Memoirs of a Freeloader: Stephen Brook’s vinous highlights

Having written approaching 40 books on wine, Stephen Brook, also a contributing editor at Decanter, now turns his attention to recounting his own vast and varied experiences in relation to the vine in his book titled Memoirs of a Freeloader. This vinous autobiography charts his transition to wine writing from being a commissioning editor, and cleverly captures what really goes on behind the scenes in the world of wine. This excerpt sees Stephen travel to Brazil to judge and present, a gig made all the more appealing by the added bonus of a mega Montrachet tasting. It turned out to be a trip full of samba surprises.

In May 2006, I flew off to Brazil to participate in a wine fair in São Paulo called Expovinis. Steven Spurrier was the usual choice for international judge and presenter, but he was unable to attend that year and asked me if I would be interested in taking his place. It didn’t take long to come to a decision, especially since after the wine fair there was to be a vertical tasting in Rio de Janeiro of numerous vintages of Montrachet, no less, from Comtes Lafon.

My main contact was the Brazilian wine consultant Jorge Lucki, who was organising the various tastings, at which I was expected to be present, and he had secured the invitation to the Montrachet event. I was mostly looked after by Ivan Santos, a Brazilian wine educator, and Rob Dinham, an expatriate from Britain who acted as my guide and translator. These two gentlemen were good enough to pick me up at the airport at 5.30am in the morning, and would also take me to lunch each day before going on to the fair, which only opened its doors at 2 pm.

Jorge Lucki is a cordial, rather distracted man, but his knowledge of wine is immense. The format was that I was free to explore the fair during the afternoon and in the evening would comment on wines at featured tastings to which the public had signed up. The 8.30pm tasting of 2003 vintage ports started late – as did every event at the fair – but went well, with Jorge introducing the wines, and Rob translating my commentary.

There were two tastings for me to tutor the following evening: prestigious South American wines, followed by top 2001 red Burgundies. I decided not to strive too hard to be sensitive to local pride, and pulled no punches when talking about the South American wines, though evidently Brazilians were not going to be too put out when I criticised some Argentinian wines for excessive alcohol. Indeed, I could see some of the audience nodding energetically when I denounced a particular wine.

My Burgundy tasting began over an hour late, as Jorge had forgotten to bring the wines from his home, so someone had to be dispatched to collect them. Opening the bottles and checking for defects was done at the last moment. The pourers had an irritating habit of pouring my wine last, which meant that I scarcely had time to taste it before giving my opinion.

On the final day Jorge had organised a Top Ten competition, inviting about ten jurors to select their top wines from the fair. They were to be tasted blind at 3.00pm, and then at 7.00pm I would announce the results to the breathless crowd. When I arrived at his office, Jorge was staring at his computer screen, baffled by the number of wines we had to taste. We eventually managed to reduce the number to just under 50. We then discussed how to taste them and how to organise the flights.

All this discussion was going on while the tasting was supposed to be taking place. Then the bottles had to be found, and in some cases chilled, before being bagged and opened. I became very impatient, since I had no choice but to hang around and do nothing. We finally made our way to the main tasting room, where Jorge created a little ceremony and introduced each winning wine. TV cameras hummed. Any notion that the foreign guest would announce the results had clearly been abandoned, rather to my relief.

Jorge had a surprise for me: to tutor a tasting of Brazilian wines. No easy task as I had no idea what the wines were until they were being poured, as again my glasses were filled last. Jorge failed to mention that some of the winemakers were in the audience. Rob mentioned this half way through, so I could avoid offending any of them, though I was still quite harsh in some of my comments. Jorge told me we would recover from the long day by going to a top restaurant, and he took me to the spacious and beautiful Fasano. Despite the fact that I had to be up at 5.15am in the morning, I made the most of it.

After a tour of Brazilian wineries with Rob and Ian, I flew to Rio and checked into the Copacabana Palace Hotel. There I attended the magnificent Montrachet tasting that took place in a private suite from 2 to 8.30pm. The host was a mathematician and tycoon who had built up vertical collections of Montrachets and other wines from top estates. Thirty-six guests gathered from 1pm onwards over a glass or more of 1990 Cristal. Dominique Lafon was there of course, and Jonathan Nossiter, who had gained notoriety for his absorbing film Mondovino. He now lived in Brazil with his young family. The other guests were the host’s friends and their spouses or partners.

There was an illustrated tasting booklet by each place, as well as a complete list of the twenty-five wines, the dishes to be served between flights, and a list of all the guests. We were seated along one side of an E-shaped table, and the bottles were poured alternately, so that one could borrow one’s neighbour’s glass if there were bottle variations, which there were. I was next to Zédé Jakurski, a pretty woman married to the rather dour global trader André Jakurski. He told me he had just secured at auction a case of Jaboulet’s 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle, so I knew what league he was batting in.

After each flight there were commentaries. Dominique recalled each vintage and its conditions, and the feelings they inspired in him. Jonathan’s comments were more philosophical, mine more critical but enthusiastic on the whole. The host also called on some of his friends, who did not pretend to be wine experts, to give their views, but these became more vague and excited as the afternoon progressed. After the tasting, dessert was served with 1967 Yquem and an ancient Armagnac. We drifted off at 8.30pm.

As the tasting was drawing to a close I asked Jorge how I was supposed to get from Rio to São Paulo for my flight home. His jaw dropped. Had no one dealt with this? I replied that I had mentioned it repeatedly, and no one had got back to me. An e-ticket duly arrived.


Memoirs of a Freeloader by Stephen Brook is available online at Amazon