Wine-tasting for beginners (or how to alienate the masters of wine)

Row of wine barrels in cellar

Here I am, travelling my way through the world, always stumbling over offers to taste wine. The world is a gigantic vineyard, it seems. Until recently, I didn't care much. To be honest, I had this terrible fear that if I actually knew how to distinguish a very good wine from a not so good one, it would ruin many meals and evenings. I could not afford to become a proper wine snob.

The world of wine knowledge has always bewildered, yet fascinated me. Somehow, people swirling their glasses, taking a tiny sip, looking thoughtfully into nowhere and uttering weirdly poetic descriptions completely fail to impress me. They only challenge my self-control: "Must. Not. Giggle.". Now you know. But the thing is: I could never shake off the thought that there might be something important to it. You know, what if I'm invited to dine with the Queen, and I don't notice that the wine is a 1811 Chateau d'Yquem. I mean, she might not invite me again, right? 

Then came the night that should change my life. It was a warm evening in the Costa Brava, and the moon shone bright on the beach as we had dinner in the restaurant of our hotel (the Hotel Tamariu). I asked for a red wine to accompany my meal, while everyone else had white.

Wine barrels close up_thumb

The waiter came up to me with a bottle and asked me if I wanted to taste it. I handled this question logically, thinking: well, it's a wine bottle, therefore there must be wine in it, and I am also pretty sure it won't be undrinkable wine, which means I am going to drink it. So why go through the effort of pretending that there's an odd chance I could refuse to drink it? I smiled kindly and told him it would be fine.

He hesitated. He was obviously confused and a tiny bit disappointed. He asked me again. This indicated that I had dropped a clanger (how very unlike me). I felt my only way out of this was consistency, so I stood with my decision. He nodded sadly, poured a bit of wine in my glass, then his face lit up with a glimpse of hope as he asked me one last time, and it broke my heart, but I couldn't give in now, so I declined again.

Since he was such a nice guy, I contemplated for the first time my anti-wine-tasting-attitude, and I found that I would have liked to do him the favour of playing along, but that I had not much of an idea what the whole ceremony was about. There were probably a thousand catches coming with it. And I am already confused as how to hold the freaking wine glass correctly after someone told me off once. Hooray.

But you cannot avoid the wine, guys, you just can't. Especially when you travel, you notice how wine is a serious touristic feature in so many places. Just think about how you know half of the French regions probably only because of their wine - Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, anyone? So I came to the conclusion that I would not put up a fight to cling to my wine ignorance any longer. I was ready for my first ever wine tasting.

With all the things that you have mixed feelings about (since the process of learning usually means that I make a fool out of myself), said wine tasting came rather fast. When we stayed at our Naturaki Villa a couple of days later, our host Carme offered to take us wine-tasting at a 700-year-old, family-run winery. Which was great. I would therefore be able to insult multiple generations all in one go. People would turn around in their graves. Then again, this was a chance to learn from the best. So we accepted.

Wine tasting collage 1_thumb1

The next day, Carme took us to the cellar of Mas Llunes, which is in Garriguella, as are their 45 hectares of vineyards. Garriguella is part of the Albarran National Parc in Costa Brava. We were introduced to Pilar Naveira, who was going to show us around. First we took a walk outside to have a look at the little vine-trees.

I had avoided to out myself as a cretin yet, so I nodded casually to all the information given to me -  I only lost my cool when Pilar sadly pointed to a vine that the wind had broken and said that a vine needs to grow for freaking 35 years before you can use it for wine-making - well, she didn't say 'freaking' but really, that's a long time, isn't it? The vines on that particular field were 55 years old.

Also, they were all crazy. Yes, crazy. But crazy in a good way, you know. It's because of the wind they have in this region, the Tramuntana. Said to make people more open-minded and creative (which is really what crazy means - I knew it!).

I mean, Salvador Dali was born there - just look at HIS pictures. Or at a picture OF him. You'll see what I mean. The wind is not all bad, though. It means that the wine-makers have to use less chemicals to protect their vines from pests because it's so dry, but during winter, when the Tramuntana gets as strong as 200 km/h, it becomes powerful enough to break the vines.

Pilar invited us to try some of the grapes and pointed out how you can tell if they are ready to be harvested: you check the colour of the seeds. If they are green, they are not ready yet - they have to be brown.

She also informed us that the soil at Mas Llunes is clay on the plains and slate on the slopes. After I had nearly blown my cover with my reaction to the wind-struck vine, I decided not to ask what the soil meant for the vine. Which was a wise thing to do, because the answer is: a lot. If you feel like it, check out this list of vineyard soil types and be startled.

Wine creation collage barrels vat ferment[1]

We went inside the factory, which looked very cool with all these gigantic metal containers full of WINE, and hoses running in between them. Pilar showed us where the tractor brings in the grapes, which then go into a steamer/crusher where they are separated from the stem. An apparatus they jovially call "the washing machine".

The next step is fermentation and that is where you have to decide what's it gonna be: for red wine and rosé the grapes are fermented with the skin, for white wine without it. The fermentation is initiated by adding yeast to the grapes in a container - different yeasts for different wines, even.

Then the mixture sits there for 20 to 30 days, developing alcohol. Not the worst pastime, I reckon. And it's warm and cosy in these containers, because the temperature is set between 26 and 30 °C - it must not exceed 30 °C, though. Every day there is a quality control, and once there are no sugars left, it's time for the wine to leave the womb. The skins get separated from the liquid, but can still be made into grappa. Yay for up-cycling! The wine itself is made into a first and a second quality. The second quality is used for table wine.

After so much information, we got to taste a 6-days-old harvest, which was bubbly and still had sugars in and about 7% alcohol - hang in, you're nearly there!!

Wine poured straight from the fermentation

Next we went into the cellar, where the wine ages in barrels at a constant temperature of 18 °C. Wine barrels - how cool is that! But again, nothing is left to chance here: these barrels were made out of French oak which gives the wine a spicy aroma. The most common other sort of wood would be American oak, which results in a vanilla flavour. Even the way the wood is toasted influences the taste. And the wine doesn't stay in it forever (for some reason, I thought that), but usually only 6 months to 1 1/2 years. The maximum would be 5 years - unless you want to produce a sweet wine.

The last step is probably the easiest - at least it takes up the smallest amount of space during the whole operation: the filling of the wine into the bottles. A machine cleans the individual bottles, then they are filled. All oxygen is sucked out of each bottle, the cork is put on, and the bottle is washed again from the outside. Finally, it is labelled and packed.  Despite the machine's rather unspectacular look, it can fill up 3000 bottles per day. Nice!

And now it was time to actually try the wine. Since I had watched the whole process of wine-making and had learned that it is a mixture between accurate work and a lot more creativity than I had expected, I felt quite confident about the whole thing. I was basically a pro now, knowing all about toasted barrels 'n' stuff, right?

WinebarrelscellarcolourHDR_thumb

Also, none of my questions had alienated Pilar so far (little did I know, the day was still young), so I gave up completely on my mysterious position and revealed myself as an absolute newbie to wine-tasting. Pilar took it rather well. Most people actually do, when you admit that you don't know anything about something you feel you should know everything about, and will let you in to what you need to know.

So Pilar demonstrated how you start off by swirling the wine in your glass to release and intensify the aroma. She swirled it quite a lot, I swirled a bit less, as I didn't have the confidence in my swirling technique yet and also Loz beside me was wearing a white shirt. 

After this followed the four phases of the tasting:

1) the visual phase, where you check clarity and colour - with red wine, for instance, you can hold your finger against the glass: the less you can see it, the older the wine.

2) the olfactory phase, where you hang your nose into the glass (don't be shy) and smell away. There's heaps of aromas to sniff out for; be they flowery, fruity, spicy - you might even find a hint of chocolate or tobacco (maybe not in this tasty combination)! I was quite surprised to perceive notes I would not have associated with wine.

3) the degustation phase, where you actually get to taste the wine and find whether it is sweet, bitter, acidy, and what the dominant taste is.

4) the aftertaste phase, where you evaluate what sensations linger after you swallowed (or spit out) your wine.

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I did fairly well for one red and two white wines, but after that came my downfall (at least I had something to drink with it). We were offered to try Garnatxa, a sweet wine that is as Catalan as it gets - in April they even have a Garnatxa party in the village where the winery is! Now there was nothing different in the way of tasting it, but encouraged by myself doing so incredibly well on the humiliation front, I got a bit carried away with phase number two, and instead of gently sniffing the bouquet, I enthusiastically snorted the Garnatxa, which nearly gave poor Pilar a heart attack. I'm serious.

She struck me as someone who is not easy to unsettle, but now she was just stunned as to why on earth someone would disgrace a wine like that.

I could see that my mission was accomplished - once again I had learned something by making a fool out of myself. I rewarded myself with some more Garnatxa, and also bought a bottle for home. Then two more bottles of wine.

So this is all I can tell you: do not, I repeat, do not snort the wine!

Apart from that, the whole thing was rather interesting and nice, and lifted the curtain to the world of wine a bit, which turned out to neither be snobby nor scary, but full of professionalism and about focussing on your senses. masLlunesbottlelabelgarnatxa_thumb

I do not claim that I got everything right that was shown and told to me that day, so if I didn't, have mercy on me. I did want to share my experience with you, as an example for how it is rewarding to follow your curiosity, even if you have to bring up some courage to overcome the fear of appearing 'stupid'. I also wanted to ask you to bring me another bottle of Garnatxa, if you happen to be in the region :) !

...So what have YOU done lately to embarrass yourself in the name of the never-ending quest for knowledge? Hit the comments and already be assured of our deepest respect for your commitment. Thanks for reading!

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