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Wine Tasting 101 — A Leap of Faith

Serious wine tasting begins with a leap of faith.

If you’d rather remain a vinous agnostic, stop reading now, and you’ll save some money, and probably be a little less cool. But honestly, I hope that you’ll stay, for I believe that becoming a good wine taster is an important skill in life.

Damn! It’s so bloody hard to talk about wine without sounding arrogant. It’s a quality common in the wine world, but it really has no place in a wine column. Yet I do believe that wine knowledge is worth pursuing, so give me a few paragraphs to explain.

If you’ve previously thought of wine as intimidating, snobbish, esoteric, pedantic, and way too precious, I won’t disagree. A recent issue of The Wine Spectator proves that point. A $300 bottle of Champagne Krug — that so few of us can afford — is tasted and described as “an aristocrat. Big-boned and intense, yet with finesse and complex flavors of coconut, whole-grain bread, ginger, citrus and honey... picking up mineral and smoke on the finish.”

Wait, wait! Don’t roll your eyes, or gnash your teeth, or head to Google to find something easier to read.

This new wine column isn’t going to be like any other you’ve ever read. Think of it as Wine Tasting 101. My goal will be to provide a dollop of light and entertainment, and help you find some gluggable vino for the journey.

Truth is, most people know how to drink wine, but only a few intrepid souls have ascended into the wonderful world of wine tasting. That’s because it seems so mystical and enigmatic, filled with pretension and old geezers in scarlet robes. Go to a formal wine tasting, and you may feel like you’re the only one in the room without a secret decoder ring and a six-figure bank account.

It doesn’t have to be that way. But it does require that leap of faith.

Consider the Krug. Wine writers have good reason to trip the light fantastic when presented with a great wine. They’re trying to convey their impressions, and help you find the very best bottles. They may sound preposterous, but the simple truth is that wine does smell and taste like other things. And so those descriptive turns of phrase are nothing more than the wine taster’s attempt to describe a wine in a commonsense language that most people would recognize.

At first blush — pun intended — most wine drinkers are filled with doubt because wine tastes like, well . . . wine. End of story. Roll the credits. But that popular belief is dead wrong. If you make the leap, and focus on the wine you’re drinking, you’ll find more. Smells and tastes like blackcurrants, peppermint, ginger and strawberries will soon start leaping out of the glass.

In fact, scientists have identified more than 500 different aromatic chemicals in wine. Benzaldehyde gives cherries a rich, sweet smell; it’s also been found in California Pinot Noir. Two-methoxy-3-isobutyl-pyrazine makes bell peppers and unripe Cabernet Sauvignon smell alike.

That’s why today’s lesson is the most important one going forward. Wine tasting doesn’t have to be serious, but if you truly wish to explore this arcane subject, you’ll need to buy into at least some wine-speak. I’ll frequently be resorting to a vocabulary that includes ginger, citrus, and honey, and more besides. Good wine tasters are merely people who have made the leap, knowing that wine tastes like other things. The best wine writers are just ordinary people who can nonetheless focus their attention on the glass before them, and find the perfect words — from a vernacular of flowers, fruits, spices, herbs, and woods — to describe it. Sometimes a scent or taste will hit you over the head. Wonderful! More often, you’ll search for a subtle, haunting fragrance that seems just beyond your ability to recall.

But with practice, anyone can become very good at it. Effort is rewarded. The only real difference between wine tasting and wine drinking is that tasters concentrate on the various flavors and taste sensations in each glass and then match those perceived flavors to their memories of taste. It’s a fun, intellectual, hedonistic challenge.

Care to indulge your senses? You’re welcome here, providing you eschew pedantry. Deal?

As this section grows, we’ll cast a wide net, by writing a regular primer of tidbits, hints and miscellany, beginning with grape varieties and how they influence taste. I’ll tell you things you need to know, and help you refine your technique.

Eventually, we’ll learn which grapes are grown in which countries, and figure out how to distinguish between a California Chardonnay and a Canadian Riesling without even taking a sip. It’s enjoyable. I mean, come on — it’s wine, and it’s delicious. There’s a reason why wine has been celebrated since ancient times. Along the way, we’ll taste wines that highlight each lesson.

Wine truly offers something for every temperament. Good wines are an art form, expressing the winemaker’s genius as surely as if she had put brush to canvas. But wines also speak about the land in which the grapes were grown. A sense of history percolates throughout the wine industry, but it’s also a progressive, iconoclastic way to make a living. Winemaking has a decidedly back-to-the-earth feeling, yet it’s big on science and technology too. No wonder it fascinates so many people.

But the best thing about wine is an unheralded virtue. By learning to appreciate wine, we hone our senses. In such a complex, busy, frenetic world, we too often tune out. We ignore and avoid. Wine is incredibly mindful. By bringing your senses and your intellect to bear, you may regain something that you’ve lost. There is a Zen to wine tasting that transcends wine. You learn to go deep into each moment, to feel more and discover more. Food tastes better. Desserts are more satisfying. A massage feels heavenly. Sex regains lost passion. Friends will seem more witty!

Best of all, you may find yourself celebrating the joys of the table and the camaraderie of cherished companions and family with greater frequency. Wine adds to life’s enjoyment and should be treated seriously.

Just not too seriously.

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