Keep your fruity aromas. I want the basics!
October 2, 2006 4:50 PM   Subscribe

Please help me suss out this whole "wine" business and figure out what I actually like.

I'm looking for a good, basic, comprehensive resource for delineating the difference between types of wine. Unlike some previous posters, I am specifically not looking for a richly detailed "how to educate yourself about wine" resource. I don't want to invest a lot of time in this foray, and I certainly don't want to catch myself saying sentences like "Hmmm...I think I detect a hint of oak and lavender!" Most places I've found so far seem invested in that kind of education. However, I would like to know, in a restaurant or at the shop, at least vaguely, how certain wines are defined. IE: Wine X = sweet, etc, etc. That way, I can be sure to avoid qualities I know I won't like, and help to define certain characteristics I am unsure of. I'm not always sure how sweet "sweet" means, for instance. Even if the best way to be doing this is simply to sample wines, I'd like a basic roadmap. I just want to enjoy some darn wine! Thanks.
posted by theantikitty to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Several of the larger wine shops are starting to have tasting bars where you can try a few different things. I had the same problem, but was fortunate enough that my culinary management program included a wine component and I was able to try a LOT of wines.

If you are looking for stuff like Cabernet Suavingon tends to be big and full? I don' tknow if anyplace has stuff sorted out that simple...the wine snobs tend to want to keep the stuff snobby and difficult to sort out.

The Wine Bible tends to show up at a lot of wine bars and wine stores, don't let the size of it throw you, its an interesting read full of history and trivia along with info about each varietal.

posted by legotech at 4:57 PM on October 2, 2006

Best answer: Something like this?
posted by mr_roboto at 5:00 PM on October 2, 2006

Best answer: It doesn't get much more Clift Note like than these wine wheels.
posted by donovan at 5:02 PM on October 2, 2006

DeLong's Wine Info and Wine Wheels (also see the USC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel) are good resources.

One national retailer, Best Cellars, orients their shops around a copyrighted/trademarked presentation of wine "styles," attempting to simplify the wine experience -- "Fizzy, Fresh, Soft, Lucious, Juicy, Smooth, Big, Sweet." Their website and its related content may be of help to you.
posted by ericb at 5:12 PM on October 2, 2006

Best answer: Along with legotech, I recommend The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil.

Other books which you might want to consider are:
Oz Clarke's Introducing Wine

Andrea Immer's Great Wine Made Simple

Mark Oldman's Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine : 108 Ingenious Shortcuts to Navigate the World of Wine with Confidence and Style

Dennis Overstreet's New Wine Guide

Kevin Zraly's Windows On The World Complete Wine Course
All of these books are easy-reads and great guides for wine drinkers.
posted by ericb at 5:29 PM on October 2, 2006

This is off-topic, but ericb please do not confuse my Alma Mater with anything in Southern California, especially a private school. (It's bad enough when someone from the football team gets drafted and reporters call and ask if Davis is a suburb of LA as when Ken O'brien was drafted).

Dr Noble was one of my professors, and her flavor wheel will get you more in the lavender/oak thingie. I'd suggest going to the library and looking for something there. When I was in college and learning different wines, that's partly what I did. I also tasted a lot. For domestic wines a good thing to do is go to one of those wine tastings where 30 or 40 wineries show up, and you pay an entrance fee and get a glass, and you can taste a whole bunch of different wines. The problem is wines will vary from producer to producer so there's no hard and fast rules. So while a Riesling might be something sweetish in general, there are some who make dry ones. European wines in general have more specific rules regarding labelling, and if you get a bordeaux, or an auslese riesling you pretty much know what you're going to get. American wines haven't gotten there yet.
posted by Eekacat at 5:40 PM on October 2, 2006

but ericb please do not confuse my Alma Mater with anything in Southern California, especially a private school

Oops ... mea culpa ... mistype -- UC Davis!!! I do know the difference ... but anything west of Cambridge is often a blur! ;-)
posted by ericb at 5:47 PM on October 2, 2006

BTW, theantikitty, UC Davis is considered the "crème de la crème" for the study of wine at its Viticulture & Enology program.

Another fine resource is Copia -- "The American Center for Food, Wine & the Arts" in Napa Valley.
posted by ericb at 5:55 PM on October 2, 2006

Personally, instead of reading about it, I'd just try different wines and find out which ones I liked consistently. I live in Adelaide, Australia, so I'm very close to a few huge wine regions and it's wonderfully easy to head out and go tasting for a day. Are there any wineries in your area? If so, just go out for a day and taste their wines, talk to them about it and learn as you go.
posted by twirlypen at 6:12 PM on October 2, 2006

I'd start really, really broad and compare two radically different types of wine by having them right there. One weekend, go ask for a dry and a fruity wine, and try them both. The next weekend, get an extremely cheap and a moderately priced wine, and try them both. The next weekend try contrasting styles, contrasting years, and so forth. You'll have a very firm footing and can start drilling down into the finer differences.

The other way, of course, is to not sweat it, and just buy something random and take note of what you like.
posted by hodyoaten at 6:33 PM on October 2, 2006

Best answer: The UC Davis wine wheel, I think, is something that would be useful for you. I have to say, though, that if you want to be specific about wine when ordering it, you are going to have to learn how to describe it.

It seems like you are afraid of associating with/looking like "wine snobs." A lot of people get a little crazy, but it is helpful to know what you like. For example, the best and often only term to use when describing California Chardonnays is "very oaky." I hate them for this reason. It is not an esoteric flavor--anyone should be able to detect it. So I can say that I like French wines that use this grape, and don't like the California ones (broadly speaking).

So if you want to develop a vocabulary, that's one thing, but if you just want to know what you like, just tell the people at the wine store about the last thing you liked and say "I want something like that." Or just try things and stop worrying about the social implications of it.
posted by lackutrol at 7:02 PM on October 2, 2006

This is not a 'where do I find out about wine' answer, it's a 'where I find good wine' answer.
If you have a Trader Joe's around, I have always had the best luck for very cheap there, they've got a good selection.
Just start messing about, pick up ones that don't look too pricy (don't spend more than $10 if you've never touched it before), and go to town, so to speak. For $2/$3, you can find out if you like Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot or something else. Gewurztraminer is both fun to say and drink, and if you see Spumante d'Asti/Muscato d'Asti/Prosecco, see if you like it.
If you don't, then cook with it.

Then, when you are really lucky, go travel somewhere fun (like Italy's Piedmont region, Turin and surrounding area) and ask them what they like best. You'll learn quickly.
Caveat - I studied abroad in Turin. I learned quickly which I liked and which I didn't. Funny how the stuff I liked that was about $1.60 (euro) turned out to be about $60 back in the states.
posted by lilithim at 7:20 PM on October 2, 2006

As folks above, start out buying/tasting wines. Find what you like. Go to wine tastings at shops ... at any local wineries. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Buy, try and compare. Wine preference is individual.

Another resource that focuses on wine and not the pretense is WineX Magazine.
posted by ericb at 8:31 PM on October 2, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. I think both the links to the wine wheels and visual cheat sheets look great. I appreciate all the book suggestions as well, and I will keep this bookmarked for a moment when I have more time (or possibly even more motivating interest after discovering a bit more about my tastes!)

Lackutrol, I think my original post did come off a bit more anti-wine snob than I might have hoped! (After all, I could never survive being in graduate school this long if I didn't have some tolerance for snobs.) I don't think I have a problem with learning basic, concrete vocabulary to describe wine. However, my primary motivator here is truly just to be able to understand which wines I like and how to find them. If I can do that without learning about a plethora of wine descriptors, so much the better. I think I simply got frustrated with descriptions that seem alienating to me. I have no interest in being a wine expert. I just want to be able to go to a restaurant and say, "Oh, Riesling. I generally like Rieslings. I can order that with some confidence." Maybe impossible -- we'll see.
posted by theantikitty at 8:45 PM on October 2, 2006

I don't know PA for wine, but any kind of organized tasting will probably be more helpful than a book (if more expensive). I've read several varietal descriptions in books, but nothing could compare to, say, having sips of a reisling and a (gewuertz?) grape, back and forth, to really get a feel for how they were different. (There are good wineries in Michigan, btw, mostly German-style whites.) The terminology in books can be pretty arbitrary sometimes, and just knowing "when they say tannin, they mean like this" is tremendously helpful. My SO was furious when she discovered that 'notes of blackberries' (or whatever) didn't mean the wine actually had a dash of blackberries in it. One man's 'piney' is another man's 'spicy', etc. Winespeak can be rediculous sometimes, but try to get a handle on what you like.

If you don't know of any wineries or wine shops that organize regular tastings in the area, you may have to buy and open $everal bottle$ at once to get an idea, unfortunately. But, ask at good wine shops, they can be quite helpful. They want you to enjoy some darn wine, and they can be pretty accomodating.
posted by trouserbat at 8:47 PM on October 2, 2006

Response by poster: By the way, we are getting a Trader Joe's in Pittsburgh, but because of ridiculous state liquor laws, we don't get the cheap wine! It's all very disappointing.
posted by theantikitty at 8:50 PM on October 2, 2006

Also: If you have really well defined tastes in a particular food niche (beers, coffee/tea, chocolate, desserts, Szechuan, Ethiopian, etc) try explaining it to the wine shop people in terms of that. They might be able to figure out what will click with what you like. Something like, "you love the spice in that, try this wine with it" or "sip this port, it really works with dark chocolate" can help focus on what's up your alley.
posted by trouserbat at 8:54 PM on October 2, 2006

theantkitty: the PA liquor laws are Big Weird. What's with the "delis" that are like a human-sized crane game for beer?

But quarts of Yuengling are decent, so it all evens out.
posted by trouserbat at 8:56 PM on October 2, 2006

Response by poster: the PA liquor laws are Big Weird

Tell me about it. The liquor stores can't sell beer and the beer stores can't sell liquor. And no one can sell anything alcoholic unless they're the commonwealth of PA. Except the bars. There are still bars. But forget grabbing your six pack at the grocery store...
posted by theantikitty at 9:06 PM on October 2, 2006

The place I'm thinking of in particular was in West Philly, but I got the impression from an ex-roommate who had moved out by Lancaster that the liquor laws are weird statewide.

It was like they were a hot dog shop that sold beer, but they didn't actually have real hot dogs.
posted by trouserbat at 9:11 PM on October 2, 2006

Host a wine and cheese party, where everyone brings a bottle of wine and a chunk of cheese. We're having one on Friday - easiest type of party, as all you have to do is provide glasses and crackers.

The main issue I have with tastings is that by the sixth glass, everything tastes good, so it is definately worth only serving yourself small measures, and taking notes.
posted by kjs4 at 9:50 PM on October 2, 2006

The Waterworks Wine/Liquor store is pretty good when it comes to knowledgeable staff .. I can't think of many other state stores in that area that seemed to have anyone with a clue. The one up by the Iggle on McKnight has an OK selection but the staff is not well versed.

Man is it nice to be able to buy wine at Whole Foods again.
posted by kcm at 10:06 PM on October 2, 2006

Second for Great Wine Made Simple. The nice thing about this is that it's a book that really goes along with tasting, rather than to be used instead of tasting. The author suggests reasonably-priced wines that can be used to demonstrate the different aspects of wines she's talking about.

And to reiterate what lackutrol said, "oaky" is a pretty major component of many wines. You certainly don't have to learn to detect seventy-nine different subtle flavors in order to be able to pick out what you like, but "oaky" is a big one. Compare an oaked Chardonnay (most California Chardonnays will do) with an unoaked one (most French Chardonnays, or any specifically labelled as "unoaked" or "unwooded") and the difference will be immediately obvious. Trying to describe what wines you like without learning "oak" would be like trying to describe what desserts you like without knowing "chocolate."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:35 AM on October 3, 2006

I agree with lakutrol. When you said "Wine X = sweet" automatically I thought how it's not that simple. It's not the wine "type" or grape that creates sweet wine, it's cold weather (think German reislings being sweeter than NZ reislings: same grape, very different taste). And that means that you will have to learn a little bit about wine, more than just the types of grapes.

I used to know a wine guide that was reccommended to me... The Food Lover's Guide to Wine? Something like that... if that sounds familiar to anyone.
posted by scazza at 12:52 PM on October 3, 2006

theantikitty, no problem. I think what I was trying to get at is that you need to learn how to describe the wine to yourself, so, for example, if you hate oakiness, then you can avoid ones that are described that way (again, since the oakiness is largely a California issue, it doesn't affect all Chardonnays).

A side bonus is that if you can describe what you like to yourself, you can describe it to other people, at restaurants or wine shops, and hopefully avoid disappointment. Good luck!

I'd also like to plug Cork'd yet again. Great site for novices and intermediates alike. Wouldn't know if it's useful for experts. I'm "durlando" over there.
posted by lackutrol at 6:24 PM on October 3, 2006

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