Wine is a drink that often intimidates anyone who knows little about it. From Pinot Grigio to Pinot Noir, to the wine-drinking newbie, what’s the difference?
Wine is sophisticated, and it’s elegant, too. If you’re brand new to it, these qualities can leave you feeling a little out of place. But luckily, there are knowledgeable people willing to help.
Talk to almost anyone involved in wine, and what you’ll find is an enthusiasm they can’t contain. Insiders have an excitement about passing their wisdom on wine over to you.
“You don’t have to know anything about wine to like it,” Chik Brenneman says.
Brenneman has worked in the wine industry for almost 20 years. He recently retired as the chief winemaker at the University of California, Davis. And now, he’s pursuing a new wine venture with baseball great Dusty Baker.
In spite of all the experience he’s gained, Brenneman’s approach hasn’t changed. Every day he strives to learn something new.
His curiosity about wine is what he, along with others in the industry, want to offer you.
Upward Trend: The Rising Popularity of Wine
Wine has reached a level of notability it’s never enjoyed before.
Consider this: The Wine Institute has tracked wine consumption since the end of prohibition. And in 2016, it found that Americans drank almost 1 billion gallons of wine. That’s around twice the amount of wine consumed 20 years before in 1996.
Over the years, Ron Lanza’s paid close attention to the public’s growing thirst for wine. Lanza is one of four brothers who own and operate Wooden Valley Winery in the Suisun Valley. Wooden Valley is a landmark vineyard in the region, making some of the area’s finest wines since the 1930s.
Throughout the course of his life, Lanza’s noticed how tastes have evolved. He’s observed a generational shift in people’s interest in wine.
“None of my buddies drank wine when I was young,” Lanza says.
When he grew up, most drinkers had basic tastes. The public preferred varieties that reminded them of juice. And as a result, sweet and fortified wines were the most popular. About half of Wooden Valley’s inventory during his youth were ports and sherries.
Fast forward to today, and production of those wines are almost non-existent. That’s because the palates of people are more refined. This new generation of wine drinkers isn’t afraid of dryer whites and lighter reds.
What’s the Reason Behind the Change?
Lanza believes many millennials skip the sweet because they’ve had a lifetime of exposure to wine. Most drinkers, ages 24 to 34, grew up in households where wine was already a familiar beverage.
Lanza notes that wine has also become an entertainment piece. For younger, inexperienced drinkers, this quality is important. It’s no secret that millennials care more about experiences as opposed to things.
Despite cultivated tastes and increased interest, getting started with wine is still daunting. For beginning drinkers, it helps to have some simple guideposts to follow.
Four Essential Tasting Tips for Beginning Wine Drinkers
If you’re brand new to wine, don’t worry. There are a few easy things you can do to become a more than adequate taster. Use these four tips and, over time, you’ll develop a sophisticated palate.
Wine for Beginners Tip #1: Visit a Tasting Room and Be Curious
For most novices, their first exposure to the drink isn’t at a winery. But if you have the access, you should make a point to visit a local tasting room. A trip to one gives you an opportunity to seek the advice of people who know wine best.
Tasting room specialists spend hours learning about the latest trends in wine. With them, you’ll find an appreciation for the craftsmanship behind every bottle. And if you’re eager to learn, they’re more than willing to help.
What Makes a Good Tasting Room Specialist?
To engage and educate customers on wine. Those are the primary responsibilities of a tasting room specialist.
Good specialists should explain as much as they can about the wines you’re drinking. They should tell you about the variety as well as the origin of its grapes.
And finally, good specialists should encourage your curiosity. Your conversations with them should prompt you to ask questions like “Why am I tasting this wine first?”. They should be more than happy to explain.
“It’s the job of the person at the tasting room counter to sell you a bottle of wine,” Brenneman says. “And acting like you don’t know what you’re talking about is kind of counterproductive to selling you a bottle of wine. They’re the best brand ambassadors out there, and people should feel free to ask questions. That’s how they learn.”
Wine for Beginners Tip #2: Start Sweet and Light
The best wine for beginners are those that are sweet or light. If you’ve never drank wine before, start by trying varieties of wine that fall under these categories.
As you drink more, your palate will change. The evolution of a new wine drinker begins with sweet wines like White Zinfandel. Then it transitions to dryer whites like Riesling. Next, a drinker will move onto lighter red wines like Pinot Noir. And finally, they’ll graduate to full-bodied reds like Petite Syrah.
Compared to whites, red wines are bolder in flavor. That boldness can overwhelm the taste buds of a new wine drinker. This is why the wine lists at tasting rooms progress in the order of white to red.
How to Test Your Wine Palate
Jenny Lavell is an assistant tasting room manager at Wooden Valley Winery. When she samples wine for beginners, Lavell enjoys implementing a simple technique. This tasting method helps novices better understand their palates.
She’ll ask new drinkers to sip, but not swallow their wine for at least 10 seconds. By doing this, its characteristics become more pronounced.
Try this yourself and you’ll become better at interpreting how fruity or oaky your wine is. Even its sourness and thickness will be easier to notice, too. Do it the next time you uncork a bottle and see what you think.
Wine for Beginners Tip #3: Drink With Your Nose, Too
Drinking wine is a sensory experience. So, don’t rely only on your taste buds. To make the most of it, use your sense of smell, too.
Have you ever wondered why people swirl their wine glasses before they drink? Well, there’s a logical reason for that. Doing so opens up and concentrates the aromas of a wine.
“A good swirl and smell will be enough to test for its flavor,” Lanza says. “For most wines, do this and you won’t even need to drink them to know if they’re good or not.”
The aroma of wine is also why most restaurants and bars pour such a small amount into your glass. Lanza points out that a light pour encourages you to tilt back your head and smell the wine while you drink.
Don’t worry about identifying too many aromas if you’re new. In fact, you’re already ahead of the curve if you notice one at all. To improve your sense of smell with wine, there is a specific tool you can use.
How to Differentiate the Fragrances of Wine
The Wine Aroma Wheel is a visual guide designed by sensory chemist Ann C. Noble. She developed it during her time as a professor at the University of California, Davis. Noble created the wheel to demystify the characteristics of wine in an easy to interpret way.
“Your enjoyment can truly be increased as you can understand what the wine is telling you,” Noble says in a video explaining what the wine aroma wheel is. “Because you’ve been listening to your nose and you have the words to describe the aroma.”
Noble noted two major challenges to identifying the aromas of wine. They are a lack of:
- Descriptive Vocabulary: Before the wine aroma wheel, there were few terms to describe the fragrances of wine.
- Visual Cues: Our sight influences our other senses, like taste and smell. A glass of wine might suggest a hint of strawberry. But beginners won’t notice because they only see a glass of wine, not fruits, in front of them.
Noble solved these problems by making the wine aroma wheel. It characterizes the scents of wine at three different levels.
The inner circle of the wheel highlights general aromas like fruity, herbal, floral, caramel, and others. As you move out of the core, the descriptions become more distinct. Using the wheel allows you to notice specific traits like chocolate, cloves, and other familiar scents.
Wine for Beginners Tip #4: Buy at a Price Point That’s Comfortable for You
Wine comes in many different varieties and prices. But finding one you like doesn’t have to cost a fortune. When it comes to wine, price isn’t indicative of quality.
“The best bottle of wine is the wine that you like at a price point you can afford,” Brenneman says.
So, before you start buying wine, set a price range and stick to it. Once settled, only buy wine varieties that fit your budget. Most experts suggest a range of $10 to $25 for new wine drinkers.
How to Develop Your Wine Palate
After determining your budget, you can cultivate your tastes by taking detailed notes. Hildegarde Heymann is another sensory scientist at the University of California, Davis. She recommends taking notes on the following things.
- The Variety: Is the wine Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, White Zinfandel, etc.?
- Origin: Where were the grapes grown?
- Whether You Liked The Wine: Yes or no?
Keep updated notes on these qualities once a week for about 12 months. Over time, you’ll gain a clearer perspective on the wines that appeal to you.
Recommended Varietals for New Wine Drinkers
As a lifetime winemaker, Lanza interacts with plenty of newcomers to wine. Over the years, he’s found one thing to be true.
“There’s wine for the beginners, and then there’s the experience beginners want,” he says.
To Lanza, there are several kinds of wines that beginners prefer. They are:
- Blush wines like White Merlot.
- Floral white wines like Gewurztraminer.
- Off-dry white wines like Chardonnay.
- Soft red wines like Gamay.
If you’re brand new to wine and need some specific recommendations, then you’re in luck. Here a few varietals that Lanza suggests to beginning wine drinkers.
Best White and Blush Wine for Beginners
White grapes from Germany’s Rhine region make this floral white wine. Best from cooler climates, Rieslings enjoy tree fruit aromas like apple or pear. Their high acidity and fruitiness give Rieslings great aging potential.
Like Riesling, Muscat is also a kind of floral white wine. It is one of the few varietals of wine that tastes like grapes. Muscats are sweet and enjoyed best when paired with desserts.
Rosés are blush wines that are often light and fruity. Rosés come either dry or sweet. They are also enjoyed still, semi-sparkling, or sparkling. Rosés have a limited shelf life, making them best when finished not long after they’re opened.
Best Red Wine for Beginners
This soft red wine originated from the Burgundy region of France. But it’s since become a staple of several other areas, including California. As far as taste, Pinot Noirs are less bold than other red wines. And at only 12 percent in volume, they have less alcohol than other wines.
Another light red is Sangiovese. Younger versions of it taste fruity, with strawberry as a commonly identified aroma. Other kinds of Sangiovese can exude hints of spiciness, too. Sangioveses often take on characteristics of the oak they’re barreled in.
A glass of cabernet is the kind of red wine that beginners could drink to gauge the maturity of their palates. It’s a full-bodied red with high acidity and tannins, which are the biomolecules that make wines taste dry. The aroma of a cabernet depends on where the grapes were grown. In cooler regions, cabs offer more herbal aromas. Meanwhile, in hotter climates, they have more jam-like flavors.
When it comes to wine for beginners, there aren’t any wrong answers. If you’re tasting for the first time, it’s important to start simple and ask questions. Beginning with the basics can help you go a long way.
“It’s sort of like when you’re learning mathematics,” Brenneman says. “You don’t do calculus on the first day. And then when you finally get to calculus, you wonder, ‘Well why didn’t you just tell me this in the first place?’
“Because you had to learn the basics,” he continues. “You had to learn the analytics behind it.”
And the last thing? Observe what you perceive. The feedback you receive, whether good or bad, serves a purpose. Paying attention to these qualities will improve your palate with every glass you sip.
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