23 Feb NI Science Festival: Wine Tasting at Direct Wine Shipments Belfast
Wine tasting on a Thursday evening. Who am I? Frasier Crane?
I associate fine wines irrevocably with Frasier. And as I sat down at a table for NI Science Festival’s wine tasting all I could think about was the episode when Niles becomes the “cork master” at their wine club. Perhaps one day I could be a cork master of a wine club. However, until then, having never been to a wine tasting before (but having tasted plenty of wine), it was time to sit down and learn a thing or two.
Held and hosted by Direct Wine Shipments, Belfast’s oldest independent wine merchant, NI Science Festival’s wine tasting focused on wine pairings and the different ways that particular foods and particular wines can interact with and compliment one another.
Supertaster or Non-taster?
Hosted by Susan Rees and Mine Bennett the event began with tiny strips of paper distributed among everyone and a request to put the strip on our tongues. This was to determine the sensitivity of our tastebuds. We were all asked to stand for this and as soon as we could taste anything to sit back down. Some people sat back down immediately, others were standing for a while, some never really tasted anything from the paper. The people who sat first are defined as “supertasters” i.e their tastebuds are very sensitive to different flavours. Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum is the “non-tasters.”
I was one of the last to sit back down. I could just about taste a bitterness off the paper. According to Rees, those of us who couldn’t taste much from the paper were more inclined to enjoy strong flavours such as black coffee. I can definitely concur. Supertasters on the other hand are apparently more likely to be picky eaters due to their sensitivity to flavour.
Rees did stress that no matter where you fall on the taste spectrum, supertaster or non-taster, it’s possible to enjoy wine. Phew.
Sweet and Sour
On the table in front of us were four numbered tubs filled with clear liquids. These were each varying degrees of sweet and acidic. We tried each one in succession, slightly sweetened, strongly sweetend, slightly acidic and very acidic. This functioned as a warm up and a point of reference for our taste buds when it came to understanding the taste of different wines throughout the course of the evening. It turns out whenever someone describes a wine as “full-bodied” or “dry” they aren’t just bullshitting.
In the course of the evening we tasted seven wines that explored the following flavours: acidity/sour, salt, spice/heat, umami, tannin/bitter, sweet and bitter/sweet.
Acidity/Sour – The Jumper, Sauvignon Blanc 2019
Upon trying this wine we were encouraged to think about where it fell on the sweet and sour scale for us. To be honest, it just tasted like wine to me. My unsophisticated, non-taster taste buds were struggling to pick up anything beyond the taste of well… wine.
Plates of lemon slices were distributed among the tables and we were asked to taste a lemon slice and then take another drink of the wine. An unconventional pairing but for the first time I was able to pick up all the seemingly ridiculous things that people say they can taste in wine. Apple, kiwi and passion fruit were all flavours that are supposedly present in this wine and in pairing the wine with something acidic/sour, the interaction between the two brought out these flavours.
But when are you ever going to eat lemon and drink wine you ask? A valid question. And one they addressed.
It’s not so much that you would sit and eat a lemon with your wine, lemon was used merely as example. Many dishes have lemon and other acidic/sour ingredients infused within them. Not necessarily the dominant flavour but present enough to interact with an acidic/sour sauvignon blanc. They referenced pasta and fish dishes as examples.
I found this very interesting because I would have never thought to have paired acidic/sour with something acidic/sour. I would have thought the opposite, that acidic/sour would need to be balanced out with sweet but turns out NOPE.
Salt – Barbadillo Fino
Next up we had a Spanish sherry. Now we really were moving into Frasier territory. “Sherry, Niles?”
For some reason I expected sherry to be sweet, maybe some sherrys are. Well, this one definitely was not.
It was a very strange flavour. It almost tasted like watery tequila. Despite my aversion to tequila I really didn’t mind this drink. It didn’t go down a hit at our table and I can understand why, it had an odd salty, strong alcohol-y taste. I don’t know though, I didn’t mind it.
Olives were distributed among tables. Now, I’m not a fan of olives. I just don’t get them. I’ve tried them numerous times and sorry but they’re just unpleasant.
But, in the interest of developing my proficiency with wine I was prepared to eat one with this sherry.
We were told that the interaction between the saltiness of the sherry and saltiness of the olives would even out the sherry to taste smoother and more palettable. Perhaps it’s my aversion to olives but I actually liked this sherry less when I paired it with olives! Well, nothing ventured nothing gained, eh. Good to be sure that I definitely don’t like olives but don’t mind sherry.
Spice/Heat – Walt Riesling 2018
I don’t think Germany is well-known for its wine. Beer, yes. Wine? Not so much. So, I thought it was pretty cool that a German wine was included in the menu for the evening.
It was even stranger to hear that this wine would supposedly go very well with a spicy curry. There’s a conception that beer goes best with curry and spice but it turns out particular wines go pretty well too, the Walt Riesling being one of them.
Lightly spiced crisps were distributed among the tables and this wine did go quite well with them. For me, it didn’t make as great a pairing as the lemon and the Sauvignon however.
This white was a little sweeter than the Sauvignon which, despite having a sweet tooth myself, I’m not overly fond of sweet wines. I find them a little sickening. However, the sweet element was not overpowering and overall I didn’t mind this wine. I think I preferred the first wine however which would suggest that I like dry wines more.
Umami – Loron Beujolais-Villages Les Belmonths 2017
It had been mentioned a couple of times in the course of evening – umami (all I could think about was “unagi” from Friends… but I didn’t tell anyone that.)
Whenever people talk about wanting a red wine with their steak not any old red will do the job as it turns out. Umami is all about savoury. And this Beujolais-Villages pairs best with heavier savoury dishes such as beef, pork and mushroom.
I’ve been getting more and more into red wine over the years and I found this one pretty pleasant. It didn’t have that horrible sharpness that some red wines do.
Tannin/Bitter – Luigi Bosca Single Vineyard Malbec 2017
We had another red next and I enjoyed this one even more. It’s a tannin heavy/bitter wine so I guess coming under the “non-taster” bracket it made sense that I would enjoy the strong flavours of this wine best.
Tannins are present in wine that gives you that dry mouth feeling. I’m not adverse to that but it can feel a little overpowering in some wines. And in trying this wine on its own, it was certainly getting into that territory. I drink black coffee every day though so this isn’t amateur hour, I was ready for this challenge.
Plates of cheese were dispersed among the tables and I really enjoyed the interaction between the salt and savoury of the cheese with the bitterness of the wine. It somehow worked really well. I don’t really enjoy eating cheese on its own but with a red like this one I think I would actually consider a cheese board in the future.
Sweet – La Fleur d’Or Sauternes 2015
Dessert wines aren’t something you hear about much in this country. I can’t think of a single instance where I’ve been offered a wine with a dessert. Teas and coffees? Sure. Wine with your dessert sounds a bit odd to me though. You would have a glass of wine with your main meal but not a glass for dessert specifically.
I have heard of dessert wines though. In fact, I tried a couple of them whenever I was in Budapest. They were enjoyable enough, but as mentioned I don’t really like sweetness in wine.
This wine was verging into the sickly territory I don’t enjoy in wine. Sweet wine has almost a thickness to it, i.e it feels thicker than other wines, and I don’t really like it.
We paired this with a slice of madeira cake and while the two flavours definitely worked in tandem, I don’t think it’s something I would ever go out of my way to recreate. Peppermint tea goes much better with madeira cake in my humble opinion.
Bitter/Sweet – Graham’s Fine Tawny Port
For our final drink we had a port. I’ve definitely tried port in the past but I couldn’t really remember what it tasted like.
It was much, much sweeter than I was expecting. It looks like a red wine so you’re expecting that red wine-y taste but it’s not really present. It’s quite different.
It’s described as being bitter/sweet and I found this drink odd in the sense that on first taste it had a bitterness to it but this was levelled out by a sweetness that took a second or two to come through. I believe that wine aficionados would describe this as a wine having “length.”
I enjoyed the port more than I expected to, the sweetness didn’t reach sickly levels and I think I could quite happily sip away on a glass of port. Who would have thought it!
In all likelihood, I won’t be becoming a wine aficionado or cork master anytime soon. However, I left the wine tasting with one main takeaway that I feel as an English literature graduate I have some expertise in: Wine is a little like poetry. You can interpret it in whatever way you like, it won’t be totally off the mark or incorrect and people will probably nod and agree with you – especially if they don’t know what you’re talking about.
And while it may seem a little pretentious I think wine tastings (and poetry) can be a lot of fun. Maybe I should combine the two next time.