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Is understanding wine a talent, or can a novice oenophile learn?

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Dear Chowhound wine experts, I am a lover of wine who lacks entirely in the art of tasting and pairing. Is there hope for me?

- I do know when I taste a wine what I don't like about it.
- There have been many occasions when I have a dish with a wine and I know that the wine brings out something good, or makes the dish or the wine taste worst.
- I also can SOMETIMES understand, when taking in the aroma before sipping, what I detect in the wine (e.g. berries, flowers, etc.).

Unfortunately, this very low level of understanding of wine is all I possess! And I am close to several people who, when they taste wine, seem to get it all.

My question: is understanding wine a talent, like drawing, or is it something I can learn? I hope yes! But I would like to know if it's really something you (or rather your nose, mouth, and brain) are born with.

If as I dearly hope one can learn, how? Is it a matter of taking practical steps (e.g. noting in a log somewhere that X varietal tastes good with Y cheese)? Can I just hang out a lot with people who know and who are willing to patiently teach? Or is it a more complex process of studying different smells and tastes?

I know what sommeliers will tell you (what they are trained to tell you): drink what you like! But I also know that sometimes a wine just doesn't work with some food, while another wine will work perfectly, and I don't just want someone to tell me what to order, I want to KNOW what to order.

I hope this question will provoke a good discussion but also some helpful answers.

Thanks!!

mp413

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  1. 1. You need to learn the shorthand
    2. You need to drink, drink, drink and experiment

    It took me awhile to nail down the shorthand/lingo. What does "Green apple" flavors taste like as opposed to "stone fruits"? What is the difference between "cherry" and "prune"? When can you say something is "hot" or "metallic" or tannins too bitter?

    If you live near a wine growing region, go out and taste. Look at the descriptors the wineries have put out for the wine and start matching their descriptors to what you are tasting. There is nothing better than tasting 30 wines in a day to start getting a feel for a region/varietal.

    If you are not near a wine growing region, use a good wine store and cellartracker. Start with a particular region, then pick a particular varietal (type of grape). Buy a few that have a lot of cellatracker notes and start drinking. See if you can find the common threads, see if you can pick up the flavors other people can. See if you disagree or agree.

    If you can't afford to be consuming 10 bottles a month of decent wine (e.g. $10 and up), see if there is a GOOD wine bar in your area. One that actually does flights from the same region or the same grape. You can also try doing that.

    No one "gets it all" peoples tastebuds are different. But you can zero in on what you like once you start sampling a bunch of different wines. Wine is a very expensive hobby, and it takes considerable amount of time to figure out what you like. It is also very very fun! So don't get discouraged that some have a head start - get tasting!

    1. I've found that just about anyone can "understand" wine but not everyone has the "technical" ability to speak the language correctly. By that I don't mean just memorizing terminology but REALLY being able to discern the aromas, flavors, and complexities that some people can. People's palates vary and so do their sensitivities to aroma and taste (which are completely intertwined).

      Don't worry, though, you can have a whole lot of fun trying, and most people can learn enough to be able to get by. To me that means being able to describe what you like well enough to avoid ordering or buying wine you don't like. It really doesn't take all that much sophistication to get down enough basics for that.

      To answer your specific question..... beyond a certain level I believe it IS a talent, but there's a whole world of enjoyment below that level. Relax and enjoy!

      1. Hi mp413,

        I genuinely believe that the vast majority of people are "capable" of learning how to "taste" wine.

        Of course "taste" has different meanings depending on the circumstances (i.e. blind tasting of wines to identify or score them, versus tasting wine to pair with food) however the principles and techniques of tasting are the same.

        Regarding the basic technique of wine tasting, in the UK we have the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). I am not in anyway affiliated with WSET but am a wine writer who has done much of his education with the WSET. WSET run various courses dedicated to getting you to analyse what is in a glass by examining the appearance, the aromas and the taste of the wine in a systematic manner. Thoughtful and systematic analysis is a prerequisite for wine tasting and without the mental discipline to stick to a system of analysis when tasting wine, it is difficult to identify flavours and patterns of flavours in the wines you are tasting. I am sure there are some accredited courses in your part of the world that will assist you with this – most will be just 1 day long and relatively affordable.

        The second part of wine tasting really comes with experience - how can you say that the Nebbiolo grape generally tastes of "red cherry" if you haven't tasted plenty of Nebbiolo. How do you know what taste the phrase "red cherry" describes if you haven't done this..... This is where it becomes difficult for many consumers who don't necessarily work in the wine trade. On average I probably taste 3000+ wines a year, there are not many consumers who get through this many wines a year and thus their experience is less as a result. Without a sufficient degree of experience, wine tasting on anything beyond a casual level becomes challenging as it is impossible to judge how typical a wine is or even how accomplished a wine is in the context of its peers.

        Thus my advice to you...

        (1) Attend some kind of formal wine tasting education that focuses on the technique of wine tasting. Stick to that technique so that it provides a consistent reference point for your tasting.

        (2) Taste (not necessarily drink!) as much wine as possible. (Try to taste in flights/groups of similar wines so that you can see the similarities/differences between similar wines/grapes).

        (3) Regarding food pairing – there are numerous “reference guides” to food pairing out there (including those free on the internet) although the are also formal courses dedicated to this. There are a few basic rules for food and wine pairing but really I would advise most people to experiment and see what they personally enjoy.

        Hope that helps.

        1. Nothing takes the place of tasting, but I would suggest two excellent books that will give you more understanding and background. 1) "the Wine Bible," by Karen MacNeil is a baisc wine book catalogued by region and then by grape. It's full of interesting information for the novice and the experienced wine professional, alike. 2) "The Food Lovers' Guide to Wine" (and also "What to Drink with What You Eat") by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. I'm guessing you will be fascinated!

          1 Reply
          1. re: ChefJune

            For pure 'tasting' info there's Jancis Robinson's "How to Taste". Really on point for that skill training.

          2. It's a combination of education, and experience -- and a little bit of talent.

            You don't have to be a master sommelier to know what you like. And a lot of it is just experience -- trying different things and see if you like them and learning what the flavors are.

            If you're lucky, you get an "aha!" moment -- mine was during a tasting of Touraine wines in France. The proprietor poured one that they had aged in wood (many Touraines are not oaked at all) -- and as I smelled it, an image flashed through my mind of walking through the woods in the autumn, and the smell of the leaves kicked up as we walked. Shazam! The owner was amused at my wide-eyed realization -- but happy that she happened to be the one who gave me the key to open that door.

            And for pairing? The easiest way to pair is to pair wines with food from that region, or wines grown in a similar climate.

            13 Replies
            1. re: sunshine842

              Aw............. comeon. ;o] I've been tasting for decades and I still don't have the sensitivity to certain aromas and flavors my wife does. After years in 'the biz' I've found that some people just don't have the sensitivity beyond a certain level. That level is usually just fine, but there definitely seem to be differences among tasters.

              It's kindof like the ability to carry a tune, though I think someone that has the natural ability can progress farther with wine. You'd far prefer watching me describe a wine over listening to me sing.

              1. re: Midlife

                I never said, and never intended to imply, anything that disagrees with anything you've written.

                1. re: sunshine842

                  Easy there sunshine. While experience and education can get people to the level I said is "just fine" I (and it may be just me) feel that really good tasters need more than a little bit of talent. How much is "a little bit"? I don't know. I was just trying to quantify something that's obviously difficult (or impossible) to quantify.

                  Bottom line............ the OP's three points are all anyone really needs to enjoy wine.

                  1. re: Midlife

                    Midlife, I'm agreeing with you -- 100% no less! Nobody was talking about being a sommelier or a professional wine critic.

                2. re: Midlife

                  Similar has been true in our household. I can discern many elements, that go over my wife's head (or palate), and she is the master cook, who could be a chef, if she retired. Still, when it comes to wines, I often have to give her a list of what I find.

                  That said, however, she DOES know what she likes and does not like, thought she might not be able to dissect a particular wine, as I usually can. Still, she can do a good job at pairing, and choosing, but I contend that she just needs more practice, practice, practice.

                  For the OP, one thing that will really help, with understanding wines, is a great flavor/aroma memory. That is where I excel over my wife. Maybe it was all the William Faulkner, that I read as a kid? If one is serious about wine, beyond just learning some varietals, some producers and regions, that they like, they should work to catalog tastes and aromas, and not just with wine, but everything in their environment.

                  One place to get a bit of a "jump start," is the Kendall-Jackson Sensory Garden in Windsor. Regardless of what one might think of their wine portfolio, spending a day there is well worth the effort. They do a great job, and their garden is not to be missed.

                  If one does not possess a great memory, then a notebook is allowed, and very useful.

                  Taste, taste and then, taste some more.

                  I also recommend Andrea Immer's (now Robinson) "Great Wines Made Simple." At least the "homework" is great fun.

                  Enjoy,

                  Hunt

                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    Bill, I think you summed up the main issue in one sentence..... "one thing that will really help, with understanding wines, is a great flavor/aroma memory." The question for me is how far can one train oneself in this area. The recognition (aha moments!) is tough enough for lots of people, let alone being able to remember.

                    1. re: Midlife

                      Happily, this can only be achieved with lots and lots of practice.

                      Fortunately, this is not difficult.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        Yes, but my point all along has been that people have widely varying abilities in these areas and I question how far the average person can go. Not everyone can 'learn to play the piano'. No question that it's fun to learn, and progress is a joy. But there are limits for lots of people.

                        1. re: Midlife

                          anybody can learn to plink out "Heart and Soul" -- we can't all be concert pianists, but if you have the desire and the time, you can usually play a few tunes, even if it's just for your own enjoyment.

                          If you enjoy playing and you want to learn, then there's no reason you can't.

                          1. re: sunshine842

                            I don't think we're really disagreeing on this except that, using the piano analogy, I don't think ANYONE could learn to play the way a concert pianist plays. And............... I have a hard time believing that someone (like myself) who can't carry a tune to save themselves, could learn to sing well. But I think we both agree that wine is mostly about enjoyment so it doesn't matter what level of understanding you reach.

                            I simply assumed that the OP was asking what I am asked often, which is whether or not ANYONE can learn to pick out the aromas and tastes that they read about in winemakers' notes and also to discern flaws in wine that are not the obvious ones. THOSE things, I still feel, are dependent upon a person's physiology to a degree which can be limiting.

                            This is just my 2¢ of course.

                            1. re: Midlife

                              Midlife,

                              Though I love music, and even produce a bit of it, I am with you, though I hate that, with a glowing passion. If I could trade some of my attributes, I would choose the ability to make great music, but that is just me. I have a "golden voice," but cannot sing a lick. I studied music for some years, but just could not make the grade, though I tried mightily. I actually do better at blending Bdx-style wines, than I do working with my MIDI interface, even with my Loopology Clips! I just have a "tin-ear," when it comes to music.

                              Now, I can find "music" in my wines, and can dissect those to their "base," in many cases. I guess that I should be happy with that ability - but if I could ONLY sing!!!!!

                              Hunt

                            2. re: sunshine842

                              Interesting analogy. I had an acquaintance, who was a concert pianist. He often commented that _____ hit all the right notes, but missed the whole piece. It took some thinking on my part, to put that all together, but when I got it, it made perfect sense, and I began to listen with a much more critical ear.

                              Yes, you, and he, got that part correct, at least IMHO.

                              Hunt

                        2. re: Midlife

                          Midlife,

                          Good point. Not sure of the answer, but I work to do just that.

                          Again, maybe it was all of the Wm Faulkner, that I read - aromas and memories. I am blessed with a great flavor/aroma memory, and a pretty good nose and palate.

                          Wife, who has a much better palate, lacks the nose, and also the memory. Still, she can navigate most wine lists and pair with the dishes, very well - I have spent many years teaching her.

                          The flavor and aroma profiles are one reason that I recommend the Sensory Garden at Kendall-Jackson. They bring that into real-world parlance.

                          Yes, it takes practice, but then, that is part of the fun of wine - practice! [Grin]

                          Hunt