How such a simple thing as fermented grape juice has become a beverage that can strike fear into the hearts of those asked to choose the wine for dinner, especially when out on a date, amazes me. Red or white? Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc? Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel? Dry or Fruity? New World or Old World? How the hell should I know?
Wine is easily intimidating but equally as easily demystified. So relax. Here is a basic primer for wine, wine tasting and terminology.
Types of Wine and Finding One You Like
When you browse the wine aisle of your super market, liquor store or my god, visit a wine shop, it can be confusing and intimidating. Think of it like this though, they are all just options of the same thing – fermented grape juice. In this way, it should be no more confusing or intimidating that the juice aisle, picking Pepsi over Coke, rootbeer over ginger ale or Coors Light over Heineken®. It really comes down to a personal preference. There is no right or wrong. Trial and error is one the best ways to learn what you like, and with wine, well you get a buzz so that’s a plus right?
Some Basics of Wine Tasting
There are tons of books, blogs, classes, videos and more to learn how to taste, describe, evaluate and articulate (a five dollar word for “say”) what you are tasting. From my own personal experience, you can learn a lot from going to a tasting at a local wine shop, reading reviews like those on Would Bukowski Drink It?, even just reading the little shelf talker card in front of the wine you bought and the bottle itself, and then making comparisons while you try the wine. The most common thing I hear people say is, “I don’t know anything about wine”. Well OK, I had no idea what Phad Thai was until I was 24 years old and now I eat all sorts of Thai dishes at least once or twice a week. You learn from experiencing, trying and with wine doing so with others is a great way to compare. I know I’ve learned a lot from my group of friends with whom I enjoy wine.
The basics are Color (Look), Nose (Smell) and Taste (Drink it).
Color is basically what you see visually. So pour a glass and what do you see? For a white wine, is it yellow, yellow-green, clear or bright. For a red wine is it purple, ruby-red, or slightly rusty colored. What you see is probably the most objective. Tilting the glass, looking straight down the glass, holding it up to the light, viewing from the side, swirling your wine and comparing it to something white, are all ways to help evaluate the wine visually. Another common note when expressing what you see are the “legs” or “tears” that form in the glass when you swirl. These are those lines the wine may form on the edge of the glass that look like streaks as the wine rolls back into the bottom of the glass. Wines that have “long legs” are wines with higher alcohol and glycerin, which usually mean that they are fuller, bigger, mouth-filling and dense than those that do not. I associate wines with “long legs” being more “jammy”.
The Nose is what you’d expect, time to sniff and smell the wine. To me the Nose of a wine is even more subjective than the taste. There is no end to the smells and what those smells evoke. So give that wine a good sniff. Some will shove their nose into the glass and give a deep sniff. You can also just hover above the glass and take short sniffs. Whatever works for you. The most common descriptors for the Nose are usually broken into Fruits, Floral, Herbs, Spices, Woods and Smokiness, and Earthiness. Some will also say the primary aromas and secondary aromas. Basically what you smell first and what comes second or as an aftertaste, but in this case, let’s call it an aftersmell. So go for it. What do you smell exactly? Does the that first wiff make you think of fruit? What kind of fruit? Is it Strawberry or Raspberries? Is it Orange or Grapefruit? Does this wine really smell like my leather motorcycle jacket I wore to that Iron Maiden concert in 1986? I recently watched the 2012 documentary Somm and Master Sommelier Ian Cauble describes one wine’s nose as “that smell when you open a new can of tennis balls”. So go for it. Remember you taste with your nose as well as your tongue so what you smell has a big influence on what you taste. Take your time here, describe what you smell and enjoy the wine. There’s plenty of time to just down a glass later.
Taste. OK, you’ve described what you see and smell, now you finally get to drink it. For now, I’ll avoid the proper way to drink wine when tasting. Some suck the wine up like they are drinking it through a straw. Do this if you feel it necessary, but most can take a sip and let it flow over their tongue and get the same impressions. The Taste of the wine will again be defined in many of the same ways as the Nose or smell, fruity (what fruits? plum, watermelon or black berries), spice (what spice? clove or cinnamon or vanilla), earthiness (slate, wet earth, peat), smokiness (tobacco, leather) and wood (oak). Having given the wine a good sniff, you already have some direction. Many of the smells will correspond with the taste. Some may be amplified and some more subtle. The finish is something else to consider. Does the taste seem to linger in your mouth (long finish) or did it simply pop, disappear and fade? Was the wine sweet or dry?
Other things to evaluate are the level of Alcohol, Acidity and the Balance of the wine.
So take your time each time you try a new wine and when you take that first taste, describe what you see, smell and taste. Before you know it you’ll have your own vocabulary to describe what you’ve experienced. Note what you like or don’t like. Do you tend to like big bold spicy reds or fruit oaked whites? These likes and dislikes will lead you on your way to knowing more about wine and what wine you’ll enjoy.
Suggestions for Wine Pairing
The age-old question – Red or White?
Justin Wilson was the host of a Cajun cooking show on PBS when I was a kid. He used to say “People always wanna know, Joos-tain, w’at kinna wine go wit w’at? Well, Ah say, da kinna wine you like!”. In general I could’t agree more. Yes, there are conventions to consider, red with red meat, white with white meat, but although this is a goo
d starting point, there are no rules. Again it comes down to a personal preference. I have had Pinot Noir wines with grilled Chilean sea bass that were a perfect match. I have also had Rosé with BBQ that made my mouth water. For me Beaujolais Nouveau, a red wine, is the perfect match for turkey, for all purposes a white meat.
There are plenty of widely accepted pairings such as oysters and champagne, red wine and dark chocolate, but personal preference and experimentation, as well as recommend
from your wine merchant, are all good ideas. For a good quick read on wine and food pairings, I recommend this article from Food &
Wine. Many of my reviews, list some recommendation for pairings as well.ation
The bottom line is to drink the wine you like. Remember in the end it is just fermented grape juice.