Reflecting on 20 years of touring and tasting, F&W Wine Editor Raymond Blake recounts the moments that marked a new way in winemaking.
Packing to go on a press trip to a wine region 20 years ago involved notebooks, rolls of film (for transparencies, not prints), a mini tape recorder and a mobile phone in amongst the shirts and smalls. Today, my smartphone performs all those functions. I haven’t quite abandoned the notebook but firing off a load of photos, of labels, handouts and brochures, obviates the need for laborious note taking and carrying of vast tranches of paperwork. To move about easily back then, while laden like a pack mule, I used to get cheap linen jackets made by visiting tailors from the Far East. The pockets were made to measure: notebook in this one, brochure in that one, rolls of film in the other. Today, I travel lighter, much lighter. What else has changed?
Remember ‘Pavarotti’? The 1.5-litre, screwcapped bottles (I hesitate to call them magnums) without which no student party was complete, and most especially popular when the corkscrew went missing. We have come a long way since Pedrotti was about the only wine sealed with a screwcap. At first we were sceptical, very sceptical. Then Cloudy Bay sealed their Sauvignon Blanc (at the time one of the most sought-after wines on the planet) with screwcap and that was that. A host of other high profile wines followed and consumer resistance melted away. Countless millions of bottles are now screwcapped and – get this – the quality of natural cork has improved immensely thanks to the competition. Lovers of cork-sealed wines have a lot to thank screwcaps for.
Big brands, made to strict specifications on an industrial scale, inadvertently spawned their polar opposites, the punk rockers of the wine world, natural wines. The brands were bland and boring, not bad, a description that could never be applied to natural wines, which run the gamut from marvellous, tingling, vitally charged flavours to foul concoctions whose ‘natural’ place in the world is down the plughole. Essentially they are produced with as little intervention as possible, from vineyard to winery, though the term ‘natural’ lacks a clear definition. Like ‘em or loathe ‘em they have shaken up the wine world and for that we should be thankful.
Twenty years ago I regularly berated restaurants for the clunkiness of their glassware – in even the best establishments dray horses were being used to deliver thoroughbred wines. The improvement in glassware counts as one of the biggest and most welcome changes since. Riedel led the way, soon followed by others such as Spiegelau, Schott Zwiesel and Chef & Sommelier. Today, the super-fine Zalto have raised the bar higher and are favoured by many top domaines in Burgundy. Who’s next?
WINE BY THE GLASS
Wine by the glass 20 years ago mostly came by way of odious quarter bottles that have largely disappeared from view, though I saw a distressingly large selection when passing through Dublin airport’s Terminal 2 recently. Restaurants and pubs have finally started to offer an appealing and varied selection of wines by the glass and not just something labelled generically by grape variety or vast region of production, such as AOC Languedoc. Those with greater ambitions are now offering the world’s best by the glass thanks to the use of the Coravin, though the fiddly method of dispensation doesn’t add to the drama of the occasion.
The independent landscape has improved enormously since 1997 but it was not a desert then either: Terroirs was the classy new kid on the block in Donnybrook, Searson’s in Monkstown was the place to buy en primeur Bordeaux, Mitchell & Son was a relic of oul’ decency in Kildare Street and in Wexford Greenacres had begun the long transformation into one of the finest wine shops in the land, perhaps the destination wine shop.
A new template has emerged, however, that sees the distinction between wine shop and restaurant increasingly blurred. The traditional independent first segued into a wine bar and then into a café and then a restaurant. A quartet of favourites that cleave to the new template comprises: Grapevine in Dalkey, now expanded and hugely improved since the move into new premises last year, Whelehan’s in Loughlinstown, spacious and well laid out with some great own-import wines, 64 Wine in Glasthule, a tardis wine shop, bigger inside than out and stocking some great burgundies, and Green Man Wines in Terenure, every bottle carefully chosen, including some Austrian treasures.
For as long as FOOD&WINE Magazine has existed, I have regularly predicted the ‘Riesling Revival’, which was to be heralded by a surge in popularity, followed by a boom in sales… I’ll never learn. Likewise with Chenin Blanc, now and then I fool myself into believing that it is currently a firm favourite with wine lovers the length and breadth of the land. Then reality intrudes. Despite some hard-core support for both, neither enjoys the sort of rampant and mystifying popularity bestowed on the likes of Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.
Which leads me to wonder if I should reverse my strategy? When people talk about saving the Irish language I flippantly suggest that it should be banned, pointing out that such a course would save it at a stroke of a cynical pen. Might a similar approach work with these grape varieties? Perhaps I should start damning them?