The best way to learn about wine is to taste it. Scouring through magazines and books will get you started, but until you pull the cork and taste the wine, the learning experience is lacking. Even the most modest of retail stores carry numerous offerings, many from unfamiliar grapes and growing regions.
One way to improve your buying and tasting skills is to get to know a couple of key grapes.
Acidity: When it comes to learning about acidity in wine, there’s no need to go further than the crisp, direct-in-your-face freshness sauvignon blanc offers. To understand the taste of acidity on your palate, bite into a Granny Smith apple and experience the sourness that causes a quick burst of saliva down the inside of your gums. Acidity is key in a wine’s refreshing makeup.
New Zealand’s Marlborough region, located on the South Island, is the most celebrated for its distinct green apple, vibrant, high-acid style. California and Australia also produce this grape, but those don’t have as keen a flavor as the searing acidity and grassy style of New Zealand grapes. California and Australia styles tend to be much riper, sometimes adding a bit of other grapes such as semillon, giving it less punch from sauvignon blanc’s typical green crisp style.
- 2010 Rosemount Estate Sauvignon Blanc, Australia (about $10, retail)
- 2010 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough New Zealand (about $18, retail)
Tannin: Just as acidity gives a wine its youthful freshness, tannin acts as a sort of preservative to prolong great wines for aging. It creates a drying sensation on the inside of the gums, much like that produced by cold tea. Tannin is developed from the grape skins, stems or pips (bitter seeds of the grape) or by aging in wood. The thicker the skin of the grape — such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah or nebbiolo — the higher the tannin content.
The key to tannin is the skill of the winemaker in balancing the flavor for wines that are consumed soon after bottling and that of wines to be cellared for many years.
- 2009 Estancia Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $17 retail)
- 2008 Franciscan Vineyards Oakville Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $30, retail)
If you think of how each person has such different likes and dislikes in food, it’s not surprising that we enjoy different wines. Some like the zip of a crisp white wine, while others prefer the smooth softness of low-tannin red wine.
The key to finding new wines you like is a better understanding of what you enjoy about a specific wine and being able to discern exactly what you dislike. Being able to articulate your preferences will enable you to become a smarter buyer in the retail shop and offer you more confident choices while dining out.
If you enjoy the sharp, puckery sensation of biting into a Granny Smith apple, most likely you enjoy light-bodied wines with vibrant acidity. The most piercing style is New Zealand sauvignon blanc. For less zest, consider sauvignon blanc from California or France’s Loire Valley.
- 2010 Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $12 retail)
- 2010 Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand (about $19 retail)
SMOOTH AND SOFT
There is a reason merlots and chardonnays are the bestselling crowd-pleasing wines on the market. A wine being smooth, neither tart nor tannic, is one of the most sought-after qualities for many wine drinkers, from novice oenophiles to seasoned connoisseurs. This style of wine is usually medium-bodied, with less tannic bite for reds and less oak for whites.
- 2010 Lindemans Cawarra Merlot, Australia (about $10 retail)
- 2009 Gloria Ferrer Merlot, California (about $22 retail)
If you enjoy sweet wines you’ll want to be able to distinguish between the styles. (Asking a sommelier for the best sweet wine by the glass could end in a $40 Sauternes versus a $4 white zinfandel.) A wine becomes sweet from added sugar or a natural viticulture process. A wine obtaining its sweetness in the winery involves fermenting a wine to dryness and adding a sweet reserve juice, grape must or grape concentrate back into the wine. When Mother Nature has her hand in the process it results in a luscious sweet wine with a higher price tag.
- 2009 Hogue Cellars Late Harvest Riesling, California (about $15 retail)
- NV Jackson Triggs Riesling Ice Wine, Canada (about $55 retail, 375 ml)
It’s not always easy to know whether oak has been used in a wine style, but scents of vanilla, toast or grilled nuts are often reliable clues. If you enjoy a full-bodied wine, most likely you will like a wine that has been in contact with oak during winemaking or aging. The most familiar is Chardonnay, with the soft, rich, buttery and creamy style so many consider a favorite.
- 2009 Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)
- 2009 Silver Oak Napa Valley Chardonnay, California (about $24 retail)
Aromatic qualities of floral are more common in white wines than red. Certain grapes offering layers of this pronounced sensory explosion for your nose are Gewurztraminer, viognier, Riesling and torrontes.
- 2010 Bonterra Vineyards Viognier, California (about $19 retail)
- 2010 Calera Mt. Harlan Viognier, California (about $37 retail)