Friday, June 5, 2009


So the countdown to the exam is on… my Certified Specialist of Wine exam. Like most of us, I get all tense about exam, have all of those weird, neurotic dreams about that final exam that you realize you haven’t studied for is happening that day – the kind of anxiety that is pretty ridiculous when you really think about it, but you can’t because you’re too anxious about taking it. Round and around and around we go.

In my typical fashion, I nonchalantly study, reading a page here, a page there, until two weeks before the big day, and then it’s nonstop cram jam! This week, in preparation for the section on varietals, I spied a few things I hadn’t realized (or just needed refresher on):

1. Pinot Noir has the propensity to mutate constantly, and over time, has morphed into Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and even Pinot Meunier.
2. California Gamay is really either the grape Valdigue orjust inferior Pinot Noir.
3. Zinfandel and Primitivo are descended from the Croatian grape Crljenak.

4. Syrah is not originally from Persia (hence the Australian version named Shiraz) and is French in origin; a cross between ancient varieties Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.
5. Sangiovese takes its name from the Latin “sanguis jovis” or “blood of Jupiter.”

6. Sangiovese is prone to oxidation, hence the brickish hue it often acquires in the bottle.
7. Tempranillo has several pseudonyms, including Ull de Llebre (Cataluna), Cencibel (Valdepenas), Tinto de Toro (Rueda and Toro), Tinta Roriz (Douro), and Aragonez (Alentejo).
8. Muscat is thought to be the ancestor to ALL grape varieties.

Pretty cool, eh?

Of the most fascinating major grape varieties, Pinot Noir tops the list, due to its extremely temperamental responses to various climates, soil compositions, viticultural practices, and so on. The perfect way to understand the difficulty of growing Pinot Noir is in the monologue Paul Giamatti’s character in the movie “Sideways” delivers, telling Maya, played by the lovely Virginia Madsen, how it requires just the right amount of warmth and cold, and the proper soil conditions, and the right amount of tender loving care by the vineyard manager and winemaker, and all the vineyard workers who come in contact with it (just paraphrasing of course). Learning about its tendency to mutate over time is not surprising. It’s a bit like watching the old Sally Field movie “Sybil” with her characters multiple personalities, each one different from the one before it. Maybe Pinot Noir suffers from the plant kingdom’s own version of MPD, who knows.

Discussing wine with friends last night, the mantra of the talk was that, and I say it to customers all the time, with wine, you are always learning something new. I guess that's what makes wine such a great adventure, that element of discovery in every bottle.

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