An Amateur Wino’s Tasting Guide

Changing of the Guard
September 30, 2010
On Writing
October 4, 2010

Wine deserves our utmost attention. And that it gets—if only because the box it comes in is enrobed in quaint pictures of Victorian England. Nevermind that, against all sense and sensibility, the only wine sophisticates of that era drank was sugar syrup with a hint of alcohol.

But there is a genuine nugget of quality to wine, even if we don’t know what it is. Advertising tells us what we think we should know, and we endeavor to impress not by a wine’s innate character, but by its ruthlessly marketed façade. I guarantee I’ve had more Columbia Crest and Coppola wine in my day than any vintages from unpronounceable French winemakers. Coppola or not, the wine is hit or miss; don’t judge a bottle by its label.

The trouble is, we just don’t know where to start. Supposing we do know the trickery of fancy labels and artsy bottles, we still don’t know how to judge a wine—and we’re hardly interested enough to research the history of vintners and vintages. But I don’t think the question of wine research is any different than exhortations to learn about the ingredients in our food. Why, you’d be laughed at these days if someone mentioned that your power bars contained high fructose corn syrup and you responded with a vacant, “What?”

Believe me, I understand the difference—we research food ingredients to preclude potential disease down the line. Avoiding cancer is higher on our priority list than fine-tuning our oenological palate. But we don’t appreciate the ease and enjoyment of learning about wine. It really is far easier (and more fun) than we think.

First of all, the web is littered with wine tools and resources. While I wouldn’t treat them as wine bibles, sites like WineEnthusiast.com and WineSpectator.com explore different types of wine and describe them in simple terms. In a recent Wine Enthusiast issue, Chardonnay was the focus of one of the features. Indeed, not all Chardonnays taste the same, but you can grasp some basic characteristics; most Chardonnays sport an oaky profile with the likes of apple and citrus coming through most prominently on the palate.

There are, of course, about a million print resources to choose from. If you ever find yourself browsing at a bookstore, seek out the food and wine section. I recommend Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, or any recent edition of Robert Parker’s wine guides. Ultimately, know that each author will sport a bias and a certain style. Be confident in choosing one for yourself—I advise picking one that is straightforward and leaves room for your own tasting notes. More than anything, these guides will give you a sense of what’s available and open up your vocabulary to the most common descriptors of wine.

The most important part of wine appreciation, of course, is tasting wine. Never be fooled into thinking that the price or the label are determiners of quality. First of all, individual taste has a lot to do with it. Second, quality wines might be widely available, or they might be extremely hard to find. In either case, trust your own palate—if the wine suits you, make a note of it. What about its smell (bouquet) or taste (palate) appeals to you? If you can identify these, then you’ll be able to choose wines more selectively in the future.

Also, don’t feel like you have to jump up in price point the more wines you try. There are a lot of variables that affect a wine’s price—everything from name-recognition of the winemaker to the number of grapes grown for that particular batch of wine. Use your own knowledge to guide you here—with the help of the experts, of course. If you’re serious about trying new wines that will challenge your palate, make sure you go to a store with a staff that’s knowledgeable. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and never fear disagreement—as with any food or drink, it always comes down to what YOU prefer.

Another area where people falter is food and wine pairing. How on earth are we supposed to know what goes with what? Again, there are a few ground rules, but even these, too, can be suspended if our tastes demand it. Generally, white wines go with lighter foods—flaky, white fish, light pastas, and vegetarian dishes—while reds go with heavier foods—red meat, rich braises, heavier pastas, and risotto. Start there, and then explore.

One final suggestion. If you live in an area with any significant wine-making (and there are few areas in the U.S. now where wine isn’t being made), then explore the wineries themselves. Winemakers are usually all-too-happy to share their methods and facilities with the public; seeing the wine-making process firsthand will further broaden your understanding of wine itself. Plus, many wineries have vacation packages, allowing you to turn a winery tour into a weekend away. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.

Go forth, then, and drink. There’s a lot to explore, but then, that means there’s also a lot to appreciate. And there’s no reason why you can’t become as knowledgeable about wine as the average sommelier. Prost!

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