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Barnes & Noble.com Exclusive Essay
One of the world's greatest pleasures is a fine wine. But how do you learn to savor it properly? Joseph DeLissio, wine director of New York's River Cafe and one of the country's undisputed experts in the field, shares his tips -- along with some recommendations -- in this exclusive essay.
The Progression of Tasting Wine
Today's quick-fix society demands that we achieve the highest possible level of expertise in the shortest amount of time. To properly absorb both the simplicities and the intricacies of wine, one must begin with the knowledge that acquiring such an understanding requires time, patience, and practice. Wine is best understood when learned about in separate stages, or levels, over time.
It would be unwise to assume that any stage of learning can be bypassed or leapfrogged simply by purchasing expensive, highly rated wines in order to go immediately to the head of the class. The following examples should make my meaning clear.
Let's say that someone recommends you buy a bottle of a top-rated French Bordeaux. Excited, you return home and uncork your prized wine, only to discover the wine is harsh, bitter, and mouth-puckeringly hard and dry. Disappointed, you vow never to buy such a wine again. In reality, there was nothing wrong with the wine. You just had no right to open it. More often than not, young, top-rated Bordeaux needs years of cellaring before it becomes approachable, but you hadn't learned that yet.
At the other end of the spectrum, let's say you're in a fine restaurant. You order the oldest, most expensive wine on the list, regardless of the fact that you're accustomed to drinking more current wines. For some reason, many of us believe that older wine is better wine, when, in fact, that statement is a gross exaggeration. The wine is opened and poured. You notice the wine is not perfectly clear and there are tiny particles in it, and when you taste the wine, you find it is not nearly as fresh and fruity as you expected. Is this wine bad? Do you send it back? No, on both counts. The wine is actually displaying many of the signs associated with an older wine. But because you haven't experienced older, mature wines on a regular basis, you think the wine is bad. If you had more tasting experience under your belt, you might find this very same wine and its characteristics to be delicious and proper. Training your palate cannot be rushed. Be patient, take your time, and nurture your palate, and I can assure you many pleasures along the way.
To ease you on your way, I have outlined below three progressive levels of wines that will expose you to different styles and tastes in an organized manner.
I strongly recommend that you spend a minimum of three to six months experimenting with the wines of each level before proceeding to the next. While each successive level will introduce you to more complex tastes and aromas, it is important to realize that each also contains pleasures that will last a lifetime.
Exposure Level One (Recent Vintages)
Lightly oaked California Chardonnay
French Macon, Bourgogne Blanc
Most Italian white wines
French Alsatian Riesling and Pinot Blanc
Basic French Beaujolais, Bourgogne
Most rosé wines
Italian Dolcetto, Chianti, Barbera
Spanish Rioja Crianza
Basic California Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Exposure Level Two
French Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre
French white Burgundy (AOC level)
Drier Champagne and sparkling wines
Most California Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
Most California red wines
French red Burgundy (AOC)
Most Australian Shiraz/blends
Italian Super Tuscan wines
Most Spanish wines
Exposure Level Three
Spanish Fino and Manzanilla Sherry Premier
Grand Cru French white Burgundy
Older French white wines
Very dry and aged French Champagnes
German Riesling (Beerenauslese, Eiswein, Trokenbeerenauslese)
Top classified French Bordeaux
French Grand Cru Burgundy
Aged red wines (10 years plus)
Top Italian Barolo, Barbaresco, Chianti, Amarone, Brunello
Top French Rhone wines