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Random Thoughts on Portugal, back labels and other matters.

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 lborsa-halliked 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-riverPorto 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…



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….


good_practicePetra Frebault of French producers Barton & Guestier kindly sent me the company’s  latest newsletter.

It included this delightful 1950’s ad which B&G (or their American importers) placed in The New Yorker to encourage Americans not to be inhibited when it came to ordering French wine.

In those days our EU chums hadn’t been stigmatised as “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys” so requesting a bottle of ‘”Shot-oh Neff du Pop” in a Manhattan restaurant wouldn’t have got you pelted with bread rolls unlike in the heated early days of Gulf War II!

I spy, I sniff, I slurp – using the senses to assess wine's quality

In judging wines by using the senses, people are handicapped by the way they assess other commodities. For instance, some judge a car by colour alone. Gas guzzling proclivity or lack of headroom may be overlooked if the paint job is considered attractive. Sometimes it’s the same with wine; if looks attractive and exhibits no obvious defects a novice taster tends not to be critical of the flavour.chev-b-tasting1

The eyesight is the first sense that introduces us to wine, providing an initial reference point that is both informative and reassuring. At the same time it may also be misleading. Beginners tend to give weight to appearance because they can easily find words to describe it using their everyday vocabulary whereas finding words to describe taste or smell are more difficult. So, dark colour is are attributed to age and strength whereas pale wines are reckoned lightweight and dry. With more experience, we realise that this may be untrue. Red wines tend to lighten as they age, fading first to a bricky colour then, in old age, to pale brown. Aged riesling, deep gold, may only be 9% in alcohol.

I have organised tastings where the participants were actually physically blindfolded. In this state it’s almost impossible to distinguish whether the wine is white or red. You might like to try this with friends as an entertaining party game. As a follow-up, you could remove the blindfolds and hand them glasses of a white wine that’s been doctored by the addition of a few drops of flavourless red vegetable dye. With a little practice you’ll be able to produce a passable red and rosé that should utterly confuse.

Of course, those clever sods Riedel make dinky black glasses that do away with the need to play blind man’s buff. Expensiver though. They also make a snazzy clear tasting glass with a hollow stem. I love it. The glass is a bitch to use because you have to roll it on its side and be careful not to overfill. But, on the plus side, it uses on minuscule amounts of wine and yields up bucketloads of information faster than any other glass that’s thus far been invented. It’s like having a computer print out of the wine’s characteristics and qualities. I use it all the time at home. If you are tempted to buy one, be warned, don’t use it for casual drinking, that’s not what it’s meant for. This glass can actually make good wine less enjoyable.

Reidel's tasting glass
Reidel's tasting glass

What does appearance tell you, apart from “an absence of bubbles in a sparkling wine is not a good sign?” Answer is ‘not a lot’. In whites, a deep yellow hue may reveal the wine as aged; or that it has been matured in oak. In reds, paler wines do tend to be less full-bodied. When a glass of wine, white or red, has just been swirled, you may see rivulets of liquid trailing down the side of the glass. These are generally referred to as tears, legs, or arcs and almost invariably denote high alcoholic strength.

The French have an expression, ‘le trouble’, for which English has no equivalent, meaning the suspended matter responsible for “cloudiness” in wine. It might be caused by over-chilling; if so, clarity will be restored as the wine warms up. Otherwise it could be caused by poor winemaking, poor storage or simply by ageing – geriatric red wines often throw heavy sediment. It’s at this point that the eyes outlive their usefulness. Now we need to bring the other senses into play before we make a judgement on the wine’s worth.

When we scent an aroma in a glass of wine, it’s habit that fixes the impression of fragrance at the tip of our nose. The actual perception takes place about 4 inches higher, just below the brain, so saying that we smell wine is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Nevertheless, that’s what we call it and in the wine tasting world a good sense of smell is prized above rubies.

Wine contains any number of volatile substances that give off aromas, accentuated when the wine is poured into a glass and agitated. Newcomers to wine are often astonished to discover that very few actually smell ‘grapey’. Wines can, however, smell of fruit; Sauvignon blanc and gooseberries, Cabernet and blackcurrants are common. Everyone’s initial stab at assessing a wine is to say ‘nice and fruity’. Although this simple phrase has had the piss taken out of it by everyone from wine snobs to stand-up comics, there’s no need ever to feel ashamed of saying it.

Other aromas come into play and it’s these that make wine so fascinating – otherwise we could save a lot of money by just drinking fruit juice! Flowers, cedar wood, smoke, truffles, leaves crushed underfoot, rare beef and many other mementos assault the senses in a way we regard as ‘complex’. Finding complexity in a wine is the taster’s crock of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The nose’s other purpose is to isolate those smells that make for unleasant consumption – the wet wool of imperfect storage; the damp, musty newspaper of cork taint; the whiffy eggs of reduction; the farmyard stench of ‘brett’.

For newbies, a couple of tips. You’ll have seen professional tasters on telly swirling their wine, glass held high in the air. My advice is don’t. Plant the base firmly on the table and aerate the wine with a stirring motion. This will save you a fortune in dry cleaning bills. If you want to do it the way the pros do, practise in the shower. Don’t hurry the stage of smelling – it can tell you a lot but you may find it difficult to analyse the rush of sensations. Lastly, never forget that first impressions are usually best. If you go on and on trying to ‘get’ something from a wine, you’ll only go round in circles and confuse yourself.

Scanned and sniffed, next, we let the holy nectar pass our lips. Wine evolves on the palate, that’s a massive part of its charm. But the sensations don’t come in one big swirling crash-bang rush, they follow one another in phases. Each tells you something different about the wine you are tasting yet all combine to contribute towards the total pleasurable experience. Think of it as the difference between ‘orgasm’ and ‘lovemaking’.

With the initial mouthfeel, sweet and rich impressions predominate. Next follows a process of evolution which modifies, links and prolongs the initial flavours. The best wines develop in the mouth, filling the palate with enticing flavours which an experienced taster will be able to pin down and identify. For most, identification may be secondary to enjoyment. Why not, that’s why we drink the stuff. Wines showing these qualities are commonly described as ‘long’.

Sometimes however, the initial sweetness rapidly diminishes and acidity takes over, lessening the wine’s appeal. Such wines are said to be ‘short’. What happens next is faint bitter or astringent elements show up, stalling the physical enjoyment but serving to fix an impression of the wine in the taster’s mind which some call ‘aftertaste’. I prefer to use the term ‘memory’. Here’s the famous French gourmet Brillat-Savarin pontificating on the subject: “While the wine is in one’s mouth one receives a pleasing but imperfect impression; it is only having finished swallowing that one can really appreciate the taste and discern the bouquet particular to each type of wine; and then a few more moments are required to discern if the wine is good, passable, or bad.” Very pseud’s cornery, someone should have told him there’s no mystique. What actually happens is that the mouth, pharynx, and nasal cavities remain impregnated with the vapours of the wine so the senses of taste and smell continue to be stimulated.

Unfortunately, when it comes to tasting we all come lumbered with baggage. People who are insensitive to bitterness happily drink their tea and coffee without sugar while those who cannot taste sweetness easily will shovel three spoonfuls in the cup and think nothing of it. Some hate the taste of lemon juice or vinegary salad dressings and go out of their way to avoid them. My own father ladled salt on his dinner because his sensitivity to NaCl was impaired by heavy smoking. So, when push comes to shove, there are no absolutes, despite the fact that wine snobs like to tell us there are.

That concludes my mini-dissertation on the senses. Now let’s get back to drinking before we forget how good the bloody stuff really is!

Originally published as 3 articles in The Sunday Independent ‘Life’ Magazine

Hunter Valley and Barossa with Orlando

ern_0070 I’m not into crosswords, or what’s it called, suduko? Nevertheless, I do recognise the importance of keeping one’s brain exercised so I occasionally invent some form of mental gymnastics for that very purpose. A few weeks ago I decided I would write down, in ten minutes flat, all the aromas and flavours I had ever found in a glass of wine. For the record the total was 158 and included such exotica as arbutus berries, oatmeal, mown grass, green sap, chicory, tobacco, eucalyptus, balsam, beeswax, quinine, soy sauce, molasses, sawdust, burnt toast, mildew, gun smoke, diesel, wet dog, soap, fish, steel, sauerkraut, marigold, geranium, liquorice, ginger, bacon, offal, leather and, yes, shit, in addition to the usual suspects.

There comes a time in our life with wine when we cross that great divide between drinking and tasting. Most of those who reach the promised land say “I get more enjoyment from wine now”. Some, and I’m inclined to that view, think education (in any sphere) just makes you unhappy because it enables you to glimpse a potential you’ll never realise. I really don’t think life has improved since I fell out of love with bruising Bulgarian red but I’m here now and can’t go back.

ern_0207Wine tasting is an old and honourable occupation. One of the earliest references comes from 3rd century Egypt – “The wine taster has declared the Euobean wine to be unsuitable”. Unfortunately he didn’t opine as to whether the wine in question was gut-rot, corked or simply the product of a crappy vintage. Not that I’ll ever get the chance to taste the AD320. Shame!

The last two weeks have been ‘back to school’ for me. A lightning Australian trip coupled a visit to Wyndham Estates’ Black Cluster Shiraz plot in the Hunter Valley with with a tour of Jacob’s Creek’s extensive vineyards in the Barossa.

We went up to the Hunter via an amazing helicopter flight over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House and on up the ern_00643New South Wales coast. When we cut inland we flew over an ugly scar on the landscape that proved to be an open-cast coal mine.

I was reminded of my grandfather’s lot – dust and grit, strikes and poverty, explosions and emphysema – and made a mental note to kick my own arse whenever I complain that an excess of tasting has given me a mouth like the floor of a budgie’s cage. Dammit, who has the better deal, him or me?

Trekking round the vines in company with winemakers like Wyndham’s Ben Bryant and JC’s Bernard Hickin told me once more that the best wines are the ones made in the vineyard. Nowadays, there is a temptation to think of wine as a branch of chemistry. To a degree it is; but when push comes to shove the quality of the wine is determined almost exclusively by the quality of the grapes, called ‘fruit’ by those who grow them. Grapes like cabernet sauvignon and shiraz make excellent eating, that is if you discount the thick skins and enormous pips relative to the size of the grape and filter the juice through your teeth. By selective munching I learned to tell the difference between fruit, good fruit, prime fruit and the sort of fruit that makes winemakers punch the air and shout “Yes!”

They gave us a couple of leisure days, packing us off to Kangaroo Island, scene of Australia’s first settlement where we walked among seals, swam with a shoal of dolphins and had one of the most memorable meals of my life. A table on a secluded beach, beautifully laid with good linen, cutlery and glassware. ern_0174

Nearby, self-taught local chef, Tony Nolan was treating freshly-caught South Australian rock lobster with the love and care it deserved. We gave it due reverence, properly “oohing and aaghing” and saluting its rampant flavours with Riesling, including some aged vintages. It struck me once more that the Jacob’s Creek Reserve Riesling, like its Shiraz equivalent, over-delivers considerably for the money asked.

We discovered, during the trip, that Jacob’s Creek the creek actually does exist, it’s not just a madey-uppey name. I spent the morning in Jacob’s Creek’s sensory appreciation facility under the direction of Kate Laitey. ‘Scary Kate’, as we christened her, is a winsome and good-humoured Kiwi lass among Aussies, with a string of impressive qualifications, who recruits and directs a consumer tasting panel and analyses the results, object being not only to ensure quality and consistency (important for branded wines) but to isolate those elements in wine that consumers perceive as either desirable or off-putting. As I said, scary. A far cry from the old “I make what I make” approach but, nevertheless, all in pursuit of better wine.

Then came another highlight – standing on the heights of the Steingarten vineyard, with the sun going down, the beautiful Barossa spread out below. Scuffling some of the stony soil with the toes of my boot I thought “What crackpot would plant vines up here!” Later, tasting the wine, I understood Mr.Gramp’s reasons.

As always when I visit Australia, I made lots of new friends and received hospitality galore.


As if all this ‘edification’ wasn’t enough, on my return to Ireland I was pitched, jet lag and all, into a condensed version of the Australian Wine Research Institute’s wine judging course. Of which, more anon.

History of Me 0-20

 I was privileged to grow up in Manchester where my father managed The Free Trade Hall, in those days the city’s premier venue for music concerts and other events. I’m probably the only person who has seen Kathleen Ferrier, Pablo Casals, Dizzy Gillespie, Bob Dylan (the ‘Judas’ concert) and The Sex Pistols, all live! Well, it’s fame of a sort…

Manchester Town Hall
Manchester Town Hall

I was a latchkey kid as both my parents worked unsocial hours, my mother being responsible for mobilising the army of waitresses at the banqueting functions at Manchester Town Hall. She personally served 3 generations of royals, umpteen heads of state and untold celebrities from Arturo Toscanini to Yuri Gargarin, first man in space.

 If I wasn’t going to starve I had to learn to cook, which I did at an early age. Fortunately Mum, a brilliant plain cook, was a good teacher. Better still was my Auntie Ethel who ran a hotel in the Lake District. She enlisted me to work in her kitchen in the school holidays at the age of 12 – as a ‘toast burner’. She decided I could hack it (or maybe I was just cheap labour) and the engagement was repeated during every vacation for the next 5 years until I became a de facto commis.

 I went up there on the bus; the journey, in those pre-M6 days, taking an age as it plodded through the ‘Cotton towns’. The day before she rang up to instruct me to go to Sammy Black’s deli off Oxford Street to purchase a large assortment of goodies. I also had to visit Forsyth Brothers to acquire the latest sheet music, show tunes mostly, for the piano. Lumbered with packages I had to arrive early at the coach station to get the middle seat on the back row, only one that would accommodate me and the impedimenta on my lap. I arrived, four-and-a half hours later,  numb-bummed and stiff-necked in Penrith whence my Uncle Eric collected me in his beige Morris Oxford and drove me to the hotel.

 When I reached the age of 15 Auntie Ethel started to tutor me in wine, commencing with Nuits St.Georges, her personal favourite, which she called ‘New-its’. My first assignment was to compare and contrast ‘New-its’ with a ‘Morgan’. She was a fab aunt, a great cook and a hilarious practical joker. For my 18th birthday she sent me 4 parcels. Unwrapped, these revealed a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion, a luminous necktie, a water pistol and three dozen condoms. I still can’t figure out what the water pistol was for, any ideas? Auntie Ethel died some years ago. According to the matron of the home where she resided she was “addicted to Crème de Menthe’” a diagnosis that disgusted her daughter, a recovering alcoholic herself.

Auntie Ethel’s tutelage served me ill when I started to take girls out to dinner and realised how much drinking wine I enjoyed would cost me. But many years later her efforts to school my palate hit pay dirt. I still bless the day when an editor swept into a meeting saying “My son-in-law tells me wine’s the coming thing. Who knows anything about wine?” Having given me the gig he said “You may as well review restaurants as well.” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Twenty-odd years later, I still do.

Manchester is a cosmopolitan city and an impromptu luncheon club started by students who hung around the coffee bar in the Central Reference Library served to give me an appreciation of global cuisine. Thanks are due to Johnson for the Cantonese food from his restaurant;  Theo and ‘Jimmy’ for their afelia and  ‘cizbourgi’ – for years I thought cheesebugers were authentic Greek food; Silvia and Fulvia’s Mum for her ragu and minestrone – I use her recipes to this day; Zé’s aunt for her paella and Kasmi and Memon for their after cricket curries. Mustn’t forget Doris, my mum, for her Lancashire hotpot, oxtail and jam tarts.


The 'Central Ref', Manchester
The 'Central Ref', Manchester

My culinary horizons were further widened by two stints working in Manchester’s wholesale fish market – possession of an enormous leather ‘elephant’s ear’ apron, a pair of clogs and a savage knife heightened the enjoyment immensely. The experience also enriched my vocabulary of swear words.

There is one other influence it would be churlish to ignore. In my first week as a university student at Southampton I forsook my landlady’s cuisine terrible in favour of dining in a cut-price café, invariably on my way home from the Junior Common Room bar last thing at night. On my second or third visit I encountered a fellow student, year above me, name of Paddy Sheehan. He proceeded to scam two-thirds of my burger whilst investing me with the sort of glowing feeling you’d get if you’d solved a famine crisis in the Third World. It was my initial introduction to Irish charm.