Whether you’re a wine newb, a seasoned taster, or a casual drinker looking to up their game, it is always a good idea to keep your palate calibrated. This can be a challenge, though, if you’re not sure where to begin or which wines to taste!
When tasting wine, one of the best exercises is to taste certain wines side-by-side; particularly wines which have something in common so that you can begin to isolate which flavors in the wine are coming from where. Is that sweet spice in your Zinfandel a varietal character or coming from new oak? Is Pinot always earthy or is this a result of where it is grown?
Below is a list of comparison tastings designed to help any wine lover decipher the myriad factors which go into a glass of wine, from soil type to climate to winemaking techniques. While this list is by no means all-inclusive, it is a great way to kickstart your way towards an expert palate
Need some wine tasting basics before you get started? Click here.
Top Regions: Burgundy, France, and Oregon, USA.
Pinot Noir is both one of the most classic and one of the most revered varietals in the world. It is a thin-skinned grape, notoriously difficult to grow and known to heavily express the site where it was grown.
Pinot Noir hails from Burgundy, France, and this remains the home of some of the finest wines in the world. Along the same latitude as Burgundy but across an ocean and a continent, the Willamette Valley in Oregon is a relatively new wine region whose popularity for growing excellent Pinot Noir enjoyed a fast ascent.
A common distinction between wine regions is “Old World” vs “New World” wines—broadly, regions which have grown wine for centuries (broadly, Europe) and generally produce an earth-driven style (Old World), vs regions which are newer and tend to produce a more fruit-driven style (New World). Pay attention to this distinction as it will come up again, but for now, examine the difference between the Oregonian (New World) and Burgundian (Old World) Pinot Noirs.
Tasters Test: See if you can notice that the fruit in the Oregon Pinot is likely more juicy, bright, and apparent; the fruit in the Burgundy may still be rich, to be sure, but will likely take more of a back seat to earthy notes like mushrooms and forest floor. The differences here can be attributed to a large degree to terroir.
Wines to Try:
Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2017, $30 | Click Here
Joseph Drouhin Cote de Beaune Villages 2016, $32.99 | Learn More
Top Regions: Burgundy, France, and California, USA
Yes, we are tasting Burgundy again, and with good reason; both white and red Burgundies are among the most important wines in the world. This pair will help the taster to understand the influence of winemaking choices on the wine.
Both Burgundy and California use techniques which make the wine buttery (called malolactic fermentation) and sweetly spicy (new oak). However, in California, these qualities tend to be more apparent in the wine, whereas in Burgundy they prefer to balance with minerality and restraint in the Chardonnay.
Learn more about Chardonnay here.
Tasters Test: See if you can taste more butter, cream, sweet spice, and oak in the California wine, and more flint, chalk, or mushroom in the Burgundy.
Wines To Try:
Crossbarn Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016, $24.99 | Learn More
Domaine Louis Latour Pouilly Fuisse 2017 $23.99 | Click Here
Top Regions: Bordeaux, France and California, USA:
This will be an exercise in recognizing the influence of climate on a wine. While both Bordeaux, France (particularly the Left Bank of Bordeaux) and California (particularly Napa) grow world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, the difference upon tasting the two side-by-side is readily apparent.
You will likely taste bold, rich, dense and dark fruit in the California Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as plenty of body and structure. The Bordeaux will be lighter on the palate, with a mixture of red and black fruit (also coming from the tradition of blending with grapes such as Merlot), much drier and earth-driven.
Now think about the climate of these regions; Napa, California, in particular, will have a warm climate, ample sunshine, and mountain and hillside slopes. All of this increases the ripeness of the grapes—and riper grapes mean richer, juicier fruit and bolder structure. Contrast this with the moderately cool maritime region of Bordeaux, with its frequent rains, and it begins to make sense why the Cabernet Sauvignon grown here—while fantastic in its own right—is not as ripe as California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Tasters Test: Recognize the influence of climate on a single varietal. Taste Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux and Napa Valley.
Wines To Try:
Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 $34.99 | Click here
Chateau Les Ormes de Pez Saint Estephe 2012 $34.99 | Learn More
Top Regions: Chianti, Italy and Barolo, Italy
The wines from Italy tend to have a particularly “Italian” quality to them; a combination of tart and dried fruit, forest floor, truffle, and, shall we say, “old cellar” always stand out to me.
Here we taste two wines, both Italian, both of which generally display the aforementioned flavors, yet are from different grapes, different regions, and are totally distinct wines.
This will help us understand the varietal (grape) character. Chianti, from the Tuscany region in the heart of Italy, is made with the Sangiovese grape. Barolo is from Piedmont in Northern Italy and is made from the Nebbiolo grape. While these wines are frequently confused in blind tastings even by professionals, there are distinct differences classically between the two.
Nebbiolo is generally “high” across the board, and will show higher acidity (mouth-watering quality), tannin (mouth-drying quality) and alcohol (a “hot” and sometimes “sweet” sensation) than Sangiovese. The varietal aromas of Nebbiolo also tend to be more pronounced; while initially, the two grapes can be difficult to distinguish given similar terroir, Nebbiolo tends to have more bright, floral, overt aromatics.
Tasters Test: Note the similarities and differences between two Italian varietals. Hone you palate by finding subtle differences.
Wines To Try:
Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale 2015 $22.99 | Click Here
Mauro Molino Barolo 2015 $29.99 | Learn More
Top Regions: Prosecco, Italy and Champagne, France
This pair will help us to understand differences in fermentation techniques.
Both prosecco and Champagne are classic sparkling wines, yet they are made in very different ways. Prosecco is made using what is called the “Charmat” or “Tank” method. This involves a secondary fermentation (the one that makes the bubbles) in a large tank. This bubbly wine is then filtered and transferred, finished, to the bottle.
Champagne, on the other hand, is made using the eponymous Champagne Method. Here, the second (bubbly) fermentation occurs in the bottle. This is a more labor-intensive process as the wine cannot be treated or filtered all at once. It also means the Champagne wine will spend more time on the yeast, or “lees”, which gives it a distinct biscuit toasty aroma and flavor.
The Champagne method thus has wine spending more time in the bottle before filtration, lending it these complex flavors as well as more and finer bubbles than prosecco, typically.
Tasters Test: Notice the difference in the bubbles, taste, aroma, and "mouth-feel" of champagne and prosecco.
Wines To Try:
Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico NV $16.99 | Learn More
Piper Heidsieck Brut NV $39.99 | Click Here
While each and every wine has countless factors which contribute to its final character, it can often be useful to isolate these factors as much as possible to more fully understand why wine tastes the way it does. Hopefully these guided pairings help you to pinpoint certain characteristics in a wine, and in any case, you are likely to find a wine you love!