Wine can be so intimidating. There are so many choices it is hard to know where to start. In my younger days, we drank whatever was cheapest and came in the largest bottle. That resulted in many a headache and plenty of regrets.
Fast forward to adulthood, I no longer base my wine selection on a volume to cost ratio. I do consider prices, but now I’m looking for quality and at a good price. This transition of values did not happen overnight. It took several years of trial and error to learn my likes and dislikes. I am not a wine expert but I no longer fear the wine list.
Perhaps you are a little earlier along in your wine appreciation journey. You want to get into wine, but you don’t know where to start.
Here are some tips to help!
Buying Wine for Absolute Beginners:
The first step towards wine literacy is admitting you know nothing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a beginner. The struggle comes when you try to pretend you are an expert. Don’t do that. It will make you feel silly. Even after several years of enjoying/buying wine, I’m still an advanced beginner. I’m always open to hear suggestions from more experienced wine lovers. Curiosity and open-mindedness are virtues when you are learning about wine.
Where to by wine:
A super busy liquor mega mart is not the best place to buy wine when you are just starting out. They may have some decent bottles, but it could be hard to find a sales associate with the time or knowledge to help. Try to find a local wine store, something small with a passionate and well-trained staff. Find a friendly face and let them know you are new to wine. Put your ego on time out. If the wine store is good, the staff member will ask you some questions. They may ask you if you are going to pair it with a meal. They may ask you if you want something sweet. They may ask you your budget. Answer honestly so they can guide you in the right direction.
How much to spend:
You don’t have to spend a fortune to get great wine. There are excellent bottles of wine available for under $20 in most stores. It may take some time to weed through the heavily marketed, poor quality wines to find the real gems; but I promise you they exist. This is when a wine store staff member can help you. Set that budget and let them show you what is available.
How to read the label:
Wine labels can be confusing as fuck, pardon my French. You need a whole vocabulary lesson just to make sense of it all. WineFolly has a great primer tutorial here. One word of warning. Don’t get swayed by the cute labels. Some companies put more thought in to wine marketing than wine making. The whole don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover thing really applies here.
Common Wine Varietals:
Wine grapes come in many shapes and sizes. Each variety of grape has unique characteristics that are further enhanced by geography (terroir). It is easy to be paralyzed by choice. Here is a list of wine grapes you are likely to find in most wine shops and a description of their very basic characteristics*. There are many others, but this should get you started…
- Cabernet Sauvignon – blackcurrant, cedar, high tannins
- Pinot Noir – cherry, raspberry, violets, game-y
- Shiraz/Syrah – peppery with notes of dark chocolate
- Merlot – plums, soft and easy to drink
- Malbec – spicy and rich when grown in Argentina
- Zinfandel – sweet berries, high alcohol content
- Riesling – aromatic, often sweet with honey notes
- Sauvignon Blanc – refreshing and green tasting
- Chardonnay – versatile, sometimes sweet and sometimes buttery
- Gerwürztraminer – floral notes, sweet and heady
- Moscato – made from muscat blanc grapes, this wine is currently very popular due to its sweet nature
- Pinot Gris/Grigio – smoky, full and pungent
*These wine characteristic notes are paraphrased from the World Atlas of Wine, it is a great book if you want to go deeper.
Try a wide variety of wines:
When I first started drinking wine, I defaulted to Merlot. It was the “basic bitch” of the wine world. The movie Sideways famously poked fun at Merlot drinkers. It was considered gauche. I was buying cheap, sweet versions of Merlot that suited my baby palate. It was the wine that suited my needs at the time. Don’t judge me. The truth is, there are many respectable Merlots on the market. It just took me awhile to branch out. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
The best way to get into wine is to drink it. That sounds obvious, but it really is the only way to learn what you like as opposed to what other people say you should like. You may have to kiss some frogs along the way, but ultimately you will zero in on what you love.
The cost of sampling a wide variety of wine can be prohibitive. If you want to try a bunch of wines on a budget, you have some options…
- Start a wine tasting club and share the cost with some other newbie wine friends
- Attend wine tasting events at local liquor stores
- Attend wine festivals
- Find a local wine bar that serves flights (tasting sized glasses of wines)
- Subscribe to a wine club/delivery service
After tasting all this wine, you may come to the conclusion that you don’t like wine. That is okay. You can move on to beer or cocktails or Smirnoff Ice. No judgement.
Pairing Wine for Beginners:
Wine pairing is an art form. When you get the balance right, the meal becomes transcendent. Here are some general guidelines to successful pairings…
- Pair wine and food from the same region (Spanish wine + Spanish food)
- Sweet wine pairs well with spicy cuisines (Gerwürztraminer + Indian food)
- Acidic foods love acidic wines (Sauvignon Blanc + salad with vinaigrette)
- Fatty foods love tannic wines (Cabernet Sauvignon + steak)
- Go sweeter to match desserts (Port + flourless chocolate cake)
At the end of the day, you should pick the wines you love…pairings be damned.
Educate Yourself about Wine:
If you decide you want continue down the wine drinking path, there are several excellent education resources for beginners no matter your learning style or commitment level. You can read books, lurk around the online forums, enroll in a class or download a popular tasting app.
Here are some great wine education resources…
- Wine Folly – A very approachable, fun site for the novice wine drinker.
- /r/wine – Reddit is a huge online community with a variety of forums (some are G rated, some are very NSFW). The wine forum is full of member tasting notes, amateur questions and resource links.
- Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course – This series of videos is hosted by the delightful Jancis Robinson, she is a wine icon. Watch these videos to learn some great history and check out her sweet wardrobe of 90’s Issey Miyake.
- Various Podcasts – I’ll Drink to That, Wine for Sophisticated Homies, Wine for Normal People, 3 Wine Guys,
- Vivino App – This app is fun, you can take photos of your wine bottle and record your own tasting notes. You can also read what other people have to say about a wide variety of wines.
- The World Atlas of Wine – Speaking of Jancis Robinson, this is the highly regarded book she wrote with another wine expert named Hugh Johnson. If you are interested in learning about the wine growing regions of the world, this book has you covered. Whenever I try a new regional wine, I pull out this book to read about it.
- Wine: A Tasting Course – If you are a visual learner, this course-in-a-book is a great place to start.
- The Billionaire’s Vinegar – This is a narrative non-fiction book about the world of wine forgery. It is fascinating and you will learn a lot about the high-stakes world of wine collecting.
- Somm – Watch 4 sommeliers as they study for the shockingly difficult Master Sommelier exam.
- Red Obsession – Wine fever is taking over China, this documentary explores the demand for prestigious wine in this growing market.
- A Year in Burgundy – This documentary covers many facets of the wine making process, from the vineyard to the bottle.
- WSET – The Wine & Spirit Education Trust offers a wide selection of internationally recognized educational courses. The early levels are suitable for recreational students. The senior levels are geared towards wine professionals. Search for WSET classes in your home town.
- Masters of Wine – Do you want to reach the highest level of wine qualification? The Masters of Wine program is for you. You won’t have a life while you prepare for the exams, but you will drink a lot of wine.
Get Yourself Some Toys:
As you go deeper down the rabbit hole, you are going to start eyeballing all the wine gadgets at the fancy kitchen shop. You don’t need any special glassware, corkscrews or decanters…but they sure do class up the whole affair. I have a personal wishlist that includes cheap and cheerful items as well as super-luxury items. Dare to dream!
- Wine Stoppers – These colourful wine stoppers will help preserve your wine leftovers.
- Riedel Wine Glasses – Invest in a selection of quality wine glasses. This Riedel collection features red, white and champagne glasses.
- Wine Aerator and Decanter – I have this thing and it always delights my guests. It is a bit like watching a lava lamp. Fun times!
- Bamboo Wine Rack – You might want to keep a few bottles on hand for sharing with guests, that is when a wine rack comes in handy!
- Wine Fridge – This is for the serious wine enthusiast. A wine fridge is an investment for those who are buying higher-end wines.
Experience the World of Wine:
Wine and travel go hand-in-hand. What better way to experience a new city than with a great local meal and a glass of local wine? I’m currently daydreaming about winery tour of Spain. Here are some wine travel ideas from around the world.
- Châteaux, Rivers and Wine – An 8-day river cruise that visits several fancy, French wine regions.
- Okanagan Wine Tours – Let someone else do the driving while you explore British Columbia’s beautiful wine country.
- Spanish Art, Wine and Design Tour – For those who want a little culture with their wine.
- California Wine and Yoga Weekend – Does it get more California than wine and yoga?
- Wine Courses in Tuscany – Further your wine education…in Italy!
Now, march down to the local wine shop and don’t come back until you’ve got something new to try!