Image Credit: Judith Lewis
I'm a chocolate expert (well, other people call me that though I have a lot yet to learn) and while that gives me the ability to pick out flavours in everything from wine to coffee, it doesn't make me a wine expert. Understanding wine takes time and effort but I can at least help you on your way by giving you some helpful hints I have learned as I explored deeper into wine (and bubbly).
Now, nothing is going to help you become a wine snob better than drinking lots taking a course so I suggest while waiting to do that you experiment. The important thing in faking it is memorising a lot of facts and reading the label. Yes I can spot an Ecuadorian chocolate instead of a Colombian by smell but I've been sniffing chocolate for years. We're going to try and make you a fake expert in one article so cut yourself a bit of slack ;-)
No matter what you are about to read, the first real step is forgetting all that pretentious crap and drink small amounts across a number of producers and find your bliss. It doesn't matter if your bliss is a cheap Californian white or a Chateau Lafite 2003 - what matters is what you like *then* find the language to fake like you're an expert. I'm going to pick on Napa as my uncle lives there, Ontario as I am from there and Bordeaux as there is chocolate near there ;-)
Now - notebook ready? Remember to have one handy always for taking notes.
Wine is an organic and if you check the web, a Chateau Lafite 2004 is a few hundred while Chateau Lafite 2005 is over a grand. The reason is that the weather changed and one year was better than others. This happens in chocolate and Valrhona, recognising this, have now started releasing limited edition releases each year of mostly the same areas. If you want to look like a real expert, once you've picked your bliss, research the area and growing conditions. You can say things like "do you have anything besides the 2004? That was a terrible year and even the 2013 will be better if a bit green" how smart will you look?
Napa years: 1990 was a year of balance and perfect everything; 1995 was disastrous for weather leaving the grapes "late, light and luscious"; 2000 was a virtually perfect growing season and the blight of some years before had been recovered from; 2005 considered to be a signature year for Napa with everything again in perfect balance; 2010 was a disaster of weather but what wine did make it through was elegant and structured.
Ontario years: 2001 was a bad year as drought and late summer lead to lower yields but the complexity was increased while icewine was severely limited; 2004 had better weather meaning grapes produced good wines record icewine harvests; 2007 was another drought year with more complex flavours in the wine; 2010 is expected to be the best vintage of the decade so that is a good focus year and a safe bet for pretty much any Ontario wine if you want to choose by date.
Bordeaux years: 1970 was a mixed year but this wine is not a safe ordering bet as they are past their best now; 1980 was cold and wet and the wine produced was not good so while old it is terrible; 1990 is one of the top vintages of the decade with excellent, if slightly outside averages, weather and this year is hailed as the perfect year; 2000 a stunningly outstanding year the wines of this year are outstanding and a safe fake expert bet for the Bordeaux region; 2010 a good year although not the best be sure to avoid anything labelled merlot as the crop was hit by disease.
Wine is affected by where it grows just like chocolate. If you take a vine growing tempranillo from Spain and plant it in Australia it will not taste the same. Just as if you take a forrestaro cocoa tree from Ghana and plant it in Vietnam. The resulting chocolate will have different flavour notes. That means a merlot from California is going to taste different to a merlot from Bordeaux. So for example the climate in Bordeaux is warm to hot and so the flavours will be black berries (blackberry, black plum and black cherries) to fruitcake (dries purple/black fruit) and chocolate whereas Napa is cool to medium meaning you'll get more red berries (strawberries, plums, etc) tending into the purple/black fruits. If you say "ah I'm getting a bit of rich plumminess from this merlot" you'll often be right. You will need to brush up on your geography unfortunately.
As with chocolate, there is more than just red and white in the grape world (as I hope you already realise). In the chocolate world we have three or four major groupings, under which there are a significant number of sub groupings and this continues to be argued about. With wine, there are recognised varietals and areas they are 'allowed' to grow in as well as those who grow those varieties outside the designated area and new varieties that evolve such as the white tempranillo. For now I'd stick to the staples of the wine world - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. If only one variety (like merlot) is mentioned on the label then the wine is called varietal and named after the grape with a capital initial (Merlot).
To fake being a wine expert is going to take more than knowing about years, growing conditions and varietals - you need to know what they taste like. Since flavour will depend on year, it will change. At wine shows and the like while you do have to pay to get in and sometimes for samples, it is the best way to sample across a number of years from the same estate and taste the difference growing conditions make. It is also the best way to taste the difference between a cab sav and a syrah but as a kind of cheat sheet, here are some flavours you might pick up:
Cabernet Sauvignon: redcurrants and fresh wood often from aging in oak
Merlot: purple/black fruits (black plum, black cherry), slight herbs.
Syrah: purple fruits like blackcurrant, deep iron like meat and a pit of pepperiness.
Malbec: heavy plums and berries and spice (need to be drunk with food)
Pinot Noir: red berries (strawberries and cherries) with a bit of plum sometimes leather or earth
Zinfandel: light fruity red berries (strawberry, cherry) with slight hint of pepper
Take your time when you are practicing for your outing as a fake wine expert. The smell is the most important thing.
As in chocolate, smelling the wine is going to tell you an awful lot about its flavour components. In chocolate you can often tell the difference between a Peruvian chocolate and a Madagascan chocolate by smell. The same holds true for wine. If you do manage to go to a wine show you will impress the wine stall owner more if you spend longer smelling than swirling. Everyone is swirling these days but too few are really taking the time to smell and then reset their nose (smell the inside of your elbow if desperate but turn away from the glass and inhale through your nose) and smell again. What your nose is picking up is some or all of the hundreds of possible flavour chemicals. You might smell the French or American oak, you could smell fruits, it might be peppery but whatever it is, ask questions if you can to understand what your nose is telling you. Is that raspberries? No, blackcurrants - OK refile that smell under blackcurrants. This is why training can be so important - you need to create a library of smells in your head. Sad part is there are no shortcuts but happy part is that once you have it, you can do it for other stuff and fake being a coffee expert, a chocolate expert and more!
The colour of wine is important exactly like chocolate. If you've gotten a handle on the fact you might be drinking some sort of Frankenstein monster of a bunch of different grapes all blended together then you'll next need to get a handle on the colour of things. Yes, unless you're drinking a single varietal wine you're going to be drinking a mishmash of bits brought together to make wine taste awesome. I've tried some of the wine that goes into blends and trust me that "better together" is for more than just Scotland. Just like looking for the shine of a good temper in chocolate you should look at your wine. Is it cloudy? Chuck it. Does it have bits with other stringy bits coming off it? Chuck it. Seriously where have you been storing your wine - next to the cooker? Behind the fridge? Sheesh! I store my chocolate *and* my red wine at 16-17 degrees Celsius and so should you! Regardless look at a good bottle of well stored wine in your glass. Is it red? Fantastic! You're drinking a red wine. Does it have legs after an initial swirl? Good news - it has alcohol and isn't just juice!
Now swirl holding the base of the glass securely on the table and moving it around. If you're adventurous and not me, give your wine a significant swirl freehand. Regardless of what you do, swirl lots, sniff, clear and swirl more, sniff more, swirl more and then take a small slurping sip. Allow the wine to move around your palate and see if you can pick out the flavours you smelt earlier. Most of what we taste comes through in the scent (though I've had chocolate that doesn't match) so you should pick up what you smelt. Now try to pick out some of the flavours above from your wine and see if you too can sound like a wine snob "oh yes I'm getting summer ripened strawberries grown on straw with a hint of old reused French oak coming through just muddling up the cherries a bit".
Of course, it is hard to fake being a wine expert and much more fun to start drinking your way through small samples to being a real wine expert. Wine shows are some of the best ways anyone can discover wines outside actual training. There are a few wine shows in London through the year including:
London Wine Fair
Tesco Wine Fair
RAW The Artisan Wine Fair
The Real Wine Fair
Plus throughout the UK check this calendar: http://www.wineware.co.uk/glassware/2015-uk-wine-tasting-events-calendar