Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
Wine is a big subject and this article is like summarising a whole year’s news in 1,000 words. But…
There is more pretentious rubbish written about wine than on any other subject. Sure, it’s a complex matter and taste and smell are more difficult to describe than sights and sounds, but that is no reason to resort to absurd terminology.
You could see Chateau Whatever described as “ rich in tannins, heavy on the palate, with a petrolly nose and an astringent finish”. So was it nice, then?
I want to know how something that smells of petrol and ‘causes contraction of the body tissue’ (that’s what astringent means) could be pleasant to drink.
Now obviously you can’t just say things are tasty, light, drinkable and so on, because those are vague terms and you’re not really telling the reader anything that isn’t, anyway, nowadays stated on the label by the people who bottled it. But however sophisticated your palate is, I don’t want to know that there is a faint trace of cow dung in there somewhere.
So, having dissed the connoisseurs, what exactly is this wine-drinker’s answer? Well, five things.
- Don’t be afraid of wine.
- Try new things.
- If you like something, remember it.
- If you don’t like something, remember it.
- Consider who’s going to be drinking it.
Don’t be afraid of it. It’s only wine, and if you pay attention to what you’re drinking, you will know what to look for and what to avoid next time.
Try new things. It’s important, though, to do your experimenting in private. If you buy something you’ve never had before and it’s beautiful, that’s great. If it’s horrible (or perhaps there is nothing wrong with it but you just don’t like it) there is no harm done.
Consider who’s going to be drinking it. All you need to do is get something that you and your guests will enjoy, whether it be to drink in your home or theirs. If someone likes the sort of Californian rosé wine that should really be in the soft drinks department, get a bottle of that. And something else for yourself.
Pay attention and remember what it was like. If it was good, look for it again. If you didn’t like it, make sure you don’t get it in future.
COWBOY MASTER TIP
The more you learn about wine, the more you will realize that you know nothing.
What do I know about it? I worked for several years for a chain of wine shops in London and every evening we used to open a bottle and try it.
Our rationale was this: when a customer who knows and trusts you asks what something is like, you can’t just tell them what it is supposed to be like. We were providing a valuable service to the customer.
And I still feel like I know nothing, in the context of the millions of wines, blends and vintages I have yet to try.
What year? Vintages are for experts and not for us to worry about at this stage (but despite the saying, old is not necessarily better).
Another old saying: red with meat, white with fish – but now people are saying that’s rubbish. Well, like a lot of clichés, there is some truth in it, so it’s worth bearing in mind unless you really know what you’re doing.
Let’s imagine you’re having a seafood salad to start and roast turkey for the main course.
By all means choose a white for the seafood, but make sure it’s dry, not sweet. Italian Pinot Grigio is all over the place these days and with good reason, because it is dry, has a certain amount of flavor and is usually quite okay: reliable.
You could go for Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay, both of which have a more pronounced taste which you may or may not like.
My personal favourite is another Italian: Verdicchio, which comes in a distinctive bottle shaped not unlike a woman, with a nice balcony tapering to the ankles. Verdicchio is not terribly, gaggingly dry, but it’s certainly on the dry side of the line.
For your red, the world is full of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and you often find Pinot Noir too. These are the names of the grapes they’re made from, which gives you a rough idea of what they’re like. Shiraz is thick and strong-flavoured (and is another name for the French grape syrah). Malbec is heavy too.
Beaujolais is light. It’s made from the gamay grape, which isn’t very common otherwise, and is generally better young – no more than three or four years to be on the safe side.
Rioja (pronounced reeokka), from Spain, used to be thick and oaky, but they don’t mess around with it so much anymore. It’s just good, quality wine – and doesn’t have to be expensive.
If grapes mean nothing to you, you could try trusting a country. The Italians, French and Spanish all have an excellent reputation. With other countries you might find a gem, but you might not.
Cheap Californian wines tend to be easy to drink. The connoisseur might say they have all the character blended out of them, but when the name of the game is to keep your not-fussy friends happy, the popular Californian names should do it.
DON’T BUY THE CHEAPEST. Wines are arranged at ‘price points’, so you will find loads atone level and then a leap to loads at another. You will occasionally find a little miracle that costs next to nothing, but not often, so spend a little more if you can.
Q. Aren’t corks supposed to be better than screw caps?
A. That’s a kind of snobbery. Corks are traditional, but when buying cheaper wine, screw caps are more reliable. When a wine is described as ‘off’ or ‘corked’, it means it tastes dirty, bitter, musty, contaminated. You are much more likely to come across this when there is a cork in the top. So go for a screw cap.
Like learning to cook, finding your way around wine is a long process, but it’s good fun. Basically, keep trying different things and you will teach yourself.