Wine Lists 101 | A Guide to Reading, Understanding and Making Great Choices

Built for our first in-person tasting event, Uncorked: Women & Wine, this is the guide we gift to you as a helping hand for when it comes to ordering and buying wine. Everyone deserves to know where their money's going - follow our philosophy and you'll not only know that, you'll also feel empowered to discover corners of the wine world you're yet to uncover.

Feeling Confident at Christmas (and beyond)

There are few times of year in which wine consumption compares to that of the festive period. Bleary-eyed, we awake each morning of December, check our phone for evidence of office faux-pas and dust off our fifth hangover of the week. We wrap up warm in identity & eye-bag obscuring knitwear, wash the lingering scent of Sambuca from our breath with a triple shot of Espresso and head into the office (or at least, we did if this was 2019) ready for a new day, ready to hit the town once again, but rarely ready, despite plenty of consumption training, to take charge of the Wine List. Particularly when it’s handed to you by the old school acquaintance you haven’t seen for eight years outside of the annual Christmas dinner you told yourself you wouldn’t attend when next year came around.

But, lo and behold, we are where we are – Wine List in hand and keen to make hangover number six truly worth it.

christmas table with wine

Naturally, however, the nerves kick in as people look expectedly round the table to hear what you choose, people of no wine knowledge ready to judge your every decision with every sip. Too expensive, too light-bodied, too red, too white, too different, too dull. It’s time to take a deep breath and channel Sociovino’s mantra, designed to offer you a helping hand – and a bottle full of confidence – in these very moments. You’ve got this – because, this Christmas, we’ve got you.

So, repeat after me (whether you’re a man or a woman):

STRONG WOMEN PREFER GOOD VINO.

Why? I hear you say. Well, because we created this mantra as the perfect rule to follow when reading a Wine List, to help you get to grips with every bottle, to give you a basic idea of what to expect from every drop on there, and to make sure you know where every penny you’re pouring into Christmas this year is headed.

Let me walk you through what each word in our mantra means, to ensure you’re well-equipped to order wine in full confidence as the festive season encourages us to keep filling up our cup.

 

red wine being pourred 

S for Style

This is so simple a consideration, wine style can often be overlooked in the process of wine selection. Particularly when you start at the very beginning: Red? White? Sparkling? But this is a mantra not only to ensure you find something you’re going to enjoy, but to help you push your boundaries with an insurance plan in place.

Some wine menus will be categorized by style already – like our website: Crisp and Fresh White Wines’, ‘Earthy and Savoury Red Wines’ – which can help speed up this part of your selection process. Otherwise, remember wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum – use the internet, and ask those around working (they’re literally paid to talk to you).

Style is a great summary guide to any wine. While it lacks nuance, it’s a good way of giving you a topline view of what you’re ordering and should always be your first port of call in the selection process. First, consider the context in which you’re uncorking your bottle:

  • Pre-dinner aperitivi?
  • Cosying up by a pub fire with a bowl of pasta?
  • Sucking up some oysters al fresco?
  • Sitting down to an early Christmas dinner?

 

christmas table scene

Each of these scenarios could be augmented by a plethora of different wine styles – so don’t limit yourself as a wine drinker and ignore the most important word of our mantra. Be strong and encourage yourself to sit with this question of style for at least a few moments before moving on – what style makes most sense for the moment, for the company I’m in?

All this requires is a little common sense, and a gentle opening of your mind. Once you’ve paused to think, make use of the experts around you – the best question you can ask of a sommelier, waiter or bottleshop owner is, in fact:

“I’m usually more of a [insert preference] drinker, but think I’d like to explore a sparkling to kick off my Christmas dinner – can you help me pick something I might enjoy?”.

Cue rounds of ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ as wine professionals are finally offered the chance to get creative, to learn more about what makes you tick, and to offer you a truly original bottle suggestion.

It’s all too easy (and, of course, not always wrong) to stick within the comfort of what you know. But we’re here to tell you that by refusing to open your eyes to the numerous different styles of wine that exist, you’re limiting yourself and those around you in your journey of wine exploration and enjoyment.

Be ‘strong’ and use style as your first step to nailing down the ball-park from which you want your bottle to come.

If you need a little more help, here’s a general guide to the styles suited to different moments in the festive season:

 

  • Post-Christmas Dinner Game Time:
  • Fireside Reading Time:
  • Christmas Eve canapes:
  • Christmas morning:
    • Champagne (or coffee). There's no in between.
  • BYO-Bubbly Christmas party:
    • Save the Champagne for Christmas day and opt for something more fun, like Pet-Nat.
  • Carol singing with the neighbours:
  • Christmas lunch:
    • Whatever your favourite style is – now is the time to get really stuck into it. We won’t judge.

 

W for Where

You don’t need a degree in Geography to tell your North from South, East from West, or warm from cool climate, and most of us – even the most geographically-challenged, are vaguely aware of where you might expect to find a mountain versus a coastline. Which means you’re one step closer to wine expertise than you realised.

Understanding the region you’re heading to for your wine is crucial to understanding what to expect from your glass – and opens up one of the most magical things about wine: its ability to transport us to some of the world’s most beautiful places with every sip.

By why does it matter so much? Surely, the grape variety we choose is far more contributive to our wine drinking experience?

 

couple with red wine

It matters profoundly. Taste a Sauvignon Blanc from France’s cool climate Loire region in comparison to a Sauvignon Blanc from Southern Australia. Or, contrast an Austrian Pinot Noir with a wine produced from the same grape in California; a Semillon from Bordeaux and Australia’s Hunter Valley; a Malbec from its home in Cahors, and its new home in Mendoza. What do you notice? Well, in short, plenty of difference. Generally, cooler climate wines retain a freshness and acidity that’s sacrificed in warm or hot climate wines to ripeness of fruit and fullness of body.

Why?

Because wine is made from grapes which, like any fruit or vegetable, respond to different climates. If temperatures in a vineyard soar through the day, before plummeting at night; if coastal proximity keeps temperatures steady from sunrise to sunset, but pulls in daily cooling breezes or salinic, oceanic fog; if grapes see piercing sunlight every day of their growing season, or if they ripen slowly under the shade, you’re going to know about it – consciously or unconsciously.

So, next time you’re faced with a wine list, or you’re exploring Sociovino’s selection, have a think about where you’d like to go (we’d recommend Sicily for some particularly beautiful wintery whites, like Gulfi’s stunningly broad and generous Carjcante, or Piedmont for a red wine that’ll lure you into its tannic grip with ethereally pretty aromas of red fruit, leather, earth and rose). Then, next time you find yourself in the same position, think about exploring a new region, and take a moment to recognise and understand why you’re faced with a wine so entirely different (or similar) in style.

 

And if you need some notes to refer back to, here’s your summary of how geographical and climatic influences shape a wine:

  • Warm/Hot Climate:
    • Wines tend to be fuller in body, higher in alcohol (due to increased fruit ripeness and grape sugar levels at harvest), higher in tannin (due to thicker grape skins), and riper in fruit flavours – expect black and blue fruits, rather than red fruits for Red Wines and stone or tropical fruits versus citrus and green fruits for White Wines.

 

  • Cool Climate:
    • Wines tend to be higher in acidity and lighter in body with fruits at the ‘un-ripe’ or tart end of the spectrum – citrus fruits, green fruits and delicate floral characteristics. Alcohol levels might be lower.

 

  • Coastal (Maritime) Climate:
    • Wines from coastal regions benefit from cooling breezes, so you can tend to expect the characteristics of cool climate wines. They can also benefit from exposure to sea salt in the air and soil, bringing a mouth-watering salinity to coastal wines.

 

  • Continental Climate:
    • Regions far from bodies of water, sometimes at high altitudes. Vineyards experience sharp temperature drops at night, and – if facing the equator – excellent sun exposure during the day, which, in conjuncture, make for beautifully ripe grapes that have their acidity retained.

 

  • Mediterranean Climate:
    • Mediterranean climates facilitate a long, sunny growing season without much rain so you can expect ripe flavours and soft, approachable structures to acidity and tannin.

 

vineyard

 

P for People and Philosophy

If there’s one thing you learn pretty quickly when you choose to open your ears, eyes, nose and mouth to the world of wine, it’s that quality wine doesn’t simply appear – it’s crafted with care. It’s crafted by nature – yes – but wine, wine brands and wine styles are also all crafted by people, and the philosophies they commit themselves to. It’s what we like to see as one of the key similarities between art and wine; two cultural phenomena in which, regardless of how much an agent may choose to interfere with the medium in question, it’s their personality, philosophy and experience that defines the crafted product.

We’re fortunate to only work with wineries who put quality above quantity – and therefore give themselves and their winemakers the space to impart an incomparable amount of consideration and thought into every last drop.

Now, unless you possess an encyclopaedic brain, the name of the winery listed on a wine list is the element you’re least likely to be able to ascertain any information from. However, that doesn’t mean it should be ignored – because people are what make wine so wonderful, just like art can’t exist without artists. Art can be enjoyed without knowledge of an artist, of course, but it can never fully be understood without the context of who and where it’s come from. Cue smartphone internet, my friend. Get Googling and get to know the people behind the bottles you’re tucking into, because it's a sure-fire way to opening a new level of appreciation. If you need some evidence, here are the stories behind a couple of our producers, and the wines they shaped:

 

Salcheto Winery:

The Salcheto winery covers 21 hectares of hilly Tuscan land and it surrounds the Salcheto stream that runs through the heart of Tuscany’s Montepulciano town. The first estate in Italy to be fully self-sustainable, Salcheto reflects the epitome of environmental efficiency – and, unsurprisingly, its wines embody a similar ethos of innovation and natural process. Thirty years on from its founding, and almost twenty-five since its takeover by Michele Manelli in 1997, the Salcheto winery can today be considered an eco-pioneer in the wine world. Alongside its primary goal to create terroir-focused, Sangiovese-oriented wines focused on drinkability and aromatic clarity, Salcheto is absolutely committed to utilising a cellar that is considered an exemplary model of sustainable technological innovation, while incorporating the lightest and most ecological bottling solution and boxing on the market, all to keep their carbon footprint as low as possible.

All of Salcheto’s wines are low sulphur or sulphite-free and fermented with indigenous yeasts, maintaining consistency in their approach to respecting and protecting the natural environment in which they work from vineyard to winery. However, recently they took this approach one step further, releasing a range of natural wines under the label ‘Obvius’ – Oro, Rosso, Bianco and Rosato – all of which provide fruit-forward experiences that keep you (and Salcheto’s winemakers) on your toes.

 

vineyard 

Ronchi di Cialla Winery:

Amidst the Eastern-facing hills of Italy’s Friuli Venezia-Giulia lies Cialla, a small, luscious valley coloured with forests of chestnut, oak and wild cherry trees, in the heart of the renowned Colli Orientali wine region. In Friulian dialect ‘Ronchi’ refers to hills cultivated by vines and thus, just as this family estate’s wines take their personality from the land, so do they take their name. The simplicity of the Ronchi di Cialla winery’s name perfectly reflects the ethos of this 28-hectare estate, founded in 1970 and since passed from Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi to their sons Pierpaolo and Ivan: to cherish the ancient native grapes of Friuli, working solely with indigenous varieties, including Ribolla, Redosco, Verduzzo and Picolit and, most uniquely, the Schioppettino grape, which they restored and revitalised from near extinction. Baroque, beautifully balanced, bursting with blackberries and intriguingly balsamic in personality, you’ll be thrilled they saved it.

Protection of this land is paramount to the Ronchi di Cialla winery – their commitment to biological diversity and minimalist agriculture innovation earned them the ‘Biodiversity Friendly’ certification in 2015. Such respect for the earth and the fruit it bears is paralleled within the winery walls. Natural vinification, followed by a maturation in oak barrels developed in 1977, made Ronchi di Cialla the very first to use this old natural wine stabilisation process. A period of long undisturbed meditation in bottle concludes this sensitive winemaking process, the wines’ release marking only the beginning of a beautifully long life, during which their personality develops – for over 40 years - as lusciously as the land from whence they came

 

ronchi di cialla white wine 

GV for Grape Variety

So, you’ve considered style, you’ve considered region and you’ve considered the people behind the pour, all of which, in conjunction with one another, provide you with a pretty clear idea of the wine on the list in front of you. And you haven’t even considered the grape variety at this point which, forgive us if we’re wrong, tends to be the text on a wine list that you’ve historically based the majority of your wine decisions on. Of course, grape variety is important – it plays a key role in defining the characteristics of a wine, its acidity levels, tannins, floral or fruity elements – but it’s all too easy to limit yourself in your decision making by letting your eyes be magnetized towards grapes you know you can trust. But can you really? Because the wine from any grape variety is going to be shaped by all of the elements you’ve just considered above – style, region, people, philosophy.

This is our plea to avoid considering grape varieties in a vacuum. It sets you up to limit your exploration of a world of wine as colourful and varied as the world of art, and it can set you up for (overpriced) disappointment.

So, start to use this pneumonic to help push grape variety to the final step of your selection process, to help you explore styles, regions and producers you’ve never explored before, to order wines and spend your money with the full picture of what you’re paying for – and what you’re about to enjoy!

To finish off, we thought we’d introduce you to a couple of favourite wines from lesser known grape varieties, so you can at least feel some comfort if you spot them on a wine list while you’re out and about this Christmas….

 

 

 

 

 

So, take this guide – and our pneumonic ‘STRONG WOMEN PREFER GOOD VINO’ – with you next time you head out to dinner or pop to a local bottle shop (if you’ve missed our weekend order cut off…). Use it to not only make you feel more comfortable approaching – or taking charge of – the wine list, but also to help you discover some drops you’d never dreamed of diving into before discovering that ‘Strong Women Prefer Good Vino’.

 

pouring a white wine

 

 

 

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