Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The perils of the wine writer, Episode 348

'And remember, we've got people round this evening....' The sign-off from her indoors and she set off out off doors hung over the kitchen like the aftermath of an evening on Old Peculier and kebabs. Tidy up all those wines, in other words. So down the sink went the remains of some of those bottles of claret that I'd had open for a few days just to see if they were really as ordinary as the first, second and third taste had led me to believe. And into the bottle bank went those empties that I'd kept because there was a minute chance that I'd write about them and need to photograph the bottles. But that still left a few dozen unopened sample bottles in need of a home, or at least a temporary hiding place. The easiest cause of action would have been to stack them in the cellar on top of some bottles which in turn are stacked up on top of other bottles and so on. But being a seasoned pro, I knew it was time to attack the backlog.

Now for those of you kind enough to send me samples, be assured that everything does get tasted - it's a rare bottle that survives for more than a couple of months here. But I tend to attack first the things that interest me most. Some things just get pushed further and further down the pecking order. Such as a set of wines from Asda that arrived probably in early March. They've not been left entirely untouched. There was a very tasty Malbec from Argentina that ended up here, and which did its job rather better than many of the more ambitious offerings I came across on my recent jaunt to mundo del carne. But there were six wines sitting in a box wearing a Lewis-Carroll-like 'Drink Me' or at least 'Taste Me' visage. So I did.

First of all can I say that I have nothing against Asda. Indeed, since Mistress of Wine Philippa Carr arrived in the wine department a few years ago, the quality on offer has soared, and there have been some spectacular bargains - name me a supermarket with better own-label Riojas. The reason why the samples had remained unsampled lies not with PC MW, but with the person who designs Asda's wine labels - guys, whoever you are, you need to get out a little more. But as for the contents of the bottles...

These were proper wines that at least did what they were supposed to do, and often went that little bit further. An Extra Special Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc that was pleasant and peachy, and not too much of a bimbo. A 2008 Paarl Chenin Blanc that was lush and fleshy, with some apple-y crispness to rein it all in. A Torrontes that stayed fragrant without descending into cheap perfume territory. I wasn't a huge fan of the 2006 Ponotage - too bonfire-like - or the vin de pays Syrah. But the Syrah's companion, a Vin de Pays Marsanne from the efficient Foncalieu enterprise, was a peach, with bruised apple intesity and a gentle creamy, nutty finish reminiscent of good (and much pricier) Verdicchio. Price? £3.28. And not £5.49, promoted to £3.28 - just £3.28. Go out and buy it in large quantities, and if the price rises to £3.99, or even £4.99, still go out and buy it. Wouldn't the wine world be much better for more honest tasty wines like this sold at their proper price rather than at some Noddy price invented by the marketing pirates.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I'm tellin' you, Mullineux

To the roster of excellent Swartland wineries, we can now add a new name - Mullineux Family Wines. It's owned and run by Chris and Andrea Mullineux, with business input from wine nuts Keith Prothero and Peter Dart, and the first releases, from the 2008 vintage, have just arrived in the cellars of Berry Bros & Rudd. The winery will be familiar to anyone who has paid more than a couple of visits to Tom Cannavan's wine pages forum over the past couple of years, since Keith has been banging on about it there for months, canvassing opinions on names, label designs, possible UK importers and more. Even if you've not tuned into that forum, you might be familiar with some wines Chris has made in various top SA cellars, and most recently at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards.

Keith's very-bigging-up of the winery could have proved premature had the wines been damp squibs, but the only problem I had with the two wines I've just been sampling is that there just wasn't enough of each in the bottle. The barrel-fermented white (£13.95), mostly Chenin Blanc, with 7% each of Clairette and Viognier, is one of those wines where the fruit - lively zesty citrus fruit - plays second fiddle to smoky, nut and ginger characters, while the finish has lively mineral tones to pep it up. Indigenous yeasts no doubt add extra character to the finished wine.

The red (£16.50) is 100% Syrah from Swartland's granite-rich soils, and while at 14.5% it's certainly not light-bodied, it has that firm but cool, almost refreshing edge that granite soils often give to prevent anything going wobbly. Add in the dark cherry and damson flavours, and the fragrant, herby finish, and you have a very classy wine. I'd recommend decanting both of them, as they're still in short trousers, and need time to show their hidden layers. But as the French say, chapeau to all concerned and Keith, the hype was fully justified, good on you. Watch out too in the future for a Chenin-based straw wine.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Good old-fashioned Chilean wine

We'll get to Chile in a moment, but I'm kicking off with New Zealand. I first visited the Land of the Long White Cloud in 1995 (I know because I came back from the trip with a rather useful blue zip-up bag and a polo shirt, now covered I various flecks of paint - both have the date on them). While there were several delicious wines, two weeks in this green and pleasant land surrounded by Nice people and their Nice wines left me gagging for something a little more Machiavellian and grungy - mature Châteauneuf du Pape, Aglianico del Vulture, Château Musar that sort of thing. It's become something of a test of just how much I like wines from particular regions. Stuff the copious notes I've scribbled in my W H Smith Reporter Notebook, when I get back to Blighty, do I want more of the same, or do I want the polar opposite?

When I returned from a fortnight in Chile last autumn, I found myself in two minds. If you'd offered me some Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir or Syrah from the cooler climates, I'd have said 'yes, por favor'. However, if it'd been a beefier red based on Cabernet, Carmenère or Merlot, I'd have been much less enthusiastic. It's not that Chile's Bordeaux-inspired reds are bad. Deep in colour, carefully made, finely oaked, rich and concentrated, it's hard to fault them. But it's just that I very seldom want to drink them - for me, they're a bit like the foyers of smart business hotels, impeccable but a little soulless. Forget refreshing and subtle, the typical Chilean Cabernet tends to be forceful and intense, and usually with that tell-tale whiff of blackcurrant pastilles not far from the surface.

But Chile CAN do more relaxed styles of Cabernet - I drank one of them last night. Importers Heritage Wine claim that the 1993 Santa Monica Cabernet Sauvignon Envejecido de Bodega (aged in the cellar) from Rancagua in the Rapel Valley is oldest Chilean wine in the world.

A quick look on winesearcher.com reveals that this isn't so, but their assessment of the wine as 'a beautifully aged and incredibly smooth vintage' is closer to the truth. It's the sort of wine that some would call old-fashioned, weighing in at a relatively sedate 13% alcohol and aged in big old Chilean oak (Rauli) barrels and then in smaller, newer French ones. Rauli casks were once widely used in Chile, but if they weren't kept very clean, they imparted a rather dirty, wet-doggy flavour to the wines. They've now all but disappeared from most Chilean cellars, but here's proof that rauli wasn't totally a bad thing. This is gentle, charming wine (think Gran Reserva-style Bordeaux), slightly leathery with soft, cedary fruit flavours, mature, but certainly not past it. Indeed, it's holding up far better than all but a few clarets from 1993, and is a snip at £10.49 - less than a quid for each year it's been in bottle. For that price, you can buy several younger, richer and more boisterous Chilean reds, but I'm not sure whether at 16 years old they'll be as alluring as this good old-fashioned gem.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Toro, Toro, Toro!

You'd expect wines called Toro to be big, beefy and bullish. And these reds made from 100% Tempranillo (aka Tinta de Toro) from a region to the west of the more famous Ribera del Duero usually lives up to such a billing. If you like big, meaty wines to go with big meaty, er, meats, this is the place to come. But sometimes Toro can be a bit too bovine for its own good. There's intense and there's painfully intense; there's ripe and there's raisinny ripe. Many in the region still have to learn that louder doesn't mean better.

I've no such complaints about a trio of recent samples from Covitoro, the region's main co-op. The big boy of the three is the 2005 Cañus Verus Viñas Viejas (£13 D Byrne, Noel Young), and while it's not shy on the cojones front, it's the boldness of dark-fruited, iron-tinged old vine intensity rather than an over-zealous winemaker. Several years of life still ahead of it.

At the opposite end of the weight spectrum is the 2007 T Toro Roble Barrel Aged (£6.99 Waitrose), which has a peppery red fruit lightness, almost like Mencia or some lighter Rhône Syrahs. But my favourite of the trio - and the cheapest to boot - is the Balcon de la Villa Tinta de Toro 2006 (£5.99 Marks & Spencer), a cocktail of dark fruits with a sprinkling of brown sugar and tinges of vanilla and iron. Bargain, bring on the rib-eye.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rosé, Rose B

It's an odd day here. Been inside most of the time but had to pop out around lunchtime on an errand. It's quite bright and everywhere is so incredibly green at the moment. It would have been a perfect day to sit outside tasting a couple of 2008 rosé wines that have recently arrived, but for the fact that its drizzling and a bit cold. So I'm indoors sipping the Raimat Abadia Cab Sauv/Tempranillo, Costers del Segre (£6.99) from Spain and the Explorers Vineyard Marlborough Rosé (£6.49 The Co-op) from New Zealand with the central heating on.

The Kiwi pink would be outlawed in much of Europe, since it's mostly Riesling with a splash of Merlot to give it colour - most European rosés have to be made exclusively from red grapes, although I've never heard a satisfactory explanation as to why this should be. It's gentle and juicy, just a shade off-dry and reminds me of my mum's apple and raspberry pie. Good picnic fodder, and ideal for those looking to wean themselves (or their chums) off White Zin.

As for the Raimat, I confess I've had a problem with their wines in the past. They've been correct, but have seldom shown anything beyond the merest hint of a Spanish accent. I visited the hi-tech estate a few years ago, and remember telling the winemaker that while there was nothing wrong with his wines, I thought that the typical Portuguese wine showed more of a sense of place. Unfortunately, this was mis-translated as, 'Your wines are not as good as Portuguese wines,' causing the winemaker to throw a hissy fit and storm out of the room. Thankfully there was someone on hand to calm the situation down and provide a more accurate version of what I'd said. Anyway, back to the wine. I can't remember the last vintage of this I tried, but this is pretty nice. It's richer than the Explorers, with generous plummy fruit and some red berry character chucked in for good measure. Drink the Explorers while watching the cricket, save the Raimat for Sunday lunch with Spring lamb.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Argentina unplugged

Currently sitting in the domestic airport in Buenos Aires waiting to fly to Salta and then travel by road up to Colomé where there are what the owners (the Hess Collection) claim are the highest vineyards in the world. Are they the highest? Colomé's neighbour (and former owner) Raul Davalos might challenge the claim, as might some of those who are trying to put Bolivian wine on the map. But no matter. I'm filling up my MP3 for what promises to be an 'interesting' 4 hour journey by road to a part of Salta I've never ventured to before, and am anticipating a fascinating visit.

But on another matter, just spent the night in BA at the Ayres de Libertad, a clean and efficient establishment, and the third hotel I've stayed in on this jaunt to Argentina. Now if any locals are reading this, can you explain something to me - why do your hotels have no plugs in the bathroom? Not electric plugs, but plugs to stop the water running away. At the Executive Suites in Mendoza, I asked for a plug at reception and I might as well have asked for a team of strippers and a marching band. One begrudgingly arrived - a plug, not a stripper - but it only fitted the bath. I went and asked for a sink-sized plug - three days later when I left, it still hadn't arrived. Then at Valle Perdido in Neuquen, there was no bath, but there was a sink - but again, no plug. Finally at the Ayres de Libertad, a bath and a sink, but no plug for either (although there was one for the sink in the adjacent kitchenette).

Why? Am I supposed to dry shave? Or shave with the taps going and waste a precious resource? I ended up making do by wedging various of the bathroom bottles into the orifice, and managed to remove the stubble, although I had to keep the taps tricking to maintain water level. So a message to Argentine winemakers. Thank you for the gifts you have given me on this trip, among them a box of chocolates, an asados knife (perfect for those tense encounters at customs), a bottle of olive oil and enough pens to stock a small stationery store. But if you really want to win the hearts and minds of UK wine writers and plug the Argentina cause, you now know what it is that we really would like....