I admire wine. I can relate to wine. When you think of wine, you may picture a vineyard, peaceful, lush and fecund. But here’s the thing – to make a really good wine, the vines have to struggle and fight their way through rocky, craggy soil until they emerge – rich and sweet and full of character. Moi aussi.
To be a Person of the World (and to be truly French), I had a desire to really learn about wine and be able to be bullshitty with the best of them. Now that I know a little something, I don’t have to be bullshitty and can drink what I like.
While I’ve been educating my palate for a few years, my favorite lesson was a couple of summers ago, on a family trip through Provence. We visited a number of vineyards, wandering through the vines and allowing me to live in my fantasy world of viticulturist (fancy name for a person who grows grapes) and vintner. But my favorite and most memorable experience was our visit to Les Caves St. Charles in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Proprietor Guy Bremond is one of only a couple thousand Master Sommeliers in the world, and his appreciation for wine is infectious and unpretentious. We wandered down the stone steps to the restored 13th century cellar where Guy had selected an assortment of local (of course) wines for us to taste. After being given a bit of the history of the region and the character of Chateaunuef-du-Pape wines, made primarily with Ganache grapes, we began the tasting ritual. And ended with a case of exquisite wine purchased which cost as much to ship as the cost of the wine, but completely worth it.
Here’s what we learned about how to taste wine:
First, look at the wine. Notice the color. Swirl the wine in the glass. While this can look like a lot of pomp and drama, it does have a purpose – it “opens up” the wine by introducing oxygen, bringing out the full subtleties of flavor. It also allows you to see the “legs” (or “tears” in France) of the wine, which basically indicates nothing more than the alcohol or sugar level of the wine but adds to the overall aesthetics of the experience.
Next, smell the wine. Don’t just take a sniff at it – stick your whole schnozz in the glass, close your eyes and take a slow, deep breath. What to you smell? Plum? Cherry? Citrus? Earth? Old tire? Swirl the wine again and do this a few times – you will notice different things on different breaths.
Finally, taste the wine. Our host Guy taught us the way a Sommelier tastes the wine and, after a lot of slurping and a bit of choking, we caught on. What you do is take a bit of wine in your mouth, and bend forward. Then, in complete defiance of gravity, part your lips slightly and draw in air through your mouth (timing is crucial since parting your lips with wine in your mouth is not very practical unless you’re taking in air). This fully opens up the wine, allowing you to taste more of the divine nuances of flavor. Not something I would do in a restaurant but nice to know.
Speaking of flavor, I’ve heard people talk about the “flavors” that are added to wine. But no, that’s the beauty of it! Flavors are not added. Those essences of currant or cherry or bacon or wood are created by the terrior – the weather, the soil, the exposure, or not-exposure, to sun, along with fermentation and myriad other such things that the vintner carefully controls. It is art.
For an excellent primer on some wine basics, I recommend a documentary done by John Cleese (Monty Python, Faulty Towers), called Wine for the Confused. It’s a bit dated, but so is good wine. And in it, he makes the important point that “good wine” is the wine that you like to drink.
One more interesting little tidbit for you – what are you supposed to do when the waiter hands you the cork? Some people sniff it (it will probably smell like a cork with a little wine on it), some people check the end of it (it should be damp from proper bottle storage, on its side). But here’s the real reason you are given the cork – back in the days of yore, wine bottles didn’t always have labels. The only way you could authenticate that you were being poured the wine you ordered was to be shown the cork, which had the vintner’s stamp on it. So the next time you’re in a restaurant and the waiter hands you a cork, instead of sniffing, scratching or biting it, simply look at the stamp and say “thank you”. Isn’t that a lot less silly?
The smell and taste of wine and discerning its many facets is but one more example of the French way of enjoying and savoring the richness of everyday experiences, and one I hope you will enjoy. Try it when you have your next glass of wine, and let me know how it goes!