The steep hillsides of Portugal’s Douro region, the fragrant rolling fields of Tuscany, the lakeside vineyards on New Zealand’s South Island – all destinations that remain out of reach for Canadian travellers and vinophiles for the time being. But having to stay put doesn’t mean missing out on what they have to offer completely. Wineries around the globe are encouraging fans to hold virtual tastings in their own homes, often with the remote assistance of sommeliers and vintners for the kind of guided tasting experience you’d have abroad.
With advice from the pros, here’s how to set up an online, destination-based tasting of your own.
Choose your wine adventure
Once you’ve chosen a destination, contact either a winery directly or a sommelier who specializes in the region to set up a session. Over the course of the pandemic lockdown, wine pros have become adept at the no-contact delivery of goods and guidance.
If you’re going the expert route, a good place to start is by reaching out to one at a favourite restaurant. Jasper Viktor, for example, spent years working with wine at Toronto’s beloved Buca before setting off on a six-month precoronavirus exploration of Italy’s wine regions. Since the pandemic hit, he’s been offering online tastings through Airbnb’s Experiences platform, focusing on the intersection of organic biodynamic wines and wellness. Italian bottles are his specialty but he can run tastings using vintages from various countries.
Wine clubs and events services, along with bottle shops, (many newly opened during the pandemic) are also excellent options. Toronto-based sommeliers the Wine Sisters host Zoom tastings for 10 or more people based on a region of your choice. For residents of the Greater Toronto Area, wines – plus vacuum-packed cheeses to accompany them – are delivered to your door.
Going directly through a Canadian winery can be one of the most cost-effective routes, whether you want to focus on a region or even a single vineyard. Taking a virtual trip to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley courtesy of Kismet Estate Winery, for example, can be done for the cost of just three bottles of their wine. The 45-minute tasting is included free of charge and the link can be shared with friends and family who want to join the experience.
If you’re longing for vintages from beyond our borders – say, the rolling hills of Napa Valley or the historic cellars of the Champagne region – expect to pay a lot more. International wineries typically work with shipping partners and import tariffs can apply, often doubling the cost of a bottle. Still worth it? Try California’s Charles Krug winery, which has teamed up with Gliding Eagle delivery service to ship wines to Canada. Once your bottles arrive, you can book a tasting by e-mailing their experiences team.
Setting the scene
A good host will provide instructions on how to prepare. But don’t fret if you’re not stocked with barware. Your average wine glass will suffice for tasting both whites and reds, and decanting can be done with items already in your cupboard. “What you can do is pour your glass of wine just an hour earlier, put a small plate on top and leave it there. And that’s going to be your mini personal decanter,” says Pepe Schib, brand ambassador for Tuscany’s Tenuta di Arceno winery (which unfortunately only offers in-person tastings). “For fine wines … it’s advised to open them two hours ahead. Some of the wines … if you open it the day before, it’s like night and day. It really is worth drinking a bottle or tasting a bottle over the course of two days.”
The pros set their tasting tables with nothing more than crackers and still water, but the goal when doing it at home is to have fun, so snacks are a must. Hosts can suggest the best regional food pairings for their specific wines, but as a general rule, it’s cheese and charcuterie for reds and cheese and crudités for whites. “Red wines really show their best when you pair them with fatty, greasy food because of the tannins and because of the structure of the wines,” says Schib, who also recommends having bread or crackers on hand to act as a palate cleanser.
More than just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, the goal of a tasting should be to increase wine knowledge so that the next time you’re selecting a bottle you know what will appeal. “Always look for some similarities that you already have appreciated from another producer or from another wine,” Schib says.
If you’re serious about increasing your understanding, Gerardo Diaz, vice-president and resident wine expert at Toronto’s Boxcar Social restaurant chain, advises asking the same four or five questions each time you attend a sommelier-hosted tasting. “You’ll develop your own sense of what you like,” he says. “For example, ‘I like this terroir or this fermentation style or this grape.’ You can broaden your scope quickly from there.”
Ask about the destination itself. What are the challenges to the growers there? What’s the soil like? What altitude are the grapes grown at and what does that mean for the harvest? Get to know a grape and you’ve got a good foundation on which to build your wine knowledge.
For advanced tasters, an exploration of fermentation process or minerality can deepen their appreciation. Viktor likes to explore the concept of tannins at his tastings, saying that “understanding tannins can help you pinpoint exactly the wine style you enjoy for yourself on a day-to-day basis.” Ultimately, he says, it comes down to purchasing power and knowing “what wines are going to be great to sit in a cellar for a special day versus what wine will be fun to take to a barbecue or a casual lunch.”
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