It’s been a while since I last wrote and reflected on my time here in Paris but this post will be focused on what my thoughts on wine these days. In my oenology (science and study of wine and winemaking) class, we’ve learned what the wine making process looks like, and the important factors in wines and mainly focused on French wines. We’ve also studied the tensions between Old World and New World wines. The former refers to Europe and its history of wine while the latter is generally the Western world, notably Napa Valley/Chile/Argentina.
Perhaps, I’ll dive into those details another time but here I just want to reflect on how I’ve developed a passion for wine in the last 3 months. Previously, I just associated wine with being a mature adult. I drank it among my family and relatives but with no appreciation for the taste and more importantly, the rich culture and background of wines. Thanks to a wonderful professeure, I’m not completely ignorant, so I’ll run through the 3 things that have made me fall in love with wine.
Terroir is probably the most important characteristic of wine, at least in the Old World. Now ‘terroir’ is a French word that literally translates into earth or soil in English but in French, it carries so much more. Terroir is the story of where a wine comes from. What kind of soil, climate, landscape, wildlife makes up the land where a vines roots were? Essentially, which region is it from? This is what terroir refers to. In the Old World, it is all about origin because where you’re from determines who you are and the same goes for wine. My class had the pleasure of doing a wine tasting with Olivier Magny, a parisien sommelier and owner of Ô Chateau, which is Paris’ largest wine bar and a top French wine school. One of my take aways from Olivier was how he described terroir. He said that someone becomes an interesting person after they have struggled and worked very hard to become successful. These struggles and experiences give one character and depth. Vines are the exact same way. If a vine needs to push its roots through tough, rocky soil and dig deep in order to find the nutrients it needs, it gains a lot of character. Obviously, I won’t go into the biology of plants but it is very true that the output of the grap is influenced by the soil and earth around it. So the terroir of each wine growing region is different and uniqe, and so is the terroir of specific vineyards in these regions. Every wine has a character whether it is weak/strong or dull/interesting. This concept of terroir adds another dimension to drinking wine.
As part of our learning about the complexities of wine, we have practiced aroma recognition, which is actually a difficult task. It isn’t just smelling a scent and throwing out random guesses as to what it is but it requires actual analysis of the scent, and how it impacts your sense of smell and palette and then putting that into storage for future use. Aroma recognition and strengthening the nose seems to be 50/50 physical (sensory) and mental. It really is remembering what a scent is how to identify it. When applied to wine, there’s an element of logic and research that comes into play. Certain fruits like white fruits won’t ever be found in red wines and that’s a fact. Each region and each type of grape has its own aromatic character that needs to be studied. Once you know the terroir of a region and are familiar enough with what embodies and creates an aroma, you can decipher the origin and type of wine you’re drinking. I wouldn’t say this is academic necessarily, but it is stimulating and requires more effort than just sipping and thinking ‘wow, this is a really sharp alcoholic taste.’
In the second class session, we all learned we were drinking wine incorrectly. As I’ve explained, wine is more complex than the mere sip and act like you know what you’re doing. In fact, there is a little thing called ‘aeration’, which is simply letting air into your drink. Wine needs to be aerated in order to expose the wine to air before drinking and smelling. Once you learn this, you’ll realize that un-aerated wine DOES NOT taste the same as aerated wine. The flavor of wine actually evolves as you drink it and more air is exposed to it. It’s really a whole bunch of science between the tastebuds and the wine but it is mind blowing when you first experience it and even after you expect it. Like I said, tasting a wine isn’t about the little snooty snip, it’s actually a really gurgly and frankly messy endeavor. I honestly don’t know how to describe in words, but I’ll try. The proper way to aerate as you sip is to keep your lips small and tight as if for whistling, as you drink. And while, you’re sipping in, you are also sucking in a lot of air at the same time with the wine. Then you do a sort of gurgling thing on your lips but I can’t properly describe that so ignore it. Anyway, if you sip with tight lips and a lot of air, you’ll notice the taste of the wine is much different and more complete really. Now, not every sip needs to be like that but the first ones should be in order to fully explore the taste and then you can return to regular sips. It is important to taste the wine by itself initially and then to accompany it with food in order to see how the food impacts the taste of the wine, not the other way around. I call this phenomenon of wine having an evolution in taste the ‘tastebud trickery’ because previously, I didn’t actually experience the full flavors of wines but now that I can appreciate and drink it properly, my tastebuds are having a completely different experience.
So those are three things that have pleased me about wine. This past week, my class visited Le Musée des Vin here in Paris, which is a famous wine museum that actually used to be the wine cellar for the Eiffel Tour’s restaurant. We had the priviledge of doing a tasting session with the owner, who rarely leads in the sessions which cost 100’s of euros. She gave us three wines and we each had to identify the region in France that the wine came from, grape, and vintage for a prize. I have been feeling so ignorant and really overwhelmed by the complexity and history of wines but I actually tied for first with one of my classmates who is an Oenology major at UC Davis and also works at a Napa Valley vineyard. He ended up winning (barely) on the tie-breaker question but it was an encouraging experience because I told my professor I felt so ignorant and she said that was not true at all. I still think I am a bit ignorant, especially when it comes to grape varieties, but it seems I’m actually underestimating myself.