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October 06, 2006

Lincoln's Law of Wine: Lincoln Allison rants about wine - and explains why he favours rough trade when it comes to wine

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison explains why he prefers rough trade when it comes to wine.

Even my mother-in-law now drinks wine. This is the lady who used to say, "Ee, you'd have to be desperate to drink that stuff" and who preferred something more refined like Bailey's or crème de menthe. It was not that her resolute allegiance to the respectable lower classes led her to regard wine as posh; quite the contrary, she used to say that wine was for "winoes". Perhaps we have another yobs 'n snobs phenomenon here, like smoking and gambling. Now the wine culture has permeated the English-speaking world: Aussies take a little wine with their tea, Americans make movies about trips to wine country and characters in English soaps are called after grape varieties.

So the world consumption of wine is going up, is it? No, of course it isn't. It's down by about 22% since the late 1970s. If you didn't happen to know this statistic the explanation is very straightforward: consumption in the wine superpowers, France, Spain and Italy, has plummeted from its old levels of around a litre per day for adults. Wine has been replaced by beer and whisky for fashion, water for health. My image of the old ways is of Italian workmen, when I was a child, swigging red wine from fiasci in the hot sun. I thought how much nicer a coke would be, but I was only a child.

Expanding global production potential, with many new countries coming into the market, but contracting levels of consumption. You've been to business school, so what do you do? Naturally, every wine tries to make itself a monopoly based on the mystical qualities which it alone possesses and the collective effect is to drive the product up-market. It's been done with cider in a small way and they've always tried it with newspapers which are now in a similar declining market. What you want is a world of happy morons who say things like, "You can't get a decent bottle of wine for under ten quid" or "I can tell if it's real champagne at the first sip". It's probably easier to do this sort of thing with wine than with other products because of the snobbery and fear of humiliation which the product already inspired. When did you last see those lovely old words vin ordinaire on a bottle?

Consider the world wine market from a Georgian point of view! What is now the Republic of Georgia claims to have the world's oldest vineyards, dating from around 10,000 years ago. The original method was to bury a large earthenware jar up to its neck and then fill it with grapes. That's it, except that as the grapes rot down you chuck some more in, then you cover it for the winter and ladle off the top to drink the following year. The method had something of a revival amidst the post-Soviet chaos so I have tasted it - and it's certainly different though what part of the difference is due to the method and what part due to the ancient grape varieties unknown in the West is difficult to say. Incidentally, from Neolithic times to the collapse of the USSR the year of production of a wine was not something deemed worthy of recording except in a few cases.

On my first visit to Georgia I was taken on a visit round the largest wine plant; I remember an atmosphere of Soviet science - lots of girls in white coats with test tubes. There hadn't been many western visitors and the manager presented me with six cases for my friends to try at home. You will already note a certain detachment from reality: how did he imagine I was going to carry 72 bottles of wine on an aeroplane?

Another reality check followed when my Georgian colleague visited England for the first time. Like many others he wanted to get involved in the selling of Georgian wine to a grateful West. So I showed him my local offy, which was organised by country. By the time he had looked at the varieties, slick presentation and full shelves under America, Australia and Austria there was no need to go on to the Bs. His face had fallen and his plans had changed. Deep in the Soviet-trained psyche is an assumption that goods are always in short supply and it is very difficult to adapt to a world of surplus.

Actually, I do think there might have been a niche for Georgian wine if it had been done properly. The "semi-sweet" reds are quite unlike any taste we have and are good with (say) cheese and cake. But nobody has yet pulled off this trick despite George Shultz, the former US Secretary of State taking an interest.

At the heart of every rant should be a good old-fashioned complaint. Mine is not that we're being ripped off (unless we are very silly). It's a buyers' market out there and my cellar is currently stocked with wines bought at lower real prices than it's ever been stocked before. One source is slipping over the channel to France: this provides lots of good "pasta red" at around a pound a bottle and Blanquette de Limoux at around three pounds. This latter claims, at least, to be the original of what further north they like to call "methode champenoise" and on a blind tasting organised by friends of mine the Blanquette beat six champagnes for flavour. The other source is the Tesco "Festival of Wine" - I asked the manager what was his very best buy. He came up with a 1999 Rioja reduced from £9.99 to £3.99 and the evidence suggests that he was right.

No, my complaint is really about the amount of nonsense talked about wine (possibly more than on any other subject, taking the world as a whole?) which gets in the way of enjoying the stuff. I don't really mind the "hints of pine nuts and elderflower" blurbs because they mainly give people a laugh. You can't say "hints of acid, grapes, alcohol, tannin and yeast" I suppose. I don't even mind the bizarre rituals of the posh reds. I mean the business of visiting Margaux, say, and tasting last year's vintage which actually tastes like particularly foul cold tea, but you have to infer what it will taste like in seven years time. If genuine, this is a considerable skill (I certainly can't do it) but seems more like a skill for skills' sake than a real pleasure. What I mind is the writing off of good wine as bad and the hyping of bad wine as good.

Advice to those who want real red wine: Cross the channel; seek out La France Profonde. See if you can still find an old paysan with a red face, dressed in denim and a beret. Follow him. Alternatively, find a local supermarket and look for the wine in the litre plastic bottles. Then walk into a forest and drink it - and when you've finished, found the Campaign for Real Wine. Conversely, avoid all those Australian grape-juice-with-oak-chips concoctions which have the superficial resemblance to grands vins, but really stand to them as "creamflow" beer stands to real bitter. They are like "mellow" coffee, which is coffee for people who don't like coffee. (Is there a version of sex for people who don't like sex?)

In other words, I like the rough trade. I think it's probably a bloke thing: on a skiing trip one of the brothers-in-law and I had enormous pleasure from drinking a four-litre plastic barrel of red, but the women wouldn't touch it after they found it made their left eye close. Still, the metabolisms of the genders differ in many respects and I don't see why we should be stuck with girly wine. The most influential supporter I can think of in this matter is (I think) James Bond because I seem to remember him after a near-death experience yearning for a bottle of Chianti. Talked a good Chateau Lafitte '45 when he was with the girls and the nouveau riche villains, but really wanted a bottle of the rough stuff. Unfortunately, I can't place this reference.

None of the above applies to white wine which is a completely different drink. Cheap white wine is usually awful and tends to be Retsina-ish (to use an adjective invented by my wife) to different degrees. That is, it tastes of far too much. White wine should have a crisp, clean, elusive flavour. There are only two countries whose white wines achieve this in the majority: they are New Zealand and England. (Yes, England, but that is a whole other subject except to state that English white wine is a particular victim of the ignorance and snobbery which bedevils this area of discourse. But ignore any English red you come across while remembering Dr Johnson's strictures on dogs walking on their hind legs.) France does produce some superb white wines, of course - the very best, but they are a small proportion of the total.

And nobody should infer from my slightly iconoclastic tone than I am a wine anarchist. On the contrary, I believe in rules, mainly in the traditional rules. In fact the guiding rule is that if it was a rule forty years ago you should obey it. Thus:
- drink the wine of the country you are in where possible.
- also where possible drink it in the open air.
- avoid wine with the name of the grape on the bottle.
- do not drink wine with highly spiced food like curry. That's one of the things beer is for.
- drink only white wine with fish.
- drink only red wine with red meat.
- never chill red wine.
- always chill white wine.
- always open red wine yonks before you drink it (which generally renders it pointless to drink expensive red wines in restaurants).

These rules provide an interesting test of the liberal theory of taste. De gustibus non disptandum, chacun a son gout and all that. But in a world in which people all too readily announce that they have been offended I want it to be clear that I am offended to the point of being ill by the sight of people drinking wine in Indian restaurants or ordering gewurtztramminer with roast beef or claret with fish. In fact I'm thinking of initiating the first litigation on the subject due to my mental distress.

And PS I'm offended by people not drinking wine at all.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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Perhaps we have another yobs 'n snobs phenomenon here

A couple of decades ago it would have been a snobs-and-slobs phenomenon. HERE is how I tried to explain this to some visitors from Mainland China over ten years ago, trying to relate the English class system to the Chinese class struggle.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 7, 2006 12:52 PM
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I've just read your rant on wine and agree wholeheartedly with much of it. The bit that particularly caught my attention (and that of my periodic google search) was your reference to glugging local plonk and setting up the campaign for real wine.
I have been enjoying the adventure of seeing just how little I can buy wine for when abroad and have enjoyed wine in Portugal that I recon was about 20p a pint. Anyone can buy good wine by paying a lot. The real skill is buying drinkable local wine and paying a little. That brings me to my overiding passion; wine must not lose its local identity. When all traditions are gone and all wine is made in stainless steel to the supermarket recipe it will be too late to replant ancient vineyards and too late to replace ancient traditions.
Thats why 3 years ago I did as you suggest and registered the Campaign for real wine Ltd.
...Unfortunately the company has sat in my office drawer ever since. I rant about it all the time but have yet not managed to find a way to make it at least self sustaining. My other business does not yet allow me the freedom of folly.
All suggestions to mobilise a campaign without emptying the coffers will be gratefully received and aknowledged.

David Perry

PS I would add to the rules:
Never overchill white wine unless you really do not want to be able to taste it. Yoy can acheive this more easily by holding your nose.

Posted by: David Perry at November 5, 2006 04:32 PM
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