Buying wine can be intimidating, especially if you didn’t grow up with it. Many Americans, at first feel confused and baffled by all the French names, the ignored consonants and the implication behind our ignorance: that we aren't cultured enough to appreciate wine.
But while wineries and brands depend on an image of wealth and cultivation, to many people across the world, wine is really not much fancier than beer. The French get it from a grocery store too. A French guy wandering down the Champs-élysées cradling a bottle of red like a baby isn’t thinking about the earthy terroir of Médoc any more than his American counterpart would be thinking about the IBU rating of a Sam Adams while on a pool float in San Diego. You’re both just having a good time.
Just so, wine should be a source of joy. It should elevate your meals and learning about it should only be fun.
There are four key factors to every wine:
Grapes - There is a great variety of grape “varietals.” Some wines are blended with several types of grapes and this might not even be on the label. A Bordeaux might be part Cabernet-Sauvignon with a bit of Cabernet Franc. Other wines are monovarietal.
Location - Terroir (pronounced tehr-waar) is a word that sure looks intimidating, but it just refers to the ecological factors that affected the grape. Soil sediments, rainfall and sunlight all affect a vineyard dramatically. Some famous wines take their name from their region. A “French Bordeaux” is actually a Cabernet Sauvignon blend.
Year - The year is always listed on wine, unless you’re getting into that good boxed stuff.
The year it was cultivated matters. Was it a hot year? A year with a lot of sun? All of these things matter. This especially matters with red wines as white wines are not aged nearly as much.
Winemaking - Or, élevage. This is how the mere grape is elevated into its ambrosial status as something that tastes phenomenal (hopefully). This process encompasses everything from how the wine was aged (oak or steel barrels) to fermentation techniques (how acidic it becomes) to smooching each grape every day and calling it a very good grape (they probably do this somewhere).
If you’re going through a winery in America, you’re sure to run across these. We’ll be focusing on American wines, not because they’re better, but because they’re often easier and cheaper to get. French wines have an import tax, but of course, they are the original gangsters for a reason.
Not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon is known as the "King of the Reds."
This is the archetypal grape, used to make French Bordeaux, Italian Tuscan, and some of the most popular and expensive wines in the world.
But despite being popular, they’re also tricky to grow, and so quality ranges wildly. Bad Cabernets are acidic, like cherry-pepper juice. Good ones are awe-inspiring. Because of this rich, complex heritage, winemakers worldwide are constantly trying to achieve the quality of the semi-mythical French Bordeaux.
Cabernets can be very pricey, and because they’re a robust grape, they really benefit from aging and decanting. But don’t feel obligated to search for an expensive French Bordeaux. Washington State makes a terrific Cabernet, with vineyards like Hogue, Snoqualmie and Columbia Crest. The Central Valley of California also has good, cheap, unsubtle fruity Cabs.
Cabernets are best paired with beef. Steak is good, Cabernet Sauvignon is good, but together, it’s a divine experience. They’re also quite good with chocolate.
One of the oldest and most important grapes in the history of the world, Merlot’s popularity was crippled by Sideways, a film about middle aged men being sad in a car. This is terribly unfair, because Merlot is comfortable, lively, plush and velvety. The good news is, because of its unpopularity, Merlot is often underpriced. Look for Sonoma County’s Sebastiani, Napa Valley’s Duckhorn, Hitchcock or Behrens. If you’re on the east coast, the Long Island Merlot is making waves.
This is a great table wine and is well paired with most meats, mushrooms, pork and even tuna. Just avoid intensely sweet or spicy foods.
Not to be confused with a White Zinfandel, this is an extremely common American red first gaining popularity during the California Gold Rush of the late 1840’s. Appropriately, it has a big, blunt, strong taste that goes with American food like barbecue, cheeseburgers or really any meat.
This is a proudly anti-sophisticated “cowboy wine,” with some appropriately intense fans, getting “Zin Head” tattooed on their backs. Seriously.
Because they’re so popular, cheap Zins are like drinking Bud Light and judging all lagers based on that. Don’t think they can’t be nuanced and interesting. Try a small, single-vinyard Zinfandel like Turley Cellars.
That said, Zinfandels are not a subtle wine. They will overpower the taste of a delicate dinner and their high alcohol content can be a downside if you don’t want to get fully schwasted.
Syrah is straightforward, not prestigious, inexpensive and dependable. It’s also a different grape from a “Petit Syrah,” which is just hilariously confusing at this point. Syrahs are easy grapes to grow and a cheap Syrah will almost always be better than a cheap Cab.
Australia is well known for its excellent Syrahs, as are California and Washington. A few noteworthy vineyards in America are Qupe, Bonny Doon, Cline Cellars and Tablas Creek.
American Syrahs are peppery, lush and flexible. They go with most foods, especially poultry or leaner meats.
You’ll probably have tastes of plums, blackberry, licorice and possibly coffee, iron or blood. Hardcore!
From the famous Burgundy region, this is the most fickle, unpredictable wine there is. Pinot Noir can be a sumptuous delight of pepper, chocolate and berries, or a disaster. Called “the Heartbreak Grape” by growers, a single sudden hot day can spoil a harvest in an instant. As a grape, it’s notoriously fragile and high-maintenance. Consequently, really good ones are more expensive and a delicacy. They’re almost always bottled alone.
California has many good Pinots such as Calera, Chateau St. Jean, Tandem, Vision Cellars, Sea Smoke and more.
Tastes include red and black fruits, currants, spices, tar, mushrooms and dirt. Delicious!
A good Pinot Noir goes with basically any food you can think of. Don’t overthink it.
The only way you’re really going to learn about wine is to taste it. You need experience. Don’t be afraid to walk into a wine shop and ask for some help. Either way, don’t use price as a guide for quality. So much of wine consumption comes from branding and sometimes cheaper, unpopular vineyards are genuinely better than more expensive ones. But if you’re just starting out, you really don’t need to spend more than $20 a bottle.
Instead, use the money to try different bottles of the same type. Pick up a half-dozen bottles of Cabernet. By the time you’re done, you’ll know what makes a Cabernet a Cabernet. Get a Cab and a Syrah together, and an inexperienced taster might get lost.
Either way, don’t chill red wine. Let it come to around 55 degrees, or almost, but not quite, room temperature. Letting a red breathe can dramatically improve its taste.
Either open it a few hours early, or get a decanter, which can age a wine more quickly by increasing its surface area and oxidation.
Also, use a wine glass. The shape of a glass actually affects the wine’s aroma, taste and other factors. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but you do need a glass with a stem, as the heat of your hand will affect the drink.
As for the specifics of tasting, mouthfeel, weight, texture, tannins and acidity… focus on whether you like it or not first. As you develop your palate, you’ll be more equipped to actually describe what it is you’re tasting.
Of course, if you ever need to sound cultured, you could also just say that the red has notes of black cherries, violets and white pepper. No one will ever know.
Finally, if you want to know more, a great beginner book we love is Drink This: Wine Made Simple by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. We also love the app Vivino, which lets you examine wine ratings instantly by taking a snapshot of your bottle.
Good luck and have fun!