A few more local wines drunk when in Bologna

This covers a few non-Lambrusco wines that we drank while staying in Bologna.  For Lambrusco, see my previous blog post.

Wine number one was actually not drunk in Bologna at all, but on a day trip to Parma, in Enoteca Fontana, a wine-bar-cum-trattoria that was absolutely rammed by locals on a Thursday lunch time. I am not sure we chose our wine and food wisely, but the place looked very promising, and I would happily return. The wine was Colli di Parma Rosso DOC, Amadei, and we got it for EUR 2 per glass.  As we all know (ahem) a Colli di Parma Rosso must be 60-75% Barbera, with most of the remainder being made up of Bonarda Piemontese and Croatina.  The colour was a deep purple.  I think there was a little residual sugar, but the acidity was high and the overall effect was dry.  I didn’t think the fruit quality was great, but what can you expect for that price?  I gave it ***.

Now for the first of 2 or 3 Sangiovese di Romagna wines.  This was  Scabi, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOC, Azienda Agricola San Valentino, 2012.  It is what was offered to us at a restaurant when it was clear we needed a red wine, and I later noticed that is graced around 30% of the tables I could see.  I am not sure how much we paid for it, but I see a bottle retails in Italy for around EUR 11.  This was deep purple, with intense dark fruit, attractive and spicy.  The spice added a mouth-watering quality to the nose.  It had medium acidity, and quite a strong but fine-grained astringency.  This was a good, classy wine, which I think will age further.   I thought ****, but I tired of it as I got to the end of the bottle, and it was not a good match for the tomato-based sauce with our ossbucco.  The Bologna restaurant was Drogheria della Rosa.  A A Gill wrote well of it last year, but I was not so taken with the place.  The food was all good, but I did not get on so well with the general atmosphere, nor with the fact that there was no written menu or wine list, and no mention of price until we were presented with the bill.  The bill turned out to be perfectly reasonable, but when ordering I would have liked to consider my options with more time and information at my disposal.

Incidentally, as an aperitivo at Drogheria della Rosa, we were given a glass of Prosecco that I thought was pretty impressive.  From the label, I noted the name as Foss Marai Surfine Cuvée.  Later research showed that this was not particularly expensive, but it had a complexity that you rarely get from Prosecco.  I am wondering if it was the result of a bottle that had been open a while.  Whatever the reason, it was good.

Our final Sangiovese di Romagna wines were at a restaurant not coincidentally called Al Sangiovese, which turned out to be run by the same family who owned the wine producer/brand Condé which is available in the UK.  There was also a tenuous family link to the owners of the hotel down the road where we were staying.  It was suggested that we try their Condé Sangiovese di Romagna Superioré DOC 2010, with the offer of a swap if it did not suit.  I only has a small sip to taste so cannot supply a proper tasting note, but my impression was that of a rather flabby and slightly sweet wine.  I felt a little embarrassed at my reaction to the family wine, but obviously was not very good at hiding my disappointment.  After a brief chat about preferring something with more bite, acidity and tannin, a bottle of Principe di Ribano, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOC, Spalletti Colonna di Paliano, 2012 was brought to the table, EUR 15 on the wine list.  Top marks to the restaurant for listening to what I said, and finding something to my liking the second time round.  This was a beautiful little wine that really hit the spot. Medium ruby in colour.  Intense red fruit, tea and spice. Medium-high acidity, and dry. Medium-low tannin. Excellent length.  Overall, it had a light refreshing character.  Drink now or in next couple of years.  In context, which all my ratings are, this was *****.

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Looking for Lambrusco

In addition to a few days in Bologna, we were originally planning on spending some time in an agriturismo in the countryside around nearby Modena, i.e. the land of Lambrusco, and maybe visiting a few wineries by car.  But the plan changed and we stayed the whole week in Bologna (view from Asinelli tower above) with some day trips by train.  There must be plenty of tasting opportunities there, and maybe some organised trips out to some producers, no?

No, not really.  I did my homework, knew some of the good producers, the main Lambrusco varieties, and (thanks to Ian D’Agata’s  Native Wine Grapes of Italy) the most typical examples of those varieties.  And I knew the locals liked the real Lambrusco, mainly dry, refreshing, frizzante and red; not the sweet pap of UK supermarkets that everyone seems to feel the need to mention when writing about the wine.  I was raring to get stuck into some serious exploration, but felt thwarted on this trip.

I found lots of gushing prose about Lambrusco on the Web but little of substance on the ground.  The Consortium for Lambrusco wine of Modena did not bother replying to my email about a tour that was mentioned on a web page, commercial foodie tours generally offered a tasting of three unspecified wines at an unspecified vineyard, and wine bars and restaurants I found served a maximum of two or three Lambruscos.  Indeed, when it came to Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, supposedly the largest of the Lambusco DOCs, I did not find a single bottle – not a sausage.  I can only conclude that the locals satisfy their thirst for Lambrusco by buying direct from producers.

But we did find and drink Lambrusco, and here are some of the Lambrusco moments on our trip.  Don’t bother reading on if you are only interested in great wines.  There are none here that would retail for much over €€€EUR 10.  They are wines for drinking with everyday food, but they are wines of character.

My Lambrusco of the week was Riservato Agli Amici, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOP, F.lli Bellei.  As with most Lambruscos, there was no indication of vintage on the bottle.  Like all the Lambruscos we had, the style was described on the label was rosso, secco, frizzante.  The grape variety Lambrusco di Sorbara, the dominant variety in Lambrusco di Sorbara DOP, is at the light, fruity and perfumed end of the Lambrusco variety spectrum, and is generally regarded as inferior to the more substantial and darker coloured variety Lambrusco Grasporossa.  But from my limited experience of the varieties, I preferred Lambrusco di Sorbara.  This particular wine exuded raspberry – delicate, bitter, and perfumed.  As with all the Lambrusco’s we had, it was low on astringency.  This one was also sharp, bone dry, and mouth-watering.  I decided the experience, albeit rather low-brow, merited an unlikely sounding *****.  We drank it at the rather old-school Bologna restaurant Diana, which we had seen recommended as being particularly good for some traditional Bologna specialities.  I am not one to judge the food against local standards, but I certainly enjoyed my tortellini in broda there.

The other Lambrusco di Sorbana we had was Leclisse, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, Paltrinieri.  It was the colour of a dark rosé wine, lighter than Bellei’s Riservato Agli Amici.  The flavours were rather muted, mainly I think because it was served in a bucket of ice.  Only as it warmed up a little did the red fruit flavours start to emerge.  Another truly dry wine.  A bit unfair perhaps, but this got ***.

At the low end of my Lambrusco enjoyment spectrum was Pra di Bosso, Reggiano Lambrusco DOP, Casali. To be fair, this was a bit cheaper than all the other Lambruscos we tried.  It comes from around a town that is, from a Bologna perspective, a bit beyond Modena, and thus a bit out of the way of the main Lambrusco producing area.  The name Reggiano is the same as that in the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano.   This was in my opinion lacking in fruit, and had a hard character. At one point I was wondering if the wine was corked, but I do not think it was and a glass we had elsewhere was similar, so **.

In addition we tried three wines of Lambrusco Grasporossa: L’acino, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Corte Manzini; Nero di Nero, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, Barbolini; and Cardinale Pighini, Colli Scandiano e di Canossa DOC, Cantina Arceto (Colli Scandiano e di Canossa is another lesser-known Lambrusco DOC).   These were all dark violet in colour, with an intense blackcurrant fruitiness.  Medium acidity I thought, and also a touch of residual sugar, despite their being secco.  I prefer the sharper and drier style.  The Nero di Nero was a little oxidised, but that may have been because the bottle we were served from had been open too long, and there is little else I can say to distinguish between the wines – it would have been easier to spot differences if I had tried them at the same time and place.  All three were ***.

So that’s the Lambrusco we tasted on the trip, but we bought the bottles illustrated above back with us, and intend to drink them together sometime early  next year.  Of the wines I tried while staying in Bologna, Ian D’Agata suggested the Leclisse and L’acino were particularly typical of their varieties, and I am bringing back a few other wines highlighted for typicity by Ian: the Monovigno, Cialdini,  Corleto, and Franceso Bellei’s Ancestrale.  I am also hoping that the Vecchia Modena Premium I have is really the Antica Modena Premium, mentioned as being particularly good and typical by Ian.  I am looking forward to drinking these, and intend to report back.

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La Bobal Revisited

No, this is not just a revisiting of the topic of Bobal, but a bit more about Zev Robinson‘s documentary film La Bobal Revisited.  Take a look at the trailer below.  It gives a pretty good impression of the full documentary, but is I think more fast-paced.

The actual documentary is relaxed in many ways.  It is not stuffed with neatly organised facts, but rather provides a voice for the wine people of Utiel Requena and Manchuela, the region in Eastern Spain where Bobal is grown.  The people talk, and seem united even if their views do sometimes diverge, and we are shown a series of scenes from the region in general, and of vine cultivation and winemaking in particular.  Most scenes, while often incorporating movement, seem to have something of the character of a still image, short-lasting and with a dynamic composition that demands attention.  The net effect is the feeling of simultaneous events in many places, and at many levels of detail, and thus the picture of life there is constructed.  The great pleasure is hearing people talking about things that mean a lot to them, and in their own voices.

If you are interested in seeing the documentary, get in touch with Zev by email zevrobinson@gmail.com, and I am sure he will be able to sell you a DVD and/or keep you posted about future screenings.  Finally, I should declare the fact that I know Zev personally, but the only motivation I have in writing this post is to give well-deserved exposure to an excellent documentary, and an excellent grape variety.

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Cien y Pico En Vaso Bobal 2011

en_vaso_bobalFirst, an explanation of the words on the label.  Bobal is the grape variety, Manchuela the region in Spain that gives its name to the Denominación de Origen,  Cien y Pico is the producer, and En Vaso the name of the wine.  En Vaso actually refers to a vine pruning technique, but you’ll have to ask the Cien y Pico marketing people what the exclamation marks and ellipsis signify.

I discovered Cien y Pico En Vaso on the shelves of D Byrne in Clitheroe, and grabbed a bottle because I wanted to learn more about Bobal.  My interest in the grape had been piqued a few years ago by Zev Robinson’s documentary La Bobal y otras historias del vino, recently reworked as La Bobal Revisited, but you do not see a lot of it around in the UK.  I enjoyed the first bottle so much that I ordered another half case, from Byrne’s again as their price of £9.60 seems to be the best in the country.  Now, after three bottles, I feel I at least understand this particular wine quite well.

As with my last post, about Paparuda Pinot Noir, I am strongly recommending this wine, but again it comes with a caveat because I don’t think it will suit everyone.  It is a very different wine to the Pinot Noir, so if that does not appeal this one might.  Here’s the tasting note…

Intense ruby red with hints of purple.  Intense nose, with lots of interesting stuff going on, to the extent that my notes I keep differ quite a bit.  Take your pick: treacly, farmyard, and maybe some smoke from one bottle, or volatile, slightly vegetal, and dark fruit from another.  But on both occasions I had a heavy, rustic wine, quite possibly technically faulty, but nevertheless attractive.  On the palate, high acidity, and big but nicely structured tannins.  Intense ripe dark fruit, but in the presence of the acidity and tannin it has a good refreshing character.  Hints of cocoa and orange on one bottle.  Excellent length.  This is a brute of a wine – big on everything except elegance and subtlety.  Good for drinking now with a big juicy steak or chili con carne, but I imagine it will improve with time *****

Here are other reviews from Jamie Goode, Tom Cannavan and Olly Smith.

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Paparuda Pinot Noir 2013


I discovered this wine at Manchester SITT this year, and am now approaching the end of my second case.  So I am strongly recommending this wine, but read the tasting note below first to see if it is for you – I am sure it will not suit all tastes.

It is a Romanian wine made by Cramele Recas, and has a modest 12.5% alcohol.  The region is not specified on the label, but according to Tanners the estate is “located in the western fringes of the Transylvania/Banat region near the city of Timisoara in the west of the country”.  I got mine from Tanners, who now sell it for £6.80, but Google will throw up a number of alternative merchants.

Light ruby, with a violet tinge. Definite Pinot Noir aromatics on the nose, but equally definitely not Burgundy.  And not like pretty much any other style of Pinot Noir I have encountered before.  Most importantly, it is emphatically not the dire concoction that cheap Pinot Noir usually is. This is soft, light and fruity, and suggestive of carbonic maceration. I would say confected, but that commonly has negative connotations.  There is also a very slight hint of oak. The aromas carry through to the impression on the palate.  Here, it is not at all flabby. The acidity is pretty much middle of the range, and there is noticeable but not obtrusive astringency. Pretty good length. Back in March, I thought this wine had a slight reductive note, but a few months later it seemed to have sorted itself out. Not one for keeping, but with a wine as gluggable as this why would you want to? A very easy wine to match with food.  Try it with anything savoury apart from the lightest of white fish and the darkest of meats.  A slight chill on the wine wouldn’t hurt.  Excellent value for money  ***

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Native Wine Grapes of Italy – book review

native_wine_grapes_of_italyI got my copy of Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata from Amazon for just under £24, and it is the best £24 I have spent on a wine book for a long time.  I am delighted to be able to enthuse about a wine book for a change.

This book certainly deserves to be considered in its own right, but inevitably it will be compared with Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz.  So, with apologies to Ian, I shall occasionally refer to The Other Book.  To compare at the most superficial level, while Wine Grapes unambiguously boasts on its cover that it is a guide to 1,368 varieties, Ian more vaguely claims to have identified over 500 native Italian grape types, not all of which may prove to be varieties, with the implication that most of these are described in the book. Also, you will find more Italy-related information about each grape in Native Wine Grapes of Italy than you will in Wine Grapes.  So, if quantity of information is important to you, when it comes to native Italian grapes you get more in Ian’s book.  All that does rather raise the question of Ian’s definition of a native Italian grape.  It includes all grapes that have formed part of Italy’s viticultural tradition.  Thus Cannonao (Grenache) is included, as it is traditional in Sardinia, but more recent imports like Cabernet Sauvignon are definitely out.  Also excluded are grapes only traditional in Alto Adige, on the basis that the region was not part of Italy until after the First World War.  All rather arbitrary in a way, but you have to draw a line somewhere.

In my last book review, I mentioned that information can be made interesting by ensuring there is plenty of detail, and this book is a good example of how that can work. You learn not only about the results of the latest genetic studies, but also how the varieties are officially recorded, synonyms, misunderstandings, ampelography, what the wines taste like, and what growers have to say.  It is clear that, even in this terroir-obsessed age, Ian is a firm believer in the importance of grape variety, and a true champion and enthusiast of Italian varieties.

The enthusiasm is infectious, and I found myself not treating the book as a mere reference work, but actually reading it page-by-page from the start.  So far I am on page 110 of over 600, and may still falter before I get to the end, but already I have read more than I ever did of Wine Grapes.  And as I read I was inspired to get hold of some of the wines described.  One notable feature of the book is that specific wines are recommended, not on the usual basis of how good they are, but from the point of view how varietally correct they are judged to be.  I definitely feel a Lambrusco tasting coming up :)

Amazingly, I am nearly at the end of this book review, and have not yet mentioned any criticisms.  The main one I can think of is that the book is not ideally laid out for reference purposes.  The varieties are listed alphabetically, but distributed across four chapters: Grape groups and Families, Major Native and Traditional Grape Varieties,  Little-Known Native and Traditional Grape Varieties, and Crossings.  So unless you know the category your grape fits into, you may not hit it on your first look-up in a chapter.  I have already mistaken a few varieties for being “little-known”, when in fact they are “major”.  Rossese Bianco, for example, is actually quite major, and not at all little-known!  The best solution would probably have been to use italics in the index to indicate the main entry for each variety.  Clearer headings for each variety would also make them easier to find.

If you have anything more than a passing interest in Italian wine, I would strongly recommend this book.  If you don’t, buy it anyway, and discover what you are missing out on!

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Why conclusions from grape DNA profiling can be wrong


Researchers have built up databases of grape varieties by name and DNA profile.  Then, when a variety not in the database is profiled, it can be determined whether the name should be recorded as a new variety or merely as a synonym for an existing variety.  If the profile does not exist in the database, it will be a new variety; if it does, it will be a synonym. On the face of it, and subject to the very small probability that different varieties may have identical profiles, this method gives definitive answers.

However, if the vine being profiled is not of the variety it is claimed to be, obviously no conclusions can be drawn about that variety.  Less obviously perhaps, the name associated with DNA profiles in the database might be incorrect.  Unfortunately that does happen, and in the past it has indeed lead to false conclusions being drawn about varieties being synonymous.  Many varieties have currently been profiled only on the basis of a few vines, and it is precisely those lesser known varieties that are most likely to be misidentified, and those for which we are now most eagerly awaiting DNA profiling results.

So DNA profiling can reliably determine whether two different vines are of the same variety, but we still need to rely on local knowledge and good old-fashioned ampelography (systematised descriptions and images) to determine that the correct names are being applied to the vines under question.  DNA profiling can by itself tell us about vines that have actually been tested, but ampelography is needed to generalise the results to varieties.

I owe this insight to the excellent Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata.  More on the book later!

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The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting – book review

concise_guideThis is a review of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting by Burton and Flewelllen.  I bought my copy for just under £23 from hive, who were offering the best price at the time.  Hive are definitely are worth checking out if you have ethical issues with Amazon, and also are one of the few online bookstores to accept book tokens as well as offering discounted prices.

One of the authors lead the Oxford University competitive blind tasting team, so I was disappointed that the book was a bit light on blind tasting.  I was hoping for techniques and tips so I could amaze my friends by my ability to identify wines blind, but despite some pointers I fear my ability to amaze remains unaltered.  It turns out that only about one tenth (including the appendices) of the 376 page book is devoted to tasting, and a lot of that is not specific to blind tasting.   History, viticulture and vinification together gets a bit less space than tasting, and the rest is devoted to the wine countries and regions, with the usual focus on the old world and classic.  Overall, the scope of the book is very similar to the wine bits of the WSET textbook for Level 3 – at least the editions I used 10 years or so ago.

On the subject of blind tasting, it is noteworthy that this book has many generic tasting notes for wines from the various regions, often comparing the wines with similar varietals or blends from elsewhere.  Considering all the variation that can occur within any region I wonder how useful these generic notes are, but if they help win blind tasting competitions I suppose there must be something in them.  These notes and comparisons are in the regional sections, but also gathered together in an appendix and published online.

The slight criticism hinted at by other reviewers is that the style is dry, and that it reads like a text-book.  That is correct, but it did not bother me.  In fact it was one of the factors that lead me to get the book.  I think part of the dryness of style is due to the level of detail in the book. In more superficial works I think you can afford to be more chatty, and the few facts you convey can be selected to be particularly interesting and relevant.  And in more detailed accounts it is often precisely the detail that is interesting.  This book falls between the two stools in terms of level of detail, and suffers a bit for that.  However, every now and then there is a hint of quirkiness which you may or may not like.  So far so good as far as I am concerned.  Now for the negatives.  I’ll give some example, and you can judge for yourself if you think they would bother you.

The maps are in my opinion inadequate.  Colour really would have helped with the maps, where a confusing combination of hatching, shading and text is used to identify regions, and the lines for regional boundaries and rivers sometimes just form a tangled mess.  I do realise that colour printing would add to the cost of the book, and good quality map design would too, but maps are important in understanding wine. I don’t expect atlas quality maps, but something more readable would be good.  And maybe it is just me, but I get frustrated if I am reading text describing the geography and flicking backwards and forwards to check a map, and then suddenly find mention of a place that is not on the map.  That happened a few times with this book.

The section on pruning is far too short and confused.   For example, without even a definition of spur and cane, all the stuff about cane-pruned vines being spur-trained and vice versa is pretty pointless.  In fact I am not sure it is at all important anyway.   If the book could just have explained the basics of cane- and spur-training it would have been great.

Then there were two specific errors I spotted.  On page 21 we have what seems to have now acquired the status of an industry-standard factoid, namely that the EU bans the blending of red and white wine except for Champagne production.  This is simply not the case, but the more books trot this out, the more people will think it is true.  In fact a counter example is given later on p141, where it is explained that rosé Franciacorta may be made by blending in red wine.  Secondly, on p72, we are told that Bourgogne Passetoutgrains allows up to 2/3 Gamay.  Well, that used to be the case, but now it is actually 70%.  Is it important?  Maybe not, but if not why say it at all?  My main concern though are the potential errors I did not spot.  Rosé production and Passetoutgrains are merely a couple of topics I have had cause to research in the past.  What about all the other subjects I know a lot less about?

Do these criticism sound familiar?  They are in fact very similar to the ones I levelled at Sotheby’s Wine Encylopedia despite the fact that they are very different books.  Maybe it is just me. To be honest, I suppose there is little here that would raise the eyebrows of most wine people.  The book offers a quick scamper through the subject, and will serve as a reference that is handier to access than more heavyweight books such as The Oxford Companion.   But there are quite a lot of things that I found questionable at best – things that are said and repeated in wine circles, and eventually written down, probably in other places as well as here.  A good example is the assertion that some vineyard soils are good because they absorb and reflect heat well.  But heat doesn’t work like that.  Any heat that is not absorbed is reflected, and vice versa.  Do they mean absorbed and radiated at night?  That would make more sense.  What it really means I suspect, is that people think the soil has good heat properties, without really being too sure, or caring about any details.  Welcome to the world of wine.

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Terroir scepticism again

Three years on and I am still waiting for someone to take on my Terroir Test and show positive results.

I have not been holding my breath for the Terroir Test in particular, but I was rather hoping that someone somewhere would come up with an interesting example of terroir differences being consistently identified blind.  Instead, in the last edition of The World of Fine Wine, there were another couple of failures reported: the failure to be able to identify granite and limestone terroirs in Alsace Riesling, and the failure to be able to identify Burgundy villages.

I shall add those failures to my list, which earlier included the Judgement of Paris, where Bordeaux and Burgundy was confused with American wines, and a tasting reported in Jasper Morris’s Inside Burgundy, where the different levels of Clos Vougeot were not identifiable.  Plus many incidents from personal experience of course.

Those examples do not demonstrate that terroir does not exist, but they do in my opinion show that many who talk and write about it should be far less glib.  I already try to tread carefully in this area myself, but maybe even greater care is in order.

On a more positive note, someone did point out to me that the best blind tasting teams perform rather well, at least in being able to identify the villages and vineyards in classic wine regions.  I’d like to better understand how well they perform, and how they do it.  I suspect that a lot of focussed hard work and practice is involved – a commitment that most wine-lovers, writers and critics would not be prepared to make.

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Fooling the experts again

What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine, an article by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, is another journalistic take on how easy it is to be influenced by extraneous factors (those that have nothing to do with the wine itself) when tasting, and although the word “fool” does figure in the article, it is a lot more nuanced than the typical UK press versions of the same thing, which can be summarised as “ha-ha, all you experts are stupid, and we are all so smart for buying plonk because it is just as good as your expensive stuff.”

The only bits I am uncertain about are those attributed to Galloni, but  I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, as sound-bite quotations are rarely sufficient to express yourself adequately.  Regardless, I think it is important to be aware that the story behind a wine may well be cynically manipulated to make the wine taste good.  If that happens, we should all be ready to take a stand against it.  Be aware too that critics and wine writers are often complicit by retelling the marketers’ stories.  It is likely I also fall into that writers trap from time to time, but I try to avoid it.  Rely on your own common sense.

Having said that, if you want to enjoy wine, it makes no sense to fight against extraneous factors.  We need to learn how to use them to best advantage.  Things like the best wine glasses, the perfect match with food and the ideal decanting time rarely exist, but if everybody around the table believes, the magic will work anyway.

If you want to take the game to a higher level though, and not get caught up in chasing the same expensive wines as everyone else, create your own stories to believe in.  I suppose even the idea held by many, that plonk tastes as good as really expensive stuff, might even come under that category.  But personally I prefer to believe in, and tell, the story that experimenting with unusual wines is fun.

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