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Wine World  by Colin Kaye


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.

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Glass Conscious

Grape Expectations