Wine: Spittoons at the ready...

One day, your editor says, "Wouldn't it be fun to hold a wine tasting for The Independent Magazine?" Your editor is always right, so you agree: yes, it would indeed be fun – and all the more so since it was going to be hosted at the house of Mark Hix, who also says he'd like to cook for all the participants.

I realised the only way of holding the attention of a bunch of rowdy journalists is to play options, a fun game invented by the late Len Evans in Australia. In trooped the guests to Mark Hix's house and I started to get out the spittoons. When I heard Nick, the picture editor, ask: "What's a spittoon?" I realised what I was in for.

I divided everyone into teams of three. Mark Hix volunteered to captain one outfit; another was led by the magazine editor Laurence, with Chris Hirst (The Weasel) as one of his sidekicks; the chief sub, Jamie, and two colleagues, formed another; the food and drink editor, Madeleine, teamed up with two more – and, finally, a noisy alliance including our restaurant critics John Walsh and Tracey MacLeod.

With the bottles masked in advance, you pour everyone a glass (a bottle is perfect for 15 "normal" people and just about OK for 15 journalists). You then give a set of options, asking team leaders to put up a hand if they think the wine is (a) New World or (b) Old World. Those who get the answer wrong, query your definitions or make too much noise, are eliminated from that round. You then ask multiple choice questions in threes.

So, in the case of the first wine, a Quincy from the Loire Valley, the questions might be, first, "is it from (a) France, (b) Italy or (c) Germany?" For those who get it right, the next question might be "is it from (a) Bordeaux, (b) the Languedoc or (c) the Loire", and then "is it (a) chardonnay, (b) sauvignon blanc or (c) sauvignon gris?" And so on. The winner is the last team still standing.

I had brought along 12 bottles, and we played the game with two wines at a time, so there was a link with each pair. First up was a 2006 Quincy and with it a 2007 Blind River Sauvignon Blanc, £9.99, Oddbins, so the link was the sauvignon blanc grape, illustrating the difference between a minerally Loire sauvignon and the more assertive New Zealand style.

The second pair was a 2005 Trimbach Riesling, around £8, The Wine Society,, and a 2001 Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Contours Museum Release Riesling (the 2002 is £11.99, Selfridges), the first dry and youthful; the second with the kerosene undertone of age that Jamie spotted as Australian riesling. For the first pair of reds, I chose a location theme, the Middle East, by pairing an Israeli merlot with a Lebanese cinsault blend. Both came as surprises, not because they were wonderful – but because they were drinkable. Down to the hard stuff: a pair of pinot noirs, a Vosne-Romanée and a New Zealand pinot noir. I love the Vosne, a 2004 Syvian Cathiard, £270 per case, Justerini & Brooks (in bond), but the fragrant 2005 Bald Hills Pinot Noir (the 2006 is £24.95, New Zealand House of Wine, 01428 707733), went down equally well. Next up, a rich Cahors, 2000 Le Cèdre Grande Cuvée, £19.95, Lea & Sandeman, and an Argentinian single vineyard 2004 Trapiche. The link? The malbec grape.

Finally, two Aussie shirazes, a humdrum 2005 The Red Sedan Shiraz, £6.92, Laithwaites, and a concentrated 2004 Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz, around £80, Selfridges. The link? Price. Could they tell that the first was an everyday red and The Armagh a £50-plus job? Most could tell the second was better, but didn't know it was that much better. With the spittoons forlornly empty, the journalists had reverted to type. And the winner? The team headed up by the magazine's editor – nothing to do with the fact that I was doing the scoring, honest.


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