Tag Archives: Wine tasting

Bloody back labels!

The label on the front of the bottle Sibella and I are halfway through tells me it’s a 2007 Merlot from Patagonia, Argentina, with a strength of 14% alcohol by volume. I’m also informed that the wine is a ‘Reserve’ – a term, I’m afraid, that’s virtually meaningless. In certain regions of Europe the term ‘reserve’, ‘reserva’ or ‘riserva’ does indicate that the wine has been subjected to mandatory treatment, with regard to oak-ageing, grape selection or to the length of time held before release. Alas in many parts of the world the ‘Reserve’ tag is utterly imprecise or indeterminate. It could be that the grapes are specially selected. It could refer to a period spent in oak casks. Or it could mean bugger-all except it’s a great marketing ploy.

Turn the bottle around and things get worse. The back label of a wine bottle is all to frequently just a licence to exude persiflage and bullshit. There are 5 sectors on this particular back label. First off, the wine ‘contains sulphites’. Fine so far, but then we move on to talk ‘Style’. Leaving aside absurdities like “almost meaty vanilla-like aroma” I read “black cherries, damsons, raisins with a bitter-sweet after-taste of plain chocolate.” Hey, what if the reader doesn’t like raisins? Or doesn’t do bitter-sweet? Worse, if he buys the wine and doesn’t find these sensations doesn’t it kill credibility? I’ve warned before about taking this gush on board; never forget, one person’s “honeysuckle on a summer’s evening” is another’s ”three-year old Nike trainers”.

Then I learn the wine is “best appreciated at room temperature”. Shame they never tell you what ‘room temperature’ means. The ambient of a centrally-heated, ecologically-insulated, shag-pile carpeted, low-ceilinged living room is not what any winemaker would call ‘room temperature’. This is so misleading. If they mean “serve at 16-18 C” why don’t they just say so?

“Guests will be surprised by its provenance” reminds me of James Thurber’s It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption. What the marketing guys are telling you in this instance is ‘Your guests are gonna say “Argentina? You’re kidding? I’d have sworn it was Cheval Blanc.”’ And, of course, I believe them. Not.

Finally, I learn that “careful oak aged (sic) gives the wine added depth of flavour”. As I’ve said before, there’s ‘oak’ and ‘oak’. Are we talking barrels? Staves? Oak chips? Sacks filled with sawdust? Liquid extract? Give us a clue.

Is there a Society for The Abolition of Back Labels? If there was, I’d join today. Divorced from all the blather, Canale Estate Reserve Merlot 2007 (€12.39, Marks & Spencer) is rather good well-made wine. Solid, impactful, rich, flavoursome and exempt from that gloopy soup mouthfeel of your average New World merlot, it came to the rescue last night after yet another bottle of very expensive Aussie Shiraz proved to be corked, third time in two weeks.* No wonder they believe in Stelvin down under.

* The three, all top dollar gear, were from vintages 1998/1999/2000 – a bad period for cork?

Ordering Wine in Restaurants

le-rime-smallDoes the task of choosing wine for your fellow diners fill you with fear and dread? If so, here’s a guide that may help ease the pain. 

Given what I do for a living, it’s not surprising that, when I’m out to dinner with a group of people, I’m frequently handed the wine list and called on to choose the tipple. It’s a task I hate. To paraphrase that well-known expression, you can please most of the people most of the time but it’s a given that you can’t please all the people all of the time. It follows that if you restrict your choice to house wine there’s always one who fancies pushing the boat out and who is at pains to let you know. Or there will be a miserable bastard in the party who finds your charming Valpolicella ripasso “too thin”. Or someone who doesn’t drink chardonnay but doesn’t mention the fact until after the cork’s been pulled. Last week I was dining with two friends, one a wine snob, the other a miser, on a shared bill basis. I really did not want to choose the wine. In the event I plucked up courage and went straight to the middle of the list, prepared to justify my choices to both parties. I’ve had better nights.


So it’s unsurprising that many people, faced with the prospect of ordering wine in a restaurant, feel intimidated, especially when lumbered with a wine list the size of a family bible containing a list of unfamiliar names as long as the national census. Only advice I can give is “chill; be your own person and make a mental note to strike any begrudger from your almanac of dining companions.”


The first choice you have to make is whether to order by the glass or by the bottle. If there are only two of you it’s kinder to the one who has volunteered to drive home if you opt to drink by the glass. That way there is no emotional pressure on your co-diner to knock back their half of the bottle. But bear in mind that if you do order by the bottle there is absolutely no shame in asking the waiter to replace the cork so you can drink the residue at home.


Initially, your task is to decide whether you’re going to drink red, white or both. Ordering both a red and white will obviously accommodate a broader range of preferences. Next, you should take into consideration what guests have chosen to eat. I’ve said before, I am not as heavily into wine and food matching as certain other wine critics. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt big, hearty red wines favour steak and stand up to rich sauces, whereas grilled chicken and salads can be paired to advantage with white wines. By all means take into consideration the preferences of your fellow guests but remember someone has to make the decision, so give yourself the casting vote. Take a deep breath and go for it.

You should have a budget in mind so, prior to ordering do consult your dining companions. I know of a college reunion that ended in acrimony because two of the more wine-savvy alumni got together and ordered a cult wine that not only went over the heads of their fellow guests but cost much more than they considered reasonable. The next major pitfall to overcome is the house wine. House wines can be a blessing or a curse. As a rule of thumb, a restaurant that takes an interest in wine and that employs a properly trained sommelier will have a house wine they are proud to stand over – frequently one from a smart producer in a less than fashionable region. On the other hand many restaurants see house wines as an opportunity to make real money, imposing an exorbitant mark up on a wine of poor quality – perhaps one of the bargain basement ‘specials’ that importers rake up from time to time, frequently time-expired sauvignon blancs or merlots else bulk horrors from some ‘wine lake’.

When push comes to shove, it’s all down to how seriously a restaurant takes its wine. So do your homework. Find out before you go whether the restaurant you’ve booked pays due respect to wine. If they publish the wine list on the net, check out a few of their offerings. Googling a wine should tell you if it’s a dog or a diamond. While you are doing this, clock the r.r.p. if you can. Of course this may not be possible. Certain wines are marketed to the ‘on trade’ only. Hardly surprising – no restaurant wants its wines available in the offie down the road; nor do they want the customer to know what the wine costs. When it comes to mark-ups, 3 times the retail price is fairly normal. Anything less and you are getting something of a bargain. Most restaurants will have at least a couple of items on the carte – usually from well known producers where the r.r.p actually can be checked out.

The process requires interaction between chooser (you) and server (waiter, or, in a good restaurant, sommelier). First off, the server should show you the bottle BEFORE opening. Your initial task is to inspect the label. Sometimes the restaurant will be out of the vintage specified on the list and will substitute a different one without asking. You may not mind this, but now is the time to decide. If the restaurant has a trained sommelier, he or she is there to be used. Don’t be afraid to consult, when trying to decide what wines to order. Be careful, though. I was reviewing a restaurant recently where the sommelier put in an impassioned plea for us to have the Bourgueil. In the event it was thin and mean. Talking to other diners, it appeared he’d tried the same stunt on them. I reckon they must have had shedloads of this muck downstairs and that the sommelier was under orders to shift it!

After opening, the server should hand you the cork. Simply make sure it is not dried out, cracked or damaged, other than by the insertion of a corkscrew. Next, the server should pour a small amount into your glass. Swirl the glass (careful!) and sniff the wine. If you smell offensive odours – vinegar, bad eggs, farmyard manure, wet wool, newspaper from a damp cellar are the most common – then reject it. If unsure, ask the server to smell or get a second opinion from another guest.

If the wine passes the schnozz test, then taste. Be aware that rejecting a wine simply because you don’t like the taste is unfair – you have to shoulder a certain amount of responsibility. That said, a trained sommelier may notice your displeasure and offer a replacement and, if so, accept with thanks.

Only when you’ve given the thumbs up should the server pour more, filling the other guests’ glasses first. The server should only refill glasses as needed, to around one-third the way up the glass. Untrained servers will fill glasses to the brim and top up too frequently, object being to get you to order more wine. It’s a foolish and immoral attitude, in my opinion, and a trademark of a bad restaurant.

New Wines from M&S

Attended the Marks & Spencer tasting of their latest offerings, here are my notes.

The tasting took place in the cellar of WHPR/Ogilvy & Mather building in Ely Place.

Some of the whites were too chilled, some of the reds a tad soupy but otherwise the event was really well organised – spittoons, clipboards with a catalogue, logical order (mostly), loads of space and a fair bit of cunus (certainly for the early arrivals) – other organisers please take note. Kudos to Claire Guiney from WHPR who organised matters and got Ireland’s top brass tasters there without needing to promise a gourmet lunch. I could get fond of the M&S crisps, though.

At the outset I got genuinely excited over the sparklers when I thought I’d unearthed a quite decent Champagne for €17.49. Alas, the price was a misprint, but **Louis Chaury‘s blend of 40% PN/30 Chard/30PM was still great value for the, corrected, €21.50 – this has got to be one of the better budget Champagnes around.

***St.Gall Vintage Grand Cru 2002 did cost €44 but it’s stunning and worth every penny for its bravura flavours.

On to the whites and an interesting dry *2008 Pedro Ximenez from class act Alvaro Espinoza in Chile’s Elqui Valley. Unoaked, clean party wine, different and distinctive.

A couple of Chardonnays from Argentina demonstrated differing characteristics. The €6.99 Vinalta 2008 was drinkable, commendably bereft of tinned fruit and good value. The Fragoso 2006, €9.99 had some weird dark notes that spoilt the enjoyment a bit, at least for this critic. Both were preferable to the oaked Altos del Condor 2008 (winemaker with the discouraging name of Daniel Pi); described on the back label as as ‘expertly blended by Marks & Spencer’, it wasn’t that expert.

Perhaps the nicest of the budget whites was a **Gavi, Quatro Sei 2008 (€9.99). Clean, smart, modern winemaking of the highest order, I’d definitely buy this for summer drinking.

Abruzzo deserves our support at the minute but that’s far from the only reason to pick this €15.99 white. Rocco Pasettti of Contesa’s **Pecorino 2007 was, despite the name, in no way cheesy. Lemon and apple fruit in abundance, smoothed out by a touch of malo, an immensely interesting change from the usual suspects.

I wouldn’t have guessed the origin of the unoaked **2008 Macon Village from George Brisson in a blind tasting, it seemed more laid back and ‘northerly’. I actually preferred it to its neighbour, a €15.99 Chablis.

A couple of quite savvy and very different NZSBs. *Seifreid 2008 €12.49 could have been re-christened ‘Siegfried’ with its savage attack, my sort of Sauvignon Blanc, racy and mineral. *Flaxbourne 2008 €13.49 gave you some elegance and restraint for your extra euro, in the end it all comes down to what you prefer.

On to Oz, where we kicked off with M&S’s own Chardy 2008, nabbed from Brian Walsh of Yalumba where they know about these things. A quaffer, buckets of tinned fruit, but what could you demand for €6.49? The **Hunter Valley Chardonnay 2008, very traditional, up to 4 months on less then six in real French barrels produced a relaxed yet flavoursome, lean, clean €12.49’s worth. Might buy Her Indoors some of this, it’s right up her street.

The Las Falleras Rosé 2008 €6.49 was well bubblegumesque. *Le Froglet (is this ‘Franglais or what?) at €7.99 was rather better, fresh, bright and clean.

The VDP Ardeche Gamay 2008 cried out for food; the South African Maara Shiraz 2008 was slabby and slightly mucky; I don’t do Pinotage – all I can say is that the Houdamond, at €13.99 won’t attract many admirers, other than those who like the smell of burning rubber I can’t help attributing to this grape. Okay, Houdamond is well made and it’s bush vines and oak barrels (American) but, in the end, it’s still a bit Formula One.

Fellow taster Martin (Moran) asked me “Why does this cost €35?”. All I could say was “That’s what a single-estate Rioja Reserva from a reputed producer in a good vintage fetches”. That said, personally, I’d give the Contino 2004 a miss there’s better stuff around for less money. And avoid the 2003 if you see it.

The Paradiso Carmenere 2008 is ‘vibrant’ all right. Trouble is the tannins are green as your favourite rugby shirt. The new *Vinalta Malbec 2008 is a nicer drink for €3 less, a genuine bargain at €6.99.

Nicest red in the tasting for me was the ***Nebbiolo 2007 €16.49) from Renato Ratti (available from ‘major stores’ so you probably won’t see it everywhere.) Understated, a class act and full of character. You could safely squirrel this away too.

Of the two Pinot Noirs on show, I preferred the **Tasmanian 2007, a typically relaxed and mellow production by Andrew Pirie of Tamar Ridge. Worth every penny and then some of €12.49. The *Clocktower 2007 (€16.49) was a typically exuberant production from Ben Glover and the guys at Wither Hills in the “Hey, let’s set out our stall and see how much fruit, how many nuances we can squeeze out” manner. All a bit OTT really, still a tad one-dimensional like many New Zealand Pinot Noirs away from the top echelon and, to my mind, this uncompromising treatment does take a little of the unbridled fun out of Pinot in an “I Can’t Believe it’s not Shiraz” manner. Bit of an exaggeration, maybe, but I’m sure you’ll get what I mean.

To conclude, a fine and extremely good value Eiswein, big mouthful and that’s not only the name – **Darting Estate Weissburgunder Eiswein, €17.99

Not a bad stab at budget fino with a €7.99 Fino Dry Sherry plucked from Williams & Humbert – interesting pistache and smokey bacon nose; chill the hell out of it and consume at a sitting with whitebait, tapas or somesuch. The Extra Dry White Port (from Guimarens, a good house) was by no means extra dry within the context we’d understand. Tasty though. The Pink Port from the same stable won’t I fear, win many friends. Except maybe as a cocktail mixer, it takes some comprehending. What’s the point of bubblegum that you can’t blow bubbles with?

My recommendations  indicated with an *, rated * to ***

So it Goes…

john41This Week’s Decent Drinking

I make no apologies for making this week’s WOTW a wine you are unlikely to be unable to buy. The 2000 John Wade Cabernet Sauvigon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc I opened tonight I picked up at the vineyard on a visit to Denmark and Albany, at the bottom end of Western Australia in 2002.

In 1982, John Wade created the award winning Wynns – Coonawarra “John Riddoch” , a wine that was named Best Red Wine in Australia on two separate occasions..

John, a graduate from Wagga, if memory serves me right, began his winemaking career in the Hunter Valley. At Wynns, he quickly achieved promotion from assistant winemaker to winery manager, a position he held for six years. Afterwards, he worked in Western Australia, as consultant winemaker with leading Great Southern producers Alkoomi and Goundrey and was then appointed senior winemaker with Plantagenet Wines, a position he held for six years.

His work is not limited to Australia. John has undertaken vintage work in France – at Chateau Senejac in Margaux and Chateau Pontet-Canet in Pauillac. In 1995 he worked as winemaker at the new Tenuta di Trinoro estate in Southern Tuscany.

In 1986 John founded the Howard Park Winery and in 1992 established the Madfish Bay label, currently popular in any number of Irish restaurants thanks to importers, Nicholson’s. After leaving Howard Park he has worked as a wine industry consultant. When I met him in Denmark, WA in May 2002 he was making wine for a number of vineyards in the Great Southern region and was also tending his own vines. All the grapes in the wine we drank last night were grown on the estate.

vines at Denmark, WA
vines at Denmark, WA

I opened John’s 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/ Merlot/ Cabernet Franc last night and pretty impressive it was too. The stellar, fragrant and uber powerful nose struck a chord with everyone at the table. Denmark’s cool climate enabled the wine to tip the scales at a mere 12.5% ABV giving the wine a definite Left Bank Bordeaux feel and allowing the herbal notes of the Cab Franc to escape from the fruit and shine. Lovely!

To return to something you CAN buy, the Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2008, less minerally aggressive than many Marlborough NZ examples, is well worth the asking price, especially at the ‘on special’ €10.99. I’m always looking for decent whites around a tenner since The Dark Lady of My Sonnets gave up drinking red, and this one sure fits the bill. From O’Briens.

TESTED Le Nez du Vin – for anoraks only?

I’ve recently had a chance to play with Le Nez du Vin’s amazing wine aromas and faults kits.

p10100742Le Nez du Vin is said to help develop your sense of smell and your ability to recognise and describe the aromas of wine. The top-of-the range kit comprises 54 aromas of liquid in small glass bottles, reproducing the typical scents of white and red wine from the world’s spectrum. It isn’t stated whether the scents are natural or synthesised. I suspect the latter. Recognition cards give you the key to the bottles, which are only numbered (presumably to avoid cheating!). There’s also a booklet to explain how to use the aromas with information on the different grape varieties and their main aromas, the different style of wines and ageing characters. In addition there are two cut-down 12 bottle versions (red and white wines) and a 24 bottle version combining the two.

Perhaps the most interesting kit is the Le Nez du Vin Faults which contains 12 bottles of scent references and a book to help you memorise and better identify the phenomena that can contaminate wine. The aromas included are Vegetal, Rotten Apple, Vinegar, Glue, Soap, Sulphur, Rotten Egg, Onion, Cauliflower, Horse, Mouldy-Earthy, Cork so that wine anoraks may play away to their hearts’ content, summoning up brett, acetification, reduction and all manner of other evils at will.

Super Furry Anoraks might be interested in the New Oak kit that gives you all the flavours and aromas that stem from leaving wine in mega-expensive casks but that seems like a bridge too far for me.

It’s impressively packaged. Le Nez du Vin in any of its versions would make a great gift for the wine anorak in your life (except non-wine anoraks probably won’t be reading this!). It ain’t cheap though – around €370 for the 54 plus the Faults.

I bought the thing in the end, with some misgivings and a fair bit of guilt at splurging what seemed like silly money. On the other hand I do give a fair number of wine tutorials and taste seminars in the course of a year and the enhancement the kit would lend to these occasions is probably, for me, worth the expense. It will make a great Christmas party game too!

On the debit side, a few of the 54 flavours don’t seem that accurate. The Faults kit is deadly, though and really helps fix all the nasties in mind and memory.

Verdict: Bloody expensive tool for wine pros and anoraks only.

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….

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

Sunday Independent Wine Columns

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.

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Ten Ways to Get More Enjoyment Out of Wine

My friend and fellow food and drink fanatic Paulo Tullio once observed over dinner “You know, Ernie, there’s nothing so boring as reading what someone else ate last night”, one reason why as a critic I try and give readers a little ‘value added’; though maybe not as much as the Sunday Times’ A.A.Gill who only mentions the meal in the penultimate line!
It was a long time before it dawned on me that the same could be said about
wine writing. We wine scribes are prone to waxing lyrical about the last
stellar bottle we encountered, wrapping it in emotive language before
presenting it to the reader. Sometimes and I’m as guilty as anyone, we lose
the run of ourselves in extolling the virtues of a wine that costs a small
fortune and is about as available as an opera date with Victoria Beckham.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to take a day off from the ‘aroma of mint, mangoes, green peppers and three-year-old Adidas trainers’ scene to outline 10 ways in which you could, for little or no outlay, get more enjoyment out of your glass of wine.

1. Buy some decent glasses. Nothing improves the taste of wine so much as a glass of the right size and shape. Masters of the art are the Austrian firm Riedel, who have devised a specific wine glass for any grape variety you could name. This is maybe a bit extreme but their glasses are very good and their Chianti Classico pattern which we use for our regular tastings at FOOD & WINE Magazine are an excellent all-rounder for white and red wine. They make three ranges, the expensive hand blown Sommelier series, the machine cut Vinum series, still a great glass, plus a cheaper range specifically for restaurant use. No need to spend top dollar, these will do fine. Mitchells in Kildare Street, Dublin are the principal Riedel stockists and Brown Thomas also have them, as do many wine merchants nationwide. Other glassware manufacturers are now jumping on the bandwagon. Tipperary Crystal launched a range recently in conjunction with Michelin-starred restaurateur Patrick Guilbaud, of a quality similar to the Riedel Sommelier glasses. Waterford Crystal are about to follow suit. No matter whose glassware you buy make sure the glass is thin and the rim is clean cut, not rolled. And please don’t drink wine from chunky cut crystal, it will taste only horrid. Choose a reasonably large glass; when ‘filled’ (which means the wine should come no more than a third the way up) it should have a good head of air space to allow the wine to ‘breathe’.

2. Try spending a little more on your regular bottle of wine. Wine writers are over fond of airing the old saw that six euro’s worth of bottle only contains about twenty cent’s worth of wine but it’s true enough. If you normally buy a ten euro bottle to consume with dinner at home on a Friday night, up your spend to twelve. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes to the quality of the wine.

3. Open your mind. What’s the wine writer’s favourite grape? In nine cases out of ten it’s Riesling. There must be some good reason why. When was the last time you tasted Riesling? Not for a long time, I’d bet. And no, ‘Riesling’ doesn’t mean ‘German’, it doesn’t mean ‘sickly sweet’. Go on, give it a go, buy an Alsace Riesling or one from Australia’s Clare Valley. And while you’re in the mood to experiment, try a Chilean Carmenere or a Malbec or Bonarda from Argentina.

4. Do less glugging and more tasting. Wines reward contemplation. Sniff the bouquet, savour the mouthfeel and, when you put the glass down, relax and relish the aftertaste. At first you’ll probably feel like an eejit especially when all around you are downing the wine like the world is about to end. But who’ll get more enjoyment out of the glass, them or you?

5. Make a friend of the staff in your local wine merchants. Confide in them, tell them what kind of wine you like and what you don’t. They�ll be only too pleased to give you advice and, with at least 350 lines in the shop they�ll have no problem in finding something new and delicious for you to try.

6. Another way of widening your vinous horizon is to find a wine writer whose prose style doesn’t make you gag and follow their recommendations. Myself, Tomas Clancy, John Wilson, Raymond Blake, Martin Moran, Blake Creeden and the rest lay our livers on the line on a daily basis, each of us sampling several thousand bottles a year in order to find ones for our readers that are reliable/tasty/exciting/sensational. Tapping into all that research, free gratis, has got to be worthwhile, surely?
7. Don’t buy wine by the case unless you’ve tried a bottle of it first. Case discounts are attractive but you could get stuck with eleven bottles you hate, after you’ve poured half the first one down the sink or consigned it to tomorrow night’s gravy. What’s more the mixed cases offered by wine clubs, newspapers and magazines are often trumpeted and tricked up to sound like the bargain of the century but they rarely are. Buy in ones and twos for the time being.

8. If you are new to wine, get away from the big brands as soon as you feel confident enough to do so, at least for the time being. I’m not being snotty, I�ll happily relax with a bottle of Penfold’s Koonunga Hill, Mont Gras Cabernet, Wolf Blass President�s Selection Shiraz or Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Rose. But drinking branded wines won’t help you develop your palate or assist you to gain knowledge of wine’s many facets in the same way as an encounter with wines made by individual specialist producers will. Generally speaking, small producers make wines with character and personality; not necessarily ‘better’ wines please note but certainly ones that will give you a wider spectrum of aromas and flavours for your nose and palate to experience and maybe give you a clue as to why wine writers are always banging on about that word ‘terroir’ (by which they mean the interaction of soil, aspect and microclimate in which the grape is grown, the main factor in giving a wine its own individual character). Again, your local wine merchant is the place to start and in Ireland we are lucky because the ‘wine shop on main street’ is generally of a much higher calibre than its counterpart over the water.

9. How about a little, non-too-serious vinous education? Great for whetting your appetite for wine. Go buy a wine book, one that’s easy-to-read, doesn’t ‘talk down’ and introduces you to wine in an intelligent and light-hearted manner. One I’d recommend is ‘Thirsty Work’ by the young Australian sommelier and pal of Jamie Oliver, Matt Skinner. To be picky, there are more than a few inaccuracies but it’s written in a lively, pacy style that will maintain your interest. Or anything by Oz Clarke. Use the web, too, it’s very wine-friendly. Jamie Goode’s ‘The Wine Anorak’ (www.wineanorak.com) is very educational and easy to assimilate, as is Robin Garr’s ‘Wine Lover’s Page’ (www.wineloverspage.com ). Take a look at Martin Moran’s www.winerepublic.comAnd, dare I say it, my own ‘Forkncork’ contains some unstuffy articles on wine. “Google before you gargle”, that’s the motto! You might even want to go on a course. The Wine Development Board (www.wineboard.com) organises structured courses, the higher echelons of which are aimed at people working in the trade. Many wine merchants run less formal, more funky events, from one-off tastings to courses over a number of weeks.

10. Have fun. Try this: organise your own blind tasting. Persuade five friends to bring a bottle each round to your house, ideally of the same style or grape variety, maybe start on South African Chardonnay, say, or Aussie Shiraz. Don’t forget to buy a bottle yourself. When they arrive, grab the bottles off them and Sellotape paper bags over them so the labels are obscured. Then get someone else to rearrange them in a different order and taste away. Have on hand a packet of water biscuits, a jug of tap water, glasses and an improvised spittoon � someone’s bound to be driving. If you are self conscious about spitting, practise in advance, with a glass of water in the privacy of your own bathroom. I’m not ashamed to say that I did this when I first got into the wine writing game, 30 years ago. Some pro tasters can hit the head of a pin at five paces but I’m afraid I�m still not in the slightly messy league! Get everyone to write down their thoughts; after a relaxing glass they won’t be afraid to air them and nor should you. Don’t worry if you think it sounds naff. Certain white wines are often said to taste ‘flinty’ but tell me, who, wine scribe or no, has ever tasted flint? It might be naff but it’s great craic and that’s what’s important. So, enjoy.

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