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A survey, by Californian wine giant E&J Gallo’s Dark Horse brand, found that almost 75% of British wine drinkers found restaurant wine lists intimidating. It also suggested that 58% felt they had insufficient knowledge to order with confidence.

If the survey by Gallo is correct, and I offer no evidence to suggest otherwise, it may explain why so many prefer to shop for wines in supermarkets rather than buying from wine merchants or restaurants where some form of interaction, however minimal, will be required. Let’s face it, no one wants to appear foolish. 

Let’s face it, no one wants to appear foolish. 

Armed with a basic knowledge of wine, which is surprisingly easy to acquire, one should never again feel any sort of intimidation either at a wine merchants or faced with a haughty sommelier in some upper-class establishment. A little trick I use when faced with a snotty sommelier or wine merchant would go something like this:

Sommelier: “Would sir like to have a look at the wine list?” (Unfriendly sommelier handing me a seriously heavy, leather bound tome.)

Me: “Thank you. Have you selected the wines on the list yourself?” (This is highly unlikely, though whether he or she has or hasn’t is irrelevant.)

Sommelier clearing his throat: “No sir, I haven’t. It’s done by our in-house buyer.” Or “Yes I have.”

Me not bothering to open heavy tome: “That’s a pity. I am sure they/you have selected a good house red/white. What is it?”

Now the poor sommelier is under a bit of pressure with their amour propre on the line. After all, who would choose a crappy house wine and all without having any chance of selling you some overpriced red or white at four times what it’s worth!

Of course, most sommeliers and wine merchants are friendly and keen wine enthusiasts (or they should be) and eager to please, so here I try and engage with them and ask them what their favourite wines are and so on. I always tell them what my budget is as I am a strong believer fine winery is best practiced at home not restaurants. That’s just my personal opinion of course.

Sometimes with all the cultural and social norms around wine its sometimes easy to forget wine is simply fermented grape juice. 

So, what is wine?

For our purposes, wine is only made from fermented grape juice. (Orange wine is not made from oranges. More on that later.)

How is wine made?

Vines are planted (of course). It might be a Chardonnay Vine or Sauvignon Vine or one of ten thousand grape known varieties. After three years (considered the minimum) grapes will be harvested after they reach the optimum maturity (flavour) hopefully with the optimum sugar level as well, though not always the case. The sugar will be converted to alcohol during fermentation.

I am a strong believer fine winery is best practiced at home.

Note: With global warming sugar levels may be too high when grapes reach full flavour levels, hence increasing and unwanted alcohol levels.) 

Harvest and Fermentation

Come September (usually), grapes will be harvested by hand or machine. Expensive wines tend to favour hand harvesting and even ploughing the land using horses, which doesn’t compact the earth. Sometimes the grapes are harvested at night to keep freshness. Better and more expensive producers may have a rigorous selection of grapes. This is time consuming and expensive. Other less so. The grapes are then crushed and fermented. For white wines, only juice is fermented. Red wines fermented with skins to extract tannins and flavours. Once fermented (up to three weeks), wine is filtered and may go through a second process called malolactic fermentation (or MLF) to turn malic acid to lactic acid. This will make the wines taste smoother. The wine is then filtered and matured either in stainless steel or barrels. New barrels are very expensive so reserved for more expensive wine. Barrels will impart flavour to the wine such as woody flavours or vanilla. Most wine may use a mixture of new and old barrels. After a year or more maturing the wines are bottled and sold.

Terroir

This is an essential term to understand as the whole wine world now uses the term. It very simple. Terroir describes the whole concept of soil, climate, orientation and even hand of man.  So, for example the terroir of Burgundy allows fine white Chardonnay wines to be made whilst the terroir of Morocco may not, i.e. the terroir of Morocco is clearly different from that of Burgundy. Terroir is becoming increasingly important as producers try to differentiate the terroir of even small parcels of land within designated vineyard areas. Fine wine producers try to make wine which reflect the terroir.

Cork or Screwcap?

Either will do. £50+ bottles of wine with screwcaps are now common. Screwcaps will eliminate many wine faults such as ‘corked’ wines. Screwcaps are not inferior.

How to Taste Wine.

Glasses make a huge difference to wine perception. Invest in well-made ones with thin walls. Riedel make great glasses. 

Try this exercise:

Buy three (or more) different types of oranges (this is easier than wine to start with). Smell the three oranges uncut. Then after cutting. Do they smell different? Which smells better and why? Take notes. 

Now taste the three. Note the sweetness in each. How do they compare? Rate the sweetness in each 0-10.

Now the acidity. Do the same and rate it. 0- 10 (0 being no acidity, 10 searing acidity). Now think about the balance of sweetness to acidity. Which orange has the best balance? Which orange has the simplest flavour and which the most complex? Finally, which flavour lasts the most before disappearing? I.e. long or short finish. After all that decide which orange you prefer.

That’s wine tasting in a nutshell. 

Now you are ready to move on to wine. Carry out the same exercises. Practice, practice, practice. See if you can identify some aromas in wine. Common ones include:

Strawberries

Peaches

Lemons

Coconut

Wood

Cork (faulty)

It’s What I Like

Remember you are the final arbiter if a wine is to your liking. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It has to be said that when you start exploring wines, your preferences will change. That wine which may have tasted to sour or not fruity enough may at some point be preferable to an earlier preference. Remember, price is no guarantee of quality nor how the wine has matured and stored – keep an open mind.

Complexity

Wine enthusiasts look for complexity in wines. For good reason. No fine wine was ever made that was simple. But what exactly is complexity? As the word suggests, it’s an intermingling of flavours much like an orchestra playing a complex piece of music. A non-complex wine may be fruity much like Ribena with alcohol. Pleasant enough. Here’s an exercise on complexity:

Go somewhere quiet and peaceful. Take a glass of chilled Fino and some olives. Immerse yourself in the flavours of both. How would that compare with Ribena? That’s complexity!

About Vintages

Some years are better than others. Hugely important in cooler climates like France and will dictate price. Almost irrelevant in warmer ones such as Spain. (I know I will be criticised for saying this but that’s what I’ve found.) Buy one of those little charts but beware; some ‘poor’ vintages can turn out to be spectacular after a decade in bottle. 

Ageing Wines

Wine critics try and predict when a wine should be drunk by. Generally wine critics are wrong simply because they have so many young wines to taste they rarely follow up their own notes when wines are older. They always underestimate the ageing potential of wines. In my experience, most wines will improve with ageing. After coming across very humble wine after years forgotten in my cellar I’ve been amazed. Don’t forget, heat kills wines so unless you have temperature control best to forget about ageing your own wines.

Next Month: Become a Wine Expert in 60 minutes – Part 2.

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