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Sunday, 31 January 2021

Porta Seis 2019 - The Co-op

An easy-drinking Portuguese red from The Co-op

There are some countries that you know routinely make good wines but somehow just don't know where to start or how to sum up the country.

New Zealand has Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc as its signature style (even though it does plenty of others), Chile has Carménère, Argentina has Malbec and so on.

You would, of course, be massively missing out on what these countries have to offer if that's all you knew of them, but as a starting point, for something typical and reliable to try, these are all a good place to start.

Portugal is one of those countries where it's harder to point to a particular wine, region or style as a gateway to the country. Yes, there's port and vinho verde and they are very good indeed, but they are a little ... well, niche or at least not especially versatile; port is strong and sweet, vinho verde is very light.

Despite being a small country, Portugal has varied terroirs, from Atlantic to continental, and numerous indigenous grape varieties. This complexity and variety, that is fascinating for the enthusiast, can prove daunting for the novice. You are unlikely to find a Portuguese Cab or Sauvignon Blanc, even if there are plenty of interesting Crisp Whites and Big Reds.

In an attempt to make their wines more recognisable, the Portuguese renamed the Estremadura region (not the same as Spain's similar sounding Extremadura) to Lisboa. It is a sizeable region surrounding the capital with several sub-regions.

In practice, all you need to know about this wine is that it's a well-made fruity red with plenty of ripeness.

It's also got a cute cartoon label with a picture of a distinctive Lisbon tram and a guy grilling sardines on a barbecue.

You could try learning the names of the grapes if you want (Tinta Roriz, Castelão and Touriga Nacional), but in practice, you should just treat this as a "house wine" or easy quaffer.

The other thing to know about this wine is that it almost broke one retailer's website after Susie Barrie MW recommended the wine on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen in August 2015. Within hours of the show airing, the wine had sold out, clocking up orders for a further 30,000 bottles over the rest of the weekend.

Sometimes, that can be all it takes.

Porta 6, 2019, Lisbon (£8, The Co-op) ripe forest fruits, eucalyptus, sweet spices and woodsy undergrowth; jammy blackcurrant fruit, pencil shavings; plush and viscose with a supple texture; long with good underpinnings.

Well made and thoroughly enjoyable.

Match with pepperoni pizza, barbecue sausages or burger and chips.

On special offer at the Co-op; reduced from £8 to £7 February 3rd to 23rd inclusive.


Also recommended by Olly Smith who makes it a Wine of the week: Porta Seis Red 2018 - Olly Smith

Also available at Majestic at the slighter higher price of £9.49 / £8.49 Mix Six: Porta 6 2018, Lisbon - Majestic Wine

Sunday, 24 January 2021

South Africa's Journey's End

Four wines from South Africa's Journey's End

The story of South Africa's Journey's End starts with Roger Gabb in the 1980s. Based in Shropshire, he had worked on the drinks trade for some time when he founded Western Wines which he grew and eventually sold for £135m.

Seeing the end of apartheid and the potential for high-quality South African wines, he bought Journey's End. He describes it as "an estate with a house and vineyard which, although I am chairman, operates under [son] Rollo’s direction and is now making extremely good wine sold all over the world."

South Africa has the oldest soils on the planet and it has no problem with ripeness, the challenge is more about preserving acidity and freshness.

Journey’s End is situated just 6km from the coast at the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.in the Stellenbosch Appellation in the Western Cape.

With views across False Bay to the Cape of Good Hope, the south-eastern sea winds and proximity of the Schaabenberg mountain makes the area much cooler and give the wines a hint of salinity.

The company's website says: located in Stellenbosch, with vineyards adjacent to Vergelegen and Morgenster, Journey’s End is right at the heart of one of the cape’s most exciting terroirs. Our coastal location benefits from cooling winds coming off the Atlantic ocean, helping to create wines with great elegance and natural acidity. Following a belief that ‘Less is More’.

Bought and replanted by the Gabb family in 1996, the last ten years have seen the estate grow into one of the most talked about in the region. The wines have won accolades and medals at wine competitions around the world ever since the maiden vintages.

Here in the cellar we combine traditional winemaking methods, modern technology and a degree of experimentation to produce dynamic fruit driven wines with great elegance and complexity. The philosophy in both the vineyards and cellar follows a minimum intervention approach to ensure the quality of the fruit shines through.

We are 100% committed to producing top quality single vineyard and appellation wines that are intricate, integrated and true to our terroir and the climatic benefits of the region.

A note on aeration: I found all of these wines improved with extensive aeration. Not just more opened-up on the second day, but fundamentally more interesting over three days later with still somewhere to go.

Perhaps it's partly my palate and partly the squeaky clean, low-oxygen winemaking from high quality fruit, but these wines all feel like they will repay some cellaring and reveal greater underlying complexities that do not necessarily show beyond the ripe fruit on first opening.

They all drink nicely out of the bottle, but several hours in the decanter will reveal something more complex and nuanced.

Journeys End Weather Station Sauvignon Blanc (£14, independents) expressive and aromatic with lemongrass, white pepper, lychees, guava, passionfruit and ripe tropical fruits; fresh and citrussy with lime marmalade and a saline-mineral core.


Journeys End Destination Chardonnay (£23, independents) Meursault-style Chardonnay; toasty lemon meringue and lime marmalade, white stone fruits, bitter lemon and grapefruit with honeysuckle; buttery, creamy-leesy oatmeal and toasty vanilla spice; saline minerality.

Improves for several days after opening; will repay cellaring.

Very Good.

Journeys End Huntsman Shiraz Mourvedre Viognier 2018 (£10, independents) fresh and juicy with bramble fruits and black cherries; more Beaujolais than Rhône in style; fruity with spice and herbaceous eucalyptus and good underpinnings. Well-made.

Improves with aeration; can also be served lightly chilled.


Journeys End Single Vineyard Merlot 2015 (£15, independents) single vineyard wine; earthy, forest fruits and cherries with spicy vanilla and white pepper; dark forest berries, blackcurrants and raspberries with sweet violet blossoms and spicy oak, hints of eucalyptus. Very adept and harmonious.

Improves with aeration.



Saturday, 23 January 2021

Dinner With Mark Poynton

A bespoke 4-course dinner from Mark Poynton of MJP@TheShepherds - and some matching wines

The combination of a "significant birthday" and yet another lockdown meant that the celebrations would have to be confined to something at home.

Looking for a way to make it memorable, I took up Mark Poynton's offer of a bespoke four-course meal.

Mark is chef patron of MJP@TheShepherds in Fen Ditton, just outside Cambridge, and formerly of Michelin-starred Alimentum.

Mark, who has appeared on Great British Menu, started his career aged 15 in Chester; after several quick promotions, he moved to Cambridge to work under Daniel Clifford for seven years at the two Michelin-starred Midsummer House. 

He then moved to Alimentum as Head Chef, became Chef Patron within a year and went on to gain a Michelin star and three AA rosettes.

Mark sent me a suggested menu and outlined the sorts of wines that would go with them.

The food needed little more than assembling or warming up and came with full instructions.

As to the wines, I picked out a few highlights of recent months and lined them up; this was not a time to be experimenting with anything new or unusual.


Marks and Spencer Very Rare Dry Oloroso Sherry made by Lustau, this is a complex and warming yet bone dry Oloroso; rich and intense with spiced Christmas cake prunes, toasted hazelnuts and exotic citrus peel.

Colesel 'Cartizze Dry' Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG despite the name, a sweeter style of Prosecco from Cartizze, Prosecco's top region. Golden sandy yellow, delicate, fresh and elegant with a creamy mousse and aromas of ripe stone fruit; full and off-dry with white-flesh fruit and a mineral persistence. Very deft and precise.


MJP treacle and ale sourdough loaf, whipped butter
Cauliflower soup, pickled cucumber and smoked salmon, sourdough croutons

Very easy to make; just warm the soup and add the garnishes; serve with the bread and butter.

Wine match:

Von Kesselstatt Riesling Kabinett 2014 a light Mosel Riesling with plenty of age and evolution, at 8.5% it is generally too light for food, but went perfectly with a creamy soup. Complex, evolved nose of beeswax, old leather and diesel with yellow stone fruits, honeysuckle and citrussy sherbet with lively acidity and a zippy finish.


Red wine and oxtail suet pudding, creamed potato and glazed carrots.

Again, easy to make, just warm up the pudding and carrots in the oven, the mash in the microwave and the gravy (very rich) in the pan.

Wine match:

Red - as big as you like, were Mark's instructions, so there was only one contender here.

Domaine de Fontbonau Cotes-du-Rhone 2012 leather, mushrooms and sous bois with ripe berries, cool mint and complex, well-integrated, oaky vanilla spice; ripe yet savoury, intense and supple with very fine tannins.

Cheese course

Wensleydale and ale rarebit on sourdough crumpet, with apple and ale chutney.

A little bit more assembly work required here but still very straightforward; toast the crumpets, spread on chutney, then squeeze over the cheese before grilling until golden

Wine match: port. Tawny port is generally the best match for cheese, but I opted for a mature ruby.

Barao de Vilar, Lagarada Ruby Port lifted, dried red and black fruits, minty eucalyptus and aromatic roasted spices; fresh, supple, complex, substantial and harmonious. Being a bin-end, there is now a little bricking of the colour, the flavours are more evolved and the tannins are mellowing.


Apple tarte tatin, calvados cream

Warm the tarte, serve with the cream.

A thing of beauty, the tarte was a single piece of peeled apple, wrapped up and cooked, as Mark's pictures show:

Wine match: Sauternes

Sauternes and tarte tatin is a classic match, so this was an easy choice.

Tesco Finest* Sauternes, 2015 sweet and luscious with evolved flavours of beeswax, honey, dried apricots, Seville orange marmalade, baked fruits with a citrussy refreshing finish; complex and concentrated.


The meal was very easy to prepare and serve and good value for both quality and quantity. It was delivered during the day all packed up with a full set of instructions.

What I realised from serving at home is just how much attention to detail goes into great restaurant service:

- ensuring everything (including crockery) is all at the right temperature at the right time
- getting the timing between courses just right
- getting just the right proportions of sauces so that there is plenty but not too much
- serving the right amount of several different wines with the food on a multi-course meal

Delivered meals from MJP@TheShepherds are  individually priced with 2 courses for £15, or 3 courses for a bargain £18.50 - that's probably cheaper than your Chinese takeaway from those other Delivery people!

The food will keep in the refrigerator for up to four days, and is also freezable. Instructions are provided with your order. There is an optional cheese course for an additional £6 per person if you wish.

Orders can be placed through the website: Home - Mark J Poynton (mjprestaurant.com)

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Artesano de Argento organic Fairtrade Malbec 2019

An organic Malbec from Argentina via Tesco

Artesano de Argento organic Fairtrade Malbec was launched in the UK late last year and is the second wine from the Artesano de Argento range (you can read about the first here).

Argento is the largest organic wine producer in Mendoza  with over 300 hectares of organic vineyards and plans to raise this to over 400 in 2021.

Malbec originated in France where it is also known as Côt; it was once a major grape in Bordeaux until it was replaced by the more reliable Merlot in the 1950s.

It has now become Argentina's signature red grape; it is thin-skinned and needs both sunshine and heat (both of which Argentina has in abundance) to ripen. Main characteristics are deep color, ample tannins and plummy flavours.

With plenty of acidity and tannin, Malbec is a great match for red meat, but if Argentine steaks are not your thing, or if you are doing Veganuary, Bodega Argento has teamed up with supergoldenbakes.com to create delicious vegan recipes to match their Artesano de Argento range (which are vegan, organic and Fairtrade).

The recipes have been developed by supergoldenbakes’ Lucy Parissi, as vegan takes on classic winter favourites - perfect for hearty suppers or cosy lunches.

Vegan Shepherd’s Pie, served with Artesano de Argento organic Fairtrade Malbec 2019

This vegan Shepherd’s Pie is a plant-based twist on the British classic. A rich jackfruit ragu, topped with mashed potatoes and baked until irresistibly golden. Simply the best for a comforting dinner and best enjoyed lingering over a glass of smooth, silky red.’, comments author Lucy Parissi. 

‘The Artesano de Argento Malbec is a great match for this dish and I love its vegan, organic and Fairtrade credentials too.’ Artesano de Argento organic Fairtrade Malbec 2019 is a silky, elegant Argentinian Malbec, bursting with dark cherries, plums and a hint of violet. It is a perfect match for stews and hearty dishes but can equally be enjoyed on its own.

Artesano de Argento organic Fairtrade Malbec 2019 (£10, Tesco online and selected stores) ripe black fruits, cassis and pastilles, with herbs and spice; supple texture, fresh, inky and vibrant with harmonious, well-integrated tannins and good underpinnings.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Copper Crew - The Red

A red wine in a can from Copper Crew

Last year, I reviewed two canned wines from newly-formed Copper Crew, a white and a rosé, both from South Africa and both perfectly drinkable wines in their own right.

If wine in a bottle is a sit-down meal, canned wine is the equivalent of a take-away; it's all about the convenience and spontaneity and Copper Crew drinkers have made an art form of taking the wines to instagrammable locations:

The last picture here is by Manchester-based PR Francesca Gaffey (also my inaugural dnkrbywine twitter bottleswapee), overlooking the Peak District hills where I used to cycle at weekends as a teenager.

Copper Crew named their business after the fact that they are all gingers, so it's slightly ironic that they left their red wine until last.

There are just three of them, a winemaker, a management consultant and an ex-academic turned promotional guy. Spotting a gap in the market, they launched in early 2020 - just before the pandemic and lockdown.

The wines are pitched at the pleasant-and-interesting level; this is the sweet spot for on-the-go drinking. They are good enough that you will want to go back for more after the first can, but not so refined that you need to serve them in just the right shape of drinking glass to appreciate all the nuances.

Where I think they've got everything right is that there is plenty of easy-drinking South African fruit, but also a balanced freshness and enough substance to match them with on-the-go snacks and picnic foods.

I found the rosé to be the most interesting of the range with some complexity and sophistication. The white has a personality, but is marginally less compelling. The red is equally well-made and as pleasantly unassuming as an accountant eager for a promotion at a corporate dinner.

The Copper Crew Merlot 2019 (25cl can) ripe red fruits, plums, cherries and strawberries and a touch of spice; plush with fine-grained tannins and some persistence. Technically well-made and fault free.

Thoroughly enjoyable.

Drinks nicely on its own straight from the can, match with picnic foods such as quiche, cold cuts and pork pies.

Postscript: resampled a few months later as part of a tasting, I find it has dramatically improved, becoming more open and interesting.

As all three founders of the company are on the call, including the winemaker, I ask about this. Sam, on the line from South Africa, tells me the wine is canned with a small amount of oxygen as it is designed to be consumed young and, unlike bottles, cans are hermetically sealed.

However, his view is that the change is due not so much the effects of the oxygen as just the different  constituent parts of the wine all settling down together over time.

Friday, 8 January 2021

The CWB Lidl Beaujolais-Off

Two Beaujolais from Lidl

Beaujolais is one of my favourite wines; I rather prefer it to red Burgundy, from just up the road, which costs many times more.

Beaujolais is based at the southern end of Burgundy and grows mainly thin-skinned Gamay on schisty or sandy soils. The wines are fresh, juicy and light.

As you move up the Villages to the Crus, they gain complexity and substance.

Say Beaujolais and many people will automatically think of Nouveau, the overhyped, oversold, over here current-vintage wine released in the November after the harvest.

Away from this somewhat discredited style, top Beaujolais can be a serious wine with substance and aging potential. And all points in between.

Although Beaujolais has become unfashionable due to Nouveau shenanigans, it remains popular in nearby Switzerland. As a result, prices at the bottom tend to be relatively high (due to well-heeled demand) so the best price / quality value is to be found nearer the top, where it does not command the premiums of Burgundy.

The hierarchy is:

- Beaujolais

- Beaujolais-Villages

- Cru Beaujolais from a named village

Both wines here were bought on discount.

L'Escarpe Beaujolais 2018 (Lidl, £5.99 - £3.50 on special offer) soft red fruits of strawberry, red cherry and red plum with some spice and herbaceousness. Juicy, fresh and well made with nothing not to like.

Thoroughly pleasant, if a little straightforward.

Fresh enough for a winter aperitif, match with pizza, salamis or parma ham.

Juliénas Collin-Bourisset, 2018 (Lidl, £7.99 - £4 bin-end) there's an extra degree of alcohol and so much more going on here - more tension, and concentration; dark berry fruits, black cherries, elderberries and blueberries, florality and vibrant juiciness; complexity and firm-but-gentle tannins.


Match with toad-in-the-hole or roast chicken.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Chassenay d’Arce Vintage Champagnes

Two vintage Champagnes from Chassenay d’Arce - with something very unusual

The grapes

One of the first things I learnt about Champagne is that there are three Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Much later I learnt that Champagne actually permits a much wider range of varieties, including Pinots Blanc and Gris (which are clones or mutations of Pinot Noir).

The classic trio of Champagne grapes accounts for 99.7% of plantings, so you are unlikely to find anything else in a bottle of Champagne.

Chassenay d’Arce, however,  own a few blocks of Pinot Blanc; for the 2008 vintage, they blended a small amount of Pinot Blanc into their Champagne. In 2012, they made a 100% varietal vintage Pinot Blanc Champagne.

The House

Chassenay d’Arce was founded in in 1956 and is based in Ville-sur-Arce in the very South of the Champagne region. It covers 315 hectares and 12 villages along the Arce River in the Côte des Bar.

The House has grown from its five original founders to some 130 families with three generations of winemakers united by a self-declared spirit "of family, terroir and the high standards shared by our winemakers to ensure we produce only champagnes of the greatest quality."

Terroir and Technique

The Arce Valley is located at the southern end of Champagne and is shaped by a unique landscape alternating between vineyards and forests; it is also characterized by diverse varieties and integrated cultivation.

The soil is Kimmeridgian and was once covered by the sea. The climate is mild, the region is physically closer to Dijon in Burgundy than to Reims and this, the grapevines’ exposure and the soils of stony marl allow the fruit to be harvested at full maturity towards the end of summer.

The original operations endure with the same spirit of cooperation, solidarity and knowledge sharing; the winemakers use only their top grapes from the first pressing and all bottles are aged for a minimum of 36 months.

This attention to detail and commitment to quality creates a range of Champagnes with rich expression  great finesse and many awards.

2012 Pinot Blanc

Made from a few blocks of long-forgotten Pinot Blanc, this is a remarkable wine.

100% Pinot Blanc, vinification in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks with barrels for 6% of the wine. Non-malolactic fermentation for 19%, aged in bottle for 6 years on the lees. Extra brut dosage: 3 g/l, 12% 

Pale yellow with green and a lively mousse, expressive, fresh aromas with white, yellow and citrus fruit and floral and delicately toasted notes. Rounded and generous, with a full body and texture, saline minerality.

It is initially quite shy aromatically and still tightly wound, but there is a pure, concentrate and muscular core that gradually opens up with aeration. This wine is only just at the beginning of its drinking window and will repay extensive cellaring.

Very Good.

Drink as an aperitif or match with shellfish and raw fish.

Vintage Brut 2008

A refined and delicate blend from a fantastic year.

58% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier & 3% Pinot Blanc; vinification in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and in barrels for 2.5% of the wine. with partial malolactic fermentation. 

Aged in bottle for 10 years on the lees; Brut Dosage of 9 g/l, 12 % alcohol.

Bright pale yellow with green and fine, generous mousse; expressive, complex and fresh aromas of citrus, white and yellow fruit and white flowers, with brioche, toast, and some hazelnut. Delicate yet precise and taut with good structure and minerality; persistent, fresh and long finish.

This is a very pure and precise Champagne, still closed up even at over a decade; dense, concentrated and textured, it opens up with aeration and will repay extensive cellaring.

Very Good.

Drink as an aperitif ort match with amuses bouches or fish

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Laithwaites Sauvignon Blanc 2019


A Bordeaux Sauvignon from Laithwaites

Bordeaux is one of the great wine regions of the world; it is known most for its reds which are some of the most expensive in the world.

Bordeaux whites are generally made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon or a blend of both and come in two styles; crisp, fresh and modern or savoury and substantial.

This Laithwaites White Bordeaux is very much in the modern style - think zingy kiwi Sauvignon.

It is also, like so many Laithwaites wines, rather underwhelming yet overpriced for the quality.

It's not a bad wine, just somewhat half-hearted and mediocre. It adheres to Rory Sutherland's definition of a brand as being "a guarantee of non-crapness". It's typical and not unpleasant, that's about as much as you can say about it.

So who is this wine suitable for? If you don't mind paying a premium for a brand you've heard of and a wine that is not terrible, then it could be your thing.

It shows better when well-chilled.

Laithwaites Sauvignon Blanc 2019 Bordeaux (£11.99) expressive herbaceous aromatics and  blossom with grapefruit, citrus, green apple and white stone fruit; high acidity, light bodied, short finish.


Sunday, 3 January 2021

Chateau de France, Pessac-Léognan, 2015

A red Bordeaux from a good sub-region, a good year and a good winemaker

Terroir matters in Bordeaux

Vintage matters in Bordeaux.

Which of the two is more important, and the relative role of the winemaker, are all moot points.

If you have good terroir and a good vintage, then you have the makings of a great wine on your hands. Under these circumstances, the wine almost "makes itself"; the role of the winemaker is more about not interfering rather than any remedial action being needed.

The Vintage

Simply put, 2015 was an Excellent vintage and continued what Jancis Robinson has dubbed "the rule of five"; every vintage ending in a "5" or a "0" has been great, as reported here by British winemaker Gavin Quinney on her site.

Key quality factors from this vintage are the health of the vines generally, with no rot anywhere, as well as small, thick skinned berries produced resulting in good concentration and quality.

Gavin notes that many of the better red wines in 2015 are destined to be approachable at a younger age than other "rule of five" vintages, with depth, colour, flavour, complexity and freshness but the structure and the tannins being more supple.

Gavin also notes that there was quite a gap between different properties’ harvest dates compared with those of other top years; this was not an ’à la carte’ year in which the forecast was so good for days on end that you could pick and choose your picking days. Rather, in 2015, the weather in the middle of September 2015, and an uncertain forecast in early October, caused many growers a few anxious moments. 

The Terroir

Pessac-Léognan is a sub-region of Graves, named after its gravelly soils. Graves lies to the south of the Médoc on the left bank of the Garonne and just south of the city of Bordeaux.

As a region, Graves pre-dates the (now more prestigious) Médoc and was a favourite of the English during the 300 years that Aquitaine was under English rule from 1152 to 1453, with the Médoc only becoming a wine region after its marshes were drained by the Dutch in the seventeenth century.

Notable properties of  Pessac-Léognan include the oldest named property in Bordeaux, Château Pape Clément, founded by Pope Clement V in 1306 and Château Haut-Brion, the only First Growth outside the  Médoc.

The appellation of Pessac-Léognan was created in 1987 as a sub-region of Graves AOC and includes all the châteaux listed in the 1953/59 classification of Graves.

The Property

The Château de France estate was designed by Jean-Henri Lacoste in the 19th century. In 1971 Château de France was acquired by Bernard Thomassin and since 1996 has been advised by Michel Rolland and managed by Arnaud Thomassin.

The (Consultant) Winemaker

Insiders say of consultant winemaker Michel Rolland that he has less of a signature style and more of a signature approach; one that is very high risk / high return and looks for maximum phenolic ripeness in the grapes.

This requires much later picking which in marginal climates such as Bordeaux, brings significant risks as the risk as harvest may be spoilt by late rains - especially in a year with such varied and unpredictable conditions as 2015.

However, when done well, this results in wines that are both approachable at a younger age (which has not traditionally been the case for top Bordeaux) and have aging potential, for those who appreciate the complex and secondary flavours that can only develop with time.

The wine

A  60% Merlot blend with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 40% in new oak and the rest in one-year-old oak for 13 months; the Merlot brings a dominant freshness and flavours of cherries and coffee, the Cab blackcurrant and firmness

A deep red ruby with an intense nose of berries, cedar and toasty spice; blackcurrant, blueberry, plum and sour cherry fruit with coffee, liquorice, tobacco, pepper and complex, refined oaking; very fresh and mineral, dense and concentrated, structured and muscular with well-integrated perfectly-ripe tannins; very adept.

Drinks nicely from the bottle and will repay cellaring.

Very Good.

Match with rare steak or roast beef in youth, darker game such as venison when fully mature.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Why Life Is *Not* Too Short For Bad Wine

I rarely drink the same bottle of wine twice.

I don't mean that in any philosophical sense. I don't mean that wine is a dynamic, living thing and therefore no two bottles can be identical, given differences in production, bottling or storage.

I don't even mean that a single bottle changes over time, just like the river we can never step into twice.

No. I mean it quite literally that, as an (amateur) wine reviewer, I am often invited, to sample all sorts of different wines and it is rare that I am offered the same wine twice.

This suits my nature; I get bored easily and enjoy the unpredictability of constant variety. The more wines I try, the more other wines I can can compare them to. And comparing wine is where the fun is - for me, at least.

For me, wine tasting has always been as much an intellectual activity as a physiological one.

Building A Taste Memory

The name for this in wine education is building a taste memory; that is, learning and memorising what a wine should taste like given the grapes, region and wine-making style used. Blind tasters then apply this in reverse to make educated guesses about the wine they are attempting to identify. Is it pale enough for a Pinot? Is it oaked? Warm-climate or cool?

To my mind, blind tasting for its own sake is something of a party trick, and the MW exam rightly focuses more on candidates' reasoning than whether or not they guessed correctly.

Back in the world of assessing wine for its quality, rather than identity, I find judging a single wine in isolation to be more difficult than when comparing a number of wines.

Behavioural Science and Tasting

The reasons for this can be found in behavioural economics. Start with Daniel Kahneman's observation that thinking is to humans is as swimming to cats; we can do it, we just prefer not to.

As a result, when making decisions, such as whether a wine is good or not, we find it easier when presented with a small range of options. Relative decisions (preferences) are easier than binary absolutes. Good / better / best is a more straightforward assessment than good / not good.

Three is ideal here; the Romans knew this and often used the power of three. The very fact that we have good / better / best dates back to Roman times and has been preserved linguistically ever since.

No-one has quite established why we like threes, but it does seem as if three genuinely is the magic number.

This bias towards threes is known as "extremity aversion" (again, from Kahneman) and has been empirically proven; in simple terms, when faced with a choice of small vs medium vs large, we will tend to gravitate towards the "medium" option, regardless of the actual size of a "medium".

To our three S/M/L options, add in a new, larger choice, then remove the smallest and what happens? People will now gravitate to the formerly-large-now-labelled-as-medium option; we prefer the relativity of "medium" not the absoluteness of medium.

The Value of Pointless Choices

Dan Ariely demonstrates this point with his talk on the Pricing of the Economist magazine. It's worth watching the whole clip, but the TL:DR is that even a choice we don't want has a function, which is to help us decide what we do want.

This field of behavioural science is known as Choice Architecture; it is literally the science of how we make choices and how to make choosing easier for people. More formally, it is the design of different ways in which choices can be presented and the impact of that presentation on decision-making.

Tasting in isolation requires an assessment of the quality of the wine by reference to our taste memory of other wines. We compare the present sensations of tasting a real wine, one in a glass in front of us, against the historic memories of having tasted other wines previously and mentally comparing actual sensations to historic memories.

Do it enough times and the brain will build short cuts, but like physical exercise, these have to be developed and maintained.

This is why, I believe, tasting wine in small groups is the easiest way to make an assessment.

The Magic Number?

I find two is a good number for wines of the same style; do I prefer this Pinot or that Pinot? Is this oaky Chardonnay better than that oaky Chardonnay?

Two is slightly less helpful with wines of different colours or styles, say when comparing red Burgundy with white Burgundy. Yes you get a sense of the producer and you can compare each against the other, but you are also assessing each wine against its theoretical type from memory.

I find groups of three wines to be helpful when the wines are more diverse, but still relatively familiar and this is my most usual tasting routine. I open three bottles on a Friday evening and taste my way through them over the weekend to see how the develop with time, food and aeration.

Larger numbers are better for deeper dives, where differences are more nuanced. This can be logistically more difficult with whole bottles, especially where they are sparkling wines, but can be done and certainly repays the effort.

Larger numbers of smaller samples also work well for breadth; the entire range of one producer or a masterclass on a country, for example.

As a general rule, the smaller the size of the sample provided, the more effort needed for an assessment and therefore the more useful it is to have a tutored tasting to highlight nuances that might not be immediately noticeable on just a few sips. The flip-side of this is that while you get a detailed snapshot of the wine, there is less of a sense of what it is like to live with, what foods it matches with and how it develops once opened.  

The Role of Bad Wine

I have also noticed another phenomenon: palate acclimatisation / fatigue.

The more bottles I drink of particular wine that I drink over time, the more bored I get with that wine., regardless of its absolute level of quality. It happens with basic wines, which is fair enough, but is most upsetting when it happens with expensive wines; paying a lot of money for a wine but then not having the energy to appreciate it properly is, for me, one of life's great disappointments.

Once lockdown started, with no tastings to go to and no wines to be reviewed, I started buying wines in quantities that I have never done previously (for various reasons). And I found the second bottle of any particular wine bought as a case was never quite as interesting as the first - regardless of price. With palate boredom quickly setting in even for the more ambitious wines, perhaps especially for the more ambitious wines, I found I had to stash away the multiple bottles I had bought and keep as long a period as possible between trying the same wine again.

This distance of perspective sorted the problem and returning to a previously-sampled wine after months rather than weeks meant I could enjoy it almost as if tasting it for the first time again.

The reason for this phenomenon is that our brains need novelty of experience to be most receptive, as Tim Harford points out in this Financial Times article about the role of location in forming strong memories.

So, for me, the custom I have acquired of constantly trying out new wines on an ongoing basis means that each experience, each new wine sampled, is as memorable as it can be and not "just another bottle of x".

Viewed this way, not only is life not too short for bad wine, but bad wine is actually an essential part of our wine enjoyment.

Not So Much Bad Wine As Basic Wine

Now, let's not exaggerate here; no-one wants to drink faulty, vinegary plonk on a regular basis or suggests that that's a good thing. Rather, a mixed diet of pleasant and uncomplicated wines alongside the complex, nuanced and in every way world-class highlights the superiority of the good ones in such a way that we can appreciate them more than if we had to drink them all the time.

This is not a Romantic observation, albeit it has slightly Romantic overtones; rather it is based on the science of how we think and choose.

Those who focus on the liquid in the glass may find this approach at odds with the notion that a better wine is a better wine. Placing the wine at the centre of the observation is understandable but flawed. If a wine tastes better simply by being priced more expensively, then it is too simplistic to consider the (subjectively-assessed) quality of what is in the glass alone.

Moreover, wine scoring is merely the trading of subjective assessments around a consensus. A wine's score is not inherently provable, just as any one person's rating of anything (music, films, books) can never be proven to be right or wrong, it is merely a subjective opinion of preference. And if we insist on always coming to a consensus, in practice this allows no room for innovative, nonconformist dissenting voices and we stagnate.

Scoring a wine on points has always struck me as looking through the wrong end of the lens, albeit it has practical uses when done in certain ways.

More important than a wine's score is the subjective opinion of whether I like it. And each person has to go through that assessment for themselves; it is not for me or any other reviewer to tell the reader what she should like or to criticise him for preferring something else.

And yet I do not quite adhere to the iconoclastic, populist, "anything goes" philosophy of appreciation; the notion that the wisdom of crowds will always identify the best result (it does not, as it will exclude outliers, i.e. the greats and the terribles) or the idea that we don't need wine experts to tell us what to like.

This conundrum sits at the heart of the Willy Russell play Educating Rita; in becoming more educated, Rita finds herself having to become more of a conformist to views and values that undermine her natural inquisitive spontaneity. The paradox is that broader experience leads greater conformity of thought.

Yet if we are to have any sense of order, rather than complete anarchy, we need to have at least some agreement around parameters; balance, complexity and elegance are good things, finer tannins are better than rustic tannins. These things are generally agreed in wine-appreciation circles but are not objectively, provably correct (however much you may consider them fundamental), but merely a long and widely held consensus around preference.

Ultimately, there are no absolutes here; there is neither a free-for-all on assessments of quality, nor empirically provable, ironclad rules about what makes one wine better than another. Rather there are schools of thought (belief is perhaps more accurate) that we either go along with or oppose.

As I was taught doing whilst doing my essay subject options at degree level, having your own opinion is a good thing. Knowing how your opinion matches up against the academic consensus of thought on the issue is a better thing.

The role of education / criticism in wine appreciation, therefore, is to help us:

- broaden our experience

- establish the limits of what we like and don't like

- understand the consensus on quality (even as it changes and develops)

- verbalise, should we choose to do so, why we agree or disagree with established consensus 

This piece was inspired by a series of twitter conversations over the course of 2020 with:

- Felicity Carter

- Liz Gabay MW

- Meg Maker

- John Atkinson MW

- Andrew Neather writing for Tim Atkin

- Peter Pharos

- Richard Bampfield