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Tuesday, 24 November 2009

In search of Terroir: Chile's Vina Undurraga

Terroir is a uniquely French concept, meaning the combination of soil, altitude, aspect, rainfall and just about eveything which makes the local climate suitable or otherwise for growing vines. Indeed, the whole French system of wine classification is based on the concept of terroir - Pauillac and the Côte d'Or are places, not grape varieties.

The New World, by contrast, tends to focus as much, if not more, on grape variety and for that reason, one tends to speak of Aussie Shiraz or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. However, it was only a matter of time before more forward-thinking winemakers from the New World began to look more closely at the area where the grapes are grown and start to delineate growing areas more precisely, identifying those which produce better wines.

Such a man is Rafael Urrejola, chief winemaker of Chile's Vina Undurraga; the winery was founded in 1885 but has only recently started to focus on the concept of terroir under Rafael's leadership with his "Terroir Hunter" project.

Rafael presented his wines at the newly-established St John's Chop House on Northampton Street in central Cambridge and the event was organised by Cambridge Wine Merchants.

With just one exception, all the wines Rafael presented were from his Terroir Hunter series and what became clear over the tasting is that there are indeed distinct characteristics discernible in the wines from the different terroirs - or micro-terroirs, as each wine was from an area of fewer than 5 hectares. To put it crudely, the wines from Leyda tend to have more fruit on the nose, but are more delicate on the palate, whilst the Casablanca wines are somewhat muted on the nose but richer and stronger on the palate.

Chile is a long, thin strip of a country snaking down the western side of South America - not much over 100 miles wide, its geography is complex, but in simple terms it has the Andes to the west, the Antarctic to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the east (with its cooling breezes) and finally the Atacama desert to the north. Add into this differing soil types washed down the valleys of the Andes, and a lower-lying coastal mountain range giving some shelter from the cooling sea breezes and the variety of terroirs and micro-terroirs is immense.

All the wines were relatively young, mostly from 2008, and all were in screw-cap bottles and were poured without decanting; as a result, many developed significantly in the glass and first impressions needed revisiting after a few minutes airing and swirling.

We started with the Brut Royal, a sparkling wine fermented in tank, rather than using the traditional (and more expensive) Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. It was fruity, refreshing and well-balanced.

Next up was a trio of Sauvignon Blancs from Casablanca, Leyda and Abarca respectively. The first was the most typically "Chilean" of the three, with lots of zesty, ripe tropical fruit, whilst the Leyda Sauvignon had a very herbaceous nose and the Abarca tasted as if it had been barrel fermented, having a muted nose but a generous, minerally mouth-feel on the palate. Rafael explained that the style of the wine is due not to barrel fermentation, but to the effect of cooling breezes from the Pacific, so the grapes ripen more slowly and do not achieve quite the same level of ripeness as they would in warmer climates.

The last of the whites was an oaked Chardonnay from Limari - initially, this was very oaky tasting of buttered crumpets and mixed spice matched with good acidity, but after opening up it became a much more balanced and complex wine. The "Burgundian" section of the tasting continued with two Pinot Noirs which, again, highlighted the differences between Leyda and Casablanca; the first having a typical Pinot nose with cherries and a distinct vegetal or farmyard note, whilst the second was fuller, with more complexity on the palate.

Finally, there were two Syrahs - one from Limari and the other from Maipo. Both wines had lots of fruit, hints of spicy white pepper and a very smooth texture, and again the Limari, being from a cooler climate, was lighter with more red fruit on the nose. By contrast the Maipo was richer and fuller with black fruits; it was for me, the most enjoyable wine of the evening and has even earned a nod from Oz Clarke.

The Wines (all available from Cambridge Wine Merchants)

Undurraga Brut Royal NV (£8.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca 2008 (£10.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Leyda 2007 (£8.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Abarca 2008 (£10.99)
2008 Decanter International Trophy Winner
TH Chardonnay Limari 2008 (£12.99)
TH Pinot Noir Leyda 2008 (£12.99)
TH Pinot Noir Casablanca 2008 (£13.99)
TH Syrah Limari 2007 (£12.99)
TH Syrah Maipo 2006 (£9.99)
Best 250 wines by Oz Clarke

Links
Undurraga - http://www.undurraga.cl/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
St John's Chop House - http://www.chophouses.co.uk/StJohnsChopHouse/index.html

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Wine-buying in France; Calais

I'm not sure whether the Pas-de-Calais region actually produces any wine and if it does, it's unlikely to be much good, but it is still a very good part of France in which to buy wine for the simple reason that it full of hypermarkets and can be done as a day trip from Cambridge.

Calais is a pretty soulless place at the best of times - flat, bleak, mostly destroyed during the war, it is a working port with the refugee centre of Sangatte just up the road. Bill Bryson describes it in his Notes from a Small Island as "an interesting place that exists for solely for the purpose of giving English people in shell suits somewhere to go for the day" and its buildings as examples of "1950s planners smitten with the novel possibilities of concrete".

Hardly an idyllic day-trip then, but Calais' main attraction is its large number of hypermarkets in the Channel Tunnel terminal area known as "Cite Europe".

Whether you are travelling through Calais on the way back to the UK or just coming across for the day, this is the place to stock up on wine if you are looking for some everyday-drinking bottles. Stick to a few simple principles and you can have an instant cellar of reliable, enjoyable wine for a lot less than it would cost in the UK - even if you include the travel costs of getting there.

One of my principles when buying wine is to try and get it as close to the region in which it is produced as possible - and the smaller the wine-producing area, the nearer you need to get to find the decent stuff. Now, a good wine merchant, of which Cambridge has plenty, will always be able to get good wines from specialist producers in smaller regions, but then you are generally looking at a different price bracket to everyday wines. Wine-buying in Calais is about getting good bottles of mainstream French wines that are, or at least should be, more interesting and cost rather less that what you'll find in a UK supermarket.

To get the best out of a day trip to Calais then, you need to do the following:

1) travel out of season; Calais is never that nice a place, so don't go for the scenery; out of season, the crossing will be much cheaper than in the height of summer when all the schools are on holiday

2) you do need to buy a fair amount of wine in order to offset the costs of getting to Calais and back; the "working amount" maximum for personal import limits is 90 litres, which is 120 bottles. This may seem like a lot, but is perhaps only around a year's supply for two people and many of the wines will improve with age.

3) avoid very specialist or small-scale areas, such as Burgundy or Alsace; the wines from both regions can be absolutely fantastic, but when supermarket shopping, it is better to stick to the larger, more reliable areas such as Bordeaux, the south west in general (Corbieres, Languedoc-Rousillon) and the southern Rhone. A good guide is to look at the volume of shelf space given to a particular region - Bordeaux will probably have a whole wall, whilst Burgundy may have just a few different types.

4) choose your price range - in my experience, French supermarkets tend to specialise in in wines at the €4 - €10 price range. Anything cheaper may well be fine, perhaps a little rustic, but if you don't like it you can always put it in the cooking. Anything more expensive is really the domain of more specialist sellers.

5) look for medal-winners in regional competitions; wine competitions have had something of a bad press in recent years, especially the larger ones, but local competitions have a reputation to maintain and medals here really do mean something.

6) choose a good supermarket - Carrefour is a very large, "hard-discount" chain and I have had more disappointing wines from here than from anywhere else - not bad ones, just not very exciting. Auchan, by contrast, has always seemed to have very good wines with real flavour and interest and I have become something of a regular at their Calais branch.

There are also a number of UK outlets (the major supermarkets and wine retailers) which have a branch in Calais to take advantage of the lower tax rates there. Personally, I prefer the idea of buying French wine from a French supermarket and hoping to be pleasantly surprised - rather than just buying a bog-standard New World wine at a slightly lower price.

7) remember you can stock up on other things too; local beers from northeast France (i.e near the Belgian and German borders with all their good influences) can be excellent, as can cheeses and sliced meats generally.

8) allow plenty of time for your shopping; there are some seriously big hypermarkets in Cite Europe with plenty of things to look at, so two hours just for your wine is sensible, plus time for anything else

Depending on whether you just go for the shopping or do want something of a day trip, you can also head up the coastal road to Boulogne - with its walled old town on a hilltop, it's much more worthy of a visit and event has a couple of Logis de France hotel restaurants that are usually worth seeking out.

If you are travelling further afield and just using Calais as your base for travelling between Cambridge and France, it is still worth stocking up at Cite Europe, albeit on your way back and not out - 120 bottles of wine are quite heavy and even a big car will feel wallowy with so much weight on board, which is not ideal for B-road cruising during your two-week driving holiday.

Once home, remember that the wines may well improve with age - the French seem to like wines with aging potential and the wines I have bought from Auchan are generally sold at two years from the vintage, just ready for drinking at three and, given the chance, will improve significantly for a good few more years after that, so you almost need to plan on having next year's stocks maturing in your cellar (or under the stairs) now.

If you can't manage that and you find the wine a bit too tannic, then definitely try decanting an hour or so before drinking to soften the reds or open up the whites.

Links

Auchan - wine list (only in French):

http://www.auchan.fr/vad/sdv/homeUnivers.jsp?channelid=2902803

Auchan Calais - map:

http://www.multimap.com/maps/?qs=calais&countryCode=GB#map=50.94465,1.81476184&bd=useful_information&loc=FR:50.94435:1.81476:17Av.%20Roger%20Salengro,%20calaisAvenue%20Roger%20Salengro,%2062100,%20Calais,%20Pas-de-Calais

Cite Europe (in English):

http://en.citeeurope.com/vue/form/citeeuropeuk/accueil/accueil.htm

Logis de France

http://www.logis-de-france.fr/uk/recherch/index-ca.htm

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Hungarian Food and Wine Tasting

The recent Hungarian tasting organised by the Cambridge Food and Wine Society was a first in a number of ways - not only the Society's first ever Hungarian tasting, it was also their first joint event (in this case with with the Cambridge Szeged Society).

Szeged (pronounced SEH-ged) is a city in the south of Hungary, situated on a great plain and with the country's oldest university, similar to Cambridge with which it has been twinned since 1987. The Cambridge Szeged Society, chaired by Julia Seiber Boyd, kindly provided us with some traditional Hungarian food to go with the wines which were presented by Lucien Lanci, proprietor of Malux and supplier to no less an institution than the Hungarian embassy in London.

Lucien started by explaining that all the wines came from small producers who make high-quality wines in limited quantities. He also highlighted the three main recent phases the Hungarian wine industry has been through, starting with the period under communism in which quantity was everything, through the post-Berlin Wall period in which Hungary tried to make a name for itself with instantly-recognisable international grape varieties and on to the present where the emphasis is much more on local varieties. With 22 wine regions and a clutch of native grapes, Hungary produces a wide range of types and styles.

We started then with a Cserszegi Fűszeres (CHAIR-say-gee FOO-ser-esh) from the Szeged region by Frittmann, Hungary's wine producer of the year in 2007. Light, aromatic and somewhat floral, this was reminiscent of a Gewurztraminer, which is not surprising as, although of decidedly mixed descent, it includes some gewurz in its parentage.

This was followed by a much heavier white called Napbor (Hungarian for "sun wine") - we never did get to the bottom of the name or find out exactly which grape varieties it was made from, but with a very muted nose, deep yellow hue suggesting some oxidisation and plenty of oak, it was like an old-style Burgundy.

The first of the reds was a Kekfrankos, also known as Blaufraenkisch in neighbouring Austria and meaning the same thing - Blue Frankish or Blue Franc; apparently, the wine was extremely popular with Napoleon's troops who used to buy it with their blue Francs, or so the story goes. Kekfrankos / Blaufraenkisch tends to produce wines with a rasp of juicy sour cherries but not too much else, but can be very pleasant if well made, as this one was. Like the first wine, it was also by Frittmann and, unusually, from the Szeged area (most Kekfrankos is grown near the Austrian border).

The last of the dry wines was perhaps the most famous Hungarian wine after Tokaji - Bulls' Blood or Egri Bikaver, "Egri" here indicating the wine comes from Eger in the north of Hungary. Rich, with brambly fruits and smooth vanilla oak, this was the best of the dry wines - an achievement reflected in the fact it has won medals at two Hungarian events (Bukkvinfest 2008 and a gold in Eger 2008).

Finally, we ended with perhaps Hungary's greatest contribution to wine; Tokaj is a town in north eastern Hungary where the climate produces reliable conditions for botrytis, or noble rot, to form on the grapes. Botrytis is a type of fungus that grows on the grape skin and sucks out the moisture from the grape without exposing it to the air so that the grape itself shrivels but does not spoil. The fungus, however, needs quite specific conditions and these are found in only a few areas, such as around Tokaj, near Lake Neusidl in neighbouring Austria and also in Sauternes in Bordeaux.

The Tokaji we tried, however, was not from botrytised grapes, but a blend of late-harvested, super-ripe grapes (equivalent to a Spaetlese in Germany or Austria) giving a much lighter-tasting wine, in this case with hints of guava.

The formalities of the wine-tasting over, we then sampled some excellent Hungarian food, prepared by various members of the Cambridge Szeged Society.


The Wines - all available from Malux Ltd

Csersegi Fuszeres, Frittmann, 2008 (£8.70)

Napbor, St Andrea, 2007 (£11.65)

Kekfrankos, Frittmann, 2007 (£8.45)

Egri Bikaver, St Andrea, 2006 (£10.20)

Tokaji Cuvee, 2007 (£10)

The Food - provided by members of the Cambridge Szeged Society

Sour cherry soup
Korosot Liptoi (a type of cottage cheese with added spices)
Beef gulyas (goulash)
Rakott Burgonya (a hot casserole of potatoes, salami and eggs)
Pork meat balls and soured cabbage
Hungarian-style red cabbage
Mushroom pancakes
Jerusalem artichoke salad
Lecso with parsnip
Poppy seed pastries
Cherry pie

Links

Cambridge Food and Wine Society - http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/

Cambridge Szeged Society - http://www.cambridge-szeged-society.org.uk/

Cambridge Szeged Society newsletter with recipes (on p4) - http://www.cambridge-szeged-society.org.uk/graphics/Szeged%20Newsletter%202010%20pdf.pdf

Malux Ltd - http://www.hungarianfoodandwine.com/

Profile of Szeged on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Szeged

Jancis Robinson article on Hungarian wines - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0fcb53e4-4e63-11df-b48d-00144feab49a.html

Image credit: Szeged montage from Wikipedia, user Uzo19