Archives: July, 2011

Are you local?

I hate it when people ask me if I’m local.  Because to me, it’s not where you are from but what you are like.  I’ve met great people from horrible places and the other way round too.

But, if you were a grape, where you come from matters rather a lot.  It matters in the way that really counts; in money.  Why?  Because wine, in Europe at least, is classified geographically.

So, in Italy there are just a few square miles of land from which you can make Barolo.  If you are the same grape from a mile down the road the wine you make is just Nebbiolo from somewhere else in Italy.  And I reckon Nebbiolo from somewhere is at least £10 a bottle cheaper than Barolo.

This happens in a lot of places.  Think of the really famous wines you know; Champagne, Chateauneuf, Chianti, Chablis, and that’s just the C’s.  All of these command a price premium because of their name.  The odd thing is that the name itself is no guarantee of quality.  So it is very possibly to get a better wine from just outside the designated area, made from the same grapes in the same way, sometimes by the same person that is far cheaper.

Now that, to me, sounds like an opportunity.  An opportunity to drink great wine for sensible prices, if you shop around for the “nearly ran” areas.

I’m thinking of some amazing parts of the South Rhone, the appellations of Lirac, Gigondas, and the Cotes du Rhone Villages like Plan de Dieu and Cairanne.  These places have the same climate as Chateauneuf, similar topography, soil and similar grapes.  So it is no surprise that you can buy wine every bit as spicy, robust and fantastic as Chateauneuf but for £10 or so less.

The same is true for the sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne wines of Burgundy, Nebbiolo from Langhe in North West Italy, and in a similar way for many of the wines from the “New World”.  I’ve drunk superb Cabernet Merlot from Australia at £10 made in a great, restrained and powerful style by a man trained at Chateau Margaux.  The origin of that style is classic Bordeaux, the most expensive area for wine in the world.

 So the moral of the story is shop around, explore the outer reaches of the shelves and ask your wine merchant for a recommendation.  The wines may not be from the right part of town but who cares if you are local.

Summer Wines?

Is this the best time of year?  It must be pretty close, at least in terms of garden produce.  I seem to be eating nothing but salad from the garden at present; potatoes, courgettes, broad beans, lettuce, rocket, cucumber, carrots, tomatoes.  Add a little cheese and what more do you need?  Almost no need to go to the shops.

But what to drink with all this fresh produce?  Most reds are too heavy while the flavours of all these lovely summer vegetables are all pretty delicate.  Personally I’d go for some of these:

Picpoul de Pinet.  This is the name of both a grape and an appellation area in the South of France.  The wines are light, bright and have lots of citrus fruit flavours.  Most of the vineyards are close to the sea and this just makes me think of lazy Mediterranean afternoons.  They are good value too usually in the £7-9 bracket.

Erbaluce.  I appreciate this is seriously off the beaten track, it’s a white grape from North West Italy, but it is good to try something new now and again.  If you can track one down it will give you lovely floral and honey flavours with a nice Italian savoury grassiness that makes for a great food wine.  A little more pricey normally though, £10 to 12?

Grenache Rosé.  You find lots of these from Languedoc and they usually give really easy drinking fresh strawberry fruit flavours.  The good ones balance that with a nice stab of refreshing acidity.  Again they should be good value too at around £7-8 a bottle.

Valpolicella.  I know this is red but I love it.  Sadly though I think it still has a bad name for people over a certain age, remember all those Italian Restaurants?  But good ones are light bodied, nicely acidic to go with all those tomatoes and they should deliver a nice punch of fresh cherry fruit.  Perfect even if a lightly chilled.  You can find these for £6 upwards but it’s worth paying a little more, say £10, for which you will get much nicer fruit flavours.

Enjoy your salad!  Jon

Blog about Blogs?

A couple of people have been kind enough to blog about Scarlet wines.  Have a look at these two links.  Many thanks for the kind words.

This one from the wonderful Ismay Atkins:

This one from the equally wonderful Paola Tich who I had the pleasure to meet while doing a wine course in Bermondsey:


Wine Duty. Iniquitous?

How about a definition?   Iniquitous: adjective /ɪˈnɪk.wɪ.təs/-t ̬əs/ formal, definition; very wrong and unfair.  This is the perfect description of the tax we know as “duty”.

You pay duty every time you buy an alcoholic drink in the UK.  In last month’s budget duty went up again, as it did last year and the year before.  In fact we are in the middle year of a five year “escalator” that annually increases duty by 2.5% above inflation.

This year on every bottle of wine you buy you pay the Government a thumping £1.86 in duty, unless it is sparkling of course when it is £2.14.  This is 13p more than last year.

How does that compare to other EU countries?  Well in France the figure is 5p, in Italy nil, Germany nil, Spain nil and pretty much all others nil too.

But the really unfair thing about duty, the really iniquitous part, is that it is levied on the producer or importer of the wine, rather than the final retailer.  This means that it becomes part of the cost of the wine and every business that handles the bottle puts their margin on top of the duty.

If that is getting a bit technical look at an example.  Say you decide to set up as a wine importer; nice lifestyle, lots of wine to taste, buying trips to France, etc, etc.  So you pop over to Roscoff and buy a few bottles from a friendly Vigneron for €2 a go.  That’s cheap wine but you’re a pretty good negotiator.  In pounds that is about £1.75.  You then pay the duty, £1.86; so the bottle immediately more than doubles to £3.61.

Now, naturally you want to make some money, so you sell the bottle to a local wine shop for a reasonable 20% margin, ie £4.25.  The shop needs a profit too so add another 25%, so now we are at £5.66.

Now there’s another tax, VAT.  This adds another 20%, so the €2 bottle you scored finally sells for £6.80.  And out of that about £3 went to the Government as tax.  If you were a Spaniard the same bottle would have sold for £3.50.

Incidentally this explains why it is now hard to buy much drinkable wine under about £7 a bottle.  The simple reason being that any lower than that and the poor producer gets next to nothing with which to make the wine.

You might ask why this unfair, unreasonable and stealthy tax keeps going up?  I think the answer is that drinkers are seen as a soft touch.  It’s easy to claim that increasing the price of alcohol has health benefits and I can’t see many politicians campaigning to make wine cheaper.  Iniquitous?  I think so.

What’s your favourite wine?

One question I am often asked is “what is your favourite wine”.  That should be an easy one, and I do have a favourite.  Currently, it is a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano from Valdipiatta 2007 made by the lovely Miriam Caporali.

But why that particular wine?  The wine is certainly delicious; it is technically excellent, nice acidity, balance, length and all those things.  But really I like it because I like Miriam and I first tasted it on a sunny Italian Autumn day when they were picking the grapes at Miriam’s winery.  I tasted it after being shown around the vineyards, with a fantastic simple lunch and listened to Miriam explain how she had made the wine.

It was a great experience and a great wine, but it’s the person, the place and the memories that make it “a favourite”.  I think this is why wine is endlessly fascinating; not for all the technical trainspotting details but for the people, places and moments it goes with.

But the really special thing, the absolute clincher for me, is that the wine can take you back.  You know how a certain smell reminds you of a place or time?  For me the petrol and dust smell of a garage takes me straight back to being nine years old and standing next to my grandfather’s car.  Well I think it’s the same with wine.  Every time I open a bottle of Valdippiata now I’m reminded of my day in Tuscany.  How good is that?