Few things top the horror of the words, “Would you like to taste the wine?” when you are clueless about plonk. Faking confidence, you nod to the waiter with a look to communicate that you normally wouldn’t be somewhere so upmarket but you found a deal online and so please could they leave you alone now so you can enjoy your discounted steak and chips?
But really, why are we expected to know how to pronounce “sauvignon blanc” or understand the difference between a merlot and a pinot noir (seriously though, what is it?) as if we emerge from the womb with that knowledge? Admit it. Most of us just look at the bar menu, point at the second cheapest glass if we’re trying to impress and otherwise just ask for a house white because we’re drinking to unwind, not to smell notes of the forest or whatever it is you’re supposed to do.
Still, pretending to know what you’re talking about when it comes to wine can be handy from time to time. So let’s start with the basics. When pairing wine with food, the general rule is that delicate dishes like fish go with white, while anything more intense – like juicy steaks or spicy curries – are best matched with reds.
When presented with a bottle of wine, the most important way of gleaning what the flavour might be like is identifying the grape variety, explains Sam Caporn, a master of wine. (Yes, that’s a real job).
“If it is from the New World, which is outside Europe mainly, it will be very easy to spot on the label due to varietal labelling. It will be something like sauvignon blanc or merlot,” she explains. Old World is meanwhile used to describe wine from countries where it has been made for centuries including France, Spain, Germany, Portugal and Italy, and is usually labelled by area. That makes it tricky to know what grape you’re dealing with.
“It’s a good idea to try and learn some of your favourites,” says Caporn. “For example white sancerre is made from sauvignon blanc and whites from burgundy are made from chardonnay – for example meursault – whilst reds are pinot noir.”
Caporn adds: “Rioja is mainly made from the tempranillo grape and claret or red bordeaux is made predominantly from cabernet sauvignon from the left bank [of the River Gironde] such as margaux or merlot [such as in St Emilion and pomerol) if the right bank. Barolo is the nebbiolo grape and chianti is made from sangiovese.” (Phew, got that?)
The shape of a bottle is another useful clue to its contents. The wider, curvier Burgundy bottle tends to contain chardonnay and pinot noir, whilst the thinner Bordeaux bottle tends to produce cabernet sauvignon or merlot-based wines.
Once you’ve nailed what might be going on inside the bottle, now comes the hard part: pretending to have a valid opinion on its flavour. First, arm yourself with some mystifying jargon. Tannin, terroir, aroma, palate, and length should cover it.
Tannin is what makes your mouth feel sort of gross and dry when you drink red wine. “It’s useful to be able to work out if you like a lot of it – like in a big tannic red – or not so much in which case you prefer soft and supple tannins,” explains Joe Fattorini, a wine expert named the communicator the year at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition. “Great wines are often marked by their ‘fine-grained tannins’.”
“Terroir means a sense of place – so what makes a wine taste the way it does – and includes climate, site exposure and soil,” says Caporn. Aroma and palate refer to the taste and smell, respectively, while length indicates if you can you taste it for a while after it’s hit your mouth as that indicates quality.
“BLIC” is a useful acronym to use when describing a wine, adds Fattorini – balance, length, intensity and complexity. “Good wines are ‘good’ because they have a balance of sweet fruitiness and fresh acidity. They have great length that leaves the taste on your tongue after you swallow. They have intense fruit flavours you can identify. And they’re complex – we tend to prefer wines that taste of lots of things. If you ever have to describe a wine just rattle through the BLIC. You’ll sound like an expert.”
Hold the glass properly placing your hands around the stem, not the bowl, to avoid warming up chilled wines and so you can enjoy the colour of reds, adds Fattorini. As you take your first sip, remember that you don’t taste wine alone but that flavour also comes from smell.
“You'll get more out of a wine if you enjoy the lovely colour in the glass and then have a deep sniff, perhaps after swirling it around the glass a bit. This liberates all the delicate aromas,” he adds. Then try to feel the wine in your mouth. “Wines can be light and juicy or dense and mouth coating,” he says. “And then swallow – that’s the best bit – and as you do, notice how your nose is suddenly filled with the aromas again as they rise up your throat. It’s known as the aroma ‘burst’ and it’s lovely.”
“But mostly, don’t overthink it. It’s just wine, and you’re just looking to enjoy it the best you can,” says Fattorini. “You can just drink it and not worry too much. That’s fine.”
Sam Caporn will be appearing at the Life Hacks with Nectar event between 28-30 September in central London.
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