Friday, 13 February 2015

Beyond bubbles: the essence of Champagne

Sparkling wines are on the crest of a wave in the UK. In a shrinking market for wine consumption overall here between 2009 and 2013, sparkling wines have been the only growth category; and they are forecast to continue the positive trend in future.

Prosecco has been the fizz making all the noise in recent years, but, perhaps surprisingly, in tough economic times, Champagne has managed to hold its ground against its rivals, and the UK remains its number one export market.

Sparkling wine can be made anywhere in the world, in a variety of ways. Just what is it about Champagne in particular that keeps us so loyal and fascinated?

First of all is the location of Champagne, the furthest north of France’s quality winemaking regions. The climate here is most definitely marginal for wine production – a potential disadvantage which has been turned into a virtue, as barely ripe, high acid and fairly neutral wines make perfect raw material for turning into high quality sparkling wine.

The chalk bedrock of Champagne also plays a key role. Chalk makes for poor soils - often an environment in which vines give the best quality grapes; chalk won’t hold onto too much moisture in this rather rainy part of France – vines hate having wet feet; yet it does provide nicely regulated access to moisture to help prevent vine stress in times of drought. Finally, chalk makes for easily dug, ideally humid underground cellars – the perfect dark and cool environment in which wines can evolve and mature slowly.

Most Champagne is made from a blend of three grape varieties, two of them black-skinned: Pinot Noir, which gives power, structure and longevity; and Pinot Meunier, an earlier-ripening variety which gives expressive fruitiness, especially early in a Champagne’s life. They are joined by the white variety Chardonnay, which provides elegance and finesse. Together they complement each other to make a harmonious whole.

The Champagne region also has a particular structure in terms of the people who make it. Most vines are owned by one of the more than 15,000 individual growers across the region – but we rarely see their names on the bottles, as most sell their grapes to one of the “grandes marques”, the Champagne household names.

The houses can therefore draw on a variety of wines from vines from across the region in order to make up their final Champagne blend. As well as varying the proportion of the grape varieties used, the same variety will have a different flavour profile when grown in different soil, with a different aspect and so on.

Champagne gets its sparkle from a second fermentation of those light, high acid base wines, which occurs in each bottle. Before it can be released and sold as Champagne, though, the wine has to stay in bottle, where the wine interacts with the sediment of dead yeast cells (or lees) which, over time, contribute complex, toasty flavours which are typical of Champagne.

And we can’t forget the historical perspective. The people who make Champagne today are carrying on a tradition which goes back hundreds of years, during which time the region has dedicated itself to this single style of wine. It has also built up a powerful mythology; associations with famous historical figures which help to set Champagne apart from other “mere wines”.

So there is no single “magic bullet” which sets Champagne apart from all other sparkling wines.

Other parts of the world can make sparkling wine using the same traditional method, with the same blend of grape varieties. They can even, like right here in Southeast England, have the same chalky soils and marginal climate. But Champagne itself can never be replicated: the unique combination of factors, both natural and manmade, which exists there, is, in the end, what creates the essence of Champagne. 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Reader offer for Wine Gang Live tickets

If you enjoy actually tasting wines, as well as just reading about reading about them (and who doesn't?), then you might be interested in going along to one of the Wine Gang Live events coming up in London, Bath and Edinburgh in the next few weeks.

The Wine Gang of five is Tom Cannavan, Jane Parkinson, Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon and David Williams, who are some of the most high profile and well-respected wine writers in the country.  At the events you'll get the chance to sample hundreds of different wines from all over the world, join a wine walk with one of the Gang, or attend one of the masterclasses that run during the day.

I recognize those hands - Wine Gang Live at Vinopolis 2012
Tickets are usually £20, but you can snap them up for just £12, as well as getting a 10% discount on masterclasses.  To take up the offer, head over to and use the code TWGBL40.   There is also lots more information on each event on the site.

And if you do take up this generous offer, you must promise to come and see me at the Bath (2nd November) or London (9th November) events, where I'll be pouring some delicious wines from Southwest France.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Matching food to the wines of Touraine

Food and wine matching can be a minefield.  Recommending food to go with wine can often either be alarmingly precise (“perfect with a herb and polenta-crusted roast rack of lamb”) or hopelessly wide-ranging (“serve with red meats, stews and casseroles”).   I don’t find either of those approaches particularly helpful, but now, having set out my objections, I have set myself the task of coming up with some food and wine matches of my own – without being hoist by my own petard.

Domaine Paget Sparkling Rosé NV
This delicate but definitively pink fizz conjures up peach melba, with its aromas and flavours of peach and raspberry.  Just off-dry, it nevertheless has a dryish, peppery finish after the fruit salad flavours.  This is an easy-going, flavourful sparkler and I would frankly be happy to drink a glass of this on its own, or with pre-dinner nibbles.

Led by the flavours of the wine, I first assembled a post-modern peach melba of nectarine, raspberry and peppercorns, which was perfectly delicious with the wine – however, this falls at the first hurdle I set out above (too specific).  And at the end of the day, would you really dish this up at the dinner table?

I decided to go for a more free-form kind of match, allying the fun and user-friendly robustness of the wine to the food that went with it.  What I came up with was an Anglo-French culinary mash-up:  bangers and French bean vinaigrette salad.

The salad is the kind of thing you’d find all over France on bistro menus – still hot, cooked French beans mixed into a punchy, mustardy vinaigrette with a finely-chopped garlic clove and a few capers.  The cooling beans take up the flavours of the dressing and their vivid green contrasts nicely with the toad-skin coloured capers.  The sharpness of the vinaigrette brings out the sweetness of the beans.

On this occasion I plonked a couple of sausages alongside the beans but, frankly, the meat involved is not that important.  I liked the way the sweet meatiness of the bangers rubbed along with the hint of sweetness in the wine.  Usually I’d go for a red wine with sausages, but the pink sparkling stood up to this combination pretty well, bouncing off the zingy vinaigrette.

But overall, what made this work well was the feel of the wine and food together – fun, no nonsense, unpretentious and uncomplicated, yet making the whole thing more of an occasion.  That’s what I call a successful food and wine match.

Calvet Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Touraine Sauvignon Blanc must be one of the best value for money wines around.  Lacking the cachet of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, or the familiarity of Kiwi Sauvignon, in Touraine you tend to get more wine for your money.

This one has a delicious nettley, floral aroma, followed by a zippy and zesty lemon palate, with a bit of lemon pith on the finish.  If you are looking for a wine to accompany fish and chips (or, even better, whitebait), this is your man.  However, I went down the route of a salad that I first came across in the Paris neighbourhood bar/restaurant that served as the office canteen for my place of work.  I can’t remember what it was called on the menu, but now I call it egg and bacon salad.

This is quick to knock together:  boil some eggs, grill some smoked streaky bacon until crisp and make a classic vinaigrette dressing.  Break the bacon up into bite-sized bits, toss everything together with plenty of young spinach leaves and the egg and that’s it.  What makes this work is grating the boiled egg – it sounds odd, but it really helps the egg to combine with the vinaigrette dressing and to get in amongst the spinach leaves.  I’ve never tried grating egg with anything other than one of these rotary graters, which holds the egg for you, avoiding grated fingers and eggs shooting around the kitchen.

Egg is renowned as a tricky ingredient for wine and so are earthy spinach leaves, but the Sauvignon managed not to clash with either.  In fact something (the sharpness of the dressing and salty bacon I think) brought out the weight of the fruit even more, making this a really delicious match.

But is it too specific?  I think the dressing is the key here, as I’ve also enjoyed Loire Sauvignons with salade niçoise which, other than the egg, has not much in common with the egg and bacon salad.  So if you’re having vinaigrette, think about giving a Touraine Sauvignon a go.

Stockist information
Domaine Paget Sparkling Rosé NV - £12.25 from Berry Bros & Rudd
Calvet Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2012 - £8.99 from Tesco

Friday, 26 April 2013

Meat and winey treats for Braaiday

British barbecues are for wimps.

Here, we wheel out our garden centre supplied, rickety barbecues at the first hint of a sunny Sunday and try to coax heat from last year's slightly damp charcoal and firelighters, before chucking on a few bangers and burgers and hoping they'll cook before it gets far too cold to hang about outside.

In South Africa they take such things far more seriously - it's all man-sized barbecues (or braais) contained in half oil drums and using actual wood, not our namby-pamby "easy light" charcoal.  Meat, meat and more meat are the main features - steaks, antelope, boerewors sausage, king-size prawns.

The idea of a British national holiday dedicated to the barbecue has the phrase monumental damp squib written all over it.  However in reliably sunny South Africa they have turned 24th September into Braaiday, when the country celebrates its love of meat cooked over open wood fires.

I had a (literal) taste of the celebration at a recent Braaiday event held by Wines of South Africa at High Timber, a London restaurant that specialises in South African food and wine.

The food was delicious and suitably meaty, though surely the portion sizes would have been dismissed as mere snacks by any red blooded male South African - but were fine by me.

A great variety of South African wines from the boutique end of the spectrum accompanied the food.  After two solid days of palate-killing judging at the International Wine Challenge prior to the dinner, I found most pleasure in the white wines on the evening.  Two standout whites for me were both blends that leaned heavily on Chenin Blanc.

Zevenwacht, The Tin Mine 2011 - £12.95 from Vagabond Wines
45% Chenin, 36% Chardonnay (I love these exact percentages) plus Viognier and Roussanne made for a vibrant, zippy mouthful of fruit and herbal flavours.

Chris Alheit Cartology 2011 - from £22 from Handford Wines, SA Wines Online (or Russian oligarchs may want to pay £49.30 for it from Hedonism)
92% Chenin and the rest is Semillon.  Where the Tin Mine lets the different varieties provide the different notes, here Chris Alheit has used Chenin parcels from four different parcels in order to give the wine its combination of flavours and aromas and it works beautifully.  There are layers of fruit, pumice and honey which whip across the palate, making for a rich and hedonistic experience, held together with a stony restraint.  Remarkable stuff.

An honourable mention must also go to:

AA Badenhorst Funky White NV - £14.50 for a half bottle from Swig
Adi Badenhorst has obviously been bitten by the natural/real/call it what you will wine movement.  This white was aged in barrel under a layer of flor (like a Fino sherry), but unfortified (like Jura's Vin Jaune).  The resulting wine has elements of both sherry and Vin Jaune - broad, tangy, apple skin flavours that linger long on the palate.

High Timber restaurant:


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.