The Wines That Shaped My Life


When Vinous subscriber Anthony Kim proposed a charity dinner at 67 Pall Mall, in aid of The Amos Bursary, I suggested a theme around bottles that had a significant impact on my life, or a story behind them. All of us have them. These are some of mine.

Blue Nun

I would not go as far to say that wine was persona non grata in the Martin family household. Let’s just say, its invitation got lost in the post. Once in a blue moon, a bottle vaguely resembling vino accompanied, or more accurately insulted, the Sunday roast. The family’s hypothetical wine list extended to three wines and rest assured, none of them were 1945 Petrus. No, they were Black Tower, Rosé Mateus or, if pushing the boat out, Blue Nun.

Bet you did not expect to see those two words on Vinous.

Blue Nun was the one of the leading supermarket brands in the seventies and eighties. As an aside, I never knew that a) it was launched way back in 1923 b) that bottles of Blue Nun are tinkled in the background of Long, Long, Long by The Beatles c) namechecked by The Beastie Boys. However, I did know it was daytime TV presenter, Alan Partridge’s (a parody of British television personality of the times) wine of choice. I mean, you couldn’t imagine him getting into orange wine, could you? 

I actually met her… The Blue Nun. Really. It was my maiden Vinexpo in 1997, and as I jabbered with Japanese colleagues, from the corner of my eye I spotted a young lady dressed in a vivid blue habit, though with perhaps too much red lipstick and rouge to pass as a real nun. She was either preaching or pulling. Difficult to tell which. I nudged my friend. “Look! It’s the blue nun!” He was nonplussed. Obviously, Blue Nun had not taken off in Japan like it had across Britain. I wanted to ask her how she balanced life, serving the Lord and quenching the thirst of wine-lovers who like their sugar with a hint of wine, but a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn’t ask. I let her weave her way through the exhibition stands leaving a whiff of süssreserve in her wake.

I must admit that in my 25-year career, I never expected to be driving to Tesco to buy a bottle of Blue Nun. I feared being spotted by the wine paparazzi and plastered over the tabloids whose headlines would read: “WINE CRITIC’S SECRET AFFAIR WITH BLUE NUN!!!”. Sporting aviator shades and a balaclava, I searched the aisles and found a bottle, sadly, no longer with a label depicting a blue nun. At least the bottle was blue. My wife caught me brandishing the bottle upon returning home and was about to fetch the straight-jacket from the airing cupboard when I explained that it was for a charity dinner. “Darling,” she said. “The lengths you go for charity. Don’t endanger yourself.”

My note should explain my objective opinion. Hey, it might be damning it with faint praise but at least it was preferable to the 1982 Montrose. And if Blue Nun’s PR department just read that, please read on before using it for your next marketing campaign.

It all began here. Remarkably, when I returned last July, the man at the counter had heard of the story about a wine writer whose career began at the Turnpike. After 25-years!

1982 Montrose

And so, after a tough childhood living in an old water tank on a rubbish tip, thrashed to sleep with a leather belt and drinking Blue Nun, I stumbled into a career in wine, thereby automatically rendering my Management Science degree redundant. As I have recalled many times, the night before my job interview as an administrator for a Japanese importer, I popped over to the local Turnpike newsagent, memorised several labels and then reeled them off when asked about my predilection for wine, boasting my knowledge of Blush Zinfandel and Liebfraumilch, currently on sale, three for a tenner. Thankfully, my Japanese interviewer had even less knowledge than this interviewee and asked if I could start next Monday. Indemnity insurance’s loss would be the wine industry’s gain (or loss to some people).

I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing and didn’t really care. Why did people become obsessed about something as banal as fermented grape juice? If it was fruity and got you tipsy, what more did you want? Why did they shell out so much money, I mean, some of those Grivot and Engel Premier Crus cost more than twenty quid! Daylight robbery. Then, one fateful lunch in their oak panelled basement dining room at Corney & Barrow, a 1982 Montrose was poured. Something clicked. Intuitively, I knew that this was not the best wine that I would ever drink and that it was not even the best 1982. But, unbeknownst to others there that day, I had an epiphany. I understood why sane people became insanely passionate about fermented grape juice. I returned to the office and wrote a tasting note, enrolled at Battersea College to study for a WSET Certificate. I have drunk the 1982 Montrose many times since then, and true, it is not the best 1982 and could be considered a disappointment for the château. And tonight? It was corked. Unlike the Blue Nun.

1998 l’Eglise-Clinet

I began visiting Bordeaux frequently from the late nineties, meeting winemakers and voraciously tasting wine. The man who perhaps made the most profound impression was Denis Durantou. One crisp morning, I asked what made his wine special? Rather than reeling off the same old clichés, he jumped into the ditch, cleaved away a glutinous handful of clay and dumped it in my hand. “That is what makes it special,” he answered. It was the catalyst for my love of Pomerol. You can trace a line from staring at my hand wondering how I could clean off the mud, to the day I published my Pomerol tome. I knew the 1998 was a wine that would put Denis Durantou on the map the moment I tasted it from barrel. Twenty-two years later, this beauty delivered everything you could possibly want from a Pomerol. The only thing it cannot do is bring back the man who made it. 

1999 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg

I had graduated from Blue Nun to DRC. Each February from the 1995 vintage onwards, I attended the annual Domaine de la Romanée-Conti tasting of DRC, and in almost a quarter-of-century, I have only missed one and even then, I was considering the logistics of schlepping back from New Zealand. Invitations to the DRC tasting are like tickets to the Met Gala, but with even more outrageous attire. In 2002, I asked fellow wine scribe Tom Cannavan if he would consider publishing a report on the 1999s? I’d never written before, but I could string a sentence together, even if this article suggests otherwise. Tom told me to go ahead. Lo and behold, the week following the tasting, I made my debut on his website. Dig hard enough and you can still find it. One of those wines had to appear at this tasting because my writing career stemmed from that tasting. As it happened, it also changed my life in an even more profound way because a couple of days after my pearls of inarticulate wisdom appeared, Tom passed on a message requesting my contact details from a girl that worked at Berry Brothers & Rudd…

1983 Pichon-Lalande

I arranged a rendezvous at a local restaurant in Carnaby Street called La Trouvaille with the aforementioned girl from BBR. The restaurant specialised in rustic French cuisine and operated a friendly BYO policy. The dinner was a bit like Kurosawa’s Rashomon insofar that recollections differ according to who you speak to. I contend that it was a “hot date”. She insists it was a “business meeting”. I cannot deny she presented her business card after dessert. Then again, as far as I know, I have not married and had two children with anyone else that gave me their business card. If you have, then do let me know. But we did both agree that the 1983 Pichon-Lalande that I brought on our first date/business meeting was delicious, even if it failed to obtain even as much as a goodnight peck on the cheek.

1982 Mouton-Rothschild

Speaking of which, being the solitary member of the wine department based in Europe, I was gifted a dangerous level of autonomy buying obscene quantities of Grand Cru Classés and blue-chip Burgundy. However, my career was heading down a cul-de-sac. The Internet would ultimately make my role redundant. What to do? I tidied up my enormous Excel spreadsheet of tasting notes accreted over the last six years, learned HTML and started a little website that I christened Wine-Journal. It debuted in June 2003. Nobody noticed. Well, not until I penned a rather self-deprecating satire on that year’s La Fête de la Fleur held at Mouton-Rothschild. Here, drenched with sweat in my ill-fitting hired polyester tux, I had my first sip of 1982 Mouton-Rothschild from an armada of double magnums. It tasted incredible, but there was the equivalent of a small swimming pool left un-drunk, so I did my utmost to help Baroness Philippe de Rothschild not let this elixir go to waste, before a boogie on the dance-floor with Plácido Domingo, which to date remains the closest I have ever come to opera.

2018 Willi Schaefer Riesling Kabinett Graacher Himmelreich

Bordeaux and Burgundy have been my speciality since day one, but in the salad days of my career, I tasted far and wide. I never reviewed German wines professionally, though for several years I attended the annual VDP auctions in Trier each September as I adore Riesling. The grower I most admired was Willi Schaefer. On one visit, I clambered up the vineyard in Graacher Himmelreich, the only way to appreciate the perilously vertiginous slopes. It was the moment I understood what makes Riesling here like no other. This magnum of 2018 Riesling Kabinett Graacher Himmelreich was just intimating in what is capable of, and though I have no qualms about infanticide when it comes to German Riesling, in this case I would cellar it for at least a decade.

2015 Felton Road Chardonnay Block 6

However, I did cover New Zealand in a professional capacity. My benchmark for Pinot Noir was and still is, Felton Road in Central Otago…

(At this point, if you are eating oysters, finish them before reading on…) 

I love oysters. Delicious! And at the 2009’s Pinot Noir Conference in Wellington I joined a huge banquet where enormous platters of fresh oysters were served. I binged on bivalves. The following morning, my stomach began doing cartwheels. By the time I had flown down to Central Otago, my metabolism was a mass of flashing red lights. A bumpy ride through a vineyard in a 4x4 at Mt. Difficulty was not what the doctor ordered. Next pit stop was my favourite producer, Felton Road. I was well acquainted with proprietor Nigel Greening and as his winery came into view, I spotted his entire family had gathered to welcome a fellow Brit, standing behind a table heaving under an enormous, presumably biodynamically-grown, alfresco spread. Omitting pleasantries and small-talk, the first words I uttered were: “Where is the toilet?” Every second counted. Unfortunately, the toilet was adjacent to the picnic. With the windows wide open. It meant the poor Greening family had front row seats as I was sick for the next 20 minutes. Feeling marginally more alive upon exiting, keeping a straight face, I nonchalantly informed a concerned winemaker that his Block 5 Pinot Noir had not lived up to expectations. At the following appointment, actor Sam Neill at Two Paddocks immediately recognised my wan complexion and disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a homemade cocktail that he probably perfected on the set of The Piano. Miraculously, it put me back on an even keel.

1971 La Cabanne

I had to proffer one wine from my birth-year for the tasting. This magnum of 1971 La Cabanne was waiting for the right occasion. It is not the best Pomerol ever made, but we share the same l’année de naissance, so hypothetically, it is 100-points.

1988 Domaine J-L Chave Hermitage

There is the orthodox way to tell if your spouse is expecting. Pop down the chemist and buy a pregnancy test kit. Alternatively, buy a bottle of 1988 Hermitage Rouge, serve it blind, gauge her reaction when you reveal the wine, and if she reacts with uncharacteristic indifference, time to build the cot, knit the baby socks and get as much sleep as possible before being deprived. It may cost more than a pregnancy kit, but it is a more enjoyable way to find out if a new-born is on the way.

Evidence, just in case you thought that we did not actually serve the Blue Nun.

1989 Yquem

I have always loved Yquem. Sauternes was the first region that Robert Parker handed over to me when I joined him. There are countless memorable bottles of Yquem, but the 1989 is the best of the 1988 to 1990 triumvirate and a perfect way to end a wonderful dinner that was a trip down memory lane and all for a worthy cause.

My sincere thanks to Anthony Kim for organizing this charity dinner that was a lot of a fun and raised money for a worthy cause.

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