An Iberian encounter

On Saturday we travelled to London for the Decanter Spain & Portugal fine wine encounter.  We’d downloaded the catalogue in advance and been blown away by the breadth and quality of the offerings.  That’s the beauty of Spain and Portugal: it’s not just wine, but also cava, sherry, port and Madeira.  We perused the catalogue on the train and with hindsight I should have made a list of what I definitely wanted to taste.  Once there. I fell into kid in a sweetshop mode and all method went out of the window.

We arrived at the Landmark Hotel and were impressed by the elegant venue.  We checked our coats, donned our wristbands and grabbed our glasses.  We had a “discovery theatre” session booked at 11.30, so we spent the first 30 minutes in the most civilized way imaginable, tasting 5 Gramona cavas.  While they were all excellent, there were two stand-outs; the first of which was the Imperial, Gran Reserva 2007.  The charming Spanish ladies on the stand explained that this spends 5 years maturing on the lees and uses a small amount of liquor from a solera system.  It had an amazing creamy texture and nutty aromas and flavours.  I absolutely loved this and would happily drink it instead of champagne on any (or every) day of the year, even Christmas.  The other favourite was Celler Batlle, Gran Reserva 2004, made only in exceptional years and bottle-aged for 7 years.  Again, this had lovely creamy nutty flavours.  Bonus points: the grapes have been grown organically and the winery is in the process of becoming biodynamic.  The cavas certainly had the clean, fresh flavours of organic winemaking.

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We were then summoned to the discovery theatre for our tasting session with Paco Casas of Pago de los Capellanes.  Sr Casas started by giving us an overview of the estate’s vineyards, with different parcels consisting of very different soil types, before leading us through a tasting of 5 wines, all 100% tempranillo.  The Joven, Crianza and Reserva were all excellent, but the Parcela El Nogal 2009 and Parcela El Picon 2009 were exceptional.  My favourite was the El Nogal, which had a powerful aroma and flavour of violets and bitter chocolate, but Mr R13 preferred the El Picon, saying that it had more structure and complexity and better ageing potential.   He has expensive tastes: it’s about £140 a bottle.  The stuff of dreams, but I think that it will need to stay there at that price.

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We then headed back to the grand tasting and visited the Faustino table.  Faustino I Gran Reserva 2001 was named by Decanter as its number 1 wine of 2013.  We had drunk a bottle at home, and been underwhelmed: we thought that the fruit was overly dominated by the oak.  However, we retasted it on the stand and were much more impressed: the fruit and oak were in perfect harmony.  Perhaps we had a bad bottle at home.  We do have another one (it’s within our price range) so I’m looking forward to trying it again.  We also tasted the 1994 vintage of the same wine.  The bottle had only just been opened, so we excused its apparent lack of fruit and agreed to return to retaste it after it had had a chance to breathe.  Sadly, we forgot to do so.  I also tasted the whites and rosés, which I thought were pleasant and easy-drinking, but not particularly exciting.

Our next encounter was a revelation.  While at the very popular Faustino table, I saw a table with no visitors and a lovely but rather lonely-looking Spanish gentleman (Conrado Herrero of Bodegas Ontañón) waiting for someone to taste his wines.  I insisted that we go to talk and taste with him and I am so glad that we did – this is where the kid in a sweetshop approach paid off, leading to a wonderful discovery.  His Clarete 2013 was a deep pink wine in the Bordeaux style, hence “clarete” rather than “rosado”.  It was bursting with flavour and had a lovely long finish for a rosé.  His Reserva and Gran Reserva were both 95% tempranillo topped up with 5% graciano, which gave the wines a deliciously fresh minerality.  We finished with the Ecológico 2011 (100% tempranillo) which tasted of freshly-picked strawberries with the earth still on them (in the very best of ways).  Sr. Herrero informed us that Ontañón wines are very popular in Japan and Switzerland, which I thought was interesting.

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After a slight detour with a grumpy Portuguese young man (no names mentioned), we decided that it was time for some sherry, so we visited Viniberia Almacenista Selection Sherries, where we tasted 2 different Finos (Pedro’s Almacenista Selection and Sanchez Romate Hnos, Fino Perdido 1/15 Butts), a Manzanilla (Antonio Barbadillo Mateos, Sacristia Manzanilla AB, En Rama 2012) and an Amontillado (Pedro’s Almacenista Selection).  By this point, my tasting notes were becoming less specific and more fanciful.  My one-word note for the Amontillado was “orgasmic” and a drawing of a (let’s call it happy) face.  Fortunately, we already have a bottle of this at home from our local Majestic, so I will borrow their more coherent note: “The subtle and delicate bouquet, suggests notes of hazelnut on the nose, yet with light reminders of yeast but smooth on the palate giving a fresh finish.”  That’s how the professionals do it.  As an aside, this table had a dish of the finest roasted almonds that I’ve ever tasted, which were absolute perfection with the sherries.  The guy on the table did promise to give me a poster if I went back later in the show (perhaps he was flattered by my admiration for his nuts) but, once again, I forgot. (It was turning into that sort of day.)

We had to abandon our sherry tasting before getting to the Oloroso and Palo Cortado in order to join our second discovery theatre session of the day, this one with Ramos Pinto.  We tasted their Duas Quintas Reserva (a blend of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and other Douro grapes) from 4 different years.  These were all good, but what blew our minds (and palates) was the Vintage Port 2011.  Despite its youthful years and appearance, it was absolutely bursting with fruit flavour, accompanied by firm tannins that will support its ageing.  This was an absolute stand-out port.

Inspired by this reminder of why we love port so much, our next stop was the Sogevinus Fine Wines table, where we tasted Barros Very Old Dry White Port and Burmester 40 Year Old Tawny Port.  My notes had become non-existent by this point, but I did draw big smiley faces by both of these.

At this point, we decided to call it a day.  There was so much left that we wanted to taste (Niepoort, Blandy’s Madeira …), but we didn’t have long left to grab a bite to eat (our lunch had consisted solely of water biscuits) before catching our train home.  We went to the nearby “La Fromagerie”, where Mr R13 had a charcuterie plate and I had an excellent and varied cheese plate (washed down with apple juice – we’re only human).

The fine wine encounter was a great experience, giving us the opportunity to taste an enormous variety of wines of the highest quality.  The only downside (if you can call it that) was that it was rather overwhelming for the keen amateur, as opposed to the seasoned professional.  I will definitely attend future Decanter tastings, but think I should perhaps adopt a more organised approach.  When I was learning to scuba dive, the rule was “plan your dive and dive your plan”.  Should I plan my next tasting and then rigidly stick to the plan?  Or, without the danger of running out of air, decompression sickness and being eaten by sharks, should I allow serendipity to play a part, which can lead to some unexpected and delightful discoveries?

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False Bay, honest wines

Last night Mr R13 and I attended a tasting of wines from the Waterkloof estate in Stellenbosch, organised by Portland Wine (our very fine local indie wine shop) and presented by Louis Boutinot.

Louis set the scene by explaining the origins of his family business, showing us photos of the restaurant that his French grandfather opened in Stockport in the 1970s, complete with fabulous floral wallpaper, and of his father who worked as the restaurant’s sommelier, complete with amazing kipper tie and “offensive” flared trousers (Louis’ choice of words, not mine).

Our host then showed us some photos of the Waterkloof vineyard, set on an amazing steep slope overlooking False Bay.  He explained that the vines are regularly exposed to extremely strong winds, which means that yields are very low and the grapes are protected from the growth of harmful fungi.  Louis explained that the vineyard is certified organic, but his father Paul refuses to put this fact on the label, because he doesn’t want “wackos” (like me!) buying the wine purely because it’s organic.  Given that attitude, I hesitated to ask whether they have considered a biodynamic approach (my select few regular readers will know that this is an obsession of mine) but Louis informed us that the vineyard is in fact the only biodynamic one in South Africa.

The estate has a herd of cows who provide fertiliser, horses for ploughing, as well as chickens (who eat weevils and are in turn served up in the estate restaurant) and lambs.  In addition to the farmed animals, leopards and snakes also visit the vineyard.  Apparently another useful thing about the horses is that they spot the snakes well before the human workers do.  The wines are fermented using only the naturally occurring yeast present on the grapes.  This means that fermentation takes much longer and the wine smells and tastes purely of the grapes, not of any artificial flavours introduced by the addition of commercially produced yeast.

The first wine that we tasted was the Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc.  This was a very restrained and elegant style, like a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé rather than an in-your-face Marlborough.  It tasted of juicy green apples and went perfectly with the first round of delicious canapés (prawn, smoked salmon and chicken) provided by Earle (the restaurant in Hale where the tasting was held).  This was Mr R13’s favourite wine of the evening.

The second wine was the “Circle of Life” white wine: 70% sauvignon blanc blended with chenin blanc and semillon.  Despite the predominance of sauvignon blanc, this smelled and tasted completely different to the 100% varietal wine, due to the presence of the other grapes, judicious use of oak and the wine spending an extended period on its lees up until bottling.  For me, this wine was crème caramel in a glass: a rich creamy vanilla mouthfeel, plus a hint of dark (not at all sweet) burnt sugar.  It was my number one pick of the evening.

Next up was the Circumstance Cape Coral Mourvèdre Rosé.  This is a very pale pink, much closer to  Provence rosé than the typical New World Schiaparelli pink.  Louis explained that South African restaurants were initially reluctant to stock this wine, as they didn’t recognise it  as a rosé!  Waterkloof had to obtain samples of French rosés to demonstrate to them that it was a real wine.  (This story reminds me of the scene in “Judgment of Paris” when Steven Spurrier argues with some jobsworthy French customs officials who refuse to let him import English wine because they won’t recognise that such a thing exists, even though it is sitting on the table in front of them.  The situation is particularly grave because the wine is due to be served to the Queen at an Embassy dinner. )

Louis described this wine as a rosé to convert rosé haters (I wouldn’t have believed that such a species existed, but the gentleman opposite me confessed to being one).  One of our fellow tasters commented that if you tasted it with your eyes shut, you wouldn’t know that it was a rosé.  As a rosé lover, I’m not convinced that that’s a good thing.  Personally, I prefer my rosés with a bit more oomph to them.  However, I enjoyed the subtle strawberries and cream flavours of the wine, which made me long for our first barbecue of the year (with the current global-warmed British climate, who knows when that will be: it could be next week or the 12th of never), although Louis advised us that the wine went perfectly with spicy food and sushi – I would like to try one (or both) of those combinations.

Next we moved onto the reds, with a second round of (carnivorous) canapés.  The first red was the Seriously Cool Cinsault, so called because it’s best served slightly chilled.  This was lightly tannic and with elegant fruit flavours.  The second was Circle of Life Red, which is a blend of both Bordeaux and Rhone grapes.  This was a slightly quirky wine, but I like quirky.  Sadly, we then had to move onto the final wine of the night, which was the Circumstance Syrah.  This was fruity and earthy.  Biodynamic sceptics, skip the rest of this sentence, but you could really taste the soil, packed with lovely earthworms, in this wine.  I currently have a bit of a fetish for Northern Rhone style Syrahs co-fermented with Viognier, so this wasn’t my favourite Syrah, but it really gave a true sense of place.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.  I don’t know whether it was the wonderfully evocative photos, the passionate descriptions given by our host, or the wine itself, but I felt transported to the Waterkloof winery and hope to visit it for real and taste the wines in the beautiful (if somewhat precarious-looking) tasting room overlooking False Bay.  In addition, these wonderful wines tipped my fragile belief system a couple of notches closer to believing that there must be something in biodynamic winemaking.

Many thanks to Louis Boutinot, Paula from Portland Wine, Earle restaurant and our fellow tasters for a wonderful evening.  I’m looking forward to the Plaimont tasting on 5 March.

Biodynamics: fact or fiction?

Firstly, an apology to anyone who has clicked on this hoping to find the definitive answer to this question.  I really have no idea.  While my inner hippy desperately wants to believe, some of it sounds so bizarre that I’m not sure whether I can.  What this post does contain is my thoughts on two books that I have recently read on the subject of biodynamic wine.

The first book is “What is biodynamic wine?” by Nicolas Joly, translated from French by Matthew Barton.  I found this heavy going, but ultimately rewarding.  When reading a translated book, you can’t be sure on whom to “blame” heaviness of language: the author or the translator?  My own lack of scientific knowledge is probably also largely to blame here.

Joly is clearly an expert on biodynamics, and more than anything, his passion for and belief in the practice illuminates every page.   I was intrigued as he linked biodynamics to all manner of other concepts, for example:

  • The division of plants into two categories: Apollonian, which grow towards the sky, and Dionysian (including grapevines), which are drawn towards the earth.  As I was reading this book at the same time as researching my wine writing challenge entry “In praise of Bacchus” (Bacchus is the Greek name for the god the Romans called Dionysis), the coincidence was most timely.
  • The shape of wine barrels: although I struggled with the mathematical explanation for this, apparently barrels get longer the further south (in the northern hemisphere) you go.  This is due to the sun’s effects at different locations.  I would love it if someone with a better understanding of maths than me could read this and explain it in words of one syllable!
  • The principles of the “four humours” expounded by Hippocrates.  While working in human resources, I attended training on this theory in order to better understand group dynamics in the workplace.   While I’m normally very cynical about this kind of thing, I identified wholeheartedly with having a melancholic personality (and then got very depressed about it).
  • Before reading the book, I didn’t know that conventional farming practice recommends removing cows’ horns, but in a biodynamic herd, they must be left intact.  This is because the horns are considered to reflect energy (generated in large quantities by the bovine digestion system) back into the cow.  This can be linked to the religion of the ancient Egyptians, as the goddess Hathor (credited with bringing the heavenly gift of wine to the earth) is depicted with the head of a cow and a solar disc between her horns. 

I’m sorry if that link is a little vague; that’s how Joly writes, his enthusiasm regularly taking him on leaps from one topic to a related one, eg jumping from an explanation of the significance of cow horns to having a rant about the mad cow disease (BSE) epidemic.  While I fully understand the importance of this (no cow from a biodynamic herd has ever been infected with BSE), I found that these digressions made a work that was already tricky to follow even more difficult to focus on.

The second book is “Chateau Monty” by Monty Waldin.  This is the autobiographical account of British wine writer Monty Waldin’s midlife crisis-inspired project to move to Roussillon and make biodynamic wine. It is written in a completely different style from the first book.  Waldin tells his story with plenty of self-deprecating humour, introducing us to a supporting cast including:

  • Harry (his ever-faithful Jack Russell)
  • Silvana (his sensible Italian accountant girlfriend, who keeps him in check)
  • geese Petronella and Marmaduke (Silvana wouldn’t let him have cows, despite their valuable output)
  • some (unnamed) chickens
  • a horse called Cajolle who ploughed the vineyard
  • marauding wild boar who threaten the grapes (apparently they are attracted to organic vineyards , as there are more worms to eat, but are repelled by human hair and urine – who knew?)
  • eccentric French locals bemused by the concept of biodynamics; and
  • equally eccentric and bemused British ex-pats.

Waldin’s accounts of his encounters with these characters, all of whom seem delighted to help him, are entertaining, but also serve a useful narrative purpose.  The people Monty befriends share the same viewpoint as the reader, interested in this idea of farming as naturally as possible, but befuddled by what the moon has to do with it and why burying a horn filled with cow dung should make the wine taste better.  These encounters also provide Monty with the opportunity to explain the basics of biodynamics.  His explanations, while by necessity less detailed than Joly’s, are given in extremely plain and easy to follow language.

While Joly’s book has the weight of authority and provides more detail, if you are looking for an enjoyable and easy to follow introduction to biodynamic winemaking, I would wholeheartedly recommend “Chateau Monty”.

In praise of Bacchus

When SAHMellier announced that the theme for this month’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge is “Devotion”, after searching for the link between “Grease” and wine (if any of the other participants have found one, I salute them), I decided to go in a different direction and write about the devotion shown to Bacchus, the god of wine by his followers, the Bacchantes.

I had a very hazy idea of what this devotion, demonstrated in the ritual of Bacchanal, involved.  I thought that perhaps it had something to do with consuming vast quantities of wine and waiting for divine inspiration/madness to strike.  While I had experienced the (temporary) belief that my amazing (for me) prowess in an office quiz was fuelled entirely by red wine, with hindsight I may have been wrong.  However, when I queried the wisdom of sitting the tasting section of a WSET exam before the written part, I was reliably informed that the wine would “liberate my mind” and enhance my performance.  There may have been something in this.  We started (I believe) with an amazing Pouilly-Fuissé, the lingering finish of which inspired me throughout the written paper.

As everyone who has read Donna Tartt’s wonderful novel “The Secret History” knows, staging a DIY Bacchanal is a bad idea that will most likely end in tears, blood and all-consuming guilt.  However, it’s a fascinating idea; I love wine and always seek to expand my knowledge and therefore enjoyment of it, so is there something that I could learn from the Bacchantes (SPOILER ALERT!!! without accidentally disembowelling a poultry farmer)?

In the name of research I bought a book called “The story of Bacchus” by Andrew Dalby.  I enjoyed this book, particularly the author’s approach to writing a biography of a mythical figure, adopting a factual, down-to-earth style, even when describing the most far-fetched events (see below).

I learnt that Bacchus is accredited with giving wine to the world.  This ultimate gift resulted from a tragic accident.  Bacchus’ beloved friend Ampelos was killed trying to ride a bull.  Bacchus decorated Ampelos’ grave with a vine, which flowered the next day, bore fruit the following day, which were ripe the day after that.  (One does wonder whether the grapes could have achieved both physiological and sugar ripeness in 3 days, but let’s go with it.)  His satyrs pressed the juice and collected it in wooden cups.  (The book omits to state whether the cups were made from American or French oak.)  There was so much juice that not all of it got drunk immediately, and on the following day it was less sweet, but tasted “alive” and made those who drank it feel happy.  And thus Bacchus gave the world the gift of wine, the source of devotion for most of you who will read these words.

So, if you would like to show your devotion to Bacchus, then you may ask “what is a Bacchanal and how do I do it?”.   From what I can gather, you need:

  • 1 thyrsos (stem of giant fennel – available at all good grocer’s shops.
  • Oak fronds, ivy stems and branches and asphodel stems and bulbs
  • A sacred casket containing models of male genitalia.  (It’s a long story, but in a nutshell (!) Bacchus travelled to Hades (the underworld) to rescue his mother, Semele, who had been killed by Zeus (his father) with a thunderbolt while still pregnant with Bacchus.  Zeus rescued the foetus and fashioned a womb in his own thigh, where he carried baby Bacchus until it was time for his birth.  On his journey to Hades, Bacchus was assisted by an elderly man called Prosymnos, who, in exchange for his help, demanded that Bacchus promise to sleep with him on his return.  By the time that Bacchus arrived back with Semele, Prosymnos had died.  Bacchus was clearly a god of his word, because, determined to keep his promise, he fashioned a set of male “parts” out of wood, placed this on top of Prosymnos’ grave and sat on it.)

I did say it was a long story, but I needed to explain the rationale (if that’s the right word) of the sacred casket and contents thereof.  As an aside, reading this book made me think for the first time that I had missed out by not studying Classics.  These tales are all recorded by Homer, Hesiod and the like.

  • To be female (men may be tempted to follow the example of Pentheus (Bacchus’ disapproving cousin), disguise yourself as a woman and join in, but do be aware that Pentheus was discovered and torn into a hundred fragments).
  • (Surprisingly optional, apparently a later addition) wine.  For me, it would have to be a really good Chardonnay, as it was a Puligny-Montrachet that transformed me from enthusiastic wine drinker to a true devotee of Bacchus.  But that’s another story.

To sum up, trying to recreate a Bacchanal in your own back yard is potentially messy and expensive, carries a risk of extreme violence and attendant trauma, and is unlikely to endear you to your neighbours.  Instead, I encourage you to show your devotion to wine by sharing a bottle with your family and friends, raising a glass to Bacchus and spreading the love.