Are you a wine snob?

Book_of_Snobs_XVIII-page_69Sorry if you were expecting a quiz to establish that you are actually not a wine snob, but if it helps I shall declare that you are not without even testing you. Why?  Because amongst all the people I know, I have not met a single one.  I have certainly encountered people who have their opinion swayed by high price or a highly regarded label or wine region, but that is part of being human, and anyone who thinks they are immune to such bias is deluding himself.  I also know people claim to be able to spot differences between wines where none exist, which is again due to our membership of the human race; if we believe two things are different, we will manage to identify exactly why they are different.  There are also those who are prejudiced against screwcaps and less well-known regions, in addition to those who prefer corks and the classic wine regions for well-argued reasons of course

These are very human traits, but nothing in my view to do with snobbery.  The same people, will laugh or smile, and head off down the metaphorical road to Aldi rubbing their hands with glee when they find a bargain. The true snob (If you want the dictionary definition, read a dictionary instead :) ) will always buy an expensive and prestigious wine regardless.

And here the rant starts… If I do not know any wine snobs, why is the world of sub-editors populated with them?  I know wine lovers, wine enthusiasts and wine geeks, wine connoisseurs even, but not a single wine snob.  Regardless, in newspaper headlines, when it comes to wine drinkers there are only two sorts of people: the salt-of-the-earth man-in-the-street and the snob.  And as often as not, the story told with relish is about wine snobs being fooled.  Come on guys – at least try to invent a new cliché.

(Public domain image via Wikimedia: Engraving on wood by W. M. Thackeray himself, for the first edition of The Book of Snobs. Chapter XVIII, “Party-giving snobs” . Mr Snob and Miss Smith)

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Taste your way to a long life

Losing your sense of smell can be very distressing, but it is not necessarily something to worry about; it can just be a temporary reaction to a viral infection.  However, it might be a cause for concern, particularly for older people…

A recent University of Chicago study found that there was a factor of four increase in mortality rate for those with the poorest sense of smell compared to those with the best. The study looked at men and women aged between 57 and 85, and the proportions that died in the following five years with good and bad senses of smell were 39% and 10% respectively. In fact, olfactory dysfunction was better at predicting mortality than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease. Only severe liver damage was a more powerful predictor of death.

Of course the researchers are not suggesting that a poor sense of smell actually causes death; it is a lot more likely that there are underlying causes responsible for the correlation.  But there remains an intriguing possibility that improving your sense of smell, for example by repeated exposure to various aromas, might cause you to live longer.  And what better way to do it than tasting wine.  Sadly for some, you do actually have to be serious about this, especially the swirling and sniffing bit.  Merely knocking wine back is not going to cut it!

Disclaimer: While there is  certainly evidence that you can improve your sense of smell through practice, there is none whatsoever that it will lengthen your lifespan. Not that little details like that have stopped journalists in the past from proposing new routes to a long and healthy life.  Heck, I might even be able to stretch the concept out into a wine tasting book with a new angle.

(With thanks to Nils Åre Økland, who introduced me to this idea in Vinforum 1.2015 – but he’s not getting a penny of my royalties)

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Château Milens 2001 and a Riedel Ultra decanter

Two presents, given to me on separate occasions, which came together on Easter Monday a week or so ago.  The decanter was a present from colleagues on my recent departure from the company – note the engraving :) – while the wine was a present for a significant birthday several years ago.  It seemed fitting that they should be brought together in this way.

In style the Riedel Ultra it is very close to that of a ship’s decanter, which wine drinkers generally seem to regard it as a Good Thing because it exposes a large area of wine surface to air.  I am not convinced about how much difference that makes, but the wide bottom is also good if you want to give the wine a bit of a shake to get more oxygen in.  The neck is comfortable to hold, whether you want to shake, pass around the table, or pour.  Overall, the decanter is very elegant and practical, and a pleasure to use. The only slight awkwardness is that you need to tip it to an alarming angle to get the last drop of wine out, but there is really no escaping that for wide bottomed decanters.

And what of the decanter’s contents?  This was Château Milens, Saint-Émillion Grand Cru, 2001. Wine-Searcher suggests that in the UK it is only available by the case, at around £25 a bottle for vintages going back to the late 90s.  Here’s the tasting note… Medium garnet. Intense, and mature on the nose, but still with some blackcurrant fruit – rather attractive.  Medium acid, and pretty high levels of astringency, though the astringency did not seem obtrusive, especially with the roast lamb we were eating.  Excellent length, with a mature, complex finish.  This is very good now, though a few more years could well be beneficial. As a rule my wife and I would not naturally gravitate towards Bordeaux for red wines, but we both gave this the thumbs-up *****

So thank you everyone for the decanter,  and for the wine. Please let me know if you were responsible for the wine gift, because all I remember (for whatever reason) was finding the bottle after the party.  If you just accidentally left it behind let me know anyway, and I will try to make amends.

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A Lambrusco fest

We finally got round to sampling the haul of Lambrusco we brought back from our stay in Bologna, which was chosen mainly for being varietally typical according to Ian D’Agata. We drank them, and another Lambrusco sourced in the UK, with food that was as close as possible to being of the Emilia-Romagna region and appropriate for the wine – Parma ham, mozzarella, mortadella and Parmigiano-Reggiano, followed by home-made brawn, tagliatelle al ragù, and cherry pie.


All the wines were slightly fizzy, and low on tannin.  Acidity was on the low side of medium, but the sparkle gave them a refreshing quality regardless.  They were all described as dry on the label, but I think I detected a small amount of residual sugar on all of them – they were certainly not bone dry.  None of the wines was expensive, those brought back from Italy being between £6.30 and £8.70 when converted from Euros, while The Wine Society are asking £11.50 for the Rinaldi.

Francesco Bellei e Co, Ancestrale, Modena DOC, Vino Frixxante Secco (Lambrusco di Sorbara), 2012, 11.5%
It wasn’t declared on the bottle, but this is of the Lambrusco di Sorbaro variety, and also seems to be from the eponymous DOC region.  The vast majority of Lambrusco is made fizzy by the tank method, but this wine is exceptional in that the latter part of its single fermentation takes place in bottle – the one it is sold in.  I was looking forward to this, but was totally underwhelmed.  It was a medium pale neon pink, and did not taste distinctively of anything much at all.  But at least it was not unpleasant ***

Cleto Chiarli e Figli, Vecchia Modena, Premium, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, Vino Frizzante Secco, 2013, 11.0%
Another Lambrusco di Sorbaro wine, with the same colour but more intense. Also more intense on the nose and palate,  Soft, red strawberry fruit.  Bubble-gummy actually, reminding me of carbonic-maceration marked Beaujolais.  Some people liked it a lot, and were in good company as it is a Tre Bicchiere wine.  I was not that impressed, but it was markedly better than the previous wine, so ****

Cleto Chiarlo, Antico Vitigni Grasparossa, Vigneto Cialdini, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOC, Vino Frizzante Secco, 2013, 11.0%
This and all the following wines are of the Lambrusco Grasporossa variety; they all had a deep purple colour and more robust flavours.  Confected notes again, but this time of blackcurrant boiled sweets ****

Villa di Corlo, Corleto, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOC, Vino Frixxante Secco, 2012, 11.5%
This was my favourite wines as it was more rounded and mature *****

Fattoria Moretto, Monovitigno, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Vino Frizzante Secco, 12.0%
Well into the second half of the evening now, and scant notes.  From memory it was similar to the Vignetto Cialdini ****

Rinaldi, Vecchio Moro, Lambrusco dell’Emilia IGT, Vino Frizzante (85% Lambrusco Grasparossa, 10% Ancellotta and 5% Marzemino), 12.0%
Scant notes again I am afraid, but this seemed to have more body that the other wines this evening, and was more bitter.  Could this be due to the non-Lambrusco grapes?  Ancellotta has thick skins, but is best known as a variety that contributes colour to blends ****

Fattoria Moretto, Semprebon, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Vino Frizzante Amabile, 10.5%
Dumb, and with very little flavour.  Not particularly sweet either, despite the amabile description.  Suspect this was low-level corked, even if there was no detectable mustiness. I will assume it was not faulty for my rating **

Overall I was a little disappointed with the quality of the wines, perhaps due mainly to my unrealistic expectations – they were after all hardly expensive.  I was also rather hoping there would have been more to distinguish between the various Grasporossa wines. Having said that, I did enjoy the evening, and rated most of the wines quite highly as a result.

Without wanting to pinpoint any particular food-wine match, I thought that the Lambrusco was an excellent match for the rich Emilia-Romagna cuisine, with the fruity flavours and slight sparkle, rather that the wines’ more structural elements of acidity and tannin, being the key to cutting through the richness.

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Is balance always a good thing in wine?

BalansMany would argue that higher level aesthetic values, e.g. elegance, harmony and balance, are key in evaluating the quality of wine.  But I think that, despite what we may have been taught and initially think, they are not necessarily positive values.  In this blog post I shall look closer at the term balance, as somehow it seems more straightforward to me, but I believe elegance and harmony are related terms, and can be subject to a similar analysis.

In a very narrow context, balance is very easy to understand.  The best wine example is in the balance between sweetness and acidity, which I discussed recently.  The wine can be too sweet and cloying, or it can be unpleasantly acidic, but if you can get the balance right the effect is pleasing.  Of course, it is not quite as simple as that.  People might prefer difference balances, and different balances might suit different purposes.  I would also add that, to my taste at least, balance between extremes is very different to  balance between more moderate points of the spectrum.

Balance in the many other aspects of wine is a more complex issue, but perhaps it can be illustrated by describing the opposite of balance.  An unbalanced wine has one or more properties that stick out and draw your attention to them, distracting from the
appreciation of the whole.

Generally speaking, balance is indeed important to me.  I would like most of my wines to be balanced, particularly if I am drinking the wine with elegant food of the classic European tradition – food that people of my cultural background would say is in itself well-balanced.

But how boring it would be if all wines were balanced!  And I do not see lack of balance as being necessarily negative for wine.  Indeed, when I try to recall wines I have enjoyed a lot, it seems to be the unbalanced ones that more readily spring to mind.  One or two of these have featured on my blog, e.g. Blandy’s Bual 1954 and Huasa de Trequilemu.  For me, those two in particular come under the category of interesting and thought-provoking wines.   I don’t think one can generalise on whether unbalanced wines demand food; the Madeira should be enjoyed by itself, but Huasa de Trequilemu is very much a food wine.  What I would say, though is that any matching food needs a character that is assertive, though not necessarily strongly flavoured and rustic.

There are also wines that are unbalanced in a much more subtle way than those described in the previous paragraph; they are just a little too tannic, acidic or sweet.  For these wines, it is often just a question of finding the right food to set them off and restore the balance.  There is not necessarily anything wrong with either food or wine, but the combination improves both.  A good example is the match of tannic or acidic wine with fatty food, where the wine is said to “cut through the fat”.

In conclusion, I would agree that balance is an important factor to consider in wine, and often a well-balanced wine is a wonderful thing.  But there are also excellent wines that cannot at all be described as balanced. In such cases I think critics probably tend not to comment on balance at all, and that probably reinforces the idea that balance is always a virtue in wine – because you only hear about it in a positive sense.

(Image is licenced under GFDL, and attributed to Josh from nl)

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Vines as a component of terroir

I am probably a lot more sceptical about the concept of terroir than most wine lovers.  Nevertheless, I do find the subject is fascinating, and it leads to many insights.  When people speak about terroir, they use it to refer to the vineyard rock, soil, drainage, aspect and climate.  Some will add viticultural and winemaking practice to the list, providing it is traditional for the region.


But what about the vine stock of the vineyard?  I am sure most would argue that the vines planted, however traditional, are independent of terroir.  However, it has come to my attention recently that there is maybe an alterative view.  Here is what Dr Jules Lavalle has to say in his 1855 book Histoire et Statistique et des Grands Vins de Bourgogne – translated by Charles Curtis in The original Grand Crus of Burgundy:

[The value] is also in the age of the vines, which for Cos de Bèze notably, goes back 12 or 15 centuries during which the soil, purged of all foreign plants and removed from all addition, is enriched only by the detritus of the vine, and has created an exception and perfectly homogenous terrain, with which the vine, which has never changed, is in some fashion united and acquires the properties which can be given only by the conjunction of all these conditions.  Such is the privilege of the grand crus of the Côte d’Or that certain Belgian amateurs refer to them as  having “race” [lineage] and certain English refer to them as “being of good family”.

This was written at a time when the concept of terroir did not exist in quite the same way as it does now,  and I have no evidence that the view was common in Lavalle’s day, but I think it remains an interesting perspective on what we would now probably call terroir.

When the author writes about unchanging vines over a periods of 12 or 15 centuries, he is not referring to the age of individual vine trunks, but presumably to provenage over that period of time – the practice of propagating vines by burying a shoot and allowing it to develop roots, something only possible pre-phylloxera.  Thus, in a sense, the vines will have been in that vineyard over that period.  At the very least, the mix of clones in the vineyard will have remained stable.  It will not be identical because the vigneron will chose to propagate from the most promising vines, and there will also be genetic mutations.  Nevertheless that idea of connection between the vines and the vineyard over many centuries remains powerful and evocative, and something we have now lost in our age of grafting onto American rootstock.  Even if scions from the same vineyard are used, somehow the link seems now to have been broken.  The introduction of grafting may not merely have affected the quality of the wine, but arguably an aspect of terroir has been destroyed.

It is also noted that the vineyard was only fertilised by detritus of the vine, which I take to mean pruning cuttings and marc.  This too emphasises a connection between the vines and the vineyard, and I would go so far to say that it seems more intuitively appealing than even biodynamic treatments, which would often have to made from ingredients sourced from outside the vineyard.

But stepping back a little from Lavalle’s proposition, and returning to my usual sceptical self, how important do I think the connection between vine and vineyard is?  Let’s just say that when I am told that Burgundies from vineyards either side of a footpath are markedly different due to terroir, I do wonder how much of that is really down to different clones of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, or indeed rootstock.  But perhaps there is no conflict, and traditional vines should be counted as part of terroir even in this modern age of grafting.

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What is a dry wine?

At its simplest a dry wine is one with practically no sugar.  Dryness is the absence of sugar; not a property in its own right.  I would call that the technical definition of a dry wine, and it is the one I prefer to use.

But do you remember what I said in my last blog post about acidity and sweetness counteracting the effects of each other?  When many people place a wine on the spectrum of dry to sweet, they do so on the basis of the perception of dryness or sweetness rather than the actual sugar content.  Thus, a wine with a little sugar but high acidity will be classified as dry.  Conversely, if a wine has aromas of ripe fruit it may also be perceived to be a little sweet, even if it contains very little sugar, and such wines might be classified as off dry.

When large wine merchants (including supermarkets) describe wine by a number on a scale from dry to sweet, I believe it is this perceptual sweetness they are describing.  And they are in good company – even EU regulations allow a wine labelled “dry” to contain more sugar if is it high in acidity.  While designed to be helpful, I find it confusing, which is one reason why I prefer the simple technical definition of dryness.  The other reason is that sweetness and acidity are to me clearly different dimensions, even if there may be some perceptual interaction.

In many cases, the distinction between technical and perceptual dryness is not important, but if you ever feel there is a possibility that some confusion might arise it is best to specify exactly what you mean.

You should also be aware that there are a couple of other ways in which dry is sometimes used/misused…

One is in marketing.  The fashion now is to drink dry wines, and one result of this is that many people say they prefer dry wine because it sounds more sophisticated, even if they actually prefer their wines to be off dry.  This results in wines, usually at the cheaper end of the market, being sold as dry when in fact they contain noticeable sugar.

The other is when people encounter a highly astringent wine, and describe it as dry because the effect of astringency is to give you the impression of having a dry mouth.  The use of the word dry in this context is understandable, but likely to cause confusion if you are communicating with someone who has been taught to distinguish between lack of sugar and astringency.  This is one situation where you might hope that a good wine professional will be able to figure out what is really meant, but I wouldn’t count on it.

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If there is one thing you should learn about wine…

If there is one thing you should learn to increase your enjoyment of wine, without a doubt I would say it is the skill to describe what you taste in a language that is accepted and understood by professionals and other wine enthusiasts.  The main reason is that using a common language should result in you getting better recommendations from merchants and sommeliers.  So the motivation is getting wines you enjoy more, and it is achieved through enhanced communication.wset_l2_sat

You do not need to try to emulate the likes of Robert Parker in your descriptions.  Keep it simple.  The WSET Level 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine is the sort of thing I have in mind.  In fact, it could be a lot simpler for the purpose I outlined above – just learn to describe the degree of sweetness, acidity, tannin and body.  If there are any obvious aromas describe them too, but only if they are important to you.  Maybe you detect dried fruit, but do you really care whether it is raisin or sultana?

There are essentially two steps towards getting this basic skill.  One is to recognise, and distinguish between, each of the dimensions of sweetness, acidity, tannin and body.  Then you need to taste a good range of wines to appreciate what is high and low on each dimension. Recognising and distinguishing each of the dimensions is not as easy as you might first think, partly because they do interact, but here are some ideas to help.

For acidity and sweetness, prepare for yourself solutions of lemon juice (1 – 1.5 lemons in 0.75 li water) and sugar (~25 g in 0.75 li), try each solution individually.  Note and remember the sensations, and how and where on the tongue you personally detect them.  (If you have ever heard of the tongue map, forget what you have learned – it is now discredited!)  Now try mixing the solutions.  Also add neat lemon juice to the sugar solution, and vice versa.  You will, I hope, see how sweetness has the effect of reducing the perception of acidity, and vice versa.

Prepare some strong black tea and let it cool.  Swill it around you mouth and feel how the friction between your cheeks and teeth increases.  That is astringency – the most noticeable property of tannin.  Try adding some lemon.  Does it increase or decrease the astringency?  Opinions differ on what should happen, and it might depend on the details of the situation, but there is thought to be an interaction between acidity and astringency.

Body is a measure of how heavy the wine feels in your mouth.  To be honest, I have problems getting to grips with this concept, but I am told that many understand it intuitively.  Alcohol gives a big contribution to the body of a wine, making a wine heavy, and however intense the flavours are in a low alcohol wine (e.g. a good quality sweetish German Kabinett), it will always physically feel watery compared with a wine of normal strength.

Just a couple of further points.  If you still feel unsure about the language, don’t let it stop you telling a wine merchant or sommelier what style of wine you want anyway – good ones will appreciate any steer they get, and should be able to respond.  The other thing is that, if you want more details, I can strongly recommend the book Essential Winetasting by Michael Schuster.  Or you could perhaps try a course that leads to a WSET qualification.  Both of those options will teach you the basic language of wine tasting, and a lot more besides.

Update: I think the concept of dryness in wine could do with more discussion, so I have covered this in my next blog post.

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Huasa de Trequilemu, Cauquenes, 2012


Pale garnet in colour.  Intense nose that is dominated by Elastoplast, with some fragrant horse manure.  It’s a bit of a brett bomb, but there is also red fruit – perfumed cherry notes.  Maybe rubber and menthol aspects.  Medium high acidity, and low but detectable astringency.  Intense, light and delicate.  Lifted and refreshing.  Great complexity, and great length.  Tingly, fragrant, bretty finish.  This still primary, but I don’t think I would let it age further.  It is best slightly chilled.  Difficult to rate, but if pushed I’d give it ****

This is a challenging wine in more than one way. I first came across it at L’Enclume, offered as a match for their venison with charcoal oil.  I thought it was a great dish with great wine, and the pairing was superb. One of the best introductions you could hope for,  but I still love the wine after drinking a few bottles in more modest surroundings.  However, my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone, and I can understand that.  By any standards the wine is weird, and technically it is faulty.  The dominant smell of Elastoplast is the result of a brett (short for brettanomyces) infection, which is perhaps better known for its farmyardy smells.

But is it a fault if you like the result?  Some would say not, by definition, while others argue that brett is always negative.  In practice, I am not sure how it would be possible to have the same wine, but without the brett, to compare.  So will we ever be sure?  This is in marked contrast to the situation with a corked wine, where you can often open another bottle to compare, and the clean one is always better.  For more on brett, see also this blog post of mine.  Ultimately, unless you get into an argument with your sommelier when you try to return it, I am not sure it matters whether you call it a fault or not.  If you like the wine, buy it and drink it.  Also buy it if you want to be challenged. If you want an easy ride, there is plenty of other Chilean wine to be picked up at supermarkets.

The producer is Agricola Luyt Ltda, the grape País, it’s 13.7%, and I bought it for around £18 from Buon Vino in Settle.  See also this blog post on Luyt and Clos Ouvert by Rob from Buon Vino for a bit of background.

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The perfect wine for Christmas

If things are not “unique” these days, it seems that they have to be “perfect”. At this time of year we are invited to serve perfect food for Christmas and serve the perfect wine with it, preferably a perfect match.

Even setting aside individual tastes, perfection in food and drink is a slippery concept. There may be a degree of pleasure in anticipation and memory, but essentially the pleasure is all in the moment of consumption. And then it is gone. I would argue that the best wine is always the one that is in your mouth at the time, so you should make the most of it. The wine in your glass might get spilled, and that special bottle might turn out to be corked or, a lot more likely, simply fail to live up to expectations.  I suggest you do not seek perfection in food and drink, but just enjoy what you have, when you have it.

The picture above (click on it for details) is relevant.  The still life genre does not principally celebrate perfection; it is often meant to illustrate the ephemeral nature of pleasure.  For example, some fruit may be slightly decayed or a flower dropped to the table, and in the example above someone has already been nibbling at the cheese and biscuits. This message was designed to persuade us to focus on higher values, but we do not have to read it that way. Let’s celebrate the ephemeral – YOLO and all that.

In other words, don’t fret about getting the perfect wine for Christmas day, just buy a bottle or three and have fun drinking it.  Merry Christmas!

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