Educate the palate with wine basics
People often ask me “what's the best wine?” I explain that the best wine is the one THEY like, not the one that I or another wine critic may like. If they want to know what makes a wine good, I give the stock answer: “the grapes, the ground and the guy/gal.” What that means is good quality grapes, the earth/soil/climate or “terroir” (that's terr-WHAR, not terrier!), as the French call it; and the winemaker, whoever he or she is.
Why does wine seem to intimidate so many people?
Because we did not grow up with it on the table. Little by little, the U.S. is finally becoming a wine culture. But before we get too excited, consider that it was the people on the two coasts who consumed most of the 300 million cases of wine that were sold in the U.S. last year. Up and down the East and West coasts, wine is gliding down gullets like never before. Chicago and a couple of other midwestern cities are doing a respectable job, as are Las Vegas, Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. But the rest of the country is lagging behind. Reuters recently reported that, within five years, the US will be the world's largest wine market, replacing France, which will fall to third place. Italy will remain second. But let's remember that there are 300 million Americans versus about 60 million people in France and Italy. We still have a long way to go before we are drinking as much wine per person as the French and the Italians. But it's a start!
If you grew up in France or Italy, you would already have a basic knowledge of wine, because you would have grown up seeing your family drinking wine at the dinner table. And you might have had a taste as a youngster. I learned to drink wine over 30 years ago in Chile, a major wine producing country, where every meal features a bottle of wine and a bottle of mineral water on the table. Teenagers are allowed to have a half glass under parental supervision, and only at dinner. In cultures that treat wine as a part of every family dinner, there is far less abuse of alcohol by young people. Drinking a glass of wine with your parents makes if far less sexy and reduces the incidence of sneaking off with teenage buddies to do Jell-O shots.
Becoming a wine lover
The good news is, you don't have to be a wine expert to enjoy wine; you just have to be a wine lover, which is a lot easier than people think. When someone else tastes a wine, they may say, "This is blended from nine different grapes from 12 sub-appellations within the viticultural region which I visited and I now want to describe to you in excruciating detail." If you sample the same wine and say, "I taste apples, pears and
lemon," you're way ahead.
Consider the following review taken from the Wine Spectator, August 31, 2005 Issue: Henri Bonneau & Fils Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve des Celestins 1998 Rhone, France Score 98 points Price $275 at release (current price around $500). “Monstrous, overflowing with roasted chestnut, beef bouillon, bittersweet cocoa, prune, brick dust, espresso and hoisin sauce flavors. This broad-shouldered and immensely concentrated throwback offers accessibility now and for the next 30 years. Drink now through 2035.”
Brick dust? Hoisin sauce? Broad-shouldered? Are we building a house, stir-frying a duck, playing football or tasting wine? To be perfectly honest with you, I can taste and smell many of those descriptors. But, I have been tasting professionally for quite a few years…and you too, can train your palate to detect unusual flavors and aromas. Remember, tasting wine is not brain science.
Visit your local wine shop
A good way to learn is to go to your local wine store and chat up the clerks. Tell them what you like and what you don't like. Something like, “last night I had a bottle of ‘Crocodile River Merlot' and I really liked it, what else should I try?”
The next step is to attend a guided wine tasting. Most good wine shops have frequent informal tastings. When you attend a tasting, you get an opportunity to sample what the experts like and hear their take on the wines. You also get to compare your reactions to those of the other attendees, and discuss the wines with them.
Wine, glorious American wine
If you are new to wine tasting, start with American wine. Why? French, Italian and Spanish wines are marvelous, but they are not made for the typical American palate. If you are just beginning your wine “journey,” it's easier to educate your palate on wine made in the U.S.- and we produce some awesome wine! Don't be afraid to try wines from Washington State and Oregon, which, in addition to California (of course!) are producing spectacular wines.
Another reason to start with American or New World wine is that the name of the grape is clearly stated on the bottle. In Europe, wines are primarily known and named by the region where they are produced, called the appellation (like Bordeaux, Burgundy or Chianti - these are the names of places, not names of wine grapes.) All wines are made from either a blend or one type (varietal) of grape. In the New World - America, South America, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand - most wines are labeled by their varietal names: Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot.
Old World wines - French, Spanish and Italian - give absolutely no clue as to the grape involved. France's Burgundy is a big problem because we think of the color, “Burgundy,” which we know as purplish- red. But “Burgundy” wine can be red or white. Red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir, and white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay.
Oh, and that bottle of Henri Bonneau & Fils Chateauneuf du Pape Reserve des Celestins that I told you about is probably a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, but it will not tell you that on the label!
Jump-starting your wine education
A good way to start out if you are a wine newbie is with Zinfandel (the red wine). Zinfandel has easy-drinking, rich, low acid fruit flavors without mouth-drying tannins (one way to think about tannins is to recall the taste of too strong tea). The aromas and flavors are sweet and jammy, with tastes of blackberries, strawberries and a bit of pepper. Zinfandel, called “America's sweetheart wine,” is produced only in California and there are very good Zins for under $20. Some really good Zins are the “three Rs” -Ridge, Rosenblum and Ravenswood.
After Zinfandel, try Merlot. Merlot is a big red wine, but the tannins are relatively soft compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromas and flavors usually bring to mind blueberries, plums, black cherries and currants. Some reasonably priced Merlots to consider are: California’s Merryvale, Burgess, Chappellet and Bonterra, which is organic, but as my husband jokingly says, “it’s good anyway!”
After Merlot, try Pinot Noir. While you can easily get inexpensive Zinfandel and good mid-priced Merlot, good Pinot Noir, which is made in very small quantities, is expensive (starting at $25-30), but worth it. Pinot Noir, often called the red wine for white wine drinkers, is light on its feet and has gorgeous aromas and flavors of red cherries, cinnamon and cloves. Oregon’s A to Z Wineworks makes a nice reasonably-priced Pinot Noir, Deloach’s Russian River Valley Pinot is a good choice as is Melville’s Pinot Noir.
For the next phase of your wine education, move on to Syrah, with the flavors of boysenberries, smoke and black truffles. Fruity versions come from California and Australia, where Syrah is called Shiraz. A couple to try are: Walla Walla’s Seven Hills Syrah, Qupe’s Central Coast Syrah and as for down under, Jim Barry and Peter Lehmann are solid Aussie Shiraz producers.
Then try Cabernet Sauvignon. With great aromas and flavors of vanilla, black cherries, toast, blackcurrants, bell peppers and cocoa powder, Cab is full-bodied and intense. Cabernet Sauvignon can be a tannic beast, so a good bet is to buy Cabs with a little bit of age. For example, I am currently drinking my 2003 and California and Washington State Cabernets. A couple to look for: Buehler, Ferrani-Carano and Ramey’s Napa Claret.
And if you want to educate your palate with white wines other than Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, try the following: Pinot Gris from Oregon, Viognier and Gewurztraminer from California and Riesling from Washington State.
Tired from all the details? Not to worry, that’s why I am here. You don’t have to learn everything all at once. Wine education is cumulative, that is, it happens over time. Keep reading my columns and you will be an expert in no time.