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winetasting

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

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

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!