The Art of Wine Tasting
Over the weekend I had plans with an old friend. Actually, my oldest friend to be more precise, as we’re going on 15 years of friendship (quite a bit for a 22-year-old). It all started in 3rd grade when she joined my elementary school, and by some twist of fate we gravitated toward each other, like magnets. We were instantaneous best friends.
And so we remained, all through elementary and middle school. High school and college brought about separation in terms of the schools we went to but we still and always knew we would have a bond that dated back to our 3rd grade days. Sometimes now I think about how different we are, but then I realize that my favorite part about our friendship is how different we have always been.
I learn a lot from Talia (we’ll finally call her by her name). I learn a lot from her every time we have plans. And these days, she teaches me a lot about my relatively newer hobby of food and wine, a realm she has kept up with far longer than I.
I’ve attended wine tasting sessions through a program at school but I don’t think I’d consider those true wine tastings. To me, a legitimate wine tasting is when you publicly assess the wine you’re tasting and consider each of its characteristics. That, I had never done, until Talia brought me to Cork and Canvas, located in Highland Park, IL.
First off, I would like to apologize for the awful pictures. My camera is temporarily out of order so I’ve had to make do with the next best bet: the camera phone.
Secondly, the shop is called Cork and Canvas because they sell both wine and art under one roof. They feature local artists (rotating their artwork every six weeks) and mostly carry domestically-produced wine with Old World feel. Note that a domestic wine can be produced domestically but still use international grapes. Since the Euro is so strong compared to our dollar, Cork and Canvas tries to focus on these particular wines to provide quality wine at a decently affordable price.
Coupling two of the finer things in life, the shop bears the motto “Uncork a World of Art.” Now, I really like this saying. Not just because it creatively and concisely embodies just what Cork and Canvas is about, but for me, it epitomizes the experience I had that Saturday afternoon.
Let me just say that initially I felt ridiculous for even being there and pretending I knew anything about wine. Yes, I’m a food blogger and I do enjoy wine, but when it comes to pinpointing flavors, assessing tannin structures or wine “legs”, I’m as clueless as the next person. But once I admitted my ignorance, the floodgates of knowledge just poured open and all I could do was absorb.
Enter: Mick Ter Haar, our wine sommelier. A bartender turned oenophile, he made his way to work at Smith and Wollensky, and now Cork and Canvas. He taught me a lot about the wine we were tasting and just wine in general, all the while making me feel very comfortable about my lack of knowledge.
2001 Rolly Gassman Auxxerois (pronounced: awk-ser-WAH), Alsace France
C&C Tasting Notes: “…a lovely aromatic bouquet of flowers, old roses, minerals, spice and a hint of honey. There is a definite sweetness on the palette, but it seems to be powered by ripe fruit rather than sugar…”
Made with grapes from Alsace, I might describe this rare wine as a cross between a Riesling and a Chardonnay. It’s sweetness was subtle and its complexity addicting. Mick recommends pairing this wine with a seafood of sorts.
2005 Grgich Hills Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley
C&C Tasting Notes: “Tart and complex, with green apple, hay, grass and herb that slowly smooth out on the finish, and for all its mouthpuckering acidity, it has a supple texture.”
The second white wine of the bunch, I thoroughly enjoyed this one as well. It was a blunt distinction from its sweeter predecessor but had its wealth of flavor. It was recommended to pair this wine with a poultry, pork or fish.
2006 Own Roe “Sinister Hand”, Columbia Valley, WA
C&C Tasting Notes: “Great nose of black fruits with plum, currant and sweet spicy aromatics. The rich palate has black cherry, toasty oak & spice and a long finish.
Lighter than the red wine that would follow, this wine was made from grapes from Rhone and is: 63% Grenache, 10% Syrah, and 7& Mourvedre (if that means anything to you, which prior to Saturday, wouldn’t have meant anything to me). A nice grilled steak would be a good food pairing.
2004 Kent Rasmussen “Esoterica” Petite Sirah, Napa Valley
C&C Tasting Notes: “…Big, rich, tarry and solid, but unlike many Petite Sirah wines, not too astringent.”
Also made from grapes from Rhone, I would say this wine is more of an acquired taste. While it was less sharp than other red wines I’ve had, I think this wine was a bit too intense for me. It had roughly 15% alcohol, and was recommended to be paired with a marbled steak.
NV Trentadue Chocolate Amoré, Alexander Valley, Sonoma
C&C Tasting Notes: “This opulent dessert wine is from Merlot grapes….Once finished and ready for bottling, it is infused with a tiny amount of natural chocolate extract to the final blend, creating the perfect marriage of food and wine.”
If wines could be adorable, this would be an adorable wine. I just loved everything about it from its subtle chocolate to its sweet port characteristics. As soon as you took a sip, you just had visions of pouring it over every dessert food imaginable. Vanilla ice cream with a little bit of this and you have a simple yet elegant dessert.
To give you a gauge of how good this menu was: Talia visits these wine tasting sessions every Saturday and this time she left the store with all 5 bottles of wine.
My favorite two, which I wound up buying, were the first and the last: the Auxxerois and the Chocolate Amoré. The Auxxerois was so complex, delicious and unlike anything I had ever tasted before that I just knew I’d want more. Not to mention, supposedly, they only delivered 10 cases to the entire Chicagoland area and it’s a very unique Alsatian wine. And the Chocolate Amoré, (sigh) was just bliss. A red port dessert wine laced with chocolate is much harder to pass up than you could ever imagine. Let’s put it this way, I don’t usually celebrate Valentine’s day and now I’m cooking and planning a whole meal just because of this wine (seriously, tune in for that post!)
Overall I came away with two very interesting rules of thumb:
1. If you’re trying to figure out food pairings, look at where the grapes come from. If they’re from France, pair it with a dish from French cuisine. Mick says that in the Old World, the wine comes first and the cuisine can always be catered to match the wine.
2. The more the wine sticks to the glass to create “legs” that run down the sides, the higher the alcohol content in the wine.
This experience turned out to be a lot more than I bargained for. Like I said, it was an education. It wasn’t just that I learned each story behind each wine, it was more the feeling of having the taste of something in your mouth identified and described to an absolute T. Though a writer, I can still find it hard to describe how different things taste. It really isn’t easy to pinpoint a flavor or a texture, especially if it’s something you have never tasted before. But the art of wine tasting teaches you to do just that. It teaches you to recognize all the complexity that goes into making wine and how to recognize the effects of each part of the process.
Oh it’s an art alright, one that can never be mastered. An art of wine, an art of words, and an art of taste. There can be amateurs (me) and there can be experts (Mick, Talia), but the wealth of knowledge that wine tasting provides is infinite, and that’s the beauty of it all.
Cork and Canvas
1839 Second Street
Highland Park, IL 60035