Can you recall your first taste of wine?
Do you remember the very first wine you ever tasted?
I’d wager a dime to a donut that it was on the sweet side and I’d hazard a guess that it was either Baby Duck, Mateus Rosé or Blue Nun. If you’re Jewish, your first experience with wine was probably at the Seder table — a glass of Manischewitz or some similar kosher confection made from the Concord grape.
My first experience with wine was also sweet and it got me into a whole lot of trouble. I was fourteen years old and was a boarder at Epsom College, a minor public school in Surrey, England, where doctors sent their sons in the hope that their progeny would follow in their footsteps. (Didn’t work for me.)
I don’t recall how my friend and co-conspirator Michael Woolley and I came into possession of a half bottle of Barton & Guestier Sauternes, but we secreted it onto the cricket field one hot summer’s day. Concealed in the long grass near the boundary, Woolley had opened it with the corkscrew on his Swiss Army knife. We took turns passing it back and forth, swigging directly from the bottle.
Since there were some 500 boys at Epsom, there were numerous cricket games in progress at the same time, too many for the masters to monitor them all. Being juniors, my peers and I were relegated to the farthest pitch, well out of sight of prefects and other watchdogs.
In the sunshine, the warm, sweet wine soon took its effect. We staggered back to our house and hit the showers which had no effect. Our general condition was noticed by the prefects who were alerted to our state of intoxication when Michael Woolley and I fell asleep over our books during prep.
Hungover and abject with contrition, we were summoned to the housemaster’s study. Under interrogation we revealed the source of our inebriation. The housemaster, whose name was Colyer, wanted to know how we had acquired the forbidden alcohol, how we had managed to smuggle it onto the cricket field and what was the vintage?
We expected to be expelled for our crime. But Mr. Colyer (whose nickname was Nifty, presumably because his initials were N.F.), instead of expelling us, gave us what was known for some incomprehensible reason as “six of the best.” As we left his study, rubbing our tender rear ends, he said, “And by the way, next time you drink Sauternes, be sure to chill it first.”
That lesson, driven home at the base, has remained with me ever since.
There is a good reason why we chill white wine — and especially sweet wine. Can you imagine drinking Icewine at room temperature? The act of chilling wine brings down the perception of sweetness and accentuates the acidity, making the wine more refreshing and balanced.
One’s personal wine-tasting history usually, as I mentioned, usually starts with sweet wines and, through the cycle of Nature, comes back to sweet wines. It is a well-documented phenomenon that the number of taste buds we have diminishes as we age (the literature suggests that this occurs in your 40s if you’re female and in your 50s if you’re male). And those taste buds that remain atrophy and shrink, which results in decreased sensitivity to taste.
After the age of 60 we begin to lose the ability to distinguish among the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter (and also umami, the savoury fifth taste, as in soy sauce). To compensate, we tend towards stronger flavours, especially sweet, since the taste buds that register sweet are on the tip of the tongue, the first area that registers flavour when we consume wine.
So as Generation X and Xennials age, the purchase and consumption of sweet wines should rise — which is good news for the producers of Sauternes, Tokaji, Late Harvest Riesling, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise etc.