Learning about wine at home is really an easy and fun thing to do. All you really need is three other people, as when each person brings a bottle of wine and some snacks, it makes for a rather economical way to have a pleasant, entertaining evening.
But learning about wine at home takes a bit more forethought and planning, so that not only will you have some fun, but you’ll actually learn about the wine you are tasting.
Of course, you can expand your guest list to include as many people as you wish, but it’s going to take a lot more room and glassware and having too many wines for novice wine drinkers may be overwhelming and burn out theirr taste buds, or palates, as the wine aficionados say.
According to Andrea Immer’s highly informative book for wine enthusiasts “Great Wine Made Simple”, 80% of all wines produced are made from the “Big Four” grape varietals; Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for white wines and Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for red wines. By understanding the wines produced from these grapes, the novice wine drinker will understand 80% of the wines on the market.
*How to Structure A Wine Tasting
The best way to start is to taste two white wine varietals together, then do the same for two red wines.
Do the white wine tasting in the warmer months, then save the reds for the cooler seasons. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but the two red varietals are rather hearty and are traditionally enjoyed in fall or winter.
Keep to simple foods, minimally some cheese and bread or crackers. Simple crackers with a bit of salt and mild, medium soft cheese, like Provolone, Munster, Monchego or Havarti will work best. Remember that it’s the wine that you want to shine so avoid any pungent or Bleu cheese. Cheese with edible rinds, like Brie can react negatively with wine leaving a slight metallic taste in your mouth.
At this point, choose four bottles of wine in the same price range as it’s not time to compare expensive wines with inexpensive ones yet. If you are asking your friends to bring a bottle each, tell them the price range and what kind of wine to get.
For starters, choose two Chardonnays, one oak-aged and one steel tank aged and two Sauvignon Blancs. Sauvignon Blanc is not typically barrel-aged, so you may want to try a Fume Blanc, which is a barrel-aged version.
To get the best learning experience, compare the Chardonnay wines to each other, then the Sauvignon Blancs. Note the difference that barrel-aging does for wine. It tends to mellow the acidity and give a more buttery or in some cases, a vanilla taste.
Then try the Chardonnay against the Sauvignon Blanc and note the difference in the flavor profile of the two grape varietals. You might ask your guests to make their own notes then compare them after the tasting, which is what sommeliers and restaurateurs do, or keep it less formal and enjoyable. But notes will definitely help, if one is serious about learning about wine.
Since most red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are barrel-aged, perhaps the tasting could be structured to feature wine growing regions.
Choose two Cabernet Sauvignons at the same price point from two different regions. There are many to choose from; California, Australia, South America and Europe. Do the same for Merlot wines. The most radical differences will be noted when comparing a cooler climate to a hot climate wine, an Old World wine from a New World wine and wines from higher and lower elevations.
Just as with the white wines, try the same varietal side by side and then the Merlot against the Cabernet. Try to see if there any flavors that they have in common, and any flavors that jump out at you. You may recognize flavors like blackcurrant, leather, smoke, plum, herbs and many others in varying degrees.
Once you have tried the four varietals mentioned here, you can use this basic side-by-side comparison to answer a lot of questions for yourself.
For example, Is a wine better if it is more expensive? Just try two $10 bottles of your favorite varietal against two $20 bottles of the same varietal. Having two of each will diminish the chance of having a fluke, as there may be cheaper wines that you’ll like better.
Is a pure Cabernet Sauvignon wine better than a blend of several varietals? Do the same side-by-side comparison and you may be surprised by the answer.
Is French wine better than California wine? Tasting these wines side –by-side may not reveal which is “better”, but you will see a dramatic difference in the taste of the wine and winemaking styles.
Is older wine better than younger wine? Different people will give different opinions but trying the same wine from the same producer, but from different years, will show what ageing wine in a bottle can do and what a difference a good year can make over a poor year.
*Adding Other Wines
Though these four varietals are by far the most popular, there are many other grape varietals to try.
Pinot Noir, which is the famous grape varietal used to make red wine in Burgundy, is also grown in California, Oregon, Washington State, New Zealand and Australia and many other regions.
Syrah, or Shiraz when grown in Australia, is a dominant grape varietal from the South of France and makes a peppery, full-bodied wine. Generally very hearty, and not as expensive as pinot Noirs, this is a great food wine and a great crowd pleaser.
There are literally thousands of varietals which are associated with particular regions, or have been transplanted to vineyards around the world. Start by comparing the different varietals within the same price range, then region to region and expensive to inexpensive.
The Fundamentals of Learning and Having Fun
Find some like-minded friends who really want to learn about wine and have monthly get-togethers, each taking turns to host and organize the tasting. Remember, it’s very important to have some parameters for your tasting and not tasting random wines. Of course there are endless variations including wines from a particular region, a particular year or what have you.
No one should ever feel bad at a wine tasting. Not everyone has the same level of knowledge, the taste sensitivity or the same sensory memories. A great way to enhance this is by getting some food products that match the flavor profiles listed on the back of many bottles, or asking a clerk at the wine store. Have little plates of various jellies (raspberry, currant), truffle oil, wood chips (oak, cedar) or whatever flavors are commonly associated with the wine. But try as you might, everyone will taste different things.
Eventually,your wine tasting knowledge may evolve to the point that you may want to have a wine dinner with each hosting a dinner with hand-selected wine and food pairings, or each bringing a dish with a wine that he or she recommends.
By using this simple method of side-by-side comparison novice wine drinkers will develop an appreciation for different types of wine and begin to have firm opinions on which wines they like best. Besides, it’s a great way to get together with friends to enjoy good times, and that is what good wine and food are ultimately all about.