Wine Tasting For Beginners? It Should Be Fun!
You'll hear a lot of flowery - or fruity language when people start talking about wine: "hints of gooseberry", or "berry aromas", or even "wet leather" as one wine expert is famous for saying. While they might be perfectly appropriate in the right place, and I can talk pompous with the best of them, I think a beginner's guide to wine tasting should start a with the basics.
So here, in a few seconds, is everything you really need to know about wine...
It comes in different colors and flavors. The stuff you like is called "good wine". The stuff you don't like is called "bad wine".
OK, kidding... but really what are you drinking wine for? For pleasure. So if you don't like it, it doesn't matter if someone else says it's the best wine in the world. On the other hand, if you find a bottle of Chateau Grease Monkey for $2.00 and you love the earthy overtones (sorry, carried away there for a moment) then no matter what anyone else thinks, that's a good wine. Push your trolley into a quiet corner of the alley and have a slurp...
What we hope to learn from wine tasting is to distinguish between good and bad wines at a glance - or at least to distinguish between the ones we like and don't like. I live in France. Over here you can pay the equivalent of around $3.00 for a perfectly acceptable barbecue wine. Something uncomplicated like a Merlot from the south that they make literally millions of bottles of.
On the other hand, you could open a bottle of Chateau Petrus that could have cost you a grand (not kidding, they can be much more) and find it's corked and undrinkable. By the way, corked doesn't mean it's got bits of cork in it, it's a kind of fungus that can be created by a reaction between wine and cork. Traditionalists don't like the idea, but screw-top bottles and fake corks solve the problem completely.
Sorry, got sidetracked. Back to the beginner's wine tasting stuff.
The best idea is probably to find a local wine merchant who is doing a wine tasting class and go along. They should have the skill to produce a comparative selection of wines for you to taste and to help you learn. The internet doesn't give us that facility so we'll have to do our best.
You'll need some wine. It's easiest to start with something that isn't too expensive or too challenging. Personally I'm a big fan of French Northern Rhones - but they're big, powerful flavors so I'd avoid that kind of thing. We could be here all day throwing ideas about, but for whites, a Chardonnay is as good a place to start as any. For reds, the aformentioned Merlot or maybe a Cabernet Sauvignon.
It doesn't really matter. Get a bottle, take the cork out (or unscrew it), taste the wine. For that last part you'll need a glass. A saucepan or a bucket will do if you're really thirsty, but there are several very good reasons for using a glass.
First of all, glass is virtually inert. It has no taste and it maintains its temperature across considerable variations in heat - so it won't chill or warm your wine, both of which can make a difference to the taste.
Excuse me, I'm going to butt in again, while we on the subject of wine temperature. You'll no doubt have heard that white wine should be served chilled and red wine at room temperature. Both are largely true (although of course there are exceptions). What's important is that chilled means cool - not frozen. It's a wine, not a popsicle, you don't want to kill the smell or taste. An hour in a fridge will do it, or there are sleeves available to do the job quickly if you forgot to put the wine in the fridge - we've all done that. With red wine, room temperature means fifty to sixty degrees because back when people started saying "room temperature" they didn't have central heating. It does not mean warm, you're not making jam. Touch the bottle. As long as it's not cold, it's fine. If it is cold, put it somewhere where it can gain heat gradually. Don't go stand it on a radiator!
Right, back to the actual tasting bit. Sorry about the delay. Some of it you've doubtless heard before but some of it is probably new to you and so worth knowing.
Anyhow, so now you've got wine and you've got a glass. A good wine glass will be something like the picture, curving in at the top to trap in the aroma and the flavor. Glasses that are straight or flare outwards are fine for putting beer in, they are not wine glasses - no matter how expensive they were, or even if they're granny's lead crystal. You can buy expensive wine tasting glasses that are specific to each wine type - and lovely they are too - but they're not necessary. Any glass that looks something like the one shown will do the job (although if you want to weaken and be tempted by the posh ones, all your friends will be impressed!)
Pour the wine into the glass, but don't fill it right up. In fact you want to leave about two-thirds empty. You want to allow the smell to develop in the glass and be trapped there. See where the glass is at its widest? At that level, or just above it, is perfect.
It's not time to drink it yet, because the whole wine tasting process is more than just your sense of taste. Your sense of small has a huge part to play. In fact if you put a peg over your nose, it might as well be vinegar in the glass - you probably wouldn't tell (and if you don't believe me, try it).
So give the glass a bit of a swirl to release the aromas, then sniff. I don't mean gentle sniff like you do with perfume, I mean get your nose in there and get the vapors flooding up. Inhale a great big nose full!
If you've never done it that way before, you might be surprised by what you smell. Most people are. Take your time, think about it, have another go. There are plenty of aromas in the glass and they're not going anywhere in a hurry so savor the moment.
You may not like what you smell. It happens. You may find it a confusing mixture or, as some do, you may be able to identify some smells precisely. At that point you might feel an urge to get all pompous about it... and you'll understand why we start on about "summer fruits" or "damp grass" or whatever. Happens to us all eventually!
OK, now you can drink it. Well almost. Take a slurp, but keep your mouth open, cup the wine in the bottom of your mouth and try to draw air over the wine as it sits there. Warning: you may dribble. You'll soon get the hang of it. The idea is that by slurping air across the wine you reveal more of its aromas and flavors. You will, it just takes a bit of practice... Oh dear, what a shame, you may have to open another bottle...
Right, having slurped a bit you can now drink it. Lovely. I guarantee you just got more out of a glass of wine than you ever did before. I can't guarantee you'll enjoy it, but you've just given that particular wine a thorough autopsy.
The trick of course is remembering it. So that next time you go in the store or you're at the restaurant you can order a bottle knowing its basic characteristics and knowing you'll enjoy how it complements the food you're having it with.
It takes time and there are no short-cuts. To develop expertise and memory you need to practice just like with anything else. If you ask me though, few things give more pleasure in the learning than a nice glass of wine!