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Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget; 7 Ways to Develop a Sophisticated Wine Palate without Breaking the

Let’s be honest, learning wine without tasting is like trying to learn music without listening to it or picking up an instrument. Reading wine books teaches us history, geography, and theory, but to truly understand flavours, develop an educated palate and a taste memory bank one must taste, taste, taste and taste so more!

It is vital to build a memory bank of flavours; to learn how different grapes taste; how certain terroirs express themselves in wine, and the flavours created through various winemaking techniques. For this, one must sip!

Unfortunately, the extensive tasting required can be quite pricy, especially when exploring the wines of Bordeaux, Barolo, and Champagne, where you can expect to pay an average of $60 for even basic examples.

I’ve come up with seven ways for the budget-conscious to develop an educated wine palate without cashing in the RRSPs!

#1 – Score the Right Kind of Job – Well, OK, we all want that, but think strategically; can you work in a field that requires you to entertain clients in high-end restaurants or in such a way that you can explore wine on the company’s dime? What about working for a wine agent, at a vineyard, in a restaurant where you can pay attention to the sommelier and ask for tastes?

#2 – Start a Wine Club – Get together with a few likeminded folks; each is responsible for only one pricy bottle but you all get to taste several, all the while learning and enjoying some time together. Choose a focus for every meet up, such as: same grape, different region. Or same wine, different vintages; or a selection of wines from one region.

Take the meeting to a restaurant from time to time and try food and wine pairing. Also, as a group, you’ll be able to go in on cases of wines not normally available at stores. By buying as a group, directly through a winery or agency, you and your wine-loving friends will get to taste some unusual and special bottles.

#3 – In Ontario, Visit the LCBO Tasting Bar – The challenge for most of us is having the opportunity to taste a wide selection of the pricier wines. As a young professional in my industry I had the same problem. My solution was to go to the Summer-hill LCBO Tasting Bar. There, I was able to taste wines that are as expensive as $500 a bottle, for just a few dollars a sip.

Wine classes will rarely open bottles bearing that sort of price tag. The LCBO Tasting Bar changes their wines every two weeks to coincide with the new Vintages Release, giving budding oenophiles a unique opportunity to explore many wines, and that can really add up over a year! The LCBO offers tasting bars at their Bayview Village and Queen’s Quay locations too.

#4 – Explore the Unknown – When money is tight – and from experience I know all about that! – it’s still possible to find quality bottles worth learning from, for $20 and under! That said, you have to figure out how to find them.

The best way is to look for the lesser-known regions and grape varieties. Consider wines from Greece, Portugal, Slovenia, Armenia, Hungary, Lebanon, and Austria; and obscure grape varieties such as: Xynomavro, Nerello Mascaleses, and Godello.

#5 – Follow Wine Writers and Blogs – Look for a wine writer you trust, one with similar likes and dislikes as yourself, and one who doesn’t ignore the $20 bottles!

Some wine experts tend to focus on the earthier, Old World-style wines, while others are more into fruit forward New World wines; some have a delicate, sensitive palate and are more appreciative of lighter grapes, while others are into big, bold flavours. The writing style should also speak to you; it should be enjoyable and educational.

#6 – Cozy up to Wine Agents – Get in touch with wine agencies and start purchasing wines from them directly (see #2). Become a client, and they’ll add you to guest lists for wine tasting events, where you will get to taste their whole portfolios and even meet some of the winemakers behind those wines.

Here are a few agencies I recommend: Le Sommelier, Mark Anthony, FWM, Artisanal Wine Imports, and Rogers & Co. But that list is by no means exhaustive.

#7 – Go on Local Wine Tours – In Ontario, a day trip to Niagara, Beamsville, or Price Edward County is not too expensive – there is much learning to be had for the price of a tank of gas!

If you’re in British Colombia, the Okanagan is a great wine region very worth exploring. Wineries have tasting rooms, and there you’ll enjoy the opportunity to try before you buy.

Usually the winery won’t charge for the tasting if you purchase at least one bottle. It’s a great way to expand your understanding of a grape’s expression of terroir while supporting local businesses.

You don’t have to be rich to enjoy a rich education in wine. With a little ingenuity and a couple of bucks, the world of wine is yours to explore!


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