Learning About French Wine Feels Like Falling into a Bottomless, but Sublime, Pit

2 Dec

           Weeks 5 and 6 of my ISG sommelier class have been both exciting and a bit intimidating.  We’ve shifted our focus from grapes to wine regions and started off with what I perceive to be the most complex: France.  I’ve been looking forward to these lessons because French wines are viewed by many (as prices confirm) to be the pinnacle of the wine market pyramid. I’ve always found navigating the myriad of French wine choices a bit like the card game “Concentration” where you turn over a random pair of cards, blithely hoping for a match.  I haven’t understood the labeling, especially in Burgundy, and have relied on a combination of wine reviews and a process of trial and error to find wines I like.  Too many times, I’ve paid too much for wines I enjoyed too little.  I’m ready to become an educated French wine consumer.

            Tasting the wines has been great.  For our class, our teacher selects an array of wines that reflect regional, style and quality differences.  Tasting the wines and discussing them together has been helpful.  There have been several that I’ve really enjoyed, and all are at moderate price points.  I’m starting to develop a sense, although more slowly than I would like, about what I can expect based on the wine’s label: the constituent grapes, the potential of the vineyard to produce excellent wine, and the winemaking style.  I’m learning that I tend to prefer right bank Bordeaux over left, which surprises me because I generally prefer California Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot.  And I’m learning to appreciate the subtlety and elegance of one of my favorite grapes, Pinot Noir, as I gain a touch of confidence with Burgundy.

            But I’m also discovering just how many facts a taster needs to have memorized to identify wine.  I’ve always been a pretty good student and even though it has been a while since I was last in school, I had anticipated that this first course would be relatively easy.  Conceptually, it’s not difficult – just rote memorization, but GOSH, there is so much to remember! Not only the names of the AOCs, but their location, the location’s attributes, the climate, the typical grape varieties and viticultural and vinification practices.  I haven’t had to memorize like this since I studied for the bar exam……

            As I struggle with the memorization, I’m reminded how the lessons and experiences of life ebb and flow; how the things that I focus on change and various disciplines fade into the background for a time, only to reemerge with a relevancy that I never anticipated.  I studied French in both high school and college and spent a summer as a student at a language branch of the University of Poitiers in Royan.  But that was more than twenty-five years ago and since that time, I’ve viewed those years and that effort as a largely closed chapter.  Except for the relative ease that I’ve experienced in learning my second Romance language, Italian, French simply hasn’t seemed relevant in my day to day world.   However, as I discover that French wine is a lot like commercial real estate and that it’s all about “location, location, location”, my knowledge of French, as rusty and intermingled with Italian as it has become, has suddenly become a hidden treasure.  Place names, and terms of art relating to wine law and winemaking spring to life and I find that my interest in the French language has resurged and that I want to become truly trilingual.

            Similarly, I recall so easily the disdain that I felt in school when I was required to memorize country names and capitals on faraway continents.  In the 1970’s, air travel was true luxury and while my childhood family always had a gypsy bent, we almost always toured by car.  By best count, I visited more than half of the fifty states before my 18th birthday, all in the back of our family’s station wagon.  Since that time, Jay and I have developed a real fervor for travel.  Together, we’ve visited all 7 continents and 47 countries.  Many times in our sommelier class, Karla, our teacher, asks “Has anyone been here?”  “What was it like?”  “What did they eat?”  “What did the landscapes look like?”  I’ve visited almost all of the world’s major wine producing areas and it’s so helpful to have an experiential anchor – a mental image to make the endless array of countries, regions, districts and villages, which provides important context for wine, real and logical. I’m enjoying this season of life when so many elements of past experience come together to facilitate a long-term passion.

map of France from:

http://www.bonjourlafrance.com/france-map/map_of_french_wine_regions.htm

Map of Burgundy from:

http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.mcnees.org/images/wine/maps/winesite_map_Burgundy_escapades.gif&imgrefurl=http://www.mcnees.org/winesite/winesite_maps.htm&h=473&w=310&sz=28&tbnid=M-95XYthjkVOlM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=59&zoom=1&docid=lkoDM74BTstksM&sa=X&ei=NxfZTqjdBbOOigKRl9WOCg&ved=0CEMQ9QEwAg&dur=740

https://www.internationalsommelier.com/

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