Embrace the grape

Katie crosses to the dark side, and quite likes it there

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I never set out to be a “wine enjoyer”. The world of wine seemed — still seems, in many ways — like a vast, unfathomable hand-drawn map of a land I don’t understand. A place dreamed up by intricate, painstakingly detail-driven gatekeepers of mystery. A cupboard door I dared not open, a conversation bound to end in tears, or at least an enforced expedition to the dark and dripping depths of my ignorance.

I was always intrigued by it though, in the same way a body-width crack in a granite cliff would intrigue me.

“How interesting,” I’d say to myself. “But I’d better leave it alone.”

But I couldn’t, and now here I am trying to shrink the gulf between me and my pile of precious beers, and the aloof and distant wines I’m now desperate to understand.

I’m not alone in saying it was probably natural wine that sparked my interest for real, in ways conventional wine never could. Beer drinkers all over the world have started picking up natty wine from their favourite bottle shops, maybe because it feels as loose and unexpected as the experimental beers they’re usually in the habit of pursuing.


I feel like natural wine has a touch of childish excitement about it, and to me, it definitely feels more approachable. But why? My latest purchases got me asking how a beer-loving wino-phobe could ever hope to walk into a wine shop and begin to pick things up without feeling awkward and/or suspicious.

Nichola Bottomley is a wine consultant and beer buyer for an independent wine and beer specialist in Harrogate, and her first love was beer, not wine. In her recommendations I trust, so I asked her what it was about wine that turned her head.

“I first got interested in wine when I started working at Norse in Harrogate, because we were providing wine pairings with our dishes,” she explains. “It was actually Mouchao, a Portuguese wine, that got me excited about it.”

“We would try the wines and identify the key flavours and work out how they could work with the dishes. It was like wine forensics, and once that interest sparked it was almost impossible to switch off.”

As much fun as matching wine with food sounds, it isn’t exactly the same as drinking a pint though, is it? Josh Lachkovic, founder of wine tasting subscription box The Wine List, says he understands why some people find wine a little outside of their comfort zone.

“Old wine, conventional wine — it can be seen as a bit stuffy, pretentious and expensive. I think this makes people feel instinctively that wine is therefore inaccessible.”

“Natural wine is changing that a bit, and it’s definitely becoming more popular with beer drinkers, and I think that’s because each producer has a story. It’s just like buying your beer from a brewer with a dream and a railway arch; they are approachable and likeable in that way.”

I can see what he’s saying. In some ways, natural wine seems artisanal and quirky to me. I like the idea of plucky growers making rebellious wines with fun, artistic labels. I’m not sure why that might be preferable to stoic and traditional wine when I come to think about it — especially because when it comes to beer, I’m actually a cask ale drinker at heart. Maybe Nichola knows.

“I think part of the interest comes from natural wine being something completely new,” she says.

“A lot of beer drinkers seem to be early adopters of trends and this is something they can really sink their teeth into.”

“There are also quite a few similarities in the flavours and techniques involved in both natural wine and beer production. You just need to look at a pét-nat wine next to a mixed-fermentation or wild beer to see the resemblance.”

“It’s fascinating to look at the growth in these styles as if they’re brand new, when both natural wines and wild beers have existed for hundreds of years! Long before we started importing hops for big, juice bomb IPAs and adding mega-purple to create a heavy-hitting Shiraz.”

Nichola Bottomley

The next step to understanding the phenomenon is to buy some wine then, isn’t it? But what if you’re still sure you’re not really a wine person? Nichola’s not having it.

“People say this to me and I always find myself asking: “How could you know?””

“There’s such a range out there, and I stand by the fact that there's something for everyone! I’d always encourage people to come along to wine tastings. You’d be amazed how many independent businesses there are across the country that offer free, or reasonably priced tastings where you can try things you’ve never even heard of. Suddenly you’ll find yourself thinking 'This Verdicchio has a similar brightness to the Sauvignon I love, but this Viognier has more of those tropical fruit notes I enjoy!' and like that, your wine horizons have tripled.”

A lot of the time I feel too worried about looking stupid to ask about wine, but Josh thinks we shouldn’t be worrying about that at all.

“Start in your local indie wine merchant,” he says. “You can ask them to recommend something to you, or you can pick something at random. Even the cheapest bottle in there will be nice, because the people in there will know their stuff.”

Nichola agrees:

“People apologise for their wine choices in the shop because they see it as either too simple, or the same wine they got last week. We don’t want to test people on their wine drinking pedigree before giving them something they’ll enjoy.”

“If your favourite tipple is a White Zinfandel that tastes like strawberry laces, go for it. If you prefer a super savoury St-Joseph, great! And if you want to treat yourself with that £200 Barolo you’ve been eyeing up, you should. Though we would probably recommend decanting it for a while first.”

She also adds that while some people aim to make you feel stupid (just like in the beer world), they’re not the people you should care about.

“There are definitely still some circles in the wine world who can remove any fun from drinking, but those are luckily few and far between. Most people I know who are interested in wine know it’s impossible to know everything about it and that’s why they’re excited.”

So we’ve worked up the courage to step inside a wine shop, asked our questions and left with something tasty. Now what?

Josh uses Josh’s Wine List, his regular newsletter, to debunk misconceptions and introduce wine knowledge in an unpretentious way. He says that sometimes it’s the details that suck the fun out of wine, when really you should just be enjoying yourself.

“People get tripped up on vocab when they start out trying to describe the wines they’re drinking, and it’s really not about that,” he says.”

“What are you smelling? What can you taste? What can you feel? You’re allowed to like or dislike something — buy a notebook and jot down what you’re thinking. Make it easy for yourself!”

Nichola agrees, and adds that using apps can sometimes slow down your journey rather than help you on your way.

“Try not to get wrapped up in apps like Vivino,” she says.

“Use them as a diary rather than a guide. I can’t say the number of times I’ve seen people pick up an amazing bottle of wine then put it back because it only scored 3.2 on the app they just checked.”

“At the end of the day, everyone’s taste buds are different and everyone’s preferences are different. It’s what keeps things moving.

Josh Lachkovic’s Wine Swap Recommendations

If you love a West Coast IPA:

This has got to be a Rhone red wine. Here, you get highly tannic reds that can age well but can be a bit bitter in youth. The moderate-hot climate means fruit ripens more and so the alcohol goes up. And you've got wonderful herby aromas reflective of the Provencal countryside: lavender, thyme and eucalyptus.

Recommendation:

Le Clos du Caillou Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Safres - £25 /bottle where available, or another independent merchant's Chateauneuf du Pape or Cotes du Rhone. (Warning! both of these are heavily represented, so an independent merchant is needed for picking these out.)


If you love a Pastry Stout:

Hands down, got to be Pedro Ximenez - Spain's lusciously sweet dessert sherry. They're all packed full of rich, luscious, christmas spices and deep black fruit aromas.

Recommendation:

Sainsburys' Taste the Difference Pedro Ximenez

12 year. £8 /500ml


If you love a Saison:

For this you'll want a natural wine (for your funkiness) and something from a cooler climate to carry that dry and refreshing crisp. Pay attention to some of the natural wines of Beaujolais. Alternatively, head east a little towards Austria and check out natural zweigelt or pinot, I had a brilliant example that fits this bill perfectly by Arndorfer.

Recommendation:

Vorgeschmack Red Arndorfer 2017 - £16


If you love a lager:

Any blanc de blanc Champagne, English Sparkling wine, or traditional method sparkling wine is going to give you that dryness and fizz. Blanc de Blancs are made from 100% chardonnay grapes, and for the best buttery, and closest to butterscotch aromas, chardonnay will shine the best. They are often the priciest though, so any traditional method sparkling wine will also be a nod in the right direction. (Don’t drink it in pints though - KM)


Recommendations:

- Gusbourne Blanc de Blanc English Sparkling Wine - £60

- Pol Roger NV Champagne - £40

- Conde de Haro 2015 Cava - £15


Further Reading from Nichola Bottomley



Wine Folly - www.winefolly.com

Wine Folly is my go-to for quick, easy to read information. Their website is beautifully presented, with easy to digest infographics, and Madeline Puckette's YouTube tutorials are perfect when you’re just finding your feet with wine.

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I always carry this with me. It’s an invaluable tool when looking at what vintages are good, what’s drinking well, and where in the world offers good value. (Updated and released annually.)

Isabelle Legeron — Natural Wine: An Introduction to Organic and Biodynamic Wines Made Naturally

If you want to look more specifically at natural wines, this book is a great place to start.

Bianca Bosker — Cork Dork

If you want to understand the hidden world and complete lunacy of the world’s top sommeliers, this book is everything. It’s my favourite wine book of the past year.

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