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Monday, 31 October 2011

On Being a Wine Writer vs A Writer Who Likes Wine‏

To quote a saying, rumours of the death of the Quaffable blog have been greatly exaggerated; Charles Saunders, writing as Quaffable, appeared to announce what would be his last posting a few days ago in a very thoughtful piece about what it means to be a wine blogger and in doing so touched on a number of themes that I had been vaguely aware of but had not thought about in great depth.

For me, however, the most interesting point he made was about the difference between a Wine Writer and a Writer Who Likes Wine.

This was not a distinction I had considered before and it got me thinking about what he had in mind and wondering which category I would fall into.

To me, a Wine Writer is someone who describes, analyses and assesses wine - it seems to imply a (mainly) serious-minded approach to the subject, a high degree of formal knowledge and a focus on technical matters.

By contrast, a Writer Who Likes Wine is more of a frustrated novelist; someone for whom wine is primarily a poetic, human-interest story, for whom the soil strata, picking date, fermentation techniques and so on are secondary to the story the winemaker has to tell.

Of course, a bad wine remains uninspiring even if the winemaker has a cute story about naming it after his new puppy and it behoves anyone assessing the wine to give an honest appraisal of its merits and shortcomings.

But when the liquid itself inspires us, it is not only natural, but inevitable for Writers Who Like Wine, to seek out the inspiring stories behind the wine - the breathtaking landscape, the individuality of the terroir, the personalities involved not just of the people but of the geography, geology and even the weather from year to year.

The Wine Writer, of course, does not ignore these factors, but they simply do not capture the imagination in the same way.

Wine Writers primarily analyse, assess and opine - Writers Who Like Wine tell stories, and, as in the case of Quaffable and Tom Parnell writing as Old Parn, the wine may not even prove to be the main point of the story.

For me, however, whatever stories I tell, the wine is the main character, the focus of each piece, not merely an adjunct to a great story with a mere incidental role, so this is where I perhaps differ a little from these two Writers Who Like Wine.

However, where I specifically agree with Tom Parnell is in describing wine with metaphors, not percentages; reducing a wine to a single score is something I have never really felt comfortable doing and I now realise part of the reason is that a bald score alone does not tell enough of a story about the wine - perhaps unless it's a mediocre wine and merits only a workmanlike comment of "13/20".

But even then, a wine can warrant a low score for a host of reasons - it might be jammy, overly acidic, lacking finesse, dull or overly fruit-driven - and a mere 13/20 does not provide an adequate explanation of where it is found wanting.

The two writers who most influenced me in my early days are former Evita-actor-turned-wine-critic, Oz Clarke and the first non-trade Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson.

Oz has little in the way of formal training and qualifications, but is a populist, charismatic entertainer, as you might expect given his stage background. He writes and tells stories.

By contrast, Jancis is a more analytical, technical and thoughtful commentator who much less frequently allows her own personality to come across in her writing. One of the world's leading writers of educational and encyclopedic material on wine, perhaps the most influential wine writer outside of the US, she is the wine critics' wine critic.

Oz's populist commentaries on wine are great introductions for the novice wine enthusiast as they entertain whilst they inform and do not get bogged down in technical detail; whilst you'll often find rosewater, fish oil or antique leather in an Oz Clarke tasting note, you won't get lots of facts, data or analyses.

Jancis' writings are much more in-depth, analytical and factually-driven and leave you with a much greater understanding of an issue whose very existence you might not have been aware of previously, but may not provide you with such a good line to use at a dinner party.

Speaking of which, as the proverbial dinner party guests, Oz would offer entertainment and jocularity, whilst Jancis would bring insight and wisdom, and if forced to choose between the two, I would genuinely struggle to make a decision.

And that dilemma perhaps encapsulates my own approach to reviewing wines - yes, I am a wine geek to my family, friends and perhaps all but the geekiest of wine enthusiasts, but a lumpen diet of technical data and statistics simply does not do it for me and I want to hear the story behind the figures.

So where does that leave me as regards Quaffable's dichotomy ?

Whilst I don't feel that I have a series of potential novels inside my head waiting to be written, and my blog posts are not structured with plot and character, conflict and resolution, I do like to tell stories and convey impressions about a wine.

However, I also feel an obligation to back up these stories with a degree of facts and data, to include both objective and subjective elements.

So neither fully a Serious Wine Writer nor able to characterise myself as a Proper Writer, even One Who Likes Wine, I'm not sure I fit wholly into either category.

And so I must define myself differently, and that is as an Educator - in the broadest sense; someone who wants to wants to inform and attempts to do it in a vaguely entertaining way with stories and anecdotes.

Certainly, I used the same approach when I worked as a language teacher in Russia two decades ago and in my first forays into wine education more recently as a presenter and speaker, several years before I started writing my blog regularly.

And for me, either speaking or writing about wine has been as much of a self education as a means of passing on information - for to present or opine on a topic requires that we learn something about it in the first place.

I was recently accepted into the Circle of Wine Writers, after naively coming up with the notion that I could forge a lucrative career as a wine writer and give up my day job - unfortunately, I only realised there is no money in wine-writing after I sent off my application, so at that point I decided just to roll with it.

As someone who views himself as more of an educator than a writer, it may seem odd to have joined this organisation rather than, say, the Association of Wine Educators.

However, education is generally considered to involve synchronous communication (i.e. addressing a group of people directly) and as a presenter, I find that there is only so much information one can convey to a mixed group over the course of a tasting.

By contrast, I find writing allows me to explore topics in much greater depth and inadvertently, the written form as the medium of the education is how I am defined - at least by the CWW.

Ultimately, though, I take inspiration from composer, rock god, arch humourist, social comentator, political actvivist and briefly the Czechoslovak trade envoy to the US, the late Frank Zappa, and define myself as just another wine blogger from Cambridge.


Quaffable - http://www.quaffable.co.uk/
Oz Clarke - http://www.ozclarke.com/
Jancis Robinson - http://www.jancisrobinson.com/
Old Parn - http://oldparn.com/
Circle of Wine Writers - http://www.winewriters.org/
Association of Wine Educators - http://www.wineeducators.com/index.html

Image credits:

Main image - http://justcoopit.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/a-thoughtfull-pen-writing-3647581-2560-1702.jpg

Oz and Jancis images from their respective websites.

Just Another Band from L.A. - http://www.coverdude.com/covers/frank-zappa-just-another-band-from-la-front-cover-12847.jpg

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Cheese Masterclass at Cambridge Hotel du Vin

Cambridge's Hotel du Vin has recently launched a series of events and General Manager Jacqui Griffiths invited me to come along to a number of them, so last night, I found myself strolling into town to attend the Cheese Masterclass of English and French cheeses in one of the Hotel's cosy function rooms.

Now, my attitude to cheese is rather like many people's attitude to wine - I know the good stuff from the bad when I try it, but I don't consider myself particularly knowledgeable, enthusiastic or confident about the subject.

To me, cheese is perhaps the only other artisan product that has the same complexity, subtlety and variety as wine, and is certainly a topic worthy of study, but I don't think I'll be starting a Cambridge Cheese Blogger site any time soon.

So with apologies to those who know their cheesy stuff, here is my account of the evening, presented by Jourdain from Premier Cheese, which supplies the Hotel's 25 or so cheeses, and Lucia, one of the waiting staff.

It is worth pointing out here that the Hotel invests a lot of time and money in training up its staff, so Lucia is no mere order-taker but one of the most knowledgeable members of an already strong team.

The first cheese was a Montracher goat's cheese from Burgundy; aged for 3-4 weeks, it was creamy with quite a firm texture and had a choice of wines to match.

If the separate topics of cheese and wine are fairly complex subject areas in themselves, then matching cheese and wine together is the "dark matter" or "Higgs boson particle" of gastronomy - advanced, elusive and controversial. However, the Hotel kept things simple but effective with a choice of either a Noval Extra Dry White Port, a Chateauneuf du Pape or a 10-year old Pineau de Charentes to accompany the cheeses.

I started with the White Port (reviewed previously at a Noval Wine Dinner) which had enough acidity to stand up to the freshness of the cheese.

We followed this with an English goat's cheese from the Midlands which had a rather denser texture and a more mature example from South East England which had a rind and a stronger, yeasty flavour.

Next was a Camenbert-style, unpasteurised bloomy rind cheese from Turnworth in South East England; at four weeks old, it had a slightly funky nose that a wine enthusiast would describe as Pinot-esque with a firm centre, a creamier outer layer and a rind.

All these cheese matched well with the White Port, but for the next cheese, I moved on to the Pineau de Charentes.

The cheese itself was a Brie de Moulin, with 4-5 weeks' age, and whilst initial sniffs revealed little more than mushroomy hints on the nose, and it was pleasantly soft and creamy on the palate, the real hit came at the end with a long, pungent, acidic finish.

This cheese proved popular with our group of enthusiasts, but to me the finish was just too harsh - that, said it matched very well with the Pineau de Charentes, so perhaps it is a "wine cheese" in the same way that one talks about a "food wine".

One of the more unusual cheeses of the evening was an oxymoronic Cheddar "bomb" from Lancashire which had been aged for two years in cloth surrounded by wax; this, naturally, prevents moisture loss, so the cheese retained a creamy, buttery texture and appearance but had also developed a great savoury depth of flavour.

The key point with storing cheeses is to keep them as close to cave conditions as possible - cool, around 8c, damp and open to the air.

Unfortunately, this natural state of affairs is somewhat hard to replicate in modern conditions, with room temperature being too warm and fridge temperature too cold.

Jourdain's advice was keep it either in the fridge if hot or in a cool place in the house if cool wrapped in either foil or wax paper to leave an air gap, but not cling film.

We then moved on to a firm Welsh cheese called Celtic Promise - aged for three months and washed with cider, on the nose it was distinctly "cheesy", with people describing it as "socky" and "locker room" and deeming it one of the least impressive.

Much more impressive and popular was a 14 month-old Comte, which had a creamy, nutty, savoury oatmeal flavour and a firm texture.

Jourdain explained that cheese age much the same way as wines, losing their up-front fruit and developing more nut-like flavours over time. However, unlike wine which is stoppered thus slowing down the effects of air, cheese is open to the elements and cannot age beyond 2-4 years, adding that Parmesan, once fully aged, is so salty and hard that you can only use it in cooking.

Jourdain suggested matching the Comte with the Chateauneuf du Pape; the wine, a blend of up to 13 varieties including a number of white ones, showed vanilla and herbaceous, floral aromas on the nose which I attribute to the likely presence of the highly aromatic Marsanne in the blend, with pruney fruit, vanilla, more floral aromas and an inky texture on the palate.

To me, red wine does not match with cheese generally and whilst the wine was enjoyable, the two did not go together well, with the wine being too up-front and floral for the cheese and an aged tawny port may well have proven a better match here.

We followed this with a soft Reblochon from Savoie - I found it quite mild and creamy and was surprised to hear the rest of the group find it strong.

France, of course, has a long history of both cheese and wine production with local matches being the rule of thumb, so I asked Jourdain if Savoie wines would match with this cheese.

He assured me that they would, but as I have never had a Savoie wine (they are quite hard to find outside of their locality), it is impossible to give an opinion on this.

We then tried a Chambertin from Burgundy - with a rind washed in Marc de Bourgogne, it had a distinctly funky, decaying, vegetal nose, but on the palate was nutty and savoury with flavours of cashews.

To me a good blue cheese should have a distinctly pungent, but not harsh acidity from the bacteria balanced by a rich waxiness.

Sadly the unpasteurised Leonard Blue from Scotland had neither of these and, although popular with the rest of the group, struck me as too harsh and in-yer-face.

An Auvergne washed with Sauternes had a volatile nose of oil paint or solvent, a sweet, creamy palate and a pungent finish.

Finally, we tried the earlier Brie de Moulin with a tapenade filling - a slightly odd, mixed-up approach, but the saltiness of the tapenade actually worked with the cheese.

To finish with, we were given a Golden Cross cheese dipped in Calvados matched with a vodka shaken with honey and ice.

My only impression of the cheese is that it was bitter and alcoholic from the spirit, but with a soft, waxy texture.

However, the vodka and honey was a revelation - icy cold, it felt superbly balanced and refreshing and was perfect after several hours of cheese-sampling.

I'm not a great fan of honey as I find rather floral and having drunk more vodka than I care to - or even can - remember whilst living in Russia many years ago, I have also gone off its bitter, harsh neutrality in favour of something more complex.

However, put together and chilled right down, these two complemented each other brilliantly, with neither bitterness nor excessive perfuminess.

At this point the only thing left to do was have a tour of Jourdain's cheese van which turned out to be a veritable, if stink,y Aladdin's cave of cheesiness at a constant 14c stocked with a cornucopia of additional goodies like salamis, aged hams, truffle oils, truffle honey and chocolates before heading back home with a profound sense of well-being.

Great cheeses and wines had been a good start, but the talks from Jourdain and Lucia, the discussions amongst the group over the cheeses and anecdotes, and especially the extra touches like the vodka-honey cocktail and the cheese van visit had all combined to make it a very memorable evening.

Tickets for the evening cost £25; I attended as a guest of the Hotel.

Details of future events as well as of a Cheese and Wine are available on the Hotel's website or by calling the Hotel on 01223 227 330.

Recommended Cheeses

With, sadly, no hand-outs for the event, I do not have full details of the cheeses provided, but my favourites were the Montracher goat's cheese, the Comte and the Reblochon.


Hotel du Vin - http://www.hotelduvin.com/
Premier Cheese - http://www.cheese.biz/homePage.php

Friday, 28 October 2011

Calvet Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux 2010

Whilst at the upper levels - the lofty heights of First Growth chateaux - white Bordeaux is something of an also-ran, in the everyday range, the quality of the whites can be as good as anything else similarly priced.

With a more southerly climate than the Loire, white Bordeaux made from Sauvignon Blanc tends to be fuller, riper and bigger, sometimes with a bit of oak or waxy Sémillon in the blend.

On the nose, this Calvet Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc is herbaceous, with nettles and gooseberries and hints of grapefruit zest.

On both the palate and the finish, the rounded acidity and minerality dominate with only hints of varietal herbaceous aromas.

Overall, it is well-made, balanced and more of a classic food wine than, say, tropical New World examples.

With a relatively low 12% alcohol, it actually feels a little more like a Loire Sauvignon and would go well with the traditional match of goat's cheese or white fish, such as plaice.

It has a Commendation from the IWC which feels about right for the quality / price / value.

£6.49 from Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrison's, Waitrose and the Co-operative.

Provided for review.


Tesco - http://www.tesco.com/wine/
Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/sol/index.jsp
Morrison's - http://www.morrisons.co.uk/
Waitrose - http://www.waitrosewine.com/
The Co-operative - http://www.co-operative.coop/food/food-and-drink/drink/Wine/

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Esk Valley Riesling 2010‏, Marlborough, New Zealand

To many people, New Zealand white means Sauvignon Blanc - in that ripe, tropical style so typical of Marlborough.

And whilst zesty Sauvignon Blanc may have become the country's calling card, it is by no means all there is on offer, with almost all the noble and international varieties showing well in New Zealand's "house style" of purity of fruit with an Old World food-friendliness.

For me, despite any claims that Germany or Alsace might make, the best Rieslings generally come from Austria in a dry, focused, full-bodied and minerally style that works so well with food and this Esk Valley Riesling 2010 is very much in the same vein.

Immediately on opening, the nose is mineral and flinty with hints of stone fruit, elderflower and some honey aromas; with aeration and warmth, the mineral elements become more pronounced.

The palate is citrussy with zesty lime, cox's apple and pear fruit, honey aromas and rounded, linear acidity.

Full-bodied and mouthfilling in a ripe-yet-dry way, the finish is long, mineral and buzzy.

It has all the hallmarks of my favourite Austrian Rieslings, feeling crisp, focused and precise, and will match with well-seasoned, modern international style dishes.

The grapes for this wine come from two sites in Marlborough; from old vines in Waldron's vineyard in the Wairau Valley for body and richness and from the cooler Taylor's Pass in the southern Awatere Valley for elegance and minerality.

With too much warmth, these elements seem to separate out and lose harmoniousness, appearing to "let the gaps show" somewhat, so either serve well-chilled or cellar for a few years to allow everything to integrate.

The wine also spends an extended period on its lees, which gives a greater depth of flavour.

Match with foods such as chicken in creamy sauce, smoked salmon or Thai coconut curries.

£10.49 from Cambridge Wine Merchants, Jubilee Wines, slurp.co.uk, Woodwinters, nzhouseofwine.co.uk

Provided for review.


Esk Valley - http://www.eskvalley.co.nz/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Jubilee Wines - http://www.jubileewines.com/
slurp.co.uk - http://www.slurp.co.uk/
Woodwinters - http://www.woodwinters.com/
nzhouseofwine.co.uk - http://www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk/

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Phoenix Wine Agencies at Boutique Wineries Tasting

As I have written earlier, our process of choosing is often opaque, non-rational and influenced by sub-conscious factors that we are barely aware of.

In this case, my decision to try some of Phoenix Wine Agencies' wines and chat with Director Howard Jones at the recent Boutique Wineries Tasting in London was prompted by the somewhat random fact that he is based in Oswestry where I have friends who, when not running a garage door business, are also wine enthusiasts.

Mark - he looks like he could do with a
decent glass of wine, doesn't he ?
So Mark and Irina, this is for you.

We started with an unoaked white Rioja from Martinez Lacuesta. Called simply Blanca 2010, it was fresh and toasty with a flinty nose, elderflower and crisp white peach fruit, whilst the finish is long.

The more traditional oaked white Rioja, the Blanco Fermentado Barrica 2009, adds to this aromas of vanilla and sherbert, with a mouthfilling creaminess.

I then tried a Villa Giada "Suri" Blanco 2010 from Piedmonte. A mixture of Cortese, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, it was toasty, fresh and aromatic.

I have reviewed the Suri Barbera d'Asti before and on this occasion, it showed lots of cherry fruit and liquorice.

To finish, something rather unusual - a Vermouth from Martinez Lacuesta.

Much more associated with the cities of north west Italy, and especially Turin, it is many years since I last tried a Vermouth; nonetheless, this one was very good indeed, with a pleasant, rich sweetness and balanced botanical bitterness.

Recommended wine

The best table wine here was the Blanco (£8.99), but the one I enjoyed the most was the Vermouth Reserva NV (£14.99 half bottle, also available at Cambridge's Bacchanalia).


Phoenix Wine - http://www.phoenixwine.co.uk/
Boutique Wineries - http://www.boutique-wineries.co.uk/
Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Sunday, 23 October 2011

De Martino Vertical Carménère Tasting

Earlier this week, I attended my first Circle of Wine Writers event, a vertical tasting of De Martino Carménères from 1996 to 2010 from the Alto de Piedras vineyard in Chile's Maipo Valley with wine-maker (and heavy rock fan) Marcello Retamal and winery owner Sebastian De Martino.

Wine-maker Marcelo Retamal:
he likes Iron Maiden, y'know
With around a dozen wines to taste through, pages of technical sheets, an extensive presentation from Marcelo and Q&A, there was far more information conveyed than I have the capacity to do justice to here.

But two particular themes came across above all others - the variety and potential of Chilean terroir and an almost Damascene conversion by Marcelo to a more restrained, textured and individual style of wines, backed by the winery even if in the short term it might not seem to make the most commercial sense.

I first became interested in the idea of Chilean terroir when listening to Rafael Urrejola of Vina Undurraga talking about his Terroir Hunter range and Marcelo Retamal's talk had a similar focus on soil types, geography and geological history.

The story of Chile's terroir, of the very formation of the country's land mass is complex but a potted history includes the rise of the low-lying coastal range of mountains from out of the sea bringing the interior plain with it, followed by the creation of the much higher Andes, the various effects of Chile's approximately 3,000 volcanos, frequent earthquakes, the last ice-age around 17,000 years ago and the glaciers and rivers formed as a result.

With plains, altitude, valleys, rivers and a variety of soil types, the terroir is complex with diverse microclimates and is not yet fully understood by winemakers, only a small vanguard of whom are seriously studying its potential.

Chile's complex terroir

There is clearly a long task ahead for, as Marcelo explained, to understand a vineyard takes at least 15 years.

Speaking specifically about Carménère, he explained that the key factors currently known for success are a warm climate, low organic material content of the soil (less than 2%) with the presence of rock and 10%-20% clay with rock and sand, annual rainfall below 900mm, drainage and the presence of a water table.

Carménère grapes
Long mistaken for Merlot, Carménère was not discovered in Chile until 1992 - and it was found in one of De Martino's vineyards. It has a similar flavour profile to Merlot with ripe, plummy fruit and gentle tannins, but has something of a sour cherry aroma and acidity, often with savoury aromas of soy, leather and coffee.

The Alto de Piedras vineyard was planted in 1992 with 100%, ungrafted Carménère vines (Chile is Phylloxera-free) and the first vintage, produced in 1996 and labelled as Santa Ines, was the first varietally-labelled Carménère in Chile.

And with no benchmarks for what Chilean Carménère should be like, the winery has been trying to understand the grape and find its house style over the years.

This final point is perhaps key to understanding the second theme of Marcelo's presentation as from 1996 onwards, the wines become increasingly bigger, riper and more alcoholic.

Harvested later and fermented for longer with more new oak and additives like tartaric acid and cultured yeasts, the wines became bigger and more full-on - more Pamela Anderson than Gwynneth Paltrow, as Marcelo graphically presented in his talk; one pumped up, big, blowsy and in-yer-face, the other slender, classier and more elegantly subtle.

It was an apt metaphor as neither of these ladies has exactly been beaten with the ugly stick and both have been extremely successful and popular. And so it proved to be with the wines, with none of them bad or unpleasant, but in the years of excess, the natural beauty within had been lost under layers of artificiality.

This was done partly - perhaps mainly - in a chasing of critical approval and ratings from the US, where typically wine critics give higher scores to wines with lots of ripe fruit and high alcohol contents.

And whilst a brash, hot blonde in a bright red swimsuit is few people's idea of A Bad Thing (I think I speak for most men generally here), the truth is most of us would actually rather settle down with a classically beautiful, witty and well-spoken, period-drama English heiress.

In more conventional terminology, to anyone brought up on European, Old-World style food wines with more restraint and balance and less alcohol, sweetness and oak, the bigger, more full-on wines will seem overly contrived, unbalanced and lacking in texture.

The early vintages we tried had relatively Old-World levels of alcohol, under 13%, and little if any oak - with an aged brick-red in colour, they showed pruney fruit, secondary aromas of coffee and were rounded with good acidity and well-integrated tannins.

From 1998 onwards, the harvesting dates, alcohol contents and fermentation periods tended to move only in one direction, with more extensive use of new French oak.

These wines showed more up-front cassis fruit and sweet vanilla with perhaps 2002 being the most overworked example, but subsequent years also showing a sweet, jammy texture with lots of ripe cassis and vanilla and dry tannins on the finish.

As Marcelo explained, around 2008 he began thinking about the wines he was making and first noticed he did not drink them at home often, then feeling that the style was too international and lacking in individuality, before finally concluding that he did not actually like his own wines any more.

At the time, he found himself appreciating the individuality, finesse and restraint of wines from Jura, the Mosel and Jerez / sherry.

At the same time, he also started thinking about the level of his intervention as a winemaker and wanting to move towards a more natural way of making wines, without cultured yeasts, herbicides or enzymes and  decided that over-oaking in small barriques was not the right way forward either with the wine better aged in much larger 5,000-litre foudres.

The decision to put the machine into reverse gear and start making a more classical style of wine came with the 2010 vintage - harvesting the grapes several weeks earlier resulted in a wine with alcohol down to 13.6% whilst time in oak was reduced to 8 months in new, plus a further 9 in old.

This wine felt fresh with pleasant, but not excessive, sweetness and mintiness; it also had a denser, more inky texture, with good grip on the finish.

Marcelo explained that the 2011 will see earlier picking, a further reduction in alcohol levels, aging in large oak foudres rather than small barrels and greater emphasis on subtlety and texture as a result.

To me, and I think everyone else in the room, the 2010 vintage was a much more enjoyable wine than the earlier, point-chasing years' and a lot of the questions at this point addressed the commercial implications of such a change.

Speaking for the winery owners, Stefano acknowledged that it had felt like a brave decision given the importance of the US market to them, but their philosophy was to have a point of difference, adding that most of their wines are sold in the on-trade which needs food wines.

He also felt that their wines are part of a general movement and that the market is starting to go their way generally, with some influential US critics approving of the new, more restrained style.

As Tim Atkin summarised at the end, it is a brave decision to go against the whims of the influential wine critics and produce a wine with lower alcohol and more texture that perhaps may not score so well.

And for those of us who appreciate some texture, elegance and classical finesse in our wines, who do not want to find in every wine an international wannabee, but would rather come across a bit of individuality and natural beauty, it behoves us to speak out in favour of the wines themselves as well as the winemakers and winery owners who take the decision not to bow to the pressures of fashion, but to follow their vision of what a wine should be.

To give the last word to Marcelo, acknowledging that he could not tell whether his new style would be commercially successful, but knowing it to be a better wine, he explained his gung-ho approach via the title of his favourite rock song by English metal band, Iron Maiden: from the album Piece of Mind, If you're gonna die, die with your boots on.

Perhaps in his now-wilderness years he had been listening to a later album of theirs too much - Powerslave.

Recommended Wine

No surprises here, it's the 2010 vintage: De Martino Carménère Single Vineyard, Alto De Piedra 2010, Maipo Valley


Circle of Wine Writers - http://www.winewriters.org/
De Martino - http://www.demartino.cl/web/
My review of Chilean terroir and Vina Undurraga - http://cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com/2009/11/in-search-of-terroir-chiles-vina.html

Chilean wine map via - http://starchefs.com/features/chilean-wines/images/Chilean-Wine-Map.jpg

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Alvear PX Solera 1927 Montilla - Cambridge Wine Merchants

With autumn well and truly upon us, it's time for big, hearty, warming wines with seasonal food to match. For mains, that means seasonal game dishes and stews - but spare a thought for filling, indulgent puddings with some bonfire night smoke, spice and warmth.

If you need a wine to match to a sticky toffee pudding, treacle sponge or spotted dick, this unusual but delicious Pedro Ximénez might just might be the thing - I chose it as a match for a sticky toffee cheesecake recipe given to me by local Masterchef Finalist, Alex Rushmer who now runs The Hole in The Wall in Wilbraham (pictured above).

Alvear PX Solera 1927 Montilla , £12.99 (37.5cl) Cambridge Wine Merchants

Dessert wines are some of my favourites and the trick to matching with a pudding is that the wine should be sweeter than the food, otherwise it will taste tart and thin.

Wines from Spain's Pedro Ximénez ("PX") grapes are about as sweet as they come and this one will stand up to the autumnal richness a treacle toffee cheesecake.

PX is most commonly used to add sweetness to dry oloroso to produce a sweet sherry but, as here, is occasionally made into a dessert wine in its own right.

It is made from superripe grapes that have then been dried out on straw mats to intensify the flavours; more unusually, it is also made in a solera, like a dry sherry, that in this case dates back to 1927.

It is a dark mahogany, thick and treacly on pouring - you really won't need much of this - and has aromas of cooked mixed fruit, dried figs, dates and prunes with hints of dark chocolate, molasses and roasted nuts on the nose.

On the palate it is concentrated and mouthfilling with raisiny fruit and enough fresh acidity to match the sweetness.

The long finish adds hints of bitter aromatics and dark spices from aging in oak.

Provided for review.


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

The Hole in the Wall - http://www.holeinthewallcambridge.co.uk/

Friday, 21 October 2011

Big Game and Big Wines at Cambridge's Punter

At the end of my last visit to The Punter for a seasonal dinner, chatting to Group Head Chef Paul Fox and Operations Manager David King, I was invited to come along again to their autumn dinner.

With an email a few weeks ago from Punter Chef Ben Pope confirming the date, it was duly put in the diary to ensure there was no risk of me missing it.

On arrival, I was met again by the charismatic Jacko Scott (pictured, right) of wine merchants Jascots who had sent up some wines for Paul and Ben to dream up suitable matching dishes.

The previous dinner had had a poshed-up picnic theme, with traditional British foods, including rather a lot of game, given a refined make-over.

On this occasion, the appropriately seasonal theme was "Big Game and Big Wines", whilst the inspiration was take-away food.

One of the things that has impressed me so much on my visits to The Punter is their sense of style as well as substance - for, not only is the food imaginative and well-made, but it is also presented with knowing touches and throw-away jokes that give the place an edgy, unstuffy sort of feel. They have appropriated aristocratic elements - game, fine dining, classic wines - refined them into something more sophisticated and then present them with a touch of urban tongue-in-cheek.

On the wrong hands, it could all seem a bit too-cool-for-school, but Ben and Paul manage to make it feel effortless and not detract from the quality of the food and wine.

The quarterly dinners also feel a bit like family get-togethers, with lots of lively, breezy banter and in-jokes.

Our wine on arrival was a NV Cremant de Bourgogne from Louis Picamelot, made from 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Aligote. With lovely prominent, linear acidity and minerality, it was indistinguishable from a good Champagne.

If you want a big, classy white to match with game, the obvious choice is an oaky Chardonnay and so we started with the Daddy of white Burgundy, a Meursault 2008 from Domaine Philippe Chavy.

It was matched with Crayfish Scotch Quail Egg and Salt Cod Fritters - served in egg boxes - which were delicious, but for me a touch too hearty for the wine.

Oaky Chardonnay has gone somewhat out of fashion at the moment, but this wine reminded me of why I liked it in the first place - relatively neutral on the nose and with citrussy, pear fruit, the interest was all in the superb oaking with complex layers of toasty, nutty oatmeal and vanilla spice with a long finish, balanced by rounded acidity.

At the previous dinner I had particularly enjoyed sitting next to Jacko who is hugely entertaining and, if occasionally inappropriate, only the more hilarious for it.

On this occasion, Jacko was on good form again as he introduced the wines, and I was sat with French wedding photographer and twitter-buddy, Jean-Luc Benazet, his wife and her sister and fellow photographer, food blogger and tweeter, Ozzy (whose take on the evening is here).

The first of the main courses was a Kentucky Fried Wild Duck with BBQ breast, matched with a somewhat unusual, an Australian Bellvale "Quercus Vineyard" Pinot Noir from 2008, which had a surprisingly old world structure and acidity, with some toastiness, fresh, vibrant cherry fruit, mintiness and sweet vanilla.

Tasted alone, it was reasonably impressive, but with some air and densely smoked duck breast to match, it became really quite superb.

We followed this with Saddle of Hare with Pearl Barley, Porcini, Kale and Cobnuts, matched with a Barolo Tre Ciabot, 2005 from a tiny 0.6 ha vineyard.

The wine had a brick-red hue in the glass with cherry fruit, liquorice, sweet vanilla and mint on the palate. With a gentle but firm grip on the finish, the mintiness of the wine matched superbly with the intensely gamey flavours of the hare.

The final course of our game-fest was local muntjac, supplied by Radwinter, with an Armonio des Mas Neuf 2005 Pays d'Oc from Costieres de Nimes.

Billed as being "From The Curry House", the muntjac had been roasted with a thoughtful marinade of dark spices, rather than being served in industrial curry sauce.

The wine was introduced by Jacko as from a producer who had explained he wanted to make the best wine in the region and, whilst his entry-level wines were wide of the mark, this one might just have done that.

Dark in the glass for a six year-old wine, it retained an amazing amount of primary fruit of elderberry, cassis, plums and prunes; on the palate there is also sweet vanilla, spice and, again, mintiness. It was a lovely wine, but to me the match did not work so well and it would have been better suited to a sweeter and fattier meat, such as roasted joint of lamb.

As it was, the lean, spiced muntjac might well have proven a great match for the kind of herbaceous and spicy Douro reds I tasted the week before.

The cheese course of Blue Cheese and Charcoal Biscuit matched wonderfully with a delicious De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon 2007 from South East Australia - I consider myself something of an expert on botrytised wines and my favourites generally come from Austria. However, this was as good an example as I remember having in a long time with a pungent and intense nose of honeysuckle and botrytis, marmalade and acacia honey on the palate, balanced with a fresh acidity and some minerality on the finish.

The final part of the evening was a charity auction for Friends of Chernobyl Children organised by Jenny Lindop and, having lived in Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, for a year and still having friends there, it is something I feel very strongly about.

With a theme of Big Wines, there was perhaps not quite so much variety of styles as there had been at the previous dinner and the take-away theme did not hold together quite so well as that of a picnic; however, these are observations rather than criticisms and the quality of the food and wines was superb.

It was also great to get to know a couple of tweeps and fellow bloggers in person, proof perhaps that online friendships can also turn into real ones.

Finally thanks must go to Chefs Ben Pope and Paul Fox and Operations Manager David King for inviting me back to a wonderful event.

Recommended Wines

It hardly needs be said that there was not a bad on show, but some are deserving of a special mention.

Both the Cremant de Bourgogne and especially the dessert wine were lovely and the Pinot Noir worked superbly with the duck.

Best red wine of the night was the Armonio des Mas Neuf 2005, Pays d'Oc, but best white and best wine overall was the Meursault 2008 from Domaine Philippe Chavy, £28.30 from Jascots.

Other related articles
Food and Wine Matching at The Punter
Hidalgo Sherry Dinner With Cambridge Wine Merchants at The Punter
Lunch at Hotel du Vin Cambridge
Families and Friends Dinner at Fitzbillies, Cambridge


The Punter - http://www.thepuntercambridge.com/
Jascots - http://www.jascots.co.uk/
Friends of Chernobyl's Children - http://www.focc.org.uk/
Jacko's account of the evening in his own inimitable style - https://www.jascots.co.uk/blog/?p=693

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Wine of the Month - October

October has been something of a mixed month so far with a late Indian summer to kick things off, some distinctly wintry temperatures a few days later, and a bit of mist and mellow fruitfulness in between.

However, one thing remains constant and that is the need for bigger, warming wines to go with some appropriately seasonal food.

All the wines this month come from the warmer parts of classic wine countries and have a greater degree of ripeness and up-front fruit as a result.

In general, we are looking at grape varieties that score highly in terms of personality rather than for classical restraint and good food matches will be something appropriately full of spicy, herby flavours, such as good butcher's sausages, spiced game, meaty stews and roasted Mediterranean vegetables.

Concertino Corbières 2008 £8.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

Made from an unoaked blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, there is smokey prune fruit and eucalyptus on the nose.

On the palate, there is juicy, dark berry fruit with some gentle grip on the finish.

Vedilhan Syrah Viognier Languedoc 2009 £8.49 Bacchanalia

This mix of northern Rhone gapes shows dense cassis with liquorice and vanilla spice on the nose.

The palate is soft and full with a touch of peachiness from the Viognier. The acidity feels rounded and mouthfilling with some vanilla sweetness on the mid-palate.

Masseria Pietrosa Salice Salentino 2010 Noel Young Wines, £9.25

From the "heel" of Italy and made from the big Negroamaro grape which is native to the region, this is the most crowd-pleasing wine straight out of the bottle.

The nose is full of ripe elderberry fruit whilst the palate is rich and warming with sweet fruit and hints of cooked Christmas spices, balanced with good acidity and ripe tannins.

On the finish, there is just enough grip to let you know this a food wine.

With such unpredictable weather and temperatures this month, it is hard to make a recommendations based on seasonality - on a warmer day the juiciness of the Corbières might suit, whilst the warming fruit and spice of the Salice Salentino will keep any wintry damp and chill away.

However, for me, the most enjoyable wine here is the Vedilhan Syrah Viognier for its complexity and soft, peachy texture.


Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Noel Young Wines - http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Main image credit - http://www.sjlshots.com/2008/03/18/october-leaves/

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Vegetarian Food, Wine Matching and the "d'Arry's Cambridge" Case

When I give wine presentations to general audiences, there are a number of things I include as standard and one of them is suitable food matches.

To me, wine is part of the meal and matching it with suitable food is key to getting the best out of it; I involuntarily wince internally watching people drink red wine with salty crisps or chocolate, as both salt and sweetness are inimical to the tannins in a red wine.

When I think of matches for wines, it is usually in terms of suitable meats as, to me, the meat is the centrepiece of a dish, the wine its partner and the vegetables an add-on on the side.

However, I have been pulled up a number of times recently by non-meat-eaters asking for vegetarian food matches.

At the second of my d'Arry's tasting events of d'Arenberg wines yesterday, I resisted the temptation to quote Homer Simpson ("If God didn't want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat") and instead used the presence of a group of vegetarians to think about suitable vegetarian food matches for the six wines presented.

The first wine, a soft and peachy Viognier Marsanne, has enough fruit sweetness on the mid-palate to be a quaffer - or to match with smoked salmon for fish-eaters.

The Stump Jump White Blend of Riesling / Marsanne / Sauvignon Blanc, with its crisper acidity and more mineral backbone is a great food wine and worked well with the cheese board we had, cutting through a creamy goat's cheese and a cheddar.

And as a general point, I have never quite understood the red-wine-and-cheese idea as fatty, salty foods like cheese need high acidity and low tannins which generally steers you away from reds and onto whites.

The final white, a Stump Jump Lightly Wooded Chardonnay, was deemed much improved by the group when tried with a bit of cheese again.

On the nose and palate, like the Riesling blend, it does not score highly for primary fruit, making it a partner to the food rather than the centre of attention in its own right.

Also like the Riesling blend, it has the body and acidity to stand up to and cut through the cheese.

The first of the reds, a Stump Jump Red Blend of Grenche / Syrah / Mouverdre blends was low in tannins but full of juicy acidity with some spicy aromas and this would match well with a tray of roasted Mediterranean vegetables with aromatic herbs (such as bay, rosemary, sage and thyme) and olive oil.

The next wine, which again proved to be my favourite of the evening, was a classy d'Arry's Original Syrah Grenache with aromas of dark berries, liquorice and spice.

It had a soft, inky texture, some vanilla sweetness and ripe tannins giving a firm-but-gentle grip.

For me, the classic match for this wine would be a roast joint of lamb with garlic and rosemary but, as that was not an option, we kicked around ideas for a while before coming up with crostini, rubbed with garlic, salted and then drizzled liberally with olive oil.

The final wine, a High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon, had predictably high tannins and, again, is traditionally a red-meat wine, needing protein to tame the tannic content and some fat content to match the acidity.

Ruling out vegetables alone as having too much sweetness, we eventually came up with the idea of a nut roast served with spiced red wine and onion gravy.

Personally, I would go for roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes with a wine like this, but if that's not an option for whatever reason, the the nut roast is as good a bet as any.

As an ex-vegetarian -,and even vegan - myself, I'll limit my thoughts on vegetarianism these days simply to saying that I firmly believe that any principled issues can be addressed by eating locally-sourced, free-range, compassionately-slaughtered meat and that this type of meat is more morally acceptable than, say, industrially-produced cow's milk.

But, for all that, we remain at the top of the food chain and if God didn't want us to eat animals, why did he invent wines that match so well with meat.


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

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

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Noval Dinner at Cambridge Hotel du Vin‏

Last week I was invited as a guest to a Port and Portuguese Wine Dinner with Christian Seely, MD of port house Noval, at Cambridge's Hotel du Vin.

In the library before dinner, we were presented with hors d'oevres and a vertical tasting of Noval's LBV ports from 1997 to 2004.

Port, made by adding spirit to partially-fermented wine, comes in various styles with vintages "declared" on average only three or four times a decade.

When a vintage is declared, the port is bottled, unfiltered after around two years in cask with the intention of aging for upwards of 10 years.

In a non-vintage year, the port is blended into basic ruby or tawny, with aged tawnies spending several years in cask.

Finally, Late Bottled Vintage is port from a single year that has spent longer in cask than standard vintage and therefore has taken on aged characteristics more quickly and is ready for drinking sooner than vintage port.

According to port expert Godfrey Spence, if basic ruby is Economy Class, then LBV is Premium Economy and Tawny at least business class, in some cases (depending on the vintage Port) better than the First Class vintage.
I started with the oldest wine first, working forwards in time; the 1997 Noval LBV was a brick red with a relatively restrained nose and aromas of liquorice.

On the palate, it felt soft, elegant and well-integrated.

The subsequent younger vintages had unsurprisingly similar flavour profiles but were increasingly darker and more youthfully primary - the 2000 had more liquorice on the nose and felt younger and fleshier with peppery spice on the finish, whilst the 2001 and 2003 showed increasingly more ripe, upfront fruit.

The 2004 Single Estate, however, was a somewhat different beast; made with a different composition of grapes from the steeply sloping vineyards above the Douro and Pinhao, it felt fresher, more vibrant and more intense.

We then sat down to a superb dinner with each course matched to one of Noval's wines by the hotel's chef and sommelier Nicolas Arthuis, starting with a white port.

White port has the dubious distinction of being perhaps even more unfashionable than sherry at the moment, but like sherry, is starting to reinvent itself.

Traditionally, white port is a fairly dull, heavily-oaked, sweet drink and interesting ones are the exception rather than the rule. However, the Noval Extra Dry White was both very different from this and rather wonderful.

It sees no oak at all, but is fermented in stainless steel to preserve the aromatic freshness of the grapes (Malvasia, Verdelho and Viosinho) and whilst labelled Extra Dry, it does have some complex residual sugar, balanced by the natural high acidity of the grapes.

Hotel chef Jonathan Dean had matched this with the biggest, fattest, sweet and juicy scallops I have ever had, cooked to perfection and placed atop some sweet, slow-cooked pork belly with apple sauce - and it was gastronomic heaven.

Before our mains, Christian explained that he oversees a number of other estates in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hungary but that Noval was for him where it all started and therefore he retains a special affection for it.

His remit - the estates are all owned by French insurer AXA Millesimes as a somewhat leftfield investment - is to increase the capital value of the property which means the task is a more interesting one of focusing on quality and reputation, rather than increasing volumes and grinding out market share every year.

In 2003, as something of a sideline, Christian began making table wines at Noval but it was only by 2007 that they were producing something that he was happy with.

We had two mains, each with a table wine to match and, for me, this was the most interesting part of the meal as, having tried Portuguese wines a number of times now, I feel that they probably need not just food, but the right type of food, to show their best.

We started with a 2007 Cedro do Noval, a blend of native grapes Touriga Nacional,  Touriga Francese and Tinto Roriz as well as 15% Syrah whose addition means it has to carry the humble classification of Vinho Regional Diuriense.

Matched with poached cannon of lamb with pea mousse and mint, the nose showed blueberry and elderberry fruit, complex vanilla spice, liquorice and touch of funky woody undergrowth with mushroomy leatheriness.

I have historically found that Portugal's native red grapes result in a very focused, somewhat lean-feeling wine, whilst the addition of international varieties seems to round them out, making them easier drinkers.

That proved to be the case here with the wine having some of the rounded softness of the Syrah on the palate, whilst the characteristic aromas of eucalyptus and liquorice matched perfectly with the mint and pea accompaniment.

The next wine was a Quinta do Noval 2007 and, with only native varieties, it carries the more prestigious tag of Douro DOC.

It is a blend of Touriga Nacional for elegance, Touriga Francesa for freshness and Tinta Cão whose effect on the wine Christian explained as rather elusive other than that it "just makes the wine better".

It had an intense nose of mint, liquorice and chocolate with leatheriness and mushrooms and, with dark berry fruit and more minty liquorice and vanilla on the palate, it is very impressive in a "demanding rather than quaffing" sort of way.

It was matched with a farce of venison - essentially a poshed-up but very delicious venison meatball flavoured with rosemary - and spiced pickled red cabbage.

Again, the match worked on several levels with both the rosemary / eucalyptus and the spice / vanilla aromas complementing each other, whilst the slightly leaner mouthfeel of wine matched the texture of the meat.

To me, both wines had a slightly funky nose, albeit in a very pleasant, Pinot-esque way and , recalling a conversation I had with Charlotte Oakley when tasting her Portuguese wines, I asked if there might be any Brett in the wine.

Christian replied that historically Douro wines showed a lot of Brett (a fault due to bacteria, which makes the wine smell of sweaty saddle) which the Portuguese had blithely taken as their gout de terroir.

Now pointed out to them as actually a fault, it is much less common as a result and Christian's opinion was there was no Brett in the wines so I therefore assume the funkiness must be either a characteristic from the grapes or a very mild case of Brett.

Discussing the idea of blending wines, my neighbour then asked about the role of the blender and the answer he got bears repeating.

Christian started by saying that really good blenders are very hard to find - and equally hard to live with - before telling the story of one who decided he would like a glass-fronted tasting room overlooking the vineyards in which he could be inspired to make the great blends of the future, adding "And if next year I do not feel quite so inspired, perhaps the blend will be not quite so good".

Having worked for many years in agencies full of creative people, this sort of prima donna behaviour is very familiar to me, albeit decreasingly in my profession as the long, boozy lunch and uber-creative culture of the 1980s gives way to a more workmanlike approach under the eye of multi-national corporate owners and client procurement departments.

So it is wonderful to see this sort of creative excess, indulgence and one-upmanship continuing in other spheres, knowing that the whims and humours of creative geniuses are being pandered to, all in the pursuit of the very best that can be.

It dovetails neatly with the point Christian made earlier about his remit being to increase the capital value of the business and means that funds spent on a glass-fronted tasting room become an investment rather than a mere operating expense.

He rounded off the story by explaining that there were also a small number of olive bushes nestling in the vineyard and these are visible from the tasting room.

Whilst the economist or accountant would tell you to pull them up and plant grape vines instead, the blender has decided he rather likes them being there and so they stay.

For our cheese course and dessert, we were given two ports to choose from as we wished - an aged 10 Year Old Tawny and the 2004 Single Estate LBV again.

To me it was no contest as the nutty, less fruity and more prominently acidic tawny cut through the cheese perfectly - very pale in the glass, almost rosé-like, it was beautifully fresh on the palate.

By contrast, the younger, bigger, more fruity and spiced LBV paired wonderfully with the dark chocolate tart, marinated cherries and Chantilly cream, and would have overpowered the cheeses.

After coffee and discussion about whether Chinese billionaire wine enthusiasts follow European wine trends or, as I firmly believe, are now setting the pace for the rest of the world, there was a chance to try Noval's new offering, Noval Black, three ways.

It is designed to be a straightforward, uncomplicated port for bartenders and mixologists and sampled neat, as it were, it was just that - if also very pleasant.

I have historically been somewhat sceptical about the idea of using complex aged spirits in cocktails, but have had the odd occasion to revisit that attitude of late.

And whilst decent port is normally the last thing I would want to throw into a cocktail, with the chance to try it in either a "creamy" or a "refreshing" cocktail, I found that in both cases it worked very well; the refreshing cocktail had a crisp, dry finish whilst the creamy one tasted of cherries and coffee from the addition of Kahlua liqueur.

For me, aside from the opportunity to chat with the MD of the company producing the wines, the most interesting aspect of the evening was the food matching, something I have long wanted to try out with Portuguese wines, and I was very impressed with the way Chef Jonathan Dean had started with the leanness and minty, darkly spicy aromas of the wine, building up the whole match from there.

But when I asked him at the end of the dinner if it had been difficult to come up with suitable dishes that worked so well, he modestly replied that it had been pretty straightforward.

The evening cost £65 per head, which is extremely good value given not just the range and quality of wines and the superb food, but also the presence of the winemaker and the bespoke nature of the event.

Details on future events can be found on the hotel's website - http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx - or by calling the hotel on 01223 227 330.

Recommended Wine

With such a variety of wines, it is hard to pick a single one out.

The most interesting port was the 2004 Single Estate LBV, but lay down to see it at its best.

The best easy-drinker was the Extra Dry White Port with its floral aromas and touch of sweetness.

The most impressive table wine was the Quinta do Noval for its complexity.

The wines for each of the courses for the dinner were sourced from Cambridge Wine Merchants who also offered a discount on cases of all the wines sampled.


Quinta Do Noval - http://www.quintadonoval.com/

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

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