On one side of the room, nine bottles of wine breathe by a windowsill. Against another wall, pitchers of cold water and large plastic cups sit on a table. In the center, 16 people are at tables, some with notebooks, some with pens, all with a set of wine glasses in front of them. But this isn’t a social engagement, a gathering of friends, or a night on the town. Rather, this is a classroom devoted to the study of wine.
The course, A Comprehensive Survey of Wine, Spirits, and Beer, is the second of a four-level wine studies certificate program at the Elizabeth Bishop Wine Resource Center at BU’s Metropolitan College. While designed to give students the expertise to land a job in the field, many take the classes just to enhance their appreciation of wine. Tonight’s class, led by Alex Murray, a School of Hospitality Administration lecturer, is exploring the regions of Alsace, the Rhone, and Languedoc-Roussillon.
“Because pinot noir is the only red grape produced there, Alsace is regarded as a white wine region,” says Murray. “I personally consider the Alsatian wines to be some of the best white wines.”
Alsace, tucked in northeastern France between the Rhine River on the east and the Vosges Mountains on the west, has somewhat of a split personality. Winemakers there use French growing and wine-making practices, but they also employ German-style varietal labeling, which means wine is labeled with the grape it is made from rather than the region or the vineyard. They also use German-style bottles, leading some confused consumers to think the dry Alsatian wine will taste sweet, like German wine.
As he lectures, Murray picks up the bottle of Alsace 2005 Willm Pinot Blanc, the first of nine wines the class will sample this evening, and pours himself a single ounce before passing the bottle to the students. “My experience as a former wine salesman,” he says, “is if you get customers to try a pinot blanc from Alsace, they will quickly become Alsace wine fans.”
Murray holds the glass up against a piece of white paper to determine its color. He swirls the glass to open up the wine’s bouquet, then drinks in the wine’s aroma.
“What do you smell?” he asks.
“Pear,” one student says.
“Pale strawberry,” says another.
“Some citrus,” a third says.
While opinions vary, Murray believes there is no wrong answer. “We all have different ways of conceptualizing what we are smelling,” he says. “What we pick out for wine terms comes from our experiences outside of wine.”
“Okay, let’s taste this wine,” he says, and everyone takes a sip, swishes it around to explore its texture, pulls in air over the wine to open up it, and then spits it into a large plastic cup. During a tasting, very little wine is actually consumed.
The class determines that the pinot blanc has a slight citrus — maybe even lemon zest — flavor. The wine is soft, with only a subtle taste of oak. Murray speculates that the wine was fermented or aged in oak wood casks too old to influence its flavor.
After tasting three more Alsatian wines, from an acidic and peachy 2003 Trimbach Gewurztraminer to a more floral and zesty 2005 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Riesling, Murray and his students proceed to wines from the Rhone region of southeastern France.
“Rhone has a long-standing tradition of wine production. This is the first region in France to set up boundaries that predate the national French classification system by seven to eight years,” says Murray, referring to a classification system developed in the 1930s by the Ministry of Agriculture and designed to guarantee the wine’s vineyard origin.
Although this region is mostly known for its red and rosé production, the northern part also grows the white varietals Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane. The southern part is known for its Syrah.
“Pay attention to this region, because there are so many high-quality wines coming out of the northern Rhone area,” Murray says, “and great red wines are coming out of southern Rhone.”
A 2005 M. Chapoutier Les Meysonniers from the Crozes-Hermitage, a northern Rhone area known for its Syrahs, is a lesson in tannins — it causes a very strong pucker sensation.
“It’s like sucking on a tea bag,” says Murray.
Next, the class samples the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France, known for its red wines and rosés. Unlike in the United States, it is illegal in France to make a wine by blending red wine and white wine. This is allowed only in the production of champagne. Rosés are made using a process called saignée, or bleeding. Juice from red grapes is extracted from the mixing vat, allowing for a shorter period of contact with the grape skins, and is fermented separately, giving it softer tannins and a less intense color than red wine.
The last wine of the night, a 2004 Abbaye de Tholomies, is a mix of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre varieties. The wine, from the Languedoc-Roussillon region, is deep purple in color and smells like chocolate, black currant, and maybe licorice. A taste reveals the wine is evenly balanced, meaning that the tannins, acidity, alcohol, fruit, and sugar are in proportion. And, the class discovers, it has a nice finish, which lingers long after the wine’s presence.
“The study of wine is very humbling because there is so much to know,” says Murray, “and while I believe wine education is important, I also believe enjoying the wine is very important.”
Nicole Laskowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.