If there’s a dream list for wine lovers, working with one of the best wine collections in America would be one of them. Sommelier Ruben Ramiro is one of the lucky few: not only does he have the opportunity to taste 78′ Grand Cru Burgundy among countless others, more importantly, he knows the peaks and valleys of each of those wines’ evolution.
In an effort to continue his own evolution and ongoing commitment to his trade, Ruben is in the process of moving from his current position as Sommelier at Veritas in New York City to PM & Vanner in Sweden – all while pursuing the Master of Wine accreditation.
We caught up with him here in Brooklyn to talk in our second language of English about wine.
What was your connection with wine before you work in the industry?
I grew up in Ribera del Duero in Spain, where wine is an important part of our selves. My grandmother owned many vineyards, so my father grew up taking care of her vineyards until they were sold, before I was born. So I grew up listening to my father about his vineyard work. I started to taste wine seriously when I was 16, and later went to University of Barcelona to study hotel business, where I learned all spectrum of food and wine subjects. After that I went to London’s WSET program, finished the Diploma and at the same time worked as a sommelier. As you know, wine involves constant learning, and since then I’ve been continuing my own research.
Food and wine are all about senses, what are the influences that have refined your palate?
Years of experience… the more you taste, the more refined your senses are. For me, it’s very important to taste systematically. You have to approach it with the same analysis system every time, each time with 100% concentration. Then recollect tasting notes afterwards… That’s how you progress as a taster. I’ve also been very lucky to work with great tasters throughout my career, from sommeliers to wine makers. Currently I’m pursuing Master of Wine, so I’m surrounded with many tremendous tasters. All these help the precision of my senses.
The amount of wine in a trade tasting is often overwhelming, what’s your strategy?
My mentor taught me many aspects of tasting, among them attention is extremely, extremely important. He told me that when you’re in front of many wines, you need to discipline yourself to taste each wine only once - and that’s your only chance. It helps you to concentrate with more intensity, it also avoids stressing your palate even more by tasting a wine twice.
What makes a wine a great wine?
For me, the wine has to manifest complexity aromatically; on the palate, the balance between acidity, fruit, alcohol and tannin is important; the wine needs to have certain energy and taste alive; long length and persistency; on the finish it gives a harmonious lingering. The wine should embody a union of beauty, life, balance, complexity and harmony. A great wine should give you pleasure, and to be desired.
You worked with Veritas, which has tremendous wine collection. How does your palate memorize each wine?
Veritas has 150,000 wines and draws the reserve wine from the cellar of its owner Park B. Smith, who is one of the greatest wine collectors in America. How do I remember each wine? (pause) ..again, by being systematic. I take notes all the time, archive them, and go back to study them. Some people might have a natural gift to memorize flavors. For me, I need to be organized.
How do you think about the fundamental differences between Eastern and western palates?
I have never been to the East and exposed to its markets and culture, so I can’t say much. However, I’ve met many people from Asia – Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore – and they have extraordinary understanding and knowledge of wine, and very educated palates. One time an Asian guest opened 3 bottles of phenomenal Burgundies. He not only graciously offered them to me, but shared incredible knowledge on viticulture, producers and vineyard sites… He was not in wine business, just a wine lover, yet the things he knew were simply amazing.
The wine market in China is still young, so drinkers’ understanding on wine is perhaps at the initial level. It’d require time before they understand wine in their own way, when it comes to food and wine pairing. Right now it might be all about trophy wine from Bordeaux and Burgundy, but gradually they will appreciate wine from all the other regions as well. When they stop seeing wine as a commodity but rather an element in life, and drink wine in all ceremony of daily life… then wine will play a very different role there.
Given that wine is a living thing, people often scratch their head when it comes to deciding, “when is the best time to drink a certain wine” - what is your experience?
Drinking wine is a subjective experience. I don’t believe there’s a fundamental assumption. If we say, “For this great 2010 Pomerol (such a great vintage), don’t touch it in 20 years – because that’s the way I like it.” For others, they might like the power and fruit in its younger phase.
Personally, I do have a sweet spot for a wine’s optimal state. I like it to integrate all its elements, and even develop a secondary aroma. Still has fruit and great energy, with seamless tannin, and comes to a harmonious union… It might take longer or shorter depends on the vintage and other elements.
To give you an idea, I love Burgundy from the top vineyards made by top producers. Among them the reds from the 70s, or ’85, ’93 are drinking beautifully now. I don’t like to open a Grand Cru that’s less than 20 or 25 year old. I see top Bordeaux in similar way – a first growth from 2000 is still quite youthful, whereas 1990 is ready. I like how they gain so much that the enjoyment on the palate have really multiplied, at the same time they still reserve the primary characters that remind you where they come from. White from top producers in Germany might need 15 years or more – ’61, ’65 are great right now.
In general, these are meant to be aged: Burgundy premier cru and up, Bordeaux top growths, Cornas, Hermitage, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello… Get them and forget about them if you could, then open them when they reach a certain maturity.
On the other hand, when I drink a young wine, I look for the youthful fruit and exuberant energy – and these wine do give you great pleasure.