On the rare occasion I’ve been entrusted with choosing the wine, I’ve dodged the proffered menu like it’s a baby that’s just been sick. ‘No, no, you’re really much better at these things,’ I’ll say, in either scenario. But Amelia Singer, expert on The Wine Show, assures me that wine menus needn’t be my nemesis. ‘The best way to know about wine is to drink it,’ she declares.
I’m keen to discover what’s fail-safe to say at a party, when someone’s poured me some wine and I want to comment without sounding gauche. How can I come across as knowledgable when I’ve got no idea what I’m drinking? ‘Wow, this wine has great legs!’ suggests Singer, explaining that this refers to the way the wine falls down the sides of the glass. ‘Every wine in the world leaves some kind of residue,’ she explains, ‘so it doesn’t matter what it tastes like, or whether your host has excellent taste in wine – it’s really diplomatic and inoffensive.’
As a back-up, Singer proposes I alternate this with, ‘This is such a people-pleasing wine,’ and, ‘This is such a crowd pleaser,’ which is excellent advice, I feel, though Singer warns me to be wary of anyone interpreting the subtext. ‘It basically means the wine has no personality,’ she says, adding, ‘It won’t take away from the interesting conversations you’re having,’ Singer clearly hasn’t experienced my small talk. But anyway, here are her tips on how to bluff at being a wine buff…
Swirl and sniff
Should I always sniff my wine and swirl the glass, I ask Singer, or is this only something you do at a tasting? ‘Always,’ says Singer decisively. ‘90 per cent of what you smell is what you taste, and swirling the glass oxygenates the wine, which releases the flavour compounds.’ She adds, ‘Roll it around on your palate and think about whether it reminds you of anything. If you sip it, and you don’t open your mouth, you’re not going to taste anything. It’s like if you had medicine as a kid – you’d hold your nose, so you didn’t taste it.’ This is useful to remember if you’ve been saddled with something vile, in which case, ‘Do not swirl that glass. Focus on the conversation and just drink.’
Dinner party preview
How do I choose wine to take to a dinner party, I ask Singer. Do I need to know what’s on the menu, or can I safely assume that anything I bring will be donated to the tombola at the next school fête? Singer says, ‘If I’m bringing round something really nice, it would piss me off if they snaffle it in a cupboard. Now I open the bottle at home, so they have to serve it! I say, “I wanted to make sure this tastes perfect and it does.” Or, “I wanted to check it wasn’t corked. Here you go, I can’t wait to enjoy it later!”’ Singer adds: ‘There’s no point in bringing a really nice bottle along for a dinner party for 10 people, because you’re hardly going to get any of it.’
Twelve’s a charm
Is it ever OK to buy a bottle for a fiver, or are these just for people who’d happily drink paint stripper? ‘It’s always worth spending £10-£12,’ says Singer. ‘The margins mean that any less, and you won’t be paying much for the wine. Once you start paying the £12 mark, there’s a huge difference – you don’t need to be a wine expert to tell the quality. Certain countries like Chile produce wonderful wines for £12. You can get amazing Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, and in other parts of the world those grapes are quite expensive.’
If you’ve been saddled with the wine list, what’s a safe bet? Is it ever OK to pick the second one down? ‘Restaurants are starting to expand their wine by the glass,’ says Singer. ‘So if I’m out with friends, and everyone wants red, I’ll ask the waiter, “Please can we have a sip of,” and I’ll point to three, four and five. It’s amazing how accommodating sommeliers are if you get excited, like “Gosh – I’m not trying to get freebies – I just want to make sure I’m making a good choice.” They’ll let you have a little of each and you pass it round like a communion cup. Then it’s, “Who likes wine number one? Who likes wine number two?” It’s a lovely way to share, and people don’t mind paying more if they know what they’re going to get.’
If you really don’t want to deal with the wine list, or rather, ‘if you’re given a really special bottle for your birthday and you don’t want to cook a wonderful meal to go with it,’ Singer says an amazing number of restaurants will allow you to bring your own bottle if you call ahead, in return for a corkage charge of £30 or £40.
Take it away
If my partner and I are eating different things, is there a way to avoid the back-and-forth faff of ordering by the glass? ‘Some restaurants do carafes,’ says Singer, ‘or you might have a partner who can have a bottle to himself,’ she says, recalling a 6ft 5 Scottish ex. ‘But if not, you can order a bottle each and say, “I know I’m not going to finish this, can I take it home?” – some restaurants will let you do that.’
Brosé for the boys
Is it ever OK to ask for rosé, or is that really naff? ‘I love rosé,’ says Singer, who recommends Whispering Angel. ‘Rosé is one of the most food-friendly wines, because it’s got the fruit of a white wine and the structure of a red. And people are beginning to realise that pale isn’t necessarily better – the really fruity ones are great with spicy fusion food.’ It’s not just for hen parties either, says Singer, pointing out that men are getting on board with ‘brosé’!
Ask for what you want
‘If you like a grape, or a region, or a producer, use these as guidelines when you’re buying a bottle in the supermarket.’ If you’re in a restaurant, Singer suggests saying, ‘I like wines from this region, can you recommend something?’ Or, ‘I feel like a wine for celebrating.’ She explains, ‘It’s great if you can be specific about the volcanic minerality you want in your wine, but only about five per cent of the population can give that sort of brief. So if you’ve just had the worst break-up, tell the waiter you want a “hug in a glass” – it’s far more relatable.’
Celebrity Cruises is the official cruise partner of The Wine Show
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here