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For Starters, Get Grounded in Grapes

By Ben Giliberti
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page F05

Nobody is born a wine maven. Europeans acquire knowledge of wines the effortless way: by osmosis. But because Americans drink little of it compared with people in many other countries, chances are you didn't pick up much wine knowledge while growing up.

So how does one start to learn about a subject so often discussed in a language of its own?

Complicated advice is often offered on this topic, but the answer is simple: start with the questions that have sparked your interest.

After fielding many inquiries over the years, I now have a good idea of what most beginning wine aficionados wish to know. None of it is complicated -- at least until you reach that triumphant moment of mastery when complexity and minutiae further fuel your passion. But we'll save a discussion of the maven moment for a later date. For now, here are my answers to several of the most frequently asked start-up questions.

What are the best wines to start with?

Start with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling for whites, and cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah (sometimes called shiraz) for reds. Although the world has thousands of great wines, these seven grape varieties account for most of them. Because each grape variety imparts signature flavors and aromas to wine, if you master varieties, you'll be well on your way to mastering wine generally.

Single varietal wines (wines labeled "cabernet sauvignon," for example, but not "cabernet sauvignon-merlot," which is a blend ) must be made all or mostly from the grape variety on the label. If you stick with these in the beginning, you'll get the purest essence of the grape type. After a bit of tasting and comparison, you will learn to distinguish a chardonnay from a sauvignon blanc, a cabernet from a syrah and the permutations in between. Then you'll be ready to move on to the more subtle effects of winemaking and terroir (place of origin).

But don't rush through the process. The better your grounding in fundamental knowledge of grapes, the more you'll appreciate the artistry of blending grape varieties to add nuance and complexity.

How do I get basic information about the wines I'm drinking?

Look at the label on the back of the bottle. Although labels are primarily marketing tools, you can learn a lot. Many labels convey key flavor and aroma terminology (floral, minty, tannic, for instance) in a comprehensible way. Others add descriptions of the techniques used by the winemakers (such as oak aging, barrel-fermenting) and suggested food pairings.

Although many if not most New World wines sport descriptive back labels, the Europeans seem reluctant to go along. Thus, to get the benefit of the informative back labels, I recommend focusing primarily on aisles of the wine shop with wines from California, Washington, Australia and South America, at least in the beginning.

Should I start a wine cellar?

Whoa, slow down. A great wine cellar is the dream of every wine lover and is a worthy goal. But you have to walk before you can run. I know many people whose early enthusiasm led them to fill up their cellars with all types of highly rated and often expensive wine, only to discover that they liked other types of wine better or preferred to specialize in one or two regions, such as Bordeaux, Napa or Tuscany. Before you stock your cellar, educate your taste buds.

Going slowly is especially important if you are under 30 and likely to be moving from apartment to apartment, house to house, or even relocating to another part of the country. Wine may be highly potable, but it's not portable. Shipping is not only cumbersome and expensive, but exposes wine to vibration and temperature swings, which can be harmful. Don't buy more than you need until you are settled. Cellar-worthy wines will still be available when you are ready for them.

On the other hand, keeping a modest collection on hand is a great idea. It needn't be anything elaborate. My first "wine cellar" was a cardboard wine box turned on its side and stashed in the back of a hall closet in my apartment. At the very least, buy wine by the case (12 bottles). You will make fewer time-consuming trips to the wine shop and spend less money because most stores offer discounts on case purchases.

What about courses and wine publications?

I highly recommend these. Three must-read wine publications are Robert M. Parker's Wine Advocate, Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar and the Wine Spectator. The first two are no-nonsense wine-rating newsletters, and the latter is a large-format, strikingly illustrated color magazine with comprehensive tasting notes and recommendations. The Wine Enthusiast, the Wine News, Wine and Spirits and Decanter, a British publication, are less well known but also offer excellent articles and tasting notes. A good learning technique is to buy a few highly rated wines from one or more magazines and correlate your impressions as you taste with the notes and descriptive terms of the experts in the magazines.

Wine Find:

Beringer Sauvignon Blanc 2003 Napa Valley Appellation Collection ($12; California) Although New Zealand's bold sauvignon blancs are getting attention these days, few balance the assertive varietal character of this grape as artfully as this modestly priced offering from Napa's Beringer winery. Aromas of fresh Golden Delicious apples combine with fresh herb and citrus on the nose, followed by ripe lime and yellow fruit flavors on the palate and a vibrant finish. This a great match with pasta salads, crudites or grilled fish. Note: Don't confuse this Napa bottling with the less impressive Beringer Founder's Reserve California appellation.

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