Browsing Category

Life

Life

A PREGNANT PAUSE

Beaune carousel 2

I remember the feeling of nervous anticipation as I navigated my way through the Vienna airport in the winter of 2015. I was on my way to meet my fellow Masters of Wine students for our first year seminar in Rust, the heart of the Burgenland wine region of Austria.

There were a host of reasons for my sweaty palms and racing heart. Would my new colleaugues prove to be far more knowledgeable and experienced than me? Would our MW teachers be pretentious and aloof? And, above all…how would the group react to my rather prominent mid-section?

On retrospect, I suppose that preparing for the worst (judgemental comments and disapproving stares), made the reality a pleasant surprise. The organizer singled me out in a loud, yet jolly voice as ‘the pregnant one’, and reactions were a mix of disinterest or polite congratulations. No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

No one seemed to find it odd that I was embarking on intensive wine tasting studies in my ‘delicate condition’. 

In fact, I was regularly regaled, through out the week, with the story of Jancis Robinson sitting (and passing) her Masters of Wine exams while 8 months pregnant. To the MW set, this was irrefutable proof that one can prevail in the face of changing tastebuds, heartburn and general exhaustion.

Now, two years on, I find myself back in the same position; waddling into industry tastings to ply my trade. This time around I am in North America rather than Europe, and while I have not noticed any outright disapproval, I have met with much more curiousity about the logistics of wine tasting while pregnant.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey. Your hormones are all over the place and most definitely affect your sense of smell and taste. Each woman has their own experience, and I can only speak of my two rides on this crazy carousel.

Pregnancy takes your body on a bit of a wild journey…Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity.

The first three months are tricky. Attraction to and repulsion by certain smells is so strong that I lose all notion of objectivity. It is almost impossible to neutrally judge a wine’s merits in these conditions. The tasting portion is even worse, with the separate structural elements of acid, tannin, oak, alcohol, residual sugar all standing out in jarring opposition. I suppose that this is nature’s way of keeping me off the sauce in that first critical phase while the embryo implants.

Around month four or five, a renewed sense of pleasure returns and with it, the bitter reality of having to wait out a long, dreary ‘dry season’. On the plus side, sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass. Wines seem more harmonious on the palate (depending on quality level) and infinitely more desirable. 

The only foe that plagues me until the end is acidity. Dry wines with high acid levels remain unpalatable through out. Beloved wines like Chablis, Sancerre and Champagne lose much of their appeal.

Sensory perception appear to be functioning on high alert, with separate, clearly defined aromatics near bursting from the glass.

The most fascinating aspect of the whole process is the aftermath. While my sense of smell didn’t remain quite as sensitive after giving birth, I definitely feel that I retained more accute olfactory capacities than was previously the case. A specific wine tasted pregnant, that had revealed so much more nuance to me than before, still did so afterwards. Come July, I am hoping for a similar result.

And oh the sheer bliss of drinking wine again after such a long spell of carefully sniffing, swirling and spitting! In my case, absence definitely does make the heart grow fonder. Favourite wines are rediscovered like long lost friends, grown infinitely more special after such a long spell apart.

All in all, I think that pregnancy has and is enhancing my tasting ability and enjoyment. There are undeniable setbacks as our tastebuds adjust, and as we settle into a new, slower work pace during the waiting months and the sleepless nights with crying newborns. However, in my opinion, the rewards vastly outweigh the sacrifices.

Life

BEWARE THE LITTLE WHITE VAN

Spices at the market
I bring you a final excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”, written during the 10-years’ I lived as an expat Canadian in France. This episode is all about culture shock, white vans and the pleasures of market day.

When I was a kid growing up in the ‘burbs of Montréal, the grownups were always warning us to beware of men driving around in white vans.  They were loathe to explain why, but something in their serious expressions made us, for once, heed their advice.

Since then, the white van has always been synonymous with kidnappers and paedophiles in my mind.  It was therefore somewhat disconcerting, upon arriving in France, to see the sheer quantity of them on the roads.  It seems to be an unwritten law here that all plumbers, electricians, construction workers, farmers, etc. can only drive this type of vehicule. They are literally everywhere, and have funny little brand names like “Jumpy” and “Kangoo”…which should lessen their intimidation factor, but somehow doesn’t. Perhaps it is their lack of side windows that re-inforces old fears of what could be concealed within.

White vans are the French equivalent to the pick up truck…though mono-colour, and with none of the rugged cowboy-esque charm. Today is market day in my little town of Villeneuve-les-Avignon, so the parking lots around the main square are crammed with (menacing) rows of these identical machines.  When the van doors slide back, they are found to hold nothing more terrifying than crate upon crate of fresh vegetables, cheeses, meats, spices and other such riches.

Market day is a glorious day in little Provençal towns.  Frustratingly they are often held in the middle of the week (Thursday for me) and only from 6am to lunchtime.  But if you do manage to pull a sicky, or drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours the experience is worth it.  The colours of all those courgettes, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, etc. is mind boggling.

There is always a little outdoor café next door with all the old men holding court, drinking thimbleful after thimbleful of sharp, white Côtes du Rhône or Picpoul-de-Pinet.  Everyone shouts across to one another and the vendors flirt shamelessly; especially if you have a ‘petit accent’. 

You generally end up buying far more than you really need and cursing yourself a week or so later when you find slimy lettuce hiding behind the camembert in the far reaches of the fridge, but what the hell…it beats the scary hyper marchés (giant wallmart-esque supermarkets).

The truly tricky part is finding the strength to exercise self-restraint.  After the marketing is done, the café is a terrible lure.  Why not just stop for a half hour and a nice, refreshing Picpoul?  The glasses are so small, maybe just another one for the road?  Oh, they have oysters & shrimp too?  And suddenly its 4pm and you find yourself wandering home…ready for the sieste.

Life

A MOST CURIOUS JOURNEY

Rover
Photo credit: www.classicandperformancecar.com

My grandfather Frank Egan was a wine merchant in London many years ago. It was a gentler time, so my mother would have me believe. A time where the answering of letters, dictating of future correspondence and tasting of wines would take place in the morning, thus leaving gentlemen free to enjoy a long lunch and retire to their clubs for the afternoon. Regular “breakage” would keep the house well stocked in vintage Champagne, which served nicely as a little apéritif to enjoy in the bath before supper.

The only wine regions that really mattered could be rattled off in short order: Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, the Mosel Valley, Porto and Sherry. This narrow focus allowed educated tasters to become highly proficient in the myriad lieux-dits, individual producers and specific vintage traits of each area. Wines were assigned a personality rather than described with a laundry list of aromas. Frank liked to compare his wines to women or racehorses. To him, this visual imagery aptly conveyed the rounded, voluptuous charm of a warm vintage Vosne-Romanée or the taut, powerful muscle of a young Pauillac.

When visiting his growers, Frank would make two appointments a day, thus allowing for lunch with one and dinner with the other. He was driven by chauffeur so as to properly honour the excellent wines of his gracious hosts. Day time attire consisted of pin striped suits and a bowler hat when in the city, and evening events invariably called for black tie.

In today’s fast paced, global wine industry such a leisurely rhythm seems unfathomable. But what would Frank make of us were he suddenly catapulted sixty-odd years into the future?

Though I only knew him through stories and photos, I can imagine him sitting in some trendy wine bar, staring agape at the tattooed, beardy sommelier, repeating the words ‘Nerello Mascalese?’ with a puzzled air. I can just see him wandering the aisles of a big box store marvelling at the quantity of ‘SKUs’, at the labelling by grape variety, and the vast number of wine producing regions.  Fine wines in screw cap? From New Zealand?

The frenetic pace of wine retailing in this social media age would surely baffle him. And he might feel as though he had stepped into the pages of a sensationalist science fiction pulp, observing the use of GPS, sensors, probes and drones in the vineyards.

However, in terms of small-scale, fine winemaking, he would likely find himself back on familiar ground; much more so than if his time travelling Rover had dropped him in nineteen eighty. For the pendulum swung from tradition to innovation to such a violent degree with the embracing of mechanization, chemical weed and pesticide controls and so forth, that we are now seeing the inevitable counter movement.

Conscientious, quality-minded growers are increasingly organic (or in the process of conversion). They focus on canopy management techniques and decreasing irrigation frequency. In the cellar, spontaneous fermentation with indigenous yeasts, partial or whole cluster fermentation, and the absence of fining or filtration are all the rage for many a premium, artisanal winemaker. Were Frank to hear an estate manager proudly detail these exacting methods, he may scratch his head. He would likely think to himself, well yes, those are fairly standard procedures, what’s this chap so excited about?

If he were to taste the sought-after wines of today, fashioned in the post-Parker age of restraint, purity and freshness, he may not even find that his beloved Burgundies taste all that different. They are certainly a little riper and fleshier, potentially with silkier tannins, but recognizable all the same.

After the excitement of his incredible journey, it would be understandable if Frank hurried back to nineteen fifty to settle his nerves with a wee dram with his cronies. Yet perhaps I underestimate my progenitor… He may have been the kind of intrepid fellow that, once launched on the path of adventure, could not resist his curiosity. Turning the Rover’s dials to twenty eighty, what might he discover?

Touching down in Bordeaux mid-summer, he might feel the need to take off his blazer, and even roll up his sleeves. According to climate change focused researchers at the Institut de la science de la vigne et du vin, Bordeaux weather may more closely resemble that of coastal Portugal in as little as twenty to thirty years. Examining the back label of a fine claret, he might find the late ripening Tinto Cao grape listed along side Cabernet and Merlot.

Will Champagne make only red wines, and the finest bubblies hail from England and Tasmania? Will Frank find Napa and Barossa Valley vineyards all but abandoned? With the sheer size and massive ambition of China, the twenty eighty equivalent to supermarket shelves could well be dominated by the descendants of Great Wall and Changyu.

Perhaps he will stumble upon a post-apocalyptic scenario with massive swathes of vineyards lost to virulent parasite epidemics. By then, the disease resistant, cold hearty Regent hybrid and others of its ilk could conceivably be household names.

Alas, it is time to bring this time travel reverie to a close. Frank Egan must meekly step back into the black and white photos I cherish, nosing a selection of vintage Port. Though day dreams of him pushing on, increasingly poleward and higher in altitude, in search of the finest crus, will linger in my thoughts and drive me forward.

Frank Egan

Photo: Frank Egan & daughter Hazel, Guildhall tasting circa 1960.

 

Life

THE PURSUIT OF PURITY

Condrieu - glass & vineyard
Photo credit: Condrieu vineyards, Jasper Van Berkel

Purity. This simple six letter word conjures up profound connotations of flawless perfection. In recent years, it has become a buzzword for the natural wine movement. It is bandied about freely in winery literature, press articles and the like. In a recent Meininger’s article, Canberra-based natural winemaker Bryan Martin reckoned that his pét nat sparkling Riesling offers, ‘the most pure expression of Riesling that you can get’.  Isabelle Legeron asserts that, ‘natural wines have purer flavours…’ in the Basic Introduction to Natural Wine on her excellent website.

Let me start by saying that I am an enthusiastic supporter of growers that strive to create healthy, balanced vineyards free of chemical poisons. I actively seek out producers crafting singular wines that stand out from the crowd. I therefore applaud natural winemaking and its laudable principles. However, I take issue with the community’s appropriation of the notion of purity.  This act has tacit implications for other winemaking styles. It also calls into question the true motivation of its admirers.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, purity means ‘freedom from adulteration or contamination’. The majority of low interventionist wines are made without additives. In this sense, deeming them pure is a fair assessment. Wild yeasts are allowed to spur spontaneous fermentation, acid levels are not adjusted, commercial enzymes are eschewed and sulphur dioxide, if used at all, is kept to a strict minimum. In ideal conditions: impeccable winery hygiene, scrupulous oxygen management, precise temperature control from fermentation right through to the moment of consumption, these wines can be divine. The complexity, elegance and, indeed purity, of well-made natural wines is, to me, a given.

But ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life. Naturally occurring yeast colonies often struggle to complete fermentation as alcohol levels and temperatures rise. Stuck fermentations are common leaving the must at risk of exposure to all manners of yeasts and bacteria that can significantly alter aromatics and flavours. This isn’t always a bad thing. In certain cases, the result is a heightened complexity that gives the wine infinitely more appeal. Be this as it may, microbial infection is a form of contamination, rendering the affected wine impure if we are to take the dictionary definition literally.

…ideal conditions are rarely achieved in winemaking, as in life.

This idea takes on additional significance if we consider the most common usage for this term. More often than not purity, as relates to wine, is a descriptor for the character of the fruit. In the glossary section of the Wine Cellar Insider, purity is likened to ‘tasting a sweet, ripe berry off the vine’. And yet, the heady raspberry bouquet of Grenache is muted in the presence of pungent Brettanomyces-induced barnyard aromas. The acrid pitch of high volatile acidity levels overshadows the fruity vibrancy of even the spriteliest Gamay. To me, wines protected from microbial and oxidative reactions, with precision and restraint, show far brighter, more expressive fruit.

The reputed natural wine advocate Pierre Jancou, speaking though his website MorethanOrganic.com, purports that natural wines have ‘purity and honesty of expression’, while wines made in a conventional way ‘taste of the same few manufactured flavours’. The term conventional is murky. For many adherents to the natural wine movement, any manipulation in the winery equates to conventional winemaking. Following that logic, the simple act of chaptalising, commonly practiced in most cool vintage for even top Burgundy estates, renders wines conventional. I don’t know of many fortunate enough to taste the exquisite wines of Domaine Leflaive that would claim they lack complexity or a true sense of terroir.

The notion of honesty of expression is also troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines. The insinuation is anything but subtle. Wines made with any form of vinification aides or antioxidants are dishonest; those that imbibe are being duped. So does the practice of egg white fining at Château Margaux make their wines less sincere? With the softening of the tannins, does the pure expression of this storied wine lessen?

The notion of honesty of expression is troubling as it stakes out a moral high ground for natural wines.

American writer Calvin Trillin once said, ‘the price of purity is purists’. Time and again, I have found myself staring down zealous sommeliers who swears only by natural wines. They have an almost religious fervour about them, blithely filling their wine lists with offerings that only a handful of customers will actually enjoy. They condemn other wine styles and patronize those that dare to offer a differing opinion.

The thought that intrigues me is, deep down, do enthusiasts truly love the wines, or is it the idea of experiencing so-called purity that has them hooked? Every field has its share of purists. My musician brother told me of audiophiles that go to insane lengths and spend upwards of 50 000$ on sound systems in the pursuit of ‘the perfect sound’. Where does one draw the line between passion and obsession? And what is the virtue of purity for purity’s sake?

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not. Applying a strict set of doctrines to winemaking seems a step backward. I often hear natural wine advocates claim that the wines hearken back to the days before industrialization. And yet, I am quite sure that if our forefathers, who watched in dismay when their wine turned vinegary, could have flipped a switch to cool their tanks, or restarted fermentation with cultured yeasts, they would have. The winemakers I admire most embrace both tradition and innovation. They step back when they can and step in (with a gentle touch) when necessary to preserve wine from spoilage.

The danger, as I see it, is a narrowing of scope. Purists often have a limited view of what is acceptable, and what is not.

For all the well-crafted natural wines out there that truly embody a notion of purity, there are as many top class conventionally made wines that can justly make the same claim. The term cannot simply be brandished by one camp as a distinguishing feature of style.  Firstly, because the assertion is often inaccurate. Secondly, as applying the word to a specific winemaking philosophy carries the insinuation that wines not made in this manner are impure and therefore less worthy. This powerful implication could well be the reason that many wine lovers have become such die-hard fans. Perhaps it is time for natural wines to lay down the banner of purity and let drinkers decide for themselves?

 

Life

A Brand New Screwing Machine…

Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre
After a few weeks hiatus, I bring you another excerpt from my 2010 blog “The Rhône Canuck”. This episode is all about the ridiculous subtleties of language that can trip you up when living abroad…

 

6 years on living in France, and I finally feel that my French is reasonably good. Of course my accent will always remain a dead give away and I seem destined to endure the vaguely patronising title of “la petite canadienne”, but all in all je me débrouille pas trop mal.

And so, after years of being teased for my gaffes in French (apparently a salopette does not mean what I thought it did…), I can now retaliate. For although many Frenchies declare themselves to be bilingual on their CVs, the percentage that actually does speak and write intelligible English is relatively small. I am regularly confronted with winery technical sheets that enthusiastically describe the “profound colour”, “specific nose” and “generous matter” of Côtes du Rhônes and Gigondas. Or, my personal favourite, the ageing process of a Merlot being explained as “breeding in tank for 6 months”. And what better food pairing suggestion than “foul”?

I still chuckle when I think of an old marketing colleague proudly explaining to a client that we had just invested in a “brand new screwing machine” (a screw cap closure unit for our bottling line). My very polite and conservative client from Saskatchewan and I burst out laughing until tears streamed down our faces…and the more we laughed, the redder and more tight-lipped my poor colleaugue became.

But before I get too smug, I must admit that this immersion in franglais has taken an alarming toll on my English. I find myself saying things like “It would arrange me if you would pass by at 6” or that I am going to “profit from the nice weather to go for a walk”. Looks like the French might have the last laugh after all…

Life

FROM BEAUNE CANUCK TO RHONE CANUCK

Dentelles de Montmirail
Photo credit: Gabriel Meffre

Hi folks. Here is the second installment in the “Throwback Thursdays” republication of my 2010 Rhône Canuck blog. This brief post details my move from Burgundy to the Rhône Valley. Enjoy!

So here I am happily ensconced in the foothills of the majestic Dentelles de Montmirail (the range of craggy mountains that towers over the sleepy hamlet of Gigondas).  My new job? To sing the praises of the noble marriage of Grenache & Syrah.

Please don’t think that I have forsaken my first loves, Pinot & Chardonnay.  They still stand mightily on their pedestals and I make the pilgrimage back to the motherland regularly!  But somewhere around my 3rd winter in Beaune the endless winter fog got the better of me.  The locals scoffed at a Canadian complaining about the cold, but these people don’t heat their lofty 17th century homes. The damp seeps in every corner and you can only put on so many sweaters before you start feeling like the Michelan man.  Sure the vin chaud helps, but what with the glass or so of petit Chablis at lunch, a kir or three for the apéro, a nice bottle of Pommard with dinner and maybe a Poire Williams for the digéstif…Beaune was definitely having a wee effect on my young liver!

So what’s a wine-loving Canuck to do?  Go home and work for one of our beloved monopolies, scheming up ways to bring the next Fuzion to Canada?  Certainly not! A stint in South Africa as a lowly winemaking assistant for Hamilton Russell Vineyards, that was the solution.  What an incredible place…the endless blue skies, the breathtaking sunsets, the generosity of spirit!  Almost, but unfortunately not quite, makes you forget the endless shantytowns, the breathtaking inequality…

A few months and a pair of callused, purple hands later, I realised what a great job sales is!  So off back to France, to start anew, in the sunny and WINDY southern Rhône as a proud footsoldier for the maison Gabriel Meffre.

Life

My Father’s Daughter

Jacky Blisson in Beaune

I have decided to partake in few throwback Thursdays this fall, and republish excerpts from the blog I wrote in 2010 while living in France. I called myself “The Rhône Canuck” and shared my musings as a Canadian wine lover living and working in France.

This first introductory post summarizes my decision to move to France. I hope you enjoy it!

As a child sitting on my father’s knee while he sipped his wee dram and told stories about the good old days…Paris in the ’60s, drinking crate loads of excellent, cheap Bourgogne rouge…I never thought I would one day end up living in the country of his wistful reveries.  But the seed was planted early and, it would seem, in fertile soil.

By age seven my dad swore that I had “the palate of the family” as he poured out Sherries of varying qualities and asked me to sniff out the best.  Though I’m sure my correct response must surely have been a fluke, the die was nevertheless cast.

And so eighteen years later I found myself winging my way to Beaune, my personal mecca, with visions of Corton dancing in my head.  I had been accepted at the CFPPA de Beaune (an agricultural college linked to an engineering university in Dijon) for a year-long course in “Connaissances et Commerce International des Vin”. My Dad and I celebrated my new adventure with a bottle of his coveted 1982 Leoville Las Cases. I knew from the first heady sip that I was on the right path.

With my head filled with glossy Wine Spectator images of elegant, refined looking winemakers, I was in for a shock when I came across my first red-blooded Burgundian vigneron! And so launched my 6 years…and counting…love affair with Burgundy and the Rhône; the wines, the savoir-vivre and of course the people (had to throw that one in since I just married one!).

Yes, the administration is a nightmare, the rudeness of the public service industry is hard for a nice Canadian to bear and everyone truly is always on strike. On the other hand, taking two hours for lunch everyday is a perfectly acceptable practice, and wine is always served.

Life

A Partial Pass! The Long Road to MW

Jacky Blisson

As many of you know, I have been toiling away for the past two years, working towards a Masters of Wine (MW). For those unfamiliar with this qualification, the MW is among the highest levels of scholastic achievement in the field of wine.

The path to MW is a long and difficult road for most candidates. Just being accepted onto the program is cause for celebration. At the end of the first year, many students are asked to repeat first year or even take a few years out. The second year (or stage as it is now called) of the program culminates with the notoriously difficult final exams. These consist of: 5 theory papers in viticulture, oenology, wine handling (bottling, storage, shipping, etc.), business and contemporary issues, and 3 practical (ie. blind tasting) exams in white still wines, red still wines and a mixed bag tasting of any possible wine style (dry, sweet, fortified, sparkling, rosé, and so on).

It is a grueling week. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my entire life. I was mentally, physically and emotionally drained at the end of the 5 days. However, when time is called on the last paper and the ordeal ends, a magical thing happens. Bottles of Bollinger Champagne are produced and the stress of the week is washed away on a tide of delicate, little bubbles.

And then, the wait…

The 2016 exams ended on June 10th and the results came back on September 5th. For three months, I dreamt about all the various possible outcomes. The wait became almost a way of life. So when the big day finally rolled around, it suddenly seemed too soon. The email came through when I was navigating the Lyon airport with my lovely husband and rowdy toddler in tow. We were rushing to catch a plane, but still decided to take five minutes to sit, (attempt to) calmly sip espresso and read the blessed or dreaded words.

Nervously scanning the text, I came across these wonderful six words “I am delighted to report that…”. I had passed the theory portion of the exam.

Fireworks went off in my brain. A huge sense of relief flooded over me. 5 hours of daily study was over!

I was also proud to see that I had passed the red wine practical exam. Five years ago, I never would have believed I could achieve this level of tasting ability so I was literally overjoyed. Unfortunately, I was not so successful on the white wines (C+…a “near pass”) or the mixed bag tasting (D….total fail!).

Sadly, any failed practical exams mean that all three exams must be re-sat. So, this is my mission for 2016/2017. I will taste, and taste, and taste. White, red, rosé, sparkling, fortified, botrytised, straw wine, natural wine, orange wine…any and all kinds. It is a hard job, but someone’s got to do it, right?

 

Life

Salt, pepper & Pinot Noir

Pousse dOr Volnay and cheese
Photos: Claude Rigoulet

In my previous life as a winery sales manager I used to do lots of in-store tastings. They required a lot of standing around, and serving wine in terrible conditions…too warm, in awful little plastic cups, in overly hot or cold stores…not ideal. You do learn a lot about how different cultures around the world relate to wine however.

In the UK, people will taste any time of day. A free sample is a free sample. They won’t necessarily hang around to hear your shtick about the wine and they probably won’t buy a bottle, but they will happily take the proffered glass. Whenever.

French people will take the glass, sniff and swirl, and then proceed to tell you about their cousin so and so who has a vineyard in the Beaujolais, or their buddy in Paris who is a caviste (wine merchant). They want to make sure that you know that they are “connected”, and that you can’t pull the wool over their eyes.

In North America, it all depends on when you are offering. Before 3pm the majority of people will turn down your wine sample with a shocked “I’m driving” or “I’m in the middle of my work day”…as though a thimble full of wine will suddenly turn them into deranged, drunken lunatics. However, come mid-afternoon, the driving stress somehow goes out the window and everyone takes a glass.

…as though a thimble full of wine will suddenly turn them into deranged, drunken lunatics

Business lunches are more of the same. In France, if you go out for a meal, you drink wine. Period. This side of the Atlantic, if people do accept to have a glass of wine before 5pm, they generally feel the need to justify their extraordinary behaviour, along the lines of: “It’s almost Friday” or “It must be six o’clock somewhere”, followed by a nervous chuckle.

This is not to say that North Americans are repressed, or that Europeans are more liberated. It is simply a reflection of wine’s role in different societies. My husband is French. He grew up with wine on the table at every meal. Aside from special occasions, wine was consumed in moderation to slake thirst and punctuate conversation.

Guillaume’s take on wine is one that I wish more people shared. He sees wine as a condiment; something to be used to flavour your food. A seasoning agent, if you will, to be consumed in much the same way as mustard in a sandwich.

He sees wine as a condiment; something to be used to flavour your food.

Wine is increasingly being taken out of context; evalutated on its own and consumed separately from food. The intoxicating effects of wine are overly glorified or demonized, so that many see this as its principal attribute.

But wine is so much more…

One of the many things that sets it apart is its interaction with food. Tannin binds with and softens proteins in meat, intensifying their rich savoury flavours and reducing the astringency of the wine. Acidic sensations from lemon or tomato based dishes can be tempered by pairing with an equally acidic wine. Certain aromas or flavours can be underscored by matching with similarly scented wines.

Olive oil tastes rich and delicious on its own, but sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on it and the flavour comes alive. This is what wine and food can and should be to each other. Just think of the briny tang of oysters washed down with fine Champagne bubbles…

Oysters and Charles Heidsieck

Olive oil tastes rich and delicious on its own, but sprinkle a pinch of sea salt on it and the flavour comes alive. This is what wine and food can and should be to each other.

A number of years ago, my husband and I were in Piedmont for the annual Fiera del Tartufo (truffle festival). The white truffle is one of my all time culinary favourites. There are few flavours out there that can rival this pungently earthy, yet delicately refined taste. The mamma at our guest house overheard our rhapsodising and sent us off truffle hunting with her winemaker neighbour Luigi and his truffle dog. Bilbi proved a valiant beast, quickly unearthing several nuggets of white gold.

What came next was an evening I won’t soon forget.

Luigi took us to his cellar to taste his latest vintage of pleasant yet fairly rustic Grignolino and Barbera wines. Then on to dinner. Luigi’s charming wife had prepared a simple, creamy white risotto. After passing around the plates, she proceeded to shave great mounds of white truffle on each bowl. Luigi brought out his Barbera d’Asti Superiore. What had seemed a fairly ordinary wine in the winery was suddenly transformed. It seemed richer and rounder, with more earthy nuances and brighter fruit. Each bite of risotto called for another sip, and each sip, another bite.

I could recount a hundred tales like this but I’d sooner let you discover this pleasure for yourself.  On the menu tonight, caramelized onion and gruyère quiche. I am thinking that a rich, smoky Alsatian Pinot Gris might just do the trick.

 

 

Education Life

Veneto Travel Diaries Part 5 – Valpolicella 101

Valpolicella

Valpolicella…land of wine, charm and tradition. So proclaims the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, responsable for the marketing and promotion of the region. And they are not wrong. Those three descriptors aptly sum up what awaits you when you arrive in this sunny paradise. Lush green hillsides and plains covered in vines, cherry and olive trees, farmers out tending to their crops and ancient stone villages boasting delicious trattorias.

The vineyards of Valpolicella lie in the province of Verona in Northeastern Italy. There are three distinct areas. Firstly, the “Classico” region, the historic heart of the appellation which consists of three major valleys (Fumane, Marano and Negrar). This area is slightly higher in altitude than the outlying DOC area and benefits from optimal ripening conditions. “Classico” on a label of Valpolicella is generally a good indication of quality, although increasingly producers from the outlying areas further to the east (Valpantena and the generic Valpolicella DOC area) are now producing excellent wines.

Valpolicella is red wine country. All of the wines are blended from the same set of indigenous grapes featuring the prerequisite Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella. Corvina is the major grape. It gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes to the wines. Its thick skin is a vital quality for the appassimento process (more on this later). Corvinone was originally thought to be a clone of Corvina, but has been proven to be a separate variety. The bunches are looser, with bigger grapes. It gives heady, perfumed wines, redolent with cherry and floral notes. Molinara is the minor player, accounting for 5 – 30% of blends. It is also a fairly aromatic grape, with the necessary thick skins. Small amounts of lesser known varieties like Molinara and Oseleta are sometimes thrown in for seasoning. Each producer will determine their own blend (within the DOC regulations), depending on what grows best in their vineyard, and what style they are looking to craft.

Corvina…gives structure, body, bright acidity and attractive cherry and herbal notes…

There are two key elements that make the wines of Valpolicella so enticing. Firstly, there is incredible value for money on offer here. While Tuscany and Piedmont enjoy greater international renown, the producers of Valpolicella have quietly but surely ramped up quality, while keeping the prices nice! Secondly, the region boasts unique winemaking methods resulting in a range of wine styles from light and fruity to rich and full-bodied.

As with so many classic, Old World wine regions, the wine classifications are best understood by picturing a multi-tiered pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, you have basic Valpolicella DOC. This is your every day, barbeque wine. It is lively, with tart cherry fruit flavours, medium body and smooth tannins. Served slightly chilled, it is dangerously drinkable. The next step up the pyramid brings us to Valpolicella Superiore DOC. These “superior” wines are aged a minimum of one year in oak or other wood vessels, and have a minimum alcohol content of 12%. They retain the bright, fruit driven character of the basic level, but with a little more depth and persistence. Ripasso della Valpolicella DOC offers even greater concentration and complexity. The vinification technique for Ripasso is unique. Dry base wines are made in the same manner as basic Valpolicella. Several months later, the base wine is transferred into a tank containing the leftover pommace of grape skins from the vinification of another wine, the Amarone. These skins are still rich in sugars and yeasts, provoking a second fermentation for the Valpolicella. The wine is “repassed” (hence the name Ripasso). This process adds glycerol (leading to a rounder mouthfeel), gives richer flavours and higher alcohol levels.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the two DOCG wines: Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella. This is where the “appassimento” process comes into play. Appassimento is the act of drying grapes for an extended period so that 40% or more of the water evaporates, resulting in shrivelled berries rich in flavour and sugar. The Amarone destined grapes are dried for 90 to 120 days on average, in large drying lofts designed to permit good air circulation. The bunches are carefully inspected throughout the process to ensure they remain in good condition, free of moulds that would taint the flavour. The raisined bunches are then carefully transferred to tanks or large wooden vats for fermentation, followed by long aging (2 years for Amarone, 4 years for Amarone Riserva) in large, generally neutral wood casks. The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic, generally over 15% and often up to 17%. These are reds to cellar for 7 – 12 years and serve with savoury, hearty fare. Recioto winemaking begins in the same way, but the drying period is longer (120 to 150 days on average), and instead of then fermenting the wines dry, the process is halted mid-way to give a rich, concentrated, cherry and dried fruit scented, sweet wine (often up to 150g/L of residual sugar).

The wine is opulent, bold, rich, full bodied, highly alcoholic…best served with savoury, hearty fare.

Recioto is the oldest wine style of the area with a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The “Retico” was the wine of choice for the emperor Augustus, and the pride of all growers. It was in crafting this fine nectar that the Amarone style was (accidently) born. Amarone derives from the Italian word for bitter, and was the adjective used when the Recioto was occasionally left too long during fermentation with all of the sugar transformed to alcohol. The dry, alcoholic wine was considered overly bitter and generally thrown away. Not until the 1050s did opinions change and the Amarone style become appreciated in its own right.

Valpolicella is a storied region, with a long history of crafting unique, captivating wines. From light and fruity to heady and rich, there is a wine for every palate. Try this local recipe with a glass of Ripasso or Amarone and you will be packing your bags for Verona!

http://www.amaronetours.it/wines/amarone/amarone-recipes-risotto