Last Sunday through Wednesday, 4-7 October, I attended the second annual French Wine Society conference, including the pre-conference session on Sunday. I had a blast. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that when everything wrapped up on Wednesday I was rather depressed. I haven’t truly enjoyed something that much in a long time – I think this is something I ‘belong in.’
Sunday was focused on cheese and Armagnac. We started with a presentation from Max McCalman, a noted cheese expert, that covered a range of French cheeses in terms of their terroir. We tasted six in that sitting, starting with a chèvre from the Loire, ranging through some different hard and soft cheeses including a Pont l’Eveque, and ending with Roquefort. I think the best quote of the day, if not the conference, came at that point when Max declared: “After Roquefort all that’s left is sex.” I don’t quite agree, as I’m not a fan of bleus in general, but I get his point.
Following a break, we had a luncheon where we paired six different cheeses with seven different wines – Champagne, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, a rosé, a Pinot Noir, a Bordeaux blend, and a sweet wine from the Loire. The format was interesting because the presenters talked about each of the cheeses and wines, but let us taste all of the combinations and make our own suggestions about what worked well together, rather than saying “eat cheese x with wine y – that’s the best or most classic pairing.” There were some surprises, particularly in the versatility of the Provence rosé. I didn’t really match anything with the Bordeaux, but I think that was because I didn’t like the wine at all. Even for something that had a bit of age on it, it was incredibly vegetal and to me, tasted of nothing but green bell peppers.
The next session was in introduction to the Cheeses of France Academy teaching materials. They seem pretty comprehensive, although I do have a few nits to pick from an instructional design perspective. Trainers are always the worst audience to which to present instructional materials – it’s easy to find flaws from an ISD perspective. I think the ‘learning objectives’ were what most bothered me – lots of ‘know’ and ‘understand’ language, that even with a quiz, doesn’t really lend itself to observation of accomplishment. Granted, this is more knowledge building and educational than it is skill developing, but even so, I’d be happier with more demonstrable outcomes for the participants. We’re somewhat limited in our abilities as instructors to alter materials, but I think I may come up with some of my own objectives to guide sessions.
The afternoon concluded with a presentation about and tasting of Armagnac, a wine-based distilled spirit from the Southwest of France. I’ve tasted some in the past, but am not an expert by any means, so to have a structured presentation was great, and the range of what we were able to taste was much appreciated. I’m interested in finding out how one might go about being a ‘brand ambassador,’ as were our two presenters, for products – I’m interested in that kind of representation for other spirits, especially Calvados, which I think is under appreciated and little known here.
Monday began the actual conference, and bright and early I sat for the French Wine Scholar exam. This was a 100 question, multiple choice test covering all of the wine regions of France. I don’t have my results yet, and while I’m hoping I did well enough to pass, I don’t know quite how optimistic I am. I do know of some really silly mistakes I made – although they were bad guesses on my part to questions I knew I was unsure of. Hopefully I crossed the 75 or 80% threshold to not only earn the certification but also be able to instruct the scholar program materials.
Following the exam we had a presentation on and tasting of wines of the Jura, near Switzerland, with which I was totally unfamiliar, then a wonderful session on Cahors, “The French Malbec,” which also included tastings – every session did, actually. Interestingly enough, I’ve not always liked the Malbecs I’ve had from Argentina, but I really liked these Cahors. After the Malbec we had lunch, then a presentation on wine chemistry, which I must admit, nearly put me to sleep. It’s an important topic, I know, and the presenter was clearly a chemistry expert – but, like many SMEs who deliver presentations, he didn’t seem to know quite how to appropriately tailor the information for the audience, so much of it flew past me. Legible slides and handouts would have helped as well. The day concluded with a Rhône master class, to prep those taking the master-level exam the following morning.
Tuesday opened with a session on the Loire valley, after the Rhone exam concluded, led by Robert Kacher, a well-known local importer. I’ve been watching his selections for years. I was first turned on to them through a store owner in San Antonio who told my dad about Bobby’s portfolio, and I’ve always used them as a reference point. When I didn’t know what else to buy, I’d look for a Kacher, and know I would be getting good quality. Most of what we tasted was white, with one cabernet franc from Bourgueil, and a sweet white from Quarts de Chaume. Lunch was next, followed by Champagne and a master class on Provence Rosés.
The champagne session was interesting because it was set up to help us taste differences in production method, grape variety, etc. This really brought out the nuances one can find in champagne – it’s not all light and sparkle and bubbles. There are some very complex wines out there. I discovered that my tastes range widely. I will always have a ‘soft spot in my head’ (to borrow a phrase from a friend) for Roederer and its crispness and acidity, but I also found a great appreciation for a Pinot Noir based offering from Dehours (new house to me). Interestingly enough, in our next flight it was again the Pinot Noir wine that I liked best, a Drappier Brut Nature, rather than a Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay) from Le Brun Servenay. In flight three only one wine really wowed me, the Vilmart & Cie Grand Cellier Brut Premiere Cru, which had seen some oak fermentation. Neither of the other two (J. de Telmont and Charles Heidsieck) really did anything for me. In the final flight my favorite was a Lanson Gold Label Brut 1997, although the other wine in the pairing, a Delamotte 1999 Blanc de Blancs was okay. Again, it was the Pinot Noir, I think, in the Lanson, that added an additional level of complexity that really appealed to me.
I liked the setup of the Provence presentation that rounded out the afternoon, particularly the tasting segment which used black glass to help neutralize color-inspired aroma and flavor identifications. Unfortunately, that got a bit rushed and harder to identify color once we poured into clear glass because we were rapidly losing light.
Wednesday we worked our way through Beaujolais and Burgundy, Bordeaux, and sweet wines of the Languedoc/Roussillon. The format for the Bordeaux tasting was unique – we were tasting ‘second wines’ and ‘grand vins’ from major producers. The idea was to see if the second wine really reflected the style of the grand vin, as it is supposed to, or if it was something altogether different, more akin to a separate brand. Overall I think we concluded that the seconds were reflective of the grand vin, although some were more distinct than others. The best part was having the ability to taste these grand vins, something I would normally never have the chance to do. We had Château Cantemerle, Leoville Lascases, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Cos d’Estournel, and Château Montrose along with each of their second wines.
Wednesday ended with the Vins Doux Naturels from Languedoc/Roussillon. I’ve rather ‘pooh-pooed’ sweet wines in the past, but I have to say that after this conference, and this tasting, I have a new found appreciation for them and hope to incorporate some into my repertoire. I’m more open now to trying them – not just these fortified VDN but also the other sweet wines from the Loire, Bordeaux, and elsewhere. I understand now that they’ve not been sweetened just to make them easier to drink or that they’re somehow inferior products. There is considerable time and thought put into their creation just as there is for dry wines, and they have their place not only as aperitifs or to accompany desserts, but also alongside cheeses and even some main courses.
I’m very glad I took the time and made the investment to attend. I hope I’ve done well on the exam (and will re-sit it if not), and I look forward to beginning a new chapter in my professional career as I first explore teaching about wine and cheese and then who knows…?