I was recently at another wine event (click here for the image gallery). It was an intimate gathering at a small bar, and I was able to meet and speak with many people, both wine industry professionals and enthusiastic supporters and drinkers. At some point we were gathered together out host made a short speech, and a chuckle ran through most of the crowd at the mention of “Cienna” as though sharing a private joke. It wasn’t a mean-spirited sort of laughter, but more like the embarrassed humour one uses when remembering themselves from the past and comparing how far they have progressed from then.
I remember tasting a Cienna many years ago, before I formally started working in wine, and the dominant characteristic was that it was very sweet, at least medium-sweet on the usual scale. I see now that Cienna may have been one of my “gateway wines”, one that changed my perspective on wine in general, subtly but irresistibly.
You may have had a similar experience. You are offered a wine for the first time, a mysterious red (in most cases) liquid shimmering in the glass. You have a taste, then make a face – all you can make out is tartness and a gripping texture mixed with alcohol.
From then on you become wary of (if not outright avoiding) wines at events and functions. Only much later do you make a new friend who is a wine enthusiast, who is all too happy to have a conversation about how to look for what you want in a wine. You are offered another glass of wine, this one pleasing to the palate, and your perspective changes.
Such gateway wines are important because they act as a bridge to new experiences you may otherwise be unprepared for, or allow to pass unappreciated. That Cienna was a great wine many years ago, simple and accessible, but knowing what I do now I wouldn’t likely try it again. It is like a progression from instant to single-origin coffee, candy bars to dark chocolate, factory farmed meat to organic produce.
In my observations I have noticed three such gateways:
Main elements – sweetness, bubbles, freshness and price.
In a market dominated by dry wines, sweetness is the one attribute that anyone can understand immediately. The wine neophyte clings onto it initially, having finally found a wine they enjoy and not wanting to let go.
A preference for bubbles and spritz could possibly have been conditioned into us since childhood via soft drinks. Bubbles in the mouth is a fun sensation and brings a sense of refreshment, so it’s no wonder that sparkling wines are the preferred choice for celebrations.
For the sense of freshness I like to use the example of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which is probably a large part of what makes it so popular worldwide. Pour a glass of NZ SB and you’ll notice how pronounced the nose is, with aromas of passionfruit, guava, lychee, and other exotic fruits. These profiles are pleasing, engaging and simple to understand, and induces you to take a sip.
Finally there is price. For the person who knows nothing about wine, price speaks volumes. The regular consumer is risk-averse, so they would feel less bad if they spend $10 than $100 on a wine they did not enjoy.
Main elements – Intensity of aroma, flavour, texture, higher prices
Soon you will find a wine that stand out to you, something that offers more than sugar and bubbles. For some it may be a density of colour and fruit. For others it might be a textural experience, whether it be silky, chalky or gripping.
Whatever it is, you pursue wines that exhibit these characteristics with single-mindedness, to the exclusion of all others, and at almost any price. Your palate has matured to accept more complex elements, but your mind is still clinging to the misguided concept of a “perfect wine”.
This phase can also manifest itself in reverse, where one find wines with intense expressions of elements they don’t enjoy. The so-called ABC crowd who set themselves apart by declaring they will drink “Anything But Chardonnay” or “Anything But Cabernet” illustrates this perfectly.
Main elements – Finish, underlying characters, terroir, food and wine, appreciation without acceptance
The transition to the third stage is much like the progression from the first to the second. When one becomes tired of sugar and bubbles, they look to other characteristics. When even that becomes overwhelming, you begin to appreciate the nuance in things.
The finish of a wine is one of the more difficult wine concepts for the mind to grasp. It’s a sense that the wine seems to linger on the palate, long after you have swallowed the last drop. It’s for this reason that when you read wine reviews, those described as having a “long, lingering finish” are spoken of and rated highly.
As you train your palate you will begin to glimpse at the underlying characters of a wine, often overlooked because they are masked by the more intense elements. As an extension to this, you may begin to gain an understanding of terroir, that gossamer term that suggests a sense of place that can be perceived from within the wine.
At this stage you will also begin to see wine not only as a beverage that stands by itself, but an ideal compliment with food. Each meal becomes an opportunity to experiment with new pairings, seeing how they combine together to enhance the experience. I briefly outlined my experience in this review here.
Finally, as you learn more, you reach a stage where you can appreciate all styles of wine, even if they not perfectly align with your tastes and preferences. This is the complete antithesis to the stubbornness of the ABCs.
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. – Aristotle
The above is just my observation, and in no way suggests everyone has exactly the same progression from neophyte to enthusiast. However it is a useful model for when you meet other people who are just beginning to explore wines, and will give you an idea of how to communicate with them.
Are there more gateway wines out there? The only way to know is to keep drinking, as always, in moderation.
P.S. – Many people have already skipped a few gateways by ordering a Personal Wine Consultation. Is today the day for you to do the same?
Read more: Use Selective Ignorance