Absolute Beginners

Some time ago I wrote a piece prompted by a comment made by Jancis on the lack of young people at the Bordeaux tastings. Now I have young people in the family, my children and their partners. Despite living in a household where wine is consumed with most meals they’d never really shown any desire to drink it themselves, even through university. But now they have their own places to live and their own lives there seems to be a nascent interest, almost as if they feel that drinking wine is more grown up than drinking cider and vodka.

My son and his partner have recently been asking for recommendations as to what to drink. You might think this is an easy proposition for a wine obsessive, but it’s a lot harder than I thought and full of pitfalls – like giving our son a bottle of Champagne from a favourite producer for his last birthday but neglecting to consider that, although they do quite like Champagne, maybe it’s not the right time to introduce Brut Nature.

When I started out I had little experience to go on. My parents drank wine at home, but we didn’t exactly have a cellar of vintage port and cru classé Bordeaux. I remember a lot of Spanish red and something called Spanish Sauternes. It looked like Sauternes and, if rumour is true about sulphur levels in Sauternes in the 1970s, maybe tasted like it too? I think my parents must have had a sweet tooth because I definitely knew the name “Barsac” before I went to university, and there was certainly German wine.

My independent introduction to wine was not promising. I do recall being made ill on either Don Cortez or Hirondelle, and drinking Black Tower at a dinner party, buying the bottle in an off-licence with the person I went with because of the shape of the bottle. After my under graduate years things improved a little. I remember Chianti in fiaschi (my parents had one made into a lampshade, as well as one made from a Benedictine bottle) in an Islington trattoria. Life got so much more sophisticated when we moved on to Mouton Cadet.

Actually, though we might knock it, I think Mouton Cadet might have been the catalyst to my wider wine appreciation of wine. It made me aware of Bordeaux as a wine region, and that interest led me to pick up a book in a sale at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, An Illustrated Guide to Wine by George Rainbird. I’ve never met anyone who has read it, but it captivated me, especially the photos which made me want to visit the vineyards, still an integral part of my passion for wine.

At that time I was studying for the Bar and the area around Fleet Street and Holborn had all sorts of little wine shops, most (aside from El Vino’s) of which are long since vanished. There was Oddbins, of course, where I spent my winnings from a Grand National sweepstake on a bottle of 1978 Chateau Cantemerle and a 1976 Duhart-Milon, and a shop which I think was called Weingott’s where I bought Vieux-Telegraphe, and later, my first Aussie wine, Rosemount Chardonnay (it’s hard to express how different this fruity, oaky, Chardonnay tasted the first time four of us opened a bottle, as revelatory a moment back then as the first Haut-Brion or Ramonet Batard Montrachet).

The thing is, I’m not sure I’d recommend any of those wines today, to someone starting out drinking wine, except maybe the VT if they could afford it…and find an older vintage. I’ve been tempted to try a Mouton Cadet to see what it’s like thirty years on, though it’s not an easy wine to find if you shop in the small independents I visit! No UK stockists on the non-pro Wine-Searcher site, though someone said Morrisons might sell it.

Is it patronising to look for wines with simple fruit flavours? Beaujolais, Aussie Shiraz and Saint-Emilion (that was my more sophisticated way into Bordeaux but I am more of a Pessac-Léognan man nowadays)? Chardonnay for whites, surely they can’t go wrong there? Or do I try to start them early on my own interests – Blaufrankisch, Red Burgundy, Riesling. Oddly, and sadly, as I grow to appreciate German Kabinetts and Spatlesen more and more over time, these wines with their fruity off-dry flavours still seem unsophisticated to palates trying to move away from sweet drinks.

The elephant in the room is cost. I began work in the 1980s when property was almost cheap and with a reasonably good job, a decent disposable income was expected. Young people today have a tougher time. A home of their own seems an impossible dream, rents are exorbitant, and student loans are a millstone we never had. So suggesting they grab a case of Roulot Meursault is not going to get me anywhere.

But what I come back to, perhaps surprisingly given my own wine buying and drinking tendencies over the past five or six years, is Bordeaux. Okay, some Saint-Emilion is 15% alcohol with a propensity towards jammy flavours, but at lower levels there’s still a mix of the savoury with the fruity. And Northern Rhone reds too. My early experiences here were in at the deep end. La Chapelle and “La Sizeranne” soon led to the doors of Chave, Clape and Jamet, yet Crozes-Hermitage offers some lovely wines, and perhaps even more so, Saint-Joseph. Then there’s Beaujolais, one of the most exciting regions in Europe right now…Mencia, Chianti, Mornington and NZ Pinot, and all these “New Californians” Roberson are bringing in. I almost forgot Rioja too, a source of real value and higher quality than the wines we bought back then. But I think I’m settled on what to recommend, for now. Good branded “Claret” like Berry Brothers’, and some of the “Waitrose in Partnership” wines are probably not a bad place to begin, a gateway into more exciting wines at a price which is well above the branded beverages peddled on the 2-for-1 offers, but which nevertheless offer a taste of real wine. The possibilities are endless. My son just needs to get a better paid job (and a wine fridge)!


About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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2 Responses to Absolute Beginners

  1. amarch34 says:

    Interesting. As you say finance is important in all this. I worked as a teacher and was never in a position to afford the big wines and even as I climbed the management ladder wine prices outstripped my pay increases. I have been lucky to taste some of the great wines over the years and I have bought the odd bottle too.
    My next blog post is also about my early drinking and how things have changed. I promise it’s a coincidence 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dccrossley says:

    It’s kind of funny that an umbilical chord has grown, organically, between Southern England and Languedoc. If I write about the Mosel next, perhaps it will shrink a bit. But seriously, Alan, I look forward to reading it. With hindsight, I think that a love of the vineyards themselves was a pretty major catalyst to my wine bug, which is one of the reasons I enjoy reading your blog. I have not completely ruled out spending more time/longer periods amongst the vines.

    Liked by 1 person

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