Friday, 11 December 2009

Chablis and culture shock in Italy

This week the two Heathers have been dipping their toes in culture – and getting culture shock – all in the pursuit of their love of wine.

Heather Aitken
So there I was in the Royal Opera House Covent garden, soaking up the atmosphere from under a crystalline chandelier. The cast – mostly French - were singing the praises of the star of the show, that well-known and ancient export from northern Burgundy – Chablis.

The first time the wine Chablis was recorded was 312AD, so it has been around a very long time. It is made purely from the Chardonnay grape variety grown on limestone soil formed in the Kimmerigian period, which retains a wealth of fossilized oyster shells from this upper Jurassic era. This soil imparts the acidity and the sun gives the balance of the fruitiness to the wine. There is a village in Dorset called Kimmeridge which is well known by geologists for its rich fossil finds but to my knowledge this area does not produce wine.

The Chablis symposium was held in magnificent splendour and we the delegates were talked and tasted through Petit to Grand Cru.....little to big quite literally, that is French vineyard speak! As they say “it’s a hard job but someone’s got to do it!”

It is worth noting here that the word “symposium” , now taken to mean some sort of educational teaching and discourse, actually comes from the Greek word sympotein which translates “to drink together”, so very apt in this instance. Next time your partner says that he or she is going to be late home as they are at a symposium - take it that they are in the pub!

After the symposium there was the opportunity to talk with the growers and exporters of Chablis and the chance to try the often distinctly different styles of this wine. I learnt that the four appellations of Chablis, Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru are grouped around the river Serein, with arguably the best wine found on the right bank. Within these appellations there are distinctive differences in taste and longevity.

Maud Manfredini –Mullard (doesn’t sound French to me) of Lamblin & Fils was very informative and in her opinion Petit Chablis is at its best at 2 years old, Chablis at 5 years old, Premier Cru 6 to 8 years and the Grand Cru 15 maximum. Some people will tell you that these wines will last for longer, but they would have to be of exceptional vintage.

Daniel Etienne Defaix owns one of the most ancient estates in Chablis and his first claim to fame is that the Romans regarded this stretch of land so highly that they built a road around it rather than crossing it in a straight line as was their usual practice! His more recent claim to fame is that he supplies many Michelin restaurants such as the Roux brothers with his wines

Biodynamics is the new buzz word for natural methods of cultivation, really a throw back to the ways our ancestors observed. In a nutshell, plants are treated with only natural products such as cow manure and medicinal plants, and as much as possible the rhythms of the solar system are followed to perform certain tasks. The idea is to be in harmony with nature. Well I’m all for it as Joseph Drouhin has produced some magnificent quality wines which have benefited enormously from this old, but newly re-instigated practice.

Finally and most importantly a quick word on the compatibility of the different types of Chablis with food. Petit Chablis is perfect with aperitifs and goes wonderfully well with Chevre, goats cheese. Chablis is great with seafood and fish, and also complements swiss cheese and mature cheddar. Chablis Premier Cru can accompany chicken dishes, ham and is renowned for being the perfect foil for the famous Burgundian cheese Epoisses. Chablis Grand Cru works well with creamy dishes, but as it is a special wine it really deserves to be drunk with its equals – foie gras and lobster.

Life is short, enjoy its pleasures. To quote that famous poet, Anon, “Life is too short to drink bad wine”!

Alto Adige – It’s Italy, but not as we know it….
Heather Dougherty
While Heather A was getting cultural at the Royal Opera House, I was jetting off to what I thought was Italy. Well we landed in Verona, that’s definitely Italian, no problem there. But after a two hour drive north, we were in the Italian Dolomites in the region that is officially known as either Alto Adige, or Südtirol – and there lies the clue.

Most people here are native German speakers (though they are all bi-lingual); the scenery is most definitely Alpine; I spotted men in Lederhosen; our welcome address was outside in the cold and dark because “it’s good for the heart”. I put it to you m’lud, that Alto Adige is not Italian at all, but a long lost bit of Austria.

This most northerly part of Italy borders Austria and clearly has much in common with that country – indeed it was part of the Austrian Empire until as recently as 1919. I went to bed feeling rather confused.

The next day dawned and there were the mountains – but equally, I spotted fig trees, cypresses and the odd olive tree. They may be gearing up for the ski season now, but in the summer this place can be hotter than Rome…maybe it is Italy after all.

The wines are a fascinating mix of those Alpine and Mediterranean cross currents – mostly white, clean and crisp, but with a sense of warmth and ripeness to the fruit. Look out for Pinot Grigio with character and shape, the usually overlooked Pinot Bianco, stunning Gewurtraminers and occasionally thrilling Rieslings. They even take Müller-Thurgau seriously here – the grape forever damned for its part in creating lolly-water Liebfraumilch. You might also find a smattering of Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir) reaching the UK.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Beaujolais and bubbles

Beaujolais nouveaux – is it vieux chapeau?!!!

It's dark November, bonfire night is over, Christmas not yet begun – so here are two distinctly different excuses to party....from petillance to full on fizz.

The year was 1972, Terry Wogan first hosted his Radio 2 breakfast show, the Watergate Scandal hit the news headlines, and most importantly in this year 1972 Alan Hall, wine critic of The Sunday Times, challenged his readers and fellow journalists to be the first to bring back a few bottles of the new Beaujolais harvest to his desk.

Before this time there had always been a race in France to get the new vintage to the Parisian restaurants, but this was something new internationally and instigated a significant marketing opportunity – not to be missed in the fun, “go for it”, non PC 70’s! Referred to as The Wacky Races it was taken to heart by all and sundry who welcomed any excuse for a party and so just seconds after the official release time of the new wine (the third Thursday of November), it was transported back to U.K. by every imaginable form of transport, from rickshaw, balloon, helicopter and even the RAF in a Harrier jump jet....everyone got involved! Sadly those heady days have passed but the tradition lives on albeit in rather a more staid and elitist fashion featuring vintage cars and 5 star hotels ......I wouldn’t say no!

Beaujolais Nouveau is a lightweight red best served chilled – yes – and made 100% from Gamay grapes harvested entirely by hand. The grapes are fermented very briefly before bottling and the resulting fruity fresh taste is unmistakable, quaffable and in my view still very worthy of celebration. Nowadays it is extremely popular in America as it arrives on the market just a week before the Thanksgiving festival – and just happens to be a perfect accompaniment to the American way of serving turkey and all the trimmings. Karen Page and Andrew Donenburg, authors of “The Flavour Bible” and contributors to The Washington Post, say that Beaujolais Nouveau and Thanksgiving “have become as inextricably linked as Champagne and New Year's Eve”.

Allan Hall (he of wacky races fame), was one of the old school infamous Fleet Street hacks. For many of the journalists lunch began at around 11 or earlier and would stretch on till the last one passed out (often in the wee small hours). They had incredible stamina and I’m still not sure when they found the time to write. They were a charismatic bunch. In 1980 Allan Hall wrote for James Goldsmith’s NOW magazine and hosted a particular lunch where fine wines were consumed and for which he claimed expenses (and was paid) £11, 000, that’s the equivalent of about £50, 000 today!........The following year the magazine closed down - (surprise). He and his cronies probably inspired the expression “A legend in his own lunchtime”!

This year’s Beaujolais Nouveau arrives Thursday 19th November and is reported to be exceptional, the best since 1949 according to some. Whatever your opinion is of this young wine it is an excuse to celebrate and a real vinous Harvest Festival.
Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!

Bubbles for nothing and fizz for free

Readers of the Surrey Advertiser have the chance to win a case of La Marca Prosecco - just pick up a copy of this week's edition.
You might not think winemakers are the type to stage a military style coup. But Italy's makers of Prosecco, the light frothy fizz, have done just that.

Prosecco is the name of the grape from which the sparkling wine is made yet, from next April, no-one outside the wine's homeland in north eastern Italy will be able to use the name Prosecco, even if their wine is made from that grape. From now on the rest of Italy, or indeed anywhere in the world, can only use the rather unattractive and unknown grape name Glera instead.
At a stroke, Italy's winemakers have ripped the carpet out from under anyone who fancied grabbing a piece of the growing Prosecco market.

The bottom may have fallen out of the Champagne market in the UK in the past year, with consumption dropping like a stone. But it's an ill wind that blows no-one any good and Champagne's loss has been Prosecco's gain.

You can see their point, to a degree. You might remember Paris Hilton advertising “Prosecco in a can” earlier this year. This sort of thing, as well as the noxious pink Prosecco will effectively be outlawed, which is undoubtedly a Good Thing. But the sheer chutzpah of the Prosecco growers takes the breath away.

Prosecco, Italy's favourite sparkling wine, is in no way simply a cheaper version of Champagne. It has a long and illustrious history in its native area of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene (that's never going to roll off the tongue is it?) in north eastern Italy, midway between Venice and the Dolomites, with its own distinct identity.

Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle to produce the fizz, followed by a period of maturation during which it develops its characteristic aromas and flavours.

Prosecco, meanwhile, acquires its bubbles through a second fermentation in a tank, with no long maturation. Indeed many growers carry out the second fermentation on demand during the year to ensure their wines retain their fresh, fruity and floral characters. Where Champagne is dry, often savoury, Prosecco is off-dry and intensely fruity – great for aperitifs.

Favourite Proseccos

Ombra Prosecco Frizzante NV - £9.99, £7.99 as part of a mixed case, Oddbins
Frizzante is a lightly sparkling version of the more usual spumante style. Pear skin fruit and a relatively dry style.

Bellenda Prosecco Spumante Brut San Fermo NV - £10.34, Les Caves de Pyrène (
Unusually dry, making for a more food-friendly and grown up style.

Perlage Prosecco Spumante Extra Dry Col di Manza - £10.99 Vinceremos (
Biodynamic and organic, a touch sweeter than many, but with more complexity too – flint, nuts and fruit skins.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Two Heathers are better than one

On the premise that “two heads are better than one”, I am pleased to introduce Heather Aitken (two Heathers are better than one) who shares my passion for all things vinoculous!

From her debut in the Good Wine Guide in 1977, Heather went on to own a string of shops, delis and restaurants in London, before succumbing to the lure of the sun and “the good life” in Portugal. Now, like the Terminator, SHE’S BACK, and will regale you with her own particular brand of wine, food and fashion psychology. Together we are devising all sorts of entertaining ways with wine and we'll be keeping you updated on all the excitement on our website and here in this column.

Heather A: To misquote Barry Manilow, “Music and fashion is always the passion” – and so too is food and wine. “The enjoyment of wine is part of a stylish lifestyle”, says Georges Deboeuf, who produces the No.1 French wine brand in USA and is the most popular producer of Beaujolais in the world. I had the good fortune to meet Georges back in the late 70’s, then a charming young fellow with a steely determination to succeed. His interest in art and design has been in evidence ever since a bouquet of English wildflowers inspired him to sketch the first of his “flower labels”, now a trademark of his Beaujolais Crus. Every year artists are commissioned to create a new label. In November I will tell you the exciting story of Beaujolais Nouveau, Alan Hall and the jolly band that popularized the race to get this new wine to England.

On the subject of Georges Deboeuf's flowery labels: after copious amounts of scientific research (by many many people), it was found by one Professor Larry Lockshin that the average time for wine consumers to decide which bottle to buy is 38 seconds. Decisions are mainly influenced by the label!

Wine makers are therefore trying to produce accessibly named wines such as “Good red” (boring), or bottles illustrated with recognizable symbols or celebrities they want customers to associate with the wine. In America I am told some of the popular choices for labels are “chateau traileur parc”, “white trashfindel” and “peanut noir”. On this basis I think we can do better, how about “Simon Cowell Syrah” – “an acerbic taste, but good body and extremely rich”. Or “ Cheryl Cole Chardonnay” – appears a sweet crowd pleaser, but with complex undertones. Very popular”. We could go on!

Let's now get past the label (before we get sued!), and find what else attracts us to the “noble rot”. It is sensuous: perceived by the nose (aroma), and the mouth (taste), and unlike food is held in the mouth to savour. (OK, I know we all quaff and gulp as well!) Wine is so often linked to the idea of seduction and the feel good factor that it must be deduced that from the lowliest supermarket plonk to the finest vintages, we are titillated and desirous of tasting and enjoying the effects.

There has grown up a real connection between women and wine which I will elaborate and report on in more depth at another time. Suffice it to say most women I talk to have a real relationship with a glass or two of sauvignon or shiraz, and see it as a form of reward at the end of the day/lunchtime/whenever. Forget the old maxim “tea and sympathy”, today it’s all about “chardonnay and cheers”. I look forward to hearing your comments on this phenomenon and to continue to carry out my own research.

Heather and I can give you the opportunity to try and to appreciate widely differing styles of wine, and to go to places where wine is matched harmoniously with food. Coming up soon (watch this space) – Wine, Food and Fashion events - yes, all rolled into one as of course all the best parties are. But whatever we can do for you don’t forget to drink it, revel in it, enjoy it, it's good for you....all those vitamins and minerals. Have you heard about “the French Paradox”?

Heather D: Perhaps that's something for another time, I think we need to wind up...

Heather A: OK, here's a recipe for meditation: select a glass, carefully pour your chosen tipple two thirds full (enjoy the feeling of restraint), note the colours and texture before lifting to your nose...then breathe in the aromas and smile. Take a sip and let the liquid linger for a moment on your tongue, feel the sensation as it glides down your throat and sets off a little ping of pleasure in your brain. ...Feeling good? History, fruit of the earth, life and romance in a bottle.
Chin chin, keep your pheromones up!

Weekly wine picks

Hallowe’en is upon us and Guy Fawkes night is just around the corner. This can mean only one thing (well, apart from children eating their own body weight in sweets and candy floss) – eating outdoors, when really we know it’s just too cold. Warming red wines are what you need:

Hospices de Beaujeu 2007, Beaujolais-Villages, £7.99 at Waitrose
We’ll be talking more about Beaujolais another time, but if there’s one thing that these wines do well, it’s generous, juicy fruit and soft tannins – a perfect foil for a honey mustard sausage.

The Society’s Argentine Malbec 2008, £6.25 The Wine Society (
Enough savoury beefiness to stand up to meaty barbecue fare, with a whack of warming black fruit.

Gran Sasso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2007 - £7.99 Taurus Wines near Bramley
Montepulciano d’Abruzzo may be a bit of a mouthful, but the wine itself slips down a treat and its smoky fruit is the ideal accompaniment for rockets and Catherine wheels.

Originally published in the Surrey Advertiser, but this is much longer (and funnier).