Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas is coming...

So you’ve ordered the turkey and can look forward to queuing patiently in the cold to pick it up at the butcher’s this weekend. 

What?  You haven’t ordered one?  Man, are you in trouble.  If you’re reading this over breakfast you’d better chuck your coat on over your pyjamas, high tail it to your local supermarket and trample the old and infirm underfoot as you fight your way to the freezer section in the hope of wrenching the last frozen turkey in the county from the hands of a little old lady.

And if you’re unsuccessful, then it’s going to be a question of brazening it out with “Oh we thought we’d give turkey a miss this year and try something new.  We’re having festive shepherd’s pie instead – so much less work for the cook, too.”

I well remember the year my parents opted to have roast beef instead of a bird for Christmas dinner.  What, no stuffing?  The memories are still painful.

But you’ve laid in all the wines, right?  No?  Okaaay….then you’d better spend the next few minutes casting your eye over this column, then just tear it out and take it with you on your supermarket sweep.

Ordering deadlines for online deliveries are past, so you are going to be either fighting it out with the crowds in the supermarket aisles, or you could enjoy a more civilised experience at your local independent wine merchant.

To assist you, here’s the shopping list:
  • Fizz
  • Cheap and cheerful crowd-pleasing wines – red and white
  • Wines for turkey (or indeed shepherd’s pie) – red and white
  • Versatile wines for “cold meat and pickles”, family games or Doctor Who watching

I’m recommending particular wines but, as time is tight, feel free to take them as inspiration rather than gospel (if that isn’t too blasphemous).


Champagne Jacquart – on offer at Majestic for £18 a bottle
This is an easy-drinking Champagne, made by no-nonsense and gifted winemaker Floriane Ezniack for one of the region’s co-operatives.  A blend of the 3 Champagne varieties, Pinots Noir and Meunier plus Chardonnay, this has plenty of lively, appley-marzipan fruit, as well as a Silver medal from this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards.

Crowd pleasers
Waitrose’s El Guia wines – white, rosé and red, £3.99 a bottle
This could be your “two birds with one stone” wine.  Cheap and cheerful (and believe me, there are plenty of cheep and woeful ones out there), Spanish wines with excellent gluggability.  Keep these on hand for any festive parties, or just to offer drop-in guests.

Sainsbury’s House Côtes du Rhône - £3.99
When I’m pushed for time and faced with the wall of wine in a supermarket, I home in on the Rhône for reliable and good value reds.  This one is at the simple end of the spectrum (don’t go expecting Châteauneuf complexity at this price), but is well made and has some depth of flavour.

Sainsbury’s Vinho Verde - £3.98
Featherlight, gently perfumed, zippy and zesty and off-dry.  A perfect Christmas pick-me-up for jaded imbibers – and at just 9% alcohol it’s practically a health tonic.

Wines for turkey
This is rather misleading, as I am not talking about matching wine to the turkey itself, which is what could be politely described as delicately flavoured.  Rather I’m thinking about matching a wine to the occasion and to stand up to all the flavours that we pile on to our Christmas dinner plates.

Martinborough Vineyard “Te Tera” Pinot Noir 2011 - £17.49 but currently £13.99 when you buy 2 bottles at Majestic
My favoured tipple for the festive bird is a Pinot Noir.  If you have a treasured mature bottle of red Burgundy, then by all means uncork that, but older wines do carry with them the threat of spoilage – so always have something else as a back-up.

I love the pure, expressive fruit of New Zealand Pinots, and those from Martinborough, at the southern tip of the North Island, combine ripeness with depth and structure in a most food-friendly way.

It’s always a good idea to have both white and red on offer for Christmas dinner, to please all tastes.  Chablis often makes an appearance at Christmas, but its lean minerality makes for too weedy a wine for the occasion.  Ditto most Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. 

Domaine Bégude Terroir Chardonnay 2001 - £8.99 from Waitrose
From the surprisingly cool area of Limoux, north of Corbières, comes this great value classy Chardonnay.  Some of it was fermented in barrel, giving it texture and a subtle gunflint character.

Versatile wines
These are easy-going and adaptable wines that can do more than one thing: pep up a meal of essentially leftovers, accompany a family game of Monotony (sorry Monopoly), or soothe you as you relax on the sofa in front of the telly.

Domaine Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer 2011 - £14.99, down to £11.99 when you buy 2 at Majestic
I’d never be without a bottle of Alsace white in the house at Christmas (or any time of year, come to think of it).  If you’ve never experienced the Turkish Delight and pink peppercorn charms of Gewurz before, then let this rich but dry version from Olivier Humbrecht, Master of Wine and PhD, seduce you.

Chénas 2011, Jean-François Trichard - £10.99, down to £8.99 when you buy 2 at Majestic
Beaujolais is such a wonderfully accommodating style of wine – drink on its own or down it with a plate of cold food.  The ripe, perfumed and tangy raspberry/cranberry fruit makes for a juicy palate cleanser.

You could also serve up Pinot Noir here – or indeed have the Beaujolais with Christmas dinner.

I covered sweet wines (and other sweet drinks) last time, so have a look on my blog if you’d like to remind yourself of my sage words on the subject:

But for supermarket shoppers in a hurry looking for something to go with Christmas pudding, keep your eyes peeled for Moscatel de Valencia.  At around £4 a bottle, its sweet orange peel flavours are a billy bargain match.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Dew drops on roses and whiskers on kittens? These are a few of my favourite (sweet) things

As well as drinking more and, generally, better wines than we do for the rest of the year, Christmas is also traditionally a time when, for reasons best known to ourselves, we decide that a bottle of some luridly-coloured liqueur will be just the thing to make the festive season go with a swing.

Oh the bottles of fluorescent green Midori or sickly Chartreuse that must be languishing at the back of cupboards since someone last touched them, sometime in the 1980s. Only undiscriminating underage drinkers or last gasp partygoers searching for the final drop of alcohol in the house at 5am would surely submit to them now.  Or am I tarring you all with the brush of my own experiences?

While the word liqueur can be used to cover a multitude of sickly sweet sins, there are drinks that can be sugary without being saccharine.

Vedrenne’s Supercassis Crème de Cassis (£8.50 from Waitrose for a 50cl bottle)
This is what Ribena really ought to taste like.  Bursting with true blackcurrant aromas and with a lusciously sweet palate of lingering fruit flavours, it’s the liqueur drinker’s liqueur.  Crème de cassis is traditionally used to perk up a very ordinary dry white wine, to make Kir – or Kir Royale if you are using sparkling wine.  A little cassis goes a long way and just a dribble should give you enough blackcurrant flavour to balance out the dryness and acidity of the wine.  Too much and you will end up with wine-flavoured squash.

If you ever come across a bottle of Crème de Cassis’ sister liqueur, Crème de Mûre, made from blackberries, then snap it up.  The more musky aromas make for an intriguing twist on Kir.  And incidentally both these liqueurs make great flavourings for anyone trying their hand at homemade chocolate truffles this Christmas – but make sure the kids keep their mits off them!

Port and Sherry
There are some things that I will never be old enough for:  shopping in Country Casuals or seriously considering a cruise holiday spring to mind.  Drinking these styles of fortified wines seems to be something we only adopt in our later years.  The average age of the UK Sherry or Port drinker remains stubbornly high, but I’ve been an out and proud fan of them for many years.

Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Oloroso Dulce – around £18 for a half bottle from Waitrose, Majestic, selected Tesco’s and various independents
Dry sherries are having a bit of a moment, to use frightful mediaspeak.  The sweet ones, though, are unfairly viewed as practically toxic and fit only for the cooking, or unfavoured relatives. 

I urge you to surrender to the unctuous charms of this fine example of lusciously sweet Oloroso.  This spicy, treacly, umami-rich mouthful is the essence of Christmas, in a glass.

For eleven and a half months of the year, nary a drop of Port passes our lips.  But, come the latter half of December, we go mad for the stuff.  Christmas isn’t Christmas without a bottle of Port in the house.

The biggest selling style in the UK is the most basic, ruby Port – though the Port producers tend to dress them up with names like Special Reserve.  This is fine for a quick snifter, or wicked (in more ways than one) in mulled wine, but for something to linger over I’d recommend searching out a Tawny Port.

Tawnies spend more of their life in barrel than other kinds of Port and, as a result, lose that dense purple colour and take on shades of mahogany and chestnut brown.  The flavours change too:  nuts, spices and preserved fruit come to the fore.  The most readily available style is 10 year old, which is an average age of the wines in the blend.

Taylor’s 10 Year Old Tawny – widely available from £22 a bottle
Taylor’s could be regarded as the most conservative Port house, as they alone among the Port shippers have held out against the trend of making still table wines from the famous Port-producing vineyards in Portugal’s Douro Valley.  They prefer to stick to what they know and do best and this 10 year old is a great advertisement for the style. 

Aromas of spice, glacé and morello cherry greet you, with nuts joining the party on the palate.  The preserved fruit flavours last in the mouth, with the alcohol (it is fortified, so 20%) providing mellow warmth.

Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny – widely available, but currently £10 for a 50cl bottle in Waitrose
This is a complete contrast in packaging and approach: a tall, clear glass bottle and an encouragement to serve it chilled – even over ice.
Serving it cool lessens the sense of sweetness and makes it a refreshing after dinner choice.

Wine-based drinks
I am, I admit, generally rather sniffy about ready mixed drinks involving wine.  Whoever thought up the idea of selling ready mixed Buck’s Fizz had clearly decided this was more profitable than their previous business peddling snake oil.  Come on people!  It’s cheap fizzy wine and orange juice, mixed – how hard can it be, even sleep deprived and hungover on Christmas morning?  A bottle of cheap Cava and really good orange juice are easy to find and infinitely more delicious than the sickly sweet ready mixed supermarket stuff that I’ve tried.  And don’t go kidding yourself that pre-mixed versions constitute one of your five a day either.

Sainsbury’s Williams Pear Fizz - £3.99
Like all zealots, there had to come a moment when my belief that pre-mixed drinks are evil stuff would be challenged.  Despite myself, I was won over by this spooky-sounding “aromatised wine cocktail”.  This mixture of Chenin Blanc wine and Williams pear juice is fun, sweet, fizzy, bursting with really pear-y pear fruit and is just 4% alcohol.  How can you resist?

Next time – normal service will be resumed and I’ll get back to recommending wines for the festive period.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Do wine and music mix?

If you tune in to Classic fm on a Sunday afternoon between now and Christmas your ears will be massaged by the unmistakeable and mellifluous tones of Simon Callow (he of Four Weddings fame) as he embarks on a musical travelogue. The plummy voiced actor and writer (I specify, lest there be any confusion with the high-waisted trouser wearing creator of X Factor, Simon Cowell) plays a selection of classical music tunes, focusing on a particular part of the world each week.

Thanks for the tip, you're thinking, but what, prey, is the connection with wine? At points along his musical journey, Simon Callow makes mention of a suitable glass of wine to have to hand as you listen to the music. Laithwaite's, the wine merchant, is the sponsor of the programme, dubbed Tasting Notes, and listeners can order a taste-along case of wines mentioned in the programme.

Last week listeners travelled, virtually, through Hungary and enjoyed some of the best known pieces of music to emerge from that country, with a recommendation of a glass of a Laithwaite's Hungarian Pinot Grigio to accompany them. In the second half of the program Simon moved on to a tour of Spain, a glass of Navarra rosé in hand.

The thinking behind the show's format is that listening to an appropriate piece of music can enhance the experience of drinking a particular glass of wine – and a glass of wine can certainly enhance one's listening pleasure. What of the science of it? Well, there isn't any really, but there is no arguing with music's ability to alter our consciousness; to heighten the senses. I know that certain songs have the ability to transport me to a certain time and place from my past. And if drinking wine isn't in some way altering our consciousness, then we must be doing it wrong.
Classical music and wine is all very well, but what if you're a bit more low brow and popular culture in your tastes? I have to confess to being something of a classical music numpty; my collection comprising the predictable mixture of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart's Requiem and a couple of operas.

Listening to Classic fm this week, however, has inspired me to try out my version of music and wine matching, but based on my own musical tastes.

There are myriad theories about how to match wines with food: from matching the flavours and “weight” of the dishes you are eating with your wine selection, to using the wine instead to create a contrast and to somehow “cut through” the food flavours, and many more in between. I've taken inspiration from this clearly unscientific approach to come up with my own wine and music matches.

If you are listening to Coldplay (and I understand that some people do) and wish to embrace the idea of matching the feel of the music to the wine, then you might pair the banal ubiquity of Chris Martin and his merry men with a corresponding wine. And nothing says banal ubiquity in wine terms like Pinot Grigio. However, the two together sound like a recipe for narcolepsy, so it might be safer instead to choose a wine that will act as an antidote to the whale music and go for something bracing, zesty and full of life – a bone dry Clare Valley Riesling from Australia springs to mind.

Drinking anything with a sparkle, but most especially Champagne, betokens celebration. But sometimes you don't have anything to celebrate particularly, but fancy the Champagne anyway. For such an occasion, the jaunty nihilism of The Smiths' “There is a light that never goes out” feels right:

If a double-decker bus crashes into us,
to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.

Or if the thought of a violent death, even when accompanied by so much jolly, jangly guitar, is too much of a downer, then a more conventional music choice might be Badly Drawn Boy's up-beat “All Possibilities”.

Is there a style of music that harmonises naturally with red wines, which are surely what most of us crave at this dark and cold time of the year? For me the rich velvet tones of Nina Simone suggest a glass of something red and robust. Nina spent her final years in the south of France, so a drop of complex, rich and powerful Châteauneuf-du-Pape would be a fitting candidate.

There are of course, many songs which mention wine and drinking which suggest an obvious link between music and wine. Popular though singing about drinking may be, it is not without its pitfalls. Joni Mitchell's boast that:

I could drink a case of you
And still be on my feet

on her classic album, Blue, would surely fall foul nowadays of sensible drinking guidelines. Perhaps she should have gone on to specify that she meant a case of alcohol free beer. Likewise the popular Cockney sing-along “Roll out the barrel” might need to be modified along the lines of:

Roll out the barrel
We'll have a barrel of fun.
Roll out the barrel
We've got the blues on the run.
Just 2 units for women
And 3-4 for the men.
No binge drinking from the barrel
For the gang's all here.

And Ricky Martin, in Livin' la Vida Loca describes the song's temptress thus:

She never drinks the water and makes you order French Champagne.

French Champagne? Does he not know that the body charged with protecting the Champagne name spends many Euros every year to ensure we only ever apply it to sparkling wine made in the approved method within the designated Champagne region in France? Ricky, you may be an expert on Latin-tinged pop, but when it comes to understanding the French Appellation Contrôlée system, you have A LOT to learn.

Simon Callow's Tasting Notes programme runs until 23rd December on Sunday afternoons from 3-5pm.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The hills have wines...

“Someone really ought to plant some vines there”, I’ve often opined to myself as I drove along the A25 between Newlands Corner and Dorking, looking up at the south facing chalky swathe of the Surrey Hills.  Well thankfully “someone” has done more than idle daydreaming and actually gone and created a vineyard there.

The man in question is Nick Wenman, and his 13-acre patch of vines, Albury Organic Vineyard, is part of the Duke of Northumberland’s Albury Estate.  I first stumbled across the vines on a walk to Silent Pool last winter and was intrigued to find out more about the place.

I finally caught up with Nick on the last day of harvesting of the 2012 vintage.  This year, as anyone who hasn’t spent the last six months abroad will know, has been grim on the weather front.  Unseasonably cold, damp conditions have dogged us since the balmy, warm days we enjoyed in March.  This kind of weather is unkind to any form of fruit growing, from adversely affecting fruit set at the beginning of the season to threatening the final crop with rot at the end of it.

Luckily for Nick, however, he does have a crop – albeit a small one – this year.  Nyetimber, one of England’s foremost producers of sparkling wine, announced recently that it will not make any wine from this year’s harvest.  That made waves in the national press and 2012 will doubtless not go down in history as one of the best for English winemakers.

There will be more positive memories of the year for Nick, though, as his still wine, Silent Pool Rosé 2011 was one of only three English wines chosen to be served on the royal barge during the Thames River pageant in June, as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.  How long ago it all seems now.

The ultimate goal is to produce an Albury Estate sparkling wine, hopefully in time for Christmas 2014, though the real volume of wine will not be on stream until 2015 or even 2016.  Bearing in mind that the first vines were planted here in 2009, you can see that becoming a producer of sparkling wine in this country requires dedication, patience - and deep pockets.

Why does it take so long?  Vines take 2-3 years from planting to produce a viable amount of grapes to constitute a crop.  After that hurdle has been crossed the grapes harvested will initially go through a first fermentation, which produces a regular still wine.  A second fermentation in the bottle is required to produce the fizz, followed by a period of maturation before the wine can be released.  This process can’t be hurried and unfolds over a period of 2-3 years if you are looking to make a quality product.

Hence the attraction of releasing the Silent Pool still rosé, which can be released a few months, rather than years, after harvest.  The wine acts as an aid to cashflow and helps put Albury vineyard on the marketing map.

You could not accuse Nick Wenman and his team of taking the easy option.  As well as embarking on a wine journey that will take the best part of a decade to come to fruition, the vineyard is also certified organic - 2012 will be the first organic wine to be released. 

Not content with the tricky task of using organic methods in a challenging climate, they have also converted to biodynamics.  If you’d like the one sentence summary of biodynamics it’s:  an holistic approach using organic methods plus specific “preps” on the soils, with vineyard operations timed to harmonise with the movements of the moon and planets.  Sound bizarre?  For more detail on what this means, and who else is doing it, you can take a look at a post from my blog on the subject:

What with a small 2011 production and the great Jubilee-related publicity for their rosé, Nick has had no trouble selling every bottle he has of the wine this year – sadly this means that, unusually, I can’t tell you where you can taste these wines for yourselves.  There will be a small amount of Silent Pool Rosé 2012, made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, available locally next year – but the crop is only around 25% of what Nick would have hoped for, so you’ll have to look sharp to grab a bottle when it does appear.

In the meantime, here are a couple of English wine recommendations that you will actually find in the shops now.

Stopham Estate Pinot Gris 2011 - £15.50 from Hennings, various branches in West Sussex and other local independent merchants
The 2010 vintage was selected by Jancis Robinson MW as one of her wines of the week and sold out pretty quickly.  Luckily the new vintage is as good, with true varietal style, fruit and elegance.  Their Pinot Blanc was also chosen to be served on board the Royal Barge for the Jubilee celebrations.

Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2009 - £22.99 from Waitrose and various independents
Ridgeview Estate, at Ditchling in East Sussex, have been making a range of top notch English sparkling wine for years now.  Their wines are consistently good across the board, so if you see the name Ridgeview, trust me, it’ll be a good ‘un.  This elegant Chardonnay-dominant blend has Pinots Noir and Meunier in support and is their most popular and signature cuvée. It would not disappoint any Champagne afficionado.

Here’s hoping that, in three years’ time we will be fêting the success of Surrey’s very own Albury Estate sparkling wine.  Cheers!

All photos courtesy of John Powell, Albury Visual Services

Friday, 26 October 2012

US Presidential Election 2012 - and the winner is...

This is not a prediction of the outcome of the election, but the result of an entirely unscientific wine-based version of it, conducted by me here in Surrey with an electorate of just 80 people.

The “candidates” were all bottles of wine, their identities concealed; our electoral college, all members of wine groups belonging to the Fetcham University of the Third Age (U3A).  The voters were equipped with a wine glass, a ballot paper, their noses and tastebuds.

The tasters warmed up with a glass of something cold, pink and sparkling, then the first of the four wine “candidates” was poured.  At this stage of the campaign, all the voters had to do was to choose their favourite two wines and to vote for them, via the usual one person one vote method in a secret(ish) vote.  We were keen to uphold democratic principles.

Instead of the battle buses, debates and TV adverts, the candidates could use only what was in the bottle to get their message across.  We tasted each wine in turn and assessed their relative merits in terms of body, backbone, intensity, character, persistence and so on.  Good qualities for wines, but also, perhaps for those bidding for high office in one of the most powerful nations on earth.

Once all four wines had been tasted, our electorate cast their votes on their ballot papers which were collected in.  While the voters then tucked into a buffet supper, the tellers counted the votes and determined the result of our own version of the US Presidential Election.

When all the votes had been counted, one candidate emerged as a clear winner, thereby taking the President slot.  Second place was closer, with just a single vote separating the two wines competing for Vice President.  The final candidate was adrift by some distance.

Once the two winning wines had been announced, voters were given the kind of information you would expect at a wine-tasting – that is, what wines had they actually been tasting?  I think it’s fair to say that there was something of a surprise amongst the electorate that the cheapest two wines in the line-up had received the most votes.

This speaks volumes for the value for money and drinkability of the wines in question.  Out in front was The Winery of Good Hope Shiraz 2011, from South Africa and £7.25 from The Wine Society.  Voters responded to its lively spice-tinged fruit, depth of flavour and balance.

In second place came a white wine from the Abruzzo region of Italy.  The Contesa Pecorino 2011 (£8.95, also The Wine Society) had appealing pear fruit and juicy acidity.

These two wines managed to trump their much more expensive rivals.  

Château Mont-Redon Châteaneuf-du-Pape 2010 (£18.50, The Wine Society) was undoubtedly a well-made and good quality white (yes white Châteauneuf exists), but its relatively subtle fruit and understated charms failed to woo voters.  Fighting hard for second place, but ultimately falling short was Château Picque Caillou 2005, from Pessac-Léognan in Bordeaux (£18, The Wine Society).  Many loved its rich aromas of spiced red fruit and chocolate, but were less charmed by its angular body and dry finish.

What does this, perhaps shock, result show us?  Blind tasting puts wines on an equal footing and each one has to stand or fall on how it comes across to the taster – or voter – on the night.  If the wines had not been tasted blind, would the results have been any different?  I certainly think so.  We can’t help but be swayed by knowing what’s in the bottle, for good or bad.  A look at the label is worth a thousand sniffs, goes the saying.

So much for the wine tasting results.  I have promised you a wine election to mirror the US Presidential one.  Each of the wines tasted equated to a Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate in my mind – any guesses as to who is which?  Some lateral thinking is required!

The most straightforward one was, I think, the winner – the Winery of Good Hope Shiraz equated to Barack Obama.  It references the African origins of his Kenyan father, as well as Obama’s political tome The Audacity of Hope.

The formidable white Châteauneuf-du-Pape was intended to represent Vice President Joe Biden.  The wine’s name translates as the new palace of the Pope and Mr Biden is a notable Catholic.  Told you lateral thinking was required.

The third placed red Bordeaux represented Mitt Romney.  How so?  Romney’s Mormon faith is well documented and adherents often serve as missionaries in locations around the world for two years in their youth.  Romney’s mission took place in 1968 in Bordeaux – et voilà.

If you’ve been paying attention then you’ll know that Paul Ryan, Republican nominee for Vice President, must somehow be symbolised by an Italian white wine made from the Pecorino grape.  As well as being the name of a grape variety, Pecorino is also a type of cheese.  Paul Ryan is a native of, and still lives in, the state of Wisconsin, which makes so much cheese that its residents are colloquially known as cheeseheads.  Easy when you know I suppose.

So, in our entirely spurious election, Barack Obama was convincingly re-elected as President.  If this does come to pass then I will be the first to take the credit.

Rather more problematic is the election as Vice President of Paul Ryan to serve alongside him.  I’m not an expert on the American electoral system but, as far as I know, this would be unlikely, not to say impossible.  But if they can elect Ronald Reagan as President (twice), then never say never.

Friday, 12 October 2012

A passion for Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir can turn you mad.  Like the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey, whose irresistible song lured sailors to their death, it sings to you with its alluring perfume and beguiling fruit.  But if you do succumb, if you allow yourself to be seduced by this most seductive of wine grapes, then you are surely lost, and will be crushed upon the rocks of your obsession.  Condemned to a life dominated by the pursuit of the perfect Pinot, you will be haunted by memories of Pinots past, frittering away your money on fine Burgundy, only to be, mostly, sorely disappointed – and considerably poorer.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  If you have not yet given in to the temptations of Pinot Noir flesh, then the safest option is to follow the example of Odysseus and to strap yourself, metaphorically, to the mast of your ship, allowing you to pass by and to continue your life’s voyage untouched.

It’s too late for me now, but you may be able to save yourselves.  If you haven’t yet been bewitched by the siren song of Pinot Noir, stop reading now.  If, however, you are one of the fallen, then wallow in what follows; sustenance to your obsession.

My personal quest for the perfect Pinot has led me on a vinous pilgrimage around the world.  Of course the very finest examples can be found rather closer to home, in Burgundy.  But, frankly, I’m too poor to be able to buy the best – and what on earth would be the point in not buying what you know to be the best?

Chile is starting to come up with some pretty good versions, especially from the Leyda ValleyArgentina’s far south is capable of producing some fine, juicy Pinot.  California’s versions are opulent, sweet and alcoholic, often overplaying their hand and the best can rival Burgundy for price.  Oregon is renowned as the home of seriously fine, nuanced and delicate Pinot Noir, but there’s little of it about here and what there is, is mighty pricey.  Australia is beginning to win out in its struggle to produce sufficiently elegant Pinot in its generally warm, if not hot, climate.

New Zealand, however, will get many a Pinot-phile’s pulse racing.  The region making most noise for its Pinots has been Otago, way down in the South Island.  Most definitely cool (frosts are a regular feature) the grapes are able to ripen fully, while preserving wonderfully fresh, bright fruit.  We also see plenty of Pinot from Marlborough, at the northern tip of the South Island and a region more often associated with Sauvignon Blanc.  Their Pinots are mostly just fine and are getting better with each passing year, but for class and complexity, you need to make the short hop across the Cook Straits to Martinborough, in the very south of the North Island.

Crraggy Range's Te Muna Road vineyard

And what makes this region so special?  As always, it’s impossible to point to a single factor, but the combination of cool, positively windy sites, low-ish annual rainfall (very similar to Southeast England) and relatively older vines all play their part.  Soil-wise the key element is the Martinborough Terrace, whose 30,000 year old soils are made up of decomposed volcanic ash.  Most of the best vineyards snake along this terrace, which is now pretty much completely planted.  Old vines are often pointed to as a key to really fine wine and New Zealand is a land of young vines – but the leaps in quality with each vintage show the growing contribution of vine age, combined with the skill of the winemakers.

Martinborough Terrace

In terms of total New Zealand wine production, Martinborough is small, representing just 1.6% of the total.  Pinot Noir is the 60-odd producers’ speciality, representing 55% of plantings.  The ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc is the next biggest, then come Chardonnay and a range of other white varieties.

Wines to feed your Pinot passion

Ata Rangi Pinot Noir - £34-40 from The Vineyard Dorking, The Guildford Wine Company, The Wine Reserve Cobham and
Ata Rangi is where it all began in Martinborough:  vines were planted here in 1980, at the dawn of the modern era of wine-making in New Zealand.  Their estate wine is the definition of Martinborough Pinot Noir.

One look at the price of this will tell you that a serious Pinot habit is an expensive one – don’t say you weren’t warned. 

If you can get hold of an older vintage, it’s definitely worth it.  The 2008 is smooth and harmonious and still full of lively, youthful cranberry and raspberry fruit, with hints of pencil shavings.  The 2006, at six years old is just beginning to show some of the maturing aromas that are like catnip for fans of Pinot Noir:  deep rose, clove and cinnamon spice in a fine, lively wine.

If the best part of 40 quid is too much (and it is for me), then Ata Rangi’s Crimson Pinot Noir, available for £16-20, gives you some of the class and excitement of its big brother, without the same staying power and ageing ability.

Escarpment Pinot Noir 2009 - £17.95 from
Look for the interplay of juicy fruit and spice, with tannins providing a sandy feel.  Over time this will develop a lovely silky-smooth texture.  Escarpment’s Kupe single vineyard Pinot Noir 2008, £19.99 from The Vineyard, Dorking, gives you a sense of the evolution of a wine that still has plenty of life in it.

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2010 - £20-22.50 from Taurus Wines Bramley and
Steve Smith MW of Craggy Range makes wines from the entire length of New Zealand’s wine growing areas, from Hawke’s Bay in the North Island, down to Central Otago, deep in the South Island.  All are top quality, but there’s something special about this Martinborough Pinot.  The fruit has a lovely ripeness and there is great density of flavour, but also fine tannins, elegance and, ultimately, refreshment.  Again, older vintages will show more – the 2008 is still a baby.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Awards! What are they good for? Absolutely nothing?

With apologies to Edwin Starr’s “War”.

Wine awards that is.  The summer of sport may have come to an end, but have no fear, for the wine awards season is now in full swing, with the winners awarded their own bronze, silver and gold medals in the major competitions.

But does it really make sense to judge wines and award them medals, just like Olympic athletes?  It’s not as if they’ve done something remarkable, like run really fast or thrown something a long way is it?

Awards are useful for a couple of things.  Firstly, pointing you towards a new wine that you haven’t tried before; and, conversely, confirming your already positive impression of a wine.  There’s nothing like having your own valued opinions confirmed by others for making you feel good.

And which competitions should you trust?  Some bottles are festooned with medals awarded in competitions that you have never heard of – do they really mean something? 

Australia, for example, has a well-established system of wine shows across their vast country.  Some well-performing wines can emerge from them looking like much-decorated army veterans, with rows of medals adorning the bottle.  In that country there is a strict training system for show judges, which is particularly hot on ensuring consistency of judging and on penalising any kind of wine fault.  So you can be sure that no wine that does well in Australia will be less than squeaky clean – whether your tastes coincide with Australian palates is less clear cut.

The Annual Wines of Argentina Awards, which have run since 2007, ensure they have a mixture of nationalities in their judging panel, which must surely make sense when export markets are so key for any major wine producing nation.  I am less keen on their policy of choosing one particular section of the wine business to judge each year – this time it was winemakers.  A more consistent and balanced set of results comes out of a mix, not just of nationalities, but background and experience.  Wine writers (ahem), educators, sommeliers, members of the wine trade – they all have something to bring to a judging panel.

Which brings me to the “big 3” of the UK wine awards jungle – the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA), the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC).  Each year, tens of thousands of wines are entered into these competitions and, around now, bottles with gold, silver and bronze medals proliferate on wine merchant and supermarket shelves.

I am a judge for both the IWC and IWSC, so can talk with confidence about the professional approach and rigour of these two.  Their judging procedures differ slightly – and DWWA differs again – but it’s interesting to see how, year in, year out, certain wines perform consistently well across the competitions.  This shows that, however the process might differ, the end results can be surprisingly similar – and quality will out.  And, let me stress, judges never get to know the identity of the bottles they are judging, beyond an indication of the wine’s origin and grape variety/ies.

To paraphrase E M Forster, two cheers for wine competitions.  They may not be perfect, but they are the best we’ve got.

Here’s a selection of wines I’ve tasted recently, or have long admired, and which have done well in competition this year.

Tilimuqui Fairtrade Torrontés 2011 – Argentina, £7.99 (but currently £5.99) a bottle from Waitrose
IWSC Silver – and Gold at the Wines of Argentina Awards
Sadly this 2011 vintage seems to be out of stock across most of Waitrose, though you might be lucky in your particular branch.  However, the 2012 is just as delightful – Fairtrade and organic, it is great value for money at full price and a steal at £5.99.  Torrontés flavours will not please everyone, with their tangerine peel and floral aromas, but give this a go if you’re feeling adventurous.

Amalaya White 2011 – Argentina, £7.65 a bottle from and other independents
DWWA International Trophy for dry aromatic wine under £10
I have to say I don’t like Decanter’s separation of wines into under £10 and over £10 for judging purposes:  a gold medal should be a gold medal, whatever the price.  The Decanter approach leads to a two-tier system where some golds are better than others.

That said, this is a cracking wine, made mostly from Argentina’s signature Torrontés grape, whose vibrant aromas are tamed with the addition of a little Riesling.  Dry, but intensely aromatic with hints of lychee, grapefruit and lime.  Drink on its own or with prawny things.

Plantagenet Great Southern Chardonnay 2010 – Australia, £16.05 from and other independents
IWC Gold, DWWA Silver
Plantagenet is a winery whose name crops up reliably across the major competitions.  This Chardonnay has great concentration of ripe but elegant fruit with nicely done oak to complement.  Also look out for their Riesling and Shiraz.

Cien y Pico “Doble Pasta” 2009 – Spain, £11.49 case rate at The Wine Reserve in Cobham
IWC Gold – also Trophy in the Sommelier Wine Awards
The best of old and new Spain in a bottle.  Full-on, ink-dark, brooding fruit from low-yielding ancient Garnacha vines, but clean and fresh too and bottled under screwcap.

Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2011 – Australia, £19.95 from and other independents
IWC and DWWA trophy
A year in which this wine didn’t score at least a gold medal in a major competition would be a shocker.  This Michael Phelps of a wine is an intense delight for the senses.  Lusciously sweet and piercingly bright Riesling from the Clare Valley, its flavours are concentrated by literally cutting through the vine’s canes in order to cut off the water supply as the grapes ripen.

Lustau East India Oloroso Sherry – Spain, £9.75 from Waitrose
IWSC Silver
The Lustau name is always a guarantee of quality when it comes to sherry.  Sweet, dark, sticky, figgy, nutty.  So unfashionable, yet so delicious and something to warm anyone’s cockles over the coming months. 

Friday, 14 September 2012

Sauvignon de St Bris - a hidden gem?

Anyone who claims to know all of France’s wine appellations (or PDOs as we should now learn to call them) is either a liar or has an extraordinary capacity for memorising lists.  There are literally hundreds of them, ranging from the world-famous (Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis) to the vanishingly obscure.  Wines labelled Irancy, to name but one, are hardly household names, even in their own neighbourhoods.

Others, while obscure, stick in the mind.  Sauvignon de St Bris is one such.  The area of production is titchy, yet it’s a micro-region that I’ve known about ever since cramming for my Wine Diploma years back, learning that this is the only part of Burgundy where Sauvignon Blanc is grown.  I memorised that single fact as a way to avoid a trick question in an exam, then promptly moved on, content never to know more about this renegade Chardonnay-shunning corner of Burgundy, let alone know what the wines might actually taste like.

This summer, however, I finally set foot in St-Bris-le-Vineux, an attractive and typically deserted village in the valley of the Yonne river in a northern corner of Burgundy, which is the centre of production, such as it is.  St Bris is much closer to Chablis than to the Côte d’Or, so while yes, technically it is part of Burgundy, it is a long way from the heartland of the region.

When you ignore the administrative boundaries and just look at a map of France, it becomes clear that while St Bris may be next door to Chablis, it is also only a short drive from the Loire Valley and those twin powerhouses of Sauvignon Blanc:  Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre.  Why they grow Sauvignon and not Chardonnay here begins to make more sense.

St Bris shares the same Kimmeridgian and Portlandian soils as those found in Chablis, thereby giving a tantalising hint of what Chablis might taste like, if it was made with Sauvignon Blanc instead of Chardonnay.  You've never wondered this?  Oh, just me then.

What I hadn’t learned as part of my Diploma studies, was that this area also makes red wines from Pinot Noir, in line with Burgundian orthodoxy.  These are pleasant oddities, light and lacy versions of an already light style of wine – the kind of thing to chill and sip in the garden on a sunny day. 

And, to my surprise they also make wines from Chardonnay here (so much for my Diploma studies), though these Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are entitled only to the generic label of “Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre”, a designation used to mop up various little vineyards around the town of Auxerre and which fall outside the Chablis area.  Sauvignon de St-Bris can only be used for, well, Sauvignon.

In St-Bris-le-Vineux (the clue is in the name) I hopped out of the campervan and decided to try some wine.  British tourists abroad often cite the difficulties involved in visiting wineries in France.  It is true that the willingness to knock on the doors of places which look resolutely closed and the ability to speak at least some French are pre-requisites.  I took the sign “cave ouverte” on a wine press outside one producer’s house as an encouragement.

Despite the “ouverte” claim, all looked deserted.  Having managed to disturb the lunchtime semi-siesta of an elderly lady, I was pointed in the direction of a bell to be rung.  In the manner of the shopkeeper in Mister Benn, a man emerged, as if by magic, from an ivy-camouflaged door that I had not noticed and I was welcomed into a cool tasting cellar.

Alert, perhaps, to my intention of tasting the Sauvignon de St Bris and then scarpering, having ticked it off my mental list of wines to taste before I die, Monsieur Goisot of Domaine Goisot Anne et Arnaud insisted that I start by tasting his Chardonnay.

Chardonnay-shmardonnay.  Was it really possible that this lowly Côtes d’Auxerre Blanc could have something to contribute to our understanding of that noble variety that its illustrious neighbours in Chablis and the mighty Côte de Beaune had not already done more emphatically, elegantly and eloquently? 

In a word, no.  Dear reader, Côtes d’Auxerre Blanc is no undiscovered gem.  M Goisot’s Chardonnay was perfectly decent with some peachy, floral aromas and a nutty, savoury palate.  But no scales dropped from my eyes; I was not moved to forsake Grand Cru Chablis or Chassagne-Montrachet forever more.  I moved on to the main attraction.

And what is it like?  St Bris Sauvignon may not have the depth and concentration of the best wines from Sancerre and Pouilly, but it does have distinct fragrance and a gentle, stony persistence in the mouth.  There is a softness, allied to the characteristic crisp acidity of the variety, that makes for pleasant holiday drinking. 

I bought some of M Goisot’s wines, along with another Sauvignon from a neighbouring domaine, Philippe de France, on my travels, so I will be able to find out if this is one of those wines that tastes perfect as part of a carefree sunny holiday, but that loses something in the move to a greyer, cooler UK, with work and family concerns to contend with.

I think you are more likely to trip over a black cat while on your way to redeem a winning National Lottery ticket than you are to stumble across any Bourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre, Rouge or Blanc, in mainstream wine outlets in this country - or in France for that matter.  However, you do stand more chance of happening on a bottle of Sauvignon de St-Bris.  The two domaines I visited do not seem to be imported into the UK, but there are a number of others that you can search out – so you can tick this wine off your list too.

French specialist merchants Nicolas list a Sauvignon de St Bris from the excellent Chablis-based co-operative, La Chablisienne, Les Vaux Sereins at £9.99.  Waitrose has Simonnet-Febvre’s version for £9.99.  Highly regarded organic producer Domaine Goisot’s Sauvignon de St Bris 2009 is available from at £10.49 a bottle.