Musty Bunches - Tales from the Spit Bucket

By Musty Bunches | 3 April 2001

Yes, it's that time of year for the annual, lemming-like pilgrimage of buyers and journos to Bordeaux; the former looking for bargains, the latter for a bit of pampering at a poncy chateau somewhere.

We've seen it all before and so have you, but how many of us actually understand what's going on? As a visitor or bemused onlooker, do we really speak the same language as our grape crushing counterparts? And if you do understand your host's babbling, can you be sure of making the right response?

Never fear. Musty is here, with another just-drinks exclusive designed to take the pain out of vineyard visits and negociant negotiations.

The time has come to…

KNOW YOUR WINEMAKER

Lesson One

Meeting the winemaker

First a warning!! Winemakers are shy creatures and need to be approached with caution and sensitivity otherwise they are likely to bolt. And, a winemaker hid in his cellar is harder to coax out than a meaningful comment from a Diageo PR manager. It can be a good idea to take a peace offering to help gain their trust, a copy of Wine Spectator or a packet of Gauloises for instance - even a half packet will do.

In many ways, this is the easiest part of the whole meeting since you don't have to actually say anything, just look friendly and make encouraging noises. It's a lot like gaining the trust of a horse or a nervous mongrel. So try not to make sudden movements, and on no account laugh at their trousers.


Lesson Two

In the winery

Most winemakers are far more relaxed once they are on their home patch and the heart-warming sight of a steel vat is often enough for many to pluck up the courage to actually "Initiate A Conversation". This is a sign you are being accepted into their world.

These early efforts at contact are crucial. Winemakers don't give much away about their personal lives - or that of the winery for that matter - and since it's early in the meeting the chances are they are still nervous. Remember, it's up to you to gain their trust.

It is essential you understand the secret language used by vignerons the world over so you can make the right responses to their first efforts at verbal intercourse.


Winemaker speak: 'We are very proud of our traditions.'
Exact translation: 'Nothing has changed here for 200 years, including my fashion sense.'
Correct response: 'I love those cracks in the ceiling - so much character.'

Winemaker speak: 'Our wines are a true expression of the terroir of the region.'
Exact translation: 'We got caught once bringing in grapes from another DO and the fine was substantial.'
Correct response: 'Was that a granitic-marl-schist slope I saw outside?'

Winemaker speak: 'We believe American oak complements the wines better.'
Exact translation: 'If we bought French oak barrels the boss would have to sell his yacht.'
Correct response: 'I bet people go crazy for that vanilla character don't they?'

Winemaker speak: 'Great wine is always made in the vineyard.'
Exact translation: 'You noticed that we don't have temperature controlled tanks then?'
Correct response: 'Fruit quality is so important these days, isn't it?'


Lesson Three

The Vintage - Basics

This section might look easy. The more foolhardy of you probably think you can speak 'vintage' well already. But, in fact, this area is littered with pitfalls to trap the unwary. However, if you remember the golden rule that every adjective is either an exaggeration or the exact opposite of its literal meaning then you shouldn't come too badly unstuck.

Either way, take the time to learn this part well. Winemakers always, always talk about vintages and a slip up here will undo that hard work from lessons one and two. Besides, extra dedication here will pay dividends later when you get on to more complicated areas.


Winemaker speak: 'It was a great year.'
Exact translation: 'It was a good year.'
Correct response: 'What, even better than 1998?'

Winemaker speak: 'It was a good year.'
Exact translation: 'It was a bad year.'
Correct response: 'About as good as 1998?'

Winemaker speak: 'It was the vintage of the century.'
Exact translation: 'It's the best vintage I can remember, and I've been working here almost four years.'
Correct response: 'It makes even 1998 look ordinary!'

Winemaker speak: 'It was a great year for whites.'
Exact translation: 'The reds are dreadful.'
Correct response: 'Mmmm. Great crunchy acidity.'

Winemaker speak: 'It was a tough year.'
Exact translation: 'We had frost in spring, rain all summer and freak hailstorms during harvest. The wines should really all have been declassified or sent for distillation, but hey, we've got orders to fulfil.'
Correct response: 'At times like this I bet the winemaker really earns his salary!'

Winemaker speak: 'It was a winemaker's vintage.'
Exact translation: 'The crop was a write off in this region, but fortunately I managed to truck in some must from Chile/North Africa/the Languedoc to spice things up a bit.'
Correct response: 'I really don't know how you made such a good wine from such a bad vintage.'


Lesson Four

In the tasting room

This, of course, is where the conversation gets technical. Winemakers tend to get excited by talk of residual sugar, brix levels and the number of days of skin contact, and it can be hard to keep up with the translation. But, like porpoises, they have to come up for air occasionally, and as your ear gets used to the winemakerese you'll probably find it easier to make sense of what they're saying.

The following phrases, however, tend to come up time and time again and can be easily learnt in a couple of hours. It's a good idea to get an over-excitable, chain-smoking friend to read them out to you over and over again until you have your responses off pat.

This section is particularly important since many of the phrases are actually subtle warnings designed to prepare your palate for something pretty nasty. Normal people would just come right out and tell you. But then, no-one ever said winemakers were normal.


Winemaker speak: 'This vintage gave wines of tremendous elegance and finesse.'
Exact translation: 'We had trouble getting the grapes ripe so the wines have the acidity of neat lemon juice and stalky tannins that could strip paint.'
Correct response: 'Mmmm. Lovely structure.'

Winemaker speak: 'It's a tank sample.'
Exact translation: 'It tastes horrible.'
Correct response: 'Mmmm. Great fruit purity.'

Winemaker speak: 'This is a vintage for ageing.'
Exact translation: 'It tastes horrible and has big tannins.'
Correct response: 'I'd like to meet that one in ten year's time!'

Winemaker speak: 'This is a vintage for the connoisseur.'
Exact translation: 'It tastes horrible, has big tannins and is expensive.'
Correct response: 'Oh! [Pause ruminatively] Sublime!'


Lesson Five

Saying Goodbye

This isn't quite as straightforward as you might think, and many visitors have irrevocably blotted their copybook at the last minute by misinterpreting the winemaker's final gesture. Remember, you're always on trial.


Winemaker speak: 'Would you like a bottle to take away…?'
Exact translation: 'We may have got on OK, but do you like these wines enough to carry half a dozen in your suitcase?'
Correct response: 'Yes please that would be fabulous.'

Don't forget, you can always leave them in your hotel. If things haven't gone so well, you might hear the following:

Winemaker speak: 'See you at Vinexpo.'
Exact translation: 'I never want to see you again.'
Correct response: 'See you there!'


Lesson Six

The winemaker in captivity

Remember, even if you have got on well with your winemaker, you shouldn't try to get them a desk job back home. These are wild animals and don't respond well to captivity. There are horror stories every year of winemakers who have been taken to cities as pets then dumped once their egos got too big for the office.

For the really determined, the INAO has leaflets on how to look after your winemaker, but as a rough guide, most need a lot of space to run around in - 10 hectares minimum - and lots of different soils and grape varieties to play with, otherwise they become bored.

Winemakers don't need regular exercise. In fact, most actively avoid it. But they do need regular supplies of cheap cigarettes and ill-fitting corduroy trousers, and these can be hard to obtain in any remotely fashion-conscious part of the world, so check before hand.

It is possible to breed winemakers (technically known as grafting), but since this is a family website, perhaps we'd better leave that for another time...

Companies: Diageo, PR

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