There's a few things at work here:
- In professional judging the wines are graded on that first sip, of course.
- Almost all wine sold in the U.S. is consumed within a couple days of purchase -- they're not aged at home.
- We are the Pepsi Generation. We have a sweet tooth. Our ancient biological sensors register sweet as good (something ready to eat), acidic as not ready to eat and sour as possibly poisonous.
Tannins are a preservative in wine. So are the acids in the fruit. Many wines have lower acids to make them come across as smooth and fruity sweet on that first sip. Higher acid wines can come across as anything from refreshing to bitter. It depends on the wine, but it also depends on the individual's palate.
First sip wines
The softer, lower acid, usually higher alcohol wines first hit your palate with the positive taste of sweetness. These wines generally make a great first impression. You can generally pick these out on the store shelf by looking at the alcohol level. Often you can just by knowing who makes them or where the grapes come from.
When I see any of these I know I'm getting the soft, fruity style:
- Zinfandel at 15% alcohol is high on fruit and low on acid.
- Wine from Wilson Winery, for example, because I know they make this style.
- Wine that says it's from Lodi is probably in this style because it's grown in a hot climate.
Second glass wines
These wines may seem a little rough at first sip, especially young red wines. By rough I mean they can have some of that mouth-drying tannin and be a bit acidic. They won't usually have that nice round mouthful of fruit flavors.
So other than maybe to age why would you want this style of wine? Because by the time you get to that third sip your palate has adjusted and the wine gets interesting. The second glass of these wines is even better. Those soft, high alcohol wines? In my experience I'm bored before the end of the first glass. Thing of eating an apple: The sweet, low acid Red Delicious isn't very interesting by the time you finish whereas the Granny Smith is tart and refreshing to the last bite.
Besides ageability the higher acid, maybe tannic, wines are usually better food wines. I see the "fruit bomb" style as more cocktail wines to use before dinner. A meal requires acid in the wine. Lower acid wines are usually overwhelmed by a meal.
How do you find this style of wine on the shelf? It's pretty much the opposite of how you find a soft, fruity wine. The alcohol levels will be lower, usually under 14%. They come from wineries known for this style--you'll find more available from the Old World than the New World. If you know enough about West Coast wines you can often pick them out because they're from a cooler growing region where acids are naturally higher. For instance, the Sonoma Coast growing region is quite chilly and naturally produces higher acid wines -- mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Any of these wines can be manipulated in the vineyard or in the cellar so that things like growing region and the alcohol level printed on the label won't tell the whole story. For instance, alcohol can be artificially removed. Also, adding acids and tannins to a wine is fairly common in California. It's probably more about learning the style of different wineries.
When out wine tasting
This is where it can get tricky because you only get about three sips worth of a wine when tasting. For many people then it will be the soft, fruity wines that seem best. So how do you pick a wine to age of one that works well with dinner? Well, you have to recognize the acid in the wine. You don't need lots of tannins though those will work with a beefy dish just fine. Mostly it comes from experience and what you might call training your palate.