Wintry tales of nature versus nurture in Cambridge.
If you’re looking for fun this chilly season, wine tasting will leave your senses warm and delighted. During my recent trip to Cambridge, the Cambridge University Blind Wine Tasting Society warmly welcomed me for an evening of their weekly tasting. We sat in a cozy room with four long tables covered in white paper cloth. There were about thirty students seated around the tables, immersed in cheery chatter. While everyone set up their personal set of six wine-tasting glasses, a man clinked two glasses together and quiet fell upon the room. Our task for the evening, he explained, was to examine twelve different wines and create a profile for each one. Our only tools were our noses and our palates—unless you were lucky enough to sit next to a man with a guidebook, like I was!
Six bottles covered in cloth were passed along our table until everyone’s glasses were filled with unknown white wines. The fun commenced. Holding each glass by its stem, I began swirling, sniffing and sipping. An experienced taster quickly came to my rescue and explained you can’t expect to fully taste a wine on a sip alone. You must gulp. Another technique he recommended was sucking in air after each gulp. He explained that holding the wine under your tongue while sucking in air oxidizes the wine and helps bring out its true flavor.
The highlight of the event came next. After twenty-five minutes, the group came together to discuss what they had found. When asked about the nose and palate of the wines, the specificity and creativity of responses left me bewildered. While I had written down generic descriptions such as floral, sweet, or salty, others came up with: rosewater, gooseberry, candied fruit, butter, caramel, canned applesauce, gasoline, sundried green tomatoes, bacon, bubblegum, and pencil shavings. Our guide was able to trace just about every subtle note back to a fascinating story of nature versus nurture. Some grapes grew by the sea, one batch was picked later than usual, others were grown near a mineral mine, while others were oaked. The land and the process gave way to mouthfuls of unique sensations.
The guide discussed several other attributes before revealing the labels. He showed us how to better view the spritz and color by using the white tablecloth as a background. I also learned that swirling the glass actually has a purpose other than appearing sophisticated: testing viscosity. The amount of saliva the wine produced in your mouth was a clue to its acidity and alcohol content. The presence of spiciness, or “heat” in the wine suggested it was a New World, as opposed to Old World (i.e. Europe) wine.
After learning all of the elements that contribute to the flavor, a few advanced tasters impressed us by correctly guessing the grape type, country, region and age of several wines. By night’s end we had tried six whites and six reds, and I had learned more about this refined art than I ever expected. I walked away feeling as if my senses had been pushed to a heightened sense of awareness, cloaked in warmth against the bitter Cambridge cold.
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