I really hate people who are into wine. They make me feel very inept. First of all they sit there gargling merlot like it’s mouthwash, which is rather revolting. Then they go on about a particular vintage that they had in a tiny vineyard in Gironde in France, where their family owns a “small” chateau, and the wine there tastes like red berries found only in the Himalayas and pixie farts – and it’s the only thing that they can possibly drink now. And it costs £40 a bottle.
When I sit there listening to these people, I wonder if they really know what they’re talking about. If we did a blind tasting, would they really be able to tell the difference between the pixie fart vintage and Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference cab sav? My guess is: probably not.
However, I’m not equipped with enough knowledge to call them out. My wine choices are based largely on copying people around me. My go-to bottle is always a nice Gavi because an old boss once ordered a bottle in Annabel’s and it tasted delicious. But I’m not sure that quite transfers when you’re shopping in Aldi. Or I’ll grab some Vina Sol for a dinner party because it’s what my old housemates used to drink at summer barbecues and it’s often on special offer (probably not a great sign…).
But I’ve had enough. Now it’s time to call in the professionals, and luckily for me, my friend Chloe works on her family vineyard Woodchester Valley in the Cotswolds. She’s taken time out of her busy day to talk me through the basics, so that I can survive any cocktail reception, hoity-toity soirée or red chino-clad oenophile that’s thrown my way.
Choosing wine for a dinner party is like stepping into a Latin GCSE exam. What do I do?!
Firstly, if you can, try to find your local wine merchant/wine shop and make friends with the people who work there! They should be people who know a decent amount about wine and can hopefully recommend wines to you that are a) a bit different to the standard big brands you get in supermarkets, and b) probably nicer!
Personally if I’m going for dinner, regardless of who it is that’s hosting (and how much they know about wine) I usually spend about £20 on a decent bottle and something I’d like to try. Try and get it cold (unless red) so there’s more chance of them opening it at the dinner (so you can enjoy it too…ha).
For those of you who have no idea: choose a bottle of fizz.
Great. So spend £20 and make friends with professionals who know more than me. Any extra hints or tips?
If you know what you’re having for the dinner that could sway it. As a very generic guide:
For fish: try a dry white, could do a sauvignon blanc or a chardonnay. A nice rich buttery Chardonnay would also do well with chicken or creamy dishes.
For something meaty (lasagne or red meat for example): try a red – I usually go light/medium bodied red. You could go for a merlot or a grenache. You could also try a pinot noir – but decent pinot noir can be expensive. It’s better to do that than a really big full-bodied or heavy tannin red as they might over power the food and they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. (That said, if you’re having steak then a Malbec is usually a good option.)
For those of you who have no idea: go for a bottle of fizz. A cremant is a nice alternative to prosecco and has something a bit more to it but is cheaper than champagne. Plus, there’s always an occasion to crack out some fizz!
When in a restaurant, do I have to do that charade of trying the wine?
Personally I don’t usually do this unless it would be awkward not to or your might offend the waiter if they’re really keen for you to try it. I’m pretty sure the main reason this was done in the past is to check if the wine was corked or not. Wines are very rarely corked these days (and if they are then the restaurant should take it back anyway, even if you have a full glass). Although it’s always good to double check that they’ve brought you the one you ordered though. [Yes, good advice, I once went on a date and they delivered the wrong bottle. We didn’t notice until the bill came and there was an extra £100 on there…]
Now, you’re at a wine tasting, why on earth do they make you spit it out?!
Honestly, I would only ever use a spittoon if I a) was driving, b) hated the wine or c) was being examined on the wines at the end! Just enjoy them!
When should you decant wine? Is it worth decantering my £7 Sainsbury’s purchase?
You don’t usually decant white wine, only red. With red wines, if it’s got sediment in it and been lying on its side then decanting is a good way to get the sediment to the bottom. The other reason for decanting is to let the wine breathe/open up and give it a chance to express itself [even wines are millennial these days huh?]. Younger reds don’t need this as much, but for older more full bodied reds it’s usually a nice idea. The £7 Sainsbury’s one prob doesn’t need it!
Should you swill wine round the glass and sniff it before you drink it?
For a dinner party, judge your host. If they’re pretty pleased with the wine they’ve provided then give it a good sniff and see if you can smell (or if not invent some smells) to show your appreciation. Other hosts might get offended if they think you’re judging their wine choice so maybe don’t! [Hmmm… tough crowd].
For a wine tasting then we would usually recommend swilling and sniffing. Swilling it will aerate it and helps release the aromas so you can get more from the wine.
A bunch of diehard francophiles would probably kick you out of a dinner party for even bringing up canned wine.
Should I ever tell anyone that I’m into box wine or wine in cans?
A bunch of diehard francophiles with a wine cellar full of Bordeaux would probably kick you out of a dinner party for even bringing up canned wine. Whereas a crowd of Hackney hipsters will love it.
I believe that a bottle is best for storing wine long term and cans and boxes can have a shorter shelf life. And fizz just works better in a bottle. wHowever, both boxed and canned wine are more eco-friendly ways of packaging and they’re also great for a picnic.
Obviously, you can get some really decent wine in both bags and cans now and you can get some shit wines in a bottle. Either way, bring it up at a dinner party because people are sure to have strong opinions and it’ll incite a good debate!
What are legs on wine? Will my wine run away?
Legs indicate how alcoholic or how full-bodied a wine is, i.e. more alcohol = more legs. But it doesn’t indicate anything to do with quality, taste or anything. So you don’t need to bother with that.
Most importantly, how do I find out which grape variety I should like?
This is a hard one, and it’s difficult to know. Firstly- be aware that with many old world wine regions (France, Italy, Spain to name just a few), the name on the bottle rarely is the grape variety. For example, Chablis is a region in Burgundy rather than a grape variety and the grape variety used for the wines from this region is Chardonnay. Old world wines are bloody hard to understand just from looking at the bottle!
New world (e.g. Australia, New Zealand, the Americas) tend to have the grape variety on the label which is easier to understand, e.g. New Zealand Sauvignon.
The third thing to mention is that some of the most famous styles of wines are blends – so not just one grape variety – such as most red wines from Bordeaux.
I think I have made this sound more complicated than it is… My main advice would be, every time you taste a wine you really like, take a photo of the label, look it up on a wine app (e.g. Vivino), then you can look at similar styles that you might like to try.
For expert wine tastings, advice and beautiful bottles, visit: www.woodchestervalleyvineyard.co.uk