The Education of a Connoisseur

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Part 2: Continuing Education

When I arrived in Dublin in the fall of 1996 wine wasn't the first thing on my mind. Butterflies flew circles of excitement in my stomach at the prospect of a wholly new chapter in my life: to devote myself as a full-time graduate student to the study of some of my favorite writers—Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Flann O'Brien, Samuel Beckett—at Trinity College, one of the world's greatest universities in a city of astonishing vibrance. Swift, Wilde, and Beckett attended Trinity.

Still, you gotta eat. And since my recent bistro baptism, wine had become as essential a component of my dinner table as lean protein and leafy greens, the vital antenna atop my food pyramid.

While the Republic of Ireland has enjoyed its independence since 1922, its wine trade still tends towards the predilections of its former rulers and their love of claret, also known as Bordeaux.

A stroll down the aisle in the big supermarkets, such as Dunnes Stores or Marks & Spencer, revealed a breadth of Bordeaux in every price range, especially affordable bottles around ten pounds (my idyll in Ireland predated the country's switch to the Euro.)

Now the way Bordeaux works, the more specific a label's geographic designation, the better the bottle—at least typically. As I live in Princeton, I think of Bordeaux as New Jersey. You have generic "New Jersey" bottles simply labeled "Bordeaux." Then there are wines marked "M茅doc," which would be something like Mercer County. And finally, some bottles cite specific villages—the "Princeton" bottles—such as Margaux, St. Julien, St. Est猫phe, Saint-脡milion, and the illustrious Pauillac.

Since I wielded a graduate student's budget, I mainly drank those "New Jersey" or "Mercer County" bottles, but my first Bordeaux in Dublin was a spendthrift's choice, a bottle of Chateau Calon-S茅gur for which I blithely handed over however many pounds it took in order to drink it at a party with my Anglo-Irish literature program classmates. Calon-S茅gur pours forth from the village of St. Est猫phe and it's no ordinary bottle of plonk. The chateau is a third growth according to the famed 1855 classification which ranked vineyards of the M茅doc (Bordeaux's Left Bank, or western half, where wines are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon) from first through fifth growths, or crus.

It also has a romantic label with all the salient information framed within a stylized heart—something I would point out to my stunning Danish blonde classmate with whom I exclusively shared the bottle.


By rights, such a fine claret should've complemented filet mignon or rack of lamb with grilled asparagus and twice-baked new potatoes doused with rosemary and garlic, but it went down rather well unaccompanied on that joyous October night when I found myself a part of a small, truly international cadre of graduate students in Trinity's Anglo-Anglo-Irish Literature program. We were just a few weeks into our studies but primed for a party. After all, as our fellow-Trinity scholar Oscar Wilde once quipped: "Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

I discovered another staple in those Irish supermarkets, the affable, affordable reds of Languedoc-Roussillon: Corbi猫res, Fitou, and Minervois. Languedoc, in southwest France, produces the most wine of any region in the world and over a third of the country's total output. It's sort of the "Wild West" of French winemaking in that vignerons can grow just about any grape they choose, something forbidden in many of France's other wine districts. Still, wines bearing official AOC designations (Appellation d'Origine Contr么l茅e or "controlled name of origin") must use grapes deemed authentic to that particular area. The varietals powering most of these juicy gems are the inky tooth-stainers Carignan, Mourv猫dre, and Syrah, along with that lovely garnet nectar, Grenache.

True connoisseurship doesn't reserve itself to first-growth Bordeaux or rare Burgundy. Any philistine with enough scratch can can buy superb wines at a Michelin-star restaurant . . . they're the ones that cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars. But choose the right bottle for a casual weekday lunch at a bistro. What do you bring to your favorite local sushi restaurant? Let's see what you pour with your homemade meatloaf. That's the art. That's the pleasure.

I was learning many things as a graduate student in Ireland.

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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2021 Patrick Walsh
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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