Napa Valley is looking great right now.

Napa Valley is looking great right now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Go beyond "It Tastes Good" - Learn the Grape

I’ve been browsing and buying wine books for years, and no matter the publication date, in each book’s Preface the author invariably comments on the 1) the current revolution in wines and winemaking, 2) the increasing number of choices available, 3) and the ongoing need for the wine consumer to be making informed buying decisions.

Of course, it’s that proliferation of information that makes the topic so challenging. Much is available to assist us—certainly much more than in previous years. Winery and in-store tasting rooms, Internet web sites, specialized wine publications, books and newspaper articles and knowledgeable wine clerks are all available to assist. However, wine is one of those products that, for the most part, the consumer has to self educate. To be sure, one must make the time and effort to learn.

Since wines are produced in a wide variety of styles, doesn’t it make sense for you to become knowledgeable, confident and conversant, about the details of your preferences? For example, which body style do you prefer—light, medium or full? Do you favor a high or low acid white? And how about dryness (sweetness) level? Do you like your reds “fruit forward” or something more elegant and understated? And what level tannins tests your threshold?

If those questions make little or no sense to you, or worse yet, you could care less about them, then I’m guessing that anything in the stemware is appropriate for you as long as it doesn’t offend. “It tastes good,” or “I like it” will typify how deep you are “into wine.” If, on the other hand, you would like to know WHY you like or dislike a particular wine, then it’s time to learn the grape.

What the above points to, is the singular importance of grape variety. It is the single most important component in determining the way a wine looks, smells and tastes. Other major factors are the wine’s country of origin, the specific microclimate and location of the vineyard, as well as the producer’s winemaking practices. But once you get a handle on what the grape is all about—its appearance, its aroma, and its flavor—then you’re on your way to informed wine buying and a greater level of wine appreciation.

Take the popular Chardonnay grape for example. It has its own inherent look, smell and taste, but it will always display a personality peculiar to, and one that varies with, the determinants mentioned above (country, vineyard, climate, and winemaker). That’s why a California Chardonnay tastes the way it does. Ditto France’s Macon-Villages. Ditto the Australian version. The same goes for any other red or white grape variety.

Attentive, side-by-side of similar or dissimilar wines will bring their similarities and differences into clear view. When you learn the grape, it takes you beyond the “I like it,” or “It tastes good” stage into the next level of wine appreciation.

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