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.

Malbec World Day

OK, so I was going to have a quick meeting with Andrew Maidment from Wines of Argentina to talk about his new initiative, to celebrate Malbec World Day. Little did I know it would become a masterclass, not only in Malbec, but many other grape varieties, as well as the intricate minutiae of Argentine beef.

Meeting in Gaucho should have been a giveaway I suppose. And Malbec really is at its best served with a juicy steak, or even better the marinated beef known as Churrasco. I am now in a position to tell you what the percentage of fat in each individual cut of beef is, but I’ll refrain for fear of losing you right away.

I started asking Andrew why bother with Malbec World Day? Is it just a gimmick? It seems a bit random to chose a Sunday in the middle of April, but the date, April 17th, is very significant for Argentine wine. On this date in 1853 a bill was passed in Argentina which allowed the planting of a whole host of grape varieties brought over from France and elsewhere. And that’s how Malbec made it across to Argentina. As I mentioned it wasn’t just Malbec, but it somehow seemed to do well in Argentina’s soils and climate and way down the line became internationally recognised as producing wines of excellent quality. Andrew mentions in particular the work done by Zuccardi and Catena in the nineties on researching the particular strains that worked best and propagating those to become even better. Consistent and long-term monitoring and lots of trial and error paid off.

Calathus Malbec 2008

We ordered a bottle of Calathus Malbec 2008 from the south of the Uco Valley in Mendoza. Interestingly, for the boss of Wines of Argentina, this was a new one on him, so that made it an easy choice. It also came recommended by the incredibly knowledgeable waiting staff at Gaucho. Andrew tells me that Phil Crozier, Gaucho’s wine director insists on detailed wine training for all members of the front of house team, and it certainly shows. When quizzed on the various wines on the list detailed information comes naturally. Anyway, back to the wine. A deep black fruit nose, full of spicy, leathery and tobacco aromas. Fairly full-bodied, perhaps slightly too much for lunchtime but delicious with the Churrasco.

I ask Andrew if he agrees with some voices that argue that Malbec is making Argentina a one trick pony. He clearly doesn’t, although he mentions he understands why people would say that. Look towards Chile and you see a whole host of variety coming out of that country that you don’t tend to see in Argentina. Many producers are working with varieties other than Malbec as well though. In particular in blends that are increasingly successful. Without being able to look into the future this is where he feels Argentina can really start to shine on the international stage. Innovation is the buzzword at the moment and experimentation with lots of new varieties will bring more excitement. He also believes the country could become more fragmented with smaller wineries making very individual wines.

But Malbec will remain at the heart of Argentina’s wines and so it should be. Andrew sums this up by explaining what is important for this grape and much of it centres around the Andes. It provides the all-important elevation, shelter, water for irrigation and the old glacial riverbed soils. Couple that with places as far apart as Salta, with some of the highest vineyards in the world, Mendoza at the heart and the much more extreme region of Patagonia in the south, and variety should not come as a surprise.

For Malbec World Day, Wines of Argentina are running a number of events, in both restaurants and wine shops. They are focussing their efforts on the likes of Laithwaites, The Sunday Times Wine Club and Majestic, all of whom have got market-beating ranges of Malbec in their stores and online and have really championed Argentine Malbec. I get the feeling Andrew would love to get a supermarket involved as well in the future but their ranges would have to be extended to make this a reality.

The most unusual initiative goes to a collaboration of English winemaker Chapel Down with Wines of Argentina and Gaucho Restaurants. Chapel Down will for the first time create a unique and authentic Malbec from grapes grown in the Mendoza vineyards of the Gaucho Restaurants. The grapes were picked recently and just this week they were crushed in the Chapel Down winery. The release of this unique wine will be on Malbec World Day 2012 and will be sold mainly in Gaucho but some may even make it into a small selection of shops. Similar collaborations are also taking place in New York and Toronto.

From Gaucho it’s a quick taxi ride to the Argentine Ambassador’s residence and a line-up of a hundred or so wines, about a third of which are Malbec with another dozen being Malbec blends. This is where I get to taste for myself how varied these wines can be. I got a bit of a Malbec awakening as I started to find a common thread in many of them. First I put it down to regional differences, but then I realised it wasn’t that specific. It’s a quality I find difficult to pinpoint. It is something aromatic, reminding me slightly of pine cones or rosemary, fresh woodland but not earthy. I guess I’ll just have to taste a few more to find the answer. A job I’ll gladly take on.

 

Fairtrade Fortnight Tasting

When I started thinking about a Fairtrade tasting, the idea was to get as much wine from the Fairtrade ranges as possible, but it even surprised me how extensive this range has become. So for the purpose of this post I only looked at what supermarkets are offering as part of their own labels. The Coop, always a bit of a front runner when it comes to Fairtrade, still has a very extensive range, with particularly strong offerings from Argentina and South Africa. Sainsbury’s was another retailer with a pretty good selection of Fairtrade wines under their own label, particularly from South Africa. At Tesco I only found one white and one red wine in their own label range both of which were from Argentina and Asda didn’t have any. Both supermarkets do offer Fairtrade wines from a variety of producers such as Stellar Organics, Fairhills and Six Hats though.

Ultimately the proof is in the wine and having tasted through a large selection, By and large I am quite impressed with the offering from the Coop. The wines are dependable, particularly those from Argentina. Sainsbury’s is also offering a fairly extensive selection with more of a focus on South Africa. The premium products in the ‘Taste The Difference’ range in particular are very good. I think these wines are really worth their price tag so pick one up with your coffee and chocolates in the next couple of weeks, and support a worthwhile cause.


 

Coop Fairtrade Torrontes-Chardonnay 2010 – Famatina Valley, Argentina (Coop – £4.49)

Coop’s Fairtrade offering from Argentina is pretty strong with all wines produced by the La Riojana cooperative. I quite liked this very drinkable number. I thought it was a very characterful wine for what is the lowest priced one in the range. A fresh, light floral nose with some peach and elderflower. Melon and zesty lemony freshness on the palate. Don’t expect a complex wine but for the price, I can’t fault it.

Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Fairtrade Wild Valley Chenin Blanc 2010 Wellington, South Africa(Sainsbury’s – £7.99 reduced to £5.99 until 22nd March)

New to Sainsbury’s list is this expressive Chenin Blanc produced by the Bosman Family Vineyards. A ripe, tropical nose showing pineapple and guava. Lovely and clean on the palate with zesty citrus fruit and fresh apples. Very refreshing and lively. Particularly at £5.99 this is a great value white. The same producer is also behind the Cabernet Sauvignon in this range. It’s a couple of pounds more expensive but it is a good, expressive red wine.

Coop Fairtrade Organic Malbec Reserve 2009 – Famatina Valley, Argentina (Coop – £6.99)

Lovely deep, glossy colour. Blackberry, vanilla and chocolates, with a slight smokiness on the nose. A full bodied wine with velvety tannins. Intense blackberry, cherry and spicy warmth owing to a bit of oak ageing, with a satisfying length. A nice winter warmer while it is still cold outside. I tasted this against Tesco’s Fairtrade Malbec 2010, which is 50 pence cheaper and also nice, but I found the Coop one to be a bit more complex and warming. Perhaps keep Tesco’s Malbec for the warmer days and the barbecue

Disney and Champagne

It is mid-October and we are spending a mid-week in northern France with the family. To be more specific, we’re staying in the the Davey Crockett Lodge about 10 minutes drive away from Disneyland Paris. The playful set-up of the ‘log cabins’ dotted around the woodlands take you away from the hustle and bustle of the parks itself and is a great alternative for families who want to go self-catering. Having a car with you is an absolute necessity, but taking the car is no punishment when you realise the other ‘big attraction’ on the doorstep; the city of Reims, heart of the Champagne region.

A few of us adults took an afternoon out of the frantic pace that is Disneyland and lavished in an altogether more sedate pace of talking and tasting ‘Champagne’.

The set for the afternoon was the medium-sized house of Henriot and our lovely host, Béatrice made us feel instantly welcome. She talked through the intricacies of the house and its history (unsurprisingly this involves a widow, a given in Champagne it seems) and she introduced us to three of the Champagnes. First up was the Henriot Rosé Brut, an unbelievably soft and elegant wine. The dosage is a bit higher than with the whites at around 10 grams per litre but it accentuates the strawberry fruitiness and balsamic notes.

Next up was the Henriot Brut Souverain. This is an almost 50/50 split of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Henriot tends to use very little or no Pinot Meunier, preferring the more slowly maturing Pinot Noir instead. The wine is fresh and lemony, yet creamy, very mineral, making it pure and clean. But it has richness all the same.

The final wine in the trio was the Henriot Blanc de Blancs. As the name indicates this is 100% Chardonnay. The four years of maturation give it a rich complex nose that’s at once floral and honeyed. Toasted brioche with honey is what sprang to mind for me. The palate is lively and is showing a sweet fruitiness reminiscent of quince jelly. This has to be one of my favourite Blanc de Blancs wines. Before serving us the Blanc de Blancs Béatrice decanted the bottle into a chilled, smooth decanter, a first for me. It may have been pure suggestion but the Champagne seemed very happy.

Béatrice then suggested we go down into the cellars for a tour and had a treat in store once we were down there. A bottle of the Henriot ’98 vintage was waiting for us there and this is where taking the car became punishment for me, the driver, as I had to severely limit myself, while the others enjoyed the experience. Well, someone has to.

Pieter meets The Gunner

Probably not the world’s biggest Sauvignon Blanc fan, I often find it lacks the interest and complexity to get me really excited, but there are exceptions. And a few weeks ago at a dinner at Gandolfi Fish in Glasgow, I came across one of the best examples I have tasted in a long time. And it was neither Sancerre, nor Marlborough but hailed from Elgin in South Africa. Iona the wine in question is a winery owned by Andrew Gunn since the mid-90’s. 

Andrew “The Gunner” Gunn and Pieter.

Andrew, a very tall man who can trace his roots to Scotland, was looking for a change from his career as a medical engineer and found an old apple farm in Elgin. He realised quickly that the old apple orchard wasn’t going to sustain him and his family so he decided to plant vines instead. Having travelled extensively through the South African wine regions of the day, Andrew felt the slightly cooler climate of Elgin at an altitude of 450 metres was perfect for growing grapes and Sauvignon Blanc in particular. Around 70% of his production is made up of the grape, which achieves a perfect balance of ripeness and alcohol due to the long ripening season. Andrew calls this optimum physiological ripeness, and the balance this creates is what this wine is all about. It is closer in style to the mineral Sancerre than the abundance of tropical fruit flavours you might expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Mineral is a slightly woolly term but you get what I mean when you taste this. It is the aroma you get from soil, freshly rained on stones or even salt. The flinty character in Sauvignon Blanc is often mentioned as a mineral character. Together with the fairly brisk acidity it gives a distinctive and dry feel to the palate which is refreshing and lively at the same time as showing great purity of flavour.

The wine:

Iona Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – Elgin, South Africa

So here we go with our mineral, flinty nose that has a floral character and slight herbaceousness along the Sancerre style. And then the ripe fruit takes over. Not tropical but more zesty citrus fruit, gooseberry and stonefruit characters. The wine is generously mouth filling with a lively, dry and pure finish. This superbly balanced wine was a joy to taste on its own but when it was paired with a Ballotine of Scottish Salmon with cucumber, horseradish creme and a beetroot reduction it really came to life. I’m sure a pairing with a goat’s cheese tartlet would be equally good but make it something creamy as it will find a perfect balance with the dry and zesty character of the wine.

Gandolfi have this wine on the list and sell all their listed wines retail as well, so even more excuse to pop in now.

Andrew’s other wines are pretty exciting too but are much more difficult to get hold off. Gandolfi Fish expertly matched various dishes to some of these extraordinary wines. The almost Burgundian 2009 Chardonnay was matched with a Confit of chicken, baby leek and black truffle terrine served with toasted spelt bread which was a gorgeous combination.

Pan roasted lamb chop with a potato millefeuille, wilted spinach, stilton and port sauce was matched to the Gunnar 2005, a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot. It had a deep smoky nose and lovely ripe fruit on the palate. Again, I couldn’t fault the combination with the food.

The next course had to match with the Syrah 2007, deliberately using the French spelling indicating a more old-world approach to Syrah. Still, it was a big wine with big flavours and exactly what was needed with the Slow braised shoulder of ‘Venison Wellington’ with fondant potato, Scottish girolles and juniper jus.

 

The finale was a Plum and frangipane upside down cake with crème anglaise which was paired with Andrew’s dessert wine a Noble Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2007. Delicious hazelnut, orange and honey with plenty of zesty flavours to balance the sweetness of both the wine and dessert.

This was the first time I tasted any of the Iona wines but it certainly won’t be my last. Judging by the reactions on the night, I somehow doubt I am alone in this.