How to drink: wine

Published on 23 December 2021

Photo: How to drink wine, according to wine writer extraordinaire, Max Allen.

Max Allen, wine writer extraordinaire, on the basics of how to get the most pleasure out of drinking wine. 

What is wine?
Fermented grape juice. That’s it, basically. Yes, there are heaps of other details: where the wine is from, who made it, what grape variety it is, and so. That stuff is important, too – it’s where the magic of wine is found, in the delicious geeky details. But all wine – whether it’s crisp sparkling prosecco from the King Valley or funky cloudy pét-nat from the Yarra Valley; a bottle of golden marsanne discovered in your parents’ wine rack at home or a deep purple shiraz tasted in a cellar door near Bendigo; a glass of sav blanc enjoyed in a restaurant or a plastic cup of cask white enjoyed with fish and chips on the beach – all wine starts the same way: ripe sweet grapes are crushed, and yeast converts the sugar in the juice into alcohol. Simple. And magical.

Let’s talk about grapes
The type or ‘variety’ of grape used to make a wine has a big impact on what that wine tastes like. Think about apples: Granny Smith and Pink Lady are both varieties of the same fruit, but you know they look and taste different. Same with grapes: a bunch of white riesling grapes and a bunch of red cabernet grapes are both varieties of the same fruit – but the wines they produce look and taste different.

Most of the wines you drink are made from one grape variety. Think chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz, sangiovese. The list goes on: all types of grape. But some wines are blends: like a chef, the winemaker will put two or more varieties together to create a complete flavour picture. Good examples of this are red wines made by blending firm-tasting cabernet sauvignon with fleshier-tasting merlot, or using a little of the fragrant white grape, viognier, to add a sprinkling of exotic perfume to red shiraz.

Where wine comes from: the taste of place
If you plant the same grape variety in two very different spots – different climate, different soil, different rainfall, et cetera – the wine made from those two places will also taste different.

Take shiraz. This red grape is planted across Victoria, from windswept vineyards overlooking the sea on the Mornington Peninsula in the south to the sun-baked red sands of Mildura hundreds of kilometres away to the northwest. Same grape, different locations, very different flavours: the shiraz made in the cooler climate is lighter in style, with spicy perfume, while the warm-climate shiraz is darker, bolder and fuller-bodied.

Here are four classic Victorian combinations of grape variety and place to get you started:

Mouth-watering, citrus-juicy riesling grown in the cool climate of Henty, in the state’s southwest. Good examples to try at home: Seppelt Drumborg Riesling; Hochkirch Riesling.

Earthy, seductive pinot noir grown in the cool red soils of South Gippsland, southeast of Melbourne. Good examples to try at home: Bass Phillip Estate Pinot Noir; Dirty Three Pinot Noir.

Dark, bold, purple-fruited shiraz grown in the warm red soils of Heathcote, in central Victoria. Good examples to try at home: Wild Duck Creek Springflat Shiraz; Osicka Moormbool Shiraz.

Rich, luscious, treacly muscat grown in the hot vineyards of Rutherglen, in the state’s northwest. Good examples to try at home: Scion Muscat X; Morris Old Premium Rare Muscat. 

How wine is made

White wine 
Lighter, aromatic styles of white wine are made by pressing white grapes, fermenting the juice cool, usually in stainless steel vats, and bottling the wine soon afterwards. Fuller-bodied styles of white are fermented and then often matured for a few months in oak barrels before bottling to create more complex, fuller flavours and textures.

Good examples of lighter-bodied Victorian wines include Best’s Riesling from Great Western and Billy Button Pinot Blanc from the Alpine Valleys; good examples of fuller-bodied whites include Box Grove Roussanne from Nagambie and Bobar Chardonnay from the Yarra Valley.

Pink wine
Rosé wines are made by crushing red grapes and then leaving the skins to sit in the juice for a short period of time before pressing them off and allowing the fermentation to continue: the shorter the skin contact (that is, the time the skins are left to sit in the juice), the lighter the colour, like the super-pale pink blush you find in Giant Steps Pinot Rosé from the Yarra Valley or Cobaw Ridge il Pinko from Macedon.

Red wine 
Lighter styles of red wine are made by crushing red grapes and fermenting the juice and skins together so that the colour from the skins bleeds into the wine. These wines are often bottled soon after fermentation has finished. Fuller-bodied styles of red wine are usually matured for many months in barrels made of oak before bottling to build more complex, fuller flavours and textures.

Historically, Victoria was known for the fuller-bodied styles – cabernet from Tahbilk in Nagambie, for example, or shiraz from Baileys in Glenrowan – wines that needed years in the cellar to soften. Today, Victoria is developing a reputation around the country and around the world for sleeker, more elegant, approachable drink-now styles such as pinot noir from Yabby Lake on the Mornington Peninsula, gamay from Sorrenberg in Beechworth and nebbiolo from Luke Lambert in the Yarra Valley.

Orange wine 
Also sometimes called amber wines, these are made by processing white grapes as though you were making a red wine: the grapes are crushed and the juice and skins are fermented together. The resulting wine is often darker in colour and a bit ‘grippy’ on the tongue compared to a conventionally made white wine. Winemakers are playing with all sorts of white varieties across Victoria: Quealy Wines ferment the friulano grape on skins on the Mornington Peninsula; Gippsland-based Momento Mori use moscato giallo and greco; Ar Fion in the Yarra use gewürztraminer in a wine called Smokestack Lightning.

Sparkling wine 
Top-quality fizz is usually made from cool-climate pinot noir (the clear juice only) and chardonnay grapes. The juice of the grapes is first fermented fully to make a crisp dry white ‘base wine’ that is then put into a bottle. Next comes the addition of a little sugar and yeast, which ferment together (this is called secondary fermentation), producing carbon dioxide (aka bubbles). The wine is then left alone for many months before the bottles are shaken to dislodge the dead yeast cells (called the ‘lees’). The clear wine is separated from the lees (this is called disgorging), then the bottles are sealed again and matured for a while longer before they’re sold. Pét-nat wines (‘pet-nat’ is short for the French term, petillant naturel, which means ‘naturally sparkling’) are made by putting the wine into bottle before the first ferment has finished, and then not disgorging before selling them – which is why they’re often quite cloudy. (Check out Doctor Drinks’ column on sparkling wine for some delicious examples of these different styles.) 

Sparkling shiraz
A quick shout-out to a classic Victorian wine style that was developed at Great Western in the 19th century: ripe, rich-tasting shiraz grapes are put through the full top-quality sparkling wine process described above (first fermentation, second ferment in bottle, disgorging, extended ageing), resulting in a foaming purple glass of gorgeousness. Best Christmas wine ever.

Sweet wine
The easiest way to make sweet wine is to simply stop the fermentation before all the sugar has been converted to alcohol by the yeast, by chilling the fermenting juice and filtering the yeast out of it. This is how sweet sparkling moscato wines – like the Montevecchio Moscato from Heathcote – are made. The more difficult way is to pick the grapes later, when they’ve accumulated more sugar in each berry: letting the grapes hang on the vine for even longer, until they’re infected with a form of mould called botrytis or ‘noble rot’, produces particularly luscious, apricotty, honeyed white wines, because the mould sucks moisture from the berries, and makes them super-sweet. Some of the best local examples of this indulgent wine style include Brown Brothers Patricia Noble Riesling and Crawford River Nektar.

Fortified wines 
Some wines – port and sherry among the best-known examples worldwide– are described as ‘fortified’ because they have been strengthened by the addition of extra alcohol, usually neutral-tasting spirit, but sometimes brandy. If the spirit is added at the beginning of fermentation – as it is with muscat in Rutherglen, say – it takes the total alcohol content of the wine up to 18 or 20 per cent, which kills the yeast, stops fermentation and leaves a lot of sweetness in the wine. Fortified wines are usually then aged for many years in oak barrels to give them their distinctive nutty, savoury characters. Some of the oldest wineries in Australia such as All Saints, Chambers and Campbells in Rutherglen, have precious stocks of these old wines dating back 100 years or more. These ancient elixirs are considered some of the finest wines in the world.

How to get the most out of every wine you drink

Here’s some tips gleaned from a lifetime of wine enjoyment.

Invest in some good wine glasses. A good glass has a thin stem (feels nice to hold), a large-ish bowl (for swirling the wine to release all the beautiful aromas – it looks good, too) and a narrow rim (feels good on your lips). The more satisfying and tactile the whole wine-drinking experience is, the better the wine tastes. Seriously: psychologists have studied this stuff. If you don’t believe me, try it for yourself. Pour the same wine into (a) a clean jam jar and (b) one of the good, fine-stemmed Melbourne-designed wine glasses from Plumm. Now smell and taste the wine from both. See? Chalk and cheese. You’re welcome.

Drink white wine a bit warmer and red wine a bit cooler than you think. The colder a wine is, the less you can smell and taste when you drink it. And the warmer a wine is, the blobbier and more alcoholic it tastes on the tongue. Problem is, most white wines are stored at beer-fridge temperatures – even in winter – and most red wines, especially in summer, sit around at a room temperature of way more than 20 degrees celsius. Too cold and too hot respectively. The solution? Take your white wine out of the fridge 15 minutes before you drink it – and put your red wine in the fridge for 15 minutes or so before opening and pouring.

Never drink the same wine twice. Victoria alone is home to over 150 different grape varieties planted in more than 20 regions, with 800 or so producers turning those grapes into thousands of different wines. And life is short, so being open to new flavours and new styles is the best way to discover as many of those wines as possible. Try this: the next time you walk into your local Blackhearts and Sparrows, find a bottle you’re already familiar with ... and buy the bottle next to it. Yes, it might turn out to be a clanger. But it might also turn out to be your new favourite. Wine is, after all, all about adventure.

Write stuff down – and take pictures of everything. When you’re starting out on the wine journey, it helps a lot if you take a few seconds to note down bits of crucial info about a wine you like or find interesting – the name of the grape variety or the winemaker, say, or a new piece of fascinating wine geekery explained to you by the sommelier/cellar door person/bottle-shop counter-jumper – and link that to a pic of the bottle or the wine list or anything that will help cement the moment in your mind. That way, you’ll build up a massively useful memory bank of facts and flavours that’ll help you seek out and enjoy more wines in the future.

Wine: a Victorian story

Winemaking started in Victoria in the 19th century, with the first boom in vineyard planting dating back to the 1860s. Some of the original wineries from that era such as Bests in Great Western, Tahbilk near Nagambie, Craiglee in Sunbury and Yeringberg in the Yarra Valley are still going strong.

The 1970s and early ’80s saw the emergence of the modern boutique wine scene as doctors and lawyers and other professionals set up vineyards and wineries in now-trendy cooler regions such as Geelong, the Macedon Ranges and the Mornington Peninsula. Now, some of those producers, such as Bannockburn in Geelong, Bindi in Macedon and Moorooduc Estate in Mornington, are considered among Australia’s best.

Today’s Victorian wine landscape began to take shape in the late 1980s and 90s with investment by large wine companies from outside the state – companies such as De Bortoli from New South Wales and Moët et Chandon from France – and the establishment of more large-scale vineyards and wineries, at the same time as the number of small winemakers more than quadrupled. Now Victoria offers more regions and individual producers than any other Australian state or territory.

Max Allen’s Intoxicating: Ten drinks that shaped Australia, filled with stories of wine – and other delicious booze – is out now, as is Beggars Belief: Stories from Gerald’s Bar by Gerald Diffey, which Max edited and illustrated.

By Max Allen

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