A dummy's guide to wine appreciation
A new crop of female oenophiles are keen to point out an appreciation of the drink isn't just for snobs.
There are probably plenty of ladies who reckon their Friday drinking habits are enough to earn them the title of 'masters of wine', but a growing number of women can officially claim the status.
This month, 302 candidates sat the Institute of Masters of Wine's rigorous exams in pursuit of earning a prestigious 'MW' qualification – the highest level of wine knowledge.
Of them, 171 are female and if they pass, they'll join the 91 other women who make up the elite ranks of the world's 295 Masters of Wine.
One of the new crop of female oenophiles is Belfast-born Anne McHale (33). She became a Master of Wine in September 2013 earning accolades for outstanding achievement and the coveted Bollinger Medal for top marks in the tasting exams. For the past eight years, she's worked in London as a Wine Education Specialist at Berry Bros & Rudd, the UK's oldest wine and spirit merchant.
She does agree that the wine world is starting to shake off its old boys' club image, but a label she's even more keen to challenge is the misapprehension that wine is just for snobs.
"Wine gets a bad press because some people choose to be precious about it, but that's about the people, not the wine," she insists.
She explains: "There's a lot of knowledge to get your head around and this can make it fertile ground for show-offs, but the reality is anyone can be a great wine taster."
It's an unpretentious attitude she promotes when leading wine schools at Berry Bros & Rudd and also in her own enjoyment of wine. "I'm perfectly happy to drink ordinary wine as long as it tastes decent enough," she says.
"The only thing I would say though is it's really worth spending more than the bare minimum on a bottle. These days taxes make up so much of the price that if you buy a really cheap bottle you're hardly spending more than 40c on the liquid itself."
Anne attributes her interest in wine to her dad who established the first wine society at Queen's University Belfast. Despite not being impressed by her first taste of booze (a glass of Champagne on her 18th birthday), listening to him talk passionately about wine encouraged her to sign up for the wine society while studying French at Cambridge University. She honed her tastes during a year in France as part of her degree.
"After university I moved to London and applied for any job that needed a French speaker. As luck would have it, the first job I got was as an administrator for a tiny French wine agency. They sponsored me to get my first Wine and Spirit Education Trust qualification and my interest went from there," she says.
Now Anne, who reckons her death row glass of wine would be a "really sublime white Burgundy, such as a Le Montrachet", has an average working week that involves presenting to wine schools, tutored tastings and hosting dinners. She recently helped film in-flight wine guides for Virgin Atlantic (her company supplies Virgin's wine on-board) and regularly takes staff training trips to wine regions around the world.
"Sounds awful doesn't it?" she laughs. "It's a great job." But she warns that anyone thirsty for the same success faces the challenge of four three-hour written theory exams, three 12-wine blind tasting exams and a 10,000 word dissertation to become a Master of Wine.
Still, there must be plenty of drinking involved? "There's lots of spitting out of wine rather than drinking," Anne says. "You tend to find that you can't concentrate so well if you swallow it!"
Anne's guide to bluffing your way through the basics
Know your climates
Like fresh, crisp, zingy styles of wine? Go for cool climates like the north of France or New Zealand. If you prefer richer, softer styles then look for warm climates like Southern Europe, California or Australia.
It's not just whites that are suited to chilling. In summer, red wines, like Beaujolais, that are low in tannin (the grippy, astringent substance that comes from grape skins) also benefit from being lightly chilled.
Sauvignon Blancs are crisp and zingy whites, Chablis are smoother and creamier. Pinot Noirs are light reds with Malbec, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignons at the richer end of the scale.
When a waiter asks you to taste the wine, they're asking you to check if the wine has been affected by cork taint. This is a mouldy, musty smell that affects some bottles sealed under a natural cork. If you notice a musty smell, ask for another bottle.
Food and wine
Pairing food and wine is a personal choice, but match red meats and hard cheeses with tannic red wines from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz and match the richness of food to wine – delicate fish would be over-whelmed by a rich red wine.