Trying new wine can be a daunting process — there are thousands of wines and each is wildly different in flavor and price. Selecting new wines is not an intimidating process, if you have some basic knowledge about grapes, vineyard location, vintages and producers. Once you have a basic understanding of these factors, it is easy to venture out and find new wines to enjoy.
Much of a wine’s flavor comes from the grapes used to produce it. You may be familiar with the most popular varietals: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah, but there are thousands of different types of grapes. If you like a certain varietal, you may consider trying the same grape from different wineries. They may taste very different, but they will still share common flavors and aromas.
Some wines won’t list the grape used on the label. This could be because the winemaker chooses not to name the grape or because the wine is made of a blend of several different grapes. French wine, in particular, rarely has the grape listed but will instead name the place of origin because French winemakers are more concerned with the region of France in which the wine is made. Fortunately, France has strict laws as to what grapes are allowed in certain regions, so a simple Internet search will let you know what grapes are in a particular French wine. If you like chardonnay, for example, then you will want try wines from the Chablis region of France, as they are all 100 percent chardonnay.
A blend is a wine made from two or more different grape varietals. Blends are a great vehicle to try new varietals — simply find a blend that has one of your favorite grapes, and see how it interacts with other grapes.
Grapes require certain growing conditions that are only available in select areas of the world, and specific grape varietals stubbornly require even more specific conditions. This, combined with local winemaking traditions, makes some locations more ideal for creating particular wines. For example, the best pinot noir in the world is from Burgundy, Ore., and California, while some of the best riesling is from Germany, Washington and Alsace.
The concept of “terroir” also plays a role in the flavor of wine. Terroir is the flavor of the soil and the surrounding environment unique to a specific locale that can be tasted in wine. The idea that the flavors of soil and climate can soak into a wine may sound strange, but experiments producing pinot noir using the same methods in France, California and Oregon have resulted in wines with incredibly different tastes.
Have you ever noticed the flavor of your favorite wine suddenly change after purchasing a new bottle? This could be due to a change in vintage. If a wine has a year (2007, 2012, etc.) on the label, then the wine is composed of grapes harvested during that year.
Weather is the main determinant in the flavor differences between vintages. Great weather usually results in a great vintage. Bad frost, too much or too little rain, too much or too little sun, pests and disease are all things that can result in a bad vintage. These factors can cause wine to taste completely different.
Not every wine is a vintage wine. Some producers aim for a consistent flavor from year to year, and they may achieve this by blending together grapes from different harvests. These wines do not have a vintage stamped on the label. Some producers of exceptional quality wines may choose not to produce a vintage wine during a sub-optimal harvest in order to protect their reputation. The grapes from this harvest may be blended into a lesser quality label or sold to another winery.
All wine producers have a reputation. Some produce the world’s finest wine, while others are known for quality wine at an affordable price and still others are known for a cheap price with no consideration for quality. Some producers aim for a full extraction of flavor, whereas others craft a more delicate, balanced wine. Flavors can be further altered by the use of oak barrels and vats made of stainless steel or concrete during the winemaking process.
Despite the many techniques that can be used during the winemaking process, a producer will typically be consistent when it comes to style and method. Finding a producer you like and trying all of its available wines is a great way to branch out.