Arts & crafts

A down-to-earth introduction to wine tasting

08 Nov 2022 | Written by By Clive Hook

The Joy Club member Clive Hook gives his introduction to the wonderful (but often intimidating) world of wine, dispelling some myths whilst delivering boozy revelations.

Wine tasting and wine appreciation are, like other pleasurable things in life, about slowing things down (so I have been told on more than one occasion) and taking the time to really savour the moment and create a memory. Inhaling a box of chocolates might be fun (why are they so small?) but you’d struggle to say or remember much beyond them tasting chocolatey – so they might as well have been Smarties. I’ve found those big tubes at Christmas best for inhaling, by the way…

Unlike chocolate, though, wine seems to induce a snobbery and exclusivity in some circles. I’ve sat next to such people at wine tastings. They want me to know their last dinner party had nothing less than £100 per bottle wine. They delight in overdoing the sniffing and slurping bit (technical terms) and sit with a smug grin, nodding sagely while pretending they can identify the grape, the grower, the gender of the picker, which hand they used to pick the grapes and what colour apron they were wearing. By the way, they almost never go first with their opinion but nod in agreement whilst keeping that grin. Understand right from the start, this is not a competition, but some men (a deliberate pronoun choice) will treat it as one.

Tasting is, after all, personal – otherwise we’d all love brussel sprouts or blue cheese. Your taste buds, body chemistry and brain could well react quite differently to someone else’s when tasting the same thing. Now, this raises an important point: Wine tasting is not about liking, it’s about identifying the characteristics – good or bad – and coming to a conclusion about it in terms of quality. Would you recommend a poor-quality wine to a friend? Of course not, so having a method to help you choose and remember is useful.

There is a lexicon of quite specific terms used to describe wine. We’ll look at some of those words in a later article. Quite specific because ‘fruity’, for example, is insufficient to describe a wine because fruits include bananas (bad news that one), oranges, blackcurrants, apples and loads more. But wine tasters and writers can get carried away and veer in pretentiousness. A personal favourite of mine is ‘petrichor,’ which is the smell of wet pavements after a dry spell. Our local paper once printed a letter complaining about the pretentious language used by a local wine club when reviewing wines they’d tasted. The following week, the wine club reported they’d tasted several new reds and they all “tasted of grapes” and “rather winey.” 

The wine tasting lexicon is an attempt to give names to the comparative qualities or aspects of the wine so that you can categorise them and have clues to other wines that might be similar in character. I’ve tasted great, well-made quality wines but that doesn’t mean I liked them. I can, however, describe wines in terms that would help you know what to expect.

Back to blue cheese – if I could explain what Stilton tasted like and then talked about Gorgonzola or Danish Blue you’d recognise the similarities – but they do all taste different. Who said “old socks and damp dog”?

You, like me, might well be one of those who were given a vacuum wine saver for Christmas but never used it because there’s never any in the bottle at the end of the night. But you may now have a reasonable excuse for feeling rough (beyond delicate – rough as something unprintable). There are some pointers to whether it’s a quality wine for sipping, savouring and pondering versus glugging by the glassful and regretting it next day – oh yes, some of those bad mornings are indeed about what was in the bottle not just about how much wasn’t when you’d finished.

In the hotel industry (where I worked for 15 years) there was the apocryphal tale of a couple who ordered Dover Sole and “a bottle of that Crème de Menthe please” – and, if true, God bless them for drinking what they liked and ignoring the rules of what goes with what.

What I hope to share with you is the joy of wine – not the consumption of coma-inducing volumes of rubbish I sometimes witness, but the opportunity to discover different flavours, aromas, colours and characteristics that can help you identify what’s likely to work for you and your friends. It’s a huge subject and takes years to get really good at it, but just a few tips and techniques will, I hope bring a smile to your face as you find that magic combination that works for you.

Look out for the second instalment of Clive’s series on wine next week, when he’ll be writing up the basics on wine tasting – so you can drink (as well as dress) to impress at your next soiree!

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