Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Let's Get Rid of Wine Snobbery!

Wine, Vin, Vino, Vini, Wein...er...booze! Whatever you want to call it, it tastes great and it gets you drunk! But somewhere along the line, wine has picked up a reputation for being 'posh'. How has this happened? It used to be the Ancient Greeks would chug a jug and heckle theatre productions in celebration of Dionysus, Greek God of Wine, Ecstasy and Ritual Madness (sounds like an awesome God, right?)

Now look at today and we see exclusive wine tastings taking place in stately homes and their gardens. We see a bloke wearing a cravat dipping his nose into his glass and describing 50 different flavours, all from something made out of one type of fruit. So how have you we gone from loutish behaviour in the ampitheatre to dignified toffery in the drawing room?

To get to the bottom of the ways the wine snobs keep keener, more open-minded wine drinkers at heel, we need to look at four different things that control a lot of public opinion: Money, knowledge, appearance and to some extent, region.

Wine is big bucks - that's not exactly news, but there's this pre-conceived stuffy notion that to get the the good stuff, you have to pay far more than the average drinker can afford. My time in the industry has shown me this is believed on both sides of the coin: People without much money don't want to spend £20 a bottle because they'd be too scared to open it, and people with more disposable income don't want to spend £5 a bottle because they assume it's going to be Lambrusco. This is craziness - in fact, one of the best bottles I've ever tasted cost me no more than a fiver. It was a spanish red called El Tesoro: smooth, fruity, spicy and such a depth of flavour that you would not believe what it cost.

A lot of the time, it's down to the individual reputation of the Winemaker. Chateau Latour might sell for thousands a case because it's so sought after, but a prominent Bordeaux winemaker once told me they'd never buy a First Growth - they've been in the business long enough to know the smaller third or fifth growth chateaux making just as fantastic a wine but charging a fraction of the price because no-one has ever heard of them. It's a silly thing to believe, but price does not always dictate quality: we all eat chocolate every day and know there are some good expensive ones out there, but it doesn't mean you get any less pleasure from a good bar of Galaxy. It's knowing what you like rather than what it costs that gets you the real treasures in the wine industry.

Then there's tasting, another horrifying prospect for many a novice wine-drinker at a dinner party or restaurant. Others will have you believe otherwise, but tasting wine is easy. I'm not saying you're going to be an expert straight away - it takes time and a lot of experience for your palate to develop a discerning taste - but as long as you've got a couple of decent taste buds on your tongue and can differentiate between flavours, you've got the basic tools you need.

Having spoken to many people, I've discovered that the main reason for shying away from wine culture is fear. People don't know where to start, and are scared because they might get it wrong. In all honesty, there's not much to get wrong. If you know what the typical characteristics of a grape are (and believe me, it's not that difficult to discover) then the rest comes naturally. Ignore the bloke with a wet nose going on about 'subtle hints of dusted glacier cherries and a wet fisherman' and see for yourself what you can taste. You'll be surprised when you let your tongue to the thinking.

So what about what the bottle actually looks like? Bottle labels used to be uniformly refined, purchased only by those who knew what words like 'cuvee' and 'brut' meant. Then some Australians came along and put a drunk frog on the label and it sold in the millions.

What's on the label makes a huge difference, but then so is the reason for your purchase: if you're doing your weekly shop, and the foreign terms and classifications on a label don't make sense, it can be easy to turn to a snazzier label that's mostly a picture of a cat because that's 'all you're good enough to drink'. But then if you're buying a bottle to take to the party of some sniffy Herbert, you might prefer to choose the austere Italic font and etching of a Chateau purely because it looks more impressive. With just a tiny nugget of knowledge, it's easy to look past the label and actually choose a wine that's good, not one that just looks good.

A wine's origin is another thing to consider in the battle of looking like a wine buff vs actually being one. For a number of years, there's been a debate over New World vs Old World. Generally speaking, the Old World has been producing the worlds finest wines for years and now the New World has come stumbling in drunk, shouting about how it does everything just as good as it's older brother Europe but for half the price.

Many of the New World countries now stand far firmer in the rankings, but have we learned our wine-snob lesson? Not a chance. Once again, the lah-di-dah wine-drinking world is turning up it's nose, but this time at countries like Hungary, Romania, and Brazil. Just because they made poor quality plonk in the past, it doesn't mean you have to banish them from your wine rack forever. Yes, it will be very difficult to de-throne the likes of France, Italy and Spain as the Kings of Fine Wine because they've been lauding it up for hundreds of years, but now there's so much more choice, it's okay to choose the road less travelled.

From the outside looking in, wine culture can be perceived as snobbish and scary. But when you actually pop the cork (please, pardon the pun) it's a fantastic world of exploration and discovery just waiting to be enjoyed.I'm not exactly sure when, but wine became a Toffs tipple. Maybe it had something to do with the classifcation of 1855, or maybe the Old Ones of the industry just got too much power, and too exclusive a price tag.

Seriously though, I've been to some of those fancy tastings and wine snobs are just like you and me once they get a drink inside them: their front is soon melted by the enjoyment of a good glass of something tasty, and as soon as they realise they don't have to pretend, they stop acting like they've got a wine bottle stuck up their jacksy. At the end of it all, we all love a nice glass of wine - it's just high time we realised that 'nice' isn't written on the label as a universal classification.

I'll leave you with this thought. I asked a bloke in the pub the other day what he was drinking. He simply replied, 'Lager'. When I asked what lager specifically, he turned around and said Stella, 'Because the other stuff tastes awful'. Each to their own.

Images taken from Dear Terisa and dbrekke's photostreams respectively, under the Creative Commons license.

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