Well, here I am, shooting from the hip again. I realize how little (if ever) I talk about actual wines. Yes, it has been coming up in some of my private coaching sessions with keen students (why bother having the session with an ex-somm if you can't at least squeeze a couple decent buys out of it...), but I realize, short of offering an actual, accessible wine course, I could do more to serve those who are early on in their journey by providing some immediately actionable advice that they can actually taste. What a concept, right?
So, I thought, let's not do a top-10, or a top-12, or a top-3 (it's all been done, even if it wasn't really about wine at all. is it ever?), but perhaps come up with, off the top of my head, 9 wines to kickstart your education.
Daunting, I admit. Ridicule, I will endure, no doubt. This is the cross that I bear for my various avatar (plural), padawan (also plural), the true reasons for my work, and to a great degree, existence.
Alas, I give you, the ULTIMATE So, you wanna be a somm? wine education starter kit:
9 Wines to Kickstart Your Education (and how much they should cost you)
In no particular order.
I thought I should get this out of the way, but I think it's important. Champagne is the most available example of wine I can think of that can demonstrate to a new student the flavour profile from a specific and small-ish area that can rarely-if-ever be replicated outside of the region, and subsequently, is prized by palates and wallets alike. This should be your most expensive bottle on this list. Try Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier, Perrier-Jouet, Pol Roger, Bollinger, Piper-Heidsieck, Charles-Heidsieck, Lanson, Nicolas Feuillatte, to name a few, if you're shopping for big brands that you might actually locate in a store. A bottle should cost you between $55-$85. I hate to say I'm biased, but I am, so if you can, avoid Veuve Clicquot or Moët & Chandon. If it's all you can find, they'll do the trick, but I admit I have a thing against wine companies that are equally known for purses and perfume.
I won't sit here and try to convince you that I'm in love with Prosecco or I think it's intellectually stimulating as a wine, but it will serve two purposes in your crash course. One, it will help you understand what half the world seems to be drinking and enjoying, which I do think is important, because it will give you an understanding of a major industry trend. Two, if you taste carefully and with some contemplation, you'll see why the Champagne costs so much more, and why the Prosecco costs so much less. They both have their place. You should spend $20 or less. You'll never refer to it as "Champagne" again.
Lean, bright, mouth-watering. If you ever hear a wine person talk about something that's "laser-like" or that has "focused acidity" or something like that, Muscadet will explain it to your tongue. From the western reaches of the Loire Valley in France, made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape varietal, Muscadet wines beautifully showcase the elegant simplicity that can be found in many widely available French wines. It's white, bone-dry, uber-refreshing and ideal with oysters or a baguette with a log of goat's cheese. Before you let the billboards, case-stacks, television ads, and your friends get you onto the Kim Crawford New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc train, get on the Muscadet train. You should be able to find one for between $15-$20.
4.) Sub-$15 Spanish or Italian White
As long as it does not say "Pinot Grigio" or "Chardonnay" or "Sauvignon Blanc" or any other popularized varietal that you recognize, then I'm cool with it. I realize this category is broad, vague, and probably offensive to some. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination saying that all white wine from Spain or Italy tastes the same. However. If you want to get an idea of what half of Europe and the world is glugging down their throats on Saturday night, this is a good place to start. There is some fantastic value, as indicated in the title, but also a stylistic approach that I think is important to appreciate. Whereas you'll see that the Muscadet listed above is laser-like, lean, and mean, you'll notice a greater generosity of fruit, gentler acidity in the generally warmer climate regions south of Bordeaux, but generally, a pleasant, pairable, and supportive wine. I would even encourage a white from the South of France. Fortunately, you can experiment with a few, take notes on each, and report back. Look for a Soave (Italy), Verdejo (Spain), Trebbiano (Italy), Colombard (often blended with something else; Southern France), or Vermentino (Italy). You gotta understand what the people are drinking!
5.) Louis Latour 'Grande Ardèche' Chardonnay
I almost wrote down Chardonnay from Sonoma or Monterey County, but I changed my mind. Louis Latour is not paying me for this, but what the hell. This wine is from a property they own between Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley. Because it's not part of Burgundy, the price is much lower, $25-$30. Louis Latour is the largest producer of white wine in Burgundy, so their wines are well-distributed. The reason I am including this wine is because I find it delivers a generous profile with a classic Burgundian restrain. What I mean by that, is that oak flavour is present, pleasant fruit characteristics are present, but the wine is not over-the-top and in your face. I think the style reflects an excellent entry point in to understand Chardonnay from Burgundy, while also showing some of the more forward qualities of new world styled Chardonnay from places like California, and such. If you can't find it, you may be interested in branching off of this list to grab a decent Bourgogne Blanc (not from Louis Latour...) from a commonly found producer such as Louis Jadot (they often use more exclusive vineyard sites in their Bourgogne Blanc in sub-fabulous vintages) AND something common in the Chardonnay category from Sonoma Cutrer or Rodney Strong from Sonoma County, or even La Crema from Monterey County. You should spend about $25 per bottle on any of those that I've mentioned.
6.) Chianti (decent Chianti, capisce?)
Let's get it out of the way. It's been the star of so many films, so many moments involving Godfathers, cousins named Vinny, Ray Liotta, Martin Scorsese, Sopranos, people from New York City suburbs, and checkered table cloths. Don't get the straw-basket. San Felice, Gabbiano, Antinori's Peppoli, Rocca del Macie, Fattoria dei Barbi (if you can find it), and a host of others are out there. You should spend $20 or less. Chianti is dominated by Sangiovese, which generally contains a higher level of acidity which makes it ideal for tomato-driven meat sauces and antipasto platters. Make a night out of it, do your homework.
7.) Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge
From the Rhone Valley in France, yet again, comes the appellation home to such crus as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chateau Grillet, Hermitage, and a bunch of other high-falutin AOCs that could bankrupt you. Or me. But the broad AOC that covers the valley, Côtes-du-Rhône, is an excellent jumping off point into the broader world of reds. Generally a blend of dominantly Grenache, with main supporting actors in Syrah and Mourvedre, among other lesser-known varietals, these wines can vary from relatively light-to-medium bodied and almost slightly chillable to rather rich, warm, and complex. For $20, you can find a nice range. Try something from E. Guigal, Boutinot, or even Brunel de la Gardine. If you can find the one from La Nerthe, spend an extra $5 and get that one. These varietals feature so prominently around the world, be it in Australia, Spain, Sardinia, California, Canada, you name it, there's a "GSM" (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) kicking around somewhere, no doubt influenced by the famous wines of the Côtes-du-Rhône. You should find the wines to be rather soft, pleasant, and diverse. They make excellent pairings with pizza, pork chops, burgers, stews, or even a hearty sablefish recipe. Research the great appellations of this region and drink your way through it, and you'll have your hands full for a while.
8.) Rioja Reserva or Ribera del Duero
I don't know why, but the red wines from the Rioja & Ribera del Duero (among a few others) appellations of Spain, to me, are severely under-valued when compared to wines that they are easily as good as. Do yourself a favour and let these wines, these styles, colour your palate. There is a relatively prominent and sometimes more apparent use of newer oak in Rioja than some other red-wine producing regions of Europe, and that can be a welcome and pleasant experience when you're just getting going, or when you've had plenty and just enjoy the flavour. With Tempranillo as the leading varietal, you'll often get a gorgeous, naturally rich deep ruby colour in the wines, with tannins that are finer and more approachable in their youth than even good vintage Bordeaux of the same price point. Spend $25, and you'll get a nice example. Spend $30 and you might be in more heaven than Ted Danson on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Try producers like Muga, Bordón, Marques de Riscal, Beronia, or Pruno by Bodegas Villacreces (Ribera del Duero). I think these wines strike the ideal balance between the hyper-new-world and the hyper-old-world. It's something more generous than a modern Bordeaux and a little less showy and fruit-driven than a restrained Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or Sonoma. A decent Rioja Reserva or Ribera del Duero will give you a great idea of what good, honest, and solid fuller-bodied red wine can be. Steaks, cured meats, cheese. Get after it.
9.) Dealer's Choice
I can stand up here all day and preach and preach and preach, but at the end of the day, you are the one who is going to fall in love with any or all of the styles and regions listed above, and the zillions of others than I haven't mentioned. The beauty of what we're doing here is that while I love being able to guide you down a path that will lead you to a healthy, intelligent, and rewarding relationship with wine, we must allow for the spontaneous and it's OK for it to get messy. We all have to begin somewhere. I remember the first bottle of wine I consumed from start to finish. It was a bottle called Wild Horse Canyon, blended from grapes that came from Oregon, Washington, California, and British Columbia. It was cheap, morally wrong in my opinion, and I am glad that I don't remember what it tasted like. I just remember that bottle, a red solo cup, and a summer party. I remember the girl I kissed that night. I was 18 years old. And that was my intro to drinking wine. I did not read about the bottle, I did not research it, I did not think twice about its "flavour profile" or its winemaking protocol. And here we are. Still trust me?
It's all you. The only list of wines to kickstart your education that is way more essential than this list is the list of every single wine region I didn't mention. The words Pinot Noir were not mentioned. You'll notice that Pinot Grigio was nowhere to be found. Cabernet Sauvignon did not come up in a recommended context. I didn't talk about anything in the southern hemisphere, save for a minor slander on NZ sauvignon blanc. I didn't talk about Washington State. I didn't mention organic, biodynamic farming, or low/minimal intervention wine or natural wine. I didn't talk about Sauternes or Port or late-harvest Riesling. Rosé. Important, influential wines did not even scratch this list. I could have easily re-wrote it with an entirely different selection. But, for those of you out there who have no idea who, what, where, when, why, or how, if this list helps you take action, crack a bottle, have a conversation, a meal, maybe open up a book or start Googling some wine terms, and start throwing some sh*t at the wall to see what sticks, then I will sleep soundly tonight.
Go get something. Anything. And let me know how it is.