February 23, 2007

F5 #3: The grape

(Didn't get last week's installment in, thanks to a surprise visit from an old friend who was in town for the weekend. So if all goes well, today will be a twofer. Incidentally, this topic would have been last year's fourth F5 entry, so it's really late . . .)

It seems ironic to me that what is arguably my favourite libation today, was one of the last ones I learned to like. But it's true: when I first started to drink alcohol, I acquired a taste for beer right away, and spirits not long afterward. However, for years, wine was practically a closed book to me. It all tasted the same to me, and while I could (obviously) tell the difference between red and white, I wouldn't have known a Chardonnay from a Shiraz. On the other hand, thanks to a summer of restaurant experience, I knew the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, but only by the shape of the bottle, and the idea that there could even be a "white Burgundy" seemed like a contradiction in terms. In other words, apart from the occasional glass of Piat D'or with my folks at Christmas or Thanksgiving, I was a rank newbie to the world of wine.

Around 1999, for some reason I no longer remember, I made up my mind to learn something about wine. So I bought a couple of books and read them; then, a few days later, made a stop at the LCBO for a few bottles: as I recall, an Ontario Chardonnay, an Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, and a California white Zinfandel. And the rest is history.

What struck me about the whole wine learning curve was how self-evident the whole thing seemed in only a few weeks of experimentation. Oenophilia has its own jargon - varietals, appellations, and so forth - that had absolutely no meaning to me. When I started to learn a little about winemaking, though - about the varieties of grapes, the major winemaking regions, and the basics of wine tasting, to start - it was like learning to read for the first time. On the other hand, there are still things that give me a lot of trouble: in the European appellation system, for example, all those wine-making regions are overwhelming, even in France alone! And that is to say nothing of all the local regulations that tell you what can actually go into the wine. I far prefer the naming conventions outside of Europe, where the majority of wine is simply labeled according to the grapes it was made from. I still also find matching wine with food to be a bit of a black art.

Typically at any given time I've got a stock of maybe 18-24 bottles of wine stored up - a miserably small collection by a wine connoisseur's standards. But I'm not a connoisseur, just a guy with a limited budget who likes good drink. My living arrangements don't offer much by way of storage facilities, so I don't buy it to cellar; I keep a large enough stock on hand to provide a decent variety, yet small enough to rack in the closet and turn over in about a year. Maybe in the near future I'll have the space and money for a wine cabinet that will store a few more bottles properly.

My favourite wine (so far) is Australian Semillon, a semi-dry white that goes well with mild food (like poultry) or makes a refreshing beverage on its own. Unfortunately it seems difficult to find a Semillon vintage that isn't combined with some other white grape like Chardonnay (so I've been jealously guarding the few bottles of 2000 Semillon that I managed to snag before they all but disappeared from the shelves at the LCBO). I also like Gewürztraminer, one of the few wines that complements curry and other spicy food. Interestingly, I originally had a strong preference for red over white, but when I started to get "into" wine, that changed very quickly. Not to say I don't appreciate red: I love Zinfandel - not the girly-pink "White" Zinfandel so much as the strong reds that can also be made from the grape. Unfortunately, a good Zin is also quite pricey.

The book that got the ball rolling for me was Discovering Wine by Joanna Simon, subtitled "A Refreshingly Unfussy Beginner's Guide to Finding, Tasting, Judging, Storing, Serving, Cellaring, and, Most of All, Discovering Wine." And that's a pretty apt description of the book. Simon is a professional oenophile and wine columnist for the Sunday Times, but despite her impeccable wine-snob credentials she brings the topic down to earth for the rest of us. Discovering Wine describes the major kinds of wines, the basics of winemaking and wine-tasting, and how to store wine (for all budgets). Many colorful photos throughout the book are also very helpful. My edition is nearly 10 years old, so the tasting tips for various vintages are now well out-of-date. But that's not why I bought the book, and in any case it's been revised at least once since.