One of the more amusing seasonal Twitter posts I spotted in recent weeks was a picture from a U.S. supermarket. It showed an end-aisle display flanked by signs reading "Back to School," complete with an image of smiley-faced young people clearly excited to start a new semester. Care to guess the product on the sheves?
Wine. You get extra marks if you guessed the irresistible price: three bottles for $9.99! I suspect such student-friendly enticements would fail to fly in socially responsible Canada, where liquor-board carding policies generally apply to people who appear to be younger than 25 (and where prices are kept artificially high by governments to dissuade overindulgence).
But in an oblique way the photo reminded me of wine's more palatable relationship with education. For some (adult) students, the beverage is not merely a recreational lubricant but also a legitimate and fascinating study subject.
Oenology schools, such as those at Brock University in Ontario and Okanagan College in British Columbia, teach budding winemakers how to grow and vinify grapes. And fall classes will soon get under way for many people hoping to get a leg up in the importing and hospitality businesses. If you're so inclined, you might consider the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, a Britishbased institution that administers diploma courses around the world for careers in the trade. (Go to www.wsetglobal.com and search under "where to study" to peruse local contact numbers.) Other serious and rigorous programs, aimed specifically at the restaurant business, are accredited by sommelier groups, such as the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers (Sommelierscanada.com) and the International Sommelier Guild (www.internationalsommelier.com). Even liquor boards, such as the LCBO in Ontario, and many independent experts offer casual classes in wine appreciation.
You don't need a teacher to convince you to love wine, of course, and certainly not to brainwash you into liking something you don't or vice versa. If smooth, mouth-filling Yellow Tail shiraz turns your crank, then school may not – as they say in guidance counselling – be the place for you. But for the rest of us, there's pleasure in learning at least a bit about soil, geography, plant biology and the passionate people behind a remarkably varied and romantic beverage. At best, new knowledge can take us out of our comfort zones to explore less-familiar and potentially more-exciting styles.
The products below represent some of the key grapes that form the foundation of many beginner classes. Maybe you're familiar with them already. If not, consider them part of your back-to-school supplies.
Domaine Roger Luquet Crémant de Bourgogne (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
The best sparkling wines are made according to the Champagne method, by adding yeast and sugar to still wine and allowing it to referment in bottle under pressure to generate fine bubbles. That's the process used in this affordable "crémant," the French term for quality bubblies that come from outside the Champagne region. It's 100-per-cent chardonnay, also a key grape of Champagne. Bone-dry, it smells wonderfully of fresh-baked bread and displays a creamy texture that carries flavours suggestive of lemon curd on toasted baguette.
Available in Ontario.
Reichsrat von Buhl Armand Riesling Kabinett 2012 (Germany)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $18.95
"Kabinett" denotes the driest style of German riesling. However, that's a relative term, because German rieslings are generally sweeter than, say, the dry examples from Alsace, Australia or Canada. This gem, at just 9-per-cent alcohol, comes with some residual sugar from fermentation, which nonetheless gets balance from tangy acidity.
Imagine rich, ripe stone fruit generously squirted with citrus. This is a wine geek's white wine. Available in Ontario.
Norton Barrel Select Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Argentina)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
There are two extremes of zesty sauvignon blanc: the lean, whispering wonders of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from France's Loire Valley and the marching bands of New Zealand, with their exuberant tropical fruit and grass. Here's a bargain that lands somewhere in the middle, stylistically speaking. Fermented in oak to tame the vegetal notes, this bargain white comes across with ample tropical fruit and green apple supported by notes of vanilla and coconut. Available at the above price in Ontario. Various prices in Alta., $14.79 in N.B., $14.99 in N.S. (currently on sale for $12.99), $15.99 in Nfld., $14.99 in PEI .
Dirty Laundry Not So Knotty Chardonnay 2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $19.95
The world's favourite white variety, chardonnay, is a chameleon. Mostly people prefer a good dose of vanilla-like smoothness and toasty character from oak-barrel aging. But the grape is occasionally unoaked to preserve its fresh acidity. This one sort of straddles the fence. It's unoaked yet buttery smooth, with a round and silky texture, plump tropical fruit flavours and an almost jammy richness. Available at the above price in Ontario. $19.99 in B.C.
Acrobat Pinot Noir 2013 (Oregon)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.29
Pinot noir rises to its greatest heights in Burgundy. Unfortunately, red Burgundy also tends to rise to great heights price-wise Fortunately, there are compelling examples of this light yet complex red grape from elsewhere, including Canada and New Zealand. This one's from King Estate in Oregon, whose wine-maker, Kevin Sommelet, was born in Alsace and raised in Burgundy. Seductively supple in texture, it offers suggestions of cherry pie filling, caramel, and beetroot-like earthiness, finishing with lively acidity. Available at the above price in B.C. now and in October in Ontario at $24.95.
J.L. Chave Selection Silène Crozes-Hermitage 2013 (France)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $27.95
There is shiraz, as it's called it in Australia, and then there's syrah. Same grape, but they use the latter name in France's Rhône Valley, the variety's spiritual homeland, which includes the Crozes-Hermitage appellation. There tends to be a difference in style, too, thanks chiefly to soil and weather. This full-bodied red from a great producer shows the grape's more classical firmness, with plum-like fruit, licorice and a dusting of heady white pepper. Available in Ontario at the above price. Various prices in Alta.
Castello di Querceto Chianti Classico Riserva 2011 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $29.95
The sangiovese vine does not travel well, the reason it's associated almost exclusively with Italy, and specifically the famous Chianti zone of Tuscany. This is premium stuff, a "riserva" aged liberally in oak and designed to cellar well for up to 10 years. Full-bodied and gutsy, it suggests rich cherry and chunky chocolate, with black coffee and woodsy, spicy characters not far behind. Available in Ontario.
Château des Moines Menodin 2010 (France)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $14.95
Here's a decent bargain red from Bordeaux, holy ground of firm cabernet sauvignon and smooth merlot, two grapes often found blended together along with herbal cabernet franc. This one's merlot-based and comes from the fine 2010 vintage. It's medium– bodied and suggestive of blackcurrant and cherry fruit with a spicy, crisp lift. Not a highly complex stunner, perhaps, but well made a good representation of Bordeaux-style structure. Available in Ontario.