5 Secret Tips to Understand Wine

Up close image of grapes on a vine.

It can be very overwhelming to understand wine. You walk into the local wine shop to buy wine for your dinner party. You want to impress your friends with a wine that pairs deliciously with the meal, but where do you start?

Most of the time if we’ve found 1 or 2 wines we know and love, we stick with those tried and true wines. It’s just not worth the risk of branching out for our dinner party that we’ve worked so hard to prepare. We promise ourselves to try something different on a low-key night in, but it doesn’t often play out that way.

It can be expensive and time consuming to truly understand wine, right?! And, again, where do you start? With thousands of grape varietals and even more wine producers no wonder the biggest issue the wine industry faces is that consumers are overwhelmed! It doesn’t help that the tasting notes are ridiculously confusing either.

So what to do?  The only thing we can do is simplify by focusing on a few grape varietals and putting a few foundational elements into place. This will help us pull back the curtain and reveal our own Wizard of ‘Wine’ Oz …er something like that.

Tip #1:  Focus on a Few Grape Varietals

Here at Common Grape, we focus on the 7 Noble Grape varietals. These are called Noble Grapes because they are the most produced grape varietals around the world while keeping their core characteristics. This means when you try a Pinot Noir from anywhere, regardless of how it’s produced, it will maintain its core taste profile. Some may be richer than others and some may be lighter, but its core essence (flavor, aroma, body, color) is consistently Pinot Noir.

Another reason to focus on these top 7 is that you can easily find wine made from these 7 in your wine shop or grocery store and on restaurant menus. And these 7 will cover you for any type of food pairing.

What are they? Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz.

Tip #2: Know the Best Regions

Knowing the top regions will help you select a good wine. Wine shops can be organized by country and region (France, Italy, California, etc) and/or by grape varietal (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, etc). So, when you know Willamette Valley, Oregon produces some of the best Pinot Noir, you can go straight to the Pinot Noir section and look for a wine from Willamette Valley, Oregon.

This also helps at restaurants. Say you want a Cabernet Sauvignon and you know the best Cabs come from California’s Napa Valley. Keep in mind that Napa Cabs come with a big price tag, but you know you won’t go wrong by selecting a Napa Cab. The dirty secret is you really don’t have to know the names of the wineries, because if the region is known for that style of wine, then just pick the wine based on the region and you’ll be set. Keep it simple!

Once you get to know wineries in the different regions, you will certainly have your favorites. But until then, make it easy on yourself.

Tip #3: Know Taste Profiles

The best way to become familiar with the taste profiles for different wines is to set up a tasting. This is the fun part! Try the whites side-by-side and then the reds side-by-side. This is the best way to familiarize your pallet with these wines.

I’ve set up a DIY Tasting for these 7 that highlights of each varietal. It’s a kind of CliffsNotes approach to becoming familiar with the wine produced from these varietals.

Tip #4:  Know Aroma, Body & Color

One of the best ways to understand wine is to taste it and become familiar with the aromatics, light to full body, and color variations. It will start to give you a better sense of what a typical Cab or Pinot tastes, looks and smells like.

I was at a high brow tasting event for Chicago Union League members. We participated in a tasting session where they asked us to identify which wine was a Sauvignon Blanc and which was a Chardonnay. These 2 wines are very distinct to me, but many in the room did not get it right. I was so surprised because I assumed the attendees had way more knowledge about wine than I did at the time. Simply understanding the key characteristics of each wine will point you right to which type you are drinking without ever seeing the bottle.

Tip #5:  Tips 1-4 Lay the Foundation for Wine Pairing

Once you simplify your focus to the 7 Noble Grapes and become familiar with the typical aromatics, body, color and taste profiles then pairing with food will make more sense.

I’ve included some general pairing guidelines in the DIY Tastings, and you can always experiment by preparing a variety of foods and testing it out for yourself.

Understand Wine by Simplifying

The majority of wine lovers are overwhelmed about wine. There are so many options, the tasting notes are confusing, and it can be expensive to take a gamble on a wine you don’t know. Simplifying to the 7 Noble Grapes, knowing the top growing regions, and familiarizing yourself with the typical taste profiles will make you more of an expert on wine than most of the other wine lovers out there. So, have fun learning and tasting! Cheers!



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