We’ve often said that sweet wine is not just for Christmas, but it would be churlish to deny that there are many ways in which these wines come into their own during winter time.
You needn’t confine your accompanying food to sweetmeats, of course – a point well made by Janet Wynne Evans in her amazing new resource, Fresh Thoughts on Food for Sauternes and Barsac; but when thinking about what to drink with mince pies, a degree of sugar in the accompanying liquid becomes all but essential.
Finding the perfect mince pie wine is a daunting task, but your Society is keen to help at the time of year when these delicious morsels begin to be deployed more regularly!
Our Food and Wine Matcher offers a number of candidates by price range, of course, but a recent tasting gave us the opportunity to test the compatibility of three classic sweet wines with Lottie Shaw’s ‘Seriously Good’ Mince Pies (the chosen brand of our food buyer and whose pies are available in our Cellar Showroom this Christmas).
Several members of the team tasted the pies alongside a trio of celebrated sweet wines: a Sauternes, a sweet sherry and a Vin Santo.
Wine 1: Sauternes
What: Half bottle of Château Raymond-Lafon, Sauternes 2010 (£13.50)
Where: Bordeaux, France
How: The wine is made from 80% semillon and 20% sauvignon blanc grapes, all affected by noble rot. The grapes are harvested one by one, ensuring only those with the right level of rot are selected, in between three and 10 successive pickings. The wine was then aged for three years in barrel.
Why: This particular Sauternes has been a huge hit with members having earned its stripes in our Wine Champions blind-tasting competition last year. Lusciously sweet but balanced with a seam of freshness, it seemed potentially a worthy foil for the bittersweet acidity of the mincemeat whilst carrying enough opulence to stand up to the pastry. There was, however, only one way to find out.
The verdict: Our tasters were unanimous in their approval of the wine on its own, but, crucially, not its affinity with the pies.
‘A little too clean,’ said one, ‘something didn’t quite work’ another. It was clear that something was getting in the way of what looked on paper a promising union. An older vintage may have been a better bet, as these wines put on weight over many years and gain depth and body that could have fared better with the spiciness of the pies.
Moving swiftly on…
Wine 2: Sweet Sherry
Where: Jerez, Spain
How: Made from the palamino grape, this wine, like all amontillados, started life as a fino sherry but the protective layer of flor yeast was allowed to die off, exposing the wine to the air and imbuing a deeper colour and nuttier flavour. This delicious sweet wine was a rediscovery that came about as Williams & Humbert prepared for its big move to its new bodega. Before transporting their soleras to the new premises the cellarmaster was instructed to blend the different barrels to facilitate transport. However, one particular solera of 27 butts included wine that stood out head and shoulders above the others. It was bottled intact and untouched under the name ‘As You Like It’.
Why: Back in 2012, on this very blog, my colleague Paul Trelford mused on the ‘wow’ factor of this wine with mince pies. A shoo-in. Or so we thought…
The verdict: A wonderful wine and a much better candidate for the job than the Sauternes. David Mitchell, whose recent post on sherry has garnered a lot of interest from members, noted: ‘the wine has some nuttiness which goes well with the mincemeat.’ This was the main feather in As You Like It’s cap versus the previous wine.
Some, however, were less keen on the match. Though an intensely sweet wine, it finishes with a slightly dry appetising tang – no bad thing at all when sipped with cheese, for example, but for some this clashed a little with the sweetness of the pie. Nitpicking perhaps, but this remarkable sherry is perhaps better suited to blue cheese or a fresh-tasting frangipane tart than Lottie Shaw’s treats.
Wine 3: Vin Santo
What: Half bottle of Vin Santo del Chianti Classico, Isole e Olena 2006; currently available in a gift set with cantucci biscuits for £39
Where: Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
How: Made from c60% malvasia del Chianti and 40% trebbiano Toscano (with a tiny smidgen of petit manseng), harvested by hand before being dried on reed trays and pressed. The thick must is added to small barrels containing a layer of the ‘mother’ Vin Santo left over from previous vintages, which starts fermentation. The barrel is sealed and left for eight years before bottling.
Why: We tend to sell this Chianti nectar with cantucci at Christmas as it’s a match made in Italophilie heaven; but the richness and fruitiness of the wine merited its inclusion in this trio to see how it went.
I’m very glad we did.
The verdict: ‘I think it’s a dried fruit thing!’ said one taster, perfectly summing up a nigh-perfect match. The spice, rasiny and cinnamon flavours of the pies demanded something equally fulsome and spice infused, qualities this wine has in spades. The concentration and the spiciness bonded just perfectly, and every single taster voted it the best match of the three.
Do you have a mince pie ‘staple’ wine? Have we been guilty of overlooking a wine that would have triumphed over even the Vin Santo? Do let us know…
You can find more festive matchmaking suggestions on our Practical Tips at Christmas page.
Normally trade tastings in Paris are to be avoided. So often they are overcrowded with dozens if not hundreds of tasters packed into small spaces, pushing and shoving along with scribblers, sommeliers and merchants representing the dozens of small independent Parisian wine shops. But this was no ordinary tasting.
As for Paris, with all that has happened, it was not quite business as usual. The Tuesday felt more like a Sunday with maybe a few more frantic police cars about, and the Eurostar was maybe half full with so many business meetings put on hold or cancelled.
I walked from Pont Saint-Michel to the Avenue Montaigne and was struck by the beauty of the place. It felt good to back.The event itself, possibly a first, reunited a majority of producers from two neighbouring and complementary appellations, Cornas and Saint-Péray.
It was a rare opportunity to taste from practically every producer.
If nothing else it showed the increasing confidence that seems to be there. They are probably not the best-known appellations of the northern Rhône, lagging behind Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, but they make up for that with youthful enthusiasm and obvious talent.
The main town in the area is Valence and its growth has threatened the existence of both these appellations. Indeed Saint-Péray, now more a small town rather than a village, nearly did disappear under the concrete of developers. It took the concerted work of growers, negociants and the local co-op to keep it alive.
It probably explains some of the dynamism that clearly exists here. There is a real pioneering spirit which of course is essential here of all places: this is, after all, not an easy place to grown grapes. The cost of labour involved in these hillside vineyards, with their terracing and dry stone walls, is huge.Cornas
Of the two, Cornas is the better known, and the largest. With recent expansion, Cornas is now slightly larger than Hermitage but with twice as many growers and more of them are involved in making and selling wine. Cornas itself has a real village feel to it with the old buildings huddled around the church, mostly along the Grand Rue. The community is close knit and is mostly involved in wine in some way. The cemetery and war memorial are full of the same names.
Cornas still has the image of an old-fashioned, rustic wine with fearful tannins, a cross maybe between Rhône and Madiran or Cahors. The wines always needed keeping often at least ten years before they had softened enough. These were manly wines to go with manly dishes, invariably the result of a day’s shoot. But why should the wines of Cornas be any less elegant than Hermitage?
The reason is winemaking. It should be remembered that being a vigneron in Cornas was never considered a full-time occupation. Even today, there is often a day job as an electrician or mechanic. So there was never much time for cellar work and wines were left to fend for themselves. Wines were traditionally left on the skins for weeks, and the practice of removing stems was unheard of. Moreover, syrah here ripens well and quite naturally produces a wine with a good deal of tannin. The revolution came in the 1980s and 90s with growers like Alain Voge who were determined to change the style and that perception of rusticity.
Cornas is said to be granite and that is largely true, but in places there is some limestone mixed in, and some clay too, and these differences have an effect on the wine. There are also different expositions and more importantly still, wide differences in altitude. Many of the best producers have parcels in different plots.
Cornas: the main plots
• Saint-Pierre: altitude, freshness and elegance. Saint-Pierre and the heights above is where Cornas was extended (overextended some say as the grapes don’t always ripen, as was the case in 2013).
• Chaillots: northern slope. Steep with lots of old vines. Chalk mixed in with clay. Big structured wines for long-term keeping.
• Les Eygats: colour and structure, often with quite high acidity. Here too, the wines invariably need keeping.
• Reynards: a very well-exposed granite slope. Perfect exposition. Full-bodied wines, big ripeness levels.
• Southern slopes, including La Côte, Sabarotte and Patou: granite too but with clay. Weighty, fat wines, which are very rich and complex.
A few growers are making single-vineyard wines but most do not, preferring instead to achieve complexity by blending. It should be said too that vineyard holdings tend to be very small.
Effectively rescued from a building site, Saint-Péray has real potential to make exciting white wine.
Curiously its call to fame was sparkling wine, and indeed at one time these wines fetched better prices than Champagne. Richard Wagner was a fan: he wrote Parsifal while drinking it. Must have been a sizeable bottle!
The reputation suffered and quality tumbled, and other wines improved. The raison d’être was simple enough; the largely limestone soils were perfect for growing white grapes, and somehow the wines kept their freshness. Today less than 10% of Saint-Péray is sparkling though growers are keen to develop it. The rest is still. Made from marsanne, often on its own but sometimes with roussanne, the wines have Rhône-like flavours of honey and lemon, but with more grip.
• Frank Balthazar: a nephew of the great Noël Verset. Good Chaillots here in an elegant style. Makes two wines: the first, from young vines, is of no interest but the old-vines Chaillots is different and we occasionally buy it.
• Domaine Mickaël Bourg: new to me. Mostly Saint-Pierre. Fairly elegant 2012. Quite good. Better than the frankly uninspiring Saint-Péray.
• Domaine Clape: traditional style. No destemming, so the wines are often a little austere when young. Two wines: Cuvée Renaissance is made from younger vines. The 2013 was a bit tetchy. The top wine, which has no cuvée name, also 2013, was quite splendid: thick and rich and wonderful. Tiny quantities, not enough for us sadly.
• Domaine du Coulet: new-wave Cornas and the antithesis of Clape. Expression of very ripe fruit. All destemmed. Very black, concentrated and ultra smooth. Would love to see how well the wine lasts. Certainly impressive.
• Chapoutier: better known for Hermitage. Fairly modern approach to Cornas. Elegant and refined but maybe a little lacking in personality. A second cuvée, made in conjuncture with 3 Michelin star chef Anne-Sophie Pic seemed more rewarding with better length. I was less keen on the Saint-Péray, which seemed dull.
• Domaine Courbis: generous yet stylish, these are all lovely wines in a modern style, polished and presentable. Champelrose is the entry-level wine and very good value; approachable when young. Lovely 2013 Les Eygats: tight, sinewy and dark. Needing time, especially the 2013. The 2012 Sabarotte was immense, plump and fat. Outstanding.
• Yves Cuilleron: to be honest, he is better known for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. Neither his Cornas or Saint-Péray seem to click.
• Durand: two very talented brothers, Eric and Joël. Lovely white which we don’t yet do, but made in small quantities. Two Cornas: ‘Les Prémices’ is a young-vines cuvée for the restaurant market. Very easy but probably not very Cornas like. ‘Les Empreintes is made with old vines from lots of small plots. Modern style, elegant yet concentrated. Brilliant value for money.
• Guy Farge: Saint-Péray was 90% roussanne but was 2013 vintage and maybe a little tired. Cornas from Reynards was pretty sound.
• Ferraton: small house run by Chapoutier, but independent, and always impressive. Didn’t disappoint. Cornas blend called Grands Muriers was good. Single vineyard ‘Patou’ was stunning as was Les Eygats. White somewhat dull.
• Paul Jaboulet Ainé: authoritative. Gorgeous Saint-Péray 2014: fine, bright and clean. Cornas 2011 was just perfect to drink now: soft and fleshy with a sweet, spicy finish. 1996 Saint-Pierre stole the show. Outstanding. Essence of truffle and spice. Lovely weight and length.
• Domaine Lionnet: related to Jean Lionnet and one of the Cornas families. Workmanlike Cornas in 2014 & 2013. Lacked finesse – hard act to follow after Jaboulet though!
• Leménicier: had always wanted to taste his wines but was frankly disappointed. Not helped by oxidised sample of 2014.
• Domaine des Lises: new to me. Grower from Pont-de-l’Isère so presumably also a Crozes producer. Disappointing. Not fine.
• Johann Michel: Saint-Péray based. Two Cornas wines: first is light and easy but not really interesting. Second, called ‘Jana’, altogether different and much more interesting: both 2014 & 2013 were brilliant. Weighty white which I liked less.
• Rémy Nodin: new to me – new guy and ex-Tain co-op member. Still learning and has some way to go yet.
• Julien Pilon: like Cuilleron, more of a Condrieu-based producer. I did not like his offerings from down here.
• François Villard: he too is better known for Condrieu but in this case his Saint-Péray were perfectly good, especially the rich and fat ‘Version’. Modern take on Cornas. Attractive but un-Cornas like maybe.
• Tain Co-operative: such a big player with so many aces up its sleeves and yet… The Saint-Péray was sound but no more than that and the Cornas from 2011 and 2013 vintages seem to suffer from excessive and unintegrated oak. Overall disappointing. But I know things are changing there so one lives in hope.
• Nicolas Perrin: lovely Cornas. Modern style with poise but also depth. 2013 fab. Still learning about Saint-Péray and not there quite yet. Worth keeping a look out for.
• Laure Colombo: her father is enologist and negociant. She is talented grower in Saint-Péray and Cornas. White 2014 was floral and attractive. Cornas ‘Terres Brûlées’ is a blend with part Eygats and Chaillots. Gorgeous 2013. ‘La louvee’ is from well-exposed La Côte. Very impressive 2013. ‘Ruchets’ from Chaillots is the top wine and also very impressive. Lovely wines indeed.
• Dumien-Serrette: favourite grower with old vines, especially in Patou. Just the one wine, 2013 Cornas. A real joy: packed with blackcurrant fruit, full and complex, slightly wild and exuberant and untamed. Will need a few years yet.
• Vins de Vienne: a negociant company set up by Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and Pierre Gaillard. Has been in the doldrums but now back on form. Stunning Saint-Péray, especially ‘Bialères’, in a flattering, oaky style. ‘Archeveque’ oaky and needs time but very good. Cornas was sound enough.
• Domaine Du Tunnel: this is named because there really is a disused railway tunnel on the estate in Saint-Péray which has now been converted into a spectacular and effective cellar. Spectacular for a railway enthusiast, that is! Stéphane Robert is the winemaker and owner of what is without doubt the top estate in Saint-Péray. He makes four wines from different ages of vine and different plots and including one full-flavoured cuvée of pure roussanne. The best wine is the Cuvée Prestige, made from 80% marsanne and 20% roussanne raised in barrel. It’s a wonderful wine, fine with clarity, precision and pleasure. The Cornas is equally polished and assured.
• Domaine Voge: Alain Voge was an important figurehead in the story of both appellations and was one of those who broke away from the past to create a modern style of wine. Alain has been unwell for some time and has taken a back seat leaving the running of his business to the very dynamic Alberic Mazoyer, who used to be chef de cave at Chapoutier. Brilliant wines across the range. Three Saint-Péray, the best coming from old vines and called ‘Fleur de Crussol’, and three Cornas: Vieille Fontaine is the top wine and only rarely produced. Cuvée Vieilles Vignes though is very impressive. Outstanding 2013 with 2014 also looking very promising.
There were a few absentees like Thierry Allemand, who very rarely ever leaves his vines.
But this was an exceptional tasting.
Last week, ‘Explore USA’ – The Society’s first North American wine offer in five years – was launched.
I really feel that American wine has turned a corner over the last five years. It used to be a country polarised with generally dull and slightly too sweet bulk wine at one end, and very expensive cult wine (often very good but often almost impossible to get hold of) at the other.
However, with the expansion of viticulture across Oregon and Washington, and growing trends towards balance, more restrained use of oak and a reduction in the grapes’ ‘hang time’ in the vineyard, some wonderful wines which offer true value are making their way across the pond.A few American favourites
Wines like Parker Station Pinot Noir (£11.50), Pedroncelli Cabernet Sauvignon (£9.95), and Peltier Ranch Chardonnay (£7.25) offer great ‘bang for buck.’
Broc Vine Starr Sonoma County Zinfandel (£25) Broc’s Zinfandel and L’Ecole’s No.41 Semillon (£13.50) show what more experimental winemaker can do, whilst Elk Cove Pinot Noir (£25) and Bergström Old Stones Oregon Chardonnay (£19.50) prove that fine wine from the USA doesn’t have to break the bank (this pair is high on my Christmas Day wishlist – both are great with turkey).
Zinfandel: the perfect winter wine
As the weather darkens too, the perfect fireside glass has to be a rich and juicy zinfandel – The Society’s own (£7.50) hits the spot well.
If you needed any other excuse to try something new from the USA this winter, on the 26th November you could always pour yourself a glass of something star spangled to toast Thanksgiving across the pond!
Sarah Knowles MW
When thinking of the Douro Valley, most will picture the steep walled vineyards and famous port quintas perched precariously above the meandering river below.
But a surprise to me was the extent of this wine region; I hadn’t realised that as well as the principal valley with its terraces, there are so many tributaries and side valleys with high plateaux and rolling hills, and vines seemingly everywhere.
This region is vast. The Douro vineyard area is divided into three sub-zones, Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo and Douro Superior and there are more than 40,000 hectares in total. Compare this, say, to the whole of the northern Rhône, made up of just 2,700 hectares.
Buyer Joanna Locke MW and I had just two nights and three days in December last year to travel the length and breadth of the valley and beyond. The main aim of the visit was to go and see our Exhibition Douro suppliers, Quinta do Vale Meão at Vila Nova de Foz Côa in the Upper Douro (read more about this here), but we were also going to make a side-trip to the rather forgotten region of Beira Interior to visit Rui Madeira, catch up Rita Ferreira Marquès of Conceito and visit some prospective suppliers in an area known as the Douro Verde – vinho verde’s southernmost enclave, and we were to discover, the home of the avesso grape.
Douro – no longer just about port
Despite the region’s long history of making wines, port has dominated the trade until relatively recently, but the Douro is building a reputation for its table wines, with estates like Vale Meão at the vanguard.
Douro table wine now accounts for 30% of sales from the region, compared to just 3% ten years ago. This proportion is growing all the time and with winemakers gaining better insight into the best grapes to grow where, quality is bound to improve, as Francisco Olazabal, winemaker and owner at Vale Meão says: ‘The best vintages are the most recent. Styles are changing, partly because of vintage differences and changes in weather patterns but also because we are getting to know our vineyards better and learning how to control alcohol levels better.’
Perhaps somewhat ironically it is the knowledge gained from site selection for table wines which is now feeding back into the production of port too.
Rui Madeira at Beyra Wines in the Beira Interior, on the other hand, wouldn’t change his field blends. His vineyards, some of Portugal’s highest, just 30kms from the Spanish border on the start of the meseta, are made up of very old vines, crucial for getting flavour and complexity into the wines.
The Beira Interior area is known for its whites. In the past the wine from this region was sent in bulk west to Bairrada – the high natural acidity made it perfect for use as the base for sparkling wine production. But Rui, whose family is originally from this region, could see the potential for making high-quality wines from the old vines grown on schist, granite, clay and quartz soils.
Rui was brought up in Lisbon but had a bad accident while at university and came back to the family home to recuperate. While he was convalescing he helped to make wine at his friend’s winery and became smitten with the idea of becoming a winemaker and realising the potential of his home turf. He made his first wine here in 1987. In 2011, after travelling and gaining experience in wineries around the world, he was drawn back and bought the Vermiosa winery from his friend, completely refurbishing it.
This area is quite desolate. Many have left and those that are left are poor so there is no market locally for the wine, neither is there workforce for the winery. Rui is the main winemaker but lives in Porto (like many we met), and his cellarmaster commutes over from the Douro.
Because this region is little known, Rui has made a point of putting a map showing exactly where they are on his labels. It was also his way of making the point that this region still has a connection with the mighty Douro river.
But it is the altitude and old vines (some as much as 120 years old) which make his wines really special. The freshness captured in the wines means that it isn’t just the whites that work well with fish as we were to discover when we retreated to a local rustic restaurant for lunch.
Presenting a different face to the world
A common theme that came up with all those we spoke to was the need to make their mark on what is an already crowded market place. This is something that Rita Marques of Conceito has undoubtedly achieved with her dramatic-looking labels (Conceito means ‘concept’).
Rita is one of the new generation of winemakers. A protogée of Dirk Niepoort, she came back to the Douro in 2005 after travelling as far afield as South Africa and New Zealand learning her craft. After finishing her studies, Rita built a winery with the intention of making wines from vineyards owned by her mother and grandfather. Previously the grapes were sold on to producers so Rita is the first winemaker of the family.
Rita’s winemaking philosophy is quite straightforward: ‘You should always make wines that you like to drink.’ She then goes on to admit rather candidly that, at first, she didn’t like the Douro table wines finding them too heavy and powerful! But now she says that she loves them: ‘Wines are becoming more elegant… more people are making table wines in the Douro so we’re all getting to understand our region better and there’s more competition, so everyone’s improving.’
Returning to the theme at the start of this post, the land here is not what you’d immediately picture when thinking of the Douro. Despite the high altitude (300-400m), this is a land of gentle hills rolling down to the Teja valley, a tributary of the Douro. The mild micro-climate here means that grapes ripen more slowly here bringing freshness to the wines (her entry-level red Contraste, £11.95 per bottle and designed for early drinking, exemplifies this beautifully). And Rita is lucky enough to have access to some really old parcels of vines (the oldest around 80 years old with two hectares of pre-phylloxera vines at 600m).
From the Douro’s upland vineyards to the valley floor
Winding your way down from Rita’s winery to the valley floor of the Douro is an ear-popping, stomach-churning descent – even by night and despite the considerate driving!
Our next destination was in the southernmost vinho verde subzone of Baião, in what is called the Douro Verde and a stopover at Quinta de Guimarães to taste the fresh, nervy Cazas Novas wines based on the avesso grape.
Anyone for avesso?
I have to admit that I hadn’t heard of this grape before or realised that the vinho verde region came down as far as the Douro or this far inland. But as we were to discover, avesso is the grape of this area where it is increasingly bottled as a single varietal.
Quite unlike the other vinho verde grapes, avesso is low in acidity but is relatively high in potential alcohol and can have almost tropical-fruit like aromatics and a roundness to the flavour. To distinguish these wines from the more traditional vinhos verdes, the wines are often bottled in Burgundy bottles. Avesso in Portuguese, by the way, means ‘opposite’.
The avesso grape thrives in the warmer and drier climate here, planted as it is on south-facing slopes that run down to the Douro. Here the granite soils are also less fertile than those of the vinho verde subzones further north and west.
There’s a real excitement about this grape – and you can see why – it offers something a bit different while retaining that enticing freshness that makes all vinho verde attractive. Buyer Joanna Locke MW has shipped the 2014 vintage for members to try (£6.95 per bottle).
Cazas Novas has been in the hands of the Mourinho family for seven generations. Carlos Mouinho makes the wine in collaboration with Diogo Fonseca Lopes and winemaking super-stars Anselmo Mendes, and Vasco Magalhães. Carlos tells us that like many other families, they used to sell their grapes but noticed that the wines were winning awards and his father thought, ‘why not have a go ourselves?’
Much to the delight of his father, Carlos has stepped up to the plate. His father meanwhile, looks after renting out their beautiful old manor house Quinta de Guimarães. The house, built in 1720 and with its own chapel (which Carlos informs us is typical of this style of property), is used for weddings, holiday lets and bed and breakfast. ‘It’s one way we can continue to keep these old houses going,’ says Carlos and it would make a lovely first spot to stay on a wine tour up the Douro.
More and more quintas are opening up their doors to visitors, so if you’re thinking of taking a trip up the Douro, I’d recommend spending more than three days and researching the possibilities of staying where the wine is made.
A common thought that crosses the minds of the vast majority of us at some point when tasting wine is:
‘Why can’t I smell these flavours that everyone else seems to be picking up?’
Tasting and appreciating wines’ flavours can be fascinating, but it can also be a barrier for beginners. Wine is one of the most written about, analysed, and discussed of products, and has built up what seems like a language of its own to outsiders.
But we are all born with similar taste and smell receptors, so all have the potential to be able to be top tasters!
It’s not uncommon once you start to methodically taste, and try and pull specific flavours from a wine, for disappointment to strike when a flavour is picked up which may at the time seem way off compared to everyone else’s impressions of the same wine.
Do not fear: there is a science behind it!
When a cork is pulled, different aroma compounds, stereoisomers, are released by the alcohol in a wine. When these compounds hit the smell receptors in your nose they trigger your brain to match these to a smell it remembers.
As there are only a set amount of receptors, the compounds will hit these in a certain pattern, like Morse code, which your brain then identifies to recall the smell. Some compounds can be very similar and share comparable traits, such as honey and apricot, or more surprisingly cinnamon and bell pepper.
So it’s no surprise that flavours which may initially be thought of as polar opposites can become confused by the brain if it takes a shortcut to try to second guess the flavour.
This becomes even trickier when many of these aroma compounds are released at the same time, as they can trick the brain, muddling the flavour profiles. And with primary, secondary, and tertiary flavours thrown into the mix, it can create an in-depth and complex flavour profile for the brain to deal with.
The most important point to remember is that indulging in wine should be an enjoyable pursuit, and you shouldn’t to be disheartened if you can’t pick out certain flavours, because as with many a skill in life, practice makes perfect!
Member Services Adviser
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, were written with the winter 2015 selections of The Society’s Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Wine Without Fuss offers regular selections of delicious wines with the minimum of fuss. Why not join the growing band of members who let their Society take the strain, and are regularly glad they do?
Find out more about Wine Without Fuss in a short video on our website.One of the joys of discovering an unfamiliar wine is sharing it with friends and fellow enthusiasts. In fact it’s more than some of us excitable types can do to let guests get their coats off, their breath back and their greetings out before leaping upon them, corkscrew at the ready and a fistful of glasses.
Please note, on a Health & Safety note, that I can’t exactly recommend the latter, if bear hugs are in order from dear friends one is glad to see, hasn’t seen for some time, or are rugby players. Enjoyable as it is, this kind of ‘cwtch’ as we call it in Wales can be shattering enough without extra shards.
At this most sociable time of year, this post is dedicated to the fun to be had from a Wine Without Fuss subscription. Each delivery is a selection, made by our buyers for members who like the convenience and element of exploration the scheme offers, from good, everyday stalwarts to classic French reds and whites. These will include some tried and trusted members’ favourites, but we also recognise the importance and popularity of a bit of exploration.
As such Wine Without Fuss subscribers often have first call on some of our discoveries. The current selections, for example, include a new Liberator, from the eponymous Smash ‘n Grabber’s raids on some of the Cape’s best cellars; white versions of two styles much better known for their red incarnations – Côtes du Rhône and Faugères; a Romanian red that is much easier on the palate than the tongue and a new Saumur blanc.
Having put them all these through their gastronomic paces, I strongly recommend the seasonal ‘Welcome’ mats below. Christmas can rarely be completely fuss-free, but it’s good to have a few practical, make-ahead ideas in the bank, even as frightening amounts of taxed income are rolling out.
Janet Wynne Evans
PLAY YOUR CARBS RIGHT
For those not on the GI diet, or who have at least mothballed it for Christmas, a bit of warm, crumbly pastry on arrival is an instant feel-good factor.
Squiffy Mushroom Bouchées
A magical mouthful given the simplicity of preparation and a match made in heaven with a fragrant chardonnay, though any full-bodied white will work here. Just fry some sliced chestnut mushrooms or any other kind you fancy, in some butter with a minced shallot and a splash each of dry vermouth and sherry, letting the liquid reduce until syrupy. Add some chopped parsley and a little truffle oil if you like. Spoon into ready-made vol-au-vent cases, add a blob of cream and bake until sizzling. You can also use short pastry tart shells if you prefer. Australia Felix with its cunning dash of viognier (£7.95, Buyers’ Everyday Whites) is a good bet here, as would be Faugères Blanc Cistus (£11.95) in Classic French Whites.
Designer Sausage Rolls
A good sausage roll made with prime British pork is delightful but they rarely are, so make your own, and why not use a few exotic bangers too. Slip your favourites out of their soft casings, season well, adding a few complimentary herbs or spices, and follow your favourite recipe. Select your wine according to the nationality of your sausage. For the true-blue Brit, I recommend the gentle fruit of Fiefs Vendéens (Buyers’ Everyday Reds); for a spicier version, a syrah-grenache blend like The Society’s Australian Shiraz (Buyer’s Everyday Reds) or The Liberator Trample Dance (£7.95, Buyers’ Premium Reds) or Ventabren (£11.95) in Classic French Reds); for the fennel seeds and garlic of a traditional Italian sausage, a regional match such as Alberello Salento Rosso in Buyers’ Everyday Reds. Tougher-skinned sausages like whole baby chorizos are also delicious wrapped in puff pastry and served with a good, mellow Rioja like Castillo de Vinas Crianza (£8.50) in Buyers’ Premium Reds.
Smoked salmon blinis
A fridge/store cupboard star. Heat the blinis as directed to wake them up. Top with curls of smoked salmon or eel, a little dab of cream and finish with a sprig of dill and/ or a bit of lumpfish roe. By all means wheel out your finest Oscietra caviar if you are feeling flush but it just won’t be as colourful. Serve with a tangy, minimalist Chablis that hasn’t been anywhere near a barrel. Chablis Saint Claire (£11.50) in Classic French Whites is well-nigh perfect.
Cold Cuts and Potted Mediterranean Vegetables
Was there ever such an easy, delicious appetiser? All you need is a large platter and the ability to open a few packets and jars and to drape artistically. My favourite combination, for diversity both of appearance and taste, is mottled fennel salami, dark, lean bresaola and deep pink-and-white Spanish jamón, dotted with green olives, quartered artichoke hearts and piquillo peppers. You’ll need an upstanding red or white for this, and there is plenty of choice, including Finca Tempranillo Crianza and Alberello Salento Rosso in the Buyers’ Everyday Reds selection.
WHAT HO ( HO! HO!) ON THE RIALTO
Inspired by Classic Italian Recipes by Anna del Conte
This impressive but easy sweet-and-sour fish starter or supperette is an authentic taste of Venice, where it’s traditionally made with sardines. Prepared well in advance and served at room temperature, it’s eminently practical and, with its glossy bay leaf garnish, beautiful to behold. Some of us with an out-of-control laurus nobilis, a reel of florist’s wire and too much time on their hands have even been known to garland the plat with laurel wreaths worthy of the Forum.
For four people, you’ll need 500g fillets of lemon sole, plaice or megrim. Choose large, meaty fillets if possible and cut them in half, or even half again if they are really big. Leave on the skin which will help keep the fillets intact. You can peel it away later if you wish.
Plump up a heaped tablespoon of sultanas in a little hot water. Toast a tablespoon of pine nuts in a dry pan. Fry a thinly sliced onion in a little oil with a pinch each of salt and brown sugar. When the onion is golden, add 125ml dry white wine and the same volume of white wine vinegar, and turn up the heat. When the liquid is reduced by half, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain the sultanas and add to the mixture along with the pine nuts. Set aside.
Shake some plain flour onto a board or plate and season with salt. Coat the fish fillets lightly and shake off the excess. Heat an inch or so of oil in a large frying pan or wok, add the fillets and fry for three minutes on one side and two on the other until done and golden. Drain each batch on kitchen paper and transfer to a platter. Once fillets have cooled a little, you can peel off the skin, which has done its job. It’s perfectly edible but the dark bits can look a bit unappealing.
Spoon over the saor and sprinkle with ¼ tsp ground cinnamon and a pinch each of ground coriander and powdered ginger. Finish with a tablespoon of peppercorns (perhaps a festive technicolor mix of black, white, pink and green – my idea, scusi, Anna) and festoon with as many fresh bay leaves as you like. Once the fish is completely cool, cover tightly with cling-film and refrigerate for at least 24 hours to let the flavours rock. You can leave it there for up to three days, but fridges are under pressure at Christmas, and I find that the job’s a good’un after a day. Remove from the fridge an hour before serving.
Wine Match: Saor demands a bit of sweetness in the wine. A fruity gewürz, demi-sec Vouvray or traditional German riesling would be lovely and some drier wines will work too. Try a white Rhône, or Saleta Moscatel-Sauvignon (£5.95) in the Buyers’ Everyday Whites mix. A Cape blend, adept at confronting exotic flavours could just about work too, for example, The Liberator Trample Dance (£7.95) in Buyers’ Everyday Reds.
‘There is wine here?!’
Not the most encouraging of questions to be asked by your taxi driver as we attempted to locate the turnoff to the Borovitza winery, deep in the north-west of Bulgaria some 5km from the Serbian border.
He had a point though. Beautiful though this part of the world undoubtedly was, we could see no vines and certainly no winery. I was with The Society’s PR manager, Ewan Murray, ahead of a conference in Plovdiv the next day. We had decided to pop up here a day before to meet the team at this far-flung estate, whose wines are among the best respected in the Balkans, and which The Society has been stocking for a couple of years now.
Here are five things I learned from this fascinating visit:
1. Borovitza takes the definition of ‘remote’ to new levels.
After seeking directions and pulling up the small track in the shadow of the great Belogradchik Rocks (whose pine rock – ‘pine’ means bor in Bulgarian – gives Borovitza its name), we learned that were not alone in having difficulty finding the place.
‘At no point did we have any idea there was a winery here,’ said winemaker Dr Ognyan ‘Ogi’ Tzvetanov. ‘We used to pass through here all the time and have lunch in that clearing over there,’ pointing out a scenic spot on the road we’d just come from. ‘My friend told me one day that it existed and that it was up for sale at a ridiculously low price because it was derelict. We have him to thank for Borovitza.’2. Theirs is a range of wines that would send covetous shivers down the trendiest of sommeliers’ spines.
To microbiologist Ogi, a veteran of Bulgaria’s wine industry but tiring of the sharper commercial end of his duties, Borovitza offered a new and altogether more satisfying challenge.
Here he and his partner in wine, Adriana Srebrinova, make a portfolio of terroir-driven wines that is as artisanal in its production as it is dazzlingly eclectic.
‘I always say that making these wines is more a philosophy and a way of life than a business,’ he said, beaming.
This is a team that is not afraid to take risks or have fun with the wines they are making, proven in some style by the range tasting we were treated to. Chardonnays, gamays and Bordeaux blends rubbed shoulders with indigenous Bulgarian grapes and crossings, a pinot noir aged in a barrel containing a meteorite (!) and even an extended-skin-contact sparkling orange wine which they are now considering bottling commercially.
There are plenty of vines in this part of Bulgaria but Borovitza is the only winery. As such they are able to vinify nearby growers’ wines (often in miniscule quantities – one lot we were shown totalled less than a single barrel, but the smallest lot he has ever made is 6.5 bottles!) and work their magic with fruit purchased from market too.
3. Visit their vineyards at your peril.
Ogi and Adriana have two vineyards here as well, but the bad news was that we would not, apparently, be able to see either. ‘There was too much rain last night – even with our ex-military vehicle I don’t think it will be safe for us,’ explained our host. At this point a colleague became animated and a short but loud exchange ensued. ‘Ok,’ conceded Ogi. ‘We will have a go. This man has years of experience driving ambulances in Sofia – we will do our best.’
‘If you say so…’
I do not quite know how my lumbar vertebrae came through the next hour unscathed, but it was a vineyard trip I will never forget. Nor has buyer Sebastian Payne MW, who had taken the same trip a few years before when The Society first started to list Borovitza’s wines, and told us to watch out.
We survived, and were treated to some spectacular scenery and an insight into their unique terroir: the 7.5 hectares of vines at their nearest vineyard is planted on 240-million-year-old red sandstone, just down the slope from the Belogradchik Rocks.
As the initial amazement of this beautiful setting died down – and the shock as we blundered around it at gradients that no vehicle should be able to negotiate – I became just as taken with Ogi and Adriana’s infectious enthusiasm.
Their experience and boundless energy (‘I go to bed about 3am,’ said Ogi with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, ‘There is too much to be done here!’) make the team as skilled in winemaking as they are popular and respected among their peers, in the Balkans and beyond.
5. Borovitza has earned its plaudits for a reason
Which brings me to my last point: for its remoteness and the team’s risk-taking, tiny-production approach to their craft, this is no novelty act, but a fiercely passionate enterprise making high-quality wines that we feel deserve members’ attention.
There is perhaps a cynical cliché in parts of the wine world that wines from more unusual regions are given something of a free pass on quality – unusual trinkets rather than wines to be assessed on merit. I would counter-argue that had Borovitza’s ‘The Guardians’ MRV hailed from the Rhône and was available at its £14.95 price, people would be buying it by the truckload. It is a full-bodied, creamy, complex and delightfully balanced food white, and at its price it is a fantastic buy.
So too is the red Gamza Black Pack: a succulent, cru-Beaujolais-like wine with an added richness and constitution from this grape that Ogi makes so well.
Do give them a go – thanks to Sebastian’s efforts, the wines at least are now easy to find…
Borovitza: at a glance
• Established 2004 and situated in north-west Bulgaria near the Serbian border.
• The only winery in this part of Vidin province.
• The winery is in the shadow of the ‘New 7 Wonders of Nature’-nominated Belogradchik Rocks.
• Makes a large range of often tiny-production terroir-focused wines from French and indigenous grapes.
• The Society currently stocks two wines: The Guardians MRV (white, £14.95) and Gamza Black Pack (red, £10.95).
So my second week as a part of the buying department came to a rather spectacular end the Friday before last, as I was lucky enough to taste the new-vintage Penfolds wines with buyer Sarah Knowles MW.
Penfolds ambassador Sam Stephens brought all of the new releases with him (mostly 2013 reds, and 2014 whites) along with a number of older examples of similar vintages so we could see how ageing changed the wine.A standout for me was the £20-per-bottle Bin 28, which was shown in both the 2013 and 2001 vintages. The opportunity to show the two side by side really highlighted how unbelievably well this wine can age. The 2013 was packed with intense cassis and was as fruit-forward as you would expect a young wine to be. The 2001, however was just stunning, still with incredibly fresh blackberry fruit but now showing hints of leather and a touch of pepper. The ability to age this well at the £20 mark is something so rarely seen in the modern wine world.
A little further on and equally stunning, was the Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz, from both 2013 and 1999. The herbaceous, fresh and spicy 2013 was good but the 1999 was better. Still surprisingly fresh for the age, it had the most luscious nose of milk chocolate, spice and red fruit and a super smooth texture to match.
What does this all mean?
Well, for me, it just goes to show how much you can get from these wines if you invest a bit of time. If you aren’t patient enough though, you can browse our Penfolds offer, which is now available online. Here you can find the wines that I have written about (although not quite the same vintages), plus a number of others. This is selling well and some wines have sold out already, but do have a look and see if there are wines which take your fancy.
Perhaps it was a ‘fruit day’ or simply a Friday, but I honestly couldn’t pick a disappointing one out of the bunch.
Sam kindly talked to camera for a minute or two about the wines so please have a look at the video here:
Trainee Wine Buyer
A few weeks ago, I took part in what must be the world’s most unusual marathon, also known as Le Marathon du Médoc.
The famous 26.2 mile/42km route through the scenic vineyards of Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac and Saint-Julien encompasses 20 wine-tasting stops along with 22 refreshment stations, and various food points serving croissants, oysters, steak, cheese and ice cream. Yum! What a great way to tick off ‘marathon’ (sitting patiently at the top of my bucket list), I rather misguidedly thought back in April.
My running partner/boyfriend did not need much persuading to do this with me – this was his kind of marathon. So after a short discussion and 5 months of not quite enough training, we were at the quayside in Pauillac with a large crowd of fellow crazy runners from all over the world.
This year’s fancy dress theme was ‘dressed up to the nines’ and we were surrounded by a sea of tuxedos, top hats, suits, bow ties, ball gowns and tiaras. We went for the comfortable option and picked up some novelty shirts during a last-minute shopping trip at Camden Market.
The race started off quite slowly as anticipated, and our initial strategy to get to the halfway point before eating or drinking didn’t quite go to plan – the breakfast station at 1km being our first stop. Everyone crowded round for fresh croissants.
The trouble with running and eating at the same time came to light rather quickly with a minor choking incident taking place, and I was wondering how I was going to explain to everyone that we didn’t manage to make it past the first stop. Fortunately, after a short rest, we were able to continue with no further mishaps. We were merrily greeted with food, wine, music, bands, and people dancing at every stop thereafter.
The weather was warm and dry most of the day although there was a period of heavy downpour in the afternoon. This was, at first a welcome break from the heat. However, when it continued coming down thick and fast 45 minutes later, the hard work truly set in.
We were over half way by this time and watching everyone struggle in their now drenched ball gowns and suits, I was glad we had not decided on wearing more elaborate costumes. The course consisted of some mud and gravel tracks and the puddles made this difficult. My lack of training didn’t help the cause and I found myself having to stop at every stop point and in between. I was in good company though as there were a lot of walkers by this stage and being towards the back also meant that there were no longer any queues at the wine stops.
The successful completion of the race is restricted to a 6 hour and 30 minute time limit. Not knowing how strict they were going to be with this, we had agreed just after 15 miles that Dave would run ahead so at least one of us would definitely make it to the finish within the specified time. I was really paranoid during the last few miles that the sweep cart marking the 6 and a half hour pace (driven by a bunch of scary clowns apparently) would turn up behind me at any second. Thankfully, I made it to the end without having to see this.
I was hugely relieved to reach the finish. Dave was already there, and I was allowed through the barrier to collect my medal and wine. This meant I had finished within the time which I later found out to be 6 hours and 28 minutes. All part of my master plan to get my money’s worth and maximise wine-tasting opportunities (of course).
Whilst I’m in no rush to take part in another marathon any time soon, this is a unique experience with a fantastic party and carnival atmosphere. A brilliant bucket-list event for all wine lovers who enjoy running… and even those who don’t!
Janet Wynne Evans finds pots of pure gold at the end of the Rainbow Nation tasting…
Last week, I attended an extraordinary wine tasting at South Africa House. I fully expected to taste great wines. What I didn’t expect was to have one of my founding food-and-wine matching principles shaken to the core.
As with all big, generic tastings, I had plotted my agenda, which was Western Cape blends. These innovative combinations – chenin, chardonnay, roussanne, grenache, viognier and semillon for whites and syrah, touriga nacional, grenache, mourvèdre for the reds – are godsends for a food obsessive. The whites, in particular, quite simply go with everything I throw at them, from garlicky to Gujarati. What I can’t throw, having neither the skill nor the imagination, not to mention the training, are the gastronomic and the gourmet.
With sustaining solids provided by my compatriot, Michelin-starred chef Roger Jones, what better opportunity to complete the set?
Lest fellow members deplore the kind of lifestyle we appear to enjoy in the wine trade, may I also point out that this event was also open to retail consumers in the evening? The 800-plus canapés Roger had painstakingly prepared were testament to that.
The wine list at Roger’s destination Wiltshire restaurant, The Harrow in Little Bedwyn, is famous in the business for championing the new world. It’s also famous for ungreedy mark-ups. An example I’d cite is Australia’s iconic Giaconda Chardonnay – a me-too Montrachet if ever there was one – which is offered at not much more than you’d pay at a top-end retailer. The bottom end would never have heard of it.
At the ‘South African Flavour’ matching seminar that concluded my visit to the tasting, the first of many surprises for me was that no blends were included. Lined up before us were six monovarietals of the kind the Rainbow Nation does best, selected to complement Roger’s inspirations by Fiona Beckett of The Guardian and matchingfoodandwine.com. Sadly, Fiona couldn’t be with us as planned, to present the workshop and to join Roger for a well-deserved bow, because it was a revelation.
Firstly, Stellenbosch sauvignon blanc with citrus-cured wild salmon, coaxed into succulence after a 24-hour stint with clementine, lime and salt, and topped with a smoked sun-dried tomato. The rapport was a complete success, illustrating Roger’s comment that southern hemisphere sauvignon blanc has completed the transition from ‘bar-fly’ to high table, thanks to this poised, piquant rather than trenchant style. No surprises here, other than how such an exquisitely complex mouthful of food could be created from so few ingredients.
Next up was chenin blanc, also from Stellenbosch, with a crab mousse sandwiched in a darkly stylish caviar macaroon, tinted with a whisper of squid ink and seasoned with caviar salt to temper the sweetness. The fullness of the chenin carried both sugar and salt beautifully. Again, all was as it should be, but this was the lull before the bombshell.
That was elegantly dropped in the form of a curried lobster dumpling, lively with a jam of subcontinental spices, along with the startling advice that when it comes to matching wine and food, you should not serve like with like. I would have instinctively reached for an equally spicy gewurztraminer, but I found myself sipping a very elegant, discreetly oaked, almost Burgundian chardonnay from Hemel-en-Aarde in Hermanus. It was perfect, the richness of the lobster lifted beautifully by the citrus notes in the wine. Note to self.
Next was a Stellenbosch petit verdot rosé and more spice, this time Moroccan, pepping up a carpaccio of tuna and packing one or two agents provocateurs in the form of mint, yoghurt and mushy peas. Such a line-up demands a bit of sweetness for me, and that means grenache. Nevertheless, the uplifting, freesia-like bouquet of the wine primed the palate for the spices, while the dry, clean finish closed them off.
For me, Cape pinot noir feels like work in progress, though a cool Walker Bay bottling shone here with an outrageous combination of seared venison, foie gras toffee, truffle and mushroom. Anyone planning to uncork a similarly luxurious mature Burgundy with the gamey, sous-bois flavours here should take note of the second demonstration of the like-with-like fallacy. Young and juicy (and cheaper) does it much better.
As if to rub it in, the last combination of Stellenbosch syrah with a sublime grouse bon-bon, enriched with black pudding and belly pork and finished with a smear of lime pickle, perfectly complimented the bird’s rich gaminess.
Conspicuous by its absence was pinotage, that polariser of palates, so a spot of heckling was in order. Again, I instinctively think of something similarly smoky and brooding to match this grape but the immediate answer was lamb, and not just because Roger is a Welshman. Hearty breeds like Karoo, which graze on wild herbs and basically marinate themselves, or our own Herdwicks come to mind. The scales fell from my eyes, as they are increasingly doing with pinotage these days.
Before I eat it, I’ll first take my hat off to Wines of South Africa, and any other generic wine body that resopnds so imaginatively to the challenge of engaging already pampered wine-drinkers in this way. The CIVB did it for Sauternes and savoury food (and I don’t just mean Roquefort and foie gras), and the inspirations of some very upmarket Bordeaux caterers will be posted shortly on our website. Prepare to be amazed!
Yes, it’s been an eye-opening autumn for accepted wisdom. All of which goes to show that if you think you know it all about food and wine matching, that’s all you know.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
Our new Liberator ‘Midnight Bakkie’ (£9.95) is a fine example of a white Western Cape blend. Try also Fable Mountain Jackal Bird (£20). A very small parcel of Giaconda Chardonnay 2010 will be released for sale in our Christmas Fine Wine List, coming to our website and to members’ doormats very soon.