Let Your Senses Guide You

Wine Quality & The Olympics

Having recently watched the ice dance finals at the Olympics, it's got me thinking about wine quality and how it is measured. I think a little of the controversy that typically surrounds the judging of the ice dance competition.
As I'm no figure skater, nor much of a dancer, I'm hardly an authority on Olympics ice dance. This year it appears the best team won the gold. As much as I was cheering for our great Canadian duo of Virtue and Moir, who performed beautifully, the American team of Davis and White were pretty much flawless with all their spectacular lifts, spins and exchanges beautifully executed in perfect synchronicity. I guess the judges got it right this year. But then I heard a famous radio broadcaster rant about the injustice of it all and I started to wonder again if I, or anyone other than the judges really had a clue?
When one of us laymen thinks about ice dancing and how to score a performance, it's pretty much beyond our comprehension. How much do we grade for a perfect lift? How many points do side by side spins garner? What about the artistry, energy and flow? Is there a time limit? Clearly if one or both of the dancers end up on their backsides, even the least experienced viewer can figure out this won't help the point total much but the nitty gritty measurements are beyond our comprehension. New world records were set in both the short and long programs at this years Olympics. That means, theoretically, that they were the best short and long programs in Olympic history. Wow, that's quite an accomplishment. I guess it's kind of like when a wine gets 100 points and is considered a perfect wine. Not sure about you, but I'm just a little uncomfortable with anything being called perfect.
Without a doubt, there are two statements that can be made right of the top with respect to measuring wine quality. Firstly, just because a wine is more expensive does not necessarily mean you will prefer it. Just because a pair of shoes that cost $350 are made with the highest quality leather, are triple stitched and have excellent arch support does not mean you have to like them. You may actually prefer the $30 pair of suede loafers, even though they may split and fall off your feet mid-season. You would assume that a tasting of a $10 wine beside a $100 wine would be an unfair fight, but in many classroom experiments I've served the two side by side, both blind, to see what the overall preference would be. Somewhat surprisingly, the inexpensive wine always gets it's fair share of votes. Winemakers are artists, but they are also smart business people. They know what their consumer wants and they are more than happy to provide it. Sugar, fruit, low acid, low tannin, oak saturated wines are as appealing as ketchup.  The problem with the $10 wine is it often tastes good for a few hours at best and then starts to deteriorate immediately after. Besides, these wines have little to no depth, no complexity and very rarely promise for a better wine in the future. The $100 wine may seem a bit hard, closed and shy in it's youth but it is jam-packed with extract and will often turn into a stunning wine full of appealing, exotic, often jaw-dropping tertiary notes if given adequate time in a good cellar.
The second absolute for quality is wine cleanliness. If a wine is faulted, or even flawed, it can not be considered a quality wine. When assessing wine quality in professional judging environments, all bottles that have overt faults such as cork taint, excessive oxidation or sulphur contamination are re-tasted in the hopes that a second or third bottle of the same wine might demonstrate its true potential.  There are several compounds in wines that, when present in small amounts, can be appealing to many. Aromas such as leather, barnyard, mushroom and even butter can be deemed faults when in excess and yet add interesting complexity when present in tiny amounts. The fact is, in this age of ultra-hygenic winemaking, too many wines are simply too squeaky clean and lack the depth and complexity that allows them to age and develop new, amazing tertiary aromas (bouquet) over time. In other words, a little funk is actually a nice thing.
The balance of the wine quality equation comes down to quantitative assessment and qualitative assessment. Quantitative includes things like acidity, sweetness, bitterness, astringency, complexity and length. These things can be measured fairly exactly and one can make direct comparisons to a known standard. If we were considering the quality of a top Niagara Cabernet Merlot blend, it should be balanced, have complexity, length and in some cases, the structure to last by way of tannin and acidity. If, on the other hand we were considering a Niagara Gamay, we would still want balance and some degree of complexity but when compared to a known standard (say top Cru Beaujolais), we don't expect it to age a long time and ideally want it to have lots of forward fruit character, succulent acidity and relatively seamless tannins. Wines with lots of extract, are well balanced or promise to become so after time, are considered high quality wines. 
Qualitative measurements is where it gets really sticky. These include things like regional typicity and varietal character. This is much more difficult to gauge but it is very important and is often what sets one great wine apart from the next. What does the perfect Niagara Chardonnay actually taste like? If a wine smells and tastes like the variety it's been made from, that's a good starting point, however discerning exactly what qualities it should have based on where it was grown is a much more difficult thing to measure and yet it accounts for a great deal of the hype around certain, special wines like Grand Cru Burgundy or Cult Napa Cabernet.
So, in the end, the measurement of quality is hardly an exact science. Just as we consult a diamond expert to ascertain the quality of an engagement ring, we may also trust some of the wine experts out there to guide us with our wine buying decisions. Don't believe everything you read, find a critic that you trust and respect, buy what you like, be patient with wines and most importantly, always remember it took years for the vines to mature, months of back-breaking work in the vineyard and years of winemaking expertise and patience to put that wine in the bottle in front of you, regardless of what you ultimately think of it.

Music & Wine Matching Tool

Music soothes and satisfies just as wine does. Some bad music is hard on the ears just like poorly made wines can be rather hard on the palate. It's not uncommon to see wine publications matching a particular artist or CD to a specific wine. Problem is, no one ever explains how they come up with such random pairings.

Music comes in many forms. Amongst many others, there is the emotion and complexity of classical, the syncopation and stimulation of jazz, the searing guitar riffs and deep bass of heavy metal and the gentle and soothing appeal of folk.

Wine too comes in many forms, so how does one decide which music to listen to whilst sipping a glass of wine? I suspect most of us just choose what we are in the mood for based on the selections we have at our disposal.  Do we choose the music first and the wine after, or vice versa? Perhaps there is actually no connection between the two and the individual chooses music based on one desire, and wine based on another entirely separate need. I wonder, however, if like wine and food, there is an opportunity to reach deeper into the pleasure centres of our brains by pairing music and wine more consciously and dare I say, correctly?

For the sake of argument, let's say that wine & music moods might be connected and when properly matched, like food, the resulting combination can enhance the overall enjoyment of both. Here are some basic observations I've made when considering the music and wine partnership:

Low Frequency Sound (e.g. bass, deep synth) = Full Bodied Wine

High Frequency Sound (e.g. violin, falsetto vocals) = High Acid or Sparkling Wine

Rich Satisfying Sound (e.g. a powerful symphony) = Complex Dry (or Sweet) Wine

Simple Satisfying Sound (e.g. acoustic guitar, solo adagios) = Mellow, Smooth Wine

Abrasive Loud Sound (e.g. rock guitar solo, screaming voice) = Tannic or Bitter Wine

Fast Paced, Energetic Sound (e.g. disco or upbeat jazz music) = Fruity, Easy-Drinking Wine


Using these parameters, I've chosen the appropriate wines to match the following musical selections:

A. Tesla - Forever More requires a full bodied, tannic wine. Examples might include an Italian Sagrantino di Montefalco or traditional French Cahors or Madiran. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iOWRLsOyKw

B. Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending requires a high acid or sparkling wine, however one with complexity. Examples might include good quality Rheingau Riesling or young NV Champagne. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZR2JlDnT2l8

C. Pat Metheny - Last Train Home requires an easy drinking wine that slips down the throat with ease and delivers instant pleasure. Examples might include a good quality Cru Beaujolais or Valpolicella Ripasso. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sq5oqY3-vhg

D. Moby - God Moving Over The Face of The Waters requires a somewhat complex, mature easy-drinking wine with some bright fruit and balanced acidity. Examples include a 5 year old Martinborough Pinot Noir or 3 year old Wachau Gruner Veltliner. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_2i7ziBcZ4

E. Wagner - Ride of The Valkryies requires a relatively straight-forward but powerful wine that makes an instant impact on the palate. Examples include a young Amador Zinfandel or Mendoza Malbec.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V92OBNsQgxU

Clearly this is not a complete assessment of all music and all wine. My goal is simply to open your mind to the unique possibilities that exist when considering the two together. If it gets you thinking a little more about the wine you consume and the pleasure you seek in those few moments life affords us to do so, then I've achieved my objective.

Try this wine & music matching tool and share your comments in the section below.



The True Sommelier

I remember the story of a newly appointed food critic arriving with friends at a brand new, über high‐end restaurant in New York City and after pondering the menus, he felt certain he had uncovered the perfect wine to match the chosen dishes. When the selection was suggested to the sommelier as a possible pairing, the sommelier simply responded with a single word, “No”. As rude as this might seem, the sommelier really did know his stuff and demonstrated as much by steering the group towards an even more appropriate selection, thus bringing their dining experience to another level.

Great sommeliers make no apologies for being confident and direct in restaurants of this caliber. The clients expect nothing less. Give us sound advice, don’t beat around the bush and demonstrate your knowledge through actions rather than by trying to impress (and confuse) us with fancy terms and excessive information. In the minds of many, the word sommelier brings to mind images of uppity, tuxedo‐clad wine waiters sauntering around the dining rooms of top European hotels and restaurants telling the wealthy diners what they should or shouldn’t drink. They look down their precious noses at the clients. They wield their corkscrews and silver–chained tastevins as if they were medieval weapons rather than tools. It would be a lie to say these types of sommeliers don’t still exist. However, the truth is the vast majority of today’s sommeliers are more accessible, dress less preposterously, and make for genuinely pleasant company.

The other truth is that there are countless sommelier organizations across North America popping out graduates by the dozens year after year. The only problem is that far too many of these graduates couldn’t run a restaurant wine program if their lives depended on it! I tell my students in the International Sommelier Guild Diploma Program that in order to be considered true sommeliers, there are several steps they must be prepared to take. First, clearly they must excel in their studies. After that they should try to find work as sommelier assistants working alongside inspiring and passionate mentors in wine savvy restaurants. With every chance they get, they should travel the world to explore the various wine regions and immerse themselves in the cultures and traditions found there. Finally, they should taste as much wine as possible. I also suggest entering, once good and ready, sommelier competitions so they can put their skills to the ultimate test against their peers. Then and only then, when their CVs demonstrate they have a rare depth of knowledge, have shed their proverbial pound of flesh working in several restaurants, and have become sensitive to the demands of the hospitality business, should they consider themselves sommeliers.

A restaurateur looking to hire a good sommelier must be on the lookout for a broad range of skills and attitudes. Whereas knowledge of wines of the world, their manufacture, proper storage and service is of paramount importance, this study is a lifelong one. When interviewing sommeliers, a restaurateur should ensure candidates demonstrate that they are hard working, passionate about service, appropriately confident and even a little extroverted. They should be excellent communicators capable of speaking about wine and food in layman’s terms and even better listeners able to discern the needs of all manner of clients. In addition to wines, they should also have an above average understanding of other alcoholic beverages and possibly mineral water, tea and coffee, and they must be able to use the principals of pairing with food to bring out the best in these varied beverages. A good sommelier is also an excellent businessperson and will be able to work within set budgets, achieve sales goals and generate appropriate levels of revenue and profit from their wine program. They must know how to monitor and maintain inventories so stock levels are always as close to ideal as possible and they should know how to work with suppliers, agents, retailers and their fellow staff members. Good sommeliers are great mentors too, demonstrating excellent work ethic day in and day out, willing to bring service staff under their wing, advising, guiding and educating them about the vital role that beverage alcohol plays in the dining experience. Finally, a great sommelier understands that the wine program they are building and managing is not ‘theirs’, but the restaurant’s at which they work. The wine list should mirror the styles and price points of products that will appeal to the clients of the restaurant, not exclusively to their own palates. Liking a particular wine and knowing how to sell it are two entirely different things and a clear grasp of the difference is of vital importance in order to be successful.

In the end, a sommelier who is both humble yet confident, knowledgeable but always keen to learn more, willing to work hard and one who can generate appropriate levels of margin whilst building an ever growing base of loyal, repeat customers, is one we might consider a true sommelier ‐ just the kind of sommelier we will happily give our trust, our faith and our dollars.

A Story of Two Wines for the In Laws

Recently, I had the pleasure of hosting my inlaws for a celebratory birthday dinner. This is a great group of generous and kind people who love wine and food as much as I do. Like many Europeans, they eat and drink with plenty of zest and share non-stop conversation around the table, generally but not always, between mouthfuls. They are, however, less likely to spend the kind of money I might spend on a good bottle of wine on a celebratory evening such as this. They are mostly accustomed to drinking their own home made wine, which is often boozy, sweet, slightly oxidized and generally a guarantee for a hangover the day after. With that in mind, I decided to purchase a few magnums of inexpensive red wines from the LCBO to go along with my 4 hour slow-roasted (and lightly smoked) mature chickens and risotto. My wine selections included the Sogrape Grao Vasco from Dao, Portugal ($15.95 - 1500ml) and the Trapiche Astica Merlot-Malbec from Argentina ($13.95 - 1500ml). Much to my surprise and delight, both wines were actually quite good for the price. Both were soft and ready to drinnk, and simple enough to pair well with the food. The Dao, a blend of native Jaen and Touriga grapes, was full of sour cherry, light peppery spice, hints of strawberry and leather and was quite succulent and alive on the palate with very delicate tannins and moderate alcohol. The Argentinean wine was darker and offered sweeter, softer dark berry fruit with subtle hints of chocolate and smoke in front of a little green leaf and earth in the background. Although there were mixed opinions around the table, I'm not sure I would say that one was ultimately better than the other as both offered pretty solid value.

The following night almost exactly 24 hours later, with roughly 500ml left in the Dao and 800ml or so in the Argentinean, I sipped a little of both to see how they had held up overnight. Not surprisingly, the Portuguese red was still full of life, juicy and fruity and even a little gentler and expressive that it had been the night before making it even better value. The Merlot-Malbec on the other hand had all but disappeared. The boisterous fruit was gone, the flavour seemed blah and what little structure it had had the night before had all but dissolved. Clearly, like so many wines from the new world at these price points, this was a wine made to drink immediately. It was an interesting discovery, especially given that I might have purchased it again if I hadn't had the opportunity to see just how short a life it would have. Valuable lesson learned and without a doubt, good justification to splurge and spend the extra $2 on my in-laws!

I’m In the Mood For…

How often do you decide what to eat based on your mood? What about letting your mood help you to decide which movie to watch or which TV program to tune into? And when your partner wants a little fun…are you in the mood?  The mood we're in is a result of so many factors. How was your sleep? What is the weather like? What’s your stress level? How are things at home and at work? How’s your health?

Fact is, mood is one of the most important influences on the decisions we make day after day. It should also have an influence on the wine we choose and even how it tastes and satisfies. Mood will affect the way food tastes when matched with wine and even though there are rules of wine and food matching to follow, the ultimate consideration must be your mood. None of us can imagine drinking a wine that we aren’t in the mood for just because the rules suggest it will pair well with our lunch!

At WineFoodMood.com we will explore the role that mood plays in our wine and food experiences and how we can utilize it to make our wine and food experiences better!


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