All posts by riparian

New Year, New Site.

I’ve been off line for a little while but I’m working hard to get the site back up and running again. It may take a couple of weeks but I will relaunch very soon. Watch this space.

If you have any enquiries, questions or need to contact me in the meantime you can email me administrator (at) corkandbottle.co.uk

Pieter Rosenthal

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. 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.

Water into Wine

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.
Article was written for the shop blog

Do You Know the Way

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

Running Fuel

Back in February, coming out of a long winter I was feeling decidedly unfit and despite the fact I last ran about 25 years ago, I felt I had to take it up again and get some fresh air. Then I met Kelly Mason and the core team of the 5×50 Challenge (http://5×50.co.uk/challenger/pieter-rosenthal) and started running with them every Wednesday lunchtime. It didn’t take too long to get bitten by the bug and now I’m more than halfway on a 50-day challenge running at least 5k a day.

It’s a great feeling even though my legs have been in various states of protest. Going out there every single day, regardless of how busy work is, or the increasingly inclement weather. The sense of achievement is helping me keep perspective through what are tough times for everyone right now and it helps to keep me sane. This is not just a physical challenge but as much a mental one. How’s that for a metaphor for life?

Clearly my love affair with wine continues undiminished, I have a big heart so there is room. And there is no way I would give up wine for any challenge, but I do feel that I’ve earned myself an extra nice bottle after the punishing schedule I’m imposing on myself. That’s my excuse anyway. Encouraged by the core team, Kelly Mason and Mark Houston in particular, I’m now imposing a punishing tasting schedule as well, with a multitude of bottles of wine priced around a tenner. One of those great value price points where you can get some seriously interesting wines that bring fantastic drinking pleasure. This could well become the ‘wine 5×50′ or 5 great bottles for £50. I’ll share my first one here and now, but expect more updates over the weeks to come of other wines that will have the honour of joining the challenge.

The Mas des Amours from the Coteaux du Languedoc in Southern France had an outing or two recently, among which was a tasting at Curlers Rest in Glasgow’s Byers Road in September and back in August at the Cross Stobs Bottle Shop, which stocks the wine. Both times the gasps of enjoyment were almost too much to bear, earning it a place as my first wine in the challenge. Unfortunately the sumptuous dark berry fruit doesn’t count towards your five a day but it’s a smooth talker that soothes my tired legs any day.

It is available from the Cross Stobs Bottle Shop for £9.95 : http://crossstobswine.co.uk/red-wine/375-mas-des-amours-coteaux-du-languedoc.html

Where does your wine come from?

How do you decide what wine to buy? The answer to this will quite likely involve price, particularly if it has the word ‘half’ before it. Perhaps you buy because the label has an animal/flower/tree/chateau (cross out where applicable) on it and for some it’s the favourite country or grape variety that matters most. Would PDO be in this list somewhere? The European Union’s ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ was created to protect the heritage of food and drink. Things like Parma ham fall in this category, as do Stilton cheese and Stornoway Black Pudding for example.

The growth of farmers’ markets, delis and specialist retailers such as Wholefoods has resulted in a surge of interest in locally produced food and drink. We see a massive rise in sales of craft beers, produced by an ever-growing band of microbreweries, but when it comes to wine most of us stick to well-known brands where provenance is of no importance. Price and grape variety is. Part of the issue is that most wine consumers see wine as a natural product anyway. It’s made from fresh grapes so what more do I need to know? The wine trade isn’t really helping matters either. The sheer number of grape varieties, styles and regions lead to confusion over what a wine will actually taste like, leaving most consumers playing it safe and opting for what they know, rather than looking towards their more adventurous sides.

The creation of the PDO is not going to resolve this but it at least attempts to protect producers from imitations that could destroy a good name. What is good wine is subjective. Only you can decide whether you like a wine or not, but I like Susy Atkins’ advice in this video, made for ‘Discover the Origin‘, about exploring the wine world by region. Sticking to smaller producers and finding out where the wine actually comes from. This moves you away from mass-produced wine that delivers only on price. Many of us already do it with beer, so why not take the plunge and discover something new in the world of wine. There are plenty of great stories to uncover.

Fine Wine and a Wee Bit of Fudge

In a constant quest to find new wines that will go down well with the wine loving enthusiasts I hosted a tasting at the Cross Stobs Bottle Shop in Barrhead, just outside Glasgow. And it was a very good run too as most of the wines were worthy of being included in the ever growing selection.
We kicked off proceedings with the Caruso and Minini, Terre di Giumara Inzolia. I had meant to use the Grecanico instead as I think it is a perfect wine to replace the omnipresent Pinot Grigios. I hadn’t tried the Inzolia before but it was equally good and the refreshing citrus flavours are perfect for what little summer we may have left. Next up it was a trade off between the Clos Henri – Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough. It was either this one or its cheaper sibling the Petit Clos. We went for the big one and it proved a massive hit. The estate is owned by French wine domain Henri Bourgeois and they have deliberately moved to make a less aromatic and tropical version of the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. There is a ripeness of fruit that gives away its new world characteristic with with a distinct old world elegance and charm. Is this as close as Marlborough gets to Sancerre? Judging by the reaction it was worth its £18 price tag.
For a mid-summer tasting we had to take the opportunity to bring in a new rose too. The Carteron Cuvee Elegance Cotes de Provence is a gorgeous dusty pink. A dry rose with a beautiful red fruit character that is light and elegant. Don’t expect a sweet, jammy new world pink here, but a wonderfully refreshing clean rose that would make a lovely match to a tuna nicoise salad
A wine that has proven consistently popular is the Familia Pacheco Roble, Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah-Monastrell from Spanish wine region Jumilla, just inland from Alicante. Known for its main grape variety Monastrell (Mourvedre) the blend of three varieties gives a wine that is modern in style. Lots of dark fruit and a bit of spiciness from the oak this drinks much easier than you would think at first. And that’s the danger, it’s dangerously good. Our quest continues with the Domaine de Moulines Merlot, Vin de Pays de l’Herault. The Cabernet Sauvignon from the same estate has been a hit for a while so it was time to put the Merlot through its paces. There is a distinct plum and sweet spice flavour here that should work well with things like casseroles or beef stew. Maybe one to stock up on for the winter.

Finally there is a red wine from the same region, Mas des Amours, Côteaux du Languedoc. Predominantly from the Grenache grape this is a very generous red with lots of dark fruits. Black cherry and blackberry come to mind and something called garrigue, which is the scent of the Languedoc region and is best described as a combination of lavender and provencal herbs.
Smooth and lively this wine took me completely by surprise with its great character and would make a perfect match to roast lamb.
As a bonus we had lined up a sweet wine, the Zuccardi Torrontes Tardio a late harvest wine from Argentina. Fortunately Joyce Brady from the Wee Fudge Company didn’t take too much persuading to come along and bring some of her amazing fudge that we could taste alongside the wine. The Raspberry and white chocolate fudge in particular made for a spectacular combination judged by the reaction of the assembled tasters. A wonderful sugar rush to finish the evening on
.

Wine doesn’t travel

Are you all dreaming of jetting off to sunnier climes over the summer? No wonder with this continuous drip-drip-drip effect we seem to be having up and down the country. I’m getting ready to spend a week on the beach of a Croatian island soon. The phone will be loaded up with my favourite music and plenty of books. Other than that I’m taking Speedos. Holiday destinations for me are about that peace and quiet but also a little discovery of the wonder of the local food and wines.

The other day I was discussing the reason why wine seems to have become so popular over the past 30 or so years. My view is that the advent of foreign travel, and cheaper air travel in particular, have opened people’s eyes to a continental lifestyle. Being exposed to the local wines and relaxed lifestyle made people want to recapture some of that magic when they got home. Usually with pretty mixed success, it has to be said. We all have stories of that wine which tasted so wonderful on the Spanish costas or the Greek islands. Once we got home to the British autumn it turned out to be less than pleasant and recaptured little more than a headache the next day. I’ve had it myself.

The local wine of Naples and the surrounding Amalfi Coast is a semi-sparkling light red wine called Gragnano. It is served in pitchers, perfectly chilled and very refreshing. Naples is well-known for its pizza and this wine just works far too well with the huge stone baked pizzas served all over Naples. Not long after the trip, I managed to track a bottle of it down in Scotland and thought I’d give it a try. I knew the producer and their wines are generally very good. There was nothing wrong with their Gragnano either, to be fair, but it just felt totally out of place up here in the cold Scottish autumn. More often than not, context is crucial to how a wine is experienced and it gives rise to the phrase ‘wine doesn’t travel’.

Sometimes it works though and I’m excited about the Croatia trip because the wines of Croatia are starting to make some waves here too, up until now largely in the independent sector but the quality absolutely warrants a wider distribution. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise with its proximity to wine superpower Italy. The great thing will be to continue the journey of discovery over the odd glass or two once back home.

If you want to have a go with Croatian wines yourself, here is one to try. It is made from the local variety Grasevina, which gives fresh, fruity white wines, perfect for sunny afternoons. Good on Marks & Spencer for being one of the first retailers to include a couple of Croatian wines in their portfolio.

Alcohol Pricing

“Now is the time to tackle the toll Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol is taking on our society.” This is how Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish health secretary, confirmed the Scottish government’s decision that minimum pricing per unit of alcohol is the way to go to stem Scotland’s descent into the alcohol-fuelled abyss. Perhaps tellingly her statement came during a visit to the cardiac unit at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary. From April 2013 and against speculation that it would be inthe region of 45p per unit, the amount has now been set at 50p, an increase to allow for inflation according to the health secretary. Sounds a lot, doesn’t it?

Depending on what your regular tipple is, this decision may not actually affect you. Unless you’re in the habit of buying cut-price booze, that is. I’ve long been saying that spending a bit more on a bottle of wine is good for us all. See my previous article on tax and duty on wine and you’ll know what I mean.

In itself I’m actually not against this government move, but I do question whether it will have the desired effect. Buckfast has often been blamed, particularly in the west of Scotland, for fuelling anti-social behaviour. It is a fortified (tonic) wine containing around 15% alcohol as well as caffeine and observation indicates the combination of both might drive gangs of teenagers into causing havoc. This may be an isolated example but many people I’ve spoken to recently find it strange that the minimum price set by the Scottish government means absolutely no change in the price of Buckfast, which already retails for around £7. I can’t see how this policy is going to solve that particular problem and I think that current laws could be used more effectively to curb underage drinking and antisocial behaviour which seems to be at the heart of the problem. If we don’t teach young people a responsible attitude to alcohol, excesses will just escalate.

I’m in no doubt that drinking less alcohol is better for our health, I’m just questioning whether this particular policy will achieve the desired outcome. But since the policy is now a fact, we’ll be sure to find out if it does. And the ‘sunset clause’ built into the policy means there will be an opportunity to review its results infive years time.

The challenge is now to see how the trade reacts with the positioning of brands in the middle price brackets. As cut-price alcohol becomes more expensive the distinction with products in that middle range becomes muddled. There is a widespread view that this may result in price rises across the board. And some will welcome this as an opportunity to review how prices are set and make the wine trade in particular more sustainable over the longer term for producers and importers.

It’s worth reading the small print though. At this stage Sheffield University’s Alcohol Research group, on whose report the Scottish government has based its policy, has estimated that large retailers stand to make £124.5 million from minimum pricing as well as from the discount ban already in force. This number may actually end up being considerably higher according to CBI Scotland because of the increase from 45p to 50p.

There is currently no mechanism to claw this back from retailers, as the Scottish government doesn’t have the power to set central tax or duty on alcohol. They did introduce the ‘public health levy’ earlier this year which will see larger alcohol (and tobacco) retailers pay a supplement to their business rates. There are calls for similar measures in the form of a ‘social responsibility levy’ (that of course is just tax to you and me) so, before we celebrate a move to a more sustainable model, we could well end up with a significant increase in the overall price of alcohol that goes straight into the government’s coffers and does nothing to restore balance in the trade and that would be a great opportunity missed.

As it stands the minimum unit price will only apply to Scotland and there is genuine concern that it could harm Scottish retailers when south of the border there are no restrictions. Evidence from Canada, where similar moves have introduced minimum pricing in some provinces, suggests that cross border trade from provinces without restrictions is a significant issue. But the Westminster government is already making noises about minimum unit pricing south of the border,making it likely the imbalance will only last for a short time.

So where does this leave the average consumer? Clearly this is the start of the end of cut-price alcohol as we know it but as a result we may well see price increases at the higher levels as well as the market resettles. The question is whether this will end the love affair consumers have with cheap deals and stop them buying on price but rather look for quality, or the illusive ‘value for money’. It is worth noting that the minimum price for a bottle of wine will now be £4.69,which is only marginally below the current average price paid in the UK. Perhaps it will encourage people to start exploring the wine isle with renewed vigour and root out some real quality, but I think it takes more than minimum unit pricing to fix that.

The current focus on lower alcohol wines may also benefit as a result as they are in prime position to take the spot vacated by the lowest priced wines, but that is of course assuming these wines can be produced at this low cost and find sufficient favour with consumers. The time is right for the larger retailers to take the lead and convince consumers about the real value of a bottle of wine, rather than just play the blunt pricing game. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Tasting the Obscure Spain

Once a month I attend a tasting with a few fellow wine lovers. We normally decide on some sort of loose theme, I say loose as the theme is usually followed by the words ‘or not’, giving rise to some pretty weird and wonderful stuff. We primarily do this to keep our blind tasting skills up to speed but we don’t treat it all too seriously. Last Monday the theme was “Obscure Spain (or not)” which can mean anything as the variety of wines from Spain is impressive. We had a pretty varied bunch, but before starting we have to master the process of putting the wines in some sort of order. You’d think this would be pretty straightforward but usually the group descends into chaos resulting in a completely random set of numbers and letters. Despite this it usually turns out reasonably accurate at the end.

To kick off we had a white Rioja, the Marques de Murrieta Capellanía 2005 (Berry Bros – £19). Produced from 50 year old Viura vines from the Ygay estate it spends 18 months on new French oak. This not only gives the wine its nutty, gingery characteristics but also makes it feel slightly grippy on the palate. It’s a special wine, very complex, particularly the aromas and it has a very long finish. Not one for the easy drinking crowd but a great food wine.

The second white, the Mas d’en Compte Priorat 2007 (Spirited Wines – £23), had a slightly deeper golden colour. A toasty, vanilla nose with a greenish edge. I wrote down guava but cardamom was mentioned as well. It was a rich, full-bodied wine with a spicy flavour but showed very little fruit character. The acidity comes in late and it finishes clean. Overall we felt this wine had a bit too much oak and it really overpowered what fruit there was. We did wonder if we perhaps had a bottle that was slightly out of condition as it gets rave reviews otherwise. The dominant variety is Grenache (60%) and I normally really like the soft floral style of white Grenache but the oak spoiled it for me.

Our first red wine was the Vina del Perdon Gran Reserva 2001 from Navarra (Waitrose – £9.49). This wine had most of us confused over where it was from and even what grape variety it was made of. It had some Rioja-like characters, clearly owing to the 3 years in a combination of French and American oak, but it felt altogether lighter in style. It had quite a bit of acidity and freshness. Most of us had put its vintage somewhere around 05/06. As it turned out it was a more international blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Graciano, the latter being the only grape also used in Rioja. The nose had the more developed aromas of tobacco leaf and something that reminded me of tree bark as well as dried cherries. A dry, spicy wine on the palate with cherry and plum flavours. Refreshing without being simple.

Next up was the wildcard, a Tempranillo from Argentina. The Zuccardi Q Tempranillo 2008 (Cross Stobs Wine – £16) uses the main variety from Rioja but puts a decidedly new world twist on this. Sweet vanilla, chocolate, cherry and chilli. Explosive fruit on the palate, tasting of summer pudding and chocolate. Not for the faint-hearted as it is alcoholic and extracted and very impressive. Likened to a very modern style of Ribera del Duero this was the odd one out.

Then we came to a very big treat with the Pintia 2006 from Toro (Berry Bros – £42). Made from 100% Tempranillo, known locally as Tinta de Toro it spent a year in new French and American oak barrels. This is a hugely tannic wine, even after 5 years. It has a dark, meaty nose, chocolate, coffee, black olives were all mentioned as were dark cherries. On the palate it was the tannins that really stood out. They were screaming for food. Fortunately we had some cheese and Jamon Iberico to come to our aid. Dry, intense, dark and brooding. Dark plum, chocolate and those tannins, this wine feels like it will live forever. Keep it for now or decant it a few hours before drinking and have it with a nice joint of meat to get the best from it.

Our final wine of the night was a sweet wine, the Alta Alella, Dolç Blanc 2008. The grapes (a blend of Cava variety Xarel-Lo, blended with Viognier and Chardonnay) were grown about 2km from the sea near Barcelona. Aromas of lemon curd and honey, with a slight mineral edge, followed through on the palate, which is rich but not hugely sweet. There is a pithy, rind-like bitterness that balances well with the sweetness making it feel beautifully balanced. The grapes are picked and then frozen (in freezers), producing something like an artificial ice wine as I doubt the temperature would ever get low enough there to make the proper stuff. Pretty much for local consumption and this bottle was brought back from Barcelona so I don’t expect to find it in the UK. If anything this may well wine the prize of most obscure wine of the night.