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Cheers, m’dears! Be your own wine expert

Wish you knew more about wine? (Apart from the drinking bit, obvs!) Here's The Sunday Telegraph's wine guru, Susy Atkins, to give us the gen on local courses, tours and clever things to know about vino.

Hey Susy! What should we be looking for in a good wine?

Balance is the simple answer. Say it’s a big, grunty (Aussie term) red from the Napa Valley in California, ripe and strong, if it’s not in balance with fresh acidity and a certain juiciness to it, then it’s wrong. Or if the lightest of light white wines, if it’s got searing acidity as can be the problem in cool climates then it’s not in balance.

Should you still taste wine in a restaurant before the waiter pours? How do you know if it’s corked?

I really approve of it even if you’re just out for a pizza. If they’ve pulled a cork (it can happen with a screw cap but unlikely) any waiter worth their salt should give you a little taste. ‘Corked’ doesn’t mean little bits of cork floating in the wine as some people think. A dirty cork literally gives a bacteria taint to the wine, a musty smell – like an old dish cloth and cardboard taste. It kills the fruitiness.

Should you hold your glass by the stem?

I’m not one for hard and fast wine rules but yes, otherwise your hot hand heats up the wine. Wine pros always swirl the wine to release the aroma, you’ll see wine experts going back in for a sniff even when we’re off duty – sometimes you see people forget and do it with their squash! 

So, we shouldn’t buy those trendy stem-free glasses then?

They’re not a no-no but they’re not considered sophisticated.

I guess people are always trying to impress you with their wine knowhow. What’s the most pompous thing anyone has ever said about wine to you?

People are quite polite and say ‘I’m terrified, I don’t know what to bring to your house’. I just say, ‘Don’t bring wine! My house is bursting with it, let me give you the wine!’ Erm, I think people can be pompous about tasting old wines. It’s *whispers* a bit of a male thing…I think ‘so what, it was probably really old, tired and tasted like vinegar. I don’t care!’ They’re not things most of get to do so what’s the point?

What’s a clever thing to say about wine?

That’s difficult because wines are all so different but I guess a clever thing to do show you care about wine is to say ‘it’s aromatic’. A lot of people miss the sniffing and go straight to taste. Say what you find, like ‘I’m smelling lemons’ or ‘I’m smelling white blossoms’.

Any wine myths to explode? Should you let red wine breathe?

Not necessarily. When you let a wine breathe, you’re letting oxygen get to it for a short period of time to open up its aromas, and soften down the tannins. If you’ve got a light, easy-going red, then there’s no need, but reds which are tougher, you should do, such as reds which are oaky, or maybe quite young, like a big red from the New World, an Aussie Shiraz, or a Californian Cabernet, a big SA premium wine, younger Bordeaux, some of the Spanish reds. If you just pull the cork, it makes very little difference. Get it out of the bottle into a decanter or a glass jug. If it’s a more spontaneous opening, just pour and get everyone to swirl their glasses around. The minute you do it, you’ve aerated the wine. 

Does a teaspoon in an open bottle of fizz keep it sparkling?

I’ve always felt that works but I’ve never found out why. But much better, I’ve got proper stoppers which you can buy quite cheaply. You pop them in and clip the side down. Nothing fancier needed.

How long can you keep wine in the fridge after it’s opened?

No more than two or three days, especially with flimsy light whites. How long they last depends on how much there is in the bottle – if there’s only a tiny bit left that’s going to go off a lot more quickly. With sparkling – they never last long in my house – I’d aim to finish that the next day. That’s why I’m a huge fans of half bottles – it just means you’re opening a fresh bottle more often. There are mail order companies that specialise, such as The Little Fine Wine Company, and Tanners of Shrewsbury. It’s a good way to regulate your drinking a bit too.

Which wine won’t give you a hangover?

None! If you drink too much of any wine you will get a hangover. The main thing that gives you the hangover is ethanol – alcohol. It’s really bad for you. Don’t get drunk!

You’re a local gal… where’s your favourite place for a Devon wine tour?

It used to be Sharpham at Ashprington near Totnes – now they’ve just moved to the other side of the River Dart to Sandridge Barton. I visited it late last spring when it was still a building site – they’re converting old barns with tasting rooms,  accommodation and conference space and the winery is up and running. It’s opening properly in a few weeks time with tours coming soon.

How do you start a wine club?

Plunge in like you would with a book club. Say we’ll start with Malbec this week, everyone bring a different bottle of Malbec – or whoever is in charge will get together 4 or 5 Malbecs. Pick a different theme each month, like Chilean whites, or European bubbles that aren’t from France, and if you need a guide get one of the decent introductions, say by Oz Clarke.

What’s the best way of learning more about wine?

Do a WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) course. The first three levels are really easy, and perfect for members of the public. Go to one run by the South West Wine School – they mostly hold classes at Dart’s Farm in Topsham.

Fancy a tipple with Susy?

Susy is available via for private wine tastings and she’s speaking at Toby’s Garden Festival on Saturday 30 April at Powderham Castle, near Exeter.

Find more ideas here

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