Fish fingers, tomato ketchup and a hint of butter, sandwiched between two soft slices of cheap, no-nonsense white bread.
Your mouth waters as the tartness of the ketchup hits your taste buds, the crunch of the breadcrumbs giving way to succulent flakes of fish and the saltiness of the butter melting into your tongue. It’s not haute cuisine, it probably won’t fill you up, it may not leave you with a particularly pleasurable aftertaste but, in the moment, is there anything wrong with admitting that you bloody love it?
Most people wouldn’t have a problem with expressing their, at the very least occasional, enjoyment of uncomplicated foods.
A bowl of piping hot cream of tomato soup, straight from the tin, with a sprinkling of black pepper is just the ticket when it’s raining outside and you’re too tired to rustle up a homemade meal. You’re aware that it would be widely regarded as cheap, cheerful and little bit slobbish, and you might not serve it if you have friends over, but it makes that rainy afternoon a hell of a lot better in the moment.
Would you describe either of these two dishes as an example of ‘great food’?
I’m guessing the answer is probably a resounding ‘no’… I’m also guessing that you’d feel no shame when acknowledging that you like them nonetheless, with a shrug of your shoulders.
So why is there a level of anxiety that comes with being asked whether you like a glass of wine? Why do we worry that the answer will reflect badly upon our taste as a whole?
Grapes, regions and styles float in and out of fashion when it comes to wine. Beaujolais, for example, is still recovering from a scandalous consumer backlash in the early 2000s, which resulted in French wine critic François Mauss dubbing Beaujolais Nouveau ‘vin de merde’ (shit wine) in Lyon Mag. Despite the producers successfully suing the publication for libel, it’s taken the region a long time to shake off its bad reputation.
Of course, there is a huge emphasis on creating a high quality product in winemaking, and I’m not for a minute suggesting that quality shouldn’t be celebrated. I love the fact that producers strive to outdo themselves year after year and there’s nothing wrong with some healthy competition.
What I am saying is that, as consumers, we shouldn’t worry too much about giving ourselves a bad name, just because our enjoyment of a wine doesn’t quite tally with its objective quality.
For those of you who are new to this whole malarkey, I’ll give you a quick explanation of what is meant by ‘quality’ in the wine world.
Quality is nothing to do with whether or not you personally like the wine, instead it’s a way of assessing the following characteristics so that you can describe a wine accurately and objectively to someone who hasn’t tried it.
- Balance – Is the wine’s sweetness/fruitiness matched by its acidity/tannin?
- If a wine is sweet without any acidity at all, it can become sickly or cloying and you probably won’t be able to stomach more than a small glass.
- Similarly, a wine that is too acidic, with no sweetness to balance it out, can taste hard and almost astringent.
- The aim is to create an enjoyable balance.
- Finish – How long lasting is the aftertaste?
- In general terms, the longer the flavours linger, the better the wine.
- Intensity – How detectable are the flavours?
- If the flavours are more subtle, or diluted, it can be a sign of poorer quality.
- However, if the flavours are extreme or overwhelming, this also doesn’t indicate quality.
- Flavours should be recognisable, but not overt.
- Complexity – How many flavours can you detect?
- Generally, the more aromas and flavours you can recognise in the wine, the higher the quality.
- Expressiveness – Can you tell where the wine is from or which grape it’s made from?
- In exceptional wine, its flavour will be characteristic of the grape it’s made from. The talented amongst us could tell which region, or even vineyard, it’s been produced in… we’re not quite at that level yet!
Hopefully this key will serve as an introduction to detecting the quality of wine. But bear this in mind: just because a wine doesn’t have a long finish, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like it. So what if you can only taste pear? If you like pears, that might be just your cup of tea every so often.
Essentially, it’s great to be able to determine whether a wine is objectively good or not. But no-one’s going to hold it against you if you’re in the mood for something forgettable.
After all, how ridiculous does this sound… “Jeff’s a nice guy, but I saw him enjoying a fish finger sandwich once and I lost all respect for him.”