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.’

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 Wine of the week

Wine of the Week: Côtes du Rhone Guigal 2007

Some wines are so familiar that I ignore them when shopping. There’s an element of snobbery at work here; it feels so much cooler (do people still say cool?) to be drinking something obscure. When I worked at Oddbins we never touched the Moët, the Jacob’s Creek or the Campo Viejo; we even used to be snobbish about which lager we drank after work insisting that Superbok was vastly superior to Beck’s. Guigal’s Côtes du Rhone was just such a wine. I don’t remember any fellow Oddbinites drinking it or recommending it to customers. When people used to buy it, to my shame, I looked down my prominent nose at them.

Well more fool me because year in, year out, it’s one of the best value wines in existence. It’s made by one of the most lauded names in the Rhone, Marcel Guigal, a hero to most though not of course to Kermit Lynch who describes Guigal’s heavily oaked Côte-Rôties as ‘Freak Wines.’ These single vineyard wines cost ££££ but there is another side to his business producing wines from bought-in grapes. The Cotes du Rhone is his cheapest and it is made in vast quantities: over 3.5 million bottles of this latest vintage. It’s made from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre and is a masterpiece of the blender’s art with Guigal buying in grapes from dozens of growers across the Southern Rhone. Unusually for a mass market wine, it’s also matured for at least 18 months before release.

It may be my memory playing tricks on me but the 07 seems even more delicious than previous vintages. It has more structure and so opens up after decanting or being left open overnight. There a lot of fruit – blackcurrants, figs, something red perhaps – but also some lovely mellow woody flavours owing to maturity with a very long finish. I ‘tested’ it against another 07 Côtes-du-Rhone from a legendary Northern Rhone producer, in this case JL Chave with his ‘Mon Coeur‘. The Chave tasted classier, cooler, more Northern Rhone whereas the Guigal is defiantly Southern but none the worse for it. Where the Guigal wins out is that it still tastes young & robust, in comparison the Chave is at its peak and starts to fall apart when left open overnight.

There’s an element of urgency to this post because not only is the Guigal only £7.99 at Waitrose until 20th March but they have the 07 whereas most other people are on to the 09. I’m sure the new vintage is good but 2007 was one of the great years in the Rhone and this wine does love a bit of age.

Wine articles

Adventures on the Wine Route – Kermit Lynch

This is an edited version of a long essay on wine writing that appeared in Slightly Foxed literary magazine in December. I should also take this opportunity to announce that I have started a monthly wine column in The Lady magazine. Both magazines are well worth subscribing to and not only to read the higher-quality jokes that I’m saving for them as they’re paying me.

It is received opinion amongst publishers that wine book don’t sell. Don’t even try and suggest a book to a publisher with the word wine in the title, they will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry.) As a wino and a reader I find this lack of success sad but understandable. Trying to put the hedonistic pleasure of a good burgundy into words is impossible. It is also very very complicated. You really do need to know your stuff to write about it clearly. Sadly some writers mistake the need for knowledge as a need to impart all of that knowledge to the poor reader. Learning should be the foundations not main structure.

A good wine book must have some sort of polemical thrust. None come more thrusting than Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route: a wine buyer’s tour of France. The author is an American importer of mainly French wines to Berkeley, California. The book is a journey around France through the classic wine regions as well as taking in Provence and the Languedoc, not noted at the time for good wine. What propels this book is the author’s rage as he sees the old ways that made the wine he loves slowly overtaken by modern techniques. They make life easier but the wine worse. His rage extends to his fellow countrymen who he feels miss the whole point of wine with their awarding of scores and blind tasting:

‘the method is misguided, the results spurious and misleading. . . . Such tasting conditions have nothing to do with the conditions under which the wines will presumably be drunk, which is at table with food. When a woman chooses a hat, she does not put it on a goat’s head to judge it; she puts it on her own.’

Who can argue with that?

It is in many ways a sad book as time and time again Mr. Lynch turns up at the house of a gnarled old peasant whose wine he has bought for many years only to discover that the son has taken over, thrown out all the old barrels, replaced them with stainless steel and now filters the wine heavily to ensure a stable consistent product. This removes any danger of the wine spoiling but means that it never hits the highs of before. With heavy heart Lynch tastes, sighs and strikes the producer of his list. Lynch is characteristically forthright on wine treated so brutally:

‘We would not castrate all men because some of them go haywire and commit rape. At least I wouldn’t’.

What makes Lynch such good company in a book is probably what makes him, I imagine, hard work in real life. He is convinced that he is right and he is not afraid to tell people what they are doing wrong – mainly filtering their wines. That an American wine importer with no wine-making experience should be ordering the French around does not strike him as odd. There is a memorable scene where the owners of the most prestigious estate in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Telegraphe, who normally filter their wines, produced two bottles of the same vintage, one filtered and one not and they taste them side-by-side. Everyone prefers the non-filtered. Lynch has been proved right again.

From reading Adventures on the Wine Route, one quickly realizes how much Lynch knows about wine. If he wanted to he could fill the book with technical detail but instead it is accessible to general reader. As Lynch himself puts it

‘Wine is, above all, pleasure. Those who would make it ponderous make it dull.’

Amen to that.

Lynch loathes any technique which would rob a wine of its delicacy. These include excessive addition of sugar to boost alcohol levels – endemic in France especially in Beaujolais – and over use of new oak – a technique which makes wine taste of vanilla to the detriment of everything else. Lynch gets particularly angry when pondering the heavy hand of Marcel Guigal on the perfumed wines of Cote-Rotie:

‘I cannot begin to describe how profoundly the critics embrace of such freak wine depresses me.’

It is difficult to overstate quite how heretical this view is. Guigal is generally considered to be an untouchable god of modern wine-making. It’s the vinous equivalent of slandering Nelson Mandela.

Adventures on the Wine Route was originally published in 1988 and has not been out of print since. Though it is now somewhat out of date as a buying guide, it is as relevant today as when it was written. Even if you have only glancing interest in wine, Lynch can be read for his wit, vivacity and striking way with words.