Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Tasting notes with Simon Callow

Do classical music and wine go together?  Assuming you enjoy both of these things, then the answer is a resounding "well, duh".  Of course they do.  But if it's so obvious, why don't we see music recommendations on the back labels of bottles, alongside the usually asinine food matches?

Classic fm has now put them firmly together, using the velvety, mellifluous tones of actor and writer Simon Callow as the glue.  Yes, Simon Callow of Four Weddings fame, not Simon Cowell the TV reality "talent" show impresario - that would be a quite different show.

A "tasting pod" where wine and music are sampled together

Last night I had the chance to try out the idea of pairing wines and music, courtesy of Laithwaite's, who are providing the wines for the programme.  Each Sunday afternoon at 3pm you can tune in to Simon's Tasting Notes programme on Classic fm and drink along as he talks about the wines and plays music designed to complement what's in the glass.

Here are a couple of examples from last night's tasting:

Danaris Grüner Veltliner 2011 (£9.99) - matched with Johan Strauss' The Blue Danube
An obvious ploy of matching perhaps THE best known piece of Austrian music with Austria's own Grüner Veltliner variety.  Strangely, I found more white pepper spice accompanying the pleasant grapefruitiness in the wine when I stopped listening to the music.  But perhaps I just didn't enjoy the music and was devoting too much of my mind to that fact, rather than focusing on the wine.

Le Grand Chai Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux 2010 (£11.49) - matched with Saint Saens' Rondo Cappriccioso
A successful combination where I enjoyed both the wine and the music.  Castillon is one of those neglected "lesser" communes of Bordeaux and Laithwaite's have clearly managed to get plenty of wine for their money - lovely violet and pencil shaving aromas lead onto an assertive "wash and brush" up palate, but with plenty of plush fruit too.

My conclusion:  many things can be improved by having a glass of wine and listening to classical tunes is certainly one of them.  

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Camping it up in style

Camping and wine are two of my passions.  Should someone want to fund research in this area, I would volunteer readily to analyse the differences in taste perceptions of the same wines when drunk indoors, versus in the open air or under canvas.

Anyone who doubts that where you drink a wine makes a difference, has only to consider the heightened effect of drinking beer while sheltering in a marquee while it rains outside.  The drumming of the raindrops on the damp canvas and the mingling aromas of the beer with muddy grass trodden underfoot combine to make this a richer sensory experience than just downing a pint at the pub.  Add a packet of ready salted crisps and you have a perfect tableau of quintessential Britishness.

As with beer, so with wine.  At least, that is my thesis.  To kickstart what will undoubtedly become a long and detailed research project, I am road (or in my case, camper van) testing a couple of wines to see how they fare in the great outdoors – and what food will set them off to a T.

Beaujolais La Forêt 2011
Beaujolais is a great wine to have by your side on a camping trip – it has bright fruit flavours that stand up well to outdoor consumption and is best served lightly chilled – which shouldn’t pose a problem this summer.  Best of all, this one has a screwcap, so no danger of “I thought you had the corkscrew” misery.

Tasted indoors, aromas of raspberry and cherry leap from the glass.  The balanced acidity and modest alcohol (12.5%) make for great freshness, allied to zesty, cranberry fruit.  This feels so lively and refreshing that you feel like it must be doing you some good.

Outdoors, the upfront fruit flavours are somewhat muted and I noticed the tannins (which hadn’t registered at all indoors) – so the structure of the wine came more to the fore, but the fruit was still there in abundance.

What to eat with this wine?  Beaujolais is a truly versatile wine style.  I tried this with a lamb curry (pretty hot, slightly sweet and sharp) and while many red wines would become actively unpleasant with it, this coped admirably.  More traditionally I also paired it with a Spanish-inspired Puy lentil warm salad with red onion, dressed with hot smoked paprika vinaigrette.  This is a doddle to knock up on the road, requiring only one ring to cook the lentils, plus a bit of chopping.  The Beaujolais’ vibrant fruit and crunchy acidity went perfectly with the earthiness of the lentils.

But the top match for camper van eating was a bacon sarnie – a staple of any camping trip.  In a nod towards five a day I made it a BLT, but even so the Beaujolais did a great job of cutting through the fat and saltiness of the bacon, while retaining its fruity personality.

Le Petit Salvard Cheverny, Emmanuel Delaille 2011
If there’s one grape that evokes cut grass is has to be Sauvignon Blanc, so it evokes the outdoor life even when you’re drinking it on a rainy November evening.  This wine, from the small Cheverny Appellation in the Loire Valley, has 15% Chardonnay alongside the Sauvignon.

In the great outdoors the aromas are all Sauvignon Blanc:  gooseberry and blackcurrant leaf (I’ve been picking them today, so they’re fresh in the mind).  When you taste, the little bit of Chardonnay in the wine seems to tame the Sauvignon’s more pungent flavours, leaving pure, limey fruit and giving some more weight, without cutting down on the refreshment.

Back inside, I noticed more delicate elderflower aromas and the wine felt more rounded and somehow less vibrant.  I definitely preferred the experience of drinking this outside on a warm evening.

Salade niçoise is a regular on the menu for our family trips to France in the camper van.  Cooking the potatoes, French beans and eggs can be a bit of a fag, but the result is so tasty and so beautiful (to my eye anyway), that it’s worth the effort.  The Cheverny stood up brilliantly to all those flavours that combine in the salad – salty olives and capers, ripe tomatoes, egg, tuna and not least a punchy mustard-heavy vinaigrette.  It retained all of its freshness and provided juicy refreshment – dangerously drinkable in fact.

My research has got off to a fine start and I’m eager to get on with more over the course of this summer.  A bientôt!

Beaujolais La Forêt 2011 is available from Waitrose at £7.59
Le Petit Salvard Cheverny, Emmanuel Delaille, 2010 is available from Waitrose and Ocado at around £9

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Jura: it's France, Jim, but not as we know it

The Jura: it's France Jim, but not as we know it

Its closest wine-making neighbour is Burgundy, but the Jura is a world away in terms of awareness and recognition of its sometimes shockingly idiosyncratic wines.

Bloggers at work in the pink surrounding of Adiva restaurant
I've written before about this intriguing region, over on the Liquid Assets blog. If you'd like to know more about Vin Jaune, its affinity with Comté cheese and the connection with Laughing Cow/La Vache Qui Rit, then you can have a read here.

What's with the Jura obsession that I am writing about it again so soon? Fount of knowledge on many things vinous, but especially the Jura and Savoie, Wink Lorch set up a tasting of the region's wines, made by five of its leading organic vignerons. The winemakers were in town to participate in either the RAW or Real Wine Fair, held in London last month.

Who says wine isn't political? The natural wine “movement” in the UK is barely a year old and already it has undergone its first great schism. This year producers had to choose to be part of either Isabelle Legeron's RAW or the Caves de Pyrène-backed Real Wine Fair. It's the Popular People's Front of Judea versus the People's Popular Judean Front all over again...

Wink Lorch and Brett Jones as you've never seen them before

But back to the Jura. Because of the unique nature of the wines found in this tiny and isolated region, I've explained a little about the styles of wine that we tasted, which range from broadly mainstream to highly idiosyncratic, and chosen my favourites in those styles.

At the most mainstream end of the spectrum were the two Crémants du Jura that we tasted. Both 100% Chardonnay and made by what the Champenois decree we must call the traditional method, they were recognizably classically styled, well-made sparkling wines:

Crémant du Jura Brut, Domaine Pignier
Creamy, brioche aromas with a hint of blossom lead onto a crisp, chalky palate.

Crémant du Jura Brut, Domaine de la Pinte
With 36 months on the lees, this is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of an aged Blanc de Blancs Champagne.

The real fascination came, however, when we dived into the Jura's native grape varieties. Poulsard (aka Ploussard) wines are so light in colour as to pass for rosé, though the flavours are very different: I found cider, clove and apple skin flavours and relatively little in the way of red fruit.

Arbois Poulsard Uva l'Arbosiana 2011, Domaine de la Tournelle
Lovely aromatic nose of red cherry, plus a hint of cider apple. The tannins are gentle, with the apple skin flavour providing a trace of medicinal bitterness.

Trousseau is the Jura's other native variety and it shares characteristics with Pinot Noir: lightish colour and body, soft tannins but plenty of acidity and red fruit. The natural winemaking styles of the vignerons tend to make for less primary fruit than Pinot-philes might want, but in its place are layers of aroma, flavour and texture.

Trousseau les Corvées 2010, Domaine de l'Octavin
The cloudiness in the glass screams natural wine. Funky, light-bodied, but with charming floral and red fruit aromas and soft structure.

My favourite red of the evening, though, was a Pinot Noir dominated blend:

Arbois A la Capitaine 2009
62% Pinot Noir, 35% Poulsard, 3% Trousseau
There is some Pinot-like red fruit perfume here, allied to something more vegetal. And in this land of light bodied wines, this is relatively weighty with plenty of user-friendly, juicy fruit.

White wines come in two styles in the Jura: those made by standard vinification, ie where barrels are kept topped up to exclude exposure to oxygen; and its opposite, where an air space is allowed to develop and an oxidative style is produced.

The most immediately appealing and recognizable by White Burgundy lovers was this 100% Chardonnay.

Côtes du Jura Chardonnay á la Percenette 2010, Domaine Pignier
The nose has a hint of honey and ripe butteriness, but the palate is not at all flabby, with grip and texture allied to a crisp minerality, along with the extra dimensions of phenolic flavours.

Savagnin may not be a household name of a grape – though watch out, as Australian growers who thought they were planting modish Albariño a few years back had in fact planted this Jurassien oddity instead. It is best known for producing Vin Jaune, but can also make classic barrel-aged styles too. If you like a bit of struck match in your white Burgundy, this could be for you.

Arbois Fleur de Savagnin 2009, Domaine de la Tournelle
Barrel fermentation and lees ageing bring plenty of Burgundian gunflint aromas to this immensely drinkable wine.

Arbois Cuvée d'Automne, Savagnin/Chardonnay sous voile, Domaine de la Pinte
80% Savagnin, 20% Chardonnay, this is a kind of Vin Jaune Lite as some of the Savagnin came from barrels destined to make Vin Jaune. The Chardonnay is a blend of several different vintages. Analagous, perhaps, to Ripasso versus Amarone. It definitely has many of the nutty, mushroomy flavours of Vin Jaune, but with the more upfront, lively fruit of a conventionally made wine.

Vin Jaune – the real deal – is a wine that takes no prisoners. For more on the winemaking process see here, but, in brief, wines made from 100% Savagnin spend years in barrel under a layer of flor, making for wines with no primary fruit, but plenty of fino-like, nutty, even curry spice flavours and immense presence and length. They are unique and, once tasted, never forgotten.

Arbois Vin Jaune 2004, Domaine de la Pinte
Smelling it you would swear blind that it was an aged fino in the glass. The palate is nutty, cheesy, super dry and the flavours linger.

Any French wine region worth its salt has to produce a dessert wine. In the Jura it takes the form of a “vin de paille” or straw wine, where early picked grapes are stored over winter, whereby they lose most of their moisture content, but retain their naturally high acidity. The grapes are pressed the following Spring, producing a viscous, sweet must which takes months to ferment into rare and expensive wines.

Côtes du Jura Vin de Paille 2006, Domaine Pignier
40% Savagnin, 30% Chardonnay, 30% Poulsard
Sweet and honied fruit, combined with aromas of straw (not just auto-suggestion I like to think) and a whisp of tannin from the red grape Poulsard made this an excellent end of meal sweet treat and palate cleanser in one.

Some of Jura's wines stand resolutely outside the mainstream, and their odd combinations of flavours and aromas can jar. But if you open your mind and learn to re-tune your internal wine settings, there is much fascination and pleasure to be found there.  For more background on this Jura tasting and links to the winemakers, head over to Wink Lorch's Jura wine blog.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Storming the castle: behind the scenes at Chateau Margaux

When you're already king of the castle, you may look down from your lofty heights with satisfaction to the gratifyingly dirty rascals below. However, you also need to watch those rascals carefully, lest they steal a march on you and end up storming your castle walls while you are busy looking in the other direction.

As with nursery rhyme castles and rascals, so with winemakers. Experimentation and willingness to change must be the lifeblood of any wine-making operation, but when you're a premier grand cru classé, a castle if ever there was one, the stakes can be very high. You cannot stand still and risk letting others catch up with you; equally you cannot leap into the unknown and risk damaging the reputation of a Chateau that has been built up over centuries. Additionally, the need to judge results over a long period is especially important when the resulting wine may well be aged for many years before consumption.

This is the dilemma facing many top class wine producers the world over and I gained an insight into some of the areas that Château Margaux in particular is working on at a tasting in London this February, hosted by Paul Pontallier, director and winemaker at the Château for the past 30 years.

Conventional, organic and biodynamic
We tasted a number of themed flights, tasted blind, starting with wines made from grapes farmed by different methods: conventional, organic and finally biodynamic agriculture. The wines were all Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2010 vintage.

Paul Pontallier was keen to point out that their current methods, though conventional, are pretty close to organic. Of the three, I found the biodynamic sample the most expressive, with depth, perfume and fine, ripe tannins. My second favourite sample turned out to be the conventional method one, which had more assertive, though still ripe, tannins. The finish, though, was elegant and long-lasting and perhaps a better guide to the future evolution of the wine. The organic sample was my least preferred, with unwelcome green and woody notes.
These are my personal preferences on the day and they did not chime with Paul Pontallier's own opinion – whose least favourite wine was the one made by conventional methods. Though he stressed that this is just a snapshot of a long-running experiment and, frustratingly, they have had many different results along the way, with little consistency.

To de-stem or not de-stem?
The next flight highlighted the influence of stems in the ferment for red wines. Traditionally Château Margaux practises almost 100% de-stemming, but they wanted to compare this with 1% of whole stems and 1% of stems cut into pieces.

Here the results were much more clear cut, with the 100% de-stemmed sample showing greater harmony and balance than either of the other two. The sample containing chopped stems was the least successful, being both less expressive and more astringent.

These 2009 Cabernet Sauvignons seemed to confirm that the Château is already following the best method – though it is important not to generalise from specific research and to recognize that Merlot might produce different results.

Is cork still best?
The onward march of the screwcap as the preferred closure for more, and better quality wines, has been hard to miss and it would be a surprise to find any quality-conscious producer who was not experimenting with it. Paul Pontallier showed us the same wine, a red blend from 2003, sealed with an airtight scewcap, a permeable screwcap and a natural cork.

Incidentally they have also experimented with synthetic corks, but the results were so catastrophic that they called a halt to the experiment.

On the day I, along with most people in the room, preferred the wine sealed with an impermeable screwcap. Second and third favourites were less clear cut, but I found the cork the least successful – though there was some bottle variation and other tasters preferred the cork. This same tasting had been conducted a month previously and the impermeable screwcap had again triumphed, with the cork second and permeable screwcap third.

The mixed results highlight the complexity of this issue – and the need for it to run for many more years before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

When we repeated this process with a white wine, Pavillon Blanc 2004, the overall favourite in the room was for the wine secured with a natural cork. Personally I felt the permeable screwcap was more successful, but I must confess that I found this a hard style of wine to evaluate: the oak is so dominant that it was hard to discern any varietal fruit character – and this for a wine that is 100% Sauvignon Blanc!

This tasting was a tantalizing glimpse into the workings of a top flight producer and how they face up to the challenge of deciding which innovations are worthwhile taking up – and which are ultimately going to be a flash in the pan and offer no long term benefits.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Dom Pérignon 2003 - a phoenix from the flames?

As a member of the wine trade I am fully used to and unembarrassed about hopping on a tube train reeking of booze and sporting Bride of Dracula-style black teeth. Let them think “God what a lush, and only lunchtime too, tut tut.”

Today, however, as I rode the Victoria line I wanted to shout out - “Yes, I've been drinking already, but it was Dom Pérignon! Dom Pérignon, everyone!” I have been treated to, not just a tasting, but an “experience”, a “dark revelation” even, of Dom Pérignon's latest release, 2003. 

For those in the know, skip this paragraph, but if you're less than fully au fait with luxury Champagnes, read on. Dom Pérignon is a vintage-only luxury cuvée that is part of the Moët et Chandon stable (and, by extension, the LVMH luxury goods empire). There is no non-vintage version and it is only produced in years that they feel are capable of living up to its illustrious forebears. Today it was the turn of the latest addition to this select band, the 2003 vintage.

It might seem contrary even to attempt to make Dom Pérignon in such a difficult and certainly atypical year as 2003. It was incredibly hot and dry – difficult conditions to make any fine wine, but well nigh impossible, you might think, for a luxury Champagne, which relies on high acidity to give it drive, structure and ageing ability. In the UK we probably remember 2003 as one of the few hot, sunny summers we enjoyed in the last decade and perhaps think back fondly on those blistering days and balmy evenings. In France, however, recollections are more painful – 2003 was also marked by numerous deaths of mostly old people in France, due to the extreme heat.

Dom Pérignon Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy, described how 2003 was a challenge and how low the expectation was that they would succeed in making a commercial release that year. Yet, as he pointed out, great vintages of the 20th century, such as 1947, 1959 and 1976 were also a result of hot, dry conditions. 2003 may yet surprise us with its quality and longevity.

I asked Richard what happens in the years when there is no Dom Pérignon and it seems they get as far as assembling the final blend and only then make a go/no go decision. So, contrary to popular belief, the Chef de Cave doesn't get a holiday, even if there is no Dom Pérignon to show for it. In reply to the question of what happens to the wines earmarked for DP, when no vintage ends up being made, Richard said only “Nothing is wasted.”

The wine itself is a muscular, vinous mouthful, marked not by the usual high acidity, but by what Richard calls “a wall of minerality” which holds it together and gives it structure. It certainly has a very physical presence and makes a great Champagne to drink over an entire meal – if your budget stretches to it!

We tested its gastronomic capabilities with a range of dishes – a sweet-savoury eggy, mousse-y concoction was least successful for me. But the saffron infused risotto and the foie gras (no escaping foie gras with the French around) dishes were wonderfully harmonious. Most interesting was a caviar and hibiscus jelly combination. On its own it's a challenge to the palate, with the sharp astringency of the jelly fighting with the salty caviar – but good old DP managed to smooth out all those sharp points to create a harmonious and enjoyable sensation in a way that probably no other wine could do.

While I enjoyed tasting (alright drinking) the 2003 today, it feels as though this monumental wine has barely begun its evolution. Perhaps we will be looking back in 20 years' time to say what a great vintage of DP it was – and is. And I'll be able to say, “I was there”.