I only recently started drinking wine. Until age 40 I actually didn’t drink at all, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Far from becoming a lush, what I really want to do is learn about wine in all its fascinating variations (or varietals!) and hone my palate into a greater ability to recognize the finest of flavours. This year my main resolution is to be more dedicated to learning about wine in various, more structured ways than I’ve used so far. Talking about this goal with friends, I find I’m not alone in my quest, so I’m sharing my plan here on the blog in case you, too, want to try these methods and learn about wine along with me.
My journey into the world of wine began only recently, spurred actually by my job in a communications company that had started working with a winery. Having learned quite a bit about how wine is made there, it became necessary, in my mind, to actually taste the wine! Sounds odd to you, perhaps, but I had been previously convinced that I had some kind of allergy or reason not to drink which, thankfully, I overcame (here’s the longer version of that story).
Living in Italy, wine is an everyday matter. Historically, it has always been present on the peninsula’s dinner table, from the Etruscans who often seasoned it with herbs, such as basil, thyme and rosemary and stored it in large terracotta amphorae through the Middle Ages, where monks kept up the practise of winemaking and drank it out of mugs since the water was hardly safe. In the modern age, it’s been the making of a number of small towns and raised the level of agriculture and eventually tourism in areas of Italy that managed to better their economic positions thanks to wine. As an (art) historian and person interested in the past, all of this contributes to why I want to learn more about this almost magical substance.
The other thing that makes me want to learn about wine is that it’s infinitely complex at the best of times, and poses a particularly huge challenge to me. Complex both in terms of scents and tastes, of which there is a seemingly miraculously huge range for something that is just fermented grapes, and complex in terms of the number of varietals and denominations across so many countries. In some ways I feel overwhelmed by this: I recently saw the movie Somm – have you seen it? about guys studying for the Master of Wine – and it actually made me anxious to think how much I need to learn just to get a basic grasp on the stuff. I have a really terrible memory, or rather an almost entirely visual memory, so I sound like a total idiot when I don’t know any of the words for grape types or the brands of the wines I’ve tasted.
So here’s a plan, in the hopes that I can stick to it, and perhaps you can add to it as well!
1/ Take a class
Learning about wine with other people, guided by an expert and other people choose the wine. This is the ideal format in my opinion! The question is, what wine class or sommelier class is right for you?
2 years ago I took 2 levels of a easygoing local wine school’s so-called “sommelier class”. Run by an association in Florence, the quality and level wasn’t particularly high, but it was inexpensive and it forced me to spend a night each week studying wine. In the first level we learned about how to taste wine and how it is made, while in the second level we took a superficial look at most of the wine producing zones in Italy (grouping together regions, we addressed at least the major ones). The format is pretty similar to the more serious courses offered by national wine schools AIS and FISAR, but without a recognizable certificate. If you can find an amateur wine course in your area, I recommend this to help you get started if you’re a rank beginner.
If you’re looking for something more serious, either because you are working in the field or because you want the accreditation, you might look into the WSET training system. It’s international and taught in English all around the world by third-party schools who offer standard exams. This year I’m planning on studying and taking the level 2 “award” as they call it. I’m interested in this choice because it introduces students to the most important grapes and producing areas around the world, not just in Tuscany or Italy, where I have a whole lot more access to information.
2/ Sign up for a wine club
There are lots of kinds of wine clubs, and from what I understand, most major cities have offerings. My dad belongs to two of them in Toronto where they organize monthly tastings and occasional outings. Wine clubs may be more or less serious, require entry fees, and offer different kinds of services. Tommaso and I are particularly attracted to the London private wine club 67 Pall Mall, where members can store their wine in a vault and socialize in an extremely swanky situation.
But failing that, wine clubs can also come to your door. I’m really excited about being in a mail-order wine club called Nosy Wine Club. This wine club resolves the question of how to access wines from outside your immediate region – in Europe, there is a tendency towards drinking local wines (in those countries who produce it) and supermarkets carry a very limited stock of vintages from other places. Available for delivery in Europe, this Porto-based startup works with guest sommeliers like Sarah Heller MW (the world’s youngest Master of Wine) who choose three wines each month which you receive by mail. Heller’s choices were three wines from Piedmont that were NOT made primarily from Nebbiolo grapes. The January box, on the other hand, includes wines from Spain and Chile. Inside the box is a booklet with an interview of the month’s sommelier and information about the three wines, with pairing suggestions. The 3-bottle box costs €60 including shipping and you can choose to receive it every 2 or 3 months if you don’t drink that much.
3/ Study everything you taste
Every wine you taste is an opportunity to practise! Since I’m so new to wine, I need to constantly reinforce my understanding of the scents and flavours associated with principle grapes so I want to look up information about what I’m drinking. I usually start with Delectable, an app that recognizes labels and will show you ratings as well as the cost of what you’re drinking, and I can save it to my account so I remember it better. From there, I go to the producer’s website and find out where they are located and how large or small they are.
For example, we opened up a bottle of red wine from Piedmont that came from Nosy wine club: Le Piane’s Maggiorina. I was surprised to receive something in the “Vino Rosso” category – not even a DOC denomination, which I’d expect as a mark of quality. I would have never chosen this bottle myself, but I soon figured out why their sommelier did. It’s a blend of 15 (!) grape types, of which 40% is Nebbiolo, as you’d expect in Piedmont, but then there’s 20% made of some 13 different grapes of which three white grapes. A wine that is atypical for its region, very drinkable, and clearly outside of any regulation, made by a small producer who makes only 50k bottles per year. How fun is that?
Read some books
I admit, it’s a chore to read non-fiction books. My reading time – before bed and on weekends – is when my brain needs a rest, and it’s been a long time since I’ve actually studied anything. That said, I’m going to make an effort to get through some books on wine – it’s the only way to complete my learning.
I just finished a book in Italian by my friend Filippo Bartolotta, who wrote “Di Che Vino Sei” that presents his theory that people fall into different personality types that match with types of wine. (Reading this is, in itself, almost a miracle: I rarely finish books in Italian. I may be very fluent but I’m also lazy.) There is a quiz to figure out which type you are, and sections that predict what you’ll like, almost horoscope style. I am a cross between three personality types, not sure if that betrays my being a Gemini?, so the suggestions aren’t spot on for me. But the first half of the book is an interesting presentation of the history of wine, especially in the modern age, Filippo style – with a strong bit of character and a really fun vocabulary.
On my wishlist:
- This nicely illustrated basic wine atlas from WineFolly (their website has such well presented information but I find it easier to remember things when I read them on paper).
- I’ve got this book “Vino Italiano – the regional wines of Italy” on loan from my friend Helen for ages, I wonder if she noticed I didn’t give it back.
- I feel like I ought to own Jancis Robinson’s “bible” or any related book actually printed on paper so I can put sticky notes all over it.
- And for Bestseller level fun, “Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste“
Make – or buy – flashcards
I’m going to need to do some serious studying if I want to pass that WSET exam so flashcards are in order. I will get around to making my own as I work through the textbook, but in the meantime, if you’re looking for something fun, there are commercially available wine question and answer cards. I have a box of WineSmarts, a game endorsed by Mario Batali. It’s got a California bias and some of the questions are too basic even for me, but it’s a fun way to dig deeper, not to mention a good ice breaker at dinner parties. The trick to using these cards is googling further information for each answer.
Some other wine cards:
- Vino Cards are a wine course in 50 cards that present information about main grapes and regions. They were on Kickstarter last year. This is totally on my Amazon wishlist!
Attend wine events
Look out for wine tasting events in your area! These may be hosted by your local wine shop or by specialty shops such as Eataly, who actually invite Italian winemakers to present wines on a frequent basis. In the USA and in China, James Suckling does a road show of select Italian wines that is open to the public and allows you to taste a large number of wines in one place.
Here in Italy, I’ve made a list of the major wine events in Italy as well as one for wine events in Tuscany over on Dievole blog. Some of these are only for trade and press, or at least they limit public access to certain hours, so look at the official websites and purchase tickets in advance if you’re planning on attending any of them.
Host wine tasting parties
If there aren’t enough appealing wine events in your area, fear not: you can organize your own, and it can be more fun with just the friends you want! This is something I’ve done a few times and plan on doing more frequently. My method is pretty simple. Any time I go to a different wine region, I go to the best possible wine shop and choose 6 wines that somehow represent that region. For example, in Alto Adige, we got a range of reds with the area’s different grapes. When my friend Georgette was in France recently, I asked her to pick up some wine and she got bottles of Cabernet from three different French regions.
Here’s how I set up a wine tasting party. Armed with said wine, I invite a dozen friends to a theme potluck, suggesting that everyone bring a dish from or at least inspired by the wine destination. After the Alto Adige party became a cheese and potato fest, I’ve refined the process to suggesting a menu of varying difficulty for people to choose the dish they will make. If your friends are terrible cooks, you could pull off this dinner yourself, but it’d be more work. I set things out as a buffet for a casual setting. Then I create info sheets about each wine, researching it on the producer’s website. I attempt to coordinate an actual presentation of the wines and a structured tasting but usually at a certain point people just drink it :) !
Always a fan of learning through travel, lately I’ve made a point of visiting wineries in whatever region I’m in. I’ve written an article called “Why you should take a Chianti wine tour” that addresses how to find a wine tour in Tuscany and what to expect when you do one, and created a list of wineries to visit in Maremma. Now I just have to go beyond Tuscany! Why not stay in a wine resort and kill two birds with one stone? A number of wineries in Europe are opening up to hospitality, and usually they pride themselves with excellent quality food, wine and service.
That’s all for my list at this time. Now all I have to stick to it! What have I missed?
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