Taste your way to wine knowledge

A number of readers have asked how to gain a better understanding of wine without wading through hundreds of books and journals. That’s too dry a route to knowledge they say. Perhaps they’re on the right track. For no matter how much reading you do, enlightenment lies inside the bottle.

Professional judges, tasting thousands of wines each year, develop a broad frame of reference. It’s a long journey to that point. But if you’re new to wine and want to know more, a little systematic tasting, perhaps with a group of friends, brings knowledge and pleasure without intimidation.

If you’re in this position, the first building blocks are the different grape varieties used to make wine. You can explore these one by one. But that takes a long time. Alternatively, marshal a few friends into group tastings/dinners so that you can explore a range of wines at each gathering.

Exploring wines over dinner or lunch means you actually drink and enjoy the wine, have a few laughs and became as engaged or disengaged in wine discussion as you want.

A key to learning is to try a variety of good examples of each grape variety. Bearing in mind that this can become endlessly complex, it’s best to start simple.

Riesling, semillon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are the commonest white varieties; and shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot noir the dominant red varieties. Understanding what each of these contributes to aroma, flavour and structure of wine is a great start.

You can learn by trying just one wine at a time. But you’ll move up the learning curve more rapidly by comparing several wines. You could launch your first group dinner, for example, with a little glass each of Clare riesling, Hunter semillon, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Yarra Valley chardonnay in front of each person.

In this instance, we’re selecting classic varieties from regions specialising in each variety. These are called regional varietals. South Australia’s Clare Valley makes distinctive, delicate long-lived dry rieslings; the Hunter makes bone-dry, low-alcohol semillon; Marlborough, New Zealand, makes pungent, fruity, bracing sauvignon blanc and Yarra makes refined but rich barrel-fermented chardonnays.

By lining up the four wines and sniffing and sipping in turn, you’ll easily see the differences. Describing those in words is difficult. But that doesn’t matter. What you’ve done is to lay down clear reference points in your mind for riesling, semillon, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

Move onto another food course and repeat the exercise with, say, a Tassie pinot noir, Heathcote shiraz and Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon and you’ll have established more reference points.

Now, bring on dessert. And serve with it a late picked Clare riesling and late picked Riverina semillon. Bingo! Your frame of reference for riesling and semillon just grew. So one variety can be either sweet or dry.

With an insight into varietal flavours, a next step might be to serve several examples of one variety.

These could be from different regions, different countries, different vintages or, indeed from individual vineyards owned by a single producer. With riesling, say, you might trot out the original Clare riesling and line it up with examples from Alsace, Germany and Marlborough New Zealand. You’ll be amazed by the differences.

With just a little structure and a band of sympathetic friends, you’ll find your drinking pleasure increases as your understanding grows.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007