Category Archives: Opinion

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

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 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.

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.

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.

Keep on Running

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.

Trusty trainers ready for another challenge.
Trainers might need a polish.

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.

 

Corked Wine and Cling Film

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.

Want to know what happened?

Changing Face of Australian Wine

When it comes to Australian wine many people will be of the opinion that it’s all much the same. Explosive fruit, a big whack of alcohol and a dollop of oak flavour. And your choice is either white or red. But in the same way that not everyone in Australia is called Sheila or Bruce this would be a wholly unfair stereotyping of the country’s wines.

Thinking back to my first encounter with Australian wines in the late 80s (during tasting classes at the Hotelschool I attended), I remember it was these ‘new world’ wines that were easier to drink and understand than their ‘old world’ counterparts. What I wasn’t prepared for was its chequered history when it comes to wine. Australia’s wine history in my mind dated to the relatively recent export boom that started in the eighties and brought with it a style of wine little seen in Europe until that day. Flavour on steroids and big brands. Regionality wasn’t important, ripe fruit was crucial and could come from anywhere, and oak dominated many of these wines. And I believe that still gives rise to some of the stereotypes that persist today.

The famous Terra Rossa soils in Coonawarra. Image courtesy of Wine Australia.

Attending the ‘A+ Australian Wine – One Day Wine School‘ session allowed me more than a glimpse into what is a fascinating wine country. It was showing off much more variety than I was expecting and shows that regional differences in soil and climate are having a real impact on how the wine tastes. That sense of place, which the French call ‘terroir’ might actually have some bearing on Australia’s wine regions too. It was an eye opener to witness how six Chardonnays from very distinct regions could taste so different. Arguably this had more to do with the varying degrees of oak and the different times at which the grapes were harvested, but climate and soil definitely play their important part here too. Still, it shows a move towards much more diverse styles. Occasionally I even used the words elegant and intricate, not something I had expected.

As we discussed the merits of some of the better known regions it became apparent that variety is to be expected with around 2300 wineries across 64 diverse regions. But in relative terms Australia is a very young wine country. Its early wine years were spent on the production of fortified wines, much of which found a market in Britain in the 30’s. Production only shifted to light wines in the 50’s and 60’s with increased immigration and modern winery technology, such as temperature controlled fermentation and more efficient transport systems. This ultimately fuelled the Australian wine boom in the 80’s and what we now describe as the democratisation of wine by the supermarkets. Accepting this is a coming of age for the industry, more recently we see the new generation being increasingly inquisitive. Many make wine in different continents and are keen to experiment and find a regional voice. Research and development are now instrumental in determining which grapes grow well in which regions. The point is even raised that the best vineyards in Australia may not even have been planted yet. I think that’s a very exciting notion and shows a country full of promise. Yet, it may take a little longer to convince the average wine consumer that Australian wine is more than just big flavours and big brands.

 

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.

Appellation or Brand?

Back in March I was party to a very interesting discussion among the wine trade which was trying to determine if France’s wine future lay in brands or in its system of ‘appellations’. I wrote about it here.

Now I think the case is pretty clear cut when it comes to famous names, such as Champagne, Chablis and Chateauneuf-du-Pape to name but a few. Those names roll of the tongue easily and almost act like brands in their own right. With some of the lesser-known appellations it may not be so straightforward. Sometimes I feel France’s strength, it’s appellation system, is also its weakness. It is difficult to understand, complex and full of names that give little clue as to what the wine will taste like to the average consumer. And, although it has been getting better, a distinct lack of information on a back label is making the purchase of a bottle a bit of a gamble. Granted, the internet is helping to provide additional information and many people still read the words ‘Appellation Controlée’ on the label and feel reassured the wine will be of good quality. But unless you know the style of the wine from a particular appellation, will you know what it tastes like and more importantly, are you going to like it?

1753 Campuget – Costieres de Nimes 2009

It may be a bit random but I picked up a wine from the lesser known Costieres de Nimes, an appellation that came into being just over 20 years ago and falls somewhere between the Languedoc and the Rhone Valley. Since 2004 it aligns itself with the Rhone Valley to which it owes much of its style. Similar stony soils and Syrah and Grenache as its main grapes means you can compare it to Cotes du Rhone. A look at Chateau Campuget’s website shows they market themselves as part of the Rhone Valley ‘brand’, probably because the Rhone Valley is better known internationally. Shame about that sound file that ‘welcomes’ you to the site. My French isn’t great so it becomes a bit annoying. I would also have wanted a bit more information on the specific wine, my main reason to visit the site. The back label tells me the name ‘1753’ refers to the date on the earliest document found at the Chateau. Nice, but what did the document say? Anyway, the wine is really rather good. Lots of blackberry and plummy flavours and dark chocolate. It gives the wine a nice richness, not too dry, which means you could drink this on its own but it would be much better with a nice meaty stew, which is exactly what I’ll be having tonight.

 

France still leads the way

For many wine drinkers France still leads the way. In a recent survey regular wine drinkers were asked to identify wine regions and seven out of the top 10 were French regions. The only non-French regions mentioned were Rioja (Spain), Chianti (Italy) and the Napa Valley (California). That is pretty telling and taken as a cue by the French that their ‘Appellations’ rock.That may be the case for those that most of us would know, regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne and Chablis for example, which don’t struggle for recognition. But what about Costieres de Nimes or Lirac? Is there value in putting those names on a label or do they end up just confusing the average wine drinker? Would you know what you were drinking if you bought a bottle with one of those names on the label?

The French have long held the belief that the sense of place is crucial to their wines. This concept, referred to as ‘terroir’ is central to the principle of Appellations. A few years ago I witnessed an ‘average wine consumer’ asking a winemaker from Burgundy what grape variety was used to make their red wine. The sense of surprise was followed by a Gallic shrug and then a matter of fact statement along the lines of ‘well…Pinot Noir, of course!’. It may be blatantly obvious to those who are in the know, but many people still don’t realise that Chablis is made from Chardonnay for example. This sums up the idea the French have that the grape variety comes way down the list in terms of importance. For that reason the grape variety often isn’t even mentioned on the label, assuming it is allowed to be on the label. Now consider that the same study concluded that grape variety is a very important cue for the regular wine drinker when buying wine, it seems to me this may be a missed opportunity. Speaking to some French producers earlier this week many of them are trying to find a way to use this information to help the average consumer by making labels easier to understand. One supermarket wine buyer actually called for some of the lesser known Appellations to come together under some sort of umbrella brand to help the wine drinking public.

You may like the mystery that is often attached to these strange names, evoking far-flung places but sometimes it helps just to know what you’re drinking. A votre santé!

Taxing the pleasure from wine

The cost of the average bottle of wine bought in the UK is apparently about to top £5 for the first time in a few months time. Research conducted by Accolade Wines puts the current average around £4.71 but it is another hike in alcohol duty that is going to push prices up much further over the next few years. The duty escalator, introduced by the previous government will result in tax rising by 2% above inflation. At the current levels that means a duty increase in excess of 7%.

Even at today’s levels and taking the £4.71 current average as our starting point, the proportion of tax (duty and VAT) is 55% at £2.59! That gives us £2.12 to produce, bottle, import, ship and sell the wine. That is not a lot of money when you think about it.

Now this may sound like bad news and clearly the disproportionate rise of duty on wine is far from good, but many consumers are taking it as a cue to find better value, rather than cheaper wine. As the duty element is fixed, for every pound you spend extra you get 80 pence that is spent on the wine and not the taxman. Spend an extra £2 and a wine costing £6.71 reduces the tax percentage to 43.6%. That leaves a lot more to be spent on the wine in the bottle. And it is the wine that matters and sometimes it pays to spend a bit more.

If you have an iPhone you can download a very handy ‘UK Wine Tax Calculator’ from the App Store to help you make an informed decision.