Wine in the afternoon – how to survive a wine fair
I knew I was in trouble as I stepped out onto the white sands flanked by turquoise sea and rolling white waves next to the Burj al Arab. The air was as bracing as it can be on a beach in Dubai on a late afternoon in March. Noticing a coffee stand to my right, I ordered a restorative double espresso and knocked it back in a few gulps.
Drinking at lunchtime was something I left behind in London and the ad industry world of the 1980′s and any drinking in the afternoon now focusses on the contents of a large teapot. But when faced with a whole room full of wines all ready to be tasted well it was like being a small child let loose in a sweet shop. Yes I was that small child, and as much as I tried to pace myself, bottle of water in hand, tasting the tiniest samples, by five o’clock things weren’t looking pretty. I realised I’d overdone it as much as any toddler faced with unlimited access to lollipops and marshmallows.
Soon, the coffee started to work its magic and as I looked out on the stunning location I thought about the whirlwind two hours of tasting I had just experienced. Ruefully regretting the other half of the wine list that remained unsampled i.e. the reds, I decided to call it a day. As the sun started to sink in the sky, on a table in front of me a man lined up a series of bottles and poured a round of Fernet Branca for his group, to prime their palates for some serious wine drinking. I taxied home, wondering at the stamina of those starting the evening session (and exactly how much I had slurred in some of my conversations).
There are two major importers of alcohol in Dubai, MMI and A + E (African and Eastern) and this was a preview tasting of new wines and some more familiar from the list of the latter, with wine makers to introduce them in many cases. I arrived just after 3pm with Sarah of The Hedonista who had done this kind of thing before and is very decisive. “Let’s do whites first” she announced, and I was happy to trail after her gleaning crumbs of knowledge and comparing tasting experiences. She made use of the spittoon every time, unlike me which was my downfall. It was just such a rare opportunity to meet and chat with winemakers and sample such a diverse range of wine I got completely carried away with my enthusiasm.
The other downside of not spitting is that the memory becomes a little blurred. Taking detailed notes is futile at this sort of event when multi-tasking includes listening to the winemaker or pourer, concentrating on tasting the wine, taking a few photos, plus bumping into people you know (not literally). Grateful for this opportunity as it was a learning curve for me in more ways than one, I’ve put together a list of tips for future wine tastings of this size for next time (hoping for a return invitation!)
Top 10 tips for visiting a wine fair or tasting (or how to stay out of trouble)
- If possible, try to get an idea of who will be exhibiting and plan some kind of strategy of tasting.
- Also keep an open mind. You may find some surprises.
- Leave your posh DSLR at home or if you really want some nice pics, do all your photography before you taste and then put your camera away. For an aide-memoire of wines, your smartphone camera is ideal.
- Sample as widely as you can and use the spittoon. Take the opportunity to sample a little of a lot (rather than the other way round). If you are tasting (and swallowing) you don’t have to finish the whole amount; no-one will be offended if you leave it or pour away. At the end of your tasting you can then go back and drink a couple of your very favourites if you still feel in the mood.
- Eat before the event and, if possible, sometime during the tasting. Drink water often.
- Focus on the wine and your experience of it – the aroma, the structure, the flavours, texture and balance (I find the WSET systematic approach very useful). A small voice recorder or the notes recorder on your phone to save your impressions can be more useful than juggling a pen and paper.
- Ask the pourer or wine maker about what makes the wine special or different and which wine they would personally recommend. You can discover a lot more about the background and character of the vineyard and wines than given in the promotional notes in the hand outs.
- Mix it up. While a comparative tasting of similar styles of wine (e.g. the same grape variety) can be interesting, envigorate your palate by ringing the changes. For instance, after trying a lot of fairly dry, restrained whites, we happened upon a Sicilian Moscato which made us both exclaim with pleasure. It wasn’t the most prepossessing wine but it was perfect for our slightly jaded taste buds.
- Be aware of those around you. It’s frustrating when you have to wait a long time to taste the most popular wines because others are hogging the pourer’s time and attention. So don’t be a hogger!
- Enjoy the whole experience and take the opportunity to learn as much as possible.
A few of my impressions from the afternoon:
Jean-Claude Fourmon himself, the GM of this small and unconventional Champagne house, guided us through a tasting of Brut Non-Vintage (Cuveé Royale), Rosé Non-Vintage, Brut 1995, Vintage Brut 1995 and Blanc de Blancs 2004. It was the last one in this list, the elegant Blanc de Blancs that impressed; 100% Chardonnay and perfect for an aperitif or to match with a bowl of prawns, it charmed me with its delicate effervescence and balance. Or was that the winemaker?
My first sip of an Ultra-Brut and I was hooked. This is the very driest style of Champagne and the Laurent Perrier was concentrated in fruit where it was Spartan in sweetness, with divine delicate but persistent bubbles. Tasting vintage Champagne which is as old as my teenage daughter was peachy in more ways than one. 1998 Laurent Perrier Grand Siecle Alexandra Brut Rose was velvet strawberry fields with orange peel and absolute heaven.
Apart from ice wine, I had never tasted a wine from Canada and expected Le Clos Jordanne to be very special. The Chardonnay, from organically cultivated vineyards, was well-made but I regret not having tasted the highly rated Pinot Noir.
In my constant quest to taste as widely as I can I’m always drawn to wines from the US as not many find their way to the shores of the UAE. Robert Mondavi may be ubiquitous but the wines are always of a certain quality. The 2010 Private Selection Chardonnay had a creamy texture and smoky oak without being overwhelming. However, I wish I’d tried the reds. Zinfandel (of good quality) is a varietal that you don’t see a lot of in Dubai so I took a detour from the whites and leapt on a taste of 2009 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel from Sonoma county. Luscious black berry fruit and vanilla made me want to explore further.
New Zealand whites
2011 Kim Crawford Marlborough Unoaked Chardonnay is bang on trend by offering a restrained expression of this grape variety, world’s apart from previous New World styles of wine making. Villa Maria 2013 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc is entry-level for this wine maker and while fresh and vibrant it lacks more interesting structure. I’d like to taste something from their Single Vineyard range (they also produce a few organic wines). Dog Point 2009 Section 94 is made of Sauvignon Blanc although it doesn’t mention it on the label and this sets the tone for this unconventional wine in NZ SB terms. Oak aged and bone dry there’s not a trace of the astringent gooseberry that we are used to here in the UAE. Note to self to taste again.
Enjoyed some ethereal Provencal roses and the Domaine Laroche 2006 Chablis Grand Cru Les Blanchots was a really fine example of a modern Burgundian Chablis – apples, butter and minerals. I’m sure the very nice girl from Laroche told me the wines were made of organic fruit but can’t find any information to this end on their website.
To quote Andrew Jefford “The problem with wine fairs, though, is that you know you’ve missed far more than you’ve found.” However I was very happy with my discoveries and hope I’ll get to put my ten tips into practise soon. Do you have any other advice for approaching a wine tasting? Has wine ever got you into trouble?
The Drunken Cyclist (Jeff) has started the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge and this month’s theme, chosen by The Armchair Sommelier, is “Trouble”. I couldn’t think how to link trouble and wine, but woke up the next morning thinking about this tasting which I have been meaning to write about for a long time.