Only joking. Well, sort of. Judging by the number of books written on the subject, from scholarly biochemical treatises to the ‘aroma of petrol with overtones of ripe mango and wet slippers’ gush, there’s quite a lot to be said. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that there are really only four questions you need to ask when confronted with an unfamiliar bottle.
• Is the smell agreeable?
• Do I like the taste?
• After I’ve drunk the wine, does it leave me with any lasting impression?
• How much does it cost and would I buy it if I could afford it?
A touch simplistic, I know. but wine is like any other hobby. You can sit back, quaff and enjoy or you can don your anorak and gown and take the pursuit of knowledge to Professor of Trainspotting levels. The choice is yours, but, along the way, don’t be misled by pontificating pseudo-pundits or by reputations. Be wary of domineering bluffers. Trust your tastebuds and learn to make your own judgements. In my former capacity as a wine critic, I was privileged to attend a vertical tasting of one of the First Growth Medoc wines. (A vertical tasting is where you compare different vintages of the same wine, as opposed to a horizontal tasting, where you compare different wines made in the same year, nothing to do with drinking to excess). Albert, the host, had found some bottles of the ’68 in his cellar and thought it might be interesting to throw them in among the majestic ’75s and ’78s. 1968 was one of those vintages that turn up now and again to remind man that he is still a long way from conquering nature so it came as no surprise to find that the ’68 didn’t measure up the grower’s reputation. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for how throat-clutchingly bad it was. I wrote one word in my tasting notes. That word was ‘undrinkable’. One of my fellow tasters was looking over my shoulder at the time. Affronted as if I’d written ‘the guy behind me is an ugly bugger’, he spun me round to accuse me of heresy.
‘You can’t say that. It’s Chateau Bombast. How can you say Chateau Bombast is undrinkable?’ I stood my ground, inviting him to taste some more. He declined, instead going off to drum up reinforcements for his standpoint. He returned with a friend. ‘Algy’, he said, ‘here’s a man who says the ’68 Bombast is undrinkable’. ‘You can’t say that’, said Algy, ‘it costs forty one quid a bottle’. If there are two worse reasons for declaring a wine to be of merit, I’ve yet to hear them.
When matching wine to food, be wary of the exotic imagery school. If the bouquet of New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Chardonnay reminds you of green bananas, almonds, Oil of Ulay and old rugger boots, well and good; but if what you really need to know is ‘will this wine do the business with my Black Sole Bercy?’ A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will suffice. Speaking of emotive language, a wine merchant friend lucky enough to possess one of the world’s most discerning palates had but three categories in which to place wine. These were, in order of merit, ‘crap, sound and fucking sound’. In ten years of tasting with Paul I never found a reason to doubt his judgment.
The old sages of cookery used to dictate ‘red wine with meat, white with fish’, good advice in the days when people, if they drank wine at all, drank awful Liebfraumilch. These days, it’s a more complex affair with every grape variety known to man on the supermarket shelves. I’d rather advise that you:
• ignore the above red/white dictum
• remember Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are not the only grapes. There is a good deal of enjoyment to be had in exploring varietal wine made from Grenache, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo not to mention Syrah (Shiraz), Sauvignon Blanc and blended wines. Live a little.
• drink complex, heavyweight wines with rich foods and light, fragrant wines with delicately flavoured dishes.
• don’t waste money drinking really expensive wines with red sauced Italian food, especially pasta dishes.
• drink a counterpunching wine with Chinese food. Like the robust Piedmontese reds, Barolo or Barbaresco. Or old-style Aussie shiraz. If you prefer white wine drink Gewurztraminer or a big, oaked Chardonnay.
• drink beer, water or lassi (spiced yoghurt) with curry.
Oh, what the hell. If you favour champagne or Johnnie Walker Black Label with filet de boeuf en croute, or with Bangalore Phal for that matter, then go for it. But try to have on hand something a bit more mainstream for your guests.
Any bottle of wine is only as good as your memory of it. And no palate is perfect. I used to reckon mine was pretty good. Until I got into the finals of a competition, held by The Observer newspaper, to ‘Win Your Own Weight in Wine’ *. The twelve finalists had to undergo an ordeal in which we were each presented with twenty four glasses of wine, grouped in threes, and asked questions about each group. As befitting a serious affair, spittoons and palate neutralising nibbles were provided. By the end of the evening I could tell a Bath Oliver from a Carr’s Table Water Biscuit, blindfold. And nothing more.
* about six and a half cases. Winner got claret; runner up, champagne; third place, burgundy. The rest were given one mixed case each. My cunning suggestion that we pool all the prizes, i.e. we depute the three heaviest contestants to make a serious stab at the questions (one fat guy was worth a conservative nine cases), while the rest of us treat the night as a piss up, was turned down by the misery guts who eventually finished twelfth and serve him bloody well right.