A sensory experience

I drink the occasional glass of wine and don’t usually think a lot about it when I do. But during a wine tasting with my husband at Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, I discovered that I may be missing out on a lot by not doing so.

The sommelier placed four glasses in front of us and filled the bottoms with wine that the estate produces. Four types of Ontario cheeses were set in front of the glasses. He told us the key was to slow down and take the time to smell and taste the wine and the cheese separately, before combining the two to see what they would taste like together.

The experience was a revelation to me because I found I had a hard time describing the scents and flavours I smelled and tasted. And when I could describe them, it was only one or none of the many listed on the tasting sheet.

For example, the 2010 White Meritage had spice, apple, pear, floral and herbal notes, but I could only discern the pear. The wild nettle gouda that accompanied the wine was described as having a distinct white grapefruit finish, but all I could taste was mushroom.

The sommelier tried to guide me to find the vanilla flavours in the second white, a 2011 Chardonnay Reserve, but it was overwhelmingly butterscotch to me. And when combined with a Five Brothers cheese, it tasted like memories of Christmas past with hints of marzipan and brandy.

I did catch the plum notes in the third wine, a 2010 Merlot Reserve, and found it somewhat sharp on the back of the tongue. The cheddar that went with it was also heavy and sharp. But when the two were combined, the milk in the cheddar softened the astringency of the tannins in the wine. The sommelier said this was a classic pairing because of this reaction.

But the fourth wine was the most surprising. I didn’t like the 2012 Vidal Icewine because it was extremely sweet. The blue cheese that went with it was extremely salty and hard to eat by itself. So putting these two together was not an intuitive thing to do. But, lo and behold, the sweet and salty tastes offset each other and created a pleasing combination.

This tasting showed me that in many ways trying to describe wine is a very subjective thing and is affected by a person’s experiences and memories. But it can be learned by being more aware of smells (and how to describe them) and just being more mindful about the experience of tasting. It looks like I’ll have to taste a lot more wine!