The Extravagant Complexity of Wine (inspired by white Rioja)

In which Old Parn recounts the tale of his first serious wine purchase — and muses on the notions of choice and experimentation with the aid of a very nice bottle of white Rioja

Closeup of the label of a bottle of white RiojaDo you want to know what I love most of all about wine? Wine is an extravagantly complex universe, with bewildering variety, innumerable secrets and surprises.

I have an embarrassing — borderline clinical — compulsion to try new things. To try ALL THE NEW THINGS IN THE WORLD EVER. When I was a student, I spent a ludicrous amount of my loan (Go Team Maximum Student Loan!) on spirits. ‘Typical bloody student,’ you’re probably muttering, as you rustle your Daily Mail disapprovingly. But, y’see, I spent my loan on every spirit/liqueur I could find. Frangelico? Check. Framboise? Check. Creme de Cacao? Check. Amaretto? Check. Mine was not the shopping list of the typical student, I like to think.

(Christ alive, Parn, eradicate that entirely unwarranted tone of pride from your writing right now.)

Yeah. I wanted ALL THE SPIRITS. Because I wanted to be able to make ALL THE COCKTAILS. As a result, my university bedroom resembled a well-stocked off-license in a wealthy London borough. Except with Radiohead posters and the unmistakable stench of adolescent pretension. People came round to my room for a drink; I gave them a sodding menu.

But then I discovered that — actually — spirits were boring*. The apparent variety of the supermarket spirits section was nothing compared to the variety in my first case of wine. From Majestic.

Let me tell you about that first case of wine. I’d just moved into my first non-student abode. My first shared house. I’d landed my first BIG JOB (putting books back on shelves). I was almost like a Real Grown Up. And as such I decided to do what Grown Ups do: order a case of wine.

(Make your own deductions about my warped conception of adulthood. I don’t care.)

For someone who’d previously chosen his wine from the shelves of Sainsbury’s local, this was a revelation. So much choice! So many unfamiliar names!

I still have that same excitement whenever I browse wines in a good shop (online or off): that vertiginous thrill of bewildering, tantalising choice. The terror of knowing that even if I never drink the same wine twice, I still have no hope of trying them all. And I sincerely cannot imagine being faced with all these tantalising, exotic, unfamiliar names — and then putting a big-brand Australian Chardonnay into my basket. For me, that’d be like going to Thailand and having dinner in Burger King. I don’t mean that to sound snobbish. Because I think that the ‘safe’ ubiquity of big-brand wine is in no goddamn way the fault of customers who are intimidated by incomprehensible choice. Not everyone is a weirdass novelty-seeker like me — and if normal people don’t feel they can explore the unknowns of the wine world, that’s a failure on the part of the industry. But that’s another subject, eh?

So I filled my Majestic basket with unfamiliar fruits. Sure, lots of ’em would be well-known to me now — but then, everything was glimmering and new.

I still remember the first bottle I drank from that case, along with some friends: a white Rioja. And I thought: ‘Whoa. This is interesting. This wine kind of smells a bit like sheep’s cheese or something. How the hell does that work?’

(Nobody else knew what the hell I was burbling about when I said the bit about sheep’s cheese, by the way. They probably thought I was having a stroke.)

If you want to check out the sheep’s cheese thing yourself, I suggest you snap up a bottle of Navajas White Rioja from The Wine Society (****) It’s got that slightly sharp sheepy tang (boy, how appetising I make it sound) that took me right back to that first Majestic bottle. But when you get it into your gob, you’re cavorting with apricots and peaches. It’s dry, mind — and brilliantly, grippingly acidic, holding that jubilant fruit entirely in check.

And it costs £7.25 a bottle.

To me, £7.25 is a miserly amount to spend on a sensory experience that’s so goddamn unusual (so goddamn nice). That £7.25 wouldn’t even buy you a bottle of big-brand plonk in a Bethnal Green off-license (quoth the voice of bitter experience). But here it buys you apricots and sheep’s cheese and nostalgia.

Isn’t that, really, when we get down to it, pretty fucking exciting?

* Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

What I like (wine and metaphor)

In which Old Parn meditates upon the human face of wine, and the wonders of the metaphor

I’ll tell you what I like.

I like it when I take my first dilated, vibrating sniff — no, actually, not sniff — which sounds altogether too truncated and furtive — not sniff — what, then? — when I gasp in my first savage breath of a dark, red wine. And it just smells proper. It smells like someone made it.

Once you get past the fact that wine — so long as it’s good stuff, not some grim, loveless shite — is generally pretty nice to drink, what pushes a particular wine into the realm beyond? I think this is it. The fact that there’s a kind of human thing to it. An asymmetric, imperfect, loveable quality. It’s like it has a face.

‘[N]ow that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and the loneliness of it.’

That’s Marilynne Robinson in the (pretty beautiful) novel Gilead. And it’s true. We’re all so powerfully primed to be fascinated by humanity. And what’s more human than a face?

Not a wine, that’s for sure.

Which lands us — dunnit? — at a problem. Why am I writing a wine blog, not a people blog?

Actually, when I put it like that, I should definitely write a people blog. Old Parn’s People Reviews. Fuck yes. I can’t foresee any problems with that. Though we’d have to work out exactly how the free samples worked.

Whoa. I’m digressin’ like a mo-fo, I realise.

Digressing by digression from digression.

So. Yeah. Bear with me, chaps.

You see, I think wine might just be a little bit like metaphor.

You know what the idea of a metaphor is? To enrich your mental image of something by describing it as if it were something else. Which sounds pretty useless and illogical, really, doesn’t it? WELL LOGIC CAN JUST FUCK OFF, ALRIGHT?

An example? Okay. If I talk about ‘a blaze of flavour’, the concept of taste is overlaid with the concept of fire. And somehow I imagine the flavour in a way that is far more vivid. Precisely because it’s not like a fire in so many ways, the sense in which it is like a fire is magnified and sharpened. And an inexact description has managed to be far more exact than a clinical, literal one. Take that, clinical literalism.

So when two things are very different from one another (as a bottle of wine is from a person) there is massive satisfaction in the sensation when those two things are brought together by metaphor. When the one concept is infused with the other.

And when a wine makes me think of it as if it were a person — that’s when I reach for my superlatives.

What To Do With Half A Cabbage

In which Old Parn tells you what to do with the aforementioned article of vegetation

Okay. Here’s what you do.

(This has nothing to do with wine, but everything to do with things that taste fucking excellent. What you need is a cabbage and some storecupboard stuff. And a ravening hunger.)

You shred half a cabbage and whack the blighter into loads of bubbling, well-salted walter. It only needs 2 or 3 minutes in there, then drain it — but save the water it was cooking in.

While the cabbage is boiling, mash up a few anchovies from a jar and crush a couple of cloves of garlic. Set those bad boys frying — along with a sprinkling of dried chilli flakes, if you like the kick — in a hefty dose of olive oil (about 2-3 tbsps, I guess).

Stick that water you saved from the cabbage right back into the cabbage pan and get it boiling again. Add a bit more salt, why don’t you? Then put in some pasta. Tagliatelli, spaghetti or linguine. 200g of it, if you’re a greedy fucker like me.

You’ll end up with pasta boiling away while your garlic and anchovy is frying. Good work, soldier. Reward yourself with a swig of gin and tonic.

After a while, your garlic mixture will go all nice and golden, and the anchovies will hve pretty much dissolved into the oil. When you’re happy with all that, stick the drained cabbage into the pan, too, and fry it around.

Once your pasta’s done, drain it (saving a bit of the pasta water). Toss with the cabbage/garlic/anchovy and add a little of the pasta water to make it all bind together. I never used to do this pasta-water shebang, but — believe me — it makes a difference. So do it.

Then cram the whole bunch into your ravenous maw.

Good, eh?

And, no, I don’t have a photo. Because by the time it’d occurred to me to take one, I’D ALREADY FUCKING EATEN IT, HADN’T I?

Old Parn’s Wine Awards 2011, part 2

In which your host doles out some more awards, in his customarily otiose manner, including those for best wine retailers — and your own favourite posts from 2011

A week or so ago, I dusted off my red carpet (sorry about those stains — I’ve no idea where they came from) and presented Old Parn’s Individual Wine Awards. You’re a sucker for a bit of that award night glamour, aren’t you?

Which is, of course, why you’re back for today’s second instalment. So let’s get on with it. Mandolin-strummer, step forward; do your strummy thing!

(NO, NOT LIKE THAT. I MEANT ON YOUR MANDOLIN, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE. GET OUT OF MY SIGHT.)

Wine retail awards

Best online wine selection

The Wine Society — if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll’ve gathered that I love the Wine Society as though it were a small, adorable puppy. A small, adorable puppy that brings me lovely, lovely wine. Brilliant.

Best online wine communicators

Naked Wines — These guys are doing something different. For this I love them as though they were all small, adorable puppies that by their very existence somehow subverted the notion of puppyhood while simultaneously also selling some rather good wines.

(Let me know if the puppy analogies cease to be illuminating at any point.)

Naked Wines is firing a champagne cork into the arse of the stodgy, stolid wine world — by according prominence to the wines that normal people like, rather than wines that the establishment recommends. I’m not saying the establishment’s recommendations have nothing going for ’em, incidentally. But there’s a balance that needs redressing. And it’s a thing of joy to see those Naked folk redressing it.

Best supermarket for wine

Waitrose — Are you surprised? Really? Are you? REALLY?

Best value wine retailer

The Wine Society — Yes, again. I’m not going to apologise. I don’t know of any other wine retailer, online or offline, whose selection of £4.50–£7 wines has such a goddamn high hit rate.

Your Favourite Posts

Finally, here’s my token nod to democracy. Here are the five posts from this ol’ blog of mine that received the most traffic in 2011. I realise that it’s an unjustifiable leap of reasoning to deduce that these are your favourites. But I’m all about unjustifiable leaps.

(Ow. I just twisted my ankle.)

So. Here are 2011’s most trafficked posts:

  1. The Shit Written on Wine Labels
  2. Wine Writing is Broken
  3. Le Froglet Wines (the horror! the horror!)
  4. Five reasons to swear — about wine or anything else
  5. Benjamin Darnault Picpoul de Pinet review

Well. That’s is (I promise) for the gratuitous end-of-year list posts. Thanks for bearing with me through the oscillations of 2011, and let’s clink our glasses in that vulgar way we do in honour of 2012. In daringly Mayan-defying style, I have a feeling it’s going to be good.

Old Parn’s Wine Awards 2011

In which Old Parn presents the first tranche of wine awards for the year that has been

Shallow depth-of-field shot of the necks of wine bottles protruding from a wine rack

So. 2011. I think it’s time you and I had a sit down and reassessed our relationship. We’ve both done some things we shouldn’t have. Mainly you.

Now, I’ll grant you, you’re being pretty damn lovely. But, as years go, I’m not going to pretend you’ve been consistent. In fact, if we’re talking consistency, you were about at the level of a schizophrenic pitbull terrier on amphetamines, wearing a knitted pink bonnet.

But — consistency? You and I, my dear, sweet, syruppy reader (if I may move to include you in this hitherto somewhat self-indulgently exclusive conversation), you and I aren’t here for consistency, are we? We’re here for life. And, um, probably wine, too. Which is (if I may remind you) a subset of life.

Not the other way round, you pathetic, hyperventilating alcoholic.

Anyhow. Here’s the deal. Over the course of the next two posts, I hope you’ll permit me to extend the self-indulgence and to present — with desultory trumpet fanfares and some misguided bugger strumming a mandolin — OLD PARN’S WINE AWARDS, 2011. Yes, there is something a little troubling about looking back over a year exclusively through the prismic glass of empty wine bottles. But no matter. Onward. Acrossward.

Like I said, the awards will come in two parts. In the first, today’s, I’ll canter through my most notable wines of the year. In the second, to follow, I’ll add a few more general awards (luxuriating in the delusion that anyone’ll give a toss) and — with a halfhearted nod towards democracy — present your favourite posts of 2011.

But that’s all to come. Excitingly. Meanwhile, though —

Old Parn’s Individual Wine Awards

Most evocative wine

Arabella Reserve Shiraz Viognier — Bulgarian woodsmoke, adolescent ennui and being a bit shit with orphans.

Most wanker-demolishing wine

Potel Aviron Moulin a Vent — Reminding us that the word ‘fruity’ belongs to us, to the hedgerows, to the soil — not to some bunch of oily FMCG bell-ends.

Most redemptive wine

D’Aquino Reserve Merlot — One Merlot that can grab onto my ankles any day of the week.

Most androgynous wine

Act Five Shiraz Viognier — Strapping, crocodile-wrestling shiraz with florally fecund viognier. Yes please.

Most heinous and detestable wine

Le Froglet — Foul piss of Satan. Foul piss of Satan, what’s more, served like a goddamn yoghurt.

Most sado-masochistic wine

Domaine de Mourchon — Seduce me with a heady waft of fruit. Then pull me up, slap me and strap me, look me fucking dead in the eye and ask me if I reckon I’m hard enough.

Most ungluggable wine (this is a good thing, damn it)

El Seque Alicante — A wine that doesn’t apologise, doesn’t smarm, doesn’t pussyfoot.

… and the sought-after Best In Show:

Nicest wine of 2011

Vina Arana Reserva Rioja — Soft but strong. Firm but gentle. Confident but seductive. It yields and it withstands. Balance.

So that’s it for today. Stay tuned — won’t you? — for part two. And do feel free to share your own vinous awards in the comments, should you be so moved.

Old Parn’s Christmas Wine Recommendation

In which Old Parn comes out with it and gives his own (much sought-after) opinion as to which wine you should be drinking this Christmas

Two out-of-focus bottles of wine in the background; in the foreground, rolls of wrapping paper on a festive red tableclothSometimes I get utterly sick of the idea of wine writing. Literally. A bit of sick comes up. (Medium-bodied, with notes of bile, acid and gastric juice; lacking in balance, but with a very long finish.)

First up, this idea that we’re all (we wine writers) on some kind of crusade to educate the common palate. Bullshit. I couldn’t give a lawnmowed turd about educating your palate. And I hope that’s a sentiment you find reassuring. Unless you’re mowing the lawn. Because I reckon your palate is just fine the way it is, whatever you like to drink.

If we imagine two people, both really enjoying a bottle of wine, and one of them has a £5 wine and the other a £50er, I don’t think the latter has accessed some kind of higher level on the game of life (by defeating the end-of-level-1 boss of cheap New World Chardonnay). Enjoyment is enjoyment is enjoyment. Sensual pleasure doesn’t have a hierarchy, and sensations are not absolutes.

I’m not claiming, by the way, that I don’t adore expensive wine — that I don’t often prefer the £50 bottle to the £5. No. And, sure, I have opinions — pretty strong ones, at times — about which wines are good and which are bad. But let Christ tear me apart with his saintly teeth before I imagine my own opinion on this shit is any better or more worthwhile than anyone else’s.

What I’m saying is this: I do not remotely think of it as my job to convert any £5er to a £50er. I’m not a goddamn missionary.

(I’d be an awfully shit missionary, really, wouldn’t I?)

So I don’t care what people drink. I don’t care about ‘teaching’ you to drink ‘better’ wine. Hell, I don’t even, when it comes down to it, care all that much about wine.

What the hell do I care about, in this nihilistic world of mine?

Well, I care about making you laugh. I care about diverting your attention for a while. I care about stories. I care about putting unique, irrepeatable experiences into words, and trying to preserve them in tiny crystalline gems. If I were writing about sunsets, I wouldn’t want to educate you to seek out better sunsets. I’d just want to try and use these weird little clumps and clods of letters to make something like that same sunset hang shimmering in your mind.

And I’d probably want to throw in a few sunset-themed swearwords in there, too. But that’s by the by.

So Old Parn’s Christmas Wine recommendation is as follows:

This Christmas, drink whatever the hell you really love drinking.

Not what looks impressive, or what the critics say you should drink, or what your farty old uncle of yours will approve of, or what that otiose prat Old Parn likes. No. Drink Whatever The Hell You Love Drinking.

Because that really is all that matters.

Happy Christmas, y’all.

When Clemmie Misses Her Train

In which the delightful Clemmie is reintroduced to these pages, and a tale of debauchery, recklessness, minor infringements and cello-loving is recounted

Now, it’s a blogging faux pas to apologise for — or even refer to — the time that’s elapsed since one’s last post. So I shalln’t. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll account for myself? Hell, believe me: I’m hoping the same thing, and have been for several years. Still hopin’.

But what follows, I guess, is a sort of oblique apology of its own, in a way. I’m going to tell you the story of yesterday evening.

And for this purpose I’d like you, please, to join me in welcoming back to these pages the inestimable Clemmie. Last time you met her, Clemmie missed her bus. This time, Clemmie misses her train. And then Clemmie catches a taxi, a coach, two tube trains and another taxi.

(I know: it’s all in the way I tell ’em.)

A bottle of Durnberg Gruner Veltliner white wine on a wooden outdoor table, with glasses, olives and assorted items

But our riches-to-rags tale begins with the best Oxford can offer: the Old Parsonage Hotel, with its perpetually burning log fire and its perpetually rather damn nice Durnberg Gruner Veltliner — bracing like a sea-breeze in spring. Of all Oxford’s providers of food and drink, this is the place I most miss.

(And I reckon they probably miss me, too. Clemmie and I have put a fair bit of business their way, y’know? And we’re fucking charming customers, too.)

In the garden of the Old Parsonage, Clemmie is on the phone to her mother. Clemmie’s phone only functions in loudspeaker mode:

‘Mum, don’t say anything rude or horrible, because you’re on loudspeaker.’

Clemmie was supposed to catch the train to her mother’s home in Suffolk. But Clemmie is drinking Gruner Veltliner at the Old Parsonage. The advantages of a phone that works only in loudspeaker mode begin to be apparent.

We don’t linger, though, at the Parsonage. Rather prosaically, this is because I have to go to my old home in order to pick up my cello. In so doing, I am also the delighted recipient of two enormous — but very nice — but enormous — cushions. A gift from my kind little sister.

When one is carrying a cello and two enormous cushions, one needs another drink. And that drink was provided by Portabello restaurant on South Parade. A blossoming blackcurranty Carmenere that had, mayhap, a bit too much of the fruit juice about it for my liking, but was nevertheless welcome enough. Welcome also was the brief presence of Anna ‘Big Mitch’ Mitchell from her house on the other side of the road. Anna had a small pinot noir. Anna is quite a small pinot noir herself. (That’s meant to be a compliment.)

By this stage, alas, anything resembling a plan for the evening had been shredded like a tissue in a blender.

So Clemmie and I left Anna to roam the streets of Oxford — and decided to get a coach to London.

At this point, the class and sophistication of our evening began to take something of a dive:

‘It’s a pity we can’t drink wine on the coach,’ said Clemmie, wistfully.

There was a moment’s silence.

‘Is Tesco’s still open?’

And so it was, dear (horrified) reader, that Clemmie and I found ourselves on the back seat of the coach to London, surreptitiously pouring Tesco’s Finest Fiano (SECURITY PROTECTED) into plastic cups.

(Yes, I bought plastic cups. What do you think we are? Savages? Hey, don’t answer that.)

Now, I happen to believe that wine shouldn’t be taken even remotely seriously. Wine is our bitch, and we do to it as we will. So I don’t feel bad for subjecting Tesco’s Fiano to this treatment.

Especially as it’s not a very nice wine. It’s kind of thin, and has a bit of a fizz to it. Not in a particularly good way.

Nevertheless — as you know — we are nothing if not stoical in our pursuit of shitfacedness. So Tesco’s Fiano and plastic cups it was. Lesser humans might have caved; not Old Parn and Clemmie. The Fiano was dispatched.

… And there we were in Victoria. Me with my cello and my enormous cushions; Clemmie with her enormous bag.

Travelling on the underground on Friday night with a cello and two enormous cushions is an experience that itself requires a degree of cushioning — so it was as well that our resourceful acquisition of that doughty Fiano had anticipated this need. So Clemmie, cello and I happily swayed our way to Putney. To a pub.

At the pub, we had some sauvignon blanc. Or that’s what it tasted like, anyway. Look, if you’re still reading this for the tasting notes, you really need to carry out some kind of reality check at this point.

‘’Scuse me — is that a cello in there?’ asked a thin man wearing a tracksuit.

‘Um, yes.’

‘I love the cello. Do you play it with a bow?’

‘Yup.’

‘Can you pluck it, too?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘I love the cello. There’s something about it that speaks to me.’

Carrying a turding great cello around with you is, believe me, a surefire way to kick off some fantastic conversations. Be that as it may, stringed instrument vendors of Putney should take note: there is a man in a tracksuit out there. Make the sale.

Our cello-besotted conversant having departed, we were at length politely nudged in the direction of finishing our drinks. Even in London, y’know, pubs close.

And so Clemmie bundled herself into a taxi. And my cello, my cushions and I made our slow — yet somehow majestic — peregrination home.

***

An illustration of a rabbit and some flowersWhen I opened the door to my flat and turned on the light, I was greeted by a rabbit.

I picked up the card and turned it over. It was from my neighbour.

Tom
Please talk to me about your packages. Why didn’t you pick up the one last night, I knocked on your door?
H—

I turned the card back over, gave the rabbit a sick kind of smile, and went to bed.

(To be continued…)

How to choose wine in the supermarket

In which Old Parn trots out a bit of advice on how to choose good wine in a UK supermarket

This is an extended version of a guest post I wrote for Groupon UK. You can read the shortened version on the Groupon blog.

Dramatically angled photo of a statue in which a naked Theseus slays the Minotaur

You remember Theseus? Yeah — the bloke who had to kill a savage, halitosis-ridden minotaur, then find his way out of a vast and treacherous labyrinth. A labyrinth, what’s more (though the legends don’t tend to mention this) that was probably ankle-deep in minotaur crap, unless there was some kind of sophisticated drainage system in place.

You may think Theseus made a pretty good job of all the above. And I wouldn’t disagree. But what I say is: put Theseus at the entrance to an out of town supermarket and tell him to come back with a half-case of exciting, high-quality wine?

Suddenly, that minotaur business don’t seem so taxing.

Because picking out the good stuff from your average supermarket wine aisle is a grim and potentially psychologically traumatic experience. But fear not, adventurer! Here are six tips to help you get out of the maze without putting your foot in something nasty:

1. Be suspicious of the beautiful label

Something to bear in mind, especially if you’re looking at the cheaper wines (around the £6–7 mark and below): at this price, a scandalously small amount of your money is going towards the actual wine. Most of it gets eaten up by taxes, duties and other such shaboddle. Read this article on UK Wine Duty and weep (a taster: spend £5 on a bottle of wine and less than £1 of that was spent on the wine itself)

So if you see a cheapish wine with a beautiful label, bear in mind that the producer already had a very small amount of money to make the wine, and that label design and branding consultancy don’t come cheap.

On the flip side, though, great label design on a more expensive wine may well be an indication that a producer is focused on its customers. So I’m not saying you should avoid nice labels per se. Just be aware that you’re paying for that label design.

2. Avoid the big names

We’ve all heard of the grand and prestigious wines from places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Sancerre, Barolo, Chateauneuf du Pape … But here’s where I’m going to tell you to ignore them.

Well, not entirely. But I virtually never buy big-name wines at the supermarket (except perhaps Waitrose). Why? Because often they are bad, bad examples of great wines. Sold on name alone.

If you want a grand old Bordeaux for a special occasion, I’d always go to an independent wine shop — where someone will help you find a good’n — or order online.

But, in the supermarket, I suggest you avoid the big names — and instead …

3. Seek out the unknown gems

These are the wines from places and grapes you may not be acquainted with. Why buy these? Because supermarkets know that most people buy the familiar stuff — slap ‘Bordeaux’ or ‘Pinot Grigio’ in big letters on a label and that wine will probably sell.

But slap ‘Torrontes’ or ‘Musar Jeune’ on a label? Not so much. These are wines that will generally be bought by more seasoned winos. As a result, they’ll tend to be better quality. Because the wine can’t rely on name, so has to prove itself by quality.

A perspective shot of several bottles of red wine in a row

4. Be wary of 2 for 1 deals

Ah! The mythical 2 for 1. Bargain, right? Alas, dear trolley-pusher, it may not be so…

Because there’s a bunch of wines that only ever sell when they’re on 2 for 1. At other times of year, they’re shelved somewhere out of the way, at a high full price that hardly anyone would pay. They are designed to be sold at 2 for 1. And that fact is built into the pricing.

So don’t be so sure that a pair of 2 for 1 wines for £10 is actually worth £20. It probably isn’t.

5. Look for the medals

Like a shrewd, discerning singleton at a military officers’ ball, you need to keep your peepers peeled for the glint of polished metal. Wine awards aren’t the be-all (many brilliant wines don’t win medals) — but if a wine does have an award festooning its label, chances are it won’t be a dog.

Unless you’ve somehow strayed from Tesco’s to Crufts.

6. Search high and low

The way things are shelved in supermarkets is incredibly significant. Products placed at eye level will sell best. So if Mr Supermarket wants to shift a particular brand (or a particular brand pays Mr Supermarket for the privilege…?), that brand gets the prime space.

And, once again, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that the best quality wines won’t necessarily be the ones that Mr Supermarket is keenest for you to buy.

So get on your knees — and your tip-toes — and scan the badlands of the top and bottom shelves. This is where those modest beauties may be coyly hiding.


Well — I hope these tips fortify your next voyage supermarketwards.

Oh, yeah, and on your way out, give that Theseus a kick in the shins, won’t you? (For Ariadne.)

Minotaur photo by BrotherMagneto

Wine’s image problem is about far more than supermarket pricing

In which Old Parn outlines his own opinion as to why a love of wine is so often associated with snobbery

The question that’s flapping around the wine world like a startled goose is, ‘Why won’t the British treat wine seriously?’ — and, in parallel to that, why does wine have such a problem with allegations of snobbery?

Well, that flapping goose has woken me up, too. So here are my thoughts.

First up, I think it’s a little too easy to blame supermarkets for the situation in which wine-lovers are stereotyped as snobs.

Guy Woodward (in the Guardian piece I linked to, above) writes:

‘It’s a situation that several supermarkets have helped to create. By directing consumers to the “3 for £10” promotions, stores are hardly encouraging us to discover new wines. The wine industry’s own trade body, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, has even criticised such “deals”, arguing that they stymie consumer education.’

But I’m not sure that supermarkets’ pressure to hit the lowest price points is really responsible in a fundamental way for perceptions of wine snobbery. After all, supermarkets have surely also remorselessly driven down the price of meat and beer (Guy’s two examples of segments not afflicted by perceptions of snobbery).

So why is wine a target, while meat and beer are not (or are much less so)? It can’t be as simple as supermarket pricing, the issue on which Guy’s article focuses pretty much exclusively.

Incidentally, I absolutely agree with everything Guy says about wine pricing in supermarkets. I just don’t think this is the root of wine’s problems with snobbery.

To which I think there are at least three major contributing factors he doesn’t mention.

Wine’s history

Historically, wine has been associated with privilege in a way that beer and decent meat have not (to anything like the same degree). I’m not saying this association is fair. I’m saying it exists. Powerfully. Not especially because wine was historically expensive, but more because it is associated with Oxbridge cellars, arcane drinking societies, aristocratic dinner parties — in a way that beer and decent meat are not.

That gives wine a hill to climb that others don’t have to contend with.

The lack of a ‘story’ for wine

People have been told a story that allows them to understand and relate to the benefits of spending more on better meat (and allows them unequivocally to feel good about doing so).

The story is that animals get to lead a better life. The customer is supporting a small farmer, not a big corporation. There’s a human touch. Local meat feels more connected to the customer. And so on.

Yeah, sure, the more expensive meat also tastes better. But that’s not actually the main thrust of the story. The emotional story of animal welfare, conservation and support of farmers is the more emotionally compelling factor. Even if it’s not always true or accurate.

Wine is not yet successfully and consistently broadcasting an emotional story that’s as good as this. It could. But it’s not. Notice that Naked Wines is making progress on this — getting customers to relate to wine stories, to see what being a small wine producer (and supporting those producers) actually means.

The relative weakness of wine advocacy

This links with the story argument, above — but goes further.

Neither the decent-meat lobby nor the beer industry persistently shoot themselves in the foot in the way that the wine industry does. I’ve written before about my belief that wine writing is too often insular and exclusive. If wine wants to shake off its snobbish stereotype, the industry needs to make a concerted effort to stop blathering on with terminology nobody understands and implying that there is a hierarchy of enjoyment of wine, the upper echelons of which are reserved for the cognoscenti.

I’m not saying there’s not a hierarchy of enjoyment of wine, incidentally. You may think there is. But implying this is powerfully alienating to people who feel like they’re far from cognoscenti.

Anyhow. Lots of the success of the decent-meat lobby is down to its use of charismatic, passionate advocates to put across its story in an immediate and accessible way: Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and all. People who are selling the lifestyle and the benefits, not just the product; who talk to their audience in language that is free of jargon, who seem like ‘one of us’. And, yes, people who have a very high profile.

Now, I realise it’s all very well for me to say ‘the wine world needs advocates like Jamie Oliver’ — when it’s not exactly easy to propel oneself into a position of that kind of influence. I’m not pretending the wine world can just create charismatic, popular advocates — like that. Nor am I saying, incidentally, that every single advocate that currently exists for wine is rubbish. Obviously that’s not the case.

Not one of the above three factors has a quick’n’easy solution.

What I am saying is that, combined, they are (in my view) hugely implicated in the allegations of snobbery with which wine is beset. And that whilst supermarket pricing may play its part, I’d say that the wine industry deludes itself enormously if it lets itself believe that this is the only — or even the principle — cause of its snobbery woes.

The Shit Written On Wine Labels

In which Old Parn takes issue with the arse-woundingly banal, turgid bunch of old silage that gets written on wine labels

A macro shot of the text written on the back of a bottle of red wine from Marks & Spencer

There are plenty of things in this life that give me a wounding great pain in the arse. If you want to hear more about them, I suggest you follow me and my wounded arse on Twitter.

But, today, my arse is in ribbons thanks to the banal, turgid bunch of old silage that gets written on wine labels. Here are four arse-wounding things that wine producers should stop doing. Right now.

1. Giving ludicrously specific/esoteric food matching suggestions

Excellent. So your wine goes well with lava-cooked unicorn steaks marinated in dolphins’ milk and irony. That’s helpful. Your head goes well with your arse. May I suggest you match the two?

2. Giving ludicrously vague/fallacious food matching suggestions

Oh really? Goes well with fish, chicken and meats, you say? Now. You realise that chicken is meat, right? Yes, so Shakespeare could get away with doing stuff like that. ‘Angels and ministers of grace’ — that kind of thing. But you can’t.

Moreover, if your wine actually does go well with everything from pan-fried plaice to seared chilli tuna steaks to coq au vin to frigging beef and ale stew, congratulations. You have succeeded in distilling the mythical liquid of ambrosia. And all the other winemakers might as well just give up now and start constructing dubiously phallic monuments in your honour.

Or else, you’re a lying charlatan.

Now, which’ll it be?

3. Spewing out interminable, drivelling blather

I don’t give a halfhearted wipe of a frog’s arse about the view from your winery. Nor do I trust your declarations of ‘passion’ any further than I could throw the metaphysical concept of passion. Which is no distance. Because it’s a metaphysical concept, and TRY AS I MIGHT I CAN’T SEEM TO PICK IT UP.

I’ll be the judge of your goddamn capacity for passion. So let’s get a hotel room and we can work out a mark out of 100.

4. Including any kind of pun in the wine’s name. Whatsoever. No exceptions.

I’m not going to elaborate. I’m tired now.

What wounds your arse, dear reader?

What else do those label-crafting buggers do that causes you to double up in agonised rage and frustration? Tell us — share the pain — and, in so doing, administer the internet’s very own soothing arse-balm, by leaving a comment.

UPDATE: Inspired by Graeme’s comment, below, I’m upping the stakes. Provide a particularly lamentable example of wine label wank (in the comments, below) and I’ll send you some kind of prize. To be decided. So search those wine racks/liquor store shelves for the purplest prose you can find. Enter as many times as you like. Make us laugh/cry. Wound our delicate arses. You’ve got until the end of the week.

UPDATE 2: Okay, so the prize will be a bottle of this rather lovely wine, Verd Albera, I just reviewed. The best comment(s) will get one (unless you’re overseas, in which case you might have to settle for something else).

Read me blathering about wine on Groupon

In which Old Parn introduces his first wine-themed guest post — lesser-known alternatives to popular white grapes

The logo for Groupon: white text on black background

May I invite you to poke your e-nose into my first wine-themed guest post for the folk at Groupon?

It’s a rundown of some less popular alternatives to that ‘holy’ trinity of white wine grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc — featuring Picpoul de Pinet, Gruner Veltliner, Bacchus, Albarino and Viognier.

Do mosey over and have a read. Perhaps even leave a comment, or click that ‘like’ button. So the Groupon chaps are fooled into thinking I have some readers/friends.

What the hell came over me, though — using the word ‘quirky’? In the title, no less? I’ll never know. It’s been a difficult time is all I can say. Forgive me, o forgive.

Wine and sex

In which Old Parn — in celebration of his 100th post — draws a shimmering parallel between two hedonistic pastimes

A cropped photograph of a woman sexily licking her brightly-lipsticked lipsEach time you have sex, do you give it a mark out of 100?

I think you do not.

Oh, how provocative! Oh, how extreme! Oh, but rating wines is not remotely like rating that other thing. Oh, it’s quite disgusting! Guards! Guards! Take him away!

But wait: I’m just trying to give an account of what I’m doing, here. Because I don’t want to write about wines like an examiner; I want to write about wines like a lover. I want to be shamelessly abandoned, shamelessly subjective, in a pursuit which invites (and is pretty much meaningless without) shameless abandonment and subjectivity.

Not saying there’s no place for ratings out of 100. Not lashing out at nobody who does it. This is about me. My approach. (Yeah, what a fucking egotist I am. But you know this.)

I guess it’s important to be upfront about this. If you want studied objectivity, go elsewhere in your noble quest. Hell, I admire objectivity. But I admire it from a fucking massive great distance. Like a prudent stalker armed with camo gear and good binoculars.

Anyhow. The above explains why my favourite wines are often pretty damn fuckable.

That’s all. As you were.

(Oh, yeah, and this is Old Parn’s 100th blog post. If the earth moved for you at any point, do leave a comment.)

Wine Wide Web 2: Wine stories from around the web

In which Old Parn once again sets before you an array of winey, webby goodies from the past week or two. This time, the (loose) theme is wine stories

Are we all sitting comfortably? Because it’s time for another roundup of the wine wide web. The (loose) theme for this roundup? Wine stories. Because I like stories. You like stories too. Don’t pretend you don’t.

A bottle enclosed in a circleLet’s kick off with an entertaining Swabian wine ramble, which compares and reviews three German red wines — Trollingers — but not before incorporating a tale of odyssean travels and serendipitous bursts of Dire Straits.

Three wine bottles stacked horizontallyI also enjoyed Spittoon’s account of a desultory evening spent in the company of crap TV, Chinese takeaway and Freixenet Cava — because aren’t so many wine encounters like this? Unplanned, unspectacular, but pretty damn satisfying.

A portrait photo of Simon J Woolf, aka The Morning ClaretBack to Germany, now, for a spot of vinous time travel via The Morning Claret’s brace of Rieslings — taking us from 2008 to 1991.

Very interesting stuff. And not remotely envy-inducing.

Photo of Eamon FitzGerald, aka The Grape EscapeOf course, stories are powerful things — as any marketing bore will tell you. I talked about this in my last Vinho Verde diary chapter. Then proof comes along that people relate to stories and humans more than to products: I give you The Grape Escape’s rather touching account of how Naked Wines customers raised £100k in one day to fund a South African winemaker’s dream.

Aw.

A hand-drawn, cartoon-style logo of the PenmonkeyFinally, something from outside the wine blogosphere. I love Chuck Wendig’s blog, via which the man spews out hilarious yet wise advice for novelists and other breeds of writer. Here’s a friggin’ brilliant article of his (a few months old, admittedly) that I chanced upon, this week: Why Writers Drink.

Funny man. And, of course, I agree with him about profanity.

Portugal diary finale: wine, branding & stories

In which Old Parn concludes his Portuguese wanderings with a delicious dinner at Afros Winery, and is moved to meditate upon wine and the ancient art of the story

Here’s part two of my final day in Portugal (grab a look at part 1 if you missed it, yeah?)

Two crosses on a red-tiled roof and, in the background, a view of sun-bathed countryside, hills and skySo — for our final tastes of the Vinho Verde region we found ourselves at Afros.

Well, strictly speaking, they weren’t my final tastes of the trip — which were my pre-flight breakfast of yoghurt and jasmine tea, and my in-flight sandwich of reconstituted dead children of which I took but one traumatic bite.)

But let’s not dwell on that, eh? Back to Afros. (Two words of warning for that link: 1. the website doesn’t do the winery justice, and 2. IT PLAYS MUSIC AT YOU WITHOUT YOUR ASKING IT TO. So beware.)

Vasco Croft of Afros is a biodynamic wine producer. He tries to do things in a natural kind of way. The upshot of this is that he preserves biodiversity (in other words, tries to grow vines in harmony with, rather than in replacement of, all that other nature stuff that exists), he keeps bees, his grass is grazed by roaming sheep, and he concocts exotic potions from, um, walnuts and stuff? Or whatever that is in those jars.

In the foreground, a large jar of walnuts; in the background, green leavesNow, people who are far better informed than I have strong views on this stuff. I’m not going to venture into that territory, because, honestly, beyond an instinctive, kneejerk scepticism, I don’t know squat. And, in any case, what you want of me — am I right? — is shallow, superficial aesthetic observations and predictable bouts of strained humour. So if you’re hoping for Old Parn’s rigorous deconstruction of the principles of biodynamism, I’m afraid you might be better cutting your losses and fucking off somewhere more scholarly.

What struck me about Vasco was that this is a man who has opinions, who feels. Coincidentally, I’d scribbled (in that achingly tedious way I have) in my notebook, earlier in the day, a little memorandum: ‘Knowing about wine vs understanding wine… FEELING wine’.

(Hat-tip to Freya Reinsch for getting my old brain churning along these lines, thanks to a remark she made on the distinction between knowing & understanding wine.)

And I think this is pretty important. Because so much is spoken and written about wine that insulates it from everything else. Puts it in the lab, hermetically sealed. Obviously this approach has its place, but for me wine is all about experience. On its own, I’m not really interested in wine, you know? I’m interested in what wine makes people feel. In the crossover between wine and people. Wine and stories. Wine and emotion. Wine and laughter.

It’s like the difference between being interested in a painting and being interested in paint.

A bottle of Afros sparkling wine, black-labeled, on a white tablecloth

And, at Afros, we got painting. We drank Sparkling Loureiro Reserve on the terrace, looking out over dusky vineyards, soaked in slow evening sun. To me, this was hands down the best sparkling Vinho Verde we tasted. But, you know what? It might not have been, objectively speaking. I honestly can’t tell you. But it felt fucking awesome.

Then we ate. De-goddamn-licious. Monkfish and orange. Sardine and lime… Lovely combinations — regional elements with a global twist. And beautifully matched to Afros’ wines. In each case, Vasco told us about the food we were eating: its origins, the reasons for its pairing with the wine.

Finally, after an intriguing (and excellent) fortified, Port-style red — and some gob-hoofing grappa — I found myself (alarmedly) in the unaccustomed position of after-dinner speaker. A position to which I was elected, ad hoc, on account of my ‘wonderful Oxford English’. Unlike the occasion on which I found myself compelled to make an unprepared speech at the end of our school Christmas dinner (aged 13) — a humiliating memory that still kicks me in the emotional bollocks each time I recall it — I was fortunately able to think of something to say other than ‘Thank you.’ I said that, as well as offering us hospitality, giving us delicious food and wine, he’d also inspired us with his passion — and, most of all, with his stories.

Portrait of Vasco Croft, talking to an audience, off-camera. In the background, out of focus, Vinho Verde countryside, a spired church, bathed in evening sunlight

In his reply, he cast himself as something akin to a figurehead or conduit. ‘I, the winemaker, am really just the last stage of a process that goes so much deeper.’ An ancient process. An old, old story, whose beginnings are obscure.

And I cast my mind back (not that hard, because it’s only a day ago that I wrote it) to my post about the surprising lack of ‘commercialism’ in many of the winemakers we visited. And realise that ‘commercialism’ isn’t necessarily what I mean, at root. What I mean is simpler (and potentially more innocent). I mean a story.

Because here’s the thing: we’re all people, and we’re all build around these wobbly, fragile, sporadic hearts. And we can’t help but respond to the other wobbly, fragile, sporadic hearts around us. This is what the fucking thing is all about. And by the fucking thing, I mean life. Right? And it’s stories that span those gaps between us. If I’m grabbed by a story that give me a sense of a passion, a journey — this will stay with me longer than any number of statistics about residual sugar, acidity and alcohol levels.

That’s all branding is: imbuing a product with people and passion and stories.

And, yes, it’s the man who says he doesn’t give a crap about marketing and fashions and the like who (as far as I’m concerned) did the best job of actually creating a brand. Because he knows his wine, sure — but he also knows his story.

(Now he just needs a website that tells it as well as he does.)

Edit: I’m not the only one, it turns out, to admire Vasco and his wines. Have a read of Robert McIntosh’s thoughts on the Afros experience.

Portuguese wine diary — Chapter 4

In which Old Parn continues his Portuguese Vinho Verde expedition. He encounters a thrilling factory (sarcasm) and a thrilling hound (not sarcasm), and meditates on wine labels, cooperatives and the like.

So. Final day. Best day? Best day. And this wasn’t only down to the fact that I met Goony. But we’ll get to Goony in a while. First of all, let’s talk about Provam and Adega Ponte de Lima, shall we?

Perspective shot of many wine bottles stacked in a Portuguese wine warehouse

Provam and Adega Ponte de Lima

Now, remember how I said about all the family-run wineries, back in yesterday’s Vinho Verde blog? Well, here’s where you forget it all. Because these guys ain’t that. These are big ol’ cooperatives, pooling the resources of something like (in the case of Adega Ponte de Lima, the larger of the two) 2,000 small winemakers.

When I say ‘small winemakers’, incidentally, I don’t mean they’re dwarves. I guess they might be. It’s not impossible: this kind of thing worked for Willy Wonka. But nothing I heard or saw during the visit gave me reason to believe that they are. So I suspect the distribution of their heights roughly mimicks that of the Portuguese population at large. But someone should do a study on this.

Perhaps, though, there is some residual insecurity about size here. Because the people at Adega Ponte de Lima were extremely keen to show us their big tanks. And their big pallets of wine. And their big warehouse. All these things were indeed big. And (to your thrill-seeking, hedonistic correspondent) pretty boring. I mean, heck, I know what a factory looks like.

(Point of fact: I don’t really know what a factory looks like. What I mean is, I don’t fucking care what a factory looks like. Call me glib if you like. I am. Proudly.)

Finally, though, we got out of the factory (some of those tanks, though. Boy. You’d’ve loved them) — and into the tasting. This entailed yet more precarious shenanigans with glass in one hand, papers in one hand, pen in one hand. SPOT THE DELIBERATE ANATOMICAL MISTAKE.

(Note to Adega Ponte de Lima: this stuff is easier if you can sit down. Surely you must have a big table somewhere?)

Four bottles of Vinho Verde white wine on a white tablecloth, condensation-misted

The wines themselves are simple, straight down the line. Nothing to scintillate the Parn palate, but I don’t suppose that’s their goal. This kind of stuff is probably priced keenly enough (for export) that it could make its way onto UK shelves at a relatively good price. If anyone would buy them…

Overall, I preferred Provam‘s wines, which seemed to have a fair dab more elegance to them (they also had a table for us to sit at). But they’re also priced higher than Adega Ponte de Lima’s. So no surprise, really. It was especially interesting to taste, side by side, the 2010 and 2009 vintages of their Portal do Fidalgo, made with the Alvarinho grape, one of the region’s stalwarts.

Over the course of my visit to Vinho Verde, I’ve acquired a fair old fondness for Alvarinho — which makes some damn nice, refreshing wines that are accessible without being patronising or simplistic. This won’t surprise those of you who’ve noted already that I’m a fan of Spanish Albarino (which is the same grape). Once I’m safely ensconced back in the UK, I’ll hunt down some examples for you.

But the interesting thing here was that the vintage that’d had that extra year in the bottle had undergone rather a lovely transformation. The freshness, the citrus bite, the stony minerality remained, but were softened, rendered very elegant, smooth. The resulting wine was very good indeed, to my mind. But, apparently, nobody wants to buy a 2009 Alvarinho — because it’s seen as a wine to be drunk as young as possible. On the evidence of this tasting, this is a big old shame.

Quinta Edmun do Val

Then lunch — at Quinta Edmun do Val. This was where I met Goony. But Goony’s time will come.

Meanwhile, let me tell you about the winey stuff. Quinta Edmun do Val is another family affair. This time, the family is actually Spanish — from just across the border — and (Pablo, who showed us round, told me) most of their wine is sold in Spain, not Portugal, in defiance of nationalistic disdain. Selling wine, said Pablo, is all about contacts. And his contacts are Spanish.

I talked to Pablo a good bit. Mainly, I talked to him about websites and online activity (an area in which he had already benefited from the sage advice of Ryan Opaz) and about the label on his wine.

A bottle of Quinta Edmun do Val, with an elegant, minimal, typographic label, executed in black and white

It’s a pretty good label, isn’t it? Why’s it good? Because it doesn’t look like most of the other white Vinho Verde labels. Which, as Pablo said, are ‘bright and colourful with pictures of a flower or an animal or a landscape’. This one is minimal and typographic; confident in monochrome. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s the best label I’ve ever seen. But for a small winery, I was impressed at the boldness of Pablo’s decision to separate his wine from the herd of cliched labels. That’s what good branding is about (as I’m sure Quaffable would agree…)

Right. This post has been going on for bloody ages now. So what I’m going to do is split chapter 4 into two parts. Because it’s my blog, and I can do what I want. Alright? We’ll finish the final day tomorrow.

But before I go, allow me to present Goony.

A jowly bulldog gazes wearily into the camera

Pablo introduced me to Goony — the laziest dog in the world, and ‘the only English thing we have here’. Goony is a lovely, brilliant creature. He rumbles and wheezes like an old accordion. I could easily have spent an hour or so just murmuring my nonsense dog-talk to Goony.

Isn’t he a delight?

Portuguese wine diary — chapter 3

In which Old Parn’s vinous travels continue, and he reflects upon the physically demanding business of wine tasting, as well as the peculiar lack of rampant commercialism in the world of Vinho Verde wine

Discarded wine bottles left on three tables, receding out of focus

Tasting wine can be pretty brutal. You might go so far as to call it an extreme sport, in fact. Because if you want to taste wines, you’ve got to be a frigging athlete, my friend. At the peak of physical condition.

Like me.

You’ve got to be supple. Because you’ll be wandering around with a glass in one hand, an increasingly voluminous and unwieldy sheaf of papers in the other and (if you’re a ponce like me) a DSLR camera slung over your shoulder.

So every time you bend your knees to spit out the wine you just tasted (yup), the camera swings round, scythe-like, in a vengeful arc. Hell, this is DEMANDING STUFF.

Day 3 kicked off with a tasting, see — a bunch of producers; us walking round ’em all, swishing and spitting their lovingly vinified creations. It was only thanks to my olympic levels of coordination that I didn’t send glasses and bottles flying all over the shop, thanks to my pendulous camera.

Then there’s the teeth. My chompers, by now, are fucking killing me. Because I am weak. Each time I suck in a breath of cool air, I have a small shudder. And eating a blinkin’ cream cracker is like torture.

(Ever been to a wine tasting? Crackers feature pretty heavily.)

So, yeah, like I said: only the truly resilient need apply.

A tan-coloured cow peers through metal barsQuinta das Arcas

After the collective tasting, we were bundled off to Quinta das Arcas. There were some cows there, which was fabulous (there’s nothing like seeing a dumb beast of a different species to lift my mood. And if you think I’m joking, you’re an idiot.) We had lunch at Quinta das Arcas, which involved sitting at a long, long table and getting more MASSIVE CHUNKS OF MEAT.

Indeed, as a number of my companions remarked, there is something of a disconnect between the recurring spiel of the winemakers we’ve met — that Vinho Verde whites are brilliant, light, fresh wines ideally suited to seafood, salads, simple, clean, light dishes — and the food that we actually get given. Which is, let me say, goddamn delicious. But not exactly what one would call light.

So be it.

Wine-wise — let’s talk about Vinho Verde red wines, shall we? Because these bad boys are not what most people are used to. (And, yes, they are in their element with aforesaid MASSIVE CHUNKS OF MEAT).

A shocking vermillion hue of wine swirled around a glass — inky stains

Typically, they are deepest vermillion in colour — dark, intense. Quinta das Arcas’s Herdade Penedo Gordo was one such example. It’s a fucking massive bundle of spice and chocolate and cherry and coffee — and it clonks you round the palate like a blunderbuss. Like almost all the reds we’ve tasted, it’s served somewhat chilled.

Unlike white Vinho Verde wines, the reds from the region are not typically exported; they’re made to sell to the local market only. It’s not all that hard to see why. Not because they’re terrible — but because, well, who outside the region is going to buy them? They are scary, scary beasts. Stick them alongside some local food and they make sense. But out of context? Pretty damn pant-soiling, to the (mildly incontinent) man on the street, I’d say.

A woman dressed in white gesticulates, describing her vineyard (shown in the background)Quinta da Raza

Waving farewell to the cows (well, I was, anyway. In my head), we then wound our way to the rather beautiful Quinta da Raza. Like many of the wineries we’ve visited, it’s very much a familial kind of deal — we’re greeted and served by the winemakers, who are often members (across several generations, potentially) of the same family.

And although the tasting may have a few trappings of formality (printed tasting notes, that kind of shebang), everything is conducted in the least commercial manner imaginable. In general, it’s rather lovely. But I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t also bizarrely naive: I struggle to imagine many industries that — faced with a roomful of relatively influential German/Swiss buyers (plus one aberrant weirdo from England) — would make so little effort to sculpt, to mould, to influence. Again, I’m not saying this is anything other than lovely. But surely these guys need to be trying to get a consistent message/brand out, rather than leaving it totally to chance? It seems odd to me. Cynical, commercial bastard that I clearly am.

Anyhow, yes. Once again, we tasted an array of zingy, citrusy, fresh white wines. Plenty of which I could gleefully drink a fine old torrent of. Plus an extremely accessible rose (big, fruity hoof to your nose, and a similar whoosh in your mouth) and another scary red.

Quinta de Carapecos

Then our final visit of the day — to cast our eyes across vineyards bathed in beautiful evening sunlight, and snaffle ourselves another tasting and dinner, courtesy of the fine folk of Quinta de Carapecos.

A group of people bathed in warm evening sunlight — backlit with lens flare

Again, some delicious wines, including a lovely, almost indecently accessible rose (jailbait stuff) and — a curio — a sweet wine made from the Espadeiro grape. Which was as honeyed as you like, though its ebullient sweetness did seem to disintegrate somewhat into an unfocused candyfloss at the end.

But, then again, so did my brain, when we finally stumbled our way back to the minibus. Because, boy, was I tired.

I guess that’s pretty much how Roger Bannister must’ve felt on the evening of 6 May 1954.