To the uncultured, such as myself, who have very little experience with wine, it can be a surprise to learn the intricacies of this art – and it is an art I discovered. Wine was not something we had in my house. There may been an occasional bottle of Lambrusco or Asti (low cost Italian wines) at special events where we kids may have snuck a sip or two. That was really it. I knew some were dry and some were sweeter than others but honestly I knew nothing.
When I went to Provence in January our first stay was at Auberge du Vin where we were met by our gracious hosts Linda and Chris, British expats who now call the south of France home. It was Linda that would give me a crash course in wines and changed my understanding of them. She is a WSET educator (Wine and Sprit Education Trust) and provides trainings to those who want to learn more about wine. While courses can last a full day to a week or more, we only had time for a crash course.
Auberge du Vin is outside the small city of Carpentras in the Rhone Valley of France. The focus for our course was on local wines. We started by having Linda explain the different local grape growing regions as well as the system for grading wines. This is something taken very seriously in France (and in much of Europe's wine growing regions). The French system is particularly strict and complex.
- every wine region has specified grapes that must be used to make top quality wines
- the grapes must be grown and harvested within specific regulations
- the method of wine making is controlled
- the bottling of the wine must happen in the boundaries of the region
- the best quality wines must be tasted before awarded top grades
Exhaustive right? If that wasn't enough there are multiple levels of wine that are produced. Wineries can create just specific types or a variety of types.
Top Level – Appellation Origin Controlee (AOC)
This is the best grade for French wine. The label itself doesn't apply just to wine but other products like cheeses, butter, and more agricultural items. There are specific rules in place governing how the label itself is presented and the wine must be approved by a blind tester before it can be awarded the certification.
Mid Level – Indication Geographique Protegee (IGP)
This label guarantees a wine is from a specific district. It however does not mean it is produced in a way that is typical of that region. The goal is to alert consumers that the wine is a reasonably priced wine with a guarantee of quality and consistency.
Bottom Level – Vin de Table (Table Wine)
The only controls on this wine is that it is from grapes of French origin and produced within France. It does not mean the wine is bad!
Who knew there was so much to wine??
This really is just the tip of the iceberg! After learning about the basics it was time to discuss how a wine is judged. While some might think it either tastes good or tastes bad, those are subjective criteria. Ever wonder why people swirl wine in a glass and smell it before they drink? That's all part of the process of tasting it. WSET has clear guides to discussing a wine.
Many of these don't involve tasting the wine at all.
In fact, many wine judges don't even swallow the wine. They go through an entire process of viewing, smelling, and swishing to get a sense of the wine – and then they spit it out. I always thought wine was paired with certain foods just because it tasted good but there's a system to that too. For example, if a wine has tannin (an organic substance) in it and is paired with protein the two things will break each other down, making for a good pairing. Acidity in wine will make your mouth water.
So, if you've ever wondered if you needed to drink wine to “taste” it, the answer is no. It helps but you certainly can learn a lot about food production and the art of winemaking without every taking a sip.
I knew as soon as I had the idea for this post it would be met with controversy on my website. I am a visibly Muslim person after all. So, let's just get this out of the way . If you choose to drink, that's on you. If you don't, that's fine too. I have friends who don't drink alcohol for a number of reasons – many of which don't include religion at all – and that's fine by me. In writing this I am in no way challenging anyone's personal beliefs about drinking, I am sharing my own experience and a viewpoint some people might not have considered. If you are planning on commenting to tell me how “haram” this is, don't.
Thank you to Linda and Chris of Auberge du Vin for being amazing hosts and teachers. Thank you also to the Vaucluse en Provence for organizing this trip.