Remembrance of Things Past

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, like a blackbird singing in the dead of night.

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 in 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.
It’s all the rage in Europe, less so here, where we came to know it through brands Martini, Cinzano and Noilly Prat.  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!
After a summer of 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, it was time to turn back the clock!  Bybo now stock a selection of fine red vermouth from sweet to bitter, so that everyone can reacquaint themselves with this delicious, delightful, but sadly neglected drink!

'Do, or do not'

‘Summer’s lease hath all too short a date’ and its time to get behind the mule and back to the day job. But before I start posting missives about the stuff I’ve just found, a frequently asked question keeps haunting me.

I’d love to find out more about wine, but don’t know where to start’.

 Heard it before? Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself.

Now, in my naivety, I presume that all people who follow us, on social media or via our website, already know the answer to this question, but what if they don’t?

Well, as with most questions, there’s more than one answer, and it often depends on who you ask?

Let’s give it some context and begin at the bottom.

Here in the UK, post Brexit, the average price of a bottle of wine has increased to a staggering £5.58 per bottle! That’s as much as two cappuccinos, or one pint of craft or saison beer - made by a flannel shirted hipster - that smells like the inside of an old tent. That’s the beer not the hipster! So on the plus side, considering the amount of work that goes into wine production, it’s still a bloody good deal.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t actually seen a bottle of wine for £5.58. The shelves in the supermarket, where they are purported to live, are usually emptied – either by astute geriatrics and/or insomniacs – or, more than likely they were never there in the first place! Because logic would dictate that they would be consigned to the bottom shelves, where no one looks, and the producer would have to pay for a better shelf space. And we all know that if you play around with the wine price using the ‘was, now’ model – so that no-one knows its real cost -  you sell twice as much product.

Let’s presume that you already drink and enjoy wine, and are part of its persuasive narrative system. If so, then you are familiar with the tools used to sell it: the winemaker as hero – How do you tell a winemaker at a party? Don’t worry they’ll tell you!’ - the vagaries of nature and climate change, the magical, mystical, combination of soil, toil and heroic Jean de Florettian struggle. Or perhaps you’re a victim of brand land where your favourite tipple is manufactured on an industrial scale, in a factory rather than a field – never changing and stamped with a critter label. Does that mean that the narrative is the same?

Well yes, in a way, because these stories are told in order to sell said wines, or sad wines, and for the most part they are the only tools the market has. But such is the power, persuasiveness, and filthy lucre, behind that market, that we can’t always be certain we are getting what we deserve.

In order to appeal, the narrative has to be punchy, simple, have some connection with the environment - rather than industrial chemistry - and have a story that connects you to the person who made it, and its better if that person has a name. That’s the romance.

But what happens if you only sell on price?

Well, at the top end that’s easy. You produce a product as a luxury item - so called ‘Icon Wines’. These are the wines everyone wants and they are purported to be as rare as hen’s teeth. But one glance at the overall production figures of Bordeaux and Champagne and you begin to get a different story. If your friends have it, you have to have it, so this market takes care of itself.

In many ways the wine trade is deeply conservative, hiding behind its traditions to entrench opinion and provide safe harbour for the unadventurous, where if you only consume the tried and trusted brands you will be, ‘in safe hands - strong and stable’. But what if you want to go beyond the lakes of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio and sail into uncharted waters? Where do you go and what kind of individual do you have to be? Prepared to set sail for the edges of the wine world, even though the masses say it is flat!

If you live in the wilderness, there’s a limit to things, and I like to find that limit, and so do the folks who make these wines. Sure some of them lack polish, but so do we. I look for the fringes in an environment where you can be drowned or eaten. Not safety but risk, forever kicking against the proverbial pricks who consider it to be just another FMCG, to find it’s heart and soul.

If you really want to find out more about wine, you have to venture beyond the safety of the shire, and strike out for the gates of Mordor.

You are Odysseus, on a quest to overthrow the ‘Hollow Men’ and their ‘Stepford Wines’, replacing the old order with disorder, in the search for something new and exciting. After all, if you really admit it, deep down you’re bored stiff!

So off we go, and if you be afeared, then find a friend to accompany you, because if you crew your own Argo you get more bang for your buck.

But remember, if you do set out alone, without your bottles of Malbec or Sauvignon Blanc, misunderstood, ridiculed and isolated, listen to the words of Master Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no Try”

May the Force be with You.

'The New-ish Spain'

My diary is currently filled with tasting requests for one country above all others….Spain!

Why Spain, you may ask. Well, no country does value for money quite like Spain - and no one likes a bargain more than us Brits - so you can’t go wrong – or can you?

The answer is an emphatic yes, particularly if you don’t know what you are doing, as there are problems at all levels of the market.  

Quality is key, and, to put it mildly, this is extremely variable.

Lets take the top end first. Spain’s great wines have earned their reputation over generations with wines like Vina Tondonia and Vega Sicilia commanding prices seldom seen outside Bordeaux and Burgundy. Then there are the uber trendy areas like Priorat and Ribera del Duero, where prices can be eyewateringly stratospheric. But if what I have seen recently is to be tasted to be believed then trading on the reputation of your DO can be a dangerous thing.

Some growers are too insular and guilty of producing under-wined oak, masking some creakily dusty dry fruit, while others fall victim to the internationalist desire for massive over extraction in the rush to Pomerolisation and Parker points. Treacle plus alcohol plus oak just has to be good. And if you are swapping American for French then you need a big return on your investment.

And what to do with that sea of turbid Tempranillo, which has overtaken the boring Airen as the most planted grape in Spain. Why give it a retro looking label that smacks of seriousness, wrap it in gold wire, give it the name of some phoney bodega and Roberto is your uncle.

At the bottom end of the market things get very murky showing some disturbing trends such as carbonic maceration to disguise a lack of fruit and blending of Crianza wines into base Joven to hide a lack of character, resulting in a kind of dull soup sprinkled with oak croutons and increasingly high levels of oxidation.

So what do you do? Well, in a nutshell, you need a good guide or a good book.

The wines of the ‘New Spain’, as it is sometimes called, are VERY exciting and this is where the country’s growing reputation begins. Galicia, Euskadi, Bierzo, Ribeira Sacra, Ribero, Somontano, Montsant and Valdeorras are producing great wines from lesser known grape varieties like Albarino, Loureiro, Triexadura and Godello for whites, and Mencia, Bobal, Samso and grippy Merencao for reds.

And we shouldn’t overlook the islands where some great value can be had from grapes such as Listan Blanco and Negro from Tenerife as well as Prensal and Callet from Mallorca.

Get out more!





'A Dry January'

If you’re an alcoholic, a recovering alcoholic, an alcoholic in waiting, or “stark raving mad” – to quote Henry Fielding – you may have fallen victim to the most miserable New Year Resolution of them all – The Dry January!

A concept unique to the British Isles – the home of binge drinking – the dry January is the classic nanny state answer to the excesses of the festive season.  Many of my friends have embraced this concept, (a desire for yet another shared experience, or alternatively as a form of competition that does not require exercise). Statements such as “If I can do it you can”“We are all in this together” and “We can have one hell of a ****up come February”, provide scant compensation for Brexit, Trump, freezing cold weather and  biblical rainfall. 

If you are deluding yourself that the aim of a dry January is to substantially improve the function of your liver, it is probably best to refrain from drinking until March at the very least. By which time – on venturing forth for a tipple – you may find that your local pub, club, cocktail bar or restaurant has closed down.

I grant you the liver does take a beating over Christmas, but better to slow down than to give up. Being good for a month, then binge drinking at the end of it, doesn’t solve the problem – it makes the miserable dreariness of a northern European winter harder to bear. It increases social awkwardness and lures many an unsuspecting (and boring) evangelical model of temperance into the open, bingo winged, arms of the sugar-packed soft drink industry.

Moderation in all things is the answer, this keeps your doctor happy, blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity down, and increases your ability to operate the television remote in the nursing home of your children’s choice.

Drinking less alcohol appeals more to my rebellious inner child. A minimum of two days off the booze a week (choose the dull days) has to be good for the liver and the wallet, allowing you to drink better wine for the remainder – particularly at the weekend.

Better wine means spending more money, but here’s the best bit, quality wine forces you to savour and enjoy it, makes you focus on what’s in the glass and enables you to discuss it without slurring your words or falling asleep.

Remember, hoovering up large glasses of neutral smelling, flabby, tasteless whites and sweet, cheap reds, (filled with unfermented sugar) are the reason many of you are currently enduring a dry January.

As you get older you need to watch those units of alcohol – don’t waste them on cheap plonk!

'The Do's and Don'ts of Christmas'

Try to buy a real tree, even if it’s just a small one. I know the needles fall off and you have to wrestle with the vacuum cleaner but they help support the rural economy - a new one is planted for each one harvested - take in carbon dioxide, release oxygen and they smell great!
 Avoid cheap champagne. It may seem like good value but it isn’t! It’s made from the last pressings of the juice after all the good stuffs gone – that’s why it doesn’t taste of anything – and is full of that sharp, crab-appley, malic acid that your dentist won’t thank you for.  If you have money, post Brexit, splash out on some good stuff. If you don’t, then buy wisely, you get much more bang for your buck from a good quality sparkling wine - and I don’t mean that £6.99 Prosecco that tastes of soap shavings and spring water from the co-op.
I know we bang on about locally sourced, sustainable, organic stuff but that may not be your priority when you're on a budget. It feels good if you can avoid the supermarkets so just use them for basics. They may have fixed the price of Marmitebut it was entirely for their own reasons and they really don’t need your hard earned cash. If you do shop locally then plan ahead and order your meat from the local butcher as you can guarantee that it comes from a farm rather than a factory. I know most farmers voted ‘Leave’ but forgive them as a mere 50% of our food is actually produced in this country so they still need your support. Picking up your meat and veg from a local business not only puts money in their pockets but you get to bump into your friends and neighbours - even if that fills you with horror.
Buy some handmade cards from impoverished local artists. They will really appreciate it and it helps them recoup some of the cost from the last art fair where people just popped in to check out their homes. Alternatively, make an effort to make your own labels and cards - you can use the money you save to buy better food and wine.
Don’t serve branded wines with dinner. Dunny Ridge and Dawson’s Creek might be on 'special offer ' but they make poor partners for real food. They lack the tannins and acidity you need and all that residual sugar sweetness just picks a fight with your lovely grub. Take the time to visit your local wine merchant and if you can’t stretch to Claret or Burgundy then be more adventurous. A Pinot Nero from Alto Adige or a Nebbiolo from Valtellina will go just as well with turkey or game and if those tell tale tannins of Bordeaux really float your boat why not try the wines of BergeracBuzet or Marmandais instead. They will give you far more satisfaction than a poor vintage from a chateau you’ve never heard of.
Life’s too short to make your own mincemeat unless of course you have nothing else to do in which case it might keep you gainfully occupied.  Buy a good readymade product and jazz it up with some fresh orange zest - but get the pastry right! For those of you who use our recipes – even if you don’t buy our wines - just follow my mum’s mince pie pastry.
Be creative with your presents and try to associate them with the person you are buying them for, after all, you don’t want to get them back next year.  Some of our presents, this year, are home made toffees made by our enthusiastic eleven year old. Remember older folks already have most things and are generally happy with some witty company, a glass of something nice and a full tummy and are suckers for anything made by their grandchildren. If you’re a bit cack handed, and haven’t a creative bone in your body, buy something someone else has made. A good hand milled soap costs about a fiver and smells great. Oh and don’t leave out the family pet as they are the only ones who give you unconditional love all year round.
Don’t neglect the SherryMadeira and Port. It's often the only time of year you get to buy some, it's not just for old folk and there’s always a guest who would love some. If you don’t believe me try some white port and tonic in a tall glass as an aperitif or sip a delectable old Amontillado and tipsily listen to the Nine Lessons and Carols on Radio Four.
 Don’t get fancy with the food, Christmas is not a time for tagine unless you’re Moroccan. This is your chance to shine and show that your mother’s recipes still stand the test of time. I don’t mean boiling veg into submission for hours but forget those smears, stacks and foams and remember that jus is just another name for gravy. And get the kids to help out, especially serving or clearing the table, and remind them that placing things near a dishwasher is not the same as putting stuff in it!
Spread the love, a dash of good cheer is what Christmas is all about and remember it’s not all about you.  If you know someone in need and you have plenty to spare be generous and kind - if only with your time.  It worked for Ebenezer Scrooge.
If you feel you’ve had too much to drink, you probably have. Don’t drink and drive - however tempted you may be - keep yourselves, your loved ones and others safe and stay out of the car. In the words of Sgt Phil Esterhaus ‘Lets be careful out there’.
Happy Christmas

How do you buy yours?

‘You’re a wine merchant who writes about wine merchants.’ A friend recently said. ‘Isn’t that a Cretan paradox.’ I wasn’t thinking of Epimenides, when in ‘A Cautionary Tale’, I urged you to think carefully before buying from an independent. But how you buy your wine, and who you buy it from, is quite an important decision.

Once upon a time things were easy. A kindly uncle or godfather introduced you to a be-pinstriped chap, with gobbets of food on his tie and wine stains over his corpulent shirt front, who laid you down some sherry, madeira, a pipe of port, some judiciously blended Algerian burgundy – with the reassuring smell of an old stable – and a few cases of reliable claret guaranteed to come to maturity before death or gout set in.

Supermarkets were a thing of the future. I vividly remember standing in my local ‘Fine Fare’ while my errant dog wandered in to urinate on the leg of a stranger transfixed by the bottles of Mouton Cadet, Hirondelle, Corrida, Mateus Rose, magnums of Lutomer Laski Riesling and screw top Bardolino, vying for shelf space with Camp Coffee, Heinz Salad Cream, Wagon Wheels, Cadbury’s Smash and Ye Olde Oak Ham.

The white heat of the retailing apocalypse was coming and only the arrogant and lazy didn’t go to the mountaintop to greet the new dawn. The be-pinstriped purveyors of ‘Hock’ and ‘Good Ordinary Claret’ stood firm.  There was nothing to fear but fear itself. Things would go on as they had always done. All wrongs would be righted and the enemy cast down!

Some, alerted by a whippersnapper from marketing no doubt, dodged the approaching meteorite and, whilst not going as far as growing beards or donning tee shirts, escaped the iridium layer and diversified into responsibly sourced, excellent value, own label ranges that were region specific and producer friendly. Berry Bros, Tanners and The Wine Society led the renaissance, showing what you can do by applying sound buying principles and sticking to the maxim of value over price.

Others perished, and on the tombs of the fallen, new palaces were built. Today, eighty percent of the wine sold in the UK is controlled by the multiples. With brands like Blossom Hill’s White Zinfandel – a hideous confection of bubble gum and Calpol – replacing the once mighty Piat D’Or.

These ‘Stepford Wines’, as the big brands are sometimes called, are owned by industry giants Pernod Ricard, Accolade, Gallo, and Constellation and come freshly filled and bottled at a dockyard near you.

They are generally recognisable by names that have a geographical clue in the title such as: Bay, Cove, Hill, Home or Casa, Crest, Valley, Ridge, Peak, Grove, River and Creek. And although these may not be indicative of their real origin – most are cross, or inter-regional, blends made from the big five grape varieties – they do exactly what they say on the crowd pleasing tin.

Now, most folk– through a combination of idleness and complacency – don’t bother to compare or contrast these wines. So they sail on, through the seven seas of of mediocrity, piloted by the dead hand of globalism, as Flying Dutchwines.

Whoops no free tickets to major sporting events for me!

Needless to say, they all go with red meat, chicken or fish and are great as an aperitif. And just in case you think I’m not up to speed with my food and wine matching, I recommend lager with curry.

It’s hard to make any real money from a high margin, highly taxed, product like wine. But the best way, other than Papa Brand, is private or own label.  Private label, own label, own brand or home brand, is a product owned by a retailer or distributor and sold exclusively in its own stores. They tend to replicate higher level design or branded products but at a lower cost.

Now before the VOR says ‘Don’t be so negative Jules.’ I am going to tell you why this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

If you are a wine producer it doesn’t give you brand equity. In today’s global marketplace the key challenge is access to market and those unable to sell through multiple channels end up in a very poor bargaining position and are often forced to sell without getting any equity at all. This places the relatively unknown producer at the bottom of the food chain. Thus forcing the small, financially weak, and often interesting, from the table to fight for scraps on the floor! Their only hope being the combined efforts of an independent merchant and an adventurous consumer.

This in turn is bad for you dear wine drinker, thats you folks. Not only do you end up paying too much for your prettily packaged plonk but you remain blissfully ignorant of ‘real wine’. This is fine if you just don’t care – but what if you do?

Can own label ever be any good? Yes, if it gives credit to the producer. Marks and Spencer do this extremely well (That should please my mother). Their well positioned, gourmet food is ably supported by an exciting and diverse wine range that puts the producer firmly on the label – and they do nice socks!

The VOR thinks the John Lewis Partnership should make it into the frame, as she believes they should be running the country, although she didn’t say whether that would be with, or without, the vinous expertise of Phillip Schofield.

So what about supermarket own label? The kind pioneered by Tesco Finest, Asda’s Extra Special or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference. If you ignore the tied in brand contracts and controversial was/now pricing these are, on the whole, very reliable wines – even if they don’t always taste of where they come from! The implication here is that the supermarket buyers have sourced the wines themselves, and have carved out margin by bottling it under own label to cut out the middleman thus saving you money as well as being more diverse than the big brands. 

Thats the above deck stuff. But what goes on in the murkier depths of the rather inappropriately named ‘soft’ brand?

The lower decks are the domain of king margin and some powerful promotional tools. ‘From the vineyard to your front door’ says the tagline. Damn I wish I’d thought of that! If mail order is your preferred route you may already be wearing a promotional apron and opening one of your ‘Twelve Stunning Sauvignons’ with a giant corkscrew.

There are two main models here. The first is the Laithwaite’s method – and it works like this. First you dress a wine in some emperor’s new clothes, preferably something akin to the livery of an existing producer. Then a name is invented and hey presto, you are left with a wine that looks like a producers own brand but is in fact an exclusive retail private label which artfully obscures high margin. How else do you think you got those free crystal glasses and a gazillion pounds off your first order. And should you neglect to reorder through sheer laziness, theres a whole telesales department just waiting with a new offer tailored just for you.

Don’t drop that Sauvignon before we move on to the second method. employed by those angelically crowdfunded philanthropists at Naked Wines. This is where you use an existing wine maker to source and buy the wine for you. Then you label it, making sure you put the winemakers name prominently on that label, to make it look like the winemakers own wine. If you think those wings fit, Clarence, you’re peeing up the wrong tree.

Back to the Cretan paradox. Am I, as a wine merchant, saying that all wine merchants are liars? Or, out of slavish self interest, am I attempting to force you into the ever weakening embrace of your nearest independent merchant? Before you push those bottles of Chateau du Manderlay to the back of the cupboard and set of in search of some real wine, just remember that there’s still hope. If its Foine Woine you’re after, then Costco are the largest retailers in the world. For everything else there’s Amazon.

This post first appeared in May 2016 as 'Pseudomenos Logos' on

'A Cautionary Tale'

“If you were born to walk the ground,

 Remain there; do not fool around”     Belloc

For those of you who have just emerged from the self-imposed misery of a‘Dry January’, it’s time to charge your glasses and raise a toast to the demise of the calendar’s dreariest month.

But before you rush to set those cash registers ringing, with your newly refurbished bank balances and bonuses. Let me offer up some words of warning for those of you considering buying from an independent wine merchant.

The wines they sell can be exciting:

A tad risky, I grant you. Independents tend to shy away from bland, boring, insipid wines. If you prefer neutral, alcoholic, fruit-juicy pap then stop reading now!

Their wines don’t all taste the same:

That’s right, they are often deliberately different. There will also be vintage variation (it’s hard to make a wine taste the same year in year out). This is due to weather – don’t worry I won’t bore you with detail – but expect the tannin, acid and alcohol ratios to change as the seasons do. They may be drier than the wines you are used to and may not have any residual sugar left in to make them ‘smooth’.

If this strikes fear into your heart, then insist that your wines be manufactured to a formula in vast industrial factories, on drip irrigated parched plains, to ensure homogeneity. If they refuse, you know where to go – and there’s a car park!

And what about those labels! You have point here. It’s confusing to call a wine after a region, property, vineyard, plot or person. Better to give it a legend like; The Bend in the Elbow, The Devil’s Punchbowl, Cougar’s Claw, or Dunny Ridge. And as for those pesky grape varieties! My advice is to stick to one of the tried and tested ‘big five’ or alternatively look for a brand with a small marsupial, lizard or fish on it.

They sometimes offer advice:

This is a bit unnerving, and particularly unwelcome if you if you don’t care that much about wine. Independents are cheeky buggers who may seek to steer you into unknown territory – where few civilised folk have drank before. If in doubt, try and get something akin to a cheap, ‘own label’ Merlot as it goes great with red meat. Besides who needs knowledgeable staff when it’s easier to intimidate untrained ones. And if they do offer you something to taste just pretend you have a cold and leave quickly.

They don’t do promos or bogofs’:

There are many reasons for this. They may not have enough c**p stockpiled to offer a promotion. The cost of the wines may also be transparent – reducing the need for them to go up and down like a politicians trousers. Of course if you really believe that you are getting ten pounds worth of quality for a fiver, best to stick with a supermarket. They will have a huge marketing machine that has psychologically profiled you to make you think you are actually in charge of the decision making process.

They’re a bit snobby:

Yes, kind of, but this is a common phenomenon found everywhere; from car showrooms, bike, skate and surf outlets, fashion retailers, art galleries, music and bookshops to purveyors of high end training shoes. It’s because some level of expertise is essential. If you find this hard to swallow look out for minimalist shelf talkers that say ‘Good with Fish’.

They’re a bit Green:

I know, I know – who bloody voted for them?  If you prefer your wines to have a gigantic carbon footprint or be shipped around the globe by the container load (in 24,000 litre polypropylene bladders) and bottled at the local dockyard you know you’re in the wrong place. Big bags equal big business. Some independents even buy their wines from Europe -usually from small artisan growers who farm organically or biodynamically. Bloody tree huggers!

I’m already a member of a wine club:

Ah yes, let me guess; the £50 voucher, the free corkscrew and set of real crystal glasses, plus something off your next order if you recommend a friend. Did you ever stop to taste those wines, or consider why no one comes to dinner anymore? I know they insist that they champion small producers and vineyards but did you ever stop to wonder why there’s such an inexhaustible supply.

My local wine merchant has closed down:

So sad. They have gone the way of grocers, bakers, chemists, newsagents, fishmongers, butchers and petrol stations. If your high street is filled with charity shops, coffee shops, chain stores and tumbleweeds, don’t moan – it may be partly your fault, but you can still get all those things from your local supermarket.

If you live in the back of beyond, you will be forced to go online. Be mindful though as some wine websites are owned by the kind of innovative small businesses you’re so keen to avoid.  Go for the big ones as they have money off as well as twenty three different kinds of Pinot Grigio.

I really couldn’t give a **** about wine:

Wine’s a pain actually. It’s more complex than lager and it doesn’t get you p****d as fast as vodka – unless it’s got bubbles.  Besides you’ve tried loads of wines and whilst some are nicer than others you don’t really care that much as long as it’s cheap and there’s lots of it. I fully sympathise with your plight and suggest you make sure you chill it right down to hide any faults – or more importantly taste!


This post was first puplished  at

'The Hills are Alive'

‘It’s your turn’ the VOR says, disturbing my concentration, as we motor through the Alpine tunnels.

I love driving through ‘La Belle France’ its wide empty roads a refreshing change from the congestion, drizzle and perpetual greyness of my home on Kong’s Island.

Each leg of our journey is a revelation. The battlefields of the Marne and the Somme, the vineyards of Champagne, the Chickens of Bresse, the wildness of the Parc Naturel Régional de Haut Jura and the overdue promise of a Fondue Savoyarde.

The VOR dislikes video games and films and, rather like those parents who insist on wooden toys, prefers ‘I Spy’,  ‘I Went to the Shop’ and ‘Who am I’ as ‘in car’ entertainment much to our children’s chagrin.

I settle on a mineral in ‘Animal, Mineral, Vegetable’ hoping to buy some extra daydreaming time. The kids, having held their breath in the tunnels of Paris, have decided that they might die of asphyxiation in the long Alpine versions perhaps thinking that this might be preferable to guessing my choice of Georgerobinsonite.

We arrive in a heatwave, the high temperatures sapping what little energy remains in my middle son’s teenage body forcing him to lie down (again) lest vertigo take hold.

I settle for an ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ moment with a glass of beer prior to a swim in the Lake - don’t try this at home - to rid myself of my drivers legs.  The VOR meanwhile befriends our neighbours, an elderly couple from Paris, who are impressed by her treatment of their beloved language. It appears she has told them that I am a wine merchant and for the rest of our holiday the old man waves half empty bottles in my direction to indicate his tipple of the day.

I have decided to swim to the mile buoy and back twice a day. Although this slightly increases my chances of a premature death by drowning, it is the only way I can think of to burn off the Tartiflette and Gratin Dauphinoise.

There are some 17 crus worthy of the name Vin de Savoie and I intend to work my way through all of them during our stay. The best are Abymes, Apremont, Arbin, Ayze, Crepy, Seyssel, Montmelian, Saint-Jeoire-Prieuré and my own personal favourites Cruet and Chignin. These razor sharp, low alcohol, refreshingly restorative, often perlant whites are made from Jacquere, Altesse (or Rousette), Gringet, Chasselas (Roux and Vert) and Roussanne or Bergeron of Chignin. The reds (please don’t ‘mull’ them) are equally light and delicious and made from Gamay (Noir a Jus Blanc), Pinot Noir, Persan (almost non existent) and the native Mondeuse.   

Our heatwave ends prematurely in a massive storm which obliterates the southern end of the Lake making it look like the entrance to the sea. I put down my Mondeuse, batten the hatches, splice the mainbrace and break out the Eau de Vie.

The inclement dawn weather inspires the VOR to venture further into the mountains. I question the wisdom of going higher but only inwardly as cowardice, or is it diplomacy, prevails.

‘I promised the boys a toboggan ride’ she ventures by way of an explanation.

We climb through the kind of narrow, winding, hairpins a cyclist full of EPO would struggle with. Past cows with bells and cute wooden chalets perched precariously on the sides of deep valleys.

‘Does the Tour de France ever come through here’ my youngest asks. 2009 and 2013, I ‘Rainmanly’ add, but my attention is taken by an extremely small man with curly hair stood next to a woodpile.

Before I have adequately thought things through I find myself on a chairlift ascending over heathered scrub and jagged rock into increasingly opaque cloud to the sound of a child weeping. Afraid of heights I know exactly how they must feel. This must look charming in the snow I think but again keep it to myself. 

“Mont Blanc must be over there” the VOR says, gesticulating toward a thick bank of grey cloud,  before the returning chairlift hits her in the calves leaving two peach size bruises which ruin her tan for the remainder of the holiday. I sit next to my cold and frightened youngest son vainly trying to keep him warm and my camera dry as a rivulet of rainwater runs down the back of my neck.

We change into dry clothing under the tailgate of the car before running to a charming, chalet-style restaurant for lunch and some much needed warmth. ‘This is nice’ and ‘Pull yourselves together’ says the VOR to our hypothermic offspring over the sausages and beer. Our fellow diners all appear to come from the north of England, presumably eager to find somewhere that resembles the Lake District in February, they do not seem to be cold at all.

Hours later, whilst driving back through the mountains with the heater on full blast, we pass the same man next to the woodpile and I imagine him in lederhosen made from Captain Von Trapp’s curtains. 

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A Simple Tasting Guide

I was recently asked to provide a simple wine tasting guide for a local magazine and thought that they were looking for help with copy. Had I realised they were going to publish it unedited, I would probably have spent more time on it……


Hold the wine towards a source of light to see if it’s clean and free of deposits. Tartrate crystals in white wines will do you no harm, and may indicate a more natural product without sterile filtering, but deposits tend to be viewed negatively by the public.

White wines range in colour from water white through pale straw to deep golden yellow, dependent on age, degree of oak ageing and grape variety.  The deeper the colour the more concentrated the flavour. The colour of white wines deepens as they age – unlike red wines, which grow paler.

Young red wines are purple in colour while older wines tend toward brick red, particularly near the rim. If you tilt the glass against a white background the gradations of colour become more apparent. The colour of a red wine is also determined by the thickness of the grape skins – this varies with variety – and the amount of anthocyanines present. Viscosity or liquid sticking to, or running slowly down, the inside of a glass indicate high alcohol and/or residual sugar. 


The smell or ‘nose’ of a wine is extremely important in the determination of faults. The senses of smell and taste are so closely intertwined that if a wine smells bad it will most certainly taste bad.  
Use a glass that tapers inwards toward the rim, as this will help to concentrate the aromas. Swirling helps oxygenate the wine releasing its primary (or secondary) characteristics.  Stick your nose in the glass and give it a big sniff. Think about that smell for a moment, make a mental note or write it down. What fruit can you discern (wine seldom, if ever, smells of grapes).  Is the smell simple or complex, does it evolve and change or stay the same. Concentrate on what you are getting from the glass and forget what’s on the label. Each grape variety has different and distinct characteristics. If there are any ‘off’ odours in the wine, do they disappear as you swirl. If they stay then the wine is faulty.  


If the smell is good then the taste will follow. Take a small amount of wine into your mouth and try to suck in some air as it rests on your palate. This increases the flavour and helps reinforce your impressions of the nose. Hold the wine in your mouth for about 20 seconds and see how it ‘feels’. Is it heavy or light? Is the fruit intense or weak? Think about how it finishes, is it long or short?   The length determines its quality.  The tongues taste receptors indicate sweetness, at the front, acidity along the sides and bitterness at the back. Try to think about these factors as the wines flavours are still apparent. 


The full article is available at

'Castles made of Sand'

Ever get the feeling that what you say, write, do or fundamentally believe, may not make an iota of difference? That the castle you have lovingly and meticulously constructed sits, rather infirmly, on some granular colloid hydrogel. 

I sell wine for a living. Not just any old plonk mark you but handcrafted wines, made by people who care deeply and passionately about their product, and spend my time telling others how great they are. That’s a damn sight harder than making the stuff, believe me. 

The comedian Steven Wright once said that ‘If a man tells a joke in a forest, but nobody laughs, is it really a joke’?

Well that’s me. It’s my joke and my forest but most folk don’t know me, the location of my forest, if my forest actually exists, or if my joke was even funny in the first place. 

So I am condemned to repeat myself, like History, Kevin Peterson, the diehard fans of Margaret Thatcher and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the elderly, or the revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the middle ages. Constantly, but rarely endearingly, reminding others what terrible mistakes they are making and the threateningly imminent proximity of the apocalypse.

Let’s reign my hobbyhorse closer to home. The VOR and I recently spent an evening with some old friends and I thought I would offer up the kind of wines they don’t normally drink as a bit of a treat. C was ecstatic, but her husband’s reaction surprised me. This erudite, creative, academic openly and frankly opined that he ‘didn’t care much about wine’ and that his only requirement was that it came in a large, and perpetually refilled, glass. The fact that he is not alone in his opinion only exacerbates my Flying Dutchman syndrome.

Like the late Curtis Mayfield, I keep on keeping on about the increasing cocacolarisation of wine. The homogenisation. The fauxthenticity. The dominance of the same five grape varieties (at the expense and detriment of others) branded and rebranded, packaged and repackaged, from giant polypropylene bag to dockside bottling plant. Don’t get me wrong, as an artist and illustrator, I’m a sucker for a groovy label but it’s important that what’s in the bottle isn’t s***e! 

A mere five percent of the British public currently buys its wine from an independent merchant. The majority prefer the multiples. You know, the kind of stores that sell brands even Tiresias would struggle to tell apart. But as another old friend succinctly put it ‘At least they have free parking’. 

‘And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually’ – Jimi Hendrix

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' To decant, or not to decant'

That is the question…

When and why should we decant a wine? Instruction manuals can be a bit dry so bear with.

Decanting has three distinct advantages:  the separation of the wine from its deposit or sediment, oxidation or aeration of the wine and changing the wines temperature.

Avoiding the sediment is obvious as polymerised tannins not only look disturbing in the glass but are deeply unpalatable to the poor soul unfortunate enough to swallow them. 

Firstly remove the capsule (that’s the fancy metal – formerly lead bit – that covers the cork) entirely, so that you can see the wine as it comes up the neck. Then carefully uncork without agitating the bottle and disturbing the sediment. If it comes from a rack then stand it up for a few hours or ideally the day before. 

Wipe the neck of the bottle (inside and out) with a clean cloth so you can clearly see the sediment as you pour. Tilt the bottle and the decanter at a slight angle over a candle (Dickensian but very Christmassy) so that you can observe the movement of the deposit, adjusting the angle as you pour - like bending, but not dramatically breaking, a twig.

Oxidation of the wine is important as it helps accentuate the smell or nose, but if this happens too abruptly, or for too long, it can ruin the wines subtlety and freshness. 
Do not decant old wine, just open and pour immediately to retain its fragile and fleeting charm.

Exposure to air can vary enormously with grape structure and type, so some knowledge of what you are serving, how old it is, and when you’re going to drink it is very important. Fortified wines like Port and Madeira have already undergone substantial oxidation in cask so can sit in a decanter for hours.  Even young wines respond to aeration, and while they may not throw a sediment – due to modern fining and filtration techniques – they benefit greatly from a mellowing of often fierce aromas and aggressive tannins.

Decanting also helps the wine to ‘naturally’ come up to the temperature of the room in which it is to be served. Remember the decanter should also be the same temperature as the room. A young wine served from a bottle takes longer to come to room temperature than a decanted wine taking, on average, about three hours to rise from 11 to 18 degrees centigrade in a room of around 22. 

A sommelier will do this for you in a restaurant, but remember they are much more flash than they used to be and insist on sampling some of your precious vino!




Little Big Wine

The question went something like this, ‘Would you [as a wine snob] consider writing a piece on Beaujolais Nouveau for our magazine’? I said yes, partly following P.T. Barnum’s lead on publicity, but mainly because I actually rather like vins de primeur. They hark back to simpler, halcyon days before big, blowsy, brands bestrode the world like Tyrannosaurs, ravenously gobbling up every little, low alcohol, wine in their voracious path. 

Back then, traditional wine merchants would eagerly, if somewhat self-consciously, swap their pinstripes and food stained ties for breezy, Chanelesque, Breton shirts and make their jaunty be- bereted way back and forth across the English channel - on a range of eccentric and dangerous transports - vying to be the first the bring back the, barely fermented, first wines of the harvest - before the stroke of midnight morphed them into pumpkins on the third Thursday of November. They would then assemble riotously at the nearest ‘stand up and shout’ for the start of a gloriously bibulous weekend, in what was described by Le Figaro, as ”The greatest marketing stroke since the end of World War Two"

Admittedly great for cash flow, this poor man's en primeur allows producers to release their vin ordinaire on the open market, mere weeks after fermentation ends - providing some much needed brass in pocket to lavish on their more serious vinous offspring. But what else accounts for their popularity - particularly in the U.S where wine consumption per capita is less than 30%. 

Well, to begin with, it’s the nearest a red wine can get to a white, and yes there’s some nerdiness involved, but it’s the kind of chemistry our distant ancestors with their earthenware pots would have been familiar. All Beaujolais wines are made entirely from one single grape variety, the Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc and display a remarkable bugle clear, youthful, zingy freshness, from Villages level through to the nine Crus. The phenolics are low and the astringent tannins or extract normally associated with red wines are absent. Acidity is naturally high, making it refreshing, and alcohol levels in the best examples are low at around 11- 12% abv - meaning you can drink a lot of it! 

The bunches are hand harvested, to keep them intact, then fermented whole to preserve the purity and freshness of the fruit. The lower berries in the vat are split by the increased weight of the new bunches at the top, and a unique intracellular fermentation takes place, where the compote of fruit consumes its own grape sugars releasing CO2 which in turn attacks the sugars in the remaining juice initiating the alcoholic fermentation. Accetification at the top of the vat is avoided as the remaining bunches collapse into the bubbling must. The wine is ‘run off’, after three days, in two parts. The ‘free run’ juice, which contains little or no residual sugar, and the must still with some whole berries intact. Rapid fermentation of the whole then takes place naturally, due to high ph and amino acids, then the wine is racked, fined, filtered, bottled and dispatched to the cafes of Paris and Lyon where they are greeted as eagerly as a family birth.

So why do I like simple vins de bouche? Well its part nostalgia and part practicality. These light purple, high acid, low tannin, medium weight elixirs, reeking of strawberry jam and nail polish, served in a ludicrously small glass or a pichet remind me of carefree, impoverished, art student days trawling the galleries and bar tabacs of Paris and the South of France.  The less romantic reason is that they are a great autumnal lunchtime drink, possessing a straightforward glugability, unworthy of cerebral comment, to slake the generational thirsts of farm workers and artisans alike in a manner to make Ugolin and Papet proud. 

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Temperature Control

When I select wines for buying, I often taste blind, where possible, and always at room temperature - especially the whites. This allows the aromas present in the wine to come to the fore (often pre swirl) and an accurate assessment of their true quality to be made, as well as any obvious, or less obvious, examples of physicochemical spoilage such as; oxidation, chemical or enzymatic reduction, microbial spoilage or precipitation by crystallisation or polymerisation.

I taste alone most of the time, finding this suits my rather misanthropic temperament, but as most of my selections are based on personal opinion it eliminates distraction making it easier to concentrate on the wine in the glass.

At the end of the week we taste as a team, this is a great way to round out the week, engender that Friday feeling and swap opinions and perceptions. On a monthly basis I meet with a control group, of like and unlike minded palates, to broaden out and level the tasting field and receive some invaluable market research into the bargain. 

This has been the norm for the past three years, we taste all the wines as a double blind, and agree to disagree on a regular basis. One thing we always agree on however, is the correct or optimum temperature at which the tasting samples should be served. Sommeliers and Restaurateurs are aware of this, as a matter of course, but how many members of the wine buying public are so well informed.

I’ll walk you through it, excuse the dryness wine nerds, but it will help enormously:

Dry, white, wines should be served between 8 and 13°C, this spectrum covers most eventualities such as time of year, season and temperature of surroundings. The lower end of the scale is better for simple, primary-fruited wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, while the higher end is for more robust, complex, secondary-fruited wines such as White Burgundy etc.
Champagnes should be drunk at around 8 or 9°C, cold but not too cold, vintage wines can take 10°C.  

Rose´s and Clairetes between 8 and 12°C, higher end for serious cru classe rose’ with the lower price bracket benefitting from having glasses chilled in the fridge prior to pouring and,in  extemis, even accepting an ice cube or two on a hot summer’s day. 

Sweet, white, wines should be served between 6 and 10°C depending on age, the older the wine the higher the temp. Sweet reds at between 10 and 15°C - tannins depending.

Fruity, juicy, thirst-quenching reds with simple aromatics, such as Beaujolais can be served around 11 to 14°C, with the lower end reserved for vin de primeur (Beaujolais Nouveau) and the higher end for the Crus. You can even go cooler for Nouveau and room temp for Moulin a Vent.

Rhone wines range from as low as 13°C for basic CDR Villages rising to around 18 or even 19°C for the serious kit such as Northern Rhone Syrah and Southern Rhone Grenache. A good rule of thumb here is that the bigger the structure of the wine (tannins and extract) and the more complex the vinification and maturation methods, the higher the serving temperature – so you can go up to around 19 or 20°C for red Bordeaux.

Red Burgundies should be served between 14 and 17°C dependant on the style and weight of the wines. 

What about Italian, Spanish and Portuguese reds? I hear you cry. Well you should have learned a thing or two by now, the higher the tannin the higher the serving temperature should be. 

And finally, if you are serving cheap, white wines, to people who get through a lot of volume but don’t care about the taste, then chill the bejaysus out of it so as to mask any neutrality, lack of structure and faults therein.


A Visit to Mesquida Mora

Tim’s just back from Mallorca, the home of one of our favourite red wines – Trispol. A distinctive Mediterranean red wine made at the Mesquida Mora winery in Porres in the southern & central countryside of this hot and humid Balearic island.

Barbara Mesquida-Mora is a fourth generation Mallorcian wine producer - and this winery is her own venture which she began with her brother in 2007. A linguist by training, and living and studying in Barcelona, the call of harvest on the island brought her home to realise her dream. In 2008 she and her brother harvested their first vintage from 25 hectares (about 60 acres) and she now produces 70,000 bottles a year from six individual plots containing old and new vines from which three quarters are sold on the island with the balance exported.

The winery is an old and small, former barn, converted by a builder friend. “All I needed was a floor and a ceiling” she says, and from this came the name of her first two reds; in Catalan Trispol means tile floor and Sotil means roof.

All production is bio-dynamically organised, with emphasis on maintaining soil structure without the use of chemicals. You feel that the aim is to create a working garden where wine is also produced. The production building and vineyards are surrounded by a range of young shrubs and apricot trees, which harbour natural pest killers and therefore assist in the need to avoid the use of chemicals anywhere in the vineyard.

Trispol is blend of the local Callet with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It has an earthy, sumptuous and almost peppery spiciness. It was gorgeous with the local sausage, Sobrassada.                            

Fear of Flavour and the Birth of the Bland

Flowery, soft, supple, juicy, zesty, smooth, voluptuous, tasty, spicy - or god forbid - easy drinking. What do such terms tell you? Are they descriptive or merely a convenient, lazy, shorthand dashed off by uninspired scribes to promote a dull product. 

I recently saw a tasting note where a Spanish rose’ was described as mineraly! Not once, but twice in the same sentence. This currently fashionable and overused term is not only bandied about inaccurately (often confusingly used to denote/ describe acidity rather than the actual mineral content of a wine) but is wholly inappropriate for a warm climate rose’ – two mineraly then?

So, should the descriptive language surrounding wine be figurative or literal? A recent broadsheet article opined that ‘ordinary people enjoying a bottle of wine at the end of the day couldn’t give a monkey’s about the story behind it or wine education - so perhaps we have the descriptors we deserve. Tales told by idiots signifying nothing yet accurately reflecting our preference for bland, neutral, insipid whites and blackberry juiced, alcoholic, over-sugared, cloying reds.

The Utilitarians, Mill and Bentham, thought that the greatest happiness of the greatest number would inevitably lead to the death of opera and the continuation of bear baiting, they thought that there should be moral and aesthetic arbiters for taste. 

‘The best way to give the public what it wants is to reject the express policy of giving the public what it wants’. 

John Reith, essentially a Victorian, argued that high culture only needed to be made available for most people to embrace it. His position, via the BBC, was to educate inform and entertain, but if it’s a mammoth audience or market you covert then perhaps education is not the best bet. 

There used to be a progression in the world of drinking. The bibulous were inevitably led by some elder, a Yoda or Master Oogway to take the straightforward and natural journey from sweet, fruit-flavoured drinks to something drier and more sophisticated. Occasionally they were led down dark and winding paths to encounter and appreciate the complexities of sherry, port and fine old sweeties. This rite of passage began with a sneaky shandy or cider in ones’ ‘yoof’, then bitter, wine and eventually spirits and brown spirits. 

In recent years, let’s say the last 40, the big brewers realised that, if something is insipid, has no real virtue, or taste, given the right conditions, people will consume lots of it. I will spare you the brand names and grape varieties but you know where I’m going with this. 

People became afraid of flavour ‘I know what I like and am sticking to it’ unadventurous and   scared to move on. Those that did, were encouraged to eschew complexity for simple primary fruit flavours, promoted by egalitarian pundits who simplified wine to the level of fruit juice – reducing and homogenizing descriptors to papaya, kiwi fruit, and melon and at its lowest ebb ‘cats pee on a gooseberry bush’!

Wine is now the drink of choice for many, but is that because, in its big branded form, it is easier to understand than say beer or spirits? And has it become simpler in structure and flavour, yet higher in alcohol, to make it sell more. 

Does this signify a fear of drinking? Or a fear of flavour? The desire to drink (and drink lots) is apparent but drink without work, drunkenness without fuss, no journey, no grown up flavours, no progression - pass the raspberry cidre.

'Don't Get Around Much Anymore'

Does your life occasionally echo that Ink Spots refrain? The VOR and I have become used to missing that Saturday dance and get disproportionately excited about any invitation out. The downside to such unbridled and child unencumbered joy is that we often arrive too early, and are either obliged to help cook, set up, or as so often happens, find ourselves at the mercy of the uncrowded room, fellow early birds and elephants therein.

The VOR, being a woman, is immediately at an advantage with openers such as ‘I love your hair, shoes, dress’ or the marvellously complementary ‘You look great, have you lost weight’? forever endearing her to her conversational companions.

I, on the other hand, am the kind of man who knows little of car engines, the myriad charms of accountancy, the stock market, house prices, football or the crippling cost of school fees and am often caught with my proverbial pants down.

Low rather than high powered, I smile benignly, nod appreciatively and endeavour to achieve the general state of alcohol induced anaesthesia required to survive most ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ male exchanges - eternally aware of the all seeing eye of the VOR checking that I do not say anything rude or inappropriate.

If someone is aware that I am involved in wine, openers such as ‘I hate Italian wine’ (general) or ‘Don’t you just loath Sauvignon Blanc’ (particular) are not uncommon. To my knowledge I have never said ‘Isn’t the law boring’ or ‘Invasive surgery - who needs it’? Although a comment about Ugg boots being great for concealing fat ankles continues to haunt me.

Too near a generously overstocked bar I was moving swiftly from the Ink Spots through Mose Allison to Dr John, swearing silently not to deliver any comments about puffy talocrural regions, when my solitary reverie was interrupted by ‘X’.

‘God, pass me some of that I’ve had one helluva day’ - not indicating whether it was bad or good - I relinquished my grip on the bottle of neutral and acidic fizz.

Wearing that most versatile and indestructible modern business combo of grey suit and open necked blue shirt, he fixed me with his gaze, shook my hand firmly, then held it a little too long for comfort.

‘X’ he said, giving me his single syllable name. ‘Julian’ I replied, secretly envious of his unshakeable confidence whilst bemoaning my less dynamic three syllabled moniker.

‘Just smashed our monthly sales targets’. I think I said ‘Cool’ which is a word I probably shouldn’t use at my age, but at least I was engaging in the dance.

‘Investment in staff training has really paid off and now that our sales team have product knowledge we expect significant month on month growth’.

‘What do you sell’? I asked. ‘Wine’ he replied. ‘Didn’t they already have previous knowledge’? I countered, concealing my amazement as I recharged his glass.

‘Well, it’s desirable but not entirely essential, basically it’s just rapid FMCG turnover, same as any commodity, it’s about volume, traffic and money, the key is to close the deal’.

Warming to his theme he informed me that DTH (direct to home) sales – my acronyms were improving with every sentence - were now worth about £800 million which roughly translated to around 13% of the total market share,

‘That’s around 10 million consumer’s regularly buying wine online. The big high street retailers collar 28%, while the other well-known suppliers, such as us, net around 25% of all online sales’.

‘So what your secret’. 

‘Exclusive products, large margins, good customer service and unbeatable opening offers’ he replied.

Familiar with his system, but conscious of my legal team of one, I said that if I were a consumer I would have reservations over ‘real’ value for money - or should I say VFM - and felt that impossibly cheap introductory offers, implied that the wines sold were more competitively priced than other retailers but that after the initial sale they reverted to a higher price.  

‘Good point, you obviously know your stuff, but the fact is most of our customers are pretty lazy they prefer us to choose for them then automatically re order’.

‘And if they don’t’?

‘Then our sales teams cold call them and entice them back with more special offers or bigger discounts to sweeten the deal’.

‘But what about the quality of the wine’?

‘For the vast majority it makes no difference, but we have higher level products to cater for those who think they know what they’re doing’.

‘Are your customers not concerned that by buying exclusives they’re unable to compare prices with other retailers so have no idea of their real worth’?

‘We don’t just do exclusives, our higher range products are traceable but it’s all about quick turnover old boy’ he said. ‘Our customers are wine drinkers not wine lovers, and everyone’s a sucker for a free gift’.

‘Perhaps I’m in the wrong business’.

He was about to belatedly ask me what I did, when the VOR (Spidey senses tingling) took my arm, and with perfect timing, swept me away saying ‘Darling there’s someone you really must meet’!

"In praise of older wines"

”Modern culture—American culture—glorifies the young; on the lost continent of old Europe it was the affair of the young man and his older mistress that had the glamour of perfection.”  Stephen Vizinczey.

Being young is beautiful, cool, invincible, immortal and fabulously exciting. Young red wines range from bright scarlet to deep purple in colour with little or no variation between the rim and core. Colour is derived from the grape skin, not the pulp, grape variety is a decisive factor, as are winemaking practices and PH. It is possible to over extract colour and flavour, but the resultant wine tends to be coarse and undrinkable - showing a marked reluctance to age gracefully. Older reds show a progressive shift from purple to brown and dark to light, their tannins and anthocyanins polymerise to form larger particles which fall out of the wine forming a sediment or deposit. A mature wine is lighter in colour with a distinctly tawny or brick red rim.

Appearance is not the only significant factor in the ageing process (note that I am avoiding a comparison with people here), there are also changes in aroma, taste, structure and body due to oxidation and esterification. There are many reasons why older is not necessarily wiser. Older wines are not easy to appreciate, lacking the zip, pizzazz and vigour of young wines they can seem, in essence, a bit weird. Difficult to understand, complex and reticent, their primary fruit aromas have been replaced by more reductive odours – redolent of the farmyard - brought about by chemical changes, tannins soften, fruit departs, acidity is the one true constant.

So why drink old wines? Don’t waste your money if you are not prepared for them. The ability of a taster to assess a wine as it ages, involves a big back catalogue of variable scenarios together with a damn good eye for detail. It also requires patience and a tendency to dislike instant gratification.

When I started drinking, alcopops and frozen or gelatinised ethanol did not exist. There was beer, cider, wine and whisky and they all took a bit of getting used to. You had to man up, pucker up and read up. You went to meet the product - it didn’t come to meet you! We are spoiled nowadays with clean, user friendly drinks that demand little of us, which is why we struggle to appreciate certain wines leaving them neglected and misunderstood. It is not only a fear of the old, but a fear of the unknown and consequently un-tasted.

The Côte Rôtie was from the excellent 1983 vintage. Fill level was good, cork sound with no seepage, although I was unfamiliar with the producer. Decanting avoided to preserve bouquet, it was poured carefully into the glass. Garnet in colour with a nose of mushrooms and delicate forest fruits, the wine was ethereal in structure, the robustness and fire of the Syrah’s youth well behind it. The delicacy and slight perfume may have come from the permitted addition of Viognier, although the actual cepage remained a mystery. It’s tannins had softened to a whisper, and the slightly nervous acidity was all that remained on the finish. Charming, a little fragile and past its best, but it did manage to tell a tale or two.

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"Wine Is, Red

The quote from the late, great, Christopher Hitchens, is a response to one of the dreariest, but necessary, questions bandied about by wine waiters the world over “Red or White?”

Hitch’s retort “Wine. Is, Red” aptly describes our wonderful wine from Pago de los Capellanes in Spain’s Ribera del Duero. A thoroughly deserved winner of the inaugural “Wines from Spain” award 2012, this is low-yield, 100% Tempranillo. of exceptional character and quality.

Quintessentially Spanish, but bigger and chunkier than Rioja, this is a manly wine in every, fashionably bearded, sense of the word. Large hands and firm grips are needed to hold the substantially weighty. flask-shaped bottle, together with a penchant for sleeping outdoors. Women can drink it too - the VOR was extremely fond of it - but were it my last bottle they would have to prise it from my cold, dead, Action Man-esque, grippy hands.

Fruit-forward, packed with plums, damsons, and liquorice and richly enrobed in medium-toast, French oak - this is a fabulously juicy and powerful red wine.

We had it, indoors (it’s winter for Gods sake), with smoked haddock gratin and buttered Cavolo Nero. Red wine with fish – how manly is that!

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"Gustatationary Substitution"

“Is a power far beyond the wildest notion

only one precise solution is the key

Gustatationary Substitution is for me”

I came across a unique example of substitutionary gustation recently, whereby tasting notes were declared defunct and replaced by a tennis pro-esque fist pump to indicate the quality of the wine. Presumably a single fist pump was preferred as there was a glass of wine in the other hand? As entertaining, and momentarily exciting, as I found the concept I was mortified at the increased likelihood of spilling the wine during such an energetic method of approval.

When I first joined the wine trade, it existed somewhere between mothballed and food stained pinstripe and the shiny, man-made fibres of the future. And I didn’t fit in. My personal preference, for impartial advice, came from the be-t-shirted hipsters and college drop outs of Oddbins, whose witty and irreverent descriptions filled the shelves of their teeming, untidy and exciting high street stores.

My first boss was a man who saw himself as a jewel in a dung heap, whose shine masked a deep insecurity that manifested itself in appalling and ungenerous snobbery. Being a callow youth, I was unable to see that he was afraid of me and my big nose - as he was already suffering from the presbyosmia, or loss of smelling ability, that begins in middle age. Despite this unheeded affliction he was trusted to buy pallet loads of wine - with a myriad of faults - for people whose taste buds had caught the Last Train to Clarksville. A more generous and magnanimous man would have asked my opinion, given me the fist pump of approval and then passed the opinion off as his own. Moral: don’t diss the young when it’s your duty to help them.

My next lash from the tongue of disapproval occurred during a vertical of Cos D’Estournel going back to before the Great War. After so many brilliant, but aged examples, of this venerable property my tannin jaded, but distinctly un- presbyotic palate was enervated by the exciting, fruit forward and recently bottled 1985. As I enthused about the wine in the glass – after being asked my opinion on this occasion – I was immediately admonished for preferring it to the superior 1986. Now, I had read my Clive Coates and Michael Schuster and I knew the received opinion about the 86 being the better wine – but what if I loved the wine in the glass and wanted to buy it? It certainly got my fist pumping. Moral: don’t diss a potential punter.

Where is this leading to you may ask? Well, there are two types of tasting note and taking into consideration inexperience and received opinion (together with a glimpse  of a label) neither can be replaced by a fist pump.

The first is an objective note, purely analytical, often devoid of emotion and listing the wines constituent parts, merits and demerits, quality and potential longevity. It is also used to provide context as to where the wine sits in relation to others in its region or commune and to frame it within its own vintages. This kind of note often comes with a shorthand, and often controversial, score.

The second is of the journalistic variety, often subjective and full of personal opinion and perspective. Although designed to promote and sell the wine, it contains a description of what the wine smells, or reminds the consumer of, great if its flowers,  fruits and holidays, not good if its sweaty saddles – but then again. This is a positive note, usually unconcerned with shortcomings and centered around the wines affinity with food.

To conclude this rather long post, I want to illustrate how easy it becomes to overlook the true purpose of wine in the pursuit of nerdyness.

Some years ago, during day two of the Master of Wine examinations, students were asked to identify two pairs of French wines in a new/old world flight of four. The traditional double blind format also required comments on region, commune, vintage, quality, capacity to mature and use of oak. Diligently working through my allotted three minutes per wine, I was struck by the clarity of the final wine of the flight, a 1er Cru Les Amoureuses, Chambolle Musigny 92 from Comte Georges de Vogue, so much so that I stopped scribbling and drank it.

Moral: Wine is a wonderful drink, best shared than consumed alone - as friendship is its engine and true purpose. Analyse it by all means, but remember to retain perspective and a sense of  humour, together with an ability to communicate your enjoyment and wonder through your tasting note – a fist pump is not enough.

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"I Say Pigato".

Unless you have been to Liguria, on the Italian Riviera, you are unlikely to have sampled it’s wines. Mostly white (the climate is not always reliable enough for ripening reds) they are exceptionally wonderful, and Pigato is my favourite white grape of the moment.

Shiny yellow in colour with flashes of green, incredibly fresh with the scent and taste of peaches and roast almonds, this is just scrummy stuff. A superior relative of Vermentino - although less lean and austere - Pigato is sometimes referred to as “spotted Vermentino” due to the Mad Madam Mim-esque pink blemishes on its skin.

It has a long history in the region - although it’s origins are Greek – but relatively few examples are made. This is from Laura Aschero, a family owned and run estate that limits itself to a mere three varietal wines – two white and one red.

Don’t chill it too much, perhaps 20 minutes at most, and serve with a humble fish, wine and garlic soup, like the local Ligurian speciality Ciuppin.

This article was first published, in full, during December 2013 at