The Five Minute Wine Book by Tony Aspler by Tony Aspler - Read Online

Book Preview

The Five Minute Wine Book - Tony Aspler

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1


Once you’re bitten by the grape there’s no known cure - and no redemption. You are hooked.

I have spent fifty years of my adult life chasing the grape around the world. I haven’t caught it yet and if I ever did I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But the journey, whether to the antipodes or down the QEW from Toronto to Niagara, has been one of infinite fascination with and respect for the men and women who can turn a perishable fruit into a beverage than can live for decades.

As a card-carrying member of Pack Rats Anonymous, I have kept everything I have ever written about wine. This volume is a selection of those writings that goes back to 1976 when I was working for the CBC in London. The first article I ever wrote was on the subject of champagne; it was commissioned by Robert Fulford, then editor of the late-lamented Saturday Night magazine. I didn’t include that one but you’ll find several pieces about champagne in these pages. Champagne (it’s tautology to say French champagne) has played an integral part in my own story as the drink of both celebration and commiseration.

If my doctor told me I had to restrict myself to one wine for the rest of my life it would have to be champagne. I was introduced to the delights of the Champagne region by the man who taught me about wine – the late Gordon Bucklitsch who ran the Grant’s of St. James wine school in London in the 1970s. He wrote a book entitled, ‘School for Sommeliers.’ Not only was he my wine mentor but this Falstaffian character became the model for my detective in a series of wine murder mysteries I would write in the subsequent years.

As a wine evangelist, rather than a wine critic, my intention has always been to share with readers my consuming passion. If browsing these pages makes you pull a cork (or twist off a screw top) then I have done my job. I encourage you to read with a glass in your hand.



I never cook with anything I wouldn't drink, says Art. A pause for reflection and then he adds, But then I drink anything.

Art and I are in a boat on Waterbury Lake in Northern Saskatchewan about 200 kilometres from the Northwest Territories border. Our guide Rob is looking disgusted because we're talking wine and food. He's used to conversations about tackle, lures, outboard motors and pike as big as one-man submarines.

Rob's contribution to the culinary discussion is a suggestion that we spray our lures with WD40. The sweetness, he says, will attract the fish. I ask him what was the weirdest thing he has ever used to catch a fish. I once wrapped a marshmallow in cheesecloth, he says, It worked for speckleds.

Art recalls a guide who welded a hook to a car spark plug and swore by it. Chacun à son gout.

We are on our annual fishing trip, six guys who have fished together for years. We're looking forward to shore lunch because today Steve is cooking, on an open fire, what he calls Doré Provençale with Linguine.

This is something else that makes Rob and the other guides roll their eyes. Our shore lunches last three hours and involve the ritual consumption of three bottles of wine out of plastic glasses. (With the Doré - a.k.a. pickerel or walleye - we will consume two bottles of Cloudy Bay Chardonnay 1999 and a bottle of Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos 1998.)

With the Cajun Blackened Lake Trout tomorrow we will have a bottle of Pommery Champagne followed by two vintages of Camus Chambertin, 1995 and 1996. Friday's menu is Chinese style fish with... but I digress.)

Don't get the idea that we are not serious fishermen. In the eight days at the fishing lodge we will spend eight hours a day on the lake with our rods in the water. We fish for lake trout and walleye and pike and grayling so that we can have gourmet meals in the bush. (It's catch-and-release with barbless hooks.)

In order to make these annual piscatorial pilgrimages to Canada's northland happen each of us has our duties. Steve is the quartermaster who brings all the food we need plus the sauces, spices, home-made pâtés, etc. Sam has a great cellar and he brings the wine. Leo makes the Bloody Marys before dinner back at the lodge. He also brings the worms. Harold, who comes up from Sarasota, Florida, brings the malt whisky. Art brings his wife's fantastic biscotti. And I, well I am the historian/sommelier who records what we eat and what we drink in case there are disputes over the condition of the vintage port which we don't have at shore lunch but reserve for dinner because we need to decant it.

If future archaeologists dig in Northern Saskatchewan they will be very puzzled indeed. How did New Zealand green lip mussel shells have migrated up here? And corks branded with Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett 2000, Dauvissat Chablis Vaillons 1999 and Highfield Estate Elstree Chardonnay 1996 from New Zealand. They might even find a can that contained lobster. That, along with the New Zealand mussels, frozen scallops and shrimps all went into the bouillabaisse Steve made in a huge wok on the camp fire. Plus, of course, fresh fish we caught that morning. It was as good as anything you'll find in Marseilles and the entire lodge staff vied to attend that lunch. The accompanying wines were Pommery Champagne, Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos 1996 and Jaboulet Domaine Saint-Pierre Cornas 1998.

When we told a dentist from Chicago who was fishing for pike with his two sons that we had brought up canned lobster for the bouillabaisse he wondered aloud, Aren't you guys meant to be roughing it? Well, yes. After all, the lobster wasn't fresh.

What, you may ask, are the impediments to drinking fine wine under the Jack pines on rocky, remote islands? Well, there are the bugs and the mosquitoes, so now I know how brides feel on their wedding day. Drinking wine through a bug jacket must be like wearing a veil, but it's worth it. And I'm here to tell you that Camus Chambertin 1996 goes brilliantly with beer-battered lake trout. And saving your presence, Mr. Riedel, great wines taste just fine out of plastic glasses - but then a fine wine would taste terrific out of a Wellington boot.

Afterthought: this year I hooked the Moby Dick of lake trout. I played him for 45 minutes but he broke my line without me ever getting a glimpse of him. Ah well, there's always shore lunch.


Las Vegas is living proof that nothing succeeds like excess. It’s a city that looks as if it was designed by architects high on speed and obsessed with numbers. But then numbers is what Las Vegas is all about – at the gaming tables and in the record books.

The self-styled ‘Entertainment Capital of the World’ has a population of two million inhabitants. Last year it played host to 47 million visitors. There is no escaping the fact that you are here to gamble. Just to drive home this imperative you’re confronted with banks of slots at the airport – even before you’ve picked up your luggage.

The epicentre of this gambling activity is The Strip, a demented 6.8 kilometer stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South which is technically outside the city limits. Here you will find fifteen of the world’s twenty-five largest hotels that can offer you your choice of 62,000 rooms.

The Strip is aptly named because when I was walking it in November I was hustled every ten paces by men and women thrusting cards of naked women into my hands. These merchants of flesh wore green T-shirts emblazoned with the words, ‘Girls, Girls, Girls. Delivered To Your Room in 20 minutes.’ (I refrained from asking them if that claim was not honoured did the girls come free - like Domino pizzas?)

As with most hotels along The Strip, the Mandalay Palace has its own wedding chapel which, I guess, is a necessary service since there are, on average, 315 weddings a day in Las Vegas. (The city doesn’t offer statistics on divorces). But more importantly, for my predilection, this hotel is home to what is arguably the most dramatic wine cellar in the world. Located in Charlie Palmer’s Aureole restaurant, it houses more than 50,000 bottles of wine. Imagine a glassed-in, stainless steel tower rising to the height of a four-storey building. It features, among other vinous treasures, all five First Growth Bordeaux from the 1900 vintage and verticals of Châteaux Palmer, Margaux, Léoville Las Cases and Lafite. Add to this, California offerings such as Caymus, Beaulieu, Dunn, Chateau Montelana, Joseph Phelps and Silver Oak dating back to the 1970s and extensive verticals of the world’s most coveted producers such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Gaja, Penfold’s Grange and Château d’Yquem. But what completes the spectacle are the ‘wine angels.’ Wine angels? Think scantily-clad Victoria’s Secret models wearing harnesses attached to wires that make them appear to fly up the cellar wall to retrieve the bottle you ordered.

A short shuttle bus drive from The Strip you’ll find Rio Suites (3700 West Flamingo Road) which also boasts a gigantic wine cellar. The crown jewel here is a vertical of Château d'Yquem, a bottle from every year between 1855 and 1990. Like everything else in Las Vegas, they’re for sale; the price is two million dollars. And then there’s the bottle of 1800 Madeira that once graced the cellar of Thomas Jefferson at Montebello. Or the bottle of DRC Romanée-Conti 1994 that could be yours for $28,750. Among other curiosities in Rio Suites’ cellar is what was once reputed to be the largest bottle of wine in the world - 27 litres of California s Dry Creek Vineyard Reserve Merlot 1995, the equivalent thirty-six bottles of wine. (That record, incidentally, has subsequently been broken many times. The current champion is a fifteen foot high bottle that contains 1,850 liters of Icewine, produced by Wang Chen Wines in Liaoning, northern China.)

The antidote to Vegas is a 40-minute, mind-clearing helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon. The elemental dignity and timeless beauty of these rock formations stand in stark contrast to the Strip’s strident hucksterism and endearing vulgarity. There is a purity and calm in the desert which makes it an ideal place for a wine tasting. Our helicopter touched down on a plateau and seated at a picnic table overlooking the Colorado River I tasted a range of Jacob’s Creek wines with their Australian winemaker, Bernard Hickin. The only other experience that came close to this was tasting a Wegler Oestricher Lenchen Riesling Spätlese 1976 in a small plane flying over the vineyard that supplied the grapes.

On the way back to Las Vegas we flew over Boulder City, one of two places in Nevada where you can’t gamble (Panaca is the other). Boulder City, 32 kilometers from Las Vegas, was built to house the workers who constructed the Hoover Dam. Gambling here was prohibited when too many man-hours were lost because of the workers gambling and drinking habits.

It’s ironic that there should be a luxury hotel in Las Vegas called The Venetian which is built on the site of the old Sands Hotel. Because Venice is a city you have to visit before you die. For very different reasons, the same could be said of Las Vegas. This time I came away having lost $9.82 and a corkscrew that was confiscated at the airport.


The secret of a happy life is to marry your second wife first. I realise that this is not a prescription for everyone but from my personal experience it seemed to have a certain Aristotelian logic.

I courted my first wife with champagne and kippers which worked well as a breakfast treat and I proposed to her one evening in our London flat in 1970 over a bottle of Château Haut Brion 1954. Michael Broadbent, the author of ‘The Great Vintage Wine Book’, rated the 1954 vintage as ‘not very good but not wholly bad.’ He gave it one star out of a possible five. Of that particular wine he noted: ‘Unimpressive in cask. Austere and fair acidity.’ In hindsight, I should have been warned.

In the giddiness of the moment of committing myself to marriage at the tender age of thirty-two I can’t recall what that wine actually tasted like. But in retrospect I should have chosen more wisely – the wine, that is; being superstitious I lay the blame for the ultimate collapse of my marriage on a totally unmemorable bottle. That and my frequent trips to wine regions around the world, my obsessive need to collect wine labels and using the bidet to soak them off - all of this, and other factors, led to a gradual, glacial parting of the ways.

For my second marriage I was determined to be more mindful of my wine choice when it came to popping the question. It was New Year’s Eve 1996 and Deborah and I had been invited to see in the new year at a black tie dinner in a downtown Toronto hotel. I am not a New Year’s Eve type of person. In the past this pseudo celebration had always been a watershed in my relationships. I had been thinking of proposing to Deborah in the coming weeks but was considering a variety of more romantic scenarios than a hotel ballroom with dozens of people in funny hats blowing noise-makers. But the evening was so excruciatingly dull that I indulged in more champagne than was probably good for me. The idea of staying awake until midnight was a challenge. So, on the spur of the moment, I slipped to the carpet on bended knee and asked Deborah to marry me. The mood of the party changed immediately and we had a marvellous evening receiving congratulations and more champagne from our fellow revellers.

For the wedding reception we would, of course, have champagne. I had ordered three cases on Drappier Carte d’Or Brut (the bubbly they serve currently in Business Class on Air Canada). The importing agent, who is a friend, said he would take back one case of twelve bottles and give me instead a Balthazar. There is a tradition in the Champagne region to name large format bottles after Old Testament kings. A Jeroboam contains four bottles, a Rehoboam six bottles, a Methuselah eight bottles, a Salamanzar twelve bottles and a Balthazar sixteen bottles. (The largest size is a Nebuchadnezzar weighing in at twenty bottles.) My friend said I could get the guests to sign the bottle as a memento of the occasion.

Our wedding reception was held at Jump in Toronto’s financial district. We got married in the courtyard outside and then went into the restaurant for the champagne reception before dinner. The sommelier came up to me and whispered in my ear, ‘That big bottle of champagne, we can’t serve it.’

‘What do you mean you can’t serve it?’ I replied, appalled. ‘You can’t you lift it? Can’t you pour it? What?’

‘No, you wouldn’t want your guests to have it. We opened it and it was dead, flat, oxidized, gone.’

Sixteen bottles of champagne went down the drain that day. The wine was spoiled by a single cork.

In your restaurant-going life you have probably had a corked wine or two – a wine that has been tainted by a chemical reaction between vestiges of mold in the crevices of the cork, the chlorine that was used to bleach the cork and the acids in the wine. It makes the wine smell like a swampy basement.

If you look closely at a champagne cork you’ll notice that the business end that comes in contact with the wine is composed of two discs of high grade cork; the rest is an agglomeration of ground cork. It is a rare occurrence for champagne to be ‘corked’ since the discs are cut from the very best cork, but it does occasionally happen. And I am a walking testament to that fact.

The bottle disaster did not spoil the occasion though and my wife is not unhappy that the Balthazar did not end up gathering dust in our garage. I didn’t write notes on my wedding wines as I was otherwise occupied but had I done so I would have said, ‘A notable vintage, full of promise for a rewarding future.’


You’ve been invited to a dinner party thrown by an avid wine collector who considers himself a knowledgeable connoisseur. He’s the kind of guy who serves all his wines blind and insists that everyone at the table guess the grape variety, region, producer and vintage. He gives helpful clues with a smile on his face: As you can see, it’s a red wine, and, gloatingly, Don’t be fooled by its depth of colour, it can only come either from the Old World or the New World. Thanks a lot.

Strategy: Immediately you arrive at his house tell the host you have just come from a malt whisky tasting and you’re afraid your palate is shot. To authenticate your story, sprinkle a little Glenmorangie on your lapels before leaving home (remember to leave the jacket in the trunk on the drive there and back). If that ploy does not work, recount the legend of the late André Simon, founder of the International Wine & Food Society, who had an extraordinary palate. At the end of one of his wine courses his students took a bottle of Château Lafite 1928 and a Lafite 1929, mixed them together in a decanter and poured him a glass, asking him to identify what was in it. Simon sniffed the wine and swirled it around on his palate. He thought for a moment, pointed to his left cheek and said, Lafite 1928. Then he pointed at his right cheek, Lafite 1929. Tell the host that you were in such awe of André Simon’s tasting abilities that you have given up even trying.

Or you can quote the English wine writer Harry Waugh who was once asked if he had ever mistaken a claret for a red Burgundy. His reply: Not since lunch.

But if you want to sound like a committed oenophile, you can hold up your end of the conversation by answering his question with a question of your own. Example:

Your host: What do you think the grape varieties are in this wine?

You (loudly): Did you realise that Retsina is an anagram of nastier?

Your host: Would you say the winemaker used any new Vosges oak barrels in this Château Haut Mortgage?

You (more loudly): And Episcopal is an anagram for Pepsi Cola. The Church, of course, has instrumental in every technological advancement in the history of beverage alcohol.

That should shut him up. Temporarily.

If you really want to irritate the host who has been raving on about the virtues of the 1982 Pétrus in his cellar, tell him, Well, that’s a coincidence! I had a bottle with lunch on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was corked.

To avoid having to answer questions that may show up your woeful lack of wine knowledge, come armed with wine trivia. Ask your host which wine has the longest corks? This kind of question will have him running upstairs to his library. In the meantime you can confer with your fellow guests about the correct answers as to the provenance of the wines. The host has cunningly decanted them all so that you can’t even get an idea of their origin from the shape of the bottle. Or better still, make a beeline for the kitchen and try to get a peek at the labels in the blue box (one look at the label is worth a lifetime of experience). If the host does not come down within five minutes, shout the cork length answer up the stairwell, I’ll give you a clue. The producer’s initials are Angelo Gaja. The corks for his single vineyard Barbarescos are 60 millimeters long. Then throw in the gratuitous remark: You can only remove them with an Ah-so. (Please understand, you are not being rude. An Ah-so is a two-pronged metal corkscrew. Carry one on your person at all times and produce it whenever you see a bottle that needs opening. But under no circumstances try to use it. You will only succeed in pushing the cork into the bottle and staining your shirt and the ceiling.)

When the host returns from his extensive wine library, having consulted every issue of Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines since 1998, and googled the Internet to try to prove you wrong, confound him with your knowledge of champagne corks. Ask him a double whammy: at what speed does an unfettered cork leave a bottle of champagne? And what is the longest recorded flight of a cork from a bottle of sparkling wine? Before he can answer throw in a zinger: what is the average number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine? This should keep him out of the room for at least twenty minutes during which time you can finish your meal in peace.

Next time you’re invited, turn the tables on the host by bringing a Bulgarian red spiked with ruby port in a crystal decanter and have him guess what the wine is.

Oh, by the way. I imagine you’d like to know the answers to the three questions above. 1. A champagne cork will leave the bottle at approximately 65 kilometers an hour. 2. The longest recorded champagne cork flight was 177 feet and 9 inches, accomplished at Woodbury Vineyards in New York State - which was about half the distance of New Zealander Richard Pearse’s first powered flight in 1902. 3. It takes an average of 600 grapes to make a bottle of wine. Now you’re an expert.

P.s. I happen to like Retsina.


Winemaking is the world’s second-oldest profession, and no doubt it helped relieve the burdens