2014 in review: a see saw

Eelus - See What I Saw

So, I think I’ve got some explaining to do. I have repeatedly found myself, of late, with a chunk of time set aside for this blog, fingers hovering above my keyboard in clueless, limp inactivity, like a puppet on a coathanger. There’s no hiding it, when the number of posts published makes it absolutely clear: wine and I had a difficult 2014.

There are a couple of obvious causes. The main one is the building work that gutted the heart of my home during those key summer months and presented new and enormously demanding ways to spend my spare time. The cyle of research, decide, purchase, repeated again and again. To someone who is prone to letting research spin hopelessly out of control, there simply wasn’t time to do all I felt I needed to do and to live, so living took the hit. On the plus side, I learned a lot about lighting and flooring and kitchen door handles.

It wasn’t just the lack of free time, it was also the lack of wine. For those months – the start of May to the end of September – I basically had nowhere to put it, so I pretty much didn’t buy any, or drink any. And it was the lack of money, all of which, way more than we planned, was poured into our home, the result being that budgets in all other areas have been slashed not just for a few weeks or months, but for the foreseeable future. I’ve never been accustomed to drinking particularly expensive wine, but it’s a pool I enjoyed dipping my toe into. I’d keep an eye out for bargains, and occasionally I’d snap up a bottle, or a case, of something a bit special. No longer.

And then the builders departed, and I found myself with several lovely new walls and nothing to put on any of them. I’d only ever bought one painting, hadn’t ever given art much thought. So I started researching (as I do) and found a fascinating new world, and a passion that has several key advantages over booze. It is a world, like wine (and many others, I expect), filled with fascinating, creative people with stories to tell, only unlike wine what these people produce can be enjoyed not just once, fleetingly, but for ever, or until your tastes change. A picture doesn’t require the right stemware; it does not look better on a fruit day; it can be appreciated equally whether you’re eating steak au poivre or coq au vin or a tangerine or nothing at all; it does not turn to vinegar if you keep it in the living room for a couple of summers; and you can enjoy it greedily for as long as you like and still be left with something at the end of it. (The picture above, incidentally, is from a screenprint by Eelus, one of a couple by him that I got this year)

But even if I stopped seeking out good wine or giving it great attention, every now and then I would drink something that struck me, reminded me of the potential pleasure my new ignorance was depriving me of. So here are my two favourite wines of last year:

Bonte Bruna Barbera d'Alba 2010

I loved this. Loved it. Love. Monte Bruna Barbera d’Alba 2010. A piffling €10 or so if you happen upon a bottle in Italy, a slightly less piffling £18.20 if you need to go to Hedonism Wines in Mayfair for one. Barbera is a focus area for the next 12 months or so:  the Wine Society’s Poderi Colla 2012 is also more than decent, for £8.95.

Laurent Miquel ViognierFrom UK supermarkets, I thought the De Martino Carignan I got from Marks & Spencer for £9 in one of their 25% off events (it’s £11.99 normally) was excellent. Waitrose, meanwhile, have let the range in their shops slide a bit in the last couple of years but are hiding some nice stuff online and the Laurent Miquel viognier 2012 (£14.99, or £11.24 if bought in their 25% off events) is exceptionally good for its price.

As for 2015, well, time will tell. I am feeling moderately enthused. At the very least, there’s a few blogposts from the second half of last year that I failed to complete then due to overwhelming guilt at my lack of enthusiasm, but will be completed shortly. Probably. And one thing that’s absolutely certain: I won’t be involved in any building work for a while.

A couple of pre-Christmas book reviews

Discerning Drinkers and The Pocket Guide to Wine

So, another year nearly over, and thoughts might be turning to potential Christmas presents. Here are a couple of books that might be worth considering…

First, then, The Pocket Guide to Wine by Nikki Welch. There have been (approximately) a million primers written about wine for the curious but inexperienced, and here’s another to put on the pile. It belongs somewhere near the top. There might not be an obvious need for it, but it’s a nicely designed, very approachable and welcoming book written in a lively and generous style, and packed full of just the right information, without boringly sinking into the fetid swamp of steaming fact that can swallow up the less careful wine writer.

The book rotates around the Wine Tubemap®, which splits the world of wine into seven lines whose stops – grape varieties or regions – offer vaguely similar experiences, with some stops being visited by more than one line. Each line gets its own chapter, with a brief introduction explaining what links the stops, and when might be a good time to board this particular line, and each stop a couple of pages. I think it’s a really well written and judged book, refreshingly free of pretention, condescention, fluff and waffle. It’s small, which means there are ommissions, and if you’re the kind of person who’ll be right narked that the Hungarian hárslevelű grape doesn’t get a stop it might not be for you, but then it isn’t supposed to be. This is aimed squarely at the Christmas-stocking-filler-for-the-wine-curious market, but unlike many books published at this time of year to cater for the festive gift trade, it goes about it in a totally non-cynical way. Excellent stuff.

So to Thinking Drinkers, by Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham. A book that tries to cover the entire history of booze, with added jokes, in 200-odd hardback pages. This has the potential to go horribly wrong, but I think is pretty well-judged, nicely written and illustrated. Some will find it a little juvenile, with its descriptions of “grape-based giggle juice” that’s “sweeter than a puppy in a dress”, but I know from bitter experience how hard it is to condense oceans of research into a few drips of zingy prose, and the writers have done a very fine job here.

A page from Thinking Drinkers

And they’ve done some proper work, too, not just describiing what booze tastes like and how it’s made, but also producing entertaining detours into history both ancient and modern, literature, cinema and sport. It’s very bitty with lots of pictures everywhere, which combined with the light-hearted tone makes it feel like a massively extended lads-mag feature. This makes it best when read in short bursts rather than extended sessions. In drinks terms, it’s more a tequila slammer than a vino da meditazione (ironically, as they’re not very keen on tequila slammers).

I did wonder why they devoted more pages to gin than to the entire world of unfortified wine, and what port and sherry did wrong to get just four pages when vodka and tequila get 22 apiece (brandy is afforded an only slightly less paltry six). Poor port, as they note, is traditionally passed to the left – but not normally quite so swiftly as this: there’s considerably more space devoted to the drinking habits of American presidents (they seem keen on that, with Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Nixon and Franklin D Roosevelt all getting a look-in) than the powerful Portuguese hangover-magnet.

But I haven’t ready many (well, any) books about booze that gets across so much information while simultaneously having a lot of fun. “The chaps that built the pyramids were paid with 10 pints of ale every day – which is why they forgot to put any windows in,” they write. You can spell Whisky, they note, “with an ‘e’ like the Americans and the Irish, or drop an ‘e’ like the Japanese, Canadians and social drug-users of northwest England”. It’s a bit flippant, but it’s fun.



London’s Christmas Wine Fairs – win tickets!

Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re chopping down trees. Mainly to make boxes for posh wine, probably. There’s always an outbreak of wine fairs in London come October-and-November-time, people obviously thinking that wine-obsessives aren’t already good enough at spending money on the stuff without additional encouragement, and that furthermore we don’t really have enough to spend our money on at the moment. Here, then, are details of the top four – and if you manage to reach the end you’ll be rewarded with details of how to win free tickets to the Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience for absolutely no money!

Last year I went to the Wine Gang fair, and it must have done something right as I’ve booked myself in for a return visit this November. There was enough good and/or interesting wine to make the event interesting for the oenophile, enough wine of any description to make a ticket a very cheap way to get thoroughly trollied if that was your priority, and a handful of very good tutored tastings for a bit of extra cash (though there’s always one particularly sexy one that sells out before the rest – this year it involves Penfold’s Grange. So you’re too late for that, sorry). It’s at Vinopolis on 15 November, and tickets are £20.

The Three Wine Men are Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke and Olly Smith, three of the nation’s more recognisable winefolk thanks to their occasional television appearances on Saturday Kitchen and the like, and their latest wine fair will be at Church House, Westminster, on December 6&7. Expect similar top-end-of-mainstream exhibitors as the Wine Gang. Tickets are £25 plus a £2 booking fee, but only get you in for half a day. Still, four hours is probably enough wine tasting for most of us. There are a few masterclasses, which cost another fiver.

Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience is an altogether loftier affair, taking place at the Saatchi Gallery in Kensington – let’s just say that Lidl won’t have a table there – and organised by, or at the very least with the blessing of, noted French critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve. The picture at the top of this post was taken at last year’s event, but I’m hoping that this year rooms will be less crowded and the people inside them more visibly happy. I haven’t been before, but will be popping by on Friday for a couple of hours to add to the scrum. The list of exhibitors looks encouraging, and it’s a fine venue. Tickets cost £30 plus a £1.40 fee, with masterclasses ranged from £20 to £130 (pricey, but you get to try five vintages of Chateau Latour), and it’s on this weekend – October 24&25.

The Decanter Fine Wine Encounter is the premier cru of London wine fairs, taking place at the Landmark Hotel on Marylebone Road where – fact! – the German team stayed before winning the Euro 96 final. It’s now the venue of choice for German football teams visiting London, and also regular hosts of the Decanter shebang. You can decide which you find more exciting. This is on November 15&16, but the Saturday has already sold out (fortunately the Wine Gang fair is on the same day, so there’s no need to go thirsty). Tickets for the Sunday cost £60, with additional masterclasses for between £15 and £85.

And that’s all. If you’d like to go to the Bettane + Desseauve thing without paying for it – you can even take a friend, also gratis – all you have to do is tweet me @thecellarfella or email me at sburnton@gmail.com asking nicely, and on Wednesday at noon or soon after I’ll put all requests in a randomiser and pick the first 10 – ten! – who’ll all have their dreams come true.

Marques de Casa Concha: ‘I want to make wines I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market’

Marcelo Papa of Marques de Casa Concha

There’s something particularly winning about a winemaker who tells you that he doesn’t like his own wine very much. Ultimately it might not be considered a particularly wise tactic – winemakers, or at least those of them that I come across, are employed with two tasks in mind: to produce wine and then to sell it. Telling people their wine’s not very good suggests a basic failure in task one, and more or less guarantees failure in task two.

And if Marcelo Papa doesn’t like his wine, it’s a serious problem. He is, after all, chief winemaker at Casillero del Diablo, who stick their label on 4 million cases – near enough 50 million bottles of wine – every year, which works out at around 250 million glasses of the stuff or, to put it another way, approximately enough to invite the entire populations of the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy round for a drink. And in his spare time he also controls Marques de Casa Concha, described by Concha y Toro, who own both brands and pay Papa’s wages, as “the most famous and traditional wine range in the Super Premium segment not just at the Company, but also in Chile”.

And it’s Marques de Casa Concha that has been the problem, because “super premium” is wine code for “red wine made using very ripe grapes and lots of new oak”, and increasingly winemakers – including, now, Papa – are backing away from that kind of thing.

“The style we’ve been doing in the last 10 years,” Papa says of his cabernet sauvignon, “was lots of flavours, lots of oak, lots of everything. Everybody was doing it. Ten years ago even Chablis people, will all the experience they have, started to make it oaky. Brunello, everybody went in the same direction. And you can push cabernet a long way, and we did it and I think it was a mistake. I just think we followed a little bit the fashion. Four years ago I realised I never drink Marques at home. I realised it’s because it’s too heavy. I drink wine every day, and I want a lighter, fresher wine. More, I’m 47 and I want to make the wines that I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market.”

And so that is what he is doing. “With Marques in 2010 we did a quite interesting way, we picked one block of cabernet sauvignon very early, maybe one month, and tried to make a wine as we made it in the 70s: no oak, 12% alcohol. And it was a big success. Then every year we’ve picked earlier. We’ve reduced alcohol by 1% naturally and still we get cassis and good fruit.”

Not only is he now picking earlier, he’s also moving away from small barrels. Traditionally, his wine (and very many others) aged in heavily toasted (charred on the inside for extra flavour) 225l barrels; now he is moving towards what the Italians call botte, massive 5,000l casks, and older ones too, so the resulting wines are much less oaky. He has also experimented with the origin of his wood – French oak, German, Slovenian – and the location of the coopers, and has finally settled upon botte made in Piedmont using mainly French oak. He showed me two wines made from the same grapes, from the same vineyard, picked on the same day in the same way, one aged in barrel and the other in cask, and the error of his old ways, and of many others’, was immediately apparent.

“In Chile, we’re a young country and normally you follow rules,” he said. “For cabernet you have to use Bordeaux barrels, you have to pick mature. But now in my approach to wine I really want to show the origin, the place. If you pick ripe, sweet, fruit and put it in high-toast barrels, you get more sweetness but you lose the origin, you lose the place. After 20 years making wine, now I’m following my feeling. It takes time, but we are moving.”

But what of all his happy customers, the ones who have bought his heavy, oaky, critically-acclaimed wines for a decade or more and are perfectly happy to drink them as they are? “Well, they will move to other wines,” says Papa. “And we will capture a new audience, and be much happier.”

Holiday on ice: JP Chenet ice edition

JP Chenet Ice Edition This has been a tumultuous summer, featuring as it has a World Cup of football, a great deal of cricket and also my first ever new kitchen, whose arrival has been accompanied chez CF by quite a bit of wall-destruction, giant-steel-girder-insertion and assorted major disruption.

The last five months – five months! – have whizzed miserably by under a constant deluge of decision-making and reheated microwavable dinners. Lights, plug sockets, paint colours, back doors, front doors, flooring, roofing, all of them and so much more had to be researched and ranked, pondered and picked. By the time I emerged from this cloud of clutter I realised that summer was nearly over, just as I found myself desperate to stretch out on a sun-kissed lawn, book in one hand, glass of something cold in the other. Sod it, I can relax next year. At least now I can cook.

My indulgence – and every new kitchen surely needs one – has been an ice-making fridge. I’m a man who likes cold drinks to be really cold and hot drinks to be drunk exclusively by other people, and my days of lukewarm water are now over. By pure coincidence the very week I put in the order for my ice-producing fridge I received a bottle of sparkling wine intended to be drunk on ice. Perfect, I thought, I’ll try that in a few weeks when the fridge is installed.

Four months later, it got opened.

To say I had low expectations of this particular wine would be to massively overstate how good I expected it to be. The bottle looks hideous, enrobed as it is in a white plastic shrink-wrapped sheath, and the whole thing had not so much a faint whiff as an overwhelming pong of gimmickry about it. And it therefore gives me no great pleasure to report that it’s basically terrific. True, it does not taste enormously winey. It is redolent of wine, clearly wine-ish bit not all the way there. If told that it had been created in a laboratory using entirely artificial ingredients by researchers working on a drink less reliant on nature, less subject to vintage variations and containing considerably less grape juice than actual wine you perhaps wouldn’t be enormously surprised, though you’d certainly have to concede that those scientists had done an absolutely terrific job. But for all that, if you can throw your preconceptions aside this is a thrillingly successful wine-related adult-oriented sparkling party-beverage.

It doesn’t taste of very much, and smells of even less, which probably adds to its appeal. It is reassuringly like wine, but with none of the complexities that might get in the way during large-scale relaxed social gatherings of the type intended for its consumption. Its lack of flavour leaves your brain to fill in the gaps, by finding within it anything it wants to find. Those who would like to be drinking Champagne will find a vaguely Champagney substance in their glass and be relatively content, while those who would like to be drinking a white wine spritzer, or lemonade, or water will find a vaguely spritzey/lemonady/watery substance in their glass and be relatively content. It is a light, bright, mildly alcoholic (11%) fizzy wine-style potation and I don’t see any reason why, so long as you disguise the bottle, it wouldn’t go down fabulously well at any gathering except the most wine-geeky.

It’s not my favourite sparkling wine, or even my favourite sub-£10 sparkling wine, but I do think it’s extremely good at doing what it’s supposed to, and I’d be happy to serve it to my friends and expect them still to be my friends afterwards. What’s more, I wonder, if you took a representative group of, say, 100 Britons and gave them all a glass of this and a glass of, say, Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchill, which glasses would be emptied first. There’s nothing here to dislike – it’s a simple, thirstquenching drink, a bit like water only fizzier and less suitable for young children, and all the better for it. 

Finally we come to its ice-friendliness. In the press release accompanying its launch JP Chenet boasted that it was “uniquely crafted to be served over ice without dilution”, but to the best of my limited scientific knowledge the only thing genuinely capable of being served over ice without dilution is water. Perhaps “uniquely crafted to be served over ice without dilution” is just a rather more impressive-sounding way of saying “doesn’t taste of much”. This entire launch could simply be an exercise in master spinnery, forced upon the company by a large batch of relatively tasteless off-dry fizz that they didn’t really have a way of selling. Whatever, consider my cap doffed. There was a time when turning water into wine would have been enough to get a religion named after you; now you might get a pat on the back and a decent year-end bonus. Whoever’s responsible, I’m a disciple.

Te Pā sauvignon blanc 2013 – unlikely to change your mind


te Pa sauvignon blanc

“Can we change your mind about New Zealand wine?” asked the press release. Um, not really. I mean, not with a sauvignon blanc. If you really want to change someone’s mind about a winemaking region, doing so with a textbook example of the single most typical wine of that region would seem an unusual and almost certainly futile way to go about it.

Te Pa (sorry, te Pā*) is a newish Marlborough winery, which released its first wine in 2011 and has 150 hectares of sauvignon blanc under the management of a Welshman named Garath Exton. Their sauvignon is good, crisp and extremely characterful, with an extravagant aroma (it doesn’t just whiff mildly of New Zealand sauvignon, it absolutely reeks of it. It extravagantly hums; if you pushed a blindfolded person into a smallish room with a glass of te Pā in it, they’d know there was a Kiwi in town). Bewilderingly pungent, if you want to teach someone exactly what Kiwi sauvignon blanc smells and tastes like, a glass of this could scarcely be bettered.

I note that The Wine Society, which sells it for £9.95 (as do the Real Wine Company), suggests it should be drunk with vegeree (I later discover that their website makes different suggestions every time you look at the wine, which is confusing of them). I’ve never heard of vegeree, but assume it’s a vegetarian version of kedgeree, the popular mildly curried smoked haddock-starring rice-based breakfast dish. It would probably go fine with kedgeree too, and much else besides. If you like your average Kiwi sauvignon blanc, you’re going to think this is excellent (it is considerably better than average, and not much more expensive). If you don’t, well, it’s not going to change your mind.

According to their website, “currently, te Pā produce only Sauvignan Blanc”, but the Wine Society also stock a pinot gris for £9.50 (cheaper here than in New Zealand, where it works out just under £11) and Kiwis can also find a pinot noir, a pinot-based rose and a premium, lees-aged sauvignon blanc, so we might see more of this company and their rather smart, embossed and curved labels over here in future. This, though, is a promising debut.

* I’ve read pretty much the whole of their website and I still don’t know what te Pā means, though I can tell you that tepa, without the space or the funny line, is a crystalline organophosphorus compound often used as an insect sterilant, which might make a bottle of this wine absolutely hilarious in certain insect-sterilising circles.

I can also tell you that tepa is a traditional food of the Alaskan Yup’ik people, and consists of fish heads that have been mixed with their eviscerated innards and left to ferment. Tepa, for obvious reasons, is also known as stinkheads. (Recipe in full, courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: “The traditional way to prepare tepa is to bury the heads in the ground along with most of the fish guts in a wooden barrel covered with [hessian]. This is allowed to ferment for about a week, depending on weather conditions.”) Yum! I fear that this might limit this particular wine’s potential in the Alaskan market, although there’s a chance that it might coincidentally be a fairly good match for its (allegedly) edible namesake. Neither do I have any idea how to pronounce an a when there’s straight line hovering over it – it’s obviously a Māori thing.

Germany: World Cup winners again, wine-selling also-rans forever

Von Winning riesling

And so Germany won the World Cup, once again reaffirming their status as leviathans of football. If there’s an international tournament about, you can be fairly sure that the Germans will be there in the closing stages, battling it out for medals and glory. Four times now they have won the greatest tournament of them all, not to mention the four finals and five semi-finals. For the German football team, life is one long lap of honour, one immense open-top bus parade.

Which is a bit of a shame for semi-professional football-and-wine analogists, because for all the garlands won by their footballers, if you were to fill a stadium with enthusiastic amateur wine-drinkers from across the world and bring out a succession of wines grouped by nationality – and to be fair I can imagine no reason why anyone would do this, but I’m speaking hypothetically here – Germany’s would get booed off.

Some national football teams fit their homeland’s winegrowing profiles quite well. Chile, for example, were extremely popular at the World Cup, with a squad short on expensive stars that overdelivered. Italy assumed rivals would crumble in the face of their inevitable superiority but despite the presence of some extremely classy players they received a rude awakening. England believed they had produced some effervescent, sparkly players good enough to rival the best in Europe, but hadn’t.

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In their inarguable excellence the German team unified opinion in a way that their wines never do. I celebrated their success with a bottle of Von Winning 2012, a just a little bit off-dry riesling from the Pfalz, which I found delicious in a limey, green-appley, superlatively summery way; Mrs CF took a single sip and then actually threatened me with physical violence if I ever stain her glass with German wines again (she then proceeded to drink the rest of her glass and a couple more, grumbling all the while).

The biggest club in German football is Bayern Munich, who hoover up domestic silverware with such perpetual hunger and remorseless drive that even their national side would be shamed by their relative lack of ambition and achievement. Nearly everyone likes Bayern Munich, and even those who don’t can’t help but acknowledge their excellence. But the nerdy football folk of this world, the people for whom the obvious is never quite enough, prefer the relatively minor but enormously cooler St Pauli, or perhaps Union Berlin. German wine is not Bayern Munich. German wine is St Pauli.

As Jancis Robinson recently wrote, it’s difficult to find anyone who works in wine who does not love riesling. Ask 100 wine professionals to name their favourite white grape and 90 of them will without thinking give you the same answer. Ask the same question on the UK high street and you’d probably get more people saying picpoul.

With my football-loving hat on, I’ve got to say Germany are so successful it’s annoying. And with my wine-loving hat on (I don’t actually have a wine-loving hat) Germany is so unsuccessful it’s frustrating. I can only imagine how infuriating it must be to those trying to flog their wines to the unappreciative British public. But if they do need to cheer themselves up, there’ll probably be an open-top bus driving past sometime soon.

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Win wine! Wine and tennis, from Bjorn Borgogne to John Mâconroe

Not long ago the worlds of sport and wine explored totally different orbits. Footballers drank a fair amount, to be sure, but in Britain at least their beverage of choice came in pint glasses. Cyclists and long-distance runners once used brandy to keep them going, but then moved away from alcohol altogether and discovered cleverer stuff that came in syringes and intravenous drips. Now, though, you can’t keep them apart. Manchester United force Wayne Rooney to exhibit his ludicrous ham-acting skills in Casillero del Diablo adverts; the ongoing football World Cup has a partnership with Taittinger; and the Ryder Cup will be toasted with a special bottling of Mouton Cadet, “available from the month of June in some of the best golf courses and fine wine shops around the world”. And then there’s Wimbledon, the demure, advertising-averse London-based tennis jamboree, which is in the fourth year of a partnership with Jacob’s Creek.

Jacob's Creek at WimbledonSo here’s a competition for you – try to think of a wine-related tennis player, and if it makes me chuckle I’ll send you a bottle of Jacob’s Creek in a special commemorative collectable cut-out-and-keep Wimbledon jacket, exceedingly similar to the one pictured left. Or, more accurately, Jacob’s Creek will send it to you. Entries welcome either by email, by adding a comment to this post, or to @TheCellarFella on Twitter. And here are a few of my own:


Bjorn Borgogne

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John Mâconroe

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Lindsay Vintageport

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Chi-anti Murray River

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Riojer Federer

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Chateauneuf du Pat Rafter

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Johan Jacobs Kriek*

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* You should know who Johan Kriek is – he won two Australian Open titles in the 1980s, and got to the semi-finals in France and the US. Though to be fair he was only good for a couple of years. And I had to check on Wikipedia to make sure I hadn’t just made him up.

So go on, thinking caps on. You can’t do any worse than me…


Château Angélus gold label: a terrible disappointment (in a good way)

Chateau Angelus gold label

A while ago I received an invitation from Château Angélus, the famous estate from Bordeaux’s Saint-Emillion. The invitation specified that, should I accept, I would witness with my own extremely lucky eyes “the launch of … a remarkable bottle for a remarkable vintage”, the vintage in question being not the much-hyped 2009 or the possibly-even-more-hyped 2010, but the 2012, a year that inspired relatively few superlatives. The mind boggled, it spent a while boggling, and then it conjured the image of the Penfold’s Ampoule, the £120,000-a-pop hand-blown lesson in unintentional ludicrousness that had sullied the name of a once-proud Australian winery (while bringing quite a lot of bonus publicity, it had to be said). This new bottle would surely be a) idiotically expensive, and b) idiotic, and c) full of properly delicious liquid. I accepted immediately.

The day before the event, news leaked online that the bottle would feature a label made of genuine gold. The mind boggled, spent a while boggling, and then conjured the images of some other alcohol-related gold labels, very much a mixed bag but certainly less exalted company than that which Château Angélus is used to keeping:

Gold Label

Wolf Blass Gold Label

Johnnie Walker Gold Label

It seemed obvious to me, inevitable even, that the bottle was going to be expensive, tasteless and gaudy, and would give me a lot of entertaining blog-fuel. I could scarcely conceal a grin throughout the previous day. I was going to be given lunch, wine and the opportunity for unlimited savage mickey-taking, all of it compressed into a couple of wondrous hours on a Friday afternoon.

Things took a turn for the worse when I found myself sitting next to Stephanie de Bouard-Rivoal, the frustratingly charming young deputy managing director of Château Angélus, and seventh generation of the Bouard de Laforest family to work at the estate since they took it over in 1909. The new bottle, still hidden underneath a golden cloth at that stage, had been her brainchild, intended to mark the château’s promotion to Premier Grand Cru Classé A status, the completion of building work on the château itself, and the birth of her sister’s baby, signifying the coming of an eighth generation. The poor infant has no idea that its destiny is already mapped out, a destiny that will involve a lot of travel, smart clothes, nice hotels and delicious wine.

Chateau Angelus 2012, the gold labelAnd then the cloth was removed with a fanfare – literally, while an actual fanfare was played, a genuine moment of ludicrousness that prompted guffaws from the assembled winos. For the first time we saw the bottle, and – curses – it was not hideous. Indeed, it was really quite elegant, as understated as a bottle can be when it’s encrusted with 21.7-carat gold, the metallic lustre contrasting with the dark bottle in a really quite appealingly dramatic way, the craftsmanship truly impressive. I took a sample bottle, sadly empty, and scratched at it with my thumbnail, hoping to see the gold flake away and give me something to complain about, but there was no shifting the stuff.

We also drunk some of the wine – not the 2012, which hasn’t been bottled yet, but the 2011, 2007 and 2006. The most interesting comparison was between the 2007, which was overwhelmingly fragrant and delicious, and the 2006, which was tighter and broodier. In time, the 2006 will unfurl and relax and become every bit as (figuratively) intoxicating as it’s younger sibling, perhaps more so. Everyone around me agreed that because it didn’t currently taste anywhere near as good as the 2007, the 2006 was certainly the better wine. Wine appreciation can be a counterintuitive business sometimes.

There is only so much gold buried in our planet, and to stick some on a bottle that sooner or later will find itself at a recycling plant or buried in a landfill site, its precious cargo lost forever, is a bit sad. But having said that, it’s not very much gold in the scheme of things, it looks good, and what’s inside will almost certainly taste excellent. For all the event’s rich promise, I found nothing to laugh about here. Except, perhaps, the price, but if you’ve got a spare £1200 or so to spend on six bottles of wine, you go right ahead. They’ll look great.

Decanter, Noble Rot and the quest for wise words on wine

Noble Rot and Decanter magazinesI like words. Good ones, or even standard ones chosen particularly craftily and then put in the right order, bring me pleasure. But I’m not crazily demanding: I’m perfectly happy to put up with a very ordinary choice of words, so long as they convey a meaning precisely and succinctly. But equally the wrong choice of words – I’m talking of the “serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer” ilk here – can make me really quite annoyed.

In the latest issue of Decanter, the nation’s premier wine magazine, someone has used the phrase “gustatory perception”. There is something about the phrase “gustatory perception” that, perhaps fittingly, sticks in my throat. In my opinion the phrase “gustatory perception” is acceptable only when used either in a scientific journal or with enormous quantities of irony, and probably best used ironically in a scientific journal. In this case, however, the phrase “gustatory perception” has been used without irony in a consumer magazine by a writer who, as a direct result of producing the phrase “gustatory perception”, was rewarded with real money.

“Colour turns out to be as contrary and debatable as anything else in wine,” he writes, “making a big impact on expectations, winemaking and, perhaps most significantly, the gustatory perception of the drinker.”

He might have ended that sentence with the simple phrase “what the drinker tastes”, but he chose not to. But I don’t blame the writer, I blame the people at Decanter, for creating a magazine in which the non-ironic use of the phrase “gustatory perception” is acceptable. A magazine that doesn’t care whether words are used in the kind of combinations that bring pleasure.

It was the final straw. I’ve put up with the endless panel tastings of wines I’ll never even consider buying, the profiles of wineries everyone already knows about, and the hideous awards issue – an annual doorstop-sized exercise in reader-alienating industry back-slapping – but this was too much. I stuffed the magazine back in my bag unfinished and spent the rest of my bus journey gazing sniffily out of the window. The following day I got a letter from the magazine’s publishers telling me that my subscription was up for renewal.

The only reason I’ve put up with Decanter for so long is that there really isn’t anything else. In the world of wine publishing there’s no equivalent of the old NME-or-Melody-Maker newsagent-based reading wars. In the world of wine publishing there’s not even a reading skirmish. There’s barely a reading evil glare. There’s one wine magazine that you sometimes see in shops that sell magazines, and that’s your lot.

There are a couple of others that you sometimes see in high-falutin’ bottle shops: the World of Fine Wine, whose very name conjures up images of the kind of people who like to let the phrase “gustatory perception” swirl around their mouths like it was the finest Montrachet. The main problem with WoFW is that it costs £89 a year (print only) which, given that it’s a quarterly, amounts to £22.25 an issue, which is bad value however good the writing is.

Then there’s Noble Rot. At £32 a year (in the UK) it’s £8 an issue, which is quite a lot if you compare it to standard consumer magazines, but makes it very much the Jacob’s Creek to WoFW’s Chateauneuf. The good thing about Noble Rot is that it concentrates not on telling readers how wine should taste and whether it’s better or worse than other wines that taste almost exactly the same, but on stories, many of them very well told, and people, many of them largely unknown. The bad thing about Noble Rot is a lack of storytellers: the guys behind the magazine are called Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, and of the 29 articles in the latest issue they wrote or co-wrote 15 of them, as well as taking most of the photographs. Their omnipresence gives a home-made, rough-and-ready fanzine feel to a magazine that otherwise looks and feels pretty professional, but they have ability to match their enthusiasm.

I’m new to Noble Rot, and have yet to become infuriated by any repeated faults it may have. It’s certainly not perfect, and there are some articles in this issue that seem useful primarily as space-fillers. But it is by some margin the best periodically-published collection of largely wine-focused words at a vaguely acceptable price in the land, a small boast but a notable one. Decanter have had their time; this subscriber is going elsewhere.