It’s Summer in the UK and the tasting season is in full swing, with all its peculiarities observes our London correspondent, Alistair Scott
It is tasting season in London. Last year’s harvest is in barrel or down the drain, this year’s is flowering or drowned, Summer is on the horizon for visitors from the Southern Hemisphere – it’s time to flog some wine to the great unwashed.
Tastings in the UK offer the full range from the sad sipping of Kiwi Sauvignon in suburbia to Premier Cru tastings in oak-panelled boardrooms in St James, but to catch the sheer variety of the wine seller and buyer, head to the big fairs, echoing barns in Olympia, the Docklands, Birmingham or the City. Here the hunter and the hunted wander together on the wine veldt, desperate to find the next new thing. Let us, in the footsteps of the Sainted Attenborough, cast our eyes over the assorted fauna of the wine fair.
Let us start with the vendors, the merchants and makers, the sellers of dreams, the weavers of tall tales and the beady-eyed kings of cash-flow.
At the top of the tree, as they see it, are your public school merchants. Unable to get a job in the City, or already ejected therefrom, they bring quality tailoring, double vented suits and a deep knowledge of Bordeaux vintages to the party. Their stand will be dressed with old barrels and large pictures of chateaux glowing in the morning mist. A slight nod to the more expensive brews from the Colonies allows them to witter on about how the French classics still hold their own against all comers, even if they cannot afford to buy them for themselves now since Caroline got the vicarage in the divorce and claret prices tripled. However they know these events are more for display than for selling – the real deals are cut over lunch with Roddy and Charlie (both versions) at the Bleeding Heart and Wiltons.
In their slipstream comes the lesser public school merchant, often distinguished by red trousers and tweed jacket, usually representing a good but slightly impoverished name from a provincial city. In days gone by he would have made a good living selling arms to third world countries but now would dearly love to sell them third rate claret instead. He finds the internet vastly irritating as the punters are always using Cellartracker and Wine-Searcher to expose his rather florid sales pitch. He relies on his mates on the county circuit and at the rugby club to hit his sales targets, hoping they never try to re-sell their 07 ‘investment grade’ Bordeaux on the open market. At the Fair he will be pouring with a heavy hand, eyes swivelling to spot the young Chinese with note pad and Chanel bag who might finally help him off-load that parcel of ‘declassified, but between us…’ vinegar he rashly bought all those years ago.
Equally visible and no less nervous is the boutique merchant. Often drawn into the business by a hatred of his previous job and an epiphany over a glass of something chilled while on holiday in Cahors, Otago or Frascati, he now spends evenings sweating over cash-flow calculations, cursing the slow payers and wondering why it isn’t as much fun as it sounded when he started to fill the garage with Tuscany’s finest. He pours less generously, conscious that orders need to beat outgoings and London hotel prices are taking a big bite out of the pension pot, and use words like ‘focus’ and ‘specialist’ rather desperately, hoping the punters won’t spot his inky black Merlot twenty per cent cheaper in the next hall. He clings to his small stable of star makers, terrified they’ll be poached by a deeper pocketed, or more open-handed, merchant from the Smoke.
Alongside these folk who sadly have to interact with the public sit the on-trade sellers. Big displays, tasty nibbles, unrecognisable bottles from undrinkable vintages lie in wait for the unwary; their ideal target is the newly appointed and nervous wine-buyer from a chain of northern supermarkets. A leggy bit of Posh Totty will lead him through their baffling range, breathless with admiration at his tentative insights into Brazilian Riesling and Bulgarian Pinot; sadly her sick mother means she won’t be able to accept his sooo sweet offer of a spaghetti dinner in Earls Court afterwards.
Nearby are the modest booths of the sellers of technology – the one-handed corkscrew, the vacuum bag less likely to destroy your wine fridge, the repackaged rectal thermometer – and of course the purveyors of the Holy Grail, the cork that promises not to turn your Montrachet into muck over the next five years.
But what, you cry, of the makers, the horny handed men of toil who actually make the wine? Well they are here too, though often on a low budget and kept on a tight leash by their sponsoring merchants. Amongst them we can easily spot the European peasant farmer. Like the natives of the Amazon, who swap their jeans and T-Shirt for the penis gourd and feathers when the tourist boat arrives, so these humble folk leave their Kenzo jackets and Zegna linens back in the hotel, donning lumberjack shirts (sleeves rolled up if they’ve been in the gym) and sometimes going for the full blue-smock-and-overall look if none of their mates are watching. They tell of the integrity of generations of wine-makers (not their ancestors, of course, who were car-mechanics from Lille), of the important of terroir, of feeling the soil between your hands and of the punishing heat which makes it so tough to shout insults at your immigrant workforce during harvest.
The Teutonic version may be slightly more refined. The male of the species usually avoids the full lederhosen, instead sporting a jacket with strange lapels and odd facial hair, while the female version proffers incomprehensible maps with a hundred contour lines, speaks six languages and glows with health and buckets of moisturiser.
Competing in the authenticity stakes are the desperate Third Worlders. If they are lucky, they have been brought over economy class by a team from their national Ministry of Agriculture who need to get some serious shopping done in Bond Street; otherwise they are the folorn hope of their country’s wine trade, praying against the odds to get a foothold in a hard-currency market. They sing of the authenticity of their amphorae and foot pressing techniques, of grape varieties previously cut off by the Iron Curtain (or by Health and Safety), of muddy roads and swollen streams, clustering around their solitary visitor who is too polite to explain he mistook them for the in-house tourist booth.
Of course national stereotypes prevail – by the end of the Fair, the Eastern Europeans will be weeping gloomily into their glasses of acidic white, the Asians will be summoning the limo to take them back to business school while the Latins will be clustering around Posh Totty trying to persuade her that Mother isn’t that sick after all.
Less easy to spot are your Antipodean wine-makers. Only the unseasonal tan gives them away. They divide into two camps. The swivel-eyed loon who knows each grape by name, goes without sleep for months to monitor his sugars, his acidities and his risk of frost, with Doctorates in Inorganic Chemistry and Worm Dung from the University of Woolloomooloo, maker of ‘austere’, ‘linear’ and ‘classic’ wines, trying in vain to recreate the whites he drank on his first summer back-packing round Burgundy. Other exhibitors flinch as he wrinkles his nose at their crowd-pleasing but puzzlingly popular wines. His competition from Down-Under is a flinty eyed glad-hander, pouring hard, talking sports and cuts of meat, swearing creatively and wondering if he can stay an extra week and squeeze another decent feed or two from his merchant’s expense account before having to head home to face the Missus and the ankle-biters.
And finally you may be lucky enough to meet the Storage Men. These clever chaps have found a way to sell empty space – the emptier and more remote, the better. Salt mines, nuclear bunkers, bank vaults and coal sheds will protect your mid-range clarets until they turn brown. Everything state-of-the-art, computerised, humidified, dessicated and CCTVed, technology comes to the rescue of sensitive organic matter from all directions – though the ability of couriers to then give your bottles a good kicking as they are delivered should not be underestimated. Storage charges seem reasonable until you realise each case may only have one bottle left in it but you daren’t complain. These chaps have worked out that as the Bordelais have screwed you on the price of the juice, you will feel duty bound to ‘protect your investment’ from all those creepy crawlies that might lurk in the cupboard under your stairs. Just be reassured that when the Apocalypse comes, your wine will be safe, although you will be toast.
In our next outing, we shall examine the prey – those brave souls who want to taste, criticise and, very occasionally, buy. Whether cynical vultures or naïve beginners, they must have their story too.