Holiday party season is upon us.
Which most likely means you’ll be attending at least one or two social gatherings where wine is served. Wouldn’t it be nice to up your game this year from responding, “house red” when your server asks for your order? I get it, appearing like you have a grasp on wine can be seem daunting if you have no idea where to start. To help, I sat down with Laurence Secours, a seasoned sommelier who has worked in some of Montreal’s most famed restaurants to learn more about wine basics for rookies. Laurence is one of the three brilliant women behind Coton, which opened this past summer along Plaza St-Hubert. She graciously welcomed me inside the restaurant and shared her extensive knowledge over a glass of red, biodynamic wine. What’s biodynamic wine you ask? Let’s dive in:
Tell me a bit about yourself, how did you become a sommelier?
I did my bachelor in political science and women’s studies, but I got depressed and I told myself, “Grapes are never depressed! Wine is only fermented juice.” so I decided to learn more about it. I’ve worked at Toque!, Hotel Herman and then was at Manitoba for three years. When I started working at Toque! the sommelier was highly passionate about wine and motivated me to learn. Most recently Camille Mongeau asked me to be a co-partner and the sommelier here at Coton.
Can you delve into some basic wine terminology/characteristics that millennials should know?
Wine is a lot of things. It’s an agricultural product first, so it’s important to distinguish where it was made. Wine is also effected by the fermentation process, and lastly, it’s what you experience when you pour and taste the end product. It’s important to consider the history behind how it ends up in your class because environmental factors greatly impact the taste. In French, we call this concept “terroir”. Many grape varieties have a very “neutral” taste. The soil, wind, amount of sun in a given season, and the landscape (mountainous regions versus valleys) will all have an impact. You can have a chardonnay for example, in the Chablis region in Burgundy France, that will produce a really dry crisp wine. Wine from the Champagne region will have bubbles, and taste fatty, milky and buttery. When you have wine with lots of added chemicals it will smell very sterile. For example, think of mass produced apple juice compared to apple juice you by at a farmer’s market. A mass producer can make a million bottles of the same basic juice. It’s yellow, it tastes like piss, and each bottle is exactly the same as the last. And then you have brown juice, the type made with crushed apples, that is a cloudy brown because of the oxidation. Each batch you produce might be slightly different than the last because of environmental factors that affected the apples. It’s the same concept with wine. The concepts I’m describing apply to biodynamic wine and not to the wine that has been mass produced and has had many chemicals added to it during it’s bottling process.
How does Biodynamic wine differ from Organic?
Organic vineyards farm without chemicals like pesticides or fungicides. Instead they treat the wine with natural products such as animal, vegetal or mineral substances to ferment and treat the wine. A popular organic wine certification is Écocert .
Biodynamic is similar to organic in that it uses natural products, but goes a step further: the winemaker looks at the earth’s interconnected systems as well: the plant, the soil and the dirt is an ecosystem with it’s own rhythm and balance, and the winemaker wants to be as non-intrusive possible. They use natural preparations but also follow the a biodynamic calendar which they believe influences the wine. There is an element of esotericism and astrology in the production of the wine as well, some believing that wine produced this way is the truest form of “terroir”. Regions producing amazing biodynamic wines are the Czech republic, the Italian region of Sicily (the volcanic soil is really great), the Alsace region in France, and the Baden region in Germany.
Let’s get into some basic wine tips. I’m sitting down to dinner, how can I break down the wine list to pick a good bottle?
To begin you have to start paying attention to what you like. Think of the characteristics of what you like and then learn which country the wine comes from. If you like big, bold red wine you will look for California or Australia wine. As you start to learn more break down the country by region, and then by the variety of grapes.
The next way to break down the wine list is by looking at cheap versus the expensive wines. It’s important to know how expensive it is to produce wine in the regions you like. If you look at the list and you have a cheap Pinot Noir from Burgundy, it might not be great because good quality wine from the Appalachians is supposed to be expensive. There are always exceptions but I’d be skeptical. But if you see Portuguese wine on the list at a less expensive price the quality is probably still high because typically wine from that region isn’t expensive to produce.
What tips do you have on food and wine pairings?
Just start trying it. Pairing from the same region is a good tip, if you have wine from Burgundy try a cheese from there too. There are some written laws but I like to go against them. If you have a spicy meal you can pair it with a sugary wine or an aromatic wine. If you have spicy food and pair a red wine with a lot of body it will be too much and you’ll fall asleep while eating. But try everything with everything and pay attention to the characteristics of why you like what you like.
Why do people swirl their wine before tasting?
It puts oxygen into your wine so the aromas waft up to your nose. When the wine is first poured, smell it first without swirling because there are very fragile notes when a glass is first poured that you can lose if you swirl immediately. You might detect hints of strawberry, cinnamon etc. Once you’ve smelled it, then swirl it to oxygenate it and to bring out the other flavours. When you taste it, hold it in your mouth for a minute, swallow (this is when you spit if you’re on a wine tasting but obviously, you don’t do this at a restaurant). One of the most important parts of wine tasting is noticing what you taste from your nose to your mouth. It’s called retro olfaction which translates to “reverse tasting”. There is a part of your nose called the Olfactory bulb, which has a memory of two seconds. The true tasting experience happens in conjunction with your nose and your taste buds combined.
When the sommelier pours you a glass to taste, is it ever okay to taste the wine and return it?
It’s okay to return it, but you will piss off your sommelier if they describe the bottle well and then you taste it and still return it. If your sommelier tells you, “this is a light wine with hints of cherry and it’s very acidic” and then it comes and you say, “Oh I don’t like the cherry” the sommelier might be a bit frustrated because they described exactly that. But if they didn’t explain the wine well and it’s something different than what you expected it’s perfectly okay to request another bottle.
How long after you open a bottle should you keep it?
This is a trick question. There are some biodynamic wines that you need to drink it immediately, because it goes bad in a matter of hours. Others can probably last a week if they have a lot of chemicals added. The fragility of the wine depends a lot on how it’s made and if there has been sulphur added during the fermentation process.