Toronto Star Nov. 29, 2014 Patagonia, Chile–The red wine swirls impossibly close to the top of the glass. The critic holds the stem and with a tiny circling of his hand the wine spins high, getting oxygen and opening up the flavour. In less experienced hands—say mine—the pinot noir would surely splash all over the table.
But these are veterans sampling dozens of different wines in three days of tastings in southern Chile. Sommeliers, educators and writers sit at rows of tables flipping through pages of technical notes and trying glass after glass. Later, they walk around the room sampling and talking with the 40 winemakers asking about “schist,” “carbonic maceration” and other mysteries of making great wine.
But it starts by tipping the glass to examine the colour before swirling, inhaling and finally sampling—all the while looking focussed and cultured.
Then they spit.
“You have to, if you want to survive,” one wine magazine publisher tells me. And they manage to make that look cultured too, bringing the spittoon to their mouth to release the wine and then dabbing their lips with a napkin.
After the experts taste, they talk, using a lexicon as refined as their palates. Where I’ve scribbled “yummy” for one glass, the woman next to me has made note of geraniums and berries “with some granite.” With a red blend that I conservatively gave three stars, my neighbour happily tasted “no muddy edges.”
There is an abundance of distinct flavours, and adjectives, being passed around the room. Chile has 14 very different wine growing regions that range along 1,200 kilometres between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The winemakers are often asked how far their vineyard is from the ocean, information that speaks to soil, temperature and other conditions that form the flavour of the wine. Pinot like it cold and Cabernet like it hot, I’m told.
Long been known for its good cheap red blends and Cabernets, Chilean winemakers are producing much more than that: Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Mediterranean blends as well as the long-loved Chilean variety, the Carmenere. The grape came from Bordeaux but disease has since wiped it out in France.
These and other “old vines” are “more complex,” and produce excellent wine. “Vines are just like people,” explains Andres Sanchez of GIllmore Winery and Wineyards. “The older they are, the more interesting they are. They’ve had time to build character.”
I still can’t taste that “hint of lead pencil” but I am beginning to understand the differences between the glasses in front of me and the vast passion, knowledge and ingenuity that go into creating them. I’m a long way from tasting the distinct “sense of place” the critics are applauding but I am able to grasp that “wine should be joyful.”
As he gestures to the 20 or so wine glasses lined up on the table in front of him, one wine writer tells me: “At a tasting, you get to meet all these different personalities.” But to keep them straight, you must spit. Otherwise you’ll get tipsy and mix up which wine is which. A rookie move. “Have I taught you nothing?” one of my new wine mentors says with a laugh as I look at her a little bleary-eyed.
Even dead sober, I’m not sure I’ll ever understand what “skinny and electric, jumping out in different directions,” might mean or taste minute differences in pH levels. But I come to appreciate that with every glass of wine you’re savouring a place and its people. Or as I’m told over a raised glass: “You’re drinking a story.”