According to recent industry statistics, as imparted to me by my WSET 2 instructor Jeni, only 4% of wine consumers are wine experts. Some 80% to 90% are wine drinkers, happy to drink quantities of the same style of wine with no interest in knowing more about what they’re drinking. They are the backbone of wine consumption and long may they live. Then there are those of us in between: the wine curious. We enjoy experimenting with new and different wines, and without aspiring to the heady heights of the wine experts, we would like to understand the world of wine and at the very least be able to negotiate our way around a wine menu with some confidence.
So if you’ve found yourself getting bored with your usual tipple and you want to branch out, but you’re not sure where to start, then here are my tips on how to become wine curious.
Tip One – Drink More
I don’t mean quantity, rather variety. Though by all means glug down as much of the stuff as you like. Start to try different wines. Most bars will have at least 2-3 white and/or red wines by the glass. When you go out try a different one to before. Do the same whenever you go to a restaurant. If you go on holiday try the local wine.
Each time you taste a new wine ask yourself one thing: do I like it?
If yes note down the country, region and grape variety (if available) of the wine. Then look for more wine from that region, or wine from other countries using the same grape. There is no guarantee that they will taste the same, but they will often be similar. You’ll soon be able to order a bottle with some confidence.
If you don’t like the wine you’ve tried then again note the country, region and grape, but when you see a similar wine on a menu be aware that it may not be the right wine for you and perhaps avoid buying it by the bottle.
Well done you just started your wine education, and for many this simple step would be enough.
Tip Two – Google It
So you have some idea of what you like but now you’re curious to know more. Perhaps you love Pinot Grigio but hate Sauvignon Blanc and want to know the difference. Maybe you prefer Pinot Noir and want to know where to buy it on your holiday to France (because the French are terrible at putting grape varieties on their wine labels). Or you’re a Merlot drinker and want to know which local wines are similar for your trip to Spain. A quick search on any of those topics will produce a plethora of results giving you all the information you need to know.
There are hundreds of wine sites on the Internet offering a huge range of free advice. So much so that it can be overwhelming. A good starter site is winefolly.com. It will take you through the wine regions and grapes of most countries and give you an idea of how each one tastes. In addition most wine producing countries and regions will have a website in English aimed at wine tourism with simple and easy to access information.
If you are someone who enjoys learning from the written word, then you can pretty much pick up everything you need to know about wine, for free, from the internet. However it’s a sterile way of learning and won’t give you the depth of experience you get from drinking the stuff. It’s nowhere near as much fun either.
Tip Three – Wine Tastings
There is a limit to how many different wines you can try by yourself before it starts to seriously effect your liver and your wallet. This is where organised wine tastings come in. At a wine tasting you get to try 4-6 different wines in small taster sizes for a reasonable price. You will also be surrounded by other wine lovers usually of varying degrees of expertise and will get to chat about your favourite topic: wine.
Do not worry that others at a wine tasting may be more knowledgeable than you. Most tastings that I have been to will have complete beginners as well as a few regulars. Remember only 4% of wine drinkers are actual experts. The rest of us are just making it up as we go along.
What is great about wine tastings, aside from the variety of wines, is to see that everyone there has a unique experience of the wine. We all taste differently, so don’t worry if others are picking up flavours you don’t get. This is perfectly normal. However you might find that you begin to expand you taste sensations and pick up vocabulary and awareness you didn’t have before. Hopefully you’ll also find some new wines that you enjoy and have a good time with like minded people. If not, then find a different wine tasting.
If there are no tastings near you, or you don’t like the ones that are, then consider starting your own. I live in Madrid where there are loads of tastings, but I still run one myself once a quarter at my home. Why do I do this? Well it’s easier than going out (I’m lazy), and it’s also cheaper for me to buy 4 reasonably price bottles from the local supermarket plus some cheese & biscuits and entertain a few friends, than to go into the city and pay bar prices all night. This is in Madrid which is not an expensive city to go out. In the UK, where you need a second mortgage to fund an evening out, it’s a no brainer.
Don’t worry if you don’t know much about wine, you can still run a wine tasting. I started my tastings because I wanted to know which wines from my local supermarket I liked and which I didn’t. My selection process is not complicated. I pick a grape or region and basically buy each wine they have on their shelves that is within my price range. I don’t worry too much about whether they will be good or not. That’s the point of the tasting, to find out. Once you’ve exhausted the local supermarket start looking at wine shops or the online wine clubs that send you a monthly selection.
When you go to these wine tastings remember tips one and two. Write down what you are tasting and whether you liked it. Look up information online about the wine and see if it matches with your own experience. Slowly but surely the information will start to sink in and it will mean more to you based on actual experience.
Tip Four – Take a Course
So now you know what wines you like and have some idea of the main wines available in your area. But the fuse has been lit and you want more. Well it’s time to consult the experts and take a wine course.
There are a lot of wine courses out there and what you choose will depend on how much you want to learn and your budget. Most cities and towns will have wineshops, wineclubs or wine bars that run a basic intro to wine course. Many wine regions abroad will have courses on their particular wines that you can do when on holiday. There are some online courses as well, not to mention a mountain of books on the subject by just about every wine expert out there.
However if you want a qualification that is internationally recognised there are two main routes you can pursue: Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. Don’t be put off by the titles, very few of us will become Masters and that is not the point. The qualifications needed for these titles start at the basic level for anyone and then continue up. Winefolly.com has a good article on the two routes here: Wine Folley Article.
My own personal preference is for the courses provided by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust WSETGlobal.com. They have 4 levels of courses starting at complete beginner through to expert. Each level is a globally recognised industry qualification taught worldwide in several different languages. You do not have to do all the levels. How far you go on the journey of professional education is entirely up to you. For further information and where you can do the courses check out their website.