Bluffer’s Guide to Wine Tasting
After dragging travel expert, but wine novice, Duncan Rhodes around the Douro Valley for a week, Catavino was impressed with how erudite his previously untrained palate became in such a short time… or did it? The Urban Travel Blog editor reveals his top 13 tips for faking it during a wine tasting…
Nimbly holding the glass by the stem, with a deft movement, I rotated my wrist to create a mini-wine-whirlpool in the bowl, maintaining a strict look of concentration all the while. Having given the wine a good work out, I stick my beak in so that my nostrils are practically wet and inhale deeply, with eyes closed. A studied pause and I’m ready to commence with the first part of my appraisal.
“It’s got a light, pleasant and fresh nose with a distinct aroma of forest fruits.” I say confidently.
Next I tilted the glass backwards and swill the fermented grape juice around like it was Listerine before a first date. Another thoughtful pause, accompanied by an approving and sagely nod.
“You can tell right away from the balanced structure that it’s a blend. It’s not too tannic. Flavour-wise there are strong notes of blueberries and red currants. This would go perfectly with my mother’s duck and wild mushroom risotto.”
My new group of wino friends exploded in rapturous and approving applause. Everyone concurred – I was getting good at this! Except of course… I wasn’t. But I was getting good at pretending…
During a week tasting wines and ports in the world’s oldest demarcated wine region – Portugal’s Douro Valley – in such exalted company as Ryan Opaz (Catavino), Robert McIntosh (Thirstforwine), Tara O’Leary (Wine Passionista) and Madeline Puckette (WineFolly), I had plenty of opportunity to observe, note and learn how to judge the characteristics of any given grape juice. It was intimidating company for a humble travel blogger, I can tell you. As wines were passed around, sipped, quaffed and commented upon, it was immediately evident that I was WAY out of my depth. With seemingly no effort at all any one of them would follow up a casual mouthful of claret with lavish descriptions that, quite apart from every fruit you can think of, often included such inedible extras as leather, tarr, tobacco and chalk, when the most I could come up was “fruity”. And even then I was referring to grapes.
In short what follows is my ultimate bluffer’s guide to wine tasting. My 13 tips to tasting like a pro. Use it as an invaluable tool for a) holding your own in refined company, b) impressing non-winos at a dinner party or c) as Robert McIntosh pointed out, persuading wine owners to lavish their best grapes on you (…not of course that you’ll be able to appreciate them!).Luckily what my tastebuds lacked in sensitivity, my mind quickly made up for in cunning and creativity. By simply noting a few simple rules I swear I even had some of those hallowed wine tasters above believing I knew what I was talking about.
13 Tips to Tasting Wine like a Pro
Tip 1: Get the basics right. Holding the glass like the bride of an Essex hen party on their tenth bottle is going to give you away some what. As is spilling your drink the moment you swill your glass. Grab it by the stem and do any swilling using the table as leverage. Do a lot of swilling.
Tip 2: Assess your audience, before speaking. You might think you’re amongst ignorami but one amateur sommelier in their midst and you could have your cover busted. Once you’ve established that no one knows what they’re talking about, you’ve got carte blanche to decorate your appraisals with liberal helpings of bullsh!t. One wino in the group, and you’ll have to reign it in a bit… (see tip 8 for getting around this!).
Tip 3: Red Wines – the bluffer’s formula. Pick two fruits that are similar to the colour of the wine you’re drinking. Plum, strawberry or forest fruits are your safest bet. Add a herb (sage is always a good one), plus round off with a hint of something random like caramel, chocolate, tobacco or granite… Avoid vinegar, unless perhaps its hand-pressed Balsamic vinegar from Modena. Voila you’ve got your own red wine tasting notes generator!
Tip 4: White wine – the bluffer’s formula. For white wines, go for tropical fruits. You can be a bit bolder here. After all, when was the last time someone in the room tasted passion fruit, mangosteen or tamarillo? Next add a flower, such as wild dandelion, lavender or lemongrass and then round off with another curved ball… try chalk, sawdust or porcelain. Prepare to keep a straight face when challenged.
Tip 5: Dressing up (vocabulary). Prepare to adjust your vocabulary. By having a few more technical words in your armoury you can turn a commonplace observation into an impressive piece of insight. ‘Acidic’ sounds a lot more knowledgeable than simply ‘sharp’, ‘citric’ considerably more authoritative than ‘lemony’, and if you really can’t shake the taste of grapes, go for “vinus”… rather than “grapey”.
Tip 6: Details. Like all good lies, the devil is in the details. The more concrete your example the stronger it will sound, and (hopefully) harder to call out. Said with confidence “it’s redolent of Mirabelle plums from Lorraine, when they’re a little overripe already” will set you up as the foremost gastro guru in the room and intimidate your fellow tasters into agreeing with not only this, but everything else you say.
Tip 7: Avoid danger zones. Us non-winos know that wine is a liquid, and therefore by its very nature is wet. But that won’t stop wine geeks absolutely insisting that the particular vintage you’re drinking is dry. Don’t challenge their ingrained perceptions on this one. Similarly avoid other areas where winos operate in a world unto their own. “Minerality” is a classic here. Avoid at all costs. Unless of course you’re in the company of buffoons. In that case swing 180 in the other direction and keep harking on about the dry mineralistic tannins that characterise this particular year.
Tip 8: Wait. Speaking first can get you in serious trouble. Wait for someone who knows what they’re talking about to kick off the notes. Once you know what ballpark you’re in you should be able to score kudos, simply by adding some details (Tip 6) to someone else’s observation. “Chocolate you say? Wow you’re absolutely right. The aftertaste is exactly like Lindt’s 85% cocoa dark chocolate – great spot.”
Tip 9: Ask questions. After all a question can never be wrong. Ask your fellow wine tasters… “Is that strawberry I’m getting?” and you’re on safe territory. There’s a 75% chance that once you’ve planted a commonly occurring flavour (see Tips 3 and 4) in people’s heads someone will magically get it too – thus endorsing your expertise. If however someone is annoying enough to answer in the negative then they will at least almost certainly supply another flavour for you to comment on “I’m getting more red currant than strawberry”. At which point you can either a) swill your glass suspiciously for a bit and then put your own slant on things. “Yes, now it’s opening up a bit (see Tip 12) I’m getting those darker fruits too.” Or – if you feel your status is higher than theirs – you can b) stick to your guns, adding a personal detail (Tip 11) to explain why they weren’t able to catch the taste: “No, I’m definitely getting strawberries, but not the supermarket variety mind you. It tastes exactly like the wild strawberries we ate – why it must have been two summers ago – whilst I was travelling with my twenty-something, French au pair girlfriend in Thessaly in Greece.”
Tip 10: Be ambiguous. This is my favourite technique. Say a wine has a high or low acidity and some smart arse could potentially contradict you. Opt instead for “it’s got a certain acidity” and not only do you sound like a pro, but you’ve covered all your bases. How much is a certain amount after all? Variations include “it’s not too [insert adjective]”, after all too much of anything is in the eye of the beholder. And similarly “there’s a good amount of [abc]” and “there’s a nice level of [xyz]” work well here too.
Tip 11: Get personal. By adding details unique to your own life experience not only are you adding a colourful and impressive sounding depth to your appraisal, but you’re doing so in a way that nobody can pass comment on. After all, who else but you knows exactly what your Gran’s cranberry and apple pudding tasted like on balmy summer evening in Devon? Much less your Ukrainian stepdad’s homemade cider. On a similar note, by emphasising a personal response to any particular wine you are also harder to contradict. “It reminds me of…” can’t really be wrong, even if it raises a few eyebrows.
Tip 12: The great escape. Wine is constantly changing, as it reacts with its environment. That’s what all that damn swilling is about. Use this to your advantage. Let’s say you’ve been put on the spot first, but are drawing blanks. Simply buy yourself some thinking time by stating “It’s still very closed” and carry on swilling. Or maybe you called raspberries but everyone else is getting blackcurrant? Give them all a dirty look, twirl your glass vigorously and then state, “yes it’s evolving very quickly, isn’t it?”. Everyone laughed down your wild Turkish figs comment? Roll your tongue around your teeth and explain that “it must be the way it’s interacting with this Bavarian blue cheese”.
Tip 13: Cheat. Simple but effective. Whenever possible take a sly look at the bottle and quickly memorise as many details as possible that you can weave into your appraisals. Obviously you’ll need to reword things slightly, but just think back to your days at University and all that wikidemia you passed off as your own. Do you really think it was “the balanced structure” of the wine that told me that I was drinking a blend? Of course not, it was the damn label.
So there you have it! Thirteen tips that should stand you in great stead for instant kudos at any dinner party, winery visit or simply a casual lunch with friends. Once you get going you might even start to believe your own bluffs…. at which point a bright future in the wine world beckons! Meanwhile feel free to add more helpful tips of your own… We bluffers needs to stick together!
ps. I tweet on travel (with a little less bluff) under the handle @UrbanTravelBlog.
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Since 2005, Catavino has been exploring the Iberian Peninsula looking for the very best food and wine experiences.