When we first moved to Basel, I was excited to learn more about wine. Growing up in the States (in microbrew country), my appreciation of wine was mostly limited to my occasional meal-wine pairing epiphany and my repeated viewing of the movie Sideways. Now, I had the perfect opportunity to come to understand this alluring, if not intimidating, beverage.
But, how and where to start? Here are a few tips I've picked up along the way of my own wine appreciation journey:
Find your local wine store. Basel has some really good wine shops tucked away in its neighbourhoods so a good first step is to find one with a variety of wines and a welcoming staff that is willing to answer questions and make suggestions. Many shops will offer tastings if you ask and often have special tasting events. Our go-to store is Paul Ullrich off of Marktplatz because of its friendly, knowledgeable staff and nice selection of European wines. It's where we discovered some truly splendid reds from Ziereisen, a wine that left to our own devices, we would not have found.
Take a tour. If you are intimidated about the idea of galavanting off into wine country by yourself, I suggest deciding on a region you want to explore and then booking a tour. A nice place to start and only a short distance from Basel, is the Alsace region. One of my favourite tour operators is Alsace Safari, which has a number of tours that include wine tastings, while you explore picturesque Alsatian villages. If you are interested in exploring another region try Trip Advisor, where you can find a number of good tour operators and recommendations from other travelers.
Visit the winemakers. This is really the best way to taste wine. It is so wonderful to hear the story of how a wine was made, as told by its maker. I have gained such an appreciation for the art and craft of winemaking and how the place, or 'terroir', influences the wine. For instance, we heard firsthand from the winemakers at Albert Hertz about the effort required to transition to biodynamic winemaking as well as how climate change is affecting the region. (For those new to the wine lingo, biodynamic wines are those grown following specific holistic, ethical and ecological standards...much more than just organic.)
As far as language is concerned, we've found that many winemakers speak some English, but it can be helpful to learn the words for the type of wine you like (e.g. dry is trocken (German), sec (French) and secco (Italian)).
Call ahead. While some winemakers have opening times where you can just walk in and taste, it's best to call ahead, especially with smaller operations. Though occasionally, you will luck into something special. For example, this past fall my husband and I stumbled into a private wine tasting at Domaine Jeanson Parigot in Pommard where we were welcomed in and made part of the family (it was literally a family reunion).
Bring the kids (or don't). We have brought our two daughters (ages 7 and 10) on almost every wine tour we have done. Every winemaker has been accommodating, often giving our girls their own 'wine" (fruit juice) and even snacks (Chatteau de Pommard even has its own 'juice tour' for children). That said, it's expected that children are well behaved as other people may be tasting at the same time and may not appreciate it your kids are running around like lunatics. We have had good luck bribing our children with chocolate croissants and making sure they have some quiet activities to do; if you think that won't work for your kiddos, maybe find a sitter.
Use an app. We like to record which wines we drink so we can remember our favorites as well as ones we did not like so much. We used to keep a journal with helpful notes like 'tastes like good wine for sipping on the porch' but ultimately, found it more convenient to switch to an app where we can easily record all the key info about the wine. We use Vivino; we don't take advantage of all its functionality but find it helpful to note our overall rating and taste profile. Also, it can be helpful to check out a wine you are considering buying as it will match the wine against your own flavor preferences.
Enjoy the wine. On our very first wine tasting to Justin Boxler in the Alsace, I received the most helpful insight of all from one of its winemakers. I had shared how I wasn't sure just what kind of wine I liked yet and in response she said, "It does not matter so much what kind of wine you like or how you describe it. Wine is simply meant to be enjoyed with family and friends."
After my three-year long journey here I have learned a lot of about wine and still have a long way to go before I could hold my own with a sommelier. But, in the end, it doesn't really matter what I know. What I've loved the most is getting to experience different wines in the places they are made and with the people I care about most.
Some suggestions of where to start your journey.
Ziereisen (25 mins from Basel) Located in the Baden region of German, with a lovely wine tasting room and farm store.
Albert Hertz (1 hour from Basel) Located in the village of Eguisheim in the Alsace region of France, offers tours of its operation and is a great place to learn about biodynamic winemaking.
Justin Boxler (1 hour from Basel) Another Alsatian winemaker tucked into the village of Niedermorschwihr, has a cozy tasting room and some of the coolest old wine barrels of all time.
Domaine Jeanson Parigot (3 hours from Basel) Located in Pommard in the Burgundy region of France, this new winemaker (first vintage in 2019) is already drawing attention for their promising and elegant wines.
Chatteau de Pommard (3 hours from Basel) is a Pommard institution and is an actual "clos", which means vineyard enclosed by walls. It's a grand estate and provides a very educational wine tasting.
Constant Jomini (2 hours from Basel) Our favorite Swiss wine maker and located above picturesque Lake Geneva. Try its Passions wine, which is a well balance blend of five grape varietals.
Got another tip to share or local winemaker to visit? Leave a comment!