By Mac McCarthy, Zenergo
When you first try various wines, you quickly find that some — well, many — are hard to take, especially for a beginner. Many wines are acquired tastes — you have to get used to them.
Especially for red wine, the tannin (a stinging, puckery sort of sensation on your tongue, similar to what you’d experience if you sucked on a teabag) is what makes it hard to take. Some red wines are very tannic, so they definitely take practice. And wines, especially red wines, can be acidic on top of that. And then there’s the alcohol, which is not very high for wines (10% to 16%) compared to liquors, but liquors are hard to take too, aren’t they? That’s why you mix them with soda and fruit juice!
Luckily, there are a lot of wine types that are “approachable,” which means easier for beginners to like right from their first taste — they are much less tannic, less acidic, and lower in alcohol. So start with these wines that are safe for a beginner like you. NOTE: I indicate where these particular grapes and wines originate, but most are made in many places — especially in the United States, which makes a version of almost every type of wine in the world.
[A good way to learn is to join with others to share and try wines. On Zenergo.com, you can sign up for the Wine Tasting Activity, find others in your area with similar interests, join or start your own wine tasting Group, and find out about wine tasting events in your area. Give it a try.]
Safe Wines for Beginners
Beaujolais (and Beaujolais Nouveau) is an area in France that makes a very light, fruity, mild red wine from the Gamay grape, very easy to enjoy. The “Nouveau” is sold around Thanksgiving time. In fact, it makes a good turkey-day wine. (It’s also supposed to be consumed before New Year’s Day, as it doesn’t age like the regular wines from Beaujolais do.)
Pinot Noir (but $$) Pinot Noir can be a light yet flavorful wine that’s very approachable, with more interesting things going on with it than the simpler Beaujolais. It’s tricky to shop for, though, for a few reasons. One is that good Pinots can be pricey. Some of the very best, from Burgundy (or “Bourgogne“) in France, can have price tags that will take your breath away even more than the flavor does. And, to confuse things, many Pinots made in Oregon, Washington, and California are made in a more intense West-Coast style that’s not much like the light Burgundies we’re recommending here. So when you shop for a Pinot, ask the clerk if this is a “French-style” Pinot, or a “West Coast-style.” Buy the French-style ones.
Rhones are blended wines made along the Rhone river in France; they can be light and easy to drink, but the flavors a highly varied – some like ‘em, some don’t. A famous example is Chateauneuf du Pape. Personally, I like the ones from Gigonda. Americans make Rhone-style blended wines too, and they also vary a lot in what they taste like. It’s a good area for exploration.
Light Italian wines: Chianti (not in straw bottle), Sangiovese, Valpolicello are light ones easy to drink. There are other Italian reds that are intense, that you might not be able to handle as easily. One clue: If it’s a light red — if it looks watered down compared to other, dark reds — then it’s probably lighter in taste, too, so it’s worth a try.
Cheap Australian Shiraz wines can be great fun because they show a lot of fruit. Examples are Yellowtail and Rosemount, and best of all they are usually very affordably priced.
Any red wine from the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Light yet flavorful, they sometimes don’t say what grape is in the wine; in many cases, they are native American grapes, not the French-sourced grapes all the rest of the wines are made from, and that can be very interesting — a lost marketing opportunity, if you ask me.
I’ve already lectured you about why Roses can be tasty wines that you should be trying at every opportunity, despite whatever you may have heard about White Zinfandel. There is more variety in Roses than in any other wine type — from completely “dry” to lightly sweet. And, let’s face it, folks, even White Zinfandel has the not-to-be-dismissed virtue of being very easy to drink — light, with no offensive elements, it’s a perfect starter wine, which is why it’s so popular. Just know that you’ll get tired of it after a while because it’s bland and flabby, but until that day comes, you can sip it without concern for your tongue. And please remember that this is *not* what other Roses taste like, nor other red Zins, nor other sweet dessert wines, so when you do get tired of it, don’t swear off the good stuff.
White wines, lacking tannins, are easier for beginners to taste — though there are still a few whites that have enough acidic tang to make your taste buds jump. Whites are often lower in alcohol than reds, too, which is a bonus. The real trick for a beginner is finding a white wine that actually *tastes* good — not just doesn’t hurt, but has a flavor that a beginning taster finds pleasant and enjoyable. Here are a few popular grapes.
Chardonnay – No longer “fashionable,” but easy to drink, which is why it continues to be popular. When you get tired of regular everyday Chardonnay that you find in bars and nightclubs, you can graduate to the tasty White Burgundy from France, which is very different, and to the many new “unoaked” Chardonnays being made in the US, where the fruit comes forward in a delicious way. Americans are experimenting with the taste of Chardonnay, so taste around.
Sauvignon Blanc from the US or New Zealand – This grape makes a white wine with a little more character than oaked Chardonnays, so it’s a popular next step for many drinkers. It has a little but of a tang, a kind of “stony” taste. It is fashionable, though. French versions (from Bordeaux and from the Loire Valley) taste different (and good).
Viognier and Pinot Grigio (Italian) or Pinot Gris (French) are light white wines that vary from maker to maker a whole lot. They can sometimes have a wonderful flowery or fruity aroma–and no particular flavor; or they can be very tasty — it’s a crap shoot. Experiment.
Italian Prosecco is a sparkling white wine, like champagne but much easier to drink — slightly sweet, fruity, fun. In fact, you should consider it for your wedding reception in place of Champagne–it’s easier for non-wine-drinkers to enjoy, and it’s much less expensive.
Any white from Germany, Alsace, or Austria, such as Gewurztraminer (do yourself a favor and just call it “Gevoortz”), Riesling, or Gruner Veltliner, tend to be aromatic, light but with an acidic tang, and vary from very dry to lightly sweet — to, in the case of late-harvest “Spaetlese” and “Trockenbeerenauslese,” quite sweet. All these whites vary a lot from maker to maker, so don’t give up if the first ones you try you don’t care much for. Keeping trying; you’ll find one you like. There’s a whole world of white (and red) wines, from unique grapes most of which you’ve never heard of and probably can’t pronounce, in the world of German, Alsatian, and Austrian wines; it’s worth a lifetime of flavorful study. While all the wine snobs are festishing over in France, you could becoming an expert in a different, tasty world.
Late-Harvest Reds and Whites
Don’t like sweet wines? Ha ha ha — you’re wrong! You just haven’t had a chance to try a well-made one! Seriously, though, there are many, many so-called Dessert Wines (or, for fun, “Stickies”) that are unbelievably delicious — like the best piece of liquid candy you’ve ever tasted. Look for Sauterne (a French white made from Sauvignon Blanc)), Tokay (Hungarian), Canadian or German Ice Wine (white), or Muscat (red). They mostly come in half-sized bottles and vary from a little bit expensive ($18 for a half bottle?) to oh-my-God expensive (hundreds of dollars for a vintage Chateau d’Yquem, also a half bottle). Try the cheap ones — they are also tasty. And meant to be sipped–they can be very high in alcohol.
Wines Not Safe for Beginners
Reason: These wines take getting used to – they are dense, heavy, intense, very tannic, alcoholic, acidic – OR ELSE expensive yet just hard to know when you’ve gotten a good bottle.
Zinfandel – Me, I love big, jammy red Zinfandels — heck, I vclunteer at the big ZAP Zinfandel festival every January in San Francisco, where 300 winemakers serve up over 800 Zinfandels! But others find it overwhelming. Exceptions: Any relatively inexpensive red Zinfandel with an aggressive, hard-hitting name intended to give you the impression that this is one bad Zin, baby! — is likely to be light and easy to drink — the name is a marketing gimmick. For example, Seven Deadly Zins, Earthquake Zin, and Cardinal Zin (best label ever, though) are fun and easy to drink, fruity, and affordable (thank goodness!). (This is similar to the marketing-wine rule that any wine with a fun, jokey, smartalecky name and picture is probably junk wine that, however, *tastes great*! Not sophisticated — just fun.
Cabernet Sauvignon– is usually made as a Big Red — heavy, tannic, sometimes expensive, and highly variable in flavor and style. You won’t know what you’re buying, so drink someone else’s until you find brands that work for you.
Merlot – Can be absolutely delicious when made right, but bland and mediocre if not; unfortunately, the best-tasting Merlot is the most expensive Merlot.
French Bordeaux and Burgundy – Because the good ones are expensive, the really good ones are very expensive, and the affordable ones vary all over the map in flavor and quality. Don’t jump into this world yet; drink OPB — Other People’s Bordeaux.
Argentinean Malbecs – Can be as big and intense and amazing as a great California Cab — but, unfortunately, just as costly. If you’re willing to spend the bucks, go ahead, you will rarely be disappointed. (Which is wonderful, because a couple of decades ago, Argentinian Malbec was dreck!)
Champagne – In general, the best are expensive; and surprisingly many people don’t really care for the taste of champagne, even good champagne — it has an acidic edge that you might not like. If you have to buy Champagne, go for the Champagne-type bubblies made elsewhere in France: Clairett de Die Cave Carod, for example, can cost as little as $13(!). Cremant d’Alsace is another winner. And there’s a Champagne-style bubbly made by a winery called Gruet in, of all places, New Mexico, that costs as little as $8.50 — yet tastes great. (If you like Champagne, that is — see above.) Can you believe that? I’ve tasted it, and it’s true.
China – The best-known red wine from China is from a winery called Great Wall. Really. Its Cabernet Sauvignon is awful, truly awfuo. One day, maybe soon, China will produce good wines for export; we’ll be glad.
California Syrah – I love West-Coast Syrahs — because they are made in a dense, big-red, intense, fruit-forward style that I love. As a beginning wine drinker, though, you may find it as overwhelming as big red Zins. However, Syrah can also be made in lighter styles, and is the backbone of the blend of wines that makes up Rhone-style reds, where the mix is much easier on the palate.
Port – Port wines and the related styles of Sherry can be a traumatic experience for beginning wine drinkers. They put brandy in it! And you can taste it! Arrgh!
An exception might be Madeira – maybe. It’s just as dense, intensely sweet, even raisiny, yet not as harsh. Have a sip.
Where To Start?
As we said earlier, a good way to learn about wines — and a fun way — is to join with others to share and try wines. So start a wine-tasting group of your own — Head on over to Zenergo, sign up (easy & free), join the ‘Wine Tasting’ Activity, and from there click ‘Create’ for Groups. Put in your info, send invites to your friends – and there you have it! A wine group spot where you can coordinate your tasting events, manage your email list, post your pictures, a chat amongst yourselves — all in one convenient spot! If you host public winetasting events, post them to Zenergo and recruit from among local members!
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Copyright 2011 Michael “Mac” McCarthy, all rights reserved. The four posts in this Wine 101 series are now available combined as an Amazon Single for your Kindle. Click the link for more info.