detrimental to your overall experience of a certain wine, depending what food you’re pairing with it. 

Is there a proper way to taste or sample wine?

The most important thing is to smell it but remember this process – especially in restaurants – was traditionally only done to check the wine wasn’t corked. These days it’s evolved into finding out whether you like it or not. My advice? Don’t rush. Swirl it around your mouth, make sure it touches your tongue and that it hits everywhere on the palate. People can be nervous in public and say yes or no too quickly. The sommelier isn’t going to run away – so take your time. Finally, when you do go to a restaurant – particularly on holiday – it pays to buy the local wine. 

How can you train your nose to pick up different notes?

The simple answer is to smell more stuff. As sommeliers, our training is all about smelling food, flowers, grasses, vegetables – anything and everything really. Bear in mind that the fruit used in a wine could be overripe or underripe, though, so make sure you experience things in their different forms and at different times of the year. 

For multiple wines and vineyards, there will be better years, and it varies by producers. If you want to appear in the know, then years that are generally well thought of are 2005, 2009 and 2010.

What are tannins?

Tannins come in multiple forms and are a group of bitter and astringent compounds found in grape skins. They go some way to explaining why red wines are red – they pick up more of the tannins. The connection to hangovers isn’t a real thing, although they can leave behind a drying effect, which can make your mouth feel drier. Generally speaking, wines with lots of tannins aren’t massively fun to drink alone. 

What does ‘cuvée’ mean? 

It basically means wine – it’s mainly just an example of throwing French terminology around. After all, a vineyard is a farm and a villa is a house. Sometimes, if you’re at a vineyard or restaurant it can refer to the house wine or a specific blend. But don’t worry too much about it – at The Story, we don’t. 

Does the glass you serve it in really matter?

It actually does. This isn’t something I thought was a big deal at the beginning of my career, but I’ve learnt it really does change the flavour. For that reason, it’s worth spending good money on glassware, as well as wine. The top brands are Zalto, Spiegel and Miguel. We also use Mark Thomas at the restaurant – you’ll find the best glasses usually come from Austria. 
 

CHAMPAGNE & SPARKLING

 

Is it true champagne always has to be made in the French region? 

There are many legal protections in the world of wine, so yes, if you’re producing sparkling wine outside of the specific region, you can’t call it champagne. If, for instance, it’s made in the Burgoyne or Alsace, even if it’s made in similar fashion, then it’s crémant. Cava is also made in exactly the same way as champagne, but it comes from Spain. Prosecco comes in two forms: frizzante is a more basic, cheaper option while spumante is a step up from that. 

What’s the difference between an English sparkling wine and champagne? 

They’re both made using exactly the same method and even use the same grape varieties. The typography is same too, which is why the UK has been so successful and won many awards at international competitions for its sparkling wines. In terms of flavour, ours are perhaps a bit more acidic and drier – which reflects the difference in climate.

What does ‘non-vintage’ and ‘vintage’ mean? 

‘Non-vintage’ refers to a blend of different champagnes from different years, something which is done when champagne producers want to make a consistent product. Moët & Chandon, for example, will make bottles based on a blend from a mix of 2019, 2017, 2016 and 2015. By blending it together, they can make it taste like the year before. Vintage, on the other hand, means 100% of what’s in the bottle came from a single year. It’ll only be made if it’s considered good enough.

JONATHAN’S PICK:

Frerejean Freres Premier Cru Brut NV Champagne, £38.95

This is a standard-setter for champagne. The grapes all come from premier cru sites and have been aged for five years – to put that in context, most quality champagne is only aged for three years. A luscious complex champagne, that’s great on its own or with food.

Available here

WHITE

What are some of the main characteristics of white wine?

The only difference you’ll notice between white and sparkling wines is the lack of bubbles and a yeast or biscuit note. They can range from very light green and grassy to fruitier, rounder and richer varieties. At the other end of the scale, you have wines which taste buttery and even nutty. 

And some of the main grape varieties?

Chardonnay is probably the most important in France, assyrtiko from Santorni, albariño from Spain and so on. Sauvignon blanc is known for easy drinking, but it’s not actually that easy to pair with food – it’s punchy, tart, and the New Zealand varieties tend to have tons of lychee in them. 

Is suave still a retro choice?

Don’t listen to the scare stories. The suave region became popular during the 1980s and, as a result, it was massively overproduced, which led to some very watery, poor wines. But the Italians have now introduced more regulation to reduce the amount that’s produced legally. It’s greatly improved the quality, which means you now get a lot of bang for your buck. 

What does it mean when people describe white wine as dry? 

In simple terms it’s all about the sugar – i.e. that it contains little to none. It’s common to mistake fruit flavours for sweetness, so pay attention to the finish, too. If the wine is dry, you’ll be left with a dry palate – just like after a G&T. These days it’s a real struggle to find white wines that are sweet, other than dessert wines, especially in the UK. 

Does ‘brut’ always mean dry?

Again, it’s more to do with sugar levels. The term ‘brut’ generally indicates a wine contains between 6-12g of sugar per litre, which is nothing. The term ‘extra brut’ means even less, while ‘brut sauvage’ means no sugar at all. It’s become an obsession for white wines to be drier and drier, which means some of them can be really oppressive on the palate. In my opinion, a little bit of sugar can bring something back to life. 

Should it always be served cold?

Most people drink white wines around 5°C, which is a far too cold. Chardonnay should actually be served closer to 10°C. Also, think about what you’re serving it with relative to how cold you serve it – what are the sauces, side dishes, and how will these marry with the flavours or minerality of the wine?

JONATHAN’S PICK:

2017 Gusbourne Estate, Guinevere Chardonnay, Kent, £25

England makes some great wines, as well as sparkling, and this is a great example of a refined chardonnay. Led mainly by citrus flavours, it has a rounded, medium body and plenty of smooth oak notes.

Available here

RED

 

What are some of the main characteristics of red wine?

Red wines are all about fruit, and generally speaking, the colour of wine will tell you what fruits are in there. If they’re more purple then it’s likely to contain blackcurrants, while vibrant reds probably have cherries or redcurrants. 

And some of the main grapes?

Pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are the big boys. Merlot too, although that tends to be a little less produced now. Rioja, which is made from tempranillo and sangiovese, is used in chiantis and brunellos, which are also worth having on your radar. Pinot noir is great, easy drinking, as it’s a lighter red – plus, it’s produced everywhere. It can be a great entry point if you’re not sure whether you like red. Lambrusco is also a type of sparkling red wine that isn’t too dry – it’s incredible with charcuterie, and it’s cheap. 

Do reds always need to ‘breathe’ or be decanted ahead of time?

Decanting a wine should only be done for two reasons: to give some air to a wine that needs it and to filter out sediment from the grape skins (which applies to wines which are older or natural or organic). If a wine is designed to be drunk young, then it won’t need decanting. Also, opening a bottle without decanting it does nothing. The bottle neck is such a small surface area, so all you’re doing is letting it go off – slowly.

JONATHAN’S PICK:

Holden Manz, Big G, Franschhoek, £29.99

This is an example of a heavier red wine, but one which is extremely drinkable. It comes from one of the most beautiful wine regions in the world and boasts rich ripe red fruits with complex spicy notes and silky-smooth tannins.

Available here

CREDITS: ISTOCK/IRINA SCHPILLER
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