Thursday, January 29, 2009

Flagrant, not fragrant

Anyone who’s been to more than a handful of wine tastings knows that they should be gentle with the eau de cologne and after-shave. But while most adhere to such a rule, they seem to forget that there are other aromas that linger. This came home to me most recently at the Portuguese Top 50 bash this week, where fellow scribe Jamie Goode came up with his own personal half century (find them here) from Portugal’s current crop (and great to see the same day that Sarah Ahmed, aka The Wine Detective, was judged Portuguese wine writer of the year).

But back to the Portuguese Ambassador’s residence in Belgrave Square. Lush surroundings, easy on the eye, but on the nose…? The man next to me smelt like he’d been suspended in a high-class ashtray, one awash with Havana’s finest rather than a bath of Woodbines. But still very pongy. It’s what I used to call the smell of sommelier. Before the UK smoking ban, it used to be the vogue for a certain class of sommelier at the end of some rather swanky dinners, to light up large and expensive stogies and puff away. No matter that there were several non-smokers there who, while not all averse to the pungent fumes, would still find that they needed to visit the dry-cleaners the next day.

There was another man who smelt as if, unlike those young French (they usually are/were French) sommeliers, he really needed to get out more. His favoured fragrance was naphthalene – moth-balls – and it spoke of a man who still wore the same jacket in which he used to cut the light fantastic in the 1970s. Never mind the fact that virtually anything from the Final Clearance rail at TK Maxx would have looked and smelt better. Trying to persuade him that such a course would have been better would have been like trying to convince him that Chile, Portugal and Greece now made wines to rival similarly priced French offerings.

And then there was a contingent of what are affectionately (?) known as the Masters of Lunch. I’ll say this for them: they have bottle. Make that bottles. They often come to tastings armed with shoplifting bags, and leave clanking loudly. They’re nothing to do with the wine trade, but they know where to go to get a free lunch – they’re also familiar faces at shareholder meetings. What makes them difficult to avoid is their aroma, especially that of a bespectacled gentleman who more than once has tried to pass himself off as the younger, taller, thinner and distinctly less whiffy Peter Richards. Gout de terroir would be a polite way of putting it...

Alongside Messrs Fag-Ash, Moth and Armpit, the occasional over-perfumed diva came as a breath of fresh air. Is there something to be said for having sniffer dogs on the door to keep such people out? Perhaps, but they may in there zeal also find their highly-tuned snozzles wrinkled by certain members of the legit wine trade. Here, I’m talking about wine trade breath syndrome. Here, we’re going beyond the old boys the corners of whose mouths are gummed up with stalactite and stalagmite drool. We’re talking about the ones who just by exhaling can remove the label (and the fizz) from a magnum of Krug at twenty paces. Can’t someone take them to one side and tell them they smell like a drain? I remember talking to the buyer for a well-known UK chain and asking why they had bothered to stock a rather so-so Burgundy. ‘The guy selling it kept pestering me and he had such bad breath – buying a few cases was the quickest way I could think of to get him out of the office...’

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