The Beginners Guide to Wine: 5 Mouth-Watering Tips To Get You Started
Picture the scene. You have watched Sideways and SOMM on Netflix. You fantasize about drinking Pinot in the California setting sun surrounded by gorgeous vineyards bathed in golden light. You channel Miles from Sideways about how Pinot Noir grapes are survivors; thin-skinned and temperamental making it the quintessential wine drinkers’ beverage of choice.
Then reality strikes. You do not really know where Pinot Noir comes from let alone what it tastes like. You love champagne but cannot understand why it is so expensive. All your friends, including yourself, mostly drink beer, but secretly you want to be that guy or gal that buys the glass of wine and can wax lyrical about where it comes from, how it was made, and the finer points of its aroma and taste. Fear not. Here are 5 top tips on how you can go from enthusiastic consumer to connoisseur in no time.
1. Passionate Wine Drinkers Taste as Many Different Wines as Possible
With so many different wines available it can be hard to know where to start. Will it be a zesty Chardonnay from Chablis, France, or a full-bodied meaty Shiraz from the Barossa region of Australia? How about a succulent Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA, or a mouth-watering Sauvignon Blanc from the South Island of New Zealand?
When I was learning about wine and experimenting with distinct types and styles, I made sure to try different wines from different countries and wine-growing regions. I was fascinated by the influence a different climate or soil type would have on what I was drinking. I tried wines from different price points, looking for differences that allowed me to justify the added expense.
Gain the experience and knowledge from your local specialist wine retailer. They will be able to guide you through well-known wine-producing regions and sub-regions, as well as different price points. Specialist retailers usually enable you to attend wine tastings and gain invaluable insight and knowledge from local winemakers, not usually something that can be gained by going to the local supermarket.
If you are lucky enough to live in an area that is home to a vibrant wine industry, it might be time to visit their cellar door. Talking to someone familiar with the wine their vineyard produces gives you valuable insight into some local knowledge of what variety of wine can be produced. It will also be sure to make your wine tasting experience that much more fulfilling.
2. Follow a System for Assessing Wine
When it comes to assessing a wine, there is a simple yet effective system you can use. Not only will it allow you to calibrate your palette, but also give you a common language to help evaluate and compare.
Let us start with the wine’s appearance. Is the wine red, white, or rosé? How intense is the color? Tilt your glass over a white sheet of paper or tablecloth. What about the opacity and viscosity? Different wines will have distinct characteristics, where some come from the grape variety, vintage, and the amount of alcohol. Information regarding the characteristics can usually be found on the label.
One of the great pleasures of experiencing wine can come from the aromas. Differences in the character and clarity of the aromas can ascertain the quality of the wine, from basic quality to fine wine. The complexity of these aromas can be one of the reasons why you can pay a small amount or a substantial amount for a bottle of wine. One key tip is to recognize that different grape varieties can have the same key aromas present, for example, a Chardonnay usually has key aromas of apple or pear and citrus fruit. Whereas Pinot Noir can have key characteristics of strawberry, raspberry, and red cherries. The important thing to remember that whatever you experience, it is your experience and no one else’s. The aromas in the wine are subjective, allowing you to make your own conclusion.
Many of the flavor components we may find on the nose can also be replicated on the palate. Green fruit and citrus notes, red and blackberries can all be conveyed through taste. Qualities of sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, and richness of fruit are important characteristics. Having a balance of these components are all trademarks of excellent or outstanding wine. Luckily, many of these descriptors are usually described on the wine label. When first learning to taste wine, see if your taste experience matches that on the label. Remember though that It's purely subjective and do not think that you have failed if you do not pick up all the descriptors.
Once you have ascertained the wine's appearance, aromas, and palate, it is time to evaluate its quality and form a conclusion. Starting this may be as simple as asking yourself whether you enjoy the wine or not. Experienced wine tasters will be asking whether the wine is balanced. Does it have any single component that comes to the fore and overrides the other elements? The wine should show balanced characteristics of sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, and richness of fruit. Balanced wines just ooze quality and can be a real pleasure to drink.
3. Invest in Glassware
I love experiencing wine from different wine glasses. From small tulip-shaped for sweet German Trockenbeerenauslese to a glass designed for New Zealand Otago Pinot Noir. Invest in a variety of wine glasses. It might seem pretentious to have several types of glasses for different types of wine; I can already hear you say: “Where am I going to put them all”? You will find that the biggest benefit it brings is that they help preserve the aroma, flavor, and enhance the experience of the wine drinker.
Sparkling Wine Flute
The classic example is using a flute glass for sparkling wine. It just seems natural, doesn’t it? Why would you use anything else? The shape of the glass is used to help preserve the steady stream of bubbles rising through the glass. The exception is with sparkling wine where the emphasis is on expressing the aromas. Think expensive Champagne. For that I would recommend a tulip glass, allowing the wine to breathe and express its true calling.
Burgundy / Red Wine Glass
Burgundy glasses get their name from the same region in France where the predominancy grape variety grown there is Pinot Noir. Burgundy glasses are perfect for those lighter red wines like Pinot Noir. Their wide base and rim that angles inward allow the wine to breathe and be more expressive. If you were only to procure one or two types of glasses, this should be one of them. They are versatile enough that they are also well suited to aromatic or full-bodied Oaked Chardonnay.
White wine glasses tend to have a more acute bowl and narrower opening. There is not the same need to let a white wine breathe like red wine, but like all specialty wine glasses, they are designed to preserve the aromas and enhance the drinker’s experience.
Try to resist the urge to drink white wine out of a stemless glass. It might display a contemporary appearance but does nothing to help maintain the temperature of your wine. Different white wines can be served anywhere from a well-chilled sweet or sparkling wine 44–46 °F (6–8°C) right up to a full-bodied Oaked Chardonnay 50–55 °F (10–13°C). Having your hands around the glass will only accelerate the warming of its contents.
It is important not to get intimidated by all the assorted styles of glassware you can buy. The objective is to drink out of a glass that enhances your wine drinking experience, but at the end of the day not having a specific glass should not take away from your overall enjoyment.
4. Keep Track and Compare What You Have Tasted
How do you know how good a wine is if you cannot compare it to others? Very few of us are blessed with a photographic memory, so the answer is to write it down. This will enable you to not only formulate your thoughts but also allow you to compare not only different producers of the same variety but also the same producer with a different vintage. Luckily, there are apps for this. Few notable examples are Wine-Searcher.com and Vivino: Buy the Right Wine. Being able to scan the barcode on the back of a wine label to keeping track of your wine collection and tracking each vintage makes documenting and comparing so much easier.
5. Read as Well as Taste
Getting a broader perspective on the wine industry can take many forms and may be dictated by your level of interest, time, and how much money you are willing to invest. You can visit wineries, attend formal tastings, talk to wine professionals, and seek online resources. There is a vast amount of free knowledge on the internet. From the invaluable resource of information available from Madeline Puckette and her team over at WineFolly.com to more detailed information from The Unknown Winecaster over on YouTube.
There are many books on the subject, most notably The World Atlas of Wine by Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, now as of writing in its 8th edition, and is indispensable for those looking to have an in-depth investigation into the worlds wine-growing regions. If you are an enthusiastic consumer, then you may want to consider some formal education.
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) provides education and qualifications to enthusiasts and professions. Split over 3 levels (four if you include the diploma), they provide an increasingly immersive dive into the world of wine. From What is wine? in level 1, to an In-depth investigation into winemaking and viticulture practices in the wine industry in level 3. You can be assured of a vast variety of tastings and class discussions along the way and are highly recommended for anyone that wants to take their love of wine to the next level.
If you live near a vineyard, volunteering to help pick their grapes at harvest allows you to participate in the wine industry at a grassroots level. Not only does it allow you to talk with people with the same passion as you, but also gives you first-hand experience in the creation of a vintage. That is most definitely an experience worth celebrating.
This Will Happen When You Start to Learn About Wine
Whichever route you choose, even a small amount of knowledge can transform your understanding of wine. You are going to feel more confident in making great buying decisions. The world of wine will open up, allowing you will feel less intimidated and far more at ease about the whole experience. Of course, the best part of learning about wine is everything you experience afterward. Enjoying the culture, talking to your friends about your newfound passion, and bringing them along for the ride, and cheers to that.