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Saturday, 31 March 2012

Feiler-Artinger‏ at Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines

Feiler-Artinger were some of the first Austrian dessert wines I ever tasted and I fell in love with them immediately.

The winery is based in the pretty village of Rust, famous for its storks' nests,  on the Pannonian plain near the Hungarian border. Here, the combination of low-lying hills, the shallow lake Neusiedl and warm southerly air currents mean that conditions for botrytis are almost guaranteed every year.


With 30ha of vineyards farmed organically and bio-dynamically, Feiler-Artinger produces some of Austria's best dessert wines.

The wines were presented by Kurt Feiler at the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London.

Beerenauslese Cuvee Weiss 2009 - a very warm and dry year with, unusually, only a little botrytis at the very end; the grapes were not harvested until November/December and this shows through in the weighty, ripe sweetness of the wine. There are hints of botrytis on the nose whilst the palate is peachy and marmaledey, but cut through with tropical acidity.

Ruster Ausbruch Cuvee Weiss 2008 - a year of more normal botrytis conditions, the grapes, 100% botrytised, were harvested in early November. The result is a lighter, fresher, more balanced wine with greater finesse; there is peachy fruit, some toastiness and overall it feels more complex and balanced.

Recommended Wine

The better weather conditions of 2008 make this an easy one - the Ruster Ausbruch for its lighter freshness and greater complexity.

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

The 2009 Beerenauslese is available from Waitrose Wine Direct, priced £11.82 for 37.5cl, and from Ocado priced £12.29.

Other related articles
Feiler-Artinger at 2011 Annual Austrian Tasting

Links

Feiler-Artinger - http://www.feiler-artinger.at/
Clark Foyster - http://www.clarkfoysterwines.co.uk/
Waitrose Wine Direct - http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Ocado - http://www.ocado.com/

Image credit; Storks in Rust http://kenatimageworksphotog.blogspot.co.uk/2007/06/rust-austria.html

Friday, 30 March 2012

Naked Wines' $1m Zero to Hero Competition‏

One of the things I most admire about Naked Wines is their entrepreneurialism and willingness to keep trying out different business models and ideas.

With 200,000 customers, over half of which are Angels, they have clearly found their market and are getting it right, but are also not resting on their laurels.

Some of the most interesting and thought-provoking people I have met in the course of my wine-writing have been those who have a background in business rather than wine and can therefore bring a degree of fresh thinking and commercial acumen to the difficult process of making money out of wine.

And charismatic South African Chartered Accountant Rowan Gormley, who heads up Naked Wines, is about the savviest businessman I have ever met either in my wine-writing capacity or my day job as a company director.

All of which brings us on to Naked's latest venture - the $1m Zero to Hero Competition.

Put aside the awful title - which evokes a TV quiz show and sounds like they picked $1m because £1m was too much money - and the idea is that wine-makers in the UK (plus France, Spain, Chile, Argentina and Australia) apply to Naked to win an order worth £50k from the company plus the chance to wine a $500k investment contract.

The details on my press release are a little sketchy and it is never really explained where the $1m figure comes from.

However, for any of the "talented unknown wine-makers" that Naked are looking for, these are mere details at this stage - Ts and Cs can presumably be obtained from Naked's Development Director Eamon Fitzgerald who is given as the contact for registering interest.

As ever, Naked also has an eye on the customer and is looking to recruit wine drinkers - be they existing Naked customers or not - onto the judging panel and paying them in Naked Wines credit to do so.

Registration for this side of things is via www.facebook.com/nakedwines.

The competition has all of Naked's hallmarks - a bold, novel, industry-challenging approach, direct investment in winemaking, a customer-centric assessment process and lots of buzz.

It also has a zeitgeisty feelgood factor, as investing in British business is very much A Good Thing right now, whilst the profile of award-winning UK wines is on an upward curve.

I just wish they'd thought of a better name for it.

Monopole Viura 2010, Rioja‏

As I have mentioned before, Rioja is much more known for its red wines than its whites; in fact, the same could perhaps be said of Spain generally, so this Monopole Viura made by CVNE is relatively unusual in a number of ways.

Traditionally, white Rioja was a heavy, oaky wine but mainstream Spanish wines are all about freshness and fruit expression these days and so this 100% Viura is made using modern techniques including cold fermentation in stainless steel.

This process reveals the varietal nature of Viura which, in this case, turns out to be a mix of high acidity, herbaceousness and minerality, somewhat reminiscent in some ways of a cool-climate Sauvignon or Grüner Veltliner.

Pale yellow-green in the glass, there are Cox's apples and pears on the nose with herbaceous aromas and a hint of pungent yeastiness.

On the palate, there is more pear fruit and gooseberry herbaceousness, good mouthfeel with rounded, tropical fruit acidity and a creamy feel.

There is also a prominent minerality and leanness with hints of Grüner-esque celery and puy lentils, whilst the finish is herbaceous and mineral.

I opened this up with some colleagues at our after-work wine club; with time, some more unusual aromas come to the fore that we variously identified as russet apple skin, dry straw, swimming pool and cheese - none of this was in any way unpleasant and I think all they all relate to a certain pungent yeastiness that is present on the nose but not the palate.

It feels well-made and balanced but rather unusual, not at all fruit-driven and pleasantly challenging.

I'm surprised at how popular this lean, green mineral wine proves with Wine Club attendees, but a little questioning elicits the information that most have a palate, even if they, by their own admission, lack wine general knowledge.

Curious and elusive but very enjoyable and worth the price is the general consensus.

Drink either as an aperitif or with light starters such as goat's cheese, seafood and lighter fish.

£8.25 from Bottle Stop, Edgmond Village Store, Grape Sense, Islington Wine, Leamington Wine Company, Nelson Wines, Partridges of Sloane Square; provided for review.

Links

CVNE - http://www.cvne.com

Image credit - from a review by Denise Medrano: http://www.whitewine.co.uk/spain/spanish-white-for-the-spring-monopole-viura-2010/

Review by Vinoremus here: http://vinoremus.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/cuws-l12-cvne.html

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Schuster‏ at Annual Tasting Of Austrian Wines

At the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines, I bumped into Mark Savage of Savage Selection who was showing a range of wines from Schuster based in Wagram in Lower Austria.

According to its blurb, Schuster is a family business that traces its involvement in wine back to 1772, aiming to mix tradition, innovation and an environmentally conscious approach.

Altweingarten Roter Veltliner 2011
First was a highly unusual Roter Veltliner - despite its name, a white wine grape and not to be confused with either Grüner Veltliner or Frühroter Veltliner- which is Schuster's signature variety.

Mouthfilling and peppery, this had a creamy texture and a fresh, lively acidity.

Eisenhut Pinot Noir 2008
Austrian Pinot is also somewhat unusual and this wine was a pale, brick red in the glass with mushroomy, cherry fruit; it felt well-made with a delicate elegance and balance.

This would match perfectly with freshly-picked wild mushrooms gently sauteed in butter.

Links

Schuster - www.weingut-schuster.at
Savage Selection - www.savageselection.co.uk

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Meatloaf with Pasta and Pomodoro Sauce‏ with Thyme

As the days get longer, our little south-facing herb garden in Cambridge springs back to life and we are once again able to make generous use of tarragon, parsley, chives and thyme.

During the winter months, we were limited to the evergreens - bay and rosemary - plus spices such as clove and nutmeg; no bad thing, as we matched these with big whites and spicy warm-hearted reds.

Our diet in the CWB household is essentially French and Italian based - classic sauces and well-matched simple dishes. With just a small number of ingredients, good quality is an absolute must.

One favourite is meatloaf wrapped in bacon served with pasta and pomodoro sauce which makes extensive use of thyme and parsley.

In spring, when the thyme starts growing, the stems are soft enough to chop; later on during the year, they become woody and the only solution is to tie a bundle of stems with thread, bouquet garni-style.

We find this recipe feeds a family of four.

Meatloaf

Pre-heat the oven to 180C.

The meatloaf is made simply by wrapping a 400g block of good-quality sausagemeat in strips of streaky bacon, then roasting for around 45 minutes until thoroughly cooked and the juices run clear.

Pomodoro Sauce

As soon as the meatloaf is in the oven, gently fry one finely chopped onion with a bay leaf in sunflower oil for 10-15 minutes, then turn up the heat and add one tin of good quality chopped tomatoes - for this recipe I used Cirio which come with a thick sauce and therefore don't need to be reduced down.

Stir gently until the sauce takes on a golden hue as it cooks in the oil then add a handful of chopped thyme and simmer briefly before setting aside.

For me, the thyme has a really wonderful, sweet flavour that matches perfectly with the tomatoes and takes me back to a childhood summer holiday in Tuscany when I ate spaghetti pomodoro almost every day.

Pasta and Garnishes

With about 10 minutes to go until the meatloaf is ready, put the spaghetti (50g-75g per person) into a pan of salted boiling water and cook on a rolling boil until al dente.

Whilst it is cooking, finely chop some fresh parsley and grab a block of Parmesan, a grater and the pepper mill.

Serving

Once the meatloaf is ready, re-heat the pomodoro sauce, then slice the meatloaf and serve with the spaghetti and some of the pomodoro sauce spooned on top.

Garnish the sauce with grated Parmesan, chopped parsley and ground black pepper.

The sweetness of the tomato-based sauce matches perfectly with the salty meatloaf, whilst the acidity cuts through the fattiness of this dish.

The parsley and pepper garnish add a touch of freshness and a bit of a kick.

If you really want to show off, place slices of mozzarella on top of the sliced meatloaf and brown under the grill before serving.

Wine

A red wine to match with this should have plenty of juicy acidity, lots of ripe fruit, a bit of spice and not too much tannin.

Many will fit the bill, but a CWB favourite is the Mont Rocher Old Vines Carignan from Cambridge Wine Merchants.

To make this into an easy, mid-week three-course meal, we start with crostini - lightly toasted white bread rubbed with garlic, salted and drizzled generously with olive oil - and finish with cheese and biscuits, usually just two very good quality cheeses (a soft brie or goat's plus a firm cheddar or comte) which we take out of the fridge before cooking starts to give them time to get up to room temperature.

Cirio tomatoes provided for review; widely available.

Links

Cirio - http://www.cirio1856.co.uk/

Image credit - http://whatscookingamerica.net/thyme.htm

Monday, 26 March 2012

Domaine Berthoumieu Haute Tradition Madiran 2007, Vinopic

Madiran, in south west France, is perhaps best-known - if it is known at all - for spicy, rustic wines made from the Tannat grape.

A sort-of southerly Bordeaux hinterland, the region seems to specialise in robust, characterful wines with a more wilful personality than anything from its more illustrious northern neighbour.

This 2007 Berthoumieu Madiran Haute Tradition from Vinopic is made from mainly Tannat (60%) with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Fer-Servadou in the blend, but feels like it is trying to emulate a more Bordelais style.

Dark purple in the glass, it shows some hints of brick red hue from five year's age.

On the nose, there is classic left-bank cassis, cigar box and pencil shavings.

The palate is somewhat restrained and not particularly expressive; there is bramble and black cherry fruit with hints of something darker such as liquorice, coffee or soy.

However, the interest here is all in the texture; it feels mellow, inky and rounded, with good acidity and still some grippy tannins on the finish.

It has more finesse than one might expect of a Madiran, but in the process it seems to have lost a bit of character - rather like a visiting eccentric relative on best behaviour.

Having chatted extensively with Vinopic founder, Santiago Navarro, I feel I am starting to get a sense of what makes a "Vinopic wine" with this my second bottle.

Although Vinopic is an enterprise involving Roger Corderer's scientific assessments of wine - the intrinsic score - plus a tastes assessment by Rosemary George MW, I keep coming back to Santiago's comment that he likes food wines from Europe.

This is very much a European food wine, and although smooth and mellow, is definitely not a quaffer; it needs to be matched with a steak or some plain roast beef to make sense - at 13%, it is also relatively low in alcohol and has plenty of food-friendly acidity and grip.

It feels very well-made, in particular the tannins are perfectly ripe, and this is where I think the intrinsic score comes in.

It actually scores marginally higher on the intrinsic measure than the Aglianico I reviewed earlier (100 vs 99), but gets a lower 16.5 from Rosemary vs the 17.5 she gave the Aglianico, which felt to be the more interesting wine of the two to me as well.

Curiously, it is priced at £1 more than Aglianico for essentially the same intrinsic score and a lower taste assessment score, so clearly there is not quite complete egalitarianism at Vinopic just yet.

It has a Decanter commendation which feels about right, if perhaps a little ungenerous.

Finally, it is worth adding that the Vinopic website has had a much-needed make-over and is significantly more straightforward and easier to use than the previous version; the layout of headings and boxes with technical data, background info, Rosemary's notes and so on will now be quite familiar to anyone who already buys wine from an internet-only retailer.

£11.99; provided for review.

Links

Vinopic - www.vinopic.com
Berthoumieu - http://www.domaine-berthoumieu.com/

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Domäne Wachau at Annual Austrian Tasting‏

When I lived in Vienna, and later when I went back regularly on business, Domäne Wachau were some of my favourite Austrian Wines.

Based in Dürnstein in the UNESCO-protected Wachau, it was also one of my favourite places to visit for a stroll on a sunny day during one of Austria's long summers.

The Wachau is a meandering stretch of the Danube around 50 miles upriver from Vienna with picture-postcard pretty villages nestling at the foot of steeply-terraced hillsides. The different aspects, soils and air currents creating a fascinating set of micro-climates and terroirs that have not yet been mapped in any book I have read.

And whilst the very top Wachau producers may make only single-vineyard wines, their prices also reflect this. By contrast, Domäne Wachau's entry-level wines are blended from a range of vineyards or terraces in the Wachau and priced accordingly.

That said, with an increasing focus on terroir, there is also a number of single-vineyard wines in their portfolio.



Heinz Frischengruber
At last month's Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London, I got to sample some new vintages with oenologist Heinz Frischengruber who started by explaining that 2011 had been a much warmer year than the difficult 2010 vintage, resulting in wines that are easier to understand, honest and more open.

We started with a mid-level Federspiel "Terrassen" GV 2011 - ripe and fruity, this is drinking well now.

The Federspiel "Terrassen" Riesling showed stone fruit and wet stones on the nose. On the palate, there is lemon and lime fruit, a balanced sweet-sour acidity and a minerally finish.

Achtleiten
The grapes for the Smaragd Achtleiten GV 2010 were not picked until November 3rd. Neutral on the nose, the palate shows ripe fruit sweetness and balanced acidity, whilst a mouthfilling weightiness develops on the palate. It feels linear, focused and pure with a minerally finish and has significant ageing potential.

Kellerberg
The Smaragd Kellerberg Riesling 2009 (warmer than 2010), shows a hint of botrytis on the nose; full and creamy on the palate, it has ripe yellow stone fruit, a smokey toastiness and a minerally finish.

The sweet Beerenauslese 2009 white blend is mainly GV and Riesling in the blend - golden in the glass, it is fresh and light with apricotty fruit and a noticeable minerality on the palate that comes as something of a surprise initially.

Recommended Wines

Smaragd, meaning emerald and referring to a green lizard native to the Wachau, is the top level of wines for this sub-region.

So, whilst all the wines here were lovely, it is perhaps no surprise that the best were the two Smaragds, the Achtleiten GV 2010 and the Kellerberg Riesling 2009.

Domäne Wachau's wines are distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.

The Federspiel Terrassen is available at Cambridge Wine Merchants - see my more detailed review here.

Links

Domäne Wachau - www.domaene-wachau.at/ 
Alliance Wine - www.alliancewine.co.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Noel Young Wines at Annual Austrian Tasting‏

At the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London last month, I caught up with Noel Young and tasted my way through the wines he had on show from various producers.

Wieninger

Based in Vienna, Fritz Wieninger cultivates 33ha of vines on either side of the river Danube - for 2011, conditions were warmer after the cool 2010, with an increase in both quality and quantity.

The Vienna Hills GV 2011 was fresh and light with peppery celery and lentils.

The Herrenholz GV 2011 was fuller, with a creamier texture and a minerally finish.

The Wiener Gemischter Satz Klassik 2011, a field blend of up to 13 grape varieties all grown, picked and fermented together, was fresh, lively and balanced, with prominent GV characteristics (the main grape in the blend).

The Wiener Gemischter Satz Nussberg Alte Reben 2011 was very different from the previous year's style - now fermented only in stainless steel, it had an aromatic nose, lemon and lime fruit, good depth of flavour and a fresh acidity.

The Vienna Hills Riesling 2011, an unfiltered barrel sample, had a toasty, intense nose, an expressive palate with lemon and lome fruit, a creamy texture combined with a toastiness and a long mineral finish.

The Wiener Trilogie (70% Zweigelt, 15% Cab, 15% Merlot) had a perfumed nose of vanilla, sour cherry fruit and liquorice; the palate shows good bramble fruit and spice with a soft, mouthfilling texture, juicy acidity and some grip on the finish.

Kurt Angerer

Based in Lower Austria's Kamptal, just outside the Wachau, Kurt Angerer names many of his wines after the soil type they are grown on. Whether any of the differing minerals in the soil actually end up in the finished wine is still the subject of debate, but there are certainly perceptible differences due to the effects of terroir.

Kies GV 2011; grown on mixed soils and not picked until December, this is ripe and rounded.

Spies ("shpeez") GV 2010; grown on granite, there is lots of classic varietal white pepper, spice, celery and lentils with ripe peach fruit, balanced acidity and good minerality.

Loam GV 2010; flintsmoke, a fleshy feel with some spice, balanced savoury and full, a toasty flintiness develops on the palate.

Eichenstaude GV 2010; complex with ripe peach and nectarine fruit, spice, a mineral buzz and some toastiness, a soft texture.

Zweigelt "Barrique" 2009; sweet cherry and elderberry fruit, pepperiness, rounded moutfeel, intense with tannic grip.

St Laurent 2009 - bright and translucent in the glass, the nose is of berry fruit, coffee and spice. The palate shows ripe cherries, sweet bramble fruit and liquorice, grippy finish. Overall, feels rounded balanced and approachable.

Kracher

Based in Illmitz in Burgenland near the Hungarian border on the Pannonian plain, Kracher is perhaps Austria's greatest dessert wine maker.

With low hills, warming southerly winds and the shallow Lake Neusidl providing morning fogs, conditions in this region are perfect for reliable botrytis growth almost every year.

The additional warmth also provides suitable conditions for dry reds.

Klassik Illmitz Zweigelt - a perfumey elderberry and cherry nose with liquorice and earthiness; the palate shows sweet-sour cherry fruit, spicy mintiness and a grippy finish. Fleshy and approachable.

Auslese Cuvee 2009 (white blend), light and fresh, with simple fruit sweetness that is initially intense then fades. The savouriness lingers, however.

Beerenauslese Cuvee 2009 (white blend), a real step up, ripe, marmaladey and peachy with balanced fresh acidity and savouriness.

Eiswein Cuvee 2009 (white blend), botrytis on the nose, the palate is sweet-sour, intense and complex with aromas of peaches roasted in butter, more pungent botrytis notes and fresh acidity. Mouthfeel is weighty with glycerol and there is a savouriness on the finish - great depth of flavour and length.

TBA "No 2" Scheurebe 2009, intense aromas of mango and roasted peach skin, weighty glycerol on the palate, long on the palate and finish.

TBA "No 3" Welschriesling 2009, fresher and more fragrant with elderflower aromas, mouthfilling and long on the palate and finish.

Recommended Wines

All the wines here were good-to-superb, but here are my specific recommendations:

Wieninger's Vienna Hills Riesling for its complexity and depth of flavour.

Angerer's Eichenstaude GV for its complexity and depth of flavour.

Kracher's Klassik Illmitz is a great entry-level introduction to Austrian reds, but the main event is the dessert wines, so the Eiswein Cuvee for its complexity and depth of flavour.

Links

Noel Young Wines - www.nywines.co.uk
Weininger - www.wieninger.at
Angerer - www.kurt-angerer.at
Kracher - www.kracher.at

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Schiefer at the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines‏

At the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines last year, I bumped into Jancis Robinson who was focusing solely on reds, leaving the whites to Team JR writer, Richard Hemming.

I have been historically somewhat underwhelmed by Austria's reds, finding them technically well-made but somehow unengaging and a bit, well, straightforward - all cherry fruit and tannic grip, but not much else.

However, as the Schiefer wines had impressed Jancis last year, I was keen to see what I'd missed out on.

According to the blurb, Uwe Schiefer has 10.5 ha of vines in Burgenland on a steep hill with schistous soils called Eisenberg planted with mainly Blaufränkisch. He abstains from modern technology and avoids filtration and fining.

The Eisenberg Blaufränkisch 2009 is pale in the glass with aromas of sour cherry, liquorice and earthiness. On the palate it is complex and intense with cherry fruit, spice, pepperiness and liquorice. It has a prominent, Italian-style acidity and bright fruit with good mouthfeel and a long finish.

The Reihburg Blaufränkisch 2005 comes from a small area of about 1.8 ha of old vines. Darker in the glass, there is plenty of bright, varietal sour cherry fruit and peppery spice. It feels fuller and riper than the Eisenberg, with good grip and minerality on the finish.

The 2004 Reihburg has an intense, concentrated nose with more truffley aromas. On the palate, there is bright cherry fruit, good grip and savoury depth of flavour; a cool mintiness develops and the finish is grippier.

Recommended Wine

All three wines here were very impressive, and the Reiburgs were definitely a step up in terms of quality and complexity. If you have the budget to try out a £40-ish Austrian red, then you should definitely give this a go.

However, back in the real world, whilst even the supposedly entry-level Eisenberg is not exactly cheap at around £15, it is a more affordable place to start.

The wines are imported by Richards Walford who have recently been acquired by BBR.

Links

Schiefer - www.weinbau-schiefer.at
Richards Walford - http://www.r-w.co.uk/

Jancis Robinson's review of Austrian reds in 2011 - http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a201103101.html

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Hedonist Wines‏ at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

I first came across Hedonist Wines when owner Anthony Jenkins got in touch after reading an article of mine in the local press in Cambridge.

We exchanged emails and I agreed to review a couple of his wines and was reasonably impressed, so I later arranged for him to give a presentation to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

The tasting took place this weekend and in the interim, Anthony has gone from being something of a hobbyist with a "real day-job" to having wine-retailing as his main activity, so clearly something has worked well.

Whilst Hedonist remains a small operation, perhaps what is most interesting about it commercially is that the business model involves buying directly from producers, by-passing the traditional importer-distributor networks; of itself, that is not especially innovative, but it does seem to be part of a growing trend of new, small-ish wine concerns working directly with producers from Europe.

Clearly, the rise of budget airlines, improved, lower-cost communications technology and a more developed logistics industry have a role to play in this, but Hedonist's price range, mostly priced at a little over £10, says something about wine-drinking habits in the UK.

The wines themselves are sourced from individual producers, mainly in the better-value parts of classic European regions, and the limited list is essentially a reflection of Anthony's palate and preferences; he describes his typical wine as the sort of wine you enjoyed on holiday from a small, local producer.

All the wines are exclusive to Hedonist and we started with a Crémant de Bourgogne from Domaine Joussier; made from 100% Chardonnay from the Côte Chalonnaise - geographically in the middle of Burgundy - it had a crisp nose with yeasty brioche aromas.

The palate shows ripe apple and pear fruit with a fine mousse - it feels elegant and well-made if light and not overly complex. It would make a good aperitif or celebration wine and at £11 is reasonable value for a classic French wine with bubbles in.

Next was a 2009 Côte Chalonnaise "En Reviller" from the same producer which had spent three months in oak - with ripe orchard fruits on the nose, it felt rounded and creamy on the palate with fresh apple and pear fruit and a minerally finish with just a touch of oaky buzz.

This was followed by something more unusual - a white Rioja Caecus Verderón 2010 made from 100% Viura with 3 months in oak. Pale straw coloured in the glass, it had a similar profile to the previous wine with ripe pear fruit and a toasty creaminess on the palate, but felt bigger and fuller.

The first red was a Burgundy, a 2008 Mercurey from Joussier - I was a little bit blind-sided by this wine; it is quite dark in the glass for a Pinot and shows aromas of ripe berry fruit, but with none of the typical Burgundian mushroomy, truffley undergrowth I had hoped for.

With good, primary fruit and a depth of flavour it was perhaps more typical of a good Beaujolais than a Pinot - very balanced and enjoyable as a wine, but just not at all what I had expected.

The 2008 Rioja Crianza from Caecus was surprisingly oaky but had a soft, smooth texture with cherry fruit, spice and liquorice on the nose and a grippy finish.

The 2006 Reserva, also from Caecus, had a degree more alcohol and more intense aromas on the nose as a result, as well as more complexity - dark purple in the glass, it shows berry fruit, liquorice and spice and feels riper and more perfumed. On the finish, it feels to have a better balance of fruit and grip.

The two final reds were both from Panizzi, based in Tuscany - the first, a 100% Sangiovese Chianti Riserva 2008, was purple in the glass with a hint of aged brick red; the nose is ripe with dark berry fruit, whilst the palate shows plummy fruit with a distinct smokiness.

An easy-drinker, it feels soft, rounded and mellow.

The Folgore 2003 "Super Tuscan" was a noticeable step-up; with small amounts of Cab and Merlot in the blend, it is labelled as a humble rosso, but was the most complex wine of the night, albeit the priciest at £16.

Intended to be aged for up to 20 years, the 2003 has only just been released. Inkily dark in the glass with an aged brick red rim, the nose shows forest fruit aromas. On the palate it feels mellow, muscular and complex, with good juicy acidity and grip.

Recommended Wines

For me, all the wines were well-made and, as a minimum, pleasant and drinkable even if few were really impressive.

There was no clear consensus either on our table or at the event generally on which ones were most popular - which is perhaps a good sign - but there were plenty of orders made at the end of the event.

And whilst I would happily drink any or all of these wines again, for me, the best was the Panizzi Folgore 2003.

Links

Cambridge Food and Wine Society - http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/
Hedonist Wines - http://www.hedonistwines.com/

Friday, 16 March 2012

Ott - Qvevre Natural Wine‏

At the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines, I bumped into Robert McIntosh and asked him what wines he had found interesting.

He suggested I wander over to Ott to try the Qvevre Grüner Veltliner natural wine.

I know Ott's more conventional wines, but I had never tried his natural wine before; there is no standard definition of natural wine, but organic and bio-dynamic is just the start.

Typically, natural wines use only the wild yeasts found on the grape skins, minimal interference by the wine-maker and little or no added sulphur for preservation - which can lead to them quickly becoming yellow and oxidised.

Fermented in Georgian amphoras of between 500l and 2,000l (known as Qvevri, hence the wine's name), the grapes for the Qvevre are de-stemmed, but otherwise just left to ferment spontaneously.

The porous clay amphoras are simply washed and sterilised with ash and then sealed with beeswax.

It's all very intriguing, basic and somehow almost Pagan or Druidic in its sense of reverence for the Natural World.

As to the wine itself, it has no overt fruit aromas on the nose but is all about the texture and mouthfeel, which are quite incredible and unlike any conventional wine I have come across; it feels mouthfilling with a creamy texture and a spicy pepperiness.

This wine was the 2010 and my enthusiasm for it brought forward an offer to try the 2009 as well.

This had the same mouthfilling pepperiness and creamy texture, but felt more open, perhaps reflecting the extra year in bottle.

The wines are imported by Savage Selection.

Links

Ott - www.ott.at
Savage Selection - www.savageselection.co.uk

Image credits: http://www.falstaff.at/fileadmin/user_upload/media/bilder/2010/reise/afrika/trauminseln_indischer_ozean/bg/ott-steve-haider_460.jpg

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Austrian Dessert Wines at the Annual Austrian Tasting, London

Last month's Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London included a separate section specifically on dessert wines.

As these are some of my favourites, I spent quite a while there after doing the rounds of the main room. Below are my notes by region.

In general, stickies from Burgenland on the Pannonian plain, warmed by southerly air currents, tend to be fuller and riper.

By contrast, Lower Austria's dessert wines, especially those from the Wachau, tend to have more freshness due to the effect of cooler air either from the north or rolling off the hills at the top of the valley. As a result, dessert wines are not made in all years here.

I did not even know that Styria produces stickies until I came across one here.

Burgenland

Heinrich Gernot und Heike BA 2010 (red blend) - the colour of aged tawny port, cherry fruit and spice, liquorice, fruit cake, very unusual, but very good indeed.

JbN "Rosalito" Blaufränkisch 2009 - dark red in the glass, cherry fruit, liquorice and spice on the nose - only a hint of botrytis lets you know it's not dry. More varietal character on the palate which is long, it feels a bit like a low-alcohol young port. Strange but beautiful.

Lenz Moser BA LM Prestige 2008 (white blend) - ripe and marmaledey, with a toasty pungency. Good if not especially exciting.

Sonnenmulder TBA 2005 Welschriesling - golden colour, musky nose, marmaladey glycerol on the palate with pungent botrytis and quinine.

Lower Austria

Brundlmayer TBA Gelber Muskateller 2009 - lychees and botrytis on the nose, lots of varietal character, good balancing acidity.

Felsner Eiswein "Hesperia" 2008 Zweigelt - auburn colour, aromas of pink grapefruit and red berries, spice on the finish.

Stift Klosterneuburg Eiswein GV 2008 - white stone fruit, feels very unusual - hints of grapefruit bitterness, Gruener-esque lentils and celery, mineral on the finish.

Wess BA Riesling 2008 - light and fresh, with marzipan aromas, minerally.

Styria

Sattlerhof TBA 2010 Sauvignon Blanc - golden colour, botrytis nose, intensely sweet with zippy acidity, pungent, with quinine and marzipan plus a mineral underpinning.

Recommended Wines

There were some really unusual wines here that will, I hope, impress Fringe Wine.

However, in purely quality terms, the most interesting were the "Rosalito" 2009 and the red-blend BA 2010 from Heinrich Gernot und Heike.

Links and Availability

JbN is currently seeking distribution in the UK.

Heinrich G&H is distributed by Liberty wines.

JbN - www.weingut-jbn.com
Heinrich G&H - www.heinrich.at
Liberty Wines - www.libertywine.co.uk

Monday, 12 March 2012

Errazuriz "Aconcagua Costa Single Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc, 2010, Chile


Another day, another Chilean Sauvignon (see here for the Caliterra Tributo Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011) - this Errazuriz "Aconcagua Costa Single Vineyard" Sauvignon Blanc is another textbook example of what Chile can do with this grape.

Pale with a translucent greeny-gold hue in the glass, the nose is highly aromatic and herbaceous with lots of lush varietal character of cut grass and zingy nettles, all underpinned by a (pleasant) hint of pungent cattiness.

The palate is also aromatic, with rounded, crisp acidity, zesty grapefruit and lime and a weighty, flinty minerality.

The finish is mineral and persistent with herbaceous aromas.

Overall this is a very well-made and well-balanced wine - very classy and very distinctive. We matched this successfully with a chicken stew with rosemary and bay.

The Errazuriz website tells me that the grapes for this wine were grown at an altitude of 100m-300m just 12km inland from the Pacific Ocean with morning fogs and cooling breezes as a result. Fermentation was in stainless steel with three months' ageing on the lees - all this shows through in the finished wine as a crisp acidity matched with an aromatic lushness and a weightiness on the palate.

Available for £11.50 in Cambridge from Bacchanalia, nationally from Harrods, Waitrose and Wine Rack as well as from an extensive list of places I've never heard of: Askew Wines, Cheers Wine Merchants, Dickens House, Wine Emporium, The Vintage House, Dunedin Wines, Fowey Fish, Islington Wine, Le Canon Wines, Leamington Wine Co., Rhythm & Booze, Taurus Wines and The London Wine Company.

Provided for review.

Links

Errazuriz - http://www.errazuriz.com

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Austria's Cool Wines By The Glass‏

Last month, I went to the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines at the IOD in London.

At a press breakfast beforehand, we were served a typical Austria breakfast of meats, cheese coffee and pastries that took me back to my own days in Vienna whilst Willi Klinger, head of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, gave us a presentation.

The ownership and funding of the AWMB is somehow typically Austrian, being a Byzantine mix of state and mid-sized private industry - this Germanic blend of public and private aligning interests is somewhat reminiscent of Germany's Mittelstand and Lower Saxony's Golden Share in Volkswagen AG and suggests that compared to Britain, in Austria the state is rather more commercial whilst business is rather less so.

As Willi pointed out, being 4/5ths mountains, Austria has limited land available for viticulture and, as a result, the average size of a grower's vineyards is just 2.3 ha.

The number of producers is now around 20,000 down from around 48,000 in the mid-80s, but whilst some consolidation is taking place, Austria will never be a volume player like Australia and indeed, at 6,500 has double the number of that country's bottlers.

I have long observed that Austrian wines are expensive at the bottom - due precisely to this lack of volume and efficiencies of scale - but relative bargains at the top due to lack of reputation and international recognition; the great top whites of the Wachau do not yet command anything like the price premiums of white Burgundy.

Obviously, the AWMB would like to do something about that and I have seen for myself prices for the top wines creeping upwards over the last 5-10 years, even in euro terms.

Production of wines in Austria is around the 250m litres per year that Austrians consume, but the country does not drink only its own produce, so there is something of a one in, one out approach to imports with 50m-70m litres of wine changing hands with other countries.

The trend over time has been to reduce export volumes, especially of bulk wines, and focus more on achieving better prices for the higher-end wines.

There is a typically Austrian logic to this - if my imports equal my exports, then I have to sell and awful lot of bulk juice to buy one bottle of good Bordeaux or Burgundy.

But, by improving (read: increasing) prices for my top wines, a single bottle of Wachau GV or Riesling will get me a good Bordeaux and maybe even a bit of spare change back, too.

After all this talk about focus on raising prices, Herr Klinger then played his masterstroke - he explained that he thought the price of Austrian wine in the UK was too high and he would like to see the UK buying more entry-level wines.

To illustrate his point, he cited Germany where the average ex-cellar price is €2, compared to €7.5 in the UK.

His target is to get Britain drinking 1m litres of Austrian wine annually and I suspect this focus on reducing the entry-level cost of an Austrian wine (you rarely find anything under a tenner here) is rather like an auctioneer starting low to whip up some excitement with the eventual aim of finishing high.

Austrian wines are still something of a niche interest in this country, partly because of the high entry-level price and so this becomes a self-reinforcing loop.

The AWMB's solution to this is "Cool Wines By The Glass": encouraging the on-trade to sell more entry-level wines by the glass to create a broad base of interest.

So far, so strategically sound.

My own love of Austrian wines came from travelling to Vienna on business and drinking Austrian wines by the glass at any number of excellent Viennese restaurants - Steierereck, Meinl am Graben, Plachutta and Indochine 21, to name but a few.

On a good evening, I would typically start with a crisp, piercingly steely Styrian wine for aperitif and starter, then if white, a Riesling or GV from the Wachau, if red a Blaufränkisch from Burgenland with my main and finally a Burgenland sticky with dessert.

In practice, then, Austrian wines are great food matches and versatile enough to match with many foods.

Moreover, people are generally a lot more adventurous and less price sensitive when buying a glass of wine for themselves compared to a bottle to share.

However,"Cool Wines By The Glass" is not the snappiest of slogans and the multiple play-on-words (edgy, cool climate wines, served chilled) feels overly studied, clunky and unconvincing - a bit like your uncle trying to disco dance.

It's also something of a high-risk approach as serving wines by the glass requires either quick product turnover, oenomatic dispensers, rigorous stock rotation or all three to ensure the wines are served in peak condition.

When I asked Herr Klinger about this, he made a good joke about this involving world domination, but did not really give a proper answer to how quality control can be maintained.

I can't help wondering if cool wines by the glass will end up being a bit like sherry bars - on any given evening, there's no shortage of people at Dehesa or Pepito's but I am not seeing any signs yet of the ripple effect amongst friends and colleagues.

But perhaps that just proves the old adage that it takes years to gain a reputation and moments to lose it - a point which Austria knows well.

As a small, clannish, wealthy country with a new generation of young wine-makers, Austria was able to turn its own wine industry round after the mid-80s very successfully, but having made such dramatic changes in the early days, Austrian wine law still continues to change to this day.

At times it can feel a bit like perpetual tinkering and all I took away from the update on Austria's new regional delineations of areas and grape varieties that has the feel of France's AOC system - with designated permitted grapes for designated areas - is that it is still a work in progress.

And whilst a lot of the basics of Brand Austria are in place for wine marketing, one glaring example to me is the limited use of social media generally and twitter in particular.

This was the subject my second question to Willi Klinger and he responded by pointing out that the AWMB has pushed all major producers to keep their websites current, that there is an Austrian Wine Facebook page and Twitter accounts for both Austrian Wine in Austria and a US-based account.

However, for social media, there are nul points just for turning up - it's about content and engagement rather than mere platform presence.

Yes, there's something of a language barrier, but English is widely spoken by all the producers I have met, and yes, resourcing is an issue - there's always work to do at a winery and tweeting should never take precedence over the real work of making wine.

But how powerful is it for producers to be able to engage with their consumers directly and vice-versa ?

More than just the liquid in the glass, wine has a Romance to it that being able to interact directly with the wine-maker captures perfectly - and Austria, with its mountains, castles, the meandering UNESCO-protected Wachau valley, the shallow lake and low hills of Neusiedlersee and the fossil ridges of Styria is a beautiful and amazingly Romantic setting.

As journalists and observers of human nature, wine writers understand this implicitly and I can't help feeling that if the wine producers of Austria started to engage with their consumers and fans via the Twittersphere - and get it right - the resultant buzz could be little short of incredible.

Links

Austrian Wine - http://www.austrianwine.com/

Cool Wines by the Glass - http://www.austrianwine.com/news-media/news-from-us/news/news/oesterreich-glasweise-cool-wines-by-the-glass-1478/

Friday, 9 March 2012

Two Wines from Chile's Caliterra‏



To celebrate the purchase of a company decanter, I decided to open up two wines from Chile's Caliterra and sample them with colleagues as part of our now-regular Thursday Wine Club.

According to its website, Caliterra was established in 1996 as a partnership between the Robert G. Mondavi family and Viña Errázuriz, whilst in early 2004 Viña Errázuriz acquired the Robert Mondavi family’s 50% share.

To me, Chile is perhaps the most exciting new kid on the oenological block with a wide range of terroirs and microclimates plus the benefits of altitude giving long growing seasons and ripe yet complex wines.

Add to this vines grown on original rootstocks (no Phylloxera here) and it's easy to see why it has been said of Chile that it has things just too easy.

Caliterra Tributo Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Leyda, Chile, £10.99

Sauvignon is perhaps Chile's signature white grape, different from steely Loire, lush tropical kiwi versions and fuller white Bordeaux.

Straw yellow in the glass, even straight out of the bottle the nose shows lots of herbaceous, aromatic cut grass, zingy gooseberry and nettley aromas underpinned by minerally wet stones.

The palate is full, weighty, rounded and minerally with good, grapefruit acidity and a fleeting touch of flintsmoke, whilst the finish is long, persistent and minerally with more pungent, green aromatics.

With lots of classic, almost textbook Sauvignon varietal character, this is a very well-made wine - aromatic, weighty, balanced and complex yet drinkable.

And whilst unmistakeably a Sauvignon, it is very different from the traditional styles of the Loire, Bordeaux or Marlborough. The nearest equivalent I can think of for this is Styria in southern Austria which shares Chile's modern techniques, stainless steel fermentation and altitude to give aromatic yet weighty wines.

£11 may seem like a lot for a Chilean white, but as a colleague commented - at this price, I'd be unlikely to choose this one off the shelf, but having tasted it, it actually is worth it.

Match with goat's cheese, meaty white fish such as sea bass or monkfish in a herb broth or either pasta or mozzarella with pesto.

Stockists: Leamington Wine Company, Ann et Vin, Bacchus et Al, Eagle Wines, Gwin Llyn Wines, Partridges of Sloane Street, Peake Wine Associates.

Caliterra Tributo "Edicion Limitada" Carménère / Malbec 2009, Colchagua, Chile - £14.99

Carménère, originating in Bordeaux and long thought to be Merlot, has become Chile's signature red wine grape and is, to me, Merlot's darker, artier brother.

By contrast, Malbec, also originally from Bordeaux but via Cahors, is the problem child who finally made good as a blue-collar Argentinian gaucho with a spicy, rustic charm.

Put them together and, with lots of southern hemisphere sunshine, you have Johnny Depp and Bruce Springsteen singing a Mötley Crüe cover.

Even on pouring this into the new Company Decanter before our weekly catch-up, there are lots of ripe fruit aromas - after about half an hour of updates and an assessment of the Sauvignon, we moved onto this wine.

Dark purple in the glass, it has a complex nose of ripe dark berry and bramble fruit, liquorice, leather, vanilla and dark spices.

On the palate, it shows intense, ripe fruit of black cherries and elderberries with good grip and a soft, velvety texture.

With juicy acidity, it feels ripe and warming, with a long, persistent and perfumey finish.

With more aeration and attention, I can pick out the different elements - there are hints of coffee and soy from the Carménère, whilst the Malbec provides leathery spice and liquorice.

On the nose, hints of sour cherry and undergrowth also develop, whilst the palate shows touches of mintiness.

The tannins are ripe and rounded and only the sticklers among us would note that they have an ever so slightly drying element on the finish.

Food matches are somewhat tricky for this wine - the fruit and spice of the Malbec demands a steak or something barbecued, whilst the more subtle aromas of the Carménère would match well with duck rillettes.

With 14.5% alcohol, this is definitely one for fans of international-style Big Reds with lots of ripe fruit and spice; a colleague whose palate I am learning is very European and classical found this just too big and heavy for her tastes. Another did not like the liquorice aromas in the wine, saying liquorice just isn't his thing.

However, in general, most people responded very positively to this with "Ooh, that's nice" at the first sniff.

Stockists: Cheers Wine Merchants, Taylors Fine Wine, Hailsham Cellars, slurp.co.uk.

I originally set up Wine Club as an opportunity for colleagues to get a little wine education, but it seems over time to have turned more into a social event - even if we do observe a few basic rules, such as using proper tasting glasses, extensive sniffing and at least some consideration of the wine's qualities before moving on to discuss weddings and holidays (true for the ladies, at least).

And that's probably right - wine is a social beverage, a maker of occasions and whilst geeky bloggers may enjoy the analytical process of subjecting a wine to scrutiny, a wine-club with a humourless, po-faced, overly serious approach to tasting has only a limited future.

Both wines provided for review.

Links

Caliterra - http://caliterra.com/

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Laithwaites - Wines from Eastern Europe‏

After tasting a new range of Laithwaites wines from India, Greece, Turkey and Georgia selected by buyer Cat Lomax, we were also invited to try a few of their current Eastern European wines.

Campanula Pinot Grigio 2011, Hungary, £6.99
Aromatic on the nose, this shows pear and green apple fruit. There is some mid-palate sweetness and a creamy texture.

A good, solid quaffer.

Albastrele Pinot Grigio Cahul, 2010, Moldova, £7.79

Moldova is something of a forgotten corner of Europe - historically and linguistically linked with  Romania, it was annexed into a separate republic by the Soviet Union in 1945.

Although a poor, rural backwater, it is talked of as having viticultural potential and this Pinot Grigio was one of the best whites on show - pale golden yellow, it feels weighty, honeyed and full on the palate but also crisp and bone dry.

There is also ripe pear and melon fruit with white blossom aromas.

Scurta Vineyard Viognier Tamaiosa 2010, Romania, £7.49

Although Bucharest is a dirty, smelly, chaotic city, Romania's wines generally feel surprisingly clean and pure.

This wine shows peach and apricot fruit and has a pleasant rounded, peachy feel on the palate.

Solidly OK, but nothing special; the price seems quite ambitious for this.

Albastrele Sauvignon Blanc Cahul 2010, Moldova, £7.79

With good citrus fruit and ripe, tropical passion fruit, this shows typical Sauvignon gooseberry aromas; weighty and full on the palate.

It has an unspecified gold medal from somewhere.

Colina Piatra Alba Pinot Noir 2009, Romania, £7.29

With aromas of sweaty, damp animal and sawdust, this is hardly a "typically Burgundian" Pinot - though to be fair, it is hardly priced as one either.

There is some fresh red berry fruit, but I would rather look to Chile for entry-level Pinot than more of this.

Coline d'Enira Merlot 2008, Bulgaria, £9.79

Bulgaria in the late '70s and early '80s was a source of cheap, rustic but effusive reds before the New World took over that particular role and these days, I'm not really sure what Bulgaria stands for.

The role as a regional Finance Director that took me regularly to Austria, Hungary and Romania, amongst other places, only ever afforded me a single visit to our Bulgarian office (pretty much to close it down), so I have never really got to know Bulgaria's wines.

This 14.5% beast shows ripe sour-cherry and vegetal aromas on the nose; on the palate, there is more ripe plum and prune fruit, vanilla and sour-cherry acidity with ripe tannins and a grippy, perfumey finish - it feels rich, concentrated and surprisingly youthful even with four years' age.

Attention-grabbing more than classy and ambitiously priced.

Recommended wine

This was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair - much as you might expect of a range of Eastern European wines from Laithwaites.

The surprise for me was how well the Moldovan wines showed and how middling the others were.

Hungary and Romania can produce some really good wines but they don't appear to be on the Laithwaites stock list.

By contrast both Moldovan wines from Albastrele - the Pinot Grigio and the Sauvignon Blanc - felt very well-made with real depth on the palate and at just under £8, they are also priced sensibly for the quality on offer, even if an £8 Moldovan wine is something of a challenging sell.

Links

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

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Dow's Vintage Port 1975‏

Earlier this year, I celebrated a birthday and as well as the good wishes I received via Facebook and Twitter from the blogosphere generally, back in the real world fellow Cambridge wine blogger Davy Kurniawian gave me a bottle of vintage Dow's Port from 1975.

It is nearly as old as I am and if Davy was hazarding a guess at my own vintage year, I'm flattered that he fell short by almost half a decade.

It is, I believe the oldest vintage wine I have ever had - if we exclude spirits and solera-method sherries.

Vintage is the very top rung of port styles which start with basic ruby and then move up via LBV and aged tawny; it is a wine for a different age and, needing a good 25 years' cellaring to develop and mature, was labelled as somewhat old school by Hugh Johnson as far back as 1969 in my first-edition World Wine Atlas.

Port vintages are declared only 3 or 4 times a decade when the harvest is deemed good enough or, one may consider, the vintners need to replenish their coffers.

Just opening up the bottle was no mean feat - I started by standing it on end for a couple of weeks to let the sediment sink to the bottom.

The foil cap around the neck of the bottle had started to decay and stick to the glass, so this needed to be scraped off and wiped clean.

Then, pulling out the cork, only half came as the remainder, damp and crumbly, disintegrated.

I eventually removed the last of the cork with a knife and the back of a teaspoon and was finally ready to start the decanting process.

Vintage port is bottled young and unfiltered and a hefty sediment is the result - the surprise on pouring is that instead of the usual grainy, flaky sediment I occasionally get with table wines, this was like rubbery jelly.

Once poured into the glass, the port is the colour of a pale rose wine, or perhaps more accurately that of cranberry or pomegrante juice.

On the nose, there are the familiar aromas of eucalyptus and pepperiness, as well as bramble fruit and cherry.

With 36 year's bottle age, it has nothing of the primary intensity of a young ruby or LBV - but what amazes me is how the fruit aromas and acidity have remained so vibrant and fresh after more than a third of a century. Less surprising is the mellowness and depth of flavour in the wine.

We decide that this is not a wine to be rushed and, pouring it back into the bottle after a quick rinse, drink the remainder over several weeks - to my amazement, with air it opens up and improves - the aromas become more prominent, especially the peppery eucalyptus which is now distinctly medicinal.

As the weeks pass by, it continues to open up further and just seems to get better with time.

Links

Dow's - http://www.dows-port.com/
Vinoremus - http://vinoremus.blogspot.com/

Monday, 5 March 2012

Wine Of The Month - March

For me, early March, when the days become perceptibly longer and the weather perceptibly milder, is a time of hope and optimism, a prelude to the opportunities of a new year after the cold seclusion of winter.

Longer days and warmer temperatures mean a scarf and gloves are not always required when stepping outside, which in itself becomes more appealing and leads to a greater chance of bumping into a friend or acquaintance somewhere.

It is a time to start making plans for the rest of the year - summer holidays, Easter breaks and, for those of us with small children, half-term get-aways.

Despite all the plans and optimism, though, it can still be a chilly old time and so this month's wines are all warming, spicy reds.

Domaine de Fondreche, Cotes du Ventoux Rouge, 'Mas de Fondreche' 2009 - £8.99 Joseph Barnes Wines

This 2009 Ventoux from Joseph Barnes Wines is from village of Mazan in the Ventoux region of the eastern Côtes du Rhône and made from an unoaked blend of Grenache and Syrah. Whilst very palatable on first opening, really benefits from a decent amount of aeration - I tried it over three days and it was still improving even as we were finishing it off.

On the nose, there are aromas of plum, black cherry  and elderberry, with hints of spice, liquorice and undergrowth developing over time.

On the palate, there is more dark fruit, cool mintiness and, increasingly with air, a wonderfully soft and texture and a rounded acidity.

With a grippiness on the palate, it feels very well-made and pure, if not especially complex, with a persistent finish.

Match with dark plain-roast meat, such as lamb or beef.

Orcia DOC Malintoppo 2006 Simonelli-Santi - £13.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

This Cambridge Wine Merchants Sangiovese from the Orcia DOC in Tuscany is an altogether classier proposition, if priced accordingly.

At six years of age, it is brick red in the glass with cherry fruit and complex spice, cigar box, liquorice and undergrowth on the nose.

The palate shows a lively if slightly stewed cherry fruit acidity (that's 14.5% alcohol for you), a soft but firm texture and an incredible depth of complex flavour.

It has the mellow harmoniousness of its age and a long finish with peppery grip.

This really is a class act and although the price is well into "special occasion" territory, it is worth every penny given the quality and age.

Whilst drinking well now, it still improves with air after decanting and I'd be seriously tempted to buy a case of this to see how it continues to evolve.

Match with slow-roast beef or darker game such as duck, pheasant or venison.

Opawa Pinot Noir 2010, New Zealand - £10.49, Noel Young Wines

Although best known for Sauvignon Blanc, with its cool climate New Zealand is becoming Pinot's second spiritual home after Burgundy.

NZ wines are typically technically well-made with good, pure fruit and this wine is no exception.

From Noel Young Wines, this is pale ruby in the glass, on first opening, this wine shows ripe, red cherry fruit, with more-typical Pinot aromas of woody mushrooms developing with air.

On the palate, the fruit is ripe and pure with a soft, sensual texture, a good depth of savoury flavour and a balanced, lingering finish.

Whilst it may lack some typically Burgundian vegetal, farmardy aromas and food-friendly sour-cherry acidity, this is a lovely wine and provides a good mid-level introduction to what this grape can do in NZ.

Although Pinot is one of the few wines I never decant, as its ephemeral aromas rarely benefit from significant aeration, this wine is still showing well, if not even a little better the following day and I recommended it via Twitter to fellow blogger and Pinot / self-doubter Charles Saunders as an example of what Pinot Noir can be.

Match with game such as duck and pheasant or a Burgundian stew.

Pascual Toso Malbec 2009, Mendoza Argentina - £8.99, Bacchanalia

If Pinot is a dreamy, sensual hedonist, Malbec is a Blue-Collar hero - a macho, peppery, steak-eating, cattle-wrangling gaucho in open check shirt and leather chaps.

Dark in the glass, this Pascual Toso Malbec from Bacchanalia shows lots of ripe up-front bramble and blackberry fruit with liquorice and vanilla spice on the nose.

The palate is full and ripe with more sweet cassis fruit and spicy, leathery earthiness. There's plenty of aromas on the finish too and, if it's a little rustic, it is at least polite enough to wipe its feet on the doormat before enquiring if it left its boots under your bed, ma'am.

A spicy, warm-hearted Big Red with bags of crowd-pleasing, easy-drinking appeal, match it with a juicy steak.

Recommended Wine

This is a really good set of wines and all are worthy of investigation - however, this month's winner is the Malintoppo from Cambridge Wine Merchants for its depth of flavour, mellowness and value for money as a really well-made, aged Tuscan wine drinking nicely right now for just over £10 with case discounts.

Links

Mas de Fondreche reviewed by Tom Cannavan - http://www.wine-pages.com/temp/osud.htm
Malintoppo reviewed by Vinoremus - http://vinoremus.blogspot.com/2011/07/general-tasting.html

Main image credit - http://www.galenfrysinger.com/cambridge.htm

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Cambridge Wine Merchants Wine Bar - and an Austrian Grüner Veltliner

I first went to the Cherry Hinton Road branch of Cambridge Wine Merchants on its opening day and met branch manager / former-almost-art-rock-star Steve Hovington who told me about his plans to add a tapas bar at the back of the shop.

I have been back a number of times - for Steve's book launch and tastings of aged Mosels and fino En Rama - but until the other week I had never made good on my promise to try out the wine bar itself.

However, the need to have a catch-up with a couple of friends who live in different parts of Cambridge gave me the opportunity I needed, so I dropped Steve an email and he reserved us a table and kindly arranged for the shop to stay open late if we needed.

Arriving early off the train from London after work, I was the first there and arranged a plate of meats and cheeses, with bread, oil for dipping and some olives.

As my friends happened to be the Chairman of the Cambridge Food and Wine Society and a WSET Diploma student who in her day job is the marketing director of a law firm, I was a little nervous about choosing an appropriately impressive wine for the scrutiny of two fellow enthusiasts and wondered about a Palo Cortado.

However, as the shop assistant-cum-waiter came over to ask about our choice, Steve the Chairman threw me a lifeline by mentioning my enthusiasm for Austrian wines and from there it was plain sailing as the waiter announced they had an Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Julie the Diploma Student readily agreed it would be a good choice.

The wine turned out to be a GV Terrassen from Domaene Wachau, one of my favourite producers from Austria and considered as one of the best co-ops anywhere in the world.

Austrian Riesling was my first white-wine love but in recent years I have come to appreciate GV just as much - I'm not sure whether it's the wine that has changed or my palate.

Our wine was a 2010 Federspiel - a mid-level Wachau classification blended from a number of vineyards built on terraces (hence Terrassen). 2010 was a cool vintage in the Wachau meaning that the wines are higher in acidity and benefit from a bit more bottle age.

Had I been drinking this wine at home, I probably would have decanted around half-an-hour before serving, but served straight from the bottle it showed a crystal clear purity, green apple and citrus fruit and a taut, rounded acidity which, with its medium body and minerally finish, made it a perfect match with our tapas-style food.

Over the course of the evening we talked road safety, exam technique and strategic marketing as the wine had the opportunity to open up. However, served as it was in an ice-bucket, it remained fresh and crisp with little of the characteristic GV lentils and white pepper apparent on the nose.

The decor of the bar is one of its strengths - all Cambridge Wine Merchants branches have a somewhat edgy look, but with painted bare-brick walls, beautifully arty black-and-white photos and wall-mounted chandeliers, it feels funky, quirky and effortlessly chic all at the same time.

The food, from nearby deli Bolzano was also excellent with three or four different types of salamis and cheeses all served at just the right temperature and in generous proportions.

On a mid-week night, I was not entirely surprised that we were the only ones in the bar but in many ways, it is the perfect venue for recessionary times - edgy yet simple with an emphasis on the quality of the food and wines with low overheads (mark-up on the wines is a flat £3.50 on top of shelf price) and perhaps the widest selection of wines anywhere in Cambridge.

And whilst the location is not central Cambridge, it is still handy for anyone visiting The Junction nearby or who is based in the Hills Road area whilst, if you have a designated driver, parking is much easier than in the centre, too.

Perhaps it's my age, but I can't help feeling that, if it lacks the buzz of a city centre bar, that just means you can actually hear the conversation and there is room to sit down and all-in-all perhaps that gives it the status of a "hidden gem".

At least one of our group booked a return visit within a week and it won't be too long before I'm back there for sure.

A plate of meat and cheese with bread, olives and a bottle of wine costs around £35 for three people.

Mark-up is a flat £3.50 on the shelf price of any wine in the shop.

Links

Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
CWM Bar on Twitter - https://twitter.com/#!/CWMwinebar
Domaene Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/

Friday, 2 March 2012

On Laithwaites (again)

At the end of the fascinating if mixed tasting of some new Laithwaites wines from India, Greece, Turkey and Georgia the other week, there was a chance to try some of the company's other wines from Eastern Europe as well as a few off-piste wines that Tony and wine maker Jean-Marc Saboua brought in from the Vinopolis shop.

Introducing myself to Jean-Marc, it turned out that he knew my from the blog as I'd been rather less than positive about a wine that turned out to be from his buying portfolio.

He was polite enough to acknowledge that he largely agreed with my observations and excused himself by saying that he had inherited the relationship with the producer and not tried the wine in a few years.

However, with Gallic pride to be restored, he suggested that we try a few other Petits Bordeaux from his portfolio to see what I thought - the first, called Le Coin (somewhat reminiscent of le petit coin, for me) was a good basic sub-£10 Bordeaux and thoroughly pleasant.

The next, whose name I forget but which had a functional orange label and cost a few pounds more was definitely a step-up in terms of quality and sophistication.

As both a Frenchman and a winemaker, Jean-Marc clearly has a palate and knows how to spot a good wine. But as he hinted at himself, the issue is lack of attention to detail or insufficient rigourousness in weeding out weaker wines or weaker vintages. And it's an issue that I suspect is more institutional to Laithwaites than personal to Jean-Marc.

Combine this with Laithwaites' stereotypically, almost comically overeffusive tasting notes for every single bottle and one quickly loses faith in the quality and reliability of their wines - for a wine merchant needs to be judged as much by their weakest wines as by their best.

It is one thing to show off a few good bottles of your better wines, but what we tried on the evening represents under 2% of the entire Laithwaites range so can hardly be considered statistically representative.

Ad man David Ogilvy used to insist on buying and using his clients' products - of course, it helped that he had the Rolls Royce account in those days - but to this day, Ogilvy, which now has the rather more blue-collar Ford account, has a Ford-only company car policy.

So it was disappointing to hear one of the Laithwaites PR people say she had not yet tasted the entire range of the company's wines. For sure, you can promote a company without a really detailed knowledge of all its products, but I would suggest that it makes you more authoritative if you do have that level of knowledge.

I have been lucky to attend a number of staff tastings with Cambridge Wine Merchants and I know just how much time and effort goes into staff training on the company's products whilst internet retailer Naked Wines holds a tasting of around 30 wines from prospective and potential suppliers every Friday evening after work.

Surely then, it's not too much to expect an induction course at Laithwaites to involve tasting all their wines over the course of, say, a few months.

Speed tasting 30-50 wines in an hour with a group of your peers will teach some very good skills in presentation, communication and persuasion as well as deepening and broadening your knowledge of wine generally and the company's range specifically.

It also subjects the wines to broad, general scrutiny.

Of course there is a cost element to doing this, but the greater goal is weeding out the weaker wines from the portfolio.

I am also especially impressed by Vinopic who, having stocked the 2008 Vesevo Beneventano Aglianico, were not sufficiently impressed by the 2009 to buy it for sale and are waiting to see if the 2010 will be considered good enough.

The old chestnut "retail is detail" surely applies here - Laithwaites, in growing to a company of 1,000 staff, seems to have taken its eye off the detail and now focuses more on shifting units than selecting only decent wines.

The invitation of a few bloggers to come and try the new range and Jean-Marc's acknowledgement that one of the wines in his portfolio was a bit weak is potentially a significant cultural change for the company, but it is at best only the start.

Weed out all the weaker bottles, refuse to take the poorer vintages, focus the buyers on getting good quality wines not just "a medal-winning petit Bordeaux that we can sell for £7.99", subject the wines to general scrutiny by staff, bloggers, wine writers and so on.

Then stand back and watch the quality levels improve over time.

We have three great independent wine merchants in Cambridge (what I call the Cambridge Phenomenon) and I'm confident that I could stand in the middle of Noel Young Wines, Bacchanalia or Cambridge Wine Merchants, reach out at random with my eyes closed and whatever I took would be a good bottle of wine.

I'm somewhat less convinced that I could stick a pin at random into the Laithwaites catalogue and achieve the same - and the Laithwaites tasting notes will do nothing to help me either.

As CellarFella Simon Burnton put it, "when you sell only by the case over the internet, trust is everything".

Links

Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/
Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Noel Young Wines - http://wwwnywines.co.uk/
Vinopic - http://www.vinopic.com/