I’ve occasionally been asked how I got into wine. This is a bit of a difficult question to answer as I started so young I am not really sure what was the initial spark.
My parents were not at all interested in wine, there was not much wine consumed in the home environment. I didn’t get my love for wine from them.
I’m told that my mother got a free copy of The World Atlas of Wine from a book club when I was about five or six. Apparently, even at that tender age I would pour over this for hours, reading about all the wine regions and different producers. Why I found this so fascinating I cannot recall.
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I do recall the next step in the genesis of my love for wine very clearly. Just before my ninth birthday my mother and step-father visited Alsace. They did not taste many wines, but brought back a bottle of Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile 1979 from Trimbach. I’d read about this wine and producer so I asked if I could try some to see what it was like. I was given a small glassful and as I sniffed and tasted it galvanised me with its lively, exciting set of flavours. I am quite sure my appreciation of it was not terribly sophisticated at the age of eight, but I remember saying to my mother as I tasted it, “Wow, wine really can be good. This one tastes of so many things”*. I love Alsace Riesling to this day.
After this deeply compelling experience I tried to get my mother to buy more wines and let me try them. At that point she was yet to develop her appreciation for wine so joined the unspeakable Sunday Times Wine Club and ordered the filth they sell without realising these were dreadful wines. None of these had such a profound effect on me as the CFE ’79.
I was extremely fortunate to be close friends with a boy at school, Daniel Cadbury (are you out there, Daniel?) whose parents loved wine, and in 1985 they had a family holiday in the Bergerac/Monbazillac area of France. They went to a few tastings and some of the wines we tried were pretty good; I was chuffed to score myself a bottle of ’83 Chateau de Monbazillac.
The most amazing part of the holiday was when we took a day trip to Sauternes and Barsac to try the ’83s and ’84s. We visited La Tour Blanche, Climens, d’Arche and (quite incredible that, as a family group, we blagged our way in here) Chateau Gillette. The differences between the producers and vintages were clear when I tasted so many in one day. Once again, I was moved by the power of quality wine.
Sadly, then it was back to the dross from the Sunday Times Wine Club (with the occasional bottle of good stuff from the Cadburys) until I looked old enough to buy my own wine (it is handy being a tall person at times). That is when things really took off. I read more, purchased widely and tasted with great pleasure. My local wine merchants, Oddbins and Bottoms Up, still had a lot of interesting wines in those days and I would frequently buy something well-reviewed to drink with my school teachers. I didn’t view my fellow students as being enlightened enough to merit having any these precious drops of nectar; I wanted to talk about wine and other teenagers just knew nothing about it. I soon became aware that the teachers didn’t know that much either, but at least they were articulate.
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Sometimes the discoveries were quite serendipitous. I went to the Australian Wine Centre (just off The Strand in those days) for the first time when I was seventeen (with my mother’s credit card) to buy some St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz; I’d read a lot about it and thought it worth trying. I went to pay for my few bottles and the frankly enormous Australian fellow behind the counter said, “You don’t want to buy those, you want some of this.” He pulled out a bottle of Tim Adams Aberfeldy Shiraz, pulled the cork and poured me a slug. I tasted it and said, “I’ll take four bottles. Does this Tim Adams chap make anything else good?” He grinned and said, “Yeah, I think I do.” The man himself was visiting England and doing a stint in the shop. We chatted about wine as we drank most of the bottle of Aberfeldy and I was so impressed by both the charming Mr Adams and his wines I knew I would be sold on them for as long as he continued to make wine. I was right, I still drink and enjoy Tim Adams wines and recommend them to anyone who wants keenly-priced, quality Australian wine. I met Mr. Adams at the London Wine Trade Fair a few years back (he is still extremely tall) and related the anecdote, he remembered!
Then I went to Oxford University and started tasting more wine than I ever thought I would. I was a member of the Oxford Wine Circle, a winning captain of the blind tasting team**, turned up to the merchants’ tastings when they tried to sell wines to the colleges and had weekly tastings with a select few people in evenings which will forever be burnt in my memory as the ‘casa Schleiss tastings’. Not all the wines I tried were the very finest, but a surprisingly large number were considering we were poor students. My chum Mr T and I once went through all of our notes for the past year and were both surprised and pleased to realise we had tasted over three thousand different wines. Good going, but a shame it included a lot of dull, cheap Clarets aimed at the conservative college buyers. This epic wine experience taught me well; I know that Burgundy is best, but good Riesling, Sherry, Champagne and others can also deliver the goods. I even liked the very flashest Clarets we tried, and some of them were incredibly flash, but soon learned they were too expensive for my tastes.
I do not try as many wines these days and largely limit myself to wine styles and producers I enjoy. I confess to being pleased I no longer have to regularly put New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in blind tastings to try and teach people to recognise it. That being said, my knowledge of wine is still broad and I get a lot of pleasure out of blind tasting. A few years ago I was working for an unmentionably filthy wine merchant (I lasted almost two months before the inevitable ‘going totally insane and trying to kill myself’-experience which has characterised all my 9-to-5 jobs since developing paranoid schizophrenia; this was the longest I managed to hold down a regular job since 1999) who paid for their employees to take the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Advanced Certificate exam. I skimmed the course text book, finished the exam in quarter of the time allowed and passed it with a distinction.
So that, dear reader, is the story of my early years with wine. As I said, I cannot pin down the initial spark that made me want to learn about wine, but I am slightly amused that I have been compelled by properly fine wine from the age of eight onwards.
*) I’ve had CFE 79 on many occasions since becoming more deeply educated about wine and wine tasting, and I was clearly right with my first assessment, it always has tasted of a lot of things.
**) I’m told I was a very demanding blind tasting instructor. When someone (who shall remain nameless) said that a rather large Australian Shiraz was Beaujolais I laughed so much I fell off my chair. I don’t suppose that was terribly supportive or encouraging.