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The Beagle Bugle

Boysenberry pate de fruit, anybody?

Wine tasting notes have long been a bit of a joke, but they are a necessary evil - if we want to differentiate between wines then we need to be able to describe them. The problem is, it is cursed difficult to write a good one.

There are a few different approaches:

You can go for the plain, factual description: “Medium bodied, red fruit, high acidity etc…”, but these make for pretty boring reading and do little to convey the deliciousness (or otherwise) of the wine.

Go too far in the other direction though and you risk being shortlisted for the ‘Pulitzer Prize for Wine Reviews’ (as chosen by Ron Washam, a.k.a. The Hosemaster of Wine). The following was a contender last year:

“This is gorgeous, with lush linzer torte, boysenberry pâte de fruit and plum sauce notes that captivate, while anise, Lapsang souchong tea and singed apple wood notes fill in the background...”

Sounds sensational but definitely far fetched.

If you really can't be bothered, you can try the online Random Wine Review Generator. (This is not policy at Beagle HQ). 

Or, you can go with the guerrilla wine reviewing technique used by this supermarket joker:

The truth is that not many people have the writing skill to pull it off. Two who do tend to get it right though are Hugh Johnson and Jon Rimmerman.

Rimmerman writes knowingly silly tasting notes, but he does still give you a pretty good idea of what to expect, and they are quite tempting:

“This wine is so delicious, I can still taste the spice cured jambon and dripping peppery red fruit that appears to float like a weightless dancing dandelion seed wafting and waiting to fall to earth (only to be carried further afield by a cool breeze).”

Hugh Johnson, co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, keeps it more serious but has a real knack for hitting the nail on the head. Not to mention being quite handy with a semi-colon.

The following description of Sauvignon Blanc and the merits of white Graves is not a tasting note, but it does show why he is the acknowledged master, (and he’s definitely right about white Graves/Bordeaux – often sensational but still strangely good value):

“Sauvignon Blanc has a loud voice but not a musical one. Singing piano or mezzo forte, as it does on the Loire, it can be more than agreeable. With all the stops out, Marlborough style, it is about as musical as the Last Night of the Proms.

And yet the solution is so easily at hand. The world’s grandest manifestation of Sauvignon has been doing it for a century. Has nobody noticed? To two measures of Sauvignon Blanc add one of Semillon. Vary the recipe to taste. If your grapes are impeccable, ferment in a barrel; if not, contrive a sniff of oak. France’s one true rival to top white Burgundy is Graves. It lost its way, some time in history, in a muddle about residual sugar and too much sulphur, but don’t blame the sins of the fathers on the children. If I have a racing prediction about white wine trends it is this. The evidence is growing: white Graves is coming back, and some of the brightest of the New World are joining in.”Hugh Johnson, Decanter magazine.

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What the Yecla?

What the Yecla?

The Spanish wine scene has changed extraordinarily over the last 15 or so years. Where once, Rioja and Ribera del Duero were the only real sources of high quality wine, there are now dozens of appellations producing superb wines, in many cases, at very good prices.

Yecla in the Levante in south east Spain is one of these regions. For most of the 20th Century the area was best known for bulk production but in 1975 it was awarded a P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) and focus on quality wine production has been on the up ever since.



The red grape Monastrell is the key variety here, making up about 85% of plantings. This is the same grape that dominates Provence’s Bandol wines and is also one of the 13 grape varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (although to confuse matters it is known as Mourvèdre in France and elsewhere as Mataro).

Monastrell vine

Monastrell vine

Conditions in Yecla are hot and arid which is ideal for the Monastrell grape, and the resulting wines are blackberry fruit driven with good structure and, thanks to the relatively high altitude of the vineyards, a good freshness as well (high altitude = cold nights = grapes that hold on to their acidity), something which is crucial in hot climate reds. A number of other red grapes are allowed by the P.D.O rules (Syrah, Tempranillo and Merlot among them) and a small amount of white wine is made from a variety of local and international varieties.

I highly recommend seeking them out as prices at the moment are extraordinarily low.

Vineyard at Bodegas Barahonda



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Contains Sulfites!

Contains Sulfites!

Almost all wines for sale in the UK have the words ‘Contains Sulfites’ on the label but is this really something to worry about?

What are they?

Sulfites are added to almost all wines to kill bacteria (which may cause spoilage) and to prevent oxidation (the wine turning to vinegar). They are a natural by-product of fermentation, so even if the winemaker doesn’t add them, there will always be a small amount in the wine.

Can I blame them for my headache?

In short, no. They're only a problem if you're allergic to them (roughly 1% of the population), but even then a headache is not one of the likely symptoms. For everyone else, the small quantities found in wine are thought to be harmless.

How do I know if I’m allergic to sulfites?

Guzzle some dried apricots and see what happens – dried fruits tend to have 5 to 10 times as many sulfites added to them.

If it’s not the sulfites then what is it?

If it’s red wine in particular that gets you, then you might have an intolerance to tannins and/or histamines. This is much more likely to be the root of the problem than the sulfites.

Alternatively it may be a result of dubious winemaking practises – too many chemicals in the vineyard for example - or some think the use of 'commercial' yeasts (bought in a bag) rather than wild yeasts (those found on the skin of the actual grape) is to blame.

With this in mind, organic and bio-dynamic wines can only be a good thing.

If they’re so harmless, why do they have to mention it on the label?

This is really a warning to the small percentage of asthma sufferers who have a severe sensitivity to sulfites. 

Anything else I should know?

If the winemaker has bunged in too many sulfites then you may well detect a dodgy eggy smell.

If you are to any extent allergic to them then there are various options:

Seek out some ‘no sulfites added’ wines.

Organic and biodynamic wines have lower sulfite levels than conventional wines.

Red wine has natural anti-oxidant properties so usually has less sulfites added to it than white wine.

You can also look out for ‘natural’ wines as these are generally very low in sulfites – it is an unregulated term though so you would need to check.



The Oxford Companion to Wine

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