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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Blind Tasting of IGP Top 100 Winners at Cambridge Wine Merchants

The other evening, Cambridge Wine Merchants owner Hal Wilson invited me to take part in a blind tasting review of medal-winning French IGPs with a few premium South African wines thrown in at his Cherry Hinton Road branch.

I have been to a few events there and with its tapas bar-style seating area, it makes a great place to hold tastings.

The guest list for the event was fairly select - just a few senior CWM people, plus fellow Cambridge wine blogger Davy Kurniawian (Vinoremus) and the current head of the Cambridge University Blind Wine Tasting Society, Claire Novorol.

I was by far the least technically qualified person there as I neither work in the trade nor have judged at competitions and I have written previously (here) about my (in)ability as a blind taster.

Hal had arranged for branch manager and erstwhile '80s synth-pop star, Steve Hovington, to cover up 17 of the wines, arrange them in sensible pairings and lay out some sheets on which to mark country of origin, grape variety, a tasting note and a score.

On the scoring issue, I purposefully do not score wines when I review them; moreover, as someone who works with numbers and percentages for a living, I can't quite see why scores out of 20 (in this case) should start at 10 just for turning up. But I quickly picked up that around 13 is mildly disappointing, and anything above 16 rather good, so was able to contribute to the discussion on quality.

Interestingly, however, a more frequent comment on quality was around relative pricing, with people keener to suggest a sensible price that an absolute score, as in "For £6 or £7 this is alright, but I wouldn't pay over £9".

I was not quick enough at writing to get details of all the wines at the point when they were revealed, but some interesting patterns did emerge.

Firstly the whites showed better than the reds - and it was two of the whites that I took home as left overs to review in more detail (see below).

The reds were almost uniformly much less impressive with only one that I actually liked, the Domaine Gayda Chemin de Moscou 2008, which proved to be the most popular wine amongst us all.

Perhaps then it's no coincidence that it's the one wine amongst the lot that Cambridge Wine Merchants actually stocks.

With toasty vanilla and liquorice on the nose, it has a damson and plum sweetness on the palate and a gentle finish.

It is, however, not cheap - especially for a Languedoc wine - as it retails at £21, but was my choice when Hal offered us a bottle of any of the wines to take home as a thank you for our time and input.

The rosé divided opinion with Claire, the blind-tasting captain deeming it lacking in interest, but Davy and me appreciating its clean, crisp acidity and, if priced at around £6, finding it would make a good if uncomplex picnic wine.

I also found myself disagreeing with people over the one dessert wine from Gascony - with most politely describing it as inoffensive, to me it was like a dry white with a couple of spoonfuls of cheap white sugar stirred in.

As a big fan of dessert wines, I find any level of sweetness is good as long as the sugars are complex from very late harvested grapes, whereas the sweetness here felt cheap, tawdry and confected.

There was no disagreement on the Pinot Noir, however, which had almost no varietal characteristics at all other than a very pale colour ("Oh it's another rose", one person remarked dryly) with pretty much nothing of any interest whatsoever.

I can see how any person trying this as their first Pinot Noir to see what all the fuss is about might well decide the grape is overrated and not worth exploring further - and I wonder how it got such a high rating from the judges who include several MWs (see here for the list)

The most unusual wine was the last of the whites, a 2008 Domaine d'Estoublon Blanc, Vin de Pays des Alpilles from France.

Described by the group variously as a wine merchant's wine and utterly bonkers, it was dark yellow in the glass and had a nose of sour, rotting hay aromas with an oxidative palate, some aged characteristics and just a touch of mid-palate sweetness.

There were questions about what possible category it could have won and whether it was intended to be like this or had aged prematurely due to insufficient sulphur.

Some of the other discussions about origin and variety were considerations of degrees of subtlety that were way beyond anything I have ever come across - but then I simply have not tried enough southern Rhone blends to say with confidence what their major characteristics are.

And whilst I'm reasonably confident of having had Roussane on at least one occasion, I certainly couldn't spot it blind.

Like so many things, the world of wine has diversified massively in recent years and it seems the old rules of merely needing tell a Chardie from a Sauvignon no longer apply - or at least not to the same extent.

Good and very good wine is no longer made from just a few noble varieties in small regions of Europe - and decent-ish wine can be made almost anywhere from a much wider range of grapes than, say, just 20 years ago and one's knowledge and blind tasting ability needs to reflect this.

Moreover, with parts of the New World such as southern New Zealand, high-altitude Chile and even parts of Australian able to do cool-climate styles, whilst France's Languedoc, inland Spain and southern Italy do New-World-style ripe, fruit-driven wines, it can be hard to say with any confidence where a wine may be from.

After the main tasting, we dived into a wide-ranging discussion about the merits of competitions, with Hal feeling reconfirmed in his view that CWM should be selling only wines they feel are good and that if the wine happens to have a medal then that's merely a nice-to-have for marketing purposes.

As a competition judge herself, Claire felt that many aspects of the process are flawed, such as the sheer number of wines to be tasted and the way the subsequent tasting notes are sometimes complied from only the most positive reviews.

She also felt that palate weariness can set in after tasting large numbers of mediocre wines so that modestly good wines can come to seem much better by comparison and suggested that competitions should also include a number of blind benchmark wines - that is wines of a certain quality that are not actually being entered but are merely there to remind people at certain points of what a good wine should taste like.

It seems to me that there are competitions and competitions - and that any wine marketing board with a big enough budget and an ambition can set up its own competition and get some eye-catching stickers put on a number of the wines from the region whose duty it is to promote.

I agree with Matt Boucher, manager of my local Mill Road branch, in believing that overall, wine competitions are a good thing as, when done properly, they identify the better wines and help the consumer to make choices from amongst the overwhelming range on offer.

Wine competitions, then, are a bit like internet search engines - they do the hard work of tracking down stuff for you based on certain criteria.

Anyone who remembers the early days of the internet, before Google and even Ask Jeeves, will know that in those days there were many, many search engines all doing slightly different things with no single dominant player.

And wine competitions are pretty much like that these days, with no single, overall go-to point.

So there's the rub - how do you know that the competition that gave the wine in front of you on the supermarket shelf a sticker was properly run and that the commendation, gold medal or trophy really means something ?

What is needed, perhaps, is some kind accreditation or code of practice for wine competitions to show that they have been run according to certain principles - they quality of the judges, the rigour of the review process and so on.

Search engines have come a long way since the late 90s; wine competitions, however, have not and there is still no single dominant player on the market that resonates strongly with consumers in the way that google is most people's starting point for browsing the Internet.

Many people in the wine trade that I speak to on the subject of wine competitions generally seem to shrug and say that people buy to a budget and you won't get them buying better wine just by adding a trophy sticker.

I disagree with this view and feel that people mainly stick to a budget because they lack confidence in their ability to choose better wine, or at least one they will enjoy more, above a certain price point.

What medals and trophies can do, when done properly, is provide a degree of confidence in the quality of the wine, so that buyers can start to focus more on quality than mere price and begin to feel confident about moving up a few pricing levels - provided, of course, the quality is there in the first place.

Of the two wines that I liked enough to take home, the first was a Les Caves du Commandeur Rolle from Argens in Provence, just across the border from Italy where it is known as Vermentino.

The nose shows white peach, elderflower and a touch of hoppiness, whilst the palate shows a soft but persistent and rounded acidity, with more stone fruit and a touch of tropical sweetness; a lovely, well-made, well-balanced wine.

The Folie d'Ines 2010 from IGP Collines de la Moure is a blend of Roussane and Viognier. With a deep, toasty, oaky nose, it was the most interestingly and subtly oaked white of the evening with ripe, tropical fruit acidity, touches of oatmeal, nuts and butteriness as well as some ginger and sweet vanilla.

Re-tasting both wines 48 hours after the event, I found them very pleasant, well-made and sensible with nothing to dislike.

Neither is particularly complex or inspiring, but we are perhaps not in that price bracket and for everyday drinking, these are very enjoyable wines with a touch of good warm-climate softness to them balanced by some sensible European restraint.

You can read Vinoremus' account of the evening here:



Top 100 IGP wines - http://www.top100igpfrance.com/en/winelist/trophies

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

Vinoremus - http://www.vinoremus.blogspot.com/

CUBWTS - http://www.cubwts.co.uk/

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Domaine Rablais Touraine - with a Risotto Recipe

The main body of this article also appears in the September print edition of Cambridge Edition and online - http://www.cambsedition.co.uk/

Masterchef finalist and Cambridge restaurateur Alex Rushmer asked me to find a wine match for his broad bean, pea & Monte Enebro risotto.

Alex's recipe is given below in detail, but in short it is a traditional risotto with creamy goat's cheese and some herbaceous greens.
The strongest flavour comes from the tangy goat's cheese and the classic match for this is a Loire Sauvignon so stick with tradition and go for a crisp, minerally Touraine from Domaine Rablais.

The acidity cuts through the creaminess of the dish nicely whilst the herbaceous notes of gooseberries, nettles and cut grass on the nose pair with the two green vegetables as well.

It's a very classy wine and really opens up with some air, so if you can, I'd recommend popping it in the decanter for an hour before serving.

Domaine Rablais Touraine - £8.49 from Cambridge Wine Merchants

Alex Rushmer's broad bean, pea & Monte Enebro risotto

After much experimentation trying to find the right cheese to enrich this version of risotto I’ve settled up Monte Enebro – a fresh and light Spanish goat's cheese from Cambridge Cheese Company. It has the right balance of acidity and creaminess to keep the dish from tipping over into cloyingly rich whilst maintaining enough of the decadence that a good risotto should provide.

Serves four

Two banana shallots, finely chopped

Two cloves of garlic, finely chopped

25g unsalted butter

25ml olive oil

300g vialone nano risotto rice

75ml white wine or dry vermouth

750ml vegetable stock

100g podded and cooked broad beans

50g podded and cooked peas

25g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

100g Monte Enebro cheese, cut into small cubes

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the olive oil then the chopped shallots and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes, stirring often.

They should soften and cook but not colour.

Add the garlic and cook for a further ten minutes, again without colouring.

Increase the heat and add the wine or vermouth and simmer for 10 minutes to burn off the alcohol.

Pour everything into a clean bowl and wipe out the saucepan.

Bring the stock to just below boiling point and leave it on a gentle heat within easy reach.

Add the rice to your newly dry and clean saucepan place over a moderately high heat.

Toast the rice without any butter or oil in the dry pan for 3-4 minutes stirring often until the grains are too hot to touch.

Add the shallot, garlic and wine mixture and a ladleful of stock.

Reduce the heat and add more stock when the rice in the pan looks ‘thirsty’. You don’t necessarily need to stir constantly – nor always in the same direction as was dictated to me by a heavily bosomed Italian matriarch once upon a time – but do shuffle things around every couple of minutes to make sure the grains cook evenly.

The rice should be cooked after 12-15 minutes.

When it is to your taste add one final ladleful of stock (this will seem like too much but worry not: as it cools it will seize up and no risotto should be able to support its own weight) remove it from the heat and stir in the cubed butter, Monte Enebro cheese and the peas and broad beans. Spoon into bowls and serve immediately.


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

Alex Rushmer - http://justcookit.co.uk/

Cambridge Edition - http://www.cambsedition.co.uk/

Monday, 29 August 2011

Randemar Negre Collita 2010, Binissalem Mallorca Denominacio d'Origen‏

I always make a point of trying whatever is local - or, to put it another way, buying wine as close as possible to where it's made.

So, on a family holiday to Mallorca, upon seeing this bottle of local wine from Celler Tianna Negre at the local supermarket, even though there were less expensive wines whose names I recognised, I decided to try it.

I have had Mallorquín wines before - we came to the island about four years ago, before I started my blog, and had some good-to-quite-impressive wines in a very pleasant restaurant on the edge of a small walled city near Alcudia whose name now escapes me.

Made from two indigenous varieties - Callet and Manto Negro - blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot, this local wine is probably not going to show too much in the way of varietal expression.

On the nose, there is some red fruit, cherries and a touch of earthiness and woody mushrooms, with some hints of liquorice; on the palate, it is low in tannin but has pleasant cherry acidity with just a touch of vegetal sourness.

It goes well with a tapas-style plate of salami and freshly-baked baton, with olives and cornichons on the balcony of our apartment overlooking the Med towards Ibiza. The back label suggests serving it slightly chilled at 14C and given the heat (mid-30s centigrade) we put the left-overs in the fridge so it does not go off.

A day or so later, it actually works rather well chilled down to about 6C - 8C, and feels somewhat like a rose with good acidity and focus, a pleasant finish and some length but nothing too much.

We go out for a stroll to the promontory to watch the bats at dusk with the children and on returning, the wine has warmed back up to somewhere just above the suggested 14C and now shows more black cherry and dark berry fruit, a touch of mid-palate sweetness, some gentle tannins and a slightly longer, but no more complex, finish.

At €8, it feels a little expensive given that it is quite a straightforward, if quite pleasant, wine.

Perhaps most interesting is the Old-World level of alcohol - just 12%; the vineyards must be rather cooler than the mid-30s heat we are enjoying and in the interests of research, I subsequently check out the winery's website and learn the following facts:

- Viticulture on Mallorca dates back to the VI Century, whilst between the XIV and XVIII Centuries Mallorquín wine flourished so much so that viticulture became the island´s principle economic activity

- In 1891 phylloxera hit Mallorca and during the XX Century Mallorquín wine was pushed aside first by the Civil War and then by the tourist boom; however, the 1990s finally saw a renewed interest in viticulture

- The most typically used indigenous red grape varieties are Manto Negro and Callet, usually accompanied by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah
- Mallorca´s viticultural regions are split into five different classifications: the D.O.s of "Binissalem" and "Pla i Llevant", plus "Vi de la Serra Tramuntana-Costa Nord", "Vi de Terra Mallorca" and "Vi de Illes Baleares".

- Binissalem wine is made from 50% autochthonous varieties (Manto Negro for the reds and Prensal Blanc for the whites).

- Celler Tianna Negre is located at the foot of the Tramuntana mountains on the north coast, influenced greatly by the higher altitudes and humidity creating freshness and acidity.

This last point in particular explains the relatively low alcohol and fresh feel of the wine which, also according to the website, is fermented in stainless steel with just a brief spell in oak.


Celler Tianna Negre - http://www.tiannanegre.com/

Further information on DO Binissalem - http://www.binissalemdo.com/?lang=en

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Snooth's Eccentric List of Top 12 Austrian Rieslings

A few weeks ago a "wine friend" of mine, Mark Norman of Cave Nil Vino, sent me a link to a review of 12 Top Austrian Rieslings by Gregory Del Piaz, Editor in Chief of Snooth, and asked my opinion of his picks.

Now, Austria is one of the few areas where I consider myself to have at least a bit of real expertise as I lived there for two years and went back regularly on business for a further five after that, giving plenty of opportunities to visit the beautiful Wachau valley and also sample the great wines of Austria in some of Vienna's better restaurants.

However, I am more than aware that my knowledge is still somewhat patchy and certainly I don't consider myself to be completely authoritative.

These days Austria's wines are deservedly gaining an ever-increasing reputation for themselves - thanks in part to the efforts of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board - but the country still does not seem to garner quite the same number of column inches as "classic" wine countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Australia.

Mainly, I believe, this is due to a focus on quality rather quantity - meaning that Austria simply is not a volume player and its wines are not as easily available as quaffers from inland Spain, southern France or the New World.

Austria's signature white grape is Grüner Veltliner which accounts for around a third of all plantings, and this is the one being promoted heavily these days; however, my first love was always Austrian Riesling which I think is the more versatile food match.

Austria has four distinct wine-producing regions, each with their own characteristics and particular grapes, but for Riesling, we look to lower Austria in general and the Wachau in particular.

Within the Wachau, we then look at the warmer eastern end where the grapes, often picked from late October to early November even for fully dry wines, achieve the intense, Smaragd level of ripeness more reliably.

Two of the top wineries in the Wachau, and therefore Austria generally, are located more or less next to each other on the eastern tip of the Wachau - Knoll and FX Pichler.

Add in Prager just up the river in Weissenkirchen, Rudi Pichler in Wösendorf and the co-op Domäne Wachau in Dürnstein and you have both some of my personal favourites and the beginnings of a list of the greats.

Beyond the narrow confines of the Wachau there is the award-winning Markus Huber in Kamptal and Kurt Angerer in Kremstal, plus Bründlmayer in Langenlois.

Further afield, some Riesling is made in Vienna and it is of more than mere curiosity value or local interest;  however, it is simply not in the same league as the wines from Lower Austria - for either quality or price.

I would not claim that this is a definitive list, but certainly I would expect any list of great Austrian Rieslings to focus heavily on the Wachau and nearby areas.

And this makes Del Piaz's list all the more eccentric-seeming; for a start, he lists just two Wachau producers - Prager and Domäne Wachau; I certainly agree with their inclusion, but I would query having two DW wines yet none from Knoll or FX Pichler.

And the choice of three wines from Vienna-based Jutta Ambrositsch seems downright odd. As does inclusion of Mayer Am Pfarrplatz and Loimer, both respectable if not rather good, but producers of the best Rieslings in Austria ? I don't think so. And I have never heard of Weingut Hajszan.

In short then, what makes this list so eccentric is its excessive focus on Vienna to the almost complete exclusion of the Wachau; as a list of good-value whites from Vienna and elsewhere outside the Wachau, perhaps it has some merit - I cannot say.

But to exclude almost all Wachau producers seems downright misguided and misleading - it's akin to writing about France's best red wines and focusing on the Languedoc with just a couple of Bordeaux or Burgundies added in.

I signed up for Snooth a few years ago - as much out of curiosity as anything - and have long since ticked the box for "no weekly updates or promotional emails" from either Dal Piaz or Lot 18 trying to sell me "exclusive offers" of wines I've never heard of for "just 1c" shipping.

I never found any of the articles that popped up in my in-box from them useful or even particularly interesting.

Maybe it's my "Britishness" but to me they read like somebody with a word-count to fill up who has re-hashed a few ideas and added on a quirky beginning to try and hook you in.

With the opportunity to review their writing in an area I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about, I now also feel that their information, whilst not misleading or in incorrect, is also not that authoritative.

I also had the chance to compare specifically a tasting note of one of the wines on the list that we have both reviewed, the Riesling Terrassen Smaragd 2009‏ from Domäne Wachau.

Whilst Dal Piaz's review is, in the loosest sense, broadly comparable with mine, the two reviews are very different overall:

I say:

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 ... superb balance, great length and a minerally finish ... 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.

Dal Piaz says:

Gently aromatic with nice layers of spice, pear skin, apricot, lemon drop, rainwater and hot iron all come together on the nose. Almost round on entry, then turning fairly angular quite quickly, with fine acidity jutting out past the transparent and fresh fruit. There’s a lovely spiciness to this that floats above the glassy apricot fruits, accented with lemon and lime zest. The finish shows nice length with the citrus character of the palate framed by quartzy, steely mineral notes. Fine length and really wonderful balance of flavor and texture make this a winner


Gregory Dal Piaz's original article - http://www.snooth.com/articles/austrian-riesling/

Snooth - http://www.snooth.com/

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

Friday, 19 August 2011

Parrot Valley 2009 Red Blend, South Africa - Naked Wines

I somehow bought three bottles of this South African red blend (Cabs Sauv and Franc) wine from Naked Wines and decided to wait until I finished all of them before reviewing.

Initial impressions of the first bottle were of its big, rich, heady nose of bramble fruit, vanilla, toasty oak and woodsiness - that's the 14% alcohol level for you.

Likewise, on the palate the texture was pleasant enough, if a little juicy and lacking in tannin.

What I found myself unsure about was the somewhat over-perfumed, blueberry aromas that became more prominent with a bit of air, but it was not serious enough to have me emailing the company for a refund.

The second bottle a few weeks later seemed slightly more restrained than the first, with less of the perfumey aroma on the finish.

By the time we came to the third bottle, it seemed to have settled down much more into a ripe, fruit-driven wine with blackcurrant, dark berry fruit, good acidity and lots of easy appeal.

The palate also shows some minty eucalyptus, liquorice and black cherry fruit, some rustic spice, cigar box and fresh, juicy acidity.

As something that delivers more in terms of its range of aromas than structural interest, it prompted something of a discussion in the CWB household about wines to impress straight out of the bottle with lots of up-front fruit, but without so much in the way of texture, subtlety or elegance - Lady Gaga vs Fred Astaire, or wines for wine drinkers vs wines for wine geeks.

It didn't specifically prompt a discussion on bottle variation, but I feel I should point out that I have never experienced quite so much variation in three bottles of the same wine (moreover, sealed under screwcap) consumed so closely together.

The other point that occurs to me is that Naked's reds seem to be more acidity-driven than tannin-driven and perhaps this is to be expected as an appreciation of and enthusiasm for the presence of tough, chewy tannins is maybe one of those things that separates the wine geeks from the mere quaffers and Naked is just not in the wine geek market.

And with hindsight, the focus on acidity is perhaps why I often find myself often preferring Naked's whites.

Overall, this is not a bad wine, but for my taste I would rather less on the nose and more on the palate.

I wouldn't buy it again, and if I were in the mood for a fruit-driven South African red, I would go for one of Stephen de Wet's Arabella wines (which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog).

List price is £8.99, with 33% cash back for Angels.


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

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Sunday Lunch at d'Arry's, Cambridge

I have written previously about the gentrification of the Cambridge dining scene that took place during the mid-noughties.

Looking back, the one that started it all was perhaps the transformation of the rather scruffy Cambridge Arms town pub into the smart, sophisticated and quirky yet unpretentious urban gastropub d'Arry's, serving the kind of simple but well-made pub foods that match well with the riper and more fruit-driven flavours of New World wines such as Australia's d'Arenberg which provides not only most of the wine list but also the name itself.

We first visited d'Arry's within a few weeks of it opening and soon became regulars, enjoying the relaxed sophistication of its funky interior, friendly service and well-made but unpretentious food.

The prices were also very reasonable and it was the kind of place where one could take young children during the day and not feel out of place.

However, over time, d'Arry's dropped off our radars as other, newer, smarter places opened and we just never quite felt the need to go back to that quiet, somewhat backyard-ish corner of central Cambridge where it is located.

Moreover, d'Arry's has also had something of a run of bad luck with not one but two kitchen fires to cope with and it's fair to say it has lost something of its original buzz.

A few weeks ago, new manager James Storey invited me to meet him for a cup of coffee to chat about ideas for recreating some of the buzz about the place. We kicked around a few ideas to be explored later, but as a first step, he suggested that I come in for a meal as his guest and also meet new Head Chef, Patrick.

If you have ever heard a piece of music that you once knew well but haven't listened to for years and found that with the passage of time it seems to sound somehow different despite its familiarity, you will understand how I felt returning to d'Arry's after an absence of several years.

Yes the edgy, funky decor was still all there - the bare-brick walls, up-turned, cut-off wine bottles for candle holders, the rustic logs and ornate picture frames - but it somehow seemed different.

Of course, it's not d'Arry's that has changed but Cambridge with several new openings that also do this modern, juxtaposed, mixed-up style of interior design and what was once edgy now feels as though it's starting to become part of the mainstream.

Arriving for a Sunday lunch, we were welcomed by James and opted to sit indoors by the window overlooking the street - the layout of d'Arry's is somewhat unusual as you enter to see a courtyard straight ahead and either turn left into a private dining area or right into the main restaurant and bar section.

Eschewing starters, we went straight into ordering main courses; the children chose fish and chips and a Sunday roast, Mrs CWB opted for a trio of fish and I followed James' recommendation for duck breast on sweet potatoes with garlic, ginger and a raspberry jus.

Wines to match the adults' meals were brought and whilst the match for the seafood with asparagus was a fairly predictable "Broken Fishplate" Sauvignon Blanc, I was initially a little surprised at the choice of a Stump Jump Riesling for me.

However, it proved to be inspired, as the acidity of the wine cut through the strong garlic and ginger flavours whilst it had enough body to stand up to the meatiness of the duck.

I have historically been rather unimpressed with Australian Riesling, finding it generally too lean and limey for my taste but this one was a great food-friendly easy-drinker with a soft fullness, good zesty, citrussy acidity, a touch of sweetness and a balanced minerally finish.

On the palate it felt weighty and fleshy and had the toasty aroma of fully ripe, thick-skinned grapes. The Sauvignon had a similarly rounded and easy-drinking yet sensible feel with lots of varietal herbaceous aromatics on the nose, crisp mouthfilling acidity on the palate and a minerally finish.

Criticisms, if there can be any, are that the wines were served perhaps just a degree or so too warm and that the glasses were a little chunky and undersized for proper appreciation.

Part-way through our meal new Head Chef Patrick popped out for a chat and explained that he had previously run a multi-awarded hotel kitchen in Great Yarmouth on the North Sea coast, catering mainly for high-flying oil, gas and renewable energy people transiting through.

Arriving at d'Arry's to find there had been no head chef for several months, Patrick spent the first part of his time just rebuilding the basics but is now looking to put his own stamp on the menu which has some central themes and standards (d'Arry's is part of a small independent chain which gives a certain degree of buying power for raw ingredients), but does allow for personalisation as well.

Originally from South Africa, his influences are Pacific Rim fusion, as evidenced in my duck with garlic and ginger, plus use of fruit from his homeland.

I don't know too much about South African food, but I can't help feeling that Asian fusion has become a little passé and the buzz these days is more around either rustic Italian or sherry bar tapas.

I also think they may be missing a trick of the zeitgeist in not offering a local and / or seasonal menu - not least because Cambridge is in the middle of farming country with several good farm shops within easy reach.

That said, the menu does feature more classic dishes such as scallops, smoked salmon and devilled kidneys and in any case our food lived up to my expectations of what d'Arry's should be - well-made food from good quality ingredients, unfussily prepared and served with just the right amount of panache.

However, puddings were the real highpoint of the meal and we opted for a mango and ginger cheesecake whilst the kids chose vanilla ice cream and chocolate fondant.

These were some of the best puddings I've had in Cambridge - the cheesecake was light yet rich and perfectly balanced, whilst the accompanying dessert wine, The Noble Prankster, was deliciously syrupy with marmalade, peach, apricot, a touch of botrytis and some hints of Christmas spice and mixed peel with a balanced sweet-sour finish.

Purely in the interests of research, I also sampled the kids' puddings and they were extremely good, too - the ice-cream was rich, creamy and flecked with vanilla, whilst the chocolate fondant was perfectly cooked on the outside and deliciously, stickily gooey on the inside.

Over coffees, I talked to James more about the pub and its clientele; he explained that it has a strong core of very loyal regular customers who appreciate the value that it offers.

This strikes me as a good base to build from if the place can introduce some new and interesting changes at a rate that doesn't alienate existing customers, but a path that could lead to a downward spiral of increasing focus on value and downward margins if unchecked.

Current offers from d'Arry's include a Friends of d'Arry's scheme and a Punt & Lunch flyer. These represent good value for the consumer, but to me are merely pricing strategies rather than the kind of exciting, buzzy innovations that will get people talking about d'Arry's as a must-visit place again.

It would be great to see d'Arry's back on the radar of smart eating places in central Cambridge and, with the possibilities offered by its wine list and private-dining space, I don't think it will take too much to get there.

A two-course a la carte meal with a bottle of wine and coffee at d'Arry's Cambridge costs around £70 for two people, whilst the Friends of d'Arry's offers two courses and a glass of wine for £10.


d'Arry's Cambridge - http://www.darrys.co.uk/

d'Arenberg wines - http://www.darenberg.com.au/

Friday, 12 August 2011

Cigar Dinner‏ at Cambridge's Hotel du Vin

When I first moved to Cambridge over a decade ago, it felt very much like a city outside the influence of London - located (as it was then) over an hour's train ride away.

As a tourist hub, we would - and still do - get large numbers of visitors to the city but, with few really good restaurants or hotels of character, the centre did not really cater for locals and one tended to head outside the city to one of the villages for a decent meal.

Frankly, the local hotels and restaurants just didn't have to try all that hard - what with a constant, steady stream of one-off visitors from far-off places.

However, in the mid-noughties, Cambridge experienced a flutter of new, up-market openings which brought a hitherto unseen level of sophistication to my home town.

One of these was the conversion of a row of four city-centre townhouses opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum into an Hotel du Vin, a branch of the upmarket restaurant, bar and hotel that is owned by Malmaison.

I was recently invited by the hotel's General Manager Jacqui Griffiths to attend a cigar dinner that she was hosting.

Although I am a non-smoker, cigars to me have a certain Romance to them - rather like wine - whilst the smell brings back childhood memories.

Besides, the last time I went to the Hotel du Vin (see here) I was sufficiently impressed to make sure of not passing up an opportunity to go back.

Over a fresh and moreish whisky sour with canapes, Jacqui explained that the chain is primarily focused on being a restaurant and bar with rooms (albeit somewhat luxurious), rather than an hotel that does food and drink.

All hotel branches are housed in buildings that have been formerly used for something else, as it gives them a sense of character and history, and all have a humidor and a cigar shack - the latter being a sheltered space outside which conforms to anti-smoking legislation but allows somewhere civilised for cigar smokers to congregate.

The first cigar of the evening was a Hoyo De Monterrey, matched with a single malt whiskey from Ledaig on Islay. The whisky was light but peaty with a touch of sweetness and a long, balanced finish. The cigar was, apparently, one of the mildest Cubans with a creamy sweetness and deemed a good match by those partaking.

Moving inside for a starter, introductions were made and I learnt I was something of an interloper in a group of transplant surgeons from Addenbrooke's hospital up the road, plus an RAF pilot friend, who had all decided to get together for a private party.

As Jacqui later explained to me, the hotel is increasingly providing bespoke private parties of this type and it does seem a very civilised way to get together with a group of like-minded friends.

Introducing myself in my capacity as a wine-writer (rather than my day-job as a number-crunching company director), I was firstly made very welcome but also pleasantly surprised to be told that I had the coolest job in the room - it's not often a fighter pilot tells you that.

The second surprise was one of the surgeons, puffing expansively on his cigar, announcing he was doing a liver transplant the following morning; I suggested that presumably it would be as routine as changing the spark plugs on a car - open it up, swap the relevant bits over and close back down - to which he replied a liver transplant is far easier than changing the spark plugs on a modern car.

We were also joined by an expert tobacconist who had come along to tell us about the cigars, but not before we had all - somewhat bizarrely but required for legal reasons - signed a disclaimer to say that we acknowledged that his talk in no way constituted encouragement to smoke.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a somewhat smokey theme to the food and our starter was smoked eel, truffle potato salad and quail's egg.

Just north of Cambridge, the cathedral city of Ely was once known as the Isle of Eels (hence its present name) as it was surrounded by marshes full of eels. However, the marshes were increasingly drained in centuries gone by and our eel proved not to have come from the area there, but was still local and from somewhere less than an hour's drive away.

In any case, it was delicious and matched perfectly with the dry Tokaji from Chateau Dereszla served with it; Hungarian Bar Manager Stefan explained that he had specifically chosen a crisp wine to freshen up our palates.

Tokaji is perhaps more normally associated with sweet wines, but this blend of Furmint and Hárslevelű grapes was beautifully crisp and aromatic with a lovely acidic structure.

Pale in the glass, it was rounded and mouthfilling with tropical citrus and thick-skinned, phenolic ripeness and not only matched with the starter but also cut beautifully through the spicy and intense olive oil served with bread.

It reminded me somewhat of the Austrian style of ripe-yet-dry whites but when I asked Stefan about this, he very politely and gently indicated that his personal preference was for "fruitier, warmer-climate" Hungarian wines.

I guess some old habits and rivalries die hard, however much of polite veneer you put on it, and I couldn't help noticing Stefan's pointed reference to Hungary's greater number of wine-producing regions and wider variety of styles than Austria's.

At this point, one of the surgeons, with a noticeably Teutonic accent, announced he was actually from Frankfurt in Germany and there was no need to spare his feelings as he felt the same way about Austria, too - more age-old rivalries again.

The next cigar course was a Vegas Robina Unicos with an aged Jamaican Plantation rum from 2000; dark gold in the glass, the rum had a rich, strong nose with more than a touch of nail polish. However, this was less pronounced on the palate which showed prunes, cinnamon and spice and felt smooth and well-integrated.

Our main course of hot smoked duck breast was accompanied by caramelised mango and a spicy jerk jus matched with a Chilean Pinot Noir from Apaltagua in Curico Valley.

The wine was introduced by the hotel's new sommelier who explained he is given a very free hand in selecting the wines and spirits and will be putting together a new list over the coming months; enquiring about altitude, I was told the grapes are grown at "800 - 1,200" - "feet ?" I asked; "No, metres" came the reply.

This seemed implausibly high to me at the time, but a bit of quick research on Twitter subsequently suggested this may be entirely possible.

In any case, the wine was very pale and light with an intensely fruity and complex nose of vanilla, spice, mushroom and forest floor. On the palate it showed red berry fruit, gentle acidity and a lovely smooth finish; it was indeed a lovely wine but perhaps a just a little too light for the food and served just a degree or so too warm.

At this point, the next cigar was due and we popped outside for a Bolivar, Coronas Extra and a 20-year-old Baron de Sigognac from Bas Armagnac; Jacqui enquired if I wasn't tempted to try one of the cigars and in truth I was, but this being a school night, I felt it perhaps was not the best time to try for the first time something whose after-effects I could only guess at.

So I limited myself to sniffing the box of raw cigars and enjoying the Armagnac with its cooked-fruit and coffee nose and the mellowness of 20 years' aging.

Our final course, a "Burnt Forest" gateau of rich chocolate and sponge, was again delicious and all that remained was to chew the fat with my dinner companions over topics as varied as social media for medical professionals, organ donation rates and vintage sports cars, before heading home.

A hosted cigar evening at Cambridge Hotel du Vin costs £75 per person for four cigars, drinks and a three-course meal with canapes.


Hotel du Vin Cambridge - http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx

Malmaison - http://www.malmaison.com/

With thanks to @vinoremus (http://www.vinoremus.blogspot.com/) and @MickeyCbg (http://blog.michaelgray.org.uk/) for the information about the altitude of Chilean vineyards.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

A Garden Party With Hedonist Wines & Friends

At the weekend, I was invited by Anthony Jenkins of Hedonist Wines to drop by for an informal wine tasting with a few of his friends.

I tried a couple of his wines a few weeks ago and wrote them up here; fellow Cambridge blogger Davy Kurniawan, writing as Vinoremus, also included a couple at one of his tastings (here), so I was keen to see what the rest of the range would be like.

It proved to be as much a social event as a serious wine tasting, which was fine by me, as Anthony has a good mix of friends and we met some very interesting people.

However, that also meant that the wines were opened and poured immediately with no aeration and we did not use tasting glasses, so I feel some of the wines here might have shown better under different circumstances.

We started with a Menetou-Salon; a new appellation for me, it lies in France's northerly Loire region and might be categorised as a lesser / better value Sancerre - rather like Touraine, then.

Crisp and smokey, with herbaceous aromas, a minerally finish and rounded acidity, it was a textbook Loire Sauvignon and would work well as either an aperitif or with classic food matches such as goat's cheese or white fish in a herby broth.

This is the entry-level wine for this property and was well-made and sensible; Hedonist also sells the estate's top wine and Davy tweeted me a few weeks back to say how impressed he was with it.

Next up was a white Burgundy from Domaine Joussier in the Côte Chalonnaise. More neutral than the previous wine, it had focused, lemony, linear acidity and a creamy, rounded palate.

Like the Menetou-Salon, it felt well-made and fresh, but a little elusive - either it needs a bit of air to open up, or it is rather a neutral wine.

The last of the whites was a Caecus white Rioja from the Viura grape; a relatively unusual wine, it was perhaps the most interesting white for that reason. Initial impressions on the palate were of lemon sherbet, with rounded lemony acidity, a touch of oak and a good depth of flavour.

Again, it felt clean, fresh and well-made and at this point, I felt I could discern something of a house style for Hedonist's whites - well-made, fresh and clean, they impress more on a structural level than through a complexity of fruit aromas.

They are all from classic European regions and are classic European food wines; they do not have bags of up-front easy-going appeal, but rather are more classy and thoughtful.

As timeless yet familiar as a Beatles melody, they are the type of wines you could settle down with for a life of cerebral domesticity rather than, say, having a quick snog with at the disco.

By contrast, the first red was more outgoing and likely to want to show you a good time - a light, unoaked Rioja joven again from Caecus, it was an easy quaffing mix of ripe prunes, plummy fruit, liquorice and refreshing juicy acidity with a touch of tannic buzz - tasted blind, I would have guessed this as a southern French red blend from the Languedoc.

The second red was a Burgundy from Domaine Joussier in Mercurey and was also rather light - pale in the glass, it had a good, typical Pinot nose of red berry fruit, mushrooms and a touch of truffleyness with some hints of vanilla.

It had a lovely soft texture, but started to fade rather sooner than I would have liked, but this may change with a bit of air and in any case £13 for even a half-decent red Burgundy is very reasonable.

Anthony explained that he is struggling to find an approach with red Burgundy that he is happy with - and I am not surprised. Red Burgundy is such a minefield of a specialist area that it is almost an entire subject in itself.

The next wine was one that I reviewed earlier - the Rioja crianza from Caecus. There is a more detailed review here, but it showed the same good berry fruit, ripe cherries and lovely acidity that I remembered.

Again, rather like the whites, it impresses by being well-made and just doing its thing very well, rather than through any huge variety of different flavours and aromas.

The final wine was, I thought, the best of the reds, a 2005 Côtes de Castillon from Château de Lescaneaut .

Located on the left bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux, it is Merlot-based and has fresh, ripe bramble fruit with hints of forest floor, coffee and spice. There are also touches of liquorice and mint, good acidity and at six years old, well-integrated but buzzy tannins.

Rather like the offspring of smart, wealthy, beautiful parents, this wine has everything going for it - it is at just about the right age from a good year and a solid appellation just outside St Emilion

 After the party, I reflected on Hedonist's approach, business and strategy as well as the wines themselves.

On the plus side, the wines are good, well-made and enjoyable; quality is reliably even and there is a reasonable, if somewhat limited, range of generally quite classic wines.

Moreover, I am told by Angela Reddin that the market for independent wine merchants is continuing to do well in the UK.

However, retail is a tough old business and Internet retailing is tougher again.

Price point is interesting - £10 is the entry level, so Hedonist is not really competing against the likes of Naked Wines, Virgin Wines or Laithwaites - and the simplicity of the website reflects this.

With their easy-drinking, but more subtle style, the wines strike me as more sophisticated versions of everyday wines than, say, lesser versions of classic styles - that is to say, they don't score highly for the challenging intensity that perhaps appeals to wine geeks or those with a classic palate, say.

Moreover, although most of the wines are from classic European appellations, they are not always fully typical of their origins - the unoaked Rioja is a good case in point. I also wonder if some of these classic European appellations have a bit of a premium in their pricing compared to, say New World areas with  less of a reputation to trade on.

Hedonist's niche, then, is probably somewhere towards the upper end of Naked Wines - Internet savvy consumers for whom wine is a minor, rather than major, interest who want a decent bottle of wine, wherever it comes from, and who are prepared to pay over a tenner for it.

At the moment, however, I suspect that a lot of sales come via word of mouth (the website is fairly static and unlikely to come out highly in any searches) so it feels like there are still a few bits and pieces to be added to the offering before the business really stands ready to take off and become more than just a self-sustaining hobby.

Recommended wines

As noted, quality is reliably even, but for me the most interesting white was the white Rioja, Caecus Verderón 2010, £10 whilst the best red was the Côtes de Castillon Château de Lescaneaut 2005, £10.


Hedonist Wines - http://www.hedonistwines.com/

Monday, 8 August 2011

On Choice

It is a tenet of modern civilised society that we have choices - indeed many of our government policies here in the UK are based on the principle of increasing our level of choice for healthcare, schooling and so on.

Certainly, basic economics tells us that monopolies are not a Good Thing - inefficient and lazy, they do not serve consumers as well as where there is a plurality of choice which allows those that are popular to thrive whilst those that get it wrong do not.

However, it is a big step to go from saying that "no choice is a Bad Thing" to "the more choice the better in all areas".

In Britain, we generally shop at supermarkets and also generally buy our wines there too; supermarkets have done a great job of building efficient distribution networks that allow them to pass on the savings from economies of scale to us as consumers.

This, along with the rise of cheap manufacturing of non-food items in China now means you can buy almost any item at almost in price point in a supermarket.

Quality and durability are of course secondary issues, but having low headline prices seems to be the thing that fascinates the so-called average UK consumer.

A recent article in Decanter argued that we are a nation of "discount junkies" when it comes to wine, whilst Guy Woodward made comments saying how difficult it is to find decent wine under a fiver these days. And was attacked by Asda for doing so.

Taking the wine under a fiver argument - taxes, duty add up to around £2.50, whilst marketing and distribution is a further £2, so the cost of the juice itself is about 50p or less. Trade up to a more expensive wine and a much greater proportion of the cost goes on the juice and not the peripherals - or so the argument goes.

In general, I do not disagree with the principles here, but it is overly simplistic. Just as a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux sold for hundreds of pounds costs no more to produce than one sold for a tenner from a nearby but lesser property, so we cannot draw a strictly linear relationship between price and quality in wine.

That means that your 50p's worth of wine in a sub-£5 wine could actually be quite a bargain. It may be that you are actually getting, say, £1's worth of wine for 50p as the winemaker has decided that he has to sell his wine at that price and will aim to make money elsewhere on a different wine.

How you feel about this depends on the kind of person you are; you may thank your favoured supermarket chain for their aggressive procurement practices that give you the consumer a bit of a bargain. Or you may feel it is inimical that passionate craftsmen of artisan products are being treated like mere lackeys in the supply of a noble product.

Or you may just stare at the vast array of wines sitting on supermarkets, not really knowing what to go for and end up just plumping for what's on special offer as it seems to represent a bargain and if it's not that good, well at least it was cheap.

Rather like tying our shoes or learning to drive, wine appreciation does require a bit of education. I am a big fan of music of all sorts, but am not particularly knowledgeable or indeed musically gifted. Occasionally, I watch a programme on one of the great symphonies, say Beethoven's 5th or Mozart's 40th, and learn a huge amount about the subtleties, technical complexity and ideas behind the music.

Did you know for example, that the horns in the first movement of Beethoven's 5th represent an uplifting life-affirming hunting metaphor or that the transposition section of the first movement of Mozart's 40th is pleasantly listenable despite its technical complexity ?

Me neither, until it was explained to me - up until then, all I could hear was the tunes, which I either liked or didn't. Choosing wine is similar, in that the subject is somewhat complex and requires a basic critical mass of knowledge about grapes, regions, styles and so on which a lot of people, quite rightly, just can't be bothered to learn.

Wink Lorch recently posted a self-confessed rant (here) on the lack of choice of wine at supermarkets, but the truth is, the level of choice is greater than many people can be bothered with.

As a result, the loyalty of buyers is firstly to the supermarket and secondly to what's on special offer. As fellow wine blogger Tom Parnell, blogging as Old Parn, explained to me, he himself used to pick out whatever was on offer not for the financial bargain, but as a way of helping him choose when overwhelmed by the vast choice on offer.

Of course, apparent choice on offer may be somewhat misleading as often ostensibly different wines may prove to be merely slightly tweaked blends from a single producer - but that's another story about economies of scale, branding and consumer marketing.

One company that has made huge advances in the field of "choice architecture" - the science of helping consumers navigate their way through vast amounts of choice - is Naked Wines.

With an Internet-based model that will be familiar to anyone who has used amazon recently, Naked's site uses filters, qualitative and quantitative feedback from consumers (i.e. people like you, not so-called experts) and other tools to help buyers narrow down their choices.

Search for the most popular red wine on their site and you will find it easily - you can click to see a brief description and comments from other customers.

You won't get a lot of background on the soil type, elevation, terroir or wine-making techniques, but that's not what's on offer at Naked.

Take away the complicated, technical stuff that I happen to find fascinating but is terribly dull or even intimidating to the non-geeks and replace it with a site that helps you actually choose something that lots of people have said they like and you get Naked Wines.

My local independents in Cambridge have an answer to this - they can advise in person and chat about the subtleties of a wine in a way that Naked's site cannot, but for many people, stepping across the threshold of an independent is just too daunting or inconvenient.

As I wrote earlier (here), the IWC is promoting its Gold Medal wines as a way of helping people focus on something other than price / perceived discount as a way of narrowing down their choices.

However, it seems the supermarkets are the ones who are missing a trick. Instead of all that fake 50% off / BOGOF jiggery pokery which ultimately merely results in £5 wines being sold for a fiver (after a brief artificial increase in price in just a few branches followed by a reduction back down with a huge flourish) why not install interactive shelf displays which indicate the sales ranking of a bottle of wine, so that consumers can see which is the most popular ?

Then we could shift the focus off headline price and onto popularity and quality where it belongs.


Decanter article - http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/529114/uk-wine-drinkers-are-discount-junkies-says-research

Follow-up Guardian response - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/07/wine-british

Wink Lorch's "rant" - http://www.facebook.com/notes/wink-lorch/an-unoriginal-personal-rant-the-uks-lack-of-wine-choice/10150287341031111

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

Image credits: http://blog.mindvalleylabs.com/stop-offering-your-customers-too-many-choices/218/ the article from which the image is taken is worth reading, too as it addresses similar themes.


Saturday, 6 August 2011

On The "Cambridge Phenomenon"

A while ago, I wrote about the so-called Wiseman study and the conclusion we can draw from it about Britain as a nation of wine-consumers (see here).

I observed that learning to appreciate a good wine is a process of self-education, it's not something that we are born with an ability to do and requires a bit of practice and experience – something that as a nation we typically do not do.

However, having lived in Cambridge for well over a decade now, I feel there is something slightly different about my adoptive home city.

I first came to the city one hot, sultry late-summer day two decades ago to see a friend who was completing a Masters in International Relations at Peterhouse.

As it so happened, I arrived on the day that Russian Army tanks, under the command of one Boris Yeltsin, opened fire on the Russian White House in Moscow to defeat the anti-Gorbachev attempted coup, so my friend was a little busy adding a further appendix to his dissertation.

However, as the shadows lengthened, we ended up doing what all students do and headed off into the city to hang out.

To this day, I remember the pervasive impression I had of Cambridge being somehow far more "continental" than the northern, industrial hometown of my own alma mater - that a pedestrianised city centre with cobbled streets and pavement cafes where people sat out late into the evening could exist in this country was a revelation.

1991 was just about the time Noel Young opened his eponymous wine shop in Trumpington followed shortly afterwards by Hal Wilson and Brett Turner with Cambridge Wine Merchants and Paul Bowes with Bacchanalia.

There are now seven independent wine merchant outlets inside the city boundaries of Cambridge - in a place with a population of just 100,000 or so people - resulting in one branch for roughly every 15,000 people. That must be at least some kind of statistical anomaly, if not a record in this country.

Clearly, then, there is something different about Cambridge and our drinking habits - we are, somehow, a more continental sort of place, with more continental habits, and I would not mind betting that a random sample of our inhabitants could beat the odds on the Wiseman study test.

Why this should be so is up for discussion but I think several factors are at play:

- we have a cosmopolitan, highly-educated population with above-average disposable incomes

- we are, in part, a city of sophisticated, open-minded economic immigrants, be it visiting lecturers or London professionals

- the colleges have extensive, high-quality wine cellars to maintain which provide a critical mass of activity to support the independents

- the city itself is, of course, stunningly beautiful and appeals to the kind of aesthete who appreciates the finer things in life.

National chains of wine merchants have come and gone - Wine Rack owner, Thirst Quench, and Oddbins are just the most recent casualties - but somehow Cambridge's independent wine merchants have survived and thrived.

The Wiseman study offers no explanation for this, but knowing what we do, it behoves us to ensure that our independent wine merchants continue to thrive or otherwise our vinous choices will be much more severely limited; an oenological diet consisting solely of bland mass-market wines from mass-market chains would quickly return us to this country’s statistical norm of not being able to tell expensive wine from plonk.


Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/

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

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

Image credit: http://vimeo.com/cambphenomenon

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Villa Maria Private Bin First Release Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2011

If the history of white wine fashions of the last few decades were summed up in a few words, they would be oaky Chardonnay, kiwi Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio.

Kiwi Sauvignon then is not just something of a modern classic, but a marketing case study of how one benchmark style of wine (ripe, tropical, buttery oaked Chardonnay) quickly fell out of fashion to be replaced by something quite different - thrilling, zesty, in-yer-face Sauvignon, often from Marlborough at the top of New Zealand's South Island (see map).

Before Marlborough, Sauvignon's spiritual home was either the cool-climate Loire - producing steely, smokey, minerally versions that need food, especially the local goat's cheese - or Bordeaux where it was somewhat overshadowed by the local red and dessert wines.

Sauvignon, then, has always been a class act but it was also always somehow "lesser" than the two Great Whites, Chardonnay and Riesling and - whisper it - might have been a bit of a one-trick pony.

Kiwi Sauvignon changed all that - just as New World chardies were becoming ever oakier, sweeter and more monolithic, along it came with a vibrant freshness and lots of aromatic, herbaceous, gooseberry and nettley aromas.

Technically well made, it combined warm-climate aromas and approachability with a dash of cool-climate food-friendliness, often achieved through harvesting grapes at different stages of ripeness.

In short, Marlborough Sauvignon is as classic and genre-defining as the VW Golf and has spawned almost as many imitators around the world. But just as the Golf is still a mid-sized box on wheels, so Marlborough Sauvignon is perhaps constrained by its success to be a particular type of tropical, aromatic, zesty white wine.

So, feeling the weight of oenological history upon me, I open up this latest sample from the multi award-winning Villa Maria.

In the glass it is almost colourless with just a hint of gold. There is an intense nose of gooseberry, passionfruit and a distinct hint of Galia melon skin.

The palate has all the up-front herbaceous, nettley aromas I have come to expect with melon, citrus and lots of mouthwateringly ripe, juicy, tropical fruit acidity.

The finish shows a balance of acidity, residual sweetness and minerality -presumably the result of the grapes being picked at differing levels of ripeness over a period of five weeks, giving both high acidity at one end and ripe sweetness at the other.

It feels clean, well-made, approachable and familiar and, if you're new to kiwi Sauvignon, this is as good a place as any to start.

However, for me, I can't help feeling I've seen this movie before - and however good it is (and it is good), it's all rather familiar, predictable and overworked, leaving me wanting something a bit different, unexpected or challenging, especially given the price point.

Available basically everywhere in the UK for £9.99 - specifically from Majestic, Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Tesco, Wine Rack and other supermarkets as well as www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk and other wine merchants.


Villa Maria - http://villamaria.co.nz/
Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/
Waitrose - http://www.waitrose.com/ and http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/sol/index.jsp
Tesco - http://www.tesco.com/
Wine Rack - http://www.winerack.co.uk/
www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk - http://www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk/

Monday, 1 August 2011

Wine of The Month - August

August is traditionally a holiday month when we head for the beach somewhere hot and sunny.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that this month our three independent wine merchants in Cambridge have all provided a wine from a typical European holiday destination, so these three wines should either get you in the mood for, or bring back memories of, lazy sunny days on the beach with some great local food.

Antonio Barbadillo, Manzanilla Solear Sherry, £5.99 (37.5 cl) from Cambridge Wine Merchants

If you think sherry is just for maiden aunts and vicars, think again; sherry is fast becoming hip thanks to the likes of Jancis Robinson and Heston Blumenthal.

This IWC Gold Medal Manzanilla from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Andalusia is a little more intensely flavoured than a standard-spec fino.

Aged in soleras under flor, it is golden in the glass with a classic, pungent sherry nose. Elegant and refined with great linear acidity, it shows evolved tertiary aromas of yeasty brioche and pastry shop.

On the palate, it is ever-so-slightly rounded at the edges, but the finish is utterly bone dry and it needs to be served as a simple aperitif or with food to show its best.

Cambridge Wine Merchants owner Hal Wilson suggests drinking this with seafood or anything with tomatoes such as gazpacho, but I would go for a plate of simple salamis, dry-cured hams and cheeses such as manchego, with olives, oil and bread and just let the acidity cut through it all beautifully.

Domaine de Bahourat 'La Petit Parcelle' Viognier Vin de Pays du Gard, £7.99 from Bacchanalia

Next up is something rather more gentle and crowd-pleasing - a Viognier from the Languedoc. Pale gold in the glass, it has a nose of stone fruits and a mouthfilling, peachy softness on the palate. It feels as sweet and juicy as a perfectly ripe pear, with a touch of apricot blossom and a very gentle finish.

A lovely, more-ish wine, it has a come-hither softness from its warm-climate origins whilst remaining focused and balanced and would match well either with full-flavoured Mediterranean seafood or even Thai curries.

Dinner party fact: Viognier is an ancient grape variety of unknown origin that almost became extinct in the 1960s; its spiritual home is the Northern Rhône and the Viognier grown in the Languedoc is considered to be a different strain, producing a distinctly different wine as a result.

Monte Schiavo 'Pallio di San Floriano' Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2010 , £9.39 from Noel Young Wines

This final wine with a mouthful of a name hails from the eastern side of Italy and has won the IWC Verdicchio Trophy. Made from the Verdicchio grape which is grown mainly in the Marche region from which it probably originated, it is a wine I first came across relatively recently at an Italian Wine Tasting of Slow Wines.

I was impressed with it then and tasting this one now, I really think it shows great potential as possibly the Next Big Thing for white-wine drinkers looking to move on from Pinot Grigio.

Yellowy-green in the glass, it has a beautifully rich, toasty nose of lemons, pears and almonds. On the palate there is more lemon, ripe white peach fruit and white blossom with some herbaceous, nettley accents and a lively, buzzy, rounded acidity.

With a long and soft yet balanced finish with a hint of toastiness again, it is gently mouthwatering as a quaffer, but will match perfectly with pasta such as butternut squash ravioli in a creamy sauce.

As ever, you could easily serve all three wines at a dinner party - start with the Manzanilla with some bread and oil, have the Verdicchio with a pasta course and then the Viognier with a simple piece of roasted fish with some green beans on the side - and I would defy any guest to be disappointed.

However, the overall winner this month is the Verdicchio for its complex and refreshing mouthful of ripe fruit, toastiness and aromatic blossom.


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

Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/

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

Main image credit - http://www.holidayfrancedirect.co.uk/graphics/library/PRO10103.jpg