The taste of a wine is the careful marriage of grape, soil and climate. Every wine is the product of centuries of experimentation and selection, yet the key to its style will be the grape. This is a brief guide to the essential characteristics of the best known grapes.
Native to the Bordeaux region of France this small tough-skinned grape produces dark, dry wines with lots of tannin which require considerable ageing.
Produces deep ruby-red wines, rich, concentrated and dry. The Merlot is one of the secondary grapes of Bordeaux and used in the blending of clarets.
The single grape of the Cote d’Or in Burgundy produces delicate, silky wines with the scent of summer berries. In Champagne it is pressed before the fermentation to make white wines.
The best red grape of the Rhone. The wines are inclined to be very intense and high in alcohol, deep in colour, becoming smokey and spicy when aged. The Australian version, Shiraz, makes some excellent wines.
The principal white grape of Burgundy and also outstanding in Champagne, California and Australia. The wines range from pale green to golden straw in colour with aromas of fresh hay, lemons and peaches. Rich and dry the most famous is Chablis.
Produces pale greenish-tinged wines. The French chenins are flowery and honey-like eg Vouvray.
Similar to hothouse table grapes the Muscat is instantly recognisable by its aromatic smell. Several strains of red and white are grown and widely used in Italian sparkling wines and sweet, rich often fortified wines eg Muscat Beaumes de Venise.
This classic German variety produces virtually all Germany’s fine wines. Pale greeny-gold, sharp and aromatic, it ripens late and is extremely hardy.
Pale and interesting the Sauvignon produces soft, dry and fruity wines, sometimes smokey eg Pouilly Fumes. It is a wine for drinking young and rarely improved unless blended with Semillon to make the great sweet whites of Bordeaux.
How many glasses of wine you get from a bottle depends upon the size of glasses. A wine glass should only be filled half or two-thirds full, leaving space to swirl the wine and release the bouquet. A reasonable average allowance for most people and occasions is half a bottle each, but circumstances and the formality of the meal are the deciding factors:
Still Table Wine 1 bottle gives 6 - 8 glasses
Sparkling Wine 1 bottle gives 8 well filled flutes
Sherry or Port 1 bottle gives 16 glasses
Vermouth 1 bottle gives 16 glasses
Whisky, Gin, Brandy etc 1 bottle gives 32 single bar measures
Liqueur 1 bottle gives 30 glasses
However there are some exceptions to these guidelines, ie if red wine or port has sediment and requires decanting, fewer glasses will be obtained. Sweet after-dinner go further than table wines and one bottle will serve 8 - 10 guests.
The choice and care of the glasses in which the wine is served is very important. Use a tall Champagne flute or slender tulip-shaped glass which will concentrate the bubbles, bouquet and flavour.
No matter how tempted you are do not ‘pop’ the cork and spout a torrent of wine over everyone in true Grand Prix fashion (though if you really want to... just do it, enjoy and have a good time!!). If you're not tempted, then carefully remove the foil from the top, place the napkin over the cork and incline the bottle away from yourself and others at a 45° angle. Keep your thumb on top of the cork as you untwist the wire and remove the wire muzzle in case the cork begins to rise. Now place your hand over the cork as it emerges so it is received in your hand and not sent flying. Have a glass handy to take the first frothy stream; if the wine is extra lively pat the top of the bottle, the oiliness of your hand will subdue the foam. If the cork refuses to budge run warm water on the neck of the bottle for a few seconds (hand on cork so that it does not fly out).
To get the best from your wines, you need to serve them not only at the right time but at the right temperature. The general rule of thumb is that whites and rosés are drunk chilled, reds are served at room temperature; yet like all rules this fails to take account of personal tastes.
All wines benefit from a period of exposure to the air before they are drunk. This breathing period allows the wine’s flavour to wake up. Whites and rosés require only a short time - approximately 15 minutes. Red wines take longer and young reds need longer breathing time to bring them to their best.
CARE + STORAGE
Wine is a living substance and like most living things it responds well to loving care and suffers from neglect.
There are 5 simple rules to follow on the care and storage of wine to ensure it appreciates in both monetary and gastronomic value:
Temperature - Wines must be stored at a constant temperature. The optimum is 13°c with a maximum of 17°c and minimum of 10°c. Extreme high temperatures will cause the wine to maderise and age rapidly, whereas low temperature may burst the bottle.
Light - Wines subject to bright light and in particular sunlight will suffer oxidisation,
causing the wine to age rapidly.
Stability - Another enemy of wine is motion. Avoid moving wines unnecessarily and beware of
constant vibration as this also causes wine to age and deteriorate. With older red wines and ports the sediment will be disturbed and may render the wine undrinkable.
Humidity - Excessively dry storage conditions will dry out and shrink the cork, letting air into
the wine; whereas damp conditions will destroy the wine labels and encourage fungal infestations.
Position - Wine bottles should always be stored lying down with their labels upper-most. This
allows the wine to be identified without being disturbed and keeps the wine in contact with cork, preventing it drying out and spoiling the contents.
Wines differ from one another in colour, texture, strength and body as well as smell and taste. All these sensations must be taken into account by the taster; the difficult part is communicating these sensations with the words in our vocabulary. This is the approach a wine taster will take when tasting a wine:-
All wines should be clear and bright. Dark wines may have sediment and must be decanted whereas some white wines may have a deposit of crystals which is harmless and does not affect the flavour.
Indicates both the quality and age. White wines become golden with age and red wines deepen in colour. The colours of wine cover a spectrum.
Swirl the wine around the glass and inhale deeply and you can tell instantly if the wine is good or bad. Many grapes have their own characteristic smell which helps identify the wine. As a wine develops its bouquet becomes more complex.
The tongue is divided into 4 taste zones - sweet, sour, salt and bitter and by swirling the wine around the mouth different facets of flavour can be identified. The taste in the mouth confirms the information given by the nose and will also identify the texture, temperature and length or after-taste of the wine.
MATCHING WINE WITH FOOD
No strict code exists today for matching certain wines with certain foods as most people feel free to choose according to their own personal preference. Nevertheless certain wines and foods make perfect partners, eg seafood and Muscadet, beef and Burgundy, because they bring out the best in that particular dish.
This is a general guide to traditional food and wine combinations flavoured with a few recommendations from the top wine and cookery writers:-
Fish & Seafood
Can be served with a whole range of whites, full bodied dry Burgundies to crisp light Loire wines. Fresh water fish such as trout goes well with Chablis and also delicate, flowery German Mosels. Salmon usually partners a dry white but fresh lively reds such as Chinon and Beaujolais are appealing.
Can take hearty, robust red wines from Burgundy, the Rhone valley and Italy. However, if the game is being served cold choose a classic Bordeaux.
Roasts & Casserole
The plainest food deserves the finest wines. Hot or cold roast beef is therefore perfect with the finest red Burgundies and Bordeaux. Other roast meats and casseroles can suit a wide range of wines - Rhones, Australian, Californian reds, deep concentrated Italian reds and Riojas.
Requires more care over choice of wine. Smoked fish can partner aromatic dry white Bordeaux and fino sherries or the Alsace grape varieties. Surprisingly, German wines with a touch of sweetness and refreshing acidity are appealing.
The traditional country dishes are often perfect partners for their local wines, ie Vinho Verde with sardines and salade nicoise, Chianti with liver and osso bucco, Rioja with paella, and goulash with Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon.
Strong acidic English cheeses are complemented by good ports and big red wines such as Chateauneuf and Barolo. Choose sweet or strong regional wines to accompany the continental cheeses.
Fruit & Desserts
Suited to sweet wines such as the quality German wines, Sauternes or Barsac and always served cold. The luscious Muscat Beaumes de Venise is delicious with Christmas pudding. Strawberries prefer Champagne and sparkling wines whereas ripe pears and peaches are more suited to the very sweet wines.
Champagne can be served throughout meal. Some foods do not go with wine, eg curry - drink lager instead - and chocolate - which kills any wine.
AFTER DINNER DRINKS
The traditional drink to offer after a meal is a Liqueur or Brandy. Firm favourites are the Whisky and Brandy based liqueurs, eg Drambuie, Glayva, Cointreau, Grand Marnier and Benedictine. Popular with the ladies are Baileys Irish Cream, Advocaat and Tia Maria.
Single Malt Whiskies have a unique flavour and style derived from their area of production in Scotland - the Highlands, Islay, Lowlands and Campbeltown. Essentially these Malts are smooth and elegant and perfect after dinner served neat or with a splash of cold water to liberate the bouquet. A personal favourite is Laphroaig - its smokey, peatey flavour reminiscent of the misty island of Islay.
Port really comes into its own at the end of a meal and will happily partner cheese, fruits, nuts and coffee. There are many types of Port to choose from, depending upon the occasion - Ruby Port is a young, fruity and sweeter wine, whereas Tawny Port has been aged longer to give a more complex delicate flavour and faded warm golden-brown colour. For those special occasions the classic Port is that of a declared Vintage.