Best Ways to Understand Wine

How learning more can be a delicious pursuit.

When I first began studying wine, I was perplexed. Wine was daunting, and it seemed like it always would be. I persisted anyway. In time, wine did become easier for me to understand. At the same time, my enjoyment of the subject skyrocketed. Here are ways to put them to use. Develop a process for yourself, and with a little time, your wine knowledge will increase.

Pay Attention
Nothing is more important in your pursuit of wine knowledge than tasting. But tasting alone isn't enough. First, you should try a variety of wines. If you only drink what you already know you like, you limit your knowledge and pleasure. Second, pay attention to the wine's flavor, aroma, and personality when you taste, then try to describe the wine to yourself. Does the aroma remind you of peaches? Lemons? Licorice? Is the wine light or full in body? Is the texture soft or sharp? If it's a red wine, does it have a lot of tannin? Describing wines will help you build a reservoir of wine knowledge and remember those you liked.

Create Tastings To Learn By
To grasp the differences among wines- their characters and styles-it's important to taste at least a couple at the same time so you can compare them. To initiate such tastings early on, I gave myself a modest wine-learning budget. Twice a month I would buy three wines and taste them side by side before dinner. I'd compare Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. I'd select Syrahs from different places (see box below for inspiration), and so on.

Gather a Group
While you can conduct tastings by yourself, you learn more-and have more fun-when you have a wine partner. A partner will detect different flavors in a wine and may like wines that you don't. So a partner can help expand your thinking. A group works well, too. In fact, as education goes, group wine tastings are a blast, and the cost of learning is shared if everyone contributes.

Do Your Homework
You'll know if your tastings are progressing because you'll be filled with questions. And, for such questions, you need either a good teacher, a good book, or both. Numerous colleges and cooking schools have wine courses. For the best one in your area, call a top wineshop and ask for a recommendation.

As for books, buy one good, all-purpose book that covers wines of the world. Two I recommend: (shameless commerce, aside) my own The Wine Bible, or The Wine Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst. Leave it out on the kitchen counter, and read a few paragraphs when you do your tastings.

Cooking Light wine expert Karen MacNeil is chair of the wine programs at the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley. Prices may vary.

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