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Friday, 27 May 2011

Domäne Wachau at London International Wine Fair‏

The recent London International Wine Fair was an opportunity to try some new wines and catch up with old friends.

I had met and chatted with Domäne Wachau CEO Roman Horvath in London a few months earlier (see here); he was unable to make the London International Wine Fair on this occasion, but Domäne Wachau's importers, Alliance Wine, were showing a range of 2010s, plus an old favourite.

I started with two Grüner Veltliners - the 2010 mid-level Federspiel showed lots of varietal character with puy lentils, celery and white pepper on the nose. On the palate it is bright and lively with focused acidity and good minerality on the finish.

The top-level single-vineyard Smaragd from Achleiten was richer, heavier and weightier with more intensity.

2010 was a distinctly cool and difficult year for the Wachau and Lower Austria in general - as a result, the wines from this year are showing more in the way of focused acidity and precision which in turn enhances their minerality.

The Riesling Federspiel was, by contrast, more approachable and less intensely mineral. On the palate it was mouthfilling with zippy acidity.

Most Austrian stickies are made in the warm, low-lying region of Burgenland, but in a warm year such as 2008, the Wachau also produces dessert wines at Beerenauslese (BA) and occasionally botrytis-affected Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) level.

The last warm year in the Wachau was 2008 and I have been lucky enough to review the BA from this year a couple of times before.

Wachau stickies are lighter and fresher than those from Burgenland and this one showed apricot and acacia, with hints of marmalade.

Recommended wine - the dessert wine definitely gets a thumbs-up, but for a good-value introduction to Austria's signature grape from its most prestigious area, it has to be the Grüner Veltliner Federspiel.

Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Federspiel from £8.06. Imported by Alliance Wine and available from Waitrose.

Links

Domäne Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/

Alliance Wine - http://www.alliancewine.co.uk/

Waitrose Wine - http://www.waitrosewine.com/

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Tio Pepe Fino En Rama Tasting at Cambridge Wine Merchants‏

Earlier this week, I was a guest of Hal Wilson, owner of Cambridge Wine Merchants, for a Tio Pepe tasting.

Presented by winemaker Antonio Flores and MD of Gonzalez Byass, Martin Skelton, the event was billed as a Fino Masterclass, although we ended up also trying Amontillado and, a first for me, Palo Cortado.

I had met Hal early to kick around some ideas and we then were joined on our table for the tasting by fellow Cambridge-based Wine Blogger, Vinoremus, whose take on the evening is here.

Antonio started by explaining that the company was founded in 1835 by a failed banker and potato-farmer named Gonzalez who named the sherry after his Uncle Joe ("Tio Pepe" in Spanish).

Byass, by the way, was the name of the importer tasked with selling the first barrels to make their way over to the UK.

An early adopter of the solera system for blending and aging sherries, the company remains family-owned to this day.

Soleras
The sherries all came in pairs to highlight the differences between them - the first pairing was a comparison of a standard Fino with the company's rather special En Rama.

In standard spec, the Fino is a pale, dry, refreshing fortified wine and with no primary or secondary fruit aromas, the experience is all about tertiary or "evolved", pungently tangy aromas of yeast and pastry-shop, with a hint of varietal almond, and overall finesse.

Sherry takes quite a bit of fining and clarification before bottling to remove all traces of both live and dead yeast and make it stable. However, the En Rama sherry is taken from the centre of the solera where it is at its clearest and therefore needs minimal fining and, as a result, is the closest thing to a barrel sample you'll find.

The flor yeast grows thickest and imparts the most flavour during milder weather in spring and autumn; this year's En Rama was bottled around Easter when it was unusually chilly in Spain - much cooler than an unseasonably warm Cambridge, in fact.

As a result of all this, the En Rama has more colour and is much more intensely flavoured - like the standard Fino but turned up to 11 (or even 12 or 13 ...).

The other side of this reduced processing is that the sherry needs to be consumed much more quickly - it has an optimal shelf life of just 3 months compared to around a year for the standard Fino.

With its finesse and good acidity, Fino is a great match to cut through the rich, salty local food in Spain and we were served jamon iberico, chorizo, manchego and olive oil with bread for dipping in CWM's funky and very stylish seating area.

The next two sherries were Amontillados - a 10 year-old AB and a 30 year-old Del Ducque.

Amontillado is a darker style of sherry which has partially oxidised due to the flor dying off and allowing the air to come into contact with the wine.

The AB was a pale gold / straw colour with more flavour from the wood of the solera.

The Del Ducque was a much darker, burnt sugar colour with nutty almond aromas on the nose, vanilla from the oak, a darkness from oxidisation and also a more intense concentration.

During its 20 years of oxidising in barrel it gains in alcohol content due to evaporation and this in turn leeches more of the aromatic elements out of the wood, giving aromas of spice, tobacco and antique shop.

There is a touch of bitterness but overall the wine is fresh, smooth and elegant.

The final pairing was a couple of Palo Cortados, for which there is no formal definition, but is generally a wine that starts off destined to be a Fino, but rebels against its destiny and ages oxidatively as an oloroso.

The 12 year-old Leonor was amber coloured and had aromas of dried fruits, nuts, orange marmalade. It had a rounded, almost sweet finish due to the presence of glycerol which would normally be consumed by the flor giving Fino its bone-dry texture.

Palo Cortado is perhaps not the best place for an enthusiastic novice to start - it has a somewhat challenging oakiness, with prominent tannin and woody aromas, but will match well with game, pate or kidney dishes.

The Apostoles 30 year-old Palo Cortado was a deep mahogany colour with aromas of prunes, figs and raisins. It is blended with 10% Pedro Ximinez and, although this adds quite a high level of sugar, the wine is so intense that the sweetness seems only a hint - it is certainly less challenging than the Leonor and almost too easy to enjoy. Given this sweetness, it would match well with Stilton or other blue cheese.

Recommended wine:

All are worth seeking out, but it has to be the Fino En Rama for its barrel-sample depth of flavour.

Tio Pepe Fino En Rama from £12.50; limited availability from Cambridge Wine Merchants, the Wine Society and Harvey Nichols.

Links
Tio Pepe - http://www.tiopepe.co.uk/
Gonzalez Byass - http://www.gonzalezbyass.com/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Image credit: Solera by El Pantera

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

On Laithwaites‏


Someone recently tweeted asking for opinions on Internet-only retailers; I responded to say I was unimpressed with Laithwaites but very impressed with Naked Wines' social media and business model.

To their credit, Laithwaites tweeted me back asking for feedback on where they could improve - my 140 characters' worth was that they have too many overly alcoholic, overripe, over sweet wines that all taste the same, but that some are alright, though.

Perhaps that sums it up adequately, but I felt moved to expand upon this pithy pronouncement as it is something I feel quite strongly about.

I first bought wine from Laithwaites just over two years ago - my existing stocks were running low and with no more foreign travel on the horizon, the opportunity to pick up some local stuff whilst abroad was remote.

So, I bought a Discovery case (now called The Seasons), heavily discounted from its list price, plus two mystery cases. Freebies thrown in with all that were a posh corkscrew, three bottles of a Rioja plus one extra red and white.

The paperwork that came with the cases included brochures showing characterful, rustic locals harvesting grapes against stunning backdrops and a promise that I would discover characterful wines with genuine personality.


For a while, I got fairly enthusiastic about the whole thing - lovely pictures that make you feel like you're there, well-written copy that enthuses and waxes lyrical about the wines; it was all very persuasive and believable.

Initial impressions were also fairly positive and I was impressed by my first two Spanish reds.

I worked my way through the Mystery case first, assuming the Discovery ones would be their best, flagship wines and therefore should be saved as the best for last.

The Mystery wines proved to be generally well-enough made, fruit-driven and pleasant. Some were rather good and only a few were disappointing.

But after two cases, I founded myself rather bored by their predictability - easy drinking ? Yes. Pleasant and fruity ? Yes. Interesting, quirky or challenging ? Well, no - not really. Did they inspire me to want to try more of the Laithwaites range - hardly.

So, I then moved on to the Discovery case and found an overly sweet Aussie red, a faulty Romanian Pinot Grigio and a thin Spanish Tempranillo amongst them.

To their credit, Laithwaites sent me a case of 10 wines under their Satisfaction Guarantee when I mentioned these and a couple of others I'd been disappointed with. But after sampling the replacements, I found I had no enthusiasm to try any more.

I also found myself increasingly disliking the over-baked, overly fruity style that seems to be a key feature of the reds, and wishing for a bit more subtlety, restraint and texture.

It's not as if Laithwaites wines are technically bad - it's just that they're all rather inoffensive and samey.

Taken individually, the wines are generally alright (apart from the overbaked reds) - as my reviews on this blog indicate. But the cumulative effect of so many inoffensive crowd-pleasers is a bit like hearing a catchy, summery pop song a few too many times; once the initial appeal and novelty have died away, with nothing more complex to provide interest, it becomes first boringly predictable and ultimately rather annoying.

After two sets of their supposedly flagship wines (the initial Discovery case plus the set of replacements), I couldn't even face complaining about any of the wines as clearly I would just be sent more of the same !

So, Laithwaites, as I see it, the problems are as follows:

- although your wines are generally ok-ish, they are not particularly interesting and after only a short while, they become boring and predictable.

- your reds in particular have a tendency to be overly alcoholic, overly fruity and overbaked; all nose and no palate.

- they are also quite expensive for what they are given they already include a case discount and I have to pay delivery on top.

- your main online competitor is doing a better job of sourcing more interesting wines and keeping customers involved; their offering is not too different from yours, but it's just that little bit better - in every area.

- yes, your customer service is impressive, but so what ? Your answer to anything is a money off-voucher to buy more of your wines. Which aren't that good.

- I no longer believe your marketing; your effusiveness rings hollow and feels false and overly contrived. I can see you not-so-subtly hiding the rabbit in the hat.

- Moreover, I don't buy into the whole avuncular-Tony-Laithwaite-Romantic-myth thing; I know you are, in your own words, " The world’s largest mail order wine merchant operating within marketing brands e.g. Laithwaites and Sunday Times Wine Club, also owns Averys, Virgin Wines and Warehouse Wines within the UK. Operates as Wall Street Journal Wine Club, Laithwaites and The Australian Wine Club internationally".

- I don't like your overselling; constant emails with special, time-limited offers just don't do it for me. It feels very pushy and American and makes me feel like your focus is much more on shifting units than on supplying "wines of real character" - as you like to say. And, I'm not the only one - see what CellarFella Simon Burnton has to say here.


- and whilst your initial special offers and freebies seem quite exciting at first, in practice, I know that I'm effectively having to pay for them through overinflated prices for subsequent purchases.

You have become like U2 putting out the messy, confused, bloated and self-important Rattle and Hum in 1988 - you've lost the plot and forgotten what you used to be good at, even if you are commercially successful.

Why don't you go away, dream it all up again and come back with something as new, quirky, exciting, intense, textured, varied and well-crafted as Achtung Baby ?

Links

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

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

Cellar Fella on Laithwaites - http://cellarfella.com/2011/03/29/laithwaites-bollinger-wine-selling-description/

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Austrian Wine Masterclass at London International Wine Fair‏

At the recent London International Wine Fair, I was keen to hear an Austrian wine masterclass from Darrel Joseph, a US journalist living in Vienna and specialising in the wines of central Europe.

Darrel has the relaxed and reassuring but authoritative style of a TV news anchorman and he took us through a range of 9 Austrian dry white wines from Lower Austria (confusingly in the north - the name refers to being "lower down" the Danube) and Styria in the south which, due to altitude, is actually much cooler than Lower Austria.

We started with a Steirische Klassic Sauvignon Blanc from Tement; fermented in stainless steel, it had a herbaceous nose and palate with crisply focused linear acidity.

Next was Grüner Veltliner from Dürnberg in the Weinviertel - this large area was historically a bit of an oenological backwater for Austrian wines, a source of easy-quaffers at best, but the introduction of a regulated appellation, Weinviertel DAC, in 2003 has led to vast improvements in quality.

Hailing from the northern edge of the Weinviertel, near the Czech border, where there cool air from the forests meets warm air from the Pannonian plain, the wine had a typical nose of elderflower and white pepper.

On the palate it had bright acidity, some tropical fruit good body and some minerality from limestone soils.

A Grüner Veltliner from Kogl in Kremstal, grown on a mixture of loess, loam and gravel, was riper and fuller. It felt more rounded and fleshier on the palate, but with pure, fresh fruit.

A Riesling from Müller, also from Kremstal, grown on primary rock had a stony minerality and, due to the coolness of the 2010 vintage white peach, greengage and stone fruit on the palate.

A GV from Jurtschitsch-Sonnhof, the Dechant Alte Reben, was from 60 year-old vines grown on loam and loess. This showed less varietal character on the nose with just hints of puy lentil and celery.

However, aged for three months in large oak barrels, it was rich, fat and mouthfilling with good fruit and a depth of flavour.

The GV Berg from Markus Huber is grown on a steep limestone terrace in Traisental where the breezes keep the grapes dry and pest-free - it was fresh but mouthfilling with a depth of flavour and a buttery texture from aging in large, old acacia barrels.

The Riesling from Rabl, from 40 year-old vines grown on gneiss and limestone at altitudes of over 300m was ripe, rounded and fleshy with peach and yellow plum fruit.

Darrel pointed out a slight cellar mustiness which I have noticed before on whites from this area, but did not get on this wine - it comes, I learnt, as a result of spontaneous natural fermentation from the yeasts on the grape skins.

The final white from Lower Austria was a Riesling Donatus from Kurt Angerer - rounded on the palate, it showed elderflower and white peach, with a pureness of fruit from fermentation in stainless steel, an intensity and focus, great depth and a minerality on the finish from the granite and gravel soils.

The final wine was a Sauvignon Zieregg from Tement in Styria - very different from the lower Austrian wines, this was pale in the glass and had a flinty smokiness on the nose from the shell limestone sub-soil.

The palate is concentrated with aromatic verbena and linear acidity, but the wine feels rounded and deep; it is aged for 8 months in large, old barrels and then in steel tanks.

Recommended wine - the Tement Zieregg Sauvignon Blanc for its unique rich smokiness, concentration and rounded acidity.

Tement Zieregg Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 - not currently distributed in the UK but available for €43.95 from Austrian retailer Wein & Co.

I have also recommended wines from Angerer (here) and Huber (here) shown at the LIWF.

Links

Darrel Joseph on Twitter - http://twitter.com/#!/darreljoseph

London International Wine Fair - http://2011.londonwinefair.com/content

AWMB - http://www.austrianwine.com/

Wein & Co - http://www.weinco.at/

Image credits - © AWMB / Egon Mark

Monday, 23 May 2011

Artyomovsk - Sparkling Wines from Ukraine

London International Wine Fair is huge - it's like being inside an airport hangar. So you need to be reasonably disciplined about what you plan to see and do if you are to stand any chance of ticking things off the list and not be side-tracked.

However, an unexpected find almost as soon as I entered was a Ukrainian wine stand run by Artyomovsk winery showing a range of fizzes, and decided - schedule or no schedule - I must visit it.

Pedants, linguists, nationalists and geographers, please take note - this was a Ukrainian winery, but being from the eastern Donetsk region, the language spoken is Russian, rather than Ukrainian (which is more widely spoken in western Ukraine) and I conversed with them in Russian. So, unless otherwise noted, I have used the Russian forms here throughout. Just in case you were wondering.

For me, Ukrainian sparkling wines are actually not that exotic or unusual - I lived there for a year, visited regularly on business for many years and still have close ties with the country.

From the little I know of how the wines are made, production is, or at least used to be, more industrial than artisan and there is no sense of terroir - a sad relic of Soviet-era collectivisation which saw farming as a merely process to be centralised and managed by bureaucrats. However, interestingly, the winery's website does have a section entitled "terroir" from where the picture at the top is taken.

Either way, the quality of Ukrainian fizz is, let's be honest here, not world class - but that's hardly the point.

In this country, we rather idealise the idea of long leisurely family meals which are the focal point of a big get-together and yet they seem to happen rarely - however, when I go to Ukraine to see friends, it is a regular occurance.

Any birthday, holiday or celebration is an excuse to sit down at a table groaning with food, often with several generations around it, and copious quantities of vodka, beer and fizz.

Fundamentally a farming country and much later to industrialise than the UK, Ukraine as a nation has not lost touch with the land, despite the clumsy attempts of meddling bureaucrats, and its people are more likely to have grandparents who work the land or parents who grow vegetables on an allotment known in Ukrainian as a "horod".

So for me, Ukrainian fizz brings back all those memories of social occasions which are about celebration, enjoyment and company rather than an analytical dissection of a wine's inherent qualities.

A bottle of fizz is there to create a sense of occasion and to be consumed along with a table full of hearty, filling, in-season peasanty food.

However, it is helpful to know what the wine is actually like, so here are the ones I tried.

The White Extra Brut was light, crisp and refreshing with frothy mousse and a pleasant finish.

The Muscat semi-dry was pretty much as described - grapey and floral from the muscatel with some residual sweetness on the finish.

The Red semi-sweet seemed a slightly confused mixture; on the one hand, there was sweetness and fruit and froth but there was also some body and more-sophisticated pruney aromas which, if fermented to fully dry, might have been more interesting.

Recommended wine: Krimart Extra Brut.

Available in specialist Ukrainian stores.

Contact details

Artyomovsk Winery
 
87, Patrice Lumumba Street, Artyomovsk, Donetsk Region 84500, Ukraine
 
Phone /Fax (Secretary): 8(062) 332-23-00; 8(0627) 48-00-13


Links

http://www.krimart.com/

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Austria's Red Wines‏: Weninger and Arachon T.FX.T


A while ago, I bumped into Jancis Robinson at an Austrian wine event and learnt she was there reviewing only the reds, whereas I had opted to focus solely on the whites.

I had done this as, historically, I have been rather underwhelmed by Austrian reds and found them, whilst technically well-made, a little lacking in complexity and merely full of ripe juicy acidity.

However, when Jancis devotes a whole afternoon to tasting Austrian reds (see here), it would be foolhardy not to revisit my earlier opinions.

I started with three reds from Weninger, based in Burgenland on the Pannonian plain near the Hungarian border.

This part of Austria is the country's warmest wine region as, although not the most southerly, it is low-lying and warmed by Mediterranean air currents; as a result, it produces almost all of Austria's reds and stickies.

The Blaufränkisch from Mittelburgenland was light and juicy, with cherry fruit, balanced on the palate with some grip on the finish.

The Hochäcker had a more complex nose, denser tannins and felt more mouthfilling and complex, but with the same good cherry fruit.

The Alte Reben ("old vines") also had bright cherry fruit and vanilla on the nose with a grippy finish, but somehow did not feel quite as mouthfilling as the Hochäcker.

All three wines were quite "Italian" in style - that is, straightforward cherry fruit on the palate, slightly rasping acidity on the finish and needing to play a supporting role to some food - which seems to support my theory that Austria is, in every sense, the missing link between Germany and Italy.

I was rather more impressed by the reds from Arachon T.FX.T, a member of Austria's Fine Brands.

The mouthful of a name represents the historic name for the village where the winery is based (now Horitschon) plus the initials of three original partners in this joint venture - Tibor Szemes, FX Pichler (whose own wines are reviewed here) and Manfred Tement (reviewed here).

The a'Kira Blaufränkisch was very good; up-front with a rich nose of spicy vanilla and a complex palate of spicy bramble fruit, with toasty hints, pepperiness and some liquorice and eucalyptus and some pleasant grip on the finish.

The Evolution was even better - a little more restrained on the nose, it had a denser texture, bright brambly fruit, some cherry and vanilla, pepperiness and well-integrated tannins giving a grippy finish.

In the Evolution, the straightforward indigenous grape varieties, Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt provide the juicy cherry fruit and pepperiness, whilst some Cab and Merlot are added to round out and deepen the wine.

Recommended wine - no surprises here, the Evolution; Arachon T.FX.T Evolution 2008.

For details of where to buy, see here: http://www.arachon.com/source.php

Links

Weninger - www.weninger.com

Arachon T.FX.T - www.arachon.com

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

Jancis Robinson's 2011 article on Austrian reds (Purple Pages) - http://www.jancisrobinson.com/tasting_articles/ta20110216.html

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Huber at London International Wine Fair

Described as one of Austria's star winemakers, Markus Huber is a 10th-generation winemaker based in Traisental, just south of the Wachau.

Decanter have called him a wunderkind (he is just 31) and he was best white wine producer at the International Wine Trade Fair in 2006.

Huber is part of the Austria's Fine Brands group headed by Michael Thurner, and I was lucky enough to meet with the wunderkind himself and chat about the wines.

We started with a Traisental Grüner Veltliner from 2010 which showed lots of varietal GV character on the nose with aromatic white pepper, lentils and celery.

Made from grapes grown on limestone, it has a ripe, tropical pineapple acidity in the mouth and feels rounded.

The single vineyard Obere Steigen, had a half degree more alcohol, is made from 35 year-old vines and felt more complex.

The GV from Alte Setzen was made from 57 year-old vines picked in mid-October to late November and aged for five months in large, old and very neutral acacia barrels dating from the 1960s. This had less on the nose, just some elderflower aromas, but was peachy and more mouthfilling.

A GV from Berg, a hillside at 400m altitude, was made from later-harvested grapes resulting in a crisp but rounded acidity with exotic fruit and a rich fullness.

An entry-level Riesling from Engelreich was medium-bodied with good apples-and-pears acidity.

The final wine, a Riesling from the same Berg vineyard as the earlier GV was from grapes picked three weeks later than the Engelreich and felt very different - it was riper, fuller and fleshier yet still focused and pure with a touch of complex grippy, thick-skinned phenol from late harvesting.

Recommended wine - for the fullness and complexity, it has to be the Riesling Berg.

Later in the day, I also watched Markus taking part in the AccessZone event.

Links

Weingut Markus Huber - http://www.weingut-huber.at/

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

Friday, 20 May 2011

Fringe Wines And A Bit Of Geo-Political History‏

I recently got to know through Twitter a US blogger whose site, Fringe Wine, is dedicated to "unusual grape varietals and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world".

I love this idea and went through my own Fringe Wine phase a while ago in search of something local when my business travels regularly took me to central and Eastern Europe. However, there's only so many ropey Czech wines you can try before you inevitably ask for a beer instead and move back to the classics.

However, my Romantic streak remains and in the spirit of friendly competition, I thought I would try out a few vaguely Fringe Wines at the London International Wine Fair.

I will review these separately in more detail later, but Rob, if you are reading this, here are my top Fringe Wines - they all brought back a few memories of travel to these countries as well:

Slovenia

First was a Šipon ("shipon"), the Slovenian name for Hungary's Furmint from Dveri Pax.

Tiny, rural Slovenia will never be a volume player, but I am increasingly impressed by the wines from this former Yugoslav nation now a member of the EU which look set to become of more than mere niche interest or curiosity value.

Romania

I have to say, I never really liked visiting Romania on business, but I did always enjoy the wines there - well-made and fruit-driven but still balanced and European in style, they seem to have a bright up-front openness which belies the dark, murky, inscrutable superstition that for me characterises Romania.

All the grapes here from Prince Stirbey were pretty obscure with a Negru de Dragasani, Novac and, for me the best, a Fetească neagră.

Hungary

Hungary is hardly a Fringe Wine country these days due not least to the fame of its Tokaji wines; historic Budapest is, for me, the least beautiful of the three great central European capitals (the others being stately Vienna and picture-perfect Prague).

Ryan Opaz, however, disagrees with me and prefers it to Vienna - perhaps as an American, he appreciates more its lively buzz and determination to move forward, compared to Vienna which got there years ago and no longer has anything to prove.

The most obscure (in terms of quantity produced) wine here was the Eszencia; made from the free-run juice of botrytised furmint grapes it is produced in tiny quantities.

With around 5 times the residual sugar of even a top-level 5-puttonyos Tokaji, it was extremely syrupy, yet surprisingly fresh.

Ukraine

Historically - and to this day - fought over by competing Empires, but officially independent since 1991, Ukraine is still the "borderland" that its name suggests between its vast overbearing northerly neighbour and the European Union which ends tantalisingly at its various borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Perhaps the most obscure here was a red semi-sweet sparkler, Krimart from Artemovsk winery, which included Saperavi along with Cab and Merlot in the blend; however, for quality, the most enjoyable was their dry white fizz Extra Brut.

Links

Dveri Pax - http://www.dveri-pax.com/

Prince Stirbey - www.stirbey.com

Crown Estates Tokaji - www.tokajwinetrade.com

Artemovsk Winery - www.krimart.com

Recommended reading

Borderland: A Journey Through The History of Ukraine by Anna Reid (Paperback - 6 Mar 2003) - see here

Balkan Ghosts by R. Kaplan (Paperback - Mar 1994) - see here

Image credit - http://longgame.org/2009/11/geopolitics-and-realpolitik-a-layman%E2%80%99s-view/

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Kurt Angerer‏ at London International Wine Fair

At the London International Wine Fair yesterday, Kurt Angerer took me through his range of wines from Kamptal in Lower Austria.

Described by his UK importer Noel Young as a winemaker who is really hitting his stride, Kurt had a range of 2010 Grüner Veltliners bottled just a few days before the show from his vineyards just north of the Wachau as well as some other varieties from earlier years.

For me, tasting the different wines was a lesson in vintage and terroir, and especially basic geology, as Kurt explained how the different soil types express themselves.

Another aspect of terroir here is altitude - Kurt's vineyards are at altitudes of around 200m but just behind them are the foothills of the alps which go up to 600m, meaning that cool air flows down in the evening lengthening the growing season; some of these racy and fully dry wines were picked at the end of November just a few days before the winter snows fell.

We started with his "Kies" ("keez") Grüner Veltliner - the full name for this soil type is kiesling meaning "gravelly", but people confused it with Riesling, so it became "kies". Light and crisp, with pure fruit and focused acidity, the wine had minerally finish.

The Grüner Veltliner "Spies" ("shpeez") is grown on granite and has a more intensely mineral finish as a result.

The "Loam" is grown on loess slightly further south and at lower altitude had a softer, more rounded feel of peach and melon.

The "Eichenstaude", grown on a mixture of gravel and limestone was harvested late and had a fuller, more warm-climate feel, again with lots of peach and melon.

Moving on, the Riesling "Donatus" from the milder 2009, grown on a mixture of gravel and granite, had a limey acidity and again prominent minerality.

Kurt explained he was showing the 2009s as the 2010s are still aging to temper the high acidity from the coolness of the vintage.

The Ametzberg Riesling, grown on granite, was racy and very mineral.

After the focused intensity of these native varieties, the soft, rounded feel of two French grapes (again from the slightly warmer 2009) was a welcome diversion - a Chardonnay aged in new French oak was buttery with good structure.

A "V10" Viognier, aged similarly, was ripe and rounded with peach and apricot, but also structured.

Kurt explained that he started growing Viognier to add into his Syrah-Viognier and had bottled up what he didn't need for blending.

Naming the wine proved more difficult as the Austrian authorities do not officially recognise "Viognier" as a name and disallowed "Viognie" as too similar. "V" wasn't possible as another producer uses it and although he settled on V10, he has decided to change that after finding a drink called "Vio".

We then tried a range of Kurt's reds all grown at warmer, lower altitudes than the whites - although not as cool as 2010, 2009 was still a difficult vintage and the three reds from this year were all a little pale and light - the Zweigelt "Barrique" had typical cherry fruit and a grippy finish.

The St Laurent had a nose of spice and red berry fruit, a pepperiness on the palate and a grippy finish.

The Pinot Noir was pale and woody-mushroomy with a lovely soft texture.

Kurt's final wine, a Zweigelt "Granit" from the much-warmer 2008 was darker in the glass and felt much richer and fuller with cherry fruit and vanilla from aging in 100% new French oak.

All Kurt's wines are available from Noel Young in Cambridge.

Recommended wine, the GV "Loam" for its balance of precision, pure fruit and rounded mouthfeel.

Grüner Veltliner "Loam" 2009 (2010 not yet available), £16.99 before discounts, from Noel Young Wines, Cambridge.

Links

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

Kurt Angerer - http://www.kurt-angerer.at/

London International Wine Fair - http://2011.londonwinefair.com/content

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Naked Wines Launches Marketplace

The best entrepreneurial businesses continually evolve - they don't just carry on doing what they started off with.

Rather they grow and develop, applying their entrepreneurial skills in related areas to increase scale whilst diversifying away some of their risk.

Microsoft, once merely an operating software company, now has three separate divisions covering Platform Products & Services, a Business Division and an Entertainment and Devices Division.

Likewise, marketing services giant WPP, which began by buying Madison Avenue ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, has stuck within its knowledge sphere, but changed the whole industry model of marketing service business ownership and now sees its most exciting growth in BRIC markets.

So it should perhaps come as no surprise that internet-only wine retailer, Naked Wines, having successfully taken on rivals Laithwaites and Virgin Wines, is now moving into new, more ambitious areas.

Certainly, the company is in a good place at the moment - from a standing start, in two years, it has gained 150,000 new customers and converted 50,000 of these into regular subscribers, Angels, paying in a minimum of £20 a month to an account to spend on the company's wine.

For anyone struggling with the maths, that's £1m of cash inflow every month - and I'm one of those contributors.

Rowan Gormley
The company also has 85 exclusive producers signed up with a further 16 in the pipeline and as founder Rowan Gormley recently explained, we are not short of customers, what we need is more producers.

Naked's house style of wines is reliable, above-average, crowd-pleasers, with instant, fruit-driven appeal. Unless you are in the trade or a really serious enthusiast, what's not to like about that ?

Earlier this week, I gathered with a group of sundry other bloggers to hear details of Naked's latest venture.

Called Marketplace, it effectively aims to do for wine retailing what Ebay has done for online selling, creating a meritocracy for winemakers, where the sales go to people with huge talent, not a huge marketing budget as Naked founder Rowan Gormley noted to Jancis Robinson (see here).

As Rowan explained, with the clarity of vision that betrays his finance and venture capital background, wine producers and consumers alike are being badly served by a whole series of non-value-add middlemen who are, as he puts it, screwing both sides - pushing down prices for the producer, ramping up selling prices for the consumer and hanging on to large amounts of cash in the meantime.

Rowan's vision and ambition here is vast - he wants to do nothing less than change the whole industry model and drive out the inefficiency of the layers of middlemen.

There are some historic parallels for this type of change: Martin Sorrell separating out media-buying from advertising and then re-consolidating the buying agencies into GroupM was a similar industry-changing move; as was Roberto Goizueta spinning off Coca-Cola's bottling plants (again, re-consolidated as massive Anchor Bottlers) with the Coke Company keeping just the crown jewel parts of the business, the "secret formula" concentrate and the marketing spend.

The difference with those examples, however, is that they just moved existing parts of the business and put them in different boxes.

What Rowan Gormley has in mind is a change in consumer behaviour, with Naked Wines having a fundamental cost advantage over all other wine retailers and being a central point for online sales - much as Apple has its itunes store not just for buying online music, but all iPhone apps.

But again, there is a difference; online apps are a new product where it is easier to introduce a new sales channel.

Naked Wines' aim is to change fundamentally the way a centuries old product is sold and that will require changes in consumer behaviour.

Naked's customers all seem up for it as the company already has a similar model in place - the advance bookings scheme will allows buyers a set discount for purchasing wine a couple of weeks before it is actually bottled and shipped (this is in turn based on the en primeur concept).

Seen this way, Marketplace is more of an evolution of the existing Advance Bookings scheme than a totally new offering.

The question, then, is how will the producers react ? According to some of the Naked Angels I spoke to at the London International Wine Fair yesterday, the English-speaking former colonials were getting it much better than the other nations - so perhaps South Africa, NZ, Aus and the US will lead the way.

Perhaps the best parallel to what Naked Wines have in mind is the rise of Toys r Us - taking an existing but fragmented industry, and centralising it into something with economies of scale. But again, that does not quite have the same change in consumer behaviour as is needed here.

If it does prove to work, the obvious losers will more likely be the supermarkets and other broad-based wine retailers than, say, the independent wine merchants - the one area where Naked can't, and specifically chooses not to, compete is on the detailed, face-to-face guidance that an independent can give when you step inside the shop for a chat.

In brief, the way Marketplace will work is that winemakers will offer their wine for sale on the Naked website at a set price.

Naked's customers can then make bids for the wine, stating how much they would like to buy and at what price.

When all bids are in, the winemaker has the choice of either accepting the price and quantities offered or not.

If he accepts, the money is taken from the bidders' accounts and the winemaker has four weeks to get the wine shipped to the buyers, with Naked taking a 10% cut - much less than standard industry practice for importers and retailers.

Rowan sees Marketplace working for three distinct types of seller:

- existing Naked Wines suppliers who are known to Naked's customers and whose wines are already rated on the site

- wines for which there is already a marketplace, ie investment wines such as top Bordeaux and Burgundy

- winemakers who want to get into the UK market and have no representation here yet.

In the case of the latter, there is something of a "bootstrap" issue; who will bid for a wine they know nothing about ?

Rowan's solution to this is characteristically simple and clear - provide 10 cases of samples to be reviewed and rated by the company's top tasters (Archangels in Naked parlance) and Naked's remaining customer base will be guided by their views.

The economic logic of the scheme is compelling - cheaper prices for consumers, control over pricing and volume for winemakers and a much less inefficient distribution system.

To succeed, it needs mass adoption by both consumers and producers at roughly the same rate; given Naked's track record to date it may prove to be a case of "nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come".

However, on the day of the announcment, wine journalist Jamie Goode tweeted "I'd love to be convinced, but I haven't been yet", but he has yet to follow up on this pronouncement.

Links

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

Jancis Robinson's article on Marketplace - http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201105104.html

Jamie Goode on Twitter - @jamiegoode

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Vinum Tasting of Italian Wines

I recently went to the Vinum portfolio tasting - it was held at Chelsea FC football ground and if I were any type of football fan, I might have been excited at the prospect of even a little proximity with such hallowed, Russian-moneyed turf - instead, I just noted that it was a long way from pretty much anywhere except Fulham.

Arriving after work with just a few hours left, I knew I would not manage to taste all the wines but decided to kick off at stand #1and see how far I could get.

For ease of reading, I have grouped my reviews by region, but for me the surprise revelation was the crisply-structured white wines of the northern Friuli Venezia Giulia.

The vineyards for these wines are located mid-way between the Alps and the Mediterranean, giving high daytime temperatures, but distinctly chilly nights which in turn results in a long growing season and a fresh, complex, structured acidity that I find I particularly like.

The other main find was I Favati, a small winery from Campania in the south all of whose wines were excellent and worth seeking out.

The islands of Sicily and Sardinia also showed some good, and good-value, wines.

All the wines were in general well-made, with only a small number that were either disappointingly basic or just in a style that is not to my taste.

Any prices quoted are trade DPD ex-VAT.

Piedmonte

The Arneis from Terre da Vino, fermented in stainless steel, was fresh with good tropical fruit acidity.

Their Barolo had good cherry fruit, some vanilla from oak aging, pepperiness on the palate and a nicely firm, grippy finish.

Finally, their sweet Moscato Passito (aged for 12 months in barriques) was fresh with tropical fruit, spice and exotic lychees.

A Barolo from Gaja was elegant, harmonious and smooth with good grip and fruit - it was also over £80 a bottle !

A 2007 Barbaresco Ovello from Cascina Morassino was closer to being merely a little extravagant in price, and was smooth with prunes and tobacco on the nose, good mouthfeel and harmonious cherry fruit. This was apparently a very good vintage resulting in easy-drinking wines that are showing well now.

Veneto

A Custova from Cavalchina made from mainly Garganega was fresh, lively and aromatic on the nose with a nicely balanced palate and a dry finish.

A port-like sweet red Recioto della Valpolicella Classico from Brigaldara had a rich complex nose and showed sweet eucalyptus, liquorice, herbs and berry fruit with a long finish. It's not priced as an everyday wine, but you really do not need a lot of this as it is so intense.

A 2010 Soave from Balestri Valda by contrast was crisp and well-structured with good minerality and felt like it has the potential to improve further with age.

The sweet white Recioto di Soave was superbly enjoyable and a personal favourite - delicious sweetness matched with refreshing linear acidity, floral notes of elderflower and good minerality on the finish.

I was, if I'm honest, a little underwhelmed by all the fizzes here (both Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige) - for different reasons:

Veneto

A Valdobbiadene from Canevel was light and crisp; fermented in tanks, it was very different in style from a Champagne but left me wondering how it had garnered a Gold Medal from Sommelier.

The Prosecco from Vallate was again light and crisp, with floral notes and a surprisingly linear acidity but, again tank-fermented, it seemed to lack the finesse (as well as the price tag) of Champagne.

Trentino Alto Adige - fizz

Ferrari is perhaps the best well-known of the Champagne-method producers of fizz in this region - their entry-level Maximum Brut was more complex than the Proseccos, if more expensive, but had a slightly off-putting aroma of sweaty animal.

At the other end of their price range, the Giulio Ferarri Riserva is aged for almost 10 years on the lees resulting in a richer, fuller, more complex style with a longer finish. But there was still the same hint of "damp animal".

Trentino Alto Adige - still

Müller-Thurgau, a hybrid of Riesling and Madeleine Royale, is a grape I associate with Germany and central Europe, so I was interested to see what Girlan's would be like. It was crisp and felt well-made with exotic aromas of rose petals and lychees.

Keeping in theme, the Gewurz also felt well-made and had prominent crisp, well-structured acidity with characteristic floral notes.

Friuli Venezia Giulia

The Sauvignon Collio from Branko was very impressive - it had an aromatic and slightly smoky nose, fresh, linear acidity and a minerally finish. But what, for me, set it apart was a mouthfilling, thick-skinned intensity that I associate with grapes grown at altitude.

As noted earlier, winemaker Igor Erzetic explained that this comes from the combination of warm southerly air coming up from the Mediterranean by day and cooler air in the evening coming down from the alps.

The white wines from Forchir were equally impressive and had the same sense of terroir.

The Pinot Grigio had a good nose and felt rounded with a minerally finish.

The Friuliano was a step up with just a bit more of everything - riper, heavier and fuller, it had minerality, perfume and freshness.

The Chardonnay was predictably less aromatic, but showed lots of lively fruit, pineapple acidity and was balanced and mouthfilling.

The Sauvignon had a rich and complex nose and was intense and steely, with distinct but restrained aromatic notes, a linear acidity and mouthfilling minerality.

As Paolo Baj explained to me, as well as the diurnal temperature fluctuations, the other key aspect of the local terroir is the soil which is made up from stones washed down from the Alps and gives the wine its distinct fruit and aromas.

Emilia Romagna

The Sauvignon Colli Piacenti from Castelli del Duca was crisp and mineral with a rather challenging acidity.

Their Bonarda showed vanilla and cherry on the nose, but also had similarly rasping finish.

Toscana

The 2007 Chianti Cassico from Castello della Paneretta was described as their everyday wine - with a nose of toasty oak and cherry fruit, it felt smooth and harmonious on the palate, but still had some grip on the finish.

Their Riserva was a noticeable step up - the grapes are from the same vineyards as the Classico, but there is a better selection of grapes and more extension oaking is used. It felt fuller and more rounded with a greater depth of flavour and, unsurprisingly, had more vanilla aromas.

A 2004 Brunello Cupio from Pinino, aged for 30 months in Slavonian oak barrels, was mellow after so much aging, but still felt tannic and grippy in an old-school way with, for me, not enough balancing fruit.

Marche

Santa Barbara's entry-level 2010 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi was crisp and light, if a little harsh on the finish. By contrast their Le Vaglie Classico was fuller and more mouthfilling, with more on the nose and a smoother finish.

The Stefano Antonucci Classico is aged for for 12 months in barriques and felt fuller again, with a leesy, creamy, butteriness. Less aromatic than the previous two wines aged in stainless steel, it had a freshness with good, balanced acidity.

Abruzzo

A Pecorino from Talamonti was fresh, mouthfilling and well-made. Presenter Claudio Scarsi explained that it goes well with sushi and it certainly has the body and the acidity to do so.

Campania

I was very impressed with all the wines from I Favati - they are a husband and wife team who work 15ha of volcanic soils in Avellino using traditional local varieties.

They were presented by Senora Favati who explained that 2009 had been a good year for their whites, but less so for reds with late rains.

The 2009 Fiano, aged for around six months on the lees, was fresh yet mouthfilling and rounded. The Greco di Tufo (also 2009, also aged similarly but slightly cheaper) I thought was even better - aromatic and fresh, it was was mouthfilling with hints of beeswax and floral notes.

Moving onto the reds, their 2006 Aglianico Campi Taurasini was lively and complex with good fruit with some complex sweetness on the mid-palate, clove and cinnamon spice, mixed fruit and fruitcake aromas as well as good texture and a pleasantly grippy dry finish.

The 2004 Taurasini Terzotratto, another Aglianico, but with a more extensive oaking and bottle aging regime was a further step-up in complexity and sophistication.

With so much going on there, I wondered asked about food matches for the reds; Rosanna Favati suggested either beef or, better, game, such as pheasant or wild board which live in the foothills of the nearby Appenines.

I have to say, slow-roast pheasant with a spiced red wine jus sounds perfect for one of these wines.

Puglia

A Primitivo from Conti Zecca had good spice and acidity.

The Trenatre Salento Rosso from Angelo Rocca - a mixture of Cab, Merlot and Montepulciano - had a complex nose and showed vanilla spice, cloves and pepper with a custard-creaminess and a mouthfilling texture.

Sicilia

The Aquilae Catarrato from Canicatti was fresh and lemony with hints of herbaceous verbena; felt rounded and balanced on the palate, it is also good value.

Presenter Fausto Poli explained to that the winery focuses on autochthonous grapes (i.e. native Sicilian, as opposed to either native Italian or international).

However, there was one Syrah and I was intrigued by the idea of a Sicilian Syrah which proved very different from any other major style, such as French or Oz; aged in concrete vats, it had a creamy texture, a spiciness and slightly festered sourness which made me wonder if the bottle had been open just a little too long.

The Nero d'Avola Aynat had vanilla, spice and cherry with funky hints of farmyard but the same, slightly festered acidity. Like the earlier Campania reds, this would match well with game or spiced red meat, assuming the rotting-hay sourness was due to the heat of the day and not an inherent characteristic.

Sardegna

The Vermentino Aragosta from Santa Maria La Palma was crisp, dry and citrussy in a straightforward sort of way as befits its value price tag.

The Vermentino I Papiri, at just £1 more expensive, was very good and especially for the price - herbaceous and rounded, it had a little more of everything compared to the Aragosta.

Details of all the wines, including prices can be found on Vinum's website.

Selected links

Vinum - http://www.vinum.co.uk/

I Favati - http://www.cantineifavati.it/

Branko - no website: Località Zegla, 20 34071 Cormons, Gorizia Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy tel : 481639826

Forchir - http://www.forchir.it/

On Inspiration

Debra Meiburg MW recently tweeted about needing inspiration to keep her tasting notes from sounding just like everyone else's.

At the time, I responded in 140 characters or fewer suggesting reading lots of wit and humour.

On the same day, Jamie Goode tweeted about the number of wine bloggers around now compared to when he started, noting that competition is a good thing.

These two points got me thinking about the nature of inspiration.

For me competition is a great spur to inspiration, and reading the humorous and witty metaphors of other writers helps keep things fresh.

It is generally acknowledged, for example, that the output of The Beatles as solo artists never quite matched what they achieved as a group and to me this is at least in part because as solos artists they lost the element of competitiveness.

If the genius of Penny Lane derives from it being Paul McCartney's answer to and attempt to outdo John Lennon's superb Strawberry Fields Forever, then one of the weaknesses of The White Album is that is it merely a collection of under-developed solo works by the individual members working in isolation.

I also find inspiration can come from reading non-wine writing; two regular sources of witticisms and clever metaphors that I find particularly useful are back issues of UK's Q Magazine (especially contributions from David Quantick) and anything by love-or-loathe TV presenter and author Jeremy Clarkson.

I have also picked up some useful descriptors and phrases from a number of sources and if I occasionally find myself instinctively falling back on these more than I should, I start reaching for the Thesaurus to search for synonyms.

Some words are bog-standard for wine-writing and pretty much used by everyone, such as fruit, minerality and crisp and manage to find their way into most reviews.

Other, more unusual and interesting descriptive words are more idiosyncratic - at this point, I should acknowledge and thank Debra Meiburg MW for giving me the word "woodsiness" (for the truffley aromas in a Pinot) and Robert McIntosh for "funkiness" (the same thing).

A phrase I use a lot to describe well-made, fruit-driven, easy-drinking but unchallenging and not spectacular wines is "crowd-pleasing" and I originally got this from Matt Boucher of Cambridge Wine Merchants.

There are, of course, almost as many aspects of a wine to describe as there are wines themselves - origin, terroir, variety, vinification, aromas, even the social and geo-political background to the country of origin (think South Africa and Eastern Europe).

Of late, I have found myself becoming more interested in the texture and structure of wines - how they feel in the mouth due to tannins and acidity - and find myself assessing these aspects as much as the various different fruit aromas.

Yes, a wine might have notes of elderflower and citrus, but does it have complex, ripe fruit acidity or a harsh finish ? Are the tannins balanced and grippy ?

If I am struggling with a tasting note, I often cast around other writers to see how they approach the issue for inspiration - I'm sure all professional copywriters do this and maybe some of them even come across my blog.

This weekend, for various reasons, I was looking at Waitrose's "weekend" magazine article on wines for "barbecues, picnics and parties" and a whole series of my most commonly-used words and phrases jumped out at me: crowd-pleasing, grip, structure, crisp acidity and fruit flavours.

There's a saying that once is chance, twice is co-incidence and three times is "enemy action".

I don't know what the conclusion is for five, but it does get me wondering if Waitrose are reading my blog for inspiration.

If so, I am hugely flattered.

Of course, it could all just be a coincidence and, in any case, I don't own a monopoly on these words; rather, I originally borrowed them myself from other people and merely liked them enough to use on a regular basis in my own writing.

But it's a nice thought that perhaps Waitrose, casting around for inspiration, found them on my blog and also liked them enough to put in their own magazine - after all, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Links

Debra Meiburg - http://debramasterofwine.com/

Jamie Goode - http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/

Robert McIntosh - http://wineconversation.com/

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

Waitrose Weekend - http://www.waitrose.com/home/inspiration/waitrose_weekend.html

Image credits

"Inspiration Point" - from http://anothermotherrunner.com/2010/07/16/inspiration-check/

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Domaine de Pellehaut 2009 Cotes de Gascogne Rouge - Cambridge Wine Merchants

Cambridge Wine Merchants do some great southern French reds for under a tenner - their current big seller is a really well-made and crowd-pleasing old vines Carignan from Mont Rocher.

This wine proved so popular at a tasting I organised for colleagues that it is now our house red at work (see here for details).

At the weekend, as usual, CWM had an in-store tasting and this time it was another southern French from Gascony - so, after discharging my parental duties, I popped down to the Cherry Hinton Road branch to check it out.

Cherry Hinton Road is CWM's newest branch and has a slightly different offering from the others as, not only do they sell wine to take home, they also have a seating area where you can have a bottle of anything from the shop with a selection Italian antipasti from local deli Bolzano (corkage charge is a very reasonable £5).

On a warm Sunday afternoon, things were fairly quiet there, but manager Steve Hovington (who previously fronted a rock band in the '80s) explained, they have a loyal group of regulars and on some nights, it's pre-booked places only.

As to the wine, it is made from a clutch of fairly typical southern French varieties - some noble, some blowsy. There is good, ripe berry fruit on the nose. The palate shows typical aromas of bramble fruit, prunes and blueberries with good balanced acidity some gentle tannic grip on the finish.

It's well made and good value at the price; easy to enjoy in a New-World sort of way, it also has an Old-World degree of restraint and balance, and would work as both a quaffer and with food.

Match with salami or herby sausages - or try CWM's recommendation of creamy macaroni with sage.

As Steve explained, with the support of an in-store tasting, a wine like this flies off the shelves and there is now only a relatively small number of cases left in stock.

£6.10 from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

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

Monday, 9 May 2011

Tilia Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Slovenia - Naked Wines

Many years ago, I lived in Vienna and spent a summer driving to and through next-door Slovenia on business.

Although technically a Slavic nation, the Slovenians always struck me more as forward-looking central Europeans than their Balkan neighbours in former Yugoslavia - little Austrians, you might almost call them.

This was long before Slovenia joined the European Union and swapped its Tolar for the Euro, but history seems to have shown this was pretty much the right assessment.

I'm sure life in Slovenia has changed hugely for the local population since I last visited - it is a small country with a population of just 2 million; it has 46km of Mediterranean coastline after Tito apparently decreed that all Yugoslav states should have at least some (Croatia gets the lion's share at 5,800 km, bisected by 26km of Bosnia's allocation).


My recollections of driving through Slovenia are that it is green and leafy with hills and farms - geographically, it borders Austria to the north and, as the picture of winemaker Matjaž Lemut below shows, they seem to share Austria's love of bucolic hillside farmhouses.

The geographic similarity to Austria is also relevant from an oenological perspective; this Tilia Sauvignon Blanc, although from the Vipava Valley in south west Slovenia, enjoys a similar terroir to the great crisp, dry Sauvignons of Styria - a high-altitude, fossil-shell ridge with a long growing season. So, as a fan of Austrian wines from Styria, I just had to try this one when I saw it on the Naked Wines site.

One of the handy features of the Naked Wines site is the opportunity to interact directly with the winemakers, so I dropped Matjaž a note asking for more details on his terroir; he explained that his vineyards - bordered by mountains to the north south and east - face north and south west, resulting in more freshness and aroma from the grapes.

The nose is flinty, a hint of terroir, with herbaceous verbena. The palate shows some ripe tropical fruit with a herbaceous edge and a typically linear acidic structure. There is good minerality and flinty gunsmoke on the finish

Being from the lower end of the high-altitude vineyards, it is not quite as intensely structured or piercingly crisp as some of Styrian wines I have had, but then it is not quite as challenging or as expensive, either. It has an ample fullness that balances the acidity and makes this a grown-up easy drinker.

It would work as an aperitif or with a starter of mozzarella, pesto and salad leaves. For mains, try matching with roast pork with rosemary.

The list price of £12.99 feels a little steep for such a relatively obscure wine; however Angels get 33% cashback.

See here for more on Naked's Angels scheme.

Links

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

Friday, 6 May 2011

Expensive Wine and Plonk - The "Wiseman Study"

The recent Wiseman ‘Study’ experiment showing that people apparently can’t tell the different between cheap and expensive wines - reported in The Guardian (here) and The Telegraph (here) - generated lots of useful column inches for the science festival at which it was conducted and saw lots of ordinary punters immediately weighing in with their bar-room views.

More considered opinions came from two wine writers and their approaches very much reflect their respective backgrounds; Jamie Goode, a science PhD, looked behind the story to assess (and dismiss) the validity of the experiment itself (here) whilst Jancis Robinson wrote about relative value in wine and how certain wines can show better than others at different stages of their evolution (here).

By contrast, with my international background in marketing services, I have tended to look at this in terms of what it says about us as a nation of wine consumers.

Like both Jamie and Jancis, I felt instinctively that the experiment was flawed, or at least not particularly robust, but it also seemed to me that people were drawing wrong conclusions.

There was an unspoken implication in the articles and many subsequent comments that cheap wine is no different from more expensive, whereas the more accurate conclusion is that Brits are unable to tell whether a random sample of a wine is either cheap or expensive.

From this, we can draw a number of conclusions about Britain as a nation of wine consumers.

Firstly we are predominantly a beer country, not a wine country; that is, with certain exceptions, we have no significant wine-producing industry and generally our traditional food is beer food rather than wine food (pies, fish & chips, curry etc).

Wine countries are places like France, Italy and Spain where wine is significant in terms of volume, quality, range and cultural relevance. It is worth noting that there are a number of decidedly “intermediate countries”, such as Austria and Germany which have both a wine and a beer culture. Perhaps the same is true of Australia, too.

Based on all the criteria of volume, quality, range and cultural significance, I suggest that the UK, the US and China, for all their interest in wine at a certain level, are not wine countries.

We do not grow up with wine as part of our culture in the same way that the French, Italians and Spanish do, thereby developing an intrinsic appreciation of what makes a good wine and what does not.

Our traditional recipes feature beer, not wine, (think steak and ale pie, beer-battered fish) and when we do buy wine, it is generally from supermarkets which deal only in large volume, mass-market, heavily-discounted shelf candy.

As a result, it sometimes feels like, in this country, there are two sorts of wine that people know about; the vastly expensive wines that bankers drink in posh London night clubs to celebrate their latest deal and supermarket plonk / pub Pinot Grigio for ordinary folks.

It strikes me that beer countries seem to treat wine appreciation as a competitive sport - scoring wines, assessing them, ranking them - and an appreciation of wines there can feel more like an indicator of social status; think Robert Parker and his Parker Points, the Chinese obsession with first-growth Bordeaux and you get the idea.

On my travels around, and time spent living in, the wine-producing countries of Europe, I have never come across such competitiveness around wine appreciation as I have in the UK; but I have also found that the French, Italians and Spanish also generally tend to know a good wine when they try one in a much more instinctive way than we Brits.

Matthew Jukes recently said to me that Britain is the best place to be a wine writer because as a nation we have to import pretty much all our wine and therefore have a much wider range of styles, grape varieties and places to choose from - there's no wine blogging industry in places like France or Chile because they just drink their own wine and get on with it.

The other side of that observation is that can make learning about wine for the enthusiastic novice in the UK much harder - and indeed rather daunting - as we have no "house style" of wines, no obvious starting points.

As Mr Bouquet observes in this article "New to wine, I was suddenly faced with the average supermarket carrying X brands, Y grape varieties from Z countries. Not easy is it?"

Unlike wine countries, the UK also does not have a tradition of matching food and wine - as GianPaolo Paglia explained to me, in Italy, wine is seen as a food, as a complement to the rest of the meal and I know from experience that the Italian stereotype of long lunches with food, wine and conversation can be quite true.

If you grow up in this sort of culture, where food, wine and company are all part of the social culture, it's impossible not to end up knowing what a good wine is and what isn't – and if you don't, then perhaps it's not so surprising that wine appreciation is seen as competitive.

To me, this highlights the need for greater wine education, rather than providing damning proof that more expensive wine is no better than plonk.

As someone who has been an enthusiastic wine drinker for many years, I know from experience that more expensive wines can be more challenging and, to a novice accustomed to crowd-pleasers, can seem less enjoyable than a cheaper wine.

Learning to appreciate a good wine is a process of self-education, it's not something that we are born with an ability to do, and as I wrote in an article about blind tasting (here), telling wines apart requires a bit of experience.

As a final thought, it is interesting to note that a traditionally tough and chewy Bordeaux fooled far more people than the far more widespread and popular Pinot Grigio - conclusion ? People can perhaps make more accurate judgements about what they know.

Links

The Guardian's report - http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/apr/14/expensive-wine-cheap-plonk-taste?INTCMP=ILCNETTXT3487

The Telegraph's report - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8448646/Wine-drinkers-wasting-money-on-expensive-vintages.html

Jamie Goode's article - http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/wine-science/the-wiseman-%e2%80%98study%e2%80%99-%e2%80%93-cheap-versus-expensive-wine

Jancis Robinson's article - http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201104262.html

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

Mr Bouquet's article - http://www.missbouquet.com/secret-diary-of-a-wine-girl/mr-bouquet-debut/

GianPaolo Paglia - http://www.poggioargentiera.com/

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Arabella Chenin Blanc 2010, South Africa - Naked Wines

"Approach with caution" is usually my attitude to Chenin Blanc - it can be a harsh, gurn-inducingly acidic sort of wine, producing at best haughty, challengingly crisp wines with a piercing streak that softens only after a number of years in bottle.

The Chenin Blanc grape originated in France's Loire Valley, but has been in South Africa since the mid-1600s and is now the country's most planted variety - to do well, yields need to be kept low and it must be picked at just the right level of ripeness.

This South African Chenin Blanc is from Naked Wines regular, Stephen de Wet who started his winery from scratch in 2006 and, with the help of children Nicky and Jamie, turned it in to a real family business where everyone is completely dedicated.

I had tried and enjoyed Stephen's Reserve Shiraz-Viognier a few months ago (see here), so I was a little unsure of what to expect from this - would it be a typical, well-made easy-drinking crowd-pleaser in the Naked Wines house style or a mouthful of battery acid ?

In fact it proved to be pretty much everything I look for in a dry white wine at this price range with hints of wet stones and guava on the nose, a lively but ripe, mouthfilling apples-and-pears acidic structure rounded out with some tropical fruit and minerality on the palate and a good, balanced finish.

There is no hint of rasping, varietal acidity on the finish to tell you that this is a Chenin Blanc at all - just lovely fruit acid structure and minerality; match with roast pork, apple sauce and plenty of trimmings or baked salmon topped with breadcrumbs mixed with parmesan and pesto.

List price is a very reasonable £7.99 with 33% cashback for Angels (for more on Naked's Angels scheme, see here).

Links

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

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Twitter-only Approach to Online Marketing - Club 12a in Cambridge

When the newly-opened 12a Club in Cambridge (reviewed in depth here) was at the licensing application stage, it gained approval only after agreeing that all publicity would be word-of-mouth only.

As the club's General Manager Mark Pope explained, that restriction had far-reaching implications that ended up shaping not only the club's marketing strategy, but its entire approach.

Firstly, the entire concept of a discreet, members-only club by definition makes a virtue out of the requirement not to take out any paid-for advertising.

Next, the name, 12a, is actually the club's address and since there is no restriction on putting the address up, that allowed them to by-pass the restriction on signage.

The interior theme also reveals quirky and humorous references to the "hush-hush" nature of the place, with a set-up like a 1920s speakeasy in Prohibition-era America.

Obviously, owning the building you are in with a thriving restaurant downstairs reduces the pressure to generate cash immediately on opening and allows a more measured approach to marketing.

By recruiting Mark - formerly a sommelier at upmarket Cambridge restaurant Alimentum - the club has someone who is well-connected in the local food and wine trade and who is able to approach the types of local business people who might be interested in joining.

Over time, the venue is also planning to expand its offering so that it is not just an after-work venue for client meetings or discreet parties, but can also provide meeting facilities in a much more interesting environment than, say, a local chain hotel conference room.

Other planned events include wine tastings with Cambridge Wine Merchants whose flagship branch is just around the corner in King's Parade and the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

However, with no website yet, it is perhaps the club's use of Twitter as a promotional tool that has really set it apart.

I first heard of the club via a retweet offering free trial membership for their 200th follower and at that point was sufficiently intrigued to find out more.

A quick check on Klout reveals the club's score is an impressive 45 (higher than mine ...), so I asked Mark how he had achieved this.

The key principles, when he explained them, were instantly obvious and sensible - as clear-sighted thinking so often tends to be:

- identify key influential local people
- engage them in a dialogue on Twitter
- take advantage of their influence and networks to promote the club
- obtaining retweets from these people will then get spread throughout the large number of their followers and spread the word
- establish the time when both these people and the club's followers are most likely to be on Twitter and use this time to focus on tweeting
- lots of use of the hashtag (#) for key words and @ mentions for key individuals will get the club shown up in searches

All of this sounds like it is straight out of a marketing textbook - identify your key audience, establish your key messages and keep repeating.

It also follows the basic principle of social networking - if you can arrange to hang out with influential people, some of their "aura" of influence is bound to rub off.

What makes Club12a's approach particularly interesting is the use of Twitter as their only online presence. Much cheaper and more flexible than building a website, it is a global communication tool, but used to target a very specific local area.

Of course, it helps when the networks on Twitter reflect those in the real world, so perhaps the point here is that using Twitter is not a substitute for the old-fashioned methods, it just adds an extra dimension to them.

The other aspect of this which is perhaps only possible with a social media approach is turning your customers into marketeers.

There are two ways in which customers can do this - either as Amplifiers or Evangelists.

Amplifiers simply pass on existing messages to their followers (e.g. by retweeting); the best Amplifiers are the most influential people, those who have a large number of followers who will be guided by their lead.

Evangelists, by contrast, originate their own positive messages but may not have high levels of influence.

The trick here, then, is to take the positive buzz from your Evangelists and distribute it via your Amplifiers.

In an ideal situation, your Evangelist would also be an Amplifier, but that's the equivalent of getting Mick Jagger to write a newspaper article on how good your rock band is - or perhaps more relevantly these days, getting a rapper to name-check your particular brand of Champagne in a hit song.

Compared to the costs and inefficiency of classical advertising where, according to the adage half your money is wasted but you just don't know which half, this approach is highly targeted, efficient and influential.

The next stage of the club's marketing strategy is to focus on bloggers (so my self introduction was presumably well-timed) and at some point to launch a website.

However, with the success of the Twitter campaign, it seems like neither of these is desperately urgent.

Links

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