Thursday, December 13, 2007

Montepulciano's Revenge

The Woods family has been laid low for much of the last fortnight by various bugs that have caused problems at both ends of our personal plumbing systems. While I haven't had it as bad as Alex (aged 6), to be honest the thought of tasting the dozens of wines building up on the samples rack holds about as much appeal as a nail pie (when my mother used to catch me biting my nails, she'd say, 'If you like them so much, I'll make you a nail pie.' It used to - it still does - conjure up images of something akin to a miniature cheese and onion pie, and it soon put paid to my chomping).

But my experiences in the bathroom in recent times reminded me of an episode a few years ago in South Africa when...well you'll have to read on to find out more. This piece was never published - the editor of one wine magazine rejected it for being 'too scatological'. I could write that Pinot Noir smelt of horseshit, or Sauvignon Blanc of cat pee, but human bodily products were for some reason out of bounds. Anyway...


The number of rules by which I run my life has recently increased by one. To 'Never eat at anywhere called Mom's' and 'Never play cards with anyone called Doc', I have added 'Never believe it when a South African says, "Just a light meal" '.

Trips abroad are probably the best part of a wine writer's life. No amount of books read or wines tasted can compare with actually visiting a region and seeing winemakers on their own turf. Tasting from dawn till dusk can be tiring, but the most tiring bit is all the eating. As well as working lunches, dinners and occasionally breakfasts, wine folk adhere to the Pooh Bear school of catering, in that there is invariably 'a little something' lurking behind the spittoon. It may just be a few crackers, or it may be a platter groaning under the weight of cooked meats and home-made Speck. But wine writers never learn. 'Just say "No" to cheese' should be our motto, but we are incapable of following this rule.

So anyway, South Africa. I was invited to be part of the South African Airways panel to pick the wines that would go on SAA flights for 2002, and I thought I might as well tack on a few days of winery visits before the tasting began. The task of organising these fell to the very efficient Andre Morgenthal of WOSA - Wines of South Africa. Andre's programme ran like clockwork but the writing was on the wall from the start. Straight from the airport on the Tuesday morning, Andre drove me down to Constantia where after 'freshening up' (shit, shave, shower, in other words), I went to the first meeting - in a restaurant.

The next few days are something of a blur of wines, meals and more meals, none of them small. I have in front of me the menu from an evening at the delightful Pontac Manor in Paarl (heated floors in the bathrooms - say hello to Stanley from me) with a group of Paarl Vintners. After a tasting of around 25 wines, we sat down for dinner - all six courses of it, including Truffelled Risotto and Lemon Grass-speared Springbok. Mercifully, the portions were actually of a sensible size, and when I'd finished my Baked Almond Crusted Chevin [a goat's cheese] served with Thyme Honey and Grilled Fruit, I didn't feel as Dumbo-like as on other occasions.

Things really got out of hand with The Michael Fridjhon Wine Experience. No, it's not a '60's soul review, but a two-day gastrofest organised by the eponymous Fridj and his sparky wife Janice. Ah, the silky Cheval Blanc 1985, ah, the supremely elegant 1986 Drouhin Marquis de Laguiche Montrachet, ah, the heady 1953 KWV Muscadel Jerepigo. But oh, the rich meals, and in particular aargh, the vast Sunday Brunch of literally dozens of different dishes washed down with nine different Champagnes.

It was after the 'Experience' that my digestive system joined my trousers in mutters of complaint, and these mutterings grew louder as we set into the SAA tasting. Strangely, the wines (150 on Day 1, 130 on Day 2) presented little problem, but as soon as food entered the equation, my digestive system said to any solid matter introduced - 'Reject.' I lost count of the number of times I sat there doing my Neville Chamberlain impersonation ('I have in my hand, a piece of paper etc.'). 'Same thing happened to me last year,' someone said to me at dinner one night. 'Took me a week before I could cough with confidence. Before that, well, every time, it was like a thousand angry sparrows fleeing the nest.' It was at that point that I turned dinner napkin-white and left, with directions of where I could find the strongest medicine in the Cape.

And thankfully it worked, so well in fact that I didn't have need of 'the facilities' until I returned to England three days later. But now I know what Andre and Co. were up too, and I'm being extra vigilant. Christmas is coming and I live in fear of waking up to see a hoard of South Africans descending on me with a large cleaver and an over-sized roll of Bacofoil...

Monday, December 03, 2007

Australia - the country that might not let a Jago buy...

Tesco's wine head honcho Dan Jago recently went Down Under to talk to the Winemakers' Federation of Australia, and found himself ruffling a few feathers. One of his comments was that "Wines with 13 or 14% alcohol just aren't exciting any more and customers are currently looking to the Old World for more refreshing wines. If you don't change, others will change faster."

How you unpack such a comment depends on what you read into it. Is Jago saying that there is nothing exciting or refreshing at such alcohol levels? I don't think so. But his point is that the reliable, fruity, easy drinking fruity wines for which Australia has developed a huge following can now be found in other countries. Moreover, wine drinkers who cut their teeth on such styles are now asking what's next? And since they feel they've 'done' Australia, then they're looking elsewhere for their wine kicks.

While Australia has plenty to offer higher up the scale, it currently doesn't have vast amounts of wine in significantly different styles at supermarket price levels with which to win back such people. Yet with drinkers in other countries still discovering Australian wine for the first time and being prepared to pay more than we stingy Brits, you have to wonder whether the Aussies need to be too concerned about a whinging Pom.

But as soon as winemakers start responding to criticism from major customers in the sort of language used in the Age piece by Bruce Tyrrell and Rick Burge, I get a bit worried. Such a head-in-the-sand, 'the customer is always wrong' approach is not what earned Australia its place in UK wine hearts. In fact, it's more reminiscent of views expressed by many across the Channel in France - and look what's happening to their wine sales...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

USB Wine

Stuck for Christmas presents for the wine lover in your life? Then try this fantastic new product developed in France which is sure to revolutionise your wine drinking.

Why bother having a cellar when the great vintages of the world are all available at one click....

Friday, November 23, 2007

I know, I know, I know...

Had an e-mail from my mate, old boss and fellow Taste-In colleague Robert Joseph recently in response to this post. This is the man from whom I learned inordinate amounts, not least the art of missing publishers' deadlines with the maximum of grace, but since neither of us had much in the way of business acumen - great ideas, yes; business acumen, no - then our partnership was doomed to failure. Anyway, the response from Bobby Jo (as some will insist on calling him) was that while he agreed with me both on the packaging and on Oddbins shaky future, he thought that the Cachet wines did stack up as part of the riposte from France to outside competition.

And yes, I realise that France needs to re-establish itself in the eyes of many wine drinkers, especially those who have cut their wine teeth not on the Old World but on the New World. But... And here's where my Latin O Level for once proves useful. I usually approach unknown Australian Shirazes with a suspicion born of too many examples of over-manipulated wines, but The Red Sedan 2005 McLaren Vale Shiraz is going down a storm tonight, perhaps because of the absence of oak, which gives the iron-rich fruit flavours a chance to shine (and it's getting better as I type - I fear for the rest of the bottle).

Anyway, back on the subject, Latin. Correct me if I'm wrong but 'McLaren Vale' means 'farewell McLaren' - quite appropriate for this week. Just as England proved against Croatia on Wednesday that despite the quality of the players on the field, the up-tempo, end-to-end, hoof-it-up-the-field game has had its day, so it might be time for some of the movers and shakers of the south of France to move on from the desire to please the beginner's palate. In other words, they should be looking for life beyond ripeness, fresh fruit and, err, that's it, which is nice in the short term, but a long term yawn.

So sorry Robert, but Cachet is a long term yawn. If all it provides is simple fruit with the right varietal names on the label, then other countries do it cheaper and - vital - more reliably. While I hate the idea of French wine sales remaining in the doldrums, I'd rather they were revitalised by better wines than Cachet.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Getting bladdered....

In this news story from Australia, getting bladdered takes on a completely new meaning. Reminds me of the Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy where someone says that an impending and not very pleasurable experience is 'like getting drunk'. What's the problem with that, asks someone else. 'You ask a glass of water...'

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wine & Spirit - How High Is Too High?

Just written a piece for Wine & Spirit about High Alcohol wines. I'll update this post when it's eventually published, but in the meantime, here are the wines I tasted for it.

Marquesa de la Cruz Garnacha 2006, Campo de Borja (14.5%)
Juan Gil Silver Label Monastrell Jumilla 2004 (14%)
Bodega Mustiguillo Finca Terrerazo 2005 (14.5%)
Macià Batle Binissalem Mallorca 2004 (14.5%)

La Bastide Saint Vincent Gigondas 2004 (14%)
Domaine Madeloc Collioure 2003 (15%)
Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de l’Olive 2005 (15%)

Tullymore Vineyards Merlot 2003, Coonawarra (14%)
Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Katnook Estate (14.5%)
Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz 2005, South Australia (14%)
Kirribilly Estate Shiraz 2004, Langhorne Creek (14.5%)
Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2005, Clare Valley (15%)
Leylines Shiraz 2004, South Australia (15%)

Lagarde Henry Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Mendoza (14.5%)
Soluna Premium Malbec 2005, Mendoza (14%)
Soluna Premium Organic Malbec 2005, Mendoza (14%)

Knockon Wood Reserve 2006, Western Cape (14.5%)
Cloof Lynchpin 2005, Darling (14.5%)

De Martino Colluvia Syrah 2006, Choapa Valley (14.5%)

Walker’s Pass Private Bin Reserve Zinfandel 2005, Santa Clara (14.5%)
Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2005 (14.5%)

Morella Old Vine Primitivo 2003, Puglia (15%)

When is a region not a region?

Ah, regionality and wine, eh? Dontcha just love it? There's a story on Decanter's web site about how the Aussies are struggling with the problem of having a wine blended from different states. The current SE Australia designation only covers the states in the south and east, and means that any inclusion of Western Australian wine is limited to 15%. With WA currently being the one place destined to have a surfeit of grog in the next few years, unsurprisingly those out east are looking at ways of getting their hands on the precious stuff. But there is opposition from some who see the creation of a new designation called Greater Australia or Southern Australia as denying regionality. Get real guys. The whole point of the SE Aus appellation is to produce a cheap homogenous blended wine, so talking of any regional identity is pointless. Terroir? Schmerroir.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm a fully paid up member of the terroir club - where the grapes are grown has a definite impact on a wine’s flavour. But I'm also a realist. The main factor in the flavour of a wine is not terroir, it is human influence. The ways in which grapes are grown and wine is made outweigh the impact of terroir, and this is as much true in Australia as in France. Yet the Australians, or at least those in charge of the wine industry, seem hell-bent on pursuing regionality, even though most of the wines are marked more by winemaking than region. Further proof of this was provided by a tasting of Clare Valley wines last week. Yes, there were some great wines in which the character of the region shone through, but they were outnumbered by ones where the word ‘made’ appeared in my notes.

Look at it this way. Does Clarendon Hills have a following because it tastes of McLaren Vale or because it tastes of Clarendon Hills? Ditto for Henschke, Cullen, Brokenwood, Yarra Yering, Bannockburn and their respected regions. In an ideal world, all wine would be made by great producers in great regions. But it isn’t, so the question we have to answer is this - which would we rather have: a wine made by a so-so producer in a great region or one made by a great producer in a so-so region? Anyone who wouldn’t take the second option every time is deluding themselves.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wayne, Women and Song

First time I've ever linked to The Sun, but couldn't resist this story about how Wayne Rooney was developing a taste for the grape. Judging by the line up for yesterday's game against Blackburn, he's not the only wino in Fergie's side...

Edwine Van der Sar
Rioja Ferdinand
Patrice Evramoira
Wes Cantenac-Brown
La Mancha Vidic
Anderson D'Oliveira
Owen Haagreaves
Cristiano Ron-Aldo Conterno
Rion Giggs
Carlos Jerez
Louis Saar

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Kipper Wines

Not Kipper Tie, as in what Noddy Holder enjoys as liquid refreshment. No, here, I'm talking about those wines that you hardly ever drink at home, but instantly go for when you see them on a list. I can't remember ever cooking kippers in my current abode - I'm married to an anti-kipperite - but whenever I see them on a breakfast menu, I'm straight in there.

So, kipper wines.... For me, they're probably old wines. Not classic old wines, but humble bottles that you wouldn't normally think of ageing. So if I find a list that has old Beaujolais, Muscadet, Valpolicella, Alsace Pinot Gris, Cotes du Rhone and others of that ilk, I'll happily shell out for them. Sometimes they're past it, but a lot of the time they're surprisingly good, and attractively priced too.

However, I'd draw the line at having them with my breakfast kippers...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I Can't Believe It's Not Better

The line-up:-
Robert Joseph – founder of What Wine (which became Wine, Which became Wine International which became Wine & Spirit) and inventor of the International Wine Challenge (he’s also a former boss of mine).
Allan Cheesman – ex-Sainsbury’s guru largely responsible for beginning the supermarket wine revolution.
Neil Tully – a Master of Wine whose company Amphora now designs dozens of the best wine labels in the UK.
Lynne Whittaker – marketing wizard

Surely a dream team to be involved in the creation of a new wine brand. So why have they come up with something as poor as Cachet? I’ve just tasted the range of three vin de pays from southern France – Viog/Chard, a Pinot Rosé and a Shiraz/Cabernet – and they’re just not what French wine is about. Where's the passion, the edge of arrogance, the Gallic charm? The best thing that can be said about them is that they’re not sweet, but when you hear that they’ve been created with the UK consumer in mind, you have to shudder.

They’re from Castel, the French behemoth that owns Oddbins, and of course, the wines are now available in said store on a 6 for 5 promo. Castel may be introducing a little business efficiency to Oddbins, but if it means that stores get overwhelmed with wines like this and the equally dire Oddbins Selection, then bring back the days of bad balance sheets. My only hope (vain, I know) is that the people involved were paid not in cash but in Cachet. A month of drinking this tired trio (and of looking at the pedestrian labels) is what they deserve.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Knives in West 11

A Clash song, for those querying the title. Yes, 1977, the year when I made the fateful decision to study O Level Geography - why, oh why? Our teacher, unfortunately a distant relative, would tell us useful things like 'it rains most in the wet season'. He was one of those pople who was really a sports teacher but got drafted in to teach other subjects - I use the word 'teach' loosely. But the music made up for it. Fond memories of being a Part Time Punk and pogoing in the bedroom to too many bands to mention, including the aforementioned Clash, but the bittersweet Buzzcocks were also close to my heart.

In the world of wine, Europe had a pretty dismal vintage, except in Portugal, where many of the producers trotted out vintage ports that were initially considered to be among the finest of the 20th century. Hmmm. I've done reasonably extensive tastings a few times, and the most recent line-up this week only confirmed my suspicions that this isn't a great year. These are wines that for the most part are already ready (and in some instance past it), and which offer little of the passion I've found in great port.

Here goes...
Taylor - 2 off bottles
Fonseca - clean, supple, figgy, very mature, nice honest flavours but hardly complex
Croft - solid, spirity, has depth and fruit but again rather simple, has length but hints of bandage on finish - brett?
Delaforce - dense, gutsy fruit, still feel young and lively, spicy with potential to improve further. Close to best of the day.
Niepoort - sweetest so far, lots of juicy berry fruit feels young, promising but not huge complexity.
Niepoort Garrafeira (as above but taken out of wood early and stored in demi-johns, apparently) - solid, iron-rich tinges to buxom berry and herb flavours, hints of minerals, v tasty oddity.
Sandeman - feels rather dank (two bottles the same), fruit still alive but again sweet and too simple
Dow - gutsy, very solid, has lots of poke and grip, fragrant spicy finish. Star of the tasting
Warre - rather overblown, bretty, not very enjoyable, nor well balanced, sweet jammy finish.
Graham - lively, tangy, still lots of development ahead, juicy fig, slightly jammy berry, would like a little more complexity but this is still good kit
Gould Campbell - soft, tender, spicy style, plenty of fruit still, now at its peak, but no sign of fading. Surpisingly good
Quarles Harris - rich, sweet, simple but still with a spirity bite, lacks complexity but easy honest drink
Smith Woodhouse - juicy and fresh still, long and balanced, but again I expect more complexity of a supposedly great vintage.

Look on winesearcher for stockists. While the wines still haven't reached silly prices, there's better wine available for the money. Those looking for affordable mature vintage port for this Christmas should look at Marks & Spencer own label 1991 at just £22.99, a gently mature figgy delight - the corks reveal that it's from Morgan, a label from Croft.

Friday, October 26, 2007


It happened again last night. Was talking to someone after a wine tasting I'd done in conjunction with Taste-In and Spiral Cellars at the Smallbone Kitchens showroom in Harrogate. The wines had gone down pretty well, but afterwards, someone came and said that they hadn't like the two reds (Henschke's Henry's Seven and Cristia Chateauneuf) - 'I prefer something smoother.'

Smooth. It's a word that lots of people use when they're describing wines they like, and bully boy that I am, I aim to do all I can to eradicate it from their vinous vocabulary. Because when I think of smooth, I think of mustard coloured nylon rollneck sweaters. I think of grey plastic zip-up mens shoes. I think of Cliff Richard. Elevator muzak. Blue Stratos. You get the picture.

When I drink wine, I don't want a glass of Kenny G. I want something with a bit of personality, something with maybe a shady secret or two in its past, something your mother might tut at. So while I don't want wine that feels like a mouthful of barbed wire, I do like a little rough with my smooth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Scoring, Scoff and Sweetcorn

If you've not come across Scoff, it's a food & wine e-newsletter that brings open-source thinking to the food & wine publishing world. So the contributors and the editors just do it for the love of sharing knowledge - makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The latest edition contains a slightly toned-down version of a posting I did a couple of months ago about scoring wines. Since when, I've been toying with the addition of a new category called Sweetcorn Wines. You know when you eat sweetcorn, how, a few hours later when you're in the bathroom, you look in the loo and, well, I think you know what I mean. You wonder what was the point of actually putting it in your body in the first place - is it just a vehicle for eating lots of peppery butter? I'm yet to decide whether a sweetcorn wine should be one that you might just as well pour down the bog for all the good it has done to your body, or whether it's the sort of wine that tastes like it's already been through someone's personal plumbing. Any thoughts?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ein Zwei Dry - the battle of the tastings

Like buses, innit? You wait ages for a post and then two come along in quick succession. Don't be surprised to see more of the ammo accumulated over the past several weeks of tasting in the next few days.

Two of the main events of the past fortnight have been generic tastings of wines from both Chile and South Africa. 'Generic' is one of those words that wine folk casually slip into sentences and assume that everyone else knows what they mean. Just asked my wife what she thought a generic tasting was - the silence was deafening... So for all you normal people, a generic tasting is simply one where all the wines are from the same place.

So yes, Chile and South Africa, both countries with enormous potential, rapidly improving wines, increasingly experienced winemakers and - cue several more condescending clichés... I wrote earlier today of how we wine writers are on the receiving end of some rather uninspiring literature from wine companies, but it has to be said that we produce considerable amounts of gumf ourselves.

Anyway, Chile and South Africa. A test of how good someone's wines are is whether you want to rush home and drink more of the same or head for something completely different. I remember going to New Zealand a decade or so ago. When I returned home, the wine I craved most was grungy, feral Rioja Gran Reserva - there's only so much wine nice-ness a man can take... On my first trips to both Chile and South Africa, I came back pining for other people's wines. Having visited both in the last couple of years, I'm pleased to say that's changed. Both make Sauvignon Blanc I want to drink, and have a rapidly growing arsenal of other trump cards, to mix a metaphor or two.

But it wasn't the wines that impressed me at this autumn's tastings - it was the hand-dryers in the loos. The SA bash was at Earl's Court, and those who went to spend a penny found themselves face to face with the XLERATOR. Underneath it's sculpted nozzle was the slogan 'Feel The Power'. Yeah, right, I thought, feel the....WHOOOSH. The skin on my hands actually rippled under the Xlerator's jet of hot air. Any drops of water were blown off in a wave of shock and awe, and if I'd held my hands under the beast for any longer, I'm sure the same would have happened to my fingernails.

The following week, Chile was turning on the heat. The Xlerator was a hard act to follow, but at the Business Design Centre in Islington, they have hand-dryers that were every bit as good in the form of the Dyson Airblade. Yes, Dyson, as in those coloured vacs that people seem to either love or loathe. Where the Xlerator pummelled you into dryness, the Airblade nuzzled with its gentle yet speedy caress. I was hooked. I drank loads of water just so I could visit the gents as many times as possible. Which is why I'm writing this from a rather cramped police cell where paper-towel rationing is in operation...

OK, so I made the last bit up. And I assure you I will not allow the quality of the 'facilities' to influence my critical faculties. But having sampled several red wines at both events, it was surprisingly easy to draw analogies between the hand-dryers and several of the wines. Too many South African reds still seem to follow the Xlerator approach, with brawn rather than brain being the order of the day (even if they don't make your hands ripple). Meanwhile the Chilean reds are quieter and don't come with slogans like 'Feel The Power', but achieve the purpose they've been made for with increasing efficiency and élan.

COMING SOON - A comparison of Australian and New Zealand Chardonnays based on the quality of the bog roll at the generic tastings. A head to head between Tough Tiger Toilet Tissue (smooth on the top, rough on the bottom) and Dainty Double Damask Derrière Dampers (lightly moist for pampered posteriors - those with piles, in other words...)

What women, sorry, wine writers want...

If posts have been scarce in the last couple of weeks, it's because September and October are the tasting season, during which every wine company and its dog seems to want to show of their wares. Attempting to get to three or four events a day is not uncommon, and this of course has its repercussions. If you're sensible, you stand up and spit (ah, whatever happened to The Members?) all day before returning to bed early and not too bloated in order to be up again the following day (and the day after) for more of the same. If you're NOT sensible, then you accept an invitation out for dinner/a BBQ/pisco frenzy or worse. When it comes to post-tasting drinks, the modus operandi is one is just right, two is too many, and three is not enough. Even seasoned wine writers can forget that pouring close to 200 wines into your mouth over the course of a few hours actually has an effect on your constitution. Suddenly what you had talked yourself into believing was going to be a low-key evening has turned into a marathon session. It's two in the morning and you are either on the table or under it. If you're lucky, your clothes are still with you. And you still have to be back at the spittoon in a few hours time.

This autumn, apart from a few fuzzy bits towards the end of a Cloudy Bay dinner, I've erred on the sensible side, but even so, the prospect of a few quiet days off the tasting floor are most welcome - OK, I'm a wine wimp. But today, I'm a wine wimp on a mission, and my target is wine companies who don't understand what wine writers want. I'm not the first person to mouth off on such a topic. Only today, I've seen this piece by Emile Joubert about the invitations and press releases that we're sent. It's positively mild-mannered compared with a major rant from Wine-X magazine, a publication which can/could (it's currently in a strange state of suspension) miss as often as it hits, but which is spot on in this instance. Max Allen also hits the nail on the head with this piece - should be required reading for anyone sending out samples.

While I'm very much in agreement with Max and the others on what they write, none of them touches on my current gripe. Information. I'm not talking here about show awards or cuttings from other publications, I'm talking about the sort of info that wine companies provide that they seem to genuinely think will be of benefit to us.

Not sure what I'm on about? Then let me give you an example from the recent (and otherwise excellent) Waitrose tasting. Torres San Medin Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2007 - '100% Cabernet Sauvignon from clay loam soils. Harvested at 10 tonnes/ha. 24 hours skin contact then pneumatic pressing. Fermented over 21 days in stainless steel at 18ºC. Bottled May 2007.' Or how about this for José Maria da Fonseca Periquita White 2006? ‘80% Moscatel de Sétubal, 20% Arinto from the sandy soils of the Sétubal peninsula. Vines up to 50 years old, with low density plantings. Grapes harvested in late Aug/early Sept at approx. 7 tonnes/ha. 12% of Moscatel is oak-fermented, the rest in stainless. Suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Alc 11.8%, TA 7,2 g/l, pH 3.04, RS 5.0 g/l.’ Now for wine anoraks (sorry Jamie), maybe such details might be useful in unravelling quite why a wine tastes the way it does. But among normal people, does anyone give a stuff about percentages and tonnes per hectare?

Good wine writing should make you thirsty; lists of stats just makes you want to turn the page. I'm not picking on Waitrose - their tasting pamphlet was just the closest to hand. But too often, when I ask companies for interesting info on a wine or its producer, this is the sort of tedia they send. I'd much rather hear that the winemaker used to manage the Bhundu Boys (Chapel Down's Owen Elias), why the vineyard has such an unusual name (look at Wooing Tree, for example) or that the winery pet is a 3-legged cat. Alas, Spook, Cloudy Bay's 3-legged feline, is no longer with us. But her name and deficiency in the limb department is often cited when I try to explain to gawping PRs and wine companies that I'm not especially interested as to whether the 2005 has 3% more Cabernet Sauvignon than the 2004 and would rather hear something a little more enthralling.

Can't sign off a blog on tasting notes without a gem from the recent Tesco press tasting. Relating to Tesco Finest* Beyers Truter Pinotage 2006. 'The Tesco Finest Pinotage is a block selected Pinotage: therefore certain blocks of Pinotage were selected for the purpose of making the Tesco Finest.' Quite...

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The wife's away, the mouse will play

I'm hoping my lovely wife Jill, set to return from a few days away in France with a friend of ours, doesn't read this. Because it's all about being selfish. OK, maybe not exactly selfish, but self-indulgent - there's at least a finely honed Sabatier knife's-width between the two...

The bottom line is this - which are the bottles I'd like to share with as few people as possible? I know, I know, enjoying wine is all about generosity - I've read those pieces, I've even written some of them. They usually involve a road-to-Emmaus type passage in which the author describes being given a thimbleful of Chateau Latour on his thirteenth birthday/at his first tutorial/just after snorting coke off a gullible groupie's navel before a gig at [insert venue of your choice]. Afterwards, wine suddenly made sense - cue misty images and harp music.

But we don't live on clouds permanently. And tonight, I'm rather glad that there's only me to enjoy what's left of the 1988 Chateau L'Evangile from Pomerol. It's a very good chateau, but not the best, ditto for vintage, but this weekend, it's been a joy to behold - I would have offered Alex (aged 6) a sip, but it would have clashed with his fish fingers and corn on the cob. So I was left alone to bathe in its suave, cedary beauty, its confident yet never brash fruit and its relaxed but not supine structure.

Jill would probably have enjoyed it, but not as much as I have. And so my darling, sorry you're married to such a selfish, sorry, self-indulgent wine snob, I'll leave some of your favourite elixir (usually Grenache but riper Pinots also do the biz) for you the next time I go away. I'm off now to warm the bed for your return...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Wine ‘bad hair’ days

Will report on how accurate my predictions were of the SW France tasting very soon. In the meantime, let's talk about wine ‘bad hair’ days.

Yes, I know it’s just fermented grape juice. Yes, I know that if wine were to disappear, the world would not. And yes, I know that a whole swathe of people drink wine more for its effect than its flavour. But for those sad, sad folk like me – and we are a significant minority – who take serious note of what we are swilling around our tulip-shaped glasses, then let’s talk about something that takes the convoluted world of wine into an even more complicated realm.

But let’s start by taking a look at ourselves. Have you ever had those days when you wake up and the world is just peachy, where you look in the mirror and nod approvingly, where the glass is not just half full, but it’s half full of Krug-flavoured ambrosia? And equally, have you had those days where the world craps on the shoulder of your cream-coloured leather jacket, where all of the 13 massive pustules on your face seems to be throbbing in sympathy with every Wi-Fi signal in the vicinity, where the glass is half empty – and the remnants are three-day-old white Zin, complete with a fag-end?

Well wines have such days. I’ve just been to the Tesco autumn wine tasting. 2007 has seen the wine department of Britain’s largest supermarket revelling in both critical and financial success, thanks to some inspired appointments at the Cheshunt HQ, most noticeably the arrival 18 months ago of Jan Dago, sorry, Dan Jago from Bibendum as Head Wine Honcho. His eyes are too close together, his dancing is questionable, but the man loves wine. At the spring 2007 tasting, he told me that after a year in the job, he’d managed to get the range to a stage where he’d happily take home the majority of the wines they were showing for dinner – and as his wife is an ex-Victoria Wine buyer, then he can’t turn up with any old muck.

So I arrived at the tasting expecting the selection to be as inspiring as that that had been on show in spring. And it wasn’t. But – and this is where things start getting a bit bonkers – it wasn’t the fault of the wines. Nor the tasters. It was just one of those days when the wines weren’t performing as they should have done. Anyone who has children will have experienced one of those moments when you try and persuade your offspring to repeat the enthusiastic rendition of Baa-Baa Black Sheep that so entranced you the night before for the benefit of the assembled relatives/friends/neighbours/whatever. And they don’t. So it was with the wines today. They were sulky children. They were supposed to sing. They didn’t.

Some wine companies – Marks & Spencer is one – now plan their tastings according to the biodynamic calendar. The theory goes that if extra-terrestrial influences can affect the tides, then they should also have an impact on other liquids, including wine. The tasting fell on a leaf day – the sort of day that M&S avoids since it accentuates any green/earthy notes in a wine. And true to form, traditionally-styled, (usually) European wines with firm tannic structures looked rather tough and charmless. Meanwhile, those wines that were on the rather buxom, overripe side acquired a welcome air of restraint. A Masi Amarone looked more like a Ripasso. A Californian Pinot acquired some Burgundian elegance. And Château Musar, a love-hate wine if ever there was one, lost much of its volatility and looked positively well-behaved.

I’m not excusing Tesco for some of the wines on show. There were several that even on a good day would have failed to excite. But overall, I think the wines were suffering a bad hair day – we all have them, even Patrick Stewart. On another occasion, this would have been a far more inspiring event. However, it does beg a question for those of us drinking wines at home – do we need to be looking at the biodynamic calendar when planning to open some of our more temperamental bottles?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A wasted week?

Just preparing for a trip to London for three days of tasting. I'll probably put 300 different wines in my mouth, and I'll probably end up writing about a maximum of 15 of them. In other words, more than 95% of what I sample will go unreported.

Is it worth the effort? And equally importantly, is it worth the people who have invited me to these events inviting me again? Personally, I do find it worth the effort - most of the time. I find tasting and talking about wine to be the quickest way of improving my knowledge. It's like exercise - the more you do it, the fitter you get, and if you stop doing it, you soon run to seed. There are some writers who do taste more than I do - Matthew Jukes gets through phenomenal amounts - but not many. It means that I'm reasonably qualified to give opinions (both to readers and to producers/importers/etc) on what I try, and to compare wines with those of other parts of the world. And obviously, those who invite me wouldn't keep on inviting me if I were just taking the piss and turning up for the free lunch.

And yet... Tomorrow, I'll be spending probably 3-4 hours tasting through wines from South West France. It's an event organised by the French, so there will be little information of use in the catalogue - I may get an importer's name if I'm lucky, but nothing useful like UK prices and stockists. Which will then mean more hours collating info on the wines I'm interested in, a few disappointments when I find that a particular wine is only available by the palate, and several weeks wait while the winery sends me another sample from France - I always try to retaste wines I'm going to recommend in the cold light of my kitchen, away from the persuasive charms of well-dressed young Frenchwomen...

Wouldn't it just be easier to sit on my bum and ring up my favourite importers for some samples? Perhaps. But that's how wine writers get lazy. As I said earlier, there is that danger of running to seed and becoming complacent, being stuck with opinions that were valid five years ago but which are now out of date. So I will be there tomorrow, putting in the hours and hoping to be pleasantly surprised. Expect my verdict on one of the unsung regions of the French wine world here in the coming days.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Manky onions as wine

A split second after the knife descended, I realised I was in the presence of a manky onion. You know the ones I mean, where the knife squashes rather than penetrates, where there's a whiff of vinegar, and where some of the layers have turned translucent. If you're feeling thrifty, you can chop out the good layers and save the rest, but today, said onion was rapidly filed under B (for Bin). If I'd spent more time in the shop squeezing my onions (settle...), maybe I'd not be in such a situation, but I didn't so I was.

And the same is true with wine. Manky onions abound in wine shops and on restaurant lists. Bottles that have been badly stored. Vintages that should have been pensioned off. Wines that quite simply were bad in the first place. And - it's true - bottles that were simply having bad hair days. There's nothing you can do about the last situation. Even Jimi Hendrix went out of tune from time to time. But for the others, you're going to have to rely on experience. The more you taste, the more you should be able to tust your own tastebuds to know what's good and what's not. If you find themes emerging, then vote with your feet - or should that be with your Lafite?

Friday, September 07, 2007

Let's parlais winespeak

They say: We're rationalising our range
They really mean: The labels have changed and the price has gone up.

They say: It's a blend of premium grape varieties
They really mean: Our wine is cheap

They say: We ferment at cool temperature to retain maximum fruit intensity
They really mean: This tastes of bubble gum and sherbet

They say: We left a small amount of residual sugar to lift the flavour
They really mean: It doesn't taste of anything, but it's sweet

They say: We picked early to retain some acidity.
They really mean: It's sharp and tasteless, but the yields were huge.

They say: It's an early drinking light wine
They really mean: It's got no flavour and won't last the year out

They say: The grapes are picked at maximum ripeness
They really mean: The grapes are picked too late

They say: The acidity and tannin will soften with age
They really mean: The acidity and tannin will not soften with age

They say: We are looking to expand into sparkling wine
They really mean: We are looking to make some money from sparkling wine

They say: We are looking to expand
They really mean: We are looking to improve our cashflow

They say: The UK market is very important to us
They really mean: The UK press is very important to us

They say: We've had some interesting results
They really mean: We've had some disgusting results, but Domestos are interested.

They say: The label is a freeform depiction of the sunset over the nearby lake
They really mean: The artist likes The Grateful Dead

They say: Our winemaker trained at Geisenheim
They really mean: We don't make reds

They say: My family have been making wine in California for many generations
They really mean: My grandfather was a bootlegger

They say: Our aim is to educate the wine drinker
They really mean: Our aim is to fleece the wine drinker

They say: We have stopped using lead capsules in order to promote 'green' values
They really mean: Plastic capsules are cheaper

They say: We practice a policy of minimum intervention
They really mean: Our wine is expensive

They say: We are experimenting with Italian and Rhone varieties
They really mean: Our wine is expensive

They say: The winemaker regularly travels to compare notes with producers in other areas
They really mean: Our wine is expensive

They say: This wine is best with marinated swordfish
They really mean: We opened several bottles, and ate several meals, and it went least badly with swordfish.

They say: The perfect partner for raw scallops marinated in dill and paprika
They really mean: Lousy with food

They say: It's an ideal restaurant wine
They really mean: It doesn't taste of anything, but the label's nice.

They say: This usually proves popular with the ladies
They really mean: It's sweet/pink

They say: Our wines are designed to sit on the same table as the top French ones
They really mean: We make ludicrously expensive Cabernet and Chardonnay

They say: We were the first to plant up in these hills back in the late 60s
They really mean: We also grow dope

They say: I’m not sure if I understand what you mean
They really mean: Our wine is expensive, flavourless and too tannic

They say: These are the results of our exciting new winemaking project
They really mean: These are clean but boring wines made to a price point by a foreigner

They say: The ideal partner for fish, chicken and pasta
They really mean: OK, so it doesn’t taste of anything

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Night of the Living Sauvignon....

This really shouldn't happen. I posted 3, three, THREE weeks ago about a South African Sauvignon Blanc tasting I was in the middle of. That night , some friends came round and relieved me of a few of the 90+% full bottles that I'd been sampling. But there were still several bottles hanging around which I hadn't disposed of thoughtfully - that's right, I just don't have enough friends...

Anyway, on return from France, brown and bruised (from overexerting myself on the Jungle Adventure parcours at a ski resort called Les Orres), they were still sitting there in the kitchen. Oh well, in for a penny and all that. So I tried one. And another. And another. And gadzooks, ods bodikins and all the rest, they were still astonishingly fresh. Some of them were actually better than when I first tried them over a fortnight earlier. What's more, there were a couple of older bottles from the excellent Cape Point vineyard in, er, Cape Point (over the hill from Constantia, imported by Yeo & Co), the 2001 and 2003, which had been sitting by the window where they would have had three hours of sun on those days in the last half of August when the sun actually shone. They should have been dead, but no, they were still wonderfully alive and zesty.

Does this mean that I'm going to recommend opening bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and decanting them a couple of days before serving? No, but it does seem to indicate that all those who put Sauvignon in the DYA - drink youngest available - category may not be 100% right. After all, good Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé can cope with bottle age, so why not Cape Sauvignon?

Look out for the picks from the tasting in my piece of Cape Sauvignon in a forthcoming issue of Decanter magazine.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pink Chardonnay Frizzante

No, the title of this post is not a hoax. Such a wine already exists at £4.98 in Asda. According to the press release from Buckingham Vintners, 'It has been tailor-made for the consumer, with five essential criteria: it is first to market, it's pink, it's sparkling, it's made from Chardonnay and it's less than £5 per bottle.'

I'm not complaining about Buckingham and Schenk Italia for developing such a wine - I'm sure it'll sell by the bucketful. And I'm not going to slag off those who buy such a wine. What depresses me is that package of five criteria. There's nothing wrong with each when taken individually, but together... So, so sad. And we wine writers/communicators are as much to blame as anyone for not getting across the message of wine in a more user-friendly way. Slapped wrists and a bottle of Yellow Tail all round.

So what would my five essential criteria be for a consumer-friendly wine? How about...

1) It has a story to tell. And not one about oak barrels and medals. Weird people, three-legged cats and haunted trees are good.
2) It brings a smile to your face. Could be the label, could be the price, could be the flavour, could be all three.
3) It makes other wines jealous. In the sort of way that you look with a mixture of envy and admiration at someone who does things better than you.
4) It has a slightly warped side. Maybe it's not conventionally attractive, but you keep coming back for another look. Maybe it's a bit lairy, lippy, risque, naughty, but not to the point of intimidation or insult.
5) It makes people want to try other wines. Not because you want to avoid it, just because it makes you want to find more out about wine.

Chances of a press release about such a wine? Somewhere between slim and fat...

In praise of English supermarkets - no, not a misprint

Just returned from several days in the French Alps. In true 'coals to Newcastle' fashion, took along a few bottles of wine. I have rather a lot of the stuff, and I also have several of those purpose-made polystyrene containers that you can check into an airline hold knowing that they have a pretty good survival rate.

The only problem was I wish I'd taken more. Couldn't believe how depressing the range was in the French supermarkets. The Hautes Alpes is not a major wine region and my sole experience with the local vin de pays (Merlot, Chard, Cab S etc seem to be the favoured grapes) was not a good one. But so too were my encounters in Intermarche (the only nearby supermarket of any size) with wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone and the Languedoc - one musty wine is one thing, but a succession of dried out, fruitless wines leads you to think that there's something more than cork taint going on.

No doubt, with more time and effort there would have been a few more worthy wines in the range, but this was holiday, not work, and I just wanted something tasty to quaff while looking at the stars and eating too much. In the end found a decent red, the 2005 Visan from Domaine Bon Rencontre at around €6, and drank it several times.

So to all those who slag off our supermarkets, think yourself lucky. Even with all those bland, branded wines, their ranges are more adventurous, and their QC is very much on the ball.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Partway through a mega-tasting of South African Sauvignon Blanc. I love Hugh Johnson's line about Sauvignon - 'it has a loud voice but not a musical one'. In short doses, it can be great, but en masse... New Zealand is probably the source of the shrillest wines. The annual NZ trade tasting used to have a huge table in the middle of the room along which all that year's Savvies (I loathe that term) were arrayed. By about wine 15, boredom had set in. By wine 30, you were beginning to feel somewhat jaded. By wine 50, the emotion was closer to despair, because you were less than halfway through the line-up. By the end, you'd rather rip your toenails off and eat them in a quiche than drink a glass of Sauvignon.

Rather than risk such fatigue, I'm doing these wines in short runs, ordered by vintage and alcohol levels. Just finished the 2007s, which range from bimbo/confected wines to what I call camels - as in tight as said beast's rear end in a sand storm. I've blogged about wines being released too early before - here were several that won't be in their stride for several months. It'll be interesting to see how I get on with the 2006s this afternoon. The stars of the 2007s are Quando, La Motte Pierneef, Raka, Cederberg, Elgin Vintners and Klein Constantia. What marks them out is that there is a little accompaniment to conceal their shrillness - I'd probably be sipping a glass of one of them now, were it not for the fact that I have to taste another 40 wines in a couple of hours. Wish me luck.

PS Just come across a wonderful headline for a wine article in an American paper -

Medley of flavors enlivens halibut

Now why do I find that funny....?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Godfather Part IV - should I be laying down some Dom. Corleone?

‘I’ve just become a father/godfather – aren’t I supposed to stash away some wine or some port for the little sprog?’

I get asked a question like this a number of times a year, and I still haven’t settled on a definitive answer to the question. The wino in me says that anyone would be overwhelmed with gratitude to receive a couple of cases of something mature and tasty as they pass into adulthood. But then there’s another bit of me that says, ‘Whoa, whoa, hang on a minute, squire.’ It asks me what I would have done had my dad/godfather presented me with a dozen old bottles on my 18th birthday. Yes, I drank wine then, but I don’t think I’d have been too bothered which vintage it was from, as long as it didn’t taste of meths and make me go blind. I seriously doubt whether any would have been left even a week later.

It then starts asking me whether I wouldn’t be better off investing the £250, £1,000, £5,000, whatever sum I had in mind, until a much later date when it became clear whether or not little Janet/John (or Topsy/Tim, if you are slightly younger than me) actually enjoyed wine. If s/he didn’t, then I could buy something else. If s/he did, then I’d have a much larger kitty to play with. Yes, some wines do rise in value over time, but judging by past performance, hardly any will outpace the stockmarket, the price of housing, even a decent cash ISA.

And that’s before you take into account the rather important matter of whether you want to fork out several years rent to a specialist company for storage space in their temperature-controlled warehouse. For those of you in the fortunate position of having suitable space at home, the situation is still not perfect. You have to make sure little Johnny's inheritance is safe from prying hands, and not just those of devious adolescents. Many wine lovers have tales of how they opened that precious bottle of Château Eau de Singe in the wee small hours long after their taste buds and sensibility had retired to bed.

Another thing. Not everyone actually likes the taste of old wine – some do, some don’t. One person’s ‘wonderfully mellow’ is another’s ‘old cupboards’. If you do end up spending the kitty on wine, you can buy a bit of old stuff and some younger stuff too – few wines are better at age 18 than they were at age 8.

I guess that bottom line is that while I don’t want to put you completely off the idea of laying down wine for future generations, just don’t go mad.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Single bottle trauma

Wine is all about pleasure, right? OK, maybe that's a simplification, but the bottom line is that in a world where we don't have to drink wine to
a) get us in such a mood to attack marauding Goths
b) warm our cockles because we live in a central-heating-less yurt
c) warp our vision so that we will procreate with anything with a pierced navel

And yet... Andrew Bajorek who posted this on Tom Cannavan's wine pages forum is not the first worried wino to suffer from single bottle syndrome. I write as someone whose wine cellar consists of serious quantities of single bottles. Wine writers are often sent wines in two-bottle consignments (one of them may be corked), and we don't have the time/inclination/liver to polish off the extras.

But the question remains: you have only one bottle of a potentially very nice wine - how do you ensure that you drink it at its peak?

And the answer remains: there is no definitive answer.

A cop out? No. Think about music. Think about food. think about cars. Do we all go for the same thing? No. And it's the same with wine. And even if you have two people who like wines from the Rhone, or Santorini, or Maipo, you will hardly ever get them to agree on a precise time when a wine is 'ready'. Some like grippy tannins and upfront fruit. Others prefer something more mellow and evolved. The important thing is that no one is wrong in preferring wines at whatever stage of development they are at.

My advice for for single bottle owners? By all means check out what other online drinkers are saying about wines. But if you're still in two minds, open them on a Friday night. If it's ready, you can drink it there and then. If it's not, chances are that it will be starting to shine on Saturday.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Extremely lost in translation

Nothing too wine-y today - gearing up to taste dozens of South African Sauvignons next week, but today's a day when I should be writing and hoping that editors don't ring up saying 'Where's my article on ___?'

But while I'm here, my sister has packed many jobs into her 40-something years, one of which was translating from French and Italian into England. She was always moaning about ambitious companies that would spend heaps on marketing and then blow it all by skimping on translation. I've just happened across a web site for a hotel that illustrates in truly surreal fashion just what she was talking about. Enjoy...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The ten commandments of the wine cellar

1) Thou shalt not kill. If you’re planning to keep wine at home for anything more than a couple of years, you need to give serious thought to where and how it is stored, otherwise you could ruin it. More of that in a future post, but for now, it’s the do’s and don’t’s of cellar etiquette.

2) Never buy a wine you don’t like. Try to taste any wine you’re thinking of buying in quantity, even if it has the pundits raving. If it doesn’t hit the right spots, then just say ‘no’.

3) Don’t buy too much. Resist wine merchants’ ‘vintage of the century’ propaganda, and buy in sensible quantities. Otherwise you’re going to run short of a) space, b) money for other pleasures, and c) lifetime in which to polish off your stash. Similarly...

4) Stock-take. If you’re drinking mostly Burgundy and buying mostly Bordeaux, you’ll eventually encounter stock flow problems. Every six months, check your supplies and adjust your drinking/purchasing patterns accordingly.

5) There will always be another vintage. You missed out on the superb 2005 clarets/Burgundies/whatever (strike out as applicable). But guess what? The 2001 clarets/2002 Burgundies/2003 whatever were also rather good. No vintage is unmissable.

6) Don’t forget those whites. Red wines are generally more cellar-worthy than whites. However white wines from several cooler regions around the world don’t object to bottle age, and many Sauternes, Burgundies and northern Rhône whites, plus Rieslings from almost anywhere, positively thrive on it. If in doubt, ...

7) Experiment. Ten year old Muscadet, twenty year old Beaujolais, thirty year old semi-sweet Loire rosé... Yes, I’ve had them all, and found some not just ‘interesting’, but actively enjoyable. Strange things happen to wine over time, not all of them positive, but you should reserve a small corner in the cellar for experimental purposes. However...

8) Too soon is better than too late. Not all wines can survive twenty years in the cellar, and most will be fading at age 5. So don’t resist that urge to pull the corks on bottles whose progress you’re interested in. If the wine seems too young, just jiggle it about in a decanter for a while and it’ll probably come out of its shell. However, if it’s too old, you’re stuffed. More salad dressing anyone?

9) It’s there to be drunk. Some wines in your cellar may accrue in value. Resist the temptation to sell them. You hear some people say, ‘Ooh, this wine’s gone up so much in price, I really can’t afford to drink it.’ You never hear them say, ‘Ooh, this house costs so much now, I really can’t afford to live here.’ You made a fortunate investment, now enjoy it.

10) Give and it will be given to you (Luke 6:38). Your precious hoard is there to be shared, even with wine plebs. So offer Lieb-loving Auntie Mabel a taste of grand cru Burgundy, and don’t wince too obviously if cousin Kevin mixes your 1990 Barolo with Red Bull. Just mutter under your breath, ‘Serendipity, serendipity,...’ then patiently await the day when one of them wins the lottery and develops a passion for pricey Pomerol.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Too much, too young

I confess, this lunchtime, I had a glass of Pinot Grigio. I know, I know, I'm supposed to talk about wine here rather than Pinot Grigio. A press release came through a couple of months ago from a company suggesting that the southern Italian grape Fiano might be 'the next Pinot Grigio'. Sent them a note saying something like, 'What, you mean bland, with a pretty label, but girlies love it?'

However, here was a Pinot Grigio that actually had a little personality. The wine was the Swan Bay 2007 from Scotchmans Hill in Victoria, Australia (set to be £7.50-£8 from the Wine Society). It had that waxy walnut and apple edge of good examples, and was more buxom than most.

But... Now I realise that wineries need cash flow, but I'm getting tired of tasting wines that have been released while they're still in nappies. And I'm not talking here about nobby clarets that need a decade or so in order to work out what the fuss is all about. I'm talking about normal, everyday wines that need a few months in bottle to calm down. the Swan Bay has all the makings of decent wine, but it's for drinking at Christmas and beyond, not while it's still sucking its thumb.

Don't blame the winemakers. I've had conversations with several in places as far apart as Austria and South Africa who despair of the 'youngest is best' mentality which has people demanding the latest vintage almost as soon as its finished fermenting. No, it's typically their bosses who cajole them into getting the stuff out of the cellars ASAP - and sometimes encourage them to tweak the winemaking to make the wine more forward.

Try this experiment. See if you can find both the 2007 and 2006 vintages of a cheapish southern hemisphere white. Try them side by side - bet you prefer the older one.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Rioja, but not as we know it

There are three empty bottles in front of me. Did I drink the contents of them all? No. Did I drink a glass of any of them? No. But I tasted them several times to see if I could work out what the $*$! United Wineries were thinking of when they created the Marques de Concordia Extreme, sorry, Extrême range.

Not that a normal person would have been able to tell the difference between the three wines. To my admittedly short-sighted eyes, the front labels and capsules are identical, while the back labels are almost identical bar the bottle number and the alcohol level. If the helpful Scott Burton of PR company Cube hadn't stuck on stickers saying which was the Cabernet Sauvignon (13.5% alcohol), which the Merlot (14%) and which the Syrah (14.5%), I'd have had to go off taste. I think I'd have got them right - the Cabernet was leafy and blackcurranty, the Merlot softer and plummier, while the Syrah had flavours of spicy chocolate and berries. But what did they have to do with Rioja? Not much, apart from the thumbprint of American oak. Maybe the overripe 2003 vintage should take some of the blame. Certainly there was very little acidity, plus a fair degree of brett. And they're £13...

Give them a miss and spend your money either on proper Rioja or on better examples of the three varietals from elsewhere. Current faves for the three grapes are Falernia Syrah from Chile (see here), Mas de Daumas Gassac's intriguing Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé Frizant Vin Mousseux (£10.99 Caves de Pyrene, Green & Blue) and - shit, I can't think of a Merlot I like. Let's see what's on the sample rack....

OK, back with a glass of Casa Lapostolle's Cuvée Alexandre 2005 Merlot (I'm sure this used to be mostly Carmenere, but the label says its only 15%). Wine writers aren't supposed to be biased, but my son is called Alex and the wine is usually a bit of a banker. And it doesn't let me down. It's classic Chile, rich, earthy, packed with blackcurrants, big but not too pumped up. The wrong wine for a summer evening, but still pretty good, and with a refreshing tang to the finish that was all too obviously absent in the Concordia Riojas. Wouldn't be surprised to see it blossoming in the next 24 hours.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Socks and Rocks

Click here to be astounded, offended, confounded by Gary Vay-ner-chuk on the Conan O'Brien show in the US.

Not sure whether Jancis Robinson's socks wouldn't be more like pretty floral English wine than feral Fixin...

Glass Act

Being a) clumsy and b) an enthusiastic wine drinker, I'm always in the market for decent cheap glasses. I will never call them stemware - does anyone call mugs handleware? I've been the proud owner of several Riedel glasses and I've smashed most of them, usually when shaking the last drips out after washing them and catching the rim on the tap. Grrrr.... But now I'm the proud owner of six glasses that from a distance could pass for the Riedel Chianti glass, which is one of the best all-rounders in the extensive range. Closer up, the thicker glass and variable thickness tell you it's not the real thing, but it's still a decent shaped and sized vessel. And while a six pack from Riedel will set you back at least £50 - and much much more if you go for the Sommeliers range - this particular sextet was just a fiver. That's 83.3p per glass. A bargain. If you're quick, and you live near a branch of Au Naturale, you might still find some in stock.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

In search of gentleness

I've been writing a piece for Wine & Spirit on small (less than 10,000 cases) producers, and as is often my wont, the deadline is somewhere in the distant past. So this morning, I set the alarm for 5:30, got up early and had polished it off by 9. A good job too, as I'd promised the editor I'd eat a copy of the Argentine supplement that came with the August issue if he didn't have it by first thing.

Then I went back to bed for a couple of hours, woke up just as the rest of the family was setting off up to Pots & Pans, and decided I'd have an early lunch rather than a late breakfast. Having written 1500 words by 9am, I felt just a bit smug and figured I deserved a glass of wine. A trawl through the sample rack revealed five wines with screwcaps, so feeling lazy, I thought I'd just try these. Any half-decent wine writer never has a shortage of wine to taste, but usually they're not always the wines you want to drink. Expressed mathematically...

A = Enthusiasm of PR Company OR Budget of Marketing Depertment
B = Quality

A x B is a constant

So there I was, lunch ready to go, but unable to find a wine I wanted to drink. Yes, all five were OK, but there's a cheesy old adage that says 'Life is too short to drink bad wine' and like many cheesy old adages, it's true. I didn't mind tasting these wines, and if someone had given me a glass of any of them at a party or over dinner, I'd have drunk it. But given the choice, I wanted something more stimulating. I ended up pulling the cork on a more ambitious Portuguese red, Quinta da Romaneira from the Douro. I can't fault its concentration, nor its complexity. But a nice gentle lunchtime quaffer? Dans mes rêves...

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Wine films

I wish I'd thought of that... Just had a press release from UK supermarket Morrisons for the Casillero del Diablo Reserva Privada headed 'The Devil Wears Privada'. Good one whoever thought that up, and curses that I didn't include it in the wine films I did for Wine & Spirit magazine last year, which featured some of the following...

The Savennières Itch

Something About Maury

Friuli Madly Deeply

Nyetimber on Elm Street (with Freddie Krug)

Ruedas of the Lost Ark

A Bridge Too Far Niente/A Ridge Too Far

Some Like it Huet

Coteaux du Layon The Pig Farmer

Rebel without a Cos

La Tâche aux Folles

Women on the Verget of a Nervous Breakdown

Carillon Camping

The Good, the Bad and the Ugni

Borba the Greek

Nevers Say Nevers Again

I’m Alright Dujac

When Harry Met Skalli

And so on...

Sekts and the City, sorry, Syrah

Consumer tastings keep me sane. Well not so much sane as in touch with how normal people think - that's 'normal' as in those who don't spend all day spitting into buckets and sinks (note to self to post soon about spittoon nightmares). For pro spitters, it's all too easy to forget that many folk go for immediate impact in wines, rather than looking for life beyond the first few sniffs and sips. For example, I was tasting with a group of locals last night, and we tried two Chilean Syrahs. The Viña Falernia Syrah 2005 from the northerly but chilly Elqui Valley (£5.95 Tanners) was lovely gentle fragrant wine, more like Crozes Hermitage than anything from the New World. Yum, and a bargain to boot. Then came the Pangea 2004 from Apalta (£25-£30 Harrods, Roberson), which is a joint venture between Viña Ventisquero and Aussie Shiraz maestro John Duval, the ex-Penfolds winemaker. This was much more a bruiser, albeit a classy bruiser, with the rich oily texture and roasted notes you find in many Californian Syrahs. Both very tasty wines, and I expected a split panel, but no, virtually everyone preferred the brawn of the Pangea to the more subtle charms of the Falernia.

But the surprise of the evening for many was a German Sekt, the Solter Rheingau Riesling Brut 2004 (~£13 The Winebarn). I can count the number of times I've ever enjoyed Sekt on one hand and still have enough digits left to pick both nostrils. And Riesling with bubbles can be just OTT. But this was a very tasty, punchy wine, full of fruit but not too aggressively so, and with fresh acidity to keep your mouth clean. Not as good as 1996 Krug, but a fraction of the price

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Scoring - or why I don't like wine by numbers

I’ve always had problems scoring – wines, that is. I remember going to a tasting years ago of Setúbal, the Portuguese fortified Muscat, when I was experimenting with the 100-point scale. It was when I gave a wine 120 points that I realised it wasn’t for me. Nowadays, I don’t score wines, I give them medals. So S = silver, S+ = buy me a beer and you might talk me up to gold, while S- = probably a bronze, but I’m feeling benevolent, and so on. I have a trophy category above gold medals, for when my socks have been well and truly blown off (except in summer, when I sometimes wear sandals, but without socks. On these occasions, trophy wines undo my sandals, pour iced water over my throbbing feet, and offer me a pisco sour).

But a rating of B, S+, G(-) and so on next to a wine looks a bit pathetic, so here are my alternative wine categorisations. Firstly…

Plant Pot Wines – As in find the nearest, and tip it in. NBM – Nil By Mouth – is an equivalent. My friend Charles Metcalfe has AE – auto-eject. In other words, totally dreadful wines. You won’t find too many of these around today. A good thing? I’m not so sure. There’s a part of me that says I’d rather come across a totally crap wine than some of the wines in the next tier up – which is…

Waiting Room Wines – Or Accountant Wines, or Argos Wines, or Nail Bar Wines. Wines that make the word ‘bland’ seem dynamic. Wines that you are not aware of having swallowed. Wines that, thinking of the previous category, would make your plant pot sprout second-hand plastic flowers. Drinkable, but instantly forgettable. Let’s move on, although not necessarily to something better…

Heartless Tart Wines – If anything, these are worse than Waiting Room Wines. You can forget a Waiting Room Wine, but there’s no escaping a Heartless Tart. These are wines that have been manufactured by Robo-winemaker to a recipe rather than being allowed to develop in a more natural state. Instead of overdressing, there’s overoaking. Instead of cosmetic surgery, there’s overripeness. Instead of too much make-up, there’s incongruous sweetness and alcohol. Such wines come at all price levels. Ban them from your table, and go instead for…

Breakfast Wines – Not that I’m advocating drinking wine while John Humphries is still heckling politicians. The idea here is that, just as a good breakfast should be honest and wholesome, but without supplying the culinary heights of the day, so a breakfast wine should be a good drink – wet, alcoholic, tasty and drinkable, but not central to the proceedings. If you want something more assertive, head for...

Proper Wines – Let’s take ‘wet, alcoholic, tasty and drinkable’ and ratchet it up to the next level. Here, personality comes into play. Stuff ripeness, stuff oak, stuff alcohol, these are wines that rise above winemaking styles and really express a sense of place and, at times, a sense of wildness. Can wine get any better? Well yes, it can…

Wedding Wines – My wedding day remains the best day of my life. Someone told me that they never saw me without a smile on my face, and that’s the sort of wine, we’re talking about here. Wedding Wines should be magnificent, munificent, just wonderful and wonderful. They sound like the ultimate wines. And yet…

Yeah But No But Wines – Is Sushi better than Tapas? Is Machu Picchu better than the Taj Mahal? Is Beethoven better than Eminem? There’s no right answer. These are controversial wines, wines that will have some people drooling, while others will put them in the Plant Pot category. Greatness doesn’t necessarily mean universal appreciation.

So there you have it. Chances that these categories will gain universal approval are slim, but they’re a darn sight more interesting than 85 points or four and a half stars. So, any suggestions for examples of each type? Or of how you grade wines?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Carmen Electra - not.

I'll say it straight out - Carmenère is NOT the future of Chilean wine. 'Santa Rita's focus on exceptional primium Chilean wines moves to a new level with the UK launch of the new Santa Rita Pehuén Carmenère.' A bottle of Pehuén arrived, all £24.99's worth of it, and I tried it over the weekend. It starts off rich, oily and concentrated, lush and packed with flavours of berries, coffee beans and brown sugar. Great to taste, but to drink... Sadly, it's another of those wines that are just too big. I poured a glass for over dinner (ribeye steak, so something fairly macho), but ended up after a couple of sips pouring it back into the decanter and drinking the ever excellent Torres Gran Sangre de Toro (a third the price). The following day, I shoved a glass of the Pehuén under Jill's precise and pretty nose - 'Tia Maria?!?' Quite bizarrely, it had gone into a blobby liqueur-like state, with the oak jutting out and any crispness and freshness completely subsumed by ripeness and coarseness. This from a company whose Casa Real is one of Chile's finest Cabernets.

So what should the Chileans do with Carmenère? Blend it. Just as that other obscure Bordeaux grape, Petit Verdot, predominantly Carmenère wines are just too much of a good thing. Another Santa Rita wine, Triple C - Cab Sauv + Cab Franc + Carmenère - shows the right approach. Carmenère's role is to be seasoning, not the main course.

(would love it if Hardy's - Constellation - were to plant Carmenère in Australia and blend it with Shiraz, then they could do a wine called Carmen Eileen....)

Smile, while you still have your teeth...

Tasting thousands of wines each year is a treat, a thrill, a blast. But it does have its problems. First of all, it gets you drunk. You're not supposed to say that, but Steven Spurrier, he of the the (in)famous 1976 Paris tasting when Californian wines trounced the French opposition, estimates that in tasting season, he has two bottles of wine per day. Those folk who intend to drive after any tasting of more than 20 wines - they're just daft.

But another hazard involves the mouth. Red wines leave you with a Draculine grin, with purple lips, black tongue and teeth a dubious shade of grey-y crimson. While this means that you never have a problem getting a seat on the Tube - one grimace, and the commuters flee - it isn't exactly the most endearing of appearances.

So what do you do about it? Some people brush their teeth straight after the tasting - no, No, NO!!! That is, not unless you want to strip off all that enamel that the wine has kindly softened, and leave your teeth even more vulnerable. Do not brush for at least a couple of hours, Instead, chew some gum and produce some acid-neutralising saliva. You'll look like a chav for a bit, but you'll still have your gnashers.

And if you have any teeth that 'sing' when anything too cold/too hot/too whatever hits them, then invest in some Colgate Fluorigard Gel-Kam. It's a fluoride paste that you smear on your teeth after brushing, swish around for a minute or so and then spit out without rinsing (you should never rinse after brushing anyway). I've just reordered my supplies from Smiles Unlimited in Appledore. My dentist commended me last week for my excellent oral hygiene - her comment now appears on my CV.

A final suggestion. Get a tongue scraper. Mine's a metal contraption that I use whenever my tongue feels furred up - the gunk you get off is disturbing, but your mouth feels (and smells) a whole lot better for it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

So long, farewella, Stella - it's the age of Hermitage

I have a great sister called Stella (Google "Stella Woods" for more info). Sadly, she's on her way back home to Melbourne after a month or so of our wonderful weather, and tonight, it's our last evening en famille. If I can't pull out some nice bottles at such a time, why bother keeping them? So we're on 1985 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle and 1985 Penfolds Grange Hermitage - OK pedants, it's labelled simply Grange, but still says Grange Hermitage (as it was long known) on the cork. Just decanted them, and of course had a sip. The Jaboulet is in its confident middle age, sleek, juicy, full of stories, grey round the temples, but still fit to party. The Grange is still growing up, and retains some of its youthful swagger - it greets you with a firm oaky handshake, and doesn't let go. Both taste great now, and should be even better later - will report back....

Later... A family split. Both wines wonderfully tasty. I was among those who sided with the more fragrant feral charms of the Jaboulet, while Stella led the Grange camp. For me, the Grange was just a little too obvious, full of character, packed with flavour but loud rather than passionate. The Jaboulet just kept giving more on each sniff. Reminded me of tasting, no, drinking the hallowed 1961 from magnum (thank you, David Dugdale). My ungenerous side would describe it as one of those wines that I would have preferred to share with fewer people. But a fitting end to Stella's visit.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Top of the Pops?

Not sure what I think of Pommery Pink's new label. Is it so kitsch as to be acceptable, or just out and out naff? Comments from women - surely the intended audience - I've asked haven't been exactly positive. The wine itself is no great shakes, but then again flavour doesn't really have a great deal of influence on wine sales - the words Tail and Yellow spring to mind... Put it this way, there's usually little problem in finishing bottles of Champagne here, but this was opened on Sunday, and there's still half of it left. If you've never cleaned a loo with Champagne, you haven't lived. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I remember some particularly foul fizz that I used instead of Toilet Duck - stubborn stains had no chance against the onslaught of crap flavours and bubbles.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Glug, glug, pass the Krug

Thank you, thank you, thank you, to Krug's UK PR Patricia Parnell for the bottle of the 1996 that landed (gently) on my doorstep last week. What she didn't know was that yesterday was our wedding anniversary. So with the kids in bed, we popped the cork and settled down for the evening (no, we didn't go out for a meal as we'd done that the lunchtime before, at the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, and the evening before, at the Angel at Hetton - yum yum on both fronts, and both excel at wine).

Anyway, 1996 Krug. First up, it's a great vintage, chock full of flavour, alcohol and extract, and with a wealth of acidity to add further backbone. I have some magnums of 1996 Lanson somewhere in the cellar, and every time I think of which I've thought of opening one, I've remembered a comment by Tom Stevenson - 'Like gargling with razor blades at the moment, this is the most definitive and the best-value 1996 on the market.'

Young Krug - and 11 years old is still very young for this wine - is as backward as vintage Lanson, so I was anticipating something a little bracing. And yes, that bracing acidity runs through the 1996 like piano wire. But around it are curled so many different characters that emerged over the evening - nuts, brioche, pineapple, citrus, green apple, herbs, flowers, butter, even chocolate. It just kept giving more on every sniff - at one point, I even thought of decanting it. A stunning wine then, years, decades even, from its peak, but still a joy to savour. Around £145 per bottle.

Beep Beep! Chile coming through!

The latest raft of stats from wine stats maestros AC Nielsen shows that exports to the UK of Chilean wine have overtaken those of Spain. Since Chile reopened its UK office in 2002, headed by the snappy dressing, dubious dancing Michael Cox, the long thin country has enjoyed a steady rise in fortunes, and on two fronts. Firstly wine quality. There are still a lot of ho-hum bottles to be found, but the Chileans have managed to insert some passion into their wines. Sauvignon is the white trump card, Cabernet Sauvignon remains the class act for reds, but Syrah, Carmenere and even Pinot Noir are looking increasingly impressive. But there's also the marketing. With so-so domestic consumption, Chile needs to export, but before the Wines of Chile office was set up, the campaign in the UK was rather lacklustre. Where Cox & Co have been particularly successful is in convincing both on and off trades that there's more to Chile than cheap and cheerful, with the consequence that sales in the £5-£10 bracket have risen by 26% in the last year.

Where does this leave Spain? On the wine front, the country has never been more exciting. Established regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero are shedding the shackles of the past, and making more and more world-class wine. Meanwhile less famous regions (Bierzo, Rueda, Cigales, Campo de Borja, Jumilla etc) have discovered how to make characterful, tasty wine, usually from local grapes, but with a healthy amount of competition from some foreign imports. But when it comes to marketing... For example, Ribera del Duero is currently running an ad campaign (see inside back cover of July Decanter) of two snogging pre-Raphaelites with the strapline 'Rounded in the mouth'. Puh-lease. It may make the Madrileños rush out for a bottle of Vega Sicilia, but it doesn't quite translate to Scunthorpe.

It's the same with virtually all the major European countries. Too much bureaucracy, too many meetings, too many vested interests and - it has to be said - still too much shit wine make the promotion of the country a nightmare. What make matters worse is that the promotional effort is often done by those whose roots are too close to home, and don't have the grounding in the relevant export market. Cox has told the Chileans truths that they didn't want to hear, but they've followed his advice and Chile is now reaping the benefit. Australia underwent similar treatment when Hazel Murphy headed up their UK office in the 80s and 90s. Is Spain hombre enough to give someone free rein to attempt a similar makeover job?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cape of Good Hope - as long as it's white

Bit of a hoo-haa brewing about South African red wines, with Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin both saying they lag behind the whites, and unsurprisingly many – from the Cape, but also from elsewhere – disagreeing. Yes, there are some great SA reds but there are also some extremely clumsy wines. Evidence on the tasting table this weekend is Le Riche 2003 Cabernet, Waterkloof Circumstance Merlot 2005 and Clos Malverne Auret 2004. All are ambitious wines, selling for £10+, yet having tried them all a number of times over the course of 48 hours, at no point have I ever felt like actually drinking as much as a glass of any of them. I try to give ‘big’ wines a chance to calm down, and for extra layers to emerge, but in all three instances, I’ve been disappointed. The Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc 2006 however has shed its initial gawky green-peppery reticence and become a very nice drink – it’s fuelling this post.

It’s often said that South Africa sits at a halfway house between the New and Old Worlds of wine, the idea being that the wines offer New World ripeness with Old Word finesse. And in some cases they do. But I’d take the Old World comparison a stage further. With the New World you know with a reasonable degree of certainty what to expect. A sweeping statement, I know, but if the wine list just says Australian Shiraz or Chilean Cabernet or New Zealand Sauvignon, there’s a fair chance that it will be at least drinkable. However, if that same list featured a Stellenbosch red from a producer I’d never heard of, then just as with Burgundy, Tuscany, the Mosel, Rioja, etc, I’d approach it with a fair degree of caution.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Big Dick Wines

That's what a friend of mine calls them. Another describes them as the sort of wines you could walk a mouse over. That's right, I'm talking about bodybuilder wines, those made by people whose philosophy is that if ripe is good, then riper is better; if alcoholic is good, then more alcoholic is better; ditto for oak (and weight of bottle if you feel so inclined). It's wine for those who respond to adverts inviting you to increase the size of your, er, wherewithal. It's wine for those who prefer the pneumatic charms of Pamela Anderson and Jordan to naturally beautiful women. It's wine for those who spend hours in the gym making themselves more attractive only to others who spend hours in the gym. It's wine on steroids.

'But we pick grapes on flavour, rather than sugar levels.' All well and good, but as anyone who has ever done a lot of blind tastings will confirm, the wines that seduce based on a single sip aren't necessary the ones that pass the empty bottle test. It's the same with grapes. A very sweet grape might taste great, but it doesn't necessarily translate into long lived, elegant wine wine with that oft-neglected quality of being REFRESHING.

American retailer Darrel Corti recently caused a storm by banning any wine with more than 14.5% alcohol form his Sacramento store, and found himself on the receiving end of various diatribes, although none were from his actual customers. 14.5% is a somewhat arbitrary figure - and would exclude a huge swathe of (among others) Australian Shiraz, Californian Zinfandel and Chateauneuf du Pape. But Corti's point - and it's a point more and more people are agreeing with - is that he's fed up with wines that want to beat him around the head and impress him, rather than than soothe and caress him.

With wine, just as with people, there is big-boned, and there is obese. Bring on the wine diet...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Trouble afoot

Think the wine business is glamorous? Ask the poor souls who spend several hours a day each autumn up to their knees in grape mush. Once upon a time, many parts of the world used foot power to squish their grapes, but now, treading is virtually unique to a few port houses of the Douro in Portugal. Advocates say it’s the most efficient way of extracting all the nice bits from grapes, but the advent of robotic ‘tramplers’ – machines that can work around the clock, and don’t need the jolly tones of an unsmiling hunchback playing ‘Una Paloma Blanca’ to keep them in time – seems to be tolling a death knell for the practice. The Symington family (Warre, Dow, Graham, Smith Woodhouse and others) is the latest company to abandon the tradition (story here - or at least it was for a while. Seems BBR has pulled it until it confirms some of the facts). Shame. As anyone who’s been a guest at a port lodge at vintage will testify, one of the highlights of a visit is to spend half an hour dancing in the lagar after a port-infused blowout meal. As you reel out of the cellar into the still-warm air, you can feel the dagger-like stares from the purple-legged workers who still have another couple of hours to do before the end of the shift.

Bordeaux gets a little sensible

Ist possible?!? French wine trying to simplify matters? News that four Bordeaux appellations are going to join forces (see here) means that the region now has only 54 AOCs instead of 57. OK, it still means that it's as confusing as anything to a normal person, but at least it's a start. Would it be possible to get the list down even further? Here are some candidates for 'rationalisation'...

Bordeaux Supérieur - bin it, it's not superior
Bordeaux Clairet - no one knows what this is, so put the wine as red or pink
Listrac-Médoc and Moulis en Médoc - combine them, or maybe stick them in Haut-Médoc
Blaye - put in the new Côtes de Bordeaux AOC
Côtes de Bourg - ditto
Sainte-Foy Bordeaux - ditto
Graves de Vayres - ditto
Saint-Emilion Grand Cru - the price lets people know the ambition of the wine, why the need for the extra words?
Fronsac and Canon Fronsac - combine them
Lalande-de-Pomerol, Lussac Saint-Emilion, Montagne Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin Saint-Emilion and Saint-Georges Saint-Emilion - combine them

Entre-Deux-Mers - bin it
Entre-Deux-Mers-Haut-Benauge - where? Bin it.
Bordeaux-Haut-Benauge - bin it
Graves de Vayres, Blaye, Premières Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg, and Bordeaux-Côtes de Francs - combine them

Bordeaux Supérieur - bin it, put as Bordeaux Moelleux
Cadillac, Cérons, Côtes de Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire, Loupiac, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Sainte-Croix du Mont, Sainte-Foy Bordeaux - combine these.

Such butchery still leaves nearly 30 AOCs, but it's a start.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cru Bourgeois - who gives a stuff?

So the Bordeaux cru bourgeois classification is going to be suspended (see here). Golly, this WILL have the rest of the winemaking world quaking in its boots. Why, oh why do the French spend so much time on things that the rest of the world doesn’t give a stuff about?

I have in front of me a brochure from the 2nd Rencontres Méditerranéennes du Muscat – Mediterranean Muscat conference in other words. It was held in Roussillon, and judging by the invitees, the definition of ‘Mediterranean’ takes in just southern France and the co-op of Samos in Greece (which just so happens to provide France’s best-selling Muscat…).

Anyway, back to the brochure… It starts off with comments from the President of the CIVR, then from the President of the Association for the Defence of the Rivesaltes Muscat Wine, then from the President of the National Confederation of Vins Doux Naturels, then from the President of the Languedoc Roussillon Region, then from the President of the Conseil General, then from the Senator Mayor of Perpignan (who also happens to be President of the Communauté d’Agglomération de Perpignan Méditerranée), then from the President of the Crédit Agricole Sub Méditerranée, and finally from the President of the local Chamber of Commerce. In other words, from lots of bureaucrats in suits making speeches that only other bureaucrats want to hear. Only then do you get to anything useful about the exhibition.

Now I love French wine, I probably drink as much of it as from all other countries combined, and I could very happily and easily confine my wine writing exploits solely to the land of the baguette. But until France sacks all the pompous men (they’re usually men) in suits and concentrates on making lovely, lovely wine (as opposed to the swill that the idiots of CRAV seem to want to defend), other countries will continue to prosper.

Ten Green Bottles...

I have neither the time nor the liver to get through the amount of wine I taste. But that doesn’t mean that I open the bottle, slosh some round my mouth and immediately dispose of the rest to the sink/postman/dog/whatever. What I do do is annoy the pants off my wife by having several bottles in various stages of consumption.

Why? I’ll put it this way. Have you ever got to the end of a bottle and thought that the last glass was significantly better than the first? Intoxication may be a factor – particularly if it’s just you and the bottle – but there’s also the fact that the wine has changed. It’s one of the two main reasons that people decant wine (the other is to get it off the harmless but unsightly sludge). Expose a wine to air, and released from the confines of its bottle, it opens up, it sheds its reserve, it taken its shoes off and relaxes.

Hence the plethora of open bottles in the kitchen, some of them for up to a week. Sometimes the wine stays the same, sometimes it even gets worse. But often, shy young wines reveal their charms, while big brash brawny New World reds calm down and begin to show subtleties that weren’t initially apparent. Even if you don’t have the time, space and/or inclination to follow a wine’s progress over several days, do try decanting your wines – even whites.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Ripper or ripped off?

Just read Max Davidson’s bit in the weekend Telegraph. I’m in two minds about whether to agree with him. I know restaurants have to make money, but they shouldn’t do it by ripping people off. If you’re an ambitious restaurant that aims to inspire, tantalise, invigorate diners with your food, surely you should be seeking to do the same with your wine list. Let’s be honest – 90% of most nobby restaurant lists consist of the same old trophy wines. Perversely, the bottles on which the sommelier/wine buyer/whatever has actually used a little grey matter tend to be the most keenly priced on the list.

Put it this way. Heston Blumenthal probably makes a mean steak-frites, but you go to The Fat Duck to see him transform everyday ingredients into something other-worldly. Switch to the domain of wine. Tonight I’m drinking where ordinary ingredients – grapes – have been made extraordinary. It’s a white Arbois Pupillin 1999 from Overnoy (from Les Caves de Pyrene 01483 538820), and it’s a concoction that ticks the same weirdness boxes as snail porridge. Not everyone will like it’s funky attitude – it’s like a cross between fino sherry and Pouilly-Fuissé – but so what? It’s wines like this that should have the highest mark-ups, not me-too, big name Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy that a dog could buy, even though it might cost a lot of bones.

I’m not sure I like agreeing with Martin Isark, a man for whom the word ‘humble’ was not invented. But much as I enjoyed Max Davidson’s whimsical pricing policies for various London restaurants – with the coda that these places are only ‘well-known’ to that tiny body of people (someone once said less than 500) who regularly frequent London’s top eateries – I still resent paying three times the retail price for a well-known wine.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Old hippies never die, they just smell that way

Yum yum, California, I’m on a corpulent hippy of a wine tonight, like Jerry Garcia after a curry, while the acid is still weaving its magic, but before the flatulence and heartburn has set in. It’s Domaine de la Terre Rouge Mourvèdre 2001, a wild, feral, meaty wine, possibly too alcoholic for its own boots, but still enormously tasty. Why is there a sort of cedary finesse that is reminiscent of Bordeaux? Could this be related to the cork? I’m not sure whether a Stelvin-ed bottle would have this earthy meatiness. Then you taste it, and it’s like liquid raisins, but dry, like brown sugar and figs, wild, smoky, really, really tasty. Not great, but the sort of wine you want to spend an evening with, rather than something too profound that you sit (or stand, I’m not picky) in awe of. It’ll be fascinating to see how it evolves in the glass – and also to see whether I can keep my paws off it…

OK, 2 hours later. No sign of significant improvement, and certainly not a wine to keep, but still an absolutely lovely drink. Vineyard Cellars are the UK agents.