Thursday 18 September 2014

Getting The Hang: Liberty Wines

So PK and I are down at the recent Liberty Wines tasting in South London, and it's packed with wine types, buyers, restaurateurs, know-alls, hangers-on, plausible youngish men in trousers the colour of a rash, as crowded as an Egyptian train station, in fact, and there are more wines on display than you can begin to imagine: only for once I don't feel crushed by my own boundless ignorance, but instead, weirdly empowered. How can this be?

Because this is one of those tastings where the wines are grouped by grape, rather than region. Which is incredibly good news for at least two reasons. First, it means that there is no producer/importer pouring out the wines in surgically tiny amounts while probing you for insights which you don't have. Everything's jumbled together, so you help yourself - which allows a tradecentric wine fair to become something more like an immense and slightly heartless drinks party where you don't know anyone.

Secondly, the process of identification is simplified a millionfold. Charismatic bottle with pungent, design-studio label, surrounded by others just the same? Could be anything. Identical bottle, on a table with the word MALBEC written on a placard on a stick? I'm home and dry, already confident that I don't like it. CHARDONNAY posted above a table the size of a garage door, covered in heartbreakingly blonde botttles? I am all over it, especially since the first thing I see is a perfectly-chilled Chassagne-Montrachet which tastes every bit as Catherine Deneuve as it looks. 'Life is good,' I say to PK, who merely grunts and ducks his head as he moves purposefully towards the distant CABERNET SAUVIGNON.

After four years of Sediment and many humiliations and much queasy ignorance, something has lodged. Over here, I spot the SANGIOVESEs containing, yes, a couple of nice Chiantis. Feeling a need to stay Italian, I scout around for a Vermentino, and there it is, VERMENTINO, a whole trestle of it, and some of is delicious, just the way I'd hoped. PK and I then cuff some PINOT NOIR about a bit, noting with blithe pomposity how hard it is to get Pinot Noir just right. Next to someone who knows their wines, I am still an idiot, a tabula rasa. Next to someone who really doesn't know their wines, I am starting to sound like someone who knows their wines.

'How did you learn all that stuff?' I guilelessly quiz PK, who is, of course, no use to me, claiming to have once had a youthful Epiphany as a consequence of which he dedicated himself in priestly manner to Bordeaux; but he won't say when it was, or what it was, which I find sinister. Add to this the problem that my trying to learn anything these days is pretty futile; committing finished, actual wines, with names, to memory, is like trying to remember the Periodic Table - a sequence of impenetrable symbols and nomenclatures, arcana I just don't get. I am old.

On the other hand, learn-about-wine courses do like to begin with grapes and go from there, so there must be a reason. I once had to spend half a day in the bristling company of the then Chairman of the Wine Development Board, who harangued me and some drunken women about Cabernet Sauvignon in the basement of a hotel in St James's; I wasn't any the wiser by the end, but the occasion as a whole sticks in my mind. So grapes are good. Like cities on a map, they're the entities around which you mentally structure your progress towards the smaller, cuter, subdivisions, the townlets and villages, the wine makers and the châteaux. Some of this (therefore) must have become internalised over time, in spite of the fact that my head is basically filled with kapok.

And here's a thing: what if the big supermarkets stocked their booze by grape variety? How cool would that be? Shiraz/Syrah mixes over here; Sauvignon Blanc over here; Pinot Noir (including champagnes) over here? Yes, it would create limitless problems of supply and display and generate a catastrophic amount of human error. But the clarity, the almost divine sense of order if it did work: instead of having to make sense of the whole phonebook of wine, the undifferentiated rabble, Australia to Zimbabwe, we would have a strong, simple, memorable taxonomy, the benefits of which would be miraculous - and I can think of two, straight off. One: if (like, let's say, PK) you wanted to pursue the noble Cabernet Sauvignon across the globe in all its manifestations, your job would be made massively easier and more satisfying. Two: it would become blindingly obvious to all supermarkets that they had five hundred times more examples of Pinot Grigio than anyone could possibly want. And that's just for starters.



  1. Pinot Noir including Champagnes... What about Blanc de Blancs? Would you need a separate Glera section for Italian fizz? Also, Sauternes would be intermingled with Aussie Semillons, and hidden among the zillions of tedious Pinot Grigios would be the one lone lovely Alsace Pinot Gris.

    It sounds utterly baffling. I love it. At least supermarket shopping would have an amusing side-show to offset the otherwise horrendous Saturday morning experience.

  2. Well since you put it in those terms, I can see that, yes, there are a few grey areas to sort out...

    But I don't think I should give up on the project just yet. Once I've got Tesco on board, the rest will follow...

  3. There are actually interesting precedents, of a sort - a few wine lists in the poncier parts of the capital are now duplicating wines and cross-referencing. So the same Touraine would appear in both the 'Loire Valley' section and the 'Sauvignon Blanc' section, allowing people to search both ways.

  4. Many American submarkets do sort by grape, at least for domestic wines.

  5. Jarrel and Benjamin - Well, this is interesting. Maybe it's not such a hopeless cause after all -

  6. The Sampler does things by the grape. However as someone who _does_ know something about wine I find it endlessly irritating to have to wander around the entire shop to find all of the Italian wines (for example), I find it much easier to find wine by region, and this way I'm more likely to find something new and interesting instead of falling back on the same old, same old.

    I'll bet you anything you will still have some dull spark asking why the Chablis is under the Chardonnay section...


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