Most people that taste wine for the first time prefer a chilled, sweet wine. This makes sense! Humans are genetically pre-disposed to enjoy sweet, sugary things. (No wonder Coca-Cola and Pepsi are so popular!) ;)
But many people also feel embarrassed to admit that they like sweet wines, especially to other people that are "more regular" wine consumers. But don't despair. Someone that makes you feel stupid for drinking wine is just a wine snob... and who wants to drink with them anyway?!
Besides, the majority of wines on the market all contain some level of sweetness. Why? Because large winery conglomerates know and understand that most people prefer some sweetness in their wines. This small addition of sugar guarantees that people will like the wines they produce, and, therefore, come back to buy the same wine again.
Here are my suggestions (put in no particular order) to get yourself acquainted with wines that you may like, and still look like a professional wine connoisseur!
1) Moscato or Moscato d'Asti (same thing!)
This is the hot new wine variety, especially being pushed by Gallo. This white variety is incredibly fruity, grapey, and has a slight fizz that makes this wine so approachable and enjoyable. Drink this wine chilled. Any time there is noticeable sweetness in the wine, it is preferred to chill it. The best part: this variety is not going to break the budget! This is a perfect summer wine, so if you want to impress those "wine snob" friends of yours, this is the type of wine you bring to a family picnic, a pool party, or the 4th of July holiday celebration. But if you love this wine, you can sip on its pleasantness all year long... :)
Producers I recommend: Barefoot, Gallo, Cupcake, Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante, or try a featured favorite from you local wine store!
2) White Zinfandel
This is the wine that made California's wine market. Why do you think it's so popular? It's fresh, it's fruity, it's sometimes bubbly, slightly sweet, and very pink! A local hit among young drinkers breaking into the wine scene, this wine is "where it's at." Anyone can love this wine, but when you feel like moving onto something new, I recommend the Moscato (see #1).
This is often sold in a bulk wine size (1.5 L bottle), but you can buy it in a 750 mL (normal) wine bottle size. I recommend this wine for parties and get-togethers when others aren't as familiar with wine, and you are looking to introduce them to wine drinking. Again, serve chilled.
Producers I recommend: Sutter Home, Beringer, Beringer (Sparkling), Beringer (blend), Gallo, or try a featured favorite from your local wine store. This is a very popular style to make among many different wine regions. Open up your taste buds, and give these a try!
3) Fruit Wines
There are many, many fruit wines out there on the market (i.e. blueberry, raspberry, cherry, mango, etc.). Depending on the producer, these come in a wide variety of flavors, sweetness levels, and styles. Some are grape based with added fruit (usually very yummy) and others are 100% the fruit as labeled. This may require some extra work for you to pick and choose your favorites. You may have to have some patience in figuring out your tolerance with fruit wines. One blueberry wine can taste wildly different from a blueberry wine produced at another location. Again, I always serve these chilled.
Side note: If you hate the fruit wine as is, I recommend making a red or white sangria out of it! This seems to always work. :) And then serve it at your family summer picnic!
Producers I recommend: Bonny Doon (look for the "?Querry?" in the Whites, or "Raspberry Eau de Vie" in Desserts), Seven Mountains, Maiolatesi, Keel and Curley, Boones Farm, or try a local favorite!
Riesling - made most popular over the past few years by Washington's one and only Chateau Ste. Michelle. Peachy, citrusy, honied... this is beautiful variety! The best part about Riesling is that it's coming "back in style" meaning many wine drinkers of all experience levels are picking up bottles and sipping away on this versatile variety. The confusing part about Riesling: it comes in a variety of sweetness levels... which means you have to pay attention to what you're buying. Riesling can be anywhere from bone dry (i.e. no sugar) to very, very sweet (i.e. ice wine, late harvest). This will take some experience to figure out where your preference lies. But don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and try some of those low alcohol (<10%) German Rieslings. You'd be amazed at how beautiful they are!
As Riesling is usually produced in cooler-climate, rainy regions, I feel like it's appropriate to say this is your rainy-day kind of wine. Any time you need a pick-me-up, grab a Riesling - it's a "feel good wine." I don't know how anyone can be in a bad mood sipping on this wine. :) Give it a try sometime soon!
Producers I recommend: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley (sweet!!), Chateau Ste. Michelle, Ethos (very sweet!!), Blufield (semi-sweet), Ravines (dry!!), Pacific Rim (semi-sweet), or try a local favorite - there are LOTS of Rieslings out there!
Ahhh, there we go... now we're getting into the big boys of wine drinkers! But you need to know where to start with these, and the various selection in a wine store can be more than overwhelming. If you've never had Chardonnay before, and are transitioning from a Moscato to this variety, the difference in taste can be revolting. There are few brands on the market that are generally well-received by consumers, which is what I'll list here.
It's important to remember that Chardonnay comes in a variety of styles, the two most prominent are "oaked" which display large vanilla, buttery flavors, and "unoaked" or "naked" which emphasize the apple, citrus flavors from the grapes. Most people prefer one style over the other, but generally speaking, I've found both styles to be quite pleasing depending on the occasion, meal, and what kind of mood I'm in. :) Again, this variety may take some patience to figure out what you like... start with the lower price point wines and work your way up. We'll be surprised what you will find. (Again, serve chilled!)
Producers I recommend: Cupcake (vanilla tasting), Kim Crawford (unoaked Chard!), Menage a Trois (oaky and buttery), Columbia Crest (slightly oaky), Clos du Bois (less oaky), or check out some of the local favorites in your nearest wine store! There are lots of Chardonnays out there...
6) Zinfandel... the red kind!
Red wine is a bit more difficult, as most red styles are drier (which means, little sugar). Zinfandel is usually found pleasing for those that are trying to switch out of the more sugary wines. I think this is because Zinfandel is what us wine people call "a fruit bomb" - it's got a TON of fruit in your face from the minute you smell it to the very last sip. Zinfandels are also made at higher alcohol levels, which gives the perception of some sweetness. (Yes, alcohol does carry a sweet sensation!) Here are a few of my recommendations, and I'd serve these at room temperature (think 68 degrees Fahrenheit)... so if you're outside on a hot summer day, this may require minor chilling prior to serving. I'd recommend this as a late night wine.
Producers I recommend: Ravenswood, Cline Cellars, Clos du Bois, Michael David, and Gnarly Head... among the many Zinfandel producers that may be recommended by your nearest wine store! (Don't forget that "Primitivo" is the same thing as Zinfandel, so don't get offended if this wine is recommended to you.) :)