There was one magazine above all that I found embarrassing to buy as a student. I used to surreptitiously snatch it from the newsstand and guiltily stuff it into a brown paper bag at the till, in the hope that no-one would see. No, not Playboy; it was Decanter. Now I casually read wine magazines on the tube at rush hour. How times have changed.
That the UK is not historically a wine producing country has been a mixed blessing for British wine drinkers. On the one hand, we have been open to drinking wine from anywhere, with no blind patriotism holding us back. But on the other hand, because wine had to be shipped from abroad, for generations it was the reserve of the wealthy. You couldn’t just pop to the local winery to fill up like you can in France or Italy. Once upon a time, is was a real luxury. But now, most of those in their 20s and 30s have regularly bought their wine in supermarkets along with the baked beans and loo roll. But for some reason, in the minds of many, it has retained a little of its former status.
As little as ten years ago, wine was still seen by many young people as the reserve of the posh. Its image was snooty, stuffy and excluding. But things have been gradually changing since then, particularly in the last five years. Three things have helped above all others: the internet, tasting machines and big wine events.
A quick search on the web will reveal dozens of wine blogs being written in the UK alone; hundreds in Europe; over a thousand worldwide. The majority that I have encountered are produced by people in their 20s and 30s. Normal folk that you might meet in the pub or the supermarket, that happen to be into wine. They have been vital in dispelling the old-fashioned image of the monocled, strawberry-nosed old duffer droning on about claret. The internet has also made getting hold of good wine much easier. Now you can order from any good independent retailer and get a case delivered to you in no time, whether you have a good wine shop down the road or not.
If you prefer buying in person, the good news is that the last five years has seen a whole new crop of good independent wine shops springing up. Many of these are installing tasting machines as a matter of course. These chrome and glass boxes can keep bottles fresh for weeks at a time after opening, which means you can try before you buy, removing the risk of buying something unexpected. They are often self-service, meaning you can taste a whole load of samples and learn about wine under your own steam, without someone breathing down your neck and asking your opinion of the tannins.
Tasting machines have also given more people access to the finest and rarest wines. When I managed The Sampler in South Kensington we put on Premier Cru Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy and iconic New World wines every week. Selling bottles fractionally opens them up to many more people to try, not just those with big salaries or big cellars.
Even better, you can go to one of the big tasting events that are popping up around London and throughout the UK. I first got interested in wine when living in France in the late 90s, where it wasn’t seen as a particularly strange thing for a young person to be exploring. When I got back to England, many of the tastings I went to would be a sea of tweed with a sprinkling of bow ties. These big new inclusive tastings are relaxed and very social, where you can try a bit of whatever takes your fancy for a small entry fee. They are attracting a younger crowd, and now jeans are far more common than suits.
It’s not that surprising really. Attitudes to food have changed enormously within the last 15 years. Before Jamie Oliver was on our TV screens, most men wouldn’t be seen dead with a whisk in their hand. Who would have thought the Hairy Bikers would have got this popular back then? And if you’re into food, sooner or later you’ll get into wine. Uncorking a bottle is easier and quicker than cooking after all. Although both can offer intense and delicious flavours to enjoy, wine offers wonderful spirit-lifting sensations to go with it.
Many years ago, there was a reason that people thought wine was something reserved for the privileged. It was. But it’s not any more. There is nothing inherently stuffy or formal about wine, just like there is nothing inherently stuffy about whisky, beer or coffee; it’s a drink, not a rulebook. If anything, wine is the opposite of stuffy – hand out a few glasses at a social gathering and the atmosphere tends to loosen up, not stiffen. It encourages relaxation, conversation and laughter. Try if you like to stay serious, it won’t last long.
We’ve come a long way in the last five years, and it’s brilliant that those out-dated notions that have stopped people having a good time are finally being left behind. Sure there’s a little way still to go. But at least now we can buy Decanter without blushing.
To read more by Matt, go to www.mattwalls.co.uk