I was out for a drink last weekend and witnessed an exchange between the barman and a customer who had been given -God forbid- Guinness instead of Murphy’s.
Now there was no problem at all about this, the barman apologised and immediately poured the man his rightful pint of stout. The same bar serves a good range of wines by the glass, a trend which is thankfully gaining ground in the pubs of Ireland. It made me wonder if there would be the same consternation over a glass of wine.
I’d say most people would rather drink up and say nothing for fear of looking like a pretentious snob had they a doubt as to the provenance of their wine. Fair enough, we’ve probably been drinking the black stuff as a nation for longer than the red, white and rosé, but it’s time we got a bit more confident in our ability to tell our Merlots from our Malbecs.
Taste is a very subjective sense-one man’s sauce is another man’s poison and all that. However, there are some factors affecting the taste of wine which can be identified, and let’s face it, it can only be fun to find them out.
We all have our favourite wine, but sometimes this can be influenced by preconception. In the food world, chefs like Heston Blumenthal constantly challenge the senses by mixing up the expected tastes-caviar and chocolate, for instance. I was served a very unusual ice cream in a restaurant once and asked to identify the main ingredient. It was olives-so familiar yet totally out of context. For this reason, it’s a great idea to try tasting ‘blind’.
Here’s the plan: gather a few friends ‘round on a Saturday night. Set a theme-Chardonnay from different regions around the world; Syrah/Shiraz blends; sparkling wine, from Prosecco to Champagne- and get each to bring a bottle from a designated region. Wrap the bottles in tinfoil, no more than six different wines is best, and number them, getting a non –participating member of the house to write down which is which.
Now give everyone a sheet of paper and write the following headings: appearance- is it clear, cloudy, dense? What colour is it? How are the bubbles-big, small, do they last?); nose (what does it smell of-fruit: citrus, pear, apple, blackberry, strawberry? Spice, herbs? Any unpleasant chemical whiffs? Do you think it’s oak aged-aromas of vanilla, nuts, toast, cedar?); taste (whatever flavours come to mind-don’t worry how random); texture (how does it feel in your mouth?) overall (do you like it? what do you think it is? from where?).
This might all seem like a palaver, but it’s great fun and much more interesting when you make the effort to be a bit structured. Keep the food quite simple, nothing too spicy or acidic, as these flavours play havoc with the subtleties of the wines. Now pour a small taste of each wine for everyone to examine, swirl, sniff, taste and slurp, all the while writing down your conclusions and discussing your views.
Move on to the next wine rather than finishing each one, though, otherwise the writing will be indecipherable by the sixth bottle! They can all be polished off as the night goes on and your findings are revealed. You may even find you loved a wine you have previously avoided.
I’ve done this with friends who like a glass of wine but who wouldn’t consider themselves connoisseurs. The point is to think about what you’re smelling and tasting and it’s amazing how our perceptions are thrown when all the trappings of labels and pre-ordained expectations are removed.
Tasting is a skill which can be learned, but many people have a natural ability to isolate scents and flavours, you just have to think about it. The great thing is, there’s no right or wrong. It’s all about taste and most importantly, pleasure.