Saturday, December 3, 2011

Champagne lovers need to look for a taste of terroir

YEARS of marketing Champagne as a luxury accessory have transformed the way we think about bubbly. Hardly anyone thinks about Champagne as they do about other wines. It’s associated with brands, not chateaux or grapes, and yet it seems to come from no place in particular. A Bordeaux comes from the Médoc, Pauillac, Margaux, St-Emilion, Pomerol, and so on. But can you name a single Champagne terroir? The distinctions of terroir make artisanal Champagnes more idiosyncratic than those from the big houses. As one grower-producer puts it, “Champagne used to be singular, now it’s plural, with many winemakers, villages and styles.”

Full article first published in The Connexion (December, 2011)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Beaujolais Nouveau - a joyful aperitif or whiplash in a bottle

WHEN I was ten years old, I helped my dad to make space in our garage for the arrival of his Beaujolais Nouveau. I thought it must be a big car because we cleared all along one wall. Shortly after, I began to associate Beaujolais Nouveau with dupery and disappointment, as many wine-lovers do. Yet, better examples (yes, they exist) are a by-word for juicy, refreshing and appetisingly acidic plonk. They may handle unpredictably: too much acidity and they over-steer giving your tongue whiplash; too little acidity and they under-steer sloshing over the palate. For vintage flavours, test-drive a Cru Beaujolais from any of the appellation's 10 cru vineyards. 

Full article first published in The Connexion (November, 2011)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Choosing from the wine list can be simple...

NOWHERE is encountering wine more fraught with obscurantism, rapacity and indifference than on restaurant wine lists. Who hasn’t experienced a sinking feeling under the weight of a leather-padded carte des vins? What to do? The decision may come down to price. That’s a shame. Cheaper wines have the largest mark-ups; in other words, if you can’t afford a more expensive wine, the restaurateur will make you pay dearly for it. Encylopaedic wine lists, lists organised by price, lists with multiple vintages of the same wine, or wines with no vintages, may betray the restaurateur’s lack of discernment. Better wine lists narrow the choice for you.

Full article first published in The Connexion (October, 2011)

Monday, September 5, 2011

A class of wine

IN THE SPIRIT of la rentrée scolaire, here is a class of wine. Pick a bottle. Inspect the label. If a year isn’t indicated, the wine was blended from several vintages. Pick another bottle. Who made, bottled and/or commercialised the wine: a merchant (négociant), a cooperative (cave coopérative), or an artisan (vigneron indépendant)? Preferably, the same person should make, bottle and commercialise a wine. If the wine has a screwcap or a plastic cork, make sure it is not over a year old. Decanting does not soften tannins, but it helps to dissipate sulphite aromas; so you should decant a young wine longer than an old wine. Now, pour the wine...

Full article first published in The Connexion (September 2011)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Keep it simple ... in a glass the size of a space helmet

AUGUST is the thirstiest month, beading droplets down cold frosted glasses, parching mouths and lips, melting hard ice with summer rays. Apologies to T. S. Eliot, but what do you drink when chilled rosé won't slake dehydration? Charles H. Baker's Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask proposes an overwhelming “267 masterpieces from greater and lesser ports”. Yet 3-ingredient wine cocktails are as easy to make as a character in those children’s books where pages divide people into head, torso and legs. August needs a Piscine Impériale: Champagne, Mandarine Napoléon and cucumber on ice, in a glass the size of a space helmet.

Full article first published in The Connexion (August, 2011)

Alain Rey: the words of Monsieur Dictionnaire

HE IS THE mostly widely appreciated author in France, his books found in almost every French home, yet you have probably never heard of him. If, however, you happen to have a copy of Le Grand Robert, Le Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Le Dictionnaire culturel en langue française or Le Petit Robert, you will find his name inside any one of them.

For more than 50 years, the linguist, editor, writer and broadcaster, Alain Rey, has been the “lexicographer-in-chief” of the French language, responsible for defining how French speakers actually use their language.

As a member of La Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie, the government committee that approves the introduction of new French words, Mr Rey is a trenchant critic of educators and politicians who would like to build a museum around the French language, whether in the name of orthodoxy or national identity.

His penchant for using living writers to illustrate usage, his inclusion of slang in the dictionaries and his delight in non-standard usage locate him firmly on the progressive, modernizing side in debates about where the French language should be going.

In his books and popular radio and television programmes, he has exposed French speakers to the ideological content, etymological development and cultural baggage hidden within their utterances.

Born in 1928 at his parents’ brasserie in Pont-du-Château, near Clermont-Ferrand, Mr Rey studied political science, medieval architecture and art history - “whatever fascinated me” - at the Sorbonne. He thought of becoming an inspector of historic buildings or museum curator. Then, in 1952, after military service, he saw an advertisement for a linguist, placed by lexicographer and dictionary publisher Paul Robert, and became Robert’s principal collaborator. He remains the editor-in-chief of Le Robert.

Between 1993 and 2006, Alain Rey presented Le mot de la fin (The Last Word) at the end of France-Inter’s morning radio programme. He also presented Démo des mots (The Word Show) on France 2 after the nightly television news and, from 2007, contributed to Laurent Baffie’s Europe 1 Sunday radio show. In 2005, he was honoured as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and is regarded by many as a "national treasure".

When I caught up with the free-thinking octogenarian in Toulouse, he talked with his customary modesty, infectious enthusiasm, erudition and wit about lexicography, the rise of English, the threats to the French language, immigration, education and the debate over national identity.

What is the most difficult word to define?

The word mot itself. It comes from the Latin muttum, meaning an indistinct sound, a mutter. The word mot signifies a sound that means something other than the word itself. Words organise experience into things and events, but the word mot is completely isolated.

What is the most important quality for a lexicographer?

Exactitude. Proust would replace a beautifully poetic phrase with a simpler and more prosaic one if it conveyed more exactly the meaning he wanted to express.

Samuel Johnson called lexicographers “inoffensive drudges”. Does that definition suit you?

The word “drudge” also means someone who does housework and compiling a dictionary is all about cleaning, dusting and polishing; except lexicographical housework consists in rearranging definitions, replacing examples and updating usages. I would be disappointed if people were not a little offended by my work, if each new edition of a Robert dictionary were received passively. Of course, the compilation of correct usages is important, but that excites me only moderately. When they are stimulating, what I most enjoy are linguistic transgressions and wordplay.

What is your favourite quotation about dictionaries?

Jean Cocteau said, “A chef d’oeuvre is just a dictionary in disorder”. I like to think he meant to imply that a dictionary is a chef d’oeuvre in good order.

Which words do you wish people understood better?

All of them. But people ought to pay special attention to how words are used in a military context. “Collateral damage”, for example, should really be “collateral catastrophe.”

Which words do you most dislike?

Bureautique (office automation) is awful; so many scientific words tend to be inelegant. The habit of using the letter “e” as a prefix for any new word in the electronically mediated world is also depressingly unimaginative.

George Bernard Shaw longed for “a beautiful word that means doing something tomorrow.” Can you help?

What’s wrong with “procrastination”, a fine word!

Are there any foreign words that you would like to see adopted by speakers of French?

Every word spoken in French was once a foreign word; principally of Latin origin. It’s the same with any language. English is littered with Latinisms, French words of Norman origin, like “parliament” and “government”, and words of Germanic origin, too.

Nevertheless, I found myself in the middle of a sentence in French recently and the best word that came to mind to express my thought was the English word “collapse”. It expresses more completely than any French equivalent the degree of total disintegration I wanted to communicate.

Currently, with the collapse of tyrannies, currencies, reputations, economies and nuclear reactors, it’s a very useful word.

Is English a threat to the French language?

Not in itself. Any encounter with a foreign language can enrich the native tongue. The encounter becomes less enriching when foreign words are adopted at the expense of perfectly good native alternatives – like using “email” instead of the French courriel (a blend of courrier and électronique) – or when neologisms nearly all come from one source, as today with English. I frequently update dictionaries with Anglicisms, but it would be nice to be influenced by other sources, too.

However, English is very dynamic because of the inventiveness of its users, especially the Americans, as well as its encounters with other languages and the innovations added by its countless non-native speakers. French people love to invent English words, like tennisman.

So French isn’t under threat?

Each language exists in a permanent state of crisis from censure, invasion or neglect. However, the French language has never been more under threat than today, and the crisis has never been more badly managed. Not because of English.

Current problems date from the introduction of mass education after World War II, with overloaded classrooms and a standard curriculum that undermines progressiveness.

So, the threats are today chiefly internal. There’s a problem with the rules of the language itself. The conventions of usage have become so codified and ossified it is increasingly complicated for users of French to innovate and renew the language without making unacceptable transgressions.

Take the word bravoure (bravery). Common usage invites us to invent the word bravitude, but that’s not acceptable, even though everyone understands it. So we have bravoure – a word hardly anyone uses. The result is stagnation. In this respect, English is much more forgiving and flexible and thus a more fertile ground for innovation.

English nouns can easily become verbs and no one bats an eyelid. Germans are forever inventing new words, too, and Italians never tire of new suffixes.

Also, the disappearance in France of regional languages and dialects is a catastrophe. French speakers whose mother tongue is Catalan, Basque, Corsican or Creole contribute more linguistically to French than those who know only national curriculum French.

There is an illusion in this country French fell from the sky complete, and many speakers see no reason to examine or renew it. Purists who hold this opinion are badly informed. A language thrives and remains relevant only if usage is allowed and encouraged to evolve.

Do you think the debate about “national identity” in France is enriching for the French language?

Absolutely not. Historically, periods of linguistic creativity coincide with a people’s desire to establish their identity by embracing and building on differences. The 16th century was a period of tremendous creativity for French as people from across French-speaking territories, with all their regional differences, united to establish it as the shared, home-grown alternative to Latin. To be a convincing alternative, French had to enrich itself.

The debate today is not about embracing differences, though, but effacing them.

So the proposition that immigrants should take a French test is a bad thing for the French language?

Not only is it a bad thing for French, it’s a bad thing for France. It’s intended to discourage immigration, which is the same thing as discouraging renewal. It will contribute nothing to the language; rather, it will encourage linguistic and cultural stagnation.

Do electronic means of communication, like SMS messaging or Twitter, risk impoverishing the language?

SMS isn’t a language; it’s a way of writing, shorthand, like algebra or chemical formulas. People who know how to write French can easily dissociate writing text messages from writing the actual language. There’s nothing new in how people employing today’s communication technologies play with language. In the 19th century, people would write Je t’m as shorthand for Je t’aime. Such shortcuts are word games that play with the sounds of words in ways that demonstrate how meanings are constructed. That’s revelatory.

Will devices like the Kindle or iPad change how people read; discourage or end marginalia, or replace books?

I think people will always want to hold books, to carry them around, to fold them and give them away. However, I never write in margins. Books are too precious. I write on slips of paper while reading; usually a note about a word an author has used in a surprising way. That’s one way my research happens.

Do words move you most on a page, or when spoken?

Verbal is the most forceful, the most living, the most imbued with lyrical quality, the most expressive and direct. It is what people speak and is the basis for dictionary compilers.

Some prefer your radio work to your television work; does each medium compel you to treat your subject differently?

Perhaps they prefer me on the radio because they don’t see me! Actually, I prefer the radio, too. It’s more direct, there are no technical intrusions, no make-up. I say what I want to say and that’s it. With television there’s the whole mise en scène; I play a role – I even have a contract as an actor when I work on television – but the persona, the mask through which words are spoken, can be a distraction when, in fact, it’s the words that are important.

Words can lose their original meaning through forgetfulness and/or ideological spin, so “democracy” (people power) now virtually means “free market capitalism”; which word would you lock away until people learn to use it again correctly?


Alain Rey’s new book, Le Dictionnaire Amoureux des Dictionnaires (Editions Plon, 2011), is an unconventionally subjective dictionary about lexicographers who – like Alain Rey –never attain satisfaction because, as he says, “they spend their whole lives running after a language which never waits for them.”

First published in The Connexion (August, 2011)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rosé is not a grape and it's not red and white wine mixed

UNTIL I overheard the following in the wine aisle of a well-known British retailer, famous for socks and underwear, I didn’t think much needed to be said about rosé:

Shopper: "What gives it this lovely pink colour?"
Wine sales advisor: "It’s the rosé grape."

Oh dear. Just as "yellow" is not a type of cheese, "rosé" is not a grape variety. Rosé wines are pink because the juice stays in contact with crushed red grape skins for a short period. Rosé cannot (in the EU) be made by blending red and white wines, though this is typical in the New World. There are rosés de soif (thirst-quenching aperitifs) and rosés de bouche (complex pinks that go with meals any time). The difference between ho-hum and memorable is about 3 Euros, so splash out.

Full article first published in The Connexion (July, 2011)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Champagne is just another wine with bubbles

THE PERSISTENT, spumy patter at a recent Champagne event in London, hosted by Perrier-Jouët and G.H. Mumm, was all about the economics of the luxury lifestyle market. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and terroir were scarcely mentioned; in fact, you could’ve spent the day junketing with executives from Reims without uttering the ‘W’ word. Pricy, ostentatious Champagne doesn’t play anything like the part other wines do in peoples’ lives. Yet almost every French wine region produces rivals to Champagne. Jancis Robinson says it’s hard to find a worse-value wine than cheap Champagne, so for the same money, buy a quality rival.

Full article first published in The Connexion (June, 2011)

Photograph of Daniel Elena celebrating victory at the 2005 Cyprus Rally by Leonid Mamchenko.

Why books and wine are natural bedfellows

THE VISION of golden light shining warmly through the upright pages of a Biblically-proportioned book, on a poster outside the Salle Polyvalente in Balma (near Toulouse) around Easter, seemed to suggest religious revival was the order of the weekend. A glass of red wine next to the book, softly diffusing the same golden light, appeared to affirm the promise of transubstantiation.

In fact, the oddly evangelical poster was promoting a book-and-wine fair – the 12th annual Rencontres du Livre et du Vin – a sort of ‘Hay-on-Wine’ transplanted from the Welsh-English border to the Midi-Pyrenees. This year’s event brought together 50 local and nationally-renowned authors, around 15 publishers, plus 10 winemakers from as many terroirs under a giant, orange, papier-mâché Baobab tree that dominated the interior of Balma’s multi-purpose hall.

It was children’s day when I visited. The exhibition in the entrance featured paintings of Balma done by local children and executed in Van Gogh’s style. Inside the hall, a class of 6-year-olds, cross-legged around the great Baobab’s trunk, were listening to a story. A few strays from the class were watching winemakers setting bottles, glasses and crachoirs (spittoons) on upended barrels. The authors were sitting quietly, or in quiet conversation with visitors, around the walls, behind trestle tables covered with their oeuvres.

Decorum reigned. This was no knees-up wine festival. Neither was it a hyped-up book fair. As advertised, it was a Rencontre – a convivial opportunity (unique in France) to meet winemakers and authors under the same roof.

Curiously, the event unites two activities that aren’t often associated: drinking wine and reading books. In Alberto Manguel’s comprehensive ‘A History of Reading’, wine isn’t mentioned once, though food comparisons abound (“devoured a good book, lately?”).

Proust’s cork-lined bedroom is discussed, but there’s no suggestion he constructed it from wine bottle closures. And not a piece of domestic furniture has ever been invented to reconcile the two activities, like a reading seat cum wine-bucket with wineglass retainer, since there’s never been demand for such an apparatus. So, why books and wine?

“They may not seem, at first, to be natural bedfellows,” admits veteran broadcaster and long-time editor of the Robert dictionaries, Alain Rey, one of this year’s event’s honorary Presidents, reflecting on wine’s capacity to stain both bed sheets and paper.

“But the event unites two products of French terroir that require passion and dedication to produce and to be appreciated. A wine has layers of aromatic complexity to be discovered by the sensitive palate; similarly, a book reveals its layers of plot and linguistic complexity to the devoted reader. Both activities are enhanced through connoisseurship. Both are civilising.

“The common goal of authors and winemakers at the Rencontres is to express their terroirs – their sense of place and time. Their works speak of local conditions and so have universal appeal. The authors aren’t producing Internet-inspired oeuvres with no sense of place, or globalised wines devoid of the taste of origin... they’re interested in quality, not quantity.”

Senegalese-born writer Fatou Diome, this year’s other honorary President and author of books about women’s experiences of clandestine immigration, expands on two ideas – imagination and place – central to the theme of this year’s event: ‘Imaginaires et territoires francophones’.

“The idea of ‘territoires francophones’ is immediately appetizing. It conjures up fertile domains of the imagination and an irresistible pleasure for words... plus the best crus from a thousand vineyards, all at the same banquet,” says Diome.

A more prosaic account of the Rencontres was offered by Marie-Hélène Chinisanas, Balma city counsellor and one of the event’s organisers: “The goal is to encourage reading. The wine element makes the event more festive.”

Organic/natural winemaker Anne-Marie Selle of Château Bouissel, Campsas, in the Fronton appellation, was there because she’s a bibliophile. Her delicious, violet and blackcurrant-scented 2009 La Négrette is made entirely from the eponymous local grape; her vineyard’s gravelly-silt terroir (between Toulouse and Montauban) contributes to the wine’s suppleness, she says. It’s quite unlike Grenache/Syrah-based wines from the Roussillon, my adopted department.

If wine festivals are your thing, now is a great time to indulge that passion, starting with La Fête de la Vigne et du Vin on June 4th (held annually on the Saturday following the Thursday of Ascension) with events across France (

Bordeaux hosts its annual Bordeaux Fête le Vin festival from June 28th to July 1st ( While Saint Rémy de Provence is where to soak up Provencal sunshine, local produce and rosé wine from July 29th to 31st at La Fête du Vin et de l’Artisanat d’Art (

The streets of Châteauneuf-du-Pape go medieval from August 5th to 7th as the town celebrates its annual Fête de la Veraison with a festival of baroque music and the recreation/re-enactment of traditional winemaking-village life ( In Colmar, from August 5th to 15th, the Foire aux Vins d’Alsace combines wine fair and music festival with well-known French and international acts (

Summer’s end is a busy time for winemakers, so wine festivals are not common in September and early October. But as soon as the harvest is in the fermentation tanks, Les Fêtes des Vendanges take place across winemaking regions. These are usually the best-attended events in the wine year.

There are competitions, too, like wine-basket-carrying and barrel-tossing bouts, which can give harvest festivals an ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets the ‘Highland Games’ spirit.

Then, almost before the coals (or vine stocks and shoots) of harvest barbeques have gone cold, winemakers are ready to celebrate the release of their first wines from the new vintage, with Vin Primeur events taking place in November. The most famously over-hyped is the launch of Beaujolais Nouveau.

However, most wine festivals, like Balma’s Rencontres, are about authentic, local French life, they’re about getting a taste of terroir – something hardly encountered if you’re too often in supermarkets, or on the Internet. And they’re free. There’s no special etiquette, or wine language, to master. Just show up with a thirst for culture.

First published in The Connexion (June, 2011)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Pass the cup of crimson wonder: biodynamic, organic or natural?

IF SKIPPING around Maypoles swigging wine from acorn cups is your thing, let me recommend Jethro Tull’s springtime ditty, Pass the Cup of Crimson Wonder. It's tempting to see Tull's ‘Green Man’ as a biodynamic winemaker. But when I attended a biodynamic tasting, some wines were having a bad "leaf day" (a day normally propitious for expression, say acolytes). Practicing biodynamic farming rituals is more about manifesting faith in Rudolf Steiner's vision than winemaking. The organic label is no guarantee either. This Beltane, my crimson wonder is a  local 'natural' wine. Menace your caviste with your Maypole if doesn’t stock any.

Full article first published in The Connexion (May, 2011)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The screwcap revolution 10 (or 11) years on

BEFORE Facebook, it took time for one revolution to inspire another. Take screwcaps. Invented in 1889, in Barnsley, they didn’t shake up the wine world for another 111 years. Screwcaps promised to rid wine of Trichloroanisole (TCA), the chemical in tainted corks making wine smell ‘corked’. But the cork industry cleaned up its act. Cork ‘failure’ is now 2-5% (i.e. better than typical condom use). TCA’s rarity made Spotting a Corked Wine the wine aficionado’s party trick. Wine critics say the 'screwcap palate' is bitter, coarse and astringent with blunt fruit and an abrupt, harshly dry finish. Spotting a Screwcapped Wine is their new party trick.

First published in The Connexion (April 2011)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Are we drinking better, or just better imitations?

CHÂTEAU VULI’s upmarket red wine is lightly oaked with a wild vanilla aftertaste. These flavours come from additives, including an old table, a vanilla-scented air-freshener and cardboard. While not forbidden in Groland (France’s satirical double in the eponymous Canal+ TV news show), how much does this resemble real viticulture? Quite a lot. Industrial-scale wineries pump out highly manipulated, flavour-enhanced, similar-tasting, cheapish imitations of expensive wines. Advocates of these techniques emphasise “giving consumers what they want”. The losers are people (like me) who want to drink more, really good, inexpensive wines.

Full article first published in The Connexion (March 2011)


Château Vuli

Friday, January 28, 2011

Champagne and Cinnamon Toast Crunch is not my cup of tea

Wine writers wring hands over the 'pairing with food' issue; there are complex pairing charts riddled with warnings: 'Here be dragons'. Wacky wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuck caused a hoo-ha by pairing wine with breakfast cereal on his internet show (unless you're a wine-loving infant, his advice is of no utility). A Japanese tea lady gave me tips: "Few pairings are wrong,” she said. “If in doubt, apply the inverse effort principle. For food with complex flavours, choose a tea with a simpler profile. And vice-versa.” Very yin-yang. You can modify a wine (or tea) by changing its temperature, too. Even a Merlot can be tricked into going with spicy Indian food.

Full article first published in The Connexion (February 2011).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Wine gadgets 'licenced to overkill'

JANUARY is a time for offloading unwanted Christmas gifts on eBay. Among them should be certain wine accessories. Wine paraphernalia manufacturers assume Christmas' bright lights turn ordinary people into gadget fetishists, offering us flappy-paddle corkscrews, electric suction pumps, argon gas preserving canisters and combination lock wine stoppers. Who put James Bond's master of invention, 'Q', in charge of wine gadgets? Flappy-paddle corkscrews take three hands to operate and the self-congratulation that comes with using one is diminished by the silly feeling you've used a folding helicopter to cross the street. Very Plenty O'Toole.

Full article first published in The Connexion (January 2011).

Photograph of Plenty O'Toole by Nye Bradley.