“The Bollocks” To Be Minded At All Costs

How daft do we think people are..?

There’s been much discussion lately about “de-mystifying” wine: does the traditional wine vocabulary still have any great relevance, or does it merely obfuscate; does it deter people from the specialist shops; did it ever make a ha’porth of sense, anyway? You know the sort of thing. But has nobody given any thought to the intelligence of the wine drinker, or to where “de-mystification” – especially by specialists – will leave them? The issue could raise lengthy debate, but for now I’ll address it by way of a tasting event I hosted recently…

A large group of good-natured people are quietly weighing up the first of eight or so wines on display, and I ask them what they think. There is a wide range of knowledge and experience in the room, but one or two people seem to think I’m expecting a “wine buff’s” response, and a few more simply look worried. Diffidently, one of them breaks the ice: “it’s quite nice, yes. Fruity.”

“Certainly is! Any advance on fruity?”

But of course. There always is. Not immediately, but the snowball is rolling. Throughout the evening, conventional wine terms garner differing responses, even from the shy ones, and it is clear that people are aware not only of what I’m talking about, but of what I might be talking about. Neither the meanings nor the ambiguities are getting past anybody!

“How would you describe the nose on this, Mike?”

“Well, I’d be inclined to agree with the producer’s note, and say it was quite elegant.”

Another voice: “Is that ‘elegant’ in the sense of ‘not smelling of much?'”

“Er, yes, elegant can imply pleasing restraint, but I take your point that in this case it might be used in its, ah, ‘unassuming’ sense…”

“Well it must have an elegant palate as well, because it doesn’t taste of much either!”

And we’re off. As the evening wears on, the language of wine is deconstructed. “Flinty” becomes “pungently smoky,” “steely” becomes “painful,” “velvety” comes to describe a merciful antidote to the steely and flinty wines. Terms like “volatile acidity” invite as piquant a variety of responses as can be imagined! “Cat’s pee,” however, remains cat’s pee, and we find much to agree on – acidity can make a fruity wine a little more interesting, if a little less fruity, and tannin, while reassuringly indicative of longevity, can make it even less fruity. It can also turn a “soft finish” (a pleasant lingering aftertaste) into a “dry finish” (a vicious, lingering afterburn).

As we approach the end of the evening, we spotlight a couple of mightily impressive showstoppers from an esteemed Australian winery. As luck would have it, I have the winery’s own rather florid blurbs to hand, which I suspect will elicit a colourful response…

“You realise, don’t you, that you are sampling the ‘serious side’ of Grenache?” The desired effect is instantaneous. “Is that the side that sits in the house all day listening to Pink Floyd albums and thinking all the other wines are a shower of big soft kids?”

“It is also, it says here, ‘a thought-provoking wine.'” Again, I didn’t have to wait. “They’re spot on there, Mike – it’s provoked me into thinking I’d be crackers if I paid thirty-five quid for it!”

And for a final shot, squinting theatrically at the small print: “you will already have noticed its – let’s see – ‘loud fruit,’ and I’m sure its ‘huge length’ will have you struck dumb for a moment…” No. Not even for a moment. “There’s a job going for a proofreader?”

Of course, the effort to describe wine will occasionally result in some misguidedly picturesque language, and anybody who claims he can taste caramelised lemon zest in a wine is no less deranged now than ever he was. But where will “de-mystification” take us? Away from the odd bizarre, if well-intentioned, attempt to describe and share some massive personal impact? To a place where rows of wine are graded from “fairly decent” to “doubleplusgood,” by way of “gerrit down yer neck?” The wine vocabulary is a part of the wine experience, and it will grow as the wine lover’s journey progresses. Without encouragement he will simply walk in circles. Did Charlie Parker muscle his way around chord progressions before leaping off the top note into a whirlwind of improvisation, or did he play dead fast and that, like? Over the years, I’ve considered him to have done both, and much more besides, and while in that time I’ve responded differently to various approaches to jazz criticism, they’ve all added to my understanding of the music. Have we really abdicated our equal responsibility to the wine lover?

Those of us in the wine trade owe it to ourselves to grace something we love with some effort to convey its delightful indefinables. But we surely owe the same to others. To the wine growers, who spend the whole year fussing over crops in the quest for perfection. To the winemaking teams, working indescribable hours throughout the harvest and beyond to bring a thoroughly enriching experience to our table. And to the customers, their intelligence, curiosity and humour abiding all of the trends of the trade. They really are quite nice!

(An edited version of this article was published in Harper’s Wine and Spirit Magazine’s online edition: http://www.harpers.co.uk/home/13011-mike-stoddart-how-daft-do-we-think-consumers-are-.html)

Winery of the Month – Agricola I Fabbri, Chianti Classico

Where time permits, we all like to find out a little more: about the farm which produced our reassuringly smelly cheese, the microbrewery responsible for that third pint of delicious murk, the saxophonist undaunted by the odd reed squeak or horn honk in the urgent unfolding of his solo. With this in mind, every month, or thereabouts, we’ll be looking at a winery and its machinations, to offer some small insight into the characters and processes that comprise your bottle of individuality. It doesn’t have to be small to be beautiful – let’s not forget that it was EMI and not Rough Trade who brought us the Beatles – but we’ll start with something very small. And very beautiful.
High in the hills of Lamole, Chianti Classico, the Grassi family have owned Agricola I Fabbri since 1620. The farm covers 35 hectares, much of it hillside woodland around the village, with just 9 hectares (about 22 acres) under vine and a further 2 given to olive oil production.

I Fabbri’s impressive grapevine amphitheatre

To get some idea of the scale involved, think of a hectare as one and a half Premiership football pitches, and bear in mind that Cloudy Bay’s estate vineyards alone amount to 250ha. I Fabbri is currently run by Susanna Grassi, a woman blessed with an uncompromising dedication to quality and value, who, with her sister Maddalena, has spent the past twelve years developing sustainable farming practices. All of I Fabbri’s grape cultivation has now been certified organic and biodynamic.

Olive workers showing us that it’s not all beer and skittles in the wine business

And the wine..? I Fabbri produce six wines and an award-festooned olive oil. The vineyard is given largely to Sangiovese (more specifically Sangiovese Grosso di Lamole), together with some Canaiolo and Merlot. All grapes are picked by hand in the first two weeks of October, and painstakingly vinified according to generations of family tradition. There is absolutely no confection here – nothing is concocted in a laboratory to produce wine of popular but compromised appeal. And the wines taste gorgeous, of course. The Lamole Chianti Classico alone tastes like a wholesome melange of light red fruit and licorice, concentrated berries and a touch of coffee. Others have rich floral aromas and flavours of plums and chestnuts, and they all have a wonderfully proportioned structure which pushes the flavours all around your mouth, and makes sure they stay there. But above all, they taste like a tiny Italian vineyard. And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll swear you can hear a reed squeak.

(Susanna Grassi will be in Liverpool on Tuesday, 12th June, hosting a five-course winemaker dinner on the glorious top floor of the London Carriage Works. For further information: http://www.thelondoncarriageworks.co.uk/news/winemakers–dinner—i-fabbri.phuse)

Susanna Grassi braces herself for a big night out in Liverpool

Vino Ignobile?

Towards the east of Tuscany you will find a DOCG called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. DOCG, or Demoninazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, is as high a designation of quality as Italian wine law permits, and has been granted to only eleven areas in Tuscany. The deep and complex red wine which the region produces from the Sangiovese grape, aged in oak barrels for two years or more, is well-known and much sought after, and can command a high price. In the 1600’s the poet Franceso Redi described it as “the king of all wines.”

In the south of Liverpool, on the other hand, you will find a supermarket called, well, that would be telling. Its name is as high a designation of profitability as English planning law permits, and only sixteen premises in South Liverpool have been granted it. In the store, you will find an Italian red wine called Monte Nobile Riserva.  The wine has been aged, somewhere or another, for two years, and at the time of writing, it commands a price of 4.99, half the “usual” price of 9.99. In 2012, a Liverpudlian blogger described it as “the knave of all wines.”

But what’s the problem? Well, the name, for a start, which suggests a kinship to the Tuscan monarch described above. In actual fact Monte Nobile sounds like an Australian cricketer, and seems to translate as nothing more grandly evocative than “Mount Noble.” It has a rather ornate label, which obscures its origins in a DOC called Squinzano, in Puglia, an area known for producing enormous quantities of fairly robust if not wholly riveting Negroamaro-based wines. It has apparently been aged for two years, with six months in oak, but we are not told how or where it was aged for the rest of that time (ten team points to whoever said “in the store room, waiting for a spurious offer.”)

Needless to say, there are other wines in the same outlet – and in many other outlets, to be fair – that operate similar deceits. I’ll not tell you where it came from, but I have in front of me a bottle of Antano Rioja 2009, “better than half price” at 4.99 (originally 10.49). When looking at Rioja, especially at 10.49, we might be looking for some indication of its age and quality: Tinto Joven, Gran Reserva, etc. Antano offers no such assistance, and instead the label bears the unhelpful legend “Gran Seleccion 2009,” or “Large Selection 2009.” What we are drinking a large selection of remains unclear, and there is no information about grape variety or ageing. Anybody whose distant recollection of an exquisite Spanish occasion has faded to “it was Grand something, and it wasn’t cheap” might be thinking this is in the same area. It almost certainly is not. Like the Squinzano Rosso above, and like most products on offers of this sort, it’s a serviceable if undistinguished wine whose lower price tag reflects its true value.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need me to tell you about the economic dubiety of deals like this. What really vexes, however, is the delusion presented to anybody trying to make an informed choice. Smaller wine merchants share their knowledge quite naturally, and by doing so they engage fabulously with their customers. Conversely, the people who concoct these deals offer cheap creations with a suggested connection to the immortal wines available from specialist shops, not only showing aggression towards smaller businesses, but worse, deriding customers by exploiting gaps in their knowledge rather than seeking to fill them. Is mockery really so cheap at half the price..?