Sunday, 25 December 2011

Wood You Believe It?

It doesn’t take much to make me want to open a good bottle of wine, but reminiscing about great bottles past is a sure fire way to make me grab a corkscrew and head down to the cellar. Mention of the bottle of 1992 Yalumba Octavius Shiraz that returned with me from Australia (see “An Old Flame” 05/12/11) started me thinking that it was about time that I tried a bottle from the case of the 1996 vintage I bought ten or twelve years ago. Is it a bit weird to buy a case of wine on the basis of its reputation and then not to try a bottle for twelve years? You can at least start to see why I have a problem with bottles falling off the far side of their maturity plateau.

The Yalumba Octavius Shiraz 1996 (14.5% ABV) was a deep blood red, turning pinker at the rim. It didn’t leave tears, it just coated the glass. Talk about growing old disgracefully, this was a real rock ‘n’ roll wine: if some fruit and oak is good, then the most of both that can be squeezed into a bottle must surely be better. The full, powerful and complex nose saw sweet, ripe fruit matched blow for blow by the sweet vanilla of American oak. Raspberry and blackberry fruit, coffee, a medicinal menthol/eucalyptus edge (it reminded me of Vicks Cough Syrup) balanced by a faintly meaty or leathery undertone all swirled around my nostrils. Pretty much every box was ticked in the Barossa Valley Shiraz handbook. There was a tickle of alcohol as you might have expected, but it was in no way overwhelming.

Yalumba, Octavius
Shiraz 1996
After the sweetness suggested by the nose, the palate was dry yet rich and voluptuous. Dark fruits, coffee and Vicks reappeared, as did bags of soft sweet oak, all held in check by plenty of firm but refined tannins. There was so much of everything that this was wine2. The drying tannins, the gentle warmth of alcohol and a salty, mineral core combined with the moderate acidity and tamed the fruit and oak. All of the flavours lingered and melded throughout the long finish. 

The amount of oak was hardly surprising given this wine's 26 months in American oak hogsheads (100 litre barrels); the surprise was that it was not only balanced and well structured but really rather splendid. This easily has another ten years or more of life left in it and, although it is not my usually preferred style of wine, I do look forward to drinking the rest of the case in the coming years.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Let It Snow

I’ve wanted to try to make this for a while, and what better time to have a go at Oeufs á la Neige (“Snow Eggs”) than on Christmas Eve? This dish of poached quenelles of meringue coated with caramel and floating on crème Anglaise is a favourite of my brother, and anything involving custard always wins my vote. Although my quenelle-forming skills may have been a little rusty, I have to say that I’m rather pleased with how it turned out. And hey, the proof of the pudding and all that! We could have drunk a Sauternes, a Tokaji or even a Cognac or a Grappa with it, but I have to admit that we enjoyed it on its own in anticipation of the overindulgence that is so typical of the following day.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Flip Side Of The Coin

I know it’s hard to believe, but this job isn’t always as glamorous as my writings would have you think. It’s not all plain sailing, you know. Only my dedication to the public service that is this blog enables me to cope with the good, the bad and the ugly faces of the wine world with such impunity. In this instance, it was il brutto and il cattivo that I suffered on your behalf, although I probably should have known better from the outset.

I’m in no way an ingrate, and I heartily appreciate the kindness and the generosity of whoever brought me this bottle as I’m certain that it was given in good faith. That being said, the contents did make me question the statements I have just made in the previous sentence.

As I’ve said, I really should have known better. Any wine which features on its label the phrase “Selección 15% Especial” as its most extollable virtue is quite likely to rub me up the wrong way. If, as I fear it does for many, quantity does indeed equal quality, I’d far prefer to drink two bottles of Mosel Riesling Kabinett at 7.5% to ingest the same 112.5ml of alcohol. The experience would be both far more agreeable and would leave me with far less of a hangover. So what was this incredible intoxicant, I hear you cry? Called simply El Bombero (2010, 15% ABV), this straight Garnacha from Cariñena in north-eastern Spain was, I’m certain, as flammable as its name implied (El Bombero translates as "the fireman").

Bodegas San Valero,
El Bombero 2010
The brightest and most ludicrously purple wine I have ever seen (the result of carbonic maceration, surely?), the nose fortunately gave little away. Just a suggestion of darks fruits and graphite were discernable, but I’m sure I noticed a faint, acetic twang lingering worryingly underneath. Where to begin with the palate? Sweet, fiery alcohol assaulted my tastebuds initially, followed by a dull pounding from soft yet slightly bitter tannins. The berry fruit wrestled to poke its head from under the blanket of sweet alcohol and bitterish tannins, and it was difficult to tell if some or all of the wine had been exposed to oak of any sort for any length of time. The low acidity and modest levels of tannin again suggested carbonic maceration. The finish overstayed its welcome, flavoured as it was with the sweet heat of the alcohol and the piquancy of burning plastic.

Overall, the sweetness of the alcohol swamped whatever character this wine may have had, although without all of that alcohol I’m not sure what else it might have had going for it. I’ve subsequently determined El Bombero to be a Laithwaite’s wine and rather too many of the reviews posted on its website tend to agree with my less than complimentary verdict. I can’t help but worry about the quality and style of future wines produced for the UK market if this is in any way indicative of what Joe Public buys and enjoys. Do we need a bottle of wine at an everyday price point that contains almost twelve units of alcohol?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Where There's Smoke

Now that I’m all too close to being forty years old, I think I’ve reached the right point in my life to start smoking. To hell with the consequences.

I’ve jerry-rigged a hot smoker and, as you can see, some salmon was the first thing to feel the heat. My initial attempt was nicely cooked but only very lightly smoked, definitely more of a match for a Riesling Kabinett than a foil for an Islay malt (this is a wine blog, after all). Next time, I’ll try to lower the temperature and lengthen the smoking time.

Ultimately, I’d love to try cold smoking, but it’s baby steps and handy fire extinguishers for the time being.

Friday, 2 December 2011

An Old Flame

Common wisdom states that you should never return to a past love, and so it was with a degree of trepidation that I opened a bottle of wine which I had tasted (and loved) only once before, almost twelve years ago to the day.

It all began with a couple of interesting bottles I bought as a gift for my old man whilst I was in Australia, around the end of 1997. One was a 1992 Yalumba Octavius III Shiraz and the other was a 1986 Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon by Seppelt. Both were around £30 or AU$60, but Australian wine was expensive in Australia then and even well known brands cost around 25-30% more than they did back in the UK.

As the older of the two, it was the Dorrien that we tried first, on my birthday as it so happened, way back in 1998. I was nominally studying for my WSET Advanced Certificate at the time, but the sum total of my academic effort had been to write tasting notes about the occasional great, good or interesting bottle I opened. This was one such bottle, hence my accuracy with the tasting date.

To cut an overly long story short, it was a fantastic wine and I actively sought out a UK stockist so that I could buy some more. Walter S. Siegel Limited, then the importer of the Seppelt wines into England, had a few cases of the 1993 and 1994 vintages of Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon still available, and, before I snapped it all up at the crazy price of £12 per bottle, they very kindly sent me a bottle of the 1993 and a bottle of its sibling 1994 Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon as samples. The 1993 Dorrien was, and still is, one of my favourite Australian wines, but the Drumborg also left a lasting impression.

I don’t know why I never bought any of the Drumborg, although I suspect it was because I had spent up on the Dorrien after purchasing everything Siegel had left. About that time, the Seppelt agency passed to Matthew Clark and, in 1999, I purchased several cases of the 1996 Dorrien at the even more ludicrous price of just £10 per bottle, receiving with them a mixed half case of samples for my trouble. Three were everyday Seppelt wines that I’m sure were perfectly pleasant but which passed without note; one was a 1996 Dorrien that was tried quite promptly to get a handle on the latest vintage of my new favourite; one was a 1996 Great Northern Shiraz (something of a legendary bottle of Australian wine and so I held onto it, eventually enjoying it greatly a year or two ago) and the final bottle was another 1994 Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon.

Having been so enchanted by my previous bottle, despite its youth, I decided to cellar this second one and save it for a rainy day. As is so often the case, I never really got round to opening this second Drumborg, but after losing too many bottles recently to the ravages of time, I’m now making a concerted effort to drink up anything that might be passing its peak of maturity.

Seppelt, Drumborg
Cabernet Sauvignon 1994
My notes from 1999 describe the deep purple 1994 Seppelt Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon (13% ABV) as having leafy, tobacco, woody and earthy fragrances along with berry fruit and more exotic aromas of mint, eucalyptus and spice. The palate had similarly mint and tobacco infused berry fruit, with earthy notes and fine but firm tannins. I noted a beautiful, cool climate elegance and a very long finish, but also an austerity that needed time to soften.

Skip twelve years and, whilst still an imposingly deep ruby, the brick-tinged hue of the rim suggested maturity. An unmistakable Cabernet Sauvignon nose: dusty cassis fruit laced with herbaceous, green pepper notes that became more celery leaf in character with air. A gentle whiff of oak rounded things off.

Smooth and mellow, bright blackcurrant and bramble fruit merged with delicate oak spice and plummy, cedary flavours. The slightly firm acidity, an indication that the wine might just have been starting to dry out, and the fine-grained, chalky tannins provided a harmonious and elegant frame for the fruit. The finish was still long and sophisticated.

Seppelt pioneered Drumborg as a grape growing region in 1964 when it planted its Drumborg vineyard near Portland in Southern Victoria. Facing the Great Southern Ocean, the area’s southerly latitude, together with icy winds that blow up from the Antarctic, make Drumborg an extremely cool climate region and result in small harvests, often occurring as late as mid May. So marginal is the region that the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was not bottled every year, only when the quality of the grapes warranted.

A prolonged period of terrible management of the Seppelt brand by the then owners Foster's meant that the difficult climate was a perfect excuse to re-allocate the resource of the this vineyard. The last vintage of Drumborg single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was 1998; regrettably the old vines were then grafted to Riesling. The shame of the matter is that a degree of sense is now returning to Australian wine producers, and elegant, cool climate red wines of 12% ABV are currently their holy grail. The Drumborg Riesling is supposed to be very good, but I’m still mourning what has been lost.

The Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon suffered similarly from misguided management at this time, and was deleted from the Seppelt portfolio as a single vineyard bottling. What was once an iconic Australian wine, spoken of in the same breath as the finest wines from Penfolds, Henschke et al, sadly saw its last vintage in 1999. Its fruit is now used elsewhere, uncredited in nondescript blends.

I love both the Drumborg and the Dorrien dearly, but, as with whiskies from long-closed Scottish distilleries, I’m torn between a desire to drink and enjoy my remaining bottles, as is their raison d’être, or to respectfully hold onto them as the museum pieces they have now unfortunately become.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Q & A

Why don’t we drink more Alsatian Pinot Noir? I have no idea, it's great.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Day Today

Although today began pretty much like any other day, a fortuitous visit to Majestic on my way home from work for a couple of alarmingly premature Christmas presents jogged my memory about the significance of the date.

Any ideas? I’ll give you a clue. Today was the third Thursday in November.

Still nothing? Well, I was looking for a simple and honest bottle of red to enjoy with a ragu of mushrooms and polenta. The northern/central Italian food had me thinking about Dolcetto, Barbera or Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, which are all old favourites, but after a long day I was having trouble working up much enthusiasm about any of them.

Wandering round the shop, I was waiting either for inspiration to strike or for closing time to catch up with me so that I had an excuse for an impulse buy. Over by the till, I chose the gifts I wanted and began a final circumambulation of the stacks. I’d ruled out a Provençal rosé and an Alsatian Pinot Noir, and I was heading back to the Italian section when my eyes fell upon the bottle that I just couldn’t walk past.

As I’m sure you’ve all guessed by now, the third Thursday in November is Beaujolais Nouveau day and I’m happy to admit to having a soft spot for a good Gamay. The bottle I spotted was from the ever dependable Georges Dubœuf and it was a wine I knew well from my on-trade days. It also happened to tick all of the boxes: simple, honest and easy to drink. And only £6.99.

Georges Dubœuf,
Beaujolais Nouveau 2011
There’s not much I can say about the 2011 Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau that is likely to surprise you. It was a vibrant violet-tinged ruby colour, as youthful looking as grape juice. The nose wasn’t complex, but it had lovely dusky, blackcurrant fruit and floral aromas, it was slightly smokey and had a whiff of oil paint that wasn’t at all unpleasant. The palate had light, very fine tannins, fresh acidity and the same blackcurrant and violet notes that carried through from the nose. The finish wasn’t long, but it was such an effortlessly easy wine that this didn’t matter at all.

In many ways it was a real blast from the past, an almost forgotten European style: “only”12.5% ABV, no oak, delicate extraction, zippy acidity and an overall lightness that many people would do well to emulate. I know that Beaujolais Nouveau's reputation, not entirely undeservedly, has taken something of a pounding over the last twenty or so years and that sales are generally plummeting, but when it's done right it can hold its own with any similarly priced wine. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would!

Monday, 31 October 2011

A Moan And A Wine

I always try my best to support tastings up here in the north west, even if I have to pay for a ticket so to do! A recent, and rather high profile, event caught my eye and I thought that I should pop along to see what it was all about. This was the second in a series of three tastings hosted by the Three Wine Men: Oz Clarke, Tim Atkin MW and Olly Smith, all of whom are perfectly charming and frighteningly knowledgeable.

After perusing the online catalogue from September’s London event, it seemed that a little organisation was called for. With 587 examples on offer from 51 exhibitors, it would have been easy to spend a couple of days tasting my way through them. A list of the tables and the wines that I wanted to make a beeline for hopefully meant that I wouldn’t miss anything exciting in Manchester.

Saturday duly rolled around, I wound my way to the Museum of Science and Industry and I bought my ticket. It would be something of an understatement to say I was a bit disappointed when I opened the Manchester brochure to see only 284 wines listed from 26 exhibitors. Although a reasonable showing by anyone’s standards, nigh on all of the more esoteric and higher quality wines, not to mention a significant number of exhibitors, from the London show were all absent.

As I’ve said, I’m always happy to support any of the all too infrequent tastings that take place in Manchester, but I can’t help feeling that it was misleading and unfair to advertise this as the same event as the two London versions, to charge the same price for tickets and yet to offer only half the number of wines and exhibitors. Was it a lack of space at the Manchester venue or are London wine merchants simply not bothered about the fifty million or so people who live outside the capital who might like to try, and who might want to buy, their wines? Or are they just so London-centric in their focus that the rest of the country doesn’t even register on their radars? Maybe I should move to Hong Kong…

I hoped to be writing about thirty or forty thrilling and new (to me) wines that I had had the chance to try, but absenteeism severely whittled this number down. Fortunately, I had the chance to catch up with a few people I hadn’t seen for quite a while, so the afternoon wasn’t a total write off. Of the wines I did try, there were some great new finds and some welcome old friends, plus a couple of really fine beers that impressed me so much I bought some there and then.

Dönnhoff, Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl
Riesling Kabinett 2009
The best way to start any tasting is with a page full of German Rieslings, so naturally my first stop was the Tanners table. Seven Rieslings in a kaleidoscope of styles were an ideal way to fire up my tastebuds. From a toasty, slatey, bone dry 2008 Bürklin-Wolf Wachenheimer Trocken, via a lovely dryish, white fruit and citrussy 2009 Feinherb (the new name for Halbtrocken) by Weiser-Künstler that just made me smile, to a surprisingly youthful 1998 Hochheimer Kirchenstück Auslese from Domdechant Werner with its honeyed nose and its citrus and spice, stewed apple palate. How can anyone not like this grape? It’s an always too rare pleasure to taste a genuine Piesporter (Einzellage, never Grosslage), and Kurt Hain’s 2007 Goldtröpfchen Kabinett was a grapefruit scented, off dry gem that made the oceans of filth that share its name even more lamentable. The outright star for me was Dönnhoff’s 2009 Kreuznacher Krötenpfuhl Kabinett which was restrained and structured, just off dry, with beautiful green apple fruit, complex minerality, excellent acidity and a long, long finish. Brilliant and food friendly, only 8.5% ABV and just £15.

Marqués De Murrieta, Capellanía Rioja
Blanco Reserva 2006 (right) and Castillo Ygay,
Rioja Gran Reserva Especial 2004 (left)
Conveniently, the table next door was that of Marqués De Murrieta, one of my favourite Rioja producers, which meant that I didn’t even have to walk very far for my next set of treats. An unexpected and interesting 2010 Albariño (13% ABV) from Murrieta’s Pazo De Barrantes estate in Galicia kicked things off. Full and rich but fresh, lemon and grapefruit citrus was countered by a floral and white fruit character with whiff of peppery spice on the top. This was a lovely precursor to my wine of the day, Murrieta’s own 2006 Capellanía Blanco Reserva (13.5% ABV), a 100% Viura wine that filled me with hope for white Rioja generally. Matured for 15 months in new French oak barriques, this was bone dry, just a touch oxidised (in a good way), citrussy yet creamily textured and with a long, lemon and vanilla finish. At a time when so many white Riojas are being dumbed down with Chardonnay or are eschewing lengthy oak ageing, this was a fantastic wine that I will be actively seeking out.

The reds on show were more of a mixed bag for me. A 2005 Marqués De Murrieta Rioja Tinto Reserva (14% ABV) had fine tannins, bright strawberry and red berry fruit with a toasty edge, but it just lacked a little soul. Time might be what it needs. The 2004 Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial (14% ABV) was also still a baby, showing rich berry fruit and plenty of savoury oak influence. Complex, balanced and well structured, definitely an iron fist in a velvet glove; there will be plenty more to come from this wine. Buy it now, drink it in a decade or two.

Yalumba, The Virgilius
Viognier 2008
Yalumba is a producer that stands out for several reasons, one of the most commendable of which is their long standing commitment to the left field Viognier instead of to the ubiquitous Chardonnay. Their 2010 Eden Valley Viognier (13.5% ABV) had a huge jasmine and ginger scented nose which led into a dry and elegant apricot and ginger palate. Not at all blousey, the alcohol was held firmly in check and the creaminess imparted by the oak aged portion was balanced by fresh acidity. Its big brother, the 2008 The Virgilius (14% ABV), had a less obvious nose and was less flamboyant overall, concentrating on the savoury and spicy aspects over the floral and white fruit. Toasty, minerally and multi-faceted, gingery spice was more the focus than apricot fruit. A great and a great value wine, although this vintage is reaching the end of its useful life, enjoy it now with food.

Innis & Gunn: Blonde, Original
and Rum Cask (left to right)
The one table I definitely wanted to visit was that of brewer Innis & Gunn. They began by brewing beer to season barrels for a William Grant ale cask conditioned whisky, but the resulting beer was too good to throw away. I knew of their oak aged beers, but I had never had the chance to try them. I wasn’t let down.

The Original (6.6% ABV) was mellow, complex and had a great depth of flavour after its 77 day maturation period. It had a sweet toffee and vanilla oak character that countered the fruity, gently bitter hoppy notes in a very easy to drink fashion. The dark Rum Cask bottling (7.4% ABV) was richer, sweeter and softer than the Original, with a sprinkle of Christmas spice from the navy rum casks. The Blonde (6.0% ABV) was the lightest and freshest of the three regular bottlings, crisp and hoppy with a delicate vanilla character.

Innis & Gunn, Highland Cask
Limited Edition
These three were all very good, but the two limited editions were the ones that well and truly took my fancy. The slightly mysterious Triple Matured beer (7.2% ABV) was another darker offering, with delicious treacle toffee flavours and a dusting of bitter cocoa. The Highland Cask (7.1% ABV) was my favourite, having been finished in casks used to mature an 18 year old Highland single malt. It had a firm, warming backbone and was a touch drier the other bottlings, the definite spirity, fruity and smokey/oaky character I assume came from the whisky. The Original, the Rum Cask and the Blonde are all widely available, but I haven’t managed to find the limited editions anywhere yet.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Marchi Club

I played hookey on Tuesday to attend Decanter’s Great Winemakers of Italy tasting in London. I suspect that the Istituto Del Vino Italiano Di Qualità Grandi Marchi is little more than a good excuse for many of the great and good of Italian wine to get together, pat themselves on their backs and come up with new ways of inflating their prices, but if it means more tastings of this calibre then I suppose that I can’t complain too much.

Nineteen producers, representing twelve of Italy’s twenty regions, each showed four wines – a concise overview of all that they are. And Grandi Marchi (Grandes Marques) isn’t the overstatement you might at first believe it to be, with the likes of Angelo Gaja, Piero Antinori, Priscilla Incisa Della Rochetta, Jacopo Biondi Santi et al all in attendance and touting their wares.

Gaja, Sperss
Langhe Nebbiolo 1999
With only a few exceptions, such as Tenuta San Guido (who only really produce one wine plus three or four others which pay the bills), very few producers showed their top wines, although several wheeled out an older vintage or two to try. Most surprisingly, this was true of Gaja where a 1999 Sperss was available to all. Although only mid-table (albeit towards the higher end) in the Gaja portfolio, most other producers would kill to have this wine in their range and it was a rare treat to taste an older example. Still youthful, archetypal Nebbiolo red fruit shone through the austere structure. Maturing certainly, but ageing slowly; modern in style but undeniably aristocratic (14% ABV).

Other standouts included:

Ca’ Del Bosco,
Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta NV
Ca’ Del Bosco: as much as I enjoyed the Dosage Zéro 2006 (bone dry, toasty and citrussy but crying out for food, 12.5% ABV) and the Cuvée Anna Maria Clementi 2003 (rich, profoundly complex and flawlessly textured, 12.5% ABV), it was the non vintage Cuvée Prestige Franciacorta (12.5% ABV) that once again captured my heart. Fresh, with a wonderful white fruit and white flower character and a hint of vanilla, truly a magical wine that always makes me smile. One of the best wines I’ve tried in a long time was their still Chardonnay 2007 (13.5% ABV); so good was it that it is difficult to describe adequately. Refined and poised, with seams of beautifully elegant lemon fruit, mineral and gentle savoury oak flavours that lasted and lasted.

Argiolas, Is Argiolas
Vermentino Di Sardegna 2010
Argiolas: the strangely named Is Argiolas 2010 (14% ABV), a straight Vermentino, was not quite bone dry, with ripe white fruit, blossom notes and firm acidity rounded off with a long, white pepper and sweet spice finish.

Mastroberardino: the Radici Taurasi Riserva 1999 (13.5% ABV) had a garnet hue, indicating its maturity, and tertiary aromas of cherry/berry fruit, tobacco and balsamic notes. The palate had soft red fruit and a hint of spice, wrapped around a well defined frame. Great now, but will definitely keep.

Rivera, Il Falcone
Castel Del Monte Riserva 2006
Rivera: from the Castel Del Monte D.O.C., with its enigmatic octagonal 13th century castle, I was particularly impressed by two vintages of Rivera’s Il Falcone Riserva. Both were traditional blends of 70% Nero Di Troia and 30% Montepulciano to soften. The 2006 (13.5% ABV) showed ripe, savoury, dark fruit, tobacco spice and a minerally core – youthful, a touch austere and very good. The 1999 (13.5% ABV) had similar characteristics and had certainly mellowed with age but still had plenty of life left in it. Both needed food and both were very good.

Donnafugata, Ben Ryé
Passito Di Pantelleria 2006
Donnafugata: two vintages of its outsanding Ben Ryé Passito Di Pantelleria were the big hitters on this table. The 2009 (14.5% ABV), to be released en primeur in the next week or so, was a bright golden amber colour, with fresh juicy apricot fruit on the nose and palate. Excellently judged acidity meant that it was not at all too sweet. The 2006 (14.5% ABV), poured from a magnum, was a slightly deeper shade of amber and was noticeably more viscous than the 2009. Its nose had more of a toffee aspect and its fruit was a little more peach than apricot. The palate, too, showed a greater degree of development, being less vibrant yet more expressive. Both had very long finishes and beautiful balance.

Tenuta San Guido,
Sassicaia 2004
Tenuta San Guido: I’m sure that there is nothing I can say about any vintage of Sassicaia that hasn’t already been said. The 2004 (13.5% ABV) certainly lived up to expectations. It may be Bordeaux inspired, but its heart is Italian. Rich Cabernet fruit, integrated and judicious oak and a deceptively supple structure led into a long, long finish. Not cheap, but buy it now before the Asian market realises what a bargain it is compared to most of the Bordeaux currently heading east…

Thursday, 1 September 2011

News Flash

We take you now to Kermit the frog with another fast breaking news story…

With something approaching the excitement that a muppet scoop engendered in me as a child, I’ve found a source for the Verhaeghe brothers’ Château du Cèdre Cahors (see "A Couple Of Malbecs" 05/07/11). Although we have only spoken on the 'phone and via email, James Bercovici at The Big Red Wine Company is a most pleasant and knowledgeable chap who specialises in Rhône wines, amongst others, and who also sells three Château du Cèdre reds.

Château du Cèdre,
Le Cèdre
As the Verhaeghes still believe in rewarding those who buy their wines in good faith, their wines are particularly good value when purchased en primeur, although they are also available to buy at retail prices should you so wish. Needless to say, a healthy chunk of my wine allowance has just been exchanged for the especially fine 2009 and 2010 vintages of the Le Cèdre cuvée. The 2009 should be delivered after Christmas, the 2010 probably around the same time in 2013.

As with their blue chip cousins from nearby Bordeaux, James’ tastings, both this year and last, of barrel samples and of recently bottled samples have confirmed the spectacular quality of this pair of vintages in that part of the world. The 2009s are opulent, rich and well structured whereas the 2010s are equally complex but a little taughter and more linear, built for the longer haul. Both vintages will need 5 years or so to compose themselves and both vintages should have 20 to 30 years of life in them. At what will work out to be less than £24 per bottle when fully paid for, I can’t help but wonder (or should I say lament?) where else you can pick up such well made wines from such well established vineyards at such reasonable prices.

Answers to that question will warrant a news flash of their own.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

A Knight To Forget

Every year I think about buying a couple of cases of Bordeaux en primeur, but every year I always seem to have either just bought a case or two of something interesting or I find that I’ve just allocated my next few months’ wine allowance to several bottles of something I just can’t live without. And there’s always the knowledge that once the initial scuffle between the châteaux to out-hype and out-price each other has died down, the majority of the wines will remain in the region of their release price until they are bottled, if not for longer. So there really is no rush to buy them…

Then the next vintage rolls around and the same thing happens again. I still have next to no Bordeaux in my cellar, but I do have a whole host of other wines that excite and inspire me every time I think about them.

That being said, I do sometimes take advantage of en primeur offers from other quarters of the wine world, although the first time I did so was the start of a rather steep learning curve. I don’t buy wines to sell for profit, rather my investment is in my future drinking. However expensive the wines that I love are today, the one thing I do know is that I definitely won’t be able to afford (or to find) them in ten years’ time when they are ready to drink.

About eleven years ago, an en primeur offer from Lay & Wheeler fell through my letterbox that was too good to pass up. It contained a selection of northern Rhône wines from the spectacular 1999 vintage by, amongst other producers, the legendary Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné. 1998 had been THE year for Châteauneuf and for the southern Rhône, but I’ve always been more of a fan of the complex purity of the north’s Syrah and 1999 was its year to shine. It didn’t take much more than a single read through of the offer leaflet to persuade me to pick up the phone and order a case of the red Hermitage La Chapelle and a case of its white counterpart the Hermitage Le Chevalier De Stérimberg, both for delivery about eighteen months hence.

The chapel of Saint-Christophe
The Stérimberg was something of an impulse buy, I really like Rhône whites and this seemed a great way to introduce myself to white Hermitage. In fact, the etymology of its name sold it to me. The knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned wounded from the Albigensian crusade and, in 1235, gained the permission of the White Queen of Castille to build the small chapel of Saint-Christophe to establish his hermitage on what is now the hill of Hermitage. Jaboulet purchased the chapel in 1919 and it has inspired the names of their top wines.

Whilst waiting for my wines to arrive, I occasionally browsed the wine literature, the wine press and the still fledgling internet for any tasting notes of what was obviously a pair of fantastic wines, but very little news was forthcoming. When the 1999 northern Rhônes eventually began to hit the market, everyone else’s wines were garnering rave reviews, but mysteriously little was being said about these two icons of their ilk. When I did eventually find some tasting notes, matters became clearer. What I hadn’t known is that although vintages of La Chapelle such as the 1961 and the 1978  are some of the finest wines of the 20th century, Jaboulet was in the middle of a slump during the late nineties which continued until fairly recently. Jaboulet was bought in 2006 by Swiss financier Jacques Frey (owner of Médoc third growth Château La Lagune) and a concerted effort was made to turn things around. (These improvements also happened to coincide with a rebranding of many of its wines and a deliberate doubling of their prices. Cynical? Me?)

Needless to say, all of the tasting notes I read of these wines smacked of disappointment and wasted potential. No-one went so far as to say that the wines were outright shockers, just that they really weren’t what should have been expected from this terroir in this vintage. I think I’d have preferred it if people had actually hated the wines, at least they’d have had strong feelings one way or the other and that has to be better than blanket ambivalence. As Michelangelo said, the ugly can be beautiful, the pretty never.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage
Le Chevalier De Stérimberg 1999
I have not yet tried the La Chapelle – I think I’m just delaying any possible disappointment – but I tried my first bottle of the Chevalier De Stérimberg about three years ago. The cork was fine, but the wine began to darken on pouring and was quite definitely oxidising before my eyes. I’d opened it for a special occasion and foolishly I didn’t have anything else suitable in reserve. I poured as little of it as I could reasonably get away with and moved on to the red as quickly as possible.

I can’t say that I’ve been in any rush to open another bottle, but the common wisdom is that white Hermitage should be drunk within four years or after ten, and neither of us is getting any younger. A Friday night is a great excuse for most things, so why not give the Stérimberg another chance?

Again, the very long cork was in perfect condition, with no signs of anything untoward. The wine was quite a deep yellow gold, almost apricot coloured, but it did darken a little during the course of dinner. The nose had smokey, honeyed, white and stone fruits and a hot-pebble minerality, but definitely showed signs of oxidation/age.

The palate was dry yet rich and full bodied, with a firm, smokey acidity and minerality. White fruit and floral characters completed the ensemble, but all I could focus on was the oxidation/tiredness of a wine that should have just been hitting its peak.

I'm trying very hard to write more effusively and to enthuse in a way that befits this wine's appellation and vintage, but to be honest it really wasn't all that special. Ten bottles of white Hermitage will be heading off on a crusade to auction rather soon.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

A Blanc Expression

An interesting one ce soir, a 2010 old vine Grenache Blanc by Domaine du Clos des Fées (14.5% ABV). I’ve been a big fan of this estate’s reds for ten years or more, but for some reason I never got round to trying its sole white. It always seemed rather pricey, even when Oddbins (R.I.P.) was interesting enough to stock it, and, at €18 from the cellar door, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d feel the same today. €18? For a Grenache Blanc?

Domaine du Clos des Fées
Grenache Blanc Vieilles Vignes 2010
A very pale lemon colour suggested the absence of new oak, although legs that rivalled an aquaduct’s also hinted at what was to come. The nose was gently floral, with a stony and herbaceous garrigue quality, pithy citrus fruit and a peppery warmth from the alcohol. Ripe and rich on the palate with a candied grapefruit character kept fresh by a slightly bitter, pithy/zesty nervosité. As on the nose, the alcohol was a little too prominent for my taste, but it finished very pleasantly and was not at all unbalanced. From the outset, this couldn’t have been anything other than one of those all too easily dismissed, quirky white Southern French oddities, but with grilled chicken on a summer’s evening it all made perfect sense.

Later, when I read the producer’s cheat sheet, things became rather clearer. Although 10% of the cuvée was matured in third fill barriques and was kept on its lees for around eight months, malolactic fermentation was blocked. Had a wine such as this been made elsewhere, I’m sure the temptation would have been to add lashings of new oak and to allow at least a partial malolactic fermentation to occur. Fortunately, Hervé Bizuel is not at all that way inclined and has pulled off the difficult feat of making a complex, interesting and balanced white wine from a relatively uninspiring grape, just a stone’s throw away from the Mediterranean.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Gonna Party Like It’s My Birthday…

Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke
Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel 2003
I need to preface this post by pointing out that it was my birthday, this was not exactly everyday fare! A half bottle of Dönnhoff’s Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel 2003 (8.0% ABV) is a great way to start any evening, and tonight was no exception. A bright mid-lemon colour with a sensuous viscosity, it had aromas of pear syrup, ripe peach and the barest whiff of kerosene. The palate had a grace and poise that belied its richness. Medium bodied and medium sweet, it showed honeyed mirabelle and peach fruit, a firm minerally character and fresh acidity in spite of the vintage. In no way tiring, this had plenty of life left in it. The finish was as plush as the palate, its sweetness fading to emphasise the drying minerality. Delightful and moreish.

Bonneau du Martray
Corton-Charlemagne 1985
Next up was a Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 1985. This is a wine which I was fortunate enough to pick up for a song at auction and which is nothing like the museum piece its vintage (or its label!) might suggest. I’ve tried this on several occasions and I always forget Clive Coates’ advice to decant it. Not so this time, although I was rather nervous about how far in advance to pull the cork. As it was, I double decanted it about half an hour before it was poured, but as we finished the bottle an hour later it had just about opened up completely. A 26 year old white wine! Needing an hour and a half to breathe! This wine never ceases to amaze me!

A deep lemon colour was about the only element of this wine that gave a hint to its age; the lemon and saline, gently toasty nose suggested maturity but showed no signs of tiredness or oxidation. As it opened up, I thought I detected a vegetal nuttiness that reminded me of roasted cauliflower - although I’m quite prepared to accept that this was auto-suggestion, given the cauliflower purée that accompanied the fish! Dry and toasty, faintly waxy lemon-scented fruit gave flesh to the skeleton of firm acidity and salty/oyster shell minerality. There was the touch of toffee that an aged, oaked Chardonnay develops, and maybe it was beginning to dry out a little, but the finish rang as clear and bright as a crystal bell.

Armand Rousseau
Charmes-Chambertin 1999
If these two weren’t enough, the main course accompanied another amazing bottle, a Charmes-Chambertin 1999 from Armand Rousseau (13% ABV). Now twelve, this Grand Cru should have been coming in to its own and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It even looked fabulous: a medium garnet hue with a captivating satin sheen. A soft red fruit and slightly horsey nose also showed floral, orange zest and dusty oak spice notes. Ethereal yet persistent, I could smell it from the glass on the table. Deceptively delicate, cherry and red fruits were balanced by beautifully judged talc-fine tannins, just a whisper of oak spice and no lack of acidity. The finish lasted minutes. Absolutely faultless; the essence of red Burgundy and Pinot Noir and utterly beguiling.

These were wines that exemplified great vineyards and great winemakers, their memory will stay with me for a very long time. As soon as I win the lottery, I plan to drink their like rather more often!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Happiness Is A Warm Grill

It was Independence Day recently, although I had forgotten all about it until I sat down to write this (sorry Heather, I hope you had a good one!). Entirely by coincidence, I had been in an American state of mind the previous weekend, having collected some well-aged short ribs from the world’s greatest butcher . The dilemma I was wrestling with that night was how best to cook these: did I go low and slow or did I slap them on the barbecue and to hell with consequences? In the end, it was a lovely evening, I wanted to try the short ribs, I couldn’t be bothered cooking them for hours and the barbecue won the toss. As you would expect from such a cut, the meat was chewy but not tough and six weeks of hanging had allowed it to develop a beautifully rich, savoury flavour. I loved the taste and the texture and I’m really looking forward to the next batch!

Ravenswood Lodi
Old Vine Zinfandel 2008
Pretty much any combination of fire and meat is all the excuse I need to indulge in my vinous guilty pleasure: Zinfandel. I’ve always had a soft spot for Joel Peterson’s Zinfandels and, even after falling under the wheels of the Constellation juggernaut, Ravenswood still produces a consistent and pretty convincing range of wines.

The barbecued short ribs had me reaching for a handy bottle of Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2008. Deeply coloured, its sweet black and blue fruit nose had a whiff of tar, a dusting of cocoa and a lick of vanilla oak rounding things off. As full bodied as you would expect, pleasingly fresh acidity balanced vanilla and coconutty oak notes and woody spices, juicy blackberry and blueberry fruit and a touch of cherry pie. Tannins gave a blackcurrant bitterness and the alcohol (14.5% ABV) was neatly housed in all of the fruit. A couple more years wouldn’t have hurt, but this was far more harmonious and complex than most £10 Zinfandels and I’m not ashamed to say that I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Couple Of Malbecs

I like Malbec: it’s one of those grapes that, until quite recently, was rarely given the chance to spread its wings and fly solo. I like Argentinian wines: they tend to be more European in style than those from her neighbour across the Andes. A good Argentinian Malbec puts a smile on my face and a steak on my barbecue.

Cateña Malbec 2008
I thought I’d revisit an old favourite, Cateña’s Malbec (13.5% ABV), which, back when it was made solely from Lujan de Cuyo grapes, was one of the best £10 bottles around. Nowadays, Lujan de Cuyo fruit is only around 10% of the blend and its price has inevitably crept up to £13, but it’s still a winner with a steak dinner. Inky dark and purple hued, with sweet, rich black and blue fruits, hints of white pepper and clove spice. Full bodied, judiciously oaked and with soft, grainy tannins, it had a definite balsamic acidity which was a touch overwhelming. It was easy to drink and enjoy but lacked a degree of its former complexity, now being closer in style to the everyday Alamos Malbec than to the top Zapata wines.

Château du Cèdre,
Le Cèdre 1998
I opened the 2008 Cateña by way of a contrast. Two nights earlier I had opened its older cousin: a 1998 Château du Cèdre, Le Cèdre Cahors (13% ABV). Now thirteen, it retained a respectably deep ruby colour whilst sporting the violet highlights of a rebellious teenager. The nose had fleshy black fruit, smoke, gentle oak spices and an intriguing minerally/pencil lead character. Pleasingly firm acidity was balanced by supple blackberry fruit and by deftly judged powdery tannins.

Such is the Verhaeghe brothers’ talent, the use of all new oak simply rounded things off, adding a silky viscosity without swamping the fruit. Smoke and oak spice flavours mingled with a savoury, almost salty, minerality and a lovely floral quality that lasted and lasted. The hugely long, chewy finish was a thing of beauty.

Pascal & Jean-Marc Verhaeghe
The Cateña ticked all the boxes of a good modern Malbec, but the Cahors was an altogether more complex and alluring creation. Unfortunately, I only had one bottle, although I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more.