Wine 101 – A Beginner’s Course

Introduction

I have opened up the proverbial Pandora’s Box. The amount of information available on wine is immeasurable, and makes it difficult to approach this topic without adding to the already voluminous din. For me to say “Wine is this!” or “To understand wine, do that!” essentially gets me nowhere in my search. It would also provide you folks who read this site on a regular basis nothing of substance.

But feh.. I’m probably going to do it anyway.

First things first…let me state for the record that my knowledge of wine is almost non-existent. But I want to learn, so let’s put that as item 1 that a person needs to have – A strong desire for learning about wine.

The nest step involves answering a very personal question. See, I’m not five paragraphs into this howto and I’m already giving a test.

The question needed to be answered is: Do you want to learn about wine either because you like the taste and the variety it provides you (either when drunk alone or when paired with food), or if you do want to do wine as an investment? For me, the choice here is simple — I have neither the time, patience, space nor money to collect wines. Me? I’m in it for the taste — and the comfortable buzz that a glass or two provides, but I suppose that’s a bit politically incorrect for me to admit to. Then again, there’s a reason why the lady in the upper right corner of this site is drinking absinthe.

So taste it is.

If I’m in this for taste, then the goal is to drink good wine. How do I find out what makes a good wine or not? By drinking of course. So here’s another task… drink wine, and note which wines were liked.

Using my process engineering background, I think it’s necessary (if one is new to wine) to establish a baseline. By that I mean choosing one wine as where a person can stick their flag in thr ground and always come back to. It’s the one wine against which all future wines will be judged.

For me, that wine is Riesling. I loves my Riesling. In my mind, there are wines which are better than Riesling and others which are worse. But I first found wine bliss with a little German import, and I’m not bound to forget it.

Using a baseline wine, a person can do one of several things. I suggest doing the following in order:

  • - Dissect the hows and whys on why a specific wine is liked.
  • - Compare the winery that produced the baseline wine against other wineries.
  • - Compare the varietal of the baseline wine against other varietals.

I like the first option, because it allows me to determine why I specifically like that wine. As I drink the wine, ask myself many questions – Is this wine sweet? Besides grapes, what flavors can I distinguish? Is the aroma of the wine pleasant? What happens when I drink this wine with entrees, desserts or by itself? If this wine tastes better with food, which foods work best with it? There are no wrong answers to these questions, but they will help determine a person’s own preferences.

Now that I know I like Rieslings, I can compare it against other Rieslings made by other wineries. I determine if I like the new wine or the baseline wine. If I like the new wine, I ask the same questions I have previously, and then ask “Why do I like this new wine better?” If I keep on trying Rieslings from different wineries, and keep mental or physical notes, I will soon develop an educated palate surrounding Rieslings. I may not have the extended vocabulary to express the tastes, but I will know what I like.

The final item in the list should be done within the available varietals of the winery, in order to determine the quality of the winery of your baseline wine. For example, say I really enjoy Brand X Winery’s Riesling, but I want to look for a different varietal. I should then try Brand X Winery’s Pinot Noir (as an example). Regardless of whether I like the wine or not, I should answer questions to myself once again. Why did I or did I not like that wine. What properties did it have that made me come to my conclusion? Regardless of whether I like the Pinot Noir, I now have a baseline to which I can compare all future Pinot Noir tastings.

If I like the Pinot Noir, I may explore other wines that Brand X winery and expand my knowledge base of wines.

Now if I can back up for a moment here, you’ll discover we’ve already developed a basic syllabus when it comes to learning about wines:

  1. Introduction – Why do you like Wine?
  2. To Collect or Taste?
  3. Baseline wine
  4. Understanding Your Preferences
  5. Tasting Wine
  6. Wineries
  7. Varietals and Regions

In my brief look at wines, I think that most any other topics surrounding wine can be placed under these initial categories. How does one read a Wine Label? Put that under “Wineries”. The difference between Reds and Whites? File under “Varietals and Regions”. A bit simplistic, perhaps, but a good enough place to start.

Before we Taste – Sight and Smell


Anyone can drink wine. Millions of folks do it every day, But how many actually “taste” their wine? How many people actually know how to “taste”?

Here’s a small test.

In the picture here, there are two glasses full of wine. Pick one, and take a mental drink.

Done?

If you took a drink from the glass on the left, you just took a drink of white wine vinegar.

Yes, it was a little harsh, but there’s a point to all this: Ever wonder why wine afficianados swirl and sniff their wines?

It’s to alert them when the wine in their hand may be a bit “off” (or in my example, a glass of vinegar). Before a person can taste wine, they should learn as much as they can about it. Why? So they can set your expectations of the wine accordingly. How? By using their eyes and nose. In fact, when people review wines, they talk about how the wine looks (eyes), its aroma (nose), as well as the way it tastes. Are these things needed in order to find a good wine? No more than reading Consumer Reports can help a person buy a car. A person may stumble onto a good product without it, but having it certainly improves one’s odds.

Taste the Wine with the Eyes

“Taste the Wine with the Eyes” is almost a cliche in the wine community, but there’s plenty of truth to it. Let me explain briefly how it works.

Remember that baseline wine that I talked about previously? Let me refer to that to illustrate a point.

As mentioend previously, my wine of choice is Rielsing, in this case a 2003 Joh. Jos. Prüm spätlese. I pour myself 1/3 of a glass and look at it in the light. I then look at it against a white background. I note what color I see…in this case a pale yellow with just the slightest tint of green. I then look at where the wine ends and the glass begins (called the “rim”) and note any coloration there. For this riesling, it’s almost as clear as water. I also note if the wine is cloudy or clear, clear in this case.

So what does all this tell me? It depends on how I compare it other wines. Whites with little color tend to be light and fresh tasting. The more color in a white, generally the more assertive the flavor. With reds, the darker, the more complex the flavors. The lighter the red may mean a lighter taste in a red, but colors of reds lighten as they get older. This means that a light red wine may have subtlety and complexity. So a “light look = light taste” isn’t a hard and fast rule, but rather a guideline.

For the rim, what do I look for? Well for whites, I’m looking for any brown colors, which may indicate that the wine has reached maturity or even has gone beyond it. Any other color…gold, yellow, or whatnot…I probably have a decent wine on hand.

Red wines? Again, if the rim is brown, it’s probably mature and ready to drink. Blue or violet? It’s a young wine. Rust or orange? I may have a very aged red wine. Whether or not these colors are good or bad things depends on the varietal that I’m drinking.

Knowing the wine can can also tell you how sweet or how much sugar the wine is supposed to have.

Wait a second. How can one tell how much sugar is in a wine? Swirl it in a glass.

Swirling is done for several reasons, some of which I’ll get to in a moment. But for looking purposes, I want to pay attention to

  • - How much of the wine sticks to the side of the glass…does it coat the glass or does it immediately pour itself back into the wine, or is it something in between?
  • - How does the wine that remains on the side of the glass our itself back into the wine? Does it tear up in beads and run down, or does the slowly come down in a curtain?

The answers to these questions tell me a great deal:

If a lot of the wine sticks to the glass when I swirl it means that the wine is thick and viscous, meaning it probably has a fair amount of alcohol and/or sugars. If it immediately drains back into the glass,then it probably is a light alcohol or dry wine.

If there is a fair amount of tearing (rivulets, or “legs”) this may indicate a higher glycerin presence, which indicates an ability to retain flavor and aroma.

In the case of the riesling, when I swirld the wine, it left a near glaze on the side of the glass, and came down back to the wine in large, thick legs. What does this tell me? A bit of alcohol, and a boatload of sugar. For riesling fans, this is a good sign.

Taste the wine with the nose

Here’s where the swirling also helps. The swirling releases aromas not readily apparent in a still wine. Once swirled, I will take a small wiff of the aroma. Then I will note what I smell.

Good smells:

  • Dessert – wine smells of chocolate or vanilla.
  • Fresh nose – wine is pleasant with youthful charm
  • Flowery nose – wine is fragrant with intense aroma of flowers.
  • Fruity nose -smells of ripe grapes, but not “grapey”. Currants and raisins also often mentioned.
  • Fragrant nose – naturally scented. No chemical scent.
  • Spicy nose – scent of spicy aroma: cloves, vanilla are typically cited.
  • Clean nose – absence of unpleasant odors.
  • Woody nose – wine has the scent of wood, such as oak or cedar.
  • Yeasty nose – suggestive of yeast or bread dough.

Bad Smells:

  • Metallic nose – unpleasant, usually due to metal contamination during wine-making or aging process.
  • Moldy nose – caused by rotten grapes, or stale, unclean casks.
  • Corky nose – Distinct smell of cork.
  • Sulfuric nose – similar to smell of rotten eggs.
  • Oxidized nose – stale smell due to exposure to air.
  • Vinegary nose – similar to vinegar.

As I smell, I find it helps to try to place the aromas with ones in my past. We’ve all have smelled flowers… does the wine smell of flowers? What spices am I familiar with? Are they present in the wine? Wine tasting is as much about asking questions as it is about the actual tasting.

Now that I’ve learned how to eyeball and smell the wine, next I’ll discuss on what to look for when I taste.

How to Taste Wine

“Learning how to taste” seems like one of the more patronizing of statements, doesn’t it? After all, we’ve been tasting all of our lives. Everybody tastes, and everyone has their favorite tastes, so why does one need to “learn how to taste”?

The answer to that is that since we taste so often, we tend to take the act for granted. How often does one think about why a painting draws us in? Or why a sound strikes us as either beautiful or harsh? Or why a movie excites us? A lot of us can say we liked The Matrix, or Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, but fewer people can explain why they like it.

So learning how to taste isn’t really about learning to taste…which we all know how to do. Rather it’s about giving the appropriate vocabularly to express why we like (or dislike) a specific flavor.

In order to do this, let’s revisit our second grade health class, where we were first taught the physiology of taste.

There are five acknowledged tastes our there. Some folks list six or even seven, but these are the ones that are most often recognized. They are:

  • salty – sodium chloride (Na+ Cl-)
  • sour – acid protons
  • sweet – glucose, sucrose or fructose often bound to other carbohydrates.
  • bitter – dozens of items
  • umami – glutamate, aspartate and related amino acids

Often people think that these tastes can be mapped out on a taste map that specifies that an area on a tongue is more receptive to a specific type of taste (salt on the tip of the tongue, bitter can be found on the back of the tongue, etc, etc). But recent research has shown that this is incorrect. Rather, a single taste bud is thought to contain 50-100 receptor or taste cells representing all taste sensations.

Another thing to remember is that taste is mainly smell. This is another reason on why one should appreciate the nose of a wine. The flavor of a wine is a combination of taste, smell, texture and other physical features such as temperature.

So how to use this knowledge when tasting wine?

I take a drink of my baselined wine. I let it sit there for a second or two and then ask myself if the wine tastes sweet, bitter, salty, etc. Primarily, I’m looking for sweet (sugar) and bitter (tannins) flavors, although others tastes may be present depending upon what kind of wine I am drinking.

When tasting, keep in mind that there are three tastes times to note:

  • - Initial taste: This is when the wine first hits the tongue.
  • - Taste: After hitting your tongue, allow the wine to coat it. For a more “advanced” tasting, clench your teeth and suck in some air to help aerate the wine. Expect weaird looks if you do this in any place but your private homes and public wine tastings.
  • - Aftertaste: The taste that remains in the mouth after one has swallowed the wine.

What should one look for during these three stages? A wine that is pleasant to your palate that has an extended aftertaste. And so you can sound like a wine snob, aftertaste is also referred to as “finish” or “length”.

Now that I have had the wine in your mouth what do you do?

Simple…I ask more questions. Did I like it? Why or why not? Was it sweet? Was it bitter? Besides grapes, could Itaste other flavors? If so, what?

Who knew that tasting wine involved giving myself the third degree?

Sweet vs. Dry:Fruity vs. Non-Fruity

Before going into the “reds vs. whites” discussion, one should know what to look for when tasting. From what I could discern, it comes down to the following four questions:

  1. Did you like the wine?
  2. Was the wine sweet, dry, or somewhere in between?
  3. Did the wine taste fruity, like something else, or a combination of flavors?
  4. Is this a good wine?

Question one I should answer on my own. Avoid wine peer pressure when possible.

The second question takes some explaining. A wine can have any amount of sugars in it, from ample (sweet) to none(dry). If someone says they have a dry wine, think of a dry martini. What makes a martini dry? A martini with less vermouth (a sweet wine) than a typical martini, hence, dry wine = less sweet.

For example, my Riesling? Very sweet. Think apple juice sweet, and you’ll have a good idea on what I’m talking about. It’s probably on the far end of the spectrum of sweet vs. dry.

The third question is the one that many people trip over, as they don’t necessarily know what to expect. But most assuredly, the better wines have tastes other than grapes. I’ve had chiantis that have had the taste of cloves and ground black pepper. My benchmark Riesling has the taste of pear.

It’s also here that the tannins will be apparent (if there are any). What are tannins? Technically speaking, they’re the bitter taste that nature provides some plants (grapes, teas and others) to prevent animals from eating them. But in order to provide a sense memory: Have you ever bitten into a grape seed and felt your mouth pucker? That was a concentrated amount of tannins that was tasted.

Tannins can provide a balance to the sweetness of some wines. They can be natural (from the skins and seeds of grapes) or added to the wine (from the barrels wines are aged in). The puckering of your taste buds is often due to tannins.

How does one find these non-grape tastes? That’s a difficult question to answer, because in my experience is that if a person goes looking for it, it’s probably not there. So, as an exercise, I do the following – I take a drink of wine and note what imagery goes on in my mind at each of the three tasting stages mentioned above. I note any taste that’s there, regardless of how silly it may sound. If I got the image of a flower, guess what? I may have a floral wine. If I taste ice cream? There may be a vanilla taste.

It’s important to note that there are no wrong answers here. Others might dispute this, but the fact remains that if I taste apple when everyone else tastes grapefruit, it doesn’t mean I was wrong. It may mean that the wine may be a bit more complex than others have realized.

As for the final question (Is this a good wine?), anyone is indeed able to answer this question, regardless of how experienced they are in tasting wine. There may be some dispute to an answer, but if a person can defend their position, who’s to say they’re wrong?

Look at it this way. When a a person sees a movie, they can answer if it was a good movie or not. Let’s take for example “Pulp Fiction”. Some critics hated this film, others liked it. Me? I enjoyed it on several levels, because I enjoyed the action, the cartoonish violence, and the way it played with linear story telling. But I thought that “Million Dollar Baby” was predictable, and the characterization simplistic but I respected the movie for what it had to say, and the techinical way in which it was said. I was able to gain these opinions because I see a lot of movies.

Now apply this to wines. I can respect a good wine. I can acknowledge that it was well made. It doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Conversely, I can look at a wine that other people dislike and find something in it that others don’t. Yes, it may be nothing more than grape juice, but y’know, sometimes that’s all I’m looking for.

My point here is that the more wines you drink, the more you’ll be able to determine what you like versus what is good. The more wines a person drinks, the more they’ll be able to taste just what went into a wine. They’ll be able to use words like “complex”, “subtle” and “understated” and know what they mean in the context that they put them.

As a person first starts to explore wines, a good wine will be simply one they like. As that person becomes more educated in the different varietals, regions and wineries, their definition of “good” will apply more broadly.

Rosetta Stone Wine

In the comments of a previous post, Cathy of My Little Kitchen (http://mylittlekitchen.blogspot.com) addresses something which is probably fairly common when people want to learn about wine:

This (finding different flavors in wine…ed.) is where I really have trouble. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t tasted enough wines and/or haven’t tasted them carefully enough. Most of the time wine tastes like wine to me. I have trouble distinguishing components of that taste and really have trouble naming them!

Don’t worry. This is common. Learning to taste can be a difficult process… learning to taste wine even more so. Don’t let this intimidate you when it comes to drinking wine. Remember the first rule when it comes to wine…Drink what you like. If you like the taste of wine, without being able to discern tastes and flavors that others can’t, that’s perfectly okay. Everyone has a different palate. Embrace yours.

Having said that, there are things that can be done in order to help a person find that “taste” . What they want to do is go on a quest for their Rosetta Stone wine.

Remember the Rosetta Stone? It was the stone that helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs as it had translations in of ancient text in Egyptian demotic script, Greek, and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

What future wine connoisseurs may want to do is find that one wine which helps them decipher others.

But first, an analogy.

Imagine listening to a quartet (two violins, a cello, and a viola) playing a piece of classical music. It’s supposed to be a good piece, but you can’t understand why it’s supposed to be good. To an untrained ear, it just sounds like a string quartet.

So let’s remove one component of the quartet, say…the viola. This will remove one variable and should decrease the complexity of the performance. Yes, it may feel like something is missing, but you should be able to hear the remaining individual parts a little clearer. You should also be able to notice how the whole of the piece has changed with the viola gone.

Let’s apply this to wines.

Out of the five tastes, wines generally focus on sweet, bitter and sour. Some may play with salty and umami, but sweet, bitter and sour dominate, with sweet (sugar) and bitter (tannins) being the two we want to examine.

Now in your mind, think of two “volume controls”, going on a scale between 0 thru 10. Most wines set their controls for sweet and bitter somewhere between 3-7. It’s this interplay that, in part, helps determine a particular varietals characteristics.

This is simplistic, to be sure, but it’s a good place to start.

Typically, it’s the tannins that add complexity. So my charge to those who wish to discover a Rosetta Stone wine, is to find wines that have low tannins, say between 0-3 on the volume meter.

As for the “sweet control”? I’ll leave that up to you. Just remember that when it comes to wine, sweet is often in direct correlation to dry. On the “volume control” a zero means dry, a ten means excessively sweet. A typical wine will fall somewhere in between 1-9.

If you go to a respectable wine store and ask for help, they should be able to pick out a decent wine for you using these standards. For example, if you ask for a wine that’s about a 1 or 2 on the tannin level, and about eight or nine on the sweet level, they should be able to find a wine close to that.

Yes, I know this is going a long way to explain a point.

Now, whatever wine they give you, ask for a second bottle of the same varietal (be it a pinot grigio, riesling or whatever), but from a different winery.

Take both bottles home and hold your own tasting. Pour one glass of each and sit them side by side. Have a glass of water or crackers near by in order to cleanse your palate.

Take a drink from glass A. Note whatever tastes are there. Cleanse your palate, and take a drink from glass B. Instead of noting the tastes that are there, try to compare the wine against the first glass, and explain how they differ.

Is this difficult? It can be, depending upon the wineries you choose from. For example, if one wine tastes of “grapefruit” and the other tastes “lemony” you may miss that. However, if one wine tastes “floral” and the other “grapey”, then you’ve discovered that Wine A tastes of flowers. The key here is this: If you can discern one wine from the other, you’re at the cusp of understanding the flavor of both.

Here you have two wines that taste different (even if only slightly). What next? Ask yourself repeatedly “How do they taste different?

As I mentioned before, wine tasting is as much about having the vocabulary to explain the wine, as it is about tasting in general. It’s perfectly okay to do research on your wines, and that may give you a bit of a map for your tongue to follow. Type the name of your wine A into Google or Yahoo. See if you can find any tasting notes on them. Feel free to use these to see if you can find that taste. Then see if you can find that taste in wine B. If you can, catalog that taste in the back of your mind for later use. If you can’t that’s okay.

This process takes practice. Honest it does. Try it this tact with different varietals. Sooner or later, you will find that one wine that makes you go “Ah HA! I get it now!”. Trust me, the search for your Rosetta Stone of wines will be worth it. Never has the cliche “It’s the journey, not the destination” been more appropriate.

Conclusions

For all the fuss about wine, what it really comes down to is finding the wines you enjoy drinking, regardless of the varietal or the winery from which it came. If you enjoy drinking Merlots when everyone else is drinking Pinot Noirs, that’s okay. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is trying to sell you something, most likely Pinot Noir.

Learning about wines is a wonderful experience, as it allows you to explore both the wines and yourself. You’ll learn your preferences, and gain the ability to look at a wine list with some level of confidence. The key to the entire process is you.

So go out and embrace your lack of knowledge, because all it means is that you have new experiences ahead of you. Find your Rossetta stone wine, and move on to other varietals and new wineries. But above all, enjoy yourself. Because that’s what wine is all about.


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