Poppy O’Toole has worked hard – rising up the ranks as a chef, training in a Michelin-starred kitchen – but for many years, even she found wine a mystery.
The TikTok star and judge of upcoming series Young MasterChef suggests this is because the wine world “has been as it is forever. Even working front of house at a Michelin-star restaurant, I was intimidated by the sommeliers.”
With terminology like oaky, tannins, legs and brut thrown about, understanding wine can feel a bit daunting – and O’Toole, 27, is by no means the only young person to be befuddled by beaujolais, or confused by cab sav. According to Wine Intelligence research, in 2010 49 per cent of people between 18 and 34 years old were “regular wine drinkers” – but the proportion halved by 2021, becoming 26 per cent.
“I never thought I would get into wine,” O’Toole admits. “There is a bit of masculine snobbery about wine – but also about everything in the food and drink world. There is a boys’ club about these things.”
However, she’s since changed her mind, saying the turning point came when “I drank a malbec with fish and chips, proper fish and chips, and it blew my mind”.
Now, “I am a big wine drinker. I decided to try it because I started to get embarrassed ordering vodka and cokes with a meal. I didn’t know if a dish would suit a wine, and I was intimidated.”
She doesn’t want anyone else to be put off, saying: “People expect you to know it [wine], when actually you can just enjoy it. Exploring it makes you feel a bit posh, like an adult, like you have your stuff together.”
And there’s more reason to get into wine than ever. After the past few years, many of us are searching for ways to connect with friends and loved ones, and O’Toole says: “Sharing a bottle of wine is a social thing.”
Where to start
“The first step is trying white,” O’Toole recommends. “It isn’t as full-bodied and powerful as an intimidating red. A sauvignon blanc is a nice way in – they are fruity and crisp. Make sure you don’t pour a really big glass, have a very small glass – not a pint of wine.”
For O’Toole, the key is getting used to it. “It is a delicacy,” she says. “You need to work to love it sometimes, if you aren’t used to those flavours.”
By then tasting different wines, she says your palate will become more accustomed to the flavours, and you will be able to figure out what works for you.
“Flavour is the most important thing, just go with it,” she advises.
Pairing with food
As a chef, it’s important for O’Toole to know what dishes work with different types of wine.
People expect you to know it [wine], when actually you can just enjoy it. Exploring it makes you feel a bit posh, like an adult, like you have your stuff together
Choosing the right wine can bring out “different notes in food, it’s like adding a seasoning”, she says. “It is like eating something without salt, and then adding it and it’s amazing. It makes it sing.”
For example, O’Toole recommends taking a “chardonnay, which is rich, mellow and dry, and try pairing it with something that is the opposite”.
And she’s also keen on more adventurous combinations. “Like the malbec with fish and chips, pair opposites. If you are drinking a sweeter wine like rosé, pair that with something really savoury, like pork with a spicy sauce. It seems wrong, but it will work.”
O’Toole continues: “This year, I’ve been working with Dark Horse to encourage people to follow their own path and do things a little differently.”
Wine and potatoes might not seem like an obvious pairing, but as the self-proclaimed “potato queen” who went viral on TikTok for her 15-hour potato recipe, it made sense for O’Toole to team up spuds with Dark Horse wine.
“I did potatoes, obviously. Honey garlic goat’s cheese chips, paired with a glass of crisp Dark Horse chardonnay. The wine’s fruity flavours and notes of toasted oak are perfectly complemented by these elevated fries.”
Follow @poppy_cooks and @darkhorsewine to find inspiration for your next adventure with Dark Horse Wine, whatever and wherever that may be.
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