Back to wine school

  • Perfect Pair

    Once we understand the wine style, we can start to pair it with food. The perfect pairing will enable us to taste both the food and wine equally without one overpowering the other. Of course wines are lovely on their own, but when you get that perfect pairing it can be a memorable moment. The key to food and wine pairing is balance.

    Perfect Pair

  • Understanding wine jargon - hot, cold, new, old - what does it all mean?

    Wine tastings, wine notes, wine columns and winemaker speeches are continuously peppered with phrases such as “New World’, ‘Old World’, ‘cool climate’, ‘altitude’, ‘hot climate’, and such like.  But what do these technical – sounding words really mean when it comes to wine?

    Let’s begin with the difference between Old World and New World, which are terms that have evolved over the last 30 years or so.  In a nutshell, ‘Old World’, refers largely to Europe, to the wine-producing countries, which have made wine, and also sold wine in the UK, for centuries – we can’t quite refer to this as ‘northern hemisphere’, since this would include California and USA wine regions, which are technically ‘New World’.

    Just over 35 years ago, there were a few dribbles of wine from Australia and California hitting our shelves.  Relatively speaking, South Africa was still struggling with apartheid restrictions, and South America was an exotic, remote-sounding land.  Then the Aussies hit our shores, or rather our wine shelves, with energy, force and a totally new way of looking at wine.

    In the early days of the Australian wine invasion, which was later followed by California, Chile, South Africa and then Argentina, suddenly, choosing wine became easier. The wines had names you could pronounce (at that time Jacobs Creek dominated); they were labeled with the name of the grape variety, so you knew what style you were choosing. Far more straightforward than centuries of old –fashioned European wine regulations, which meant that labels were confusing, providing little easily-understandable information -  labels weren't (and still aren't) allowed to state that Chablis actually comes from the Chardonnay grape, and that Sancerre is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

    This, in a nutshell is how we split and define Old World and New World wines, which brings me neatly onto how we define ‘cool climate’ and ‘hot climate’.  Back in the early days of the influx of ‘New World’ wines, this was relatively simple, at a very basic level; it’s hot in Australia, California, Chile and South Africa; it’s colder in Europe. And that was how the very early days of describing New World wines, was like – Australian wines were sunshine in a glass; fruit bomb flavours, golden colours for white, rich, velvety, spicy reds – a very broad generalisation, but true. ‘Hot climate’ wines were also likely to be headier, and higher in alcohol.

    Thirty years on, the situation is rather different, as the world has explored and discovered different regions, and hidden corners within all these countries – the difference between the sultry, sun-baked vineyards of the Barossa Valley, lying about an hour north of Adelaide, and the craggy, windswept cliffs of Mornington Peninsula, 800km south, close to Melbourne, can be as varied as the contrast in climate between the French Riviera, and a blustery day on the Norfolk coast.

    Alsace, a cooler wine making region in France

    Generally cool climate regions are at the more extremes of the wine producing world – so Champagne, Alsace, Germany, Burgundy, but also New Zealand’s Central Otago, Chile’s Patagonia, and South Africa’s Elim areas, would qualify.  But it can also get a little more complicated than that, when you throw altitude into the equation.  Vineyard sites that are high above sea level, close to the mountains, or adjacent to the oceans will generally have fresher temperatures, colder nights, and therefore longer growing seasons – one of the classic examples of this are the vineyards of Vina Falernia, which are situated about as far north in Chile as they grow vines, nudging into desert territory, and with cacti plants sprinkled alongside vineyards; yet because the vineyards are so high up, and so close to the cooling breezes of the Pacific ocean, they can still produce, gentle, crisp, lighter styles of wine.

    So, cutting to the chase, what are the benefits of cool versus hot climate and, which grapes are most at home in each of these environments? It’s all about how grapes ripen, and the balance of sugars and acids in the grapes’ composition. Basic science has taught even primary school children, that plants need sunlight for photosynthesis, to produce energy; sunshine ripens grapes. In sunlight the sugars (energy) from the vines go straight to the grapes, which means they ripen more quickly and are also likely to produce fuller, higher alcohol level wines, as sugars convert to alcohol during the fermentation process.

    This is great stuff for red grapes, with lots of tannin and concentration – they need sun and warmth to convert the acids to ripe, sweet flavours, and this process will happen more swiftly in a hotter environment.  However, the other element in the equation is acidity – a vine uses acidity to breathe as well, and in heat the acidity levels in a grape will therefore drop, whilst the grape continues to accumulate sugar.  This is where it can all go wrong, as it’s the precarious balance between ripeness, sugars, and acidity is the key to a great quality wine – this is where the viticulturist and winemakers’ skills really come into full force… to tread that knife-edge to ensure the optimum balance between the two. It’s then down to the further skills of the winemaker to ensure that the grapes are picked at precisely the right time and fermented at just the right temperature to get the very best out of them.

    In cool climate regions, there’s a longer growing season, so that the grapes can fully mature at a slower, and less extreme pace; it’s also easier to keep that vital balance between the two key components of acidity and sugar.  Take Argentina for example – in the hot, relatively flat vineyards of some Mendoza regions, the sturdy Malbec ripens to perfection, offering big, gutsy, super-ripe fruit flavours.  However up in the foothills of the mountains, in an area called Tupungato, they are producing fabulous wines from the Cabernet Franc grape, a more delicate grape, that thrives in the relative coolness of the Loire Valley; and deep south in Patagonia, Pinot Noir and lighter style Cabernets are thriving.

    Confused?  Generally speaking, ‘cool climate’ wines have more restraint, higher acidity and freshness and often lower alcohol levels – they have an elegance, and a nervy edge. Sicily is an interesting example – for years the world-famous Planeta family have been showcasing stellar wines from their vineyards in western Sicily, a hot sunny area, where they manage to make super-fresh styles, by careful harvesting and fermentation.  Now, they’re experimenting with grapes grown high up on the slopes of Mount Etna, where the cooler nighttime temperatures will lead to fresher, livelier styles.

    As a simple rule of thumb, many red grapes need lots of heat, lots of sunshine to ripen properly; plant Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec in the northern extremes of wine producing regions, where you get freezing cold winters, and relatively cool summers, and you’re going to end up with thin, green, sappy and acidic wines.  Similarly take the more temperamental, high-maintenance Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes, who crave the cooler climate, and plant them in blazing heat, and you’ll end up with a load of sugary, dull, and flabby grape juice, with just about all varietal character destroyed.

    Kooyong Ferrous Pinot Noir Mornington PeninsulaSauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Noir, are three grape varieties that love fresher climates and this is where they thrive.  The cool, continental climate of world-famous Marlborough, on New Zealand’s south Island, such as the appropriately named Frost Pocket Sauvignon Blanc, is a clear case in point; similarly from the most southerly vineyards in the world, Carrick Unravelled Pinot Noir, is a sublime example of Pinot Noir at its best, as is the world famous Kooyong Ferrous Pinot Noir, from Mornington Peninsula.  Sauvignon de Touraine, Domaine de PierreThe Loire produces the delicately delicious Sauvignon De Touraine Saint Pierre, whilst the scenic, high hills of Austria and Germany turn out world class Rieslings, such as Knipser Johannishof Riesling and Machherdnl Gruner Veltliner.

    Cooler parts of Australia are also famous for their cool climate Riesling, such as Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley, from where hails the super-fresh, lime zest fragrant Skillogalee Riesling.

    Chardonnay is a bit of a chameleon and can cope better than some grapes in the heat, although it’s at its best in cooler conditions, where the pure flavours of the grape really shine – try Limoux Chardonnay, produced in the airy hills high above the hot Languedoc region, or Chardonnay in its coolest guise, in the form of Chablis.  In conjunction with the thin-skinned Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it produces highly acidic still wines

    Bogle Viognier Clarksburg CaliforniaViognier and Chenin Blanc are two white grapes that work well in warmer climates, but are also very versatile.  Viognier’s natural home is the Rhone valley, where temperatures soar in Summer – it’s a fleshy, bold-flavoured and fruity wine, which also thrives well in California (try Bogle Viognier) and Australia, whilst Chenin blanc is an underrated maverick, with high natural acidity and sugar levels, which make it equally at home in the relatively cool Loire Valley, and also the hot, interior of South Africa’s Stellenbosch region.  This is a star grape that manages to balance flavour and natural acidity pretty well, as seen in the Ken Forrester Reserve Chenin Blanc, and some glorious late harvested sweet Chenins in the Loire.

    Omero Pinot Noir Willamette ValleyAs for reds, the thin-skinned and delicately perfumed, lighter Pinot Noir and Gamay prefer cooler climates.  The home of Pinot Noir is Burgundy, and it is simultaneously producing world class wines in the very far south of the Southern Hemisphere, as well as in the cooler regions of Western America, such as the Omero Pinot Noir from Oregon, and similar styles from Washington State.

    Just as some of us cope less well with the current heatwave, so it is with grapes. Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre thrive in the heat of the Southern Rhone and throughout Australia and other Southern Hemisphere hot spots, and frequently need that heat and sunshine to get them fully ripe – as does Malbec.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, those great Bordeaux stalwarts work equally well in New World countries, but, carefully made, produce their absolute best in the relatively cool region of Bordeaux.  Then again, it’s all down to the weather conditions each year, and this varies far more in Europe.

    It’s a bit of a minefield; but it needn’t be.  Cooler, higher regions produce fresher, elegant, more restrained wines, with good acid balance.  Red grapes that need sunshine and heat cope with the blast of high temperatures with relative ease – it’s then down to the skill of the winemaker to keep that perfect balance, between opulence, richness, high alcohol levels, yet some restraint and freshness.

    The landscape of where grapes are grown, and in which climate is continually changing, as viticulturists and winemakers experiment... and we’re the lucky ones who get to taste and enjoy the benefits of all these new ventures.

     By Angela Mount

  • Talking about tannin....

    What is tannin? What does it do to a wine? Is it good or bad? These are questions that are frequently asked. Another question is why tannins sometime enhance a wine and make it taste better, and at other times make it taste dried out and bitter.

    There are complicated, scientific answers to the above, but I’ll leave those to the scientists. I want to try to explain, in simple terms, what this word, that you see so often on tasting notes, really means.

    What is tannin?  Tannin is a polyphenol (an organic chemical compound) found in plants, wood, wood bark, seeds,  leaves and fruit skins. About 50% of the dry weight of a leaf is tannin.

    You also find tannin in tea, dark chocolate, walnuts, pomegranates, acai berries.

    What does tannin taste like? In wine, tannin can give a wine texture and depth. It can also make a wine taste astringent, dried out or bitter. A good way to find out what tannin tastes like is to drink a few sips of a cup of very strong, black tea. It will make your mouth pucker; you’ll feel a bitter, astringent feeling on your tongue, the sides of your mouth, the back of your throat.

    Grape skins

    How do you get tannin in wine? Tannin occurs mainly in red wines and white wines that have been aged in oak.  The tannins come from grape skins, grape pips,  grape stems,and the oak barrels that many wines are either fermented, or aged in.

    Red wines naturally have more tannins, as the grape juice is left on the skins and pips after crushing, and fermented together, so the tannins get into the juice and become of key component of the resulting wine.

    When white grapes are crushed, the juice is run off quite quickly, so there is less of a tannin element. However, when white wine is fermented in barrel, and both whites and reds aged in barrels, tannin will also seep into the wine from the pores in the oak. The same effect happens in cheaper wines, when oak staves or oak chips are added to a tank of wine to give it an oaky, richer effect.

    The most bitter tannins come from the grape seeds ( pips), which is why winemakers are very careful to try to remove these before fermentation.

    Pips and oak

    It doesn't sound very nice, what does tannin do to a wine? Tannin can be both good and bad for a wine.  Tannin is the substance that gives red wine its deep structure, and texture, so it’s important in many wines, and adds a key layer of complexity and depth. Tannin can also help with the longevity of a wine.

    But if it’s not handled well, it can make a wine taste bitter, astringent and very dried out. If grapes are crushed too hard, or grape seeds aren’t removed properly, there will be bitterness in the wine.

    Why do some red wines have more tannins than others? The good tannins in grapes are found in the grape skins; whilst you want to avoid getting grape pip, or grape stem tannins into the juice, it’s the tannins from the grape skins that are more gentle, more complex, and add the character and depth to a wine.  The amount of tannin that a red wine has will depend on the grape from which it is made, when it is picked, and how the winemaker chooses to use it.

    To simplify, small, thick-skinned grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, have naturally more tannin than larger, thin-skinned grapes; sunshine and heat ripen grapes and therefore soften tannins, so if a grape is picked when it’s unripe, the tannins in the grape skins will be that much harsher. That’s why the quality and style of a vintage can vary, based on the weather pattern, and the ripeness of the grapes.

    Grapes such as Pinot Noir have thin skins, which give out less colour and also less tannin.

    Finally, it’s all down to the skill of the winemakers, and how much colour and tannin they want out of the grapes. The riper the grapes, the more integrated and smooth the tannins will be. Pick grapes too early, and crush them too hard, and the resulting wine will be sappy and harsh. Pick them when fully ripe, and balance the colour with the tannin extract, and the wine will benefit .

    Which wines are high in tannin?  Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz can be very high in tannin. Young Bordeaux, Californian reds, and also South African reds  have lots of concentration of colour and tannins. Shiraz tends to ripen more easily, so the grippy tannins tend to be more from Cabernet Sauvignon, in Cabernet/Shiraz blends. The Italian grape Nebbiolo, famed for its world class Barolos also produces high tannin wines.

    Do tannins in wine soften?  In most cases, yes. If the tannins are green due to unripe grapes, or over-crushing, then they won’t, and the wine will never quite rid itself of that green, sappy edge.  Get it right and the tannins will gently mellow, and slowly settle and melt into the character of the wine, adding depth, interest, longevity and complexity.

    As with everything, it’s all about balance. Get it wrong, and the green, stalky tannins will never go away, and yield to the softer fruit in the wine; but when handled gently and correctly, then tannin is one of the most key components in the beauty and heavenliness of top quality red wine. It adds depth, texture, complexity and that little touch of magic.

    By Angela Mount


  • Alan's wine of the Week: La Barry Sauvignon Blanc

    La Barry Sauvignon Blanc, Meinert 2013

    £11.75  £10.34

    A fantastic wine from Martin Meinert, which he has produced for his wife, Leigh Anne Berry, affectionally known as La Barry! With fruit sourced from the cooler Elgin region, this has an amazing rich aroma with hints of nettles, green gooseberry and citrus fruits, wonderfully fresh on the palate with a soft finish.

    Prices are valid from 03.06.15 to 30.06.15

    Free delivery on orders over £100 | Save 10% on 12 bottles | Save 5% on 6 bottles

  • Decoding a wine label

    Wine labels are meant to provide all the information you need to understand what you are buying; however, what they often do is just confuse, and add to the dilemma of what to choose. With hundreds of wines on most supermarket and wine merchants’ shelves, it’s often an impossible maze, and the labels might as well be written in foreign languages (which they often are, but that’s a different story).

    Every label you see looks different, and seems to send out different messages.  Quite simply, there’s no set rule.  Let’s forget the pretty or whacky pictures, and actual design, what should wine labels be telling us, and how can we understand them?

    Explanation of labels tend to split into 2 camps, and it really depends on whether you like choosing your wine by region or grape variety –  the New World wine regions (basically everything that isn’t Europe) showcase the grape variety first; European wines tend to focus on the area, or region first, and don’t always mention the grape variety, although more and more are jumping on the ‘grape variety first’ bandwagon, as it makes everything a lot easier.  Unless you know your Saumur-Champigny from your Savennieres, it’s a bit of a minefield understanding the style of wine in the bottle, with the very obvious exceptions of wines such as Chablis and Rioja.

    So,  what’s an easy way to decode the basics?

    The legal stuff – every bottle of wine needs to provide the following:

    -          country of origin, ie where it’s from

    -          alcoholic strength – written in % either on front or back of bottle

    -          Vintage – some wines are a blend of vintages, however most will have a vintage (year) on them, so you can tell how young, or mature they are

    -          NV – used on Champagnes and sparkling wines  - the majority of fizzes are a blend of vintages, and offer a consistency of style. Sparkling wines from a single vintage, will detail that specific vintage.

    -          Volume – 75cl, 1.5lt etc.

    -          Name and address of the bottler – this is a useful tip, especially with supermarket wines; if the wine has been bottled at source ( ie where it was made), you’ll see the name and address of the producer. If it’s a wine that’s been shipped in bulk , and bottled in the Uk, there will be a series of letters and numbers after the words ‘imported and bottled by…’

    -          Quality designation – what does this mean? Well it varies from country to country, which doesn’t make things easier, but it’s a legal system, especially stringent in Europe. For French wines, you may see ‘Vin de Pays’, or ‘AC’, or other; In Italy, ‘DOC’, DOCG’, ‘Vino da Tavola’. Confusing in themselves, and impossible to explain in one simple piece, but they are linked to regional and legal legislation about which styles of wine can be produced, in which region, from which grapes…. I know, not easy; whilst it’s easy to assume that DOCG wines from Italy ( including the very best of Barolo, Chianti Classico etc), would be the best, some of the most outstanding, expensive and prized Italian wines are simple Vino da Tavola, because the producer has decided to use grape varieties that aren’t approved in that region.  Confused? Most people are..

    So after that, it’s all about the useful information, that’s going to tell you that little bit more:  Back labels are well worth reading, as this is where you’ll usually find the information about the style of the wine ( dry, sweet, full-bodied), tasting notes and often, food pairing ideas.

    One of my biggest gripes is the number of wines on the shelves that have back labels in foreign languages – hardly the way to inform the potential buyer. I realise it’s difficult for small producers to print labels in different languages, but it’s gobbledeegook to most people, and makes it even more important to make the front label send out some clear information – it also makes it crucial for wine merchants to provide their own information about the wine on signage near to the wine.

    I’m also a harsh critic of wine back labels which are over complicated and use terms and language that are just not relevant to most people and hardly recommend a wine – after all, would you want to buy a wine that has hints of creosote and freshly cut twigs?

    The useful stuff:

    Grape variety – not legally required, but probably the most important part of the label – this will tell you what the wine is made from and from there, you’ll know what style of wine it is – from Sauvignon blanc to Syrah.  This is the normal way of labeling in all New World countries, and increasingly in Europe. However, in some, more traditional, and legislatively-bound regions, including Bordeaux, and Chianti, the grape variety is not mentioned on the front label.

    – this explains  in more detail where the wine comes from, for example Cotes du Rhone, Stellenbosch, or Western Australia. The more detail there is, the more specific the area where the wine is produced – a bit like zooming in on a google map – for example, Awatere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand. This pinpoints in more and more detail where the wine is made.

    District or vineyard – generally, the more detailed the description is, the smaller the area, from which the wine was produced. Let’s use the example of Domaine Gilles Robin, Crozes Hermitage, Rhone, Le Papillon 2013. In simple translation, this means that within the Rhone Valley wine region, there’s an area called Crozes Hermitage. There’s a domaine ( estate) called or owned by Gilles Robin; he makes many wines, but this particular wine is called ‘le Papillon’. So lots of producers make several different wines on their own properties but will call them by different names, or by the name of the individual vineyard where the grapes were grown.

    Brand name – the name of the producer or the brand – for example Elki (the brand name of a range of wines produced in the Elqui valley in Chile), or Marques de Riscal ( the name of a top producer in Rioja)

    Some other terms to understand – these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but should give some guidance

    Estate bottled – this means that the wine was produced and bottled on the estate, where it was grown – rather than going into a bigger blend.

    Sans barrique – this means ‘unoaked’ – a term increasingly used on bottles of Chardonnay for those of you who don’t like oaky wines

    Vieilles Vignes – literally translated as ‘old vines’ – means that the wine has been produced from older vines, which, if carefully handled, produce the best wines.

    Crianza – used on Spanish wines, means the wine has been aged in oak; Crianza Reserva simply means that it has been aged in oak, and also in bottle for longer ( specified requirements)

    Riserva – used on Italian wines – again this relates to the amount of time that a wine has been aged both in barrel and in bottle.

    Classico – as in ‘Chianti Classico’ – this means the wine is from a more specific and top quality smaller district within the Chianti region.

    Chateau or Domaine – In France, this means that the wine was produced was one single estate , or patch of land – fiefdom in another word.

    Premier Cru, or Grand Cru – more legal wording, used in France, mainly in Champagne and Burgundy – this normally denotes a smaller, more specific area within a region ( ie Chablis Premier Cru), which has been legally and formally identified as producing generally higher quality fruit, with lower yields.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg, but I hope these key tips help explain some of the key terms that you’ll see on wine labels. If in doubt, read the back label ( if it’s in English), trust your instincts, or don’t be afraid to ask.

    By Angela Mount











  • How to spot a corked wine, and other faults...

    When is a wine corked or faulty? In fact, what does a ‘faulty’ wine mean? And what should you do about it?

    Most people are reluctant to complain about a wine they don’t like. Many others wonder why the very same wine that they have enjoyed before, tastes very odd the next time around. There’s a hell of a lot of insecurity in complaining about a wine at a restaurant, especially when there’s a particularly haughty sommelier in charge – so the majority will just grin and drink a bottle that they aren't really enjoying, because of the potential embarrassment and uncertainty.

    It’s no different if you’re buying a new, or a favourite bottle, and don’t enjoy it. Even though just about every single shop will have a policy of replacing the bottle, I’d hazard a guess that most customers don’t request it because they’re too unsure. Don’t be worried – any good restaurant should simply replace the bottle, and then deal with the problem with the wine supplier.

    There’s a lot of difference between a bottle that you simply don’t like, in terms of style, and a bottle, where you think something is definitely wrong, but you’re just not sure what. Here’s a simple guide to two of the most common problems that can spoil a wine:

    CORKED WINE - Cork taint is a perennial problem, and one of the reasons why the arrival, and massive success of screw-capped wines is so great for all wine drinkers; only 15 years ago, almost one bottle in every 10 was affected by cork taint – now, that’s far less.  A corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork that crumble into the bottle – it’s not great, but the wine isn’t corked, it’s just a poor quality cork.

    If you smell mould, old mushrooms, damp dog hair, or mouldy old cloths on a wine, that’s when you know a wine is corked. It happens when bacteria from a cork (particularly with lower grade corks), gets into the wine and contaminates it. The degree of ‘corkiness’ can vary, but any amount will detract from the freshness of the wine, leaving it dull, whilst the worst will reek of mould, must, and mushrooms.  Be confident; complain!

    OXIDISED WINE - This is where oxygen has managed to get into the wine and spoiled it; it’s a bit like a pear or an avocado going brown once its cut – the oxygen takes away the freshness and spoils the flavour. The first sign is the colour – if a fresh, young white wine looks rancid and yellow, or a juicy red looks brown, chances are its oxidised (just like an apple going brown). If it smells and tastes of old, rank, cheap Sherry, or vinegar, you definitely know it off, so don’t hesitate in complaining.

    Anything else is likely to be pure taste, although there are wines that have too much sulphur (used as a preservative to keep a wine fresh), but that isn’t technically a fault.  Similarly, if you find deposits in the wine, for rich, aged reds, sediment is often a naturally occurring by product, which is removed by decanting, whilst white wines occasionally have little white crystals, that can be mistaken for glass, but are in fact innocent tartrate crystals, that occasionally occur when the wine has been stored in exceptionally cold places.

    If it’s just the style you don’t like, don’t buy it again. But if you find that one of your favourite wines is not up to scratch, or a wine has any of the symptoms I’ve described above, don’t hesitate in returning it!

    Angela Mount

  • How to Taste Wine – and Why…

    In my latest Back to Wine School blog, I'm looking at why, and how, we should taste wine to get the very best of enjoyment out of every bottle that we buy.

    Wine tasters and writers are often the butt of jokes – Why do we swirl the wine around the glass? Why do we take a big sniff of the wine before we taste it? And why do we make those horrendous slurping noises, before we spit the wine out? In fact, this ritual becomes so second nature to those of us who taste wine for a living, that many of us, including me, have been caught absent-mindedly swirling and sniffing at a glass of water at the dinner table!

    Getting the best out of wine is no different than enjoying the subtleties of spicing and flavourings in food. Scents of food are incredibly evocative – freshly baked bread,  a spicy, ginger-and-coriander-infused laksa, or the comforting smell of the Sunday roast… it’s no different with wine; you just need to be prepared to give it that little extra time. It’ll  help you enjoy the wine more; work out what you do and don’t like; and also help you to work out when something is wrong with a wine.

    There are 3 main steps: Look, Smell, Taste


    The colour of a wine is always the first indicator of its style. Swirl the wine around the glass and have a look at the depth of colour and clarity. One of the reasons we swirl wine around it will also show the viscosity of the wine – if the liquid clings to the side of the glass, and is almost syrupy, it has ‘legs’. Sweet dessert wines and big, concentrated reds have more viscosity than lighter styles.

    What can we learn from the colour and the look of a wine?

    1. Pour Champagne or sparkling wine into a tall flute and observe. The best sparklers will have a persistent stream of tiny little bubbles racing to the top of the glass.

    2. Light, fresh, unoaked whites should be pale yellow in colour, sometimes with a slightly greenish hue, limpid and glinting in the glass, reflecting the freshness of the wine.

    3. Oaked whites - which have been matured - and dessert wines will be more golden in colour. White wines gain colour as they age: this is fine for classic aged Burgundy, old Rieslings and Semillon that are built to last. However, if you pour a supposedly unoaked, younger wine and see a dark golden colour appear, it means the wine is either too old or is oxidised.

    4. The colour of red wines is an easy indicator of the age and the style -  lighter, fruitier, low-tannin wines from the Pinot Noir and Gamay grape tend to be lighter in colour, and have a lovely ruby-like gleam. If you can see the bottom of the glass through the wine, it’s likely to be a softer, lighter style of red.

    5. Intense, dark red to purple coloured wines will be relatively young: Deep, blood-red, opaque reds indicate richer, more concentrated styles.

    6. Wines which are starting to pale in colour, or are developing a brownish tinge, are showing maturity – this is fine in full-bodied reds, which are made to age and evolve; however, if your supposedly light, fruity, unoaked young red is showing these signs, it’s likely that it may be oxidised, or older than you think.


    I see so many people pour a glass of wine, pick it up and sip it, without bothering to find out what it smells like. That’s like being served a plate of fragrant wild mushroom and truffle risotto, or a bowl of early summer strawberries, and not smelling them.

    Smell is an evocative sense, and enhances our enjoyment of just about everything, including wine. So, what benefits do we add to our enjoyment of wine by smelling it?

    1. Swirling the wine around the glass will allow the oxygen in the air to get into the wine and release the aromas and flavours. It’s like zesting a lime and getting a whack of that deliciously vibrant-scented freshness; or picking fresh herbs, bruising them slightly and picking up their pungent aromas.

    2. There are myriad different aromas and scents in wine – you may not be able to identify them, but you’ll know if you like them – and if someone mentions that a wine smells like fresh peaches, or wild thyme, it makes it easier to pinpoint those aromas.

    3. With white wines it’s normally about freshness and vibrancy. Different grape varieties have different aromas – Chardonnay has scents of baked apple, and peach, with a creamy style; Sauvignon is all about fresh lime, passion fruit and zesty gooseberry, whilst Viognier has wafts of apricot. These are wild generalisations, but they should help give you some ideas.

    4.Smell a rosé wine and you should to be finding joyful, exuberant aromas of strawberries and raspberries.

    5. When it comes to red, there’s an entire cornucopia of aromas: From fresh, bright, red-berry-fruity, light and young wines, through to the scented, perfumed violet and raspberry wafts of Pinot Noir - and that's just for starters. Cabernet Sauvignon often smells of blackcurrants and mint; Merlot has a rich plum and milk chocolate character; whilst Rhône wines and Shiraz have bold, spicy, wild herb scents. In Italian wines you'll smell wild cherries, while Rioja is full of sweet vanilla and strawberry fruit.


    The taste of a wine is what will ultimately make you decide whether you like it or not. It’s all about flavour, and that combination of freshness, fruitiness, depth, richness, acidity, sweetness… that’s why we wine tasters make all those ghastly swooshing, or gargling sounds, as we taste a wine!

    Why do we do it? By Swirling the wine around the mouth, it brings air and oxygen in, and releases even more flavours, so we get the most enjoyment out of what’s in the glass. I’m not suggesting that you do the same, but just gently let the wine linger in your mouth, and enjoy the complexity of flavours.

    So what are we looking for?

    1. There are a multitude of different flavours and styles of wine – the most important question is, do you like it? You can learn a lot about the styles of wine you really enjoy just by spending a couple of minutes taking notice of what’s in your glass.

    2. It’s all about balance -  I mean the right mix of fruit, freshness, acidity, sometimes oak, and, in red wines, tannins. For instance, a red wine might have a lovely aroma of rich, plummy fruit, but then harsh tannins (which can make the sides of your mouth pucker) take over on the palate. What you are looking for is balance – a fresh, zesty white, full of citrus tang, needs a refreshing kick of acidity on the finish to give it that extra zing, otherwise it promises, but does not deliver. Richer whites need to balance the oak element with enough creamy, fruity richness, and reds, once again, need that mix of fruit, and integrated soft tannins.

    3. Finally, the ‘finish’ – this is the part where you have tasted and swallowed the wine, but hopefully the flavour lingers, and reveals even more hidden charms, as the taste develops in the mouth – it’s that smooth, all-enveloping, satisfying moment when you realise that you have really enjoyed a great glass of wine!

    Take a few more seconds, and gain lots more enjoyment of every glass you drink!

     By Angela Mount

  • Chianti unravelled - What do the labels mean?

    Chianti, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Supertuscan, Tuscan Vino di Tavola…

    What is the difference? What do they mean? Due to the intricacies of Italian labeling legislation, there is a confusing plethora of labels and wine information out on the shelves, which most people struggle to understand, even for those of us working in wine, due to their complicated nature.  Italian wine law makes it difficult to understand for anyone who just wants a bottle of decent or very good Chianti or Tuscan wine; here’s my more simple interpretation, to hopefully guide readers through the labyrinth of wine terminology and legal requirements.

    On a very basic level, Chianti is a geographical region in Tuscany; Chianti Classico is a smaller region within Tuscany, which according to Italian wine law, is where the best Chianti wines are produced. Riserva is all about how long the wine is aged. Simple? No. it gets more complicated. Chianti can legally, only be produced from certain grape varieties – so if you have the most prized estate in the rolling hills of the Chianti Classico region, and you decide to plant and produce Shiraz, you can’t call it Chianti – it’s then a vino da tavola.

    Even more confused? With no apologies for potential over-simplification, here’s Chianti explained in a straightforward terms:

    Cecchi, Chianti ForieroChianti - Chianti is a vast wine region in Tuscany, which encompasses the cities of Florence and Sienna, and covers 8 sub-regions. Italian wine laws are strict; Chianti can only be produced from a minimum 75% Sangiovese ( the hero grape of the region), 10% Canaiolo, and up to 20% of any other approved grape  variety, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.  Good, honest Chianti, such as the simple, but black cherry and wild herb-stashed Cecchi Chianti Foriero 2013,  are superb, everyday, food-friendly wines – just make sure you choose carefully.

    Castello di Fonterutoli, Chianti ClassicoChianti Classico – Chianti Classico is in the heartland of Chianti, covering an area of around 100 square miles, and including the cities of Florence and Siena. It produces premium styles of Chianti, with more depth and complexity than straightforward Chianti. All the wines must have been aged for a minimum 7 months in oak. Try the Castello Di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico 2012, which shows elegance and delicacy, with violet-perfumed aromas, and black cherry,  warm spice flavours.

    Chianti Rufina, Chianti Senesi - these are frequently seen wines on our shelves, and are two more of the 8 Chianti sub-regions. The wines frequently offer better value than their more expensive Chianti Classico neighbours, delivering lovely, bright red fruit and savoury flavours.

    Chianti Superiore – just to confuse Chianti lovers further, this was an additional classification, which was introduced in 1996, and has stricter rules of production than straightforward Chianti. It can apply to all Chianti, except Chianti Classico, and if producers choose to use this name, they can’t put their sub region on the label – so Chianti Rufina, becomes simply Chianti Superiore – yes, it throws another curve ball into an already confusing hierarchy of definitions! Chianti Superiore has to be aged for a minimum of 9 months, three of which must be in the bottle.

    Castello di Fonterutoli, Ser Lapo Chianti Classico Riserva DOCGChianti Riserva, Chianti Classico Riserva – The word ‘Riserva’ is all about the age, and ageing, of the wine. Any wine labeled thus, must have been aged for a minimum of two years. A great example of this style is the lengthily named, but utterly glorious, Castello di Fonterutoli Ser Lapo Chianti Classico Riserva 2011, the flagship wine of one of the oldest producers in the heart of Chianti Classico.  Supple, complex and beautifully elegant, this particular blend is named after their ancestor who was one of the first to define Chianti wine law.

    Vino da Tavola di Toscana , Rosso di Toscana -  Chianti is just one part of Tuscany; the world renowned Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino are others, but they tend to command a higher spend than others.

    There are also hundreds of miles of land and vineyards in the region, which produce top notch wines, which simply cannot be called Chianti because of the location, although the styles are frequently similar;  the Sangiovese grape still usually dominates, although you will also find it masquerading under the name of Morellino .  From simple, everyday Tuscan reds, to plush, polished, so called ‘Supertuscans’, oozing red carpet richness and opulence, there are wines to fit all budgets and preferences.

    Fattoria dei Barbi, Brusco dei BarbiSome of my personal favourites are the quieter, elegant, silky, and more traditional styles, which often outshine Chianti, but are not quite so well recognized. If you want to explore these, look no further than one of my absolute favourites, Fattoria Dei Barbi Brusco Dei Barbi 2012; a bright, stylish, silky-smooth red, of medium body, brushed with scents and flavours of super-ripe figs, plums, black cherries, wild thyme, and a hint of mocha, all wrapping up together to make a stunning, juicy, food-friendly red, at a fraction of the price of Brunello.

    Tenuta di Belguardo, Vermentino di Maremma IGTTuscany doesn’t just produce red wines – there are scores of friendly whites throughout the region; some of the best are made from the Vermentino grape and come from the gentle slopes, of the warm, but coastal region of Maremma. Try the Tenuta di Belguardo Vermentino di Maremma 2013, full of bright, peach and lemon peel scents and flavours.

    It’s a confusing area – but the wines are well worth the trouble of exploring, and you really don’t need to pay a small fortune for a bottle of something pretty special.

    By Angela Mount

  • Which style of glass should I use to serve wine?

    One of the questions that I get asked most frequently, is whether the type, size and style of glass that is used for wine, matters.  The simple answer is - yes it does.  Having said that, please don’t think you have to spend a fortune on very expensive wine glasses – save that for the wine. Here are a few simple suggestions, to ensure you enjoy your chosen wines, at their optimum.

    Wine glasses

    The very best glasses to showcase wines are very simple and very plain; be they of a basic, supermarket origin or high-end and exquisitely hand-crafted. Avoid coloured, or cut crystal glasses, however sparklingly beautiful and beguiling they look, they will do the wine no favours and will simply detract from the star of the show; the contents of the glass.  The best glass is the one that shows off and brings to life the liquid that is in it. You don’ t need to spend a fortune – yes, Riedel glasses are wonderful and a treat, but you can pick up perfect glasses anywhere as long as you follow these simple rules:

    Plain glasses allow the wine to shine, however majestic or humble the chosen tipple – they will always bring out the best.  Whether white, rose or red, the colour of the wine will glint and beckon, with the sheer texture of the plain glass reflecting the shimmering colours, depth and texture, whatever the style. The enchantress that is wine, reveals so much through colour alone, and that’s why clear glass is so important. The crystal-clear, light-reflecting brightness of young white wines; the viscous, glass coating, golden hues of dessert wines; the kaleidoscope of red wine tones, from limpid, ruby red, to the brooding depths of dense, opaque styles – are all reflected perfectly in these simple, plain, long-stemmed glasses.

    Why is this important? If you are a wine enthusiast, your natural inquisitiveness will want to know more about the wine, and looking at it, is a good place to start. If you just enjoy a decent glass of wine, it will give you an additional perspective, and look more enticing. I can only liken this to comparing  the beauty and irresistible charm of fresh fruit and vegetables in a French or Italian market with the equivalent produce in an UK supermarket; the former entice, and seduce with their colour, scents and evocative charm, the latter sit their in their pre-packaged state and are functional -  there is simply no comparison.  The wine is the star, the glass is the backdrop at whatever level – but it helps to get it right.

    The best wine glasses curve in at the top, and are long-stemmed. Why? Firstly because long-stemmed glasses allow you to hold the glass lower down, on the stem, rather than having to hold the bowl of the glass. This means you’ll be less likely to heat up the wine - especially beneficial if it’s white. It also allows you to swirl the wine around the glass, which will help release the aromas.  Why should the wine glass curve inwards? Rather than immediately release all the promise in a showy way, curved glasses nurture and gently release the seductive charms and scents of a top wine, but also showcase simple, great quality wines at their best, and allow them to star at whatever level.

    As far as bubbles are concerned, the ideal glass is narrow, slim and tall. Please ignore the ‘Marie Antoinette’ champagne coupes at all costs. These should be strictly reserved for cocktails. A long, slim flute will showcase an elegant stream of tiny bubbles.

    Never overfill glasses – there needs to be room to swirl the wine around and give space to the liquid to  release its scents.

    Finally a tip on cleaning wine glasses -  whenever possible, hand wash and use the minimum of detergent. Of course, this depends on how precious, or expensive the glasses might be, but detergent can not only cloud glasses permanently, if over-used, it’s also kills bubbles in sparkling wine. The slightest hint of detergent in a glass will make fizz go flat. The best solution is to wash in hot water, dry with a clean cloth, and polish. It’s best not to leave glasses upturned to dry, they will become tainted with the air that is caught inside the bowl of the glass.

    By Angela Mount

    Read Angela's wine column in Bath Magazine here

  • Why is the vintage on a wine so important?

    In the second of our ‘back to wine school’ series, Angela Mount talks about vintages.

    This is probably one of the most frequently asked questions, and potentially, one of the least understood. I’ve quizzed many people about the meaning of ‘vintage’ – some know that it relates to the year printed on the bottle, but slightly worryingly, many think that ‘vintage’ just means older, or cellared.

    So let’s set the record straight. The word ‘vintage’ refers to the year in which the wine was made; it’s as simple as that. There are a couple of anomalies to this, because understanding wine is never quite as simple as we’d like it to be. If a bottle of wine doesn’t have a vintage (i.e. year) on it, it’s probably a lower quality wine, which is a blend of the newest, and the last vintage. Sometimes this works, often it doesn’t. I avoid all wine without vintage, unless it’s Port or Champagne.

    Unless you’re a total wine enthusiast, it’s difficult to know what different vintages mean, so here are some quick tips:

    1 - Almost all whites under £10 are meant to be drunk young, and fresh –  especially, light, delicate, unoaked ones - that’s when they’re going to be at their liveliest, fruitiest and most exuberant – catch them in youth, rather than in old age decline. Why? Because, with time, the acidity and zip in a bottle of zesty white or fruity Rosé will fall, and that means that the aromas and flavours won’t be as bright – it’s all about balance.

    June Cover Story2 - All Rosé wines should be drunk young – keep it fresh, light and fruity; you can tell when a wine is ageing, not just from the vintage on the label, but from the colour; if it’s turning a dark orange, avoid at all costs.

    3 - Red wines – whilst many reds benefit from at least a little ageing, the soft, lighter, unoaked fruity styles, should be drunk young. If a juicy, Beaujolais-style wine looks brownish in colour, it’s past its best.

    4 - How do I know which is the latest vintage?  Wines from the Southern Hemisphere are made in our winter/spring, and should start appearing on shelves from around June/July, with whites and roses arriving first. So at the moment, look out for 2013, as any 2012s left, will be starting to tire (always check the vintage and also restaurant wine lists to make sure you’re not getting the old bottle that was stuck at the back of the wine shelf).

    The 2014 Northern Hemisphere vintage happened last Autumn, and the first wines will start to arrive on the shelves around March, so make sure you’re picking up 2013 whites at the moment, and 2012 reds, as they age slightly less fast.

    5 - Which wines should I keep? Champagne (even non-vintage), Riojas, Chiantis, most medium bodied reds, and rich, bold whites can be kept for several months. Powerful, premium reds from most parts of the world can be cellared for a few years, as they will mellow and become more complex. Riesling and Semillon are the 2 white grape varieties that age well, so stash a few of them away, and enjoy in a few years. Aged Chenin Blanc from the Loire is also fascinating.

    6 - Do vintages vary? Yes, they do; it all depends on the weather patterns for that year. Wines from sunny climates, such as Australia and South Africa, are generally more consistent than European countries, but there are still variations depending on the level of heat, rain and climate in each year. If you’re interested in a particular wine, you’ll be able to find out about the varying vintages by googling the producer.

    In Europe, there is more variation, depending on whether we get frosts, rain at the wrong times, enough sunshine to ripen the grapes, etc. Wine, is, after all, an agricultural product.

    In many regions the variation may be slight, however, in the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the difference in style from one vintage to another can be considerable, and this will also have an impact on pricing – hence the much debated ‘en primeur’ market.  There are tomes and tomes written, and endless debates about ‘vertical tastings’, and vintage variation in these classic areas. If you don’t know, then trust your wine merchant, the team at Great Western Wine will be more than happy to provide you with some guidance on vintages by region.

    7 - Is Vintage Champagne and Port produced every year? – No. Most Champagne and Port is a blend of several years, which produces an even, and consistent style. Vintages of these wines are only made in the very best years.

     By Angela Mount

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