Contemporary drinking

Matt Walls

Author, blogger, avid taster and Wine Society member, Matt Walls, is one of the new generation of wine writers. His book ‘Drink Me’, aimed at newcomers to wine, has received praise in many quarters. He reflects on his own experiences of getting into wine and on the changing attitudes towards its appreciation

It’s not easy to be young, British and into wine. I still find myself folding my copy of Decanter in half when I’m on public transport to hide what I’m reading. In case people, well you know, get the ‘wrong idea’. To all new members of The Wine Society: well done, you’ve already taken the most difficult step when it comes to wine. You’ve seen past some of the outdated notions that still exist in the UK and decided to give it a fair go.

I first got into wine during a year in France as a student, where exploring food and drink wasn’t considered a strange thing for a 20-year-old to be doing. I was living in the Languedoc, where wine estates were more like farms than grand châteaux. Chatting to an unshaven middle-aged guy next to a clapped-out pick-up truck surrounded by chickens didn’t feel particularly… hoity-toity.

When I returned to the UK, however, I found attitudes were still stuck in the past. Some friends still seemed to think that enjoying wine was an expensive pastime for the elite. Sure, many years ago, like any imported food or drink, it was reserved for the wealthy. Despite the fact that most wine is bought in supermarkets these days, it is taking a while to shake off this image. But thankfully attitudes are now beginning to change. People are starting to realise that, like with coffee, tea or whisky, there’s nothing intrinsically well-to-do about a glass of wine.

Take wine out of its cultural and social context and what are you left with? A glass bottle of liquid sitting on the table in front of you. It means different things to different people, but to me first and foremost it’s entertainment. It’s the best and easiest way to entertain your two most under-indulged senses: smell and taste. Like music is to your ears and painting is to your eyes, wine is to your nose and mouth. The best bottles will reveal something new with every sip, and the flavours will gradually evolve as you work your way down to the bottom. It can console, fascinate or energise whether alone or, even better, with friends.

Tasting Machines

When it comes to smell and taste, food can give great pleasure too of course. But the beauty of wine is that it is so democratic. Cooking takes practice, knowledge and skill but anyone can pull a cork (or twist a screwcap) and pour. All the preparation wine needs it does by itself, unseen, inside the bottle; aromas evolve, flavours fuse then pull apart, textures are quietly worked and moulded.

Sure, some bottles are expensive. But with increasing numbers of tasting machines in wine shops and bars, (including The Wine Society’s Showroom in Stevenage), you don’t need to splash out on a whole bottle, you can just buy a taste. After all, which sip of the bottle do you enjoy the most when you open it? The first one.

Wine is immediately appealing, not an acquired taste like coffee or beer. And drinking is not a skill. It is surely the most basic of all human functions. Tasting is just drinking slowed down, with a bit more attention. As your memory banks fill with bottles, you enjoy the next one even more than the last. And now we have camera phones it’s easy to remember the bottles you like – just photograph the label.

Admittedly, unlike a plate of food, you can’t know whether you’re going to like the wine just by looking at it, whether in the bottle or in the glass. You have to pull a few corks and explore. You’re bound to come across a couple of stinkers. But there’s hardly a natural flavour imaginable that can’t be found in one wine or another: spices, herbs, vegetables, flowers, earth, animal and dairy flavours. Not to mention every fruit under the sun.

Wine is that holy grail of hedonism that can be both sustainable and healthy. The physiological benefits that it offers, over any other alcoholic drink, are well documented. If you use it with care, you can enjoy wine the length of your life. It might even prolong it.

Attending certain tasting events would certainly make you think so. But they’re not all as stiff as they once were, and there are increasing numbers aimed at younger people and beginners. Ten years ago there was still a disturbingly high number of bow-ties at tastings; these days denim is more common than tweed.

Like any subject, it has its jargon, which some people naturally find off-putting. With the new series of Food & Drink on the BBC, we now have the down-to-earth voice of Kate Goodman instead of the cut-glass elocution of Jilly Goolden. Wine is no longer reserved for dinners or special occasions. We drink it with a Tuesday night takeaway, in front of the telly, at book groups and over the kitchen table when the pubs have shut.

Blogging too has given a voice to ordinary people that just happen to be into wine.

Enjoying wine is easy. Understanding wine… now that’s a bit different. It’s a massive subject and we’ll never know it all. It’s a bit like music. A topic of infinite breadth and depth, but endlessly fascinating and all the more exciting because you know if you keep looking, you’ll keep finding more that you love. And the more you understand the context of the music – how it was made, by whom, what else they’ve produced, who their peers and influences are – the more you get out of it. Wine is the same.

Enjoying wine isn’t snobbish. It isn’t complicated. It doesn’t need to cost the earth. This is nothing new. Seeing past the baggage and outdated attitudes that still prevail in certain quarters of the UK and deciding to try it out for yourself – that’s the hard part. Now you’re free to explore.

There’s no final destination – the pleasure is in the journey. There’s just one tricky thing left to do: convince your mates to try it too.

Drink Me

Matt Walls is the author of Drink Me! How to choose, taste and enjoy wine, and was shortlisted for the International Wine & Spirit Competition Blogger of the Year 2012 for mattwalls.co.uk. His book won ‘Best Newcomer 2013’ in the Fortnum & Mason food and wine writing awards.

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