The wedding at Cana must be one of the first recorded examples of wine connoisseurship. As the Gospel of John records, guests recognised that the wine Jesus had made from water was better quality than the wine that had been originally served.
I remember the moment when I decided it was time to learn about wine. I was at the Brasserie St Quentin, opposite the London Oratory, when I was handed the wine list and I just didn’t know which wine to pick. Apparently many diners choose the second cheapest wine on the list, a choice well understood by sommeliers who often select a poorer wine than the house wine.
I knew that I liked red Bordeaux best (Claret as the British refer to it), and I didn’t really like white wine. Red wine a bit above the minimum price was always quite nice, whereas white wine was nearly always quite nasty. When presented with a bottle of the ubiquitous Liebfraumilch, I used to pretend I was allergic to white wine. A Harrods wine book on entertaining advised that if you had a cheap white wine, serve it very cold and no one will notice.
In 1992 my design company had just begun to work with The Sunday Times Wine Club and Laithwaites, and decided that it wouldn’t hurt if I knew more about the products. So where to begin?
I noticed when I bought Claret in Majestic that a man called Robert Parker often rated the wines with a point system, so I bought his book on Bordeaux. Parker is an American lawyer and wine expert who devised a system of marking wines out of a hundred. He tastes every important wine and rates them over a number of years. The books are beautifully produced and very accessible with no photography, just elegant typography and illustrations. A true bible of wine.
I focused on his book on red Bordeaux, which gives six large chapters to the most important wine-growing regions of Bordeaux: Saint-Émilion, Pauillac, St-Julien, Margaux, St-Estèphe and Pomerol. Each region has its wines divided into the five Grand Crus, with every drinkable year of production rated with a review based on regular tastings and a score out of 100.
So how did the wines of Bordeaux get their original classification from Premier Cru to Fifth Cru? In 1855, the wine producers of Bordeaux were invited to send bottles of their wines to Paris for an exposition to be tasted. No one knew at the time that this would be the moment when red Bordeaux would be classified for all time. Some excellent producers such as Chateaux Angelus didn’t bother to send their wines and so remained Cru Bourgeois until the present day. A terrible mistake, as the cachet of being a Grand Cru, the generic term for all five classifications, has given credit and profit ever since to those who made the effort.
There are only about 150 Bordeaux producers who produce Grand Cru wines and it is quite easy to learn their names.
The vintages are not really hard either and with a smartphone it is quite easy to look up vintages and prices. The French wine producers had rested on their Grand Cru laurels for years. What Robert Parker did was to rate wines, ignoring their status, with surprising results. Some of the producers with only Fifth Cru status – such as my favourite Claret, Lynch Bages – were rated well above those in the grander Crus. He was keen that wine makers should use clean and modern stainless steel machinery to produce their wines rather than antiquated equipment which could make wine taste musty. The result has been that winemakers have invested in their wine-making equipment, brought in specialists to help with the vineyards, and as a result are now making much better wines.
It is said that a man once bought a case of Bordeaux from a wine shop and returned 11 bottles, saying that he didn’t like it and could he have his money back? The assistant replied that Robert Parker had given that wine 95 points. “In that case,” said the complainer, “I’ll have another case.”
Such is his reputation. The other great wine-growing regions of France can be more difficult, especially Burgundy. Whereas Bordeaux producers make tens of thousands of cases of wines from large vineyards, many Burgundy producers, especially the finest ones, may only have a couple of fields. This makes it difficult to learn the names of the wines and so my advice is to choose a few favourite producers and stick to those. While I know that there are fine red Burgundies, I really do prefer Claret. But having refused white wine in my youth I am now addicted to white Burgundy. Producers such as Leflaive, Girardin and Sauzet are fabulous but not cheap either; however, they are easy to remember.
Wine writers such as Oz Clarke and Jancis Robinson are always extolling the tastes of New World wines, particularly those from Australia and California. The usual line is that wine is all about taste, and tradition is less important: “Why buy a decent Burgundy for £30 when you can get a better one from Australia for under a tenner?” I regularly bought wines rated with gold medals by the International Wine Challenge held in London every year. However, I find them a bit samey and have now gone back to buying wines from France, Italy and occasionally Spain. I know that the New World produces excellent wines, but I don’t buy them.
Many countries are producing sparkling white wines and many of them are perfectly acceptable, but I don’t think any compare to decent Champagne. It is possible to buy really acceptable Champagnes for around £20, especially before Christmas when many retailers slash the cost by up to 30 per cent. The cachet of real Champagne raises the tone of any party and I don’t think Cava, Prosecco or Australian bubbly give the special pleasure of Champagne. It is impossible to imagine Formula One drivers cracking open a bottle of Cava or the Queen launching a ship with Prosecco. However, Taittinger has started producing English sparkling wine with good results, so maybe Her Majesty will one day launch a ship with a bottle of English bubbly.
Italy is the other great wine-producing country, which makes more wine than the whole of the New World put together. Much of it is turned into industrial alcohol but at the higher levels it can be delicious and has its own distinctive character. Italy suffered from a bureaucratic system which forced producers to use traditional grapes if they were to get the prized DOCG classification. The system kept up great traditions of wines in some regions but also strangled innovation.
Some producers from Tuscany, such as the Marchese Antinori, started making red wines blending the Italian Sangiovese with varieties that make red Bordeaux, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes. The result was some fantastic wines, such as Tignanello and Ornelia, known as Super Tuscans, which because of their non-traditional grape varieties were not entitled to use their DOCG appellation but were forced to use vino da tavola, the lowest appellation. It was amusing to see wines costing more than £100 being called “table wines”. After a lot of campaigning they now use a new appellation, IGT.
Many other European countries produce great wines, especially Germany and Austria. But they haven’t recovered from their 1970s reputation for sweet and overly perfumed wines. These are much extolled by wine writers but are not popular with the public. One day I plan to try them.
Spain produces not only delicious Rioja but also Albarino, a white wine which I often drink as an alternative to white Burgundy.
I will normally choose wines in a restaurant where I recognise the producer. It annoys me intensely that restaurants usually charge three times the retail price of the wine and then add service onto that. So a £10 bottle costs £35. There are some that take a lower margin and I find myself going to those more often. What is so annoying is paying £50 for an ordinary wine and coming out, even if the food is good, with a huge bill. If only restaurants would price their wines more sensibly I’m sure people would choose better wines. If I am going to drink a really good wine, I will only do it at home or go to a restaurant that charges corkage. Inviting friends to dinner at home with carefully selected wines that will surprise and delight them is one of the great pleasures of life. I would rather eat a simple meal with delicious wines than fancy food with inferior wines.
Wine is so central to Catholicism, being at the heart of the Mass. In the 19th century Protestant teetotallers replaced wine at their communion services with grape juice. For me, no dinner is complete without wine. As a plate I own says, “Dinner without wine is like a day without sunshine”.
Peter Sheppard is chairman of the Catholic Herald