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Thursday, 31 December 2009

A Red Bordeaux at Christmas - Troplong Mondot 1998

A while ago, after a couple of years' very good results, my boss presented me with a rather special bottle of Bordeaux - a magnum of Troplong Mondot 1998, no less.

Troplong Mondot is a St Emilion Grand Cru Classe, meaning it is officially one of the top properties on the right bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux where the dominant grape variety is Merlot. Unofficially, it is considered one of the best chateaux in St Emilion with 1998 being one of the best recent vintages.

So, this was a little way above my usual "everyday" drinking and I wanted to be sure to appreciate the wine fully.

Usually, I buy new wines in pairs at least; with the first bottle you learn how the wine develops once opened so that you can serve the second bottle at the ideal temperature and with the right amount of airing, be it straight from the bottle or after several hours in a decanter. With a half-case, or even a full case, you can also see how the wine develops in bottle over the weeks and months between the first and the last tasting.

I once had a couple of cases of Austrian Weissburgunder (Pinot blanc) which matured beautifully from a crisp, apples-and-pears aperitif to something much richer and rounded over the 18 months or so that it took to drink it all.

Sadly, my boss's generosity "only" ran to a single magnum of the St Emilion, but I figured that we could decant half for one meal, then stopper the bottle and finish it off the next day and hopefully at some point during that time, it would reach a peak. So, here are my tasting notes from the 36-hour period during which the wine was consumed and some afterthoughts:

Immediately on opening:

Wonderful nose of cassis and vanilla, smells richer and "bigger" than a more basic Bordeaux; colour still quite dark for a wine of this age; however, first impressions on the palate are disappointing, all acidity and tannic grip with little evidence of any fruit.

With the meal after two hours in the decanter:

Starting to open up now, more balanced with some fruit on the palate, lovely texture but feels a little overwhelmed by the food (free-range slow-roast chicken plus trimmings)

With dinner the following evening:

Keep the food simple this time - roast beef and Yorkshire puddings; wine much improved, has really opened up and feels much more balanced, still has that wonderful cassis and vanilla on the nose, same on the palate with added hints of pencil shavings and mint, good fruit, but not as fruit-driven as a younger wine would be, exceptionally smooth with wonderful texture, continues to improve during the meal and, sadly, seems to reach a peak just as we finish it off.


Before trying this wine, I wondered what it would be like, how it would be different from a €10 Bordeaux - and if I would be able to tell !

Having drunk quite a lot of Bordeaux in general and right-bank Bordeaux in particular, I found it quite familiar on the nose and palate; it did not taste fundamentally different from a ordinary Bordeaux. The most noticeable difference was that the fruit on the palate was not as prominent as with a younger wine.

However, where the wine really showed its superiority was in the texture, the mouth-feel. It's very difficult to describe, but rather like looking at the original of a great painting after having seen only a reproduction in a book - it's all there, all the same, but somehow better, more complex, more textured, more detailed.

It may be just my imagination, but also since trying the Troplong-Mondot, the more everyday reds I have been drinking seem a bit thin and two-dimensional - rather like returning to the family runaround after a lift in your rich uncle's posh German saloon.


Troplong-Mondot 1998 is available in the UK - not cheaply, though. One site I found it on suggests it is ready for drinking any time between now and 2017, and that seems entirely possible given how it developed after opening. Magnums generally age more slowly than single bottles (same air gap below the cork, double the amount of wine), so even at 11 years, this one may have been a little young.

We had some other excellent drinks over Christmas including a sweet sherry that tasted like Christmas pudding in a bottle and a very smooth Ukrainian brandy. Appropriately enough, after all that indulgence, my next wine tasting has a "credit crunch" theme.


Chateau Troplong-Mondot - www.troplong-mondot.com/

Wine searcher - www.wine-searcher.com/

Monday, 7 December 2009

International Wine Challenge - blind tasting of trophy winners by Cambridge Food and Wine Society

Wine competitions have had something of a bad press in the last few years with the perception that they are little more than a profile-raising, money making exercise in which the only loser is the consumer. The "anti-competition" argument goes something like this: cynical competition organisers hand out too many medals to undeserving wines simply to encourage more entrants and increase their income from entry fees. The wine-makers benefit as they get to put a medal sticker on their wines and maybe get a little extra shelf-space from the supermarket and the poor consumer is duped into thinking an overpriced ordinary wine is something special.

I think this is a journalistic distortion, or at least selective exaggeration, of the underlying truth; for sure, medals help a wine stand out on a supermarket shelf but the International Wine Challenge has, for example, amongst its judges, 370 winemakers, merchants and writers from around the world, including an number of Masters of Wine, and a rigorous, multi-stage judging process. You may not agree with what the judges consider to be a good, excellent or even best-in-class wine, but a medal is no guarantee that you will actually like a wine, only that it is a good-to-excellent example of that type of wine.

This year, 45,000 wines were entered into the International Wine Challenge and only a select few won one or more trophies. The blind tasting at the Cambridge Food and Wine Society included a sample of the trophy-winners, including the Champion Red Wine, Runner-Up Red Wine and (a popular one on the night) the Great Value Champion Sweet Wine.

There were also the usual few curve-balls, such as the Greek White Trophy wine and the International Viognier Trophy wine.

As usual, the tasting was done blind, with Society members invited to hazard a guess at the country of origin, main grape variety, vintage, alcohol content and price. This made for plenty of discussion and some surprising results. It is worth pointing out that the highest score achieved on the night was a shade over 50%, so there is clearly no GCSE-type dumbing down here !

Most of the wines are available at local independent wine merchants such as Noel Young (who garnered a couple of merchant accolades himself) and Cambridge Wine Merchants, whilst others are more generally available at Waitrose, Tesco, M&S and Majestic.

With, apparently, 40% of all wine being bought between September and Christmas, the list below would make a good Christmas shopping list if you are looking for something special for the festive season.

The Wines

Tim Adams Riesling, 2008 (Australia, £8.99, Tes, 3 trophies)
Domaine de Bel Air, 2008 (Pouilly Fume, £13.99, CWM, NY, trophy)
Laurent Miquel Verite Viognier, 2007 (Languedoc-Rousillon, £13.99, Wai, 2 trophies)
Ktima Biblia Chora Ovilis White, 2008 (Greece, £17.50, NY, trophy)
Vinedos Emiliana Carmenere / Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 (Chile, £7.99, NY 2 trophies)
Bodegas y Vinedos Pascal Toso Malbec, 2008 (Argentina, NY, £7.99, 5 trophies)
Guardian Peak, Lapa Cabernet Sauvignon, 2007 (South Africa, NY, £16.95, 4 trophies)
Chateau Caronne Ste Gemme, 2004 (Haut Medoc, Maj £12.99, trophy)
Matetiq EQ Syrah, 2007 (Chile, Maj, NY, £18.49, 3 trophies)
Weingut Darting Scheurebe, 2005 (Germany, M&S, £14.99 trophy)


CWM - Cambridge Wine Merchants
Maj - Majestic
M&S - Marks and Spencer
NY - Noel Young Wines
Tes - Tesco


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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

In search of Terroir: Chile's Vina Undurraga

Terroir is a uniquely French concept, meaning the combination of soil, altitude, aspect, rainfall and just about eveything which makes the local climate suitable or otherwise for growing vines. Indeed, the whole French system of wine classification is based on the concept of terroir - Pauillac and the Côte d'Or are places, not grape varieties.

The New World, by contrast, tends to focus as much, if not more, on grape variety and for that reason, one tends to speak of Aussie Shiraz or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. However, it was only a matter of time before more forward-thinking winemakers from the New World began to look more closely at the area where the grapes are grown and start to delineate growing areas more precisely, identifying those which produce better wines.

Such a man is Rafael Urrejola, chief winemaker of Chile's Vina Undurraga; the winery was founded in 1885 but has only recently started to focus on the concept of terroir under Rafael's leadership with his "Terroir Hunter" project.

Rafael presented his wines at the newly-established St John's Chop House on Northampton Street in central Cambridge and the event was organised by Cambridge Wine Merchants.

With just one exception, all the wines Rafael presented were from his Terroir Hunter series and what became clear over the tasting is that there are indeed distinct characteristics discernible in the wines from the different terroirs - or micro-terroirs, as each wine was from an area of fewer than 5 hectares. To put it crudely, the wines from Leyda tend to have more fruit on the nose, but are more delicate on the palate, whilst the Casablanca wines are somewhat muted on the nose but richer and stronger on the palate.

Chile is a long, thin strip of a country snaking down the western side of South America - not much over 100 miles wide, its geography is complex, but in simple terms it has the Andes to the west, the Antarctic to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the east (with its cooling breezes) and finally the Atacama desert to the north. Add into this differing soil types washed down the valleys of the Andes, and a lower-lying coastal mountain range giving some shelter from the cooling sea breezes and the variety of terroirs and micro-terroirs is immense.

All the wines were relatively young, mostly from 2008, and all were in screw-cap bottles and were poured without decanting; as a result, many developed significantly in the glass and first impressions needed revisiting after a few minutes airing and swirling.

We started with the Brut Royal, a sparkling wine fermented in tank, rather than using the traditional (and more expensive) Champagne method of secondary fermentation in bottle. It was fruity, refreshing and well-balanced.

Next up was a trio of Sauvignon Blancs from Casablanca, Leyda and Abarca respectively. The first was the most typically "Chilean" of the three, with lots of zesty, ripe tropical fruit, whilst the Leyda Sauvignon had a very herbaceous nose and the Abarca tasted as if it had been barrel fermented, having a muted nose but a generous, minerally mouth-feel on the palate. Rafael explained that the style of the wine is due not to barrel fermentation, but to the effect of cooling breezes from the Pacific, so the grapes ripen more slowly and do not achieve quite the same level of ripeness as they would in warmer climates.

The last of the whites was an oaked Chardonnay from Limari - initially, this was very oaky tasting of buttered crumpets and mixed spice matched with good acidity, but after opening up it became a much more balanced and complex wine. The "Burgundian" section of the tasting continued with two Pinot Noirs which, again, highlighted the differences between Leyda and Casablanca; the first having a typical Pinot nose with cherries and a distinct vegetal or farmyard note, whilst the second was fuller, with more complexity on the palate.

Finally, there were two Syrahs - one from Limari and the other from Maipo. Both wines had lots of fruit, hints of spicy white pepper and a very smooth texture, and again the Limari, being from a cooler climate, was lighter with more red fruit on the nose. By contrast the Maipo was richer and fuller with black fruits; it was for me, the most enjoyable wine of the evening and has even earned a nod from Oz Clarke.

The Wines (all available from Cambridge Wine Merchants)

Undurraga Brut Royal NV (£8.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca 2008 (£10.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Leyda 2007 (£8.99)
TH Sauvignon Blanc Abarca 2008 (£10.99)
2008 Decanter International Trophy Winner
TH Chardonnay Limari 2008 (£12.99)
TH Pinot Noir Leyda 2008 (£12.99)
TH Pinot Noir Casablanca 2008 (£13.99)
TH Syrah Limari 2007 (£12.99)
TH Syrah Maipo 2006 (£9.99)
Best 250 wines by Oz Clarke

Undurraga - http://www.undurraga.cl/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
St John's Chop House - http://www.chophouses.co.uk/StJohnsChopHouse/index.html

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Wine-buying in France; Calais

Does the Pas-de-Calais region actually produce any wine? I doubt it. However, it is still a very good part of France in which to buy wine for the simple reason that it full of hypermarkets and can be done as a day trip from Cambridge.

Calais is a pretty soulless place at the best of times - flat, bleak, mostly destroyed during the war, it is a working port with the refugee centre of Sangatte just up the road. Bill Bryson describes it in his Notes from a Small Island as "an interesting place that exists for solely for the purpose of giving English people in shell suits somewhere to go for the day" and its buildings as examples of "1950s planners smitten with the novel possibilities of concrete".

Hardly an idyllic day-trip then, but Calais' main attraction is its large number of hypermarkets in the Channel Tunnel terminal area known as "Cite Europe".

Whether you are travelling through Calais on the way back to the UK or just coming across for the day, this is the place to stock up on wine if you are looking for some everyday-drinking bottles. Stick to a few simple principles and you can have an instant cellar of reliable, enjoyable wine for a lot less than it would cost in the UK - even if you include the travel costs of getting there.

One of my principles when buying wine is to try and get it as close to the region in which it is produced as possible - and the smaller the wine-producing area, the nearer you need to get to find the decent stuff. Wine-buying in Calais is about getting good bottles of mainstream French wines that are, or at least should be, more interesting and cost rather less that what you'll find in a UK supermarket.

To get the best out of a day trip to Calais then, you need to do the following:

1) travel out of season; Calais is never that nice a place, so don't go for the scenery; out of season, the crossing will be much cheaper than in the height of summer when all the schools are on holiday

2) you do need to buy a fair amount of wine in order to offset the costs of getting to Calais and back; the "working amount" maximum for personal import limits is 90 litres, which is 120 bottles. This may seem like a lot, but is only around a year's supply if you share a bottle with your other half every weekend evening.

3) avoid very specialist, obscure or small-scale areas; if Savoie or Grand Cru Burgundy is your thing, you are unlikely to find much of it in a supermarket.

Better, stick to the larger, more reliable areas such as Bordeaux, the south west in general (Corbieres, Languedoc-Rousillon) and the southern Rhone. A good guide is to look at the volume of shelf space given to a particular region - there larger the shelf space, the safer the bet.

4) choose your price range - in my experience, French supermarkets tend to specialise in in wines at the €4 - €10 price range. Anything cheaper may well be fine, perhaps a little rustic, but if you don't like it you can always put it in the cooking. Anything more expensive is really the domain of more specialist sellers.

5) look for medal-winners in regional competitions; wine competitions have had something of a bad press in recent years, especially the larger ones, but local competitions have a reputation to maintain and medals here really do mean something.

6) choose a good supermarket; Auchan has a wide range of good, well-priced wines from all major areas of France.

7) remember you can stock up on other things too; look for local beers from northeast France and regional cheeses.

8) allow plenty of time for your shopping; there are some seriously big hypermarkets in Cite Europe with plenty of things to look at, so two hours just for your wine is sensible, plus time for anything else

Depending on whether you just go for the shopping or do want something of a day trip, you can also head up the coastal road to Boulogne - with its walled old town on a hilltop, it's much more worthy of a visit and event has a couple of Logis de France hotel restaurants that are usually worth seeking out.

If you are travelling further afield and just using Calais as your base for travelling between Cambridge and France, it is still worth stocking up at Cite Europe, albeit on your way back and not out - 120 bottles of wine are quite heavy and even a big car will feel wallowy with so much weight on board, which is not ideal for B-road cruising during your two-week driving holiday.

Remember that the wines may well improve with age - plan on buying enough for this year and next; a couple can bring back enough wine for a bottle each weekend evening for two years.


Auchan - wine list (only in French):


Auchan Calais - map:


Cite Europe (in English):


Logis de France


Sunday, 8 November 2009

Hungarian Food and Wine Tasting

The recent Hungarian tasting organised by the Cambridge Food and Wine Society was a first in a number of ways - not only the Society's first ever Hungarian tasting, it was also their first joint event (in this case with with the Cambridge Szeged Society).

Szeged (pronounced SEH-ged) is a city in the south of Hungary, situated on a great plain and with the country's oldest university, similar to Cambridge with which it has been twinned since 1987. The Cambridge Szeged Society, chaired by Julia Seiber Boyd, kindly provided us with some traditional Hungarian food to go with the wines which were presented by Lucien Lanci, proprietor of Malux and supplier to no less an institution than the Hungarian embassy in London.

Lucien started by explaining that all the wines came from small producers who make high-quality wines in limited quantities. He also highlighted the three main recent phases the Hungarian wine industry has been through, starting with the period under communism in which quantity was everything, through the post-Berlin Wall period in which Hungary tried to make a name for itself with instantly-recognisable international grape varieties and on to the present where the emphasis is much more on local varieties. With 22 wine regions and a clutch of native grapes, Hungary produces a wide range of types and styles.

We started then with a Cserszegi Fűszeres (CHAIR-say-gee FOO-ser-esh) from the Szeged region by Frittmann, Hungary's wine producer of the year in 2007. Light, aromatic and somewhat floral, this was reminiscent of a Gewurztraminer, which is not surprising as, although of decidedly mixed descent, it includes some gewurz in its parentage.

This was followed by a much heavier white called Napbor (Hungarian for "sun wine") - we never did get to the bottom of the name or find out exactly which grape varieties it was made from, but with a very muted nose, deep yellow hue suggesting some oxidisation and plenty of oak, it was like an old-style Burgundy.

The first of the reds was a Kekfrankos, also known as Blaufraenkisch in neighbouring Austria and meaning the same thing - Blue Frankish or Blue Franc; apparently, the wine was extremely popular with Napoleon's troops who used to buy it with their blue Francs, or so the story goes. Kekfrankos / Blaufraenkisch tends to produce wines with a rasp of juicy sour cherries but not too much else, but can be very pleasant if well made, as this one was. Like the first wine, it was also by Frittmann and, unusually, from the Szeged area (most Kekfrankos is grown near the Austrian border).

The last of the dry wines was perhaps the most famous Hungarian wine after Tokaji - Bulls' Blood or Egri Bikaver, "Egri" here indicating the wine comes from Eger in the north of Hungary. Rich, with brambly fruits and smooth vanilla oak, this was the best of the dry wines - an achievement reflected in the fact it has won medals at two Hungarian events (Bukkvinfest 2008 and a gold in Eger 2008).

Finally, we ended with perhaps Hungary's greatest contribution to wine; Tokaj is a town in north eastern Hungary where the climate produces reliable conditions for botrytis, or noble rot, to form on the grapes. Botrytis is a type of fungus that grows on the grape skin and sucks out the moisture from the grape without exposing it to the air so that the grape itself shrivels but does not spoil. The fungus, however, needs quite specific conditions and these are found in only a few areas, such as around Tokaj, near Lake Neusidl in neighbouring Austria and also in Sauternes in Bordeaux.

The Tokaji we tried, however, was not from botrytised grapes, but a blend of late-harvested, super-ripe grapes (equivalent to a Spaetlese in Germany or Austria) giving a much lighter-tasting wine, in this case with hints of guava.

The formalities of the wine-tasting over, we then sampled some excellent Hungarian food, prepared by various members of the Cambridge Szeged Society.

The Wines - all available from Malux Ltd

Csersegi Fuszeres, Frittmann, 2008 (£8.70)

Napbor, St Andrea, 2007 (£11.65)

Kekfrankos, Frittmann, 2007 (£8.45)

Egri Bikaver, St Andrea, 2006 (£10.20)

Tokaji Cuvee, 2007 (£10)

The Food - provided by members of the Cambridge Szeged Society

Sour cherry soup
Korosot Liptoi (a type of cottage cheese with added spices)
Beef gulyas (goulash)
Rakott Burgonya (a hot casserole of potatoes, salami and eggs)
Pork meat balls and soured cabbage
Hungarian-style red cabbage
Mushroom pancakes
Jerusalem artichoke salad
Lecso with parsnip
Poppy seed pastries
Cherry pie


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

Cambridge Szeged Society - http://www.cambridge-szeged-society.org.uk/

Cambridge Szeged Society newsletter with recipes (on p4) - http://www.cambridge-szeged-society.org.uk/graphics/Szeged%20Newsletter%202010%20pdf.pdf

Malux Ltd - http://www.hungarianfoodandwine.com/

Profile of Szeged on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Szeged

Jancis Robinson article on Hungarian wines - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0fcb53e4-4e63-11df-b48d-00144feab49a.html

Image credit: Szeged montage from Wikipedia, user Uzo19

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Wine-buying in France; Alsace

There are two things I particularly like when buying wine - firstly, getting a bargain and secondly, trying something local; whilst it's not always true that the locals keep the good stuff for themselves and export the dross, there is certainly some merit in buying wine close to where it is produced - and the smaller the quantities and more obscure the area, the truer this becomes.

Alsace has around 15,000 hectares of vineyards - just over a tenth of the amount in Bordeaux, for example. In practice, this means that there is just not a huge amount of Alsace wine to go around. So, whilst reliable, everyday (and often rather good) examples of Bordeaux can be found in almost any French supermarket, their Alsace selections tend to be more limited and somewhat disappointing. To get the best wines at the best prices from Alsace, a trip there is required.

Alsace is a somewhat curious area of eastern France - for many years a borderland fought over by the French and the Germans, it can be slightly disorienting for the visitor to be in this part of France with its Germanic local dialect, wine labelled by grape variety and sold in tall fluted bottles and distinctly Germanic cuisine - albeit transformed into something very delicious and decidedly French.

It is possible to get to Alsace from Cambridge within a day's driving if you catch an early Le Shuttle train from Folkestone, but it is much nicer to break the journey up with a stop-over in either Champagne or even the Belgian Ardennes for a spot of Trappist beer.

The main cities of Alsace are Strasbourg to the north and Colmar to the South, and both are lovely and well worth a visit; but the Route des Vins, or Alsace wine route, will take you away from the larger towns and through some of the prettiest villages I have ever seen - colourful, timber-framed, gabled houses bedecked with flowers, storks nesting, cobbled streets and views of vineyards, abandoned castles and the Vosges mountains in the background. The best way to explore the area is to stop at a few villages (Riquewhir and Eguisheim are both especially lovely) and also take in the odd vineyard walk as you follow the Route des Vins.

The Vosges are a range of low-lying mountains which form more of a natural border between France and Germany than the river Rhine, hence the region's turbulent past; rising to just over 1,400m at their highest, they provide a rain shadow for the vines growing lower down and allow relatively warm-climate varieties to be grown this far north. French gastronomy has dictated that Alsace wines, unlike their German counterparts across the river, be fermented into something full, dry and aromatic to match with the rich local food which includes tarte flambee, choucroute and coq au riesling.

The Hautes Vosges (Higher Vosges) to the south provide the greatest amount of shelter for the vines and it is here that the best, fullest wines can be found; the main grape varieties grown here are Riesling (totally different from, but equal in stature to Chardonnay as the great white wine grape), Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer. The labelling is relatively straightforward as there are no sub-regions of Alsace, merely (basic) AC Alsace and (superior) Grand Cru for still, dry wines. Alsace does, however, also produce both sparkling wine (Cremant d'Alsace) and sweet wines (Vendange Tardive and Selection de Grains Nobles).

Almost any wine village will have several wineries offering tastings and some are more famous than others. Any self-respecting wine guide should recommend Hugel, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Paul Blanck and Rolly Gassmann. However, as these are mostly available in Cambridge from either Waitrose or one of our various wine merchants, I wanted to try something not generally (if at all) available in the UK, and so we rolled into the Paul Schneider tasting room in Eguisheim.

In the days - not that long ago - when the pound was reasonably strong against the Euro, the wines here were ridiculously cheap for the quality - the standard range of wines started at €3.50 and maxed out at €6.00 - including a number of prize-winning wines. I sampled three rather excellent wines:

Paul Schneider Pinot Planc 2005 (Medaille d'Or Paris) - €4.50

Crisp, medium weight and delicious with flavours of apples and pears, good as an aperitif or at this age with light dishes, such as white fish or soft cheeses. However, with time, Alsace Pinot Blanc gains body and becomes a much fuller wine altogether.

Paul Schneider Riesling 2006 (Vielles Vignes) - €6.00

An excellent, full Riesling with crisp bite, good body and structure and nice, honeyed finish.

Paul Schneider Pinot Gris 2005 (Medaille d'Or Colmar) - €6.00

The ripest, fullest wine here, rich and fat, sumptuous and savoury, matches well with the local food including quiche and pork.

Sadly, as noted above, Paul Schneider wines are not available in the UK, but other Alsace producers are.

Alsace wines in general match particularly well with "modern international" cuisine - that is, well-seasoned, restaurant-style food with strong flavours and heavily reduced sauces.


Paul Schneider - http://www.vins-paul-schneider.fr/

Image credits

Image of Paul Schneider from the winery's website

Image of Eguisheim by Mschlindwein - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Mschlindwein

Friday, 2 October 2009

Asda, Extra Special 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages - and an accompanying recipe

A fellow committee member from the Cambridge Food and Wine Society passed on this Jancis Robinson recommendation to me some months ago.

I do not think I have ever bought a bottle of wine from Asda before, but when the First Lady of Wine gives it the thumbs up, then it's definitely worth a try. Jancis was impressed with its "rich spiciness and the fact that it is not overburdened with dry tannins, while being unmistakably from this beautiful rocky, lavender-scented western corner of Provence".

Priced at under a fiver, this is very much in "everyday wine" territory and as an everyday wine, or even something for a Sunday lunch with the family, it is very good, but (in our household, at least) not necessarily something to impress guests with. Smooth, fruity and complex, it is not quite as well made as the two previous red wines I have reviewed here and which I was able to buy for just a few pennies more (albeit, seriously discounted from their full list prices).

However, as it would be a shame to use up either the Californian Merlot or the New Zealand Syrah-Viognier in a casserole (not least because they were available in only limited quantities), and since Asda's stocks of this wine are plentiful, I put half into a beef casserole and we drank the rest with the meal.

There are two main herbs in this recipe and both will grow easily in a pot in a sunny aspect of the garden (in Cambridge, at least) - rosemary and thyme. The rosemary leaves need to be finely chopped and the stalks discarded; the thyme should tied in a bundle with cotton and removed at the end of cooking.


Beef casserole with red wine and Mediterranean herbs, served with creamy mashed potato and green beans - serves 3/4

It should go without saying that good quality beef is the key to this recipe; Cambridge and its surrounding villages have plenty of good butchers, but for this I used beef from Waitrose.



A little sunflower oil
500g braising / stewing steak or similar
1 large onion
2 stalks of celery
2 large carrots
1/2 bottle Asda Extra Special 2007 Côtes du Rhône-Villages
300ml stock
Chopped rosemary (1 stalk or to taste)
Bundle of thyme, tied tightly with cotton
2 bay leaves
Crushed garlic (1/2 clove - 2 cloves according to taste)

Creamy Mashed Potato

5 large potatoes
Salt and pepper


For the stock:

You can of course buy stock, but the easiest way is simply to simmer the left-over bones from a roast dinner in a pan of water seasoned with salt, pepper, bay leaf and an onion for an hour or so. Alternately, some butchers will give away bags of bones for stock-making (try Andrew's on Burleigh Street).

For the casserole:

Wash the meat, pat dry with kitchen roll and season generously all over with salt and pepper

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and brown the meat in small batches, transferring each batch to a dish once browned; the meat should be crispy on the outside with caramelised juices

Having removed all the browned meat, add the onion, carrot and celery to the pan, a little more oil if needed and cook through for 5 - 10 minutes, then turn the heat right down and continue cooking very gently for a further 10 minutes to bring out the sweetness of the vegetables

Add back the browned beef and pour in the wine, bring to the boil under a high flame for around a minute to boil off all the alcohol

Add the stock, crushed garlic and herbs, cover and simmer on the gentlest of flames with bubbles barely breaking the surface for 2 - 3 hours

If you can afford to wait, this dish will improve significantly if left to stand overnight and a good heavy-bottomed pan will keep it gently cooking for many hours after you have turned off the heat.

For the creamy mashed potato:

Peel the potatoes and cut into 8 along the same axis to give long, thin strips, rather than cubes

Simmer very gently in unsalted water for around 20 minutes until the potatoes are almost falling apart

Strain, put into a bowl add a generous helping of butter, milk, salt and pepper and mash thoroughly until a deliciously smooth creamy consistency is achieved

Serve the casserole and mash with green beans and plenty more of the Côtes du Rhône-Villages.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Los Osos Merlot 2006; J Lohr, Paso Robles, California

This wine from J. Lohr is another out of my usual "comfort range" but which I decided to try-and-see.

New World wine countries have really taken to Merlot; it is an easy-growing variety that can produce easy-quaffing wines with ripe fruit and low tannins that appeal either to novice wine drinkers or those who want their red wine without food.

My experience of Californian wines is based on a recent business trip to the US where I followed my usual routine of ordering a glass of something local with my food. In both cases, the wines were well-made but varietal and a little bit "text book", tasting exactly as that particular variety of wine should - a dependable sort of good ol' boy with an easy, natural charm but not too much of his own personality.

Personally, I prefer a touch more Gallic insouciance in my red wines - even if that means a little less finesse - but I saw this wine marked down by 50% on the bottle at Waitrose the other week and, having reason to believe the discount was genuine, could not resist both the bargain and the chance to try out something a little unusual (for me).

The grapes for this wine were grown in the Estrella River area of Paso Robles which the winemaker, Jerry Lohr, claims to be "one of three appellations in California that produces world class Merlot". I don't know either way, but the ever-trusty Oz Clarke in his Pocket Wine Book 2004 describes Paso Robles as "a large AVA at the northern end of San Luis Obispo county" with no mention of either Merlot or Estrella River. He does, however, give J Lohr one star out of three, meaning "a particularly good wine or producer in its category".

On the nose, even poured straight into the glass without any airing, the wine was fruity and rich with a pleasant vanilla aroma; the palate had the same red-berry fruit, an extremely smooth texture, good acidity and a noticeably rich sweetness whilst being dry on the finish with a hint of tannic grip.

However, with a some more air contact and time in the glass, a touch more personality started to emerge with gentle hints of something a little earthier, such as licorice and plums, and a lovely finish.

This is a very well-made wine with, when aired, plenty of subtle nuances, rather than strong primary flavours. Low-ish tannins also mean that it is not a great match for robust meaty dishes or hearty stews. Try matching with plain roast chicken or perhaps something gamier, such as duck or quail.

Los Osos Merlot - £9.99 from Waitrose (full price, but purchased at £5.09).

Friday, 25 September 2009

Villa Maria Syrah Viognier Hawkes Bay 2005

When I saw Cambridge Wine Merchants offering this Villa Maria 2005 Syrah-Viognier blend down from £11.99 to £6.99 (or £6 a bottle for a case or more), I decided it was at least worth a try. Now, I am somewhat cynical about "discounted wines", because certain supermarkets have a tendency to over-inflate prices for a short time or in just a few outlets, only to mark them back down with a great flourish to a more sensible level at which they were intended to be sold anyway.

I won't name names, but wander around a few supermarket wine aisles and you will see plenty of wines supposedly reduced, but when you look behind the great big red "reduced" tag on the shelf, you will often see that, in that branch, it was always on sale that that price and the reduction is not really genuine.

However, the independent wine merchants (of which Cambridge is blessed with plenty) do not get up to this sort of jiggery-pokery, so a discount there is usually a real discount and therefore needs to be taken seriously.

And so to the wine - it's a 2005 from Hawkes Bay, which Oz Clarke describes in his pocket wine book as "one of New Zealand's most prestigious wine regions ... high number of sunshine hours, moderately predictable weather ... Syrah has good potential". He also gives Villa Maria two out of three stars, meaning "an excellent wine or producer in its category - one especially worth seeking out".

The spiritual home of the late-ripening Syrah grape is in the small appellations of Hermitage and Cote Rotie in the Northern Rhone where it is produced in somewhat rarified quantities - for this reason alone, it has not become as popular and widespread as, say, Merlot and Cabernet, as it has simply not been a mainstream variety. However, take-up of the grape in Australia (as Shiraz) and California have led to other countries also trying out Syrah.

Typical Syrah characteristics are smokey plum, damson and loganberry with an almost sinfully sweet, creamy aftertaste and hints of chocolate and occasionally violets. When aged in oak, as this example is, it gains even more vanilla sweetness. With its big, vibrant personality and rich fruitiness, Syrah is a good match for roast red meat and hearty casseroles.

There is no indication of the blend proportions on the bottle, so it's hard to say what the Viognier is adding here, other than perhaps accentuating the overall fruitiness and adding some softness to the texture. However, as its spiritual home is, like Syrah, the Northern Rhone, perhaps there is some logic to adding a dash in.

I decanted the wine a couple of hours before drinking - this is a serious wine and at only four years old, still capable of improving in bottle for several more years - and found that the wine continued to improve further even during the course of the meal.

On the nose, there was plenty of smoky fruit and vanilla from the barrel aging, with damsons, sweet brambly fruit and a hint of chocolate on the palate with an extremely smooth texture and a lovely lingering finish. By the end of the meal, as the oakiness faded, even more of the sweet, fruitiness of the wine was noticeable.

My experience of NZ wines is that they are generally very well made in a clean and modern style - there's no rusticity here. This wine is no exception to that and is definitely something you could serve to guests - try matching with roast lamb with a rosemary and redcurrant jus.

Cambridge Wine Merchants in Cambridge, UK have limited stocks of this wine and it is apparently proving popular, so get down there quickly if you want it at its current reduced price.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Don't mention the glycol - why Austria produces some of the world's best wines and yet no-one knows

To understand Austria, you have to understand its history - that goes as much for its wines as for the country itself. This was the basis of a talk I gave some time ago to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society. I lived in Austria for two years before returning regularly on business and was always reminded of something I'd read along the lines of "Austria is rather like a formerly very fat person who has recently slimmed down and has not yet become accustomed to his reduced size and still turns sideways to walk through doorways". Students of history will know that since 1918, Austria has been but a shadow of its former imperial self that ruled most of Europe and controlled the Holy Roman Empire for nigh on 800 years.

The key date for Austrian wines is 1985, when a scandal erupted over the addition of glycol to wines to add sweetness - glycol is a component in the anti-freeze used by farmers in their tractors and is tax-deductible. The scandal only came to light when the tax inspectors became suspicious at the size of the tax deductions being claimed by some wine producers due to the vast amounts of glycol they were adding to their wines.

The result was predictable headlines of "anti-freeze in Austrian wines" and an overnight collapse in Austrian wine exports. But the long-term benefit of all this was that the industry cleaned its act up, growers brought vinification back in-house, invested in new stainless steel vats and started making wines in drier, more fully-fermented styles (semi-sweet wines had something of an understandable stigma by this point).

Austria itself is not a big country and it is four fifths mountainous, so there are limited places for planting vines - broadly three areas: Upper Austria, the area west of Vienna along the Danube and especially the Wachau Valley, Styria to the south west, high up on the Slovenian border, and Burgenland, Austria's newest region to the south east of Vienna bordering Hungary on the Pannonian Plain. I chose wines typical of each region - we started with two very crisp-yet-aromatic whites wines from Styria where the cool nights due to the elevation of the vineyards give a long growing season which results in wines that are full-bodied yet high in acidity - perfect aperitifs, in fact.

Next followed two examples of what has been touted as Austria's signature grape and is certainly its most planted variety, Gruener Veltliner, from near the Wachau area. Nicknamed GV and GruVe, it typically tastes of white pepper, lentils and celery. One comment on the evening was that it was more a "green" than "white" wine. As if to prove that Austria can also tackle more international styles, we followed this with a delicious Burgundy-style Chardonnay from Neusidlersee.

Personally, I tend not to buy my reds from Austria, but for completeness I presented a Blaufränkisch (neither blue, nor French, despite the name) and a St Laurent (related to Pinot Noir) from Burgenland. The consensus was that these were well-made, but lacking the complexity of the whites and tasting rather like a simple Beaujolais. Finally, we moved on to the high point of the evening - two fantastically luscious, rich and honeyed dessert wines from Neusidlersee in Burgenland. Neusidlersee is a shallow lake surrounded by low vine-clad hills - a perfect geographical set up for the creation of botrytis, the “noble rot” which creates the world’s greatest sweet wines.

Basic Austrian wines are not cheap; they are not made in large enough quantities for prices to benefit from economies of scale. However, at the top end, although increasing in price, they represent excellent vale as they have not (yet !) gained the kind of international reputation of wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux or California. The best way to buy them is to go to Austria and get them there, but if that is not practical, the next best bet is to search out a specialist importer and be prepared to pay a little more than average – but you should find something excellent in return.


1. Morillon Steirische Klassik, Polz, Styria

2. Sauvignon Blanc Steirische Klassik, Tement, Styria

3. Grüner Veltliner Vogelsang, Bründlmayer, Kamptal, Lower Austria

4. Grüner Veltiner Federspiel Hinter den Berg, Prager, Wachau, Lower Austria

5. Chardonnay Pandkräftn, Triebaumer, Neusiedlersee / Hügelland, Burgenland

6. Blaufränkisch, Umathum, Neusiedlersee, Burgenland

7. St. Laurent, Triebaumer, Neusiedlersee / Hügelland, Burgenland

8. Seewinkler Beerenauslese, Velich, Neusiedlersee, Burgenland

9. Beerenauslese, Kracher, Neusiedlersee, Burgenland

All wines purchased from Wein & Co, except #9 from Noel Young.


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

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

Polz - http://www.polz.co.at/cms/start.php

Tement - http://www.tement.at/index.cfm?action=intro

Bründlmayer - http://www.bruendlmayer.at/

Prager - http://www.weingutprager.at/

Triebaumer - http://www.triebaumer.com/

Umathum - http://www.umathum.at/

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

Monday, 22 June 2009

Classic Italian Reds at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

Two of my favourite wine-producing areas have something in common - they are both places that I have been to regularly and where I have been able to try a wide range of the wines. I had not really considered the significance of this until I went to a classic Italian reds tasting at the Cambridge Food and Wine Society at the weekend. We started the evening, so to speak, in Alto Adige, or Suedtirol, the German-speaking part of Italy that formerly was part of Austria and gradually moved south via Tuscany and Abruzzo ending in Umbria.

Italy is often spoken of as the most oenologically intricate and complex of wine-producing countries, confusing to the outsider, yet despite its inconsistency, as capable of achieving greatness as anywhere in France. I have never been a huge fan of Italian wines, never had that "Alfa Romeo" moment when everything suddenly comes together in a thrilling pinnacle of gorgeousness. Attributing this to a lack of effort on my own part and also to not having spent much time in Italy, I was keen to see what a tasting of eight classic reds would reveal.

Sangiovese grapes
Two things became clear from this tasting - firstly, Italian reds are decidedly food wines. As we sampled variously Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a frequent comment around the table was "Mmmm, needs some food to go with it". These were challenging wines, high in tannin and acidity but, sampled with the (Italian) buffet afterwards they suddenly made sense as they stood up to and cut through the strong flavours of rocket, salami, cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

The second point was the different results achieved using new vs traditional techniques. The wines made in a modern style were noticeably influenced by France - short fermentations and aging in small, French Allier barriques gave them an up-front richness and vanilla sweetness that was instantly recognisable and easy (or at least easier) to enjoy on their own. By contrast, the wines made in the traditional Italian style with long fermentations and aged in "botte" (large wooden barrels of up to 2,500 litres - around 10 times the size of a French barrique) had less up-front fruit and more of the essence of sour cherries to them. A bistecca alla fiorentina, a huge lump of seared yet bloody steak, would be the perfect accompaniment here.

So, now I feel like I do "get" Italian reds, but understanding and liking are different things so it remains to be seen whether respect will turn into affection. Maybe a driving holiday around Italy will provide the answer. In the meantime, I am left with something of a philosophical question; should Italian wines follow the modern international style - something I found easier to understand and enjoy on the evening - or should they remain true to their traditions, even if that makes them less approachable and if so, will that make them superior or just different ? Better book that holiday to find out.


Here are the wines we tried, all presented by Hector Scicluna of HS Fine wines, a specialist in Italian wines (hector.scicluna@ntlworld.com). They are all from small estates with, generally, low yields from old vines and are priced accordingly.

1) Lagrein Riserva Taber 2005, Cantina Bolzano, Alto Adige (£19.50)
2) Sacrisassi Rosso 2004, Az Ag Le Due Terre, Colli Orientali, Friuli (£20.15)
3) Chianti Classico 2006, Rocca Di Montegrossi (£15.30)
4) Brunello di Montalcino 2003, Tenuta Le Potazzine (£29.35)
5) Barbera Vittoria 2004, Az Ag Gianfranco Alessandria (£15.55)
6) Barbaresco 2001, Az Ag Bruno Rocca (£24.75)
7) Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Mazzamurello 2005, Torre Dei Beati (£20.65)
8) Sagrantino di Montefalco 2004 Az Ag Madonna Alta (£25.20)

Monday, 27 April 2009

Pinot Noir tasting at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

Sensitive, hedonistic and elusive - the Pinot
Noir grape growing in Burgundy
A Pinot Noir tasting I went to at the weekend really appealed to the bargain hunter in me. And it was not because the wines were cheap - far from it, you wouldn’t get much change from a tenner for even the "basic" Pinot Noirs we tried, and prices quickly rose into the mid-teens (and beyond for an excellent Burgundy !).

Pinot Noir is never actually cheap - or if it is, like the £5 supermarket own-label Burgundy a colleague turned up with a while ago, it is hardly worth even using in the cooking. A low-yielding, thin-skinned grape, prone to mutation and notoriously difficult to grow, it demands cool climate conditions where it becomes susceptible to late frosts and disease. Its spiritual home is Burgundy, but increasingly it is being grown in areas that are cool due to latitude (central Otago, Oregon), maritime influences (parts of California and Marlborough) or altitude (Chile and Argentina, where the vineyards are up to 1,500m above sea level).

However, when it does grow well, it produces a wine like no other with flavours of red berry fruit, hedonistically decadent aromas of truffles, game and farmyard and a gloriously smooth texture. Elusive, moody and yet capable of a unique greatness, Pinot Noir is said to be the wine of poets, visionaries and romantics - albeit ones with deep pockets.

I have had more disappointing Pinot Noirs than great ones and none has been cheap (except for the £5 one I mentioned above), so the prospect of trying eight Pinots, for less than the price of a single mid-range bottle, selected by someone who knows their stuff, struck me as too much of a bargain to be missed.

For, even though good Pinot Noir is never cheap, great Pinot Noir can be a relative bargain – depending on how many different wines you have to try before you hit on something that blows your socks off.

The wines we tried are listed below – the “value wine” of the evening was the Tabali Reserva from Chile, whilst the overall favourite was the red Burgundy, priced more for special occasions that everyday quaffing.

1) Alamos, Seleccion 2008, Mendoza, Argentina (£8.39, Noel Young)
2) Tabali, Reserva Especial, 2007, Limari Valley, Chile (£8.99, Bacchanalia)
3) Au Bon Climat, Santa Maria Valley, 2006, California, USA (£17.65 Noel Young)
4) Peregrine, 2006, Central Otago, New Zealand (£16.99 Bacchanalia)
5) Craggy Range, Te Muna Road, 2006, Martinborough, New Zealand (£17.99 Waitrose)
6) Stonier, Mornington Peninsula, 2006, Victoria, Australia (£13.95)
7) Bergstrom, Willamette Valley, 2006, Oregon, USA (£19.99)
8) Virgile Linier, Vielles Vignes, Chambolle-Musigny, 2003 Burgundy, France (£30.95, Noel Young)

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Ukrainian Food and Wine Evening

I imagine it's fairly safe to say that Ukrainian food and wine is not well-known in this country, so I thought it would be at least unusual (and hopefully interesting) to present an evening of Ukrainian food and wine to the Cambridge Food & Wine Society last month.

Given the amount of cooking involved (the emphasis of the evening was more on the food than the wine), we had to limit our numbers, but a sudden flurry of last-minute interest led to us deciding to squeeze in a few extra people and even then we had to turn some people away.

After a few rounds of revisions, we ended up with around 10 food courses plus two types of sparkling wine, horilka (vodka) and brandy.

I started off by asking how many people, if any, had been to Ukraine - it turned out one couple had been on holiday and one member had travelled there on business a couple of times. That meant almost 90% of the audience had never been to Ukraine.

Next question was to see if anyone recognised any of the names of food items (all in Ukrainian) - most people got "borshch" (beetroot-based soup), "shokolad" was a fairly easy guess and one person got "ikra" (caviar, served on white bread with butter).

There were two main reasons that I put down only the Ukrainian-language versions of the food - firstly, in many cases, there is no English equivalent and secondly, the descriptions did not really do justice to the food. Stuffed cabbage rolls may not sound appetising, but the reality is that they are delicious little parcels of mince and rice, wrapped in a cabbage leaf and gently simmered in a tomato sauce until tender and then served with sour cream.

Other popular items included the otbivny (similar to a schnitzel, but made from pork and without breadcrumbs) and, particularly, varenyky (little pasta parcels like ravioli, but filled with sour cherries and served with yet more sour cream).

As for the drinks, the sparkling wines were generally deemed to be "workmanlike", but the vodka was a hit and the brandy received the most praise. Smooth with aromas of dried fruits and vanilla and a rounded and full-bodied feel in the mouth, there were plenty of requests for top-ups for this one.

I think part of the reason for the lack of success for the sparkling wines lies in the old Soviet attitude to agriculture in general - there is no concept of terroir in Ukraine, no idea that the key to producing great wine lies in the growing conditions and location of the vines. Instead, people tend to talk about which "factory" produces the best sparkling wine, as if wine-making is just another industrial process.

Another interesting footnote which turned up during my research is that Russia and Ukraine claim to have permission from France to label their sparkling wines "Champagne"; apparently, when sparkling wines were introduced into the then Russian empire, the rights to the use of the word “Champagne” was granted in perpetuity to the Russian Imperial Government by the French and that this cannot be rescinded.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Matching cheese and wine - Presenting to the Cambridge 800 Committee at Anstey Hall, Trumpington

Red wine with cheese ? Er, no thanks actually. As more people (including some esteemed wine writers) are finding out, cheese generally matches better with white wine. The main reason for this is that salt and tannin do not match. Now, most cheeses are fairly salty and most red wines have a fair amount of tannin, so the only surprise is how the whole red-wine-with-cheese myth came about in the first place.

Also, as cheese tends to have a fairly high fat content, the higher levels of acidity in a white wine, such as a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc, tend to cut through the fattiness of the cheese nicely.

That was the outline of a talk I gave to about 70 people at Anstey Hall in Trumpington, whose owner, John de Bruyne, had kindly made a room available for us. Normally, I give talks at the Cambridge Food & Wine Society, but someone who had been to one of my earlier talks on food and wine matching asked me if I could present this one for them.

My audience was members of the Cambridge 800 Committee, which raises money for the Cambridge & County Folk Museum (pictured), so it was all in a good cause. I was also joined by one of the Waitrose team from Trumpington who had researched the cheeses and got a colleague from the wine department to suggest the matches.

In the end, we sampled just one red wine that evening - a Rioja, paired with some manchego. Now I like both Rioja and manchego very much but, for me, the two were not necessarily enhanced by being consumed together, which rather supports my original position. The highlight of the evening was definitely an Austrian dessert wine with Roquefort. Both were delicious on their own, but together they really worked; creamy, yet pungent Roquefort matched with the unctuous, honeyed Beerenauslese.

The evening was really well received, but it was not my only speaking engagement that week - a few days later, I was due to give a talk on Ukrainian food ...