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Cork dripping red wine

Wine has to be bought and consumed to be appreciated.

The good news is that – other than the wine itself – there are few other costs.

However, being a conscientious wine Bluffer, there are still a few bits of fairly vital equipment with which you will want to familiarise yourself.

A Nose

A wine expert sniffing wine
90% of the ‘taste’ of a wine is perceived via the olfactory bulb above your nostrils.

The taste buds on your tongue can only detect the five basic sensations – sweet, bitter, salty, sour and ‘umami’ (useful for Japanese food) – which is why your taste is always impaired by a blocked nose.

The most legendary nose in the business was owned by the late Don José Ignacio Domecq, aka El Nariz (‘The Nose’), of the eponymous sherry firm. His knowledgeable nose was long and beaky, able to penetrate the small, tapered Sherry glasses called copitas like the proboscis of a hummingbird. It is probably a case of natural selection, given that the business was in his family for generations.

Non-Sherry tasters do not need such an impressive hooter, but the equipment inside it must be at least operative.

A Corkscrew

A corkscrew with cork
Wine comes in bottles with corks for which, unfortunately, no really satisfactory device for extraction has yet been invented. One can understand why; in the old days, choleric gentlemen used to decapitate bottles with red-hot pincers, but this is sadly out of fashion, and in any case difficult without a blazing fire.

Generally speaking, Bluffers should deplore the vogue for artificial corks and screw tops on the grounds that fine wine deserves to be stoppered by something more natural than plastic or tin.

You should probably opt for the ‘waiter’s friend’, with its unfolding, pocket-knife-inspired design. At the other extreme is the Screwpull Lever Corkscrew which, at the price of a plane ticket from London to Bordeaux, is only for the serious, but enables even the feeblest to extract the most stubborn cork without perspiring.

Bluffer warning:

As award-winning wine author Richard W H Bray points out: “Contrary to certain prejudicial thinking, some excellent and expensive wines are now bottled under screwcap – or ‘Stelvin’, as they say in the trade. This means the Bluffer must be cautious not to entirely dismiss screwcap wines out of hand.”

A Glass

Wine glass with red wine
It is generally agreed that wine should be drunk from a glass, though for the desperate, any water-tight receptacle will do.

Glasses have the advantage of not affecting the flavour in the way that leather bottles, metal goblets and dancing slippers can. You can also see what you’re drinking. The kind of glass is relatively unimportant, though a tulip shape, which gathers the bouquet, guiding it towards your nose, is considered best for most wines. Otherwise, the simpler the better – it’s easier to wash up.

A Decanter

A crystal decanter
Many wine buffs believe that allowing the wine ‘to breathe’ before serving is a good idea. This is based on the notion that exposing the wine to oxygen helps to ‘open up’ and release its bouquet. Simply removing the cork to allow a wine to breathe is useless because the surface area exposed to the air is so small. The best way to let it breathe properly is to pour some into a glass when you open the bottle. This not only increases the surface area exposed to oxygen, but enables you to snaffle a sneaky glass ahead of the game.

Alternatively, you could aerate your wine by pouring it into a decanter, but expect this to cause all sorts of ructions if a wine expert is present. According to the late Professor Émile Peynaud, one of the most revered oenologists in the history of Bordeaux, there is no valid reason for decanting a wine other than to remove any sediment that might be lurking at the bottom of the bottle. Thus, he believed it was pointless to decant anything other than venerable old red wines, or vintage and crusted port.

Peynaud even argued that decanting old wines actually serves to diffuse the bouquet, causing them to fade rapidly.

Decanting is the process of pouring the contents into a decanter and stopping before the gunge gets in. It sounds easy. It is easy. But it must be made to look as difficult as possible. The aim is to make the performance resemble a Black Mass. A candle should be brought into use, supposedly to show when the debris reaches the neck, but in fact to induce a ceremonial atmosphere. Absolute silence must be observed and a look of rapt concentration maintained until the last drop of clear liquid has been transferred. After this, a dramatic sigh, wipe of the brow and momentary indication of emotional exhaustion, as of an actor having just played a great tragic role, may be called for to underline the risk involved. It is particularly important to sniff the cork of the bottle being decanted: it may then be attached to the neck of the decanter. This is roughly equivalent to the handing back to the patient of an organ which has been surgically removed.

Cellar and Storage

A wine cellar
Bluffers should not be afraid to talk about their ‘cellar’ even if they don’t have anything of the sort. A cellar for these purposes is a collection of at least two bottles, or possibly even a single bottle, of reasonable quality. If you are keeping wine for any length of time, however, there are two important rules to observe.

1. To avoid the corks drying out and letting air in, bottles should be kept lying down (on their side) or better still, upside down. This will look suitably eccentric, but is in fact the normal way for bottles to lie when being transported or stored.

2. Wine should be kept somewhere with a reasonably constant temperature, preferably not above 15.5°C, roughly like a fairly cool day. This is likely to be impossible to achieve, however, in which case remember that a constant temperature of 21°C is better than a fluctuation between 4.5°C and 15.5°C. The other solution, of course, is simply to drink your wine quickly, before it has a chance to go off.

Poor cellaring conditions have one advantage, namely that wine will mature more quickly in them. Certain Bordeaux vintages which have taken ages to come round (1970, 1975) might be greatly improved by a spell in a centrally heated flat.

Temperature Control

A temperature dial
After aroma, taste and texture, temperature is the fourth dimension of wine. Served too cold, white wines lose much of their aroma and flavour – which is not always a bad thing, but a tragic waste of anything rich and complex like a fine white Burgundy. Describe a red wine that is served too warm as ‘flabby’ and ‘unfocused’ and complain that the alcohol dominates.

The accepted rule these days is that most red wine should be served at room temperature (though you might want to use the French term chambré) and most white wines lightly chilled – that is to say having spent an hour in the fridge or 12 minutes in the freezer.

For more crisp, velvety and intellectually-satisfying words about vino, read The Bluffer’s Guide to Wine – a must for any serious collector.

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