On not drinking a wine before its time (And how to do it cheaply)

Okay, so I’ve been admonished.

Friends and readers who say they just want to buy a modest bottle of wine and not have to endure wade through my ramblings about posh wines have spoken their minds.

“Write about wine I can actually afford,” people have said.

And I will, but not before I say something important about wine that just happens to involve bottles costing a lot of money.

Here goes: I’d say it’s safe very few of us actually get to drink wine of any significant age. Wine we see in specialist shops – and particularly supermarkets – tends to be released at a relatively young age for early drinking. That is a fact.

It is widely known that most bottles sold are opened on the same day they are bought; only true wine nerds care to mess about with any of that cellaring faff (people like me, I suppose). Most of the world lives bottle to bottle.

Add to this the fact producers sell a lot of wine young because they need the revenue and you have a society full of wine drinkers who have never tried something truly mature.

This is a shame. And I will tell you why.

Never a wine before its time

Orson Welles famously said in advertisements for wine brand Paul Masson (ironically not one you would *ever* age in a cellar), “We will sell no wine before its time.”

Even if Paul Masson wasn’t the sort of wine you would brag about drinking, the message was at least right.

A couple weeks ago this mantra was reinforced in my mind when I attended a wine tasting of the 2003 and 2004 vintages of Bordeaux estates Chateau Calon-Segur and Chateau Phelan-Segur at an event hosted by Schroders for personal finance journalists (full disclosure: Schroders organised and paid for the wines). First, we started the night with Joh. Jos. Prüm’s Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2003, which itself was an education in drinking medium-term aged riesling.

The aroma of gasoline/petroleum was almost off-putting at first, hitting your olfactory centre with a pungent rush that might have turned off shy wine drinkers. This was a far cry from your father’s bottle of Black Tower.

After this, we sat down for the main event, where we compared the 2003/04 Calon-Segur with the 2003/04 Phelan-Segur. The Calon-Segur, known for being the bigger, better and more expensive of the two, was still tight and closed at nearly a decade old.

Meanwhile, the 2003 Phelan was starting to show its age a little more and, arguably, was more mature and closer to being ready for drinking.

A few days later the Segur’s youth was driven home when I drank something truly mature – a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1978.

I can’t really help myself but transform into Miles from Sideways and bore you to tears with the way the wine was showing its age by bricking at the edge, how the tannins were full integrated into the wine, or how it had aromas of leather, cedar and tobacco.

But I will say the exercise illustrated just how much potential the wine would have had if it had been, well, not opened so soon.

This point was re-affirmed the day after the Lafite experience when, armed with a bottle of Calon-Segur 2004 that had been opened but not used at the tasting earlier in the week (I pushed the cork back into the bottle, to keep it perfectly fresh for a few more days), I opened again it for a friend at dinner.

And it was…still tighter than a rusted nut and loaded with tannin.

If all this wasn’t enough, yet more mature wine came my way. The following evening we cracked open a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996.

You know how a lot of Champagne is very acidic, bright, bubbly and seems to cut through everything you might have eaten, including your gums?

You see, you don’t get that with properly mature Champagne. Everything just…sings in harmony.

Now to the money-saving bit

So here it is. If you want something with more maturity and a decent dose of bottle age, Rioja is a good bet. I am always blown away by how cheap and well-made the wines of Rioja are. Something like a gran reserva will have spent a lot of time in barrel and yet more in bottle before being released, quite often for a fraction of what you’ll pay for equally fine wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. Same with Port, Madeira and Sherry.

If you want to drink something grown up and complex, I’d look south to the Iberian peninsula.

Recently I bought a bottle of Rioja from the 1996 vintage for less than £15. In general, unloved wine regions can be a source of wonderful wine bargains. I bought a bottle of Chateau Calon Montagne-St Emilion 1996 for €8 when I was in Bordeaux. Why was it so cheap? Because the Montagne-St Emilion appellation is a lesser cousin to St Emilion and, therefore, is not as popular among wine drinkers.

And there you go; something affordable to consider.

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How to miss the last train from East Dulwich after drinking too much organic wine

Anyone who lives in London has two concerns on a night out: whether they have to cross the river and whether or not the trains will be running late enough to return home easily.

Being one of those types who lives in North London, my nights out in the southern side of the city have only ever ended one of two ways: either very early so I can catch the final train home, or very late because I have  missed said train (Read: Christmas Eve 2007,  when I walked 12 miles home to Highbury from South Wimbledon).

But sometimes missing that final train home and having to string together a series of buses to reach your bed isn’t always a bad thing.This is exactly what happened following my trip to East Dulwich last week in order to try the food and wines at biodynamic and organic wine specialist Green & Blue Wines.

Now, I have to say I’m lucky enough to have great shops like Highbury Vintners and The Sampler on my doorstep, while English wine specialist Wine Pantry and a Laithwaites outlet are near my office.

I’ve always been polyamorous when it comes to wine shops, however, so I felt no sense of disloyalty making the trip down to East Dulwich after being invited there by Kate, the owner of this shop/restaurant/deli (full disclosure: this dinner and the wine were paid for by Green & Blue wines).

Organics are something I became well-acquainted with growing up on Canada’s west coast, where it was impossible not to have a concern for green issues given it’s an area known for tree huggers and ardent recyclers.

But shops like Green & Blue and all the others I buy from are a bit of a revelation for me.

You see, I grew up in British Columbia where, if I wanted to buy alcohol, I had three options. I could shop at the BC Liquor Store where the stock was dictated by what would make an easy sell at each location, at a cold beer and wine store attached to a pub, or at a VQA wine shop, which sold only specialist wines made in Canada.

So there I was in East Dulwich trying to find my way to Green & Blue. This isn’t a place you’ll have trouble finding. Situated in the middle of the high street, it occupies the width of two storefronts and is painted in a bright, lime green. If the objective was to be noticed, Kate scores full points here.

Now, to the food and the wine.

One thing I love is the idea of merging a wine merchant with a restaurant. This is something I admire about St John Bar and Restaurant, and have noticed popping up among other retailers. If you can do it well, it’s a fantastic plan.

This was the menu for the evening:

  • Roast summer vegetable salad with goat’s curd
  • Sardines with chilli, garlic and dill
  • Slow roast shoulder of lamb with vegetable ragout
  • Dark Chocolate Pot (served with fino sherry)

Forgive me now while I say very quickly the food was superb (and I really do mean it was fantastic and I would recommend it to everyone) so I can move on to the wine.

First up, Domaine Jean Maupertuis Petillant Pink Bulles. This is made from gamay grapes, comes from the Loire and is really just a simple and fun sparkling wine. There isn’t much complexity here; fizz and a medium-sweet flavour dominates. There is some nuttiness, strawberries and lots of fruits, but overall it isn’t a complex wine. This is something to drink very cold on the patio when the sun is shining.

With our starter and the sardines I opted for the next wine on offer, a rosé from Rousillon. This was the Les Casot de Mailloles Canta Manana Rose 2010. Unfortunately this wasn’t showing at its best, but it was very perfumed with a lot of floral tones and red fruits. On first whiff it had the odour of a hair salon, which didn’t go over well, but I have to say it matched nicely with the food. I wouldn’t say I was totally in love with this wine, but I’d be willing to try it again to reassess.

The wine to accompany the lamb shoulder was a very lightly fizzed Vittorio Bera Barbera Monferrato ‘Le Verrane’, which had that classic barbera flavour of cherries and berries, plus the acidic backbone to stand up to the meat. While the slight fizz is common to many Italian wines, I have to say I’d prefer it was completely still, but it was a good wine and definitely worth a try if you haven’t had this style before.

Once we’d made it past these three bottles, I lost track of everything else that was going on. Another bottle of red came out, but sadly I have no photo of it or even a note to tell me what it was like. Events became a blur.

Then when the pudding came out we had a glass of fino sherry to accompany it, but again there is no photographic evidence to back it up. What I do know is fino and dark chocolate can go together nicely even if you think it is all wrong, although I found it better to have a few sips of it rather than a full glass, otherwise the dryness of the sherry overwhelms the palate.

Not only did I lose track of what we were drinking, but I also lost track of time entirely. By the time I’d hunted down and bought a bottle of Qupé Central Coast Syrah 2009 from Kate and walked out the door, it was midnight. And apparently at midnight in East Dulwich it is impossible to catch a train back to London Bridge, which meant I had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to take me north of the Thames, from where I caught another bus home.

By the time I got to bed, it was 1:30 a.m.

House wine: Sometimes you just want to drink the cheap stuff

After spending a week in the scorching 35C heat that is typical of Rome in late June, I came to the realisation there is no such thing as wine snobbery when all you want is something cold, wet and refreshing.

When you’ve spent all morning schlepping around the Roman Fora, up and down the Colosseum, then shuffling through various other museums, come lunch time it doesn’t matter how fine or special that wine be when you plan to quaff it without any consideration for however complex it might be.

Normally I would shy away from ordering the house wine willy nilly at an unknown restaurant. And there are many more places I eat and drink regularly where I still won’t touch their cheap stuff. This is status quo here in the UK, where we expect the cheap wine on a restaurant’s list to be absolutely dire so order something from the middle of the list instead.

While there are exceptions to this rule, the number of you nodding your heads as you read this only confirm my point. My argument is only strengthened by the fact Decanter magazine ran an entire feature article this month on how to choose wine wisely – because we’ve all grown tired of being bamboozled once the cork is popped.

But in Rome, none of this seemed to matter. Whether I was buying by the bottle or the carafe, the cheap stuff or the ‘expensive’ stuff, not once did I whince after tasting a house wine, particularly when it was of the white variety.

This is down to two things. Either a) the wine at these Roman restaurants is of general higher quality than you find in your average establishment here in the UK, or b) it was so hot I simply didn’t care or notice what the wine was like as long as it was cold and refreshing.

Whether I was drinking Orvieto, Frascati, a suspiciously cheap and light Trebbiano from a one-litre bottle that surprised me and didn’t taste anything like paint thinner as I had anticipated, it seemed Rome’s restaurants were much better at executing cheap wine than the UK’s.

Perhaps there’s a good reason for this. Understanding Italy’s Byzantine wine universe is no small feat. Those of you who find French wine confusing enough have no chance when it comes to Italy. Whether you’re trying to make sense of Piedmont, Tuscany or Veneto, something new always enters the fray to muddy the waters.

Think you know exactly what is in your Barolo? Think again. The introduction of French grapes to a country with more great native grapes than it could ever need means what you think is being made from nebbiolo might, in fact, contain a little of something else.

Perhaps because of the utter confusion Italy’s wines cause the rest of us, its restaurateurs feel obliged to lend us a hand and provide us with something serviceable from all corners of their wine lists.

Of course, I have serious doubts about that last bit.

We shouldn’t have to feel like cheapskates when ordering house wine. When all we want is a decent glass of wine at a low price, why should we feel guilt for taking the affordable route? If only bars and restaurants would put some thought into this and stop serving us the worst chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or merlot they can find.

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net