Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Apples and pears

It’s not often I am drawn to deviate from my abiding fascination with wine, but at the recent Big Apple day at Much Marcle (yes, ‘tis real, not an Agatha Christie invention) I had my head turned by cider – and perry.

Cider apple and perry pear orchard

First things first – cider is made from apples and perry from pears. Both can be either still or sparkling. And, just as wine can encompass the most anodyne mass markets blends to the small and artisanal, so it is with cider and perry.

Cider is enjoying a renaissance in popularity in the UK, but the drivers are the mass market brands like Strongbow, Magners and Koppaberg. In my early years I was a sucker for a glass of off-dry Woodpecker cider and as a student thought Merrydown had a certain cachet. However, just as many of us are now taking more of an interest in how and where our food came to be, so there is a growing interest in learning about the origins of what we drink. The craft beer scene is burgeoning, can craft cider be far behind?

Perry pressing at Gregg's Pit

Although I’ve just said that cider is made from apples, in fact, legally, cider and perry only has to be made from a minimum of 35% fruit – with the rest being made from sugar (often corn syrup) and water. And with large-scale producers, this is pretty much what you are getting – sugar and water are a lot cheaper and easier to get hold of than actual fresh apples and pears.

An ancient Gregg's Pit pear tree

I visited Hereford cider and perry producer, Gregg’s Pitt and got the chance to walk through the perry pear and cider apple orchards with the co-owner James Marsden. These orchards are part of our rural heritage: large, sometimes ancient trees whose size and unkempt air are a world away from commercial eating apple and pear orchards. Gregg’s Pitt itself is the name of a unique perry pear which originated on this one farm.

James Marsden

James speaks a language I’m familiar with from listening to winemakers: he revels in the individual character given by vintage variation, the mix of varieties used and the wild yeasts which naturally provoke fermentation – all those elements that are unique to their site and together make terroir.

So has my palate moved on from my early Woodpecker infatuation? I must confess that I still find most truly artisan cider a bit of a challenge, with its grippy apple tannins. But Gregg’s Pitt sparkling perry, a blend of the varieties Blakeney, Butt and Oldfield I was quite won over by. It’s light and refreshing, with a good balance of fruit flavour, acidity and grip – not unlike wine in fact.

Perhaps grapes are not the only fruit after all.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Wine-ding down the Loire

When I am asked what my favourite wine region is, I pull a fast one and often say the Loire. Because of course the Loire is not really a single region at all, but a succession of them, stretching all the way from the maritime Pays Nantais that produces Muscadet, through the Chenin Blanc based wines of Anjou, the sparkling wines of Saumur, the delicious whites of Vouvray and elegant reds of Chinon and Bourgueil and the crisp Sauvignon Blancs and juicy reds of Touraine and on to the classic Sauvignon Blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

From one end to the other, the Loire’s wine regions produce almost every conceivable style of wine, from elegant bone dry whites, to fresh and lively sparkling wines, via sappy red wines, dry and off-dry rosés and deliciously, lusciously sweet dessert wines. You can see why I bagsy this as my favourite can’t you? It’s a region that appeals to the naturally inquisitive – and to the naturally greedy.

Autumn seems to me the perfect time of year to enjoy the Loire’s wines. There’s an affinity between the fruits of the season – ripe apples and pears, truffles and mushrooms – and the flavours of the wines. Here are some of my perennial Loire favourites and some new discoveries:

Vouvray Brut “La Dilettante” Pierre Breton NV – Excel Wines £17 (min 6 bottles), D&D wines £20.50, Caves de Pyrène £18.60
Fizz lovers, pin back thy lugs as this concerns you: sparkling Vouvray is something that you really should get acquainted with. Made from Chenin Blanc and usually on a small, artisan scale, they combine lively, fresh acidity with riper, appley fruit than you find in Champagne and a certain gentleness. Also look out for Champalou Vouvray Brut NV (£13.95 from, £16.45 at Caves de Pyrène).

Château de Fesles Chenin Sec 2011 - £13.99 (down to £10.99 from 14 October) at Waitrose
Château de Fesles is famous for its delicious sweet wines, but this dry version is pretty special too. Rich but dry, with flavours of quince and a whiff of honey. Try this with pork and apple.

Saumur Champigny, Domaine des Roches Neuves “Terres Chaudes” 2013 - £19.95 (min 6 bottles) from Excel Wines and £21.70 from Caves de Pyrène
Saumur Champigny is the name of an appellation making red wines from Cabernet Franc. Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves is a really talented winemaker who manages to combine seriousness with enjoyment in his wines. Here you’ll find cherry and black cherry fruit with an edge of smokiness – what could be more Autumnal?

Côteaux du Layon Philippe Delesvaux “Les Clos” £18.75 for a 50cl bottle from H2Vin
If you are planning on making an apple tarte tatin any time soon, then a sweet Côteaux du Layon wine, from the versatile Chenin grape, is the perfect match. Rich baked apple fruit, with honeycomb and beeswax, but always a clean as a whistle finish thanks to crisp acidity, it’s a match made in heaven.

Loire wine lovers will want to get involved with Stars of the Loire, a month long festival celebrating some of the best wines from the region at a range of D&D restaurants such as Le Pont de la Tour, the Orrery and The Almeida in London. Wine lists at the restaurants will feature hidden gems from the Loire as well tastings and wine dinners running from now until 25 October. All the details are here:

Reader offer - I have a pair of tickets worth £45 each for Arts and Culture of the Loire talk and dinner hosted by Channel 4's Wendy Meakin at The Almeida on 21 October. Details of this event can be found here:  To be in with a chance of winning, please email me your name and postal address to Entrants will be added to my mailing list.

Winners will be chosen at random and the usual terms and conditions apply: the offer is open to UK resident over 18s and relates to the dinner only - you will be responsible for getting to and from the venue. There is no cash equivalent and my decision is final. Closing date for entering is Friday 16th October 2015.