Monday, May 2, 2011

How Everyone Should Learn About Wine

by Alyson Galipeau

I thought I didn't like wine until my first visit to Seneca Lake, two years ago.  A wine-loving friend, originally from Rochester, directed me there, saying that if I wanted to learn about wine, Seneca Lake was the place to visit. 

The following year, she accompanied me on my second visit to the region.  Through her I discovered Fox Run Vineyards, a favorite winery of hers whose Meritage she especially praised.

Well, I tried the Meritage and found it a bit on the harsh side for my palate.  Still, I felt it deserved another shot.  So when Spring finally showed its face this year, I figured a solo road trip was in order, and drove seven hours west from New Hampshire back to Seneca Lake.

On a gray, blustery morning, hardly Spring-like as it turned out,  I marched up the hill to the wine production facility at Fox Run Vineyards.  I had shown up unannounced, but was nevertheless hoping to get a chance to meet the winemaking staff. After two years as a wine newbie, I was ready to really learn something solid about my passion. Wine was no longer going to be one big secret, full of conflicting information dispensed by older persons in khaki shorts and sandals.

A set of narrow metal stairs led up to a hidden room: the wine lab. Inside, I met winemaker Peter Bell, his assistant Tricia Renshaw, and a friendly black dog named Max.  The room was filled with beakers of all shapes and sizes, and the counters boasted mysterious, faded purple stains.  Jars of pale liquids, a container of sugar, and a digital scale completed the look. Tricia handed me a wine glass of blend she’d just put together.  It was something new, they said, something that hadn’t been tried before. 

Max is renowned for his ferocious attacks on visitors.

I sipped from the glass, trying to remember all the odd bits of information on how to taste wine, and what to get out of it.  But everything I knew was overshadowed by the actual taste of this secret blend!

“You guys!” was all I could say. It was delicious.

Recognizing an educational opportunity, Peter took me downstairs into a large room filled with wooden barrels and stainless steel tanks.  Each was marked with a code, and its contents were accessible by using either a triangular key or a metal tube known as a thief. 

Once the sample valve key had allowed us to bring forth our first sample, a Chardonnay, Peter politely asked me to wipe off my lip gloss.  At last, I was about to learn my first wine secret!  I thought about the reasons for this odd request, as I wiped the coppery glitter from my mouth.  Perhaps the propylene carbonate in the gloss interfered with tasting the true flavors of the wine?  Well, no wonder I knew so little about wine: my lip gloss had been the problem all along!

“That stuff’s really hard to clean off the glass,” Peter said.

This is me, losing my sample valve virginity.

The next wine secret revealed was how to hold the glass.  It was then I realized that all those models shown partying in wine brochures were actually doing it all wrong.  Wine glasses should be held by the stem, not by the bowl.  And if you’re really good, or want to emulate a winemaker, you can hold it by the base—the flat part that sits on the table.

Secret number three: how to swirl your wine.  I had seen people doing this in some wineries, but never knew why.  Now I did.  Each wine has a distinct aroma profile, and swirling the wine in a glass unfurls it.  But you have to really swirl the wine, almost until it appears to be in a centrifuge.  That’s how you coax the aromas into what’s called the headspace. My first couple of tries at swirling only resulted in the Chardonnay slopping over the edges of the glass.  I quickly learned that it’s much easier if you swirl the glass on a flat surface.

The next step, requiring some immediacy, is to inhale.  Put your nose right into the glass and breathe deeply. That’s how you smell a wine’s essence, whether it be fruit, spice, or any of the hundreds of other descriptors that professional wine tasters evoke. 

What’s great about wine is that sometimes, what you pick up from smelling a glass is not what you end up tasting. And even among the same wine types, each one has a different overtone.  Each Chardonnay, each Riesling boasted a different personality, a different sparkle.  Some take on the form of pears, some of apples, cherries, or even mangos.  It’s all part of the magical soil and climate combination of the Finger Lakes.

From the Chardonnays and a series of beautiful Rieslings, we moved onto various red wines. I learned the secret of tannins and their role in mouthfeel and body.  The earthiness of all those Cabernet Sauvignons I’d had that lingered in my mouth?  The lingering dryness?  That was from the tannins.

For our last exercise, we revisited the Chardonnays.  After tasting the reds, those very wines now tasted completely different from how they did previously.  They seemed less fruity and more bland.  This was an important part of the last secret Peter imparted upon me: you can learn a lot about wines by how they contrast with other wines.

That Merlot that seems so smooth on first taste might come to taste harsh next to a lighter Pinot Noir.  The Riesling that came off as dry at first might later taste sweet after sampling a Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc. 

There is only one way to learn and appreciate all a wine is capable of, and that is to taste them.  Then, all the wines’ secrets will be revealed.

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