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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Talking Big Brands and Independent Merchants

For my regular Flavour spot on Cambridge 105, we alternate Wine of The Month recommendations with a more general chat on aspects of wine. For this programme, I talked with the show's host, Alan Alder, about Big Brands and Cambridge's Independent Merchants:

AA: So, we've talked before about a "taste memory" and you've made the observation that some people just try a wine and simply either like it or don't.

TL: Yes, that's essentially the difference between wine enthusiasts and casual drinkers.

AA: and do you think there's perhaps a third category of people who might perhaps like to drink better wine, but don't want to become wine-geeks.

TL: Yes, I certainly meet a lot of people who like the idea of trying better wines, but perhaps aren't sure where to start.

AA: Do you think these are the sorts of people who out of caution, go for Big Brands at the supermarket and having found something they like, don't go for anything else ?

TL: Well, I think it's rather sad, albeit understandable, if they do, because there's so much more to wine than Big Brands.

We live in a world where reliability and standardisation have brought us huge benefits - my car starts every morning when I put the keys in because it's a mass-produced model.

But wine is rather different - it's an agricultural product, a product of the land. It's not Coca-Cola and, to me, it should not try to be. The great things about Coke, that it's cheap, easily available and always reliable are not what wine should aspire to.

Rather, the interesting thing about wine is that it's always slightly different - from year to year, region to region, and even from vineyard to vineyard.

AA: that sounds like quite a lot to take in; where do you start ?

TL: well, as we discussed previously, there are certain classic styles - Bordeaux, Rioja, Champagne - that we can use as reference points; these should each have a certain typicity, a certain recognisable style.

AA: more of a general "House Style" than a Coke-type standardisation ?

TL: exactly, more of a general family resemblance than a carbon copy, we could say.

AA: that's interesting, because it seems in your mind, the idea of a Big Brand wine goes against everything you find interesting about wine.

TL: I'm afraid it does; these are blended, standardised wines with no sense of place or of individuality. Now, that's not to say they may not be well-enough made as a wine. Taken individually, they might be quite pleasant to drink. But they are clones rather than individuals.

AA: So what if someone wants to try some wines with more of this individuality. Where would they start ?

TL: well, the first place to start is with an acceptance that if you go for a bit more individuality, the wines will taste different. Rather obvious, but if you genuinely want consistency in a wine, supermarket big brands probably are right for you.

But if you want a bit more variety, the best place to go would be one of our local independents in Cambridge: Cambridge Wine Merchants have four branches, Bacchanalia has two, Noel Young is in Trumpington and Joseph Barnes is in Saffron Walden.

Perhaps the best place to start is with something similar to what you normally buy, but costing a bit more - I'm afraid that individuality, subtlety and a sense of place does cost a few more pennies.

AA: Do you think people might be put off by the idea of going to an independent if they've historically always bought at supermarket ?

TL: I think that's understandable; supermarkets aisles are anonymous places where it's easy to browse without anyone potentially exposing your lack of knowledge.

By contrast, a wine merchant will hopefully want to help you and will ask a few questions in order to do so.

AA: What sort of things ?

TL: I suppose it depends how much information you give them to start off with.

The things I'd suggest you'd want to know are:

- budget; how much are you looking to spend. Generalist merchants don't generally have anything below about £6, maybe £8 - so don't go in with a price point of under a fiver in your head. That said, I think it's perfectly acceptable to say "I'm not looking to spend a lot of money and (say) £7 really is my upper limit".

- next is colour: red, white or rose (and also sweet or fizzy, too)

- then we move on to occasion; essentially with food (and if so what), or just casual drinking

AA: so we've narrowed it down quite a lot now and we haven't even begun to talk about countries or grapes.

TL: that's right; at this point you might pretty much have your wine sorted. If your budget is £7 for a wine to have with a roast beef Sunday lunch, a merchant might suggest a basic Rioja, for example.

AA: You mentioned earlier not straying too far from the usual initially.

TL: that's true; if you normally drink Australian wines, for example, I would definitely mention that as these are generally a bit riper and more fruit-forward than European wines.

AA: what about mentioning grape varieties ?

TL: Well to me, the grape reflects its place of origin - and moreover grapes need specific conditions to thrive, so the place generally defines the grapes; Bordeaux is mostly Cabernet Sauvignin and Merlot, Burgundy is Pinot Noir, for example.

AA: that's quite a traditionalist view, isn't it ? Often wines are labelled mainly by grape variety.

TL: That's true, it probably is; the grape has its own character of course and it expresses the character of its origins. So it's a bit of both. Rather like a great line from a film, it becomes hard to separate out the line, from the way the actor that delivers it or the context of the film. So, the grape variety, the sense of place and the way the wine is made are all overlaid and part of the whole.

AA: And what about varieties – are there any general rules we can apply ?

TL: well yes, grapes do have their own character, but often regions express it in a different way – New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon is very different from Loire Sauvignon in France, for example.

So it’s hard to generalise, but certain grapes are more widely-grown and reliable than others – Chardonnay and Sauvignon for whites; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (or Shiraz) for reds.

Chardonnay is a highly-versatile grape and comes in a whole range of styles from steely Chablis, to oaky New World, so don’t expect every Chardonnay to taste the same.

Pinot Noir is perhaps the most mercurial of the classic grapes – and often the most expensive – so whilst it’s many wine lovers favourite, it’s not always the best place to start.

AA: so how would you sum up this discussion ?

TL: I suppose what we are saying is, for any novice enthusiasts out there who want to expand their horizons a little, get to one of the Cambridge independents - Cambridge Wine Merchants, Noel Young, Bacchanalia or Joseph Barnes Wines - and ask for some advice.

But before you go, set a budget, think about the wine drinking occasion and be able to describe what you normally drink - in general terms; New Zealand reds, oaky whites, that sort of thing.

AA: any other advice ?

TL: well a couple of good questions to have up your sleeve are:

- what do you think of this wine ? The merchant should have tried it and have an opinion.
- is this one popular ? Is it a big seller ? Obviously, the more popular a wine is, the more chance there is that it will be something you like.


Cambridge 105 - website, twitter
Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.co.uk/
Joseph Barnes Wines - http://www.josephbarneswines.com/
Noel Young Wines - http://www.nywines.co.uk/

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