Last week we were in the UK and visited an old friend. 17 years ago, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, I had given him a bottle of quite expensive vintage port and this year, on the basis that we might not have another dinner together, he decided to drink it. Opening it was a struggle. Despite storage on its side, the cork had hardened and broke upon attempted extraction. This was not really a problem as we had a muslin filter to hand as part of the decanting process though it proved vexatious to my friend who had become somewhat irascible in his later years. On sampling the wine, I can say it was good, but how good, and what defines good in this context? Thinking about this cast me into a pool of wine reminiscence.
I can remember at some time in the late 1970’s, taking a woman to a well reputed restaurant and, in order to impress, ordering a bottle of expensive Pouilly Fuissé. Frankly it blew me away. My drinking habits had, until that time, been confined to the lower end of red wine spectrum with a penchant for those from the Rhone valley, though my wine drinking experience had been initiated by the Sunday consumption of a “cheap” white from communist Yugoslavia, from a region now know as Slovenia, the first region of that country to gain independence after the fall of communism in 1991. At that time I would have been about 20 years old, the price of a bottle was 11 UK shillings (55pence in today’s currency) and its name was Lutomer Riesling. 20 years later it went on to become the UK’s most popular wine though I suspect it was more to do with the price than the quality as was the case with its later rival, Blue Nunn , a semi sweet white wine from the Mosel region of Germany which has a very low alcohol content, a significant factor keeping the price low as the tax on wine was directly related to its alcoholic content.
As time passed my wine drinking became more diverse. For a time I favoured a Christian Brothers Zinfandel from Northern California which was reasonably priced in the local Safeways. Subsequently I discovered that an almost direct comparison of Californian wines with those from Chile gave the prize to Chile both in terms of quality and price. From this I learned the significance of phylloxera a disease affecting the vines of which Chile is free.
My earliest wine experience came in 1963 when I found myself in Hungary on a visit to a pen friend. At that time, Hungary was in the very tight grip of communists and there was little of excitement to be found. We went to a summer vacation spot on the South Eastern shore of Lake Balaton and there was introduced to wine made illegally in bathrooms. It was white, tasted pretty good to me, a mere novice, and got me drunk. At 17 years old, that was I that was required. Lake Balaton remains a significant wine producing area with excellent wines found particularly in the Tihany peninsular.
I remember a day, some time in the 1990’s when I found myself together with my friend Guy, in a “booze” warehouse in Calais, which was, (an probably still is) an essential stopover for UK citizens returning the UK from the continent, given that the importation of alcohol for personal consumption incurs no additional UK taxes. We were both attracted to a Fitou which I recall, was popular at that time and both bought a case. Upon sampling the next day, I had another “socks blown off” moment and immediately telephoned to Guy who answered with “have you tried the wine?” With both of us so enthused is became obligatory for one of us to immediately return to Calais and purchase all that was available. The task fell to Guy who set of immediately. Five hours later he called. It had all been sold. Actually Fitou comes from the Languedoc, a region of the South of France bordering the Pyrenees and running towards the Riviera. it was the target of a Roman Catholic Crusade against the heretics of the region which continued for over 100 years.
At some time in the 1990’s I again found myself in Hungary though this time I was staying at the Hilton Hotel. I had dinner with another Hungarian friend, Balazs, at a restaurant within the Budapest Castle area. Again, a truly memorable wine from within the country though the only memory I actually have is of saying to myself, “this red is great!”
And so it goes on. In Shanghai I met an Australian who was trying to launch a wine brand in partnership with an Aussi producer. I can’t remember the name, but I managed to drink a bottle so it must have been reasonable. During the early 1980’s I went annually to Munich and whilst there always visited a Swiss restaurant to drink a Swiss red of outstanding quality. Switzerland? Red? Outstanding Quality? Yes, all true, though again, of name or specific origin I have no memory.
One wine always sticks in my memory, Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace, that German speaking part of France. Tending to sweetness, it is, for me, the quintessential summer wine. I call it liquid sunshine.
Given my extensive, though amateur, wine drinking history it is perhaps no coincidence that I now find myself living in one of the most wine aware countries in the world, Austria, the son-in-law of a wine producer and brother in law of Leo, one of that country’s most famous wine makers. Austria is a very good example of bad things ultimately producing good results. In 1985 a lot of Austrian wine was found to be adulterated with a sweetener and as a result, 90% of the country’s exports were wiped out. With purity laws introduced and an emphasis on quality over volume, the result has been remarkable. I would venture that it is hard to find a bad Austrian wine and much is really excellent. This could well be a precedent for the situation in the USA where Donald Trump is so unpopular, it could well produce a backlash which will end the Republican dominance and in the EU where Brexit looks to be such a disaster for the UK that the rest of the EU will realise just how lucky they are to be in such a Union, despite the populist campaign against it.
My father-in-law produced about 5000 litres of annually, mostly of the Gruener Vietliner variety but with some Riesling also. As a member of the wine co-operative he sold the bulk to them retaining about 500 litres for family consumption. One day I was there with Leo, the real expert, and sampled his family production. Turning to my brother-in-law I said, “this is brilliant, how can it be so good?” He didn’t know but speculated that it was the comparatively slow and low temperature fermentation. Another possible explanation lies in the position of the vineyards. Set in terraces below forests, the sun of summer is mitigated by the nightly decent of cool air from the trees. Not being an expert of course, I am unable to speculate.
On another occasion Leo offered me a red to try and asked me if I knew the provenance. I had the strongest feeling it was from New Zealand but declined to guess. It was from New Zealand and I lost a lot of brownie points for not saying it.
We drink wine almost every day, moderately, with food. With red meat or strong flavours is it always red, with chicken or fish, white. This is pretty conservative I will admit but it works for me. And the choice? Our every day red is the blend know as Flat Lake, produced by my brother in law (without his name) for one of Europe’s biggest chain of grocers. At €4.49 it is outstanding value. For a more upmarket experience we might take the other iterations of the brand though on those Sundays when I cook roast lamb in the traditional UK Sunday Lunch style, I will reach out to a French red which I purchase from a specialist local importer.
For white wines we push the boat out to €9.90 for a local Riesling though last week I had an interesting wine experience. My next door neighbour has a wine garden with 350 vines. The “heavy” work is undertaken by a local farmer whist my neighbour is responsible for pruning and harvesting, which is usually undertaken on a co-operative basis with friends of which I am occasionally one. The 2016 seems to have been particularly good not only in terms of quantity, 1050 litres, but also quality. It is an excellent Chardonnay vintage and one which I look forward to drinking.
So, what makes a great wine? One thing is clear. The difference between good and bad is readily apparent but to really get to grips with the shades of difference, blind tasting from a selection is vital. I discovered this one day when drinking Scotch. Looking into the cupboard I saw five different kinds and decided to do my own blind tasting test. The clear winner to me was Bell’s so, on the basis that year of production is of no consequence, it is my Scotch of choice. But of course the same thing does not apply to wine which, in comparison to Scotch, is subject to grape, soil, climate, producer and blend and, sorry to say, fashion. Todays “outstanding” can easily become tomorrow’s “indifferent” yet when I am at a restaurant I invariably leave it to the waiter to choose. Frankly I can drink almost anything but sometime the proffered wine is great, and all the better for it being a surprise. I like surprises!