Talkin’ wine with Pierre

The only thing better than wine is a lot of different types of wine. Flashback to 1972, when the diversity of the Canadian wine market was in a…

The only thing better than wine is a lot of different types of wine.

Flashback to 1972, when the diversity of the Canadian wine market was in a dismal state. In this quagmire of homogeneity, a quartet of British-born Canadians arose to blaze a trail into greater Canadian wine variety.

Their solution was Opimian: the Wine Society of Canada — a purchasing co-operative that scours the globe in search of obscure and high-quality wines not available in Canada.

As its website says, it is “a national wine-import club that would access the diversity of the world’s wines against the backdrop of the government monopolies, rigid controls and limited vision.”

UK-based Kenneth Christie is the society’s official wine consultant. One of only 300 international masters of wine worldwide, it is his expert tongue that, for 35 years, has been instrumental in assembling the Opimian’s catalogue.

“(Opimian) conquered the palates of middle-class Canada; it led to the liquor boards trying to ban it, then later on to imitate what they could never equal,” wrote Christie.

Thirty-five years later, the wine culture of Canada has grown immensely, bringing ever-more-diverse wines into the hands of Canadian consumers, making it increasingly difficult for Opimian to bring in “exclusives.”

But through lengthening wine tentacles, the Opimian pulls it off, catalogue after catalogue, with a network so diverse it would put La Cosa Nostra to shame.

The members are far from pretentious elitists, says Pierre Chanzonkov, the society’s general manager, who was in Whitehorse last Friday to conduct a tasting for Yukon Opimian members.

The society exists simply to help people increase their enjoyment of wine by widening their selection — and their wine-tasting skill, he said.

“A lot of people think, ‘wine club’ and they imagine a lot of wine snobs sitting around drinking $60 bottles,” said Chanzonkov.

In fact, a primary mission of the Opimian society is to prove that wine quality is not a function of the price tag.

Price is only one in a myriad of different factors that define a good-tasting bottle of wine.

Storage: Fluctuations in temperature can wreak havoc on stored wine. Store it in the fridge, store it behind the radiator, but don’t store it on top of the microwave.

Aging: “Not all wines are made to age,” said Chanzonkov. Centuries-old wine bottles salvaged from long-sunk wrecks have been eagerly opened by wine-drinkers – only to find that the wine has turned to vinegar.

And let’s not forget vintage.

As with sports teams and automobiles, the quality of wines will vary from year to year based on the year’s weather conditions.

Longer growing seasons are best — but not to the extent where it becomes drought. But too wet is also bad.

“The best wines are the ones where the vine has to dig in deeper to get the nutrients out of the soil, if it’s watered all the time that doesn’t happen,” said Chanzonkov.

Theoretically, a wine master closely affiliated with the wine of a certain region would be able to identify the prevailing meteorology of a certain season simply by tasting that year’s wine, said Chanzonkov.

The vintages of particular regions are watched as closely by the Opimian society as a sailor would watch wind patterns.

Fluctuations can be immense. For 2001, the Champagne region of France was rated as a ‘one’ (particularly difficult or poor in quality). The next year it was at ‘five’, only one point away from being ‘superb.’

The Opimian catalogue comes out every few weeks, featuring batches of carefully selected wines taken from a distinct wine-making region of the globe. One catalogue may feature Chile, while the next may feature Western Australia. 

Graphic charts instruct the reader on proper serving temperatures and storage life for the wine.

Some descriptions seem latently carnal.

“Youthful, ebullient, already attractive,” describes a cabernet sauvignon. “Soft and accessible,” depicts a merlot.

Others read like bad Japanese translations.

“Strolling to greater maturity with graceful attributes,” refers to another cabernet sauvignon.

Suggestions of companion foods can be remarkably specific.

A particular California syrah goes well with “reindeer tenderloin with chard and sautéed mushrooms.”

One would imagine that after 50,000 years of continuous existence, the world of wine would have become a bit stale and set in its ways.

It has its traditions, for sure – most notably the theatrics of a restaurant cork removal and sip test.

But, as Chanzonkov says, “people are experimenting.”

The old taboos of “no red wine with fish” and “never, ever serve moose with shiraz” are slowly being toppled, making way for new and exciting dimension of modern wine enjoyment and production.

“Some of the heavier red wines go well with chocolate,” said Chanzonkov.

 A lot of people raise their eyebrows when they hear that, but it’s true, he said.

And after a shaky start in the early ‘80s, commercial ice wine production is being catapulted forward as a viable dessert wine. Rich in both ice as well as fertile land, it is Canada’s wineries that have been leading the ice-wine charge.

Even the cork, that archaic touchstone of wine bottling, is being left behind as wine moves into the modern era.

And good riddance.

For decades, the inept cork has wreaked havoc on millions of litres of wine.

Up to one out of every 12 wine bottles is “corked” — a bacterial reaction that destroys or reduces the drinking quality of the wine.

With screw caps, every bottle arrives unscathed.

“Up until a few years ago, the concept of screw cap was: ‘cheap wine, this is just something you want to slug back in the summer,” said Chanzonkov.

“The technology is changing — there are now breathable screw caps that simulate the effect of cork letting in a little bit of air,” he said.

The humble screw cap also helps to preserve the world’s dwindling groves of cork trees.

But the fact remains that it’s not nearly as exciting to have a maître d’ unscrew a bottle of champagne.

Just as a matador must bring a red cape to a bullfight, an experienced wine tasters must also prepare themselves for a night of wine tasting.

“You don’t put on any cologne,” said Chanzonkov. The nose must be unhindered by errant aromas.

“Try not to eat too heavily,”

“And don’t do too much at first … don’t start with 20 wines in one shot, because after a while your taste buds will be affected,” said Chanzonkov.

A sideways glance at any upscale restaurant reveals droves of diners vainly attempting to perform a skilled wine taste test. The wine is swirled, gazed at, sipped, but very few people actually know what they’re doing. Luckily, their dates don’t often know, either.

“Smell the wine, and then swirl it, and then smell it again … as you swirl it mixes the air in and releases more aromas. And you’ll see — in a lot of wines there’s a distinct difference between those two steps.

Wine can be a servant to many senses, but its true master is the nose.

“If you ever try and taste wines by blocking your nose, you’ll see; you’re not really going to taste much,” said Chanzonkov.

The wine glass itself — a peculiar orb of glass perched atop a slender column, is specifically designed to cater to the human nostril.

To really enjoy a glass of wine, the real trick is to get your nose into the glass as far as possible, said Chanzonkov.

But don’t let anyone dictate what kind of wine tastes better than any other.

“Your palate is like your fingerprint — it’s unique to you,” said Chanzonkov.

And snobs can check their elitism at the door, even Chanzonkov is not adverse to grabbing a cheap bottle of gas-station red wine when the situation demands.

“Absolutely, only the wine snobs don’t,” he said.