White and Old – That's me.

As keener readers will know, well done, I spent some time at the London Wine Fair recently. Still plenty to tell which I hope you will like. I am assuming you are over 12 and may have something resembling an attention span over more than 2 seconds.I remain optimistic.

Having traipsed round many stands, and seen a lot of interesting things, and taken hundreds of photos, I realised I hadn’t tasted anything at all in two days. Either a true professional or a fool. You decide.

Anyway, I found a queue for one of the side-room events and discovered it was for a “tutored” white Rioja tasting. Again, as the more loyal amongst you will know, Vinelives and my own mission here have never been on the basis of my being an expert. As somebody famous once said (I’ve forgotten who it was), “I know enough to know I know nothing”.


So with some caution I was surprised to see there was a place for me – I hadn’t booked beforehand. Along with about 30 others we all entered a large room rather like a laboratory with long tables and lines of  empty glasses, all sitting precisely on a sheet of paper with the name of an assigned wine alongside each glass base. At the front, a charming middle-aged Spanish man, a Master of Wine, called Pedro Ballesteros Torres took us all through it.


I was lapping this up. In perfect English (naturally) he first set the scene of Rioja – showing a map of the region, and describing how three different weather systems come together here from different directions – making perfect conditions for wines that can still have acidity from coolness and also what he called “austerity” – for that I think he means what I’d call “power”. So big whites here, that have enough in them to age. This is tricky to do. You need coolness to bring acidity as well as depth.

We then began what I can only describe as a real eye opener. I have always been told that the only serious way to learn about taste is to compare. Rarely, if ever, would we buy six bottles of, say, chardonnay, open them all and taste a little of each one. You really should. Get some friends round to chip in and try each wine with a bit of apple, cheese, saucisson, chocolate. THIS is what everyone is on about.    

Personally, I like white wines to have some boldness and character. This didn’t disappoint. The joy of being able to taste (and spit out!!) older white Rioja wines that cost up to £90 a bottle was a privilege. As we went through, we learnt about how each wine was the results of experimenting with different fermentation methods, grape varieties and blends, picking from the middle of vines only, or types of barrel to store the wine in. In one case adding a big dry sherry to the blend.

So, this really showed the differences looking at the whole process brings to trying to taste. The variables in wine making are infinite and that is why spending a pound or two more (I assume not £90!) opens up the wine world to a higher level of possibilities.

The wine colours here ranged from palest of pale (almost like water) to deep golden viscous liquid. The smell or nose of each were different too, and with Pedro’s guidance, describing words like clean, peach, citrus, brioche, I really tried to sense the same. This is where describing a taste or smell is so difficult and we need to learn how to do it – just like analysing different styles of music.


Taste was even more varied. Some were so intense in flavour they almost were too much – not for the faint hearted, Others were delicate and subtle. Pedro’s point was that Rioja CAN make white wines that can develop with age. The oldest we tried was from 2003.


Do try tasting and really think about description if the subject fascinates you. And a final point – true experts will say two things : the first is that they always have something else to learn. The second, is that they are really “winging it” much of the time. Isn’t that true of us all – if we were but honest?