Number 48 of the 53 entries we plan are publishing as part of our wine writing competition comes to us from Bermuda courtesy of Andrew McKinna, who introduces himself as follows.
A 57-year old Englishman, an unemployable beach bum, based in Bermuda, who never buys wine as an investment, only to drink, and who looks for every opportunity to explore where the wine comes from with his long-suffering wife. More gourmand than gourmet, but with boundless enthusiasm in the kitchen and the cellar! Recently diagnosed with OCW Syndrome.
CONNOISSEURSHIP – of wine is a (disappearing) art in search of a less emotive name. The word connoisseur in English, and its counterpart connaisseur in French, conjures up a frightening image of an elderly male so steeped in wine, wine knowledge and wine prejudices as to be completely unapproachable. Much more attractive and widely acceptable terms are those which convey not just knowledge but an element of relish such as wine lover, wine enthusiast, or the common and attractive French term amateur du vin. None of these terms incidentally has any connotation of gender.
The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th edition
Would the same wine, in an identical glass, taste exactly the same in two different locations, two days later? Standing shoulder to shoulder with a surprising number of fellow wine enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes at the recent Greek Wine Fair in London was quite an experience, but it provided excellent preparation for our visit 48 hours later to one of Greece’s, if not Europe’s, leading wineries, in Northern Greece. Tasting as a competitive sport was not quite what I had in mind as we walked towards Granary Square from King’s Cross, but, on a dry, bright Sunday afternoon in October, there were certainly several groups moving from table to table apparently determined to taste every wine as fast as possible, with, how can I put it, a certain lack of spacial awareness or due consideration for anyone pausing to consider the complexity of the wine in their glass, or to enjoy a longer than expected finish.
Such patience frequently paid dividends, fortunately, as there were some wonderful wines on display, but if, as I did, you stepped back from the table to do so, you then ran the risk of having to wait until the group that immediately filled the opening eventually moved along. Each such cluster – perhaps a wine club, perhaps a group of friends – always seemed to have an identifiable leader, whose backpack invariably clunked me as he swung round to deliver another pearl of wisdom to his followers. This does admittedly rather make me seem like that stereotypical elderly male, steeped in wine, with definite prejudices, distinctly unapproachable, when I would much prefer to think of myself as a genuine – and relatively young – amateur du vin, rather than a grumpy old wine bore.
To be fair, there were quite a number of others apparently equally frustrated at times. On the other hand, for such an event to be viable, the organisers would presumably need significant numbers of people to attend – and, with live Greek music in the background, food on offer around the corner, and a happy crowd of hoi polloi, the atmosphere was very relaxed and good-natured.
Moreover, if I am honest, fifteen or twenty years ago, I might have been one of those earnest followers, eagerly pushing forward to the front. I amused myself by studying the crowd, trying to work out which were members of the Greek community living in London, which ambitious sommeliers on their day off, or WSET students, and which were local residents passing the time after a jolly Sunday lunch by the canal. Perhaps the trick is to visit such events on the Sunday morning, before lunch. Then again, some of the wine merchants and producers present looked like they had only just stirred after an exciting Saturday evening.
Right in front of me, a rather stern-looking tall man with a bald head and a blue quilted gilet was locked in whispered discussion about each wine with his companion – and could easily reach over everyone else’s heads to get the next wine poured for both of them. Probably Greek and possibly a sommelier? The equally serious red-headed lady with a battered old leather knapsack and a notebook who systematically retreated with each glass to a table in the corner to taste and make notes? Perhaps a wine writer, or a WSET student. The gentleman with a labrador in tow, or the two couples with babies in buggies? Local wine-lovers out for a walk?
But then, what about me? Probably not a student, as I was not typing or writing anything down. Why not, as a dedicated Purple Pager? Fifteen years ago, my wife left her treasured notebook on a table in a cellar, with all her tasting notes from the preceding 21 months, while on an extremely well-organised tour of German vineyards, with the legendary Freddy Price. Our efforts to recover the notebook failed, despite telephoning the Schloss in question later that evening, from our hotel. Judith’s initial entries had detailed various special bottles shared during a succession of dinners across Europe to celebrate both our 40th birthdays, including an unforgettable 1959 Dom Pérignon at Les Crayères in Gerard Boyer’s heyday; a stunning, still vibrant 1959 Luxembourg Riesling, producer thus now sadly unidentifiable, even if the restaurant was only 30 kilometres from the vineyard on the Mosel, which paired beautifully with some foie gras followed by a whole turbot; and a bottle of 1959 Latour, straight from the château’s cellars, donated by Hugh Johnson and auctioned at Christie’s one evening by Jancis herself, in aid of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, I think.
After the notebook was confirmed missing in action, we adopted a simpler, more user-friendly approach, blending scribbles on menus at various wine dinners with an expanding collection of empty bottles, souvenirs that line our cellar at our house in France. Some of them still have a scribbled ‘BLIC’ on the back label, a mark of approval derived from the framework Jane Hunt MW taught us on a visit to Southern Italy, putting the focus firmly on ‘Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity’. Each of those bottles still conjures up a special episode, a memory which makes us smile together, sometimes also recorded with a photo, sometimes a menu, and our passion for exploring vineyards primarily determines the focus of our travels around the world.
Long after we were no longer allowed to carry wine in our hand luggage on the flight home, I am still bringing empty bottles with me. A photo of the label is an acceptable substitute in extremis but somehow not quite so romantic. We have no ambition to take any more exams, but our desire to learn remains as strong as ever, and our bookshelves are lined with textbooks on oenology, which we dip into, as well as a range of wonderful classics, including all the usual suspects, of course, but also other out-of-print gems, such as Puligny-Montrachet by Simon Loftus. And more cookbooks than you can shake a sieve at!
It is a cliché, for which I make no apology: as an amateur, the more you learn, the more you realise how little you know. Our cellar may at first glance, like our library, seem to suggest we are only really interested in France and Italy, with a nod to Germany and Austria, but a closer look would hint at some of our adventures over the years in the New World. Indeed that lost notebook also recorded our first visit to California, as well as Australia. Unexpected highlights of the last decade would include the Okanagan Valley and the Valais – both vulnerable to the suggestion that their wines taste better there and don’t really travel, although it might also be that their best wines are made in such small quantities they do not bother to export them.
Greek wines, on the other hand, as Julia has documented so well, have enjoyed something of a renaissance – indeed have become positively trendy – and have thus far managed to meet the growing demand on both sides of the Atlantic. Jancis observed earlier this year: ‘I can’t stress enough how good Greek wines are. They have a sophistication and interest level that lifts them above their neighbours.’ We half-expected the drive from Thessaloniki to Epanomi, along a bumpy country road, more potholes than road, really, with fields of cotton on one side and pumpkins on the ground on the other, to be hair-raising, not least because our host regularly gestured with both hands while driving, turning sideways to point out Macedonian burial mounds, or to explain that Greek cotton was once considered second only to fine Egyptian cotton, or that the falling price of pumpkins meant it was not worth the farmer’s while to harvest them.
And then, in the middle of nowhere, we suddenly saw the first manicured rows of vines and, set low against the skyline, the state-of-the-art winery at Domaine Gerovassiliou. My battered, rather out-of-date paperback copy of Konstantinos Lazarakis MW’s book on Greek wines emphasised both Vangelis Gerovassiliou’s talent and his judgement, as he expanded step by step from the original 2 hectares (5 acres) of vines to the present 62 hectares. Taught in Bordeaux by Professor Emile Peynaud, but determined to shine the spotlight on what Jancis describes as ‘its rich heritage of indigenous grape varieties’, Vangelis (pictured below tending his vines) has built a family winery that bears comparison with any other first-class family winery we have visited around the world.
The investment in stainless-steel fermentation tanks and French barriques, and indeed a dedicated bottling line, is immediately evident – but closer inspection makes me realise that this winery is not only cleverly designed, but also spotlessly clean, immaculate, in a way that Domaine de Chevalier or Haut-Brion or Dominus are. Sitting in the adjacent restaurant, with its panoramic view across the vineyard, where his sister-in-law briskly sorted out what we should have for lunch – sea bass caught that morning a few kilometres away – and his son, also now a graduate in oenology from Bordeaux, walked over to share a glass of an older vintage of their flagship red to taste, Judith and I agreed we could be in Margaret River, or Napa – until we tasted his Malagousia, which Vangelis saved from extinction. It is a wine we tasted on Sunday at the Greek Wine Fair but here, in the sunshine, with the sea bass, it is of course an altogether more civilised, peaceful experience.
Whether you believe in the concept of terroir or not, there is something magical about tasting the wine while looking at the vineyard it comes from. I respect the sincerity of those adherents of biodynamics, without quite being sure if it is just hocus-pocus or not, and so I am familiar with their suggestion that the same wines will taste more open or closed on any given day. Bottle variation is another challenge. And yet one reason why we reach for a particular bottle at home is to conjure up memories of sunshine, and sea bass, and to transport us back to a time and place redolent with happy memories. Otherwise, all we would have to make us smile would be those empty bottles lining the cellar. To my great relief, therefore, the wine did taste to me exactly like it did two days before. Further research is however required. The true test will be on a cold winter’s day in London! Santé!
VINO DA MEDITAZIONE – unofficial Italian category of wines considered too complex but often simply too alcoholic and/or sweet to drink with food. Such wines, many of them extra strong and/or sweet because they are DRIED-GRAPE WINES, are probably best sipped meditatively after a meal.
The Oxford Companion to Wine, 4th edition
Until I dipped once more into the pages of the The Oxford Companion to Wine, I had never realised that this phrase, one of my personal favourites, far from being the compliment I intended, was actually slightly pejorative.
Perhaps that’s partly because my knowledge of Italian is rather sketchy, to put it politely, but I think it is also partly because the language somehow makes even the most banal expression sound slightly exotic or romantic. My favourite operas are normally sung in Italian, sometimes French, but rarely German. I am not sure why, but even a simple phrase sounds to me like the tinkling of a mischievous piano, rather than the beating of a drum, or a brass band. Is it the number of additional syllables?
That lightness of touch is evident in many of my favourite wine-friendly summer dishes as well, sitting outside on a warm terrace, watching the sun go down over the ocean. Then again, in winter, with a log fire gently flickering, an older bottle of Barbaresco, a plate of wild boar ragu and pappardelle, re-reading the late Michael Dibdin’s A Long Finish, it is remarkably easy to forget for a while the day-to-day madness of the modern world. The idea that you can sit and enjoy a glass or two of wine and reflect, seems rather old-fashioned in the 21st century, where too many wine bars and restaurants seem to have turned up the volume on the background music to a point where I cannot hear myself think, never mind what Judith is trying to say across the table.
We gave one of our neighbourhood restaurants another go last night – but it was a disaster once again, for all the wrong reasons. Nothing to do with the food, or the wine, or the service, which was very attentive. And I like the Eagles. Hotel California is a great song (and a great album) – and probably shouldn’t be played too quietly, but there’s a time and a place. ‘Some drink to remember’ but have trouble doing so with all the distractions. The enthusiastic sommelier, Neapolitan I think he said, had recommended a wine from Sicily to match the venison, and it was a great success. It was interesting, with spice, and structure, and we sat there appreciating it. He agreed with me that it was a vino da meditazione – which, between us, signalled a wine worth taking seriously. So we sipped respectfully – and it indeed worked rather well. Miraculously, we each had half a glass left as they cleared our plates away.
Sometimes I wonder – actually, quite often I worry – whether we drink too much, particularly at home, where it’s so easy to top your glass up, and to open another bottle because the right glasses for big red wines are themselves so big that the first bottle vanishes without trace half-way through the course in question – but 95% of the time we are at least drinking with dinner. It is rare that we just sit down with a glass of wine, although I think it would add another dimension to my forays into the OCW. Sitting under a tree in the summer, with a glass of wine, and a good book, sipping away, sounds fun, as long as the wine doesn’t get too warm.
The textbook definition above rather implies an amarone, or perhaps a vin santo, but that doesn’t make sense in our case, because we tend to drink the former when they are older, and the alcohol is fully integrated, and they work with a ribeye steak on the grill, as indeed do aged Zinfandels from California, which share the same awkwardness in their youth. We are looking for complexity and subtlety, not alcohol.
‘Some drink to forget.’ If I look in the mirror, do I see a sad, grumpy old man sitting at the bar, complaining about the music? Whether in solitary splendour or sharing a bottle with a friend, what’s so wrong with taking the opportunity to appreciate the wine and to collect your thoughts? Judith reminded me that the only vin santo tasting we ever turned up for was at 10 am on an agriturismo on one of the Antinori estates in Tuscany, half an hour after we had finished breakfast. That was hard work. I do like to try different wines, and indeed restaurants, but constantly wrestle with this dilemma: do you try something different, or return to an old favourite that you know will not disappoint you?
The number of new restaurants opening in London remains as bewildering as ever – and it’s a real challenge, especially if, like us, you are only there for a few days every couple of months. You can’t eat out all the time: quite apart from the cost, entertaining at our flat at least helps to make a dent in a cellar full of goodies bought from various friendly wine merchants. And, at the end of the evening, do you reach for your favourite sauternes, or port, or do you risk that trendy Pedro Ximénez? Or vin santo? Or grappa? Perhaps it’s about context: an Italian dinner demands due respect at its conclusion, just as a Burgundian feast traditionally reaches a fitting conclusion with a marc, although, whisper it quietly, at the Clos de Vougeot, everyone around us last month seemed to be negotiating another top-up of a silky Grand Cru Chambertin that had evaporated in the midst of the sing-song … I guess there’s a time and a place for everything! Santé!