I became interested in wine before I was old enough to drink it. My father had a subscription to a monthly wine newsletter in the ‘70s and I read those little booklets avidly.
Occasionally my dad would let me taste a wine, even though I was quite happy just reading about them. The only one I can remember was a bizarre Hungarian sweet red Muscat. Even then, I knew that was weird (Red but sweet? Muscat but red?) which was probably why I remember it so vividly. I liked it, though its similarity to the Ribena I was more familiar with probably helped.
It was at University that I started to put all this book-learning to more practical use. It was the early 80s, and Bulgarian Cabernet was the standout choice for an impecunious student. My friends couldn’t understand why I stumped up the extra 50p for a vintage-dated bottle from a particular winery (Oriahovitza, usually) rather than the non-vintage £1.99 basic stuff - until they tasted it.
To offset this extravagance I used to buy a whole case at the start of term (for the 10% discount) and stagger home carrying it. At one bottle a week it was intended to last me all term, but inevitably it ran out at just the point my bank balance did.
It was also at University that I attended my first proper wine-tasting: one of the giant Oddbins ones where you could taste pretty much every wine they stocked, often while talking to the winemakers themselves. I was hooked.
You learn so much tasting wines next to each other: the different flavours of the grapes, the characteristics of the vintages, the way different regions really do have their own styles, and, crucially, which ones you like best.
And therein lies my life-long fascination with wine: in an increasingly homogenised world dominated by global brands, where you can buy the same five lagers wherever you go (and they all taste like Stella), wine is still all about the place it was grown, the individual who made it, and the weather that year. There’s always more to discover.
These days I go to as many tastings as I can invent an excuse for, from the serious (Burgundy, Rhône and Barolo en primeurs every year) to the frivolous (the weekly gatherings hosted by my quirky and eclectic local wine shop).
For me, the most interesting wines today are those produced with indigenous grapes in less-famous areas, by wine-makers championing local traditions. Producers who want to create wine that speaks of the land they love rather than of whatever international grape variety is currently in fashion. They’re also the best value, in part because their unfamiliar names make them a hard sell in the supermarket. It’s these exciting wines, and the specialist merchants and importers who distribute them, that I want to bring to a wider audience through Decanting Club.
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