DRINK / Adventures in the wine trade: Simon Loftus on the search for the perfect Dolcetto and other passions in a wandering wine merchant's life

Click to follow
I ONCE knew a girl who played Norwegian language tapes at breakfast because she had filled in the wrong codes on her university admission form and was too shy to explain to her tutor that she had actually wanted to study anthropology. My entry into the wine trade was almost equally a matter of chance. I found myself running the wine department of a small Suffolk brewery because nobody else in the company cared about wine. I surfaced after a month to inform the directors that they were losing two shillings and tuppence on every bottle sold, and was given a free hand to reorganise.

It was the perfect time to start because even the great names in the trade (with very few exceptions) knew little more than I did. They rarely visited the vineyards, and then only in the company of their existing suppliers who made very sure that they didn't go exploring on their own. They bought through a series of well-padded intermediaries, each of whom took a fat percentage of the deal, and sold at the full 'recommended retail price' to a restricted circle of traditional customers.

Then came the abolition of Retail Price Maintenance, which brought supermarkets into direct competition with the traditional wine merchants. A small company like Adnams could only succeed by concentrating on quality and buying direct from the producers. I was able to build a wine business entirely as I wanted it to be.

The most important decision was to list only wines I enjoyed drinking myself. Initially that meant France. I explored Bordeaux in search of bargains (easier to find then than now), grappled with the intricacies of Burgundy and developed a continuing enthusiasm for the Rhone. I have always loved wines which vividly express the personality of their maker and these seemed easier to find in the Rhone than anywhere else. The Rhone is a fragmented patchwork of small landholdings; many have been cultivated by the same families for centuries. Anyone in search of splendid but affordable reds could hardly do better than a vigorous bottle of 1988 Cornas from Guy de Barjac, the rich gamey 1989 Gigondas of Michel Faraud or Andre Mejan's 1988 Lirac, filled with the flavours of red fruit and Provencal herbs.

My enthusiasm for Italy was awakened during a family holiday on a tiny farm in Piemonte. Every day I drank the farmer's own wine, a simple Dolcetto, and learnt to relish the touch of bitterness which gave such appetising definition to the flavour of ripe damsons and black chocolate. During the following year I tasted more than a thousand Italian wines, most of them awful, and then asked Nick Belfrage (author of Life Beyond Lambrusco) to be my guide on a tour of the vineyards. He introduced me to the extraordinary diversity of Italian grape varieties, so different from the classic vocabulary of France. I was determined to find the perfect Dolcetto, a search that ended in the tiny cellars of Giuseppe Poggio, in the village of Roccagrimalda high above Ovada. Giuseppe made the darkest, most richly flavoured, most extraordinary Dolcetto in the world, from 80- year-old vines. For several years I bought a large proportion of his tiny harvest but then, alas, he died; and the unique taste of his wine died with him. Two current favourites are the simple Dolcetto from the Viticoltori dell'Acquese and the more concentrated single-vineyard 1991 Dolcetto from Bianco Mauro.

I also became obsessed with a style of winemaking which dates from the earliest times, when the finest wines of antiquity were capable of long ageing because the grapes were raisinned (dried on the vine before the harvest or, after picking, on racks of bamboo or mats of straw). Homer describes a process which survives almost unchanged today, most notably in the great Recioto and Amarone wines of the Veneto. The best producers (Quintarelli, Allegrini, Masi and a few others) use this technique to make red wines packed with the most complex layers of flavour, unfashionably sweet (in the case of Recioto) and incomparably magnificent.

I became determined that the potential of those techniques should be more widely known. At an

international symposium for the Institute of Masters of Wine which I helped to organise last summer, I presented a special workshop with Nick Belfrage. We called it 'Dried Grapes - The Classic Wines of Antiquity' and trawled the world in search of samples. Exotic bottles arrived in my office from unexpected corners of France, Austria and Greece, from all over Italy and from as far away as California, South Africa and Australia. The audience included the winemaker of Chateau Latour, the most highly rated viticultural consultant of the Antipodes, a renowned Italian producer from the Veneto and several wine writers. There is hope of a revival.

One of the excitements of wine is that nothing is static; tradition can marry happily with the latest developments in technology. Proof of this may be found in the south of France.

For long the source of undrinkable rotgut, the area is now the New World of Europe, with adventurous winemakers exploring its unrealised potential to the full. Different grape varieties are being planted, old hillside vineyards brought back into cultivation, and stainless steel and modern refrigeration have vastly extended the scope for quality wines at an affordable price. Each year I make new discoveries. Recent additions to our list include the wonderfully gritty old-vines 1990 Carignan of Domaine D'Aupilhac and a peachy, spicy white Pacherenc de Vic Bilh from Domaine Damiens.

In the New World itself the possibilities seem almost limitless. My current passions include trying to persuade Californian winemakers to increase their plantings of Italian grape varieties and scouring Australia for those fabulously concentrated wines which are made from 'old blocks' of vines planted a century or more ago: ungrafted stock of genetic strains which may be extinct in Europe. Some of the grandest examples come from a trio of producers in the Barossa Valley. Charlie Melton's Nine Popes is a blend of Grenache and Shiraz, while St Halletts Old Block and Rocky O'Callaghan's Basket Press are both pure Shiraz from ancient vines.

Even more primitive vines, the ancestors of most of the classic vinifera varieties that we know today, can be found in Iran, Afghanistan and countries further east. Judging by a solitary example of 'Bengal Purple' tasted at a winery in India, the potential of such vines could be remarkable.

And then there is Eastern Europe. Lurking in the vineyards of Georgia and Moldova (and elsewhere in the squabbling republics of the former USSR) there are some 400 vine varieties unknown to the West. My bet is that some of them, notably the red grape Saperavi, will soon become almost as familiar as Cabernet Sauvignon.

It's a long way from the days when I bottled wine by hand, straight from the cask, with a candle to show me when the bottle was full. That was just over 20 years ago; it seems like another century.


1988 Cornas, Guy de Barjac: pounds 12.95 Adnams of Southwold, pounds 12.50 Justerini & Brooks of London

1989 Domaine Cayron Gigondas, Michel Faraud: pounds 8.20 Adnams

1988 Lirac 'Les Queyrades', Andre Mejan: pounds 6.23 Tanners Wines of Shrewsbury, pounds 5.40 Adnams, pounds 5.98 Berry Bros of London (1989 vintage only)

Dolcetto D'Acqui, Viticoltori dell'Acquese: widely available for about pounds 4 from stockists including Winecellars of Wandsworth, Tanners Wines of Shrewsbury, Adnams, Connolly's Wines of Birmingham and Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh

1983 Serego Alighieri Recioto Classico (Family Selection), Masi: pounds 23.50 Adnams

1983 Amarone della Valpolicella, Quintarelli: pounds 29.15 Adnams, pounds 31.55 selected Oddbins, Winecellars of Wandsworth

1991 Molinara, Vino da Tavola, Quintarelli: pounds 6.20 Adnams

1990 Carignan, Domaine D'Aupilhac, Vin de Pays de Montbaudile: pounds 4.75 Adnams

Pacherenc de Vic Bilh, Domaine Damiens: pounds 4.98 Bibendum, pounds 5.55 Adnams

Charlie Melton's Nine Popes: about pounds 8 Reid Wines of Bristol, Winecellars of Wandsworth, Adnams, The Australian Wine Centre, which also offers this and the two following wines by mail order (50 Strand, London WC2N 5LH, 071-925 0751)

Rocky O'Callaghan's Basket Press Shiraz: pounds 9.20 Adnams, pounds 9.99 The Australian Wine Centre

St Halletts Old Block Shiraz: about pounds 8- pounds 8.50 Fortnum & Mason, Winecellars of Wandsworth, Reid Wines of Bristol, King & Barnes of Horsham, Adnams and The Australian Wine Centre

(Photograph omitted)