Saturday, 10 February 2018

Andre Simon shortlist: Conversation with Victoria Moore

Victoria Moore

I drove to Victoria Moore's upstairs flat in Fulham, part of a Victorian era building, which has a beautiful pale oak herringbone parquet floor. She'd just put her daughter Francesca, 18 months, to bed. Every so often throughout our conversation, I'd hear a few noises from the baby monitor.

Victoria immediately opened a bottle of British fizz, Wiston Estate, to go with a home-baked plate of cheese gougères. I wasn't expecting it, but she set about cooking dinner, pasta with tomato sauce. Pale and slim with shoulder length dark hair, she talks quickly, precisely, articulately; ideas opening up mid-sentence.

Are you a wine expert? Have you a Masters of Wine qualification?

No. It's very difficult and expensive. I don't want to be trained in the same way as everyone else. I slightly rebel against the way they want you to write their tasting notes. Everyone always assumes you want to do Masters of Wine, but there's all sorts of stuff I am interested in knowing. I enrolled on a masters course in psychology for three years instead. My thirst for learning more came out in that way.

There's far more money in booze than in food it seems.

There's a lot of money in spirits, not so much in wine. Producers are smaller; it's all hand-made.

Spirit companies have a product they can make more of. People go on about beer but you can expand your brewery in five seconds. Look how quickly Brewdog grew. A winery could never grow that fast. They have one harvest a year; they can't harvest them until they are 3 years old. Wines don't produce really good grapes until they are in their teens, twenties, thirties. For instance, this is a 2010 wine we are drinking.

Eight years old. How much does a bottle of this cost?

About £40.

That's not bad. 

Champagne's gone more expensive now. This is a proper product.

Is this how Champagne used to be in France?

I don't think anybody knows the answer to that question. You can't replicate it.

British sparkling wine is winning a lot of prizes. It's very brut. I lived in France for a long time; the French often drink demi-sec with dessert.

The taste in Champagne used to be sweeter. The fashions dip up and down over the years. There is a slight trend here back towards both sweeter and drier champagne. For sweet, think of Moet's 'Ice', 55g sugar per litre, and Lanson's White Label, that sells so well. In the wine trade they say, "people talk dry and drink sweet".

It's a bit like people say that they vote Labour but they vote Tory. I find I like sweet more as I grow older.

I think that might be the case for me. I used to really love plain chocolate, but now I'm milk all the way. When you are tired, sweetness comes as a real relief. But if I taste something sweet, it's a catastrophe for doing any wine tasting after that. The taste buds don't come back for at least an hour.

I emailed Linda Bartoshuk, an American psychologist, who has done lots of work on food and drink, to ask why this was. The big thing one was taught was "you can't smell sweet, you can't smell sugar". Maybe that's literally true. But you can smell if there is likely to be sugar there. If you put my daughter there, she will know that there is sugar there from the smell.

Linda Bartoshuk showed that people could smell sweeter tomatoes, which undid all this work saying you can't smell sweet. You have all these sweet tastebuds on your tongue that could feel the flavour.

Wasn't the different areas of your tongue taste different things a myth?

She was the one that showed that. It was a misinterpretation of a graph.

We move onto a red wine, a Primitivo.

Do you drink a lot?

I'm quite careful. Partly because I have to work and I can't. I have to work in the evenings. I'll have 2 glasses of wine.

I love Primitivo.

Do you like the smooth curves of it?

I love weighty wines.

This might be a bit thin and tinny.

It's lovely.

It's a bit spicy.

Mm. That's another thing, women are supposed to like white wines and rosé. I love heavy red wines.

It depends when you are drinking them though. At the end of the day you might want something refreshing, like a gin and tonic. That's how Pinot Grigio became so popular - you just want something cold. And then you can settle into a bottle of red.

Rosé outsells white wine in France now. And they are not drinking sweet wine anymore. 

What's your favourite wine, or is that too narrow a question?

My favourite wine is always the last wine I drank. I gravitate naturally towards Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and I like a glass of refreshing white wine. 

New world or old world?

Both. I like that nebulous quality 'minerality'. I don't like wine that is shouting fruit at you. I like the more savoury style of wine.

Baby monitor squeals. 

I never score wines.

Some people just like scoring things.

That doesn't make sense to me. Wine is very pure to me... How do you score wine? How can you put a number on that?

The kind of drunk it gets you - that's never rated. Whisky, for instance...

Whisky makes me think very clearly. Lots of people I know have obsessions, like they think white wine makes you mad. I think your mood defines what kind of drink you are attracted to. If you start to think 'white wine makes me crazy', by definition you'll almost definitely go crazy. There is supposed to be an optimal level for absorbing alcohol and from memory it's like 26%.

That's like sherry or fortified wine. 

Or like a cocktail perhaps, a Negroni, which would go most quickly into your blood steam. I think it's all about the mood you are in when you choose to drink. People always say, "Port gives me such a hangover". No. You are having a port at the end of an absolutely massive dinner, you've drunk three bottles of wine and now half a bottle of Port. That's why you are hungover.

Tequila for me is a sort of druggy drunk. 

Maybe you drink it differently. Do you do shots?

I love shots. I love margaritas. I love sour. Wine - there's a certain element of sourness. French people put wine in their soup.

Italian wine tends to be quite acidic, even the red wine. That's why it's such a good food wine. It makes you salivate. It cleanses your mouth. It primes you, makes you ready for the next mouthful of food. 

When you do a dish, you want sweet, sour, bitter, salt. Nowadays as you were saying, you have a complete plate with the Ottolenghi style. At the same time it is quite medieval because it has sour/sweet/savoury. 

Georgian amphora wines go well with that sort of thing, textural. You can't add a key taste but you can add texture. Or a moment away from food, which is a respite.

Do you know that phrase 'trou normand'?


The French say... if you eat too much, you have a shot of eau de vie, it burns a hole in your stomach. So you can fit more food in. I've tried this and it works. Norman hole. 

The idea of it drilling...

You are one of the best known people in your field in this country. 

I love having a column.

It's dead man's shoes, though. Nobody can get in there.

But I did. I came from nowhere. I'm a girl from Yorkshire who didn't grow up with a cellar full of Chateau Lafitte. I had my dad's elderberry wine. I'd love to able to taste that now. 

Wine people are very nice people. Nicer than food people. 

There are a lot of interesting people in wine. The difficulty is, to be really good at your job, you do have to taste a lot of wine. You're really meant to do a lot of big boozy lunches as well. I haven't got the constitution for it.

You haven't got the kidneys for it?

I've only got one kidney.

So you have to be quite careful.

I am female. I can't drink as much as they can. It frustrates me. That means they get a chance to do more field research.

Have you got any tricks to help you taste better? Any advice for readers?

The first thing: tasting wine is something you build up like a muscle, it's like sit-ups. It's about mental focus and concentration and practice. When I first started writing about wine I could only taste six wines. I remember the first time I went into a tasting room, I didn't know what to do. I didn't have someone to show me the ropes. I knew I couldn't taste more than six so I had to pretend and gradually I built up. 

You've gone from 6 wines to 100.

The second thing: one mouthful of each wine and spit. Always spit.

I've noticed a lot of women don't spit.

Really? People don't spit at dinners because they are not comfortable with it. I'm a terrible spitter, I dribble and everything. And when you have tannic wines, they slightly freeze your mouth up so you can't spit, it all dribbles out of funny corners. Terrible.

Women don't want to because of vanity.

But you can practice spitting in the bath. 

Really? Have you done that?

Yeah, yeah. But I'm still not very good. You meet amazing people who have the most amazing spit. For wine critics being able to spit well is a point of pride. Charles Metcalfe is brilliant - he can just stand here and just go like (she mimics doing a accurate arc to a spot a metre away) to a bucket. He's really fantastic. 

Try to only have one mouthful as we all know from tasting food we get the biggest impact from a fresh palate. Adaptation kicks in really quickly and you just don't get as much out of subsequent mouthfuls. Try not to go back. 

Tastings are often in the morning. It's much better in the morning. What I'm really interested in wine is the smell. I always ask perfumers, when do you smell? They all do all the most important work in the morning. 

First of all it's because you have just woken up, you are more bright and alert. Also because our sense of smell is strongly linked with appetite. The messages that go through your brain are moderated by appetite.

Like don't do shopping when you are hungry?

But you need to taste when you are hungry. Hunger amplifies the taste of food.

You are literally salivating.

Yes, but if you are too salivating you can't taste either. If you are too hungry, you're salivating so much that all you get is that horrible acid. That's why bread helps. I do try and taste in the morning or at least before I've eaten lunch. Quite often I'll do some work in the morning then do some tasting at about 11. I won't have lunch, I'll just have a bit of toast or a croissant so I'm not starving. But I don't want to be full, because then I'm not smelling very well. 

And don't have anything sweet before you taste.

Women have a better sense of smell than men. Do you notice you can smell when your child is sick? It's very gorilla, primal.

I completely look after her according to my sense of smell. 

I think everything is smell. 

It's the only thing I care about. I always used to say, "I'll sleep with anyone as long as they smell right".

I've heard you can sniff out genes, complementary genes.

Yes. The sense of smell is vital. It must be so tough to lose your sense of smell. I cook by smell.

I still sniff my daughter. She thinks I'm a freak. If your daughter were a wine, how would you describe her? What adjectives?

It's just all instinct. Emily O'Hare, a sommelier...

Yes I know her, she's brilliant.

She once said a good Sangiovese smells like the back of the neck of someone that you fancy. It's the best wine tasting note I've ever heard. Sangiovese has that quality, a bit of texture, a bit of earth. My daughter can be Sangiovese - a bit of salinity, a bit floral.

I knew when my daughter was starting her period because her smell changed, she started to smell like an adult. It's all so animal.

You can smell when people are going to die as well. I was with my granny when she was dying. I was holding her hand. I kept taking her hand away; she smelled really awful. Her smell changed and she died at dawn. 

I'd been to a black tie wine dinner the night before. She was talking to me at 1am that morning, she was completely herself but then her smell changed enormously.

What's happening? Your organs are dying?

I don't know. But they say if you lose your sense of smell are more likely to die in the next five years.

Because it's so essential, but we are so unconscious of it.

It's a statistic. There's another tip, when you are tasting wine. When you can't smell anything, fill your nose with your own smell, a headscarf or smell the crook of your elbow and that resets it back to neutral. Then you can smell again. It works really brilliantly.

On an average week, how many bottles of wine would you taste?

There are seasons... there are weeks when I have 500. There are weeks when I don't have any.

Even when you spit, you are still absorbing alcohol.

Yes. When I was pregnant I started tasting fewer wines. I'd smell them. If they didn't smell good, I wouldn't taste them.

Your sense of smell when you are pregnant is so strong.

You aren't going to recommend a wine that smells dreadful. Now I taste them all, to double check. I started double spitting as well. It's really disgusting. You never want to be in a tasting room with me doing that. But I still do it now. I felt so much better doing that. 

I tasted 75 Bordeaux wines today, reds, all of them. When I came home my teeth were all black.

Has it affected your teeth?

God yeah, the enamel melts. It's awful.

You have to clean your teeth well?

But you mustn't clean after a tasting they say because some of the enamel goes into suspension and you could brush it off. So you are tasting with black teeth and you can't brush your teeth, which is what you most want to do.

You also do all other kinds of alcohol and drinks?

It's mostly wine. I don't write about beer. I really like gin so I write about gin sometimes. I kind of leave whisky to people who know about whisky as it's such a big subject. I only drink beer when I'm doing an en primeur tasting.

A friend of mine went to an en primeur tasting, 100 people there and only one woman. 

In fine wine perhaps there's an imbalance. It's often only men who buy that level of wine. City traders. It's often men stocking up the wine cellar at that level. 

My friends, who are lawyers, sometimes ring up and say, "I'm doing a divorce case. Do you know someone that can value the wine cellar?" It's always the man's collection that the woman wants valuing. It's never yet been the other way round.

People in the UK, speculating on wine, on the Asian market. It all crashed a bit. The fine wine market peaked in 2011. The Chinese government changed the rules about what you could give people as business inducements, so there was a slump and now it's coming back up again.

A winemaker I met in Bordeaux spent time in China. He said they drink it in small cups.

People used to laugh at the way the Chinese drank wine, mixing it with coke. But now we are being told: "don't underestimate the Chinese. They learned loads more quickly than you would have done. They've gone into it. They've hoovered up the information, they are getting more sophisticated by the second. Don't preseume they don't know about it because they do." But I don't have first hand knowledge.

I've also heard that wine in China and India in 50 years time will be as good as European wine.

I've heard that LVMH have invested in Chinese wine. Their Chinese wine is grown in an incredibly remote village and it takes 48 hours to reach France. They've sent their Bordeaux experts out. They've poured research into it. I was really impressed. Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon does taste different, it tastes quite spicy. It was quite convincing. Indian wines are getting better. Indians drink red wine with Indian food, which is weird for our palettes because when tannin hits chilli, it exacerbates the chilli. 

Maybe that's what they like?

I asked an Indian sommelier about it. He said: "You've got to understand we eat our food really differently to you. When we are eating, we are eating a lot of bread. You have this big meaty saucy thing as your primary flavour but that's not how we eat. So it's much less of a clash because we are diluting it."

You forget it's not just the type of food but how they are putting it together.

The way women and men drink wine. Women drink white wine or rose. They don't want the dark red moustache or tongue.

I get the red wine stain on the bridge of my nose.

Is there a name for that?

No, but there should be. The fine wine market is less a reflection of women's taste in wine but more where the money is.

Absolutely. Men have more disposable income and they are richer than women. Women are buying clothes for our babies. 

Fine wine now, you have to be on a city salary to be able to afford it.

What's the most you've ever spent on a bottle of wine?

That's a good question. I've sometimes bought wine en primeur. I bought a case, I spent £50 on a bottle of wine. En primeur, by the time you've got it out, you've paid for the storage fees.

Do you pay for storage fees? Do you have a cellar?

I've got one wine fridge. I'd like to buy Nebbiolo. It's going to go up in price. It's going to get more discovered and I love it. But I haven't the spare cash.

I assume you get sent a lot of wine.

Not that sort of wine. I get supermarket wine. I don't get investment wine.

I get invited to fine wine tastings but you are normally tasting it when it's incredibly young. To taste it when it's older, you have to do the lunches and dinners and sometimes people do vertical tastings, the same wine 10 vintages back. That's incredible; that's when you really learn.

More than a horizontal tasting (same year of different wines)?

Yes because you learn the years. I do love Bordeaux, I love getting to know the chateau by tasting it. Today I went to a tasting, BI run it, based in Hatton Garden. They do this 10 years tasting. Today it was 2008 including Lafitte, Latour, Haute Brion, Margaux, Petrus and all the rest. From the barrel. 

I'd like to be invited to that. How many people do they invite?

Not many. It's a huge privilege to taste. So that was horizontal. Those wines tell a story. They are complex wines with a beginning, a middle, an end. 

When you go to the en primeur tastings, you sometimes have dinner at the end of the day and maybe they'll give you a vertical tasting from their chateau. And then they will say "and now, we've got five wines blind".

And you think: 'Thanks, I've just tasted 100 barrel samples, my knife feels like it's filled with knives and NOW, now you want me to tell you what's in those glasses.' She laughs. But you can do it a bit better on smell. It's like the ultimate challenge when your palate is a bit knackered.

Biodynamics and astrology

My most recent wine trip was to Australia to visit Vanya Cullen, a wine maker in Margaret river, who uses biodynamics. She has wines like Dancing in the Moonlight.  

Biodynamics has oddly made me more interested in astrology. If all these people are making better wine because of moon phases... It's made me think.

Who is that French guy who is interested in biodynamics?

There's Michael Seresin, the film-maker, in New Zealand, who does biodynamics. When you talk to people who've been farming the land for ages, they've been doing it by the moon phases for centuries and that's the knowledge that's handed down.

You know they have flower days and fruit days, Vania had some coopers put barrels together. Vania has barrels that have only been worked on during flower days and other barrels that have been worked on during fruit days. She'll compare the same wine in different biodynamic barrels. She likes one grape in flower and another in a fruit barrel.

It sounds like your trip to Australia was very inspirational. All that distance though for just a week. What was the jetlag like?

I'm ok with sleep. I don't sleep that much. Now though we all read that we are going to die if we don't sleep enough. My energy ebbs and flows. I'm not very consistent. You just capitalise when you've got energy and let it go when you haven't. When you have a child you can't do that big flop. I used to push myself. 

I have no responsibilities like that anymore. I'm through the other side.

I think in life you can never have everything at once. You just have to enjoy the phase you are in. It has been beneficial to make more of what is on my doorstep. 

About the Andre Simon awards

Normally when I'm on the shortlist of something, I get really uptight about it. But I have no expectation of winning this time. I'm pleased as punch to be on the shortlist. 

Do you win some money for it?

Yes, quite a lot. My book was a lot of work, I have tried to put stuff in for people who know about wine. But it's not groundbreaking research, as if someone wrote the first book on Jura wine. I just don't think my book will meet that sort of research criteria probably compared to the others. I feel like I've won the prize just by getting on the shortlist. It's just amazing. It's like somebody saying your work is worth something.

By now it was past 11pm. As I left, in the tiled hallway, next to the front door, there were several cases of wine. Victoria picked up and gave me half a case of wines, all with merely a mouthful taken from them. 

Are you sure?

Yes, take them. I also gave some to my cleaner and my neighbours.

They must love you. 

Victoria Moore's latest book The Wine Dine Dictionary is available in all good book stores and on Amazon.

To win all six food books from the Andre Simon Awards shortlist, read all the interviews:

  • Interview with Jessica Seaton, author of Gather, Cook, Feast.
  • Interview with Thad Vogler, author of By the Smoke and the Smell
  • Interview with Michael Booth, author of The Meaning of Rice.

    1 comment:

    I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)