Talking Wine – December 2010

I am not noted for my subtlety so I had to be very restrained when I went to a recent dinner party and drank some very dubious Vacqueyras, the famous Rhône wine. The host informed me that he had bought this wine in an auction and that it was “a brilliant bargain”. Most respected auction houses who specialise in wine do inform any prospective buyers of the provenance of the wine and in some cases there is an opportunity to taste. What persuaded him to buy five cases of this wine is quite beyond me. He either has an appalling palate or was duped. But here lies a warning – wine should only be bought directly from a respected wholesaler or retailer when it is known how it has been stored or handled. I often get offered cases of vintage Port, given by a generous Godfather, but never drunk and being unloaded to raise money. I could undoubtedly pick up a financial bargain on paper but the wine in many cases has been stored in far from ideal conditions at temperatures way too high to ensure the natural ageing of the wine. Not knowing the wines provenance is far too dangerous a game to play and I will now always buy from respected merchants where I have some comeback if the complaints roll in!

I have just spent a week in North Carolina and Virginia along with Theo Sloot, our marketing and PR manager. We were guests of SUSTA, the trade association and, as a leading importer of Virginian wine, we were asked to visit three wineries a day, sit in on a few meetings and give our opinion on the quality and marketability of the wine as well as advising on how to penetrate the English market. North Carolina was generally disappointing and much of the wine is made from Muscadine which does not belong to the Vitis Vinifera grape type that is used to produce the vast majority of the world’s wines. The taste may appeal to locals but it is not one for the UK!! However Virginia was fascinating. The majority of the wineries are found in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and in many cases the scenery is quite stunning. Some wineries wish to remain very local with about 80% of their wine being sold at “Cellar Door”, which gives them maximum margin and positive cash flow. However one or two others were keen to support the idea of breaking into the world market and this starts with the UK, still considered to be the centre of the wine world. I believe that Virginia has a great future particularly as the grape varieties that seem to work best are not mainstream. The Viognier grape does especially well and Oz Clarke believes some of the examples to be among the best in the world. The wines are exceptionally pure with great fruit and balancing acidity. Also performing well is the Cabernet Franc, the lesser known Cabernet which is used in Bordeaux blends but comes into its own in the Loire Valley making such famous wines as Chinon and Bourgueil. In Virginia it seems to possess a purity of fruit and depth not found elsewhere which allows it to stand alone as a fine wine. Petit Verdot, another Bordeaux grape variety used in blends also performs well here in varietal form. We also found a stunning Nebbiolo (the grape of Barolo) although very few producers are yet experimenting with Italian varieties. Whilst inevitably there is a certain amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay grown it is the very fact that these other grapes are more successful which should secure Virginia a place as a recognised and interesting wine producing area. The down side is the wines do not start cheap ranging from £15 to £25 but they do taste good so let’s just see if we can persuade some of you “stick in the muds” to do a blind tasting on your friends – you might just surprise a few people. A total of eight Virginia wines will eventually be stocked in our Witney, Oxford and Tetbury shops.

Spare a thought for my wife who opened a bottle of rare Californian wine to put in the stew! When I informed her it was one of only two bottles left in the UK she went very pale. We are talking again now!!