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