What’s the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, anyway? (Answer: They're made from the same grape, but Pinot Gris is produced in France, while Pinot Grigio derives from Italy.) And is it really possible to pick out an affordable bottle of wine that doesn’t taste, well … cheap?
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Eager to become an educated wine drinker and shopper? So were we, which is why we turned to an expert for the best advice: Leslie Sbrocco, author of “The Simple & Savvy Wine Guide: Buying, Pairing and Sharing for All.”
Sbrocco walked us through the “4 S’s” of wine tasting and how to get great value at the wine store.
The 4 S's: Seeing, Swirling, Smelling and Sipping
“The most important way to learn about wine is to taste as much of it as possible,” says Sbrocco. But you can’t just drink a bottle of wine each night and expect to breeze your way through a conversation with a sommelier.
That’s where the “4 S’s” come in. By breaking up the tasting process into four components--seeing, swirling, smelling and sipping--you’ll start to properly identify the different components of a wine. This, in turn, will help you to eventually figure out your personal tastes, as well as what to look for when choosing a wine.
Step 1: Seeing
Once you’ve poured your wine into a clear glass, examine the color. As a general rule, white wine will be darker if it’s older, while red wine will be lighter if it’s aged for a longer period of time. The color can also tell you about the process used to make the wine: Chardonnay, for instance, will be golden due to its aging process, which typically occurs in oak barrels.
Step 2: Swirling
Move the wine around the glass gently, aiming to coat the sides of the cup. This will release the aromatics of the wine, which will help you to better identify scents.
Step 3: Smelling
“If initially you simply smell ‘red’ or ‘white,’ that’s fine!” say Sbrocco. Keep sniffing in order to identify the following scents:
If it’s a white wine ... See if you can identify citrus notes, like grapefruit, lemon and lime; or ripe, tropical fruits, such as pineapple or melon. Cooler places will generally produce more citrusy or tangy-smelling wines, while ripe smells indicate warmer locales. Additionally, some white wines may produce aromas of vanilla or oak.
If it’s a red wine ... Most red wines will either have red berry scents, like cherry and strawberry, or darker, riper smells, including blackberry and plum. Wines produced in cooler places will tend toward the red berry side of the spectrum, while warmer locations will lend themselves to a darker, riper scent. Red wines can also have earthier aromas, like coffee, smoke or chocolate.
Step 4: Sipping
When you take your first sip, what you taste is a combination of the actual flavors of the wine, as well as the scent because taste is heavily influenced by smell.
“The first question to ask yourself: Do you like it? Or do you not like it?” says Sbrocco. Then try to identify the different flavors you've smelled, along with characteristics such as sweetness, tanginess and alcohol content.
How to Put Those "4 S's" to Good Use
The information derived from the process of seeing, swirling, smelling and sipping is most helpful if it’s documented. By recording your thoughts on the wine you’ve sampled, you’ll start to identify patterns in wines you’ve enjoyed--and ones that have missed the mark.
Sbrocco herself takes photos of wines she’s tried on her smartphone, and then she sends herself an email with additional notes. You can try an app like Hello Vino, which lets you take a photo of the bottle and add such information as year, price, rating, sweetness, smell and alcohol content.
So now that you know why trying as many wines as possible is so important, the next question is: What's the most cost-effective way to taste-test new bottles?
“Many wine shops have free tastings,” says Sbrocco. “This is a great way to try new bottles, and learn from professionals with a lot of experience.”
Another fun idea is to form your own tasting group--if everyone brings a bottle, you can try a number of different wines and compare notes. “Organize monthly tastings around themes,” says Sbrocco. “You can make it as broad as ‘red wine' or you can go more specific, like ‘wines from California.’”
They key is to sample different varieties of reds and whites from varied countries. Sbrocco recommends the following picks, which encompass a spectrum of flavors, from light and juicy to full-bodied and heavy.
To get you started with some affordable picks, Sbrocco has selected five of her recent favorites, including two bonus sparkling wines:
- 2011 Gainey "Limited Selection" Riesling, Santa Ynez Valley, California -- $15
- 2011 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages, Beaujolais, France -- $12
- 2010 Concha y Toro "Casillero Del Diablo," Carmenere, Chile -- $10
- Segura Viudas Brut Reserva, Cava, Spain -- $10
- 2011 Medici Ermete "Concerto," Lambrusco, Italy -- $11
Why You Need to Keep an Open Mind About Wine
Sbrocco’s final piece of advice: Don't get too hung up on how long a wine has been aged or whether it has a screw top.
“When it comes to white wine, it can be produced very quickly—I just tried a great bottle from 2012. You won’t see good reds quite as quickly, but there are definitely solid options from 2011, 2010 and 2009,” says Sbrocco. “A lot of reds will benefit from more age, but there’s no hard and fast rule. Sure, you can age a California Cabernet for 25 years, but it could be just as good—if not better—after 10.”
And skeptics needn’t be put off by screw tops. “It’s good to be screwed!” she says. “In all seriousness, the container doesn’t predict the quality of the wine. There are fantastic wines that come with screw tops, and bad wines with corks.”
Sbrocco is also a huge fan of the recent resurgence of boxed wines: “The value is tremendous--a 3-liter box is equivalent to four bottles of wine. At $25-35 a box, that comes to $6 per bottle. Plus, the technology helps the wine stay fresh for months.”
Luckily, it's clear that becoming a wine connoisseur doesn't necessarily depend on spending a ton of money--it really comes down to paying attention (and drinking more)!