Unconventional wines

I had the chance to taste a lot of wines last week. And I mean a lot!

On Wednesday, I went to an event called “Taste Every Grape”, run by Humble Grape. There were several stands, each showing a selection of wines from a geographical area: France, Australia, California, Italy; the Iberian Peninsula with wines from Spain and Portugal, and then a stand with a mix of wines from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia…

Here’s a picture of the Italian stand, so you see the amount of bottles per table, and a very animated Nicola talking about the wines behind them:

A table with Italian wine bottles, at a wine tasting event
A table with Italian wine bottles, at a wine tasting event

Then came my wine class on Saturday. We tasted 12 wines!

In the morning, we tasted six white wines from Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux (think: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Chardonnay, Melon Blanc, Chenin Blanc). In the afternoon, we tasted six reds from Bordeaux, Loire Valley and South Western France (think: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Tannat, Gamay, Pinot Noir).

Six different bottles of red wine, labelled with numbers one to six, for a tasting
Six different bottles of red wine, labelled with numbers one to six, for a tasting

When most people hear that you’re tasting all these wines or see a picture of all these bottles and glasses, they think that you spend your days in a drunk stupor, but the truth of the matter is that the only way to taste all these wines and keep a level head is to… spit.

You don’t drink them; you sort of dip your tongue on them, swash the wine around your mouth to assess its properties and how it stimulates your senses, and then… spit it!

Six glasses of different red wines, for a tasting
Six glasses of different red wines, for a tasting

At the wine tasting event there were big cardboard columns with a plastic rubbish bag inside, padded with sawdust, and labelled with “SPITOON” signs. I made copious use of these; otherwise I would have not made it back home by myself, as I reckon I must have tasted more than 20 wines (and I didn’t even get a taste of every grape). Unfortunately many people didn’t realise what the spitoons were for, so they would just stand next to them or holding their phone dangerously close and above them, making me very uncomfortable because I really, really needed to spit and they were in my way!

At the wine school we have cardboard cups onto which we spit. This takes a few goes for each wine: taking a mouthful, assessing an aspect, spitting… as you want to sequentially focus on the sweetness, the acidity, the tannins, etc… and it can be a bit messy (let’s say some wines make you salivate a lot as they’re very acidic, and it can be a bit uncontrollable).

So it’s not the laid back vision of drinking wine for hours that most people imagine; you have to pay attention to what you’re noticing, and then be ready to move on to the next wine. Which means that come Saturday evening, I would really like to be able to slowly savour and ENJOY a wine… and that is how Devvers persuaded me to go to the Remedy, a wine bar in Fitzrovia close to home, which has a very nice selection of wines, and very geeky about wine staff.

All these tasting occasions made me realise there are some commonalities to the wines I like the most. They…

a) are sort of “unconventional”, or…
b) display pronounced, floral/herby or unusual aromas, or…
c) have an interesting story or production method behind them

For example, some of the wines that I tasted at the Humble Grape event could be classified as “bonkers”: Get the party started 2019 was a Riesling from Slovenia (“Rizling”) fermented for 200 days in amphorae (fermentation times for white wines are normally in the timescale of days or weeks, not months): it tasted nothing like a typical Riesling. It was hazy, slightly sour, yet slightly sweet, complex. I would have drank the whole glass!

Another one was Turbo Diesel injection 2020, a wine made from a hybrid grape variety from Slovenia (šmarnica); this had a really undescribable aroma – it was several things at once: petrol/chemical, herbs and… a hint of Turkish delight? And was also a bit fizzy. It did not feel like a “wine”, a “conventional wine”, but it was really fun.

Likewise, the first wine I tried at the Remedy was Pella “Roditis” Altima Ligas 2020 from Macedonia, which again was a touch fizzy, with notes of green apple and pears, and a sort of slight vinegar undertone. Not “conventional”, and yet I enjoyed it very much.

The second one I tried was La sauteronne, Domaine Romaneux-Destezet 2020 from Rhône. This was, in principle, very different: while the first one was white, this one was red, with aromas of smoke and meat, decent acidity and hints of mint and raspberry… and again, a very slight fizz, which you could say is the commonality (apart from its complexity and hard to describe aromas and flavours). But the aspect that was extremely noticeable for me were the smoky aromas; they weren’t your usual vanilla or coconut oak induced spices which bring memories of “furniture” or “cabinet” to mind. No, they brought an entirely different set of images to my mind: the first weeks of autumn, when it’s starting to get seriously chilly, you are wearing a nice cosy jumper and feel warm and protected, and someone decided it was time to start lighting up the fireplace…

And not in last Saturday’s class, as these wines were a bit more “conventional” and it was more about how balanced or ripe the tannins were, how ageable the wine was, etc…, but in the previous class I really enjoyed the wines made with Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Furmint: these all tend to be quite aromatic, floral, “sweet-smelling”, if you’d want. Some people wailed in disgust when they put their nose into the Gewurztraminer sample glass: “I just can’t cope with this! It smells of roses! It smells of… grandmother perfume!”, they complained—whereas I was sad I had to empty it down the drain at the end of the class, instead of enjoying every single drop!

So I was reflecting about this, and it seems that just as I like weird music and indie obscure things in general (remixes! white labels! limited editions!), I also seem to gravitate towards weird and “unconventional” wines. I just can’t help it! I need to accept it.

I also bought some wine miniatures from a couple of supermarkets to practise the assessing technique of wines by doing blind tastings at home. They were entry level, or “basic” reds. They are what people get when they order “a red” wine: they’re are “mainstream”.

They were also wines I would not choose to drink, I realised. I need to accept that too.

One of the main goals of the wine course is to be able to answer “why”, so in that spirit I’ll answer why I didn’t like these reds:

  • They had barely or not identifiable fresh or fruity smells. When they were identifiable, they weren’t pleasant and actually I would have preferred to not have noticed them (like when you bite into an overripe borderline rotten fruit, and regret it immediately).
  • They weren’t complex enough: alcohol and “some fruit” flavours. Barely balanced alcohol/acidity/flavours.

A rhetorical question Devvers asked in a moment of anguish and existential dread was whether we had become wine snobs by doing these wine courses.

And from my newly acquired acceptance status, it’s obvious to me that the answer is a resounding NO.

If I think back to the first times I smelled wines, which would have been the basic table wines common in Spain households, I never liked the smell of those, and didn’t even think of tasting them, so repelled was I by the smell. Back in the days, some of my school mates happily declared they did sneak in a few sips of leftover wines when they brought the glasses to the kitchen—much to my horror! I never had that temptation; they smelled vile to me and I couldn’t wait to pour them down the drain to make the smell go away.

These mainstream wines we tried were essentially like those basic table wines; I got the same nose profile (perhaps a bit more alcoholic).

Likewise when I think about what music I favour, I tend to like songs with lots of layers either of meaning/subtexts or harmonies, and I get bored with mainstream music. There’s nothing wrong with it in principle; I just can’t find anything in those songs that interests me: they’re simple, bare, predictable, and I’d rather listen to intricate sounds of synthetiser pads evolving over time, for example.

Other people just can’t stand the music I like. They get bored of the long sweep build-ups, they can’t see any subtleties, they could not care less about echoes or flangers or compression or whatever production technique was used, they don’t find the lyrics “ironic” or “funny”, as they take them at face value, or they just can’t relate to them because they aren’t about love or heartbreaks—what they’re used to hearing songs about.

At the end of the day, it is just a matter of tastes; some of us prefer more intriguing, complex, perhaps “unconventional” wines, while other people prefer simpler wines that smell and look like archetypal wine and don’t make them think about what they’re drinking.

I accept it!

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