It’s the holidays … time to decorate, bake cookies and entertain. When you plan a party, choosing wines can be as challenging as deciding what foods to serve.

Here’s the good news. You don’t have to be an expert to select wines that will suit your budget and please your guests.

If you’re a complete beginner, you’ll need some facts, figures and terms to help you become more wine savvy. Don’t know how to hold a wine glass? Don’t know a franc from a blanc? Read on. Just promise you won’t become a wine snob when you’ve mastered the basics!

Grapes become wine

The process of turning grapes into wine is about chemistry, not magic. Grapes are harvested when they reach a certain level of ripeness. The sugar level (called “brix,” pronounced bricks) is measured, as are the acidity and PH levels.

The fruit is then crushed to break the skin. Juice begins to flow, and the naturally occurring yeast makes contact with sugars inside the pulp.

To produce a white wine, the grapes go directly on to pressing, and the resulting juices are pumped into a tank. Yeast is added, and fermentation begins.

Fermentation is a chemical process with the following basic formula: Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide + Heat.

Red wines are made by crushing grapes, then pumping the mixture into a tank where yeast is added and fermentation begins. The soaking of the juice with the grape skins gives red wine its color. After fermentation is complete, the mixture is pressed, and the solids are discarded.

After fermentation some wines can be filtered and bottled. Reds and those requiring additional aging can be stored in oak barrels and allowed to mature.

Popular Varietals

White Wines

Chardonnay: A versatile varietal that can be made in many different styles, from light and crisp to rich and creamy.

Viognier: A lesser known varietal from France’s Rhone Valley, yields a medium bodied wine with floral aromas and the flavors of white peaches and honeysuckle. A great alternative to Chardonnay.

Riesling: A German varietal that typically prefers cooler growing conditions. Can be finished dry or sweet and pairs easily with food.

Pinot Grigio: An Italian varietal; makes a light, refreshing wine with brisk acidity.

Sauvignon Blanc: Produces fruity wines with citrus flavors; can have strong hints of grapefruit. Other names for wines made with this grape are Fumé Blanc and Pouilly Fumé.

Gewurztraminer: A German varietal, pairs easily with food. Spicy aromas and full flavors range from dry to sweet.

Red Wines

Gamay: Light body, fruity flavors. The traditional Beaujolais Nouveau is made from this varietal.

Pinot Noir: Produces wines that are light to medium in body with aromas of cedar, red berries and black currant.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Produces dry, tannic, full-bodied wines that generally improve with age. Flavor profile can include: strawberry, red plum, even bell pepper.

Cabernet Franc: Parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon, often found in red wine blends which are typically tannic, with flavors of pepper and red berries.

Sangiovese: An Italian varietal. Produces wines with a smooth texture, dry finish and flavors of raspberry, licorice and spice.

Merlot: Produces a medium to bold dry wine with soft tannins.

Shiraz/Syrah: Produces a rich red wine with generous flavors of spice and dark berries.

Zinfandel: Produces a moderately tannic wine with flavors of berries and spice.

Some Buzz Words

Acidity: The quality of sourness, sharpness and tartness of a wine, prominent in varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio.

Balance: Correct proportions of a wine’s main components: fruit, alcohol, and acidity.

Finish: The taste that remains in your mouth after drinking wine

Legs (Tears): A transparent residue that streams down the side of the glass after wine has been swirled. Can be an indicator of alcohol content.

Nose: The aroma of wine

Off-Dry: Slightly sweet

Tannins: Compounds responsible for the bitter and astringent tastes in wine. They are found primarily in the grape skins, seeds and stems.

Storing and Serving

Optimal Serving Temperatures:

White Wines: 45-50 °F

Red Wines: 50-65 °F

Rosé Wines: 45-55 °F

Sparkling Wines: 42-52 °F

Fortified Wines: 55-68 °F

Optimal Storage Temperature:

55-60 °F with a humidity level of 70%. High humidity keeps the corks moist and minimizes evaporation.

A final word of advice to the wine novice: The real secret to enjoying wine is the willingness to experiment. Remember, the “best” wine is the wine you like best, no matter what the experts say.

If you would like to learn more, sign up for Crossing Vineyards’ popular course: “A Dummies Guide to Wine Tasting” to be held on Sunday, January 12, 2019, at 2PM. The cost is $30 and includes wine tasting, a tour and lots of fun. For details, call 215-493-6500, ext. 19, or book on-line ( No wine snobs allowed!

Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at:

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