Raising the wine bar with tasting tips for beginners

By LISA KLEIN

Wine is the beverage of choice for many a reveler, dinner party guest and restaurant meal, but so many varieties are available that it may be hard to know which to sip for each occasion, or even which a person likes most.

Learning a bit about what makes each wine taste the way it does will help with both and could jumpstart a more in-depth journey into the world of wine.

“It’s wine – it’s meant to be enjoyed and not over analyzed,” said Walden Pemantle, master sommelier and manager of the Texas Wine School, Houston, Texas. “But think a little bit about it.”

Vine arts

Wine schools such as Mr. Pemantle’s – which began as a cellar club where collectors stored their wine and grew to include wine-tasting classes, sommelier certification and a retail shop – start beginners off with the basics, including what makes each wine its unique self.  

The taste of a wine starts first with its color: red, rose, white or orange.

“Really with color all you’re talking about is the skin of the grape and how much skin contact you have, for how long and what color the skins are,” Mr. Pemantle said. “Think of winemaking with the skins of the grape as almost like making tea.”

White wine is made by fermenting crushed grapes with no skin. Reds get their color from the skins of the grapes left in during the fermenting process. Rosé and orange wine get their color from skins as well, from red and white grapes respectively, but the skins are left in for only a small portion of the process.

And for Champagne, the French monk Dom Pérignon – yes, that one – is credited with its invention in 1697, although it was somewhat accidental.

When wine in the colder northern climate of Champagne’s namesake region in France stopped the fermenting process early and it started up again inside the bottles come spring, it released carbon dioxide and gave birth to “bubbly.”

Other than color and bubbles, “there are three primary things that will determine how the wine’s going to taste and smell,” Mr. Pemantle said.

“First is the source material – what type of grape are you using?” he said. “Then you think about where it’s grown. Pinot noir from California is ripe and juicy, while in Burgundy, France, it’s more earthy because of the colder climate.

“The last thing is what happens at the winery. Does the winemaker ferment it in oak? Do they use the skins or stems? There can be a lot of diversity there. Neighbors can make very different wines based on their house style.”

Image credit: Getty Images
Fresh palate

To learn more about why wines are all so different, a class is a great place to start.

“They’re great,” Mr. Pemantle said. “It’s the quickest way to expose yourself to a lot. You can taste eight-plus wines back-to-back and take it to the next level and really learn the differences.”

While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different notes that can be found in wine – flowers, herbs, spices, leather, tobacco, dirt – getting too fancy too fast can derail a beginning taster’s path.

“Fruit is the thing to pay attention to when you’re tasting wine, especially at first,” Mr. Pemantle said. “Fruit is a common language of all good wine. That’s usually the easiest place to get a firm hold and ease you into it.”

Reds can have the flavors of strawberries, cranberries, blackberries or plum, while whites tend to have hints of apples, lemons or pears.

From there, it is only a matter of discovering which flavors that the consumer likes and from where they come.

“Pay attention to your palate,” Mr. Pemantle said. “Pick two wines that are totally different and think about what you like or dislike about them. What tastes do you like?”

Also, are all of the flavors from a certain type of grape, or region in the world? What is the climate like there?

Answering these questions will help to get a sense of where to look for more wine varieties to enjoy.

What about choosing wines to share with others?

“I almost think of picking wines for a party or dinner as like deejaying,” Mr. Pemantle said. “You fall back to popular songs, things you know a lot of people will like. Wines with that wide appeal also tend to be wines that pair well with a wide variety of things.”

Think of varieties with a lot of fruity notes and lower tannins: pinot noir, merlot, sauvignon blanc and Riesling.

“Bubbles are really flexible,” Mr. Pemantle said. “No one can be mad at the guy who brings Champagne.”

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