Thursday, 30 October 2014

You say tomato, I say Te Mata

You don’t know how many years I’ve waited to make that feeble pun in print. The Te Mata in question is New Zealand’s oldest family-owned winery, where vines were first planted at their Havelock Hills vineyard in Hawkes Bay back in 1892.

In recent years, the New Zealand wine regions making waves in the export market have been elsewhere: Marlborough, home to the oceans of Sauvignon Blanc that we do our best to drink dry every year; and  Central Otago and Martinborough for their Pinot Noir. Hawkes Bay has taken something of a back seat, despite having a long history of winemaking dating back to the mid-19th century.

While we tend to think of New Zealand as pretty much a white wine producer (all that Sauvignon Blanc), Hawkes Bay has major plantings of Syrah, Merlot and other red varieties. Sauvignon Blanc is still the single most planted variety, followed by Chardonnay, but as a region it stands out as one of the few parts of the country able to successfully ripen the warmer climate Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.

The climate of Hawkes Bay is broadly similar to Bordeaux, ie warm summers and a strong maritime influence. Hawkes Bay just edges it on annual average hours of sunshine (2188 vs 2052) and has slightly less rainfall (803mm average vs 900mm in Bordeaux). Compare this to the averages on the south coast of England, usually the sunniest part of the UK, of around 1750 hours of sunshine a year and 900-950mm of annual rainfall. I can certainly see the attraction of Hawkes Bay from a sun-lover’s point of view.

A key part of Hawke’s Bay’s renown is down to producers like Te Mata, with their long time reputation for fine reds and compelling white wines.

Te Mata wines in the UK
Cape Crest Sauvignon Blanc – Majestic list the 2012 vintage for £23, The Wine Society for £17.50; has the 2010 for £18.21, but you must buy 6 bottles
A style first made by Te Mata in the 1980s, this confounds the typical Kiwi Sauvignon model, which is fermented in stainless steel and designed for early drinking. Looking to Bordeaux (again) for inspiration, they barrel ferment in 25-30% new oak and add Semillon and Sauvignon Gris to the blend. Ignore the usual advice for New World Sauvignon Blanc, which is DYA (drink youngest available) – this is a wine that really gets into its stride after a few years in bottle.

The mix of varieties and the barrel fermentation give a more interesting texture and range of flavours than you would usually find in a Kiwi Sauvignon. The 2012 is a youthful, linear wine with fennel and angelica aromas and a powerful, mineral finish. The 2010 has gunflint aromas overlaying tropical fruit. The palate has some viscosity and a touch of grapefruit bitterness – this would be my choice for drinking now.

Elston Chardonnay – Berry Bros have the 2012 for £28.95, New Zealand House of Wine for £21.99 and various independent merchants at prices in between
We’re more used to Chardonnay being given the barrel fermentation and ageing treatment, in classic white Burgundy mode. While New World makers of this style of Chardonnay are probably heartily sick of having their wines compared to Burgundy, it’s hard to look beyond it when looking for a benchmark for oaked Chardonnay.

I especially love the 2013 vintage, which doesn’t appear to have hit the shelves here yet. It combines Chablis-style minerality and lively acidity with a floral note and manages to combine delicacy with bags of flavour. While you’re waiting for this to arrive, you’ll just have to try a bottle of the linear and intense 2012.

Coleraine 2010 - £49.95 from Berry Bros, £39.64 from, £46.29 from Flagship Wines. Older vintages available from various independents
In New Zealand terms, Coleraine is a positively antediluvian wine, dating back to 1982. It’s the jewel in the crown of Te Mata’s wines and arguably one of New Zealand’s finest. If you have expensive tastes in claret, this could be a relatively cheap option.

It’s a classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and it has classic Bordeaux proportions too: medium, not full, bodied and with a sense of power reined in; dark cassis fruit with cassia and clove spice along with juicy acidity are there now. You could certainly enjoy it now, but wouldn’t necessarily see the point of it for a few years yet.

If you’d like that Bordeaux blend in something to enjoy rather sooner (and more cheaply!), then search out a bottle of Te Mata’s Awatea. There’s some lovely summer pudding style fruit (and acidity) here and prices for the 2009 vintage start at around £21 from various independent merchants.

Estate Vineyards Gamay Noir 2013 – £12.95 from The Wine Society; older vintages £13-15 from independent merchants

At the positively bargain end of things, I hugely enjoyed this Gamay (the Beaujolais grape) with its crunchy plum and raspberry fruit. It had the acidity and fruit intensity to stand up to a tomato and red pepper risotto and, like Beaujolais, is extra refreshing served lightly chilled.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Things we've forgotten to remember - rare grapes from Southwest France

I am constantly reminded of how little I really know about grapes and wine. Olivier Bourdet-Pees, Managing Director of dynamic Saint Mont-based Plaimont Producteurs gave a talk in London recently on (re)discovering some of the rarest grapes in Southwest France.

Some of you may already be familiar with some of this part of France’s horde of unique indigenous varieties, including the characterful white Mansengs (Gros and Petit), Petit Courbu and Arrufiac; the fiercely tannic and ageworthy Tannat and the lighter, fruity Pinenc ( also known as Fer Servadou, Braucol and Mansois). These are the ones we know about – but are there many others waiting to be discovered?

In the 1970s and 80s, winemaker and oenologist André Dubosc began to work actively to reinvigorate the flagging fortunes of Saint Mont’s growers, who had previously provided grapes for distillation as Armagnac, by urging them to focus on the production of table wines instead. As part of this work he began noticing individual vines which seemed unlike their neighbours. In order to preserve this potentially interesting or valuable plant material, Dubosc would even go so far as to pay growers to maintain these vines, rather than uprooting them to replace them with known varieties.
You don't have to wear a beret if you work for Plaimont Producteurs...but it helps
The story moves on to 2002, when a “conservatory” of these potentially new varieties was established, containing 20 vines each of 39 distinct varieties, enough to make just 3-4 bottles of wine. By 2007, the science of DNA identification was brought to bear in identifying varieties, or in determining how they are related to existing varieties. Science has its limits, though, and 12 of the 39 are still unknown, in that they share no relationship with any known variety anywhere in the world. This means that this small corner of the winemaking world is potentially the home of 12 entirely new varieties – and who knows how many more lurking unnoticed in the vines?

Olivier told us that a number of these varieties were female, which had the audience rather non-plussed: we’ve all learnt that grape vines, Vitis vinifera, are self-fertile, or hermaphrodite. And yet it seems that it ain’t necessarily so. Oliver quoted the example of the Kiwi fruit: as many disappointed would-be growers of it know, it exists in both male and female form. Only the female plants are capable of bearing fruit, but they require a nearby male kiwi plant to fertilise them.

The same used to be true of grape varieties too, but we humans have bred out that characteristic, with the result that all the varieties that we come across in commercial vineyards are indeed self-fertile. Olivier predicts that within a hundred years we will have forgotten that the kiwi vine ever existed in male and female forms, as commercial breeders will have developed self-fertile vines and the old male/female varieties will have effectively become extinct.

After that food for thought, Olivier then led us through a tasting of some of the wines made from the potentially new varieties.

Pedebernade No 5 – there is no official name for these vines as yet, so they are named after the owners of the vineyards in which they were found. This is a red variety with interesting marzipan and cherry aromas, brisk acidity and low (10%) alcohol. On its own it makes for an odd wine, but Olivier feels it could have a future as a blending partner with the region’s renowned Tannat, which when ripe, can produce wines with overly high alcohol.

However, as a female vine, it is currently forbidden by INAO (the French organisation which governs the Appellation Contrôlée) to be grown commercially and no exception has yet been granted, so it may be a while before we see Pedebernade No5 (or whatever it ends up being called) appearing in Saint Mont’s red wines.

Pinenc RH4 – by contrast with the first variety we tried, this made a quite delicious wine, with the juicy red fruit and hint of pencil shaving that I associate with regular Pinenc/Fer, but with greater aromatic intensity, complexity and ripeness, while maintaining its freshness.

This is a particular selection of the widely-grown (in Southwest France that is) Pinenc. This version of it almost died out because the short, almost non-existent stalk between the vine and the grape bunches made it difficult to harvest – one person could harvest around 200kg of this per day, compared with 1,000 kg for “regular” Pinenc. In the 1970s, inferior quality clonal selections were made which facilitated more efficient harvesting, but which sacrificed quality to ease of picking.

Olivier hopes to have this RH4 version in commercial vineyards within two years.

Other varieties in the line-up were of interest because they add to our knowledge of the interrelationships between varieties. Dubosc No 2 made a nice enough wine, but the real interest lies in the fact that it is related to the variety Madeleine Noire des Charentes, which is itself “an awful grape” according to Olivier, but nevertheless important in our understanding of grape varieties as it is a parent of internationally renowned Merlot and Cot (aka Malbec). In vines, as in life it seems, a close genetic relationship is no guarantee of quality.

This is all very interesting in its own way, but what about wines that you might actually be able to buy?

How about a taste of wine made from vines planted in 1890, some of the very first to be grafted onto American rootstocks in the wake of the devastation caused by the splendidly named pylloxera vastatrix?

La Madeleine Saint Mont 2012 - £43.50 from Adnams
This 100% Tannat wine exhibits the variety’s hallmark tannic structure and weight, with masses of rich, dark fruit and mineral pull.

Do not be in any hurry to drink this, though; it has many years ahead of it. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Attack of the great whites

“The first duty of wine is to be red” pronounced one of the UK wine trade’s grandees, Harry Waugh. It does seem that, when it comes to truly great or fine wine, red has more gravitas.

However, recently I find myself increasingly drawn to white wine – and particularly to the white wines of South Africa.

When I first came across South African wines in the mid-nineties the reds were a mixed bunch: easy drinking, soft reds, others with a bit of rusticity, some just downright tough – and often with a characteristic hint of rubber glove about them. Many whites, usually made from Chenin Blanc, were pretty dull; stripped of personality by high yields.

In the intervening twenty years, the pace of change in South Africa has been breathtaking. In the era of apartheid, grape growers were rewarded for volume rather than quality; the fact that in 1990, 70% of the grape harvest was destined either for brandy or fruit juice production tells its own story. And yet, by 2003, the proportions had reversed and 70% of the harvest went on to be made into wine.

Today South Africa is one of the world’s most exciting wine producing nations. It’s a place where natural and human influences meet. The Cape is at the confluence of two oceans – Atlantic and Indian. Historically it also played a vital role in bridging the divide between the Old and New worlds in the era of the Dutch East Indies company. The very first Cape grapes were pressed to make wine in 1659, when Jan van Riebeck was charged with developing a market garden to supply ships bound for the Indies with fresh produce in order to alleviate scurvy amongst the sailors and merchants.

While much of South Africa is far too hot and dry for wine grape growing, the area around Cape Town, where the winelands cluster, has a benign Mediterranean climate. Additionally the cold Benguela current flowing north from Antarctica and the so-called Cape Doctor southeasterly summer wind combine to ensure this part of the country is cooler than its latitude would suggest, and help to keep vines free of rot.

The most momentous change, however, is in the human sphere. After the isolation of apartheid there has been a new spirit of openness and an explosion of creativity. Stellenbosch, the heartland of quality wine is still the capital of wine production, but winemakers are spreading out to new, cooler areas, as well as reinventing old, poorly regarded areas such as Swartland and reinventing them as the home of sustainable, high quality winemaking.

Wines to look out for:

The Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc 2103 - £12.49 from Noel Young Wines, £10.75 if you buy 6 from
Here’s proof that Chenin Blanc is capable of making much more than dull, crisp wines. The Tea Leaf in question here is Rooisbos, South Africa’s indigenous herbal tea (an acquired taste). Auto-suggestion or not, but this Chenin does seem to have a distinct herbal edge alongside its tangy, ripe pineapple fruit, which may or may not be due to the nearby Rooibos plantation. Smart packaging too.

Ghost Corner The Bowline 2012 - £17.99 from SA Wines Online, £19.49 from The Wine Library
This very classy blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc from really very cool Elim, in South Africa’s most southerly district of Cape Agulhas, could be just the thing to refresh the palate of jaded Sauvignon Blanc fans. I find the ubiquitous Sauvignon a bit meh, but this made me stand up and take notice. The Semillon fills out the Sauvignon’s more vegetal flavour profile with lime fruit, and the barrel fermenting and ageing add texture and subtle lees character.

Thorne and Daughters Rocking Horse White 2013 - £24.95 from Edgmond Wines
A new venture, established only in 2012, is responsible for this knockout wine made from parcels of vines from Western Cape – the catch-all name for all of South Africa’s wine lands. Care is evident in every facet of this rich but structured white, based on the Rhône’s Roussanne grape, along with Chardonnay, Semillon and a little Chenin Blanc. A wine to linger over, which shows you something new with every sip.

Reyneke Reserve White - £19.79 for the 2010 from SA Wines Online, also at independent merchants
Reyneke are based in Stellenbosch, South Africa’s wine central. Reyneke, however, depart from tradition and are the country’s leading biodynamic estate. I was surprised to find that this is 100% Sauvignon Blanc: it has such layers and nuances of lush fruit, length and complexity I had assumed it must be a blend.   

Mullineux White Blend 2012 - £17.95 from Berry Brothers, SA Wines Online
Mullineux Family wines was established only in 2007, but has enjoyed a meteoric rise, including being awarded Winery of the Year in the 2014 edition of the influential Platter’s Guide to South African Wines.

They are based in Swartland, arguably the most exciting region in the whole country for its combination of schist and granite soils and store of old, unirrigated Chenin Blanc bush vines. In the past Swartland was used as a source of bulk fruit for blending or distillation. Now smaller growers are moving in, making use of the old vine Chenin and planting Rhône varietals which thrive in the hot, dry climate. Many, including Mullineux, are also focused on quality and non intervention – so no irrigation of the vines or acidification of the wines.

To the wine – it’s a blend of predominantly Chenin Blanc, with a dash of Rhône varieties Clairette and Viognier. Fermentation relies on natural wild yeasts and takes place in (older) oak barrels, where the wine stays until bottled six months later. If you like to have a sense of where your wine comes from and don’t object to minerality in your wine, to the extent that it can feel like a bit of that schist must have been in the barrel with it, then this is for you.

All that fizzes is not Champagne

The British have a huge appetite for fizz – not only are we the number one export market for Champagne, but we also lap up a host of other sparkling wines.

This has been a huge success story and has kick-started our renewed love of “everyday” fizz in recent years. From a niche product 20 years ago, it has now become ubiquitous.

Why do we love it so? It’s a Martini type of drink – any time, any place, anywhere. It’s easy going, fresh and fruity, usually a little sweet, but, importantly, doesn’t overtly say so on the label. The most commonly encountered version of Prosecco is “Extra Dry”, which in effect means off dry – Brut is sparkling winespeak for dry. It’s very easy to enjoy on its own, which suits the UK way of drinking.

Prosecco now exists in two quality levels. Prosecco DOCG is, at least in theory, top of the Italian wine pyramid of quality and applies to Prosecco produced in the heartland around the villages of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene. The larger Prosecco DOC area covers a large area of the Veneto in north eastern Italy and tends to produce simpler, less intense styles.

What accounts for its style?
-          The grape variety – Glera is fairly neutral with naturally high acidity, which usually requires some sweetness to balance it.
-          The region of production – this part of the Veneto, especially the DOCG area, is made up of green, hilly sites and is relatively cool.
-          Production method – Prosecco uses the prosaic-sounding tank method, which helps to preserve the freshness of the fruit and cool fermentation aromas of pear, apple and elderflower.

What is tank method?
All sparkling wine starts its life as a still wine and a second fermentation is usually used to make it sparkle. Any alcoholic fermentation will naturally produce carbon dioxide (CO₂) which, if not allowed to escape into the atmosphere, will be forced into the wine, making it fizzy.

For Prosecco and many other types of sparkling wine, this second fermentation takes place in a sealed tank.

Before the arrival of Prosecco, Cava was our go-to bargain fizz. Cava refers to the method of production rather than a specific area – Cava can be made in many parts of Spain – but the vast majority (85%) and pretty much all we see here is from Penedès in Catalonia.

Cava is made using the same method as Champagne, which we are duty bound to call traditional method, or “méthode traditionelle”, but is often aged for less time.

Traditional method is distinguished from tank method in that the second fermentation takes place in bottle and involves spending a certain amount of time ageing “on the lees” in the bottle. In this way a relatively small amount of wine is gently interacting with the lees (predominantly dead yeast cells post fermentation) so over time there is the opportunity for a process known as autolysis to take place.

Autolytic characters can be hard to pin down and indeed there is some debate about how long a wine needs to be on its lees before this has any effect. It is generally associated with the richer mouthfeel and biscuit and bready notes that can be found in long lees-aged sparkling wines.

Separating the wine from its lees involves some processing – riddling is undertaken to bring the sediment into the neck of the bottle, now mostly done automatically in robotic machines known as “gyropalettes”. The necks of the bottles are then immersed in a freezing solution to freeze the sediment solid. The bottle is uncorked and the plug of frozen sediment shoots out under pressure from the CO₂ in the wine. The bottle is topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar known as “liqueur d’expédition”, which determines the final sweetness level, and re-corked.  The whole process is known as disgorgement.

Chardonnay has started to creep in to some Cavas, giving it a more international style but the three traditional Catalan varieties of Macabeu, Xarel.lo and Parellada help to give Cava its own distinct style. For my money Cava tends to have a very fresh character, slightly earthy and, sometimes, a less welcome hint of burnt rubber.

Legally, non vintage Champagne must spend 15 months maturing in bottle, though in practice most spend longer than this on their lees, resulting in those biscuity autolytic aromas which are such a hallmark of Champagne.

The big Champagne names, often called houses, each have their own style, exemplified in their non vintage blend, on which they labour to maintain consistency from year to year and bottle to bottle.

Most non vintage Champagnes draw on the classic trio of grape varieties in differing proportions: Chardonnay, which gives elegance and finesse; Pinot Noir, for backbone, power and longevity; and Pinot Meunier, which has lovely expressive fruit, especially in youth. It is often Pinot Meunier which provides much of the interest in young Champagnes, taking centre stage before the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir get into their stride as time goes on.

Although Non Vintage, most of these Champagnes will be based predominantly on the harvest of a single year, with the addition of a proportion of reserve wines from previous vintages to give depth and to preserve consistency. Another element in the blend is the availability of vineyard holdings in the different villages (or Crus) which make up the region. The houses tend to own some vines, but never enough to cater for their total requirements, so they will buy in grapes (or juice) from some of the region’s hundreds of individual growers.

Thus a “standard” non vintage blend will often be the made up from fruit grown in many sites from across Champagne. Taittinger’s Brut Réserve Non Vintage contains fruit from a total of 35 villages. The mosaic of sites with different soils, aspects, varieties – terroir in short – provides a rich source on which to draw.

That mixture of art and science which constitutes the blending process to combine young, raw – and still – wines from each parcel of vines into a finished non vintage cuvée is, I think, what really helps to set Champagne apart. Things like experience of past harvest conditions, how different parcels perform in a blend over time, how the different varieties interact and so on, build up over years and rely on knowledge passing from generation to generation. And this is what we are tasting when we pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne.  

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Corkscrews and canvas - tales of a wine-loving camper

Since acquiring a jolie-laide 1981 VW camper van seven years ago, I’ve become a habitual camper after a decades-long hiatus. Being wine-obsessed, I have naturally made it my mission to try to combine my two passions.

A welcome sign

It has been scientifically proven that beer tastes better when drunk in the shelter of a beer tent while rain gently falls outside, perfuming the air with the scent of mud and wet grass. OK, I made that up, but you can kind of see how it might be true can’t you?
The van takes in the view
In the same vein, I think there’s enjoyment to be had combining the fruit of the vine with the great outdoors. Here, for what it’s worth, are the pearls of wisdom that I have unearthed over the years.

-          The experience of eating and drinking while camping is not great on paper, I admit. Drinking white wine that’s too warm or red that’s too cold and trying to eat from a plate in your lap while avoiding coleslaw oozing onto your shorts, as midges and mossies feast on any exposed flesh – any volunteers?
-          It’s well nigh impossible to keep things properly cold (as indeed it is to serve up properly hot food) so avoid those wines that need to be well chilled in order to be enjoyed fully. I don’t want to come over as impossibly precious, the kind of person who insists on drinking their white Burgundy at exactly 12⁰C – heaven knows, that’s easy enough to achieve in a typical British summer. But Champagne or sparkling wine that really isn’t cold enough is an undedifying experience. Red is always going to be the safest option.  And lightly chilled, fruity reds are great.
-          Glasses – plastic is pretty nasty, but it’s not wise to take your best Riedels either. I compromise with glass tumblers – no spindly stems to worry about. When camping, if anything can fall over, it will. 
-          A nip of sweet Sherry does a great job of providing instant central heating following a stint in the sea, or just a damp day in the hills.
-          And finally, if you’re wondering whether to have one final glass of grog before turning in – remember, the loos are probably a dark and guy-rope ridden walk away.  

France is where I’ve done most of my camping in recent years and it is a wine-lover’s dream. I’m not sure my family get quite as excited about it as I do, especially when I pull over yet again to take photos of some really good pudding stones in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or get caught up in a conversation about vintage conditions with a winemaker. But they also have their own wine-themed memories – how many boys can say they have bumped into a glass wall at Champagne Drappier before the age of 12?

 A plentiful supply of both campsites and wine regions are crying out to you to make your own French discoveries. The network of Campings municipaux means you are rarely more than a few kilometres from somewhere to pitch camp and they are generally well laid out with flat pitches (British campsite owners take note – a soggy, sloping field does not make a for a good site). We rarely book any sites in advance and just hop on a ferry and head south until the weather suits our clothes, as the song goes.

A word to the wise, a quirk of French campsite loos means that they tend to have either loo seats or loo roll, but very rarely both. On the plus side, many sites will get a visit from the local boulangerie in the morning, so you can enjoy the proper French breakfast experience to set you up for a day’s strenuous wine tasting.
Zero tolerance
Sometimes you don’t even have to leave your site to taste some of the local wine. On more than one occasion, wine producers have actually turned up at our campsite to offer a try before you buy tasting, making for a very civilised way to choose something to go with that evening’s salade niçoise. We eat a lot of salade niçoise on holiday.

Memorable campsites with a wine connection

La Grappe d’Or in Burgundy is not especially remarkable as campsites go, though it does have a decent swimming pool which observes the peculiar French habit of closing for a long lunch break. What makes this special for wine lovers is the location, surrounded as it is by the vineyards of Meursault. Where else can you do your washing up outdoors with a view of Premier Cru vines in the setting sun?

Meursault vines at La Grappe d'Or

Champagne lovers should make a bee-line for the Camping Municipal at Epernay, which puts you within striking distance of many of the big names, as well as countless smaller ones of Champagne. It shares a site with the canoe-kayak club, so the energetic can paddle along the Marne for an hour or so. A bakery van calls every morning, its presence announced by a prolonged toot on its horn – no lie-ins here.

The perfect wine and camping scenario is that offered by Champagne Nowack at Vandières in the Marne Valley. A small site set amongst the vines (a bit sloping, but with flat places) with luxurious hotel-standard loos and showers, barbecues to borrow and table tennis to play. The best bit though, is that you can pop into reception and pick up a chilled bottle of their Champagne, an ice bucket and proper glasses to drink from. Technically speaking, it’s not the best fizz I’ve ever had, but let me tell you, on a hot evening after a day’s travelling it’s like the nectar of the Gods. 

Nowack nectar of the Gods

Wine-ing in the great outdoors

Summer’s long and, currently, balmy evenings are here and it feels like you haven’t really made the most of them until you’ve enjoyed something cold and (in my book) alcoholic in the garden. We have even had the weather to eat comfortably outside of an evening, so I feel duty bound to offer some helpful hints for which wines to choose to fit the occasion.

Everyone loves a top 10 (or Top 100 if you’re Channel 4), so here they are:

Top 10 Tips for Outdoor Summer Drinking

1.       Complexity and subtlety are the first casualties of outdoor drinking (along with any sense of moderation some might say), so now is not the time to uncork the treasured bottle of white Burgundy or fine claret that you’ve been squirreling away for a special occasion.
2.       Go for simple, bold aromas and flavours that can stand up to being drunk outside.
3.       At lunchtime, keep it light – both in terms of the wine style and alcohol level.  Prosecco fits the bill on both counts, as does Vinho Verde and dry Semillon from Australia. 
4.        Will you be dressing for dinner? If a vinaigrette dressing features on the menu, you’ll find rosé will stand up well to the combination of sharpness and oiliness. White wines can often end up sharp tasting and short of fruit when paired with a dressed salad; the tannins in red wine can react badly with it and make for a horrible combination. Rosé drinkers are spoilt for choice nowadays, but a classic match for a classic salade niçoise would be an elegantly pale, dry and savoury Provence rosé. If the dressing is lemon and/or lime dominant, I would go for a dry Riesling (try Austrian or Australian), or again a dry Semillon from Australia.  
5.       Barbecues, our default setting when eating outdoors, are the enemy of anything understated – you need to think big and bold.  Aussie Shiraz springs to mind, but think also of the savoury spice of a good Côtes du Rhône, or the pronounced smokiness of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a Chilean Carmenère.
6.       White wine drinkers have plenty to choose from too. I might sometimes deplore Kiwi Sauvignon, and its ilk, for its lack of finesse and downright “slap you round the chops” pungency – but it’s a blessing here. For a change you could also look for wines made from Viognier (weighty, peachy fruit) or Grenache Blanc (weighty, herbal/spicy flavours).
7.       If fridge space is tight, or you’re just in a hurry to cool things down, an ice bucket (or just a bucket) with ice AND water is the quickest way to chill drinks. Please don’t plonk an ice cube straight into a glass of wine – or not into mine anyway.
8.       Think about chilling red wine – on a hot day, red wine at room temperature can seem a bit soupy and unrefreshing. Chilling won’t suit all red wines – but what’s the worst that can happen? You can always just let it warm back up again. Reds that work well chilled need to have plenty of fruit and not much tannin – think Beaujolais or New World Pinot Noir.
9.       If guests arrive hot and thirsty, it would be both kind and sensible to offer something low in alcohol – or even non-alcoholic as an initial thirst quencher, rather than have them plunge straight into a glass of 14% alchohol red wine on arrival. I’m planning on unleashing my Aperol Spritz on guests this weekend, (3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol, 1 part soda water) which I reckon should be under 10% alcohol. I have it on good authority that non-drinkers (and designated drivers) now find elderflower cordial a bit meh, so try and find something new to tempt them. Try a lemonade punch – strong tea, lemon juice and sugar, topped up at the last minute with ginger ale and mint sprigs. You can of course also add rum.

10.   Finally, a word of warning: beware Pimm’s. It’s so inoccuous-tasting that you forget you’re drinking something alcoholic and it can slip down all too easily in the sun. All that fruit floating around in it does not, I’m afraid, cancel out the alcohol.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Wine is not the only drink - are aperitifs making a comeback?

It seems that cocktail hour may be making a reappearance in our lives. And instead of the usual gin and tonic, we are getting more exotic in our tastes. While a couple of full strength vodka martinis before dinner might be too much for you (it is for me), there is fun to be had in seeking out specialist aperitifs that get the digestive juices flowing, without knocking your block off.

Vermouth is possibly the most famous style of specialist aperitif. The process to make it sounds straightforward enough: various botanicals are steeped in grape spirit for a period of time and then mixed with wine and caramel to give the required level of sweetness to balance the dryness of the wine and the bitterness of the herbs. In order to qualify as vermouth, one of the botanicals must be wormwood or Artemisia absinthium. And yes, the Latin name gives you a clue that this is the same herb used to make Absinthe, rocket fuel of the Parisian demi monde, the wormwood giving it its hallmark green tinge. Wormwood has also been credited with causing hallucinations in Absinthe drinkers, even madness – though I feel the very high alcohol level (often over 50% up to over 70%) might also have had something to do with any ill effects.

The German for wormwood, Wermut, gives us vermouth in English. Vermouths tend to be around 14-20% alcohol, roughly the same as sherry and port. 

The birthplace of vermouth is Italy and its second home is France. The big names, Cinzano and Martini, are both based in Turin, northern Italy. Noilly Prat, the classic French vermouth hails from Marseillan, not far from Béziers in southern France. Noilly Prat Original Dry, with its full flavoured style and hint of herbal bitterness would be my choice for a classic vodka martini, though in truth I don’t think I’ve ever asked for it by name – how on earth do you say it? Anglicising it to “Noily Prat” sounds daft, but the apparently correct way to say it in French, “Nwa-ee Pra” sounds equally silly. I once tried to get a French colleague to help me out, but he insisted that “C’est pas français ça” and seemed to think I was trying to trick him into saying something rude and that he was not about to fall into my trap.

THE big aperitif story of the last couple of years has been Aperol, or specifically Aperol spritz. Aperol shares some characteristics with vermouth, but the dominant flavouring is quinine, derived from the bark of the quinquina tree, rather than wormwood, making it a quinquina. Aperol originated in Padua in Italy and became popular between the wars. It’s a slightly disconcertingly bright orange colour and has a bitter-sweet flavour profile – think of a less brightly coloured and less intensely  flavoured Campari.  The in vogue way to drink it is as a spritz: 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda water, over ice with a  slice of orange. As Aperol is only around 11% alcohol to start with, this ends up being a lightish option as an aperitif and has the virtue of being fizzy, which is what we Brits seem to require in our drinks currently.

There are no hard and fast rules about the different categories of aperitif and you might also come across Americano, which is usually grouped with the quinquinas as this ingredient is generally part of the recipe. Another issue which muddies the waters is that these drinks usually involve proprietary blends of herbs and spices and the exact recipes will be jealously guarded. 

Other quinquinas you might encounter:

Dubonnet was originally developed as a way of making quinine palatable to French foreign legionnaires fighting in malaria-infested parts of Africa. Its glory days are probably behind it (or maybe it’s due a revival) but it is thought to be a favourite tipple of the Queen, with equal parts Dubonnet and gin I understand. Respect, your Majesty.

Byrrh is a stalwart of dusty roadside bars anywhere in deepest France and is something that I’ve never actually tasted - another example of not knowing how to say it. Well I do know how to say it, which is “beer” – but an English person asking for that in a French bar is much more likely to end up with a glass of Kronenbourg than a small glass of a quintessentially French aperitif. I must be braver!

The French have a fondness for a range of herbal-based drinks, including  Suze, which is flavoured with gentian, making for a really bitter drink, and St Raphael, which is red, fruity sweet and only slightly bitter. It’s hard to know if these should be classed as vermouths or quinquinas. You might also come across Dolin from Chambéry on the edge of the French alps, which is possibly a “true” vermouth.

Such discoveries illustrate how hard it can be to classify aperitifs, but also one of the pleasures of exploring them:  they often reflect local tastes and there are some hugely popular drinks in certain regions which are unknown elsewhere.

My latest vermouth discovery hails not from France or Italy, but Archway, north London. Sacred Spiced is an authentic vermouth based on predominantly English produce. The base wine is provided by Three Choirs in Gloucestershire, it contains thyme grown in Somerset and the organically grown  wormwood originates in the New Forest. Other ingredients, including cubeb (a type of peppercorn berry) and cloves obviously have to be imported. It’s a rich chestnut brown colour with a good balance of bitterness and sweetness with flavours of orange zest and spicy complexity. It would make a cracking Negroni – 2 parts gin to 1 each of vermouth and Campari. Available from Caves de Pyrene for £48.

Monday, 7 July 2014

From bags to Bordeaux - a chat with Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe of Cru Bourgeois

The French Appellation Contrôlée system is famously based on guaranteeing the geographical origin of a wine, rather than focusing on the quality of what is actually in the bottle – something that causes a headache for those who are trying to sell French wine and the consumers who wonder what the difference is between a bottle of Bordeaux at £4 and one at £24.

Six years ago, the châteaux who were members of the then rather moribund Cru Bourgeois classification of the Médoc decided to break with tradition and to let their wines stand or fall on the basis of an objective measure of the wines’ quality.

Frédérique Dutheillet de Lamothe was in London recently to help spread the word about the Bordeaux classification that is unlike any other. With her background working for Tom Ford at Gucci, she knows a thing or two about building and protecting a brand.

The term Cru Bourgeois has been around for many years, but its new incarnation began with the official selection from the 2008 vintage. The latest selection, from the 2011 vintage, was published in September 2013. All independent châteaux in the Médoc are elegible to participate from the eight appellations of Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis, Margaux, Pauillac, Saint Julien and Saint-Estèphe.

Whereas the appellation rules guarantee the geographic origin of a wine, Cru Bourgeois is a measure of a wine’s quality. Cru Bourgeois acts as an overlay to the existing Appellations, rather than attempting to replace them.

In 2011 256 producers were selected as Crus Bourgeois out of a total of 350, representing annual production of 28 million bottles, which is around 30% of total Médoc production. The average price of a bottle of Cru Bourgeois is £17, with prices ranging from around £10 up to £47.

The truly radical aspect of the new Cru Bourgeois is the way wines are awarded the right to use the name. Under the old system, if your château was lucky enough to have been classified as Cru Bourgeois, bingo – you had the right to use the name, year in year out, regardless of the quality of what was being produced. Now, in the new Cru Bourgeois system an annual blind tasting by a group of professional tasters is what determines the ability of a château to use the name.

Each year producers have to maintain quality levels in order to be awarded Cru Bourgeois. There is no automatic qualification based on previous years’ performance and no grace period to regain form after a dip.

Feedback from retailers, at least in France, is that they have seen a huge rise in quality in the short time that the new system has been operating. The number of Cru Bourgeois with distribution in the US has risen by 25% in the past year and around 40% of Cru Bourgeois have a retail presence in the UK.

So far so good – but how many of you, as wine consumers, are aware of the Cru Bourgeois system? Here Frédérique has a job on her hands, “The term Cru Bourgeois has been in existence for many years, but has been something of a sleeping giant. Our job is to reawaken it in the consumer’s mind.” she says.  Without an unlimited marketing budget, it’s difficult to reach out to every consumer. However, social media is a key part of any brand’s marketing mix nowadays, allowing them to connect directly with the public: they use QR codes on the Cru Bourgeois bottle sticker, for example, which links to information specific to the particular château.

There used to be around 500 Crus Bourgeois under the old system, so the current crop of just over 250 represents a significant pruning of dead wood. And 250 may still sound like a lot (and it is), but when you think that there are around 8,000 châteaux in the whole Bordeaux area, it does help to sort the wheat from the chaff. We often forget just how big a wine producing region Bordeaux is – it produces more wine each year than many countries do.

Frédérique’s previous experience at Gucci means she has a deep understanding of how to manage a brand. As she puts it “We treat the Cru Bourgeois name as a brand and take care to reinforce use of the logo, ensuring it is always used on bottles, at events and in all our communications. 25-30 million bottles of Cru Bourgeois are produced each year – and each bottle is a marketing tool. Our name can help consumers to choose from the vast array of wines on the shelf, providing confidence in the quality of wines from some of the world’s most famous appellations.”

Bordeaux is experiencing its fair share of wine woes. There is still too much poor quality, dull stuff produced at the cheaper end of the market, dragging down the reputation of Bordeaux with it. At the other end of the scale, the internationally successful classed growth châteaux and stars of Pomerol and St Emilion have seen their prices rise beyond the reach of many traditional claret drinkers. In the middle sits Cru Bourgeois, hoping to appeal to disillusioned classed growth buyers who are trading down and to newer Bordeaux drinkers who are able to trade up from the stubbornly low amount (still around £5) that we are prepared to pay for a bottle of wine in the UK.

Cru Bourgeois picks from the current 2011 selection:

Château Mongravey Margaux 2011 – around £20 from 3D wines
This is nicely defined, with sweet, ripe and juicy fruit from Margaux, renowned for producing the Médoc’s most charming and “feminine” wines. Call me shallow, but I find the name irrestistible too.

Château Beaumont 2011 - £18-20 from The Wine Society, Justerini & Brooks

Haut-Médoc’s wines can be some of the most traditional claret; traditionalists will not be disappointed with this wine of classic Bordeaux proportions, present tannins and fresh fruit. As you would expect, this will mellow over the next five years and promises plenty of enjoyment to come.  

Friday, 20 June 2014

The beautiful game - and the beautiful drink

Everyone knows that wine and football go together like, oh I don’t know, Posh Spice and a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Which is to say, not at all. Undeterred, I shall press on in my mission to tie together the fruit of the vine and the beautiful game.

Over the coming weeks, you can drink along-a-football with my handy guide to footballing nations and their vinous claims to fame. With apologies to Chris Evans, Vassos Alexander and Radio 2 (ie please don’t sue me), here’s my Top Tenuous of World Cup and wine. 

At Number 10 – England. I know we did win it once but the brutal truth is that we don’t look likely to do so again anytime soon. Our wine fortunes, however, have been looking up in recent years, so now you can be proud to toast the success (or, let’s face it, probably lack of it) with some top flight English fizz.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009: winner of a Gold medal and the English Sparkling Wine Trophy at this year’s International Wine Challenge. It shows that we do know how to be world beaters at something. £35.99, down to £30.58 a bottle if you buy two at Majestic; £27.50 from The Wine Society and £31.99 from Waitrose.

A surprise package at number 9 is Switzerland, notoriously the target of a barb from Orson Welles, playing Harry Lime in the film The Third Man: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love…500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The comment is hardly fair or accurate: they produced Swiss Army knives too didn’t they? Unbeknownst to many of us they have also been making wine for quite some time, but tend to drink most of it themselves.

Look out for weighty, complex whites made from Petite Arvine and reds from Humagne Rouge. Alpine Wines (formerly Nick Dobson Wines) is the UK Specialist.

France appears at number 8. After their World Cup win in 1998, there have been mixed fortunes for France, both as a footballing and wine producing nation: domestic wine consumption is falling and increasing competition in export markets has put the squeeze on French producers.

There is no doubting the class of French wines, and any wine lover is spoilt for choice when it comes to wine styles. From bone dry whites, to full bodied reds via lipsmacking rosés and not forgetting Champagne, there really is something for everyone. But please, spend over £7 if you want to find something worthwhile.  

In at number 7, Portugal’s football fortunes are essentially dependent on whether Cristiano Ronaldo has his goal scoring boots on. Wine-wise, Portugal has a much broader team to draw on, with a vast array of unique native grape varieties. Winemaking techniques have caught up with the quality of the raw materials, making this one of the world’s most exciting wine producers.

Thrilling, complex reds from the Douro Valley. Crasto Douro Red is £10.99, or £9.34 if you buy 2, at Majestic. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Douro red is also made by the same producer and is £8.25.

Italy, at number 6, can never be ruled out of the running when it comes to football, and the same holds for its wines. Second only to France in the global wine production stakes, we have probably all had our fair share of disappointing reds and mind-numbingly dull whites from Italy in the past. The quality revolution has come here too though, so dip your toe in and you could find yourself charmed by an Italian all over again.

Fiano makes juicy stonefruit-tinged whites. Look out for Tesco’s Finest Fiano, currently down from £7.99 to £5.99.
Number 5 brings us to the Netherlands. Consistent performers on the pitch, they are also, surprisingly, a wine nation, albeit a small one.

You’re unlikely to find any Dutch wine here in the UK, so probably best to stick with beer.

A shudder goes through the English at the combination of football and the country at number 4 – Argentina. Hand of God and all that. Best leave it at that and concentrate on their wine-making abilities.

It’s all about Malbec isn’t it? Bags of fruit, barbecue and meat friendly: perfect summer red. I have a fondness for the greater refinement and Messi-like silky skills of Pulenta Estate’s Gran Cabernet Franc - £25-28 at Berry Brothers and The Good Wine Shop.

For England there’s no getting past the country at number 3 – Germany. So often the team who lead to England’s footballing downfall, they seem full of confidence and technical ability. What of German wines though?

It’s time we overcame our prejudices and had another go at German wines – many more Trocken (dry) whites from Riesling are now available, which should help to convince us that German wine doesn’t have to taste like dolly mixture.

Louis Guntrum Dry Riesling, £8.95 from The Wine Society

At number 2, Spain, the current cup holders, are sitting pretty. It seems unlikely that they could triumph again, but they are certainly easy on the eye on the pitch.

Spain’s wines are pretty easy on the palate too – who doesn’t love the mellow fruitiness and hint of shoe polish of a Rioja Reserva?

Great value Rioja Navajas Crianza from The Wine Society – textbook smooth and sleek Rioja style for £7.75 a bottle. 

And at number 1 – home nation Brazil may be more known for rain forests, poverty, those buttock-revealing bikinis and (possibly related) frankly dodgy body grooming practices. But it is also a wine producer and the UK is now its biggest export market, which leads me to conclude that I wasn’t the first person to hit on this wine and football connection.

Carnival Sparkling Moscato NV £9.99 or Coconova Sparkling Brut £8.99, both from Marks & Spencer for some frothy fun.

As they say in Brazil, tim tim! Which must be Portuguese for “Come on Tim!” – how nice of them, if a little out of date now.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A taste of the Surrey Hills

Time was, English (and Welsh) wine was something to try for its novelty value. You didn’t expect it to taste much like wine as you knew it – and much of the time, that expectation was fulfilled.

In recent years, however, quality levels have shot up and consistently enjoyable wines from England and Wales are no longer a novelty. In fact, at a recent event to mark the launch of the Surrey Hills Trust Fund, I was challenged to select wines only from the Surrey Hills.

Eating locally grown produce is something we are all familiar with. Is it now possible to think about drinking locally in the same way?

Winemaking in the UK has a long history, which may date back to the time of the Romans. It is tempting to imagine our Romano-British ancestors reclining on their couches and knocking back locally produced wine, as they while complain about the state of the weather, bemoan the performance of their team in the chariot racing and ask the servants to turn up the hypocaust.

Archaeological evidence certainly exists for wine drinking, in the form of amphorae and drinking cups; as well as for viticulture. However, no evidence has yet been found of actual winemaking in Roman Britain, in the form of winery equipment, presses and so on, so they may have been downing Cuvée Asterix from Gaul rather than Vin de Pays de Surrey. 

Wine was certainly made in Britain from the late Saxon period onwards, though colder periods like the Little Ice Age (from around 1350-1850) will have wiped out some, if not all vineyards. Modern English winemaking began after the Second World War and plantings really took off from the mid 1990s, when we found that sparkling wine was where our strength lay.

The Surrey Hills are home to quality-focused sparkling wine producers including Greyfriars and High Clandon.

High Clandon
Sibylla and Bruce Tindale have planted a 1-acre vineyard in Clandon, with stunning views of London up to the Wembley arch and the Shard. They look after the vines and the wine itself is made by multi award-winning winemaker Sam Linter at Bolney Estate in Sussex.

They have just released their 2009 Succession Cuvée, a blend of just over half Chardonnay, with the remainder divided between Pinots Noir and Meunier. Over four years on its lees have given finesse and elegance to the Chardonnay fruit, with a floral hint on the nose and generous apple and spice on the palate.

They also made around a third of their (admittedly small) production as Ultra Cuvée 2009, based on the same base wine and blend, but with a lower dosage at disgorgement. This makes for a drier wine, but also changes the feel of the wine in the mouth, with fine, minerally acidity and more precisely defined fruit.

Both cuvees are available for £29. To find out more and to buy the wine, go to

Greyfriars Vineyard
Many of you will have driven past Greyfriars, on the Hog’s Back southwest of Guildford. For years I’ve thought what a fantastic spot this is for making wine – it has a southerly aspect and free draining chalk bedrock under a thin layer of soil. The original owners planted the first vines here in 1989, but Mike Wagstaff and his business partner took over in 2010 and have vastly expanded the plantings and are producing high quality wines which really do justice to the site.

They are shortly to release two wines:

Greyfriars Rosé Reserve 2012
A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which has spent nine months on its lees, retaining delicious fresh flavours of cream, blossom and peach, with a twist of pink peppercorn.

Greyfriars Blanc de Blancs 2011
A 100% Chardonnay, some of which was fermented in old oak barrels, and which has spent 21 months on its lees. I found this delightfully fresh with a hint of fresh ginger and breadiness on the nose and with a light bodied elegance.

Sparkling wines are definitely the stars of the English wine scene, but Surrey man (or woman) cannot live by fizz alone, and there are high quality still wines to choose from.

Albury Organic Vineyard Silent Pool Rosé 2013
Nick Wenman’s master plan is to produce a high quality organic sparkling wine from his vineyard across the A25 from Albury, just above Silent Pool.

His first vintage of sparkling wine will, he hopes, be released by the end of this year. However, in the meantime, he has made a bit of a splash with his still rosé. Serendipitously, the inaugural vintage was selected to be served on the royal barge for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, whereafter it promptly sold out. The 2013 has just been released and is available at a number of retail outlets for around £14-15. It is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with aromas and flavours of strawberries and cream and just a hint of fruit sweetness to balance the natural acidity.

Element 20 2011
Denbies is a name familiar to most locals and is possibly the only English wine producer that most Surreyites would be able to name. They make a wide range of wines, including award-winning sparkling wines, many of which are available to buy on the High Street and in supermarkets.

Also made at Denbies, and made using at least some fruit from their vineyard, is this ambitious barrel-fermented blend of Chardonnay with a little Pinot Gris and Bacchus. A rich but dry style of wine with chalky minerality, spice and a long, elegant finish. This is an exciting wine, perhaps inspired by white Burgundy, but a uniquely English expression of the style. I love it, but am clearly not alone as it was awarded a Silver Medal in the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Available online and elsewhere for £20 a bottle:

So, can you now drink locally without sacrificing quality? I think that’s a yes.