Wine Education - Back to Basics

Those of you who follow this blog, know that I am a Sommelier. What you may not know is that I am also a certified wine educator. For the last couple weeks, I have been teaching basic level (or beginner level) sommelier certification with the International Sommelier Guild (ISG). As I teach each of these six hour classes, over a period of four weeks, it reminded me of the need to learn the basics of wine, in order to understand the more complex world of wine.

In level I of the ISG course of study, we touch on a number of subjects. The word "touch" really is the important word in that sentence. I tell my students that learning about wine is like playing with one of those Russian Nesting Dolls. You know, the dolls that you open up, and there is another doll inside, and another, and possibly another. Well learning about wine is like that, because the outer layer is the general information that needs to be learned, before you can move ahead, and dig deeper, and get more refined in your education.

Some of the wine topics we cover are history of wine, and how it affected wine laws, regional names and growing regions, as well as disease and pest influences. We cover viticulture (wine growing), wine life cycles, viniculture (wine making for red, white, rose, fortified and sparkling), service technique, food and wine pairing, cellaring and storage. But the most important aspect of level I education is tasting technique, and knowing the most prominent wine varieties.

Pinot Noir
The wine varieties we spend time on are: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Gamay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, and different styles of Sherry, Fortified wines, and Sparkling wines. Not only do we taste different styles of all these wines, we spend time understanding the grape, their growing regions, grape growing issues (preferred climate, soil, diseases, yields), wine making techniques, and of course typical aromas and flavors.

Why is this even important? Obviously, knowing the aromas, flavors and aging ability will help determine what you purchase. Knowing all the other elements helps in understanding the differences between vintages, and the differences between the "house style" of each winery. For example, if you know that Cabernet Sauvignon is a late budding and late ripening variety, then you would know that a late season rain or hail storm, could really hurt the vintage, since the Cabernet hasn't been harvested yet (but the earlier ripening Merlot might already have been picked), meaning your Bordeaux might be more Merlot influenced versus Cabernet. Knowing this particular example, also helps us to understand why Bordeaux is usually a blend, versus a single variety.

While a good amount of the education is spent on the individual grape varieties, an equal amount of time is spent tasting the wines, and writing down a systematic series of notes about the wine. We start with our appearance observations, then move to the nose, then palate, and finally our conclusions. Each time we taste a wine, we evaluate it in the same order. Our notes act as a record of what the wine was like at the time of tasting. Later on, we can try the same wine, and see how our notes have changed, allowing us to see the progression of the wine. These notes also allow us to share our experience with others in a way that is understandable and consistent. They force us to evaluate those senses that we commonly overlook (smell and taste)

My goal as a wine educator (and your blog writer) is to help you understand wine, but most of all, enjoy what is in your glass, and appreciate all that it took to get there. If you have ever wanted to learn more, I would encourage you to seek out an ISG educational course in your area, and take at least Level I and II. I guarantee that you will walk away with a new appreciation. Should you decide (like I did) that there is so much more to learn, you'll load yourself up with books, and maybe even go for your full Sommelier certification.

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