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How To Truly Enjoy a Glass of Wine, The Impartial Way

A little knowledge goes far! 

Whether you’re looking to order a glass of wine in a bar or restaurant, or simply browsing the supermarket wine shelf, do your homework. A little knowledge goes a long way, and you don’t even have to attend wine school to obtain it. With every bottle there is a journey so discover it! There are a multitude of different factors that go in to winemaking that need to be considered; all of these factors impact the flavour of the final product. The most frustrating request I am ever given on the bar is: “Can I have a glass of wine please?” which irritates me on so many levels I can’t even begin to tell you! “Can I have a glass of white/red wine please?” Doesn’t help me in the slightest either.

Brian: “Of course, what wine would you like and what size? The MerlotMalbecSauvignon Blanc?” 

Guest: “Oh I haven’t thought of that… can I have the large house red please?” 

Whenever I challenge my customers, I often ask them why they like or dislike a certain wine. The usual responses are: “Because it’s nice; I like the taste of it” or “I don’t know; I just don’t like it.” 

It pains me to see that a number of customers haven’t prepared themselves before ordering which is a real shame. However, I love teaching them something new and helping them get the best value-for-money from the glass or bottle they’re looking at. Whenever you hear the words “value-for-money” never assume this means “Cheap” because it doesn’t. Value-for-money (good or bad) is determined by what you get in return for the price paid. Before approaching that glass or bottle of wine, be discerning. Ask those probing questions and be open to any type of wine; red, rosé, white, sparkling etc. Most restaurants and good wine merchants can give you a taster before you buy. Consider the following:

Country and growing conditions: Where your wine comes from will affect the flavour of your wine significantly in manner of ways. All winemakers have different production methods that play a huge role in a wine’s taste; not forgetting the climate and growing conditions of the grapes in their vineyards. Large bodies of water, lakes and rivers will all have an effect on vineyard conditions; heating the vineyard in Winter, and cool it down in the Summer. The United States, Canada, Russia, Asia and Europe are all located in the Northern Hemisphere. South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are all in the Southern Hemisphere. Most wine-making vineyards are located within 30° and 50° of the parallel latitudes in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. These vineyards are widely considered to have the best growing conditions for the famous Vitis Vinifera vine; the species of vine responsible for producing almost all wine-making grapes throughout the world. Vineyards in regions located further down the latitude have warmer climates, as they are closer to the Equator than regions located further north towards the North Pole. Vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere should ideally be south-facing, so the grapes can receive maximum heat and sunlight exposure. Kent sits just outside of this ideal latitudinal range at around 51° in the Northern Hemisphere, with its own unique set of climatic nuances known as a “microclimate.” 

To be regarded as a “cool climate”, a region’s average growing temperatures reach no higher than 16.5°C. In the case of Pinot Noir, if growing conditions are too cold the grapes will not fully ripen, resulting in the wine tasting excessively green. If conditions are too hot, Pinot noir will taste of overcooked fruits. Pinot Noir needs a Goldilocks medium that England often struggles to provide. 2018 however was a different story; conditions in Kent were warm enough to fully ripen the red-wine grapes, but cool enough to retain acidity levels needed in cool-climate Pinot Noir and white-wine grapes, creating almost-ideal conditions for both English red and white wine. 

The grape: You may very well have a favourite; Malbec, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon etc, but have you ever asked yourself why? What is it about this grape variety I really like? What should I be tasting from this grape grown in this climate? Single-varietal or a blended wine? Full-bodied or light bodied? How long has it been aged or fermented for? Will it really pair well with the food I’m about to have? The very same grape of the wine you purport to enjoy would taste very differently if it came from elsewhere in the world; even the year the grapes were harvested known as a “Vintage” is a key consideration here. To be recognised as a “Vintage”, a bottle must lawfully contain grapes that were mostly or entirely harvested from a single year, which is displayed on the label. “Non-vintage” wines will contain grapes harvested from many different years, and will therefore not display any date on the bottle. If I poured a glass of wine for the average customer without telling them what it is, the average customer wouldn’t notice if I poured them something other than what they’ve asked for. This is why it’s unfair to make generic conclusions about a certain wine without specific reasons. 

A grape itself comprises of: water, sugar and acidity that are found in the pulp, tannins found in the skin and stems, and bitter oils found in the seeds. Colour comes from the skins, which is why white wine can be made using 100% red wine grapes if the skins are removed first or fermentation is short. All white wine grapes such as chardonnay (which is also grown in Kent) tend to have higher acidity and lower sugar levels than most red wine grapes. As climatic temperatures increase throughout the ripening stages, acidity levels in the grape drop and sugar levels rise. As temperatures decrease, the opposite happens; acidity levels in the grape rise and sugar levels drop. The three main grape varieties grown in Kent are: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir (both of which are red wine grapes) and Chardonnay, which are the main grape varieties used in the production of Champagne in France. These grape varieties can withstand a cooler growing climate which is why they are grown here in Kent, each displaying different flavour profiles that need to be considered. 

In cool climates, Chardonnay would display flavours of green orchard fruits along with lemon and lime. Temperate climates would see Chardonnay displaying more stone fruits such as mango and melon along with citrus. In Hotter climates, one should expect flavours reminiscent of tropical fruits; banana, mango and jackfruit. One should typically expect cool-climate Pinot Noir to display delicate characteristics of bramble fruits and strawberry when fully ripened. In slightly warmer climates, these fruits would still be present along with some farmyard notes. Lastly, Pinot Meunier. This red grape variety is the third-most important grape in any quality English sparkling wine or French Champagne. When ripe, Pinot Meunier would typically express flavours and aromas of delicate sweet spices, confected mulberries and smoky red fruits.

The vineyard: Older vines will produce less fruit with more concentrated flavours. Younger vines will propagate more fruit with less flavour, meaning more grapes would be needed to produce the wine. This is where careful vineyard management comes in to play. The amount of water the vine receives (either from rainfall or irrigation) will determine the size and quality of the yield. If vines receive a lot of water, more fruit will grow so it’s vital that winemakers control how much wine their producing. If wine is produced on a large scale (either from one or various vineyards) the lower the bottle’s retail price. If wine is produced on a small-scale, the higher the bottle’s retail price. It is important to consider that smaller vineyards will inevitably produce less wine regardless of the age of their vines. Mass-market wines that we see on the supermarket shelf will often come from larger vineyards producing wine on a grand scale, or a small vineyard that is one of many among by that particular estate. That being said, never underestimate the ever-changing wine market, so expect some surprises along the way. It is quite possible to find quality wines nowadays that are affordable, and you don’t have to look too far away to find them. 

Production methods: Winemakers will have their own preferred choices of production. However, the principle remains the same. For red and rosé wines, once the grapes are harvested (either by hand or machine), they are crushed to separate the skins and stems from the pulp. The mixture is then fermented in either steel tank or oak barrels where yeast is added to convert the natural sugars to alcohol. In Kent, “Lees Aging” is common practice for white and sparkling wines; the wine is left to mature on the dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation, adding flavours of toast, bread, and biscuit. The next stage is pressing, where the mixture is pressed to release the juice that will be matured in either oak barrels or steel tanks. Once the wine has been matured for a certain amount of time, it is then bottled and either aged for longer before release to further develop the flavours, or released soon after bottling. For white wine, the skin and pulp mixture is pressed before fermentation. For sparkling wines, there is whole different method; the secondary fermentation process increases alcohol content and creates the bubbles through the trapped Carbon Dioxide in the bottle. 

Oak brings flavours and aromas of vanilla, forest floor, mushroom, and nutty-spices. However, not every wine warrants oak aging, and not all wines will develop any further in the bottle either. In fact, most wines in the supermarket are young, light to medium-bodied and are made to be drunk now or in the very near future. One technique that wine makers can use, is to add oak chips or oak staves to the fermentation or maturation vat to impart “lightly-oaked” flavours into relevant wines; otherwise known as “cheating” in the words of my tutor!    Please note there is a difference between the labelling terms “Oaked” and “Oak-aged.” The more you can smell and taste what oak brings, the more likely your wine was aged or fermented in young oak barrels. The less you can smell and taste those particular notes, the more likely it is that older oak barrels were used, or oak chips/staves were added to your wine.

Take Chardonnay for example. Chardonnay can be produced “Un-oaked” meaning that no oak was used whatsoever. Some customers don’t like “oaky” wines which is fine, but as I said previously never dismiss a certain wine completely and be open to anything. Sauvignon Blanc is prized for its herbaceous and floral notes that oak would over-power, so oak is rarely used to produce this wine. 

These are just a handful of topics that should be considered when selecting your glass or bottle of vino. No; reading the label alone will not give you the whole story; research will. Even just a little research will give you a clearer understanding of what to expect. Online reviews, winemakers’ websites, tasting notes, magazines and videos will help you a great deal. The deeper you dig, the more you’ll find and believe me the world of wine is an amazing place.

Never judge a wine by the price tag! 

Probably one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever been taught in wine school. When looking for quality wines, you don’t have to spend a fortune for it. Of course; unless money is no object, we all have budgets. However, never assume that the wine you’re purchasing is of less quality than wines that are priced much higher. The wine market is huge, and it’s completely possible to find wines of very good quality at affordable prices. I’d like to re-iterate what I said earlier about finding value-for-money. Once you have that little-extra knowledge under your belt, and once you’ve fine-tuned your palate to identify all of those key features, you’ll be able to determine which wines are of a higher quality than others, regardless of the price paid. You could easily spend for example, £35.00 on a bottle of 2015 machine-harvested Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina from a single vineyard and be very disappointed, compared to a bottle of 2017 Australian lees-aged Chardonnay made with hand-harvested grapes at over half price that you’re more than happy with. Two very different wines (I know), however I hope it gives you a good enough incentive to look for quality and value-for money. 

Quality

As tasters, we don’t look for wines that we like in particular. Nonetheless we all drink the wines we enjoy, but when judging a wine’s quality, we have to put our opinions aside and make our analysis. I’ll never be seen drinking a glass of Sauternes but that doesn’t mean that the wine is not of a good or even an outstanding quality. Quality should be judged by the complexity of the flavours and aromas, the amount of flavours and aromas, and the length of the finish. By finish, I mean by how long the flavours linger in the mouth afterwards. The longer the finish, the more flavours and aromas that exist, the higher quality. Even if you don’t have the opportunity to “try before you buy”, if you can trace that bottle right back to the vines where the grapes came from, and if the wine was made using high-quality methods, then you should expect quality and value-for-money. 

Whether a bottle is sealed by a cork or screw-cap, is completely irrelevant in terms of quality, so please don’t presume that a bottle of wine with a screw-cap is bad quality. Many winemakers making good quality wines that are meant to drunk young will often seal their bottles with a screw-top. Whilst there are benefits to cork-sealed bottles, winemakers who choose to seal their bottles with a cork are either producing age-worthy wines, or cork-sealing their bottles for its aesthetic appeal (or both). Age-worthy wines will have a cork that allows small amounts of oxygen to seep in, thus slowly aging the wine; a screw cap just won’t cut the mustard. I love all the nuances of an older wine (red or white) but it’s important realise that actually, wines don’t improve with age. Wines with aging potential do NOT improve, but develop over time. 

Good wine merchants will give you a credit note if the wine is faulty, and most restaurants will be happy to replace the glass or bottle if that’s the case. If a wine is corked or cork-tainted, it doesn’t mean that there are bits of cork floating around in the bottle; that’s a common misconception. Corked wines are actually found on rare occasions; statistically speaking, on average 1 in every 100 bottles are found to be corked, however there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever find one. If a wine is corked, it will smell of wet dog and damp cardboard so you’ll certainly know about it! A corked wine will be infected with a fungal compound known as Trichloroanisole or TCA for short that is transferred through the cork. It can happen accidentally through wine production but it’s not harmful at all. Try not to give the give the waiting staff a hard time by complaining about the bits of cork floating around in your glass and just fish them all out. You have my word that your wine will not be affected by the cork in any way, and if the whole cork falls through, you can either pull it out with a cork retriever or filter the wine through. I’ve opened bottles that are much older than I am with delicate corks; it’s no big deal when it crumbles, believe me. 

When a wine smells of vinegar it’s either been open for far too long, or it’s been overly exposed to oxygen. Wines should be sold in the best condition, so don’t be ashamed to send it back; politely of course. If I’m at a bar or restaurant, I’m not ashamed to sit there properly evaluating each and every wine I have available to me before I decide. Yes, I do get some funny looks from time to time, but I couldn’t care less! I know what I’m doing and I know exactly what I’m looking for! 

Pairing food with wine

I could go on and on about food and wine pairings, but it’s actually a surprisingly simple concept. Food and wine are never a perfect “Match”, it’s a pairing. Sometimes, we don’t quite get it right which is fine, but by following this simple principle, you’re on the road to success. Some foods are more difficult to pair than others, like artichoke and asparagus; food and wine pairing can often be trial and error which is normal. However, you need consider the intensity of the dish and even how it’s been cooked. Strong flavours pair well with intensely-flavoured wines. Lightly-flavoured wines pair well with lighter dishes. It’s important to strike a balance between both sides when pairing food with wine. No longer believe the old fable of “Red wine with meat, white wine with fish”; it’s a myth! 

Acidity in wine pairs well with acidic food: Wines that are highly acidic pair well with highly-acidic and oily foods. Yes, most cheeses pair better with highly acidic white wines than red wine. As I mentioned earlier, white wine grapes have a lot more acidity than red wine grapes, so it makes sense for white to pair better with cheese than red. That being said, bold, stinky cheeses can pair very interestingly with full-bodied reds. Pan-fried salmon would pair well with a chilled Rosé Brut by Chapel Down or a 2018 Balfour Springfield Chardonnay by Hush Heath. Lots of acidity in both wines with the body to stand up to the oily textures of salmon. A chilled, light-bodied, cool-climate red like Pinot Noir will also work well with this; lots of red fruit notes with enough acidity to cut through the fat. For food high in chilli, stay clear of tannic reds and go for a refreshingly dry, highly-acidic white like a South African Chenin Blanc with tropical fruit notes and a low alcohol level. That way, you’ll avoid the fireball in your mouth; some people love the “explosion” that comes with pairing highly tannic wines with high alcohol but this increases the burning sensation.

Tannic wines pair well with salty and rich foods: Salty dishes that are rich in nature pair fantastically with rich, bold and tannic reds; salt and tannic wine is a heaven-made pairing. A slow-cooked tomato ragù for example or a braised lamb dish would pair well a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Saint-Estèphe, France. The reminiscent baked red and black fruits from the Cabernet is an intriguing partner to the robust and juicy flavours of both dishes. Salt softens those harsh tannins in the wine and other dominant components which is why salt and tannin go hand-in-hand. 

Sweet wines pair well with sweet and salty foods: Whether you’re having a French Sauternes with your chocolate mousse dessert or a sweet floral Mosul Riesling with a salted caramel dessert, sweetness goes with sweetness. There needs to be enough sweetness in the wine to live up to the sweetness of the dessert. Sweet white wine and blue cheese makes a seductive combination with the marriage of sweet and salty flavours. 

The wine glass can make all the difference

There are four components that assemble a typical wine glass. At the bottom, there is a “foot” or base (the circular thing that allows the glass to stand by itself). Followed by the “stem”; the thin rod protruding from the foot/base (I’ll refer to it as a foot from now on). At the top of the stem we have the “bowl” which is the vessel containing the wine itself. Finally, we have the “rim” at the very top of the bowl. Don’t even get me started on stemless glasses!

Selecting the most appropriate wine glass is just as important as selecting the wine you’re about to have, so choose wisely; please. In order to help you enjoy the wine at its very best, there should be very little separation between you and the wine; the thinner the glass the better. Contrary to popular belief, you needn’t be drinking from different types and shapes of glasses based on the wine you intend to drink. Whilst narrow flutes are good for retaining (and containing) the bubbles within your glass of fizzy, there is very little surface area for the wine to breathe in. My advice; choose a glass with a much larger bowl! This is essential for all reds, whites, rosés and even fortified wines. A glass with a large, rounded bowl will allow the wine to express the complexity of its aromas; every wine deserves to be enjoyed for the aromas it can produce and not only by how good it tastes!

At wine school, we taste wine from ‘ISO’ glasses that are considerably smaller than any typical wine glass that we would enjoy wine from. There is a complicated science that goes with producing these tasting glasses; despite their small size, the bowl is big enough to swirl the right amount of wine in, etc. I must mention that they serve a professional tasting purpose so unless you’re attending a wine tasting, stay clear of them. Besides, you can’t pour a lot of wine into them anyway! 

Hold it by the stem, NOT the bowl! 

One of the biggest cardinal sins of wine appreciation is holding a wine glass by the sides of the bowl; a big no-no.  Not only could you be needlessly heating your wine (which is a cliché to many), you could also be smearing the glass; who would like to be seen drinking from a dirty wine glass full of oily fingerprints? I certainly don’t, especially if I’m attending a tasting of some description! One should always hold a wine glass by the stem; preferably towards the foot for added leverage and comfort (as you can see in my photo). Admittedly, before my eyes were opened to the world of wine, I was one of those people that did hold the glass in that way without realising what I was doing. To truly enjoy a glass of wine, proper etiquette is prescribed at the very least. 

It may seem like a mountain to climb but honestly, it really isn’t. So next time you’re sipping from that glass of fine vino, spare a thought for the journey it’s been on, and open your eyes, nose and mouth to magic in the glass. 

Brian Chau

For any comments, suggestions or questions about this article or anything wine-related, please fill in the contact form below and I’d be happy to answer them! I’m always looking for new ideas and suggestions so by all means get in touch! 

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