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For me, wine tasting has always had an air of mystery about it. I am something of a Francophile, and I have wine guides that give write-ups on thousands of French wines from the smallest producers to the most prestigious. Opening a guide now, I find a description of a red wine that tastes of “black fruit, spice and undergrowth.” Does anyone know what “undergrowth” tastes like? Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t spend much time crawling about in hedgerows, sampling the vegetation. On the next page of the guide is a wine that apparently has “jammy black fruit and hints of toasted pepper.” Not just pepper, note, but toasted pepper. Make sure you don’t confuse the two.
I must confess, when I used to read reviews like that, I was skeptical. When I drank wine I tasted … wine. But I wanted to believe there was more to it.
As a present one year, I was given two beginner’s tasting kits called “Le Nez du Vin”—one for red wine, one for white. They contain a total of 24 bottles of scented liquids, with those scents being the aromas you most commonly find in wines. The idea is, if you familiarize yourself with certain smells, you will recognize them more easily in the wines you are drinking. And no, there wasn’t one for “undergrowth” or “toasted pepper.”
Those tasting kits inspired me to do some wine-tasting “in the field.” The year was 2002, and together with my wife I visited the Bordeaux region of France. My first tasting was at the vineyard of a small producer. I don’t recall much of what happened that day, but I do remember the smell of the wine cellar—a rich, fruity aroma of fermenting grapes that made me want to open one of the wine casks and take a dip inside. And the tasting must have gone well, because half an hour later I left with a dozen bottles of wine along with a compulsion to repeat the experience somewhere else. Fourteen years on, I’m still doing it.
When I visit a vineyard now, I know to expect the unexpected. Some properties are so modest the owners are taking a liberty by calling themselves chateaux; others are so grand it is hard not to be intimidated as you approach. As for the tastings, no two are the same, and for me that is part of the fun. Some producers will have a room set aside for visitors; others will take you into their lounge. Some will proceed straight to the tasting; others will give you a tour of their cellars first. Once, the proprietor put on a pair of wellies and led my wife and me into his fields, before lecturing us at length about the significance of the distance between the nodes on a vine.
At least, I think that’s what he was talking about.
I always take my wine guide to tastings so I remember which wine I want to try. If I am offered the chance to taste other wines, though, I never decline. Well, it would be rude, wouldn’t it? That said, I am sensitive to any reluctance on the part of producers to let me try their more expensive wines, particularly if they do not have a bottle open. Sometimes buying a relatively inexpensive wine can earn you the right to taste something more exclusive. At a vineyard in Provence I bought six of the proprietor’s wines at €8.50 a bottle and was then offered the chance to try a wine at €17.00. And when I bought a bottle of that wine for a special occasion, a wine costing €22.50 made a surprise—and welcome—appearance.
Some proprietors, especially those at the more prestigious properties, will speak English, but most will not. Even if they do, though, the producers are more likely to warm to you if you try to speak their language. From time to time my wife and I have been offered a top up of whatever wine we are tasting while the proprietor breaks out the photograph albums and regales us about the history of wine-making in his family. If I’m struggling to understand what is being said, I simply nod sagely and take another sip of wine. Truth be told, I have tripped up occasionally in trying my hand at French wine-speak. Once, I got some strange looks from a proprietor during a tasting, and it was only afterwards that my wife told me I had confused throughout the words “déguster”—to taste—and “dégoûter”—to disgust. Few wine-makers, I suspect, will look kindly on you asking to “disgust” their wines.
Inevitably, not every tasting is a success. Sometimes the wine that I drink will leave me looking around for a plant to water. More often, though, I will try a wine and find myself wishing I had come in a van so I could take home a crate or three. At one vineyard in Provence, my wife and I bought so much, the proprietor asked if we were buying for a wedding! (In our defense, the wine was only €3 a bottle.) It is for times such as these that I continue to hunt out new producers. There is a warm feeling I get when I find a hidden gem for a fraction of the price it would have cost me at home. If I have also discovered a new part of France, and got the chance to speak to a wine maker about the heaven-in-the-glass I am tasting …
Well, that is my idea of a perfect day.
Marc Turner is the author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of the Exile. The latest installment, Dragon Hunters, features Chameleon priests, dimension-hopping assassins, and sea dragons being hunted for sport. It is available now in the US from Tor Books and in the UK from Titan. You can find him at his website and on Twitter @MarcJTurner.