When I finally wanted to learn about wine, I lucked out: while working at a restaurant in Hamilton, Ontario, I met and befriended the wine rep from Tawse Winery, Canada's two-time-winning Winery of the Year.
More often than not, servers and bartenders learn what they know about wine through these wine reps, who bring several bottles to the restaurants for our employers to taste and choose from. We are often included in tastings so we can become more familiar and knowledgable. When wineries are close, we're even taken on wine tours where the reps introduce us to as many of their wines as possible so we can sell them to you.
Over the course of three wine tours at Tawse and tastings from several other wineries, I learned what I like in wines and what I don't, and I learned that the nuances between wineries and winemakers make all the difference. If you ever have the opportunity to take a guided wine tour at a winery or experience a wine-tasting event with an experienced winemaker or sommelier, it is one of the best ways to learn a great deal about wine in a relatively short time--if you listen to your guide's suggestions and pay attention to what you're tasting and to your reactions to it.
Because, in the end, to know wine you must experience it.
For the beginner, however, here are a few of my favorite recommendations:
Dry or sweet, this fruity white wine from a German strand of grape is a great way to start a meal, or makes for a delicious sipping beverage all by itself. When chilled well, it is incredibly refreshing; as it warms, the fruitiness fills your palate and each sip is like biting into crisp, juicy apples or ripe peaches. My favorites are young Rieslings with a bit of effervescence (natural carbonation produced from the fermentation process) that tickles the tongue during the first few sips.
TIP: Watch out for very cheap Rieslings, as they're likely to be overly-sweet or overly-acidic from immature grapes.
One of my very favorite wines, this white from German grapes is smooth, refreshing and exotic when chilled, tasting of peaches and lychee fruit. But let it warm to room temperature and it becomes creamy and silky, with lasting fruit flavors that make you wish to let it linger it in your mouth for minutes before finally swallowing - and, with a truly great Gewürtz, the flavors last even minutes longer.
TIP: Occasionally, when the balance is not quite right, the acidity and flavors of Gewürtz can come across as bitter in the finish as it warms. If you find this is the case, chill the wine well and keep it chilled; the cool temperatures will cause the flavors to be less pronounced.
When unoaked (fermented in anything other than oak barrels, but usually in stainless steel), this wine is crisp and acidic, producing a fresh, fruity wine that pairs well with light fish or vegetable meals. In the more traditional oaked form, Chards pick up smokiness, vanilla and spicy hints from fermenting in oak barrels that have been lightly burned to allow the flavors of the wood to blend into the wine. Oaking will produce a darker golden hue and may subdue the fruitiness of this typically dry wine. In its best forms, both oaked and unoaked Chardonnays have a cleansing capacity that works well with oily fishes and foods while leaving a clean but smooth and buttery texture from the lees formed from lactic acids during fermentation.
Pink in color, most people think these fruity wines are all extremely sweet, as White Zinfandels have been promoted to be. But the best Rosés are not sweet; they are off-dry blends of fermented juice from several varietals of red wine grapes that have only sat with their skins for a short time (usually less than two weeks), producing their light color. My favorite is by Tawse, a blend of 60% Syrah and 10% each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir that is cold-fermented on their skins in separate stainless steel barrels before being blended; the result is a refreshingly off-dry wine lightly flavored of red fruits and berries that pairs well with virtually any food.
Likened to me as "a woman in a black evening gown: elegant, soft, and slowly revealing itself," Pinot Noir is one of the more delicate reds in color, texture and flavor. Pinot is also one of the easiest reds to drink because of this, yet can display a great amount of depth in flavors and textures if one rolls the wine around in his mouth and allows the fullness to come out. This is a beautiful wine with food, as it can easily pair with beef, chicken, pork, pastas, vegetables and most fish.
On the opposite side of the spectrum of reds, this wine is BIG: big flavors (ripe red plums, chocolate, black pepper and tobacco), big acidity (contributing to its dryness) and big alcohol (often around 13%). These qualities are what Merlot fans love about this wine; but it also can make Merlots a bit tricky for those new to wine drinking.
TIP: Merlots can be a bit overwhelming, especially if unbalanced; the high alcohol content and strong, rich flavors of this wine sometimes demand either appropriate food pairings or an experienced palate. Go into Merlots with an open mind and be willing to try a few until you find ones you like. For a real taste experience, try tasting Merlots with dark chocolate bars, a dark chocolate mousse, or a dark chocolate fondue with strawberries and pound cake to enhance the chocolate and fruit flavors, balance its peppery flavor and allow the acidity and alcohol to cleanse your palate between bites.
The parent grape of the more widely-known Cabernet Sauvignon, this red has a big nose (lots of dark fruit scents) but can taste of more subtle fruit flavors, is fairly dry and heavy, and often needs a bit of time to open up before being able to be fully enjoyed. Look for smoothness in this wine if drinking it on its own; the flavors, acidity and alcohol content should meld together, creating a uniform experience, rather than one attribute dominating the others. When pairing Cab Franc with foods, look towards heavier foods that this wine will stand up against and cleanse your palate, allowing you to enjoy both food and wine as renewed experiences throughout the meal.
There are so many incredibly decadent varieties of ice wines that it is hard to isolate one varietal as superior to another. In allowing grapes to grow to their full ripeness, then allowing liquids to begin to crystallize in naturally cold temperatures, sugars in the grapes concentrate and excellent ice wines result from both red and white grapes. Fruity flavors also increase, such as with Chardonnay ice wines wherein ordinarily subtle peach flavors hit the palate full-on in a beverage as sweet as a syrup, as richly flavored as ripe fruit, but with a weight and texture all its own.
TIP: Try many varietals of ice wines, but remember that they're meant to be drunk in small quantities because of their potent flavors, textures and sweetness - usually no more than an ounce or so in a liquor glass. For an extremely decadent dessert, pour one serving over ice cream: a Cab Franc ice wine with its strawberry flavors would pair beautifully with a scoop of well-made Neapolitan, enhancing the strawberry, playing against the chocolate, and marrying its fruitiness with the vanilla.