“Oh, this has glorious undertones of russet.”
“Goodness, you can really smell the loam.”
“Sharp pangs of tangerine. I don’t even want to spit it into this bucket!”
Yes, wine people. We’ve all heard them, we’ve all stood next to them, we’ve all pitied them. But what the hell they talking about? Do the things that they ramble on about actually make sense? Does that weird slobbery thing they do with their mouth before spitting actually achieve anything? Can’t we all just admit that all wine basically tastes the same?
But if you wish to wrestle back the reins of wine from the connoisseurs and self-appointed sommeliers, all you need to do is follow a few simple steps and drop a number of notable buzzwords. Before you know it, you’ll be sniffing disapprovingly at a barbecue Merlot like a professional.
KNOW WHAT WINE IS
Sounds stupid I know, but it’s remarkable how little people actually know about wine production and how it goes from grape juice to great juice (which is what I call it. I call wine ‘great juice’). The elements that go into wine production, the region, the sugar content of the grapes (known as the ‘brix’), the weather: all that kind of stuff. Sugar in the fruit is what is converted (using yeast) into your delicious vino. More sugar in the grape means more alcohol when it’s processed. And more rain that falls before the grapes are harvested means more diluted sugar in the fruit. That’s why climate and location are so important to vintners and connoisseurs.
At this point, all the wine is white. Once the grapes have been pressed, the winemaker decides whether the crushed pulp can be added to the skins of red grapes and develop into red wine. The woody bits of the grapes adds tannin, which gives red wine its distinct flavour. This whole process is known as ‘maceration’ so when you hear a wine bore blather on about that, now you know.
Yeast is then added to convert the sugars in the grape juice to booze. The sort of yeast that is used can also affect the taste and quality of the wine. Different strains of yeast will produce different results, so you may hear phrases such as ‘Brett’ and ‘wild yeast’ bandied about. Now the fermentation begins. Any alien elements are removed, the wine is disinfected and stored in vats or barrels. Then any remaining impurities are removed by straining the wine through a filter, or else adding gelatine to leech out any bad things. Then it is aged further, until ready to inflict on the world.
WHERE’S IT FROM?
Varietals are the various sorts of grape grown across the planet. Obviously, if you can grow grapes, you can grow any sort of grapes, but some fruits do better in certain areas and become synonymous with that region. For red wines, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (or Shiraz), Zinfandel and Merlot are the main types of grape used. The Burgundy region of France is known for growing Merlot and Pinot Noir, California knocks out a decent Zinfandel, Australia is excellent as Syrahs and great Cab Savs emerge from Bordeaux.
For whites, you’re looking at Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay varietals. Again California and the Bordeaux bits of France produce exceptional fruits. These are just the main ones, there are GAZILLIONS of different varieties out there. In fact, French winey types tend to consider the terroir or the climate and position of the vineyard to be far more important than the grape variety.
WHEN IS IT FROM?
Now we get into the real nitty-gritty of wine snobbery as you start to hark on about years and vintages. So, white wine tends to get shipped out earlier and go off a lot quicker than reds. Whites that are more than 25 years old are probably past their prime. 1989 and 1990 are both considered classic years for whites.
In the red world, avoid anything that’s 40 years or beyond (where are you drinking?) unless it’s some magical vintage that was dredged up from the ocean floor and cost nine million dollars. Anything produced after the mid-1990’s is considered too young for your distinguished palette. Again 1989 and 1990 were both great years for reds, though you can get some decent Italian varieties from 1985 and some nice California stuff from 1992.
HOW TO DRINK IT
I tend to drink most of my wines out of a Sports Direct mug, but apparently there are different glasses used for different colours. White wine glasses have a longer stem and a smaller bowl, so it won’t be heated up by your sweaty mitt. Reds are the other way around, so your paws can warm it up and release all those lovely flavours. As you know, red wine should be allowed to ‘breathe’. This doesn’t mean taking the top off and leaving it on a windowsill for a couple of hours. Just a few minutes before serving, remove the stopper and pour out a little. Less wine in the bottle allows more of the wine to get at the air.
Once you’ve poured out a generous portion, hold the glass up and inspect the hue. The red should be distinct rather than a brown. The more concentrated the flavour, the deeper the colour. With whites the lighter wines have a paler hue, with heavier varieties, such as a Chardonnay, having a more golden colour. By tilting back the glass and investigating the curve of the surface, you can see how much the wine has aged, with older reds having an amber sheen.
Then tilt the glass back. If there are traces left by the wine (the ‘legs’) this shows a high sugar content and consequently lots of alcohol within. Then comes the swirling! Swirling isn’t just a fun way to distribute wine over yourself and your guests, it also adds oxygen and helps release the flavours. Now you have swirled, you can embark on everyone’s favourite part: the nosing.
Jam your hooter right into that aroma filled bowl and sniff. Region, age and grape variety can all influence the perfume. The main rule of thumb is: be honest. Does the smell linger or vanish straight away? Do you smell something unpleasant? (Sauvignon Blancs are traditionally thought to smell like cat wee).
Is there a fruity aroma, or a woody one? Can you detect a burnt match smell (in which case sulphur has been added) or a musty quality (it may be corked)? Or does it remind you of the countryside (as Pinot Noirs are supposed to do). The important thing to remember is there are no right answers. If you smell something specific, then you smell something specific. No matter how large a gentleman’s bow-tie and how ruddy his cheeks, he doesn’t have the precise answer.
If you are at a tasting and are expected to spit, have a bit of a practice at home. You want to release a single powerful stream and never spit diagonally in front of another taster. Take a mouthful of the wine and roll it around the inside of your mouth, ensuring all parts of your tongue get a portion and breathing as you do so to add more oxygen. Hold it for fifteen seconds and so and then spit (if at a tasting) or swallow (if not). As with the nosing, draw your own conclusions about the taste, taking into account the weight and texture as well as any overwhelming flavours. There are no wrong answers!
Hurrah! You’ve drunk some wine! Just like a proper lady or gentleman. But the world of wine is complicated and ever-changing, so if you’re inspired to find out more about grapes and their attributes, try a wine tasting course, like this masterly one RIGHT HERE.