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By Lia Van Baalen

My date sits across the table in the dimly-lit restaurant and casually scans the wine list. The waiter in his starched white apron leans forward, as his guest whispers French in his ear. He turns to fetch the requested wine and presents it label first, resting it on his forearm. A glass is poured, swirled and sipped. Nodding, my date accepts the bottle and the waiter disappears once more.

The entire process had the aged and hushed feel of a cathedral. I was intimidated and impressed. It was at then that I consciously decided to unravel the mystery that is le vin.

I tromped down to our local pub, the Ram in the Rye, to see what other students were drinking. For $4.70 a glass, you have a choice between a red or white French Rabbit. Apparently, students rarely drink wine.

In fact, waiter Rob Dyer hasn’t served a glass in the last three weeks.

“They order only in the summer,” he said. “Last year, a lot of first years ordered wine, but it’s really up in the air.” Bart Bilney, a second-year business management student, says that wine doesn’t “socially fit into the atmosphere” at the Ram in the Rye because everyone is drinking beer.

“No one is going there for a romantic date.” he said.

Still, French is the language of love and wine — one would do well to brush up on it, for all three are tangled together in a very smutty love triangle. Today’s lesson begins with the basics: colours.

Rouge, Blanc et Rosé?

The colour of the wine is determined by the colour of the grape skin. Logically, red wine is made from red grapes, and white wine from white grapes. There is also a third type – a light shade of pink – called blush, a blend between white and red.


Wine is categorized by varietals, or different grape varieties. Think of a Granny Smith and a Gala apple; both are apples but have completely different colours and flavours.

In the late 1900s, Robert Mondavi, a young Californian wine producer began a new marketing campaign. He wanted consumers to recognize wines by their varietal names instead of the region in which they were grown. No one knew where the New World was and in order to sell his wine, he had to crack the traditional French system. Though each variety has the same basic flavour profile, the country where it’s grown still influences the taste.

Michelle Holden, special events co-coordinator for Charton-Hobbs Inc., discusses the flavour profiles of the four most common types:

Chardonnay is a crisp white wine that can have a buttery feel with vanilla notes. Although Sauvignon Blanc is also a white, she describes it as “zesty and tropical. In the reds, Cabernet is deep and cherry-like with earth tones. while Merlot is a softer red with hints of ripe berry fruit.

L’ Étiquette

The French have rules that govern social interactions. And wine, being a very social drink, can overflow with its forms of etiquette. But once you understand the reasons behind the rules, you can unravel the mystery of my restaurant experience.

Red and white wines have to be served at different temperatures in order for them to develop their flavours. This is called “opening”. Red wines should be served at room temperature, and whites should be chilled at about 10 degrees Celsius. When in doubt, just read the label.

Before you drink a red wine, it is best to uncork it and let it breathe for about half an hour. The wine reacts with the air and the subtleties in flavour become more apparent.

Expensive red wines should be aged for a few years after you purchase them. But, as Holden said, “People today aren’t buying to cellar. Wines age for only twenty minutes – the ride home.”

Now that your wine ready to be served, how do you pour it? Traditionally, the host pours the wine for the guest, and only fills the glass one-third full. The glass should be held by the stem, so that the alcohol doesn’t get warm. Luke-warm wine is equivalent to flat pop – it just tastes gross.

If you have any left over wine, cork it and put it in the fridge. Wine reacts with air and will deteriorate after about 12 hours. A wine snob look ill if you said that you drank wine a week after it was opened, and for good reason – most of the taste will have disappeared. It is best to drink it within two days.

“Wine isn’t about consumption,” said Holden, “it’s about the experience.” There may seem to be many rules, but it is only to enhance your pleasure. At the restaurant, my date had to approve the wine. This is because a harmless bacteria, which lives in the cork, will sometimes contaminate and spoil the wine. The wine is called “corked” and can be identified by a musty smell. Holden says not to worry if you can’t spot it at first — it takes a trained nose. If you do suspect it, send it back and the waiter will bring you a new bottle.

Le Choix

It is important to properly pair your wine with your meal because you don’t want one to dominate the other. “You want to marry the weight of the food with the weight of the wine,” said Holden.

According to AJ Boulanger of the Wine Rack, the old rule of “red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat” is no longer valid. It is all about personal taste.

Le Goût

Ah, what wine is truly about. There are three key components that make up the perfect taste: sight, nose and flavour.

Only by examining these categories can you gain a full appreciation for the wine. When you look at the wine in your glass, what colour is it? White wines vary from a light straw tint to dark honey. The darker the colour, the heavier the weight and the style. The weight of a red wine can be determined by swirling it in your glass. If it comes down the sides in streaks or “legs,” the wine is lighter than if it washes down in a solid sheet.

It is acceptable to sniff one’s wine. This lets you know what to expect when you finally taste it.

What should a good wine taste like? “You want the wine to be round and developed with a lingering finish. You don’t want it to wash away like finishing vinegar,” said Holden.

Her final recommendation to students was simply that “the best glass of wine is shared with the best friends.” Words we can all live by.

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