Fine wines, and wines that are just fine

ArticlesJust Williams

The launch of a 125-year-old port was something special. It was organised by a company that invented pink port and sells canned premixes. Perhaps that shows us that the wine trade doesn’t always have to be as polarised as it can appear, says David Williams

 

Back in May, I was lucky enough to join a Zoom tasting with Adrian Bridge and David Guimaraens, the managing director and chief winemaker at port shipper The Fladgate Partnership.

Without wishing to offend either of these highly accomplished men, both in their ways leaders in their fields, and both very diverting speakers, they weren’t the main event. The wine, in this case, was very much the star. And given that the wine in question was 125 years old, how could it have been otherwise?

There was no disappointment when, after Bridge and Guimaraens’ preamble, we finally got to pour out our precious test tube-full of Taylor’s 1896 Single Harvest port. No sense – as sometimes there can be with very old wines – of anti-climax, or a failure to live up to expectations; no suggestion that the wine was weighed down by its age and historical baggage.

This was a straightforwardly magical experience of an almost unbelievably complex wine. A wine that nobody involved in its production could have imagined would still be consumed the century after next. But, equally, a wine that is so suave, so bright, so darkly fascinating, that those of us tasting it a century and a quarter later might feel that this was in fact the whole point – that it was made to be aged for 45 years longer than the life span of a 21st-century human.

A couple of weeks later, I came across Bridge again in a rather different context. There he was describing to a reporter for Harpers the various bureaucratic and legalistic hoops he and his company had had to jump through in order to bring about another new Taylor’s launch: pre-mixed cans of Taylor’s Chip Dry & Tonic.

Adrian Bridge with the 1896 Single Harvest port

 

Not for the first time I marvelled at Taylor’s ability to, ahem, bridge the gap between the high and the … well, not low exactly, but certainly mass market. This after all is the company that launched, after a similar bureaucratic odyssey, the unashamedly commercial new category of pink port, while simultaneously making some of the world’s most acclaimed, limited-release vintage and aged tawny ports – and which has a portfolio with retail prices that run from £2.50 to £4,000.

This kind of balancing act is far harder to pull off than it looks. One minute you’re talking to an audience that is fixated on luxury, a concept that relies on scarcity (or at least the illusion thereof). The next you’re trying to convince an audience of bargain-hunters that, despite the otherworldly prices of its swanky stablemates, this particular product is indeed intended for the likes of them.

Taylor’s is one of a very select group of companies that don’t provoke suspicion in one or the other camp. There’s a seamlessness to what they do, a branding consistency that offers the consumers an easy route to trade up, and down, through the company’s different offerings. You never get that jarring feeling that you might feel when, say, you discover that Lambrini is now part of the same company as the magnificent Tasmanian sparkling wines of House of Arras.

It’s a skill that always makes me think of something Phil Laffer, the long-serving former Jacob’s Creek head winemaker, once told me, something along the lines of: “Anyone can make a few barrels of ‘fine wine’; how many people can make millions of bottles of very good wine, year in, year out?”

 

I do think he was right that we sometimes underestimate the skill of those working to make good wine in a more commercial environment

 

I’ve never been able to follow Laffer all the way on his implication: the fine-margin differences between the very finest wines are the product of different levels of skill and intuition. Not just anyone can make a really fine wine.

But I do think he was right that we sometimes underestimate the skill of those working to make good wine in a more commercial environment – and that those capable of doing both are a breed rare enough to deserve some special form of recognition.

It’s a point that was made nicely in a recent piece on the Austrian winery Schloss Gobelsburg on worldoffinewine.com by the merchant-turned-writer, Terry Theise.

“As a merchant I was proudest of any really high-achieving ‘normal’ wines that the ‘normal’ wine customer could easily afford, and that would over-deliver,” Thiese says. And, coming from someone who made his name as the importer and chief American advocate of some of the finest (and most expensive) grower Champagnes and German and Austrian Rieslings, that’s no idle claim.

As a drinker, too, those wines are every bit as important in our lives as those rare instances when we get to taste truly “fine” wine. For all but the most dedicated hedonist, a life of unrelenting peak experience would be unbearable. Just as sometimes you want to sit quietly by the river rather than ride a raft over its rapids, so sometimes a well-made £10 Zweigelt is far more effective than a thimble full of 1896 Colheita.

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