Consider the prototypical wine connoisseur — swirling his glass, sniffing his wine, and blabbering on about some French chateau. He’s insufferable.
Or consider a representative tasting note. Wine Spectator recently praised a wine for offering notes of “creamy boysenberry, plum skin and cassis . . . [along with] hints of mesquite and grilled herbs.” They’re bewildering.
Add to that the number of wine regions, grape varieties, and production methods that oenophiles can easily rattle off, and it’s no wonder why so many people find wine so daunting.
Keep your chin up. Wine might be complex, but at the end of the day, it’s just fermented grape juice. And the best way to learn about wine is to drink it.
For budding wine enthusiasts, the importance of tasting is impossible to overstate. Even simple questions, like your go-to varietal on a normal weeknight, are impossible to answer until you’ve tasted hundreds of different wines.
If you prefer white wine, do you seek ones that are crisp and light, like Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre? Or do you prefer whites that are buttery and ripe, like California Chardonnay? If you prefer red, do you seek out big, muscular wines, like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? Or the more restrained profile of Pinot Noir from Burgundy?
Tasting can be as simple as visiting the local wine shop or attending a food and wine festival. Getting together with friends and asking each person to bring something different is another way to taste several wines at once.
One of my favorite tastings is a bit more formal. I select four varietals — generally Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah — and open two bottles of each, one from California and one from France.
The stereotype tells us that American wines are fruitier than their French counterparts. While one can find wines that debunk this stereotype, it’s based in truth. So I purposefully seek out wines that fit the stereotype. And I serve everything blind, pouring the wines from paper bags to mask where they’re from.
Recognizing the differences should be obvious, even to novices.
The aromatics of California Sauvignon Blanc are intense, typically reminiscent of fresh-cut grass and grapefruit. French Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, presents more subtle aromatics, like chalk and white flowers.
Chardonnay provides a similar contrast. While California Chardonnays are characterized by tropical fruits and butter, French Chardonnays are marked by tart fruits, like green apples and lime.
When Pinot Noir comes from warmer regions of California, like Napa Valley and Carneros, it presents aromatics of sweet fruits, like black cherries. In the French region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir generally offers aromas of tart cherries and earth.
Syrah can offer a stunning contrast. Many California winemakers utilize the grape to produce fruit bombs — think gobs of ripe blackberries and licorice. French Syrah is typically more restrained, marked by blueberries, meat, and pepper.
Looking for differences between similar wines is extremely educational. And when the paper bag comes off each bottle, it’s exciting to see whether or not you correctly deduced the origin of each.
Most showdowns have a winner. But with wine, neither France nor the United States makes “better” wine. My preferences shift all the time.
This is just one model for a tasting, of course. One can just as easily host a “wine on a budget” party, selecting several bottles under $10. It’s also fun to explore one grape, in depth. Pinot Noir, for example, is particularly expressive — so it’s fun to explore the differences between classic bottlings from Napa, Sonoma, Oregon, and Burgundy.
Once wine becomes a passion, those baffling tasting notes make sense. Hard-to-pronounce regions across Europe become easier to remember. Those flaws that sommeliers can spot become obvious. But only if you’ve tasted enough wine. So start drinking.
David White is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com, which was named “Best Overall Wine Blog” at the 2013 Wine Blog Awards. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.