So you’ve always been interested in wine, but now you’re ready to take it to the next level. That’s why you’re here, right? You want to be able to talk with some authority about regions and grape varieties. Maybe even drop… “terroir” into a conversation. Not in a pretentious way: you’d just like to tell the guys in the shop what you like in more… accurate terms. Or maybe you’ve landed an entry-level sommelier job and you want to research wine knowledge for servers.
Ok, well I don’t class myself as a wine “expert” but since I decided to get more serious about wine, my knowledge of the subject has improved exponentially. Here’s some advice to help you achieve the same.
1. Take a course: This would be my top tip in any walk of life. Get it straight from those who know. Ask questions and benefit from the questions of like-minded others. There are tons of wine courses available, but the internationally recognised industry standard, for both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs alike, are those run by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (or WSET).
There are four levels to choose from — Level 1 being a one-day beginner’s course, while Level 4 is like a degree equivalent — and you’ll receive a diploma if you pass the exam at the end. You also get, weirdly, a tie pin. Most importantly, you’ll get to taste a lot of wine (about 30 types on the 3-week Level 2 intermediate course). And this brings me neatly on to…
2. Taste lots of wine: I’m guessing you do this already. But how you taste (and smell) it is important, and tasting in greater depth can vastly elevate your knowledge. I’d recommend the following…
Always aim to buy a wine you’ve never had before and, if possible, try to start spending a little more on a bottle than usual. I’ve found it useful to concentrate on one region or grape at a time. For example, sample Chardonnays from around the world to see how they compare. Or go French for a few weeks; see how Burgundy fares against Bordeaux or the Loire Valley. This obviously can take a while, depending on how big a boozer you are.
When testing the wine, swirl it to release the vapours and give it a good “nose”. I love using “nose” as a verb. You might feel a bit of a tit doing this in public but your sense of smell is far more powerful than your sense of taste, and this is where you’ll pick up all the most interesting flavours. It’s best to do this in an environment free of strong sensory stimulation, like loud music, bright lights or overpowering odours — think of it as a type of meditation.
Take notes on the notes, and compare your experience with what the experts say online. Then nose it again. Chances are you’ll pick up something that wasn’t apparent before. “Oh wow. That dude from the Wine Wankers was right. It does smell of eucalyptus.” There you go. You’ve just learnt to isolate the scent of eucalyptus in wine.
When I first started doing this I found myself wandering suspiciously around grocers’ shops, sniffing the fruit like a dog. “Hmm, so that’s what a lychee smells like.” Sign of a true obsessive.
3. Find a decent local independent wine shop and befriend the staff: This might not be possible in your neighbourhood, but if it is you’re laughing. Independent wine shop owners love educating you about wine. If they can sense your passion for their products you’ll get a free mini wine course every time you go in. If they really like you, you might get the odd free sample too.
4. Read books, blogs and magazines and watch YouTube videos: Pretty obvious, this one. Get the Oxford Companion to Wine for reference purposes and Wine Folly: A Visual Guide to the World of Wine for colourful and informative graphics. Pick up a copy of Decanter magazine and watch all the old Jancis Robinson BBC TV shows on YouTube. It’s excellent travel journalism and you get a vivid sense of place from each region she visits. And, of course…
5. Sign up for email alerts whenever the Wine Ninjas kick out a new post: Just click on the link to the right, or at the bottom if you’re mobile optimised. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I. But if you’ve made it to the end of this article, hopefully you found it entertaining and useful. Stay tuned for more weekly wine tips and recommendations.