If you are a beginner in the wine world, there are four pillars that you should spend time getting to know. They are Tannin, Alcohol, Acidity and Body. Like "Y is sometimes a vowel, "Vintage" is often the 5th pillar.
Here's a quick course in the major wine pillars for all the beginners.
Cabs and Zin are good wines for beginners to start out with. After all, Cabernet is the most popular wine in the world. I like to think of it as the "Budweiser" of wines. But, like beer, no one would ever suggest a Guinness to someone who has never tasted beer before, right? Wine is no different. That is why Cabs and Zins are good platform from which to take the plunge, so to speak.
Cabernet is a good wine for beginners because it has good tannins and allows the beginner to experience those tannins without busting the wallet. Most importantly, however, it allows the beginner to decide if they like wine with lots of tannin. Tannin is what gives wine that slightly dry sensation. However, tannin is often confused with alcohol which is what actually determines a wine's dryness. Tannin is what gives wine its astringency and that touch of bitterness. Tannin comes from grape skins and stalks. Tannin is to wine as hops is to beer. Some folks simply do not like beer with a lot of hops. The same is true for wine drinkers and tannin. For this reason, Cabernet is a good wine to familiarize the beginner with tannin to decide if high tannin wine is something they like.
Zinfandel is another great wine for beginners because its a great wine to learn how alcohol effects the taste of wine. Zin typically has a high alcohol content because it is made from fruit that is very ripe. This is where the term "jammy" comes from. NOTE: In the wine world, using the term "jammy" is like being that guy in the music store who insists on playing Stairway to Heaven. NO STAIRWAY! The high alcohol content gives the wine its "big" characteristics. The higher alcohol content is what makes California Cabs and Zin seem "bigger" than their French counterparts. Alcohol also determines a wine's dryness. The higher the alcohol, the dryer the wine.
Another great "cornerstone" wine is Pinot Noir. It teaches beginners what acidity is all about. It has low tannins and that allows for the acidity to stand out. Acidity is that characteristic that makes you want to pucker like the way lemons do (just not as unpleasant). But Pinots are something special. Pinot grapes are notoriously temperamental and have thin skins (hence, the low tannins) which means they bruise easily. They are more reactive to temperature and climate conditions than any other grape so consistency is always elusive. But, Pinot Noir comes together in the glass like no other wine on Earth. It is truly sunlight held together by water. I usually recommend a beginner's first good wine to be a Pinot Noir.
As for learning what "body" is in the wine world, Syrah is the way to go. Syrahs are usually smooth and rich which is where their pronounced "body" characteristics live and breathe. The same is true for Malbec, which is in the same category as Syrah. These are the wines that turn your teeth purple. Beginners should make a note of this wine because Syrah pairs nicely with lamb and many cheeses. Once a few good Syrahs have been tasted, the next step in the category is French Rhone blends or a Malbec. Keep that in mind for the next wine party.
Once you are familiar with these four characteristics, then its time to start experimenting with different wines that have different combinations of these characteristics. As the beginner becomes more familiar with the subtleties of these characteristics, their preferences will start to rapidly develop. More importantly, the beginner will understand that every rule has an exception in the wine world. For instance, one general rule is "you get what you pay for." So, under this rule, the $65 bottle should be better than the $14 bottle. Generally, yes. But, I have had $14 bottles of wine that were better than the same wine from a different maker that costs 4 and 5 times the price. Then again, I have had both $14 and $65 bottles of wine that were nightmares.
This is where knowing your vintages comes in handy. A cheaper wine from a better vintage is often better than a more expensive wine of the same varietal from an inferior vintage. Knowing your vintages can save you lots of money (which, incidentally, is where my expertise comes into play). Sure, anyone can find the $700 Bordeaux. Just look for the big price tag. But, why is it $700? Often, the hefty tag is due to the reputation of the winery or wine maker. But, even Jordan missed a few game winning 3 pointers. The same principle applies in wine. Wine makers may have god like powers, but, those powers do not extend to influencing the climate and soil conditions that effect grape growth and flavor. Knowing what regions had good and bad years is very important. These figures do not have to be memorized. They are readily available with a simple google search. But, being familiar with the good vintages and their respective regions can make even a beginner shine like a pro when it comes to picking a bottle for the dinner party from that huge wine list.
Another good tip is when you order the wine, examine the cork. You can be a show off and smell the cork if you like. But, in reality, the reason for checking the cork is to make sure the end is stained with wine and the cork is soft and supple. A dry, brittle cork is bad news. A cork end stained with wine means the wine was stored properly on its side and not standing up. A supple cork means the wine was bottled properly and the likelihood that air got to the wine while being stored is practically nil.
If you are the one that ordered the wine, the server will pour a modest mouthful in the glass. Restaurants are usually dark so, checking the color is often difficult. Swish the wine around in the glass and get your nose right in there and give it a good sniff. Taste the wine immediately after giving it a good sniff and let it set in the mouth for a second or two before swallowing. If you like it, give a nod and the server will pour for the other guests and come back to you last.
Don't be that guy who sits there and smells the cork, holds the wine up to the light trying to check the color in a dimly lit restaurant and for the love of god, do not suck air with wine in your mouth or swish it around like mouthwash. Unless you are master somm who is being paid to rate a wine etc., you are pretty much signaling to the entire restaurant that you are complete tool (not to mention probably embarrassing your guests). If you're in a top end restaurant, chances are very good the server knows more about that wine and wine in general than you do. Its very tempting to go over board and show off a little when tasting a wine. Someday, when I retire, Im going to publish a book that contains nothing but what servers say in the BOH about the guests they just opened a bottle for. I'm pretty sure it will be a #1 best seller.
If you are a beginner, these tips can help you along your way to getting to know wine and more importantly, have fun with it. After all, wine was given to us by the gods so we could add some fun to our drab, mortal lives, right?