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A Beginner's Guide to Wine

What style of wine appeals to you?

What style of wine appeals to you? This is the most important question people new to fine wine can ask themselves. The easiest way to start navigating the often intimidating and seemingly complex world of fine wine is by identifying, as simply as possible, the styles of wine that most appeal to us.

No special terminology or understanding of particular wine regions or vintages is necessary to start making those distinctions. Keep it simple. Go to a tasting and identify the wines that most appeal to you. Then start to articulate what it is you like about the ones you prefer. Use your own words. Do you like a particular wine because it reminds you of ripe fruit? Are you drawn to a sample because it has savory, peppery or vegetal aromas/tastes, and you think it might go well with food that you like? Do you prefer a little sweetness in your wine, or do you prefer tartness? Do you find that you like lighter bodied, more delicate wines, or are richer, more concentrated wines more satisfying for you?

There’s a universe of taste preferences out there, and a wide array of wines designed to meet those preferences, so you need to first identify what works for you. There’s no sense plunking down $20, $40 or more for a wine made in a style different from what you typically like.

Once you start to have some words of your own that help you explain what it is you like about some wines you’ve tried, you now have the ammunition to start communicating with the very helpful and knowledgeable staff people who work at your local wine stores and wine-oriented restaurants—places that specialize in sourcing particularly good wines from top producers.

I strongly urge you to avoid grocery store wine sections, and similar selections at box stores, like Costco. Instead, take advantage of the people who really know wine, and who are there to help you, at wine specialty stores—places that exist to match consumers with the wines they’ll like best.

For one thing, the selection at most grocery stores is dictated by what’s available in large quantity to chains who are primarily interested in making as much profit as they can on wines they can buy in bulk, reliably, from big distributors. They have no economic interest in identifying and promoting artisanal producers, people who make small quantities of characterful wines that are not widely available, but that are worth seeking out. That’s the job of the stores that exclusively sell wines and spirits.

And while Costco is the biggest wine buyer in the world, and they often pass on good savings to customers, most Costcos lack knowledgeable personnel available to tell you about the wines, or to help you match your wine preferences to what they happen to have in stock that day. So hold off on buying wines at Costco until you have already identified the names of some producers and types of wine that you know you like.

In Palo Alto and the greater Northern California Bay Area, I’ve listed some of the best sources for wine, and for getting assistance with buying wine, in the Wine Retailers section on my links page.

If you have already tried a variety of wine styles, and know something about the commonly used terms, you can take it further and get even more specific. Do you prefer buttery, oaky, full-bodied Chardonnay or more tart, lemony, high acid, non-oaked versions? Are you a fan of savory, lighter-bodied red wines, or is a fruitier, full-bodied style wine what really does it for you? Do you tend to enjoy very dry sparkling wines, or fruitier, sweeter bubblies?

In future blog posts, I will focus on some of the more common styles, and give readily available examples of producers and wines made in those styles, so you can try them and see if that’s a style that appeals to you.

Wine styles are dictated by a number of factors, including the basic material—the wine grape used, or blend of grapes–the climate and growing conditions where the wine was made; and the winemaking techniques used to produce that wine.

As far as the basic material that goes into a wine, there is a vast array of wine grapes with a range of characteristics. I have a large framed poster of De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Table hanging on the wall in my home office that shows several dozen white and red grapes, each in its own small box, arrayed like the periodic table of elements, along two different axes. Wines are arranged from light to full bodied on the y axis, while the acidity levels—ranging from low to very high—dictate placement along the x axis.

Chardonnay, one of the most popular and widely planted grapes in California (and much of winegrowing world) is one of the heavier bodied white grapes. It also lies in the mid-range of acidity for white grapes—on the border between the high and very high acid sectors. Pinot Noir, a red grape, is located well below Chardonnay in terms of weight, on the lighter weight end of the y axis, yet in the middle of the moderate to high acid sector of the x axis.

Another popular red grape, Merlot, like Cabernet Sauvignon, places near the very heavy end of the heavy bodied range, but is much lower in acidity than Pinot Noir. Several Italian red grape varieties clump toward the high end of the acidity spectrum, but at all levels of the low to medium-bodied axis. A group of Spanish varieties, like Albarino, are near the light-bodied end of the y axis, but also relatively low in acidity. Personally, I know that I like higher acid varieties, so I tend to gravitate toward wines made from those higher acid grapes when drinking for pleasure.

Regardless of the natural body and acidity characteristics of a particular grape, however, the place where they are grown and the winemaking techniques employed can help emphasize or minimize the acidity and/or heaviness of wine made from that grape.

Grapes grown in cooler regions, like France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions, or Germany’s Mosel and Rheingau, tend to be much higher in acidity and lower in alcohol than wines grown in warm regions, like much of Australia, California and southern France.

Winemaking decisions also affect the style. Picking grapes at lesser ripeness, and therefore lower sugar levels, will also result in wines of higher acidity. Longer macerations of wines (mixing and fermenting the grape juice with the grape skins and seeds), or aging of white wines on their fine lees (which consist of dead yeasts and other byproducts of fermentation), will result in heavier bodied wines. Aging red wines in new oak barrels, the tannins of which are absorbed into wines made from grapes that may already be heavy in tannins, can also lead to heavier bodied versions of wine from a particular grape.

So how do you know whether you’re going to like a particular bottle or not? The only way to really find out is to taste it, and through tasting, to start to develop a style profile of wines that you prefer. That profile, which you can then communicate to wine store staff and sommeliers at restaurants, will help you identify more wines you are likely to enjoy. By starting to make a list of wines that you have liked, and by identifying in your own words what you enjoy about those wines, you will have the keys to finding more and more wines that give you value and pleasure.

Steven Sathue December 07, 2011 at 05:37 PM
Aside from (all?) whites, are there any red wines that should not be aerated (breathed)? Or is my question too general to be answered? I've never found any good answers to that in my online travels. Anway, thanks for listening!
Aaron Selverston December 07, 2011 at 06:34 PM
On a related note: I was told once that it's good to inhale a small amount of air after taking a sip--creating small air bubbles in the wine--in order to oxygenate it in my mouth. Have you ever heard of that?
Richard Jennings December 07, 2011 at 11:10 PM
Steven, Great question! The only wines one should avoid aerating, either in a decanter or just in one's wine glass for awhile (or with one of those little aeraters that you can pour the wine into on the way into your glass) are older wines. Wines that have already matured, so their tannins have softened and integrated, do not need aerating and could be negatively affected by it. Virtually all young wines, however, can benefit from some aeration, whether that's pouring through an aerater, or leaving it in a decanter for an hour or so before serving. There are tight, powerful whites--like higher end white Burgundies and Chablis--that can benefit from this treatment too. --Richard
Richard Jennings December 07, 2011 at 11:13 PM
Aaron, Thanks for the question. Most seasoned wine tasters do what you describe, sucking in some air with their mouth after taking a sip, so as to oxygenate the wine in the mouth, or palate. It may sound a little disgusting, but it works! It helps bring out additional flavors and nuances in most wines, and I always do it when I'm tasting and rating wines.

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