At the end of last year my book on wine tasting, “Tasting Notes” was published in paperback. This is a look back of thirty years of commercial wine buying and as a piece of non-fiction I have therefore published this under my name (Mark Slaney) and not my pen-name. Whilst providing an informative guide to tracking down some fine wine gems that lie off the beaten track the book is nevertheless, first and last, a light hearted and humorous look at how a penchant for a glass of wine at an early age slid into being a career of great pleasure. I’d like to thank Andrew Gunn of Iona Vineyard, South Africa; Jenny and Warwick Hawker of Pisa Range in New Zealand and Dan Odfjell Jnr of Odfjell Wines in Chile for their kind contributions to the book. I am also really grateful to the Rt Hon Lord Steel of Aikwood for providing a forward to the book. Here is a slice from the opening – happy reading!
Nineteen seventy six was damned hot. It was one of those heat-wave years that come only once or twice a century. Whilst I spent the summer in my seaside town on the south coast of England wandering listlessly along the promenade and tramping the beach with my tongue hanging out, the vineyards of Europe were in danger of burning up. The school summer holiday gave me and my friends weeks of relentlessly roasting weather. I was living in a sea-side town on the south coast of England. The beach was packed and the town was bursting at the seams with holidaymakers. At the west end of the five miles of gently curving bay the beach was over-looked by gleaming white apartment towers and imposing five star hotels. The beach hut owners vied to out-do each other and the windbreaks were grand structures that encircled three generations of families in one go and looked as impressive as a medieval siege engine. In the centre of the bay queues of sweltering parents trailed from the ice cream vendors like the fronds of seaweed that sashayed in the water around the mussel covered groynes. At the east end of the beach the golden sand gave out to dunes and shingle. Here the foreign students, studying at the English language school, hung out and tanned teenage girls in micro bikinis lay for hours on beach towels seemingly asleep behind their dark sun glasses. All the girls seemed to have legs up to their arm-pits, glistening hair down to their shoulder blades and boyfriends who were always broader and taller than me and my mates. So during the long summer holiday I hung out with my school-mates and we lolled around like dogs too stupid to get out of the sun, tongues hanging out and occasionally the glimpse of those girls who opted to sun-bathe topless in quiet folds in the sand dunes just added to our sense of missing out. Seventy six was certainly damned hot.
Five years later I bought my first case of wine. Not my first bottle; I’d got into wine years earlier but for the first time I decided to by a dozen bottles of the same wine. Buying wine by the case now has the same satisfaction for me as buying a new suit and carefully opening the case of wine offers the same expectation as snipping the threads on the pockets that the suit-makers like to put there for some curious reason. Do they serve the same purpose as the tissue paper that is wrapped around some bottles of wine? Does the paper suggest something a little bit more special? Is the suit maker saying; take note of what you about to wear. It is just a little bit special.
The wine that I bought by the case was a Marques de Riscal Crianza Rioja 1976. It smelt of mushrooms, cloves and vanilla. I wondered if I chose those adjectives because I liked the bacon and mushrooms for breakfast, I liked the smell of cloves and I loved vanilla ice-cream. Perhaps my mind was just conjuring adjectives? Maybe the wine really just tasted of grapes? After all that was all it was made from. No, I decided, somehow it really did smell of mushrooms and cloves and vanilla. It tasted soft and silky. It was easy to drink and warming. At £3.46 it was, I decided, a bargain. For the next year I went mad looking for similar experiences. It was easy enough to work out that Marques de Riscal was the name of the wine-maker, Rioja was a region and 1976 was the year that the wine was made. Hunting wine turned me into a detective looking for clues. There were other wines whose names began with the title Marques, so I tried them. Some tasted good but others dull. I dug deeper and found out that some were the names of real people and others pure fantasy. Digging deeper still I found that some of prominent wine estates names in the Spanish region of Rioja were deliberate corruptions of French names. French wine-makers had, over a century ago, moved to Rioja and “Spanish-ised” their name. Carlos Serres, for example, was in truth not Carlos but a chap from France called Charles. There were also words in Spanish on the back label of the bottles that meant nothing to me. Were they significant clues or merely red herrings? I tried a handful of bottles of Rioja but nothing quite matched the Marques de Riscal until I was prepared to part with twice as much money for a bottle. Why did the 1976 wine from Marques de Riscal taste so good? Why were Frenchmen pretending to be Spaniards and why were some Marques real people and others pure fiction?
I did some more investigating. Well, there were some real Marques’s for sure who made jolly good wine but the other so called Marques were inventions to make the wine sound like it had a pedigree and there was no law against this. I suppose this is like a commercial drinks manufacturer bottling whisky and labelling it as Glen Whatever. There may be no Glen Whatever and they can do that and that is an end of the subject. It is simply a brand name and if someone believes it is a wooded valley rather than a factory site in an industrial estate then that’s too bad.
The explanation for Frenchmen popping up in northern Spain was rather interesting. Back in the nineteenth century a bug wiped out the vineyards of France and a handful of talented French wine-makers from Bordeaux, down in the south-west of France, de-camped over the mountains and into Spain in search of vineyard pastures new and made their homes in the region of Rioja.
It turned out that 1976 whilst pretty good wasn’t the best of Rioja vintages. It was just too damned hot to make perfect wine but every good wine will go through phases in its development and the objective of wine connoisseurs is to drink good wines when they have matured to their peak of perfection. Drunk too early or too late and something is missed.
A good wine drunk at its peak will invariably taste more pleasing than even a great wine that is drunk when it is either too young or too old. By chance, I’d bought my 1976 wine in 1981 and it was approaching the zenith of development. The education came through having bought twelve bottles of the same wine. The first couple of bottles I drank within a week or so were really good. Then a few months later a bottle tasted even better. For the rest of the year every bottle was stunning but as the next couple of years went by and I drank up the last few bottles, each was slightly less fabulous than the previous.
In 1981 though it was drinking beautifully and of course as its silky fruit and supple tannins filled my mouth I thought about the summer of seventy six and those sultry foreign girls sun-bathing in the sand dunes. My wine education had begun: I was even learning the jargon: the glycerine that coated the wine glass when I swirled the wine around the glass was technically referred to as “jambes des filles”: girls’ legs. Watching the shapes the glycerine formed, this made perfect sense. Opinion in those days suggested that the legs were an indication of quality. The truth of the matter is simply that wines with higher alcohol will show more pronounced legs which are caused by the difference in the rate of evaporation and capillary tension between water and alcohol.
Sometimes, closing my eyes I found it easier to focus on the flavours and smells of the wine. Mushrooms, cloves, vanilla and what was that last whiff… ah yes, Ambre Solaire.
Being the son of restaurant owners and living above the shop I grew up assuming certain things were quite normal: I decided that crème de cassis made better Ribena than Ribena and as it was always to hand it became standard. Cooking a mixed grill under a salamander grill in the restaurant’s kitchen before heading off to school was simply common sense and more satisfying than a bowl of Coco Pops. Extra pocket money came with helping out in the restaurant; washing up, then for more cash preparing vegetables, later training as a commis chef so that time spent jointing chickens, guinea fowl and in due course sides of beef on the bone all translated into an ever expanding Hornby railway, more ranks of Airfix soldiers and massed formations of Panzers. I leant to taste the difference between sole and plaice and Burgundy and Bordeaux before I’d done my O-levels and before I had done my A-levels I knew why Chateau Calon Segur was worth more than Chateau Phelan Segur. On days when the restaurant was closed we feasted on leftovers: fillet steak toasted sandwiches for Sunday brunch; Dover sole or duck for dinner. And a bottle of wine was always on the table.
One Sunday my dad and I came back after a morning of walking the whippet to the welcoming smell of stew. We breezed into the kitchen, dad with the Sunday papers under his arm and me with a Commando comic magazine tightly rolled into a make-shift dagger in case of ambush. We both noticed amongst the debris on the kitchen side from mum’s labours an opened bottle of wine and the sunlight slanting in through the window showed the remaining wine level at about two or three inches. Dad always thought it sensible to keep a small wine rack with a dozen bottles at home. Now he glanced at the bottle, glanced at the rack, eyed the stew, looked at my mum and then stared disbelievingly at the bottle. I remember thinking it had a very plain looking label. He made a noise; a sort of faint noise that was half gulp, half choke and then another noise that I suppose was an attempt at the word “no”.
So never judge a wine by its label: Chambertin Clos de Beze 1964 does not need a flashy label to proclaim it one of the greatest of Burgundies; indeed one of the greatest red wines in the world. Mum had needed something red for the stew and her logic was the plainer the label then the plainer the wine, which I suppose does have a certain logic.
I hope by the end of this book you’ll know your Le Chambertin from your Gevrey Chambertin and why the former is worth so much more.
So whilst dad poured himself a large Cutty Sark to drown his sorrow, I poured myself a glass of what was left. One of my current favourite military leaders was Napoleon and taking my first mouthful of that wine I found out that I had something in common with the great Bonaparte: his favourite wine too was Chambertin.
About a week later we met up with friends at a restaurant out in the countryside: low beams, diamond leaded windows, log fires and a pretty young barmaid who, I noticed, had the same colour bra just peeping out from her open necked blouse as she did nail varnish. Funny how you notice certain things isn’t it? The restaurant was called the Red Fox which struck me as a good name for a cunning Communist General who would lead crack troops on skis deep into enemy territory during a winter campaign. There were four adults and three youngsters at our table. Plates were piled high from the buffet spread and on our table was also a bottle of Chassagne Montrachet and a bottle of Gevrey Chambertin. Why, I wondered, did Gevrey Chambertin not taste a patch on Le Chambertin? I was to later learn that the answer was the same for why a Chassagne Montrachet does not taste half as good as Le Montrachet.
Amongst dad’s numerous cookery books was one on wine which seemed to be all he needed: Hugh Johnson’s “World Atlas of Wine”. In there I found the answer that Sunday afternoon when we returned from the Cunning Communist and I was quite surprised when I nearly missed Colditiz on the telly because I had got so engrossed in the book; it was addictive: there were intricate almost military styled maps of the vineyards; there were rows of wine labels photographed for easy recognition; just like those silhouette identification books on enemy planes and tanks. There were glossy colour photographs of vineyards and at the front of the book, best of all, there were the secret codes; suddenly I realised that I could crack the secret code of wine tasting and identification: it was all there just like an encryption device: vintage charts and most crucially the detailed specification of the grape varieties. Of course at the time I should have been revising for my school exams but somehow maths and most other subjects held less appeal than my addiction to military history and wargaming. Now looking at the wine charts I saw something as engrossing as learning about military history. In just the same way as the capabilities of a tank for example were dictated by the size of its armament and armour thickness so wines could be evaluated by the grape variety used, the quality of the vintage and the location of their vineyard.
I slammed the book shut: I now had two urgent objectives: first was to get to the lounge before I missed the start of Colditz on the telly and second was the purchase of a bottle of Bordeaux from 1978 because I had learnt that this was the greatest of recent vintages.
Oh, yes, I nearly forgot: the explanation for why Le Chambertin should be so much better than Gevrey-Chambertin…
The former is one small vineyard of great quality and the latter is the collection of vineyards around a village which may also hyphenate the name of the single great vineyard to their own village name. Thus the great vineyard Le Montrachet becomes hyphenated to all the vineyards around the village called Puligny and all of these vineyards become called Puligny Montrachet. All of which should be good but not as great as Le Montrachet. To add a little confusion there are also a couple of other Grand Cru vineyards next to Le Montrachet with their own names. Hugh Johnson being smart with maps shaded all the great vineyards in a dark purple, the next best vineyards in pale purple and the rest of the vineyards of Burgundy in pink.
The great book that I had found also contained a glossary of wine terms. Perhaps because all things pertaining to the love of wine seemed to stem from the French, since they regarded themselves as the greatest wine making nation on earth then all the descriptions were very much in the style of how Frenchmen (so I imagined) like to heap praise on the fairer sex as flattery, they doubtless believed, was the first step in the art of seduction. So wines, I found out were praised as voluptuous, silky, enticing, alluring and perfumed.
That autumn my focus of attention shifted from wargaming to wine. Within walking distance of where I lived were two wine shops; each part of a national high street chain. First up I tried Victoria Wine as it was closer. I suppose the reaction I got when, as a school kid, I sauntered in there one Saturday morning was not wholly unexpected.
‘Yes sonny, what can I do for you?’
‘I can’t sell you fags.’
‘Fair enough: have you got any seventy-eight clarets?’
‘Right; hop it!’
To the rescue came dad who bought all the restaurant wine from a high street wine merchant called Peter Dominic. Dad spent a bloody fortune there and had a credit account. Like me he had got the wine bug and the manager of the local branch bent over backwards to look after dad. In fact the chap was bent over looking after all his customers: never lift two wooden boxes full of claret at the same time without bending your knees, irrespective of the vintage.
There I found my seventy-eights. The manager was not on duty but another chap was and we nodded at each other in mutual recognition. I found the Bordeaux section and stared at the wine labels for five minutes.
‘What’s the difference between the Chateau Calon-Segur and the Chateau Phelan Segur please?’
‘Two quid, son.’
‘I mean,’ I began as patiently I could, ‘what’s the difference in taste?’
The man behind the counter stared at the spotty teenager and rubbed the back of his ear. He reminded me of Roy Kinnear playing Planchet in the Three Musketeers.
‘Taste?’ he repeated the word as if it was new to him. Maybe it was.
I started to fear that this conversation could last until the next wine harvest.
‘Which do you prefer?’ I asked.
‘The man smiled, suddenly reassured. ‘Dunno: not tried either. Is it a present for your dad?’
At that moment the doorbell tinkled and another customer came in. We both gave the door a glance. Perhaps because the shop assistant had reminded me of Planchet from the Three Musketeers my first thought now was of Raquel Welch playing Constance Bonacieux.
I had seen her a few times in town; she went to the Catholic girls’ school I had to walk past on the way to mine. I’d seen her playing tennis at the little public gardens that had an Victorian water tower and a pavilion where the old duffers shaded in between games of bowls. She wasn’t in her school uniform now. Heeled sandals were laced up her bare ankles. Her skirt was olive green and short and her T-shirt was rather tight. She glanced at the rank of cigarettes behind the counter and licked her lips nervously then she flicked her hair and smiled at the shop assistant.
I saw a chance and lunged before I had time to consider the humiliations of failure. What I wanted to say was something along the lines of; “Hi, I’m sure you recognise me as we have often have walked past each other and I’ve noticed you playing tennis and I like playing tennis too so maybe you’d like a game sometime and then perhaps we could go for a stroll along the beach afterwards and watch the sun set and then we could sit on a sand dune and talk about life and…” however I realised that this was too long winded and what was needed to secure a victory was a blitzkrieg approach. However I also knew that for a Blitzkrieg campaign to be successful it had to be planned meticulously and I didn’t have a clue what to say. Therefore in the second that I had to act I opted for a different strategy.
‘I know that the Calon is a Grand Cru and the Phelan only a Cru Bourgeois but I was wondering which you thought was drinking better just now?’
I’d been certain when I opened my mouth the words would come out as a squeak so I had purposefully dropped my voice an octave.
The shop assistant, to whom I’d addressed the question, looked at me dumbfounded.
She glanced at me. He looked at me. He then looked at her. She looked away from me and smiled at him.
‘Twenty Benson please,’ she said.
I watched him serve her.
She took her change and cigarettes and turned to go, giving me a backwards glance as she left. If I’d had a thousand ships rather than fifty Panzer tanks I would have launched them all irrespective of the tide.
‘What were you saying? Which one did you want one then son?’
‘I’ll take both.’
He took bloody ages to wrap some tissue paper around both bottles and then put them in a bag. A poster above his head had a picture of a castle perched on a cloud and underneath the caption, “It’s about as likely as a duff bottle of Hirondelle.” By the time I was on the street she was gone from sight. I headed home on the twenty-one bus and showed dad the bottles.
‘Nice. Very nice. Seventy-eights will be good… eventually.’
‘Yeah, given another ten or so years’
I went back to the Hugh Johnson instruction manual and there I found a column of facts alongside the vintages charts that I had previously missed. H.J. had carefully noted the optimum years in which to drink each vintage. How very thoughtful of him; how very careless of me, not to have noticed that at the outset, I mused. Warnings from my English teacher rang in my head about making sure you read the whole question and fully understand it before you do anything. Well, never mind, in ten years’ time dad would be all the more impressed meantime I’d have to find something that was ready now.
Good wines take time to mature and reach perfection: red wines generally take longer than whites. The greatest wines invariably take the longest to mature. A simple Bordeaux from a good vintage might take just three or four years before it is drinking nicely. A good Bordeaux Chateau from a good year might take ten years. A great Chateau from an excellent vintage could take twenty years or longer.
This is an extract from “Tasting Notes” by Mark Slaney.
Published by Rowan Rose Publishing November 2014.
Copyright Mark Slaney