“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”.
It wasn’t the striking stylised cut out of a duck in flight on the label that first attracted me to Luis Pato’s ‘Vinhas Velhas’ (old vines) dry white (Wines at West End, £14); I’ve been a fan of this top class Portuguese producer for many years. And, in case you’re wondering why there’s a duck on the label – ‘pato’ means ‘duck’ in Portuguese and all of Luis’ labels feature one; a nice marketing touch or a bit corny, depending on your view.
Portuguese wines have improved vastly, both in quality and in the choice available, in recent years. No longer are they defined by a certain rosé in a funny shaped bottle but by some excellent, intense reds and food-friendly whites.
The country always had the potential for making high quality wines, especially reds – the grapes used for port (particularly Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz aka Spain’s Tempranillo) are equally suited to being turned into unfortified wines. But, when British merchants visited there and started searching for some interesting wines in the 17th century, they preferred the strength and sweetness of port. Table wines continued to be made for the locals, but, for the export market, it was virtually all port.
And so it remained until late last century when some of their reds started to appear in the UK – although many of the early arrivals needed long keeping to tame their furious tannins. Gradually, though, the style softened and the wines became much more approachable; one of the pioneers of the change was Luis Pato in Bairrada and I’d strongly recommend any of his reds. But he, and now his daughter Filipa on a separate estate, also produce some delicious whites, mainly from the native Bical variety.
The Vinhas Velhas is beautifully floral on the nose and quite aromatic and fresh in the mouth. There’s a nice richness there, too, which makes it really food-friendly – try it with some fish in a tomato sauce. But not with duck – that wouldn’t do at all!
I think it was the former US President Bill Clinton who used the phrase ‘Keep it simple, stupid’. Those who design most traditional German wine labels should take note! Take the example below:
It has the producer’s name, the vintage, the grape variety, the region, village and vineyard in which the grapes were grown and even an indication of how ripe the grapes were at harvest. This is typical of German wine labels and makes them among the most informative in the world. But that – and the common use of the difficult-to-read antique font – also puts off many wine lovers who don’t want – or understand – all the detail. “Just give me a clear idea what the wine is going to taste like”!
So, I was pleasantly surprised recently to find a German wine with one of the barest labels I’ve seen:
Just the producer’s name, the grape variety (Grauburgunder is the German name for Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris) and the vintage. Anyone interested in the region (Rheinhessen) or village (Nierstein) could check the back label where you also find, far more importantly, that the wine is dry (trocken) and has, unusually for a German white, 14% alcohol. In some wines, this level of alcohol can taste ‘hot’ or dominate the flavour but not here; it brings a lovely richness in the mouth – closer in style to a good Alsace Pinot Gris rather than a light and quaffable Pinot Grigio. The wine is quite savoury with a delightful saline character that makes it really food-friendly – a noble fish in a creamy sauce comes to mind.
From the label to the taste and style, this is about as far away from normal expectations of a German wine as it could be, but it’s really delicious. And a bargain, too: Louis Guntrum’s Grauburgunder is just £11.50 from the Wine Society.