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The Two Giants of Provence

The Two Giants of Provence 

It was most likely on being told the story of Jack and the Beanstalk as a three or four year old that I was first introduced to the concept of something or someone being a ‘Giant’. Forty years later, the impression that those children’s stories made on my developing brain have ensured that this word remains associated with the pejorative. Giants are not nice; they are ugly, warty, carbuncular and curmudgeonly as well as being physically massive and intimidating.

Last week presented me with two opportunities to face up to any deep-seated giant related negativity. The first when I met with Emmanuel Reynaud, the notoriously reticent owner of Château Rayas in Châteauneuf du Pape. The second when I cycled up the Mistral whipped Ventoux, a mountain that French philosopher Roland Barthes once rather floridly described as “A god of evil, to which sacrifices must be made.”

I would not wish to offend Mr Reynaud by describing him as a pussycat but it was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in his company. There was no cantankerousness on display here, rather a generosity that led to an extensive tour of the Estate followed by a tasting from tank and barrel that on one occasion caused an unconscious genuflection in the direction of Emmanuel so scented, so altogether perfect was the young Grenache in my slightly grubby tasting glass.

The chance to cycle up Ventoux the day after the Tour de France had been thwarted from reaching the summit due to 100km/h winds filled me with excitement rather than trepidation. Although the climb extends for some 22km from the beautiful town of Bedoin it is the unrelentingly steep ‘middle’ section of 9.5km from St Esteve to Chalet Reynard that causes many cyclists to be dry-mouthed even before they have clipped themselves into the pedals. For me, with the morning sun leaking through the trees, the air still cool and with the painted names of cycling’s elite disappearing under my wheels, my own feeling was of an intense and concentrated satisfaction. Nearing the top an enthusiastic woman with a klaxon yelled at me to keep going and asked whether it had been difficult? “Pas facile mais pas mal” was my response, her frown indicated a slight disappointment that I had not been brought to my knees.

Jack had to slay his giant but Provence conclusively proved that confrontation is not the only policy, show some respect and Giants can be humble, approachable and life-affirming.

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Gao Make Laoshih

In the UK being 6ft 3inches tall (190 cms) is not particularly unusual. However in Taiwan, the use of undivided carriages on the MRT (subway) trains, allows me to peer down their full length and rarely are there any heads nearer to the ceiling than mine. It is not surprising therefore that on arriving in this East Asian idyll in 2012, my Chinese teacher decided to name me ‘Tall Mark’ or Gao Make in pinyin. This name has stuck and I’m just thankful that no one so far has questioned whether ‘Pang Make’ or ‘Fat Mark’ might be more suitable, especially after recently returning from two weeks of elegant European debauchery.

Whatever my name the key point here is the appending of the term ‘Laoshi’ or teacher. Wherever I go in Taiwan I am referred to as ‘Teacher Mark’, which confers a certain status long since forgotten both by students and governments alike in my country of birth. At first I was uncomfortable with this moniker and was always keen to stress that my credentials went beyond that of being a ‘mere’ teacher. But I’ve grown to love teaching in Taiwan (something I had only practiced informally back in the UK), and have come to be thankful of my status. Teaching badly is not easy and teaching well is really difficult, luckily I am blessed with some outstanding translators and my Chinese, though disgracefully poor, is good enough to hear them occasionally inserting snippets of information that tend to make me look better than I really am.

It took me a while to realise that the relative silence that pervades any new class of students was a mark of respect rather than complete disinterest. Strangely, although reverence is nice, discussion is better and after a session or two most students appreciate that I expect to be questioned and want their input. Having to write their wine exams (WSET L3) in Engish, puts some of my students at a distinct disadvantage. Yet the majority have tasting skills honed both by enthusiasm and the necessity of having a lexicon of descriptors that includes the aroma and flavour characteristics common to Europe with another filled with the scents of the East, that helps cuts across any language barrier.

Teaching therefore is a learning experience for both student and teacher alike and with a busy schedule ahead I’m looking forward to spending more time in the classroom, something I would never have said when I was at school.

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Taiwan: Just like a little version of China right? Wrong.

At Sniff we are often asked ‘So what is Taiwan really like?’ Having had the opportunity to help Debra Meiburg MW with her ‘Guide to the Taiwan Wine Trade 2016’, what follows is the introductory ‘essay’ to the guide in the hope that it helps answer the aforementioned question and perhaps whets your appetite for more. A big ‘thank you’ to Debra for allowing us to reproduce this piece of work on Sniff.

With the slowing down of the Chinese economy and as we write, (August/September 2015) a tumbling stock market, the promise of untold riches for wine producers selling their wares into China looks to have been broken. Of course for the majority, i.e. those operating outside of the best that Bordeaux and Burgundy has to offer, selling wine into China has never been without its problems. But will these latest economic developments cause more people to look even further eastward to the almond shaped idyll that is Taiwan? Possibly, and that’s why you need to read this book.

The relatively small size of Taiwan with a population of 23 million is equivalent to greater Shanghai or if you prefer, Australia. This ensures that it will never offer the same volume potential that saw winery accountants drooling over their spreadsheets as they envisioned the possibility of 1.2 billion people each holding a bottle of their wine…Yet Taiwan offers a different proposition. It is a country less tied up in red tape than its estranged big brother on the opposite side of the Taiwan Strait, making the importation of wine much less fraught. It also feels more mature. The wine trade may only be twenty-five years old but there is a palpable sense of adventure amongst the younger generation of wine drinkers, importers and retailers, that suggests the dominance of both Bordeaux and Burgundy (more on that later) will be challenged over the next decade. Wines bought here are much less likely to be given away as a gift than they are in China; it is increasingly the case that people are buying wine because they want to drink it not because it affords the drinker a certain status. It may be safer to think of the Taiwan market as being more akin to a pubescent Japanese market rather than the nascent Chinese equivalent.

The key, whether you are an individual producer or generic body, is not to shoot your self in the foot before you have even started. Whatever the official status of Taiwan (it is not recognised by the United Nations as an independent state), it is autonomous; it is democratic, it has its own currency and understandably therefore bridles when described simply as a ‘Province of China’, as is the case in one too many power-point presentations we have been party to (are you listening Wine Australia?). The links with China are undoubtedly real but although the common language of Mandarin is the same, the script used here is traditional Chinese rather than the simplified version used in the People’s Republic. So what? Well, like so many successful business relationships, recognising your potential customer’s uniqueness will obviously endear you to him or her. No one expects full cultural awareness but as the erudite HP Chu, writer and blogger told us, ‘show some respect’ in other words learn at least how to say ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’.

You should also be very careful about which bits of your marketing copy you hope to recycle. Expecting the marketing material you so carefully crafted for China (or any other part of Asia for that matter) to suffice here will likely paint you as an amateur; so don’t do it. Not only is the script different, there is also different terminology, even for those most prosaic of terms: the grape varieties themselves. Much better to present in English and get it right than to fudge the Chinese and not only get it wrong but possibly cause offence.

As a producer you need to take advantage of the genuine warmth and generosity you will be shown if you manage to make it this far. Whilst other Asian markets may be so spoilt by winemaker visits (Hong Kong springs to mind) that unless one is exceedingly famous or ravishingly gorgeous, drumming up the requisite interest for your Tuesday night visit may prove disappointingly difficult, Taiwan is altogether more welcoming. This is also a more liberal and more open-minded country than some we could mention. When it comes to selling your wine the fact that Taiwan’s own production is so small means that there is not the strait-jacket of perceived superiority that can afflict major producer countries such as France, Italy or Spain, when considering foreign equivalents. This equates to a greater willingness to try the unusual and although the famous regions of the Old World still dominate there are spikes of interest being shown for wines as varied and esoteric as Savagnin from the Jura through to the increasingly ubiquitous Prosecco. As Yusen Lin, Taiwan’s pre-eminent wine writer put it, the less codified, less strict social mores governing society here means that ‘people are more likely to drink what they want.’ We should all be thankful for that.

The last piece of significant advice we can give before we start to look at the machinations of the market in more detail is not to look at Taiwan as simply an opportunity to make a quick quid or fast buck, such an approach is unlikely to deliver. Instead, inspire. Consumers want to feel confident about what they are buying and likewise importers with the wines they are selling. We asked every person we interviewed what advice they would give to a prospective entrant into the market and a common response was simply ‘good wine’. In other words, Taiwan does not want the rubbish you can’t sell anywhere else, it wants your best. Deliver this and there will be takers.

 

 

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The Research Paper

The third part of the MW examination is the ‘Research Paper’ (RP), this recently replaced the ‘Dissertation’ (the previous incarnation of this, the final piece in the MW’s triptych of pain), which had become so mired in its own convolution, with too many students marooned on dissertation island waiting for an MW to appear on the horizon who might usefully guide them in the direction of a pass, that many in the Institute had wanted it eliminated entirely. At the Institute’s AGM in the autumn of 2013, where an abandonment of the third part to the exam was seriously mooted, you might think that I would have been praying for a shortening of the process, but you’d be wrong. When they announced the new format, with the newly engineered ‘RP’ as the vehicle of choice, I was glad that I’d get the chance to study, in depth, a topic of my own volition.

I am currently six thousand words into my RP and by the time you read this, the first draft will be complete. As with all the academic pursuits ever inflicted upon my pea-sized brain, the initial angst I felt as I began the process of focused learning with all its necessary questioning and detailed reading and referencing led me to question why I bother. But however much my brow may furrow, I know that deep down I enjoy the quest. I like asking people stuff about stuff I am interested in and I’m definitely interested in wine and the people who make it. Whether my studiousness will be reflected in the Institute giving me the nod in September is of course unknown but whatever the result the feeling that this trial by wine is slowly coming to an end is one that leaves me with mixed emotions.

I’ve met some of the best people I’ve ever met studying for these two letters and not just students and MW’s but ‘normal’ people too. It has also led to me thinking about a subject (wine) in a more intellectual way than I have ever before experienced. It is also a deeply humbling pursuit, perhaps hard learning always is, and the realisation that I know so much more than I did whilst knowing how much more there remains to be learned leaves me feeling both elevated and yet more clueless than ever before. But I won’t miss the deadlines and I won’t missing calling myself  a student, at 44 years of age I’ll be happy to just be considered an adult.

 

 

 

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In Praise of Gary Vee

This week’s 1001st episode of Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV (http://tv.winelibrary.com/2016/02/21/episode-1001/) reminded me of just how sorely he is missed. Whilst I’m sure that there will be some amongst you who did not mourn the end of Vaynerchuk’s five year ride on YouTube with all his exaggerated mannerisms and New Jersey brogue, no one before or since has succeeded in making wine on screen work so well. Prior to Gary’s arrival, the nearest we had to someone who wore their wine-heart on their sleeve with such alacrity, was Oz Clarke and although Oz has written some great books, I’ve always found his screen presence less natural than his prose. The same could be said for Ms Robinson, a true legend of the wine world whose publications adorn every serious wine enthusiast’s shelves (including mine) and for good reason, but even Jancis lacks the engagement factor of the born visual communicator.

What Vaynerchuk had and still has, is the confidence to speak his mind without allowing any braggadocio to infect his often thoughtful and humorous musings. If any of you doubt just how good Vaynerchuk became look at the very first episode from the 21st February 2006. On display was his now trademark easy charm but he spoke a lot whilst saying very little, for example talking about the ‘colour’ and ‘structure’ of the wine without really explaining why any of that might be important. Moving forward, after a few months honing his shtick, his manner remained as easy, with a little extra ebullience, but his language became much more illuminating, much more direct, much more precise.

Perhaps some people just have it. Of those successful in food, I don’t particularly want to watch Jamie Oliver but I can see that he has ‘it’. So does the exemplary Anthony Bourdain, a man whose laconic delivery only adds to his erudite and excellent on screen persona. So have we got anyone on the European side of the Pond that could engage a new generation of wine drinkers like Gary Vee? Well whilst I dream of having the televisual brilliance of Alan Whicker (the greatest of the great for me), I have a disturbing feeling that I would be more like Alan Partridge. One never knows how someone would appear on screen until you actually see them but I would watch London based Irishman, Mick O’Connell (@wine_philosophy), a wine expert and enthusiast who exudes passion and personality in equal measure. O’Connell has the required lack of pomposity that could make him appealing to more than just me and the wine-nerd fraternity. Yet until someone stakes a realistic claim to Gary Vee’s crown, we still have nine hundred and ninety nine Vaynerchuk vignettes to remind us that wine can be as entertaining as any other subject, given the right personality to present its ethereal charms to the world.

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White Wine: What's not to like?

On Monday whilst sipping on some salty, nectarine, herb and lemon peel scented white made from that superior Sicilian, Carricante; the bias exhibited by many Taiwanese consumers towards red wine appeared increasingly nonsensical. Whilst I am glad that the wine market here in this corner of East Asia continues to grow, the rise in the consumption of white wine remains painfully slow. Why is it that in a country with a culinary history heavily influenced by the ocean’s proximity, are so many still marooned in a world where the vinous view does not extend to the joys afforded by great white wine?

People talk about the colour red as being lucky but the success of spirits such as the distinctly ‘brown’ Whisky in this market does not suggest that colour is a dominant factor. Red wine is also believed by some to be more beneficial to health, even if this is factually correct (and I’m not saying it is), I don’t think that those consuming the classed growths of Bordeaux or the Pinots of Burgundy are doing so to limit their visits to the doctor. As we all know, history, or the version of history that most of us are exposed to, is written by the successful, the ones able to impose their will on others, the ones who manage to beat the opposition. The scale of the marketing machine that makes Bordeaux what it is ensures that it remains the first region to be explored by most emerging wine consuming markets. The 1855 classification created a relatively brief and convenient list of Chateaux whose main focus was the production of red wine. This has helped create the illusion that red wine must be the best, and of course it is apart from when it isn’t. Sometimes your mood and one’s food cries out for white, so why deny yourself? Increase your wine drinking pleasure by including some white wine in your life and the wine from Gulfi below is an excellent place from which to start.

Gulfi, Carjcanti, IGT Sicilia, 2011, 12.5%
Grape: Predominantly Carricante with a little Albanello
Winemaking: 60% aged in 500l oak barrels for ten months. Made from organic grapes
Note: Delightfully pure with a spine of mouth watering acidity that pretends to quench your thirst whilst demanding that you drink more. This is flavourful and herby with citrus peel pithiness to the finish. I’ll be ordering a case.
Price: 1500NT
Score: 17.5/20
Available from: laroutewine.com

Sniff NL Bottle Block

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Typhoon Soudelor

The portents were not good. Riding down the mountain behind our apartment at 06.30 on Friday morning, the quickening breeze released a thin two metre long branch that landed vertically in front of me. With balletic grace it held that position long enough for me to meet it with a forty five kph kiss. Fat lip aside I was unhurt but it raised the question as to what else might fall rom the sky with the imminent arrival of Soudelor, the huge typhoon that was rapidly approaching Taiwan’s eastern coast.

As I write, unable to sleep, the time is 04.27 on Sunday morning. The apartment is dark, mirroring the majority in our neighbourhood who are still without power following twelve to eighteen hours of unbridled ferocity through Friday night and Saturday. Venturing out in the early evening the extent of the damage, although crucially only material rather than human, was eerily shocking. We live at the northern end of Zhongshan North Rd, one of Taipei’s main arteries. In scale it is similar in width to London’s Oxford St although much longer. It is also prettier, especially at our suburban end that sees it stop just as the topography begins to climb skywards.

As we walked the four minutes down to our section of road, we could see two large trees upended, barring the way to two of the exits from the roundabout that acts as the terminus of Zhongshan Nth Rd. A few people were standing quietly taking photographs but it was only once passed the larger of the two that we could see the true extent of our section’s transformation. After the roundabout the road drops three quarters of a kilometre to the next major junction that marks the start of section six. Within this stretch of road the normally unencumbered view was obscured by multiple mature trees that had been released from the pavement and now occupied a variety of prone positions. Some straddled all four lanes; others laid across parked cars and lines of mopeds whilst some having survived, had limbs partially severed that swung overhead in the diminishing light.

Amongst all this, life was moving on. The brightly lit 7-11’s were busy, so too was a large Cantonese restaurant and as we turned to walk home there were many shop and home owners who had already started to brush and bag the debris from outside their doors into neat piles along the road-side. Being from the UK such weather borne havoc is rare and when it does arrive (fifteen centimetres of snow can bring the country to the point of apoplexy) we rarely seem to be able to face it with such alacrity. As Soudelor continues on its way to China I can only hope that the number of fatalities and injuries remains as small, somewhat miraculously, as they have been here. It is a humbling experience to witness such extreme power but an experience I am happy to never revisit.

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A Postcard from Sudbury

Waking up after a particularly splendid house party is never an easy task. Too little sleep accompanied by the dull thud of a Cachaca induced hangover suggested that a stroll in the damp air that hung low over the water-meadows of Sudbury was in order. On drumming up support for this idea with my fellow sufferers it was decided that we would make the short drive to Dedham. Here we followed the Stour river as it meandered its way toward Flatford Mill, the site of some of John Constable’s most famous paintings.

Suffolk has produced some of England’s greatest artists with Sudbury’s own Thomas Gainsborough arguably the most widely appreciated. Yet when twenty years ago I was wandering, slack-jawed, through the mesmerizingly magnificent Frick Collection in New York, I found the bucolic nature of Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden’ surprisingly arresting. Why? Because it engendered the most gentle and positive form of patriotism within me. Living in Europe means that it is easy to see England as a less glamorous, less aesthetically significant patch of land when compared to the best that the continent can offer. But here was proof that the English have some beauty of their own…

…however this does not mean that I like all of Constable’s paintings. His most famous, ‘The Haywain’, leaves me cold. Having arrived at Flatford Mill, the clouds still lumpy and grey after a brief downpour, the view that Constable painted remains virtually unchanged. The water levels have risen, some trees have died whilst others have imposed themselves but the buildings are the same. In contrast to ‘Salisbury Cathedral’, ‘The Haywain’ feels more stylised, more claustrophobic, perhaps a little saccharin but there was no doubting the very real beauty of the reality.

Yet whatever my feelings on ‘The Haywain’, it was an honour to stand where Constable had stood, and with my heart warmed, and with the muddiness of my head clearing, it was time to visit the nearby riverside cafe to partake in another great piece of Englishness: tea and cake.

 

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The Travails of a Luxurious Life

The travails of a luxurious life

Having recently tweeted about the sad collection of ageing, geriatric whites that pepper the shelves of supermarkets here in Taiwan, a trip to Bali has provided no respite. The nearest bottle-shop some five minutes stroll from our villa, has at least made an effort. There are wines from most of the major vinous powers, with considering the proximity, an understandable focus on all things Australian.

But I don’t want to drink ‘mature’ Liebfraumilch or Marlborough Pinot Gris from 2008 (although I would never have had a desire to drink this ropy German whatever the age); it’s 34 degrees in the shade and I want something crisp. I want something that will act as a psychological salve against my cherry-hued neck, a result of too long spent in view of a tropical sun. I want a glass of something vibrant.

I like beer but there are parts of my physiology that cannot be reached however appropriate it may seem, by an iced bottle of Bintang or Bali-Hai. The Caipirinha, along with football and my friend Bernardo, is unarguably one of the greatest gifts Brazil has given the globe but even this cannot quench my particular thirst for something winey.

So while I cruise the streets of Seminyak, nostrils filled with the scent of nasi goring and tourist sweat, think of me as you gorge on Easter eggs and spring Lamb, pour yourself a glass of something worthy and try not to shed too many tears for me; wine-less in my tropical paradise.

Happy Easter!

 

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Letting Your Kids Drink

Letting your kids drink.

Should you let your children drink? When I say children I’m not talking about infants rather junior and high school kids. I’m also not talking about purchasing a slab of beer for them to drink in their room on a Friday night, I’m talking about a small glass of beer or wine at mealtimes.

I ask the question because I was asked the same whilst out (having a drink) last Friday. My friend, whose son is slightly older than my fourteen year old, wanted to know how much we allowed her to drink. Such questions are to be expected from parents trying to do what’s best for their progeny, the difficulty is providing an informed answer that balances the possible with the likely. We live in a time where the possibility of something occurring often gains more attention than the likelihood of that same something actually happening. For example there is a possibility that a pregnant woman who drinks one glass of wine a week is damaging the brain of her unborn child yet the likelihood is very small. Does that mean that pregnant women should never drink? When you get into a car there is a possibility that you will die in an accident, does that mean we should stop driving?

If, as a parent, you think that it is acceptable for your twelve, thirteen or fourteen year old to be getting drunk then you are failing to protect your child. This failure is not just about any potential physiological damage but also about their increased risk of being a victim of assault or accidental injury. But for the majority of parents, the question does not really concern the extremes, they are not promoting drunkeness, they simply want to know what level of consumption is appropriate.

My daughter has wanted to smell any glass of wine that I’ve been drinking ever since I can remember (her declaration at four years old that Manzanilla smelt of roast chicken skin was particularly astute). Over the course of the last year or so, she has been having a very small pour of wine (approximately 50mls) once or twice a week. This has coincided with the fact that she now likes the taste, rather than her reaching any particular age-related milestone, and as we always eat together it would seem churlish to pour a glass for everyone else but her. I mention the term ‘milestone’ because I know some parents think that consumption of any alcohol is only suitable after a certain age. I don’t buy this, it’s like saying ‘it’s ok son, you’re sixteen, I don’t mind you getting wankered now’ when before the rule was complete abstention. As families, we don’t need to act like the State we live in, countries operate through the application and (hopeful) adherence to laws. We can be a little more flexible in our own homes.

Clearly there is no ‘right’ answer other than that the slow change into adulthood is accompanied by the rituals and norms that form part of adult life. Drinking is, for many of us, very normal and modelling moderate consumption at home is surely better than their first experiences with alcohol taking place unsupervised and out of reach. Most adults will be able to decide when and what seems an appropriate time to let their children embark on their first taste of wine or beer. More than any medical study or government guidelines, our own experience both of being an adult and a child, will be our best guide for deciding when to let the kids drink.