Went a-judging-oh in Portugal last week.
Vina Essencia is a big wine expo held in Porto’s Palacio da Borsa. The judging was held in the Arabian Room on the top floor, beautifully restored to its former glory. Tasting conditions were pretty good, about 20 of us, grouped in pairs, plenty of elbow room and glasses (mainly in flights of six) speedily and efficiently rinsed and refilled as we progressed. My co-taster was an Italian architect who writes on wine as a paying hobby. He had the advantage of fluent Portuguese, having lived there for several years.
Our stated task was to sample a selection of pre-judged wines – around sixty in total, whites, reds, plus half a dozen ports – in order to create a Top 10. Not too arduous, given the size of recent tastings in Dublin. The potted version of the Aussie wine judging course I attended recently stood me in good stead; that plus abstinence from drink for over 12 hours (rare on these occasions) and a quick blast of the Otrivine spray had the old Whalley mass spectrometer waggling good style and I sprang out of the trap on the bell, getting half way through the first flight while my companion was still on the first glass.
A couple of potential snags hit me early on. The first was ‘petillance’, ‘prickle’, call it what you will, evident in quite a few wines. I know it’s a characteristic sometimes found in Vinas Verdes (?), at least the sort you encounter in Algarve restaurants but, because we weren’t advised what wine style we were tasting, I was unsure whether this should be marked down as a fault. As it was I let a couple off lightly and hammered the one where the glass contained a snowstorm of tartrate crystals. The second was, we were asked to give marks, alongside the usual appearance/nose/palate for ‘quality’ – always difficult if there’s no price guide.
I gather the organisers were none too enamoured of our conclusions. It seems there was little unanimity, unsurprising in a tasting where judges ranked from experienced professionals to relative tyros (this was evidenced by the marked differential in tasting speeds). In the final results reds predominated (personally I think this reflects the Portuguese industry) and I got the impression they would have liked something approaching parity. I am equivocal about the efficacy of the pre-judging. We detected a good deal of reduction and there were a couple of really agricultural bretty wines. Cork problems (in the land of the cork) came out at around 3 per cent, less than average.
The rest of the time was divided up into visiting the exhibition and having meetings with producer groups (independents, co-ops and savvy combos like ‘The Douro Boys’); these invariably involved a comprehensive tasting followed by a lunch or dinner. The Portuguese are hospitable folk but it has to be said that the organisation left a deal to be desired, notably the final evening when a series of cock-ups was only rescued by a very fine, though rather late dinner (I had a 5.30am train and we got back to the hotel at 3!)
Porto is a lovely city and I did manage to squeeze an afternoon on my own, lunching on the legendary tripas in a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and going walkabout. I found it really heartening that there was no ‘posh’ shopping area; the likes of Zara and Benetton were forced to co-exist with ironmongers, pork butchers and huckster shops selling Chinese watches at a fiver a throw. A wondrous amount of ironmongers, bookshops and emporia selling artists’ materials, too.
If you are considering visiting Porto (and I’d recommend it) Aer Lingus has regular flights to Lisbon. A 15 minute taxi run drops you off at Lisbon Oriente Station and from there it’s a pleasant two and a half hour train ride. Don’t get suckered in to going via Gatwick, the connections, especially coming back, are appalling.
On my return to Dublin I fell straight into, guess what, a dinner at L’Ecrivain, in the company of Portuguese wine makers. Thanks go to Kevin O’Hara of Grace Campbell Wines who has a really impressive portfolio. Next day, another marathon Portuguese tasting….
On another topic…
BACK LABEL BOLLOCKS
I’m no great fan of back labels on wine bottles. Most of the guff written on them is just that, guff. Meaningless, misleading and, all too frequently just plain downright wrong.
Let me make clear, though, that I’m in no way impugning Marks & Spencer, who do, all in all, a pretty good job with wine, when I rubbish the back label on their Argentinian Canale Estate Reserve Merlot 2007.
Let’s examine – Style: “intensely purple in colour”. Okay, so what? “An almost meaty vanilla-like aroma”. Eh?
And there’s all this “aromas and flavours of… ” shite. I hate all this. Okay, when I’m making notes I put in some descriptors… MINE, as a mnemonic for me and me alone. And yes, I do have a comprehensive Nez du Vin kit and spend pleasant evenings sniffing and comparing. But, as I said, these sensations are for me and me alone. Anyone else can bugger off.
Alas, life’s not sthat simple. Readers, through the existence of persiflagious back labels and the existence of those wine writers who scatter far-fetched adjectives with all the abandon of a junk mail deliverer with a full bag of Domino Pizza leaflets, have come to expect and value exotic descriptors.
But, be warned, fellow wine scribes. You do this at your peril. Because one man’s “honeysuckle on a summer’s evening” is another’s ” three-year old Adidas trainers”; one woman’s “fragrant cigar box” is another’s “the morning after in a night club”. If you tell your readers a particular wine scents or tastes of, say, “violets, nectarines and almonds” and they can’t find these delicacies they’ll think you’re a plonker. If you tell them “bananas” and they say “no, marzipan” then your cred is blown. I’d rather convey (in rather more crafted prose) “It smells good. It tastes good. When you put the glass down and walk away it’s still with you. It’s worth the ask, if you can afford it, buy it.” Way to go, in my opinion.
Next up, it’s Serving: “Best appreciated at room temperature”. Of course the back label never tells you what room temperature actually is. If you bring red wine up to the temperature of the average centrally-heated, thickly-carpeted room in the average double-glazed, ecologically-insulated suburban house, trust me, it will taste like bloody soup. Mind you, a lot of New World Merlot tastes like soup anyhow, so not far to go. Why can’t they say, for example. 16-18 degrees C.? Read on and you find you can “lay this wine down for up to 5 years”. To what end? Is it going to improve (doubt it)? Or merely ‘not go off’? Ah, yes, it’s going to soften the “meaty vanilla flavour”. You sure have got to enjoy meat and vanilla to like this wine.
Then the Canale back label tells you “Guests will be surprised by its provenance” – your dinner guests are going to say “Argentina? Darling, I’d have thought it was Cheval Blanc.” Yeah, right. Well, there it is in black and orange on the label – “It’s rather like a young French St.Emilion.” Don’t believe it. I’ve tasted it. It’s not.
Lastly, the “careful oak aged (sic) gives the wine an added depth of flavour”. Okay, what kind of oak ageing and for how long? Are we talking staves here; or chips; or big ‘tea bags’ filled with sawdust? Sure as hell can’t be ‘new French barriques’ else they’d want to brag about it.
Gawd give me strength! Anyone want to start a Campaign for the Abolition of Back Labels? I’ll join.
Footnote: M&S Canale Estate Reserve Merlot 2007 (€12.39) is, divorced from the blather, rather decent wine, solid, impactful yet soft and flavoursome. It came to the rescue last night after a bottle of Penfold’s St.Henri turned out to be corked and there was nothing else on hand. Mind you, if it was 100 per cent Merlot then my granny was a bare knuckle boxer. Which leads me on to another gripe….