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Friday, 29 April 2011

Private Bin East Coast Chardonnay, 2010, New Zealand - Villa Maria

Like the Gewürztraminer I reviewed recently (see here), the grapes for this Villa Maria wine come from a number of sites along the eastern coast of New Zealand - Gisborne, Hawkes Bay plus a small portion from the Marlborough region.

The company's website also tells me that it is cool fermented in both stainless steel tanks and barrel to give a soft and well-balanced wine, with some aging on the lees.

Pale golden in the glass, there are exotic fruits and buttery spice on the nose; the palate shows crisp, rounded linear acidity and ripe, citrussy pineapple fruit backed up by layers of buttery oak.

There is a mouthfilling, leesy richness whilst some toastiness on the mid-palate leads into a long, savoury finish with some gentle tannic grip.

What is interesting about this wine is that, even after opening up with some more air, it does not try to impress with a wide-ranging, complex array of fruit-driven aromas that one often finds in the New World, but rather, it displays a depth of savoury flavour that I am more used to finding in Old World artisan wines.

And thinking back, it is the same quality that impressed me with their Pinot Noir (reviewed previously here) even if I did not quite express it in those terms at the time.

I am left wondering whether it is intentional that the two Villa Maria wines from Burgundian grape varieties - the gastronomic heart of France - should show this food-friendly savouriness or whether it is, in the case of this wine at least, merely a reaction to the backlash against overly oaky Chardonnay.

Match with typical Chardie food - slow-roast chicken or seafood especially.

£9.99, provided for review.

Links

Villa Maria - http://www.villamaria.co.nz/

Thursday, 28 April 2011

12a Club, Cambridge

I was recently lucky enough to get a look round Cambridge's newest - in fact only - private members' club and to chat with two of the people who run it - Mark Pope (wine and front-of-house) and Leroy Rawlins (mixologist).

Opened just a few months ago, the story of how 12a Club came into being is fascinating and worth repeating - the space it occupies was formerly used as offices by the management of the Don Pasquale restaurant, a family-owned Italian restaurant based in Cambridge and catering mainly for the tourist trade wishing to eat pizzas overlooking the market square, Great St Mary's church and King's College.

As the second generation has grown up and taken a more active role in the business, they decided to update the business model, refurbishing the upstairs space into a private members club. As the pictures here show, they have done an excellent job and the interior is extremely impressive; the overriding theme is 1920s Prohibition-era America, but the bare-brick walls are very on-trend right now and the leather chairs feel like a traditional gentleman's club.

There are some clever touches too - the wine list comes "hidden" in a book (three or so pages at the back of what is otherwise a novel), just as was done in the Prohibition era, whilst the cocktail menu is included as a couple of book marks.

The club makes a virtue of necessity - when the owners originally put in their application, it was rejected by the council after lobbying by the influential Cambridge colleges. Eventually permission was granted, but with a requirement that no promotional signage be put up (hence the name, which is simply the club's address, which can be put up) and that no overt publicity be carried out with promotion to be done only by word-of-mouth.

This then ties in well with the idea of a private members club and the "hush-hush" references to prohibition era America are playful reference to that.

It also helps that Mark is well-connected from his stint at Cambridge's Alimentum restaurant and uses social media to raise the club's profile in an innovative but discreet way. For now, with the website going through the final stages of development, the club's only Internet presence is on Twitter where they have an impressive following.

As Mark explained, the club serves a purpose that no-one else in Cambridge quite offers - as a discreet, members-only club it is suitable for entertaining clients who do not wish to stand drinking pints in a rowdy student bar, business meetings or interviews.

The club is relatively large as these places go, being based on two floors with separate rooms on the upper floor which are available for groups at no extra cost. Plans for the future include extending the opening hours so that these rooms can be used during the day for company meetings with all the AV equipment needed for presentations discreetly hidden behind pictures.

The drinks list reflects the Italian origins of the owners - all the table wines are from Italy, which is something of a brave choice in an an establishment that does not yet serve food (Italian cheeses and salamis are due to be introduced shortly in one section of the club), whilst the cocktails are mainly traditional classics relying heavily on Italian vermouths and bitters.

As might be expected, it is the Champagnes and cocktails which are most popular at the moment in the absence of food, so I asked Leroy if I could try one of his cocktails - the one he chose was a Negroni, a mix of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, mixed with ice and garnished with a squeeze of orange peel.

Leroy explained the origins of the cocktail - it is stronger version of the americano, using gin instead of soda water, as ordered by Count Negroni in Florence in 1919.

The cocktail equipment used at 12a is all Japanese and is designed to allow the ice to chill the drink without diluting it. In any case, the resulting cocktail had a really well-balanced refreshing bitterness with aromatic botanicals from the bitters and the orange peel, following the Italian tradition of matching simple, but strong flavours together expertly.

However, I had come to taste some wines and so we went through the list of wines wines served by the glass; they cover most of Italy from Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south and are from a mixture of indigenous and international varieties in showed a ranges of styles from restrained old-world, to more blowsy new world.

The first, a Fiano from Sicily - a grape which seems to be steadily gaining a reputation as possibly the Next Big Thing - was a crowd-pleaser with lots of pineapple and peach fruit acidity, good structure and balance and a great finish.

We then moved almost 1,000km north for a Sauvignon Blanc from the Venezie region - this was aromatic and restrained, more cool-climate-like, and had the lightness and focus of something from the Loire, albeit without the flinty minerality of a really good Sancerre or Touraine.

The final white was one I already knew - a Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige's Alois Lageder called "Riff" - this is what an Italian Pinot Grigio should taste like, with apples-and-pears acidity and a mineral depth that increases with a bit of age; the name is a reference to a limestone reef made of fossil deposits on which the vines are grown.

The whites may well have benefitted from being tried in reverse order, starting with the more neutral Pinot Grigio and ending with the intense fruit of the Fiano.

We then moved onto the reds, starting with a Pinot Nero / Syrah blend from Sicily; both are noble grapes, but whilst Pinot Nero (the Italian for Pinot Noir) is a thin-skinned temperate-climate grape, Syrah does best in the heat of southern France.

This unusual blend from an unusual provenence actually worked extremely well, with the cherry aromas of the Pinot and some fruitcake and spice plus texture from the Syrah. It was perhaps as close as Italian reds get to easy-quaffing, but still had enough grip on the finish to be more of a food wine.

Next we headed into traditional Italian red wine territory with a Sangiovese from Tuscany - this was a more typical wine with cherry fruit, good acidity and a grippy finish.

We finished off with a Primitivo, which is native to southern Italy, and whilst there were plenty of typical "southern" ripe fruits and spice, it also had a degree of restraint and Old-World structure.

The Wines

Prices here are by the glass / bottle from the club.

Villa de Fiori Fiano, Sicillia, 2009 £4.75/ £6.50
Poeta Sauvignon Blanc, Venezie, 2009 £5.25 / £7.00
Pinot Grigio delle Venezie, Terra Alpina, 2009 £5.75 / £7.5

Terra Gens Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva, 2007 £4.75 / £6.5
Villa de Fiori Primitivo, Puglia, 2009 £5.25 / £7
Jubilum Pinot Nero/Syrah, 2008 £5.75 / £7.5

Other related articles
A Twitter-only Approach to Online Marketing - Club 12a in Cambridge
Big Game and Big Wines at Cambridge's Punter

Lunch at CAU Cambridge
Lunch at Hotel du Vin Cambridge

Families and Friends Dinner at Fitzbillies, Cambridge


Links

12a Club on Twitter - http://twitter.com/#!/12aClub

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Mirror Lake Sauvignon Blanc 2010 - Cambridge Wine Merchants

New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is perhaps now a little passé in the UK these days - at least amongst the young, metropolitan "ordinary" wine-drinkers that I know.

Not quite as out of fashion as oaky Chardonnay, it definitely seems to be on the way down after a peak in the late noughties as people have moved on from the ripe, tropical, lush Sauvignons to something a little more restrained and cool-climate, often a Pinot Grigio.

At a tasting I gave for some colleagues last year (see here), however, it was a cool-climate Loire Sauvignon that was most appreciated amongst the whites, so any rumour of the death of Sauvignon would seem to be greatly exaggerated.

This Marlborough Mirror Lake Sauvignon Blanc Sauvignon from Cambridge Wine Merchants seems to be trying to take the best of both the New World and the Old to come up with something a bit different; pale in the glass, on the nose, it is highly aromatic with cut grass and nettles, but on the palate it feels intense with a crisp acidity that is balanced by good minerality on the finish.


It takes me a little by surprise - the aromatic nose suggests something rather lusher and fleshier will follow, yet the palate is unexpectedly restrained and subtle, and impresses more with its focus and balanced, dry finish rather than through the kind of easy-drinking you might be led to expect from the nose.

However, the end result works very well - focused, zippy and refreshing with lots of varietal aromas, this would match well with some classic goats cheese with aromatic and peppery rocket as a garnish.

£8.99 from Cambridge Wine Merchants (£7.26 when buying a case of 12); it is imported by Kingsland Wines.

Links

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

Kinsland Wines - http://www.kingsland-wines.com/

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Gran Bombero 2009, Cariñena - Laithwaites


Laithwaite's Gran Bombero is billed as the "big brother" of their El Bombero wine; both are Grenache-based reds from Cariñena in inland Spain with very high in alcohol levels (15%).

Made from old vines and aged in American oak, this in theory has the potential to be an impressive wine; it's undoubtedly well-enough made with nothing unpleasant.

There's some pleasing ripe berry fruit, a bit of spice, some decent rounded acidity and it is soft and smooth on the palate; however, typically for a Garnacha / Grenache it is low in tannins and colour.

For me, where it fails, though - other than on the structural issues - is that it is just too over-perfumed, with overly heady aromas of loganberries and damsons which I find I do not enjoy particularly.

It is made by Bodegas San Valero but does not appear on their website and I can't avoid the feeling that they sold off a load of their less-than-best grapes to Laithwaites for this one.

A case of 12 costs £107.88, equivalent to £8.99 a bottle (plus delivery).

For more thoughts on Laithwaites, their wines and marketing techniques (including a comment from "Uncle Tony" himself), see this posting: http://cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com/2011/05/on-laithwaites.html

Links

Laithwaite's - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/

Bodegas San Valero - http://www.sanvalero.com/english/inicio.php

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Hugel Riesling 2005 Alsace - Cambridge Wine Merchants



Cambridge is unseasonably warm this Easter weekend; the hot, dry air and long shadows of the evening are more remiscent of late summer than early spring.

However, it is indeed spring and the short season for British asparagus has already started.

This weekend's in-store tasting at Cambridge Wine Merchants was a Hugel Riesling from Alsace which the company's weekly email suggested matching with asparagus.

Hugel, founded in 1639 by a Swiss immigrant to the area, is based in the pretty village of Riquewhir at the southern end of the Alsace AOC region where the wines tend to be riper and fuller.

The winery holds slightly over 25 hectares of its own vineyards but also operates a négociant business, which sources additional grapes under long-term contract contract from various growers.

A golden-green in the glass with peachy-apple aromas, the wine is lively, discreetly fruity with a mineral touch and thirst-quenching.

It feels as well made as you would expect, with good pineappley acidity; with some complex fruit sweetness, it feels sensuous and fleshy with a good finish.

Hugel Riesling 2005, £14.99 from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

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

Hugel - http://www.hugel.com/flash.html

Friday, 22 April 2011

D'Aquino Reserve Merlot, South East Australia, 2009 - Naked Wines


This seems to be another in a series of Naked Wines that needs a bit of time to open up and then shows good, well-structured, juicy fruit acidity but not too much in the way of tannins.

It came as a free offer from Naked when I bought 11 other wines - add in the £40 voucher for signing up as an Angel and 33% cashback, plus free delivery as the list price of the wines totalled over £100, and the resulting price per bottle was under £4.

Merlot produces a range of styles depending on the climate in which it is grown - in Bordeaux, where it is generally blended with the more tannic Cabernet Sauvignon, it gives red berry and plum aromas to the resulting wine, sometimes with a touch of tobacco, forest floor and truffleyness.

In the warmer climates of the New World, it tends to produce more of a glugging wine, with blackberry and black cherry aromas.

This wine from South East Australia is a ruby-garnet in the glass and although it gives some hints of ripe berry fruit on the nose when opened, it is initially quite restrained.

With a few more swirls, the ripe fruit becomes more prominent with a hint of forest floor and some really toasty oak, but there's not too much in the way of textural backbone on the palate.

Sampled a day later and it has become more harmonious and balanced, but feels overpowered by a beef lasagna that I am having it with.

With some grip on the finish, though, it's not quite light enough to be a quaffer even if cannot stand up to anything too meaty, so I try it later with a simple Italian salad of mozzarella and tomatoes, garnished with olive oil, some rather special balsamic vinegar and freshly chopped parsley.

Suddenly, it all falls into place - the juicy, fruity acidity matches with the sweetness of the tomatoes, cuts through the cheese and olive oil and is not overpowered by the balsamic.

At a different time of year, it might also match well with a stew with sweetness from some root vegetables, but right now, Cambridge is enjoying an unseasonably warm start to spring and I get to have this in the garden.

Winemaker Rex D'Aquino from Orange, New South Wales,  is a third-generation descendant of Italian immigrants to Australia from Sicily and that perhaps explains the rather "Italian" style of this wine - it's mainly about the acidic structure and really shows its best with food.

It would also work with a tomato-based pasta sauce.

The list price for this wine is £10.99.

Links

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

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Albany Vintners - Fine Wine Merchants in Cambridge

As a company director in marketing services, I am generally almost as interested in the business side of promoting, branding and selling wine as I am in the wines themselves.

There are, of course, almost as many business models for selling wine as there are wine regions - from the mass-market supermarket turf war, to internet-only retailers, independents and, at the top end, fine wine traders.

This latter is something I know very little about, for a number of good reasons - I certainly don't have the budget to buy seriously expensive fine wines (either for consumption or investment) and fine wine traders, by definition, tend to be rather niche operations about whom little gets written.

So I was fascinated to discover recently that Cambridge has its own fine wine merchant, Albany Vintners, and the other day arranged to meet founder and now one of two directors of the company, Marcus Edwards, to learn a bit more about what the company does.

A bit of research before the meeting gave some hints as to why I had never heard of Albany previously - the market for really top wines is relatively small and whilst there may be a certain number of Cambridge millionaires who can afford to drink First Growth Bordeaux on a regular basis, in practice the market for fine wine is global and anyone who takes themselves seriously needs to operate on a global basis and cannot survive simply by selling to a local market of passers-by.

Albany's warehouse
This is very different set-up from a local independent wine merchant who will provide you with some for Sunday lunch when the in-laws are visiting, and there was certainly no wine to be seen during my visit (it is all stored in specialist temperature-controlled warehouses somewhere just outside London).

Marcus explained that he had got into to wine trading beginning his career with Farr Vintners, a multi-award winning fine-wine merchant, and then qualifying as a management accountant and running the company's commercial finance function for several years.

This is about as good a training as anyone wanting to set up their own business can have - combine the sector knowledge with an understanding of how the money is actually made and any sensibly ambitious person will be ready to go it alone within a relatively short space of time.

So, after 10 years' experience with Farr Vintners and with a relatively small amount of money in his pocket (in business start-up terms), Marcus set up Albany Vintners in London as a one-man band. After a couple of years' successful trading, he recruited a former colleague to join him and then, as part of a lifestyle decision when family came along, decided to move out of the big city and into one of the villages around Cambridge, setting up offices on the edge of the city where he now employs a support team of three dealing with the company's integrated sales and stock management system, the logistics of transporting fine wine around the globe and the general admin of running a business.

The key functions in the business, that of buying wine at one price and selling it on at a sensible margin, are handled by the two directors with Marcus focusing mainly on the sales side and partner Elaine doing most of the buying.

This, then, is a trading hub rather than a retail outfit, with fine wine being the commodity (in Marcus' own words) being traded - a distinction worth drawing is that the company does not speculate, that is to say, they do not buy and hold wine for investment purposes but only to sell on.

As we had now got down to the brass tacks of business, I asked Marcus to explain how the company makes its money and what he saw as Albany's unique success factors which could not be replicated by a competitor wishing to emulate its success.

The first two aspects he mentioned were sensible enough - buy as cheaply as possible and sell on profitably as quickly as possible. In a trading business with very short time horizons, it's all about quick turnaround of stock - in fact, it felt much closer to the high street retail model than high-end.

Speed of turnover is, of course, the basis of any good trading business, but where Albany further differentiates itself from other fine wine merchants is in the levels of stock they hold and their in-depth knowledge of condition of the stock - this last point required a bit of explanation to the uninitiated like me and also a quick demonstration on the computer.

Firstly, many fine wine merchants hold very little stock themselves and tend to sell wine through a time-consuming process of agreeing a sale, then sourcing the wine and finally getting it shipped over to the buyer - which can take several weeks.

By contrast, Albany has invested in maintaining high levels of stock so that it can ship as soon as the order is finalised - this speed of delivery not only keeps impatient buyers happy, it also builds credibility that the company can actually provide what it advertises as on offer.

Secondly, whilst almost every bottle of wine on a supermarket or wine merchant's shelf is in pretty good condition - that is, the label is unmarked and undamaged, and the foil or plastic film over the cork is unblemished, for fine wines that may be transported around quite a bit before being sold or lie in damp cellars maturing for years and decades, the chances of picking up some superficial markings, scratches or even a touch of mould on the label are rather higher.

As long as the wine has been stored appropriately, these will have no effect on the wine inside the bottle, but they are considered unsightly - especially if the wine is being purchased as a lavish gift to say as much about the status of the giver as the importance of the recipient.

Technology developments in the last 10 or so years have made it increasingly practical to take photos of the wine itself and email these to a potential customer who can then choose whether or not to accept any bottles in less than 100% mint condition.

It sounds simple, so you might think everyone would do it - apparently not, as it is somewhat time-consuming and expensive.


A case of Petrus, some labels
are marked (top row)
 As Marcus explained, the company's warehousing supplier in Weybridge provides a dedicated photographer who first removes each bottle from its packaging, lines them up in a professionally-lit studio in the warehouse, then photographs not just the 12 bottles in the case, but also the case itself. This photo is then uploaded into the stock management system, along with all the other data about the wine (including provenance, critics' scores and price), so that when an order comes through, an image of the exact bottles of wine to be sold can be sent to the customer.

This is all highly labour-intensive and is paid for, indirectly, by Albany through the cost of their warehousing, but gives the company an edge over other merchants.

None of these points in themselves - the entrepreneurship to buy and sell wine profitably, the availability of stock, the sophisticated sales and stock management system and the attention to detail in goods receipting - would be particularly difficult to copy to someone with business nous, contacts and deep pockets.

However, all taken together, and with the reputation for reliability that they engender, they start to create a virtuous circle which would becomes difficult to compete with.

The story of fine wine prices over the last few years has been something of a one-way bet, with the rise in first Russia and more recently China leading to ever-higher prices for the limited quantities of fine wine that Bordeaux and Burgundy produce; Marcus explained that he finds the Chinese the easiest of the eastern markets to deal with for a number of reasons, mostly to do with Britain's historic trading relationships with China (including its purchase of Hong Kong for 150 years) which means he finds the Chinese way of doing business, whilst not without some challenges, at least reasonably familiar, even if their investment decisions are not always based on the most obvious of principles; there are various examples of wines whose names are easy to pronounce, or which sound either familiar or "lucky" when translated into Chinese and this can and indeed does drive prices  far more than the quality of what is in the bottle.

The other thing that drives prices is critics' scores - Jancis Robinson has highlighted this issue in a number of recent posts (see here) on the 2010 en primeur process, but the key influence of prices is the US critic Robert Parker - as we sat there, neither of us could think of any comparable figure in any other market who has such an influence on pricing, which is probably more of a comment on the unregulated nature of the market for fine wine (that any one person can dominate it so much) than on the influence of Parker himself.

I finished off by asking Marcus what his own fine wine of choice is - with prices for Bordeaux reaching ever higher levels, he prefers and finds more value in Burgundy these days. The reasons for this are initially surprising, but obvious on reflection - Bordeaux is a relatively straightforward market to understand for anyone who takes the time to learn the names of the 60 or so Chateaux in the 1855 classification. Moreover, the Chinese preference is for big, powerful wines.

By contrast, Burgundy is a much more complex region to learn and understand and its wines are slighter and more subtle - traditionally, Japanese fine-wine buyers favoured Burgundy over Bordeaux, but even without the devastation of recent events, their economy has been in doldrums for so long now, that they have not been buying fine wines in significant enough quantities to move prices upwards in the way the Chinese have been influencing Bordeaux.

After chatting with Marcus for well over an hour, I realised we had covered a whole range of fascinating topics - from the big-picture issues of what makes China tick and how the path of oil and mineral prices affects Russian demand for fine wine, to the minutiae of warehousing practices - but had hardly discussed any actual wines.

But that final piece also fitted into place with a little hindsight; to survive and thrive in any trading business - whether it be it fine wines or tins of baked beans - you have to take a detatched and unemotional view of the product and focus relentlessly on the business of buying and selling professionally.

And as the property-trading programmes that were so popular just a few years ago always advised, you have to know your market, manage your costs and above all not get emotionally attached to the thing you are selling.

Company details

 Albany Vintners Limited
2 Purbeck Road
Cambridge
CB2 8PF
United Kingdom

Telephone:+44 (0)1223 271830
Fax:+44 (0) 870 460 1547
Web: http://www.albanyvintners.com/
Email: sales@albanyvintners.com

Monday, 18 April 2011

Domaine Cristia Cotes du Ventoux 2009 - Naked Wines

The previous wine I had from Cristia based in the southern Rhône, via Naked Wines, was labelled only as a Vin de France - about as generic as is possible - but proved to be very enjoyable once it had opened up a little (review here).

This one is more specifically denominated as being from Ventoux (also southern Rhône), with the front label noting the grapes as a mix of the the noble Syrah and the more blowsy Grenache.

With previous experience in mind, I poured  this one into the decanter at the start of our meal, but despite this, initial impressions were a little underwhelming - yes, there were some classic "southern French" ripe dark fruits on the nose, but it was all quite restrained and in the mouth the acidity felt a little thin.

In fact, despite some bottle age, it did not really start to open up properly and come into its own until after the end of the meal and later again when resampled after a couple of days; at this stage, the nose had become much more pronounced with prunes and a hint of spice, whilst on the palate the fruit acidity feels fuller and more rounded. There is some ripe blackcurrant and pencil shavings and, whilst the texture is soft with low tannin levels, the finish is gently grippy.

Sampled a further day later and it has developed again - the perfume on the nose has died down and what remains is a really well-made, food-friendly acidity on the palate. It is dark and feels mouthfillingly inky with some savouriness, black-cherry aromas, and hints of pencil shavings and peppery spice.

Overall, then, this is something a little different from the usual Naked Wines offering, but that's no bad thing in this case; generally, Naked's "house style" is well-made, crowd-pleasing quaffers, with lots of fruit to enjoy - and anyone looking for that alone may be a little disappointed here.

Rather, with its prominent and sophisticated acidic structure, this is much more of an Italian-style food wine, intended to cut through the richness of something like a beef stew or a bolognese sauce, rather than being an easy-drinker straight out of the bottle.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, it seems to get rather mixed reviews on the Naked website, but one recurring theme amongst those who do rate it is the need to let it breathe a little.

Winemaker Dominique Grangeon (pictured) agrees, adding "Ventoux appellation wines can be quite "strong", which is the situation of ours ... let it open a few hours or decant it". Alternately, it will probably improve with a decent amount of cellaring.

List price is £9.49 with 33% cash back for Angels - for more on Naked's Angels scheme, see here.

Links

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

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Private Bin East Coast Gewürztraminer, 2010 - Villa Maria

Gewürztraminer is said to be one of the first grape varieties that novice blind tasters can learn to identify because of its distinctive perfumed aromas; it is certainly one of the most aromatic of all the noble white grape varieties and for that reason was also once considered a good place for beginners to start with its prominent fruit aromas - in the days, of course, before crisp, aromatic, fruit-driven wines were the norm as they are now.

Gewurz stood, briefly, on the edge of greatness a few years ago as being potentially The Next Big Thing after oaky Chardonnay, but in the end that accolade went to Pinot Grigio and these days it seems to have fallen out of fashion again, being mostly known as "the one that tastes of lychees and rose petals and matches with Asian cuisine".

My own experiences rather mirror this pattern - many years ago, as a newly enthusiastic wine drinker, I tried a couple of Gewurzes and initially really liked them. After a while, however, I found the aromatic nature and residual sugar just too much and quickly moved on.

Gewurz grapes
The Gewürztraminer grape originated in Tramin / Termeno in what is now Italy (formerly Südtirol, Austria); with pinkish berries and highly prone to mutation, it is not an easy grape to cultivate, being susceptible to spring frosts and needing to be picked at just the right level of ripeness for the varietal aromas to develop but before it becomes too overblown and blowsy.

The grape does best in a dry, moderate climate and in Europe the best expressions generally come from Alsace where it is made into a range of styles from fully dry to botrytis-affected sweetness.

This Private Bin East Coast Gewürztraminer from Villa Maria is rather different from my early experiences of the grape - it still has plenty of varietal aromas, but instead of dominating like an over-heavy perfume, they form part of a balanced whole; moreover, the residual sugar is expressed in the form of complex fruit sweetness, giving richness and a drier finish.

It is blended from fruit sourced in the moderate-to-cool regions of Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Auckland, Marlborough and Waipara (all along the East coast, hence the geographic tag in  the name), so the emphasis here is more on balanced varietal characteristics than any particular expression of terroir

On the nose, as well as the characteristic lychees and passion fruit, there are some slightly toasty notes with hints of brioche and nuts.

The palate shows some initial mouthfilling fruit sweetness developing into honey; it is ripe and rounded, in part due to the residual fruit sugars but also has a good, complex acidic structure. The finish, which is long and rounded , feels very smooth, seamless and balanced.

The back label notes that the style is intended to be generously-flavoured and approachable; that is certainly the case, and overall, it feels focused and extremely well balanced - rounded and technically well-made, there is enough ripe fruit for quaffing but also the structure to match with food.

You could try this with Thai coconut curry with prawns or chicken, or equally with a jazzed-up roast chicken with plenty of zingy lemon and aromatic thyme.

It has a Gold Medal from the Royal Easter Show Wine Awards, 2011.

£9.99, provided for review.

Links

Villa Maria - http://www.villamaria.co.nz/

Friday, 15 April 2011

Hotel Le Rapp in Colmar - and some wine-buying‏ in Alsace



A while ago, whilst on a driving holiday to Alsace, we stayed for a couple of nights at the hotel Le Rapp in Colmar (pictured below right).

Our route to Alsace had taken us from Cambridge, across the Channel and via castles and monasteries in Belgium and a trip over the Vosges.

Colmar, at the southern end of the Alsace Wine Route, is in many ways like a smaller version of the more illustrious city at its northern end, Strasbourg - and all the better for it.

Like Strasbourg, it has brightly painted timbered cottages with steep, gabled roofs, historic squares and a waterway system that shows off the best of the city.

Also like most of Alsace, it has been fought over by France and Germany and, whilst it shows influences of both countries, these days it feels very much French, albeit with a distinctly German accent.

The natural border between France and Germany is not so much the river Rhine to the east of Colmar, but the Vosges mountains to the west, low lying to the north and rising to over 1,000m at their southerly end.

These provide a rain shadow for Alsace's vineyards at the foot of the mountains on the easterly side; the higher the mountains, the more pronounced the effect and in general the better the wines.

Eguisheim
We spent two days based in Colmar exploring the pretty nearby wine villages of Kaysersburg, perhaps the prettiest village in the area, with its hilltop ruined castle and storks' nests, Riquewhir and Eguisheim which has a cobbled, circular walk around the edge of the village.

Unlike its northerly neighbour, Colmar is a much easier city to see in a day than Strasbourg and feels more relaxed, less bustling, perhaps due to the absence of Eurocrats.

Any visit to the city must include the short boat trip along the canals, known as La Petite Venise, which are not as extensive as Strasbourg's waterways but more intimate, especially when viewed from the small, silent battery-powered punts rather than a bateau mouche.

We had chosen our hotel from the Logis de France guide book as providing a high standard of food and were not disappointed.

In the elegant restaurant, the food was superbly well-prepared and showed the influences of the surrounding areas of Germany and Burgundy - after a slice of pork pie for an amuse bouche, starters were escargots in butter and wild Alsatian garlic.

For mains we chose chicken in a creamy sauce with girolles mushrooms and the local speciality, choucroute; a French take on the German sauerkraut, it was a plate of hot pickled cabbage, spiced with peppercorns and caraway seeds, topped with pork in various forms - frankfurters, pork chops and pork belly. Like much Alsatian cuisine, it has the heartiness of German food with the finesse of French.

Following this, dessert was one of my favourites, a clafoutis - a flan made of marinaded cherries baked in a rich batter.

To drink, we had something local, of course - a Pinot Blanc from Alsace.

Pinot Blanc, a mutation of Pinot Noir whose spiritual home is next-door Burgundy, produces wines that are light and refreshingly crisp with apples-and-pears acidity in its youth but which fill out into something bigger, more rounded and serious with a couple of years in bottle, as this one proved to be.

The wines of Alsace are typically both riper, drier and more mouthfilling than their German counterparts, and thus intended more for the dining table than the garden.

Sadly, wines from Alsace are not much seen in the UK - with their Teutonic fluted bottles, and often Germanic grape varieties they perhaps seem rather unfashionable these days.

And yet, the dry whites are the kind of wine that really should be popular now - food-friendly and well-structured with ripe fruit aromas and crisp acidity, no oak but enough body to stand up to well-seasoned modern international cuisine and a straightforward AOC classification with varietal labelling, what's not to like ?

However, they are also generally priced a little above everyday-drinking levels which tends to put them into specialist wine merchants rather than supermarket shelves.

The best-value examples are generally to be found in Alsace itself where well-made examples can be had for around €6, which these Euro-parity days is closer to being around £6 rather than well under a fiver as it used to be a few years ago.

Alsace is superbly well set up for wine tourism, with its wine route of pretty villages almost all of which seem to have numerous producers offering samples and selling produce. As noted, it's best to head to the southern end if you are looking to buy.

Returning to our hotel after a day's sampling and purchasing, we found the food on the second night to be equally impressive.

Our amuse bouche was again a slice of pork pie, but this time served in a hot stock. For starters we chose melon wrapped in thin slices of cured ham and a green salad served with lardons.

Our main was a piece of flaky white cod in a creamy mushroom sauce with another favourite dessert of mine, creme brulee.

The wine we chose for this evening was again local and slightly heavier than the previous evening's - a local Pinot Gris. Also a mutation of Pinot Noir, it produces a range of styles from crisply acidic in a cool climate, such as northern Italy where it is localised into Pinot Grigio, to big, rich, ripe and aromatically perfumed when fully ripe in Alsace.

This one had the body and structure to match with our food without being overly perfumed, as Pinot Gris can become when extremely ripe. It also had a silver medal from a local competition in Colmar.

Other related articles
Two Wines from Dopff & Irion, Alsace

A Short Visit to Bouillon‏ in the Belgian Ardennes
Kirchengut Wolf in the Mosel Valley
Wine-buying in France; Alsace
Restaurant L'Alembic: Nuits St Georges

Links
Le Rapp - http://www.rapp-hotel.com/
Vins d'Alsace website - http://www.vinsalsace.com/

Contact details

Hotel - restaurant LE RAPP à Colmar
1-3-5 rue Weinemer - 68000 Colmar
Tel +33 (0)3 89 41 62 10
Fax +33 (0)3 89 24 13 58
E-mail rapp-hotel@calixo.net
& resa@rapp-hotel.com

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Persian Food at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

In a first for the Cambridge Food and Wine Society, Saba Alai - originally from Teheran, the capital of Iran (formerly Persia) but living in Cambridge for almost two decades now - recently gave a tasting of traditional food from her homeland.

Saba's day-job is with a local company, but as an enthusiastic and skilled cook, she kindly agreed to prepare some traditional Persian dishes and talk about their history and provenance.

Although Persian food does not naturally have courses - people traditionally sit cross-legged on the floor and eat from a tablecloth, picnic-buffet style - we began with a simple starter-style dish, composed of herbs (coriander leaves, tarragon, flat-leaf parsley and chives) with feta cheese all wrapped up in a thin, but leavened, flat-bread.

This very ancient dish actually felt rather 21st century, much like a simple deli-style wrap, and I found the saltiness of the cheese brought out the flavours of the fresh herbs and bread without the need for any additional dressings.

Despite giving the world wine in around 3,000 BC, and wine historically having cultural and symbolic traditions in Persia, these days alcohol does not feature in Persian cuisine and so we had another traditional drink to wash everything down - pomegranate juice.

The one served on the evening, from Mahan (sourced from Al Amin deli on Mill Road), worked really well with the food as it had a rich, refreshing acidity which reminded me of the food-friendly sourness of Italian wines and prompted me to ask my neighbour, a bio-chemist at the University for a quick lesson on the different acids in wine.

As mains were laid out, Saba explained a bit more about Persian food - given its ancient origins, perhaps it is not surprising that many Persian foods have a particular association with religious festivals and events. The religion of ancient Persia was Zoroastrianism until the Arab conquest of 651 AD which (unlike Islam) does not forbid any foods but does dictate that the flavours used in different dishes should contrast with each other, with sweetness and sourness being a favourite.

As befits a country on a large land mass, Persia has influenced and been influenced by neighbouring countries - naan bread, a staple of many a so-called Indian restaurant, is actually Persian in origin and being soft, white and fluffy was the food of the courtiers where the darker, heavier, unleavened chapatti was more of a peasant staple, whilst the slow-cooked, spiced stews were similar to Moroccan tagines.

If specifically Persian restaurants are somewhat unusual outside of Iran, that is largely because Iranians do not go to restaurants much except for rice and kebab, which is their equivalent of fish-and-chips - a standardised, low-rent meal which is best cooked in a restaurant.

However, although most Persian cooking is done at home, typically Persian women only learn to cook in their first year or so after marriage when they regularly phone home to ask for instructions on how to prepare dishes for their new husbands.

Typical Persian main dishes are combination of rice with meat, lamb, chicken, or fish and some onion, vegetables, nuts, and herbs, as well as fresh green herbs along with fruits such as plums, pomegranates, quince, prunes, apricots, and raisins.

On this occasion our mains included two types of rice, a chicken stew with apricots, a deliciously tender lamb stew using some local free-range lamb and two yoghurt dishes that legend says were devised around 630 AD for Queen Purandokht who subsequently gave her name to them.

Whilst some of the dishes were spiced with cinnamon or saffron, unlike foods from neighbouring Pakistan or India, none was hot with chilis which do not feature in Persian cuisine.

Also, there is no tradition in Persia of preserving meat by salting it; rather, meat is simply cooked immediately after preparing, or (to put it another way) kept alive until needed.

For dessert, we had Ice in Heaven - a blancmange flavoured with rose water. The origin of the name is that, if ice existed in heaven, this is what it would taste like, and it was served with tea flavoured with cardamom, baklavas and delight (specifically not Turkish delight).

Saba explained that many middle eastern foods that are now familiar in Europe came via Turkey and so got labelled as Turkish in the process even if their origin was somewhere quite different.

Interestingly, many of the dishes and customs were familiar to me from my years spent living in Russia and Ukraine which may seem a long way from central Asia but were influenced by Iran as a trading partner on the other side of the Caspian Sea - indeed, Saba's grandfather was born in Moscow to Iranian traders based in Russia and spoke Russian as his first language.

The Food

Sabzi khordan - Fresh herbs with feta and flat bread
Chelo ba khoresheh morgh ba aloo - Persian rice with saffron, served with a “stew” of chicken, prunes and carrots
Sabzi polo ba gooshteh barreh - Herb rice, served with roast lamb
Kookooye Sib-zamini – A Persian omelette with potatoes
Borani-ye Laboo - Yogurt with beetroot
Borani-ye Esfanaj - Yogurt with spinach
Saladeh Shirazi - Salad of cucumber, tomatoes and red onions
Yakh dar behesht - Literally, “Ice in Heaven” – a blancmange with cardamom and rose water, served with cream and pistachios

Links

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

Mahan - http://www.mahanfoods.com/

Al Amin - http://www.al-amin.com/

Mill Road - http://www.mill-road.com/

Image

The picture at the top of this article shows a Persian woman pouring wine from 17th Century Persia, from a wall painting inside the Chehel Sotoun palace, Isfahan, Iran

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Learning to cook and taste wine with L'atelier des Chefs

A while ago, for the "fun" part of our company awayday, we went to make our own lunch at L'atelier des Chefs cookery school in central London.

With around 40 of us there, we divided into two groups - the others preparing our mains whilst we had a quick introduction to basic wine-tasting techniques from Guillermo, an IWC judge originally from Chile.

In a brief yet impressively comprehensive introduction, Guillermo covered all the basics of tasting for a group of mainly novices who nodded appreciatively as they discerned a hitherto unnoticed level of complexity in the two wines we were tasting.

However, to my thinking, the wines themselves were a little eccentric for an introduction and very different from the sort of thing I would have expected.

A South African Chenin Blanc for around £6 showed lots of herbaceous elderflower on the nose, but had a harsh acidity on the palate which was quite challenging and not universally popular.

The red was, if anything, an even more leftfield choice - an oaked Gamay from the Loire. Not entirely devoid of merit, it was however mainly a mouthful of tannin and thin acidity and hardly crowd-pleasing. At around £10, it also seemed poor value.

The tasting finished over, we swapped round and moved on to preparing the starters and desserts.

"Andy", not "chef"
Our instructor, who preferred to be called "Andy" rather than "Chef", again gave us a quick, but rather superficial tour through some basic techniques of chopping celery, pulping garlic with the back of a knife and making crispy croutons for the starter and hand-whipping a vast quantity of cream for the dessert before adding in a rather scrumptious mix of coffee and brandy.

These were made into soup and a layered mousse dessert respectively - our mains being duck breasts served with a salad of endives and pureed potatoes prepared by the other group.

It certainly was fun to prepare our own lunches and having them served to us by colleagues prompted plenty of humour; the wine was a little disappointing, but the food was good and we were given the recipes afterwards, although I must say I have not bothered to repeat any of them.

However, I had been hoping to learn either some new techniques or gain some insights from a day with a professional chef, so it was a little disappointing at the end to find it had been more of a "play" session - playing at being chefs - rather than an instructive lesson; the chopping section, for example, seemed to be mainly about showing us the kind of flashy-looking knife skills C-list celebrity chefs love to demonstrate on daytime cookery programmes.

Overall, despite the obvious skills, experience and professionalism of the instructors, L'atelier des Chefs' schtick seems to be aimed rather at the young, self-consciously trendy and easily impressed. As the person in charge of our company finances, I also found it rather expensive, as it proved more costly to prepare our own meals, albeit under the supervision of a professional chef with several assistants prepping and clearing away, than to go to a restaurant for an equivalent meal.

However, the real objective of the day from a company perspective was to have fun and get to know each other a bit better and in that respect the day certainly delivered.

L’atelier des Chefs
19 Wigmore Street
London W1U 1PH
Phone number : 0207 499 6580

Website - http://www.atelierdeschefs.co.uk/

Monday, 11 April 2011

L'Epervier, Minervois 2008 - Laithwaite's

This is the last of the Laithwaite's wines I received under their 100% satisfaction guarantee scheme (see here for how it works).

Minervois, a sub-region of the vast southern Languedoc-Roussillon area, where wine-making dates back 2,000 years, is now part of France's New World - a warm-climate region producing large quantities of mainly easy-drinking, technically well-made, fruit-driven wines.

Minervois wines must be blended to carry the AOC tag and this wine is a mix of the acidic Carignan, the blowsy Grenache and the more noble Syrah.

Made by producer Lauran Cabaret, it does not appear on his website, suggesting that he was perhaps using up some excess stock that he did not wish to put out under his own name.

Rather pale in the glass, on the nose there is ripe bramble fruit, juicy blackcurrant and, with a bit of air, some oaky vanilla. The palate shows more fruit and a distinct earthiness, followed by perfumey aromas of prunes, figs and some spice.

So far, so reasonably interesting; the acidity is juicy and workmanlike, providing a fairly reasonable structure and some length; texture is a little thin but smooth enough and the finish is brief and grippy but fine.

Compared to some of the overblown and underwhelming Laithwaite's wines I've had recently, there's nothing bad here at all, nothing not to like - it's enjoyable and gluggable without being too over-the-top. Overall, though, like most Laithwaite's wines, it's just not very exciting or impressive.

The list price on the site is £5.99 (plus, as ever, delivery) which is not unreasonable in context. However, the Laithwaite's reviewers almost universally dislike this one, giving it an average score of less than 2 out of 5 with comments like "awful" and "couldn't drink it".

By contrast, and perhaps predictably, the Laithwaite's website is rather more up-beat: "Top-value, complex and characterful - one of the best Minervois you could hope to find at this price."

So, the truth seems to lie somewhere between the two - it's not as impressive as the website claims (no surprises there, then), but also not as bad as the other reviewers seem to suggest - merely "lukewarm water" rather than, say, fire or ice.

Match with charcuterie, salami or herby sausages.

Links

This wine on Laithwaite's  - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/Still_Red_Wine/LEpervier/prod670646

Lauran Cabaret - http://www.laurancabaret.com/

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Crusan Colombard-Sauvignon, VdP Côtes de Gascogne


On the first hot day of spring last week, we had our company awayday in a chic and ubercool hotel in Bermondsey, in the redeveloped and newly-trendy SE1 area of London.

We started the day drinking coffee on a low balcony overlooking a square of handsome Georgian townhouses opposite some funky modern low-rise mixed-use buildings designed by East Architects.

After the morning presentations were over, we went downstairs to the hotel's restaurant for lunch with a glass of wine.

Mentally shuddering when I saw the label indicating it was a Colombard from Gascony - I had a bad experience with a Laithwaite's one recently (see here) - I decided to approach with caution.

Gascony is an ill-defined corner of south west France, historically inhabited by the Basque people and forever associated with the romance of d'Artagnan and Cyrano de Bergerac as well as providing a land of holiday homes for northern Europeans who appreciate Gascony's green rolling hills, sunny weather, and occasional distant views of the Pyrenees.

Rolling Gascon countryside
 The Gers department from where this wine originates is historically more associated with Armagnac than table wine - in both cases, however, the main grape is Colombard whose main claim is that it manages to retain at least some acidity in the heat of a Gascon summer.

This wine, a blend of Colombard and Sauvignon, fermented at low temperature in stainless steel tanks and bottled young, has all the crisp acidity and herbaceousness on the nose that you would expect.

Straight from the bottle, it is slightly harsh on the finish, but after a few swirls in the glass it starts to open out, becoming more rounded and mouthfilling on the palate, with white stone fruit, and a good minerally finish

A quick search on the internet shows that it is available more as a pub / restaurant wine, being included on several wine lists, but not generally sold retail other than through everywine.co.uk at the fairly reasonable price of £44.95 per case of 6 (£7.50 per bottle).

Links

This wine on everywine.co.uk - http://www.everywine.co.uk/wine.store/Products/Crusan-Colombard-Sauvignon-Blanc-Vin-de-Pays-Cotes-de-Gascogne-57447/Show.html

The Bermondsey Square Hotel - http://www.bermondseysquarehotel.co.uk/

East Architects - http://www.east.uk.com/

For more details on the renovation of Bermondsey Square, see this article - http://www.dexigner.com/news/17961

Picture credits

Bermondsey Square image - http://www.dexigner.com/news/17961

Gascon countryside - from Wikipedia, contributer Jibi44

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Domaine de La Sanglière, Cuvée Prestige Rosé, Côtes de Provence, 2008‏

The previous wine I tried from Domaine de La Sanglière (a Grenache-based red from old vines, reviewed here) was a curiously enjoyable mixture of the fun and the serious, and this rosé was equally intriguing and appealing.

The Domaine was established in 1980 by Francois Devictor in the idyllically-named village of Borme Les Mimosas just a few kilometres inland from the Mediterranean in southern Provence where marine breezes moderate both the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

The winery is now managed by two of Francois' sons, Remy and Olivier and this being Provence. most of the wines are, of course, rosé.

The vines for this wine - Cinsault (c.80% for aromatic, fresh suppleness) and Grenache (c.20% for roundedness) - are tended organically with a respect for nature that is at the heart of the domaine's membership of Patrimoine des Terroirs.

With the grapes picked at night and pressed under CO2 to preserve freshness and a short cold maceration to prevent the development of colour, the resulting wine is a very pale salmon-mousse pink in the bottle - paler, indeed, than many an oaky white.

After an almost slightly smokey nose, the surprises continue with an unexpectedly aromatic, almost herbaceous and Sauvignon-esque palate.

It is mouthfilling with ripe-yet-crisp redcurrant fruit acidity and a gentle, mineral finish.

Medium-bodied and aromatic with refreshing acidity, it matches best with something fairly light with regional herbs, such as white fish in a herby broth and vegetables roasted with rosemary and sage; it will also cut through soft white or creamy cheeses nicely.

€9.90 from the domaine - provided for review.

Links

Domaine de La Sanglière - http://www.domaine-sangliere.com/

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

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Eugenie Bezard Cuvée Tradition Brut - Cambridge Wine Merchants

Over the past few weeks, Cambridge Wine Merchants have been running a weekly quiz on their email newsletter - partly because I like a challenge and partly because they're actually quite interesting, I've been shooting the answers back within a few minutes of the questions dropping into my in-box.

For my pains, I recently won one of their wines of the week, this Champagne from Baron Albert, based in Charly sur Marne in the centre of the Marne Valley. The house dates back to 1947 and cultivates 45ha of vineyards producing 350,000 bottles of Champagne.

The vineyard composition, (65% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Noir) is reflected in this blend which is given as "Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay" with no further details on the bottle - the wine is not listed on the website either.

Despite the implication of a higher proportion of PM, the wine is actually very pale in the glass and gives little on the nose.

The grapes for this blend are grown on chalky soil with a sunny aspect, giving both finesse and ripeness, and on the palate it shows good fruit and granny smith's apple acidity; it is rich and mouthfilling with good linear acidity a fine good mousse and a pleasing, savoury length.

It's a light, crisp and refreshing style of Champagne - there's no toastiness or yeasty brioche here, just a lovely depth of flavour.

We had this with chicken in a cream and mushroom sauce (with a dash of the wine added in) and it cut through the richness of the sauce beautifully.

List price at Cambridge Wine Merchants is £18.99, with discounts for cases and Cambridge University alumni.

Links

Champagne Baron Albert - http://www.champagne-baron.com/uk/home/

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

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Noel Young's Magpie Estate Wines

At the recent Matthew Jukes Top 100 Australian Wines Roadshow in Cambridge, Noel Young had also put out a number of older vintages ("museum wines") of his Magpie Estate Wines for sample, too.

Magpie Estate is Noel's Australian joint venture with wine-maker Rolf Binder, based in the Barossa Valley, and the two have been making wines together for over a decade now.

The wines are indeed, in a sense, museum pieces, as the vintages on show that night are long since sold out , so these were something rather special - however, more recent vintages of the same wines are available from Noel's shop.

I started with his mid-priced Barrossa Shiraz, The Sack, which came in two vintages, 2003 plus the first ever, 2001; the 2003 was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser with lots of ripe, indulgent fruit, a soft, smooth texture with minty eucalyptus and vanilla sweetness and a good finish.

By contrast, the 2001 was a quite different and much more impressive wine - less fruit-driven, it was denser and more restrained, with great texture, and felt really well-made.

The notes on Noel's website for the 2001 say that the grapes come "from 3 vineyard sources and are aged in around 40% new oak, of which 80% was American 20% French oak ... We blended in c5% Grenache and this has given the wine a mid-palate lift."

As Noel later explained, 2003 had been a much more difficult vintage than 2001 with the resulting wine being quite different.

The final wine was Noel's 2004 "Call Bag" Mourvedre-Grenache blend - I had tried the 2007 at a recent tasting (see here) where it was voted best wine of the night.

This earlier vintage - with a few more years in bottle and opened several hours earlier in the evening -  was even more impressive with good ripe fruit acidity, aromas of pencil shavings and some toasty oak.

The Wines

Magpie Estate 'The Sack', Shiraz, 2001, Australia, Barossa Valley
Magpie Estate 'The Sack', Shiraz, 2003, Australia, Barossa Valley
Magpie Estate 'The Call Bag', Mourvedre-Grenache, 2004, Australia, Barossa Valley

Links

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

Magpie Estate - http://www.rolfbinder.com/index.php?cmi=24

Magpie Estate (new website under development) - http://www.magpieestate.com/

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Matthew Jukes 100 Best Australian Wines Roadshow with Noel Young, Cambridge‏

The Matthew Jukes 100 Best Australian Wines Roadshow rolled into Cambridge last night as Noel Young held a tasting at John de Bruyne's Anstey Hall.

Described by award-winning Daily Mail writer Jukes as "a legend in the wine industry", Noel had selected 40 of Matthew's 100 wines to present that evening and anyone wishing to get a sense of what Australia has to offer could do much worse than turn up at one of these roadshows.

Arriving half-way through the event, I speed-tasted my way through the wines and then had a chat with Matthew to find out more about how he choose his top 100.

Tasting 30,000 to 40,000 wines a year - that's an average of 100 wines every single day - Matthew keeps a note of all those which he scores 18.5 or over and then whittles them down to 100 by focusing on what is available for the UK market.

He does not moderate his list in any way; that is, he does not put in wines he feels "ought" to be included or add in a few worthy, but underachieving, wines to round out the list of grape varieties.

Rather, he just lists his top 100, noting that each year there ends up being a small number of fizzes and stickies, with an approximate 50:50 split for the remaining reds and whites that simply represent his personal preferences and assessment.

There is not room here to record all the wines I tried and in any case you can find the full 100 list here, but after all the tasting what struck me was that it was the varieties for which Oz is known best that generally stood out - Chardonnay, Cab and Shiraz.

I asked Matthew about his thoughts on where Australian wine is, and should be, going.

Explaining that what he admires most about Australians is their open frankness and ability not only to take criticism on the chin but also to act on it, he told me he had been invited to talk to at a marketing conference on Aussie wines not for any in-depth subject knowledge, but for his own plain-speaking no-nonsense approach.

His view is that Australia needs to continue turning away from the volume-driven supermarket turf war area and focus on its terroir and wines in the mid-range where it has huge potential - three-for-a-tenner wines, he explained, are now the preserve of South Africa, not Oz.

In short, then, Australia needs to grow up and become more serious, more European even - and whilst certain retailers' shelves may currently be awash with cheap, overly fruity and sweet Aussie plonk, this could be a final hurrah before exchange rates and rises in duty make this cease to be an attractive area for business.

He also believe that Oz's future lies in its most well-known, international varieties - he is not a fan of Spanish or Italian varieties being grown in Oz and says they usually end up being not as good as, but more expensive than, the styles they try to emulate.

However, he does believe Australian Pinot Noir is getting better all the time and is one to watch.

The full list of the wines on show that evening is here, but what follows is my condensed summary of the ones I liked.

The Wines (selection)

Fizz

NV Jacob's Creek, Blanc de Blancs, Australia - this was light, crisp and fresh with a good finish. Price not available as, bizarrely, Jacob's Creek refuses to tell Noel Young the trade price.

Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc

These wines were lean and crisp in a cool-climate sort of way; not typically Australian at all.

Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills, SA (£12.99) 2010 had a smokey, flinty nose, crisp acidity, a full palate and good length on the finish.

Tyrrell's Belford Single Vineyard Semillon, Hunter Valley NSW (£N/A) 2005 had a complex but restrained nose with hints of diesel and a ripe, linear and balanced acidity.

Riesling

There were a number of quite good ones here, but the Pikes Riesling, Clare Valley, SA (£15.99) 2009 showed perhaps the best overall complexity and balance between fullness, acidity and minerality.

Chardonnay

There were two very good Chardonnays on show - but neither cheap. Both were quite pale in the glass with great complexity and structure, toasty oak and impressive finishes; Yabby Lake Vineyard, Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula, Vic (£24.99) 2008 and Xanadu Reserve Chardonnay, Margaret River, WA (£38.95) 2008.

Pinot Noir

The two Pinots on show were pale, almost rose-like, mushroomy and pleasant enough, but I'm not sure I quite share Matthew's enthusiasm for them at this stage.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

Unlike the cool-climate feel of the whites, the style here is still mainly New World - soft, smooth and full of blackcurrant fruit, with the odd more seriously-textured wine thrown in at the upper end of the price range.

Wirra Wirra Church Block, McLaren Vale, SA (£16.99) 2008 was good, but the Mitolo Jester Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, SA (£12.99) 2009 made partially in the amarone style was ripe, mouthfilling and smooth with minty eucalyptus.

Also very impressive for its texture and tannic structure was a Petaluma Coonawarra, SA (£30.75) 2007.

The "weird and wonderful reds", all lighter and more fruit-driven, were a enjoyable diversion into more affordable, everyday-drinking wines before the hedonistic delight that was the final run of Shirazes.

Shiraz, Grenache, Mouvedre

Glaetzer, Wallace Shiraz / Grenache, Barossa Valley, SA (£17.50) 2009 had sweet prune fruit and minty eucalyptus.

Plantagenet Shiraz, Great Southern, WA (£24.99) 2007 had ripe prunes and plums, a soft-but-full texture and a toasty finish.

Mitolo Savitar Shiraz, McLaren Vale, SA (£29.99) 2007 had a complex mix of mouthwatering fruit, dense texture, minty blackcurrant, a toastiness and good grippy finish.

Links

Matthew Jukes - http://www.matthewjukes.com/

Top 100 list - http://www.matthewjukes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/matthew-jukes-100best-2010.pdf

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

Full list of the wines in the Cambridge tasting - http://www.matthewjukes.com/?p=1093