The week-long bacchanal known as the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival is in full swing. From Yaletown to Gastown, it’s all Grapetown now. Nothing else comes close in Canada and few annual wine fairs anywhere can match its magnitude or joie de vivre. Quick statistics: 180 producers, 791 wines and 25,000 purple tongues.
For the uninitiated, a few pointers may be in order, especially amid the controlled anarchy of the vast convention-centre tasting room. Let’s call this a cheat sheet, personal tips for slurping like a pro whether you’re in Vancouver, travelling in wine country or have plans for a later spring fair somewhere in Canada:
Take it slow. Residue from one wine will corrupt the taste of another, especially if you’re moving from red to white or from heavy to light. As on the highway, there’s danger in following too closely.
Blackberries? Fret not if the pourer leaves you mystified. Balance is the most important thing, and we can all figure that out. Is the sweetness (if there is any) answered by refreshing acidity? Is the fruitiness (there should be some) trampled by another overarching flavour? The word “too” is a good linguistic cue. A wine should not be too much of anything, except good.
The 30-second rule. Feel no pressure to judge at light speed. This is not a TV quiz show. A wine tells its tale over time, usually in the latter half of a minute, often later. Do you feel like another sip now? That’s a pleasing wine.
Never buy a case based on a puny pour. It’s like deciding on wall colours after a fast glance at a paint chip. Taste the wine again later, preferably after a piece of plain bread.
Eschew the bagna cauda. Light snacking builds stamina and coats the stomach, but pungent foods such as garlic, anchovies and heavy spice demolish wine’s subtleties.
Go easy on the scent. Otherwise, you’ll be hearing a lot of this all night from your fellow taster: “Nice riesling. I’m getting citrus, flowers, maybe a bit of Chanel No. 5.”
Wear dark clothes. You don’t want a purple Jackson Pollock pattern on your white Issey Miyake blouse or pink Lanvin tie. If you do, I’ve got a slightly used pink-and-purple Lanvin tie for sale.
Comfortable shoes, ladies. Stilettos are a challenge at the best of times, I hear. But if you’ve trained with Cirque du Soleil and feel comfortable on stilts after 25 pours of wine, go for it.
Palate fatigue happens. Acids and astringent tannins can tucker the taste buds. Build an intermission into the schedule if you plan to taste more than 25 wines.
Yes, that’s a spit bucket. A wine-tasting venue is one place where public expectoration is a mark of sophistication. It’s awkward at first, but exhilarating when you get the hang of it. Method: pucker, bow, aim carefully and squirt in a narrow stream. Gentlemen, clasp your ties before bending over. If the bucket’s full, move to another. (Splashing is an ever-present peril.) Most important, don’t tip the thing.
Practise the art of euphemism. Don’t like the wine? Candour is not always the best policy when winemakers are present. You’re passing judgment on their very souls, which are like pinot noir berries, with thin skins that bruise easily. That rancid Rioja or nasty nebbiolo? It’s “complex,” “distinctive,” with “lots of layers.” Or default to the old chestnuts: “bold, assertive.”
This is not a bar, alas. Try to keep moving, at least after a pleasantly brief exchange with the pourer. There’s a thirsty lineup over your shoulder. Asking for seconds is déclassé, so make a mental note of the booth and return later.
Make a list. Plot your course so that you can hit promising stands early. Great wines run out quickly because of word of mouth.
Water is your friend. Alcohol inhibits the antidiuretic hormone. Hydrate before, during and after a tasting.
Don’t brush soon after. Wine contains acids that soften tooth enamel. Wait a full hour after your last sip or you’ll scratch away that protective coating. Seriously, ask your dentist.
Taxi! It’s the most important word in the wine-tasting dictionary.
A geek’s glossary
Angular: The opposite of round, usually the hallmark of high acidity.
Bordeaux blend: A common style of red based on two or more classic Bordeaux grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Also called meritage in North America (rhymes with heritage, not garage).
Chewy: A dense, fleshy wine typically high in alcohol. “I could eat this for lunch.”
Closed: A wine not at its full potential, often lacking up-front fruit, which can be shrouded in hard tannins that may eventually soften. Not a bad thing, assuming you’ve got a cellar.
Flabby: Not enough acidity or liveliness, a sign the grapes may have been picked too late.
Flight: A selection of usually three to six glasses of wine presented for tasting.
Hot: When high alcohol meets insufficient fruit, discernible as a bitter, burning or medicinal sensation.
Malolactic fermentation: The natural process that converts tart malic acid (think apples) into lactic acid (think butter). Often cited in connection with opulent chardonnays. “Did this see any malo?”
New oak: Barrel-aged wines may be matured in a mix of used and new wood. The latter can impart distinctive flavours of vanilla, toastiness or coconut. “What’s the percentage of new oak?”
Nose: A young wine’s smell. “Bouquet” is typically reserved for old wines. “I prefer the nose to the palate.”
Overripe: A cloying, raisin- or prune-like character suggesting the grapes were picked too late. Acceptable euphemism: jammy. “Was it a hot growing season?”
Residual sugar: The sweetness left after fermentation. Even “dry” wines contain traces. “What’s the RS on this baby?”
Tannic: An astringent quality, often associated with gritty texture, found in many thick-skinned red varieties, notably cabernet sauvignon and nebbiolo. Not a bad thing.
Varietal: A wine made from a single grape variety, such as chardonnay, as opposed to a blend of two or more grapes.