Nobody likes a wine snob. Even wine snobs don't like other wine snobs. Wine, on the other hand, is great. If you've always wanted to learn more about the art of fine wine, without the pretentious glass-swirling and aggressive posturing that comes with it, then Lifehacker's easy introduction to wine is for you. In the first part of our comprehensive guide to Australian wine, we introduce you to the basics of how wine is made and decipher some unusual words you may encounter in your local bottle shop.
All wine pictures from Shutterstock
What goes into making wine?
To better understand what you're tasting when you drink wine, it's useful to have some idea of what goes into making it. Everyone knows that wine is made from grapes, gratuitous foot-stomping and a blessing from Dionysus, but that's only the tip of the winemaking iceberg. The grapes provide the all-important juice that will eventually become wine, but the skins, pulp, stems and seeds can be just as vital to the final product. Red wine gets its dark colour from contact with the skins, while rosé is made when the skins are removed earlier, leaving it with that distinctive pink blush. It's even possible to make white wine from red grapes, with careful handling.
Other ingredients are added to wine before bottling in order to balance, fix or preserve the final product. If a wine has too much sugar, acid may be added to balance it out, and likewise if the grape's natural sugars didn't ripen sufficiently then the winemaker may need to add extra. Thanks to Australia's warm climate, grapes grown here tend to be high in sugar, so it is almost unheard of for Australian winemakers to add more.
In the final step before bottling, winemakers may use egg and milk products to clarify their wine, which can be a problem for vegans and those with severe allergies. Vegan wines do exist (Yalumba in particular is well known for them) but they can be significantly harder to find.
Sulphur dioxide may also be added as a preservative -- it is known to cause some nasty hangovers, so be wary of cheap wines that will be heavy-handed with their preservatives. Preservative-free wines are available for those who are sensitive to it -- though contrary to popular belief, even preservative free wines can have trace amounts of sulphur dioxide, as it occurs naturally in grape skins. Organic wines as a rule will be much lower in sulphur, thanks to the use of hands-on winemaking techniques. Something interesting to note is that all sulphur dioxide will generally become 'bound' after five years in the bottle, at which point it will no longer be able to give you those intense hangovers.
Learning a new culinary language
Most wines have plenty of information included on their labels, but if you can't decipher what it all means then it might as well be in French. Well, some of them are actually in French, but we'll get to that later. For now, here's a list of common terms that you may come across in your search for a decent drop.
Sparkling wine: The correct term for any bubbly that doesn't come from the region of Champagne. Remember: all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.
Cava: A type of Spanish sparkling wine, made in the traditional style.
Fortified wine: The main kind of wine that Australia produced for over 50 years, and still a national specialty. Fortified wine has a distilled spirit like brandy added to halt the fermentation process, leaving it with a much higher sugar content.
Dessert Wine: Also known as a sticky or late harvest wine, they get their sweetness from a fungus on the grapes called botrytis cinerea or 'noble rot'. You may also find these terms on the labels of these wines.
GSM: The name for a common Australian red blend, consisting of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre grape varieties.
Aroma: The scent of the wine, and ideal first step in any wine tasting. Although you may feel pretentious with your nose stuck inside a wine glass, a good sniff really does change the way you interpret the taste of the wine.
Mouthfeel: The body of a wine, defined by its texture in your mouth. Wines can be light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied, depending on their tannin and alcohol content.
Gooseberry: Most of the flavours described on wine bottles can be easily placed by the average person, but who actually knows what a gooseberry is? Gooseberry is the fancier name for something that most of us average Joes would identify as passionfruit; a flavour most commonly found in Sauvignon Blanc.
Barrel fermented: Any wine aged in an oak barrel -- expect smooth, woody flavours.
Tannin: Found mostly in red wine thanks to the bitter skins, tannin is what gives wine the dry mouthfeel that can be unpleasant in large amounts.
Now that you have a bit more know-how about wine, the next step is to figure out what kind of wine you like. Keep in mind that wine is completely subjective and while everyone has an opinion on it, your own is the only one that matters.
Even though James Halliday might think his word is the be all and end all of Australian wine, that sure as hell doesn't mean you have to listen to him -- the trick is to be able to identify the varieties, aromas and tastes that appeal to you. Look out for Part 2 of Lifehacker's wine guide for a comprehensive look at some of Australia's favourite grape varieties.