Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 review: my best bits

If you're feverishly searching for last minute Christmas wine recommendations – and you really are cutting it fine – then please have a look at my previous two posts on this blog.

In the caring sharing spirit of Christmas, I offer here just one nugget that could save your bacon. If you seek the perfect wine match for Christmas pudding, then look no further than Moscatel de Valencia, a ridiculously under-priced dessert wine from Spain. Its luscious sweetness with an orange marmelade edge makes the pudding sing. Sainsburys' version is just £3.98 a bottle. If you're quick you might just make it...

This column is devoted to a review of the best bits of 2011. Here, in no particular order, are my personal highlights of the year:

  • Tasting top class Aussie Rieslings courtesy of Jacob's Creek at “wine workshop and kitchen” 28-50 in London. The 2005 Steingarten Riesling was the highlight, but Jacob's Creek Riesling Reserve 2010 was pretty delicious too: fresh and lively (and limey), floral but dry – a great palate cleanser.

  • A Bollinger Grande Année masterclass, with chef de cave Mathieu Kaufmann, where I learned that I have expensive tastes when it comes to Champagne. Bollinger Grande Année Rose 1996 was my favourite, if you're reading this, Santa. Completely beguiling, luxurious stuff which, sadly, I can't afford.

  • Marcelo Retamel, Chilean winemaker (at the family-owned De Martino winery) and Iron Maiden fan, describing his return from the Dark Side of wine-making. Tasting the first vintage (another 1996) of his single vineyard Carmenère was a delicious reminder of how good wine can be when allowed to mature without the added glitz of selected yeasts, new oak and other winemaking frippery. Look out for the 2010 vintage of the Alto de Piedras Carmenère when it arrives at the Wine Society, which marks his return to the more natural style of winemaking that characterised that first vintage back in 1996. 
  • I can't honestly remember what the exact bottle was, but drinking fizz in spring sunshine at our Royal Wedding street party felt both modern and traditional at the same time.

  • Meeting Chester Osborn, legendary Australian winemaker at d'Arenberg and infamous wearer of loud shirts, and his collection of wine-themed fluffy toys at a wine “speed tasting”. His Money Spider Roussanne 2009 was one of my favourites at the whistle-stop tasting.

  • Tasting Tio Pepe “en rama” at Bar Pepito in King's Cross (a must for sherry lovers) and then seeing how well it stood up to their excellent range of tapas. The summer weather may have been a let-down, but that day was a true taste of the Mediterranean. “En rama” is a special, full-flavoured, unfiltered bottling of Tio Pepe that sells out (mostly to those in the know in the wine trade) almost as soon as it hits these shores. The classic Tio Pepe, however, is widely available for around a tenner.

  • Getting to grips with the new face of Portugal's Vinho Verde at a fascinating tasting this summer. I learned that Vinho Verde is not green and doesn't have to be redolent of soluble aspirin – and it can also be red! 
  • Buying an exotic-looking liqueur in France over the summer, only to find it was none other than that British Christmas stalwart, sloe gin. Equally nice served cold in the summer, I can helpfully tell you.

  • Spending three footsore days working at the London wine trade's annual fair in May – but my reward was to be responsible for encouraging visitors to taste a great selection of interesting, individual and delicious wines from Southwest France.

  • The taste of Graham's Malvedos 1958 single quinta port – still looking and tasting good at 50!

  • Tasting Zind-Humbrecht's Rangen de Thann Clos-Saint-Urbain Gewurztraminer 2009 at the first dedicated biodynamic wine tasting in London in November. Olivier Humbrecht (Master of Wine and PhD) has managed to create a perfect marriage of grape variety to terroir making for an unforgettable wine experience.

  • Seeing how Hunter Valley Semillon ages (well, it turns out) courtesy of a vertical tasting of Neil McGuigan's Bin 9000 Semillons back to 1997.

  • Drinking nothing but Champagne for 3 days (OK and some water) during my first study tour of the region.

Life could be worse! Wishing you a suitably merry time over the next couple of weeks. See you all in 2012.

Friday, 9 December 2011

God rest you merry, Gentlemen...and ladies - it's Christmas Part 2

Last time I gave some recommended wines for all those occasions that involve wine over the festive period – and if you missed it, you can catch up here: Now, however, the focus is on the big day itself.

I wouldn't normally recommend wines to go with your cornflakes, but at Christmas the normal order is turned on its head. And I'm assuming that breakfast is more of a brunch; later, more leisurely and certainly more luxurious than normal. Straight fizz might seem too much of a shock to the system for most, but brave souls could ease themselves into the day with a glass of Prosecco – its clean, fresh fruit and touch of sweetness is ideal.

For many of us, though, Buck's Fizz has become a tradition. Please, DO NOT buy the pre-mixed bottles. Buy the best orange juice you can (or even squeeze your own) and combine (in whatever proportions you enjoy) with either Prosecco or Cava. The predominant taste will be the orange juice, so go for budget bubbles.

We all love Christmas dinner, but we wouldn't want to eat it every day. Let's face it, it's a bit of an endurance test for the body, so pre-lunch you need a wine to get the juices and the appetite going in order to fortify for the feast ahead.

Champagne is the pre-prandial aperitif par excellence and now is a good time to produce a really fancy bottle if you have one. Blanc de blancs (ie made from 100% Chardonnay) are a good choice, as they have plenty of crisp fruit and nervy, mouthwatering acidity.

Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2005 - Special introductory offer £26.99 at Sainsbury's, £38 from Great Western Wines
Lovely light style, with fine acidity and long-lasting flavours of apple, flowers and white pepper.

If you serve smoked salmon at some point, then Champagne is of course a perfect companion. You could go for something with a bit more body here.

Berry Brothers Own Label Champagne - £25.95 per bottle, down to £23.35 a bottle if you buy 6, from
Christmas might not be the day to plonk a bottle emblazoned Tesco or Waitrose on the table (though personally I wouldn't mind). Berry Brothers' own label, though, is far more the thing. Produced entirely from top Grand Cru vineyards in the village of Mailly, this is a blend of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, giving it more power and structure than a Blanc de Blancs. Aromas of pear give way to a palate of spice and crisp apple, with the length and structure to stand up to food. A great match for smoked salmon too.

Alternatives to fizz as aperitifs would be really top class Sauvignon Blanc, from its heartland in the Loire Valley.

Château de Tracy Pouilly Fumé 2006 - £17.50 from The Wine Society
No oak, just the unadorned grapes treated gently to give delicately perfumed fruit with persistent flavour.

Sancerre Le MD de Bourgeois 2010 - £22.49 from Les Caves de Pyrène
Much more full-on and assertively fruity, but with great mineral intensity, this will certainly give the tastebuds a good wash and brush up.

Turkey, or whatever your chosen bird, is really not in the equation when it comes to choosing a wine. Think of all the different flavours that we pile onto a single plate – stuffing, gravy, sprouts, roast potatoes, sausage and bacon...I could go on. It really isn't possible to match them all, so you need to choose a wine that will not be overwhelmed, but will not try to fight with all those flavours either.

Think, also, about who is round the table. If you have a group of fine wine lovers, then by all means dig out your treasured bottles of fine, aged claret or white Burgundy. But for most of us, we are in multi-generational groups, some of whom might not touch wine for most of the year. So choose something that will please a crowd and won't frighten the horses.

Le Faîte 2007 - £14.99 from Adnams Cellar and Kitchen (branch in Richmond)
Arrufiac, Petit Courbu, Petit and Gros Manseng – you don't need to have heard of the grape varieties to enjoy this unique white wine: big bold fruit, big-boned but with refreshing acidity.

Domaine Roche Audran Cuvée César 2009 - £12.58 from
The southern Rhône is a great source of wines that are generous of fruit and body, with a food friendly whiff of herbs. This 100% Grenache wowed a group at a recent wine dinner and is certified (in a good way) biodynamic.

Brouilly Domaine Durand “Pisse Vieille” 2010 - £8.95 from The Wine Society
It may be shy about trumpeting it on the label, but this is a Beaujolais. Deliciously, juicily, red fruited stuff that will suit a multitude of food and palates. By the way, “vieille” means old and “pisse” means...well, what it sounds like. Don't let this put you off.

Rioja Reserva – such as Cune Reserva 2006/7 - £11.95 from Waitrose
The barrel and bottle ageing that Rioja Reservas undergo lead to mellow wines which are versatile with food, so they are always good to have to hand for Christmas.

Yes, the marathon is not finished yet. If you opt for pudding, then you need something to go with – or indeed instead of.

Stanton & Killeen Rutherglen Muscat - £12.40 for a half bottle from
Australian liqueur muscat is just about the closest you can get to Christmas pudding in liquid form. Lusciously viscous with flavours of dates, raisins, caramel and spice, it can stand up to the richest, sweetest pudding.

Tawny ports also rub along nicely with the sweet spice of Christmas pudding, mince pies and the like. These are widely available, but try and get hold of a 10 year old (or even better, 20 year old), as these will have more mellow nuttiness. And you can keep going with it if anyone is still up for some stilton.

Good luck! See you on the other side.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Christmas 2011, Part 1, in which our heroine imparts pearls of wisdom

The word Christmas can start to provoke a twitchy, sweaty palm reaction at this time of year.

If you are feeling slightly anxious about anything, the correct response is to make a list. There's nothing like ticking things off to make you feel like progress is being made, even if it contains items that you would normally do anyway. Get up – tick. Brush teeth – tick. That's two things done before you've got downstairs.

Herewith is a wine-themed list of my Top Tips to ensure a glittering Christmas:

1. Get organised. Having some wine ordered and delivered early is a huge weight off the mind. And if you're going away for Christmas or New Year, you could even have the wine delivered to your destination, to avoid having to schlepp it there yourself. Don't forget to equip yourself with a glass of something delicious to have by your side as you browse online.

2. Make a list of the different occasions that need wine (don't they all?) and think about which wines to have on hand. Consider parties, big set piece meals, casual lunches, breakfast Buck's Fizz...

3. Always have a few bottles spare for guests who drop round. At that time of year you might want to offer a glass of wine, fizz or sherry to visitors at any time of day from elevenses onwards.

4. Think fizz – nothing says celebration like the pop of a cork, so you should never be without a chilled bottle in the fridge. Have a range of different sparklers to choose from – vintage Champagne is great to serve before (or with) a really special meal. But unless you're a Premiership footballer, you can't go buying it willy-nilly.

5. Remember to have fun - and don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are enjoying yourself, then your guests will too. But if they see you fretting over every tiny detail to ensure it's all just right, it won't help them to relax and get into the swing of things. Christmas is not about turning your house into a restaurant with immaculate dishes emerging from the kitchen while your guests soak up the vintage claret. Who amongst us doesn't enjoy joining in in the kitchen, chopping some veg or mixing stuffing, especially if we're offered a lovely glass of something to sip while we're at it?

My next column will focus on drinks for the big day itself, but here I'm looking at wines for all those other occasions.

Don't overlook Prosecco, Crémant, Cava and other budget options which are great for parties or more casual and relaxed affairs. And don't even consider putting Champagne in your Buck's Fizz – no-one will know! The half price Champagnes that sprout like mushrooms in the nation's supermarkets are generally not much to write home about – a lot has been squeezed out of those grapes (literally) to produce a fizzy wine with Champagne on the label at that price. Try a bottle to see if you're happy with it before you go buying more. More often than not supermarket own label Champagnes give better value. Or if your budget is tight, it will always be better to buy a better class of Crémant or Cava, than the cheapest Champers.

Mont Marcal Cava Brut Reserva - £9.99 at The Wine Reserve, Cobham
This looks and tastes the part – light, fresh and elegant.

Les Hauts de Bergelle Blanc 2009, Saint Mont, France - £7.99, or £5.99 when you buy two at Majestic
Southwest France makes some fantastically characterful wines from its unique selection of grape varieties, here the memorable trio of Gros Manseng (yes, there is a Petit Manseng), Arrufiac and Petit Courbu (though no Grand Courbu that I know of exists). It has piercingly crisp acidity, allied to pear and honey-tinged fruit and a hearty twist of white pepper. Not an identikit wine which has plenty of interest for the money.

Bourgogne Chardonnay Vieilles Vignes 2010, Nicolas Potel, Burgundy, France - £11.99, down to £7.99 when you buy two at Majestic
It's a truism that producer is more important than appellation in Burgundy – and here is proof. It's at the bottom of the quality pyramid as a humble Bourgogne, but it has lovely fruit with hints of peach; the texture has a slight mealiness and great freshness. Burgundy lovers will lap it up.

Gone are the days when rosé went out with the first bonfire of Autumn. Now it's an all-year-round drink and at Christmas, go for something classic.

Rimauresq Cru Classé 2010, Côtes de Provence, France - £11.99 from Taurus Wines, near Bramley
No rosé is more elegant, refined and food-friendly than a classic Provençal one – this has weight and presence despite its palest salmon colour. The fruit is subtle, but there is a pronounced herbal and pepper character that makes it a surprisingly good match for a wide range of foods.

You need wines that make good “house” wines – fun, easy-going with food, but also happy to be sipped on their own.

Lascar Carmenère 2010, Central Valley, Chile - £4.95 from The Wine Society
This ticks all the boxes. A huge juicy mouthful of vibrant black fruit with a strong whiff of smoke, redolent of bonfires. Great value for money.

Majestic Peaks Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand - £10.99, down to £8.79 when you buy two bottles at Majestic
Regular readers will know of my passion for Pinot. This may not be top of the quality tree, but it has plenty of perfumed, more-ish red fruit with a lick of spice that will happily go with cold meats and pickles and a classic episode of Only Fools and Horses.

Domaine Crêt des Garanches 2010, AC Brouilly, Beaujolais - £11.70 from Les Caves de Pyrène, Guildford
Juicy, raspberry and cranberry fruit, soft tannins – Beaujolais fits the bill for Christmas perfectly. No weird bubblegum flavours here – it's smooth, bright fruit all the way. A classy option for ham, cold meats or a sociable glass with neighbours.

Manzanilla La Gitana, Spain – around £8 from Waitrose and Majestic
There's nothing like a crisp, bone dry sherry for perking one up and sharpening the appetite for yet another feast. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, said that while “penicillin can cure the sick..sherry can bring the dead back to life.” For more on the charms of sherry and matching it with food, can I respectfully direct you to my recentish blog post, “If it swims, serve a fino”, here:

You'll also find more festive wine recommendations on the Heather Dougherty blog, which I haven't been able to fit in here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Will you be an eagle - or Eddie the Eagle?

The whiff of Catherine wheels, rockets and bonfires in the night air has faded. Children have long since consumed their body weight in Hallowe'en (trick or) treats. The last hurrahs of Autumn have passed and now we stand at the top of a precipitous slope, like an alpine ski jumper, nervously adjusting our goggles as we contemplate that impossibly steep and slippery descent which leads inexorably to...Christmas.

We all hope for a steady run as we hop on to the festive ski jump: crowded, stuffy shops successfully negotiated, presents bought, no-one forgotten, meals planned, wrapping paper remembered. If we get it all right it will culminate in a graceful landing on the big day itself, having overcome the seemingly impossible.

That's the dream. The nightmare is a wobbly start to our descent: online ordering deadlines missed, the things you wanted sold out, or maybe you haven't got any good ideas to start with; somehow, ordering the turkey slipped your mind.....

The nightmare result is less like an eagle soaring effortlessly through the sky, and more like Eddie the Eagle.

Eddie, lest you have forgotten, was a British downhill skier who had failed to qualify for the British Olympic ski-ing team. He alighted on the clever tactic of switching to ski jumping, where he was assured of qualification, as there were no other British competitors.

Eddie thereby found himself representing his country at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, but was woefully under-financed and under-prepared - at one point financing himself as a part-time plasterer while training in Finland. Matters were not helped by the fact that he suffered from such poor sight that he needed to wear glasses to jump – which fogged up in the cold conditions. Dubbed “Mr Magoo”, he resembled, not an eagle, but something more akin to a penguin which had been launched unexpectedly into the air, and then crash-landed and scrambled onto the ice. Eddie denied that he was scared of heights – but he did admit to being scared of jumping.

Despite this unpromising start, Eddie, undaunted, won international acclaim for his pluck and determination to compete. Unfortunately that was all he won, as he came last in both of the ski jump events – and thus the legend of Eddie the Eagle was born.

I may not have much to offer to help you with the myriad of organisational tasks that need to be accomplished between now and the end of December – but in matters vinous I can be of assistance. Over the next couple of columns I'll be making specific recommendations on which wines to have on hand for the variety of social occasions that the festive season brings, along with my top tips for a glittering Christmas.

So as far as what on earth to buy for the spouse who has everything, or that sourpuss in-law who never seems happy, no matter how much money and effort you expend – I'll have to leave you to your own devices. However, if you can start by welcoming all your guests with a glass of something cold and sparkling and flashing a winning smile, then any other imperfections will surely be forgiven. Just don't forget to order the turkey.

In the meantime, here are some wines deserving of your attention. This week's wine recommendations are not specifically Christmassy, but are designed to soothe and delight over the colder, longer evenings between now and December.

Bordière Nord Marsanne Viognier 2010 - £6.99 (or buy 2 for £5.99 each) at Majestic
Marsanne and Viognier are traditional grapes of the Rhône Valley, but have been transplanted here to the warmer Languedoc by the mercurial Alain Grignon. This is a great value winter weight white with bags of unoaked tropical-tinged peachy fruit, combined with a herbal twist courtesy of the Marsanne. Full-tasting and warming – great as a party wine, but the trace of herbal bitterness makes it food-friendly too.

Domaines Schlumberger Riesling Grand Cru Saering 2007 - £18.95 from
I'm not going to beat around the bush. It's time wine drinkers got over their unfounded fears of Riesling, and especially of Riesling in these tall “flute” shape bottles. This is a fantastic wine from Alsace, in northeastern France, and it's DRY. Winemakers who can grow it love Riesling, the wine trade loves Riesling, I love Riesling – please put a stop to all my banging on and try some!

This sprightly wine has lots of lime with a hint of peach and even a little orange rind on the nose. The palate is dry, with a lip-smacking mineral tang and the limey flavours really linger. It's quite weighty and with a citrus pith bitterness too – really should be had with food and it was great with a chicken risotto. Very good and totally, deliciously moreish.

M&S Crozes-Hermitage 2008 - £10.99 from M&S
This 100% Syrah from the northern Rhône valley is made for M&S by the quality-minded Cave de Tain Co-operative and is exactly the kind of red wine you want to relax with at this time of year. The nose has loads of black fruit, along with some herbs and spices. The palate has more of that lovely brambly fruit with a real black pepper kick. Have it with a winter casserole – or just by the fire, with slippers.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Wines that look good at fifty

How many wines will happily last for over 50 years? You might think of the best Bordeaux classed growths, possibly the very top of Sauternes and really top class dessert wines.

If I add a qualifier – how many wines that you can buy for under £30 will happily last for over 50 years – and out go Bordeaux and Sauternes for sure. Now you need to turn to those great stalwarts of longevity: Sherry, Madeira – and Port.

Before you get too excited, that bottle of Cockburn's Special Reserve or Warre's Warrior that you snapped up for under a tenner last Christmas but never got round to drinking, is not going to last that long. Those ruby ports are designed for early drinking and are not going to improve in the bottle. It is the great vintage Ports from the major shippers like Taylor's, Dow's or Graham's which are renowned for their ageing ability, measured in decades rather than years.

It was the English aristocracy's habit to lay down a “pipe” (a port barrel, containing 55 dozen bottles) of vintage port from the birth year of their sons, so that their offspring would have sufficient to pass round after dinner from their 21st birthday on for most, if not all, of their adult life. With drinking habits like that, it comes as a surprise that the English aristocracy haven't pickled themselves into extinction.

If you fancy taking up where they left off, albeit on a more modest scale, a bottle of top quality vintage port will set you back upwards of around £60. So what happened to the £30 I drew you in with at the beginning? I'm getting to that.

The port houses decide whether a particular year will be “declared” a vintage, based on the quality of the wines made. In theory each producer makes their decision individually, but in practice there are certain years which most agree that the quality is high and there will be a “general declaration”.

Weather conditions in the Douro Valley, where Port is made, are notoriously harsh, with cold winters and blistering hot summers. The risk of drought is ever present and rain at harvest can be disastrous for quality. It is certainly not a foregone conclusion that great wine can be made each year.

Additionally, from a commercial perspective it would devalue the vintage Port brand if a house were to declare a vintage every single year. In the past decade the years 2000, 2003 and 2007 have all been declared. This means that there is no Taylor's 2004 vintage Port, for example, it does not exist.

Which is where bargain-hunting vintage Port lovers come in. In those non declared years, port houses will still make a style of vintage Port known as single quinta. A quinta is simply the Portuguese word for farm and refers to a particular vineyard. To those in the know, names such as Taylor's Quinta de Vargellas, Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos and Warre's Quinta do Bomfim are bywords for high quality vintage Port, without, perhaps the huge staying power of the very top vintages.

In a declared year, these quintas will be responsible for providing key components of a house's vintage Port. In non declared years, they are bottled under the name of the Quinta and can be yours for somewhere under £30.

One hell of a tea trolley
The generally accepted wisdom on single quintas is that they are ready to drink earlier than their straight vintage counterparts, and will not age much beyond 10-15 years. Based on a tasting of Symington family single quinta Ports going back to 1950, however, this might not necessarily be the case.

The Symingtons are one of those Anglo-Portuguese port families who remain staunchly English, despite spending all their working lives in the Douro Valley. The family has been producing port for five generations and is responsible for some of the biggest names in the port business: Graham's, Cockburn's, Dow's and Warre's.

The Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1950 might be more of an interesting experience than a classically enjoyable glass of Port, with its hauntingly ethereal floral perfume and hint of balsamic vinegar and even stout (as in Guinness) flavours.

The Malvedos 1958, however, would make an elegent ending to any meal. It is still sweet and richly flavoured with caramel and nuts, the structure has endured and the finish is incredibly long. How many of us would like to aspire to be in such fine form at 54 years of age!

Unless you have some of these wines already stashed away, I'm afraid you won't get the chance to try them, as literally just a few bottles remain. The currently available vintage for most single quintas is 1999, though you'll find a peppering of other years too. Here are my recommended ones to search out:

Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 - £30.56 (case price) from Imbibros near Godalming
This is beautifully perfumed, incredibly rich and sweet. There are flavours and aromas of pipe tobacco and sweet spiced cherry. Malvedos is famous for producing opulent, sweet ports and this certainly fits that profile. The sweetness would make it a great match for desserts – sticky toffee pudding or crème brûlée could be naughty but nice.

Dow's Quinta do Bomfim 1999 - £26.50 from Tesco, £26.96 (case price) Imbibros
Barely five miles from Malvedos, but a world away from it in style, Bomfim is renowned for its drier, more tannic and austere style. This one is rather more “winey” and with a less spirity nose than the Malvedos with lovely leafy notes. It is lighter bodied with more lifted aromas. Great on its own, but this would make a wonderful to finish a meal along with some nuts – and maybe a cigar, if that's your thing.

Cavadinha 1996 - £30 from Waitrose, £29.66 (case price) from Imbibros
Cavadinha produces wines that have a distinctive and attractive floral character on the nose. The palate has plenty of sweet, figgy fruit, with a savoury undertow and a nicely elegant finish.

"You'd have to be an idiot not to make great wine in 2011."
Finally, a word to the wise. Paul Symington is seriously excited about the quality of the just completed harvest and says that “You'd have to be an idiot not to make great wine in 2011.” Will this be the first vintage declaration of the new decade? You heard it here first.
Cavadinha 2011 - vintage in the making?

You can follow the progress of the 2011 ports in the making and get lots of in-depth information about the Symingtons via their blog,

Friday, 14 October 2011

Stop the (wine) world, I want to get off

Sometimes I wish the wine world would just stop for a bit, so that I can catch up. It seems every time I look, there's a new wine region in Spain, a handful of grape varieties from Italy that I've never heard of, and a whole new grape-growing valley in Chile. Is there a never-ending supply of these things?

This latest yearning for a pause button on the wine world was prompted by a Chilean wine which hails from the Choapa Valley. Choapa? Choapa???

It's enough to make you hanker after the simplicity and stability of classic regions like...Burgundy. On the surface, it's all so straightforward: white wines are all Chardonnay, reds are Pinot Noir; the vineyard area has been minutely graded and differentiated over centuries and new bits do not spring up overnight like so many mushrooms; there is a strict hierarchy of quality, with generic Bourgogne at the bottom, going through village level, then Premier Cru and finally the pinnacle of Grand Cru.

Except it's not quite as simple as that....

Here's an illustration: Clos de Vougeot is a single walled vineyard in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits that is all classed as Grand Cru, hence it commands pretty astronomical prices. But it's big: 50 hectares (125 acres) of vineyard is enclosed within the walls, sub-divided between many growers (the average plot size is around 0.2 of a hectare).

The far-sighted Cistercian monks who decided to rip out the French beans, tomatoes and apple trees in favour of grape vines, would have made wine blended from the entire plot. Nowadays those monks are long-gone and each grower must try to wring the best quality possible from their few rows of vines.

The slopes at the middle and top of the Clos are generally agreed to make better wines than the plots on the flatter, damper ground at the bottom. And, let's be realistic, not all winemakers are created equal. Hence two equally eyewateringly expensive bottles of Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot may contain wine that varies considerably in terms of drinking pleasure. Caveat emptor!

So, to return to Chile, there they are at the other end of the wine adventure to Burgundy and most of the Old World. They are constantly exploring new territories within their long, thin string-bean of a country to see where grapes will flourish and which varieties best express the terroir. In vinous terms, Chile is a gigantic wine laboratory and, it must be said, the results are deliciously drinkable.

Chile, unlike any other major wine producing nation, does not have a long tradition of wine drinking. Up until recent years, grapes were grown primarily for distillation to make pisco – basis for the pisco sour cocktail. There were small winemaking concerns, based primarily in the Maipo Valley, close to the consumers and transport links of capital city, Santiago.

Over the years, Chile's winemakers have spread their wings and wineries to further flung and ever cooler regions, which would have initially been dismissed as too cold to ripen grapes – especially for such heat-loving varieties as Syrah (aka Shiraz).

This week's recommendations – Chile rather than Burgundy.

De Martino Legado Syrah 2010 - £10.49 from Caves de Pyrene (Artington, near Guildford)
The wine that prompted this column: from the Choapa Valley, which, I now know, is north of Santiago, roughly half-way between the Aconcagua and Limari Valleys. Chile is a long, narrow strip of land that flanks the Andes, but it is especially thin at this point, where the vines here are exposed to the cooling air of both the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

Having initially made their name with well-crafted, reliably gluggable Merlots, then taking up Carmenère as their signature red grape, Chileans are now showing the wine world that they are also pretty nifty when it comes to Syrah. Really, do they have to be so good at everything they do? The answer seems to be yes.

The fact that they choose to label the wine Syrah, rather than its New World synonym, Shiraz, tells you that in terms of style this is much closer to the peppery, herbal, cooler-climate Northern Rhone versions than the exuberantly fruity Australian ones. This has a definite tannic structure and an almost Old World restraint to the black-pepper tinged berry fruit.

Matetic Vineyards Corralillo Syrah 2009, San Antonio - £85.80 for a case of 6 from Armit, £15.95 from Sipp London
Matetic have had a real cachet about them and their wines since they burst onto the Chilean wine scene in 1999. The other Syrah made by Matetic, labelled simply Syrah, is undoubtedly a fine wine, but the price has gone up to a frankly ridiculous £37 a bottle. This little brother, Corallilo, however, still offers class in a glass at a much more reasonable price and has got better with each vintage I've tasted. Satisfyingly savoury, but with bumptious juicy fruit and great balance, this is also organic and biodynamic.

Maycas del Limari Quebrada Seca Chardonnay 2008, Limari - £18.95 from, £24.95 from Berry Bros (
Limari is yet another recently exploited wine region where you'll find deliciously fresh, juicy red wines – and this altogether very sophisticated Chardonnay.

If you know someone who has an expensive white Burgundy habit, but who struggles to afford to keep it going, then do them a favour and point them in the direction of this wine.

I was lucky enough to taste this wine with the man who makes it, Marcelo Papa, the man responsible for the phenomenally popular Casillero del Diablo wines. It combines the ripeness of fruit and mealy nuttiness of Meursault with the poise and linearity of Chablis. It's a truly lovely wine and incredibly moreish.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

I say Argentina, you say....?

Some way down the list, after maybe tango and Maradona's hand of God I'm guessing, as you're reading a wine blog, Malbec might make an appearance.

Despite hailing from France originally, Argentina has single-mindedly focused on making Malbec its vinous calling card. It successfully combines a modern, fruity and food-friendly style of red wine that chimes with Argentina's rugged image as a land of steak-eating, horse-riding gauchos.

But man (and woman) cannot live on red wine alone. There are times when a glass of something cold and white is what's required and in those situations, Argentina's wine industry would like us to embrace the charms of the Torrontes grape.

Torrontes is a unique grape to Argentina. In style it's light and fresh, with a distinct floral, grapey aroma – though the palate is always dry. If you like Gewurztraminer from either Alsace or, increasingly, Chile, you'll probably like Torrontes – especially if you find the French versions sometimes a little too sweet.

Also, dare I say it, all you Sauvignon Blanc lovers out there – think about giving Torrontes a try. It has the same full-on aromatic kick on the nose, leading onto a palate with good acidity, so stylistically it is in the same territory.

When I first came across Torrontes a few years back, too many of the wines I tried had rather over-floral aromatics, making them redolent of Old Spice aftershave, then a slightly bitter, sometimes sweaty flavour on the palate. Whatever the winemaking issues were then, they seem to have been resolved and most Torrontes nowadays is a pure pleasure to drink.

That combination of flowery aromas and a refreshingly crisp and dry palate makes Torrontes a shoo-in when choosing a glass to have as a palate-cleansing aperitif. But can it cut the mustard when you move onto the main course?

Dear readers, I have undertaken some food and Torrontes matching research on your behalf, guided by Master of Wine and ex-Good Food Magazine Associate Editor, Sarah Jane Evans. The results were perhaps a surprise – at least they were to me.

Argentina is renowned for its love for steaks, the bigger the better. And I wouldn't suggest you try glugging Torrontes with that. However, their other great love is seafood, especially when made as a ceviche, where the fish is “cooked” in a combination of lemon or lime juice, herbs, spices and olive oil. As you can imagine, this is a pretty intense flavour combination and Torrontes stands up to the citrus sharpness impeccably.

However, I'm guessing that prawn ceviche isn't a regular on the Autumn weekday menu in these here parts. But what about that great midweek standard, an English-as-a-middle-order-batting-collapse fish pie?

I was intrigued to find that a couple of the 100% Torrontes wines recommended below coped admirably. I had worried that the quite rich creaminess of the potato and fish would make the wine taste skinny and smell like cheap perfume – but not at all. Somehow the weight of fruit in the wine, combined with a slightly salty-mineral tang, served to enhance both the food and the wine.

Personally I've never been much of a fish pie fan – too much like anaemic nursery food pap. However, with a glass of chilled Torrontes on the side, perhaps I'll learn to love it.

Recommended Torrontes wines

La Riojana Tilimuqui Single Vineyard Fairtrade Torrontes 2011 - £6.99 at Waitrose
It's also organic. Too often, the Fairtrade label (or indeed the word organic) on a wine is no guarantee of quality in the bottle. Generally such wines languish at the cheaper end of the market (why? Don't we all think it worth paying more, not less, for ethically produced food and drink?) and offer neither enough concentration nor varietal character.

This one, however, is knockout value for money. The nose is reminiscent of Muscat – grapey, with a hint of tangerine peel. The palate, though, has more toned-down aromatics, with that lovely tangy minerality which helps to give weight and presence in the mouth, leading onto a long finish. Great with fish pie and pretty good with chorizo, so it's a good choice to have with some pre-dinner nibbles.

La Riojana Fairtrade Torrontes Chardonnay 2011 – currently £4.99 at The Co-operative
From the same producer, La Riojana, so named as they make their wines in the Argentine region of La Rioja – as you can imagine, this name gets the European Appellation Contrôlée authorities a little exercised.

If you don't want to scare the horses and would like a gentle introduction to Torrontes, then spending a fiver on this 60/40 Torrontes Chardonnay blend should be relatively painless. It still has aromas reminiscent of peaches and flowers, but the more assertive aromatics are toned down and softened by the more anonymous Chardonnay. The palate is smooth, fresh and ripe, with a slight spiciness – and it coped really well with the prawn ceviche. It would make a great party white.

Susana Balbo Zohar Torrontes 2010/11 - £11.99 single bottle price at The Vineking (branches in Reigate and Weybridge), down to £10.79 as part of a mixed case of 6; £10.99 a bottle from Hennings Wine Merchants (branches in Petworth, Pulborough and Goring-on-Sea)

Susana Balbo is one of the best winemakers in Argentina and all her wines are worth a try. This wine, though, struck me as the most food-friendly from the selection. It breezed through the prawn ceviche, stood up to the fish pie and got along swimmingly with smoked duck.

It had more weight and presence than the other two wines, with a sense of richness, despite being completely dry. The trademark floral aromatics combine with a lick of salty tang and a kick of spice on the palate. Altogether it's a class act.

Monday, 19 September 2011

The vines don't bite - but the iguana might

I've visited a fair few vineyards in my time, but a winery with a menagerie attached was a new one on me.

At Plumpton College, tucked into a fold of the South Downs just below Ditchling, you can study vine-growing and wine-making in their brand spanking new Wine Study Centre. On your way to the vineyard though, you might find yourself distracted by Tony the Hawk, or Elgar and Egor the owls, or even Iggy the Iguana (that name I may have made up, but it's the obvious choice) who are all residents in the adjoining Animal Care Centre.

As the English and Welsh wine industry grows ever larger, with around 400 vineyards currently in production, there is a burgeoning demand for a homegrown solution to training tomorrow's wine-makers and Plumpton College is meeting the need.

Wine production has been taught here since 1988, when they started out with just a few rows of vines and some demi-johns to ferment the resulting juice in. Things have moved on in the intervening years and now around 150 students are here at any one time, learning hands-on how to train, prune, spray and tend the vines; then how to ferment, rack, pump over, fine, filter age and bottle the final wines. Not to mention learning how to drive and manoeuvre a tractor, a vital skill for anyone looking to be of any help in a vineyard.

Unlike the product of most diploma courses – wads of paper, files and bumf which gather dust over the years before finally succumbing to the recycling bin – Plumpton students' labours have a very tangible, nay drinkable, result. Each year Plumton produces 15,000 bottles of wine which are all available to buy. I tried four of them on my visit and was impressed by the fact that all were not just drinkable, but of a commercial standard. Their biggest customer is a seafood restaurant in nearby Brighton.

And you can try them too, to judge for yourselves whether the future of English winemaking is in good hands. Waitrose stocks two of Plumpton's wines: their sparkling white and rosé.

Plumpton Estate, “The Dean” Brut NV - £18.99 at

Plumpton Estate, “The Dean” Blush Brut NV - £18.99 at
As with most pink fizz, this is made by adding a small amount of red wine, made from Plumpton's own pinot noir grapes, to their regular white sparkling wine. Although non vintage, this is based on the 2008 vintage. The colour is a pale smoked salmon rather than pink and it has an invitingly creamy nose. It might be maturing faster than it ought to, but it's a great pleasure to drink now with plenty of sherbetty acidity and an elegant finish that leaves you wanting another sip.

As well as teaching the next generation of UK (and Indian and Scandinavian) winemakers, Plumpton is also setting up a Research Centre, which will help to support the UK winemaking industry by undertaking scientific research into areas that mean little or nothing to wine drinkers, but are of intense interest to winemakers. I learned, for example, that English chardonnay must (juice) destined for sparkling wine has much greater “foamability” than its French counterpart in Champagne. Who knew? 

Plumpton College is generally not open for casual visitors, but you can find out about their various courses for those interested in learning about the practical and business side of wine on their website: But be careful, you could find yourself getting distracted by the wildlife...

A few miles up the A23 from the college is Bolney Estate, an English wine success story, whose winemaker, Sam Linton, is herself a graduate of Plumpton. Bolney, then known as Bookers Vineyard, began making wine back in 1972, from just 3 acres of vines. Now they have over 39 acres under vine and plan to produce over 200,000 bottles of wine in 2012.

Sam, daughter of the owner and founder Rodney, has a gift for making delicious red wines – always tricky in our really too-cool climate – and consistently makes one of the country's best pinot noirs. Her sparkling wines are pretty good too.

Here are my favourites from the range:

Cuvée Rosé 2008 - £23.99 from Bolney
100% pinot noir traditional (ie same as Champagne) method sparkling wine. There's a lovely leafy and floral lift to the strawberries and cream nose and the palate has plenty of juicy red fruit.

Cuvée Noir 2009 - £19.99 from Bolney
You might have come across rather thick, treacly sparkling red shiraz before. This is a red wine and it is sparkling, but the Bolney wine is altogether a different beast from those Australian heavyweights, made from Dornfelder grapes. It manages to combine light, juicy frivolity with more serious wine characters and has a delicious hint of cocoa bitterness on the finish which makes it food friendly – great for barbecues, says Sam.

Waitrose also stock Bolney's Dark Harvest red blend, which is a very accomplished English wine. It's a soft and spicy, slightly earthy mouthful of blackberryish fruit. £8.99 at

To sample and buy the full range of Bolney Estate wines, you'll need to take a trip down the A23 to the vineyard, where they run tours and tastings every day except Sunday. Find out more via their website on:

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Vinho Verde: not just white and certainly not green

We all think we know what to expect from Vinho Verde. It's a white wine from northern Portugal that is bracing in its acidity, very light bodied and usually with a hint of soluble aspirin spritz about it.

Well you and I both know that this would be a very short article if that were the case. I would simply usher you onto the next page with a “Move along people, nothing to see here...”

Therefore it will come as no surprise whatsoever that there is more to Vinho Verde than something that resembles lightly alcoholic, slightly flat mineral water.

For a start, Vinho Verde can be red (or rosé, or indeed sparkling). The name refers to the region, rather than describing the wine. So it's the vast expanse of verdant, not to say rain-soaked, vineyards in this chunk of northwest Portugal which are green, rather than any of the wines which emanate from them.

The vine in its natural state originally evolved to scramble up trees, and in Vinho Verde vines were traditionally allowed to grow this way, either twining through branches or along wires strung between the trees. This makes pruning the vines and picking the grapes a time-consuming – and even dangerous – process. You certainly need a head for heights. And a very long ladder.

Most vines nowadays are more commonly trained along wires at a more picker-friendly height, so the vineyards look much like any other across the world. The wines themselves, however, maintain a delightful individuality, with a style all of their own. Not least among their charms is a tendency to low alcohol – many of these wines are just 11 or 11.5% - perfect for a lunchtime glass.

Traditional styles of Vinho Verde

Quinta da Aveleda 2010 - £7.25 from
A classic mix of traditional varieties make up this textbook example of white Vinho Verde: Loureiro, Trajadura and Alvarinho. It has a mineral, iodine nose, redolent of the sea. There is a definite spritz on the palate and very crisp acidity, but plenty of flavour too and a touch of soluble aspirin on the finish. Very fresh, very individual.

Quinta da Lixa 2010 - £8.99 from
In a similar vein to the Aveleda, though it has a softer feel in the mouth. There is less driving acidity and rather more fruit, making for a gentler and less uncompromising wine.

Modern styles

Quinta de Gomariz 2010 - £9.99 (mixed case price) from The Wine Reserve in Cobham
Rather than blending, this producer makes several wines, each made from a single traditional variety. The Wine Reserve stocks their Loureiro, which has an intensely floral scent, verging on violets. The palate has Vinho Verde's hallmark crisp acidity, citrussy fruit - and only 11.5% alcohol. While you're there, you might be talked into trying the Gomariz rosé and red, which they also stock.

If you get the chance, look out this producer's single varietal Avesso, a variety that you'll rarely see unblended. The nose is bracing, like a breath of sea air. The palate has a lovely weight of rich, citrus fruit, with a hint of citrus pith bitterness too.

Quinta do Soalheiro 2010 - £13.95 from The Wine Society
Fourteen quid for a Vinho Verde? Here's a quick lesson in wine geography and how to spot a bargain. Just across Portugal's northern border is the Spanish region of Galicia, which is renowned for its white wines made from the Albariño grape. Famously a seafood wine par excellence, you'll be lucky to find a good one for under £15 in this country.

The same variety, back in Portugal, is known as Alvarinho and is a familiar grape in many a Vinho Verde blend. Some producers are now wanting to highlight the star qualities of the variety by making a pure Alvarinho Vinho Verde – but pound for pound, you get a lot more quality for your money on the Portuguese side of the border.

The Soalheiro has a pure, mineral nose. The palate is quite weighty and there is not even a hint of spritz. What impresses most is that it manages to strike a wonderful balance between the abundant ripe fruit and lip-smacking freshness, making for a serious, yet lively wine: a beguiling combination.

For daredevils

Afros 2010 - £8.82 from Les Caves de Pyrène, Guildford
A red Vinho Verde (I did promise they existed) which will certainly pique the interest of adventurous wine lovers. It's an uncompromising sort of wine, which has to be experienced – though I can't promise that most people will enjoy it. The dark-fleshed Vinhão grapes make for an intensely-coloured, deep purple-to-ruby wine. There's an initial big hit of full-on, sour fruit, the tannins are low, but there is something very green and grippy at the back of the palate. Tight acidity provides the structure and a slightly unexpected (but pleasant) perfume emerges on the finish. You might not be surprised to know that this wine is biodynamic. Caves de Pyrène also stock Afros' rather more mainstream white Vinho Verde.

Doesn't sound like your cup of tea? Come on, it's only a bottle of wine and wouldn't life be boring if they all tasted the same?

Friday, 19 August 2011

Some people don't wear clothes

Do you wear clothes? Some people don't, you know.

No, they get up in the morning and pull on (never simply put on) pieces (not mere clothes) from their day-to-evening capsule wardrobes. A tee in this season's brights might be paired with a must-have nude midi (the mind boggles). These ladies (for it is they) may slick their lips with some high shine gloss and re-coat their nails in Chanel's mimosa nail polish (yellow vomit-coloured in case you don't know it) before running out the door to their high-powered jobs. And where do they work? The fashion industry – specifically the world of fashion journalism.

It all sounds exhausting. And all those vaguely fetishistic words to do with clothes make me shudder. Why can't they just say skirt and t-shirt like the rest of us?

But are we in the wine trade just as guilty of fetishizing our subject matter too? Do we risk putting off averagely-interested wine drinkers with our talk of silky tannins which dance across the palate, clothed in filigree acidity, clasped to the chest of a dance partner of brooding power?

And before you say anything, I know I know, mea culpa. I too find it hard to avoid some of those rather fanciful metaphorical descriptions for wine. Life would be dull indeed if we had to stick to just the technical details of a wine to describe it.

Here's an example, based on the wine I'm sipping as I write this: this red wine is a medium intensity ruby in colour, with medium body, balanced acidity and tannin. The black fruit character is pronounced and alcohol is 14.5%. Are you driven to go out and buy some to try on the strength of that description? I'm guessing not. And yet this could accurately describe many of the perfectly delicious bottles of red wine available in your local supermarket or wine merchant.

The trouble is, it doesn't tell you anything that might help you to decide to try one bottle rather than any other. Ultimately the language we use to describe wine is an attempt to convey a sense of what it actually feels like to drink it, rather than just a nuts and bolts description of its constituent parts. Wine is not (at least in most cases) merely alcoholic Ribena.

So, in the end, I should exhibit some fellow feeling and cut those fashion writers some slack. Forgive them their habits of wearing pieces instead of clothes, as you forgive me my talk of precious liquids instead of just wine. In the end they're just trying to relieve the boredom of having to describe yet another pair of trousers.

But (whisper it) I can't help feeling that clothes are just clothes.

It may have escaped your notice that the Glorious Twelfth and with it the official start of the grouse shooting season is upon us. So, having bagged your game bird after a day's shooting on the grouse moor (or a quick trip to the butcher's), which wines will make a suitable accompaniment?

Cuvée Chasseur 2010, £4.29 from Waitrose
At the budget end of the scale is this appropriately-named French wine, which translates roughly as “hunter's lot”. This is the kind of wine that has been Australia's bread and butter for the last 15 years: a simple, very easy drinking blend that has bags of sweet sour cherry and black fruit with barely a hint of tannin. Unlike most bargain Aussie reds, however, this has just 12% alcohol, making for a much more food-friendly and versatile drink.

Pinot noir is perhaps THE grape to seek out for game – its soft tannins and juicy red fruit will meld harmoniously with game fowl without leaving a mouthpuckering dryness.

The Society Exhibition Martinborough Pinot Noir 2009, £12.95 at The Wine Society
This is made for The Wine Society by Craggy Range, whose name is a byword for quality wines in New Zealand. Martinborough, right at the southern tip of the North Island, is a pinot noir enclave which faces the sauvignon blanc stronghold of Marlborough across the narrow Cook Strait which separates the two islands.

This is fairly light-coloured, as is most pinot noir, but has no shortage of chunky, spice-tinged fruit allied to earthy flavours which mirror the savouriness of game. The mouthfeel (wine fetishism alert) is silky and the finish, like Celine Dion's love, will go on....and on.

If you like this style, also look out for Craggy Range's more opulent Te Muna Road Martinborough Pinot Noir 2008, £19.99 from Taurus Wines in Bramley.