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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Italian tasting at Cambridge Food and Wine Society with Poggio Argentiera

If Justine Keeling-Paglia is to be believed, she is living the dream. The ex-marketing manager, married to a former agronomist, is now half of the husband-and-wife team behind Poggio Argentiera, a winery barely 14 years old in southern Tuscany which produces a range of red, white and dessert wines, mainly from indigenous grape varieties, as well as olive oil.

It sounds idyllic, but back in the real world, Justine explained to me, she had three children tummy upsets and a cellar manager with an injured knee after a car crash whilst husband GianPaolo, whom my neighbour described "intense, but very dishy, my dear" explained as part of his talk to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society, some of the headaches he faces as a wine-maker.

GianPaolo's approach to wine-making is thoroughly Old World, and very Italian; for him, wine is something to have as part of a meal, it should be complex, balanced and relatively low in alcohol with sufficient tannin and acidity to stand up to traditional Italian cuisine.

His attitude to the US as a potential export market is ambivalent to say the least - whilst acknowledging the sales potential, he finds the US approach of "bigger is better" (in relation to fruit and alcohol) and the idea of wine as a stand-alone beverage rather than as an accompaniment to food alien to his Italian principles.

And so to the wines - we started with two blends from the indigenous Ansonica and Vermentino grapes (the former being a relative of the Greek Roditis which I had tried for the first time at the Society's previous Greek tasting). The first wine was crisp and aromatic, the second a step-up with great structure.

Next came something a little unusual, an Ansonica fermented with the skins (a red-wine technique not generally used for whites), left on its lees whilst aging in concrete vats and bottled without filtration, it was full and smooth, but without the heaviness one might expect from something so markedly old-school.

Red wine in Tuscany generally equals Sangiovese, a grape I have historically struggled with - but GianPaolo's talk with his emphasis on wine as an accompaniment to food helped me make sense of it properly.

When matching food and wine, it is important to let one of the pairing dominate - for me, it is usually the wine that plays the lead role, with the food supporting. However, for an Italian, it is all about the food dominating, and suddenly Sangiovese makes sense - with high acidity, firm tannins and the sourness of cherries on the palate, it is not only needs food to go with it, but also plays a lesser, supporting role in the overall pairing; its relative lack of complexity is the very reason why it works as a support to food.

The first red of the evening was a Ciliegiolo (cheel-yeh-JOH-loh), a local variety related to Sangiovese with dark colour, ripe cherry fruit and a hint of spice. The next two reds were Sangiovese blends, the first clean and fresh from fermentation in stainless steel, the second a more rounded affair with added complexity from aging in oak.

The last of the dry reds was a "Super Tuscan" made from mainly French varieties (Alicante aka Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Franc). Super Tuscan wines are made with international grape varieties not permitted under Italian DOC classification, and therefore can only be labelled with the lowest classification IGT (but not sadly, with a price tag to match). Named Finisterre, this rich full wine with notes of liquorice and chocolate, was not only my favourite of the evening, but also, apparently, the critics' as it has been awarded Tre Bicchiere by Gambero Rosso.

To finish, there was something a little unusual - a red dessert wine made from Alicante grapes left to dry out in the sun before fermentation; the first impression was of intense sweetness and dark forest fruits, but then followed by notes of liquorice, spices and dark chocolate.

To accompany the wines, we had some typical Italian antipasti - of which more shortly.

Cambridge Food and Wine Society - http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/
Poggio Argentiera - http://poggioargentiera.com/

Gambero Rosso website (in English) - http://www.gamberorosso.it/en/

An explanantion of Gambero Rosso on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gambero_Rosso

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Greek Wines at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

Most wine books I checked out in advance of this recent tasting at the Cambridge Food and Wine Society politely suggested that Greece's history as a wine-producing country rather overshadows its present. They have a point: Greece more or less invented wine-production in Europe some several thousand years ago with references to wine dating back to the C9th BC in Homer. Moreover, the Greek word for wine, oinos, has also come variously into most European languages as vin, wein, vino and so forth, as well as giving us the words like oenology (the science and study of wine and wine-making).

Compare all this to a tawdry glass of retsina on a cheap package holiday and its easy to see why wine books have, until recently at least, harped on about Greece's history more than its present.

That is not to say there are not good wines made in Greece, but as Nick Kontarines of wine merchants Anglo-Hellenic Services pointed out to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society, they Greeks themselves are not always the best advocates of their own wines. With a mischievous sense of irony, he cited examples of Greek producers refusing to label their wines in Latin script because "nobody in the UK buys them"; well, perhaps the reason they don't buy them is precisely because they are in Greek script ...

Nick took us through the various wine regions and native grape varieties of Greece but as a first-timer to the world of Greek wines, it was, well, all Greek to me. What surprised me about many of the wines and especially the whites, is how light and fresh they were - given the typically torrid conditions of a Greek high summer.

The answer was in the elevation of the vineyards - the higher up, the cooler the growing conditions and the lighter the end result, despite the southerly latitude. It helped to think of the wines in terms of equivalent international styles and so the first wine, a Moschofilero, was likened to a Muscadet - light, lemony, with a touch of mineral backbone -whilst the Robola was the Greek equivalent of a Sauvignon Blanc, crisp and herbaceous.

The rose was actually a mixture of red and white wines, the only wine other than Champagne that may do this - and that seemed to be its most notable feature.

Nick's business partner took us through the reds, three of which were were from the native Agiorgitiko grape which means "St George" and produces fruity wines with spice and plums - the best of these was from the Gaia estate. Oak-aged and made from low-yielding vines it was the highlight of the evening and has scored 96 Parker points.

If any Greek wine other than retsina has an international profile, it is probably the (red) dessert wines made from Mavrodaphne; the example we tried was rich with raisins and figs cut through by a refreshing acidity.

The wines were accompanied by various Greek dishes prepared by the Society's committe and included  - alongside the obligatory olives, feta and pita bread - some delicious gigantes plaki (baked haricot beans) and melitzanosalata (aubergine dip).

The Wines - prices as quoted on the night

  • INO Moschofilero 2009, 15%, £7.00
  • Achais White (Roditis / Moscat), 2009, 12%, £7.50
  • Gentilini Robola, 2009 13%, £12.00
  • Dionysus Chora Rose (Grenache/Roditis/Xinomavro) 2007, 13%, £8.00
  • INO Agiorgitiko 2008 12.5%, £7.00
  • Co-op Nemea Agiorgitiko, 2008, 12.5%, £7.50
  • Karelas Achais Red (Cabernet Sauvignon / Mavrodaphne) 2006 14%, £9.00
  • Gaia Estate Agiorgitiko, 2006 14%, £18.00
  • Karelas Mavrodaphne of Patras 2006, 15%, £9.00

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

Anglo-Hellenic Services (Yamas Wines website) - http://www.yamaswines.co.uk/

Anglo-Hellenic Services - 7 Kingshill Close, Malvern WR14 2BP, Tel: +44 (0)168 457 87

Image credits: http://hellastrading.com/the_history.html

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Cambridge's Golden Square - The Devonshire Arms

Until recently, Cambridge had a Golden Triangle in the buzzy, cosmopolitan area of Mill Road (a two-mile strip of independent stores just to the south of the centre). The axes of this triangle were the three real ale pubs - the Kingston Arms, the Live and Let Live and the Cambridge Blue. A recent addition to this holy trinity of places of beer worship is the newly made-over Devonshire Arms.

Formerly a rather grubby establishment, the Devonshire Arms is now a smart and modern, but back-to-basics pub selling mainly beers from the Milton brewery based just north of the city. It is run by Individual Pubs who have five pubs in the south and east, all serving Milton beers.

Milton brewery is sited in a small, anonymous shack on a mini business park in Milton just north of Cambridge and makes beer only in casks - sadly, you can't get their stuff in bottles. I visited the brewery with the Cambridge Food and Wine Society as one of their more "off-piste" events a while ago for a talk from one of the brewing staff whilst samples of two of their beers (a light ale and a wheat beer) flowed liberally from two casks.

The enthusiasm of our speaker was infectious as he pointed out that beer was the basis of civilised society, requiring farming techniques and collaboration to grow the barley and hops for making the beer whilst the end result is a much safer drink than untreated water in many places.

We sampled some of the raw ingredients, malted barley and hops to get a sense of the qualities they add to the finished brew. It was a revelation to me to try rubbing hops (essentially flowers) between my fingers releasing the aromatic but bitter oils that are used not only to flavour beer, but also to preserve it - interestingly, hops have no known use other than in beer. Lagers have a much lower hop content and therefore lack the bitterness of an ale, whilst addition of extra hops results in an IPA, India Pale Ale (the extra hops originally being used to preserve the beer on its long sea journey to expats in the Raj).

Back at the Devonshire Arms, we sampled Milton's Tiki and Icarus - both golden coloured with rich malt and aromatic bitterness - as well as Nero, a stout with strong coffee overtones.

Several other beers from the brewery, all with Classical names were available but, as a fellow committee member pointed out a number of Milton's beers tend to follow a "house style" fairly closely with differences often being limited to mainly the level of alcohol. Guest beers included a Ripper at a whopping 8.5% and a Canary (presumably for Norwich City fans, but actually made up the road in Lowestoft).

We had used the pub as a venue for a committee meeting of the Cambridge Food and Wine Society and whilst its attractions as such were obvious, we had not reckoned on it being so busy - or so noisy - so sadly, we will not be going back for another meeting there.

But that does not preclude another visit on a social basis, especially now that they serve food; the menu is like the decor - simple and unfussy with prices to match.


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

The Devonshire Arms - http://www.individualpubs.co.uk/devonshire/

Individual Pubs - http://www.individualpubs.co.uk/

Milton Brewery - http://www.miltonbrewery.co.uk/