Wine Talk

Snooth User: Mark Angelillo

If you had to give a lecture on wine appreciation...

Posted by Mark Angelillo, Aug 10, 2009.

A user wrote to me asking for some help, and I knew immediately where they should turn! Here's the message:

"Just joined and I'm supposed to give a lecture on wine appreciation--history, how to taste, pairing with food, etc to a local medical society in the next few weeks. My only qualification to do this is that I'm the wine lover of the group. Help! Could you or someone help me find any slides, videos or any other suggestions to make it easier?"

Can we help out? I bet we can...

My first suggestion for the "how to taste" piece is to pick up the dummies guide. It has a great section on tasting wines, and was one of the first things I was recommended (by Philip, actually) as I started to learn about wine.


Reply by GregT, Aug 10, 2009.

Not that hard.

You can talk a little about history since that's really the easiest. Just mention that the Romans grew wine everywhere they went and carried vines to places that may or may not have had them. So lots of our wine traditions go back to them.

Then talk about different regions in a very broad sense.

Wine grows around the 45th parallel, both north and south of the equator. As you move past that and closer to the poles (North in Europe) you get cooler climates, so that means higher acidity, chance of not getting completely ripe, mostly white grapes, and beyond that you get beer. As you move closer to the equator, you get warmer climates which means higher sugar, more ripe fruit, big dark red wines, and as you get closer you get into rum and tropical fruit. So if the weather is warm, you look for hills and mountains that offer colder microclimates and do the opposite in the colder regions.

Then pour some examples. That's the fun part anyway.

Get some whites from the Loire to show a cool climate. Champagne. And get some whites from a warmer region to show that climate - maybe viognier from France.

Then pour some reds. You can use a wine from Austria or Germany, or again the Loire, and then a garnacha from the mediterranean region.

And ask them why people taste from white to red instead of the other way around. (BTW - If you're not eating, and just drinking, IMO that's a stupid way to taste. )

What kind of food to have? Well, if it's a very old wine producing area, often the local food and wine grew up together. But if it's new, all bets are off. Washington state makes great wines but there's no history of food-pairing, since the wine business is fairly new. Doesn't mean you can't but don't look locally for a perfect example.

The old world is where you'd find that. And even there - tomatoes showed up after Columbus and they weren't even eaten for ages after that. Today we associate them with Italian food, and maybe try to pair a Tuscan wine like Chianti with them. But I think that's an American conceit - Tuscany isn't the place most famous for tomato-based foods.

People like cheese with wine, but it's not always perfect. Get a young goat cheese and it may work or may not. It's milky and the proteins in young cheese can taste like soap with some wines. Get a hard, dry, salty cheese like an aged Gouda or something and that often works much better with both red and white.

But mostly let the people pay attention and talk about their own preferences and observations. That's the most important.

Good luck.

Reply by Mark Angelillo, Aug 11, 2009.

Thanks Greg that's helpful! Anyone else have any ideas? Specifically online wine tasting slideshows/videos? I can't think of any off the top of my head.

Reply by preppycuisine, Aug 11, 2009.

The 45th parallel note applies solely to Europe, thanks to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. North American wines have the characteristics of European wines grown many degrees further north - Ontario wines from Niagara are grown around 43 degrees, compared with Bordeaux's 44.5, but have a climate much closer to Mosel at 50 degrees with substantial elevation. Niagara reliably produces icewine, which is somewhat rare in Germany as it requires a freeze below -7C (-8C in Canada) to harvest. Oregon has the 45th pass through it and while a milder climate than Ontario, it still isn't as warm as Bordeaux or Emilia Romagna.

For the Southern Hemisphere, 45 degrees is not wine producing country. It's further south than all of Australia and runs through the South Island of New Zealand. Argentina's wine capital is in Mendoza at 32 degrees, more than a bit removed from the 45th parallel. Paarl is the largest town in South Africa's Cape winelands and is situated at about 33.5 degrees. 33 degrees North passes through Algeria, Morocco, and the Golan Heights, for a comparison.

Many of these kinds of short hand answers apply only to Old-World wine regions. They were very useful when that was all that interested those serious about wine, but are now rather misleading and confusing to those just getting interested in the subject.

Reply by GregT, Aug 11, 2009.

Not sure how much influence the Gulf Stream has on Hungary, Austria, Croatia, etc. There are some that claim it extensively influences the troposphere, others that claim the influence is not so much.

In any event grapevines tend to prefer maybe 100 or more days of sun with daytime temps under 95°F or 35°C. Cooler nights seem to be better for the resulting wine. And those conditions are found right around the 45th parallel.

However, I didn't say that all grapes must ONLY be grown on that parallel, I said that they grow around it. Move up or down much beyond ten degrees and you don't find as much. I mentioned that as you get much cooler or warmer climes, you change what you grow. If you can find conditions elsewhere that approximate those along the 45th, you can produce wine. Mendoza can produce grapes because in spite of their latitude, they've got some of the highest elevations on earth. Mosel doesn't ripen grapes because of the Gulf Stream, they ripen the grapes because they get the warmth of reflected sun from the river up to the hillsides. Michigan at the Leelanau Penninsula is roughly the same latitude as Bordeaux, but Bordeaux is at sea level and they're considerably elevated, so obviously don't grow the same grapes but of course, as they're right on the 45th, they do in fact grow grapes. Australia is influenced by the Arctic currents and in spite of that, they sure do seem to be a hot-climate producer, which makes perfect sense as they're roughly comparable to the south of Spain.

So he wanted a short couple of talking points. If you want to talk about sun-hours, grape metabolism, soil types, microclimates, etc., that's all very interesting but a bit much for a simple answer. If it's clearer, one can say that grapes grow roughly between 35 and 55 degrees north or south. Both new and old world. The vines have specific requirements that determine where they grow.

Reply by George Parkinson, Aug 11, 2009.

There is a book on the market I would suggest for your use as well as the groups.
" How to Taste" by Jancis Robinson.
Easy read and good reference. If you are not and most aren't interested in the technical stuff, stay with 4 criteria; Color, nose, mouth feel and finish. Appreciation happens as time goes on and the rest you can pick-up with additional reading and tasting.

I agree with Greg, Listening to others and their opinions and experience is important, solicit the groups opinion and fun will follow. As far as tasting without food, I disagree with it being "stupid", it will allow the flavors of the different wines show with out the influence of salt, sweet, sour or bitter. I would go with Plain water crackers and still water to a point, then bring on the food after the initial tasting as flavor perception will change as you incorporate different food. Mostly have fun.

Reply by preppycuisine, Aug 11, 2009.

Greg - the lattitude is a very poor proxy for the climactic conditions. St. John's Newfoundland is at 47 degrees while London is at 51 - Newfoundland winters are harsh and include words like ice floe, while London has snow once or twice and it's rugby season.

Michigan does grow grapes at 45 degrees but the elevation is nowhere near the serious contribution to the climate. It's maybe a 500 foot difference in elevation with Mosel- substantial but nowhere close to accounting for the difference in climate (5 degrees is huge compared to 500 feet).

As to elevation - Paarl is rather close to sea level and is at 33 degrees.

The whole 10 degree band is also rather crazy - 55 degrees N is Copenhagen or Edmonton (Edmonton's winters are rather more ferocious than Copehagen's) while 35 is Morocco or a bit north of Santa Barbara CA (one of which is far better for growing grapes than the other).

Shortcuts work for Old World, but not the rest of the world. Focus on days of sun and climate requirements, instead of specific lattitudes

Reply by GregT, Aug 12, 2009.

You're right but where are the sun hour requirements met except in that band between 33 and 50 degrees and in that sense it's a rough approximation, particularly in the northern hemisphere. In the southern, they have cooling influences from the cold ocean. Australia doesn't grow much in the north of the country - only along the coastal areas where those influences prevail. So let's say that grapes need temperate climates and a certain number of sun hours. Moreover, the distribution of the sun and heat hours has to correspond to what we want to produce grapes suitable for wine.

On this map, world wine areas in the northern hemisphere are clearly in that band. In the southern hemisphere they are at the fringes but they are also in areas with specific character - elevation in the case of Mendoza for example, or areas in which the temperatures are mitigated somewhat by the southern ocean. Beyond that band the way in which the sun and heat hours are distributed doesn't seem to produce grapes that make decent wine. In India they had some vineyards that produced two harvests a year. If you've had the misfortune of tasting some of the Indian wine, that's an example of bad solar distribution.

And sure, within that temperate band there are substantial differences in local climates.

I guess I'm not sure that there's an issue. As a shorthand it's convenient for me to think of a band in the 40s only because I can visualize the globe we used to have in the den and so it makes some sense to me. But if it's easier to remember specific latitude and longitudes, I respect that kind of memory.

Reply by GregT, Aug 12, 2009.

Blog4wine -

I can't go back and edit that post but it doesn't read the way I meant it. I didn't mean that tasting with or without food was stupid. Not at all. Both have advantages. I meant that if you are tasting without food, and just tasting a series of wines, there is no reason to go from white to red and in fact, that sequence is not the best. People seem trained to do that, but I suspect that's because when they have wine with dinners, you usually start with whites and lighter wines and move to heavier ones.

However, when you taste large numbers of wines, there is no reason to do that. In fact, I almost invariably go from red to white if I'm just tasting wine and not eating. For one thing, after tasting a few dozen red wines, your palate gets weary. Crisp whites wake it up. In addition, usually any red you taste after drinking a series of whites will taste anywhere from mediocre to bad.

I also agree with you that tasting just the wine and then tasting with food can be very illuminating.

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