Wine, they say, is an acquired taste, and this is very true. Just as a grade-school band teacher says that learning about music with a bad horn would make it difficult to succeed, so could acquiring this taste by starting with bad wines keep you from enjoying good wines.
DRY WINE VERSUS SWEET WINE
Most people begin their learning process with sweet wine. But sweet wine tastes mostly of fruit and sugar. This does little to complement the flavors of a good meal, and may greatly detract from that meal. Sweet wines can be fun with desserts, however. Dry wines are the opposite of sweet wines. Perhaps we could call "dryness" the absence of sweetness. Dryness is not bitterness, nor is it a taste of vinegar. Good dry wines make a good meal better.
If you start your training with poor-quality dry wines, you may have trouble moving on. Poor-quality dry red wines often have very strong, unpleasant flavors. Poor-quality dry white wines often have no flavor at all. For the sake of success, you may need to spend a little too much on your first dry wines. Then, once you know what good wine should taste like, you can move down the price scale.
To us, it seems much more difficult to find a good dry white wine than it is to find a good dry red wine. So, start your search with a too-expensive dry red wine. Pay at least $10 for your first bottle. Don't bother to pay as much as $20, because the chance of you being able to tell the difference is slight.
Choose your first dry red wine from a fairly long-standing wine-producing region, such as France or California. You should initially stay away from dry reds with strong flavors, such as Merlots. You should also initially avoid dry reds that may be too delicate, such as Beaujolais. Pretty much, you should begin this part of your training with a Cabernet Sauvignon.
BREATHE IT IN
If you put your nose over a glass containing a good dry wine, you should smell something, and it should be pleasant. In the best wines, you should smell something a little musty, that might remind you of being in a cave, if you were ever in a cave. If you never went into a cave, perhaps it could remind you of wet dirt or wet rocks, or a damp basement. Nothing unpleasant, just a little musty or earthy. This smell is called the wine's "bouquet." Wine drinkers often swirl the wine around in the glass to encourage the bouquet to rise off the liquid.
If you get no such smell with your wine, it's not the end of the world. The wine may still have a good flavor when you drink it. Only the best dry wines generate a pleasant bouquet.
PLASTIC CORKS VERSUS REGULAR CORKS
Sniffing the cork immediately after it is removed from the bottle is not a snooty thing to do. It is a quick field-test for vinegar. You do not want to discover that your new bottle of wine is vinegar by tasting it! If you sniff the cork as soon as it comes out, and you smell strong vinegar, then the bottle of wine is likely trash, and you will probably wind up pouring it down the drain or taking it back to the store for an exchange. If you smell nothing, that is fine. If it smells a little musty or earthy, that is likely better than fine.
But if your wine has a plastic cork, you are going to smell plastic. Yes, plastic has a smell. Think of the smell of a new car without leather upholstery, or think of the smell of a new doll. A plastic cork does not smell like wine, and it ruins part of the experience of drinking wine.
HOW A DRY WINE SHOULD TASTE
A dry wine should not taste like nothing. There should be a flavor, and it should be pleasant. The flavor of a dry white wine, like Chardonnay, will normally be more delicate than the flavor of a red, like Merlot. As noted previously, it is difficult to find a good dry white wine, and the most common flaw is a lack of flavor. If you paid a high price for your white wine, and you taste nothing, you can still fake it, since it probably tastes no worse than water. Unlike white wine, a poor-flavored dry red wine is more likely to be overwhelmingly strong.
But a red wine should taste like something. When you have both food and dry red wine in your mouth at the same time, the wine flavor should not overwhelm the food; it should somehow make the food taste better. The French achieve the same type of flavor-enhancing effect when they chew a piece of chocolate at the same time as a piece of fresh French bread. Together in the mouth, the two create a new, better flavor. The same goes for dry red wine and food.
ENJOY THE AFTERTASTE
For a wine's aftertaste, we can use good brandy to give ourselves a stronger comparison. After you sniff your brandy, you are supposed to take a tiny sip, and let that sip seep away down your throat. After the liquid brandy seeps away, you should still taste and feel the brandy in your mouth, nose, and head. This is a strong example of an aftertaste.
We want something like this with our wines, but it will be less extreme. As with the bouquet, the aftertaste should be a little musty, or earthy – even peppery in some cases.
To experience a pleasant, lingering aftertaste in an economically-priced wine in the United States is a rare and wonderful thing. In France, it is more of the norm. It is more likely to happen with a red wine than with a white. Treasure it if you find it.