My first few tries of wine involved painfully dry white wines that seemingly stung my taste buds. I don’t know whether it was my taste buds that weren’t used to wine yet and I couldn’t appreciate it, but because I did not have any other points of reference, I thought all wines were like that. As a result, I generally stayed away and explored other libations.
It was around age 35 that I had my first sip of a wine that made my eyes light up and brought a smile to my face. It was an epiphany in a stemmed glass!
I wish I could remember the name of the wine to thank the winery, but it turned out to be something a little more middle-of-the-road in terms of sweet-dry balance. It was a nice, light, fruity wine with floral and citrus notes that delicately danced across the taste buds, like a gentle cooling breeze on a warm summer day. It was a pivotal moment that put me back on the path of exploring the wonderful world of wines.
In those first months, I had no idea what I was looking for. Initially, I picked up wines from brands I had heard of through word of mouth. It did not take long for me to alter that strategy upon realizing that I must have been the oddball among a collective of dry wine aficionados.
Then I started reading recommendations from reviewers and picking a few that appealed by their descriptions, suggesting notes of “black cherry” and “chocolate”. If I liked these flavours on their own, why not in my wine? They were quite good, but along the way I discovered that robust red wines made me very sleepy. As Archie Bunker once said in “All in the Family”, they were like “a blanket in a bottle”. It’s hard to become a wine connoisseur when you’re yawning at 30 second intervals and stealing the toothpicks from the cheese cubes to prop your eyelids up.
The next stop on my wine journey was the Catholic guilt trip. Because I was single at the time, and trying different wines on my own, by only having a glass now and then, I ended up wasting wine by not being able to finish the bottle before the taste started turning. Sinful, I know. That was when I started seeking out recipes to make use of the unused wine.
In the interest of efficiency, I saved the wine exploration for restaurants and parties, and keeping a list of the ones I liked and the ones that I didn’t. Every once in a while, I would review my list to try to find common denominators and to get a sense of what my taste buds really liked. As it turned out, my palate really did like wine and discovering the wonderful range of characteristics and notes that can come through in a more complex wine. My only real criteria: not too dry. I really wasn’t hard to please.
In recent years, my dining and travel experiences with John have pushed my learning curve up considerably and put me in the path of experts who were able to help me refine that list even more.
One such opportunity came in the form of special dinners at establishments that had a sommelier that could coach us in our choices or talk to us about the recommended wines to go with the special dinner. They always seem to nail it and find the perfect wine for the perfect meal. I have yet to dislike a wine recommended by a sommelier.
Another opportunity was a fantastic wine pairing seminar held at a local Italian grocery store, Bottega Nicastro, where samples of wine and cheese were offered to us and a presenter walked us through the unique range of characteristics each wine would convey.
It was through this seminar that I started to understand the influences of geography, weather, climate, and soil conditions on the wines. I also started to grasp the differences in the various varieties offered, through opportunities to try a few different wines and someone to tell us exactly what to look for.
We were most fortunate in also having the opportunity to tour a few wineries in Prince Edward County and Niagara-on-the-Lake, a logical extension to the wine pairing seminar. Winery tours have been excellent avenues to meet the teams who produce the wine and to hear the stories of their journey and how their wine gets its unique features.
Through these expert walkthroughs, I started understanding that just because a wine might seem a little extreme in its flavour notes, one way or another, it can still be appreciated when paired with the right foods. In that combination, wines and foods can either offset or complement each other nicely. Exploring that theory could be a journey in itself!
And the experts’ efforts also blew up my favourites list by exposing me to fascinating wines from around the world that challenged me to push the boundaries.
I would say that learning about wines is quite similar to learning a new language, and a little knowledge goes a long way. Now when I look at a wine list, I have some sense of what might be a good wine to try, even though I am still learning. By the same token, I don’t feel shy in asking the server for guidance if I am stuck or don’t know some wines on their list.
After all this coaching, I would not consider myself a wine snob at all. When anyone is gracious enough to welcome me and stick a glass of wine in my hand upon arrival, I will unquestionably accept the hospitality. But if I do have a choice to pick a wine for myself (no guilt this time) I will pick one that is most pleasing to my own palate. Right now that would be a “Sancerre”, a light, fruity French wine that keeps me coming back for more.
But at the same time, if I know that I will be celebrating with family and friends, I have a short list of great wines with pleasant notes that seem to be a crowd pleaser.
In the end, is that not what the wine journey is about?
P.S. Should you ever take a winery tour, please enjoy responsibly and ensure you have a designated driver if sampling is involved. Bus tours and shuttles are a great idea and an opportunity to chat with other wine lovers!
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