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Wine World  by Colin Kaye

Clochemerle Country

Gamay grapes on the vine.

If you’re over a certain age, you may recall the French satirical novel Clochemerle. It was written by Gabriel Chevallier and first published in 1934 though the English translation didn’t appear until some years later. The book is set in a fictional Beaujolais hamlet of the same name and the story revolves around the local squabbles surrounding the installation of a public urinal. In 1972, BBC television produced a popular series based on the novel, much of it filmed on location in France. The British viewers must have thought they were being given a glimpse of The Real Beaujolais but the location sequences were actually filmed in the village of Colombier-le-Vieux over ninety miles to the south in the Ardèche region.

The area known as Beaujolais (boh-zjuh-LAY) lies south of Burgundy and extends about thirty-five miles from the rolling hills south of Mâcon to the flatter lands north of Lyon. The region was first cultivated by the Romans, who sensibly planted vines along their trading route up the Saône River valley to provide sustenance for travelers. Unlike the red wines of Burgundy which rely totally on the Pinot Noir grape, Beaujolais is made solely from Gamay, a purple thin-skinned grape which is low in tannins. Almost all the wines made there are red, full of fruit, easy to drink and food-friendly.

Beaujolais Nouveau is wine which has been fermented for just a few days and released on the third Thursday every November. Technically it’s known as a vin de primeur and it has become famous for the races by distributors to get the first bottles to different consumers around the world. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a modern fad because the origins of Beaujolais Nouveau date back to the 19th century when the young became all the rage in Paris. These sprightly wines are meant to be enjoyed as young as possible, when they’re at their freshest and fruitiest.

In his splendid book Adventures on the Wine Route, Kermit Lynch writes, “What a concept, downing a newborn wine that has barely left the grape, a wine that retains the cornucopian spirit of the harvest past.” But Beaujolais has changed, much to the chagrin of the Old Guard. Fifty years ago it was simpler stuff, sometimes a bit rough at the edges and rarely exceeded 10-11% alcohol content. Today it is more likely to be 12.5% and crafted for more sophisticated customers who demand fuller flavour, smoothness of texture and – let’s face it - a bit of class.

The quality levels of Beaujolais are easy to understand because there are only three. The lowest is labeled simply Beaujolais and it’s a basic blend using cheap grapes from anywhere in the region. A wine labelled Beaujolais Villages is at the middle level and covers blends from any of thirty-nine small villages in the northern part of the region. Wines from these villages are considered superior to ordinary Beaujolais in that they have more complex aromas and a more satisfying concentration of flavours.

The top-level wines are known as Cru Beaujolais and come from just ten villages in the foothills of the Beaujolais Mountains. The hilly terrain, granite base and sandy clay soil provide an ideal environment for Gamay to express itself to perfection. The name of the individual village usually dominates the label and sometimes the name Beaujolais is omitted altogether. These are the most interesting Beaujolais wines you can buy because each village produces wine with its own special characteristics. In Thailand you might – if you’re lucky – come across Brouilly, Chénas, Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. These are longer-lasting wines and unlike ordinary Beaujolais, they can keep for several years.

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I once found some half-bottles of quite old Moulin-à-Vent in an old and dusty wine shop in South London. They were well over ten years old but still youthful by Moulin standards – some of which can age for decades. The wine was superb: rich dark fruit, earthy woodland aromas and a stunning velvety texture. The next morning I drove back the shop and bought the few bottles that they had left.

You’re unlikely to come across such treasures in these parts but if you buy Beaujolais, look out for the respected names of Bouchard, Drouhin, Duboeuf and Jadot. If you’ve not yet had to opportunity to taste Beaujolais, you might be wondering what it tastes like. Well, Beaujolais is made to be enjoyed young, when it’s full of youthful exuberance. Part from the distinguished Cru Beaujolais, most of the wines are typically youthful, light-bodied and with fresh acidity. Beaujolais tends to have soft, jammy aromas of red fruits such as strawberry, raspberry or redcurrants and the better quality ones come with forest aromas which might even remind you of Pinot Noir. They usually have a gentle mouth-feel and light tannins.  These charming wines make a lovely accompaniment for summer or al fresco meals. Ordinary Beaujolais goes perfectly with light meals, omelets, vegetarian dishes and salads and even with light chicken dishes. But do as the French do, and always drink it slightly chilled. Of course in that part of France, it’s the daily swig for in those rustic regions they consume little else.


Air Power

Decanting wine.

One of the most heated arguments among wine enthusiasts is not really about wine at all. It’s about whether you should pour it directly from the bottle into the glass, or whether you should first pour it into a decanter. Red wines that have been in the bottle for several years sometimes develop sediment. White wines rarely do, though tartrate crystals are sometimes found in older whites. There’s nothing wrong with sediment, it’s just the dead yeast cells and other tiny insoluble fragments that settle to the bottom of any wine container. However, it looks a bit unsightly and few people like to encounter black grit at the bottom of their glass. Decanting is the process of separating the wine from the sediment. But more of that in a moment.

Aeration is a simple process which enables the oxygen in the air to react with the wine and enhance the flavors and aromas. Some people (and many waiters) seem to believe that having opened the bottle, it should then be left to stand for a couple of minutes “to breathe”. This is nonsense, and I shall tell you why. When the bottle is standing on the table, only the wine in the narrow neck of the bottle is exposed to the air. This tiny surface area is far too small to make any significant difference. It’s better to simply pour the wine into the glasses and let it rest for a few minutes.

If you are at home rather than in a restaurant, you can aerate the wine by tipping the whole lot into a wine jug or decanter. But if you drink only a couple of glasses at a time rather than an entire bottle, consider buying a device called an aerator. There are two main types and both are inexpensive. One type is held above the glass while you pour the wine through it, but the process can be messy especially if your eyesight is not so good. It’s probably safer is to use the other type of aerator that fits into neck of the bottle and also acts as a stopper.

Aeration is something of a battle-ground among some wine experts. Professor Emile Peynaud, the distinguished French enologist believes that any oxygen damages wine and you should always pour wine straight out of the bottle into the glass. I have to say that few other experts would agree with him. I usually taste the wine first before I decide whether to aerate it. Nine times out of ten, I prefer aeration unless of course it’s sparkling wine which is never decanted nor aerated. If you use boxed wine, a decanter is pretty well essential. It doesn’t need to be an expensive one either. I use plain, simple glass decanters, made by Ocean and available at any decent kitchen shop for well under 100 baht each. They come in a variety of sizes.  If you are sharing a bottle with two other people, you can pour the entire contents into three 25cl decanters. This ensures that everyone receives their fair share and avoids unseemly fist-fights later.

You don’t need to pour cheap wines gingerly as though they’re liquid gold, once you’ve got the top of the bottle over the decanter, just let the wine slosh in, so that the oxygen can really get to work. This is probably best done in the kitchen rather than at the table, in case you make a complete hash of it. And here you may detect the voice of experience.

Nearly all the world’s wine is made for early consumption and not intended for ageing, so sediment is unlikely in any wine you pick up at the supermarket. Unless you drink vintage port or old and expensive wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy or Italy you’ll probably never need to bother decanting. There’s no mystique in decanting, but it does require a little practice.  If your wine has been stored horizontally (which it should have been) place the bottle upright at least a day before opening. This ensures that any sediment settles at the bottom. When you’re ready, gently remove the cork, grasping the bottle as steadily as possible. Then hold it over the neck of the decanter (the bottle, not the cork). Pour in the contents gently and steadily until the bottle is almost horizontal. As soon as you see sediment approaching the neck of the bottle, stop. It’s easier if there’s a bright light behind the bottle. Traditionally, a candle was used (no doubt with many cases of burnt fingers) but a small LCD torch is even better.

I suppose in the end, while decanting is a necessary chore for many older red wines, aeration is partly a matter of personal taste. If you prefer your wine tasting tight and firm, pour it straight from the bottle, but if you want it to open up a bit pour it first into a decanter or wine jug.  You may want to use a decanter when the wine bottle has an especially ugly or cheap-looking label, or you may want to conceal the fact that you are dishing up cheap plonk. Far be it from me encourage dishonesty, but an elegant decanter will help to preserve your guilty secret.


Pizza Wine

Pizzeria in Capri (Photo: Elijah Lovkoff).

The entrepreneur, restaurateur and author Peter Boizot once wrote, “After one of his rapturously received performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the great tenor Enrico Caruso was asked for his secret. How did he control such power and passion and project such lush sweeps of melody? Looking his questioner straight in the eye, Caruso replied È la pizza, la pizza, caro mio. (“It’s the pizza, the pizza, my dear.”) Caruso was paying unusual tribute to a great national dish of his own country which was not particularly well-known outside Italy at that time – except, as it happened in New York itself, where Italian immigrants had introduced the tradition of the pizza.”

Many years ago in London, I used to visit some of the original Pizza Express restaurants which were founded by Peter Boizot in 1965. One of them was a stone’s throw from the British Museum in a dark, narrow side street that probably hadn’t changed very much since the time of Charles Dickens. On one occasion at the restaurant, an earnest young Spanish waiter informed me that because there were some slices of mushroom on my pizza, I should be drinking white wine with it, not red. This of course was absolute and total nonsense and exuding as much sweetness and charm that I could muster, I told him so.

Wine has always been the traditional accompaniment to pizza. Indeed, in many European countries, wine has always been a staple item at the dinner table partly because it was considerably safer to drink than water. Pizza was sold in the taverns and on the streets of Naples in the sixteenth century, though Peter Boizot hinted at its Neolithic origins when he wrote, “in its simplest form, the pizza…could have been invented by anyone who had learned the secret of mixing flour with water and heating it on a hot stone.”

Pizza has come a long way since then but it remains a simple dish, though it can have countless variations and fascinating flavours. It’s relatively easy to make too. I’ve been making my own for years, though the dough-kneading process can be a bit of a bore. To my mind, simple food needs simple wine. And wine it must be, because pizza cries out for wine. It’s unlikely that people in sixteenth century Naples spent much time discussing the most appropriate wines. They’d simply drink whatever happened to be available locally. And there would have been plenty of choice, because Naples lies in Italy’s Campania region where wine has been produced since the 12th century BC. It’s one of Italy’s most ancient wine regions with a vast number of grape varieties, some of which are found almost nowhere else on earth. Today’s wines from the Campania region tend to be fruit-forward and youthful and many of them would make perfect matches for pizza. However, you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find Campania wine in these parts.

The ideal pizza wine is what the Italians call vino da pasta, which is any inexpensive light table wine knocked back with almost every meal and usually served on the cool side. Yes, I know that some people prefer to drink beer with pizza, but if you must, try to find a strong Italian beer like Nastro Azzuro.

With simple food like pizza, almost any crisp, dry, wine will do. It can be red or white but if it also happens to be Italian, so much the better. Italian wine is made for food. Although some people like hearty wines with pizza, I prefer to drink light-bodied wines regardless of the toppings. My preference would be a Valpolicella or a Bardolino (red) or a crisp dry Frascati or Soave (white). I should stress here that these are merely my wines of preference, not what I actually get to drink.  If you like something a little more assertive, basic Chianti would work well with its savoury, herbal hints that come from the Sangiovese grape. There’s no need to choose a white wine just because your pizza has a few bits of chicken on the top. It’s the dominant flavours that count. But if you are having a seafood or vegetarian pizza Sauvignon Blanc or a light, dry rosé would be excellent choices.

The whole business of pairing pizza and wine is pretty basic and boils down largely to whether you want the food and wine to complement each other or whether like me, you prefer contrast. For example, if you’re having a “heavy” pizza with lots of rich meat, you can match like-with-like by selecting a full-bodied wine like a warm-climate Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz. Alternatively, you can contrast your “heavy” pizza with a light-bodied wine. It’s entirely up to you. Feel free to be adventurous and try to experiment. Perhaps in these challenging times, you might even finish up, as I so often do, with Mont Clair. But that’s better than nothing, and with a bit of determination and will-power you can almost convince yourself that it’s actually Valpolicella from sunny Italy.


Classic Reds

Château Margaux (Photo: Colin Burbidge).

If you mention the name “Bordeaux” to wine lovers, don’t be surprised if their eyes glaze over and their salivary glands get to work like those of Pavlov’s slobbering dogs. Because you see, for wine enthusiasts Bordeaux is rather special. Any red wine from the Bordeaux region used to be called “claret” in Britain, regardless of its origin or pedigree. The British have used this word for the last three hundred years yet today it’s unknown in France. It’s always pronounced “cla-rett” and never, as some nitwit once told me, “cla-ray”.  I suppose the word will eventually join the mausoleum of other defunct but delightful English words along with hobgoblin, postilion, whirligig and quagswagging, which in case you’re wondering, means shaking something to and fro. My parents always used to speak of “listening to the wireless” and avoided the word “radio” as though it was slightly vulgar. Future generations will probably regard anyone who talks about “the wireless” as faintly dotty if not actually barking mad.

So what can I tell you about Bordeaux that you don’t already know? Well, Bordeaux is in France. Of course, you knew that. Even my dogs know that. I suppose Pavlov’s dogs knew that too. Furthermore, Bordeaux is almost half way between the North Pole and the Equator. To be more precise, it’s two-thirds of the way down France’s Atlantic coast and the city of Bordeaux lies on the 44th parallel along with Minneapolis and Montreal.

The Atlantic Ocean and the rivers Gironde and Dordogne, together with the warming effect of the Gulf Stream have a significant impact the climate of Bordeaux. The name itself is a contraction of the French expression au bord de l’eau which translates roughly as “next to the waters”. They’ve been making wine there since the 8th century and today this region of 400 square miles is home to ten thousand wine producers. Bordeaux wine is available at all levels of quality and price. The prices of top quality Bordeaux wine vary from year to year depending on the weather and therefore the quality of the vintage. For example, the years 1961, 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2009 produced superb wine while the 1991 and 1992 vintages were a complete washout.

We can’t talk about Bordeaux wine without mentioning the so-called 1855 Classification. It was created at the request of Napoleon III (the eponymous nephew of the famous one) who wanted to showcase Bordeaux wine at the 1855 Paris World Exhibition. Local experts ranked what they considered the Top Sixty reds of the Gironde region of Bordeaux in order of importance from first growths (or cru) to fifth growths. Surprisingly, the classification still holds today with only a few minor changes. Every wine professional knows this list of Grands Crus by heart. The five chateau named among the First Growths (Premiers Crus) include such illustrious names as Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux which together produce some of the finest red wines in the world. When aged, they develop into sensational wines, each with its unique character.

They don’t come cheap. For example, the UK price of a bottle of the year 2000 Ch. Latour is the equivalent of 39,000 baht and a bottle of Ch. Mouton Rothschild of the same year will set you back 88,000 baht. You can double these prices for Thailand. But because of the enormous world-wide demand, you would be hard-pressed to find any grand cru wines in this country except at the most exclusive places.

However, you don’t need to sell the family car (or the family) to buy a bottle of Bordeaux.  The annual output is about 900 million bottles and apart from that tiny minority of grand cru wines, many of them are entry-level wines intended for everyday drinking and labeled either Bordeaux AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) or Bordeaux Supérieur. The Bordeaux locals drink little else. You can easily find this style of wine in Thailand and the online companies Wine-Now.Asia and Wine Connection stock a decent selection of everyday Bordeaux starting at under Bt 1,000.

If you’ve never tasted Bordeaux, you might be wondering what to expect. Well, the signature grapes of Bordeaux are always Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Many winemakers use a blend of these two grapes and nothing else. Sometimes other grapes are added to improve the blend, notably Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Good ordinary Bordeaux tends to be dry and firm-bodied with aromas of plum and blackcurrant. It’s restrained in style and is usually high in tannins giving it a firm structure. Sometimes there are touches of spice and hints of soft fruit but these are always subtle and the polar opposite to some of the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit bombs from Australia.

Many entry-level Bordeaux wines are labeled Château something-or-other giving the impression of a stately home surrounded by immaculate gardens and vineyards. This is merely a marketing ploy. A wine company can legally sell identical wines under different and totally fictitious châteaux names. It’s estimated that there are ten thousand château names in use today. The wine in a bottle of cheap Bordeaux may be perfectly good, but the picturesque château shown on the label probably doesn’t exist.

 


Changing Latitudes

Map showing 30°-50° latitudes.

If you wander through the wine section of a typical supermarket you might get the impression that wine comes from all over the world. But you’d be wrong. The bulk of the world’s wine originates from grapes grown between 30 and 50 degrees of latitude in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The Northern Hemisphere is by far the larger wine producer because this band covers much more land, whereas the Southern 30-50 degree band is mostly over oceans.

But perhaps you have forgotten what “latitude” means, especially if your geography is a bit hazy. So let me explain. On a map or globe of the Earth, latitude is shown by imaginary horizontal lines like hula hoops around the surface from the equator to the two poles. On a map, like the one shown here, they appear as straight lines. They’re sometimes called “parallels” because they run parallel to the equator which is the starting point for measuring latitude so it’s considered as zero degrees. Thailand is comparatively near the equator and Pattaya lies 12° North. One degree of latitude is around 69 miles (or 110 kms) so Chiang Mai is almost 19° N. London is about 51.5° N whereas on the opposite side of the world, Sydney is about 35° South (usually shown as -35°). This of course is within the southern grape-growing comfort zone.

The vertical lines on a map or globe indicate longitude and knowing both these values you can pin-point anywhere on the globe. This is partly how your GPS device works. Surprisingly perhaps, the concepts of latitude and longitude have been known since ancient times. Mariners of old could determine their latitude from the position of the sun, or at night from the positions of the stars. Finding longitude however, proved a spectacularly difficult problem. In 1707 the British Government offered a reward of twenty thousand pounds (equivalent to four million dollars in 2020) to anyone who could devise an accurate way of accurately determining longitude. But that’s another story. And a good one, too.

But back to wine. Fifty years ago, it was assumed that wine grapes would grow only between 30 and 50 degrees and nowhere else. We know now that grapes can grow far beyond this range in places like India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Namibia. In the 1980s Thailand pioneered wine production in a narrow band between 14-18°N. Today several Thai wineries are producing award-winning wines from grapes grown at these latitudes.

Latitude is only part of a complex equation. The wine in your glass is the result of several other factors such as climate, weather, soil, terrain and wine-making techniques. These are often described as terroir (tair-WAH) a convenient French word for which there is no exact English equivalent. Merlot grown in Bordeaux doesn’t taste the same as Merlot grown in the Napa Valley because the terroir is different. Climate is critical too and you’ll hear expressions like “cool” and “hot” climate wines. Generally speaking, cool climate wines tend to be light bodied with low alcohol, crisp acidity and bright fruit flavors. Hot climate wines are usually fuller bodied with higher alcohol, softer acidity and more lush fruit flavours. So you see, your personal choice of wine might depend largely on climate.

Confused about climate and weather? The American writer Robert A. Heinlein has the answer: “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.” Few would disagree that our climate is changing and this has an impact on viticulture. Eric Asimov is the wine columnist for the New York Times. Last year he wrote, “Grape growers especially have been noting profound changes in weather patterns since the 1990s. In the short term, some of these changes have actually benefited certain regions.” He is right. While some wine areas have recently experienced drought, heat waves and unexpected hail, others have been more fortunate. For example, top quality English sparkling wine was unheard of in the 1980s but today’s warmer climate is allowing English wine-makers to produce world-class sparklers using the méthode champenoise. Not surprisingly, new vineyards are being planted with enthusiasm in England’s southern counties.

Climate change is providing opportunities for more northerly regions to develop a wine industry and grapes are now being planted in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and even Finland. Thirty years ago, only a lunatic would have contemplated planting grapes at 59° N.

Winemakers have another problem relating to climate change. Higher temperatures cause grapes to ripen earlier. The sugar in the grapes turns into alcohol too quickly before the all-important phenols have had sufficient time to develop. These phenols include several hundred chemical compounds that enhance the colour, taste and mouth-feel. Wine-makers now have to decide whether to harvest grapes early, producing wine with acceptable alcohol levels but with less interest and complexity. The alternative is to leave the grapes on the vine and wait for the development of the phenolic compounds, risking wine which is too high in alcohol.

And in case you’re wondering, the wine industry produces only about 0.1 percent of global carbon emissions. Now if you ask me that’s welcome news. Perhaps we should open another bottle.


Stone cold

GE® Brand Wine Center.

Down at the watering hole the other night, the subject of wine came up again. One of my companions quoted that tired old cliché that he prefers “red wine at room temperature”. I resisted the temptation to make an issue of it, but a moment’s thought reveals that the statement is nonsense. For a start, it implies that all red wine should be served at the same temperature which is simply not true. More importantly the temperature of a room depends on many variables, especially in this part of the world. As I am typing this, the temperature in my study - with all the windows open is about 33°C (91° F). Only a lunatic would drink wine as warm as that.

Wine temperature is critical. And before you protest about this being a subjective matter, remember that we are not talking about personal taste here, but how to taste the wine at its best. Experts agree that every wine has its optimum serving temperature. One of the biggest mistakes people make is drinking wine too warm, or more usually in these parts, too cold. Even the cheapest plonk taste better at the appropriate temperature.

Generally speaking, young or light-bodied wines taste better at lower temperatures whereas full-bodied wines are at their best several degrees higher. The “body” or “boldness” of the wine is the result of several factors including grape variety, climate, vintage, alcohol level and tannins. In case you’re wondering, tannins occur naturally in vines and in oak barrels and have a distinctive taste that makes your tongue feel dry. On the positive side, they add body and character and they’re most noticeable in red wines.

Right then, let’s be a bit more specific and start with some popular reds. If a full-bodied red is served too cold the tannins taste rough and unpleasant, the aromas lie hidden and the flavour feels unyielding. On the other hand, nothing ruins a red wine more quickly than serving it too warm. Full-bodied reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec are best at 16-17°C (61-63°F). You can include virtually all Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône in this category. In cold-climate areas such as Northern Europe, reds of this type are normally served at the prevailing ambient temperature. Medium-bodied reds such as Chianti and Valpolicella are best a little cooler at 13-15°C (55-59°F) and very light reds such as Bardolino, Lambrusco or Beaujolais taste freshest when they’re distinctly cool at 12°C (54°F). Rosé wines should always be well-chilled around 8°C (46°F).

White wines also range from full-bodied to light-bodied but unlike reds, they can also be sweet or dry. Whites invariably taste better when they’re chilled because warm white wine always feels flabby and dull. Full-bodied whites such hot-climate Chardonnay should be slightly chilled at 9-10°C (48-50°F) and lighter whites such as Orvieto, Pinot Grigio or Soave well-chilled at 8°C (47°F). Champagne and Prosecco along with many sweet wines taste best when they are decidedly cold at about 7°C (45°F) which is pretty well straight out of the fridge. Sherry is technically a white wine and it’s still a popular drink in the UK though almost everyone makes the mistake of serving it too warm. In its home country of Spain, it’s always well chilled to bring out the freshness. Don’t worry about serving white wine too cold, because in our tropical climate it’ll warm up all too quickly.

You’d be surprised at how rapidly this occurs. As an experiment, I checked the temperature of a Chilean Chardonnay straight out of the fridge. It was 3°C (37°F) and too cold for drinking. Having sloshed the wine into a decanter to aerate it, I then poured a sample. During this process, which took less than a couple of minutes the wine’s temperature shot up to 10°C (50°F) which as luck would have it, is just about right for Chilean Chardonnay. But then the glass of wine was left unattended for five minutes during which time the temperature increased to an amazing 15°C (59°F); far too warm to taste at its best. It was heating up at one degree Celsius - or roughly two degrees Fahrenheit - every sixty seconds. At a social occasion, the wine could be too warm before you reach the end of the glass, especially there’s the usual chok dee routine to endure before every swig. I should add that during my not-too-scientific experiment in the kitchen, the air-conditioner was off, because being half Scottish I tend to avoid reckless spending. In an air-conditioned room of course, the rise in temperature would be a little slower.

You can’t really check the temperature by sticking your finger in the glass, though with practice you can become quite proficient at estimating temperature. If you want to get it consistently right, buy a wine or cooking thermometer. Lazada has a good selection, including some cheap LCD bracelets that conveniently fit around bottles.

Although different wines should be served at different temperatures, all wines should be stored at the same constant temperature which is about 13°C (55°F). Unless you can afford an expensive wine storage cooler it’s probably unrealistic in this country to store wine at home. The sensible solution is probably to buy wine when you need it then stick it in the fridge before the bottle is opened. Then let the bottle rest in an ice-bucket containing water (and some ice if necessary) at roughly the right temperature. You can help white wine by serving it in cold glasses, but not so cold that your guests drop them in shock.


Glass Conscious

Madison red wine glass (L) and Champagne flute from Ocean.

At a push, you could probably drink wine out of a plastic mug, but you’d lose most of the aroma and a good deal of the pleasure. Wine always tastes best out of a well-designed glass but they come in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes. The distinguished Austrian firm of Riedel (REE-dull) was established in the same year that Mozart was born and it has revolutionized glassware by customizing the shape of wine glasses to a particular type of wine. There’s a range of glasses for Cabernet Sauvignon, another type for Shiraz, another for Riesling and so on. Wine expert Robert Parker considers them the finest available. “The effect of these glasses on fine wine is profound,” he writes, “I cannot emphasize enough what a difference they make.” But quality doesn’t come cheap. Even one of Riedel’s cheapest glasses can set you back 2,000 baht. And that’s just for one of them. Needless to say, these are products for wine professionals and top-class restaurants. Most of us usually have to settle for something a little more modest.

Even so, if you enjoy a variety of different wines you really need three or four different types of glass: (1) a medium-sized one for everyday plonk, (2) a larger one for quality wines, and (3) a tall one for sparkling wines. You can safely forget about serving white wine in a smaller glass, for a decently designed glass will do for both red and white. If you drink Sherry a small copita is a useful addition.

There are four main issues to consider: shape, comfort, transparency and size. You may also be concerned about price, so don’t buy glasses that you can’t afford to break. A tulip-shaped glass is best, because it concentrates the aroma near the rim. The glass should be well-balanced and not uncomfortably heavy, with a thin stem. The rim should be wide enough to get your nose inside. A plain, transparent glass is best because any form of colour or decoration is distracting. As to size, it rather depends on the quality of the wine. Regardless of size, I’d recommend the glasses produced by the Thai company Ocean Glass. It produces an extensive range of wine glasses which are good value and widely available.

For ordinary table wine the Ocean Duchess range is fine. The 255ml (9oz) red wine glass is 19cm (7.50 in) high and a pack of two is about 325 baht. If you crave something a bit more classy and money is no object, you might be interested in Ocean’s superb range of Lucaris crystal glasses, some of which are varietal specific.

Quality wines require larger glasses because you need to swirl the wine around to release the complex aroma. This is why the glass shouldn’t be more than about a third full. The Ocean 425ml (15oz) Madison red wine glass is a large elegant design standing at 22cm (8.6 in). I always use this for wine tasting and a pack of two costs around 325 baht. If you prefer something a little cheaper and more compact, Ocean’s Lexington range might meet your needs.

For sparkling wines you’ll need something different. Forget those absurd saucers-on-sticks that were once popular. They are useless for sparkling wine, or any wine for that matter. Far better is the glass known as a Champagne flute. It’s an elongated version of a standard glass and its extra height allows the bubbles to develop so you can feel their tingle on your tongue. Ocean’s elegant Madison Champagne flute is excellent. This 210ml (7.25oz) glass stands at 23cm (9 in) and it’s beautifully tapered to show a sparkler at its best. A pack of two is also about 325 baht.

But I must tell you that there’s one thing that I find intensely irritating. Well, there are several things actually, but the others can wait. It’s the sight of a person nonchalantly holding a wine glass by the bowl, as though cradling a mug of hot cocoa. You see, we should always hold our wine glass by the stem - ideally between the thumb and first two fingers. That’s what the stem is for. It is most definitely un-chic and socially taboo to grasp the glass by the bowl. Apart from that, the physical appearance of the wine provides information but not if your hand is covering the bowl and the glass is smeared with greasy fingerprints. The serving temperature is usually critical and if you insist on holding the bowl, the heat from your hand pushes up the wine’s temperature. You’d be surprised how rapidly this occurs. Greasy fingerprints also render the glasses more difficult to wash, and I speak from bitter experience.

At wine tastings, you sometimes see wine professionals holding the glass by the base, pinching it between the thumb and forefinger. This looks slightly odd but it keeps the hand as far as possible from the bowl. I sometimes find myself doing this but it’s rather impractical, because you have to use your other hand to put the glass down. Anyway, don’t let me catch you holding your glass by the bowl, or I shall send the dogs around to sort you out. Just don’t say you haven’t been warned.


Grape Expectations

Sketch of Dickens
in 1842.

On 7 February 1812, at Mile End Terrace in Portsmouth, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born. He was to become one of the world’s best-known English authors and regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. He created some of the world’s best-known fictional characters and during his lifetime, his novels enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Even today, his books are still widely read.

Charles Dickens was not only a novelist, newspaper editor and social critic; he was also a connoisseur of fine wine. Ironically, although he wrote timeless classics such as Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities, his last piece of writing a few days before he died in 1870 was a bit more mundane. It was a wine list. It took the form of a single, rather untidy hand-written sheet summarizing all the drinks that he had in the cellar at his splendid mansion called Gad’s Hill Place in Kent. The quantity of beer, wine and spirits was enormous but included some of the finest wines and liqueurs of the day. Recently this single piece of paper was sold at Sotheby’s for over fourteen thousand dollars. You could buy a lot of Mont Clair for that.

Among the drinks listed were a fifty gallon cask of ale, an eighteen gallon cask of gin, a nine gallon cask of brandy and a nine gallon cask of rum. The cellar also included dozens of bottles of champagne and table wines. Dickens bought almost all of his wine from the wine merchants Joseph Ellis & Son of Hill Street in Richmond, originally founded in 1831. He must have been regarded as a good customer because his wine list includes four dozen bottles of Champagne, five dozen of Chablis, five dozen of Sauternes, six dozen of Claret and countless other delights. But you get the idea. He wasn’t short of a bottle or two.

Interestingly, Dickens listed many of wines by their place of origin such as “Volnay” or “Sauternes” rather than by the name of their producer. This indicates that they were almost certainly shipped to England in bulk and bottled by the wine merchant – a common practice at the time. Dickens had good taste in Clarets – the generic name still used in Britain for red wines from the Bordeaux region of France. He had a few dozen bottles of top quality claret that even in those days must have been expensive.

Yet, despite this wealth of booze in the cellar, he was a moderate drinker for the time. One of my favourite Dickens books is Pictures from Italy where the author took his family for an extended stay in 1844. He had already achieved international fame as a novelist, and his relentless energy drove him to explore many different parts of Italy. It would have also presented him with the opportunity to try to local vino. Wine is produced in every region of Italy, so Dickens would have had plenty to choose from, though by modern standards, much of the wine would have been fairly rustic. It would also have been cheap. In his book The Wine Atlas of Italy, Burton Anderson explains that in those days, a daily supply of village wine cost Italians less than their daily supply of bread.

In Italy today, over eight hundred different grape varieties are grown. If this strikes you as rather a lot, it’s actually only the tip of the iceberg. It’s generally accepted that there are about 24,000 different varieties of wine grape in the world. Many of the less important varieties have remained in their places or origin and never left. For example, the Ruzica Crvena, the Crljenak Kastelanski and the Svrdlovina Crna have remained in Croatia, but perhaps this is because nobody but the Croatians can pronounce the names.

On the other hand, some grapes have boldly gone where no grapes have gone before. Take Chardonnay for example. Its spiritual home is in Burgundy but it thrives almost anywhere wine is produced and Bordeaux’s Cabernet Sauvignon shows up in nearly every major wine-producing country in the world.

Only about 150 different grape varieties are produced in commercial quantities and we can boil down this number even further to the nine or ten so-called “classic” grapes, also known as “international grapes”. These are the big names you should know. Sometimes they’re made into ordinary wines, but in the right hands, the right places and given the right time, they can produce some of the finest wines in the world.

A few years ago, a survey was carried out in the UK in which customers in wine shops were asked to name as many grape varieties as they could. The amazing result revealed that few people could name more than one or two grape varieties and some people couldn’t think of any at all. And remember, these were not people picked off the street - they were customers in wine shops. To my mind this level of ignorance is staggering.

But I wonder how many of the “classic” grape varieties you can bring to mind. Well, there’s Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to give you a start. Can you name any of the others? I bet Charles Dickens could.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Clochemerle Country

Air Power

Pizza Wine

Classic Reds

Changing Latitudes

Stone cold

Glass Conscious

Grape Expectations