Wine articles

How condescending is your wine merchant?

When I received PR bumf from a new wine website called Ten Green Bottles with phrases such as ‘innovative concept’ and ‘unique wines’, I was going to write something on the meaningless guff used to promote things. Then I realised that this isn’t the letters page of the Telegraph and that everyone is at it. Even the dear old Wine Society’s catalogue is full of wines described as ‘iconic’ when they mean ‘famous’, ‘sought-after’ or just plain ‘expensive.’ Instead I thought I would look at one of their claims that when visiting a wine merchant ‘the service is either non-existent or can be condescending.’ The patronising or, even more damning in today’s egalitarian society, snobbish wine merchant is a great stock character in conversation (normally in conversations between people in the wine trade trying to differentiate themselves from this stereotyped image.) I wonder, however, whether this figure might be more of a useful myth rather than anything mired in reality.

I have had two bad experiences with a wine merchant. One was in 2000 at Corney and Barrow on Kensington Park Road where they had some mature Pewsey Vale Riesling at a very reasonable price. I asked the shop assistant whether it was any good, he looked down his nose at me and said ‘well, it’s Australian riesling’ with the implication that as it was Australian it couldn’t be any good (turns out it was excellent.) My other bad experience has taken place in Nicolas on countless occasions where the staff more often than not combine superciliousness with ignorance. I don’t shop at Nicolas anymore. Oh and there was a wine merchant in Barcelona who actually threw me out for browsing too close to his wines.

To be fair to the chap at Corney and Barrow, I was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, jeans with holes in and looked like I hadn’t been to bed in a while. I was working round the corner at Oddbins on Portobello Road. When a customer walked into the shop, I tried to gauge how interested in wine he (I’m using he in its little-used but grammatically correct neutral gender form) was. Pitch it too high and I would end up boring the customer, too low and he might feel patronised. With a complicated subject like wine, it’s a tricky act to pull off. Despite going to wine tastings every week and having read widely on the subject, I still glaze over when people start talking about soil types or fermentation temperatures.

It’s interesting to compare a wine merchant with other keepers of arcane knowledge such as bicycle shops or motor mechanics. I have lost count of the number of times that people in bike shops have actually been rude to me (I’m thinking of you in particular short stocky man with dark hair in Condor on Greys Inn Road) and with cars, I’ve been badly ripped off on a couple of occasions. Knowing quite a bit about bikes as I do about wine, hasn’t prevented these bad experiences (I know almost nothing about cars once you open the bonnet). My point, I suppose, is that in my experience wine merchants are no more unfriendly than other shopkeepers and certainly much more personable than many other people we deal with, bike mechanics, bank tellers or, worst of all, midwives. The problem, I think, is that some people are intimidated by the sheer multitude of bottles and so the whole process is fraught with nerves.

Ten Green Bottles have an answer to this as well in that they only stock a limited range of wines. I’m going to be looking at their wines in more detail in a forthcoming column in the Lady but meanwhile I’d like to recommend their Castello di Potentino Piropo at £13.50. This is a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Grenache. Sounds like it’s going to be a dog’s dinner but it’s actually rather beautiful. It’s pale-coloured, a sort of tawny red hue and mellow with flavours of spiced oranges and some gentle tannin. It’s a very laid-back sort of wine.

I’d be very interested in hearing readers experiences with wine merchants (and indeed bike shops, banks and midwives.)


Interviews Wine articles

Wine interview: Caro Feely

Before giving it all up and buying that plot of land in France, I’d advise you read Grape Expectations: A Family’s Vineyard Adventure in France by Caro Feely. Caro and her husband Sean originally from South Africa but both doing something lucrative and consultative in Dublin bought, seemingly on a whim, a run-down estate in Bergerac. Neither of them have any experience of viticulture and they have two young children. It almost ends in financial, medical and matrimonial disaster but by luck and determination/ bloody-mindedness they have made the estate a success. I found the sheer complexity of running their domaine fascinating. The wines of Chateau Haut-Garrigue are now available in Britain and Ireland and have picked up some good notices in the press. I’m particularly looking forward to trying their Saussignac, a sweet wine made with nobly-rotten Semillon and Sauvignon grapes. Caro Feely has very kindly agreed to take part in a Q&A.

When did you first realise that wine was something special and can you remember the wine that triggered this feeling?

When I was about 18 and in my last year at school my sister Jacquie introduced me to good things like Boschendal Blanc de Noir and Twee Jonge Gezellen TJ39 and less fancy wines like the famous Tassies or Tassenberg – a favourite of students in SA as a local song goes: ‘dis nie goeie vyn dis nie goeie vyn maar dit proe eerste clas,’ (my afrikaans spelling is no doubt incorrect so apologies) ‘it’s not good wine its not good wine but it tastes first class’ especially when you are a student on a tight budget. Then in my first couple of years working in Johannesburg I shared a house with a fella who was a master of wine and he had a cellar worth about 10000 euro in the house: a source of more fine education on wine. This was probably when I began to understand just how much variety and interest there was in wine and it was around that time I met Sean whose grandparents had been winegrowers in the Cape.

Before your change of career, what was your favourite wine region?

I don’t recall being particularly for one region or another. I loved the wines of South Africa like Springfield Life from Stone and Fairview’s Mourvedre blend, wines of France from the small producers in Languedoc, Loire and Bordeaux.

You don’t flinch from describing quite how hard the life of a vigneron is; if you knew then what you know now would you have bought the property in Bergerac?

No way! But I am pleased I didn’t know and that we did it as I think we are ‘stronger steel’ having been through the fire now.

You also don’t flinch from criticising your husband Sean. How did he react when he read the book?

He knows he can be pig-headed sometimes… He thinks it’s a good book. Being an ex-journalist and English major for his first degree he’s one hard task master. His reaction to an early draft was far from positive but hard feedback from him and 2 other journalist friends were necessary but nasty medicine to helping me find my voice.

You have taken to biodynamics in a big way, what do you think yourold self would say about ‘crystal spectrums’ and burying cow horns in the ground?

I was very sceptical. I think once you have worked with nature everyday the way we do it is impossible not to be convinced. When I walk out and smell extremely strong floral perfumes I know it is a flower day and hey presto the calender confirms it is, when I smell super earthy smells it is a root day. I could go on for hours… There is way more to life than our current tunnel vision approach to science explains. For the wine tours and classes we offer I talk biodynamics very practically.

From reading your book, I can tell that you take enormous care over every aspect of the wine-making process and yet you machine harvest for most of your wines. Do you think there is a contradiction here?

We do about half and half. The higher volume production like our core merlot and most of our dry white are machine harvested. This is because these are picked relatively early in the season so there is generally less need for sorting (no rot – although we do do what we call a negative pick by hand to remove what we don’t want harvested the afternoon before eg unripe or overripe bunches). It also means we can harvest in the cool night and being mid-September days can still be very hot. Hot harvest means more oxidation more need to SO2, more manipulation and shock to cool it in the winery and potential cooked aromas. We don’t want this. For us for the moment this is the good solution but overtime we would like to find a way to be able to hand harvest everything. There are pros and cons to the two options. For the top end reds where we harvest later and for the dessert wine it is all hand picked as here it is more important to sort bunch by bunch and even berry by berry (as with the Saussignac) plus the days are a bit cooler (October).

Who makes wine that you admire?

Strohmeier in Austria

Klur in Alsace

Kathleen Inman in the Russian River

Are there any wines/ regions/ countries that you avoid and if so why?

We tend to drink only organic and biodynamic wines knowing what we know about what goes into the rest….

What is the most that you have ever spent on a bottle of wine, what was the wine and was it worth it?

For one of the grand cru classé classes I gave at our wine school . I bought a Mouton 93 for around 240 euro and it was interesting for the occasion but I wouldn’t buy it for myself (I see it is worth way more now so maybe I should have held it to resell!).

What are you most looking forward to drinking from your cellar?

A client gave me a bottle of Pontet Canet 2006 (organic and biodynamic grand cru classé Pauillac) that I am looking forward to drinking. I tasted it at the estate a couple of years ago and it was superb.

Thanks to Summerdale Press I have one copy of this book to giveaway. Just email me on henry g jeffreys @ gmail dot com to go into the prize draw or RT this article & follow me on twitter @henrygjeffreys

Wine articles

Rhone Olympics

As a student I got into a drunken argument with someone about who made the best Cotes-du-Rhone, Guigal or Chapoutier (it was in the bar of University College, Oxford, I was visiting.) I knew very little about wine at the time, in fact I had never tried the Guigal, I just thought the label was rubbish and therefore the wine must not be very good. Since then the Guigal has become a firm favourite of mine whilst I rarely buy the Chapoutier anymore.  I thought that it would be fun to put these two great names head-to-head to find out once and for all who is best and whilst I was at it try the cheapest wines from some of the other big names of the Rhone. There is one glaring omission: Jaboulet – I couldn’t find a bottle of their once-ubiquitous Parallel 45.

To make things more interesting we tasted all the wines blind and I threw in a Spanish red made from Rhone varieties. I asked my guests to give them a score out of ten but they ignored me and decided to guess how much each one cost. The tasting was not entirely scientific as the wines were of different vintages, different prices and we were eating cheese and quite spicy salami. Also there was no spitting. I’m not sure Michael Broadbent would approve.

The unanimous winner was: Cotes-du-Rhone Mon Coeur JL Chave 09 – this was easily the most expensive wine (£15.95 from Berry Bros) and everyone guessed this one at £15. It’s powerful stuff almost like a baby Hermitage with real structure and length. Really excellent.

Silver went to Pigeolet de Brunier 09 – if the Chave was a baby Hermitage this is a baby Chateauneuf: heady, spicy, mellow, raspberry fruit, very elegant with gentle tannins. Just the sort of thing you would expect from the second wine of Vieux Telegraphe. My guests said £12 – House of Townend have it for under a tenner.

Bronze went to Gran Sangre de Toro Reserva 07 (Co-op £7.99) I guessed this as the Spanish one probably because it was clearly the oldest.  We agreed that it tasted like £12’s worth of wine. Nose was rich and spicy and in the mouth it’s mellow with a very long finish. There may have be some nuttiness there too. I can’t read my handwriting. And in no particular order the other wines were:

La Veille Ferme 2010 – my wife guessed this one immediately. It’s like Rhone Beaujolais. Nice but completely different animal to the above wines and pointless to compare them. (£7.99 Majestic)

Cotes-du-Rhone, Belleruche, Chapoutier 2010 – I thought this was awful. A little green on the nose and then it was short rough, sweet and raw. I remember it used to be light and peppery. What’s going on here? Other people quite liked it. We guessed £7 (Majestic £9.99 on offer now two bottles for £6.99)

Cotes-du-Rhone Guigal 2009 – normally a favourite of mine. This one suffered from following the Chave. Nice meaty stuff with some brambly fruit but no real length. Perhaps it just needs a little time. We gave it a £9 rating. (£10 Waitrose)

Cotes-du-Rhone ‘Les Vignes Rousses’ Jean-Luc Colombo – tasted very young, very fruity, damsons and plums on the nose, light-bodied. I was very surprised to have something so light from this producer. £7 rating which I think is a little unfair. (Majestic £9.99 on offer two bottles for £6.99)

Cotes-du-Rhone Reserve Perrin 2010 – another one from the Perrin stable. Violets on the nose, light-bodied, some red fruit. Very nice stuff.  The team scored it at £9 (Wine Society £8.99)

Thanks to Berry Bros, House of Townend, Majestic and the Wine Society for providing the wines. Winners will appear in a forthcoming Lady column. Thanks for my guests for being Rhone guinea pigs. Finally here’s hoping that I don’t get arrested for using the words Olympics, bronze, gold and silver all in the same article.

Books Wine articles

The Wild Bunch by Patrick Matthews

This is the second half of an article that appeared in Slightly Foxed magazine last year. Click on Lynch’s book for the first part.

Kermit Lynch’s book, Adventures on the Wine Route, surveys a depressing 1980s landscape of French producers cashing in their birthright and homogenising their wines for the international market. Patrick Matthew’s 1997 book, The Wild Bunch: Great Wine from Small Producers, is about the fight back. He surveys small producers not just in France but around the world willing to take risks to make distinctive wines. It would be hard to think of characters less alike that Lynch and Matthews. Patrick Matthews is diffident, mischievous and not nearly as knowledgeable or sure of himself. This counts in his favour as one feels that Matthews is learning as he goes along and bringing the reader with him. That’s not to say that he is a beginner but where his knowledge is lacking, he doesn’t gloss over his ignorance in waffle or superfluous technical details, he makes it an asset. Endearingly, he even gets drunk at a wine tasting (something one cannot imagine Lynch ever doing) and argues with a buyer for a supermarket.

Matthews was not part of the wine establishment. I’m pretty sure that he was never invited out to Bordeaux to taste the new vintage. In the Wild Bunch he was looking to challenge received opinion but unlike some other self-styled ‘outsiders’ he never comes across as chippy. Take the vexed matter of scoring wines for example something that Lynch abhors. Instead of decrying it Matthews came up with his own idiosyncratic scoring system on the basis of two criteria: oddness and niceness. He scored them out of five instead of the more usual 20 or 100:

‘The quirk this creates is that a wine I like a lot can still get low scores: for example a neutralish white Bourgone Aligote which is neither very strange nor a real crowd-pleaser (1/5 oddness 1/5 niceness).’

Notice how his system tells you how the wine will taste rather than saying that one is better than another.

When the Wild Bunch was written the hot topic amongst British wine writers was something called the ‘Wine Revolution.’ This ‘revolution’ consisted of young, usually Australian wine makers overturning centuries of European lethargy and producing fruity wines that were named after grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay rather than places in Europe. This was the era of supermarket wine guides with names like Superplonk and Juicy! It was also the time when wine critics Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden competed with each other to come up with ever more outlandish descriptions on their television program. ‘Mmmmmm deck chairs on the Titanic’ was one I remember clearly. Matthews was not impressed. He was ahead of his time in championing the local, the diverse and the obscure. These terms are now platitudes; the stuff of lifestyle journalism. But when Matthews was writing this book he was championing something genuinely new. Today terms such as ‘organics’, ‘biodynamics’ and ‘natural’ wines are the new orthodoxy of wine with even industrial wine producers paying lip serve to them. Matthews is ever alert to how the best intentions can ossify into dogma: ‘there are echoes of cults, evangelism, even show trials’ he writes after interviewing a producer who had gone ‘organic’

Early on in the book, Matthews explicitly rejects the whimsical style of wine writing noting that: “these encounters (with wine makers) tend to be reported in a maddeningly sketchy way:   ‘her/senor/ monsieur so-and-so has some fascinating opinions which make a visit to his cellars an education in every sense!’ Like a good travel writer, he is able to capture the personalities of the people he meets with a few deft phrases. Here he is on Olivier Merlin, a young Turk from Burgundy, and his wife:

‘The couple personified the romance of wine. They were young 1980s people (something you could tell from Oilvier coloured-framed specs a la early Jancis Robinson) and they’d seized the moment.’

It’s not only people who shine out of the book, I know few writers who can capture a place so elegantly:

‘The sherry bodegas have something of the air of Oxbridge colleges with their courtyards and immaculate displays of flowering plants (not to mention the all pervasive smell of Sherry)’

Here he manages to be witty without ever being flip or facetious. The book is often very funny but you never doubt how seriously he takes his subject. It is based mainly on interviews with notable people from within the wine business. Matthew’s frame of reference, however, is much wider than this. To back up his points, Matthews calls into service the likes of Flaubert, Pliny, Bob Dylan, Arabic lyric poetry and a novel by Dorothy L Sayers – ‘the only detective story I know that turns on the sleuth’s unerring palate.’

Whereas Lynch is a pillar of the wine world and his book a bestseller, Matthews is a more shadowy figure. The Wild Bunch, originally published by Faber, has been out of print for years though it is easy to get hold of second-hand. He published another book called Real Wine in 2000 for Mitchell Beazley and later a book called Cannabis Culture. He then seems to have disappeared. Perhaps the precarious life of a wine writer did not appeal. Certainly one cannot imagine him having a weekly newspaper column recommending supermarket wines or appearing on Saturday morning cookery programs. Last I heard he was running a falafel stall in Hoxton Square. I hope that he is happy wherever he is and still enjoying good wine.

Since this was published, I have been in touch with Patrick Matthews. His falafel business, Hoxton Beach, is thriving, I often have lunch at the stall on Goodge Street, and he is still enjoying good wine, we had a nice Marcillac, some rare old amontillado and a surprisingly good supermarket own-label Sauternes when I saw him last.

Wine articles

I won something!

As boy I was a very poor sportsman. Whilst my older brother George was always winning things, my trophy cabinet was bare. In fact I didn’t have a trophy cabinet, there just wasn’t the need. Looking back, I think the only thing I ever won was the Sixth Form History prize in 1995. The prize was a £25 book token. Now 17 years later, I have won something else and it’s considerably better than a book token. Jancis Robinson has been running a competition on her site over the last few months where readers have submitted restaurant reviews and mine has just been chosen as the winner. You can read my review of the Giaconda Dining Room here. The prize is a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild 1996. Now who to share it with?