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Drinking Out Loud

How to Really Understand Wine

Hint: You want depth, not breadth

Matt Kramer
Posted: November 19, 2013

A fellow came up to me at a party, introduced himself, and asked for a bit of advice. He wanted to become a wine writer, he said. And he was wondering if I had any advice about how to proceed.

This was hardly the first time I've been asked such a thing, and my advice is always the same: Forget it. Try something else. I explained to him, as I have to others, that wine writing is a limited line of work with few opportunities. I recited a litany of drawbacks.

You likely already know his response: He was undaunted. This was what he really wanted to do. He had to try, he said.

Well, who am I to dissuade someone from his or her dream? Passion and perseverance are wonders to behold and I for one have no desire to deter anyone from pursuing a dream, however unlikely the possibility of success.

Most aspiring writers focus on the practicalities of getting their work published and paid for. This is understandable, of course. But it's not what's important.

What really matters, I asserted, is actually understanding wine. This is fundamental to any of us who are passionate about wine, never mind whether you want to write about it.

This business of understanding wine is different, surprisingly so, from simply being exposed to it. All of us, in the beginning, want nothing so much as the chance to taste (and drink) as many different wines as possible. How else can we know whether we like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot or Pinot Noir or Malbec? How else can we know whether the high praise for this producer or that district is justified?

There's no getting around this fundamental need for broad exposure. It's essential. But here's the thing: Exposure isn't understanding.

Allow me take this one step further by saying that too many wine drinkers confuse the two. They think that tasting something—being exposed to it—suffices. But wine isn't radiation. Exposure alone doesn't penetrate.

So what I said to this aspiring wine writer—and I think it holds true for all of us who love and pursue wine—is that you have to narrow your scope in order to increase your depth. You have to seek the kind of understanding that can only come with a different kind of exposure, one dedicated to grasping details that can only be absorbed by diving deeper.

Let me give you an example. You say that you love Burgundy. (Me too.) You also say, with reason, that Burgundy is both complicated and expensive. That it's hard to really get your head around it. And you're right, of course. The same may be said for nearly any region or district that delivers not just numerous wines but ones with a seemingly infinite variety of flavors and details, such as Barolo and Barbaresco, Napa or Sonoma, Australian Shiraz and so on.

I believe that the best way to understand Burgundy is not to flit from one village to another, like a butterfly savoring the nectar from this flower and that.

Rather, I think that you'll achieve a deeper, more resonant understanding of Burgundy by concentrating your attention on just one village. (I nominate St.-Aubin for this, by the way.)

This may seem counterintuitive. How can anyone better understand a place as variegated and complex as Burgundy, with all those vineyards and idiosyncratic producers, by confining oneself to the production of just one village?

The answer lies, I believe, in the dimensionality of the knowledge you will acquire. Let's say you decide that St.-Aubin is the ticket. It's a small district, with a manageable number of growers, most of whom achieve high quality. Both red (Pinot Noir) and white (Chardonnay) are grown. Prices are affordable. It's also a higher-elevation village, which means that the wines are more creatures of finesse and delicacy than of dramatic power and depth.

So you taste, comparing vineyards and producers as well as, inevitably, vintages. You acquire a sense of intimacy, a knowing expectation. Pretty soon, the character of St.-Aubin's best vineyards, such as En Remilly, which grows only Chardonnay, becomes recognizable, trumping the "personality" of the producer's winemaking style.

Finally, and importantly, you visit the producers. St.-Aubin is a small place. It's off the beaten tourist-track. Its growers will welcome you, especially when you tell them of your quest to grasp and truly understand the distinction of their place.

They will take you through the vineyards, telling you about clones and rootstocks, the effects of elevation, the literal lay of the land, which has pockets of pooling cool air or ideal drainage. Not least, you will hear about the differences in exposure and soils, the combination of which usually explains why Pinot Noir is grown here, Chardonnay over there.

Not least you will taste as you've never tasted before, with focus, acuity and purpose, connecting dots that you previously didn't know existed. Soon, you discover that what you like diminishes in importance as you seek to better understand the legitimacy of each vineyard site. Producers will love explaining this to you, recognizing your sincere desire to understand what is, effectively, their life's work.

Then, after all this, you move on to taste other Burgundies. All of a sudden, everything clicks into place. When you taste grands crus (St.-Aubin has none) you will know in an instant—really know—why that vineyard is a grand cru. You intuit instantly if a wine has finesse (a strong suit of St.-Aubin's wines) or if it's a bit coarse or merely fruity.

Everything you learned in that one small village is extrapolated—and properly so—to the larger universe of Burgundy. You will taste deeper and better. Above all, you'll understand in a way unavailable to you from set-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down exposure.

Anyway, that's what I said to my would-be wine writer. What I described could—and should—be applied to all sorts of wine locales, anywhere in the world where fine wines of real distinction are produced.

I could only say that it worked for me—and I think that it will work for you, too.

Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  November 19, 2013 12:09pm ET
Interestingly, you make no mention of "how" wine is made. The depth of "where" the wine is made, you argue, is fundamental to "understanding". Maybe so, but, nonetheless quite a way down on the totem pole of understanding (after how wine gets in the bottle),I would think.
Hugh Preece
Princeton, NJ —  November 19, 2013 12:37pm ET
Great advice you give to the dreamer and also for the wine lover. I think trade shows are great for seeking wines for a business but it wasn't till I visited Mendoza and travelled from vineyard to vineyard talking to the owners and winemakers that I really began to develop my passion for knowledge at the vineyard level. Thanks for the read and insight.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  November 19, 2013 12:52pm ET
I agree with the general idea. In fact, the first major piece Wine Spectator did on Burgundy (in 1985) drilled down on Beaune Premiers Crus, focusing on Beaune-Grèves, delving into the distinctions between Grèves and surrounding sites and the differences among several domaines in both viticulture and winemaking. (Becky Wasserman was invaluable in getting me in contact with the right people long before we reviewed the wines regularly.) I never "got" Burgundy until I did that. I hope my reporting helped readers do the same.
Tom Mullen
Laguna Beach, California, USA —  December 3, 2013 3:53am ET
Good advice. I spent weeks on the right bank of Bordeaux drinking good, though inexpensive reds. Later, on a trip to New Zealand, I sat next to a wine writer at a tasting, and confessed that I knew nothing about identifying a wine by taste. We were then provided with an unknown red. I sipped, and declared - right bank Bordeaux! She thought it was a Shiraz. I was right, and that moment changed my perspective on getting to know wine - by first getting familiar with one region. Nice piece - thanks.

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