Learn to taste wine at home
Words by Jasmin Natterer
Photography by Supplied
With restaurants and wine bars shut to us, Sydney's much-loved sommelier Jasmine Natterer guides us through tasting wine at home.
Waking up over the last week I have encountered a world that looks unlike any I have ever seen in my lifetime. A worldwide pandemic that has people self-isolating, a world where restaurants and bars are closing their doors due to emptiness or government lockdowns. A couple of months ago, I was going to write a very different article about wine, but now I feel compelled to write something entirely heartfelt, a little earnest and a bit poetic.
I have always felt that dining is a joyous ritual and eating is the steady heartbeat of a day. Distancing myself from places to eat and drink runs contrary to every little bit I am made of. In my mind, the picture of health and happiness is a table full and groaning, wine running like a fountain and as many smiling faces populating this space as one can muster. This vision right now is not safe and that makes the world strange in my eyes.
This is where we find a different way.
This morning in Sydney, I took part in a live Instagram virtual wine tasting in London. It was so much fun. Gus Gluck from Quality Wines Farringdon was presenting two wines, a white (from Greece) and a red (natty Merlot from Bordeaux). While Gus tasted and described each wine, the feed buzzed with people trying to guess grape and country whilst also delivering commentary or ‘bantz’ about Gus’ antics and wine chat. Gus had been pre-selling tasters for £9 for pick-up so people could taste with him.
This was wine in an interactive, hilarious learning environment that was actually being social by being on social media.
There is an indescribable beauty and synergy in the work of a restaurant and bar, but if for a time we are deprived of this beauty, what do we do?
We adapt. Wine is a deep well of learning from which we can continually hydrate. I believe that in every bottle there is a story that can be observed one-on-one. Or, like our friend Gus, by eighty-three other wine enthusiasts and professionals around the world via Instagram.
I have noticed many venues in London have turned their efforts to take away wine sales. There are delivery platforms in Australia that have successfully taken wine online for some time now: DRNKS, P&V, Larkin Imports, Campbell Burton Wines and The Borough Box to name a favourite few.
I’ve seen the Instagram posts about people stocking up on wine to survive. They’re funny, but I would propose an alternative: purchase meaningful wine to show support for your restaurant/bar/supplier/winemaker community and to launch a personal wine learning project.
Maybe today you have a little time and you would welcome a task that engages and occupies the brain, delights the senses and feeds the imagination?
Wine is many a thing to many a people. For me it is a genie bottle that is nothing short of perpetual magic: releasing smells and tastes that captivate us, transport us to dramatic landscapes and bring communities together even when apart.
So, we have sat down, poured ourselves a glass of wine: now what? How do we even start? Well, there are some very formal tasting structures out there, but for the moment let’s start here.
Your Personal Wine Learning Project
First, the look of a wine:
What does it look like? By its appearance, what do you think the wine is going to taste like? Is it luscious or fine? Does it scream of bright electricity or does it languor? Does it command your attention in a forceful way? Or is it more like trying to look directly at something ephemeral, something that disappears out of the corner of your eye?
Then, the smell of a wine:
This might sound strange, but smelling the wine is actually my favourite part. I rejoice so profoundly in the undignified act of sticking my schnoz so deep in my glass and then audibly sniffing. This is the first moment a wine might whisper some of its secrets. You will find (probably) a smell that is something like a fruit or vegetable, and a few smells that are not fruit and vegetable, e.g. Mandarin pith and hot brown brick. What is the most fun at this moment is where the smell might transport you or what memory it might automatically recall.
Sometimes I smell a wine and I see the reaching figure of a cypress tree, or I am reminded of the smell of baking Greek biscuits, or perhaps I am taken to the site of a riverbed, filled with pebbles and waiting for water. Sometimes I just see a colour, Victorian Pinot Noir is often an icy green for instance.
The taste of a wine:
Often what was hinted at on the nose is found in glorious technicolour on the palate, but sometimes you can be surprised and told a different story. Sometimes the fruit that you picked so strongly on the nose can fade into the background, and the lead might be taken by clove, red peppercorn or star anise. Maybe your glass of stone fruit sensation turns out to be a roaring baritone of salt and slightly bitter iodine? Sometimes a wine will convince you it has a distinct personality. If this wine was a person, would you be friends?
Finally, the memory of a wine:
Now, take a photo of the bottle (with a camera or your mind), so you can remember the wine and what the wine has told you. Write down a few tasting notes if you are feeling particularly diligent, or just revel in your adventures.
People often ask me: do you enjoy wine, or is it just work? The answer is both: I love to find stories within wine, and I love then passing those stories on.
My suggestion for wine study is be present and attentive for the first glass and the last glass of a bottle (even if consumed over days). Stay with it, smell it and taste it for as long as you would like—these glasses are the most important story makers. Once you have these glasses in your mind’s eye you can heartily enjoy the rest.
Communicating the story of a wine is possibly my favourite thing to do table side, being there with someone in discovery is miraculous and one of the reasons I have stayed with wine for so long. It is a privilege to be witness to this, but these adventures wait in the bottles all by themselves and can be enjoyed by anyone in a moment of study and quiet reflection at home.
It doesn’t mean that these wonderful moments will not return to restaurants and bars all over the world, it just means that we will have more wine epiphanies and learnings to share when we both get back to the table.