Know Your Burgundy From Your Beaujolais?

I needed a large glass of wine last night when I returned from voting in the European Elections. So many parties and so many candidates, the ballot paper was very confusing. What's more, isn't the voting process in the UK outdated? You are given a short thick pencil to put a cross against a name on a ballot paper that is almost 60cms long and then fold-up the said ballot paper and try and cram it into a small hole in a ballot box. We are in the 21st Century but voting is stuck in the 19th Century. Why hasn't technology revolutionized voting today? Thank goodness for my glass of Chablis!

I like a nice bottle of wine with my meal, but as for being an expert on wines, I am far from it. I know what I like and I know what I don’t. Dry white wine is my usual tipple, but I like a fruity tasting red wine from time to time and I have been known to try a glass of rose on occasions. So it was with some relief that I read in the Daily Telegraph earlier in the week that even the so called experts know little about wines.

According to the Telegraph reporter, doubts about so called ‘wine experts’ follow recent revelations from California that no-one - least of all the experts - really knows a damned thing about wine. Over a period of years, Robert Hodgson, statistician and retired oceanographer-turned-winemaker, tested the wine testers (or judges) at California wine shows. These judges were critics, sommeliers, winemakers, academics - wine sages, every one. Hodgson’s key wheeze was to put identical wine into different bottles, then present them to the judging panels. It was reported that no-one twigged. The same wine was judged (often wildly) differently by the same experts. In other words, the finest wine minds in the US were clueless about their own speciality.

With the holiday period upon us, many Britons will be travelling to France, Spain, Italy and Portugal and will be overawed  by local wine-makers, French or Italian wine sellers, French wine drinkers and anything else at all to do with continental wines. You need to know that this is unnecessary. As Hodgson demonstrated, claiming wine knowledge may just be another way of professing profound ignorance. And, whether it is or it isn’t, the French, Spanish and Italian  wine world, like any other world, is diverse and various. It is full of good people and fools, charmers and imbeciles. There is no more need to treat it with particular respect than one would the world of garden peas.
Anthony Peregrine, reporting for the Telegraph, was for some years a wine journalist based in France and admits to being unable to tell a Burgundy from dandelion-and-burdock, and it involved a lot of bluffing - ie, “lying” - but he had a rare old time travelling around vineyards desperately talking rubbish. (“Perhaps needs a little more time fully to express itself” was the sentiment which caused the least offence when he described something particularly vile. “A delight - with no need of further ageing,” covered many other eventualities.’

According to Peregrine, the Beaujolais region is as open and welcoming as the nights are long in the summer. They hold a banquet whenever anyone visits - and two, if you stay the weekend. To the south, there are maniacs in Provence, there is Brad Pitt at Château Miraval, and there are some of the finest people on God’s earth who set up the lunch-table underneath a spreading plane tree, cover it with the makings of a grand aioli and open as many bottles of rosé as it takes. For hours - days! - on end, this is the finest wine in the world.

In Chablis, one must proceed with care, according to Peregrine, lest they heap andouillette onto your plate. In nearby Alsace, if there is not a wine festival on right now, there will be one along in a minute. They are often organised by fund-raising firemen, who circulate glasses with emergency services urgency. Meanwhile, there is a great truth to be learned in Champagne: it is that you might start with a glass at breakfast, taste champagne all morning, have a couple of glasses with lunch, taste all afternoon, sip half-a-bottle with dinner - and still hit the right button in the hotel lift. The big danger in the deep south-west - notably, Basque country and Gascony - is that men will start to sing, usually in berets and a minority language. You must applaud and otherwise humour them - they don’t get out much, and Basques, especially, can cut up rough. This also generally ensures that your glass of Madiran, Saint-Mont or Irouléguy stays topped up.

Over time Peregrine picked up bits and pieces of ‘wine wisdom’. The most vital bit was: “At all times and in all places, avoid French wine hacks.” He would bump into soft-palmed fellows from Paris, touring vineyards and dispensing advice (“More fruit!”, “Fewer tannins!”, “Longer fermentation!”, “Another free bottle!”) to men and women. Because wine-makers are, if nothing else, usually polite, they would afford respect to these astoundingly unpleasant people. Had it been left to Peregrine, he said he would have shot them all on sight, before weighting their bodies in vats of merlot.

Finally, the Telegraph reporter began to be invited to judge wine competitions. He always accepted because [a] there was invariably a gargantuan lunch half-way through and [b] he had improved, wine-knowledge-wise. He could now tell a red from a white. (It’s an old sommelier’s trick called: “Look at the glass.”) Judging turned out to be a doddle for him. It is generally performed in panels, often of four. All you have to remember is never to speak first. Listen, and then say almost the same thing, but in slightly different terms.  Thus, if Jean-Claude on your left says: “Fresh, with good red fruit and a hint woody undergrowth coming through in the secondary taste”, you look pensive, and reflect: “Mm, nicely zesty - a hint of strawberries with perhaps secondary notes of mushrooms.” Bingo. Your perspicacity is established. You’re one of the team. Gold medals, the ones you see stuck on bottles, depend on such judgements. Obviously, then, Mr Hodgson is quite correct. Tragically, no-one in France is listening; they’re all at the lunch.


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