A first step into the world of wine tasting
I spend a lot of time in France, mainly riding bikes, but my other activity is eating food and enjoying wine. It is a sin to not sample the products of the local terroir through which you have been cycling all day. Despite the volume consumed I know little about the intricacies and skills of wine tasting.
Having seen far too many elaborate, attention seeking performances by so called ‘experts’ I was if anything a little but dubious of the whole show. However an afternoon with Sam from Black Hand Wine, Brunswick Yard, Penrith changed my perspective.
Jary has worked as winemaker and grape grower in New Zealand, France and Northern Spain. He instantly put us at ease and dispelled any fears I had that we were going to feel exposed and stupid. Jary had us swirling, sniffing, spitting (and occasionally dribbling) within minutes, no long lectures, straight to the wine.
Discovery number 1: Not just pretentious wankery
Jary explained to us how oenologists use chromatography and mass spectometry to analyse wines and correlate the individual compounds in wine with their descriptors; for example pineapple. The same compound that gives a pineapple its ‘pineappliness’ can be found in a bottle of wine that a wine taster would describe as smelling or tasting of pineapple. Each bottle of wine will have as many as 600 volatile compounds that make up its aroma and flavour. So when someone says they can smell leather, or grass cuttings or a tobacco box they aren’t just being a pretentious wanker, chemically it is actually in there, it is real. This was an eye-opening moment for me. I went from cynic to believer in that one sentence.
Discovery number 2: Wine drinking is a ‘mindfulness’ exercise.
Drinking wine as a relaxation technique may be frowned on, though many of us do it for that reason. From now on I am re-branding my wine drinking as a ‘mindfulness exercise’. Mindfulness is the big buzz word of the moment, you can buy ‘mindful’ colouring in books for adults, go on a ‘mindful’ walk or learn ‘mindful’ meditation techniques. Wine tasting is a mindful exercise, and one I enjoy far more than colouring in.
In learning to properly taste wine I discovered that if you try to grasp too tight to the aromas or tastes, to analyse too deep, they slip through your fingers. Your sense of smell has a very direct link to your brain and in particular the area which holds your memories.
Wine tasting, if you taste mindfully rather than just quaffing, can short cut your brain straight to a very detailed nostalgic moment of your past. Like a waft of aftershave that a former lover used to wear, or the smell of Lynx that always takes me straight back to a sixth form common room of hormonal teenagers. Once you get that memory the challenge is to unpick what it is in the wine that sent you there.
Letting the pictures form in my mind first was the key and once the picture was there I needed to work out why the wine had prompted that image. For example, a sip of one red-wine took me straight to the back seats of a coach on a school trip to Germany. How? Why? Jary explained the flavours of liquourice and strawberry bootlaces, ah ha yes, the bags of sweets we were eating. You see? Elusive.
I had to be a detective in my own memories. Next was the aroma of my Grandmother’s rose garden but what was it in the wine that took me there? Floral notes, the smell of sun-warmed earth or the damp vegetation? In another glass I was smelling secondary aromas of baked wood and remembering the sun-warmed, creosoted panels of the hut I used to sell ice-creams from as a teenager. Things I had not thought about for years.
It is hard to capture exactly what it is you are smelling. Sam taught us that the real experts scribble notes with their writing hand and taste with the other, a flow of consciousness of imagery and ideas. If you don’t write them down immediately they fly away, and if you try to analyse too closely you end up second guessing yourself. If that is not a mindfulness exercise I don’t know what one is.
Discovery number 3: Wine experts are not stuffed shirts.
Like so many things in life you can use your brain, or your heart. My perception of a wine expert was someone stuffy and uptight, formal suit and expensive tastes. Someone who wants to see you make a mistake. To flaunt their knowledge and expertise over your inadequate experience. An afternoon with Jary totally transformed this for me. With wine tasting you cannot be wrong (ok technically you still can but it is harder than I first thought) If you are smelling your grandmother’s rose garden, or custard cream biscuits, or liquorice All-Sorts it is because it is there in the wine. You might not know the right technical jargon for it, the appropriate phrase or where that sweet, creamy flavour is coming from but you are not wrong.
To be good at wine tasting, I imagine, requires a sensuous and exploratory personality, for how can you recognise an aroma or flavour if you haven’t smelt it before? Sticking your nose into cans of kerosene, running damp earthy humus through your fingers or squeezing fresh passion fruit in your hand is the only way to learn and label what you are smelling. May be you can only recognise the scent of dry hay in a champagne or oak aged chardonnay if you have indulged in a roll in a hay loft as the afternoon sunshine streams in? You cannot be uptight and still allow the wine to resonate. To have the flow of consciousness required to let the aromas and flavours flood your brain you need to be relaxed and open. You need to be mindful.
My image of wine has swung to the other direction, (and is probably no more accurate for it). Now I see wine experts as people deeply in touch with the sensuous world around them, people who are alive, who dig their hands deep into the soil, who sniff the aged leather of a horse’s harness or deeply breathe in the scent of an empty tobacco box. People who understand romance and nostalgia. People who when they are wine tasting are remembering sun on hot skin and an illicit roll in the hay loft (possibly).