As I’m making my way through a sunny Glasgow Green on my second day of the 5×50 Challenge, thoughts turn to the next wine to review. I’m out in shorts and t-shirt, the sun seemed quite warm enough when I was indoors, but now I wish I put on an extra layer as the wind is quite a bit colder than I had anticipated. The fact everyone else seems to be wearing polar outfits should have been a hint.
That feeling of spring in the air, with a bracing grip of the remnants of winter makes me think of Albariño. The grape variety is largely grown in Galicia in North West Spain (and in Northern Portugal as Alvarinho), a corner of the world where you might perhaps expect grapes to be super ripe with intense, tropical flavours. Not so Albariño. Galicia is heavily influenced by the Atlantic and that can give a chill to the weather that makes the ripening season longer. Albariño has that bracing character of high acidity, a good dose of ripe, yet fresh citrus fruit, can have a distinct floral edge and a crisp, dry finish, which can sometimes be a little on the bitter side. It’s those characters that make it a perfect seafood wine, particularly scallops and oysters or something like a ceviche.
A couple of weeks ago I managed to taste a dozen or so different Albariños, most of them pretty good. That makes it easy for me to recommend them. Pay around a tenner and you’ll more than likely get a decent one. The one that stood out for me is a bit more expensive but then I did write down ‘delicious’ as my tasting note. The Fillaboa 2011 is made by Gonzalez Byass and retails for around £15, although it doesn’t seem widely available in the UK (yet?).
Happy Easter! I’ve just completed my first 5k of many more to come over the next 50 days. After a rather late night it was quite refreshing to get out in the spring sun even though the temperature still isn’t exactly warm. Yesterday involved a lot of fruit wine tasting at the Cairn O’Mohr winery in Perthshire. Quite a baffling range of different fruits, leaves and flowers get turned into the varying concoctions and the place just oozes quirkiness and fun. Ron, the founder and owner took us round and showed us where he grows the elderflowers and berries. He’s full of great stories and I will do a more detailed blog on this soon.
If you ever find yourself in Perthshire, between Perth and Dundee, go and see them.
We then popped into Gleneagles where I used to work back in the days, longer ago than I care to admit! A very juicy ribeye was washed down with a taster of Primitivo and a delicious Cannonau from Sardinia before heading home to some cheese and Port. And it’s that Port I’m choosing as my wine for today. The Fonseca ‘Terra Prima’ is an utterly delicious reserve Port made using organic grapes. The fruit is juicy, concentrated and jammy. And at around £16 a bottle it is amazing value too. You’ll probably need to head to your independent specialist for this one. If you’re in Glasgow go to the Good Spirits Co in Bath Street.
At the risk of everyone starting to call me Forrest, I’ve yet again signed up for the 5×50 Challenge. I love running and love this challenge because it encourages everyone to get off the sofa, join and resolve to run, walk, jog, cycle 5 kilometres per day for 50 days. I did it back in the autumn last year and can’t wait to get started on the next instalment on Easter Sunday.
On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like that much but when you’re doing this every day it makes a huge difference, but it’s also a tough challenge. I had quite a few days on the previous one where my body just didn’t want to go anymore but, mind over matter, you get out and get going and come back feeling better for it.
One of my other challenges is sharing some of the wonderful wines I taste on a weekly basis online, on this blog. Sometimes I just lack the motivation to write or say something meaningful, so in tandem with the running challenge I’m going to review 50 wines over the course of the 50 days right here. Hopefully they are going to span the weird and wonderful, the great and, perhaps, the not so great.
Wine Trade folks, if you want to help and you want me to review your wine, please get in touch! But at the very least, if you’re reading this, why not sign up for the challenge yourself? It may just change your life!
And please, drink responsibly!
Update 28 March:
I’ve decided the wine review challenge will now also have to cover 50 grape varieties. That should make for a very varied bunch.
Opening a bottle of wine and finding it is corked is hugely frustrating. The smell of damp cardboard, or as they like to say in Scotland, that ‘fusty’ smell is horrible and ruins the wine. I know a lot of effort has gone in trying to eradicate this problem, but I still come across it far too often.
Over the past few months a number of different people mentioned on Twitter that you can ‘save’ a bottle of wine by decanting it and stuffing cling film into the decanter. The cling film somehow is supposed to absorb the cork taint and leave the wine clean as a whistle. When I came across a corked bottle the other day I was about to angrily pour the foul-smelling contents down the drain, but just then it came to me that cling film could be my saviour.
There is one smell that always makes me feel it’s Christmas, the smell of mulled wine. Some people turn their noses up at the thought of heating wine and chucking in some spices. It completely ruins the wine, they argue. I don’t agree, Christmas wouldn’t be quite the same without a pan of wine mulling on the stove, permeating the whole house with its seasonal aroma of wine and sweet spices.
A good mulled wine should start with a decent wine. Don’t go overboard, but something fruity, unoaked and easy drinking should do the job nicely. According to Mrs Beeton and her ‘Book of Household Management’ Claret and Port are the preferred options but then it was 1961. With a sweeter wine like Port you don’t need to add as much sugar to the mix was the argument. Pour the wine into a pan and add sugar, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. You can buy ready-mixed mulled wine spice too if you like, they come packed in teabags so that makes it nice and easy, however using the individual spices allows you to come up with your own favourite mix. I also add sliced oranges to add a bit of freshness. You can stick the cloves into the orange peel so they don’t end up in people’s glasses.
Put the sugar, spices and the juice of one fresh orange in a pan and just cover with red wine. Let this come to the boil so the sugar dissolves and reduce it down for five minutes on a high heat. Put the rest of the wine in and just let it simmer away on a very low heat. It’s great if you’re having a Christmas party as your guests won’t be able to resist the gorgeous, spicy aroma.
My final, and perhaps most important, ingredient is a good glug of brandy. Cognac or Armagnac are good, but a dark or spiced rum would work equally well. Put this in at the end so the heat of the alcohol is still there and provides not only a kick, but a drink that would warm up the coldest and darkest of nights. Merry Christmas!
2 bottles of red wine
150 grams of caster sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
nutmeg to taste, freshly grated is best and I go for quite a lot, 10-15 goes on the grater
1 or 2 whole oranges cut in thick slices, plus juice of one orange.
2 shots of Brandy (optional)
if you like you can add vanilla pods, bay leaves and star anise to the mix too
Earlier this week I did a brief talk on the history of wine at the Christmas dinner for the Scottish Women in Business. Here is the story I shared. Details of the Greek and Turkish wines we tasted can be found at the bottom of the article.
On a recent trip to Turkey I went in search of the “Source of Wine”. Turkey was playing host to the annual digital wine communications conference (EWBC) and one session in particular gave a unique insight in the journey wine has taken from its first wild roots.
The Roman Empire
Most people’s association with history and wine is likely to be related to the spread of the Roman Empire. And it would be true to say this is a crucial time for the modern, cultivated or domesticated vine. There is plenty of evidence showing the spread of the wine regions with Rome as its starting point. One of the most important natural historians of his time was Pliny the Elder, who became famous for his encyclopaedic work ‘Naturalis Historia’, which included a large section devoted to vines and wines. He was possibly even more famous for the manner of his death in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 and gave his name to what we describe today as a “Plinean eruption”.
The Ancient Greeks
Yet this is not where wine was born. You would have to go quite a bit further back. The Ancient Greeks used wine in ancient ceremonies, often drunk as a grog, mixed with spices, honey and water in some cases seawater. The wine “Retsina” to this day is flavoured with pine resin. The Greeks even had a God of wine, Dionysus, whom the Romans later adopted as Bacchus. The wines from ancient Greece were highly praised by its poets but some of the adulteration of it would suggest they perhaps weren’t so great after all.
Clearly modern winemaking owes more to the Romans, but we honour the Ancient Greeks by tasting a modern Greek wine which comes from Drama in the north of mainland Greece bordered by Bulgaria and Turkey. Assyrtiko is regarded as one of Greece’s best indigenous white grape varieties. We’re giving a nod to modern wine with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc. Assyrtiko originated on the island of Santorini and thrives in volcanic soils. It’s ability to withstand high summer temperatures and still retain freshness and is the secret of its success. The grape variety produces a very dry, mineral wine with almost earthy qualities, particularly when grown on the volcanic soils of Santorini. Elsewhere, such as here in Drama it produces a somewhat milder, fruitier style of wine.
So far we’ve traced wine’s first steps back from the Roman Empire down to the Ancient Greeks. But we haven’t even covered half of it. Following the traces from Greece we move 2000 years further down the line to Ancient Egypt. The Pharaohs were great imbibers of wine and even kept detailed records of what they drunk which included many vintage dated, single vineyard wines.
But it doesn’t stop there either. From Egypt our journey moves North-East and into Mesopotamia and ultimately ends up in current day Eastern Turkey, or Anatolia to be more precise, and countries like Georgia and Armenia. It is now believed the earliest known wines originated here. The archeological evidence was found not far from Mount Arrarat, where Noah is said to have landed his ark and planted the first vineyard.
Some of the evidence discovered in 1957 was of a tomb in Gordion, the capital of Phrygia in what is modern day Turkey. Dated to roughly 700-750BC it was named the Midas Tumulus. The hermetically sealed tomb was covered in earth. It proved a spectacular tomb belonging to what some believe is the king of Phrygia, King Midas.
Ancient Ales, Wines and Extreme Beverages
Inside the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a 60-65 year old male, as well as the largest iron age drinking set ever discovered. It consisted of 160 bronze vessels. More recent chemical research by chemist and archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who in the popular vernacular is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages”, revealed not only the remains of what turned out to be some funerary feast of barbecued lamb and goat’s meat with lentils, but provided some detailed insight in what was drunk too.
The identification of tartaric acid points to grapes or grape product. Now this could have just been grape juice, however the juice would more than likely have fermented naturally considering the high ambient temperature and the fact that yeast is naturally present on the grape skins. Beeswax was also found which points towards something along the lines of honey mead. Finally beerstone (Calcium Oxalate) was discovered, a substance which is commonly associated with the production of Barley beer.
These findings led to a bit of experimental archaeology with the help of the Kavaklidere winery. They recreated the drink albeit not in a commercial sense. It was later produced in the US as the “Midas Touch Golden Elixir” and is made using Barley, honey and muscat grapes. Saffron was added as a bitter agent and would have given it a lush golden colour. A drink fit for a King.
Modern Day Turkey
Unadulterated by barley, honey or saffron our second wine comes from Turkey and is made by the same winery, Kavaklidere. Here the indigenous variety Kalecik Karasi is blended with Syrah to make a wine not unlike a French Cotes-du-Rhone. The Kalecik Karasi is named after the Kalecik district close to Ankara although it is now fairly widely grown in Turkey. It can produce a variety of wine styles, from soft, easy drinking to more complex. In character it sits somewhere between Gamay, Dolcetto and Pinot Noir.
Much earlier evidence of grape cultivation and winemaking were found in this same area and genetic research, conducted by the Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz (one of the authors of the most authoritative book on grapes to date, Wine Grapes), has helped pin down some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication, which is now accepted as having been instrumental in the spread of the beverage. Grape domestication favoured the self-pollinating plant, where in the wild the vast majority of vines would be either male or female, with only the female bearing fruit. The hermaphroditic vine dispensed with this need and made grape growing much more efficient and with fruit readily available the drink was only a short fermentation away.
So can we trace this all the way back to the earliest glass of wine. Unlikely, according to Jose Vouillamoz, as that was probably a simple case of “serendipitous inebriation”.
We tasted two wines on the night which were kindly supplied by Direct Wines (Laithwaites), the first of the mainstream retailers to add a Turkish wine to their range. They promised me there are more to come very soon!
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.
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.