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15 May 2015

Don’t worry: a lot of thought goes into the bottom of the wine list

People intimidated by wine think that connoisseurs look down on them but it isn’t true – house wine is there to help.

By Nina Caplan

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, which has always puzzled me, because how does one get from ignorance to wisdom except by increments? My increments are usually glass receptacles filled with wine, and if there’s a better way to learn about this wonderfully capacious subject than to consume many variations in small quantities, I haven’t yet found it. I don’t always succeed in keeping the quantities small, but that just goes to show that it is in fact a lot of knowledge that is the danger.

Wine lovers are addicted to the tuneful chime made by droplets of understanding pooling on the palate. People intimidated by wine think that connoisseurs look down on them but it isn’t true – we are too busy looking around for the next interesting bottle.

Kant said that knowledge begins with experience, a proposition I assiduously test at every opportunity. You can never have too much experience, as the wonderfully named Gaia Gaja (both pronounced “Gaya”) made clear at a tasting of her family’s Brunello di Montalcino, from the much-talked-about 2010 vintage. Obviously, she is an expert. Yet, she said, she likes travelling to tastings, because sometimes guests’ comments alter her perception of her wines slightly; she goes home, discusses what was said with her family and, occasionally, they make changes. The wines were gorgeous, perfumed and intense, full of red fruit and spice. But she thinks they could get even better, and perhaps she’s right – I don’t know.

Those who, like me, view knowledge as a wine-dark sea extending beyond the horizon will love the idea that even a scion of a great winemaking family doesn’t know everything about their wines. Those who like to stand on firm ground will find it terrifying.

To either type, I would say, “Go forth and taste.” You will encounter friendly assistance: sneering at ignorance, as everybody who isn’t from Bordeaux knows, is no way to sell wine. The best place to start is at the bottom of the wine list. House wine is there to tutor the unschooled and impecunious, and may teach you more than its purveyor intends; if he or she can’t get this right, you’re probably in for a terrible dinner. “It must please every single part of your consumer base,” says Michael Sager-Wilde, co-owner with his wife, Charlotte, of two wine bars in Hackney, Sager + Wilde and Mission. “It’s the most democratic wine on your list, so it needs to taste good and it has to be a session wine – it absolutely cannot require food.”

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Meanwhile, in another part of the wine forest, Bruno Paillard, a champagne-maker, is hugely enthusiastic about getting his non-vintage on to wine lists as the house fizz. “Some people are very snob about this,” Paillard says, celebrating its appearance at the trendy London fusion joint Sushisamba, “but I want young people to try my wines!”

Michael and Charlotte, who want young people to try all kinds of wines, are sourcing a bespoke house pour: “It needs to be individual. If you just have the same house wine as every other bar, what does that say about you?”

Clearly, it says that you care more about income than intellect, and your premises should be avoided by all right-thinking seekers after liquid enlightenment. Of course, the price must be right, but that’s just one element of the whole experience; the temperature, the waiter’s attitude and the glassware are important, too. Wisdom accumulates drop by drop, beginning with the first wine on the list.

“We are getting a Riesling by Eva Fricke and a wine from [the South African iconoclast] Craig Hawkins,” Sager-Wilde says. With these trendy wines, much discussed but hard to come by, he hopes to show wine lovers something new. Because they know, as does he, that a little knowledge can be delicious.

Next week: John Burnside on nature