Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Wine Rules: 1: Drink local, act global.


All over the world people drink the best of their national and local wines - some places every day. For this, the wine drinkers of Britain owe the rest of the world an expression of gratitude. 

We will forever be in your debt, literally, and not just as a result of the global recession. We will be forever in your carbon debt.

Ten years ago my local supermarket in France used to be called Stock. Then it changed its name to Champion. Next - and still - Carrefour. 

In order to boost sales they regularly move products around the aisles so that one week the first thing you encounter on arrival is the bread, the next it's local fruit and vegetables and a month later cooked meats and dairy. 

But throughout the last decade some things never changed. The wine shelves. They're arranged by colour and by region, including a section dedicated solely to Champagne. 

Here are the reds, with 60% of the red shelf space devoted to Bordeaux - over half of which are simply Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior. 

The 'other' great French red, Burgundy, claims about 30% of the red wine shop window,  and, as with so much Burgundy, much of it is of disappointing quality, although in this case it's more to do with the labels - the store's chosen winemakers - rather than the usual problem of the contents not living up to the name of the bottle. 

The rest of the reds sit under wooden signs indicating Rhône or Sud (south), which bizarrely includes a few from supposedly lesser red appellations such as Beaujolais and mostly lightweight reds of the Loire and Alsace.

It's a similar story on the opposite side of the aisle, where the whites hold sway. Chablis, Burgundy and the Loire - including a couple of stray rosés - dominate here, with a positive display too from Alsace and a minor showing from the Rhône. No Sud, but the end of the row carries quite a selection of better-positioned rosés from Provence.

That's almost it. I haven't mentioned local wines - because the nearest AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) is Saint Pourçain, which probably doesn't strike much of a chord with many wine drinkers and in truth carries little resonance locally either. Shame.

But what's this - in the corner over there - a corner shelf devoted to, what? Is that really a Rioja? It is, a Faustina.  Presumably smuggled in through Andorra. In fact, there's a couple of Riojas on the shelf. Plus some Chianti and Barolo. Most odd of all, there's a Chilean Merlot. And they're all gathering dust because hardly anybody buys them.

Nearly all the wine on display has travelled for less than 12 hours and under 1,000 kilometres.

It's thanks to this parochial approach that Britain's wine drinkers - myself included - can sample the wares not only of our near neighbours in Europe but of our remotest exporters, without conscience. 

Few winemaking countries are exceptions to this local-drinking rule. In Italy the nationalism is reinforced by historical 'differences' between north and south. In Spain the Spaniards drink Spanish wine; Rioja, Ribera del Duero - and they drink local too. Similar internal divisions mean the Catalans prefer their own - Priorat and Penedès. The restaurants on the hills overlooking Barcelona serve jugs of local amber wine that's rarely, if ever, bottled and sold straight from the barrel.

Indeed some countries are so selfish, even greedy, in their local consumption - and my eyes are cast in a south-easterly direction here, towards the alps where Germany, Austria and Switzerland fall into my line of sight - that few if any of their best wines make it into general circulation and many wine drinkers may never encounter them.

This means that most wine drinkers' buying habits mitigate some of the damaging effects of the worldwide expansion in wine-making that has led to New Zealand's second-largest export travelling as far from its vineyards of origin as it's possible to go without actually commencing the journey back. 

Because New Zealand's biggest wine market isn't New Zealand. With a population 14 times that of New Zealand, it's the UK. 

And there's the rub. Because the UK's wine drinkers, finding their own local produce of insufficient quality or incompatible price opt for the wines of the New World to such an extent instead that we're effectively racking up more global wine miles than any other nation. 

So thank you. Thank you for mitigating our carbon footprint. 

Thank you to all those Americans drinking Californian wines - although your reluctance to drink at lunchtime is holding you back. 

Gratitude too to the Germans lapping up all that wonderful Riesling, and the Spätburgunder we never even see. 

Thanks to the French, the Italians, The Spaniards - and Catalans - and all the major wine-drinking populations that unthinkingly act global by drinking local. Cheers.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The London Vintage Festival Part I



I’m invited by friends to the London Vintage Festival 2010.

I have been before of course.

It always begins, and ends, the same way. For some, an ambulance is never far behind.

If you haven’t been before, you must go. If you have been before, you must go back. It’s a quite wonderful day out. If you like wine. And drinking. And don’t mind getting drunk.

I prefer the mid-day sessions rather than the evenings. The staff seem to over-indulge on the Saturday night – whereas on Saturday afternoon you get to wander innocently out into the streets of Westminster, where the dazzling April brightness of it soon sends you scurrying for cover into the Army and Navy stores, a most excellent English institution where they will happily relieve you of what sanity you have left by way of pickpocketry masquerading as retail therapy. I like it.

If you haven’t been, I suggest you make a plan.

Mine goes roughly like this. Seek out quality bubbly to start – Champagne, Pelorus from the Kiwis, or my favourite, something English, from the chalk-rich Sussex Downs. I prefer RidgeView but they may not have it. Anyhow, do ensure you have two glasses, strictly for comparison purposes.

Then head for the Meursault. I rarely commend any wine as highly as I do Meursault. For me it is Ambrosia. Today at least. They’re tasting measures, so remember to have two glasses, strictly for comparison.

This is where you may begin to get drunk. Spittoons are provided, but who’d be that wasteful?

Work your way ‘down’ through the quality whites. Historically you wouldn’t find great vintages, just good representatives of the best wine styles from all around the World, but this year so-called fine wines are also being made available.

I’m very much an Old World kind of drinker – ale rather than lager – Scotch not Bourbon, so would veer towards a top heavy Chablis; Hugh Johnson prefers Premier Cru to Grand Cru so see if you agree with him, compare and contrast, maybe add in a smoky Pouilly Fuissé.

Then you have your Sancerre to consider and a chance to take in a top notch Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, strictly for comparison purposes.  

Jancis Robinson wouldn’t forgive me if I neglected Riesling, so I shan’t. I myself love that petrolly madness – no wonder the Germans gave us the speed limitless Autobahn, their heads are forever swimming in Riesling fumes.

Rosé? If you must. You’ll have to seek it out. In France I buy the Floralies, if I’m 100% honest with myself, mostly for the bottle. It has a woman’s curves.

You’ve probably had a dozen half glasses of top quality wine by now. And a glass of rosé.

Time to take time out to explore the food offerings – the pies are splendid – if you’re to have the stomach to tackle the reds. 

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Wine Rules

Wine Rules. It does. In the UK, wine sales contribute over £3.5billion to the UK economy. Some 70% of adults in the UK drink wine. The average Briton (not that any of us are average in any way, except in modesty) drinks 32 bottles of wine a year.

Yet faced with a shelf of wine at the local off-licence, newsagent or supermarket, most of us are asked to make our choice of vinous tipple on the basis of very limited information provided by the retailer.

My own local corner shop – like many a former Post Office forced to expand its offer to include alcohol and the consequent long hours, thievery and age-related squabbles – offers nothing in the way of help except fluorescent orange, pink and acid-yellow star-shaped price tags highlighting discounts ranging from as little as 50p to as much as a whole English £1.

Equally the neighbouring high street off-licence, which I won’t embarrass by naming, oh, go on then, Threshers, used to offer only ‘two-for-one’, ‘three-for-two’ or ‘special offer’ as the only information any customer needed to make their choice. That’s right – the only information Threshers itself provided about its wine was its price discounting. No wonder they went bust.

NB. You will be better-placed to make an informed choice about your next wine purchase by the end of this blog than you would asking either of the snogging students who masqueraded as shop ‘assistants’ at my local Threshers – people that sullen and grumpy really shouldn’t be employed in customer-orientated service industries i.e. they shouldn’t be allowed near people at all, except each other.

At the superstore supermarket – pick any, nowadays they’re almost indistinguishable – things are noticeably better but they still leave you wading through treacle to reach your decision.

The manager’s offers vie with the buyer’s specials, coded shelf-labels indicate ranges of flavours such as soft and fruity reds (that would be Gamay and Merlot), refreshing whites (Pinot Grigio and Muscadet) and summer rosés (any and every rosé from any and every corner of the world) while bottle stickers proclaim their places on the podium in gold, silver and bronze position. Bronze? That’s not even a proper metal. It’s not on the periodic table so why’s it on the dinner table?

Restaurant wine lists are just as much of a lottery – many try to be informative and helpful but they’re designed to sell wine after all so don’t expect veracity, nor balance, nor even wines that are guaranteed to match the food on offer, although of course they should.

Instead, like me you’ll come across the most appalling rip-off over-pricing (less common in supermarkets), frequently encounter frustratingly limited choice and puzzle over how the hell to pick something to go with sweetbreads on a bed of rocket with a loganberry coulis.

This blog, with apologies to Ronseal (no stranger to wine comparisons, especially in relation to Retsina), does exactly what it says on the tin – it aims to provide you with a set of rules that will ensure that when you are faced with a retailer’s helpless, hopeless, hapless shelf of reds, whites and rosés you are able to make a quick, intelligent and well-argued case for your chosen purchase, whatever its purpose.

When scanning the restaurant wine list you can swiftly match your starters, mains and dessert with wines that will complement each course and enhance your whole dining experience.

Better still, maybe best of all, you should never again find yourself wasting your money buying the ‘wrong’ bottle of wine. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Welcome to The Wine Rules

I'm a writer of some 30 years standing (well, mostly sitting actually) and thought I'd deploy my experience in this blog to cut through some of the nonsense that surrounds viniculture to give you my take - sometimes somewhat opinionated, sometimes bound to be wrong, sometimes ugly - on wine.

I'll be looking at the countries and regions that produce wine, at what they do best and why, and looking at a specific appellation, as the French have it, or a particular vintage, as and when it takes my fancy or as you, hopefully my reader, demand it.

Along the way I'll also be expanding on some of the terminology employed in the wine industry and trying to add some understanding to the jargon that so litters this particular subject.

Of course, there will be tasting. And disagreement. But I hope there will also be entertainment, humour, and dancing.

As Albert Finney once wrote to me, 'Enjoy'.

© 2011 John Alexander

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