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.