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Discovering Wines

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By Jack Kantola

Maybe It’s the Ambiance

It was one of those incredible spring days in the region of Provence in the South of France. Sunlight spattered the patio through the newly leaved trees accompanied by a chorus of songbirds. Our waiter was more accommodating than those in the touristy towns on the Mediterranean seashore and he was definitely enthusiastic about the wines of the region. On his recommendation we ordered a red wine from one of the wineries in the area to go with our lunch of spinach and goat cheese salad. The wine paired very well with the meal and was very pleasing to the palate. As we sat back and finished the wine with some local cheese, we both suggested finding the winery and taking a few bottles back to our home in England.

We had discovered this secluded country restaurant by chance just driving through the countryside. Our Easter holiday on the Cote d’Azur was a perfect break from the waning winter in England and we were enjoying the break from the pressures of work and the weather back home. After lunch we headed directly to the winery and bought a few bottles.

Back in England we opened the first of the bottles to have with our evening meal. It just didn’t taste the same. Our memory of the wine and the reality of what we were drinking didn’t match at all with what we had enjoyed in the South of France. Most knowledgeable wine drinkers would agree that the Cotes de Provence is not known for making the best red wines. Why was it then that the wine tasted so good at that country restaurant in Provence?

It was the ambiance! The warm spring weather, the pleasant dining patio, the serenade of the birds, the great company, the fine food all combined with the local (by most measures average) wine to make a memorable wining and dining experience. In my opinion, most reasonably well made wines consumed in the right setting with good food will taste great.

Sometimes it is the situation that makes the difference. On another vacation from England we signed up for a tour of Egypt. The hotel on our first night in Cairo was the Nile Sheraton well known for its fine dining room. After checking the wine list I suggested to my wife Mary that we splurge and enjoy a nice bottle of wine with our first meal in Egypt. The wine list included several Grand Cru Bordeaux wines. My first choice was a 1983 Talbot. When I requested this wine I was told that they were all out of that label. I then proceeded to go through the entire list of reds only to find that all of them were out of stock with the exception of Omar Khayyam Red, the only Egyptian wine on the label.

When I noticed two other couples from our tour group at a nearby table going through the same scenario as we had just done on our wine selection, I went to their table and suggested that they might enjoy the Omar Khayyam Red. Omar Khayyam Red became the wine of choice for the entire trip as we learned that this was also the only red wine available on our Nile cruise ship. By the way, the only white wine available was Ptolemy White, also an Egyptian wine.

While the Wine Spectator scoring on these wines would never exceed 85, they were drinkable and, under the circumstances, quite a source of amusement for our entire group.

The point I am trying to make is we should love the wine we are near when we are not near the wine we love. In fact we may find wines out there that surprise our sometimes-finicky palates. A case in point is our most recent trip to Africa this summer. The wines we were served in the safari camps was drinkable but not outstanding but when we concluded our trip in the Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa we enjoyed wines on a par with any we have tasted anywhere in the world. I particularly enjoyed the Pinotage and Syrah from Neil Ellis and the Shiraz from La Petite Ferme. Unfortunately these are not wines readily available for us in the USA.

But that is my point! We shouldn’t get so stuck in what we know and are used to. Don’t be afraid to explore and try the wines of the different regions of our country and the world. When you find a local wine on the wine list, order it. You may be in for a surprise. MPM

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