Drinking wine without being fooled by a pretty label – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
In a perfect world all wine makers would elaborate perfect wines that we could buy with our eyes closed. But in this imperfect world it takes a little carefulness to avoid swallowing an awful plonk. No need to be an expert oenologist or to buy only expensive great vintages to enjoy a good wine. You’ll only need your eyes, your nose and your taste buds to make the difference between good and bad wine and with a little training you will be able to show off to your friends!
Bad weather at the wrong time means bad grapes, and bad grapes can’t make good wine. Mechanical harvesting methods mean that the grapes won’t always be sorted out and that many leaves and branches’ pieces will be mixed with the grapes during the pressing process. Poorly maintained fermentation vats will also spoil the wine. The label on the bottle will never tell you that and untrustworthy wine-makers will try to hide these faults in order to sell their “concoction”.
Don’t get me wrong, most wine-makers work hard to make the best wines they can and good wines, including un-expensive ones, are easily found. But as the proverb says: forewarned is forearmed!
First use your eyes, they can tell you a lot. If the wine is cloudy and/or if you can see particles in suspension in your glass it means that the grapes were ripe or even rotten when harvested. Brownish particles in a red wine or whitish particles in a white wine are due to an excess of copper or iron coming from badly maintained vats and press. The same will happen if the wine making process was not under control and that the temperature went too high. A bad wine making can also give a slightly sparkling wine. This means that the wine started a second fermentation that should never occur in a still wine. Wine should have a glossy reflection and if it looks dull it means that it lacks acidity making it “weak”.
Second use your nose, if it wrinkles something’s wrong! The most common fault is a corked wine. A bad quality cork produces a molecule (called trichloro-anisol) that will diffuse not only into the wine touching the cork but also into the whole bottle. A corked wine tastes real bad and it will end up into your kitchen sink! A wine can also have a smell of walnut or of over-ripened apples when it gets oxidized when transferred from one vat to another or when bottled.
In order to prevent bacteria or yeast growth that could alter the wine’s taste, most wine makers use sulphur. But they need to have a light hand otherwise the wine will take a pungent smell of onion, garlic or even cauliflower! And sulphured wine can also give you a headache even if you don’t drink too much of it. Worst of all the wine can smell like vinegar when it’s been over oxidized and you might just as well use it to unclog a drain!
Finally your taste buds will be your third defence line to test your bottle of wine. If the grapes destemming, meaning that the stalk is separated from the grape berries, is not gently and carefully done, or if to many leaves or grape skins were left in the press, the wine will get bitter. The wine can also take a “wood juice” taste when it’s been left too long in badly maintained or even mouldy vats. Last but not least it can taste like rotten-egg when too much sulphur was added too late to the wine.
Making wine cannot be improvised and quality doesn’t come easily. Many skilled and dedicated wine makers spare no efforts to allow us to drink quality and enjoyable wines. Let’s learn to make a difference between a bad plonk, a good quality wine or a great ‘grand cru”, thus paying tribute to their savoir-faire. In order to help us develop our “wine culture” the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a new website last week. On www.visitfrenchwine.com written both in French and in English, you will learn more about each French wine producing regions and local wine makers and you will find many ideas to organise wine tasting trips to help you improve your palate.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny