Andrew Polmear

Thinking While Drinking

I’ve been chuntering on in this column for years about how important it is to think about the wine you are drinking, either putting into words how it tastes or thinking about where it comes from and how it’s made. Otherwise you are just knocking it back, maybe enjoying it, maybe not, without learning anything that can inform your enjoyment of the next bottle you open.

Friends tell me they don’t find this easy, so here is an easier thing to do: score it. Professionals do it out of 100 but in practice I find I do it by dividing wines into three categories: ‘OK’, ‘good’ and ‘great’. There are plenty that don’t get into a category at all: the thin acidic tasteless reds at the cheaper end of some restaurant wine lists. And there are some that are beyond great (“hors catégorie” as French cycling would say). But for most of us, spending £6 to £30 a bottle, three categories seems to do it. And, not only do I categorise every bottle, I have to keep recalibrating. Drink nothing but ‘great’ wines and they become less extraordinary. You need to remind yourself what an ‘OK’ wine is like. So I keep in mind examples. They change according to what I’ve recently been drinking but these are my present three.

Campo Viejo Tempranillo 2014 £7 at Tesco (and also found at Sainsbury, Waitrose and on Amazon) is my ‘OK’ benchmark. It’s from Rioja where they get lots of sun on south facing slopes, have poor stony soil, and enough rain not to need to irrigate. What could go wrong? Nothing goes wrong at Campo Viejo. They make this wine by the lorry load. It’s fermented in stainless steel vats, kept at 25 degrees, then matured in oak barrels for 4 months. It doesn’t have much bouquet, the flavour is full-on fresh fruit but nothing complex, and there’s a satisfying fullness in the mouth. It could have come from any of the good sunny wine-producing areas of the world. But it’s OK.

Spend just £2 more at Tesco and you move up to the ‘good’ category with Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2016. Penfolds have been going since 1844 and they make probably the best red in Australia: Penfolds Grange. Koonunga Hill has bags of rich fruity flavour with layers of spice. There’s a nice sting in the mouth, probably from the 14.5% alcohol!

Finally, my current bottle in the ‘great’ category is Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion 2004. It’s nothing to do with the famous Chateau Haut-Brion, one of the greatest of Bordeaux chateaux that happens to be nearby; they just borrowed the name. It’s a wine of power and finesse and there’s a refinement to it that’s completely missing in Koonunga Hill, as there should be at £30 a bottle. Someone gave us the 2004 but I can’t remember who! If it was you please get in touch so that I can thank you properly. I now stick a note of the giver to every bottle of wine I’m given, so it won’t happen again.

Do just three categories work for you (ignoring the rubbish at one end of the spectrum and the sublime at the other)? Or are you happier just revelling in the infinite variety that wines have to offer?

Andrew Polmear

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