Doug Watling is a sommelier, writer and former teacher living in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. This is his (unedited) entry in our seminal wine competition.
During the mid-70s, I started to get interested in wine. Newly married, my first wife and I had just moved from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Ottawa, and our choices of wine had significantly improved. Until then, my wine experiences had been confined to Mateus, Blue Nun, Black Tower, and a bottle of Yago Rioja Santiago that I had taken to dinner when my wife and I were just getting acquainted. Buying a wine even that interesting had been purely accidental.
At that point in my life, I was a wine know-nothing, but I sensed that there was more. With the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s catalogue at my disposal, I armed myself with Hugh Johnson’s Encyclopedia of Wine, and quickly began to understand. I soon realized that wine was poised at some heaven-sent nexus of climate, geography, agriculture, artisanship, and pure hedonistic pleasure. In other words, right up my alley.
I remained vastly uninformed, but started to buy random bottles that piqued my interest. I religiously soaked and removed the labels and pasted them in a black scribbler, alongside my unschooled and impossibly naive tasting notes.
Our sojourn in Ottawa lasted for only a year, but everything I bought seemed like a minor epiphany: garrafeiras from Portugal, Chiantis galore, and more Riojas, almost all of them wrapped in cloth or mesh.
Then it was back to Halifax, still a relative backwater when it came to wine. By then, I had more help from Hugh. The Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine had come out in 1977, and I took it everywhere. I prowled the aisles at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation, checking and cross-checking bottles, and slowly building a very basic foundation of wine knowledge. I also built a reputation as a sketchy eccentric amongst NSLC staff.
During that time, my wife was working as a server at a popular Halifax restaurant. She arrived home late one weekday afternoon, out of breath and extremely pleased with herself. She said, “We’re going out.” At lunch, she had charmed a Bouchard Ainé contingent, in town as part of a promotional swing. They had invited her to a tasting on the Halifax waterfront. I wasn’t part of the deal, but my wife insisted that I tag along.
At that point, Burgundy was a mystery to me; I wasn’t in any way prepared for the real thing. That night, we suddenly found ourselves circulating amongst trade people and supping village-level Gevrey-Chambertin and Puligny-Montrachet. My wife and I exchanged cheshire cat smiles and tried to keep pace. Meanwhile, the wines were weaving their spell. I wanted to whip out my Pocket Encyclopedia and learn more! Thankfully, I had left it at home.
The next morning, I read and re-read and tried to commit to memory the Wine Atlas entries on the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. I bored my wife to tears with Burgundian trivia and tried vainly to recreate the flavours from the night before.
A short time passed, but not my interest in wine. In fact, it had grown by leaps and bounds. Only one thing kept holding me back: cold, hard cash. Aside from the annual California Wine Fair and the occasional bit of luck, I had no real way to taste higher echelon wines. Finally, one day, somehow, my wife and I managed a minor windfall. We decided to splurge. She began investigating a suitable menu, and I went looking for a couple of wines.
I came home with a 1976 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Auslese and a Bichot Vosne-Romanée Les Malconsorts Domaine du Clos Frantin. The year escapes me now. I think that the Scharzhofberger was 8.5% ABV. This probably seems like a travesty, but we treated the Scharzhofberger as an aperitif and pretty well finished it off with the appetizer. As you might imagine, it was opulent and ethereal and spine-tingling, and unlike anything I had tasted in my life. It turned my little wine universe upside down.
The Malconsorts had a hard act to follow, but it was plushly fruity and high-strung all at once, and brimming with sheer Vosne Romanée class. In retrospect, it was probably imperfect and immature, but we didn’t care. It softened as the night progressed, and it was worlds apart from the Bouchard Ainé Burgundies that I had first sampled in Halifax.
Not to overstate, but those two wines were my vinous “Aha!” moment. Thanks to the Malconsorts, I finally had a glimpse of the hierarchies of Burgundy. Thanks to the Scharzhofberger, I finally understood how some wines deserved to be called ‘great.’ Both of them, in wildly different ways, guaranteed that my wine life would never be the same.