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Three Red Wines from Japan – Hokkaido, Nagano and Yamanashi

Much like slicing poisonous fugu fish to make sushi, the knife-edge climate conditions in Japan create a tension in the red wines from Japan that thrill. Of course, the wines won’t kill you the way a misjudged slice of fugu can; but, for Japanese grapes, the climate can be life and death – it’s certainly not easy to ripen on an archipelago afflicted by monsoons and typhoons. When the grapes do ripen, the best Japanese wines show a unique freshness, delicacy and intensity. 

If Japanese wine is exported – and it is an if as most Japanese wine is consumed domestically – then it most likely be a light white wine from the grape called Koshu. Fine and soft in texture, most Koshu are very pale, almost akin to water, in appearance. Similarly, the red wines are also light in style, but are developing more fruit ripeness due to better site selection and more European varieties planted. How do the vines fare in Japan under these knife-edge conditions?

Japanese Wine Regions

Red Wines of Japan: Map of Japanese Wine Regions courtesy of Wine Regions of the World

3 Red Japanese Wines

Here are three red Japanese wines that are all from the same vintage but from three very different regions: Hokkaido, Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures. 

Tsurunuma Zweigelt 2015, Hokkaido Wine Company, Hokkaido Prefecture Japan

The island sitting apart from the rest of Japan, Hokkaido is not only cooler, but it is also cool – a lot of younger winemakers are attracted to the area for it’s relative affordability and lack of typhoon season.

Established in 1974, the Hokkaido winery first had German winemaking influence in its initial stages. The soft juicy Austrian red grape variety (a cross between St Laurent and Blaufrankisch) is well suited to the wetter weather in Japan with it’s late bud break and early ripening. The wine shows fresh and delicate plums and red cherries with a clean, spicy finish. 

Merlot ‘Cuvée Masako’ 2015, Kusunoki Winery, Nagano Prefecture Japan

In 2002, the Nagano Appellation Control (NAC) was founded. In 2004, the Japanese government relaxed laws to make it easier for boutique wineries to set up. One of the outcomes was a 5 hectare estate set up by Shigeyuki Kusunoki in 2004. 

Nagano is the largest producer of Merlot in Japan, although this is closer to Pinot Noir in style than the Merlot talked about in the Sideways film. A fragile pale ruby colour with good intensity on the palate – this is low sulfur, minimal intervention from this small vineyard.

Cabernet Franc 2015, Grace Wine, Yamanashi Prefecture Japan 

Grace Wine is one of the most successfully exported Japanese wineries from Yamanashi, the largest wine region in Japan. Although I had tasted their Koshu a few times in the past, I was excited to taste their red wine to see if it matched the quality I knew from the Koshu. Koshu has been grown in Yamanashi for thousands of years, while the Cabernet Franc is a more recent blow in from Europe. 

More Saumur in structure than Bordeaux, although even more delicate, the Grace Wine Cabernet Franc has a good intensity of fruit ripeness with soft tannins from the delicate extraction in the winery. The delicate touches of oak – spice, tobacco, vanillin characters – with no sign of unripe green character combined with the delicate berry fruit. 

This post was made possible thanks to Wines of Japan UK and a masterclass with Sarah Abbott MW at 67 Pall Mall, London on Tuesday 23rd October 2018

Image: Blue Bird and Wild Grape Vine, Rakusan Tsuchiya

Georgian Grapes and Wines (Organised by Region)

There’s plenty of exciting Georgian grapes yet to be explored. Considered the birthplace of wine, there are 525 recognised Georgian grapes with over 425 regularly grown – and that’s not including the wild grapes that are yet to be named. 

There are five main wine regions in Georgia, with 18 Protected Designations of Origin recognised by the international wine community, and below, you’ll find four main wine regions visited this year, which are unique to each other in terms of climate, soils, grapes and history.

Let’s take a look at what there is to know about the major Georgian grapes in four major regions of The Republic of Georgia.

Georgian grapes and Georgian Wine Appellations

Georgian Wine Appellations – courtesy of Wines of Georgia

Georgian Grapes and Wines

IMERETI region

On the eastern part of western Georgia, Imereti is one of the most diverse regions for Georgian grapes, ranging from humid sub-tropical in the Lower Imereti and ending up at 2850m high on alpine meadows. Seventy percent of the Imereti region is mountainous. The Black Sea provides a warm, moderating influence in the winter.

Traditional winemaking with qvevri is used here, which are called churi in Imereti. Here, after fermentation, the wine is left in churi for about 2 months, after the pulp is removed it is transferred to the barrels. The wines here have higher acidity than in Khahketi, which benefits the quality of white wines from here. There is one Imereti PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) called Sviri PDO, which can be a blend of Tsitska and Tsolikouri, although sometimes it has Krakhuna added. The result is a moderate alcohol wine with creamy fresh fruit and a perfumed finish. 

Georgian grapes - Tstiska-Tsolikouri

Georgian grapes – Tstiska-Tsolikouri from Vartishke Cellar in Imereti

Tsitska white grape

Grown in the cooler Upper Imereti, and often seen blended with Tsolikouri as Tsitska-Tsolikouri. The Tsitska offers high acidity, with fresh lemon, honey and melon characters. As mentioned above, it is one of the grapes in the Sviri PDO blend. 

Tsolikouri white grape

In the 19th century, Tsolikouri was the defining white grape of Georgia and the second-most planted grape after Rkatsiteli. It is considered one of the longest-ageing white wines in Georgia. More full-bodied than high-acidity Tsitska, which it is often blended successfully, it can shows character of citrus fruit, white plum, yellow fruit and floral notes. 

Krakhuna white grape

One of my favourite white wines in Georgia is indigenous to Imereti; a full-bodied white wine reminiscent of an unoaked white Rhone variety. It can be made in the traditional or international style successfully, although I enjoyed it the most with less than 100% time in churi. As a grape variety, it has moderate to high yields and can accumulate sugar easily while also retaining acidity. Higher alcohol, a fuller-body with smooth glycerol feel when made in stainless steel, it shows tropical fruits, apricot and honey notes.

Otskhanuri Sapere red grape

Another gem from Imereti. A beautiful ruby colour, medium weight, the tannins can be rough but older versions have a rich and deep elegance. 

Aladastouri red grape

Another red grape from Imereti that has tremendous potential. As a dry qvevri wine, there are crunchy raspberry and black cherry characters much like a young Piedmontese red. Despite its thick skins, the wine has a light colour. 

Georgian Grapes - Aladastouri at Agricultural Reserach Centre at Saguramo, Georgia

Georgian Grapes – Aladastouri at Agricultural Reserach Centre at Saguramo, Georgia

MESKHETI region

You can smell the dry heat of continental Turkey down here on the southern border of Georgia. Considered one of the ancient winemaking sites, vineyards are traditionally grown in the valleys of the Mtkavari River. Although 900m is the lowest altitude at which vineyards are planted, so it is still very high altitude viticulture with long hours of sunshine. This is one of the driest regions of Georgia, with harsh winters and frost.

According to Georgian researchers, many Georgian grapes could have originated here, such as Saperavi. Natenadzes’ wine cellar – who considers himself a cultural historian rather than winemaker – is one of the only ones to produce wine on the terraces here. 

Meskhuri Mtsvane white grape

Mtsvane means “green”; and so, this is the green wine from Meskheti. (See Mtsvane Kakhuri).

Georgian grapes from the Vardzia Terraces

Natenadze’s Cellar and Vardzia Terraces

Across the Mtkvari River

Across the Mtkvari River

KARTLI region

Kartli surrounds the capital of Tbilisi, which derives from the old Georgian word meaning “warm town”. Continental in climate with hot summers and cold winters. Vineyards are grown at 750-800m above sea level. The PDO is Atenuri PDO, which was already known in the Middle Ages for quality wines, in particular, sparkling wines from Chinuri. Wines are made both in traditional qvevri and international styles. 

Chinuri white grape

Outside of Georgia, the white grape Chinuri reputation rests on the wines of Iago Bitarishvili, who makes qvevri amber wines from this high acidity grape. Since 1998, his wines are responsible for introducing many wine professionals in Western Europe to amber wines made in qvevri. Traditionally, the late ripening Chinuri’s high acidity has been used to make a natural sparkling wine where the must taken to Ateni Gorg to a high and cold location for a long cool ferment.  The PDO permits the Georgian grapes, Chinuri, Gori Mtsvane and the French, Aligoté.

Tavkevri red grape

This was once all over eastern Georgia, but is now found mostly in its home of Kartli. As a young, dry wine it has fresh flavours of red fruit (raspberries, strawberries), floral (rose) notes. 

Georgian grapes - Iago Bitarishvili with qvevri of chinuri grapes

Iago Bitarishvili with qvevri of chinuri grapes

KAKHETI region

Kakheti has about 65-70% of Georgia’s vineyards and produces 80% of its wine. Bordering Russia and Azerbaijan, the Caucasus Mountain range provides cool breezes that flow south over the vines. The main growing area is in the Alazani Valley. It is home to 14 of the 18 PDOs, including Tsinandali PDO (on the right bank of the Alazani River, it is a white blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane Kakhuri), Kindzmarauli PDO (a naturally semi-sweet red), and Mukuzani PDO (a full-bodied, dark-coloured Saperavi red from the micro-zone on the right bank of the Alazani River). 

Traditional Wine Making in Kakheti

Kakheti has its own historically distinct winemaking process that is unique in the world of wine. The grapes are first pressed in a Satsnakheli (wine press) and then, grape must is poured into the qvevri for ten days with stirring four times per day. The stirring provides an even fermentation that can last between 25 to 40 days. The skins, stalks and pips then sink to the bottom. After malolactic fermentation, the qvevri are covered and sealed. 

At one of the great and few Qvevri makers in Georgia - Zaza Kbilashvilli

At one of the great and few Qvevri makers in Georgia – Zaza Kbilashvilli

Saperavi red grape

Saperavi is the ambassador for Georgian redwine around the world. It can be found across Georgia, but it’s home is in the Kakheti region. High quality reds with potential for ageing, they are one of only a few grapes with pink flesh (most grapes have clear flesh). The wines are high in tannin, colour and acidity and they need time to develop in the bottle. Masses of potential, but not convinced by the heavy Mukuzani PDO – yet. Hugh Johnson recommends Saperavi as a good alternative to Medoc reds.

In 2013, when I visited the Biesina experimental vineyard in Marsala, Sicily they were cross-breeding Sicilian grapes with Saperavi to study the DNA for future climate change. Then there’s the Saperavi clones in Australia, which are also good in drought conditions. There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the future of Saperavi. 

Rkatsiteli white grape

Where Saperavi is the ambassador for the reds, Rkatsiteli is for Georgian white wines. Often see as a traditional qvevri amber wine, and also made in an international style. 

Mstvane Kakhuri white grape

One of Georgia’s ancient grape varieties, which in the scheme of grape history, could make it one of the world’s oldest varieties. Often blended with Rkatsiteli, it provides aroma and delicacy in the blend. It is increasing in popularity as a qvevri style wine. Aromas of stone fruit, orchard flowers with good minerality. 

Khikhvi white grape

This white grape works well made in an international or qvevri winemaking, and as a sweet wine. Originally described in the third to fourth century, the vines are naturally low yielding but produce grapes that ripen with good levels of sugar. 

Kisi white grape

One of my favourite Georgian grapes for amber wine, which some consider to be a hybrid between Mstvane and Rkatsiteli. When made in a traditional Georgian qvevri, the wine becomes by complex aromas of pear, honey, tobacco and walnut, and of course, incredible textural tannins.  

Georgian grapes at Ruispiri biodynamic vineyards in Tsinandali, Kakheti Georgia

Ruispiri biodynamic vineyards in Tsinandali, Kakheti Georgia

Georgian grapes at Tsinandali

Tsinandali

Georgian grapes - Lukasi Kisi

Lukasi Kisi with Ketevan Gersamia at Anona Restaurant in Tbilisi

 

Previous post: Impressions from a Journey to Georgian Wine Country

Georgian Wine: Qvevri

A Journey to Georgian Wine Country

If a journey is a spiritual search in disguise, then a trip to Georgian wine country is a pilgrimage. Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the wine world has split into two camps: on one side, wine as a luxury good, and on the other side, towards the organic, and at the most, natural wine. Georgian wine surfaced again at the right time. The story of the country’s re-emergence as an independent country, with wine at the core of its identity, and especially amber wine, coincided at the same time as the natural wine movement started to take off here.

Was I actually looking for the soul of wine? Soul is not a word that I would normally use about wine. It’s something I’d say about music – but, wine?

Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with the oldest evidence of winemaking discovered at an 8000-year old village near Tbilisi. As you are reminded everywhere in Georgia, there is a deep connection between the country and the history of wine: it is a country with 8000 vintages. It’s signature wine is the orange wines made in amphora, which in Georgia is described as amber wine made in terracotta qvevri (pictured). 

On the first night in Georgia, driving through the streets of Kutaisi after midnight, our Georgian guide told the first of her stories inside the green fluorescent of the minibus. She suddenly became animated and points out the new police station buildings. 

Since 2003, after the Rose Revolution, police station buildings in Georgia have been made of glass. As part of the crackdown on police corruption, the entire police force was disbanded and they started again with new recruits who had a spotless reputation. Not only can the public see through the glass to the offices, people working within the offices can see each other through the glass. In other words, there is no place to hide or to bribe. 

This came to be a metaphor for wine made in qvevri – it has no place to hide. What goes into the qvevri is the true state of the vintage – there is no manipulation, no adding of anything, and it is usually not filtered. The extended skin contact means the tannins can be harsh and poky if they are anything but perfectly ripe. If the grapes and stems are ripe or unripe, so be it – in it goes for 6 months. You can not predict the result other than the result will be uncompromising. As Andrew Jefford says, it can be a “kind of punk”. 

Visiting some places, it reminded me of the early days of DIY home brewing in the late 1970s. Nearly everyone seems to make wine in Georgia. As a country that has almost been under continuous occupation, their wine-making tradition has been carefully passed down within the family and across the villages. The people gather indoors for dinner and toast – Gaumarzos! – meaning literally, ‘to your victory’. Freedom of speech has only existed with family and friends around the table drinking their own wines.

The truth is what comes out of the qvevri is not always comfortable to taste, but it always tastes truthful to what goes into the qvevri. Flaws are not hidden by oak when wine is made in this way.

In contrast to the small qvevri producer, it would be too easy to visit the ex-Soviet bulk wineries inherited by Georgia after Soviet occupation and condemn them to wines that represent “non-truth” – commercially-minded, large scale and ambitious. That would be too simplistic. What was “Production Unit No. 2” is now a large piece of winery infrastructure for Georgian wine. Apart from the small producers, I found these large producers gave their own fascinating snapshot of the region and how they negotiate their Soviet legacy and make it work for the future of the Georgian wine industry.

The embargo by Russia from 2006 to 2013 forced Georgia to cut ties with their traditional market, Russia, which took quantity over quality. No longer could they be complacent about quality when attempting to access new markets across Europe and Asia. The large wineries also provide many jobs for local people who have so much inherent wine knowledge, and traditions of picking grapes, and making and drinking wine. 

Yet, it is the small qvevri producer that is the star of Georgian wine. After sitting through a meet and greet with Georgian wine producers and tasting up to 100 wines, this is an old and new country. It is the winemakers who are experimenting with the qvevri who are really moving their country’s winemaking forward. 

Most of Georgia’s reputations rests on the qvevri, and in fact, after a while, I wanted there to be more focus on the quality coming out of the vineyard. There came a point during a day of tasting nearly 100 wines – that with so many unfinished and fizzy wines – I had to put down my pen and just listen to the winemaker (or son or daughter of the winemaker) talk. After so much tradition and family tradition, I wanted to ask, how do you see the next 8000 vintages?

Outside of Georgia, Ancient Georgian winemaking has been an inspiration for making skin contact wine. For Italian producers, such as Gravner and Radikon. For Australian wine makers, where 25 qvevri were sent over in the past year, according to Lado Uzunashvili, where they have their own clone of Saperavi brought over in the 1950s via UC Davis and collected from Georgia in pre-phylloxera times. 

If a trip to Georgia is a wine pilgrimage, then every step along the way on the Georgian wine route has a meaning for the pilgrim – even more so as challenges emerge. There is no place to hide when it comes to amber wine, and it is the strength of the Georgian people who will carry the Georgian wine industry forward like so many parts of the renewed country. This is a country with an incredible inheritance of wine knowledge. It genuinely is one of the most intriguing wine countries I have been lucky enough to visit and it will stay with me for a long time. Thank you, Wines of Georgia

Next post

After the Russian embargo, and to gain access to markets in the European Union, Georgia delineated their Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) into regions and local styles. This was a big step towards developing the inherent quality found in Georgia. Find out more about the wine producing regions of Georgia and Georgian grapes in my next post…

 

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For whom the bell tolls: Chateau Angelus and organic viticulture

How is a top Chateau on Bordeaux’s Right Bank preparing for climate change? The big news for Chateau Angelus in St Emilion is they received their organic certification this year (2018) and have put in place new approaches for clonal selection.

Over lunch at 67 Pall Mall with the de Bouard family, the younger generation, Stephaine and Thierry, are clearly enthusiastic about their move to organic viticulture. The older generation present, Hubert de Bouard, was more sanguine. He believed the move to organic was tough, but “it’s a big wave we have to follow, but you can say, you have to do the job.”

It was difficult timing, when 2018 on the right bank is characterised by a battle with mildew. Stephanie told us, while “nature has the last word, we fought very hard.” While some of their fellow right bank Chateaux gave up their organic certification process, because they felt they were “going backwards”, Chateau Angelus stuck it through despite everything and say they were happy with the results. 

Monsieur de Bouard and Chateau Angelus 2015, 2012, 2011 and 2005

Atlantic conditions

When Pontet Canet pushed forward with biodynamic viticulture, some questioned whether it was possible due to the damp humidity of Bordeaux. Mildew damage is one of the more difficult problems for organic vitiuculture and in 2018 this was a problem on the right bank. In the end, you have to spray with copper (only on the surface). Four to five tractors spray the 42 hectares over one day – but with the clay soil in St Emilion, which is not easy to get the tractor through after the rain.

At Bordeaux university under Emile Puynard, Monsieur de Bouard recalled the great enologist saying, “a great wine is great from beginning in the barrel to the end.” Although he didn’t believe that you could necessarily tell a wine was organic from the profile in the glass. Much like tomatoes there can be non-organic tomatoes that are good, but that is where the analogy ends – intensive production can push through anything, “Wine is made in the vineyard, not on a computer, but with boots.”

Massale Selection

Next year, Hubert de Bouard and family will start a new massale selection of the Cabernet Franc. 

In 2019, they will be looking for Cabernet Franc that needs time on the vine, and gives less alcohol and more acidity. In short, better phenolic ripeness. A response to changes in climate over the years. Compare the difference to what he was looking for 30 years ago, where he was looking for Cabernet Franc with the most sugar to gain faster maturity and to gain more power. 

Chateau Angelus has always had a reputation for dynamic thinking, and their next stage in organic viticulture – in which the origins can be traced back to the 2012 vintage – they are planning ahead for a world where climate change and global warming is a reality. They can change the farming, and with Cabernet Franc on clay soils (which are like a tank of water under the vines in drought conditions), they are in a position to confront the climate changes.

There is change in Bordeaux. A response to future climate change challenges. The bells on top of the Chateau may be ringing out: for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (and for all of us). 

 

Sea change in Maremma: a dinner with Podere Sapaio Bolgheri DOC

Let’s be upfront, there have been a few Sassicaia wannabes when it comes to Bolgheri DOC: ambitious wines made with high extraction, high alcohol and a high use of new oak – and lashings of Merlot. Although, only established in 1999, Podere Sapaio could not be mistaken as just another one of these wines. 

Attending a dinner hosted by Walter Speller, and tasting through a vertical of Podere Sapaio’s past vintages, I tasted a winery that has been allowed to develop and experiment rather than be another cookie-cutter super Tuscan.

Before we turn to their main wines – Volpolo and Sapaio – here is a wild card wine to give you an insight of the owner’s open philosophy. Not many wineries in this area are experimenting with orange wines made of Ansonica (Inzolia) and aged in amphora. 

But back to the main story – the reds.

Bolgheri DOC is a relatively new region, coming to prominence in the 1990s on the back of a string of excellent Sassacaia releases, and wineries piled into the area to take advantage of the huge potential of the sandy soils, warm climate and cool coastal breezes. The natural advantage of the place is particularly evident in the latest vintages from Podere Sapaio, the 2015 Sapaio and 2016 Volpolo. 

As can be expected from a winery finding it’s feet, there comes a point where the style comes into its own. In the latest vintages, the style is fresher, yet more structured, with predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon but also an overall emphasis on freshness and reduction of oak. For me, the Merlot in the earlier vintages lacked the freshness of the tannins, although it was full-bodied and powerful. The focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, rather than Merlot, gives the wine more transparency and structure. 

It is this light touch that bodes well and is evident by the number of experiments that he encourages, as well as his environmental philosophy. Whether it is Petit Verdot in amphora, the conversion to organic viticulture, or his orange wine in homage to his wife, Rabbit’s Paradise (very unfortunately, not available to buy). But particularly, his rethink of his use of Merlot. The current vintages are showing a real edge towards quality and longevity. 

Even at this early stage, their Bordeaux blend has changed over a relatively short space of time and has become less “Bordeaux” and more Maremma, in style. As Walter Speller argued, to be original is about origin. And it is: it is a red wine of clarity, freshness and hope that agrees with sliding glass doors opening onto a sea view.

Podere Sapaio 

Via del Passo di Bocca di Valle, 1, 57022 Donoratico LI (Livorno), Italy map

Located in the Bolgheri zone of the Maremma region. 

Bolgheri DOC

Before the creation of the Bolgheri DOC in 1994, wines from this region were called Vino da Tavola or IGT Toscana and referred to as “Super Tuscans” for their use of international varieties. The DOC states wines can be Cabernet Sauvignon (10 to 80%), Merlot (up to 80%) and other local red varieties (up to 30%). Red wines must be aged for 24 months.

The Wines 

Volpolo 

70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot 

16 months in barriques and tonneau followed by 4 months in bottle refinement 

  1. Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2016 
  2. Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2015  
  3. Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2014 
  4. Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2013 
  5. Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2011 
  6. Volpolo Bolgheri DOC 2008 

Sapaio 

70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 20% Petit Verdot 

16-17 months in barriques followed by 6-8 months in bottle refinement 

  1. Sapaio Toscana IGT 2015
  2. Sapaio Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2013
  3. Sapaio Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2012
  4. Sapaio Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2008
  5. Sapaio Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2006
  6. Sapaio Bolgheri Superiore DOC 2005

And… Paradiso dei Conigli Ansonica (not for sale)

 

Thank you Walter Speller and Podere Sapaio for the invite and the team at 67 Pall Mall. 

Schramsberg Vineyards at 67 Pall Mall

One of the joys of reviewing Californian sparkling wine is that I very rarely taste them and so have zero expectations. Only small quantities of the top Californian sparkling wines are sent to London and can be found at select restaurants such as The Vineyard, which recently hosted a dinner at 67 Pall Mall with vintner Hugh Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards, Napa Valley.

Schramsberg Vineyards is a part of the history of Californian sparkling wine. Robert Louis Stevenson first mentioned Schramsberg in his 1883 novel, the Silverado Squatters. In fact, he visited Jacob Schram at the Schramsberg winery in Calistoga on his honeymoon. A strange kind of honeymoon; to get there, he had to spend his time hacking through the thick undergrowth on the lower slopes of Diamond Mountain. About this time, in a moment of inspiration, he penned the romantic line, that “wine is bottled poetry”. 

On the plane over to London this time, vintner Hugh Davies said, he thought about the Schramsberg Vineyards featured on the wine list at the exclusive London’s Carlton Club in the 1880s. This was long before his family took over the winery in 1965. It would be a full eight years later, in the 1970s, before French Champagne houses came to California to prospect for vineyard gold. Perhaps, they were there after the sensation of President Nixon’s 1972 “Toast to Peace” on his visit to China that featured the Schramsberg Vineyards Blanc de Blancs. After this visit, the wine has been featured at every president’s inauguration since then, even President Trump, despite Trump being teetotal and not drinking it.  

Sad. He missed out on some delicious sparkles. What makes great sparkling wine for me, is the brightness of acidity. The acidity of Californian sparkling is a bit of a paradox. How do they get this right in such a warm climate?

When a grape is picked at 10% potential in Champagne, it is ready to go; when it is picked at 10% in California it is physiologically unripe (the seeds are bitter). It is a difficult challenge to get this right as it can make or break a wine and it seems to be overcome here by blending and choosing cooler areas. The winery may be based in Calistoga – the top part of the Napa Valley – but most of the fruit is sourced from cooler regions such as Carneros and Anderson Valley, areas that were not explored in the 1960s. 

Before I arrived, I expected sparkling wines from the sunny uplands of the Napa Valley – compared to the grey skies of Champagne – as a sparkling version of a big Napa Valley Chardonnay, rich and very fruit-driven. The ripe fruit does not disappoint and is beautifully balanced by the acidity: this is a richer style of sparkling wine that speaks of California. We also had older vintages to see how they develop in the cellar, and they become complex and elegant over time.

If you are someone such as myself, who wants to taste an elegant, balanced sparkling wine, you may care to think outside of the box. Go on a journey, travel somewhere new, for as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

NB The last time I went to a wine lunch with The Vineyard, it was also for an American tasting but ended up being a blind tasting of the Trump Winery. Less blind tasting, more existential blinder. Read here

Schramsberg Vineyards J.Schram: 1997, 2003, 2008 (and 2007 not shown) vintages and 2008 Schramsberg Vineyards Reserve

Vintner Hugh Davies (middle), Schramsberg Vinyards

Vintner Hugh Davies (middle), Schramsberg Vinyards

Enter the Jewellery Box: Brunello di Montalcino Subzones

From 1869, up until the end of World War II, there was only one ‘brunello’ in Montalcino and that was Biondi-Santi’s brunello. In the space of 57 years they produced only four vintages (1888, 1891, 1925, 1945). For the lucky ones, life was simple and the choice was made for you.

Today, the wine market is complex and more accessible than ever. With so much information at our fingertips, everything has become easier. Everything, that is, except choosing: the number of producers of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG has grown exponentially.

In 1960, it was 11 producers; in 2012, it was 258. 

Is there a way to help the wine buyer understand a region with so much growth but little organisation? The pros and cons of subzones were recently debated at a Symposium of nine Brunello di Montalcino producers held at 67 Pall Mall in London. Brought together by Walter Speller, who explained to the producers, as much as the audience of trade and press, “These are top class producers, bringing it forward… sometimes you need to rock the boat to find out where you are.”

It was clear the style of Brunello di Montalcino differed greatly according to place.  This may seem obvious, but having tasted a couple of hundred individualistic wines in random order at Benvenuto Montalcino, ‘obvious’ is not a bad place to start. As Speller called it, it’s a “jewellery box.” And, at the moment, it is a jewellery box filled with beautiful beads and brooches all tangled together. 

Attitude and Altitude 

An easy way to think of Brunello di Montalcino DOCG is to divide the small wine region into two parts – north and south. In general, one third of the producers are to the north of Montalcino where it is cooler, while two-thirds of vineyards are in the warmer south. Although the effect on altitude has an impact, for example, in Torrenieri to the northeast of Montalcino town, it is lower-lying with the heaviest soil giving wines a fuller-body but, of course, there are higher-altitude hillsides and exceptions.

The area clearly has different soil types, up to ten different soil types, from Galestro clay in the north-west, clay deposits in the north-east, and limestone and sandstone in the south east:

Soil types in Brunello di Montalcino DOCG

Soil types in Brunello di Montalcino DOCG

Comparing the style of wine from two producers from one area – what part of their wine comes from vitification and what is from vinification? What is down to the sub zone and what was the personality of the winemaker? 

This is the question when tasting two producers from Montesoli in the north, such as Baricci and Canalicchio di Sopra. Widely acknowledged as a Grand Cru area, if there were to be a Grand Cru classification. Of course, it is not officially recognised as a Grand Cru. However, if there were a Grand Cru classification… then, this may be it… 

This mind loop for conscious consumers is the ‘elephant in the room’. The producers need some sort of classification but did they want it based on quality (and all the politics that go with it)?

To Sub Zone or Not To Sub Zone

Driving up to the medieval town of Montalcino, the first thing you see is the facade of a fort. In a small wine region, it is not always easy to put one’s head above the parapet without being shot down.

From outside the fort, it may not seem controversial to talk about sub-zones in Montalcino. Yet there were hesitations from some producers – would this lead to a French cru classification of wine? Or even, would sub zones become a strait jacket for the winemaker into making a pre-determined style? If a sub-zone was found in a lesser zone, would it be unfairly devalued?

Unlike France, Italy’s appellation system is not based on classifications of quality. Barolo and Barbaresco are the only ones to have officially introduced subzones. Walter Speller proposes not a classification, or a cru system, but to use subzones as “a way in to this complex region.” For a complex and small wine region, without an official detailed map of the vineyards in each area, this could be helpful. 

Biondi-Santi

What does the original brunello producer think? His grandson, Tancredi Biondi-Santi opened up the topic, “Sub-zones are a fact, but it is difficult to match the sub-zone to the style of wine, which can give different results in different vintages.” 

Arguably, the different vintages are apparent but neither do they betray the Biondi-Santi style. In fact, the current work at Biondi-Santi shows what can be achieved by learning more about place and individual sites.  They are focusing on four small plots with different aspects and expositions to understand the impact of soils in the vineyards of Greppo. They vinify each plot separately and work with Garbellotto (barrel-makers) to collaboratively create a new system to analyse how the texture of the wood affects aroma from each plot. They also analyse the vinification of each wine from each soil type to see what the soil is giving to the wine. 

The argument has moved on from the modern vs traditional style of winemaking that dominated his parent’s generation. Like many winemakers of the new generation, inspiration is taken from their grandparent’s style. Interestingly, Franco Biondi-Santi (Tancredi’s grandfather) proposed sub-zones in 2013, according to Speller. 

Humans have a talent for classifying

Whether Montalcino winemakers can come together to agree on what is needed for the fine wine consumer in the crowded market, the trend for customers to learn more about the producers, sub zones and regions is not going away. To understand more about a wine from a particular area of Montalcino does not take away from it’s individuality (as if an Italian wine could lose its individuality even if it tried). An Italian sommelier commented after the tasting, “This is an opera, and the opera is called Brunello di Montalcino’. And the show must go on. 

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A symposium of nine Brunello di Montalcino producers hosted by Walter Speller on Monday, 18th June at 67 Pall Mall, “Exploring Brunello di Montalcino Sub Zones – The next generation on how to approach Montalcino’s terroir.”

The roll call of producers: Biondi-Santi, Baricci, Capanna, Canalicchio di Sopra, Casanova di Neri Cortonesi, Le Potazzine, Le Ripi and Talenti.

Reprinted on The Buyer – Does Brunello need sub-zones to bring new life to its wines?

Truck and Trailer Approaching a City 1973 Jeffery Smart

Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade: The Role of Tariffs and Non-Tariff Trade Barriers

Here is the recent essay I wrote for the WSET Diploma Unit 1 assignment – Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade – a topic that is becoming more relevant and critical as we approach the Brexit deadline in March 2019. This is written as an academic essay outlining the tools of protectionism, such as tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, and how they are used in international wine and drinks trade. It’s not my usual post, but now more than ever in the UK, it is important to look at both sides of the trade argument, and I have attempted to do this without emotion or politics. 

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Protectionism in the Global Drinks Trade

1. Introduction and the tools of protectionism

Significant progress had been made since the Second World War in lowering international trade barriers, particularly those associated with tariffs. However, while there has been a decrease in tariff barriers, there has been an increase in non-tariff barriers to international trade, particularly those related to technical standards. In 1994, a multilateral trade agreement was concluded in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which addressed the rise of non-tariff trade barriers, strengthening its positions on non-tariff trade barriers, combined with the establishment in 1995 of new enforcement mechanisms through the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Nevertheless, the increasing global nature of the drinks industry exists within a complex framework of international tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. While there has been tremendous growth in the global trade of drinks, along with considerable tariff reductions, there has also been louder demands for local protectionism, especially to protect local industries, which have seen more non-tariff trade barriers imposed on the global trade of drinks .

1.1. Tariffs

The World Trade Organisation defines a tariff as “customs duties on merchandise imports,” which “give a price advantage to locally-produced goods over similar goods which are imported, and they raise revenues for governments.”

In general, there are two types of tariffs: an ad valorem tariff and a specific tariff. An ad valorem tariff is calculated on the fixed percentage of the value of the imported good. A specific tariff would be a set-priced tax regardless of the value of the good. Governments then collect the taxes at the time of customs clearance.

The level of tariffs is constrained by WTO rules: all members are committed to set tariffs at levels which cannot be raised without compensation to other countries (called the “Most Favoured Nation Tariff”). Applied tariffs may be reduced or cleared in the framework of other preferential agreements.

For consumers in the importing countries, as well as exporters, tariffs are the most visible trade barrier as they increase import prices. Yet, the increase in non-tariff trade barriers is now more commonly becoming a trade barrier.

1.2. Non-tariff trade barriers

As the WTO succinctly describes on their website, non-tariff trade barriers (NTB) are noted as “red tape, etc”. Informal barriers can be a result of a conscious decision by governments to favour domestic over international goods, or it can be a by-product of practices and policies that are rooted in domestic institutions .

Deardorff classifies NTB into three broad categories, to which examples have been added:

  1. administrative procedures and unpublished government regulations and policies – includes bureaucratic delays and discretionary licensing (for example, import quotas or export restraints, which may favour domestic producers); rules of origin, antidumping, countervailing duty and other types of government investigation (for example, unfair trade actions may be used to foster a climate of uncertainty for foreign suppliers, such as corrupt and lengthy customs procedures).
  2. market structure – nations may differ in levels of public ownership, monopolization, and the regulation of economic activity (for example, competition or antitrust policies; foreign exchange controls and restrictions; or, domestic subsidies and industry bailouts).
  3. political, social, and cultural institutions – whether the nation operates under a federal system (i.e. United States or India) or practices preferential procurement in some areas; or, governments promote the national interest (“Buy National” policy) or to enhance cultural identity (local content requirements); or, if the country has inadequate infrastructure (for example, needing a certified EU laboratory in the country for testing products before customs clearance); or, embargoes to block trade (such as South Africa during apartheid); or, to protect health and safety or environment standards (for example, licensing, packaging, and labelling requirements; sanitary and phytosanitary rules; food, plant and animal inspections; import bans based on objectionable fishing or agricultural methods).

2. Protectionism in the drinks industry

2.1. Tariff barriers

Following the definitions above, a tariff on wine can be expressed as an ad valorem tariff, with one rate or different rates according to the price level of the product; or, a specific tariff such as volume-based (per litre) or alcohol-based (alcoholic strength); or, a mix of ad valorem and specific rates. In addition, tariffs can differ by type of wine (still or sparkling, bottled or bulk wine).

Specific tariffs based on volume are the most popular in Europe and North America, whereas ad valorem tariffs are more common in the Asia-Pacific region, with the exception of Japan and Malaysia. Overall, tariff protection is quite low in countries which have long been involved in importing wine (North America, European Community, New World producing countries, Japan).

For example, the countries of North America have the lowest protection of their domestic market in comparison to the tariffs applied to their trading partners, as the Wine Institute notes, “virtually all U.S. wine exports to the major markets, other than Canada, face tariffs that are double or triple those rates. For example, the EU import tariff ad valorem equivalent (AVE) is approximately 32% , Japan’s AVE is 22.5% and Switzerland’s AVE is 90% on red wine and 106% on white. By comparison, the U.S. import tariff AVE is 1.4%.”.

In general, EU tariffs for non-EU countries are: €32/100 litres sparkling wine, €13.10 for still wine up to 13% abv, €15.40 for still wine over 13% abv but up to 15% abv. There is currently free trade between the EU member countries, as well as trade agreements with Chile and South Africa (through the South African Development Community) who are completely, or nearly free of tariffs with the EU. In contrast to the US and the EU, the tariff level is high in countries which have recently experience growing wine imports, for example in emerging Asian markets.

For instance, India has notoriously complex duties with varying state policies. Alcohol is one of the most highly taxed products in India and the use of wine is discouraged by Article 47 of the Indian Constitution. In 2007, the European Union challenged India under their free trade agreement and requested WTO consultations on their protectionist policy on wine and spirit tariffs for imported wines, with high federal Basic Customs Duties (of 150% for spirits and 100% for wines) with Additional Duties levelled on top, raising the cumulative federal duty burden up to 264% for wines and 550% for spirits.

When India was challenged it exempted alcoholic beverages from the Additional Duties, and announced it was doing so in lieu of applying state-level excise duties on wine and spirits. The Indian government customs duty on wine import in India has been increased from 100% to the maximum permissible WTO rate of 150% and is 150% for imported spirits .

As India is a growing market for the Scotch Whisky Association, it has been lobbying for India to reduce the 150% tariff on whisky. Despite the high tariff, in the first half of 2016, sales of Scotch Whisky grew in India 41 per cent by volume and 28 per cent by value.

After China acceded to the WTO in 2001, its world wine trade concessions to its main partner countries reduced its tariffs on wine from 65% to 14% in the short space of 3 years. Canada and Chile have also reduced their tariffs to open up to international markets with a fourfold decrease using free trade agreements; Chile has set the highest number of FTA, reducing their effective trade barrier from 10% to 0.64% AVE.

However, as mentioned in the introduction, although the trend for countries is to decrease their tariff rates, some countries have diluted their WTO agreements by increasing technical barriers to free trade.

2.2. Non-tariff trade barriers

Technical barriers to trade (TBT) remain the main non-tariff trade barrier concern for drinks producers and importers. The following four TBTs most concern wine producers in various markets as well as, spirits and wine importers:

2.2.1. Wine Labelling regulations

The lack of consistency on health warnings, ingredients and languages on labels is a considerable cost to wine exporters. In 2014 it was reported, “up to half a million bottles of wine and spirits are stuck in Indian customs, according to importers, because labels are not printed in English or because many drinks, including Scotch whisky, do not list their ingredients.”

2.2.2. Oenological practices

For wines authorised into the EU, the wine must be produced in line with the oenological practices of the EU. This regulation may be based on health and safety, but sometimes the justification is seen as a technical barrier to trade by producers outside of the EU. For instance, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics argued, when ’New World’ producers of wine use new and innovative processes that have not yet been proven to be unsafe on scientific grounds are unrecognised by the European Union.

2.2.3 Maximum residue limits of agrochemicals

Imports of wine products can be restricted where the residues of common agricultural chemicals in wine exceed specified maximum residue levels. These can be normal agricultural chemicals, but in another example, the South Korea restricted imports of French wine when French wine makers used powdered beef blood as a fining agent in wine.

2.2.4. Certification and testing procedures (conformity assessment)

To access markets, a complex sets of certificates are required, which may or may not be justified in protecting public health increasing the amount of time and cost involved. In February 2013, the European Union faced a market access barrier to China when Chinese authorities asked for the results of tests of phthalates in every consignment of wine and spirits from the EU. The EU argued their exported products are compliant with domestic health and safety in Europe. However, China was concerned about the dumping of stock. In turn, the EU claimed the testing to be an imposition of unjustified antidumping and countervailing measures on EU wines.

2.3. Other non-tariff trade barriers

2.3.1. Higher Domestic Taxes on Imported Alcohol

Alcohol and health is a legitimate governmental concern; it is a non-essential good and can be taxed as a useful source of extra revenue for governments. When governments discriminate against imported alcohol by taxing it higher than local products, taxes become an impediment to free trade.

In 2016, the EU challenged Colombia’s differentiation of domestic taxes based on alcohol strength. Alcohol under 35% ABV was taxed at a lower level than higher ABV imported spirits (gin, vodka, Scotch Whisky, etc). The EU challenged this under WTO rules as local aguardiente and rum fell under 35% ABV while imported spirits from the EU did not, and so, it was argued, were unfairly taxed .

2.3.2. State Monopolisation

National alcohol monopolies have existed to restrict the sale of alcohol, such as the Nordic alcohol monopolies: Vinmonopolet in Norway, Systembolaget in Sweden, Vínbúð in Iceland, Rúsan in Faroe Islands, and Alko in Finland. In India, there is TASMAC in Tamil Nadu and the Kerala State Beverages Corporation (with five dry states). In the United States, there are 17 states that have a state monopoly on the wholesale and retailing of alcohol and 200 dry counties where alcohol is prohibited or strictly restricted. 

Canada also has an alcohol monopoly in the form of the Provincial Liquor Crown Companies. In 2016, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch was requested by the EU, the United States and six other governments to stop discriminating against imported wine under GATT/WTO rules. The issue involved the British Columbia monopoly, where there was a “store-within-a-store” concept with a separate cash register for imported wines; meanwhile, domestic wines, or local BC wines, were featured on regular grocery shelves .

2.3.3. Intellectual property: Geographical Indications

On the one hand, the EU protects Geographical Indications (GI) as an assurance of quality. On the other, in the United States, GIs are administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and treated as brands and trademarks. Consequently, the United States views EU protection of its registered GIs as a way to monopolise the use of certain wine and spirits terms and a form of trade protectionism. Despite the 2006 U.S.-EU Agreement on Trade in Wine, the United States believes new GIs from the EU lacks transparency, often resulting in substantial bureaucratic delays and adding costs to trade.

Despite the political disagreement on the definition of GIs, there is agreement between EU policy on GIs and some US winemakers. In June 2016, Napa Valley wine growers “expressed their support to EU officials,” and argued “for expanding and protecting the use of GIs in the United States”.

2.3.4. Service Trade Barriers

Restricting the sales, marketing and advertising of spirits and wine is also a trade barrier, as seen recently in Turkey, with its stricter laws introduced by President Erdogan in 2013. The recent government ban covers the advertising of alcohol at point-of-sale, broadcasting and journalism, as well as internet sales, and even consumer wine tastings. Mandatory labelling in Turkey, on every bottle of domestic or foreign wine and spirit, must now clearly state on the back label, “Alcohol is Not Your Friend”. Outright restrictions on alcohol are a barrier to trade wine and spirits, although “rules disciplining this form of protectionism are less clearly articulated.”.

3. Conclusion and personal commentary

Recently, the case for protectionism has been proving popular again on a political and emotional level. Free trade policy aims to increase choice and reduce prices by allowing international products to compete on the domestic market by reducing or removing tariffs; in contrast, protectionism aims to “make local industries more competitive by increasing the price of exports or restricting the quantity of imports entering the country.” Although, whether a protected industry is truly competitive is debatable.

Despite tariffs decreasing since the Second World War, it should be noted that non-tariff barriers have been increasing since the mid-1990s. Recently, fast-growing new wine and spirits importing countries are setting up alcohol regulations which could prove to be non-tariff barriers. Indeed, in some of these countries, such as India, growing interest in domestic wine and spirits production could lead to maintaining (or raising) protectionist policies and stepping up support for local producers.

Scotch Whisky Association head, David Frost argues, the lack of tariffs in the EU for Scotch Whisky, “makes production cheaper, paperwork simpler and competition stronger and hence better for the consumer.” France (in the EU) is the biggest market by value of Scotch Whisky in the world, and despite the potential future growth in emerging markets such as India, Frost argues many discriminatory trade barriers in these markets need to be first “knocked down”.

Some economists argue applying tariffs to an “infant industry” as one of the special exceptions to free trade. Small local industries are given a chance to develop and become efficient producers without pressure from external competition. Using the previous example from Canada, wine from British Columbia may be a ‘unique product’, and according to free trade economics, should give Canadian wine a ‘comparative advantage’ with its trading partners. However, the markets are asymmetrical: Canada is only one of many producer countries in the EU and US, and a small one at that. Nonetheless, they were challenged for promoting B.C. wines over imports in their local supermarkets, which was seen as unfair to foreign wines.

Indeed, protectionism helped to develop the export success story that is today’s Australian still wine industry. Australia developed its domestic market in the 1970s by protecting it from imports, as a University of Adelaide paper notes, “prior to the 1980s wine import tariffs were virtually prohibitive, with imports rarely accounting for more than 1% of domestic consumption”.

However, the protection of an infant industry can “distort the market by raising the domestic price of the imported good above its world level”. When an industry is larger and developed, and export sales develop faster than domestic market sales, as happened to the Australian wine industry, or today’s mature Cava industry, free trade becomes more important than protectionism. It also encourages industry development through new competition. For instance, the impact of high sales of Prosecco after 2010 on Cava’s key export markets (UK, Germany and Belgium), has forced the export-dependent Cava industry to improve its quality image with the new premium classification of Cava del Paraje Calificado.

Apart from infant industries, the opportunity presented by increased technical barriers to trade, and other protectionist policies in the drinks industry, is for government regulators, such as customs and tax officials, or government wine laboratories for conformity assessment, for certification and analyses for wine products, and for sanitary and phytosanitary rules. For example, technical regulations may be important for health and safety reasons, such as the EU regulations applied to non-EU imports, although it was seen as a protectionist tool, as when Chinese authorities decided to assess chemicals in the wine (that are accepted in the EU) to stop what they perceived as dumping of excess EU stock.

There may be short-term benefits of protecting a fledgling local industry from global competition, but for outside drinks producers, or when that infant industry matures and needs to export to grow further, too much protectionism is a burden to trade. In particular, increased technical and non-tariff barriers. All things considered, more tariffs are not the right solution, especially when there is a free market solution: develop the necessary infrastructure for the local drinks industry through trade associations. Trade associations, such as the Scotch Whisky Association or Wine Australia, can help the industry to compete on the global market with marketing, events, advertising, government lobbying and research support for developing the industry.

Overall, there is more opportunity for the drinks industry with free trade rather than protectionist policies, however it is a fine balance: between developing the local diversity of the drinks industry while also removing market inefficiencies to global competition that may hurt the dynamism of the drinks industry, and consumers, in the long term.

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  44. Wine Institute, ‘International Trade Barriers Report for U. Wines—2010’ 2010, http://members.wineinstitute.org/files/TB/CalWine.TradeBarriersReport2015.V07Web.pdf [accessed 12 October, 2017].
  45. Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, Submission on the trans-pacific partnership agreement submission to DFAT. 2010, https://dfat.gov.au/trade/agreements/tpp/negotiations/Documents/tpp_sub_winemakers_fed_aus_1007.pdf [accessed 14 October, 2017].
  46. Woodward, Richard. ‘Does EU Membership benefit Scotch Whisky?’ Scotch Whisky [online magazine] May 26, 2016 https://scotchwhisky.com/magazine/in-depth/9392/does-eu-membership-benefit-scotch-whisky/[accessed 1 November, 2017].
  47. World Trade Online, “TTIP Round Produces Signs of New Flexibilities on GIs, Services Exceptions,” April 29, 2015.
  48. World Trade Organisation (2017) ‘Principles of the trading system – Trade without discrimination’ https://www.wto.org/english/thewto_e/whatis_e/tif_e/fact2_e.htm [accessed 1 November, 2017].
  49. World Trade Organisation (2017) “Non-Tariff barriers: red tape” Available from: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tariffs_e/tariffs_e.htm [accessed: 16 October, 2017]
  50. World Trade Organisation (2017) “Tariffs” Available from: https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tariffs_e/tariffs_e.htm [accessed: 16 October, 2017].
  51. WSTA, “Facts & Figures”  http://www.wsta.co.uk/resources/facts-figures [accessed 10 October, 2017].

 

Image – Truck and Trailer Approaching a City 1973 Jeffery Smart

Viva Vermentino di Gallura DOCG

With most of my days spent in front of a screen lately – for work and study – it felt great to be back amongst the vines. This time in Sardinia. After judging at the Concorso Enologico Nazionale “Vermentino” alongside the very talented, Susan Hulme MW, we visited the only DOCG on the island: Vermentino di Gallura DOCG. 

About Vermentino di Gallura DOCG

A little bit of background. Vermentino is grown across Sardinia, but the grapes used for the production of Vermentino di Gallura DOCG must come from the territory of Gallura, in the north of the island, which includes the municipalities:

  • Aggiues,
  • Aglientu,
  • Arzachena,
  • Badesi,
  • Berchidda,
  • Bortigiadas,
  • Budoni,
  • Calangianus,
  • Golfo Aranci,
  • Loiri Porto San Paolo,
  • Luogosanto,
  • Luras,
  • Monti,
  • Olbia,
  • Oschiri,
  • Palau,
  • S. Antonio di Gallura,
  • S. Teodoro,
  • S. Teresa di Gallura,
  • Telti,
  • Tempio Pausania,
  • Trinita d’Agultu, in the Province of Olbia-Tempio, and
  • Viddalba in the Province of Sassari. 

This is quite a list. Yet Sardinia is an island with a long viticultural history. The Sardinian people I met had an intense sense of their locality and community. I was pulled aside a couple of times about how they speak not just a dialect, but a completely different language

Will the real Vermentino, please stand up?

Awareness of locality is fantastic for wine-making but it can be tricky to judge Vermentino from Gallura against other Vermentino from Italy, such as Liguria or Tuscany. They are quite different. 

At the tasting, there was much discussion about the different expressions of Vermentino from different parts of Italy. One of the issues was that some were “too Sauvignon Blanc”. It was explained that semi-aromatic Sardinian Vermentino was the real Vermentino, and Vermentino could not be too aromatic.

I had no issue with the idea of judging a wine on franchezza (frankness), or talking frankly, for that matter. But, for me, the differences only shows the versatility of the Vermentino grape. Vermentino from Sardinia may not have intense aromatics but it is a benchmark style and the Gallurese have every right to be proud of their wine. 

 

What is the style of Vermentino di Gallura DOCG?

I do understand the frustration by some producers. There appears to be confusion on some sites and in the press to what makes Vermentino, well, Vermentino-ish. I’ve seen Vermentino categorised as an aromatic variety. Outside of its traditional European areas, Vermentino can be more aromatic in style. But this is not Vermentino di Gallura DOCG from Sardinia.

Vermentino from Gallura is fuller-bodied and semi-aromatic. The best have a straw yellow colour with greenish reflections, which can be dry through to sweet, with sometimes a slightly bitter aftertaste. The good examples keep the alcohol in check without the flavours becoming too overblown. This is quite a feat in the face of the heat; some vineyards had not had rain since January – nearly 9 months. 

Zuppa Montina

Zuppa Montina and Vermentino di Gallura DOCG

A Short History of Sardinian Wine

Vine culture in Sardinia probably dates back to the 8th century BC when groups of Phoenicians, especially Carthaginians, settled in the coastal areas where they founded Coralis, while the Sardinians retreated inside the island. Later, Romans took the trouble of landing in Sardinia by planting their farm-villas, equipped with wine cellars. To find traces of wine in Sardinia after the barbarian invasions and the obscure period of the High Middle Ages, one has to wait for the times of Eleonora d’Arborea, author of the Carta de Logu (1395). Most importantly in the Oristano area, viticulture had a significant boost with laws introduced forbidding poorly-kept vineyards.

In the modern era, having missed the phylloxera epidemic at the end of the nineteenth century, Sardinian viticulture had its biggest increase since the 1960s thanks to the efforts of the private company in Alghero, Sella & Mosca, founded by two Piedmontese pioneers in 1899, and various works done by the Agricultural Development Agency of Sardinia.

Vermentino and Food

The fuller-bodied style of Vermentino from Sardinia is perfect with the heavy dishes from Monti, such as Zuppa Montina (above), which is a deliciously soupy cheese dish. It tastes a lot better than how it looks. Closer to the sea, there is fresh fish and calamari dishes from Olbia, which also work well with this food-friendly white wine. 

However, it wasn’t until we got to Cagliari that I really understood how Vermentino fits in with the night, cheese and food. Cagliari is a must-visit once the tourists depart on their cruise ships and the island becomes off-season and quiet again. The little bars up from the harbour are run by people who are passionate about smaller producers in wine and cheese, if they are not moonlighting in the bar themselves. 

This is a refreshing trend to see wines that are not from the larger co-operatives. It may be easier to book a trip to Cagliari and go to 7diVino bar than to find a bottle of Meigamma on the shelves outside of Sardinia. Thankfully, you can find plenty of decent Vermentino  in the UK and US, too. 

Percorino Sardo and delicious meaty, savoury seadas or sebadas

I visited as a guest and judge of the Concorso Enologico Nazionale “Vermentino” 27th and 28 October in Sardinia.

Related posts: 

Pure Pleasure State: Vermentino! (Amore, Amore, Amore)
 
vermentino di sardegna: what’s cool in wine right now 

Corse you can: wines from Yves Leccia, Patrimonio, Corsica

Donnhoff Riesling and climate change. A visit to the Donnhoff vineyards in Nahe, Germany

As we walked up towards the famous Hermannshöhle vineyard in the Nahe, Helmut Donnhoff shouted back to of us, slowing down everyone by taking photos of the spectacularly steep vines, “Hurry up. There are beers waiting for us a the end!” 

He has known this vineyard since he was a child. The Hermannshöhle vineyard was replanted in 1949, the year of his birth. As he showed us the frost damage on the canes from April frost, he explained how strange it was for this vineyard to be affected by frost,  

“Cornelius (his son, who is now the winemaker, born in 1980) did not believe that frost could happen here. Now he knows that anything can happen.”

He recalled his first vintage was 1971, one of the best vintages of the century. We joked that 1971 was a high standard to forever live up to. As we drove up to the Felsenberg vineyard near the “Donnhoff Castle” I asked,

“What is the difference between working in the 2017 and 1971 vintage?”

He thought for a while, slowing right down to glance at vines as if they were children playing by the side of the road,

“The difference is that the weather was very mild… Long periods of gentle sunshine. Not too much rain, not too much heat. There were no extreme (weather) events. That is the difference between the weather now and then.”

“The average temperature has increased by 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius since the 1970s,” he said, and admitted the riper fruit is something he welcomes (in a region at 49.800 degrees North), but overall, it is not a good thing for winemakers in hotter climates, especially in Southern France.

“It wasn’t possible to do 4 grams of residual sugar in the 1950s and 1960s (as it is today for the 2016 Dellchen Riesling Grosses Gewachs).”

Dark storm clouds were gathering over the valley. We got out at the Felsenberg vineyard and climbed though nettles and up the old stone stairs to the castle fort to see the view along the river. Big splotches of rain fell on my camera.

“What do you think has changed the most, in that time – the vineyard or the winery?”

The biggest difference, he said, is in the vineyard… and then, we quickly went back to the van just before it began to downpour. A few minutes later, rivulets of water were flowing down from the vines towards the river.

We drove slowly back to the village of Oberhausen, in sheets of rain along the winding roads down to the town. As we drove, Helmut was gauging how much of the slate and soil would be eroded and have fallen to the bottom of the hill. When we arrived at the restaurant in the village, the rain stopped. Like clockwork. Time for that beer.

11 July 2017

Winery Facts – Dönnhoff

 

Winemaker: Helmut Donnhoff and Cornelius Donnhoff

The Estate: Hermann Donnhoff – VDP member

Location: Situated in the village of Oberhausen between the villages of Niederhausen and Schlossbockelheim in the rocky landscape of the middle Nahe

History: The Donnhoff family first came to teh Nahe region over 200 years ago. As time went by they turned their modest farm into a wine estate, with the acquisition of top vineyards. Helmut Donnhoff has not only been making wine here since 1971 but also purchased top sites, including Kirschheck, Dellchen and Krotenpfuhl. 

Vineyards: 25 ha

Grapes: Riesling 80%, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris 20%

Vines: 15-60 years old

Production: 150,000 bottles

Grosse Lage: Hermannshohle (translation – Herman’s cave); Felsenberg (Rocky hill); Kirschheck (Cherry hedge); Dellchen (Little Dell); Brucke (The bridge); Krotenpfuhl (Pond frog); Kahlenberg (Bare hillside); Leistenberg (Slate hill); Hollenpfad (Path to hell). 

Website

 

This visit was part of the 2017 Masters of Riesling (and Pinot Noir) with Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies (ABS).

The ABS First Taste Grosses Gewächs Tasting (Riesling 2016 and Spätburgunder 2015), will take place on 7th September in London as part of their ABS Portfolio Tasting. 

Related post: German Pinot Noir 2015 – Furst and Jean Stodden 

More WWS posts on Riesling

&.. there is more to Germany than Riesling. Pinot Noir, otherwise known as Spatbugunder

German Pinot Noir 2015 – Furst and Jean Stodden

German Pinot Noir 2015 is a guilty pleasure. On the one hand, the fruit from this warm and dry vintage is ripe and delicious. They have come into the world with adorable baby fat. But make no mistake, they are not exactly childish or simple. They have a sophisticated poise, even at this early stage, with just the right amount acidity to balance the ripe fruit. 

On the other hand, it is difficult not to think about the wider implications of seeing warmer temperatures at this latitude. If wine grows best between 28th and 50th degree of latitude, the wineries we visited were at the limits: 49.7136 degree North (Fürst in Bürgstadter, Franken) and 50.5133 degrees North (Jean Stodden in Rech, Ahr). Many winemakers we visited on the ABS Masters of Riesling trip observed, from their vantage point at the edges of viticulture, the climate is changing. The silver lining for these stormy times ahead, is that red wines from Germany are having their moment. Arguably, the best yet after a few lean years. 

These are strange weather days. Wine is not an exact science, in many ways it’s also an art, and German winemakers are becoming adept at quick problem solving. The unusual weather patterns means vines are growing at different times than normal and met with unusual or early frosts, such as in April this year, and are exposed to more extremes in weather. 

As much as I love Burgundy – and there are evidently close friendships between the winemakers in Germany and Burgundy – when Germany has a warmer vintage such as 2015, it really can deliver for Pinot Noir drinkers. These are sophisticated, elegant reds with fascinating regional differences. 

The 2015 Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) Grosse Gewächs release is in September 2017. 

Weingut Rudolf Fürst (Franken)

After arriving at Frankfurt airport, we drove to the iron-rich red sandstone region of Franken. After tasting the excellent Grosse Lage wines, including the sublime Centgrafenberg GG, we had a perfectly-matched meal made by the Fürst family of venison and home made pasta (I believe the venison came from the hills around the vineyard). 

This is a family affair since 1638, with Paul and Monika’s son, Sebastian Fürst, recently taking over the winemaking. They own 19.2 hectares with an average yield of 20-55 ha. Sebastian explained how they used candles during the unexpected frost in April to warm up the vines and stop them dying in the extreme cold. The candles cost around 10 euros each, so it was a difficult but necessary decision!

Fürst Centgrafenberg GG Spatburgunder 2015 - my favourite red wine

Fürst Centgrafenberg GG Spatburgunder 2015 – my favourite red wine of the trip

Spectacular tasting room at Fürst – overlooking Franken

The vineyards of Fürst

Tasting the Fürst Grosse Gewachs

Winery Facts – Furst

Winemaker: Sebastian Furst

The Estate: WEingut Rudolf Furst – VDP member

Location : Burgstadt, Franken

History: Since 1638, the Furst family have been making wine in Burgstadt, Franken. In 1979, Paul and Monika Furst built the new estate in the vineyards of Centgrafenberg. 

Vineyards: 19.2 ha

Grapes: 60% Spatburgunder and Fruhburgunder, 15% Riesling, 25% Silvaner Weissburgunder and others

Grosse Lage: Hundruck (Dog’s back)’ Centgrafenberg, Scholossberg, Karhauser Volkach. 

Production: 120,000 bottles

Jean Stodden (Ahr) 

In the tiny region of Ahr, Jean Stodden make deep-coloured Pinot Noir (Spatburgunder) with fine, silky tannins. Walking up the steep slopes behind the winery was thirsty work. Within only 7 hectares of vineyard, the diversity of slate and soil is astonishing – from coloured slate to greywacke and grey slate, loam and loess. The Grand Cru Herrenberg vineyard has slopes at 60 degrees and the vines are hand-picked. French clones of Pinot Noir give the wines a classical feel, but they speak of this unique corner of red-winemaking in Germany. 

German Pinot Noir can often have a note of smoky bacon

The Jean Stodden vineyards in Ahr

Vines and slate in Ahr

Winery facts – Jean Stodden 

Winemaker: Alexander Stodden

The Estate: Jean Stodden Red Wine Estate – VDP member

Location: The village of Rech in the middle of the Ahr Valley (an hour south of Bonn, Ahr)

History: The family has a long wine-making tradition and has been growing grapes here since 1578. Alexander’s grandfather started vinifying his own Pinot Noir in 1900. 

Vineyards: 7ha

Grapes: Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) 90%, Fruhburgunder and Riesling

Grosse Lage: Recher Herrenberg; Ahrweiler Rosenthal; Neuenahrer Sonnenberg; Dernauer Hardtberg

Age of vines: 10-80 years old 

Production: 45,000 bottles 

 

This visit was part of the 2017 Masters of Riesling (and Pinot Noir) with Awin Barratt Siegel Wine Agencies (ABS).

The ABS First Taste Grosses Gewächs Tasting (Riesling 2016 and Spätburgunder 2015), will take place on 7th September in London as part of their ABS Portfolio Tasting. 

Related post: Donnhoff Riesling and climate change. A visit to the Donnhoff vineyards in Nahe, Germany

The Zero Dosage Dilemma – A Visit to Hambledon Winery Hampshire

Zero Dosage champagne is a dilemma for purists. On the one hand, it shows us an expression of the wine without the mask of added sugar before bottling. On the other, it can sound a bit similar to other marketing re-mixes such as Coke Zero, or perfume houses that put out so-called limited-release versions just before Christmas. Whether the finish of a sparkling wine with a sugar dose – and it is only a pipette – masks or enhances is a matter for debate. 

“You either love it or hate it,” our guide at Hambledon Winery in Hampshire, Joe Wadsack explains, “It does take a while to get used to it, like jumping into a cold sea, but that shock is also what you want.”  

Experimental zero dosage version of Hambledon – is it up there?

Most people like to think they like “sugar-free” but would they if they were handed a glass at a party? To understand how dosage adds to, or takes away, from a wine, we tasted four different levels of dosage and the differences were quite apparent: 

  1. Zero dosage (Brut Nature = No added sugar to under 3 grams/litre residual sugar)
  2. 4 g/l (Extra Brut = between 0 and 6 g/litre)
  3. 6 g/l (Extra Brut to Brut – less than 12 g/l) 
  4. 10 g/l – (Brut – less than 12 g/l)

The high acidity found in grapes from Hampshire – cooler for 30 average degree days less than in the Champagne region – are balanced by the right dosage. Dosage is not the same as adding sugar during fermentation (which increases alcohol). Adding a tiny amount of sugar after fermentation is complete, just before bottling, is more like a final finishing touch. The Hambledon Classic Cuvée NV normally has 8 g/l residual sugar, while the Premiere Cuvée is 6 g/l.  Out of the four samples, the 6 g/l had the most balance while the sample with the 4 g/l was almost out of kilter, a topsy turvy feeling that was not pleasant. But what about the Zero Dosage? 

 At the end of the tasting, we could choose our favourite to bottle ourselves. Hambledon Winery does not currently produce a Zero Dosage sparkling wine, so I wanted to make one. Or “not make one”, as there is nothing to add – losing the dosage step, the bottle is straight to the corking and labelling. 

Making our own bottle

Making our own bottle

I have to be honest, one reason I chose the Zero Dosage is because I did not want to wait around to drink the wine; it takes a few months for the dosage to integrate with the wine. A Zero Dosage sparkling can be drunk straight away and will develop like a wine in the bottle. 

Apart from my greedy thirst, without the dosage, it is possible to taste what is happening in the vineyards rather than in the winery. If there is one thing everyone knows about English sparkling is the famous chalk soils. Without added sugar, you can almost taste every individual pebble on the ground. 

The chalk soils in Hampshire (highlighted in black)

The chalk soils in Hampshire (highlighted in black)

As Joe Wadsack said, “a Zero Dosage is like driving in a Porsche, you can feel the crenulation of the road under the wheel.” It’s thrilling, but not for everyone – people with very sensitive palates will find the acidity too razor-like. For less-experimental drinking, for me, the Première Cuvée at 6 g/l residual sugar is the perfect balance.

A sparkling wine is always about the blend; a good wine is a blend of components that come together like a finely tuned machine. It will be very interesting to take one of England’s best Sparkling wines at zero dosage for a spin over the next couple of months and see how it develops. 

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Thanks to Hambledon Winery for The Première Cuvée Experience. I was invited as a guest and all views are my own. 
 
You may like to make your own sparkling wine, too. The Première Cuvée Experience is an educational ‘how wine is made’ experience hosted by Joe Wadsack and Ian Kellett at a cost of £200 per head, including disgorging your own bottle to take home. It’s a beautiful part of the world and a short train trip from London Waterloo station.
 

Loire Moments at the London Edition Hotel for London Wine Week 2017

Heeding a call for “Loire Moments” during London Wine Week, I left my ordinary world of peak-hour crush on the Underground, horizontal rain and broken umbrella to find myself in the foyer of the London EDITION hotel, 10 Berners Street, with a glass of sparkling Monmousseau Touraine Brut in my hand. 

Our exquisite hosts, Douglas Blyde and Lindsay Oram, had created a menu matched with six wines from along the Loire River, with four-courses cooked by Chef Phil Carmichael from Jason Atherton’s upstairs Berners Tavern.

Even saying the word, Monmousseau, puts my mouth into a kissy kiss pout and silly voice that I find happens to me when I’m around the super cute. A baby swaddled in a blanket disguised as a burrito or watching a labrador puppy try to go down a staircase for the first time.

That’s about all I can watch nowadays, by the way, after recent horrific events – in fact, my year can be summed up by the bleak New Yorker cartoon, “my desire to be well-informed is at odds with my desire to remain sane”. Thanks to the Monmousseau Brut, I began to leave the outside world behind for the evening and have some fun. It was soon time to leave our glasses and move downstairs to the main event.

Green neon light!

Crossing the threshold of everyday reality into a dark room, we found ourselves somewhere between a disco and an aristocrat’s cave, complete with gold-framed portraits of eccentric relatives.

Once seated, the room was flooded with green neon light. “Loire Moments is to be a full sensory experience,” Douglas Blyde announced. The green light – and gentle nature sounds of birds twittering – signified the mouth of the Loire River, in the Nantais, where our dinner’s journey would begin. 

The Loire River is not a gentle river. Shallow with strong currents, it has a mind of its own. From half way along, the river flows north, changing direction with a curve that flows toward the Atlantic Ocean. The last time I was in the Loire, for the Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny, the winemakers took us on a traditional flat-bottom boat adapted over the centuries to navigate the moody tides. I saw first-hand how difficult it was to go from one side to the other.

The ‘Loire Moments’ dinner in London was a gentler affair, despite the sudden change in lighting. I found it amusing but some of the photographers demanded a change back to neutral light. Judging by my photos, perhaps they had a point. But I was quite prepared to go with the flow of the evening. It was a journey down a river, after all.

We had a good time over the last drops of red wine and an extremely good espresso before hitting the reality of the last tube home, then bus, then bus, then bed and then do the daily commute all again in the morning, waking with a lovely memory of a technicolour dream of a river.

Menu

GREEN LIGHT with sounds of the Grandlieu nature reserve

Muscadet ​​Côtes de Grandlieu, Clos de la Sénaigerie, Domaine des Herbauges​ 2015​

with Dressed Colchester crab, brown crab mayo, apple, coriander

Muscadet ​​Côtes de Grandlieu, Clos de la Sénaigerie, Domaine des Herbauges​ 2015​ with Dressed Colchester crab, brown crab mayo, apple, coriander

Muscadet ​​Côtes de Grandlieu, Clos de la Sénaigerie, Domaine des Herbauges​ 2015​ with Dressed Colchester crab, brown crab mayo, apple, coriander

AQUA BLUE LIGHTING with the bells of Saint Maurice, Angers

Savennières, Thibault Boudignon, Clos de la Hutte 2015

with Pan-fried rainbow trout, chargrilled courgette, cucumber, wasabi butter sauce, caviar

Savennières, Thibault Boudignon, Clos de la Hutte 2015 with Pan-fried rainbow trout, chargrilled courgette, cucumber, wasabi butter sauce, caviar

Savennières, Thibault Boudignon, Clos de la Hutte 2015 with Pan-fried rainbow trout, chargrilled courgette, cucumber, wasabi butter sauce, caviar

WARM RED LIGHTING with the champions of red wine, The New Pornographers (Bill Bruisers)

Chinon Rouge Joguet, Clos de la Dioterie 2009

And Saumur Champigny, Château du Hureau, Lisagathe 2014

with BBQ Dingley Dell pork chop, roasted calçots onions, apple, tomato and sage sauce

Douglas Blyde introducing the main course

 

HARVEST GOLD LIGHTING  with ‘Cheese’, Tim Minchin (Tim Minchin and the Heritage Orchestra)

Anjou Blanc, Clos de l’Elu Berners Tavern 2015, Chenin

And Anjou Rouge​,​ Clos de l’Elu Berners Tavern 2014,

with England versus France Cheese

England versus France Cheese

England versus France Cheese

DARK CHOCOLATE LIGHTING

Difference Coffee Co. Jamaica Blue Mountain

With Prévu, Pas Prévu, Milk Coffee & Sugar

I was invited as a guest and all views are my own.

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To read more posts about the Loire

To Douglas Blyde’s column in The Evening Standard

A post on dinner with Difference Coffee Co.

 

A Judgement of Our Times – Trump Wines

If logic applied, the Trump wines (i.e. a project with enough built-in cynicism owned by teetotal reality-TV-star-turned US President Donald Trump) should be reliably terrible. But these are extraordinary times, as Adam Curtis explains in his political documentary HyperNormalisation; and in 2017, we prefer to retreat into a simpler world rather than face the huge complexities of politics today. And, he argues, this trend began 40 years ago.

That’s about the same time as the Judgement of Paris tasting of 1976, where Californian wines were pitted against the French greats and won. After the “A Judgment of Our Times” blind tasting, for a brief moment, I felt outrage similar to Odette Khan after the original tasting.

Organised by Evening Standard drinks writer Douglas Blyde, and James Hocking, wine director at The Vineyard Cellars and The Vineyard Hotel, we arrived with no idea of what to expect. We then entered the dining room where a large canvas shows the original participants of The Judgement of Paris in a heated debate.

America First

We tasted two wines at a time, completely blind. One of the wines in each pairing had to be Californian – the hotel restaurant is one of the most important importers of Californian fine wine in the country. But what was the other wine? Clearly, the other was not French.

Maybe it was the whiff of bourbon on Wine 6 that gave a clue: NV Trump Winery “CRU” Fortified Chardonnay, Charlottesville, VA. Without knowing what it was, it was still a difficult wine to enjoy. A high alcohol, medium-sweet Chardonnay (fortified to 18%) – funnily enough, my notes read: I’m sure that a wine that smells of bourbon could be quite popular with some people.

For the sake of full disclosure, I did vote for one of Trump’s wines in the pairings: 2015 Trump Winery Cabernet Sauvignon – lighter in style, surprisingly fresh (speaking of the cool climate in Virginia, quite different than the full-bodied Californian style), and it was more to my taste with food.

The final score for the panel? California won all seven rounds; Trump: zero, nul point.

The Trump Winery, managed by Donald Trump’s son, Eric Trump, is the largest vineyard area in Virginia. Of course: bigly. The wines are not available in the UK or Europe, and even if they were – apart from the novelty factor of seeing the hyperreal bling labels – there are better value wines for your money, even compared to the top-tier Californian wines we tasted against the Trump wines. 

But it’s not just about wine, anymore. The wine is hyper-normal. It is a simple symbol with complex politics behind it – what does the Trump Winery say about immigration policy, climate change, tax affairs? Ride up in the gold lift, see the Trump name everywhere, but this (what is now) a political wine left me feeling quite queasy on the way down. 

 

The wines tasted

 

A Judgement of Our Times at The Vineyard

Thursday 6th April 

Menu

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Aperitif

2010 Trump Winery Sparkling Blanc de Blancs, Charlottesville, VA
RSP: £39.60

2013 Schramsberg Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, Calistoga, Napa Valley, CA
RSP:£28.24

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Mushroom risotto, parmesan and wild garlic

2014 Donelan Family Wines “Venus”, Sonoma County, CA
RSP: £44.80

2015 Trump Viognier, Charlottesville, VA
RSP: £28.05

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Foie gras parfait, rhubarb, pistachio and brioche

2013 Benovia Winery La Pommeraie Chardonnay, Russian River Valley, CA
RSP: £41.07

NV Trump Winery “CRU” Fortified Chardonnay, Charlottesville, VA
RSP: £39.60

*

Pigs fillet, pickled white cabbage, roasted onion

2015 Trump Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Charlottesville, VA:
RSP £28.05

2013 Ferrari-Carano Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, CA
RSP: £25.03

*

Seasonal farmhouse cheese platter, fennel bread

2013 Peter Michael Winery L’Esprit des Pavots, Knights Valley, Sonoma County, CA
RSP: £69.60

2014 Trump Winery New World Reserve, Charlottesville, VA
RSP: £67.65

Result: California 7 – 0 Trump

Tasting panel: Douglas Blyde (Evening Standard), Paul Michael (The Vineyard Hotel and Peter Michael Winery,) Richard Siddle (editor of the Buyer,) Juel Mahoney (Wine Woman and Song,) Alastair Viner (head buyer at Hedonism,) Romain Bourger (head sommelier at The Vinyeard Hotel) and Mike Meyeres (head sommelier at Lucknam Park.)

Douglas Blyde’s column in The Evening Standard – This is what the wine tastes like from Donald Trump’s vineyard 

IYour Sommelier Wine Club review. Image: Henri Matisse 1951

Spin Around Three Times: Your Sommelier wine club review

Shall we stand here after work in a busy supermarket and choose the one with the Chateau on the front or the one with the Chateau on the front? We could always spin around three times, put our hand out blindly and just reach for something under £15 per bottle? Or I might just ditch this whole supermarket-stressy-idea and go home. Perhaps this is the point where Your Sommelier wine club hopes to help. 

Around 8,500 Chateaux produce wine in Bordeaux (despite the repetition of releases from the en primeur campaign currently raging in my inbox). Bordeaux is a lot more than just the Grands Crus Classés and is one of the biggest wine-producing regions in the world.

You can find yourself plenty of decent wine in Bordeaux, and even more of what WSET may call “medium” – i.e. medium alcohol, medium body, medium intensity.

Good place for coffee in Bordeaux city (and for skateboard mending)

Workshop – a good place for coffee in Bordeaux city (and for skateboard mending)

Nothing wrong with a medium wine. I have plenty of friends who are medium wines! It’s more than acceptable during the week and I love sitting in a bistro in Bordeaux city over a glass of AOC Bordeaux red and watch the skateboarders flip out. But, when there’s just so much of medium Bordeaux out there, where do you start? The fact is, there is a lot of awful stuff, too. I’d rather someone just tell me what they’ve had, that’s good. 

Three Bordeaux Bottles Standing On the Wall

That’s what I was singing to myself when I received a sample box from Your Sommelier Ltd. Their wine club sends a selection of three bottles per month and so here we go…. My first box delivered: three bottles of Bordeaux.

First of all, all the wines featured a Chateau on the label, so there is no way I would have chosen these wines from the shelf other than completely randomly and, perhaps, the district (Castillon Côte de Bordeaux is always worth a look).

In this genre, it is helpful to have someone else choose three quality wines. As well as having the information cards included inside the box about the region as well as the wine. Diploma students may find this useful, too – you only have to get up from studying to answer the door bell when they deliver.

The fairly objective, fact-driven notes are good for the student or that special group of wine drinker who are suspicious of the whispery, elusive and adventerous nature of the senses – every wine is given a context and is completely understandable. In fact, Your Sommelier wine club would be a good way to learn about a region or a theme every month from around France.

 

Your Sommelier wine club: The Wines

Château Relais de la Poste 2012

Bordeaux Côtes de Bourg

60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot

 

Château Lamartine 2011

Castillon Côte de Bordeaux

85% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc

AOC Bordeaux

70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon

Three wines per month cost £36 delivered from Your Sommelier Ltd 

Back from the Edge: Cinsault in Lebanon

It’s nearly three years since I’ve been to Lebanon. While social media has become heavier and more political, the new wine from Domaine des Tourelles is fresher and even more joyous. 

The new 2014 Domaine des Tourelles Cinsault Vielles Vignes was launched in London after a sell-out season in New York. Not long ago, Cinsault in Lebanon would have been pulled out in favour of more popular French varieties. Not noble enough; a workhorse grape; not enough money in it. Yet much like Carignan in the Languedoc, some old vines of Cinsault had been spared the vine pull. In retrospect, thankfully so.

Cinsault in Lebanon Domaine des Tourelles Cinsault Vielles Vignes

Cinsault in Lebanon – release of 2014 Domaine des Tourelles Cinsault Vielles Vignes

Cinsault in Lebanon was originally brought to the country by the Jesuits of Ksara from Algeria and today around 40% of grapes planted in Lebanon are Cinsault. But it is the recent success of South African wineries with Cinsault that have helped Cinsault reach new audiences. Far from the big, bold South African reds, the pretty aromatics and drinkability of South African Cinsault – such as ones from Flotsam & Jetsom and Waterkloof – are a welcome change, and work well with food. 

Some of the prestige wines could settle with a drag of Marlboro Red rather than a food match. Old-vine Cinsault in Lebanon is not only abundant and easy-drinking, but also, importantly for this part of the world, drought-resistant.

The 2014 Domaine des Tourelles Cinsault Vielles Vignes has a mouth-watering umami character, liquorice and deep red fruit. It has freshness from grapes grown at 1000m altitude (the Cinsault grape has relatively low acidity), but it also has great intensity and richness from the 70-year-old vines and plenty of sunlight.

Cinsault in Lebanon is back from the edge and centre stage. For those who like wines to pour and drink and enjoy, Cinsault from Lebanon is another reason why we need boozy long lunches more than ever. 

Faouzi Issa, winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles

 

Looking back at Chateau Sociando-Mallet

The Chateau Sociando-Mallet house style is the equivalent to those modern interiors you see in French design magazines that I like to browse at the newsagent waiting for the Eurostar back to London. Clean lines and sparse interiors with a simple piece of design in just the right place. Modern, not excessive in style; and, it never seems to mess up.

Meanwhile, there’s baroque elephants up the road at Cos d’Estournel in Saint-Estephe and further south in Pauillac, the route des Chateaux of super-second Chateaux that can rival Kensington Palace Gardens for real estate bling. Stuck in the middle with you, as the song goes, is Sociando-Mallet, where the focus is simply on the essentials to make good wine: aspect, the soil, the fruit and the vintage.

A vineyard with a view

The view of the Gironde from Sociando-Mallet has to be one of my favourites in Bordeaux, especially at sunrise. As the road along the Gironde in Pauillac swings up a small hill to Saint Estephe, you will find Sociando-Mallet and a view of the river looking wild and wide. The vineyard is slightly elevated on a gravelly mound. Sometimes you can taste the sea in the humid air.

The outlook here confirms the old Bordeaux adage, the best estates can view the river from their vineyards. But it begs the question, why did it take so long for anyone to plant here? When Jean Gautreau bought his 5 ha in 1969, at age 42, it was more shack than Chateau.

Think back to the wine market over 40 years ago, and it was a crazy time to buy a Bordeaux vineyard. Even more so when you consider the early 1970s during the oil crisis and the plummeting fine wine market. Yet, it must have heartened Jean Gautreau to be congratulated on his purchase by the cellar master of Château Latour, Jean-Paul Gardère, as well as by Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch Bages.

He knew he was doing something right. Quite an achievement for someone who had never made wine before. And it’s this sense of good instinct and self-assurance that can be found in the wines. It also explains why he does not show his wines in the usual big tastings. You have to come to him if you want to taste the wines during en primeur.

Chateau Sociando-Mallet Jean Gautreau 8 April 2013

My (blurry) photo of Jean Gautreau in the Chateau Sociando-Mallet barrel room, En Primeurs 2013

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to taste the wines in London at a dinner held by Richard Bampfield MW at 67 Pall Mall a couple of weeks ago.

The vintages

I have added the technical details below, because this is a wine that truly reflects the vintage: as you can see, the blend is always the same for the Grand Vin.

What is significant to note are the differences in harvest dates for each vintage. This shows the perfect time to pick the grapes varied, and compared to modern Bordeaux standards, Sociando-Mallet is one of the first to pick grapes in the area.

Personally, I loved each vintage as I would love each of my different children equally.  That’s not an opt out but reflects my opinion that Sociando-Mallet is a fantastic expression of vintage variation.

That is why the strongest vintages in the vertical tasting tended to be the stronger vintages in Bordeaux, in general: 2010, 2009, 2005. The 2005 Chateau Sociando-Mallet with the lamb was a classic wine and food match.

I hold a lot of affection for the 2011 with its lighter, fresher flavours bearing out like a Chinese fan (“it’s chic,” said Douglas Blyde at the dinner – or did he actually mean “CHIC? Maybe.).

The 2001 vintage had a lovely old-school claret feel; the 2014 had a very expressive perfume, smooth and velvety with plenty of promise. If I had to say anything, the 2008 was going through an awkward phase: quite stalky, it’s a bit lower in alcohol, and right now on the verge of taking on tertiary characters. I hate to use the word ‘sexy’ with respect to wine, but the 2009 was very flattering, but we will have to see how those 2009 Bordeaux will work out in the long run.

Technical details

2012 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 28 September – 15 October
Yield: 54 hl/ha
Producing area: 61 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc

2011 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 7 September – 27 September
Yield: 53 ha/hl
Producing area: 81 ha
Blend 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc

2010 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 24 September – 15 October
Yield: 53 ha/hl
Producing area: 59 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Alcohol: 13.5%

2009 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 18 September – 5 October
Yield: 58 ha/hl
Producing area 62 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Alcohol: 13.5%

2008 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 29 September – 11 October
Yield: 45 hl/ha
Producing area: 90 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Alcohol: 13%

2006 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 18 September – 4 October
Yield: 54 hl/ha
Producing area: 79 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Alcohol: 12.5%

2005 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 19 September – 6 October
Yield: 59 hl/ha
Producing area: 69 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc
Alcohol: 13%

2001 Chateau Sociando-Mallet
Harvest: 26 September – 12 October
Yield: 61 hl/ha
Producing area: 58 ha
Blend: 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc

Tasting and Dinner at 67 Pall Mall, Friday November 11, 2016 with Pascale Thiel, Sybil Marquet and Richard Bampfield MW

Prices for Sociando-Mallet (US)

 

2014 Mouton Rothschild label by David Hockney

The 2014 Mouton Rothschild label shows the friendship between the late Baroness Philippine de Rothschild and British artist David Hockney.

2014 Mouton Rothschild label

2014 Mouton Rothschild label

‘In tribute to Philippine’

Most of all, it is a fitting tribute to the Baroness, who died in late August of the same year as the wine. Although it was her father who began the tradition in 1945 to commission artists, it was Madame de Rothschild who brought her own vibrancy and verve to the Chateau. The label shows the energy in the vibrating lines.

The story in her obituary in the New York Times recounts when she approached Francis Bacon for the 1990 Mouton Rothschild label. She asked, “if she could use his painting of a nude that her father rejected, Mr Bacon asked what had changed.

“I’m not my father,” she answered.”

David Hockney is well-known for his smoking, but after his heart attack, he no longer drinks. Chateau Mouton Rothschild pays artists with five cases of Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine from the current vintage and five cases from other vintages.  Let’s hope that he has a drop and shares it with his many friends.

Holding history

This first growth may seem like one of the ultimate “investment wines” but it is better to open and enjoy wine with friends rather than lock it away forever. That’s what I think this label says, too.

Even if the opportunity to open the wine takes 87 years.

I have been very lucky recently to share the 1929 Mouton Rothschild with friends (read more in “In the hours between coffee and wine”). From the same year of the Great Depression, the 1929 vintage did not have an artist-commissioned work we have now come to expect.

mouton-rothschild-1929

1929 Mouton Rothschild – in the period before Mouton Rothschild commissioned artists for the labels – at Harry’s Bar, London, October 2016

The Baroness’ father purchased Chateau Mouton Rothschild in 1922 – where they commissioned only one label by artist, Jean Carlu in 1924. But was not until 1945 that an artist’s work featured on the labels. The first one in 1945 commemorated the Allied Victory of World War Two. The back catalogue of labels are a who’s who of twentieth century artists, including Picasso (1973) and Miro (1969) and more recently, the “Luxury and Humour” of Jeff Koons (2010).

Here’s to blue skies and good wine. 

Two wines for Christmas Day

At this time of year, I’m asked for my Christmas wine recommendations. There are two ways to approach choosing wine for Christmas day.

Stick to the tried and traditional, or else, do your own riff from the standard hymn sheet.

My favourite Christmas is when we tear up the hymn sheet altogether.

One year, we drank mostly old vintages of German Riesling and had a great time searching for old bottles around town. (If you are in the UK, you can read it in this year’s Waitrose’s Food and Drink Christmas catalogue).

This rather nerdy level of drinking is easy when there are only two of you. But if you have a big gathering with varying degrees of wine-geek-tolerance then you want a case of something that everyone will “get”. Not too precious, then again, it must have enough sense of occasion.

With this in mind, and painfully aware of my tendency to go a bit over-the-top, when Wine Trust asked if I would like to pick my Christmas wine recommendations from their website, I chose a classic Oregon Pinot Noir and a sweet Italian sparkling.

The 2013 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir Willamette Valley could work for nearly everyone around the table. It is a classic Pinot Noir made by Domaine Drouhin, a Burgundian family, who realised Oregon’s potential back in 1960s and who became one of the pioneers of the style. It has good structure, good depth of red fruit but not too demanding, either. It is Burgundian in style but it doesn’t have the high highs of Burgundy, but neither does it have the low lows – in taste and cost. That’s a good thing for a big group. 

The other wine is not a traditional Christmas wine, but it should be: 2015 G.D. Vajra Moscato d’Asti. It’s a gentle frizzante style of sweet wine with low alcohol (5.5% alc). Rose petals, stone fruits and icing sugar lightness. It’s not as woozy as Champagne and the sweetness makes it feel like a bit of a treat. In its home in Piedmont, it is traditionally served with fresh fruit but it could also be great with Christmas biscuits, gingerbread or, to continue the Italian theme, with a slice of panetonne. 

As far as what I will do this year, I haven’t yet decided. But half the fun is in the choosing. And then, finally, to put the feet up and relax.

 

Christmas wine recommendations from Wine Trust 100

 

2013 Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir Willamette Valley
Variety: Pinot Noir
Region: Willamette Valley, Oregon
Year: 2013
Price: £24
Retailer: Wine Trust

2015 G.D. Vajra Moscato d’Asti
Variety: Moscato
Region: Piedmont, Italy
Year: 2015
Price: £12.95
Retailer: Wine Trust

 

Image Kolomon Moser

The hours between coffee and wine

I love coffee, I need coffee, I want coffee – as the greeting-card saying goes, “life is what happens in the hours between coffee and wine.” It is disappointing to end a good meal with muddy dishwater rather than a properly-made espresso.

Thanks to Amir Gehl from Difference Coffee Co., who lured us to Harry’s Bar with both excellent coffee and a very good wine, indeed: 1929 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Intact and alive in the 21st century. After dinner, we then tasted the First Growth of coffee: Jamaican Blue Mountain, a Hawaiian Kona, and the infamous Kopi Luwak.

The civet cat coffee

Even if you have never tasted Kopi Luwak, you may know about the civet cat. Kopi Luwak is a coffee made from the Sumatran civet cat’s half-digested coffee cherries, which in the process of digestion, partially ferments the beans.

As you can imagine, making coffee from the beans excreted by civet cats in Sumatra is not cheap. Although for coffee connoisseurs, much like people crazy about wine, 550 euros is a small price to pay for one kilogram of these rare, labour-intensive beans.

Coffee and wine

As a result, Difference Coffee Co. has created coffee pods to make the gold-standard in coffee accessible to Nespresso machines; the pods keep the coffee fresh and in optimal condition for use, especially in restaurants. If you drink the finest wines known to humanity – and the 1929 Chateau Mouton Rothschild is in the pantheon – then it makes sense to end the meal with the the best quality of coffee. 

My impression of the coffee? There is clearly a difference between these terroir-led coffees and the usual coffee served in restaurants. It reminded me of drinking the very best wine: it has a clarity and almost sobering quality. The after-taste of the coffee is extremely clean and up-lifting.

The 1929 Mouton Rothschild? Here are my first thoughts after the lunch on instagram

Holding history. 1929 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at lunch. The first thing to consider on drinking very old wines is that they could have fallen over already. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to think the star may be too out-of-condition to sing. Think of how much this wine has gone through since 1929. But it was not only fine but it was on fire. Compote wild strawberries, mocha in background, fresh acidity even an hour later. Served with veal simply done and roasted artichoke…

 

Menu for Difference Coffee Co. at Harry’s Bar, 6 October 2016

Panama Geisha coffee ‘tea’, brewed for seven minutes
NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Sous Bois

 

Seared blue-fin tuna, crunchy vegetables and Sicilian orange dressing
2002 Kistler Vineyards ‘Kistler’ Chardonnay, Sonoma Valley
2012 Rotem & Mounir Saouma Chateauneuf-du-Pape ‘Magis’ Blanc

 

Pumpkin and pickled fruit mustard ravioli from Cremona, with butter and sage
Castello di Vicarello ‘Castello di Vicarello’ Toscana IGT 2011
Stellenrust Quota Cuvée 2012

 

Roast t-bone of Limousin veal, sautéed porcini mushrooms and Albenga artichokes
1929 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild

 

Difference Coffee Co. tiramisu layered in a coupe and selection of Harry’s Bar desserts
Hawaii Kona from Buddha’s Cup Estate- Grade “Extra Fancy” 
Jamaica Blue Mountain from Gold Cup Estate – Grade 1 
Wild Kopi Luwak Grand Reserve 

 

Finished with an espresso martini made with Beluga Gold Line, Wild Kopi Luwak, St. George’s Nola Liqueur.

 

Thank you for the lunch, wines and good company, Douglas Blyde, Neal Martin and Amir Gehl, and the wonderful staff at Harry’s Bar, London W1K 2PD.

3 Wine Movies Reviewed: Sour Grapes, The Way of Wine & The Duel of Wine

Recently, three wine movies have explored the question: what is real (and fake) in the wine world?

There is something quite unreal about the circus around fine wine. Especially over the past two decades, it has become a game for the supra-mangerial that has no relation to the humble product from the vineyard. Step back from three recently released films and it is easy to see why the question of authenticity, and what is real in wine, has become so important in the 2010s.

Sour Grapes is the true story of the young emperor of fine wine, Rudy Kurniawan, who dazzled the fine wine auction scene in the early 2000s and went on to flood the fine wine market with counterfeit wine. Embarrassingly, a lot of wine experts went along for the ride.

Jay McKierney writes that “The night before the auction I personally consumed, by my best estimate, over $20,000 worth of his wine – including the 1945 Mouton and the 1947 Cheval Blanc – and I was one of fourteen drinkers.” One of those drinkers being Rudy Kurniawan.

Were they only enjoying Chateau Ribena – or did Jay drink the good stuff, after all? It’s a fascinating snapshot of a time when the economy had more money, and in turn, had more of the proverbial old fools. For many younger wine professionals – and, I would argue the wine industry has seen a lot more professionalisation since then – they may wonder if this type of regular extravagance was a myth. Did it even happen at all? Yes, it did. And it was all real. In some sense, we are still cleaning up the mess. 

The Way of Wine (2010) is a prelude to the recently released film, The Duel of Wine. 

We begin The Way of Wine with the whirlwind lifestyle of Miami sommelier, Charlie Arturaola. There’s the glamour of travelling the world on a wine bottle, as he says. His whole life depends on his palate. Even his wife, Pandora, is his manager and books him to host tastings.

When he loses his palate, his world falls apart. He needs to recover it. And fast. In search of a solution, he approaches major people in the wine world. He asks Michel Rolland, who suggests he “washes his palate with the finest wines of the world.” This leads him on a journey far away from his hectic party lifestyle and into the vineyards of Argentina.

The story continues in his second film, The Duel of Wine.  In this film, Charlie is working as a taxi driver in Miami while he recovers his palate. His wife, Pandora, is approached by a young sommelier, Luca to manage him all the way to the world championships of Sommeliers. This leads Charlie to go to the championships: to regain his crown and his marriage. 

The Way of Wine and The Duel of Wine are fun films with larger-than-life Charlie Arturaola providing plenty of laughs and madcap silliness amongst the serious side of wine. Sour Grapes is anything but funny for those who work in wine, although, it is good to know (spoiler alert!) the pied piper gets a taste of cold, hard reality in the end. 

Rioja Alavesa trip #2 – a photo diary

Here are some of my favourite moments from the trip to Rioja Alavesa on instagram.

I was thrilled to catch up with the Vinisud team again.For more instagrams from beautiful Rioja Alavesa, check out: charliewines (Charlie Arturoala), rockinredblog (Michelle Williams) and thewinesleuth (Denise Medrano).

A photo posted by Juel Mahoney (@winewomansong) on

🔑 #RiojaAlavesa 

A photo posted by Juel Mahoney (@winewomansong) on

Local tomatoes, fresh bread, wine and sunshine 

A photo posted by Juel Mahoney (@winewomansong) on

 

See also Rioja Alavesa trip #1 – Will Rioja Alavesa break away from Rioja?

Follow me on instagram @winewomansong

Rioja Alavesa trip #1 – Will Basque Rioja break away from Rioja?

My introduction to Rioja Alavesa went a little something like this:

“We are going to visit Basque wine country!” wrote Charlie Arturaola, “We are going to Rioja.”

“Are we going to Basque country or are we going to Rioja?” I tapped back.

“Both!”

When you think of Basque country, you may be forgiven for thinking of tingly white Txacoli poured from great heights in the bars of San Sebastian. 

But there is a part of Rioja, near the Cantabrian mountains, that is also part of the Basque country. What did the Level 3 WSET book have to say about the Basque part of Rioja?

“Rioja Alavesa is situated to the west of Logroño, on the north bank of the Ebro. Vineyards are planted up to 800 metres into the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains. The soil is very chalky and the wines are perhaps the lightest of Rioja, but have the most finesse” (Wines and Spirits, Understanding Quality, WSET, 2012).

And that’s it… Nothing about Vasco Pais, Euskadi, Basque Country. And about half as much information than for Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja. 

Basque Country

Vasco Pais, Euskadi, Basque Country in Spain. On the coastline is Bilbao and Donostia (San Sebastian), inland is Rioja Alavesa

And yet, you may know the wines from here: Ostatu, Remelluri, Artadi, and Vega Sicilia vineyards. You can find them in the wine shop under the big sign: RIOJA. I just did not know they were from the Basque part of Rioja.

What did it matter that the wines were from Basque country or not?

A fork in the road

On the journey of wine, this is the point where some wine lovers part ways. Either you are happy with the broad brushstrokes of ‘Rioja’, or you want to know more about where it comes from.

Rioja Alavesa is not only is a different style of wine, a different place. And after visiting there, I’d also say, it is a state of mind.

There is a tension between Rioja Alavesa and the rest of Rioja, overstated by the sub-editor in The Telegraph, “Rioja war as Basque vintners launch bid for independence”.

Much as there is a tension, I would not go so far as to use the word, “war”. It’s not unusual for wineries to want to delineate their sub-regions.

Aside from the stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap world of wine, the customer demands to know more about where a wine comes from: what makes the particular area unique? Especially, if they are paying more for a bottle.

For customers, Rioja has a fundamental problem: no consistency of style – despite the strict regulations on the amount of time in barrel on the winery side (joven, crianza, reserva, gran reserva etc). People know the over-oaked, vanilla bomb that tastes like baked plums. In fact, Rioja has a natural higher acidity from the Tempranillo grape.

In the glass, compared to the customer’s memory, they are different wines.

Rocking the Rioja boat

Despite this, Rioja is one of the most recognisable wine brands in the UK. It’s right up there with Argentinian Malbec or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This amount of recognition is an advantage for any wine region.

Yet, Rioja Alavesa is not always the “Rioja” customers are asking for. What is Rioja? Is it the blocky Gran Reservas, the old oxidative styles of Vina Tondonia, or the gold-net styles found on the top shelf at the local shop?

Wines from Rioja Alavesa have a clear sense of place. The ground here is calcareous clay; across the Ebro, it is iron based. The ridge of Cantabrian mountains stop the Atlantic winds and rain from the coast. The wet weather in Bilbao stops when crossing the mountains, and the land is dry and hot. People here work on a small scale and press the grapes near the vineyards – there is a return to the ways of their grandparents. The oldest winery has been found in the main town, Laguardia, working since before Roman times. 

A hop, skip and jump from Rioja Alavesa – in Bilbao – we stood at a bar before the flight home. Dazzled by colourful Pinxtos and good wine, what is clear is this part of the world knows the art of drinking and eating. The wines of Rioja Alavesa are perfect for the way we like to eat now.

Does Alavesa need to break away from Rioja to get the recognition they deserve?

Without echoing too much of the Brexit Remain argument, if some small changes can get through the bureaucracy of the Rioja wine board, arguably, it could make a big difference – more recognition of the sub-region on the label, for example.

However, it seems that big regional Boards across the world have a problem reconciling the demands of smaller producers. And Rioja Alavesa is mostly small producers. (I have only seen it work when the Board has recognised the importance of regionality, for example, Wine Australia and its recent Regional Roadshow.)

Anything is possible. A lesson learned from Brexit? Hear, listen.

Next post: Rioja Alavesa #2 – a photo diary

* I was in Rioja Alavesa to give a speech on the UK market and social media at a conference in Rioja Alavesa: “Challenges of winemaking: Survival and Evolution.” 8 July 2016, organised by Gerente de la Asociación de Bodegas de Rioja Alavesa (ABRA).

Corse you can: wines from Yves Leccia, Patrimonio, Corsica

Look up Corsica in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book and right at the end of the entry, like an afterthought or a throwaway line, he writes: “Original wines that rarely travel.” 

This is how the obsession starts. Thanks Hugh (again).

In the small entry, HJ then recommends the wines of Yves Leccia. As luck would have it, the opportunity came up to meet Yves Leccia at Vinisud in Montpellier, and he sent me some wines to taste at home.

It’s easy to like a wine – in fact, to like most things – when the sun is shining in the South of France, but how will they taste on a cold (as the Scots say) dreich day in London?

Yves Leccia Patrimony Rouge (Neilluccio and Grenache) and Patrimony White (Vermentinu)

Yves Leccia Patrimonio Rouge (Neilluccio and Grenache) and Patrimonio White (Vermentinu)

Yves Leccia Domaine d’E Croce Patrimonio blanc
Varieties: Vermentinu
Region: Patrimonio, Corsica
Year: 2013
Price: Approximately 27 €
Retailer: Kermit Lynch (US), no UK supplier

What struck me the most are the unique herbal flavours, much like the garrigue aromas found in the south of France. In Corsica, they call it fleur de maquis – the thickets of underbrush, rosemary and thyme.

The Vermentinu is finer than the Vermentino found in Sardinia or Liguria. You will find the typical Vermintino bitterness of breakfast grapefruit and the floral aromatics of dandelion and black tea. It has depth and texture with good body, loads of spritely energetic sunny grapefruit tangy flavours with a delicious herbal mineral background. It tastes of Mediterranean sunshine. I was dreaming of a big plate of fritto misto after a long walk along the beach.

Yves Leccia Domaine d’E Croce Patrimonio rouge
Varieties: 90% Neilluccio, 10% Grenache 
Region: Patrimonio, Corsica
Year: 2014
Price: Approximately 24 €
Retailer: Kermit Lynch (US), no UK supplier

This is  red could easily have been a jam fest but Corsica is similar to Japan in that it comes straight out of the sea and up. This altitude cools the grapes to give it freshness. The baking heat in July and August concentrates and intensifies the flavours, not only of the grapes, but also all the fruit and vegetables from Corsica. It is very ripe, creme de mure, black cherry, raspberries and wild herb with a long finish.

Patrimonio is situated in the north of the island and is the only area on the island where limestone soils can be found. Neilluccio is a native Sangiovese that was reportedly introduced by Genoese traders in the 18th century. It has developed its own identity, quite distinct from a Tuscan Sangiovese, it is darker in colour and with more body than what you would find in downtown Colli Senesi.

The Whole of the Moon

Yes, Hugh, absolutely right (again): these are original wines that don’t travel much. There could be a few reasons for that. One of them is that Leccia only produces 5000 bottles per year.

It is a good reminder that there is a whole world of wine out there. And I think of the lyrics to the song that comes up now and again on the radio by The Waterboys, The Whole of the Moon (1985):

I pictured a rainbow
You held it in your hands
I had flashes
But you saw the plan
I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
You saw the whole of the moon

These wines are transportive. Stuck at home on a cold London night, I wandered out into the world of sun-drenched flavours, the fleur de maquis and tasted the mountains and sea. A restless wanderlust feeling that started from reading five small words in a pocket guide. I’ve seen the crescent with these excellent wines from Yves Leccia and now there is a whole other planet of flavour yet to be explored.

 

 

In Montpellier for Vinisud 2016

Last week I was at Vinisud 2016 in Montpellier for the Mediterranean wine trade fair. It was my first time at this event, and as far as locations go, you could not do better than tasting wines on the sunny coast of France in February.

Catching some sun between appointments with a glass of Provence Rosé

Catching some sun between appointments with a glass of Provence Rosé

I was there as a Vinisud Ambassador, along with Charlie Arturaola (producer of the film, “The Ways of Wine” and other wine films), Denise Medrano (The Wine Sleuth), and Michelle Williams (Rocking Red Blog).

The Ambassador team was a social media powerhouse, becoming a sounding board for the producers and presentations. In a single day, the TweetReach broke new records via the official #VINISUD2016 hashtag with nearly 1,500 twitter posts recorded. According to Sylvain Dadé of specialist agency SOWINE, which hosted the Vinisud Digital Hub, over the last two days of the show, 533,000 accounts were reached with 4.8 million prints.

On Tuesday, we found #Vinisud2016 was trending on twitter alongside that other little event going on at the time, The Grammys (!).  Charlie, Denise and Michelle are true social media professionals at the top of their game; each of their presentations at the Digital Hub gave valuable insight and practical tips on how to use social media and digital.

Fellow ambassadors: Charlie Arturaola, Denise Medrano and Michelle Williams at the Digital Hub, Vinisud 2016

Charlie Arturaola, Denise Medrano and Michelle Williams at the Digital Hub, Vinisud 2016

"J'adore Vinisud" sunglasses - with Charlie Arturaola

“J’adore Vinisud” sunglasses – with Charlie Arturaola

On Wednesday, my presentation – London Calling: How to Stand Out in a Crowded Market – explained some of the new trends coming through in central London across the wine trade for Mediterranean wine producers. The workshop explored how social media is used by the next generation of wine lovers.

Cbaskl7W8AIoXON.jpg-large

Thank you to Chateau Léoube from Provence for your support during my presentation. They ticked nearly all the boxes for how to reach the London market.

Romain Ott of Chateau Léoube, Provence

Romain Ott of Chateau Léoube, Provence

Chateau Léoube’s winemaker, Romain Ott, is a legend of Provence Rosé. A refreshingly humble and quiet winemaker, he is the antithesis of all the bling on the Côte d’Azur. Of course, the rosé wines are more than refreshing, too.

Could it be the soothing colour of pink everywhere? I found myself spending a lot of time at the displays of Provence Rosé at Vinisud 2016.

Provence all stars at Vinisud 2016

Provence all stars at Vinisud 2016 – each wine is presented with useful technical information

The colours of Provence rosé in detail

The colours of Provence rosé in detail

I will be posting some more in-depth posts from the event but I will leave you with some photos of the exhibitors. It is a large event that is well spaced out – no sharpening of elbows, needed – but it is a lot to do in three days. The Mediterranean accounts for nearly 1 in every 2 bottles sold around the world and covers the entire region from Portugal to Lebanon.

Pays d'Oc IGP

Truckin’ with Pays d’Oc IGP

Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

Wine Mosaic – celebrating rare, almost-extinct varieties from the Mediterranean. Incredible to think this variety used to cover Bordeaux.

At Wine Mosaic stand I found a 100% Obeidy from Chateau St Thomas - the indigenous white grape of Lebanon

At Wine Mosaic stand I found a 100% Obeidy from Chateau St Thomas – the indigenous white grape of Lebanon

Sparkling Zone

Languedoc-Roussillon - a big topic that I will follow up with another post. Stay tuned.

Languedoc-Roussillon – a big topic that I will follow up with another post.

Excellent guide to volcanic soils published by Soave producers. Also some Citrate de Betraïne (one of these before bed is the key to eating so much rich food on wine trade trips! Only found in French pharmacies.)

An excellent guide to volcanic soils published by Soave producers. Also some Citrate de Betraïne (one of these before bed is the key to eating so much rich food on wine trade trips! Only found in French pharmacies.)

Ambassador lunch amongst the flamingo :-)

Ambassador lunch amongst the flamingo (on the back wall) – Charlie Arturaola and Denise Medrano

2016-02-15 10.37.01

For more images from Vinisud 2016, join me on  INSTAGRAM

The Key to Burgundy 2014 en primeur

What’s the key to Burgundy 2014 en primeur?

White wines, white wines all the way baby.

How can you tell before they have been bottled?

Nearly ten years experience of tasting wines at this stage, you can get an idea of the vintage. It’s all about the vibes.

What does that even mean, VIBES??!! That will get you in a lot of trouble on twitter.

Who cares. I’m in it for the Burgundy. The vibes…. As Michael Jackson would say about the white wine vintage, “I’m in ec-sta-sy!” You can tell from the hair standing up on the back of your neck. The zing. Ecstasy. Joy. It’s like this:

 

michael jackson ecstasy

Michael Jackson on the white 2014 Burgundy en primeur vintage

 

Which producers did you see at Burgundy En Primeur week?

I went to Berry Bros & Rudd and Corney & Barrow 2014 en primeur tasting. Also, the Grand Cru Chablis 2014 tasting. 

What do you think the trade will make of it this year?

No one in the trade loves “a good white wine vintage in Burgundy”. There’s not the same money in it as a good red vintage, which I have been told, could be next year in 2015. 

How do you plan when faced with a huge array of wines during Burgundy en primeur?

Go with a producer you know and love and follow them over the years. Treat your Burgundy like children. Not all of them grow up to be surly teenagers. 

So, what about the reds – is it a lost cause this year?

No. Not at all. You will no doubt see a lot of 2014 in restaurants because it has a lovely freshness, pretty fruit and won’t need to cellar for long. Some of the entry level 2014 wines are already on the shelves (Petit Chablis, Côteaux Bourguignon) and are superior to 2013.

What if you want to cellar the 2014 Burgundy vintage?

Go with the best producers. Get good advice. Not many people want to spend £500 on a case and want a fresh and easy drinking wine. They’ll want a bit more fruit. Perhaps they think the more fruit packed in by the 75cl is better value? I’m only joking, somewhat. But that’s where the white wines come in…. 

Powerful whites, is that even a thing?

Yes. Grand Cru Chablis is the key to better living through Burgundy.

Which Grand Cru Chablis stood out?

The UK’s favourite Grand Cru is Les Clos with Vaudesir and Valmur coming up from not far behind. Les Clos has a big structure so is made for cellaring. They also have a big price tag. I have selected a few at the end of the post. 

Did you see meet any of the producers?

I wanted to speak to someone who would be emblematic of the whole 2014 Burgundy vintage so I spoke to – the one and only – Vincent Dampt from Chablis. He always tells it like it is.

Vincent Dampt Chablis at Corney & Barrow

Vincent Dampt Chablis at Corney & Barrow Burgundy 2014 en primeur tasting

What did Vincent Dampt say about the 2014 vintage in Chablis?

Vincent Dampt: “For me, 2014 is back to the classical where each terroir is well defined. The big challenge was the summer because it was not so good. But it cooled down in August. That helped the acidity and concentration. This vintage is the mark of the winemaker, and you can feel the tension between the vintage and winemaking. Whereas 2012 is all perfect acidity with excellent balance. 2013 is atypical for Chablis. 2012 is my favourite vintage. 2014 reminds me of 2005.”

Why do you need to know so much about vintage in Burgundy, in particular Chablis?

Have you ever gone into a shop and accidentally bought the same Chablis but with the next vintage? It can be a disappointing experience if you expect one thing and get another. One reason for the vintage variation is because Chablis is a very northerly, marginal climate for growing ripe grapes.

What are some of the wines you would personally buy at en primeur? Put your money where your mouth is.

Fair enough. This is what gave me a shiver up the spine with their stunning vibrancy, energy and fruit (and reasonable price tag):

 

Vincent Dampt Chablis 1er Cru, Côte de Léchet 2014 – £182.90 in bond (12 bottles)

 

Domaine Hubert Lamy, St-Aubin, La Princée 2014 £156.00 in bond (12 bottles)

Domaine Hubert Lamy, St-Aubin, Les Frionnes 1 er Cru 2014 £102.00 in bond (12 bottles)

Santenay, Clos des Graviéres Blanc 1er Cru 2014 £108 in bond (12 bottles)

 

  • Grand Cru Chablis 

Domaine de Château Grenouilles, Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles 2014

Domaine Collet, Chablis Grand Cru Valmur 2014

Domaine William Fevre, Chablis Grand Cru “Cote Bouguerots” 2014

Domaine Louis Moreau, Chablis Grand Cru Valmur 2014

 

I hope that helps. If you have any questions, or would like more detailed advice, I’m more than happy to help so please get in touch. 

 

Image: Ed Clark: Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell resting on the set of “Gentlemen prefer blondes”, 1953

 

 

 

 

Vogue’s 5 Favourite Wine Instagram Follows

I had my very own Carrie moment – well, I felt a little tipsy, at least – when I saw my name in Vogue UK magazine’s Top 5 Wine Instagram follows in UK Vogue, December 2015, alongside some of my favourite wine people: @leviopenswine @jordansalcito @noblerotmag and @honeyandvine

If you were a young woman and an aspiring writer in the early 2000s, it was all about Carrie Bradshaw in S&TC. Who didn’t want to be writing her own column in New York City while looking out the window of her rent-controlled apartment with that walk-in wardrobe full of fabulous shoes? As Carrie would write in her column, I couldn’t help but wonder….

Then there’s the episode where she gets drunk in the Vogue editor’s office.

“Martinis in the morning. Is this allowed? Is it “Vogue”?”

 

sex-and-the-city-Carrie-gets-sloshed-at-the-Vogue-offices

 

I love instagram, it’s great fun. Thank you, British Vogue.

Now, in true Carrie fashion, it’s time to spill a cocktail (or nine) to celebrate.

Find me on instagram @winewomansong

 

Wines from Lebanon: Why we need boozy long lunches more than ever

It’s been one year since my trip to Lebanon.

Last week’s tasting of Lebanese wines in London’s Borough market had been planned weeks before hand, but it happened to coincide with the same week as the attacks in Beirut, and on the next day, in Paris.

Can we ever understand the horrific events of the past week? The time calls out for civilisation. I agree with the message from the Charlie Hebdo illustrator, Joann Sfar, after the Paris attacks: “Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and joy!

For me, that means eating together, friends and a glass of wine. That is why a long lunch of mezze and Lebanese wine was the perfect tonic for the time.

 

A very brief history of food and wine in a complex region

The story of wine is the story of civilisation.

It was the ancient sea-faring Phoenicians that introduced, encouraged and propagated viticulture in the ancient world when vitis vinifera was still only a weed in many areas across the Mediterranean. Around the same time they also developed and spread the use of an alphabet.

In more recent times, the Lebanese are famously great emigrants and the Christian Lebanese have emigrated abroad since the late nineteenth century.

Old French school map of the Middle East

Old French school map of the Middle East

 

Claudia Roden explains the impact of Lebanese restaurant culture in her mouth-wateringly good cookbook, Arabesque:

“Today Lebanese restaurants with their typical menus have come to represent Arab food around the world. So big is their reputation that when a Syrian restaurant opens in London, it calls itself ‘Lebanese,’ and when hotels in Egypt put on a special Egyptian buffet, the dishes are Lebanese. How did that come about? One reason is that the Lebanese are famously bons viveurs who know how to make the best of their culinary heritage. They are also great entrepreneurs and they were the first in the Middle East to develop a restaurant trade. That trade spread to Europe and else where then the civil war forced many to seek their fortunes abroad in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Where there is a strong restaurant culture, wine can be found. Modern wine developed in Lebanon before the League of Nations awarded France the mandate for Syria and Mount Lebanon in 1920; Château Ksara was established by Jesuit priests in 1857. Wine was never banned in Lebanon, and the drinking of arak (distilled grapes with aniseed) was important in refining Lebanese food, especially the mezze tradition, which some say was born in the Bekaa Valley.

What is Mezze?

Mezze is not just about the small plates but the art of living and socialising. It can include, but is not limited to, a plate of olives or pistachio, pickled turnips and cucumbers, labneh, feta and haloumi, very large thin breads called marouk, omelettes, thin pizzas, and kibbeh made of lamb and bulgar wheat.

Pumpkin kibbeh with saffron labneh yoghurt at Arabica Bar and Kitchen

Pumpkin kibbeh with saffron labneh yoghurt at Arabica Bar and Kitchen

 

The mezze is followed by the main dishes, which Claudia Roden explains, are influenced by the “old Greek Orthodox and Sunni grande bourgeoisie of Beirut and the Maronite grand seigneurs, combined with simple rural dishes and festive dishes associated with festive holidays”.

Other cuisines that share the same “bass note” spices in their cooking – think the earthy and warm flavours of cinnamon, cumin and allspice – will also unlock the potential of the wines.

 

3 Lebanese Wine Styles and What It Tastes Like

This is not a definitive list of the styles of wine available from the 39 wineries in Lebanon. What matters is to get a feel for the lay of the land so you find the wine for your tastes. These are the three styles worth looking out for.

 

Exotic Whites

Look for blends. They have great texture and good weight, combined with spicy exotic floral notes – thanks to the Muscat and other aromatic varieties – and make an exciting match with foods featuring brown spices, such as cumin and nutmeg.

Throw away the rule book – try these white wines these with lamb dishes such as Moussaka or Baingain Bharta (Indian aubergine curry). Or simply enjoy a glass with a handful of pistachio or olives.

  • Karam Winery Cloud 9 (Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat and Semillon, 13% alc)
  • Domaine Wardy Clos Blanc (Obeideh, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat, 13% alc)
  • Domaine des Tourelles White (Viognier, Chardonnay, Muscat, 13% alc)

 

Gentle savoury reds

The grape with the most history in Lebanon is Cinsault, which benefits from blending with other grapes. It is a difficult grape to tame with oak and needs to be treated delicately in the winery. The Jesuits brought Cinsault, along with Carignan, into the country from Algeria and then distributed the grapes to the locals. Touriga Nacional in the blend, such as seen in the excellent St Jean 2007 red blend from Karam Winery, and sometimes Tempranillo, are worth seeking out for their interesting textures. These are great food friendly wines, not overly fruity and with reasonable alcohol levels for midweek drinking.

  • Château St Thomas Les Gourmets 2012 (Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5% alc)
  • Karam Winery St Jean 2007 (Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, 13% alc)
  • Domaine Wardy Château Les Cedres 2011 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, 13% alc)

 

Wild Wines

In the spirit of Château Musar, here are the wines that dance to the beat of their own tune. Some bottles of the Château Sanctus may have been slightly volatile but this unfiltered and cloudy 2005 was an exciting full bodied wine that won’t leave you feeling indifferent. If you enjoy big wines with big flavours, then you will enjoy the liquorice, bourbon, rye and orange peel characters.

  • Château Sanctus 2005 (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13%)
  • Château Sanctus 2009 (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13%)
  • Coteaux de Botrys Syrah 2007 (Syrah, 13.5%)

 

 

Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry.

 

Many thanks to Union Vinicole du Liban and the wineries: Adyar, Château Heritage, Château Ka, Château Kefraya, Château Ksara, Château Nakad, Château Oumsiyat, Château St Thomas, Château Sanctus, Coteaux de Botrys, Domaine des Tourelles, Domaine Wardy, IXSIR, Karam Winery.

Lunch at Arabica (3 Rochester Walk, London SE1 9AF)

The view from Paris: natural wine and the vegetable whisperer

This is my view. We are staying with a young sommelier friend. He moved to Paris from Copenhagen and now works at one of the grand dames of the natural wine bistro scene, Chateaubriand. 

On the wall of his apartment in Oberkampf is an old chalkboard he was given by the guys at Verre Volé (67 Rue de Lancry, 75010 Paris) – one of the places where many wine people hung out a few years ago.

Verre Volé also made an impact on me back in the early part of this decade: I remember turning up after they were closed so they gave me a few glasses and a bottle of Métras to sit by the Canal Saint-Martin while we waited for them to open again.

An old Verre Volé chalkboard at a sommelier friends apartment

An old Verre Volé chalkboard at a sommelier friend’s apartment.

“Natural wine only” lists are not a new phenomena. But what is happening in the new bistro scene in Paris (described as “bistronomie”) is not just about natural wine, but also about “natural food” and maybe, in the longer term, we may look back and see that it was even more than that – a coming together of a greater philosophy about the environment and what Paris is about today.

One clue to this innovation in the new bistro scene is a man called Alain Passard. Enthusiastic staff from each restaurant we visited referred to him as the “Vegetable Whisperer”.

The Vegetable Whisperer

Alain Passard caused a sensation when he stopped cooking meat in his restaurant, L’Arpege, in 2001. Now he is all about farming his own vegetables and how it is grown, how it fits with other vegetables, and to show how beautiful they can be. He grows the vegetables for his restaurant outside of Paris on his dedicated farm using permaculture farming. This is a type of farming which makes biodynamic and organic viticulture look like child’s play. There are no shortcuts: the vegetables arrive fresh before lunch and are never refrigerated.

Move over Heston Blumenthal. And not before time, too. I’m sure I am not the only person who was depressed by foam on a piece of rectangular slate. Sadly endemic in regional France; strangely, as they are even closer to the source of food and wine than Paris. The Alain Passard philosophy is in direct contrast to the science lab glasses and white coat fashion.

If you ever have a chance to visit Septime (80 Rue de Charonne, 75011 Paris), then you will be in for a shock at how far this style of restaurant is from the clinical style that has been lingering on for far too long. The difference could not be more stark. There is nothing bling and, dare I say it with Blumenthal et al, of the media slut.

In contrast, Alain Passard, and his acolytes with their own restaurants, are elevating the humble vegetable to Grand Cru status. Much like a precious grape from one of the great vineyards in Burgundy, passed from vineyard to winery with the light touch of kid gloves, vegetables are given first-class treatment from the moment they arrive from the farm before lunch service, and to the gentle light touch on the plate.

Sometimes, there is a nod to the Nordic – from the foraging idea (marigold leaves, below) to the natural boards, white-washed feel of the decor and plates, such as at Septime and, their oyster bar next door, Clamato. It is also what is growing together in season, which provides some unusual combinations such as fig and red tuna with bone marrow at Clamato.

This dish had me hearing reindeers crunching on the snow…

Clamato

At Clamato, I can hear reindeers. Grey Dorade, marigold leaf, raspberries … Fresh bracing cool fish with mad resinous pine and wild raspberries came together like a windy Siberian tundra. And clearly the wine was good! (La Deuse, Mondeuse).

At Le Servan (32 Rue Saint-Maur, 75011 Paris) two women in their 20s have transformed an old neighbourhood café into something so simply good that it is near genius. Not surprisingly Tatiana’s mentors have been Alain Passard and Pascal Barbot (L’Astrance). The flavours, presentation and natural wine list are superb and such good value that I feel the same way as one reviewer when he said, “I feel like I am ripping them off.”

Pét Nat Gaz de Schistes, Les Roches

At Le Servan – Veal ravioli (fried wonton) with fennel and a glass of Pét Nat Gaz de Schistes, Les Roches

When we arrived at Vivant (43, rue des Petites Ecuries, 75010 Paris), a little early to slip in without a reservation, we found chef Atsumi Sota (ex-Troisgros, Robuchon, Stella Maris & Toyo) outside on the pavement seats scribbling down the day’s menu. With the emphasis on vegetables, fine cutting, lightness and a gentle touch, it is not surprising to often find a Japanese chef when you peer into the tiny kitchens. This is not fusion French-Japanese but classic French bistro seen in a fresh way.

The Régnié from Guy Bréton, one of natural wine’s “Gang of Four” in Beaujolais, with veal cheeks and clams will be seared into the memory of all time great meals. The delicacy of the wine, along with the oyster shell notes, meant the acidity cut through the fatty veal cheeks and chimed with the sea-salty clams.

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Vivant

It makes sense to have only natural wines at restaurants that are working with the “naturalness” of the ingredients. Whether it is because the wines are closer to the source – much like Alain Passard’s vegetables for his restaurant – natural wines taste better, and are often in better condition, than what we find in London. Travelling and shipping can have an impact on these delicate wines.

All the restaurants were similar in having lighter styles of wine on the menu. Although Loire and Beaujolais have always dominated bistro menus in Paris, the lists heavily feature wines from the regions that lead the natural wine movement. There is a predominance of Loire, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Languedoc but also, Italy and Greece.

File 05-10-2015 12 10 46

At Clown Bar (114, Rue Amelot, 75011 Paris)

Unsurprisingly, this is no place for Bordeaux. Not once, on any list. I think this is for a number of reasons, and as a young person, why would you? In the same way as most young people are locked out of buying real estate to live, for many Bordeaux is now more about money than drinking. This is where natural wine becomes political.

The sommeliers were interested in “working with their small producers,” as one person told me in a fascinating conversation, rather than “ideas of what is the best, the most fashionable”or judging the wines as if they are sacks of potatoes.

What is most exciting about the Paris neo-bistro scene is how it reflects what Paris is all about at this moment. It’s more than just “fusion”, but the direct experience of living in a diverse city where the smells from Vietnamese, Lebanese, Japanese and French bakeries, to name but a few, curl together and express something new but distinctly French. It is for the raw ingredients rather than the abstract molecule. It is about the energy of the people in the restaurant. Where quality natural wine from small producers takes a starring role.

And the next day feels good, too.

On Berry Bros & Rudd blog: Marco de Bartoli’s Vecchio Samperi Ventenniale

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Marco de Bartoli winery in Marsala, Western Sicily. This is where I tasted one of Italy’s great wines: Vecchio Samperi Ventennale.

When Berry Bros & Rudd asked if I could write about one of their Italian wines, I could not go past Marco de Bartoli’s famous Marsala. This is a story of one man (and wine) against the odds.

Read the full story on Berry Bros & Rudd blog, “One man’s perpetual drive for quality” here > 

Marco de Bartoli cantina in Marsala

Marco de Bartoli cantina in Marsala

The late Marco de Bartoli's son, Renato, and the next generation.

The late Marco de Bartoli’s son, Renato, and the next generation

Renato de Bartoli

Renato de Bartoli in the cellar

 

How does classic white Bordeaux fit with my not-so-classic life? A week in photos

The case of Bordeaux blanc from the Bordeaux Council sat in the corner of my tiny London flat like an elaborate piece of 17th century furniture. The idea of drinking Bordeaux blanc everyday is very grand, but how does this classic style of wine fit in with my not-so-classic, real life?

Instead of opening all the bottles at once, we opened up a bottle or two every night with dinner to see how it worked with food. Which it does. Spectacularly. But not with everything.

Don’t believe the label if it ever says aperitif – you will be wasting half the experience. Most Bordeaux blanc is better with food. There are better aperitif wines out there but there are not as many complex food wines out there as Bordeaux blanc.

I photographed my week of meals at home (and one special occasion meal on the weekend) pairing white Bordeaux with food. Here are the results. But first, some tips on buying white Bordeaux under £20.

 

What to look for in Bordeaux Blanc under £20

The last bottle of Bordeaux blanc I had was a bottle of 2011 Smith Haut-Lafitte – not an everyday wine at £60-£70 per bottle (it was from my time working in fine wine). There is a lot more to Bordeaux than the cru classé wines. But while there are some good wines under £20 per bottle, there are also quite a few variations of style at this price, too.

The confusion begins when:

  • What comes under the umbrella of Bordeaux blanc is Entre-Deux-Mers, Pessac-Leognan, or Graves.
  • The percentage of grape varieties vary and can be a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and, in this case, Muscadelle (or Sauvignon Gris, which is worth seeking out)
  • Some labels are old school and don’t give much of an indication of the taste of Bordeaux blanc. Not everyone will understand that a wine with Muscadelle will be aromatic and fruity, for example.

 

What you need to know is that Bordeaux Blanc sits on a spectrum between bright and fruity (gooseberries, pineapple, tropical fruit, etc) to creamy and rich (cold white french butter, waxy candles) and everything in between.

The blend of white grapes found in Bordeaux makes it a versatile choice with food. Some bottles evolve over the night between the two extremes of fruity and fresh and creamy and rich. My advice is to go for bottles around £25. Under £20 per bottle, unless you get good advice, it is difficult to tell what the style will be like from the label alone. Behind the generic Chateau on the label, there can be a wine that is anything but generic.

There were a few surprise food and wine matches over the week. Let’s start with Friday night.

 

The Wines 

FRIDAY

Chateau Lestrille 2014 Entre-Deux-Mers

with Friday night rotisserie chicken with tabbouleh and za’atar on pita

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It’s the end of the week. Not feeling very glamorous. Thank god, it’s Friday night take out.

This fruity style of Bordeaux blanc goes well with fresh green herbs such as parsley in tabbouleh (Lebanese parsley salad), broad beans and it loved the garlic sauce (toum).

Fresh and clean aromas of cut grass, elderflower, asparagus. The palate is plumped with melon and has the warmth of Bordeaux – there is more weight on the palate than expected from the first fresh characters found on the nose. You don’t get more aromatic than Sauvignon Blanc but the even more intense aromas of Muscadelle is a good balance.

Verdict: Roast chicken is a classic match with Bordeaux blanc, but the fresh green herbs in the tabbouleh is the revelation here. As parsley is in so many sauces and salads, this makes it a surprisingly versatile wine. Just because it is fruity and fun at first, don’t write it off too quickly. Seriously good fun.

Chateau Lestrille
Region: Entre-Deux-Mers
Year: 2014
Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc 86%, Muscadelle 14%
Price: £10.99
Retailer: Thames Food & Wine

 

SATURDAY

Chateau Baret 2011 Pessac-Leognan

with white fish (plaice) in beurre noisette with capers and samphire

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On the first taste, it is a simple, fresh Sauvignon Blanc. Enter the food: with the fish and butter sauce, the wine becomes big, buttery and opulent. The palate is classic full and rich, almost a Chardonnay in weight. The aromas are exotic: tinned lychee, rose petal, melon, even mango. The samphire is particularly good – perhaps because they are both from an estuary, we joked (but maybe!).  Talented winemaking consultant and professor, Denis Durboudieu, advises the Ballande family small vineyard of 4 hectares of white in Pessac-Leognan. A lot of wine here for £20 – it is a shapeshifter.

Verdict: White fish and butter is another classic pairing with Bordeaux blanc. The green samphire (in season) brings out the full character of the wine.

Chateau Baret
Region: Pessac Leognan
Year: 2011
Grapes: 75 % Sauvignon Blanc, 25 % Semillon
Price: £19.99
Retailer: Averys

 

TUESDAY

Chateau du Druc 2012 Graves and Clos Floridene Graves

with veal chop in creamy sauce (Pedro Ximenez, cream, mustard) and sautéed potatoes with thyme

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Chateau du Druc 2012

This is my favourite wine. Hand in glove, as Morrissey would sing, with the veal chop and creamy sauce. It tastes as refined as cold white French butter. Incredible smoothness and elegant fruit. Again, the BB picked up the herbs in the sauce. Very fair price.

Chateau du Druc is situated on classic gravel soils overlooking the vineyards of Sauternes and facing the Garonne; one of the best positions in the region. This shows why 2012 is hailed as a great vintage for white Bordeaux.

Verdict: A real find – but I would never have chosen it at a shop on the label alone. It was also good with the fish curry later on in the week.

Chateau du Druc
Region: Graves
Year: 2012
Grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle
Price: £13.99
Retailer: Averys

 

Clos Floridene 2012 Graves

Grassy nose, fresh herbs, so fresh! Mouthwatering, long fruity finish. White peach orchard fruit, grapefruit notes. Very fruity, zingy – maybe better with a fish dish rather than veal. A little bit young and vigorous. It would benefit from a bit more time but huge kinetic energy.

Wine nerds may know Clos Floridene is Denis and Florence Dubourdieu’s wine. They also own the more famous Sauternes Château Doisy-Daene (and he is a wine consultant for other wines, such as Chateau Baret, above, and Chateau Tour Leognan, below).

Verdict: On the fruitier side of the spectrum at the moment, it is one to watch over the next few years, especially in the excellent 2012 vintage.

Clos Floridene
Region: Graves
Year: 2012
Grapes: 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 47% Semillon and 3% Muscadelle
Price: £19
Retailer: Wine Society/The Co-Op

 

WEDNESDAY

Ch Tour Leognan 2012 Pessac-Leognan and Chateau des Perligues 2014 Graves 

with tomato fish curry (tomato, garlic, ginger, kashmiri chilli, a couple of fresh green chilli, onion, tomato, tamarind water, ground coriander and turmeric) and wild rice with clove, cardomon and cumin.

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To be fair, this would be a challenge for many wines. Sometimes it is not as simple as “white meat with white wine”. Again, it is all about the sauce.

Chateau Tour Leognan

The poor thing had trouble dealing with the complex spices in the curry*. The sourness of the tamarind made the wine more like a basic Sauvignon Blanc, giving the wine a simple lime flavour.

This is a wine from the supermarket Waitrose that is trying to please everyone but not really pleasing anyone, especially in context of the other Bordeaux blanc wines. It is good but not as good value as some of the other wines tasted that may take a little more effort to find. It was even more disappointing as Chateau Tour Leognan vines are from Chateau Carbonnieux where the wine consultant is the superb Denis Durboudieu.

Verdict: Don’t have Bordeaux blanc with curry! Otherwise, a good introduction to the style, especially if there is a price reduction at Waitrose.

Chateau Tour Leognan
Region: Pessac Leognan
Year: 2011
Grapes: 50% Sauvignon, 50% Semillon
Price: £14.99
Retailer: Waitrose

 

Chateau des Perligues Graves 2014

Very bitter with the curry.* Stopped drinking it with the curry and left it for another time. Without food it was grassy and fresh, with a hollow middle, and a slightly bitter note on the finish (but not unpleasant). A bit young and nippy – it is the youngest of all the wines tasted.

Verdict: Too young. Try it again next year (and definitely not with a curry).

Chateau des Perligues Graves
Region: Graves
Year: 2014
Grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc
Price: £12.99
Retailer: Averys

 

* we also tasted the leftover Chateau du Druc and the Clos Floridene with the curry, and they both stood up well to the complex spices.

 

Overall verdict

This is the most classic of French wines but it is also surprisingly easy to match with food if you remember the parsley, butter and garlic trinity (and French wine loves a bit of sauce). 

 

Image: Marie Antoinette film (2006)

Thanks to Bordeaux Wine Council CIVB for sending the wines. These were my choices to taste from a group of 20 or so samples. And thanks to my boyfriend for the meals, I’m blessed he is such a great cook! x

3 terroirs in Saumur-Champigny you need to know

As the boat drifted away from the town of Saumur on a summer night, and I was drifting away in my thoughts at the end of the day (and, perhaps, from one too many glasses of red), I thought about the knotty notion of terroir. When does wine become more than just about thirst?

The Loire is a vast collection of different terroirs following the Loire River from the centre of France to the Atlantic. We were in Saumur-Champigny AOC, in the centre of the Loire region. South-east of Angers, on the left bank of the river, and east of Coteaux du Layon and Anjou.

The boat drifted to the point in the river where the Saumur region ended and where Touraine began. A winemaker pointed to the old stone stairs on the river bank.

The stairs were divided down the middle. Although they joked about it, saying one side was for the people in Saumur and one was for Touraine – there were clearly still some healthy rivalries between the neighbours. The line where one region started and another ended was clear in the minds of the winemakers.

The concept of terroir is an old and contentious topic. To the Ancient Romans, to understand the origin and typicity of a wine could help against fraud. Perhaps a deceptively simple question to help define terroir is to ask, would a wine with exactly the same characteristics be produced in a different locality?

This is not as straight-forward as it seems. I was told by winemakers on the boat, the impact of climate change is making the wines riper and changing the style – will the boundaries shift as climate changes? And, for a different reason, there has been a re-drawing and re-negotiation of appellation boundaries over the years (I’m thinking here of the short-lived Chaume AOC in the 2000s). Terroir can be malleable, even political, and the local notions of terroir/terrority is always highly contested.

 

The History of an Idea

A recently published book throws more light on the terroir subject, and refers to the Loire often. Tasting French Terroir – The History of an Idea by Thomas Parker explains how culture became part of the notion of terroir. How the French eat and drink today is derived from how a specifically French brand of culinary aesthetics and regional identity developed during the Renaissance.

The book shows how French school children, during the Renaissance, when learning about a region such as the Loire, were encouraged to taste the “personality” of the region through the food and wine. This helped to create a national identity as the quality was associated with the place.

The cultural, or social, definition of terroir can be traced back to the writer of bawdy songs and Renaisannce scholar, Rabelais. He divided wine into two categories: 

  1. “vins de soif, or “wines for thirst” (The wine producers Catherine and Pierre Breton offer a wine called “Cuvée Trinch,” a direct reference, the label explains, to Rabelais, where “the focus for the Trinch wine is on social communion rather than connoisseurship”); or
  2. “terroir wines” deserving contemplation and made by independent winemakers

These are also the two characters in Saumur-Champigny wine. There is the good-time, light, glugging style – the vins de soif – that seems to endlessly supply the bistros of Paris. Or even the Cuvée des 100 Vignerons made especially for Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny. 

Then there are the serious, independent wineries that make wines made to be held onto longer – they are able to demonstrate depth and often elegant expressions of the rich and deep soils of tuffeau, limestone clay and sand clay in the Saumur-Champigny area. We were here to explore the second style.

 

Three Terroirs in Saumur-Champigny

The Romans identified Saumur-Champigny and the name derives from its original Latin name: Campus Ignis (‘Field of Fire’). Standing out in the vineyards to taste the wines, the sun was almost blinding. The early afternoon was meltingly hot.

The AOC appellation of Saumur Champigny permits only Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and the Pineau d’Aunis grapes to be used in its red-only wines, although the serious contender of the region is Cabernet Franc.

Nine communes make up the appellation of Saumur Champigny. We visited three specific terroirs, each with their own unique character: St Cyr en Bourg, Les Poyeux and Sauzay-Parnay. The wines were tasted blind, in situ, and we were given the names of the producers at the end of the day.

 

1. St Cyr en Bourg

The first stop was the Butte de St Cyr opposite the cooperative cave, Robert and Marcel (changing its name in 2013 from Caves des Vignerons de Saumur). At an altitude of 65 metres, the vineyards are south/south-west facing vines, maximising sun exposure.  The soil is shallow sand and chalky tuffeau, which moderates the temperature and supply of water to the vine.

I’m glad we were tasting the red wines under the shade of the tree. There was a slight breeze from the river (about ten minutes drive away).

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Standouts:

The wines from here are light and lively with lots of fresh raspberries and fantastic mineral characters. These wines had an extra depth of fruit and mouth-watering minerality. The 2014 vintage was significantly better balanced than the 2013 vintage.

 

2. Les Poyeaux

Arguably one of the best wines from this region is Clos Rouegeard’s Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeaux. It is their oldest parcel of land – cultivated here since 1664 – so I was pleased to see the infamous vineyard first hand. The Wine Opus describes their Les Poyeaux as a “Ferrari” of wines. Tasting other wines from here, clearly shows why this area has been singled out over the centuries.

Even though it is a little higher in altitude than St Cyr en Bourg, there is little breeze here in the afternoon. The chalky soils trap the heat and keep the vines warm during the night.

Saumur Champigny Les Poyeux - bottles

Les Poyeaux Butte des Moulins at 78 metres altitude

Saumur-Champigny Les Poyeaux

pointing to Les Poyeaux on the map

The dominant characters here from around the Les Poyeaux vineyards: depth of fruit and silkiness. There is a lovely roundness on the palate.

Standouts:

  • 2011 Domaine La Bonneliere “Cuvée Les Poyeaux”
  • 2014 Domaine de la Cune “Les 3 Jean” Cabernet Franc
  • 2010 Legrand Clotilde et René-Noël “La Chaintrée” 
  • 2014 Les Clos Maurice “Le Clos de Midi”

The fruit can only be described as exuberant in the 2014 vintage. But the earlier vintages showed how wine from this area becomes silkier and finer with even just a few years age.

 

3. Sauzay-Parnay 

For the final stop, we found ourselves next to a very unusual vineyard called Clos d’Entre Les Murs. I have never seen anything quite like it – a unique walled vineyard on the Chateau de Parnay estate. The vines are planted on the north side of the wall to keep the roots in the shade. The vine is put through the wall and the rest of the plant are on the south side benefit from the sun.

Clos d'Entre Les Murs

Clos d’Entre Les Murs – Chenin Blanc

image

Overlooking the village of Parnay

The best Cabernet Franc wines from here here had greater body, richness and a velvety texture.

Standouts:

2014 Domaine de Rocheville "Page" on the river Loire

2014 Domaine de Rocheville “Page” on the river Loire

Conclusion 

Drifting along the Loire river on a boat with a glass of Saumur-Champigny and seafood, Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny is the taste of summer. The wines have a pretty red raspberry fruit character in St Cyr en Bourg, a beautiful silkiness in Les Poyeaux and real depth and richness from near Parnay. It also provides incredible value, especially the 2014 vintage, which is one of the best since 2009.

 

 

Thank you to the winemakers and Interloire for the visit. It was great to be there for the local festival,  Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny.

Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny 2015

Right now I am in Saumur for a two-day festival called Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny.

Last time I was in Saumur, the constant rain kiboshed our plans to ride bicycles through the vineyards. That was the dream, anyway: a little exercise to go with the wine drinking. We did try. But the rain put a stop it – worst luck – and we ended up staying inside the local restaurants instead, drinking the 2014 vintage and tasting the local cheeses.

Now I developed a serious taste for this refreshing red that is – pound for pound – one of the most versatile red wines out there, I am happy to be back in Saumur again to finally meet the winemakers and see the vineyards. The 2014 vintage is an exciting moment for Cabernet Franc in Saumur-Champigny. It’s worth celebrating, especially if it is pouring all night long.

Les Grands Tablées Saumur Champigny 2015

This year the event had a British theme (there were a lot of “British” bowler hats, which only made me look like droog A Clockwork Orange. Or maybe Mel and Kim). Was it just a gimmick? There is a deep connection with Britain in the area – this is where Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England and France in the 12th Century was buried, next to King Henri II, in Fontevraud Abbey.

On a less serious note, after having talked to the locals and hearing the fun they had with other cuisines in previous years – last year’s theme was Belgian – it seems to me, more important for them to have fun with the local ingredients.

The event is run by local volunteers: this year, they made an impressive 6000 fruit crumbles and 6000 mushroom pies for 10,000 ticket holders.

Les Grands Tablées de Saumur Champigny

Perhaps because it is a small town, the whole event was incredibly well organised but also relaxed. We had lunch with the volunteers beforehand. This is where each volunteer is assigned their role for the two days:

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Then the local volunteers have lunch before the main event begins:

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Fifteen years ago, Les Grands Tablées started as a simple party after the winemakers put on a tasting for the town. Today it is not only a showcase for the local food and wine, but also for the town to have a big party before the August holidays.

Having spent the last couple of days with the volunteers and the winemakers, it is the sense of community in Saumur that shines through. Whatever the cuisine is next year, it’s worth a visit to this local festival – the wines of the Loire are made for summer drinking.

The wine for the event, the Cuvée des 100 Vignerons, is made by 100 local growers contributing 15 kilograms of Saumur-Champigny each. Happily, the 2014 vintage is very good.

This morning, I found Jim Budd, Christine Austin from The Yorkshire Post and myself on the front page of the local newspaper toasting a glass of the Cuvée des 100 Vignerons to Saumur.

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It was a great summer night. Many thanks to the winemakers of Saumur-Champigny for the hospitality, InterLoire and Sopexa. For more details:  Les Grands Tablées du Saumur-Champigny. And for more excellent photography of the Les Grands Tablées festival, see Jim’s Loire blog.

The next post: 3 terroirs from Saumur-Champigny you need to know.

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5 Best Wine Tastings in London in August

Stuck in the city in August? Here are the best wine tastings in London you can’t miss this month. This is a pick of only five. And if you want to get out of town, I’ve added a couple of wine and wine-ish festivals at the end of the post.

For the hardcore wine lover, it may feel like a stay-cation to switch to beer – maybe time to check out the craft beer festival? And of course the month ends with the Notting Hill Carnival and a few Red Stripes…

Please check beforehand with the venue as spaces are limited and bookings are essential.

 

1. If you want some Italian glamour but can’t get away to the islands

“EnoClub Rebooted – The Islands” @ Polpo (Ape & Bird) – 5 August

Cruise through Sicily and Sardinia without leaving Soho. The unique wines from the Italian islands are almost born just to refresh you, especially good on a muggy night in August. You won’t go hungry either with food matched by Polpo at the Ape & Bird.

Where: Upstairs at Polpo Ape & Bird, 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London WC2H 8HJ

Date: 5th Aug 2015, 6:45pm-9:00pm – £50

 

2. If you want to kick back at a party with some pet nat

Tutto Wines and Behind the Wall present – A Summer Party – 6 August

Let’s break down the goodness. There’s going to be a barbecue, large format wines from Tutto Wines’ eclectic portfolio, Italian inspired cocktails, a DJ spinning tunes. The clincher? Watching the sun go down over Regent’s Canal and Hackney’s iconic gas towers.

Where: Ovalspace, 29-35 The Oval, E2 9DT

Date: Thursday 6th of August, 5pm til late. No booking required.

 

3. If you want to delve into Grower Champagne 

Champagne and Cheese Tasting @ Champagne + Fromage Convent Garden – 6 & 20 August

Grower champagnes only feel risky when you don’t know them. Once you do, you may never go back to the big brands again. Let these guys walk you through little known names – with perfectly matched cheeses along the way.

Where: 22 Wellington, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 7DD

Date: Thursday 6 August 2015 and 20 August 2015, 7.30-9pm – £55

 

4. If you want to pick the top new recruits to the Academy

Cadet Branch: Classic Grapes in Unusual Places @ Theatre of Wine – 13 August

Explore the new wave of wines, based on classic grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Consider this the graduation speech for young wineries emulating the best in the world – will the student surpass the teacher?

Where: Theatre of Wine, Tufnell Park and Greenwich

Date: Thursday, 13 August (Tufnell Park and Greenwich), 7.30pm – £28

 

5. If you want to hack the Burgundy code

Bluffer’s Guide to Burgundy @ Vagabond Fulham – 26 August

This is a smart idea – Burgundy is a complex region to understand yet is also an expensive regions to make a mistake. Learn the passwords that get you inside this most fascinating (and for wine lovers, often heartbreaking) region.

Where: Vagabond Wine 18-22 Vanston Place, Fulham SW6 1AX

Date: August 26, 7pm – 9pm – £40

 

Plus… a summer bonus! 

FestivalsLondon Craft Beer Festival (13 August, £38.50), Oxford Wine Festival (August 21-22) and Wilderness (August 6-9)

 

The events have been chosen simply because I think they are worth taking a trek across town (or, in case of the festivals, across country). I do not receive any kickbacks for sharing these events. Do you think your customer tasting should be mentioned? Feel free to leave details in the comment below or get in touch on twitter.

 

7 Best Things About Fine Beaujolais Now 

One of my favourite Raymond Chandler stories is called, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It is largely dialogue between couples talking about love around a bottle of gin as the sun goes down. Every one is sure of their own idea of what they mean when they talk about love, but the more they talk, the more confused they become.

The title of the short story comes to mind when we talk about Beaujolais. What are we talking about when we talk about Beaujolais?

Funnily enough, if you see Beaujolais featured on the front label, then this is not what I am talking about here. These are either Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages. Nor is it the wines you see during Beaujolais Nouveau on the third week of November. What I am talking about is Cru Beaujolais – labelled with the name of the cru rather than the word “Beaujolais”. The ten cru are: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, Regnié or St-Amour.

Last month I tasted the 2014 vintage of Cru Beaujolais in London and met Jean Bourjade, Managing Director of Inter-Beaujolais, where he talked about some of the upcoming changes and current challenges for Beaujolais. Here is what I think are the 7 best things about fine Beaujolais today:

 

1. The 2014 Vintage

You can throw a dart at the 2009 and 2011 vintage and find great wines. But the 2014 vintage is not one of those vintages. As a very general rule, it does not have masses of juicy fruit, but instead, is highly aromatic with silky tannins and a fine structure.

The difference in the 2014 vintage comes down to the cooler weather in Summer and the slow ripening in September. Jean Bourjade, managing director of Inter-Beaujolais, explained the 2014 vintage started hot and sunny in Spring with flowering taking place at perfect temperatures in June. In August, the ripening slowed down again because of rain and lower than normal temperatures but ended with an Indian Summer. The long sunny days and cool nights allowed a steady and slow maturation of the grapes with vintage starting on the 8th of September and lasting three weeks.

One way of putting it: if you prefer your Cru Beaujolais closer to Burgundy than Rhône in style, then the 2014 vintage is for you.

 

2. Return to Elegance

Less emphasis on the juicy fruit in the 2014 vintage is not such a bad thing for appellations such as Brouilly, Morgon and Moulin à Vent. In 2014, the bigger styles of Cru Beaujolais show remarkable finesse and will age well.

 

3. Focus on Quality Vineyards

There is a move by the producers towards “single plot wines” as Jean Bourjade says. This is a step towards quality for Cru Beaujolais that is also echoed in other fine wine regions, such as Barolo and Champagne. The distinguished ambassador of the single vineyard style of wine in the Cru Beaujolais is the Cote du Py in Morgon.

 

4. Slightly More Availability 

A couple of years ago, I would take the Eurostar to Paris to get my Cru Beaujolais fix. Most of the natural wine bars in Paris featured the top Beaujolais winemakers as if they were rock stars. They are now more well known here but it is still hard to find much quantity. Now I think most of it is snapped in France – the top winemakers, including the Gang of Four (or five if you include Métras – in the photo above), only produce in tiny quantities. Some of the independent shops have started stocking them but never in huge quantities.

Related post: Story of the Stolen Glass

 

5. Burgundy Calling

The two regions are very close, especially for the young winemakers in the Macon who often hang out together at the same natural wine fetes. But it is not only in the Macon where the impact of Beaujolais is felt. The young generation coming through are experimenting with carbonic maceration and whole bunch fermentation, including traditional producers such as Arnoux-Lachaux. Can the original distrust be traced back to the Duke of Burgundy in 1395 banishing the “disobedient” gamay to south of the border? The next generation, who have worked outside Burgundy and educated around the world, are breaking down the walls between the two regions.

Related post: Burgundy Young Guns

 

6. Sparkling White Beaujolais

While Cru Beaujolais in the North is gaining more recognition, the Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages growers are stuck with the tag of Beaujolais Nouveau, a cheap and cheerful wine for a booze up (but also a huge part of their revenues). There are some moves by the Beaujolais body to apply for sparkling wine recognition in the South. Hopefully the new income from sparkling wine will reduce the reliance on cheap bubblegum wine and help the whole region focus on their tremendous qualities.

 

7. Real Prices

While it is exciting to see some of the younger Burgundy winemakers experimenting with the Beaujolais style of winemaking, I hope that we don’t see another influence the other way: the inexorable rise in prices for Cru Beaujolais. Right now, the best ones are one-third less than their comparable Burgundy counterparts. But they share a similar problem: it is hard to find much of the great stuff. In the 2014 vintage, the total volumes increased 10% across the whole region, although this will not mean much for the great producers. It is still small scale.

I think what saves the region, even for the best producers in the Cru Beaujolais, is that they make wines to be enjoyed and opened (even though it is possible to cellar for up to 40 years). They have not become part of the wanky fine wine worship system yet. Drink up. Enjoy. It is wine at its best. That’s what we are talking about when we are talking about Beaujolais. Love.

 

Essential Beaujolais Facts (2014)

Surface of the Beaujolais wine growing region: 160,000 hectares

Surface planted with vines: the 12 AOC of Beaujolais, in 96 communes, cover 16, 572 hectares

Proportions of grape varieties: 
Gamay Beaujolais: 16 322 hectares (30 000 hectares planted in total in the world), representing 98% production. Chardonnay Beaujolais: 250 hectares, around 2 % of the production.

Average annual Production: 800,000 hectolitres

Split between caves cooperatives and independents: 3 000 producers, 12 cooperatives, 169 negociants (Beaujolais, Mâconnais, Bourgogne).

Average Vineyard Size: 9,8 hectares.

Number of appellations: 12 (10 Crus: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à- Vent, Régnié, Saint-Amour; Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages : these last two are produced in three colours and as a primeur).

Export figures and principal countries in 2013

• Export represents over 40% of sales overall.
• Japan : 63 827 hectolitres / approx. 8 500 000 bottles
• United States : 48 676 hectolitres / approx. 6 490 000 bottles.
• United Kingdom : 36 507 hectolitres / approx. 6 500 000 bottles.
•Canada : 28 428 hectolitres / approx. 3 781 000 bottles.
•Belgium : 12 978 hectolitres / approx. 1 730 000 bottles.

Beaujolais Sales in the UK

Regional AOP’s remain strong the UK with 46% share:

  • Beaujolais Villages AOP: 22% share
  • Beaujolais AOP: 24% share
  • Sales of Cru Beaujolais account for 42% of exported volumes
  • Sales of Nouveaux went up by 62% in 2014 and account for 11% of exported volume
  • Rosé remains niche and represents 1% of the sales

4 bottles of Rosso di Montalcino 2013 (and where to eat in Montalcino)

Even though it had been raining when we left Siena only thirty minutes ago, the strong heat in Montalcino burned away all the water until very quickly there was steam rising from the road. The grapes had a good drenching and now had a moment to ripen under the intense sun. I took my coat off and walked over to the other side of town, which was mostly in shadow. Like most of this renaissance landscape, for the vineyards on the hillside it is about light and shade. The vineyards follow down from the top of the hill from all sides, each face the sun from sunrise to sunset in their own way.

Just from the change in weather from drenched to heat, it is easy to see how the grapes love this weather.

When there is an exceptional vintage pronounced by the Consorzio it is worth taking notice. The recent release of the 2010 vintage is one of these exceptional vintages where perfect conditions were met across most of the vineyards – north, south, east and west. But how was the 2013 vintage? The Consorzio awards stars for each vintage and considers 2013 as a 4-star vintage for Brunello di Montalcino.

2013 Rosso di Montalcino

The 2013 Brunello di Montalcino has yet to be released, but to get an idea of the vintage it is possible to taste the 2013 Rosso di Montalcino that were released last year. The basic rationale behind the Rosso di Montalcino is to have something to drink while the Brunello is still in the barrel. Some may even be described as a small taste of the vintage of the upcoming Brunello.

It was not always this way (and sometimes it still isn’t). Over the past seven years, there has been a marked improvement in the Rosso made with the same requirement of the 100% Sangiovese as Brunello di Montalcino. The Rosso seems to have been given more attention in its own right rather than as an after-thought to the Brunello.

There are lots of discussions in town (and drama) behind this regarding appellation laws but it can be said that the rise of quality in Rosso di Montalcino has happened to coincide with the post-2008 global recession and the drop-off in bling buyers for expensive Brunello. Some winemaker’s have wizened up to the demand for this “baby Brunello”. Not that I like this term. With its own DOC, it can be seen as its own wine.

We stocked up at the local wine shop on as many 2013 Rosso di Montalcino as we could carry. These four wines, below, are some of the better ones from what we tried (if you would like to see more of the wines we tasted in Tuscany, go to my Delectable page).

In particular, the 2013 Sesti Rosso di Montalcino:

Rosso di Montalcino 2013T

Tasting Notes

Sesti (Castello di Argiano) Rosso di Montalcino 2013

This is a journey, don’t rush it. Transparent dusty rose colour, delicate flavours, fine structure, perfect balance of luxury and quiet Tuscan simplicity – excellent length of a few minutes. Doesn’t get much better for a 2013 Rosso di Montalcino (9.4/10)

Poggio San Polo Rosso di Montalcino 2013

Edgy wine, a punk at the church. Orange skin studded with cloves. For those who live peeling plums then eat the skin. It settles down after an hour and integrates to become a pleasant drink – not too much acidity, not too much rich fruit. (8.8/10)

Azienda Agraria Lisini Rosso di Montalcino 2013

Loads of approachable sweet red berry fruit, stewed summer strawberries and a hint of dried spice (and later, almonds and blood orange). Great example of Rosso di Montalcino. Good fun. (8.8/10)

Agostina Pieri Rosso di Montalcino 2013

This is about as decadent as an easy-drinking can get – think modern smooth edges. This could be the result of the vintage. Ripe sweet and rich fruit with very fine tannins. Not hugely complex but satisfying, nevertheless. (8.9/10)

 

Where to eat in Montalcino

If you are visiting Montalcino to taste Brunello di Montalcino and try local dishes, go to Osteria Porta Al Cassero on the edge of town. Park in the car park, pass the fort and it is in front of a small park. Whenever I am in Montalcino I have at least one dinner here at this small place, and on the weekends is reassuringly filled with Italian families taking out their grandmothers (and an Italian grandmother is not easy to please when it comes to food). They have typical hearty Tuscan dishes that feature beans, wild boar or ragu but they also have the local pasta called pinci (or pici in Siena) – hand-rolled, uneven-shaped pasta made without eggs. The wine list featuring wines from Montalcino is always interesting and well priced – we had the Pieri Agostina Brunello di Montalcino 2010 at a lower price in the restaurant than the retail price in the UK. They also have a good selection of wines by the glass featuring some of the more well-known names such as Banfi Brunello di Montalcino as well as smaller wineries not seen as much.

 

 

Continued from: Part 1: After the Rain: Time out in Tuscany

photos @winewomansong 

After the rain: time out in Tuscany, part 1

Where next?  That’s the big question when you are on the road. Before I could answer, I had to go back to where I feel truly nourished on all levels.

Earlier this year I left my job. Then I had a severe flu. Time for a change of scenery. We booked the cheapest ticket – to Bologna – and hired a silver Fiat Panda at the airport.

This was not just some Under the Tuscan Sun schtick. All my life and work has been about taste and smell. When I don’t feel good, everything tastes bland – I seem to need flavour like a photographer needs light. On the road to Tuscany, avoiding the main roads, we stopped off at a worker’s bar for lunch and a carafe of wine. On the first day, the taste of the simple pasta with tomato sauce had tears well up in my eyes. It was then I realised how much I needed to be here.

Driving along the autostrade with the windows down after an oversized lunch – pasta and ragu, a meat dish and then one course too many – the question doesn’t rattle around the brain so much. Just drive onwards and you can never be lost in Tuscany. Eventually there will be a sign back to the main autostrade.

We arrived at sunset to the stone shack in the mountains of Mugello. Thirty minutes’ drive north from Florence, it is a wild and natural place with rushing streams and unpaved roads. And the roads do twist through the countryside: driving upwards at a tilt where you can’t see around the bend of the road one metre ahead of you because of the tall grass.

Mugello

When we arrived, the family who owned the place gave us a bottle of fizzy white local wine and a slab of pecorino.

Driving south from the Mugello, past Florence, past the hills of Chianti, down to the area where you find the textbook Tuscany row of black-green cypress against the pale velvet green hills.  Even through the windscreen wipers swiping away the big drops of rain, it is drier here in the southern parts of Tuscany. We were on our way to Montalcino.

What next?

After eating my weight in pasta in Tuscany, I am starting to feel myself again for the first time in years. I have some cool projects I am working on but it is still under wraps – you can’t imagine how much I want to tell you! – so stay tuned on my twitter page for more.

 

Next in Part 2: Four great bottles of Rosso di Montalicino (and where to eat in Montalcino)

 

photos @winewomansong 

Anything but Assyrtiko: Greek wine reviews

I do not drink enough Greek wine to say Anything but Assyrtiko just quite yet – there is still so much to love about Santorini – but after this selection from the Daily Drinker for my Greek wine reviews I can see past the horizon beyond Santorini.

Under the blaring midday sun on the beach, imagine a very cold white wine called Roditis by Tetramythos as the high thrilling squeal of children chased by waves, with the Malagousia, Domaine Gerovassiliou creating a general hubbub of civilised conversation of adults on the towel nearby. As the sun goes down, these voices become more distinct and clear – the Kidonitsa, Monemvasia Winery draws near and whispers idle romantic thoughts with rich fruit that lingers beyond midday, yet as fresh and essential, as a cool shower at the hotel before dinner in the local restaurant.

The Robola, Gentilini is a complex, balanced wine that continues the holiday as the true souvenir of the summer in Kefalonia. A timeless Greek wine, it could be the best white wine from anywhere, yet as specific to its time and place, this summer in fact, with notes of spicy pears but with an ionic column of acidity and a true memory of the summer holidays as the sound of boats against the jetty.

A full holiday in four bottles, the Daily Drinker Wine Club is a brilliant idea of two bottles a month from places that you would not normally find. It’s a wine club for those who want an adventure to accompany their wines.

Daily Drinker

 

Related post: Greek Assyrtiko: between thyme and the deep blue sea

 

Reposted and updated from September 30 2013 – my thoughts are with the Greek people.

Image: Godard’s Le Mepris

 

My top wines for summer

Like most things in Summer, less is more. I have been living on lighter wines that can get me through the bursts of heat that make London so fun in the summer. But if I am buying a case of wine to get me through this time of year, I want consistency. Something for a session on a long summer day. Not too much pondering over the glass.

I’m having a little pale rosé backlash these days. It kind of snuck up on me: at this stage, and with drunk crowds spilling out onto the pavement, I could do without the rosé rage. Can flavour be stupid? Banal, perhaps. It is the flavour of spun sugar and the soft texture of marshmallow. But it can end up being as bland as if you followed Kate Moss’ attitude to eating: “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” If you are not really tasting, the pink slips down way too easily. You can see it in the tears of girls staggering after a day of drinking at about 11.30 pm like clockwork.

The aim of all the rosé – whether they are from South Africa, China, or Provence – is to look as pale and as pink as a white tourist on his first day visiting Saint Tropez. The universal pale pink colour is more important than the flavour, which has been rinsed out and cleaned up to the inch of its soulless life. It reminds me of that other famous pink drink – the Cosmopolitan – and where is that now? No bartender will touch it. The only place you will find it is on late night cable re-runs of S&TC.

Unless you actually have been in Provence and are just trying to recreate your holiday at any cost (with a few Domaine Ott amphorae before heading back to the City?) carrying around a half-finished bottle of rosé is as naff as a broken heel stuck in the wet grass at the racecourse car park. Even if it is a magnum. 

I’ve been drawn to sleeker, lighter alcohol wines with a bit of spritzy bubble. The slight tingle around the edges can be shivery and not as heavy as sparkling wine. Wines such as Vinho Verde or Txacoli. They can have a slightly sweet and sour taste like a grapefruit sorbet and just as refreshing. They are also the right price and what the majority of pale rosé should be priced today. At £6-8 per bottle, you won’t feel bad if you add a few ice cubes to a Vinho Verde when the temperature is nudging 40 celsius. (Yes, you can). 

Grecanico from Caruso & Minini in Western Sicily is another excellent summer session wine. When I found out that Grecanico is related to the same grape as Garganega grape of Soave, it did not surprise me. And I am very grateful. Of course I would like to drink more Soave, much as I wold like to drink more Champagne with every meal. Pieropan, Anselmi or Suavia are brilliant but their premium prices make you pause to consider opening a bottle. But more importantly, there is too much going on in the glass. Summer is not the time to think so much. 

What about reds? Some people might feel that is too hot to drink red wine in the summer. But red wines can keep their structure more than white wines when it gets hot. (I always put my red wines in the fridge once it hits a certain temperature.) 

Last month I was in Bologna – it gets seriously hot there away from the coast – and had a glass of frothy purple Lambrusco with some Parma ham at a bar near the university. It’s strange to think of sparkling red as refreshing, but that’s exactly what it was – especially cold. 

I am so happy to see Lambrusco more on menus in London, because it works well with the small plates menus around town. I wish more people would eat with their wine, even if it is a few slivers on ham or even crisps, just as they give spontaneously in Italy or Spain when you order a drink. It doesn’t have to be a whole meal, especially when its hot, but at least something. Just as Lambrusco once had a bad reputation, it may even attract me back to the pale pink stuff. 

Greek Assyrtiko: between thyme and the deep blue sea

What is the Greek wine Assyrtiko? Grown on the volcanic soil of Santorini, it is a white wine that when good, is a summer wind by the sea made into taste and smell.

Last night I had the Hatzidakis Assyrtiko with hot salmon, fresh herbs and dijon mustard on ciabatta and, although it is not a traditional Greek dish, it is an excellent match for this wine: as clear as white houses against blue sky.

For those who had too much cheap retsina on a package holiday once: this wine will rock your preconceptions about Greek wine. Let in the fresh air. There is no reason why Santorini AOC should not be more well-known: minerally, fresh and from a major Greek Island. The technology is there to create fresh white wines, hopefully Hatzidakis will pave the way for more wines from this region.

Tasting with a handful of vine-ripened tomatoes before dinner lifted the wine to another level, and my friend suggested it was the methoxypyrazines that are working together in tomato and the Assyrtiko (the green tastes in wine, in this case: dried herbs). Whatever the science behind it, it was a fabulous tasting moment and overall, the clean taste with a light breath of thyme, is as complete as a walk home on a quiet track after an afternoon at the beach.

 

Hatzidakis Assyrtiko

Waitrose

 

Related post: Anything but Assyrtiko

 

Repost with updates October 17, 2010 – my thoughts are with Greece today. And Assyrtiko is a perfect white wine for heatwave weather.

 

Image: Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt 1963