Many people are willing to try a new Douro wine but when they try to recall it later all they can come up with is a vague memory of what the bottle’s label looked like. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people walk into my shop and say, “I had this great wine last week. It was white and the label had a blue dog, or a white dog on a bluish background…” No matter how individual a label may seem when it’s sitting on your kitchen counter, when you go to the shop all of the hundreds of labels look disturbingly similar. Marketing people still claim that many of us buy wine based upon how the label looks – that may be true and there is a lot of money spent on designing interesting labels – but label design is no way to remember a wine.
As a start, take a moment with your first sips of any wine to notice, really notice how it looks, smells and tastes. Bright or dark in the glass? Clean or intriguing and powerful in aroma? Clear and fresh? Fruity? Tart? Rich and full bodied? Long lasting? Experience the wine briefly with all your senses. Most of what we think is taste is actually our sense of smell. The average human can distinguish about 10.000 distinct aromas and our olfactory bulb feeds those sensations of smell directly into the part of our brain that governs memory and emotion. That’s why, on a basic level, we all really enjoy good experiences of aroma and taste.
Look at the label. The design may be interesting or fun but there are three details that are way more important.
What grape type is used to make the wine? Most labels today do indicate the grape or blend of grapes that are used in the wine making. Outside of Europe this is universally true, except in the case of some very unusual blends, but many European wines today reveal the grape type on the front label if not the back label.
There are hundreds, no, there are thousands of different grapes used all over the world to make wine, but all you have to remember is one or two with any single wine. I think of different grapes as having different personalities of aroma and flavor. If you’re at a party meeting a lot of new people it may seem overwhelming but you meet and talk with one person at a time. If you run into the same grape again later you can recall that you’ve met before, especially if you can recall the name. In time, you’ll start to recognize each grape’s personality and you might start to seek out particular ones that you like.
Practically speaking there are about thirty grape types that are used to make the vast majority of the world’s wines. They have names like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Sangiovese. They are all members of the same vine family (genus) Vitis Vinifera. They’re like brothers and sisters. They make all the white, red, pink and sparkling wine in the world. Some are closer cousins than others. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon is a genetic offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Some have unusual names but it’s no big deal. You can get to know them over time. Just remember, each time you meet one, shake their hand and try to imprint their name on your memory.
Where does the wine come from? All labels will tell you this. And, in the case of those European wines that don’t readily reveal the grape type on the label, the place they come from will tell you that. It’s not really important that you know that certain European wines are made from particular grapes, because the Europeans don’t even think about it themselves. When they drink red Burgundy, from a region called Burgundy in France, they don’t think, “Wow, this is great Pinot Noir”, even though all red Burgundy is 100% Pinot Noir. A European simply thinks, “Wow, this is good Bourgogne Rouge”. In time you can get to know the connections between grape types and European places, but to start, if you are enjoying an Italian Chianti or a Spanish Rioja you can just remember “Chianti” or “Rioja”.
The place a wine comes from is important because every wine label carries this information and, if you remember a place name it will help you find a wine you’ve liked, or another wine similar to one you’ve liked.
Grapes are an agricultural product and the conditions in which they grow has a lot to do with the finished character of the wine. Cooler places, coastal places and hilltop places often produce more lively, crisp and fresh wines whereas warmer valleys and inland places produce richer, fuller flavored wines. White wines often come from more northerly vineyards or vineyards near water while red wines come from warmer vineyards where the dark grapes can ripen more fully.
Once again, I like the people/grape type metaphor. The location of the grape’s growing is like a person’s accent, and in time you’ll begin to recognize the accent of a wine. Australian accents are very distinctive (mate!) and their wine has a fruit forward, ripe and modernly expressive family likeness. Likewise, Italian wines speak in aroma and flavor with a zesty, muscularity and seem to cry out for a plate of food without any care for what time of day it is.