No half measures: why I choose to savour wine rather than abstain

Lent is upon us. A time for reflection, abstinence and preparations for the celebration of Easter.

I don’t know about you but I’m not too fond of giving up anything, let alone wine, or beer for that matter. All things in moderation or not so moderate, depending on your mood is my preference.

When I first started writing about wine, I used to give up alcohol in February on the advice of my first boss, “the shortest month,” he would say. “But beware of the leap years!” These days my tasting schedule is such that I simply can’t find the time for a month without wine and besides I enjoy a glass of wine with my evening meal, who doesn’t? But herein lies my point ‘a glass’ or maybe two.

Since January I have been keeping a watchful eye on how much I consume, nothing drastic just a gentle observation on portion sizes and how many glasses of wine I like to enjoy. I bought a little measuring jug and some weighing scales and as if by magic eight weeks in I’m nearly a stone lighter!

Six glasses in one bottle

One of the new habits I have enjoyed is pouring out a 100ml glass of wine to go with my evening meal. I have come to love this measure, it’s enough to give you a proper taste and experience of the wine you are serving, but it’s not enough to distract from your late evening activities whether that is catching up on writing, emailing friends or whatever. Of course, if you want a second glass or a third by all means pour it!

I recently wrote a column for The Sunday Times on half bottles and wrote that you can get 6 ‘generous’ glasses from a full bottle of wine and four ‘decent’ glasses from a half bottle of wine. This provoked a fair bit of feedback with some enthusiastic imbibers vehemently disagreeing.

A few days after the column was published a story appeared in The Times with the revelation that if you want to cut back on alcohol use smaller glasses. According to researchers from the University of Cambridge when restauranteurs placed 370ml glasses on the table, rather than 250ml, wine lovers drank 17% more!

Two glasses of red wine on a table with the beach in the background
There’s no need to fill those large glasses to the top

I was asked about it on Matthew Wright’s Talkradio ‘Wine Down Friday’ segment which you can listen to here. Over  a glass of the club’s excellent Santo Patrono from Bolivia I explained I’m all in favour of large glasses but small measures.

As an aside, preferably the wine glass should be made from very thin glass which doesn’t interfere with one’s enjoyment of the wine, Zalto and Riedel are my choice at home.

The traditional 125ml is a much-maligned serving of wine and shouldn’t be sniffed at. To prove my point at a recent dinner I asked the Sommelier to pour out 125ml in a large Zalto Bordeaux glass, my guests were quite surprised just how much it was. Like listening to a beautiful piece of music or faced with a wonderful natural landscape great wine can intoxicate both the senses and be an intoxicant. It is savouring the former which we should try and achieve in Lent. Far better than abstinence which makes it a very long time to Easter indeed!

P.S. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter? Do you agree? What size do you feel is the ideal pour? Post a comment below and I shall reply.

Will Lyons

Sunday Times Wine Club Vice-President

Also on the blog

So you want to learn about wine?

It doesn’t matter where you are along the wine route there is always the opportunity to learn more. I’ve been tasting wine for more than 20 years and I’m still learning.

Part of the attraction of wine is that it can be drunk for both pleasure and conviviality, as part of a gathering of friends or family, or it can be gustatory. The focus of an intellectual discussion on its merits or faults. I happen to prefer the former but that’s probably because the day job requires me to don my analytical hat and form an informed opinion on a particular wine or wines. But knowledge is power and the more you taste, the more natural it is to want to learn more.

Will Lyons, Vice-President of Sunday Times Wine Club
Will Lyons, Vice-President of Sunday Times Wine Club

But where to start? Believe it or not my journey began in my last year at school where (going on 18) we had a particularly enthusiastic Geography master who taught us the early principles of wine tasting. Looking back it was a surprisingly serious course. But you don’t have to begin so early!

The obvious place to begin is with book learning, which will teach you the basics. The World Atlas of Wine now co-written by our President Hugh Johnson with Jancis Robinson will provide a solid foundation and clear grasp of where most of the world’s wines come from. I learned to taste through the lens of the classic wine regions of France and Europe. This gave me a good understanding of the benchmark styles that have now become internationally successful. But I wouldn’t say that was the right or wrong way. If you mastered the regions and styles of Australia that would be a fitting start.

Taste, taste, taste

The key is to develop your palate and taste, taste, taste. By this I mean learn to understand what you like and learn to understand the different taste and flavours of the major wine producing regions and grape varieties. There are shortcuts but it can be a long journey. I like to use the analogy of an old record shop, browsing through the racks of CDs and vinyls. If you haven’t listened to Mozart or Beethoven, the Beatles or The Rolling Stones you have no idea what they sound like, until you buy an album, take it home and play it. It is the same with wine. If you want to understand the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy or Margaux and Pauillac you’ll need to buy a bottle to taste as well as read the textbooks.

In Britain, we are really spoilt for choice. London is home to the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. Their courses offer a very good technical basis. I completed my WSET exams in a cold lecture hall in Edinburgh when I was at University. It’s quite an academic approach, and can lead onto the Master of Wine – a self taught course for the fully committed.

Also on the blog

But for me wine is so much more than about the technicalities. It’s always nice to learn about what’s in the bottle, how it is made and what makes a good vintage. But I want to share some of the magic of the wine regions I have been luckily enough to visit. History, food, travel tips and the story behind the bottle always make their way into any of my wine tastings. Before that though I always teach people how to taste and develop their palate. The aim is to give you enough confidence to trust what you like and form your own opinion.

Before long you’ll be challenging my preconceptions and tasting like a professional. But don’t get too confident as, when it comes to wine we’re learning all the time.

Just keep on tasting!
Just keep on tasting!

Immerse yourself in the world of wine and join Sunday Times Wine Columnist and Vice President of The Sunday Times Wine Club, Will Lyons, as he shares his expert knowledge in his new evening and one-day wine masterclasses: thetimes.co.uk/winemasterclasses