In a now-famous experiment a dozen years ago at the University of Bordeaux, a researcher asked 54 oenologists to compare two glasses of red and white wine, and also to taste a bottle of cheap claret against an expensive one. As you's expect from a gathering of such rarified palates, they found the glass of red to be full of berry and tannin flavours lacking in the white; the cheap bottle they declared to be weak and flat, while the expensive bottle one was complex and well-rounded.
Except the researcher the researcher had played a trick on them. The glass of red was actually the white wine dyed red; the expensive red was merely the cheap plonk decanted into a fancier bottle. Not one of the wine experts called it right.
Confirmation that wine appreciation is a load of pretentious twaddle, where a bottle is only as good as a so-called expert tells you it is? Well, yes, there's certainly an element of that - who hasn't been swayed by a glowing review or high price tag and then not wanted to admit that you couldn't see what the fuss was about - but more, it shows just how subjective the whole business is. One person's sancerre is another person's cat's pee; one person's first-growth claret is another person's Ribena. If you are getting raspberries, pears and patrol station forecourts, who is anyone to argue? When it comes to taste, there really is no right or wrong. The trick is the confidence to know that.
Sure, it helps to have mastered a few basics, to be able to spot the difference between a grape and a region, to know that a beaujolais would be lighter than a shiraz, a gewürtztraminer more tropical than a sauvignon blanc. Equally no one can deny that the wine world can be fearsomly complicated if you want to dig deep. Vagaries of weather, location and wine-maker mean you can never be absolutely certain how an unfamiliar wine will taste until you pop the cork, and the French, in particular, seem determined that their labels should tell you as little as possible unless you are in their club. If you don't already know that red burgundy equals pinot noir and white burgundy equals chardonnay, they sure as hell aren't going to tell you. As in the old poker truism, you have to pay to learn.
Let's not get hang up on details, though. Let's pause instead for this little confidence booster: you know much more than you think. Certainly more than the French, or the Italians, or any other nationality. And don't take my word for it, it's what the world's wine producers all think: that the British have the broadest knowledge and most discerning palates.
It comes down to a combination of history and climate, in that we've been drinking wine since Roman times but never (until very recently) managed to make anything worth pulling the corke on ourselves. While other wine-producing countries have taken a parochial view, drinking only what they produce in their own backyard, we've always looked to the wider world, and hence come across a far greater range of wines.
Don't believe me? Count how many grape varieties you know. I bet it's more than the four a French friend could come up with.
So next time the sommelier approaches, just relax. Remember, it's not a test, and however ignorant you may worry you sound, he'll have served someone twice as ignorant already that day.
Michael Simms has seen it all in a 35-year career that has taken him from the Ritz and the Berkeley to his current home at Sartoria in Savile Row, London. Experience has taught him never to be fazed, even when customers ask for a ginger ale or lemonade to pour into their wine. “It does happen. I just think, oh well, that's another £2.50,“ he says.
Most people, he says will know the names of a couple of wines they like, but they are far from experts, and even when they do know a lot, it will tend to be only one region. “In the old days at the Ritz, you'd get someone who knew Bordeaux back to front, but get him on Australia and he'd be absolutely lost.“
His advice is to be open and honest. The more information you give about your tastes and budget, the more he can help. “Don't just ask, “what do you recommend“, unless you like everything. Tell me if you like dry, sweet, light, or full-bodied and I'll find something to match.“
As to the supposed rules about what to drink with what, the panic that grips us like rabbits in the headlights as we try to remember if it's burgundy or claret with game, Simm thinks it's a lot of bunkum based on outmoded notions of snobbery. “Don't forget, most people don't have wine and food in their mouth at the same time. We sommeliers try to match the flavours to create wonderful marriages, but no one does that at a dinner party. You have some wine. You chat. You take a mouthful of food. People just need to learn to relax.“
Fazit: Die britischen Spanien-Urlauber kommen oft nicht sehr weltmännisch daher.