‘Come in cats and check your hats, I mean this joint is jumpin’….
A rare, recent, glimpse of spring sunshine finds me groping for a glass of something sunny, and Patrick Sullivan’s ‘Jumpin Juice’ gets the roof rocking’ and the neighbours knockin’.
Guaranteed to lift the most jaded of spirits, and awaken those blue winter palates deadened by too much Malbec!
Raspberries, mulberries, a bunch of blackberries and a fistful of cherries. Whole bunch fermented, neither brand nor bland, it’s the kind of cloudy, savoury and vibrantly beautiful giggle juice that Jean de Florette would have guzzled on his endless trips to the cistern, and although this is a wine of Victoria’s Yarra Valley, it dances to the tambourin of Provence.
Pinot Noir, with a dash of Pinot Gris, picked and blended at the same time then fermented with natural yeasts – they drop their singular personalities and meld into a true vin de soif – unfined and barely filtered, light in colour and body, tense, nervy, minerally, oozing with juicy fruit and best lightly chilled, this is just ridiculously easy to drink.
If wine is so interesting, how come wine writing’s so dull?
Ok, obviously not all of it, but let’s just say that I have a vested interest and wading through the majority of it fills me with trepidation rather than excitement.
To give it some context, wine tasting notes are generally written by people who have been through the wine education system. By this I mean a programme or qualification endorsed by a governing body connected to the wine trade, and while they may know an awful lot about wine it doesn’t necessarily mean they have any experience of writing outside their field – there are exceptions of course.
Wine writing is like any other form of writing. Just because anyone can pick up a pen, or tap on a keyboard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. It’s true that many people have a book in them, but it may be a bad book.
It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s some really good stuff out there but it’s usually hidden behind a paywall – where those who are perceived to do it well dispense their wisdom, from on high, and when not travelling the globe writing reports are feted at trade tastings (by an assortment of winemakers, agents and sales reps) and escorted to specially constructed, gilded thrones, carefully placed near power sockets, to apportion their scores. Which brings me neatly onto the scoring system.
For the uninitiated, wine scoring was initially out of twenty points (Broadbent, Robinson et al) moving swiftly to the American model ( Parker) where wines are scored out of one hundred points. In the latter (universally adopted) system, the majority of wines tasted rarely drops below eighty points, which roughly equates to the original system of twenty. Get my drift? Good, I love you and award you 95 points!
But what about those wines that don’t make the grade? Well, these are then whipped into whirlpools – in an ever desperate attempt to fill them with enough oxygen to reveal some form of discerning characteristic – so that a score may be apportioned, a medal awarded, and a market found.
This is where your writer earns their crust and it’s a tough market. Wine hacks are paid per word, and in these post internet times the income stream has gone from a torrent to a trickle. Money is paid by the highest bidder, which is why five out of every six recommendations, to spend your hard earned cash, promotes the major multiples or large producers. Consequently, tasting notes are often geared to a common denominator of taste, and indeed price. The results are often predictably anodyne – neither expressing real opinions nor provoking thought – after all you don’t get your free wine trips that way. In addition, the majority of readers may have little (or no) interest in anything but the narrow band of products the writers endorse – so you get what you get.
‘Anyone who has had the good fortune of opening a bottle of Côtes du Rhône will find them generous, smooth and a joy to taste. They embody the warm sunshine that floods the region in summer’…Will Lyons ‘The Sunday Times’.
My apologies to Will, as he’s a good writer, but it’s extremely hard to come up with interesting and informative comment in the few column inches available between the recipes and the horoscopes.
So what’s the alternative?
‘Deep yellow straw colour with golden highlights and high viscosity may point to a sweet wine. Presence of botrytis evident, with no rot, indicating selective and possibly manual harvesting point to a wine of high quality. The well balanced fruit, sugar and acidity together with well integrated new (French oak) point to a wine from the old, rather than the new world. Strong primary fruit aromas of stone and citrus together with clean botrytis, marked acidity and high residual sugar, plus slow fermentation, leads to France/Sauternes. Excellent quality, well balanced, still youthful with flavours not yet fully integrated indicate that the wine is around 5 years old and will last at least another 10 years or more’.…blah, blah, blah.
That’s my nerdy note (blind) for Ch Climens96 under exam conditions. Quite correct (apart from confusing Sauternes with Barsac) but boring!
As David Sedaris once said ‘Faced with an exciting question, science tends to provide the dullest answer’.
Let’s try a more romantic ‘writerly’ approach;
The contents of the bottle in his hand was a product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In it’s colour, aroma and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain. But in addition, it would express all the natural phenomena of its vintage. In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, and the frequency of clouds. Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself….Amor Towles ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’
Ah that’s better! Lovely, lyrical, and evocative, but it doesn’t exactly describe what’s in the glass.
So we all agree that we need a happy medium. Not too techie, but erring on the journalistic side, that’s impressionistic and tells a story, but brief enough for today’s online attention span of two minutes – which may be a minute too far for most wines. Then we have to level the playing field further, or dumb down, to eliminate the aesthetic snobbery attached to wine, as there’s a general assumption that if you write interestingly about wine you are somehow being elitist – because most people don’t think wine is that interesting.
Which leaves us in a bit of a pickle between the exciting (often confined to specialist publications) and the tedious (general) – a sort of wine equivalent of smart casual. I know what you’re thinking, all that romantic stuff’s easy when discussing a fine Burgundy or a stately Bordeaux but what do you do if faced with a wine that smells like the inside of a hamster cage, or worse, nothing at all!
Do we tell the harsh, unvarnished truth? Like hell we do – because that’s someone’s wine and it needs to get sold, and they’re picking up the tab! So we’re left scratching around for adjectives and soundbites to describe boring wines – which poses a cultural question.
Is wine writing dull because the vast majority of wine is and is a cheap wine as good as an expensive wine if that’s all we’re prepared to pay for?
Macchiona is the kind of wine that stops you in your blind tasting tracks and asks ‘WTF is that’?
For a moment let’s forget the analytics, debates about quality, merits and demerits, and boring old points scoring, and just accept that this is what wine can, and should, be all about.
Subtle, heady, complex, hard to pin down, a combination of smells and tastes that make you think you are somewhere, when you are not, transporting you to a time and a place where you momentarily want to remain forever.
Half the group thought we were in Bordeaux, others correctly thought Italy, but all agreed we had somehow died and gone to heaven!
La Stoppa is an ancient estate in Piacenza, Emilia Romagna, originally planted over a century ago and owned by the Pantaleoni family since 1973. Vine stock is old and indigenous with naturally low yields from poor soils.
Rare as hen’s teeth, Macchiona is a blend of Bonarda and Barbera, matured for 12 months in Slavonian oak barrels, gorgeous, meaty and a bit raunchy with aromas of wild berries, herbs, bunches of fennel and a savoury-sour cherry finish – Bordeaux indeed!
I’m here for a winetasting. Set up by a friend in a crusty old gent’s club to presumably add some context and gravitas to the wines on show. ‘You’ll love it’, I recall him saying, ‘It’s right up your street’ – thankfully he didn’t say alley. It’s true, I generally enjoy listening to old relics of the wine trade banging on about Claret, as what they often lack in knowledge they make up for in amusing anecdotes. But this one is different, and I silently curse my (soon to be former) friend while absentmindedly gazing at a clumsily executed seascape and wait for the florid, farm-fresh, magenta faced, red-trousered windbag to stop talking.
As this appears not to be anytime soon, I smile, to feign interest, and settle back into the coma inducing embrace of a faux leather chair, fingering my glass of ‘not so good ordinary claret’ fighting the unripe, unresolved tannins (akin to licking the floor of a long abandoned outhouse) my disappointment growing as I’m told the wines are available in large format bottles and come with their own presentation box – presumably to die in.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the wines of Bordeaux – just not these, and while the windbag extols their, non existent, virtues to his captive, comatose, audience I look for a plant pot to pour mine into, although sympathy for the plant prevents me. Dumbstruck by the bombast and troubling certainty with which Tristram Shandy’s Uncle speaks, I am secretly in awe of his Farage-esque absolutism and the kind of extreme self-confidence that leaves no room for doubt, nor brooks interruption.
I overlook his use of the words ‘pedigree’ and ‘breeding’ and even his positive spin on Brexit, but when he moves on to the subject of Natural Wine and manages to dismiss an entire movement – something previously done by Jonathan Ray (in an interview with Jason Yapp, who, rather surprisingly, failed to ask him to qualify such a sweeping assessment) and Bruce Palling in the Spectator – my hackles rise, particularly as he outlines his, ill informed, views on organic and biodynamic practices whilst eagerly extolling the merits of the appallingly adjusted and astringent plonk he’s peddling.
Now I must admit to disliking the term ‘natural wine’ as it implies that other wines are unnatural, and is probably an insufficient way to describe a complex ideology that includes organic and biodynamic viticulture, minimal handling and intervention, fining and filtration and extremely radical, yet differing, views on the use of sulphur dioxide.
Contextually, the movement began as a counterpoint to the fruit bomb driven behemoths beloved of Robert Parker, seeking a return to something more artisanal, both in the vineyard and the winery, with the ultimate goal being to make wine with no other ingredient than the grapes themselves.
Obviously this requires some firm ground rules: no factory farming, all vineyards must be organic or biodynamic and hand harvested only – machine harvesting however sophisticated damages the vines and compromises cropping – use of indigenous or natural yeasts, no culture corrections, no enzymes, additives, acidity regulation, no additional sugar (to increase alcohol), tannin, sulphur addition no higher than 7mmg/l, no fining, no filtration and absolutely no heavy manipulation such as; reverse osmosis, cryoextraction, spinning cone, centrifuging, rapid finishing or ultraviolet C irradiation – bet you didn’t know all that stuff went on did you?
And that’s just scratching the surface of an industry that regularly uses; tartaric and citric acid, potassium sorbate, gum arabic, carboxymethyl cellulose (to prevent crystals forming) dimethyl dicarbonate (to kill microbes) a dash of megapurple (to increase colour and boost mouthfeel), activated charcoal, potassium ferrocyanide, copper sulphate, pectolytic enzymes, bentonite clay and a soupcon of polyvinylpolypyrrolidone! Now these may not be as dangerous as climate change denial or driving at 30mph in a 20mph zone, but they may go some way to explaining that hangover!
However, if your goal is to take wine back to the Stone Age then you are not going to please all of the people all of the time. I admit to not liking all natural wines. Some are quite frankly volatile, full of brettanomyces, brown as Victorian furniture and, even in youth, smell like a teenagers bedroom, or an old aquarium, and taste like licking the outside of a wet canvas tent. When they are good they are very very good and when they are bad they are horrid.
A word of advice though before you open up Pandora’s box. Do not judge natural wines against other wines, judge them against others of their type and always on their own terms. In a world of, increasingly, bland homogeneity they make a refreshing change for people with open minds.
Which brings me back to Mein Host whose mind could only be opened by invasive surgery. ‘Right, that’s stumps’, he says, ‘Lovely to chat’ – although he hadn’t – and makes his way into the evening to await the arrival of his sedan chair.
Let’s face it, Vermouth is an old school aperitif. Beloved of James Bond and Leonard Rossiter it sits neglected in the drinks cabinet of the past, along with Blue Bols and Tia Maria.
Now some things, need to remain in the past; Mateus Rose, Yugoslav Laski Riesling, Afghan Coats, Loon Pants and Babycham – but Vermouth does not, and despite our current obsession with everything Gin, it remains a staple of any hipster mixologist’s arsenal.
So what is it? Although uncertain, the name probably derives from the German Wermuth, meaning ‘wormwood’ or absinthe. Originally prepared by the Romans, who called it Absinthiatum, it should be made from a wine base, at least 75%, have an alcoholic strength of between 14.5% and 22% – from the addition of alcohol – and must be flavoured with Artemesias or another member of the species.
Most folk came across it through brands like Martini, Cinzano and Noilly Prat and it generally soaked up the entire production of Picpoul. Anyone who loves a Negroni should be familiar with it, but what many of you may not know is that it is great on its own, over ice, with a wedge of orange or even topped up with a splash of Prosecco and Campari as a Sbagliato.
After a sipping Vermut, in Spain, I wanted a remembrance of times past – even if I was wearing a woolly jumper and shivering in the garden – so imagine my surprise on failing to find a single decent bottle in my home town!
‘Oh no one drinks that stuff anymore’ I was reliably informed by a local independent merchant.
Well, like Johnny Hates Jazz, its time to turn back the clock! and reacquaint ourselves with this delicious, delightful, but sadly neglected drink!
Here in the UK, we’re extremely fond of weather comparisons: Best summer since? hottest day since? most rainfall since etc, etc. It not only gives us something to talk about, but currently helps take our minds off Brexs**t!
The recent UK weather has been pretty spectacular, so I’ve been tucking into some of this!
Initially, I thought there might be a smidge of Assyrtiko in it – due to a hint of fennel – but it is 100% Aidani, in all it’s peachy, muscaty glory. Fleshy, warm and chock full of rose and apricot flavours, each glug makes the sky seem that much brighter and the view from the terrace that much more like the Durrells.
Hatzidakis wines are perched on the outskirts of the village of Pyrgos Kallistis at a height of 150-300 metres facing nor nor-east – how’s that for seafaring slang – The vines are super gnarly, curled into bird’s nest shapes, on the bare ashy soil, to shelter the fruit from the strong winds coming off the sea.
The Aidani grapes, from non-irrigated, ungrafted, organic old vines, are given some skin, for around twelve hours, before fermentation and maturation in stainless steel, to give a peppery, pin sharp, lushly aromatic, pale yellow white that just oozes class.
And if that wasn’t romantic enough, I’m going to leave you with a snippet about Santorini, from my favourite wine writer Andrew Jefford – a man who, to my knowledge, has never used the word ‘smooth’ when describing a wine!
“Few wines taste of disaster and catastrophe… . It is, for me, the most pronounced vin de terroir in the world. In no other wine can you smell and taste with such clarity the mineral soup and bright sunlight which, gene-guided, structures the grape and its juice. As an unmasked terroiriste, there was no vineyard I was keener to visit…
An Alsatian once said – that’s a native of Alsace, not the dog – ‘Each man has two countries, his own and France’ and much as I love the wines of Italy, France was my first love.
When I go in search of some, much needed, purity and truth – sadly lacking in today’s world – it’s that first sentient experience that I’m trying to replicate, harking back to callow youth, when wine, and indeed life, was nothing but pure pleasure, until forced to grow up, conscious of the need to judge, select, codify, dissect and provide either a score or a medal.
This is a wine that takes me back in time, to those very first vintages worked around Bergerac and the middle Garonne, when flavours and sensations were the absolute antithesis of the over-sweetened, aggressively alcoholic, monsters of today.
It’s not rocket science, just that there’s a lot less profit for the investment made and time spent. The key is the encouragement of the maximum expression of the potential of the grapes in the vineyard. Caring for the soil – so that it isn’t a cadaver – nourishing with biodynamic treatments to encourage microbial activity. Manual, rather than machine, harvesting and selection of only the ripest grapes, only releasing a wine if it meets with the highest of standards, and changing the blend according to the physiological ripeness of the grapes.
I love the wines of Luc de Conti, and Le Vigne d’Albert is a lovely addition with a nod to tradition. Guillaume de Conti’s homage to his grand-pere, Albert. It’s made from a cepage historic to the region, harvested together, from a small parcel of vines planted, by Albert, some 60 years ago. These include Mérille (aka Périgourd); Arbouriou, Fer, Côt (Malbec) and others – all massale selected (look it up wine nerds) – fermented with hometown yeasts, left for six months on lees and zero sulphur.
The young man who grew up to be me would have recognized it, I’m sure Albert would too. I’ll leave it for you to decide.