Friday, 4 January 2013

Life's Little Luxuries - introduction to wines

Mental Healthy on a study showing
red wine is good for you.  
Before launching into the nuances of vintage champagnes and Romanée-Conti wines, I thought we would have a reminder of the basics of wine drinking.  I know this is just a reminder for all you sophisticated topers but indulge me.  Or yourself, if you have a glass to hand.  

The best introductions to wine are probably those written by Hugh Johnson.  (I'm not saying that because we went to the same college, honest.)  You can carry his pocket book of wine discreetly and look up wines in it under the table, tricking the sommeliers into thinking you are a fellow oenophile to make them bring you out choicer bottles of the mellow red. 
Available  from
Actually, if I'm not sure which wine to choose, I tell the sommelier what I'm eating and ask him or her to pick a wine for me.  (If you do this, you must abide by his or her judgement.)  I usually say something about trying to choose between two or three suitable labels to show I'll understand what they tell me about the wines, because I look like someone brought along in anticipation of a good time after the meal rather than the person who is going to be paying for it.  (Sometimes they bring my debit card with the name and title Dr. Smith over to my fella when I try to pay for a meal.  I'm still better off than my pal the Prof. who is a black woman of African origin.  Her card takes a long time to come back to her while they check if it's been stolen.)
Jancis Robinson writes a regular column in the FT Weekend on wines but these are usually surprisingly affordable, not material for providing background to some lush den of vice in which young people are about to be pleasured or punished in ways they never imagined.  A good source of notes on how different vintages of wine taste, with background details on the vineyards, is the Wine Doctor.  Personally, I rely on the Larousse Encyclopedia of Wine.  It has a helpful section on matching food to your wine as well as chapters explaining how to choose a decanter and what glass to use for which wine.  
The Cathedral in Reims,
Champagne central.  
There are certain types of wine:  white, red, rosé and sparkling (champagne);  dry, medium-dry, medium and sweet (sec, demi-sec, moelleux, doux).  People ordinarily talk about the region a wine comes from:  Champagne or Burgundy (those stubborn French insist on calling it by the French name Bourgogne), or the grape:  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay.  European wines are referred to by region:  Rioja (Spain), Mosel (Germany) while wines from elsewhere are referred to as 'New World' wines and described by the grape.  There are various complicated controlling systems to do with wines called 'appellations' in France but these don't sound sexy so I won't go into them here.  ('He sipped from a glass of appellation d'origine contrôlée wine while surveying the magnificent breasts heaving in her Rigby and Peller brassiere.'  Meh.)  When writing about the bibulations of some besotted billionaire considering the seduction of yet another naive young woman whose spectacles have slipped to reveal her limpid blue eyes, I suggest using a muscular red wine so famous and fabulous that it's referred to not by the whole region but by the château which produces it.  The names of some of these châteaux are gorgeous:  Montrose, Margaux, Montrachet, Château Haut Brion.  You can practically feel the sleeve of his velvet smoking jacket brushing against the nape of her neck as you reverentially breathe those names.  
Okay, now.  Wine and food.  Wine should almost always be drunk with food, the exception being champagne in the UK.  (The French drink champagne with food.)  This is one of my favourite stories about wine and food:  
Drink Château d'Yquem at 
Otto et Mezzo BOMBANA
when passing through Shanghai
There was a Prince of Wales (never mind which one, he was a F'ing Prince, that's all we need to know) who had brought a chef over from France especially to cook for him.  One night the chef completely surpassed himself, producing the most magnificent meal ever to be tasted.  The Prince called him up from the kitchens and the guests waited with baited breath to hear what compliments he would bestow on this angelic artist of the kitchens.  The Prince paused and then said:  "The Château d'Yquem was very good tonight."  
The guests, horrified, waiting for the chef to fling his apron at the floor and storm out.  But the chef smiled, spread his arms with a gallic shrug and said:  
"The Prince knows, that for the wine to be good, the food must be perfect."  
Royal Northern College of Music 
Champagne is a generally accepted apéritif, something to precede food or be accompanied by delicate canapés.  You can have a dry champagne with some buttery fish or a game bird - grouse, perhaps, or widgeon.  I like to have champagne for tea with little cakes although the sweetness of the cakes tends to drown out the delicate flavours of the wine so I make tea as well (separate blogpost coming up on tea).  I have the champagne first and then the little cakes with a cup of the fragrant bohea.  In the days before the stupid management did away with the silver service restaurant car, Great North Eastern Railways used to do a champagne breakfast with smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on the journey from London to Edinburgh.  
Champagne will not go with red meat.  (I'm still boggle-eyed that the indie writer LaRascasse managed to create a villain so lost to decency that he drank a flute of champagne with beef ravioli.)  
From The EmBot blog
White wine is drunk with fish, chicken and sometimes cheeses.  James Bond made a famous error of judgement when, distracted by a swooning Russian blonde, he failed to act on his observation of Donald 'Red' Grant ordering a chianti with his fish.  I mean, yuck! but sexy dialogue:  
Bond:  Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something. 
Grant:  You may know the right wines, but you're the one on your knees.

Red meat and red wine are where the real gourmet stuff happens.  
Available from Casa Martinez
Only once in my life have I drunk a proper vintage red wine.  It was a Château Lafite Rothschild.  I remember it had three distinct flavours.  There was the first taste as it came over the tongue:  sharp, vigorous and masculine to awaken your senses with a rough kiss, then it rolled around the mouth with a smoother seductive mature flavour and finally there was an aftertaste lingering like the lover you never quite forget.  
Reds are the wines which get the loving careful treatment with the decanter.  This used to be in order to ensure that crusted sediments which accumulated in the bottle as the wine aged could be strained out.  Nowadays, different wine-making techniques mean very few red wines have any deposit but many people still decant red wines (and sometimes whites) in order to encourage them to 'breathe'.  Most wines taste much better with a bit of oxygen to get them going.  You can cheat if you forget to open your bottle half an hour/an hour beforehand by pouring the wine from high up into the glass so it bubbles a bit.  (Do not do this to a Lafite Rothschild!)  One red wine which must be drunk as soon as it's uncorked is the Chateau Musar, a peculiarly tasty Lebanese wine which becomes peculiarly disgusting if allowed to breathe.  
Dégustation à Beaumes-de-Venise
Finally then we have the dessert wines.  (Château d'Yquem is a dessert wine, specifically a Sauternes.)  Sweet and thick, these are not to be confused with fortified wines (except the delectable Muscat de Beaumes de Venise which is an honorary dessert wine).  
As we erotica writers say:  bottoms up! 

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