There are a few people in life that you will, without fail, feel the need to impress: your parents, your boss and the sommelier.
If you aren’t at Jilly Goolden levels of wine know-how, there’s nothing that’ll send you into a fit of pure panic like the approach of a sommelier wielding a weighty wine menu that has the potential to make or break your meal. As a serial designated wine chooser, my scattergun approach generally follows two patterns.
I’ll either try to show off just how much I already know about vinology (so don’t try to upsell me thank you very much) and automatically choose something I recognise and trust; or I’ll lose the ability to remember a single wine I’ve ever drunk and enjoyed and pick one at complete random. Either way I’ll be left wondering if the sommelier’s neutral “excellent choice” was perhaps a touch passive aggressive.
The level of panic in response to the question, “And for the wine, madam?” is directly correlated to how fancy the surroundings are – if they have a waiter whose sole job is to scrape up table crumbs between courses
with a silver dustpan, then I’m probably in hurricane force five mode.
Then there’s the odd “present, pour and swirl” ceremony as the table watches you take that first sip and decide if it’s matched up to your lofty expectations before you inevitably trot out a variant of “It’s fine”, with a nod – because honestly, by that point, unless it’s pure vinegar in a glass you’re going to say it’s brilliant regardless.
I’ve been drinking wine since I was tall enough to steal my parents’ glasses from the table top and writing about it for years, yet I still live in perpetual fear of a better-educated oenophile calling me out. I still cringe about the time I confidently told a sommelier I didn’t like merlot, but my favourite reds were berry-rich St Emillions and smoky pomerols – if you know a bit about grape varietals, you’ll know how much of a plonker that made me. (And if you don’t, it’s because they’re all made from merlot grapes.)
Really, we all want the same thing when it comes to wine: finding that fine balance between moron and wine bore when it comes to talking about it, ordering it and enjoying it.
So I’ve enrolled on the UK Sommelier Association’s bi-annual wine course – an intense, five-month series of lessons on everything from why you swill a glass and how you make champagne to what exactly is a Super Tuscan and how to pair food and wine.
Basically, I’m drinking my way through nearly 100 hours of wine school to discover all the things I’ve been doing wrong, so you don’t have to make my mistakes. I’ll be sharing everything I’ve learned over the next six months. But first, glasses at the ready for some fast wine facts we learned on the first day. Reading these with an open bottle(s) of wine is not obligatory, but comes highly recommended.
You’re serving wine too cold
One of the sommelier’s pet peeves is being asked for ice for your wine. We have all absorbed the idea that for whites in particular, the colder the better. But dry whites and sparkling wine should be drunk around 4-6 degrees Celsius. And the more golden yellow and mature it is, the warmer it should be served. Chilling it down to sub-zero temperatures means all you taste is the base citrus flavours. Pour yourself a glass of nutty, oak-aged chardonnay and
try it straight from the fridge and count how many flavours you can smell and taste. Warm it with your hands for a few minutes and try again – I guarantee that number will double.
Just popping the cork doesn’t let the wine breathe
Bought yourself a deliciously complex, full-bodied red like a Sicilian Nero D'Avola and want to let it breathe? Then you need to pour a little bit out into a glass or, better yet, a decanter. To develop the aromas, oxygen needs to get to the surface area of the wine, and only exposing the circumference of a narrow bottle neck isn’t going to do much.
How to tell the alcohol content without looking at the label
Sommeliers assess alcohol levels in wine by gauging its “warmth” – that’s how much residual heat you can feel in your mouth and throat. Try comparing a mouthful of Burra Brook sauvignon blanc with a Chilean Pintao viognier. As a rule of thumb, if you can feel a wine warming you all the way down into your chest, you’ll probably be ready to party after a few glasses.
Photographer: Nassima Rothacker / Hair and make-up artist: Lindsey Poole / Props stylist: Wei Tang