Late-night grumpiness: “Classic Wine”

I dug into my reserves of sunshiny optimism to greet the first issue of our new wine magazine, Classic Wine. It’s unfortunately proving a little more difficult to be totally enthusiastic after the second. Distribution seems a trifle better, however, and it can be found at least in branches of Exclusives. And there’s even a subscription form inside the mag this time – a somewhat vestigial one neglecting to indicate the price, which seems unnecessarily coy. No website yet – if you go to the one indicated on the cover you can only get to the page where Carrie Adams’s Classic FM radio programme (surely in a conflict of interest with her wine retail business?) is touted.

There’s a reasonable amount of stuff worth reading in this second issue, balanced between shorter and longer pieces, not often straying too far from wine. So is it fair that I feel, like Elbert Hubbard felt about life, that it’s just one damned thing after another? Shapeless? Piled up indiscriminately? There seems little coherence of strategy, little aesthetic behind it all, as though the aim is to assemble as many as possible local people who’ve ever written about wine (and some who haven’t, and some who shouldn’t) and give them all carte blanche.

Actually, more likely the vague overall dissatisfaction I feel is because so much of Classic Wine is poorly written, and badly edited and subedited. A few examples are called for, so here goes (and I promise I could go further).

Jeremy Sampson is, I gather, eminent in the world of marketing but, even apart from the clichés of thought and expression evidenced in his look at labels and brands, he clearly can’t write, and should realise this. And the editor should know that a sentence like “And if you belong to a wine club, chances are there will be a high percentage of labels that don’t even make it into Platter’s” is just not on: what possible consequential relationship could there be here (read it again, and wonder)?

But then look at how someone from the editorial team introduces the article on merlot: “Despite a turbulent and somewhat maligned history, Angela Lloyd describes four top-rated Merlots….” Huh? Does poor Angela really have such a history? And what is the word “despite” doing there at all? This is desperate rubbish.

And then there’s Norma Ratcliffe, former eminent winemaker and someone I rather like and admire, introducing a report on a cabernet franc tasting. If you’re going to get a winemaker to write for you (OK, I can’t make wine, but at least I don’t try), then you must have the capacity and willingness to fix an illiterate sentence like this: “The Raats family have been creating magical expression of this variety as a single variety and as a blended variety, predominantly, as we see ….”

Rather more problematical is Norma’s assertion that “Cabernet Franc is the father of Cabernet Sauvignon and was hybridised with Sauvignon Blanc to achieve the wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon that we know today.” The real problem is not the implication that the “hybridisation” was “achieved” deliberately rather than naturally – but someone involved in this publication, firstly Norma, should know that this process is not hybridisation at all, as the partners are from the same species.

The most disconcerting thing, however, is precisely that Norma should have been the panel chair of a tasting of 13 cabernet francs which included one from her own property. In her report she manages to refer to Warwick as “prominent” (none of the Ratcliffes is known for modesty), but the ironical thing, perhaps, is that the Warwick Cab Franc was the second most expensive wine in the line-up, but finished bottom. Of course we don’t know if this included a high or a low score from Norma – there is no indication, however, that her score was discounted, as it should have been.

Similarly with Anthony Hamilton Russell and Andries Burger tasting pinot noirs – including two from Hamilton Russell Vineyards (HRV) and two from Paul Cluver, where Burger is winemaker. I’d have hoped that Anthony and Andries and Norma would have had the sense and good taste to realise that this is just wrong, even if the editor and publisher don’t. Such a conflict of interest is unacceptable in a magazine aiming for credibility – quite apart from Anthony Hamilton Russell’s frequently-voiced disdain of most other local producers’ efforts with pinot. The HRV 2009 came top in this tasting, incidentally, with a less than glorious four stars; the 2010 (which I know Anthony rates more highly, though I don’t) did much less well.

Of course, it must be admitted that in these big line-ups of wine it’s difficult to recognise your own wine – or, in fact, to get a lot of things right. As is pretty evident in the results given for most of the tastings reported in the magazine – but that’s another story.

Let me not mention all the depressing things in Classic Wine, like the pathetically vague stabs at giving some winelands news, and the notes on “book guides, goodies, glassware and gadgets” which read like advertorials, whether or not they are.

But one further protest. This purports to be a more-or-less serious wine magazine. An article on low alcohol wine is a good idea, but this one spends a substantial proportion of itself suggesting – with apparent seriousness – that the answer to the problem of high levels of alcohol is to add “a block or two of ice or a splash of water!” So there you are: if you notice that your Glenelly Lady May or columella or Rubicon has more alcohol than you deem desirable, forget about any question of balance or what the winemaker intended – just pop in a few icecubes. Oh dear. I think Fiona McDonald has been editing her freebie whisky publication a bit too long – is this how she does her tasting for the Platter Guide, I tremblingly wonder? (And a bit of research would have also revealed that in Bordeaux reverse osmosis is not generally used to lower alcohol, but to increase concentration by removing water.)

Oh dear again. I fear I’m even less optimistic about Classic Wine than I was when I started writing this. I should perhaps have mentioned already that I have an article in this second edition (someone else must point to its shortcomings); but, anyway, I rather suspect I won’t be invited to contribute further.

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