There's Always Time for Wine
A conversation with food and wine expert, Matthew Hansen
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“The more you know, the more you don’t know.” Such seems to be the case on the topic of wine. For many people, it can be overwhelming to try to make sense of the diverse range of wines out there. Even when you’re a seasoned drinker already, all that confusing, and sometimes pompous wine talk is enough to get you headed out the door. Which is a sad thing really, because wine is a pleasure that should be simple to understand, easy to appreciate and fun to share.
If you can relate and need some major wine demystifying, Matthew Hansen of Fine of Appreciation shares a tip: Start simple. Often, wine is as straightforward as uncorking a bottle, drinking, and deciding whether you like it or not. But if you want to increase your confidence and enjoyment of this beverage, come to a Fine Wine Appreciation class and discover how stepping out of the “white with white and red with red” box offers many wonderful possibilities for your palate. After all, life’s too short to drink bad wine, my friend.
“Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.” - Paulo Coelho
If you’re keen to learn about wine, be inspired by our conversation with Matthew that covers some of the basics and then some. We learn about the beginnings of his food and wine passion, his recommendations, and what’s up ahead for his popular wine appreciation classes.
How did you interest in wine start?
It started when I was working at the Dorchester Hotel, London in 1982. I was working there as a saucier and I remember two of the sommeliers were having a debate. They’ve chosen a wine but they couldn’t decide on the vintage. It was either 1966 or 1970. And this heated conversation went on for about 15 to 20 minutes, which made me think that there must be something about wine that I didn’t know about. So, I enrolled in a wine school in London in to learn more.
Did something in you fundamentally change in joining that class?
Oh yes! Because even though I was experienced with food and cooking preparation, I knew very little about wine. I became hugely interested in the food and wine matching aspect.
Was your question answered? “What it is about wine?”
Yes. I became fascinated in wine because it’s a completely natural product. And there’s such a wide variation in styles. I don’t think wine is like other beverages. It should be a product in its place. If it’s Burgundy, it should taste like Burgundy. If it’s Chianti, it should taste like Chianti. That sort of thing.
What’s the most important information that someone new to wine needs to know about wines?
I think what’s important is that they should follow their palate. It doesn’t matter if it’s an expensive or an inexpensive wine. You can find pleasure at all different levels. Sometimes people buy on price. They think if they’re paying $80 for a bottle, it’s going to be good. Well, it may or may not necessarily be good for them.
More than anything else, wine is subjective. When I do a class, no one ever really agrees. They don’t all like the same wine. It’s a bit like going to the National Gallery - not everybody likes the same painting.
If you know nothing about wine and haven’t tasted it before, what’s a good bottle to start with?
If you’re serious about wine, if you want to learn about it, specifically table wine (there’s basically three types: sparkling wine, table wine, and fortified wine) - you must understand that good wine is constructed to be consumed with food. That’s very important.
Table wine (like cabernet, pinot noir, chardonnay) - the good wines are designed to be consumed with food. It just adds another dimension to the experience.
What makes a fantastic wine pairing? What are your personal favourites?
It’s understanding what varieties go with what food. So technically, Shiraz goes very well with beef, Cabernet goes well with lamb, and Pinot Noir goes very well with duck.
But sometimes you can move outside that square and discover some other wonderful combinations as well. It’s no longer just white wine goes with fish, and red wine goes with meat. There’s more to it than that.
Personally, I like Chardonnay very much. I think it’s a very versatile white wine. I’m also very interested in Pinot Noir. I think it’s a very seductive wine and it pairs well with lots of food. And I do like a good Cabernet because it’s the most complex of all the varieties, particularly with lamb.
Is there an aspect to what you do that might surprise people?
I think what people find most appealing is that in all my classes (be it the short course, the advanced classes, or the wine dinners), is that there’s always a strong food component.
What we generally do is taste the wine before food, then with food, and after food to see how the flavour changes not only with time, but also with food. That’s the point of difference. All my classes have a strong food component to complement the wine.
Is that what makes your classes unique?
Yes, I believe so. In all my classes, we always serve something special to complement the chosen wine. You’re missing out on a great deal if you learn about wine without food. You see in Italy, France and Spain, they consume wine like they do bread. It’s part of the meal. If you go to any good restaurant, they always present you with a wine list.
And as far as I know, I’m the only independent wine educator. The rest are all run by wine merchants or are connected to some vineyard. What they generally do is only present the wines they sell and then they give the students an order form at the end of the class. That’s not what I’m about; I don’t sell any wines. I can’t stand in front of a class if I don’t like a certain wine.
You travel extensively to wine regions and continue to learn more about wine. Are there still any aspects to wine that have surprised you?
Not surprised, but more so interested that a lot of people nowadays are very concerned about their health and the way wine is produced. You see, very cheap wine is made with the indiscriminate use of harsh chemicals. The best wines are grown in an organic or a biodynamic manner, which means they are chemical-free. What I’m finding now is that a lot of people are concerned about the quality of the wine they’re drinking. In Australia, they’re becoming more sophisticated with their wine. And I think that’s a good thing.
Do you have to be well-travelled to be an excellent wine professional?
I think if you’re presenting French, Italian or Spanish wine, it’s important that you go to those places and their vineyards to get an understanding of what you’re talking about. I recently won a fellowship to study in Champagne; and after that, I’m much more comfortable talking about champagne because I’ve been there.
And with all the Australian wines I’ve presented in my classes, I’ve been to all those vineyards and I know the winemakers. It’s brings back a sense of place and it’s very important. It’ll be ludicrous of me to talk about wine from Sardinia if I’ve never been there.
Having visited all these wine regions, which do you find yourself drawn back to?
I’m drawn back to Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I’m drawn back to Bordeaux because I love Cabernet. Obviously, Champagne too - I’ve spent a lot of time there. And particularly I’m interested in Tuscany, where they produce Chianti. Chianti can be grown anywhere between Sienna and Florence, but there’s a very small region called Chianti Classico, and that’s also a fascinating region. Those are my favourites.
Why are there very many wine philosophies and what’s yours?
Well, I’m not a wine maker but I think the winemaker should not interfere too much with what’s produced.
You see wine virtually makes itself. If you look at the Oxford dictionary, it says “unadulterated juice of fermented grape juice”. I think if you interfere too much with the natural process you lose the point. In some of my favourite vineyards, they do very little with the wine. They pick the grapes, they crush them and the wine virtually makes itself. There’s no additives, chemicals. Wine to me should be a sense of that place.
Are there myths about wine that frustrate or annoy you?
Many people are intimidated by wine and are uncomfortable when they’re presented with a wine list. I see it all the time. It shouldn’t be like that though because it’s really a simple product and a simple pleasure. It goes back to what I said, that you should drink what you enjoy, not because it’s expensive, or to impress. Keep it as simple as possible. If you complicate things it takes away the pleasure.
What is the best part of teaching about wine?
It’s always about the wonderful people I meet. I even have this student who’s 73 years old and has been to 130 of my classes! It’s the conversations around the table and the friendships that develop - that’s why I’m still doing it after 27 years.
When you’re not teaching wine, what is your typical day like?
I work in the garden. I ride my bike. I love reading and I love old films, especially films made in the 1930s.
Lastly, what are your plans for Fine Wine Appreciation?
In the past, I’ve only been in Carlton, but now I have a city venue coming up and another place that’s being built now. I plan to run at five different venues and all of them will offer different formats. Already there’s choice, but there will be more to choose from.
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