I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to coax drinkers out from under the sofa, whence they have retreated in fear at the endless complications of wine. The vintage! The provenance! The magic involved in turning grape juice into giggle juice!
The wine bore bludgeons his unwilling audience into dull-eyed acquiescence with a rock-pile of words; I’m much more efficient. I just yell “malolactic fermentation!” and they all jostle for space beneath the furniture.
When I’m feeling more sociable, I point out that wine is only as complicated as anyone wants to make it. There’s red and white, sweet and dry.
A little further up the scale, you can pick a country, or a style and before you know it, you’re fretting over the taste of different varieties or pondering soil type or trying to remember whether Cabernet Sauvignon predominates on the right or left bank of Bordeaux’s Garonne river. (It’s the left. The right is mostly Merlot.)
I love wine not despite its endless complications but because of them: there are stories hiding under every vineyard pebble. But I try to share them judiciously. Wine merchants, sommeliers and to a certain extent, wine writers, should be able to find you a wine you want to drink without telling you more about it than you want to know. That is what they are there for.
I stress this basic point because I don’t think most people realise that wine people don’t know everything – and they like it that way. They’re comfortable with wine as a lifelong process of learning. I went to a lunch given by the Wine Society last week where a hefty man got up and talked about his Domaine de Simonet Bourboulenc, then his slenderer chum from down the road at Château Ollieux Romanis spoke about his white Corbières.
I learned that the Bourboulenc grape flourishes in the Languedoc; that it needs light but not necessarily heat; and that this expression of it has a touch of citrus, a background toffeeish richness and goes very well with truffle risotto.
Then I found out that the Corbières was so intensely aromatic that its perfume reached me about a minute before the rim of the glass did, that it is 50 per cent Marsanne, 50 per cent Roussanne and 5 per cent Grenache Blanc – and that Carcassonne winemakers can’t do maths. It also goes extremely well with truffle risotto.
How much of this do you need to know? It depends if you’re looking for a match for your dinner, a better understanding of how wine works, or an endless conversation about how best to grow Bourboulenc.
Wine geeks are those who want all three, who see wine as a glorious sea of unknowns in which they can splash around and then strike out with their best breaststroke for the horizon, confident they’ll never reach it.
I once saw two experts – one a winemaker, the other a Master of Wine – blind taste a wine, trying to guess what it was. They pondered its colour, debated its flavours, murmured about its length (how long those flavours stay in the mouth) – they could have been there all day; but another geek came over, stuck his nose in the glass, said “it’s Burgundy, isn’t it?” and walked off.
He was right but he didn’t embarrass them so much as spoil their fun. There are a very few proper faux pas in wine – don’t say you like Chablis but you hate Chardonnay, because Chablis is made of Chardonnay – but then there are in other, less fearsome fields, too; the biggest faux pas in wine, to my mind, is to assume the buff is sneering at you when they’re probably trying to use their hardwon knowledge to choose something that you’ll enjoy drinking.
If you’re not a geek, you can always ask one for help; and if you’re neither a learner nor an asker, then there is my sofa: run and hide.
Next issue: John Burnside on nature