Friday, January 30, 2009

Domaine La Condamine L'Évêque Petit Verdot 2007

The Petit Verdot grape is best known for its role in Bordeaux, where it adds colour, fragrance and tannin to several top Médoc wines. On its own, it's generally a bit too assertive, deep and rich, the sort of wine you sometimes wish would go away and learn to be a bit quieter. Or at least that's what I used to think. The last few months have thrown up some examples to challenge this opinion, from places as far apart as Portugal (Azamor***), Chile (Von Siebenthal) and in this instance southern France, courtesy of the ever-reliable Domaine La Condamine L'Évêque. It has that violet-tinged PV perfume, and a refreshing, earthy core of blackcurrant where others have rather blobby, overripe berry flavours. Full of character, yet weighing in at a svelte 12.5% alcohol, it's a good buy at £6.15 from Jeroboams.

*** The Azamor web link is here, but be warned, it's one of those sites awash with totally unnecessary Flash animation. For anyone apart from web designers, Flash is a complete waste of time and effort, narcissistic and annoying in the extreme. French, Italian and Spanish sites tend to be the worse, but this site, complete with Cupid firing a corckscrew-tipped arrows, can compete in the why-do-they-bother stakes.

Not just flowery prose

My thanks to my mate Nadim for passing on this from this month's British Psychological Society's monthly research digest:

Practising describing wines could help you become a connoisseur

"Hmm, it tastes peachy, gutsy, with a pinch of wild berries," the wine connoisseur says after swirling the Chiraz [sic] round her mouth and pulling a few rubbery facial expressions. Such attempts to verbalise the flavour of wine may come in for a deserved degree of scorn, but a new study suggests that describing wines may actually help us distinguish among them.

The psychologists Angus Hughson and Robert Boakes were actually attempting to replicate an inconsistently observed learning effect known as "verbal overshadowing". This is the observation that describing an item, such as a face or wine, can hinder the ability of people to subsequently identify that item from among a range of alternatives. The theory has been that verbalising a description prompts the observer to rely on an inferior verbal representation of the item as opposed to relying on their perceptual memory of it.

In this case, Hughson and Boakes asked 20 novice and 20 established, but non-expert, wine drinkers to taste a red wine, wait four minutes, and then attempt to identity that same wine from among a choice of four. Half the participants were asked to provide a written description of the target wine during the break, whereas the other participants completed a crossword.

The more experienced drinkers (they'd been enjoying wine for an average of nine years; not non-stop) marginally outperformed the novices, thus showing that mere exposure to wine, without explicit training, can improve people's ability to discriminate between wine tastes.

More importantly, given the study goals, describing the target wine was found to aid, not hinder, subsequent recognition of it, for both novices and experienced drinkers. Practising describing wines is a key part of wine training courses, and the researchers said their finding suggests "there is little reason to reduce the amount of label training" in these courses.

Two further details warrant a mention. First, like a fine wine, some of the detail in the write-up of this study is to be cherished: "participants were not required to spit out the wine after tasting," the procedure section tells us. Second, previous research has shown that completing a crossword can interfere with a subsequent face recognition task - perhaps the control condition in the current study was not as benign as one might imagine?


Angus Hughson, Robert Boakes (2008). Passive perceptual learning in relation to wine: Short-term recognition and verbal description. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (1), 1-8

Author weblink:

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Further reading: Of Vines and Minds (free via The Psychologist mag archive):

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...’