“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. So said Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. It seems that some who prepare tasting notes for the back labels of bottles use words in the same way – words they understand but that mean little to the reader. Take a bottle I opened recently: “bright floral aromas, apricot kernel, quince and a hint of spicey white pepper. The palate reveals intense riverstone minerality combined with white peach, lime sorbet and fresh dill before revealing a chalky yet vibrant long finish”. Some interesting ideas, but what do all those words tell you and just how much do they say to the customer who may be considering buying? And, if you didn’t know the wine, what would you drink it with?
I also use words to describe wine – everyone in the wine industry from sommeliers to wine writers and professional buyers does – but I like to think that I use language that tells the customer what they need to know and that they can relate to. How many would know what apricot kernel smells like or understand ‘riverstone minerality’? Not too many, I suggest.
So, my description of the same wine – Waimea’s Grüner Veltliner from Nelson in New Zealand (Majestic, £10.99) – would simply say that it was fresh with attractive peach and citrus aromas and flavours and would pair nicely with some white fish in a creamy sauce.
And then I picked up this month’s edition of Decanter magazine. Just a few pages in I read, “an uncompromising Champagne, open, elemental, stony. It tasted of frost”. Really? I think I prefer a description a friend gave of a wine I served: “Well, it’s got a sort of winey flavour”.
I went out for a reunion meal with some friends and former colleagues at Bristol’s River Station restaurant recently and, inevitably, the wine list was pushed in my direction. Choosing wine for a dozen people is never easy, particularly when, as here, I didn’t know much about the tastes of many of them. I also had to bear in mind that we were there to catch up with each other and to chat, not to taste and appreciate the wine. As a result, my focus was on wines that no-one could really dislike at prices that few could object to. I could have been forgiven for choosing something cheap and bland, but I wanted to do better than that.
The guests were ordering a wide range of different dishes so a white and a red were clearly needed. I love the Spanish variety Albariño and there was a nice example on the list, similarly a Mâcon-Villages caught my eye. But I eventually chose Peter Schweiger’s Grüner Veltliner from Austria (around £30 on the wine list) as the white – fairly rich and full-bodied with plenty of fruit but unoaked; a wine with plenty of character but fresh and harmonious that should pair well with most dishes.
For the red, I was looking at the South American section of the list – a Chilean Merlot or Carmenere or an Argentinian Malbec, perhaps – when our server pointed to Prunus Tinto, a Portuguese wine from the Daô region (also about £30), which was a personal favourite of his and, apparently very popular. I hadn’t initially considered this – although I’m a big fan of Portuguese wines, they can be tough and tannic, which wasn’t the type of wine I wanted for the group. But, he assured me that this was very drinkable and I went along with his recommendation. I’m pleased I did as this proved a real winner: very soft and with lovely black fruits and a slight smoky edge.
My reward for 2 successful choices? I’ll get the job of choosing again next time!
Ask a wine lover about Argentina’s most important grape variety and the answer will, most probably, be Malbec. The same goes for New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc and Germany and Riesling. Although each of these countries grows other varieties, they are all best known for one grape, which has become a ‘signature’ variety for them. Interestingly, only 1 of these (the Riesling) is actually native to the country concerned. But there’s another pairing of this kind that has attracted increasing interest in recent years: Austria and Grüner Veltliner. Some find the grape name difficult to pronounce and so it sometimes gets shortened to Gru V (groovy!); it should sell well to those who remember the 1960s!
Grüner Veltliner is planted in about a third of Austria’s vineyards, making it easily their most common variety. Given that, it’s inevitable that some examples will be better than others but, in my experience, you rarely find a bad bottle. At the cheaper end, it makes a simple, pleasant everyday drinking white with hints of citrus and, often, an attractive white pepper tang. But, in the hands of a skilled producer, such as Domaine Huber (Waitrose, £10.79), Grüner Veltliner can really shine. Lovely pear flavours and hints of peach make this very moreish and, although only 12.5% alcohol, it has the body and richness to go with a range of dishes – fish, poultry, white meat – particularly those with a light, creamy sauce.
It’s not a variety that’s exclusive to Austria – I’ve seen, but not tasted, bottles from the Czech Republic and Hungary and there’s also a lovely, herby fresh example from Yealands Estate in New Zealand’s Marlborough region (Great Western Wine, £13.95). But, for now, you’ll most frequently see Grüner Veltliner from Austria and, from my experience, it’s a combination you can buy with confidence.