Can you become a wine expert in 24 hours?

Sommelier and patrons at Marque restaurant.
Sommelier and patrons at Marque restaurant. Photo: Marco Del Grande

A new handbook promises to make you a wine expert in just 24 hours. Andrew P. Street takes the challenge.

Like so many South Australians who eked out an existence living in share houses after finishing uni, my initial appreciation of wine began with the discovery that Barossa Valley cleanskins were wonderfully cheap – and thus was a lifelong love affair born.

A new handbook promises to make you a wine expert in just a day.
A new handbook promises to make you a wine expert in just a day. 

Since then my knowledge of wine has expanded mainly through the tried-and-true method of drinking it. From this, in the words of management training seminars, I acquired four key learnings:

1. Wine is great and, yes, I'd love another glass, thanks.

2. Cellaring is for rich people, and don't even pretend you know what you're doing. (As my friend David Hewitt memorably advised as I showed him my "cellar", cunningly disguised as "a cupboard in the laundry": "Wine is meant to be drunk, as indeed are we.")

<i>The 24 Hour Wine Expert</i> by Jancis Robinson.
The 24 Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson. 

3. A youth exposed to rich, peppery McLaren Vale shiraz means that shiraz from all other districts tastes like water.

4. Sure, why not open a second bottle?

And while these are sound rules of thumb to help guide one through the rough and tumble of life, they are perhaps not the most comprehensive of systems with which to navigate the vagaries of wine consumption.

Thus, it was with no small amount of enthusiasm that I read the new handbook by British wine expert and critic Jancis Robinson, The 24-Hour Wine Expert: a slender and informative book which I assume has now effectively transformed me into a freelance sommelier.

The title of her marvellously easy-to-read book refers to the length of time that it should take for you to absorb and retain the information, it should be pointed out, and not necessarily on how to drink wine for 24 hours.

That means there's nothing in the bit on food matching about what breakfast wine goes best with Coco Pops, for example. Although having read the book, I'm going to suggest a full-bodied port: it will complement the chocolate tones of the meal while also being sweet enough not to taste bitter when matched with all that added sugar.

The advice in the book is generally great for readers who like wine, would like to know more about it without getting bogged down in jargon, and are keen to be able to do more than nod blankly and say "ah, of course, Cote Rotie is… nice?" when discussing the great wine regions.

There's information on buying wine in restaurants (key tip: sommeliers love talking about the wine list, ask for their advice), what bits of wine tasting are significant (like colour, which is an indication of age) and which are pure theatre (such as pondering the "legs" of wine that dribble down the sides of a swished glass, which means nothing), and why waiters do that thing where they pour a bit of wine and let you taste it (hint: it's not to check you like it).

Gratifyingly, Robinson's advice with regards to cellaring neatly matches the aforementioned claim by my dear, drunken friend David.

She points out that most wines are made to be drunk within a year or three of being bought, that people cellar their fancy wines far, far longer than is good for the wine because they worry there's not an event special enough to be worth cracking an expensive bottle, and finally that if you're the sort of person flush enough to be buying bottles to lay down then you can probably afford the sort of engineering required to create a good environment for bottles filled with continually evolving biological reactions. Spoiler: laundry cupboards aren't as perfect a wine cellar as you might naturally assume.

However, it's one thing to do reading comprehension, it's quite another to put one's newfound knowledge to the test. And that's why I phoned wine expert Mike Bennie, fresh from a day literally spent stomping grapes in Tasmania, to quiz me on my hard-earned new wisdom.

As an expert of no small renown, what's his assessment of The 24-Hour Wine Expert?

"It's really good," he says. "It's easy to read, good content, up-to-date, in plain language, giving the bare bones of learning about wine quickly – I think Jancis is going to sell a billion of them."

Of course, the proof is in the testing so… go:

"OK… what are the most common grape varieties in France?"

Right. Well, it'll be the best-known ones with the Frenching-est names, presumably: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, grenache, sauvignon blanc…?

"Correct! OK, what are some key wine regions in France?"

Um… Champagne? Cote Rotie is… nice?

"Yep, OK. Hmmm. How about telling me what orange wine is?"

…um, wine that doesn't rhyme with anything? Yeah, no idea.

"It's white wine where the skins are left in the juice to give further texture and colour."

Dammit. Could it possibly be I'm not an expert after all?

"It's OK, don't panic. Moving on: what's the difference between red and white wine?"

Ah, this I know: it's all down to leaving the skins in during the fermentation, right?

"That's one hundred per cent correct: each grape has clear juice, effectively – the red's only red because red skins are left in the juice to colour it. Now, give me your approach to food and wine matching, having read the book?"

It's mainly down to personal taste rather than some sort of science, you just want something that's not going to overpower or clash terribly with what you're eating, wine is nice?

"That's an elaborate and good response. What does full bodied mean?"

Solid alcohol content? Not having any one flavour overpower the others?

"Yeah, full of flavour, solid content. Not bad! Now you have a little bit more of the world of wine in your brain."

And there you have it: in the words of no less an authority than Mike Bennie, I am "not bad" and have wine in my brain. High praise indeed!

Verdict: Thanks to The 24-Hour Wine Expert I think we can all agree that I'm basically now a booze genius, ready to hand out my expert advice on the wining arts to everyone within earshot.

And sure, why not open a second bottle?

Wine guru Jancis Robinson.

Wine guru Jancis Robinson.

Jancis Robinson's 10 things you must know about wine

It's fair to say British critic Jancis Robinson knows a thing or two about wine. As well writing a weekly wine column for The Financial Times she edits The Oxford Companion To Wine, and has co-authored The World Atlas of Wine and WineGrapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties. In 2003 she received an OBE from the Queen, whose cellar she now advises on. Her most recent book, The 24-Hour Wine Expert, aims to demystify a topic that attracts more than its fair share of pompous, quasi-experts. In that spirit, Good Food asked Robinson for her list of 10 things you simply must know about wine.

1. Establish a relationship with a local retailer. You know how you go into a bookshop and say, "I liked this book," and the job of the bookseller is to say, "Well, if you liked that I think you'd like this". There are very strong parallels between booksellers and good wine retailers. Find an independent retailer, tell them what you've liked and ask them to suggest something else.

2. This is not going to make me any friends with those who design and sell wine glasses but you really only need one wine glass shape or size. It will do for reds, for whites, for fortifieds and for sparkling. [It should go] in towards the top so you can swirl the wine around and release the all-important aroma without losing it.

3. Never fill a glass more than half full, so that you can swirl it around without losing the wine. Swirling is important because it releases the aroma. And the aroma is really important because at least half, probably two-thirds of the flavour is in the aroma, rather than what you actually put in your mouth.

4. There are no rights or wrongs in wine appreciation;you can't be wrong if you just say what you think. Because what you think is the most important thing. Don't be cowed by your friend who says there are wine experts and I've got to agree with them. That's a waste of time. Just follow your own nose and your own likes and dislikes.

5. There is no direct relationship between price and quality in wine. There are a lot of overpriced wines and there are some underpriced wines, which is rather nice. There are a lot of wines where you're paying over the odds because there's a marketing person saying, "we need to segment our offering" and "we need an icon wine", and all that kind of rubbish. A lot of expensive wines are often over-oaked or too alcoholic or exaggerated.

illustrations from <i>The 24-Hour Wine Expert</i> by Jancis Robinson. Penguin Random House copyright.

Illustrations from The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson. Penguin Random House copyright.

6. Serving temperature is really important. It may seem a bit precious but if you serve a white wine too cold it won't smell of anything. But if you serve a red wine too warm then it all tastes kind of soupy and muddy and not very refreshing. The ideal serving temperature of a white and red is surprisingly close: probably around 15 or 16 degrees for more or less everything.

7. When you're matching food and wine the colour isn't as nearly as important as the weight of the wine. So, if you're eating something that is really rich and complicated, serve it with a full-bodied wine and if it's a very pure, light, fresh kind of dish, like poached fish, then serve it with a light wine…one that is 12 per cent alcohol or less.

8. For inexpensive white and rosé wines, be sure to drink the youngest vintage available. They are made to be drunk young, they're not meant to be aged and, in fact, they lose their fruity freshness with time.

9. If you're choosing wine in a bottle shop, avoid bottles that have been stored too close to strong light. You certainly don't want anything that's been in the window and you wouldn't want something that been high up on the shelf underneath a strip light. Because light isn't very good for wine, it tends to age it too fast.

10. It's not a sign of weakness to ask for help. In restaurants people are often reluctant to ask for advice, tending to think that it's a battle between them and the restaurant as to who will win. But, in fact, it's an almost infallible rule that the more you know about wine the more likely it is you'll say to the waitstaff, "can you advise me?" I've been writing about wine for 40 years, I don't know everything about every single bottle.

Peter Barrett