That’s Amarone

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On Saturday, we attended the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter: Italy at the Lancaster London Hotel. Having enjoyed but been slightly overwhelmed by the Spain and Portugal Encounter in February, we were keen to taste what Italy has to offer.  As … Continue reading

MWWC9: What would come out of the wardrobe for you?

MWWC

If you’re not already familiar with the magical world of Harry Potter, a Boggart is a shape-shifting creature that assumes the form of whatever it thinks will most frighten its victim. In Harry’s Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson taught by Professor Lupin, the werewolf-professor supplies a Boggart trapped in a wardrobe for Harry and his fellow students to practise their Boggart-banishing skills.

So, in response to this month’s Monthly Wine Writing Challenge prompt selected by two-time Challenge winner the Drunken Cyclist, the question I am asking myself (and you) is “what shape would your Boggart take when coming out of the wardrobe?”

I have several possibilities:

mean-wine-waiter

1)      A really scary sommelier, sneering at my wine choice.  I know, I know, the sommelier is there to help us to make us make the best selection to maximise our wining dining pleasure.  Maybe I’ve been scarred by an experience when I was much younger and knew virtually nothing (as opposed to now knowing only slightly nothing) about wine.  I was on a work away day with my team (Intellectual Property and IT lawyers) to “bond” and think big thoughts about Intellectual Property and IT law.  It goes without saying that a three-course lunch with wine was essential to this process.  One of the older, wiser members of the team claimed to “know about wine”, striking awe into our hearts and taking charge of our order.  The wine arrived, my colleague tasted it and pronounced it corked.  The sommelier tasted it and pronounced it fine.  Everyone else (myself included) sat in embarrassed silence (we are British) and pretended it wasn’t happening.  I don’t remember how it was resolved; I’ve blocked it from my memory.

2)      A spine-chillingly bad Chardonnay, the sort that tastes like the taste that a wombat (? according to Wikipedia) must experience when chewing its way through an oak tree.  I know, if you’re going to drink wine by the glass in a pub, you take your chances.

scary tree

3)      Opening a Champagne bottle.  OK, I know this one is really pathetic, but I just don’t like it.  I think that it’s the anticipation of an imminent explosion close to my face.  Apparently it’s a pressure of about 5 or 6 atmospheres, which is equivalent to double-decker bus tyres.  I’m feeling less pathetic now.

4)      A WSET Level 4 exam.  Having completed Level 3, it seems logical to take it to the next level, but it sounds really tough.  I enjoyed reading Connoisaurus’ recent post about starting the Diploma, but look at that pile of books!

5)      While the items referred to above give me the heebie-jeebies, I can (more or less) deal with them.   The real fear that I’m battling at the moment isn’t directly connected to wine.  Back in January, I resolved to join a local writers’ circle.  I phoned the guy who organises it to find out a bit more.  He explained that everyone takes their turn to read out something they’ve written, then the other members of the group give them feedback on it.  Believe me, putting my girlish thoughts out there for others to read is scary enough when hiding behind an internet pseudonym and a photo of my much-loved but sadly deceased cat.   The idea of reading them aloud to a roomful of writers and listen to them tell me to my face (my own face, not a furry bewhiskered face) what they think makes me feel physically ill (much like a glass of bad Chardonnay).   Confession time: when I entered the MWWC for the first time (also in January) I published my entry, but didn’t do anything else with it, hoping that no-one would find it.  However, Jeff, using some form of dark art internet wizardry, found it.  And people were really sweet (like a glass of bad Chardonnay) about it.  Thank you.

When confronted with a Boggart, you need to speak the charm “riddikulus” and force it to look amusing. So, how would I tackle my line-up of Boggarts?

To deal with the sommelier, the answer has to be: transform him into the gorgeous Sherlock Holmes (as portrayed by the delicious Benedict Cumberbatch) disguised as a wine waiter with un accent français horrible in order to surprise Dr Watson, who has spent the last two years mourning his best friend, but has bounced back sufficiently to be on the point of proposing to his girlfriend.  With a good bottle of Champagne.

Watson-Mary-and-Holmes

For the Champagne, I was trying to imagine a kind of screw-top bottle that would release the pressure slowly and calmly. That’s got to be easy, right?  Although I guess it would take some of the impact out of Grand Prix celebrations.  Then I realised that if it was that easy, someone would already have done it.  So I thought, the obvious answer is to face my demon head-on and perfect the noble art of sabrage.

soldier-sabrage

How to see off the WSET Diploma (incorporating the scarily big pile of books)? This requires a spot of reverse psychology.  Firstly, convert the pile of wine books into this:

Law Books

In comparison, the wine books look so inviting that I will dive in and gladly stay up until the small hours reading about the difference between a pot still and a continuous still. Gratuitous diagram:

pot still

The bad Chardonnay, I was about to give this one up as hopeless. Then I thought: beavers eat wood, don’t they?  Hopefully Connoisaurus or one of her fellow Canadians can confirm.  But I thought that I’d end with a cute picture of a beaver eating a tree.  I just hope that none of my fellow Monthly Wine Writing Challengers has a fear of Castor Canadensis. Enjoy!

beaver

Did you hear the one about Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and the king of the gypsies?

Last week we had the pleasure of sampling a range of Hidalgo Sherries at a tasting organised by Portland Wine, presented by Cathy Smith and held at Gastronomy restaurant in Hale. Sherry, after spending the last 25 years or so as the butt of jokes about being a drink for grannies (my gran certainly had a Harveys Bristol Cream habit), is currently staging a major comeback.  I’ve tasted quite a few sherries before, but I’m always keen to taste and learn more about the different varieties.

Cathy opened the event by giving us a brief overview of the history of sherry. For us Brits, a major influence on our long-term love affair with sherry is our erratic relationship with our European neighbours.  When we were at war with France, we stopped buying claret from Bordeaux and drank sherry instead.  When King Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, this damaged our relationship with Spain, and sherry fell out of favour.  Henry was succeeded by “Bloody” Mary, who banned sherry due to her preference for vodka and tomato juice-cocktails married Phillip of Spain, which reversed sherry’s fortunes again.  When Mary died and the Protestant Elizabeth I took to the throne, Phillip was so unhappy that he sent in the Spanish Armada.  Fortunately for British sherry lovers, Francis Drake (most famous, but probably incorrectly so, for finishing his game of bowls before seeing off the Armada) managed to seize 2,900 barrels of sherry, which kept us going for a while.  Anyway, we’re all friends now.

FD

We started our tasting with 2 different Manzanillas, which is a Fino-style sherry, aged under a layer of yeast called flor, which gives the sherry a fresh, yeasty, almond flavour. Manzanilla is aged in the seaside town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the high humidity gives it a particularly tangy, salty flavour. The first was La Gitana (aged for 5 years), which was beautifully light and fresh, zesty and tangy. However, we preferred the Pasada Pastrana (aged for 7-8 years), because it had a deeper and nuttier flavour.

La Gitana

Next up was the Amontillado Seco Napoléon.  Amontillado starts its life as a Fino, but displays a deeper, nuttier character and is then aged oxidatively (in partially-filled butts, without the layer of flor) to develop these characteristics.  This was darker and richer and tasted of coffee, toffee and hazelnut.

The standout sherry of the night was Palo Cortado Wellington (VOS).  “VOS” stands for “very old sherry” and is at least 20 years old.  Palo Cortado is made by blending Manzanilla and Amontillado, creating a complex and rounded mix of the fresh flor flavours of the Manzanilla, plus the nutty oxidative flavours of the Amontillado.

Palo Cortado

Next we tasted Oloroso Seco Faraon (Faraon means king of the gypsies).  Oloroso is fortified at an earlier stage, so ages oxidatively from the start, so no flor develops.  This sherry is aged for 7 years in cask, giving it a deep walnut flavour.  It had a good length, but I thought that it was less interesting than the Palo Cortado.

We moved into sweeter territory with the Oloroso Abocado Alameda.  This is Oloroso with added Pedro Ximenez for sweetness.  My first impression was that it tasted a bit “retro”, like the sweet sherry I used to feel really grown-up for drinking before Sunday lunch at my uncle and aunt’s house.  However, this all changed when we were served little canapés of blue cheese and walnut to eat with it.  The flavours complemented each other perfectly and I enjoyed the sherry much more with food than by itself.

We rounded off the evening with the Pedro Ximenez Triana, which is made from sun-dried grapes and aged in American oak.  This was intensely sweet and bursting with flavours of figs and raisins.  We drank it with vanilla and malted ice cream, which was another lovely combination.

Cathy helpfully handed out a sheet of suggested food matches for each of the sherries. Combinations that I want to try: Manzanilla with scallop sushi and Palo Cortado with blue cheese.  I’m less sure about the Eccles cakes with Oloroso Alameda!  (Note to my international friends – an Eccles cake is a delicacy from the North of England made from flaky pastry and currants and sometimes referred to as “squashed fly cake”.)

Thanks as always to Paula from Portland, Cathy Swift, Gastronomy and our fellow tasters for another delicious and educational evening. I hope to see some of you at the Spring Wine Fair on 16 May!

1 family, 1 valley, 100 km, 9 great treats

Last night I embarked on my maiden solo tasting mission, unaccompanied by my usual partner in wine (my lovely husband). No, he wasn’t watching Liverpool (narrowly) beat Sunderland, but had his nose in his WSET Level 3 Manual, revising for his exam next Monday.  Unfortunately, he was laid low with gastroenteritis when I sat my exam in December, so is having to catch up now.  I tried to persuade him that an evening tasting Chilean wine would be perfect revision, but he nobly put duty before pleasure.

CS1

The evening was organised by Portland Wine, presented by Johnny Bingham of Casa Silva and held at Earle restaurant in Hale. Johnny was a great host, clearly passionate about Chilean wine, and declared his intent to show what Chile can do, promising that Chile it can deliver more than boring Sauvignon Blanc.

He demonstrated this by serving the first wine of the evening: Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc 2012.  This certainly wasn’t boring: it’s a French-style, very restrained example, with stone fruit, citrus and a hint of kiwi fruit.  With this, we ate little bites of haddock and prawn, which complemented the wine really well.

Paredones

While we were enjoying the Sauvignon Blanc, Johnny gave us a brief history of Casa Silva. Its story began in 1892 when Emile Bouchon (great name for a winemaker!) fled the phylloxera plague in St Emilion and headed for Chile to make wine there.  On arrival in Santiago his pioneering instincts led him further south to Colchagua, which he believed provides the perfect conditions for grape-growing.  As Johnny says “it’s all about the fruit”.

We moved on to the Viognier Reserva 2012.  This was intensely floral on the nose; my first impression was of fabric conditioner, but in a good way.  It has flavours of apricot and pistachio and a lovely creamy mouthfeel.  Johnny gave us an interesting overview of how the winemakers have experimented with the viognier, ageing higher percentages of the wine in oak, before settling on 10%, plus trying out malolactic fermentation, which they abandoned because it interfered with the freshness of the fruit.  I found it very reassuring to learn that even the mighty winemakers don’t always know in advance what will work best, but need to try different things and learn from their mistakes.  Johnny recommended serving this wine with scallops, emphasising the importance of compatibility of textures, rather than focussing solely on the flavours.  I found this thought-provoking, as I usually just think about what will taste good together, rather than thinking about how they will feel.

We then moved onto the reds, starting with the Family Cabernet/Carmenère 2013.  This was 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Carmenère, so the predominant flavours were the typical Cab black fruits, but with some mysterious smoky notes provided by the Carmenère.  Johnny quoted (or misquoted?) Jancis Robinson MW with the line “anyone who likes Cabernet Sauvignon likes their pleasure with a little pain (eg camping) .”  I know what he means, and I really hate camping.  This blend provided an intriguing introduction to the grape, as we were shortly going to taste some 100% examples.

Carmenere

Before we did that, we tasted the Cool Coast Pinot Noir 2011.  This is Casa Silva’s first ever Pinot Noir vintage and has spent 12 months in oak.  It was bursting with sweet, vibrant red fruit, tempered with an earthy quality.  Johnny described it as a “tightly packed spring”.  I’m a big fan of Pinot, and I really enjoyed this one.

Next, we tasted two examples of pure Carmenère alongside each other: the Reserva and the Gran Terroir Los Lingues.  I absolutely loved the Reserva; it had flavours of blueberry and vanilla, with hints of spicy pepper and mocha: a winning combination.  While I was raving about the Reserva, the couple sitting next to me had moved onto the Gran Terroir and were both convinced that it was better.  I disagreed, but did get briefly confused and nearly gave into peer pressure.  The Gran Terroir was indeed excellent, very herbaceous, in a style that Johnny described as “good green”, ie herby, but without astringency or bitterness.  I’m sticking to my guns: I preferred the Reserva, but that’s why tasting wine in a group is so interesting, you can all have your own opinion and nobody’s wrong.

Gran Terroir

We moved onto the Microterroir Carmenère 2007.  This had a powerful blend of fruit and spice.  To quote Johnny again, it was like “a nugget of pure Carmenère placed in your mouth”.  It had a lively purple rim suggesting youth, but tasted more mature.  As Johnny says “we’re not ageing, just oxidising”.

The last red was the Altura 2005, which is a blend of Carmenère (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (35%) and Petit Verdot (15%).  This was like a mature Bordeaux-style blend, the sort you might have tasted in 1841.  My tasting notes for this read “leather unique to furniture restorers” – I think that I’ll attribute those words to Johnny, rather than taking credit for them.   Another interesting fact I learnt last night: Carmenère was originally from Bordeaux, but is now rarely planted in France, having emigrated to Chile so successfully.  This ties in with Mr Cork’s exodus from phylloxera-infested Bordeaux to the brave new world of Colchagua.  (I really must read more of “Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World” by Christy Campbell.  It’s a fascinating book and the more I learn about wine, the more I discover about the huge impact that phylloxera has had.)

Wine number 9 (!) was the “dangerously drinkable” Late Harvest Semillon/Gewürztraminer.  This was served with a dangerously delicious chocolate brownie topped with a raspberry.  Because the Colchagua Valley is so dry, the grapes aren’t affected by botrytis, so the wine has pure fruit flavours of lychee and mango.  Johnny stressed that it’s not just for dessert, but could be drunk for breakfast on Saturday with foie gras (I like his style!) or with blue cheese.

CS2

As I think you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening tasting the wines of Casa Silva. Any qualms I had about going it alone quickly disappeared, because everyone is so friendly and enthusiastic and just wants to talk about the wine.  Johnny was an extremely entertaining but informative host.  I will be left with the vision of him walking around a vineyard shouting at the grapes to ask “are you ready to come on this journey?”.  He certainly proved that Chile can deliver way more than boring Sauvignon Blanc.

Thanks as always to Paula for organising a wonderful evening. I’m looking forward to joining you next week for sherry and tapas!

From Burgundy to Bordeaux

Last night we attended a Lay & Wheeler tasting of wines from Domaine de Montille, Côte de Beaune and Château Langoa-Barton, St-Julien.

On arriving at the Manchester Malmaison, it was great to see so many friendly faces: the owner of our local wine school, our WSET level 3 tutor, a classmate from the course, plus the manager of our local Majestic on pouring duty.

We were served a glass of Chassagne-Montrachet to sip while waiting for the tasting proper to start.  It had a delicious hazelnutty flavour and was a real treat to begin with.

Proceedings then commenced with a tasting of 5 Burgundies, all from Domaine de Montille’s 2006 vintage.  De Montille’s domain has expanded from Volnay to include vineyards in Pommard, Beaune, Corton and Vosne-Romanée.  As Pinot Noir is my favourite grape, but (due to financial constraints) I normally stick to New World examples, I was very excited about having the opportunity to taste such a variety of Burgundy.

First up was Beaune 1er Cr Les Sizies.  This was light with a pleasant flavour of red cherries, but I found it disappointingly light.

Next was Volnay 1er Cru Les Mitans.  While still extremely light, it was more complex, with savoury notes.

Volnay 1er Cru Les Taillepieds followed.  I enjoyed this one a lot more than the first two: it was another savoury-tasting example, with real elegance and smoothness.  I liked the story of this wine’s name – the grapes are grown on one of the steepest slopes in Volnay, where there is a risk of pruning one’s feet (taille-pieds) when working the vineyard.

At this stage, we were chatting with our tasting companions about how we prefer New World Pinots, giving examples from New Zealand and Chile.  Call me a philistine, but I like my Pinot to have a bit more power than these.  I want to be transported to a field of strawberries and flowers, à la Drops of God. Things did look up as we moved on to wines 4 and 5.

Drops of God

Number 4 was Pommard 1er Cru Les Rugiens.  This was beautiful: a smooth balance of cherry-laden fruit with savoury notes.  This was our favourite wine of the night.

The last Burgundy was Corton Clos du Roi Grand Cru.  This was quite different in style: less smooth, but more punchy with a powerful nose and a mouthful of mushroomy cherries.  It had more acid and tannin than number 4.

It was time to travel to Bordeaux for a vertical tasting of five vintages of Château Langoa-Barton, St Julien.  I have to be honest; I’m not a claret fan.  However, when at tastings I always keep an open mind and palate, so I was curious to taste the wines and see what happened.

Chateau Langoa-Barton

We started with the 2008 and weren’t keen.  It was very light and rather astringent.  My tasting note includes the words cough syrup and paint stripper, but remember that I’m not a Bordeaux fan and I was probably being harsh.  The wine may need longer in the bottle to mellow a bit.

The next wine was the 2005 and was much better: fruity and elegant.

We moved on to the 2000, which had an “earthy” (ie farmyardy) nose.  On the palate, it combined cherry and strawberry flavours with savoury notes, so was much more drinkable.

The 1998 was also somewhat earthy, this time with cedar and eucalyptus flavours.

The last wine of the night was the 1996, which also had the ever-present farmyard aroma.  In the mouth it was tannic and acidic with savoury/gamey flavours.

We took advantage of knowing one of the guys in charge of the bottles to snaffle another taste of the Pommard and the Corton.  I don’t know whether it was the pleasing contrast to the Bordeaux, or the wines had been taking a breather while we were busy in Bordeaux, but they seemed to have really opened up and be bursting with strawberries.  I was getting closer to my “Drops of God” moment.

DoG

To sum up, maybe I’m unsophisticated, but I certainly lack the resources to afford premier cru Burgundy on a regular basis.  Accordingly, I propose to stick with my favourite New World Pinot Noirs until I develop some sophistication and/or win the lottery.  As far as Bordeaux is concerned, I do wonder if I’m missing something, as I just don’t seem to feel the attraction, but I will persevere, as I hate to miss out.

Wish me luck as you serve me Tokaji

MWWC

There is a prize for the most painful pun, right?  As our esteemed “goodwill ambassador” the drunken “cyclist” so eloquently expressed it in his reminder post, I am finding this prompt difficult, but my butt is now in gear (said in my best American accent).  Thanks to last month’s winner, the “sweet” sommelier (a misnomer if ever I heard one, she’s clearly an evil genius) for setting such a fiendishly difficult challenge this month.

What’s the biggest stroke of luck you’ve ever had?  For me, it would have to be meeting my husband (aaahhhhhhhh).  After years of Bridget Jones-style disastrous dating of commitment-phobic public schoolboys (the English, posh, emotionally damaged kind), big knickers and drinking bad Chardonnay, I finally met a man prepared to marry me.  The lucky part?  My sparsely-filled social diary made the prospect of a work night out with a local firm of accountants sound appealing and my (Technical Architect) now-husband was attracted by a text from his accountant friend that asked “do u want 2 meet 10 female solicitors?”.  (Note to any American readers, in England a solicitor means a kind of lawyer.  I fear that it might mean something different in the States, but don’t be alarmed.)

Wine was consumed that evening, but none of it good.  However, as my husband has for a number of years now been my faithful companion on our tour of Planet Vino, I don’t think that mission would have got off the ground without him.

Thande

As I write this, I particularly need good luck.  After spending the last 20 years working in the legal profession, I have an interview to become a wine advisor at a highly-respected local independent wine shop.  After getting to my age without racking up any experience in the wine business, I’ve taken the leap of faith to start applying for wine-related roles, but will I find anyone prepared to take the similar leap required to offer me a job?

Perhaps I should have thrown myself into celebrating St Patrick’s Day: drunk green Guinness, kissed a shamrock and rubbed an Irishman (that is good luck??) but I was too busy marking essays on the English Legal System (aided by Chardonnay, now the good stuff; I have grown in some ways).

I think that the biggest stroke of wine-related luck that I’ve ever heard of is the Master of Wine (Bob Campbell MW) who adopted a cat (Mr Wu) who could detect cork taint.  How lucky is that?  The only cat in the world who can detect cork taint adopted by a Master of Wine?  Or can all cats detect cork taint, but only demonstrate this talent (by grunting, apparently) when exposed to large numbers of wine samples, some of which by the law of averages will be tainted?  I’m rambling; clearly a sign of nerves about my upcoming interview.

Oh, I’ve just remember another stroke of alcohol-related luck I once had.  I won a bottle of Pomagne on a Pomagne Wheel at a school fete (yes, that does sound inappropriate to me too, now I’ve put it on paper).  This memory has prompted 2 questions: 1) can you even get Pomagne any more? 2) was it a British-specific aberration, or did its popularity escape off our island?  In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, Pomagne was a sparkling pear cider-type drink that was marketed in the 1970s as “champagne cider” until nos amis at Bollinger took the makers to court to stop them using that name.  I once spent the early part of a wedding reception wondering why I wasn’t remotely feeling the effect of the fizz, until I checked the bottle to discover that it was low-alcohol Pomagne.  Not my luckiest moment, but things are looking up.

Pomagne_print_advertisement_1918

Sun, sand and old vines

On Wednesday evening we attended a tasting of Plaimont wines, organised by Portland Wine, held at Gastronomy in Hale and presented by Xavier Didelon.

M. Didelon opened with an introduction to Plaimont’s wines, which represent a number of appellations, including Côtes de Gascogne, St Mont and Pacherenc-du-Vic-Bilh (please don’t ask me to pronounce the last one).

Our tasting started with a Colombard.  Xavier explained that the vineyards are in Armagnac country, so Colombard is grown both for brandy and for wine.  He described this wine as “like Sauvignon Blanc, but more so”.  I saw (tasted) exactly what he meant: the wine has a pronounced aroma of gooseberry and perhaps rhubarb, with a powerful flavour to match.  It’s an intensely fruity wine, if you like that kind of thing.  I preferred it when accompanied by the prawn, salmon and avocado canapés, which I thought smoothed out the wine’s rough edges.

The next wine was “Le Faite Blanc”, a blend of gros and petit manseng.  This was less fruity and had a hint of creaminess from barrel-ageing.  I was just thinking that this would go well with cheese, when we were served croustades filled with feta and baby broad beans flavoured with lemon.  This was a really good match.

We then moved onto the reds with a Merlot/Tannat blend.  I wrote “FRUIT BOMB” in block capitals for this one.  That’s not a criticism: it’s a powerfully fruity (blackcurrant/raspberry/plum) wine.  I thought that the inclusion of some Tannat made it more interesting than some of the cheap and cheerfully fruity Merlots available.  This one was served with paprika chicken. 

L’Empreinte, a blend of Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, followed.  This was very deeply-coloured, with blackcurrant and blueberry, but also savoury, gamey notes.  Appropriately, this was served with venison crostini.

Next up was the Château de Sabazan, another Tannat/Cabernet Sauvignon blend.  This was served slightly cool, which complemented the wine’s elegance.  It had flavours of blueberry, black cherry and white pepper, plus hints of vanilla from oak ageing.  It was served with soft cheese and beetroot canapés and was our favourite wine of the night.  

Xavier explained that the sandy soil of the Château de Sabazan vineyard enabled the vines to survive the phylloxera epidemic, so they still have some vines that date back to Napoleon’s time.  I found this particularly interesting, as I’m currently reading “Phylloxera: How Wine was Saved for the World” by Christy Campbell, which I recommend to any other wine history-loving anoraks.

Our tasting concluded with Pacherenc St Albert, a sweet (NOT dessert!) wine made from a blend of gros and petit manseng.  The sweetness comes not from botrytis, but from passerillage, leaving the grapes on the vine until the middle of November so that they raisin.  Xavier explained that 15 November is the fête St Albert, hence the name.  We drank it with canapés filled with blue cheese, pear and walnut, which I thought was a perfect way to end the evening.  However, Xavier explained why he does not describe this as a dessert wine – he recommends it served well-chilled as an aperitif.  I’ve never tried sweet wine as an aperitif, but it’s an interesting idea and I’m keen to try it.  I imagine it as a modern spin on the sweet sherry before lunch tradition much-loved by my mum’s family.

So, another enjoyable evening with Paula from Portland Wines, Xavier Didelon of Plaimont and our fellow tasters.   Portland’s tastings are deservedly popular and unfortunately I think I’ve missed out on tickets for the next one (Casa de Silva).  However, I’m really looking forward to the sherry and tapas tasting on 2 April.

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.

Decanter3

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.

Decanter1

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.

Decanter2

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?

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”.