How to Appreciate wine with Janice McDonald, Howard Park and Vanya Cullen, Cullen Wines

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By Fergal Gleeson

Wine can seem overwhelming to beginners. So many varieties, so many regions, so much scientific jargon. Training yourself to taste wine and improve your palate is a great way to start to get to grips with the drink you love.

I got advice from two of Margaret River’s leading winemakers on how to increase your enjoyment of wine by improving your palate.

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Janice McDonald, Winemaker at Howard Park Wines

Janice McDonald is the Chief Winemaker for Howard Park Wines, one of Western Australia’s leading family owned wineries, producing wines from Margaret River and Great Southern. She has over 30 years experience as a Winemaker and has recently won Gourmet Travellers Winemaker of the Year Award for 2018.

Vanya Cullen, Proprietar and Winemaker Cullen Wines

Vanya Cullen runs Cullen Wines, one of Margaret River’s first wineries, established in 1971. She is a passionate advocate of sustainable winemaking. Cullen Wines are biodynamically certified and the winery is carbon neutral. “Vanya” Cabernet has been voted Australia’s Best Cabernet Award for the last two years by the Halliday Companion.

Is it important to have a good wine palate to enjoy wine?

Janice: I hope not! Hopefully you can enjoy wine without knowing an enormous amount about it. It is more satisfying, interesting and magical when you understand wine.

Vanya: The more you develop your palate the more you enjoy it. It’s like cooking and food, some people are really into it but everybody eats. It’s entirely individual how far you want to go. It’s an exploration where you can learn to really appreciate beingin the presence of great wine and fruit.

What’s your routine when tasting a wine?

Vanya: I look at colour: shades of gold or green for a white wine. Or for a red purple or brown if aged. I think about the density of the wine which can relate to quality and biodynamic elements. I give it a big swirl and have a sniff. Then you slurp and swill it around your mouth. I think about the flavours. Are the tannins bitter? Is it round, soft or mineral? There are an incredible number of things. If tasting to score you can award one.

Janice: I think about drinkability. That’s what I try to achieve at Howard Park. Some wines transcend that and have an X factor but that doesn’t always happen. But a really drinkable wine is where all the quality parameters come together. I think about the flavours, the balance. Is it lasting? I don’t prise it apart too much.

What are your tips you’d offer a beginner to develop their palate?

Janice: People get confused and intimidated by wine because they don’t know enough. If you do something like a WSET course you’ll understand what you are tasting. Then you have the freedom to explore.

Understand the basics of sweetness, sourness, bitterness. Develop the sense of taste. Then you know where in your mouth these things come from, so you have a solid foundation of how these taste sensations contribute to the wine. When you have that connection to the small and taste then you can articulate about the fruit or the oak and go from there.

Vanya: People are often not confident enough. There is no right or wrong. So say what you think.

If you’re not serious just drink it. You do need to concentrate for a bit to taste which can seem anti-social in company!

Also have a little booklet where you write a few notes about every wine that you taste. It helps you remember and focus. When I started in wine I had books every where for about five years. And of course enjoy it!

Is it important to blind taste wines?

Vanya: Not always but it does give you an independent view.

Janice: Yes, because you can have preconceived ideas when you see a red or white and the vintage.The stage is set for you. It depends on what level you want to go to but you can build up your internal database of retained knowledge to compare for when you’re tasting in future.

Is reading about the back story of a wine or region important or should people just enjoy what’s in the glass?

Vanya: Where a wine comes from is essential. The connection to the land is vital. At Cullen we offer a wine and food experience where you are in situ with where the produce has come from. Australia has a tradition of multi-regional blending but in Alsace or Bordeaux they always talk about place.

Janice: The long and ancient history of wine is fabulous. It’s one of the pleasures of wine apart from the consumption. It’s interesting to read what people are doing in other parts of the world. When you go to places like some of the French regions you can almost breathe the history.

Are people intimidated when they offer you a wine when visiting?

Vanya: Maybe! But people have their own favourite wines. It’s not a matter of judgement.

Janice: Life can’t be all about wine. If it’s a dinner it’s the occasion. It’s about the people, the wine, and the food. If I’m asked I’ll give an opinion but anything else would be pedantic. You want to put people at ease. Wine should never be intimidating!  

From Your Margaret River Region Magazine

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