10 Tips For Beginning Wine Drinkers
This weekend brings us Valentines Day – what better excuse to begin a journey in the enjoyment of wine culture? Whether with your partner, by yourself, or with a good friend (bringing someone along for the ride is definitely suggested,) these 10 tips should get you well on your way to becoming a wine connoisseur.
1) Enjoy the ride and have an open mind. First things first, learning about wine is meant to be a fun ride. It is important to remember that no one path is more ‘right’ than the other. Wine drinkers battle the “snob” perception quite often, so lets not hold our knowledge over others, ok?
You don’t like a certain wine? Don’t worry, it’s bound to happen. Take a note and move on. There are plenty of wines to try.
2) Start with what you like. As with most kinds of learning, a subject that interests you will always be easier to comprehend than others. In finding a jumping off point towards wine tasting, start with the type of wine you know you like to drink already.
3) Learn the basics. Get a good ‘101’ wine book and take notes and/or photos. There are hundreds of wine books for the beginner out there. Kevin Zraly, the former wine director of Windows on the World, writes a very good guide that is updated almost annually. It provides the basics: regions, wines, tastes, and names of well-known bottlings. A book like that will help you identify the style of wines you enjoy or want to study. How do you remember which wines you have tried and liked (or not)? Taking photos with your cell phone is a good way to remember what you drink. Simply store it in your photo bin, or use an app like Delectable. Delectable and some other similar apps will look up facts and catalogue the photos for you, simply by photographing the label. There is plenty of information that will coming your way and these tools will help you to make sense of it.
4) Build your filing cabinet – You’ll have a lot of information coming in; tasting wines; trying to remember which ones you like and why. What you need to do is to learn the correct language and find a way to store it. In time you will build an advanced vocabulary, but start by using books and online resources. This will help you articulate (you can go from “this wine tastes like red fruit” to “this wine tastes like tart cherry.”) Learning the vocabulary will help you put the information into more specific compartments. You’ll need to file those new words in the best spot. Some of you will want to/have to literally write down and photograph every thought, smell, and photo of what you are tasting. Some of you will have a natural capacity for remembering everything with a whiff or a reminder of a certain time of year or where you had dinner that night (my wife can attest that at times I cannot remember where I left my sunglasses or keys, but I can remember every bottle of wine we have ever enjoyed and exactly where we had them). More than likely, most will be some sort of mix of the two. We all learn differently. But, finding a way to separate: grapes, regions, smells, tastes, likes, and dislikes in wine are what will allow you to go a long way towards enjoyment and understanding.
5) Learn to read. Labels. Many countries do them differently. Some countries or regions have names of grapes right on the label (something especially helpful as you are starting to learn.) Others have wine names, many of them named for a village that may include a blend of area grape varietals (for instance, if you love Brunello di Montalcino like I do, then you will learn that the Sangiovese Grosso grape is the main grape that makes it up.) That name never appears on a label. You will find that after trying wines from a certain area, you will know the typical grapes that make up the wines. A quick search online can answer the majority of your questions… most of the time. The current trend, even from staunchly traditional regions, is to include the varietal name somewhere on the label. Bottom line, reading your labels will help you to understand what you are drinking.
6) Sniff, Swirl, Slurp… Ah, the tasting… lets start at the beginning of the process. The cork is pulled and you check it out to make sure it is in tact. If it is crumbled, soaked through, or foul smelling that’s an indication something is wrong with the wine. Next, a taste of the wine is poured and you swirl it in a glass. Clockwise, counter-clockwise, it makes no difference. You are just getting some oxygen into the wine. Oxygen and wine are best mates here, for a bit. Essentially, oxygen will start to break down and soften the wine, releasing aromas along the way (of course, this can continue after a long amount of time and eventually make oxygen a foe.) As you swirl, get your nose almost into the glass. It helps to slightly open your mouth as you sniff. Opening your mouth while you breathe in will help you perceive aromas. And the slurp… just like enjoying broth at a ramen bar an appropriate amount of noise is acceptable, although the more subtle, the better. More air while you are drinking will further aid in your enhancement of picking out various attributes. Just think – we chew food to break it down and taste all the flavors – this is the same concept.
7) Taste with a friend. There are a couple effective ways to do this, either with someone with tastes akin to yours or the exact opposite (“I learn from you, you learn from me”- divide and conquer.) In the beginning of learning, the only danger with the latter is that you are starting with someone else’s understanding, rather than building your own. If you trust that your tasting partner is not just making everything up, then you’ll cover twice as much ground. The main thing to remember when tasting with someone is that there is a subjective nature involved and that there is never just one answer.
Yet, there will be situations where you will taste with friends, trust their knowledge, etc. and just can’t understand where they are getting a smell. It doesn’t mean someone is right or wrong; maybe their vocabulary is more evolved? Or maybe they are just making it up? That’s the fun of tasting with a friend(s).
8) Like a New England winter – too cold. Don’t serve/taste your wines too cold. I prescribe to the general theory that the colder the wine, the less you taste. This is a phenomenon very common when enjoying white wine. Yes, on a hot summer day, cold beverages are quite enjoyable, but white wines should be kept around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you have a bottle in your fridge, leave it out for about 20 minutes before you open it- you will notice plenty more flavors you have not tasted before.
9) Preserving. So you have started tasting and you are buying more wine. There are very simple steps to save the wines you are enjoying. A simple wine pump or Vacu Vin system will work fine. There are more elaborate and expensive gas-exchange systems if your budget allows, but they can be tricky to handle after a few glasses of wine and costly to maintain. The pumps will keep your wine fairly stable for a couple of days, before oxygen starts to break down the integrity of the wine. The overall best remedy? Enjoy your wine right away.
10) Finally – Where to shop? The most common question I get. And there is not one straight answer. Value is something very important in wine drinking and tasting. You can spend a great deal of money on the pillars of the wine world and they will most likely be delicious. For everyday wine drinking, finding values are the key. Locally, the NH Liquor stores offer many good rotating deals. Other options are our friends at area wine shops – these can be very helpful for finding something to fit any budget (and there are no minimum bottle purchases, as some of the better state-run, case deals can be.) Wine clubs and wine websites are also worth paying attention to as well. I enjoy Zachy’s a kind of online auction house with a retail branch and Wine Heist specifically for half or full case deals.
No matter the color, no matter the place, no matter the cost. Take pleasure in this. And treat it as seriously as you want to. But most of all, enjoy it.