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. 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 museum in Regua where the map hangs tucked away in a corner, as part of a larger exhibition of the historic Douro. And we get a feel for the river itself on a boat trip leaving from Pinhao, further upstream. 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 easiest 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 have been rewarded this week when they received the trophy for best viticulture from the Revista de Vinhos magazine. 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.
The decorations are tidied away for another year and we look back on a busy and very fulfilling Christmas. As we have time to breathe, January is also a good time to catch up on reading and we were very pleased to see a feature on the Argentinean wines from Familia Zuccardi in Decanter Magazine this month. Their Serie A Malbec is our best-selling Malbec, which is no surprise, considering its fruity vibrancy and sheer drinking pleasure, combined with a great price.
The Zuccardi story has its beginnings in water rather than wine. Alberto Zuccardi (now 92 and still keeps a keen eye on the family business) was an engineer who was creating a cement pipeline bringing much needed water to the Mendoza region. To demonstrate the pipeline’s usefulness Alberto planted a vineyard there in 1963. At first it was no more than a byline, but when a new winery followed a few years later it was clear what his priorities really were. What started with water, quickly turned to wine.
At the time it was bulk wine, sold to the highest bidder, but it took Alberto’s son Jose (the current President of the company) to take the wines to the UK and establish the Zuccardi name firmly as one of the industry’s leaders. The quality of the wines speaks for itself owing to both Jose and now his son Sebastian, who joined the company in 2002 and has inherited much of his father’s enthusiasm and energy.
YOU CAN STAND OUT ON THAT HIGHWAY, LOOK AS FAR AS YOU CAN SEE, BUT WHEN YOU GET TO THAT HORIZON, THERE’S ALWAYS SOMEPLACE ELSE TO BE, – STEVE EARLE – “IT’S ALL UP TO YOU”
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 do they 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 start.
When I was reading a 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 post 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, 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 to discover something new, you just need a glass.
The world of wine is a lot safer to navigate than the rugged Scottish mountains … and you can do it from the comfort of your armchair
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.
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.
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 to 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Two 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.
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 wonderful 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.
Have you worked out what class you belong to yet. I had a go and was really upset to find out I didn’t belong to the ‘Elite’. Clearly that must be because of my chronic lack of money and the fact that the survey didn’t even bother to ask what kind of wine I drink. Fortunately it did ask about my exercise regime, which is probably what lifted me out of the ‘Precariat’ section, that and the fact I don’t watch Jeremy Kyle.
Talking about exercise, the 5×50 Challenge is going well so far. Six days and counting, a solid pace and a lack of injuries are all good. The wine-blog-o-thon is also going reasonably well. I thought I would run out of inspiration after two days but I have surprised myself. I just hope someone is reading it, I wouldn’t want to do it for nothing you see!
You might have gathered from the ramble that I am ‘established middle class’. Really? I’m from the Netherlands, surely that makes me classless! What wine do you need to drink to be established middle class? Probably something under a tenner, as we are the ‘squeezed middle’ you know. Maybe something from the ‘new world’, France is too elitist, so I’m opting for Chile. I duly went to M&S, which I thought was suitably middle class, and picked up a bottle of the CM Carménère from the Elqui Valley for £7.99. Just the thing with a nice Indian curry. Is that middle class enough? Only I didn’t have curry because the Spanish tapas were on special offer, but it worked anyway. Quite an intense nose, almost port-like, with a lot of dried fruit character, prunes and even coffee. It doesn’t quite translate to the palate where it feels a bit hollow, quite hot and lacks a bit of freshness on the finish. I also didn’t find it as smooth and supple as it promises. Still, it is decent for the money if you like the dried fruit characters, but only if you’re middle class.
No wines were harmed in the writing of this post, but some may have been offended at being called middle class.