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Soaking in the prose on wine
WHEN exploring wine, the oft-quoted "Curiosity kills the cat" should be ignored. Rather, I go by the dictum "Taste every wine - you do not have to finish the bottle". It is the only way to learn how to taste, and after a while one gets the hang of it. The other very useful way is to read. I sought to find out what the pundits wrote or said about the wines they drank/tasted, what were the legendary wines of the past vintages, what were the wine-growers to follow.
Renowned wine writers at the time included Michael Broadbent, head of Christie's Wine Department; David Peppercorn; Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's Wine Department; and Hugh Johnson. The most important wine magazine at the time was the UK-based Decanter, followed in 1983 by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate, the latter still perhaps the most influential wine magazine in English. Mr Parker introduced the 100-point score for the wines he tasted and this proved enormously useful commercially as well as for the ordinary wine consumer. Unfortunately, its commercial value was instantly seized upon by wine retailers, and almost overnight wines which scored 90+ points went up in price. And 100-pointer prices increased almost astronomically. The usefulness to the wine-lover was somewhat dampened by the instant escalation in prices! Sad but such is the commercial effect.
I realised that the two most important avenues of learning were firstly, to taste as many wines as possible but drink only the good to best ones. The second is to read any and almost every worthwhile book on wine, beginning at the beginning and proceeding onto the monographs. Reading taps the knowledge and wisdom of experienced and reliable palates of the well-known wine authors. There is a third avenue - travel to the wine regions, visiting the wineries and talking to the wine-growers. This last I have found the most instructive, educational and certainly the most enjoyable. Drinking the wine with the food of the region in which the wine is made enables an enriching experience and insight into the world of wine and a glimpse of the real culture of wine.
A second major source of the written word is the wine magazine. I was introduced to the Decanter early enough in 1983 to be able to learn from the critiques and reviews of the great 1982 Bordeaux vintage. A monthly magazine published out of London, it draws upon the wealth, wisdom and decades of experience of English wine writers. Its wine reviews are current and an indispensable guide to the quality of the wines. It also provides an extensive vintage guide to almost all European wines, another invaluable source to turn to when buying wines.
The finest wine journal today is indubitably The World of Fine Wine. Edited by Neil Beckett, it boasts the writings of the finest English wine writers, led by Mr Johnson, whose writing is in a class by itself. Mr Parker's Wine Advocate is another invaluable source of information and guidance. All three are now available online.
Early on in my wine journey, my bedtime reading consisted of Mr Broadbent's The Great Vintage Wine Book, Mr Peppercorn's monograph on Bordeaux, Clive Coates' monograph on Burgundy, Ms Sutcliffe's Champagne and Remington Norman's Rhone Wines. Reading these authoritative books proved enormously invaluable, provided very useful background information on the wine regions, the wines and the vintners. The latter information provided a most helpful checklist of the best wine-growers to visit and tasting notes on their wines. It always helps if the wine-grower finds that you already know the most important information about him, his winery and his vineyards. He knows he is not talking to a pure tourist, but to a real wine-man, and that perception alone makes a huge difference in the way you are received.
The Great Vintage Wine Book is enormously informative as it contains Mr Broadbent's tasting notes and opinions on the enormous number of wines that were auctioned off at Christie's Wine Auctions, for a long time an invaluable source of much sought-after great older vintages of great clarets and burgundies, eg 1928 Château Lafite Rothschild, 1945 Château Latour and 1961 Romanee-Conti. Not that one could afford to buy any of these, but the tasting notes provided guidelines as to what the taste of great wines is like. A taste benchmark against which to assess the quality of the wine in your glass.
Clive Coates' The Wines of Bordeaux and The Wines of Burgundy are two monumental monographs, containing timeless information about and insights into wine regions, vignerons and wines. For encyclopedic information, Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine is a treasury of information, extensively and exhaustively researched. An invaluable resource.
Mr Johnson remains for me the most instructive, educational, and entertaining wine writer, his prose is a joy to read and to ponder over.
And I must not forget the wine atlases. Perhaps the earliest was the World Atlas of Wine, edited by Hugh Johnson initially, and in its second edition jointly edited by Mr Johnson and Ms Robinson. A most informative and useful atlas, alas, too big to take on a wine trip! But there is always Mr Johnson's Pocket Wine Book, published annually. This book fits into your travel jacket!
Notably, all the above with one exception are by English authors. It is an open secret that the best wine writers are to be found among the English writers. One of the finest books is also a unique one: I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine by Roger Scruton. Thought-provoking, profound.
But for lovers of English prose, this is Mr Johnson's description of some old wines: "dignified decrepitude and premature decay?" Brilliant.