Week 9: What we talk about when we talk about wine

There are a number of accomplishments which a fully formed Ballymaloe alumnus is meant to have when coming out into culinary society, such as milking a cow, building a compost heap, and knowing at least something about wine.

Week 9 saw the last lecture of our cheerful wine course, where we were plied with many, many glasses of different wines at nine o’clock in the morning by Colm McCan, consultant sommelier at Ballymaloe House (amongst other things). There’s a lot to learn about wine, and it’s easy to follow all the rules and make a big show of ordering one thing but find you then get something startlingly different.

So here are some fool-proof tips we’ve learned, which you can put into your back pocket and take with you to the nearest wine bar. Cheers!

Colm McCan (2)

(This is Colm, serving us sparkling wine from Sussex next to Ballymaloe’s mini-vineyard.)

#1. What to buy when you don’t know what to buy

Here are some classic crowd pleasers:


  • Tempranillo and Beaujolais are very jolly and drinkable
  • Shiraz stands up to red meat and big flavoured dishes
  • Merlot is a dead cert – called ‘wine without the tears’, and ‘grown-ups’ Ribena’


  • Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, France, New Zealand or South Africa
  • Mildly oaked Chardonnays such as Chablis, Macon and Rully

#2. Still don’t know what to buy? Download Vivino

Vivino is a genius app which tells you the average flavour profile, retail price, rating and reviews of a wine simply by snapping the label on the bottle.


#3. Corked

This is not when the cork is broken or the wine tastes like vinegar. It’s instead caused by a chemical called TCA in the cork wood which gives the aroma of a soggy Labrador – dank and musty. It affects 5-10% of wine sealed with a cork.

#4. Vin-dalism

It’s a rite of passage for wine to be described in florid language, and sometimes the most ridiculous are the most delightful. Try ‘sex-loaded scarlet’; ‘white peach lined with honeysuckle sailing through the long, stone-framed finish’; ‘redolent with animal fur’. Oh my. Luckily, someone in Brixton came up with vin-dalism, swapping labels in supermarkets and wine shops with alternate descriptions. Read about it in the Daily Mail (go on).

Daily mail wine image

#5. Breathing

It’s a commonplace middle class occurrence on a Sunday at Chez Digby for Mr. D to plonk a bottle of red on the Aga to breathe while we gobble crisps and wait for the beef to rest. Unfortunately, this can overheat the wine (which should never go above 20oC), and allows only a teeny amount of wine in the bottle neck to breath. Breathing refers to the oxidation reaction which occurs when the wine is exposed to the air, releasing the wine’s aromas – particularly important for red wines. As 80% of what we taste is what we smell, it’s probably worth decanting the wine into something else 30 minutes before glugging – anything jug-like would do, you can pour it back into the bottle if that’s posher for you.

#6. Sherry… so hot right now.

Sherry is the latest thing. Heston Blumenthal goes mad for a sherry, and London’s hipster bar scene is cottoning on. Sherry has a bit of a reputation problem – usually the mainstay of grandmothers at Christmas, most Sherry we drink has probably gone off. Years ago.

No longer! Sherry varies greatly, from the dry and tangy Fino and Manzanillas to more unctuous, darker Olorosso and Amontillados – there’s a whole new world to explore. Let’s go!

Morito bar

Morito bar in Exmouth Market, London is probably a good place to start.

#7. How to pronounce Chateauneuf de Pape. Follow this link. No, really do, please.


#8. Fat glass, thin glass, small glass, tall glass.

A very nice man from the esteemed Riedel glassware company explained some of the mysteries of wine glasses – the principles are these: the glass bowl shape determines the exposure to air, releasing aromas, and the rim determines how the aromas are gathered when you poke your nose in, and also how the wine is delivered onto your tongue. Wines with high acidity suit narrower glasses, as the wine slips down the centre of your tongue and not over your acidity taste buds immediately (just try it out, you’ll see). Wines with low acidity suit wider rims, as the wine falls all across your tongue, so you get the full, balanced flavour. The very nice man’s bête noir is the modern champagne flute – really good champagne would be better from a white wine glass, so you can actually smell it (but where’s the fun in that?).

Riedel have an app to help with these types of difficult life problems – check it out.

Riedel wine glasses

#9. Ice wine

What on earth is ice wine? It’s a dessert wine produced by bonkers people in Canada and Germany (Eiswein) from grapes which are picked in the dead of night in the middle of winter – when it’s really really cold. The water in the grapes has frozen but the sugars and other dissolved solids do not freeze, so the grape juice extracted makes a highly concentrated, very sweet wine. I think it’s quite expensive, but great with dark chocolate.


#10. One glass at a time

The scientists have invented a device which can extract wine from a bottle without uncorking it. It involves gas cylinders and hollow needles. The idea is you can check to see if a wine is ready for drinking without opening it, or have a glass of really nice wine, every now and again. I’m not sure I have the patience or self-control for this, but I think my dad would. You can find this device at Corvin.

#11. My new favourite: Riesling

Riesling is a bargain of a white wine grown in the Alsace region, but also across the world, and it’s currently out of fashion. Some incarnations are sweet, so look for the dry variety.

#12. Natural wines

Of all the alcoholic drinks, wine seems the most healthy – it’s boozy grape juice after all. If fact, most of the wine we drink is produced with aggressive agrochemicals which deplete the soil and leave the vines vulnerable to more and more vicious pathogens, and then soused in sulphites to prevent oxidation. Wine makers are starting to produce natural wines from environmentally friendly vineyards where the grapes are picked by hand, and absolutely no tinkering to manipulate the flavour of the wine – resulting in very drinkable rather than show-stopping wine. The drink is still live – like yakult or unpasteurised milk, so your tummy will be grateful too. Check out this natural wine bar, 40 Maltby Street, in Bermondsey, London.

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