September 1, 2004
I am very proud to be participating in the very first World Wide Wine Blogging Wednesday, imagined, organized and brought to us by Lenn. The theme for this first edition is "inexpensive new world merlot that is not from the US". I am proud to be participating, but boy, that was close : I'll admit that I almost didn't take part.
Why? Well, out of intimidation, of all things.
Although I love wine and am eager and itchy and willing to learn about it, my knowledge of it is still very basic and unstructured. In fact, I feel like I am standing outside, looking in through a giant glass wall. Things inside look tempting and voluptuous and noble and fascinating, but I have no idea how to break through that wall and step in. I have the hardest time remembering about origins and regions and domains and characteristics and types of grapes and good and bad years, and I don't know where to start.
Oddly enough, my tastebuds also seem to have little sharpness and no memory when it comes to wine, and I can't remember from one bottle to the next, what make them similar or different. I blame part of that on my lack of vocabulary to describe those tastes and sensations : Nicolas Boileau, a smart French guy from the 17th century, once wrote : "Ce qui se conçoit bien s'énonce clairement", what is well understood is expressed clearly, and I would add, what is expressed clearly is well remembered. What isn't, isn't.
As with all things, patience and the desire to learn are key I'm sure, and I can tell I'm already getting better. In particular, it helps tremendously when one is lucky enough to have the opportunity to go and visit wineries : instead of just relying on a bottle, a label and a taste, you can also factor in myriads of other memories -- who your tasting companions were, the mood you were in, where you had lunch, the weather that day, the color of the sommelier's bow tie -- and this really helps in making your knowledge of the wine multi-dimensional and, more importantly, emotional.
But visiting every single winery on Earth, although a tempting endeavor, is hardly an option. A more than acceptable substitute however, is to try and drink with awareness : smell, look, sip, gurgle and taste to your heart's content, rub your tongue against your palate and teeth, feel the difference on the tip and the back of your tongue, breathe in and then out, register all that you're feeling, let your imagination run loose, freely associate with other feelings and tastes you've experienced before, and try to express what comes to your mind. Don't be tempted to hide behind the words of others, yours have as much worth, if not more because they are fresh.
Hold the bottle, feel its weight, study the label, read the domain name out loud, decide if you like the design. Think about your surroundings, and take a moment to bask in the experience as a whole. If you're so inclined, write all of this down in a pretty notebook, the first page of which you can proudly inscribe with the title "Wine Tasting Notes", and doodle little vine leaves and grapes. Write down the date, the occasion, who you were with and as many comments and notes as you like, with what energy and disciplin you can muster after engaging in all that drinking.
At least, that is my plan of action.
After a while, I hope to build a knowledge and a taste that are my own, I'll know what I like and what I don't, I'll read about wines and wineries and think oh I know that one, I'll know a good wine deal when I see one, I'll be able to speak with sommeliers without doing all the listening, I'll be able to determine what wine goes with what food, what wine goes with what mood. I'll do you proud.
With this in mind, it was just impossible for me to ignore Lenn's call anymore, because it was obvious that I was exactly the kind of person this event was designed for. So, with Lenn's encouraging voice in my ear, I set out to hunt for a qualifying wine. Of course, France being the wine country it is, little room is made in stores for foreign wines, when any at all. Adding into the mix the other constraints -- new world, non-US and merlot -- turned this into a small-scale treasure hunt around my neighborhood wine stores, which are fortunately aplenty.
I finally found Ze Bottle at Tchin-Tchin on the rue des Martyrs, a wine store that is part of a small chain trying hard to compete with its giant counterpart, Nicolas. They had two shelves (two shelves!) devoted to non-French wines, which had to accommodate wines from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand, North America and South America. Needless to say, the selection was pretty small, but there was one bottle (one bottle!) that fit the bill, a 2000 Merlot from the Viña de Las Niñas, in the Colchagua Valley in Chili. At 10.60 €, it was also just under the spending limit.
After a little research, I found out that this winery is in fact owned and operated by a French family, the Dauré, who have found the Chilean soil and weather to be very similar to those of the South of France. The label has a black and white picture of some of the ladies of the house, and it simply states "Las Niñas Merlot 2000". The back label has a little blurb about the winery and its philosophy. In passing, the mention "merlot" is one thing you will never read on a traditional French wine bottle (unless it is designed to be marketed abroad) : in France, it is the region, the appellation, the domain, the "cru" that count. The grape variety (and French wines are almost always mixes of several varieties) is never mentioned, as it is considered secondary to all those other characteristics.
We conducted the tasting in the company of our neighbors Stéphan and Patricia -- who must be familiar characters of this blog by now -- and another one of our neighbors, Thierry. Thierry is originally from Toulouse, which explains the sunny lilt in his voice as well as the deep love of good food and fabulous wine.
But this Merlot, well, let us say that it was less than stellar. I opened the bottle (the cork almost falling apart), and poured some in five of our large wine tasting glasses. It was of a light ruby color and rather thin texture, and didn't stay much to coat the walls of the glass when swished around. The smell was very strong, almost alarmingly so : we identified smells of blackcurrant, wet oak, wood coal and blue cheese, but also a strong alcoholy smell, like acetone or nail polish, which can't be a compliment for a wine.
We moved on to the actual tasting, and um, it didn't really get any better. It had a violent and explosive way of hitting your tastebuds, with earthy and smoky tastes, accents of prunes and olives, but the sensation was short-lived (it was very court en bouche as we say in French), and you were just left with a lingering bitterness at the back of your mouth. In fact, we all found that this wine lacked harmony and structure, with too many conflicting tastes and aggressive sensations. We tried it on its own, then with a variety of nibbles, and found that a little charcuterie (cold cuts like ham, salami, dry sausage...) helped somewhat.
Two things, though : it is possible that we are a little spoiled when it comes to wine, as good bottles around 6 or 7 euros are rather easy to come by. Also, our palates are probably formatted to appreciate the structure and characteristics of French wines, since that's what we're used to drinking, and maybe it would take a little while for us to warm up to this particular wine.
More importantly, it seems to me that tasting a wine you don't like is just as important as tasting a wine you like, and counter-examples are necessary to build a capacity to critique wine and define your own preferences.
I am delighted to have submitted myself and my friends to this little exercise, and would like to thank Lenn for the idea and for putting this event together. I hope it has as much success as Alberto's IMBB series, and I'll be waiting for the next round with eager anticipation!
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