Welcome back folks. Last week we talked about what the different grape varietals were and their fundamental characteristics. Did you try the Diablo Pinot or the Dr Loosen Riesling? If not, maybe I didnt entice you quite enough, if you did, then well done on you!
Ok, in this edition, its all about understanding your bottles. We’ll start with the physical appearances and then move inwards and give you the basic tools to help you understand what wine really is. By the end of this post, you should be well equipped to confidently narrow down what you want and start enjoying it properly. Remember now, wine is not about getting drunk or about what other people say is good, its all about you and what you think is good.
Here’s what’s covered in this post:
- Gear you might need
- What the labels mean
- Prepping the bottle
- Prepping the nibbles
- Look, Sniff, Smell & Taste
- After Taste
- One last thing…
Gear you might need
Lets get started with some basic stuff you might need. If you’re going to take wine abit more seriously, then its worth consider some simple gear to keep around the house:
- Waiter’s Corkscrews
I swear by the waiter ones, they are compact, cheap and never fail. I don’t really believe in the 100 quid fancy bottle openers which need a 30 page manual to operate. This one from Amazon is available for £7.50 and will do just fine. Its a nice way of wowing your friends when you open a bottle with one of them.
- Nice glasses & a decent decanter
Cheap ones break easily so you’ll want to get something a little more resilient. Wine glasses come in all shapes and sizes these days (some even without a stem), so you’re spoilt for choice. I get mine at Berry Bros & Rudd or the Sampler they do some very nice glasses, do check it out.
- Wine savers
Again you can either spend a fortune, or you can get really cheap ones from Amazon here, two for £4. These are useful, especially when you can’t finish a bottle in one go.
What the labels mean
So now, you’re in your local wine shop and you’re searching for a bottle, but you’re not sure what the labels really mean. There’s really only a few things you need to pay attention to:
The front label
There’s normally quite alot written on the front labels.
Like the ones above for instance (a sample of what I keep in my cupboards..). Generally speaking all you really need to know is producer, vintage year and grape varietal.
However below is a more in-depth look at what it all means:
- Chateau XYZ
Name of the vineyard or winemaker, sometimes if it’s a big name like Louis Latour, you’d just see his name.
- Burgundy, Beaune, Margaux, Douro
The region in which it was produced, also an indication of the grape varietal (see part 1 for more)
- Vintage year
A vintage year normally means that the wine is made from grapes picked from a single year and a single vineyard. So think of vintage wine as being pure. Non-vintage is the opposite, its blended with different grapes varietals from either other vintages or from other vineyards altogether. Wine critics usually test vintages every year and publish their results in the form of a vintage chart. The chart gives an indication of how good all the wines from a specific region is, in that year.
The above image is an extract from the wine society website (which i recommend checking out by clicking this). Its quite self explanatory really, white box means its good to drink now (ie: smooth, no stickiness) and red box means store in cellar (ie: wine is not ‘ripe’ yet, very sticky if you drink it now as opposed to a few years from now)
Generally speaking, you can use the vintage chart to give an indication of the overall standard of all the wines in that year. Most shops have their own vintage charts too, so if you are buying a bottle of wine, do keep in mind to check the vintage chart before you commit a purchase.
- Grading *this applies to French wine*
French wine is regulated and the quality control method is called ‘Appellation d’Origne Controlee’ (AOC) .
Though, in my opinion, its a pretty loose quality control system since a lower grade wine can sometimes taste as good as something several grades up. The following is generally how it works:
VIns de table/Vins de Pay
Blended wines in which the grapes used as well as the production methods are a little murky. Basically this is your run of the mill table wine (or house wine). Typically the cheapest stuff.
This means that the wine you are buying adheres to a specific set of quality control measures such as throwing away 5% of the lousiest harvest, or controlling the purity of grape varietal used (ie, less blended with other grapes). This is the basic level of french wine.
Further AOC classifications
Within the AOC grading, there are the exceptional grades. Depending on region, it’s worded slightly differently. But generally speaking, if you see the word ‘Grand Vin de XXX’ it normally means that the wine is the made from the best 5% of the grapes from a single year. This is further divided into the ‘Premier Cru’ and the ‘Grand Cru‘, with ‘Grand cru’ being the ultimate distinction.
However, it should be noted that while grand crus are generally more expensive than premier crus, it does not neccesarily mean that it is better. It’s just an indication of the ‘potential‘ that it could be better. Confusing? Yeah well, welcome to the wacky world of wine.
For the layman, if you get a bottle which is either a premier or a grand cru coming from a good vintage year and is from a star producer (and quite possibly a hefty price tag), then you can be assured that it is of some sort of quality.
The back label
Not all wines necessarily have a back label, especially the more reputable ones. The ones that do, mostly carry an informative tasting note, which is helpful in describing what it takes like, but not necessarily if it’s actually good or not, and also the alcohol content. To me, this is really quite an arbitrary figure, but just in case you need to know, wines are typically in the region of 12.5% to 14.5%.
Prep the bottle
Most people tend to skip this step, but I think that this is probably the most important step to getting the most out of your wine. This is the funky aspect of wine: it’s a ‘live‘ drink. It’s taste actually changes with the way you treat it. The reason being that the chemicals inside wine changes quite distinctively with changing conditions. Below are just a few things you should do after you pop the cork:
This is crucial, warm-ish temperature brings out the fleshiness and the flavours, and cold-ish will stifle the flavours leading to crisper, cleaner palette. It’s also the same reason why cold lager taste good and when warm it sucks. For Reds, ideally 15 – 18 C, but room temperature is fine, as reds tend to carry more distinctively creamy, chocolatey flavours, its better served at room temperature. For whites, stick it in the fridge for at least 6 hours to get it down to about 12 – 15 C, or until it’s nice, cold and steely, brrr.
When drinking a red, it’s always good to decant it properly. Decanting can help ‘mini-age’ a red to remove any horrible tannins and make for a smoother drinking experience. This is otherwise known as letting the wine ‘breathe‘. Reds of all budgets can benefit from this step.
Here’s how you do it:
Slowly trickle the wine it into your decanter, making sure you give each drop of wine, enough time to breathe some air and not chuck the whole bottle in, otherwise that just negates the whole process. The reason for doing so, is such that you give each and every drop as much contact time with air as possible, giving it maximum chance of oxidising.
After that, rest it for one hour (ie: open your bottle at least an hour before you want to drink it). And you should be good to go.
If you don’t have a decanter or can’t be bothered, just leave the bottle (with the cork off) for an hour before drinking it. You can also do a quick comparison by taking a sip the moment you open it and then trying it again in an hour, let me know if you notice any differences.
- Get an ice bucket
Whites don’t really need time to breathe, but they do need to stay cooler than usual. Purists will tell you that if you drink your wine straight out of the fridge, then you are drinking it too cold, personally I think there is some truth to this, you don’t want your white to be too cold, but don’t let it warm up to room temperature, so as long as it’s ‘cool’ then it’s fine.
This is a pretty rare occurrence (I’ve only ever experienced it once), but you’ll notice it right away, because the wine will just smell really horrible, like somethings gone off. If you feel like you’re drinking something that really tastes weird (ie: too sour or just bad smelling), you are more than welcome to send it back (if its a restaurant) or return it to the shop, merchants are more than happy to deal with this issue.
Prep some nibbles
If you are going to have your wine with food, then you can skip this step completely (there will be a separate post about pairing wine with food in part 4) . However, if you are tasting wine on its own, then its a good idea to pair it with some nibbles to enhance the experience:
If your budget stretches, get some fine spanish iberico ham from selfridges, they are sweet & nutty, really tasty. Otherwise, your local sainsbury should do some very nice italian parma hams (min 18month aged if possible) for a tenth of the price.
- Strawberries, rasberries, blueberries, all berries
I tend to find that most reds will have flavours complementing any one the red fruits. Helps in identifying the actual flavours in the wine itself too.
- Apples, Grapes & Honeydew Melon
These go hand in hand with good italian or spanish ham.
- Get a good Baguette
Surprisingly, bread, especially french baguette go well with wine. If you are a first timer and find the alcohol taste too strong, then a little bit of baguette can actually help smooth that out.
- Cheese & Crackers
Ah yes, how can i forget this classic combo. I prefer soft cheeses, like brie or camembert, but if you are a hard cheese kinda person, gouda is interesting and you will be surprised by Parmigiano-Reggiano (or parmesan), not the grated kind, but the real thing, hand carved so you can get nice big chunks.
- My nibble plate
I put together a quick nibble plate of red grapes, strawberries ( ok they’re not really in season..) , parmigiano reggiano, brie, some bagguette and lovely parma ham wrapped with rocket. All from sainsbury’s for low, low prices.
What are you actually tasting?
You’ve got everything setup and now you want to start drinking. Surely you’ve seen people swirl their glass, stick their nose in and then blurp something about hints of this and that after they took a sip. So, what are they actually doing? Here is the short version:
- Look for colour
- Smell the aromas
- Swirl your glass
- Taste it while sucking in air
Keep reading for the long(er) version.
Look for Colour
Pour yourself a nice glass about and fill about 1/3 of the glass. Don’t fill it up, because the next thing you will be doing is to swirl the glass.
But first, take the time to look at the colour of the wine. Is it a really dark purplish red? Or is it a velvety soft translucent, almost pink colour? If it’s white, then is it a golden hue colour? Or a washed-out cream colour? You’ll be surprised at the many variations of colour wine can have.
Look for the subtle details, trust me once you start noticing these little aspects, it’ll help you appreciate it more.
Now time to swirl that wine. Don’t be shy, swirl hard, but gently, don’t spill it all over. This is essentially an extension of the decanting philosophy of letting the wine breathe. How to swirl you might ask? Hold the glass by the stem, push it down against the table, and then give it a good 10 or 20 swirls. Weee..
Once the wine has taken in much needed oxygen, it should help bring out all the aromas and let the wine wake up. Now don’t be shy, stick your nose right down into the glass. Seriously, don’t be shy, it’s why wine glasses are shaped the way they are. The fat bit is so you don’t spill the wine all over the place when swirling, and the narrow bits is for your nose to capture all the aromas.
Breathe in everything, close your eyes if you wish, concentrate and then try to idenfity the different smells you detect. If you can, try and identify them with what you think it might be (ie: floral, peachy, lemony, vanilla ..etc). You might find it abit difficult to tell at first, but just make sure you still your nose in for a good minute or two and let the aromas take over. Take the time, It’ll come to you, really it will.
Time for your first sip, and I do mean sip it. Let the wine flood your mouth and slowly coat all areas of your tongue, so all your tastebuds come in contact with it. What do you taste? Can you describe the flavours? Is it flowery? Peppery? Berries? Plums? Chocolate? Can’t taste anything? No worries, take the time, the flavours will come, you just need to be patient.
Getting bored? Then try this, you can further oxidise the wine but taking in more air with the sip in in your mouth.
Here’s what you do:
Roll your tongue up such that you are cupping the wine on your tongue
Open your mouth just enough and start sucking in air
While sucking in air, make sure your tongue is still balancing the wine on your cupped tongue
Practice until dribbling stops
Confusing? The best way to describe this is just to watch someone do it. Gary Vaynerchunk runs an excellent video blog called wine library tv where he tastes bottles daily. By the way, I’m a Vayniac.
This is the link to his latest episode and he’s tasting burgundies from the calssic 2005 vintage. Ok so all the time the wine has been spending on your tongue, you should have also been registering all kinds of flavours. Take your time to understand what each of the flavours are. It’s fun!
If you have a spitum, then you can spit it out if you wish, but I normally scoff everything I drink.
If you are having trouble identifying the flavours, then check out vinography.com’s aroma card. They explain taste and flavours far better than I possibly can, also gives you a more detailed explaination of what to look for. They also provide an aroma card with all the different types of flavours you might come across.
Keep in mind these four simple steps to wine tasting, and before you know it, you’ll be an expert yourself.
The more wines you taste and the more you take time to understand the aromas and flavour profiles, the more you’ll find out about your own palette and what you prefer. So the next time you are picking up a bottle of wine, you should be better equipped to pick up something that will suit your tastes.
(ie: I like lighter wines, vannila and strawberry flavours, silky texture and smooth, no oak because I hate it, oh and something that is drinking well now… and under a tenner if possible)
One last thing..
Wine lasts about three days in the fridge before it goes flat. With wine savers, maybe a week before it goes off, so do keep that in mind whenever you open a bottle. The general rule of thumb is just to finish it when you open one, if its a bottle that is high in tannins, then the wine tends to smooth out after 24 hours.
Anything kept over 3 days will start to lose it’s flavour rapidly.
Coming in part three
Ok that’s part two guys, hopefully, now you’ll have a basic idea of how to understand your bottle and the fundamentals of tasting wine. Next week, we look at some places to get nice bottles, how to buy them and how to store them properly, see you in seven!