Wine 101 – A Syllabus

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 you need to have – A strong desire for learning about wine.

I think then you need to determine whether 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 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 you like.

Using my process engineering background, I think it’s necessary (if you’re new to wine) to establish a baseline. By that I mean choosing one wine as where you will stick your flag 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 your baseline wine, you can do one of several things. I suggest doing the following in order:

  • - Dissect the hows and whys on why you like your specific wine
  • - Compare the winery that produced your baseline wine against other wineries.
  • - Compare the varietal of your baseline wine against other varietals.

I like the first option, because it allows you to determine why you specifically like that wine. As you drink the wine, ask yourself 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 your 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 confines 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 a basic syllabus when it comes to learning about wines:

  • I. Introduction – Why do you like Wine?
  • II. To Collect or Taste?
  • III. Baseline wine
  • IV. Understanding Your Preferences
  • V. Tasting Wine
  • VI. Wineries
  • VII. 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.

I’ll be covering V-VII at some point in the future, hopefully elaborating on each section.

Or perhaps I’ll just keep on drinking Rieslings. For me, it’s a win-win.

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