Feb 19

Mapping the Douro

I have a fascination with maps. When my parents took us on our first trip to America’s West coast back in the 80’s, my brother and I spent weeks pouring over the Rand McNally road atlas we bought beforehand, working out the most exciting route for our month long adventure. Then I got into wine and remember buying my first wine book back in 1988. It was an old edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and to this day, many editions later, it is still my favourite wine book. Maps provide a context for me and allow me to fill in the images for myself. Maps create a familiarity to a place I’ve never been. And for those places I have been, the maps take me back to the memories, recreating travels and adventures, better than any picture can.

I imagine it was a similar fascination that drove Joseph Forrester when he created the first detailed map of the Douro Valley in Portugal. Joseph arrived in Portugal in 1831 to join his uncle who was a partner in a Port house. Although he got involved in the business initially, he ended up devoting himself to a comprehensive survey of the Douro Valley from the upper reaches near the Spanish border all the way down to the outflow into the Atlantic.

Forrester’s 1852 map of the Alto Douro in the Museo do Douro in Regua.

This resulted in a map that was to be one of the most important works of its kind. Looking at the river today gives you some idea of the scale of the task that would have faced him, but the many tourist vessels, traveling up and down make it look rather sedate and much of the river has now been tamed by dams, ultimately as a result of Forrester’s work. In his day Forrester would have been traveling into the unknown and he and his team had to negotiate the wild rapids flowing through the huge canyon in handmade wooden boats. The Douro gave him his life’s work but also took his life when the boat he was traveling in was overwhelmed in one of the fearsome rapids. His body was never to be recovered.

As we travel high up in the Douro the map becomes a reality. We glimpse some of the history in the Museo do Douro in Regua where the map hangs tucked away in a corner, as part of a larger exhibition of the historic Douro.

A stunning view and Port on the mind. Picture by Tim Lemke.

And we get a feel for the river itself on a boat trip leaving from Pinhao. I am in no doubt our experience is hugely different from Forrester’s. I ponder this as we sip sparkling wine aboard a small motorised vessel and take in the stunning views.

But it is high above the river, walking through the Quinta da Boavista, it is easy to step back in time. Forrester visited Boavista, until recently owned by Offley, the company his uncle was a partner in. As a winery it has fallen silent. But now this piece of Douro history is owned by Tony Smith, who is keen to breathe new life into its ancient walls. Lunch is served in the old ‘lagares’, the big stone throughs where in days gone past the vineyard workers would crush the grapes at harvest time with their bare feet. One of the more unusual places I’ve had the pleasure of having lunch. Tony already owns Quinta de Covela, located just outside the demarcated Douro Valley. Here he and winemaker Rui Cunha make Vinho Verde to die for from the local Avesso grape.Their efforts were rewarded this week when they received the trophy for best viticulture from the Revista de Vinhos magazine in Portugal. For now there is no wine at Quinta da Boavista but judging by Tony’s ambitions, this is going to be one Quinta to watch. Let’s just say he seems very keen to put it back on the map. I’m sure Joseph Forrester would have been pleased.

Aug 22

Wines of Change

The past four years have been nothing if not interesting. Taking redundancy from a solid job (if such a thing still exists) to attempt to ‘make it in the wine trade’ in the middle of the mother of all recessions was perhaps a fool’s errand. Yet, I wouldn’t have done it differently. It has been very tough at times. Not all the clients I started with have survived the bust and that’s given me plenty of sleepless nights. On the other hand, running the wine events for Wine Unearthed north of the border (and more recently in Newcastle) has been an absolute high. Meeting so many enthusiastic wine lovers wanting to discover their taste for wine is the best part of the job.

Cross Stobs Bottle Shop with characteristically Scottish weather.

If this is starting to sound like I’m giving up on the wine trade, that couldn’t be further from the truth. But things are changing. In the past few months I’ve been working with an independent wine retailer south of Glasgow. Owner David Prow and I felt that we could really make a difference to the business if we doubled our efforts and worked at it together. So we have come to the decision that I will become a partner in Cross Stobs Bottle Shop and will spend much more of my time there, digging out exciting wines for our loyal customers in the shop but also to develop our offering online. We may be small now, but together we’re convinced we can make a big difference.

On my blog (which, by the way, will continue) I’ve often championed buying from the small independent wine retailers rather than from supermarkets. I firmly believe the service you get allows you to discover much more interesting wines than by just sticking to the bog-standard stuff that so often clogs up the wine isles, with endless fake promotions designed to enhance shareholder value rather than give you a genuine experience. Now I can truly come out and be biased even more than before. I will keep writing about wines that are worth looking out for, I will keep giving you my view on the wine world as I see it. If that suits you, then please keep following me.

I will also keep on hosting wine events, in various shapes and sizes. This includes the hugely successful Wine Unearthed workshops in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle, the Food, Fun & Fizz events with Scotland’s “Food DJ”, Brenda Anderson from Tasting Scotland (the next one is on September 12th, hint, hint!) and of course more regular tastings in the shop.

As I take the next, exciting but slightly scary, steps I hope to see many of you in the shop or ‘speak’ to you online via Twitter and Facebook. Please come and say hello in person or virtually and support your local!

Slainte!

Jul 25

Do you know the way?

Us wine geeks are forever waxing lyrical about something strange, exotic and unusual. We love discovering new things, rare grape varieties and quirky wines. Yet most wine drinkers pop a bottle or two of their usual in the supermarket trolley without really thinking about it. Pinot Grigio or a Sauvignon Blanc, something inoffensive. For us wine geeks most of it is dull stuff but I often wonder why people do it.

The people I know don’t eat the same thing every single day, so why would you drink the same wine every single day? The answer is probably fear; of making a mistake, as if that were possible with wine. Fear of wasting money. Or perhaps it is just laziness and a lack of inquisitiveness. Perhaps it’s the feeling of being overwhelmed by choice and having no idea where to even start.

Do you know the way?

When I came across a very thoughtfully written blog post by one of my Glasgow running buddies, who calls himself “The German”, I felt he was reading my mind. He writes about being lost, not in the world of wine but in the mountains. He’s an endurance runner (unlike me) and, it appears, a very good navigator. The post isn’t about wine and he’s using his piece as a metaphor, but I bet a lot of people who don’t know much or anything about wine would feel like they were lost in the mountains without a map, unsure what to do and afraid to make a mistake. Now you can do two things. Panic!! And then retrace your steps to see if you can find your way back to Pinot Grigio, or you can open your mind, breathe in deeply, push on and see what’s round the next corner.

So many of you go to farmers’ markets or local shops and care about what you eat, yet when it comes to wine it’s the same old faceless big supermarket brands you buy. So if you have even a small sense of adventure, why not extend that to the wines you discover. Search out the real wines, the real stories, the real people. Let someone guide you to places you haven’t been before. You don’t need to know your Chardonnay from your Chablis or your Tempranillo from your Rioja to discover something new, you just need a glass.

The world of wine is a lot safer to navigate than the rugged Scottish mountains anyway … and you can do it from the comfort of your armchair.

Jun 27

Welcoming the Summer

Our latest Food, Fun & Fizz evening, in conjunction with Tasting Scotland, was entitled “Seasonal Summer Specialities”, quite appropriate we thought as it was held at the very end of spring. Clearly, with the rather unseasonable weather we’ve been having, the food and wine would have to inspire the sun to put in an appearance. And it did, but even if the clouds hadn’t parted, the Ortrugo Vino Frizzante from Cantine Bonelli in Emilia Romagna on its own would make you feel upbeat and definitely puts you in a summery mood. It has a beautiful elegant, peach blossom nose and is super fresh. A crisp, dry finish with a light spritz. Classy, not complicated but simply delicious. It makes for a wonderful aperitif but also got the party started with the various canapés.

The advent of summer for me also means asparagus. Where I’m from in The Netherlands, we have very delicate white asparagus and they are traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs, ham and mashed potatoes. Little did I know that even in Scotland we get delicious asparagus, albeit of the green variety. We got our hands on the final ones of this year’s harvest and served them with a Hollandaise sauce. I love a fresh Alsace Pinot Blanc with white asparagus but the green ones are a bit stronger in flavour and we grilled them so I opted for a more powerful New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Saint Clair. Predictable perhaps, but it works well and asparagus aren’t the easiest of vegetables to match.

Moving from spring to summer the foraged wild garlic soup was blended with other summer greens and our guests loved the easy-drinking Grenache Blanc from the Vaucluse area in South-East France.

Time for the main event; pearl barley risotto served with summer vegetables and smoked chicken. The smokiness of the chicken called for something a bit more intense, yet still light enough not to overpower the creamy risotto. We gave our guests two options, a Provençal rosé and a South-African Pinot Noir. The Wild Boar rosé takes its name from the boars that roam the vineyards attracted by the heavily scented, ripe fruit. Fortunately they leave some of the grapes for us to enjoy too. The 7Springs Pinot Noir, made from fruit grown on very young vines was different but also proved perfect with the dish. It paired beautifully with the smokiness of the chicken but provided plenty of juicy fruit too.

The cheese course gave our guests an opportunity to exercise their wine tasting skills as the accompanying wine was served blind. Not an easy task, but at least the Rioja Crianza was very tasty and got polished off in no time. This was followed by arguably the most unusual pairing of the night. The dish was simple enough but it also gave me a challenge. Scottish vanilla ice cream served with a strawberry vinegar created a creamy dish but with quite an acidic bite that many wines would struggle with. My first instinct was a fruit beer and I think something like a Belgian ‘Kriek’ or cherry beer could have done the trick. When I was discussing this with a few colleagues we settled on a Rodenbach Grand Cru, a Flemish ale matured in oak barrels. It is quite a rich beer that also has a sharpness that matched the acidity of the vinegar well. Certainly unusual, but that’s what makes it so much fun.

We’re already working hard on the next instalment held on September 12th and would love to see you there!

For the full menu and wine details see below.

Presenting a range of award winning artisan producers in 6 stages 

FOOD, FUN & FIZZ – ‘SEASONAL SUMMER SPECIALITIES’

The Tasting Room @ The Good Spirits Co. – 20 June 2012 

Canapes 

Broad Bean & Crowdie – Highland Fine Cheese

Tomato Bruschetta – Clyde Valley Tomatoes

Kintyre Smoked Mussels – The Old Smokehouse

Smoked Salmon Mousse – Teviot Smokery

Wine: Ortrugo DOC – Vino Frizzante 2012 – Italy (£11.75)

The King of Veg

Asparagus – Scottish (naturally!)

Wine: Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – Marlborough, New Zealand (£11.00)

Summer Harvest

Wild Garlic Foraged in the Kingdom of Fife

Wine: Les Combes Terraventoux – Vaucluse, France (£6.50)

Pearly Gates of Heavenly Chicken

Pearl Barley – Locavore, Glasgow

Smoked Chicken – Teviot Smokery

Wine:

Chateau Routas – Wild Boar Rosé 2012 – Provence, France (£8.50)

7Springs Young Vines Pinot Noir 2011 – South Africa (£14.99)

You’ll have had your Cheese

Anster – St Andrews Farmhouse Dairy, East Neuk of Fife

Oatmeal & Peppercorn Crowdie – Highland Fine Cheese

Wine: Luis Canas Rioja Crianza 2009 – Spain (£11.95)

The gourmet 99!

Strawberry Vinegar, Craigie’s Farm, Dalmeny

Beer: Rodenbach Grand Cru Flemish Red Ale (£3.50)

Apr 30

Liquid Orange

Everything seems to be orange today. The 30th of April is Queens Day in my native The Netherlands. But today is a little different as it sees the abdication of Queen Beatrix in favour of her eldest son Willem-Alexander, who is by now the reigning monarch. That’s an excuse for the Dutch to paint the town even more orange than they usually do on April 30th.

Anyway, in the spirit of orange, here is a quick video of my friend Fabio, a winemaker from Madrid (Vinos Ambiz), talking to me about his ‘orange’ wine made from a little-known grape variety called Malvar, which is fermented on its skins. I hope you like the extremely tenuous link.

Apr 26

Innocence of Youth

Taking Pinot Noir to the beach

Have you ever seen wines labelled as ‘Old Vines’, ‘Vieilles Vignes’, ‘Viñas Viejas’? It’s one of those terms that can be used freely on a bottle of wine as no one has yet determined how old vines need to be in order to gain the plaudit. As vines get older they will expand their root system and burrow deep into the soils, which is a good thing. They will also start to regulate themselves better and become more hardy as they do so. With advanced age vines will become less productive, but I suppose that happens to most of us! That drop in production could mean the vine puts the energy into ripening fewer berries, thereby ensuring a more concentrated juice. The term itself is on the rise and is often seen as a badge of quality, but the fact there is no regulation around it makes it more of a marketing term. That said, I have had many wines labelled as ‘Old Vines’ that do show a remarkable concentration and balance.

What really caught my eye was a wine that proudly proclaimed on the label it was produced from ‘Young Vines’. Wow! I’m not sure I would have the courage to admit to that. My slight apprehension was immediately quashed as soon as I tasted the wine, the Seven Springs Pinot Noir from South Africa.

The Pinot Noir vines were only planted in July 2008 in the beautifully named ‘Hemel en Aarde’ Valley (Heaven and Earth), near Hermanus. The vines yielded their first ever vintage in 2011, made by 29 year old Riana van der Merwe and it is simply gorgeous. With the fruit doing all the talking rather than the oak, this was a sheer joy of juiciness. Ripe cherries and strawberries, vibrant in its innocent youth. Not so much an unruly teenager as a well-balanced, vivacious character that already shows complexity well beyond its age and knows its way around a wine glass. Hats off, not just for the wine, but for having the gumption to label it as young vines and making a feature of it. It will be interesting to watch this one over successive vintages and see how it develops into a thirty-something.

Seven Springs is not all about Pinot Noir either. The delicate, apple-scented Sauvignon Blanc is lovely and pure. There are a couple of Chardonnays with the unoaked being my favourite and a sumptuous Syrah, again coming from younger vines and gently oaked in older barrels.

For stockist information, go to the Seven Springs website and they are very active on Facebook and Twitter too. Images used with kind permission by Tim Pearson.

Apr 17

Malbec Celebration

My blog-o-thon has slowed a little over the past week but the running is still going strong. So far I’ve clocked up just over 100k in the 5×50 Challenge and most of the time it really is quite enjoyable. Today’s incessant rain makes it a rather damp affair, ‘drenched’ being the operative word.

Today marks day 18 of the challenge, but it is also Malbec World Day. The day is significant in Malbec’s history as it was 160 years ago on April 17th, that Malbec officially takes root in the Mendoza region in Argentina. The variety originates in South-West France. It is one of the permitted grapes in Bordeaux as well, although these days it isn’t planted widely there. The region of Cahors is generally seen as the birthplace of Malbec. It is its wide recognition as the grape of Argentina that really put Malbec on the map and has prompted its wider planting in many other countries, particularly in the new world. But this popularity also means a more recent resurgence of popularity in its native land under the Appellation of Cahors, but interestingly the name of the grape is usually included on the label these days. Malbec typically produces concentrated, dark wines with intense black fruit flavours, often with a herbal or meaty character. The intensity and concentration ensure the wines are fantastic with beef, especially when barbecued or grilled.

Malbec is very easy to get hold of, so pop into your favourite retailer and pick up a bottle. I’m a great fan of the Zuccardi range, yet my personal favourites tend to come not from Mendoza, but from the higher altitude vineyards of the Salta region. Bodegas Colomé and its sister estate Amalaya make some brilliant wines and I’ve had very enthusiastic reactions to Michel Torino’s ‘Don David’ too. Recently I’ve also been quite taken with another area; Patagonia, in Argentina’s far south produces some fantastic examples, notably the Malbec Estate from Humberto Canale. A wonderful freshness combined with that trademark intensity of black fruit, owing to the long ripening season, make this a great choice too.

Apr 15

Thumbs up for Riesling

I remember my delight when, during one of the blind exam tastings for the WSET Diploma a few years ago, I was faced with three wines sharing a common grape variety. The very first whiff told me I was dealing with Riesling. The task was to work out where each of the three wines came from. Fortunately they were textbook examples and I recognised the bone-dry Australian Riesling with its trademark high acidity and that typical lime-like and characteristic petrolly smell. The richer and rounder Alsace Riesling stood out for its remarkable balance and finally there was the lighter, peachy sweetness from a Mosel Riesling, which was balanced with a lively, lemony freshness on the palate, owing to the ever-present acidity in the wine as well as a little bit of a sparkle.

It’s that Mosel style I absolutely love but I’m acutely aware of the association this has in many people’s minds. Sweet German Riesling equals Liebfraumilch I seem to hear all too often. Let’s put that one to rest. Although Riesling is allowed in the blend for Liebfraumilch, in practice this is much more likely to be dominated by a grape like Müller-Thurgau, which has nowhere near the nobility of Riesling. Frankly, most Liebfraumilch is not much more than sugary water, made from overcropped vines on the flat lands, quantity over quality. Compare that to the steep, slate-covered slopes facing the Mosel river, where Riesling finds its characterful side.

The blue slate soils in Dr Loosen’s vineyards

German Riesling comes in a multitude of different styles and these days the dry Rieslings (look out for ‘Trocken’ on the label) are increasingly popular. One thing that can provide a key is the level of alcohol. If it’s around 12% you’re more than likely dealing with a dry version, below 9% and it’s almost certainly sweeter. Invariably I try to convince people of the merits of German Riesling, with mixed success, but I was absolutely delighted with the reaction when I presented a sweeter style from the Mosel with a chicken and mushroom paté starter served with toasted brioche at the Wine Unearthed workshop in Edinburgh this weekend. I don’t know if it was the wine itself, the combination that worked so well, or if the tasters just had an open mind. The wine, Dr Loosen ‘Blue Slate” Riesling from the Mosel (around £11, Bibendum), is from one of the top producers in the region, which clearly helped. The name refers to the steep blue slate slopes the grapes were grown on. Quite a sweet style, but its fruity freshness and zippy character worked beautifully with that paté as well as the sweetness of the toasted brioche. Combine with that the gentle 8% alcohol level and it made for a perfect lunchtime wine.

I’m sure I won’t be able to convince everyone of its merits but you should really make time in your wine calendar for this amazing grape. It might just pleasantly surprise you.

Apr 11

Prosecco: The Wines of Nino Franco

The sales figures speak for themselves. Prosecco is hugely popular and seems to be going from strength to strength, outperforming those of Champagne. Perhaps it is a sign of the times but I would like to think the recent tightening of the laws, enshrining Prosecco into the DOC(G) system has done it now harm whatsoever even though it has taken the cheapest versions away from the market. There is still some dreary stuff that carries the name Prosecco, but if you’re willing to pay a little bit more you can get some truly interesting wines.

I’m one of those people who loves Prosecco but I see it very much as a simple, fresh, lightly sparkling wine that is at best a refreshing aperitivo and a good party drink. But a serious wine able to cope with a variety of foods? Boy, how wrong was I.

Nino Franco Prosecco and Oysters

Prosecco and Oysters

When I caught up with the importer of producer Nino Franco recently, the venue was not entirely random. HIX Soho is a hip and happening place and the menu seems almost too perfectly matched. The pork crackling “Mark Hix style” is something to behold, the crispy texture and saltiness crying out for a fresh, soft wine with that little touch of sweetness that takes any sharp edges away. It’s where the Rustico comes in. If you’ve never had oysters with a Prosecco, I’d urge you to try this too. No good if you don’t like oysters, but I’m pretty certain scallops would do nicely too.

The revelation arrived with the slow cooked veal. The single vineyard wine we tasted is a Prosecco the like I’ve never tasted before.

Nino Franco Grave di Stecca

The single vineyard ‘Grave di Stecca’ perfect with slow cooked veal.

The ’Grave di Stecca’ has been given a little ageing in tank but on the lees, the deposit formed by the dead yeast cells after the fermentation. This gives the wine an extra depth and complexity that was completely unexpected and was unbelievably tasty with the veal. Deliberately left unclassified, the word Prosecco never appears on either the front or back label. The vineyard is walled, something of a rarity in the area, and the vines, by all accounts, are ancient. I suspect that means they were never affected by the phylloxera pest that blighted most of the world’s vineyards in the 19th and 20th century. That story reminds me of the ‘Vieilles Vignes Francaise’ from Bollinger, so perhaps Nino Franco is the Bollinger of Prosecco?

Nino Franco RusticoTwo of the wines also make pretty smooth dessert matches. They are not really dessert wines but the sweeter styles each have around 35 grams of residual sugar, a bit like demi-sec Champagne and both the Prosecco Primo Franco and Superiore di Cartizze work well with my saffron infused custard tartlet and rhubarb compote, but the apple fritters might be an even better match here. It may seem like quite a bewildering array of wines but putting them into the context of food really shows off their uniqueness and excellent quality.

And the quality is undisputed. Nino Franco is one of the oldest producers of Prosecco in the heartland of the region known as Valdobbiadene. Third generation Primo Franco seems a trailblazer for Prosecco and a stickler for detail. By all accounts he’s not a great friend of the ‘flute’ glass, preferring to drink the wine from a white wine glass to fully appreciate its intricacies.

These wines are really worth searching out and if you can, go for the ‘Grave di Stecca’, it may well change your whole perception of Prosecco. It certainly put a smile on my face.

Thanks to Tim McLaughlin-Green from importer Sommeliers Choice and Dacotah Renneau for introducing me to the Nino Franco range.

Apr 06

The Perfect Nightcap

Just a quick update today as I’m a little busy. Got my 5k run in early and although still a bit cold the sun felt wonderfully soothing. Spring has been a long time coming.  My head was still a little fuzzy from a late night. After a meal out with family we got back home and got stuck into the chocolate Easter eggs and a gorgeous bottle of Calvados. Not just any Calvados, might I add. All too often it is more like rocket fuel, but not this one. It has a beautiful sweet smell of apples, very clean and powerful. Smooth on the tongue with a nice amount of warmth and complexity. This is more like a good Cognac.

L. Dupont Calvados du Pays d’Auge comes with its own ‘appellation controlee’, similar to many wines. The type of apples used (more than 40 different types are allowed) and where they are grown are all important as well as how it has been distilled and matured. Here it has more in common with Cognac than with other fruit-based eau-de-vie. This one certainly tastes like no corners were cut. Proper Calvados has to come from Normandy and the Pays d’Auge forms the heartland of the Calvados region. All Calvados has to be made from apples, however if you see one labelled ‘Domfrontais’ it will have pears in the blend as well. Sip it neat and at room temperature from a brandy glass and savour it.

 

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