ENGAGING THE SENSES

Visiting the world’s major wine regions is a great opportunity for education, not only about wine but about taste. We can taste in our homes and learn a lot, but you learn the most if you taste in the home of the vines, the great vineyard regions of the world. If you go to Bordeaux, you have the opportunity to taste some amazing local wines. The trouble is you won’t get to taste much else because in Bordeaux the average wine list has almost no wines from outside the Bordeaux region – almost no wines from Burgundy, from the Loire, from the Rhône, and even fewer wines from outside of France. The story is the same in Spain where most restaurants carry only Spanish wines, and often, only wines from their particular region of Spain. The story is also the same in Italy – I was recently in Puglia in Southern Italy and couldn’t even find a Chianti on the list of an otherwise terrific restaurant in a large wine-producing area. Obscure Pugliese primitivos? Plenty, but a wine made from zinfandel, which many consider the same grape? Not a chance.

For the visitor, that may not be a problem – when I travel I like to eat local and I like to drink local, but there is a difference between choosing to do that and having no choice to do otherwise. More importantly, what about the tasting experience available to the locals, including local winemakers? I didn’t meet anyone in Puglia who had ever tasted a zinfandel (including sommeliers from Sweden, Germany and Estonia with whom I was traveling), and you’ll be hard pressed for find a winemaker in Burgundy who has tried a Russian River pinot noir from Sonoma, California.

There is a saying that, “water divides us and wine unites us,” but that is clearly the sentiment of a wine drinker from the United States or Britain, countries with a long-standing interest in the wines of the world. One of the great strengths of being a wine lover in the U.S. today – we have a greater diversity of wine available to us than any other country I know. Most European countries have erected strong trade and tax barriers to the importation of wines from other areas, and especially wine from the United States. In the U.S. the wine market is much more open.

The spacious interior and tasting salon of Soif d’Ailleurs in Paris. (Photo: Soif d’Ailleurs)

What brought this wine eclecticism to mind was the news earlier this week that a leading French gourmet publication, the Pudlo Guide, named Soif d’Ailleurs “French Wine Shop of the Year.” Why is that so meaningful and why did the selection become something of a scandal? Because Soif d’Ailleurs (the name of the shop translates as “Thirst Elsewhere”) is a Paris wine shop that carries no French wine. I have gone to wine shops in Paris and had a hard time finding wines not from France, and this shop turns that French oenological jingoism on its ear.

The French find this a radical concept and I find it long overdue. I also find it very exciting because of its timing. This July we will observe the 40th anniversary of the wine tasting that has come to be called, “The Judgement of Paris.” I will write much more about this great tasting over the coming weeks – suffice it to say for the moment that this tasting in 1976 pitted California wines against the best reds from Bordeaux and whites from Burgundy, and the top spots were taken by the New World wines. Forty years later, it’s still hard – not impossible, but still difficult – to find an American wine in Paris, much less in the French countryside.

Mathieu Wehrung, patron and visionary at Soif d’Ailleurs in Paris. (Photo: Soif d’Ailleurs)

So cheers to Mathieu Wehrung, the Alsatian owner of Soif d’Ailleurs, for opening a shop that not only dares to offer a taste of “forbidden fruit,” but goes so far as to create videos to explain the wines he’s selling and to offer wine classes and broadly based tastings. His global wine view is something we may take for granted in the U.S., but it is a radical, and welcome, concept elsewhere for all of us who want to travel the world in a glass and get a taste for “elsewhere.”

Given that there are tens of thousands of wines available to consumers all over the world, this is a pretty ridiculous question but it gets asked all the time. Students at the beginning of every wine class I teach ask me to name my favorite wine; by the end of class, they know better than to expect an answer! What is the best?

I do tell people at wine tastings and seminars that at the end of our tasting, when they have tried six or 10 or a dozen wines, they will know which is the best wine on the table – it will be the one they like the most. I also tell them they may each have a different idea of what that wine is. Somehow, we have come to believe that preference is subjective but that there is also an objective answer, usually held by someone else, as to what “best” or “perfect” is.

French President François Holland and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (right). (Photo: Wikipedia)

I thought about the difficulty of naming the “best” (which also implies we are also assigning “less than best” status to other wines) when I saw a headline in a European newspaper: Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Italian wine, “is better than” French wine. Let me get this straight: an entire country’s wines are better than all those of another country? I have a hard time making a blanket statement about ten wines much less thousands of wines. Of course, the French response was swift and just as wacky. French President François Hollande allowed that Italy in 2015 did produce more wine than France, but also noted French wine is more expensive.

Sigh. I battle all the time against the perception that price equals quality and am frequently reminded of Oscar Wilde’s comment about people who, “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Price is an indicator of many things, including scarcity, demand, import duties, cost of production (including the high price of the ridiculously heavy bottles from which some wines are poured) but it is not, by itself, an absolute measure of quality. It must be said that the Italian politician made his comments at Italy’s biggest wine trade fair, an event where one perhaps expects politicians to indulge in a bit of hyperbole. Still … the best country for wine?

Chêne Bleu Rosé (Photo: Domaine de la Verrière)

Do you have a favorite wine? I mean, at this moment, is there a wine you would instantly reach for to have at dinner tonight? There is a good likelihood that wine came to mind because you had it recently and were having a good time while you drank it. Something fixed it in your mind, some vinous alchemy that mixed flavor, occasion and image and came up with a golden memory. In a month, a different wine might hold that position, or at least coexist with your current favorite. I have many wines I would say are favorites (and I stress the plural) and the list changes with time. I recently discovered Chêne Bleu, a rosé from the South of France that I consider perhaps the best rosé I can recall tasting, but that is a personal best, not an absolute best. You might not prefer it, and that’s okay, neither of us would be wrong.

Finding personal bests when it comes to wine is one reason to join us October 6 for the VeritageMiami Fine Wine Tasting at Merrick Park in Coral Gables. You will be able to taste as many of the hundreds of wines at the event as your palate (and your Uber budget) can manage, and you may find some new personal favorites. And watch this space – next month, 25 of South Florida’s top sommeliers will gather for a blind tasting of nearly 300 wines at the Best in Glass Wine Challenge and I’ll ask each of them to pick one wine they taste as, not the “best” wine of the competition, but the wine that was the most surprising to him or her. It may be a pinot noir from an unexpected region, or a grape the sommelier didn’t think they liked, or a wine that is a tremendous value. I imagine we’ll come up with some very interesting selections, and I suspect they won’t all be from Italy, no matter what the country’s prime minister thinks.