Wine isn’t just about drinking the stuff. From treading grapes to sabering Champagne, Margaret Rand compiles a checklist for the complete wine lover
How do you know when you’ve become a real wine lover? It’s not a question of vintages and prices, nor of rarity, and certainly not of telling people how much you know. (Believe me, people do that – alas, they do.) Becoming a real wine lover is more insidious and more fun: it’s to be measured in bad bottles as well as good; in dropped glasses, in grape skins under the fingernails, in journeys and memories. How do you measure up?
1 Learn to decant
Couldn’t be easier: point bottle at decanter neck and pour. Just keep a steady hand and pour slowly: creating turbulence in the bottle will defeat the object. And you don’t have to decant only for practical reasons: white wine and rosé look amazingly pretty in decanters. Collecting antique decanters will also open up a whole new field to spend your money on.
2 Buy some mouth-blown Riedel glasses (and then drop one)
Riedel glasses are brilliant, and really do help wines to express themselves. But they’re expensive, so you keep them for best. But somebody knocks one over, then you drop one. Now you’ve got four instead of six and you begin to wonder if maybe you could make do with something cheaper. You can. There’s a great feeling of liberation when you’ve smashed some of your most treasured stemware.
3 Marry a winegrower
They have to marry somebody. As always, proximity is the best start: no. 33 on this list has been known to work. But you have to like living in the country, – even in February – and not mind getting up early.
4 Drink wine from your birth year
Try to be born in a great vintage. Anybody over 40 should consider Bordeaux, Port, Sauternes, sweet Vouvray or
German Riesling. Reid Wines in Bristol (+44 (0)1761 452645) have always had a good line in old single bottles; or try www.vintage wineandport.co.uk, www.winedancer.com, www.winestore.co.uk and auction houses.
6 Dine off foie gras and Château d’Yquem
This is the most sublime combination of food and wine that exists, so buy the best foie gras you can find. Best and easiest is mi-cuit, from a French charcuterie. It comes vacuum-packed and you boil it in the bag. Only have it cold if you’re drinking Sauternes. If you want it hot, then try the best mature vintage Champagne.
7 Drink first growth from a plastic cup with a takeaway
Okay, it’s been done. But you could make it an ironic homage to Sideways (above), or drinking from a mug with snacks from the hotel minibar has a lot to be said for it.
8 Visit Vega Sicilia
Have a bet with friends as to who will gain entry first. It’s like Fort Knox: no visitors. Even wine trade members are refused – unless they know you and want to see you. www.vega-sicilia.com
9 Drink Madeira from when Marie Antoinette was on the throne of France (or at least when Victoria was on the British throne)
Could there be a more immediate and emotional link with the past? Madeira is virtually immortal, so these ancient wines can be fascinatingly good. Expect flavours that are austerely pungent, complex and unique. To get hold of a bottle, try Madeira specialist Patrick Grubb Selections (01869 340 229).
10 Pick up fossils in a Chablis grand cru vineyard
The place is full of them: just look down and ignore the vines. They’re mostly fossilised shells, including the tiny oyster shells that form part of Kimmeridgian soil. Easier to bring home than bottles.
11 Go to a charity wine auction
The Napa Wine Auction (www.napavintners.com) is super-glitzy, and you can buy not just a case of wine but dinner with the winemakers; there are one-off bottlings at the Cape Winemakers Guild (www.capewinemakersguild.com/auction), and Germany’s VDP auctions (www.vdp.de/auction) provide tasting opportunities. Or go to the Hospices de Beaune (www.hospices-de-beaune.com) and buy a barrel of Burgundy with friends.
12 Watch the races on the beach in Sanlúcar de Barrameda
Less formal than Ascot. A 4×4 drives along the beach before the annual August race to clear the sand of sunbathers, children and buckets and spades; the horses roar past with a great thundering of hooves; everybody drifts back to what they were doing. Then spend the night in town eating tapas and drinking Manzanilla.
13 Drink Grüner Veltliner by the half-litre at a Buschenschank
That’s an Austrian wine tavern, in case you were wondering. Yes, the women wear dirndls and mean it. And the men often wear trachten, and there may be an accordionist. Those near Vienna tend to be full of tourists; get further out if you can.
14 Start a wineclub
Useful if you want to improve your tasting skills. Everyone brings a bottle, and you take turns deciding the theme and price range. You could get a good wine merchant involved, and ask them to guide you through a region or a country.
15 Stay at Les Crayères in Champagne
Possibly the best hotel I have ever stayed in. It’s really a restaurant with rooms, so you don’t have to stagger far after your (sensationally good) dinner. The staff are marvellous, naturally, but the thing is that it doesn’t feel like a hotel. Your room looks like a room in a rather grand French private house. www.lescrayeres.com
16 Eat grapes from a great vineyard
If you’re the guest of the owner, ransacking the year’s crop will be positively encouraged. (‘See how soft the tannins are?’) If you’re on your own, don’t pick the whole bunch. And try not to be seen – unless you want to learn lots of new foreign words.
17 Do an architecture- and-wine tour of Rioja
Rioja may only just be getting to grips with wine tourism, but the architecture is terrific. Bodegas Isios (www.bodegasysios.com) was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who was inspired by a row of barrels to create the aluminium waves of its roof; Frank Gehry did Marqués de Riscal’s bodega/hotel (www.marquesderiscal.com).
18 Try an Essencia from Tokaj
Actually, it’s less interesting than a 5- or 6-Puttonyos, but it has more mythology attached. It’s the barely fermented free-run juice of the botrytised aszú berries, and tastes like – well, botrytised grape juice. And it’s thick as treacle.
19 Take the train from Oporto to Pinhão
The train trip up the Douro is magical. The railway line runs alongside the river all the way, so you pass quintas, fishermen, women doing their washing in the river, more quintas… The hills get steeper and steeper. In Pinhão, stop for lunch at the Vintage House (www.csvintagehouse.com). And maybe combine with no. 5?
20 Take a wine tour by camel in McLaren Vale
Okay, camels aren’t exactly native to Australia, but they’ve been there as long as Cabernet. Australian camels are the two-humped kind, which apparently are less comfortable than the one-humped variety, but you’re two to a camel, which makes it cosy. It’s all pretty laid-back. www.foodandwinetrails.com.au.
21 Tread Port grapes in a lagar
The warm juice comes above your knees and there are a lot of squishy skins and hard pips about. Don’t spend your time falling over or pushing other people over: you’ve got a proper job to do: extracting colour and flavour from the skins. It happens at the best Port quintas every autumn. Visit www.arblasterandclarke.com for details of tours that take in a spot of treading.
22 Sabre a bottle of Champagne
Not difficult, but you do need a decent backhand. Remove the foil capsule. Hold the bottle at arm’s length, grasping the neck and letting the bottle rest along your arm. Make sure the seam of the bottle is facing upwards. Run the blunt edge of the sabre along the seam: too gently and nothing will happen; too forcefully and you’ll smash the bottle. Ideally, the collar of the bottle comes neatly off, together with cork and wire. Best to try it at somebody else’s house. And where you acquire a sabre is your own business.
23 Do a wine course/attend a Decanter masterclass
Wine courses are seen by single women as places to spot single men, so it’s a great educational excuse for a girls’ night out (or, if your boyfriend is attending one, a good way to keep an eye on him). Decanter masterclasses are, naturally, dedicated to the high-minded enjoyment of wine, and any telephone numbers exchanged are more likely to be of wine merchants.
24 Buy wine direct from a wine estate’s cellar door
Not necessarily the way to find the best wine, but it’s fun, and you can drive your friends to distraction with tales of ‘this little grower we know’. Do your homework first and only visit good estates. Remember you don’t have to buy… but once you’ve done the tasting, smiled at the children and patted the dog, you might find there’s an air of expectation.
25 Drink vintage Port young, with pudding
The 2007 vintage has been widely declared (see p42) and is delicious. Grab some and open it while it’s juicy and plump. There’s a three- or four-year window before it closes up.
26 Take a helicopter tour of a wine area
A bird’s-eye view makes the Médoc look like a collection of toytown châteaux. A helicopter tour of Chilean vineyards shows just how all those valleys work. Take maps.
27 Try ice wine (preferably in Niagara or in the Saar)
Auslese or Beerenauslese has more complexity than ice wine (Eiswein), but ice wine wins on improbability. If in Canada, look out for ice wine flavoured with chocolate or strawberry – or made sparkling. Then avoid it. Stick to the classic stuff.
28 Run the Médoc marathon
There are lots of wine and oyster stops en route, which takes in dozens of châteaux and vineyards. Spectators can enjoy the runners’ fancy dress and recovery walk the next day. www.marathondumedoc.com
29 Recognise a corked wine and argue (successfully) with a sommelier
Really, the sommelier should have spotted the fault. If they haven’t and you have, they should get you another bottle. That is, if you’re right. But there are times when the sommelier (or owner) argues the toss – especially with women. Be polite, stand your ground and remember: your ultimate weapon is the service charge.
30 Breakfast on top vintage Champagne
You wouldn’t want cheap Champagne for breakfast, would you? Only the best will do that early. Skip the orange juice and have scrambled eggs on toast – with ostrich eggs, of course.
31 Plan a dinner party solely around the wines
They’d better be good – the guests, that is. No point in opening your finest bottles if they’re not going to be appreciated. Keep the food simple and don’t let anyone get too snobby; wine is meant to be fun. A perfect occasion for no. 2.
32 Visit the cellars at Château de Beaune
The HQ of Bouchard Père et Fils has the most famous library of wines in France, if not the world: millions of bottles in huge corridors deep underground, saved from the Nazis because the general there was a wine lover. Bouchard occasionally opens old bottles from its stocks: 1863 Meursault, anyone? www.bouchard-pereetfils.com
33 Work a vintage
You’ll be worked to death, forget what sleep is and have a great time. Your wine merchant might be able to help you get a job as a cellar rat, or apply direct to the estate of your choice (see p120).
34 Have lunch at the Factory House
The Factory House in Oporto was built by the city’s English wine merchants for their own use, and they still have lunch there each Wednesday. The best way to get invited is to join the Port trade. There are two dining rooms: they move to the second for Port, to escape the food smells.
35 Drink wine made from vines older than you
Vieilles vignes are not vieilles at all if they’re younger than you are. The Barossa (see p46) has some of the oldest in the world: even your granny would be impressed.
36 Buy a case en primeur
Maybe not this year. But when there’s next a year of superb quality and demand is racing ahead, it’s fun to be part of it, just so you can say smugly: ‘I didn’t buy much; just a bit of Cheval Blanc.’
37 Discover the Loire Valley castles and vineyards by bike
A slow pace suits the Loire. Seek out back roads, find out local market days and stop when you want. See www.headwater.com for a range of cycle holidays. Just remember: wine regions tend to be hilly.
38 Get lost in Pomerol
No, it’s not too small to get lost in. It’s flat, all the landmarks look alike, and the signposts point to useless places. Pomerol producers are very used to phone calls from would-be visitors: ‘I’m at a crossroads’; ‘I can see Château X to my right’. The other place where getting lost is a rite of passage is Haut-Brion: it’s tucked away in the suburbs of Bordeaux without a single signpost to help.
39 Go kangaroo-spotting in the Hunter Valley
Unlike some Aussie wine regions, the Hunter always seems to produce roos to order. Take binoculars: they’re shy, and can be hard to spot among the foliage. Evening is the best time.
40 And… drink your best bottles
Drink a wine when it’s over the hill and you’ll say, ‘If only I’d opened it five years ago’. Open it a fraction too early, and you’ll have the pleasure of watching it open and blossom in the glass. A wine that’s still too young will be full of delight; one that’s too old is a waste. Of course, if you’ve only bought them when they’re past it, that’s a different matter: then you can marvel over whatever vigour they have left.
How many have you done? And did we miss anything? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to tell us
Written by Margaret Rand