A collection of my monthly wine columns for this southern-UK entertainment and lifestyle magazine.
October 2017 – Wine Myths
This month we’re looking at some of those pesky wine myths that do the rounds and confuse anyone getting interested in the wonderful world of wine buying, tasting and storing. Perhaps the only negative aspect of ‘the grapevine’, let’s set the record straight on a few of them.
Champagne is best served in a flute glass: Visually, long slim flute glasses are spot on for seeing bubbles rise up the glass, but the small rim doesn’t fully allow the wine to open up. Strangely, people are happy to pay £10+ for a red wine and use the wider opening of a standard glass to fully appreciate the aromas, yet pay £30+ for Champagne and use a smaller glass that doesn’t. Try a standard glass instead.
The heavier the bottle, the better the wine: Packaging has no effect on the wine (except for raising the price). At best, it’s indicative of a winemaker showcasing his wine in the best possible way. At worst, it means he is over-compensating for the dross inside.
Champagne corks should go pop: The virtual sound of celebration and, as seen on Formula 1 podiums, a complete waste of Champagne. Chill the bottle down to subdue the pressure and then slowly twist the cork out pressing against the remaining pressure. The sound should be more ‘pfff’ than ‘pop’ and is said to be reminiscent of ‘a well satisfied lady’.
Red wine with meat, white wine with fish: A good guide, but if you love your food and wine it isn’t a robust rule. Well-grilled fish loves a lighter bodied red and meat like pork and veal is absolutely fine with white wine. Also remember that ‘what grows together goes together’ so perhaps go for a Spanish dish with a Spanish red or white.
Serve red wine at room temperature: Certainly true before houses were centrally heated, serving red at today’s room temperature (~21°c) means you’re probably drinking it too warm and soupy. Busting another myth, don’t be afraid to pop red wine in the fridge for 20 minutes to lightly chill it down to the recommended 14-18°c.
Open bottles early to let them breathe: To clarify, some wines need decanting and air will react and draw out additional complexities. Simply taking the cork out and leaving the bottle to stand won’t do a thing as only a 1p sized bit of the wine is in contact with the air. Leaving the bottle ‘airing’ for a couple of hours also means you have to wait longer to drink it!
Vintage is better quality than Non-Vintage: Producers put as much effort in to Non-Vintage as it is blended from a range of base wines in to a house style consistent the world over, year after year. The Non-Vintage is also usually the entry point wine for a brand and, as such, has to be the perfect ‘shop-window’ in terms of quality.
Boxed wine is rubbish: Don’t be fooled by the ability to get a greater volume of wine for a relatively cheaper price. Being more portable, durable and housed in card rather than glass, any cost savings come from cheaper logistics rather than from cutting corners in production. The only downside of drinking boxed wine is that you can’t quite see how much you’ve already drunk!
September 2017 – Phylloxera
The 19th century saw many strides forward in science and technology but, for the wine industry, progression would come at a significant and deadly cost.
Our story starts in 1861 when French wine merchant Monsieur Borty wrote to a friend in New York asking him to ship across American vines to add to his collection of European examples. Happy to oblige, the samples were received and planted in ten neat rows in his garden in 1863.
The following summer M. Borty noticed that all of his European vines had started to wither and die. Simply believing his crop was failing and would thrive again the following year he thought nothing of it, but soon other local growers started to see the same symptoms. With no forewarning of a potential plague approaching they also awaited new growth the following year. They were all waiting in vain.
5 years later exasperated growers invited the best scientists of the day to help diagnose their problem. Dying vines were dug up and examined, their rotting roots suggesting that poor soil was to blame. In response vintners simply moved their vines to different plots of land.
When the same symptoms continued scientists finally looked at the surviving healthy vines and discovered Phylloxera; a tiny yellow aphid feasting on the roots. At 1mm long and almost invisible to the naked eye, the next 20 years would see it kill off almost all of the vines in Europe despite its minimal size.
The newly understood problem required a solution and the government immediately offered 300,000 gold francs to anyone who could cure the malady. Attracting all sorts of absurd solutions including drenching vines in their own wine, burying live toads in blighted vineyards, or wearing chain-mail gloves to forcefully scrape the Phylloxera off, the prize went unclaimed.
Commercial pesticides also failed and Phylloxera continued munching its way through over 6 million hectares of French vines. It was only when a link was made to the original imported samples that scientists were able to fathom a solution.
The aphids had stowed away in the original New York consignment sent to M. Borty and, with the American vines having built up a natural resistance to the Phylloxera, were completely healthy in a way that their European cousins were not.
The agreed solution was to graft the resistant American roots on to the European vines, a practice that still happens to this very day. Whilst some smaller walled or blocked off vineyards managed to escape the Phylloxera blight, virtually all of your wine wherever it comes from is based on an American rootstock. Even the strict quarantine laws of Australia and New Zealand couldn’t keep it out.
The wine world is clearly split by pre and post Phylloxera wine and it’s tempting to wonder if these different roots make a difference to what we taste in the glass. Those lucky enough to buy older vintages at auction say that you can taste it but sceptics use the analogy that, whilst you can cut the legs off a person, the truth of what they think and feel comes from their heart.
Most of us will never know, but your best way of discovering is to drink the wines of Chile. With the Atacama Desert to the north, the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the south and west, Phylloxera never managed to travel there and their vines remain un-grafted.
August 2017 – Cork vs. Screw cap
To cork or not to cork, that is the question.
The bottle closure may seem an indiscriminate means to an end, merely a way of keeping bits from falling in to the bottle or stopping the air turning the wine to vinegar, but the last 20 years have seen screw caps gaining in popularity as a simple and reliable seal. Cork has been dethroned as the de facto king of wine closures.
In its heyday the cork seal was a revolution to the wine industry, replacing the humble oil soaked rag. Along with advances in glass production giving sturdier bottles available in mass volume, it was the birth of wine as we know it today, now able to survive longer than a few months at a time.
In the mid-1970s both trade and customers started to complain that more and more wines were developing damp and musky characteristics. Full diagnosis was a long way off but cork got the blame, giving rise to the condition known as ‘corked’ wine.
Sometimes mistakenly interpreted as bits of cork splitting in to the bottle during the opening process, ‘corked’ wine actually refers to spoiling chemical compounds that survive the boiling process required to make a cork ready for use. For the first time in several hundred years it was time to look for an alternative.
So, why persevere with cork?
Cork branding was originally used when a wine was chateau bottled; a quality seal that what you were drinking had not been watered down or adulterated in any way. The popping of a cork is the soundtrack of a celebration, but with screw cap there is no such majesty – you simply twist and go.
Part of the problem is that cork has been a key closure for centuries, and no one loves wine history and tradition more than the French who have been extremely resistant towards alternative closures. For many, France is wine and wine is France, so if they’re not budging then neither are they.
Others in support of cork are the Portuguese where there is a whole industry surrounding its production. Requiring the warm-but-wet growing conditions perfectly provided by the Atlantic they have 34% of the world’s cork forest and produce over 50% of the world’s cork needs.
The screw cap was pioneered and remains extremely popular in Australia and New Zealand where 80% and 95% (respectively) of their wines utilise the closure. Their clean and fruity wines were among the first to expose the issue of cork taint and, free from the ties of tradition, were at the forefront of finding an alternative.
In its favour, screw cap production is a lot easier than the labour intensive bark stripping of the Quercus suber tree and costs half as much to make. The sterile seal also has no chance of bringing in any foreign compounds.
First used for wine in the early 1960s, the ‘unknown’ prevented a wholesale shift to screw cap, specifically the notion that wine could age as gracefully as it could under cork. Subsequent trials have shown no discernible differences and screw cap can in fact keep a wine fresher in youth. As such it remains a stalwart of cheaper wines or those meant to be drunk in the next few years.
It’s extremely rare that anyone would choose to buy or drink a wine due to the way it was sealed, but for me the one big benefit of screw cap is that when you are out and about without a corkscrew, you can still get at the good stuff.
July 2017 – Visit An English Vineyard
As summer approaches and thoughts turn to al fresco eating and drinking, the warmer months are a wonderful time to visit a UK vineyard. If you’re already partial to a glass of wine it really helps to bring the journey from grape to glass alive, but if you’re just getting interested in the subject there’s no better way to get hooked!
The first UK vineyards date back to the mid-1980s and were at best viewed as experimental and not expected to make a big impact. It’s only since the turn of the century that English wine has really come of age and able to compete on the world stage where they now win award after award, year after year.
So, what has changed?
The south-eastern coastline of England broke free of France and mainland Europe during the middle stone age, but it’s worth remembering that we still share the same sub-soils. In geological terms there isn’t actually much difference between us and the much-revered northern French wine regions of Champagne and Burgundy.
But grapes, like any other fruit, have certain minimum requirements to grow successfully and this includes access to both heat and light. At 51° latitude the southern part of the UK has what was traditionally considered a marginal climate, laying just outside of the perfect conditions for grape growing (30-50°C).
Average UK temperatures have been nudging up just a small amount each year and, when combined with the significant strides forward in wine production technology, we’re now getting riper fruit and of better quality too.
There’s now something like 130 vineyards in the UK, including (a fairly unsuccessful) one as far north as Scotland. It’s early days but it may well be worth saving your pennies and buying up any land for sale in the midlands, just in case!
Not all vineyards are geared up for hosting tastings and tours (you can find a comprehensive list at http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk) but, in a whistle-stop tour across the counties, here’s my run-down of ones to try.
Camel Valley (Cornwall, visits April to Sept, starting at £8.50 per person). Cornwall’s largest vineyard and another multi award winner. Beat Champagnes Bollinger and Roederer to win ‘Best International Sparkling Wine’ in 2010.
Ridgeview (East Sussex, April to Sept, from £15pp). Nestled within the picturesque setting of the South Downs national park, Ridgeview are one of two official suppliers of sparkling wine to 10 Downing Street.
Chapel Down (Kent, May to Oct, from £10pp). With a brand new state-of-the-art tasting room and wine bar, this producer has just had one of their wines listed as a ‘Star Buy’ by The Times newspaper.
Brightwell (Oxfordshire, Fri-Sun in season, or by appointment). Not too much in the way of visitor facilities, but one of the few vineyards that allows you to help pick the grapes at harvest time (October), which I have done on several occasions.
Denbies (Surrey, March to Oct, from £7.50pp). The highlight is a wonderful 50-minute train ride up to the top of the vineyards to enjoy a glass of something sparkling whilst overlooking the spectacular views of the vines and nearby Box Hill.
All wine is by nature a limited edition product, but it’s worth noting that many of our producers make just a few thousand bottles of each wine each year, so when you drink one you are part of an experience that is truly rare and special. Celebrate and enjoy.
June 2017 – Wine Tasting Evening
Whenever colleagues at work need a bit of morale boosting I always offer to put on a wine tasting evening for them. It’s well known that a bit of alcohol can oil the wheels in social situations, and the event is interactive, exciting and usually very interesting.
Organising your own is easier than it might sound and, with a bit of planning, can cost as little as £10 per person. A bargain for a full and fun night!
Tip # 1 – Ask each guest to bring an assigned bottle of wine
Your overall tasting night would ideally take the form of several mini tastings, with each consisting of 3 or 4 different wines of one particular theme. So, if there are 9 of you attending, that’s 3 mini tastings of 3 bottles.
A theme can be anything that you want, such as comparing the red wines from one country, a particular grape variety produced in 3 different countries, or 3 different brands of the same style of wine.
Work out what themes you want to explore and ask each person to bring a related bottle, otherwise you may end up with 10 different bottles of ‘on-offer’ Sauvignon Blanc.
Tip #2 – Budget
In something of a humorous gesture, a friend once bought a £3 Tetra Pak carton of Rioja to a tasting evening. He was surprised that, by the end of the night, the £3 Rioja had been tasted, then decanted and tasted again, and also tried in various wine glasses ranging from stemless to Riedel.
A tasting isn’t about expensive wine, but more to contrast and compare the differences between each of them. To ensure everyone spends fairly and that any comparisons are across wines of a broadly similar quality, set an appropriate budget for each bottle purchased. A nice round figure is £10.
Tip #3 – Glassware and props
At this point you may be thinking, hang on, 3 glasses per person multiplied by 9 people equals more glasses than I have at home. The good news is that high street merchants like Majestic, and pretty much all of the major supermarkets offer free glass loan (with a fee only payable if any glasses get broken).
In terms of props, white A4 paper is useful as a table/place mat for each guest. The plain white surface also allows you to clearly contrast the colour and appearance of each wine against it.
If you have an atlas or map of the world handy, or can make one viewable on a device, it can help people understand why a wine tastes the way it does. For example, tasting ripe fruit flavours in a wine produced in a warm climate versus leaner fruit from a cooler climate country.
Tip #4 – Food and Water
It makes good sense to lay on a few light bites to soak up the alcohol, and this can be as simple as breadsticks and crisps. If you want to add a further dimension to your night and attempt some food and wine matching you can be more adventurous and lay on some cheeses and meats.
If the food is to be more of a focus you can once again spread the cost and allocate a particular item to each guest, adjusting down the amount spent on the wine accordingly.
Jugs of water are also a good idea, not least for keeping you hydrated, but also to rinse out glasses and cleanse your palate between wines.
Tip #5 – Have fun!
The most important tip of all. If you can’t taste the difference between any of the wines (which may happen towards the end of the night if you’re finishing off the bottles), it doesn’t matter at all, just have fun!
May 2017 – Trading Up In Price
The triggering of Brexit has finally begun and the implications on the pound, the markets and our trade deals are all still unknown quantities. With the majority of our favourite wines coming from within Europe there will undoubtedly be some impact on pricing.
Several years of austerity have already made us tighten our belts and become increasingly price-conscious, so it may seem odd if I suggest that you should perhaps want to pay more for a bottle of wine.
No, I don’t mean arbitrarily handing over more money than you need to the cashier and, with care-free flair, telling them they can “keep the change”, but in much the way that the craft movement has thrown open the beer market and moved many people away from larger mass produced brands, people are increasingly aware that sometimes paying slightly more can mean a lot extra in terms of quality.
Quick question: When you buy a bottle of wine, how much of that cost actually goes towards the quality of what you are drinking? 100%, 50%, 10%?
If you don’t know, read on!
A bottle of wine costing £5.39
£5.39 is a fairly specific amount, but that’s the average cost for a bottle of wine in the UK*. The first slice of the bottle price goes to the retailer who would expect to make something like 22-25% of the value as their profit. The next big slice of the pie goes to the government who will take a fixed amount of excise duty (currently £2.16) as well as VAT at 17.5%.
Once you factor in the packaging costs (labels, corks/screwcaps) and logistics of getting the bottle on to the shelves in the first place, the amount left spent on the actual quality of the wine is a mere 60p.
Yes, that’s right, just 11% of the bottle price goes on the actual wine whilst the government take nearly 60% of your money for themselves. Boo!
A bottle of wine costing £7.50
If you trade up slightly to a £7.50 bottle of wine, what do you get for your extra £2.11?
Well the good news is that most of it goes on the wine itself. As the packaging and logistics costs are exactly the same regardless of the wine inside, and the fixed excise duty doesn’t change, the only percentage increases are the extra VAT and retailer margin.
What this means is that now you are actually paying £1.50 on the contents of the bottle, so well on the way to three times the quality for not much extra cost.
The extra money spent on wine quality allows the winemaker to shun bulk production methods (which can see stalks, vine canes and even insects go in to the vats) and be more selective about what grapes they include. In the long term it can lead to them buying better equipment to produce and mature their wines.
Excluding prestige brands, which can cost fifty times the price and not be fifty times the quality, the good news is that this carries on up to scale. If you’re feeling flush and spending £20 on a bottle of wine, you’re still paying the fixed excise duty and packing/logistics costs and, consequently, a lot more for the contents of the bottle.
Note: Of course it is absolutely possible to find £5 bottles of wine that shine for the price, and sometimes they just need rooting out. Head on over to my website vinesight.me if you want some help locating one.
* Source: Bibendum
April 2017 – Food & Wine Matching
Knowing that I love my wine it’s perhaps no surprise that my dining companions invariably ask me to choose the bottle when we go to a restaurant. In many chain establishments or in pubs, when perhaps there are only a handful of different bottles available, it is good to know that a wine buyer somewhere along the way has taken all of the hard work out by only choosing wines that will pair well with their food offerings.
If you’re going somewhere that offers a greater range or if you are preparing a special meal at home and want to go the extra mile, it’s very true that you can become sufficiently over-whelmed by all of the variety and begin to panic.
Like anything though, there are numerous tricks and tips you can use to get the right wine for your food, and certainly for you to get in the right broad category.
If you follow the below tips there’s a good chance you will probably enjoy your meal more, and it may inspire you to try out new and exciting combinations. Above all, it may just mean you look a bit fancy in front of your friends!
Tip #1 – What grows together goes together
Even if you’re not too hot on your geography this is nice easy way to make a good match. When just dipping your toe in to the world of wine it can sometimes look like anything grows everywhere, but there is a pattern.
The grape varieties that survive and thrive are there for a reason and so, if you are ordering Italian food, invariably a bottle of Italian wine will match best. Great swathes of the Mediterranean have a culture of wine being present at the dining table, and the style of the wine has developed to specifically blend and compliment the food in advance.
Tip #2 – The colour code
So you’ve got the right country for your dish, but which wine do you go for: red, white or rosé?
Even just the colour of a wine can give you hints as to what it will pair best with it. At the simplest level this can be matching a white wine with lighter coloured foods such as fish and pasta, red wines will go well with darker dishes such as meatballs or steak, and rosé is good with salmon or cut meat such as prosciutto.
Tip #3 – How much do you weigh?
No this isn’t a personal question, but more about the weight of the dish you are ordering. I’m going to expand on my above tip to ensure you are matching your wine to the overall weight of your dish as opposed to its main ingredient.
The oft repeated myth that fish pairs with white wine and meat dishes pair only with red can easily be turned on its head by the style of the dish. For example, if you are ordering a well grilled fish, or a meat dish with a creamy mushroom sauce, the opposite of which wine is best is actually true.
Think about the overall weight of the meal and then balance it with the weight of the wine you eventually order. Along the same lines, the sweetness of the wine needs to match the sweetness of the foods, so when heading for the dessert menu, your standard dry wines will be easily over-powered and you’ll need to head for a specifically labelled sweet wine.
By using the tips above you are 90% of the way to choosing the right wine for your food but, like anything, there is a whole level of detail you can immerse yourself in, such as the specific flavours that each particular grape variety will add.
The last thing I will say though is that, in most cases, the best wine that will go with the food you are eating is the bottle you are drinking at the time.