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Thursday, 31 March 2011

A (Metaphorical) Tour Through Italy's Vineyards‏

Sadly, this was not literally a tour, but rather a lot of people crammed into an ornate central London hotel conference room with around 15 Italian wine producers and importers.

Described as the 7th in a series of events, the theme here seemed to be a focus on international (i.e. French) grape varieties rather than native Italian ones.

Whilst the location was impressive, conditions were not ideal; a noisy, cramped room, the schoolboy error of not providing proper tasting glasses, scant space to jot down notes and the presence of a few over-perfumed ladies are not conducive to the wines showing their best and I only worry that I did some good wines a disservice as a result.

Having familiarised myself with native Italian grape varieties at a recent Slow Wine event, it was interesting to see what traditional French grapes can do in a warmer climate, but the results tended to be generally something a bit riper and fleshier than the corresponding French wine.

Whilst there's nothing wrong in that and all the wines were well made, given Italy's heritage of native grapes and the ubiquity of French varieties in warm-climate New World countries, it did rather leave me wondering what the point was. So, in general it was the native grapes that proved most interesting and whilst all the wines here were at least pleasant and enjoyable, a few shone through as really well made and impressive.

As usual, I started with northerly whites before working south.

Veneto

A prosecco from Villa Sandi was light and fresh but well-made with a good finish; their Merlot / Cabernet Franc blend was rather lean and less impressive.

Marche

A Sauvignon Blanc from Dittajuti was fresh and full of aromatic flavours whilst also balanced and restrained, but whilst enjoyable, was rather workmanlike and did not really offer anything new.

A Sauvignon Blanc / Trebbiano blend aged in cement tanks and old oak barrels from Il Pollenza was fresh and herbaceous but also had a pleasing, ripe fatness. The Rosso, a Cabernet Sauvignon, was rich with blackcurrant, mint and eucalyptus on the palate.

The Anghels Marche Rosso, 70% Montepulciano and 30% Cab was mouthfilling and smooth, with an earthy nose of leather and bramble fruit and a good length and finish.

Tuscany

A traditional Vermentino, with 20% Viognier added, from Bruni proved to be perhaps the best white of the event and was the only one I went back to re-sample - aged in old barriques, it had a slightly toasty, oatmealy nose of white flowers and elderflower, and was mouthfilling and ripe with some fatness and white peach on the palate and a good finish.

The Scansano, 85% Sangiovese and 15% Syrah from 2007 was soft, smooth and harmoniously easy-drinking with some pleasing spice, cherry and vanilla on the palate.

The most interesting wine from Casanova di Neri was their Brunello from 2004 - with more age and from a better vintage it had more complexity and texture, with vanilla, berry fruit and some woodsiness on the nose and palate than the two other wines on show which felt a little like warm-up acts - a Rosso di Montalcino and a Brunello from 2005.

The Rocca di Frassinello from Castellare di Castellina was very impressive; with 18 months' aging in barriques, it is rich, ripe and mouthfilling with a grippy finish; there is spice, blackcurrant and hints of leather and woodsiness on the palate. It is made from 60% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot.

Two wines from Fattoria I Collazzi which seemed to be proving popular on the day were much more in the modern, soft, fruit-driven style of quaffing wines - the Collazzi Toscana (mainly Cab, but with other Bordeaux grapes in the mix) was ripe, rich and soft with lots of fruit, whilst the Liberta (a mix of Sangiovese and Syrah) had plenty of plum and prune fruit and a soft texture.

The best reds came from two producers: two Bolgheri wines (Cab / Merlot blends) from Podere Sapaio were extremely well-made, balanced, rounded and smooth with vanilla, ripe cherry fruit and spice; the superiore from 2007 was made from a better selection of grapes with 100% new oak and was a further step-up in quality.

The Carpoli Toscana 2006 from Sada, a Bordeaux blend with mainly Cab, had a nose of spice and plums, a mouthfilling texture and impressive finish.

The Integolo (Cab, Alicante and Montepulciano, unoaked) is their everyday wine; slightly lighter it was ripe and enjoyable with good fruit and a pleasing finish.

Their white, a Vermentino, was also impressive - aromatic and fresh with a rounded feel and a good finish.

The winery of San Fabiano Calcinaia aims for depth of flavour rather than complexity and had two Chiantis to show; the riserva had a nose of woodsiness, cherry and vanilla and impressive mouthfeel. Their Cerviolo (a blend of Sangiovese and Bordeaux grapes) was full of ripe, smooth fruit.

Puglia

Finally, there were two contrasting wines from Cantina Due Palme; the Canonico Negroamaro, made for European palates, had a soft texture, ripe plummy fruit and some coffee on the nose and palate.

The Primitivo, a more traditionally Italian style wine, was to me more interesting; with spice, leather and eucalyptus on the nose, it had lots of ripe, but balanced, fruit sweetness and a much more pronounced structure.

The Wines

Not all the wines are currently available in the UK as some are seeking distribution.

Villa Sandi - Il Fresco Prosecco Treviso DOC NV, Filio Merlot e Cabernet Franc IGT 2008
Conte Leopardi Dittajutti - Calcare Marche IGT 2009
Il Pollenza - Brianello Marche Bianco IGT 2009, Marche Rosso IGT 2007
Tenuta De Angelis - Anghels Marche Rosso IGT 2008
Bruni - Perlaia Vermentino Maremma Toscana IGT 2009, Marteto Morellino di Scansano DOCG, Laire Morellino di Scansano DOCG Riserva 2007
Casanova di Neri - Rosso di Montalcino DOC 2009, Tenuta Nuova Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2005, Cerretalto Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2004
Castellare di Castellina - Rocca di Frasinello Toscana IGT 2007
Fattoria I Collazzi - Collazzi Toscana IGT 2007, Liberta Toscana IGT 2009
Podere Sapaio - Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2008, Sapaio Bolgheri DOC Superiore 2007
Sada - Vermentino Toscana IGT 2010, Carpoli Toscana IGT 2006, Integolo Toscana IGT 2009
San Fabiano Calcinaia - San Fabiano Calcinaia Chianti Classico DOCG 2008, Cellole Chianti Classico  Riserva 2006, Cerviolo Rosso Toscana IGT 2006
Cantina Due Palme - Canonico Negroamaro Salento IGP 2009, Primitivo Rosso Salento IGP 2009

Links

Villa Sandi - http://www.villasandi.it/
Conte Leopardi Dittajutti - http://www.leopardiwines.com/
Il Pollenza - http://www.ilpollenza.it/
Tenuta De Angelis - http://www.tenutadeangelis.it/
Bruni - http://www.aziendabruni.it/
Casanova Di Neri - http://www.casanovadineri.com/
Castellare Di Castellina - http://www.castellare.it/
Fattoria I Collazzi - http://www.collazzi.com/
Podere Sapaio - http://www.sapaio.it/
Sada - http://www.agricolasada.com/
San Fabiano Calcinaia - http://www.sanfabianocalcinaia.com/
Cantine Due Palme - http://www.cantineduepalme.it/

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Domaine Cristia Grenache Syrah 2009 - Naked Wines

French Grenache is a modern classic of sorts - full of ripe indulgent flavours of plums and prunes and with a soft quaffable texture (especially with a bit of Syrah thrown in), it usually makes for an easy red to enjoy.

When well-enough made, there's nothing not to like about southern French reds, and although this Grenache from Naked Wines is labelled no more specifically than as a Vin de France, it's probably a safe bet that it's from somewhere in the Midi, the heartland of blowsy under-a-tenner Grenache blends.

That said, it's not completely full-on or overblown and shows enough restraint to demonstrate a bit of class and seriousness.

Straight out of the bottle, it's relatively muted on the nose and palate and starts to open up only after an hour or so, which is a pity as it is so drinkable that by that time there is not a great deal left.

Set aside and re-sampled after a further 48 hours, it shows all the joyous flavours you would expect; there's prunes and plums, some peppery spice with hints of leather, woodsiness and eucalyptus and its high acidity makes it a mouthwatering match for rich, strongly flavoured and herby dishes such as salami, sausages or tomato-based pasta dishes.

Pale purple in the glass, it is light and soft in the mouth, with a smooth texture, a mouthwatering fruitiness and some gentle tannic grip on the finish.

Like all the Naked Wines I've had so far, it's well-made, instantly appealing and very drinkable. It's also typically modern and fruit-driven, light enough to quaff but also able to match with food.

The back label reveals it's made by Grangeon et Fils based in Courthézon in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region - according to Naked's website, Dominique and brother Baptiste Grangeon are the third generation of family working at Domaine de Cristia. The vineyard was bought 70 years ago by great-grandfather Etienne Grangeon, and they started working there back in 1999, taking over from father Florent.

Dominque adds: the soils were in excellent condition thanks to Dad's biodynamic conception of agriculture, but changing old mentalities was a bit of a challenge!

We had a few problems with the first vintages we produced (bad corks being one problem), but come 2003, we started making some absolutely wonderful wine, with The Wine Advocate calling us the 'New superstars from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

List price is £7.99 with 33% cashback for Angels.

Links

Naked Wines - http://www.nakedwines.com/

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Pouilly-Fuissé "Authentique", 2009, Domaine Sangouard-Guyot

One of the first "wine facts" I remember learning is that Chardonnay is a relatively neutral grape variety and generally needs the influence of oak to make it interesting.

And whilst this is true up to a point, there are certain wine makers who feel that the New World obsession with oak has done a disservice to Chardonnay and that the grape should be allowed to express its own personality and that of its terroir.

Chardonnay produces a range of styles from steely and crisp in a cool climate to lots of exotic tropical fruits where it's hot; this one, from the southerly, Pouilly-Fuissé region of Burgundy offers something rather different from either extreme.

Made by Domaine Sangouard-Guyot, who are part of the Patrimoine des Terroirs organisation, Catherine Sangouard explained to me that the hand-harvested grapes come from "La Roche", one of the best plots in Vergisson where clay soils add to the richness and rounded structure of the wine, adding: "it is left in tanks to preserve the authentic aromas of Chardonnay. This a blend of grapes coming from very old vines (60 years on the average) giving very concentrated aromas. That is the reason why we have called it “Authentic”. It could be an ideal wine for a tasting training as we can smell and taste flavours of acacia, peaches…"


Harvesting at Sangouard-Guyot

A pale golden sandy colour in the glass, but restrained on the nose, this wine is all about structure and depth rather than variety of flavours; the palate has some good, ripe lemoniness, white peach and white flowers and hints of tropical fruit; however, what impresses most is the ripe, fresh linearity and fullness of the fruit acids together with a rich, leesy minerality on the finish.

Technically well-made, fresh and rich, this is a modern food wine - it has the depth and richness to stand up to food without overpowering, whilst its acidic structure will cut through creamy pasta or chicken in a cream and tarragon sauce.

It has a Decanter Commendation and, whilst intended to be drunk within 3-5 years, may well develop into something more complex with a few more years' bottle age.

Provided for review.

Links

Domaine Sangouard-Guyot - http://www.domaine-sangouard-guyot.com/

Patrimoine des Terroirs - http://patrimoinevin.canalblog.com/

Friday, 25 March 2011

Cotes du Rhône Village Visan, Louise-Amélie, 2009

This is the last of three wines from Domaine La Guintrandy, a member of Patrimoine des Terroirs; the first (reviewed here) was very well-made and enjoyable now and the second (here), a noticeable step up.

This third wine is really impressive, albeit not yet at its peak.

La Guintrandy is situated at the gateway to the "Enclave des Papes" in the commune of Visan and Tulette in the southern Rhône. It is a modern vineyard steeped in history; a Saracen burial ground has been discovered on the land and a well-preserved thirteenth century papal boundary stone marks the beginning of the domaine and the border between the modern Departments of the Drôme and the Vaucluse.

Made from 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah from vines aged between 30 and 50 years old and located in the warmest "terroir" and the best-yielding clay and stony soil at an altitude of 230m, the Louise-Amélie is fermented and aged in new oak barriques, then bottled with no filtration.

As a result of all this it achieves 15.5% alcohol, but does not feel overblown, and it has significant aging potential.

It seems much too early to be drinking this 2009 now - it's dark in the glass, it feels inky, dense and tightly tannic, even after an hour or so in the decanter.

There's vanilla and spice on the nose, some good red cherry fruit and prunes on the palate, a richness and depth of flavour with balanced acidity and plenty of smooth tannic grip on the long finish. It's a big wine, with lots of oakiness balanced with fruit, good extract and grippy length.

But at this stage in its evolution, the intense structure and texture dominate and it has not yet relaxed into the wine it is due to become; it's chewy, deep, and full-bodied, with copious intensity as well as texture, it feels rugged and muscular, much too early to be showing its best.

It has all the intense, youthful energy of an early Rolling Stones album, still waiting for a more loose-limbed, hip-shaking swagger to appear.

In the interests of assessing its development, we re-sealed the bottle and sampled every few days; each time, even over a week later, it showed the same persistent intensity of structure.

This, then, is a superbly well-made, impressive and sophisticated wine that thoroughly deserves its two stars from Guide Hachette and 91 Parker Points, but needs a decent amount of cellaring to show its best.

From €12.50 when purchased direct from the domaine - provided for review.

Links

Domaine La Guintrandy - http://www.vins-cuilleras.com/wine-domaine.htm

Patrimoine des Terroirs - http://patrimoinevin.canalblog.com/

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Jancis, En Primeur and Free Markets

Yesterday, Jancis Robinson posted an article on the perhaps seemingly arcane issue of the timing of posting her tasting notes of en primeur Bordeaux.

For those not familiar with this process, en primeur or "wine futures", is a method of purchasing wines early while a vintage is still in a barrel, offering the customer the opportunity to invest in a particular wine before it is bottled (definition from Wikipedia).

Jancis' full article, along with comments from other eminent wine writers, is here, but the gist is encapsulated in this comment: "presumably [Bordeaux] château owners take notice of [the opinions of wine writers], and have been known to use any enthusiastic note and score to justify a hefty price. Stepping a long way back from the whole business of being a diligent reporter, I can see that I play a part in a process that really does not benefit the consumer."

Finally, Jancis ends with this; am I just wringing my wine-writing hands, or is there the germ of a sensible idea here?

My answer is "yes" to both questions. The issues to consider here are:

- Bordeaux as a wine
- Bordeaux as an investment medium
- the role of the wine critic

The wine critic visits Bordeaux, tastes samples and lets us know what he or she thinks, taking, I hope, all reasonable steps to maintain independence and judge the wine on its merits alone.

This means avoiding or at least disclosing any conflicts of interest (e.g. if you owned shares in any of the wineries or accepted excessive hospitality from a producer). It's also best practice to taste the wines blind, too, and perhaps even maintain some distance from the Chateaux.

However, for better or worse, Bordeaux has also become an investment vehicle in an unregulated market - this means that it is suitable for really experienced investors only.

Unregulated markets are not free markets and are therefore potentially more open to abuse, manipulation, collusion and cartels than regulated markets.

Compare for example the scrutiny a quoted company has to go through to get its annual accounts signed off by independent auditors and released to the London Stock Exchange with a group of (esteemed) wine critics descending on Bordeaux and you'll see that the process, from an investor's perspective, is simply nowhere near as rigorous.

So, the problem here is not the role of the critic, it's that the market for en primeur Bordeaux is unregulated.

There then follows a blurring in the role of a wine critic - are you merely assessing the wines or could you be perceived as offering some investment advice ?

Jancis notes that, due to the influence of people like herself and Robert Parker, a favourable opinion has the potential to affect prices upwards ("château owners ... use any enthusiastic note and score to justify a hefty price").

However, if you have maintained your independence as outlined earlier, other people's subsequent second guessing of comments or use of scores to add a few extra (hundreds of) pounds to the price of a bottle is not something the wine critic can either be held accountable for or should feel the need to wring hands over.

Rather, if the rise in productivity in China brings about more Asian billionaires who want to invest in London property, luxury yachts and top Bordeaux, putting it out of the price bracket of "ordinary consumers", then that's the global free market economy for you.

Basic economic theory posits the following equilibrium - as demand increases, prices rise; as prices rise, supply increases.

However, supplies of top Bordeaux cannot increase due to limited vineyard area, so prices will simply continue to increase with world demand, and demand can be driven by the tides of fashion as much as by wine reviews.

So, the reviewer's role is as a critic of wine, not as an investment advisor; given this, it is important for critics to understand their role as merely commentating on wine, not influencing or attempting to prices - either upwards or downwards.

What the consumer needs is objectivity, honesty, transparency and information, not critics trying (naively, but for all the right reasons) to manipulate prices downwards for their supposed benefit. Moreover, investors need the same things, too - but from experienced investment advisers, not from wine critics who are not in the business of giving investment advice.

That is not to say that, once a price is established, a critic cannot or should not give an opinion on whether it represents good value for money; that is, offering an opinion about a wine's price-to-quality ratio right now but specifically not a forward-looking statement about the likely changes in its market value.

However, to address the specific concerns that Jancis raises about the Bordeaux market in general, I suggest those critics with influence should promote greater transparency and regulation in the en primeur market; a good place to start would be banning all cartel pricing (Jancis' comment that "Prices are eventually decided ... after long discussions between all parties involved" sounds like cartel pricing to me) and establishing a Chateaux Code of Conduct on en primeur tastings, pricing and selling in general.

What is really needed is someone with a legal or business background, who understands how markets work and need to be regulated but also understands the wine trade and has influence, to get involved.

The closest to this is former lawyer Robert Parker who makes something of a half-cocked response to this, essentially filing it under "too difficult to deal with": according to Jancis' article, Robert Parker is sympathetic but argues it's too late to change the status quo and that critics acting co-operatively would smack of 'collusion' - though admits it may be his lawyer's training kicking in. 'I prefer to remain independent of both the wine producers and the wine journalists....thanks for sending...', he signs off.

Links

Jancis Robinson's original article - http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201103204.html

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

French Artisan Wines and Terroir - Interview with Patrimoine des Terroirs Founders, Alain Vautherot and Céline Malfait


One of the most interesting aspects of writing a wine blog for me has been the opportunity to make the acquaintance of many artisan wine-makers and producers and gain a real understanding of some of the subtle nuances of terroir which one simply cannot expect to find in more everyday wines or from those whose job it is simply to sell the stuff.

Artisan wine-makers face particular challenges in that, by definition, they do not make wines in mass-market, supermarket-friendly quantities yet they are not able to command the kinds of price premiums that are attached to top Bordeaux or Burgundy, for example.

Sitting in the mid-level, the domain of independent wine merchants, they face perhaps the biggest challenge in persuading people to pay a bit extra to buy their wines, as they have neither the name of a world-famous Chateau nor deep pockets to spend on marketing and promotion.

One solution that I have seen increasingly is for groups of artisan wine-makers to combine forces on the business side to benefit from some economies of scale on promotion, marketing, distribution and admin without having to sacrifice any of their values as winemakers.

This is, broadly, the idea behind Patrimoine des Terroirs and, having reviewed a number of their wines and been impressed, I wanted to find out a little more about the organisation.

The name translates as "Heritage of Terroirs" and it was set up in 2006 by founder Alain Vautherot with a vision of promoting the wines of the 30-or-so winemakers from almost all regions in France including Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Provence who make up the group.

A common feature of all the wines I have had from Patrimoine des Terroirs is a richness and depth of flavour that speaks of a natural approach to vineyard practices and an attention to detail in the winery, as well as a good linear structure of complex fruit acidity that makes them very food friendly.

They are currently looking for representation in a number of markets, including the UK, but I started by asking Alain and Céline about what the organisation actually does:

PdT: Formed in 2006, Patrimoine des Terroirs is an ethical group of independent winegrowers; our goal is to promote the richness, diversity and history of French wines to professionals both in France and abroad.

We are able to offer a full range of wines, Champagnes and spirits from throughout France - sustainable, organic, biodynamic and Fairtrade wines.

We promote the incredible diversity of each region; you can buy a wide range of fine French wines direct from the vineyard, made by passionate and independent French wine-growers. Our selection of wines uniquely combines premium quality and reasonable prices.

We carry out commercial and marketing initiatives (wine fairs, events, reception of buyers, marketing documents) and our logistics operations allow producers to enjoy the benefits of our scale with a single warehouse. This allows us to offer mixed pallets and therefore reduce storage fees and shipment costs.

TL: Describe your role at Patrimoine des Terroirs ? What happens on a typical day ?

PdT: Firstly, our role is to organize the life of Patrimoine des Terroirs: to keep in touch with our contacts, to track the sales of our wines in different markets, organising events, fairs, deliveries of samples and/or the preparation of orders. As a single point of contact, we try to be close to each partner. Secondly, we help our producers in their commercial and marketing policy.

TL: What are the main aims of the organisation ?

PdT: We share the same values, and the same objectives - to make quality wines. We believe that to make a great wine, we have to respect our terroirs, work our soil. We take great care to allow the environment, as well as the land, to express itself and present its full richness.

We guarantee an ethos of quality, authenticity and respect for our terroir; we are very proud to keep offering the widest and best diversity, as well as great service in order to promote together real and independent producers; it's an "Authenticity Wine Label".

TL: How would you describe the key characteristics of a typical Patrimoine des Terroirs wine ?

PdT: They are produced with consideration for the environment, have an excellent price-quality ratio, have some characteristics of flavour which make the wine particular and different and have some characteristics such as a typical blend or a specific grape variety.

Domaine Sangouard
TL: What gave you the idea and the motivation to establish Patrimoine des Terroirs ?

PdT: During our childhood, our parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts taught us how to appreciate good things, to discover local specialities, to listen to and discover nature. But can we  now find that quality that our relatives used to talk to us about ?

Patrimoine des Terroirs is our motive: to share with people this quality, this savoir-faire, all these specialities that we appreciate so much.

Our ambition ? To demonstrate to a wide audience what our French soils and gastronomic culture has to offer.

Guintrandy
Our goal?  To never disappoint anyone, to give everyone the proof that it's still possible to make "good things" and bring people to the pleasure of tasting and sharing.

TL: What do you look for in a winemaker before inviting them to join Patrimoine des Terroirs ?

PdT: To be a member of Patrimoine des Terroirs, it's first about being an artisan with the will to promote their terroirs and to develop them. It's also a constant research to work with a respect of the spirit of nature, favoring good sense over chemical practices, following a certain rigour of approach and striving for progress.

Being an association representing a group of producers, we also have the possibility to exchange ideas and experience - not to work as an individual, but to share the results of experimentation, knowledge and discoveries, for everyone's benefit, from the domaine to the client.

The domaines are all united by common origins: their passion is to make wines that are related to their personality, their land.

Bringing to people a pleasure during tasting is above all else how our success is measured. Each member engages himself to receive, transmit, welcome and share the essence of his passion, in the best climate of friendship, and offer to the enthusiast, the wine-lover and to professionals all the richness of his wines.

All domains demonstrate their passion through a constant improvement of the quality of their wines, from their work with the vines to the final bottling, respecting the identity of their appellation and the personality of the creator.

TL: Patrimoine des Terroirs is now five years old - where do you expect it to be in another five ? And at fifty ?

PdT: During the next five years, our wish is to expand internationally and to build strong and effective relationships with our partners for the long term. Our goal is to increase our sales to 500,000 bottles per year. To build strong business relationships that will help us to promote the wines, to develop relationships between producers and wine professionals in order to explain each domain, their wines and their specific qualities.

Moreover, we would like to be recognized as an authentic label of quality with environmental values which are seen as "real French terroir wines".

At fifty, we hope that the new generation will follow our values and approach.

Sangliere
TL: What factors or changes do you see having the greatest impact on your business and wine-making in general over the next few years ?

PdT: The economic crisis and the wish by consumers to find more natural products is in general opening new doors for us.

Firstly, we offer the possibility for wine merchants to order either in mixed pallets from different producers or to have a pallet from just one producer. This allows us to reduce distribution costs, to increase the sales of each wine and to reduce the impact on cash flow.

Secondly, Patrimoine des Terroirs reduces its emissions and environmental impact through having a single warehouse and with all our producers following sustainable and / or organic practices. Our wish is to work in the spirit of the respect of the nature in our vineyards, cellars, and during the deliveries of our wines.

TL: What has been your greatest success so far and what was the greatest challenge you have had to overcome ?

Our greatest success is our increase in sales over the last six months. Our approach, our concept and our domains have been appreciated by more and more buyers, journalists, bloggers such as you, Tom, and we are obviously very happy about that.

For example, we now sell wines in Mongolia, Brazil, USA, Belgium, Sweden, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Czech Republic and China, and we are having active discussions with importers in Australia, Ireland, Denmark and Singapore.

However, the most important thing for us is to be recognize for our authenticity, our quality and the values we share. Moreover, we aim to be always the best in our values, in our concept to be recognized as a Authentic Wine Label and to stay in the leading position for that.

Links

Patrimoine des Terroirs - http://patrimoinevin.canalblog.com/

Friday, 18 March 2011

Two Years Old Today

It is now two years to the day since I started the CambridgeWineBlogger, so it seems appropriate at this point to have a brief retrospective.

I started it during some down time at work as a way to record my experiences as a member of and occasional presenter for the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

Things were pretty slow at first until several things happened all around the same time:

- firstly, I got into the habit of regularly reviewing wines online and found I could no longer "just drink" a wine, but had to make an assessment of it, even if only mentally (this is what Philip Goodband MW calls "building a taste memory")

- secondly, I got blogger stats and developed and unhealthy fascination with seeing which of my posts were being read and in which countries.

- thirdly, a few whizzy PR agencies with a digital brief started contacting me with press releases and invitations to review wines (which I always disclose).

As a result of the blog, I have rekindled my love of Austrian Wines at the Institute of Directors, travelled up to Naked Wines HQ for a speed tasting and met one of the greatest wine writers of all in person.

I have also made virtual friendships with a number of fellow wine enthusiasts, bloggers, professionals and a couple of MWs whose advice, comments and general wisdom have encouraged and challenged my thinking; there are now several posts on this blog that have come about directly as a result of online discussions on topics such as blind tasting, promoting Portuguese wines, texture and aeration.

I have never made any money out of the blog - it's still just a hobby for me, albeit one that periodically allows me to meet talented and passionate winemakers and sample a far wider and better range of wines than I would otherwise be able to.

I have also met many people in the wine trade - some with huge amounts of experience and knowledge, others doing completely new and innovative things.

In the two years of the blog, I have probably learnt as much about writing and communicating as I have about wine. I have learnt a bit about social media, too, but consider myself far from being an expert.

My ambitions for the blog are still not fully formed - my only thought is to keep writing and posting for as long as I enjoy it.

And so, on its second birthday, I raise a glass of something appropriate and say "Happy Birthday" to the CWB.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Slow Wine Tasting - Italian Artisan Wines

Until recently, Italian wines were something of a closed book to me - I knew the theory and the names of the various grapes and regions, but somehow had not quite "got" why the wines are so great.

My "road-to-Damascus" moment occurred at a tasting of Italian wines with GianPaolo Paglia, a winemaker from Poggio Argentiera in Tuscany, presenting to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society (see here). As GianPaolo explained that for an Italian, the wine is just another part of the meal and plays a supporting role to the food, suddenly, it all made sense - the characteristic intense, rasping, linear acidity of Italian wine is there to cut through the food that it is to be matched with. These are not wines with lots of easy-going fruit aromas for simple quaffing - it's about structure, rather than flavour.

At the recent Slow Wine event in London to promote the launch of the Slow Wine iApp (reviewed here), I got a chance to try a range of artisan wines from all over the country; in general, most of the wines were traditionally food-friendly in style but with a balanced freshness - a good mix of the traditional and the modern. All were well-made and proved to be at least very good, if not excellent.

Although Slow Wine's criteria for accreditation focus on inputs (vineyard practices, production techniques and winemaker values) as much as simply on outputs (the quality of the resulting wines), this just seems to prove that if you get things right up-front, good results will follow.

Veneto

I started with two single-vineyard Soaves from Leonildo Pieropan; from 2008, they had a little bottle age and were particularly good examples - with lemony elderflower on the nose and palate, they were fresh, mouthfilling and minerally.

Marche

Bucci Classico, a Verdicchio from Bucci, was rich, leesy with some lemony savouriness on the palate; very food friendly, it would match perfectly with wild mushroom pasta in a creamy sauce.

The Riserva, a step-up which had some toasty hazelnuts on the nose and hints of elderflower on the finish, was blended from a mixture of old vines for richness and younger vines for freshness.

Senor Ampelio Bucci then poured me a sample from a bottle that had been open for several hours and the improvement with some air was striking - it felt noticeably more opened up and had a much longer finish.

He then showed me how he gauges the development of his wines with age - after rolling a tiny amount of wine around the inside of the glass, he leaves it for several hours, coming back periodically to check the development of the aromas.

Piedmonte

The 2006 Barolo Ravera from Elvio Cogno was smooth and elegant with lots of cherry fruit, some tobacco, spice and vanilla; well-structured with impressive length and pleasantly approachable.

Tuscany

Altura's wines from the rocky island of Giglio off the Tuscan coast are grown on terraces on stony soils with an all-natural process with no artificial fertilisers in the vineyard and low sulphuring in the winery.

Their single-variety Ansonica was rich, savoury and full, with a real depth of flavour; by contrast, their red wine, Rosso Saverio, features up to 15 grape varieties yet had a homogeneous feel with aromas of cherries, spice and white pepper and a good structure.

Baricci make two wines - a Rosso Di Montalcino and a Brunello; being a relatively small winery, they use the same quality of grapes for both wines and the differences are merely in production. The basic Rosso from 2006 was impressive with a rich cherry and vanilla nose, some forest fruits and hints of spice; on the palate, there is a good tannic structure and balanced acidity.

The Brunello, aged in Slovenian oak for 36 months, felt like a real step-up with greater richness and intensity.

After a few enthusiastic tweets from wine blogger Robert McIntosh, the Rosso was snapped up on the same day for UK distribution by Naked Wines and is now available for sale on their site (here).

There were also two wines from Il Paradiso di Manfredi, Brunellos from 2003 and 2004; both wines had a Pinot-like funkiness of forest floor and mushrooms on the nose with cherries and hints of tomatoes on the palate with balanced freshness and a good tannic grip on the finish. I preferred the darker 2004 which felt more intense and firmer, whilst the 2003 felt more integrated and harmonious.

Abruzzo

The most interesting of the whites for me was a Pecorino from Cataldi Madonna - grown at an altitude of 400m, it was fresh and crisp with elderflower aromas, a great structure and a minerally finish.

Distinctly modern in style and technically very well-made, it combined an up-front New-World appeal with cool-climate restraint and sophistication.

The red, Toni, was equally modern, with lots of fresh acidity, cherry fruit and pepperiness, but still a serious wine.

A 2005 Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo from Praesidium was ripe and mouthfilling yet also restrained with a rich nose of oaky vanilla, lots of bramble and cherry fruit on the palate and a long grippy finish.

Campania

A Ragis Rosso from Le Vigne di Raito on the Amalfi coast made mainly from Aglianico had a complex nose of cherry fruit and shrubs with aromas of liquorice and cocoa on the palate.

Puglia

The Primitivo di Manduria from Attanasio was a heady, sensual delight - made from Primitivo grapes grown in vineyards warmed by the mistral, it had a rich nose of ripe, jammy fruit, leather and eucalyptus with sweet spices, balsamic and vanilla on the palate and a smooth, jam-and-custard texture; despite all this exuberance (and 16.5% alcohol), it had balanced acidity and a dry finish.

The sweet version of this wine, made by drying out the grapes after picking, had all the good qualities of the dry wine, but was even riper and more baked and more hedonistic with an intense sweetness.

Sardinia

Capichera is located on the north of this Mediterranean island, not far from the coast where the sea breezes keep the vineyards naturally free from pests.

Their Vermentino was fresh and modern with floral notes on the nose, lots of fruit on the palate and good minerality.

The Assaje carignano was also perfumed on the nose, with cherries and dark berry fruit and hints of eucalyptus and a rounded mouthfilling palate and long finish.

A dessert wine from Tondini, Lajcheddu, which I had spotted earlier on, was perhaps the perfect way to end the tasting - baked, toasty, rich, marmaledey and intense, it had a balancing and fresh linear acidity.

The Foods

There were two food stands at the event - an intensely flavoured Grana Padano cheese and some Italian-style salamis from Peelham Farm in Scotland.

The organic salami was rich and intense with a dense, smooth texture, some sweetness and a lingering after-taste; the chorizo added to this a thwhack of paprika and spices, whilst the Italian added a strong flavour of fennel seeds.

These were some of the best salamis I can remember having recently, very much following the Italian approach of combining strong, simple flavours using really high quality ingredients.

The Wines

Leonildo Pieropan - Soave Classico Calvarino 2008, Soave Classico La Rocca 2008
Bucci - Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, Villa Bucci Riserva 2007
Elvio Cogno - Barolo Ravera 2006
Altura - Ansonaco 2009, Rosso Saverio 2008
Baricci - Rosso di Montalcino 2009, Brunello di Montalcino 2006
Il Paradiso di Manfredi - Brunello di Montalcino 2003, 2004
Cataldi Madonna - Pecorino 2010, Montelpulciano d'Abruzzo Toni 2007
Praesidium - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva 2005
Le Vigne di Raito - Ragis 2008
Attanasio - Primitivo di Manduria 2008, Primitivo di Manduria Dolce Naturale 2007
Capichera - Vermentino di Gallura Vigna'ngena 2009, Capichera Assaje
Tondini - Moscato Passito Lajcheddu 2007

Links

Leonildo Pieropan - http://www.pieropan.it/en/
Bucci - http://www.villabucci.com/
Elvio Cogno - http://www.elviocogno.com/
Altura - http://www.vignetoaltura.it/
Barricci - no website, baricci1955@libero.it
Il Paradiso di Manfredi - http://www.ilparadisodimanfredi.com/en/
Cataldi Madonna - http://www.cataldimadonna.it/
Praesidium - no website, vinipraesidium@tiscali.it
Le Vigne di Raito - http://www.levignediraito.com/
Attanasio - http://www.primitivo-attanasio.com/English/AziendaENG.htm
Capichera - http://www.capichera.it/en
Cantina Tondini - http://www.cantinatondini.it/
Peelham Farm - http://www.peelham.co.uk/

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Launch of the Slow Wine iApp‏

The Slow Wine iApp, which I was invited to see demonstrated at a pre-launch event in London last week, is perhaps designed for people like me who want their technology to be powerful, familiar and easy-to-use all at the same time, rather than simply for technophiles who just love gadgets for their own sake.
 
Starting with the 1,000-odd page Italian-only Slow Wine guide to Italy publish in hardback last year, the book has first of all been translated into English, then turned into something with all the functionality and logical structure of the original reference book plus a few extra clever bits that simply can't be done in print.
 
Click on a map of Italy for an introduction to a particular region's wine-making styles and grape varieties, click another button for a list of all the wineries accredited by Slow Wine in that region, select one of the wineries and there is a description of the terroir and a list of all the wines currently on offer with cellar-door prices.
 
And that is just the start, there is then an assessment of each wine, a link to the winery's website, to Google Maps for either driving directions or a view of what the countryside is like and finally space to add in some notes.
 
With one of these in your pocket or briefcase and a daily commute to pass, you can read up on Italian wines, decide which are of interest and then plan and book your driving holiday by checking out which wineries offer accommodation, the driving distances between them and emailing then to reserve a room for the night.
 
The list of wines and note-taking function then allow you to keep records of what you sampled and liked for future reference - assuming you are either fully living the dream and doing the trip in an open-top, two-seater sports car with no room for purchases or, alternately, have children in tow and a bootful of luggage and toys.
 
As something of a newcomer to iApps, I was particularly impressed not just by the volume of information, easy navigation and level of integration of different functions, but also how beautifully done the whole thing is; screens are laid out not as bald typeface but rather to resemble blackboards with lists of wines chalked up; regional maps are stylised and colour-coded; the main navigation pages are laid out as signposts over an idyllic background of rolling fields.
 
It is a superbly-presented labour of love and whilst this is not surprising given its Italian heritage, unlike say a supercar from Modena, it is easy to use on an everyday basis and actually works reliably.
 
The App is currently undergoing final approvals with Apple for planned launch in a couple of weeks for download into iPhone and iPad at an expected price of £5.99; it is also available from the App store in a free trial version, allowing access to the “Everyday Wine” sheets (wines that have been highlighted by Slow Food for their excellent price to quality ratio), complete with all the basic tools to memorise favourites, consult the wine maps, share wineries and wines on Facebook and allowing access to the complete list of reviewed wineries.

I asked Olivia Reviglio of Slow Wine how many copies of the App they hoped to sell to cover the clearly not insignificant development costs and was stunned by her response - they hoped for just 500 downloads and had agreed a revenue-sharing deal with the developer.
 
 
I suspect it may prove to be a bit more popular than that.
 
Links
 
Slow Food (UK site) - http://www.slowfood.org.uk/
 
Slow Food (US / international site) - http://www.slowfood.com/
 
Slow Food (Italian site) - http://www.slowfood.it/

Monday, 14 March 2011

Australian Tasting With Noel Young Wines At Cambridge Food and Wine Society

Australia seems to be having something of an identity crisis at the moment - having given the world oaky Chardonnay and fruity Shiraz in the 1980s, it now seems unsure whether to continue along that path with ever riper (and sweeter) wines or turn its back on all that and concentrate on wines with a more restrained, cool-climate feel.

For the vast majority of the population right now in the UK, oaky Chardonnay is completely out of fashion and everyone seems to want crisp, refreshing unoaked wines with a bit of mineral backbone - for this reason, you'll find Pinot Grigio as many pubs' house white.

In the decade or so that I have been going to Cambridge Food and Wine Society tastings, I cannot recall there ever having been an Australian event so I was looking forward to hearing Daniel Young, manager of Noel Young Wines in Trumpington present a selection of wines from his shop, including some made by eponymous brother, Noel Young from his joint venture Magpie Estate in Barossa.

Unfortunately, a diary clash meant Daniel had to pull out and I ended up being his far-less-qualified stand-in for the evening. Armed with print-outs and a bit of general knowledge, I kicked off.

Fortunately for me, I was amongst friends and a number of the audience chipped in with their own observations and knowledge - one person even downloading maps onto his iPhone to explain references to coastal breezes in some of the tasting notes.

The first wine was a Hunter Valley Semillon - a modern classic just as much as oaky Chardonnay, typically the wines it produces are waxy with a texture of lanolin, but this one felt crisp and light with just 11.5% alcohol.

Initial impressions from the audience were of it being rather unexpected and a little underwhelming - a more thoughtful assessment showed some good minerality coming out on the finish, but it was not until I re-sampled at the end of the formal tasting that it fully opened up and became a interesting wine with the kind of complex, mouthfilling structure to justify a price tag of well over £10.

And this became a consistent theme with all the whites to come - generally from the most recent 2010 vintage and sealed under screwcap (which inhibits development far more than natural cork), they were far too young to show much of anything straight out of the bottle and would have benefitted from a few quick swirls in the decanter.

The second white, an even lighter Vermentino, with just 10% alcohol, had an unusual dieselly nose but little else to offer either initially or even later on and was generally not well liked.

A Riesling, grown at altitude in Eden Valley, was said to be in the Germanic style and certainly felt lighter than my preferred Austrian style. With a classic petrolly nose and limey on the palate, it showed good mineral length on the second run-through.

Finally, moving onto an oaky Chardonnay, there was another surprise - instead of the expected ripe tropical fruits and toastiness, we got something much more restrained with the acidity of granny smith apples and complex layers of butteriness.This again continued to improve during the evening, but for me, whilst well made, was somehow lacking a little of the complexity I look for in a really good chardie.

The first red - a Pinot Noir from Tasmania - was again not exactly typical; with no Pinot aromas of farmyard, mushrooms and cherries present, it had a nose of red fruits, a soft texture on the palate and a sweet, clean finish. Pleasant enough and easy-drinking, certainly, but not a textbook Pinot, and despite being from much further south, it felt more like a warm-climate wine, which is not what Pinot likes.

We then moved on to Noel's wine, a blend of northern Spanish grape varieties Mouvedre and Grenache - these two have a particular affinity for each other and, when made well, produce crowd-pleasing wines with plenty of berry fruit, some spice and a soft, quaffable texture, so it's perhaps no surprise that this was subsequently voted best wine of the night.

A Cab, for which some of the grapes had been dried on baskets Amarone-style, was complex, impressive and almost as popular, with lots of blueberry, plums, cedar and minty eucalyptus, but I am quite old-school in my tastes and would have preferred a little more balance and restraint.

The final wine was a real step up in terms of price and quality, but did not prove to be quite so popular - a Shiraz from Clonakilla, it has drawn some rave reviews, but tended to leave most people underwhelmed.

The tasting notes recommend decanting or up to ten years' cellaring and although we gave the wine a few minutes in the glass, the initial impressions were all about structure with dense, tightly-packed tannins and a peppery, spicy inkiness.

I got a chance to re-sample this right at the end of the tasting and almost two hours after initial opening, it was still only just starting to open up and show some plummy fruit on the nose and a smooth custardy texture. For me, it was perhaps the best wine of the night (it was voted joint second with the Cab), but I would struggle to justify the price when there are so many other good wines around at well under £20.

I mentioned this to Dan Young later and he explained that with a high exchange rate and changing fashions, Australian wines are really struggling at the moment. Having for years had a built-in price competitiveness due to a weak currency, Australia is now faced with the double whammy of its wines becoming more ever expensive whilst its signature styles become ever less fashionable amongst the vast majority of "ordinary" wine-buyers.

He added that brother Noel is able to absorb some of the effects of currency fluctuations for his own wines as he ships it directly from vineyard to store - and as one of the cheaper wines we tried on the evening, it was certainly also one of the best value.

The Wines

Keith Tulloch Semillon, Hunter Valley, 2010, £12.50

Mitolo Jester "Madame d'Or", McLaren Vale, 2010, £12.30

Pewsey Vale Riesling, Eden Valley, 2009, £11.30

Innocent Bystander Chardonnay, Victoria, 2010, £12.99

Pirie South Pinot Noir, Tasmania, 2009, £12.30

Magpie Estate, "The Call Bag", Mourvedre-Grenache, Barossa 2007, £12.39

Dandelion "Pride of Fleurieu", Cabernet Sauvignon, Fleurieu, 2008, £11.99

Clonakilla "O'Riada" Shiraz, Canberra, 2007, £26.99

Links

Noel Young Wines - http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Orval - Trappist Abbey and Beer‏

Belgium has no wine-making tradition but more than makes up for this with its many and varied beers of which the Trappist ales, made at one of the country's six Trappist monasteries, are amongst the best.

Too northerly for viticulture, Belgium was originally a region of city-states whose monasteries were bastions of knowledge with their libraries, herb gardens and beer and cheese-making.

After a day spent visiting Bouillon (see here) en route to France's wine regions, we stopped by Orval Abbey for a mixture of sightseeing and beer-purchasing.

The original Cistercian monastery dates from 1132 but is now in ruins after being destroyed in 1793 by French forces - its contemporary replacement, dating from 1935, is unadorned and futuristic - and also not generally open to the public, so we contented ourselves with a wander round the much more beautiful and atmospheric ruins.

Afterwards, exiting through the monastical gift shop, there were opportunities to buy religious trinkets and imagery, but more importantly boxes of Orval beer (we passed on the Orval beer glasses and decided the Orval cheese, whilst good, would not keep during our journey).

The beer itself is quite strong, 6.2% alcohol, and is fermented using Brettanomyces yeast. Like many Belgian beers, it undergoes secondary fermentation in bottle meaning it has a sediment and is extremely fizzy, so out of a small-ish bottle of 33cl, around a quarter is lost.

Many bottle-conditioned ales improve with age just like a fine wine and finding this to be the case with the Orval, after the first few bottles, I tucked the rest away to be sampled periodically over the next 18 months or so.

Early bottles were crisp and refreshing, well-structured and balanced with orangey, coriander-seed hints.

The development from bottle to bottle every couple of months was barely perceptible but after a year or so, it had become noticeably fuller, richer and more strongly-flavoured, but still did not appear to have peaked.

Moreover, with a little of the gas escaping via the crown top, it was a little less explosive on opening.

This then, is a beer for cellaring - for at least a year or two, so if you happen to be passing through the Belgian Ardennes, it's worth stocking up with a few cases.

Links

Orval Abbey - http://www.orval.be/an/FS_an.html

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Short Visit to Bouillon‏ in the Belgian Ardennes

A few years ago, I decided to break up the travelling on a driving and wine-buying holiday to France by stopping off in Bouillon in the Belgian Ardennes.

About a 3-hour drive from Calais, the Belgian Ardennes in the south of the country is an unspoilt, somewhat forgotten land of gentle hills and rural woods.

Bouillon, a very small market town, is set in a magnificent horseshoe bend of the river Semois surrounded by a natural amphitheatre - its other claim to fame is an extensive ruined castle on a hilltop in the centre of the town - much of it carved out of the rock itself.

In 1082, the castle was inherited by Godfrey of Bouillon, who then sold it in order to finance the First Crusade (accompanied by some unlikely companions - his mother and Peter the Hermit). The castle was later fitted for heavy artillery by Vauban, Louis XIV's military architect in the late 17th century.


We made a day of it by first seeing the castle, then going for a walk up to the top of the surrounding ridge where a viewing platform takes you several storeys up, above the height of the trees, for an amazing view over the town.

After all this exploring, our accommodation for the night was La Ferronniere, a former forge as the name suggests which I had found in the Logis de France guidebook and which gets the guide's top-level 3-chimney rating.

The hotel, set halfway up a hill leading out of Bouillon, has superb views of the town centre and the castle and is an extremely pleasant place to stay.

Owners Wim and Angélique Philips have an eye for tasteful detail and, having picked out a beautiful building in a great location in 2000, have given the interior a classy and elegant but understated feel.

This approach extends to the food, which was not just innovative, but extremely well-flavoured and imaginatively presented.

We had a trio of cold starters - gazpacho, cream cheese with chives and parma ham and water melon - whilst the hot starter was a beef tomato with snails and pesto, before a main of oven-baked cod with courgettes and a dessert of pistachio cake wrapped in pain perdu.

We chose an Alsace Riesling from just across the border to get us in the mood for the next few days and it was, if I'm really honest, a little expensive and slightly disappointing - plenty of typical Riesling character, but somehow a little unfocused.

I often find this problem - you almost always do better going for something local and this means that in non-wine-producing countries you accept you'll probably pay a little more for something that is not quite so good.

However, in the context of the stay - and especially of the superb food - this really is a minor quibble.

Belgium is, of course, a land of beer - especially crafted Trappist ales - and the next day, we got up and went in search of what drinking in Belgium is really all about.

Links

Bouillon website - http://www.info-bouillon.co.uk/
La Ferroniere - http://www.laferronniere.be/
Logis de France - http://www.logishotels.com/en.html

Image Credits

Photo of Bouillon by Jan Roegiers - link here
Photo of Bouillon Castle by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT: link here.
Photos of La Ferronniere from hotel's website.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Speed Tasting with Team Naked Wines

Naked Wines recently invited me to a speed-tasting event, sampling around 30 speculative trade samples and new vintages from existing producers at Naked HQ after work one evening.

I was not the only outsider invited; there were also Carlos Rodriguez, one of Naked's regular winemakers who had flown in from Spain for a blending session the next day, plus a couple of journalists from Belgium.

I have reviewed a number of Naked's wines previously - either as samples or my own subsequent purchases as an Angel (see here) - but this was quite different from my usual reviewing approach of trying a wine over an evening.

For the first sample, I swirled, looked, sniffed, sampled, spat, sampled a bit more, considered and tried to think of an apt metaphor - by this point, everyone else was on wine number 2 and I quickly realised this would be a swift canter rather than a leisurely stroll.

And thinking about it, that makes perfect sense; when faced with large quantities of diverse wines to be reviewed and assessed, one is looking for broad-brush indications, not minutely-described nuances - is it a good wine overall, is it pleasant, interesting and priced sensibly ?

What was also interesting for me was to see the non-qualitative assessments that need to be made - do we already have a similar wine at a similar price in stock, is it the sort of thing that gets good reviews from our customers ? Is it a better-value alternative to a particular classic style.

As we whizzed through wine after wine, the idea of reviewing a bottle over several evenings to see how it evolves with time and air seemed quite academic and ivory-tower, almost indulgent.

When presenting at a wine-tasting event, I will typically plan on spending 10-15 minutes on a wine before moving on to the next one and even at trade shows and wine fairs there is a presenter on hand to provide a bit of background on the wine and chat in more detail, so that you don't have to rush through the wines.

Back at Naked HQ, there was simply a table with a long row of bottles to be worked through.

The wines had been put in a fairly logical order - lighter whites, the more aromatic ones, then the oaked before the rosés and finally reds, but they still represented quite an eclectic mixture of grape varieties and regions.

We moved too quickly for me to remember all the wines, let alone take any notes, but included were a very neutral Italian Pinot Grigio, a flowery Torrontes, three Loire rosé blends from Naked winemaker Joost de Villebois, a range of Chardonnays from one producer in Limoux and a clutch of Portuguese reds.

My first experience of speed-tasting felt a little like the difference between studying a language and speaking it; you might spend years memorising vocab and learning grammar, but visit the country itself and there is no time to think - you just have to make yourself understood, even if you get your dative plurals wrong or forget to use the subjunctive.

And so it proved at Naked HQ - you might miss out a nuance here or there, but the aim of the tasting was a quick, high-level assessment of each wine.

And moving around so many different wines was also a lesson in quickly recalling the key characteristics of each grape or region and then assessing the wine against this.

And that was a lot easier where the wine fitted, for me, into a familiar pigeon-hole - Pinot Grigio, Loire Sauvignon or oaked Chardonnay.

It was rather harder to make quick, definitive assessments of unfamiliar wine styles such as the Torrontes, the Fiano or any of the Portuguese reds.

Having a number or slightly different samples (either slightly different blends or different oakings) also helped draw out the key characteristics of each wine, noting what changed and what stayed the same from bottle to bottle; one Loire rosé blend had a slightly sweaty tang on the nose ("Heavy on the Malbec", commented Naked founder Rowan Gormley), the second seemed a little harsh on the finish whilst the third was the most balanced.

There was not time to make any notes or even record the wines - of the 30 or so we tasted, a small handful were more or less good, plenty were middling and the rest were either either not interesting or, in the odd case, not pleasant.

What I remember much more are the stories behind the wines - the newbie producer whose wine 5 years ago was undrinkable but whose latest vintage is a best-seller or the awkwardness of dealing with a charming producer with a great story to tell whose wines turn out to be actually rather unpleasant.

But more than that, Naked HQ has a sense of a business where anything is possible.

In a simple and rather plain, L-shaped open-plan office overlooking the very grand Norwich cathedral, team Naked is quietly getting on with fundamentally changing the world of wine production and retailing.

Each member of the team is experienced enough to know what they are doing, but not so long in the tooth as to be set in their ways and there is an easy-going, confident, can-do vibe.

Having worked for several large, indeed iconic, American corporates, I know what it is like to put up company logos and merchandise everywhere and get everyone pumped up about the brand right down to the cleaners.

But that's not the British way and Naked does not feel like that; the offices are actually rather plain and unadorned except for a few IWC trophies on one shelf. I was met on arrival not by a glamorous receptionist but by the IT Manager whose desk is at the top of the stairs leading into the offices.

Plain, purposeful and focused, what it particularly has is a non-hierarchical feel with no separate offices (the CEO has a corner desk, but nothing more) and the buzz of a successful and growing start-up.

Founder Rowan Gormley is ex-Virgin, having set-up both Virgin Money and Virgin Wines. Working for such an iconic and entrepreneurial company is great training for going it alone - especially when you are able to recruit some of your former colleagues to come along and help you set up and run your new venture.

The difficulties come with the next stage of growth - as the business grows, it needs more layers of management and the people you bring in may not be quite a strong and entrepreneurial as the hand-picked team you started with.

Moreover, once you achieve a certain size, your competitors start to take a much greater interest in your activities.

However, with over 45,000 people signed up as Naked Angels and contributing a regular monthly amount and constant improvements to the company's website based on feedback directly from Naked's highly engaged customer base, it looks like Naked will be just fine as long as Rowan Gormley stays in charge.

Links

Naked Wines - http://www.nakedwines.com/

For more details on Naked's Angels scheme, see here - http://cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com/2011/01/on-becoming-naked-angel.html

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Chateau Camplazens - Viognier from Languedoc

When you think of couples leaving behind the rat race to relocate to southern France and live the dream as wine-makers, images of rather smug ex-bankers or slick former marketing managers usually spring to mind.

Susan and Peter Close, a couple from the North of England who have always had a passion for good food and wine, somehow don't quite fit the stereotypical image - they are down-to-earth in an unpretentious sort of way and likable rather than glamorous.

I met Peter last year at the Fine Wine Fair in London where he was showing a range of his wines from Languedoc and was very proud of a Viognier from 30 year-old vines.

I made some apologies about not being a huge fan of Viognier, but Peter was very keen for me to try and so I did.

Viognier, to me, is something of a poor man's Chardonnay - it produces apricotty wines with Chardie's relative neutrality and affinity to oak, but somehow is generally never quite as good.

Peter's Viognier, from low-yielding vines, all hand-picked and aged in oak, was as good an example of a Viognier as I've had and technically well-made, but somehow rather underwhelming.

I was reminded of this tasting when I saw a recent post from Wine Doctor Chris Kissak reviewing a broad range of the Camplazens wines - he gives the 2008 Viognier a workman-like 14/20 and when we chatted, he explained he has rarely had an impressive Viognier from the Languedoc.

Viognier actually originates in the northern Rhône and is perhaps best known as the grape of Condrieu; it is something of a tricky grape to grow, being low-yielding and prone to mildew.

Adding further challenges, it also does not show its best until the vines are fully mature (15-20 years as a starting point) and needs to be picked at just the right level of ripeness.

A quick bit of research suggests there are two strains of Viognier - an an "Old World" strain, found in Condrieu, but also a "New World" strain which is found in the Languedoc and elsewhere, with the two strains producing distinctly different wines.
 
These two strains, identified by Remington Norman, may explain Chris' observation that Viognier from the Languedoc generally does not seem as good as that from Condrieu.

Links

Chateau Camplazens - http://www.camplazens.com/
 
Chris Kissak's reviews of Camplazens - http://www.thewinedoctor.com/tastingsformal/camplazens2011.shtml

Monday, 7 March 2011

Polz - Styrian Terroir: Elevation and Fossil Shells

For most people who know a little about Austria's wines, the first things that spring to mind these days are perhaps Grüner Veltliner and the Wachau.

However, in the south of the country, near the Slovenian border, warmed by Mediterranean breezes, is a region called Steiermark by the Austrians and Styria in English which produces highly distinctive wines of an altogether different style to not just anything else in Austria, but almost in the world.

The key to this lies in a number of specifically terroir-related factors; Styria's vineyards enjoy a generally Mediterranean climate but are at altitudes of several hundred metres, giving an average annual temperature of just 9°C - significantly lower than in the Wachau, Bordeaux or almost anywhere else with the same southerly latitude.

High altitudes give much cooler nights, resulting in a longer growing season and aromatic wines with a startlingly crisp yet rounded, linear acidity and a dense mouthfilling structure.

Polz dates its history back to 1912, but like so much of the Austrian wine industry, the late 1980s is effectively year zero; at that time, in the case of Polz, brothers Erich and Walter took over running of the winery from their parents and increased the vineyard size buying up some of the best sites in Styria.

At the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London recently, Peter Keller, Export Manager for Polz, talked me through a range of wines that he had brought along to show.

We started with an entry-level Steirische Klassik Sauvignon Blanc; Steirische Klassik ("Styrian Classic") wines are generally lighter than those from the Wachau and are not aged for so long before release.

This current vintage Sauvignon, from vineyards between 300m and 400m, blended from different vineyard sites and fermented in stainless steel, was typical of this style - aromatic and light but well structured.

We then moved on to Polz's best-selling wine, named Therese and introduced in 2004. A Sauvignon grown at an altitude of 450m on schisty soils and intended to be the winery's most consistent wine, it was tightly structured with smoky flintstone aromas.

Finally came a couple of single-vineyard wines, starting with a Sauvignon from Hochgrassnitzberg - considered is the best grand cru on the estate, the special feature of this location is the shell limestone sub-soil.

The wine itself, aged in large barrels, was much richer and riper with more oxidisation but the same flinty smokiness.

The final wine, a Traminer from Grassnitzberg, was a mixture or Gewurztraminer and Gelber Traminer.

The key aromas of the better-known Gewurztraminer are perfumey lychees and rose petals, resulting in a love-it-or-loathe-it wine.

This wine, however, expressed primarily its terroir with a linear structure and long, crisp minerally finish and only restrained characteristic floral hints of lychees on the palate.


The wines are imported into the UK by Clark Foyster.
The Wines

Sauvignon Blanc, Steirische Klassik, 2010, 12%
Sauvignon Blanc, "Therese", 2009, 13%
Sauvignon Blanc Hochgrassnitzberg, 2008, 13%
Traminer, Grassnitzberg, 2008, 13.5%

Links

Polz - http://www.polz.co.at/

Clark Foyster Wines - http://www.clarkfoysterwines.co.uk/

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Styria's Tement - a New Spiritual Home for Sauvignon

Styria, in the south of Austria near the Slovenian border, might be considered at first glance as an oenological one-trick pony, since its single "house style" of wines is piercingly crisp and aromatic whites - especially Sauvignon.

Moreover, there is not a lot of variation from vintage to vintage as the region is reliably warmed by southern air streams from the Mediterranean.

However, whatever the region lacks in breadth of styles, it more than makes up for in terms of quality and distinctiveness; Styrian wines are intense, superbly structured and immediately recognisable.

This is largely due to local terroir, as the vineyards are exposed to sunlight and warm air yet also at altitudes of several hundred metres leading to large diurnal fluctuations in temperature which lengthens the growing season and results in wines that are steely and crisp yet also aromatic and full.

And whilst there is a strong, generic Styrian style, there are also, as I found when tasting the wines of Tement at the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London recently, subtle, nuanced differences between vineyard sites.

Michael Thurner, a Wine MBA and president of Austria's Fine Brands, a trade grouping of eight Austrian wine producers, showed me a range of Tement's wines.

Tement, one of the great names in Styria and one of  my regular favourites when I lived in Austria, is based in Berghausen within sight of the Slovenian border and on a narrow plateau of pre-historic fossilised coral-reef formed around 20 million years ago.

We started with a Steirische Klassik Gelber Muskateller - part of the Muscat family, Gelber Muskateller is a grape I usually avoid, but here the resulting wine was crisp, piercing and concentrated with the classic Muscat floral "grapiness" expressed more as auxiliary overtones than dominating aromas.

The Steirische Klassik Sauvignon Blanc had a similarly linear structure and was aromatic but steely rather than lush.

"Steirische Klassik" (Styrian Classic) is the label for Tement's entry-level wines - blended across vineyards, they are fresh and fruity with lots of typical varietal character, fairly light in alcohol and generally matured in stainless steel tanks.

The more serious wines, from single-vineyard sites where differences of terroir can be expressed, are matured in oak.

All Styrian wines, being crisper and fresher in style than wines from the Wachau, are released much earlier in the year following vintage and so whilst the Wachau producers were showing nothing more recent than 2009, the Styrian producers had mainly new-vintage 2010s to show.

A Sauvignon Blanc from Grassnitzberg, a valley into which cool air flows, was richer with minty, smoky and even some vegetal aromas.

Geography does not, of course, recognise political boundaries and the vineyards of nearby northern Slovenia just over the border are on the same terroir as Styria with theoretically the same potential.

Recent history, however, has not been as kind to Slovenia as it has to Austria and whilst Slovenian wines may seem more like a novelty act than a serious contender, that won't be the case for much longer based on the Sauvignon Blanc Fosilni Breg (again a reference to the fossil-rich soil) which in quality terms is indistinguishable from the wines made on the northern side of the border.

The final wine was again a Sauvignon, this time from Zieregg - smokey, flinty and rich, this for me was as good as, but completely different from, anything I have had from the Loire, Bordeaux, New Zealand or anywhere else with claims to be a spiritual home of Sauvignon.

The Wines

Gelber Muskateller, Steirische Klassik, 2010, 12%
Sauvignon Blanc, Steirische Klassik, 2010, 12.5%
Sauvignon Blanc, Grassnitzberg, 2010, 13%
Sauvignon Blanc Fosilni Breg, 2009, 12.5%
Sauvignon Blanc Zieregg, 2008, 13%

Links

Tement - http://www.tement.at/

Austria's Fine Brands - http://www.austriasfinebrands.com/