A Guide To Ordering (And Drinking) Wine… Without Sounding Like A Snob
From left: Messrs Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling with Mr Sancho and Ms Angela Rodriguez, having dinner at Ganbara, San Sebastian, 2017. Photograph by Mr Juan Trujillo Andrades, courtesy of Hardie Grant
I am co-founder and editor of the wine and food magazine Noble Rot, as well as the restaurants of the same name in London’s Soho and Bloomsbury. Together with Mr Mark Andrew, my business partner and co-author of the new Noble Rot book Wine from Another Galaxy, we’ve made it our company mission to celebrate the best of wine culture.
Over the past few years we’ve been fortunate to be able to spend time discovering and meeting with everyone from the original thinkers of the natural wine movement to the iconic names of burgundy and bordeaux, whose stories we have tried to write about from a human context, with an insight and humour sometimes lacking in the wine industry. To mark the release of our new book, here’s a short guide on how to explore wine while having maximum fun.
01. Find a thirsty co-explorer
All wine-lovers prize a fellow enthusiast with whom to explore precious bottles. On first meeting Mr Andrew in 2007, I asked him if he preferred drinking sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley or New Zealand, and he answered, “That’s like asking if I prefer kissing pretty girls or ugly girls”. I knew we’d become great friends.
We educated our palates with a succession of benchmarks – such as the exalted grenache of Château Rayas Pignan, or A-grade burgundy, such as Jacques-Frederic Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Les Fuées – and devoured books such as Mr Kermit Lynch’s Adventures On The Wine Route and Mr Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine, then plotted ways to drink the bottles they celebrated. In 2013, we toasted the birth of my son, Arthur, with Krug 1988 – the most delicious Champagne I’ve tasted – and marvelled over Selosse Substance while watching Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final.
Wine made us happy, inquisitive, confused, benevolent and sad (when out of condition), and inspired us to start Noble Rot to chart the feelings. Keep an eye out for your own thirsty co-explorer: you’ll know them by their dubious anecdotes and ability to not talk about wine like they’ve had a stick shoved up their arse.
02. Order from a wine list while keeping your self-respect
It takes years of experience to order from a restaurant wine list like a lord or lady. And, even then, you can often find yourself faced with a directory of unfamiliar names and places. Of course, the sommelier is the key to unlocking the vinous treasures in their cellar: engage them, tell them how much you want to spend and they might find you an extraordinary wine you never knew existed, with a “If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it” guarantee.
Don’t worry about fallacies such as never ordering the second wine down on the list, or misguidedly think that the sommelier is asking you for a value judgement on flavour, or a list of faults, when they pour a wine. There are, however, tips that can help you rise to the challenge without regurgitating hoary old clichés such as, “I don’t know about wine, but I know what I like”. Here’s a few of mine:
Still one of the world’s most underappreciated, and thus undervalued, wines. A crowd-pleasing session red with extra layers of interest, look out for domaines Lapierre, Jean-Paul Thévenet, Guy Breton and Jean Foillard – the “Gang of Four” who revived artisanal winemaking in the region – and new-school stars such as Domaine de la Grand’Cour, Domaine Chapel and Jules Desjourneys.
Reputable non-vintage champagne is a dependable fall back when navigating a mediocre list. With production in the millions, it’s often possible to find delicious Pol Roger LV, Louis Roederer and Billecart-Salmon, as well as British sparkling wines such as Hambledon or Nyetimber. Better still, when dining somewhere more progressive, choose a bottle from the expanding galaxy of grower champagne stars (Ulysse Collin, Bérêche et Fils, Pierre Baillette). More food-friendly than most people think, these are real fine wines perfectly suited to bookending, or even drinking throughout, a meal.
Order from regions and countries with undeserved naff reputations
In the late 19th century, German riesling was one of world’s most sought-after wines, something that lakes of bad-quality imitations and a fascist with a comedy moustache and an amphetamine habit put an end to. Today, powerhouse rieslings from Koehler-Ruprecht in Pfalz, or light and ethereal Mosel Kabinett from Joh Jos Prüm are among the most affordable fine wines available. And at circa 7.5 per cent ABV for Prüm Kabinett, you might as well be drinking a health tonic. Which, of course, you are.
In Burgundy, generic bourgogne from superstars such as Jean-Marc Roulot or Ghislaine Barthod is a formula for flavour at a fraction of the price of their top crus. Elsewhere, look to the outlier appellations where ripeness and quality have risen: Bouzeron (Ramonet, de Villaine), Hautes-Côtes (Claire Naudin, David Duband), Marsannay (Sylvain Pataille, Joseph Roty), and the Chalonnaise/Mâconnais (Dureuil-Janthial, Héretiers du Comte Lafon). There’s great value here from vignerons squeezing every bit of material from underappreciated soils.
03. Try not to sound like a nob when talking about wine
In the first issue of Noble Rot magazine, we asked whether writing about wine is as futile as writing about music, something which Mr Frank Zappa famously likened to “dancing about architecture”. Countless bottles and adjectives later, we’ve settled on a lexicon to try to describe it without eye-rolling pomp.
However, before I elaborate further, let’s get something straight: breaking wine down into subjective lists of fruit, vegetable and mineral aromas, which will change over minutes in the glass, let alone years in the cellar, is as insightful as awarding it a score out of 100 points. In fact, it’s like describing a Sir Francis Bacon painting by the different colours on the canvas, or a Mr Thom Yorke record by identifying the individual synthesisers, guitars and effects units used in the studio. If any of your friends did that, you’d disown them. Here are some words I find useful – a Rotters’ Lexicon of Usefulness, if you will.
Whether it’s a young muscadet or 200-year-old madeira, good wine has energy. The greatest, such as those from Burgundy’s Romanée-Conti, often have such a lot of it that it has a visceral effect, like that feeling in the diaphragm from sub-bass when stood next to a nightclub sound system, or a chord change in a song that makes the hairs on your spine stand on end. See also: vitality, exuberance, life.
Aside from a wine’s aroma and flavour, which both change over time, it can be defined by its texture and shape in your mouth. French is more adept at describing this than English, where wine can be described as having muscles (muscles) or charpente (a frame); be droit (direct), carrée (blocky) or gras (fat); or have tannins that are sec (dry), dur (hard), fondu (melted) or velouté (velvety).
Alongside energy and texture, harmony is wine’s most important trait. Harmoniousness means that all elements are perfectly aligned with each other and it has a feeling of effortlessness. Rather than just being balanced, think of harmony like the connectedness of musical notes in a timeless melody.
A wine’s acidity has most to do with how fresh it feels, alongside other considerations such as salinity, precision, elegance, tension and purity. Without freshness a wine is clumsy and dead. Minerality is a controversial word as it can lead drinkers to incorrectly presume that the vines take mineral nutrients from the soil. However, rather than using it in relation to a scientific process, we use it to describe some of wine’s non-fruit/vegetative components, from the aromas of hot bricks or a pavement after a rain shower, to the taste of crushed rock or slate.
Do you have a favourite film that you notice something new about every time you rewatch it? 1985 Ponsot Clos de la Roche is like that; you find something fresh in a different bandwidth each time you put your nose back in the glass. Aromatic complexity in wine is something that usually develops with age, the most complex of all famously described as having a kaleidoscopic peacock’s tail of flavour on their finish. See also: nuance, detail, complexity and dimensions.
The first time you taste a wine that balances the expected fresh fruit flavours with savouriness and umami is an eye-opening moment. Think about its sweetness, bitterness, sourness and ripeness.
Great wine is so unpredictable and brilliant that it always begs the question: how can this be made just from grapes? The magnificent shock of an extraordinary perfume – or a lyrical turn of phrase, or a goal – is what keeps us coming back for more. See also: chasing the dragon.
Photograph courtesy of Hardie Grant