Lessons to Savor

Fear not, say the experts even tast buds of a certain vintage can be trained to better appreciate wines

March 25, 2006|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

With personal wine guru Mary Zajac at my side, I peer through a glass of Cave Spring Riesling 2004, sniff, swirl and sip. She asks what I am tasting.

"Honey?" I venture. "A little fizz?"

Zajac nods. I rejoice. Our palates agree! My wine tutorial is off to a promising start.

Semi-dry wines "can taste very sweet up front," explains Zajac, a Baltimore food writer who worked at the Wine Source in Hampden for 3 1/2 years and has completed the first level of training to be a sommelier. Then, "like biting into an apple," a Riesling's flavor can move along the tongue from sweet to tart, she says. "It's a really refreshing wine and flexible with foods. Lovely with smoked salmon and chicken," the very provisions sitting before us on the kitchen table.

So far, no gaffes. Zajac, herself a refreshing presence, had promised that you need be only as geeky as you want to be in mastering the complexities of wine. Her words were reassuring as we turned to a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and a California chardonnay, for which precise words failed me. At least it wasn't hopeless. With enough practice, I could call up those descriptive terms, such as "canned grapefruit juice," stashed in my passive vocabulary.

I've always been a nondiscriminating wine drinker whose philosophy boils down to: "Some wines are much better than others."

But what are those much better wines? By the time a bottle is emptied, I've forgotten all about recording its name, so I can't say.

I've lacked the motivation, make that the confidence, to drink knowledgeably. The prospect of learning about fine wine filled me with dread - just like math. I pictured the vinous universe as an infinite matrix of variables - just like math. Instead of numbers, though, the matrix is composed of grape varieties, microclimates, styles, regions, aromas and all of the other confounding elements that define a particular vintage.

Over the years, I've compensated for my ignorance, sidestepping the question of whether I can distinguish a pinot noir from a cabernet sauvignon, or pinpoint notes of lemon, butter and vanilla in a chardonnay.

Be adventurous

At a stage of life when taste buds may lose their acuity and one's sense of smell can diminish, is it too late to make amends? Is it possible for someone of a certain age to build an archive of sensory memories essential for fine-tuned tasting abilities? Can you teach an old palate new tricks?

Absolutely, say wine enthusiasts, who by nature appear ever willing to introduce others to their passion.

Thanks to Zajac, other authorities and the handbook Wine for Dummies, I'm discovering that even a little bit of knowledge goes a long way toward wine appreciation. I've also learned that the entire process of selecting, tasting and sharing wine is pointless - unless you replace fear of screwing up with a sense of adventure.

A cyber pep talk from Chris Coad, founder of compleatwine geek.com, helped as well.

"Nobody in the world knows everything about wine," he says. "A hundred years ago, there was Burgundy and Bordeaux. These days, nearly every country in the world has its own wine culture. All you can do is spend time exploring, like poking around in dusty bookshops or haggling with the fishmongers in Chinatown. That's the fun of it, just getting to know the landscape shelf by shelf."

Flavors and aromas

I began my explorations by calling Nelson Carey, owner of Grand Cru, a Baltimore wine bar, and the teacher of a popular series of wine-appreciation classes through Roland Park Country School's adult education program.

"What I'm trying to teach is the process of tasting wine in an analytical fashion," Carey explains as a jovial crowd fills his Belvedere Square establishment on a Friday afternoon.

As they "see, swirl, sniff, sip and spit," Carey's students don't just "drink" the wine. They "taste" the wine as it travels across their tongues, registering on the taste buds as sweet, acidic or tannic (if red), soft or rough, light-bodied or full-bodied, before leaving in its wake an aftertaste or "finish."

In the first of three Wine 101 classes, the class makes its way through inexpensive bottles of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, Riesling, Sangiovese, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon - the six major grape varieties, in Carey's estimation.

Class tastings accompany the most daunting - and most poetic - stage of wine appreciation: jotting down notes that identify the flavors and aromas contained in a vintage. Orange blossom, vanilla, oak, mint, black currant, banana, leather, cinnamon, earth, red cherry, farmyard. Derived from the aromatic compounds found in grapes, the wine-making process or the oak barrels in which a vintage is aged, each scent, in moderation, can be pleasing in a well-aligned wine.

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