Drink like an expert

  • Tuesday 4 October 2005

Wine shouldn’t be hard work. But a little reading up can go a long way to appreciating – and enjoying – its intricacies more. Our most experienced columists draw on their many years of experience to

STEVEN SPURRIER is among the world’s leading wine writers, critics and consultants. Born in 1941, he joined the wine trade in 1964 as a trainee with Christopher and Co. In 1970 he moved to Paris and ran several ventures including the Académie du Vin school, a restaurant and a bottling plant. In 1988, he sold up and returned to the UK to become an independent wine consultant.

His clients have included Harrods and Hediard and are currently Singapore Airlines and Christie’s, for whom he created the Christie’s Wine Course in 1982. He is also

consultant editor of Decanter, chairman of the Decanter World Wine Awards and vice president of the Circle of Wine Writers.

He is the author of several books on wine, including L’Académie du Vin Wine Course and L’Académie du Vin Guide to French Wines, and has won numerous prizes and awards.

1. Get to know the subject

Wine is as infinite a subject as that of art, horseracing or gardening. You have to know the basic facts of geography and grape variety, of substance and style, of price and potential.

That this is better learned than experienced is proven by my wife who, despite 40 years in my company, when left on her own to buy wine in our local stores in Dorset buys low-common-denominator bottles from the supermarket that I often pour down the sink when I come home. The experience is there, but the facts haven’t been learned. I would be as clueless in a garden centre or on the racecourse.

2. Find a good wine merchant

This is actually more important than learning the facts, but the relationship will be less equal and therefore less enjoyable if you have no reference points and requests. A good merchant, like a good sommelier, will want you to be happy, and knows you will be

content with good wines at good prices. If you are a regular customer, the deals from your merchant will come to you first. More knowledge is needed to buy where there is no guidance.

3. Acquire your own cellar or storage space

Since leaving school, I’ve filled cupboards, then coal holes, then cellars with wine. At one point, when I moved to France, I asked my grandfather to store my clarets in the cellars of his house in Derbyshire. One Christmas he asked: ‘Was that your Talbot 1961 we drank the other night, dear boy? Rather thin stuff, I needed a second bottle.’

Storage charges are even more damaging, and it is far more pleasurable to survey your wines at home than on a computer printout. Stacking and unstacking the boxes also provides very good exercise.

4. Be conservative

This is probably the opposite of what many of my colleagues will say, but if you eat out a lot, you will seldom drink the same wine twice. Thus you can be as conservative as you like in your own home. A limited but specialised approach to the cellar is better than a scattergun plan. You won’t bother to drink the same wine away from home. Variety is indeed the spice of life, but not all the time.

5. Drink for mood, not for food

There are, of course, no-nos in the food and wine world, such as Zinfandel with oysters or Muscadet with haggis. But, these sort of disasters apart, it’s better to drink what you feel like than what you feel you ought to like. The joy of a wine cellar, which begins with a dozen bottles under the stairs, is that there should be a wine to match the mood, which won’t offend the food.

MICHAEL BROADBENT has been writing about wine for nearly half a century. His first regular monthly column was for Cheshire Life in 1957. From the mid 1960s, he wrote regularly for Kathleen Bourke’s Wine magazine. He has written for Decanter since 1978 and is the longest serving contributor.

Broadbent trained as an architect but switched to wine in 1952, first as a trainee with Layton’s wine merchants, next with Succone & Speed, then, for 11 formative years, with Harvey’s of Bristol, resigning as UK sales director to join Christie’s in 1966.

Before 1966, international wine auctions simply did not exist. Broadbent, with Christie’s new wine department, transformed the scene. He remains a director of Christie’s, dividing his time between hosting wine events and writing about wine.

He is also the author of several award-winning books: Wine Tasting (1964); The Great Vintage Wine Book (1980 and 1991); and Vintage Wine (2002), and is widely acknowledged as the world’s most broadly experienced taster.

1. Write it down

The best advice I ever received was from Tommy Layton when I joined Layton’s wine merchants as a keen but totally ignorant trainee. He told me to make a note of every wine I tasted: its name, date of tasting, and price, with notes on appearance, nose and taste.

I am currently on volume 141 and have written more than 88,000 notes. Why make notes? As an aide-memoire, to familiarise oneself with the multitudinous variety of wines, districts, qualities and styles. And, of course, to record one’s own impressions, briefly or in detail.

2. Read around the subject

When I first came, rather belatedly, into the wine trade, I read anything I could lay my hands on: books – then few and far between – and wine magazines.

Now, the wine book market is awash. Hugh Johnson heads the league table with his excellent, annually updated pocket book, the scholarly History of Wine and now, with Jancis Robinson MW, the outstanding World Atlas of Wine.

The advantage of wine magazines, of which Decanter is an excellent example, is that they keep the reader more up to date with trends and notes.

3. Go for price over value

What do you expect if you pay only £3.99 or £4.99 for a table wine? With UK duty at more than £1 per bottle, VAT at 17.5%, the cost of the bottle, cork/cap and label, plus distribution and trade

mark-ups, what is the value of the

actual wine in the bottle? Next to nothing. So don’t waste your money.

There is a world surplus of wine and pressure is on for even lower prices, but quality too will be eroded. My advice is to seek out the small producers and the relatively few but excellent specialised wine merchants. You don’t have to go far to find wines of character, individuality, quality and value.

4. Drink the stuff

Read and taste; taste and read. Better still, join or start a tasting group;

compare impressions. This is the best way to learn the many types of wine.

Yet tasting is not everything. Wine is for drinking. The true wine lover will drink wine frequently and regularly. For one thing, good wine is equally good for your health. It aids digestion, helps keep the arteries clear; and above all, it appeals directly and uniquely to the senses of sight, smell and taste.

5. Say what you think

Last but not least, be bold. Do not fall for

the critics’ mumbo jumbo. Say (or write) whatever you think. What you like, or dislike, is crucially important. Be sure to have confidence in your own opinion. But never cheat and don’t fool yourself.

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