OF COURSE I’m talking about wine.

What were you thinking?

Jocularity and minds-in-the-gutter snickering aside, I want to talk about my first time with specific types and varietals of wines and the impact that they made on my wine-loving experience.

There are several wines that stand out and had a lot do with the I began to enjoy wine.  Here they are, but in no particular order:

1. Viognier

The first Viognier that I tasted was during a wine class, about eight or so years ago.  Can’t recall the instructor, but the class was in Henderson.  We each had a small sampling pour of the wine, which was clear, shimmery, and very bright.  I remember that when I inhaled the aroma, I was greeted by a bouquet of jasmine, honeysuckle, peaches, honey, and more. Clean, bright, through-the-middle acidity greeted me as did the surprising weight and dryness.

I was hooked.

That particular Viognier was from the Northern Rhone. Of course, it wasn’t easy finding Viognier at that time; it hadn’t come to the attention of most people.  That’s just happened in the last few years.

Because my first Viognier was such a fragrance bomb, I have been largely disappointed by the noses of many New World Viogniers (and more than one Old World) that I’ve had ever since.  Many are – in my opinion – overoaked to the point that the heady flowers, honey, and fruit perfume is lost in a sea of vanilla and cream.  Chardonnay-lite, you might say.

2. Zinfandel

I have to thank my friends Don and Mark for introducing me to Zinfandel.  Well, not exactly, but they continued a relationship that began at Khoury’s and continued in the jam-and-fruit-soaked tasting rooms of Paso Robles.

I hadn’t realized that Zinfandel wasn’t “white” until I started frequenting real wine tastings but was a deep, rich, purplely red.  It didn’t taste like flat, slightly sweet soda pop; the explosions of berries, spice, and pepper were its true nature.

My favorite Zins are not only the flavor-packed fruit bombs of Paso Robles, but the austere, food-friendly Zins of Dusi (by Dusi! in Paso!), Zins from the Dry Creek region in Sonoma, and the Pasoesque Zins of Lodi and Mendocino.

3.  Chardonnay

I’ve talked about this before, and it’s because this was what turned me from being just a wine drinker to someone who was ready to appreciate all aspects of all wines.

It happened in passing, that first time with a quality Chardonnay.  Rich and creamy with lacings of green apple and spice, that Chard was so different from the nondescript “white” “wines” that I’d been drinking up to that point that it may has well had been from another planet.

Unfortunately, in the days before the Internet became omnipresent, finding information when you had NO IDEA where to begin was daunting.  It was about a decade before I found anything similar, but by that time, Chards that would today be called overoaked and overdone were everywhere.

I don’t care.  I still have a special place for the Louisville Slugger of white wine.

And then there’s Puligny Montrachet, but that’s a post all by itself.

4. Chianti

Hannibal Lechter notwithstanding, I do love a beautiful Chianti.  But it wasn’t always that way.

My first experience with Chianti was like many others, the undrinkable stuff in the bottle wrapped in straw.  That’s when I declared that I “don’t like red wines.”

Yeah, yeah, I know. Shut up.

And then, well past the time that I discovered that I do indeed love red wines but still don’t like Chianti, I was introduced to a Chianti Classico Riserva.  Rustic, earthy, moderately tannic, and complex, it danced on my tongue and I was in love.  Since that time, I’ve expanded my adventures in Italian wines and as I learn more about them, realize that the big, rough, tannic, acidic, food-friendly (or should that be “food intimate”) wines are just my style when I’m having a beautifully prepared Italian dinner. Or Fava Beans.

5. Zinfandel Port

One of the first wines that The Wineaux Guy™ introduced me to, Rutherford Hills Zinfandel Port (I believe the vintage was late ’80s, but don’t quote me. I’m going on my vintage memory here, which is always sketchy) I was astounded at the depth of flavor of a simple sweet wine. Since I’m from the East Coast, my experiences with sweet wine had consisted of Grandma’s pear wine and all things Maneschewitz. This Zin Port was, to quote a cliché, a whole ‘nother ball game.

6. Pinotage

Believe it or not, it wasn’t the fine wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy that brought the meaning of terroir – a sense of place – to my awareness.  It was Pinotage.

The first Pinotage that I tasted was a 1999 Lanzarac Pinotage.  It was at a tasting as I was starting to spread my wine wings in 2003, shortly after my marital split.  At this particular tasting, the red wines were nice. Probably a Merlot and a blend of some sort.  And then I tasted the Pinotage.  Wow.  This was way different from anything I’d ever had before. It was the wine that started me on separating the aromas and flavors in this grape juice into its different components.  It was easy to “get” the banana, bacon, earth, funk, plums, and cherries. There was also that *something* that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. It remained a mystery until I had another wine from South Africa, different label.  It was a Shiraz, and that *something* that I couldn’t figure out was South Africa. That was the terroir of South Africa which made me “get it.” It also meant that I was able to pick out a wine from South Africa in just about any blind tasting.

Now I got it. Now I got what terroir was. And South Africa’s terroir, like the terroir of Rutherford Cabernet with its dust, Paso Zin with its fruit, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with its grapefruit and cat pee, gives such a sense of place that it would be impossible to mistake it for anyplace else. In recent years the South Africans have been slowly trending towards what is called the “International” style. I hope that they don’t do at the cost of their uniqueness.

There were other wines that have made an impact, of course.  Pinot Noir – which could easily be called my favorite varietal – somehow crept into my life, bringing the meaning of “silky” and “mouthfeel” into my wine lexicon and making me a lifelong fan.  The first German Riesling, with its notes of petroleum (“You’re supposed to drink this?!?”), the first – and so far only – $200 bottle of Priorat I had the privilege of tasting, and of course, my first Dom Perignon Champagne which despite the fact that I can recall little about the person with whom it was shared, nevertheless made an indelible, unforgettable imprint.

Wine knowledge is an evolutionary thing.  When you start out knowing nothing and not being able to figure out what the fuss is about, it’s easy to dismiss it as inconsequential. But when you realize that as man became more civilized, wine was always there, then you realize that wine isn’t just a beverage.  It is a concurrent timeline of man’s ascent into a cultured, enlightened being.  And of all the lifeforms on earth, we humans are the only ones to figure out how to make wine and know how very special it is.

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