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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

En Primeur Rhone Tasting With Cambridge Wine Merchants at St John's Chop House

Earlier this week, I was invited to a Rhône en primeur tasting by Stewart Travers, Senior Buyer for Cambridge Wine Merchants, held at the St John's Chop House which I have previously reviewed here.

When one thinks of en primeur (buying wine ahead of commercial bottling), First Growth Bordeaux is usually what springs to mind and indeed, Bordeaux represents around 90% of the market.

However, there are en primeur offerings of top wines from Burgundy and California as well as the Rhône.

With 35 wines to get through, most of them young, red and grippy, it was quite hard work and half-way through I had to pause for a thorough palate sluicing and refresh before continuing.

Most of the attendees were college buyers looking to buy stocks at favourable prices to lay down in cellars for years if not decades, for in a gently-but-steadily rising market and with enough up-front capital and storage space, you could easily plan to sell half what you originally buy at a later date and cover the entire cost with the proceeds.

The hand-out with the wines informed me that 2010 was a very good vintage with lower alcohol levels, more acidity and Grenache yields down, meaning generally more of the more-tannic varieties in the blends.

Prices are quoted "IBD per case of 12" - to get to a retail price, add £22 duty then divide by 10 (this is mathematically equivalent to diving by 12 and then adding 20% VAT).

This gives you a per-bottle price assuming you buy a case - single bottles sold off the shelves will be more expensive.

It is worth noting that given the colleges' volume and buying power, these wines are probably cheaper at Cambridge Wine Merchants than elsewhere - see here for their en primeur selections.

White wines

The Luberon Blanc, Perrin & Fils was aromatic and fruity on the nose, with minerality, a soft texture, balance and length - good value at £36.

If you're still struggling with the en primeur maths, that's around £4.80 per bottle for a case or around £5.99 on the shelf.

The Cotes du Rhône Samorens, Ferraton Pere & Fils (£45) was crisper with more minerality.

The Saint Peray Le Mialan, Ferraton Pere & Fils (£84) had more weighty structure and minerality on the finish.

The progression of these three wines was fascinating with the cheapest showing the most aromatic, up-front fruit on the nose that we have all come to love whilst the more expensive wines showed progressively more weight and texture on the palate and greater length on the finish.

A Condrieu at £200 showed honeysuckle aromas, a peachy texture and a hint of something like warm toastiness; I really tried to see why it should be more than double the price of the previous wine, but failed - would I pay £22 a bottle for this wine ? I don't think so.

Rosé wines

A Cotes du Rhone Samorens, Ferraton Pere & Fils (£45) was very pale and more of a crisp white with a bit of colour, and had good minerality and linear structure.

By contrast, a Tavel, Domaine de la Rocaliere (£65) was the colour of diluted Ribena and had a "Pinot-esque" nose and a fuller if softer and gentler texture with a more minerally finish.

Southern Rhône reds

Perhaps it's not surprise that, in an en primeur tasting of cool-vintage red wines, the word grippy comes up in my notes a lot. Moreover, I arrived at the start of the tasting so the bottles had only recently been opened.

Looking back, there are certain themes that come across in the wines - balanced grippiness, cool mintiness, elderberry fruit, inky texture and rounded tannins being the best aspects.

For me, the most enjoyable wines (for drinking now-ish rather than for laying down) were those that showed in particular rounded tannins with a dense inky texture and good fruit with the addition of something more secondary and interesting such as vegetal aromas or cool mintiness.

Other wines might potentially do better over the course of, say, 10 - 20 years, but for me the key criterion was wines for drinking in the next few years, albeit perhaps with a few hours in the decanter.

These then, are the wines that stood out:

The Cotes du Rhône Antimagnes Rouge, Domaine Escaravailles (£65) had a blackcurranty, vegetal nose, a dense, grippy and mouthfilling texture with blackcurrant fruit and cool mint.

The Cotes du Rhône Villages from Mas de Boislauzon (£72) was very dark in the glass with a minty, eucalyptus nose, very soft and plump on the palate with a grippy finish.

The Lirac Rouge "Ikebana", Domaine de la Rocaliere (£105) was very dark in the glass with dark cherry fruit and a vegetal nose, a lovely inky texture, mintiness on the palate, soft and smooth with a nicely grippy finish - balanced and rounded.

The Lirac Rouge "Dentelle Noir" also from Domaine de La Rocaliere (£105) had a complex minty nose with lots of dark fruit, cool mint and rounded but grippy tannins on the finish; it felt like a step-up from the previous wine.

The Cairenne Ventabren from Domaine Escaravailles (£82) was paler in the glass with a more vegetal nose, more pruney fruit on the palate and overall felt less tannically challenging - very well balanced and perhaps a wine for slightly earlier drinking.

The Vacqueryras Domaine Saint Pierre (£102) showed complex dark berries, liquorice and cool mint; the texture is lovely in a soft-yet-mouthfilling way with pleasant grip.

The Rasteau Vielles Vignes, Domaine Grand Nicolet (£80) had a vegetal nose of dark cherries and again a lovely soft-yet-grippy texture.

The Roaix Hautes Granges, Domaine Escaravailles (£115) was dark in the glass with dark cherry fruit, prunes, dark spices, liquorice and vanilla; a lovely mouthfilling texture, balanced grip and cool mint.

The Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de Farguerol (£129) felt gentler with balanced prune, cherry, liquorice and cool mint - an easier-drinking wine.

The Chateauneuf du Pape, Mas De Boislauzon (£209) had more prune and spice and was significantly more expensive, but showed a superior tannic structure.

The next two wines shoot up the pricing scale, so it's no surprise that they were very good - both showed a soft ripeness that makes them suitable for drinking now.

The Chateauneuf du Pape, Domaine de Villeneuve (£240) was vegetal with dark cherries and had a lovely texture with blackcurranty fruit and soft, harmonious ripeness, well-integrated tannins and good fruit.

The Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee de Quet, Mas De Boislauzon (£550), a GSM blend from 60 year-old vines, had a very vegetal nose, dark cherries, elderberry fruit and cool mint. The palate is soft and mouthfilling, with a balanced tannic structure and a huge finish where the vegetal aromas make a re-appearance.

Expensive with lots of ripe fruit and rounded tannins, perhaps it's no surprise that this one is well-liked by US critic Robert Parker.

Northern Rhône reds

A pair of Crozes Hermitage from Ferraton Pere et Fils - La Matiniere (£79) and Les Picheres (£110) - showed surprisingly well after the previous wine (at £550, 5+ times the price).

The Crozes Hermitage "Le Rouvre", Yann Chave (£142) had a vegetal nose, elderberry fruit, prominent cool mint and a balanced soft texture.

Again, the last two wines in this section were significantly more expensive than the earlier bottles.

The Cote Rotie "La Germine", Benjamin and David Duclaux (£291) had a floral, fragrant nose of violets and a soft, peachy texture with good tannins, pepperiness and some eucalyptus.

The Hermitage, Yann Chave (£422) showed elderberry and eucalyptus on the nose, with a complex, soft-yet-grippy texture and felt balanced and well-integrated.


After the formal tasting, I sat down to a roast beef dinner courtesy of the St John's Chop House and chewed the fat (not literally, the meat was lovely) with CWM owner Hal Wilson on the "Chinese effect" on 2010 en primeur Bordeaux and also caught up with Lyndsey Spellman, one of CWM's directors on the need for business admin and how young graduates looking for work in the wine trade all talk about their passion for wine and visiting vineyards, but are surprisingly reticent on the subject of making sales to punters or running a profitable business.

Over lunch, we tasted four wines that had arrived too late to make it into the en primeur tasting and sampled in their "proper setting" of a meal, these all showed excellently and matched well with the food.


This was the most technically challenging tasting I have been to so far - and therefore a great experience - with its focus on young, tannic reds from a single region and vintage.

The Rhone is not an area I know particularly well as my early wine education was based on good, plentiful but inexpensive Bordeaux from French supermarkets and so for well-structured, mouthfilling French reds, I usually look to Bordeaux.

What I have found with Rhône reds, however, is a very different tannic structure which shows as a dense, mouthfilling inkiness and which I find I do rather like.

Recommended wines

With such a wide range of prices from pretty much "everyday drinking" to "rich Uncle's indulgence" and nary a disappointing wine on show, it is very difficult to pick out a single wine to recommend.

Moreover, these are very young wines and will continue to develop for many years yet.

Fellow Cambridge wine blogger, Davy Kurniawian who also came along to the event recommends Domaine de Escaravailles and Mas de Boislauzon generally.

My personal recommedation for a good Rhône wine from Cambridge Wine Merchants is a de-classified Cornas from Jean-Luc Colombo that I reviewed for my September Wine of the Month column.

It did not award it the Wine of the Month simply because, being young, it does not show well straight out of the bottle and needs a a good couple of hours in the decanter to open up and soften out (or a couple of years in bottle). However, with a bit of air, it really is a lovely wine and I have since been looking for a forum to give it the acclaim I feel it merits.

Les Collines De Laure, Syrah, Collines Rhodaniennes, 2009, Jean-Luc Colombo, £9.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants


Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
St John's Chop House - http://www.stjohnschophouse.co.uk/

Davy's review of the tasting - http://vinoremus.blogspot.com/2011/11/cwm-rhone-2010-en-primeur.html
My review of the Jean-Luc Colombo - http://cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com/2011/09/wine-of-month-september.html

Main image credit: http://www.sevierwines.com/images/vineyards-rhone.gif

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Launch of Barry James Wines

At the Boutique Wineries event in London earlier this year, I was very impressed with a Marcel Deiss Nature presented by Barry McCaughley.

We exchanged business cards and arranged to keep in touch, but the opportunity to chat in more depth came sooner than I had expected as he shortly invited me to meet up and talk about his new venture, Barry James Wines.

As a result of a minor sports injury, the meeting took place in a chic, post-modern flat in Bermondsey as Barry (pictured, right) hobbled around on crutches picking out wines to try and I warmed to him increasingly when he suggested we try some wine first from his Barry James range and before getting down to business.

Franciacorta Extra Brut

Most fizz - with the possible exception perhaps of Prosecco - is defined by its relationship to Champagne whose crisp apple acidity and yeasty brioche aromas and whose pricing set the benchmark for this category.

I had never heard of Franciacorta until I recently learned it was the sponsor for this year's European Wine Bloggers' Conference in Brescia, but it is perhaps set to become the Next Big Thing for fizz as it uses Champagne grapes and methods and has a cool climate with chalky soils.

This wine spends 48 months on it lees and is a golden colour in the glass. It has a fine mousse and a yeasty, Pinot-esque nose (although it is actually 100% Chardonnay).

On the palate, there is citrus and orange blossom, a creamy texture and some vanilla but more than that, it has a cool climate food-friendliness and is very lovely.


Originally a recruitment consultant in the city, Barry has a blue-chip, high-flyer background, but decided that corporate life was not for him and is now something of a serial entrepreneur in the wine trade.

He describes the "career" phase of his life as great training for what he is doing now as that is where he learnt all his commercial and business skills - clearly as well as the tenacity and people skills needed to succeed in the recruitment business.

Eight years ago, he set up Wineaux as an internet-only wine retailer and it bobbed along reasonably for several years until a transformational contract to supply all of Mitchells and Butlers with a certain Prosecco took it from a 5-figure outfit to a multi-million pound business.

Doro Princic Collio Pinot Blanc

Pinot Blanc may be considered the least of all the Pinot varieties, but I rather like its focused crispness and the way it gains weightiness over time.

Barry's story for this wine, which hails from the hilly Italian borderland near Slovenia is that 85% of the wine is sold on the doorstep by the winery owner, the eponymous Doro Princic himself, who is best described as "a character", alternately refusing to sell any wine to passers by and then offering a lavish spread of food prepared by Senora Princic.

The winemaking sticks close to "natural" principles - it is unfiltered and made from free-run juice fermented in tank and apparently Jean-Marc Deiss of Marcel Deiss rates this wine very highly, which is praise indeed.

And it is somewhat Alsatian in style, with white stone fruit, crisp apples and pears, and then with air progressively beeswax, flintiness and a floral softness.

Resampled at home a few days later at room temperature on a chilly late autumn day, the nose shows hints of elderflower, cooking apples, flintiness and beeswax.

It feels fuller on the palate, with rounded, mouthwatering, pear-fruit acidity, a touch of lemoniness and a greater savoury depth of flavour.

On the finish, there .are more apples and pears but predominently a persistent minerality.

Match with raw langoustines or sushi.


If Wineaux has a broad-market approach, XV is Barry's more exclusive offering; the concept is simple - a word-of-mouth-only club of never more than 100 customers who get the opportunity to buy wines available only in very limited quantities.

It is no mere gimmick, but rather a practical solution to the problem of occasionally coming across a really interesting wine that is not available in sufficient quantities to allow it to be put on the Wineaux site.

Overheads for XV are low as the wine is not actively marketed or put on a website, but merely offered with a brief description to XV members who have to rely on Barry's palate as a guide.

Moreover, sourcing piggy-backs off the back of Barry's winery visits for Wineaux, so there are no incremental costs, meaning lower prices for XV club members, a bit of extra income for the business and an opportunity for winemakers to sell their more limited-availability wines to a regular buyer.

Ellio Offin, Fumin

After considering but rejecting a clutch of crowd-pleasing wines grown by the Benetton family, owners of the eponymous fashion hose perhaps more for tax reasons than oenological ones, Barry opened up a Fumin from the Valle d'Aoste.

Not to be confused either with Fumé Blanc or Furmint, this is a red wine made by Ellio Offin that is unfiltered and organic in all but name.

With a slightly funky nose and cherry fruit, it is a crowd-pleasing easy quaffer that you could happily drink all day.

The tannins are soft and it has a smooth texture with rounded acidity that comes from phenolic ripeness.

Barry James Wines

Whilst Barry is a serial entrepreneur, all his businesses are fundamentally the same filling, just in different wrappers.

Wineaux gives him volume whilst XV is an outlet for wines that would be uneconomic to sell via his website; Barry James Wines is his B2B offering aimed at mid-sized, multi-site retailers such as independents and small chains.

If most people go into the wine business because they love wine, it takes someone with a corporate background to address the rather duller, but perhaps more significant issues around inherent inefficiencies in the industry such as logistics and supply-chain management.

This then is the world of pragmatic business-people who like wine, rather than poets, dreamers and lushes who think running a business can't be all that difficult and for whom "being commercial" is a derogatory statement.

In short, with Italian distributor Cuzziol as a backer, Barry James has set up a central logistics hub in Treviso where orders for over 400 Italian wines can be put together and then delivered straight to customers without any UK middle-men or warehousing facilities.

Obviously there is an element of fixed, minimum cost to freighting goods from Italy to the UK but as Barry explains, there are no middlemen, no minimum orders and the premium Italian wines we sell come directly from the producers who are vested in the business themselves.

If the idea is, in its own way, quite revolutionary, by-passing the whole importer and distributor network at a stroke, it is also part of a growing trend of looking at the wine business model and finding ways to improve and streamline the business side without having an adverse effect on the production side.

For that reason alone, it deserves to succeed, but it also helps that the wines are rather good, too.


Barry James Wines - http://www.barryjameswines.com/
Wineaux - http://www.wineaux.co.uk/

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Pioneer Range Bordeaux Rouge, 2009‏ - Avery's

From a small, family-owned right-bank estate, this Avery's Pioneer Range Bordeaux from 2009 is mainly Merlot with around a third Cabernet Franc and just a touch of the more-noble Cabernet Sauvignon.

Made by the Andouin family on a small, 13-hectare domaine in Vérac near St Emilion - apparently on a sun-drenched hillside and plateau - for some reason, it carries a only humble AOC Bordeaux tag.

The back label tells me that the Pioneer range "was launched to highlight the type of wines that initially excited John Avery MW when he started in the wine trade".

As it's still relatively young, I pour it into the decanter shortly before dinner and on the nose, there is immediately cassis, cedary pine resin and something rather cooked, like overbaked blueberries

This baked, blueberry aroma becomes more prominent with more air over dinner and I find myself increasingly wishing it were not there.

On the palate the acidity is juicy and there is good cassis and brambly fruit, with reasonable if somewhat unimpressive texture.

For me the problems come with the finish where the tannins feel dry and unbalanced; this gives the impression of an Old-World wine trying to go all New World, with 14% alcohol, and not really succeeding. I can't help feeling that this is where the problem lies - with less alcohol, the texture and tannins could all be better and the wine more balanced as a result.

I'm rather surprised to read on the back the description "balance and finesse to the finish" as this is precisely where I feel it is lacking.

Overall, this is not a bad wine and such faults as it has are, in one sense, relatively minor; you might easily try this wine and say "Ooh, that's quite nice", given that it is generally well-made.

However, for me, it is noticeably overcooked and unbalanced and that makes it one that I personally would not go back to again.

Although it is not disclosed anywhere on the wine label - or indeed anywhere obvious, if at all on the website - Avery's wines are actually supplied by Uncle Tony Laithwaite of Direct Wines (aka Laithwaites), whose wines I have rather fallen out of love with these days.

That said, this wine is also being promoted by the Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux campaign (here).

Fellow Cambridge Wine Blogger Davy Kurniawian broadly agrees with my assessment, but is perhaps a little more positive - or just forgiving - on his blog Vinoremus.

For more on why I dislike Laithwaites, see here.

£8.99 from Avery's - provided for review.


Avery's - http://www.averys.com/
Laithwaites - http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/
Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux - http://www.goodfoodwouldchoosebordeaux.com/

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Château Fourcas-Dumont 2007 Listrac-Médoc - Majestic

Wedged between the great communes of St-Julien and Margaux, Listrac-Médoc produces not a single classed growth and its distance from the beneficial effect of the Garonne river means that its wines are not as highly-rated as those of the other appellations.

It is, however, a solid producer of middle-ranking Bordeaux which can be had for more sensible prices than First Growths and this Château Fourcas-Dumont 2007 Listrac-Médoc has a gold medal from the Bordeaux Concours Generale 2009.

In my First Edition World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson describes the Central Médoc as the bridge passage of the Médoc where "great wines are rarely made, but there is a steady flow of excellent wine for - what shall we call ourselves ? The Middle Classes ?"

Unusually for a left-bank wine, the blend is Merlot dominated at 50% with just 40% Cab plus 10% Petit Verdot, which perhaps makes it suitable for earlier drinking, but it is still quite young at four years and has plenty more aging potential.

I first reviewed this wine at the 2010 Fine Wine Fair and, on this occasion, I open it and leave in the decanter for several hours; even straight from the bottle, it has a wonderfully focused, cedary nose with undertones of something rather earthier, with dark spice and liquorice, but also hints of a tannic structure that needs some aeration.

With air, the texture becomes wonderfully smooth, velvety and rounded and to me, this is a what a good Bordeaux is all about - anyone wishing to see what all the fuss is about could do much worse than start here, as it's relatively inexpensive and enjoyable without needing huge amounts of cellaring or being too challenging.

Once it has had time to open up, there is good dark fruit and cedary aromas, lovely acidity, great balance; the tannins are fine and silky and there is a touch of sweet blackcurranty fruit, with earthier notes of truffles and leather.

It's not a wine that immediately grabs your attention with excesses of New-World-style fruit, but rather impresses through texture and a sophisticated finesse and is all the more enjoyable for it.

It also goes superbly with food and matches well with slow-roast chicken or, even better, roast beef.

£12.99 from Majestic (before discounts); provided for review.


Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Cognac Frapin

Made from the generally unimpressive Ugni Blanc grape, Cognac exists as the result of a happy accident when immigrant seamen from Britain stopped off in Charente and began "burning" the wine into a spirit.

With a mellowness that comes from aging in oak, the quality of the brandy itself depends, like Champagne, on the chalk content of the soil - hence the overlap of names.

These three examples are all from Cognac Frapin which has been produced by the same family on the Chateau de Fontpinot estate in the Grande Champagne region of Cognac for 20 generations.

Cognac Frapin VS

Titled as a Premier Grand Cru, it has a sweet, complex nose of cooked fruits; on the palate, there is more sweet, cooked fruit, with hints of caramel and coffee, wood-spice aromatics such as vanilla and a toasty-nuttiness as well as a racy acidity and a smooth, balanced and persistent finish.

Cognac Frapin VSOP

A cuvee rare, this has a more complex, less fruited nose, the palate is weightier and more oily, with much greater mellowness.

Less fruit driven and with more elusive, dark, wood-spice aromas, it has an incredible mouthfeel that just goes on and on.

Apparently, this cognac won the Gold Medal in its category at the World Spirit Competition 2001 in San Francisc and at the Prodexpo Wine Fair in Moscow in 2003.

Domaine Chateau de Fontpinot, Cognac XO

Labelled as a Grande Champagne, single estate, Premier Grand Cru, this has a complex nose of woody aromatics with a streak of vanilla sweetness.

Given its age, there remains little fruit on the palate, but more of the intense, cedary, cigar box wood-spice lifted by a refreshing acidity.

The palate is weighty, but not oily and supremely smooth with a mellow finish.

Elegant and refined, it is impressive for its subtle finesse and aged mellowness.

Match with the dark, bitter chocolate, coffee and perhaps a cigar.

According to the website, this cognac won the trophy in the XO category at the International Spirits Challenge in London in 1997 and Best of the Year at the Wine Enthusiast in 2004 in the USA.

Recommended wine

These are all excellent Cognacs and the only factor in choosing really is the age, your budget and the grandness of the occasion.

Available from McKinley Vintners; provided for review.

The VS and VSOP are also available at Bacchanalia, Cambridge.


Cognac Frapin - http://www.cognac-frapin.com/
McKinley Vintners - http://www.mckinleyvintners.co.uk/
Bacchanalia - http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Monday, 21 November 2011

Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages 2010‏

Beaujolais is perhaps in perception terms the red-wine equivalent of Sherry, a wine considered rather passé in the popular consciousness - a bit 70s - and in need of rehabilitation.

Like Sherry, Beaujolais is also rather misunderstood and unfairly maligned, suffering serious image problems created more by marketing people than by the wine makers themselves.

Just as a simple word association game with Sherry will inevitably bring up maiden aunts and vicars, so Beaujolais is forever associated with
Beaujolais nouveau which Oz Clarke adroitly describes as "once a simple celebration of the new vintage, then overhyped".

So if Sherry is becoming hip again, can Beaujolais ?

Well, based on the strength of this Louis Jadot Combes Aux Jacques Beaujolais-Villages, there's no reason why it shouldn't.

Based in the rolling, mainly granite hills of southern Burgundy, Beaujolais is made from the Gamay grape which is something of a poor man's Pinot Noir - it has Pinot's cherry fruit, softness and lightness, but also, when well-made a versatile food-friendliness that suits the local game-based cuisine.

Unlike Pinot, however, it is not a wine made for aging and, the nonsense of Beaujolais noveau aside, is best drunk relatively young.

Opening the bottle a couple of hours before dinner, I leave it to get some air in a decanter to let the acidity develop - sampled on first opening, it feels rather thin and underwhelming. 

We don't chill the wine as such, but even when served over dinner, it still has some coolness from storage under the stairs; it is ruby purple in the glass with aromas of cherries and hints of savoury liquorice on the nose. The palate shows more simple cherry fruit, lovely, juicy-yet-rounded food-friendly acidity and a savoury finish with only the merest grip.

Elegant and balanced, it is a lovely, straightforward wine - a quaffer or a good accompaniment to light autumnal game dishes such as cured duck breast or venison terrine.

It is thoroughly classical so those brought up on New World-style wines with lots of up-front fruit and varied aromas may - incorrectly - find it initially elusive or underwhelming.

With the right amount of air, however, it is a very lovely wine - one to fall quietly in love with rather than be flashily impressed by - and a textbook example of what a great Beaujolais should be like.

£9.49 from Tesco, Waitrose, Budgens, Nisa Today's, Spar, Booths, Matthew Clark, www.yourfavouritewines.com

Provided for review.


Louis Jadot - http://www.louisjadot.com/
Tesco - http://www.tesco.com/wine/
Waitrose - http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Budgens - http://www.budgens.co.uk/
Nisa Today's - http://www.nisa-todays.com/
Spar - http://www.spar.co.uk/
Booths - http://www.booths.co.uk/
Matthew Clark- http://www.matthewclark.co.uk/

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Pinot Noir, 2009

If Burgundy is Pinot's spiritual home, New Zealand is talked of as having the potential to be its new home-from-home.

This Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir is from Marlborough at the top of end of new Zealand's South Island, an area perhaps most noted for its tropical, zesty Sauvignon Blanc.

Dark purple in the glass with just hints of an aged brick-red hue, on the nose, there are cherries, dark plum fruit, some vanilla spice and earthy notes, but none of the decaying funkiness that is Pinot's classic calling card.

The palate shows more gentle, sweet plum fruit, a touch of wild herbs and savouriness, with fresh, juicy acidity and some hints of pepperiness.

With a soft,smooth texture, the finish is savoury and balanced.

This is an elegant wine with finesse that feels light and easy to drink, but is somehow not that memorable.

It's technically well made in a crafted sort of way and I've had many worse Pinots costing more than this, but somehow it does not feel special and is not something I would put in front of a Pinot novice as an introduction to the possibilities of the grape.

I can't help feeling the problem may lie in the 14% alcohol which is high for a Pinot, perhaps too high - especially without the benefit of altitude or a long growing-season - and personally I would prefer to see a degree or so less alcohol, more emphasis on structure and texture and a couple of quid off the price.

Whilst it's a very easy wine to like, I feel I have to concentrate quite hard to discern the hints of greatness - the soft texture, the earthiness on the nose, the elegant finish.

It's perhaps a bit like an old friend; reliable, dependable, not overly exciting or challenging but easy to get along with; I could certainly drink plenty of this wine and not get bored or find it too one-dimensional - but at a penny short of £15 and with plenty of other wines vying for my attention, I'm not sure that I would.

£14.99 from Majestic, Sainsbury's, Matthew Clark, www.wine-studio.co.uk, www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk, provided for review.

Update 21/11/11: after writing this, I received a tweet from @majesticwine saying they have it for sale at £10.79; that does not change my assessment of the wine itself, but does improve the price / quality ratio significantly, not least as Pinot - whether good, bad or indifferent - is never exactly cheap.


Villa Maria - http://www.villamaria.co.nz/
Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/
Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/
Matthew Clark - http://www.matthewclark.co.uk/

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Co-operative Fairtrade Wine Tasting, London

Earlier this week, I went to a tasting of Co-op Fairtrade wines - whilst The Co-op has not particularly been on my radar, but two recent wines, a kiwi Pinot Grigio and an award-winning Argentinian red impressed me enough to go along, and my personal view of Fairtrade, perhaps like most people, is that it's a nice to have rather than a reason of itself to buy something - if a wine is good and happens to be Fairtrade, then that's merely a plus.

And I found a similar view amongst most of the people at the event; both Co-op representatives or the winery agents, all agreed the wines need to stand up on their own merits and cannot rely on Fairtrade status alone for sales. In fact, if anything, they probably have to outperform against the non-Fairtrade competition in order to establish themselves as decent wines in their own right.

As The Co-op's buyer, Maria Elener, explained, the Fairtrade premium is relatively modest, around 50p per case, so it makes sense to pitch Fairtrade wines at the lower end of the market where volumes are greatest in order to achieve the biggest impact.

Now representing 60% of the UK's Fairtrade wine sales and with £1.7m returned to workers from the Fairtrade premium since 2004, The Co-op is now relaunching the range with a new label, an increase to seven wineries and a premium range priced at £7.99.

With a starting price for these wines was of £3.99, we are squarely in "value" territory and looking for good quaffers with a focus on easy-drinkers, lots of up-front varietal fruit and personality, New-World ripeness  - perhaps a touch of something more complex and secondary, too - and good overall balance.

And I'm pleased to say that on this count, all the wines delivered - in short, you can buy any Co-op Fairtrade wine and you will find it pleasant and well-made. And if there's nothing here to worry your local independent wine merchant, then that's largely because we are looking at very different price brackets and market segements - if your budget is "around a fiver" and you tend to buy wine at the supermarket, it is definitely worthwhile checking these out.

With a relatively small portfolio of wines, I was able to taste my way through them all fairly quickly and my detailed notes are lower down. If, however, you just want to get straight down to business, my recommended wines are here.

Recommended Red

The Argentinian Fairtrade Bonarda Shiraz from La Riojana for its earthiness, texture and cherry fruit on the palate and interesting secondary notes of peppery mintiness for just £4.99

Recommended White

The Fairtrade Reserva Sauvignon Blanc from Los Robles for its acidic structure, minerality and classic, Old-World food-friendliness for £6.99.


I started with La Riojana's range, grown at altitudes of 800m to 1,200m.

The Pinot Grigio had an an aromatic, floral nose, with rounded but crisp acidity, a touch of toastiness and a savoury finish.

The Torrontes Chardonnay had a typically floral nose with aromas of lychees and a good structure - I'm not personally a fan of floral whites, but this could be the Next Big White Thing after Aussie chardie, kiwi SB and PG.

The Bonarda Shiraz had an interestingly earthy, sour-cherry nose, a smooth, mouthfilling texture and cherry fruit on the palate - there are some more interesting notes of pepperiness, mintiness and a gentle grip on the finish that are a very pleasant and welcome surprise at £4.99.

The Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon had some - for me too much - blackcurranty and vanilla sweetness with some herbaceous notes - balanced on the palate it is quite grippy on the finish.

The Organic Gran Reserva Malbec had an oaky, vanilla nose with black cherry fruit, rounded juicy acidity, a smooth texture and a pleasant amount of grip on the finish.


From Vina Santa Irene, the Rosé showed lots of raspberry fruit on the nose and sweet red berries on the palate - a soft, quaffing rose rather than a food wine and personally I'd have liked a bit less fruit and more structure and minerality.

The Carménère was varietally typical with sour cherry fruit and a somewhat elusive mix of coffee and soy; there is just a hint of interesting mintiness, a soft texture and gentle grip on the finish.

The Cabernet Merlot Shiraz (3l bag-in-box) showed prunes and spice, dark cherries, mint and had a grippy finish.

The Reserva Sauvignon Blanc from Los Robles showed an herbaceous nose of gooseberries and cut grass whilst the palate shows good acidic structure and minerality; a more classic, Loire-style food wine that went particularly well with some goat's cheese afterwards.

South Africa

The Merwida Chardonnay Semillon (3l bag-in-box) is unoaked and with just 12.5% alcohol feels like a light, fresh, versatile, slightly neutral European food wine with a pleasant lemoniness and I can't help feeling the average bag-in-box consumer might be looking for something a bit more showy.

The Du Toitskloof Sparkling Brut was a pleasant enough sparkler from 100% Chardonnay with a restrained nose, a touch of sweetness on the palate and a bit of savoury depth - fine if you need some budget fizz.

The Sparkling Rose adds to this some raspberry fruit on the palate.

The Chenin Blanc Colombard has a refreshing acidity but still feels gentle on the palate - there are some hints of interesting minerality and toastiness.

The Cinsault Shiraz has a funky, sour cherry nose with prune fruit, with more juicy, cherry fruit on the palate, soft tannins and a gentle finish. For the price, £4.99, it's a very interesting wine but more suited to quaffing than with food.

The Chardonnay from Bosman is unoaked with an aromatic nose, apples-and-pears fruit and crisp acidity, but a bit too much mid-palate sweetness to have with food; it should be a crowd-pleasing quaffer.

The Shiraz has a ripe, fruity nose that is typically varietal; the palate is soft, juicy and mouthfilling with prune fruit. With some gentle grip on the finish, it's another good quaffer.

The Wild Ferment Chenin Blanc from Stellenrust is a more ambitious wine, from 25-year-old vines, extended lees contact and some time in oak; the result is a bigger, more mouthfilling wine with a creamy texture that still retains heraceous aromas on the nose and freshness on the palate.


The Co-op (main food and drink website) - http://www.co-operative.coop/food/
Co-op Fairtrade Wines - http://www.co-operative.coop/food/ethics/Ethical-trading/Fairtrade/Our-fairtrade-products/Wine/

Friday, 18 November 2011

Game And Domaine Treloar Dinner at St John's Chop House, Cambridge

Anyone dreaming of giving up the rat-race to make wine in the south of France would do well to have a chat with ex-IT Manager and now winemaker Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar, as that is exactly what he has done.

Jonathan Hesford
I was invited to a tasting of his wines with dinner at Cambridge's St John's Chop House by Stewart Travers, Senior Wine Buyer for Cambridge Wine Merchants who supply wines to Cambscuisine, owners of both Chop Houses in Cambridge, The Boathouse in Ely and The Cock in Hemingford Grey.

On arrival, over a glass of very lovely rosé Cremant de Limoux from Rives Blanques, I chatted to Oliver Thain, one of Cambscuisine's owners, who explained how, with Stewart's help, they had completely overhauled their wine list and focused it on wines from Languedoc-Roussillon, finding that the region offered a more than sufficient range and better quality / value for money than a list of traditional crowd-pleasers.

This is a very brave step - to take everyone's favourite pub white, Pinot Grigio, off your list and replace it with names that people may well be much less familiar with - and requires a more "hand-sold" approach to the wines, with all the investment in staff education and training that that entails - including trips out the the region.

However, six months in and the results speak for themselves with the wines all selling very well across the list.

The list includes Chateau Viranel, who provided Steve Hovington with the vines for his one-off mid-life crisis Steve's Grenache, so perhaps there is a bit of a theme running here.

Brought up in Barnsley, Jonathan Hesford was working in New York in IT for an investment bank at the time of the September 11th attacks. He was not injured, but was laid off in the subsequent cost-reductions and cut-banks.

It was, for him, a life-changing moment.

Describing the sense of being on a corporate treadmill and saying, "Just one more year's bonus under an incompetent, political boss, and then I'll get out", he was thrust into a situation where he actually had the opportunity to do what others only talked about round the water cooler.

Rachel Treloar
It was, not I imagine, an easy conversation with his wife as it required firstly a move for them plus family to the UK to study at Plumpton College followed by a further move to New Zealand to study at Lincoln University and then two years' work as assistant wine-maker at Neudorf Vineyards before they were finally in a position even to start thinking about buying some land in the south of France.

If a fifteen-year management career in a blue-chip IT department seems an unlikely training ground for being a winemaker, it does provide a number of useful skills, not least of which are project management, people management, budget control and commercial acumen and Jonathan mentioned two particularly sage pieces of advice he had received:

- don't buy too much land, otherwise you'll spend all your time just trying to sell the massive quantities of wine you will produce

- only invest half your capital in land and equipment as you'll need the other half to live on until the cashflows start coming in a couple of years later.

However, despite this project-management approach, Jonathan is no absentee landlord, pruning and tending most of the vines himself (with the help of wife, Rachel Treloar) and rarely bringing in outside help except at harvest time.

I asked him about the change of lifestyle and his aspirations, to which he was initially rather coy before acknowledging that his income is now significantly below that of his corporate career, but that the improvement in lifestyle has been worth it.

He lives, it seems, much as a local rather than as a flying expat, and has been accepted by local farmers in this famously inward-looking and clannish region, meeting up to talk weather and harvests in the cafes and bars of his village.

He explained that the only big money in winemaking is in volume, with big distribution agreements - build an awareness through a flagship brand and trade on the back of it with lesser wines that "average consumers" will buy for the association.

As for the prestige end of the market, there are only two routes to wealth, he says - either buy a top Bordeaux estate and keep charging First Growth prices, or find an obscure and undervalued piece of land, then bring in, Manchester-City-style, a dream-team of consultant oenologists, winemakers and the like, and ramp up prices dramatically.

Unlike dinners I have had at The Punter which sits squarely across the road from the St John's Chop House, the format of the meal here was kept traditional with three courses chosen from a menu plus a cheese board.

For many reasons, I much prefer the idea of tasting menus and tapas-style dishes to selecting a single dish when all look interesting; however, choose I did and I started with a venison terrine with apple and gooseberry chutney.

With people dividing up their various starters for others around the table to try, there was something of a Carry On moment when I got to announce "Ooh faggots - I fancy one of those" and got the straight-faced reply from one of the pink-shirted metrosexuals opposite "Shall I give you some ?".

The piece of faggot actually proved to be very delicious, whilst a slice of cured duck breast was intense and strongly flavoured, but just a touch too salty for my taste.

With a choice of wines, I asked Stewart for a suggestion and he recommended the Terre Promise, a blend of mostly Grenache Gris with some Macabeu (aka Viura) and Carignan Blanc.

Made from 50 year-old vines, there is grapefruit on the nose whilst the palate is full-bodied with layers of complex, toasty, oatmealy oak, rounded acidity and spicy, nutty notes which matched well with all the starters I tried.

Jonathan himself had ordered a glass of his One Block Dry Muscat and offered me some to try; it was weighty, crisp, poised and well-made, but as one who does not particularly like the floral white grapes, I struggled to get past its, well ... Muscatiness.

Jonathan commented that the wines were served a few degrees colder than he would (around 4 degrees here vs his preferred 8 degrees) and this gave me a chance to ask him about the effects of air vs temperature - as I often find, to great annoyance, full-bodied whites opening up only towards the end of a meal.

His own view is that sulphites will keep young wines stable for around the first 30 minutes in the decanter but that temperature has a much greater effect on suppressing flavours than aeration.

Given that I knowingly tend to overchill whites "just to be safe" - especially if I am decanting - expecting them naturally to warm up a little with time, perhaps I need to re-think this approach.

For my main, I chose hare loin, my new favourite game dish; it was meaty with lots of gamey aromas and came with confit hare, thyme potato cake, pear sauce and some nutty, sauteed Brussels sprouts with toasted almonds.

The wine to match this was Jonathan's Motus; made from 95% Mourvèdre, it had a gamey, leathery nose with a complex mix of minty, vanilla spice, garrigue herbs, cherry fruit and minerality with a minty, grippy finish.

A textbook game wine, it matched perfectly with the strong, gamey flavours of the hare.

For desserts, we reverted to ordering one of each then dividing up amongst the table and my choice of a bread and butter pudding had been "deconstructed" and came served as a brick of bready pudding with a jug of custard to pour over; sadly, this was all wrong and the pudding, albeit well made and tasty, ended up too dense with the custard feeling like more of an afterthought than an integral part of the dish.

The most popular pudding on the table was poached pears and cream, perhaps for its lightness after the game - the pears were ripe and well-cooked, but for me it was just some cooked pears with a bit of cream.

However, the final pudding I tried was rather special - Burnt Cream, otherwise known as crème brûlée, one of my favourites; the yellow custard was thick, dense and smooth with a creamy texture and, despite my earlier comments, matched perfectly with a glass of the sweet Muscat de Rivesaltes - perhaps because the weight of the cream stood up to the florality of the wine which had enough sweetness not to be overpowered but also enough freshness to cut through the dessert.

The final course was a cheese plate, a mixture of hard yellow and blue, and for this I ordered a glass of Pomona, a blend of apple juice and Somerset Cider Brandy aged in oak barrels.

A sip earlier had shown it to be unusual and intriguing enough for me to want try a whole glass, but I found the initial appeal started to wane before I finished the glass.

With the evening winding down, the waiting staff brought us a magnum of Jonathan's Tahi to try.

This is one of his top wines and was quite wonderful - a complex, dense nose of dark berries, liquorice, leather, mocha and tarriness gives way to a palate of elderberry fruit, minerality, and minty, herbaceous eucalyptus.

However, more than the complexity of the aromas, the real highlight here is the superbly dense and inky texture of the palate.

A 2009, it is still quite young, especially being a magnum, and with a little left over at the end, I arranged to take the last bit home to see how it would develop with some air.

Resampled after three days, there is a prominent and complex nose of sweet, ripe elderberry fruit, dark berries, liquorice and vanilla spice with garrigue herbs, minty notes and a touch of forest floor.

The palate is inky and dense, yet custardy-smooth, with eucalyptus and fresh, vibrant, cool-mint; the fruit is more dark berries, the acidity juicy whilst the grip is as gentle-yet-firm as a masseuse, the finish long, grippy and minty.

As I have mentioned previously, the standard of dining in Cambridge is not generally that good, due to the high level of transient visitors the city gets, so it is reassuring to find places like the St John's Chop House that do focus on quality rather than just bums-on-seats.

The Chop House also feels part of a wider movement to revive and improve traditional British foods such as game and the snigger-worthy faggots, to make them something to match with great wines and of more than just local interest.

And to get to chat with the restaurant owner, the wine merchant's senior buyer and the winemaker himself is quite something.

The St John's Chop House has a lot going for it - great food, lovely Olde Worlde decor and atmosphere, and now a really interesting and unusual wine list that really suits the style of food on offer; had they just done something bolder and more imaginative with the structure of the menu - something clever, quirky and unexpected - rather than just the standard three courses plus cheese, the dinner would have been truly unforgettable, but really I have no complaints at all.

Recommended Wine

All the wines were excellent here, but the Tahi was on another level for its structural density and superb tannins; available from Cambridge Wine Merchants at £17.99.

The Game and Wine Evening cost £50 per head, including wines, and I went as a guest of Cambridge Wine Merchants.


Domaine Treloar - http://www.domainetreloar.com/
St John's Chop House - http://www.stjohnschophouse.co.uk/
Cambscuisine - http://www.cambscuisine.com/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Ch Rives Blanques - http://www.rives-blanques.com/

For more on the "Outsiders" of Languedoc, see this article by Louise Hurren: http://www.french-news-online.com/lifestyle/2011/november/winemaking-outsiders.html

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Taste The Difference Sauternes, 2005 - Sainsbury's

This Sainsbury's Taste The Difference Sauternes is made by Chateau Guiraud and dates from the warm year of 2005, considered a great one for Bordeaux generally, and which perhaps accounts for the 13% alcohol.

A blend of Semillon and Sauvignon, on the nose, it smells of peach and marmalade with some botrytis and a hint of nail polish initially; with air this fades and something more floral emerges.

On the palate there is more apricot and white peach with honeysuckle / honeycomb, balanced with a refreshing, pineapple acidity.

The texture is creamy, full and oily, and typically for Sauternes, the sweetness is not excessive or overly intense - rather, with a little air, the depth of flavour increases giving a lovely sweet-sour finish.

It's quite a weighty wine and feels made for summer puddings - my perfect match would be a tarte au citron, or maybe a crème brûlée.

To me this is a lovely "classic" wine, in that it impresses with its balance, finesse and depth of flavour, rather than wowing with a variety of primary flavours.

£12.99 (37.5cl) from Sainsbury's, provided for review.


Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Viñalba Patagonia Cabernet Merlot 2009, Argentina - The Co-op

This Viñalba Patagonia Cabernet Merlot 2009 from the Co-op has the snappily-titled award for Best Red Bordeaux-Blend Argentinian Wine under £10 from Decanter.

There is not a huge amount of information on the origin of the wine on the back label, so I have no idea of vineyard location or altitude, but the blend is given as 80% Cab and 20% Merlot.

Immediately on opening and pouring into the decanter, there is a perfumey nose of baked plums and prunes, dark berries, vanilla, woodsiness and herbs.

On the palate, it has a smooth, inky, mouthfilling texture with black cherry and prune fruit, and a touch of minty eucalyptus. It feels supremely balanced and elegant and I can see why this got an award; there's a lot going on, but it's mainly secondary - spice, leather, coffee and liquorice.

It pretty much ticks all the boxes - a Big Red, with a soft-yet-mouthfilling texture, a balanced, spicy warm-heartedness and enough subtlety to make it interesting.

With around a third left, I pour it back into the bottle, re-cork and save it for the following day - 24 hours later and a lot of the up-front fruit has faded, but the texture is still superb; and if it's become less of a fruit-driven quaffer, it does however, really complement a roast chicken dinner with herby chestnut stuffing; with lots of dark berry and prune fruit now showing on the finish, I find myself rather disappointed that the bottle seems to be finished off so quickly.

The Decanter judges commented that the wine was “elegant and smooth with a ripe, spicy palate backed up by firm tannins. Juicy with a faint herbaceousness too and a smoky tinge giving prodigious depth.”

£8.99 (on offer at £6.99 from 7 December 2011 - 17 January 2012) exclusive to The Co-operative, provided for review.

Other related articles
The Co-op Premium Mendoza Malbec
The Co-op Premium Marlborough Pinot Grigio
Co-op archive
Argentina archive

Co-op wine - website
Vinalba - http://vinalba.com/

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Co-operative Premium Marlborough Pinot Grigio 2011, New Zealand

This is a Co-op own label, but the press details tell me it's made by Yealands Estate from the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, whose Grüner Veltliner and Riesling impressed and intrigued me at a Liberty Wines tasting a few weeks ago.

Straight out of the bottle, there are prominent, up-front aromas of pear drops and wet stones on the nose with yeasty, toasty, golden-baked pastry notes.

And curiously, as with the previous Yealands Estate wines, there is also a touch of classic kiwi herbaceousness as if there's something in the air in this part of the world.

The palate is full and weighty, with crisp apples-and-pears, ripe, tropical fruit acidity and a savouriness. On the finish, there is a toastiness and a persistent mineral-acidity.

Full-on, up-front and well-made with good, rounded acidity, it is a versatile wine for modern, restaurant-style foods with strong flavours.

And whilst it impresses straight out of the bottle, don't be afraid to decant or give it some air as there are also some interesting secondary aromas that develop over time.

We matched this with crostini dipped in garlic mayonnaise, followed by anti-pasti; we also found it matched well with slow roast chicken with a sage and chestnut stuffing.

Finally, the good crisp acidity will also cut through salmon or goat's cheese.

£7.99 from the Co-op, provided for review.

Co-op wine - http://www.co-operative.coop/food/food-and-drink/drink/Wine/

Sunday, 13 November 2011

On The Nature of Greatness

Riding into work on the train one morning, listening to an uplifting rock track, my thoughts turned to the general idea of What is Greatness ?

Given my training as a bean-counter, Greatness at work is usually measured in terms of higher revenues and profits, but this is only one way of looking at the matter and there is a whole category of Greatness that cannot be objectively measured.

Whilst we can objectively compare, for example, sales volumes of the messy and wide-of-the mark U2 album Pop with the band's crafted and focused come-back All That You Can't Leave Behind, that won't actually tell us anything about why the latter is a better album and re-established U2 as the greatest rock band in the world at the time.

To do that, we need to listen to the two albums and see how they make us feel; for all its dance beats and lack of seriousness, Pop feels stodgy, plodding and heavy-footed whilst the more straight-laced and crafted stadium rock of All That You Can't Leave Behind has an uplifting, soulful emotional core of a band once again firing on all cylinders.

Focused, harmonious, uplifting - these are the same terms in which I describe a Great wine; more than taste, smell and texture, what makes a wine Great is how it makes me feel.

And this way of assessing quality in terms of how it makes us feel applies not just to wine or music, but to anything with aspirations to being Art.

I once worked for someone who owned a Porsche 911 and as a bit of a petrolhead myself, we would often exchange man-talk driving stories; I once asked him if it ever became just a car, did the excitement wear off after a while, to which he replied no, it was still special each time he got in.

That then, is a Great car - not because of its performance or looks, but precisely because of how it makes you feel.

The same applies to food and, for me, Great meals with innovative or unusual but balanced flavours, superb cooking and excellent wines to match are truly memorable events.

If, according to TS Eliot, poetry is "what gets lost in translation", then Greatness is that poetic aspect of something that cannot adequately be described but has to be experienced to be truly understood.

All these things - cars, food, music, wine - fulfil a fundamental need, be it of transport, nutrition, entertainment and refreshment; but Great examples express their artistry by transcending these basic requirements to enhance our mood as well.

There is no objective way to measure this capacity for transcendence and it is of course completely personal; you may simply not be a U2 fan and driving may not be your thing, in which case the charms of Beautiful Day or driving a 911 will have no appeal for you.

But for me, this is the very essence of human nature - once we have mastered the basics of survival - food, shelter, safety and companionship - so Maslow tells us, we look for self-actualisation and this is achieved by experiencing Greatness.

We may experience a sense of well-being by spending quality time with our families and friends but when an inanimate object such as a car, a meal, a piece of music or glass of wine, creates in us an uplifting sense of well-being, then you know you are in the presence of Greatness.

The iPod and the PC may be some of Humanity's greatest modern achievements, but they have no artistic merit - other than perhaps in how they are designed - because they do not inspire any feelings in us, they simply do a job. We may, rightly, admire their innovativeness and technical excellence, but admiring something is very different from it being Great.

The odd thing about experiencing Greatness is that it can become a bit of an obsession. I wrote earlier about improving one's palate and considered the question of whether an improved palate means greater appreciation or simply more wines not to like.

Perhaps another way of looking at it is trading a series of mediocre experiences for the occasional experience of Greatness and for me, the excitement of going to a tasting comes from the possibility that I might just come across, amongst all the good wines, at least one that is truly Great.

Image credits:

Main - http://www.sopalatina.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/greatness.jpg
Porsche 911 - http://www.carnews-focus.info/images/porsche-911-carrera%20(5).jpg
Maslow - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

Friday, 11 November 2011

On Vinopic

A while ago, I responded to a post on Quaffable about wine apps and, in short, said I could not see the point as wine is so diverse a subject than a mere app cannot do it justice.

I'd also written a couple of pieces on the idea of choice and choosing wine, noting that the whole thing was rather complex on many levels.

So when Santiago Navarro, founder and CEO of Vinopic picked up positively on a number of my comments about choosing and assessing wine, I was intrigued enough to want to find out a bit more about Vinopic, a company I had never previously heard of.

A few emails later and I had arranged to take the tube down to Santiago's offices in a smart Chelsea flat for a chat about what Vinopic does and how it is different.

I was, in all honesty, not quite sure what to expect and half-feared he might have some eccentric, iconoclastic, mad-science vision of being able, through scientific analysis, to reduce all the world's wines to no more than a bald score and rank them in a single, overreaching league table - in much the same way that in the 1960s we thought that by now everyone would be driving flying cars and eating food in pills.

The reality was much more reassuring and sensible, for Santiago proved to be a well-presented, personable Mediterranean who likes good wine and for whom the science side of Vinopic is actually much more focused on production quality than quantifying aesthetic enjoyment.

Moreover, the scientific analysis is a partner in a two-stage process where an at least equal weighting is given to a taste assessment by Master Of Wine, Rosemary George.

Finally, all the wines on the Vinopic site are rated within, but not across regions - so there is no uber-egalitarian attempt to compare Chilean Carmenere with Bordeaux, for example.

So if the Vinopic scoring system is not the game-changing, mould-breaking revolution I feared Santiago might claim it to be, is it actually anything more than a gimmick ?

Taken alone, it might be little more than a handy, independent assessment of the production-quality of the wine, but I actually think there's rather more to Vinopic's offering than just their scientific wine assessments.

Firstly, they are operating in the over £10 online retail market, so they are hardly competing with the mass-market likes of Laithwaites, Naked or the supermarkets and can, as a result, afford to be a little more selective about what they stock.

Secondly, they have a commitment to keep the process of choosing simple with an easy-to-understand range of around 100 classic wines.

As Santiago explained, where they decide to stock a particular region's wines, there will be one entry-level wine for typicity and one more interesting wine - and that's it, not 20 different examples.

And with Rosemary George tasting and rating all the wines, one would reasonably hope that they should be at least quite good.

And only after that does the scientific assessment come along to identify in an objective, if somewhat limited way, whether the wine is technically well-made or not.

At the start of our chat, Santiago outlined a series of issues with the current wine retailing model clearly and succinctly:

- the "wall of wine" at the supermarket, where to start ?
- too much choice, which becomes confusing for buyers
- outdated and archaic wine labelling with not enough information for the consumer

Moreover, his own thoughts about wine and aims for the business are eminently sensible:

- the wines should match with food (which is consistent with his segment of the market)
- the company should aim to make life easier for consumers, not simply please wineries
- the wines the company sells should be for drinking and enjoying, not investment
- there is asymmetrical information in the market, where the seller knows almost everything and the buyer almost nothing

So far, so sensible.

Citing the UK's food-labelling "traffic light" scheme as an inspiration, Santiago explained that whilst critics tend to have similar views on what makes a good wine, he wants to objectify this as much as possible and give the consumer more confidence in choosing.

Listening to his solutions, I feel that whilst he has definitely identified a number of key problems, I can't yet say whether it's a winning formula or just a Betamax-style step in the right general direction.

There are, for example, many wine merchants with an MW on board as wine buyer; plenty of merchants who sell via the internet only, and these often have a narrower range than even independents, let alone the big supermarkets.

So I can't help feeling that what will distinguish Vinopic from its competitors will be the quality of the range, the value for money and softer factors like marketing and ease-of-use of the website.

Maybe the scientific score will resonate with consumers, but for me, the way I would choose a wine merchant is by the quality of his buyer's palate, which usually becomes apparent after tasting a case or so of their wines.

However, for those interested, the specific measurements the company makes on a wine's key quality indicators are:

- polyphenols (for fruit aromas)
- anthocianins (from the grape skins for colour)
- procyanidins (from the pips for tannins)
- sulphites (10% - 20% of the legal limit is plenty, according to Santiago)
- residual sugars (to establish the ripeness of the grapes)
- alcohol level (food wines should have slightly lower alcohol contents)

Going forward, the company also plans to test for the presence of pesticides and more sophisticated testing for different types of sugars and acids.

In any case, the results of all these individual tests are amalgamated into a single score that the company labels "intrinsic".

There is no attempt to rate objectively factors such as balance and finesse, say, by comparing the different elements relative to each other and this aspect of the wine is handled by Rosemary's tasting assessment.

Moreover, there need not be a direct correlation between Rosemary's taste assessment and the intrinsic score - meaning that a wine might score highly for being intrinsically being well-made, but might be rated lower by Rosemary as a less-interesting wine - or vice versa.

The concept of a system of rating is similar to Naked Wines' offering, but the genius there was to let customers' palates dictate the scores, rather than using so-called experts.

This however, inevitably, results in something of a lowest common denominator approach and means that by implication, the people whose palates are less sophisticated than the Naked Wines' average will be the most impressed by the wines, most likely to keep buying and therefore will bring down the average quality of the palate pool.

And whilst in the sub-£10 area that's a sensible approach, at £10 and above, people are more likely to appreciate the guidance and input of an expert MW and perhaps less inclined towards a simple popularity contest of the biggest crowd-pleasers.

As Santiago explained to me: in the sub £10 bracket consumers are probably comfortable getting a recommendation from a peer they trust but above this psychological barrier they've moved into the financial territory in which they do not want to make a mistake and so seek expert advice. I also believe there is an occasion-based psychological barrier when consumers are entertaining or hosting a special person or event when they want everything to be perfect and for which experts can minimise the risk as best as possible. For daily drinking at home with a partner then a peer recommendation can do. In the new Vinopic Wines website we will seek to address both.

At this stage, then, this is really only a partial review of Vinopic, as the real test is whether their wines are any good and represent value for money at their listed prices and to do that I need to review the wines in depth, which will come next.

For now, suffice it to say that Santiago is very impressive in person and clearly and intelligent and thoughtful businessman who has carefully defined many of the issues in wine retailing today and I'd like to hope is in the process of finding the solution.

He acknowledged during our chat that they had launched the website too soon and that it had proven to be confusing and difficult for consumers to use, so clearly he is a man to take note of what works and fix what doesn't.

He is now in the process of redesigning the site so that there are three levels of information on each wine - a quick and simple "consumer" overview, more detailed information for the wine enthusiast and technical stuff for the self-confessed wine geek.

With an easier-to-use site, all that remains is to build awareness of the brand and the offering, and Vinopic's approach is sensibly focused mainly on PR, social media and website SEO.

In my next post on Vinopic, I'll report back on whether the wines themselves are worth investigating.


Vinopic - http://www.vinopic.com/

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Dinner at The Malmaison, Manchester‏

It was a notable day in the CWB household at the weekend and I decided I needed to take Mrs CWB out to celebrate - somewhere without the children.

I have been doing a series of pieces for the Hotel du Vin Cambridge in recent months and when the Hotel's General Manager Jacqui Griffiths heard I was heading "oop north", she kindly contacted her opposite number at the Manchester Malmaison (part of the same group as Hotel du Vin) and arranged for us to visit.

I have not been into central Manchester for several decades, despite having hung out there for much of my teenage years.

I hear it has completely changed and been redeveloped into something much nicer than what it used to be, but the short walk down from Piccadilly station to the hotel showed that it is still a buzzy, bustling city on a completely different scale to the quiet, genteel seat of learning that is Cambridge.

I have written elsewhere about my feelings towards my home town of Manchester, so suffice it to say here that to me it is a city characterised by its industrious professionals and businessmen who are not ashamed of their work ethic or personal achievements.

In a way, I find it rather Germanic, with strong social conventions and the business both of making money and having a good time taken equally seriously.

At 6:30 on a Saturday evening, we were amongst the first to arrive at the hotel's Smoak restaurant and were afforded a good view of the low, circular bar which was already lively and buzzy.

I was initially unsure what to make of the restaurant decor whose theme can best be described as "textured period Americana" but whose knowing touches and stylistic cues all came together on a visit to the bathroom.

Laid out in the style of a 1950s diner, it is furnished 21st century-style with unvarnished wood and porch lights replacing the traditional chrome; metallic camping-style mugs for water, a couple of old jerry cans and hessian sacks tied with thick rope for curtains add to the textured, rural southern states feel, but the best joke, however, is reserved for the gents' where the facilities are not porcelain but steel buckets - albeit fully plumbed-in ones.

The soundtrack is also period American and I noted with approval some classic-but-not-too-obvious southern boogie rock swaggering in the background.

The straightforward, slightly rustic theme also applies to the menu, which features steaks, burgers and mostly classic staples, whilst the wine list is extensive and well thought-out.

Having chosen our food, crusty bread with both butter and a very tasty tapenade were brought and the Restaurant Manager popped up to take our drinks order.

With the exception of a lamb main, our choices were heavy on fish and cheese and we eventually settled on an Austrian Grüner Veltliner after considering but dismissing Pinot Noir or Big White.

I had spotted quirkily-monickered Laurenz V "Friendly" Grüner on my quick skim through the wine list and whilst for an Austrophile like me it is hardly an adventurous choice, I was very happy to agree to it as a recommendation.

On first pouring, it was crisp and linear with typical Grüner aromas of white pepper, puy lentils and a touch of flintiness on the nose.

Grüner is Austria's signature grape and this one is from the Kamptal region just down river from the Wachau, with the vines grown on a mixture of granite, gneiss, mica-slate and loess soils. The grape is very expressive of its terroir, with subsoil being a key factor, and the greater the presence of granite, the more intense the minerality in the wine, whilst those grown on loess (a mixture of sand, silt and clay) have a more rounded, fleshier feel.

The wine stood up perfectly to my tuna carpaccio, the sweet, meaty fish marinaded with just a touch of chili and ginger, but also cut nicely through Mrs CWB's goat's cheese hush puppies - cubes of goat's cheese coated in grated apple, deep fried and served with a red pepper sauce.

The Restaurant Manager had suggested the wine might be overwhelmed by our mains and if that proved to be so, he would bring us a glass of something a little fuller; but, after finishing our starters and with our mains brought, right on cue the wine started to open up and become bigger and more mouthfilling with more minerality on the finish, matching perfectly with my dish.

I had chosen monk fish coated in a mix of dark spices that seemed to include cinnamon, nutmeg and cumin, then quickly roasted so that the inside remained plump, sweet and juicy.

With the bitterness of the spices balanced by the sweetness of the fish, it worked perfectly and was delicious, the different flavours complementing each other yet still distinct.

Simple accompaniments of potato puree and refreshing roasted cherry tomatoes also matched well and the wine took all of this in its stride and worked superbly.

Mrs CWB's dish of slow-roasted lamb was a little more complex on the plate; served on a puff-pastry base with a smear of tomato salsa reduction on top, the accompanying vegetables included morel mushrooms, goat's cheese, baby courgettes, baby carrots and broad beans.

With so much going on, it should not have worked and I joked that Chef had obviously just piled on everything he had too much of and served it up.

And yet, somehow it succeeded and the reason, to me, is that none of the flavours was too primary or dominant, so that the sweetness of the veg was balanced by the mild sharpness of the cheese whilst the savouriness of the mushrooms matched with both.

Moreover, the slow-cooked lamb showed less prominent, more secondary flavours that were in keeping with the vegetable accompaniment and again, the body and linear acidity of the wine stood up to the food.

By this point the restaurant had filled up and, with Mrs CWB looking stunning and me working the wine-journo "designer scruff" look, I noticed that we had inadvertently fitted in with the general dress code of the men dressing down and the women dressing up.

With a third of the bottle of wine still left, I opted for a cheese plate for dessert whilst Mrs CWB went for jam roly poly.

Leaving it to the waiting staff to select the cheeses, they came served with a generous selection of crackers, bread and charcoal biscuits and included the Lancashire Cheddar bombe I had tried at Cambridge Hotel du Vin's Cheese Masterclass, as well as a comté-style hard yellow cheese, a Cornish soft cheese and a blue cheese with a rind.

All were perfect with the wine which was showing brilliantly by this stage and, having finished mine, I sampled the deconstructed jam roly poly, purely in the interests of research and thoroughness.

Served as slices in a bowl of deliciously creamy custard, the roly poly itself had a surprisingly dense, strangely toffee-like texture almost as if not properly risen and yet was very pleasantly chewy, with a strawberry reduction on top.

We had been invited to check out the restaurant's VIP area after our meal and were ushered through to be welcomed by the mixologist with an extensive cocktail list.

A swift flick through was enough to convince I had no hope of choosing anything before midnight, and so I simply asked for something that would be refreshing and suitable after a plate of cheeses, with Mrs CWB indicating she would like something similar.

What came for me was a verbena-based long drink that was like a grown-up lemonade, beautifully balanced and refreshing, whilst Mrs CWB was presented with an elegant daiquiri which had a flavour of spices or bitters, but which we later found out did not contain any.

On the side was added a shot glass of rum, served neat, but garnished with a sliced of orange, flambée-ed and sprinkled with icing sugar and nutmeg which was also delicious.

Other members of the VIP lounge came and went, but most noticeable was a businessman of a certain age with a group of friends and a well-groomed, eye-catching young lady whom I can only assume to have been a favourite niece or perhaps a PA.

Another couple that we had marked down as likely fellow bloggers turned out to be the new mixologist, as our host was off to New York for a couple of months and then taking over a Bar Manager role at one of the hotel's other locations.

By this point, we were feeling extremely relaxed and rather enjoying the freedom of not having to put the kids to bed.

But years of bringing up children mean that we are no longer the party animals we once were and so we decided to make the short walk back to Piccadilly station and head home.

As we collected our coats from the restaurant, the waiting staff said "Oh, you're the bloggers - do say something nice about us", whilst the Restaurant Manager came over to ask if everything had been alright.

It had all been very pleasant indeed and I explained how the wine had opened up during the meal and stood up to each course.

It was, for many reasons, a memorable evening - not least Mrs CWB's amusement at being labelled a blogger - and having done it once, I'm sure we'll be heading back into Manchester again some time.

A three-course meal for two with wine at the Smoak restaurant costs around £100; we went as guests of the hotel.

Access to the VIP lounge is by invitation only; our cocktails cost £11 each and we paid for ourselves.


Malmaison Manchester - http://www.malmaison.com/hotels/manchester/manchester-mal.aspx
Hotel du Vin Cambridge - http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx
Laurenz V - http://laurenzv.com/index.php