Napoleon said “Every soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.” Not that I was ever a military man but if I was he’d have found a cook’s knife and a corkscrew in mine. I started cooking at an early age. I was a ‘latchkey kid’, though the term had not then been invented. My parents both worked what have come to be labelled ‘anti-social hours’. Supper was taken at midnight, by which time mum had finished putting waitresses through their paces and dad had come home from the pub. It followed that if I wished to eat at other times of the day I had to cook for myself. I learned fast.
My culinary skills were honed by various aunts who ran hotels, pubs and guest houses the length and breadth of Britain. From the age of twelve I was loaned out every Christmas, Easter and Summer holiday to work in their kitchens, starting as an unpaid toast burner (white, brown and melba). By the time I left school I had graduated to unpaid commis chef. I owe my interest in wine to my Auntie Ethel. In those days it was considered vulgar to open bottles in front of diners. Probably hazardous, too, given the amateur status of wine waiters then. Shortly after my fifteenth birthday my aunt handed me a glass containing a minuscule amount of of red wine abstracted from a bottle about to go to table. “Try this” she said, “It’s called Newits.” The next night she handed me another glass, saying “This one’s Bone. Is it nicer than the Newits I gave you?” Thus I became an (unpaid) wine critic, at least of good red Burgundy. Five years later, taking a girl to a restaurant, I discovered how much it cost to buy the sort of tipple I’d grown up with. I nearly took the pledge on the spot!
Fast forward twenty years. I’m working on a provincial newspaper. The editor was not a man for plugging the trendy or even topical, preferring to peddle nostalgia. We ran regular supplements on World War II, so much so the journalists nicknamed him ‘Captain Dunkirk’. One day we were gobsmacked when he opened an editorial meeting with “My son-in-law tells me wine’s the coming thing. Who knows anything about wine?” I recovered first and put my hand up. “Fine,” he said. You might as well review restaurants as well.” I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
During this period I went to a vertical tasting of Chateau Latour. For the uninitiated, a vertical tasting is one where you taste different vintages of the same wine. As opposed to a lateral tasting (same vintage, different wines). A horizontal tasting is one where you forget to spit! Anyhow, the organisers had thrown in a few bottles of the 1968, a Bordeaux vintage that should have been sponsored by Domestos, or maybe Paraquat. I had just written ‘undrinkable’ when a fellow taster, a posh geezer, buttonholed me, saying “You can’t write that, it’s Latour.” “I don’t give a damn,” I said, “It’s crap.” He called for reinforcements. “Algy,” he said, to another chinless wonder, “Algy, this man says the ’68 Latour is undrinkable.” Algy had a different take. He said “You can’t write that, old man. It cost forty-seven quid a bottle.”
Coming to live in Ireland in 1987, I had few contacts. I did know one guy who edited a business magazine and who asked me to call when I arrived. Ushering me into his office, he said “Thank God you’ve turned up. No one in town is speaking to me today.” As reward he granted me a wine column in addition to other freelance commissions. At my first tasting I enquired after a spittoon and was told “Young man, we are not going to spit. We shall drink our eight glasses manfully after which we’ll go to the pub, drink Guinness and discuss what we’ve experienced.”
During my seven year stint with Food & Wine Magazine the demands placed on nose and palate have intensified. Spitting, thank goodness, is now de rigueur. It wouldn’t be unusual nowadays to be invited to attend four tastings a week, nor be faced with a hundred or more wines at a session. I’ve learned a lot. Things like ‘Don’t wear a tie unless it’s paisley-patterned’ and ‘Get the ‘duty wines’ done first then reward yourself with a happy hour on the expensive stuff’.
I’ve inherited this column from the excellent Ronan Farren who has a deserved reputation among his peers as a man who ‘tells it as it is’. I mean to continue the tradition. You won’t find too much of the ‘hints of kumquats, dog roses, Ethiopian tobacco and three-year old Footjoy golf shoes’ here, I’m afraid. Mates of Algy should bale out now.
In the movie, Butch Cassidy and Sundance are hounded by a posse. Butch, irritated beyond belief, demands, “Who are these guys?” I was put in mind of this recently when a young friend who has just joined his family’s wine business asked, “Wine writers, who are they, where do they come from, are they any good?” To answer parts one and two of this conundrum, when it comes to getting any writing gig, ‘right time/right place’ sure beats paper qualifications. Part three is more difficult. The short answer is “Some are, some aren’t.” I’m not going to name names. If I did I’d have to kill you. In brief, the wine scribes who wear white stetsons and ride white horses are the ones who entertain you; the ones who give you Value Added, some “Gosh, I’d never have thought of that”; the ones whose recommendations consistently hit the spot. And the ornery guys in black hats? The dogma-floggers who preach accepted shibboleths; the wine bores who read like the puffery on a back label; the axe-grinders with a vested interest.
Now for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. What a singular style, pea pods, asparagus, maybe grass on the nose. Rakish acidity married to pungent green gooseberry and lime. Top producers manage to squeeze in mango and lychees too, without making liquid fruit salad. Most people believe the cult started with Cloudy Bay but it was Montana, in 1989 hailed ‘World’s Best Sauvignon’(helped, it has to be said, by a run of iffy vintages in the Loire) that put NZSB on the world stage.
Kiwi wine writer and me-lookalike Bob Campbell reckons Sauvignon should be ‘picked, pressed and p*ss*d within a twelvemonth’ which is why I suggested you buy 2005. I have Kaimera 2003 in front of me and while the fruit is glorious, Sauvignon’s revitalizing capacity has gone, the wine is like a copper coin that’s losing its sheen.
Of the others, Montana (e11.99) is decent-but-dullish. Whitehaven (O’Brien’s, e12.49) has a bracing zip whetting the palate’s edge but maybe a tad too lean. Winemaker Simon Waghorn’s own Astrolabe (O’Brien’s e15.99) has equivalent minerality with better developed fruit. Cloudy Bay is hard to find as a brass rubbing of Batman. A good alternative is Lawson’s Dry Hills (e17.95) where maturing a small percentage in French barriques before blending back does no harm. Hunter’s (e18.95) is perfumed, voluptuous, an eyelash-waggling vamp in the Cloudy Bay idiom for a tenner less. Wines widely available unless otherwise stated.
Next week, Chianti. Buy two bottles, one a Riserva. See if you think the quantum leap is worth the money.