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Monday, 31 January 2011

Château Lynch-Moussas 2004, Pauillac‏

I was recently given a bottle of Lynch-Moussas, a 5th-growth Bordeaux from Pauillac by Alex Barr of Genlead (thanks Alex!). According to a couple of experts I checked with, the 2004s are not set for long aging and are ready for drinking more or less now, so the other day we opened it up with a simple roast-beef dinner.

Bordeaux is my favourite source of red wines generally, but not having had a "classed growth" wine before, I was intrigued about what to expect - how would it be different from every other, non-classed, Bordeaux I have had ?

The nose showed initially rich blackcurrant followed increasingly by a delicious woodsiness and forest floor, with hints of vanilla and spice; the texture is very smooth texture, almost custard-creamy, and the finish is long and concentrated,with a gentle tannic grip and a slightly herbaceous edge. There is lots of juicy bramble fruit and a slight smokiness, almost like beeswax church candles.

What was, for me, most surprising about this wine is how soft and approachable it is, even at just 6 years old - I had expected something rather chewier and more tannic. Beyond that, it was a very well-made and enjoyable wine, but not stellar.

And with hindsight, plus a bit of research on the Internet, that stands to reason - according to the website 90plus Wines:

- Wine Spectator gave it 88/100 on 31 Mar 2007 and said it shows aromas of currant and sandalwood.

- Jancis Robinson rates it 17.5/20 on 06 Aug 2008 calling it quite complex and interesting. Real vivacity

These are good, solid scores and reviews, but not earth-shattering.

The Wine Doctor, Chris Kissack, says: Chateau Lynch-Moussas (Pauillac) 2004: Dense fruit here and overtly toasty oak marks the nose of this wine. On the palate there is a good grip and depth, with lots of firm structure and an appealing depth of berry fruit with a nicely composed substance. Good vigour, lots of ripe tannins, good acidity too. It is perhaps a touch on the lean side but it has potential for sure. From a 2004 Bordeaux tasting at four years of age. 16+/20

At first, I had wondered whether I was missing something, whether I should have been more impressed by the wine, whether it should have felt like it was in a completely different league from all else - on reflection, it is a very good and enjoyable wine, albeit from a less than stellar year, perhaps with more finesse and elegance than force of personality.


Lynch-Moussas - http://www.lynch-moussas.com/

The Wine Doctor - http://www.thewinedoctor.com/

Genlead - http://www.genlead.co.uk/

Thursday, 27 January 2011

A Wee Dram on Burns Night

I first got started on whisky in, of all places, a bar in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. My host, the Managing Director of our local agency there had previously worked for a whisky client and gave me a brief introduction as we sampled several different types and ages.

These days it's rare for there not to be a bottle of single malt in the CWB household to round off a particularly good meal, so I was looking forward to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society's recent Burns night whisky tasting.

For the event, Society Chairman Steve Vincent divided the evening into two parts, starting with a look at the effects of aging in different casks.

Scotch single malt whisky, for the uninitiated, is basically beer distilled into a spirit and then aged in old oak casks, often previously used for sherry, for 3 years and upwards. The distilled spirit is initially colourless and somewhat raw, but gains colour and softens out over time. Much of it also evaporates, making older examples darker and more intense (see here for more details from Wikipedia).

We first tried a blended whisky called Pig's Nose - blended whiskies (often from grain, rather than malt) are generally not held in as high regard as single malts, quite correctly in my opinion. This one was surprisingly good, smooth and mellow with a creamy feel, but still not as good as a the single malts that followed.

We started an entry-level 10yo Glenmorangie which I have had before and which is a good, honest whisky in a light and refreshing style.

The next three expressions were all 12yo but aged for their last two years in different casks - oloroso, Port and Sauternes.

Dry oloroso, with its nutty, toffee, sultana and slightly spicy aromas is a natural complement for whisky and works very well.

I was less convinced by the Port-cask-aged Quinta Ruban and felt the red wine and eucalyptus port flavours did not really enhance those from the whisky.

Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I liked the Sauternes-cask aged especially - I like dessert wines and the hints of rich, tropical fruit and orange marmalade sweetness of the dessert wine matched well with the freshness of the whiskey.

The rest of the group that evening were less convinced that this was the best of the three, but I was pleased to note that whisky author Michael Jackson (not the deceased pop star) takes the same view.

After pausing for a traditional Burns supper of haggis, bashed neeps and champit tatties (but thankfully no bagpipes), we moved on to a vertical tasting of Highland Park, located in the Orkneys and the most northerly Scotch whisky distillery in the world.

Highland Park's style is full-flavoured, peaty and smokey as befits its remote island origins, but a little less in-yer-face than, say, Islay malts.

The first expression was a 40% 12yo; all Highland Park expressions are aged in sherry casks, so as well as age the only other variables were an increasing alcohol level and an increasing proportion of first-fill casks, starting with 20%.

The 43% 18yo with 45% first-fill casks was darker and more intense, with rich oak, toffee sweetness, hints of marzipan and a smokey finish and has apparently won Best Spirit In The World - twice.

However, the finale of the evening proved to be something quite special - a 25yo Highland Park, 48% and 50% first-fill casks. Very rich and mature, with smoke, honey and fudge, it had a phenomenal length and finish.

The Whiskies

Pig's Nose - 5yo, 40%, £19

Glenmorangie Original - 10yo, 40%, £25

Glenmorangie Lasanta - 12yo, 46%, £34

Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban - 12yo, 46%, £35

Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or - 12yo, 46%, £42

Highland Park - 12yo, 40% £24

Highland Park - 18yo, 43%, £56

Highland Park - 25yo, 48%, £128


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

Glenmorangie - http://www.glenmorangie.com/

Highland Park - http://www.highlandpark.co.uk/

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

On Value

With the recent news that the UK economy shrank 0.5%, we are clearly still not out of the financial woods, so it seems timely to consider what makes a value wine.

generic "value" products
Supermarkets often have value ranges - this is usually a reference to them being 1) cheap and 2) unbranded (or at least generically branded as "own label").

To my mind, absolute price is no indication of value - a £3 bottle of wine is poor value if it is undrinkable, whilst a £10 bottle which outperforms more expensive examples can be great value, provided you like it.

And that's the key issue - value is a very personal, subjective matter, it's based on an assessment of what you think personally (although the opinions of others are relevant in a way, too, as we shall see).

Value is about cost versus benefit, and benefits are subjective judgements.

I remember a boss many years ago who was a bit flash and said when at a restaurant, he always insisted on buying the most expensive Champagne on the list. I don't believe that tasting blind he could have told the difference between an expensive but middling Champagne and a cheaper alternative, but to him it was important to be seen to be drinking Champagne.

Nowadays, we'd call him a label snob, but for him restaurant Champagne was good value because the benefits (relating to image and perception rather than to the wine itself) outweighed the cost.

In a sense, he had fallen completely for the myth that luxury brands are a symbol of success and sophistication - this was before the days of The Millionaire Next Door, remember.

These days, I measure value, in a wine or anything else for that matter, by the formula:

What I paid / what I would be prepared to pay

Anything over 1 is good value, anything under 1 is bad value, whilst 1.0 means it is priced just right - for me, that is.

The part of the value calculation that can be affected by the attitudes of other people is the actual selling price and here fashion can play a huge part, depending on the pricing model used.

There are many pricing models for goods and services, but the two key ones to consider here are cost plus and market pricing.

Cost plus takes the cost of producing a bottle of wine plus a sensible profit element for the producer and that becomes the price; by contrast, market pricing assesses what people are prepared to pay regardless of cost to produce.

In general, cost-plus works for everyday goods where supply is plentiful (if you are inefficient or take too high a profit, someone keener or bigger will undercut you) whilst market pricing works for luxury goods or very new products where demand outstrips the limited supplies.

It may cost a little more to produce a 1st growth Bordeaux than an unclassed growth in a neighbouring village, but the price for a Latour is set not by the cost of production but rather by what the market will pay for the wine.

In recent years, prices for top Bordeaux have been rising in line with the increase in Asian millionaires; that is, as a result of increased demand, and not because the wine has been getting any better. Some might argue that the wine was therefore previously undervalued - somewhat smugly if they happen to own some.

To me, it is mere price inflation - but then, I've never tried the wine. If you are lucky enough to have done so and you thought, for example, that it was worth significantly more than the £700 pounds plus that it now commands, then it was indeed a good value wine for you.

Back in the real world, bargain hunters can seek out the unfashionable to be more likely of finding value.

Some of my favourite wines are sherry and dry Riesling; they happen to be deeply unfashionable at the moment but make some superb wines.

The reasons why they are out of fashion are similar for both - historically, we saw a high number of poor examples in this country and the modern, good ones are still tainted by the perception of the old.

So much the better for anyone who likes them, then.

Another source of value wines is the bin-end - wine that is still good, but genuinely marked down just to sell it quickly. The seller's lost profit is my gain as a bargain hunter.

Bulk buys can also improve value - many wine merchants offer a case discount so if you like a wine enough to want 12 bottles, it is much cheaper to buy them all at once rather than individually. This is known as economies of scale - it takes just as long to sell 12 bottles as 1, so the merchant can offer a case discount to reflect the lower selling cost per unit.

Economic theory tells us that the greatest advances in our global wealth have come from the economies of scale achieved since the industrial revolution, so are economies of scale the way forward ?

In the area of wine, we may need to be careful what we wish for - mass-produced wines may be cheaper than they've ever been, (think New World chardie), but are they as thrilling and as good value as a lovingly crafted artisan wine costing just a little more ?

Of course, it's a completely personal decision.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Côtes du Rhône Village Visan, La Guintrandy 2009

The Rhône is really two neighbouring sub-regions - the North, home to a small number of rarefied vineyards which are the historic origins of Syrah and Viognier, and the South which is a more cosmopolitan mixture of heady, southern varieties producing wines with hedonistic baked aromas of plums, prunes and figs.

The basic appellation here is Côtes du Rhône AOC (with or without a village name appended). This Côtes du Rhône Village Visan "Le Devès" is from domaine La Guintrandy which has been a family estate since 1850 and is now run by fifth and sixth generation owner-winegrowers, Marie-Claude and Olivier Cuilleras.

La Guintrandy, situated in the Le Devès area of Visan, is a member of the Patrimoine des Terroirs association of independent winemakers (I reviewed a couple of Burgundies from them last year) and follows the group's ethical, quality-led and terroir-driven approach; the wine is made from vines between 20 and 30 years old, with manual harvesting, long maceration, no filtration and low sulphur content.

There is vanilla, some dark berry fruit and woodsy undergrowth on what is quite a restrained nose. The palate shows typical Grenache aromas of plums and prunes, slightly baked in character but certainly not jammy, ripe berry fruit and a mouthfilling texture with smooth, well-integrated tannins. The finish is pleasantly savoury and fresh, with a balanced sour rasp and tannic grip.

Despite the almost New World alcohol level (14%), the sweetness is restrained and the acidity proves refreshing.

It impresses not so much by any complexity of aromas (although these are likely to develop over time given its relative youth and aging potential), but by the depth, intensity and richness of the both flavour and texture, as well as by the length.

It is approachable enough to drink by itself, but benefits from matching with food; we had it with beef wellington, the tannins softened by the meat whilst the acidity cut though the rich pastry.

It has a silver medal from Macon 2009.

Provided for review.


La Guintrandy - http://www.vins-cuilleras.com/wine-domaine.htm

Patrimoine des Terroirs - http://patrimoinevin.canalblog.com/

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Marketing The New World and The Old

I recently put up some thoughts, here, on the New World and The Old and suggested that these days the difference is more of style than geographic origin. Another distinction between the two is in how the wines themselves are marketed.

Pick up a bottle of French wine at random and it is likely to have a picture of a chateau or some decorative script on the front.

By contrast, a New World wine will typically have a cleaner, simpler design on its label.

What has this got to do with the wine inside the bottle - well, everything and nothing; to a certain way of thinking, the label on the outside of a bottle has no relevance to the wine on the inside. And yet, when consumers look at rows of supermarket wines, shelf appeal is a factor in deciding which wines go into the trolley and which stay put.

If your signature says something about the person you are, then the label is the equivalent for wine - it can be traditional, funky, quirky, old-school, clean-and-modern, flowery or jokey.

And whilst there's no research that I'm aware of on the subject, it stands to reason that no-nonsense old-school people are in general probably more inclined to find a no-nonsense old school label appealing, whilst more modern types are perhaps more inclined towards edgier labels with more of a gastropubby feel.

And let us not forget the back label - a personal note from the wine-maker (perhaps mentioning that the wine was named after his new puppy) will create a sense of partnership and stakeholder engagement with the potential consumer in a way that a simple tasting note and food accompaniment suggestion will not.

Wine-judging competitions do away with these frivolities by serving the wine blind to experienced tasters who assess the wine on its merits as an example of the category for which it has been entered.

Wine competitions are not without their limitations, however, and winning an award can be just another part of the marketing mix.

After all, there are awards and there are awards; Decanter for example, has a range of accolades from commended, bronze, silver and gold medals to trophies (of which a wine can have more than one). So, the term "Decanter-awarded" covers quite a range of possible options and it is quite common for wines to be promoted as having "an award" without any immediately obvious indication of the level actually achieved.

Marketing is naturally the preserve of large corporations (think Unilever, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and the like). And whilst there is a place in the world for the reliable, standardised products these companies make, wine is more often an artisan product, frequently made by individuals on a small scale for whom any serious marketing activity is an unnecessary extravagance.

There do exist some large wine-making corporations - mainly in the New World - who churn out blended, standardised bulk wines and there is a place for these wines in the world too. It's just that the wine they churn out is a branded, mass product and not an artisan one.

Ultimately, I believe the world of wine will re-divide itself from Old World / new World into plonk, everyday wine and fine wine and that production of plonk will increase dramatically as interest in wine takes off in Anglo-Saxon countries, whilst prices for fine wine will rocket as interest from Asia and new billionaires, for example, expands with no corresponding increase in supply.

In the middle bracket of everyday wine, the difference will be that, compared to the Old-World / New World split of the 1970s, distinctions will be based on production methods, yields, terroir, scale and, yes, marketing methods - regardless of the hemisphere in which the wine is made.

However, smaller-scale wineries are increasingly finding ways to club together to engage in marketing activity through shared costs, without the huge overhead investment of a Foster's Group or a Gallo: Naked Wine's Angels scheme and the French Patrimoine des Terroirs are just two examples where marketing costs are being shared across of group of small independents.

In Naked's case, around 30,000 Angels invest a regular sum each month which the company uses to fund start-ups directly, thus cutting out several layers of middlemen.

Patrimoine des Terroirs, run by Alain Vautherot, is a group of around 30 independent French winegrowers who take a collegiate and standardised approach to marketing and distribution - i.e. paying only 1/30th of the cost of going it alone.

Other related articles
The New World vs The Old‏

On breadth vs depth in tasting‏

Building a taste memory


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

Patrimoine des Terroirs - http://patrimoinevin.canalblog.com/

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Confessions of a bin-end browser: Spier Chardonnay 2009 W.O. Western Cape‏

Some retailers have made discounting almost into an art form, with price being more a part of the marketing mix than a true indication of what the merchant thinks the product is worth.

Thankfully, the independents generally don't waste time and effort on this sort of befuddling nonsense and for them, the price is the price.

Occasionally, however, a clear-out of the warehouse reveals old stock or odd, leftover items that just need shifting and thus, as an inveterate bargain hunter, I found myself riffing through a selection of seriously marked-down bottles at Cambridge Wine Merchant's Mill Road store

Some I chose on price alone (for a few pennies, it can always go in the cooking), but this 2009 South African Chardonnay caught my eye as something that might actually be quite good - New World chardie is usually pretty reliable and I've never had a bad wine from CWM.

And so it proved - nutty, oatmealy, toasty, textbook stuff but with a hint of tarriness and a streak of ripe tropical fruit acidity holding it all in check. With more air, there is honeysuckle and orange blossom and a waxier texture.

Savoury, full-bodied and mouthfilling with just a hint of tannic buzz, it is distinctly New World, but more restrained than the 14.5% alcohol suggests.

According to the label, the company dates back to 1692, making it actually quite old for the New World, with grapes first pressed in 1712.

Match with typical chardie food - chicken (roasted or in a stew) or a Thai green curry. With its high-but-ripe acidity, it will also stand up to fattier meats, such as roast pork.

£3 bin-end from CWM, standard retail price £6.75.


Spier Winery - http://www.spierwines.co.za/

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

Friday, 21 January 2011

The New World vs The Old‏

In the olden days of the 1970s, wines were divided neatly into the Old World (Europe) and the New (everywhere else).

It was an easy distinction, based on old certainties - Old World wines were classics and New World wines were upstarts; a world in which James Bond could identify a sherry as a '61 ("I wash refurring to the yurr of the originul solera ... eighteen shixty one").

It is also a distinction based on an idea so prevalent that it was not even really acknowledged as existing (since there was no alternative view) - that of terroir. One bought a wine originating from Bordeaux or Australia, not a Cab or a Syrah.

Terroir, a unique combination of soil, climate and aspect that makes a wine speak of a particular location, seems to swing in and out of fashion as an idea.

To the erstwhile iconoclastic wine-makers of the New World it was a notion to be rubbished as being no more than a mere marketing con by the Old World to keep prices for their inferior wines artificially high.

Tell everyone that Bordeaux is just a blend of Cab and Merlot (mostly) and you can then sell them you Aussie Cab-Merlot blend as a similar style of wine or at least a familiar grape variety.

The New World (plus several sympathetic and equally iconoclastic wine writers) did a huge amount to demystify the world of wine in those days.

They also introduced modern techniques to allow grapes to be grown in a wider range of places (yes, terroirs) and sharpened up wine-making practice to produce, clean, fruity, well-made easy-drinking wines that could be quaffed without food, did not need years in a damp cellar to mature and which were easy to understand and immediately enjoyable.

But then things seemed to go too far; New World wines became overly alcoholic, overly fruity and monolithic, overly branded and overly discounted. Look at a row of supermarket New World wines and see how many are on special, deep-discount offer. Try one with your eyes closed and see if you have any idea where it comes from.

Ripe ? Fruity ? Sweetish ? It could be from Australia, California, South Africa or Chile. It could even be southern Italy, inland Spain or southern France.

And there's the rub - the New World did such a good job of finding new places to grow grapes that the flying wine-makers found they could teach their techniques to hitherto unsuccessful parts of the Old World in the antipodean off-season and Europe's New-World Old World was born.

At the same time, Old World France began funking up its wine labels for greater shelf-appeal and, in the ultimate irony, copied the New World approach of putting the grape variety on the label; no more stuffy Burgundy, this is now a Chardonnay actually.

Next, the New World discovered terroir - yes, some places do produce better wines as a result of the soil types and climatic conditions - and ever more precise delinations were drawn up in hitherto broad-brush regions.

A pioneer of this in Chile for example is Rafael Urrejola of Vina Undurrage (see here) who has created a series of wines called Terroir Hunter which do reflect the terroir where they are grown.

So, where does that leave the Old World / New World distinction now ?

Certainly it is no longer a geographic distinction if just a few miles inland in a cool-climate valley, Chile can produce crisp, steely retrained whites that taste like they could have come from the Loire.

It is now much more a distinction of style - cool-climate restraint and texture vs warm-climate aroma and fruit - and is reflected in the alcohol level of the wine.

Debra Meiburg MW told me about the following simple test for novice blind tasters to establish if a wine is from the New World or Old - hold the wine at waist-level and raise it gradually; if you can smell the wine before it reaches your chin, it's New World.

It's a great test, but increasingly will tell you more about style than provenance.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Strange bedfellows - Austria, Australia and Portugal‏

Austria, Australia and Portugal may seem like strange bedfellows, but recently I took part in a fascinating discussion with a number of fellow wine enthusiasts on where the Portuguese wine industry is going and made an off-the-cuff comment about Austria vs Australia as potential commercial models.

Apart from both beginning with "A", these two countries have little in common and now find themselves at opposite ends of a spectrum of possibilities for a country with a new wine industry.

Hunter Valley vines
What both do have in common is a history of wine-making and a re-invention of themselves in recent history; Australia's wine-making tradition goes back well over 100 years and it even has some of the oldest vines on the planet (in the Hunter Valley), but it was not really until the 1960s and '70s that the country made a conscious decision to become a mass-market wine-producing country.

By the 1980s, Australia had become synonymous with its well-made, easy-drinking, fruity wines, especially oaky Chardonnay and spicy Shiraz.

By contrast, Austria's wine-making traditions go back much further -many hundreds, if not thousands, of years - but its reinvention came even more recently, in the mid-1980s in the wake of the glycol scandal that to this day remains the reference point for the start of Austria's modern wine industry.

Like Bob Dylan going electric, the country re-invented itself almost overnight; hi-tech production techniques were brought in, fermentation was brought in-house where it could be properly controlled and monitored for probity and formerly semi-sweet wines became not just dry, but piercingly so in many cases.

So much for the history, but where are they now ?

Go to any supermarket, wine merchant or internet retailer and you are pretty much guaranteed to find a fairly wide range of Aussie wines, many of them at "everyday drinking" prices, heavily promoted, branded and discounted.

Most will display the grape variety prominently on the label and have a name that may or may not be indicative (or merely suggestive) of origin - Bin this or Creek that, for example.

Look on the back label or the information section of the website and you will see that many of them originate from somewhere within a vast generic area of Australia, such as South or South Eastern.

Australia pioneered the concept of varietalism - that is to say, the idea that a Merlot from down-under was made from the same grape variety as a right-bank Bordeaux.

It needed to do this in order to promote its wines and break down the Old World's monopoly of terroir. If there was a perception that an Australian red could never be as good as a claret, dear boy, the Aussies could now retort that, actually mate, this is the same grape variety.

The Australian commercial vision of its wine industry was all about volume - large quantities of wine, available worldwide, supported by heavy marketing spend and distribution through supermarkets, produced and sold by corporate behemoths with the size, ambition and aggression to carve out market share. A bit like Coca-Cola.

As to the wine itself, it was (and still is) in general technically well-made in a ripe, fruity, unchallenging, crowd-pleasing sort of way, but with little sense of origin. Again, a bit like Coca-Cola.

Austria, on the other hand, recognised it was never going to be a volume player because it simply is not big enough as a country - it is small to start off with and of what there is, 4/5ths is mountains.

In the face of the glycol scandal, the country sensibly opted for technical excellence and quality control, like Australia, but also maintained not just regional identity (Wachau wines are very different from Burgenland's and Styria's) but also stressed terroir and origin with labelling by individual vineyard for the very best wines.

However, what Austria notably has not done is to try and make their wines easy to understand for an overseas audience; the labels are not easy to read for Anglo-Saxons and whilst they usually at least note the grape variety on the front, it risks being either something slightly frightening and unfashionable like Riesling or a local name for a familiar grape - Austrian Grauburgunder is actually every pub's favourite, Pinot Grigio.

And who can pronounce Trockenbeerenauslese, let alone explain what it means ?

Perhaps it is only appropriate that the country that gave us Freud's analysis couch should be more inward-looking than a bunch of expats who may be only a generation from their European homeland.

In any case, try to find Austrian wines in the UK and, apart from a small number of specialist importers, you will generally struggle - you probably won't see it at the supermarket and even independent wine merchants may only have one or two examples stocked.

Austrian wines are also naturally at least a little challenging (it's why I love them so much) but the dry whites with their high, but balanced acidity and minerally full body make great food wines and the dessert wines are just superb.

They have not captured, and probably never will, the public's imagination and wallets in the way that New World chardie once did, but then that just means they do not have to fight it out with the supermarkets and the big wine companies for shelf space and distribution.

Rather, they are free to work on building a reputation amongst the kind of people who will spend over tenner as opposed to less than a fiver on a bottle of wine.

And whilst the country does not yet have the worldwide recognition of, say, top French regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy, basic economics tells you that if you have limited supplies of something popular, then prices will inevitably rise faster than for more plentiful goods. Barrels of Aussie Chardonnay, for example.

My experience of living and working amongst the Austrians is that they do not lack ambition, but rather like the Habsburg dynasty that ruled most of Europe for 600 years, they take a more sophisticated approach to expansion - strategic dynastic alliances via marriage rather than wars, for example.

So, volume and aggressive market share on the one hand, quality and aspirational pricing on the other; two very different models but a choice that faces many a New World wine industry trying to set out its own commercial vision; in Chile, just to give one example, Concha y Toro has shown us it can do volume and quality whilst Vina Undurraga is also showing that the country can do terroir, too.

For my part, I think Portugal needs to start by making the same clear distinction - more Mateus rosé-type plonk vs a quality-led approach - and that it stands the most chance of success by copying the Austrian model.

It has the basics in place for a decent wine industry - heritage and awareness (Port is a good start), a range of vineyards and appellations from Vinho Verde in the north to Lagos in the south, a slew of indigenous grapes (258, apparently) and a tourist industry that will enable people to become more familiar with its wines on holiday and then start asking for them back home.

But, at this stage, I have to say, I don't know personally what Portugal stands for or have much of a sense of its regionality. Whilst that's partly my own fault, it's also a reflection of the general lack of availability of the wines in the shops, tastings or, yes, commentary on the internet (or even wine books) to give a basic understanding and spark an interest to learn more.

What would it take to get me drinking Portuguese wines ? Assuming the country goes down the quality (rather than volume and price) route, then there needs to be something of a buzz around Portuguese wines, a reason to try them - and availability.

I would want to know the key characteristics of each region in the way I expect a Loire white to be crisp and herbaceous, a red Bordeaux to have texture and an Alsace white to be ripe yet dry.

Are they food wines - what is the local food they go with ? I have had any amount of wine from inland Spain with tapas at wine bars; where are the Portuguese equivalents ?

Or is it the case that, like Austria, the local cuisine does not particularly match the wines and they should be paired with something else ?

I need a mental map of the country and what it has to offer; this could come from other wine writers, my local wine merchant, gastropubs and restaurants or tastings.

Creating an image for your country's wines does not happen overnight - Austria has been making excellent wines now for decades and people still look at me in surprise when I give Austria as my favourite producer of wines rather than, say, Bordeaux or Burgundy.

But as I have noted above, Austria has not exactly courted an overseas audience - or at least has not been prepared to sacrifice its own sense of identity in doing so.

Creating a national or regional identity is something that needs to be done at a national or regional level via a wine-makers' alliance or trade-body; it is not something individual producers can achieve by themselves - especially if they are focused on delineation, terroir and artisan production.

It requires something like the CIVB in Bordeaux or the BIVB in Burgundy, for example, to set out a marketing strategy and implement awareness-raising programs, identifying potential opinion leaders and supporters and secure distribution in the right channels (upmarket restaurants, not supermarkets).

Another country that has carved out a niche for itself as a new source of low-volume, high-quality wines with a sense of terroir is New Zealand; and with English as its mother tongue, it is easy to appeal to the international market.

Portugal would do well to have a look at that particular case study too, but that's a whole other story for another day.

Footnote (Feb 7, 2011): Portugal seems to be on a bit of a much-needed public relations roll at the moment, as this article from Jancis Robinson shows:


Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Three Horseshoes, Madingley‏

Photograph by Tricia de Courcy Ling
There comes a time when you have a young family when going for a meal means just finding somewhere that will keeps the kids occupied and not be too sniffy about a bit of noise; if the food is memorable, it's a plus.

Occasionally, however, you tell the kids it's a special occasion and that they must behave nicely as they are going to a Smart Restaurant.

Madingley Hall
In the last decade of living in Cambridge, there is one place that we have kept coming back to - the Three Horseshoes based in Madingley, a small village just outside Cambridge with some thatched cottages, a rather grand-looking hall and the pub itself in the centre.

It has been a typical gastropub since before the term was coined - a thatched cottage on the outside, it has a modern, stripped-wood interior at the front which forms the bar area and a smarter restaurant area at the back which extends into the conservatory looking out onto a garden with fields beyond.

The The Horseshoes was originally part of a small group of local gastropubs run by an MW, but was bought out by chef-patron Richard Stokes a few years ago.

The change of ownership does not seem to have changed much in the way things are done, which is a Good Thing.

On this occasion, we took advantage of the January Sales menu (3 courses plus coffee for a very reasonable £19).

Wines are served by the glass, but a bottle is better value, so I ordered an Alpha Zeta Garganega from Veneto and announced I would not be driving home.

I've had Garganega only occasionally before and on this occasion, tasted blind, I would have confidently (but wrongly) sworn it was an Alsace Pinot Blanc - crisp and appley on opening with ripe pineapple acidity and a smooth texture, it developed into something richer and more mouthfillingly heavy with a honeysuckle waxiness, spicy, perfumey notes and a hint of smokiness during the meal - it proved to be a great match for the subsequent food with a great balance of acidity and body.

After bread with oil and vinegar for dipping, starters were sheep's milk ricotta dumplings with deep fried sage leaves for some of us, whilst I opted for a selection of salamis with bruschetta.

The Three Horseshoes has always taken a rustic Italian inspiration for its menus, refined it a little but not too much and for its bar menu, at least, served up hearty portions.

For the main, we all picked for the same choice - a piece of pan-fried salmon with smashed cannellini beans, spinach and a salsa. There are some things that should not be messed with and to my mind salmon is one of those; it was served as it should be, well-cooked and well-flavoured, pink and flakey with a generous quarter of lemon to squeeze, but for me the highlight was actually the spinach which had a wonderful depth of earthy flavour.

We were more diverse in our choice of puddings - the kids opted to share a burnt caramel ice-cream with biscotti, some of us had panna cotta which was light and gooey but deliciously creamy, whilst I chose the apple crumble with creme fraiche ice-cream.

If you like your puddings rich and satisfying, then the Three Horseshoes could be your kind of place - my crumble was a generous bowl of lightly stewed and still firm apple chunks with a rich crunchy, toasty topping.

There is no children's menu, no portions of chips, but helpfully, when they saw we had two kids they offered to divide one portion into two and serve them separately which is about the most child-friendly gesture I have seen in a long time and typical of the attentive and professional, but friendly and unpretentious service.

In our household, a measure of whether we like somewhere is if we've been three times or more; well, I've lost count of the number of times we've been to the Three Horseshoes over the years which, for us, is CWB accolade of sorts - and I'm pleased to say that on this most recent visit, the quality of the food and the welcome was as good as it's always been.

The Alpha Zeta Garganega is available in Cambridge, at least, from Noel Young Wines and Cambridge Wine Merchants; both do mail order.


The Three Horsehoes - http://www.threehorseshoesmadingley.co.uk/

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

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

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Giuseppe Giusti Barrel-aged Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is a bit like the noughties version of the prawn cocktail - suddenly very trendy and then rather passé.

Another analogy would be chicken; a product that started off high-end but then moved downmarket and became a bit everyday, coarse and unexciting in the process.

I went through my own "balsamic phase" in the early noughties after having it with bread and olive oil in restaurants, but then found the supermarket versions I tried rather disappointing.

At the Fine Wine Fair in London last year, however, one stall was offering small drops of a thick dark liquid to sample and after one mouthful, I remembered why I had liked it so much in the early days.

This balsamic vinegar from Giuseppe Giusti is aged in barrels for 12 years, giving it an intensity, dense richness and mellowness that is rather remarkable and unlike any basic supermarket own-label stuff.

Based in Modena, the same broad region of Italy that gave us Parma ham, Vermouth, hazelnut praline and bolognese sauce (as well as Ferrari and Lamborghini), the company can trace its history back to 1605 and was once a supplier to the erstwhile Italian monarchy.

With good, balanced sweetness and acidity, it is neither cloying nor overly tart and a few drops seem to go quite a long way.

We like to keep things simple, either for dipping bread as a starter or a few drops on a piece of steak (along with some shaved parmesan and rocket).

It won, apparently, 14 gold medals in the 19th century alone and has awards from competitions in Vienna, Paris, Brussels, Bologna and Modena.

A 25cl bottle costs around £15.


Giuseppe Giusti - http://www.giusti.it/

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Naked Angels' Favourite: Kimbao Pinot Noir 2010, Rapel, Chile

If Burgundy is Pinot's spiritual home and New Zealand makes the best New World Pinot, Chile is perhaps the best source of affordable, reliable Pinot - and that's no mean feat.

Thin-skinned, low-yielding and prone to both disease and mutation, it's not exactly the easiest grape to grow and vinify. And yet, when done successfully, it produces a wine with all sorts of intoxicating and hedonistic aromas and a soft-yet-mouthfilling texture.

You won't necessarily find all that in a young Pinot and you'll rarely get much change out of a tenner even for an entry-level example.

Chilean Pinot is typically very different in style from a red Burgundy, and should offer perfume, texture and drinkability. This Rapel Valley Pinot Noir is from Constanza Schwaderer and Felipe Garcia at Bravado Wines which is funded directly by Naked Wines Angels scheme.

Perhaps it's no co-incidence that the two New World countries that are most known for their Pinots are also the two with most sense of terroir - in Chile's case, it is not the the usual north-south measures that apply but east-west which gives in indication of elevation and therefore climate.

So, it is good to see this wine comes with quite a specific demarcation - the Rapel valley, which Oz Clarke calls one of Chile's most exciting red wine regions.

Overall, it's a light and fruity but well-made wine that can be drunk without food; on opening, it quickly develops a typical Pinot nose of red berries and mushroomy woodsiness, with cherries, truffles and spice on the palate.

With some more air, the nose becomes more restrained, but the palate, and especially the texture, develop with soft mouthfilling tannins, more cherry fruit and a funk of perfumed savouriness.

It's not a full-on food wine and there is not a huge amount on the finish, making this suitable for quaffing; that said, it is improved with some food and we enjoyed this toad-in-the-hole using butcher's sausages with onion gravy; the cherry sourness cuts through the dish whilst the perfume was enhanced by the herbs in the sausages.

Constanza is no stranger to awards and she and Felipe were voted Winemakers of the year 2010 by Naked's customers.

£10.99 from Naked Wines - with discounts for Angels. Provided for review.


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

Bravado Wines - http://www.bravadowines.com/

Sunday, 16 January 2011

On Blogger Independence and Disclosure

I've been reading a few articles recently by some of the more established wine writers about the economics of wine writing and blogging; Jamie Goode sagely pointed out that a wine blog is unlikely to become a source of riches in itself (see here), whilst Wine Doctor Chris Kissack  raised the question of bloggers doing it just for the free wine, so to speak (see here).

Chris's article raises an interesting issue of blogger independence and conflicts of interest which looks set to become a hot topic in the near future. I dropped him a note on this but thought it worth expanding my comments here.

1 Conflict of interest

A conflict of interest occurs when one's personal interests come into conflict with one's professional responsibilities. They occur everywhere, such as the insurance broker who receives more commission if he sells you company A's policy vs company B's or the Purchasing Manager who is wined and dined by a large supplier.

So, if an amateur blogger (and most are) writes a post telling you "product x" is great and you must try it, you might feel inclined to give it a go. However, if you learn that the blogger regularly receives free samples from the manufacturer of "product x", you might feel slightly different about the recommendation.

You should certainly question the journalistic integrity and independence of the blogger who recommends something to you without anywhere disclosing the fact that it is received it as a free sample from the producers (or their agent).

A different matter is a journalist paid enough for other writings who does not need to rely on freebies to maintain a lifestyle; but how do you tell? In general, you can't.

Wine Doctor Chris Kissack gives an example of a company offering him £100 worth of wine every month in return for a column on the wines he has chosen, but subject to him putting a specific link into his review in a specific place in the blog.

Clearly there is a conflict of interest for the amateur blogger if she receives product to review and does not indicate that fact anywhere. Agreeing to add in paid-for content (i.e. a link or a specific wording) is just taking it a step even further.

2 Disclosure

If conflicts of interest are best avoided, where they can't be avoided they should at least be disclosed so informed judgements can be made.

Professional service firms such as lawyers and advertisers usually have detailed policies on dealing with conflicts of interest - you can't ethically represent both sides in a dispute just as you can't properly develop advertising strategy for both Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

However, with proper controls and disclosure in place, you might represent one company in one area and a competitor in another, provided all parties decide that there is no conflict of interest and agree to the arrangement.

The answer here is, as anywhere else, about openness and honesty; the more of both, the better for all involved.

Undisclosed conflicts of interest and a general lack of honesty will eventually bring into disrepute not just the individual blogger, but the producers and their agents who encourage this sort of activity and ultimately, the whole marketing communications industry.

Not good.

In the short term, there will be plenty more morally-slack or just naïve individuals who are happy to put a specific wording and web link into one of their product reviews in order to get their free sample or money-off voucher.

And because blogging is a new medium with no established practice, code of conduct, regulation or even training for most bloggers who are mostly amateurs, it currently holds the same mixture of both lawlessness and opportunity as the wild west (although that is set to change).

Some bloggers, of course, are ex-journalists (or event current journalists moonlighting on another topic) who know the game, play by the established rules and whose blogs are correspondingly professional.

But amateurs, who see blogging as a quick and easy way to a few freebies, may simply not have the experience or nous to recognise when their formerly-independent reviews are being turned into paid-for advertorial by some sharp practice on the part of ambitious and determined marketing types.

For an analogy of what happens when marketing or communications are shown to be disingenuous and overly manipulated, just look at the debate over air-brushing of models in glossy magazines, or the comment by a UK spin doctor that 9/11 was a "good day to bury bad news" (see here).

Having worked variously in commission-based sales, finance and marketing services over the last two decades, I understand disclosure and conflicts of interest pretty well - having had it drummed into me by my professional studies and seen it first hand.

As a result, I like to keep things simple, ethical and open; I have a Blog Principles and Samples Policy.

Like Chris Kissack, I was also recently approached by a company with a request to put certain wording into a review in order to get a money-off voucher. I was not asked to conceal any of the requests made of me, but I decided to decline anyway for other reasons.

When people send me wine for review, I get childishly excited about opening up the package; it feels like Christmas all over again. But ultimately I review the wine based on what's in the bottle and I am never asked to put in specific wording or links - it's all my own, for better or worse.

Moreover, all the producers, agents and retailers I've dealt with so far have been, whilst pleasant and friendly, sufficiently professional not to put me under any pressure at all to say anything specific about the wines I have been sent.

In the end, though, it all comes down to that old chestnut; honesty is the best policy.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

J Charpentier Réserve Brut at Taste of Christmas

At the Taste of Christmas event last year, I tried a couple of Champagnes and was impressed at just how much like "proper", "good" Champagne they tasted.

Two decades ago, as a long-haired teenage, I did the obligatory month-long interrailing train holiday round Europe and, amongst other adventures, visited the Moet & Chandon winery in Reims for the tourist tour.

Perhaps I was spoiled by this early experience, but subsequent sparklers over the years generally failed to impress quite as much as my recollections of what we given to try at the end of that tour.

The J Charpentier vineyard
However, a few tastings last year got me back into Champagne and this example from J Charpentier was equally impressive. J Charpentier goes back five generations and is based in the Marne Valley, just to the west of Epernay.

This Réserve Brut is a blanc de noirs, meaning it is a white wine made from red wine grapes; Pinot Meunier (80%) and Pinot Noir (20%). Aged partly in oak barrels, it spends two years on its lees and is a golden colour in the glass. Fruity and floral on the nose, the palate it is full and rich, but fresh, with plenty of typical Champagne aromas of yeast and brioche whilst the finish is long.

My current favourite food match for a good, rich Champagne are Boxing Day left-overs of turkey, ham or even light game such as partridge or quail; it could also match hot pork pies, cold saucisson and pâté, or even cold fish starters.

The sample was provided by Champagne par Excellence.


Champagne par Excellence - http://www.champagneparexcellence.com/

J Charpentier - http://www.jcharpentier.com/

Friday, 14 January 2011

Riesling Terrassen Smaragd 2009‏ - Domäne Wachau

Austrian Riesling Smaragd from what was then Freie Weingärtner Wachau and is now Domäne Wachau was the first white wine I fell in love with - until then, I been hooked on red Bordeaux and had only a passing interest in whites.

Ripe, mouthfilling and yet fully dry, no-one needed to explain its complexity or food friendliness to me - I just thought it was the best thing ever.

For many years, I continued to visit Austria regularly on business where I would have Austrian wines with my dinner in the evenings and, after a visit to Wein & Co on the way to the airport, bring back enough bottles to keep my cellar stocked up until the next visit.

Thanks to the unknowing generosity of my employers, in those years, I gained an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Austria's great wines with Wachau Rieslings, Sauvignon from Styria and dessert wines from Burgenland.

Eventually, however, it was time to move on (professionally - not oenologically) and gradually my supplies were all consumed (almost - I still have one or two special bottles left). But you never forget your first love and so it was, opening up this Riesling Smaragd from Domäne Wachau, a co-operative making wines from vineyards in the beautiful and UNESCO-protected Wachau Valley between Melk and Krems.

As I have noted elsewhere, Riesling and Chardonnay are the world's top two white wine grapes - completely different in style, they are a bit like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles and perhaps divide opinions and loyalties similarly.

For me, Austrian Riesling has always been my favourite, especially when, like this one it is from the steep terraces of the Wachau Valley and is a Smaragd; the top level of quality and ripeness, the name means "emerald" and refers to a local lizard.

Like meeting up with an old friend after many years, everything was as familiar, comfortable and in its right place as it should be.

I can't begin to explain how much I love this wine; it has a complex but understated nose with hints of cellar mustiness, minerality and some beeswax. On the palate it is mouthwateringly crisp, buzzy, taut and focused, backed up by a smooth, minerally, mouthfilling richness, some hints of honey, elderflower and an acidity that is a mixture of cox's apples, conference pears and pineapple.

As taut, precise and muscular as a top athlete, superb balance, great length and a minerally finish that goes on longer than a Rolling Stones world tour.

Superb - absolutely wonderful.

For the trainspotters, with air and a few more degrees warmth, the honey, beeswax and elderflower all come to the fore along with a slight hint of perfumy, floral, botrytis-like richness and a smokiness; these will presumably show more prominently as the wine ages.

We had this with mushroom risotto and roasted chicken, but it is such a food-friendly wine it will go with almost anything - it matches especially with the well-seasoned, modern international style of food as it has the body to stand up to all but the darkest or gamiest of meats, the acidity to cope with seasoning and cut though rich, heavy or reduced sauces and is aromatic enough not to be overpowered by strong flavours.

It really is a wonderful wine.

€12.50 from Domäne Wachau. Provided for review.


Domäne Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/

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

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A momentous day - or not‏

Woke up as usual this morning. I don't ... feel any different; technically, my age won't start with a "4" for a few more hours yet, but I am mentally counting it down, a bit like New Year.

Just before I leave, my wife comes downstairs to wish me happy birthday; I tell her it's still 90 minutes too early.

Text my parents on the train from Cambridge to London - Mum texts back later with some humorous and slightly icky, but warming, memories of my birth.

I miss the moment itself as I am in a briefing session with our lawyers - copyright issues and the Royal Wedding. I can say "Royal Wedding" here but I mustn't (and hereby declare that I do not) imply any endorsement by a Royal, however minor.

In a section on use of Royal seals, I wonder about fair usage rights for a product shot with a Royal warrant, but decide it's too obscure a question to ask. However, I do make contact with someone from the drinks industry and we exchange cards.

Have some more philosophical thoughts on the tube back to the office; what will my 5th decade hold, where will I be on my 50th birthday ?

I don't believe in resolutions as such, if you need to do something, do it. And yet I feel the need to have a focus, a goal as I start my next decade.

It eventually comes to me - this will be the decade of my children's formative years; focus on being a parent.

The rest of the day is routine - start drafting budgets, work on the board pack, write up some training session notes.

But, I put these thoughts down here, like a Blue Peter time capsule, vowing to come back to them on my 50th birthday and show my kids what Dad wrote.

With love to cj and YM.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

On Becoming a Naked Angel‏

I recently became a Naked Angel - it was alarmingly easy; having bought a discounted case of wines from Naked Wines, I was invited to become a Naked Angel with the lure of a hefty money-off voucher.

Now, I like a bargain and I've enjoyed all my Naked Wines so far, so I clicked "yes".

Expecting a multi-stage order-review-confirm-pay process similar to something like amazon, I was surprised to find that's it - I'd just signed up to being an Angel.

So what are the benefits of being a Naked Angel, apart from it being a great opening gambit at dinner parties ?

As well as the initial voucher, Naked Angels also get a sizable amount of cashback on each order - around a third of the full list price.

In return, Angels are asked to contribute a set amount every month (from £20 upwards) into their account with Naked Wines.

Naked Wines currently has over 30,000 Angels and uses the regular cash in-flows to fund individual wineries, thereby cutting out several layers of middle-men, reducing the overhead cost in a bottle of wine and, in theory at least, leading to keener pricing.

As Naked founder Rowan Gormley puts it, that allows the company to "spend more money on what goes in the bottle and less on everything else".

It also allows Naked to obtain a degree of exclusivity with their wines so they do not end up competing with other wine retailers - good for Naked, but also of benefit to their customers.

So far, so smart.

Additionally, Naked's website involves a lot of Facebook-style features - each of the wine-makers has a wall where Naked customers can post comments and chat with the producers directly.

There are also discussion groups to be joined that will familiar to any user of LinkedIn.

Naked's approach is certainly ingenious - the genuinely new idea of funding wine-makers directly via regular contributions, along with plenty of zeitgeist-y social media features like being online "buddies" with people, a funky, inclusive and unpretentious approach that encourages novices and a pricing strategy that rewards loyalty rather like a workers' co-operative.

Much of this is not new-new; Facebook now has 500 million subscribers, Laphroaig has its own online "Friends of Laphroaig" social media site whilst the workers' co-operative business model dates from Victorian times and customer loyalty programmes have been around for years.

However, rather like the invention of the mobile phone, it is the combination of all these existing technologies and ideas together that is so innovative. It's also very well done, without feeling too slick or corporate.

As to the wines, they have all been well-made and enjoyable so far - as a fellow blogger points out (in this article), the wines are chosen based on customer preference (rather than by wine professionals) which means they tend to reflect the palates of Naked's customer base which, perhaps understandably, seem to favour the immediately crowd-pleasing over the challenging and thought-provoking.

One of Naked's groups is called Naked 2.0 and encourages customers to say what they would like the business to do more (or less) of in the future; it's a great way to get feedback from your customers without the expense of commissioning focus groups or market research agencies.

It also creates a sense of greater involvement in the company leading to a feeling more of being a stakeholder than mere customer.

Whether you like it or not probably depends on the kind of person you are; it most likely appeals to the sociable, tech-savvy would-be sophisticate with enough pennies to spend on decent wine and an interest in all things novel.

The size of that potential market is currently 30,000 loyal Naked Angels and counting in the UK alone.For more details on Naked Wines' Angels scheme, see this article by US blogger Arnold Waldstein: http://arnoldwaldstein.com/2010/11/naked-winesa-social-approach-to-online-wine-markets-that-really-works/


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

Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Axpoint 2009, Domäne Wachau

I know Austria's Wachau Valley well as, when I lived in Vienna, I would regularly put my bike in the car, drive up to Krems and then cycle the 100km round trip to Melk with its baroque monastery and back; it is a beautiful, UNESCO-protected stretch of the Danube with vineyards on steep terraced slopes, orchards, pretty villages and ruined castles.

This single-vineyard Grüner Veltliner from Domäne Wachau is from Axpoint at the Krems end of the valley.

It's a Smaragd - meaning emerald and referring to a green lizard that is native to the Wachau - the highest of three levels of ripeness and quality, used solely for wines for the Wachau which must achieve 12.5% alcohol.

The lower levels (Steinfeder, 11.5% and Federspiel, 11.5% - 12.5%) produce correspondingly lighter wines - see here for a review of the Domäne Wachau Federspiel Grüner Veltliner.

On the nose, there is white pepper, leatheriness and is a slight mustiness of cellar or old books which I have found before in top Wachau whites; it's rather unusual and in no way unpleasant.

Crisply acidic, with a mineral backbone, there are cox's apples and pears on the palate with rich honeyed undertones and good minerality; this is a much bigger and longer wine than the Federspiel.

Well-made, complex, crisp and mouthfilling, this reminds me of why I fell in love with Austrian wines all those years ago.

Sampled a day or so later to see how it will develop with some air, it had the classic Grüner Veltliner aromas of white pepper, puy lentils and celery.

We matched it with the same dish that overwhelmed the Federspiel earlier; that is, a starter of coquailles St Jacques and a main of lightly-baked whole salmon. This time, the richer, fuller and more crisply fleshier wine stood up to the richness of the fishy dinner.

€18.40 from Domäne Wachau. Provided for review


Domäne Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Harcsa paprika - Hungarian catfish with paprika

I recently wrote about how I was introduced to the bitter herbal spirit that is Unicum by a colleague - the restaurant we visited that day was called Serpenyos, on the picturesque and hilly Buda side of the city.

We sat outside in almost 40-degree heat, toasted with an iced glass of Unicum, before settling down to lunch and a discussion of the real business of my trip there.

It's a few years ago now since I went, but we subsequently went there on regular basis and the food was always well-made if unashamedly traditional and old-school.

One dish I particularly remember was harcsa paprika - catfish in a paprika sauce; it is a traditional Hungarian dish using freshwater catfish (Hungary is landlocked) with a sauce made from sour cream, paprika and tomatoes - it is a hearty, calorie-laden stew for peasant labourers with spice but no heat.

Catfish can grow up to several hundred kilos in weight, but the ones I used to buy from a giant fish tank in Budapest supermarkets were about 1kg - 2kgs.

I now make my own version at home in the UK as follows, substituting the more easily-available salmon for catfish. Other meaty white fish like monkfish would also be an option.

Match this with a wine with a bit of spice, not too much tannin and plenty of fruit acidity to cut through the heavy cream sauce; obviously Hungarian if you can get it, otherwise southern French red will do.

Ingredients (to serve 4)

1 large onion, diced
Some cooking oil
6 heaped dessert spoons of paprika
2 large red peppers, thinly sliced any way
300ml sour cream
200ml passata
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 skin-off salmon steaks


- wash and pat dry the salmon steaks; cut the salmon into equally sized pieces around 3cm square and season generously with salt and pepper, then set aside

- fry the onions in a pan until softened and browned (around 15 mins)

- add the sour cream and passata, sliced red peppers, crushed garlic and seasoning and simmer gently until the sauce is thick and the peppers just cooked through (around 15 mins)

- add the fish to the sauce; simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until cooked (around 15 - 20 mins)

Serve with flat ribbon pasta such as fettucine.

Other related articles
Das ist ein Unikum ! Memories of Hungary and Unicum‏

Hungarian Food and Wine Tasting


Serpenyos website (in English) - http://english.reziserpenyos.hu/

Monday, 10 January 2011

Domäne Wachau Beerenauslese Terrassen 2008

If Austria's wines are something of a hidden gem, then its dessert wines are doubly so, since Sauternes, German stickies or Tokaji are often the first wines that come to mind when thinking of something naturally sweet.

However, Austrian dessert wines are my personal favourite and frequently superb; as Chris Kissak puts it in his Wine Doctor blog "[Austrian dessert wines] are, from the best winemakers, some of Europe's greatest sweet wines, and deserve a space in any cellar that already bears a bottle or two of Sauternes, Vouvray or Tokay".

However, generally they come from the Neusiedlersee region on the border with Hungary where the morning mists from the shallow Lake Neusidl (which later burn off during the day) make perfect conditions for botrytis (also known as noble rot).

That makes this Beerenauslese from Domäne Wachau rather unusual as it is from the Wachau, a region much more associated with dry whites, especially Grüner Veltliner and Riesling.

Where the Neusidlersee region is warmed by southerly winds from the Pannonian plain and reliably makes desert wines every year, Wachau is much cooler due to northerly winds; as a result, dessert wines here are rarer and, inevitably, much fresher.

This wine is made in very limited quantities from a blend of grapes (30% Grüner Veltliner, 20% Riesling, 20% Rivaner, 15% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Blanc) grown on the steep terraces that line the Danube where, happily, frequent fogs and humidity from the river provide ideal conditions for the development of botrytis.

The tag "Beerenauslese" roughly translates as "selected harvest of berries" and is about half-way up the sweetness scale of Austrian dessert wines, usually including grapes affected by botrytis.

It has a rich, heady nose of botrytis, superripe tropical fruits, pineapple and guava on the palate and the concentration of marmalade; it is both mouthfilling and mouthwatering, long, elegant and balanced with refreshing acidity that makes it feel quite light and not cloying.

It is almost a complete dessert in itself, but matches with lighter, cream-based and fruit-based desserts such as a creme brulee or tarte au citron.

Domäne Wachau is a co-operative based in the beautiful village of Dürnstein where wine-making dates back to the 12th century; the co-operative (which dates from more recent times) has a wine-making philosophy of quality without compromise, an emphasis on finesse, authentic regional character, precise definition and clear expression.

I would say they've succeeded.

€14.90 from Domäne Wachau - provided for review.


 Domäne Wachau - http://www.domaene-wachau.at/Start.48.0.html?&L=2

Sunday, 9 January 2011

PureNoir at Taste of Christmas

At the recent Taste of Christmas event, I was intrigued by what seemed quite a niche offering; PureNoir, a wine club dealing solely in one grape from one country - New Zealand Pinot Noir.

Pinot's spiritual home is Burgundy in France, but of all the New-World countries to have a go at making it, New Zealand, with its moderate-to-cool climate and diverse terroir, has had perhaps the most success.

Moreover, Pinot is something of a finicky grape and good examples are not always easy to come by and rarely, if ever, cheap, so a club that focuses on providing reliable Pinot suddenly makes perfect sense - even if it still remains rather a specialist interest.

Ten to twenty years ago, New Zealand had no real reputation for Pinot Noir - and much of the country's initial buzz was based on Marlborough Sauvignon from vineyards planted as recently as the early seventies.

However, with a combination of New-World high-tech methods and an Old-World climate, New Zealand is now producing some serious wines.

Add in a stunning landscape, show-cased to great effect by the multi-part Lord of the Rings film series, its inhabitants helpfully speaking English (great for the Anglo-Saxon markets) and New Zealand, along with its wines, is suddenly one of the coolest kids on the block, combining New-World freshness with some old-school Romance.

Stunning New Zealand scenery

At the event, PureNoir director James Croft explained to me that the company's approach is refreshingly straightforward and concise:

1. Always great Pinot Noir
2. Be good, don't just look good
3. We always do what we say we're going

PureNoir has a tasting panel of three of New Zealand's best winemakers who blind tastes all wines and score them from which the company then assembles mixed cases for the year to come, trying to give each case a mix of regions and ensuring that at least half are not normally available in the UK.
PureNoir had four Pinots to taste to show the range of styles from New Zealand's various terroirs.

The first two were from warmer climates and had more fruit on the nose as a result. A 2008 Gladstone Vineyard from Wairarapa, had been matured in French oak barrels (30% new oak) for 10 months; elegant and balanced, it had plums and cherries on the palate, some spice and a long, savoury finish.

The next, a 2008 Terravin Pinot Noir from Marlborough, blended from three different hillside parcels of grapes and aged in 1/3rd new oak, was big and powerful.

The last two wines were both from Central Otago on the South Island and just about as far south in the world as wine is made. With this cool climate origin, these wines were darker, richer and more restrained than the two from further north with less on the nose and more texture on the palate.

The 2008 Maori Point Central Otago, made with a wild yeast ferment, was bright ruby in colour with cherries and plums, good fruit, a savoury background and some gentle oak, giving a smooth mouth-feel.

The final wine a 2007 from Hinton Estate had a full-but-velvety texture with savoury richness and cherry and spice aromas.

These wines are not exactly cheap; certainly you are doing very well - or are extremely enthusiastic - if this is your everyday drinking.

However, membership of PureNoir is flexible (there is no obligation to buy every quarter and membership can be put on hold) and it certainly takes the (potentially expensive) legwork out of finding good Pinot Noir.

The wines

1. 2008 Gladstone Vineyard Pinot Noir - Wairarapa, £17.50
2. 2008 Terravin Pinot Noir - Marlborough, £21.90
3. 2008 Maori Point Pinot Noir - Central Otago, £20.50
4. 2007 Hinton Estate Pinot Noir - Central Otago Cost: £ 23.60

All available from PureNoir.

PureNoir - http://www.purenoir.co.uk/