Wine Tastings You Should Try
by Elliott R. Morss
Social wine tastings can be fun but also interesting and informative. In what follows, I will suggest a few worth trying. Let’s start with what we know about people’s preferences and move on from there.
Considerable economic analysis has been done on how people choose wine. Summarized in an earlier article, the primary finding is that wine choices are rarely connected to taste. And further, price does not accurately predict taste. In carefully conducted large blind tastings, more expensive wines were not preferred. It appears that people buy wine based on its color, brand name, label, and ratings.
One other point: some people buy wine because it is expensive. There are two reasons for this:
- If you are buying wine as a gift and you don’t know anything about wine, you feel a bit safer buying an expensive wine;
- Some people want to be known as wine connoisseurs, and they believe that buying expensive wines will make others think they are wine connoisseurs.
The overriding point about wine markets made in an earlier article is that wines from Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and South Africa are gradually replacing European wines in the US market. Why? Because they are good and cost less to produce than their well-known European competitors. And as the US buyer becomes more knowledgeable, the price edge European (especially French) producers enjoy by using the region, e.g. Burgundy rather than the dominant varietal e.g., Pinot Noir, to market their wines will decline (for more on the use of regions, see the wine table below).
What Wines People Like
While the evidence above suggests people do not purchase wine for its taste, there is no question people have taste preferences. At the most basic level, some like red, and some prefer white. Let me go one step further and suggest that people fall into one of four preference categories presented in this box:
But a caution here: beyond red and white, I hesitate to use wine descriptors. Why? In Richard Quandt’s wonderful piece “On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software?” he produced a table listing 123 wine descriptors. I offer but one example from his discussion of tannin:
“…tannins can be chewy, dusty, fine-grained, lush, silky, ultrasilky and velvety. All of these qualifiers of tannins need more precise definition, but I am particularly interested in the difference between silky, ultrasilky and velvety. Silky is pretty smooth, and ultrasilky is even more so; how would I know whether the tannin I am tasting is really ultrasilky or just plain silky? And then there is velvet, which tends to be soft (or even ultrasoft?); how would I know whether the tannin is silky or velvety? If I am given a choice between two wines that are described by identical attributes except for their textile quality, should I choose the one with silky tannins or velvety tannins? It is a problem to drive a person crazy.”
Okay: for my purposes, heavy and light: What do I mean by these terms? There is no absolute here: I am only using these categories or ways to group wines for meaningful tastings. “Heavy” wines tend to look and taste fuller (less watery) than “light” wines. In my wine table below, I name some grapes that “are considered” heavy and light. This table can also be used to “translate” certain wines that are known by region rather than grape. For example, many people are not aware that Chardonnay is the dominant grape in White Burgundies.
Wine Translation Table
Wine Tastings You Should Try
When I do “social” wine tastings, I try to use wines I know my guests like. I ask only a couple of questions, like:
- what is your favorite, and
- which do you think is the most expensive?
In the following paragraphs, I offer a few wine tastings you can try. Each has a slightly different theme. Try to keep them simple but informative.
1. Heavy Reds
With heavy reds, it is interesting to see if people can tell the difference between the three leading grapes, and also whether they prefer a more expensive wine to others. So purchase a Shiraz, a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon for $11 or less. Incidentally, the “R” in the Yellowtail designation is for the Yellowtail “Reserve” offerings. They cost less than $9 and are superior to Yellowtail’s non-Reserve offerings. The Cantena Zapata is more expensive and to me is as good as Malbecs get.
When I did this tasting with 7 tasters, 3 preferred the Alamo, the least expensive of the 4 wines.
2. Heavy Whites
When it comes to heavy whites, Chardonnay is the dominant grape. But there are many Chardonnay tastes. So here, I like to fashion tastings around different Chardonnays. The McManis is a heavy-oaked version. The Falling Star is just the opposite – very light for a Chardonnay. The Aligoté is a grape not unlike a Chardonnay and is interesting to try. For the more expensive Chardonnay, I have included a Pouilly-Fuissé. I could just as well listed a Chablis (n.b.: French Chablis is very different than Californian Chablis) or a Meursault.
The dominant light white is the Sauvignon Blanc, but there are other light whites worth trying. So here, I like to compare different grapes. The Picpoul is a grape grown in the Languedoc region of France. The St. Peyre Picpoul has won “best in show” in a number of blind tastings. The Pinot Grigio grape is grown primarily in Italy and is gaining in popularity on the Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand is known for its Sauvignon Blancs, so one of its best should be tried against other light whites.
4. Light Reds
Light reds are not my cup of tea. But even so, there are some interesting tastings you should try. The Pinot Noir grape is the most popular in this grouping. Chiantis run the gamut from light to heavy, but the Coltibuono is quite light and makes for an interesting comparison. And since we are about to welcome in a new year, a Beaujolais Nouveau is in order. Just as with Cabs, you can spend a lot of money on Red Burgundies (Pinot Noirs), but New Zealand Oyster Bay Pinot is quite reasonable.
The above are only my suggestions. The key in doing wine tastings is to keep them simple, have some fun, and learn something. Mike Veseth tipped me off to a great new book on inexpensive wines by George Taber. This book will give you all the tasting ideas you could ever use.