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Saturday, 31 December 2011

Errazuriz Estate Merlot, 2010, Chile

This is the first of three Errazuriz reds reviewed back-to-back - and they have an interesting story to tell.

Made from 85% Merlot (with 15% of Chile's "signature" Carménère added in), it is the lowest in alcohol of the three at a European-ish level of 13.5%

The nose shows ripe plum, red berries, blackberry and something more secondary and elusive - coffee perhaps, with roasted, savoury aromas.

On the palate there is juicy, jammy acidity and cooked plum fruit sweetness. The tannins are soft and slightly drying rather than grippy on the finish.

Like all three wines, this feels as if it is aimed more at the US market with its greater emphasis on initial fruit and up-front ripeness and lesser interest in structural matters or food-friendly restraint.

That said, it does go with food and matches well with a roast beef dinner or a lasagna.

The story it puts me in mind of is the conversion away from overripe, overworked wines to something more restrained natural, as told by Marcelo Retamal of Chile's De Martino - see here:

See here for for the review of the Max Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon and the Single Vineyard Carménère.

£8.99 from Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Majestic, Wine Rack, Booths, Taurus Wines, Matthew Clark, http://www.wine-studio.co.uk/

The 2009 is reviewed by Victoria Moore, here.


Errazuriz - http://www.errazuriz.com/errazuriz/
Tesco - http://www.tesco.com/
Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/
Asda - http://shop.asda.com/wine/
Majestic -  http://www.majestic.co.uk/
Wine Rack - http://www.winerack.co.uk/
Booths - http://www.booths.co.uk/
Taurus Wines - https://www.tauruswines.co.uk/eshop/index.php
Matthew Clark - http://www.matthewclark.co.uk/

Friday, 30 December 2011

Villa Maria Private Bin East Coast Gewürztraminer, 2010

With its polysyllabic, Germanic-sounding name and tendancy to come in off-dry styles, Gewürztraminer isn't exactly a marketer's day-dream. Originally from the German-speaking Italian province of Südtirol (or Alto Adige), its spiritual home is Alsace where it ranges in style from dry to lusciously sweet, but always perfumey.

Gewürztraminer's signature characteristics are naturally high sugar levels and aromas of lychees, rose petals and a touch of sweet spice (hence the gewürz tag).

This Villa Maria Gewürztraminer is pretty much a textbook example - the nose is floral, with honeysuckle and elderflower in the mix along with a dusting of sugar and spice and below it all, a hint of minerality.

The floral notes continue on the palate which has balanced, ripe-fruit acidity, more sugary spice and again an underpinning of minerality, which along with the perfumey notes, lingers on the finish.

Like Villa Maria's wines generally, it feels technically well-made, with both bright, prominent fruit and a good depth of flavour; moreover, the differing elements feel well-integrated despite the fruit coming from a number of regions.

The sweetness and acidity will match well with smoked salmon or gravadlax, but it's harder to think of what will match well with the floral, perfumey  aromas; "Asian food" is often said to be a good match, but I find that as meaningless as saying French food matches well with Chardonnay, so thanks to the following tweeters for their suggestions (for me, the coriander seems the most convincing).

@VillaMaria_Euro - a coriander-heavy stir fry
@jobarneswines - clafoutis and blue cheese (presumably not together)
@pawpawapps - Pathia curry (whatever that is)

£9.99 from Majestic (currently running an offer on NZ whites), Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Wine Rack, nzhouse ofwine.co.uk, Matthew Clark, wine-studio.co.uk; provided for review.


Villa Maria - http://www.villamaria.co.nz/
Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/
Sainsbury's - http://www.sainsburys.co.uk/
Waitrose - http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Wine Rack - http://www.winerack.co.uk/
nzhouse ofwine.co.uk - http://www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk/
Matthew Clark - http://www.mathewclark.co.uk/
wine-studio.co.uk - http://www.wine-studio.co.uk/

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Errazuriz Unoaked Chardonnay 2010, Chile

This Errazuriz Unoaked Chardonnay comes from the Escultura vineyard in Chile's Casablanca Valley, just 20 miles from the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean.

Oaky Chardonnay went out of fashion a good decade or so ago and its revival as a popular wine style is perhaps still some way off yet as we all seem to have fallen in love with fruit-driven wines and lost interest in the more secondary elements and structural matters that oaking provides.

And whilst unoaked Chardonnay used to mean either steely, piercing Chablis or leesy unoaked Burgundies, these days you are more likely to encounter it in ripe, tropical New World form.

Greenish yellow in the glass, this 2010 Errazuriz has a nose of tropical and stone fruits.

The palate is fresh and crisp with zingy acidity and elegant apples-and-pears fruit. Medium bodied, the texture is creamy, leesy and rounded with a persistent finish.

Overall, it is a very enjoyable, well-made and balanced wine suitable either for quaffing or with creamy dishes, pasta or white meat.

£9.49 from Tesco, Wine Rack, slurp.co.uk, Matthew Clark, provided for review.


Errazuriz - http://www.errazuriz.com/errazuriz/
Tesco - http://www.tesco.com/wine/
slurp.co.uk - http://www.slurp.co.uk/
Matthew Clark - http://www.matthewclark.co.uk/

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV, The Co-op

Low-cost Champagne alternatives are all very well - indeed I have reviewed quite a few very impressive ones on this blog (see under "fizz") - but good Champagne has a depth and complexity (as well as a price tag) that Cava and Prosecco generally cannot match.

This Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV is currently on special offer at The Co-op until 3rd January 2012, and whilst it still costs as much as two bottles of good Prosecco, it rather defies the law of diminishing returns by actually being is twice as good.

A golden colour in the glass, it feels fresh and lively with ripe, crisp orchard fruit on the palate. There is toasty brioche and savouriness, whilst the mousse is fine and persistent with a long finish.

The acidity is prominent and crisp, but also feels balanced, soft and harmonious - mouthfilling yet light, it is elegant and moreish.

We matched it very satisfactorily with Boxing Day left overs of turkey and ham.

£28.99, reduced to £19.32 until 3rd January 2012 from The Co-op ; provided for review.

Co-op - http://www.co-operative.coop/food/food-and-drink/drink/Wine/
Piper Hiedsieck - http://www.piper-heidsieck.com/

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Errazuriz Sauvignon Blanc Single Vineyard 2010, Chile

This Errazuriz Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc comes from the Escultura estate in Chile's cool Casablanca Valley.

The nose shows plenty of typical herbaceous Sauvignon aromas, with gooseberries and cut grass; the palate feels full, rounded and moutfilling, partly due to extended aging on the lees, with crisp, balanced green apple and pineapple acidity and a savoury finish with more herbaceous aromas.

A well-made easy drinker, it is in style part-way between a challenging, steely, cool-climate Loire Sauvignon and something more tropical from Marlborough.

£9.99 from Majestic, slurp; provided for review


Errazuriz - http://www.errazuriz.com/errazuriz/
Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/
Slurp - http://www.slurp.co.uk/

Monday, 26 December 2011

Vilarnau Brut Cava, NV, Spain

Produced according to the Champagne method in Catalonia, Cava is, like Prosecco, a budget fizz.

This Vilarnau Cava Brut is made from a blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay which are fermented separately before blending, bottling and ageing for 2 years.

Lighter and more easy-drinking than a Champagne, it shows appley fruit and balanced, rounded acidity.

With a fine mousse, it is refreshing, elegant and well-made.

As with many "Champagne alternatives", it does not have the complexity or depth of a good Champagne; however, it is very pleasant wine indeed and also costs a lot less than a good Champagne.

Drink as a seasonal aperitif or in the garden in summer - food matches include turkey and smoked salmon.

£10.49 from Ocado, thedrinkshop, Hammonds of Knutsford, Iberica, Rhythm & Booze, Bottleneck, Winehouse, Flagship Wines, Ken Sheater Wines, Maison du Vin, Old Schoold Wines, La Zouch Wines, Anglia Wine Merchants, Liquid Treasure, Partridges of Sloane Square, Grape and Grind, http://www.cellarviewwines.com/.

Provided for review.

Selected links

Vilarnau - http://www.vilarnau.es/, twitter http://twitter.com/#!/CAVESVILARNAU
Ocado - http://www.ocado.com/
The Drink Shop - http://www.thedrinkshop.com/

Friday, 23 December 2011

Jackson Estate Stich Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc such as this Jackson Estate Stich can be considered as many things - a benchmark style of tropical, zesty Kiwi SB, something a little passé for the fashion-conscious drinker and perhaps a potential millstone for winemakers wanting to show that New Zealand is more than just a one-trick oenological pony.

The "pub white" of choice for many in the mid-noughties' backlash against oaky Chardonnay, the spotlight has now rather fallen off Kiwi Sauvignon and since there's plenty of choice for well under a tenner, I wonder what moving up the price scale to £11.99 gets and whether it's worth it.

The wine is pale in the glass; aromatic and herbaceous straight from the bottle, it has a distinct, pronounced flintiness. It feels hunched and nervy - I like it.

On the palate it has a crystal clear acidity, zesty lemon and lime, a touch of mid-palate sweetness and intense aromas of goosberries, nettles and blackcurrant leaves. It scores highly for varietal fruit expression, whilst behind the crisp acidity, there is a ripeness that is distinctly New World.

Extremely well-made and balanced, initially it does seem a touch expensive for what is quite a straighforward, fruit-driven wine when simply quaffed.

However, with a bit of consideration, the value of the extra pennies shows through in an intense, persistent minerality on both the palate and the finish that you don't generally find for under a tenner, and it rather reminds me of a good Austrian Grüner Veltliner.

However, the minerality is not immediately obvious (as it often is with a Grüner) and it almost feels as if this wine is trying to be two things at the same time - a straighforward ripe, zesty Kiwi SB and a seriously mineral, cool-climate wine - but it does actually do both very well and I suspect with another few months' bottle age, these two sides of its personality may come closer together.

Match the herbaceous notes and acidity of this wine with tuna carpaccio with chili and ginger, mozzarella with tomato, basil and olive oil or grilled aubergines stuffed with rosemary cream cheese.

£11.99 from Ocado, Waitrose, Tesco, Majestic, DrinksDirect.co.uk, Winehouse; provided for review.

Currently on offer at Majestic that apparently brings the price down to £9.59 when purchased with any other kiwi wine.


Jackson Estate - http://www.jacksonestate.co.nz/
Ocado - https://www.ocado.com/
Waitrose - http://www.waitrosewine.com/
Majestic - http://www.majestic.co.uk/
DrinksDirect - http://www.drinksdirect.co.uk/
Winehouse - http://www.winehouse.co.uk/

Thursday, 22 December 2011

On The Value of Blogging‏

For a while earlier this year, I harboured the delusion of giving up the day job and becoming a professional wine-writer.

The idea was based in part on positive feedback I had from people reading my blog which I naively took perhaps a bit too literally, and partly on a mid-life sense of malaise and "why not ?" attitude.

I had a sort-of plan - a couple of periodic columns in national newspapers, a few ads on my blog and maybe some kind of "brand ambassador" status for a region I was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about (or prepared to become knowledgeable and enthusiastic about) would be a good base and I might top up with speaking fees and perhaps eventually a wine-matching column for supermarket periodical.

I was fortunate enough around this time to meet a number of fellow wine bloggers who gave my dream the cold bucket of water it required - "I do it for the free wine" is pretty much the wine blogger's mantra.

Now to be clear, I do not believe any of the people I met write positive wine reviews merely in the hope of more free stuff, as I've heard bloggers being periodically accused of; rather, "I do it for the free wine" means "I spend more time reviewing wine than I should and I'm lucky enough to get sent mostly decent stuff from PR agencies which I review honestly".

One blogger, a little older, wiser, more qualified and savvy than most, told me that what money he makes out of judging and so on, he then spends on his wine education with the
WSET, so effectively it's a self-financing hobby.

Not long after, I also met someone in wine PR who repeated the now-familiar wine-industry mantra "there's no money in wine" enough times for me really to start to believe it.

And it makes sense - wine is a topic that many people love to talk and read about generally, but few people are actually prepared to pay for that information.

As a colleague in the PR industry puts it "All the kids today say they want to be journalists, but they've never paid for an item of news in their lives - how can they not see that the business model is just not there ?"

As the proliferation of wine bloggers shows, the barriers to entry for wine blogging are low indeed - assuming you already have a computer and internet connection and routinely buy wine to drink, then your only outlay is the time it takes to bash out the occasional post (and for promotion, of course, as advised by

I recently met up with a
fellow blogger who mentioned that at the 2011 EWBC in there were two distinct schools of thought on blogging: on one side, those who saw themselves as part of the wine trade because they blogged, wanting their opinions to be recognised far and wide, and on the other, those who love wine and enjoy writing about it but have other day jobs.

I summarise these points of view into "We are the future - our voice must be heard !" and "I do it for the free wine".

Now, I am not so arrogant as to consider that my voice “must be heard”; however, nor do I blog merely for the free wine.

A local independent merchant whose wines I review regularly once introduced me to someone with the humorous observation that it was not so much my customer relationship to him as his donor relationship to me that defined how we knew each other.

I was too polite (or slow-witted) to point out at the time that if I paid him for his wine at cost but charged back an hourly rate for the time I spend writing about it, then I'd be the main beneficiary and in fact he was getting large amounts of well-written PR material for free.

So, no money and time-consuming - so why blog other than for reasons of vanity ?

Well, for a start, vanity is not a bad reason, but her are the benefits I see from blogging about wine:

- Education #1; writing about wine has been a self-education in both the theory (grape varieties, regions etc) and practical aspects (drafting tasting notes)

- Education #2; blogging has got me into trade tastings, meeting wine professionals and producers and sampling a huge volume of wines which I would otherwise not have tried and which has developed my palate and taught me a lot about wine-making and the wine business

- Education #3; I have also got to meet in person various entrepreneurs and CEOs of start-up business to interview for my blog, chatting with them about wine, the market, SEO and business models

- Education #4; the mere fact of spending so much time in the company of wine professionals is of itself an education and I can't think of a tasting I have been to where I haven't learned something new

- Education #5; for each wine review, I usually do a bit of research, or these days refer to some earlier research I have done, consulting various wine books I own or checking facts out

- Networking; historically, I have not been much of a networker, but my "wine network" now far exceeds that of my day job and I have learnt how to network in a way I have never done before

- Social aspects; wine enthusiasts and people in the wine business are some of the most friendly I have met either in person, on twitter or in any of the various wine discussion groups on places like LinkedIn

(I believe this last fact and the lack of any really big money in the wine business are not unrelated)

- Creativity and self-actualisation; considering Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the opportunity to do something new and creative mid-way through one's career is not to be taken lightly

Somewhere at the bottom of this list come things like the free wine and entry to events - if I were in it just for the free stuff, I think I would have given up by now as the value of wine, events and so on in the year-plus that I've been doing this seriously is negligible compared to the time spent.

So, no alternative career, but at least a self-financing hobby that allows me to hang out either virtually or in person with winemakers, trade professionals, MWs and fellow writers, and occasionally to attend some very enjoyable events and dinners.
Image Credits

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Lourensford Chardonnay 2010, South Africa

According to its website, Lourensford Estate dates back to 1700 and is a magnificent estate nestled in the fertile bowl of the Helderberg Mountains. It is arguably one of the most beautiful wine estates in the world; steeped in history and heritage, the estate also boasts an ultra-modern winery utilising technology unique in the Southern Hemisphere - or so the website claims anyway.

As to the wine, on opening, it is a pale gold in the glass with greenish hints.The nose shows some zesty, tropical aromas and toastiness straight out of the bottle.

On the palate, it feels buttery with fresh acidity and some tannic buzz - there is some mid-palate sweetness and quite a long finish.

However, overall it feels a little clumsy and lacking in finesse in a way that I can't put my finger on but which is like an overgrown teenager making its presence felt in a room full of adults.

Re-sealed and left to sit quietly for a few days in its bedroom, on re-sampling it seems to have matured into something rather more acceptable in polite company.

The nose now shows aromas of pear drops and there is ripe sweet pear and tropical fruit on the palate, as well as a touch of butterscotch; it feels rounded, mouthfilling and much more harmonious with, again, that long finish.

Match with plain roast chicken, white fish, pasta in a creamy sauce or cheese.

£8.49 from Rhythm & Booze, Eynsham Cellars, Beaconsfield Wine Cellars; provided for review.


Lourensford - http://www.lourensford.co.za/
Rhythm & Booze - http://www.rhythmandbooze.co.uk/
Eynsham Cellars - http://www.eynshamcellars.com/
Beaconsfield Wine Cellars - http://beaconsfieldwinecellars.com/

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Château Grand Jean 2009, Bordeaux - Laithwaites

The first classic wine region whose wines I got to know properly was Bordeaux and although over the years I've discovered and come to love an number of others, I still have both an affection for, and overall a better level of knowledge about, Bordeaux.

For me, what marks out a decent Bordeaux - at any price point - is texture and food-friendliness. Usually blended from a combination of Cab and Merlot in varying proportions, perhaps with a few other bits thrown in, decent Bordeaux will always have, in addition to fruit and perfume, a good tannic backbone and acidity to stand up to and cut through food.

Bordeaux is often made for the long haul and can need a good few years in bottle - or a couple of hours in the decanter - for the chewy tannins to soften.

Producing wines in larger volumes than Australia, Bordeaux has, surprisingly, a bit of an image problem - at the top end, its First Growth wines are considered investment vehicles and over-priced playthings for Asian billionaires to drink with cola to show off, whilst at the bottom end, its image is perhaps a bit too Gallic and Old World for people accustomed to trendy, New World quaffers with funky labels.

Add in a few underperformers simply trading on the Bordeaux name and reputation, and it is anything but a homogeneous region.

So, all credit to the Bordeaux Wine Council for their Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux campaign which aims to educate us a little about Bordeaux and its food friendliness.

For me, the best of Bordeaux (for price / quality ratio) is to be found, in the UK at least, in the mid-range, say £8 - £20; here, in the homeland of the independent wine merchant, you should expect to find good ageworthy examples of what  Bordeaux should be like - classy and elegant European food wines with impressive tannic structure, wonderful texture, good fruit and rounded acidity.

Sadly, this Laithwaites Chateau Grand Jean 2009 is none of those things; a Merlot-based blend originating from the Entre Deux Mers sub-region, according to the website, it is surprisingly pale in the glass. There is a jammy nose of cooked berry fruit and the palate shows juicy acidity, but has no texture and shows no development. The finish is hot, alcoholic and drying and overall, it feels like a clumsy New World wine with none of the attributes that makes a good Bordeaux.

It is not actually offensively bad in the sense of being unpleasantly acidic or over-sulphured, but it is out of balance and there is nothing here to recommend, so most of this went in the cooking. Which is a shame for a wine that costs nearly £10 before delivery charges.

I've had better (at least, less disappointing) wines from Laithwaites than this for less money and certainly better examples of Bordeaux for less.

Amazingly, the Laithwaites website tells me it has won an award: the Concours Agricole De Bordeaux 2010, France.

It's understandable that Laithwaites has a sub-standard wine on its list (even if I would be quietly having a word about alternative employment with the person who selected this one) but what surprises me most is that somebody at the Bordeaux Wine Council thought this a good example to introduce people to Bordeaux wines in general.

There are some great wines from Bordeaux, but sadly this just isn't one of them IMHO.

£9.49 plus delivery; provided for review.


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

Friday, 16 December 2011

Affordable Italian Wines from Cambridge Wine Merchants at La Dante, Cambridge

Last weekend, I presented a collection of Italian wines at La Dante in Cambridge.

Giulia Portuese-Williams, who runs La Dante, had asked me if I could select and present some wines from different parts of Italy - and with a budget of around £10 per bottle, I decided that "affordable" was the way to go.

Whilst it is generally possible to find wines from the world's "classic" regions below £10, at this price point, the less-reputed regions can often outperform; and the classic regions of Italy - Chianti, Barolo and so on - are never bargain wines.

However, many parts of Italy, especially the south, are re-inventing themselves as Europe's New World of well-made, fruit driven wines at under a tenner, so with the help of Cambridge Wine's Mill Road branch Manager, Matt Boucher I selected six of the best.

La Dante in Cambridge is part of the international la Società Dante Alighieri, founded in 1889 with 440 offices worldwide - it is a national cultural institute rather like the British Council or the Goethe Institute, but unlike these it is not state-funded and so needs to rely on language lessons for its income.

So my audience that evening was mainly local Italians and Italophile language students plus friends, lending the proceedings a much more sociable and collegiate atmosphere, which suited me fine as it had been a busy weekend in the CWB household and I had not managed to prepare a huge amount to say on each of the wines.

Making a virtue out of necessity then, I simply introduced each wine with a quick overview of region, grape variety and key characteristsics and then started pouring.

La Delfina Special Cuvee Prosecco, £8.99

We began with a wine I have reviewed earlier this year, as I had used it as an ingredient in a jelly recipe by Alex Rushmer, chef at The Hole in The Wall, for Cambridge Edition.

Fermented in tank rather than bottle, Prosecco is much cheaper to produce than Champagne and also has more primary fruit than Champagne, which proved very popular on the evening; this La Delfina Special Cuvee Prosecco is light and elegant with ripe pear fruit. It will never challenge a good Champagne for complexity, but it is well-made, very enjoyable and much more cheaply priced.

Alpha Zeta Garganega, £6.55

The first still white, a Garganega from Veneto, was crisp and appley on first opening with ripe pineapple fruit but with some air became richer, weightier and more mouthfilling.

A versatile food wine, it would match with light starters, salmon or white fish in a creamy sauce.

Mandrarossa Fiano, £7.99

We finished the whites with a Fiano from Sicily, increasingly a source of well-made, good vale wines; darker and waxier in the glass, this wine had half a degree more alcohol and felt fuller on the palate, showing tropical fruit and herbal, vegetal aromas.

More weighty than the Garganga, this would stand up to cream-based pasta dishes.

Poggio Del Sasso, Sangiovese, £8.99

The first of the reds, a Sangiovese from Toscana, was a Chianti lookalike on a budget, with typical cherry fruit, prominent linear acidity and good grip, but was also a little more easy-drinking and less challenging than a Chianti.

This is very much a food wine and would match well with beef-based dishes.

Miopasso Nero d’Avola, £8.75

Nero d'Avola is one of Sicily's "signature" red grapes and produces wines with lots of plum, prune and peppery aromas; this wine is made partially with ripasso grapes (i.e. that have been dried on straw mats int he sun for several months to concentrate flavours). This gives the wine an intense perfume and a mid-palate fruit sweetness that proved very popular on the evening and led many people to say it was their wine of the night.

With so many flavours and aromas, this to me is a less versatile wine, but would match well with a game casserole with the sweetness of root vegetables or braised red cabbage.

Moscato Frizzante Piedmonte Volpi, £9.49

Wanting to finish with a dessert wine, I picked this unusual semi-sparkling, semi-sweet, low alcohol (just 5.5%) Moscato from Volpi which had been my wine match for the jelly I mentioned earlier.

Light and elegant, it shows lots of elderflower aromas and, perhaps because of this, can seem sweeter than it really is (the finish is relatively dry); the acidity is nicely balanced and it is a very easy drinker.

It would make a very pleasant end to a meal, or would match with light, fruit-based desserts - or the layered strawberry jelly if you feel like making it.


Beyond the social aspect and general interest of presenting the wines, the evening proved instructive in a couple of ways - firstly with a mixed Italian and UK-Italophile audience it gace me the chance to see how these two different nations think about wine.

I have long felt that people who grow up with a "wine culture", where it is part of everyday life (in places like France, Italy and Spain for example), seem to have a more instinctive understanding of what makes a good wine - unlike Anglo-Saxons for whom wine appreciation is something relatively new, they generally do not have the extensive vocabulary for describing wine, but rather simply seem to know whether a wine is good or not.

By contrast, the Brits have both a greater interest in the stories around the wine and also - in a general audience of so-called average consumers - a greater preference for primary, up-front fruit in a wine, rather than more elusive secondary, or tertiary aromas; this was especially noticeable in the preference for Prosecco over Champagne and also the popularity of the very fruit-driven Nero d'Avola.

Recommended Wine

All the wines here were very good and all proved popular with the audience - however, for me the most interesting was also the most typically Italian was the Poggio Del Sasso Sangiovese.


La Dante, Cambridge - http://ladante-in-cambridge.org/, http://twitter.com/#!/ladantecam
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Families and Friends Dinner at Fitzbillies, Cambridge

Last week, I took the family to a revived Cambridge establishment, Fitzbillies, for dinner.

We had been invited by Old Persean Alison Wright, half of the husband-and-wife team who, on reading of the demise of the famous source of Chelsea buns via a Stephen Fry tweet, decided to give up their metropolitan careers in journalism and marketing services respectively and re-launch a Cambridge legend, but on a more businesslike footing with a restaurant as well as the cake shop.

The deal from Alison and husband Tim Hayward was this: pay only for the drinks, food is on the house, as long as we give feedback and tip the waiting staff appropriately.

We had planned to get there at a child-friendly time of before 7pm, but a combination of various train problems on my commute back from London meant that it was closer to 8pm before we eventually arrived, feeling somewhat flustered and hungry.

However, the welcome from Alison was warm and friendly, immediately putting us at ease as we were shown to a table at the far end of the restaurant near the kitchen and brought menus.

Starting with drinks, the children ordered lemonade in raspberry and straight versions and tucked into some delicious slices of hearty home-made bread with generous portions of butter.

There is no children's menu and all the dishes have a least one ingredient that might prove unfamiliar or challenging to younger palates; however, #2 child announced he would have the duck to start with, whilst number #1, who was a little cold, opted for a bowl of ham broth, with Mrs CWB also opting for the duck leaving me to try the smoked salmon, but in the end we all tried a bit of everything.

The duck plate came with both smoked and cured duck breast as well as some cooked duck meat - in what was perhaps to set the tone for the evening a little, the duck breast was extremely tasty and very generous; slicing to a third or a quarter of the thickness would have resulted in no less flavour and a touch more elegance. The accompanying picked prunes were also delicious (even if the children turned their noses up) but the thyme croute (a piece of fried bread) didn't really add anything.

#2 child's clear ham broth with sherry, chopped egg and mint and ham popovers was a more elegant affair, full of flavour and with the touch of mint adding a delicious and unusual touch.

My smoked salmon came with slices of sweet beetroot, a creamy horseradish and crispy potato plaques - slices of potato toasted in the oven. The salmon / beetroot / creamy horseradish combination all worked very well, but the potato plaques felt a bit "texture by numbers" whilst the horseradish was on the generous side of potent.

We had ordered wines by the glass from a small-ish but perfectly formed and well-thought out list - with around 10 reds and 10 whites and two fizzes, of which three reds, three whites and one fizz are served by the glass.

I fear Pinot Grigio could become to this generation what German Riesling and sherry turned into for my parents' - a once-popular classic wine that then falls out of favour due to over-popularity and too many poor-quality examples. However, my Italian Pinot Grigio from Bacaro was lovely - well-made, with good rounded acidity and mouthfeel and a restrained versatility - and matched well with the salmon.

Mrs CWB chose a Grand Bateau Rouge Bordeaux which proved to be an equally good match with her duck plate - with low tannins, aromas of bramble fruit and hints of savouriness and soy, it was clearly Merlot-dominated and had a similarly smooth and mouthfilling texture as my wine.

For mains, both child #1 and Mrs CWB had opted for a game-based steam pudding, whilst #2 child had lamb and I opted for braised guinea fowl.

The steamed pudding was perfectly cooked and delicious and came with the autumnal wonderfulness of a braised red cabbage and chestnut accompaniment.

Young Man's lamb chump was served as several delicious medium rare strips with a pink centre, a Jansson's temptation (similar to a potato gratin, - very nice) and lamb's lettuce - aside from the obvious play on words, the lamb's lettuce worked well as a lighter foil to the hearty meat and potato dish, but the addition of a sharp, wine-unfriendly vinagrette dressing was perhaps a step too far.

My guineafowl was also perfectly cooked and came with a slightly unusual celeriac mash and a sweet, slow-roasted chicory. The earlier Pinot Grigio would have matched well with this, but I was keen to try something else off the wine list, so I opted for a Mahi Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand with the waiter helpfully offering me a sample to see how it would go.

Unlike so many Marlborough Sauvignons, this was was not overly tropical, lush and fruit-driven, but balanced and elegant with a rounded, mouthfilling acidity that is very food-friendly.

By this point, we had little room left for desserts (which did not include the famous Chelsea buns, pictured above), so decided to share two between the four of us - the pink grapefruit and pomegranate jelly had a pleasing, refreshing bitterness that worked very well and reminded me a little of the Italian tradition of ending a generous meal with a reviving lemon sorbet with Prosecco; it also came with dollop of clotted cream and a shortbread biscuit which proved more popular with #1 child.

I shared a chocolate and clementine cake with creme fraiche with #2 child which was just about perfect - beautifully cooked and very well-made (and also very popular with #1 child).


A few days later, as requested, I gave Alison some feedback on the evening as follows:

- welcome and service; very good indeed
- food; very good and tasty, good-quality ingredients, well-cooked, portions very generous, mains a bit more pubby than fine-dining (in contrast to the cakes which are very special and elegant)
- decor / atmosphere; overall very good, but a bit chilly and spartan where we were sat at the back
- wines; good, well-made versatile food wines, wine list easy to read and not too long

Ideas / things to consider:

- introduce a set menu
- introduce a children's menu
- include aperitifs / dessert wines

Fitzbillies is now open for restaurant bookings on Friday and Saturday evenings; the full price of a three-course meal is around £30 per head; table wines cost from £16 - £35 per bottle, or around £4 - £7 by the glass.

We paid £30 for our drinks plus a £10 tip for the excellent service.


Fitzbillies, 52 Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RG; 01223 352 500


Fitzbillies - http://www.fitzbillies.com/

Tim's article - http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/nov/11/fitzbillies-tim-hayward-cambridge

For more on Fitzbillies, see these articles:

Metro (Marina O'Loughlin) - http://www.metro.co.uk/lifestyle/restaurants/890968-fitzbillies-having-your-cake-and-eating-it

Gatronomic Girls: http://www.gastronomicgirls.com/2012/04/views-and-reviews-fitzbillies.html

Business Weekly 14 October 2011 - http://www.businessweekly.co.uk/food-and-beverage/12895-fitzbillies-in-cambridge-reopens-under-new-ownership

Cambridge News (17/05/11) - http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Home/New-Fitzbillies-sticking-to-Chelsea-buns-of-old-17052011.htm

BBC News 22 August 2011 - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-14613979

Varsity 8th February 2011 - http://www.varsity.co.uk/news/3206

Main image credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/nov/11/fitzbillies-tim-hayward-cambridge

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Virginia Wines at the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party‏

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
On the trail of the lonesome pine
In the pale moonshine our hearts entwine,
Where she carved her name and I carved mine;
Oh, June, like the mountains I'm blue
Like the pine I am lonesome for you,
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
On the trail of the lonesome pine.

Standing in a room full of wine professionals and MWs at the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party, I am relieved when my neighbour admits to not knowing anything about Virginia wines and suggests that most other people in the room do not, either.

Earlier in the day, a tweet to Rob Tebeau who writes about Fringe Wines in a blog of the same name, brought the information that Virginia wine is generally hard to find outside of the state itself.

With only 210 wineries in the state and a little over 3,000 acres under vine, one might wonder why the wines of Virginia are looking to the UK as an export market when they have the rest of the US on their doorstep.

The answer, apparently, is that if you are going to ship it out of the state, you may as well go all the way and send it to a country interested in overseas wines like the UK.

Moreover, the wines prove to be very European in style, with low alcohol levels and at least as much emphasis on acidic structure and mouthfeel as on fruit.

Whilst Virginia is one of the original US states - it even passed a law in 1619 requiring settlers to plant vines - the current wine industry mostly dates back only a couple of decades.

Perhaps as a result of this, the wines are distinctly modern in style, with lots of stainless steel, fresh acidity and pure, precise fruit.

Overall, the standard is, I find, generally high with consistent quality and enough variation in styles to keep things interesting - thankfully these are not identikit, textbook, me-too wines.

Over the course of the tasting, I hear the words European-style and food wine a lot and tell people "It's alright, we're in Europe here, I know exactly what you mean."

I get a little sense of Virginia's geography - with the Blue Ridge Mountains, flatlands and the cooling influence of the Eastern seabord - but I'm keen to lean more.

I have found visiting places such as Austria's Wachau, the Mosel and Alsace to name but a few, has given me a much greater understanding of the effect of geography in the final wine, whilst talks on the geo-history and subsoils of Chile have provided insights into the subtleties and potential of its complex terroir.

For me, the terroir of a region is both a literal and figurative map to understanding its wines, the climatic influences, natural advantages and challenges - perhaps a more experienced professional taster than I will pick out these things without the benefit of a map or explanation, but I find it helpful.

What I do learn is that Virginia's signature white grape is Viognier, with Petit Manseng a close second - the Americans seem to pronounce it "Putty Man-seng", neither fully anglicised to "Pet-it Man-seng" nor fully francophone "Putt-EE Mon-SOH", which seems to be a metaphor for the wines here with French varieties and European alcohol levels made in a very modern-technique, clean style.

The reds are generally Bordeaux varieties with a surprising amount of Cabernet Franc which historically I've never particularly got along with, but here shows well.

The producers are arranged around the room in alphabetical order, so I start with Barboursville.

Barboursville, http://www.barboursvillewine.net/, @barboursville

The winemaker, Luca Paschina, is originally from Italy and describes the climate of his vineyards as similar to Maremma; his 2010 Viognier Reserve has an aromatic, peachy nose with toasty notes. On the palate it is leesy and mouthfilling with a long finish from a year spent aging on the lees in stainless steel. Very elegant and fresh.

The 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve has a nose of bramble and vanilla with earthy, liquorice notes. The palate has a lovely soft texture, with fresh acidity and some grip on the finish.

The mainly Merlot-blend, Octagon 2007 shows bramble, liquorice and vanilla - it has an inky texture and a smooth, rounded mouthfeel.

Boxwood - http://www.boxwoodwinery.com/, @BoxwoodWinery

Rachael Martin introduces her wines, telling me that her parents planted vines in the early noughties and that the winery seeks to combine both tradition and modernity. The (mainly Cab Franc) 2010 Topiary rosé is relatively neutral on the nose, with red berry fruit on the palate and a mouthfilling texture; it feels well-made and balanced.

The 2009 Boxwood Cab / Merlot blend shows dark berry fruit, with liquorice, elderberry and dark spice on the palate and a vibrant, fresh mintiness; there is a grippiness but it feels well-integrated.

The 2009 Topiary (Cab Franc / Merlot) has a nose of liquorice, tobacco and dark fruit, with lots of liquorice on the palate and dark, bramble fruit. It has an inky texture and feels very well-made with a hint of herbaceousness and smooth tannins on the finish.

Breaux Vineyards - http://www.breauxvineyards.com/, @BreauxVineyards

Breaux Vineyards' wines were perhaps the most distinctive here - from vineyards planted on hillsides in 1996, the 2009 Viognier has a peachy, floral nose, good acidity on the palate, floral aromas, a peachy texture and a pleasantly surprising minerality on finish.

The 2005 Nebbiolo was unsual here both for its non-French grape variety and age - with nearly 4 years in barrel, pale in the glass with a truffley, earthy nose of garrigue herbs; the palate shows good cherry-fruit acidity and plenty of grip.

The 2010 Nebbiolo Ice was even more unusual, but very delicious - first created as a "see what happens" in 2007, it is the colour of rosé and has a fresh, watermelon acidity to balance the intense, marmaladey sweetness.

Angela Reddin mentions the notable presence of tannins on the finish of this wine, but I'm not sure if the mince pies in circulation at this point are enhancing or masking this - in any case, the two sadly don't match, even though separately they are delicious.

Keswick Vineyards - http://www.keswickvineyards.com/, @keswickvineyard

The 2010 Viognier Reserve is barrel fermented and aged for 10 months on the lees in neutral French oak - it is relatively neutral on the nose with a peachy, mouthfilling texture and a long finish; very much a food wine, it has a fresh acidity and feels well-made with good structure.

Lovingstone Winery - http://www.lovingstonwinery.com/, @lovingstonwine

I first came across the fairly obscure Petit Manseng only recently (see here) and am really surprised to hear it talked of as a second "signature" white grape for the state; the 2010 Petit Manseng is aromatic and floral, with a sweetness and acidity that rather reminds me of classic German Rieslings. At 14.2%, however, alcohol levels are much higher than one associates with the Mosel, but it still feels fresh and balanced.

Philip Carter Winery of Virginia - http://www.pcwinery.com/, @PCWinery

The 2009 Chardonnay is barrel fermented and barrel aged sur lie; it has a toasty nose and shows tropical fruit, good, balanced acidity and toasty, creamy oatmeal on the palate. The finish is long and leesy.

The 2009 Cabernet Franc seemed less impressive, with musty cellar notes on the nose, a whole lot of grip and good acidity, but maybe will show better with more bottle age and / or some food.

Prince Michel Winery - http://www.princemichel.com/, @PrinceMichel

The Petit Manseng (from 2008) has a floral, white flower nose and shows tropical fruit sweetness and fresh, rounded acidity on the palate. The finish is crisp with some minerality and overall it feels well-made.

White Hall Vineyards - http://www.whitehallvineyards.com/, @whitehallwinery

The 2010 Pinot Gris, fermented in neutral oak, has a rounded palate with good apples and pears fruit Neither quite as crisp as an Italian Pinot Grigio, nor as perfumed as an Alsace Pinot Gris, it treads something of a middle path with elegance and balance.

Williamsburg Winery - http://www.williamsburgwinery.com/, @williamsburgwin

Patrick Duffeler, President of the Williamsburg Winery, trained in Burgundy and has a European feel for food wines. His 2009 Acte 12 Chardonnay had, perhaps, the lowest alcohol content of any wine on show that evening at just 12.4% and as a result, it is not quite so attention-grabbing initially.

However, with a bit of air and consideration, the sophistication of this wine is revealed with subtle buttery, oatmealy oak and a fresh, lightness that is elegant but not insubstantial.

The 2007 Burgesses' Measure Merlot is initially very grippy with just some berry fruit on the finish - again, however, with a bit of air and some food (beefy canapes) it shows much better and reveals more fruit aromas on the finish.

The 2007 Gabriel Archer Reserve (40% Cab Franc, 30% Petit Verdot, 20% Merlot, 10% Cab Sauv) shows blackcurrant and liquorice and blackcurrant on the nose, with soft, ripe, mouthfilling tannins and aromas of bramble fruit and cassis on the palate.

The 2007 Virginia Trianon, mostly from Cab Franc, has an elderberry nose with liquorice and shows ripe tannins and sweet fruit on the palate; the texture is inky and mouthfilling with a grippy finish.

Recommended wines

Overall, I thought the quality of the wines was high and also quite even, so it makes it hard to pick out a winner; I tweeted this to Peter Csizmadia-Honigh (@borvilag) who was representing the IMW there whose view was that "there were some v nice ones, but also some question marks re quality vs price".

I did not get any UK retail prices for these wines, so it is hard to comment on value.

For, me the most unusual and interesting wines were from Breaux - the Viognier for its minerality on the finish and the Nebbiolo Ice both for the quality and balance but also for the bizarreness of a dessert wine made from red Italian grapes grown in Virginia.

The Acte 12 Chardonnay deserves a mention as a food wine to fall quietly in love with whilst from the reds, the 2009 Boxwood impressed with its vibrant mintiness.

UK Distributors include:

- Whole Foods Market
- Oxford Wine Company
- Hercules Wine Warehouse
- Good Wine Shop
- The Sample

The UK importer of Virginia wines is New Horizon Wines.

Wink Lorch has also written up her impressions of the event as a guest post on Drink What You Like - see here:

Virginia Wine - http://www.virginiawine.org/ Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/VAWine
Circle of Wine Writers - http://www.winewriters.org/
New Horizon Wines - http://www.newhorizonwines.com/

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Chateau Borjaud 2007 Premieres Cotes de Blaye - Wine Society

This Chateau Bourjaud Premieres Cotes de Blaye from the Wine Society has been chosen chosen by the Association of Wine Educators and is being promoted by the Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux campaign as an example of an easily-available, mid-range, typical Bordeaux wine.

It is made from 85% Merlot and 15%Cab, meaning lots of aromas, but less in the way of tannic structure, whilst the relatively low alcohol level of 12.5% gives it a food-friendliness.

The nose shows bramble fruit and dark cherries with hints of coffee grounds, forest floor and liquorice, whilst on the palate the juicy, rounded acidity dominates with dark cherry and plum fruit and more coffee and dark spice hints.

The finish is extremely well-balanced, even if there is very little in the way of grip.

A non-tannic Bordeaux is almost a contradiction in terms, but this is a very pleasant and well-made wine and if chewy tannins aren't your thing or you want an introduction to cool-climate Merlot, this is not a bad place to start, and with its juicy acidity it will match well with Italian foods such as salami, crostini, roasted vegetables or pasta with a tomato sauce.

£6:50 from The Wine Society, provided for review.


The Wine Society - http://www.thewinesociety.com/
Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux - http://goodfoodwouldchoosebordeaux.com/

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Little Creatures Pale Ale - Wineaux

When I recently met Barry McCaughley of Wineaux and, also more latterly, Barry James Wines, as well as chatting wine and business, we also talked beer and he gave me a bottle of Australian brewer Little Creatures Pale Ale to take away.

According to its website, selected malts are kilned in small batches and are used exclusively in our pale ale. Two different yeasts are used to both ferment and bottle condition the beer ... From brewing to release, a batch of pale ale takes about six weeks, allowing for two weeks conditioning in the bottle after packaging. No artificial preservatives or additives are included, just great ingredients.

Opening it up the other night with a fish and chip supper, it was amber in the glass with elegantly aromatic elderflower and grapefruit.

At 5.2%, it is a grown-up beer, but feels refreshing, crisp and malty with hoppy flavours - apparently Cascade and Galaxy whole hop flowers are used, but in any case Barry tells me it's one of his favourites and a best-seller on his site.

It also proved an inspired match with the food.

£39.99 for a case of 24 33cl bottles, provided for review.


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

Monday, 5 December 2011

Wines For Christmas - December Wine of The Month

December means Christmas - and whilst the supermarkets may be vying for your attention and hard-earned pennies with special offers, it's the independents who really specialise in the wines for special occasions.

This month, in recognition of the time of year, we have increased the budget slightly and asked Cambridge's independents to suggest three wines for drinking over the festive season.

Peter Lehmann Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz, £17.99 , Noel Young Wines

Red Aussie fizz is miles away from Champagne in every sense, but this Peter Lehmann Sparkling Shiraz is bottle-fermented using the Champagne method.

The fruit, from 2006, spends a year aging in old oak before two more years' secondary fermentation on the lees in bottle.

Disgorged in 2010, it now has a further year or so's bottle age.

The mere sight of a purple foaming wine will provoke comment and conversation, whilst the wine itself shows plum and prune fruit with some secondary aromas of dark, bitter chocolate, Christmas spice and liquorice.

There is a touch of mid-palate fruit sweetness, but the finish itself is quite dry with a savoury, leesy richness and depth of flavour.

Serve well-chilled as an unusual aperitif, or better still match the fruit and spiciness to gamey cold starters such as venison terrine or Boxing Day cold cuts with spiced cranberry chutney (an inspired recommendation from Mrs CWB).

Domaine A-F Gros, Pommard, Bourgogne, £18.99 Bacchanalia

Red Burgundy is never cheap and spending upwards of £15 is not even a guarantee that you'll get something memorable.

This Pommard from A-F Gros, however is one of the best red Burgundies I have had in a while and is a great introduction to the delights of Burgundian Pinot  Noir.

Straight out of the bottle, the nose shows complex aromas of cherry, garrigue herbs, woodsy, mushroomy forest floor and a pronounced gaminess.

On the palate, there is cherry and red-plum fruit, whilst the acidity is bright, lively and juicy with a touch of cool mint and a silky smooth texture.

The finish is balanced and lingers with a touch more herbiness.

Match with game dishes, such as pheasant or even with a Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings.

I would not decant this wine before serving as it impresses straight out of the bottle; the delicate aromas will not benefit from large amounts of aeration and there are no chewy tannins to soften.

It also bears mentioning that 2009 was a particularly good vintage for Burgundy generally, so it's worth making a note of the year.

Smith Woodhouse LBV Port, 2000, £21.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

After too much turkey and "maybe just one more" mince pie, it may be time to kick back in front of a roaring fire and pour a glass of something sweet and warming.

Late Bottle Vintage is port from a vintage year (declared roughly 3-4 times per decade) that is aged for longer in barrel before bottling and therefore does not need as much aging in bottle as Vintage.

Dark purple in the glass, this Smith Woodhouse LBV has a nose of cassis, herbs, eucalyptus and spice. With a few swirls, the cooked fruit aromas of the added spirit emerge.

The palate is initially sweet and warming before a complex blackcurranty fruit with more cool eucalyptus and hints of dark spice develops.

The finish is long and balanced, with the base wine and the spirit well integrated.

I would either sip this on its own or match with a bitter chocolate and cherry dessert - whilst port and stilton is a classic combination, cheese generally matches better with a less fruity aged tawny with a decade or more's barrel age rather than a more primary and fruit-driven LBV like this.

It also has a Decanter Trophy.

Recommended wine

These three wines are all a little above "everyday drinking" price levels and unlike supermarket wines right now, there are no eye-catching, gimmicky 25% off / BOGOF / Christmas special pricing or artificial discounts offer to be had.

Rather, what you get here are some really sophisticated, complex and well-made wines with individuality and personality that will impress and are worth every extra penny.

If you have been following this column since it started earlier this year and trying the wines (generally priced at £8 - £12), I'm confident you'll appreciate the step-up in quality of these three Christmas recommendations - the depth of flavour of the fizz, the complexity and texture of the Burgundy, the elegance and harmoniousness of the port.

There is no overall winner this month - just three great wines for festive drinking to enjoy with good food and great company.

Wine of The Month takes a post-Christmas frugality / de-tox break in January, but returns in February with a Valentine's theme and a new addition to our line-up.

Until then, Happy Christmas !

For an archive of wines of the month, click here:


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

Main image credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/tvandradioblog/2007/dec/25/yulelogtv

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Mill Road Winter Fair - And A Glenfiddich Tasting at Cambridge Wine Merchants

Another year, another Mill Road Winter Fair - this year was bigger than ever and the first since the death of founder Suzy Oakes.

Some things about the Fair have become familiar - the street performers and the bouncy castle at St Barnabas Church which the children always look forward to.

Some things are new like making a Christmas stable scene from three Malted Milk biscuits, a jelly-baby Jesus and a Chocolate Star of Bethlehem - all stuck together with piped icing sugar.

The children love the handicraft and consumable aspects of this, but I'm not sure the religious symbolism has much impact on them; personally, I find it simultaneously both heavy-handed and somehow trivialising but their childish excitement and the general sense of community overcomes the urban curmudgeon in me.

A few days ago, as #1 child was making shiny star decorations to hang up in the house in anticipation of The Big Day, I had a brief but overwhelming vision of Christmas as a non-religious midwinter celebration in a pre-commercial age where everything is home-made, hand-made and nothing is bought-in.

This link with the spirit of the past returns again at the sight of Morris dancers, a sense of old English traditions dating back hundreds of years being maintained.

Britain has reinvented itself so many times - the rise (and fall) of the Victorian industrialist empire, Thatcher's yuppie, credit-bubble 80s, Cool Britannia - that these strands of history are sometimes all we have to keep us in touch with an ancestry that has become all but lost in the shopping malls and Christmas catalogues.

Yet traditions are there to be maintained and revived and, for me, the Mill Road Winter Fair stands as a symbol of community and humanity - created by locals for locals, it is in one sense nothing special, little more a few shops giving out free sweets or, in the case of Urban Larder, samples of some rather lovely venison and pork sausages.

But with the road closed and nothing more exciting than Brazilian drummers, unicyclists, singers and a few stalls with  food and drink to try, it becomes all about the community and an occasion to bump into neighbours and acquaintances.


Later in the afternoon, whilst #1 child is at ballet and #2 at a knights-themed birthday party, I drop into Cambridge Wine Merchants to try some Glenfiddich whiskies with Ian Murray of First Drinks, a sales outfit owned by William Grant.

Charismatic, entertaining and occasionally hilarious, he serves a never-ending stream of enthusiasts in the basement room of Cambridge Wine Merchants' Mill Road branch with an intoxicating blend of banter, education and sundry spirits.

Glenfiddich Rich Oak, £32.99

I opt to start with a Glenfiddich 14 yo Rich Oak; it has a complex oaking arrangement with some of the blend aging in American oak (for vanilla aromas and spice) and some in Spanish (for flavour and colour).

Jim describes the barrels for aging the spirit as "virgin" ("new oak" in wine parlance), something I've never heard of previously but which gives the whiskey lots of vanilla spice and woody aromatics with some mid-palate sweetness.

The nose is fresh and floral - the hallmarks of a Speyside malt -and there are aromas of citrus an orange fruit, whilst on the palate it feels smooth and mellow with a long finish.

Glenfiddich Solera

The Solera whiskey is slightly older at 15 years and again the oaking regime is complex and varied - with the various components of the final blend mixed and briefly aged in a solera-style barrel (hence the name).

Again, the nose is floral and fresh with fruitcake and spice on the palate, as well as some pepper and mouthfilling tannins.

Jim explains that the oak gives the whisky about 70% of its final character with an array of subtle differences due to elevation, sun exposure, climate, water table and so on.

Glenfiddich Distillers' Edition

Something of a special edition, this 15 yo whiskey is noticeably stronger at 51% abv.

On the palate is shows Christmas spice and floral aromas, dark roasted spices and has something of a slight peppery sting; the mouthfeel is bigger and there is a tannic grip.

As suggested by Jim, I add a small amount of water - just a few drops - and the whiskey becomes more aromatic, less dominated by the alcohol, with a gentler feel, and more heathery with aromatic spices.

Recommended whiskey

All three whiskies here are of broadly similar age, style and quality - they are all beautifully smooth and well-made and all are very enjoyable.

For me, however, the most complex and intense whisky is the Distillers' Edition.

All the Glenfiddich whiskies here are available from Cambridge Wine Merchants, even if not mentioned specifically on the website.


Mill Road Winter Fair - http://www.millroadwinterfair.org/
Suzy Oakes - http://www.millroadwinterfair.org/suzy-oakes
Urban Larder - http://urbanlarder.co.uk/
Cambridge Wine Merchants - http://www.cambridgewine.com/
Glenfiddich - http://www.glenfiddich.co.uk/

Main image credit - http://www.millroadwinterfair.org/

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Day Off Work - Cambridge's Museums‏

On Wednesday this week, I took a day's annual leave to look after #2 child whose school was closed due to the public sector strikes over pensions.

The weather was sunny so we decided to do some fun father-and-son stuff in Cambridge to make the most of the day together.

We started with the Sedgwick Museum which contains various dinosaur skeletons, fossils and other bits of rock which fascinate him as he is very much at the "dinosaur stage".

We then walk across the road to the Museum of Zoology which has a blue whale skeleton on display, plus various other skeletons and stuffed exotic and unusual animals.

On the way in, we are buttonholed by a striker who tells me she is striking because the work the public sector does is so important to society that it is only fair that private-sector taxpayers should also contribute to maintaining their pensions.

More than her worryingly zealous sense of purpose and unspoken belief that the public sector alone is making the world a better place, I am struck by her arrogant sense of entitlement.

"I deserve to be looked after by the state at taxpayers' expense because I have chosen to do work that is hugely important to society" is not merely the sub-text, but almost verbatim what she tells me.

This self-important culture of entitlement at a time of financial and economic crisis is something I have seen at work as one of the last stages of moral decay in once-great businesses. It often precedes total collapse, yet I've never once seen it in successful, growing, hungry businesses.

Once inside the museum, we look at the displays and I'm surprised by just how large an emperor penguin is and how small an anteater is.

We then cycle out to the Museum of Technology - "the steam museum" as we call it - which is full of be-whiskered James May types in overalls carrying oily rags and tinkering with large, steam-powered mechanical things.

Originally a late-19th century pumping station to shift all the city's sewage two miles up to Milton where it was spread on fields, it has a large and very tall chimney that was more recently scaled by the world's only "celebrity steeplejack", Fred Dibnah.

The Museum is not "in steam" when we get there - in fact it's not open to the public at all that day, but seeing the look on our faces, one of the steam enthusiasts gives us a quick tour of the main areas which keeps us both happy.

The reason for the closure, it turns out, is because the boiler is leaky and needs fixing, which is no small task when it is of the size needed to pump two miles of Cambridge detritus along pipes and many of its parts are original.

I learn that each day's steaming costs around £700 in coke which, I calculate, equates to 140 visitors paying the "in steam" entrance fee of £5 just to cover the basic running cost; I doubt they get anything like that - especially when I find that only 50-odd people have "liked" the Museum's Facebook page later in the day - and wonder how this place keeps going.

It seems a pretty thankless task preserving some of Cambridge's industrial heritage. When you think of Cambridge's heritage, its sewage industry is probably not high on the list of things that come to mind when we have colleges, the historic city centre, Grantchester Meadows and the city's castle.

For visitors to Cambridge, a greasy, steam-powered museum on the edge of town dedicated to the history of pumping shit is an unlikely attraction compared to King's College Chapel and punting on the backs.

And yet, I don't see anyone at the Museum on strike, demanding more money from taxpayers or harping on about the societal importance of what they do - just a good-natured cheeriness, an enthusiasm and genuine affection for what they do and a pragmatism about problem solving.

I can't help drawing a contrast between this and the attitude of the striker I met earlier in the day, and it is only as we leave the museum that I realise that we were not even asked to buy a ticket - it's all been free.

I also can't help drawing a comparison with #1 child's school where there is no strike and everyone is busy with their studies; it is, of course, independent.


Sedgewick Museum - http://www.sedgwickmuseum.org/
Museum of Zoology - http://www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/
Cambridge Museum of Technology - http://www.museumoftechnology.com/
Museum Facebook page - http://www.facebook.com/CambridgeMuseumofTechnology

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Final d'Arry's Tasting Event - Competition Winners' Evening

A collection of photos taken by Jean-Luc Benazet at the Competition Winners' evening at Cambridge gastropub d'Arry's, earlier this week.

The competition was run by Cambridgeshire Journal with a first prize of free tickets to the event plus a d'Arry's Cambridge case of d'Arenberg wines, with runners-up prizes of a pair of tickets for entry.

Also present was Judith Gaskill who runs Cambridge PR and does d'Arry's PR.

Yours truly holding forth

Demonstrating the basics of tasting
Cheese boards to accompany the wines
Enthusiastic sniffing and swirling
Getting the hang of it now
d'Arry's from the outside
First prize includes a d'Arry's Cambridge case
Fish-eye effect; nice
For more on the d'Arry's events, see here and here.

For my review of d'Arry's, see here.


d'Arry's - http://www.darrys.co.uk/
d'Arenberg - http://www.darenberg.com.au/
Jean-Luc Benazet photography - http://www.jeanlucbenazet.com/
Cambridgeshire Journal - http://www.style-magazine.com/cambridgeshire_journal/home.asp
Cambridge PR - http://www.cambridgepr.biz/