SO YOU WANT to learn about wine. Maybe your best friend introduced you to a particularly intriguing bottle or you’re simply fed up with staring at wine lists in incomprehension. Whatever it is, you’ve made up your mind: Now is the time to tackle this vast subject. But how do you go about it?
My curiosity was piqued in my late teens when a wine-tasting class during my last year at school inspired me to spend a summer picking grapes in Provence. I followed this with a bit of time in vineyards in Australia and New Zealand. But it wasn’t until my university’s freshers fair, where I made a beeline for the Wine Appreciation Society, that my journey really began.
Like classical music, wine is a complex subject that requires almost constant study to be an expert, and a good deal of rigor even for those who just want to be an informed consumer.
Books can provide the basics but you should be wary of digesting other people’s opinions too quickly—even experts’. Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” is a good place to start, but remember to challenge his taste. If you don’t like Burgundy, it’s OK to say so. But to back up your opinion you’ll need to taste, taste, taste.
Start at your local independent wine shop. They’ll have knowledgeable staff who can recommend bottles and teach you the essentials of wine appreciation. Many run tastings where you can learn about grape varieties and taste different styles and vintages.
If that whets your appetite, sign up for one of the courses run by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (from €215; wsetglobal.com ). These are a good introduction to wine and cover the fundamentals of viticulture, production and grape varieties.
Operating in 62 countries, the British charity offers online and classroom courses for those in the industry as well as enthusiasts. The level two award in wine and spirits, which will give you a grounding in wine styles, can be done in nine evening sessions. A word of warning, though: These aren’t laid-back wine tastings. There will actually be a test at the end. When I completed my WSET exams while still at university, it did at times feel like another lecture.
Professional courses are also provided by the International Sommelier Guild (from $500; internationalsommelier.com ) and the Court of Sommeliers (from €285; courtofmastersommeliers.org ), covering everything from understanding a wine label to food-pairing theories. The Culinary Institute of America runs wine-tasting classes ($125; ciachef.edu ), while in London, two wine traders offer beginner’s classes: Christie’s (from €340; christies.edu ) and Berry Bros. & Rudd (from €350; bbr.com ), the latter of which teaches the WSET as well.
The most immersive offering I know is the Extreme Wine course, run by Southern Rhône wine estate Chêne Bleu in the South of France. Held once a year over five days, it will expose you to tastings, lectures, workshops and vineyard work, with a WSET exam at the end (from €5,100; laverriere.com ).
‘If you don’t like Burgundy, it’s OK to say so. But to back up your opinion you’ll need to taste, taste, taste.’
Of course, the ultimate qualification comes from the Institute of Masters of Wine. The London organization’s three-year program now has a more international feel, with students from 36 countries (From €4,800; mastersofwine.org ), but you need to have been in the industry three years to enroll.
If studying just isn’t your thing, my advice is to always look, sniff and think about what you have in the glass in front of you. Do that, and before long you’ll be tasting like a professional.
DRINKING NOW // Three Wines to Educate Your Palate
2009 Camillo de Lellis Biferno Rosso Riserva Palladino | €10.50 or $11
This southern Italian red wine really impresses: It oozes warmth, smoothness and silky tannins. A blend of Montepulciano and Aglianico, it’s rich in dark fruits such as damson and plum and will go well with heavier dishes. Alcohol: 13%
2013 Santa Venere Cirò Rosso | €11.50 or $12
Calabria, the toe of Italy, doesn’t exactly have a reputation for producing serious wine. But this one is medium-bodied, making it a wonderful summer wine. Packed with bright red fruit, it slips
down a treat with salads and even seafood. Alcohol: 13%
1996 Château Léoville-Las Cases | €205 or $225
This could be one of the greatest red Bordeaux I’ve ever tasted. Elegant, classic and complex, it’s a benchmark wine that could easily be counted among the region’s very best. Dark purple in color, it has a nose of cedar, and fruit underpinned by fresh acidity and tannin. Alcohol: 14%