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So you think you want to get into wine? It’s not for the faint of heart. There are so many wines out there: amazing wines, confounding wines, perplexing wines; wines from many countries, many regions. Any time you think you’ve learned the names of every grape variety in existence, you haven’t (Master of Wine Jancis Robinson even co-authored a book devoted to over 1,300 grape varieties).
Though the journey is treacherous, there are great rewards to be had when you stumble upon the perfect wine that gives you that invigorating heady kiss that stays with you forever. Merlot did that for the Baby Boomer generation of wine lovers before one guy—an actor in a movie—ruined merlot for every Generation X consumer. I refuse to name the movie (although merlot is on the up and up again). Chris Sawyer is a sommelier based in Sonoma, Calif., a renowned wine judge, and author of The Sommelier Files, a weekly digest. He says, "We have the highest-quality merlot on the market than we’ve ever had. The folks who kept it in the ground care so much for it.” And that’s exactly the point I want to drive home: The more you care, the more you’ll learn—and the better the world of wine will be.
But to be a thoughtful wine lover, a bit of education goes a long way. Chris Oggenfuss, CEO of Napa Valley Wine Academy, says: “[It's best to] start with the basics and easily identifiable grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and syrah. Look for wines that have those grapes on the label. Don't yet focus on the region; focus first on finding the grape variety that suits your taste. From there, once you find the grape variety that makes your palate sing, start to experiment with that grape variety from different regions. Once you have mastered that, you will feel much more confident to branch out and experiment with the more nuanced differences that red wine blends, wineries and even climates have on the style of a wine.”
So, in the spirit of wine education by fire (as in, buy the wine, drink it and learn as you sip), this is a list of wines for the amateurs and dilettantes who want to take that first step on their path toward wine virtuosity. Here is a curated list of the best wines we recommend for beginners.
Best Overall: Ridge Paso Robles Zinfandel 2017
Region: California, Central Coast, Paso Robles | ABV: 15.1% | Tasting Notes: Blueberry, Black cherry, Blackberry, Currant.
Winemaker Paul Draper is an icon of mythic proportions. In over 50 years as chief winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, he fought valiantly against French competitors at the “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting in 1976, earned several prestigious honors, and almost single-handedly brought fame to the California zinfandel. So if you’re serious about venturing into the wonderful world of wine, start with this 2017 bottle of zinfandel from one of the world’s wonderful winemakers that transformed the varietal into a beacon of greatness. This bottle is fruity, spicy and irresistible.
Best Budget: Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvee 2018
Region: California, Sonoma | ABV: 14.2% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Vanilla, Cherry, Spice.
Gundlach Bundschu (or GunBun for short) is an iconic Sonoma brand with six generations and 160 years of winemaking under its belt. Wine beginners will want to acquaint themselves with the GunBun wine portfolio—and also, after the pandemic ends, its annual (and awesome) Huichica Music Festival. This event combines GunBun's great wine with a lineup of excellent music and is arguably the less-crowded antithesis of Outside Lands. Its 2018 Mountain Cuvee is a mostly merlot blend with fantastic flavor and a surprisingly low price tag.
Best Dry: Lupe-Cholet Comte de Lupe Rouge 2013
Region: France, Burgundy | ABV: N/A | Tasting Notes: Strawberry, Currant, Cherry, Spice.
You should know up front that most red wines are bone dry. In fact, most wines are generally dry, and any sweetness you detect in a dry table wine is actually due to the wine’s ripe, fruity flavors. OK, having said that, there could be some residual sugar—but that calls for an entirely separate lesson. Enter the 2013 Lupe-Cholet Comte de Lupe Rouge, a French mouthful and a stunning pinot noir. This wine hails from the famous Burgundy region, which should be at the top of your list of famous wine-producing regions to get acquainted with. This smooth, fruity bottle of pinot, with its sumptuous splash of acidity, should make for a great introduction to the driest of the dry.
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Best Sweet: Graham's Six Grapes Reserve Port
Region: Portugal, Douro | ABV: 19.5% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Chocolate, Raisin, Red plum.
If you’re going to go with something sweet, the best place to go to is Portugal’s Douro Valley, home of its world-famous national treasure, Port wine. Not only is Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve super tasty, but it’s also an excellent (and incredibly well-priced) example of the heights Port wine can reach. Tip for beginners: In part due to the sugar content, a little Port goes a long way, and it retains its flavor for a couple of months after popping the cork. Just store it in a cool place. It’s a great wine to savor over time.
Best Blend: Trefethen Dragon's Tooth Red Blend 2017
Region: California, Napa Valley, Oak Knoll District | ABV: 14.7% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Vanilla, Blackberry, Violet.
With so many red grape varietals to choose from, sometimes it’s better to try them all at once. Trefethen brings three generations of experience working land in Napa’s Oak Knoll District, and its 2017 vintage of the Dragon’s Tooth Red Blend is a tasty sample of Napa malbec, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and merlot. So many of the world’s greatest wines rely on a blend of grapes, and the thing to know is that blends happen in both the vineyard and the winery. There, now you really have something to Google.
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Best Merlot: CK Mondavi Merlot
Region: California, Napa | ABV: 13.4% | Tasting Notes: Plum, Cocoa powder, Blackberry, Oak.
Look, merlot is the one grape that suffered a disgracing setback for an entire two decades, all because it got disparaged in a movie. Some people are still out there giving merlot the stink eye. But you won’t. Oh no. You’re going to try a glass of this sustainably farmed, Dunnigan Hills AVA-sourced bottle of merlot from CK Mondavi, one of the most respected names in wine—and you’re going to understand and appreciate merlot for the silky deliciousness that it’s always been. Just one taste, and as if by magic, you’ll know more about merlot than some “experienced” wine drinkers.
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Best Grenache: Clos Figueras Serras del Priorat 2018
Region: Spain, Priorat | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Blackberry, Raspberry, Cherry, Cassis.
The Priorat region of Catalonia experienced a new revitalization in the past 30 years after going dark as a center for wine production. This was an unfortunate oversight, but you’ll be glad it's made a comeback because the area is a hotbed for some of the best grenache-based wines in Spain. To sweeten the appeal, many of its wines offer an incredible bargain. If you want to get acquainted with the Mediterranean zip of Priorat, this 2018 bottle from Clos Figueras is a great place to start.
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Best Cabernet Sauvignon: Nickel & Nickel Sullenger Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Region: California, Napa Valley, Oakville | ABV: 14.3% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Date, Chocolate, Red currant.
Do you want to spend more than $100 on a bottle of wine? No, you don’t. But do you want to try a true rock-star Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that will blow your mind? Well, yes, yes you do. What gives the Nickel & Nickel Sullenger Vineyard Cab an edge is its iconic Oakville AVA, which is home to other winemakers, such as the coveted mailing list-only Screaming Eagle, as well as Harlan and Dalla Valle. Compared with these names, Nickel & Nickel is a bargain worth saving your nickels for.
Best Italian Zinfandel: Coppi Senatore Primitivo 2017
Region: Italy, Gioia del Colle | ABV: 13.5% | Tasting Notes: Cherry, Raspberry, Oak, Plum.
Primitivo is one of Italy’s most beloved wine grapes, and fun fact: It’s the same grape as the zinfandel. But whether you call it primitivo or zinfandel, the Italian take on the variety from the world-renowned Coppi Winery will turn you into a fan. Its Senatore wine gets its distinct flavor from the vineyard’s warm summers, refreshing breezy air off the Adriatic coast, and the kind of intimate care you can depend on from small-parcel harvests.
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Best American Zinfandel: Louis Martini Monte Rosso Gnarly Vine Zinfandel 2016
Region: California, Sonoma, Moon Mountain District | ABV: 16.2% | Tasting Notes: Black cherry, Raspberry, Cinnamon, Chocolate.
Don’t let the name confuse you, newbies. Louis M. Martini is an iconic winery with the very best Grand Cru vineyard of zinfandel (Monte Rosso) that Sonoma has to offer. A Grand Cru is actually a category of vineyard ranking in France—the very best vineyards are labeled Grand Cru. In America, we try to emulate the French in winemaking all the time, often using their lingo in order to highlight a comparison. "Grand Cru" has entered the U.S. lexicon to try to highlight vineyards we think are the cream of the crop; unlike France, we don’t have legal terms to do that work for us.
The namesake “gnarly vine” of this 2016 vintage was planted all the way back in 1893, which means the same plants have been producing dynamite zinfandel grapes for more than a century. If you want to be a wine pro, Louis M. Martini is a name to know. And Monte Rosso is a site you can safely call a Grand Cru. The wine isn’t priced for wine beginners, but after a taste of this, you’re not really a beginner anymore.
Best Pinot Noir: Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2017
Region: California, Mendocino | ABV: 14.5% | Tasting Notes: Black cherry, Clove, Blood orange, Brown spices
Any time you’re in the mood for a good pinot noir, you can always bank on a bottle from California’s Anderson Valley. Though not as popular as its neighbors to the south, Napa and Sonoma, the Anderson Valley region boasts some of the state’s coolest climates. This means it’s the perfect place for growing the sensitive, thin-skinned and finicky pinot noir variety. This 2017 vintage of Goldeneye, under the illustrious and iconic Duckhorn Vineyards portfolio, is an excellent way to get the true taste of an Anderson Valley pinot noir.
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Jonathan Cristaldi has written about wine and spirits for more than a decade. He regularly tastes wines from around the globe and personally tasted every wine in this roundup. Cristaldi was named a Wine Prophet by Time Out New York for his witty and often avant-garde approach to wine education.
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