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Wine, Wine Everywhere…

September 18, 2011

…Now which one do I drink?

Wine tasting festivals can be an amazing learning experience or they can simply descend into a drunken bacchanal of carnal pleasures. There is a great temptation to try everything. But that won’t get you very far.

Wine is tricky, and in order to learn something, one must be careful. A wine can taste very different depending on what food or drink it follows. One of my favorite wineries once sampled their delicious Pinot Noir after a ripe, fruity and off-dry red. The result was that their better wine (the Pinot Noir) tasted flat and bitter. But these were not characteristics of the wine itself. Instead they were unfortunate side effects of following a sweeter wine.

There are also some people who will tell you that it is impossible to adequately taste a delicate white wine after sampling a big heavy red. And they have a point.

At the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival, I did see some trade professionals very carefully examining their programs and making specific stops at specific tables to try specific wines in a specific order. But you and I are not in the trade. The things we might be interested in learning are a bit broader.

So how can we make the most of our time at a festival like this? Well, I have some ideas.

Exhibitors at these events are either generally wine producers or wine importers. Wine importers are actually important, and we should talk more about them some other time. Their tables will have wines they like from a wide variety of producers. Tasting through their selection of bottles should give you a better sense of the wines that importer thinks are worth the time and effort to sell in the marketplace. But they can sometimes bring a lot of different bottles to one of these events.

I think the key to success is to try and break the day down into several smaller discrete tastings. Here’s a bit more detail about my early wine-tasting portion of last weekend’s festival, to serve as an example.

First Tasting
Goal – Learn more about sparkling wine, especially Italian versions
Type – Multi-table
Results – Better understanding of how prosecco is made & where it comes from
Surprise – I enjoyed the Mionetto Moscato Dolce’s notes of jasmine
No Big Surprise – Albany Jane loves Emeri Pink Moscato

Second Tasting
Goal – Understand how a California pinot noir is made by a family in Latham
Type – Producer table: Chloe Creek
Results – Had a reasonably long talk with Bill Comiskey & tried his wines
Surprise – I liked the 2008, with its bright pinot character, better than the 2009
No Big Surprise – Good pinot noir isn’t cheap

Third Tasting
Goal – Sample the full line of wines from a solid NY State Gewürztraminer producer
Type – Producer table: Standing Stone Vineyards
Results – Given the cold climate, the 2008 Merlot is lean, but not bad
Surprise – The fellow manning the table couldn’t answer many of my questions
No Big Surprise – Their Gewürztraminer is the best of the bunch

Fourth Tasting
Goal – See how Chianti il Ristorante performs at wine pairings
Type – Restaurant table with adjacent wine table
Results – A crisp white with fried risotto balls & a full red with grilled sausage
Surprise – More people weren’t asking for specific wine pairings with their food
No Big Surprise – Solid (if not mind blowing) picks from knowledgeable staff

Fundamentally, going to one of these events can be similar to spending the day in wine country. But instead of driving from vineyard to vineyard, you simply need to mosey from table to table. It also makes sense to try and eat a bit of food in between tastings. Just be mindful about what you eat, because some foods have a tendency to foul up the palate more than others.

It killed me, but I stayed away from all the beautiful looking cheeses all day. Yes, people talk about cheese and wine together, and with good reason. But even more than asparagus, artichokes, and vinegar, I find that cheese changes the taste of a wine. Now, when you are sitting down with friends to enjoy a wine and a cheese together, this can be an amazing thing. But if you are curious to learn about different wines and how they taste on their own, cheese will really mess you up.

Not that wine has to be all about studying or learning. But I’ve found wine gets a lot more fun once you’ve been able to demystify it a bit. And I’m here to help you do that.

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