When I first decided to learn about wine, someone recommended that I read “The Wine Bible” by Karen MacNeil. I got about a quarter of the way through the book before I put it back in my bookshelf and to be honest, it’s been gathering dust ever since. For some academic-minded people, that may be a good route to go, but many learn best by doing and luckily for us, that means tasting.
But…how do you start? Here are a few steps that I took to begin my journey.
1. Select the shop.
Stop into your neighborhood wines shops and pick one that will from then on be dubbed “your wine shop.” Select one with a good selection and high and low price points. Make sure that you’ll feel comfortable talking to the clerks and won’t be intimidated by the vibe. Even if their selection is a bit overwhelming, a good clerk can easily guide you to the right bottles. Take note of their specials, events or classes they offer and their displays. If there’s a tasting, taste! That’s a great way to get the conversation started.
2. Introduce yourself.
Many people are embarrassed that they don’t know much about wine, or that they only want to spend $10 a bottle. No need to be ashamed. It’s a sensible place to start and the important thing is that you be open to everything and ready to learn. Let the clerk know you want to learn about wine but you’re just getting started. Be clear about your budget and your likes/dislikes (if you have any). Let them know that you’d like them to guide you: they’ll be thrilled that you’re a clean, unbiased slate!
3. Start with the basics
A good way to start selecting bottles is to focus on varietals, instead of regions, and to keep each bottle under $10 or $15 (or whatever budget you set). Ask your new best friend in wine to choose bottles for you that they feel represent the varietal you’re interested in. Need a place to start? Begin with the basics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc, to name a few. The bottles the clerk picks for you may be blends of different kinds of grapes but that’s ok. Not all wines, even if they are called by one varietal name, are purely made from that grape. Then once you have some basics down and have tried a few bottles of some standard varietals, branch out into the lesser-known ones. These are often some of the best values in the store because there is less demand for them, but it certainly does not mean that they’re any less delicious.
This is the fun part! Go home, open a bottle and pour a glass. Look at the color, the viscosity (the thickness) and the effervescence (if there is any). Take some notes. Then swirl it around, stick your nose in and breathe deeply. Take more notes. Finally, take a sip. Don’t just swallow, let it pour over your tongue, get some air into your mouth and really taste it. Write down anything you think of, no matter how silly. Is it sweet and fruity? Does it dry your mouth out? Is there some spice? A lot of people use strange vocabulary to describe wine, but just try to describe it with whatever comes to your mind.
Can’t articulate the flavors? Have someone else give it a sip. Did you taste the same things or different things? If different, can you taste the flavors your friend tasted? If you’ve given it a few tries and you’re still stumped, go online and look up some tasting notes for the wine. Do you agree with them? It’s ok to disagree too (taste is subjective!), just try to write down what you tasted differently. This will help you get better at identifying and then giving names to the many different flavors that wine can have.
5. Repeat as necessary.
If you continue with this, even if just for a couple months, you’ll start to make connections between how a certain grape varietals display in wine and then how the region it’s from can affect it. At the very least, you’ll recognize common varietal names and know the basics of what they taste like. That’s some pretty solid knowledge to have in your back pocket. From there it’s easy to branch out into blends, different regions and to explore things you really liked. Remember to take a picture of the label. If you liked the bottle, it will be easier to go find it again and easier for you to remember what you liked about. Cheers!
Selina Andersson heads up events and social media for Tipsy, a wine and spirits shop in Brooklyn. Tipsy hosts 3 or more free tasting events every week. Visit us at the corner of Myrtle and Classon or online at www.shoptipsy.com.