Wine articles

Death of the Wine Snob

This is something I wrote earlier in the year for Spectator Life magazine but it has taken so long to appear that one of the shops I mention has since closed. Tant pis, as they say in East London.

Red-faced, plummy-voiced, with a big nose, the wine snob is a familiar social stereotype. He might laugh at you at a dinner party for mispronouncing Montrachet or be the face sneering at you from behind the counter of a stuffy wine merchant when you ask for a bottle of cava. Oddly enough, in all my years of buying wine and working in the wine trade, I very rarely came across this figure. People like this may have once been ubiquitous but nowadays the legend of the wine snob is kept alive by the wine trade as a way of proclaiming their egalitarian principles: haven’t we come far, they say, we’re not like those terrible blazer-wearing toffs.

Click here to read the rest. 

After writing this article, I had an experience in a trendy wine shop which suggested the wine snob is actually alive and well. He’s just changed a bit.

Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine of the week: Tesco Finest Cotes Catalanes Grenache 2012

I’ve realised that my biggest weakness as a wine writer is that I’m a bit slow (that and not knowing very much about Burgundy). I’ll try a wine at a tasting, forget all about it, and then months later, think how it would fit very well into one of my tenuously-themed Lady columns. Sadly by the time I remember it, it’s gone. That’s the thing about wine, there’s only a finite amount of it and when it’s gone, it’s gawn. This applies even to stuff made in vast quantities for supermarkets, wines like my wine of the week.

It’s from the Roussillon, a region of France blessed with hectares of old vines, mainly carignan and grenache, that used to make Vin Doux Naturales. These wines are now out of fashion. I am fighting a one-man battle to return them to popularity but whilst the French wait for my campaign to take off, the grapes are being used to make table wines. And what wonderful table wines they make. This is all old-vine Grenache and it’s really rather serious. It smells very savoury like leather with a touch of something herby and then when you taste it that leather comes through again though there is plenty of fruit to support it. It tastes of a harsh landscape where only vines and wild rosemary will grow. It was actually a little unyielding when I tried it in March but by now and with some sausages, I bet it will be delicious.

The cost for this wine is £6.99 but from 14th August ’til 3rd September, it goes down to £5.49. I’d buy at least six and drink them when the weather starts getting cold. How’s that for agile consumer advice?

Wine articles

Odd flavours, off flavours

There’s a lot of talk at the moment amongst us wine bores about natural wines – wines made with no additives and little or no sulphur. Positions have become entrenched, harsh words have been said. I foresee a schism. The debate, as far as I can tell, boils down to this: those who don’t approve of natural wines say ‘some of them are horrid’ and those who do either reply ‘well some of yours are horrid too’ – this is known as the schoolboy defence – or ‘what is horrid? – the French  philosopher defence.

The problem with heated debates is that they only serve to obscure the facts. Uncommitted bystanders are asked to choose sides when actually what we want is information. The novelist Nicholas Blincoe put this rather well recently when he said that the argument over Europe could be boiled down to one side shouting ‘cappuccino’ and the other side ‘gypsy.’ We’re left none the wiser. 

As natural wine is made in a risky way, it doesn’t seem  a controversial thing to say that there is a greater chance that some of them will have faults, some of them will taste horrid. The logical retort would be yes, there is this risk but it’s worth it for the highs that can only come from wine made in this way. I call this the cycling without a helmet defence. Perhaps it is dangerous but it’s worth it on a sunny day to feel the wind in your hair. It’s not one that anyone seems to use and I’m not sure why. Would accepting that natural wines have a greater tendency to spoil undermine the whole concept? Does anyone outside the wine world really care? Is anyone reading this post?

I will give you an example. I tried a wine called Fou du Roi 2010 from Les Temps de Cerise at a recent Roberson tasting.  It had the most gorgeous ripe vivid fruit, a touch of CO2 sparkle, and a lightness and and sense of fun that shouted ‘natural wine’ Then, however, a wave of something I can only describe as badly kept real ale hit me. I’m not sure what the technical term for this is, or whether there is is even a technical term.

Generally I would describe myself as a natural wine enthusiast. I am also very tolerant of ‘faults’, vinegar, oxidation, etc. I can deal with. I particularly love old school Rioja, Chateau Musar etc with all their quirks and foibles. I like a bit of Brett – a yeast infection that makes a wine smell of old socks. I like white wines made with skin contact so that they turn orange. Basically I love wine. But one thing I can’t put off as a quirk is that stale smell. It means that I am reluctant to order any wine described as natural on a restaurant wine list. I’ve had this often with natural wines, gorgeous fruit and then old beer.

Some of these wine were from highly-lauded producers. What I want to know is whether they were meant to taste like that.  Everyone else at the Roberson tasting was slurping and spitting without recoiling. Am I abnormally sensitive? In order to appreciate them do I have to get used to this taste?

The following week I went to a tasting organised by the wines of Jura. Now here are some seriously peculiar wines. Imagine a cross between white Burgundy and a sort of farmhouse sherry and you’re nearly there. The best wines – Vin Jaunes and Cotes-du-Juras – were oxidised and some of them had a sharp tang of acetic acid – vinegar. These wine were on the whole amazing. Last night I had a Rancio wine from the Roussillon – yes that means rancid – the wine is left in old barrels, not topped up and left to oxidise in the heat until they take on nutty, fruity flavours. All these things in a table wine would be considered faults but here they are elevated into something beautiful, especially with a nice piece of Gruyere. 

If there is anyone out there who knows the technical term for the stale ale taste, please could they let me know. I want to learn! 

Wine articles

Towards greater synergy between merchant and customer in a modern retail environment

Here’s a sequel to a post I wrote a few months ago. It’s sometimes very hard for a wine merchant to gauge how interested a potential customer is in wine. There’s always a risk of patronising the customer or boring him senseless. Either way, no wine will be sold. So inspired by the 1-5 sweetness scale used by most supermarkets, I’ve come up with my own system. Simply walk into the shop, greet the shopkeep and then say one of the numbers below. Instantly the sales spiel will be at just the right level for you:

0 – Do you only sell wine? I’m after milk/ tampons/ mobile top-up cards.

1 – Do you sell Blossom Hill?

2 – Some basic chat about grape varieties is fine.

3 – By all means talk about wine regions.

4 – Happy to hear some funny stories about the producers crop being eaten by goats but please don’t talk about schist.

5 – I want to talk about schist, kimmeridgian clay and whether wines made by Guy Assad have aged well.

I’d say that I fall between 4 and 5 on this scale depending on my mood. If my system takes off, I foresee a revolution in the British attitude to wine. Visiting a wine merchant will no longer be a source of potential embarrassment, customers will be less inhibited and spend more. The wine trade will boom like never before. It’ll start as a trickle but mark my words this is going to be big. Who’s with me?