John JuergensGood Wine, Reasonable Cost: Where to Begin?

In your search for good wine at a reasonable cost where do you begin? Depending on where you shop you can be faced with hundreds or thousands of choices. Some grocery stores that sell wines have over two thousand different wines to choose from. I'm going to give you some ideas on how to get a better understanding of wines along with a list of what I call "reference wines" to help you get started and to practice on.

The majority of people who like wine have at most three or four standby favorites that they found through trial and error, they tasted at a friend's house, or they just stumbled upon by accident. This is pretty much how I started out; but, I soon decided that if I was going to learn anything about wine and be able to have any idea of what I was buying I would have to approach the subject with a little more organization. This is one of the first things I try to teach my wine classes.

In order to get any kind of handle on this wine business there are several things you need to do. First, get in the habit of trying at least one new wine each week. Drink the wine over a couple of days, tasting it first all by itself and then with a variety of foods to see how the taste changes. Try to do this at a time when you can pay attention to what you are smelling and tasting without a lot of distracting noise and smells, such perfume, cologne, cooking odors, smoke, etc.

Next, try your wines at different temperatures and note how the smells, flavors, and the feel of the wine in your mouth changes. One of the major obstacles to enjoying wine in this country is that we serve our white wines far too cold and our reds far too warm. And shame on our restaurants because they are the major offenders in the commission of this crime. There are very few truths or absolutes when we are talking about wine, but the issue of proper temperature comes mighty close. Here's the rule: Most white wines should be served between 50 - 55 oF and most red wines should be served between 60 - 65 oF. The lighter the red wine the cooler it should be within this range. This is not wine snob stuff. Think about how milk and beer taste when they are cold and warm. Try the temperature exercise with wine and you will see a big difference.

One of the most frequent comments I get goes something like this: "I had a great wine at a friend's wedding reception last month. I can't remember the name, but the label was sort of off-white with some pretty flowers. Do you know what that is and where I can get some?" This is one of the most frustrating questions I get because there are hundreds of wines with labels such as this. The point is, when you taste a wine that you like you have to keep some kind of record of it. Take the empty bottle with you, soak off the label, or just write down the name, producer, and country of origin on a napkin or even your hand so you will have something to refer to later, because you probably won't remember the details.

In your regular wine exploration you should get into the habit, at least initially, of saving wine labels or the information on them in a notebook along with your impressions of the wine. There is a little bit of hassle and effort in doing this, but it is an important step in learning how to organize and catalog wine information. Don't worry about getting into the wine jargon. Just make notes that are meaningful to you about how the wine smelled, tasted, and appeared (color and clarity). You might add a simple rating system to indicate how well you liked the wine. A friend of mine uses a simple but effective 1.0 to 4.0 system where 1.0 is poor and 4.0 is outstanding. A 2.5 is mediocre. He also adds simple notes to support the rating.

Two additional pointers include, 1) getting a basic wine book from the library or bookstore to read up on the characteristics of the major grape types or "varietals" as they are called (for example, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.); and 2) taste wines made from each grape variety from different producers and at different prices with the book in front of you.

This approach works much better, is a lot less expensive, and is a lot more fun if you practice with a friend or two. Each of these grape types has some distinctive components of smell and taste, and sometimes color. They also overlap in some areas, so it can be a little confusing at first, but if you work through the wines systematically and note the differences it won't be long before you will know how each wine should basically taste.

Approaching wine with this sort of organization will also let you know where you are on the "taste evolution scale." Many people start off preferring the sweeter white or blush wines such as German Riesling and White Zinfandel. If they continue to explore wines their tastes will tend to evolve toward dryer or less sweet white wines such as Chardonnay; then on to the light, fruity red wines such as French and American Beaujolais.

Some folks then make it all the way to the other end of the scale where the big, heavy red wines lurk. These are the kind of wines that are so dark you can view a solar eclipse through them and they are so dry they taste like they have been filtered through the Sahara Desert. But there is no rule, except in the wine snob handbook, that says your tastes have to evolve and that drinking dry red wine is somehow better or more sophisticated. It's all a matter of what tastes good to you. No matter where you start or end up on the scale, you probably will like some grape varieties and wine styles more than others. So practicing this exercise will come in handy when you come upon a new wine of the variety that you prefer.

Although there are all kinds of additional ways to gain a better understanding of wine, these are just a few that I know work for most people. It's like learning any new skill: You have to get in there and practice, practice, practice. The more you work at it, the better you will get; but, unlike some other skills or hobbies, practicing is the best part of wine tasting.

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