‘I don’t know much about wine, but I know what I like.’ Here’s an opposing theory. No, you sodding don’t.
Or as they say in Hull: “ooo I doo layk a glass of drey waat whane, it’s terribly civilyzzzed”. Music to the ears of any vendor of wine in establishments from a white tablecloth restaurant, to a chicken in the basket dinner dance venue via your local offy. Unfortunately for you, they know exactly what you like or more accurately what you think you like.
Once again, I work on the basis that the discerning Lussonian keeps an excellent cellar (maybe one that wasn’t excavated under the noses of Kensington and Chelsea’s Planning Department. Maybe it’s not going to cause your road to collapse, either. Maybe).
For the oenophillic amongst you, please indulge me, while I get this horribly prosaic moan off my heavy, manly chest. Go put your feet up – preferably with a decanted, room temperature 2005 Domaine Romanée-Conti, you lucky bastards. Now, where was I?
“Nice bottle of Chablis/Sancerre/Rioja/Bordeaux then sir?”
”Doesn’t madam look lovely tonight?”
“That’ll be 40 of your hard-earned Garcons, then please”.
The problem is, these “classics” as we call them in the trade, are a little bit like house wine. I have heard with my own ears (rather than someone else’s), restaurateurs saying,
“It’s only Chablis; people who drink Chablis know nothing…let’s fleece them” True story.
These wines will have been bought at the cheapest possible trade price and sold for the highest mark up and should be avoided whenever possible. Look, there are going to be exceptions, but there is so much more out there, be bold…find the great wines and your drinking will be so much more fulfilling.
Chablis…what is it? Well it’s Chardonnay grapes 100% and, at its best, a wonderfully dry, crisp, minerally wine with delightful green textural fruit and a wonderful balance between the fruit and acidity. Or in other words ‘very good quality dry white wine’. At worst, scrapings from the winery floor, rapier-like acidity, tasting like it’s been filtered through a well-worn pair of underpants. Why risk it, check out the less well-known wines from Southern Burgundy like St Veran or decent Macon. Look towards the Dolomites in Italy, with wines from Alto Adige, or the cooler climates areas from the new world like Tasmania and New Zealand. There is also some very decent wine coming out of areas of the South of France like the wonderfully named Cotes de Thongue.
Next – Sancerre. My god, the variation in quality here is simply staggering. If you are lucky, you get a fabulous, grassy herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc with mouth-watering natural acidity and poise. If you are unlucky, you will end up with a sweetened, flabby glass full of Meltis Newberry fruits which will most definitely not compliment your nice piece of halibut. The smart money is on the new wave of amazing value wines from Northern Spain. Verdejo from Rueda is often mistaken for Sauvignon but is usually a bit lusher, Albarino from Galicia is the perfect seafood partner, but my current wine jam is Godello from Valdehorras. A medley, combining the best bits of Chablis and Sancerre.
For Rioja, look for Tempranillo (the grape) from other areas of Spain like Somontano or Carinena and make sure the wine has seen some oak. Like Chablis, Rioja at the cheaper end can be awful. It tends to be mass-produced in huge factories and you really do end up paying for the name. If you like that lighter soft style of wine…look to northern Italy at the Barbera or Dolcetto grape. You will seldom be let down.
Bordeaux is a tricky one. There is something unique about Cabernet wines grown in a warm Atlantic-influenced climate. The trick is to avoid the obvious names like St Emillion. It bores me having to correct people claiming that wine from St Emillion is fabulous, it really does.
‘No. You’re wrong,’ I’ll say. And then I have to look down at their quivering lips and round, wet eyes. But I’m nearly always taller than them, so they then shut up. It’s a wine growing region for pity’s sake…some is good, some is bad, but generally you’re paying a premium for the name. The best bet is to look at the less well-known areas of Bordeaux: Cotes de Castillon, Premiere cotes de Bordeaux and Pessac Leognan all offer wines easily matching the more famous areas for quality, but beating them hands down for value for money.
I know some great sommeliers, who are knowledgeable and passionate. They come in all shapes, nationalities and sizes, but one thing does unite them. They don’t work for you. They work for the restaurant. Tool up with a little knowledge yourself and they begin to respect you.
Hit them up with mad wine skillz (as the young folk say) and they’ll become your friend.
A tame sommelier is a thing of wonder. Now off into the wilds, my friends. The wine is flowing. Be not afraid.