People who get intimidated by wine don?t know what they?re missing in life. They?re missing out on good conversation ? because each bottle of wine comes with a bit of history and a slice of geography, and because the taste of certain fine wines evolve as they grow older, there?s no other beverage that excites as much animation on the dinner table. They?re also missing out on good food ? because wine is had with food and friends on the dinner table, it?s one beverage that brings out the best in chefs around the world. The trouble is you can?t have a single malt with your dinner, but there?s a wine that?s waiting to be paired with just about everything we eat, with the exception of maybe snakes. That?s what makes the wonderful world of wine so exciting, so full of discoveries that take you by surprise.
But you can spoil the party for others by being a wine snob, dropping jargon that regular people find hard to understand. There are no rules of wine etiquette, but there?s definitely an unwritten code, and topping it is the commandment that requires you not to bore the hell out of others.
Suppose you have invited friends over for dinner and you wish to serve the expensive wine you?ve just picked up from Berry Brothers on your last visit to London, don?t make a fuss over it. Let your guests first react to it and only then let it be known that you?ve opened a very special bottle because you consider your guests special. Now, if your guests wish to know what makes the wine special, that?s your cue to start talking about it. If they don?t, keep your knowledge to yourself. No one likes a convivial evening to be hijacked by a bore.
Wine isn?t about intellectual snobbery. It?s about sharing the good things of life with people who know how to be happy. Wine snobs can never be happy, so don?t even aspire to be one, because you?ll only manage to scare other people from drinking the most remarkable beverage in the world. Don?t go sniffing for aromas that make no difference to the act of drinking wine. Leave that to the sommeliers.
Are there any rules to be followed while drinking wine? Sure, there are. When you take guests out for dinner to a restaurant and order wine, it?s incumbent upon you to check out what?s being served. One in twelve bottles of wine tends to go bad, so whenever your waiter asks you to approve of the wine that?s being served, take your role seriously. It?s not difficult to find out if the wine that?s being served has gone bad.
First read the label. Most wines, especially whites (unless, of course, the wine is a Chablis), are meant to be drunk within two to five years of the vintage mentioned on the label. A spoilt white wine tends to take on a copper tone; a bad red turns dull brown. It?s important, therefore, to examine the colour of the wine by tilting the glass away from you when the waiter asks you to taste it.
The next big step is to swirl the wine in the glass and then sniff it. If you?re assaulted by the stink of rotten eggs or the acrid smell of vinegar, you should know that the wine?s bad. Sipping follows swirling. Sometimes, the palate can tell whether the wine being served has gone bad better than the nose. If the wine is sour, just junk it. A decent wine balances a crispy acidity with a fruity finish. If it smells of rotten eggs, rest assured it?ll give you a headache, because the stink indicates the overbearing presence of sulphites, which are added usually to inferior wines to make them last longer.
To cut the long story short, it?s your duty as a host to check out the wine you?ve ordered for your guests. Only after you?re satisfied with the wine, you must ask the waiter to serve it. Send him packing if he brings the wine in an ice bucket stacked with cubes of ice. You?ve got to be gentle with wines, which is the reason why the bottle must come in an ice bath, and not on a bed of ice.
To help you enjoy your wines better with your guests, the serving temperature must be right ? 8-12 degrees for whites; 12-15 degrees for light reds like a Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais; 15-18 degrees for heartier reds; and 18-20 degrees for matured, full-bodied reds, like the ones that emerge out of the celebrated chateaux of Bordeaux.
By the way, don?t forget to kick your waiter if he gives you the spiel about letting your wine breathe in the bottle ? to be able to breathe, that is, to be able to mellow down its harsh tannins by letting them come in contact with oxygen, a wine needs a bigger surface. Wine breathes best in a glass.
And if you?re ordering a vintage wine that has not seen the lights of a restaurant, or breathed its air, it?s best to have it opened about an hour or more before being served, decanted to remove sediments and poured in glasses to allow it to breathe. Vintage wines are very expensive. Don?t spoil your party by having them straight out of the bottle (or ordering them with Chinese or Indian dishes). Let them breathe so that the oxygen in the air smoothens the rough edges of their expressive tannins.
Wine etiquette also demands that you pay attention to what you serve at home, or order at a restaurant. There?s a lot of bad wine circulating in the market, so make sure that you don?t end up buying a wine only because it?s French or says it?s from Bordeaux. The quality pyramid of French wines is so complicated that Bordeaux wines are categorised into five levels (and the top level is divided into five more categories), so you may find yourself landed with what are known as generic Bordeaux wines, which are made with leftover grapes.
It may be a good idea, therefore, to buy the fruit-driven wines of the New World (Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina), if you?re not really into wines in a big way. New World wines, and Italians to an extent, are very consumer friendly, so it?s safer to order them, especially in India, where most hotels and restaurants have a limited selection of good French wines.
When you?re ordering a wine in a restaurant, remember, the most expensive wine on the list is not necessarily the one that?ll go best with the food you?ve ordered. You do not invite people to dinner to show off, but to have a good time with them, so order a wine that matches the food and the mood. And while you?re at it, don?t be misled by the food and wine pairing rules of the past.
The current wisdom is that what matters is not whether you?re having fish or chicken or red meat, but the way it?s cooked. A grilled salmon, for instance, will go well only with a red wine (say, a Pinot Noir), but a river sole cooked in a white sauce will pair very well with a Chablis from Burgundy, France.
For a Chinese or a Thai meal, I?d order a Gewurtztraminer or a Riesling from Alsace; for Barra Kebabs, I?d be better off asking for an Amarone from Valpolicella, Italy; for Murgh Malai Tikka, I?d ask for an unoaked Chardonnay, or a Gavi from Italy; for Butter Chicken or Dal Makhni, a Pinot Noir is an ideal match. For lamb chops cooked rare in a red wine sauce, I?ll stick with a robust red from Bordeaux (I?ll go for the chateaux, or the wines of St-Emilion, and avoid the generics), or a Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, or a Super Tuscan like a Tignanello or an Ornellaia.
What message do you send out when you order wines with such obvious care? That you value your guests, that you want them to have a good time. But how do you get these wines when you?re hosting a party at home? Banish the thought. Your bootlegger doesn?t have the intelligence to keep these wines in his portfolio.
It makes more sense, therefore, to collect good wines whenever you?re on a visit abroad. And if you?re unsure about how to go about it, remember these two rules: one, always buy the local favourite; two, ask the store assistants to help you make the selection.
It may also be a good idea to buy wine glasses when you?re travelling. A wine glass must have a long stem and thin goblet (no crystal, please!) to insulate the wine from the temperature of your hand and enhance your drinking pleasure. You may go for the very pricey Riedel glasses, or settle for the cheaper but no less effective Spieglau, but you should never ever serve wine in those ornate, heavy glasses, with thick stems, that used to grace the bar cabinets of our parents.
One final note of caution. If you?re invited to a wine dinner, don?t douse yourself with perfume. Refrain from the urge to smoke. And never ever light up a cigar. It?s not snobbery. It?s just to let you savour the aromas of the wines you drink. Because the pleasure of drinking wine begins with your nose.
-- The writer is the Executive Director of the Indian Wine Academy. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.