Category Archives: wine culture

It is so loud in here, I can’t hear myself drink

Interesting research reported on the BBC today:

The level of background noise affects both the intensity of flavour and the perceived crunchiness of foods, researchers have found.

It also makes me wonder about wines. We’ve known for a while that wines don’t taste the same in the air, and I seem to recall it was assumed it had to do with air pressure, but noise also makes sense. If any of your senses is being overwhelmed, then the others will naturally be affected.

I happened to run a dB meter on a recent plane trip (“there’s an app for that”) and it registered over 90dB – that’s as loud as a petrol lawnmower … and you sit in it for hours!

On the other hand, the research also seems to point to positive aspects – where pleasant sounds increase the intensity of flavours, which is backed by anecdotal evidence of “great wine moments” you have on holiday or with a great dinner partner.

Also in the group’s findings there is the suggestion that the overall satisfaction with the food aligned with the degree to which diners liked what they were hearing – a finding the researchers are pursuing in further experiments.

It seems that we have, at least partially, now got evidence that wine drinking is a pleasure that requires all your senses, not just taste!

Certainly, airplanes are not ideal wine tasting locations for many reasons, but there’s always a good reason to keep testing!

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A rum experience at 6 am

When anyone says “I just don’t have the palate for wine” or “I can’t taste all those ‘things’ other people talk about in wine” I try to point out that we pretty much all have exactly the same ability to taste, but we all have different experiences, vocabulary and confidence.

vanilla pod in milk
Image by VannaGocaraRupa via Flickr

It isn’t that they CAN’T taste wines, they simply are not used to analysing what they are experiencing, often because they haven’t really bothered before.

It is a matter of education, not in the sense of classes and diplomas, but just taking the time to taste, and most importantly, SMELL things.

The importance of smell to the enjoyment of wine starts early.

I was reminded of this only yesterday morning. On our arrival at the airport (at 6 am after an overnight flight), a fellow passenger managed to smash a 1.5 litre bottle of dark rum he had bought Duty Free (probably for the best!).

I barely paid attention, though noticed ‘a’ smell.

My wife complained about the “smell of alcohol”

But my daughter (only 5, and rather hyper after the flight) said, “What was that Daddy? I think it was a bottle of vanilla. I used some with grandma and that’s what it smelled like. Why did he have a bottle of vanilla, Daddy”

She’s absolutely right. It DID smell of vanilla more than anything else (that she’s used to smelling).

When was the last time you took a second to ‘smell’ vanilla? I’m off to do it right now!

Let’s encourage kids to smell and discuss food, ingredients …  even wine … then hopefully we will all enjoy experiencing things more, even alcohol spillages at airports.

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On wine, football and falling down

English: Vladimir Bystrov. 2006 Russian Premie...
Image via Wikipedia

In the last few days, I’ve come to a realisation that there is something unpleasant that wine & football share, and it involves people falling over.

(Yes, this is my gratuitous World Cup post, including a tenuous, though hopefully interesting, link to wine).

I decided a long time ago, following the Heysel Stadium Disaster to be precise, that I didn’t really care for football, a.k.a. soccer (or most sports to be honest). However, I do care about sport in general, particularly with regard to making sure my kids enjoy a healthy and fun lifestyle. I do enjoy watching occasional, hopefully high quality, games at the final of big events such as Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Ryder Cup. I rarely care who wins, I just enjoy the moment, the excitement and, I hope, the spectacle of sportsmanship.

So, like I said, I don’t like football.

I did watch some of the World Cup, particularly as I had some personal stake in Spain doing well, and so I thought I would use the opportunity to let my 5 year-old daughter stay up late to watch her very first World Cup Final. What an opportunity.

What a mistake!

Fouls, dirty play, few chances and, in general, a poor showcase for the sport. She went to bed at half time excited and high on the adrenaline from the aggression rather than the quality of play.

What made it worse was the excuse by the Dutch coach saying:

“It was still our intention to play beautiful football, but we were facing a very good opponent. … We did a good job tactically on them. We got into good positions at times. It’s not our style, but you play a match to win.”

Is that what I have to tell my daughter?

It reminded me that a few days earlier we had watched 7 year old boys at her school playing football in an early morning coaching session. In the 5 minutes or so that we were there, several kids not only fell over on the ground after fairly innocuous tackles, but lay there, clutching their legs and heads in absolute agony … until it was time to take the free kick. At one point, a child literally dragged his mate off the ball by the arm, and when challenged, he uttered these words:

“But that’s what they do in football”

Who are these kids’ role models? Any guesses?*

(* If there isn’t a football equivalent of the Razzies, celebrating the most theatrical acting on the pitch, there should be)

Wine, or more generally, alcohol, suffers from a similar issue. What do kids think about wine? Where do they see it being consumed?

  • On television – only when it is a major part of a plot, usually involving a drunken adult, probably doing something inappropriate, funny or violent.
  • In the pub or at parties – when they may be invited along where adults, not necessarily their parents, are likely to get carried away.
  • On the street – and none of us like seeing that.
  • At home

If we want kids to have a healthy attitude to alcohol, we need to give them experiences and role models to use. This does not meet not drinking around children as some suggest. Don’t get DRUNK around children, but do show them how adults can enjoy their drinks responsibly.

Just as it is a shame that my daughter’s first major lesson about football was about yellow cards versus red cards, we don’t want their first lessons about alcohol to be about hangovers, aggression and car accidents. Hopefully we can be more positive.

If parents, or any of us, aren’t acting as fair role models, where else will children turn to for guidance? What you don’t want is to see your child, hanging onto his friend’s arm, falling to the ground saying:

“But that’s what they do in the pub”


For more information, please check out the campaign being run by Wine In Moderation, a pan-European programme promoting responsible and moderate wine consumption

Other references:

The Alcohol Education and Research Council: See (“Why do people drink at home? An exploration of the perceptions of adult home consumption practice“)

[still trying to find research I once saw where UK consumers placed “To get drunk” at the top of a list of “Reasons why you drink”]

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New Wine Shopping Experience at Vinopolis London

Ever since I heard that Majestic would be moving out from under the arches at Bank End, the warren of brick tunnels between Borough Market and the Thames, home to Vinopolis, I wondered what would be happening there.

It was quickly announced that Laithwaites, one of the key retailing brands of the MASSIVE Direct Wines, the king of direct mail wine suppliers in this country, including The Sunday Times Wine Club and countless others, was to take over the space. I wondered how they would be using the opportunity. They already had a number of shops as well as their direct mail business, but this was a big change for them.

I was not disappointed by the effort they have made to make this a pleasant and welcoming shopping experience. Check it out yourself:

Although the Majestic shop that had been there was a bit of an institution, its warehouse style presentation, that works well in its shops around the country, didn’t quite fit the end of the Vinopolis experience. Much as I enjoy shopping in Majestic stores as a wine lover, they can be rather daunting to some, and moving from the Vinopolis Tour to a roomful of thousands of wines was a bit like getting someone to watch a single episode of The F Word then expecting them to run the kitchens at one of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants.

The choice, presentation and decisions were rather overwhelming. Maybe even off-putting.

I hope Laithwaites apparent focus on the tasting table, and the space to explore around the displays, will be more welcoming for novice wine drinkers. I also hope they keep the range of wines available to taste as broad (and non-exclusive) as possible.

I didn’t have much time to look at the full range available. I did notice some well-known names from Australia, New Zealand, Spain and also a range of ‘Fine Wine’ (usually £20+ per bottle) but I wonder what regular consumers will make of the lack of the brands they are used to seeing in high street retailers for context?

In any case, let’s hope the site helps to welcome many more consumers to the enjoyment, variety and culture of wine.

The official opening is on February 19th (according to Tony Laithwaites blog) but you can already pop in today.

Disclaimer: in my professional role for wineries in Rioja, I am involved in supplying 1 wine to Laithwaites.

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Out with the Old and the New

My Fair Lady Dressed to Impress

Colonel Pickering: How do you do it, may I ask?

Henry Higgins: Simple phonetics. The science of speech. That’s my profession. Also my hobby. Anyone can spot an lrishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue … but I can place a man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.

from My Fair Lady (stage & screen)

An off-hand comment on twitter prompted me to think a little deeper about one of those ‘common knowledge’ aspects of the wine world, that there exists some sort of difference between the Old World and the New World. But what does that mean? More importantly, can it help?

It makes sense to group the sources of the wine we drink into easy to understand and separate groups – its shorthand for helping to make decisions. The simplest has always been “Old vs New” and by definition it is Old = Europe (& the Mediterranean) and New = the Rest of the World. But why?

It is meant to be about how old the wine making traditions are, of course, but even many ‘New’ countries have been making wine for around 300 years.

The question that prompted this soul searching was whether Japan should be considered an Old or New wine producer. China and Japan have very ancient wine traditions (of sorts), but they are not what we normally think of as “Old World”.

How does this Old & New dichotomy help anyway?

What it probably meant when it was first adopted was that the Old world made the wine we were used to drinking in the UK (and other wine drinking European countries) and the New world was the source of the ‘new’ wines; with ‘new’ ways of making them based more on science than tradition and ‘terroir’, and ‘new’ ways of marketing them.

If that is the case, it was probably true 30 years ago, but much has changed in that time. If you’ve ever heard stories about wine tasters that could identify a wine by region, grower, and vintage, (and possibly slope of vineyard, etc.) then many date back to this time. It is MUCH harder today. Henry Higgins would be hard pressed to apply his “scientific” approach to identifying the accent of a wine today!

Much of what was good about the ‘new’ science of winemaking has now been adopted in the ‘Old’ world wineries, and concepts such as terroir and artisan winemaking are making inroads in non European wine producers’ wineries too.

What it means is that the terms Old & New are not so much about WHERE in the world the wine is made any more. It makes more sense to think of them as HOW the wine is made.

It can mean that a wine from Europe is made in a ‘New World Style’ as some aspire to do, particularly in the South of France and Italy and parts of  Spain. It can mean that the history, sense of place, artisan wine making and vintage variation associated with ‘Old World Style’ traditional methods can also be applied to vineyards from beyond the borders of the Mediterranean.

In some ways this is justification rather than criticism for European  regions that apply ‘traditional’ rules strictly. You CAN see it as unnecessary restriction of wine making, stopping the more innovative wine makers from competing with those from other countries. However, you COULD also see it as a means of holding on to a style that differentiates the wines from all those in the rest of the world. Uniqueness sells … to a point.

The world has moved on. People, skills and techniques travel the world. I imagine Henry Higgins would struggle to replicate his neat parlour trick in today’s Covent Garden market, and the same is true of wine.

Old & New I think are still useful, but I think that they if they are used to describe styles rather than geographic boundaries, wine drinkers will find themselves opening the door to a whole new range of wines they might have otherwise dismissed.

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