I SIT OVER BREAKFAST in Bangkok, awaiting my turn on the merry-go-round of wine master classes, attached like rogue limbs to the cycle of international food festivals that grind on throughout Asia. The newly minted are eager to know how to “do it right”.
I'm observing a Chinese woman in her twenties, pulling on a pungent cigar. It's 7.30 am. With the glint of ennui aptly matched by the tattoos on her wrists, she's successfully enveloped the outdoor dining space in smoke. Annoyed – and verging on kicking her and her table into the pool of carp nearby – I force myself to check the politically correct box of cultural differences, and refrain.
I make, what is for me at least, the inevitable connection with wine. After all, what I perceive as glaringly inappropriate behaviour is acceptable for others, unaware perhaps of the tenets that I cherish as the norm. With this juxtaposition of perceptions, I query the validity of master classes and indeed the veracity of teachings such as “how to taste wine”, “appropriate food and wine matches”, etc. The list groans on.
After all, in Thailand, as in China and elsewhere on this intriguing continent, wine drinkers drink more red than white (though this dynamic is changing, I'm told), and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. Viewed through these Western eyes, Cabernet marries with very little Thai food, if any. Nor does it find physiological synergies with any southeast Asian cuisines, Japanese food, or most dishes among the fabric of regional Chinese cooking. However glancing at this woman and her cigar, hypocritically I suppose, I'm tempted to ask myself, “So what?”
Hypocritically, because like many of my kin, I'm asked by many to conduct the very master classes, tastings, and educational sermons that I query, while ostensibly believing in their kernel of truth. Don't get me wrong, I am thankful for the work. Just as importantly, I enjoy it and, yes, I do believe that there are guidelines that can help enhance our appreciation of wine and its idiosyncratic dance with foods and cultures that, traditionally at least, were once wine-free-zones.
And yet as I write this piece I have to grin rather than grimace. I'm able to remind myself that wine is first and foremost a vehicle of enjoyment and reflection to echo the food, conversation and company, rather than a tool steeped in the dogma of right and wrong, wielded as a sceptre of knowledge and power and, with this, something that is analysed to an nth degree. After all, if this woman wants to smoke a cigar at daybreak, good luck to her. I can always move to a table inside and pop a bottle of Cabernet with my French toast.
Which brings me to a recent tasting of Cabernets, some Bordeaux-inspired blends, and others straight varietal expressions. All were 2007. In Bordeaux at least, this was not a stellar year. After each tasting note – and in spite of my disapproval of numerical ratings for something as emotive as wine – I've given a score. Thereafter, in brackets, I've noted what I thought each wine to be. As you can see, sometimes I was wrong.
Wine 1: Opaque core, with deep ruby rim. Aromas of cedar, currant and scrub, principally eucalyptus. Very bright, yet ambitious oak and fruit somewhat unresolved at present. Long and suave. 91 (Coonawarra): Vasse Felix Heytesbury Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River.
Wine 2: Smudgy and warm nose with strong vanillin oak aromas; more ambitious and extroverted than most Old World styles. Sweet, sweet fruit in mouth, yet relatively linear taut tannins, largely oak-driven, suggesting some Old World inspiration/ambition. More developed colour than 1. 88 (Margaret River): Petaluma Coonawarra.
Wine 3: A rubbery reductive aroma, opening to exhibit more red-fruited currant in mouth. Medium-weighted drinkable style, with firm linear tannins of Old World Cabernet and given the low extract level, a lesser year in the context of origin. A pleasant drink, but certainly nothing special. 89 (Pauillac, Bordeaux) Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande.
Wine 4: Explosive sweet/sour Ribena-like aromas suggest strong diurnal shifts and the jubey fruit of Chile. Rather green astringent tannins and jarring (added?) acidity, yet despite all of this effort, there's little to balance the overt sweetness. Short and stunted 85 (somewhere in Chile): Seña.
Wine 5: The most intense hue of all. A meld of dark fruits, tobacco, cedar and wood spice. Quite extracted yet lifted and not at all cumbersome. Sweet fruit alludes to New World origins on the nose. The sweetness reverberates on the palate and is toned by judiciously handled oak and finely grained grape tannins that seem too structured and drying for most New World regimes. Long, juicy and very fine. Will age wonderfully. 93 (Maremma, Tuscany): Ornellaia.
Wine 6: A developed nose of earth and cigar box. Opaque. Nascent flavours in the mouth, suggesting long maturation in French oak. Nothing excessive. Needs time to unwind, yet nevertheless boasts a mellifluous flow from beginning to end and a long, persistent finish. Delicious to drink now based on texture alone. Wonderfully fine tannins here, despite strong extract and weight. Biodynamic? Structural focus and energy is this wine's raison d'être. Seamless. Another glass, please! 95 (Margaret River): Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wine 7: A hint of eucalyptus amid very vibrant sweet cassis-driven nose and palate. Spindly tannins, yet not as well formed as I would like. Nevertheless, the wine is undeniably long and balanced, if not a little lacking in concentration; driven by freshness rather than force. For this it should be rewarded…89 (Margaret River): Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wine 8: Plenty of straightforward primary fruit on the nose, with vanillin oak adding some complexity. Overall quite simple, yet plenty of extract adding weight and force of flavour, rather than much complexity at this stage. Needs time to shed its baby fat and fruit, and to bring on some wisdom and chutzpah. 88 (Napa): Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon.
Wine 9: Forceful and intense aromas of currant and cedar. Primary fruit focus suggests New World, yet the oak and grape tannins, layered complexity, together with the wine's juicy acidity serve as a confluence of real class. Concentrated, intense and long, with nothing out of place here. 92 (Margaret River): Opus One.
Wine 10: Clearly a wine relying on secondary and tertiary notes more than primary fruit. Mulch and spice here, with cigar and cedar to the fore. Mid-weighted, with well handled tannins and moderate acidity carrying the flavours to a long moreish finish. Sappy. Very well put together despite ambitious extraction levels in the context of the vintage. 93 (Pauillac, Bordeaux): Léoville-Las Cases.