Friday, February 27, 2009

A Tale of 2 Pinots

Now I know that the Robert Mondavi Winery in California isn't exactly this year's news. But that's part of what I've liked about the wines. Where there are some Californian reds that seem to want to out-brash people with their opulence and sophistication, the Mondavi style - having blazed the trail in the 1960s and 1970s - has been one that has been content to not be this year's model. At times, if truth be told, it could have done with chasing the pack a little more closely, but part of me is glad that they stuck to their guns of making tasty, food-friendly wines that didn't come out tops in blind tastings but that won the 'empty bottle' test at the end of a wine-heavy dinner (in which people try a little of all the more boisterous wines, but settle on the more drinkable ones).

Tonight however, I'm a little disturbed by the Mondavi 2006 Pinot Noir Reserve (£24.99 Harrods, Whole Food Markets,, Direct Wine). It's rather bold and fleshy, and at 15% alcohol is far from being a shy fawn. On opening, I found it immediately appealing, with plush cherry and plum flavours, once you'd dug past the oak. But a couple of hours after opening, it wasn't showing very many signs of becoming more complex and interesting - just because wine has a cleavage doesn't mean you want to spend a lot of time with it. Although for a couple of hours....

So out of interest, I plucked a Burgundy from the cellar, Jean-Philippe Fichet Côte de Beaune Villages 1999. And where the Mondavi flattered on first acquaintance but than tailed off, this is a wine that's done the opposite. Reticent on first opening, it's turning into a charming companion, with lithe red berry flavours, a silky edge and a refreshing finish. And I know that that refreshing finish with its acidity is just what would put some people off the wine (even if they'd change their mind when they had it with some nosh). They'd prefer the more forward, grinning Mondavi style. Who is right? We all are, providing we keep our minds open.

Communion Wine - for all who are thirsty

Someone I know has been asked to do an article for a Christian temperance magazine on non-alcoholic beers and wines, and is struggling to muster any enthusiasm for the task. I don't blame him - there are some passable beers, but I can't remember any of the so-called 'wines' I'd want to pass my lips a second time. If you want something wet and fruity, fruit juice is far better - wine without alcohol is a like a honeymoon for one.

A bit more of what I think about God & wine is this piece from the archives....


‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 1 Corinthians 11:25

At St Thomas’s Church in Delph in the 1970s, Sidney Orme went by the title of Reverend. However, in the ecclesiastical fashion stakes, it was Eric Clarke, lecturer in textiles at Manchester Poly, and costumier to the great and good of Saddleworth, whose robes hung down in truly reverential fashion. And at every communion service, it seemed to be the immaculate Eric who was given the task of draining the chalice. No wonder then that on such occasions, he wore a somewhat relaxed air as he shook your hand on the way out of church.

When the time came for my first communion, soon discovered that Mr C’s chalice-draining exploits were not entirely painful. The Reverend Orme’s sense of the divine did not extend as far as that of the late Brian Brindley who, when celebrating his first communion as a newly ordained priest, used Château d’Yquem, ‘because I felt it was a particularly special occasion, and only the best is good enough for God.’ However, to an impressionable 13-year-old palate, Harvey’s Communion Wine seemed a more satisfying drop than the same company’s Bristol Cream.

Following the demise of that once-great name of Bristol, Harvey’s Communion Wine has ceased to be. However, for communicants who developed a taste for it, all is not lost, says Paul Playford of the Church Purchasing Scheme, which provides church requisites to various Christian denominations. ‘Harvey’s used to be the main supplier of communion wine in Britain, but when the company was taken over a few years ago, the new owners Allied Domecq had no interest in making it any more. However, they did give us an introduction to its producer in Valencia, and today we still get them blended to the same recipes that Harvey’s developed. The red version is the most popular, but we also do a white version – its makes for fewer stains on the altar cloths.’

What lies behind the recipes is the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and specifically Canon 924 part 3. Punch ‘Canon 924’ into Google or Yahoo, and after discovering that it is a type of camcorder, you eventually find the following:

Canon 924 §3 The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.

So, Paul Playford, how does that translate into how the wines are made? ‘Errr, I’m not too sure.’ For clarification, I contacted Brother John May, who is the chief winemaker for Sevenhill in Clare Valley, South Australia. The winery is run by Jesuit priests (see below), and has been making sacramental wine for over 150 years, as well as ‘normal’ wine.

‘Sacramental wine regulations are that it is made from grapes, with no artificial additives other than those made from grapes such as tannin and tartaric acid, no sweetening and minimal sulphur dioxide. Where fresh grapes are unobtainable, altar wine may be made from dried grapes or raisins, but not from any other fruit.’

And how is the ‘corrupt’ bit interpreted? ‘Altar wine is not valid material for Mass if more than a third has become vinegar, or if added substances make up a notable part of it. Fortification with grape spirit can be used, providing the addition does not approach one-third of the final mixture, and should be done in one operation. The normal practice for sherry style wines is to halt the fermentation with the addition of minimum alcohol and then top up to the required strength later. However, the Canonists were not winemakers!’

While there is no obligation for altar wine produced under Canon Law to be fortified, most of it is, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it gives longevity, an important factor in smaller churches where a bottle could be open for a matter of months. Secondly, it makes the wine more palatable. The fortification leaves the wines with residual sugar, and as Mary Poppins was keen to point out, a spoonful of sugar etc. etc.

But fortification does bring its own problems. At Mission Winery in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, which like Sevenhill has been making wine for the Eucharist for more than a century and a half, a 2002 hike in duty rates for all wines between 14% and 23% alcohol meant that the price of a bottle of its traditional (fortified) sacramental wine leapt by NZ$4.45 a litre. Rather than carry on making the traditional style, the winery took the decision to reduce the alcohol level so the wine came in a different tax bracket. Communion ‘Lite’ anybody?

CPS’s Playford has also come up against the tax issue. ‘The fortified wine costs considerably less than the non-alcoholic version at the winery, but by the time it gets into the UK and all the various taxes are added, it’s more expensive.’

Hang on a moment. Non-alcoholic communion wine? ‘Yes, not all churches adhere to Canon Law. Roman Catholics do, and so do some Anglicans of the higher persuasion, so they’ll always buy the specially produced alcoholic versions. However, many non-conformist churches have teetotal backgrounds, and they want non-alcoholic wine – grape juice.’

There has been, of course, extensive theological debate as to whether this should be allowed. The traditional position is that it shouldn’t be, but with concerns over alcoholism among the clergy, opinions are changing. Then there is the matter of what happens to the wine during the Eucharist. For Catholics, the wine becomes the actual blood of Jesus. Anglicans don’t go as far as this, but for them, the wine becomes sanctified – set apart as holy – and as such cannot be poured away. Hence Eric Clarke’s emptying of the chalice – and hence the number of ministers who fail the breathalyser test after a Sunday service.

But for this believer, such concerns miss the point that Jesus was trying to make. In New Testament times, practically the first things to appear on the typical Middle Eastern table at mealtimes would have been a basket of bread and a jug of wine. I reckon Jesus was telling his followers to remember him as often as they ate bread and drank wine – in other words twice a day, not just on the second Sunday of the month.

And at Sandy Lane Community Church in Dobcross, one of my roles is provider of wine for our twice-monthly communion services. Blandy’s Madeira and Taylor’s port have featured in recent months, and we’re currently on the Familia Zuccardi Malamado fortified Malbec. Truly a wine fit for a King.

The missionary position
It is often assumed that missionaries were the ones who established wine production in countries outside Europe, due to the necessity of providing wine for the Eucharist. This is only partially true – Cortes and the conquistadors who first planted grapes in South America in the 16th century were not renowned for their religiosity. However, Jesuits and others did develop several vineyards in the Peru, Argentina and Chile. Franciscans were the first to plant grapes for winemaking both in the Baja California district of Mexico in the late 17th century, and a few decades later in what is now the state of California. Their main grape was the variety known in Argentina as Criolla and as Pais in Chile. In its new home, it became known as Mission.

Religion also played a part in the development of the wine industries of Australia and New Zealand. In South Australia, as well as Sevenhill (see above), the influence of 19th century religious settlers is evident in wine names such as Hill of Grace, Church Block and The Vicar. Missionaries also planted New Zealand’s first vineyards in 1819, and today, the oldest surviving winery in the country is Mission in Hawke’s Bay, which was founded in 1851.

Can holy wine be good wine?
If communion wine isn’t always as palatable as it could be, that is down to practical considerations rather than the winemaking requirements of Canon Law (see text). But Christianity isn’t the only faith where wine plays a major part, or where rules govern the production of that wine. The regulations for kosher wines are particularly stringent, even when the local rabbinate doesn’t insist on the wines being subject to pasteurisation. The grapes and wine can only be handled be Sabbath-observing Jews, and only 100% kosher equipment can be used for winemaking. Non-orthodox winemakers can work in such wineries, but they have to ask orthodox Jews to take tank and barrel samples for them. Even so, the standard of kosher wines has soared in recent years, both in Israel and other countries. Look out for wines such as Primavera from the Capçanes co-operative in Montsant, Israeli producers such as the Golan Heights Winery, Clos de Gat and the excellent Castel (kosher since 2002), Baron Herzog in California and the kosher wines from Bordeaux châteaux such as de Francs, La Gaffelière, Giscours and Yon-Figeac.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Having problems scoring?

There's yet another debate on Tom Cannavan's wine forum about Scoring Systems for wines. And for me, once again it's shown just how out of touch with normal people some wine geeks can be. Is anyone apart really interested in just how long you can still taste a wine for after you've spat it out or swallowed it? Made me think it was time to ressurect a post of mine from a couple of years ago (if it seems familiar, perhaps it's because it appeared in an old issue of the food & wine newsletter Scoff)


I’ve always had problems scoring – wines, that is. I remember going to a tasting years ago of Setúbal, the Portuguese fortified Muscat, when I was experimenting with the 100-point scale. It was when I gave a wine 120 points that I realised it wasn’t for me. Nowadays, I don’t score wines, I give them medals. So S = silver, S+ = buy me a beer and you might talk me up to gold, while S- = probably a bronze, but I’m feeling benevolent, and so on. I have a trophy category above gold medals, for when my socks have been well and truly blown off (except in summer, when I sometimes wear sandals, but without socks. On these occasions, trophy wines undo my sandals, pour iced water over my throbbing feet, and offer me a pisco sour).

But a rating of B, S+, G(-) and so on next to a wine looks a bit pathetic, so here are my alternative wine categorisations. Firstly…

Plant Pot Wines – As in find the nearest, and tip it in. NBM – Nil By Mouth – is an equivalent. My friend Charles Metcalfe has AE – auto-eject. In other words, totally dreadful wines. You won’t find too many of these around today. A good thing? I’m not so sure. There’s a part of me that says I’d rather come across a totally crap wine than some of the wines in the next tier up – which is…

Waiting Room Wines – Or Accountant Wines, or Argos Wines, or Nail Bar Wines. Wines that make the word ‘bland’ seem dynamic. Wines that you are not aware of having swallowed. Wines that, thinking of the previous category, would make your plant pot sprout second-hand plastic flowers. Drinkable, but instantly forgettable. Let’s move on, although not necessarily to something better…

Heartless Tart Wines – If anything, these are worse than Waiting Room Wines. You can forget a Waiting Room Wine, but there’s no escaping a Heartless Tart. These are wines that have been manufactured by Robo-winemaker to a recipe rather than being allowed to develop in a more natural state. Instead of overdressing, there’s overoaking. Instead of cosmetic surgery, there’s overripeness. Instead of too much make-up, there’s incongruous sweetness and alcohol. Such wines come at all price levels. Ban them from your table, and go instead for…

Breakfast Wines – Not that I’m advocating drinking wine while John Humphries is still heckling politicians. The idea here is that, just as a good breakfast should be honest and wholesome, but without supplying the culinary heights of the day, so a breakfast wine should be a good drink – wet, alcoholic, tasty and drinkable, but not central to the proceedings. If you want something more assertive, head for...

Proper Wines – Let’s take ‘wet, alcoholic, tasty and drinkable’ and ratchet it up to the next level. Here, personality comes into play. Stuff ripeness, stuff oak, stuff alcohol, these are wines that rise above winemaking styles and really express a sense of place and, at times, a sense of wildness. Can wine get any better? Well yes, it can…

Wedding Wines – My wedding day remains the best day of my life. Someone told me that they never saw me without a smile on my face, and that’s the sort of wine, we’re talking about here. Wedding Wines should be magnificent, munificent, just wonderful and wonderful. They sound like the ultimate wines. And yet…

Yeah But No But Wines – Is Sushi better than Tapas? Is Machu Picchu better than the Taj Mahal? Is Beethoven better than Eminem? There’s no right answer. These are controversial wines, wines that will have some people drooling, while others will put them in the Plant Pot category. Greatness doesn’t necessarily mean universal appreciation.

So there you have it. Chances that these categories will gain universal approval are slim, but they’re a darn sight more interesting than 85 points or four and a half stars. So, any suggestions for examples of each type? Or of how you grade wines?

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Tonight, the family and I have been Moonraking. No, nothing to do with Roger Moore attempting re-entry, nor with the rather potent winter ale from John Willie Lees. I'm referring to the annual Slaithwaite (pronounced Slough-it) Moonraking Festival, which takes place every February half-term. According to the event's web site, the event stems from a local legend...

'It all started around 1802 when the Slaithwaite Canal was built. As usual, when there are ships there are smugglers, and canal barges are ships of a sort aren't they. Some of the bargees used to smuggle all sorts of things up the canal. Mostly rum and whisky and other things that had duty on them, and times were hard on the local estate in 1802, so they employed customs men to try and catch the smugglers. Despite this, the chances of getting caught if you were a smart cookie were not very high, and the profits could be so good that many villagers took the risk to make a few bob.

The Moonraking story begins on a dark, windy and cloudy evening late in 1802. A man named Ken Boot, helped by some of his mates, was collecting the rum that had been secretly placed in the reed bed in the canal by a bargee. They has just started to rake it out, when a shaft of moonlight pierced the clouds and illuminated the scene. Unknown to Ken, some customs men were secretly keeping watch, having been tipped off by a jealous villager. When the moonlight lit up the scene, one of the customs men shouted "What are you lot doing?" Uncle Fred was quite a quick thinker and as he noticed the Moon reflected on the water, he replied "Are you blind? Can't you see that the Moon has fallen into the water. and we're trying to rake her out before she drowns!" Well, the customs men looked at each other and burst out laughing. "Moon fallen in the water! A right lot of Moonrakers you are!" said one, and they returned to the customs house in Marsden, to feed their Cuckoos. Ken and his mates quickly gathered up their smuggled goods and returned home....'

The finale is on the final Saturday of half-term (that's today), and the week before has events such as a Ceilidh, several story-telling sessions (including ones on board a train) and a lantern-making workshop. The highlight of the final evening is when moon is 'raked' along the canal.....

....before being lifted out and carried at the head of a procession through the backstreets of the town, accompanied by street entertainers and musicians and literally hundreds of lanterns of various shapes and sizes - Rockets, Clangers, Lunar Modules, Aliens, Daleks and more. Our two made one for the first time this year (out of tissue paper, willow and masking tape), and while their star was but one of many in the parade, I thought it was great.

Settling down now for the evening with a glass of the 2007 Poggio del Sasso Sangiovese di Toscana from the Cantina di Montalcino - a gorgeous gluggable glass of herb-scented black cherry flavour, with a dry, earthy finish. Yum, especially at around £8 a bottle (Liberty Wines are the UK importers).

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Winery, Burton-on-Trent

What do the following have in common...?

Verdicchio di Matellica ‘Terre de Valbona’, Cantine Belisario
Sauvignon/Semillon ‘Mangan Vineyard’, Cullen
Gevrey Chambertin, Domaine Taupenot-Merme
Jurançon Sec ‘Cuvée Marie’, Charles Hours
Pinot Gris, Mittnacht Frères
Vouvray Moelleux, Clos de Nouys
Riesling Erstes Gewächs, Schloss Vollrads
Soave Classico ‘La Rocca’, Pieropan
Manzanilla La Rubia, Valdivia
Condrieu Les Grandes Chaillées, Domaine du Monteillet

For me, they're the sort of wines that I'd be delighted to quaff my way through both at home and at a restaurant. However, in the list I put together last year for a new place called The Winery in Burton-on-Trent, these are the wines that five months after opening are at the bottom end of the popularity scale (while Pinot Grigo is at the top). A real shame, especially considering the very sensible wine pricing policy, but overall I'm very pleased with how the restaurant is going. For a new eatery to be full most nights in the current economic climate shows that The Winery is doing something right. If you're in the vicinity, do give it a try. I'm not asking you to drink any of the above wines, providing you plump for something equally inspiring, but do please report back here...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Wine Comics - any talent out there?

Any wine-loving illustrators out there? Andes wine is holding a competition (details here) to try and find the world's best Wine Comic. The UK isn't exactly awash with comics on wine - it's supposed to be a serious topic, dear boy - but in some Far Eastern markets, one of the most popular wine critics is Shizuku Kanzaki, a manga character who features in the strip "Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of the Gods)".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quinta da Lagoalva Late Harvest 1995

I'm doing a tasting this evening for the Saddleworth Wine Circle. It's an organisation that's evolved out of a night school class I went to when I first got interested in wine in the late 1980s, and there are still a number of the members who still go from that era. They usually meet in the local secondary school, but this week being half-term, they've got a week off. I often do things for them in the school holidays. I find that these low key events are excellent to keep in touch with 'normal' wine lovers, rather than those who spend a major part of the week spitting into a bucket. You soon realise that not everyone 'gets' Arbois whites or considers £10 a bottle to be a good everyday drinking sort of price. So I drag along a selection of current samples, together with a few rarities that I've acquired over the last few years, and we sit around and chat about them.

The oddball in tonight's line-up is a rare bottle I was given when I visited Quinta da Lagoalva in the Ribatejo (north east of Lisbon) some time in the late 1990s. It's a botrytis-affected blend of Riesling and Gewürztraminer that I'm pretty sure they don't make any more - the current vintage on the web site is 1997. If you'd given it me blind, I'd have put it as a Tokay or a rather old Sauternes. Burnt sugar, marmalade, crystallised fruit, sweet yet with a finish that seems rich rather than dry. It's showing its age a little, but it's still a fascinating and tasty drop. If I were feeling selfish, I'd keep the bottle to myself and show them something a little less interesting. But being a benevolent so-and-so...

Monday, February 16, 2009

Update on yesterday's reds

Revisited the the three reds I opened yesterday, with mixed success. Even after 24 hours, Anakena's 2006 Ona red blend and the Errazuriz 2002 La Cumbre Shiraz are still too boisterous and fruity (with that tell0-tale, rather raw, even charred blackcurrant pastille character). But the Cuilleron is singing. Or at least it was singing - the bottle is now empty. It had relaxed, opened up to show its charms, and was just charming, fragrant and even refreshing, with lithe fruit, not too much spice, and a gentle orange peel lilt to its pummy flesh. Chile has coem aliong way in recent years, but I wonder how long we'll have to weight for genuinely interesting and complex, refreshing, medium-bodied wines like this...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A la recherche du vin perdu

Not that I've lost a wine, but am I alone in finding that despite having a decent raft of bottles to plunder, sometimes it's difficult to find just what's required? Something rather basic for tonight's meal, a swanky restaurant might dub it mini schnitzel or escalopes, but basically it's upmarket, chicken nuggets, albeit home-made ones with a coating of breadcrumbs seasoned with garlic, onion, ground coriander and black pepper. Cooked in a hot oven rather than with recourse to the frying pan, it's one of those dishes that is as appealing to a seven-year-old as it it to someone whose 7th birthday was close to the arrival of decimal currency.

First port of call was a bottle of Anakena Ona 2006, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. Good wine but a little too assertive for what I wanted to drink. Next came the Errazuriz La Cumbre Shiraz. I've got to write something in the next week or so about Chilean Shiraz, and this bottle had been whispering, 'Drink Me...' for a number of weeks. Should have ignored the whines. It's a big beast, and one that has bags more life ahead of it. Will revisit it (and the Ona) over the next few days, and expect it to improve.

Keeping with the Syrah themes, I thought I'd try Yves Cuilleron's Vin de Pays Syrah 2005 - apprentice Cote Rotie, if you like. Tasty, tasty wine, but one that I should have pulled out of the cellar (at its coldest at this time of year) half a day earlier.

Getting desperate by this point, and with the dinner nearly ready, I dove into white territory and found the Dr Unger 2005 Gruner Veltliner Gottschelle Reserve from Kremstal in Austria. Eureka! Tangerines (extreme tangerine), grapefruit, rich tangy and mineral, perfect for the slightly fatty decadence of the super-nuggets, and, at 13% alcohol, more restrained than some of the Unger wines, it was the vin perdu that I'd been looking for.

I've no doubt that all three reds will be better tomorrow, but I'm going to spend this evening with the good Doctor...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day Aftermath-acre

It's Valentine's Day and I probably should be wooing my sweetheart. However, we've had a wonderful day together, including a long lie-in, a trip to IKEA (without which no Valentine's Day is complete), a cuddle at the cinema (Slumdog Millionaire - Anil Kapoor is the Indian Michel Rolland) and a slap-up meal of rib-eye, dauphinoise and flageolets with two pink fizzes as accompaniment.

Yes, you're right, Bollinger Rosé v. Jacob's Creek Sparkling Rosé isn't strictly a fair competition. The Bolly was lined up for the enjoyment bit, and I needed something to moisten the flageolets with poor-man's pancetta - Sainsbury's cooking bacon. The JC was at hand, so I thought, 'why not?' It's not a bad drop, solid and fruity, a tad sweet, but perfectly pleasant. But next to the Bollinger... OK, it's a fraction of the price, but we're talking Premiership v. Division One. The Bolly sings where the JC shrieks, it smoulders where the JC froths over, it keeps you coming back for more. I've met women who are the equivalent of the JC, bubbly and fruity, but not with a huge amount of depth - thankfully I'm married to a beautiful Bolly.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Domaine du Joncier Lirac 2006

"The Rhône Valley's vineyards welcome you with open tendrils"

At least that's what it says on this page from the not especially useful Inter-Rhône web site. For me open tendrils smacks too much of the Triffid. No matter. I'm married to a lovely laydee who is a big Grenache fan, so I popped the cork earlier this evening on a bottle from the southern Rhône that I thought she'd enjoy. She did, but only briefly, before heading out for a farewell shindig for one of the stalwarts of DUEYP (prizes to the first correct translation). Which leaves me and Al the Pal (soon to be 8, and currently torn between James Bond & Star Wars) at home. He prefers Vimto to wine, so I'm currently in sole charge of the Domaine du Joncier Lirac 2006 (£8.54 Waitrose, although they don't look to have much left from the web site).

Not exactly waiting for Jill to hurry back, since this is rather decent kit. Remember jammy dodger biscuits? I think they still make them, certainly there's a hint of that cooked strawberry decadence here. But there's also some meaty, spicy fruit, and a more profund earthy, almost metallic core of dense potential. I only have the one bottle - if I'd had 2, I'd have been stashing the other one away for at least a couple of years. Not bargain basement, but still a bargain.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Matthew Jukes's Top 50 Cape Wines

Having produced lists of top Australian and New Zealand wines for a number of years, wine writer and consultant Matthew Jukes has recently turned his attention to South Africa. As with any such list, I'm in favour of several of the inclusions in Jukesy's 50 Top Cape Wines (it's here) but I also find myself going, Hang on, what about....?' In this instance and off the top of my head, my 'what about?'s include Cape Point, Eben Sadie, Meerlust, de Trafford, Jean Daneel, Vilafonte, The Observatory... There are probably more, but I can't think of them at the moment - three days of wine and food in Sicily have numbed my brain.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Old and New

Following on from my cat and dog post a few days ago, thought I'd see how couple of New World wines were coping with middle age. Neither was from a particularly warm region, so I thought they stood a fair chance of still being in reasonable nick.

First up was Yarra Yarra Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1999, from the Yarra Valley in Australia. Came across these wines when Sarah MacLean, daughter of the estate's owner Ian, worked for Armit in the early noughties. Had high hopes for the wine, which were dashed when I first opened it. There was a seam of healthy blackcurrant/berry fruit running through it which was then marred by an almost celery-like edge - nice fruit, bad, bad vegetable. Four hours after opening it, it's still not showing any sign that it's going to behave.

Then came the Steenberg 2001 Nebbiolo from Constantia in South Africa. Nebbiolo is a grape that makes Pinot Noir look positively well-behaved. Anyone who has ever asked their children to perform for an audience that wonderful rendition of 'Feed The Birds'/'Bob The Builder'/'Whatever' at which they excelled the previous evening and been greeted with a veil of stubbornness will recognise the grape's fickle nature. Even in it's native Piedmont, it's a git to get right. Take it outside of its home turf and 99 times out of 100, it just folds its arms and doesn't want to play. But Steenberg seems to be able to get it right - the 2001 was a wine of lightly chewy structure, ethereal fragrance and svelte, plummy allure. Not Barolo, but a nice drink.

PS Another non-Piedmont Nebbiolo worth checking out is Steve Pannell's from the Adelaide Hills - Liberty Wines is the UK importer

Thai a yellow ribbon

Just been reading a recent post on Colin Smith's blog, all about the Monsoon Valley wines from Thailand - anyone else tried them? For me, they fall into the 'er, interesting' bracket, as the following piece I did a few years ago for the now-defunct North West Enquirer will testify...


Anyway, I’m in this Bangladeshi restaurant in Blackburn where they’ve just had to take down a 15 ft high illuminated orange palm tree from Dubai after complaints from local residents. On one side of me is an Australian winemaker talking of how he’s just served a wine he made in 1979 from grapes of Portuguese origin to his Hungarian assistant. On the other side is a wine merchant telling me of his former life touring Communist era Eastern Europe as a trombonist with 1980s jazz ensemble Loose Tubes. And just when you thought it couldn’t get more cosmopolitan, opposite me is a Frenchman who lives in Clapham, has a vineyard in Beaujolais and now makes wine in Thailand.

No, that’s not a misprint, Thailand. It’s taken some people several years to get used to wine being made in the New World, now they’re going to have to get used to the idea of wines from what some refer to as the New Latitudes. Traditionally wine has been made in two bands running 30 to 50 degrees north and south of the equator, but today there those pushing these boundaries by growing grapes both closer to the poles – wines from Sweden and Poland already exist – and towards the equator in places like Vietnam, Ethiopia and Indonesia.

And Thailand. The Siam Winery, the brainchild of the man who invented Red Bull, isn’t alone in making wine in Thailand, but it is the only winery producing wine exclusively from home-grown as opposed to imported grapes. Some of the grapes for the Monsoon Valley range are cultivated in conventional vineyards, but others are grown in so-called floating vineyards, where the vines are on narrow islands – enough for just two rows of vines – surrounded by canals and accessible only by boat. They’re situated at a latitude 13 degrees north, close enough to the equator for the grapes not to know what season it is. In conventional vineyards, grapes are picked once a year in autumn – here there two harvests, one in summer, and one in winter. While some of the wines see the two pickings being blended, in others you can see from the words ‘summer harvest’ and ‘winter harvest’ on the labels that they are kept separate.

Closer examination of the labels reveals an additional peculiarity. The Thai calendar measures its vintages from the death of Buddha in 543 BC, so the vintages currently on sale range from 2546 to 2548. And if that’s not enough strangeness, there’s the matter of the grape varieties. Some of the wines are made using mainstream grapes such as Shiraz and Chenin Blanc, but there are also less familiar varieties such as Malaga Blanc and Pok Dum. While these probably aren’t authentically Thai in origin – emissaries from the court of Louis the XIV imported a selection of vines back in the 17th century – they’re certainly rare in the world of wine.

The task of transforming them into wine falls to that Clapham-based Frenchman, Laurent Metge-Toppin. ‘The wines I make here are quite different from those I produce in France. It’s so warm here that you really need to serve all wines chilled, even the reds. So I try to make wines that are very fruity and not too heavy. Yes, they’re not as complex as the great wines of France, but they’re better partners for spicy food.’

Which is why I found myself in Sylhet restaurant in Langho, sampling the tasty Bangla cuisine alongside five Monsoon Valley wines. The 2005 Colombard is refreshingly crisp, with a herbal grassy edge not unlike a Sauvignon Blanc. The melon-scented 2005 Malaga Blanc was less impressive on its own, but its soft, dolly-mixture-like character worked very well with a fragrant Lamb Kharai. Of the two 2004 reds, I preferred the smoky spice of the Shiraz to the rather rustic berry character of the Pok Dum, although as with the Malaga Blanc, the latter showed much better with food. But the star of the quintet was the 2005 Rosé, a fragrant, floral wine with grape and lychee flavours which performed well both by itself and with a variety of dishes.

As for that trombonist-turned-wine merchant, that’s Steve Day of John Stephenson & Sons in Nelson, the company now responsible for distributing the wines in the North West. You’ll find the Monsoon Valley range at their retail outlet the Wine Mill (0845 450 6365) for between £4.99 and £5.99, as well as in many Oriental restaurants, and not just Thai ones. Thirty years ago, Australian wine was something of a rarity, and look where it is now. Will we be saying the same about Thai wine in 2036? Or should that be 2579?


And the Aussie winemaker was Chris Pfeiffer from Rutherglen, ex-fortified winemaker for Lindemans. Spent a great week there a few years ago as the guest International Judge at the Rutherglen Wine Show, and became known as Skateboarding Simon. I also remember some bottles from the 1970s that Chris pulled out, including a Touriga Nacional 'port', which ended up as part of a blend for a Lindemans cask wine - thankfully Chris had rescued a few bottles for personal consumption, and it was quite stunning. Strangely enough, my Melbourne-based sister Stella has come into contact with both Chris and his daughter Jen (now in charge of winemaking) in recent years. A super family (Robyn and Melissa make up the rest of the clan) - hope they haven't been too affected by the bush fires currently running through several parts of northern Victoria.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Blind leading the Blind

Tonight I'm on blind tasting at its most extreme. Found a bottle lurking in a corner that has no label, capsule or name on the cork. I'm pretty sure it's from the Languedoc, as it's awash with fragrant, gentle, herb-strewn fruit, with a hint of old leather. I'd hazard a guess at it being a Grenache-heavy blend, with some peppery Carignan and spicy Syrah, but beyond that, I'm stumped. Ah well, I'll just get on and drink the stuff - it's delicious!


Just been reading this post on Heather Dougherty's wine blog about the much-abused name of Chablis. My second job in the wine trade** was working in a bottle shop in Albert Park, a seaside suburb of Melbourne close to the vibrant St Kilda. Tuesday evening was washing night, and my girlfriend and I would take our manky shreddies to the laundrette on Victoria Avenue then pop to the chippy next door for flake (shark) and chips. We'd then sit on the beach eating with our fingers and drinking some wine out of paper cups. And often that wine was the cleanskin 'Chablis' that we sold in the shop. Don't think it had ever been near a Chardonnay grape, but thanks to the quality of the fish (done in beer batter) and the company (we're now married), it tasted superb. Can't fault Heather's recommendations for examples of the Real McCoy, but I'd add that Costco currently have some excellent deals on the range from the excellent William Fèvre.

** My first wine job was picking grapes in the Yarra Valley, at Lillydale Vineyards in Lilydale (a proof-reader's nightmare). Spent three weeks truding up and down the slopes with a wonderful variety of characters including a quartet of hardy fruit pickers, Dot, Ariel, Celeste and Elise - Celeste was 17 and already had a moustache, Dot could have passed for Humpty Dumpty's sister. Remember as a cocky young Pom dashing ahead up the first few rows of vines and leaving everyone else behind, only to be overtaken by the formidable foursome later in the morning. And I also remember that only one thing is a dead cert to get ingrained grape juice off your hands. Forget scrubbing brushes and Brillo pads, what you need is a friendly cat to lick the stains off with its sharp tongue.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Villa Maria Private Bin Merlot 2006

I've tended not to like cheap New Zealand Bordeaux-inspired reds - scrawny and charmless and with overenthusiastic oak-ageing. A bit like cheap Bordeaux, really, although perhaps not the oak thing. The good news is that the Kiwis seem to have realised that such wines aren't their forte, and have virtually abandoned the sub-£7 bracket. At higher prices, there's a chance to give the grapes a little more TLC, and as both the vines and the winemakers mature, the results are increasingly convincing. Just cracked open the Villa Maria Private Bin Merlot 2006 from Hawkes Bay (£9.99 Waitrose,, and I'm enjoying it more than I anticipated. It has a peppery character reminiscent of Hawkes Bay Syrah, but there's also a plump plush wad of blackberry flesh, along with some earthy tannins. It's not the classiest of wines, but I like it's honest, smiling nature, and its rich but dry finish.

PS While debate is strong - OK, perhaps not THAT strong - as to whether it is Hawkes Bay or Hawke's Bay, what does seem beyond doubt is that there is a small hill in the south of the region with longest place name in New Zealand - Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamatea-turipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu, which according to Wikipedia translates roughly as The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one. If you want to know what it sounds like, listen to this...

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I'm supposed to only taste wine during the day but...

...but sometimes a wine comes along that you open in the morning and keep coming back to 'check on' and suddenly find that come tea-time (tea in the northern sense of the word, being the evening meal, served at any time from 4-7pm) there's not as much left in the bottle as you'd expected. Today, it was the turn of Domaine de La Ville Rouge Crozes Hermitage ‘Terre d’Eclat’ 2006 (£13.50 Smart Wines)

It's the debut vintage for this northern Rhône domaine, and importer Patrick Rosin, who has a big hand in the wine affairs of Antony Worrall Thompson, was alerted to the producer by Crozes-maestro Alain Graillot. Think fragrant Syrah, with bags of forest fruit, hints of citrus and cocoa and a refreshing, almost graphite-like finish - and it's getting better by the minute, as the roasted reduced edge (thanks for this Jamie) gives way to fruit purity. 'Tea' was going to be a salad, but I may have to change the menu...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Cat wines and dog wines

We have a goldfish and a hamster, but on the whole – and don’t tell the bairns – I don’t like pets. I do like the idea of having something with a personality that shows you a bit of affection, but I figure that for something that shits a lot, needs cleaning out, feeding, playing with and tending when it’s ill, I have kids, so why do I need anything else?

I’m not however averse to other people’s pets – providing they don’t bite, scratch, dribble, moult on me, lick my face or hump my leg. In fact, I quite like a session of canine/feline touchy-feely, safe in the knowledge that in a couple of hours, I can leave my host to the pleasures of dry dog food or the litter tray. And based on my experience of OPP – other people’s pets – I’ve started dividing wines into cat wines and dog wines.

Here’s the idea. When you visit a dog owner’s house, Bonzo is the first to greet you, jumping, slavering, whooping, generally craving, nay, demanding immediate attention. After a period of anything between half a minute and half an hour, the beastie often calms down and comes and drapes itself like a mini-blanket over your feet, nibbling his favourite slipper and making the odd affectionate growl. Sometimes it doesn’t, and keeps on with the yap-yap until a) you leave, or b) your friend chucks it into the garden (where of course the yapping continues).

Matters are somewhat different chez Tiddles. Ring on the door and the moggy often scarpers, appearing only later once you’ve settled into your chair. However, if that chair is HER chair, then a certain type of Tiddles will now proceed to look at you with such contempt that you end up feeling like you’ve clubbed a baby seal. But her more benevolent cousin will come and slink around your ankles, then jump on your lap, whereupon you find yourself engaged in a pleasant half-hour of purring and neck-scratching.

Dog wines are those that begin by leaping out of the glass and assaulting you. The bad ones just keep yapping until you chuck them down the sink – the equivalent of confining Bonzo to the rhododendrons. But the good ones calm down, and begin to show their more restrained side. 20 year old Aussie Shirazes and Californian Cabernets can be fabulously complex, but sadly few people bother to age them beyond their bouncy-puppy youth. Meanwhile cat wines are those that give away precious little at the first encounter. The good ones - decent young Bordeaux, for example - then slink out of their slumber to reveal the hidden depths; the bad ones just remain sour pusses.

Cooler places veer towards the feline, while warmer spots are usually more canine. But in both cases, the key is to look beyond your first impressions, and let Bonzo and Tiddles show you what they’re really made of.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A taste of the warm south - but white

Don't know why, but on one of the chilliest weekends in recent years, we've by-passed red wines and been sipping and supping white wines, all from southern France. It's a vast and varied region, and as with the reds, trying to pigeon-hole them under one banner is somewhat difficult. But the best do have something in common. I'm not talking here about the many varietal Chardonnays and Sauvignons - they're perfectly adequate Ronseal wines, (they do what they say on the labels) but they seldom set the pulse racing. No, the real excitement is in those rather wacky grapes such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle (aka Vermentino), Bourboulenc and Grenache Blanc. These grapes aren't out-and-out fruity and in-yer-face, but planted in the right place, but the right grower, they make wines that intrigue rather than assault, and can compete on complexity terms with some of France's finest whites. And where once they wobbled and keeled over with a couple of years of vintage, today they're happy to spend a number of years in bottle.

Friday saw us on 2005 Château Gravade Minervois, Languedoc (£7.95 Vintage Roots)

It's a blend of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, pepped up with 10% Muscat à Petits Grains, and then partially oak-aged. The result is a wine that manages to be rich, yet remain fresh and sappy, with the citrus flavours boosted by notes of vanilla, herbs and honey overtones. Good by itself, but also a decent cheeseboard white.

Saturday saw us climb to the 2006 Domaine d’Aupilhac Coteaux du Languedoc Montpeyroux Blanc Les Cocalières (£17.35 Berry Bros & Rudd)

Sylvain Fadat has been at the forefront of the Languedoc red revolution for several years, but he's no slouch on the white front either. Les Cocalières is equal shares of Marsanne, Rolle, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, fermented and aged in old barrels of varying sizes. It's still a pup, but its already awash with character - white pepper, honey, quince, dried apricots and more, with freshness and minerality coming through on the finish. Good now, better in a couple of years - move quickly if you'd like to try it as supplies are limited.

If Les Cocalières was the wine for tomorrow, then the 2005 Domaine des Anges Côtes du Ventoux l’Archange (£9.95 The Big Red Wine Company) was absolutely perfect for today.

Château de Beaucastel’s fabulous Châteauneuf du Pape Vieilles Vignes is the benchmark for oak-aged Roussanne, but here's an excellent alternative for a fraction of the price, rich in smoky pearskin and peach flavours, with oatmeal and honey on the finish, and some of that classic spent-match character (is it minerality, is it barrel related?) that you find in top white Burgundies. Three great wines, one great weekend.