Books Wine articles

Tasting notes from the Languedoc

In Andrew Barr’s provocative book, Wine Snobbery, (a book that really needs a whole post) published many years ago he refers to the narcissism of wine writers who publish their tasting notes. For Mr Barr they should be used only as an aide memoire. He does have a point. Most tasting notes are either dull, maddeningly vague or inappropriately poetic. But some writers seem to have a way of turning smells and tastes into words that make you long to try the wines they are describing. This chap who writes mainly about German wine is particularly good. It’s not a skill that I possess.

Occasionally though I have moments of inspiration. It’s normally when i’ve had a little too much to drink but am not yet drunk. Having someone to bounce ideas off helps. I attended the Wine Society Languedoc tasting on Monday with my dear old Dad and the writer Toby Clements – best known for writing a spoof of the Da Vinci code called the Asti Spumante Code. In the spirit of unbridled narcissism, here are some of my tasting notes:

Corbieres-Boutenac ‘Atal sia’ Chateau Ollieux-Romanis £14.50

I thought it tasted of olive tapenade rather like a Greek Xinomavro. My father said liquid biltong. Either way it was dark, uncompromising and not altogether enjoyable.

Montpeyroux, La Jasse, Dom. la Jasse Castel 2008 £14.50

This wine smelt strongly of turpentine though not in an unpleasant way. Toby went further and thought it smelt like his Dad’s shed with notes of paint, Woodbines and illicit pornography.

Montpeyroux, La Pimpanela 2008 from the same Domaine £9.75

The smell was gamey. This is normally a bit of a catch all term for strong smells but this actually smelt of on-the-turn game. On the palate this continued. My notes say ‘rotting flesh, over the hill green pheasant.’

Finally one that I could not come up with anything esoteric to say, as it was just plain delicious.

Montepeyroux, Divem, from the same Domaine £22

My notes are the usual vagaries: strawberries, savoury, sweet fruit at finish. Not very helpful to anyone. Then i’ve drawn a little heart and written ‘classy.’

Wine articles

Brunello di Montalcino and a family holiday to Tuscany

There are three landmark dates in the British middle classes love affair with Tuscany:

1987: The River Cafe Restaurant opens in Hammersmith. Founded by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, it wowed London with its Italian peasant dishes and optimistic prices. It was also a pioneer in the chef with only one name movement. Jamie and Hugh both started their careers here.

1988: John Mortimer of Rumpole fame writes a throway novel called Summer’s Lease about an English family finding themselves in Tuscany. It was later turned into a BBC tv series.

1989: the Jeffreys family, two adults and three boys aged fourteen, twelve and five, load up their Ford Sierra estate and drive from Buckinghamshire to Siena. We were not getting on as a family before the trip, afterwards it was a miracle there wasn’t a divorce or at least a murder. It was a difficult holiday but one good thing came out of it: my father discovered Brunello di Montalcino.

My mother’s maiden name is Castiglione and looking at the map my father noticed that there was a wine estate nearby called Castiglion del Bosco. This seemed propitious though I later realised that Castiglione is a not an uncommon name in Italy. We brought a few cases of their Brunello di Montalcino back to England. Brunello like Chianti is made from Sangiovese, and is one of Italy’s most celebrated wines. Sadly I never got to taste the stuff as it was classified ‘much too good to drink’ by my father so it sat in the garage until it was expensive vinegar.

Despite or perhaps because no one ever tried this wine, it assumed mythical significance to me. I associated wine in its highest form with Brunello so when I wanted something for my father’s sixtieth birthday there was only one choice. On Jancis Robinson’s advice I bought a case of Sesti 2001 and then we waited and waited. We finally opened a bottle last year and it was awful: no fruit, no tannin, a strong off smell with hints of vinegar; it tasted over the hill. Had my father repeated the trick as with the Castiglion? Fortunately after decanting and being left for a couple of hours it came back to life. The nose now smelt like an autumn forest and the palate had cherries cooked in cinammon, cloves and nutmeg. The whole thing had a magical earthy savoury quality. All of this was backed up by a fresh lift of acidity. It was perfect. I had finally tasted Brunello and it was better than I  hoped.

Perhaps because of my complaining about never being invited to anything or because of an administrative cock-up, I was invited to try three vintages of Brunello from Castelgiocondo. The dapper Marchesi Frescobaldi, from the family that own the estate, was there in person to talk us through the wines. He looked a little like Juan Manuel Fangio the legendary Argentine racing driver.

The 2006 was not giving very much away but had the most persistent finish which hints at good things to come. The 2004 was a little more exuberant with some lovely meaty flavours. I liked them but, remembering my experience with the initially reticent Sesti, I don’t think I can judge them from only a glass of each. Brunello like most good wines is best drunk over the course of a meal with people you love. No such reservations are needed with the 1997. The smell of tobacco was so strong that it was like someone had just opened a box of Cohibas. This was a beautiful wine, elegant and polished where the Sesti was wild and heady, much like the Marchesi himself.

And what about Castiglion del Bosco itself? I did eventually get to try a few vintages and they were nice but a long way from the nectar of the gods that I imagined. If you’re looking to buy Brunello, I’d go for Sesti or Castelgiocondo, and make sure you keep them for a few year years and don’t forget to decant.

I bought the Sesti from Milroy’s of Soho who are part of the Jeroboams group. I think it cost about £350 a case. For many years after I was invited to twice yearly tastings. Sadly I think they noticed that I never bought anything else so the invites have now dried up.

Castelgiocondo 2006 is available from Fine & Rare for £331 a case excluding tax and duty.

Wine articles

Farewell Oddbins?

Like Victor Kiam and Remington so with me and Oddbins. He liked the product so much he bought the company, I spent so much time in my local Oddbins in Headingley that I got a job there. It was meant to be stop gap after graduation but I ended up working for Oddbins for two years first in Leeds and then West London. So I was very saddened to read that the company is once again in financial trouble. It made me reflect on what it was that made Oddbins seem like such a unusual place in the late 90s:

Excellent wines – not funky, strange wines from small growers but good quality wines which were far better than those available in supermarkets and high-street rivals (who have all since disappeared.) And then there was the Greek range.

Good prices – no big discounts but prices generally comparable to supermarkets

Enthusiastic staff – they tended to employ graduates who were too eccentric for conventional employment. This meant that visiting an Oddbins shop was a hit-or-miss affair, sometimes you would get the wine equivalent of comic book guy from the Simpsons, but other times you would get infectious zeal for some strange new wine from Greece.

So what went wrong?

1) Price, a combination of heavy discounting by rivals and Castel’s (Oddbins new owners from 2001) insistence on raising the margin on every bottle made Oddbins seem an expensive place to shop. This would not have been a problem if the wines had been unusual enough but. .

2) Range, under Castel all the wacky wines from Greece were removed and replaced with dull offerings from Castel’s owned wineries. But I think this is to slightly to miss the point. Oddbins business was never based on selling strange wines, the Greek stuff actually sold very badly, it was in selling good wine from medium to large producers in Australia and Chile and co-ops from the South of France. As soon as supermarkets started doing the same, then Oddbins days were numbered.

3) Staff. Working for Oddbins was very badly paid but, when I worked there in the late 90s, there was a cult feel to the place. We were paid a pittance but we got an education in wine from fellow enthusiasts. The managers of the shops were allowed a lot of leeway to order wines that they liked. The wine in stacks on the shop floor was generally not on offer, or the most profitable wine in the range but something the staff really liked. I remember the manager of the Leeds branch went Bleasdale Franks Potts crazy. Almost no customer left without a bottle. This was a £9 wine in late 90s Yorkshire. Once the range became streamlined and discounting made all the shops the same there was no outlet for the creative energies of the staff. The enthusiasts started to leave or became despondent. Despondent staff don’t sell (have you been into your local Waterstone’s lately?) By the early 2000s Oddbins were employing people who had no interest in wine and saw it as just another shop job.

I look back fondly on those days but after leaving, I was never a regular customer again. The wines just seemed too expensive. I hope Oddbins don’t go under but sadly they are an anachronism. Most people buy their wine at supermarkets, mail order or, for esoteric wines, through specialist shops. When they are gone, I like to think that their legacy will be in the army of aimless graduates who were given focus to their lives by a bugeoning love of wine. The wine world is full of people like me who were shaped by their time at Oddbins. I wonder what will happen to them in future. They’ll probably turn to crime.

I’d like to end by asking readers to share their memories both good and bad of this great company or to violently disagree with me and tell me that there is life in the old dog yet.