5 Feb 2024

World of Wine

Many people wear their knowledge of wine as a self-awarded badge of sophistication.  There is nothing sophisticated about being a wine bore. Displays of expertise, which are intended to impress the uninitiated, are merely patronising and alienating. Keep your specialist knowledge to yourself; conversations with the sommelier should be discreet and not for general consumption. If you spot a hidden gem on the wine list, so much the better, but don’t make a song and dance about it. Your friends will soon realise you know what you’re talking about and respect your knowledge; they will defer to you when making wine choices.

Whilst wine may be multifaceted, complicated and nuanced it should not be daunting.  The most seasoned wine professional would never tell you to stop enjoy something you like because of its perceived lack of sophistication.  If you are new to wine or confused by it, you must find a starting point with something you like.  This can act as a reference point, as an anchor even though you may eventually cut yourself free from it.

In a Restaurant

There are any number of ways in which people can become vexed by wine.  First amongst these is choosing wine in a restaurant. Someone must take control of the ordering and if you are the host then there is likely expectation that you will do the honours. Indeed, as the host you might also be picking up the bill so your intervention in the wine selection process will allow you to exercise some control on expenditure.

If you find yourself in the hot seat, you can call upon the help of the professional in the room. namely the sommelier. If there is no sommelier then by all means consult the waiter, but this is a lesser guarantee of finding help. It is entirely reasonable to start by looking at price since even the most basic of restaurants will have a couple of bottles of something pricey on the list on the off-chance that the high-rollers are in town and on a spree. You can discreetly provide some expenditure guidelines to the sommelier who can then steer you in the right direction.

If you are taking the helm for the wine selection you will need to take account of what people will be eating. The sacred dogma of red wine with red meat and white with fish or chicken is not the shibboleth it once was. That said, in the absence of anything else it is a good starting point.

If the group is small and the food choices varied, then wine by the glass is a good option.  Wine by the glass is generally at the lower end of the price spectrum and everyone is guaranteed to get what they want.  If the group is larger, it is broadly accepted that a choice of one red wine and one white wine will hit the spot.

Once the wine is selected the next challenge might well be the tasting. You can elegantly delegate this responsibility and at the same time pay a subtle compliment to your guests by trusting them with this vital task. Remember, the tasting is simply a question of checking that the wine is not corked or gone over rather than an assessment of its quality or suitability. Wine is described as corked when it has been tainted by mould that has come from the cork. If there is a musty smell, a bit like an old dishcloth, it is corked, and another bottle should be found. If the wine is from a screw topped bottle, then corking is not an issue and there is little harm in skipping the tasting altogether.

If called upon to taste the wine, just swirl it around the glass, give it a sniff and take a small sip. Don’t be intimidated by those self-proclaimed experts who demand to know which flavours you can detect. Simply pronounce it delicious and avoid the question – at least you haven’t fallen into the trap of making a boring exhibition of your ignorance.

Most wine is served at the table from the bottle – make it known to the waiter how regularly you would like glasses refreshed. Only a very few wines really need to be decanted and these tend to be the fuller (darker, richer) reds. The decanting process allows some of the less desirable aromas that accumulate in the anaerobic environment of the sealed bottle to drift-off. Thirty minutes in a decanter is usually enough.

Opening a wine and letting it breathe in the bottle is wholly pointless and achieves nothing.  Opening wine and letting it sit in the bottle is sometimes done at large events for one of two reasons. Ostensibly it is to speed the serving of drinks. Cynics would argue it allows the event organiser to bill for more wine and then give the opened bottles to the serving staff in lieu of proper wages.

Serving at Home

Red wine should be served at 17–18°C (63°F), the temperature of a cool room. Fine white wine only needs 20 minutes in the fridge; too much chilling will hide the complexity of a good wine. It’s best, however, to chill cheaper bottles of white right down.

A wine glass should be only filled one third full; it is better to underfill, rather than overfill, a glass. Reds should be served in a large glass with a bigger bowl to release the bouquet. Whites are served in a smaller, narrower glass that should always be held by the stem to avoid warming the wine. Always make sure you keep your guests’ glasses topped-up. Whether hosting or not, it is bad form to top up you own glass without offering wine to others first.

It is always a good idea to keep a decent bottle of red and white (chilled) on stand-by at home in case guests drop by. If you have space, it is great to have something sparkling available for impromptu celebrations.

If you are invited to dinner at someone’ house and bring a bottle of wine as a gift, remember it is not inevitable that the hosts will open it on night. The hosts may well have the wine organised and they can enjoy your bottle another time. When presented with a bottle by a friend or guest it is a good idea to fix a note to it so that when you do drink it, be it days, weeks or months later, you can send a message of thanks.

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