Wednesday, May 31, 2017


 Throughout my book and indeed any discussion of wine, there are many references to tannins. Tannins are chemical compounds known as phenols which are found throughout nature in most growing plants, in fact 50% of the dry weight of leaves consist entirely of tannins. Tannin is actually tasteless, it is a texture; you feel the coarse particles which stick to the surface of your tongue and teeth. The best way to think of tannins is to imagine sucking on a used teabag. The puckering and astringent sensation in your mouth is the tang of tannin. One theory for the prevalence of tannins is that it is Nature’s way to discourage animals from eating the leaves and stalks before the fruit and seeds are ready for dissemination. Some grape varietals, especially white grapes, have little or no tannins while other grape varietals – most notably Cabernet Sauvignon – have very high levels of tannins in the skin.

The word tannin comes from the German word for oak tree ‘tannenbaum’ from which we derive the words tan and tanning. (Oak tannins have always been used for turning animal hides into leather.) As we will see later, the tannins in oak play an important part in the aging of wine in oak barrels. A red wine with very low tannins such as Beaujolais can be drunk extremely young. A Bordeaux wine with very high tannins cannot be drunk when young; it would be impossibly astringent. Wines high in tannins need to be aged, preferably in oak, until, with the passing of the years, the harsh taste of tannins has mellowed. Moreover, with age, the Bordeaux wine has not only lost its astringency and become drinkable, it has substantially improved and those initially harsh tannins have added complexity and maturity to the taste. Without tannins, Beaujolais will not age and will deteriorate rather than improve while, thanks to tannins, Bordeaux wines just get better and better.

Although it’s true that thick-skinned grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon have more tannins than thin skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir, there are too many other variables to make a definitive list of grape varietals by tannin level. Where and how the actual grapes are harvested, how long the skins are macerated during fermentation and how the winemaker treats the must and how he blends the juices makes it impossible to say that a Sangiovese will always be less tannic than a Syrah or more tannic than a Zinfandel. A selection of grape varietals is listed in Chapter Eight from light to heavy or full bodied, but it is a general list and includes more factors than just tannins.

In her splendid Wine Bible, Karen McNeil, has listed red varietals by tannic level, from least to most tannic: Gamay / Pinot Noir / Sangiovese / Grenache / Zinfandel / Syrah (Shiraz) / Malbec / Merlot / Mourvédre / Cabernet Franc / Cabernet Sauvignon / Petite Sirah / Nebbiolo.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Best Wine in World is British!

It has been named the world's best white wine, impressing a panel of 200 international experts so much that they scored it 95 out of 100.

Beating off 17,200 other entries, it won the Platinum Best in Show at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2017.

Yet it is a humble £13.95 bottle from Norfolk, a region that has hitherto made little impression on fine wine's top table.

Winbirri Vineyards' Bacchus 2015 wine was the victor, with judges describing it as the ‘perfect aperitif wine’.

They said the wine had a ‘complex, oily nose with spice, elderflower and citrus’. It was deemed to be 'very elegant and delicate with a slight spritz and a long, clean finish’.

Winbirri is a family-run vineyard, beside Norfolk Broads National Park, that was established in 2007. Like other wine producers in the UK, Winbirri has benefited from increasingly warm summers.

Lee Dyer, Winbirri's head winemaker, predicted that Norfolk wines would continue winning prizes. He told the Eastern Daily Press: "Norfolk has so much potential as a wine region, particularly when it comes to still wines.

"I think Bacchus has to be the jewel in the crown and, more importantly, for my site as it just works so well here. The flavour profiles and aromas we can achieve here from our vines are second to none."

The news is a boost for the English wine industry following a difficult spring. Unseasonal frosts in April have severely damaged this year's harvests across Kent and Sussex. Winemakers described conditions as the worst they had seen for 20 years.

From: The Telegraph.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Wise Wine Quotes

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things and small people talk about wine.”
Fran Lebowitz

“The discovery of a wine is of greater moment than the discovery of a constellation. The universe is too full of stars.”
Benjamin Franklin

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”
Ernest Hemingway

“I can certainly see that you know your wine. Most of the guests who stay here wouldn’t know the difference between Bordeaux and Claret.”

Basil Fawlty, “Fawlty Towers”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Interesting Decade:

Altogether, the 1860s proved to be an eventful decade for French wine. To misquote Marcel Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes: “It started well but ended badly.”

1855 – Napoleon III orders the classification of Bordeaux wines

1861 – Classification of Beaune

1862 – M. Borty plants some American vines in his garden in Provence

1866 – Pasteur’s Etudes sur le Vin published

1867 – Most vineyards in Southern France appear to be dying

1870 – French government offers 30,000FR prize for a cure to Phylloxera

1871 – Proust born. France invaded and defeated by Prussia. Napoleon III abdicates. Phylloxera continues to destroy French vineyards

Monday, May 15, 2017

Robert M. Parker [2]

    Parker’s wine ratings dramatically affect the price of wine on the market. It is claimed that the difference between a Parker score of 85 and 95 can be ten-million dollars to the value of the wine. A wine that is rated at less than 70 can bankrupt the wine grower. The prices that people pay for wine, the wines that retailers and restaurants select to offer for sale, these are all affected by the judgments of Robert Parker. Even though his judgments may be fair and his opinions correct, I believe that it is wrong and unhealthy for any one individual to have that much power. Of course there are other wine critics and magazines who are also rating wines, but not only have most of them adopted Parker’s scoring system, most of them have also adopted his tastes and his preferences for the rich and powerful, oaky, fruit-forward reds that he so admires. Consequently we are seeing an international standardization of taste, a ‘Parkerization’ of wine.

    But the ripple effect goes even further than the wine market; it reaches as far as the cellar and vineyard. A winegrower who may have a vision of a unique wine he wants to make may hesitate or change his mind when thinking about how Parker might rate it.

    Of course there are many who oppose Parker and the style of wine he promotes; the ‘hedonistic fruit bombs’ – or ‘leg-spreaders’ as they are called. Parker once referred to such people as an “anti-flavor wine elite”, a phrase which went viral on Twitter and which has since been adopted by the very people he criticized. Parker’s detractors now sign themselves AFWE.

    Hence my ambivalence about Robert Parker: I like his writing, I share his tastes and I greatly respect his knowledge. Robert Parker should also be admired for making wine popular and accessible to Americans and he should be commended for cutting through much of the jargon and old-world mystique and bringing a New World freshness to the business. Unfortunately, the majority of people do not read his thoughtful tasting notes or his informed reviews; they just see the numbers – the Parker Points on the shelf-talkers. That’s where power corrupts absolutely.

    I just wish there were a couple more Robert Parkers, equally informed and passionate, with similar influence but with different tastes – not to mention a preference for a 20-point scoring system.

    For a list of all the French wines that Parker has awarded 100 points in his system, go to 

Thursday, May 11, 2017


 Robert Parker is an American wine critic and probably the most influential individual in the world of wine. I have very mixed feelings about Mr. Parker which I should explain before proceeding any further. Robert Parker started becoming known for his writing about wine in the mid-70s at just about the time that the Californian wineries began their renaissance; he has written a number of books on wine and he also edits the very influential Wine Advocate newsletter. As mentioned above, Parker’s 100-point scoring system has now become the industry standard. He is a man with a very deep knowledge of and passion about wine, especially the great reds from Bordeaux, the Rhone and California, and he has reached his position of eminence through hard work, dedication and simple expertise. Nonetheless I have two problems with Mr. Parker.

My first objection is personal and selfish. Parker and I share the same tastes; we both like bold, broad-shouldered, swaggering reds. For years I enjoyed drinking Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo and Barbaresco which were all affordable until Parker discovered them. By writing about these wines and bestowing his blessing he made them insanely popular. As a result, these wines are now extremely expensive and I can no longer afford to drink them.

My second objection owes more to Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. I do not in any way mean that Parker himself has become corrupted, far from it, he is rightly proud of his high ethical standards; impartiality and independence from the wine industry. But unfortunately his influence is now so powerful that it has affected if not corrupted absolutely everybody else in the industry. For example, one of Parker’s early favorite winemakers was Michael Rolland in Pomerol whose wines Parker always praised. Rolland also worked as a consultant for various other neighboring wineries, creating a similar style wine to his own. These wines also scored well with Parker and so, inevitably, other wine makers beyond Bordeaux started hiring Rolland as a consultant and very soon Michael Rolland became the first ‘flying winemaker’. Jetting around the world, from Chile and Argentina to Australia and California, Rolland helps fellow winemakers create the style of wine that will score well in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate ratings, and thus be featured on ‘shelf talkers’ in wine stores everywhere. There is even a wine analysis company in Sonoma, called Enologix which uses complex chemical algorithms to advise winemakers exactly how to manipulate their winemaking techniques in order to get Parker scores in excess of 90 points.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Describing Wine [3]

We are not limited to food or taste metaphors, as a visual species we have other tools to describe wine. Karen MacNeil, the well-respected wine critic and author of the Wine Bible quoted a restaurant owner’s description of Viognier wine. “If a good German Riesling is like an ice-skater (fast, racy with a cutting edge), and Chardonnay is like a middle-heavyweight boxer (paunchy, solid, powerful), then Viognier would have to be described as a female gymnast – beautiful and perfectly shaped, with muscle but superb agility and elegance.”

Alternatively we can seek our metaphor in music. In one of his Italian detective novels A Long Finish, Michael Dibdin wrote: “Barolo is the Bach of wine … strong, supremely structured, a little forbidding, but absolutely fundamental. Barbaresco is the Beethoven, taking those qualities and lifting them to heights of subjective passion and pain … and Brunello is its Brahms, the softer, fuller, romantic afterglow of so much strenuous excess.” Those people who know their German composers and are familiar with Italian wines will recognize the insightful truth behind Dibdin’s metaphors. For those unfamiliar however, it could sound merely pretentious. 

And of course, that is the great danger of talking about wine; the metaphors can become too flowery and ostentatious. “This is a cheeky little Pinot; unctuously naughty with a promise of heavenly bliss, like a nun slipping out of her habit.”

Roald Dahl, that wonderful British novelist should really be given the last word on the subject: “Richard Pratt was a famous gourmet…. He organized dinners where sumptuous dishes and rare wines were served. He refused to smoke for fear of harming his palate, and when discussing a wine, he had a curious, rather droll habit of referring to it as though it were a living being. “A prudent wine,” he would say, “rather diffident and evasive, but quite prudent.” Or, “a good-humored wine, benevolent and cheerful—slightly obscene, perhaps, but nonetheless good humored.” (From ‘Taste’ a short story first published in 1945).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


What the olfactory receptors do is transform the chemical information of the wine’s aroma molecules into electrical signals. These electrical signals travel into the brain’s cerebral cortex; the deepest, most primitive and least ‘conscious’ part of the brain where the electronic impulses are translated back into the memory of our mother’s kiss, a feeling of hunger, the desire for a woman, the pleasure of luxury, the terror of darkness or the lingering scent of invisible lilacs. These involuntary but powerful stirring of our deepest emotions can all be released by the scent of a loved one’s pillow, the fragrance of a rose upon the evening air or the delicate aromas released by a glass of wine. Nothing is more powerful or evocative and less subject to our verbal skills or logical analysis than our sense of smell.

 One of my favorite times of year is the fall when I go mushroom hunting in France, combing through the woods of Perigord looking for cèpe mushrooms and truffles; stepping through the fallen leaves and savoring the musky dampness of the decaying vegetation. Most Spanish red wines have an earthy aroma that reminds me of my days in the woods and so for me the association of earthiness and damp leaves is pleasing and enhances my enjoyment of a good Tempranillo. But to another person, with different memories and experiences, the concept of damp organic decay might be totally disgusting and my enthusiastic description of the wine might persuade them never to try it. Worse still, because of the unpleasant associations created by my description, a person tasting the wine might possibly dislike it and unfairly discover in it all the bad qualities they imagined that I had suggested.

Wine drinkers therefore need to consciously train themselves to develop a commonly accepted vocabulary that will allow them to discuss wines with other people. With practice and concentration they can decide if a wine reminds them of fruit, or of vegetables, or wood, or fresh-cut-grass. If it reminds them of fruit - is it a berry fruit, a tropical fruit or a citrus? Over time, wine drinkers will discover a common language that enables them to share their impressions of a wine with other people using words and allusions that are mutually understood. But to develop such a vocabulary takes practice and conscious effort. The difference between a professional taster and the rest of us is training. Unfortunately the best wine class in the world, the best teacher, the best book can never impart that knowledge. It has to be accumulated, sip by sip, sniff by sniff, glass by glass by each individual wine drinker.

 The UC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel at is a wonderful tool that will help the true connoisseur differentiate between the aromas of passion fruit and boysenberries but for the rest of us just learning to isolate the difference between a fruity taste and an earthy aroma is a good place to begin. Eric Asimov the excellent wine critic for the New York Times argues that we can divide all wines into sweet or savory. By sweet he does not mean sugary; he is rather referring to the impression of sweet that we get from a wine that is intensely fruity, plush, viscous and mouth-filling. By savory he means wines which are more austere with smoky, herbal, earthy and mineral tastes.

Monday, May 8, 2017


One of the great challenges of wine appreciation is describing what we taste, not just to other people but even to ourselves. Translating what we smell or taste into words is far more difficult than translating what we see into words. While dogs for example experience the world mainly through their sense of smell, we humans are far more visual and we describe the world in terms of what we see with our eyes. From an early age we are encouraged to 'show and tell' but we are never taught to 'smell and tell'. All languages have a rich and sophisticated vocabulary for describing what we see, and we can be very precise in terms of color, shape, size and visual distance when communicating with others - but such a vocabulary does not exist for smells and tastes. There is no semantic tradition in any culture or in any language to describe the things we smell, in the way that we are able to identify things that we see.

In fact the whole process of smelling is limited to a single word: smell. There is a smell coming from the mushrooms; I smell the mushrooms; the mushrooms smell. The same single word is used to describe the odor, the detection of the odor and the action of the odor. Compare that to all the words we have for seeing, looking, watching, gazing, observing etc. We must therefore look around in our personal memories for similar smells and tastes to compare with the wine and then, when trying to share our experience, make subjective comparisons: "it tastes like dark chocolate with a hint of mushrooms and damp leaves."

Another problem is that the part of the brain which processes smells also handles emotions and memory; it's not only the most primitive part of the brain, it's also the most subjective and personal. Smells are chemicals, and as the wine is exposed to air and evaporates, chemical molecules rise from the glass, through our nose to the receptors in our olfactory cortex.

The olfactory cortex which evolved over the eons into the amygdala, is the very oldest part of our brain, and is where emotions and memories are processed. The very earliest job of the brain was to process smell: does it smell good or bad? Is it something I can eat, something I would like to have sex with or something I should run away from before it eats me? Memories of smells were therefore critical to survival and, even in the amygdala of the modern brain, the chemical processing of smells and emotions, memory and desire, are all intimately entwined at a primitive level.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Literature and Wine

Under the careful supervision of my father, I began drinking wine with meals at the age of five. Although mixed with water, it was unmistakably wine and we would discuss the taste and bouquet while my father would explain where and how it was made. At the same age, with the warm encouragement of my mother, I began a lifelong love-affair with books.

My earliest memories involve Christopher Robin, with Pooh and Tigger and then Rat and Mole from the Wind in the Willows. Weekends were spent lying on the floor in the local library, lost in the worlds of Kipling and Dickens and, above all, my beloved John Buchan. Another early memory concerns Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and asking my mother to explain ''But did thee feel the earth move?''

Shakespeare of course became an early love of mine and I still thrill to hear Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV [2], boldly proclaiming the joys and wonders of a glass, or two, of sherry. Likewise, in Richard III, I still feel a chill when the two murderers arrive at the Tower of London with orders to drown the Duke of Clarence in a barrel of wine. When the unsuspecting Duke asks the men for a glass of wine, the ‘second murderer’ calms him with a reassuring, “You shall have wine enough my lord, anon.”

And it is not just the English who associate wine with books. The twelfth-century Persian poet, Omar Kayan, famously wrote:

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

Indeed, as the writer Julian Street famously argued in his posthumous book, Table Topics: "Blot out every book in which wine is praised and you blot out the world’s great literature, from the Bible and Shakespeare to the latest best-seller. Blot out the wine-drinkers of the world and you blot out history, including saints, philosophers, statesmen, soldiers, scientists, and artists." - And what are you left with? Drumpf's 'Art of The Deal'!