Ten tips to help you bluff your way in wine
For those who are currently lacking a bit of confidence, new to wine or perhaps want to impress colleagues or a date then here are a 10 of my top tips to help you get started.
1 - Look the part.
Hold the glass by the stem (primarily for better control but also so you don't warm the liquid up which is important if sparking or white) and gently swirl the wine around to release the volatile aromatics. If you are new to this, wearing dark clothing is a good idea to hide any potential wine splashes... I never wear pale clothes to a wine tasting and am mildly incredulous when people do. Also don't wear perfume to a wine tasting... the pros won't approve...
2 - Do I spit or swallow?
At a professional tasting it is certainly the norm to spit the wine out into a spittoon, primarily to avoid inebriation but also because you don't need to actually swallow the wine in order to taste it effectively. But, if you are at a friend's house or a restaurant, then the best place for the wine is to remain in your mouth and enjoy it. Also, spitting takes a surprising amount of practice and dribbling wine down your chin never wins awards for sophistication.
3 - Ordering Wine in a Restaurant
When out in a restaurant, don't just pick the second cheapest wine. Think about what you are eating; as a very general rule red wines work better with red meat and whites with white meat and fish, but also match the weight of the wine with the weight/texture of the dish. Also ask to see the bottle and take a look at the vintage. If you like your wines fresh and fruity check that the wine is youthful i.e. the vintage is relatively recent but if you like a little more bottle age, certainly for a full-bodied red then check it has a few years in bottle. Often the vintages on the list aren't correct so check the wine you have ordered is the wine you are being presented with and that it isn't too warm or too cold.
4 - Don't Pretend, Simply Ask
When asked to check the bottle and to taste the wine, the sommelier is making sure that you are happy with your wine which basically means that you think it is not faulty but 'clean' (simply wine speak for no faults). If you are not sure, then the best thing is just to say so and ask their opinion, as that is what they are there for. However, in a cheaper establishment the chances are that the server might have less of an idea than you so you will need to make a call. The primary fault you are checking for is cork which means that the wine smells muted, musty and a bit like cardboard. The wine should only ever be opened at your table if you are buying the whole bottle and if the sommelier smells the cork, alarm bells always start ringing for me. A musty smelly cork does not necessarily mean a musty smelly wine and vice versa.
5 - Offering an Opinion
If you are asked your opinion on a wine and you really want to avoid saying 'I dunno -- it just smells like wine to me', then there are a few 'cover-all-bases' words or phrases you can use to mask the fact you aren't a walking wine thesaurus. If the wine is white and you are struggling, words like 'restrained' are good or 'I am finding it a bit tight at the moment but it should open up soon' are fairly reliable as is the word 'mineral' which can again be employed for a wine that isn't really talking to you. For reds, in turn you can use 'brooding', 'tight' and also 'closed'. For wines that actually seem to smell of quite a lot and the aromas 'leap' from the glass but you just can't really get a handle on what those aromas actually are, then words like 'lifted', 'exuberant' or 'distinctive' are good words to have up your sleeve.
6 - Fizz
One of the hardest wines to taste professionally I find as you have to take into account the bubbles aka the mousse and also the flavours and characteristics that come from making the wine fizzy. In a nutshell Prosecco is from Italy, Cava is from Spain and Champagne from Champagne in France. If the wine is a Prosecco, it is made in a giant tank and so the wine is fresh, frothy and fun and has notes of pear and peach (hopefully). However, if a sparkling wine is made in the traditional method then this is a far more expensive process and produces a far more complex wine such as Cava, Champagne or sparkling wines from England. Sugar and yeast are added to the still base wine which creates another fermentation but the CO2 is trapped in the bottle and can't escape which makes the wine sparkling. This secondary fermentation is in bottle and it is the contact of the dead yeast cells with the wine that creates the lovely yeasty, bready, toasty notes that makes champagne and other traditional method sparkling wines so delicious -- called yeast autolysis. This is one of the reasons they are more expensive as it is a long, costly process but the land is expensive, grapes are expensive and creating mega-brands is expensive too, certainly in the case of champagne.
7 - Supermarket Wines
Don't be ashamed to say you buy your wines from a supermarket. Many do a terrific job and their own-label wines can be great value and frequently win awards. Do however steer clear of deep discounts, they are not worth it most of the time as the wine in the bottle is generally only worth the promoted price, not the higher one...
8 - Spend more!
The cost of a bottle of wine is not just the wine itself but also tax, duty, shipping, the bottle and so on and so forth. These 'fixed costs' stay the same however expensive the wine so when you buy a more expensive wine, you actually buy more wine. So if you ever want to justify that to anyone, that you have accidentally 'on purpose' gone a bit nuts at the checkout/till you can argue that the terribly high fixed costs nowadays of a bottle of wine makes it ridiculous not to 'trade up' and buy something snazzier!
9 - Don't worry too much about vintage bores.
Yes, in the old world (Europe) where climate is more changeable you get 'good' and 'bad' vintages and a whole raft in between but basically good winemakers make good wines in bad years and bad winemakers make bad wines in good years. It's all about the producer people. Who made the wine? That's the wine bluffer Holy Grail.
10 - The most important thing to work out is what YOU like
No one else can tell you otherwise or that you are wrong. Be confident in your opinion and try to experiment and taste more wines but if you keep on coming back to your old tried and tested favourite then so what! Everyone is different, everyone's palate is different, tolerance to alcohol, flavour, acidity and tannin is all different so if anyone ever tells you what they think you should like, then thank them for their kind suggestions, maybe even give them a whirl (you never know after all) but don't be intimidated by people who think they know more than you. Only you know what you like after all.