How to talk about wine, without sounding like a wanker

I grew up watching the peerless Jilly Goolden inhaling glasses of wine and gesticulating about how she could smell old leather watchstraps, romps in sun-ripened hay bales and elderflower-draped forests; so naturally, that’s just how I thought most people chatted about wine.

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That was until I found myself working in wine, specifically writing about it for M&S, and I quickly realised how much of a complete pillock you sound if you fall into the common traps of wine wanker chat.

Here’s a starter for ten: don’t use industry words like ‘mouthfeel’ or describe a wine as ‘turgid’ and never give it human characteristics like ‘confident’, ‘brave’ or ‘sexy’ – not only do they sound inherently stupid, they say bugger all about what the wine actually tastes like. I’ve done all of these before and now tread that precarious journalistic line between informative and douchey on a daily basis.

Somebody who drinks wine pretentiously in the company of others to show off their knowledge and try to make other people feel inferior.”
“It was really embarrassing seeing Declan complain about all the wines we drank just to get attention. What a wine wanker!”

Most people can say they understand a bit about wine these days and have an inkling of what they’re buying. You tell people you’re stoking the fires for a BBQ and they’ll crack out a full-bodied red from the safe regions of Rioja or an Argentinian malbec. Basically, it boils down to three things: what does it taste like, what can I eat it with and (if you’re a connoisseur of the supermarket wine aisles) is it in the gifting appropriate price bracket of £10-18.

So, how do you talk about an event and tell people about wine they haven’t drunk and food they haven’t eaten if you can’t rely on a bit of Brontë-esque frippery in your writing?

But there I was a month or so ago, elbow-to-elbow at the Andaz hotel for the Bacchus on a Knife Edge (no, I still don’t know what was on-edge about it) with a roomful of writers and bloggers doing just that.

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After the crab and cucumber canapés and delicate rounds of buttery cod fishcakes with Scandi remoulade from Italian-Norwegian duo Nordish, the wine chat began in earnest.

And I was right in the thick of it, crossing from Brontë to bullshit in an instant as I compared the canapés matched to a salt-laced, citrus-spiked Petit Chablis as “like breathing in the seashore in winter.”

It got worse. There followed a starter from Pickled Plates of cod with roasted baby radish salad and tempura samphire paired with a La Boissonneause chablis. I distinctly remember describing it as “tasting like an English garden smells. It tastes green: like the first slice of spring.” What. A. Prat.

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There are far more interesting things to talk about when it comes to La Boissonneause, like how it comes from one of Chablis’ first organic and biodynamic vineyards; or how they mix nettles, sage and lavender with manure from their on-site, free-range cows and, come Equinox, bury the brew in the vineyard in the cow’s horns to be re-discovered the following Equinox and homeopathically applied to the vines.

Now, in my defense, if you’re going to wax lyrical about a wine, it might as well be a chablis. It’s the kind of beautifully complex white that comes with its own hazy semantic field of delicious words swimming around it. Chablis is aniseed, fennel, lemon and sherbet. It’s lime and salt and oysters. It’s earthy and buttery and mineral. It is, in short, worthy of pratting about over.

And even its own producers agree. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for blood to be spilled over terroir territory wars, or for famous chablis-producing families to marry off their kids to improve their grape stocks.

So I could, in theory, take you all the way to wanker town, where we talk about crisp whites shivering with freshness like a milky-white virgin in a dew-slicked meadow. Where we describe chablis as a sibilant sylph of a wine, lisping lemony with the siren call of the French coastline. But that probably wouldn’t tell you much about the wine we drank.

So let’s leave the clay and the chalky soil and the sweep of the shore and talk instead about the room in London near Liverpool Street station, where, against the bottle-lined walls, people sat and ate and drank. We could talk about how we all argued over whether or not the Japanese rice that the soy and mirin-doused pork steaks came on was meant to be served as soft and slippery as rice pudding comes in boarding school – amniotic and squelching and slopped out by lunch matrons with arms like mutton: russet-veined and marble muscled…but then we’d be heading back to wanker town.

So let’s talk about the wine that came after A Little Lusciousness‘s punchy pork instead, which was a slurp into the big boys of the region:

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“Cru” is used to indicate a named and legally defined vineyard, which grows on a reputed terroir; by extension of good quality.  The term cru is used within classifications of French wine in Bordeaux and Burgundy, as others have indicated in their answers.

The terms “Premier Cru”, “Grand Cru” are translated as “First Growth”, and “Great Growth”. These designate levels of presumed quality that are variously defined in different wine regions.”

So, I suppose the salient point you’re after is why should you care about chablis. Well, apart from being a universally crowd-pleasing white with the sort of gravitas that means it’s never out of place at a party or as a present, it’s also about to hit a dry patch.

2016 has been, so far, an annus horribilis for the region. Following hail and floods in May, there’s going to be around 50% less chablis produced than expected this year. So, if you’ve got nothing else from this, the main take away is: it’s good, get some now. Cheers!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Bernard Klem says:

    If you need help with wine descriptors, plain or fancy, find my book from 2009 called WineSpeak, which has 36,975 of them. Enjoy!

  2. Ahhhh, but the difference between you and a wine wanker is that you’re self aware 😉

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