Here’s a little wine industry secret: Wine sellers and marketers would like for you to think in terms of Caymus vs. Berringer or Rosenblum vs. Rancho Zabaco. I’m convinced most wine sellers would rather keep you in the dark about why wines taste like they do, and have you focus on brand names.
I want you to think in terms of grapes. Getting to know the varieties of grapes that go into making wines and discovering the ones you like best is a much more fruitful way of learning about wine. That presents a good news/bad news scenario: The bad news is that there are more than 10,000 documented grape varieties. The good news is that only about 230 are commercially significant in terms of wine making and about 95 percent (by my unscientific estimate) of wines sold in this country are based on just a handful of those grape varieties. So of those 10,000 or so grape types, practically speaking you really only need to be concerned with about 10.
The most popular grape types, called varietals, are Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Those wines are named for the grapes they are made from. Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc are also grapes. Getting to know grapes means getting to know wine.
To begin to discover the wines that you like best, it helps to focus in on the handful of grape varieties that go into the most popular and accessible wines. For white wines that means Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio (same grape ,but the Italians call it Pinot Grigio). The most ubiquitous grapes in the red wine world are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah (or “Shiraz” in Australia). It’s not surprising that Merlot is such a popular grape variety since it produces a wine that is full bodied and high in alcohol but low in tannins.
By contrast, Cabernet Sauvignon is typically high in tannins, making it somewhat less approachable, but more age-worthy, since tannins mellow with time. With white wines, Chardonnay is everybody’s darling. Chardonnay from this country (primarily California) tends to be somewhat sweet tasting, with tropical fruit flavors and hints of oak and vanilla, which comes from the oak barrels the wine is sometimes aged in. Chardonnay is an easy wine to like. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, turns some people off due to its crispness (high acidity) and grassy flavor.
I think the best way to explore wine and grape varieties is to gather some friends together and spend an evening or afternoon tasting different wine varietals. You’ll be intrigued by both how similar and how different they are. Once you’ve zeroed in on a wine you really like, do another tasting of that wine variety (Zinfandel, for instance) but this time taste different winemakers’ versions of that same wine.
Once you’ve gained some confidence in identifying different wine varietals, it’s time to throw a brown bag wine party. Designate one person to number each bag and make a record of what the corresponding wine is. Line up the bottles and taste each one, trying to guess the wine varietal. You may be surprised at how difficult this is to do. On the other hand, there will be someone at the party who not only will be able to identify the wine, but will also tell you the year it was produced and what vineyard it came from. Send this person home. He or she is a wine geek and should be kept away from society at large, preferably closeted in a dark and musty basement or cellar.