Wine: Time to play hide the label

You don't need to see the label to enjoy a wine.
You don't need to see the label to enjoy a wine.
  • Christine Austin’s guests have been drinking in the dark during a summer of subterfuge. Here’s what they liked.
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As summer floats by on a mixture of barbecue smoke and sun tan lotion, I have been digging deeper into my wine resources to pour a glass or two for various visitors who have crossed my threshold. It is always fun welcoming old friends, particularly if they come from the other side of the world, because they have swapped their winter for our summer, and with a bit of luck they will return the favour and I’ll be able to swap our forthcoming winter for their summer.

But these visitors have taught me a few rules about wine that I really hadn’t expected, in particular how to talk about a wine as I pour it. The first rule seems to be that it is not wise to mention any white grape variety unless it is Sauvignon Blanc, whose bright citrus and herbaceous flavours can be discussed with ease. The smiles of anticipation are bigger if I announce that it is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, even before it is tasted.

Chardonnay must not be mentioned in polite company, although it is perfectly acceptable to pour it. It will be enjoyed, particularly if it is a crisp, lively Chardonnay. Bizarrely, it must never be pointed out that Chablis is made from the Chardonnay grape. Chablis is Chablis and mustn’t be confused with Chardonnay.

Grape varieties such as Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Riesling should be poured into the glass away from the table. These wines come in tall bottles that make them obviously not Sauvignon Blanc and they are therefore viewed with suspicion.

There are not so many rules regarding red wines, although there are several pitfalls to be avoided. Grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah and Pinot Noir are all acceptable, especially if the words lively and fruity are applied as description while they are being poured. Cabernet Sauvignon is fine so long as it doesn’t come from Australia or Chile and Merlot is best avoided so as not to cause offence.

So what did my visitors drink during their stay? They drank whatever I poured and no glass was rejected. I just used subterfuge and woolly descriptions to get them over their first couple of sips. There was French Chardonnay, an everyday Spanish white, a rather good Australian Riesling, which totally confused their taste buds, an Australian Semillon and an English sparkling wine. Among the reds there was a good quality Beaujolais, a deep-flavoured Chilean Malbec, a South African Pinotage and an Italian Marzemino. And there was just one bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Of course during their stay I did come clean and tell them what they were drinking, or at least what they had drunk. That way prejudice didn’t get in the way of their taste buds. It is all too easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to choosing wine, so next time you have a group around your table who are firmly fixed in their drinking habits, hide the label, pour them a glass and let them taste it before you tell them what it is.

Here are my top ten wines from my summer of subterfuge.

• The Exquisite Collection Gavi 2014, Italy, £5.49 Aldi.

Soft, lemon-zest and yeasty notes makes this one of the bargains of the summer. Terrific with grilled fish, but equally good on its own. Visitor Verdict: Never heard of the Cortese grape, but I’ll buy this.

• Viña Sol 2014, Torres, Spain, £6.99 at Tesco and Waitrose, but frequently on offer to around £5.50.

The grapes in this wine are the fairly unknown Parellada and Garnacha Blanca, so they were quickly forgotten in the conversation, but its crisp green apple and floral notes went well with nibbles and dips at the end of the day. Visitor Verdict: Amazing value.

• Bienbebido Pulpo Albariño, Spain, £7.49 on multi-buy at Majestic

A bright aromatic wine with apricot and nectarine notes and a clear backbone of freshness. Visitor Verdict: A delicious wine, despite the odd-looking octopus on the bottle.

• Wakefield Clare Valley Riesling, 2012, Australia, around £12.50 at The Wright Wine Co, Skipton and Denby Dale Wines

Poured alongside skewers of lime, ginger and sesame-coated prawns, this Riesling shone for its vibrant zesty flavours, balanced by citrus and tropical fruit. Visitor Verdict: Terrific combination with the food, but the word Riesling on the label would stop me buying it.

• L’Etoile de Begude Chardonnay 2013, Limoux, France, £13.49 on multi-buy at Majestic

Organic grapes, careful winemaking and bright, peach and apple flavours balanced by just a touch of creaminess. An elegant, rounded wine. Visitor Verdict: I don’t like Chardonnay anymore, but this is nice.

• Mirabeau Pure Rosé 2014, Côtes de Provence, France, £12.99 Waitrose

Pale in colour but surprisingly complex in flavour with red fruits, herbs and citrus.

Visitor Verdict: Expensive for a rosé but delicious.

• La Nonna Rioja Joven 2013, Spain, £4.29 Tesco

Highlighted a few weeks ago for its juicy, raspberry fruit, this is great with a pizza at the end of a busy day or you can trade up to the Reserva for just £5.99. Visitor Verdict: Cheap and cheerful Rioja, without all the usual oak.

• Wine Atlas Marzemino 2013, Trentino, Italy, £5.97 Asda

A light, juicy, cherry-packed wine that can take an hour in the fridge before enjoying on a warm evening. Visitor Verdict: Never heard of this grape before, I’ll write it down.

• Emiliana Organic Malbec 2013, Chile, £9 Marks & Spencer

Another wine that just happens to be barbecue-friendly, with chunky, blackberry and sweet vanilla notes. At just 13.5% alcohol, it is balanced and not too heavy. Visitor Verdict: Doesn’t Malbec come from Argentina?

• The Cubist Old Vines Garnacha 2013, Calatayud, Spain, £9.99 Waitrose

There has been a lot of steak and sausages on the barbecue in the last few weeks and this robust, spice-driven, bramble fruity wine stands up to the meat and all the sauces and relishes. Visitor Verdict: A terrific wine, packed with lively flavours.