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 cheap propecia to canada 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 generic cialis 10 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?