Grapevine Archive for May, 2015

Wed 27 May 2015

By George, It’s English Wine Week!

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How times change!

English Wine WeekVines have been in England since Roman times, even listed in the Domesday Book; however, the depth and diversity that is now on offer is remarkable. The experience many winemakers have had in other wine-producing regions, such as Martin Fowke from Three Choirs in New Zealand and Josh Donaghay-Spire of Chapel Down, in Champagne, Alsace and South Africa, along with investment in cutting-edge equipment has resulted in an increase in quality, aided by a climate that is making grape growing more favourable.

This week The Society’s Cellar Showroom in Stevenage is hosting no fewer than 10 English wines to try: three sparkling, six white and one rosé.

The award-winning sparkling wines would make the perfect fizz for summer days to come. Gloucestershire’s Three Choirs bring us the crisp Midsummer Hill (£7.50 per bottle), to start a picnic in style and, of course, the red-berry delight that is Three Choirs Rosé (£7.95).

It would be folly to forget the charms of the bacchus grape, which does so well in England. Chapel Down Bacchus (£11.50) and Camel Valley Bacchus (£13.95) both show off the flinty and fragrant flavours of this grape, which make a worthy alternative to sauvignon blanc and, as such, fine choices with a goat’s cheese tart or salad.

Other varieties which members may be more familiar with in our Alsace range can be seen in Chapel Down Pinot Blanc (£12.95), a lovely example of this grape with hints of melon on the palate and an ever-so-slightly off-dry finish, and the smooth Bolney Pinot Gris (£16), which has this variety’s characteristic spice and honeyed quality.

If you can’t make it to The Showroom, we include links to the wines above should you wish to join in the celebrations from the comfort of your own home!

Conrad Braganza
The Cellar Showroom

Categories : England
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Thu 21 May 2015

Real Men Don’t Drink Rosé, Do They?

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RoséWell actually they do; the fact that our sales of rosés have increased by a third in the last three years is testament to that fact.

No longer is pink wine thought to be ‘one for the ladies’, with bottles sporting pretty wine labels designed to appeal to the fairer sex. Finally, the message has sunk home.

The other outmoded but once widely held opinion about rosés that did the wines a huge disservice is that they are light, ephemeral, holiday wines; not really to be taken seriously.

Happily this myth has been debunked too. Yes, there’s nothing like a glass of chilled rosé to perk up a not-so-sunny day, but there’s so much more to these wines which talk of place and grape alongside their white and red (and sparkling) counterparts.

Our expanded list reflects the fact that so many wine regions are making cracking rosés now from Greece to South Africa and back home in the Mediterranean heartlands.

The one characteristic they all share, be they the palest pink oeil de perdrix or the almost red clairets, is that they really come into their own with food. No other style of wine is able to cope with such a wide variety of flavours from garlicky salad dressings to spicy Asian cooking, from aperitif to dessert, even, in the case of some off-dry styles.

As for reds and whites, some basic principles will help for happy marriages:
• Match wine and food weight for weight (think of it as a boxing match)
• Ensure that acid levels match – ‘sharp’ ingredients need brisk wines
• Counteract salt and spice with sweetness
• Counteract bitter or sour ingredients with plump fruit
• Wines and ingredients from the same region are often an excellent match
• Most importantly, don’t worry too much – there are few real disasters!

If you’re looking for some recipes to inspire, we have put together a shortlist from our archives or those that will go particularly well with rosés; and if you can’t make up your mind which wines to buy, our current offer showcases the pick of the pink crop.

There’s more on matching rosé and food in this article on our website.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

Categories : Miscellaneous
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My first encounter with The Society’s bestselling wine was over a decade ago.

The Society's White Burgundy‘Dare I ask how the divorce is going?’
‘All things considered it’s ok, thanks – but I’m a little miffed she wants to take my Nectar points as well.’

It was clear my host had an eye for value – an observation that was vindicated further when a bottle bearing a distinctive fish design was taken from the fridge.

The Society’s White Burgundy. I always buy some,’ I remember him telling me as he poured a glass.

‘It’s just… always good.’

I agreed heartily on the basis of this first taste (and how – another bottle had to be chilled and opened during the meal, such was our enthusiasm).

A pleasant evening, and one that I now realise could have happened almost anywhere in the UK and beyond, at any time over the past 30 years or so: we sell more than 20 bottles of The Society’s White Burgundy every hour of every day throughout a calendar year. It is a standard-bearer for The Wine Society and, with word of mouth The Society’s chief means of advertising, the wine’s powers of recruitment are also worth acknowledging.

At the time, however, my interest in wine was nascent at best. It would be another two years before I ‘got the bug’ and a further six before I began working for The Society. Therefore, I can’t pretend I would have been fascinated to learn how this beacon of its range was made. It didn’t occur to me what a challenge it could be to blend a wine of such trusted consistency in a region where vintage variation is marked; and an ill-timed heatwave or hailstorm can mean the difference between delicious and disastrous – with the small matter of vignerons’ livelihoods to consider as well.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Fast forward to the present and, having recently returned from Mâcon to blend the just-released 2014 vintage, I can confirm this labour of love is no easy task, but the results slip down just as easily as they always have.

The candidates for the 2014 Society's White BurgundyCount ‘em – the candidate components for the 2014 blend

The 2014 blending was an unusual occasion in this quest for consistency – not that one could tell from the resultant wine.

This is for two reasons.

Firstly, this was Marcel Orford-Williams’s last vintage overseeing the blend, an annual job he has been involved with since 1987. The wine’s history goes back further, and it was Sebastian Payne MW who used to oversee the blend. Now that Marcel will be handing the reins for our Beaujolais portfolio to Toby Morrhall, he will spend considerably less time in this part of France. The job from 2015 will therefore fall to Toby, whose own aptitude for blending can be tasted in all manner of wines from our Burgundian, Chilean and Argentine ranges. The future of the wine is therefore in good hands.

Jean-Marc Darbon and Marcel Orford-Williams blendingJean-Marc Darbon and Marcel Orford-Williams blending

As Marcel said, ‘buyers come and go, but the style of this wine is sacrosanct.’ That is to say, the wine remains an unoaked, fresh and fine chardonnay with the depth of fruit and body necessary to make the wine as versatile as possible, to handle the myriad occasions upon which a wine of its popularity is poured. Though seafood is an obvious and well-loved choice, Marcel has always favoured it with chicken in a creamy tarragon sauce, whereas I have been known to enjoy previous vintages with mushroom risotto. I have also enjoyed more than few a half bottles on their own throughout my time at The Society.

The second reason for the 2014 blending being a little different can be best understood with a look back at the last three Burgundy vintages. Generalisations in this region are dangerous but in many areas the story of late has been the same: high quality, painfully low yields. Prices have had to rise and there is less wine to go around.

Marcel Orford-Williams makes his notesWe’ve published a few articles recently about the alchemy involved in blending wines (including Steve Farrow’s much-praised insight into the blending of our bestselling red, The Society’s Claret). I’ve yet to read about a process quite like this one, though, where the very availability of some components in front of us was far from assured.

Our trusted négociant Jean-Marc Darbon of Dépagneux (also the source of The Society’s Beaujolais-Villages, Pinot Noir Vin de France, the Exhibition Juliénas and Fleurie, and The Stop Gap Chardonnay) was waiting for us in Mâcon with the candidates for the blend lined up and ready. If Marcel is the alchemist then Jean-Marc is the liturgist, sourcing the raw materials and assisting in the logistics of the operation as well as the blending.

As we tasted our way across the convoy of bottles spanning the whole length of Jean-Marc’s formidable 12-foot tasting table, Marcel began to spot the elements this year’s blend could need.

For the first but not the last time that day, mobile phones were deployed, almost as rapidly as the (to me) indecipherable French speed-negotiating shouted into them, all to ensure that we could get what we needed from the tank in question.

Blending - a precise artBlending – a precise art
‘Normally I can wait a little longer to blend this wine,’ Marcel had said on the train from Paris, ‘but with the market being the way it is, it has to be now.’ At this point I realised precisely what he meant.

For a region whose vineyards are infamously complex and patchwork-like, so too was the process of fashioning this wine from the various samples and pre-blends. For the wine geek, this is the most fascinating bit: to taste alongside and gain an appreciation of how Marcel’s mind and palate were working was astonishing. Having blended this wine for nearly 30 years, Marcel’s speed was something I hadn’t thought to take into consideration. I would still be nosing a sample to see whether it did indeed have ‘that extra fragrance’ we might need, only to notice that Marcel was two samples ahead. Samples I couldn’t understand the apparently burning need for suddenly lifted a pre-blend out of comparative doldrums and into something far more appetising than I could have envisioned.

The results, however, vindicate the decision to get in early. The quality is arguably a step up on last year’s, the first recent vintage in which we had to raise the price quite a bit to cope with the scarcity of its components.

This year we have managed to make a slight price reduction, and the wine is better.

I hope members will agree that this commitment to value and quality, and the balance therein, is something to be pleased about; and, most importantly of all, that The Society’s White Burgundy remains as delicious a wine as ever to serve at dining tables, gardens, parties and the like for the years to come. Even if we do not accept Nectar points.

Martin Brown
Digital Copywriter

EDIT: We are delighted to announce that The Society’s White Burgundy 2014 has now been reduced further in price, and is now available for £8.75

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We were delighted to read this account by Society member James Tweddle of his visit to Ocean Eight in Victoria, and thought fellow members may like to read it too.

Don’t get me wrong; by neither means nor predilection am I a ’boutique wine’ aficionado.

Over the years I’ve done the The Wine Society ‘in-bond’ bit in the Rhône and in Burgundy (and a few of the spoils still languish in my small cellar). Advancing years produce a greater clarity of thought. I keep being reminded of a very good mate of many years ago, of ample means – and a keen Wine Society member, who had his retirement home built around his new cellar to house his comprehensive stock of port, claret and Rhône treasures – and, bless him, died within four years of moving in.

Not for me – life consists largely of convivial drinking around the bottom/middle levels of The Wine Society’s lists – especially around southern France, Portugal, and South Africa.

And so, faced before Christmas with an exciting and extended stay in Victoria and New South Wales – courtesy of our ‘Oz’ family – and wanting to renew my acquaintance with the treasures of the Mornington Peninsula, I ventured to ask the nice folk at Stevenage where I could experience a ‘real’ winery visit – behind the scenes.

A shortlist duly arrived and from it I chose to contact Mike Aylward at Ocean Eight. As you will hear I couldn’t have chosen better – the timing and the choice led to a really interesting and insightful visit – and a sampling experience second to none.

With Ocean Eight winemaker Mike Aylward (centre).With Ocean Eight winemaker Mike Aylward (centre).

Despite his busy schedule in the middle of winemaking a date and time was fixed.

Nick – ‘the lad’ – made us most welcome while Mike returned from the far reaches of the property and he introduced us to the winery’s chardonnay. A great grape so often ruined by the corporate blandness of the supermarket ‘brands’ – but not here: the clarity and delicacy of the wine was clear to see, having the distinctive characteristics of freshness and clear flavour Mike later explained as being his ‘mantra’.

Mike, a friendly, enthusiastic winemaker with a long pedigree at the job, then took us on ‘the tour’.

First we saw this year’s chardonnay bubbling merrily away in the open under the shade of wooden frames – in new French oak barrels (with these at c. $AUS 5000 a pop and with a limited ‘front-line’ life it is easy to see how the costs of producing a good wine soon add up!). Different site, different clones produce different results – one clearly lemony and zesty, the next more close and mineral with just a hint of a lemon pithy taste; no doubt all of these will be sampled and watched before the final blending takes place.

And so onward to see the huge underground cellar – at this stage with plenty of room for the new vintage; a peek at the production area for the exclusive small production of Ocean Eight Sparkling Cuvée and back to the ‘shop’ and away with our small booty of wine for our generous hosts back at Black Rock – we hope they will enjoy and appreciate the pleasure of their ‘local’ wine.

Thanks to Mike and the team for a friendly, informative, and flavoursome visit!

Oh! And one more thing – why ‘Ocean Eight’?

Well the whole project was conceived and born out of a conversation around the turn of the millennium between Mike and his father on the green of Hole eight of the Australian National Ocean course nearby!

Well – it’s turned out it seems to me to have been a really good round – and still in progress!

James Tweddle

Ocean Eight’s ‘Verve’ Chardonnay 2012 is available for £20 in our current Australia offer, which closes on Tuesday 19th May.

Categories : Australia
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Thu 14 May 2015

What Do You Do With Corked Wine?

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Well I had always presumed that you just poured it away and, of course, either contacted Member Services for a credit or reported your misfortune on our website (you can log such incidents by going to My Account and selecting Order History and Report a Problem).

But during a recent visit from David Bird MW, whom we employ as a consultant chemist to help maintain high standards of quality control and act in an advisory capacity, we learned that he uses corked bottles in cooking. David is the author of Understanding Wine Technology (DBQ Publishing), now in its third edition.

corked wineAll of us at the meeting, including The Society’s buying team, were surprised to hear this. We had all been led to believe that you should always use the best quality wine you can afford to cook with. While I would baulk at using good Burgundy to make boeuf bourguignon, the idea that if wine isn’t good enough to drink, it isn’t good enough for the pot has at least sunk home.

In any case, some cork-tainted wine is so foul-smelling (and it often gets worse on contact with air), it would seem counter-intuitive to think of making something nice to eat with it.

But as David pointed out, the process used to eradicate TCA (trichloroanisole), the compound responsible for cork taint, involves steaming them. He argues therefore that, as long as the dish you are making will involve simmering at some point, there is no reason why you cannot use corked wine. As TCA is volatile in steam it should simply boil off.

corked wine in cookingas long as the dish you are making will involve simmering at some point, there is no reason why you cannot use corked wine.

An industry that’s cleaned up its act
Happily, the incidents of corked bottles are greatly reduced from levels ten years or so ago (though it is still believed to be affect around 5% of cork-sealed bottles). The cork industry has radically changed and cork production is now an extremely high-spec operation. David Bird said that he had visited the Alentejo region of Portugal in the 1980s as part of a Master of Wine-organised trip and that at time, the cork oaks were stripped and the bark dipped in what he described as ‘boiling mud’. ‘It was still effectively a peasant-style industry in those days.’

But a more recent visit to Amorim, the main supplier of corks to the wine trade, revealed an operation totally changed. No longer is bark piled up and trucked to factories in the north of Portugal but new state-of-the-art factories have been set up within the cork forests themselves. The bark is stored on stainless-steel pallets and then cleaned in boiling water in closed, filtered stainless-steel tanks. Then there’s the (almost secret) steaming process, done in a special way so as not to shrink the cork.

‘There’s also a much higher reject level than in the past too, with only the best-quality cork going into production for wine stoppers,’ explained David. After the corks have been punched out of the bark each batch goes into the lab for testing by gas chromatography. While every effort is made to limit the possibility of undesirable components contaminating corks, to test every single cork is still too costly.

Hopefully your own experience of corked bottles has also diminished of late. Now that we know we don’t have to pour the contents down the sink, though not much of a consolation, particularly on a much-anticipated long-cellared treat, it’s nice to know it’s not completely wasted.

Joanna Goodman
News Editor

There’s more advice on spotting wine faults on our website

Categories : Miscellaneous
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Some members may remember that in November last year we produced an infographic all about Rioja.

At the time there was lots of positive feedback with members keen to see more.

So why not move from a relatively well-defined winemaking region like Rioja to one of the largest wine producing countries in the world, Australia?!


Click the image to enlarge

The sheer quantity of information available about Australian wine is mind blowing: everything from exact grape tonnage by year to daily temperatures and pretty much anything else imaginable. Trying to cram it in all this into one simple infographic would be a like trying to define wine in a single word, so I happily admit this is not an attempt to do so but more of starting point when delving into Aussie wines or as an aide-mémoire for those already familiar.

The list of sub regions, grapes and producers featured is far from exhaustive but hopefully members will find it of some use and as always your suggestions on improvements or other regions to represent in this way are more than welcome.

Gareth Park
Marketing Campaign Manager

Our current offer of Australian wines, featuring the fruits of buyer Sarah Knowles’ most recent trip to the region, can be found here.

Categories : Australia
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Wed 06 May 2015

Food Without Fuss: Counting Sheep

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This recipe, while hopefully of use and interest to all, was written with the spring 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
Searching in my local farmer’s market, well before spring had sprung this year, for a bit of sheep to braise slowly in wine until falling off the bone, I was sharply reminded what good-value mutton is and promptly bought some.

The deed done, I was assailed by fears of toughness and recalcitrance in the oven, followed by school-dinner memories of pale, unappealing slices of boiled leg of mutton that not even caper sauce could enliven. Surely the best place for mutton – and it’s a very good place – is a proper curry.

However, I can report that my mature half-shoulder, which cost little more than a fiver, cooked to perfect tenderness in the same two-hour window as the younger generation and had bags more taste, as we old girls often do. The leftover shreds of unctuous meat, mixed with chickpeas, red wine and sun-dried tomatoes, and reheated under a breadcrumb crust, provided a second feast at marginal cost and effort.

The art of lamb, on the other hand, especially at this joyous time of year for home produce, is of the minimalist school. By that I mean fast cooking and no marinades, rubs, barding, topping or any of the other faffing we are all urged to do these days to get a chunk of meat to taste of something other than itself.

I’m convinced that, as a nation, we’ve either lost some of our taste-buds or at least the art of appreciating subtlety – the ubiquity of chilli is proof of that. I hope I’m wrong and pray for sensory calm with the seasonal recipe below which also makes use of young early-summer vegetables the French like to call primeurs, cooking them simply and arranging them artistically, like flowers, in bouquetières and jardinières with no more than a gentle herb butter for company. Spring lamb is particularly delicate in flavour, as is the salt-marsh lamb that follows later in the summer and we should celebrate it. I’m not even going to let a brash olive oil cramp its style, when I can fly the flag with our own golden and gentle rapeseed.

This is the simplest of dishes, that relies on very fresh produce.

No gravy, no fuss, just early summer on a plate.

New-Season Lamb ‘En Primeur’
Serves 4

For the lamb
2 racks of new-season British lamb (6 cutlets each)
2 tbs rapeseed oil
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Continental parsley on the stem to garnish.
Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6.

Pat the racks dry with kitchen paper. Using the point of a sharp knife, score the fat in a diamond pattern. Rub in plenty of salt and pepper, ensuring it gets right into the crevices.

Heat a large non-stick pan. Add the oil and when it sizzles, brown the racks all over. Transfer to a roasting tin and give it 20 minutes for a crowd-pleasing medium pink, allowing 5 minutes more, if you like it better done. Longer somehow misses the point for me. Rest for at least 15 minutes in a warm place while you deal with the vegetables, below.

Jardinière of Summer Vegetables
75g butter, softened
A tablespoon of lemon juice
2-3 tbs summer herbs, such as basil, parsley or tarragon, finely chopped
a very small clove of garlic crushed
salt and white pepper, freshly ground if possible
12 small Jersey Royals, scrubbed
200g peas, shelled weight
A bunch of asparagus, trimmed and cut into lengths of an inch or so
200g mangetouts or sugar snaps
200g green beans, trimmed and halved if very big

First cream the butter with the garlic, herbs, salt and pepper and add a squeeze of lemon juice. Set aside in the fridge until needed.

Next, drop the Jersey Royals into a pot of boiling water and cook for about 10 minutes, until just starting to yield to the point of a knife. Now add the asparagus stems and green beans and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Next add the mangetouts, peas and asparagus tips and give them about 3 minutes. The potatoes should be done and the green vegetables somewhere between tender-crisp and al dente, so taste as you go.

Drain well and return to the pan on a very low heat, along with the herb butter. Let it melt into the vegetables, stirring it through to coat everything evenly. Transfer into a warmed serving dish or four individual cocottes.

You can either offer your guests half a rack each, garnished with a flourish of parsley, and a good sharp knife and let them get on with it, or carve between the bones into cutlets and arrange them on a plate, like a three-spoked wheel, with the resting juices drizzled over them. Serve with the vegetables.

THE WINES
This dish of seasonal stars, all with equal billing, is as friendly to nicely rounded, aromatic whites as it is reds that should be brisk, spicy and not too heavy. Two of the former that stand out in our Spring Wine Without Fuss selection are in the Buyers’ Premium Whites – Three Choirs Stone Brook (£8.50) or Kuentz Bas (£8.50) – but Pelter Ranch Chardonnay (Buyer’s Everyday Whites) would work well too. As for the reds, my vote goes without hesitation to the sleek fruit of Minervois, Château Haute Galine (Everyday Reds), the elegance of Altana Douro or the velvety syrah of Lion’s Whisker (Buyers’ Premium Reds) and the digestibility and vivacity of Nicole Chanrion’s Côte de Brouilly (Buyers’ Classic French Reds).

Young vegetables cooked like this shine very brightly with fish too, or with a scattering of torn soft goat’s milk cheese, the best of which are lovely now. Parmesan or pecorino shavings are good too. With the goaty option, as mouthwatering sauvignon feels right: try Stoneburn Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Buyers’ Premium Whites / £7.95) or Pouilly-Fumé Les Princes Ermites, Château de Tracy 2013 (Buyers’ Classic French Whites). With the Parmesan, keep it Italian with Falanghina (Buyers’ Premium Whites / £7.25) or the creamy, peachy fruit of Fiano Mandrarossa (£7.25) in the Buyers’ Everyday Whites selection.

Janet Wynne Evans

Categories : Wine Without Fuss
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