Cultural Sass Column: A student’s guide to wine

Cultural Sass Column: A student’s guide to wine

Lydia Bews-Fullilove takes you through the wonderful world of wine

As students, we’re ruled by our Saturday nights. A weekly ritual where try to get drunk as quickly and cheaply as possible, rustling up bizarre pre-drink concoctions which should come with a warning label, and downing shots by the dozen. However, for better or worse, there will soon come a time – even for those of us whose brains have been addled and degrees derailed by binge drinking – to move on to more professional horizons. Luckily, whilst fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the rat race, a sound grasp of wine will always be in the arsenal of any aspiring high-flyer.

In the right hands, wine is like a flower-painted fan fluttering in the hand of an 18th century seductress – an accessory to power, whether one is networking among would-be co-workers or schmoozing employers. Aside from the uphill slog of building up social capital, wine can also taste pretty good and your favourite wine varieties can be treated just like the music genres you support. My own wine education was recently triggered after an invitation to the achingly exclusive 67 Pall Mall wine club. Thankfully, my connoisseur companion took charge and ordered for the both of us, but after my own near-miss of being flummoxed when faced with the wine list, my foray into wine was secured.

First, let’s zoom in on French wine, the holy grail of fine wine and a place most grape varieties call their home. How to say the French names on the wine menu without garbling them? Delivery is everything. Don’t despair that you’ll have to memorise wine names like a new vocabulary; the beauty of it is, if you can master the basic sounds, then you can blag it and say almost anything in what sounds like French.

Putting effort into pronunciation pays off: at one Francophone event, I was instantly proclaimed an excellent French speaker on the basis of a particularly husky rendition of ‘Enchanté’. English words tend to jump up and down in a sentence, while French words roll seamlessly into one, which makes render them music to the ears, but also causes the untrained ear to drift off into a sea of sounds which are infuriatingly difficult to decipher. The best advice for pronunciation is to watch a few French say-along Youtube videos, while noticing from them that some basic groups of letters will aways sound the same. As in ‘Château’, the ‘ch’ always sounds like ‘sha’, and the ‘eau’ like ‘oh’. The letter ‘i’ in French often sounds like ‘ee’, as in Château Lafite which is pronounced ‘lafeet’. If a consonant or vowel sits right at the end of a word, it is not pronounced: in Chambertin, my personal tipple of choice, the ‘cham’ sounds like ‘shom’, the ‘bertin’ like ‘ber ta’.

People can become so embroiled in the fashionability of a wine, (or secretly they just like the name), that they forget that they most of all have to figure out what flavours they enjoy. It’s not as if anyone has ever forced oysters down their throats when they secretly disgust them, so why force yourself to enjoy a wincingly sugary Sauternes, or a throat-lacing of Cabernet Sauvignon? The only way to learn which wine you enjoy is to experiment by buying and sampling them, but there are many cheats so you will never again be baffled when faced with a wine list.

When tasting wine, there are a few main areas to master that make up the backbone of wine-speak. Even the basic colour of wine is misleading. As white wines use only the squeezed juice not the skin of grapes, it can be made from both pale or dark grapes, but red wines and rosés are always made from dark grapes, skins and all. The intensity and darkness of the wine’s colour is imparted by the length of contact-time with the grape skins, and the depth of colour also denotes the increased strength of the flavour. Indeed, white wines with a darker golden-hue, such as Chardonnay grapes, are more likely to be rich and oaky or to be older due to more time stewing in wooden barrels and exposure to air, than those that are a watery white such as Sauvignon Blanc grapes which are often crisper and more refreshing. By contrast, the older a red wine the more its colour shifts to a paler almost browned colour. Paler red wines are produced by thin-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir, and in wine-speak, are often described as lighter-bodied and less sharp than darker reds such as thicker-skinned Syrah grapes.

Younger wines typically savour of fresh-fruit and are lighter-bodied, while wines that are over two years old tend to be premium wines refined by ageing and are thus often more oaky. Though their flavours may be less vivid, the lure of older wines is that they are more complex, multi-layered, and fuller-bodied. Contrary to popular belief, over 90% of wines are made to be drunk straight away and do not improve with age as their fresh-fruit qualities will deteriorate. Only premium wines, usually red, are high enough in concentration to bloom into new flavours as they age, while only 1% of wines, rare and expensive collectibles, are designed to taste better after the ten years which they require to soften, as they contain high-tannin concentrations that make them downright unpleasant when fresh out the bottle.

In a nutshell, in terms of the flavours of different grapes, most white wine grapes share an apple-like flavour, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, while others also have a slightly floral scent like Pinot Gris and Riesling, or a herbal-twist like Sauvignon Blanc. With red wine grapes, most savour of black-fruit such as berries or cherries, as in Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, or with a whisper of brighter red-berries like Pinot Noir, or even spiced-fruit such as Syrah. However, there are only two true flavours that tickle and are detected by our tastebuds in wine (the rest is our sense of smell intervening) – its sweetness and its acidity.

The taste of a wine ranges from sweet to dry, the latter having no perceptible sweetness, like most wines in the world. The acidity of a wine refers to the cringingly sour sensation when you first sip it but which often fades as you continue to drink. The term has been jazzed up from low to high as mildly acidic/flabby, or crisp/tangy, to tart/sharp. Further wine jargon revolves around the intensity of the fruit vs the oak presence which is detected by the nose. Bafflingly, the fruit refers to both the boldness of the scent and flavour of the wine’s actual fruits, but also to the diverse non-fruity notes that can be picked up. When wine buffs describe a wine as chocolatey, peppery, herbal, or even like bread dough, leather and asphalt, it is not out of overdone pretentiousness, nor do they mean that those ingredients have been added to the wine. They are metaphors to describe the diverse scents created by chemical reactions during the wine’s fermentation.

Indeed, people often sniff different things in the same wine, because the brain can only pick up scents that are stored in the memory or that you encounter often. Most often found in red wines, full-bodied whites, and premium-aged styles, the wine’s oak describes its scents and flavours from prolonged contact with the wooden oak barrels they are often fermented in, and ranges from unoaked/naked, mild oak, to oaky/toasty.

The body of a wine refers to its texture or thickness, from light-bodied, medium-bodied, to full-bodied, and as a rule the heavier the body, the quicker it will go to your head. Its body can be shown from how the wine’s ‘tears’ drip down the inside of the glass, and in the heaviest wines the drips fall at snail’s pace.

Finally, found in red wines only, the tannin refers to the mouth-drying quality of the wine that leaves a thick residue which increases as you drink, ranging from none at all, to velvety, to rough. The true test of a wine’s quality is in its ‘finish’, or less fancily, its aftertaste and how long it resonates in the mouth, ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes for the very best. When aficionados speak about a ‘good vintage’, they mean that everything from the climate, to the wine-making, to the vineyard management has aligned to make high quality wine. Without exaggeration, a tricky growing season has an immense effect on the wine’s structure and its potential to age; a dry hot summer could cause alcohol levels to soar, while a soggy harvest can result in thin wines.

The top three French wine regions reign supreme with their own iconic grapes, particularly the so-called six noble grapes that are most people’s gateway drugs to wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. When browsing for wine, a quick glance at the shape of their bottles can often hint at the region and the grapes contained, and thus at how the wine is likely to taste. Burgundy, often sold in sloping-shouldered bottles, is celebrated for its white Chardonnay and red Pinot Noir grapes. Chardonnay, often golden-hued, dry, and with a subtle flavour, is the most popular wine in the world, which may explain its bad rep.

Oblivious to the fact that Chardonnay was the grape behind the elegant white Burgundy, Chardonnay’s mass popularity was long sneered at as a symbol of the globalisation of wine and the uprooter of ancient local grape varieties. The damage was compounded in California during the 80s and 90s, when mass-market winemakers planted acres of trendy Chardonnay and over-oaked it to create ‘butter bombs’ – wine that literally tasted like liquid butter in a bottle – that sparked a backlash fashion of ‘ABC – Anything But Chardonnay’.

Undoubtedly the most romanticised red wine in the world, Pinot Noir from Burgundy is a light perfume of a wine that, to borrow the verbosity of its emotional devotees, dances on the palate rather than overpowering it. Lightly-coloured, medium-bodied and low tannin, it is a notoriously tricky grape to get right and a great bottle of Pinot Noir is a rare find (hence its cult following) that at its best has heady fruity scents and complex flavours. Also within northern Burgundy lies the sub-region of Chablis, a household name made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, but set apart by its greenish-yellow colour, and ’steely’, more acidic and less fruity flavour.

Southern Burgundy is home to the light and fruity Beaujolais. Made from the little-known Gamay grape, and dubbed ‘the only white wine that happens to be red’, is oddly served only lightly chilled. Although its premier cru varieties have made a comeback, basic Beaujolais is the classic bistro wine of Paris, and the general agreement is that this is an easy-drinking wine, intended to be enjoyed but not analysed, quaffed rather than sipped.

Bordeaux, which comes in square-shouldered bottles, is lauded for its red Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and its white Sauvignon Blanc. The classic Cabernet Sauvignon, the most popular red wine variety in the world, is full-bodied with high noticeable acidity adding to the wine’s ageing potential and earthy notes. With no law there limiting a wine to contain 100% of one grape variety, Bordeaux’s blending of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes is highly-prized, adding small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon to intensify the lighter Merlot wines, while the latter is used to mellow the brute force of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is more fruity than Cabernet, with less tannin and a smoother finish, and because less aggressive is often recommended as an approachable and affordable red wine for a beginner – though admittedly less respected than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Since the glut of mediocre Merlots from California – and the surprise 2004 hit film Sideways and the line of its wine-snob road tripper: ‘If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any f***ing merlot’ – caused its sales to plummet and Pinot Noir’s to soar, many now see upmarket Merlot as making a comeback. Also from Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc, meaning ‘Wild White’, tastes very different from other white wines because of its ‘green’ and herbal flavours ,of grass, green bell peppers and sometimes passion fruit. Lighter-bodied than Chardonnay, it often has a crisper, juicier jolt of acidity.

‘Come quickly, I am tasting stars,’ was Dom Pérignon’s famous quip after his first taste of Champagne, made from a blend of Chardonnay/Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier grapes. Most of the Champagne produced today is ‘non-vintage’, meaning it is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages or years. The very best offerings from a Champagne house is its cuvée de prestige, a blend that is considered to be the top of a producer’s range. Brands that might ring in one’s ears include Roederer’s Cristal and Moët et Chandon’s Dom Pérignon. In other Champagne variations, ’blanc de blancs’ is 100% Chardonnay, while ‘blanc de noirs’ is a type produced entirely from the juice of red grapes such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. For sommeliers, when pairing food and wine, the saying goes: ‘When in doubt, pair Champagne’.

Overall, if you are looking for a wine that will go with everything, something lighter and milder is the safest bet. Just remember the rule goes that to make a match made in heaven, neither the wine nor the food should overpower the other. Thus, lighter-flavoured and lighter-coloured food, such as seafood and goat’s cheese, pairs well with the lightest wines, like sparkling whites, while stronger-flavoured and coloured foods like red meats or chocolate, taste best with stronger wines, like intense reds. In general, raw foods pair best with wines that are young, fresh, and unoaked, while roasted, grilled or sautéed foods tend to be better with oaky wines. Salty food is complemented by drier wines, while sweet food suits wines that are at least as sweet as the dish. Similarly, tangy food requires tart wines, and smoky, woody foods require oaky wines – the glaring exception is spicy food which suits lightly sweet white and rosé wine.

For better or worse, wine is something of a rite of passage. As we grow older and life takes a more sedate turn, it is a caricature of the fate of the middle class and middle-aged. Nursing a glass of wine between the fingertips and tranquillising our world-weariness by getting slowly sozzled, there’s a continuity in the socially acceptable use of alcohol, albeit in the more refined form of wine, to tease away our troubles, past, present, and future. Kicking off a wine education is a primer to the inevitable. So why prolong the unavoidable when you can get a head start?

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