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OUR BLIND LOVE AFFAIR WITH ORGANIC WINES

Châteauneuf du Pape vineyard soil
Photo credit: Jasper Van Berkel

When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon to see people throw bags of leftover McDonald’s wrappers out of their car windows on the highway. Recycling was a new and little understood concept. And we regularly left the tap running while we brushed our teeth or did the dishes.

We would never have spend good money on bruised, mis-shapen produce or sprung 5$ more to ensure that our meat was grass-fed and hormone-free.

How times have changed.

I often find it curious how we as a society swing from one extreme to another before finally reaching a middle ground.  Today’s eco-conscience, Western consumers are increasingly dogmatic in their quest for organic goods. They spend the extra time and money to procure them, and pat themselves on the back for their efforts. I should know. I am one of them.

Do you sense a vaguely sarcastic tone? Oh, it’s there alright. For, what is often lacking in this right-minded behaviour is a sense of critical thinking. It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

It is a drastic over simplification to assume that a product is truly environmentally friendly because it has “organic” stamped on it.

How good for the planet are organic bananas, wrapped in a plastic containers, flown up from Central America? Sure, you could argue that they beat the same fruit sprayed with pesticides that kill the soil and surrounding flora and fauna…but again, there is more to the debate than this.

I regularly hear wine lovers and professionals alike enthuse about a winery, citing its organic or biodynamic status as the primary reason for loving them. Shouldn’t taste be the n°1 criteria for liking one wine more than another? And how sure can you be that the estate in question is truly behaving sustainably from the vine to the bottling line? Your reasons might include the following:

They are certified. There exist a vast number of organic wine certifying bodies around the world; each with different rules and regulations. The common thread is a ban on artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. However, not all certifications cover the products used in the winery. Furthermore, the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity, leading to “dead” soils that require regular fertilizer additions for vines to grow.

Domaine Fondrèche of the Rhône Valley recently joined an increasing number of French winemakers by dropping his organic certification (Eco-cert). Speaking to Decanter magazine last year, estate owner Sebastien Vincenti said: ‘I will reduce the copper build-up in the soils by changing my treatment programme to one that is more balanced between organic and synthesized products. The amount of oil used for tractors will also be halved, as I will not need to apply the treatments so regularly, so I will be lowering my carbon footprint’.

…the levels of heavy metals permitted in organic viticulture can build up dangerous levels of soil toxicity…

I have been to the vineyard and seen the soil health and biodiversity first-hand. This is certainly a solid and compelling argument. Growers committed to thriving vineyard environments are definitely worth favouring, but one should still ask themselves…to what extent are these ecological principles practiced? I recently saw footage of helicopters swooping back and forth over the vineyards of a revered biodynamic estate in Burgundy to ward off frost. I make no judgement as to the detrimental environmental impact of hours of helicopter fuel. Even the wealthiest domaines can little afford to lose a whole years’ crop and damage the latent buds for the following seaon. I just think consumers should be aware of these contradictions.

And what of irrigation? California is often held up as a gold standard for sustainable vineyard management. Yet, the bulk of wines produced in this frequently drought-stricken land are entirely dependent on irrigation. High-end wineries selling wines at premium prices are increasingly making efforts to reduce water usage, but the real volume of wine production comes from the entry to mid-tier level wines (sub 20$). A 2016 University of California Davis study shows an average of 300 litres of irrigation water used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine. The vineyards might look healthy, but at what cost to the planet?

As you can see, the subject is not as cut and dry as one might assume. Some wineries’ environmental efforts are little more than empty marketing ploys, while others are quietly making earth-friendly choices, without plastering the evidence of their good deeds on their labels.

…an average of 300 litres of irrigation water is used to produce a mere 1 litre of wine in California…

This is why I have always been more attracted to wineries that speak about sustainability rather than strictly defined organic practices. My ideal wine producer makes ecological choices holistically and pragmatically; weighing out environmental impact at each juncture (within feasible economic limits) rather than following a pre-set guideline. They also consider the social aspect of their enterprise. An estate that treats their grapes better than their employees surely doesn’t deserve our patronage?

Don’t mistake my meaning. I am not against organic certification; many adherents truly are leaders in vineyard ecology. And I certainly champion any efforts a winery makes to become more green. I merely suggest that wine drinkers beware of putting blind faith in estates’ organic claims, and not jump too quickly into assuming the moral high ground for these wines over their ‘conventionally farmed’ peers.

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.

 

Reviews

THE ENCHANTING WINES OF ALSACE

NIEDERMORSCHWIHR - ALSACE
Photo credit: www.vinsalsace.com

Have you ever seen one of those magical store window displays before Christmas, where all the brightly coloured houses look straight out of a fairytale? Cobblestone streets wind this way and that, and rolling hills surround the quaint little village. A gentle dusting of snow clings to the rooftops. Pressing your nose up against the glass, you wish you could step into the enchanting tableau.

Well you can.

Just head to Alsace and wander down the streets of any number of the charming towns, like Eguisheim or Riquewihr. You may find yourself half expecting to see Hansel and Gretel pop out of a doorway, fleeing from the witch’s oven.

While pretty gingerbread houses might be all the incentive you need to make the trip, there are a number of other attractive features to this historic region of northeast France. The one that interests me most, of course, is the wine.

While pretty gingerbread houses might be all the incentive you need to make the trip, there are a number of other attractive features to this historic region of northeast France.

Winemaking has a long and storied past in Alsace. Wild grapes have grown in the area since long before man appeared on the scene. Evidence of cultivated vineyards and wine production date back to Roman times.

While it may seem surprising that viticulture was established so early in such a northerly location, the region is in fact ideally suited for grape growing. The Vosges mountains to the west act as a protective barrier, sheltering the area from prevailing rain-bearing winds. As a result, Alsace is actually one of the driest, sunniest parts of France. It is the smallest wine region of France, sandwiched between the Vosges and the Rhîne river to the east. The automn season is long and warm. This is perfect for the late ripening grape varieties that are so prized here.

The vineyards line the foothills of the Vosges at altitudes of 200 to 400 metres. The best sites are oriented south or southeast maximizing sun exposure.  The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning all periods from the primary to quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely. According to experts, areas just 100 metres apart often have significant differences in soil makeup. Granite, chalk, marlstone, sandstone, loam, alluvial and even volcanic soils can be found here.

The geology of the region is incredibly diverse, with rock formations spanning all periods from the primary to quaternary era. Soil composition also varies widely.

This explains the wealth of grape varieties that grow so well here. While most other northern vineyards focus on just a handful of cool climate grapes, Alsace boasts a great number of single varieties and blended wines. The four most important of which, dubbed the “noble grapes” are: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Muscat. While white wines dominate, some very pleasant Pinot Noir is also made here, in an earthy, spiced, light-bodied style.

The appellation system of Alsace is quite straightforward. Still and sweet wines are either labelled Alsace AOC or Alsace Grand Cru AOC. There are currently 51 vineyards deemed to have superior terroir, meriting Grand Cru status. Only the noble grapes can be planted in these vineyards.

Alsace is also a well regarded producer of sparkling white wine, under the AOC Crémant d’Alsace. These bubblies are generally blends of several different white grape varieties, produced in much the same way as Champagne, though generally with a shorter ageing period. The wines are often quite fruity, medium bodied and rounded.

The wines showed incredible complexity, pure fruit flavours, attractive minerality and beautiful depth.

While exquisite Vendanges Tardives (late harvest) and Séléction de Grains Nobles (botrytised) dessert wines can be found here, the preconcieved notion that Alsatian wines are all sweet, is in fact wrong! The decision to ferment dry or leave some residual sugar tends to be based on grape, and on the producers individual style. Many winemakers have come up with sweetness scales on their back labels or started stating sec (dry) to indicate drier styles. The majority of the region’s most celebrated grape, Riesling, is made bone dry.

I had the great pleasure of attending a Vins d’Alsace tasting a couple of weeks back. The impression that remained after tasting through a wide range of wines, was one of outstanding value. When one ventures above the entry level offerings, into the 20$ to 50$ range, the wines showed incredible complexity, pure fruit flavours, attractive minerality and beautiful depth. The racy acidity of the Rieslings and firm structure guarantees long term ageing potential.

While 20$ plus might seem a little pricey for white wine, just consider that for comparable quality you would easily be paying double to triple for Burgundy, Bordeaux or premium New World whites.

Here are a few recommendations; wines that impressed me during the tasting.

10985851_isriesling-alsace-trimbach12713032_is00739813_is00896571_is 12604063_is00866681_is00967414_is

Photo credit: www.saq.com

What do VW, PW and LW mean?  Click on my wine scoring system to find out:

Domaine Barmès Buecher Crémant d’Alsace 2013 – 87pts. PW

Lively, attractive nose featuring hints of lemon verbena, citrus, green apple and a subtle leesy note. Crisp acidity gives way to sweet honeyed, floral notes on the broad palate. Firm, persistent bubbles abound. Brut dosage.

Where to buy: SAQ (26.35$)

Trimbach Riesling 2013 – 89pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Somewhat restrained, with savoury, earthy notes lending complexity to green apple and lemon scented nose. Racy acidity thrills on the dry, light bodied palate, with bright juicy fruit bringing depth to the mid-palate. The moderately long finish offers stony minerality and bright, lemon flavours.

Where to buy: SAQ (23.75), LCBO (23.95$)

Josmeyer Riesling “Le Kottabe” 2013 – 92pts. PW

Pale straw in colour. Elegant aromas of red apple, grapefruit and white flowers, with underlying earthiness and stony minerality. Very clean and precise on the bone dry palate, with a rounded structure and high concentration of citrus and orchard fruits that lingers nicely. A touch of grapefruit zest brings an intriguing hint of bitterness to the finish, adding to its appeal for food pairings.

Where to buy: SAQ (31.75)

Domaine Ostertag Riesling “Heissenberg” 2014 – 92pts. PW

Pale gold in colour. Heady aromas of spice, yellow apples and pronounced minerality on the nose. The palate is rich, broad and rounded, with exceptional depth of vibrant stone fruit flavours. Just a touch of residual sugar brings balance to the fresh, lemony acidity. The finish is long and layered, with ever so slightly warming, 13.5% alcohol.

Where to buy: SAQ (44.25$)

Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru “Saering” 2012 – 94pts. PW

This Grand Cru represents fantastic value! Intense, highly complex aromas of petrol, red apple, stony minerality and ripe apricots. Subtle spiced and floral notes develop upon aeration. Racy acidity is beautifully balanced by the rich, broad texture and bright, juicy fruit. The long finish is dry, with lingering stone fruits and mineral notes.

Where to buy: SAQ (33.00$)

Josmeyer “Mise de Printemps” Pinot Blanc 2015 – 90pts. PW

Pale lemon in colour. Fragrant aromas of white pear, melon, lemon curd and subtle floral notes feature on the nose. The medium weight palate is very fresh, rounded and easy drinking with bright, orchard fruit flavours. Quite dry, with a moderately long, fruity finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (22.90$)

Domaine Ostertag Pinot Gris “Barriques” 2013 – 89pts. PW

Pale gold, flecked with green. Somewhat restrained, yet complex smoky, mineral, earthy nose, with underlying green apple and grapefruit notes. The palate is clean, precise and light bodied with fresh acidity and moderate concentration of citrus and apples. Smoky notes linger on the moderately long finish.

Where to buy: SAQ (33.00$)

Preiss-Zimmer “Réserve Personnelle” Pinot Gris 2015 – 88pts. PW

Lively ripe pear, yellow apple and baking spice, with subtle smoky minerality. Medium bodied, with zesty acidity and juicy peach flavours. The mouthfeel is rich and smooth, with moderate viscosity. The balance between freshness and sweet finish is perfectly pitched.

Where to buy: SAQ (24.25$)

 

 

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.

 

 

Life

The Humbling Act of MW Blind Tasting

MW Mock Tasting Exam

Distance learning is a tricky thing. You can easily be lulled into a false sense of confidence working from the comfort of your living room. Nothing brings the reality of your progress (or lack thereof) crashing down around you like a course day. Last Thursday and Friday, I kissed my baby goodbye and headed to New York for a two-day Masters of Wine training session.

I get a lot of sidelong glances when I tell people what I am doing. They kind of smirk a little and say “so basically you sit around and drink wine all day? Gee, that sounds like hard work!” . Well, all I can say is…it is!  It is not necessarily the most vital profession out there, but it is challenging. Here is what a day of MW training looks like:

You start the day with 12 wine glasses in front of you and absolutely no earthly idea what is in each glass. Generally, with blindtasting, you have a few cues that help you cheat a little… the shape of the bottle, screw cap vs. cork, and how well you know the person who poured the wine. I have a dear friend from South Africa who, 9 times out of 10, will serve French or South African wine everytime he presents a mystery bottle. This narrows down the options nicely! Unfortunately, in an MW blind tasting exam, the wines are really BLIND. They can come from a wide range of countries, a huge number of grape varieties and are poured into identical bottles before the tasting. When the examiner says go, you have exactly 2 hours 15 minutes to taste, analyze, make an educated guess and then respond to numerous questions on each wine. This equates to just over 11 minutes per wine. And the questions are not multiple choice. They require paragraph style persuasive argumentation on the grape variety, origin, vintage, winemaking techniques, overall quality and so forth – all based on the “evidence from your glass”. For example, simply stating that the wine is a 2013 Pinot Noir from Sonoma will get you about 3 points out of 20 or more. You need to give all of the reasons why you came to this conclusion, in a clear, detailed yet concise way. All the while watching the minutes slip away, and fighting the panicked feeling that you have guessed wrong or that, even if you are right, you’ll never finish in time.

As it turns out, it is not nearly enough to simply taste a particular wine over and over again until you can pick it out blind. Success in this game is based as much on theory as on actual tasting. You need to memorize the fact that Pinot Noir is thin skinned so the wine is generally paler in colour, and more translucent that a lot of other red grapes. You also need to know where it grows and the style of the wine in different regions to help you narrow down the origin. Common winemaking techniques also need to be learnt. In fact, the book learning may even outweigh actual tasting. I once correctly guessed a Rutherglen Muscat dessert wine from Australia that I had never had before, purely because it matched the description I had read.

I’ll be honest and say that the two days of tasting in New York were not my most successful. I had a few too many deer-in-the-headlights moments, stuck in front of a wine I just could not identify. And while after the first day, I was sorely tempted to hide under the covers and forget the whole ridiculous idea of this degree, the next day I had gained fresh perspective. Making mistakes at this point is almost better than getting everything right. I know what I need to work on and how to go about it. So it’s back to the drinking table for me, with a glass in one hand and a wine atlas in the other!