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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Learnin’ You’ll Like

Noelle Chorney
Published Thursday June 25, 05:44 pm
There are a bunch of ways to become a wine aficionado

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event with Jane Masters, one of only 300 or so Masters of Wine in the world. She’s the wine buyer for the Opimian Society, a non-profit Canadian wine-buying co-operative of which I’ve been a member for several years.

Not only did I get to hear her presentation and sample the tasting (and the awesome selection of appetizers prepared by Chef Chris Hill at the Bessborough), I also got to meet her and speak with her before the event.

What does one ask a Master of Wine? Well, I was curious how she got to her impressive status in the wine world. I was also wondering how I can help inspire people who are new to wine to branch out, try new stuff and expand their palates. There’s no reason to drink the same plonk over and over!

To become a Master of Wine, you need to have a pretty strong start in the wine industry. Ms. Masters (the name is apropos, don’t you think?) grew up in Britain and started her career as an oenologist, or wine-maker. She then moved to Marks & Spencer and managed their wine-buying department, before deciding to take the certification to become a Master of Wine.

“The Master of Wine program is different from a sommelier course, which focuses more on selecting wine for restaurants, educating customers and matching wines with food. The Master of Wine is a trade qualification that requires you to demonstrate your understanding of wine from A to Z. You’re tested on theory, from science and chemistry to marketing. You need a pretty solid foundation in the wine industry before you decide to attempt it.”

The program began in the UK to certify people in the wine trade, from marketers to wine-makers. There are now Masters of Wine in over 20 countries, around 320 total. In the world. That’s not very many. And it sounds grueling.

You obviously don’t have to be a Master of Wine to enjoy it. While I don’t pretend to have a fraction of the wine knowledge that Masters possesses, we did agree on a few things — like the best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Drink lots of different kinds, drink it often, and share it with friends.

“It’s about getting together with a group of like-minded people,” she says. “Sharing food and ideas, drinking wine and having fun.”

I’m always looking for ways to encourage people to break out of the mould with their go-to wines. It takes a while to move beyond the “gateway” wines, like white zinfandel, cheap German wines, or Asti Spumante. But you’ll never get beyond them unless you try something new.

It can be overwhelming to go to a wine store and try to choose from a huge selection. You could ask some of the employees at the store for recommendations, and they’d probably be happy to help. But it’s also just a good practice to start working your way through countries and grape varieties to get a sense of what you like.

That’s how I started: Years ago in grad school, I moved away from the Black Tower, Hochtaler and Mateus toward some new wines. I was a broke student, but I would just randomly choose a country every time I went to the liquor store (which was, er, often) and select something in my price range (around $10). I tried Bulgarian wines, Canadian wines and Italian and Spanish wines.

Sometimes I made my choice based on the label or unique bottle shape (not a solid measure of quality, believe me, but it can still be a fun way to get started). But I started getting the hang of some of the characteristics of wines from different countries.

That was also my start in matching wine with food. It’s true that it can go horribly wrong: I have no idea why I even had a bottle Châteauneuf-du-Pape at that time, but I can tell you that it really brings out the freezer burn flavour on steaks that have been in the freezer for too long. But it was memorable, right? And it was a learning experience.

Wine diaries can help you remember the wines that you really like, but the bittersweet thing about wine is that once you get into the wines with actual vintages (meaning they were produced from grapes grown in a certain year rather than a blend of wines from different years that are more consistent, but some would say have less character), you may never taste that wine that you love ever again. Because once that vintage has been sold out (and the good ones sell out fast!), it will be gone forever. But don’t worry, there are always new ones to discover and love.

Going to tradeshows and sampling a bunch of wines one after the other is a good way to sample wines without investing in a bottle. You can start comparing them to each other, get a handle on different grape varieties, old world and new world styles and more. You should also take a cab (that’s a taxi-cab, not a Cabernet Sauvignon, you wine hounds) home, unless you’re disciplined enough to only taste, then spit, the wine.

(I’ve been to some pretty large wine tradeshows, like the Vancouver International Wine Festival, and I can tell you that 90 per cent of those wine-traders were gooned by the end of the night. They weren’t spitting either.)

A more civilized evening, like the Meet the Master event, is also a nice option for trying some wine. Ms. Masters selected some wines from recent Opimian offerings, giving us a “world tour,” so to speak, of red wines. She selected an Australian Shiraz, an Italian Sangiovese, a South African Cabernet Sauvignon, a French Bordeaux, and a Californian Cabernet.

You can get a sense of what characteristics you can expect from the grapes and the countries that grow them, and compare them side by side to decide which ones you prefer.

Regardless of how you decide to expand your palate and find new wines to love, the best way to start, says Ms. Masters, is simple: “Drink more wine.” Cheers to that! 

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