Welcome to Second Ferment! Wine pairs well with life ... and food, travel, people, work and play. Grab a glass and join me as I explore the wine scene in Ottawa, Canada, and beyond. Love hearing from my readers, so please leave a comment or drop me a line. Cheers! - Bethany

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Learn the Rules so you can break 'em

One of my biggest fans, Hubby, raised his hand at the back of the room recently, waving it frantically in the air.
“Yes? You have a question?”
In his best Ralph Wiggum, he replied:
“Teacher, what’s a round tannin?”

Oops. It’s been pointed out to me that my descriptions are starting to get a little too convoluted, a little too snobby and a wee bit over some people’s heads. I’ll chalk it up to the shop-talk that goes on before, during and after class with my fellow wine geeks who all know what it means to punch down the cap, who understand the concept of malolactic fermentation and who still enjoy debating the merits of cork vs Stelvin closures.

Hmmm … still not laughing? Reminds me of the opening bit in Sideways, when Miles is in the car, trying to explain to Jack why champagne is still white even though it’s made from pinot noir grapes. I was the only person in the theatre busting a gut.

What the hell is a tannin, anyway?

I could give you the textbook answer, but here’s a better description: you know when you’re drinking your morning coffee after a wild night of partying, and you get that fur-on-your tongue, teeth-pulling, dried out sensation all over the inside of your cheeks? That’s tannin. A round tannin feels soft and pleasant; something that's overly tannic will make your mouth feel like it's turning inside out. (This shouldn't be confused with acid, which is more like licking a lemon … or rinsing your mouth out with vinegar.)

Come to think of it, there's an awful lot of fancy lingo floating around in wine, isn't there? Green pepper, petrol, cassis, hay, currants, sulfur, wet dog, cat's pee on a gooseberry bush. When I first started out, I asked how they managed to get all these weird flavours and smells into wine. Was there a hidden mad-scientist laboratory where little vials of eau-de-whatever were mixed in with the juice? Maybe they were simply crushing artichokes, blackberries and tobacco leaves in with the grapes (subsequently topping them up with gasoline, straining them through a sweaty saddle and fermenting them in pots lined with buttered toast)?

In a recent Ottawa Citizen wine column, Rod Phillips announced he was taking a step away from all the frou-frou verbiage that makes a review sound more like a walk through your grocer’s produce aisle than drinking a glass of wine. Now he’ll be focussing strictly on style, how wine pairs with food, and how it fits in your budget. Nice and simple. At last night’s class, when the topic came up, Denise echoed the same sentiment about the "standard" set of descriptors. It was overkill and it needed to stop.

Of course, both Denise and Rod have been there and done that long enough to give convention a proper one-fingered salute and break all the rules. But was everyone going to start flouting the standards now? The thought left a bitter taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with the under-ripe Shiraz I was quaffing. All I could think of was, if we don’t actually need these descriptors, if wine really is that subjective, if something that’s been so vigorously drilled into our heads by The School isn't actually that important in The Real World … then what the hell am I DOING here?

Suddenly, an existential crisis of massive proportions overwhelmed my senses. What’s the point of learning to be a guide if people can figure out the map on their own? You don’t need a degree to like wine (apparently … who knew?)

More importantly, do I really sound that pretentious, uppity and annoying to everyone?

So I'm thinking maybe I do need to change my writing style a bit. From here on in, if I want to describe a wine as having notes of Big League Chew, the acidity of a glass of flat Coke and a long, pain-in-the-ass finish of burnt rubber, then by George, I’m gonna giv’r. Thanks, Rod!

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