The 36th published entry into our wine writing competition comes from Miriam Reynolds. Don't forget to keep checking our guide article to keep abreast of all the entries.
I'm Miriam Reynolds, a 53-year-old wine enthusiast, Dublin-based, currently navigating transition, destination unknown. I'm currently working with a group of investment companies. My WSET journey commenced in 2014 and I hope/plan to finish the Diploma in this academic year. I successfully completed the WSET Educator programme in December 2015 and earlier this year WSET Awards granted approval for me to teach WSET qualifications as The Sipping Point. My vinous mission is to encourage and promote the appreciation of wine.
THE WONDER OF WINE
Illustration by Sarah Lawson, Edinburgh
Ah, the agony and confusion of the chemistry tables is emblazoned in the memory bank. The pain was the same, whether sitting in class as a restless teenager or in the straight-jacket silence of the study hall.
Conscientious attempts were made to memorise K, Fe and the rest. In spite of the positive attitude, an initial, barely audible whisper always got louder: 'What is the point of this?' And louder: 'I mean, really, what IS The Point?'
Photosynthesis and transpiration were a bit of a struggle too. But at least plants and the sun were visible to the naked eye.
Geography and glaciation were less challenging, and even bordered on enjoyable. Growing up in Ireland meant that there was plenty of evidence. It made sense, it was a good story and the teacher was likeable.
Decades later, at some indeterminate point during a beguiling (ongoing) journey in formal wine education, I experienced what can only be described as an elongated eureka moment:
Chemistry, photosynthesis, transpiration, glaciation... they are all in the glass!
ALL IN THE GLASS!
Words cannot do justice to the simple yet substantial thrill of this stunning revelation.
Neither can they do any justice to the life-affirming, exhilarating feeling that coursed through my veins upon the delightful realisation that all of my past pain had not been in vain. Everything came together beautifully. Everything suddenly made sense. Everything felt perfect. I fell even more deeply in love.
A glass of wine has never looked, tasted or felt the same since. I’ll be coming back to this ...
In the years preceding the elongated eureka moment, I developed a curiosity, appreciation and deep respect for the often anonymous people behind the wine in my glass. Sure, it’s true to say that much of the wine consumed in the UK and every other wine-consuming country is mass-produced by big businesses. Fair enough. Everything has its place.
However, in the case of the UK, it is also true to say that apart from privileged pockets in the England and in Wales, the UK is not a wine-producing region. It strikes me that for this very reason there is a real absence of consciousness amongst many UK wine consumers when it comes to the production of wine. Somehow, for many (or so it seems to me), the provenance of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat merits consideration but when it comes to wine, it is often treated as a commodity purchase. For others, the purchase and consumption of wine is important but I do wonder how much time or thought is actually given to what's in the glass and how it got there.
I admit that I border on evangelical in my endeavours to raise awareness about the quiet story that lies behind each glass of wine. And so, when an appropriate opportunity affords itself (and it's not inappropriate to do so), I endeavour in the most gentle and general way to encourage those in the company to consider that quiet story – simple things like the fact that a grape-grower is a farmer, that the production of wine might be the sole income of the household, that a hail storm might occur at precisely the wrong moment and destroy some (hopefully not all) of the crop, that if the winemaker lives in Rioja, years are likely to elapse between the ripening of the grapes and the receipt of any income. Simple concepts that resonate. Real-life stuff.
I heard a Hungarian person speak once about the culture of wine in her country. She said winemakers in Hungary have fans and followers in the same way as sports stars – they engender similar emotive loyalty and get interviewed on chat shows on Saturday nights. I love that.
Before you pour your next glass of wine, I encourage you to take a few moments to imagine a scenario where alongside your glass, there is a collection of word cards or flash cards. They contain big, important and meaty topics. Chemistry. Biology. Geology. Climate Change. Agriculture. Technology. Topography. History. Culture. Law. Business. Economics. Politics. Human nature. Logistics. Tradition. Exchange rates. Marketing. Passion. Nature. Global warming. Brexit.
I would like you to imagine putting every single card into your wine glass.
The true magic of this imaginary exercise is that it is grounded in reality. Each word, each topic is both present, and perfectly encapsulated, in a glass of wine.
How incredible is that!
The invitation therefore is to pause and to appreciate at least some of the elements encapsulated in your glass.
- The miracle of nature’s bounty and photosynthesis – the sunshine and warmth on the vines that combines with supplies of chlorophyll, water and carbon dioxide to produce sugar in grapes.
- The magical chemical formula for fermentation. Never, ever did I believe I would be deliriously happy to embrace any molecular equation. It’s true what they say: never say never. Therein lies the beauty of life and its many surprises. The work of yeasts in enabling the molecular transition of the sugar in grapes into alcohol (and carbon dioxide) is certainly worthy of life-long appreciation. That appreciation acquires an additional angle when one considers that the bubbles in a bottle of Champagne are made in that very bottle from the carbon dioxide produced by a second, in-bottle fermentation. A cause for celebration in itself.
- The soil on which the grapes are grown. Sometimes, it’s really special soil. I’ve a clear recollection of the first time I smelled something sea-like (or thought I did) in a glass of wine. I was too embarrassed to proclaim the same. In the world of wine, it is widely believed (although not universally accepted) that the fossilised marine shells of Kimmeridgian soil, a legacy from the Jurassic period, are responsible for the distinctive, intense and highly-regarded ‘minerality’ of Chablis Grand Cru.
Depending on where in the world your glass of wine was made, you might also be entitled to put ‘religion’ in your glass. Indeed, the next time you are fortunate enough to imbibe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, take a moment to appreciate the papal insignia and keys of Saint Peter so beautifully embossed on the bottle. This legally protected brand has its roots in the decision of Pope Clement V to move to Avignon in 1309. In fact, on reflection, let's go back and include religion – the fastidious farming, meticulous record-keeping and winemaking of monastic orders in Europe centuries ago made a vital and invaluable contribution to both viticulture and vinification.
On that final note, raise a glass to the wonder of wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
THE WINE MIND
Illustration by Gregor Lawson (15), Edinburgh
Wine tasting. We know the drill: look, sniff, swirl, taste.
The body's organs of perception are called to action from the top down – we start with the eyes, move to the nose and, finally to the mouth. No kidding!
Other essential bodily parts required in this most delightful of rituals are the hand and arm (to swirl the glass before we sniff). Oh, and let's not forget the elbow. While not a part of the anatomy that readily springs to mind as something that matters much in the consumption of wine, Benjamin Franklin had it all figured out. In correspondence during the late 1700s, he wrote, 'from the actual situation of the elbow, we are enabled to drink at our ease, the glass going directly to the mouth.' Wonderful stuff!
But what about the not-so-acknowledged head? Or, to be precise, the organ of perception housed by the head, the mind.
The mind has an undisputed role to play in the perception of wine. The memory bank of wines tasted previously facilitates the formation of opinions about the origin and quality of a new wine. Some tasters are truly fortunate when it comes to accessing personal memory banks. One well-known wine writer, for example, is blessed with the loci method of recall, whereby the aroma, taste and quality of every bottle of wine he has ever tasted can be accurately recalled thanks to the locus of an English beach!
The subject matter under consideration here is how an unbridled mind can wreak havoc on what might otherwise be an exceedingly pleasurable vinous experience.
For instance, the mind might have too much information. Too often, and I feel certain I am not alone in this, my perception and enjoyment of wine has been distorted, and in some situations totally destroyed, by my mind having been burdened with the price tag (and, consequently, distracting expectations) before the wine is even poured.
When it comes to blind tastings, some mental discipline is required, at least in the sense of doing one's best to maintain an open mind and/or a quiet mind.
The chances are you that you have, at least once in your vinous lifetime, suffered a 'cringe-moment', a crisis of confidence or a feeling of being out of your depth. I have. Many times. And I'm supposed to know something about this stuff. Or at least that's what people believe when they find out I'm doing wine exams.
Until recently, secret stashes of insecurities about my tasting ability accompanied me to every wine tasting. Everything got more intense and uncomfortable when I sat in the WSET school in London, dutifully and earnestly tasting my way through dozens and dozens of wines.
It sucked. My mind played a constant soundtrack which smacked of uncertainty and a serious lack of self-confidence. The soundtrack loved the fact that I did not have a career in wine and that I opted to delve into the Diploma as a mere enthusiast.
Then, three things happened in the run up to the Unit 3 WSET Diploma exam in June (2016), an exam that requires the examinee to analyse 12 wines (blind) in two hours.
The combination of these three developments silenced my insecure wine mind. The sense of relief is so freeing, and utterly priceless.
Here are the moments, in chronological order, that caused me to change the soundtrack for The Big Exam. They are shared here in the hope that your wine mind might benefit too.
- The final exam tip delivered by a course lecturer was 'whatever you do, enjoy it'. Yes, no typo, 'enjoy it'. Enjoy an exam? Once the shock subsided and I started to process the preposterous proposition, I could see so much sense in it. After all, I reminded myself, I started on this wine-qualification journey because I love wine. I mean I really LOVE wine. I volunteered for the exam route because I wanted to learn more. I decided not to ditch the proposition.
- Around four weeks before the exam, I got myself into a big panic. I felt utterly overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of knowledge expected for the technical exam. As for the tasting, the insecurity soundtrack played on, and on, in my mind. A study buddy (like me, an enthusiast as opposed to someone with a wine career) happened to mention in passing that she was not afraid of the tasting at all... there would be wine in front of us for us to taste, for goodness' sake, all we would have to do is write about it. I balked at the suggestion. Her response: 'we know far more than we think we know'.
- As the exam approached, I did lots of deep breathing, lots of resolving to remove the negative, unnerving, panic-inducing soundtrack. I decided I knew more than my mind was suggesting. I decided that I would be a rebel, that I would take the 'I'm going to enjoy this' approach. On the 15th June, I left my insecure wine mind firmly outside the door of examination hall.
I sat there for two hours and did not get into a panic. Not once. I methodically went through the wines, dealt with the questions. More radically, on a question revolving around a quality assessment of three red wines, I refused point blank to listen to the soundtrack that was trying to distract me. The mind was quiet. I placed my complete trust in what my eyes, my nose and my mouth told me. For a question that required a quality assessment of three wines, I even found myself using adjectives like 'delightful' and 'delicious'. I'm not sure if that was appropriate, but they spilled out onto the page because... yes, incredibly, I was enjoying the wine... and, more significantly, enjoying myself.
I passed. A pass with merit, to be precise.
I've resolved that never again shall I feel insecure about either my personal opinion of wine or my ability to taste. I've resolved to trust myself, to have faith in my personal perceptions based on what my eyes, my nose and my mouth tell me about the wine I'm fortunate enough to be tasting.
Each of us experience aromas, flavours and pleasures in our own unique way, via our individual organs of perception. Trust what the wine says to you. Don't let your mind mess you about. You might remain timid about sharing your views. Fair enough. But, please, be brave, be confident and be curious. And, most importantly, enjoy the wine; enjoy yourself.