"WINE ROCKS," says Matt Skinner with a huge grin as he proceeds to cheerfully demolish all the jargon, snobbery and confusion that makes it impossible for most of us to distinguish our Chardonnay from our Chablis.
A bright and breezy Australian - one of Jamie Oliver’s great “mates” and the man in charge of wine for the famous Fifteen restaurant - this boy knows his grapes.
His welcome crusade is to save people from “pretentious wine waiters” who smirk condescendingly when you give an order, and make that choice at the off-licence less random and more successful.
“I’m so passionate about wine and wine making that I’d love everyone to share my enthusiasm and knowledge,” says the 30-year-old bubbling with enthusiasm and shaking his fashionably shaggy locks.
“I’ve tried to uncork the wisdom of wine so people have the confidence to buy what they want and enjoy it more.”
To that end he’s distilled his knowledge into Thirsty Work, a down-to-earth guide which explains the nuts and bolts of wine making and easy ways to identify wine types.
“Just like people, there are hundreds of different varieties of grape, each one with its own personality. Some are delicate and pretty, others full-bodied and intense.”
New varieties, he explains, largely occur when vine cuttings are transported from one place to another, where they are subjected to different climates, soils and even diseases, so they mutate and change.
He’s broken the whole process down and grouped the wines into three user-friendly categories.
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“I thought ‘like ‘em light’, or ‘not too heavy, not too light - just right’ and ‘definitely not for the faint-hearted’ was easiest,” he explains.
As Matt explains: “I couldn’t fathom how something so normal as drinking wine ended up being intellectualised to the point of mass confusion. Why should everyone be doomed to boring ‘house wine’ because they don’t feel confident about anything else?
“Wine’s for everybody and as long as you know enough to know what it is like, what else matters? Trust me, pay very little attention to the language of wine and most importantly never let it put you off.
“For instance a dumb wine doesn’t mean you were stupid to pick it but that it might have a period when it lacked aroma or flavour. Whereas, a funky wine is one with an ‘earthy animal edge’.”
Matt fell into the world of wine by accident. After landing a job in an off-licence straight out of school, he was initially baffled, but intrigued all the same.
“Ten years ago I couldn’t tell a raisin from a prune,” he says. “And all those words like ‘blowsy, firm, fat, easy, fleshy, punchy, rich and fresh - ding, dong!’. What was that all about?”
Undaunted, within three years Matt had won a national wine scholarship and was in charge of wines for prestigious restaurants in Australia.
Four years ago a meeting with Jamie Oliver, who describes him as “a modern-day ambassador for wine”, resulted in him coming to London to be the sommelier - in charge of wine - for the acclaimed Fifteen restaurant, where he’s tutor and wine mentor to the youngsters who train there.
“It’s been a brilliant experience - although training that first bunch of trainees was nerve-racking. Most of them hadn’t a clue about wine and I had to strip everything down to the basics which turned out to be great preparation for writing the book.
“I take them through the whole process getting them to taste and smell all the individual ingredients in wine from sugar to tannin powder and tartaric acid. That takes the mystery out of it all and seems to work. Within months most of them are handling and choosing wines with confidence.”
Matt’s irreverent sense of humour shines through - and he’s happy to make Jamie the butt of his jokes, including the time the first set of Fifteen trainees cooked for the Prime Minister at Downing Street.
“Jamie’s got a great sense of humour and we’re always winding each other up with jokes. So I came back to the kitchen after serving the red wine and said, ‘Jamie, I’m so sorry I’ve messed up pretty badly. I’ve just splashed wine on Tony Blair’s trousers’.
“Well, he went white and I thought he was going to be ill he was so stressed out - I told him pretty quickly I was only joking, and we cracked up about it later.”
He describes his other guide, The Juice - a pocket-sized guide to his top 100 wines - as a “a big kids survival guide to planet wine”.
It’s got wines for “if you’re skint, want to make an impression or bling wines where money’s no object”.
And he believes possession of just a few key facts can instantly improve wine skills.
“Just remember there’s more to life than house wine, Chardonnay is not evil, and screwcaps are not an indication of cheap wine.
“Drinking organic wine will not save you from a hangover, more alcohol does not mean better wine, some red wines do go with fish and most importantly, you generally get what you pay for.”
He urges people to ignore point scores awarded to wines.
“They aren’t helpful, nor rarely are the labels on the back. Really it’s more about trying to be a bit more adventurous - so many people stick for life to buying the wines of one country.
“What a waste. There’s so many exciting wines to drink out there, and you needn’t spend more than 7 to get a great bottle if you know what to look for.
“Frankly I’ve discovered that the best thing about wine is that it’s so personal, there’s no right or wrong. It’s like art or music, it’s all down to personal preference.”
Matt says: “Turkey, goose and chicken - the big three bird combo - scream out for something light and red. As a rule, stay clear of wines that are big on both fruit and oak, as these will just swamp the flavours of your food.”
His suggestion for a Christmas lunch wine are:
Allegrini Valpolicella 2003 (7.99 - Philglas & Swiggot/www.philglas-swiggot.co.uk)
Nut roast is a popular alternative to the traditional Christmas lunch. Matt suggests a fruity/juicy new world wine to accompany it:
Veramonte Primus (Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, 2002) from Chile, 9.49 at Sainsbury’s.
He says: “Chilean winemakers have mixed opinions about local red variety Carmenere (car-man-yeah), but nearly all agree that when it’s really good, its awesome!
“Thankfully for us, the wine falls head first into the awesome camp. Lush, fruity, and loaded with aromas of dark currants, sweet-cherry, tobacco, and leather. If you’re a fan of Merlot, and fancy trying a new but similar variety, this one is definitely worth a look.”
• MATT’S WINE OF THE YEAR
Zonte’s Footstep Shiraz/Viognier 2003. An Australian wine available from Sainsbury’s, 7.50.
RICHARD & JUDY WINE GUIDE
Three acclaimed wine experts, Susy Atkins, Joe Wadsack and Jean Marc Sauboua, have combined their knowledge in a wine guide inspired by the ‘Wine Club’ on Richard and Judy’s Channel 4 show, which begins a new six-part series in November. The Richard & Judy Wine Guide, \u215BHarper Collins 16.99\u215C, also hits shelves on Monday November 7.
All the wines are available from www.richardandjudywine.co.uk in half-cases of six, a case of 12, or as part of a mixed case.
• SALMON/FISH STARTER
New Zealand Babich Family Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2005: wonderful fruit intensity with beautifully balanced acidity. 52.99 for six (99.95 for 12) from www.richardandjudywine.co.uk
• MAIN COURSE: TURKEY OR A VEGETARIAN MEAL
Traditionally a classic claret is a good choice, from supermarkets such as Tesco (www.tesco.com), or a Waitrose Special Reserve claret (www.waitrose.com).
An Australian De Bortoli Family Reserve Shiraz 2004, 52.14 for six (94.95 for 12) from www.richardandjudywine.co.uk
Those who want a vegan wine could do no better than a McGuigan Bin 4000 Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, 7. It’s an Australian wine that also ages well over a couple of years if you can wait that long. Available from independent wine sellers or visit www.smithfieldwine.com
Alternatively, for something a little more special but affordable at around 20 a bottle try Chteau Pichon Lalande made from a classic blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It’s ready now, but will keep 10 years and is available from Waitrose.
For other high quality claret also try Berry Bros & Rudd (www.bbr.com), or Averys (www.averys.com).
• MAIN COURSE: DUCK OR GOOSE
Chateau du Pin Bordeaux 2002, or Reserve de la Comtesse 2000 Pauillac, both 33.99 for six (64.99 for 12) from www.richardandjudywine.co.uk
• DESSERT: CHRISTMAS PUDDING
Maury 1928 Solera, available through Averys wine merchants, is absolute golden nectar.
“Immensely rich and chocolatey, with complex, aged characters and undertones of spices, coffee and candied fruits. It goes down a treat with rich gooey puddings.”
14.95 from www.averys.com