Pools of amber and burgundy were arranged in a semicircle on the numbered placemat before me. Since abandoning malty beer in favour of syrupy German whites in high school, I have been a slave to the lure of the grape. And having decided to finally learn the art of tasting wine, I was an eager pupil as I sat down to DeVine Wines and Spirits’ Basic Wine Tasting ($25).
DeVine is a modern storefront, reclaimed from the classic Birks building on 104 Street, and the space pulses with casual elegance: from the dark wood grains and gorgeous art on the walls to lustrous drapes framing huge windows, the designers didn’t miss a thing. As I settled in, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the experience would be nothing like the pretentious plutocratic ceremony I feared. The 24 tasters represented a range of ages and our guide was named Ed; his shaved head, glasses and black leather pants made him the exact opposite of the severe sommelier I dreaded.
“Does anyone know the difference between tasting and drinking?” Ed asked. (“Quantity?” someone suggested.) “The difference is thinking. Thinking while drinking. I want to keep this light and fun—there are no wrong answers,” Ed continued. “You decide how you describe each wine, and you decide whether or not you like it. I’m just here to help you with some tools.” Ed warned us that we would use our newly acquired skills to guess which wines were which. Although this was new territory for me, I was more than up to the challenge.
Ed led us into the first stage of tasting: looking. Assessing the colour is best done by tilting the glass against a white background and as we started with the three whites, I could see the range between a pale yellow and a darker amber. These differences can give a more experienced taster clues to the wine’s sweetness, age and grape.
Next came the swirl, which is used to release the aromas (to accommodate a proper swirl, the glass should be no more than a third full, by the way). After swirling, I watched for the legs or tears to form as the liquid flowed down the inside of the glass. Thicker legs indicate a more viscous wine, possibly sweeter or very concentrated in flavour. I noticed that the darker wines tended to have thicker legs. Ed suggested swirling the glass on a flat surface to avoid hitting unintended targets with wine shrapnel.
Swirling gave way to smelling. A brief, steady sniff revealed a host of smells both familiar and unfamiliar to me. Ed encouraged us to jot them down, and I listed flowers, peaches and grass from my sniffs of the white wines. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the asparagus or hazelnut others discovered. The only danger at this stage is a deep, continuous sniff, which risks anesthetizing the sense of smell.
Finally, my specialty arrived: tasting. “There are no manners in wine tasting,” Ed warned as he encouraged us to slosh, gargle and spit into the provided buckets. No way was I going to waste this wine! Also called chewing the wine, the process sends vapourized wine flavours cascading over the sinuses for what began as a burning sensation but faded quickly into pleasant warmth. We were lastly encouraged to think about how long the flavours lingered in our mouths to determine the staying power of each vintage.
I checked my score on the white wines as the cheese and bread were served. I had correctly identified the sweet Gewurztraminer with its lychee flavour, but had confused the grassy Sauvignon Blanc with the tropical Chardonnay. I resolved to do better with the red wines, even though the reception sparkling wine and my resolve to avoid using the spit buckets was starting to cloud my mind in an alcoholic haze. I tried to pay attention as Ed described the best serving temperatures for wines. Bring a notepad for these useful tips, rather than relying on memory.
After thoroughly enjoying the whites, Ed moved us on to the red wines. From the purple tinge of a young wine to the ruddy brick colour of the aged, the colour gradient was more pronounced in the reds. Younger wines tend to deliver the biggest tannin impact, which Ed demonstrated by selecting a glass for us to sample. Chuckling as nearly everyone made the “tannin face,” Ed informed us that this very young Cabernet Sauvignon exemplifies the tooth-furring, mouth-puckering component of red wines.
The merlot Ed selected was smooth and easy to drink, though I still found the end note a bit tannic. The last glass of the series was my beloved Shiraz. Ed subtly mocked both. “The merlot is popular, mainly because it sounds so refined to order in a restaurant,” he grinned. “You don’t have to worry about mispronouncing Cabernet Sauvignon. The Shiraz are giant, big wines that are very grapey and easy to understand. I call them fruitbombs.”
Over the course of the evening, table chat picked up and crowd response to Ed increased as the wines were consumed. Of course, that could have been just me. After nearly two hours, I had successfully identified four out of six wines and had already decided to return for the May 11 session: Great Wine Matches for Fast Food. What vintage goes best with a Big Mac? It sounded just absurd enough to be fun! V
DeVine Wines and Spirits
10111-104 St • 421-WINE