Grapevine Archive for May, 2013
Not quite a year ago, I reported on the calamitous hail storms that blighted so much of Provence. Most of my news came from Domaine de Fontlade in the Varois but many were hit.
One of the worst-affected places was the town of Roquefort, a little inland from the port of Cassis in Provence. The devastation was almost complete as the hailstones ripped through the vines, knocking out in one fell swoop any chance of getting a crop.
But there is a good story which I think goes some way to cancel out the miserable fate that led to Katie Jones losing her production of white wine.
In Roquefort, two neighbouring properties faced real difficulties. It was worse for Château Roquefort but what happened here was remarkable as producer after producer donated the odd ton or so of grapes.Donations came from all over the south, from the Rhône to Bandol, including Domaine Tempier. ‘But for the grace of God go I,’ was the response. No harvest is ever guaranteed, not least when it concerns soft fruit but the reaction from so many was no less extraordinary.
Next door to Roquefort is Château Barbanau, owned by Sophie Cerciello and Didier Simonini. They suffered just as badly though didn’t make quite same fuss! Moreover, they insisted that everything that came to them had to be certified organic and only from AOC Cotes de Provence. But apart from that the story was the same with vignerons friends and neighbours donating crop and even help out in the hail-damaged vineyards.
The results are spectacular as members will find when we ship the 2012 white, rosé and red for the summer.
What constitutes an ‘emerging region’?This was the question posed at an inaugural trade tasting of the same name hosted recently by Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine. It brought together wines from countries and regions as diverse as China, Japan, Georgia, Turkey, Croatia, Romania but also Washington, Luxembourg, Chile, England, Greece and Argentina.
The tasting was aimed particularly at importers wishing to add something a little bit different to their wine lists. It presented a mix of countries and regions that already have made gentle inroads onto the UK wine scene, up-and-coming areas of newer wine-producing countries and lesser-known parts of established vineyard areas.
One of the original ‘objects’ of The Wine Society as laid down by our founders was ‘to introduce foreign wines hitherto unknown or but little known in this country.’ This spirit is as alive today as it was in 1874 and with such a wealth of good quality wines being produced in what would previously have been thought of as the most improbable of places, we are spoilt for choice.
The debate that preceded the tasting examined how to get drinkers to try these new wines … how can they compete on already crowded wine lists and shelves? How would wine lovers cope with the linguistically challenging wine names and grape varieties?
Many felt that the challenge is to get drinkers to take the plunge and taste unfamiliar wines felt that if you could just get people to taste the wines then they would be converted. There was talk of using signature wines or grapes to blaze a trail for a country’s lesser-known or more esoteric wines.
Romanian pinot noir was cited as a good example of this approach. Pinot noir is notoriously tricky to get right and often carries a high price tag, but it’s a variety that the Romanians do very well and at a reasonable price and it offers something very different from new world interpretations of the grape. One merchant talked of how one of his clients offered Romanian pinot noir by the glass on their pub chalk-board. The wine didn’t sell. However, the same wine sold as ‘House Pinot Noir’ flew out!
The policy of Wine Society buyer for Eastern Europe, Sebastian Payne MW, is to be ‘loud and proud’ about the wines we list and members have responded enthusiastically.The enchanting Tamâioasa Româneasca white from Prince Stirbey in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps has proved very popular, as did the Turkish kalecik karasi red that we listed last summer and which we will be shipping again soon – proof that challenging juxtapositions of vowel and consonant is no barrier to trying delicious new wines!
I did find the tasting challenging. It wasn’t just the bewildering array of unheard-of wines and grape varieties from countries whose wines I had never encountered before, but also the fact that many of the tastes experienced were so different from what I am used to.
There was Georgia, which with its 8,000 vintages and 500 grape varieties lays claim to being the ‘cradle of winemaking’, and its traditional Qvervi wines fermented in large clay amphorae which are then sealed and buried in the earth.
A whole stand was devoted to the unique Orange wines all made within 100km of each other across three countries in Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. The wines undergo long skin contact during fermentation and are made in a highly traditional and natural way by techniques that have been around long before Rudolph Steiner was born! One of the growers refused to bottle his wine if it was a cloudy day because the wine would turn cloudy…
For me one of the most interesting aspects of the tasting was that it was a real leveller. It put seasoned tasters and experts in the shoes of those that are new to wine or who come to it without the preconceptions that many years in the industry may have given us. Without the usual points of reference by which to judge the wines, it was good to be reminded that what counts is simply whether you like the taste or not.
The good news was there was plenty to like, I thought, and it will be fascinating to chart the fortunes of these ‘emerging regions’ over the next few years.
Oh, and we have recently listed an extraordinarily good-value Romanian pinot noir too. La Catina Pinot Noir, 2009 comes from a single vineyard. With true pinot fragrance and succulent black-cherry flavour, it’s a bargain at £7.50 a bottle.
Read more about the rise of obscure grapes and regions in Andrew Jefford’s article, The weirdos are coming, in Wine World & News.
We will be making an offer of wines from off the beaten track in June.
Every year The Wine Society takes advantage of the London International Wine Fair and the presence in the country of so many growers by inviting them to come and pour their wines, and talk with enthusiastic members.
This year we decided to do things a little differently and invited members and producers to our premises in Stevenage for an ambitious and exclusive mini wine fair for Society members: ‘A Grand Day Out’ (cheese and crackers optional).And so it was that on Sunday morning, over 500 members poured in to our tasting marquee to sample the 96 wines on offer, the majority presented by the winemakers themselves.
The wines were arranged in a rough alphabetical order based on country of origin and so Australian producer Mac Forbes had a busy start to the day. Showing both his own wines and the exclusive Blind Spot range, the highlights for me were a sneak preview of the spicy Mac Forbes RS 14 Riesling, 2012 (stock due in June) and the soft and succulent Blind Spot Grenache-Shiraz-Mataro.Further round the marquee, Basaline Despagne cut as stylish a figure as her wines, with the 2012 vintage of Society favourite Château Bel Air Perponcher Réserve blanc showing extremely well. Flying the flag for New Zealand, Jane Hunter OBE and Michael Brajkovich MW between them showcased the diversity of premium New Zealand whites – Michael’s Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay, 2010 proving a balanced and complex wine after the vibrant intensity of Jane’s 2012 Exhibition Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
Nipping outside briefly for some air (and making a note to book a larger marquee next time) I received a tip off from a member that the Italian offerings were simply stunning and so made my way to the back of the marquee where Bernardo Barberani was charming an enthusiastic audience of members. The wines didn’t disappoint. The seductive and elegant Foresco had the potential to embarrass many a higher-priced Tuscan wine and a second glass, accompanied with a slice of game pie would have made an extremely enjoyable lunch.
Passing the members gathering for a cellar tour, I made my way up to the Members Room just in time to find Serge and Gaston Hochar of Chateau Musar checking their wines before their masterclass. Like many with an interest in wine, I am a big fan of Chateau Musar and was keen to meet the men behind the cult wine.Well aware of Serge’s status as winner of the Decanter Winemaker of the Year, I approached cautiously in case an Ego of the Year was a part of the prize. It became immediately apparent however that Serge is an utterly charming, thoughtful and fascinating man.
As he explained to me how he had first visited The Wine Society with his father in 1971, it was clear that this visit to Stevenage was much more than an opportunity to show his wines.
Their masterclass overran massively, simply because members didn’t want it to end, and because Serge and Gaston love to share their passion for what they do. Serge’s philosophy on life seemed a perfect note on which to end the day – be happy, be positive, be funny.
Head of Tastings & Events
This is National Vegetarian Week, as I learn from the website of my veg-box provider. I’m new to the veg-box thing and am still finding the novelty of receiving a crate of goodies once a week tremendously exciting. I know that I have paid for it (and, some might say, paid over the odds too) but somehow it still feels like a gift and although you can find out beforehand what is to be delivered I much prefer the element of surprise.
I’m only on my second box and it is one of the best times of the year for seasonal produce, so I hope you’ll forgive the gushing tones of a veg-box neophyte! I hope too that subscribers to Wine Without Fuss, our regular delivery scheme of mixed boxes of wine experience a similar euphoria on the arrival of each case.
So to celebrate National Vegetarian Week, I thought I’d share two recipes which make a regular appearance in our house and have gone down well with visiting veggie friends. Even those that have declared a dislike for some of the ingredients (namely beetroot and broad beans).
The first recipe, a lentil salad with goat’s curd, roasted beetroot and asparagus comes from Bill Granger’s book, Sydney Food and despite the inclusion of several vinicidal ingredients goes remarkably well with a bottle of zingy New Zealand sauvignon blanc or indeed one of the new wave Iberian whites; I particularly like the Portuguese Qunita da Espiga Branco, Lisboa, 2012 which seems to be able to cope with most things.
The second recipe, a broad bean couscous, is from Sam and Sam Clark, chef-owners of the wonderful Moro restaurant. Once again, on the face of it, this recipe might not sound that forgiving when it comes to happy vinous marriages, but I have found that Italian whites like fiano or grechetto, or my favourite, falanghina, have what it takes to stand up to richness of the garlic and yoghurt dressing and the earthy sweetness of the broad beans.
View the recipes in the recipe section of the Wine World & News pages on our website.
Here too you can read more about matching wine with tricky ingredients in Tastebud Terrors, a series of articles from specialist wine manager Janet Wynne Evans.
You can find out more about Wine Without Fuss, our vinous version of the veg-box scheme here.
Now here is a story: red wine from the most white-wine-orientated region of France.
And yet the truth is that pinot noir has always been a grape variety planted in Alsace and what’s more, it is my opinion that the 2011 vintage produced some lovely Alsace reds.
A Little History
As curious as it may seem, pinot noir was the first grape variety to be mentioned in Alsace. It can trace its roots at least as far back as the 8th century and maybe further still, predating the arrival of the riesling grape by some 700 years. Alsace wealth and prestige peaked at about the time of the Reformation, and at that time the reds where probably on a level footing with the whites. Many Alsace villages gained a reputation for its reds, such as Rodern, Saint-Hyppolite and Rouffach.
General decline set in with the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War. There were then periods of reconstruction (sometimes under Germanic tutelage, sometimes French) but then more war until the final liberation of 1945 settled the issue.
During all of this time, pinot noir continued to be grown but the skills needed for top red-winemaking was largely gone. Moreover, pinot vines were rarely planted in good spots, these being reserved to the top white varieties.
My first taste of Alsace pinot noir was uninspiring, pale, watery and thin. There were exceptions from some of the great houses such as Léon Beyer and Hugel and it is thanks to these top names and others too that the revival started.
The turning point was probably the 1990 vintage when Alsace pinot noir really began to acquire depth and colour. New plantings of pinot were now frequently of Burgundian stock and the climate getting ever warmer was also having an effect.
Today there are nearly 1,000 hectares of pinot noir in Alsace out of a vineyard total of 15,000 hectares. And things are looking up, with better vintages, a generally warmer climate and a growing list of producers willing to make top-quality red wines in a land of whites.Alsace Grands Crus
When this appellation was created 40 years ago, the reputation of pinot noir was perhaps at its lowest and so the grape was not included in the new scheme. Alsace Grand Cru is reserved for riesling, pinot gris, gewurztraminer and muscat with one grand cru, Zotzenberg, authorised for sylvaner.
The good news is that there is likely to be one or two grands crus for pinot noir. That will take a little time but when I was there in February work was already in full swing. The village of Rouffach was always famous for its reds and the best comes from the slopes of its grand cru ‘Vorbourg’. There are many pinot noir producers on the Vorbourg but the best is René Muré, whose wines we will be buying
Styles of Alsace Pinot Noir
There are essentially three styles here. The pale rosé style continues to be made and is locally quite popular. Sometimes this is very pale, sometimes more like a very light red.
Among the reds proper, the debate rages somewhat over how to age the wines. To oak or not to oak. The old style, exemplified by Léon Beyer, is to age the reds in large foudres of old oak so there is no oak flavour. The more modern approach follows the Burgundian way of doing things using small oak barrels, sometimes with some new wood. Alsace pinot noir is about delicacy and charm so extraction has tended to be short and gentle. But red wines are creating excitement in Alsace and there are more than a few growers with real ambition for the reds.The Alsace Flute
Alsace is one of the few regions to stipulate a shape for its bottles. All Alsace wines have to be sold in the traditional Alsace flute, which tends to be green (see photo above). And that includes the reds though there is pressure for change as unquestionably red wines would look better in Burgundian-shaped bottles.
Drinking and Keeping
There are truly exceptional wines that will keep 10 years or more but by and large Alsace pinot is for drinking relatively young – up to five or six years. Generally, the wines are light in style and go well with cold meats, poultry or ham. In exceptional vintages, such as 2003 and 1990, pinot noir can produce wine with much more depth and character and become fabulous with game.
The 2011 Vintage
A very warm spring and a fine Indian summer did well for the pinot noir grape variety. The wines have colour, fruit, and a generally ripe, rounded flavour. The characteristic fruit flavour to describe Alsace pinot noir is kirsch or cherry, thought can change if the wine has been aged in barrel. (Previous fine red vintages include 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000 and 1998.)
Society Buyer for Alsace
How many wines cost £10 or less but can age for 10+ years?
A few well-known styles spring to mind (German riesling, some but by no means all Beaujolais..), but a ubiquitously happy hunting ground is seldom assured.
Indeed, for some wine lovers, part of the fun in drinking mature wine comes in the form of the happy accident: unearthing a forgotten-about bottle and finding it to be unexpectedly symphonic, as opposed to Sarson’s. Society buyer Jo Locke MW has written in this blog about her experiences of this on more than one occasion.
Then there is Tahbilk Marsanne, that weird yet distinctly wonderful Australian white with which many Society members will be au fait, whose remarkable track record means that it requires no such wine-rack roulette.
Unlike many ageworthy wines that enter ‘dumb’ stages of unremarkable dormancy, I have yet to encounter a vintage of Tahbilk Marsanne that hasn’t been a joy to taste at any time of its life; but the chameleonic brilliance of an aged bottle is undoubtedly something special.
Last week, spurred by an unexpected sighting of sunshine over the south-east of England, a rummage in search for a nice white yielded a dusty bottle of the 2007 vintage. Its contents were anything but dusty, shimmering with lime and life with some subtle, nutty complexity and a gorgeous richness underpinning the fresh-fruit flavours.
A good time was had by all and I was reminded of Society buyer Sebastian Payne MW rightly describing Tahbilk Marsanne as ‘one of wine’s great gifts to the world’.
Although crisp, accessible and delicious, it is nonetheless a difficult wine to describe. For one, because it challenges many preconceptions surrounding the term ‘new world’. The marsanne vines here date back to 1927, making them older than any known in the grape’s traditional home, the Rhône Valley.
Its ‘old world’ attributes turned British heads as far back as 1953: served at a luncheon for the Commonwealth Heads of State in the House of Commons, it was described as ‘drier than Empire whites usually are….and could stand up to many Continental wines for flavour and genuineness.’ An antiquated but accurate summary, and however radically Australian wine has changed in the intervening years, today’s Tahbilk Marsannes are not dramatically different from the style that was served back then.
Whilst ‘new world’ is of course a useful term up to a point when discussing Australian wine, estates like Tahbilk, with a history stretching back to the 1860s, warn us that we take the phrase on board too literally, and with its accompanying baggage, at our peril. If only all warnings could be as pleasurable.
But what if you can’t be bothered to keep a bottle of wine for 5-10 years, or, like an elderly gentleman at a recent tasting claimed, ‘don’t even buy green bananas let alone wine to lay down’?
Help is at hand. Unsurprisingly, another fan of the wine is The Society’s buyer for Australia, Pierre Mansour, who has been keeping some back stock in our cellars. The current Australia regional selection, which closes on Sunday, includes a six-bottle mini-vertical case of Tahbilk Marsanne for £59, featuring two bottles each of the 2007, 2006 and 2002.
There are difficult vintages and there are difficult vintages. From the Californian drought of ‘77 to 2003s scorching European heatwave via the Bordeaux washout of ‘92, Mother Nature finds a variety of ways to test the mettle of both vine and man the world over.For most winemakers the common worries of a vintage concern the weather: too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet and/or a multitude of other combinations. Throw in a host of generally unpleasant diseases that prove troublesome to the vine and a tricky economic climate and the winemaker’s lot is not always a happy one.
But then of course there is the other kind of difficult vintage, those where man despite all the elements being in balance does his utmost to throw a spanner into nature’s carefully constructed works.
2006 was one of those difficult vintages for Lebanese winery Chateau Musar. Indeed at Chateau Musar difficult vintages can sometimes be translated as dangerous vintages.On July 12th the troubles that had blighted Lebanon through the latter part of the last century rose to the fore once again with the start of the 34-day conflict with Israel. Over 1,300 people lost their lives and approximately half a million more were displaced, and serious damage was inflicted to the country’s civil infrastructure.
Given such circumstances the team at Musar could have easily been forgiven if they had decided to look to their own safety first and leave the grapes hanging on the vines while the conflict raged around them. The grapes were harvested safely thanks to the dedication and bravery of the vineyard workers.
But sadly such adversity is not new in a country plagued by over 15 years of civil war and Chateau Musar has a proven history of shining when the days are darkest. Incredibly only two vintages were missed during the war years of 1975–1990. That the Musar winery is located just outside Beirut makes this achievement all the more astonishing. Indeed, the journey from their vineyards in the Bekka Valley to the winery is a particularly dangerous one, following a route known to be used by Hezbollah and in times of war often subjected to shelling by artillery.
Much has been written about Musar’s enigmatic figurehead, Serge Hochar. He was Decanter Magazine’s inaugural man of the year in 1984, and today in his 70s he still exudes energy and travels extensively. His eldest son, Gaston, named after his grandfather whose name appears on the label and who founded the winery in the 1930s, now looks after the day-to-day running of the estate and while of a different, perhaps calmer character to his father, he shares the same passion that that has propelled Musar to become a wine of worldwide acclaim ever since its emergence onto the international wine scene back in the late 1970s. Both men are engaging, unique and deservedly well renowned throughout the world of wine – qualities that are also rightly used to describe Chateau Musar itself.
The Society was one of the first merchants to import Chateau Musar into the UK, and we are delighted to announce that both Serge and Gaston Hochar will be visiting our premises in Stevenage as part of our Grand Day Out event on May 19th. They will be pouring wines and talking to members as well as hosting a masterclass showcasing several Musar vintages.
A fitting opportunity, then, to raise a glass to this remarkable estate and to pause and reflect on the dedicated and sometimes quite incredible efforts that go into making great wine.
Marketing Campaigns Manager for Lebanon
These recipes, while hopefully of use and interest to all, were written with the spring 2013 selections of The Society’s Wine Without Fuss subscription scheme particularly in mind. Voted Best Wine Club by 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?What a season it is for inspirational ingredients, and some of them are even free! Keep your eyes peeled in particular for wild garlic, one of nature’s wonders. It lends a subtle tang rather than a pungent hit to pasta sauces, herb butters and stuffings. Get foraging while the short season lasts and you know the rules – give popular dog walks and diesel-infused roadsides a wide berth!
Only strong mountain lamb or more mature beasts (hogget) should, I feel, be bludgeoned with whole cloves of garlic and rosemary twiglets, so if you can’t find wild garlic, use a tablespoon of garlic-flavoured oil to flavour the spinach while it wilts, and another to paint the lamb. My well-aired view that mint sauce is a tastebud terrorist of the first water is not widely shared (I know, don’t write in!) but could I implore that aficionados try a spot of gradual withdrawal by putting some mint leaves in the stuffing instead?
Spring lamb suits generous but balanced whites and dry, herby rosés very well. Good bets from the spring Wine Without Fuss selections include Château Beauregard Ducasse Graves, 2011 (Buyers’ French Classics) and The Quest Semillon (Premium Selection). Red hardliners should avoid anything too overpowering and for me, claret is perfect. The zip of Château Florie Aude Les Argilières, 2008 (Buyers’ Everyday Selection) and the elegant maturity of Château d’Aurilhac, Haut-Médoc, 2004 (Buyers’ French Classics) work beautifully in their different ways as does the simultaneous cool poise and spicy warmth of the Uruguayan marselan from Atlántico (Premium Selection).
Spring Lamb with Spinach, Herbs and Wild Garlic, and a Roasted Onion and Fennel Sauce
For 6 people
1 leg of spring or salt-marsh lamb, bones removed (1.8-2kg after boning)
A bag of spinach leaves, or a bunch, thoroughly destemmed and well washed
A generous bunch of wild garlic, leaves only, washed and roughly chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced
Freshly-grated nutmeg – a scant ¼ of a kernel should do it
2 tbs basil or marjoram leaves, roughly torn
2 tbs flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 tbs mint leaves, chopped
1 onion, cut into 8 wedges
1 fennel bulb, cut into 8 wedges
Rapeseed or olive oil
Salt and pepper
200ml wine, any colour
Lay the lamb flat, skin side down on a work board. Trim off any obvious fat and if necessary, bash to an even flatness with a meat hammer. Season it well with salt and pepper.
Put the spinach and the wild garlic in a saucepan on a medium heat with the butter and half of the lemon juice. Season with the nutmeg and black pepper. Let it wilt and transfer it into a sieve placed on a bowl, squeezing it dry. Save the buttery, lemony spicy liquid for the sauce. In another bowl mix the spinach, herbs, lemon zest and the remaining lemon juice. Lay the mixture in a line down the middle of the lamb.
Now roll it up as tightly as you can and tie at regular intervals with string to keep the stuffing in. It won’t be a pretty sight but looks aren’t everything. At this stage, you can cover and refrigerate it until needed but do remove it an hour before cooking to take the chill off.
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7.
Brush a roasting tin with oil and add the onion and fennel wedges. Sit the lamb on top and brush that with oil too, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Roast for 15 minutes then reduce the temperature to 190ºC/375ºF/Gas 5 and roast for an hour. Add the wine to the pan and continue roasting for 15 minutes for an even, slightly blushing result. This doesn’t want to be bloody or too pink. Lift the lamb onto a warm platter, cover with foil and let it rest for 15 minutes.
While it’s doing that, put the onion and fennel into a blender or processor, and pulse to a thick puree. Put the roasting tin on the hob, add the reserved spinach cooking liquor and bubble down the juices until concentrated and syrupy. Add the pureed vegetables and stir well. Transfer to a sauce-boat and keep warm. Alternatively, you could lift out the vegetables and serve them as a garnish.
Carve in thickish slices, nap with a little sauce and serve with steamed Jersey royals and a mixture of asparagus, peas and green beans.
Janet Wynne Evans
Specialist Wine Manager