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.