Beginner's Guide to Wine Appreciation
For many, myself included, wine-tasting is wine-testing. It is stressful, overwhelming and, worst of all, immediately conclusive: You either chose a winner or a dud. Half the time, I don't even know what I'm supposed to be tasting; I know when something tastes good, but I don't know if that means it's a good wine.
Basically, I've always been intimidated by the task, and though I marvel at some people's ability to sit with a wine list before them and actually make sense of it (it might as well be written in Swahili for me), I'd never thought to try my hand at deciphering the code of "a good wine." Until today
The Barterhouse stamp, an ancient symbol for "art over religion," mirrors a tattoo Brian got during his college years—though the location of the tattoo remains a secret. Brian's lovely wife, Kristin, may still be on the search.
Brian's hope is that, once you have sampled and enjoyed a few Barterhouse-approved wines, you will be willing to branch out and sample a different wine from a region or of a grape you've never had before because you trust their taste buds and olfactory prowess. Brian found his calling in the wine business by realizing his unique ability to discern flavors and pairings while studying at the French Culinary Institute.
"For me, it's all about giving the consumer great quality at a particular price point. We never wanted to be snobby about wine, because I don't think more money guarantees a better bottle," Brian says. "We realized it turns people off when picking wines becomes too difficult and expensive, and happy wine drinkers are frequent wine drinkers." Amen to that.
As he spoke, Brian selected five under-$25 bottles from his room-size cooler for my first lesson: a 2005 Chateau Brande-Berger Bordeaux Superieur Cuvee O'Byrne from France, a 2007 Bodega Bouza Tannat Las Violetas from Uruguay, a 2008 Dr. Karl Christoffel Mosel Riesling from Germany, a 2008 Zaccagnini il Castello Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi from Italy and a 2005 Caves Vidigal Douro from Portugal. Brian told me he selected these because they run from a heavy and rich Bordeaux to a soft and crisp Verdicchio, an excellent stand-in for Chardonnay.
"All too frequently, people will find a bottle of something they really like, and they'll drink it exclusively for life. Think about how many wines you're missing out on for fear of never finding one you like as much?" Brian says. "You take some of the fear out of sampling new bottles when you provide wine at a lower price point because the customer can afford to dump the thing down the sink if she really hates it."
- Robert Parker is the preeminent wine critic in the world. What he says often determines the wine market. Read him at ERobertParker.com or in The Wine Advocate.
- Jancis Robinson's Saturday column in The Herald Tribune and online at JancisRobinson.com is an industry must-read.
- The Wine Trials 2010: The World's Bestselling Guide to Inexpensive Wine by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch.
- To get out in the world and start sampling, visit LocalWineEvents.com, which provides information on local—and often free—wine tastings in your area.
Brian recommends reading the wine columns in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to boost your general knowledge, but to figure out what you enjoy in wine, you'll have to open a few bottles. "Make sure the wines you're buying when you just start out are cheap enough that they're not a huge risk," he says. "The biggest mistake is to spend $100 on a bottle and then feel like it's something you're supposed to like. There's no such thing." And it's a great idea to find a reviewer whose taste you agree with and try some of the bottles he or she recommends.
1. "Room Temperature" Does Not Mean "Warm"
Somewhere in the 65 degrees range is as hot as any wine should get. Think about it—"room temperature" in a stone lodge in Italy is a lot cooler than a sweltering wine bar in mid-summer. And while we're on the topic of temperature, the chemistry and taste of wine changes if it is rapidly cooled. So rather than throwing a bottle of white wine in the freezer to chill it, leave it in the fridge overnight and then take it out an hour before drinking to let it warm up slowly. You'll be amazed at how much richer the same bottle can taste.
2. Know the Alcohol Content
Some wines are "cheap and cheerful," meaning they're made to be enjoyed quickly because they have lower alcohol content, like a Rosé or a Riesling, each with approximately 9 percent alcohol. Others—like Tannat, at 15 percent alcohol—should be sipped and savored if you don't want to end up under the table.
3. Learn How to Pair Wine with Food
Heavier, full-bodied wines like Bordeaux have lots of tannins, which can make them taste bitter but are also great for cutting full-flavored foods that are spicy, peppery or fatty. That's why robust reds go so well with a steak au poivre. Lighter, crisper, cooler wines like Verdicchio or Riesling are great for spicy foods because they ameliorate the heat.
4. The Cellar Isn't for Every Wine
Not all wines improve with age, so be sure to ask before you buy. Use your local wine salesman as a resource: Describe wines you've loved in the past, or bring in labels, and he or she likely will point you toward something similarly delicious.
5. Pour with Confidence
The perfect pour is at the widest point in the glass where the wine has the most surface area in contact with oxygen. Wines like to breathe, and they take on a new taste and complexity once they've had some time to interact with the air.
What drinks do you like in the summer? Share your favorites in the comments section.
Daphne Oz is the author of the national best-seller The Dorm Room Diet—which will be expanded and republished in July 2010—and The Dorm Room Diet Planner and creator of the Dorm Room Diet Workout DVD.
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