Wine for Beginners
BY PAUL GREGUTT
This section is designed to help you kick-start your ongoing exploration of wine. Through these simple and smart guidelines, you’ll discover your own palate.
Getting Started with Wine Tasting
Learning to taste wine is no different than learning to really appreciate music or art in that the pleasure you receive is proportionate to the effort you make. The more you fine-tune your sensory abilities, the better you’re able to understand and enjoy the nuances and details that great wines express. The time and effort invested in palate training is very rewarding—and a whole lot of fun!
How to Taste Wine
The ability to sniff out and untangle the subtle threads that weave into complex wine aromas is essential for tasting. Try holding your nose while you swallow a mouthful of wine; you will find that most of the flavor is muted. Your nose is the key to your palate. Once you learn how to give wine a good sniff, you’ll begin to develop the ability to isolate flavors—to notice the way they unfold and interact—and, to some degree, assign language to describe them.
This is exactly what wine professionals—those who make, sell, buy, and write about wine—are able to do. For any wine enthusiast, it’s the pay-off for all the effort.
While there is no one right or wrong way to learn how to taste, some “rules” do apply.
First and foremost, you need to be methodical and focused. Find your own approach and consistently follow it. Not every single glass or bottle of wine must be analyzed in this way, of course. But if you really want to learn about wine, a certain amount of dedication is required. Whenever you have a glass of wine in your hand, make it a habit to take a minute to stop all conversation, shut out all distraction and focus your attention on the wine’s appearance, scents, flavors and finish.
You can run through this mental checklist in a minute or less, and it will quickly help you to plot out the compass points of your palate. Of course, sipping a chilled rosé from a paper cup at a garden party doesn’t require the same effort as diving into a well-aged Bordeaux served from a Riedel Sommelier Series glass. But those are the extreme ends of the spectrum. Just about everything you are likely to encounter falls somewhere in between.
“Good Wine” for Beginners
You have probably heard from both friends and experts many times that any wine you like is a good wine. This is true if simply enjoying wine is your goal. You don’t have to do more than take a sip, give it a swallow and let your inner geek decide “yes” or “no.” The end.
It’s true that figuring out what you like is an important component of wine tasting, but it’s not the only component. Quickly passing judgment about a wine is not the same as truly understanding and evaluating it. If you’re tasting properly, you will be able to identify the main flavor and scent components in every wine you try; you will know the basic characteristics for all of the most important varietal grapes, and beyond that, for the blended wines from the world’s best wine-producing regions. You will also be able to quickly point out specific flaws in bad wines.
Finding Wine Flaws
Rest assured, there are some truly bad wines out there, and not all of them are inexpensive. Some flaws are the result of bad winemaking, while others are caused by bad corks or poor storage. If you are ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant, you want to be certain that the wine you receive tastes the way it was intended to taste. You can’t always rely on servers in restaurants to notice and replace a wine that is corked. You are ultimately the one who will be asked to approve the bottle. Being able to sniff out common faults, such as a damp, musty smell from a tainted cork called TCA, will certainly make it easier for you to send a wine back.
For more wine tasting tips, see How to Taste Wine.
Discovering Different Wine Types
A wine beginner might know the basic differences between a red and a white, but it’s also important to learn all the wine types and varietals. You can explore everything from Chardonnay to Viognier and Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel in our guide to the most important red wine grapes and white wine grapes.
Exploring Wine Regions
Wine is made in virtually every country in the world. These countries are often referred to as “Old World” or “New World.” “Old World” consists of regions with long histories of wine production, such as Europe and parts of the Mediterranean. Some of the most well-known “Old World” wine regions include France, Italy and Germany, and these regions focus greatly on terroir—the unique characteristics of the soil and climate, which give their wine a sense of place. “New World” (as the name suggestions) is used to describe newer wine-producing regions, such as U.S., Australia and Chile. These regions tend to have hotter climates and generally use different labeling methods; they tend to use grapes rather than region on labels for recognition.
While learning how to choose wine, it’s helpful to know some of the major wine regions and the grapes they are best known for:
Most Popular Regions and Grapes
For more information on these popular regions and varietals, click the links to access the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide.
Reading a Wine Label
At first glance, a wine label can be confusing to those just getting started. Luckily, New World wine producers have made it easier on wine beginners by listing the grape(s) directly on the label. Old World regions have typically relied on the wine consumer to be familiar enough with the region to know, for example, that Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir.
Old World Wines might read like this:
Chateau Moulin de Grenet 2009 Lussac St. Emilion
New World wines might read like this:
Cakebread 2006 Merlot, Napa Valley
The French wine lists “Saint-Emilion,” assuming the consumer realizes that wines from Saint-Emilion are mostly Merlot. The wine from Napa, California, on the other hand, lists both the region and the grape variety. As you study more about wine, you’ll become more and more accustomed to all the wine varietals and the Old World regions that produce them.
Old World wine producers are slowly realizing that in order to compete on the global market, they need to make it easy on the consumer. But as much as times may change, a deep understanding of how to read a wine label will always be a useful skill.
There are a few important components of a wine label. Their placement may vary slightly but if you know what you’re looking for, they’ll be easier to spot:
Quality Level: AOC, DOC, etc.
Once you’re armed with the basic tools, you can explore more complex labels, such as the late harvest Rieslings of Germany. For more on that, click here.
For more how to read a wine labels, such as varietal versus appellation labeling, click here.
We live in an age in which sourcing wine has never been easier. Looking for a wine from Crete? The wine shop in your town will likely carry it, and if not, you can easily find a wine retailer online. It’s in the hands of the consumer to shop for the best deal or for the most elusive, rare bottle, which can often be shipped to your doorstep.
Savvy shoppers will stay on top of ever-changing wine shipping laws based on interstate policies. Some states cannot have wine shipped to them, while others have more relaxed laws.
Before you can start investing in a full collection, you’ll need to discover your palate by embracing opportunities to taste and determine what you like. When dining out with friends or at a party, be open minded! A rich Cabernet Sauvignon might woo you initially, but you may also take a liking to exotic Rieslings depending on your mood. There is no better way to discover wine than by tasting everything. We have plenty of tools that will help: Best Buy Cheat Sheet, Making the Purchase and Bargain-Friendly Bordeaux will all help guide you on your path to wine bliss.
Wine Serving Tips
Now that you have taken the time to learn how-to-taste wine, the regions and grapes of the world, reading a wine label and the essentials for buying wine, it’s time to drink it!
For starters, make sure that your wine is being served at its absolute best. To do that, pay attention to these three tenets of wine service: Glassware, temperature and preservation.
Each wine has something unique to offer your senses. Most wine glasses are specifically shaped to accentuate those defining characteristics, directing wine to key areas of the tongue and nose, where they can be fully enjoyed. While wine can be savored in any glass, a glass designed for a specific wine type helps you to better experience its nuances. Outfit your house with a nice set of stems you will reap the rewards.
All wine is stored at the same temperature, regardless of its color. But reds and whites are consumed at quite different temperatures. Too often people drink white wines too cold and red wines too warm, limiting how much you can enjoy the wine. A white that’s too cold will be flavorless and a red that’s too warm is often flabby and alcoholic. Here is a key to ideal wine service temperatures:
|Wine Service Temperatures|
|Champagne, Sparkling, and Dessert Wine:||40° F|
|Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio:||45-48°F|
|Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz:||64-66° F|
While this is a helpful guide, not everyone has a thermometer on hand. A good rule of thumb is to note that white wines should be chilled before drinking and red wines should be have time to rise in temperature. Ideally, whites should be between refrigerator temperature (40°F) and storage temperature (55°F) and reds should be somewhere between storage temperature and room temperature, which is often as high as 70°F. If your wine is in a temperature-controlled unit, at 53-57°F, pop your bottles of white wine into the refrigerator half an hour prior to service and take your reds out of storage half an hour prior to service. This allows time for your whites to chill and your reds to warm up. If you have yet to invest in a wine storage refrigerator and your wines are kept at room temperature or in the refrigerator, you’ll do the opposite. Put your reds in the refrigerator for half an hour and take your whites out of the refrigerator for half an hour. Dessert wines, sparkling wines and rosés are best enjoyed at a cooler temperature than whites. Refrigerator temperature will do the trick.
When you have leftover wine in the bottle, preservation is key. As wine comes into contact with air, it quickly spoils. To slow down the deterioration process, use a quick vacuum pump to suck out the excess air. The less air in the bottle, the longer the wine’s lifespan.