Four of Marylebone’s most prominent oenophiles on how the world of wine is growing and evolving, becoming ever more open, accessible and broad-ranging
The Romans had Liber, the Chinese had Yi-Di and the Greeks prayed to Acratopotes, Silenus and Amphictyonis as well as Dionysus, who after a quick change of name re-emerged in Rome as Bacchus. Even Odin, chief among those ferocious beer drinking Norse gods, was said to love his wine. No-one really knows exactly where it was that someone realised that their abandoned jar of grape juice had transformed itself into something infinitely more appealing, or when that first cup of wine was sipped. But since its discovery, the delightful tastes and increased conviviality that wine bestows have been deemed so miraculous that wherever it is found, wine has been thought of as a gift from the gods.
As a result, it has tended to be taken very, very seriously—more so than just about any other form of food or drink. Those who knew their wine were inclined to cultivate its mystique, while exuding a rather po-faced sense of self-importance. Today, though, that won’t wash. “The most important thing to remember is that drinking wine should be pleasurable,” says Laurent Fauvre, the decidedly un-po-faced owner of Le Vieux Comptoir. “Wine is a wide and wonderful world and sometimes you can get a little lost. But never forget: it should always be fun.”
Brett Woonton, one of the founders of Vinoteca, agrees. “When people think about wine, fun is probably not the first word that comes to mind. Romance, sophistication, expense—but not fun, which is a shame,” he says. “It should be. I remember the moment that turned me on to wine: it was a very good Bordeaux and it blew me away. I remember thinking, this liquid is incredible.” Brett tasted that Bordeaux as part of a wine course, and it was not just the drink itself that inspired him. “The guy running the tutorial was incredibly passionate and his enthusiasm really brought the wine to life. His energy was integral to the experience and that has stayed with me to this day. We always try to create an environment that is fun as well as knowledgeable.”
That sense of enjoyment is also uppermost in the mind of Xavier Rousset, owner and head sommelier at Blandford Comptoir. “Good food and good wine equals a good time,” he says, with a beaming grin. “If you talk to any good sommelier, the first thing they should tell you is that they love their job.”
Almost endless scale
One of the reasons behind Xavier’s own love of wine is its almost endless scale. “When you open one door there are 10 more behind it and behind each of them 10 more,” he says. “If you love wine, this is a wonderful situation. I have been doing this for over 20 years and I am still learning.” Today, the number of doors that Xavier and his peers can walk through is bigger than ever, with new wines emerging from vineyards all over the world. For Brett this is great news for wine lovers. “It really gets me fired up hearing about good wines from places like China and the Middle East,” he says.
Other high-quality wines are emerging from places that, while unexpected, are far from new to the art. “I was in Morocco recently to discuss importing some Moroccan wine,” says Laurent. “I am also looking at Algeria, and there are some good quality wines being produced in Lebanon. All of these regions have a long history of winemaking, so the skill is there.” Brett agrees: “We sell a couple of wines from Georgia made using methods first used there 8,000 years ago, and they are just extraordinary.”
According to Caroline Fridolfsson, head sommelier at Clarette, some of the most interesting winemakers in Europe are also looking to their history for inspiration: “I was in Tuscany a while ago and several winemakers were pulling up cabernet and merlot vines and replanting the sangiovese and canaiolo grapes that have traditionally grown in the area,” she says. “It’s brilliant to see them rediscovering lost flavours, textures and aromas. It is incredibly exciting.” Caroline explains that some producers are even storing their wines in amphora, the baked clay jars used to mature wine in the ancient Mediterranean. “This will create a different type of wine compared to the modern French oak wines, with their vanilla flavours.”
Producing good tasting, well-balanced wine is an art—one that new or upcoming wine-producing regions are increasingly showing they possess. However, while creating fine wines takes talent, creating truly great ones does take time, as Xavier points out. “The step from good to great is a difficult one,” he explains. “What makes a great wine is the depth of vintages of a consistently excellent quality. You need 30 to 40 years of great vintages to consider a wine to be great. Two or three great vintages do not make a great wine. So, there are wonderful wines from China and elsewhere that in 25 years we may say are established as great wines, but it takes time.”
A booming industry
This is an exciting time for those involved in wine—professionals and customers alike—and the industry is booming. In 2016, vineyards covered 7.5 million hectares of land world-wide and produced €29 billion in sales. But any industry of this scale will create some collateral damage, and much though they love their vocation, our professionals know that not everything is perfect.
Brett points out one obvious problem: packaging. “Glass is not an ideal package for wine, as well as not being particularly environmentally friendly,” he explains. “One solution is wine in ‘kegs’; not a traditional wooden keg, but a box containing a high-tech bag that keeps the wine in excellent condition and is collapsible and recyclable after use.” The issue here is one of public perception—getting away from the 1980s idea of wines in a box being a cheap party drink. These boxes may reduce the romance, Brett says, but not the quality of the wine. “Some very good winemakers are now trusting excellent wines to boxes because they work so well.”
Laurent’s main bugbear is slightly more contentious. “For me, most of the ‘natural’, ‘low intervention’ and ‘biodynamic’ wine movement is simply a marketing strategy,” he explains. Laurent believes that some proponents of these wines are giving the impression not only that these methods are new, but that wine not made this way is somehow ‘unnatural’. “This is simply not true. All wine has naturally occurring sulphites, and traditionally some extra sulphites are added in making the classic wines. The practice was developed over generations and is there for a good reason: to help create wines of the highest possible quality,” he says with some feeling. “Simply stripping things away is not always a step forward. If you go the Wine and Spirit Education Trust you can read lists of technical faults in wines produced through problems with the vines, winemaking process or storage. I have seen biodynamic or natural wines where these flaws are marketed as a ‘new taste’. This is not fair on the customer. There are some good wines from these producers, but far too many are not.”
Increased demand for these wines is something that Caroline is encountering on the restaurant floor, and she too is not convinced that it’s always entirely positive. “I think the whole biodynamic, organic, low-sulphite trends have been taken a bit too far by some people. I see people committing to the idea without really understanding the processes behind it,” she explains. “I have had people walk out of the restaurant because there is not a natural wine on the list. To me, if that is your only criterion for drinking wine then I think you have to consider how much of a wine lover you are.”
A bridge to customers
With choice getting ever wider, even the experienced drinker can need guidance, so the role of the sommelier and wine merchant remains key, especially in the area of matching wine with food. It is a role that’s evolving. “We are the bridge that helps the customer feel at home with the wine list,” says Caroline. “We are not here to judge people’s taste, or to belittle them—we want to make sure they have the best experience. It is no longer about standing at the table dispensing inflexible rules that the customer must follow; it is about finding out about them as people and wine lovers. Our customers know more about wine than they used to, and our role has had to change to reflect this.”
“Wine for so long has been shrouded in an almost masonic level of secrecy; a world of secret knowledge only for the few,” confirms Brett. “But we have a new generation of sommeliers who want to open up this world they love to more people. Food and wine matching is a very personal thing, because we all have different tastes. There is some science to it that needs to be respected, but there is room for creativity and the tastes of the customer must play a central role.”
So, what about the most famous wine maxim of all: red wine with meat, white wine with fish. It’s a rule so engrained, you would think it was handed down by that long list of gods. It also turns out to be wrong. Xavier suggests a simple rule: “The lighter the dish, the lighter the wine. That’s it. Forget about the colour of the wine. If you combine light fish and a light red, it is fine. If you are eating a big, powerful fish, then go for a bigger red, if that’s what you want. It is the same for pairing white wine with meat. It is all about enjoying yourself. If you are too tense or you feel intimidated, you will not enjoy either the wine or the food.”
Even as a self-confessed classicist, Laurent’s view if that wine should be selected through discussion rather than diktat. “My job is to be a guide. I may have more knowledge, but it is a two-way conversation with the customer. I will ignore the classic rules and enter with an open mind. For example, some white wine with cheese combinations are wonderful.”
This sense of a two-way conversation sums up the transformation of our relationship with wine professionals over the last quarter of a century. But by drinking greater quantities of it and being exposed to far more choice, this can increase our chances of going astray. So, what can we do to improve our overall wine experience?
Xavier’s suggestion is one shared by all the others: “Remember what you drink. There are so many apps that let you take a picture of the label and add a few notes. Eventually you get to know the type of wine you like, which will help you both at home and in a restaurant.”
For Brett it is also about reaching just a little deeper into your wallet.
If you are spending £7, upscale to £10. Remember, he says, that with an £8 bottle of wine, at least £6 is various taxes. That leaves £2 at most to cover all the production, transport and retail expenses. Once you hit the £10 mark, the jump in the quality you are getting far outweighs that small jump in price, because more of your money has been spent on making the wine.
Caroline suggests a small project: find a book about the region where a wine you like comes from, then try the wines from the region as you read it. Treat is as a bit of fun, and you’ll find that as you get to understand more about the local terroir and history, your enjoyment will increase.
Laurent says that a little understanding of the classic wines can help. “Find a grape you like and find vineyards that execute it really well. This way you get to know what characteristics a pinot noir or a chardonnay, for example, should have. This will give you a sound basis from which to begin a wonderful journey.”
Sage advice from four people whose dedication to their craft has given them the skills to navigate through the complex, ever-changing and sometimes mildly treacherous world of the fermented grape. Follow their lead and your personal wine journey might start to convince you that this ancient drink really was a gift from the gods.