Walking into the Palmer House Hilton Hotel is always a pleasure: the history, the staircases, and the grand entry room with the lavish bar. It makes me feel as though I am transported to another time. But for this particular visit, I was transported to another place entirely. I found myself in Saint-Emilion, a sub region of the Bordeaux Region of France, for the Grands Crus Classes of Saint-Emilion 2013 Tasting Tour… wine tasting tour that is!
Now I am very far from a sommelier, a wine novice at best, but I do appreciate wine, and I love to drink it quite often. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to come to this event. When I walked up the two small staircases into the beautiful Honore Ballroom I was greeted by an abundance of cheeses and crackers to accompany the nearly 70 wines available to taste. Along the edges of the room producers from about 32 different vineyards of the Saint Emilion region (located north east of the city of Bordeaux) set up tasting booths. Being the experienced wine taster that I am, I had no idea what to do next.
Fortunately, everyone around me knew exactly what was going on. One by one, wine buyers, media members, and even some master sommeliers made their way into the room grabbing a wine glass as they entered. I flipped through the welcome book I had received upon arrival and realized much of the information I needed was already written down for me. The book introduced the region and the Association de Grand Crus Classes of Saint Emilion, which was formed in 1982 to further educate people about the wine and to create a better quality of wine. The book also introduced the two vintages (years) that each vineyard would primarily serve: ’09 and ’10. The difference in the weather both years led to remarkably different tasting wines, as I would find out.
I found my way to my first table, Chateau Chauvin, and was told to try the ’10 first. This happened to be the case with most producers since the ’09 was generally the smoother and more preferable of the two. The ’10, more traditionally Bordeaux, was more welcomed to lying down and letting rest for a few more years. Like most of the wines from this region both vintages were predominantly Merlot, blended with other grapes. In this case, Cabernet Franc and a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon. I gravitated to the center of the room where the tables with spit buckets were located. These tables were the watering holes of the event… everyone stood around discussing the color, the legs, the nose, the tannins, the acidity, and everything else about the wine. It was here I finally found the courage to talk to some of the other tasters and they welcomed me immediately to the group.
Madeline Triffon was among those I met, an outgoing vivacious woman with what seemed to be a cool crew. Later I was informed that she was the second woman, and the first woman from the United States, to become a Master Sommelier in 1985! There was no air of pretention around her warm and generous personality. She taught me to “perceive the wine first, then define it”. I enjoyed every sip without trying to come up with words or descriptions and once I had truly tasted the wine, I tried to define it. She also taught to me to break down the wine by color, nose, palette, and finish and find the complexities within these categories. Are there earthy notes? Does it have floral or citrus notes? How acidic or tannic is the wine? I was a bit overwhelmed, but as the tasting went on I could begin to distinguish the different nuances.
I mingled with Paul Wagner, owner and president of Balzac Communications and Marketing, the company responsible for the putting on the event. Balzac is based out of Napa, CA and provides services for regional and international companies while hosting numerous tastings and wine events. Paul was also influential in my tasting experience as he suggested I not worry with which words to describe the wine, but to find how I personally relate to the wine. He said this would help me to distinguish the different nuances and flavors. I tasted one of the last wines with Paul from the Chateau le Prieure. We tasted the ’09 first, finding hints of purple fruits and velvety tannins; an overall dense wine. The ’10 on the other hand was a bit brighter with a tighter body and more tannins, again a good wine to age.
By the end of the event my taste buds were exhausted and my teeth almost completely black, but I learned more than I thought I ever would know about wine tasting. I was tasting (and spitting out) wine with some of the most influential people in the wine industry. Listening to how they relate to the wines was a unique experience, and overall everyone agreed the Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classes vineyards really flourished in the ’09 and ’10 seasons, producing wines that were perfect to drink today and to collect for drinking in years to come.
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Photos by Sara Ann Manocheo