Wine articles

Parlez-vous ‘wine’?

Hapsburg jaw

At this time of year my friends start behaving strangely: they have terrible mood swings, one moment singing bawdily, the next moment heads bowed disconsolate; their speech changes, the accents become more Cockney/ Yorkshire/ Mancunian depending on where they are from and they start shouting gibberish such as ‘kerm onnnn’ or using odd phrases as ‘the mercurial Ukrainian’ or ‘at the end of the day.’ For a moment I think it might be some sort of recurring venereal disease but then I realise it’s the start of the football season. As a non-football fan, it’s interesting to see how when talking about football, normal people start to use a different language both verbal and physical. Football isn’t an especially complicated game, I know how to play it badly and I can understand the off-side-rule. My theory is that football fans use this language in part to dissuade non-fans like me from joining in with inane questions like ‘is John Barnes still playing for Watford?’ I’m not complaining, it seems to make lots of people happy (and very miserable) but it’s interesting how naturally people talk ‘football’ compared with how they talk ‘wine.’

Most people are afraid of wine talk. They’re afraid of looking snobbish or pretentious or appearing ignorant. There are complaints if you say ‘palate’ instead of ‘taste’ or ‘aroma’ instead of ‘smell’. That’s understandable amongst non-wine bore friends but what I do find odd is that many within the wine business are afraid of it. Wine merchants, journalists and sommeliers are fall over themselves to say that wine should to accessible. Take for example the latest Goedhuis catalogue. Rather than arranging wines by regions, they are done by style as if it’s a wine list in a gastropub rather than by one of the biggest names in en primeur Burgundy and Bordeaux. This produces anomalies where some Burgundy is ‘fresh, fruity and crunchy’ and others are in the ‘elegant, scented and precise’ section. Is there anyone amongst Goedhuis’s customers who would spend £500 on a case of Gevry-Chambertin without knowing that they have bought red Burgundy?

Angling, motor-racing, cooking (pan-fried, reduction, using the word ‘plate’ as a verb) all have their own jargon yet no one thinks that they’re snobbish. If you’re interested in something then be prepared to learn. Once you get to a certain level, then wine’s very complexity becomes an appeal.  If you’re on Goedhuis’s mailing list, they should assume that you’re fairly interested in wine. Ordering wine by style reminds me of those restaurants on holiday that have photos on their menus, it may be easier but it’s so much more rewarding to learn a bit of the local language. Wine is a language and a difficult one at that. It requires study, practise and confidence. Yes, you’ll feel like a dick when you first say ‘on the nose’ or ‘well-integrated tannins’ just as lisping all those ‘c’s in Castilian makes you feel like an effeminate in-bred Hapsburg. But with practise, it will become second nature and the word Cenicero (a town in Rioja) will dance off your tongue.  Wine isn’t going to throw off its snobbish connotations by pretending it’s simple, it will do so by confidently asserting its complexity. I might even get some of my football fan friends to come to a tasting.

Interviews Wine articles

Wine interview: Eduardo Porto Carreiro

This week I’m delighted that top sommelier (sorry wine guy) Eduardo Porto Carreiro has agreed to take part in my booze interview. Originally from Brazil, Eduardo was sommelier at Grace and then Lukshon in Los Angeles and has recently moved to Bar Boulud in New York. 

What was the first wine you had that got you hooked?

I don’t think I can pinpoint exactly one wine that got me “hooked.”  I recall quite fondly growing up and always sneaking sips from my mother or father’s glass at the dinner table.   If I had to pick one specific event: it would have to be when I was in college and I went on my first winery visit.  I was in the Finger Lakes region of New York and had the opportunity to visit Hermann J. Weimer (one of the top Finger Lakes wineries) — there I tasted through a huge spectrum of Rieslings from dry to sweet.  I was amazed how complex and versatile just one grape variety could be… For the first time, it was both an intellectual as well as a hedonistic fascination.

I’ve been told you prefer the term wine guy to sommelier.  Why is this?

Fundamentally, “wine guy” and “sommelier” are really the same thing.  However, I feel that most people become more relaxed chatting about wine with someone when titles and oft-perceived-as-pretentious terms are thrown out of the window.  I don’t change who I am to play the role of the wine guy or the sommelier, but it does seem to change the guests’ view as well as their comfort level.

You started your career as a wine clerk at Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.  Which of their sandwiches is your favorite? 

Greenblatt’s Deli is a fascinating place.  I was lucky to have landed there. Not only has it been one of the top wine stores in Los Angeles for the past seven decades, it has also been the home to some of the best Deli Sandwiches in America.  Without reservations or hesitation: my favorite of the Greenblatt’s sandwiches is their Corned Beef & Pastrami Combo Reuben (corned beef and pastrami! ed.) It’s heavenly decadent.

Which reds would you suggest to those who think they only like white?

Wine drinkers who prefer to drink whites seem to do so, because they don’t particularly like the bitterness that tannins lend to a wine and have a preference for fresher and brighter profiles.  I would recommend young and vibrant low tannin reds that could be served with a bit of a chill.  A great young Beaujolais, or perhaps a Frappato from Sicily, or a Poulsard from the Jura would be good options.

Which wine makes you inwardly groan when customers ask for it and why?

I’m upset to admit that every time someone asks for a Pinot Grigio, involuntarily, my guard does go up a bit.  In the ten years that I’ve been in the wine business, Pinot Grigio has easily been the most requested white wine. It’s a grape that I don’t have much fondness for and that is so widely available, it saddens me that people don’t move beyond such an obvious option.  That being said, every time someone asks for a Pinot Grigio, it does give me the opportunity to turn them on to a different grape that may appeal to them even more.

What has been the least popular wine that you have listed? Do you regret listing it?

I’ve listed several “orange wine” style bottles on lists that I’ve curated that don’t tend to be terribly popular.  And I don’t regret listing them.  For the small niche of people who do appreciate these wines, and for the guests that we get to turn on to this unique style — we win regulars and repeat customers for life.  There’s nothing quite like dealing with adventurous wine-drinkers and it’s these less popular wines that make for great little victories along the way.

What’s the hardest dish you have had to match?

Szechuan Dan Dan Noodles.  Numbingly hot.  Dry wines are a terrible match; as are most off-dry wines.  It has to be a very specific kind of fruity Riesling or aromatic white Belgian ale.  Very tough to match!

Do you think that sommeliers have a great influence over what the average wine drinker buys?

I think sommeliers do have an opportunity to influence drinkers.  Most importantly, though, I think that sommeliers play a pivotal role in empowering average drinkers to trust in their own palates and push their boundaries with regards to what kind of wines to drink.

Have you ever told a customer that he’s wrong?

No.  I honestly believe that there is no right or wrong with regards to taste.  It’s entirely personal and individual.

How did you become a sommelier?

I fell into it.  I was a waiter at a restaurant with a great wine program and asked a lot questions.  My interest was rewarded when I was asked to help out with the wine program, eventually becoming the Assistant Wine Director.

What’s your big tip for this year?

Keep an eye out for wines from Corsica.  The regions of Patrimonio and Ajaccio have some fun little wines coming into the market.

What bottle are you most looking forward to drinking?

There’s a 2002 Ambonnay Grand Cru Champagne from Marie-Noelle Ledru in my fridge right now that I cannot wait to open.  It’ll be perfect for a lazy Sunday brunch at home.

Who is your favorite drinker in literature and why?

Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical main character in the novel Women).  This character drinks like there’s no tomorrow and reminds one that moderation isn’t so bad after all.

You own a wine label, Angelica Cellars, with your best friend, Ben.  How did you two decide to go into business together and how involved with the making of this wine are you?

Ben (Feldman of ‘Mad Men’ fame, ed.) and I have been great friends for a very long time.  We always used to drink together (even before it was legal to do so) and eventually came to a place of imagining what it might be like to get into the production side of things.  We did a lot of research and ended up deciding that we should make a wine that we both would love to drink because if all else failed, we could always drink up the inventory.  Long story short, we found a great little vineyard in Santa Barbara County that had the right clone of Syrah and the right climatic conditions, and we found a co-op winery that would help us with our project, and we haven’t looked back.  Ultimately, we make all the big decisions regarding wine-making, packaging, marketing, etc.  But, thankfully, we have a great team that looks over our barrels when we’re not around and effectively allows our vision to become a reality.

Do you have an aversion to ‘wine talk’? Are there any wine words or terms that annoy/ baffle you?

I don’t mind wine talk if the person I’m talking to comes from a real or grounded place and is using it because of a passion for a particular wine.  I have a real aversion to wine talk, if the person who is using it wants to somehow show off or elevate themselves above others.  That said, the word “filigree” to describe a wine has always confounded me (no idea either ed.)

What Californian wine would you recommend to someone who thinks that all US wines are jammy and brash?

Today there are quite a few up and coming producers such as Broc Cellars out of the central coast of California and Arnot-Roberts out of Northern California that could easily dispel notions that American wines are jammy and brash. But there are also older and more established wineries that could challenge those assumptions.  Try to find a bottle of Hanzell Pinot Noir from the 70’s — it would easily hold up to any Old World wines.

Finally if you had one wine to drink for the rest of your life what would it be?

If I were a man of means and had to answer that question truthfully, the one wine I’d drink for the rest of my life would be Champagne. There’s nothing quite like a great bottle of Champagne and there are few wines that are as versatile and can be drunk morning, noon, and night.

You can find out more aboutAngelica Cellars here.

Wine articles

Ethical, local, sustainable. Delicious?

There’s a café near me that has the following on the sign outside ‘Ethical, sustainable, local, organic.’ The sign seems to work as the place is doing a roaring trade. It got me thinking about what this sign says to people. I doubt that there are many people who take it literally, ‘darling, let’s go to that place, I hear it’s sustainable.’ ‘Yes and ethical too, Milo does like his ethical sausages.’ Instead it works on a more subconscious level. One sees those four words and thinks ‘middle-class!’ I don’t mean this in a derogative way, I’m middle-class and not ashamed of it. Those words mean that you’ll be surrounded by like-minded individuals with no danger of any working class people spoiling the atmosphere with their tabloid newspapers and ghastly children. The other thing that this sign says is ‘we care about our ingredients.’ They may not know how to cook them but they’ve taken care to buy, sorry source, good stuff. All in all, the food will probably be quite nice if a little pricey and the service a little bearded.

Like food, wine is sold by factors other than how it tastes. We hear a lot about about sustainability, organics, natural, biodynamics etc. (I was going to put all these words in inverted commas but thought that would be fogeyish.) I say we hear a lot about these things but actually, unless you’re a proper wine bore, you won’t hear that much about them. These are the stuff of press releases, of websites, of three day symposiums in Syracuse. Compared with the café above, most wine bottles are uncommunicative when it comes to political issues. Occasionally you will see a bottle of wine labelled organic but these are generally best avoided as they tend to be sold assuming that people are more interested in organics than deliciouness. A wine’s first duty is to taste good, everything else is of secondary importance. Good wine makers are aware of this which is why they keep all this secondary stuff in the background and let their wines speak for themselves.

Nevertheless some of these words do have some significance beyond their rather woolly literal meanings:

‘Natural’ – will not be over-oaked, over-sugared or confected. May well taste vibrant and delicious (or might taste like stale real ale.) People do complain that it has no legal definition but I find it a much more helpful word when buying wine that ‘organic’ as it actually conjures up how the wine will taste. Also very useful when visiting vineyards as the operation will be small and the producer interesting and opinionated.

‘Organic’ – this word will have no bearing on how the wine is going to taste. Some producers farm organically but then might add lashings of additives to the wine so that it tastes spoofulated. Most taste just like conventionally grown ones, and the health benefits of organic farming are unproven and the environmental ones inconclusive.

Biodynamic’ – Biodynamics does sound like something made up by L. Ron Hubbarb if he was from rural Austria but its adherents produce some bloody good wines. I have a not terribly original theory that biodynamics is merely a way of codifying and ritualising the obsession that good wine makers have with the well-being of their vines ie. the cow’s horn spray doesn’t matter per se but someone who is prepared to go through all that nonsense is clearly an obsessive. How will the wine taste? Probably quite good.

‘Sustainable’ – means absolutely bugger all and won’t affect how the wine tastes.

‘Ethical’ – ditto.

I suppose the answer is to befriend your local wine merchant, explore, trust your own palate and try to keep things like class and polictics out of something that should be enjoyable first and foremost. As Kermit Lynch once said: ‘Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull.’

Film and TV Wine articles Wine of the week

Poor Sauvignon Blanc

Jaws 3

I wrote a thing for the Lady a few months ago about how the best way to impress fellow wine bores is not through wines that you like but wines that you don’t. Anyone who has ever been on date will know that often the moments you click are when you agree on something you hate. I thought the ultimate thing to dislike was Pinotage but I was wrong. Pinotage is too clumsy, too easy a target. It’s like trying to impress a muso by saying that you don’t like Simply Red. No, the grape that all wine bores dislike is Sauvignon Blanc.

This grape reminds me of a much-loved screen actor noted for bringing a touch of class to all his films, perhaps a Michael Caine or a Johnny Depp, who then ruins his reputation by doing Jaws: The Revenge or all those awful Pirates of the Carribean films. Just so with SB, all those lovely Sancerres lost in a sea of Oyster Bays (or indeed indifferent over-priced Sancerres.) People start to doubt whether SB was any good in the first place, weren’t those flavours always a little obvious, a little one note? Did it really deserve an Oscar for Hannah & her Sisters?

Of course the general public still love Michael Caine, sorry I mean Sauvignon Blanc. It’s the grape of choice for most middle-class families (I have no actual research to back this up.) And this gets to the root of why we wine snobs despise SB, it’s just too popular and there’s nothing new to say about it. I used to be one of these people until I started going to regular tastings and realised quite how good this grape can be. Here’s two that recently impressed me:

Dourthe Sauvignon Blanc La Grande Cuvée 2011 (£7.99 Waitrose)

I can’t begin to describe how unexcited I was when I was sent this bottle. I opened it at work and shared it out. Everyone took a sip and said how good it was. They weren’t wrong, for something that is made in vast quantities it is really good.  It’s extremely crisp and citric with some green peppers on the nose and then a little creaminess on the finish. Shows how good cheap white Bordeaux can be.

Zondernaam Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Co-op £9.99)

A big step up from the Dourthe, this has smoky smell that brings to mind the best of the Loire rather than South Africa. In the mouth it’s very dry with fragrance and that difficult-to-describe depth of flavour that wine writers describe as minerality. Real class and a long finish, this is the wine to give to someone who’s sick of those brash, tropical fruit Sauvignon Blancs. It might even convert the wine bores.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine of the Week: Frappato Fondo Filara

Rosé is so 2005, English whites are 2009, Cava is 1996 (probably due for a revival soon.) If you really want to be progressive this summer, you should be drinking cold red wine. All you need is a red low in tannin and relatively high in fruit, the sort of red that appeals to non-red wine drinkers (hello Mum!), some way to keep it cold and you’re away. The traditional wines to do this with are from Beaujolais or the Loire, but most reds respond well to a lowering of the serving temperature. I warn you though, once you start chilling reds, it becomes a compulsion; soon you’ll be putting good claret in the fridge for ten minutes before serving.

One of the advantages of a light red over rosé is that when it warms up in the park, it isn’t going to start tasting horrid. This is my current favourite cold red:

Frappato Fondo Filara, Nicosia 2011 £8.50

My wife has asked me not to recommend this Sicilian in case the Wine Society sells out. Tastes exactly like crushed blueberries with a hint of volcanic smokiness. This is how I imagined wine would taste when I was a child.

Here’s an interesting article about this winery and the wonderful wines of Etna.