If I could give five pieces of advice to people who are starting to get interested in wine, I'd point them this way. But if I couldn't say all that, recommending books and suggesting that they focus on tasting one grape at a time, I'd suggest this single tip: let your wine open up.
Maybe you've heard about letting wine 'breathe', and maybe the term's a little metaphorical, but what I'm asking you to do is slow down your gulping and let the wine get exposed to a little air before you drink it. Wine has been stuck in a bottle, under a cork or a screw cap, and when you pour it into a glass, a little bit of time and oxygen can help it smell and taste better. If you drink too fast, your wine may not be tasting its best.
Try this: open a bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass. Take a sip and pay attention: is it juicy? Tart? Mouthwatering? Smoky? Bitter? Then take a break, do some dishes (you know you shouldn't leave them in the sink, right?) and come back to the wine in 10 minutes. Swirl the wine (you can hold the glass and circle it so the base remains on the table if you're not already a swirling pro) to bring the aromas up to your nose, and then sip and pay attention again. Is it the same set of flavors you noticed before? Does the texture seem the same? Is it sharper somehow? Brighter? Repeat as necessary (though you might want to consider sharing the bottle.)
I asked Master Sommelier Laura Maniec, proprietor of Corkbuzz Wine Studio in NYC, to help explain. "When sommeliers refer to a wine as "opening up"," she says, "it means that the wine will evolve over time and might be more expressive aromatically as it is exposed to air." (Even if you're not ostentatiously sticking your nose in the glass, this matters: much of what you taste is what you smell.) Letting the wine warm up slightly makes a difference too—you're more likely to get to taste and smell more going on in the wine if it's not fridge-cold.
Do some wines need air more than others? "Yes," says Maniec: "thicker skinned red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon definitely need more air than thinner skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and wines with more oak usually can also benefit from additional air." Maniec notes that the structure of a wine can soften slightly as the wine is exposed to oxygen.
Your Cab may really need it, but white wines can open up, too. I recently tasted a bottle of dry riesling sent to me by Wines of Germany. This white wine, from Eva Fricke in the Rheingau, was so tart on the tongue at first that it seemed that was all that was going on. It seemed fresh and clear, but it wasn't until the bottle had been open 20 minutes or so that this delicate wine started to really get delicious.
As it opened up in my glass, the wine was less unforgivingly tart, and there were swirls of fennel and ginger and lime zest, all beautifully focused and integrated. A wine that started ho-hum became exciting after it was exposed to enough air. After some warming and swirling, there was a lovely talc-like texture (in a good way...think powdered sugar on lemon bars) and a certain saline minerality that made it seem like the perfect accompaniment to sushi.
Do you give your wine a little time? Have you noticed a difference in how it tastes?