My friend and fellow food and drink fanatic Paulo Tullio once observed over dinner “You know, Ernie, there’s nothing so boring as reading what someone else ate last night”, one reason why as a critic I try and give readers a little ‘value added’; though maybe not as much as the Sunday Times’ A.A.Gill who only mentions the meal in the penultimate line!
It was a long time before it dawned on me that the same could be said about
wine writing. We wine scribes are prone to waxing lyrical about the last
stellar bottle we encountered, wrapping it in emotive language before
presenting it to the reader. Sometimes and I’m as guilty as anyone, we lose
the run of ourselves in extolling the virtues of a wine that costs a small
fortune and is about as available as an opera date with Victoria Beckham.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to take a day off from the ‘aroma of mint, mangoes, green peppers and three-year-old Adidas trainers’ scene to outline 10 ways in which you could, for little or no outlay, get more enjoyment out of your glass of wine.
1. Buy some decent glasses. Nothing improves the taste of wine so much as a glass of the right size and shape. Masters of the art are the Austrian firm Riedel, who have devised a specific wine glass for any grape variety you could name. This is maybe a bit extreme but their glasses are very good and their Chianti Classico pattern which we use for our regular tastings at FOOD & WINE Magazine are an excellent all-rounder for white and red wine. They make three ranges, the expensive hand blown Sommelier series, the machine cut Vinum series, still a great glass, plus a cheaper range specifically for restaurant use. No need to spend top dollar, these will do fine. Mitchells in Kildare Street, Dublin are the principal Riedel stockists and Brown Thomas also have them, as do many wine merchants nationwide. Other glassware manufacturers are now jumping on the bandwagon. Tipperary Crystal launched a range recently in conjunction with Michelin-starred restaurateur Patrick Guilbaud, of a quality similar to the Riedel Sommelier glasses. Waterford Crystal are about to follow suit. No matter whose glassware you buy make sure the glass is thin and the rim is clean cut, not rolled. And please don’t drink wine from chunky cut crystal, it will taste only horrid. Choose a reasonably large glass; when ‘filled’ (which means the wine should come no more than a third the way up) it should have a good head of air space to allow the wine to ‘breathe’.
2. Try spending a little more on your regular bottle of wine. Wine writers are over fond of airing the old saw that six euro’s worth of bottle only contains about twenty cent’s worth of wine but it’s true enough. If you normally buy a ten euro bottle to consume with dinner at home on a Friday night, up your spend to twelve. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes to the quality of the wine.
3. Open your mind. What’s the wine writer’s favourite grape? In nine cases out of ten it’s Riesling. There must be some good reason why. When was the last time you tasted Riesling? Not for a long time, I’d bet. And no, ‘Riesling’ doesn’t mean ‘German’, it doesn’t mean ‘sickly sweet’. Go on, give it a go, buy an Alsace Riesling or one from Australia’s Clare Valley. And while you’re in the mood to experiment, try a Chilean Carmenere or a Malbec or Bonarda from Argentina.
4. Do less glugging and more tasting. Wines reward contemplation. Sniff the bouquet, savour the mouthfeel and, when you put the glass down, relax and relish the aftertaste. At first you’ll probably feel like an eejit especially when all around you are downing the wine like the world is about to end. But who’ll get more enjoyment out of the glass, them or you?
5. Make a friend of the staff in your local wine merchants. Confide in them, tell them what kind of wine you like and what you don’t. Theyï¿½ll be only too pleased to give you advice and, with at least 350 lines in the shop theyï¿½ll have no problem in finding something new and delicious for you to try.
6. Another way of widening your vinous horizon is to find a wine writer whose prose style doesn’t make you gag and follow their recommendations. Myself, Tomas Clancy, John Wilson, Raymond Blake, Martin Moran, Blake Creeden and the rest lay our livers on the line on a daily basis, each of us sampling several thousand bottles a year in order to find ones for our readers that are reliable/tasty/exciting/sensational. Tapping into all that research, free gratis, has got to be worthwhile, surely?
7. Don’t buy wine by the case unless you’ve tried a bottle of it first. Case discounts are attractive but you could get stuck with eleven bottles you hate, after you’ve poured half the first one down the sink or consigned it to tomorrow night’s gravy. What’s more the mixed cases offered by wine clubs, newspapers and magazines are often trumpeted and tricked up to sound like the bargain of the century but they rarely are. Buy in ones and twos for the time being.
8. If you are new to wine, get away from the big brands as soon as you feel confident enough to do so, at least for the time being. I’m not being snotty, Iï¿½ll happily relax with a bottle of Penfold’s Koonunga Hill, Mont Gras Cabernet, Wolf Blass Presidentï¿½s Selection Shiraz or Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Rose. But drinking branded wines won’t help you develop your palate or assist you to gain knowledge of wine’s many facets in the same way as an encounter with wines made by individual specialist producers will. Generally speaking, small producers make wines with character and personality; not necessarily ‘better’ wines please note but certainly ones that will give you a wider spectrum of aromas and flavours for your nose and palate to experience and maybe give you a clue as to why wine writers are always banging on about that word ‘terroir’ (by which they mean the interaction of soil, aspect and microclimate in which the grape is grown, the main factor in giving a wine its own individual character). Again, your local wine merchant is the place to start and in Ireland we are lucky because the ‘wine shop on main street’ is generally of a much higher calibre than its counterpart over the water.
9. How about a little, non-too-serious vinous education? Great for whetting your appetite for wine. Go buy a wine book, one that’s easy-to-read, doesn’t ‘talk down’ and introduces you to wine in an intelligent and light-hearted manner. One I’d recommend is ‘Thirsty Work’ by the young Australian sommelier and pal of Jamie Oliver, Matt Skinner. To be picky, there are more than a few inaccuracies but it’s written in a lively, pacy style that will maintain your interest. Or anything by Oz Clarke. Use the web, too, it’s very wine-friendly. Jamie Goode’s ‘The Wine Anorak’ (www.wineanorak.com) is very educational and easy to assimilate, as is Robin Garr’s ‘Wine Lover’s Page’ (www.wineloverspage.com ). Take a look at Martin Moran’s www.winerepublic.comAnd, dare I say it, my own ‘Forkncork’ contains some unstuffy articles on wine. “Google before you gargle”, that’s the motto! You might even want to go on a course. The Wine Development Board (www.wineboard.com) organises structured courses, the higher echelons of which are aimed at people working in the trade. Many wine merchants run less formal, more funky events, from one-off tastings to courses over a number of weeks.
10. Have fun. Try this: organise your own blind tasting. Persuade five friends to bring a bottle each round to your house, ideally of the same style or grape variety, maybe start on South African Chardonnay, say, or Aussie Shiraz. Don’t forget to buy a bottle yourself. When they arrive, grab the bottles off them and Sellotape paper bags over them so the labels are obscured. Then get someone else to rearrange them in a different order and taste away. Have on hand a packet of water biscuits, a jug of tap water, glasses and an improvised spittoon ï¿½ someone’s bound to be driving. If you are self conscious about spitting, practise in advance, with a glass of water in the privacy of your own bathroom. I’m not ashamed to say that I did this when I first got into the wine writing game, 30 years ago. Some pro tasters can hit the head of a pin at five paces but I’m afraid Iï¿½m still not in the slightly messy league! Get everyone to write down their thoughts; after a relaxing glass they won’t be afraid to air them and nor should you. Don’t worry if you think it sounds naff. Certain white wines are often said to taste ‘flinty’ but tell me, who, wine scribe or no, has ever tasted flint? It might be naff but it’s great craic and that’s what’s important. So, enjoy.