Last week I had the joy of introducing my nephew to the basics of wine tasting. He had just turned 21, and was interested in learning to taste wine. This inspired me to plan his birthday gift as a memorable experience, one that might plant seeds for lifelong learning and enjoyment.
After getting his parents’ permission for this gift concept, I set about planning an evening that he’d enjoy — and learn from. I decided to cook him a “foodie-style” dinner that would be well matched to several white wine varietals, and introduce a system for wine appreciation…
A Systematic Approach
Knowing that my nephew had studied biochemistry in college, I decided to apply a systematic approach. My hope was to introduce a system that he could use over time to hone his skills at clarifying and describing his impressions of each glass of wine.
To help him focus and then organize his impressions, I introduced my nephew to the wine aroma wheel. This wheel was devised by oenology professors at UC Davis, to help people via a shared language for describing aromas and/or taste sensations triggered by a specific glass of wine. (For those of you who are technically minded, think of this as a taxonomy for aroma-based wine attributes.)
Because this was his introductory lesson, I asked my nephew to focus on just the two inner circles of the aroma wheel. He got quite good at describing the fruity and herbaceous qualities of the glasses he tasted. The other characteristics were largely beyond what a newbie could detect or describe.
To help orient him to some of the fruity qualities he might observe, I provided some fresh apples, lemons and other fruits as sensory triggers. This tactic proved to be quite helpful to my nephew.
Wine Pairing with Food
I decided to let my nephew compare and contrast 3 different white wine varietals: riesling, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. We did so in a variety of ways.
We smelled and tasted small sips from each glass on its own, and noted our impressions. I made him write down his comments on a piece of paper, to reinforce the activity of paying attention to what he was seeing, smelling or tasting. (His least favorite part of the evening…)
I had prepared a chicken dish that was marinated in the riesling, lemon juice, zest and slices along with fresh tarragon. I also served a potato dish and some vegetables that wouldn’t fight the wines. For dessert we had a custardy homemade bread pudding.
As expected, he preferred the off-dry riesling. Because we used several different ways to appreciate the wines, my nephew learned that his reaction to each glass differed based on:
- The sequence in which he tasted them;
- Whether he was tasting each wine on its own, or with food;
- How much time had elapsed since the wines were first poured;
- Whether or not he had cleansed his palate before tasting the next wine.
He learned that what he liked on its own was not necessarily what he liked best with food, and vice versa. He didn’t really enjoy the chardonnay except when he tasted it with the custardy bread pudding.
My nephew noted that sauvignon blanc, a wine he found too bitter and astringent on its own, paired well with the lemony chicken — and that he quite liked it when served with the right dish.
We both enjoyed the evening. His parents (who got the report afterwards) were amazed that my nephew was thoroughly engaged in the experience for over an hour — until it was time for him to watch Game 5 of Bruins-Blackhawks series.
For a diehard Bruins fan like my nephew, what could compete with Game 5?