Need to know
Have you ever stood in front of the wall of wine at the supermarket and felt that, despite the hundreds of bottles clamouring for your attention, you were powerless to pick just one? How on earth do you work out which of the many bottles will not only deliver value for money, but also taste delicious and work well with your evening meal? For most of us, making the decision is either a totally random process or an exercise in capitulation to the same bottle you bought last week, and the week before, and the week before that.
You’d think that the wine bottle labels might make your decision easier, but it sometimes feels as if you need a degree in decoding them. Although the law in both the United States and the European Union dictates that the labels must tell you where the wine came from and its alcoholic strength (among other information), the way this is expressed varies widely. Many New World wine producers (for example, in California, Australia or South Africa) make a point of telling you about the grape variety. Producers in Old World countries such as France, Italy or Spain, however, think that the location of their vineyard is far more important than grape variety, so their labels highlight geographical origin. But who the hell – apart from a wine geek – could pinpoint Burgenland or Bierzo on a map, never mind make a reasonable guess as to what the wine from either might taste like? Finally, wherever the wine comes from, the producer’s name often features prominently on the label – except when it doesn’t.
Regardless of what’s highlighted on the label – grape, origin or producer name – none of it is any use unless you have some idea of each wine’s flavour profile. In short, trying to decipher the label is a recipe for confusion. The only route out of the randomness-versus-routine conundrum is to learn a little bit about wine.
From the perspective of a wine lover, learning about the stuff is, of course, a total joy, but whatever you’re interested in, there’s something in the wine world to please you. People who love poring over maps will get a kick out of the way that wine style interacts with geography. Geologists find that the further they dig down, the more they’ll discover about different soils producing different kinds of wines. There’s plenty going on during winemaking to attract microbiologists and biochemists, while those whose interests lie in the humanities find much to love in the way that wine and culture interact. Historians enjoy contemplating the way that older vintages become time capsules of history, making them think about what happened during the year the wine was bottled. Students of human nature love the way that a winemaker’s personality is often reflected in the wines they make, while food lovers will enjoy experimenting with pairings of flavours.
Whatever your interests, all newcomers to wine have the same simple question: how do I find a wine I’ll enjoy? The question doesn’t have an easy answer because we don’t all taste the same things in the same way. The pleasure we take in flavour is determined in part by our genetic makeup and in part by our upbringing and environment. It’s well-known, for instance, that only some of us can smell asparagus in our urine – what’s less well-known is that differences of sensitivity apply to a whole range of aromas and flavours. For instance, a key component of cool-climate Syrah is a chemical called rotundone, which gives the wines their characteristic aromas of cracked black pepper. But what if you’re one of the 20 per cent of the population who can’t detect rotundone? (The short answer is that, in all probability, cool-climate Syrah is never going to be your thing.) Because of these individual sensitivities and preferences, the only way to choose wine well is to know something about the styles of wines you, personally, enjoy.
It’s not just about taste: smell is just as important. In fact, what we usually think of as taste is mostly about smell. Our mouths are packed with receptors for salt, sweetness, bitterness, sourness and umami, but that’s not where we detect flavours. When we ‘taste’ something, what we’re really doing is sensing aromatic molecules that travel from the back of the mouth up to the nose. Smell is probably the sense to which we pay least attention in our everyday lives, even though it can be incredibly evocative (just think of Proust and his madeleines), but it’s vital to the enjoyment of both wine and food.
What to do
Educate your senses. One of the best ways to learn about wine, therefore, is to start by training yourself to ‘taste’ a range of different smells and flavours. Draw up a list of key wine descriptors (based on the books recommended below) and train yourself to really pay attention to them. You might begin by biting into a fresh strawberry, then comparing that taste with the flavour of a spoonful of strawberry jam. Zest some lemon, take in a deep whiff of freshly cracked pepper or dip your tongue into a pinch of cinnamon. You’ll soon become far more aware of the rich sensory world that surrounds us. You’ll almost certainly start deriving greater pleasure from the seductive perfume of a hedgerow in spring, the vibrant herbaceousness of a newly mown lawn or the rich, dark smell of a new pair of leather shoes – and you might find yourself enjoying your meals more too.
Note what you can detect when you have a glass of wine. The next step is to look out for some of these smells and flavours in the wines you taste, but take note of structural elements such as acidity, sweetness, alcohol and tannin too. Does your mouth water copiously when you take a mouthful? That’ll be the acid in the wine. Different grapes have different levels of acidity, so note the difference between how you react to a high-acid Sauvignon blanc, for instance, and a low-acid Gewurztraminer. And then there’s tannin, which is mainly found in red wines. Tannin leaves a drying sensation in your mouth, in the same way a long-stewed cup of tea does. Once again, different grapes have different levels of tannin, so contrast the way you respond to the tannins in a supple, silky Pinot noir with your reaction to the firmer, chalkier tannins of a Cabernet Sauvignon.
In most instances, you shouldn’t really notice the taste of alcohol much, unless the wine is out of balance, in which case it will produce a warming (or even burning) sensation on your palate. When it comes to sweetness, many people don’t like the idea of a sweet wine, but the best examples balance sugar with acidity in such a way that the end result never feels cloying. Keep a written record of what you’re tasting as this will help you keep track of your likes and dislikes.
One of the things you’ll probably notice fairly early on is that Old World wines tend to have higher levels of acidity and tannin than their New World equivalents, which are often fruitier. Initially, you might find the sterner Old World wines less appealing, but try them with food and you’ll find the structure serves a purpose. Acidity cuts through the richness of creamy sauces, while tannins help to break down the protein hit of rich meats.
The more you taste, the more you’ll develop a picture of the kinds of wines you like, as well as those you don’t. Do you enjoy, for instance, the crisp, bracing neutrality of an Italian Soave, the vinous equivalent of a freshly starched shirt? Or do you prefer the almost blowsy opulence of a Californian Chardonnay? You will start to notice that ageing a wine in oak barrels lends different flavours to the wine. You might find you acquire a yearning for the coconut and vanilla flavours that American oak lends to traditional Riojas, or develop a preference for the subtler smoke and toast notes of French oak layered into an elegant Bordeaux.
Try the same grape variety across different wines. One particularly useful tasting exercise is to taste two or three wines that share a common grape variety at the same time. Try, for instance, three different Sauvignon blancs – one from Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé in the Loire, one from New Zealand or Chile, and an oaked white from Bordeaux (which might have a small proportion of Sémillon, another grape variety, in the blend, but that doesn’t really matter). You’ll see that the Loire version is less ripe than the New World take on the grape, contrasting subtler flavours of citrus and nettles with the brighter, more tropical flavours of the second wine. The oaked wine will have more weight and texture than either. Alongside these differences, you should find some common structural and aromatic ground, too. You could then go on to repeat the experiment with a trio of red wines made from the same grape – a Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, or a Syrah/Shiraz (which is actually the same grape but goes by two different names depending largely on where it was grown).
Another experiment – if your budget stretches this far – would be to get hold of three wines made from the same grape, but with very different price tags. Your first bottle should be somewhere around the average price of a bottle of wine (approximately £6 in the UK or $15 in the US), the second should cost twice as much, while the third should be around double the price of the second wine (or as close as you can come to that without having palpitations at the thought of the price tag). You’re certain to notice a difference in quality between the first and second wines. The flavours of the latter should appear clearer and more easily identifiable, the balance should also be better (you shouldn’t be left with an overall impression of warm alcohol or harsh acidity or drying tannin) and the taste should linger longer on your palate. The third wine should offer a step up in quality again. The question is, is it worth the price? As you gain more tasting experience, your answer to the question might change as you become more attuned to nuances in flavour and balance.
Here are five wines whose flavours make them easy to appreciate – ideal to get your tastings underway:
- Most of us love a glass of fizz, and fruity Prosecco is in many ways easier to drink than the more expensive, more structured Champagne and Champagne lookalikes.
- Sauvignon blanc is the grape that put New Zealand on the map, and people love its ebullient, bright flavours that combine elements of tropical fruit and a green, grassy character.
- One of the easier grapes to get to grips with is Gewurztraminer – even newbies to tasting find it easy to pick up on aromas of lychees and rose petals. The classic versions come from Alsace in France, but it’s now widely grown in the New World too.
- Big, bold Barossa Shiraz from South Australia was one of my first loves. Heady dark fruit and baking spices, and often lashings of sweet oak too.
- As we move into summer, try a light red that’s been briefly chilled in the fridge before you open it. The juicy, bright red berry and cherry flavours of a Fleurie from Beaujolais are a good place to start.
Key points – How to choose a bottle of wine
- Understanding your personal preferences is key to choosing the right bottle of wine, because everyone tastes things slightly differently and has different individual preferences.
- Pay more attention to the smells and tastes that surround you.
- Keep a notebook in which you can write down observations about each wine you taste. What does it smell/taste like? Do you enjoy it? Maybe give it a score out of 10 to remind yourself of just how much you do or don’t like it.
- Compare wines that have something in common (grape variety or origin) to help you identify differences and similarities.
- Learn from other people’s experience. Taste alongside a wine-loving friend or with an independent merchant. Take a course, read a book or go online to learn more about what you’ve been drinking. A little bit of knowledge adds to the enjoyment.
- Be brave and step outside your comfort zone. Pick up a wine that you’ve never tasted before and give it a try. The worst thing that could happen is that you spend a little money on something you’ll never have to taste again (and at least you now know what to avoid).
While it’s possible to teach yourself how to taste and what you like, there’s nothing like a bit of guidance to speed up the process. At the most basic level, try to taste alongside a friend who’s got a bit more wine experience than you. They might well be able to help you identify some of the flavours you’re tasting, and help you put each wine into a broader context.
Expert guides can be found in independent wine shops. Although you might usually buy your wine from the supermarket, it’s worth developing a relationship with a good wine merchant. Their wines are likely to be slightly more expensive than those in the supermarkets as they’re usually made by smaller, more artisanal producers, but as a result they are often more interesting to drink. The best thing about a good wine merchant, though, is that most of them employ people who are absolutely passionate about wine (it’s a well-trodden path to a career in the wine trade).
Use their insights to help develop your repertoire. Tell them that you’re only just starting to learn about wine, that you already know you enjoy German Riesling – or South African Cabernet Sauvignon, or big bold reds, or crisp whites (or whatever has tickled your fancy) – but are keen to explore further. Give them a budget and a free rein to make suggestions, and you might find yourself going home with a mixed half-dozen of new discoveries. Take note of what you like and why you like it, as well as the wines you haven’t enjoyed, then feed that back to your friendly wine geek the next time you pop into the shop. Your taste buds might well end up travelling in some very interesting directions.
Alternatively, you could pursue your wine studies by enrolling for classes at one of the many wine schools operating around the world. The great grandaddy of them all is the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. In more than 70 countries, its education centres offer formal, structured courses that give students an overview of how and where wine is made around the world. But if you’d rather just dip your toe in the water, there are plenty of shorter courses run by wine merchants, auction houses or wine schools. Get a recommendation from your wine merchant once you’ve established a relationship – they’re usually well-informed about who’s delivering great wine education in your neighbourhood.
Finally, once you’re beginning to get an idea of your tastes, further guidance might come from a wine critic whose tasting notes feature in the weekend papers or online. Bear in mind that one size doesn’t fit all, and that you need to choose your critic with care. In the same way that you might follow a film critic who eulogises art house cinema rather than action movies (or vice versa) depending on your tastes, find yourself a wine critic whose palate is roughly in tune with your own. Start off by trying out recommendations from a few critics – use your enjoyment of the wines to judge who is the right person to guide you on your journey.
Once you’re ready to push your tasting boundaries a bit further, here are another five wines you might want to try:
- Pinot noir typically has a silky texture and heady perfume (red berries and autumn leaves). Be prepared to splash out, though – its charms are rarely available at bargain basement prices.
- Chardonnay, originally grown alongside Pinot noir in Burgundy, is as easygoing as Pinot is capricious. A bit of a chameleon, it changes form depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made. Contrast a cool-climate take from Chablis with a ripe, generous example from sunnier climes (versions from California’s Napa Valley are great, if somewhat pricey).
- As its name implies, Cabernet Sauvignon is related to its white ancestor, Sauvignon blanc, and usually carries a trace of the family’s herbaceous character. Try one from Chile to get an idea of its typical glossy blackcurrant fruit, tinged with a hint of eucalyptus.
- The linear, high-acid style of Riesling can be challenging initially, but take a leaf out of Australia’s book and try a lime-streaked number from the Clare or the Eden valleys in South Australia with a Thai seafood salad for a real taste explosion.
- Italian reds often have a savoury, dried herb character and notes of sour cherry or plum, along with the grippy tannins and bright acidity that can help them cut through bistecca alla Fiorentina or Nonna’s lasagne. Chianti Classico is the go-to region here, while its main grape, Sangiovese is, arguably, the quintessential Italian grape.
When you feel you’re ready for your next challenge, here are five wines that are firm favourites with the geeks:
- Most Champagne houses are big beasts, producing vast quantities of fizz every year. While standards are high, wine buffs often make a point of seeking out grower (or artisan) Champagnes from small houses, each with their own distinctive character.
- Syrah from the Northern Rhône is one of my own wine passions. I love its savoury, peppery aromas, and the way it develops further layers of earthy complexity as it ages.
- Dry sherry is having a bit of a revival right now. The bready notes and saline tang of Fino and Manzanilla are an acquired taste, but nothing goes down better with a bowl of green olives or a plate of Pata Negra ham.
- Chenin blanc is a grape that thrives in the Loire Valley in France and in South Africa. While the New World examples are often a bit richer in flavour, they usually share bright acidity and flavours reminiscent of Bramley apples and dried chamomile flowers.
- The Nebbiolo grape is king in Italy’s Piedmont, where it makes incredibly long-lived wines, with characteristic aromas of rose petals and tar. Over time, it acquires a note reminiscent of truffles – handy, as the world’s best white truffles come from the same area.
The first few steps on your wine journey might seem daunting but, once you’ve set out, you should find you enjoy the adventure. Wishing you bon voyage, and many enjoyable bottles en route!
Links & books
- The Wine Folly website offers an accessible Wine 101: Beginner’s Guide to Wine, which delves further into many of the ideas introduced here. Their graphics-led book, Wine Folly: A Visual Guide to the World of Wine (2015) by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, is also worth a look.
- Jancis Robinson MW (Master of Wine), the doyenne of British wine critics, runs an excellent website. Robinson and her team taste exhaustively in order to come up with a database of wine recommendations, but also create insightful content on a broad range of wine issues. Some content is members’ only, but many of the articles are free. Many consider that online access to Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine (4th ed, 2015), the ultimate encyclopaedia of wine knowledge, is well worth the price of subscription.
- Tim Atkin MW is another British wine writer who runs a great website. It not only features weekly recommendations, but also provides links to Atkin’s in-depth reports, which focus on his specialist areas (South America, South Africa, Burgundy and Italy), and articles written by a squad of some of the wine world’s most interesting writers.
- One of my favourite books is Exploring and Tasting Wine: A Wine Course with Digressions (2016), published by the British wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd’s wine school. There’s something incredibly appealing about the way it takes readers from complete novice to relative expertise without patronising them in the slightest.
- If you’re interested in getting to grips with the grapes, Grapes and Wines: A Comprehensive Guide to Varieties and Flavours (2015) by Oz Clarke and Margaret Rand should hit the spot, while map lovers will find much to like in Robinson’s magisterial World Atlas of Wine (8th ed, 2019), co-authored with Hugh Johnson.
- If you’re a keen cook, then one route to wine knowledge comes from working out which styles will go best with the dishes you enjoy the most. If so, Victoria Moore’s Wine Dine Dictionary: An A to Z of Suggestions for Happy Eating and Drinking (2017) is the book for you. Not only is it beautifully written and full of inspirational pairings, it’s unusual in being split in two halves – the first part offers pairing suggestions based on ingredients, while the latter half offers food suggestions to go with whatever wine you’re planning to open.
- One last suggestion is to download the TV series The Wine Show (2016-). In under an hour, its presenters ease you into learning far more about wine than you might have thought possible. This is armchair travelling to some of the world’s most beautiful places, and makes for a highly enjoyable experience.