If you’re at a swanky cocktail or dinner party, odds are the wine itself will become a featured part of the conversation. It is natural to discuss the varietal and how well it was done. 

But it can be a little intimidating, too. True wine lovers are known for being a little bit too erudite. They know their types of wine, from pinot grigios to pinot noirs and beyond, and they sure seem to have strong opinions about everything from appellations to acidity. 

But the truth is, you don’t have to feel like a dummy when you are amongst this set. Our short little guide to wine for beginners gives you everything you know to hang with the best of them (and maybe teach them a thing or two!). 

Two women chat on a couch and sip white wines.

First Things First – Red Wines and White Wines

You probably already know that most wines fall into largely three categories– red wine, white wine, and rosé (let’s not worry about the fortified and dessert wines for now). But interspersed within those are so many different grape varietals and blends it can make your head spin. 

But if you can wrap your brain around America’s most popular wines, you can probably navigate yourself through any art reception or dinner party with ease (and if you add these fun wine facts to the mix, you will REALLY impress people). But what ARE the most popular wines you might encounter at a dinner party? 

Wine bottles, grapes, and glasses sit on a table.

Luckily, there’s a study for this. Here are the top 5 wines you should know: 

 1. White Zinfandel

As the name suggests, White Zinfandel is in the white wine category. But you might be surprised to know that it comes from a dark-skinned grape (use that fact to outwit your wine snob friends!). Perhaps this wine’s popularity comes from the fact that it is quite sweet and crisp. Usually, it hints at melons and strawberries, which makes it perfect for drinking chilled on a hot summer night. 

But avoid a wine foul and never pair this one with a super-rich dessert. Its already-sweet flavor is considered too much to pair well with all that sugar. But charcuterie boards (or less sweet desserts) make a good pairing choice. 

2. Moscato

Light-bodied and sweet, Moscato is another famous white wine. It is considered one of the oldest grapes in the world, and you can find it growing in many regions of the world. But Italian Moscato grapes are perhaps the best well-known. This wine is also known for its slightly spicy nuances – we are talking flavor profiles such as cinnamon and mint. Because of this, we love pairing it with Asian cuisines such as Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese at our dinner parties. It handles spicey foods like a pro! 

3. Merlot

Finally, we have hit a red wine on our countdown! And it is quite a controversial one, too. If you haven’t seen the movie Sideways, you might not be familiar with the film’s quite negative take on the wine. And in fact, the movie directly influenced the merlot market as sales took a nosedive. 

But lately, merlot has been having a renaissance of a sort. Perhaps this is one of the best wines for beginners. “The Little Blackbird,” as it is sometimes affectionately known, is easy to drink. It can stand on its own without food–or you can pair it with your rich cheeses and savory meats. If you are having a hamburger to eat for dinner tonight, this might be your best go-to. 

4. Cabernet Sauvignon

A full-bodied red, cabernet sauvignon is the result of a French vineyard’s accidental breeding of two other grape varietals: a cabernet franc grape and a white sauvignon blanc. And never has a love child been so delicious–and drinkable. 

We love cabernet sauvignon in particular because it pairs well with food. It’s high in tannins, so you can expect to leave a dry finish on your tongue. And it has a complex flavor profile that many people find fun to explore–you can detect anything from green pepper to vanilla to tobacco in this one, folks. 

5. Chardonnay

Many of the world’s sparkling wines use chardonnay (we’re looking at you, Champagne). But if chardonnay was defined by one word, that one word might be buttery. Here’s the thing, though…

While chardonnay should taste good with your buttery foods, it shouldn’t taste too much like butter itself. In fact, chardonnay is prized for (what should be) its complexities. What winemakers love about this varietal is that it is easy to grow, making it easier to adapt to individual tastes. So you should be able to find new and exciting flavors with every new chardonnay you encounter. 

Deciphering a Wine Label

Figuring out a wine label can be almost as impossible as learning another language. Here are a few tips to get you started. 

A bottle of wine is held up to the camera.

  1. Brand or appellation?

Forget about the word “reserve” when it comes to wine. It doesn’t really mean anything (at least not by any standardized measurement!), and there are no rules attached to it. 

The best wines are designated by their appellation. These wines have a strict protocol to follow, and specific world regions govern them. Wines that are a bit more free-spirited go by brand. 

There are many examples of this, but one might be the aforementioned chardonnay. The regular stuff is called simply that. A higher degree would be Chablis Premier Cru. We know you would never even know that was a chardonnay, would you? 

There are 15 nations with officially regulated appellations, though the strictness of the rules and what matters varies wildly among them.

      2. Regions and vineyards

You can get wines from soooo many different areas of the world. But here is a rule of thumb for you–the vaguer the region, the likelihood that the wine will be less… shall we say…. apropos for wine drinkers with a true taste for the good stuff? The more specific the wine region (we’re talking about getting down to the specific vineyard), the more likely you’ve got a good bottle of wine. 

Vineyard full of lush grapes.

     3. Vintage

This is the year the wine’s grapes were harvested. Lower-shelf wines tend not to have a year associated with them, as they are often pulled from various years. They use these blends to mess with the recipe, so to speak, until they get the right flavor. 

    4.  Awards & points

Honestly, these awards and points are so all over the place that we don’t think they are much worth worrying about. There are so many contests and competitions and festivals, far more than we can keep track of. And their rules are all over the place, too. You are probably good to go as long as something lands at least a silver or gold medal (probably best to toss out the bronzes) and scores above a 75. 

Tasting Wine

Tasting wine doesn’t have to be complicated. It falls into four basic steps: 

  1. Look: How thick is the wine? How colorful? 
  2. Smell: Can you detect any scents of berries? Tobacco? Pepper? Something else? 
  3. Taste: What do you experience on your taste buds as you take that first sip… Sour? Sweet? Fruity? Dry? How does it taste when it first hits your tongue vs. when it’s lingered there for a moment? Does the taste stay with you (this is called long-bodied)? 
  4. Decide: Did you like it? Is this a varietal you like? Call this your mindfulness moment. Is this a wine you would want to make a long-term commitment with? If it is, maybe take note of the bottle and the grape. 

​​Woman gazes at a glass of red wine.

Detecting a bad wine… 

Want to be a wine drinker that really knows their stuff? Learn how to detect a bad grape in the bunch. Here are a few top reasons to put that glass of wine down and why they happen:

  1. Oxidation – This is the most common thing that can make a good wine go wrong. It makes wine taste flat or bitter. And it doesn’t just happen during the winemaking process, either. Leave an opened bottle of wine out for a day or so and try it (if you want to see what we mean). 
  2. Cork Taint – If your wine smells like your dirty laundry, it could be cork taint. This contaminant sometimes seeps into wines from the barrels they have aged in or even the cork itself. 
  3. Heat Damage – Wine stored in direct sunlight can become a victim of heat damage. They might smell overly sweet or processed. People in the know might call them “cooked wines,” which is never a good thing unless you are making a sauce. 

Wine As A Journey

So, that’s The Austin Artisan’s “wine for beginners” in a nutshell. All that’s left to do is to drink up. Enjoying wine, my friends is something you don’t need a how-to to do. 

What is your favorite wine varietal? Tag The Austin Artisan on Instagram and let us know (and catch some valuable advice on our favorite wine pairings while you’re there). 

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