Here’s how I look at wine; I’m not a wine guru, I don’t own a bow-tie and my imagination doesn’t take me to “toast spread with buttercups and cherries” when I inhale a large whiff of Merlot. So can I write a Wine Blog? Well, I do love wine. I know the basics, I enjoy the layers that a good wine has to offer, from first sniff to last mouthful. And I know how to match a menu to a good bottle of wine and vice versa. “ Oenophile” though – “the disciplined devotion to wine, its traditions, consumption and appreciation” is a name that belongs to other people, people more educated and knowledgeable than I am in this wonderful, magical subject.
What I really love is that it doesn’t matter – that’s not what enjoying wine is all about. Wine is like food in this sense; your enjoyment of wine is both personal and historical based on what you have tasted before, what you loved, what made you screw your nose up and raise your eyebrows suspiciously! For me, it’s simple, a world without wine is a barren, desolate and unsocial place. Extreme statement I know!
These days the idea that wine is a pleasure of the sophisticated and wealthy is laughable. The supermarkets dedicate aisles and aisles of precious sales space to this tantalising liquid, rich ruby red and crisp shiny whites lined up in rows beside pale pink roses and sparkling bottles begging for the cork to be popped. The giants of Tesco and Asda would not afford the luxury of shelf space to a slow moving product; the truth is wine sells. By the shelf load! Now those of you who read this blog regularly will know my feelings on the supermarkets’ desiccation of good food and wine – pile it high and sell it cheap does not make for quality or a fair price for the producer. I would always encourage you to go to a local wine merchants (Perth has two or three as well as a couple of excellent Delis that have a specialised range). BUT what the supermarkets have done over the years is take the snobbery out of wine loving – they have made it accessible for the average man or woman on the street to pick up a bottle of wine and feel like they have chosen it for reasons other than its cheap price point. For me, that’s progress.
Wine you see has been revolutionised in recent years. My parents’ generation would never have drunk as much wine as mine has – it was reserved for dinner out and people who knew about such things. The advent of the fresh new world varieties coupled with this rise in accessible buying has knocked the snooty sommelier and the old world snobbery into touch.
Today it’s as much about funky labels, enticing names and stories of vineyards along the Californian coast as it is about grape varieties and old world hierarchy. Television played a huge part in the layman brushing up his basics and grasping a sense of adventure – people like Jilly Goolden and Oz Clark from BBC2’s Food & Drink and the inimitable and sadly missed Keith Floyd brought the love of wine right into our living rooms and spoke to us in a language we understood (perhaps not Jilly…!)
Of course, we can’t forget the marketing man in amongst this rapid progression. You look at the history of a product like wine and you will be astonished. The first record of wine is over 10,000 years old; from the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians to the Romans quaffing down a carafe or two before throwing the Christians to the lions, wine has been part of cultures and ceremonies centuries before our own. Let’s be honest, French culinary history would be naked without the paintings of their beloved chateau-labelled bottles.
The marketing man took the stuffiness of the Old World and threw it in the proverbial bin. The rule book thrown out of the window he began on the New World wines with fresh gusto. Suddenly we had quirky names, trendy labels and – shock, horror – red wines you could drink with fish!
And so, as a child of the seventies, I am part of the generation that grew up with the shift in “how we drink wine”. One of my first jobs as a chef was at Kinloch House when I was 17 years old. I spent nights off serving behind the bar and learning about the wine; how to open it, how to taste it, what was a grape, what was a region (Chablis is a region… I learned this at Kinloch House!). The cellars were this amazing, captivating place that held my attention and urged me to find out more. I became transfixed with the vast knowledge and appreciation of the wine distributors that visited the hotel; these men and women were as passionate about the grapes, the vintage, the growers and their vineyards as I was about my own suppliers and their farms, produce and families. My understanding of this world began to find depth as I moved from my safe choices into trying new and exciting varieties and, led by chefs and wine merchants, I learned to appreciate why a certain wine tasted better with venison than beef.
Please, do not underestimate the role the distributors play in this global marketplace. These men and women are the cogs that keep the industry turning. They will link a chef like me with vineyards and growers that I could never meet on my own steam. We work with a few select merchants and I have been lucky enough in the past few years to take ownership of wines that will not be made available to supermarkets largely because there is not nearly enough supply. I have had as little as 2 cases from one grower – this is all he had spare. Can you imagine the privilege of sitting with a glass of this wine and enjoying it with a plate of food, and some great company?
Occasionally our wine merchants will bring the growers over for a trip and we’ll get to sit and break bread and chat to them about their wines. This is one of the best parts of my job. The passion that comes from these people is second to none; many of them are third or fourth generation vineyard owners, they know nothing else. It is in their blood and it shines through when they talk about it, explaining the importance of picking each grape by hand, for 18 hours a day during harvest And I thought the berries were a hard paper round… They just seem to know how, when, why to pick, to process, to bottle. A phenomenal group of people and I believe firmly that we owe it to them to match their wines as perfectly to the season and ingredients as we would any other produce that came through our doors.
So how about you? At home, thinking about buying a gorgeous bottle of wine to have with your meal on Friday night. I’m going to cut all the bullshit and tell you a plain and simple fact. You get what you pay for. Now that’s not to say that you should look for THE most expensive bottle but if you buy cheap wine in boxes then your eyeball will fall out of your ear when you taste it! Within reason you want to be looking at paying about 8 quid a bottle for a decent red or white wine. Developing your love of wine, taking your enjoyment up a level, isn’t that tricky. And it certainly doesn’t have to be elitist. The first basic understanding comes from accepting that the taste is only half of the experience.
Have a look at what you’re drinking – what colour is it, is it cloudy or clear, bright or dull? Does the colour stay true to the edge or does it fade? Wines mature – whites tend to darken while reds lighten so you can already start to tap into small clues as to the vintage of your bottle.
Your sense of smell is hugely important when enjoying wine – get your nose in there and have a good whiff! I’ve been blessed with a prominent Roman Nose and I’m glad for it every day. What does it smell like to you (its back to Jilly and the buttercup toast here)? It can be as wild as your sense of adventure will dare to go. Does it excite it or is it reminiscent of cat’s pee!?
Learn to recognise key smells associated with certain types of grapes – there will always be one or two that will send you into a land of confusion but that’s ok! You’re learning. You’re also an individual, what it smells like to me is not what it will smell like to you. This is one of the most fantastic parts of wine tasting – the strange aromas of hay, petrol, roast pork, nuts, spice, leather – it’s your nose!
And finally – taste! A good wine at its simplest is one that gets the balance between fruit and the acid/alcohol, bang on! Tannin is something you’ll hear a lot about and it’s just another word for the type of acid that comes from the skin and pips – the one that makes your mouth dry after a gulp of red wine. Now, too much of this stuff and you’ll be draining the water bottle all the next day! But on the plus side it can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure and protect against the Big C. I’m not suggesting that taking it with your cocoa pops is a good idea but the odd glass or two is definitely a bonus!
So get some wine in your mouth – swish it around covering all areas of your tongue! Don’t worry about looking pretty! Your brain will start to send messages to your brain to let it have the full picture of this gorgeous liquid rattling around your mouth… Now wait. Your brain will start to give you acid quantities, alcohol levels and then the fruits. The sense of what the wine is all about. Blackberries, chocolate, apples, bananas… the list is truly endless.
We are in spring now; the peas and beans will soon be needing picked from the garden. Spend 8 quid on a bottle of a good sauvingnon blanc and grab a bowl of fresh peas. Shred some mint through them. Sit down, relax and pick away, sipping as you go. That, my friend, is the power of a glass of wine. Enjoy!
Happy Sniffing, Graeme
Here are 6 great white wines to get you started – spend about an hour swotting up on these and go into your supermarket armed with some knowledge. There is no right or wrong remember, this is for you and what you get out of it.
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Chenin Blanc
- Pinot Grigio
Done them? Try these!
- Pinot Blanc