This past Friday, we were treated to a wine tasting at restaurant Renato e Luisa, which Cornell in Rome students have, in the past, declared to be one of the best dining experiences in Rome. Not only did we have the whole restaurant to ourselves, but we were also given an introductory lecture on wine making and tasting by proprietor (and half namesake) Renato. He first explained to us the role of the traditional sommelier, or the server specifically available to present the wine. Before more modern technology, the sommelier utilized a tastevin to judge the maturity and taste of a certain wine. Renato passed around his own tastevin, which is a “small, shallow silver cup or saucer” with concave “pearls” of different sizes used to both see the color of the wine and to aerate the wine.
Renato next explained the process by which wines and sparkling wines are made. The amount of sugar in the grapes used for the wine accounts for how alcoholic the drink will eventually be. Yeast is responsible for the fermentation of the sugars, which turn into ethyl alcohol. The maturation process is different for different types of wine; typically, red wines are matured for longer than whites.
Scent is a very important component of wine tasting as well. As an exercise, Renato handed out five tiny bottles of different essences. We passed them around the room, writing down our guesses at their contents. As someone with an admittedly primitive ability to discern smells (under pressure!), I was relieved that the first one was easy. Mint, I jotted down. I was also able to identify black pepper and then lemon, pleased to note that one of my companions had written, dish soap?. Ah yes, the subtle eau du Lysol. However, when the next bottle was passed, I was totally thrown off by its sickly sweet aroma. Refusing to give it up, I hogged the bottle rather than handing it off to one of my peers, deeply inhaling and practically snorting the thing. The scent was, as everyone agreed, obviously banana. My acute olfactory senses brilliantly detected bubblegum. The final bottle stumped me just as much. Another sweet yet musky smell had me desperately scrawling, weird. It turned out to be honey. My potential career as a perfumer quickly dissipating before my eyes, I was pleased when the first wine, a sparkling white, was served.
Sparkling wine, or spumante as it’s called in Italy (not champagne—that must come from the Champagne region of France), is produced through a more complicated process involving the addition of carbon dioxide. It must also be bottled in a specific vessel with a concave bottom which allows the sommelier to properly pour it into guests’ glasses using only one hand. In addition, it is considered polite to open a spumante bottle silently, without the signature cartoon pop (none of this American bottle popping!). In order to achieve a silent un-corking, one must turn the bottle, not the cork, slowly, to ensure a significantly underwhelming puff of smoke. Imagine if all ceremonies were celebrated by a lazy breeze of wine-air! Anyway, Renato gave this task to several students, who attained different levels on the scale of POP to hiss.
We were instructed as to which glass we should use for which wine. The spumante, in all its bubbly glory, was poured into, you guessed it, the champagne flute. The flute was designed with its narrow rim to prevent the fizz from escaping the glass. While we sipped the spumante we were encouraged to simultaneously nibble at the soft cheese, nuts, and honey concoction that appeared on out tables as part of a larger plate of miniature bites, each paired to one of our three wines. Other morsels included rolls of aged ham around cheese, and something delicious that seemed like a mini pizza (but I’m sure was more sophisticated). Needless to say, it was a perfect combination.
Next, we sampled a more acidic white wine that was paired with a zucchini flower stuffed with more cheese (yum). The final red wine we drank alongside a plate of cheesy risotto with zucchini and a hint of fennel. Renato graciously encouraged us to come back for dinner anytime. Having no real experience in wine tasting, I thoroughly enjoyed the night, and I think we all felt like real connoisseurs by the end.