Betty's Wine Musings
Fun Wine Basics
Fun Wine Basics

At my wine tastings, I get a lot of questions that I think of as wine basics. Today, I thought I would share some of these with you. I hope you find them helpful.

Question: When people say they taste grapefruit or berries in wine, were grapefruit and berries added?
Answer: No. We use food terms (e.g., grapefruit and berries) and non-food terms (e.g., leather, wood, tar and earth) to describe what we are experiencing when we smell and taste a wine. It would be much easier if we could say, “Wow, this Chardonnay tastes exactly like a Chardonnay,” but that wouldn’t be very helpful.

Question: What is the difference between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay?
Answer: Sauvignon Blanc wines are made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Chardonnay wines are made from the Chardonnay grape. Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp wine, while Chardonnay is a smooth, buttery wine.

Question: When it says Merlot on the wine label, is there anything else in the bottle?
Answer: For the wine to be called a Merlot, juice from Merlot grapes needs to account for 75% of the juice in the bottle. Otherwise, the wine needs to be called a table wine or a blend. The wine maker does not need to tell us on the label whether the wine is 100% Merlot.

Question: So you’re telling me that the name on the wine bottle is the name of the grape the wine is made out of.
Answer: Yes and no. Yes, if a wine comes from a New World wine country (any country other than France, Germany, Italy, Spain or Austria), and at least 75% of the juice comes from a single type of grape. For example, in North America or New Zealand, if the label says Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir is inside. No, if a wine comes from France, Germany, Italy, Spain or Austria (known as the Old World wine countries). In these countries, the “wine name” is actually the name of the region. So, if you’re looking for a Pinot Noir from France, you need to know that Pinot Noir is produced in France’s Burgundy region, and you need to look for a bottle that says Burgundy on it.

Question: When it says 2007 on the wine label, what does that mean?
Answer: That is the vintage, or the year the grapes were grown and picked. For the vintage to be on a label, that year’s grapes need to account for 95% of the juice in the bottle. If less than 95% of the juice comes from that year, the wine is a non-vintage wine.

Question: Why do two 2009 Merlot wines taste so different when they’re both made from Merlot grapes of the same vintage (year)?
Answer: Many different factors contribute to a wine, including terroir (the grape’s growing environment), clones (the two wines might come from different Merlot clones, which are natural mutations), and wine-making techniques (this subject could take up many blog articles).

Question: What is the difference between normal wine and sparkling wine?
Answer: Normal wine is fermented grape juice. Sparkling wine is fermented wine. In other words, sparkling wine goes through a secondary fermentation process that produces the bubbles.

Question: What exactly do sweet and dry mean?
Answer: Sweet wine is wine with residual sugar. Here’s how the residual sugar gets into the wine. The wine maker adds yeast to the grape juice. The yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. If this fermentation process doesn’t convert all the sugar, you are left with residual sugar in the wine. A dry wine has almost no residual sugar. It’s interesting to note that Americans like a hint of residual sugar, even in our driest wines. It’s also worth noting that tasters often identify a very fruity wine as a sweet wine, even if there is little residual sugar. It can be difficult to tell the difference between fruity and sugary when wine tasting.

If you have any questions about wine basics, please share them here. I would love to answer them in subsequent blog posts.

BettyPhotoCircularAs an independent wine consultant with WineShop At Home, I absolutely enjoy bringing a taste of the Napa wine country home to you one sip at a time. Whether you simply love to drink wine, seek a special personalized wine gift, or are in search of a new wine jobs opportunity as a wine consultant, feel free to contact me for a truly unique wine tasting experience!

Cheers, Betty Kaufman
WineShop At Home

As an independent wine consultant with WineShop At Home, I absolutely enjoy bringing a taste of the Napa wine country home to you one sip at a time. Whether you simply love to drink wine, seek a special personalized wine gift, or are in search of a new wine jobs opportunity as a wine consultant, feel free to contact me for a truly unique wine tasting experience!

Cheers, Betty Kaufman
WineShop At Home

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  1. WOW, that is a lot of information.

    So, when my chardonnay is buttery, you mean there is no butter in it? 🙂

    I love a chardonnay, but I think maybe that’s just what I conditioned my brain to think. I need to expand my horizons. Though, your Somerset Meritage is to DIE for!

    Thanks for sharing all of your wine wisdom, Betty.

    1. With a buttery chardonnay, it’s hard to believe they don’t add butter.

      It is really fun to expand beyond your wine comfort zone. We have a new Pinot Grigio that I think you will love.

  2. This is such great information, Betty! Love knowing more about the differences in the wines and what is said on the labels. This is helping motivate me to try wines beyond what I usually buy! I’ve been sharing your blogs with my mom and sister and they enjoy reading these, too! I will encourage them to leave comments.

  3. Betty great information. Here I thought my taste buds were either its good or its not. Now I can think about what I like about a certain wine and don’t like about a certain wine. I feel like a more educated wino! Thank you for the information.

  4. I really enjoyed this article. You provided a great description of the grapes and tastes. I look forward to your posts.


  5. Thanks Betty – I did not know about the various percentages required to call a wine by a certain name. That is good to know. Here is a question for a future blog:
    You say that Chardonnays, in general, tend to be oaky. Does that come more from the grape itself, or from the fact that many Chards are/were oaked at some point in the process? It seems that many winemakers these days are oaking their Chards either very little or not at all. (This makes me so sad.) I know you will always call me right away when any of WSAH’s new Chards come out oaky, buttery or minerally, so I can order a case. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your question about Chardonnay. Chardonnay gets its oaky taste from the oak barrel that it is aged in. In CA, the last 20 years were all about Chardonnays that were butter/oak bombs. Wine makers went so far in that direction that they’re now stepping back and being a little more subtle on the oak front. But you can still find good butter/oak bombs. They’ll always be there 🙂

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