I began my journey from “bluff to buff” when I was 22 years old, and now at 70 I cannot believe how much cheap Spanish and Austrian rotgut I poured down my throat by the time I was 23! (Yes, Austrian, if anyone remembers Hirondelle wines?) However by the time I was 24 I had also swirled, sniffed and slurped a fair number of classed growth red Bordeaux, some fine Burgundies, and even a Chateau y’Quem. (You might need to Google that!)
Having made ourselves thoroughly ill several times, a small group of us at University of Strathclyde, all postgrads doing PhDs, decided enough was enough. The time had come for some serious research into grapes, countries, bottles, labels, corks, the whole bloody lot, because it sure as hell wasn’t “quantity” making us ill since big Frank could down more German lager in a Beerkeller over a weekend than the whole university rugby team!
We were all doing PhDs in Chemistry, so tackling this systematically and scientifically was a doddle. An elite club was formed, weekly subscriptions were paid into an old biscuit tin, and at the end of the month 90% of the money was allocated to wines purchased from Oddbinns or Peter Dominic wine merchants. The key variables were price, grape, country. At this stage of our young lives we equated cost per bottle with quality so the purchase of 20 bottles or 2 bottles with the allocated cash indicated whether we were genuinely researching something or just getting pissed!
Our research textbook was The Penguin Wine Guide, 1970, and we began by reading up on grape varieties particularly Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Aligote, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewurtztraminer. This led us to unravel the mystery of why one wine could be Chardonnay, Chablis, France, another be Chardonnay, Chablis, Chile, yet another be Chardonnay, Chablis, USA! You see in those days, Chablis was marketed as a TYPE of wine rather than as being from a specific village/region of France. The same was true as we demystified Chilean Burgundy, Australian Burgundy from the REAL Burgundy with all three being made with Pinot Noir but only one actually being from the REAL region of Burgundy in France.
I think you’re getting the message here, we travelled the world in a bottle on the last Saturday evening of every month for 3 years, some evenings were a single grape from a few countries, or from one country but different years/vintages, and some evenings we had just ONE bottle of something with our whole months money such as a Gevrey Chambertin, a Haut Brion or an Y’Quem. The learning was astronomic, the fun we had was awesome, and because of it today any of us can walk into a vigneron’s cellar in Burgundy for example, look at his tasting list, choose three to taste, then purchase the best value for money either for drinking young or laying down. And certainly today as I swirl, sniff, slurp that first sample, my synapses recognise the grape and its key elements of tannin, acidity, fruit, and finish, but most of all they bring forth mental images of those Saturday nights in Glasgow as big Frank said “bloody hell that’s good, have we only got one bottle!” He’s learning!
And now ….. some simple advice
So, for those of you who were expecting technical tips and guidance on wine and tasting I hope my story has inspired you. As you can see, there is no shortcut to “wine fitness”, it requires dedication, commitment, effort and practice. You don’t get fit by reading a book about fitness! But prior knowledge plus a tasting system is essential and I have two recommendations.
First, the BEST book for all-round knowledge, information, advice, and beautiful maps and images is World Wine Atlas. by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson now in its 7th Edition. Its not cheap but it will inform and educate you on grapes, wine production, terroir, producers, and best of all the vineyards themselves in really detailed maps of vineyards all around the world. We use it in France extensively.
Second, you need a good app for your phone or tablet to keep a record of your wines and tastings. I do NOT recommend these apps that take a photo of a label, recognise it and download prices and other people’s tastings onto your device. All I want is a digital notebook to store the label, lets me choose from a list of regions, countries, tastes, colours, aromas, and then provides a space to record my thoughts plus a score. I use the app Wine Notes on my iPhone, same name for Android but different creator. Here’s a few screen shots, it’s free so download it and try it out. Maybe I’ll share a few tastings from it later in the week if you make some nice comments about my post.