Food and Drink: Making up for a wasted youth: Bryan Gould talks to Anthony Rose about his wine education, and reveals that he was a late developer
Saturday 29 January 1994
It's one of my great regrets that I wasted all that time really. It was only when I came to Britain two years later that I was introduced to wine. I began to think that wine was a good thing to drink, and enjoyable, and I ought to know about it. You get more pleasure out of it if you know about it, and so, without really studying it, I gradually acquired a greater interest and knowledge. This was very much aided by the fact that, in the Foreign Office and as a don at Worcester College, Oxford, I found myself drinking much better wine than I could otherwise have afforded. I remember a bottle of Chateau Latour 1945 which cost me just 25 bob at Worcester]
I went through a period of keeping tasting notes just to try to educate myself as to what it was I liked and what I thought about wines, and I read a bit. It began to occur to me that I needed to know about grape varieties, so I now have a pretty good idea of which grapes make which wines, and what to expect from each variety or combinations of them.
The first thing you learn, particularly with the whites, is that you develop a strong antipathy to bad wine. Once you start to tell the difference between good and bad wine, you're on the way. I tried to learn enough about what I liked to enable me to go to the supermarket with a fair chance of getting something at a reasonable price that at least was in the area of some of the very nice wines I was drinking at High Table or wherever.
I have gone through lots of phases. I remember being very keen on rioja at one point because I suddenly discovered that appealing vanilla flavour from the oak. I always had wine in a cellar of a sort, but I've never been able to afford to build up a proper wine cellar. I now have a very good wine merchant in Chipping Campden, Charlie Bennett. I still basically buy off the supermarket shelf, because I know what I'm doing now, but I buy good wines from him. He took on the agency for Limeburners Bay. I liked it so much I virtually bought it all up. It's wonderful. It has a sort of tantalising, cigar-boxy spice flavour to it. I've got just one bottle left. It's my favourite New Zealand cabernet.
I have always found red burgundy more accessible than claret, but the problem is that you can't find good red burgundy at an affordable price. There's a particular flavour I love about it. If you try to describe it, it sounds terribly off-putting, but there is a slight hint of rotting vegetation, as if it's gone over the top a bit. I love a quotation of Hilaire Belloc - I think Hugh Johnson quotes it: 'I forget the name of the place, I forget the name of the girl, but the name of the wine was Chambertin.'
What really interests me is: can New Zealand make a decent pinot noir? I've tried Martinborough and Waipara Springs. I've been to Gibbston Valley in central Otago; there's another wine at Wanaka called Rippon which I'm told is very good; and I know of Ata Rangi. On my next trip, we hope to get down to South Island again and look in there.
I've always preferred red to white wine, but I love the austerity, the reserve, the sense you have of the flavours just being held back a bit in great white burgundies - a sort of flintiness. I like the New Zealand chardonnays, too, because they have a wonderful balance between the hugeness of the buttery Australian chardonnays and the austerity of the French white burgundies.
I think there are two major factors in how New Zealand has become so good so quickly. First, they're experienced at growing things, so growing grapes is no big deal for them. Second, many of the modern techniques - stainless steel, etc - stem from the dairy industry.
If you had to buy one single bottle of wine that's affordable and likely to appeal to people who are not necessarily all that interested in wine, you'd buy a Montana sauvignon blanc. For a fiver, it's just such an appealing wine: the Marlborough style, all that green grass, and so zingy - you're getting more flavour out of that wine, or new-world wines generally, than you'd get from any French or European wine.
I don't see that anyone should complain too much about this real explosion of flavour. You can criticise the Marlborough style of sauvignon blanc, that it's all just fruit. But if you then look at the chardonnays, you start to see that these same winemakers are capable of producing more sophisticated wine because the grape is different. I think it takes its place in the range of legitimate wine styles.
They have found a huge market for the style of wine, but I don't think it's necessarily the best they can do. I think there's now a challenge for New Zealand wines. If I were looking to the future, I would say they'll carry on making fruity sauvignons because they'll sell them in large quantities, but the more serious winemakers will go on pushing back the frontiers on the greater wines. You are looking to the John Hancocks and Michael Brkjkoviches to start making really great wines. The signs are that they can do it with the chardonnays, and we'll see about pinot noir and possibly other varieties.
I enjoy life. I like cooking, I like eating, I like drinking wine. I like beautiful things and I'm damned if I see why I should apologise for that. My political views are very much to the effect that what is wrong with our society is that these things are closed off from far too many people. It is true that in Britain we're a remarkably civilised society in all sorts of ways, but not particularly in the sense of enjoying life. We don't think it's part of civilised behaviour to sit with one's friends and relax and eat good food. We think we do, but we don't.
It's not just a problem of the left in politics in Britain. It's an aspect of British society that not much value is put on these things. But I do think the supermarket wine revolution has brought about a great change, and although I'm sometimes attacked as a Champagne Socialist, I don't think there's much sting in that these days. I think it's very important that we should have a wide range of interests. Something like wine is part of being a civilised person, and we need civilised people in politics.
One of my fanciful ambitions is to retire with a few acres growing pinot noir grapes in central Otago and produce a great wine. It's just a little fantasy. I'm convinced, on the basis of my skimpy knowledge of these matters, that of all the cool-climate grapes, pinot noir is the one most dependent on marginal conditions. There's now quite a lot of evidence that Central Otago has just the right combination of cool climate and growing period.
Another thing I'd love to do is one of those trips up through the Cote d'Or. One of these days I'll get round to that.
Bryan Gould is the Labour MP for Dagenham, Essex
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