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Your wine epiphany


#1

I imagine most members had a moment in their lives when they discovered wine. I mean in a way that really made them think, wow, this is something serious. I have found “my thing”. And it led to a lifelong journey.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago for a Spanish wine publication and below is an edited extract. I would love to know other members’ first big wine experiences – what the wine was, what the situation was, how it made them feel, what it led them to…

After about five years of irregularly drinking basic Rioja Crianza, and English ales with frequency, by December 1988, I had heard or read enough about wine to know two things: that wine was capable of greatness, and that I had tasted something I liked a lot. So I set out to buy the best bottle I could afford to celebrate my 21st birthday. I went to a shop in Charlotte Street, Soho, which is long-gone, a little delicatessen specialising in gourmet products from Spain. I had a limited budget, perhaps £20 of the day, and made a purchase on the shop owner’s recommendation: a bottle of López de Heredia Viña Tondonia from the 1979 vintage. I now know this could only have been a Crianza. The vintage was rated “Satisfactory” by the Consejo Regulador, and López de Heredia chose not to make a Reserva or Gran Reserva in that year because it was an unremarkable vintage, perhaps even quite a bad one. Only the great winemakers can get something passable or even decent in a difficult vintage. Greatness is not just about transcendence or the sublime – it’s about consistency in the face of adversity. So I was sold the most basic red wine, from a poor vintage, from a great winemaker. Did this matter? Not on the day. On the day, it was the most hypnotic, complex and charismatic wine I had ever tasted. I drank it with a great friend in a ramshackle, bohemian seafront house in Whitstable. I looked for beauty and I found it: the wine was nine years old then – too old for a Crianza from a weak vintage. But perhaps this is why it was so attractive. The tannic vigour and definition I was more familiar with from CVNE wines was absent. Instead I found a soft, velvety mouthfeel, a multi-layered fragrance of molasses, carob, prunes, cherries, cigar box, charcoal, a touch of mint, and a slightly melancholy mushroomy note, reminiscent of ancient cobwebbed cellars, long-lost secrets and whispers of history.

This paved the way for my lifelong passion for wine – in particular three things: (1) Tempranillo, a variety more versatile than people think (compare a modern Ribera del Duero with a traditional Rioja, or a Toro – spectacularly different); (2) a fascination for what happens to wines as they age; and (3) a realisation that wine knowledge is particularly given to the art of classification and cross-referencing – vintages, varieties, regions, labels, brands, winemakers, soils, terroirs, and an infinity of adjectives. This is very appealing to my slightly nerdy collector’s mentality. I collect words and numbers and what they mean, endlessly refining definitions in my head, looking for precise correspondences in the world. Combining this with a hedonistic pursuit like wine is irresistible and has marked the course of my life ever since.

So Tondonia was my wine epiphany. What was yours?


Choosing wine by mood/setting?
#2

Wow! Great story. Mine was not quite so dramatic or transcendental but equally important to me. I used to drink red wine at university - mainly stuff like Hardy’s Stamp. I tried to convince my friends that for the extra £1/bottle I was spending compared to them they could get something like mine which was much better than Spar Valencia Red (!) and I was pleased they moved on with me (eventually).

I then tried (via my Dad) what was at the time a new wine to me: Cono Sur pinot noir. I think it was £5.99 (I was spending about £4.49 - we’re talking late 90s/early noughties) - and although it wasn’t one of the great wines, it opened my eyes to a new level of complexity and piqued my interest in trying wines at a higher price point from countries I’d never previously drunk wine from - and that was really the start of my passion for wine which remains undiminished to this day!


#3

Love your story too, @jameshubbard113! It captures the very thing I was looking for - a description of the moment when someone’s life is changed forever by a wine - the “falling in love” moment. And I think it’s great that a cheap Chilean Pinot can do that! Your point that a couple of extra quid at the low price bracket can make a spectacular difference is bang on. Most of it is tax at under a fiver, so it doesn’t really start to get interesting until you hit a tenner (except with the Wine Society of course, where there are many gems to be had at the £8-9 point).


#4

For me, I hadn’t really drunk much wine until I started working at The Wine Society, my parents had wine during Sunday lunch and I always though white wine was very dry and mineral in taste and that red wine was always very strong and overpowering. I found that my dad enjoyed Chablis and my mum enjoyed Merlot or a Spanish red.

My eyes (and tastebuds) opened up as soon as I tried different wines and was amazed at some of the complexity and all of the different flavours that you could get. I enjoyed learning during my WSET levels 2 and 3 which helped me hone down the sort of grapes and wine styles I enjoy. This unfortunate seems to be Pauillac, red Rhone (both north and south) and Domaine Maume - so not the cheapest of regions! Luckily I also enjoy the freshness of some of the Loire whites and German Rieslings.

Back to the original question though, my wine epiphany came when I took part in a staff Sherry tasting with Beltran Domecq, I found it incredible the range of styles from just 1 grape type (apart from PX), I am also on a crusade to get my people to try Sherry outside of Christmas. Best thing I can mention is to treat Sherry as a wine and not leave it opened in the back of a cupboard until the next year and to understand that Sherry can be both dry and sweet. Initially I really didn’t like Sherry as I found it so very very dry, however after a few sips you get used to it and then start to understand the flavour profiles.

I wrote a blog post on it which you can see below:


#5

My epiphany - the first time that I drank a wine and was stopped dead in my tracks - happened in a now defunct Italian restaurant in the Hertfordshire village of Wheathampstead. We asked for a rich red wine to go with our game and received a bottle of Masi’s Amarone della Valpolicella 1983 (fab Valpo year). It absolutely knocked my socks off with its sour cherry and bitter chocolate flavours (two of my favourite sensations), its awesomely long finish, its amazing balance and its (to me) stratospheric price tag (I wasn’t earning much at the time)!

Of the four of us there were two designated drivers - bad planning on their part! - so you might have imagined that one bottle would have done us. You will understand, however, that we had to have another to ensure the first wasn’t a fluke.

It was a further ten years before I joined the wine trade, but that was the moment when I realised that not all wines are the same.


For those who want more Amarone in their life
#6

My epiphany - I never liked wine until undergrad, when I was fortunate enough to go to two tastings, having college reserves (Peterhouse, Cambridge) and having Pol with James Simpson. Long story short, the Ch. Canon 1980 and the Churchill 2000 blew my mind and I still remember that I’ve only paid a tener for each tasting!

However, then I realised that wine is addictive (in a good way) but not always subsidised…

Somehow by fate, I’ve slowly moved on to blind tasting nowadays, competitively…


#7

I keep thinking I’ve got to my wine epiphany and then remembering an earlier bottle takes me a little further back on the journey, so I’ll mention the three that stick out.

Oxy Jura Chardonnay at a three star in the savoie, I believe from Macle but I’ve long forgotten the vintage. This served with the local cheeses was almost enough to bring a tear to my eye. Without a doubt the most convincing paring of food and drink I’ve experienced to date.

2012 Crozes Hermitage from Laurent Combier. Perhaps the best 20€ I’ve ever spent! The mnagement of the tannins was so utterly convincing, the nose so enticingly familiar and unfamiliar. I have been a disciple of the northern rhone since.

2012 Dageauneau Silex. Too late a vintage to have been handled by the master himself but WHAT a wine. I don’t believe I was able to speak some five minutes after drinking it, except to press what remained in my glass on the others in my group and implore them to get what I was getting- everything from vinyl, black currant leaf, smoke, rocks, matches and magic.


#8

Late to the party as ever, but this is such a fun thread and such a good question! Two bottles really stand out for me:

  1. My boss in my first wine job was an artist and something of a maverick, and he took a kind of dissident pleasure in opening things for us to try! It was a relatively modest but very well-made Pouilly-Fumé, cracked open defiantly one afternoon, which really lit the touch paper for me. I remember being amazed that there was so much more to it than just fruit flavours: it was my first little glimpse of the elegance wine can be capable of.

  2. My first sip of Yquem (1996 vintage) was a game-changer. It made a mockery of everything I thought I knew about ‘sweet wine’, which wasn’t necessarily wrong, just irrelevant in the face of something that extraordinary. It was a mass of apparent contradictions: fresh yet bottomlessly intense, sweet but with noticeably savoury flavours too, and ones that I felt by rights a bottle of wine shouldn’t really have - mushrooms on toast, burnt stuff, varnish, medicine cabinet, forest…

There were several other halcyon tastes that amazed me on first sip but which I could place into context; they’re lovely wines but you know that the experience isn’t matchless – they speak the language of the region/style/grape with their own accent. But that Yquem was the first time I tried a wine that seemed to have its own language. They don’t come around very often, but that’s part of why they’re so special, and they’re the experiences that really stay with you. I can remember walking along London Bridge after the event in a pie-eyed state of grace, still able to taste it, and realising I was probably going to spend the rest of my life finding out more about this wonderful beverage; and so it has proved thus far!


#9

Wow, that’s some trio. Though not stocked by The Society, Dagueneau’s wines have a very special place in my heart too. Silex 05 provided some exquisite and much-needed Dutch courage before proposing to my wife. Still got one bottle left which I’ll crack open on our five-year anniversary this winter. I haven’t tried the '12 though - will keep an eye out next time my wallet feels up to the task :joy:


#10

For me, it didn’t take a particularly fancy bottle to make me look at wine differently. I’d enjoyed wine for a good decade prior to this point, without ever really taking notice of what was good or bad, or what I particularly liked. Embarrassingly enough I’d even lived in Bordeaux for a few months and even then wine had really passed me by. Anyway, by 2006 I was sharing a flat with a friend, and we sometimes shared a bottle with dinner, and more often than not this came from the petrol station over the road. One evening we broke with tradition and opened the bottle that my sister had given me for helping out at her wedding - a bottle of 2004 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon.

I think it was probably the stark contrast between the quality and intensity of this wine over what had come before that was what resonated. This was not bland, sweet or one-dimensional. It was big, rich and complex. In fact, it was enormous. Cassis, spice, smoke, cherry, mint… My friend and I sat there in shock and awe.

Ever since then, I’ve taken much more interest in what I’m putting in the glass.


#11

Wonderful story - as a lover of Amarone, I am instantly transported! Thanks for sharing your story @Ewan


#12

I now want that Silex! :smiling_imp:


#13

I liked Montes Alpha so much as well in the early noughties (buying from a slightly dodgy local off-licence in times of penury) that when I visited Chile in 2010, it was one of the first wineries I asked to be taken to. Bloody good stuff at this price. Totally get why it did what it did to you!


#14

So last night was the society’s fine wine walkround and it certainly lived up to its billing with many epiphanies :slight_smile:

I had a good few wines I’ve never tried and what a profound moment(s)…every time i stuck my nose in to the glass i had my mind blown. The missus was equally surprised. Plus the realisation that she now counts herself as a ‘wine person’ :rofl:

Particular standouts in no particular order:

  • Greywacke Marlborough sauvignon was like an explosion of um bongo drink at the ambassador’s reception
  • Thorne & Daughters Rocking Horse chenin/semillon/chardonnay which was like a cheerful dancing partner with a buttered roast chicken and morels
  • Domaine Maume Marchand Tawse, Gevrey-chambertin which for me was the best of the night - so savoury but fruity, plushy, showy silky mouthfeel which evaporated in the mouth. Sensational!!

The interesting thing about these tastings is that the impression you get of that wine rather relies on the previous. By the time i reached the 20th wine (argentinian malbec @ £49!) I fear my palate may have been overcome and it tasted rather flat after the paulliac and aussie cab sav (unbelievably i preferred the aussie).

Anyway: the end result is a very happy chappy and my word i can’t emphasise the need for all of you to get yourself to the winter fine wine tasting, you have a cast iron guarantee of to-die-for drinking in store!


#15

I came across Domaine Maume a while back and although red Burgundy is rather expensive I found that Domaine Maume wines are worth the cost every now and then, really enjoyable wine - the advice for Burgundy is to follow the producer rather than the vintage or region as they all have different house styles so to speak.


#16

I don’t think I had ONE big epiphany, but rather a series of small incremental steps which drove me inexorably to the (wine) bottle. I guess you could call it an Awakening instead

Step 1: my family moved to Italy when I was only 2, and my father’s friend and work colleague eventually invited him to join the picking team on his family vineyard. He was paid in wine, which he bottled in our garage. We had jerry cans, funnels, empty bottles and a hand-corking machine. All I really remember is the smell.

Step 2: when I got to university there were plenty of “Bring a bottle” occasions, and I felt a pressure on me as ‘almost Italian’ to know about wine. Fortunately that coincided with the peak years of Oddbins. I got to know the staff in the local shop well, and instead of organising a pub-crawl or disco for my 21st birthday, I organised a wine tasting led by them. I was determined to stop my friends buying bottles based solely on a calculation of [alcohol % / price]

Step 3: having started to learn about wine I actually started suffering from ‘shop stress’ where I felt I was EXPECTED to know about wine when I walked into a wine shop, like I was being judged by the staff, and therefore not enjoying the experience - which was also upsetting my girlfriend (now wife) because I was buying stuff that was beyond my budget just to get out the shop with my ego intact.

Step 4: my wife gave me a present of a WSET certificate course which I attacked with relish (at the time), and I was able to start to systematise what I knew … and didn’t know … and at least lose some of the stress.

Step 5: having started on the wine journey in earnest, we started organising wine-driven holidays. The first of these took us to Champagne and Burgundy. One night in Chablis we sat down in the restaurant (Le Vieux Moulin, now part of the Laroche winery) and ordered an ‘ancient’ bottle of 10 year old (red) Burgundy. I do not remember the provenance or producer but it doesn’t matter, the step-up in enjoyment was amazing. We suddenly realised that there was a whole new world of wine out there that we needed to explore.

Sadly the visit to Chablis was marred by other service-related experiences, but we still recall that meal fondly, and it is something I will always associate with wine.

However, the path from there to here was more roundabout and I would still say that I know nowhere near enough about wine - despite working in the business for over a decade and even writing about it for years. At least I am awake to the possibilities


#17

A really good read, @robert_mcintosh.


#18

My epiphany was twofold, both within 2 months of each other in 2006.

First a colleague gifted me 2 bottles of Lebanese wine that he had discovered and thought I might like, a Chateau Musar (1999) and a Chateau Kefraya. I loved them - so much so that I’ve regularly bought and enjoyed Musar ever since - and it probably started me off on my penchant for weird, unusual or offbeat countries and/or grapes.

Second I went to a class at the Newcastle Wine School, then run by Chris Powell. It was a red Burgundy nigth and we tried 6 wines from the same small area and made fromt he same grape - and each one was different. Remember at this time I was mainly a beer and spirits drinker whose idea of wine was red/white/good/bad, but as a scientist and slightly OCD I needed to understand all of this and it set me off on my continuing Oenothusiastic journey.


#19

Mine was a Santenay blanc that my boss at Oddbins Crouch End opened one evening back in early 2006. I was interested in wine by this point (so much so that I’d taken a job in my local Oddbins in Nov 2005 to ‘immerse’ myself in it better), but one taste of that incredible white Burgundy smashed all perceptions I’d had until then. It literally changed everything for me in one moment. I distinctly remember the enormity of contemplating all those wonderfully subtle layers of flavour, how something different was revealed with each sniff/taste. Honestly, tears came to my eyes. I knew I was on to something good and I’ve never looked back.

I’ve only had a few fleeting wine experiences since that equalled that Santenay moment (a dry Tokaj, an aged Cahors, the house wines of Terroir al Limit in Priorat, a vintage sherry at the recent M&S press tasting), but the beauty of this journey is the traveling, right? We’re all looking for those epiphany moments, and it’s why I always try new wines, always look forward. In my experience you can’t latch on to these things, you have to take them as they come and appreciate the beauty in the moment.


#20

Great story. It helps that I live near Crouch End! But also, I know the Terroir al Límit wines (can’t afford most of them) and also the chap who makes them, Dominik Huber. An amazing set of wines, and very much a good direction to be going in for Priorat. Really enjoyed your story - that is a true epiphany. I get it.