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Bluffer's Guide: How to act like a wine expert

So you want to look like a wine "expert", even though being handed the wine list makes you break out in a cold sweat? Maybe you want to come across as 'wine-confident' for extra style points in front of a client, a hot date or future-in-law, but you haven't quite got round to booking that WSET course...


Whatever your reason, here are my top tips for modelling the behaviours of a true pro, even if you don't know your Rondo from your Barolo*...



(*Rondo is a hybrid red grape suited to cold climates, Barolo is a wine region in Piemonte, giving its name to the region's most famous appellation wine Barolo DOCG, made from 100% Nebbiolo.)

Know that 'Expert' is a fallacy anyway

The world of wine is maddeningly, deliciously complex and ever-changing - true wine 'experts' know this and so there is always a certain humility - the more you know, the more you realise you don't know. You'll rarely find a wine scholar declaring they 'never drink (insert Chardonnay/ Prosecco/ Merlot/ South African/Australian wine)' because they know that nothing in wine is black and white. The answer to any wine question begins with, "Well, that depends...".


So, declaring with conviction, 'I don't drink Chardonnay'', in front of deeply interested wine geek, rather than making you seem like a savvy connoisseur, instead reveals a lack of appreciation for the kaleidoscopic nuance and variety in the world of wine.


Be an intrepid explorer

Rather than staying with what they know, true wine lovers are explorers at heart. They engage with the sommelier as their trusted sherpa rather than deciding (pretending) that they know the best path down this particular wine list, even if they've never been there before, like a recalcitrant man that refuses to ask for directions.


The sommelier is your ally, so use her well. Tell them what you are in the mood for - red, white, rosé, sparkling ? Crisp and refreshing? Rich and opulent? Tell them what you are eating. Point to something on the list that's in the price point you're looking at and say 'Something around this price range would be great'. For a somm, there's nothing worse than a guest who orders something perfunctorily as though extreme conviction conveys a sense of expertise. True wine lovers are excited to engage in a conversation, where every glass of wine is like a ticket to a new experience, but contrary to popular belief you don't need a high level of knowledge to engage, a good sommelier will know exactly how to guide you.


Also, if a wine is listed by the glass, don't be afraid to ask for a small taster before you commit.





Don't freak out when they say 'Who would like to taste the wine?'

This strange ritual at more formal restaurants could do with being scrapped to be honest, but if you're trying to look like a bit of a pro, then don't lose your cool at this point.


What are they actually asking you? They are not asking if you like the wine. They've already opened the bottle at this point, you can't send it back just because you don't like it, (unless of course you asked for a sample of a by-the-glass listing - see above).


Instead, they are asking you to check for faults, but you can also use this opportunity to check the temperature is to your liking too.


So give it a good swirl, take a nice big sniff, and take a little sip.


Faults? Does it smell musty, like cardboard? Or does it smell like vinegar or nail polish? Or does it smell like a dead mouse?


Assuming neither of these things are true, then your wine is not faulty. Just calmly say something like 'lovely, thank you' and let the waiter/somm get on with their job; you're not expected to make any profound pronouncement. Likewise, if it's faulty (cardboard, or vinegar/nail polish, or mousy) you don't need to identify the fault, just say - 'oh, I'm not sure actually' - and then get the Sommelier to do their job, which is why this ritual is so bizarre anyway.


NB. Bits of cork in the glass does not mean 'corked', (just that the waiter lost the battle with the corkscrew) just fish them out if needed.


Temperature?

If it's a white wine served ice cold, condensation visible on the bottle - if it's not smelling of very much, consider asking them to leave it out of the ice bucket. If it's a crisp white or rosé this may be exactly how you want it, but if it's a richer white you might be robbing yourself of some aromatic potential as the cold temperature will be keeping many of the aromatic compounds bound up; only sparkling, dessert and light rosé should be served closer to ice cold.


Likewise, if it's a red, you might actually consider asking them for an ice bucket to momentarily chill it down. Consider that 14-15 degrees is usually about right so that's quite a bit cooler than room temperature.


Hold your glass by the stem, not the bowl.

Why? Supposedly because you affect the (hopefully, perfectly calibrated) temperature by clutching the bowl. This is also why it's preferred to pour just a small amount of wine in the glass, which also allows room for swirling and for the collection of aroma compounds in the headspace of the glass, all off which contributes to your enjoyment of the wine's full potential.


It also avoids leaving unsightly greasy fingermarks on the glass, but to be honest it's mostly because THE WINE PEOPLE SAID SO. Don't ask me, it's just a rule they came up with. You know it's a niche wine-insider rule because even the Queen doesn't only hold her glass by the stem (picture evidence below). But if you want to look like one of the initiated, then hands off that bowl. #stemwatch





Don't talk about legs

This really old school wine assessment technique should stay in the 80's where it came from. The 'legs' or 'tears' of your glass of wine (when you swirl your glass, the way the wine drips down the inside of the glass) is no marker of quality. It is simply an indicator of how viscous the liquid is.


What makes a wine viscous and why should we care? Viscosity will either come from alcohol, glycerol or sugar content, or all the above. If a wine is high in alcohol, glycerol or residual sugar, it will have more pronounced, gloopy legs/tears. Firstly, you can't tell which factor is contributing the viscosity, by merely looking and secondly, none of these things is a mark of quality, and certainly not when assessed in isolation. Once upon a time, in more marginal climate regions before global heating, reaching higher ripeness (and thus alcohol - because sugar = alcohol) levels was the vigneron's goal. But if anything, now the trend is in the opposite direction, towards freshness, lower alcohol and drier wines. It's just a weird old school thing people used to say and then others copied it without understanding what it means. Don't fell into the trap.




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