Wine Tasting 101 (Part Four: Oenophilia!)

concise-world-atlas-of-wineOkay, so it’s actually ‘oenophily’ (‘loving wine’), but I like my version better. Two years after I started The Culture Project, people seem to believe three things about me:

  1. I know a lot about wine.
  2. I’ve read a lot of books, listened to a lot of classical music, and generally know a lot of stuff.
  3. I know what I’m talking about.

Here’s the thing: I don’t, I haven’t, and much of the time the things I say represent the sum total of all my knowledge on that particular subject. Oh, and I absolutely could not write this blog without Google and Wikipedia. So, how does one go from actually knowing nothing about wine to giving the appearance of knowing something about it?

Assuming that you don’t want to spend months of your life and thousands of dollars (or the equivalent in your local currency) to become an official Master Sommelier, it’s really just a question of gaining a little theoretical knowledge and applying that to practical experience.

First, the theory. Websites like Wine Folly (a personal favourite) are fun, free, and approachable. They also have a search function, so you can locate relevant information quickly and easily. I recommend focussing initially on the wines which are readily available in your part of the world: After nearly three years I still know very little about French wines because they’re hard to come by in little old Whanganui. I’ve learned a lot, however, about New Zealand made wines, and quite a bit about Australian wines as well.

Blogs are another great source of information, often with a more personal slant, and there are some great ones right here on WordPress.

Although they can be harder to track down, and cost money, books can be a useful resource. ‘The Concise World Atlas of Wine’, by Hugo Johnson and Jancis Robinson, is exactly what it says on the tin, and well worth buying if you want to have at least a theoretical understanding of the global wine scene. Or keep an eye out for something less formal, like Matt Skinner’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine – the things you should know to enjoy wine’. Again, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: an approachable guide to actually buying and drinking wine.

Learning about how wine is made can also be interesting: a couple of years ago I visited the Murdoch James Estate in Martinborough and took their grape-to-glass tour, during which we walked through the vineyard and the winery while tasting several of their excellent wines.

The Murdoch James Estate in Martinborough

Which brings me on to the other part of learning about wine: practical experience. Because while visiting websites and reading books is all very nice at some point you probably want to drink the stuff. Do it. Start with the wines you already know: that safe choice that you pick up at the supermarket every week. What kind of wine is it? Where did it come from? Smell it and taste it and pay attention to what it is you’re smelling and tasting. What do you like about it? Make some notes. Next time, move along the shelf a little. Try a different version of the same wine. Again, make some notes. Become a bit more daring. Try something radically different. If you like Shiraz, try Sauvignon Blanc. If Chardonnay is your thing, try a Pinot Noir. Make notes (the notes are important, especially at first. They’ll help you remember what each wine was like).

Pinot Noir available for tasting in Queenstown.

Take advantage of wine tastings. Here in New Zealand samples are sometimes offered in supermarkets, the same as they do with foods – this is how I tasted Cabernet Franc for the first time. It’s free: go for it. Or wine shops and restaurants may offer tasting nights. If you live in, or find yourself visiting, an area with wineries, stop in for a tasting. For a modest fee you’ll be presented with four or so different wines, probably by a knowledgeable, passionate person who really wants to help you enjoy what they’re offering. In fact, anytime you find yourself in a wine-tasting situation, pump the person behind the glasses for information. If they’re a supermarket employee pouring the stuff out because the boss told them to they may not be able to tell you much. But if they’re doing it because they made it, or because they’re passionate about wine, you can learn a lot.

In short: to learn about wine, go out and drink wine. Salud, l’chaim, à votre santé, and cheers bro! May every glass of wine you drink be the best yet.

Always drink responsibly. One standard drink of wine is approximately 100ml (3.3 fl oz). The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women consume no more than 2 standard drinks a day, and no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and that men consume no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week (note that this is slightly lower than the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation). The World Health Organisation recommends that women abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. In New Zealand the legal drinking age is 18. Do not drink alcohol if you are under the legal age to do so in your country. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol.


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