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suggestions for wine newbie

I'm somewhat new to wine, and am trying to "train" my palette. First, is there any good "kit" for learning how to detect various common aromas? Second, what are some relatively inexpensive wines that are good representatives of the typical flavors in various varietals?

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  1. It's very hard to go wrong with a young fruity beaujolais (NOT nouveau)...accessible taste, easy to find, not expensive...

    1. Do some research on this board for bottles under $20 that are a good example of the varietal (Seghesio, for example, is what I would call a standard California Zinfandel). If you have the patience, budget, and alcohol tolerance, start drinking a bottle or two a week to get a sense of what tastes like what.

      Even better, see if you can get 10 friends in on this and assign each person one bottle. That way, you can taste 10 at one time so you can really see the differences. And it's more budget friendly.

      If you have friends who are as interested as you are, you could do one night for reds, one night for whites, and then start honing in on specifics (if everyone LOVES cabernet, do a cabernet from around the world night, etc).

      It's a lot of fun, and you can start throwing in food pairings after awhile too.

      Recently, we opened up a bottle of $5 cabernet and one that was closer to $60, and our wine newbie friends were very shocked by the difference. Even the least experienced palates can tell the different in side by sides like that.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Pei

        RE: your first paragraph. That's exactly what I'm trying to do!

        1. re: amkirkland

          Pei, If you have a wine shop favorite ask the owner if he knows of any wine clubs in your area. That is how my dh and I started and know we've graduated from tasting attendees to hosts.

          Enjoy the adventure!

      2. My number one recommendation for someone getting started in wine...

        Learn that it's the YEAR that matters, in most cases. Learn how to read vintage charts. A wine from a "good" or "great" vineyard in an off year is going to be at best fair and in a poor year it will be very unimpressive.

        You may end up thinking you don't like that particular type of wine, when it was merely a bad year.

        Also... the 6 most important wines to learn FIRST, in my opinion, especially for someone living in the US:

        WHITES: Riesling, Chardonnay

        REDS: Cabernet (or cabernet/merlot blends), Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel

        "Study" those 6 wines, find out what years were the best in their various source countries, and go from there.

        13 Replies
        1. re: Chicago Mike

          Most red wines and virtually all whites are made to be drunk young, and for those wines, vintage charts are mostly irrelevant.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I agree. If you're starting out training your palate, tasting wine is the best practice, regardless of vintage. It's very overwhelming, so start with a country, or a grape that you like. Start trying that grape for example syrah, from different countries, and different styles and depending on your budget, different vintages. If you have friends who are also interested, get them in on the fun. For geekiness, taste the wine at different times of the day, and notice how both the wine and your palate change. Be more geeky, and try to taste and memorize how various wines are characterized, by smelling and tasting "wine " flavors like, coffee, chocolate, citurs fruits, berries, etc. So when those fancy descriptors like rich tannins with black cherry aromas, float around you can start to identify descriptors of grapes and the styles of wine they produce. The best advice? Practice,practice,practice! Good Luck

            1. re: sharonm

              Honestly I can't understand anyone protesting the importance of Vintage Years in wine...

              The single most important factor in wine quality and absolutely the first thing a "newbie" needs to learn. Otherwise they're going to end up buying alot of "off years" and wondering why they don't like the varietal.

              I could give so many examples of this from personal experience, in almost every varietal you can name. The fact is that for many important wine regions in the world there are only 2 or 3 really good vintages per decade on average. Then there are a couple "fair" ones and at least several horrible years. If a newbie is pulling wine off the shelf blind it's a crapshoot that they get a good bottle.

              1. re: Chicago Mike

                My experience is the opposite. Most wines, especially those in the stated under-$20 price range, are pretty consistent from year to year, and not made for aging, so the main use of the vintage date is to ensure you're not getting an over-the-hill bottle (a frequent problem with Italian wines).

                The more expensive the wine, the more likely the vintage is to matter. Higher-end Bordeaux and Burgundies, for example, vintages matter a lot. But we're talking way over the stated under-$20 price range there.

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  For the inexpensive, under $20 wines the OP is asking about, I agree with Robert. Vintage, while a key component of many wines, won't really be a big factor for this exercise.

                  1. re: woojink

                    You guys talk like $20 is a lousy wine... where do you shop?

                    For alot of varietals you should expect good to excellent wine for $20 a bottle... you can get good to excellent riesling, zinfandel, syrah, pinot noir, even chardonnay for that price. You can find nice cabernet for $20 as well, especially if you're not limited to the US and France.

                    Good luck enjoying it if you're drinking a bad year.

                    If you're looking for "mass commercial" wine with some semblance of "tipico" taste where vintage year doesn't matter then you're probably more in the $4.95 to 8.95 price range.

                    1. re: Chicago Mike

                      Can you name one of these under-$20, bad-year wines you're talking about? I really haven't experienced that problem. Modern viticultural and winemaking techniques mean that in most climates good wine can be made every year.

                      I find good (and lousy) wines in every price range from around $6 on up. Most of the wine I buy is in the $8-15 range. I rarely spend more than that except for old or ageworthy riesling, Bordeaux-type blends, and dessert wines.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        Well here's just a few remarkably bad years in the past decade:
                        2000 Mosel
                        2002 Ribera
                        2002 Rioja
                        2002 Tuscany
                        1998 Sonoma Chardonnay
                        1998 & 2000 Napa Cabernet
                        2000 Zinfandel
                        1998, 2000 & 2002 Maipo Cabernet
                        2000 Barossa Shiraz
                        2000 & 2002 Adelaide Chardonnay
                        In all of the above there's good to excellent wines at $20 in great years.

                        And while these were distinctly bad years, there are several others that were at best "fair".

                        One of the first "newbie" experiences I ever had was back in the mid-80's. I can't recall the exact year but was probably from the first half of the decade...

                        Anyway, I'd "splurged" and bought a bottle of a renowned vineyard... it was either a Ferrari Carano or Sonoma Cutrer... anyway, I brought that bottle home and was so excited about trying this "sumptuous" chardonnay. Turned out it was about as impressive as flat lemonade. As I studied more, it turned out that bottle was from a very lowly-rated growing season...

                        That was my wakeup call to vintages and I've had many since... and I'd suggest it to any newbie just getting into wine... especially if they're paying more than a few bucks for a bottle.

                        While winemaking techniques may be very impressive, they are no match for mother nature.

                        1. re: Chicago Mike

                          My perspective is probably different since I don't like high-alcohol fruit bombs, but I think you're over-generalizing.

                          For example, 2002 was problematic in Tuscany due to cool, wet weather, but they still made lots of good wine. There are often excellent values to be found in vintages that have a bad reputation.

                          1. re: Chicago Mike

                            I guess I don't buy much wine for under $20 per bottle. I wish I could, just works out that way. In any event, vintage IS important and it does matter, but for a wine newbie, figuring out which varietal and/or appelation is appealing is far, far more important than trying to figure out a vintage chart.

                            I can easily rattle off great, not great and terrible vintages also, but I don't think someone who is a wine newbie will be buying aged vintages any way. It will be most likely wines that are under current release. So again, the vintages aren't as important, as trying a bunch of wines and learning your preferences.

                            I agree with Robert that good or bad vintages are rarely across the board, and especially for a beginner, learning and finding out the vagaries of wine at the varietal level will be much more impactful than exploring the differences of the same wines in differing vintages.

                        2. re: Chicago Mike

                          True, 'tis a sad state of affairs that people now spend the equivalent of a small Carribean nation's GDP on a case of house wine these days, but . . .

                          Depending upon one's experience and palate preferences, it CAN be difficult to find great wines -- perhaps not at +/- $20, but certainly in the "under $15" price category. Don't misunderstand, there are thousands of "good-to-very good" wines produced worldwide in the approximate $12-15 range. And depending upon where you live, hundreds may be available to you. But to find a truly great (exceptional, outstanding, mind-blowing, awesome -- pick your favorite adjective) wine below $15 is not an easy task, and to find one under $10 is like finding a pearl in your dozen oysters at Grand Central Terminal or the SF Ferry Building . . . possible, but --

                          One of my all-time great finds was the 1978 E. Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone for $3.99 (less 10% by the case). It was amazingly good at 10-12 years of age! Another was the 2000 Mas Gabinele Faugeres for only $7 -- just bought that last week, but it was probably the very first under $10 wine I've enjoyed enough to purchase a case of in probably 10-15 years!

                          1. re: zin1953

                            Adjusting for inflation, $4 in 1978 is comparable to around $12.50 today.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Well, let's keep in mind the wine wasn't purchased in 1978 . . .

                              According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://data/bls/gov), $3.99 in 1981 is equivlaent to $8.86 in 2006. If you factor in the case discount, it's $7.97. ;^)

            2. >>is there any good "kit" for learning how to detect various common aromas?<<

              The best known is the Nez du Vin. Very pricey and not really all that useful, IMHO, unless you don't know what saffron, violets, cloves, pineapple, etc., smell like. www.lenez.com

              Vintage charts are best viewed with suspicion. Even assuming you can trust their usually anonymous authors, they often summarize huge regions and ignore microclimates and the talent of individual winemakers. For example, most vintage charts lump the French southwest under a single rating, yet that region's range of climates, geography, grape varieties and wine-making styles is so enormous as to make such a broad generalization meaningless, not to mention useless. And even in vintages where an entire region experienced disastrous conditions -- the southern Rhone in diluvian 2002, for example -- there are invariably producers who make decent wines.

              Pei's on the right track. Get together a group of friends or acquaintances (you can easily get 12 or 13 pours from a bottle), buy a bunch of wines and taste them side by side. If one or two people do the choosing (maybe with the help of a trustworthy wine store clerk), the wines can easily be organized into flights of three to five bottles. For example, you could start with a flight of whites, move on to some supple reds and end with a flight of heavyweight reds or sweet wines. Flights can be built around various themes:
              - different producers from the same appellation and vintage (2004 Chianti Classico, for example
              )- different vintages of the same wine (Saintsbury Pinot Noir from 2001, 2002 and 2003)
              - all or part of the range of wines made by a given producer (Beyer's three riesling cuvées -- Réserve, Les Écaillers and Comte d'Eguisheim)
              - wines made from the same grape but in different parts of the country/world (sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, California, the Loire and South Africa)
              - wines made in the same region and the same style but from different grapes (syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel from Napa/Sonoma or Southern Australia)
              - and so on.

              Also, ask around (at wine shops, wine-friendly restaurants, etc.) and keep your eyes peeled. There may already be groups in your area that you can join or tastings that you can attend. The important thing is to experience as many and as wide a variety of wines as possible. I don't recall who first said it but it's absolutely true: the more you taste, the more you taste.

              1. Inexpensive wines from northeastern Italy (Veneto, Friuli, Collio) generally have very straightforward, classic varietal characteristics. Typical varietals include cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and pinot grigio.

                The only problem is that they're not always shipped properly, so especially the whites sometimes end up oxidized.