When visiting wineries, nothing seems more simple and organic than the world of wine. Friendly winemakers welcome wine aficionados to appreciate the beauty of their land through a glass of wine. The best ones proudly display their purple nails - a testament to the fact that everything starts in the vineyards.
Yet, the world of wine remains intimidating for many wine drinkers. As someone who has spent the last 15 years trying to demystify the world of wine through education and media, this is something I struggle with. Why has wine become so fussy? One does not need to understand everything to appreciate it. It’s also like this in music and art.
The pomp and circumstance around it often leaves the impression of a mystic world. Blind tastings, a common practice amongst wine experts, is just one example. When I teach beginners, I like to compare blind tastings to a mystery. It’s a matter of gathering clues so that you can make your verdict. The final conclusion consists of assessing the quality of a wine as well as the provenance (grape, region, vintage).
Well, saying it like this, it does seem intimidating and hard to achieve. Like a super talent that only a few people are blessed with, it’s not necessarily true. A gifted blind taster is someone who is able to connect the dots between the theory they have learned and their senses. Memory of both is imperative.
When we study wine, we learn how each grape behaves in specific climate and terroir. The clues start with the colour. For example, no matter what, Pinot Noir is always going to be paler than Cabernet Sauvignon. The colour also evolves with age. Red's get paler and white's gain colour. Then we sniff. We’re trained to recognize the different aromas associated with each grape and their nuances in different terroir and climate. If you have a good memory and good sensitivity, you are in luck! On the palate, in addition to tasting the flavours, you assess the component of the wines. The level of acidity, alcohol, and tannins (for the reds) will help form the evaluation.
Besides guessing the identity of the wine, how can you tell if a wine is well-made? If the wine has a good concentration of flavours and all of the components (acidity, alcohol, body, tannins) are balanced, you can say a wine is well-made. This is an objective observation, as one has to leave their own preferences aside.
Yes, it takes time, it takes work and it takes dedication. But I do believe that it is accessible for everyone. So next time you see a sommelier swirl, sniff, taste and guess, don’t be intimidated. Just appreciate the fact that they are putting their own skills to the test. An accumulation of years of work and training. Santé!
Michelle Bouffard is a wine educator and journalist who splits her time between Montréal & Vancouver. She co-owns the Vancouver-based company ‘house wine’ and is the president of the BC Chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers.She Tweets @michellebwine and Instagrams @michellebouffard.