Beginner’s Guide to Wine

by winenews on Oct.23, 2008, under Tips & Terms

How should you begin if I want to learn about and enjoy wine?  Here is a simple wine primer for the budding wine lover.

1. Start with simple and inexpensive wines, and work your way up to highly rated, and generally expensive, bottles. There is no point in opening an expensive and complex Château Lafite-Rothschild Bordeaux as your first red-wine experience. Start with a $5-10 bottle of red or white from your local market or specialty store (like Trader Joes’, Costco, BevMo, etc.). Try several types of grapes, such as merlot, cabernet, pinot, or chardonnay to see if you prefer dry or sweet (actually less-dry).

2. Try a variety of wines from many places, like California, Italy, France, Spain, etc. Believe it or not the same grape variety can taste totally different from different wine regions.  Trying everything is the only way to build your sensory memory and discover your own taste preferences.  You’ll never make any progress with wine if you stick to the same Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, no matter how much you like them.  Also try several years of the same wine.  Again you might be surprised how different each year’s harvest tastes.

3. Go with your instincts, not those of so-called experts. There is no point in suffering through a wine that you really don’t like just because you have read that it’s supposed to be good. We’ve all tasted plenty of expensive bottles that were not to our liking, and there are certain varietals that you may never warm up to. Wine, like art, is subjective. As you become more experienced, your opinions will become more informed.  And don’t hesitate to voice an opinion about any wine.

4. One important thing to understand is that the most important characteristic of a good wine is balance. A wine’s flavor can have many different tastes/elements: fruit, berries, tannin, spice, oak, etc. The best wines have all these things in a complex harmony (balance), and no one flavor overshadows the others. You want your wine to be like a smooth ensemble, not an assemblage of discordant flavors, each vying for attention.

5. Use stemware. It may seem snobbish to beginners, but the right glass really does enhance the taste and increase your appreciation of a wine. What stemware does is let aromas and gasses escape, so your nose plays a part in the experience.  You need not spend $50 per stem for the finest crystal, but do look for glassware that is delicate, balanced, and has a large bowl, which will allow the wine to “breathe” (interact with the air, thereby releasing all its aromas and flavors). Opt for clear, classic stemware; avoid colored glass or cut crystal (which can disguise the appearance of wine).

6. Serve wine at the right temperature.  Whites should be cool but not icy; serve them between 43°F and 53°F. Reds should be served at cellar temperature (between 55°F and 65°F), not room temperature.  Sparkling wines and Champagnes should be on the cool side (around 45°F).

7. It’s OK to save leftover wine — for up to three days, or perhaps a little longer if it has been corked and refrigerated.  Some wines, especially newer reds, can actually improve when they are kept open overnight (because the by-products of fermentation have a chance to disperse). Most wine, however, loses something after the first go-round. What you want to do is eliminate oxygen contact, which causes wine to oxidize and spoil.  An alternative is to use that good leftover wine for cooking.

8. Discuss wine with your friends and colleagues at every opportunity. You might even think about starting a tasting club, where you gather regularly with friends to share new bottles and your thoughts about them.  Or attend local wine shop tastings so you can really explore some diversity.

9. Establish a relationship with a local wine merchant. Some supermarkets have well-tended wine departments, but if yours doesn’t, then go straight to a reputable wine dealer.  Having a personal relationship with a favorite wine merchant who knows your taste and your budget is invaluable. You will get better advice, and the wines in stock will have been selected with more care. Most wine shops take pains to make sure their stock is kept under proper conditions, minimizing your chances of getting a bottle that’s been spoiled by improper storage.  If you are looking for a specific wine that your wine shop doesn’t carry, ask your merchant to order it.  As you establish an ongoing relationship with the store, he or she will be happy to special order for you.

10. Don’t think you have to know everything about wine to appreciate or to serve it. The best wine professionals readily admit that no matter how much they learn about wine, there is always a lot more to discover. Everyone has to start somewhere, and exploration is the key.

11. Don’t be put off by wine jargon. In wine discussions simply use terms you understand to describe how a wine tastes.  And don’t pay too much attention to archaic, stuffy rules.  The old saw that red wine goes with red meat and white wine with white meat should be taken with a liberal dash of salt. You can enjoy red wines with fish, especially if the seafood is prepared with a meat-derived sauce. Actually the sauce is really the important taste whether it’s red meat, chicken, fish, etc.  Drink what you like, and again, don’t be afraid to experiment in combination with foods.

12. Don’t think that white wine is only for women or red only for men. Although certain whites may sometimes be referred to as having feminine qualities, white wine is not a woman’s drink any more than red is a man’s. Rosés are also appropriate for everyone at certain times (mostly summer lunches).

13. Don’t store white wine in the refrigerator for weeks. This will cause a loss of flavor and can turn corks moldy. Chill your whites for an hour or two before serving, or use an ice bucket to chill them at the table. Remember, white wine should be served cool — between 43°F and 53°F — not icy cold.

14. A wineglass should only be filled approximately one third full. This leaves room for the wine to breathe and provides space in the glass for swirling the wine, which releases aromas and flavors.  When you order a bottle of wine in a restaurant, a good waiter will refill your glass periodically (before it becomes empty), but never to the brim.  If you’re taking on the task of refilling the glasses, fill other guests’ glasses first, then your own.

15. If you take a wine to a dinner party don’t expect the host to open and serve it, unless the purpose of the gathering is to sample new wines. Normally good cooks never plan a dinner without putting thought into choosing a wine that will be an integral part of the meal.  It’s entirely appropriate to say, “Here’s a gift for your cellar,” thereby relieving your host of the obligation to pour the bottle immediately.

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