By Virginia Monaco
The world of wine can be very intimidating for culinary students. Wine experts, much like chefs, speak their own language. From “terroir” to “tannins”, this language can be confusing and alienating to the uninitiated. With so many regions, appellations, grapes and chateaus, it’s almost impossible to keep track.
Luckily, the best way to start learning about wine is pretty simple: start drinking it! And if you have the opportunity to be led through a tasting by one of the world’s foremost sommeliers, then all the better. When Bernard Sun, Corporate Beverage Director of Jean-Georges Restaurant Group, visited ICE earlier this month, Sun led the audience through a tasting of New Zealand wines, providing many students and alumni with an excellent boost to their ongoing wine education.
After working in illustrious restaurants like Lespinasse and Montrachet, Sun was named the Corporate Beverage Director of Jean-Georges Restaurant Group, overseeing the wine lists at all of their restaurants, from New York to Shanghai. A past recipient of the coveted James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Wine Service Award, Sun arrived at ICE well-equipped to walk tasters through a flight of New World wines. During the tasting, Sun took great pains to demystify the act of wine tasting. He carefully explained to the audience what features to look for in the taste and aroma of the wine and how to best detect them.
As Sun pointed out, many major wine descriptors aren’t tastes at all, but sensations. Acid is a very important feature for a well-balanced wine, but to the untrained palate, the acidity level is difficult to pinpoint. As Sun explained, it is easiest to judge a wine’s acidity by its affect on the mouth—they tend to make your mouth water. This, more than an “acidic flavor”, is what beginners should look for when evaluating a wine’s acidity.
Sun likened body—another key wine descriptor—to milk in its various forms. A full-bodied wine is reminiscent of whole milk (in that it coats your mouth) while a light-bodied wine is more like skim milk, since its flavor passes over your palate quickly. In terms of judging a wine’s alcohol content, Sun says that high-alcohol wines produce a mild burning in the back of your throat, similar to sipping a whiskey or scotch. Tannins—more common in red than white wines—produce a dry, almost puckering feeling in the mouth, much like chalk would.
When the proper terms are clearly explained, it becomes much easier to discuss a wine’s attributes. After defining these common wine descriptors, Sun walked tasters through an impressive flight of New Zealand wines, going above and beyond the requisite Sauvignon Blancs that the country is known for. According to Sun, New World winemakers often need to practice the art of winemaking for several decades before producing world-class wines. New Zealand has only recently reached the level of skill and maturity required to impress even “old world” wine fans. From bright, sparkling whites to deep, tannic reds, students gained an in-depth look at this fast-growing wine region.
As Sun showed us, wine appreciation is not reserved for sommeliers and amateurs with deep-pockets. Anyone can evaluate a wine’s qualities with a few key pointers. And of course, in the end, it all circles back to personal preference—you like what you like! Just keep tasting and you are bound to discover some personal favorites.