Shopping for wine can be an overwhelming experience if you don’t have a specific wine or winery in mind. Understanding the different codes and terms used to describe and label wines will come in handy when you tour the aisles of unfamiliar wines.

If you frequent a B.C. Liquor Store, you may have noticed the numbers located beside the name and price of the wines. These numbers indicate the sweetness code. Sweetness of a wine is something rarely discussed. However, it should be a factor when deciding on the type of wine you want. Sweetness of a wine depends on how much sugar is left after the fermenting process is complete. Sugar level ranges from 0 to 100 grams in the bottle.

Sweetness Code:

0 = Very Dry Examples: Chardonnay, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Brut
1- 2 = Off-Dry Examples: Sauvignon Blanc, Sparkling white, Rosé
3 – 4 = Medium Examples: German Riesling, Geworztraminer
5 – 6 = Sweet Examples: Ports, Apertifs
7 – 10 = Very Sweet Examples: Icewine

When choosing a red wine, some words will constantly crop up. Tannin is an important word to know when it comes to buying a red wine. It is a component of grape skins and is experienced as a drying sensation on the palate; it can also be found when you brew a pot of black tea and let it steep for awhile. If you like wines that taste smooth, you should buy a wine that has lower tannins. Some high tannin reds are cabernet sauvignon, and syrah. Some lower tannin reds include pinot noirs and sangiovese.

Blend is another important word. Most wines are usually a blend, and types such as Bordeaux, chianti and rioja are based on a blend. Varietal characteristics of the wine usually means discussing the individual grape’s profiles; for example, the grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon are thick-skinned berries which produce richer, bolder wine. When talking about a wine’s vintage, this refers to the year printed on the label, which in turn refers to the year the grapes were harvested. However, to call a wine a ‘vintage wine’, this means that this is a wine that has been aged. As red wine ages in the bottle, the wine becomes lighter in colour, exhibits a more delicate structure, and its initial fruitiness drifts into secondary characteristics, often of leather, cedar, and spice.

White wines have some important words too. When discussing a wine’s acidity, this materialises as a crisp or lively sensation on the palate. Some higher acidic wines are sauvignon blanc, Riesling or chenin blanc. When someone asks if you want a sweet or dry wine, this refers to the sugar level left after the fermentation process which is discussed previously in this column. One thing to remember is that dryness is not related to acidity or bitterness, but whether or not there is residual sugar left in the wine. Likewise, sweetness does not mean ‘fruitiness’; the latter refers to the flavours of fruit in the wine. When talking about whether a wine tastes ‘oaky’, this means that the wine has spent time fermenting in a barrel or aging in one. Most commonly oaked variety is Chardonnay. Also oaked: Rhone white wines- Roussanne or Marsanne, and Fume Blanc, oaked version of sauvignon blanc. The results of oak maturation can be beneficial and can have notes of toasted caramel, butterscotch, baking spices or vanilla.

Want to learn more about wine? Attend the seminar “A Guide To Buying Wine” Presented by Metro Liquor and hosted by the Vancouver island Sommelier Association at the Victoria International Wine Festival — September 23rd and 24th.

Buy your ticket at or hard copy tickets at Vessel Liquor Store (1609 Fort Street) and at the Parkside Hotel and Spa (810 Humboldt Street). Come and enjoy over 300 international wines at the Victoria International Wine Festival!