The Best Way to Learn About Wine is to Taste it, and Lots of it

Mark Tarbell Over the years, a number of people, with little to no wine drinking experience, have asked for my advice as they start their wine education. While wine blogs and internet references have made factual education easier than ever to obtain, the number one educational tool will always be tasting. There is no need to sacrifice your first born in order to learn by tasting Grand Cru. A solid foundation can be built on very short money, and I’m eager to spread that word. I thought rather than answer everyone’s questions individually, I’d compile the following advice for people interested in empowering themselves with some educational wine ammunition.

wine tastingThe first thing I recommend is determine what your monthly “research and development” budget will be. Like I said before and contrary to popular belief, you do not have to spend a lot to learn a lot. I would start out on the less expensive side, perhaps $10 a bottle. Drink that very same bottle over the course of three nights to see its evolution from the time it’s popped until the last glass is poured, about 72 hours later. Many wines can become flat and dull by day three, but this is all part of the education process. Recognizing how the wine has changed, for better or worse, is enlightening. This game plan can cost less than $100 per month, assuming you’re going to be tasting wine each and every night.
Wine listExperimenting with a wide range of wine styles is probably the most essential step. Start by investing in 12 bottles of wine, a “mixed case”, of 6 whites and 6 reds, all different styles.  The basic, most quintessential red and white varietals are a good stepping stone – Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir,  Merlot and Malbec for your reds and Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Gewurzatraminer and Chenin Blanc for whites. I would not recommend spacing these 12 bottles over 12 months. Instead, try at least 1 bottle per week.  In the beginning, the objective should be to expose yourself to as much as possible, discovering what styles excite us… and which leave us flaccid. Once the 12 wines have been polished off, move onto more esoteric grapes and other styles of sparkling and dessert wines.
You’ve no doubt seen movies, TV shows, or your more wine-smart friends tasting wine.  They sniff the wine, gargle it, seemingly getting off to it. After tasting, you wonder if they need a post-coital cigarette. What the heck are they doing?
champagne glasses

Cheers!

Why not just drink it already? Understanding that our sense of smell is how we percieve most of what we taste is very important in wine tasting. The wine’s aroma is often times just as important as the taste. Take several sniffs, searching for essential characteristics that will give you hints about the wine’s style and production. Do you get aromas like butter, cream, vanilla or smoke? These are all indicators that the wine was aged in oak. Does it smell like jammy, sugary fruit? This might be an indication that the grapes were grown in a warmer, New World climate.

Arizona wine cheers

Wine is best shared with friends

Finally, we’re ready to actually taste the wine. Take a sip, holding the wine in your mouth, suck it back and forth between your teeth like mouthwash.  This may seem odd or downright inappropriate, but what you are doing is “Priming” your palate.  Forget what your mom told you about playing with your food, this method is the best way for analyzing all that a wine has to offer. It’s important to get the wine into all the far corners of your mouth.  There is a sort of memory to our palates,where the second sip activates the memory of the first sip, and even though the second sip is much quicker than the first, it almost has the same effect.  If you do not prime your palate on the first sip, the second sip might be somewhat unremarkable.

thinking about wine

reflection

After swallowing (or spitting it out), genuinely reflect on what you’ve tasted. Again, you’ll want to look for specific flavors that will tell you about that wine’s origins. Does it make your mouth salivate or slightly pucker? This is an indication of high acidity. If it’s dry and leaves your mouth feeling like sandpaper, then the wine is probably rich in tannin. Finally, use your past experiences to draw conclusions – don’t try to use fancy jargon if you’re not comfortable with it. Cassis, quince and minerality are often tasting notes used by “the pros”. But if a wine tastes like your grandma’s blueberry pie, don’t hesitate to say it. There are no “rights” and “wrongs” in wine tasting. The more you taste, the more readily you’ll be able to identify descriptors.

Perhaps the most essential step for future reference is taking notes. Taking notes will reveal certain things about your palate. If you routinely enjoy wines with peach and apple characteristics, you might notice a trend. Maybe these are all wines made from a specific grape varietal or country, and you’ll know to buy them in the future.
You are armed with notes on which wines you liked, which were just okay, and some that were “less than okay”. Over time, you will probably have determined whether you have a preference for reds, whites, sparkling or dessert wines. Knowing your preferences among a wide range of wine styles is the most essential step for making an informed purchase.
There you have it – the key, introductory essentials to personal wine education.  For some, this may seem common sense. We can all read text books, blogs and wine forums until our eyes bleed, but there’s no replication for actually tasting the stuff. Experiencing wine through experimentation is not only educational, but the most hands-on, fun way to learn. After all, it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it?
How have you learned about wine so far? Have you tried any of my tips above? If you’re a seasoned wine drinker, how have you explained the learning process to others?  Did anyone ever provide you with an invaluable piece of advice that you still follow to this day?

3 comments

  1. For me the hardest thing used to be associating the different aromas and flavours in wine with reference points (eg “plum and chocolate notes, with some American oak” etc). To be honest, I’d be surprised if many people would recognise the aroma of ACTUAL plum juice, kiwi fruit for example, if smelled blind- and yet by convention, even inexperienced tasters freely make these comparisons at a wine tasting, often based upon the aromas they know a given wine is associated with. So if somebody at a tasting knows they are drinking Cab Sauv for instance, they will very often mention Blackcurrant and perhaps mint either as a result of ‘self-suggestion’, or because they know that this is fairly safe ground for comparison and want to participate. I have spent many hours trying to burn the aromas of various fruits, woods, spices etc into my memory and can now recognise these notes in wine fairly successfully, but it has taken a certain amount of time and effort to get there. Having said that it has also been great fun! Regards, The Taster.

    1. Great comment! It is actually remarkably difficult to just whip up a tasting note, for me anyways. My reviews are usually the result of spending a whole two nights with a wine. When I go out and I’m put on the spot for a comment, it probably comes across as flippant but its usually a “Meh, not bad”

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