Friday, 24 June 2011

Anyone for tonic?

Heather D ponders the appeal of quintessential summer drinks.

Is it Pimm's o'clock yet? Truth be told I don't care overmuch for the over-priced, gin-based drink, but I have immense respect for the marketing. Pimm's has so inveigled its way into our notion of the English summer that it feels as though the season hasn't properly started until you've downed your first pint of it. And with the accompanying cucumber, strawberry, mint leaves and such, it must include at least two of your five a day, surely?

But once we've got our obligatory glass of Pimm's out of the way, it's time to ponder which drinks offer just the right note of refreshment and a little celebration of summer.

Top of any list has to be a really good gin and tonic. The best G&T I've ever had was at the cocktail bar of Orient Express-styled, English/Russian restaurant Bob Bob Ricard in London. However, you'd need a cabinet full of specialist ingredients to reproduce it at home. Best to keep it simple and stick with quality gin and the best tonic. In fact simplicity is surely the key to the enduring popularity of G&T – how many of us would have the ingredients for and inclination to throw together a Cosmopolitan or a Harvey Wallbanger when we get in from work? A bottle of gin, some tonic, ice and either a lemon or lime – that'll work.

Big bottles of tonic are fine if you use them up the same day, but there's nothing like a slightly flat tonic for ruining your G&T. For perfect freshness, small bottles or little cans are the solution and, if you want to drink the best, then get hold of Fevertree tonic (£3.05 for four 200ml bottles from Waitrose and Tesco). Tasting this alongside Schweppes can be compared to watching a film in the cinema versus on your TV screen at home. The Fevertree has an extra dimension and great depth of flavour which will turn a simple drink into a cocktail.

The gin: whatever I say here, I'm going to get into trouble, as people can develop fierce loyalties which are not to be challenged. I will simply offer my own opinion, for what it's worth, make of it what you will.

My personal favourite is Tanqueray, which is from the same stable as market leader Gordon's and can be likened to the same gin, with the volume turned up. One of the key differences is that the alcohol level is higher – but it's not just that a stronger gin makes a better drink. Gin is really all about the various flavourings, known as botanicals, most notably juniper berries, but which can also include exotics such as coriander seeds, citrus peel, angelica and orris root. The exact mix of botanicals which each distiller infuses into the gin during its second distillation will influence the flavour profile of the final drink. The more botanicals used, the greater the complexity of flavour – but higher alcohol allows a greater range of the aromatics produced to be expressed in the gin. So a higher alcohol gin is a more high definition experience, to continue the television analogy.

Tanqueray (£20.49 recommended retail price) is,for me, the archetypal London Dry Gin: dry, with bright, citrus and herbal-medicinal layers of flavour which evolve and linger on the palate.

London Dry Gin, incidentally, is not necessarily distilled in the capital. Practically all the gins we see on supermarket and wine merchant shelves will say “London Dry”, but they can, in fact, be distilled anywhere. This may change in the future, but for now the term denotes a style of gin, rather than anything about its origin.

The water used to make any spirit is going to have an influence on its flavour. You only have to try a cup of tea in another part of the country to know that water is not really neutral at all and can be surprisingly variable in flavour. If you would like to explore the influence of water on gin, then look for a bottle of Plymouth Gin, made in, yes, Plymouth using the soft water of Dartmoor. This results in a softer, smoother gin than the London Dry – but importantly Plymouth (£17 recommended retail price) is also a higher strength spirit, allowing the seven botanicals used to shine.

But man cannot live by gin alone. Or probably shouldn't. If you tire of the grassy, citrussy kick of the G&T, who are the new pretenders, hoping to become the hit summer drink of 2011?

Croft Pink Port is a pretender to the summertime drinking crown. Port is making a play for a new, younger (not to say female) market rather than aged, pass the port to the right gentlemen's club frequenting, cigar-smoking oldies. The ladies have shown their fondness for all things pink, so why not a pink port?

They have cleverly overcome the potential problem of any fortified wine, which is naturally high in alcohol, by suggesting the use of port as a mixer. Why not try whipping up one of these at home?

Bubbles & Pink

9cl chilled Croft Pink
12cl Prosecco or Champagne
1.5cl Cointreau
Dash of bitters

Pour into a Champagne flute and garnish with a lemon twist

Croft Pink is available from Sainsbury, Morrison's and the Co-operative for £10.72 a bottle.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Pilgrimage among the vines

Sometimes it must feel like the French are doing it deliberately. Making life difficult for people trying to get to grips with their wines, that is.

Leaving aside the whole business of region names rather than grape varieties, no back label explaining what sort of wine might be in the bottle and an impenetrable Appellation Contrôlée system – is a Saint-Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classé better (in theory at least) than a Burgundy Grand Cru? We'll let all that go, but let's talk names.

You pick up a bottle, not cheap, and it says Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh on the label. Is that a grape variety that you've never come across before? A region? And while we're at it, how on earth do you pronounce it?

In fact there's nothing bloody-minded or contrary in the story of how things got so confusing in the world of French wine. It's simply a perfect illustration of local produce, consumed locally, with names, rules and customs that evolved over centuries when, for the most part, people were born, lived and died within the same small corner of the country.

If you lived in the Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh wine-growing area (yes, a place, rather than a grape) you would know that its white wines are so labelled. The grapes involved would probably be a blend of gros and petit manseng, possibly with some petit courbu or arrufiac as well. Travellers from elsewhere in France would be every bit as confused and intrigued as you or I if they ever found themselves in Southwest France, home to Pacherenc and a host of other little-known wines and grape varieties.

Southwest France is the name given to the rather rag tag band of wine appellations lying roughly between Bordeaux, Toulouse and the Pyrenees. Sometimes it's hard to see what unites them – and in truth, sometimes, there is no real link between the wines you find here. However, one thing that all these little mini regions share is that they lie on the ancient pilgrimage route south towards Santiago di Compostella – and where there's pilgrims, it seems, wines will follow. Now, wine pilgrims with an adventurous bent will find it a rewarding area to explore.

The same vineyards which produce white wines labelled Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh also make red wines, this time called Madiran, from the aptly-named tannat grape. As you might imagine, this grape is naturally high in tannin (and acidity) and makes some of the densest, monster reds you will ever encounter – though they can also age surprisingly gracefully.

Or you can stop off in Fronton, which supplies sappy, robust and spicy reds and rosés made from the Fer Servadou grape to the thirsty inhabitants of nearby Toulouse.

Beyond Toulouse is Gaillac, where Fer Servadou is known as Braucol (still with me?). This same grape is also known as Mansois in the tiny appellation of Marcillac. Confused? And we haven't even touched on Negrette, Pinenc or Duras yet.

Heather D had the chance to immerse herself in the wines of the region (not literally you understand) while working on behalf of Southwest France at the recent London International Wine Fair. Having tasted her way through 77 wines, these are her picks of the Southwest.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2010, Domaine Capmartin, £10.30 from
There has to be a Pacherenc in the list and this one typifies a modern, fresh style. Light bodied, floral, crisp, dry and tangy – and somehow unlike anything else you've tasted. This is mostly gros manseng with a little arrufiac and petit manseng.

Côtes de Gascogne, Les 4 Réserve, Domaine du Tariquet 2009, £9.40 from Wineservice of Lingfield
Gascony, famously the home of d'Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, is also home to the family-owned Tariquet winery. Most Côtes de Gascogne is pretty simple, fruity and crisp stuff. This one, an intriguing blend of gros manseng, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon has a hint of floral, slightly peachy fruit – a gentle introduction to the region.

Saint Mont, Le Faîte 2009, £14.99 from Adnams (branches include Richmond)
Gros manseng makes another appearance here, this time joined by arrufiac and petit courbu. Save this wine for food – for a white wine it's surprisingly beefy, but the crisp acidity keeps the fruit nice and juicy. An interesting alternative to oaked chardonnay.

Irouléguy, Xuri 2009, Cave d'Irouléguy, £15.49 from les Caves de Pyrène of Guildford
This may look like an incomprehensible list of names from a Tolkein novel, but in fact this is simply our, by now, old friends gros manseng, petit manseng and petit courbu – but grown in the Basque region of Irouléguy, literally in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The aromas are honeysuckle and exotic fruits, while the palate is bone dry and bracing – a real original.

Marcillac, Lo Sang del Païs 2009, Domaine du Cros, £10.99 from les Caves de Pyrène
Marcillac is the region, the grape is fer servadou (often also called mansois here). Lo Sang del Païs means blood of the land in the local Occitane language, so the rather delicate nose ,with a whiff of violets, might surprise. The palate, however, is indeed earthy, with a refreshing acidity. This is what you might call a wine bar wine – great with some rustic finger food.

Saint Mont, Le Faîte 2007, £16.99 from Adnams
The red twin to the white above, this is similarly big-boned and needs decanting, or at least opening well in advance, in order to open out and soften a little. This is mostly the fiercely tannic tannat grape, with some pinenc and cabernet sauvignon, and has big, bold flavours of liquorice and chocolate.

Madiran, Château Bouscassé Vieilles Vignes 2006, £29.99 from les Caves de Pyrène
Bouscassé is one of the top estates within Madiran, and this is a great illustration of the power and poise of the best wines that the tannat grape can make. Smoky, fragrant, full-bodied but with succulent fruit. This will keep on developing for a few more years to come.

Madiran, Château Montus Prestige 2002, £44.99 from les Caves de Pyrène
Both these Madirans are made by the same man and both are 100% tannat, so this is a chance to explore the influence of terroir. The extra age also gives you a chance to see how tannat ages – this wine is full-bodied, rounded, satisfying, long-lasting and is a truly authentic expression of a unique wine style. A word of warning – decanting is needed as there is quite a sediment in the bottle.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Brumaire 2007, £22.49 for a half bottle from les Caves de Pyrène
Back where we started, with Pacherenc. Brumaire is the name of one of the months from the French revolutionary calendar and equates, more or less, to November, when the grapes for this dessert wine were harvested. Brume means mist, which conjures up images of ghostly figures moving through the vineyards, their cold-numbed fingers searching out bunches of nobly rotten grapes. That may be poetic licence, nevertheless the wine is hauntingly delicious, with layers of honey, tropical fruit, caramel and beeswax in a lusciously sweet mouthful – but with a beautifully fresh, clean finish.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Australia's royal family

The Aussies may not have a queen of their own (Dame Edna Everidge excepted), but they can claim to have some wine royalty in the form of the self-styled Australia's First Families of Wine.

Heather D had the pleasure of meeting quite a few of them as part of a “speed tasting” event recently. Each producer had just three minutes to talk about their winery and to conduct a tasting of one of their wines for a group of wine writers and bloggers. It wasn't relaxing for anyone involved, but certainly forced us to talk to many more winemakers than we normally would in one day, never mind in 45 minutes.
Ross Brown of Brown Brothers

Luckily, there then followed a much more leisurely lunch, courtesy of wine bar/restaurant Vinoteca at foodie hotspot of Smithfield market in the city of London – accompanied of course by more of the First Family's wines. As the saying goes, it's a dirty job...

Far too many of us wine drinkers think that Australia's wines are nothing more than over-oaked and over-here chardonnay and cab-shiraz produced by big brands with no real connection to a particular place. The mission of the First Families is to encourage us all to explore the wealth of wines made by family-owned wineries, who have a real connection to their region, giving their wines a sense of place. In short, they are not simply the wine equivalent of an alcoholic fruit jelly.

That's not to say that these are micro-wineries, lavishing attention on tiny quantities of hard to find wines that they make in their garage and then sell at astronomical prices. Many of the names involved are well known to UK drinkers and represent sizeable concerns whose wines are widely available in this country – the likes of Brown Brothers, Yalumba and d'Arenberg. So get thyselves to a wine merchant and seek out these blue-blooded Australians.

Standout wines from the tasting:

McWilliams Lovedale Semillon 2005, £25 from The Wine Society, Berry Brothers & Rudd
Semillon from the Hunter Valley can rightly be claimed as a unique Australian wine style. In its youth, dry semillon resembles nothing more than (lightly) alcoholic lime juice and you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Give it around five years in bottle, however, and delicious honey, toasty and lanolin aromas and flavours emerge – this one is like tropical marmalade on toast. Sauvignon blanc lovers looking to widen their drinking horizons could do far worse.

Tahbilk Viognier, 2009, £11.99 from
The Tahbilk winery, north of Melbourne in relatively cool-climate Victoria, has long been famed for its delicious marsanne. To show they are no one-trick pony, this great value viognier is a wonderfully characterful mouthful, balancing the natural weight of the grape with lovely hay-like freshness. Many viogniers can be too weighty, not to say obese, and offer little refreshment – this one is different. Great for summer lunches in the sun.

d'Arenberg Money Spider Roussanne 2009, £11.99 at Bibendum or
Chester Osborn, fourth generation of his family to make wines at their McLaren Vale winery, is no shrinking violet, famed for his loud shirts as well as his esoteric (but also cannily memorable) wine names. Their reds are an exuberant expression of McLaren Vale terroir, but I was captivated by this deceptively delicious wine. There is no oak (in fact none of these whites has seen any oak) but instead many layers of flavour, from greengage plum to herbs to wax crayons. Lots going on, but light on its feet.

Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Riesling 2008, £9.67 from, Hennings Wine Merchants (branches in Pulborough and Petworth)
Calling all sauvignon blanc drinkers – get your chops round some Australian riesling and you'll wonder why you got so excited about the two-dimensional charms of most Kiwi sauvignons. Riesling shares the lively acidity and fruity-floral combination of sauvignon – but most sauvignon needs to be drunk up within a year of the vintage (not a problem in our house I hear you cry) before it becomes more like cat's pee and tinned peas than gooseberry. Riesling, by contrast, becomes only more interesting as it ages – this is beautifully fresh for a three year old wine, with limey, mineral acidity. Mouthwatering stuff.

Yalumba The Scribbler Cabernet Shiraz 2008, £12.95 at,, Berry Brothers & Rudd
Generally I find Yalumba's red wines too much in the mould of the typical Aussie fruit bomb, which have so much ripe, sweet fruit and alcohol that I can't imagine what you could possibly eat with them. Blackcurrant jam on toast, perhaps, though that could make for a hardcore breakfast.

This wine, though, has much more than just fruit going on – there is a medicinal edge, going towards mintiness, and a leathery whiff about it. The tannins are soft and there is a welcome herbal lift. Definitely a three-dimensional wine.

Campbells Bobbie Burns Durif 2006, £10.26 from New London Wine
Campbells are famous for their glorious, sticky, “dates in liquid form” liqueur muscats – but they are best saved for the winter months. If you are toying with the idea of a venison casserole, or looking ahead to the game season, then this durif could be your man. Durif sounds French and it was indeed created by a Dr Durif in Montpellier by crossing syrah (shiraz) with the little-known peloursin grape. It's rare in France, but seems to thrive in the hotter climate of Australia, where it transforms into a kind of über-shiraz. Dark, brooding, herbal and medicinal, reminiscent of port, though not overtly fruity. Its savoury style would make a great match for something seriously meaty.