Wine Basics: A Beginner’s Guide to Drinking Wine

  | 9 min read

Drinking wine is an important step to becoming an adult

While Tanzania is the land of beer lovers, many drinkers also develop a taste for wine. In fact, wine is perceived as a sophisticated alcohol, and so learning to appreciate and drink it is seen as a ‘rite of passage’ into adulthood.

However, while many adults may learn to enjoy drinking wine, they often don’t know much about it beyond ‘red vs. white wine’ or ‘sweet vs. dry’. You see, part of what makes wine a drink for experienced people is that it has many variations that need to be studied. Simply put, becoming a wine drinker requires some education.

So, what exactly is wine?

Wine is a drink made out of special grapes that have thicker skin and are sweeter than the usual grapes we find in the grocery store. There are many different types of wine grapes that grow in different regions around the world, and this is what differentiates one type of wine from another. So a Merlot is different from a Malbec simply because they are made from different types of grapes.

The thing is, there are over a thousand types of wine grapes, and unless you are an accomplished wine expert, it’s hard to know all of them. However, you can definitely get a basic understanding of the most common wines, and how to differentiate them.

Characteristics of wine

Before we dive into the different types of wine, it’s first important to understand certain terms that are used to describe wine. This will help you read wine bottles and descriptions, and also express the taste you like when looking to buy wine from a shop or order a glass at a restaurant.

1.     A single variety vs blend

Just like whisky can be single malt (when there’s only one type of barley used) or blended (when there is a variety of barley used), wine too exists in two basic categories:

  • A variety or varietal: Made from a single type of grape

  • Blended: Made from several types of grapes

2.     Red wine vs white wine

Well, while it’s clear that one of the differences between red and white wines is the colour, there are other factors that contribute more to their distinction.

For one, they are made of different grapes. However, what really sets them apart is the process of making wine. When white wine is made, the grapes are pressed and only the juice that comes out is fermented. Whereas, when making red wine, pieces of the grape skin and stem are part of the grape juice that is fermented. This is the reason red wine tends to be darker and have a fuller and richer taste than white wine.

3. Dry wine vs. sweet wine

Both the terms dry and sweet refer to the amount of grape sugar in the wine. So, a wine is considered dry if all the grape sugar is converted into alcohol during fermentation. Whereas a sweet wine still has some sugar, though the amount of sugar can also vary, and that’s why some wines are semi-sweet or semi-dry.

4. Tannin: The bitter taste of wine

Tannin is a substance found in fruits and plants, including grapes, and is responsible for the bitter and dry taste in wine. It’s an important component of the taste of red wine, as pieces of the grape skin are fermented with the juice. As a result, it’s less present in white wine, as grape pieces are removed before the juice is fermented.

5. Body: The weight of wine

The body of the wine refers to the weight and viscosity of the wine. There are three main types of wine bodies:

  • Full-bodied wine: Thick, and coats the side of the wine glass when you swirl it.

  • Medium-bodied wine: Is less thick than full-bodied, more like water, but may still coat the sides of a wine glass a little.

  • Light bodied wine: Has the viscosity of water, very light.

6. Acidity: The freshness of wine

The acidity of the wine is responsible for its citrus, sour, and even fresh taste. However, don’t confuse acidity for stronger alcohol levels or bitterness, instead think of it as a taste similar to lemons and oranges.  The acidity of the wine is dependent on other flavours in the wine like the sweetness and the bitterness (tannins). Often, white wines tend to be more acidic as they don’t have as much tannin flavour as red wines.

Ok, so now that we have an understanding of important wine characteristics and how to describe them, what are the most common types of wine?

10 common types of wine

1. Cabernet Sauvignon

How to say it: “Cab-er-nay Saw-vin-yawn”

This is a full-bodied red wine that has a bold and sharp flavour and aftertaste. According to the information center Dummies, it is the most popular wine in the whole world. The red grape that it’s made from, was traditionally planted in Bordeaux, France. Nowadays, different varieties of it can be found all over the world in places like California and Australia.

  • Style: Full-bodied red wine

  • Where it’s found: Bordeaux, France; Napa Valley, U.S.A; Tuscany, Italy; and Sonoma County, Australia

  • Food pairing: Red meat (beef, lamb, pork), and cheese

2. Syrah or Shiraz

How to say it: “Sear-ah” though in Tanzania people say ‘Shi-raz’

This full-bodied red wine is incredibly popular in Tanzania. While most of the Shiraz wine in the country is imported from South Africa, the grapes are also planted in Australia and the Rhône Valley in France. It has a very fruity (plums, blueberry) and some would say meaty flavour.

  • Style: Full-bodied red wine

  • Where it’s found: Côtes du Rhône, France; Stellenbosch, South Africa; Mendoza, Argentina; and  Barossa, Australia

  • Food pairing: Red meats like lamb and beef, cheese, Mediterranean foods, and French foods

3. Zinfandel

How to say it: “Zin-fan-dell”

This is a medium-bodied red wine originally made in Croatia. However, California is known for producing the best Zinfandel nowadays. It’s fruity in flavour, and not as heavy as fuller-bodied wines like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • Style: Medium to full-bodied red wine

  • Where it’s found: Napa valley, Sierra Foothills, and Paso Robles (all in California)

  • Food pairing: Lamb, beef, pork, chicken, cheese, and pasta

4. Merlot

How to say it: “Mer-loh”

This is a smoother version of the Cabernet Sauvignon, with a more fruity (plum and cherry) flavour and less bitterness (tannin). It also tends to be cheaper than the Cabernet Sauvignon and tastes better when drank with food.

  • Style: Medium – bodied red wine

  • Where it’s found: Bordeaux, France; and Sonoma Valley, California;

  • Food pairing: Lamb, beef, pasta, cheese, and grapes

5. Pinot Noir

How to say it: “Pee-no Nwar”

When people talk about ‘dry’ red wines, they are usually referring to the Pinot Noir. This wine, mostly produced in France, is light-bodied, dry, and highly acidic for a red wine. Its acidity comes from its intense fruity notes of cranberry and cherry.

  • Style: Light-bodied red wine

  • Where it’s found: Burgundy, France; Santa Cruz, California; and Tasmania, Australia

  • Food pairing: Duck, chicken, pork, French food, and creamy sauces

6. Pinotage

How to say it: “Pee-no-taaj”

This is the signature wine of South Africa, and the grape originated there when farmers combined the Pinot Noir grape with another grape variety (Cinsaut). However, even though it’s related to Pinot Noir, it tastes more like a smokier and denser version of Shiraz.

  • Style: Full-bodied red wine

  • Where it’s found: South Africa

  • Food pairing: Boerewors, chicken, braai meat, Indian curries, and biryani

7. Chardonnay

How to say it: “Shar-dun-nay”

Like many wines, the Chardonnay grape variety was first planted in Burgundy, France. This full-bodied white wine is aged in oak, which gives it a woody, spicy, and whisky flavour.

  • Style: Medium to full-bodied white wine

  • Where it’s found: Burgundy, France; Monterey, California; and Limari Valley, Chile

  • Food pairing: Shellfish (crab, lobster, and prawns), chicken, pork, soft cheeses, and cream sauces

8. Sauvignon Blanc

How to say it: “Saw-vin-yawn Blonk”

This is a dry white grape popular in France. Unlike the Chardonnay, it has an incredibly light and citrus flavour, similar to sour oranges and grapefruit.

  • Style: Light to medium-bodied white wine

  • Where it’s found: Bordeaux, France; Loire Valley, France; and Stellenbosch; South Africa

  • Food pairing: fish, wild meat (antelope),  chicken, pork, goat cheese

9. Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio

How to say it: “Pee-no Gree”

This is a dry, light-bodied white grape that is mostly grown in Italy but can also be found in Germany and France. It is very easy to drink because of its low level of tannins (bitterness) and high acidity (zesty and citrus flavour).

  • Style: Light-bodied white wine

  • Where it’s found: Tasmania, Australia; Casablanca, Chile; San Juan and Mendoza; Argentina

  • Food pairing: Light cheeses, grilled fish, and salads


10. Riesling

How to say it: “Reese-ling”

This wine is heavily dependent on the winemaking style. It can either be dry or quite acidic and tart. However, the grape itself gives off a very floral and relatively sweet taste.

  • Style: Light bodied white wine

  • Where it’s found:  Germany; Alsace, France; and Luxembourg; Croatia

  • Food pairing: Poultry (chicken, turkey, and duck), pork, South Asian food, Thai and Chinese

Honourable mentions:

11. Rosé

How to say it: “ Row-zeey”

This is a blush or pink wine that is made when dark grape skins come into contact with the grape juice for a short period of time during fermentation. It is made from a variety of grapes around the world, so unlike other wines, Rosé refers to the process rather than a particular type of grape.  Rosé tends to be closer in lightness to white wines, and also has relatively low levels of tannins and higher levels of acidity. Its refreshing quality makes it the perfect ‘summer’ wine.

12. Moscato

How to say it: “ Mos-ka-tow”

This is a very sweet and fruity wine made from the Muscat Blanc grape, which is found naturally in many places worldwide like Italy, Brazil, and Portugal. Because of its sweetness, it tends to have lower alcohol levels, which is why people can drink a lot of it and not get intoxicated.

You have to drink to learn

When it comes to wine, the only way to figure out what you like is to drink a lot of different varieties. So, take this guide with you on your next wine shopping spree or when you want to order a bottle at a restaurant. It will surely help you start to distinguish wines more easily and find your signature drink.

Iman Lipumba
A digital storyteller, experienced in creating content that improves website visibility on search engines, enhances the user experience, and nurtures brand loyalty. With a background in the social sciences, an expert in researching complex ideas, and communicating them in engaging language to multiple audiences.