Friday, 27 September 2013

"season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" may live up to its name

I can still see the 1970s TV advert in my mind’s eye:  dew spotted apples being harvested while the voiceover intoned “Autumn, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”.  The advert was promoting the “exceedingly good cakes” of Mr Kipling, so my adolescent brain made a connection between the line of verse and writer, poet and patriot Rudyard Kipling.  Did I also think he made cakes in his spare time?

Of course you all knew that the poem is by Keats, the opening line of his ode “To Autumn” and makes no mention of apple slices, fondant fancies or any other favourite of the cake magnate.

This year Autumn may live up to Keats’ breathless description as we are experiencing what naturalists call a “mast year”, where trees and other plants produce a bumper crop of fruit and seeds.  What exactly causes a mast year is not fully understood, but I can certainly vouch for the utterly ridiculous amount of acorns being deposited by the oak trees in our back garden; and I have already made a batch of bramble jelly and look forward to a good few blackberry and apple crumbles before the season is out.  Why, even our useless Egremont russet and pathetic pear have produced a crop this year.  Clearly something is afoot out in nature.

If you spent any time in this country in the summers of 2012 and 2011, you will appreciate that winemakers in England and Wales had a thin time of it in the past couple of years.  Cool, damp, grey summers do not make for large crops of healthy grapes.  Indeed last year Nyetimber, one of the foremost makers of English sparkling wine, decided to give up on a bad job and made no wine at all in 2012.  Growers desperately need a good year:  with the abundance of Mother Nature apparent all around us, will they get one?
Healthy, ripening grapes this week
Signs are good, so far.  Growers are reporting a potentially large harvest of healthy, ripe grapes.  Nick Wenman of Albury Organic Vineyard was able to show me Seyval Blanc, Pinots Noir and Meunier and Chardonnay all looking healthy and plentiful this week.  At the other end of the country, Bob Lindo of Camel Valley in Cornwall, one of the country’s largest commercial vineyards, reports a large crop of clean healthy grapes.  Sybilla Tindale of High Clandon Estate confirmed that her vineyard is full of healthy fat bunches of grapes.  All looks set for success.
Nick Wenman of Albury Organic Vineyard
Yet, at latitudes this far north, grapes are nowhere near fully ripe now.  We really need more warmth and sun in order to ripen the grapes and turn a potential harvest into vats of fermenting must in the winery.  Grape harvests here are likely to be towards the end of October – despite that lovely summer weather, which allowed the grapes to catch up a week or so after the setbacks of the long, cold spring and early summer, ripening is still 1-2 weeks behind schedule.  So now, as Sybilla Tindale says, the challenge will be to ripen those bunches.
"Bougies" - heaters ready in the vineyard just in case

Here are some wines to enjoy, while we wait:

Theale Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2007 – made by Laithwaite’s, sadly not commercially available
I know, what a wind up – sorry! However, in case you should come across a bottle of this or another vintage, let nothing come between it and you.  This is a classy glass of fizz in anyone’s book.  Made from 100% Chardonnay and with plenty of textbook bottle aged character:  the nose is pure McVitie’s Digestive biscuit, with a hint of strawberry shortcake.  This leads onto a many-layered palate of appley fruit, fine and complex.   If someone gave me this and told me it was vintage Champagne, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

And what of Nick Wenman’s Albury Organic Vineyard?  The first commercial release of the estate’s sparkling wine is planned in time for Christmas 2014, so we have a while to wait to taste the fruits of his labour.  However, there should be (barring disaster in the next couple of weeks) some of his still wine, Silent Pool Rosé 2013 available from May 2014.  The entire vineyard is run organically, but Nick is also hoping to be able to produce a small proportion of biodynamic still rosé, an experiment that I would love to taste the results of.

High Clandon Queen’s Jubliee Cuvée 2008 - £29 from
If you are big on sourcing locally then the sparkling wine from  this tiny property with just an acre of vines on a site facing north (and with fantastic views towards London), will be just up your street.  Owners Bruce and Sybilla Tindale are originally from South Africa and seemingly thought nothing of planting a vineyard in their grounds.  Their vineyard may be tiny but they’ve done things properly, studying wine-making at Plumpton College – and getting award-winning English winemaker Sam Linter (of Bolney Estate in Sussex) to make their wine.

The wine is a blend of the traditional three varieties used in Champagne:  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  The 2008, their first commercial release, spent nearly four years on the lees (ie ageing in the cellar post-fermentation), which is a key quality element for any traditional method sparkling wine.  The north-east facing site ensures marked citrus acidity in the wine, along with great length and persistence of flavour.

Sybilla is not a fan of the moniker “English sparkling wine” and favours Quintessence as a more evocative term which could be used instead.  Attempts have been made in the past to get winemakers to unite around names like Britagne (a non-starter if you ask me), but now that the Duchess of Cornwall herself has derided the term “English sparkling wine”, perhaps the time is ripe to make a change.

If you would like to suggest a new, more snappy name for English sparkling wine, please get in touch with me,  It could be the start of something big.

In the meantime, it’s fingers crossed for fine, warm and dry weather for the next few weeks, so that in due course we can taste the sweet rewards of our mast year.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Vive la différence!

How does rhubarb and mint grab you?  No, not as something to drink, but something to wash your dishes with.

At a time when globalisation and international mega brands are making foreign places feel ever less foreign, it’s comforting to know that, just a short hop across the Channel, some things are still refreshingly different.  Viz, France’s fondness for whacky washing up liquid flavours and a big trend this year:  metallic brown cars. 

And for a country which has something of a reputation for being stuck in a rut when it comes to wine, there has been a mass invasion of French supermarkets by “boissons aromatisées à base de vin” – wine-based drinks with flavourings.

This was not a trend that I could ignore, so I sacrificed my tastebuds in the name of research and plumped for a bottle of Very Pamp’ – a rosé wine combined with pink grapefruit flavour (pamplemousse being the French for grapefruit, hence the name).  The bottle advised me to serve it very cold – but, dear reader, I don’t think I could ever make this stuff cold enough to be palatable.  The smell was fairly pleasant, with a nice fresh and zesty pink grapefruit whiff.  The palate was incredibly sweet, like drinking sugar syrup, with a more generic fruitiness and then a kick of alcohol to round off the experience (it’s 10% alcohol).  The biggest added ingredient after wine is clearly sugar.

I thought that rosé and pink grapefruit was a relatively safe choice – there are plenty of more scary concoctions on offer:  lemon sounds OK, but what about mandarin, white peach, wild strawberry and cranberry, raspberry?  Especially when you know that those flavours are coming not from the fruits in question, but in the form of flavourings – accompanied by lashings of sugar.  Add to that brand names like “Sucette” (lollipop) and it all adds up to a sickly combination that would surely fall foul of UK licensing laws which forbid branding which might appeal to minors.

I sincerely hope this wine trend doesn’t cross the Channel, but at least I have provided an early warning, so you can be prepared and make suitable preparations for avoidance.

Thankfully, there are still some things that you can count on France to deliver – and wine is, of course top of my list.  This summer I had the chance to re-visit one of my favourite areas, the Loire Valley.

The Loire as a region is hard to pin down.  Unlike the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, it doesn’t  produce a single, predominating style of white or red wine, based on a single grape variety or consistent blend.  This is hardly surprising given the geographical and climatic differences that intervene on the river’s journey from the vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, almost bang in the centre of the country, to the intensely maritime Muscadet area around Nantes, with many a twist and turn in between.  Across the entire region, every conceivable style of wine is made, from bone dry whites, to off-dry rosés and sappy, juicy reds, via sparkling  wines of every hue and taking in luscious, lip-smacking and long-lived dessert wines.  Grape varieties are many and yes, varied, including the all-conquering Sauvignon Blanc, the underrated and mighty Chenin Blanc and the Melon de Bourgogne of Muscadet for whites.  Reds can be made from, amongst others,  the high-quality Cabernet Franc  grape (which also fills in on rosé duty) or sometimes Gamay or even Cot (aka Malbec).

Here in Britain we have developed an increasing fondness for fizz in recent years, with the chief beneficiaries Italy’s light, fruity Prosecco and Spain’s “Champagne-lite” style Cava – in addition to Champagne itself.  The Loire has been making good quality sparkling wines for many years and they offer an alternative with something of the fruitiness of Prosecco, but more depth of flavour and without the cloying sweetness; and more finesse than many a Cava.

The UK’s three most-readily available Loire sparkling wine makers also happen to have (or have had) links to Champagne houses, whose expertise at making fine quality fizz must surely have a role in their success.   Central to the style of these wines is the use of the region’s Chenin Blanc grape, which has naturally high acidity, even when ripe, making for sparklers which retain their zip and freshness, even when combined with baked apple fruit.  The wines are made using what we are obliged to call traditional method (which then requires further explanation to specify that this is the same method used to make Champagne), instead of the more readily understandable “méthode Champenoise”. 

Gratien & Meyer – The Wine Society has a long-standing relationship with this producer, producers of The Society’s Saumur Brut (£9.50 a bottle).  Majestic also list the (surely overwhelmingly similar) Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut NV for £13.49, down to £11.99 if you buy two.

Langlois-Château – Champagne Bollinger is the more famous Champagne name in the background at this high quality producer.  Around £11-13 from independent merchants.

Bouvet-Ladubay – once owned by Taittinger, this family-run house makes an elegant fizz which is available currently from Majestic at £8.99 a bottle.

If you get the chance to venture to the Loire in person, some of the most characterful, high-quality and good value sparkling wines will be made by small family producers, especially in areas like Vouvray, which specialises in sparkling wine production.  Often these artisan wines are either difficult or impossible to find here – but it’s always worth checking out independent merchants, who can deal with the smaller producers.

So, of all the things that could possibly make the leap across the Channel, here’s my verdict:  wine-based drinks – no; brown cars – hmm; grower-produced sparkling Vouvray – yes please.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

How to taste wine

How to taste wine

When you picture someone tasting wine, what comes to mind?  A wine professional, perhaps, working their way through a line up of wines, noisily slurping and then spitting out each wine?

That’s one way of tasting, for sure, but it is only one way.  We all taste things all the time, every day – from our morning cereal and cup of tea to the Friday night take-away curry.  Probably what we don’t do, most of the time, is pay attention to what we’re tasting.  By being alert to the smells and tastes we experience, we can train ourselves to become better tasters and to appreciate differences that we hadn’t noticed before.  We can’t all become experts - but we can all get better.  Read on for my step by step guide.

We taste with our eyes – think about how much you look forward to eating something in a restaurant that’s been attractively presented.  Looking at a wine will give you the first clues as to what the wine tastes like.

Look at the colour and intensity of the wine in the glass.  White wines get deeper in colour as they age, so a white wine that is pale is likely to be younger.  Older wines, especially concentrated dessert wines, are usually more golden, even amber in colour.

Red wines, by contrast, become lighter in colour as they mature.  The youngest red wines will generally be purplish in colour, moving to ruby, then garnet with age.  Venerable old wines continue on to brick-red or mahogany as they mature gracefully.

Smelling a wine is, arguably, the most important part of tasting.  Our noses are incredibly sensitive to a wide range of smells and aromas.

Swirl the wine in your glass, then have a couple of good sniffs.  Assuming the first impression is pleasant and the wine is not faulty, you can start thinking about what it actually smells of.  This is something that some people find easier than others – but practice is really the key to improving.

Most wines will have some kind of fruity smell – citrus and apple are common for white wines; red or black fruit for red.  In addition, there is a whole array of other kinds of aroma that you might find – something spicy, like vanilla perhaps, is common in wines that have been oaked.  The sauvignon blanc grape is often notable for its gooseberry aromas – which some people might find redolent of cat’s pee instead, or even sweaty onion.

And here’s the point – one person’s cat’s pee is another person’s gooseberry.  Tasting is, in the end, personal.  If you can smell sweet corn in a wine, then let no man (or woman) say you can’t.

OK, down to business – actually taste the wine.  Take a sip, move it around your mouth, then swallow.  Spitting is definitely needed if you will be tasting quite a few wines, to keep your critical faculties tuned, if nothing else.  However, sometimes, it’s best not to – guests at a dinner party might think it a bit odd – so judge what’s appropriate for the occasion.

There are essentially two elements to think about when tasting – the structure of the wine and its flavours.  Structure relates to the elements that give the wine its overall shape – namely dryness (or sweetness), acidity, body or weight, tannin (for red wines only) and length.

Most wines we drink in this country are broadly dry.  You can sense sweetness on the tip of your tongue.  Acidity is more of a sensation than a taste – it gives the wine freshness and zip and leads to a mouthwatering sensation.  As you move the wine around your mouth, think about the sense of weight of the wine – most reds are fuller-bodied than white and have a more mouth-filling sensation.  Tannins are the substances in red wines that can be unpleasantly drying, reminiscent of stewed tea.  In the right quantities, however, they give the wine some pleasant “grip” and a counterpoint to the fruit.  Length – how long the flavour of the wine lasts after you have swallowed it – is a good indicator of quality for a wine.

The flavours of a wine usually relate – and should relate – to the characters that you detected on the nose.  Think about the types of fruit or other characters you can sense.

Also think about:  does the wine change if you leave it in the glass for a while?  Has it got more or less interesting?  How intense are the aromas and flavours? Whether this is like other wines you have tasted?

Once you start actively tasting wine, you’ll soon be able to develop your own internal library of wine flavours, opening up a new world of wine to explore.

Here is a pair of current favourites.  Have a taste and see if you agree with my version:

Louis Latour Grand Ardèche 2011- around £10.99 from Milford Wine Centre, Tanner’s and Davy’s Wine Merchants
Maison Louis Latour is a name more usually associated with Burgundy, but here they have turned their skilful hands to getting the very best from Chardonnay grown in the more lowly region of the Ardèche.  8-10 months ageing in oak barrels has given this a subtle toasty note on the nose, as well as a nice mealy savouriness on the palate.  There is also appealingly fresh and ripe citrus and pear fruit.

Beaumont Bot River Mourvèdre 2009 - £18 from The Wine Society

Mourvèdre is a classic grape of Provence and southern France and widely grown, as Monastrell, in Spain – clearly it’s a warm climate variety, with a reputation for being happiest with a view of the sea.  The unattractively-named Bot River is in the region of Walker Bay in South Africa, renowned for its cool climate – but clearly not too cool as this is wonderfully ripe and dense with a pure dark blueberry flavour, and freshening acidity.    

Feel the fear and do it anyway - everything you need to know about ordering wine in restaurants

You've arrived at the restaurant, pleasantly peckish and looking forward to poring over the menu.  The food sounds good, you're feeling relaxed - then you realise you're going to have to choose something from the wine list.
Do you:
a)  Order a bottle of Pinot Grigio/Rioja (they always have some and it's a safe choice)
b)  Order the second least expensive wine on the list so as not to look too cheap?
c)  In a panic order something way too expensive because you think that's what's expected?

There are other options!
First of all - take your time, don't panic, even if faced with a phone directory of a wine list.  Take as much time over the wine choice as over the food if you want to - if the restaurant has taken the time to amass a huge list then they must expect you to spend a while looking through it.
If there is a wine waiter/sommelier, they should be happy to make a recommendation - but if you feel they're pushing you towards a wine that's too pricey, just let them know and ask them if there's a less expensive option.  They are there to make the food and wine look good, not make the diners feel uncomfortable. 
In many restaurants there is no sommelier and your waiter/waitress may have little or no wine knowledge   Here are some pointers to help you out.

  • In general, if the food is from a particular country or region, then choose wines from the same place - Spanish with tapas, Italian with pasta.  Indian restaurants pose a challenge here:  my limited experience of Indian wines would lead me to say, avoid.
  • If the restaurant is at all decent then their house wines should be good - these are the wines they've chosen as the best all-rounders to go with their menus.
  • The big names which are wine list stalwarts – Sancerre, Châteauneuf-du-Pape etc – will probably be there, but will often also be over-priced.  Sommeliers and restaurant wine buyers pride themselves on searching out interesting wines at reasonable prices.  So an unknown wine region or grape could be worth a punt.
  • You don’t have to depart from your normal tastes in wine - if you like Chilean wine, don't feel you "should" be having something else and order claret or white Burgundy.  Going out for a meal is supposed to be fun and the wine should be no different.
  • If you're still really stuck, many places will do wines by the glass, which could provide an easy way out and prevent an expensive mistake. 

"Would you like to try the wine?" 

The waiter brings the bottle you've ordered and asks if you'd like to try it.  
 Do you:
a)  Say "I'm sure it's fine, just pour it please."
b)  Say "Yes", but with no real idea of what to do then.
c)  Say "No, my wife/husband/friend/partner/anyone but me will taste it" (I’m quite familiar with this one)

What should you really do?  What is the waiter expecting of you?  Read on...
Usually the waiter shows you the bottle (unopened) for you to confirm that they've brought the one you ordered.  Do check that it is (if you can remember) as, once it's opened it's too late.  By the way, if they have brought the wrong wine already opened, then you can and should send it back.
One of my pet peeves is a lack of vintage information on wine lists – this is especially important for wines that you should drink young, or for those fine wines from classic regions where varying weather conditions lead to vintage variation.  Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc is one of the former, so I would expect the current vintage of 2012 to appear on lists, with 2013s soon to arrive.  If they don’t print a year on the list, I would always ask – and remember to check that it matches the year on the bottle when it arrives.
The waiter will pour a small amount of wine into your glass.  Your job is to assess that the wine is not faulty - you're not really being asked whether you like it or not. 
Firstly, swirl the glass a little and take a sniff.   If there’s something wrong, our noses will pick it up.  Does it smell pleasant?  If not, then there may be something wrong.  Musty, damp cardboard or mouldy aromas may mean the wine is corked.  Taste the wine and see if it tastes OK.  If you still think there's something wrong, tell the waiter you're not sure about it.  Don't be afraid - they want you to enjoy the meal and any bottles of faulty wine will be sent back to their supplier - it won't cost them anything.
If the wine smells and tastes fine, your work is done.  Now you can relax and enjoy the meal! 

Top tip:  little bits of cork floating in a wine do not mean it's corked - there are just...little bits of cork floating in it.