Before we go any further I would like to state categorically that I have used the title entirely in a benign coquetishness and not at all to open a discussion on one’s sodium intake.

“Not only does one drink wine, but one inhales it, tastes it – and then talks about it.” – Edward VII

I only started drinking wine in the Spring of 1993 when after clearing a table in a restaurant in which I was working I happened upon half a bottle of an inexpensive Macôn-Villages. The manager said I could have it, I was 21 and working in a restaurant I wasn’t proud! Since my only experience of wine up to that point had been supermarket hock that was occasionally brought to the family home at parties by well-meaning but viticulturally-ignorant guests my palette was not especially refined. After the Macôn-Vill I decided that I liked wine. The manager seizing on my new youthful zeal put me in charge of sorting out the wine cellar and ordering wines where applicable. For those who’ve never been in a proper wine cellar you should, even if you don’t like wine it is a unique environment, where the nature of things is often defined by the amount of cobweb and dust an item has built up. The cold damp musty smells that signify the correct conditions that anywhere else in the house you’d have the damproofers in straight away. It has a historical feel like somewhere out of the 19th century, somewhere that you sort of assume is an unwitting surprise discovery each time you open the door. And then of course there is the wine itself. There is something about a bottle of wine that lends itself to mystique, the coloured labels, the exotic names and locations from which they come, the price tags on some, the perception that only posh people drink it, the fact that you can age it so that it’ll taste different and then after all that until you open it you never quite know what you’re going to get.

I mean lots of people like wine, but unlike most of them I was paid money to like wine for a while. I even remember some of that while, which is perhaps an indication that I didn’t like wine nearly as much as I could have done! After the restaurant I got a job in an off-licence which with a wage packet and 15% staff discount on the alcohol which made me both occasionally more popular and very frequently drunk whilst at university. During my time at the offy I got to host wine tastings which was a quite pleasurable social event and if managed carefully can lead to quite a trolleying later on when the “remnants” of the bottles used have to be disposed of. I recall a particularly entertaining Sunday evening when having closed the shop the manager and I proceeded to get bolloxed on a “few” dregs of a particularly fine Cabernet Sauvignon. I hasten to add this was at least marginally speaking on our own time, to have charged the company for both the wine and the time to drink it would have been churlish, I have standards of decency!

The highlight of the job was a trip to the International Wine Fair at Olympia. This is, so far as I can see, the premier event in this country for winemakers, distributors and retailers, it is a veritable vintnerial delight and I got there early so as not to miss anything! Basically each winemaker sets up their stall with a number of wines to try in the hope that you may buy some. The fair takes place over 3 days and some of the winemakers have themselves comes from the countries in which they work as far afield as Australia, South Africa and Chile. In all honesty I had gone there expecting to find out about wines and perhaps get the odd free sample or two having never been to such an event before. What I was unaware of was that on the third day, which was the day I went, provided the wineries had managed to sell sufficient contracts to the big players to justify their visit they could relax a little, be more chatty and enjoy things a little more. They could afford to be a little more generous, word of mouth is a good way to get known and even a lonely sales assistant can spread things around their shop and beyond. Since at the time I worked in one of the more only salubrious areas in SE London I did indeed have some influence over the buying habits of those with a bit of cash to spend. Hence by lunchtime I was decidedly shaky on my feet. This was a scenario which was not going to end well, the prospect of being carried from the venue into an ambulance to have my stomach pumped did not appeal especially and neither did missing out on the tasting of all of these wines!

There were cuspidors at every stand and a great many people with big noses were using them frequently, usually in a manner that seemed to maintain their pomposity, no mean feat when you are spitting something out. I had always hitherto spurned the cuspidor, not simply because I was too common to spit, nor to do with any dipsomaniacal tendencies I may have had but because to me part of the process of tasting a wine is how it goes down the throat and the length of it on the palette. It is true you can get some of this from sloshing it around your mouth but I didn’t, and still don’t, believe that you get the same experience as you do when drinking the taster properly. All that being said at the stage of being several over the 8 by lunchtime the likely conclusion of my going home with so many wines untested seemed a shame and the cuspidor became suddenly an item of use. I had something hearty to eat and went off spitting with wanton abandon. Ok not in every case I’ll grant youn aturally there had to be some form of floor limit to this since I was unlikely to get a chance to drink wine that was either extremely old or more than £50 I decided that it would be foolish not to have what I could of these on the one time only basis. This strategy worked and I spent the rest of the afternoon getting only slowly pissed and being able to hold sufficient conversation that I had a long chat to Leska de Wet, wife of South African winemaker Danny, who subsequently presented me with 3 bottles of wine that I had tasted and enjoyed and told me that they’d had a good festival and were delighted that I had enjoyed their wine. In addition to this I got some dregs of a 1971 Burgundy, which was I confess a little past its best, the bottle of which I retain on my bookcase. And so dear reader I hope I have illustrated that a cuspidor is not merely for decorative purposes or to indulge big-nosed idiots to feel like they’re in touch with the spit and sawdust pub visiting commoners. I like to think that the big noses themselves are also only doing so to avoid themselves getting shit-faced, perhaps their financial threshold of wine to swallow is a little higher!

What the wine festival did was expose me to a large number of wines of all sorts of grapes, blends, countries etc. and the biggest advantage of this is that when I go to an off licence or more frequently these days a supermarket (where now the Threshers, Wine Racks, Bottoms Ups, Unwins and Oddbins of old?) I can pick a wine that I am most likely to enjoy and likewise take something to a party that won’t be that bottle that sits around for months until the hosts forget who brought it in the first place and bring it back to a party of yours. Even this is hit and miss, I might like one vintage and not the other, whether or not you notice that a vintage has changed you’ll still notice if it tastes different and if ever a wine you like suddenly takes on a twang you don’t remember that is probably exactly what has happened.

In the early days I thought the wild and fantastical adjectives used by people such as Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke such as tasting like ‘hollyhocks’ and ‘a horses saddle’ were entertaining from a linguistic point of view were nothing further than pretentious tosh. Part of me is not convinced that may not still be the case but I confess as I have tasted more wines the nuance in tastes has meant using a wider vocabularly to define them because as you get beyond what was then the £5 a bottle mark and is probably now the £10 a bottle mark the depth and definition of a bottle of wine does vary a colossal amount. I have indeed now tasted a wine that tasted like chewing leather but oddly not in an unpleasant way, I cannot prove this to anyone unless you tried it yourself but bring me a bottle of Chateau Musar 1991 and I challenge you not to find the same (as a point of information you can pick up the 2004 for a mere £17.99 and the 1989 will cost you the comparatively small sum of £75 – when you think this means someone else has stored it for you for more than 20 years that isn’t bad). Of course I don’t know whether the other vintages of Musar taste the same as the ’91 so bring a couple of bottles of those for comparison too!

Wine tasting is an incredibly complex business and I do now have genuine respect and admiration for the level of detail which some people can pick up out of a simple swig, I used to be able to tell the specific grape, provided it wasn’t a blend, I could often tell the country and very occasionally get the year to within two or three if it was less than 10 years old. However to tell the exact year, the level of blend and even the Chateau from which it comes shows not only a laudable capability of memory but also one of being able to quaff a biblical amount of wine. And here is the only difference. If you listened to an music album in not too long you would know what the songs are and even a lot of the lyrics, were you to listen to another you would have the comparison to determine more definitively the style of the band and personnel whilst retaining your information of the previous album you continue to build up knowledge of the new song names and lyrics. By a third album you would like as not pick up any change in personnel and begin to chart whether this was the bands older or newer style, if you find out the year you could start to determine their influences and all the time continue to add to the song and lyric information you already hold. By the time you have listened to all of the albums by that artist you would a line of text be able to tell the song, who sang it, which album it was from, what the year was, what the make-up of the band was, what there influences were at the time and perhaps even snippets around its recording. All this would have come from continued exposure to the artist building a database of information in your mind of each minute specific as to the makeup of the whole. So it is with wine.

However exactly like music, you can be able to define all this to the nth degree, you can know all there is to know about the grape, the vintage, the chateau, the slope at the chateau, etc. etc. at the end of the day you still might not like the taste and this is the whole crux of the argument, When you choose a wine you have to choose one you like within your budget, it doesn’t matter if you like a 1982 Chateau Margaux at a hefty £1200+ or a bottle of Chilean red at £5.99 just so long as you like it and can afford it. You might think that £1200 is a stupid amount to pay for a bottle of wine, I might as well, but then we haven’t drunk a bottle of 82 Chateau Margaux so it is impossible to say whether or not it is worth it. I do remember when I first tasted a bottle of wine that was twice as expensive as the norm and tasting immediately the difference, if that is replicated up the financial scale then the Margaux is likely to be the nearest thing to a liquid orgasm this side of a Pan Galactic Gargleblaster. The trouble is the more different wines you try the more you search for the ones that were the nicest and the less likely the cheap and perfectly cheerful wines will appeal (they are often great in the cooking!) there is no returning to the acceptable you are ruined it just doesn’t measure up in the same way. It’s rather like contentedly listening to the Dave Clark Five until Led Zeppelin come along and blow your mind, there’s no going back to Dave Clark it just doesn’t cut the mustard. Very difficult to match a wine with mustard, possibly a nice Chianti if you were interested!

Song Of The Day ~ The Dubliners – Seven Drunken Nights

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