Wine has the unique dichotomy of being considered a product of class and substance. Yet it’s often a sector often subjected to shallow marketing gimmicks. Most consumers choose wine based on the label. “I choose wine based on if I like the label, and then if don’t like it, I don’t buy it again,” says Sarah, an operations manager for a San Francisco tech company.
Does the increased influence of marketing decrease the importance of the substance in the bottle? Not likely. I trust that wine lovers have the discerning palate to choose wine they love. However, the average wine drinker lacks the language to detail their preferences. There are no yelp reviews for wine, no Amazon ratings, which leaves a lot of mystery for most consumers to begin finding the right wine. Initially it might be more difficult to be a savvy wine shopper. Yet today’s wine lover is given the opportunity to discover wines which suit their personal palate perfectly, without the noise of amateur opinion. These few steps can lead you in the right direction.
1. Learn To Describe What You Like
Most individuals know when they like a wine, but can’t describe why. Wine has its own lingo, like accounting or coding. Learning a few basic words to describe the palate and aroma of a wine empowers you to choose wine and accurately explain which of those components suite your palate. The structure of a wine is broken down by the following attributes. Beware of the common misnomers that may confuse the person trying to help you.
Acidity is how much the wine makes you salivate.
Example: “I like a high acid white wine to go with my fish dish.” Avoid saying: sour, sharp.
Tannin is felt in the drying sensation of (red) wine, especially on your teeth and gums.
Example: “I like a big red wine with a lot of tannin” Avoid saying: dry. The drying sensation caused by tannin is not the same as the perception of sugar which is what ” I want a dry wine” actually means.
Alcohol is experienced through the burning texture at the back of your throat. Be aware that this gives the wine more body. Also, a higher ABV may not be a bad thing if the wine is balanced by high acid and tannin.
Sweetness is how much actual sugar is in the wine. This is probably the most commonly misunderstood component of wine, as it is often confused with fruitiness. A wine can smell fruity but be completely dry on the palate.
Jen likes to compare sweetness of wine to sweet tea. It may have a tropical fruity aroma, but is actually dry until sugar is added to it. Also, there are wonderful and complex wines with a kiss of RS (residual sugar), which balances the high acidity on the wine and softens the texture.
Texture & Body
Both texture and body refer to the way it feels on your palate. Have fun with these wine descriptiors. Do you like your wines juicy, gritty, lean, rich, silky…
Finish describes how long the flavors linger on your palate. This is one indication of quality. If the flavors fall off quickly, it may be poorly constructed or simply not complex .
How well do the components integrate. Balance is also a big dividing line for quality. A wine may be high in acidity or alcohol. But if it mingles well with the other components, then it’s in balance. Often, poor quality wines are out of balance.
Using the accurate lingo will allow the wine professional choose wine that best suits your palate. More importantly, the more styles of wine you try, the more you discover of what you do or don’t like.
2. Go Beyond The Grape
Given that American wines usually label with a grape varietal, many people become comfortable with a handful of grapes that are familiar to them. European (“old world”) wines may seem intimidating to this consumer, as they tend to label by region rather than varietal. Actually, European wine regions are generally much more regulated. Therefore, you often have a clearer idea of what to expect once you’re familiar with the regulations. Ask a professional for help, or google if you’re not sure. Be ready to be surprised!
A Pinot Noir from Burgundy usually tastes very different than a Russian River Pinot Noir, with lighter texture, more mushroom & forest floor, more elegance and less juiciness. Having a structural understanding of what you like from Step #1 prevents disappointment, as you’re looking for attributes rather than varietals. This allows you to move laterally through the wine regions of the world. Say you like Napa Cabernet because it’s bold, full bodied, and has lush fruit. A Cabernet from Bordeaux may not be your friend, but a dry Touriga Nacional blend from the Douro would be right up your alley! Which leads to the next point…
3. Be Flexible to Find Value
We all want a good value. Thankfully, there is still value to be had on wine shelves. However, I find that many people start with a backwards approach. They choose wine with one or two grapes they know they love. But then try to spend $12 on a Sonoma Pinot Noir, when the average price of this style of wines is $30+ retail. To discover excellent wines at great prices, get out of your comfort zone (refer to Step #2). Look at Italy, Germany, Argentina. The classic wines of the world function superbly as hallmarks of style, but the story doesn’t stop there. Use that new found lingo from Step #1 to describe your palate in order to find wines you’ve never heard of. Discovering your wine palate preferences allows you the flexibility to discover the world of wine.
4. Make Friends with the Wine Professional
I’m a sommelier. I know a lot about wine. But when I have my taxes done, I go to an accountant. More than a few wine shoppers avoid the local wine retail professional or sommelier out of fear of being upsold or embarrassed due to their lack of wine knowledge. These professionals are here to help you and should be hospitable. Tell them a few things about what you normally like to drink and how much you want to spend. They can point you to new wines or old favorites. Snobby sommeliers are très passé. Be nice to them and they will be nice to you, no matter how little you know about wine. If they are rude, that’s their personal ego talking (and you probably know way more about something than they do)! -AT