For wine lovers, the onset of the holidays means that we’ll be buried under a mountain of new wine books, from tomes like Karen MacNeil’s updated edition of The Wine Bible and Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine to breezier efforts like Oz Clarke’s The History of Wine in 100 Bottles.
By and large, these are thoughtful, knowledge-laden, often entertaining works. And, by and large, they will gather dust on your bookshelf, because they cannot teach you how to be a better wine taster.
I’m not against books, but some things must be learned by doing. If you want to play music, you need to play an instrument, not read about music theory.
If you want to be a better wine taster, you must taste a lot of wine. And simply tasting wine is not enough. You need a methodology that will help you retain the information coming from your nose and tongue. Here are some proven tips.
Learning accelerates when there are multiple wines open. They should have something in common, whether it’s variety, region, producer or vintage. A common thread allows you to make meaningful comparisons, choose favorites and expand your overall range of choices.
The holiday season offers excellent opportunities to explore wine more broadly. Many retailers host special tastings, often free, with multiple wines open. If you’re entertaining at home, put a theme together for the wines. It’s perfectly fine to add that to the invites. And if you are not already part of an ongoing tasting group, why not make it a New Year’s resolution to start one?
When faced with a lineup of wines, whether it’s a formal blind tasting or simply a good party, let your nose do the exploring first. At massive wine judgings, where I might taste 100 or 150 wines in a day, I begin by carefully sniffing through each flight before taking the first sip.
Then I taste carefully, starting with the most promising wines and working to those that, at first impression, seem dull, tired or flawed. That way, I’m making choices and comparisons from the start, while still giving the less-than-impressive wines a chance to compete.
If you’re serious about expanding your wine knowledge and tasting acuity, wine books are a great place to start. But the only way to really understand wine is by putting it to the ultimate test—your own palate.
Be A Better Taster With These Tried-and-True Tips
—Seek out regular opportunities to taste unfamiliar wines.
—Taste in flights that are related in some way.
—Train yourself to use your nose first and foremost.
—Focus on identifying principal flavor components: fruit, herb, acid, oak and tannin.
—When tasting wine, aerate it by sucking as if on a straw.
—Let the flavors completely finish before moving to the next wine.
—Make notes whenever possible—it helps focus your attention.
—The more effort you make, the better the results.