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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

                  2. I offer 2 observations:

                    1) There are more metaphors for wine flavor than there are for Kinkaid Objects d' Art (?).

                    2) You gotta paaay to plaaay.

                    1. I have no argument with any of the above. It takes time, money, a diary, and instruction from somebody with the patience of Job to impart the vagaries of that wonderful tipple called wine.

                      I chose not to go the slurping,swirling route. I have some favorites from France and Germany, but opportunity and money have severely degraded my windows of opportunity. Early on I felt that having lived and drunk my way through some of the best years of the century in Europe, duplicating the experience here in North America would be rediculously expensive or flat out impossible. Add the fact that cellars are basically nonexistent in Florida, and I have no place to store the cases for the years or decades to fully develop a wine.

                      I happily splurge for a Sonnenuhr from Brauneberg on the Moselle, a Johanisberg riesling from the Rhinegau, or just about anything from Franken or the Bergstrasse. Yeah, I lived in Germany. But I also developed a taste for rose's from Anjou and the Camargue, chiantis from Florence, Frascati from Rome and Pinot Grigio from the Venezia region. And don't get me started on Pop wine, I mean Chateauneuf du Pape.

                      The shear volume from the West coast of the US has totally intimidated me. If I had ever lived there and could have tasted my way for a couple of years, I am sure things would be different.

                      That being said, I am perfectly happy some evenings with a glass or two from a box of Franzia, or a Vinho Verde with the BBQ. For those able to invest the resources needed to have an educated palate, I give them their due, and wish them the best. They, and possibly you, experience wine on a level I am envious of, but I do not regret my choice.

                      Please lower the bar, keep your hands and feet inside, and enjoy the ride.

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                        so you know, IndianRiverFL -- we had very good luck keeping our stash in Hillsborough Co. at the back of the walk-in closet, with a blanket thrown over it to block it from the closet light.

                        It's not optimal, but the temperature stayed pretty darned steady -- and our "omigawd dump it" ratio was no higher with the older wines we'd had stashed than with stuff we bought new (that had never even seen the rack in the closet).

                        Sadly, we gave away nearly 100 bottles when we moved to France, because France wanted us to cough up another 19% VAT to bring it back to France (even though we'd already paid it when we bought it in France to begin with)....so friends and family weren't quite as sad to see us go as they might have been! We also had some great parties and opened a lot of lovely wines.

                        So there''s hope -- you wouldn't want to do this with a first-grown Bordeaux, nor with something you wanted to keep for 25 years, but we regularly drank wines that we'd kept this way for 3-5 years with no issues.

                        1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                          IRFL, just as a useful factoid............... there are 4800 or so wineries in California and (as best I can tell) another 500 or so in Washington and Oregon combined. That compares with 27,000 wineries in France ALONE. I'm assuming you mean that, with the exception of CA's Central Coast, there are only a small number of varieties grown, so getting comfortable with profiles is difficult?

                          I've always been a bit annoyed at the way French wines are not labeled with varietal information (for the mostpart), but I'm now thinking that's a pretty smart way to deal with such a huge number of wineries. I may just have to re-assess my bias on that subject.

                          1. re: Midlife

                            and I'm on the other side of that coin, Midlife -- I prefer the location-based labeling, because with the way that the AOC system works, I have a pretty good idea what "Côtes du Rhone" or "Cahors" or "Touraine" will taste like -- some are better than others, of course, but I have at least a rough idea.

                            When the labeling is *only* by varietal/cepage, there's no reference at all as to the climate those grapes were grown in, nor the type of soil in which they were grown, nor how the wine was made (fermentation, oaked or stored in stainless, etc.,etc., etc.) -- all of which can enormously impact the flavor of the wine.

                            1. re: sunshine842

                              Sunshine,

                              I seldom disagree with Midlife, but am in your corner here.

                              This has become more obvious, at least to me, over the last few decades, where many wines are produced with no ties to their place of origin - heck, many exhibit no tie to the varietal, though I have less of a rub with varietal characteristics, than a lack of place of origin.

                              It DOES take more tasting (not a bad thing), and a bit of study, but, to me at least, it has been worth the extra effort.

                              Hunt

                        2. Wow I am SO amazed by all these really encouraging replies. I am actually going to print this page to read at home tonight and see what conclusions I can draw from all these different perspectives. What is clear from skimming is that it does seem there is some hope, and to that I say,

                          Santé!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mp413

                            then I'll pass on to you the same advice I'd give to anyone interested in wine --

                            Find a good wine retailer near you -- small and independent if at all possible, but Total Wine, ABC, or similar will fill in if there's nothing else available.

                            Go into the store and talk to them -- ask them to help you find a bottle of wine. They'll ask you a few questions about what you like and don't like. (Important: If they don't ask these questions and instead lead you over to the big display of the Special of the Month -- thank them and leave - this is not the kind of wine shop you want or need.)

                            Buy something they recommend, take it home, and try it -- if you like it, awesome -- go back. If you don't like it -- well, try the next place on your list.

                            When you get to a good prospect, get on their mailing list -- if they're worth their salt, they'll have some tasting classes every once in a while. Sign up for a few. (Usually these are pretty reasonably priced.)

                            The more you learn, the more confident you'll be, and the more comfortable you'll be at choosing and drinking wines.

                            And enjoy -- wine is a wonderful alchemy of nature and science, and I like to believe just a little bit of magic...

                          2. I'd like to put in a word for the easy, inexpensive classes at local community colleges. They provide a broad overview, have various regions explained to you, explain how to taste, and the wines are included as part of the class. I think these are a great first step. Find out who the best teacher is in your area, and sign up.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: maria lorraine

                              No argument with that -- and they just might be able to direct you towards a good wine shop, too.

                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                Maria,

                                I would be careful of the community college route and finding the best educator in your town is not always easy. Many so called "experts" in Minneapolis are fine with teaching wine to a group with glassware that won't break if you throw it at a wall. They pour terrible wine which you can't learn from that unless you are trying to learn what bad wine is. I would avoid the "snob free" educator as I have never seen one that pours good wine from a particular region/ price point.

                                Since so few people understand wine and don't have the time/money to get into it I would really look for someone who takes it serious as you will become better at wine in far less time.

                                1. re: wineglas1

                                  One has also to be realistic about budget. I don't think you can learn by just drinking good wine, or just following someone's lead. You have to be willing to follow your own nose down a trail that may be a dead end, to get a feel for your own palate. You will buy bad wine on occasion. You will buy well recommended bottles that you may not care for. Your tastes will change. And at $20-50(my current limit) wine can be a pricey lesson. Remember to stay in your price comfort level.

                                  1. re: wineglas1

                                    I maintain the community college classes are a great place to start, and provide a wonderful overview. Then, one can begin organizing tastings by varietal, by region or sub-region. It's all a question of exposure. I did advise one find out who the best teachers are, and would
                                    add here that wine stores are a great place to ask.

                                    This is a great thread talking about forming a wine-tasting group, which includes strategies
                                    on how to organize your own taste education:
                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/498351

                                2. I'm kind of like you. I have an intellectual understanding of wine, the different varietals and other factors. But I'll be damned if I can discern what region a wine came from by tasting it, except in very obvious cases. And I belong to a group of wine afficionados who are absolutely brilliant, with an uncanny ability to identify a wine, and explain step-by-step how they are doing it. I'm convinced that there is a talent, or put another way, some people have a deficit in their ability to make subtle taste distinctions. But I still enjoy myself, and my friends still like me, so who cares?

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: MarkC

                                    The ability to identify a wine by region, grower, or even vintner is a very rare talent -- and isn't a requirement **at all ** to enjoy wine.

                                    Most of us are happy to just know enough to appreciate a good bottle....even the pros on this board concentrate on the color and clarity, nose, flavors, etc far more than being able to pick out what it is and who produced it.

                                    Now...as you learn, and become more attuned to the types that *you* like, you'll be able to have a sip and say "oh, this tastes like a ----- ", but don't worry, there isn't ever a test.

                                  2. "- 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.)."

                                    Sounds good. As you taste more often, your palate will learn to detect more flavors and styles of making wine.

                                    Whereas once you may have perceived the flavor of anise in a wine, you will learn to differentiate anise from fennel and licorice, two others in the same flavor family. Fennel is more delicate, and licorice is more powerful.

                                    This is first perception and then differentiation. Is this a lighter or stronger member of the same flavor family? Raspberry or raspberry preserves? Red bell pepper or pimento (brined bell pepper)? Is it creamy or buttery? Butterscotch or brown sugar? Blueberry or Blackberry? And then you learn the vocabulary of articulation -- how to describe what you taste.

                                    As you continue tasting, your palate learns to detect smaller and smaller subtleties. It helps to taste with others whose palates are better than yours, and who can help you identify and articulate what you personally perceive.

                                    When you taste a a group of wines of a single varietal (Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc.), you will discover a basic flavor "spine" that each varietal usually has, and then individual subtleties and variations in style from bottle to bottle.

                                    You'll learn to differentiate a Chard with lots of malolactic and oak from one made in stainless steel tanks with no ML. You'll see the difference between a Burgundy, an Oregon Pinot Noir, a New Zealand Pinot Noir and a Pinot as dark and thick as Syrah. You'll taste the difference between Aussiz Shiraz, Northern Rhone Syrah, and California Syrah -- all Syrahs but all very different.. You'll notice how the fruit changes from region to region and how the wine's flavor changes when the fruit is riper. You'll learn to respect what acid does for wine.

                                    By the way, it helps if you smell everything: every basket of berries, all fruits, all your spices and condiments, herbs, vegetables, flowers, everything. That will help build your flavor memory in your brain.

                                    So, is this talent innate or learned? Here are two different examples:

                                    Expertise in any occupation or hobby includes a perception of subtleties.
                                    A dermatologist can differentiate between 50 rashes that all look similar to the untrained eye. This was not an innate gift or talent-- it had to be learned, and then became a talent.

                                    A concert violinist can perceive a true A (the note to which the entire orchestra tunes) and an A that is even slightly off 440 vibrations. That talent is probably both innate and learned, but no doubt the violinist with the innate musical gift became more perceptive as he became better trained.

                                    Like the violinist, the best wine tasters have both innate talent and trained talent. They have an inherent physiological advantage in tasting and perception (much of this is genetically programmed), but then go on to study regions and varietals and flavors and, over time, build a flavor library in their brain that they reference whenever they taste a new wine.

                                    But the wine taster without an innate physiological advantage can become an extremely fine taster and analyst of wine, and also build a remarkable flavor library in their brain. Time, interest, passion, exposure, taking notes, and studying will all help you get there.

                                    Hope this helps. You have a promising start.

                                    1. At first glance nobody seems to have pointed out something which I consider very important and which determines what it is, tastes like etc.: how wine is made, varietals characteristics, etc.

                                      As a retired sommelier and winemaker (but still active drinker and taster) I would recommend that one interests himself first with the "technical" part instead of concentrating on tracing farfetched aromas and flavors.

                                      The rest will come.

                                      23 Replies
                                      1. re: pietro

                                        Sorry, I figure the enjoyment of the flavors and aromas comes first - long before you even know about nose and bouquet and legs or what those flavors and aromas might be called -- you don't have to know it's "red fruit" to enjoy that flavor.

                                        Saying one must learn the technical whys before just enjoying wine is like saying you have to have built a piano, studied the history of the instrument, and memorized the music to at least three concertos to enjoy listening to piano music.

                                        You have to be interested first...which means you've probably heard the music and thoroughly enjoyed it enough to want to research it further.

                                        1. re: pietro

                                          Pietro, I've found your post perplexing.

                                          Perhaps I'm not understanding, or perhaps you have not expressed yourself clearly.

                                          Technical knowledge of wine is not required to perceive flavor. Flavor perception is innate and comes long before any cognitive knowledge; we are hard-wired that way. Then, when wine-tasting, we refer to our existing body of knowledge of food flavors to help us perceive wine flavors.

                                          Perhaps you should clarify what "technical" information you mean. Fermentations, chemistry, that sort of thing?

                                          I don't get it. Certainly one doesn't need to know about malolactic fermentation to be able to perceive butteriness. Or battonage, to perceive creaminess.

                                          Learning "varietal characteristics" is important, as you say, but that's been said many times on this board -- most recently in the post **right above yours** that says no one has mentioned it!

                                          "When you taste a a group of wines of a single varietal (Cabernet, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc.), you will discover a basic flavor "spine" that each varietal usually has, and then individual subtleties and variations in style from bottle to bottle. "

                                          "Tracing farfetched flavors"? What are you calling far-fetched flavors? And why?

                                          I ask because I find it extremely odd and atypical of a winemaker or sommelier to use a word loaded with disdain -- "farfetched" -- to ever describe any aroma or flavor in wine. Most winemakers value every single flavor and aroma for the information each reveals about how the wine was grown and made.

                                          "Far-fetched" usually means difficult to believe. Are far-fetched flavors those you've heard described, but haven't personally perceived so you think they cannot exist or be perceived by anyone?

                                          Or, by "far-fetched" do you mean flavors that are difficult to perceive or not often encountered?
                                          If so, yes, I agree with you -- it IS best to learn the basic flavors of wine first (fruit flavors, herb flavors, vanilla, spices, chocolate, cedar, pipe tobacco, etc.) before learning flavors and aromas that are more difficult to perceive or uncommon (volatile acidity, different strains of brett, TCA vs. TBA, lightstrike and mousecage).

                                          Flavor and aroma perceptions reveal the wine's chemical and technical nature. For example, each of those last five aroma/flavors above offers critical info about the wine's history and storage. The sensory reveals the scientific -- you just have to learn what each flavor means.

                                          1. re: pietro

                                            Please say again.

                                            While knowing the "behind the scenes" aspects of the world of wine is great for either a wine maker, or a sommelier, it is NOT something that a casual drinker needs to bother with, until they have passed from consumer to professional.

                                            My wife understands flavors, aromas and a lot about pairings with many foods, but she is almost lost in discussions on malolactic fermentation, clones, cooperage or many other aspects of wine making. Is that a bad thing? No. She knows what she likes, has a broad palate of flavors and textures to pair with, and for the rest, she has me. If I am not there, she calls me from ____ and gives me the wine list, and the menu, and I work for that. She has zero clue when wine maker X might pick, based on Brix, or some other aspect of the grape. While she's met many dozen, she does not absorb the technical aspects, as I do. it is just not her thing. However, she can navigate most wine lists, and pick good to great wines, to pair with the food, that the table is having. Her lack of technical knowledge, in no way, diminishes her enjoyment and joy with regards to wine.

                                            Sorry, but I disagree, and almost completely.

                                            Hunt

                                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                                              Isnt the entire point of this thread, though, about someone who wants to learn about wine?

                                              Also, as a solid 15 year veteran of this profession, I would describe aromas as "Far fetched" as well. One persons "cara-cara marmalade" is another's "Buddha Hand zest" Aromas are subjective to interpretation. What isn't is oak treatment, pH, whole cluster, etc.

                                              1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                but you can drink and enjoy wine without knowing a lick about how it's made.

                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                  Clearly. Again, the OP was asking about the possibilities of learning wine as a novice. IMO it is easier to understand whats going on in the glass, if you understand what's actually in it.

                                                  Why does this wine taste jammy? (hot climate)
                                                  Why does this wine taste like coconut? (American Oak)
                                                  etc.

                                                  You can enjoy a buffalo in a wine glass, but shouldn't you be asking "Why IS there a buffalo in my wine glass?"

                                                  1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                    Not if you're not interested -- there are folks who just drink it and say "Yum. Buffalo in a glass. I like it!" and go and buy more.

                                                    I have a friend whose entire wine-descriptor vocabulary consists of "wow- that's strong" -- but she always pours really good wine.

                                                    She recognizes good wine, but has no idea why it's good.

                                                      1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                        Which is great -- but my point stands that you only *have* to understand that you like what's in your glass.

                                                        If you're interested, you can learn as much as you care to learn -- or until the interest runs out, whichever happens first.

                                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                                          This is what is so funny to me- This is a site where people come to deconstruct with OCD-like fervor every aspect of food, and food related sundries. To say "Eh, I like it, that's all" seems completely counter intuitive to a CHer.

                                                          The point Im trying to make is, yes, you can like whatever on earth (Buffalo or otherwise) that you've poured into your glass. How does that help you pick your next bottle, when the wine shop is out, and the normal salesperson who knows your palate is on vacation?

                                                          If you want to learn wine, learn the "so what?" behind it. Random aromatic descriptors fade in the memory much faster than the context the wine was made in.

                                                          Let's say you pick a glass of Sancerre, and you like it. That Sancerre was also some new-oaked fully ML'd Sauv Blanc. An exception to Sancerre (and a gross one at that). So when you go to pick up another Sancerre, and it's not what you were expecting, you're no better off. Being aware of whats typical to a style is one of the easiest ways to learn what you like.

                                                          If all you want to do is glug some vino on a patio, by all means, no one is going to stop or judge you. I have a feeling that's not what the OP was asking about. THAT'S what I'm trying to respond to. Not some silly proclamation about a wines completely subjective "strength."

                                                          1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                            but that's my point -- my friend doesn't understand squat about wine, freely admits it, and has no interest in rectifying the situation -- but she knows what she likes -- and whether by magic or some source of knowledge that I do not understand -- she always pours great wine. (and yes, I've been wine shopping with her, and I still don't understand how she does it) I've taken several classes, and have had the great good fortune to visit dozens and dozens of winemakers...and she looks at me like I've grown horns the minute I start to get into tannins and nose and legs. But it's okay -- I like the wine she buys, and she likes the wine I buy -- and we're both cool with the fact that we can't make heads or tails of how the other one buys wine.

                                                            It's just as Chow-ish to say you like it because you like it -- and that's okay, too. (see any of the "guilty confessions" threads for proof that there's a lot of us out there who like what we like -- because we like it. That's all.)

                                                            So if you're interested in wine? Sure - take a class - go to some tastings -- feed the hunger to know until that hunger is satiated.

                                                            But it's totally okay to just say that you like the buffalo that showed up in your glass the other night.

                                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                                              "My friend picks super awesome bottles all the time, no idea why!" doesn't help someone else pick something they are going to like, unless Im missing something.

                                                              1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                                Yes - you're missing that we all end up at a comfort level where we're happy with the wines we choose. And that's a good thing.

                                                                Her method of buying wine doesn't help me -- you're absolutely right. I have my own method that works -- that doesn't help her.

                                                                But yet she buys good wine, and I buy good wine. Everybody's happy.

                                                                What I like and what she likes isn't going to help you find something YOU like, because you have your own palate and your own tastebuds. YOU have to get to the point where YOU buy wine that YOU like.

                                                    1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                      So, if I read you correctly, you are saying that one cannot appreciate wine, unless they have a full analysis of the liquid in the bottle, and a complete set of wine makers' notes?

                                                      As for the "buffalo," so long as one recognizes it as a buffalo (Cape, American Bison, etc.), I do not think that they need a degree in the biology of Syncerus caffer caffer, to know that they will probably not like what is in the glass.

                                                      I attend and host a lot of tastings, and wine events. Some for the trade, some for the general public and some for the International Wine & Food Society. Many have the wine maker(s) as guests, and I enjoy hearing their "chalk talks," but the vast majority of the attendees, even in those trade-tastings, do not, and only care if they enjoy the wine, or aspects of it.

                                                      Hunt

                                                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                        You either totally misinterpreted me, or are being snarky, I'm not sure which. Im gathering from your jab in your later post about my chosen career, the latter.

                                                        Appreciation can be garnered through anything, it's what keeps me, as a professional in this industry, passionate about what I do. What I am trying to say, is that when you know the WHY behind things, there is no harm that can come. Certainly not when faced with a wall of unfamiliar wines in a shop.

                                                        I truly hope that each bottle someone purchases is one they enjoy. in my professional, and humble opinion, through my years, and yes 15 (sans quotes, please), this is what I have seen work. I have trained dozens in not hundreds of individuals on wine appreciation. By all means, revel in the joys of discovery, particularly in aromas. Wax poetic all you like, and go far fetched with them. Lord knows I do that myself sometimes- far fetched isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm just saying that subjective aromatic compounds are not as reliable as the often established traditions of viticulture a region might have.

                                                        I have no desire to argue this any further, because it only diminishes what I, and all of you care for. Please, enjoy every bottle you drink, and I will continue to pour, and pair in the manner that works for me.

                                                        1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                          I doubt that Bill will reply, so let me say that he is probably the least likely person I've read here who would be "snarky" about anything.

                                                          My experience (10 years in the trade; 40 years reading, taking classes, and tasting) is that people almost always first associate what they're drinking with aromas and flavors they can relate to. While it is absolutely useful to and important to understand how these elements develop, that takes education to a higher level. I find that MOST people are happy to be able to get comfortable with aromas and flavors in wine and do that BEFORE they move on to deeper levels. Just my 2¢.

                                                          1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                            I think that you have either missed my points (and those of several others too), or have chosen to look beyond them. I am not sure of the motivation, but I have tried to speak my mind about this thread, and the replies.

                                                            The OP wants to understand more about tasting wines, and, it appears, pairing wines with food. I do not believe that they will learn, what they seek, with chemical readouts. I also do not believe that they need a degree from UC Davis, or similar, in wine making, or vitaculture. Those studies should not harm the OP, but I doubt that they are necessary. That is my point.

                                                            Things that might be useful would be to read Andrea Immer's (now Robinson's) "Great Wines Made Simple," and doing the "homework." The same for "Windows on the World Wine Course." Those will expose them to a ton of useful concepts, and help them to explore the world of wines.

                                                            Much of what you have stated as totally necessary, at least how I read it, is useful, when one wishes to become a wine maker, but until then, I do not think that they, the OP, will be served in their goal.

                                                            As for my enjoyment, that is always what I shoot for. I also believe that is what the OP is shooting for.

                                                            Sorry that we disagree, but I happen to see things very differently, than you do.

                                                            Hunt

                                                    2. re: plaidbowtie

                                                      plaidbowtie,

                                                      Reading your posts here, I think we are talking about two ways to learn about wine.

                                                      The first is simply finding a wine you like, and then tasting more of that same type.
                                                      It could be Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chianti Classico Riservas, Zinfandels, Champagne
                                                      or any wine type. I think it's easiest to learn about wine by type.

                                                      This is absolute sheer pleasure and enjoyment. No analysis necessary.

                                                      Then you can discover some specifics about what you like. It goes something like this. Our OP, mp413, drinks a German Riesling, likes it very much, and wants to drink more. She organizes a tasting with friends, and tastes a lot of German Rieslings at one time. By doing so, she discovers that Riesling comes in varying levels of sweetness, and that she prefers the Spatlese sweetness level. She perceives some obvious gasoline-like smell/taste in some of the Rieslings, doesn't like it, and learns that thing she doesn't like is called fusel.

                                                      Then our OP has a greater understanding of what she likes (German Riesling, Spatlese, no fusel). She is now armed with specific information she can use to purchase a German Riesling she's never had before with some confidence that it will be something she likes.

                                                      I think this is what you were getting at in your post above.

                                                      For our OP, then, it's on to the next wine type, and learning what qualities she prefers in that wine type. This should be an absolutely fun process of enjoyment and learning.

                                                      The second type of wine learning talked about here is flavor and aroma identification. It requires your using your smelling and tasting abilities to perceive something in a wine, and then articulating it. There's a standard vocabulary of flavors and aromas that's used (see the Aroma Wheel to start) to help you describe what you perceive.

                                                      As you get going in this, a certain predictability emerges: you discover a basic group of flavors and aromas almost always shows up when you taste a particular type of wine. Chardonnay has its basic group of flavors and aromas, as does Cabernet, as does Pinot, as does Sauvignon Blanc, and so on.

                                                      As you learn to identify specific flavors in wines, you develop more preferences. Once you can pick out black pepper in Zinfandel, you prefer Zinfandels that have it. You prefer Champagnes that are toasty, Viogniers with tropical fruit, Cabernets whose oak is resolved.

                                                      You learn differentiation between flavors-- between lemon and lemon zest, between cherry and cherry jam, for example.

                                                      I agree with you that the perception of aromas and flavors is subjective. Some people have a really good sense of smell -- they're usually far better at flavor and aroma identification than those without a good sense of smell. People who cook are usually better at detecting flavor and aroma subtleties than people who don't. Each of us, as well, has our own memory of smells and flavors that we call upon, and individual body chemistry and physiology that influences perception.

                                                      Not everybody is good at this flavor and aroma identification game. It does take concentration, and wanting to be good at it. It can seem impossible at first, which is why it helps to start with wines whose flavors and aromas are rather obvious. What I find best is to taste with others who are good at articulating flavors and aromas -- they can guide you towards perceiving a flavor, and make you better at it.

                                                      I agree some flavor descriptors sound silly. When I read the ones you wrote -- "cara-cara marmalade" and "Buddha Hand zest," I wonder why the simple terms orange marmalade (cara-cara is an orange) and lemon zest (Buddha's hand is type of lemon) weren't used instead. Orange marmalade and lemon zest are legitimate aromas/flavors that show up rather often in wine. They're not far-fetched at all.

                                                      Or are they to you? Your post above says you "describe aromas as 'Far fetched' as well."
                                                      From that, I take it you don't perceive aromas? All aromas? Is this part of wine-tasting lost to you?

                                                      If that's the case, I understand that hearing someone describe the aromas in a wine may sound absurd to you. You may think that person is nuts, that that aroma can't possibly be in the wine, that he/she can't possibly be smelling that. I assure you that a skilled taster (we're not talking weirdos or phonies) is tasting and smelling everything they say they do.

                                                      But being good at flavor and aroma identification isn't necessary to enjoy wine or to be passionate or informed about wine. Flavor and aroma ID is very fun for me, and does impart huge amounts of information about how the wine was grown, made and stored, but it's not required to enjoy wine. And once I'm done analyzing the wine, I'm back to tasting and enjoying like everyone else.

                                                      1. re: maria lorraine

                                                        <<I assure you that a skilled taster (we're not talking weirdos or phonies) is tasting and smelling everything they say they do.>>

                                                        I encounter this quite often. I am blessed with a good memory of aromas (though other parts of my memory have become greatly suspect), and work very hard, to differentiate the various aromas. Others at my table seldom find all that I do, but a few do. Sometimes, telling a white peach from a nectarine might be a subtle difference. For me, I try be as specific, as is possible, and often rely on specific dishes, or encounters to "fill in the blanks." Now, in communal situations, there CAN be the power of suggestion, when taster A finds X, and next thing you know, so do tasters B, C and D, though taster E never finds those aromas. OTOH, I have had many discussions, where someone will say "peach," and then others will concentrate on that, "filling in the blanks," until the consensus is finally, "hot, free-stone Paonia peach cobbler, with a hint of cinnamon." Yeah, that was it!

                                                        I have never encountered a great wine, when I had a bad head cold.

                                                        Hunt

                                                        1. re: maria lorraine

                                                          Maria.

                                                          I can't agree with you more, honestly. All of these are fantastic ways to appreciate wine, and to disregard one is to miss out on part of the adventure. That's what Im saying.

                                                        2. re: plaidbowtie

                                                          Yes. I interpreted it to be about one, wanting to learn about wine, but I do not think that one's appreciation of the wines, themselves, are enhanced by knowing about the minutia of the wine maker's art, or their science.

                                                          Not sure how a "15 year veteran of this profession" could call aromas "far fetched," as aromas are the vast majority of what gets from a wine, other than liquid on their tongue, and a few stimuli on the tongue, lips and palate.

                                                          I think that what you mean, and especially from your descriptions, is that the terminology used to describe those aromas will be highly personal. To that, I agree completely. Is that what you meant?

                                                          I also question - how does one taste "whole cluster?"

                                                          Thank you for the clarification.

                                                          Hunt

                                                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                                                            Whole cluster fermentation is perceived through the presence of tannins not derived from the grape or the oak.

                                                            Personally, this is how I feel it: it can take on the same green note that underripe Cabernet Sauvignon takes on, but with a different, grittier mouthfeel. This is not a new question for me, some of my good friends in the industry look at me like Im crazy when I talk about tasting this. I feel justified, however, because almost every time I taste with a vendor/broker/wine maker, I pick it out before they say anything- it's as distinct as usage of oak, steel, or concrete to me.

                                                            1. re: plaidbowtie

                                                              Now, is it possible for a taster to appreciate a wine, if they do not know that it has "whole cluster fermentation?"

                                                              I am not saying that such aspects would not be useful to know, but should one need an advanced degree in cooperage, just to appreciate wine?

                                                              Sorry, but we just do not agree.

                                                              Hunt