It was inevitable to be drawn to wine. In Europe, it is slurped like water. In starred restaurants, it is paired with food. It strengthens the palate and plays tricks on the nose. It has as long a history as anything. It is intrinsic to and often defines culture all over the world. Its prevalence everywhere in the world is a testament to the closeness and oneness of humans. Pablo Neruda has nothing but good to say about the legendary grape (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/ode-to-wine/). Beer is forever for the cheap drunkard; spirits are for the perennially unhappy (think Mad Men). Wine is for the jovial.
It would seem to be a shame to live through another day without the joys afforded by wine. But the subject is shrouded by mystery. It is also a fairly expensive taste. Altogether it is a difficult subject to learn. It is more complicated than beer by many magnitudes. For this reason, wine itself has been discounted by consumers that order indiscriminately, and buy according to price tag at the LCBO. Consider the sorrows of a wheat beer lover that accidentally orders a hoppy IPA. There are enough types of wine to suit any taste bud (and most budgets). One experience illustrates my recent obsession with wine.
It was just another day in Copenhagen. I was eating at a quaint little fishbar in an industrial part of town. The wines in Denmark are too expensive – the pairings with the meal at Geranium were over $100. They generally go for at least $10 a glass. But at least the standard glass size in Denmark is 200mL instead of the stingy French who only give 125mL. (In Canada, it is usually 150mL or 187 mL.) In my adventure to find a cheap glass of wine, I stumbled upon a sherry. I had used sherry vinegar before; but I had no idea it was a fortified wine – something the waitress was kind enough to explain to me.
I had enough. It seemed wrong to be going to all these restaurants in the name of food blogging yet being a complete amateur when it came to wine – an indispensible side of gastronomy. And I am generally against doing things half-assed so I decided to learn wines inside and out. I had watched a thrilling documentary called “Somm,” where wanabe sommeliers have to guess the varietal, vintage and appellation of a wine purely by sight, smell and taste. I re-watched some clips and got excited. That would be my goal. Someday, I want to be able to guess a wine from what it tastes like. It seemed like a good way to hone in on your senses – and to make you more acutely aware of your surroundings. The wanabe sommeliers talk about going to the market every day so they could smell apples, pears, berries, lemons – just so that they don’t lose their ability to pick up even the tiniest clue when blind tasting. So it’s obvious then that there is some intricate link between wine and food. Being good at one makes you good at the other. At the very least, it would be a cool party trick.
We are also at a stage of our lives when wine makes a lot of sense. Slowing metabolisms and beer bellies prefer wine. Learning wine is expensive – and now it’s affordable. The next post will detail my supercharged attempt to learn about wine. I was racing against my imminent job catching up with me. But for most people, a leisurely approach is acceptable.
Wine List (unsolicited advice to learn about wine)
- Get a list of the most important wines in the world. And have one of each. There are an outrageous types of wine so only focus on the most important ones. That means stop drinking Ontario wines. There is nothing wrong with Ontario wines but you need to learn the important wines before learning the offshoots. Use these red and white lists because they are the testable material for the master sommelier diploma. If you can’t memorize this list, have it readily accessible when you order or buy wines.
- Take some introductory classes. The most accessible are at the LCBO. Price per wine tasted is usually $5. You also get the lesson that comes with it.
- Get a car and go to Niagara wine country. This is the cheapest place to try a lot of wine. It is usually $1-2 per wine tasted.
- Blind Tasting. I will discuss this in detail in the next post. I think that our perception of wine is largely predetermined by irrelevant factors – mainly the price and how French-sounding the label is. The only way to truly understand wine is to turn wine-ordering around. Tell what a particular wine is without looking at the label. This can be done economically at any restaurant that sells flights of wine or wines for 3oz. The best one I’ve found so far is Crush Wine Bar, where it costs about $7.5 per wine blind tasted (after tax and tip).
I began blind wine tasting a week ago. It has become the main source of excitement in my last week of freedom. The process involves going to a restaurant and asking the waiter to pick a set of wines from these red and white lists. The process is exactly like that of the film “Somm”. Based on visual characteristics, the smell and taste, you try to deduce the identity of the wine. This is the only way to truly appreciate wines without being pre-conditioned to believe something because of the price, the brand, and other clues. To truly have associations between label and wine, it is necessary to work backwards and determine the label by tasting only the wine.
As a blind taster, I am horrific. I struggle between the Bordeaux varieties and mix up Syrah and Malbec (on a daily basis, it seems). On a percentage basis, it seems like I can get close to the answer a little less than half the time. By close to the answer, I mean a similar varietal or a similar region. The likelihood of identifying the exact wine, appellation, vintage and all, is reserved for Master Sommeliers. I would be content with flirting with the truth. Here is an example that made me quite happy, despite being wrong.
A wine with a decidedly odd smell presented itself. It was so odd it is kind of hard to describe. The best description might have been what you could smell as you walked through a change room. Curtly, I wouldn’t drink it. On the palette it was a big wine, but without the Bordeaux characteristics. I immediately think of a Shiraz from Australia. I try to smell some green-ness and some pepper – both can potentially be there, just slightly covered up by the unbecoming smell. I almost say Shiraz from Australia because I can’t really think of anything better. But I realize I might have jumped to conclusions. The wine is a little earthy and isn’t as ripe as something from Australia. I end up thinking old world Shiraz, which would be naturally from the Rhone valley. It turns out that the wine is actually a Malbec from Cahors. In my defense, Cahors is not on these red and white lists, and therefore inadmissible. The Australian Shiraz / Argentinian Malbec mix-up is easy to make (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSBOXLexDO4 – amazing series btw). The wine was actually the original Malbec from France; my guess was the original Syrah from France. The two regions are a few hundred kilometers from each other, both from south-ish France.
This is the same deductive reasoning used everywhere. It’s notably similar to classical name-that-tune, where you try to guess a song from what is being played. You have never heard the song before, but you can place it based on similarities with what you know. For the recreational wine drinker, it isn’t necessarily about placing the wine correctly in any particular region, but simply producing a good enough set of options the wine can be. Being able to know which wines the particular glass is not is also a worthy skill.
To do blind tasting is simple. Any time you want to order a wine, ask a friend or a waiter to pick it for you. It is usually optimal to order half-sized glasses (3oz). Going to a place with a good international wine list is important. Any high end restaurant is usually sufficient. The by-the-glass wine list at dbar, a random place I stumbled upon, was almost entirely on my testable list. A personal favourite is Crush Wine Bar, which does 3oz pours and has an excellent selection. It also comes in at the cheapest - $7.50 / glass after tax and tip. One has 3oz pours for about $8-10 (plus tax and tip). Luma, and probably the other O&B restaurants also have 3oz pours. Good luck.