Wine: Facing the Fear

November 9, 2009



I am often asked why I don’t write about wine more on this blog, considering the fact that I drink so much of the stuff. Well, that’s because I only drink wine to get pissed.

Only kidding. In the past year or so I’ve been making a real effort to tackle the vast topic head-on but in doing so found something rather unexpected waiting for me: fear. I had identified the problem as akin to standing on the edge of a huge cliff, looking out into a vast sea of information; the bit I already knew was a little speck on the distant horizon. When I came down to the real business of it though, I felt a different kind of intimidation: a fear of the ‘wine world’ in general. There seems to me to be a lot of old guff surrounding rituals of opening, tasting and being ‘qualified’ to even talk about wine, like some of the people involved are trying really hard to make the subject more complicated than it is, with the apparent aim of making themselves feel a bit more important. Are you getting the impression this annoys me yet? Yes it does.

I’ve decided to use this post to record a few things I’ve learnt. Hopefully this might be useful to someone else out there who finds themselves in the same position. Writing it has also had a remarkably cathartic effect for me. So here we have it, 7 things I’ve realised about wine…

1. Swirling the wine around in the glass before tasting is purely to get more air in contact with more surface area of wine and therefore increase your chances of picking up any subtleties.  Examining the behaviour of the wine on the sides of the glass after doing so, or attempting to assess its ‘legs’ is mostly of no value, except perhaps to get an idea of the alcohol content. More alcohol = more viscous wine. You can of course, hold it up or against something like a white tablecloth, to get a good eyeful of the colour.

2. Just because someone else can pick up a certain flavour or aroma from a wine, it doesn’t mean you have to (and vice versa). We’ve all been there – the person next to you is all, “I’m definitely getting petrol on the nose” and you sniff and sniff, desperately searching for a hint of forecourt only to conclude that your nostrils are Neanderthals. It’s all subjective. I wouldn’t doubt myself when tasting food for example, regardless of whether anyone else is getting a finish of Stilton from the fat on their rib-eye; I know what I taste. Believe.

3. Don’t be afraid to have a good old chew on it once you’ve got it in your gob. Some people do that sucking thing, the idea of which is to coat as much of your tongue as possible to enhance your tasting experience. I’ve developed a sort of half suck, half chew, swilling it around in there as much as I can and generally trying not to worry about what other people are thinking.

4. Smelling the cork is a complete waste of time.

5. I have discovered that I can tell when a wine is corked. It basically smells like walking into a damp basement; a bit musty. Sometimes it smells only slightly musty, and this is when it is only slightly corked. Ta da!

6. Palate fatigue can be a problem. After tasting 18 wines for example, as we did on one occasion at EWBC, the untrained palate simply gets tired out and gives up. Everything starts to taste the same. It is at this point that a person needs bubbles; a person needs beer. There’s a damn good reason we drank so much Bock.

7. You I need to face up to the fact that spitting wine out is part of tasting.

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  • Reply Fiona Beckett November 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Great post. Very good straightforward principles. Foodies should realise that they already know a good deal about combining ingredients successfully so wine should hold no fear for them. I’ve never done a wine class in my life and learnt all I know by drinking (er, tasting . . . )

  • Reply Vicky Wine November 9, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    “Smelling the cork is a perfect waste of time”.. ahah, I always wondered why some were doing it!

  • Reply LexEat November 9, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    THANKYOU! for this post!
    I try so hard to taste gooseberries and can never smell/taste anything! I was at the Bibbendum tasting and was desperately seeking “farm yard” but to no avail.

    I like you’re numbered points – extremely helpful.


  • Reply Nora November 9, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Great post! I keep meaning to get into wine properly and learn all about it, but I’ve always found it rather intimidating for those exact reasons that you mentioned. But I’m most heartened to hear that not everyone who’s into wine is snobbish and pretentious, which is how I always imagine them, not to mention that not everyone can taste the same stuff!

  • Reply Andrew November 9, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    I think you have summed up ‘wine’ perfectly. Glad I help(ed) out a little on the journey – I am sure we shall have you smelling petrol/gooseberries et al in no time! 😉

  • Reply Essex Eating November 9, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Great post Helen smashing through the whole mystery and snobbery of wine tasting and breaking it down with some simple rules to follow, really enjoyed reading this.

  • Reply Gary Green November 9, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Love this post… for all the reasons mentioned above. I have snobby wine friends and they bug the hell out of me.

  • Reply ginandcrumpets November 10, 2009 at 12:33 am


  • Reply Ollie November 10, 2009 at 11:33 am

    Terrific post. Love that video of Charlie M.

  • Reply shayma November 10, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Helen, so true, i cant understand the concept of spitting the wine out- how dreadfully tragic is that? smelling the cork? so flash.

    this is a really lovely and informative post. my fave photo is the first one. brill. x

  • Reply gastrogeek November 10, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Excellent, I’ve always felt like an utter charlatan when I try to sound knowledgeable about wine, this is exactly the sort of info I need. And that video is just utterly surreal….

  • Reply Wendy November 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    “Well, that’s because I only drink wine to get pissed.” – Just laughed so hard at that the wine I was in the middle of drinking came of my nose!

    Love this post. A wine-buff friend took me to dinner one night and tried to teach me much of the above. Unfortunately, I drank too much wine during the explanation and remembered nothing. Much of what you said in this post is vaguely familiar… So glad you wrote this. 🙂

  • Reply them apples November 10, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    I have similar fears of wine, exacerbated enormously by the presence of a brother-in-law who’s ex-Berry Brothers and who now runs the online wine operation of a very posh and well known supermarket chain. It’s fair to say that he knows his stuff.

    I stick to writing about beer, because said brother in law doesn’t know as much about that….

  • Reply The Graphic Foodie November 11, 2009 at 12:11 am

    Great pointers on starting out, I had been put off in the past. Thanks!

  • Reply Wild Boar November 11, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Nice little guide on wine tasting and especially nice to know I don’t necessarily have to smell/taste what other peolpe do. I know what wines I like but the subtleties are often lost on me.

    Seems a shame to have to spit it out though…

  • Reply Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen November 11, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    This is a great post, Helen! I too have a fear about tasting wines/ and or talking about it, because of the stigma. But I have been trying to learn more about it, and with this education, I have become a little less intimidated!

  • Reply Martin November 12, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Brilliant summary of why wine is not an impenetrable fug of pretension, love it.

    I sympathise with point 7, I have the same reticence when being told to spit it, muscle memory I guess…

  • Reply Lizzie November 12, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    On the Sunday at EWBC was the first time I’d spat wine. Sob. It was hard times.

  • Reply Robert (thirstforwine) November 16, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    great post – I’m so glad to see all the stuff you have learned over the last year since we started this little exploration together … now I just need to learn to cook!

    thanks so much for helping to give the EWBC real perspective on how to reach people outside the trade

    look forward to your future thoughts on wine too 🙂


  • Reply Dan Coward November 19, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Go forth and tell the world about wine! Yes! Yes! Yes!

    *a little tear*

  • Reply foodrambler November 26, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Loving your wine tips. And thanks to Dan from Bibendum for bringing wine into my life!

  • Reply Matthew Broderick June 11, 2015 at 11:40 am

    I enjoyed reading this, thanks.

    I used to spit wine until I happened to be at a vineyard in California where an old man, the type that you just believe everything they say as they are so authoritative, told us that we should never spit the wine as he had worked so hard and how could you possibly taste his work without swallowing it?! Five vineyards later and we were wishing that we had not followed his advice.

    • Reply Helen June 11, 2015 at 11:42 am

      Ha ha! Brilliant. Being told whether to spit or swallow what’s in your own mouth. A new level of wine-wankery there.

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