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Sunday, 26 September 2010

A beauty queen without lipstick ? Los Espinos unoaked Chardonnay at Cambridge Wine Merchants

A blog I once read described unoaked Chardonnay as being like a beauty queen without lipstick - I'm sure the denizens and afficionados of Chablis would have something to say about that, but I can see the point.

Good, oaked Chardonnay has a wonderful richness and food-friendly complexity that can only come from time spent in new oak. It is a relatively easy grape to grow and some many parts of the world do so that it is no longer particularly associated with any one region (in the way one talks of Argentinean Malbec or Chilean Carmenere, just to give two examples from South America), but its spiritual home is Burgundy where styles range from subtly oaked to rich, buttery-toasty wines with flavours of oatmeal and nuts.

Australia, by contrast, pioneered a much riper, more overtly crowd-pleasing style with tropical fruit and buttery spice and it is these alternatives of restrained old world and up-front new world that have become the key distinction for Chardonnay styles. Until recently, it seems.

Unoaked Chardonnay has always existed - and not just in the wines of Chablis; Styria (in Austria), New Zealand and Chile all produce varying amounts of it, and numerous other places do too. However, as a recent tasting I organised showed, people seem to have gone off that oaked Chardonnay style in a big way in favour of something crisp and aromatic that has never seen the inside of a barrel.

The popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon and rise-and-rise of Pinot Grigio in the last few years is a testament to that. Inexplicably (to me, at least) this swing towards crisp, minerally wines has by-passed Riesling completely, which I fear is destined to remain a niche interest forever. Well, at least that keeps the price down for those of us who do appreciate its wonderfully complex and food-friendly charms.

And so to this unoaked Chardonnay from Vina Indomita tasted in-store at Cambridge Wine Merchants' Mill Road store this weekend. The grapes for this wine come from the Casablanca Valley - possibly Chile's top area for white wines due to the long growing season caused by coastal cooling - were hand-picked and fermented in stainless steel for freshness.

In the glass it is a pale gold colour, the nose is full, fresh and citrussy with restrained tropical fruits and hints of pear and nectarine on the palate, good, balanced acidity and a smooth finish. Overall, it has a light crispness that belies the 14.5 alcohol level.

At £5.99 it's good value, too, as either a light quaffing wine for the garden or even a picnic. Sadly, summer is finishing in Cambridge and the last few days have felt more wintry even than autumnal, so picnics may well be few and far between for a while, but it will also serve either as an aperitif or with dishes made from salmon, cream or soft cheese - or maybe all three.

Links

Vina Indomita - http://www.indomita.cl/

Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Acknowledgement

"Unoaked Chardonnay - A Beauty Queen w/o Lipstick" by Kelly Brown, http://allthingsliquid.com/?p=301

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Kirchengut Wolf in the Mosel Valley

A few years ago, I took a driving holiday through Alsace and Germany; the best wines from that trip came from Paul Schneider in Alsace (detailed here) and Kirchengut Wolf in the Mosel valley.

The general itinerary for the trip was Cambridge, Calais, Belgium, Alsace, the Black Forest, Heidelberg, the Mosel valley and back to Cambridge; Heidelberg is Cambridge's twin city which gave me one reason to visit it - the other is its beautiful castle overlooking the old town and river.

Starting out from Heidelberg, we first drove along the Rhine valley before a cross-country dash to Traben Trarbach in the Mosel. The rolling countryside we drove through felt less stereotypically Germanic than the big industrial or Hanseatic cities one associates with the Bundesrepublik Deutschland - it was agricultural and neatly, gently rural.

The wine-producing area of the Mosel valley winds constantly and meanderingly between Bernkastel-Kues at one end and Traben Trarbach at the other, spinning out a journey of 25km as the crow flies to 40km. The vines grow on impossibly steep, slatey terraces and produce crisp, steely, minerally wines.

We stopped at Kirchengut Wolf in the village of Wolf more by chance than design - pulling up by the side of the house and shortly finding someone to allow us to taste a few wines. We were the only people there at the time but our host had a great command of English and a very personable manner.

We tried a Riesling, a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and a Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and they all showed the kind of body, excellent structure and finesse one associates with much more expensive wines and a full-bodied crispness I associate with Austrian wines where off-dry fell out of favour as a style some time ago. I do not remember exactly what we bought, except that one was from the "Wolfer Goldgrube" (Goldmine) vineyard and had a gold medal from somewhere. Cost was around €6 per bottle.

According the winery's website, the vineyard was founded by monks who moved into the monastery in Wolf in 1478. The wine cellar for producing and storing the wine was built in the village instead of the surroundings of the church. The construction of the cellar began in 1488 and in 1557 during the reformation the confraternity was broken down and the protestant church founded. They continued the vineyard from that moment on. The current church of Wolf was built on the old cellar in 1685 and now the Kirchengut Wolf possesses the only wine cellar under a church.

Having lived in Austria for a number of years, I have something of an unfashionably soft spot for their wines and also for German speakers in general; I rather like the precision and formality of both and find that below an apparently brusque exterior often lies a personable charm.

We stayed the night in the Mosel valley and experienced the steepness of the vineyards for ourselves at first hand during an afternoon stroll through Kinheim - however, it must be admitted that the food we had here and also further south in Heidelberg and the Black Forest was not quite up to the level of what we had experienced across the border in La Republique Francaise. For, Germany is more a beer country than a wine one, and its food traditions suit drinking with beer - one of the most satisfying meals we had was a picnic lunch in Heidelberg consisting of delicious seeded brown bread rolls, speck some cheese and tomatoes and a bottle strong malty lager.

Links

Kirchengut Wolf - http://www.kirchengut-wolf.de/

Paul Schneider - http://www.vins-paul-schneider.fr/

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Shabo VSOP

Of the things Ukraine is famous for, high up on the list are probably the Chornobyl explosion, periodic stand-offs with its overbearing, northerly neighbour, vodka and a book about tractors. Once "the bread basket of the Soviet Union", it is also known for its richly fertile "black earth".

It is perhaps less know on the world stage for its wines which are, in all honesty, not world class and generally come from the south, especially the Crimean peninsula which is one of the few parts of the country that does not get too cold in winter for vines to survive. Most famous of these may well be Sovetskoye Shampanskoye, an excellent value, if undemanding, generic sparkling wine which, apparently, is still allowed to call itself Champagne for historic reasons.

Less well known, but of more note are Ukrainian brandies; I spent a year living and working in Ukraine a couple of decades ago, and have maintained links with the country ever since, but Ukrainian brandy is something I have only begun to appreciate in recent years, along with a general interest in aged spirits.

This latest present from a welcome guest is Shabo's VSOP - described by the Shabo website thus:

V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) – excellent, old, light; brandy aged in a barrel for at least 4 years. Brandy “Shabo” V.S.O.P. is aged in oak barrel and based on brandy spirits of 5 years old.

Grape varieties apparently include Aligote and Rkatsiteli; Aligote is found mainly as a second grape in Burgundy and is pleasant enough; Rkatsiteli is an ancient Georgian grape (that's Georgia the country, not the US state) which apparently produces noticeably acidic, balanced white wine with spicy and floral notes in the aroma.

Dark gold in the glass - almost mahogany - the nose is wonderfully, rustically rich, complex and warming with a vanilla, butterscotch, almond and heather sweetness. There is more of these on the palate, but also some spice, stewed vine fruits and a surprisingly refreshing acidity giving way to a long, dry finish with yet more vanilla.

Food matches are easy - it goes fantastically well with dark, bitter chocolate and an espresso, especially after a particularly good meal. Alternatively, it also matches with sticky toffee pudding or something rich with spice and mixed fruit such as Christmas pudding or Christmas cake.

Shabo itself is a town in the Odessa region whose name originated around 500 years ago as "Аshа-Аbаg” meaning "lower garden", renamed Schabag by Swiss settlers in the 1820s and later simplified to Shabo.

Links

http://shabo.ua/en/main

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Substance and style - Bollinger tasting at Cambridge Wine Merchants

At Cambridge Wine Merchant's newest branch on Cherry Hinton Road last week, there was a chance to sample some Champagne on a do-I-like-it-or-not basis, rather than an is-it-worth-it basis.

Chloe Craven, UK marketing manager for Bollinger, started off by explaining what makes Bollinger's wines different from other Champagnes; it is a family-owned company, grows most of its own grapes, rather than just buying in - which are then fermented  into the base wine on a vineyard-by-vineyard basis - and ages its wines for much longer than required by French wine law, and than done by other Champagne houses.

Typically, only 45% of the current year's production goes into any bottle of the "basic" non-vintage (NV) wine (the exact proportion varies by year in order to maintain consistency of style - the overall aim of any NV Champagne) whilst small amounts aged between 5 and 15 years are added to the blend. Also, the wine is aged for 3 years in bottle on its lees where Champagne law requires just 18 months.

The NV had all the toasty yeasty characteristics I associate with good Champagne - Bollinger's wines are, apparently, a style that has proven particularly popular with the UK market, slightly fuller and heavier than others, in part from the age for the wines used in the blend and in part from the high proportion of Pinot Noir in the blend (60%). Chloe suggested that the NV would be a match for sushi, whilst one of the branch staff explained that in his family, Champagne is served on Boxing Day with left-over meats such as turkey and pork; I can really see how after a day of feasting on mince pies and turkey with all the trimmings, cold cuts and Champagne would be a real pick-me-up.
 
We followed this with a rosé; there was the same proportion of Pinot Noir as for the NV, but a small amount of it is made into a red wine (by fermenting the grapes along with the skins and pips) then mixed in with the white wine which made from just the grape juice alone. As well as giving colour, the red Pinot Noir wine gives some typical Pinot aromas of strawberries and raspberries.

We then moved on to something much more serious (and pricey), a vintage Champagne from 2000 called La Grande Année. Vintage Champange is only produced if the grapes from one year are good enough to be made into a wine without needing blending with wines from other years - other recent vintages include 1999 and 2002. Chloe explained that for the vintage wine, all grapes are barrel fermented (in old oak, to give the richness of barrel fermentation without the heavy vanilla of new oak), no Pinot Meunier is used, the wine spends 6 years on the lees in bottle and all remuage is by hand (remuage is the process of twisting each bottle by a quarter turn over a period of time so the yeast sediment sinks into the neck of the bottle for removal). Of the grapes, 75% are from Grand Cru vineyards, the rest from Premier Cru. This, then, is a wine of breeding, distinction and heritage - it was weightier and fuller than the basic NV and suggested food matches were light meats or even game such as pigeon.

Finally, we were treated to something quite rare, a bottle of the Grande Annee Rosé. Like the NV rose, this has some red Pinot Noir mixed in with the blend; Chloe described the red wine used for this as intense - not a word I would normally use to describe the pale and sensitive wine that is cool-climate Pinot, but everything's relative. But true enough, this wine did have typical Pinot aromas of woody mushrooms and forest floor along with the strawberries.

I do not feel I have been converted overnight to a regular Champagne drinker, but these were wines were a long way from what I normally drink in terms of both style and price range. Also, I find that the superiority of something is sometimes not so apparent as you move up the quality scale, but as you move back down - that is, you find yourself thinking "Hmmmm, I used to think this was just fine, but now it doesn't seem quite as good as before".

As a footnote, it is worth mentioning that at the end of the formal tasting, there was a small amount of some of the wines left and I re-tasted a little of the Grande Annee which had been sitting quietly in the bottle for a good half-hour. It seemed to have opened up much more and have a far more complex and pronounced nose. Obviously decanting or extensive airing of Champagne rather defeats the object, but perhaps further bottle aging is the answer - the wines we tried were generally from magnums which age more slowly than single bottles so perhaps they were just a little on the youthful side.

It would be an interesting (if rather expensive) experiment to buy a case of one or more of these wines to see how it develops over time and quite a few people bought bottles of Bollinger after the event - however, it was single bottles and not cases.

The Wines - prices are for single bottles

Special Cuvee NV - £45
Rosé NV - £45
La Grande Année (2000) - £65
La Grande Année Rosé  (2000) - £90

Links

Bollinger - http://www.champagne-bollinger.com/

Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Monday, 6 September 2010

Rousseau de Sipian, 2005, Medoc - Cambridge Wine Merchants


This 2005 red Bordeaux from Rousseau de Sipian, purchased at Cambridge Wine Merchants (£12.99 for a single bottle, but case offers take it well below a tenner), was, I thought, the best of the wines from a recent tasting I arranged for some colleagues and although it was well-liked at the time, the appreciation seemed more polite than enthusiastic.

To be fair to both the wine and my colleagues, it was one of a number of wines we sampled and probably did not show at its best due to a) following very crowd-pleasing and easy-drinking southern French Carignan b) not being allowed sufficient time to breathe c) being served without food.

So, I decided to get another bottle, give it a couple of hours in the decanter and see how it showed on its own with a simple roast dinner.

The Médoc is an area on the left bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux where Cabernet Sauvignon dominates. Cab tends to produce darker, chewier, more full-bodied wines than the Merlots which dominate on the other side of the river, but as this is a blend of the two in roughly equal proportions, there is the fullness of the Cab with the perfume and fruit of the Merlot.

2005 was one of the great years of the decade for Bordeaux, and this wine retails for a few quid more than its 2004 equivalent. However, I decided that, although this took the price well of "everyday wine" territory, it was worth the extra money for the year and the two medals it has garnered - a silver from the Concours General de Paris 2008 and a silver from the Concours de Bordeaux Vins d'Aquitaine 2007.

First off, this is still quite young, even at 5 years, and needs a bit of time in the decanter before it really opens up. Deep red, almost inky in the glass, it has a rich nose with a blast of blackcurrant fruit with vanilla, cedar and hints of earthiness and spice.

The palate is full and soft with dark berry fruit, liquorice and pencil shavings but what impresses the most is the texture - rich, dense and  mouthfilling, it really is quite special - something I am learning to associate with good Bordeaux and which tends to make otherwise very good wines seem thin and two-dimensional by comparison. There is a good finish with some acidity and a firm tannic grip that benefits from some food.

According to CWM's website, this wine was recently selected by Tim Atkin MW in his Guardian supplement as one of only 3 Bordeaux wines in his choice of the 36 best value wines currently on offer from France and describes it as "an attractively drinkable claret".

Bordeaux is generally something of an old-school wine - it is not showy or flashy, but has subtlety, restraint and balance and it not only tends to need food, but somewhat old-school food, such as plain roast meats.

Our accompanying meal therefore had distinctly old-school overtones, too - but it was by no means plain or boring; a leg of rare-breed lamb from a smallholding in Willingham seasoned with salt, pepper, chopped rosemary and crushed garlic, then slow roasted and served with potatoes, carrots and celery all roasted in the same pan as the meat.

We followed this with roasted nectarines served with clotted cream ice-cream and a glass of Lustau East India Oloroso (see here).

£12.99 for a single from Cambridge Wine Merchants, discounted to £9.52 per bottle for a case of 12.

Links

Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Tim Atkin - http://www.timatkin.com/

Thursday, 2 September 2010

JMS Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux 2009 - Laithwaites

I have never quite seen the point of aging Sauvignon Blanc in lots of new oak - in its unadulterated form, it has such a strong and distinctive personality that it doesn't really need the addition of oak. A good SB is crisp, aromatic and herbaceous - a really good one will also be minerally and full-bodied, too.

So then, what does oak bring to the party - on the plus side it will fill out the wine, giving it more body and texture, but it also blunts the aromatic edge, makes all those green, zingy, nettley aromas less pronounced. Far better, in my book, is to source grapes from more marginal climates so that the slower ripening gives the wine more body and complexity. Styria, in southern Austria, does some stunning examples, piercingly crisp, yet also full-bodied, minerally and balanced on the finish. Away from Oyster Bay, NZ also does some full-yet-crisp-and-minerally versions, too.

The Laithwaites website crows that this is a "remarkable, oak-aged big brother to Laithwaite Sauvignon - white wine fans must try this! ... only a few barrels made!"

Hmmmmmmm, for me this is (like most Laithwaites wines) well made and pleasant enough, but somewhat bland and overpriced; at £9.99, it certainly is not an everyday wine, but I would want something a little more impressive for a special occasion.

The Laithwaites website notes that the wine has an IWC award - well, strictly speaking it does, but what it actually has is a commendation, this being the lowest of the awards the judges can give for between 80 and 84 points out of 100, which is rather a case of damning with faint praise. It also has a nod of some sort from Decanter.

Links

Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/

This wine on Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/DWBase/jsp/article/index.jsp?productId=prod820815