Restaurant Etiquette

10_Wine Rack

The approaching festive season means that its highly likely that you’ll either be invited to, or attend, a restaurant in the coming months. 

Whilst office parties rely on set menus and transient wine choices, more intimate gatherings can potentially propose certain wine-specific theatrics and, if you don’t know why you’re doing them they can cause confusion and even prompt cries of wine snobbery!

The most obvious example is the server asking you to taste the wine before you ‘accept’ it, which people often delegate to other members of the party as they don’t feel qualified enough to pass judgement.  Far from expecting that you are an instant wine connoisseur being given a last-minute option to double check that you’ve made an informed and delicious decision from the menu, or even a ‘get out of jail free’ card if you don’t like the wine you’ve selected, it’s simply a quality control check.

Wine is a living, evolving, drink, and the theatre derives from proprietors letting customers sample the contents to ensure that the bottle has been correctly stored and is free of impairments.  Tasting the wine, the perceived scary element, is actually largely unnecessary.  A dull colouring or an unexpected/pungent aroma will tell you all you need to know about the wine quality before it ever hits your lips.

Comedian Michael McIntyre does a wonderful routine (worth checking out on YouTube) where he mocks the perceived ‘try-before-you-buy’ wine process, and the fact that it is offered for no other beverage.  Should customers be allowed to know the breeding of the cows providing the milk in their cappa-frappa-cino’s?

Grumpy Waiter

Ultra-pretentious establishments may ask if you want to sniff the recently removed cork.  Once again, as the bacterial taint in wine historically came from the cork base touching the wine, this is a theatrical dinosaur rolled out to identify faults.

If you’re unsure which bottle to select, the best advice I can offer is to simply trust the wine list or, if you’re at an upmarket establishment with a wide-ranging selection, trust the sommelier.  Apart from the larger chains or less attentive establishments where wines may be listed on availability and profit margin alone, most restaurateurs are attuned to the implications of customers getting it wrong. 

Well aware that food and wine matching is a key part of the full sensory experience of eating out, much work goes in to the finished wine list, ensuring it complements the menu in the best possible way.  Sommeliers spend years training with the one desire of highlighting the best wines, based on customer preferences, food matches and individual budget.

Restaurants with a culinary direction will have also already done the hard yards for you so you can be confident buying a bottle of a grape variety you’ve not tried or heard of before.  Steak restaurants will list wines that go well with steak, Italian restaurants will list wines that go well with Italian food and so on.

Whatever you go for, in pretty much every case, the wine that goes best with a meal is the wine that is freely flowing.

Cheers!

This article was originally published in the November 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.
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Georgia On My Mind

I’m always pleased when wine questions turn up in the pub quiz, a recent example being “Where can you find the worlds largest wine cellar?”.  Having visited the sprawling vast caverns of Champagne, where you sometimes need a motorised vehicle to get around, I offered it up as my answer.  I was wrong, its actually in Moldova.

Chalk Cellar

This reminded me that many people naturally think of France as the birthplace of wine when the truth is much more Eastern European.  In fact, it’s just across the Black Sea from Moldova, in Georgia. 

The oldest known evidence of wine-making there dates back 8,000 years, with scientists able to trace the organic compounds found in wine-making in various pottery shards.  This historical importance, along with over 500 unique indigenous grape varieties and unusual wine-making techniques, should make Georgian wines an easy sell.  How come then, most of us have never seen or tried them?

Traditionally focused on the domestic market and surrounding countries, the rug was firmly pulled from under Georgia’s feet when Russia imposed an import ban on their wines in 2006.  Low standards and a plodding reliability on the norm caused them to lose 90% of their exports overnight. 

Although lifted in 2013, the ban pushed them to improve quality and focus on further export opportunities, signing trade agreements with the EU and the quickly expanding Chinese wine market.  Russia once again accounts for 50% of exports but, in just 4 years, China has become their third largest market.

These sales are all good but, due to the local economies they are mostly low value, with rival brands competing on bottle prices in the £1-£1.50 bracket.  Serious future growth is dependent on higher value sales; hence them now looking to richer Western markets including both the UK and US.

Wine is not immune to the recent food trends for ‘natural’ ingredients and processes, and buzzwords including organic and biodynamic are never far from reach when talking about current production styles.

This ‘back-to-nature’ style perfectly suits Georgian wine as many producers still practice the traditional methods used for thousands of years.  Instead of fermenting/ageing wines in ultra-modern temperature cooled facilities, they bury them underground in large egg-like clay jars called ‘Qvevri’, where they utilise the naturally cool and consistent underground temperatures. 

Qvevri

Whilst this continued soaking of the grape juice on its skin is not so different to regular ‘over-ground’ red wine production around the world (the red colour comes from the grape skin, not the flesh), globally produced white wine sees little skin contact.  The Qvevri production sees them pick up a much darker hue, becoming ‘Gold’ or ‘Amber’ wines; a whole new spectrum of colour and taste.

These differences give unique selling points to Georgian wine and, with a little development to the quality classifications and labelling (both hindered by largely unpronounceable place names and grape varieties), they’ll be coming to a store near you very soon.

Two high-street staples have already taken the plunge and you can buy a Georgian white (aka gold) from M&S and a red from Waitrose.  Will you take the plunge too?

Cheers!

This article was originally published in the October 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.

1966: Introducing the Drink/Drive Limit

Roadside Test

Just like the placing of Bank Holidays or the fact that the clocks go backwards and forwards each year, there are things that we naturally adhere to by default and don’t really question when they were introduced.

One of these is the drink-drive limit, an obvious mandate to drivers to not be too inebriated prior to being in charge of a vehicle. Although it had been an offence to be ‘drunk-in-charge’ of a vehicle since the early 1900’s, it wasn’t until January 1966 that a formal intoxication limit was put in place.

Drunk Victorian

Following World War 2 the social scene of the 1960’s was booming. The increased availability of raw materials, disposable income and a general freedom of choice meant the number of cars on the road began to grow at a significant rate.

Originally proposed in June 1965, the new law stated that drivers exceeding 80mg (milligrams) of alcohol in 100cc (cubic centimetres) of blood were ‘over the limit’, and could be prosecuted for the first time. Such stipulations were in their infancy then but, compared to today’s standards, this was actually a very generous allowance.

Due to varying body weights and other lifestyle factors it’s impossible to state the exact point as to when you become ‘drunk’, but this original level was just over double of what we today call the drink-drive limit (35mg), and somewhere over 4 glasses of wine. That’s almost a bottle.

That said, the final 1966 law wasn’t half as concerning as some of the proposals made in the consideration process. One of the more outlandish suggestions allowed the equivalent of eight pints (or 12 single shots of spirits) be permissible!

Attitudes and habits changed almost immediately, causing the publicans of the time to march on Westminster in protest at the new restrictions, such was the immediate hit to their lunchtime trading. People who drove to and from work were now routinely foregoing their pub lunch tipple and the loss of business was being keenly felt.

To this day critics continue to challenge the government on what constitutes a ’safe’ level of drinking prior to driving, primarily as the word ‘safe’ is very open to interpretation. One side states that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ limit isn’t good enough, whilst the other suggests that there’s no ‘safe’ limit and that drinking should be avoided altogether before driving.

The number of cars on the road in the mid-sixties stood at around the 5 million mark, and unbelievably they were responsible for a percentage-busting 2,000 deaths a year. Projections put together at the time estimated that, if left unchecked, the number of road deaths per year could spiral to nearly 1 million by the 1980’s.

Clunk Click

The 1966 law change, which also saw the introduction of the dreaded breathalyser, was actually well ahead of its time, coming a full 17 years before the (arguably just as important) wearing of a seat belt became mandatory in 1983.

Since records began in 1979 drink related road deaths are down an amazing 85%, currently standing at an average of 282* deaths per year. Even though that’s 282 deaths too many, it’s clear to see how far we’ve come.

Cheers!

* Source: Drinkaware, statistics 2010-2015
This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.

Prosecco: Brand On The Run?

Prosecco popcorn

Whether it’s a drink that makes you thirst or curse, there’s no denying that the biggest sparkling wine success of the last ten years has been the surge in popularity for Prosecco.  Majestic recently stated that it was selling ten times more bottles than the well-established Champagne brands.

This wasn’t always the case though and as recently as ten years ago Spain must have felt fairly safe in the knowledge that they had the ‘sparkling-alternative-to-Champagne’ market sewn up with Cava.  Made in a similar style to Champagne, but without the prestige of Moét-level brand recognition, they were able to produce fairly similar results at significantly lower prices.

Whilst also a sparkling wine, outside of artisan producers emulating the Champagne style, Prosecco isn’t made in the same way.  The bubbles are added by a carbonation process similar to soft drinks, worlds away from the traditional labour intensive Champagne processes.  Instead of fermentation (sugars turning to alcohol) within the bottle itself, Prosecco is made in large tanks and siphoned off to each bottle individually.

Without time resting on its yeasty deposits, the creamy richness found in Champagne is lost, but gives Prosecco its youthful and vibrant quality, expressly intended for immediate drinking.  This unfussy immediacy, as well as the reduced pricing through simpler production, has proved incredibly popular with the ever cost-conscious buying public.

This is all good for the here-and-now but to ensure a successful future Prosecco needs to side-step the stigma of simply being a cheaper alternative.  Adopted by many a girls night out, will the effortless effervescence shortly become a victim of its own success?

For all its perceived snobbery, Champagne has actually done a massive amount to protect its brand and, outside of Champagne truffles and the Champagne named sub-regions of Cognac, you literally can’t label anything as ‘Champagne’ unless it comes from the region.

This makes perfect sense as, when you buy Champagne, you’re buying in to the limited prestige.  Prosecco brand preservation seems to have been somewhat side-lined and there is arguably little ongoing value with it being associated with such retail oddments as popcorn, teabags, crisps or nail varnish.  Innocently browsing in a bookshop this very week I spotted a Prosecco cookbook – 100 ways to cook with Prosecco.  This is a serious brand devaluation.

prosecco cookbook

Price-point is another major consideration.  Despite such obvious Brexit factors meaning that we import European goods at a higher price, and the fact that the more popular a brand is the more a producer will charge for it, late spring frosts and an inconsistent summer means that recent crops were severely curtailed or variably-ripened.

Global wine production in 2017 slumped to a 56 year low and there is simply less to go around.  Experts estimate that for affected regions, including Prosecco, prices could rise by as much as 30%.

There’s no denying that Prosecco is still very popular but when a brand scales up so quickly there is almost always a quick deflation to follow.  Can Prosecco sustain such price rises, lack of availability, and over-exposure through tacky 3rd party products?  Is Prosecco now a brand on the run?

Cheers!

This article was originally published in the May 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.

A World Of Variety

The old saying goes “never judge a book by its cover”, but in the case of ‘Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties’, the plain sleeve and scope couldn’t be much clearer.

1368 Varieties

Putting each and every known wine grape variety under the microscope and giving the appropriate cultural history and factual DNA make-up, this comprehensive pool of information is accessible to both the scholar and the interested novice.

The novice reader might, however, question where they’re going wrong.  Akin to a poorly titled mystery, the biggest surprise of the book has already been given away by the title highlighting that there are an amazing 1,368 different grape varieties out there to try.

A recent survey showed that of the varieties available, only the top 12 (so, less than 1%) were responsible for more than half of the worlds planted vines. That’s an extraordinary statistic; over half of the vine-planted world is given over to less than 1% of the available vine varieties.

Our hit-list contains such favourites as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir and Syrah (aka Shiraz) for your reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris for your white.  Any one of these varieties is now in the official ‘comfort zone’.

Clearly there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any one of the above varieties, which are well-known, successful, highly adaptable and able to give consistent high-yielding results.  The point is, there is much mileage beyond.

Readers may now be starting to wonder if they could have been more inventive the last time they reached for another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, but the blame isn’t entirely on your shoulders.  People do indeed go with what they know more often than not, but this is something that supermarkets are well-oiled towards.  They don’t want to take too many chances when it comes to the profits.  Familiarity is safety.

Wine producing countries new to the game (so, any since the late 70’s/early 80’s) are also well aware of trends and plant their vineyards accordingly.  They only want to produce the well-recognised international varieties that will guarantee sales.

This commerce comes at the expense of tradition.  Grape varieties adapt to their surroundings and the unknown indigenous varieties that have thrived forever are the ones that truly speak of the history and diversity of the country.  Spanish producer Torres is one going to amazing lengths to bring back long-lost varieties from extinction.

On the flip-side, the consumer also needs to have a little more interest when it comes to seeking out what is beyond the obvious.  If you can get past the funny and sometimes vaguely un-pronounceable names, there are absolute treasures to be found.

ASDA Wine Atlas

A good range that celebrates this diversity is the Wine Atlas range from Asda.  Dressed up in gorgeous labels evocative of the heyday of early 20th century travel, this is your ideal chance to try the lesser spotted Feteasca Neagra, Negroamaro, Grillo or Bobal.

If you’re feeling really competitive you may like to apply to the Wine Century Club.  Try 100 or more varieties, Google the club, fill in the entry form, and a nifty certificate will be on its way to you letting you know how unique such a feat is.

100 Club

This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.