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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

McGuigan, The Philosophy 2010‏

A premium wine from Australia's McGuigan

A driver don't pick the cars. Cars pick the driver.
- Bobby Bolivia, Transformers (2007)

The more wines I try, the more I find myself drawn to the more restrained styles of northern Europe.

At their best, the cool-climate wines of Champagne, Chablis and the Loire have a piercing intensity, a compelling freshness and assertive subtlety.

By contrast, the New World styles of Australia and California all too often seem rather too big and brash; pimped-up and surgically-enhanced with too much of everything - except subtlety.

This The Philosophy from McGuigan underwhelmed me on our first encounter; re-sampled, it is complex and full of ... stuff. But not my thing.

Lots of ripe dark fruit - it reeks of cassis, blueberry and elderberry - slightly stewed; cool mint, pencil shavings, liquorice, roasted spices and fine tannins. Long and savoury.

But I still prefer more restraint.

Its blowsiness matches well with some poshed-up New World-style food - deconstructed cheese burgers with roasted peppers, stuffed with tomatoes, rosemary, garlic and chili.

The 2010 turns out to be its launch year and its aim is be a limited edition premium wine in a "claret style", selling for triple figures; oak, extraction and alcohol have been tamed, apparently. Rather like Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land, it is accomplished in its own, big, muscular way. But it is no John Gielgud.

Provided by the IWSC.

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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Domaine de la Ferrandière, Languedoc

Domaine de la Ferrandière Languedoc

It is one of the happy accidents of nature that places where vines grow often happen to be very beautiful and blessed with good weather.

Making a virtue of necessity, many wine estates now also offer oenotourism - holiday accommodation amongst the vines.

Based in Aigues-Vives not far from the historic fortress-city of Carcassonne in Languedoc, Domaine de la Ferrandière is currently developing an historic property on the 100ha estate into five suites of luxury boutique accommodation.
The renovation will not be completed until the end of 2015, so in the meantime they sent me four of their wines to try.

Backed by Languedoc heavyweight Paul Mas, these are affordable, modern, uncomplicated, easy drinking wines - technically well-made and stylistically approachable, aiming for the broadest appeal.

Domaine Ferrandiere Sauvignon Blanc (£7.40) expressive and aromatic, kiwi-style gooseberries and cut-grass, with plenty of ripeness.
Domaine Ferrandiere Viognier (£7.60) the most interesting wine here for me; apricot and melon fruit with good underpinnings
Domaine Ferrandiere Malbec (£6.90) bright, ripe fruit, freshness and spiciness
Domaine de La Ferrandiere Pinot Noir (£9.99 - £7.49, Majestic) ripe berry fruit, soft texture

All wines available from Waterloo Wines; provided for review.

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Striking French! - Two Wines From Les Domaines Paul Mas

Friday, 26 December 2014

Award-Winning France - Three Wines From The Co-op

Three award-winning, classy French wines from the Co-op - what's more, two of them are all on special offer until 3rd of January 2015.

So whether you are stocking up, or just popping out to replenish stocks, these three will turn any meal into an occasion.

The Champagne continues to impress - it is drinking beautifully even now, but will continue to improve with age and is a bargain compared to many better-known marques.

The Rhone red is a warming, spicy sort of wine for midwinter, whilst the Sauternes is a delightful (and ridiculously cheap) blend of complex sweetness and freshness.
Les Pionniers, Champagne 2006 (£24.99) Golden Sandy yellow, ripe orchard fruits and white peach, toasty leesiness, mouthfilling acidity and a fine mousse. Complex, well-structured and assertive.

Very Good. Drink as an aperitif, with seafood starters, mushroom paté or even alongside roast turkey.
The Co-op Chateauneuf du Pape 2013 (£13.99 down from £15.99) From the Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape is a southern powerhouse of a wine.
Translucent ruby-purple; ripe, juicy, slightly baked but not jammy black cherry, plum and blueberry fruit with roasted spices. Supple texture and fine tannins.
Concentrated and long with savoury underpinnings.
Good. Match with roast red meat.
Chateau Roumieu Sauternes, 2009 (£7.99 down from £12.99 - half bottle) The four cool years since 2010 have not been kind to red Bordeaux, but the dessert wines have thrived.
Apricots, honeysuckle blossom, beeswax and candied lemons; sweet tropical fruits, sherbet, acacia honey, Sicilian lemons and overripe peaches with some musky beeswax.
Long, sweet-sour-savoury and complex. And delicious. And an absolute bargain.
Very Good. Match with Crème brûlée or lemon torte.

Other related articles
Les Pionniers 2004‏ At A Decade
Four Christmas Wines From The Co-op

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Wind Up

Another year, another winding.
A tweet to @clockkeeper on Christmas Eve brought us the offer of winding up the Trinity College clock on Christmas Day.
We met in the usual place - under the clock itself - at a few minutes to midday and made our now familiar way up several floors to the little room at the back of the timepiece for more information on the clock mechanism whilst we wound the various weights, of which there are four in all.
This task completed, we were invited up some wobbly ladder-style stairs and out onto the roof for a view over Cambridge and more history - why the tiles at the top of the roof are smaller than those at the bottom; the age and history of the bells which were first cast over 400 years ago, but have broken, been melted down and recast since.
Back on the ground floor, we learnt that the clock keeper has added a Guinness World Record to his already impressive list of achievements, not least of which is imbuing small children with an infectious fascination about the physics of natural forces using bouncy balls, slinkies and spinning tops.
There was also mulled wine - purely for seasonal purposes.
It is as if your best geeky childhood friend grew up to be a PhD in physics at one of the greatest universities in the world but still kept all his cool toys that you used to go round to play with: "And what does this one do?".
A very special way to celebrate Christmas Day.
As for the rest of the day, it was far more conventional; presents for the children at the start of the day and a roast dinner afterwards before settling in front of the various TV specials.
But for a couple of hours, we exercised our brains and our winding arms with the greatest of views in the best of company.
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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Three Bergerac Wines

Three wines from Bergerac
Bergerac sits as an eastern rump-end beyond Bordeaux; further inland, with a more continental climate but mostly the same Bordelais grape varieties, it makes wines with a bit more gutsy effusiveness than its more-aristocratic neighbour.
Mayne de Beauregard, Bergerac 2013 (£7.99, Marks & Spencer) Pale in the glass and light at just 12.5% - more fresh and Loire-esque than southern. A blend of Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc, the Cab Franc seems to dominate, with cherries, red plums and classic pine needle aromas.
Juicy and refreshing - a classy, well-balanced and enjoyable quaffer.
Bergerac Rouge, Château Tour des Gendres 2013 (£7.95, The Wine Society) A darker, bigger, more-substantial beast from an unusual blend of Merlot and Malbec.
Complex nose of dark fruit, spice and undergrowth; more ripe dark fruit, spiciness, concentration and grip on the palate with a persistence and firmness on the finish.
More plumpness, presence and complexity than the Beauregard. Good.
Matches well with toad-in-the-hole.
Château Les Sablines Monbazillac 2012 (£9.99 / reduced to £7.99 until 30/12/14, Waitrose) Golden Sandy yellow, with aromas of orange blossom, musky roasted peaches and beeswax. Sweet ripe peaches, barley sugar, candied lemons and tropical fruits with good freshness.
A less expensive, if less-complex, alternative to Sauternes.
Match with creme brulee or lemon torte and Chantilly cream.
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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Three New World Wines for Christmas

Three bold, characterful wines for Christmas from Sainsbury's, Majestic and Waitrose

If you want to make an oenological statement this Christmas, these three New World wines are a good place to start; with more sunshine, ripeness and stuff going on generally, they will definitely get a party started - assuming that's what you want to do:

Marques de Casa Concha Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Sainsbury’s £11.99
Lots of ripe cherry, cassis, cedar, and smoky tar; big, dense and concentrated, this is a turbo-charged, 80s power suit of a wine - complete with filofax, house-brick mobile phone and electro-funk soundtrack.

Match with plain roast beef or lamb; don't be afraid to decant for several hours.

The Ned Noble Sauvignon Blanc £12.99, Majestic (Mix and Match 2 bottles save 33% - £8.65)
Golden, viscous nectar with a pungently kiwi nose; lusciously sweet apricot, honeysuckle and refreshing exotic fruits combine with floral honey.

Match with crème brûlée or lemon torte and Chantilly cream.

Old Boys 21 Years (50cl) NV Waitrose £21
Unusual fortified Australian tawny, aged for 21 years in barrel. Neither a port, nor a sherry, nor a Madeira, but resembling a curious blend of all three, with roasted nuts and sweet spices, treacle-and-toffee, raisins and dried red berries with a fresh, savoury complexity.

Match with Christmas pudding or mince pies and brandy butter.

Provided for review.

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Four Christmas Wines From The Co-op
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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Two Villa Maria Reds

Two Private Bin reds from New Zealand's Villa Maria

New Zealand winery Villa Maria produces well-made reliable wines with a New-World clean-ripeness and a cool-climate freshness. They are always well-balanced and drinkable.

But they rarely make a wine enthusiast's heart beat faster - they are as safe, reliable and unexciting as a Volvo, a bit pipe-and-slippers.

These two wines would be safe options if you have a mixed audience of people to entertain and want something of above average quality, or if you want to make a first foray into New Zealand wine and are looking for an easy start point with nothing strange or challenging.

There's nothing not to like here.

Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir 2013, £12.99 (Asda, Budgens, Co-op, Morrisons, Taurus Wines, Vino’s Edinburgh. Hailsham Cellars, Matthew Clark, www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk)

Sweet ripe red fruits and plums, very Burgundian nose with mushrooms and woodsy undergrowth and spice with a touch of toasty oak. Clean and fresh; well put-together. Very pleasant.

Villa Maria Private Bin Merlot / Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, £12.99 (Majestic, Morrisons, Globe Wines, Matthew Clark, www.nzhouseofwine.co.uk

A Bordeaux blend, but in a much riper, bigger and more expressive style - fruit-forward, lots of sweet, ripe dark cherry and plum; very clean and well-made with supple tannins.

Provided for review.

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Monday, 8 December 2014

So You Want to Be a Blog 'n' Roll Star

So you want to be a rock'n'roll star
Then listen now to what I say
Just get an electric guitar
And take some time and learn how to play
And when your hair's combed right and your pants fit tight
It's gonna be all right.

- The Byrds, So You Want To Be A Rock 'n' Roll Star (1967)

Over the years, a few blogging friends have asked if they could be considered wine writers; here, for what it's worth, are my general views on what takes an enthusiastic consumer-with-a-blog across the line to being a self-published wine writer.

- output of at least 300 words per week / 1,000 per month; this is one short article a week or one feature-length piece per month
- a mixture of well-researched fact and authoritative, insightful opinion; wine writing is more than just tasting notes and scores. For the purpose of blogging, I view the arithmetic scoring of wines as both unnecessary and insufficient; there should be some insight at least and ideally occasional thought-leadership.
- a minimum of 20,000 words on a blog and one year of writing; this simply demonstrates a commitment over time to writing regularly, more than just a burst of initial enthusiasm.
- evidence of some original thinking; this can be informative or entertaining, but as noted previously, it needs to be more than just tasting notes, scores and back-of-the-label blurb.
- evidence of a broad and engaged audience (comments on blogs / disqus / Twitter / FB, likes and RTs - from more than just a few mates); do all the other things right and, if you are writing on the internet, this should follow. Being part of an online community of wine commentators will sharpen your thinking, deepen your knowledge and provide stimuli for future articles.

Other things that typically come with the territory but to me are not per se indicative of being a wine writer are attendance at trade events, regular samples / press trips and a profile amongst the wine PR community.

And it is, of course, entirely possible to be an authoritative wine writer without any of those.

Other related articles
On Being a Wine Writer vs A Writer Who Likes Wine‏

Main image credit: http://i.models.com/i/db/2014/1/223584/223584-800w.jpg

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Hungarian Wines at Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party

Hungarian wines at the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas party

Though elusive and hard to define, this [Hungarian] national character exists without visible physical racial characteristics. Magyars do not belong to any particular race, they do not present any noticeable religious, political or social conformity – in fact, the very diversity in these fields seems to be one of the typical characteristics of this people.
The definition of their national ‘ethos" is therefore a very complex task. For one thing, Hungarians are usually too emotional to be able to form impartial judgements of themselves while foreigners are rarely familiar enough with their culture and history to form valid conclusions.
- "A Way of Life": HungarianHistory.com
Despite my many visits to Magyarország, Hungary has always remained to me an impenetrable place, a land that I have only ever travelled through rather than ever feeling fully at home.
Descended from a people of Central Asian origin, adrift in a sea of Slavs, the lilting language full of quaint vowels is simultaneously reassuring and opaque, the culture historically and geographically remote, the topography and landscape of the Carpathian Basin indistinct.
If the Austrians are the missing link between the precise, Teutonic Prussians and the dolce vita of the Italian outdoor lifestyle, then the Hungarians are the other side of the same coin.
Like their grander, more neurotic Imperial cousins up the road in Bécs, the Hungarians both pay a Northern European lip-service to the system of rules yet have a simultaneous Southern disregard for it; Budapest is no less a place of shady business deals than Vienna.
Yet Hungary's markedly southern hedonism lives a low-lying, landlocked and continental, rather than Mediterranean, lifestyle; Budapest is a bewildering mix of imperial boulevards and coffee houses, backstreet pavement cafes, beer halls and hearty food eaten out of doors.
Perhaps it was the wide-ranging ambition of this tasting that hindered a deeper understanding.
Perhaps modern Hungary, after 50 years of Communism, followed by freedom and EU accession is still finding its way oenologically.
Or perhaps the Hungarians simply saw no pressing need for order, focus and structure in what was essentially more of a celebratory event.
For I did not come away with the ordered and structured overall impression of Hungary's wines that I had hoped for.
Taken individually, they were as technically well-made and fault free as I remember them from my many encounters.
But with so many regions, grapes and styles represented, I gained only a limited impression of what contemporary Hungarian wines are all about.
However, key shared features were a precise, clean modernity, a subtle elegance and plenty of fruit expression; like an extended family gathering, there were common traits, but no overall defining feature.

The original fizz, Champagne, was developed as a way of making an unpalatable wine drinkable; that is, the process does more than merely add bubbles.
The various fizzes here were elegant enough, but somehow unexciting; they felt like adequate wines with bubbles added.
Here was the greatest diversity of styles: indigenous and international grapes, varietal wines and blends, various oaking and lees-aging regimes.
All technically well-made, all ripe with good fruit - but little to make the heart beat faster.
With plenty of international varieties and the judicious use of oak, the reds were recognisably influenced by Bordeaux and the Rhone.
One producer truly stood out - Bock's wines were elegant, adept and harmonious. Takler, managed by Bock, had a similar, only slightly lesser, feel; Gal Tibor's wines were supremely elegant; St Andrea Merengő Egri Bikavér superior 2009 had a Rhone-esque spicy earthiness.
Pre-dating Sauternes, the sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary's north east, are its legendary calling card and only Champagne has spawned as many anecdotes.
It is made into some of the greatest dessert wines in the world by a combination of noble rot, high-altitude vineyards on volcanic soils and a unique production method of adding puttonyos of aszu grapes to a base wine.
The best here (Barta, Beres, Dobogo, Patricius) were intense, powerful and athletic, yet married to ballerina-esque lightness and freshness.

Image credits: Zsolt Szentirmai
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Friday, 5 December 2014

Four Ports from Marks & Spencer

A gift-pack of four ports from Marks & Spencer

Four miniatures hastily converted into a basic gift set - not the most lavish of presents, and not especially generous portions either.

But it's only £10 and the wines themselves are not bad at all, so at least the money's gone on the right stuff:

Tawny Reserve Port by far the most interesting wine here; translucent brick red with red fruits, spice, pepper and aromatic eucalyptus. Mellow, complex palate - precise and powerful yet deft and fresh, a real class act.

2009 Late Bottled Vintage Port dark purple, with a powerful and complex nose; lots of sweet red and dark berry fruit, pepperiness, freshness and spice. Ripe and assertive yet assured.

Finest Reserve Port ripe fruits, eucalyptus and pepper; sweet yet fresh - classic port profile.

Fine Ruby Port theoretically the most basic style here, but this is balanced, adept and quite sophisticated. Nothing basic here at all.

£10 from Marks & Spencer; provided for review.

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Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Four Christmas Wines From The Co-op

Four wines for Christmas from the Co-op

Christmas is a time of giving so, to share around the general goodwill to all men, get some wines from the Co-op.

Here are four great wines that will see you through any festive celebrations - if you're quick, you'll have time to stock up on them at reduced prices:

Fizz - The Co-operative Prosecco (£9.99 - reduced to £6.99 until Jan 3, 2015)
For a Christmas Day aperitif, Boxing Day pick-me-up or New Year's Eve celebration, this Prosecco is perfect. Elegant and fresh, precise and crisp, it shows ripe orchard fruits of apple, pear and white peach with a touch of leesy-almondiness.

The Main Event - Château Sénéjac 2009 (£16.99, reduced to £13.99 until Dec 31, 2014)
This Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux is an elegant classic and a great match for a traditional roast. With five years in bottle, it is drinking nicely now.

Purple with some brick red hints, complex aromas of cassis, pencil shavings and cigar box; dark berry fruit and cool mint, well-structured with fine but muscular tannins. Dense, concentrated and persistent.


Two good wines to keep in reserve for informal drinking or when visitors turn up
With starters - Casa Planeta Grecanico-Chardonnay 2013 (£9.99)

Ripe and rounded Sicilian white blend with orchard and tropical fruit; clean, fresh and easy-drinking with a savoury, persistent finish.

A juicy red - Ogier Reserve Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2013 (£7.49, reduced to £5.49 until 31 Dec 2014)

Juicy red and dark fruits with spice and perfumed violets. Supple texture.


If you like the sound of these, there are also special offers on:

Henri Clerc Pouilly-Fuisse (reduced from £14.99 to £12.99 until 31 Dec 2014)
Bollinger NV Gift Pack (reduced from £43.99 to £29.32 until 31 Dec 2014)
Lanson Champagne Gift Pack (reduced from £32.99 to £21.99 until 31 Dec 2014)

Monday, 1 December 2014

Loire Wines and Christmas Food

Two Bougrier Loire wines from Oddbins matched to food from ¡Que rico! Tapas

Loire wines, being northerly, light and refreshing, are perfect for warmer weather. However, I was challenged to match a couple of bottles from Bougrier to some Christmas food.

Muscadet's classic food match is shellfish and Breton oysters, whilst rosé d'Anjou's sweet red fruits and fresh acidity make it a perfect picnic wine, so this would be no easy task.

Eschewing the soft option of Boxing Day cold cuts and / or a Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, I asked Estefania Led Ramos of Cambridge-based ¡Que rico! Tapas to help me select something suitable.

Estefania set up her at-home catering business a couple of years ago and I was very impressed with her food when we tried a six course tapas meal last December; the two Loire wines here share with sherry (the traditional match for tapas) a fresh acidity, but are lighter-bodied so need slightly less substantial food.

Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur Lie 2013, la Famille Bougrier (£7.50, Oddbins)
Lemony and fresh with a bit of mineral thrill and some savoury leesiness, this is a lovely aperitif wine that also matches with the vegetable and seafood-based tapas here.
Spanish Omelette

Clams in Green Sauce

Rosé d’Anjou 2013, la Famille Bougrier (£8, Oddbins)
The simple principle here was to match the red-berry flavours of the wine to pink-ish food, hence roasted red bell peppers stuffed with mushrooms and cream followed by duck with pomegranate sauce.
Piquillo Peppers
Duck in Pomegranate Sauce
Christmas is traditionally a time of eating, drinking and socialising. But there's only so many roast dinners that you want to cook for large numbers of guests - far better is to give yourself a break and arrange for Estefania to provide the catering for an evening whilst you catch up with friends.
Wines provided for review.
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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Croft Pink Port

Croft Pink; a rosé port from Croft
I must admit, I had some reservations about a pink port; the idea of a sweet rosé port suggests the potential for something rather one-dimensional, like white chocolate or boiled sweets.

Actually, what's there is good and relatively nuanced - soft, ripe red fruits, some porty-eucalyptus and sweet-strength.

At room temperature on a winter's eve, it feels to be lacking a bit of the contrast one associates with port - but as a pleasant, uncomplicated after-dinner sipper it works.

Chilled, on a hot lazy summer's eve, it could be just the thing; which is how The Wine Gang's David Williams suggests serving it when making it his Wine of the Week in the Guardian.

Croft also suggest trying it in a cocktail - the recipe below will add the sharp bitterness of more conventional styles of port:

- 9cl chilled Croft Pink
- 12cl Champagne or Prosecco
- 1.5cl Cointreau
- 2 dashes of bitters

£11.99 from Co-Op, Selfridges, Majestic; provided for review.

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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Fools or Pioneers? Tour de Belfort at The Gonville Hotel

Tour de Belfort tasting at The Gonville Hotel, Cambridge
They could call us fools or pioneers, but we did things with a dream, not knowing the result of the dream.
- William Christensen
The owners of Tour de Belfort seem to want to make life hard for themselves. They make a wine that is utterly atypical for the region, using mostly non-local grapes, on a vineyard planted from scratch.

Unable to find a distributor in the UK, they double up their investment and open a wine shop and cooking school, Le Vin La Table, in a Manchester suburb.
But is the wine any good?
Well, actually, it's rather impressive; it just does not fit into any convenient pigeonhole and therefore needs to be hand-sold.
I tasted through the available vintages at the newly refurbished Gonville Hotel in Cambridge.
With eight grape varieties, Tour de Belfort has plenty of scope for different wines. To the original core range they have also added a crisp, fresh Prosecco-busting fizz, a sophisticated rosé and a rare, oaked Sauvignon Gris Grand Vin. A pink fizz with longer lees aging is due out shortly.
The Sauvignon Gris is complex, weighty yet fresh and precise with a nuanced Burgundian sophistication. Aged in second-year oak, it also feels more balanced than the previous year's Chardonnay aged in the brand new oak.
But who buys an unusual style of a rare grape from an obscure region?
Likewise, the sweet Sauvignon Gris is an unexpectedly elegant, a Moscato-esque, light and fresh semi-sweet frizzante.
The Malbec Grand Vin is a serious vin de garde with plenty of stuffing that needs a good decade in the bottle to reach a peak. Even with an hour in the decanter, it is only just approachable.
The oaked Cabernet Franc feels more harmonious at the moment and is drinking very nicely now.
Made from pesticide-free, hand-sorted grapes, the raw materials for Tour de Belfort's wines are of extremely high quality indeed - and this is reflected in the prices with the "entry-level" wines starting at around £10 and the top-end cuvees in the high teens.
The Grands Vins, however, are arguably the better value, as unlike other flagship wines, they are still priced on a cost-plus basis rather than market pricing; winery owner Sylvie Lismonde told me that demand for their wines is increasing every year, whilst son-in-law Andrew (who was on hand to help pour) feels that pricing the top wines in a higher bracket might actually make them an easier sell.
The tasting - an open, free pour event - is now part of the Gonville's annual calendar and gave me an opportunity to see the changes and improvements the hotel has made.
 Formerly a rather sleepy and very Old School hotel, it is quietly modernising - replacing traditional Axminster on the floors with stripped boards, upgrading the reception area and bringing in the sorts of chefs who might just get the place a Michelin star one day.
It won't necessarily attract the trendiest of sets just yet, but it is very purposefully heading in a younger and edgier direction.
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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Scoring Points, Tellin' Stories‏

Most people think paying anything more than £6 a bottle is mad. Most of the industry think anything under £6 is shit. So that’s what we are selling. Shit.
- John Hegarty, Founder BBH
I regularly hear fellow wine writers bemoan that " we need to do more to simplify wine for the consumer" in a sort of self-chastising refrain.
Who is "the consumer" here? In the words of David Ogilvy, the consumer is not a moron, she's your wife.
Another adman with an opinion on selling wine is John Hegarty who advised the industry to "lose the mystery but keep the magic".
An excess of simplification
Look around and there is actually no shortage of ostensibly helpful simplification that is in practice anything but: Grands / Premiers / Bourgeois Crus; local classifications - some once and forever, others revised periodically; AoC, IGP, DOC and DOCG; declared vintages, reserva, old vines.
There is not so much a shortage of helpful simplification as a screaming excess of it.
What is needed to cut through this haze of obfuscation is a global common standard - a benchmark or currency for wine quality.
There are, of course, competitions which award medals and trophies to wines, but the market for these is self-selecting, so they are inherently limited.
And, of course, there are different competitions with different Chairmen, judges, focus and motives.
The least worst option
The nearest we have to a global standard for wine quality assessment is the points system - be it on the 100-point, 20-point or any other scale.
Used properly, a sensible points system has the potential to make wine assessment completely transparent to even the most uninitiated - so, you're saying a 17-pointer is better than a 15-pointer? Duh!
This if course leaves unanswered the question of which wine is the better value or the one I'll actually prefer, but that's an entirely separate matter.
Just as an arthouse film can have the critics raving but show only to a limited audience whilst a mindless summer blockbuster sequel breaks box office records, so there is no guarantee the average consumer (who, remember is spousal, not moronic) will prefer a more highly-rated wine.
Tellin' stories
Telling stories is for me the funnest part of writing about wine - the people, the struggles, the drama; this is what writing is all about.
But an article with just my opinions and recommendations is subjective, non-comparable and non-scalable; it is an old-fashioned, cottage-industry approach to wine reviewing. It helps raise general awareness, but it does not aid broader, more systematic analysis.
The problem with wine is that one bottle looks pretty much the same as another on the shelf, so the temptation, if you can't recall a review that sounded interesting, must be just to pick whatever's on special offer.
Choice architecture
One retailer that has really nailed the issue of helping consumers decide which wines to buy is Naked whose Choice Architecture is second to none; but the system is not universal - it only works for what Naked happens to sell and the ratings are driven by Naked's self-selected customer base.
Meaning that if you are the kind of person who likes the same sorts of wines as Naked's customer base, you'll like Naked's wines.
Scoring points - (Big) Data, Analytics and Stories
So, if we - wine writers, in general - really believe in simplifying wine for consumers, it behoves us to express as clearly, transparently and comparably as possible our assessment of a wine's quality.
That means giving it a points-based score, just as film and restaurant critics do in the free newspaper I read on my commute back home every evening.
To this bald, quantitative assessment we may then add a narrative, long or short, again as is done in my newspaper.
But qualitative data cannot readily be compared and if I want to make use of wine assessment on any kind of scale in order to make choices, I need factual statistical data, not qualitative information, such as stories.
Stories may inspire, but they do not facilitate analysis and therefore, in isolation, arguably complicate rather than simplify.
Wine-writing as story-telling is the Top Gear approach - mostly entertainment with some factual basis.
Where story-telling is at its most insightful is in marrying it to data - thought-leadership based on rigorous analysis of data is the basis of the modern era. It's called Big Data and the world is only just beginning to see the potential of what can be done with it.
To tell stories about wine that are not based on data analysis is quaint and Old School - a beguiling, artisan throwback to an age we felt was simpler.
Real insight starts with quantitative data, involves analysis and ends with story-telling.
Paris match
So, I do not believe that point scoring of wine, for all its imperfections, is something to consign to a circle of Hell; rather, when done right, it has the potential to bring some much needed simplification to wine assessment and provide us with the data to tell more factually-robust stories rather than merely entertaining or evangelising.
As a final thought, it has been much argued over in the 30+ years since it took place, but the judgement of Paris showed the true value of tasting and scoring wines utterly objectively and out of all context, based only on what is in the glass.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

On Gentlemen Amateurs and Professionals‏

Jamie Goode's first article for Tim Atkin's site is essentially a hand-wringing pean to the cult of the (Romantic) Gentleman Amateur in wine-writing against a perceived rising tide of (Analytical) Professional Critics.

By Amateur and Professional I have in mind more of an attitude than mere paid / unpaid status - think of John Gielgud's speech as the Master of Trinity to Ben Cross's sprinter Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire: "You have taken the attitude of a professional; you seek to win at all costs?"

(Romantic) Gentlemen Amateurs, in the British / Old World tradition, think broadly and tell stories - about wines, wine-makers and regions. They are caught up in the mystique of wine - perhaps even a little in the mystery.

By contrast, (Analytical) Professional Critics take a narrowly clinical, traditionally transatlantic / New World approach, eschewing visits to wineries and dinners with producers to concentrate solely on what is in the glass and to allocate to it an utterly objective score. In theory, if not actually in pactice.

Whether paid or unpaid, the Romantic Gentleman Amateur's mindset is that of a soulful artist whereas the Analytical Professional Critic is clinically detached from the subject matter.

The Romantic Writer sees a dinner with the winemaker as an opportunity to discuss the vision and develop a better understanding of the wines; the Critic believes that you can only judge what is in the glass and avoids any invitation that might even hint at a compromise of independence.
Both approaches are valid and there is clearly a market for both - some people want to buy into the Romance of wine, to hear the stories that go into the glass.
Others are less sentimental and seek an objective, clinically reliable, measurable assessment of which wines they should buy and which to avoid.
Neither is correct to the exclusion of the other - it's that old chestnut of horses for courses.
I know which type of person I'd rather have round for dinner - and also which person I'd rather do business with.
Jamie's article misses the point in several areas, I feel:
- it posits the Romantic subjective, contextual writer / Analytical distanced, objective approach to wine assessment as a false conflict; there is no conflict, just two different, but equally valid, approaches
- he damns the points-based system as fundamentally flawed on the basis of grade inflation, rather ignoring the fact that subjective wine writers can equally wax overly lyrical about undeserving examples
- there is an unhelpful, somewhat sneering attitude towards the points-based approach; at the same time, there is a self-righteousness about the cult of the Gentleman Amateur that I find rather unconvincing
The article also fails to consider a middle way of telling stories about wine, but also assessing them objectively.
Interestingly, the MW's blind tasting exam forces its students to focus solely on what is in the glass - it is, I believe, a good discipline to learn and one I try to apply when assessing wines myself.
But I also like the stories, the human side of wine, its Romance and an understanding of what the winery is looking to achieve.
To my mind, Jancis Robinson (an MW) is the person who best embodies this approach - read one of her FT Weekend articles and there's usually a narrative followed by points-based recommendations.
So I see no conflict - rather, just a false provocation which in any event is somewhat self-serving; the market will decide which types of assessment it wants and the ones who succeed will be those who best provide the consumers of wine commentary and analysis with what they are looking for.

And no amount of Canute-like hand-wringing will change that.

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Friday, 21 November 2014

Not Just For Summer Picnics - Provence Rosé

Provence wine dinner at Hakkasan
Provence rosé is a wine defined by its production method - much like sherry, port or Madeira.
It is also, like Champagne, an occasion wine - suited to summer picnics and lazy Sunday afternoons in the garden.
If it is not as unfashionable as sherry and Madeira, nor does it quite command the price premiums of Champagne, let alone of pink fizz.
And yet there is no problem selling it; only 17% is exported and Britain is the fourth-placed export market (after the US, Canada and Belgium, it seems).
But the UK is on a rosé roll - with sales up 70% year-on year, it seems we are finding more occasions to drink pink.
To demonstrate that roses have a purpose outside of summer picnics, the CIVP organised a Provence rosé tasting dinner. With Chinese food. Indoors. In winter.
Six wines were paired to a buffet of dim sum, fish, chicken, beef and vegetable dishes.
If there was a common stylistic genus - fresh, elegant pinks - there were also nuanced differences between all the individual wines that comes partly from wine-making and partly from terroir.
Provence has three AOC regions, 15 permitted grape varieties and requires all wines to be a blend of at least two from the five major varieties.
Elevation is also a factor - low-lying grapes near the coast are picked in late August, whilst higher-altitude grapes do not come in for another two months.
As we sampled the wines over dinner, my tasting notes are correspondingly brief - all are 2013 vintage; a good year generally.
Domaine de Grand Cros, Cotes de Provence (Noel Young, £11.99) Grenache, Cinsault, Semillon and Rolle; pleasant all-rounder
Mirabeau, Cotes de Provence (Waitrose, £8.99) Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault; more maceration gives some fruity bubblegum aromas - needs food to come into its own, but works well
L'Oratoir de St Andrieu, Coteaux Varois de Provence (Red Squirrel Wine £10.99) Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Rolle, CS; crisp precise, linear and mineral

Secret de Leoube, Cotes de Provence (Daylesford Organic, £20) Grenache, Cinsault, CS; very full bodied and textured - organic, old vines, with some creaminess from malolactic fermentation

Domaine Houchart, Cotes de Provence St Victoire (The Wine Society, £8.50) Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvedre; smokey, mineral, precise and powerful with some lees aging

Chateau Vignelaure, Coteaux d' Aix en Provence (James Nicholson, £14.95) Grenache, Syrah, CS; limpid & precise; long, with good underpinnings, some leesiness and the merest hint of oak

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wine of The Month: Three Christmas Languedoc Wines

Three Languedoc wines for Christmas
Languedoc wines make excellent Christmas drinking - big, spicy, food-friendly reds that match well with a roast dinner and all the trimmings.
Christmas is not a time to be taking risks; with so many people around the table, you need some serious crowd-pleasers that will keep everyone happy.
Domaine de Fontsèque 2012, Corbières (£11, M&S) a southern GSM+C blend of southern varieties, ripe dark fruits, freshness and a lick of toasty oak. Warming, hearty and spicy.

Château de Pennautier 2013 Cabardès (£7.95 The Wine Society, also at Majestic and Berry's) Another blend of generally southern French varieties, this wine is full of cassis, dark fruits, Christmas spice and even a touch of spruce pine.

It is substantial and warming, cut through with freshness and a slightly earthy character that certainly needs food.

Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois, Vin Doux Naturel (£6.30, half-bottle, Tanners) roasted peaches and apricots, smothered in heather honey and dusted with sweet spice; rich and deliciously sweet, but also fresh and precise.

Match the reds with roast turkey with all the trimmings and sauces, whilst the sticky will work with crème brulee, lemon torte with Chantilly cream, or a chicken liver pate starter.

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Two Co-op Reds For Christmas
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Friday, 14 November 2014

IWSC, McGuigan and Catena Dinner

A tasting of IWSC winners, Catena and McGuigan wines
The outgoing and newly installed Presidents of the IWSC could not, at first acquaintance, be more different; petite Argentinean Laura Catena is glamorous with a mischievous, lilting accent whilst Aussie Neil McGuigan is an effusive, heavy-lifting, salt-of-the earth, rough diamond.
And yet they both have one thing in common - the immigrant's work ethic and desire for constant self-improvement. In Neil's words, you get up every morning and ask yourself how you can do things better.
Is it fair to say that with less of a heritage about established norms, less to lose / more to gain and fewer vins de garde generally, the New World needs and welcomes this attitude more than the Old? Let's say it's probably a helpful oversimplification.
We started our evening with a tri-partite tasting of IWSC winners (mostly Golds), then Catena and McGuigan wines before a dinner matched with some of Laura's and Neil's flagship wines.
I am, in general, a supporter of wine competitions; any wine that has been tasted and assessed by a panel and awarded a sensible medal holds little to fear for the open-minded wine enthusiast. Faced with a wall of unfamiliar wines in a supermarket, I will always pick the medal-winner.
And the IWSC judges did not lie - the award-winners were all good.
At the entry level, McGuigan's vibrant, zesty whites and spicy Syrah showed precision and nuance, something the Catena wines rather lacked but which works for the US market.
At the top-end, however, it was all reversed: the Aussie reds were like American supercars - big, muscular and substantial, but lacking finesse - whilst those from Argentina were ballerina-esque - lithe, delicate and nuanced yet powerful.
My wine of the night was the Catena Zapata Adrianna 2010 - until the Catena Zapata Nicolas 2004 (below centre, in magnum) was poured.
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Sunday, 9 November 2014

It Was Twenty (Five) Years Ago Today‏

Twenty five years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down. I was six weeks into my first year of Russian Studies and it was a febrile time: protests in Eastern Europe were changing the geopolitical landscape; those in Tienanman Square were resulting in crackdown.
At home, we had a housing crash, recession and an embattled leader who had spent too long in power.
The world was becoming grungey - and grunge was set to take over the world, even if it didn't yet know it.
In the battle for global superiority, the US had resolved to confront the USSR head-on with an arms race to bankrupt the Soviet Union.
Their response was Gorbachev - the most pragmatic and charismatic leader we had ever seen from Eastern Europe.
As a callow, rebellious and therefore left-sympathising teenager, I was in awe of the way Gorbachev was taking the game to the West and seeming to come out on top; naively, I found the harsh blend of realpolitik, self-righteousness and hard-headed assertiveness of the Thatcher-Reagan Transatlantic Alliance rather distasteful.
When state after Eastern European state rejected communism with impunity from Moscow, we rejoiced vicariously, patronisingly.
When Ukraine became an independent country, we barely noticed and mostly still referred to it as "the Ukraine", implicitly believing it to be some sort of little Russian province. We knew nothing about the student protests in Kyiv that had led to an independence that ultimately caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As Democracy seemed to come to Russia, vodka seemed to get the better of Boris Yeltsin, the hero of the anti-Gorbachyov coup who, standing on a tank, had faced up to the would-be coup plotters.
Russia's economy swung from growth to recession on a regular basis against a background of privatisation, crony capitalism and a currency crisis.
For my part, I always seemed to just miss out on the party. By the time I'd got my professional qualification, the expats had been recalled from Moscow and there were no plum jobs going there for newly-qualified accountants.
Instead, I was sent in to tidy up the hangover party - firstly with a global soft-drinks company who had over-invested as part of a trade war against the incumbent "blue" rival (Pepsi, being the underdog of the two, had been more politically acceptable in Eastern Europe than the brashly American Coke - and more than happy to do a deal).
Later, I spent five years at an ad agency's regional office closing down loss-making businesses in peripheral Eastern European countries whose economies never quite made it, then doing deals to add to the marginal businesses we owned in the bigger markets.
This included signing up a Russian business in Moscow; firstly a non-equity licensing deal, later an ownership stake and finally full control.
I watched with approval as Moscow seemed to become more cosmopolitan and middle class, relying on the age-old principle that an aspirant middle class inevitably demands democracy and the rule of law; in this context, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the exile of various oligarchs seemed like little more than speed bumps in the uneven road to western norms.
Like many, I suspect, I did not pay enough attention to the background of arrests, poisonings and invasions that gave the lie to the idea that Russia was turning into a well-behaved country.
In early 2014, I watched aghast first at the Russian annexation of Crimea and then at the subsequent hybrid war in eastern Ukraine; the isolated incidents had been one thing - the settling of a few old scores, perhaps the odd excess - but Russia had guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity in numerous international treaties in return for the country giving up what was at the time the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
Moreover, the US and UK had been signatories to those same treaties guaranteeing Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity. It could surely be only a matter of time before actions were taken to put right the wrong.
Instead, there was rhetoric, the shuffling of ministerial papers and feet and finally a few sanctions that may or may not prove effective in time; the dependence on cheap Russian gas surely cooled any heads intent on swift, decisive action.
And so, 25 years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall, 100 years on from the start of the first world war, on Remembrance Day 2014, I remember the dead, displaced and threatened of Ukraine and hope for a restoration of peace, prosperity and democracy to that much fought-over borderland country where I spent a year of my life and to which I am still bound.

Слава Україні!

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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Château la Tulipe de la Garde, Bordeaux Superieur 2012

Château la Tulipe de la Garde 2012 from Sainsbury's

2012 was not a great vintage in Bordeaux - cool and wet, it was a year where the wines are light early-drinkers and where a gentle hand in the cellar was needed.

This Tulipe de la Garde, a Bordeaux Superieur, makes a virtue of necessity; from a year in which it was simply not possible to make substantial age-worthy wines, it feels light, fresh and deft with a little pleasantly lingering oak on the finish.

There is good blackberry and cherry fruit, a supple freshness and no rough edges at all - it's a balanced, enjoyable, textbook, easy-drinking old world Merlot.

Match the freshness of this wine with pate, chicken or mushrooms.

The marketing is at least as interesting as the wine itself - Dutch winermaker Ilja Gort, who sports a beret and distinctive facial hair, has his image emblazoned on the cork along with the slogan "Life's too short for bad wine", whilst the back label proudly lists the various awards the wines have won and invites me to subscribe to the chateau's newsletter.

It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Gort has a background in advertising and seems to have listened carefully to iconic British adman, John Hegarty, on the subject of promoting wine.

£10 from Sainsbury's (reduced to £7.50 from November 19th until December 31st); provided for review.

For more on Gort, see his YouTube video here.

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Tulipe 2011 - another difficult year

Andrew Barrow is enthusiastic about Gort's communications skills, Simon Woolf less so.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Sediment - The Hardback

A review of Sediment
The best wine writing concerns itself not so much with the liquid in the bottle as with certain fundamental truths.
In much the same way as great travel writing touches on history, politics and psychoanalysis, features people and places as if characters in a novel and is both literate and articulate, so writing about wine should consider more than just fermented grape juice.
Sediment, a collection of essays from The Sediment Blog pulled together to form chapters of a book contains at its heart a gleefully ironic paradox; styling itself as two gentlemen and their mid-life terroirs, it is old-school, lofty and self-deprecatingly superior in a way that only old money can be.
And yet its focus is unashamedly on the cheapest end of the (mostly) supermarket selection.
Rather like Sir John Gielgud's Master of Trinity College discussing the fiery undergraduate sprinter Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire, the writers of Sediment, known as CJ and PK, take a quizzical and aloof interest in the cheapest of wines - in much the same way that you might inspect a particularly unattractive bug under a microscope with a combination of horror and fascination.
The set-up, then, is hilarious - as is often the text, with dry, caustic put-downs and quaint observations delivered with withering condescension.
The other strapline of Sediment is "I've bought it so I'll drink it". And occasionally this sentiment tips over into the writing. The risk with any confessional narrative is that of over-worked self-indulgence. "I've thought of it, so I'll write it" or "I've blogged it, so I'll publish it" might sometimes be an apter observation.
Like many a "Greatest Hits" collection - for that is effectively what this is - the best cuts are at the beginning whilst those in the middle occasionally drag a little.
At their best, the essays that make up Sediment inform, entertain and reveal a truth about ourselves; often, they are not actually about wine at all but are stories about the curious rituals surrounding wine and its consumption; PK's English Aspirations holds up a mirror to a host of society characters and gently teases their bumbling ridiculousness in the way that Richard Curtis did with Four Weddings and A Funeral.

£10.99 in hardback from amazon; provided for review.

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: John Blake Publishing Ltd (6 Nov 2014)

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    Wednesday, 5 November 2014

    Three Wines from La Guintrandy, Visan

    Three red Rhônes made by Olivier Cuilleras at La Guintrandy in Visan, part of Patrimoine de Terroirs

    Le Deves 2012 Bright purple in the glass with dark fruit and oaky spice; there is a blast of pure black cherry fruit with vanilla, cool mint and spice; fresh, with a supple, inky, slightly custardy texture. Warming spice and some gentle firmness on the finish. Good.

    Match with salamis or game such as duck or pheasant.

    Cairanne 2012 a blast of dark cherry and elderberry fruit, warming peppery spice and freshness. Supple texture, great savouriness and old-vine concentration. Very Good.

    Match with venison steak.

    Cuvee Louise Amelie 2012 still youthful and closed up, darkly inky with dark fruits and spice; textured and substantial. Needs either aeration or, better, several years' bottle aging to mature and open up.

    Very Good.

    Match with roast red meat darker game.

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    Sunday, 2 November 2014

    Domaine du Puits de Beni, Morgon 2013 from Cambridge Wine Merchants

    A classy, precise and elegant Morgon from Cambridge Wine Merchants

    Morgon is one of the ten Beaujolais crus, growing Gamay in the south of Burgundy.

    Vibrant purple - black cherries, spices and violets. Pure black cherry fruit and a light freshness and minerality.
    Precise, elegant and persistent.
    £11.50 from Cambridge Wine Merchants - match with roast duck, terrine or pate.
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    Saturday, 1 November 2014

    Two Wines from Mondial

    Two very classy Italian food wines from Mondial
    Mondial, an importer of Italian wines, asked if I would like to have a look around their site and pick out a couple of wines to review.
    The website itself is professional, if a little functional, and could do with some Naked Wines-style choice architecture, but after a quick browse, I chose:
    - a current vintage Vermentino; Italy's answer to Chardonnay, Vermentino is neutral-but-classy and an extremely versatile food wine
    - an aged Taurasi; from the "instep" of Italy, Taurasi has a southern warmth and spiciness and I was keen to see what this wine from the last century would be like.
    Both wines were very impressive - well-chosen, well-made, sophisticated and complex - and I would happily go back for more based on this showing.
    Cherchi Tuvaoes Vermentino DOC 2013 (£17.64) golden Sandy yellow, sweet ripe orchard fruits, baked apple sprinkled with sweet spices, fresh zippy acidity; leesy  saline, mineral savouriness.
    Very Good.
    A versatile food wine; match with creamy mushroom pasta, roast pork or guinea fowl.
    Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi Riserva DOCG 1999, (£34.68) decanted for around an hour, ruby garnet with some brick red hints; complex nose of dried red fruits, old leather, liquorice, green herbs, cool mint and roasted spices.
    Fresh red and dark berries, firm, muscular tannins and supple texture. Long, precise and savoury.
    Drinking nicely now, but will age further.
    Very Good Indeed.
    Match with venison steak or bistecca alla fiorentina.
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    Monday, 27 October 2014

    Viranel Tasting Dinner at Pint Shop

    Viranel tasting and dinner at Pint Shop with Cambridge Wine Merchants
    Cambridge Wine Merchants have championed Languedoc wines for many years and supply a number of the city's restaurants, including Pint Shop.
    One of two wine-making brothers, Arnaud Bergasse took us through a tasting of his wines along with a few plates of food.
    Less than a year since it opened, Pint Shop has been a phenomenal success - on a dark Thursday night there was standing room only and two fully-booked sittings for dinner.
    The food is "English revival" - traditional, slightly peasanty and utterly delicious - whilst the vibe is unpretentiously cool.
    This matches perfectly with the effortless sophistication of Viranel's wines; they are all ripe yet fresh with precision, balance and minerality.
    Based in Cessenon-sur-Orb in St Chinian, Viranel is a family business dating back to 1551 with 40ha and three distinct terroirs - low-lying alluvial for the everyday drinking and limestone and sandstone schist going up to 400m for the more structured wines.
    The Wines
    Trilogie Rosé Syrah, Cab, Cinsault; pale, easy drinking, fresh and balanced
    Tradition Rosé Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault; darker, more structured and food-friendly
    Tradition Blanc Grenache blanc, Vermentino, Roussanne, Bourboulenc; fresh, floral, mineral with some sweet spice
    Tradition Rouge GSM+C, some oak; ripe dark fruits and freshness
    V Rouge Syrah and Grenache, old vines, some oak; more texture and complexity
    All the wines were very enjoyable, but the V Rouge was the most impressive.
    Viranel wines are available from Cambridge Wine Merchants and Berry Brothers & Rudd.
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