Each month New York Times critic Eric Asimov is conducting a wine lesson for his readers. Our writer Sara Ivry is participating and writing about the experience for VinePair.
It happened again. The latest iteration of my recurring anxiety dream. Would I be allowed to graduate from college or would my failure to write the required senior thesis be found out?
Twenty-plus years since college and I’m still having nightmares about it. When the agita from the dream woke me last week, it took a few seconds to think why I had it in the first place. What was it that was making me so nervous?
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Then I remembered: wine school. Silly, I know. There are no grades now. There’s no possibility of failing the periodic lessons in oenology that Eric Asimov is presenting. This is adult ed. Voluntary. For fun. Er—fun!
Yet except for an article I once wrote about what makes wine kosher, writing about wine—especially what it tastes like—is a new experience for me, and I am no connoisseur of the products involved. Would I embarrass myself in front of savvier palates when I tried to assess Bordeaux—the first wine type that Asimov was taking on in his tutorial?
Let’s find out.
At home, in my kitchen, with the kid fast asleep, I opened the bottle of Château Cantemerle Haut-Médoc and took a deep inhale of the cork. It was an impulse move, not particularly one Asimov or anyone told me to do. But I’ve got a sensitive sniffer and wanted to see if I could get a little preview of the wine from the cork. I later learned that smelling the cork tells you little about the wine and is unnecessary. But for me in that moment, holding that first wine school cork and bringing it up to my face was a part of the evening’s proceedings. What surprised me right then was the distinct smell of cloves—a sweet perfume that called to mind cloves’ use in Havdalah, the Jewish ceremony distinguishing the end of the Sabbath from the return to the work week. That fragrance quickly became one that smelled, unpredictably, of olives. In the face of kalamatas and green cerignolas, I am happy putty. I savor their meatiness and brine. I welcomed that earthy pungency. Then, I poured my first glass.
In the glass, the wine retained that briny fragrance, though it was muted. Whether that’s because the aroma faded as it was exposed to air or because I over-inhaled and simply got used to it, I don’t know. I took my first sip. It felt like it should be monumental. The food I had ordered—lamb chops medium-rare with a side salad and rice—had not yet arrived and, on an empty stomach, the wine struck me as unassuming. It was surprisingly mild and quite smooth, almost glossy in its texture.
Typically when I think about drinking wine, I imagine the taste blooming in my mouth, coating the roof and inside of my cheeks, leaving a subtle residue, and drowning out all other experiences. Isn’t that what so-called good wine is supposed to do?
This was different. At first, the Bordeaux lacked evidence of acidity. To be frank, I’m not entirely sure I can tell you what acidity in wine is and how it differs from tannins. I know the feeling of having a post-swallow pucker, the way spinach or an unripe persimmon can suck the moisture from your mouth. That, I thought, was the work of tannins. And there was a small sensation of this sort, but it was fleeting.
As I made my way through that first glass, the drinking experience changed slightly. After a sip, I found myself licking my lips, trying to moisten them. The parchedness induced (was it by the tannins? by the acidity?) was momentary, happily, a token reminder that the liquid in my glass may have had a texture as smooth as water, but was not nearly as neutral.
Once the food arrived, I poured myself a second glass. As I ate, the wine grew more complicated. The tannic qualities announced themselves when a sip of wine first hit my lips, not as an afterthought, after a swallow. In paying attention to the wine, I became more acutely aware of the flavors and textures of the food, too. This was a bonus in the assignment. Too often I eat without really taking into account what I am eating and how it tastes and feels in my mouth, on my tongue, against my palate. In paying better attention, I become more grateful not just for the food, but for my senses.
When I paused in my eating and had a sip of wine, I had no sense of tannins or acid, which led me to think that it was the food that drew that quality out. Without the food, the wine was more reserved in its presentation.
For dessert, I had a dessert wine to see how the Bordeaux went down with that. Kidding! I went the medjool date route wondering if the pairing would be too much sweetness. I needn’t have feared. The Bordeaux didn’t amplify the dates’ sweetness nor impose its own. In fact, what amazed me about this wine is its chameleon-like quality. That is, its flavor and body show restraint as it goes down, making it, in my brief experience, a baseline for wine. Perhaps this is why Eric Asimov started us students off on this journey with a Bordeaux in the first place—to give us a traditional wine, dependable, tasty but not brazen and not a flavor or mouthfeel experience that dominates the meal.
Check back monthly for Sara’s updates on wine school for VinePair
Sara Ivry works at Tablet Magazine, where she hosts Vox Tablet, its weekly podcast on arts and culture. A longtime freelancer, she has contributed pieces to the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Real Simple, Medium, Design Observer, Bookforum and other publications.
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