By far my most important buying job of the year is putting together the blend of The Society’s Rioja (important because around 11,000 members every year buy it).

In the blending room - The mathematics behind The Society's RiojaIn the blending room – The mathematics behind The Society’s Rioja
Last November at Bodegas Palacio in Laguardia, winemaker Roberto Rodriguez and I spent most of a day mixing, tweaking and tasting various components. Quality this year is excellent, thanks to the concentration of the vintage (2011) and the fact that Roberto gave me access to some of his finest barrels of tempranillo normally destined for reserva-level wines.

Looking closer at the components, it’s clear to see why. Firstly, 2011 saw some of the Bodega’s healthiest tempranillo grapes which meant the wines were able to support extensive ageing. This year we selected from barrels where the wines have aged for a staggering 22 months (that’s 7 months more than the previous vintage).

Incidentally that means the wine does legally qualify to be labelled as a reserva. The barrels chosen were 90% American oak, a significant feature in good traditional-style Rioja, and 10% French oak: this combination endows the wine with a round, smooth texture and a hint of vanilla spice.

Our shipment of the new blend has arrived from Rioja and is available now for £7.50 per bottle. I hope you like it.

Pierre Mansour
Society Buyer

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These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, were written with the Easter 2015 selections of The Society’s Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Voted Best Wine Club by both The Independent and Which? magazine, 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.

Janet Wynne EvansJanet Wynne Evans
Holiday wine can either go down without touching the sides, never mind engaging the brain, or it can open the door to a wealth of food traditions. After all, what grows together usually goes together and some of my best ideas for ‘Wine and Dine’ notes have started with a casual and unpretentious glass of something local.

At the heart of every foodscape is a local hero. In the past, I’ve raved about Campania’s San Marzano tomatoes, Jamaican callaloo, Galician octopus, Corsican figatellu, Tudela peppers and much more besides.

I used to be frustrated by the difficulty of finding such ingredients here, though you usually can these days, thanks to the web-enabled global village we now inhabit. If not, I now just apply some lateral thinking to our own local produce – no less good, merely different, and so easy to take for granted.

Below, and guided by our Wine Without Fuss selection this Easter, are the home settings for some favourite food thoughts from abroad. They are the result of many years of devouring the world whether with a knife and fork on the spot, or from afar with a cookery book and a bit of imagination, while waiting for the chance to visit the many places that lie in store. There are many of them that I will probably never see now. But there’s a lot to be said for travelling in hope!

Jamón jamón
Jabugo and Teruel (Spain), Capocollo and San Daniele (Italy) and coppa (Corsica) are, for me, the last word in cured ham, a first priority to tuck into as soon as bags are unpacked. It’s funny how well a glass of something local, of any colour, works.

Cruz de Piedra: a cheerful choice for denser ham dishes.Cruz de Piedra: a cheerful choice for denser ham dishes.
The small Croatian triangle of Istria produces another fine example called prsut, and I’m delighted that our Man in the Balkans Sebastian Payne MW has unearthed its soulmate in our Easter Wine Without Fuss selection: Vina Laguna Malvazija 2013 (Buyers’ Everyday Whites) is perfect with any prosciutto, either straight from the pack or a decorously draped platter. You’ll find a crisp chardonnay a good match too (Faldeos Nevados Chardonnay 2013 (Buyers’ Premium Whites) or Château de Beauregard, Saint-Véran Vernay 2013 (Buyers’ French Classic Dry Whites). A good red choice for the denser hams is a brisk, fruity garnacha like Cruz de Piedra in Buyers’ Premium Reds.

Know your onions
Calabria’s sweet Tropea onions are seldom seen in my neck of the woods but any old red onion, and even a ferocious English one can be slowly fried down to a caramelly mellowness which will make you weep in a good way.

As well as trying them under baked pork chops with Savuto Rosso, Colacino 2012 (Buyers’ Premium Reds) as suggested in the Wine and Dine note, try folding them into a creamy onion tart. In that case, a good option would be a white Alsace such as Cave de Turckheim Pinot Gris 2013 (Buyers’ Premium Whites).

Whatever their provenance, onions can be quickly promoted from rhythm section to solo by quartering them through the base and roasting them with fresh thyme and the merest drop of balsamic vinegar. Pile them on bruschetta or adapt the idea for a savoury tarte tatin. This extra notch of sweetness demands a bit more oomph from the wine and I’d head for Australia with Bleasdale The Broad-Side Langhorne Creek Shiraz-Cabernet-Malbec 2012 (Buyers’ Premium Reds).

Follow the links….
You need a decent Italian deli for those densely meaty, fragrant sausages in which the old Boot excels. All they need is a quick browning in a hot oven and a leisurely 40-minute braise at a lower temperature with cannellini beans, tomatoes and a bit of red wine while you relax with an aperitif. I first tasted this deceptively simple dish in Greve, in the heart of Chianti Classico, where it was billed rather ghoulishly as Fagiolini all’ Uccelletto though the eponymous ‘little bird’ is conspicuous by its absence.

Even a very high-class butcher here tends to be trapped, banger-wise, between the traditional and the combustive, from Dragon’s Breath to Towering Inferno, so in extremis, opt for the former, the meatier the better (80% plus) and wild boar if possible. A generous pinch of toasted fennel seeds and a more controlled dash of chilli will give your sausage and bean casserole the Italian touch. Chianti Casale del Vento 2012 (Buyers’ Everyday Reds) would remind me of that first Tuscan encounter.

Who, having visited the Roussillon port of Collioure, could forget the magical light, a famous magnet for artists, or the bouillabaisse (zarzuela in Catalan) to eat while basking in it? Mine, which was consumed in a pieds-dans-l’eau restaurant of some repute called La Frégate, was like the Mediterranean in a bowl (in a good way), fragrant and stuffed with all manner of unfamiliar things like dogfish and sea-scorpion.

A fish stew is the most flexible feast there is and as long as there is a balance of any firm white flesh and flavoursome seafood, the key to conveying a sense of place is the rhythm section – in this case, a splash of vermouth, a pinch of saffron, onions, peppers and tomatoes, a bunch of herbs and some good stock made from discarded prawn or crayfish shells.

I like to serve mine with some spicy rouille and another Catalan speciality from over the border. Pan amb tomaquet is merely toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and spread with smashed fresh tomatoes, but the tomatoes must be good and ripe, not northern and peevish. Collioure, Domaine de Tremadoc 2013 (Buyers’ Classic Whites) is the obvious choice: you could also try Massamier La Mignarde, Coteaux de Peyriac 2013 (Buyers’ Everyday Whites).

..and Shade

David BaverstockDavid Baverstock
A birthday treat in the Alentejo in October 2013 offered a long-awaited opportunity to visit the model Esporão estate. Here, Australian oenologist David Baverstock thrives alongside the indigenous Portuguese grapes he champions, coaxing from them focused, high-octane flavours that overlay the clean-cut, crisp, quality of really smart winemaking.

An equally smart on-site restaurant, open to the public produces a modern twist on traditional ingredients. On my visit the highlight of the autumnal menu was octopus roasted in a wood oven with a red wine sauce and potatoes infused with coriander, unexpectedly served with the estate’s Reserve White. It would have worked equally well with a red or a rosé, demonstrating yet again the sheer versatility of Portuguese wines.

In 2014, I spent my birthday in Puglia where, in the precariously perched seaside town of Polignano, I enjoyed a similar and equally delicious dish of polpo in primitivo, so the world is clearly catching up with the Bond villains among us, who dare to uncork red wine with fish.

A decent Portuguese Man o’ War is hard to source, but a pearly chunk of hake will do the trick. Firstly wash some baby potatoes (don’t peel them), pat dry and toss in olive oil and a liberal helping of toasted coriander seeds, smashed in a pestle and mortar. For a really authentic touch, add a pinch of dried pennyroyal (poejo) – a linchpin of Alentejano cooking. Fresh coriander leaves (add them at the end) are a good substitute. Bake in a hot oven for about 40 minutes until crisp and brown. Leave in the oven, but switch it off.

Brush one chunky, skin-on fillet of hake per person with oil, season well and fy skin-side down until the skin is crisp – about four or five minutes. Flip over and cook for just a minute until the fillet is opaque. Transfer to a plate and put in the oven to keep warm.

Deglaze the pan with a generous glass of red wine and a dash of concentrated shellfish stock. Simmer briskly until well reduced, syrupy almost, and season to taste. Arrange the fish on the potatoes and nap with the red wine glaze.

Both Esporão wines in the Easter Wine Without Fuss selection – Verdelho in Buyers’ Premium Whites, and Monte Velho Tinto 2013 in Buyers’ Everyday Bottles – will rise magnificently to the occasion.

Blast from the past
Continuing the fish and red theme, I spent one of my student years at the University of Montpellier. I say University, but most of our time was spent honing an outrageous accent du Midi in various bars, clubs (one of which was called Le Pou Qui Pleure – the ‘Louse with a Grouse’) and, on sunny days, the Mediterranean-side resorts of Palavas –Les-Flots or Sète. Ubiquitous in the restaurants we couldn’t afford were mussels from Bouzigues on the Bassin de Thau, a large saltwater lake nearby. The recipe below is a classic bit of Sétois surf and turf. A real pro would open the mussels before cooking and stuffing them, but this method ensures you can sort out any bad boys before they do the same to you.

If you’re not keen on mussels, try putting this delicious stuffing into large field mushrooms and baking them in the sauce.

Serves 4-6

First make a simple tomato sauce, or use a good bottled variety. For the stuffing, combine 300g lean pork mince with 120g sourdough breadcrumbs, 3 cloves garlic, crushed and 2 beaten eggs. Season with salt and pepper and a little chopped continental parsley.

Rinse and debeard 500g large mussels, discarding any open ones. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and throw in the mussels. Give them 4 minutes and drain well, discarding any that are still closed. Separate the shells at the hinge, loosen the meats and spoon in some stuffing. Replace the top shells and secure each mussel with a bit of kitchen string into which you have tucked an optional fresh bay-leaf. This is a bit long-winded but adds to the rustic charm.

Add 100ml concentrated fish stock and a splash of pastis or dry white vermouth to the vermouth and stock to the tomato sauce in a pan big enough to take the mussels. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for 30minutes. Taste the sauce and boil a bit longer lid-off if it seems too thin. Season well. Bring to the table in the pan, along with some scissors to snip the string. Tuck in with plenty of crusty bread and a glass of local hero Domaine Magellan Rouge, Pays de l’Hérault 2012 (Buyers’ Premium Reds).

From the mind’s eye
When I finally get to South Africa, one of two things I plan to do if my timing is right is to catch and cook my own sardines on the beach in Durban, armed with a juicy lemon, some sea-salt and a chilled bottle of Piekeniers White 2013 (Buyers’ Everyday Whites).

The other is to sample Karoo lamb. This hardy breed grazes on unpromisingly scrubby soils covered with intensely flavoured wild herbs that apparently make their way into the meat. It can be braised slowly in the traditional European style with garlic, rosemary and olive oil, or given a more cosmopolitan and spicy Cape Malay approach as in the ‘potjie’ below. The key here is a good garam masala, made from freshly toasted spices and it’s best made to order. The beauty of South African reds and whites, for that matter, is that they cope brilliantly with these fairly demanding flavours. The Liberator Francophile Syrah (Buyers’ Premium Red) is a perfect example.


A potjie is a large casserole or Dutch oven. A lidded cast-iron one works well. Set your oven at 150C /Gas 2. Brown four shanks well in vegetable oil and set aside. Throw in two large onions, wedged into eighths and brown them too, before adding 2-3 crushed cloves of garlic and a thumb of root ginger, finely grated. Sprinkle in two heaped teaspoons of garam masala, a pinch of turmeric and some crumbled chilli flakes, to taste. Let it sizzle away gently before adding a 400g tin of peeled plum tomatoes. Fill the empty tin with water and add that too, along with a glass of red wine. I also add some smoked sun-dried tomatoes for an extra boost. Simmer for a few minutes, then, return the lamb to the pot, cover very tightly with foil and put on the lid. Transfer to the oven for two hours, ensuring it doesn’t boil dry (add a little more wine or water). Finish with a spoonful of mango chutney if you like and serve with wedges of roasted butternut squash or baked sweet potatoes.

Janet Wynne Evans

Categories : Wine Without Fuss
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Thu 19 Mar 2015

Cycling From Stevenage To Montreuil

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As you may already be aware, 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of The Wine Society’s move from London to Stevenage.

To mark this occasion, The Society is hosting an anniversary fair on the 13th June, displaying 50 of the wines which best represent the Society of 2015.

However, the following Saturday, on June 20th, something much more gruelling will be undertaken by eight members of staff.

It all began with a casual off the cuff remark – of ‘why don’t we cycle to Montreuil to mark the occasion?’ – between a couple of members of The Society’s newly formed cycling club in the summer of 2014.

A three-part map of the route, via Google MapsA three-part map of the route, via Google Maps
This spawned into a handful of eager, and some not so eager, cyclists from throughout The Society to rise to the challenge of cycling from The Society’s UK Showroom in Hertfordshire, to The Society’s French Showroom in Montreuil.

The team consists of a handful of experienced, and some not so experienced, cyclists from throughout the ranks of The Society’s staff. The Tastings Team is represented by Simon Mason, Matthew Horsley and Jon Granger; Member Services by Freddy Bulmer, Ben Briffett, Dulcie Buckenham and I; and the warehouse by Thom Cleary.

The true nature of the ride only really hit home when the route was mapped out, totalling a staggering 145 miles. The idea to complete the distance in a day naturally shook a few of the group who are a little newer to cycling; however, with a few training rides, the wheels are in motion for the longest bicycle ride that any of us have undertaken in a day.

Although some long distance knowledge is on our side, the route through rural Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and northern France will be a challenge for even the mentally and physically strongest among us!

So with tyres pumped solid, training plans plotted, and weekends lost to peddling through rain and shine, we’ll be ready to go on the day of the ride.

All of that said, the hardest part of preparation is getting eight oenophiles to agree on what to drink in celebration at the end!

Thom Buzzard
Member Services

The ride itself is a celebration of 50 years of The Society’s home in Stevenage, but we will be also raising money for Macmillan Cancer Research. Should you wish to donate, you can do so via this link.

Categories : Montreuil
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A number of factors can affect the perceived taste of a wine, price being one, even mood, and when advising Society members I try to ascertain as many of these parameters (with the exception of mood!) when I am seeking out a suitable wine.

Standing-up winesMany moons ago I was introduced to the concept of ‘standing-up’ or ‘sitting-down’ wines, and I endeavour to incorporate this into any advice given.

Questioning one’s drinking position may seem a tad intrusive, but it is not to be taken literally!

For me, ‘standing-up’ wines relate to those easily accessible bottles, possibly not too complex but fruit driven and able to deliver immediate gratification. ‘Sitting-down’ wines I see as having a little more complexity, perhaps classified as fine wines but those that promote palate-pondering and are there to partner a particular meal.

While I believe that nearly every meal can be enhanced by the addition of wine sometimes a glass is used as a pre-dinner drink or just something to unwind with. At drinks parties or receptions, wine performs much the same task; these easy drinkers can be seen as standing-up wines.

Sitting-down winesOther, possibly more formal times when wine becomes part of the meal, it enriches the dining experience and I find a little more thought is required when choosing these sitting-down wines.

Deciding what constitutes a sitting down or standing up wine, for me, has no geographical or grape-related boundaries but I do feel some areas lend themselves more to sitting down – Alsace or Bordeaux; and Chile offers a number of excellent standing-up options. There will always be times when only a glass of £6 merlot will be better received than a £20 claret – and vice versa.

There is no right and wrong. The beauty is locating a particular wine for a particular occasion.

Sitting or standing, wine’s enjoyment never diminishes.

Conrad Braganza
The Cellar Showroom

Categories : Miscellaneous
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Tue 10 Mar 2015

Blending The Society’s Claret

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Not long ago I was lucky enough to be able to watch as The Society’s Claret blend was put together by buyers Tim Sykes and Jo Locke while on a short trip to Bordeaux. It was a fascinating insight into the care taken to create a wine that is so much a part of The Society’s fabric that it is sometimes easy to take for granted.

Blending The Society's ClaretThe Society’s Claret is one of those wines which defines the Society range and represents more than just supremely drinkable Bordeaux wine at an excellent price. After The Society’s White Burgundy it is our bestselling wine (and consequently our bestselling red wine), and as such it is an important introduction for many members to the joys of claret drinking.

It has to represent the Bordeaux style, as well as The Society, with aplomb while remaining good value and that is quite a responsibility. So how is it made and who makes it?

At the Quai de Bacalan, on the banks of the River Garonne in Bordeaux itself, sits the HQ of Maison Sichel: growers, négociants and long-time suppliers of The Society’s Claret, as well as a number of other fine Bordeaux wines. It is an unflashy façade that opens up, Tardis-like, onto a network of rooms and corridors that stretches way back from the river.

In a simple, white and bright tasting room in the heart of the complex, we found 12 bottles labelled from 1 to 12, each containing a blend already put together by the Sichel’s vastly experienced technical director Yvan Meyer from properties all over the Bordeaux appellation. The bottles contained varying ratios of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc with three of the samples coming from the 2013 vintage and the rest from 2014.

Beside them stood a bottle of the current Society version, on sale as we speak, acting as a control and reference point. A sheet listed the samples and the proportions of each grape variety in each sample for Jo and Tim to refer to. Charlie Sichel, who had generously hosted us for dinner the night before, and Leigh Claridge, head of their UK sales team, looked on as the process got under way.

Under the watchful eye of Yvan, Jo and Tim tasted the current bottling followed by each sample individually, assessing merits and weaknesses and making many notes, occasionally revisiting the current bottling to confirm an impression. I followed in their wake, noting the clear difference between the current bottling and the younger samples. The extra time in bottle of the current edition showed clearly against the more primary fruit aromas and flavours and youthful tannins of the samples. The current claret was mellow, rounded and sweet fruited with flavours that were integrated and developed but without losing freshness. I enjoyed the youngsters but could see that they were still a little angular in comparison to the current example.

Jo Locke MW tasting the winesJo Locke MW tasting the wines

Having tasted each sample individually, noted their characteristics and considered their merits, Jo and Tim watched as Yvan took up a graduated cylinder and carefully began pouring different amounts of selected samples in to it. These he poured for us and again Tim and Jo weighed it up and made their notes.

This regimen was followed over the next two hours: each time a different amalgam of sample measures was tasted and assessed according to Tim and Jo’s requests and towards the end it came down to tweaks of samples that seemed the obviously best candidates.

Blending The Society's ClaretOne thing that made me stop and think was that it never appeared to be as simple as saying, for example, that it needed a little more acidity and then adding a drop of a sample that exhibited what seemed to be the right amount of acidity when assessed alone. It often seemed, for example, that the acidity displayed by a sample did not necessarily show as expected in the suggested blend and was lost in the mix after all, or stood out like a sore thumb. Therein lay the skill of Jo and Tim, judging the nuances, subtleties and potential of the blends, trying to accurately gauge how these youthful samples might evolve together as they were reassessed time and again until agreement on the final selection was reached after many blends, slurps, swirls, sniffs and scribbles.

There was a quiet satisfaction when the job had been done but no ceremony or celebration and we moved swiftly on to a tasting of a range of petit châteaux represented by Sichel, so there was no time to reflect any more deeply on the new Society’s Claret.

It was a job quietly and well done. Having tasted the final blend in its salad days I am very much looking forward to trying it when it reaches The Society’s list in a slightly more mature form.

Steve Farrow
Wine Information Editor

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Thu 05 Mar 2015

Bush Fires in South Africa

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Just this week I was discussing with a major supplier the advantages that South Africa has climatically: little frost risk, no earthquakes of note, plentiful sunshine, on- and off-shore winds which, on balance, are more positive than negative.

We forgot about ‘bush fires’. A more common phenomenon in Australia, they occur with less regularity in The Cape. Whilst essential for some indigenous flora, they can be devastating to wine farms – as has been the case with the current fires sweeping south, which at the time of writing have destroyed vines in Constantia and Noordhoek. All the more tragic with an exciting 2015 vintage in prospect.

This time-lapse video by Jason Aldridge on Youtube captures something of the scale and rapid growth of the fires. We wish everyone in the region the very best.

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Mon 02 Mar 2015

Charity Cases

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We had some great news last week when we received a letter from the Multiple Sclerosis Trust confirming that to date we have raised £13,898.35 from donations for empty wooden wine boxes at the door of The Cellar Showroom.

This fantastic achievement has been achieved over the last few years and will certainly continue for many years to come.

MS-Trust-logo1-262x300The MS Trust is a UK charity, providing information for anyone affected by multiple sclerosis, education programmes for health professionals, funding for practical research and campaigning for specialist multiple sclerosis services. They have been in operation for over 20 years and today reach over 40,000 people across the UK. I think you’ll all agree they are a hugely important charity and we in the showroom are proud to be supporting them. For more information please visit their website here.

So, we estimate that members give around £1 per box so that means we have shifted close to 14,000 wooden boxes. So what do members do with all these boxes? Well I’ve only been here 6 months and so far the most popular uses are as plant pots and storing DVDs. However, more unusual and inventive uses include:

• Creating an insect farm in the garden
• Presentation boxes for a wedding events company
• One member took 50 boxes to break down and use as panelling for a wall of his kitchen
• A manger for baby Jesus in a Nativity play
• Varnishing them and selling them on for £5 at car boot sales (cheeky!)
• A hedgehog house
• Decorative table tops
• As the border for some outside decking
• Placemats
• Cheeseboards
• Bedside tables

…and I’m sure many other great uses that have passed me by.

Well done to everyone involved and many thanks to the warehouse team who get the boxes together for us and bring them round to The Showroom.

And thanks to the humble wooden boxAnd thanks to the humble wooden box

Giles Cundy
The Cellar Showroom

Categories : Miscellaneous
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It’s a Friday night in The Wine Society’s Stevenage HQ. A number of Marketing Team members are at a private tasting after work. Among them are such seasoned tasters as The Society’s fine wine manager, Shaun Kiernan, our WSET-Diploma-graduate wordsmith Paul Trelford and current Diploma student Hugo Fountain.

Glasses of fine cabernet are being swirled studiously.

‘I think the first wine has lost some of its elegance with this one – but the fruit is definitely more full-bodied.’
‘I agree, but the second wine is responding better for me – it’s lost some of the minty notes we smelled earlier but it’s got such lovely fullness to it now.’

So they continue to converse and analyse how the wines are changing…

…on account of the riff to Metallica’s 1991 heavy-metal classic ‘Enter Sandman’, which happens to be emanating loudly from a boombox in the corner of the dining room.

What madness led us here? Was this really a profitable way for us to spend a Friday? As Sam from our canteen staff said when she found out about the tasting, is it just time we got lives? She has a point…

And yet all seemed to find it an eye-opening experience – as indeed I had when I was first introduced to the idea of music and wine matching.

So, can music really affect the taste of wine?
Let’s get the basic hypothesis out of the way first: yes, it certainly can.

I was as sceptical as anyone: with intuitive cynicism firing on all cylinders and an eye being kept perennially out for potential parlour tricks, I attended a workshop on the subject by California vintner, inventor and Renaissance man Clark Smith a couple of years ago at a conference in Rioja.

After he made two glasses of chardonnay taste markedly different with a mere flick of an iPod button, without even the merest power of suggestion, I was agog; but then why shouldn’t this be the case?

I realised that I had been guilty of thinking about wine and music – two of my favourite things in this world – in a rather uptight way.

‘I felt differently thanks to a piece of music’ is by no means a controversial statement to make. Music’s oft-profound effect on our brain means it is studied and used in therapy and education, and in so-called psychological ‘nudging’; marketing agencies identifying the ‘right’ ambient music for restaurants, hotels and so forth are big business these days.

With this in mind, the statement ‘A wine tasted differently with a certain piece of music’ should not necessarily be a controversial one either.

Having hosted a couple of wine and music tastings now – one for comparative novices and one for experienced palates – it is apparent that music can affect the way wine tastes in ways that are comparable to temperature and glassware. Sometimes the variation is nil and sometimes it is slight, but on other occasions it is markedly noticeable.

The tasting
As such, I was confident enough to guarantee three things were in store for my Society guinea pigs at the start of the tasting; firstly that we would taste some great wines (and our line-up on the night did not disappoint thanks to the generosity of those present), listen to some great music (an array of genres were queued up for the evening’s exercise) and finally that we would leave having realised that we are not quite the infallible tasters we like to think we are!

Music and wine tasting

The wines were poured in pairs and each was tasted in silence at first. Thoughts and impressions were invited. The music was then put on for bursts long enough for tasters to get their heads around what was happening. Sure enough, about 10 seconds into the first piece of music, glances began to be exchanged and even a gasp could be heard over the strains of ‘California Girls’ as the tasters began to realise that the wines were indeed changing.

By the second pair of wines, everyone was talking calmly about the changes as if this was the most natural of Friday dinner-party chinwags.

Can I try?
Of course! If you would like to try these pairings or similar ones yourself – without having our notes on the results we experienced influence you – then please find the wine and music pairings from the night below:

The principles for sourcing these pairings are laid out in Clark Smith’s own methodology on his website, which includes how-tos and recommendations for hosting your own tasting.

FLIGHT ONE: Chardonnay and Oak: Good Vibrations?
Wines: Jean-Marc Brocard, Chablis Premier Cru Butteaux 2011; Greywacke Marlborough Chardonnay 2011
Music: The Beach Boys – California Girls; Ella Fitzgerald – St. Louis Blues; Chet Baker/Gerry Milligan – Jeru; John Lee Hooker – Sugar Mama Blues

FLIGHT TWO: Sauvignon Blanc & Rosé vs Johann, John & Jimi
Wines: Pouilly-Fumé, Château de Tracy 2012; Corse-Calvi Rosé, Domaine Alzipratu 2013
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach – Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645, ‘Sleepers, Awake’; John Denver – Sunshine on My Shoulders; Jimi Hendrix – Purple Haze

FLIGHT THREE: Cabernet Sauvignon – Mozart vs Metallica
Wines: Château Batailley, Pauillac 2002; Gandolini Las Tres Marias Vineyards Maipo Andes Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Metallica – Enter Sandman

FLIGHT FOUR: Syrah or Shiraz; Reggae or Pop?
Wines: Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert, Paul Jaboulet Aîné 2005; Peter Lehmann Stonewell Barossa Shiraz 2004
Music: The Maytals – Pressure Drop; Sally Shapiro – He Keeps Me Alive

The winesThe wines

For the curious, here’s what we found on the night:

FLIGHT ONE: Chardonnay and oak: good vibrations?
‘California Girls’ had a remarkable effect on the unoaked chardonnay from Chablis, making its fruit seem more generous and expressive. The oaked Greywacke, on the other hand, became muted and out of sorts. ‘St Louis Blues’ had an inverse effect, dumbing the Chablis and bringing out more toasty nuttiness in the Greywacke. Chet Baker and Gerry Milligan’s frantic jazz rhythms did not suit either, whilst John Lee Hooker had a similar effect to ‘St Louis Blues’ on the oaked wine.

FLIGHT TWO: Sauvignon Blanc & Rosé vs Johann, John & Jimi
Bach was no friend to either of these wines, though some who found the Pouilly-Fumé a little too exuberant for them expressed a preference for the acidity-dimming effect the piece had on this wine. John Denver’s ‘Sunshine On My Shoulders’ revived our Corsican pink dramatically, making it taste more delicate, more fruity and generally far more pleasant. Alas Mr Hendrix then toppled both, making each taste comparatively unfocused and dull.

FLIGHT THREE: Cabernet Sauvignon – Mozart vs Metallica
The remarkably elegant 2002 Batailley was notably more subtle and complex with Mozart, but the robustness we had smelled and tasted before the play button was hit seemed frustratingly lacking. The fuller-bodied Gandolini Cabernet was not so enamoured with ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ and seemed to retreat into its shell. Metallica had an inverse effect, with the dark fruit of both wines soaring, albeit perhaps at the expense of some finesse. I then went back to ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix, which seemed to have a happy-medium effect, allowing body and complexity to sit alongside each other quite comfortably.

FLIGHT FOUR: Syrah or Shiraz; Reggae or Pop?
Although neither the Crozes-Hermitage nor the Barossa particularly enjoyed Sally Shapiro’s electro-pop, the reggae number ‘Pressure Drop’ had a pleasing effect on the Crozes, smoothing over some of the more farmyard-like smells and thus making it more appealing to non-Rhôneophiles present.

Music and wine principles
As some may have inferred from the above, some principles can be grabbed at here, primarily in terms of personifying the wines in musical form. Fresh unoaked chardonnay is lifted by the summery rhythms of The Beach Boys whilst heavier, oakier versions are enlivened by huskier bluesy ones. Big, dark, brooding reds baulk at Mozart but enjoy Metallica.

And rosé loves John Denver…

Much more erudite people than I have written far better about all this, but I find much of the joy in the concept to be due to its flexibility. Music and wine are both subjects that straddle the objective and subjective in fascinating ways, and finding pairings that work well based on one’s personal taste is great fun.

Anyone wishing to find out more should head over to

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

Categories : Miscellaneous
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Thu 26 Feb 2015

Viognier: It’s All Peachy

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With plantings under 50ha at one point (the vast majority in the Rhône), extinction seemed on the horizon for the viognier grape, with the tiny Condrieu appellation apparently destined to be its only real representation.

Viognier’s vulnerability in the vineyard to both disease and pests coupled with its low-yielding nature, specific soil-type preference and the necessity for a great deal of warmth to achieve adequate ripeness all had a part to play in this dwindling quantity of vines.

Viognier growing in South AfricaViognier growing in South Africa
However, Viognier has since seen a resurgence and now is planted the world over from Australia to California, Chile to Languedoc-Roussillon, where its challenging nature has yielded a plethora of styles to enjoy. Take for example the luscious McManis Viognier 2012 (USA, £10.95 per bottle), the fresh and crisp-finishing Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Viognier 2013 (Australia, £9.95), the opulent barrel-fermented Concha y Toro Corte Ignacio Casablanca Viognier 2013 (Chile, £8.50) and the more classically styled Viognier, Domaine du Bòsc 2013 (south of France, £7.25).

With aromas that allude to apricots and peaches, taking in honeysuckle and violets backed up with subtle spice and offering body and texture, viognier, even in small proportions, can also bring so much to a blend.

Its addition in small quantities to the red wine Côte-Rôtie is well known. For a winter warmer, The Wolftrap, Western Cape 2013 (South Africa, £7.25) matches the brooding red syrah and mouvèdre varieties with viognier, which adds glorious lift and interest.

White blends benefit from not only this fragrance addition but also the weight it brings to the wine. Take for example two members’ favourites from France, Les Pierres Bordes Marsanne-Viognier 2013 (£5.95) and Duo Des Deux Mers, Sauvignon-Viognier Vin De France 2014 (£6.25) where the complementary nature of viognier not only fattens the wine but brings its unique bouquet to the mix too. The same can be said of South Africa’s Piekeniers White, Piekenierskloof 2013 (£7.75).

Modest use of oak can enhance viognier further, adding a new dimension – as can be seen in The Liberator ‘Butch & The Sunrise Kid’, Western Cape 2013 (£9.95) as well as the Bulgarian The Guardians MRV, Borovitza 2011 (£14.95).

Condrieu - viognier's heartlandCondrieu – viognier’s heartland
In its Rhône heartland, Grignan Les Adhémar Blanc Cuvée Gourmandise, Domaine de Montine 2013 (£7.95) shows how even in a group of varieties the characteristics of viognier shine through and produces a great food-friendly wine. Indeed, viognier’s perfume and body suits many foods, especially the sweet meat of shellfish and it also displays an affinity for spicier Asian foods and curries.

I have not even touched on some of the southern French and Rhône examples of this grape that reveal its fine wines and aging credentials, but I think the above displays that for this most finicky fruit, the outlook is peachy!

Conrad Braganza
The Cellar Showroom

Wed 25 Feb 2015

One foot in the Graves

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Little did I know how spoiled we would be when I jumped at the chance to attend a tasting of Graves wines in London just before Christmas tutored by The Wine Advocate’s Neal Martin.

Neal chose two fine vintages as the focus for this tasting: 2007 whites and 1998 reds, cleverly bringing in themes as varied as vintage variability across Bordeaux’s different communes (1998 was excellent in the Graves, not as good in reputation-determining Médoc) and wine styles (2007 much less good for reds than for dry & sweet whites), the cellaring potential of Bordeaux’s great dry whites, premature oxidation, consultants Dubourdieu vs. Rolland, and many more.

If you are a real enthusiast, attend a Neal Martin tasting some time if you can.

Graves tasting with Neal Martin

The Graves is an historic region though its properties were classified a century after the Médoc. Perhaps the unromantic name of the appellation, ‘Graves’, has not helped in English-speaking markets, and the more premium Pessac-Léognan, introduced later, is something of a tongue-twister.

Yet quality has come on in leaps and bounds even at more modest levels and it does include some of Bordeaux’s greatest estates, not least Château Haut-Brion whose still vigorous 1998 served as the climax of a fine tasting. Eric Perrin, joint owner of Château Carbonnieux and head of the appellation for the last three years commented on Haut-Brion ‘can we talk about perfection?’.

Other highlights for me were Château Bouscaut Blanc 2007 (a rich yet fresh classic), Domaine de Chevalier rouge 1998 (proving it is not just the superlative whites from this vineyard which rank among the very best of Bordeaux), and my personal favourite on the day Château Haut-Bailly 1998: a very lovely wine, complex & very fine, more cerebral than generous, yet beautifully textured and still with life ahead.

Jo Locke MW
Society Buyer

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