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Friday, 29 July 2011

The Wrong Type of Air‏

There is a saying in Britain about "the wrong type of ... [something or other]".

It was apparently coined some years ago by a train-operating company to account for the fact that, despite planning for the effect of snow, a brief flurry of the white stuff brought the rail infrastructure to a total and grinding halt - the "wrong type of snow" had fallen.

Said train company had, apparently, planned for light fluffy snow that can be easily brushed aside whereas that which had actually fallen was wet and heavy and it was this that had caused the gridlock.

Or so the legend goes - and our British newspapers who love to keep a good thing going, seemed to follow this up with stories of the wrong type of leaves on the line and even the wrong type of heat.

I was reminded of this episode when opening up a couple of bottles of aged wines recently and seeing the effects of air.

I have written about the effects of air in general terms earlier (here), but these bottles of aged wines revealed something else.

There is a wrong type of air - or at least it seems that, from my admittedly unscientific experience, wine ages and develops in one way in the bottle and another way in the decanter.

A good example is the 2003 Knoll Riesling I had recently (reviewed here).

The Knoll - a mid-level federspiel - had lost all its primary fruit aromas and had only secondary aromas of dried nuts and antique leather with some evolved pastry shop. We drank it over three evenings and the amazing thing is that, even though the fruit had disappeared in the intervening time, it continued to develop with air in the bottle; whilst the secondary aromas (predictably) died away, the acidity became more rounded and prominent and the finish lengthened and the wine generally opened up.

The pattern the Knoll went through was not entirely unfamiliar, but what amazed me was that, even after a good seven years in bottle in which the fruit has faded and the aromas become more secondary, the wine can still develop in a different way after opening. It is almost as if there are two types of air - one which affects a wine's development in bottle and the other which affects its development once opened.

I had always assumed that air always affects wine in pretty much the same way - just that in bottle it ages more slowly than after opening and therefore allows more time for complexities to develop whereas on opening everything happens a little quicker.
To find a wine still developing on opening over the course of a number of days after long enough in bottle for the fruit to die away was quite a revelation.

It was broadly the same with a 2005 New Zealand Syrah Viognier I reviewed recently (here). I drank all but the final bottle of a case of this wine over an 18-month period and noticed it develop and improve with bottle age.

Leaving the last bottle for a further 12 months allowed it to take on some aged characteristics leaving it more mellow and less up-front.

Again, after opening, it continued to develop and change, with the acidity becoming more prominent and different aromas coming to the fore.

I generally find that, with very few exceptions, I tend to prefer wines when they have had a good bit of exposure to air - between several hours and a couple of days - but am usually too wary of overdoing the aeration and allow too little with the result that wine is at its best at the end of a meal or even the next day.

A decanter helps for wines that need a lot of aeration to show their best, but I'm sure there must be a scientific reason why wines aged in bottle continue to develop in a different way after opening and I would love to know what the answer is.

Other related articles
How much air ?
Wines that improve with air
Building a taste memory
Knoll - Loibner Riesling 2003 Federspiel

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Syrah Viognier Hawkes Bay 2005‏ - revisited

Main image credit: http://pptslideworld.com/Air-Quality-pictures-69.html

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Hedonist Wines - Cambridge's New Internet Start-up

Cambridge is sometimes jokingly called Silicon Fen, a reference to the number of technology start-ups we have here.

Someone may soon also need to coin a term for the number of independent wine merchants we have for, as I have written elsewhere, there are no fewer than seven independent outlets in a city of around 100,000 people as well as a fine wine trader and now a new start-up internet retailer called Hedonist Wines.

It is somehow appropriate that with all the cutting edge technology we have being developed in the city, our newest wine offering is internet based. However, that may merely be a co-incidence as the man behind the business, Anthony Jenkins, is really just looking for a way to keep his overheads down.

Based in a village just outside Cambridge and with a day-job totally unrelated to selling wine, Anthony is looking to make the phased transition into selling wine without the high up-front costs of renting a shop and fitting it out by keeping a limited range which he sells through his well laid-out, but somewhat functional, website.

So, it is more of a self-sustaining hobby at this stage, as Anthony uses family holidays to France and Spain to identify suitable producers whose wines he can sell.

If it sounds idyllic, it probably isn't - holding down a job and bringing up a family is hard enough at the best of times. Telling your other half "Just one more chateau and then I'll take the kids to the beach" on the annual family holiday is an unenviable task - however good the wines are.

Anthony recently got in touch with me and asked if I'd be prepared to try some of his wines, give an honest review and also talk about arranging some promotional activities. We decided to start with an easy one - a review of two of his wines, a white Bordeaux and a Rioja.

Chateau Valrose 2008, Entre-Deux-Mers £10 - with no information on the back label, I am expecting a Sauvignon Blanc - a rounded and weighty version with perhaps some waxy fullness. It is a golden colour in the glass but not at all herbaceous on the nose - initial impressions are positive, it's really rather nice, but not quite what I was expecting.

Realisation then comes in waves as I taste further and it opens up with some air - it's oaked and it's mainly Semillon.

Fairly neutral on the nose, with just some toasty aromas, the palate is weighty and smooth with layers of oatmealy, buttery toffee. The acidity is ripe and rounded with a touch of lifted tropical sweetness on the mid-palate whilst the finish is balanced, long and toasty. It is mouthfilling and deliciously more-ish and we almost finish the bottle before we know it.

Complex with good structure, it has lots of up-front appeal, but also subtlety and restraint. In fact, it increasingly opens out with a bit of air and I wish I'd put it in the decanter to see it develop fully. It proves to be a great match for the salmon with a creamy sorrel sauce that we have with it.

Caecus Rioja Crianza, 2008 £11 - pale in the glass, there are cherries, red berry fruit and coffee beans on the nose, lovely berry fruit on the palate with good rounded, juicy acidity and some soft tannic grip on the finish.

It's quite light and not overly complex, but feels very well-made and enjoyable.

Re-sampled the next day, it has gained a little in complexity and I also appreciate its elegance a bit more - it's still quite light but with lovely, bright cherry fruit acidity, but there are some minty liquorice notes and a touch of funkiness and spice.

Low in tannins, the finish is still gentle, but has become a little more assertive. It's light enough to make a lovely quaffer, but would also match well with salamis or pasta with tomato sauce, but it does not seem to go particularly well with the traditional match of roast lamb that we have with it.

Checking the website later on, I am a little surprised at the price for this one - £11 seems a little toppy for a fairly straightforward wine like this; at that price I'd like to see a bit more oomph.

Neither wine was quite what I had expected given the region it had come from - certainly neither was very typical of its origin - but perhaps that's the advantage of being a start-up; you can just sell the wines you like yourself without the need to provide a comprehensive and typical range.

Recommended Wine

Both wines were good and well-made, if slightly atypical, examples but for me the beautifully-oaked fresh Bordeaux was much the more interesting of the two.

Links

Hedonist Wines - http://www.hedonistwines.com/

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Mistral Carmenere 2010 - Naked Wines

One of the most notable things about Naked Wines' retail model is their use of social media, and anyone who has used amazon recently will probably find it quite familiar with its various groups, product reviews by customers and a plethora of statistics on what people are buying and rating.

Another familiar feature is personalised recommendations, based presumably on the ratings you give to the wines you liked.

In this case, this Mistral Carménère from Chile was apparently recommended to me by one of my online "buddies" - obviously someone I've never met in real life or know anything about, but as I'm always happy to try out something new and all of Naked's wines come with a satisfaction guarantee anyway, I thought "Why not ?" and added it to my order.

Carménère originated in Bordeaux, but is now mostly associated with Chile where for years it was mistakenly believed to be Merlot.

For a while, it was spoken of as possibly Chile's new signature red grape, but the country seems to be doing well enough with international varieties not to need a the gimmick of a "signature grape" schtick, so the wine can be assessed on its own merits alone.

The nose is quite complex, but somehow hard to define - there is bramble fruit, spice and hints of forest floor.

The palate shows black cherries, blackcurrant and, with time, a hint of inkiness and pencil shavings, some clove and pepper spice.

There is lively, juicy, linear acidity and soft, gentle tannins on the finish with a slight touch of toastiness.

It's not a dead-ringer for the Merlot it was historically mistaken for, but it does share many Merlot's characteristics - juicy acidity and low tannins especially.

Like most of Naked's wines - and especially their top-rated ones - it impresses straight out of the bottle with lots of ripe, up-front fruit whilst being well-made and more-ish.

There is precious little detail about the wine on the Naked website - "Chile", "other red grapes" and "easy-drinking red" is about it, but for those familiar with Naked's house style, that does pretty much sum it up.

Mistral Carménère £7.49 from Naked Wines (Angels get 33% cashback) - for more on Naked's Angels scheme, see here.

Links

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

Monday, 25 July 2011

Knoll - Loibner Riesling 2003 Federspiel

The story behind this wine is that, when I first became an enthusiast for Austrian wines and especially Wachau Riesling, I checked out who the top producers were and learned that Knoll was pretty much The One.

I had a few Knolls but struggled to see how they were so much better than the more mid-level wines I had got a taste for from the likes of Domäne Wachau. Reading in an article by Jamie Goode a suggestion that the wines needed some aging, I stashed a few bottles away to come back to when either they had improved or my palate had become more sophisticated.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to go the Annual Austrian Tasting in London (courtesy of Domäne Wachau) where I was looking forward to meeting someone from Knoll to tell them this story and ask when I should drink their wines to get them at a peak (I'd checked with US MW Roger Bohmrich and he was unable to advise on a drinking window).

Emmerich Knoll is a famously elusive and publicity-shy winemaker and decided not to turn up to the London event in person, leaving a neighbouring presenter to talk through the wines, which was not ideal for either of us.

However, having tasted my way through some really excellent Wachau wines there, I decided that the time had come to dig out the Knolls, as well as a Rudi Pichler I'd been harbouring, and see what they could do.

The Pichler is reviewed here and, with hindsight, I probably should have opened it a little earlier - so, I wondered what the Knoll would be like.

I feel real a sense of occasion doing this - a wine I have held onto for so long, finally being consumed. It feels almost like sitting an exam such has been the build-up, so here are my notes just as I jot them down:

First things first, I notice a synthetic cork.

There are aromas from the bottle even as I open it and the wine, when poured, is a golden straw colour.

Initial sniffs reveal some aged characteristics - waxiness and antique shop. These aged characteristics dominate - it feels quite heavy on the nose, but there is honey and good minerality on the palate.

There is also some cellar mustiness of old books and I feel I am still getting used to these aged Rieslings - unlike the Rudi Pichler, this one now feels fully aged and all the fruit has been lost.

However, it feels mouthfilling and precise, the acidity feels ripe and rounded. On the palate it is almondy and oxidative, rather like, say, Palo Cortado sherry.

There is some cindery ash, the fruit has all gone - amazingly, even after so many years in bottle however, it still improves with air.

Aromas of pastry shop, it opens up after the meal and shows some hints of sour hay, toasted nuts, old leather.

It has great length and balance, with some minerality.

It feels very focused and I hazard a guess at soil type - it feels somewhere between the intense minerality of granite and the soft fleshiness of loam.

It is a wine of balance, structural elegance and integration - there are no extremes, no flashiness.

Re-sealed and re-sampled on day 3, it is now all about mellowness, acidity and finish and is very classy.

For more on Knoll - see this article here.

Price when bought from Wein & Co, Vienna - around €20 - €25, from memory.

Links

Weingut Knoll - http://www.loibnerhof.at/

Image credit: snooth - http://www.snooth.com/

Friday, 22 July 2011

Joseph Barnes Wines, Saffron Walden

The little market town of Saffron Walden defies the image of a stereotypical urban Essex - it has no ring road around which boy racers drive their modified hatchbacks with blaringly loud music emanating from open windows and no hoards of bubbly peroxide blondes in white stilettos.

Rather, it is a quiet, genteel sort of place with an impressive 15th century church atop a hill (yes, rolling hills - another stereotype challenged) with timbered buildings and narrow streets around a quaint market square.

It is a place of old money which is also proving popular for London professionals of a certain age who want somewhere green and pleasant to bring up children with a Waitrose and good train links into the city.

So, idyllic and practical, then.

Another staple of the sophisticated, middle class lifestyle is a independent wine merchant - ideally an effortlessly cool one in a listed building with stripped wooden floorboards, soft, noodling jazz playing in the background and an affable patron.

We have several of these already in Cambridge so when Charles Hardcastle decided to move back from France to the UK, he opted for somewhere that had all the positives of my adoptive home city without the same density of independent wine merchants.

Of course, there was some local competition in Saffron Walden - a Waitrose and a branch of Adnams - but the local population is around 15,000, meaning that one more still left 5,000 people for each.

One hot sunny day recently, I made the short drive down to Saffron Walden from Cambridge to meet Charles, chat about his shop and try a few of his wines.

Finding the shop was no mean feat in itself as Saffron Walden still has, like Cambridge, a street layout from an earlier era and Joseph Barnes Wines is somewhat tucked away on one of the narrow side streets away from the central market square.

However, once inside, you suddenly feel as if you have taken on a touch of the shop's stripped-down, unpretentious effortless chic and you could be in an edgy part of Soho rather than a sleepy, gentrified market town.

Sitting up to a small bar at the window, Charles talked me through his background in hospitality - including stints in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris, Munich and Zurich - to wine stock-taking which involved commuting to London from the south of France to his decision to return to the UK and set up in business.

Having lived in the Languedoc for several years, he pretty much had all the contacts he needed to start a shop without needing to go via the big importers.

This gave him both access to more interesting and unusual wines and a pricing advantage.

He also brought with him an interest in all things natural, organic and biodynamic.

I must confess to a certain cynicism about whether an adherence to phases of the moon can really improve the quality of a wine, so I merely nodded politely at this point - and then noted that the biodynamic wine was indeed very good.

As we talked through the wines, Charles explained that what he enjoys most is telling stories. And this is clearly what today's punter wants - not the dry, technical, scientific stuff about soil-types or vinification methods, but the human-interest story about the producer, his passion for winemaking and the provenance of the wine itself.

We are used to seeing details of the provenance of our food in restaurants - was our chicken free-range, did our jamon feed on acorns - and the same trend is happening in wine, which after all is a food as much as a drink.

This is very much an Old World view of wine, but a progressive one at that - and the wine list reflects that, as it is mainly from the more go-ahead parts of Europe: Languedoc and inland Spain.

We started with a new grape variety for me, Grenache Blanc from Saint Cirice. With a floral aromatic nose, it had a waxy texture, tropical fruit and some spice.

Next was a more weighty Albarinho from Terras Gauda - this is apparently a very popular wine by the glass in the shop, but struck me much more as a food wine with honeyed weight, good acidity and minerality, candied peel and a hint of thick-skinned phenolic ripeness.

Moving onto the reds, we tried a Tours des Genres unoaked Merlot with 5% Malbec added to the blend.

Charles described the producer as "fanatically bio-dynamic" with no sulphur added to the final wine and oxygenation of the wine whilst in the oak barrels.

The results of all this were a ripe, typically perfumed nose of plummy fruit, good sour-cherry acidity, a densely concentrated texture with dark, Christmassy spices and a savoury finish.

The final wine was something rather unusual - a 100% Alicante from 100 year-old vines, again made bio-dynamically.

There are just 2.5ha of these vines on the estate so the wine is made in tiny quantities.

Dark in the glass, the complex nose showed plums, cherries and some forest floor funkiness. On the palate there is bramble fruit, peppery spice, some toastiness and dark chocolate aromas.

After this, we chatted further about Charles's plans to put a seating area outside the front of the shop serving wines by the glass with tapas, the success of his wine club - a monthly mixed case of interesting wines - the awards he has won and his plans for a second outlet "probably closer to London".

As well as the quality of his wines, what most impressed me about Charles is how he "gets" marketing and is confidently but unpretentiously doing everything the marketing handbook recommends and successfully punching above his weight for a small business - he has a well-made and attractive website, a monthly newsletter, each wine has a recommended food match, he holds regular in-store tastings as well as selling wines by the glass, is active on Twitter and writes a monthly column for one of Cambridge's many free local magazines.

But above all, to me, the wine club is the best indicator of success - the club comes at two price points - £60 or £90 and the only element of customer selection is all-reds, all-whites or mixed with (officially) no satisfaction guarantee.

To have a group of customers trusting your palate to this extent and providing a regular inflow of funds is a sign of huge loyalty and trust that many much bigger brands spend years and invest huge amounts of marketing spend to achieve.

The Wines

Chateau de Saint-Cyrgues, Saint-Cirice Blanc 2010, Costieres de Nimes
Bodegas Terras Gauda, Albarino, Abadia de San Campio 2009, Rias Baixas
Chateau Tour des Gendres Bergerac Rouge ‘Le Classique’ 2010
Chateau Ollieux Romanis, Alicante Bouschet, Vin de Pays de l’Aude 2009

All wines range from around £8 - £15

Recommended wine: all the wines were very good-to-superb, but the most interesting and enjoyable for me were the Saint-Cirice Blanc and the Alicante Bouschet.

Links

Joseph Barnes Wines - http://www.josephbarneswines.com/

Thursday, 21 July 2011

It was 20 years ago today‏ ...

20 years - half my life - ago, I went to Russia for the first time.

I had studied Greek, Latin and French at school and, needing a new challenge, opted for Russian at University.

The city I went to was in the Ural mountains, on the edge of Siberia, and had been closed to foreigners until the previous year due to the large number of military installations there - named after Empress Catherine I, in 1917 it witnessed the post-revolutionary murder of Russia's Imperial family who had ruled for over 300 years and under Stalin's influence grew to a city of over a million people with numerous metal bashing factories and military installations.

Nearby attractions include the scene of a nuclear incident in 1957 and sundry military cities so secret they neither had a name nor appeared on any maps, such was the level of secrecy and fear at the time.

If it seems laughably quaint, or even downright bonkers these days, just remember that this is the country that was invaded by Napoleon in the 19th century and by Germany (twice) in the 20th and suffered huge losses resisting and ultimately defeating those attacks.

At the time of my visit, the stultifying system of censorship and propaganda was being dismantled at an alarming rate with some ostensible efforts to reform the economy that achieved far less than the political reforms.

Having been brought up on a cold war diet of Russians as the dour enemy, I was surprised to find them light-hearted, humorous and very hospitable; they do not have the climate for the outdoors culture of Mediterraneans, but they do have the sociable, family-oriented outlook that treats life events such as birthdays and weddings as an excuse to get as many family and friends together as possible for large amounts of eating and drinking.

Russian food is hearty and calorific, as befits a poor country with a short growing season where many adults are just one generation away from peasantry and themselves own a small allotment (ogorod) for growing fruit and vegetables.

It is a place of dark taiga forests, wide rivers, wolves and superstition.

It is also a place of superlatives - the largest country in the world, it spans 9 time zones, starting at the Baltic sea in the west and stretching to, at its eastern tip, the Bering Straits where it is possible in winter (theoretically, at least) to walk across the frozen sea to the state of Alaska which was sold to the US by Russia in 1867.

I have been back to Russia many times - I lived there for a year as part of my degree on the advice of an older student who felt it had contributed to him getting a higher degree grade as a result. He is now a correspondent for the BBC whereas I, on finishing my studies, switched from languages to finance, travelled widely as a foreign-language-speaking accountant and gave up vodka in favour of wine.

Shortly after my return to the UK from that trip, then-President Gorbachev was put under house arrest in his Crimean dacha, Boris Yeltsin jumped up onto a tank to rally the forces of democracy, the White House in Moscow was shelled and the coup collapsed.

Neither Russia nor I would ever be quite the same again, but it would be almost 20 years before my past came back to haunt me.

Late last year, one of my fellow travellers had a bunch of his photos from Russia 1991 digitally scanned and put them up on Facebook - and gradually, through the power of the Internet, those of us who visited Russia then as well as those whom we visited all got back in touch with each other in a way that I could never have predicted all those years ago.

Now, less carefree than we were, but older and wiser, we have careers and families - and a bond that goes back 20 years of that brief but very intense summer visit in which we lived and laughed together with large quantities of drink, yoga lessons and saunas and not much sleep.

Trying to pick one overriding memory from the time is like choosing your favourite note from a song - I cannot isolate out any one bit apart from all the rest - and contemplating where I will be another 20 years from now seems harder than ever.

But if it's anything like the last 20 years, it won't half go quickly.

Main image credit: http://www.zincconference.com/

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Networking Lunch - and a Loire Sauvignon

Normally in a client-service business it is the client-facing staff who get to go to all the smart lunches, dinners and receptions.

Occasionally, however, one of our various advisors puts together a networking event and those of us whose role involves business administration are invited along.

The topics discussed over lunch may seem arcane and dull to anyone outside of my discipline so I will not repeat them here, save to say that perhaps the most interesting area we covered was on social media.

Much more important was the quality of the food and wine and the social interaction.

I found myself sitting next to someone who, if he were still in the role he occupied a few years ago, would be my right-hand man and whose name still appears as a contact on our monthly telephone bill.

A few places down was the deputy MD of another agency which now has several of our ex-employees on its books and opposite a professional advisor who has done some work for us over the years.

I knew none of these people before I arrived, but it just goes to show what a small world we move in.

On arrival we were greeted with a glass of something crisp, white and aromatic - a Pouilly-Fumé Sauvignon from the Loire.

Restrained and limpid with balanced, rounded acidity and a lightly herbaceous finish, it was well-made and as immediately pleasing as a pair of sensible walking shoes.

It also proved to be an inspired choice given the menu: we began with a beautifully-presented starter of roasted beetroot and ricotta with green leaves and an orange-zest dressing.

Sweet beetroot and creamy white cheese is a surprisingly wonderful combination, and the herbaceous green leaves and botanical notes of the dressing matched with the aromatic Sauvignon perfectly.

Our main of roasted chicken breast with herbs, garlic roasted potatoes, chicory, blue cheese and walnuts was a little less adventurous but beautifully cooked; it called out for a white with good acidity and the Sauvignon was more than up to the task here.

Finally, the cheese plate again called for a white with the body to stand up to the cheeses (semi-soft white, hard yellow and blue) and the acidity to cut through both the richness and saltiness.

To image-conscious chi-chi restaurant go-ers, it may have seemed a rather conservative, old-school meal, but to me it was spot-on: classic, well-made and well-matched.

With the starter simply arranged, the main roasted and a simple cheese board, this would make a very easy but elegant dinner party menu; just before the guests arrive, assemble the starters, put the main in the oven and take the cheese out of the fridge to breathe. Dress the starters immediately before serving and there is little more to do but chew the fat on whatever topics take your fancy with colleagues or friends.

The success of a classic meal like this rests on the quality of the ingredients (and I include the wine in this category), so, as always, go for the best you can afford.

One of the most impressive Loire Sauvignons I have had recently was a Domaine Rablais Touraine from Cambridge Wine Merchants which was a contender for my June Wine of the Month (reviewed here).

The appellation is based on the opposite side of the Loire and the wine is a little more steely than the Pouilly-Fumé I had at this dinner but opens out beautifully with some air, so it is best served from a decanter rather than straight from the bottle.

Sauvignon Touraine 2010 Domaine de la Rablais from £7.21 (case) or £8.99 (single bottle) available at Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

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

Main image credit: http://www.fyple.co.uk/category/arts-entertainment/event-planning/12/

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Food and Wine Matching at The Punter, Cambridge

A while ago, I reviewed Cambridge's first private member's club, 12a (here).

It turns out that the brother of 12a's front-of-house manager Mark Pope is a chef at local gastropub The Punter, so when I got an invitation from Ben Pope to a food and wine matching evening, I was keen to pop along.

Formerly The Town and Gown, it was previously a somewhat uninspiring place located on the corner of Cambridge's inner ring road.

However, re-named and made over, it is now a smart, sophisticated and chi-chi place that five years after opening still looks way ahead of its time with its combination of traditional rough-surface oak beams and bare bricks juxtaposed with Victoriana-feel high-back chairs and ornate picture frames.

Arriving unfashionably on time, I was more or less the first there and got to chatting with the presenter for the evening, Jacko from Jascots Wine Merchants about business models, internet retailing, Laithwaites and a run-in he had with another internet-only retailer and one of their producers.

We started with a Prosecco on arrival which Jacko (in the left-hand picture box above) explained is proving much more popular in these harder economic times than Champagne.

There was the opportunity to add a choice of pureed fruits to make a Bellini with berries and cream hors d'oevres and, at the end of a meal, I would have been tempted to try it out, but as an traditionalist, I stuck with it plain as an aperitif. Elegant, light and fresh, it had a slight aroma of pears and some lifted sweetness on the mid-palate.

To me, any Prosecco is never quite as good as good Champagne, but then I can't imagine ever considering putting fruit puree into a good Champagne as it would be too much of a waste.

As we sat down to eat, Jacko and Punter-owner and Head Chef Paul explained a bit about the evening which had been organised in aid of the East Anglia's Children's Hospices.

The format would be first a collection of picnic foods with suggested matching wines followed by a couple of cooked dishes. Paul had devised the menu as a one-off for the evening and sent it to Jacko for wine matches - this is perhaps the hardest way to match a wine, from a simple written description of a non-standard dish where there are so many variables.

Much easier would be to have several possible alternatives and a batch of the food to taste a range of possible options and decide on the most appropriate match. However, clearly that had not been an option and I was intrigued to see how well the matches, done remotely, would work.

Seating had been partially pre-planned, dinner-party-style, and I found myself on a table with Jacko himself plus the editor of one of our local Cambridge magazines, a high-end contract publisher and a young couple, one of whom was an aspiring writer whilst the other was researching a cure for cancer.

With so many creative types around the table, the conversation was lively and wide-ranging as we discussed the merit of back labels with tasting notes on wines (a good thing, in my opinion), natural cork vs screwcap (no strong opinions other than I like the sense of occasion from popping a cork) and writing on the internet vs novels (pick your themes and keep repeating, the internet requires volume and frequency).

The table was laid out picnic-style with rabbit rillettes, parma ham, rabbit liver pate and some very delicious bread whilst Jacko handed out two very different wines to match; a Lugana Trebbiano from Lake Garda and a Maranges from Domaine Bachey-Legros in Burgundy.

The Trebbiano had a minerally nose with aromas of stone fruit, grapefruit and liminess on the palate with some lifted sweetness, good tropical-fruit acidity and a minerally finish. Very good.

However, the red burgundy was a revelation; with a hedonistically textbook Pinot nose of vanilla, mushroom and decaying forest floor, it had lots of juicy sour-cherry fruit acidity and a beautifully soft texture with a toasty, savoury finish.

It was served slightly chilled, a frequent recommendation for lighter reds but something I have never quite had the confidence to do myself - however, in this case it worked very well. I remarked to Jacko how impressed I was with this wine and he explained that 2009 had been a particularly good vintage for this estate.

Next up came a trio of crisp whites - a Chablis Premier Cru from Romaine Bouchard had a smokey, toasty nose, linear stone fruit acidity on the palate, a rounded mouthfilling structure and a long toasty finish. It matched superbly with a dish of potted crab and pickled samphire.

Next was a rather disappointing Riesling from West Cape Howe in Western Australia which felt very tart. Australia seems to be having a bit of a mid-life crisis at the moment with its whites and reminds me a little of an overweight and out-of-date rock start trying to squeeze into a ridiculously skin-tight outfit for a come-back.

The reason we loved Australian whites in the first place was because of their big, ripe, fruit-driven appeal that had all the up-front appeal of Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. But rather like 70s glam rock, more recent Aussie whites have become bloated parodies of this with the result that there is something of a punk backlash going on, with producers opting for a much more stripped-down, raw and bracing cool-climate feel.

Jacko declared himself seriously unimpressed with this wine, even when resampled and hour or so later.

Much, much later in the evening I resampled one last time and it did finally seem to have rounded out and become something much more pleasant and interesting, but by that stage I was perhaps the only person in the room prepared to give it one final chance.

The last of the trio of whites was a much more instantly appealing Sancerre from Domaine Laporte to match with smoked mackerel. Another classic-style wine, it had a good, typically herbaceous and aromatic nose and rounded, linear, mouthfilling acidity with some toasty smokiness and a very dry, mineral finish which needs food to match.

We then moved on to the cooked part of the meal with a joint of muntjac (a local, very small deer species introduced several hundred years ago and now something of a minor pest) with potatoes, runner and broad beans and mint. With its gamey flavours, the deer was a textbook match for the Pinot we had tried earlier in the evening, but perhaps did not need quite so much barbecue seasoning which threatened to overwhelm the subtle flavours of both the meat and the wine.

As the evening wore on, it became more like a lively, and slightly rowdy, dinner party and ever less like a serious wine-tasting. Jacko proved himself to be opinionated, forthright, outspoken and wickedly funny, worth the price of admission alone and leaning over to me at one point to whisper a schoolboy comment completely unrepeatable yet utterly hilarious.

He also grabbed my tasting notes and took exception to some of my drafted comments as I had written "sour" to refer to the lovely, food-friendly sour-cherry acidity on the red Burgundy which he intepreted literally and took as a criticism.

The final dish was a chorizo and lamb kebab which was matched with a Cal Pla Crianza from Celler Joan Sangentis. The wine itself was full of ripe up-front bramble fruit, vanilla and toasty finish was declared a favourite by many around the table. After the classy and sophisticated Old World style wines from earlier in the evening, I found it rather up-front and primary, but it was a superb match for the lamb which, for some reason, always matches well with this style of Big Red, brambly, fruit-driven wine.

As desserts had already been served at the start of the meal, there was nothing left to do but remember not to scratch my nose or make any other gestures conceivably resembling a bid during the charity auction, enjoy the banter and chat and quietly re-sample the wines to make final notes.

I also popped into the kitchen to say my hellos and thank yous to chef Ben Pope, though I suspect he remembers more of the conversation than I do.

And finally, after chatting with owner Paul about the evening and his plans to hold the event every quarter with a seasonal theme, it really was time to admit defeat and head home.

There were a few leftovers and I took a quarter bottle of the most impressive wine, the red Burgundy, with me, but by the following day, the truffley, mushroomy nose had faded even if the lovely acidity, texture and long toasty finish were still showing well.

Recommended wine

All the wines here were good - even the Australian Riesling with enough air, eventually.

However, to find a good Pinot Noir around £15 is no mean feat - to find a delicious and classy one from Burgundy is quite something, so my recommended wine is the Maranges Vieilles Vignes Pinot Noir 2009, Domaine Bachey-Legros, £16.35 from Jascots

Links

The Punter - http://www.thepuntercambridge.com/

Jascots - http://www.jascots.co.uk/

Monday, 18 July 2011

Harveys 30 Year-Old PX Sherry‏

Sweet dark sherries make wonderful dessert wines and are usually a blend of dry oloroso for toasty, nutty, raisiny aromas with a lesser amount of intense Pedro Ximénez for sweetness.

On its own, PX can be just too intensely sweet and cloying to be an enjoyable drink, so I tend to approach 100% PX sherries with a bit of caution.

This one from Harvey's, however, is a bit different from run-of-the-mill 100% PX (if such a thing exists).

Like most 100% PX, it has the colour and consistency of used engine oil and, on first opening the bottle, the texture is syrupy and full of glycerol. There are the usual coffee, fig and toasted nut aromas but noticeably a deliciously fresh acidity which keeps the intense sweetness in balance.

This is not a wine to polish off in an evening and after a couple of days, the heavy glycerol feel seems to have died away and the aromas have opened up even more. It is full of deliciously intense Christmas-pudding aromas - raisins, figs and dried mixed fruit - as well as syrup, coffee, dark chocolate and liquorice.

Rich, delicious and intense, I would defy anyone to try this and not beam gently with a glow of self-satisfaction as it tickles, soothes and gently warms with those wonderfully dark, sensual aromas.

Aged for at least 30 years in a solera that commenced in 1919, it is smooth, mellow and integrated.

There is a theory that you need less of dessert wines as they are so intense, but I often find them so more-ish that for me this does not usually apply.

However, this is perhaps quite the most intense dessert wine I have ever had and indeed it does need to be sipped rather than slurped.

In small quantities, it can be sipped as a pudding in its own right. It also works well drizzled over vanilla ice cream or matched with rich, intensely sweet, dark desserts such as Christmas pudding or fig and date tarte.

Finally, it also works well with roasted plums, peaches or nectarines drizzled with syrup and vanilla sugar and served with sweetened vanilla cream.

Harveys 30 Year Old Pedro Ximénez, from £20.22 at Waitrose online, Booths and thedrinkshop.com.

Provided for review.

Review by Tom Cannavan here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqowmtfvZcc&feature=youtu.be&hd=1

Links

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

Booths - http://www.booths.co.uk/

thedrinkshop.com - http://www.thedrinkshop.com/

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Harveys at IWC Taste of Gold‏

Having worked my way through the Lustau sherries at this IWC Taste of Gold event (reviewed here), I decided to move onto the Harveys next door.

My top word-association impression of Harveys is Bristol Cream - a rather dated, branded sweetened sherry beloved of your nan that actually tastes rather nice - my parents have some at their house and I'm not averse to a quick nip after a good dinner.

These wines were, however, rather different beasts.

In stylish, modern and elegant bottles with a royal seal of approval stamped on the front, they look more edgy than dated, but with a bit of heritage, too - more Prince William in his vintage Aston Martin with the top down than afternoon tea, vicar, in the parlour.

The wines were all dark sherries to a greater or lesser degree, no pale Fino or Manzanilla here. And whilst the lighter, paler styles are finally gaining in popularity, unsweetened darker sherries can still prove a challenge too far for many and therefore great value for the rest of us.

We started with a VORS Fine Old Amontillado - with a complex woody nose, it is well-structured and elegant with a distinct saltiness. It has won the Amontillado Trophy and would match well with either game or prunes and bacon.

Next came a style of sherry I have only recently tried, a Palo Cortado which starts life destined to be a Fino but loses its layer of flor and continues to age as an Oloroso. With even just 2% PX in the blend, it had a sweetness with aromas of toasted nuts, figs and, again, a distinct saltiness.

We then moved on to a Rich Old Oloroso with 10% PX added. Mahogany in colour with a complex nose, it was also delicious.

Finally, a 100% PX was dark and complex with all sorts of toasty and dried fruit aromas, yet balanced by a surprisingly fresh acidity which meant it was not too cloying at all.

Recommended Wine

All the wines here were very good, but the 100% PX was absolutely superb and at around £20 per bottle (50cl) is very good value.

Available from Waitrose, Booths, thedrinkshop.com


Links
 
Waitrose - http://www.waitrosewine.com/
 
Booths - http://www.booths.co.uk/
 
thedrinkshop.com - http://www.thedrinkshop.com/

Monday, 11 July 2011

Moscato Frizzante Piemonte Volpi - and a jelly recipe

This food and wine match also appears in Cambridge Edition

Masterchef finalist and Cambridge restaurateur Alex Rushmer has come up with a recipe for "poshed-up" strawberries and cream and we agreed I would find a suitable wine match for it for a local magazine.

Alex's recipe is given below in detail, but in short it is an elegant dessert made with uncooked strawberries and Prosecco and needs an appropriately light and delicate wine to match, one that is slightly sweeter than the food or else it will taste thin and tart.

Continuing the Italian-fizz theme, this semi-sweet frizzante from Volpi in Piemonte has lots of sweet, juicy fruit flavours from the aromatic Muscat / Moscato grape and just the right level of sweetness. The fresh acidity cuts beautifully through the Chantilly cream whilst the prominent elderflower and ripe peach aromas match wonderfully with the strawberries.

Fresh, fruity and elegant, it is very well made with a long, balanced finish and, with just 5.5% alcohol, it feels as light as the jelly itself.

In fact, it matches so well, with both the food and the wine being enhanced by the pairing, you should almost consider the wine as an integral part of the dessert itself, rather than something on the side.

Cantine Volpi, Moscato DOC Piemonte £9.49 from Cambridge Wine Merchants

Recipe from Alex Rushmer - Strawberry and Prosecco Jelly Terrine

When strawberries are at their best it seems a shame to cook them - here they remain raw and the whole dish retains a freshness and vibrancy that sings. The terrine itself should be ever so slightly on the sour side because the Chantilly cream that goes with it is sweet and brings the dessert back to a point of delicious equilibrium.

Makes four individual or one large terrine.

400g fresh strawberries, hulled and halved
c.50g caster sugar
4 gelatin leaves
50ml Prosecco

Half a bottle of Prosecco
3 gelatin leaves
c.50g caster sugar

200ml double cream
25g icing sugar
half a teaspoon vanilla bean puree

Grease four small, or one large, loaf tins with a light film of cooking oil and then line each one with cling film.

Puree the strawberries in a blender and then pass the liquid through a sieve to remove any seeds. Measure out 300ml of puree and add sugar to your own taste. Soak four gelatin leaves in cold water for five minutes.

Whilst they are 'blooming' bring 50ml Prosecco to a gentle boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat, squeeze any excess water from the gelatin sheets and add to the Prosecco, stirring until they have dissolved into the liquid. Add this to the strawberry puree and whisk gently to combine.

Pour three tablespoons of strawberry puree into the base of each mould and chill in the fridge until it sets.

For the Prosecco layer, bring the remaining half bottle of Prosecco to a boil for a couple of minutes to remove the harsh alcohol flavours. Bloom three gelatin leaves in cold water. Pour 250ml or Prosecco into a bowl and add the sugar to your own taste. Remove the gelatin leaves from the water, squeeze out any excess liquid, and add them to the sweetened Prosecco.

Once the first strawberry layer is set, pour over the same amount of Prosecco jelly and return to the fridge to cool. Repeat three more times to obtain a five layered terrine, making sure that the previous layer is set before you pour on the next to ensure clean edges between the strata.

To make the Chantilly cream whip the cream together with icing sugar and vanilla. Keep everything in the fridge until you are ready to serve. Unmould the jellies onto cold plates, top with a spoonful of the sweetened cream and serve immediately.

Links

Cambridge Edition - http://www.cambsedition.co.uk/

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

Alex Rushmer - http://www.alexrushmer.com/, twitter.com/justcookit

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The IWC Taste of Gold‏ Event

The other week I got to go to the IWC's Taste of Gold event at Lord's Cricket Ground in London.

My ticket was provided by Naked Wines who were after recommendations from people "like myself" so that they can go out and approach the producers of the popular wines.

Naked don't generally make a fuss about wine awards on their website, preferring instead to focus on customer feedback and ratings, but a quick trawl through their list reveals at least a few with various nods and I will be writing up the ones I liked over time.

However, with only an hour or so there and a couple of hundred gold-medal wines to try, I had to be fairly focused and so I limited myself to a few areas of particular interest which I will write up in depth later.

Whilst most wine regions were reasonably well represented, there were a few curious curve balls - an English still rosé and a Pinot Noir sparkler, a Croatian wine and a whole raft of Japanese wines that I simply did not have time to get round to.

Part-way through, the assembled crowd of punters (the trade event had been earlier in the day) was addressed by head of the IWC Charles Metcalfe who explained a little about how the judging process works, starting with thousands of different wines and ending with just a few hundred gold medal winners (plus bronzes and silvers in greater quantities).

Beyond gold medals, there are also trophies for the best-in-class wines and these were announced a few days after the Taste of Gold event. Trophies are awarded to the wines that the judges deem to be the creme de la creme of the wines entered.

What I thought was most interesting about Charles' speech was his encouragement to people to seek out the gold medal wines when buying.

Most so-called "ordinary" wine buyers whom I ask about this admit to being a bit confused and mainly to buying simply what's on special offer at the supermarket. As a result of this, we are witnessing something of a "race to the bottom" in terms of price and quality of many supermarket wines.

Wine writer Wink Lorch posted an acknowledged "rant" on this subject on Facebook recently (here) and drew many comments from wine writers and critics on the subject, myself included.

Most (again so-called) "ordinary" wine buyers I know also admit to not knowing too much about wine or where to start - hence, in part, the tendency to buy whatever catches your eye as a special offer.

The key point in Charles' speech - one that I hope we will see developed as a full marketing campaign - is that the IWC provides a benchmark or standard of quality that consumers can use to seek out the best wines, rather than merely looking for what has been (arbitrarily) reduced in price.

If you have ever looked behind the shelf tag of a heavily-discounted wine, you may well notice the small print saying that it was actually only sold in a few stores at the higher price for a short while and so the purported discount is, at best, somewhat questionable.

But, with a huge range of grape varieties and countries to pick from, is it any real wonder that people seek to simplify this dizzying profusion of choice and focus on the thing they know - price ?

After all, there is a saying that you can't manage what you can't measure and, for the consumer, price is perhaps the most objective and most easily measured aspect of an unfamiliar bottle of wine - even if not the best way to assess either its quality or the amount of enjoyment to be had from it.

However, like many other wine writers, I find it rather sad that as a nation we focus more on price than quality - but how do we define and objectively rate quality ?

A little wine education helps but, in the real world, most people just want a decent bottle of wine to drink that they can buy from somewhere convenient.

The fact that we have so many supermarkets selling wine and - Cambridge aside - so few independent wine merchants is a telling indication that, as a nation, we value convenience and low prices more than genuinely interesting wines.

This is where the IWC's medals system has huge potential - it gives the UK's wine industry a broad quality standard which can be presented to consumers as a way to cut through the confusion of too many wines to choose from.

Instead of saying "I'll spend a fiver at xx supermarket", the consumer can now decide "I'll look for a Gold Medal wine from xx country / grape variety".

It may well, of course, cost a bit more than a fiver to buy such a wine, but probably not much much more than that £5 bottle when bought at a restaurant.

And in any case, we need to accept that wine at or even under a fiver is likely to be pretty basic and that quality increases significantly in the £6 - £12 range.

The IWC is of course not the only wine competition in the UK, let alone worldwide, and there are varying degrees of award from bronze to multiple trophy-winners.

As I wrote some time ago, competitions had a bit of a bad press a few years back due to some theorists suggesting that they were little more than a money-making exercise for everyone but the consumer. However, even a cursory look at the number of MWs as judges on the IWC tells you something about the quality of the judging.

And by focusing on the Golds, the IWC can hit the sweet spot in terms of quality (high), price (still affordable) and range (still fairly broad).

It would be great to see a really focused and high level campaign encouraging consumers to ask for and seek out Gold-medal wines - it could really turn us into a nation of wine appreciators rather than merely quaffers.

I really hope the budget to get the message out there is found - it could reinvigorate the UK wine trade if consumers decide that quality and not price should guide their purchasing decisions.

We are lucky in Cambridge to have several independent wine merchants and don't necessarily need the assistance of an IWC Gold medal when there are knowledgeable staff on hand, but for those less fortunate for whom the supermarket (or the internet) is the reality or only option, then the IWC Gold Medal could be the way forward.

To achieve this, the IWC needs recognition of its award as a brand and also for people to understand the different levels of award and what they mean.

The IWC, therefore, needs to do some brand-building of its own so that it becomes something the general public can put its trust in and know what to expect in return.

Gaining the public's trust as a brand is not easily done - it requires adept communications, consistency of message and a significant ongoing budget. No mean feat, then but achievable if there is a will.

However, the real challenge, I believe, is the issue of consistency. If you think of the great global brands - Coca-Cola, BMW and Microsoft, to name just a few of my favourites - they are all extremely reliable and consistent in what they do and stand for.

Wine by definition is not consistent - a bottle changes over time, a GV grown on granite is more minerally than one grown on loam, an oaked Chardonnay is very different from an unoaked one.

Variety is, for an enthusiast, part of the enjoyment of wine; but this variety is also a lack of consistency and so the message from the IWC will have to be clear: not all Golds taste the same. You may not like all Golds equally.You will need to be a little open-minded.

Value is a factor as well as some Golds are cheaper than others. In fact Golds may be cheaper than wine with lesser medals.

It also requires some honesty, or at least openness from retailers - just saying "award-winning" will not do, as an expensive wine with a mere commendation (the lowest level below bronze) could lead to serious consumer disappointment as happened to me with a very ordinary but not cheap Sancerre from Laithwaites (here).

So, there is a job to be done to educate the great British public, build a brand for the IWC and the Institute of Masters of Wine whose members judge at this and other competitions, but this is surely a great start.

Naked Wines does not yet stock any IWC Golds, but I asked Cambridge's independents for their top IWC Gold Medal wine and here is what they came back with:

Noel Young -  Cavit Bottega Vinai Teroldego Rotaliano, £9.99

Cambridge Wine Merchants - La Gitana Manzanilla, £7.99 (50 cl)

Bacchanalia - no Golds stocked

Additionally, Cambridge Wine Merchants are both IWC Fortified Wine Merchant of the Year and IWC Regional Merchant of the Year for Eastern England

Further afield, Smiling Grape in St Neots have Cantine Leonardo Vin Santo 2005 50cl - £28.99, whilst Tanners Wines have Novas Carmenère/Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Valley 2009 - £9.20.

Nationally, Majestic have Carmen Carmenere Gran Reserva Colchagua, 2009 - £12.49 before discounts.

Sainsbury's have two Taste The Difference 12 Year Old sweet sherries - an Oloroso and a sticky Pedro Ximénez, both £7.99 for 50cl (the Oloroso is reviewed here)

Tesco has Tesco Finest Sauternes 37.5cl (Half Bottle), £9.25 and Tesco Finest Premier Cru Champagne Brut 75cl, £10.68. Both are available via the Tesco wine website.

The Co-op has its own-brand "Les Pionniers" Vintage Champagne, £22.99.

Links

International Wine Challenge - http://www.internationalwinechallenge.com/

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

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

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

Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Smiling Grape - http://www.smilinggrape.com/

Tanners Wines - http://www.tanners-wines.co.uk/

Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/

Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/

Tesco Wine - http://www.tesco.com/wine/

The Co-operative - http://www.co-operative.coop/food/food-and-drink/

Saturday, 9 July 2011

English Wines at IWC Taste of Gold‏


It would have been highly unpatriotic of me not to try a couple of the English Gold Medal wines at this IWC Taste of Gold event and besides, I am in friendly competition with US wine blogger Rob Tereau who writes Fringe Wine to see who can try the most obscure wines and I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity for some bragging rights lightly.

I started with a Denbies still rosé from little-known early-ripening hybrid grape, Rondo. Named after and grown on a Chalk Ridge it has a flinty, smokey slightly herbaceous nose that is very impressive.

On the palate the acidity is very prominent, but feels rounded, refreshing and mouthfilling rather than harsh. The finish is crisp and mineral and it is very dry.

This would make a great picnic wine for a hot summer's day or even an aperitif, but almost certainly needs to be paired with food of some sort due to the prominent but lovely acidity and minerality.

English wine has something of a hard time as it is somewhat underappreciated, suffers from a generally weak reputation and is not cheap to make in our highly marginal climate.

Ironically, a weak pound actually helps matters in some ways as English wines thereby improve in value compared to those made in Euro-land, but at £11.99, this doesn't feel like the easiest of sells.

It is available from the cellar door at the Denbies Estate.

The second wine I tried was from Chapel Down and perhaps even more unusual - even if the grape is rather more familiar; a 100% Pinot Noir sparkler.

Pinot Noir is not an easy grape to grow anywhere - and its spiritual home of Burgundy is a long way from southern England; it is also grown further north in chilly Champagne to add colour and weight to fizz and, yes, there are some Blanc de Noirs (white fizz made solely from red-wine grapes), so there is some precedent and a logic to making a pinkish sparkler from Pinot Noir in England.

A very pale salmon-pink, it had a fine mousse, good acidity and felt elegant with a dry finish. I am becoming increasingly aware of the effects of aeration on wine and this, just opened, had a taut, fresh-from-the-bottle feel.

Subsequent sips showed more rounded complexity and I can't help wishing I'd got to try a bit of the previous bottle rather than the first of the new.

At £24.99 from Chapel Down's cellar door, it is of course not cheap, but is very much at the lower end of the price range for a pink Champagne-method fizz from a Champenois grape variety.

Recommended wine

Both wines here are very good, of course and neither is in the everyday bracket. However, the recommendation goes to the fizz for the sheer bragging rights of being able to serve an award-winning pink English Pinot Noir fizz.

My entry ticket was provided by Naked Wines.

Links

Denbies - http://www.denbies.co.uk/

Chapel Down - http://www.englishwinesgroup.com/

IWC Taste of Gold - http://goldmedal.internationalwinechallenge.com/

Friday, 8 July 2011

Austrian wines at IWC Gold - and a Croatian sticky‏

At the recent IWC Taste of Gold event in London, I bumped into Tim Atkin MW and asked him what he had been impressed with. He mentioned a couple of stands but the one that caught my attention was the Austrian reds.

They were on my "to see" list anyway as I am a big fan of Austrian wines, but typically just the whites. I reviewed some reds at the LIWF a few weeks ago after talking to Jancis Robinson MW at an earlier Austrian event where I had done only whites and she had done only reds.

Some had been very good and really enjoyable, but a few others, whilst technically well-made, had, to me, shown up some of the limitations of Austria's indigenous grape varieties.

But here was another MW saying that I must check out the reds and so I headed off.

I started with a Blaufränkisch from Velich - based in low-lying, warm Burgenland, Velich makes some superb dessert wines and a Burgundy-style Chardonnay that I bought regularly when I lived and worked in Vienna.

Blaufränkisch tends to produce somewhat Italian-style reds with lots of rasping cherry fruit acidity and, all too often, not too much else. This one, however, was rather more complex and interesting - still light and juicy, it had smokey, toasty aromas, bramble fruit and some oakiness with soft tannins and a creamy texture. It has also won the Blaufränkisch Trophy.

Next came a wine I had tried previously at LIWF, Kamptal-based Kurt Angerer's Zweigelt Granit from 2008 (the last really warm year in this part of Austria).

Zweigelt is a cross of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent (itself a relation to Pinot Noir), so the wines tend to be light, aromatic and cherry-esque. This one had lots of cherry fruit, but also blackberry, some spicy pepperiness and a real depth of flavour.

It was also proving particularly popular with visitors on the evening and has three Trophies - Zweigelt, Niederoesterreich and Austrian Red.

I then moved on to a couple of sweet wines starting with a Croatian wine from producer Ilocki Podrumi. The grape variety was given as Graševina which is the local name for Austria's Welschriesling, something of a workhorse grape but capable of being interesting if well made.

Floral and highly aromatic on the nose, it is reminiscent of a headily perfumed Pinot Gris; the palate is weighty and ripe showing marmalade and touches of intense, pungent botrytis balanced with good acidity.

Next was a Lenz Moser Prestige Beerenauslese from 2008. Lenz Moser is something of a legend in the Austrian wine industry - there is a system of vine-training named after him and his range of wines is immense, even if they are aimed more at the supermarket than the independent merchant.

He is based in Lower Austria but has clearly been spreading his wings as this BA is from Burgenland which is warmer and produces more intensely sticky dessert wines. Ripe, tropical and marmaladey but with good refreshing acidity, it is another lovely dessert wine from this region and, amazingly, retails for under a tenner.

Recommended wine

Overall, my favourite wine here was the critics' and general public's choice - the thrice-awarded Zweigelt Granit from Kurt Angerer. £20.49 from Noel Young Wines.

Links

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

Velich - http://www.velich.at/

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

Ilocki Podrumi - http://www.ilocki-podrumi.hr/

Lenz Moser - http://www.lenzmoser.at/de/

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Lustau Sherries at Taste of Gold‏, London

I have always been a fan of sherries - out of fashion and under-appreciated, they are both an underdog and a bargain; they are also rather nice, too.

So, with too many great wines to try in the time available, I headed to the sherry corner of the IWC Taste of Gold event and began with Lustau.

We started with a Fino La Ina - crisp and well-made, it was full of yeasty, brioche flavour and, unsurprisingly, had garnered the Fino Trophy.

Next came a Manzanilla Papirusa which, with hinsight I should have tried first; Manzanilla normally has a stronger, saltier tang than Fino, but this one was a light and delicate version and sadly did not benefit from being sampled after the full-flavoured Fino previously.

However, it does have the Manzanilla Trophy. Next came a Dry Old Oloroso - made by Lustau but sold as M&S own-label.

It has the somewhat lumpily-titled Great Value Fortified Under £15 Trophy, but at this point I bumped into fellow Cambridge wine blogger Vinoremus and my notes for this one say merely "subtle and restrained".

Next was an Oloroso Emperatriz Eugenia which was very dry, nutty with aromatic notes from the oak.

Finally, a real crowd-pleaser; branded as Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Oloroso 12 Year Old, this was a lovely mixture of nutty figs and mellow sweetness.

Recommended wine

For value and intensity of flavour, I recommend both the La Ina Fino and the Sainbury's Oloroso (£7.99, 50cl).

Links

IWC Taste of Gold - http://goldmedal.internationalwinechallenge.com/

Lustau - http://www.emilio-lustau.com/

Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/sol/index.jsp

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Syrah Viognier Hawkes Bay 2005‏ - revisited

I originally bought this Villa Maria Syrah Viognier blend some time ago from Cambridge Wine Merchants when it was offered at a discounted price and liked it so much I bought a couple of cases.

Drinking a bottle every month or so, I found it improving with further age and decided to hold a couple back to see how it developed.

It's now about a year since my previous bottle and it felt about the right time to open up the very final bottle.

It was pretty much the first wine I reviewed individually (see here), so I thought it would be a fitting statement to review the last bottle individually as well.

At six years old now, and two since purchase, it is beginning to show some aged characteristics and in the glass the original inky purple colour is starting to take on a brick-red hue at the rim.

There are prunes, vanilla and clove spice on nose, and some hints of earthiness and pencil shavings. The palate shows initially sweet, rounded prune fruit and black cherries, some toastiness and I sense a hint of soft, peachy Viognier sweetness.

Tannins are well-integrated - smooth and harmonious, with a gentle grip on finish.

I recently had a Twitter discussion with @Winethe Gap about the relevance of small amounts of Viognier in the blend and reckoned I could learn to spot a Syrah-Viognier blend if I really concentrated.

It may be merely the power of suggestion, but I do also sense a slight touch of peachiness in the texture which I also attribute to the Viognier.

The acidity feels slightly tired initially, but actually seems to liven up with a bit of air and becomes more focused and prominent.

Overall, it feels slightly less precise and less well-defined, but more harmonious and integrated than the early bottles.

I decide to leave some for the next day to see how it develops - the clove spice, black cherry and prune fruit become more prominent and the texture becomes softer, almost slippery.

When first purchased, it had lots of primary, up-front bramble fruit and inky pencil-shaving aromas which have now eased harmoniously into a less direct, more middle aged mellowness.

No longer a pup that wants to chase cats and chew your slippers, it has become an old friend, half-dozing but still ready to wake up and go for a run-around when you call.

Match with slow-roast leg or shoulder of lamb with rosemary and garlic and roasted carrots and celery.

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Syrah Viognier Hawkes Bay 2005‏ - purchased for £72 per case (£6 per bottle) from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

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

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

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Steve's Grenache - and The Grape Escape‏

Many men of a certain age approaching their mid-life crisis often start thinking of ridiculously powerful sports cars and pretty young girls.

But for Steve Hovington - briefly a synth pop star in the 80s with B-Movie and now manager of the Cherry Hinton Road branch of Cambridge Wine Merchants - things were a little different.

Instead of a trip to a Porsche dealership, he went to the south of France to the Languedoc and arranged to have use of four rows of vines for a season from Chateau Viranel and to make one single barrel of his own wine, with the assistance of the estate's winemaker Nicolas Bergasse.

The overall plan was to sell the wine at a later date after writing a book about the experience, but it turned out that it took rather longer to write the book than to make the wine and so now Steve is only just releasing his 2007 "Steve's Grenache" to co-incide with the launch of his book, The Grape Escape.

I stopped by the launch party last week to catch up with Steve, meet Nicolas and try a couple of the wines.

First I tried Nicolas' Chateau Viranel Viognier - with lots of varietal peach and apricot on the nose and palate and good rounded acidity it was very well made and enjoyable. It has the fruit and instant appeal of a warm-climate wine, but is also sensible and food-friendly enough to maintain interest beyond first impressions.

Nicolas explained to me that his family has been involved in farming in this part of the world for over 500 years and that they started making wine more as something to have with family meals rather than as a purely commercial venture.

I rather suspect that it was this "art for art's sake" approach that appealed to the creative musician in Steve, but in any case he made several trips over to the vineyard during his year's tenure to prune and tend the vines himself, arrange picking and work on the blend with Nicolas.

And so we moved onto "Steve's Grenache", a blend of local Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre varieties.

With lots of ripe plummy fruit, good balanced acidity, a soft texture and long finish, it is a very impressive wine - especially for a first attempt.

Like the Viognier, it has plenty of warm up-front appeal, but is also restrained, sensible and noticeably "European" in style.

The one barrel Steve has made equates to around 300 bottles, so supplies of the wine are fairly limited. It is available either from Cambridge Wine Merchants on Cherry Hinton Road or via the B-Movie website, in both cases for £12.

Steve's book, The Grape Escape, is available from Heffers in Cambridge, the B-Movie website and on amazon.

Links

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

Steve Hovington on Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/steve.hovington1

Chateau Viranel - http://www.chateau-viranel.com/

B-Movie (official site) - www.b-movie.co.uk

The Grape Escape on amazon - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Grape-Escape-Steve-Hovington/dp/1848765975

Monday, 4 July 2011

Wine of the Month: July

This article also appears in City Connect - www.city-connect.org.

July - a month that brings end-of-term things like long summer holidays (for students, teachers, MPs and the like), various weekend festivals and festivities and hopefully, more good weather.

Not the most serious of months, then.

So what is needed is three cracking, summery, fun wines with plenty of individuality and just enough seriousness about them to make you realise why you are better off going to an independent than the local supermarket.

For summer fun, we are generally looking at warm-climate, New-World-style wines, with lots of fruit-driven, easy-drinking enjoyment; and that's exactly what we have here.

Planeta La Segreta Blanco 2010 Sicily £8.79 - Bacchanalia

A blend of four white-wine grapes (two French and two Italian), this Sicilian wine starts off crisp, fresh and appley straight out of the bottle.

However, one of the key features of the main variety in here (Garganega, masquerading under its Sicilian pseudonym of Grecanico) is how it opens up and becomes more rounded with a bit of air.

Pop this in the decanter for a few minutes before drinking and it develops into a more weighty, rounded wine with hints of smoke, a waxy, spiced richness, the juciness of ripe pears, a creamy texture and a smooth, slightly minerally finish.

With Chardonnay, Viognier and Fiano also in the blend, there is a harmonious mix of citrussy fruit, ripe tropical acidity and some peachy apricot aromas.

Medium-bodied with good acidity, this would work well with oily fish such as salmon or a creamy cheese.

Domaine Des Trinités Rosé 2009 Faugères £8.99 - Cambridge Wine Merchants

For many years a rosé avoider, I have recently been converted into enjoying this most frivolous-seeming of wines and this is one of the best I've had recently.

A rosé is made from red-wine grapes using the white-wine method of pressing, rather than crushing, the grapes; when done well, this results in a wine with lots of juicy acidity, enough body to match with food and some of the more interesting characteristics of the grapes themselves.

This one is a mix of southern French varieties that can sometimes struggle to make a good wine on their own and are regularly blended together - Grenache, Cinsaut and Mourvèdre.

Salmon-pink in the glass, there is a smokiness, some redcurrant fruit and a hint of grapefruit on the nose. The palate shows some spice, more flintiness and has the ripe juiciness of summer berries with a hint of garrigue herbs and even a touch of beery hoppiness on the finish.

It's very well made, balanced and quaffable - especially when reclining in a deck chair on a hot sunny afternoon. You won't find a huge complexity of aromas and fruit flavours here; rather, this is a food rosé and the main event is the deliciously rounded and juicy, mouthwatering acidity that cuts through picnic food perfectly.

Zesty and aromatic, just drinking it makes me think of the lively flavours of Provençal cuisine; classy and more-ish, to me this is a perfect picnic wine.


Magpie Estate 'The Mixed Thing', 2010 Barossa Valley £12.50 - Noel Young Wines

July is also spring lamb season and if you are planning some roast lamb (preferably with rosemary and garlic and roasted carrots and celery), then this collection of select parcels of left-overs from Noel Young's own Magpie Estate in Australia is just the thing.

Noel makes wines from his own and bought-in grapes from Australia's prestigious Barrossa Valley and the story behind the wine and the name is a reference to buying up small amounts of top grapes which are grown in too-small quantities to be made into individual wines.

Fermented separately and then blended together the result is quite literally a mixed thing of 25% Cinsault, 25% Cabernet Franc, 25% Sangiovese, 12.5% Tannat and 12.5% Dolcetto.

Deep and rich in colour, on the nose there are plums, prunes, bramble fruit and dark berries - the palate shows more dark fruit but adds a streak of liquorice with some tarriness, pencil shavings, forest floor. There is some mid-palate sweet prune fruit, soft ripe tannins and a lingering finish.

Despite its rather mixed origins, it feels very harmonious and with the prune sweetness and pencil shavings, you could almost mistake it for a classic Aussie Shiraz. It has a complex, hedonistic, seductive warm-softness to it but is not too overblown as some Aussie wines can be these days.

If you enjoyed last month's winner (from Bacchanalia, reviewed here), then this is definitely worth a try.

Overall, however, as July is such a joyous, party-going, picnicking month, my recommended wine is the Domaine Des Trinités rosé from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

Links

Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/

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

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

Main image credit: http://www.wellho.net/index.html