(james benedict brown) on the road

Spit or swallow?

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 20 February, 2007


Earlier this year, BBC television broadcast a light hearted travelogue presented by the wine guru Oz Clarke and the motoring journalist James May. Oz and James’ Big Wine Adventure played a fairly straight game. Clarke (a renowned wine lover and expert) was taking May (a renowed ale drinker) to France in order to educate him about the subtleties and delicacies of French wine. In keeping with the shambolic Englishmen-on-holiday look, they were exploring France in a big old Jag convertible. Predictably, and probably playing up to cameras, both men stood their ground: Clarke attempted to get May to appreciate to gentle flavours and nuances of each wine they tasted, while May did everything he could just to get Clarke to shut up and let him just drink the stuff.

Despite the best of intentions, I felt a lot like James May when I found myself at the Vigneron Indépendant Salon des vins at the Strasbourg Exhibition Centre at the weekend. I lost count of how many independent wine producers were in attendance, but perhaps the photograph above will help you work out just how big it was. The yellow banners hanging from the ceilings mark the five aisles that ran the length of the exhibition centre. This photo is taken half way down the hall, so imagine the same number of exhibitors behind the camera as well. Hundreds upon hundreds of vinyards and producers were representated, normally with two or three people at small stands. Upon entering the salon, your ticket could be exchanged for a wine glass, allowing you to browse the salon and try pretty much anything you fancy.  Just don’t forget to sample the white wines before you move onto the red wines.

With my flatmate Adella, a bewildered couple of hours was spent milling up and down the aisles. It was probably quite obvious to anyone behind the stands that we were a pair of students hopelessly out of our depths. The true wine amateurs were there in full force. They could be spotted by their well thumbed catalogues and notebooks, in which the floorplan of the hall had been doodled on and marked with various symbols to mark particularly notable finds. As they started to make their purchases, little foldable trolleys would appear, and increasingly tall piles of cases would be strapped in.

I introduced myself to a few wine producers, hopelessly banking on being accepted for being inately charming, naïve and hopeless with French culture (Louis Theroux, I turn to you for guidance). The fiercesome complexity of French wine was soon apparent: whereas ‘new world’ wines can be classified by their origin remarkably easily, French wine can be described or classed according to it’s origin or grape, and those two can easily be carefully crafted blends of two more or more varieties. I sampled some sharp Bergerac Blancs, and a really fine Fitou. Sensing that we might not have been the most astute wine tasters in the hall, Adella and I made a bee-line for the free introduction to wine tasting at 15h00. In a small partitioned classroom at one end of the hall, a lively oeneologist was introducing the different parts of the vine and the grape, and the different wine producing regions of France. A tasting followed in which two whites and two reds were compared. They were, of course, two pairs of the most different wines that could be found. Using a nose that was designed (or evolved) for probing wine glasses, our guide taught us how to examine first the colour, then the aroma and finally the taste of the wine. Another Fitou in particular was astonishing: meaty and solid throughout the mouth, but suddenly on fire with spiciness when it found two small patches of my tongue at the back of my mouth.

What impressed me most about observing others who were in the course of the free-for-all dégustations (tasting) was the remarkable ease with which they would be able to swill the wine around their mouths and then, after no more than ten seconds, spit it out. It wasn’t the spitting of perfectly good wine that got me (I can respect that many people visiting this salon would have to drive home after tasting fifty or so wines). I was impressed with the ease with which they neatly projected the wine into the nearest receptacle. I tried several times to master this precise detail of the tasting process (which our diligent specialist had neglected to explain to us) and ended up leaving the exhibition hall with splatters of red wine down the front of my jumper. I’m going to just stick to swallowing from now on…


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