If you’ve already broken a few New Year’s resolutions, welcome to the club: You belong to the majority. But don’t worry; just put a positive new twist on the onerous matter of New Year resolutions. Resolve to make wine an even greater pleasure. Herewith, a few ideas:
Resolve, for example, to organize a wine enjoyment circle with your friends and colleagues to conduct structured wine tastings or, as wine professionals often call them, degustations. I suggest that you hold at least once-a-month wine nights or, on weekends, even midday wine functions, to sample wines systematically. Please don’t think that being systematic might in any way diminish the spontaneous pleasure of enjoying wine. Quite the contrary. I’ve attended countless wine tastings and seminars and have conducted many myself, and can assure you that a rational, well-planned approach is absolutely necessary.
Until you get used to this sort of thing, in fact, I suggest that you leave food out of it unless you’re planning a food and wine party that doesn’t demand devoted attention to the wines alone. Note, too, that hungry people have difficulty concentrating on anything other than food.
On one occasion I was asked to give a pre-dinner talk on the wines about to be served to the more than 40 utterly famished attendees at a dinner held in a restaurant. So restless with hunger were these presumed wine lovers, who fairly twitched in anticipation of dinner, that their attention span was about as long as a small grape. After I sensed this and quickly broke off my presentation, they fell upon their food with near-feral intensity. Obviously such situations are not suited for serious wine discussion.
If you form your own friendly little wine circle, determine first how many of you will likely participate and agree among yourselves the approach that suits you best. For the relatively uninitiated I recommend tastings that promote an understanding of grape characteristics and of distinctions resulting from differences in producing regions (e.g. soil, climate, elevations) and vintage-to-vintage variables in individual regions.
You might start by organizing a few tastings each of which focuses on, for example, wines made from the same grapes produced in regions well distanced from one another. To fine-tune this a bit, get any two or three of a chardonnay, a riesling, a sauvignon blanc and a chenin blanc from each of three or four producing regions (e.g. New Zealand, California, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria).
First compare all of one varietal, then all of another. Then go back and compare different varietals from the same producing region. Lessons can also be drawn from comparing wines of the same regions’ varietals produced in different years. Year-to-year variations in such factors as the weather and the amount of sunlight invariably will result in subtle to marked differences in the wines — how they smell and how they taste.
Tastings involving blends of different varietals to demonstrate the specific contribution of each to the wine (sometimes difficult to do) can also be fascinating. Very good wine professionals, including grape growers and winemakers (often the same person), may say that they don’t care which types of grapes are used so long as the wine is well made. Indeed, good wine can be made even from obscure grapes if a good winemaker has good fruit to begin with.
But wine professionals already understand the things about wine that instructive tastings are intended to teach neophytes. It’s also a fact that many winemakers express a preference for certain varietals. Recently quite a few of them have told me how much they appreciate the forthright take-me-as-I-am characteristics of sauvignon blanc, for example, as opposed to chardonnay, a grape often kept in cask and usually for too long.
Many approaches to tastings are possible. I’m not saying that mine are carved in stone, but they’ve worked for me, and for others. Build your wine understanding on the bedrock of a firm grasp of fundamentals.
Simply to have tasting attendees sit and sample wine while listening to subjective evaluations of its smell and taste, a common practice among many sommeliers and people flogging their wines, may improve the tasters’ grasp of why something should be good, or not, even if at first they cannot figure it out for themselves.
This approach, however, doesn’t enhance a beginner’s knowledge of grape characteristics and growing factors, nor how these are reflected in the flavor. Such tastings are more meaningful for those who already have an extensive knowledge of wine — i.e., a considerable frame of reference from which to judge for themselves.
At one tasting where I scored wines together with some senior sommeliers, among others, I was fascinated to note a considerable gap in their scoring for some of the wines. People just don’t have identical senses of smell; personal and cultural factors are significant.
That brings us to my second suggestion: Resolve to train your sense of smell. To a considerable extent, an acute sense of smell can be hereditary. My sister’s sense of smell is so good she could be reincarnated as a beagle, to cite a personal example. And since birth I’ve always smelled something spoiled or burning, etc., before anyone else present. And so on. But through discipline and training, the sense of smell can be improved.
A special kit I’ll discuss in the future is very helpful. Alternatively, indulgently sniff everything in your spice rack. Sniff flowers, food, herbs, lotions, chemicals. Concentrate. Keep a written and metal record of what you smell. Little by little, this will help you analyze wine.
Meanwhile, enjoy a glass or two of pinot gris from Badischer Winzerkeller EG, a fine German maker in Breisach, Baden, a bit north of the epicurean French-German-Swiss triangle near the Black Forest, a fantastic area to visit and one I’ll soon visit again. I love this wine, an archetypal well-made, full-flavored varietal pinot gris. Have a glorious year. Cheers! Bon appetit!