Tricks of the trade


Purple Pager Barbara Burlingame of Rome has just reminded me of an article I wrote for the Financial Times many years ago which she found particularly useful. It occurred to me that the updated version, below, would be a useful addition to this section.

As I know to my cost, every specialist field has its own quirks and jargon. Nothing marks you out more as an outsider or nincompoop than using the wrong words or making the wrong moves. Here is a fast-track guide to wine expertise. The first two warnings may seem mind-numbingly obvious, but I can assure you that I have heard many a supposed sophisticate using the words crate and opener in a wine context.

Mind that C-word 

Beer and milk come in crates. Wine is sold by the case – traditionally holding a dozen 75cl bottles, about as much as one cellarhand could comfortably carry at a time (before the advent of bodybuilder bottles). But as per-bottle prices have risen to new heights, fine wine is increasingly sold by the six-bottle case, as many German wines have been for some time. On merchants' lists, check whether the per-case price is for six or 12 bottles and whether duties, taxes and delivery are included.

Never an 'opener'

Again, openers are for crown caps on beer bottles (and the very occasional wine bottle). Opening a wine bottle has traditionally called for a corkscrew, because wine bottles have traditionally been stoppered with a cork. This is changing however (see below).

Do not despise screwcaps

The wine industry is increasingly frustrated by the high incidence of 'corked' wine, wine that smells anything from subdued to downright mouldy because it has been tainted by a compound known as TCA, usually but by no means exclusively associated with the cork production process. TCA-affected wines also taste much less fruity and clean so producers are understandably keen to limit the risk of their wines not showing as they should. (Even worse for the producer than a bottle so badly 'corked' it is actively unpleasant is mild TCA taint which simply makes the wine taste dull so that the consumer, not realising there is a technical fault, resolves never to buy the wine again.)

Many producers initially responded to the unreliability of natural corks by using synthetic corks, cylinders of plastic tarted up to look like the real thing and still needing a corkscrew to extract them. They have several disadvantages, not least that in the first serious scientific assessment of them many were shown to provide a pretty inefficient seal from harmful oxygen after 18 months or two years. The quality of synthetic corks has improved since and there are some moves to encourage recycling of them but they will never be the first choice for the ecologically minded.

The humble screwcap has been gaining ground rapidly, especially in Australia – and New Zealand, where natural corks are now a rarity. This has the advantage that it provides a very – almost too – effective seal and retains youthful freshness and fruitiness in the wine. It also has the property of not needing a corkscrew, which, as a professional wine taster, I see as a huge advantage. Some people, however, associate tugging a piece of bark from a bottleneck with 'romance'. Wine insiders are therefore pretty tolerant of wine bottles stoppered with screwcaps and know that nowadays this is usually a sign that the producer is quality-conscious rather than penny-pinching. Although once the screwcapping technology is installed, screwcaps are undoubtedly cheaper than decent natural corks, so big companies can save big money by making the switch.

As detailed in George Taber's excellent book To Cork or Not to Cork, the cork industry has at last responded with serious attempts to reduce the much-disputed incidence of TCA-affected natural corks. One increasingly popular choice is the DIAM cork, which offers a compound of natural cork for which negligible TCA taint is claimed.

Admire rather than fear sediment

If a wine has a deposit in the bottom of the bottle, either white crystals in white wine or darker solids in a red wine, this is A Good Thing. It shows that the wine has not been subjected to brutal clarification treatments and has not been heavily filtered. There is every chance that more flavour and interest will have been left in the liquid along with the sediment, and sediment itself is a sign that the wine has already been subject to some probably beneficial evolution in bottle. The cheaper the wine, the less educated the producer assumes its purchaser will be and the more anxious the producer will be to render it crystal clear at whatever cost to flavour.

Mind those Ts 

Outsiders call the world's best-selling champagne 'Mow-ay'. To insiders it is 'Mow-it' or, to Francophones, 'Mwet ay Shone-don' (Moët & Chandon). 

Another French M-word, Montrachet, is another potential pitfall. Insiders enunciate neither T; it is 'Mon-rash-ay'. The very word has me salivating for the uniquely savoury pleasures of the best white burgundy.

Reese-ling not Rize-ling

The increasingly fashionable world's finest white grape variety's name is one of the most frequently mispronounced and misspelt. It is Riesling.

Don't be too precious with glasses 

Only outsiders and glass manufacturers believe that you need a new glass for each new wine. Insiders know that the traces of wine number one will have an imperceptible effect on the taste of wine two even if drunk from the same, emptied glass. However, even insiders baulk at serving white wine in glasses that have been used for red, for aesthetic rather than gustatory reasons.

Beware 'breathing' 

Allowing wine to 'breathe' by pulling the cork and letting the open bottle sit for an hour or two is a discredited ritual. It may have made sense in the old days when wines were stuffed full of chemicals at bottling – and it can make sense for vintages earlier than, say, 1980. Then, letting an open bottle stand may have encouraged the dissipation of the charmingly named phenomenon known as 'bottle stink'. But today wine is much cleaner and healthier than a generation ago and exposing a surface of wine only as wide as the bottleneck to air is unlikely to have any effect on the great bulk of the wine in the bottle.

If the wine is very young and/or tough, you can encourage some development of flavour and general 'softening' of the wine by energetically pouring the contents of the bottle into a jug, decanter, or even another (clean) bottle, thereby exposing all the wine to air. Quite how soon before serving this should be done varies with each wine and is the subject of much debate.

Ask the sommelier

The outsider looks at a wine list in a restaurant and seizes on any familiar name. The insider does exactly the opposite, deliberately ordering the unknown rather than bottles already tried. Clever insiders discuss possible wine choices with wine waiters and, if they seem knowledgeable, pick their brains. After all, no one should know more about how the restaurant's individual dishes and wines taste.

Sweet wines are smart

Remember that. And forget The Ghost of Liebfraumilch Past.

Bringing a bottle

Insiders do not see giving bottles as a naff hangover from student days, but bottles given by one wine insider to another frequently contain particularly exotic olive oil rather than wine.