Wine 101: Your guide to tasting and choosing a great $25 wine like an expert

There was a right way and a wrong way to enter the room. With dozens of people milling around, armed with trays of glasses filled with carefully anonymised wine, it was essential that I follow the arrows. Not wanting to end up in a glass collision, I followed orders and walked carefully among the rows and rows and rows of wine bottles lined up before me.

The function hall I found myself in was located in the picturesque town of Blenheim. Flying over this small town at the top of New Zealand’s South Island I was treated to views of carefully planted grapevines, growing in abundance. This was wine country, which was rather ideal as I was here on a mission to find out what it really takes to taste wine like an expert and then just “know” that it is good.

So, why did I need to come to Blenheim to find my answers? The judging for the annual New World wine awards was in progress and I planned to stick my nose right in the middle of it. I needed to find out what was involved in tasting and deciding if a wine is, in fact, good. I mean, most of us just choose wine based on what we know, the price tag and whether or not we like the label, right?

I will admit that, like many, I am often swayed by those shiny gold stickers when I am buying wine. I had never thought that much about how a wine earns those stickers though. It turns out I had a lot to learn.

These particular wine awards are judged according to international judging standards – one of the first things I learned – but they are a little different in two key ways. Firstly, the wines are to have a price point of $25 or less and, secondly, they need to have enough wine available to stock supermarket shelves all over New Zealand.

How is a wine is judged?

Wine judging, it turns out, is a complex business. Teams of judges taste each wine individually and give it a score out of 100. The judges are tasting blind, they have no idea who made the wine, they simply know the grape variety and the year. The judge will stand at a long table adorned with a row of glasses of wines of the same category – such as Pinot Noir, Sparkling, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay.

Once the judges have tasted every wine – assigning points out of 100 based on colour, taste and smell – they then meet up in teams and confer. If there is a wine that has been judged highly it will be referred for follow-up tasting. In fact, I was informed that for a wine to secure a gold medal (a score of 95-100) it will need to be tasted 19 times by 11 different judges. There is no way a bad wine is going to sneak through the cracks, this is serious business.

What are the judges looking for?

Jen Parr, co-chair of the New World Wine Awards, took a break to talk me through what wine tasting is all about. According to Parr, most of us forget to stop and smell the roses when we are tasting wine.

“Most of the sensory enjoyment of wine comes from the nose. That awakens your senses. So right away, before even a drop hits your taste buds you’re already having this impression of what the wine’s going to be,” Parr said. “If you deny yourself that sensory experience the wine is never going to taste as good.”

Parr told me that while the traditional swirl that you see snooty wine aficionados do is a good idea, if you are just giving your wine a good sniff, then you are on the right track. The next step is then to try to identify the aromas in the wine.

“You’re looking for intensity of aromas,” says Parr. “You are looking for aromatics. It could be florals, it could be herbaceousness.” As a judge, Parr says that over time you start to come up with your own vocabulary to describe the main characteristics you should get from certain varietals. Is that chardonnay lemony or more buttery? By connecting what you smell and taste in the wine with something you know – especially with something you like – you can better relate to and enjoy the wine.

How do you taste wine like an expert?

After we have swirled and sniffed, like Parr suggests, the next step is to taste it. Parr is quick to warn me not to take a big glug in one go, no matter how tempted I am.

“You don’t gulp it, you take a little sip and then let some oxygen in,” suggests Parr. She doesn’t mean a big ostentatious gargle, just a sneaky little inhalation of air, allowing the wine to aerate. “Then I let the wine sort of cover my mouth and make sure it reaches all of the different taste buds.”

By letting the wine coat all of the inside of your mouth you will get more of the flavour, suggests Parr.

Trying Parr’s tasting approach, I noticed and appreciated so much more of the flavours coming through in the wine, subtleties that I otherwise would have missed. While tasting an albarino (an emerging white varietal in NZ) with Parr, I found myself noticing flavours like crisp green apples, a hint of lemon and something a little bit floral. It made me think of summer and burying my toes in warm sand. I liked it, but was it any good? According to Parr the answer to that question was simple.

“The most important thing is, did it make you smile?”

Lesser-known wine varieties to try

I decided to put my new wine knowledge to use exploring some of the less popular wine varieties found on shelves around New Zealand. What new varieties are worth exploring and how do you choose a good one?

Albarino (pronounced ahl-bah-ree-nyoh)  is a white grape from Spain that is fast becoming the “it” white wine to drink in NZ. It’s similar to a pinot gris but with more acid and more citrus notes (tangerine, orange juice) and floral aromatics. The Hunting Lodge Seasonal Albarino, made in NZ, snagged a gold at last year’s wine awards and is a great choice to try out this style. Pair it with chicken, fish or a simple cheese platter.

Viognier (pronounced vee·o·nyay) is a great alternative for Chardonnay lovers. Rich in body, with lots of perfumed, floral-driven aromatics when oaked. Unoaked Viognier are lighter and zestier. A good one to get started with is The Crater Rim Waipara Viognier 2019.

Tempranillo (pronounced temp-ra-nil-yo) is a red grape from Spain that is a true crowd-pleaser. It is fruity, but not too bold, making it a great easy-drinking red. A good tempranillo boasts savoury cherry notes and goes well with almost any food, especially cured meats and strong cheeses. Try it on for size with a glass of Running With Bulls Tempranillo 2019.

Malbec (pronounced mal·bek) grapes originate from the Bordeaux region of France and are well suited to New Zealand’s cooler climate. Renowned for its deep colour and ripe, fruity characters, Malbec has long been used as a blending grape, but is gaining popularity and dominance as a standalone varietal both here and around the world. The beauty of Malbec is that it is not an overly heavy red and usually has a lovely balance of fruit and spice. This is a wonderful wine to accompany most dishes, especially pasta or your Sunday roast. The Latente Reserve Malbec 2017 from Argentina is a great Malbec to try.

Grenache (pronounce gren-arsh, also known as Garnacha) is a grape originally from Spain, that it is now grown around the world, particularly in the Southern Rhone Valley in France. A good grenache will be rich and flavourful, with notes of plum, strawberry and dried herbs. Pairing a bottle of Peter Lehmann The Barossan Grenache 2017 with a chorizo-rich paella would never be a bad idea.

Montepulciano (pronounced mon·tay·puhl·che-aah·no) is the second most planted red grape in Italy (after Sangiovese) and has traditionally had a reputation as a budget “pizza-friendly” red, but the grape is growing in popularity in NZ with several wineries around the country producing complex and dynamic wines with this grape. The locally produced Montepulciano are not the cheapest option around and they can be harder to find, but they are worth a bit of extra effort and will impress no end at your next dinner party. The Coopers Creek Select Vineyard Montepulciano “Guido in Velvet Pants”, 2017 vintage, is a very affordable entry to this exciting wine variety.

Fast facts about wine in New Zealand

The most grown red grape is?

Pinot Noir.

The most grown white grape is?

Sauvignon Blanc.

What are Kiwis drinking more of than they used to?

Sparkling wines have grown in popularity by of over 17 per cent since last year, especially Prosecco.

The regions that produce the most wine in NZ are?

Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay.

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