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Never mind the bollocks

21 November 2005

This article has been extracted from Secrets of Wine by Giles Kime, former editor of Decanter Magazine and is part of the 52 Brilliant Ideas series published by Infinite Ideas.

If you open a bottle of wine burdened with preconceived ideas based on its label, its price and myths spun by the wine trade, it's time to learn the art of free-thinking drinking.

The premise of most books on wine is that the path to vinous enlightenment is fathomless depths of knowledge.

The theory goes like this: in order to truly understand wine you must have a good understanding of geography (so that you can find your way around a map of every wine region from Bordeaux to the Barossa), geology (to understand the effect that ferruginous oolite found in Burgundy's soil can have on the flavour of a glass of Volnay) and chemistry (for those fascinating late-night discussions about malolactic fermentation). A working knowledge of meteorology, the French language and European wine law might also come in handy.

Authors of wine books expect their readers to become receptacles for reams of facts and second-hand opinions. For most readers, all this is in addition to the weight of misconceptions that they have picked up from the wine trade, the media and the droves of oenophiles who are so generous with their spurious views on wine.

The ministers of misinformation

Though obfuscation hasn't been a deliberate policy pursued by those in the wine trade, it has certainly helped them to charge high prices for perfectly ordinary wines. In Bordeaux, for example, there is a complex league table of chateaux known as the Grand Cru Classés which consists of five different divisions.

Although the chateaux are within a few miles of one another, a wine from the first division can be priced as much as 300% higher than one from the fifth. Is this because a wine in the first division is 300% better? No, it's because this is the way that the wines were graded in the mid-nineteenth century and the pecking order has remained the same ever since.

Many wine producers - especially those at the top end of the market - must have realised that confusion (or 'mystique' as they prefer to call it) can be used to commercial advantage. This means that selling wine is not like selling cornflakes, a commodity on which most people can put a value. A bottle of wine can be sold for twice the amount of something comparable purely because it has a certain name or year on its label.

Sadly, the result of mystique is likely to be disheartened punters whose initial enthusiasm for wine is dampened by the fact that they can't remember the names of the top wines in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux or don't have an intimate knowledge of the topography of the Mosel Valley.

Three steps to vinous enlightenment

Question everything. Don't accept anyone's word for anything. Most people who claim to be wine experts base their opinions on where a wine comes from, when it was made and what they have read about it. Just because a wine is served with great aplomb in a restaurant doesn't mean that you have to like it - though it's up to you whether you decide to express your opinion, particularly if someone else is paying.

Drink everything. The fact that you don't like a wine doesn't mean you shouldn't taste it. The more wines you taste, whether good or bad, the greater your frame of reference. However, for the sake of your liver, remember that there's a crucial difference between tasting and drinking.

Compare everything. A wine is defined by how it is similar to - or different from - another. It is these subtle shades of difference - between, say,
an inexpensive red Bordeaux and a Chilean Merlot, an Australian sparkling wine and a bottle of vintage Champagne, a Macon and a Chablis - that will reveal the true character of a wine.

Idea:

The next time you open a bottle of wine, plot its origin as precisely as you can. You will find that rooting a wine in a particular part of the globe will
give the wine a context that makes it easier to understand.

by Giles Kime

Click here to buy the book Secrets of Wine

For more information on this book or any other title from the series, visit www.52brilliantideas.com

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