Browsing Category

Life

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

 

Life

VENETO TRAVEL DIARIES PART 4 – VALPOLICELLA TALES

Valpolicella Tales

Perhaps it was the proximity to Verona and its star-crossed lovers that made me sentimental. And perhaps, after a week travelling with two strong, talented women, I had become somewhat biased. Whatever the reasons, the themes of enduring love and of trailblazing females seemed to define my time in Valpolicella. As I find myself in a story telling mood, I will recount the history of three of the estates visited this week. Don’t worry, a review of the wines and an overview of the regions will follow shortly (in part 5).

CORTE SANT’ALDA  http://www.cortesantalda.com/en/

Our first stop was an unassuming old villa, atop a pretty hillside with panoramic views of vineyards strewn with wild poppies. From the moment I shook hands with the wry, spirited Marinella Camerani, I knew I would like her. In short order she had rattled off a tale of rebellion and passion. Tired of working as a lowly accountant in the family car battery business, she left her father and brothers, and even husband, behind and moved to the country. Without a lick of experience in winemaking, she began working in the cellars and slowly learnt her trade. Small Italian towns in the 1970s were not particularly receptive to divorcées living alone and taking on men’s work. The first years were hard, but she persevered, eventually getting the capital together to buy her first vineyards. Today, Corte Sant’Alda is a thriving 40-hectare biodynamic estate consisting of vineyards, olive trees, pastures and forest. Marinella’s eyes shone with pride speaking about her wines, but she became positively radiant when discussing the love of her life. Cesar came to her village as an illegal Peruvian immigrant. Their union was not a welcome one to her already disapproving family, but she eventually won them over. The winery is named for their now 16-year-old daughter Alda. Beautiful purity is the watchword for the whole line up, from the well crafted, cherry scented Valpolicella through to the rich, concentrated Amarone.

Québec: Private imports via La QV http://www.laqv.ca/

Ontario: Private imports via The Toronto Wine Club

VILLA MONTELEONE http://www.villamonteleone.com/principale/azienda_en.htm

After retiring from neurosurgery at North Western University, Anthony Raimondi and his Colombian-born wife Lucia Duran decided to follow their dream and retire in Italy. They happened across the stately old villa in their travels and fell in love. The estate came with a hectare of vines, so they decided to try their hand at winemaking. Initially they just wanted to supply their own cellar, but ambition got the better of them and the estate grew. Sadly, Anthony passed away not long after. Lucia found herself alone, in charge of a large property and a demanding enterprise.  She considered closing up shop but after some soul searching, decided to roll up her sleeves and carry on. She moved into a small cottage on the property and transformed her home into a tastefully furnished, welcoming bed & breakfast*. After a number of years growing her vineyard business alone, she recently found a business partner, Marco, to manage the vineyards and winemaking. Today, the estate makes 30 000 bottles, sold primarily in North America. We tasted the line up in Lucia’s lovely, heritage-classed gardens. The wines were a true reflection of the noble woman in front of us: elegant and refined.

Ontario: Private imports via Small Winemakers http://www.smallwinemakers.ca/

* For more information on the B&B: bedandbreakfast@villamonteleone.com

Follow Villa Monteleone on facebook for Marco’s authentic Italian recipes (in English)

TINAZZI http://www.tinazzi.it/

This last story is maybe a little less pertinent, since it is technically the story of a determined, strong-willed man. It was however, recounted over the course of a fabulous evening of Paverotti, antipastis and wine, by his equally tenacious daughter. Gianandrea Tinazzi was just 18 when his father, Eugenio, lost his job. The cantina where he worked went bankrupt. Tired of working for others, Eugenio decided he would set up his own operation and that his son would help. He started by buying small quantities of grapes, and vinifying them in a crude winery set-up in the garage. Gianandrea’s job was to drive around the holiday camping grounds surrounding Garda lake and sell the wine, returning with the empty bottles. Quickly realizing that they needed more than holidaymakers to grow, Gianandrea began selling in local restaurants, and then to national wholesalers. As the business continued to thrive, father and son began purchasing vineyards and looking for clients abroad. Without a word of German or a single business contact, Gianandrea drove all night and started the process of knocking on doors to present his little known wine. Fast forward to 2016, and a new generation of Tinazzi’s work at the family firm. Francesca studied economics in Milan and initially resisted the idea of joining her father and brother at the now flourishing 3-million bottle a year winery. But after 5 years away, the lure of the vineyards proved too great and she returned as financial director to oversee, if not quite, control Gianandrea’s ambition. The winery now consists of 100 hectares of vineyards in Bardolino, Valpolicella and Puglia, with additional grape contracts and brands out of Chianti, Abruzzo and Sicily. A heady, voluptous style defines Tinazzi’s line up of Veneto & Puglia wines.

Québec: Tinazzi’s excellent Puglian Primitivo “Feudo di Santa Croce” is available at the SAQ. The Veneto lineup can be private ordered via Vinicolor http://www.vinicolor.ca/produits.php#canada

 

 

 

 

 

Life

VENETO TRAVEL DIARIES PART 3 – A TASTE OF SPRING

My jaunt through the vineyards, cantinas, trattorias and castellos of Conegliano Valdobbiadene is sadly at an end. The festivities culminated in a lovely closing dinner with much merriment. The old, low beamed roof creaked under the weight of hundreds of old copper pots hanging from the rafters. The Prosecco DOCG was flowing freely and when we asked the charming Ernesto from Marsuret winery what the locals drank other than Prosecco, he cried “Grappa”…at which point liveried sommeliers arrived with snifters of the fiery golden liquid.

Over the past two days we have been visiting wineries. From mid sized family affairs to gigantic operations with massive, 200hL tanks gleaming out in the sun. Over the course of our conversations and tastings the difference between entry level Prosecco DOC and premium Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG became increasingly apparent. Much of what we are exposed to on international markets is the entry priced, aggressively frothy, candied peach and pear scented concoctions served at cheap banquets and sold on promotion in supermarkets. The finer examples of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG shine in comparison. When you see the steep hillsides, worked entirely by hand around Valdobbiadene, with only half the yield of the flat plains of Prosecco DOC, it is easy to understand why.

The best of the best have much finer mousse, only faintly frothy on the palate, with delicate floral, zesty apple and ripe pear aromas. On the palate, subtle spiced notes of aniseed or ginger are common. Some even offer attractive hazelnut or mineral undertones. From crisp, bone dry “Extra Brut” to overly fruity “Dry” styles, the best DOCG Proseccos offer balance. The sugar is offset by fresh acidity and vibrant bubbles, with none of the cloying sweetness on the finish. Prosecco DOCG “should taste like spring time” proclaimed Canavel’s Carlo Caramel (yes that is his real name). This neatly sums it up for me. Prosecco is meant to be drunk young, in the year following production. Though we did try a few intriguing 2014s with nutty, honeyed profiles, by and large the wine is not meant to age. Although made up to high quality standards, Prosecco DOCG does not take itself too seriously. It is bottled young and fresh, and should be drunk upon purchase…preferably on a terrace, with good tunes and great company.

A couple of parting words of advice: It is worth spending 10$ more and trying one of the best on offer in your local liquor store. After all, it is still far cheaper than many other bubblies. Look out for quality cues on the label like DOCG (the higher quality appellation level), and within this category: “Rive” (single vineyard – the word is always followed by the name of the hamlet), and the finest terroir “Cartizze”.

Some Great Producers to Look For

Adami, Biancavigna, Bisol, Canevel, Malibran, Marchiori, Marsuret, Merotto, Ruggeri, Villa Sandi

Visiting Conegliano Valdobbiadene Do’s & Don’ts

Never admit having mixed DOCG Prosecco with orange juice to a local. The long silence that follows can get a little uncomfortable.

Don’t suggest that the catchy little appellation name “Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG” could somehow be shortened to give it more international appeal. It is just fine as it is.

If you see just Valdobbiadene DOCG on the label, with no mention of Conegliano (or vice versa), don’t ask why. The feud is centuries old.

Drive the Prosecco wine route. You will not regret it. It is stunningly beautiful. Take some gravol first though!

Don’t eat risotto for at least a month or two before your trip. You will eat A LOT of it. Beautifully creamy, with wild herbs or asparagus; utterly delicious but omnipresent.

Life

VENETO TRAVEL DIARY PART 2 – “THE HEROS OF PROSECCO”

Cartizze

A grey, overcast sky greeting us this morning as we hopped on the minibus for the days’ adventure. First stop, the Enology school for a proper classroom session to learn the wonders of DOCG Prosecco.

The main difference always cited when people compare Champagne with Prosecco, is the vinification method. Champagne (along with Cava and many other bubblies) ferments to completion in tank or barrel like any dry white, and is then transferred to bottle, dosed with sugar and yeast and sealed to undergo a secondary fermentation process whereby carbon dioxide bubbles get trapped in the bottle making the fine mousse we know and love. For Prosecco, the Italian (or Martinotti) method is employed. The initial vinification is much the same. However, the carbonation process takes place in sealed, pressurized tanks. Whereas Champagne is deliberately left to mature on its lees (spent yeast cells) to develop weight and complexity, Prosecco is bottled rapidly after the second fermentation.  The resultant fizz is softer and frothier with exuberant fruity appeal.

Yesterday I explained the basic hierarchy of the Prosecco appellations (click here for the lowdown). Today, we delved a little further into the subdivisions within the Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore Prosecco DOCG. With over 7000 hectares, there is a wealth of diversity – from soil composition, to aspect, to microclimate – leading to important stylistic differences. To see for ourselves, we hopped back on the bus and made our way from the relatively flat plains of Conegliano to the steep slopes surrounding Valdobbiadene. The stunning Prosecco wine route weaves through sleepy hamlets, up and down increasingly steep hillsides, to reveal a hidden paradise of lush, green vines. Redder, more clay-rich soils surround Conegliano, giving structured, fruity wines. Nearer to Valdobbiadene, the vines are planted on more ancient morainic, sandstone and clay, yielding more elegant, floral aromatics.

The stunning Prosecco wine route weaves through sleepy hamlets, up and down increasingly steep hillsides, to reveal a hidden paradise of lush, green vines.

Like the 1er Crus of Burgundy, certain vineyard sites have been singled out as superior. They are called “Rive”, followed by the name of the vineyard or hamlet. If you are curious to try a more complex style of Prosecco, look out for this. At the highest point of the appellation, over 400m above sea level, we come across the single Grand Cru hillside: Cartizze. Just 107 hectares of vines are planted here. With more than 100 different growers, production volumes are tiny. Cartizze is blessed with a special microclimate. The southern exposure and steep angles offer maximum sunshine during the day. The high altitude guarantees cool nights, allowing a long, slow ripening period. The vast majority of Prosecco produced here is crafted in the “Dry” style (17 – 32g/L residual sugar), though the zesty acidity and rich, fruit laden flavours make the sweetness almost imperceptible.

In Cartizze and the surrounding steep hillsides, wine producers can use the special “Viticoltura Eroica” logo on their label. Literally translated as “heroic viticulture”, this lovely term refers to the impressive lengths to which growers have to go in order to work these precipitous vineyards. Everything is done by hand here, making pruning, harvest and other vineyard chores a backbreaking labour of love.

Our visit culminated in a culinary feast at the Trattoria alla Cima in Valdobbiadene. The wine was served in the traditional order, from Brut Prosecco with antipastis, to Extra Dry with the primi and secondi piatti and Cartizze for the dulce. After 5 courses, we were finally satiated, so headed back into Susegana for the evenings’ tastings at the spectacular Castello San Salvatore. More on this in the next edition.

 

Life

VENETO TRAVEL DIARY PART 1 – ITALY’S FAMOUS FIZZ

Conegliano

It is becoming increasingly rare (at least in my experience) to have a perfect journey. I mean one where all your flights leave on time, the security lines are short and painless, the immigration people are friendly and your bags make a speedy appearance upon arrival. I feel like this is a good omen for my trip.

I arrived in Venice this morning to ominous clouds, but mild spring weather and lush greenery. My colleagues and I were met by a smiling driver who whisked us away and shortly thereafter deposited us at the grandiose, if somewhat dated, Hotel Astoria just outside of Conegliano (pronounced Conelyano). Tonight, the Vino in Villa festival kicks off. The annual event aims to showcase the superior quality of the DOCG Prosecco from the region of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. A smattering of wine journalists from around the globe have been gathered to learn more about the region and its famed bubbly. The goal? To pass on the good word that Prosecco is more than a cheap and cheerful Champagne alternative.

Let’s start with the basics…  Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine made throughout the Veneto and neighbouring Friuli Venezia Giulia regions in North Eastern Italy. The principle grape is called Glera. Not a particularly memorable variety for still wines due to a fairly neutral character, Glera is an excellent sparkling base. It boasts lively acidity, and peachy, floral notes. As with many European vineyards, there is a quality hierarchy. The lowest tier is Prosecco DOC, which includes grapes grown anywhere in the two above mentioned regions. This level of Prosecco can be made dry (brut), slightly off-dry (extra dry), or semi sweet (dry)…yes, the nomenclature is confusing! It can also be still, lightly sparkling (frizzante) or fully sparkling (spumante). The spumante style is most common. Above this tier, we get into the Superiore level, to which this week-end pays homage. The official name for this higher quality appellation is: Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG (I know, the name just rolls off your tongue, right?). It can only be made in the Treviso province of Veneto on the rolling hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. It is here that the Glera grape goes beyond simple, peachy fizz to take on real elegance and charm.

The next 3 days will consist of a total immersion in all things DOCG Prosecco…tutored tastings, vineyard and winery visits, food and wine pairings and so forth. I will endeavour to share my insights with you in a series of daily ramblings. I warn you in advance that I may dally into some raptures about the food. It is Just. So. Good. Here.  For example, today at lunch, we paired the brisk, refreshing, citrusy and faintly saline Le Manzane “Springo Blue” Conegliano DOCG Prosecco brut with herb sprinkled swordfish tartare & strawberry mayo. The main course was grilled sturgeon cooked to perfection with a pretty, floral extra dry Valdobbiadene DOCG Prosecco from Agostinetto “Vigna del Baffo”. The smooth, subtly creamy, poached pear finish underscored the rich, textured fish perfectly. All in all, a great start, topped off by a saunter around the lovely Conegliano castello and doumo. Birds are chirping outside my window, and the sun is lazily sinking down below the hill of vines outside my window, time to dress for the welcome dinner. More tomorrow…

Life

ITALY AWAITS…!

Distretto

I have been a little remiss in posting recently. This is simply because the big count down has begun…  I am T-26 days from the Masters of Wine exams. So, as you can imagine, I have had my head permanently in the books (and my nose in the glass) for the past couple of months.

The dread and anticipation is bringing me close to fever pitch. So the world’s greatest husband (mine), is sending me away for a week to cool my heels. I am making the potentially risky move off taking a week off. I have been tempted into accepting the gracious invitation of the Italian Chamber of Commerce to attend the annual Vino in Villa (http://vinoinvilla.it/en/) festival. This annual event honours the top quality Prosecco from the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG.

Watch this space for a week long travel diary on my musings, tastings and so forth. I will also treat you to a cheeky little jaunt to Valpolicella before I head home. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it….!

Life

IT’S ALL A MATTER OF TASTE

Wine Shop

I went to a very interesting tasting last Sunday, hosted by the gracious and talented Ontario-based wine writer Natalie Maclean. There were wines from all over the map to taste, over 70 in all. While there were some real stand out bottles on offer, what really struck me were the tasters.

All sorts of ages, styles and backgrounds were represented; lots of sommeliers, writers, product consultants and the like. The idea was to amass a common pool of reviews for the wines, all fed onto Natalie’s website. Idle curiosity got the better of me, as it usually does, and I found myself looking at the scores and comments of my peers after posting my reviews. They could not have been more different. Where one taster found intense, black berry aromas, another found the same wine closed and earthy.  One wine deemed fairly light, was called full bodied by another reviewer. A wine slammed with a lowly 80pts was worth 90pts for someone else. Here we were, a pool of experts, with vastly different views. And herein lies the beauty of wine. It’s all very personal and depends on a large number of extenuating circumstances.

And herein lies the beauty of wine. It’s all very personal…

The label – if you have heard good reports on a wine from friends, colleagues, respected reviewers, etc. you will likely approach it in a more favourable light. And vice versa. It is human nature. If you watch a movie that a friend raved about, or that just won a slew of Oscars, you are primed to love it. And this feeling is very hard to overcome. Even if you thought is was painfully bad, you would still try and praise the cinematography or something. Whereas, if the same film was panned, you would have no trouble dismissing it as trite rubbish.

What you just ate or drank – ever tried drinking a glass of wine shortly after a cup of coffee? I bet you didn’t love it. The bitter coffee tannins likely exaggerated the sensation of astringency in the wine. What about a tart, light-bodied Pinot Noir after a big, bold Napa Cab? The second wine likely seemed thin and reedy. The obvious course of action is to ensure your palate is as neutral as possible before starting, and then tasting from lightest to fullest. But when are things ever ideal?

External stimuli & mood– is there an argument going on in the background? Does the lady next to you smell like she bathed in patchouli? Are you in a hurry to beat traffic? All of the craziness going on around you can throw off your focus and lead to snap judgements. Just like your mood. Picture it, Sicily 1922 (I digress…), seriously though, picture your last vacation. The scenery is stunning, you are relaxed and happy, and just loving the sweet, frothy, peachy bubbles served before dinner each evening. So you buy a couple of bottles to take home. And when you try it again in your kitchen, it tastes …sickly sweet, the bubbles fall flat instantly, and the finish is cloying. The holiday romance is over.

Your personal, sensory library – when I was a kid, we used to pick black berries every August at the seaside in England. The smell of fresh, and baked blackberries is highly evocative for me. If I find that singular smell in a wine, I am happy. But someone else’s version of blackberries could be a cheap brand of jam their mother used to buy, and the associated smell would be quite different. All over the world, people’s lexicons of smells are vastly different. Many aromas we identify are unknown to African or Asian drinkers who have not been exposed to the same fruits or spices and so on. And the exotic fruits that they find so easily will not be detected by many of us westerners.

We take an airplane trolley’s worth of baggage with us into each wine tasting without even realizing it.

The list goes on and on. We take an airplane trolley’s worth of baggage with us into each wine tasting without even realizing it. So what’s a novice wine lover looking for a little guidance in the bewildering aisles of the liquor store to do? First of all, trust yourself! If you like it, that’s good enough. Wine is meant to fun. It doesn’t matter if the Wine Spectator didn’t like it. If you poke around the internet long enough you will find another reviewer who does. Second of all, know that we all have personal bias. Even critics that only taste wines blind have styles they prefer. While better tasters can objectively praise a wine they don’t like but recognize is well-made; they will never rave about it in the same way they would a wine they adore. Try as I might, I will rarely score a hugely extracted, teeth staining, overtly fruity red as well as a lighter, more elegant and restrained style. So go forth and sample widely from a range of wine folk and you will end up finding someone that has a similar palate to yours. It’s a bit like finding a favourite author. You know that when you curl up with their latest book, you’ll probably like it. Now try settling in with the book AND the glass of wine…heaven!

Life

The civilizing necessity of wine

Beaune vineyard

On a sad day like today, with bombs raining down on Brussels and the world in such turmoil, spending all of my time and energy on wine studies seems a superfluous pursuit. Wine is a luxury good, not a necessity. And shouldn’t we be focusing on essential needs in these dark days?

The more I think about it, the more I disagree with this sentiment. Ernest Hemingway once said that “wine is one of the most civilized things in the world”.  Like art or music, the sensory pleasure given by fine wine broadens the mind and heightens the senses. Consumed in moderation, it encourages noble sentiments like compassion and understanding.

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world”

In ancient Greece, wine was an integral part of all political and philisophical exchanges. The great symposiums, where the fundamental topics of the day were debated, always began with a glass our two of wine to get conversations flowing. “In vino veritas” was the sentiment of the time. And in today’s world, where racism, hatred and right wing regimes are threatening to overtake us, it appears we need this social lubricant more than ever. We need to be reminded that we are capable of creating and sharing beauty.

At a simpler, and perhaps more fundamental level, we need the sheer pleasure wine brings. When I think back on my life, every celebration, every moment of hapiness, and even the times of great sadness were accompanied by wine. At Christmas dinner, a hearty cheers with vintage Port. On my wedding day, a Champagne toast. When my father passed away, a raised glass of grand cru white Burgundy.

So if the world goes to hell in a hand basket, you will find me in the cellar with as large a crowd as a can gather, polishing off the Pauillac.

Life

a day in the life of an MW student

Masters of Wine Seminar

When I graduated from university, I remember thinking to myself thank god…I’m out! I am NEVER going to school again. No more last minute, desperate attempts to finish essays or cram a ton of facts into my wee brain before a big exam. No more week-ends feeling guilty about all the study I wasn’t doing. And then, after a mere year out in the “real world” I realized that I had absolutely no interest in my field and found my job utterly tedious. Doh! So…back to the classroom. This time in Burgundy, with far more scientific content than I bargained for, in a language I spoke very poorly. When I finished that incredible, exhausing experience, my first thought was, now I REALLY am done.

Fast forward 10 years, to the seminar I attended in Napa & San Francisco this past week. An intense flurry of blind tasting sessions and theory preparation for the notoriously hard Masters of Wine exams. In less than 6 months’s time, I will put myself through this 5-day feat of endurance with a pass rate of less than 10%! So, of course, the obvious question keeps running through my mind. Why on EARTH am I putting myself through this again? And, more importantly, why am I TELLING everyone about it, considering the spectacularly unfavourable odds of passing? I try to reassure myself by saying that it is the journey, the knowledge that I am obtaining, that is important; the simple fact of pushing myself to excel at something. Then again, maybe this is all some elaborate scheme to make my wine drinking habit seem classy and professional. Yeah, probably a little more the latter…

So what does a Masters of Wine student do at a seminar? Well, while it is far from the challenges faced by a rocket scientist, it is nonetheless intense. Imagine yourself, bleary eyed, staring into your coffee cup at 7:30am. While you were doing that, I was pouring 12 mystery wines into 12 glasses. At 7:45am each day, a deathly silence would fall, broken only by sounds of sipping, slurping, spitting and furious pen scratchings. I had 10 minutes per wine to write detailed arguments, using “evidence from my glass”, identifying the grape(s), origin, quality level, style, winemaking techniques, vintage, residual sugar level, commercial appeal and so on. My “move” was to start each tasting by wasting a couple of those precious minute looking around the room in a blind panic watching everyone tasting and nodding their heads smugly, while my mind emptied of all useful information. Then I proceeded to calm down, taste, make notes and then take more-or-less wild stabs at determining the wines and writing logical, vaguely intelligent sentences. Once the buzzer sounded the end of these daily torture tasting session, the feedback began. Here is why you are absolutely and totally wrong…and so on.  Some days, I did fairly well and started feeling a little cocky. Other days I wanted to borrow Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak.

The afternoon sessions were a mix between lectures and field trips. The Masters of Wine program is as much, if not more, a theoretical degree. Tasting well is just the tip of the iceberg. You also need to acquire in-depth knowledge of all major aspects of viticulture, winemaking, quality control, business, marketing and latest industry issues and trends. It is this holistic approach that drew me to the MW, over a sommelier program. That, and the fact that I am far too clumsy for fine wine service in a posh restaurant. The idea behind the theory session is to prepare us for the dreaded exams, where we will be expected to write 3 ~1000 word essays in 3 hours on highly technical subjects, with a wealth of real world examples, in a confident, authoritative manner. Again, my attempts at these time essays generally began with a couple minutes trying to tap into the old memory bank while only useless bits of fluff trivia or lame song lyrics floated to the surface.

The idea is that, come June, the hours of dilligent studying will pay off, I will discover a newfound serenity, and pass on the first try! Cheers to that…

 

Life

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…and a couple of red too.

So here we are on the eve of the most wonderful day of the year. Important decisions need to be made. The critical moment is upon us…what to drink with the bird? In my family, this meant trips down to the cellar with my father for lengthy (and chilly) deliberations. Would we go the traditional route and serve red Burgundies…a lightbodied red for a subtle meat? Or perhaps a more original choice; something fruity and round to off-set the dryness of turkey. Barossa Shiraz became the go to wine for a number of years.

Of course, choosing the turkey wine was just the tip of the iceberg. There was also the post main course tipple, the after dinner digestif and, for certain members of the family, a wee dram to finish off the night. With a heaping plate of turkey and stuffing consumed, and sometimes (often) a second helping too, we often ran a serious risk of not finding enough room for Christmas pudding. This is where our French traditions save the day, in the name of the trou normand, jokingly referred to as “the norman hole” in my family. This consists of a shot of chilled Calvados with a small scoop of apple sorbet. The sorbet cleanses the palate while the alcohol burrows a perfect pudding sized hole in the stomach.

With the feast at its end, my father, with a wicked gleam in his eye, would push back his chair and say something that infuriated my mother like “that was edible”. The lovely little crystal glasses would be brought out and the heavy decanter. To celebrate the births of each of his three children, my father bought from the best port houses that declared the vintage. He dreamed of opening the bottles with us to celebrate the key moments of our lives: important birthdays, our weddings, the births of our children and so on. It has been almost 8 years since his passing, and the number of dusty, old bottles are sadly dwindling. The trips to the cellar are still an integral part of Christmas, though they hold a bittersweet note now.

So, in loving memory, this year we hold up our port glasses with Offley Boa Vista Vintage Port 1982. It is glorious; incredibly fresh & vibrant with roasted hazelnut, dark chocolate, blackberry & figs. On the palate it is velvetty and smooth, with a layered texture and a long, nutty finish.

Merry Christmas one and all!