Don’s Outpourings – The stories behind the labels

Don’s Outpourings – The stories behind the labels
19th May 2016 admin


Alsace wines are an enigma….   The region is almost exclusively devoted to white wines which are invariably described as “the most food friendly wines in the world.” And yet, outside Alsace itself and Paris, they are relatively unknown. In 1978 I owned only two Wine Bars, albeit in the rather wine sophisticated West End of London – the Cork & Bottle and Shampers. Thanks to a great deal of enthusiasm from both management and customers, we were responsible for a formidable 10% of the total Alsace sales in Great Britain. Great for us, but where were the other happy punters?

I have always reckoned that one of the major reasons for the relative unpopularity was the ubiquitous Gewurztraminer grape which accounts for a vast percentage of produce.    In 1985 in my first book “Enjoying Wine” I wrote:

“I think the problem is an understandable confusion in the public’s mind as to what they expect. A large percentage of wine drinkers think they are going to receive a bottle of sweetish white wine, more in the German style. Also many first experiences are likely to be the no-compromise Gewurztraminer, which people either love or hate.

So let’s get positive and talk about this wonderful grape, Pinot Gris. In the past couple of decades New World winemakers have discovered the virtues of this luxuriant varietal – full bodied, bold and honeyed….Yet bone dry. There are a few attractive ones form my home country New Zealand, but to my mind none of them, nor those highly touted wines from Oregon for that matter, can match the marvellous combination of rich spice complexity with delicacy that is found in Alsace.

Will and I visited the Boeckel family in July 2015. It was exactly 50 years to the month since I first sold their wines, so quite a milestone.  The Fifth generation,   Jean-Daniel and Thomas are in charge.  We were quietly tasting the glories of their range of Cremants (sparklings) and their oh so-easy drinking Pinot Blanc, when we came to the Pinot Gris. As we raved about the unctuous, generous style reeking of Golden Delicious apples, Jean-Daniel quietly pointed out to us that they have been making Pinot Gris since the late 19th century! One of its many claims to fame is that it is aged in vast 100 year old oak barrels. “Softening the wine and adding a touch of complexity without the vanilla intrusion form oak” they say.

This beauty is often available by the glass …Enjoy on its own or with our delicious tangy grilled squid.


Ah, Australia Cabernet- Shiraz. The benchmark red wine blend from the sixties and seventies.  In 1978 I first visited Adelaide, in those days the capital of the South Australian wine industry, and to this day still the centre of the Australian world of wine.  I enjoyed many wines, but was truly astounded by the marvellously extroverted, expressive wines of this blend flaunting the Oz sunshine. The Cabernet Sauvignon provided the glorious robust structure of the slightly austere, tannic firmness of Bordeaux greats, and then this was balanced with the gorgeous, rich, spicy Shiraz. Put some steaks on the BBQ and pull the cork – brilliant! They flaunted the wines all over the country and in those days nothing gave an Australian wine lover more satisfaction than pointing out to a visiting aficionado, that “we keep the best wines at home for ourselves”. Cabernet-Shiraz was at the top of the bill in this category.

In the eighties somethings changed.  For some reason the Oz winemakers developed a cultural cringe about this blend. The French gave them hell.  I had started shipping Oz wines to Britain and when travelling around France always had a case of Cab-Shiraz in the boot of the car, so that winemakers and restaurateurs could taste the opposition. It was a waste of time. Education in the other wines of the world?…….In those days, you must be joking “Too full of fruit! We would never blend from those varietals (conveniently forgetting the old days when the finest Bordeaux wines were ‘Hermitaged’ ….illegally adulterated with the firmer, higher alcohol wines from the Rhone  (hence the Hermitage connection) , and further afield including the Northern parts of Africa, to give their sour insipid cheap stuff structure.

Well, the Australian winemakers started to believe this rubbish, and Cabernet- Shiraz was put on the backburner. In fact, by the mid-eighties Shiraz was totally out of favour and they were even making Grape Jelly out of the stuff in the Barossa! They also dug up huge swathes of 100 year old vines, but that is another story. But, God Bless, there were the traditionalists, and no-one was more traditional than the Hill-Smith family at YALUMBA. They never stopped believing in the blend. For the past 41 years The Signature has been their flagship wine; a knockout beauty which my mate Rob Hill-Smith (sixth generation) modestly describes as “an icon”. Needless to say it’s on our list at £75.50. Not cheap, but a modest price for what Will describes as a “beautifully mature Oz classic”.

Well, The Signature now has a baby brother. In 2015 I celebrated my 70th birthday with 70 good friends. Where? In Adelaide – where else? And we drank “The Scribbler” after the Champagne, with the superb Greek BBQ. The luscious blackcurrant flavours with a gentle minty finish are fantastic. For those readers old enough to remember the glorious Muhammed Ali, this wine resembles his ability to ‘punch above one’s weight’.

At a modest £36.50, one of the best value wines on our list…..