Friday, 30 March 2012

Easter, chocolate and wine

Easter comes round again and with it the foremost question exercising the minds of epicureans everywhere: is there a wine that goes with an Easter egg?
Some bright sparks have taken the idea of wine and chocolate matching what you might consider a step too far: instead of packaging together a bottle of wine and some chocolates, they've cut out the middle man and just gone and put the chocolate flavouring directly into the wine.

The “wines” in question are designed to accompany chocolate-based desserts, apparently. Now I enjoy Boeuf Bourgignon – but, ye gads, I don't want the flavour of the meaty stew actually in the glass of wine I'm having with it. Call me old fashioned, but I'd rather my wine tasted of wine and my meat of meat. Whatever next? Festive wine with a hint of roast turkey, complete with sage and onion stuffing?

If I want to find a wine to sip while I guzzle my Easter egg, I'll choose one that naturally complements the flavours of what I'm eating. And what would that be?

After some exhaustive tasting, I have gleaned the following:

Really sweet milk chocolate – it's very hard to find any wine sweet enough to combat the sheer amount of sugar and mouth coating fat in traditional “English” milk chocolate. The closest I found to a match was a rich old Oloroso sherry, which has enough weight and density to stand up to it – just. Your best bet though is a good cup of tea with your Cadbury's egg.

Good quality dark chocolate – this is a much more forgiving beast for wines. Again the Oloroso would be a good choice, though I really enjoyed a 10-year old Tawny Port with a dark chocolate infused with orange oil and spice. Lovers of Green & Black's Easter eggs take note.

Chocolate cake – so much depends on what you put on the cake, as well as in it. If you have slathered the cake in a mountain of chocolate butter cream, cupcake style, then a cup of tea is probably the safest choice. If your cake is altogether less sweet, with more bitter dark chocolate flavour, then the fortified wines again come into play. I found the Oloroso just a bit better balanced than the Tawny Port with the substance of the cake.

The wines that I was tasting were:

Quinta do Infantado 10 year old Tawny Port - £12.99 for a half bottle (case price) from The Wine Reserve in Cobham
Tawny ports are, you guessed it, tawny coloured, due to long ageing in barrel. As well as changing colour, this style of port also takes on lovely caramel and nutty flavours as it ages, making it a great match for chocolatey things.

The Wine Society's Exhibition Viejo Oloroso Dulce Sherry - £10.75 for a full size bottle from The Wine Society
Dry sherries are starting to gain something of a following, thanks in part to the hip tapas and sherry bars that are starting to pop up, at least in London. Sweet ones, though, are still very much looked down upon, hence this bargain price for what it a very classy drink. To be classed as Old (Viejo), the sherry must have aged for 20 years. In that time it has gained additional weight and flavours: nuts, figs, raisins, coffee – this is one of those wines that evolve in the glass and you find something different every time you sip it. Sugar levels are not for the calorie-conscious, but a little goes a long way.

Other than a choc fest, Easter is also associated with a sit down family feast. The meat of choice at this time of year seems to be lamb which, I am pleased to report, is a most wine-friendly animal.

If you have forked out for some of the first Spring lamb, you don't want to overwhelm its delicacy with a wine that is too assertive. Good options here would be either Pinot Noir or a Beaujolais, which both have plenty of juicy red fruit and little in the way of tannin. Or even a dry rosé would work.

Martinborough Vineyards Te Tera Pinot Noir 2010 – £13.50 from The Wine Society
Burgundy is of course the home of Pinot Noir, but it's hard to find a worthwhile wine for under twenty quid in the best known areas. A better strategy is to search out something from the lesser known bits of Burgundy like Givry and Mercurey. Or you could look further afield and try this New Zealander: this has plenty of juicy red fruit with some clove-y spice.

Older lamb, and especially year-old animals known as hogget, which are halfway to becoming mutton, have much more robust flavours and can stand a more full-bodied wine to go with.

The French would tell you that roast lamb should be served with a claret – specifically one from the commune of Pauillac, and I am not about to contradict them. One from the 2004 vintage, if you can get one, would be perfect now. If not, don't worry, almost any full-flavoured red wine will do.

Scala Dei Prior 2008 - £18.49 from Wine Rack
Try this one with your roast lamb with rosemary and garlic. The name has religious overtones: Scala Dei means the ladder of God, or Stairway to Heaven perhaps, if you're a Led Zeppelin fan. The blend of grapes here, Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, might sound more southern French than Spanish, but this wine from the Catalonian region of Priorat has a distinctly Iberian flavour. At 14.5% alcohol the liquorice-tinged, inky fruit packs a punch, but there's also a delicious, tangy freshness that makes it eminently food friendly.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Pies and Prejudice

It's been quite a fortnight for women – it was International Women's Day on 8th March, which fell in the middle of National Pie Week. How can half the planet's population be worth only a day, yet a pastry-based food item merits an entire week? Both of those momentous events may have passed you by (put them in the diary for next year now), but the big one is still to come: this Sunday, 18th March, is Mother's Day.

Mother's Day, or Mothering Sunday, as any bar-room bore will tell you, did not originate as a way for grateful offspring to reward their mums for 364 days a year of thankless toil by giving them a lie-in, a card, a box of chocolates and a Richard Curtis DVD.

In fact the Mother in question was the “mother church” and it was a tradition for Christians in Medieval times to return to worship at their home church on the middle Sunday of Lent. Travelling back to their birthplace also presented families with a rare opportunity to reunite at a time when many children left home to work, or marry, often at an early age. It's a small imaginative leap from these beginnings to the habit of presenting your own Mother with a present at the same time.

So much for the origins; it would be a brave son or daughter nowadays who would leave their poor mum with no flowers, chocolates or lunch at the pub, insisting that Mothering Sunday is nothing to to with her. Mums are generally a pretty tolerant bunch when it comes to the foibles of their nearest and dearest, but, come their special day, woe betide any offspring who don't play the game.

What should you do to make your mum feel special? You don't need to throw money at the problem and even if you are strapped for cash there are still plenty of ways to spoil your mum without even having to open your wallet.

The sound of someone else doing the hoovering (as long as it doesn't disturb one's lie-in) is music to the ears, as is the soapy slap of a son or daughter wielding the mop on the kitchen floor. And don't forget to do all the washing up if you offer to cook Sunday lunch.

With just a couple of quid to spend, a bunch of the cheapest cheery daffs and a homemade card are always welcome.

If money is not so tight, then good chocolates can be yours – oops, I mean hers. Chocolates are very much personal taste, but even the most discerning chocolate connoisseur will be impressed with the quality of Hotel du Chocolat's offerings. They have a branch in Guildford (and instore at John Lewis in Kingston) and, while not cheap, they are definitely what is technically known as a bit special.

However, if your mum is anything like the ones I know, a bottle of something special is not going to go amiss. Regular readers may recall that I assembled a crack team of mums last year in order to road test some pink fizz, tasted blind.

Without re-hashing the results in their entirety, I'll summarise here: Moët et Chandon Brut Rosé NV and Veuve Clicquot Brut Rosé NV (which will set you back somewhere between £30 and £40 depending on where you shop) both had their fans and came top overall. However, a very creditable runner up was the bargain-priced Jacob's Creek Sparkling Rosé (widely available at around £10, but currently £8 at Sainsbury's). Its easy-going, creamy red fruit and gentle fizz won over the jury that night. However, in case anyone from my own family is reading, my particular favourite was the Veuve Clicquot Rosé. Just sayin'...

On the whole I am not a believer in “wines for the ladies” as distinct from wines that appeal to men. Here then, is a selection of wines for current drinking that have impressed me recently and would be perfect for any wine-loving mum (or dad).

Trimbach Riesling 2009 - £10.99 at Majestic
Riesling is the great grape variety that wine writers want you all to love, but you just won't. It's a mystery. Is it the tall bottles? The risk of it being sweet? Who knows. Please have a crack at this one, from Alsace in eastern France: it's dry, but gentle with nicely integrated acidity; the flavours of citrus and a certain stoniness linger. Sauvignon blanc drinkers: do yourselves a favour and give it a go.

Camel Valley Atlantic Dry 2010 - £11.95 from Camel Valley's online shop or £13.50 from The Wine Society
Something tells me that English wines are going to be big this year. This could be your tipple of choice at any Jubilee street parties come June. Don't worry too much about the slightly spooky-sounding varieties in here – Bacchus and Reichensteiner, plus some more familiar Chardonnay. Focus instead on the lovely fresh, floral nose and deft, grapefruit-y palate. This would be a delight with posh fish and chips.

Humberto Canale Gran Reserva Pinot Noir 2009 - £15.95 at Great Western Wine
Argentina and wine generally mean two things: Malbec and Mendoza. However, down in the cool and wetter far south of Patagonia, there is a wine growing area where cooler climate varieties such as Pinot Noir thrive. This Gran Reserva has had plenty of oak thrown at it, but this does not obscure the beautifully smooth pinot fruit. A wine that it is all too easy to love.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

South Africa: where Old and New Worlds meet

At the top of my list of wine regions that I haven't visited yet, but am desperate to see, is South Africa. Dramatically sited vineyards surrounded by boundless natural beauty; the cosmopolitan restaurant scene of Cape Town, sandwiched between Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean; whale-watching at Hermanus; endless sunny days under African skies. Doesn't sound too shabby does it?

For a New World country, South Africa has been at this winemaking game for a long time. The first vines, planted by pioneering settler Jan van Riebeck, produced grapes that were made into wine back in 1652. To put this in perspective, this was some years before Benedictine monk Dom Perignon became cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers and so helped to begin the story of Champagne as we know it.

However, as the saying goes, “always something new out of Africa” and South Africa's latest generation of winemakers have overcome the insularity that characterised the lost years of Apartheid and have some great wines to show the world. They are building on the long-standing traditions of their country and, often, working hard to develop sustainable growing practices which support the globally important bio-diversity hotspot of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

Here are some of my current favourites from the dark continent.

Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2010 - £10.44 from online, £12.49 down to £9.99 if you buy 2 bottles at Majestic
The ubiquitous charms of Sauvignon Blanc can pall with over-exposure. Iona is a new venture set the coolest vineyard site in the whole of South Africa in the Elgin region, exposed to the chilly ocean winds, which are known as the Cape Doctor, for their role in keeping the vines cool and dry and thereby avoiding problems with damp and rot. Here they have managed to produce a wine that is neither a copy of New Zealand, nor the original models of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

Generally Sauvignon Blanc is viewed as a DYA wine – drink youngest available. Its youthful vibrant, racy fruit can quickly turn to less appealing flavours of tinned peas (remember those?). Iona, however, seems to be able to age with some grace and the 2010 vintage has plenty of citrus zip and a lingering minerality.

Mullineux White Blend 2009 - £17.76 from Hand Picked Burgundy (, Berry Brothers have the 2010 vintage for £15.75
It seems that the posher a wine is, the less it tells you about itself on the label. Do persevere though, as this blend of predominantly Chenin Blanc from the schist and shale soils of Swartland (try and say that after a couple of glasses) is a stunner.

Some wines are great for glugging while you concentrate on something else; others are more demanding of your attention, and drinking them can be an intellectual exercise – this wine is definitely the latter. Not overtly fruity, it's the kind of wine that you are drawn back to again and again, as new flavours and aromas unfold in the glass. Honey, pumice stone, blossom, baked apple and a myriad of other flavours mingle on the palate, held in place by a wall of tangy minerality. At nearly three years old this wine is just getting into its stride and still has a future ahead of it. Mullineux is surely one of the names to watch in South African wine.

Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block 2009 - £19.49 for the 2010 vintage from SA Wines Online
Syrah is the other variety that seems to thrive in the warmer climate of Swartland and winemaker Marc Kent is a specialist in the variety. Boekenhoutskloof has just been voted winery of the year in the highly-regarded Platter Wine Guide 2012 – so expectations are high when you taste this wine. The Chocolate Block blend is slightly tweaked each year but is predominantly Syrah, with Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and white variety Viognier making up the balance.

Dense, almost completely opaque in colour, this is no shrinking violet, but it does have surprisingly nuanced and perfumed blackberry fruit allied to more savoury flavours (partly thanks to all those varieties) and great balance. While undoubtedly a heavyweight, its a “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” Muhammad Ali.

Meerlust Rubicon 2004 - £23 from The Wine Society
Rubicon is a bone fide icon of the South African wine scene and has quite a pedigree. Made by Meerlust, who proudly proclaim “since 1693” on their labels, it hails from Stellenbosch, a region long synonymous with quality and classic grape varieties.

Bordeaux is clearly the model for this blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc – but claret would never have quite the level of ripeness and softness that you find here. It's like Bordeaux but with the edges knocked off it. Eight years into its life, the fruit is maturing with leather, tobacco leaf, coffee bean and spiced fruit along with a lovely rose-petal scent on the palate. A treat for the mind and the senses.