Last month’s column established a major point regarding our wine knowledge: we don’t have any. But, like all good semi-alcoholics, I crave understanding about my hobby as much as I crave the magical elixir itself. In order to gain some basic knowledge, Blast spoke to international wine expert Kevin Zraly, author of the eternally best-selling book “Windows on the World: Complete Wine Course.” He wants us all to know a thing or two:
1. Taste what you like
“The biggest thing I learned in my early days was that no one tastes anything alike. There are no standards, so to speak, of taste,” Zraly said. He stressed that following the tastes you like will lead to a better appreciation and understanding of wine. Drink the type of wine you think simply tastes the best. Go with whatever region you like.
“Whatever you like, you like. If you like white wine, stick with it. If you like red wine, stick with it.”
Zraly also noted that 95 percent of taste is smell. Your sense of smell peaks at around age 32, so consider these your rookie wine-tasting days. You will get better. Even Zraly, who just finished touring the world and visited over 100 wine regions, tasting 5,000 wines, admits he still can’t discern all the flavors in a sip of wine.
2. Know your terms
But don’t get bogged down in useless lingo. There are four major components in a bottle of wine that you should be familiar with: fruit, acidity, sweetness and tannins. Obviously, you’re looking for that fruit flavor. You can taste acidity off to the side of your mouth and sweetness on the tip of your tongue (though most wines don’t have much sweetness at all).
Tannins are important. They come from the skins, pits and stems of the grape, as well as the oak barrels the wine is aged in. Certain kinds of oak give off more tannin, such as French versus American oak. Newer and smaller oak barrels create more tannin, which are often more prevalent in expensive wines.
If you’re looking to be super savvy, know that the best new value wines are coming from Chile and Argentina these days. Zraly also counts South Africa as a current hot spot.
3. There’s a lot of good and not much bad
Just don’t call them cheap. Value wines combine quality and a good price — and a connoisseur can appreciate them just as much as we can. According to Zraly, the best value wines are within the ten to 20 dollar range. There are $20 bottles out there that taste like a good $50 bottle. “There are some masterpieces in that 10 to 20 dollar range,” Zraly said.
So what makes a wine bad? It’s obvious. “Poor wine making, start with that. If you want to go further, bad grapes.” In addition, if a wine smells oxidized or like vinegar, it’s “corked,” which means the cork is no good. It doesn’t have anything to do with bits of broken cork in the wine. “I very rarely come upon what I would call ‘bad wine’ anymore. I think that the modern technology of stainless steel fermentation tanks have saved the day,” Zraly said.
If you’re looking for good, yet basic or cheap wines, Zraly has one tip: “The best suggestion is to find the best retail store. I would say that’s like you’re finding the best grocery store. You’re going to the best place they cut your hair. Put your faith in the retailer. Now, 20 years ago I wouldn’t have said that. Twenty years ago they didn’t know what they were doing. But today’s wine retailer is much savvier than they’ve ever been.”
4. Wine is food. Eat!
“I grew up starting with wine as a food,” said Zraly. “It is a food. Wine is a food and it deserves to go with food. Wine will make food taste better and food will make wine taste better.” We’ve heard this before, but is it true? We’ll test all the wine-with-food rules in an upcoming column, but for now, take Zraly’s word for it. “If I went to a bar, I’d probably have a beer, but when I have food, I’m always having a glass of wine or two,” he said.
Don’t put so much pressure on it. Wine isn’t as complicated as you think. You don’t need to buy expensive bottles and put them away for years. In fact, only about ten percent of all wines should be kept for more than year. You should drink 90 percent of what you buy right away! Sure, it’s fun to savor those few special bottles, but don’t worry about that now, says Zraly. “Most people in their 20s, they’ll drink the wine. In their 30s, they’ll start thinking about putting it away because now they’re getting more disposal income.”
5. Relax, it’s just wine
Wine is wine. Even Zraly isn’t a wine snob, so we certainly don’t need to be. “Have a good time. Don’t get caught up in all the lingo. It’s just a bottle of wine. 86 percent of a bottle of wine is water to begin with, so now you’re left with 14 percent of other good things,” said Zraly.
“Good things.” We like that. More good things? Taking wine classes — something that Zraly highly recommends. Check out The Cambridge Center for Adult Education or Boston Wine school. Visiting wineries will also help you learn what you like, and Mass has around fifty. The Coastal Wine Trail of Southeastern New England offers a variety to visit. Check out coastalwinetrail.com for more.
“The more that they do (visit wineries), the more fun it will be, the more educated they will be, the less money, in essence, it will cost them to get a good quality wine. And of course tell them to buy my book,” Zraly said. So, yes, buy it. And be sure to flip to the back for an extensive list of cheapies that taste better than you’d expect. Zraly’s wine journal is a great way to keep track of your tastings. Save your labels and paste them in the book, along with your rating.
So, there you have it fellow winos. Thanks to Zraly’s expertise, we can enjoy our next bottle with a little more knowledge of what, exactly, we are pouring down our throat (not that it really matters).