Overheard in Restaurant Le Posh, where a diner is struggling with the wine list:
Waiter: ‘Shall I fetch you the sommelier, sir?’
Diner (relieved): ‘Yes please, that would be lovely.’
Enter the sommelier: ‘Would sir like to order some wine?’
Diner: ‘Actually, I’ve just ordered a bottle of Sommelier.’
Cue widespread spluttering and mopping of soup from ties. There but for the grace of God…
Had our unfortunate diner shown similar ignorance when phoning the plumber or ordering a spare part for his car, it would not have evoked such toe-curling embarrassment.
So what’s so special about wine, or specifically fine wine? It seems that an in-depth knowledge of anything that is extraneous to the survival of the species – be it opera, art, literature or wine – is regarded as a special accomplishment, a useful social skill.
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The language of wine
Perhaps the unique quality of wine is that it has a mystique, carefully nurtured by generations of Frenchmen to appeal to an exclusive club. When those bluff Australians entered the market they introduced wines that were clearly labelled according to their grape varieties. We’d never seen ‘Chardonnay’ before.
Conversely, we are somehow expected to know that ‘Bordeaux’ is shorthand for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc, and ‘Burgundy’ means Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. And it’s because we’re made to feel that we ought to know these obscure facts that we’re frightened of looking foolish.
We have become so highly evolved that pouring hundreds of hours of study into something that is essentially quite frivolous is a sign of wealth, class and breeding. But few of us have the time, or inclination, to do so, which is where bluffing comes in.
Of course, you cannot bluff from a position of pure ignorance. You need to know just enough to deflect suspicion. I find that you can develop a veneer of confidence by adopting a casual, over-familiarity with wine. So always refer to champagne as ‘fizz’ and call dessert wines ‘stickies’.
And it helps if you learn the widely accepted shorthand tasting notes for the major grape varieties. You’re allowed to describe Sauvignon Blanc as ‘cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush’; Gamay as ‘bubblegum’; and Gewürztraminer as ‘a hooker’s boudoir’. Best of all, you’re allowed to say that great Burgundy smells of ‘poo’.
You are, of course, quoting the renowned expert Anthony Hanson who thus described the farmyardy, wild-truffle aromas of the finest aged Pinot Noirs.
Equip yourself with this basic vocabulary and choose your moment carefully. Be boldly meaningless and, when in doubt, mumble. Sometimes a simple ‘Mmmmmm’ will suffice.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but I disagree. It’s useful to know your Assyrtiko (lemon-fresh white wine) from your Elba (famed for its wine in the ancient world). Before you know it, you’ll be ordering not the correct wine, but one that you might actually want to drink.
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Ordering wine in restaurants: dos an don’ts
Never snap your fingers at the sommelier (or the waiter, for that matter) for attention.
Heed the sommelier’s advice. It’s his job.
Don’t pour the wine yourself. A good sommelier will gauge the pace at which you are drinking.
Don’t ask to sample a bottle. Once the cork is pulled it’s unsellable as a bottle, only as separate glasses. Asking for a sample taste before ordering a glass is perfectly acceptable.
If you think the wine is ‘corked’ or has an unusual taste, ask for a new wine glass before you question the wine itself. A poorly cleaned glass can often affect the taste of what is a perfectly satisfactory wine.
If you’re unsure whether to tip the sommelier, you might ask him to have a glass himself from your bottle.
Jonathan Goodall is the author of The Bluffer's Guide to Wine.