The Oenophiliac

Bringing you stories from the world of wine and beer.

Wine Tasting 101: Even Sommeliers Started Off Clueless

Wine is a tough nut to crack for some, but it shouldn’t be restricted to elitist pontificating and ridiculous descriptions of flavour. There is no leather in your wine, just drink it and enjoy it.


Wine has been around for thousands of years, and not just for drinking. At one point in time the value of wine was such that it would be used as a form of currency. An example would be one amphora of wine could buy you around 100 slaves. Nowadays it may get you a night with a lovely lady, depending on consumption levels and beer goggles.

The luxurious nature of wine and Champagne has been maintained over the years. Wine was seen as the drink of choice for the old society section of life. The ‘upper’ classes would invest their cash in vineyards. Take a look at a couple of famous names from Bordeaux, Talbot and Rothschild. British influence isn’t limited to just Bordeaux. Port has a huge history with British merchants and the aristocracy too, Taylors, Symington, Warres. Cellars would be filled to store the classic vintages. Elite colleges would have their wine clubs and hold regular tasting competitions between schools. Meanwhile, the aspiring or lower classes would be left to their gin and beer.

Unfortunately there is still an air of elitism attached to this vinous product. It’s all a matter of understanding and image. In a recent masterclass tasting I conducted the crowd were quiet. At the end I spoke to one of the participants. He told me he felt cautious about asking questions. The gentleman didn’t want to be looked upon by others at the tasting as being naive. Nothing naive about it! Unlike our continental cousins, we are not taught to appreciate or understand wines.

Wine is a product that should be enjoyed by everyone of all levels. It was never meant to be produced just for the social hierarchy!

If you break wine down to its nuts and bolts then it is a very complicated topic. It’s also very subjective. Everyday I’m learning something new. Our palates change as we get older and the wine business changes every year.

Unlike our continental cousins, we are not taught to appreciate or understand wines.

Whenever I conduct my tasting sessions I always point out that you, the taster, should never let people tell you what you are tasting. My palate is different to yours and so on. What I will do is give people guidance. Allow the taster to explore their own palate.

There is a difference between drinking and tasting wine. Finding the right adjective, verb or noun to describe what you are sampling is bloody hard. TV pros in the past haven’t really helped out much either. The colourful metaphors these guys have gushed have made wine a bit of a joke. An egotistical air of arrogance some might say.

In order to make the all buying public appreciate wine more, you need to simplify the matter.  Consumers need to feel or be taught that wine is approachable and the wine vendor standing in front of you is there to help and not ridicule. Too often I’ve had customers apologise to me for asking what they perceive a silly questions. In my opinion there are few silly questions as 90% of wine consumers know very little about what they are drinking.

Here are some pointers that may help you feel less intimidated when it comes to wine.

First things first, if you like your particular brand or style, then enjoy it. Nobody can change your palate unless you are willing to study or experiment with your wines. I do admit. There is only one brand that I regularly ridicule. I won’t name it but let’s say it rhymes with ‘shallow’, replace the ‘sh’ with a ‘G’ then remove the ‘w’ and bingo. Utter garbage.

TV pros in the past haven’t really helped out much either. The colourful metaphors these guys have gushed have made wine a bit of a joke.

Value doesn’t guarantee quality. If you walk into a store and the vendor is trying to trade you up, stick to your guns. A £2.99 wine can taste just as good as a more expensive product. Local regulations can dictate how much a bottle costs. The prime example is France. In Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone these guys have the AC system, Appellation Controlee. For winemakers this acts as a rule book governing how wines are made and how much can be produced. So unlike southern regions of France, the bigger, more famed regions have restrictions on how much they can produce. This means lower quantities resulting in higher prices.

Grape varieties can have multiple names. A couple of examples are Syrah is known as Shiraz whilst Pinot Gris is also known as Pinot Grigio. Depending on the producer and location, grape varieties will offer up certain characteristics but will differ too. A northern hemisphere Chardonnay can taste and smell different to a southern hemisphere Chardonnay.

European wine labels won’t necessarily advertise the grape variety. Some geographical study is in order here but in short, staying with France-

If it is white, and from Burgundy, the variety is Chardonnay! This goes for Chablis too. The two other whites from Burgundy will state it on the label.

Red Burgundies will be Pinot Noir, unless you go down to Beaujolais, in which case it will be dominated by Gamay.

Red Bordeaux’s are usually a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Tiny portions of Petit Verdot can be added. Meanwhile white Bordeaux’s are a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

The Loire Valley has multiples styles. Sancerre, Pouilly Fume and Touraine are Sauvignon Blanc. Vouvray wines are made using Chenin Blanc. Muscadet is Muscadet or the traditional name of Melon de Bourgogne.  Meanwhile the reds are made using Cabernet Franc or Gamay.

People may believe that the French are kings when it comes to making wine, in fact they inherited it. Wine originates from Eastern Europe.

There are thousands of wine producing varieties globally. Don’t get too focused on all of them. Find one that you like and go from there. Experiment with the same grape but from different areas.

Is there such a thing as best wine or best wine producing country? Again, that would be down to the individual. Go with what you think. People may believe that the French are kings when it comes to making wine, in fact they inherited it. Wine originates from Eastern Europe. The ruling nations spread wine westward

Finally, if you do encounter a supposed wine guru who looks down on you, remember this. They were once you. They were total noobs. At one time in their life they had someone staring down on them. Remind them of this fact and you may get a bit of respect back.

Story by Me.

Taken from the Life section of The Sabotage Times


3 comments on “Wine Tasting 101: Even Sommeliers Started Off Clueless

  1. whineandcheersforwine
    May 14, 2012

    Loved this piece; you are SO right. Your timing in particular could not have been better for me because today is my first day reporting for duty as a Wine Streward for a national grocery store chain. Can’t wait ! 🙂
    Thank you.


    • Magics Wine Guide and Reviews for Newbies.
      May 14, 2012

      Thank you.
      Wine Steward eh!! Congratulations and good luck too.
      Now is the time to hone your detective skills because trying to establish your customers needs will give some serious headaches 🙂 So biggest bit of advice I can give is if you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t try and bullshit the customer. They always know and the advice you give, if it’s bad, will reflect on you. Customers will always appreciate honesty regardless of how annoying they can be 🙂


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