Andrew Polmear

Vinotabulaphobia

Philip Reddaway, The Whistler’s wine columnist who lives in Provence, could not send us his contribution for this edition because he was surrounded by ten inches of snow, and had no power, telephone or heating. He walked seven miles to buy food for his family and to borrow a computer to send us an email apologising for letting us down!
Like us, the South of France suffered its worst weather for 30 years. We wished him well and looked to another famous wine writer to help us in our hour of need. Hopefully, Philip will be back with us next time…

Where do I begin?

Where do I begin?

Vinotabulaphobia, or “horror of a wine list”, is a major and justifiable cause of anti-wine attitudes. The constant question “how do I read a wine list?” cannot be completely answered; but it is possible to offer some cautionary advice.

The first problem is that wine lists are not uniform; some few include tasting notes or advice; most have no more than group headings, names and prices, often without years, shippers, or other relevant information. Victorian books on wine merely advise the beginner to “be guided by the wine waiter”. That was sound advice then, but not now. Only a small proportion of those who serve wine in the current British restaurant explosion understand the subject, and not all those can be relied upon to act in the customers’ interests. They may have a declining wine, an overstock, or an over-priced line to unload.

Anyone uninformed about wine, entertaining an unfamiliar guest and faced with the wine list, can feel lonely. At least he can observe these two negatives. Do not hastily observe the old way-out and point to the third item down the chosen class. While in most lists the prices increase from top to bottom of each group, in some they do not; so check the prices. No one ordering wine at the table should ask for the most expensive of even an average list: an outstanding claret, burgundy, hock, or champagne ought to be ordered in advance of the meal so that it can be chambré, chilled, or allowed to breathe.

It is safe, though not mandatory, to take red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat or fish. Red wine will serve equally well with white meat, though not with fish except, perhaps, claret with salmon. The chief possibility of embarrassing error is ordering a dry wine when a sweet wine is wanted, or vice versa. Thus, a white Bordeaux, German, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish wine may be dry, medium or sweet. Unless the list indicates the degree of sweetness, the diner-out who is not familiar with the wines would be wise not to take the risk of ordering drink which positively clashes with the food.

This is why so many people order the ‘safe’, rule-of-thumb Mouton Cadet, Liebfraumilch, or rosé. Dining out, however, should not be a matter of safety, but of pleasure. No red Bordeaux, burgundy, or Rhone wine will ever be anything but dry, and will always partner meat well. All white burgundy, Rhone, or Algerian on a wine list will be dry. Under the heading, White Bordeaux, Graves will never be so dry as a white burgundy: all Sauternes or Barsac will be sweet. Hungarian Tokay is a sweet dessert wine, Tokay d’Alsace is piquant. Muscatel is generally sweet but Loire Muscadet and Alsatian Muscat both have a dry finish and will go well with fish, shellfish or as an aperitif. Other wines from Alsace and the Loire can be rich. It can be both pleasing and economical to choose a low-priced white burgundy as an aperitif.

Once you have reached the decision as to white or red, Bordeaux, burgundy, Rhone, or champagne, and if none of the wine names rings any bell in the memory, decide purely on what you can afford. Barring the risks of over-confidence, these notes should provide adequate safeguards against error until drinking breeds familiarity and familiarity, knowledge.

John Arlott

Categories: Andrew Polmear

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