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Lebanese sommelier takes on training others in wine culture

Maison du Sommelier is a space for art, wine and molding sommeliers. (Azakir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Wine is fast becoming more popular among the Lebanese, but Carlos Khachan wants them to take the next step and fully immerse themselves in wine culture.

Khachan opened Maison du Sommelier four months ago, in a converted gallery space of an old home in Furn al-Shebbak – an unexpected center for art, wine and molding sommeliers.

First and foremost, Khachan says over lunch during his monthly seminar, Maison du Sommelier is a wine school and “a special place for wine seminars.”

“Today we are talking about the five keys to becoming a sommelier. So we are talking about how to taste wine – the technique and the rules ... Also, we are talking about knowing the grape, the varieties. This is very important because many of the Lebanese don’t know what they are drinking as grapes. They don’t know the plants.”

In addition to training the palette, Khachan’s seminar, “The five keys to becoming a successful wine taster,” also covers the topics of serving wine, matching wines with food, buying and storing bottles.

About 15 people are in attendance at this session, and they enjoy a lunch of cold cuts, cheese and wine during the break in their 5-hour sommelier training session.

“There are three steps to tasting wine. The first step is the visual exam. The second step is the smell exam and the third is the taste exam,” Khachan says, adding that the first step and largest portion of the day’s seminar is about training one’s nose.

“We are using aromas extracted from wine. They are training their olfactory memory to remember each smell so when they smell it in the wine they recognize it.”

Khachan distributes vials containing different aromas – this specific set consist of the 11 smells that indicate a bottle of wine has spoiled. Students let out gasps at some of the odors as they try to match each one with the corresponding item listed on the board: cork, egg, rotten onion, wheat, cauliflower and many more.

There are only four tastes that the tongue can perceive, according to Khachan: bitter, salty, sour and sweet. Smell is, therefore, a huge part of the overall sensory experience and “taste” of a wine.

“There is no actual taste of strawberries but just the aroma strawberry,” Khachan explains, as he launches into a discussion of how to distinguish very good wines from average wines.

One of the first indicators is the quality and length of the aftertaste – the aftertaste of a very good wine will linger in the mouth for a number of seconds. Another indicator is the balance of alcohol in the wine.

“When the wine is unbalanced you feel the heat in the back of the throat from the alcohol,” says Khachan. Wines range from about 7-15 percent alcohol content, he continues, with the lower-alcohol wines being an Italian Spumante or Pinot Grigio and the upper end a Bordeaux style wine. Ideally, alcohol content between 13 and 15 percent is to best preserve the wine.

One important wine-tasting rule is to refrain from judging a wine after just one sip.

“To appreciate the wine you have to taste it three times,” notes Khachan. “And when you taste you have to spit because the sensory experience stops by the time you swallow – then it’s just digestion after this point.”

Pairing wine and food is another topic covered by the sommelier. Khachan is partial to pairing wine with cheese platters because of the number of matching possibilities. He encourages people to play with contrasts – pairing a salty cheese with a sweet wine. Wine can also be matched with food from the same “terroir” or region, but one rule to keep in mind is save your full-bodied reds for a nice steak.

Khachan, who is also the founder of the wine-tasting group Club Grappe, conducts these full seminars once a month at a cost of $80 for the session. Many of his clients come from restaurants and the hospitality industry, while others are just individuals interested in wine culture.

“I had special requests from three different restaurants – Edde Sands, Mayass and Mayrig restaurants. So they are learning how to pour, how to serve, how to talk about wine in order to boost the sale of wine ... this is the future of our food and beverage sector – the sommelier business.”

Maison du Sommelier also doubles as an art space and wine boutique. A rotating collective of artists display work on the walls of the studio and host periodical events.

Khachan also organizes thematic tasting events twice a month at a cost of $25-$30, depending on the wine selection: “I will be choosing typically either Lebanese wines or French wines, focusing on either whites, red or rose – or the three of them, first the white, then the rose, then the red and I will be talking about how to match them with cheese.”

The cellar and boutique are stocked with French imports – such as Les Jammelles, which produces quality, single-grape bottles, and a great wine for developing a sense of the taste of each grape variety.

For a schedule of events visit www.lamaisondusommelier.com. For reservations email ck@lamaisondusommelier.com or call 70-432-640.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 17, 2012, on page 2.

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