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Wine buff

Bluffers should never forget that tasting and drinking are two distinct activities and should never be confused.

Tasting is a professional activity which people do to earn a living. It is done standing up, and involves rude noises, silly faces and spittoons. Tasters never swallow. (Well, hardly ever…)

Drinking, on the other hand, is a pleasure. It is done sitting down, except at drinks parties, which in any case are seldom a pleasure. It is true that if you are drinking decent wine you should go through some of the motions of tasting, but you will do so in a different spirit.

The motions of tasting are outlined below:

  1. Pour out a little wine, filling the glass no more than a quarter full. Stare fixedly at it. Look mean. If it’s red, tilt the glass and hold it against a white surface. Viewing the meniscus (where the surface of the liquid meets the glass) against a white background shows the wine’s true colour clearly. It also provides a perfect excuse to hold your glass against other, more interesting white surfaces such as a white blouse or shirt front. It’s a fact that only one wine shows a greenish tinge at the meniscus: Sherry. But it is probably easier to rely on the fact that it says ‘Sherry’ on the bottle…
  2. Hold the glass firmly by the base and swirl it around either clockwise or anticlockwise (but not both at the same time). Swirling requires a little practice: too vigorous a swirl will send the wine sloshing over the edge; too little vigour will have no effect on it whatsoever. The theory is that it releases the bouquet. In fact, it proves you’re a pro.
  3. Having swirled, you’re ready to sniff. Here, an impressively shaped nose undoubtedly helps. Blocked sinuses do not. Some people favour moving the nose from side to side over the wine, presumably to give each nostril its share, but this can look rather sinister.
  4. Only after these preliminaries is it permissible to take liquid into your mouth. A fairly large sip in contrast to the measure in the glass is the thing, but not too large that it prevents you from performing the most difficult trick, which is to take in a small amount of air with an audible sucking noise at the same time as the wine. This is supposed to aerate the wine in your mouth and release more flavour. It is not the same as gargling. You should try to avoid gargling – unless you have a sore throat. Wine, after all, is an antiseptic.
  5. Having swilled it about a bit, spit out the wine as elegantly as possible into a spittoon, box of sawdust or potted plant. There is a marked spitting order at some tastings. Watch out for this or you will get indelible young claret upon your front. Mind you, it’s easy to put it there yourself.
  6. Surreptitiously drink some of the wine that you liked the best.
  7. Take notes on all stages except (6).

When drinking a good wine, or one that your host considers good, limit yourself to tilting, swirling and sniffing before drinking. Do these things in a gracious, smiling manner, rather than with the fixed, suspicious glare of the professional taster. Do not try to take in air with the wine. You may not be asked back again.

A drinker should not fill his glass more than half-full if he is going to attempt swirling. He may feel that this is too great a sacrifice.

Wine-speak

For some reason, many people feel that drinking – or even tasting and drinking – wine is not enough; they must also talk about it. Indeed, conversation about wine occupies most of the time at social gatherings among the wine-loving fraternity. You may secretly find this boring or pretentious, but as a bluffer you need to be able not only to drink and taste wine properly but also to hold your own in wine-speak.

This is a complicated subject, but these few simple rules can get you a surprisingly long way:

  • Try never to use words except where they are strictly necessary. Noises that are either non-committal (such as ‘Hmm….’) or enthusiastic (‘Mmm….’, ‘Ahh!’) and interesting facial contortions (raised eyebrows, narrowed glance, pursed lips) are often entirely adequate, and don’t actually commit you to anything.
  • The word ‘Yes’ is quite sufficient in most cases – not least because it can be said in an almost infinite variety of tones: doubtful, quizzical, interrogative, tentative, affirmative, decisive, appreciative, ecstatic.
  • It can be repeated in a clipped, conversation-stopping manner (‘Yes, yes.’), or in a rising, excited tone (‘Yes, yes, YES!’).
  • Put off describing what the wine actually tastes like for as long as possible. Instead, limit yourself to some of the following technical expressions.
  • Mention ullage. This means the level of wine in the bottle. If you’ve noticed that the bottle is not completely full, say in a neutral tone: ‘Ah, slightly ullaged.’ It could be, of course, that your host has swigged some of it beforehand.
  • Ask whether the wine has ‘thrown a deposit’. Deposit, of course, refers to sediment at the bottom of the bottle, not what you get back when you return empties to the off-licence.
  • If you’ve noticed when you’re tilting the wine that it leaves a thick, transparent trail on the glass (as most red wines do), say that it has ‘good legs’. Thicker, viscous ‘legs’ are an indication of higher alcohol. A wine deemed overly alcoholic is described as ‘hot’ which, uniquely in wine circles, is not a compliment.

Appearance

Once you’ve exhausted these gambits, talk about the colour. You’re on fairly safe ground here unless you are colour-blind, since it is easier to describe visual phenomena rather than tastes or smells. It might be a good idea to brush up on your metals and semi-precious stones: different shades of gold, amber, garnet, ruby, etc., seem to go down particularly well.

Smell

When talking about smell, do not use the word ‘smell’. In English, this usually has unpleasant connotations. Instead, choose from ‘nose’ (which with wine doesn’t have unpleasant associations), ‘aroma’, or ‘bouquet’, if you’re feeling flowery.

If the wine doesn’t smell of anything, try: ‘Rather dumb on the nose, don’t you find?’ or ‘It’s still very closed.’ Alternatively, if it smells very strongly, you can say, ‘It’s very forward on the nose.’ None of these comments, of course, commits you to an opinion of the wine’s quality. If you have to be more specific, choose from some of the more commonly used ‘nose’ words, below:

Oaky, buttery, vanilla-ey: All of these are used interchangeably to describe certain wines that spend time in oak barrels, especially red Rioja, white Burgundy and the latter wine’s Californian and Australian clones.

Blackcurranty: Only use this word when you have checked that the wine is made from the Cabernet Sauvignon grape.

Spicy: Especially useful for describing Syrah/Shiraz, Zinfandel or Gewurztraminer. This is a very vague term considering how many different spices there are, but such things do not worry the cognoscenti.

Of course, people will say that wines smell of anything: violets, truffles (both the kind pigs dig up in Perigord and the delicious, dusted chocolate balls), beetroot, sweaty saddles, wet socks, farmyards, petrol (used of old Rieslings, which can have a curious oily whiff, and best said, like so many things, in French: goût de pétrole). The noble Pinot Noir, from which red Burgundy is fashioned, is particularly prone to the odour of excrement. In fact, one wine writer said of a Burgundy, with the air of one bestowing a compliment, ‘Bags of poo!’

Smells are clearly oddly evocative, and yet often these correspondences seem entirely personal and don’t work for others. There’s nothing to stop you from trying this kind of thing, and the more personal the better, because it cannot then be disproved. For instance: ‘This wine reminds me of an evening I spent in Crete. I don’t know exactly what the connection is – the wild thyme, the sea air, the herd of goats in the distance…’

Describing wine

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are too few words to describe tastes: ‘sweet’, ‘dry’, ‘acidic’ are simply not enough. There isn’t even a generally agreed word for the opposite of acidic, and it’s doubtful whether there are other definitive words to describe the taste of wine, since few wines are either salty or bitter enough for those two other unmistakable qualities to come into play.

All the rest is metaphor: a poet’s dream, but a bluffer’s nightmare. Before you despair, know that you can get quite a lot of mileage out of the three main terms: sweetness, dryness and acidity.

Sweetness and dryness

Degrees of sweetness and dryness are perhaps on the obvious side, but in wine-speak there’s no harm in stating the obvious. It is particularly useful if you know how sweet or how dry a wine is meant to be, and then can suggest that it somehow contradicts expectations.

Thus, ‘Surprisingly dry for a Sauternes/Beerenauslese’ or ‘This Chablis isn’t as bone-dry as I would have expected’ are effective because they show others that:

a) you know your stuff; and b) you have original, even if wrong, opinions. Almost all red wines, incidentally, are dry. There isn’t much point in saying that a claret (Bordeaux) is dry; opine that your host’s Chateau Lafite is surprisingly sweet and you may not be given a second glass.

Acidity

You can get a lot further by talking about acidity. Acidity in wine, funnily enough, is generally considered a good thing, and so the comment ‘Good acidity’ can work wonders. This is especially true of white wines, in which acidity is synonymous with freshness. A white wine with too little acidity can be criticised for being ‘heavy’, ‘flat’ or simply ‘fat’.

Wines can, of course, sometimes be too acidic. This especially tends to be a fault of wines from cold countries and regions such as Germany, Champagne and England. Comments on excess acidity are often expressed in involuntary, physical forms.

Without getting too technical, wine contains different kinds of acidity. The best, tartaric and lactic for instance, don’t have a pronounced taste but do impart freshness or zinginess to the wine. Other kinds of acidity do have a marked taste: malic acid, for instance, makes wine taste like apples, which is not necessarily a bad thing. ‘Appley’ is a good word to use to describe Mosel wines, for instance.

The worst kind of acidity is acetic, also known as vinegar. If you think a wine tastes vinegary but don’t want to upset your host, say, “This wine has rather high volatile acidity, don’t you think?” Put this way, it isn’t considered nearly so rude.

Balance

Yet even good acidity on its own is not enough; a wine needs to be balanced. Balance is perhaps the key concept in the wine world. Fortunately nobody ever asks exactly what is balanced with what; the idea is that all the constituent parts of a wine – alcohol, acidity, fruit – are roughly in harmony.

Unlike unbalanced people, unbalanced wines don’t do unpredictable things: in fact, they are usually very ordinary. A perfectly balanced wine is actually a rare and wonderful creature.

Tannin

Here is a more friendly term for the bluffer. Tannin is a preservative substance extracted from the grape skins, pips and stems, found mainly in red wine. It is easily recognisable because it grips the back of your teeth – rather like those little sucker things the dentist puts in your mouth. Also like the dentist, tannin leaves your teeth in need of the services of a hygienist.

Young red wines that are the opposite of mellow are likely to be tannic.

‘Hard’ and ‘tannic’ are two adjectives that commonly go together, particularly when you’re tasting young claret, one of the most unpleasant of all aesthetic experiences.

If you’re given a claret and find it about as attractive and yielding as a Scottish bank manager, you may say, ‘Still rather tannic, I find.’

There is a danger here. Some wines, especially clarets – like some bank managers no doubt – pass from being unpleasantly hard and tannic (that is to say, too young) to being unpleasantly ‘dried out’ (too old) without any intervening stage of pleasant mellowness.

Fruit

This might seem the most obvious quality of a wine’s taste, but fruit is the starting point of wine: the substance from which it’s made. Thus, to say that a wine is ‘fruity’ is to suggest that it has gone through all the processes which have transformed it from uninteresting grapes into a miraculous drink for nothing.

‘Fruity’ should be your last resort. ‘Grapey’ is a somewhat different matter, because only wines made from certain kinds of grapes, especially Muscat, actually taste, or should taste, of grapes.

Body

This is an essential description. Unlike post-Renoir women, wines generally aspire to be full-bodied. Wines with insufficient body are said to be ‘thin’, which isn’t a compliment. On the other hand, wines with too much body can be called ‘fat’, which is slightly insulting.

For more well-balanced body copy and fruity notes, consult The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine® at once.

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