Lessons in wine appreciation – back to basics
The approach of September reminds me that exactly half a century ago I began my part-time professional wine writing. That is to say, I got paid. I still have the receipted invoice for £5, a welcome addition to my modest wine trade stipend, for my first monthly column on wine in Cheshire Life. Appropriately, for though at the time I was working for Harveys in Manchester, in the mid 1970s we lived in Cheshire.
Each column was headed by one of my drawings, an appropriate vignette, foreshadowing the illustrated wine maps to come, currently being promoted by Decanter. It was also around the same time that I began ‘tutored’ tastings – a term I detest – first for local organisations ranging from the Women’s Institute to the Wine and Food Society.
Was all this seminal wine lecturing of any use whatsoever? I think it was, because I realised that, faced with a glass of wine, the vast majority of my audience had not the foggiest idea how to start: the significance of the appearance of wine, particularly its nose, and the components of taste. Worse still, in the early 1960s, having been transferred to Bristol, I found that Harveys ‘reps’ and sales staff in the retail shops were almost as ignorant, relying entirely on brief wine list notes – and prices.
Which brings me to another appropriate and significant anniversary, coinciding with the time the reader will receive the advance October issue of Decanter – the 25th anniversary of the first Christie’s wine course, which Steven Spurrier and I based on the classes at his successful Académie du Vin in Paris.
They say that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. But the more one teaches, the more one learns, not only helping to better master the subject but – and this is important – to take note of what the participants, of all ages, want to learn about wine.
For the past quarter-century, my part in the five-course sessions has alternated between the introduction to wine and the Bordeaux session, helping to identify regional and cépage variations. What do beginners need to know?
First of all, what one can learn from the appearance of wine: the whites ranging from almost colourless to more pronounced yellow, its clarity, its viscosity, and any signs of oxidation; then the extra dimensions of the reds, the significance of depth of colour, the actual hue, the intensity or weakness of the rim.
The question of whether and when to decant crops up at every tasting. Timing is not crucial. My short answer is that it matters little though I do advocate decanting red wines. At home I invariably pour young wines into an open jug an hour or so before serving. If a mature wine, then over a strong light – I prefer an upturned torch or table lamp to the traditional candle – to spot any sediment as it approaches the shoulder of the bottle. Glasses are important too. Riedel has all the answers, perhaps too many!
After ‘appearance’ comes the next natural progression, raising the glass to the nose. First, though, I advocate swirling the wine in the glass to rouse, aerate and maximise the surface area of wine.
Much has been said about the importance of the first impression, the first sniff. It is important, up to a point, but I always stress that unless the taster concentrates, undistractedly, on that first elusive sniff, the significance is missed. In practice, the professional, experienced taster will be on the look-out for typicity, perhaps its varietal aroma, cleanliness, possible faults including corkiness.
It is the next stage which is vastly more important and I always recommend a steady, not too deep inhalation, for it is then that the component parts can be identified, and, of course, its fragrance, its depth; if red, the not-always-identifiable sweaty leathery tannin, the ‘hot’ prickle of high alcohol and, that latter-day scourge, oak – new oak, with its spicy cinnamon scent.
In the case of a young red Bordeaux, whether it is dumb or forthcoming, the former needing time. Also, most importantly, to realise that the identification of major facets, particularly in a young red, is irrelevant in a fine mature wine, for the purpose of giving such a wine bottle age is for all the component parts to blend, resulting in a harmonious, seamless, bouquet.
In short, it is pointless to attempt to identify the same characteristics of a young wine in an old wine; for example, with the 1955 Latour or 1953 Lafite (should you be so lucky), one just luxuriates in the unravelling layers of delectable scents.
What about maturing whites? Sauternes for example? Starting off life a palish yellow-gold, the wines become a deeper amber-gold; and the fresh, sweet aroma develops into a richer, more honeyed, crème brûleé when fully matured.
To quote the late Professor Peynaud, the appearance – depth of colour and hue – and nose of the wine will tell you all you need to know about its quality and maturity. The third stage, the taste, merely acts as confirmation. He was of course referring mainly to red Bordeaux.