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To learn is to taste wine | David White
Until five years ago, I assumed that wine fanatics were crazy. Sure, I enjoyed wine. But it was simply a drink -- a beverage to enjoy with dinner from time to time.
And then I put my nose in a glass of Syrah from Failla, a boutique winery in Napa Valley, and something clicked. How could such a simple beverage -- fermented grape juice -- have such a seductive bouquet? And how could it taste so good?
I knew nothing of tasting notes at the time, but when I learned that a well-known wine critic had described the wine as "explosive and wild" and complimented its "aromas of raspberry, game, truffle, smoke and leather, with notes of pepper and beefsteak tomato," it all made sense.
So I dove into the world of wine -- taking classes, reading books, and tasting as much as I could.
These days, I'm frequently asked how one should learn about wine. While every approach is helpful, tasting is the most valuable. Even simple questions, like your go-to varietal on an average weeknight, are impossible to answer until you've tasted several different wines.
If you prefer white wine, for example, do you seek out ones that are crisp and light, like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Or do you prefer wines that are buttery and ripe, like California Chardonnay? If you prefer red, do you seek out big, jammy wines, like Australian Shiraz? Or the more restrained profile of French Pinot Noir?
Once wine becomes a passion, those hard-to-pronounce regions in Europe become much easier to remember -- so long as you've tasted the wines. Those flaws that sommeliers can spot become obvious to you, as well -- so long as you've tasted enough wine to encounter them.
Tasting can be as simple as heading to your local wine shop when several bottles are open. Getting together with friends and asking each person to bring something different is another way to taste several wines in one sitting.
My favorite tasting for those who are just getting into wine is a bit more formal. I select four varietals -- generally Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah -- and open two bottles of each, one from the New World and the Old World.
The stereotype tells us that New World wines are fruitier than their Old World counterparts. While one can find wines that debunk this stereotype, it's based in truth. So I purposefully seek out wines that fit the stereotype. And I serve everything blind, pouring the wines from paper bags to mask where they're from.
Recognizing the differences should be obvious, even to novices.
The aromatics of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc are extremely intense, typically offering fresh-cut grass, gooseberries, and grapefruit. French Sauvignon Blanc, especially from Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, presents more subtle aromatics, like chalk and white flowers.
Chardonnay provides a similar contrast. While California Chardonnays are characterized by tropical fruits and butter, French Chardonnays are marked by tart fruits, like green apples and lime.
When Pinot Noir comes from warmer regions of California, like Napa Valley and Carneros, it presents aromatics of sweet fruits, like black cherries. In the French region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir generally offers aromas of tart cherries and earth.
The differences between Syrah can be stunning. In Australia, winemakers usually produce fruit bombs -- think gobs of ripe blackberries and licorice. French Syrah is more restrained, typically marked by blueberries, meat, and pepper.
Neither Old World nor New World is "better" -- my preference shifts all the time, depending on my mood -- but looking for these differences is extremely educational. And when the paper bag comes off each bottle, it's fun to see whether or not you correctly guessed the origin of each wine.
This is just one concept for a formal tasting. One can just as easily host a "wine on a budget" tasting, selecting several bottles under $10, or a "horizontal" tasting -- focusing on one varietal, from one region, from one year, selecting wines from a several producers.
Just remember to keep it fun.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.