Wine: You are what you drink

Only 3 posts in, and already I’m re-hashing old stuff.  My excuse is that at a dinner party tonight I had great difficulty explaining the “brow” system to some skeptical friends.  So, for their edification, and yours, an (only slightly) modified version of something that appeared on my old blog, which was dedicated solely to blind wine tasting.  (I have a short attention span so I now deal with food as well):

I’ve been asked for my opinions on what ‘brow’ classification certain wines fall under. For those unfamiliar, the ‘brow’ classification divides life on earth into four categories – Highbrow Highbrow, Lowbrow Highbrow, Highbrow Lowbrow and Lowbrow Lowbrow. It first came to my attention in an Honi Soit article reviewing pub trivia venues in the vicinity of Sydney University. I have found it most efficacious for classifying everything else too.

The classification applies to both things and attitudes towards things. Highbrow Highbrow is the ultimate in the evolution of any field, like a Doctor of Letters from Oxford University, the works of Joyce or Proust, The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, shirts from Turnbull & Asser.

Lowbrow Highbrow is its poor imitation – things that attempt to rival true Highbrow Highbrow but fail miserably, yet are still loved by those with a little learning and loads of cash. Members of this category include MBA degrees, Tim Winton novels, classical music compilations such as ABC Classic FM’s ‘Swoon’ collection, Rockpool restaurant, Armani suits, the(sydney)magazine.

Highbrow Lowbrow is my favourite category – its members don’t pretend to greatness but are the greatest things of the everyday – Agatha Christie novels, sausages and mash, Wife Swap, Naxos CDs, yum cha.

And Lowbrow Lowbrow is pretty self explanatory – Lowes, shop-a-docket, Panthers World of Entertainment, greyhound racing, The Jeremy Kyle Show.

This classification is not, repeat NOT meant to be a hierarchy. One’s life may, indeed probably does, (and really should for the sake of life experience alone), transcend the brows. A great friend of mine went to Eton, studied classics at Oxford and is related to Earl Grey (of tea fame), and even he likes Desperate Housewives and Sainsbury’s pepperoni pizza. (As do I). The only category really worthy of scorn is LH – the hallmark of LHness is being able to afford to do better, but choosing not to (or being culpably ignorant of the possibility).

So here is my first attempt to classify some wines (and wine writers) into the four brows. I welcome challenges and challengers to my selections. With any luck this might begin to partner scores and star ratings as a method of assessing wine.

Highbrow Highbrow
Grand Cru Burgundy. Ah, Burgundy. Loftily inaccessible labels, expensive wine the quality of which varies so much that you basically need an MW to even navigate the Burgundy section in any wine shop – but superb, intellectual wine that you probably won’t like the first 50 times you drink it.

Classed Growth Bordeaux (other than First Growths). Current favourites of mine include Ch Leoville-Barton for style, Domaine de Chevalier, Ch du Tertre and Ch Potensac for value, Ch Grand-Puy-Lacoste for reliability, and Ch Lynch-Bages and Ch Ducru-Beaucaillou for pure quality.  Same comments as for Burgundy, but at least Bordeaux is more accessible, consistent and immediately likeable. Where are the First Growths? Well, it’s hard to say whether they are HH or LH. It’s probably true that Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982 is one of the greatest wines ever made, but at over £1000 a bottle (if you can get it) is it really worth the price? How much better can it really be than any of the super-seconds from the same year, at a fraction of the price?

Hungarian Tokay. The thinking man’s sweet wine, that draws quizzical looks when brought to a dinner party but is universally admired once tasted.

Barolo. The king of Italian wines. Difficult to appreciate, but rewards persistence. I once witnessed a conversation about Barolo that I think gives the gist of it: “You know, I just don’t understand Barolo.” “Well, it’s like ‘la la la, I’m riding through a cherry orchard! Oh, there are some roses…’ then getting bashed over the head with an oak plank.”

Vintage Port. If I ever get gout I hope it’s from drinking VP. It takes decades to mature, but when it does, you’ll never be able to look at another bottle of Penfold’s Club Port ever again.

Jancis Robinson MW. Not a wine, but a wine writer – the first woman to get an MW, the first non-wine industry person to get an MW. Her knowledge is unparalleled (if you don’t believe me, go read Vines, Grapes and Wines – they didn’t have Wikipedia when it was published in the 1980s, so she can’t have cheated), her writing accessible, her attitude correct (although far be it for me to even offer my opinion).  I’ve been in the same room as her twice. The first time, she brought a 1993 Josephshofer Von Kesselstatt Spätlese Riesling to the OUWC Christmas Tasting, and was my introduction to what is now one of my favourite styles. The second time I got to speak to her. It was after the varsity blind tasting match and I had been awarded a tasting prize so I dared to ask her what my score was. She said “I can’t remember but it can’t have been that bad.” Dismissive, and rightly so.

Lowbrow Highbrow
Penfold’s Grange. Australia’s greatest wine, allegedly. I don’t think so, and I don’t really know any serious wine enthusiast that would put it definitively ahead of other, cheaper wines.  Like the top wines of, say, Cullen, Jasper Hill, Mount Mary, Giacona, Rockford or Mout Langi.  Doubtless, Grange is an excellent shiraz, and historically very important – Max Schubert made it in secret after being told by Penfold’s to stop making it after the first vintage. It was a breakthrough wine that proved Australia was capable of producing serious table wine. But these days, with so many other good wines on the market, its price reflects its for show-off value, not the contents of the bottle. Want proof? I once served a bottle of 1971 Grange Hermitage ($1400 a bottle) to a table of Japanese businessmen who ate it with Singapore Noodles, the chilli in which would have ruined any ability to properly taste and appreciate the wine.

Prestige Cuvee Champagne, such as Cristal. The Champenois unashamedly say that they produce these wines for the sake of image and don’t really care that their target purchasers don’t appreciate them. Hubert de Billy of Pol Roger told me once that ‘People want to drink what the rapper drinks, or what Winston Churchill drank’ and that prestige cuvees are made for the ‘money to burn’ set that want the story behind the wine rather than the wine itself. (Indeed Champagne Pommery have just released a champagne in a blue bottle that is claimed to be ‘specially blended to be drunk from the bottle or through a straw’ in order to capitalise on recent media images!) Louis Roederer NV is probably the best NV around, but it is ignored in favour of Louis Roederer Cristal, which, for all the fanfare, isn’t that much better (if it is better at all).  I’ll admit that Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill is pretty bloody brilliant but I’d never pay for it and in any event it wasn’t made until 10 years after its namesake died, so people who drink it because they want to drink what Churchill drank are kidding themselves. He drank Pol Roger vintage, and it’s pretty damn fine too.  We can also lump into this bracket the likes of Moet et Chandon NV, (particularly LH if you don’t pronounce the ‘t’, even worse if you correct people who do pronounce the ‘t’) which is nowhere near as good as other NVs at or around the same price, like Louis Roederer, Pol Roger, or Billecart Salmon, but that people still drink to feel posh.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Sauvignon Blanc. Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay is one of the best Chardonnays produced in Australia. Yet in a restaurant I used to work in, sales of its Sauvignon Blanc far outstripped sales of the Chardonnay, and it is a much worse, much cheaper wine. My theory: the desire for the Art Series label without having to pay the price of the Chardonnay. Unfortunately the Chardonnay is much better than the Sauvignon Blanc, so the prestige doesn’t transfer across. And there are many better Sauvignons for the price.

Anything with a medal on the label. Show medals don’t mean anything. Most people don’t even know that a gold medal does not denote first place at a wine show. It denotes any wine that receives over a certain score in its class. And if that is “Bundanoon Back Yard Tasting Club Class 22 – Chardonnay under $5” then it’s no proud boast. I once examined a bottle resplendent in a gold medal, the medal sticker reading, in 6 point font “Organic” – it wasn’t even a wine show prize medal! If that’s not an attempt to mislead or deceive, than I don’t know what is.

Robert Parker. Sadly the world’s most influential wine writer. His preference is for overblown, alcoholic, porty reds is well documented but empirically it is doubtful that, from year to year, his assessments of wines like en primeur Bordeaux are really that different to anyone else’s.  The problem is that in attempting to democratize wine by inventing the 100 point system, he unleashed a plebeian system that has exerted stupid pressure on prices.  Could you imagine if Philip Hensher decided that Ulysses was 91/100 and War and Peace 89/100 and that therefore people would pay 1000 times more to read Joyce than Tolstoy based on a single opinion?  This would be complete madness.  OK fine, the analogy is not quite right because there is a finite quantity of a given wine, but still, it serves to illustrate the power of this critic.  To be fair, maybe the fault lies more with those who listen to him, or attribute too much weight to his opinions.  Nevertheless, buying a wine because “Parker gave it 100” is truly the Gold Logie of LH-ness.

Highbrow Lowbrow
I hope no LH types are reading this – all the good stuff might become popular.

Sherry. Not just ‘dry, medium or sweet’, good sherry is a revelation, and relatively inexpensive. Try a fresh Manzanilla, a nutty Palo Cortado, a rich Oloroso or a delicious sweet Pedro Ximénez from good bodegas like Hidalgo, and you’ll see what I mean.

Reasonably priced wines from Spain. Spanish wine, particularly Priorat, is becoming a bit more fashionable these days, but people are still unwilling, in the main, to be bothered learning about it so there are plenty of delicious bargains lying around.  Oh, and old Rioja, under blind tasting circumstances, is often mistaken for old Burgundy.

German Riesling. Still suffering from the image of the likes of Blue Nun and generic Liebfraumilsch, there are some great bargains to be had, even of rare and aged wines. I recently obtained a bottle of 1992 Reinhold Haart Piersporter Goldtropfschen Kabinett Riesling for only £10 and it’s one of the best wines I’ve ever had. (Actually, that wine probably belongs in the HH department).

Wines from little-known appellations, particularly in the South of France. Really this is the same point as about Spain.  This is where it’s all happening. Loads of great stuff is coming out of Provence (tried any Bandol lately?) and the Midi, much interesting and affordable. And then there are the loads of wines that because of the tyranny of the appellation system can’t use words on their labels that would get them loads of customers. Everyone’s heard of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but not many have tried Lirac, virtually next door, with some excellent producers. Henri Milan ‘Le Grand Blanc’ is a superb wine that is only ‘Vin de Table’ classification. And then you have Cahors offering superb, rustic, really delicious stuff that really convinces you there’s always a new style to try.  If you happen to be in London, the restaurant Terroirs is a great place to try all sorts of unusual stuff from small producers, at reasonable prices.  Last time I was there, enjoying a rather fecal Syrah from somewhere in the south, the maitre d’ asked if we were enjoying the wine.  We said “it smells like shit”.  He said “yes, isn’t it wonderful?”  You know you’re on the right track when you enjoy the smell of crap in a wine.  We prefer to call it “barnyard” though.

Mark Shield. The greatest wine (and beer) writer that ever lived. He never spat when judging wine, even if faced with a bracket of 100 shirazes. For that he earned the nickname ‘dry bucket’. What a man.

Lowbrow Lowbrow
Well, I could go on for ever here, about virtually any wine under $10. But I single some out for particular attention.

Fetzer Coldwater Creek. I don’t just mention this wine because it is the first wine to be served ‘on tap’ like beer from JD Wetherspoon pubs. You could, theoretically, put good wine on tap, but as a rule of thumb, the more a vessel deviates from a 750mL capacity, the worse its contents. On that scale, a 115 litre keg foreshadows a dismal beverage. This is truly awful stuff. I made a New Year’s Resolution about 4 years ago to never drink bad alcohol ever again. I’ve only breached it a few times, but one of the most memorable of them was when I was served this wine at a recent university function. I only had the red (I think it’s a Cabernet/Shiraz blend). God it’s dreadful. It tastes of metal, beer and tomato sauce. Truly disgusting.

Also, wine that comes in plastic cups with peel-off lids; wine that comes in boxes; wine that comes pre-mixed with soda; virtually all pink wines.

Golden Oak Sherry. This drink is very close to my heart. I used to use it for cooking if I couldn’t get rice wine. A friend of mine and I calculated that it is the cheapest drink available in a Sydney bottle shop, coming out at about $0.36 per standard drink.

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One Response to Wine: You are what you drink

  1. Pingback: Wine: On Expertise (again) | Grazing at Large

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