The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The perfect Christmas present for anyone who, like me, wants to take as much pleasure from every meal, and every drink.

Ideally, wine should function synergistically like a sauce or like salt: augmenting the dish, and being augmented by it.

Given how much time we spend eating, it is certainly an art worth learning.

Wine Blind Tasting Guide Part 1: Why Blind Taste Wine?

Originally posted on The Oxford Wine Blog:

James Flewellen, my co-author on The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting, has kindly invited me to write a series of blog posts on wine blind tasting.

As you may be aware, James and I are keen to promote blind tasting, and to encourage and support those who are taking their first steps into the sometimes intimidating and obscurantist world of wine.

James and I met at the University of Oxford, which, for historical reasons, has a very strong culture of wine—no doubt one of a small handful of institutions with a dedicated blind tasting coach!

Simply turning up to almost daily tastings enabled to acquire, as if by osmosis, the knowledge and skills which are required to blind taste, and which we now wish to pass on to others—one of the major motivators for writing our book.

But first, you might be asking yourself, why bother at…

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Jura Wines

With less than 2000ha, the Jura is a small yet diverse wine region. The vineyards sit in the foothills of the Jura, ~80km (50mi) east of Burgundy and not far from Switzerland. The climate is cooler than in Burgundy, although the summers are fairly hot and sunny. The soils, which are rich in fossils, are clay and limestone with outcrops of marl. Five grape varieties are planted: Chardonnay and Savagnin for whites, and Poulsard, Trousseau (which thrives in the gravelly vineyards around Arbois), and Pinot Noir for reds—which, though vinified as reds, tend to be rather more salmon than actually red.

The relative isolation of the Jura has led to the preservation of a number of distinctive wine styles. Most notable is Vin Jaune made from very ripe Savagnin, which is left to mature under a flor-like strain of yeast for six or more years before being bottled in a 62cl clavelin. This process leads to oxidative nutty aromas similar to those of Sherry— although, unlike Sherry, Vin Jaune is not fortified. Other aromas include walnuts, honey, and “curry”. Vin Jaune can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations, but the richest examples are produced under the exclusive Château-Chalon appellation, which is home to top producers Jean Macle and Domaine Berthet-Bondet. Vin Jaune can potentially last for decades, if not centuries.

Also notable is a straw wine, Vin de Paille, which, like Vin Jaune, can be produced under the Arbois, Etoile, and Côtes du Jura appellations. This blend of Chardonnay, Poulsard, and Savagnin is pressed, normally in January, from dried grapes and aged in oak for at least three years. It is rich and complex with high alcohol and dominant notes of honey and dried or confected fruits.
Macvin du Jura AOC, which can be white (Chardonnay and Savagnin) or red (Poulsard, Trousseau, and Pinot Noir), is a vin de liqueur or mistelle made from the must of late harvest grapes. The must is oak-aged for 12 months without prior fermentation. Marc du Jura is then added in a ratio of 1:2, thereby halting fermentation and preserving the natural sugars. Further oak ageing finishes the process by harmonizing the flavours.

To round up on the six Jura appellations: any style of wine can be made under the Arbois and Côtes du Jura appellations, which are the most quantitatively important. In contrast, only white wines (including Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille) can be made under the Etoile appellation, and only Vin Jaune under the Château-Chalon appellation. Macvin du Jura is a regional appellation, as is Crémant du Jura AOC. This sparkling wine is made by the traditional method, most commonly from 100% Chardonnay.

Of the still ‘regular’ wines, the whites enjoy a greater reputation than the reds. These whites, which can be very terroir driven, are made from Chardonnay and/or Savagnin, either by the classic method (employed in other regions) or by the more oxidative regional and traditional method whereby the barrels are not topped up to compensate for evaporation. This oxidative style has long been the signature of this beautiful but isolated and often neglected wine region.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Corks: For or Against?

Cork, the traditional closing method for wine bottles, is harvested from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) and is elastic and watertight. It allows a tiny amount of air exchange, which is thought to prevent the development of reductive odours as the wine matures. Problems with cork hygiene from the 1960s when the wine industry was booming led to an increase in the frequency of cork taint. True cork taint is due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), formed when certain phenolic compounds react with chlorine-containing compounds used as disinfectants. This need not result from the cork, as TCA is also found in barrels and other winery equipment. If there is a high degree of cork taint, the wine smells musty (‘like wet cardboard’) and falls flat on the palate, without fruit or vibrancy. Some people are very sensitive to cork taint, others less so. The increased frequency of cork taint prompted the development of alternative closures such as stoppers made from reconstituted cork, synthetic ‘corks’, aluminium screw caps, and glass stoppers with a plastic washer seal. There continues to be a lot of debate and research into the ‘best’ closure. Some of the world’s most prestigious producers are carrying out longitudinal studies with a single wine under multiple closures. As the finest wines can take decades to mature, a definitive answer may have to wait a bit longer. Meanwhile, the quality of cork is improving and instances of cork taint are less common than in the past. For many purists, the aesthetics of the customs, movements, and sounds associated with uncorking a bottle, and the quasi-Pavlovian association with care and quality, easily outweigh the small risk of cork taint. Today more than ever, the presence of a true cork is an indication of a quality wine intended to improve with age.

Wine Tasting Tutorials

If you would like to learn wine tasting, I’ve made a series of kitchen table videos to take you through the steps. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Burgundy Wine

The chateau of the Clos Vougeot

The Celts were already making wine in Burgundy when the Romans conquered Gaul in 51 BC. To supply their soldiers and colonists, the Romans propagated the vine all along the east-facing slopes of the Saône river valley. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the monasteries moved in and, through the gradual accretion of land, became the dominant force in wine making. Already in 591, Gregory, bishop of Tours and author of the History of the Franks, thought it apt to compare burgundy to the Roman Grand Cru falernian.

The Benedictines, who founded the Abbey of Cluny in 910, and the Cistercians, who founded the Abbey of Cîteaux in 1098, became especially implicated in wine making. These brothers in God soon developed a subtle consciousness of the influences of terroir on quality and character, and began to document vineyard and vintage variations with the utmost care. In 1336, the Cistercians created the first enclosed vineyard in Burgundy, the Clos Vougeot. As their wine symbolized the blood of their Lord, they refused to dilute it, marking an important and long-lasting shift from Roman and ancient practices.

The proud monks invested so much time, effort, and skill into their wine that the Avignon popes soon began to take notice, purchasing vast quantities to ease the pangs of their Babylonian captivity. So as to hold on to papal custom and preserve the quality and reputation of burgundian wines, Philip II the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned the cultivation of the ‘vile and disloyal’ Gamay grape. He also banned the use of manure as fertilizer, which by increasing yields decreased concentration. Thenceforth, red Burgundy could only be made from Pinot Noir or, as it was then known, Noirien. As for white Burgundy, it was being made not from Chardonnay as today but, most likely, from Fromenteau, an ancestor of or the same thing as Pinot Gris.

In the 18th century, roads improved significantly, facilitating the export of wine out of landlocked Burgundy. The wines of Burgundy began to vie with those of Champagne—which were then predominantly still and red—for the lucrative Paris market. They acquired such a reputation that, in 1760, the Prince de Conti felt privileged to acquire the Domaine de la Romanée, appending his name to the already famous estate.

After the absorption of the duchy of Burgundy into the French crown in the late 15th century, the church began to lose ground, and in the case of its vineyard holdings, quite literally so. In the wake of the French Revolution, the church’s remaining lands were confiscated and auctioned off as state property. Over the course of several generations, these new, laical holdings became increasingly subdivided as a result of the Code Napoléon, which stipulates that any inheritance is to be shared equally amongst every child. As a consequence, the Clos Vougeot counts over 80 separate proprietors, some of whom own no more than a few rows of vines. One important effect of this parcellation was to encourage the development of négociant houses, the first of which were established as early as the 1720s and 1730s.

In 1847, King Louis-Philippe of France gave the village of Gevrey the right to append to its name that of its most famous Grand Cru vineyard, Chambertin. Not to be outdone, other villages quickly followed suit, whence all the double-barrelled—pun intended—names lining the Route des Grands Crus (the N5 and N6 roads). In 1855, the same year of the famous or, rather, infamous Bordeaux Classification, one Dr Jules Lavalle published an influential book with the snappy title of Histoire et Statistique de la Vigne de Grands Vins de la Côte-d’Or. Dr Lavalle’s book comprised an unofficial classification of the vineyards of Burgundy that formed the basis of the official classification adopted by the Beaune Committee of Agriculture in 1861. After the introduction of the French AOC system in 1936, most of the vineyards in the top tier of this 1861 classification acceded to Grand Cru status.

Like other wine growing regions, Burgundy then started to suffer, first from the phylloxera epidemic (which arrived in Meursault in 1878), then from the Great Depression, and more recently from the Second World War. Upon returning to their land after the Second World War, the growers began to enrich their devastated vineyards with chemical fertilizers. This worked well at first, but over the years the potassium contained in the fertilizers accumulated in the soil, leading to a fall in the quality of the harvest. From the mid 1980s, the assiduous application of modern vineyard management techniques has, by and large, put an end to this tragic trend.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Roman Dinner Party

Our most important source on Roman gastronomy is the cookbook of Apicius, compiled in or around the late 4th century AD, and containing recipes for such delicacies as larks’ tongues, sterile sows’ wombs, and milk-fed snails. The Apicius in question is not to be confounded with Marcus Gavius Apicius, the gourmet extraordinaire of the 1st century AD, who fed dried figs to his pigs to make the porcine equivalent of foie gras. According to Pliny, Apicius was ‘born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived’ (ad omne luxus ingenium natus). It is said that he committed suicide after having spent 100 million sestertii on his kitchen, and discovering that he had only 10 million sestertii left. By the late Republic, Roman meals consisted of breakfast or ientaculum at dawn, a small lunch or prandium around noon, and a large dinner or cena in the evening. A simple dinner with the family normally took place in the atrium, and may have consisted of vegetable courses and salads accompanied by eggs, cheese, and beans, and rounded off with fruits and nuts. By the end of the Republic, the cena consisted of three distinct courses, and, in the presence of guests, could segue into a late-night drinking party or comissatio—the Roman equivalent of a Greek symposium. On these more formal occasions, the feasting took place in a dining room called a triclinium (from the Greek τρικλίνιον, ‘three couches’), with couches arranged on three sides of a central table. The fourth, open side usually faced the entrance of the room, and afforded a space for slaves to service the table. Each couch admitted of at most three diners, reclining on their left elbow with their head pointing at the table; in some cases, a fourth diner—usually an intimate friend or a minor of high social standing—could also be seated. The required posture would have been uncomfortable had the couches not been covered in cushions and positively inclined towards the table. The various positions around the table were not all equal, with the host seating his guests according to social status and closeness or intimacy. Unlike in Greece, women could be present; in the Republic they usually sat on chairs, but in the Empire they could also recline on a couch. Grander houses often featured a second, summer triclinium in or overlooking the garden, and the grandest houses had three or four or even more triclinia. Upon arrival, guests at a dinner party removed their sandals and washed their hands. The host did not provide any napkins, and each guest had to bring his own. Napkins served to wipe the hands and mouth, of course, but also to take home leftover tit bits and even, in some cases, a gift or souvenir from the host. During the meal, food was taken from plate to mouth with three fingers or with one of two spoons, the larger lugula for soups and pottages and the smaller, prong-like cochlear for eggs and shellfish. Between the three principal courses, diners rinsed their fingers in perfumed water whilst slaves washed the table and swept away the bones and shells that had been tossed onto the floor. After the second course, the host made an offering of something like meat, cake, and wine to the Lares of the house. Conversation made up the bulk of the evening’s entertainment, and could be supplemented with a recital of literature or poetry, and even with performances by acrobats, conjurers, musicians, singers, or dancers—although the diners themselves never got up to dance. At the end of the evening, guests called for their sandals (whence the expression, soleas poscere, ‘to ask for one’s sandals’—to prepare to leave) and maybe received a gift or souvenir to take home in their napkin. The Roman dinner party is a popular and recurrent theme in Roman literature. In a letter, Pliny the Younger (61-112 AD) chides his friend Septicius Clarus for not turning up to his dinner party,

All ready were a lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, porridge, with mulsum and snow … olives, beetroot, gourds, bulbs, and a thousand other things no less appreciated. You would have heard comic actors or a poetry reader or a lyrist, or, such is my generosity, all three. But you chose to go to someone else’s for oysters, sows’ wombs, sea urchins, and dancing girls from Cadiz.

The best if most lurid description of a Roman dinner party is Trimalchio’s Feast (Cena Trimalchionis) in the Satyricon, a rather salacious novel attributed to Petronius, a courtier in the time of Nero. Trimalchio’s Feast is arguably the most celebrated section of the Satyricon, even though—or perhaps because—it has done untold harm to the reputation of the Roman dinner party. Trimalchio, a freedman who has come into enormous wealth, entertains his guests with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance. For example, he brings out Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 180 years prior, and serves a course with a multitude of disparate ingredients each representing one of the signs of the zodiac: a lobster for Capricorn, the udder of a young sow for Virgo, testicles and kidneys (which come in pairs) for Gemini, and so on. The evening culminates with his entire household gratifying him with an enactment of his funeral. The Romans ate all sorts of food. Rather than itemizing all the ingredients available to the Romans, it is simpler and easier to itemize all the ingredients not available at the height of the Empire. The principal items on this list of absentees are sugar, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, rice, butter, tea, coffee, chocolate, bananas, peanuts, and chili pepper. The Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great had brought back to Greece such delicacies as citrus fruits, peaches, pistachio nuts, and even the prized peacock. As they became increasingly rich and cosmopolitan, the Romans left behind their diet of emmer wheat gruel and adopted and adapted the sophisticated Greek cuisine. In time, Roman cuisine became even more exciting and exotic than the Greek—not entirely dissimilar, in fact, to modern Indian cuisine, with any one Roman dish enhanced by up to 15 different herbs and spices. The Romans had something of a sweet tooth, and many of their dishes involved balancing the sweetness of honey or concentrated grape juice (defrutum) with the acidity, sourness, or bitterness of vinegar, fish sauce (garum or liquamen), and a vast array of fresh and dried herbs and expensive spices—including even, from the first century AD, the pepper of south India and the cloves of the Spice Islands. Fish sauce, which was not dissimilar to Thai nam pla, was made from whole small fish such as anchovy, sardine, mackerel, sprat, and herring. The fish were macerated in salt and left to liquefy over a period of several weeks. This liquefaction resulted not from bacterial putrefaction, which the salt would have prevented, but from proteolysis by the enzymes contained in the viscera of the fish. Meat was relatively expensive. The cow was seen as a draught animal, and pork, rodents such as rabbit and hare, foul, and fish were much preferred to beef. Red mullet, which, upon dying, assumed a variety of colours and shades with which to entertain guests, was particularly sought after, as were dormice, which were typically stuffed with minced pork, pepper, pine kernels, and garum. Indeed, one of the many dishes to feature in Trimalchio’s Feast is ‘a row of dormice, glazed in honey and rolled in poppy seeds’. Despite such extravagances, many Romans took great pride in the freshness and simplicity of their produce—and all the more if it has been sourced from their country farm. Of course, many people could not afford extravagant ingredients, and had to make do with a staple of wheat bread augmented with some fruit and vegetables and whatever else they could find or afford. In imperial times, many Romans lived in cramped apartments without access to a kitchen or open fire. Rather than cook at home, they bought food from street stalls and food shops, or else ate out in taverns and restaurants. In his Letters to Lucilius, Seneca the Younger complains about the constant noise from the street outside his apartment, ‘the cakeseller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation’. The poorest Romans could not even afford street food, and came to rely on the free bread ration issued to inhabitants of the city. After the suicide of Cleopatra and annexation of Egypt, vast grain ships ploughed the route from Alexandria to Ostia to supply Rome with the immense quantities of wheat required for the bread ration. After being shipwrecked on Malta, it is on such a ship that St Paul reached Italy.

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