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Thursday, 28 January 2010


Not to be confused with a reality programme of almost the same name, I got the idea for wine-swapping whilst on holiday in Alsace a few years ago.

Thanks to the wonder (!) of modern technology, a colleague and I found ourselves emailing each other remotely via Blackberry when we should really have been enjoying our holidays. Realising we were both in wine regions of France (Alison was in Bordeaux), we agreed to buy each other a bottle of something local, bought directly from the producer, for a price limit of €10.

When we got back, we exchanged wines and I took ownership of a very nice red Bordeaux which accompanied a traditional roast beef dinner extremely well. My offering was an Alsace Riesling - two actually, as I had managed to get a couple of good examples for €5 each - which is very food friendly, but does not have too many traditional matches.

Alison asked for a recommendation of what she should drink it with and I thought of a couple of possibilities, but plumped for a simple and versatile pasta recipe.

Spaghetti with pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and rocket

I never weigh the ingredients for this recipe, except the pasta and all the amounts can be varied or adapted according to taste in any case.

Ingredients for 2 -4 people

Spaghetti or other flat pasta, allow around 50g - 75g dry weight per person

A handful of sun-dried tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes), roughly cut up

A couple of spoons of pesto

A splash of olive oil

A handful of pine nuts, gently toasted

Some Parmesan shavings

A good handful of rocket or lamb's lettuce


Start by toasting the pine nuts very gently, turning constantly in a frying pan until golden brown - they burn very easily !

Cook the pasta using plenty of well-seasoned water in a heavy-bottomed pan until al dente, drain and return to the pan; splash on some olive oil, stir in a few spoons of pesto and throw in the tomatoes, pine nuts and rocket. Stir once more and leave for a minute or so until the rocket wilts.

Serve as either a starter or a side dish and garnish with Parmesan shavings (use a potato peeler and a block of good Parmesan).

If using as a side dish, you can serve this with any easily-prepared, boneless meat, such as good butcher's sausages or griddled chicken breast.

Credit Crunch Wines at the Cambridge Food and Wine Society

The recession may be officially over, but it is always good to get a bargain and there was a very full turnout at the Cambridge Food and Wine Society's "Credit Crunch" wines event to pick up some tips from Robert Hammond, a WSET-qualified speaker and director of RHWine.

Robert outlined a number of strategies for getting good value from wine-buying - this was a much more sophisticated approach than simply going to Aldi rather than Waitrose ! Broadly, the strategies fell into two categories - unfashionable grapes / areas and smarter buying.

Some of the wines had been sold on deep discount and this area of retailing has become something of an art form in its own right. As a result, one has to approach deep discounts with a little caution, as retailing law in this area is quite complex and apparent price reductions may not always be quite as genuine as they seem. One common practice is a selective, artificial increase of the selling price of a product, followed by a widely and highly-publicised "discount" back to a sensible price level. For the retailers, this is something of a no-brainer as they can make very high margins on the artificially-inflated price and also promote the product at its normal price as being a bargain.

In the longer term, this constant manipulation of price becomes confusing for the consumer and undermines the integrity of the brand - there is one well-known Australian Chardonnay that shall remain nameless (but is sold with a yellow label) that retails for anywhere between about £5 and £9. At the lower end, it is fairly priced and a good example of what an oaked chardie should be - however, at £9 it is overpriced and I simply would not buy it.

Another alternative is buying direct from the producer - this is not so easy in the UK, especially if you do not live in the south ! That said, we have at least one local producer in Cambridge (Chilford Hall), plus some more in neighbouring counties. Buying direct from the producer somewhere like France, however, is a different proposition entirely and can be excellent value, even after allowing for the fixed cost of getting there (for more details of buying in Alsace, see my earlier blog entry ).

And so to the wines - the first wine was a cava with a gentle mousse, good yeast and fruit flavours. This was followed by Auntie's favourite tipple - a sherry. Rumours of a sherry revival have been around for a few years, but it has still not really caught on in the way that Pinot Grigio, for example, has. It is however, a favourite of mine in all styles from bone-dry fino and tangy Manzanilla to deep-hued oloroso and luscious PX. Sherry is, in my opinion, a vastly underrated wine and therefore offers fantastic value. This was a Manzanilla, aged in Sanlucar under flor which gives a salty edge; bone dry, crisp and refreshing, it's a lovely wine and certainly deserves more than just drinking before meals.

Next came an English wine, an Ortega (a modern German crossing of Muller-Thurgau and Siegrrebe) and a light Muscadet sur Lie Sevre et Main - the best of the various Muscadet appellations and the "sur lie" tag means it has been aged on its lees (essentially the dead yeast after fermentation has finished) to give a slightly fuller, smoother flavour.

Italian whites can be neutral at best and even super-neutral, but the final white, a Soave proved to be the most popular of the white wines and similar to an unoaked Chardonnay.

The first red was an example of a low-cost country, South Africa, and an unfashionable grape, Pinotage. Ironically, Pinotage is a cross that includes perhaps the most chic and generally expensive red wine grape in its parentage, Pinot Noir. This Pinotage, however, was smokey on the nose with black fruit aromas, deep black fruit on the palate, a touch of cabbage, tar and dark bittter chocolate on the finish. At £5, it is excellent value - if you like those kind of flavours !

Languedoc has long been one of the better value and most interesting wine regions of France; as a result, prices for AC wines in this area have risen and real bargain hunters will look for a (lower classification) Vin de Pays. The Domaine Laborie VDP d'Oc 2008 from the Wine Society is excellent value at only £4.95 (less if you collect it yourself!). It's well made for the price and good, everyday drinking. Fresh red fruit aromas give way to easy red fruit on the palate with some sweet spice and hints of oak. Not particularly complex, but well worth the money.

Italy and California are not the obvious places one thinks of for value wines but the last two wines disproved this - the Aldi Valpolicella Ripasso 2008 had a rich and interesting character and good cherry fruit, whilst the Marks and Spencer Californian Coastal Syrah 2006 from Bonny Doon was a Rhone copy - lots of black fruit, pepper and spice. This was the most popular red on the night and usually sells for around £12.00, but was bought during a 25%-off campaign.

The Wines

Clos Monistrol Cava 2005 - reduced from £9.99 to £4.00.

La Gitana Manzinalla - sells at around £7 - £8 in most outlets.

New Hall Ortega, 2004 - bought at the vineyard where they sell for around £6.50, less on an open day.

Muscadet sur Lie Sevre et Main, Domaine de la Tourmaline 2008 around £6.00 from Majestic

Fattori Soave Classico 2007 - Bought online from Marks and Spencers when they had a 25% sale
Swartland Pinotage 2006 - around £5.00 from Majestic

Domaine Laborie VDP d'Oc 2008 - £4.95 from The Wine Society

Aldi Valpolicella Ripasso 2008 £5.99 from Aldi

Marks and Spencer Californian Coastal Syrah 2006 - bought for £7 from M&S

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

RHWine - http://www.rhwine.net/CambridgeFoodWineSociety.html

Chilford Hall (vineyard section) - http://www.chilfordhall.co.uk/cgi-bin/ch/info.html?domain=info&name=Vineyard

New Hall Wines (producer of the Ortega) - http://www.newhallwines.co.uk/