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Winebird’s top 10 Vinalogies

wFormer Corney & Barrow wine buyer Helena Nicklin has run tasting events company Winebird since 2010.

A trained actress, she is on a mission to demystify the often confusing world of wine to consumers via “Vinalogies” – wine-based analogies that use characters to describe grape varieties, from the polo playing Malbec to the sun goddess Viognier.

With twelve years of wine industry experience and the WSET Diploma under her belt, she writes articles, hosts tasting events and has recently completed a series of food and wine related films for Great British Chefs.

The following feature rounds up ten of Nicklin’s best Vinalogies, with illustrations provided by Olivia Whitworth, who recently graduated from Camberwell College of Art with a Masters in Illustration.

Vinalogy is available on Amazon in paperback as well as on Kindle. You can follow her on Twitter via @TheWinebird.

10: Sauvignon Blanc – The English country garden

Don’t you just love crisp spring mornings? With the inevitable April showers, it’s as if someone has spritzed the air with Sauvignon Blanc: the wine that tastes like an English country garden.

Breathe in the scent of freshly cut grass, damp ferns and asparagus in the vegetable patch. Elderflower and gooseberry bushes gracefully frame a wet stone path and the faint hint of classical music is just audible in the background. Ah, the peace and tranquillity! But what’s this?

The rain has stopped, the temperature is rising and someone has turned the volume on the stereo right up to the max. What’s more, they’ve added some bongo drums to the mix. The garden has taken on the feel of a tropical fiesta, and I swear the plants have grown bigger. Look what happens when you add some sun.

Sauvignon Blanc: arguably the most recognisable white grape variety around. It is the Marmite of wines; you either love it or you hate it. Along with its zesty, grass and wet stone flavours come distinctive aromas that its fans describe as elderflower, its dissenters as cat pee.

Sauvignon is the pale yellow, green-tinged white that’s always first to be picked out in a line-up. You may prefer it in its reserved, English garden mode, in which case you’d head straight for a cooler climate such as northern France. But if you’re more of a party fiend, digging the louder, more tropical, vibe, then head somewhere with a little more sunshine, like New Zealand or Chile.

9: Chardonnay: The “Kate” of the wine world

Think back to your school days. Weren’t there always at least four people in your class with the same first name? In my year, it was Kate: fat ones; skinny ones; drippy ones; foreign ones, you name it! Variations on a theme of Kate were popular the world over.

It was hard to work out how to feel about Kates, because just as you had decided that you hated the name because of spotty-faced Kate who smelt of potato, you met supermodel-in-training Kate who had a perm and older friends who could get into nightclubs. Suddenly, you wanted to name all your future children Kate. Even the boys.

Well, Chardonnay is the wine version of Kate. The sheer number of styles you’ll find worldwide can make it difficult to pin down your thoughts on the matter. After all, nearly every wine-producing region in the world has a go at growing it! And as styles of this wine go, Chardonnay moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, being responsible for some of the greatest white wines in the world.

Climate and winemaking techniques may leave their mark, but the key elements will always be there somewhere: look for a golden colour, ripe melon flavour and a fuller body than many other white varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. Vanilla and buttery notes are also good indicators that the wine is a Chardonnay.

8: Riesling – Runways and rubber boots

A German supermodel in lime-green rubber wellies. What a picture! This kooky vision of loveliness sums up what Riesling is all about. With long, lean limbs and golden curls like spun sugar, this fresh-faced beauty can take barrelfuls? of sugar without ever becoming flabby. Suiting any style you throw at her, from uber dry to sweet and pretty, she’ll always exude that inimitable character that could never be anyone else. A national heroine for her distinctive, world-famous beauty, Riesling is the German supermodel of the wine world.

Think freshly squeezed lime with the faint aroma of hot rubber. In a good way. These are the classic markers for the distinctive Riesling grape variety and they get increasingly bold with age. Try it lip-pursingly dry or with a sprinkling of sugar, but even as a full-on dessert-style wine, Riesling’s high acidity – just like a supermodel’s metabolism – will give it that clean and lean feel despite the sweetness.

One problem that wine drinkers often have with Riesling is understanding the label on the classic German wines; there’s a lot of information and it can be tricky to know how dry or sweet the wine is going to be. Some winemakers now use ‘dry’, ‘medium dry’, ‘medium-sweet’ and ‘sweet’ on their labels, which helps, but otherwise, there’s a fair bit of translation involved.

7: Viognier – The sun goddess

viognier final

Viognier is the grape that offers us a piece of tropical paradise in a bottle. You’re on a sun-drenched beach in the Caribbean and look up to see a bronzed, golden haired sun goddess with an apricot cocktail in hand. Skin glistening with coconut oil, she places a garland of white flowers around your neck. You inhale the delicate, musky scent as you take the glass. A burst of fresh apricot and peach explodes on your palate. The effect is seductive and delicious.

Introducing Viognier: a peachy little number that’s enough to lift our spirits on the coldest of days with its full-bodied fruitiness and satisfying oily texture. The delightful weightiness also reminds us of white chocolate-covered apricots and musky pine kernels, all served on a bed of acacia blossom. Even a sun goddess can suffer from sunstroke though. With too much heat, Viognier can become flabby, in the right conditions, however, she’s tropical, floral and delicious.

6: Chenin Blanc – The beekeeper

In the dewy sunshine of his private orchard, our beekeeper tends to the little honeybees in his lanolin suit. We’re never quite sure who’s underneath that veil: is he skinny and nondescript, or could he be softer and fuller figured? Is it even the same person every time? True fame has so far eluded the beekeeper, as we can never quite pin him down. And surely, he must be slightly masochistic; this is a job with a sting in the tail.

Chenin Blanc likes pain: he needs to be severely pruned to get results or he ends up insipid with a damp wool flavour and that famous, stingingly high acidity all too apparent. Get it right and add a bit of sunshine, however, and you’ll be rewarded with honeydew melon notes, a touch of quince or pineapple and a pleasant, beeswax feel.

This grape of many faces makes still, sparkling and dessert wines that are dry, sweet or full-on syrupy in style, though it’s only a very small amount of these gloriously honeyed ‘moelleux’ dessert wines that have achieved any real fame. They can age for years thanks to Chenin’s screechingly high acidity.

5: Cabernet Sauvignon – The professional rugby player

You can generally presume that all professional rugby players have certain elements in common: they are full in body, fairly heavy and particularly well structured. There are forwards who pack a slightly bigger punch, and backs who are a tad more refined and lean, but you can always tell a rugby player a mile off, no matter where in the team they play.

It’s the obvious build and all those purpley-black bruises that do it! And with all their years of training and experience, you can take a bet that their playing quality is going to be pretty reliable, no matter which country it is that they play for. They also tend to need a few years to chill out and learn how to behave.

Yes, Cabernet Sauvignon is the professional rugby player of the wine world! This heavy-duty grape variety has the thickest skin of all the grapes, giving it lots of tannin* and plenty of brawn! ‘Cabernet’, as it’s often known, is a hardy, well-structured grape that makes pretty reliable wine just about anywhere.

When at its very best, it can take a few years to mature and mellow, so bear that in mind when you’re picking one out. Look for a concentrated, dark blue-black and purple colour with distinctive, spicy blackcurrant and cedar flavours. In some cases, you’ll also spot a telltale minty or eucalyptus note, which is often a hint that it’s from a warmer climate.

4: Pinot Noir – The ballerina

When I was younger, I wanted to be a ballerina: elegant and pale skinned, they were femininity personified in my eyes and I would often imagine myself as one in a silky, cherry-red tutu, floating gracefully across the stage in a waft of lavender-scented mist. Sure, they’re notoriously temperamental, and many people also find them too thin, but I have always been mesmerised by their haunting beauty and ability to make complex moves seem so smooth and effortless. It is all of these qualities, the good and the bad, that make the ballerina a perfect Vinalogy for Pinot Noir.

Pinot is famously difficult to work with, which is why there are so many disappointing offerings on the market. When all conditions are perfect and the masters get hold of it, however; oh man. You’ll want to bathe in the stuff! Pale in colour, light bodied and elegant, with high acidity and very low tannin, Pinot can taste like a red wine but feel like a white, which is part of its universal charm.

Couple this with a sensual, silky texture and an ethereal perfume of spiced cherry, lavender, raspberry compote and earth, and you’ll understand why people spend crazy amounts on the top bottles.

3: Malbec – The polo player

The barbecue is fired up and it’s not just the steaks that are sizzling. As the aroma of grilled steak fills the air in that sunny, open field, you spot them on the sidelines before the match: the beautiful people, the polo players.

Mr and Mrs Malbec are smooth seduction in a bottle. Wearing distinctive, raspberry-pink team shirts that only their kind can get away with, they’re toned and athletic rather than rugby-player chunky, with lustrous, silky hair that you can’t help but want to stroke. One of them looks at you, intense and concentrated, with cocoa-coloured eyes framed by soft, long lashes. A rogue polo ball has left a blueberry-coloured bruise on their cheek.

Yes, Malbec certainly grabs the attention. There are not many grapes that you can recognise in the glass just by looking at them, but Malbec is one: concentrated to the point of being opaque, with bright, raspberry-pink tears that will drip down your glass. With a lean and firm structure, Malbec will seduce you with silky tannins, fresh blueberry tones, a touch of grilled meat and a soft flourish of chocolate.

2: Zinfandel – The Hollywood icon

Fancy a night in with a Hollywood Icon? Well, who would be your leading man? Someone enigmatic and bold who demands attention? Throw in a penchant for alcohol, a tendency to put on weight and an intriguing European heritage, and there could be several contenders. If that’s who you’re after then it has got to be Zinfandel: the Hollywood Icon of the grape varieties, the Godfather of wine.

Full-on, full bodied and frequently high in alcohol, ‘Zin’ is not exactly a subtle wine. It oozes black cherry jam, prune and spicy fig flavours together with a fair whack of tannin that’ll stain your teeth bright blue. With roots in Europe (it has been genetically linked to Italy’s Primitivo and Croatia’s Crljenak Kastelanski grapes), the Californian treatment has made Zin a star and there’s no ignoring this captivating wine! So, if you’re a fan of big, charismatic personalities, Zinfandel is the way to go.

1: Nebbiolo – The ladyboy

You are standing in a dingy Milanese club, drink in hand, waiting for the show to start. The lights go down and the stage fills with fog. A figure steps forward into the spotlight. A woman. You think you recognise her; the slim body, the elegance, the pale skin. She has the figure of a ballerina at first glance, but no. There’s something different. You can’t quite put your finger on it.

After her set, you approach her. Her perfume is seductive: violets and rose petals, but with undertones of something darker. LiquoriceTar? She speaks. You expect French, but her accent is Italian. Local. Still, there’s something different. You get talking. You take her home. You go upstairs. You slowly undress her, and then wham! You discover that something different… This grape has balls!

Nebbiolo can look as graceful and feminine as a Pinot Noir, but once you get it in your mouth, there’s no comparison. It’s all male! Nebbiolo is an intriguing paradox, especially with a bit of age on it because it’s pale, perfumed and delicate in appearance and aroma, but is full bodied, has high acidity and lots of tooth-drying tannin once you get it in your mouth. It makes wine that can go on for years and not lose power. Think roses and violets, tar and truffles.

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