I could have sworn I saw a swallow earlier this week; and with the onset of darkness now retreating to past 8 o’clock I feel I can dare to dream of more temperate times to come. Indeed, in The Cellar Showroom this week I have noticed a marked shift towards white wine purchases. Society members appear to share my optimism.
For me, no grape screams spring and summer like sauvignon blanc. Fresh, herbaceous, citric, tropical… the styles from around the world all seem to have an affinity to the time of year when hats and scarves can be mothballed.
Lovely as these wines are, though…
Recently I have been particularly taken with a number of sauvignon blanc blends.
Adding another grape or two to sauvignon blanc can temper the variety’s natural acidity and can complement sauvignon’s flavour profile with a splash of something different.
Four Sauvignons With a Twist• Member favourite Duo Des Mers, Sauvignon-Viognier Vin de France 2015 (£5.95) benefits from the fattening and softening influence of the viognier grape’s texture, whilst also bringing the characteristic apricot and peach aromas to the wine.
•Another popular French choice, Cheverny, Domaine du Salvard 2015 (£7.95), employs 10-15% chardonnay in the blend to give greater breadth and depth, but without masking the herbaceous scents of the sauvignon.
• Bleasdale Langhorne Crossing Verdelho-Sauvignon 2015 (£6.95) combines sauvignon blanc with another spring-and-summer variety: the vibrant verdelho, which introduces pleasant pear-like notes and tropical tones to the blend.
• In Spain, moscatel can add its floral aromatics and bring a more table-grape dimension to the fruit character, as is the case in Saleta Moscatel-Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (£5.95). This wine has excellent balance, with the sauvignon blanc moderating any of moscatel’s sweetness with its crisp acidity and ensuring the wine remains dry.
I don’t want to tempt fate but I shall be putting all of the above in the chiller in anticipation of the appropriate weather.
If not, I may just have to turn the thermostat up.
The Cellar Showroom
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, were written with the spring 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.
This recipe was inspired by poor stock control, although, in fairness, that doesn’t happen often. My very first wine-trade job involved reconciling book balances with bottles, some of which would be missing while others had reproduced, surreptitiously and parthenogenetically. That annoyed me immeasurably and I’m usually pretty attuned to the contents of my own cupboards.My downfall is a siege mentality. Unable to procure an ingredient for a recipe I’m impatient to try, and immeasurably annoyed by that too, I tend to lay in vast stocks of it when I do manage to run it to ground.
In this case, the item is rouille, that lovely orange garlic and saffron goo you stir into proper Provençal fish soup. It’s not on most supermarket shelves, so when we offered a Wine Society Christmas gift pack containing a jar both of fish soup and rouille, I snapped up a canny few and stashed them away. I got through most of them, but two escaped my notice. By now, the soup was well out of date, with an irretrievably manky aroma that consigned it to the bin. The rouille, at least, was still a goer, but due for consumption by the end of the month.
Mulling over alternative uses s for my orange treasures, I came up with a sort of mediterranean fish pie, with a splash of pastis instead of vermouth and the usual dollop of cream replaced by the rouille. Buttery pastry or mash on top felt out of kilter in olive oil country, so the pie became a hotpot, topped with thinly sliced potatoes dipped in herby oil, and cooked to brown crispness.
Sort of Morecambe-sur-Med.
This is a recipe that makes satisfying use of everything, from parsley stalks to prawn shells. It’s also versatile.
The fish content should include strong flavours – monkfish, bream, mullet – to stand up to the sauce, but the choice is then yours. In fact the world is, quite literally your oyster, for which the Bassin de Thau near Sète is famous, just as it is for mussels. Use these by all means instead of prawns, just don’t serve the blighters to me. Do make sure, in the case of mussels, that you take the important precaution of steaming them first, just until they open , so that you can discard any wrong ‘uns that don’t. Or buy the labour-saving frozen and already shelled variety and defrost them thoroughly.
The obvious partner for this deeply fishy, garlic and herb-infused feast, with its glints of orange and whisper of aniseed, is a rich Languedoc or Rhône white with just a bit of bite. Marsanne, roussanne, grenache blanc, viognier and rolle (vermentino) are good options, and if there is some fresh but firm picpoul in the mix, so much the better.
A spicy shiraz or Portugese red would not come amiss either.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
• 800kg fish off the bone , skinned and trimmed – a mixture of monkfish, bream, hake and red mullet
• A dozen large prawns, shelled and deveined
• Plain olive oil
• 1 banana shallot, finely diced
• Six anchovies from a jar or tin, rinsed and dried
• Six sun-dried tomatoes in oil, blotted on kitchen paper
• A generous splash of pastis, eg Pernod
• 300ml fish or shellfish stock (see below)
• 2 dried bay leaves
• 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, thyme and dill, leaves only, chopped
• 2 tubs rouille, about 180g altogether
• Some thyme sprigs, leaves removed
• Two large baking potatoes
NB Owing to the difference in surface area between baking dishes of the same volume, I err on the side of caution here and prepare far more spuds than I think I need. I can promise that there will be no leftovers.
If you buy your prawns whole, the heads and shells make good stock. Rinse them well, crush roughly and add to some diced celery, carrot, garlic and onion, browned in olive oil in a smallish, deep saucepan. Add a glass of white wine, the stalks from your parsley, above, a few white peppercorns and a couple of fresh bay leaves and let it all bubble for a few minutes. Cover with 500ml water and simmer for 30 minutes or so. Strain through a sieve lined with kitchen paper. Taste and if you want a stronger flavour return to the hob and reduce, but remember that it will be boiled down and further concentrated in this recipe. On no account bother trying this with mussel shells.
Ask your fishmonger nicely to prepare all your fish for you. All skin, bones, membranes and mucky bits will thus end up in his bin, which is already a lost cause.
Cut the fish into generous chunks and arrange in a baking dish. Wash the deveined prawns in salted water and dry thoroughly. Add them to the fish. Cover and refrigerate.
Peel the potatoes and cut into slices. A mandoline on its normally thickest setting (one up from gratins, two up from crisps) is perfect. Manually, aim for between the thickness of a 10p piece and a £1 coin. As you slice them transfer them to a pan of water and leave to soak for about 20 minutes to remove excess starch. Then rinse thoroughly, shake dry in a colander and finally wrap in a clean tea-towel. Leave for as long as you can.
In a saucepan that will hold the stock, heat some olive oil and when it’s hot, add the shallot. Lower the heat and let it become translucent. Using a pair of kitchen scissors, snip in the anchovies, along with the sun-dried tomatoes. The pieces should be quite small, so that they will melt into the sauce.
Now add the pastis and let it bubble and sizzle, stirring to deglaze the pan. Finally add the stock and herbs, and let it boil down to about half its volume. Take the pan off the heat and let it cool thoroughly. Fish out the bay leaves. Season with black pepper – the anchovies should contribute enough salt.
Once it’s cool, stir in the rouille and once it’s incorporated, add to the fish and coat it all well. You can now cover and refrigerate the dish until ready to cook, but remove it an hour before cooking starts to bring it to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Unwrap the potatoes and put in a large bowl with enough olive oil to coat. Strip the leaves of the remaining thyme sprigs and add, along with salt and pepper. Use your hands to ensure every slice is glistening with oil and flecked with herbs and black pepper. Arrange them in one layer on one or two baking sheets. I like to give them a start before adding them to the fish to make sure they cook thoroughly.
Cover loosely with foil, put them in the oven and set a timer for 10 minutes. This should be enough for them to soften without browning, but if not, give them just a few minutes more.
Let them cool just enough to handle, then lay them on top of the fish in overlapping slices, making sure the top of the dish is completely covered. Leave any remaining slices on the baking sheet and return to the oven, along with the fish, but on a lower shelf and without the foil.
Set the timer for 35 minutes, or until the fish is bubbling and the potatoes are browned.
When the hotpot is done, you may find that the potato topping has shrunk a little, leaving the odd gap. This is what your spares are for, so tuck them in as needed before serving.
Serve the hotpot with a simple green vegetable like tenderstem broccoli and hand round any remaining potatoes unless you have shamelessly nibbled them in the kitchen. And why would you not? They are a cook’s perk of the highest order.
Fine matches for this fishy feast include Undurraga Cauquenes Estate Maule Viognier Roussanne-Marsanne 2015 (Buyers’ Everyday Selection, available for sale at £6.95 per bottle), Domaine Magellan Blanc, Hérault 2015 (Buyers’ Premium Selection) or Collioure Blanc Tremadoc, Domaine Madeloc 2015 (Buyers’ French Classics).
Red wine aficionados need not panic – the rich, tomato and herb flavours here are lovely with spicy Med Reds: Australia Felix Swan Hill Victoria Shiraz-Sagrantino 2014 (£7.95, Buyers’ Everyday Selection) will do it as will the pescivore’s friend, Mouchão Dom Rafael, Alentejo 2012 (Buyers’ Premium Reds). Vacqueyras Domaine des Genêts, Delas 2013 (Buyers’ French Classics) is a real treat.
Buying wine for The Wine Society is a busy job. There are no wine lists or offers without wines to put in them, so the Buying Team’s year is understandably full of deadlines.
Sometimes though, an incredible wine will find the buyer when the buyer isn’t even looking for it. This sort of thing happens because each of the wine buyers at The Society are constantly being sent samples from producers.
If you are buying wine for a Rioja offer but the supplier sends you a bottle of their new white wine from another part of Spain too, it’s certainly not going to be purchased for the offer as it might stand out a bit! Nonetheless, the Buying Team will always taste these wines purely out of interest. More often than not, it is deemed that the sample is perhaps not up to scratch or there is nothing that they can do with it at that moment in time.
Every so often though, they will taste a wine that is so good that we simply must buy it!
Our Wine Without Fuss scheme is a fantastic tool for a buyer who has discovered a wine which they feel they simply must buy but don’t have an offering or List in which they can put it. As the buyers each have a number of slots to fill in the Wine Without Fuss cases every other month, it gives them great opportunities to buy wines that they might otherwise have been forced to pass by.
Likewise, every so often the buyer will have tasted something that we hold some stock of and been struck by how well it is drinking at the moment. If this is the case, it is in the best interest of the membership that they are able to try it for themselves!
We hold tastings for each of the six yearly Wine Without Fuss selections, before the cases are finalised and sent out to the members who subscribe. This gives the buyers a chance to taste through all of the wines that they and their colleagues have selected. Only when the buyers are happy with the selection and have made any changes to the wine notes they feel necessary, will the case be given the OK and sent to members.The most recent tasting was for the selection for summer 2016. Whilst I tasted through the wines with Pierre Mansour, we made the occasional change to a wine note here and there, to ensure that we were happy the notes would be a true reflection of the wines in the bottle.
We both remarked at how good the selection was, even at one point getting confused and saying to one another “…how good these Premium Selection whites are” only to find out we were tasting from the Everyday Selection! A couple of stand-out wines were the Nero di Troia Tufarello Puglia Vigneti Canosini 2015 from the Premium Selection and the incredibly good-value Victory Hotel Australian Chardonnay-Semillon 2015 from the Everyday Selection.
So the nice thing about Wine Without Fuss, it seems, is that it is a scheme which benefits all. The buyers are happy because they can share their latest finds with our membership and our members are happy because they get to discover and enjoy the wines!
Janet Wynne Evans gets into hock without breaking the bank…
What could be better than a classy bottle and a meal that cost next to nothing – apart perhaps from the sterling advice that it doesn’t really work the other way round?
Should you be tempted by our current offer of German wines, here’s a recipe to bring some joy to plate, palate and domestic balance of payments.
It involves that most Germanic of ingredients, ham, a riesling soulmate if ever there was one. The racy acidity of the grape offsets saturated fat while the roundness underlying even in the trockens soothes salinity. And the nobility of the fruit counters the pigsty so elegantly.
But let it also be said that a supple German pinot noir with a thick slice of baked ham is an Ode to Joy in itself.
A ham hock weighing a generous kilo will set you back little more than a couple of your hard-earned sovereigns. Slowly baked in the oven on a rhythm-section of onions, herbs and spices, it will feed four people adequately, or two very generously, with scrumptious leftovers. The cooking juices and not-quite-spent veggies make a superb sauce or can be blended into soup fit for a king, with shreds of the ham and a few pulses thrown in. The meat itself makes hearty terrines and well as peerless sandwiches.
When meat is this cheap, some other kind of investment is needed. Here, it’s time and, by extension, the cost of a longish tour of duty, albeit at low wattage, for your trusty oven. Even so, this meal is belting good value. It’s a much better destination than a food waste bin for unprepossessing bits of vegetable: the unglamorous outer leaves of fennel bulbs, slightly elderly celery sticks, the too-green bits of leek you’re always advised to discard. Any superannuated wine, cider or ale you happen to have around can be pressed into service too.
You can boil ham hocks for lipsmacking flavour and pleasing, pull-apart texture, though not photogenic beauty, which this baked version has in abundance. During the cooking, the flavoursome fat renders into the meat, rather than being lost in cooking water. A final blast of hot air gives them a beautiful burnished glow, and – praise be! – crackling!
Don’t try to make the recipe below on impulse. Snap up your hocks, vacuum-packed for extra shelf-life, or store them in the freezer. ready for a call to action. The impending arrival of a Wine Society van, for instance.
Janet Wynne Evans
Fine Wine Editor
BAKED AND ROASTED HAM HOCK WITH BEANS AND ONION SAUCE
One hock will serve 4 – but why not cook two for safety and leftovers?
• 1 or 2 unsmoked ham hocks, skin on about 1.2kg each
• 3-4 onions, or a combination of onions, fennel and leeks, roughly wedged or chunked, enough to cover the base of the dish
• A small bunch of sage leaves, washed and dried
• 2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
• 2-3 star anise
• 1 teaspoon of whole white peppercorns
• 100ml dry or medium cider or white wine
• 2 x 400g cans or jars white, butter or cannellini beans or flageolets, drained
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, white or black
• A small bunch of fresh parsley, leaves only, not too finely chopped (put the stalks under the ham before it goes into the oven).
• A pinch of mustard powder (optional)
Ideally, soak your ham in cold water the night before to remove excess salt. If you are seized by impulsiveness, a quick cheat is to cover your joint with cold water in a large pan and bring slowly to the boil. Once the water begins to bubble gently, pour it away and rinse the joint thoroughly in fresh water. In both cases, dry it thoroughly with kitchen paper.
Now score the rind all over with fine lines, close together. This is a simple task provided you have a Stanley knife, the point of which does the job admirably without cutting too deeply into the fat.
Preheat the oven to 150C/Gas 2 and choose a deepish roasting tin or ovenproof dish that comes with a lid.
Line the bottom of the tin with the vegetables, herbs and spices.
Stand the ham on top, and pour over the wine or cider. Grind in a generous amount of black pepper. Cover and bake for between three and four hours, or until really tender, basting from time to time with the juices. Add a little more liquid if necessary.
Remove from the oven and increase the temperature to 220C/Gas 7.
Transfer the ham onto a platter and carefully pour the juices and vegetables into a clean pan. Fish out the bay leaves and star anise If you have a stick blender, use this to puree them into a thickish sauce. If not, cool them slightly and use a blender or food processor. A mouli, or vegetable sieve will also work and if none of these is to hand, simply chop the vegetables for a pleasantly chunky effect. Season and add a judicious pinch of your favourite mustard if you like.
Put the ham back in the tin, scored side up. Rub a little salt into the skin and return to the oven for about 25 minutes or a little longer if the crackling is elusive.
Add the drained beans to the onion sauce and heat through gently on the hob. Sprinkle abundantly with the parsley and keep warm.
Transfer the ham to a board and carve into thick slices or let it fall into shreds.
Serve in rustic fashion with the beans and provide contrast with a short, sharp, crunchy salad, dressed with mustard vinaigrette.
It seems not long ago that we were grieving for Laurence Faller. Yet Alsace is now faced with another desperately premature loss as it was reported that on the morning of Saturday 9th April, Etienne Hugel very suddenly passed away, aged just 57.
Etienne always seemed to be in a hurry, no less so than in this sudden exit from the world’s stage, and it leaves us desperately sad and empty. Such a loss seems impossible to comprehend.
He entered the family business in 1982, not the best of vintages for Alsace. But his uncle, the irrepressible ‘Johnnie’ Hugel had made sure there was enough good claret to make up for any shortcomings. Château Léoville Barton1982 would thereafter always be associated with the Hugel family. Etienne was the twelfth generation of Hugel, along with his cousin Jean-Philippe and winemaker brother Marc.
Family meant everything for Etienne. Indeed, the official name of the business was recently changed to Famille Hugel to reflect this indelible bond. Each active member of the family had a role, and for Etienne this was sales and marketing, to which he was admirably suited. As roving brand ambassador, replacing his revered uncle Johnnie, he was in his element.
Selling Alsace wine has never been an easy proposition and so a successful salesman has needed the skills akin to those of a proselytiser. Here, Etienne excelled with his energy, undying love and passion for the wines, his charisma and his unfailing ability to engage with everyone who fell under his spell.
Etienne was the master of communication in all its forms. The Hugel website is a model in interaction. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were the tools of his trade. In this regard he was my mentor, teaching me the importance and vitality of social media. Not so long ago I had my first Facetime conversation with him. Not an experience I particularly enjoyed!
He was a constant traveller and globe trotter. At first he shared the accumulation of air miles with Gérard Jaboulet, often appearing together at venues, including several memorable Wine Society tastings. It is impossible to think of Etienne without recalling that sad July day in 1997 when, with Johnnie and Nick Clark MW, we were all sweltering by the Chapelle on Hermitage Hill to say adieu to Gérard Jaboulet.
Of late, Etienne’s travels seemed to have become more focused on the Far East and indeed he regularly spent the first few weeks of the year based there. He was surely at his happiest in Singapore or Japan. He shared some of his impressions with wonderful photos which he posted on Facebook. His love for Kaoru, his Japanese-born wife, was immense and he was especially proud when together they won a contract to supply Japan Airlines.
As Hugel brand manager, Etienne was always keen to raise the family image at every opportunity. Joining forces with other great wine families seemed a most natural way forward and he was a fervent supporter of the Primum Familiae Vini which included Pol Roger, Symington and Drouhin among others.
Etienne was always keen to innovate. With his brother Marc, he created a new cuvee of pinot noir. Nobody had believed that Alsace could produce great red wine. The new cuvée, ‘Les Neveux’, proved everyone wrong. The first vintage, 1990, remains an exceptional red wine showing no signs of dying.
One of his last acts was to help modernise the famous yellow labels. They now seem bolder, more confident, reflecting the renewed dynamism that is clearly evident at Hugel. At the top end, the name Jubilee, coined to mark the firm’s 350th in 1989, gives way to something that has the touch of the atavistic and archaic and yet equally bold. Grossi Laüe is Alsacien for ‘Grand Cru’, and will replace the name Jubilee.
And there was still more. Amidst great pomp and ceremony last year at The Shard building in London, a new wine was revealed. This was a 2007 riesling, a great vintage and from a very particular plot of vineyard on the grand cru Schoenenbourg and called Schoelhammer. This is undoubtedly a grand statement of a wine and already hailed as one of the world’s finest dry rieslings.
Riesling is at the core of what Alsace and Hugel are about. It was also Etienne’s particular passion; riesling in all its forms, from steely dry to lusciously sweet. And his brother Marc made riesling in all those styles, providing Etienne with a showcase that was second to none.
However, we did think he had gone a little too far when out of his briefcase came a handful of riesling tattoos. Still we were game and for the next few days, some of us were sporting ‘riesling’ tattoos on our forearms.
Though selling Hugel was the aim, Etienne quite happily sang the praises of other vignerons and more than once made recommendations of who I should visit. The Hugel shop in Riquewihr has a formidable range of Alsace wines.
He never missed a Wine Society tasting, and was due to co-host a tasting of botrytis-affected wines with Fabrice Dubourdieu. More often there was the Wine Society Alsace roadshow, often with his cousin Jean Trimbach.
After a Chester tasting we danced a cancan on stage for the amusement of members. After an equally memorable tasting in Bradford we booked into the best curry House in town. The Maitre d’ did show some surprise when we turned up with a case of gewurztraminer but he took it surprisingly well!
He was generous with his time, welcoming me in my early days with The Society and sharing his Alsace with me. There must be many other wine buyers, wine writers and sommeliers who will today be thanking him for all those hours he spent preaching his gospel.
Etienne helped bring on board the thirteenth generation. His son Jean Frédéric is part of the sales team while his nephew Marc-André is on the production side, working with Marc. A cousin Christian is in accounts and is daughter Charlotte is currently working in London, learning her craft at the offices of wine importers John E Fells.
Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to them, to his father, wife and brother and to the many Hugels that make up this great and indomitable family.
We shall miss you Etienne.
I am just back from a six-day visit to Bordeaux tasting the 2015 vintage.
Traditionally the Bordeaux châteaux and merchants open their doors to the wine trade in early April to show off the fruits of the latest vintage, and this year there was a particularly strong attendance from wine merchants around the globe, no doubt attracted by talk of the best vintage for a number of years.I tasted several hundred wines from across the communes and appellations of Bordeaux, from Pauillac to Pomerol, Sauternes to Saint-Emilion, and from Bourg to Barsac. Many wines were tasted at the châteaux, but also at an excellent tasting organised by the Union de Grands Crus at the new stadium just outside Bordeaux, and at tastings put on by various négociants (merchants). This gave me the opportunity to taste many wines several times, a necessity when the wines are so young and can vary considerably depending on the freshness of barrel samples presented. As a result of these tastings I now feel I have a good ‘handle’ on the 2015 vintage.
What is clear is that 2015 is a very good vintage, unquestionably the best for claret since 2010. The wines have attractive balance, with perfumed bouquet, fresh, fleshy fruit and silky tannins. Whilst the wines do not have the weight of the 2009s and 2010s, they have real charm and vibrancy of fruit. French winemakers sometimes use the term ‘peps’ for wines that display freshness and vitality, and I think that the word neatly sums up the 2015 vintage.
Quality can be found at all levels in 2015, from first growths down to petits châteaux, and the wines will provide a great deal of drinking pleasure for members in the years to come.
The most consistent left bank wines are those of the southern Médoc, with Margaux and Saint-Julien performing particularly well. Pauillac produced some outstanding wines, but there is less consistency here (and in Saint-Estèphe) and we will be particularly selective in our purchases from the northern Médoc this year. Pessac-Léognan and Graves made some lovely wines, and our forthcoming en primeur offers will provide members with plenty of choice, both of reds and dry whites.
On the right bank, the wines of Saint-Emilion are excellent, displaying ripe merlot character, and fine tannin texture. Pomerol is slightly less consistent, but nevertheless produced some delicious wines with good ageing potential.
Finally, Sauternes and Barsac have enjoyed a very fine vintage, with plenty of noble rot, backed up with balancing freshness.
We will be offering an en primeur selection from top châteaux towards the end of the month, and this will be followed up with our main offer in June.
Head of Buying
The Society’s HQ is basking in spring sunshine as I write, so it is fitting that April’s Staff Choice has been noted for its affinity with sunnier weather.
This delightful sweet fizz from Italy was selected by our digital projects manager, Milda Olendre, and is evidently a popular choice: Head of Buying Tim Sykes has also selected this wine as one of his ‘alfresco’ choices in our current Buyers’ Favourites offer!
What a gorgeous light wine to enjoy on its own, or accompanied by fruit desserts. Moscato d’Asti is not always appreciated next to other sparklers, but in my book it comfortably sits in its own league. Excellent for sunny evenings, it’s light and refreshing, yet deliciously sweet and full of character, with gorgeously balanced grape sweetness and acidity.
Serve it as a surprise choice for your guests, and it will be noticed!
Moscato d’Asti adds a touch of festivity to any occasion and is extremely easy to drink. Being conscious about my alcohol intake, my alarm bells would start ringing, but at only 5% it’s far from a guilty pleasure! Another glass, please!
Digital Projects Manager
£7.25 – Bottle
£43.50 – Case of six
View Wine Details
Wine tastings can be perceived as rather stuffy affairs. While this is far from the truth for Society tastings, we feel that a certain amount of levity would not go amiss from time to time.
To this end it has been decided that tutored tastings, in future, will begin with 15 minutes of optional karaoke. Society staff and our honoured guest presenters will start the ball rolling, but it is hoped that in time members too will be forthcoming in wanting to display their penchant for belting out some chart hits before getting down to the serious matter of tasting.
We had a trial run in February already, with Head of Buying Tim Sykes giving a great rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s apposite Mrs Robinson just before Jancis Robinson MW introduced her presentation with Robbie Williams’ Let Me Entertain You to a suitably impressed audience.
Our next tutored tasting will begin with excerpts from the Broadway & West End hit show Chicago, with Head of Tastings Simon Mason giving members the old Razzle Dazzle, before Tastings Co-ordinator Emma Briffett will echo members’ reaction to this by singing those legendary lines from Cell Block Tango: “He had it coming!”
When offered a ‘pinot’, I suspect most would expect either a glass of red pinot noir or white pinot grigio/gris to be poured.
But hold fire! I feel their oft-forgotten cousin, pinot blanc, offers an opportunity to try something deliciously different.
This white mutation of pinot noir was first identified in Burgundy in the 18th century. Its lowly status in the pinot family seemed to be compounded by several cases of mistaken identity: for many years some vines were thought to be chardonnay. The grape is still grown in this part of the world, permitted but rarely used in Burgundy and Champagne, but it is now planted in many areas.
It can be found in Germany and Austria under the name weißburgunder, and in Italy as pinot bianco. It also features in Hungary and a number of Balkan vineyards. We used to list a Canadian example, and homegrown English examples can also be found. The slightly off-dry Chapel Down Pinot Blanc (£12.50) is worth a try, and the grape also appears in the blend of Sussex’s Albourne Estate Selection (£12.95).
Lovely as these English examples are, my place to start would be Alsace, where this near-neglected grape is capable of remarkable complexity and elegance.
Alsace is rightly hailed for its consumer-friendly labelling, with grape varieties being displayed on the label long before others caught on, but the ever-unfortunate pinot blanc is the exception that proves the rule here. A ‘pinot blanc’ from Alsace can by law contain pinot gris, auxerrois or even white-vinified pinot noir!
Nevertheless, the whole can often be greater than the sum of its parts, and I feel that the three pinot blancs currently available from The Society reveal the appeal of this unsung grape.
Three Alsace pinot blancs to try
1. At just £6.50, Cave de Turckheim’s 2014 Pinot Blanc overdelivers: I’ve recommended this to members in The Cellar Showroom a great deal, particularly for weddings and buffets. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, whose soft subtle melon fruit and fresh tempered acidity combine in an easy-drinking wine which suits a variety of foods and palates.
2. For a fuller feel, Trimbach’s 2014 Pinot Blanc (£8.95) shows how well the grape can complement auxerrois in an Alsace blend: it has a slight smoky and spicy character with fresh acidity, and the result is very stylish. Surprisingly it can be acquired for under £10 and is also available in a handy-sized half bottle for £5.50.
3. Finally, but still under £10 a bottle, Domaine Ginglinger’s 2013 Pinot Blanc (£9.95) is wonderfully aromatic and delivers ripe roundness that lingers. This is a great option for food matching, working especially well with egg-based dishes and with spicy food.
The Cellar Showroom
The Society’s List has been the backbone of The Society’s communications since the founding days in the 1870s; consistently produced over 140 years, through two World Wars and times of economic triumph and tragedy.
Technology hasn’t made the List obsolete but instead has complemented it rather nicely. We quite often receive a little flurry of tweets from members showing photos of their new List arriving with all the anticipation of the various delights lying within just waiting to be discovered.
I’m told some members even read it in bed but I’ve yet to verify this personally.
The production of each List follows a relatively similar pattern, though some editions are typically more challenging than others – often due to Bank Holidays (good luck trying to find sober proof readers between Christmas and the New Year!). The plans start about four months before the List is due to be mailed, which means that – a bit like painting the Forth Bridge or cleaning skyscraper windows – the wider List process never truly stops.
After initial briefing meetings and setting up various bits of software, the first major step is when the buyers select the wines and write all the tasting notes. It’s very important to the quality of the List and integrity of The Society that the wine notes are written by those who buy the wine. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch to employ someone who had never been out of the office let alone having actively sought out these wines to cobble together a bunch of formulaic tasting notes. This does not and will never happen.
Some buyers are masters of the short note, an art form in itself, while others could take up pages for just a few wines. The buyers all have their own personalities which often come through in their choice of adjectives and rhetorical flourishes. ‘Ethereal’ and ‘beguiling’ are two of my particular favourite adjectives used, but over the years we’ve had mention of everything from tractors to members of the clergy included within the notes.
There are three proofing circulations of the List. A paperless office is still a far and distant dream when it comes to doing this, but I hasten to add that The Society operates a variety of recycling schemes and takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously. However, I can say from experience that reading a 160-page document on a screen several times a day over the course of a week ends up in a state akin to having a lemon-juice eyebath. Sometimes the old ways really are the best!
Circulations one and two go to 16 people each, with the final authors’ corrections stage only going to four proof readers. This means that over the whole process I have to amalgamate a total of 36 copies’ worth of corrections. With each List containing c.880 wine notes, this means that by the time it goes to print I will have read somewhere in the region of 31,680 tasting notes.
One common denominator throughout the five years in which I’ve been managing the List is that we will always have too many wines to fit in the number of pages. This sounds like a negative thing but, for me, it’s the opposite: every wine in the List is permanently up against competition from new wines trying to push their way in, so for this very reason each wine has justify its space on the page.
This doesn’t mean we judge everything from a purely commercial perspective. Indeed, one of the benefits of being a non-profit maximising mutual is that we can consider interest, diversity and overall quality on an equal footing with sales figures. But quite often the end result is more wines than can fit in the pages available. This situation is otherwise known as a headache.
Not being particularly large in stature, arm wrestling as a form of problem resolution is not an option for me, so this is where our Merchandising Team comes into play. After a period of negotiation / horse trading, we usually arrive a suitable number of wines with minimal conflict!
Whilst all this has been going on, my colleague Alex Chrysostomou has been quietly getting on with the process of commissioning an artist for the List cover and internal illustrations. This can be logistically challenging, and at times more than a little surreal (he was once asked to make a fish smile). Alex also does the clever bit of taking the List and forming into something that works in our publishing / content management system so that it can be set and printed.
Then there are the logistics of segmenting over 140k active members, ensuring that the printers deliver in time to the mailing house, making sure the mailing house sends out the Lists according to schedule and a 101 other things that have to happen involving six external companies and just about every department within The Wine society before it drops through your letterbox.
So on behalf of all my colleagues who are vital in producing this Wine Society staple, we hope that you continue to enjoy using The Wine Society List and of course welcome your feedback.
Marketing Campaign Manager