Friday, 12 December 2008

One day like this a year...

Everyone can dream. While my children concoct their ideal lists of toys for Father Christmas to bring, I pore over wine merchants’ lists, choosing my ideal wines that I will organize myself, rather than leaving Father Christmas in charge. So here’s my self-indulgent fantasy Christmas Day…

I’ll start with something fizzy of course – Buck’s Fizz with breakfast maybe. Any old Cava will do, but good quality orange juice really makes it.

We like to have our Christmas dinner in the evening, so lunch is usually something simple and quick – a light and refreshing wine will do the trick here, but it is Christmas so Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé would make an indulgent choice: Masson Blondelet Pouilly Fumé 2006, £11.49 at Waitrose, is very proper with fine acidity and minerality; Château de Sancerre, Sancerre 2007 is more floral and youthful and £13.99 at Majestic, or £12.99 if you buy two.

After lunch a quick dose of fresh air and a walk with the children, then back indoors to the business of getting the main event ready. Cooks always need something delicious to sip to keep morale up, and I fancy a dry amontillado sherry, sherry as it should be: dry, nutty and the ultimate winter pick me up. Sherry is not in the least fashionable, which means that fans can pick up fantastic value for money sherries for a relative song: Tesco Finest 12 year old Amontillado is just £6.99.

As the light fades we get ready to sit down to the feast. I tend to avoid starters, or the appetite is gone before the first sprout’s been eaten. The pop of a Champagne cork is redolent with the spirit of celebration and I’d love to crack open something special to kick off Christmas dinner in style.

I’m lucky enough to have a couple of bottles of Taittinger vintage Champagne squirreled away and now could be the time to pop the cork. Big name vintage Champagnes are going to set you back £30 and up, but supermarkets do a good job of sourcing Champagnes which they release under their own label – a great way to get better Champagne for less money, as long as you are not squeamish about a supermarket name on the label. The stylish Waitrose Brut Special Reserve Vintage 2002 will set you back £24.99; Tesco Finest Vintage Champagne 2002, a sophisticated, dry but fruity mouthful is £19.96.

For some people, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a fine claret, but I’m pleasing myself here, so I’ll go for a New Zealand pinot noir, specifically from Central Otago. These don’t come cheap but, for my money, you’d have to spend about twice as much to get the same excitement from Burgundy, home of the world’s greatest pinot noirs. Mount Difficulty’s Roaring Meg Pinot Noir (£17.49, down to £13.99 if you buy two, at Majestic) is a fantastic illustration of the style: lush, velvety fruit but in no way a blockbuster. For those who prefer something white I’ll splash out on a decent bottle of white Burgundy for a classic taste of luscious, juicy chardonnay fruit given a healthy dose of oak. Domaine Juillot Mercurey Premier Cru “Clos des Barraults” 2005 (£16.99 at Majestic) perhaps, or Philippe le Hardi Mercurey 2006, £14.99 at Waitrose.

Christmas pud is a hard thing to match with classic dessert wines – to keep pace with the intense flavours and dense sweetness you need a wine with guts. Step forward Stanton and Killeen Rutherglen Muscat, £8.43 for a half bottle from Les Caves de Pyrène, based in Artington outside Guildford. Made from late harvested Muscat grapes, matured for years in oak barrels in the hot Australian sun to achieve a burnished amber colour and figgy, candied-peel flavours this is a liquid version of Christmas pudding or mince pies.

The children take themselves off to bed while the grown-ups settle down in front of a film, or maybe a sociable board game. There’ll be an aged tawny port to sip and a few salted almonds and fancy chocolates to nibble on. Warre’s Otima 10 year old tawny port positively heaves with nutty, spicy aromas and flavours and is widely available from around £10.50 for a 50cl bottle.

The reality…the children will no doubt wake the whole house at some entirely unreasonable hour: the buck’s fizz will be cast aside as unsuitable for breakfast at 7am; the same children will of course flat out refuse to go for “A walk???” or to take themselves off to bed when we think they ought to, so our late evening film might end up being a children’s DVD. My fantasy Christmas Day will probably never materialise, but we can all dream…

Note: it seems churlish to question the benefit of a VAT reduction, but here goes. While VAT was lowered in the Chancellor’s pre-budget, duty was increased. For most wines the drop in VAT is roughly equal to the increase in duty, so many retailers have chosen to hold wine prices at their previous levels. However, retailers do have slightly differing pricing policies and, while I’ve made every effort to verify that the prices I have quoted are correct, please do not hold it against any retailer if you find a slightly different price in their shops.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Pick of the (fizzy) pops

Champagne may be the wine of kings and the king of wines, but there are times when you want to create a celebratory mood with the evocative pop of a cork, without breaking the bank. So what are the options?

Traditional method wines are made in the same way as Champagne but, because they are made outside the specified geographical area of Champagne, cannot call themselves that. To help consumers, many will use the term traditional method, or a variant of it, on the bottle. It would be so much more helpful, nevertheless, if such wines could be labelled “méthode champenoise” or “Champagne method”, but even such admiring use of the word is outlawed by the official body charged with protecting the Champagne name worldwide.

Top of any bargain-hunting fizz shopper’s list is Cava. Yours for around a fiver, or barely more, there are plenty of bottles out there to choose from. Cava is made in the same way as Champagne, but the grapes used are different: macabeo, xarello and parellada (hardly classic or well-known), though some also add a little chardonnay (one of the Champagne trio of grapes) to their blend. In what seems to be proof that the traditional method is no guarantee of quality, Cavas just don’t resemble Champagnes in any meaningful way. The grapes used must have a large part to play and unfortunately they are either excessively neutral, or rather earthy and with a tell-tale burnt rubber character. So, despite the low price, I would rather not drink Cava – unless it’s as a base for a buck’s fizz, where its neutral character is a virtue, or any earthiness is masked by orange juice.

A step up in quality from Cava is the wide range of sparkling wines made around the world in largely the same mould as Champagne. The closest, geographically speaking, is crémant.

Crémant is the term used to describe any sparkling wine made in France and using the same production method as Champagne, but outside the Champagne region. Burgundy, home of chardonnay and pinot noir for its renowned still white and red wines, uses these same grapes to make crémants that are a fair copy of Champagne, with perhaps greater weight of fruit and a touch less elegance. Majestic list the ultra-reliable Louis Bouillot Perle de Vigne Crémant de Bourgogne NV for £11.99, or £7.99 if you buy two. For £10.99 you can try the same producer’s (they seem to have this market sewn up) 2005 Perle Rare at Waitrose. This last also lists Cave de Lugny Crémant de Bourgogne NV Blanc de Blancs (ie made from chardonnay only) for £8.99.

Other French regions make their own crémants, based on their regional speciality grapes. In the Loire, chenin blanc dominates, while Alsace crémants are usually predominantly pinot blanc – though Tesco has an interesting Finest* Alsace crémant made entirely from Riesling for £8.99.

Champagne lite
Champagne houses themselves are not slow to spot an opportunity to extend their brand and there are a number of New World outposts of names which you might recognize from closer to home. If you fancy a taste of Champagne expertise at a (slight) discount, then give one of these a go. Mumm Cuvée Napa is a reliable performer, with good fruit expression and great drinkability – Waitrose list it for £11.99, Majestic has it for the same price, but down to £8.99 if you buy two. Green Point is Moet & Chandon’s parent company’s Australian sparkler – the 2004 vintage is £19.49, or £12.99 if you buy two, at Majestic; or £13.99 for a single bottle at Waitrose. Arguably top of the quality tree is Roederer Quartet, which will set you back £18.99 at Waitrose, £19.99 for a single bottle at Majestic, down to £14.99 if you buy two.

New World sparklers
We’re in danger here of approaching Champagne prices, so bargain hunters should perhaps head for true New World expressions of the traditional method. One of the stalwarts of the style is Lindauer Special Select or Special Reserve: it’s undergoing a name change, so you may see it called either. In any case this wine is predominantly pinot noir, topped up with chardonnay and has the most delightful blush of negligée pink. The strawberries and cream nose gives way to a more seriously savoury palate, perfect with smoked salmon. You can pick this up at Wine Rack for £11.99 each or £7.99 at their 3 for 2 price; £9.99 at Waitrose, though it will be down to £7.49 from 3rd December; £9.99, or £7.49 if you buy two, at Majestic.

Home grown
An honourable mention must to our own English sparkling wines, which have been improving steadily for a number of years. Our marginal climate for grape ripening becomes a virtue when making sparkling wines, which need high levels of acidity rather than full ripeness to be successful. The wines are made in the same way as Champagne and often using the classic Champagne grape varieties of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. On the other hand, our domestic wine industry is small-scale and cannot produce wines in such quantity that the prices can compete with the New World – you just cannot make quality sparkling wine here for under ten quid. However, in an effort to boost our economy it is your duty to try at least one of these: Chapel Down Brut NV, £19.99, or £13.33 at the 3 for 2 price at Wine Rack delivers a creamy nose and a fruity palate with some spice courtesy of the distinctly un-Champagne-y Reichensteiner grape. Ridgeview, based near Burgess Hill, make a creditable range of sparklers, including the chardonnay-dominated Ridgeview Merrett Bloomsbury 2005/6, available at Waitrose for £19.99.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Champagne: king of wines and wine of kings

“Champagne: in victory I deserve it; in defeat I need it.”, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Champagne is the most mythologized of wines: the wine of celebration and a byword for luxury. Imagine Napoleon’s quote applied to any other drink and it doesn’t have quite the same ring: “Lager: in victory I deserve it…” See what I mean?

Just what makes Champagne so special, so deserving of its unique status among wines? In the end it all boils down to where it’s made: the northern French region of Champagne which gives the wine its name. Other wines may use the same grapes, the same production methods and maturation, but no other wine can use the name Champagne. Everything else is simply sparkling wine, no matter how high quality.

Champagne the region is the most northerly wine-production area in France, not far from Paris and atop an all-important outcrop of chalk. We don’t fully understand all the ways in which chalk is important for grape-growing, but it seems to play a vital role of water-regulation for the vines, as well as providing a material which can easily be excavated to make cellars ideal for maturing wines.

Champagne the wine can be made only within this region and is usually a blend of three grape varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. Of these, pinot noir and chardonnay have built their own considerable reputations as the varieties responsible for the great red and white wines, respectively, of Burgundy. Pinot meunier, little known outside Champagne, is more of a workhorse, useful sort of grape. According to accepted wisdom, Chardonnay gives finesse to the blend, while pinot noir provides structure and power; pinot meunier is responsible for an attractive fruitiness early in a Champagne’s life: useful for giving some early drinking appeal, where chardonnay and pinot noir take time to develop their full array of aromas and flavours.

What to look for on the label
Most Champagnes are, therefore, a blend of these three grapes. Each house or marque will have their preferred blend, which forms a large part of their distinctive house style. Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger are classic examples of Champagnes with a higher than average proportion of pinot noir. Taittinger, on the other hand, is proud of the high proportion of chardonnay in its Champagnes. You can even find 100% chardonnay Champagnes, which will be labelled blanc de blancs. Blanc de noirs, logically then, is made only from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.

Most of what we see in this country – and we are Champagne’s number one export market, accounting for over a quarter of exports – is labelled Brut. In the somewhat arcane labelling laws of Champagne this is what dry Champagne is called. The other style that you’ll find, if you go looking, is Demi-sec: not semi-dry as the name suggests, but pretty sweet and something to serve with dessert. In between these two styles are various grades of sweetness, so the full and rather confusingly named, range begins with the driest Brut, moving through Extra dry, Sec, Demi-sec then sweet.

In addition to the level of sweetness in a Champagne, the other terms to look out for are vintage or non-vintage. Most Champagnes are non-vintage, ie they are made from a blend of wines from a number of different years. Champagne houses wanting to deliver their house style use this multi-year blending to maintain this style from year to year, ironing out differences in ripeness, acidity levels and so on. If a particular growing season is deemed to have produced a wine of sufficient quality and harmony, then growers will make a vintage Champagne, 100% of which will be from the named year. So vintage Champagnes are not made every year: in practice probably three or four times each decade.

Think pink
So much of Champagne is wrapped up in tradition and myth that it’s something of a novelty to see the region catching the pink fever that has swept through the whole wine world. Rosé Champagnes used to be a relative rarity, but now everyone seems to be having a go at making one and you can’t move for them. If Champagne denotes something to celebrate, then pink Champagnes seem to notch up the special occasion rate even further. As Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that most pink Champagne is made in a way positively forbidden for still rosé wine: a small amount of red wine is added to achieve the desired colour and flavour. Of course the Champenois have a suitably elegant term for it, rosé d’assemblage, but it can still seem like a surprisingly cheap method for a wine with a fancy price tag.

What to eat with Champagne?
The obvious answer is whatever you like! Champagne is supposed to go with anything and there is something in the cliché – whatever you’re eating, from fish and chips to haute cuisine, it tastes better with Champagne. Lily Bollinger put it best: “I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty.”

If this has whet your appetite to find out more about Champagne, then come along to one of my upcoming Champagne appreciation evenings. Taste a range of six different, high quality Champagnes and discover for yourself the difference between blanc de blancs, vintage, non-vintage, demi-sec and a range of “grandes marques”. Evenings run on Monday 17th November at East Horsley Village Hall or Wednesday 26th November at the Guildford Institute. They start at 7.30pm and cost £25 per person, including all of the Champagnes and glasses. More details are available on

Sunday, 2 November 2008

How soon is now?

It’s a question I’m often asked: which wines should you keep? And for those that can be laid down, how long for?

First things first: the vast majority of wines bought in the UK are drunk within days (if not hours) or purchase. Consequently most wines on sale here reflect that fact and are best drunk straightaway. Obviously wines do have a shelf life (they’re not bottles of milk), so straightaway needn’t be taken literally: what I mean is, within months. However, not all wines are created equal, so here’s a quick guide to drinking up times.

DYA – drink youngest available
At one end of the spectrum are those wines that should be drunk as young as possible: they don’t improve with age and are best enjoyed in their fresh and fruity youth. Rosés and pretty much all wines made from Sauvignon Blanc fall into this category. Another thing to bear in mind is that the southern hemisphere is six months ahead of its northern counterpart in wine-making terms, so 2008 Sauvignon Blancs and rosés from the likes of New Zealand and Chile are hitting the shelves around now: treat 2007s as needing drinking up pronto and be wary of anything from 2006.

The middle way
Most everyday wines fall into this category: they probably won’t improve with age, but you can hold onto them for a year or so without any harm being done. If you have found a terrific little wine from the south of France that didn’t cost much and fancy stashing some away to age – by all means have a go. But don’t be too surprised if, after three or four years, it hasn’t got better – it probably wasn’t designed to.

Wines for laying down
As a very general rule of thumb, any wine costing less than £10 a bottle is not going to be laying down material. Wines that are going to repay ageing are not usually readily available on the High Street, so don’t worry that you might buy one by mistake! If I were buying really fine wines with a view to keeping them for a number of years, then I would rather deal with a specialist merchant – and probably pay for proper cellar storage too.

The ingredients needed to allow a wine to age are plenty of fruit, acid and tannin (for reds) or fruit and acid (for whites). Tannin is the “stewed tea” feeling that you get from red wines and which can make young wines designed to age almost undrinkable, until those tannins have had time to soften and mellow.

Prime candidates for ageing include:
Claret (red Bordeaux): high acid levels, tannins and dense fruit make the most expensive claret unlovable in its youth. The best wines in a good year can need ten years or more to mature and show what they can do – and can then last for another decade or more. A word of warning – this applies only to the very top level of Bordeaux. The vast majority of what you see for sale is more humble stuff designed for early drinking rather than cellaring; as usual, let price be your guide: if it’s under ten quid, it’s probably not for keeping.
Northern Italian reds, especially Barolo and Barbaresco. If you want to know what tannin really tastes like then pick up a bottle of Barolo – this wine needs a decade before you know what all the fuss is about.
Vintage port. These wines can happily age for decades; probably the ultimate “lay some wine down for your children” wine.
Dessert wines. The magic combination of sugar and acid allows sweet wines to live amazingly long lives. Sauternes and intensely sweet wines from the Loire and Germany are classic examples.

Do you have to lay these wines down?
In the end, everyone’s taste in wine is personal, so there are no hard and fast rules. The English think it sacrilege to drink a vintage port until it’s getting on for voting age; Americans love to get their teeth into one that’s barely started primary school. The French, too, seem to enjoy drinking wines younger than we do.

One wine that I would always suggest keeping – if you can manage it! - for at least a few months is non-vintage Champagne. Champagne houses are legally obliged to age their wines for a certain period of time before selling them. Vintage Champagnes, produced from a single year’s harvest, must have at least three years’ maturity before release, though many producers keep them much longer. Non-vintage Champagne, however, need only be aged for fifteen months before being released for sale. Buy it, stash it under the stairs or in a cupboard for a few months and you should find that the Champagne has more harmonious, more complex flavours as a result.

Tasting notes on back labels for grander wines often say something like “enjoyable now, but will repay cellaring for a further four or five years” – unless it’s a French wine, when of course it won’t have a back label at all. But will you enjoy it more in five years’ time? There’s only one way to find out. You might find that, in fact, you preferred it in its exuberant, dense youth. Wines do change as they age and it’s down to personal taste whether you prefer older wines to younger ones. The best advice is to buy 6 or 12 bottles of a wine that you like (just not £5 Cava please) and try a bottle a year to see if you like the way it evolves. Why not have a go and then let me know in six years’ time how you got on?

Monday, 20 October 2008

The Rhône - wines from the warm south

We need to face facts: it’s over, done, finished. The good times are well and truly over – the summer I mean, not anything else that might be playing on your mind…

We might get an optimistically sunny day from now on, but there’s no getting away from it: nights are drawing in, the Halloween tat has an aisle to itself in the supermarkets and those money-grabbing marketeers at Disneyland Paris are advertising Christmas already.

The place to turn for wines to match the season has to be the Rhône Valley, especially the southern Rhône. These warming wines are just made for longer, darker evenings – if you are looking for a wine to go with roasted chestnuts, bonfire night bangers or just a rib-sticking stew, then the Rhône should be your destination.

In the northern Rhône red wines are all syrah (or shiraz, as it’s also known) based. In the southern part of the valley this grape is joined by a pair of other varieties: grenache and mourvèdre. Syrah is undoubtedly a noble grape, giving long-lived, muscular and meaty wines. Grenache adds a lighter touch of red fruit and a distinct white pepper kick, making the wines of the south approachable for early drinking. Mourvèdre acts as a kind of seasoning, providing backbone, spice and dense blueberry fruit to provide depth to the flavours. Southern Rhône wines are, for me, some of the most easy to drink wines around, with plenty of spicy red and black fruit to flesh out the tannic structure and a warming, alcoholic finish.

Where to start?
Côtes du Rhône is the most widely available and cheapest way to get started on these wines. In general, any wine in the region comes under this umbrella designation and gives you a cheap and cheerful taste of what the region can do. That’s what you might call entry level – the next step up is Côtes du Rhône Villages, meaning the wine comes from areas judged to make better wine than the norm. Somewhat confusingly (but hey, this is France, they don’t like to make things easy for you) the best villages in this area are also allowed to put their village name alongside Côtes du Rhône on the label. So you might see, for example, Côtes du Rhône Villages on its own, or Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret, or any of a number of other village names. Either way, these Côtes du Rhône Villages wines give you a chance to see what the fuss is about, representing an area under vine around 1/8th the size of the straight Côtes du Rhône area.

Still with me? At the top of the southern Rhône tree are villages who have been deemed to make such noteworthy wines that they no longer use the label Côtes du Rhône at all: such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Vinsobres. Each has its own style and character, so have some fun searching out bottles to try.

The jewel in the crown of the southern Rhône is, without doubt, Châteauneuf du Pape. The name is one of the most recognizable in the world of wine, its fame based on full-bodied expressions of the blend of up to 13 grape varieties permitted here. This is not unexplored territory – Châteauneuf du Pape 2005 Clos des Papes was voted “Best Wine in the World” by US-based Wine Spectator magazine this year. And if you need to ask the price, well, I think you know what I’m going to say. About a hundred quid a bottle if you must know.

There are, for sure, cheaper Châteauneufs to be had – but the trouble is, the region is so well known, some producers are able to sell rather mediocre wine purely on the strength of the name, so finding a good one can be problematic.

For the value-conscious wine consumer (and aren’t we all now?) it pays to search out pastures new; those areas that have yet to win fame with wine pundits. My hot tip would be to search out wines from the Côtes du Ventoux. Technically part of the wider Côtes du Rhône area, it was for many years a kind of Bart Simpson region: underachiever and proud of it. My first taste of its wines, ten years ago or so, didn’t win me over: mean fruit, excessive tannin and just no fun.

Now however, as the wine-making cliché goes, a new generation of young, ambitious winemakers are keen to show just what they can do. Based on the same trio of grapes (syrah, grenache and mourvèdre) as you find elsewhere, the best producers are now making wines to rival the best of the southern Rhône villages. Producers to look out for are Domaine des Anges and Domaine de Fondrèche. Cadman Fine Wines ( stock the outstanding 2005 Fondrèche Fayard for £7.99 a bottle; offers a case of the 2005 Domaine des Anges for around £8.50 a bottle. Not quite the same quality level, but more easily available is La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Ventoux, £5.69 at Waitrose, made by the owners of renowned Châteauneuf du Pape producers, Château de Beaucastel.

Exploring the southern Rhône
The southern Rhône is one of the most attractive wine regions of France to explore – and there’s nothing like actually visiting a region to really get to grips with its wines.
Other than soaking up the wine and the scenery, a trip to the region’s studenty, relaxed capital, Avignon is not to be missed. The famous bridge is something of a non-event (it doesn’t even cross the river – call me old fashioned, but I thought that was the point of a bridge - and you have to pay to go on it), but the Palais des Papes is well worth a look. The palace was the result of some papal bust up in the 14th century, when the Pope decamped from Rome to Avignon – and apparently built a new holiday home in what is now Châteauneuf du Pape, hence its name: “the Pope’s new castle”.
If you’d like to combine learning about wine, including visits to wineries, with a relaxing break within view of cycling mecca Mont Ventoux, then have a look at A friendly and knowledegable English couple run wine weekends there throughout the year.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Some like it sweet

Do you like sweet wine? Thought not. Admitting to liking sweet wine is social suicide, a guilty pleasure to be indulged in in the privacy of your own home. I would like to use this column to come out as a lover of sweet wines – and I am going to try to convince you to join me in trying to overthrow one of wine’s great taboos.

Sweet wines have an image problem, there’s no doubt. For many (for me anyway) it conjures memories of early wine-drinking days when we merrily downed bottles of rather cheap and nasty German wine – Liebfraumilch, Hock and the like. Or family Sunday lunches accompanied by a bottle of Sainsbury’s Medium Sweet Spanish White. Those wines have done the cause of sweet wines immense harm with their artificial, confected sweetness, used merely to disguise the distinctly poor quality wine underneath.

But putting the past aside, consider whether you really don’t like sweet wine. Some of the wines that are considered dry, are in fact technically off-dry – that is, they have some detectable sweetness. It might not surprise you to know that some Australian chardonnays are not bone dry: Hardy’s VR Chardonnay 2007, for example has a residual sugar level of 5.5 grams per litre. Residual sugar is the final amount of sugar left in a wine when it is actually put into the bottle. Moving back a few steps, that sugar starts off in the ripe grapes harvested to make wine. During fermentation, as anyone who ever watched the Holsten Pils advert of the 1980s will remember, the sugar is turned into alcohol. If all the available grape sugar is used up, a bone dry wine results. If not, then the amount left is the residual sugar of the final wine. Humans, apparently, begin to detect sugar at a level of 4 grams per litre – so any wine with a level above this, we will sense as having some sweetness.

In theory anyway: going back to Hardy’s VR Chardonnay, it may be technically off-dry, but I would bet most drinkers would not class it as such. The sweetness is tied up with the ripeness and weight of the wine and does not “stick out”. And it’s not just white wines that have more sugar in than you would think: Concha y Toro Sunrise Merlot 2007 has 6 grams per litre of residual sugar. In both these cases we are looking at relatively cheap (around £5) wines aimed at the mass market, made by big producers who must surely be in complete control of their wine-making processes. That sugar is there deliberately to enhance the wines, to give a sense of ripeness and more body – and perhaps to cover up some less enjoyable characters in the wine.

Sauvignon Blanc – the wine that we can’t get enough of – frequently has sugar levels that technically put it into the off-dry category: Nobilo Five Fathoms Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from New Zealand for example has 8 grams per litre. Champagne routinely has 11 or 12 grams per litre of sugar even though it’s labelled Brut (or dry). What’s the story?

The trouble is, sugar is only one half of the story: lingering in the shadows is acidity, the yin to sugar’s yang in wine. To put it simply, the higher the level of acidity in a wine, the higher the level of sugar can be without us sensing the wine as sweet. Hence Brut Champagne has quite a bit of sugar in it, yet we still perceive it as dry. Equally, Sauvignon Blanc has crisp acidity and can tolerate a higher level of residual sugar than other styles of wine.

So, we’ve established that most of us do in fact drink sweet wines, even as we profess not to like them. Now it’s but a short step to embracing sweet wines and revelling in the sheer pleasure of a luscious dessert wine.

But if that feels like too much too soon, then follow my five easy steps to sweet wine heaven:

1. Start yourself off gently: if you’re having a pudding involving berries, especially autumn raspberries, try a sparkling Moscato d’Asti, or Asti Spumante – light, frothy, fun and definitely sweet.
2. Move onto a chilled Tawny Port with olives, nuts and nibbles. You can even serve Warre’s Otima, widely available for around £11 a bottle, on ice for a classy aperitif.
3. Try a late harvest chenin blanc from the Loire – some of the lightest of the true dessert wines and with fantastic crisp acidity to balance out the sugar. Great to have with any kind of apple pudding, especially apple tart. Give Waitrose’s Château Gaudrelle Réserve Spéciale 2005, Vouvray for £7.99 a go.
4. Now you’re ready for the ultimate dessert wine: Sauternes. Rich, luscious barley sugar, honeycomb and dried apricot flavours are a fantastic match for blue cheese, especially Roquefort. A half bottle of Waitrose’s own label Sauternes, made by top-rated Château Suduiraut costs £9.99 (residual sugar 103 grams per litre by the way).
5. Next time you want an instant dinner party pudding, try top quality vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of Pedro Ximenez (or PX for short) sherry. For extra indulgence you could soak raisins in the PX first and bung them on the ice cream too. This stuff is almost beyond dessert wine with residual sugar of mind-boggling levels of (dentists and nutritionists look away now) 400 grams per litre. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference PX and Tesco’s finest* PX are both absurdly good value at £7.19 and £5.49 respectively.

Once you’ve mastered all five steps you will have conquered your fear and you too can join me as an “out and proud” lover of sweet wine.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Can Bordeaux turn the tide?

Bordeaux is probably the most famous wine region in the world, producing some of the most expensive and prestigious wines made anywhere – if you have £500 to spare then you too can treat yourself to a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild 2005. Mouton-Rothschild, along with the rest of Bordeaux’s élite wine producers, are onto a good thing it seems. But what about the rest of the region?

Bordeaux produces more wine every year than the whole of Australia – that’s a lot of wine. And the trouble is fewer of us are buying that wine now than we used to: France used to occupy the number one spot in the wine import chart for the UK, seemingly by right. They have slumped to number 2, losing out to Australia – and the United States looks set to push them down into third place before too long. Looking below the level of the classed growth châteaux, all is not well for today’s Bordelais wine makers.

What’s the problem?
As UK wine consumption has increased, France’s share of that consumption has shrunk. Why have we gone off French, and specifically Bordeaux, wine?

Complexity – just look at the countries which have benefited from France’s falling popularity: Australia and the US: both English-speaking New World countries. The Australian and US wines that have done best here are usually lower priced, varietally-labelled wines – by that I just mean that the grape variety is on the label. Bordeaux, by contrast is more complicated: their wines are based on blending grape varieties and the name of the region, or one of its many sub-regions, or even the individual château name, is the most prominent thing on the label.

Value for money – at the price that UK wine consumers want to pay (just over £4 a bottle on average) Bordeaux’s wines just cannot offer the same straightforward ripe, fruity flavours that the New World can. If you read this column at all regularly, you’ll know that spending more on wine is one of my favourite hobby horses. Upping the amount you spend by a couple of quid does give the winemaker much more scope to put quality in the bottle.

Lack of quality – it’s a frustrating truth about Bordeaux that you can spend, say, £7-8 on a bottle and still be disappointed with the wine. There’s no getting away from the fact that too much thin, green, unripe Bordeaux is made – and this can probably only be addressed by ripping up substantial areas of poor quality vineyard.

We don’t understand Bordeaux - it’s not as easy to understand as Aussie Shiraz and never can be. We don’t drink wine the way the French do: there are deeply embedded cultural links in France between the food they eat and the wine they drink and their styles of wine are best understood and enjoyed with food. We Anglo Saxons are more northern European in our drinking habits and often our wines need to be TV or DVD-friendly rather than food-friendly.

So what’s the answer?
If I knew that I wouldn’t be writing about it here! I’d be making a fortune advising the French government and wine authorities on how to regain their place in the UK market. However, here’s a look at how one company is going about trying to win back the affection of the country that, let’s face it, was the original market for claret (the English word for red Bordeaux) and helped to make it the wine it is today.

The company Baron Philippe de Rothschild owns two major concerns in Bordeaux: first growth Château Mouton-Rothschild and Mouton Cadet. The Château is the jewel in the crown, with incredible attention to detail and every care lavished on hand-made, stratospherically-priced wine. Mouton Cadet produces a range of branded wines from Bordeaux. You can pick up the basic red and white versions at Sainsbury’s for £7.19. The Mouton Cadet label is Bordeaux’s biggest brand, selling 12 million bottles each year (compared with Château Mouton Rothschild’s 300,000 in 2007) in 150 countries. The idea is that some of the glamour, exclusivity and expertise of the Château rubs off on Mouton Cadet, giving their brand a unique appeal. The Mouton Cadet operation is certainly large-scale and impressive, with scrupulous quality control in its state-of-the-art winery.

Mouton Cadet is designed as an entry level wine, bringing new consumers to Bordeaux, giving a consistent, reliable claret experience – all the things a brand should do. But will it help to win back UK wine drinkers? I’m not sure. It does offer a consistent taste of what Bordeaux can offer and tastes better now than it did a few years back, with more fruit and a subtle lick of oak. But, selling at over £7 a bottle, it cannot and is not intended to tap into the true mass market. And at that price the competition from the New World is fierce. Yes, it’s food friendly wine – but that’s never going to be as important here as it is in France.

What it does offer is the safe haven of a brand, which we consumers have shown we like. I salute Mouton Cadet (and its smaller competitors such as Calvet and Dourthe) for their willingness to create a brand which tries to take on the New World, without forsaking its own sense of place – it is still unmistakably claret. But UK wine consumers have increasingly turned their backs on this style of wine and even mighty Mouton may not be able to turn back the tide.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Eureka moments

For me it was realising that white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay. OK, it may not be up there with Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” in his bath, but it was a real lightbulb moment for me. It happened in the course of the first evening class on wine appreciation that I took, many years ago. And of course the connection between Chardonnay and Burgundy is blinking obvious to anyone who takes even a casual interest in wine – but for me, it was an exciting discovery.

It’s moments like that which have kept me going on the wine education trail ever since. I went on to study and pass the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Intermediate and Advanced Certificates. I knew things had got out of hand when I found myself embarking on the two-year WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits, but it seemed my thirst for wine knowledge could not be quenched. With the Diploma now under my belt I occasionally mull over whether I’m hard enough to take on wine education’s ultimate challenge: Master of Wine. Gaining this gruelling qualification is surely the wine world’s equivalent of winning an Olympic gold medal. Since its beginnings in 1953 only 264 people across the entire world have been awarded the title of Master of Wine – that’s less than five a year.

When I’m running a wine tasting I get a real kick out of answering people’s queries – things that have obviously puzzled them for ages and they finally get the chance to ask. “What’s the difference between Pouilly Fumé and Pouilly Fuissé?” for example. Well apart from both being difficult to pronounce and coming from France, they have little in common: Pouilly Fumé comes from the Loire Valley and it made from Sauvignon Blanc; Pouilly Fuissé comes from Burgundy and is made from Chardonnay. Easy when you know – but how do you get to know? Taking a wine appreciation course is a good first step.

Apart from learning about the different types of wines made all over the world, the most important aspect of wine education has to be tasting wines. You can imagine that a lecture about car maintenance could be fairly useful - just think how much more useful it would be to actually get some hands-on practice on a real engine. It’s the same with wine: learning about the different styles of sparkling wine can be interesting, but it really comes alive when you can taste and compare these wines at the same time. All of the pieces of the puzzle come together and you learn so much more – quite apart from the fact that tasting wines with other people is one of the most fun and sociable things you can do.

If I’ve sparked your own interest in learning more about wines there are many ways that you can take things further. If you know you’d like to go straight for a qualification in wine, then the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) is the place to start. Their website ( gives you information on their qualifications and where you can study around the country. On the other hand, if you’re not sure that you want to go the whole hog and study towards a specific qualification then you might be interested in the courses that I am running from September to December in East Horsley and Guildford.

These are wine courses for people who don’t want to go on courses! You can sign up for all six evenings, or just come along to the sessions that really interest you. If you can’t make a particular evening in, say, Guildford, you can swap to East Horsley if it suits. The evenings will be relaxed, friendly but informative, with plenty of time for questions – and there is no such thing as a silly question! As a firm believer in practical experience there will also be ample opportunity to taste, with six different wines on offer each week.

The topics for the six evenings are:

Exploring the world of wine – an introduction to wine focussing on grape varieties: how wine is made, why wines taste different, how to taste them
Food and wine matching – demystifying this topic, practical food and wine matching session for you to discover what works for you
Organic wines – a hot topic in wine as in food: what does it mean? How do the wines taste?
Sparkling wines – there is a huge range of wines with fizz: try them and find your favourites
Champagne – wine’s ultimate luxury: but what does Vintage mean, versus Non Vintage? Do you prefer Blanc de Blancs or Demi Sec? Discover the range and styles of Champagne and decide.
Wines for Christmas – be relaxed about wines for the festive period and explore some special wines for special occasions.

Each evening costs £25 per person, or £125 if you book all six sessions – so you get one session free. Everything you need is provided, including tasting glasses and handouts. If you’d like to come along to any of the evenings, booking information can be found on my website:, or you can email me on

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

What to drink in a recession

Zero growth in the economy, rising inflation and fears about our economic security: times are tough for the hedonistic wine consumer who likes to enjoy the good things in life, without having to count the cost.

There are some particularly worrying signs of further price rises to come for wine. The strength of the Euro is making European wines relatively more expensive in the UK now than they were a year ago; prices of glass bottles have sky-rocketed; rising fuel prices have made wine more costly to transport. All these elements add up to a picture of rising wine prices in the immediate future. In the longer term Australia’s hot climate grape-growing areas dependent on irrigation from the Murray River are destined to disappear – and to take with them a river of low-cost wine currently flowing into the UK.

But there are some things you can do to continue to enjoy wines, without paying ever more for them. Here are my Top Tips for wine buying in a recession.

Shop around for special offers
There are still plenty of good value wines around, but it’s best to be prepared before you head out to the supermarket and end up hurriedly stuffing a couple of bottles off the gondola-end offer in the trolley. Have a look at before you go and use its search facility to find out where the best deals are. Many of the big brand names in wine are constantly on offer – somewhere – and it’s frustrating to pay more than you need to. Quaffers Offers saves you the legwork of comparing prices.

Drink less but better
I know I’ve said it before, but I’m prepared to bang on about it again. Ultimately, if you don’t want to sacrifice quality, but have a limited budget, then restricting the quantity is really the only sane way to go. I don’t want to sound like a temperance fiend on a soapbox, but we do seem to believe that an unrestricted supply of cheap booze is a right. Surely it’s better to treat wine as just that – a treat, rather than a commodity sold only on price.

Buy in bulk
As long as you are not one of those people who have to eat every piece of chocolate or every biscuit in the house, then you should not need to worry that having some extra bottles of wine knocking around will result in your own personal 24-hour drinking licence. Most suppliers will give you a discount on a case of 12 bottles (and sometimes 6), so it really does save you money to buy more – as long as you don’t drink more as a result!

Buy online
Instead of bunging a few random bottles in the trolley along with the rest of the supermarket shopping, think about ordering wine online. Most High Street merchants and all the supermarkets are there, along with a host of mail order or online-only places. Without a physical shop front to tempt shoppers in – and without the overheads either – many of mail order places can give great value for money as well as individual customer service. You may not find as many of the famous names as you would on the High Street – but if you are prepared to be adventurous and try something new you might find yourself with a better wine at a cheaper price. Try Googling “buy wine online” and see what you find.

If you are nervous about cowboy merchants that you’ve never heard of, then try The Wine Society ( This venerable institution has been going since 1874 and is run as a co-operative, so any profits are re-invested in the company or used to fund special offers for the members – you have to buy a share in the society to become a member and buy wines.

The days of Champagne lunches in the City may have disappeared (until the next boom), but wine-drinkers with some savvy can still find plenty to please their palates.

Local (wine) heroes

Local, sustainable, low food miles: these are the buzzwords when it comes to what we eat nowadays. If you want to extend the idea of buying local to the wine that you drink, what are your choices?

Right, before you stop reading, please bear with me for a while. English wines are not a joke anymore: every year we seem to produce more and more reliable, palatable wines. English wines are judged, blind, against wines from around the world in competitions like the International Wine Challenge and the Decanter World Wine Awards – and consistently come away with medals and commendations. Our winemakers are learning how to get the best from our soils and climate, which grape varieties to plant and how to make the best wines in our challenging, but warming, climate. Why, even the Queen serves Nyetimber English sparkling wine to visiting foreign dignitaries at Buckingham Palace, so if it’s good enough for Her Majesty…

So, let’s not start out with the thought that English wines are a joke and give them a fair chance to impress us. Here in Surrey there are five vineyards growing grapes to produce wine, including Denbies, the largest single vineyard in the country.

Denbies is a slick, well-oiled wine-making machine with an enviable track record of picking up awards for its wines. As well as making wine, Denbies is a destination in itself. Attractively perched on the North Downs opposite Box Hill and overlooking Dorking, they offer vineyard tours, tastings in their shop as well as being a venue for meetings, conferences and weddings. It’s a bustling and pleasant place to be on a sunny summer’s day. The estate was established in 1986 and, over the years, it is gradually replacing more and more of the strange-sounding Germanic hybrid grapes such as Reichensteiner, with familiar and trusted varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. These last two, along with Pinot Meunier are the three Champagne grapes – and it is in sparkling wines that the best hopes for English wine reside.

Denbies’ Greenfields Cuvée 2003, a sparkling wine made from the trio of Pinots Noir and Meunier plus Chardonnay and using the traditional “Champagne” method, stunned many wine consumers by winning a Gold Medal at the 2007 International Wine Challenge. Alas, the 2003 understandably sold out and the 2004 vintage is the one currently on sale. At £21.99 it’s not cheaper than Champagne, but it does share some of its characters, albeit at the lighter end of the spectrum.

Surrey Gold is Denbies’ biggest seller, an off-dry, still wine made from a blend of Müller Thurgau, Bacchus and Ortega grapes. It makes for pleasant summer drinking with its crisp exotic fruit. You can try the full range of Denbies’ wines in their shop, allowing you to make up your own mind on their quality.

If Denbies is the big fish, then Greyfriars Vineyard is the tadpole of Surrey wines. Just 1 ½ acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines on the south side of the chalky outcrop of the Hog’s Back make up this vineyard, owned and run by Bill Croxson and Philip Underwood since 1989. I admire the far-sightedness – probably mixed with some stubbornness – that led Bill to plant these noble grape varieties, when the fashion at the time was to choose Germanic hybrids. These hybrids were said to match the climate but, unfortunately, have not shown that they can produce really top quality wines and have never been embraced by the consumer. I tried Greyfriar’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 (Bill likes his wines to age before he releases them for sale) which is very dry and crisp. It’s an uncompromising style which I admired rather than appreciated and I fear is not likely to win a wide audience. Given the clean, crisp flavours, I hold out greater hope for Bill’s sparkling wines.

If you’d like to try Greyfriars’ wines for yourself, including the sparkling wines of which Bill is rather proud, then pop along to the vineyard on one of their open weekends: 6/7 and 13/14 September.

The prize for Surrey’s most picturesque vineyard must surely go to Painshill Park in Cobham. Within the boundaries of an 18th century landscaped garden, between a Gothic folly and an ornamental lake lies a 2 ½ acre vineyard replanted fifteen years ago with Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc (another hybrid). The vineyard is a recreation of the original, which formed part of the park in the early 1800s. They make a sparkling wine, a white and a rosé which are available to buy in the park’s own shop and tearoom.

Godstone Vineyards is a 6 ½ acre site planted with Seyval Blanc. They have a shop and tearoom where you can try before you buy. The final piece of the Surrey wine puzzle is the intriguingly-named Iron Railway Vineyard in Croydon. This small-holding seems to produce a variety of crops, including grapes for wine – if you ever find some of their wine, please let me know!

Let’s not kid ourselves: English wines are not yet in a position to rival those of the major wine-producing countries at the top level. We can’t produce consumer-friendly wines at the £4 average bottle price that we like to pay, our climate is challenging and restricts the styles of wine that we can produce. But, it is clear that quality is rising and our sparkling wines, in particular, have the potential to really put us on the wine map.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Turning water into beer

Turning my back on wine for once, this week it’s all about beer – specifically beer brewed in Surrey. And by beer, I’m not talking about pale, fizzy lager either, but real ale, which is, in many respects, England’s national drink.

Making real ale is, at its most basic, a simple process, mystified in part by the arcane language of the brewer. With apologies to the more knowledgeable amongst you, here’s my Bluffer’s Guide to brewing. Malted barley is put into a tank, or mash tun, with hot water (known as liquor) and mixed. The water, or wort, imbued with the flavour and sugar from the barley, is drawn off then boiled up with hops, which give it a distinctive bitter flavour. Yeast is added (“pitched” in the lingo) to provoke fermentation, whereby the sugar in the liquid is converted to alcohol, resulting in the finished beer. The skill of the brewer is in selecting the type of malt used, say Maris Otter or Golden Promise, the level of toast for the malt, from lightly roasted crystal malt to dark brown chocolate malt. There are also various hop varieties to choose from: Fuggles and Goldings are popular choices. And of course they have to produce the same taste over and over again.

Within living memory, most English towns would have had a local brewery, producing beer to their own recipe, which was drunk in the local pubs. But times have changed, the majority of the local breweries have shut down, their operations taken over by a smaller number of large scale brewers like Marston’s and Greene King. Our tastes have changed too: we’ve moved onto lager, cider and – dare I say it – wine. We’ve also moved away from the habit of spending the evening down the local and downing a few pints, instead drinking at home, in restaurants and gastropubs. All this means that the market for real ale has been contracting in recent years.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. While the overall market for beer and real ale is shrinking, within it a relatively new group of small-scale, artisan brewers has sprung up and they are doing rather well. There are five active breweries in Surrey (plus a couple of pubs who brew their own beer) who are carving out a niche for themselves primarily by supplying free houses: those pubs not tied to a brewery or pub company and who can choose to stock whichever beers they like.

The senior member of the small club of Surrey brewers is David Roberts of Pilgrim Ales, based in the centre of Reigate. Pilgrim have been going since 1982 and their beers are sold in a range of free houses through something called the Society of Independent Brewers’ (SIBA) Direct Delivery System. This scheme allows small-scale brewers to deal with pub chains and retail outlets by streamlining the ordering and delivery process for both brewers and the pubs and shops involved. David is slightly coy about revealing where his beers can be found – but look out for his Burden Pale Ale, a light-coloured, crisp beer with a slightly smoked flavour.

The newest arrival on the Surrey brewing scene is Ascot Ales, based in Camberley. Chris and Suzanne Gill started brewing just before Christmas 2007 but have already enjoyed success with their range of typically light, hoppy beers, influenced by their love of Belgian beers. For summer drinking Suzanne recommends Alligator Ale, an American pale ale which is light, refreshing and hoppy. You can find Ascot Ales in branches of Waitrose and Threshers – both organizations who are making efforts to provide outlets for local producers. They are also to be found in independent free houses including The Barley Mow in Shepperton, the Albert Arms in Esher and the White Hart in Tongham.

Scott Wayland started his Wayland’s Brewery in Addlestone not long before the Gills, first brewing last July. His “one man band” outfit is nevertheless successfully supplying beer to 22 local outlets, mostly within a 10-mile radius of the brewery. A full list of where to find Scott’s beers is on his website,but includes The Wheatsheaf and Pigeon in Staines and The Happy Man at Englefield Green. Scott’s summer drinking recommendation from his range is Blonde Belle, made from 100% lager malt which makes for a light and refreshing ale. The more adventurous could try Martian Mild, named in honour of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. At 3.8% abv it’s light in alcohol, but full of flavour.

The aptly-named Surrey Hills Brewery is located on a farm outside the village of Shere. The owner, Ross Hunter, gave up a career in IT project management (I’m bored just writing that) for the excitement of brewing. His first brew was on Friday 13th May 2005 – but luckily for Ross, it was a success and Surrey Hills has gone on to win numerous awards for its range of beers. Currently they are brewing to capacity and produce 7,000 pints of ale a week, so this is definitely still a small-scale, hand-crafted operation. I can vouch for the drinkability of Ross’ beers, as they are the supplier of beer to my children’s school fair. For the summer, Ross recommends their speciality summer ale, Gilt Complex, which is a pale golden, thirst-quenching hoppy ale. Their regular Ranmore Ale is also a good option at 3.8% abv, described as a “session beer”.

The Hog’s Back Brewery is the biggest fish in the small pond of Surrey brewing. To put things in perspective, they produce around 48,000 pints a week compared with Surrey Hills’ 7,000. Founded in 1992, they are probably the most well known of our local breweries. As well as supplying a long list of pubs, including Wetherspoons’ Herbert Wells in Woking, they have also been successful in getting their beer on the shelves of Waitrose, Threshers and Budgens. Despite being a small and friendly operation, they show plenty of marketing savvy, with a well-stocked shop on-site, liveried delivery vehicles and regular tours of the brewery. Their recommended summer tipple is Hop Garden Gold: hoppy, as a the name suggests, an aromatic, citrussy ale.

If this has given you a taste for experimentation, then a beer festival could be for you and most of the Surrey breweries will be at one of these two this year. The daddy is CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival, running from 5th – 9th August at Earl’s Court in London. Closer to home, the next big local event is the Woking Beer Festival, 7-8th November at Woking Leisure Centre.

You can find out more about each brewery, their beers and where to find them via their websites:

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Last of the summer wine

Last time I focussed on all things pink for summer drinking – this time it’s the turn of white and red wines suitable for our capricious summer weather.

If I were writing this in, say, Spain it would be so much simpler. There, summer is hot, no two ways about it, and any wine recommendations would be for whites that you can chill right down for maximum refreshment, without too many worries about the flavour. Reds would be of the kind that can also take some chilling, as who would want to drink something at room temperature in the heat? Here, however, it’s never that simple: we could enjoy one of our mini heatwaves, which ends in the inevitable thunderstorm, or suffer seemingly endless grey days – or just about anything in between. And let’s face it, in this country we just don’t do sultry warm evenings as a rule: there aren’t many nights where you want to sit outside in a t-shirt sipping something ice cold. So, versatility is the order of the day and probably having a good range of suitable wines for any weather is the only way to be ready for anything the British weather can throw at us.

That said, there are some wines that I would probably avoid at this time of year, most notably claret/red Bordeaux. The tannic structure and elegance of these wines just doesn’t fit with the season somehow. Wines from the Rhône, with their spice and warmth, as long as they have enough acidity to remain fresh, seem to make a better match.

Wines for a Party
‘Tis the season to slave over a hot, smoky barbecue in the hot sun (just who thought this was a good idea?). What wines to serve to the masses? Don’t buy anything that you aren’t happy to drink yourself is always sound advice.

Cuvée Pêcheur, Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan 2007, £3.69 at Waitrose. A mixture of half fruity Colombard and half crisp, neutral Ugni Blanc.

Fiano di Sicilia, Settesoli 2007, £5.99, or £4.79 if you buy two bottles, at Majestic. Fiano is the grape variety of the moment, scoring a hit with its delicate peachy fruit combined with crisp acidity and this one is made by a respected producer from Sicily.

Domaine de l’Olivette Blanc 2007, £5.79 at Waitrose. Some people will choose this because it’s an organically-made wine at a reasonable price. I like it because of its savoury, fruity, spicy flavours: perfect for barbecues.

Cuvée Chasseur, Vin de Pays de l’Herault 2007, £3.29 at Waitrose. The red partner to the Cuvée Pêcheur above, this typical southern French blend of Carignan and Grenache offers decent party glugging.

Sainsbury’s Portuguese Red 2006, £3.19. I was pleasantly surprised by this wine’s generous, spicy fruit, which put it ahead of other, more expensive, wines.

Los Robles Fairtrade Carmenère, Chile, 2007, currently £5.19 at Waitrose, but from 16 July until 5 August it will be down to £4.39. Carmenère is Chile’s signature grape, with its hallmark slightly leafy edge to the smoky black cherry fruit.

Over £5
For white wines, what do you want when (if!) it’s hot? Something cold, crisp and refreshing. If you’re feeling adventurous, then try a bottle of Fino or Manzanilla sherry – these are the driest, most refreshing white wines around and the drink the Andalusians sip while they graze on tapas. Yes, sherry is fortified, but is still only 15% alcohol – many a New World wine hits the 14/14.5% mark. Remember, sherry isn’t just a drink for granny at Christmas. Keep a bottle in the fridge and treat it as you would any other white wine: finish it within days, don’t leave it languishing on the shelf for months.

Sainsbury’s Manzanilla Superior Pale Dry Sherry, £5.99. Textbook stuff: crisp, dry and satisfying. Made for Sainsbury’s by Emilio Lustau – they don’t make poor sherry, so look for this name. Try it with olives, tapas or soup (especially gazpacho).

Picpoul de Pinet, Cuvée Ressac Prestige 2007, £7.55 at Nicolas. A wine known to every French wine drinker, but with a low profile here. This is the ultimate seafood wine: fresh and mineral, but with some weight.

Tesco Finest Grüner Veltliner, Austria, 2007, £5.99. Tesco have put in a lot of work on their Finest wine range over the last couple of years, weeding out the poor quality wines. This is good value for Austria’s signature grape variety. The nose is slightly floral and peachy and the palate is just dry but rich and concentrated with hints of grapefruit.

Tesco Finest Gavi DOCG 2007, £6.13. This is a great wine for people who don’t want their wines to dominate, or taste of oak. Made from the Cortese grape in Piedmont, northeastern Italy, this wine is typically light and fresh, with pear fruit, but has enough body to stand up to food. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Gavi 2007, £6.99 is in the same mould, or you could go for Majestic’s Gavi La Lancellotta 2007, £7.49, down to £5.99 if you buy two.

D’Arenberg Dry Dam Riesling, South Australia, £9.99 at Oddbins. This has great freshness as well as ripeness of fruit. Juicy, limey fruit with a hint of toastiness and just 11.5% alcohol. A delicious and versatile wine.

Red wines

Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2005, £5.49, Oddbins. I urge you to try this wine – even if you don’t normally drink red wines. This is perfect warm weather drinking with its ripe, lively, juicy cherry fruit. A total pleasure to drink. The “dinner party” version of this style of wine is Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria, 2006, £13.99 at Waitrose. The Planeta family are the big beasts of the Sicilian wine jungle and this wine is beautifully perfumed with soft fruit but no lack of flavour – wonderfully understated.

La Piuma Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2006, £5.49 from Waitrose is a nice example of this grape variety. Montepulciano makes wines with an agreeably fruity and smoky nose, that are soft, spicy and slightly rustic on the palate. Just the right balance for barbecues.

From the Rhône have a try of Sainsbury’s enjoyably rustic Taste the Difference Côtes du Rhône Villages 2006 at £5.99, which is a perfect chewy, spicy and fruity partner for sausages. Moving up a notch in quality is Tesco’s Finest Vacqueyras 2005 at £7.48. It has more of everything, including tannins, so this is one for food.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Think pink wines for summer

The weather may or may not be playing ball (writing this a week before you read it, you might be reading this in scorching heat or under gloomy skies, who knows), but Wimbledon has started, strawberries and cream are on the menu – it must be Summer. Time to crack open a bottle of…what? This week I’m concentrating on pink wines, which epitomise summer. Next time, I’ll be sniffing out some choice red and white wines to see you though the barbecue season.

Think pink
Rosé wines are on a seemingly unstoppable rise in this country. Five years ago you’d have been laughed at if you ordered a glass of rosé in the bar, now you can’t move for bottles of the pink stuff in the supermarket aisles. Even before they became fashionable, rosé wines were always a great summer drink. Here’s why: they offer more fruity flavour than white wines, without the tannin of red wines, but you serve them chilled, so they have instant refreshment. Rosés are also the best wines for standing up to salads or any dish with a dressing. The extra fruit (and sometimes a little lick of residual sugar) combine well with the vinegar or lemon of the dressing, but the fresh acidity cuts through the oil.

Here are some of my favourite rosés to see you through the summer that I’ve tasted recently. And beware: last summer, you might remember, was a bit of a washout. As a result, many wine merchants and restaurants/bars ordered more than they needed and have been left with a glut of rosés that they couldn’t shift. The trouble is that, with very few exceptions, rosés should be drunk as young as possible. As they age, they tend to lose their bright, vibrant fruit and can taste dull and flat. That means you should be looking for 2007 vintages of rosé to buy this summer - especially from the Southern hemisphere, where they’re harvesting six months ahead of Europe. If you see 2006 rosés, my advice would be to steer clear, unless they’re on such a good offer you don’t mind if they don’t come up to scratch.

Tierra Brisa Malbec Rosé 2007, Argentina, £4.29, down to £3.79 when you buy 2, at Majestic. Tried a rosé made from Malbec before? Well here’s your chance. Not the most sophisticated of wines, but has well-defined fruit and a little toastiness on the finish.
Eva’s Vineyard Rosé 2007, Hungary, £4.29, Waitrose. A blend of Pinot Noir and the local Kékfrankos grape, this has good freshness to its attractive fruit.
Champteloup Selection Rosé d’Anjou 2007, £4.99, Waitrose. If we’re rehabilitating rosé, then we may as well go the whole hog and relive the 80s with an off-dry Rosé d’Anjou. This is nicely balanced and the sweetness would probably match well with sweet Thai-style nibbles.
Tagus Creek Shiraz/Touriga Nacional Rosé 2007, Portugal, £5.19, Waitrose. This is very deep coloured and is really a red wine for people who don’t like red wine. Plenty of soft, spicy red fruits.
Casillero del Diablo Shiraz Rosé 2007, Chile, £5.99, Sainsbury’s. Consistently reliable performer that offers relatively weighty fruit with plenty of crunch to it.
Domaine Bégude Pinot Noir Rosé 2007, France, £7.49 or £6.99 if you buy 2, Majestic. Pinot Noir tends to make lighter, drier and more savoury styles of rosé and this is a very correct example. One for food.
Muga Rosado 2007, Rioja, £7.19, Waitrose. Pale salmon colour, this is delicate, lively and fresh. One to savour.
Clos d’Yvigne “Bel-Ami” Rosé 2007, France, £7.99, or £7.49 if you buy 2, at Majestic. Made by an Englishwoman in the unfashionable area of Bergerac, next door to Bordeaux. This is 100% Merlot, making for an attractive, easy-going but grown up wine.
Château d’Aquéria 2007, France, £9.99, down to £9.49 if you buy 2, Majestic. From the specialist rosé-producing area of Tavel in the southern Rhône Valley, this is densely flavoured with a long spicy finish. Serve it with gutsy food to taste it at its best.

Next time: white wines that make refreshing summer drinking and red wines that you can chill on a hot day, or that can warm the cockles as you huddle round the barbecue for warmth.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Searching for the great white

When I first started taking an interest in wine, it was Chardonnay. Then when we’d tired of over-oaked, overdone Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio took over as the “default” white. Now you only have to look at the shelves in the off-licence or supermarket to know that Sauvignon Blanc has become our white wine of choice.

But as soon as any wine has achieved that level of popularity and ubiquity, we start to get dissatisfied with “the usual” and an itch to find the next big thing. If you get the feeling that Delboy would be ordering a glass of Sauvignon Blanc today instead of Beaujolais Nouveau in his Peckham wine bar, you know it must be time to move on.

But where next? What are the candidates for the next big white wine? Here is my shortlist for wines that could make it to the top spot.

Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc’s home is the mid-section of the Loire Valley in France. There they use the grape to make a huge range of wines from light, fresh sparkling Crémant, to bone dry Savennières, Vouvray and Anjou Blanc, to lusciously sweet Côteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux. Made well, Chenin delivers plenty of round, crisp fruit, sometimes with a hint of honey on the nose, even when bone dry. It has crisp acidity, like Sauvignon Blanc, but tends to be rather more rounded in character, without the herbaceous, grassy character that marks out Sauvignon. Do beware though: Chenin Blanc needs lowish yields to show its true character and South Africa especially is guilty of producing vast quantities of cheap, dull Chenin, so it’s best to spend a little bit more than bargain basement prices.

Waitrose have La Grille Classic Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc 2006 for £8.25, with plenty of crisp, well-defined fruit and good length. They also stock one of my favourite white wines, Domaine Huet Le Mont Sec Vouvray 2005 at £15.25. Not cheap, but a truly special wine with fantastic depth of flavour, great length, deliciously ripe but crisp fruit – it’s a certified biodynamically-produced wine too.

Wine writers bang on about Riesling, each year predicting that this really will be when Riesling makes its comeback, which then fails to happen. Why on earth do we bother, when it seems clear that most wine drinkers just can’t take Riesling to their hearts? It’s because Riesling is such a fascinating, expressive grape that makes some fantastic wines from around the world. Part of the trouble for many drinkers is that Riesling is unfairly associated with sweet, industrially-produced German wines like Liebfraumilch – which is not even made from Riesling. However, German wines are generally perennially out of fashion, the crimplene flairs of the wine world.

So if you want to ease yourself into the world of Riesling, without fear of coming across something sweet and sickly, I’d head for Australia, which is making some truly exciting and always dry Rieslings. Try O’Leary Walker Polish Hill River Riesling 2007, £8.99 at Waitrose for a taste of this deliciously crisp, racy grape. Majestic have Paulett’s Riesling 2006, Polish Hill River (obviously a hot spot for Riesling) for £9.99, or £8.49 if you buy 2 bottles. Thresher/Wine Rack have the 2006 Leasingham Magnus Riesling from the Clare Valley for £8.99 or £5.99 at the 3 for 2 price, which is textbook Aussie Riesling: crisp, waxy and limey.

Viognier is definitely becoming steadily more fashionable, going from a little-known variety found only in a tiny part of France’s Rhône Valley, to an international grape grown in Chile, Australia, New Zealand – as well as in large swathes of the south of France. In contrast to Chenin and Riesling, Viognier is not characterised by crisp acidity: indeed it can be rather “fat”, even flabby, if not treated carefully in the vineyard. But Viognier’s trump card is its delicious peach/apricot fruit character, sometimes with a little spice. Perhaps the pinnacle of Viognier is its original home in the tiny appellation of Condrieu in the Northern Rhône: Chapoutier’s Condrieu “Invitare” 2006 can show you what all the fuss is about, but it will set you back £25 at Majestic. For more everyday enjoyment try Waitrose’s d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab Viognier/Marsanne 2007 for £8.99, hailing from McLaren Vale in Australia, or Sainsbury’s Stamford Brook Viognier 2007 from South East Australia at £5.99.

So will it be one of these three that will ultimately triumph? I’ll let you know in about five years’ time.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

On your marks...

Does this sound familiar? You’re in the supermarket and want to pick up a couple of bottles of reliable wine, nothing fancy, while you’re there. With a budget of £6 and only a couple of minutes to spare, you’re looking for surefire, good value wines. Get ready for supermarket wine sweep. Here are my hot tips for good value, reliable wines from the aisles.
First things first: avoid the big names (you know what I mean: Blossom Hill, Gallo, Hardy's and the like). I know, I know, it's tempting when you're in a hurry to go for the familiar, but please resist! All that advertising and promotion doesn't pay for itself you know, so there is just not that much money left to spend on the wine at around a fiver a bottle.
What's the region that offers the most reliable, good value wines at this price? Top of the list has to be Chile, so I’d head here first.
Concha y Toro is the largest winemaker in Chile, but they have respect in the wine trade for producing quality wines from the bottom to the top of their range. One of their star bargains is Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s on offer at Sainsbury's for just £4.49 until 20th May and at Morrison’s for £4.44 until 8th June. This is a great price for a delicious red, with plenty of juicy, ripe black fruit and a hint of dark chocolate. Just the thing for summer barbecues. There’s a Sauvignon Blanc in the Casillero del Diablo range (£4.49 at both Sainsbury’s and Morrisons), but you don’t need me to tell you to buy it – the stuff just flies off the shelves all by itself, as we can’t seem to get enough of this variety. If you fancy a bit of a change and are a fan of oak, try Casillero del Diablo Limari Chardonnay 2007, £5.99 at Sainsbury’s. Yes, it’s oaky, but there’s plenty of fresh, juicy fruit, courtesy of the cool climate of the Limari Valley. Still within the Concha y Toro stable, their Sunrise Merlot 2007 is on offer at £3.99 at Waitrose until 3 June: very decent summer glugging.
Over on the other side of the Andes, there are bargains to be had in Argentina. Malbec has become that country’s signature grape and it offers plenty of dark, brambly fruit with soft tannins. Tesco have Argento Malbec, just sneaking in under £6 at £5.99.
Leaving South America behind, there are still plenty of reliable performers in Australia – as long as you steer clear of Oxford Landing/Hardy’s and the like. Peter Lehmann is a large-scale producer in the Barossa Valley, known for his big, beefy Shirazes. If this is your thing, then go for it by all means – but in the summer you might find Peter Lehmann Semillon more refreshing: crispy, textured fruit. Just the thing for people who don’t fancy Chardonnay, but can’t stomach Sauvignon Blanc either. And it’s £6.15 at Tesco, a little over the budget, but rules are there to be broken.
What about the Old World? Can Europe really not compete in the reliable bargain category? Yes it can, but we’ve been at this wine-making lark so long that things have got, well, complicated. There are countless well-made, interesting and well-priced bottles available from all over Europe: the trouble is we lack the kind of big brand names which have helped New World wines win such popularity in our hearts and wallets. However, to try and level the playing field a little, I will give an honourable mention to Sicily. They’ve been making wine here for centuries, of course, but have seen a revolution in vine-growing and winemaking here in the last decade. They’ve adopted New World techniques to make consumer-friendly wines from Italy and Sicily’s own wide range of grape varieties, many of them not too expensive either. The label of Casa Mia Fiano 2007 (£5.15 at Sainsbury’s) tells you squarely that this is aimed at “the ladies”. Despite that, the Fiano grape can’t help but make attractive wine: ripe and perfumed. Waitrose have a veritable bargain in Trinacria Rosso 2007 for £3.79. Made from a trio of indigenous grapes, it’s soft and plummily fruity.
Finally, should you have time to do a bit of swatting up before you go (easy if you’re shopping online) don’t forget to consult This useful little site lists all the wines on offer at supermarkets and High Street merchants, so that you can check out the best deals before you go shopping. Or, if you are very organized, you can search for your current wine favourites and see which supermarket has them on offer currently and thus make sure you buy them at the best price. Some wines are always on offer somewhere, so this can really save you money.
Now just put on your running shoes and see how long it takes you to bag a bargain!

Friday, 16 May 2008

Italy, land of the vine

Italy has perhaps the best claim to be the oldest wine-making country in the world. When the Greeks arrived here in ancient times they dubbed it Oenotria, or land of the vine, since grapes were already being cultivated.

Since prehistoric times the various peoples inhabiting the Italian peninsula have been experimenting with vine-growing and wine-making, resulting in a rich variety of wines and wine styles, made from an array of indigenous grape varieties, as well as those imported from other countries. And, this being Italy, wine is inextricably linked with the country’s rich cultural heritage, not least its regional cuisine.

So far so good. But there are problems: all that variety can be confusing for consumers. Here’s one example: if you see Barbaresco on a bottle of wine, is that the grape variety, the area where it’s made, or the name of that particular wine? Well it’s the area of production, but that’s not obvious to many wine shoppers. And once you’ve got that straight then you come across the name Gaja on a pricey bottle of wine: he’s the most famous winemaker in Barbaresco, but declines to put the word Barbaresco on the label.

Rich complexity, yes. Confusion, certainly. Italy’s cheerful disregard for anything that smacks of kow-towing to authority, combined with a deep sense of regionality can serve to turn consumers off Italian wines altogether. However, I urge you to persist and to discover the wine riches on offer, beyond the world of Pinot Grigio.

Yes, poor old Pinot Grigio. Not so long ago it was the in wine, immensely popular, until it was supplanted in our affections by Sauvignon Blanc. Now, if you bring along a bottle of Pinot Grigio to a dinner party you might as well be saying “Look, I’m a bit out of touch and don’t know much about wine.” There is so much more to Italy and Italian white wines, that we shouldn’t overlook them in favour of yet another New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

First of all, a much-abused wine style that we all think we know: Soave. This region suffered from decades of mistreatment at the hands of unambitious growers, resulting in high yields and oceans of watery, dull wine. More recently, there has been an effort to drive up quality and rediscover the greatness of this wine. The leading light has been Leonildo Pieropan, whose Soaves start at £15 a bottle (and Pieropan is the big name on the label – you have to look hard to find the word Soave, tucked away on the back label). Majestic has a slightly cheaper version in the shape of Inama Soave Classico 2006 at £12.49, down to £9.99 when you buy any two Italian wines. This wine is anything but dull, and is full of perfumed, crisp fruit. And if you’re feeling rebellious you could make your second bottle of Italian wine Banfi’s Pinot Grigio, San Angelo 2007, normally £9.99, but down to £7.99 if you buy two. Not cheap, but if you want to know what Pinot Grigio should really taste like, then give it a go (maybe in the privacy of your own home).

To understand Italian wines, white or red, you have to grasp their function: they are meant to accompany food. Italians are rather perplexed by the British tendency to drink wine when it’s not part of a meal and their wine styles reflect their original function. White wines, therefore, are not meant to dominate, but to complement food so their flavours are designed to be muted and subtle. A prime example of this is Gavi, a wine from the northeast of Italy, made from the Cortese grape. It’s unoaked and offers understated pear fruit combined with delicious minerality. Majestic’s Gavi La Lancellotta 2007 at £7.49 (£5.99 if you buy two) is a great introduction to the style.

Italian red wines also offer plenty of, sometimes overwhelming, variety. What I like about many of them for summer drinking is that they provide refreshment along with the fruit and alcohol, one of the hallmarks of food-friendly wines. All red wines are an interplay of fruit, supported by a structure of tannin (the “stewed tea”, mouth-drying substance) alcohol and acid. It’s the acidity that gives Italian wines their refreshing quality, which is most important in warmer weather. If you generally steer clear of Italy when choosing wines, then I would urge you to try Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Primitivo 2007, £5.99. It comes from Puglia, the heel of Italy, which every year produces more wine than the whole of Australia. This deep purple wine is intensely flavoured with aromatic, fleshy black fruit. A crowd-pleaser, yes, but it could be the wine to win converts to Italy.

Do you drink Valpolicella? If you do, you’re a rare breed. Since we’ve been seduced by the power and exuberance of new world wines, we’ve come to view wines which are restrained, with a light touch, as somehow inferior. Yet on a summer’s evening, Valpolicella, with its low tannins and gently cherryish fruit is like a soothing balm. Waitrose stocks the eminently quaffable Vignale Valpolicella 2007 for £4.79 – and it’s only 12% alcohol.

Really understanding all of Italy’s wines is undoubtedly a life’s work, but there’s so much on offer from all over the country, from the crisp, aromatic wines of the German-speaking Alto Adige in the north, to the warm, spicy reds of Sicily, that everyone is bound to find something that they like. Morellino di Scansano? Fiano di Avellino? Bring it on!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

And the winner is...

OK, you’re scanning the supermarket or off-licence shelves for a nice bottle to take home that evening. Such a lot of choice, so many bottles: how to decide? That one’s got a pretty label, this other one’s discounted, but does that just mean they want to be rid of it? Hold on, this one’s won some sort of gold medal at a competition, obviously someone thinks it’s good, let’s go for that one.

Have you ever been swayed by the fact that a wine has won a medal in a competition? And have you ever wondered just what winning a medal means – what has the wine been through to deserve one?

Well, having just completed participating as an associate judge in the International Wine Challenge 2008, I have a better idea of how those medal stickers get onto the bottles. The Wine Challenge is the biggest and best known wine competition in the UK and has been dubbed “the Oscars of the wine world” by Jancis Robinson MW.

What do the judges know about the wines they are tasting?
All wines are tasted blind: judges do not see the labels, or get any hints of the identity of the wine beyond the fact that they are, for example, Syrah-based blends from the Languedoc. Wines are grouped together in “flights”, so that New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are judged together, rather than mixed in with white Burgundy, for example. There is no information regarding price of the wines: judges do not know if they are tasting a £40 bottle of wine or a £5 one.

So does one person’s taste decide the fate of a wine?
No: the wines are tasted by a panel of 4 or more judges. All wines in a “flight” are tasted and rated by the panel independently, then scores are compared and each wine discussed in turn. Like a jury in a court case, the panel tries to come to a consensus on each wine, though sometimes a “majority verdict” is the only way to move forward if there are differences of opinion. The International Wine Challenge employs experienced Panel Chairpeople, a fair dollop of Masters of Wine among them, to manage each panel, so plenty of knowledge, experience and expertise is lavished on the wines.

How many wines does a judge taste in any one day?
You might be surprised or horrified to find that many judges assess around 100 wines, or more, a day. How can they possibly maintain judgment and critical faculties by the 99th wine? Don’t forget, the judges at this competition will be very used to assessing this quantity of wines on a regular basis as part of their jobs – yes, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. And of course all wines are spat out!

Can competitions like this ever be fair?
Wines do get more than one bite at the cherry. During the first week of tasting, wines are either rated as potentially medal-worthy, Commended, or dismissed as not up to scratch. The potential medal winners will be retasted during the second week and assigned either a Bronze, Silver or Gold medal – or downgraded to Commended, or even given nothing at all. A wine will be assessed at least twice on two different days if it is to be judged worthy of any colour of medal.

Equally, wines that have walked away with nothing after the first tasting are all retasted by the inner circle of wine experts who run the competition – to make sure a panel hasn’t been overly harsh and to ensure consistency.

Do the medals mean anything?
During three days of tasting at the Wine Challenge, and well over 200 wines, the panels I sat (or stood) on discussed the possibility of only 2 or 3 gold medals. So medals are not given out lightly, just to reward a certain percentage of the entries. Gold medals in particular are hard to earn and reflect truly impressive wines – regardless of whether they cost £5 or £50.

No competition is ever perfect but, having had the opportunity to peek under the skirt of this particular one, I feel wines are judged as fairly as possible, from the Indian Chenin Blancs (yes, they exist) to the vintage Champagne.

Results of the International Wine Challenge are available from 20th May on

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Wines for Spring

Snow and hail showers one minute, bright sunshine the next – it must be Spring. Thinking of wines to drink at this time of year has its problems. Are the skies grey and the temperatures low, making you want to reach for a chunky, comforting red? Or has the sun emerged and you feel that Summer is surely only round the corner? When the weather is “in betweeny” like this, you need versatile wines that can adapt to changing conditions.

My first bit of advice is to have something red and something white and chilled ready for the off. If you’re braving an optimistic outdoor lunch, or even the first barbecue of the year, you probably want something cool to match the mood. But when the sun goes down at this time of year, the cold soon returns, so you might be after a spicy red to warm the cockles. Secondly, I find rosés just too summery for this time of year, so I’d rather hold off on those until the warm weather is really with us.

So, what to drink? For white wines, there’s something innately Spring-like in the herbaceous aromas and zingy acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. We are currently spoilt for choice in this country for Sauvignons, so attached are we to its gooseberry, leafy charms. You still need a little more weight and depth of flavour now than in Summer, when coolness and refreshment are of prime importance, so go for the fuller styles, such as those from New Zealand and Chile. Threshers/Wine Rack has Vidal Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand at £7.99 single bottle price or £5.33 as part of their 3 for 2 offer. Or you could try their Saint Clair Vicar’s Choice Sauvignon Blanc for £11.99/£7.99 for classic New Zealand pungent, ripe fruit. Majestic have a good value southern French Sauvignon Blanc, Les Fumées Blanches, which is £5.99 or down to £4.79 if you buy two.

If you fancy a change from the Sauvignon norm, head to Waitrose to sniff out a bottle of Hatzidakis Assyrtiko from the Greek Island of Santorini for £8.99. Banish all thoughts of evil Retsina and open your mind to the zesty, mineral intensity that the Assyrtiko grape produces on Santorini’s volcanic soils. I’m a big fan of this wine and it’s a great one to give to friends blind and play “guess the country” with.

Viognier is another grape that fits well with this time of year: it has a lovely apricotty/peachy character, plus some spice. When the weather hots up some can lack freshness because of their lowish acidity, but at this time of year their lush fruit is very welcome. Anakena Single Vineyard Viognier from the Rapel Valley in Chile is available at Threshers/Wine Rack for £8.49 or £5.66 if you buy three (when are they going to give up this absurd pricing I wonder, £5.66 is the real price, so don’t let yourself pay the higher one). This made me think more of pineapple than apricots, but delicious nevertheless.

What about reds?
Very light reds, like Beaujolais, which work really well slightly chilled, are, for me, all about Summer drinking: we’re not quite there yet. That rather dull-sounding term, mid-weight, is what it’s all about and here are some of my favourites.

The Loire is mostly known here for its white wines, but it does produce a fair amount of red. We are generally not as keen on them as the French are themselves, but they are great “wine bar” wines (as in good to drink on their own or with a token amount of food) and just right for Spring. Threshers/Wine Rack offers the uninspiringly-named Haut Poitou Rouge, made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Gamay and Cabernet Franc at £6.99/£4.66. Plenty of juicy fruit with a smoky edge to it and (important for lighter-bodied reds) low tannins. The vintage I tried was 2005, which was particularly good, so try to make sure you find the same one. Joguet Les Petites Roches from Chinon in the Loire is a 100% Cabernet Franc, available at Waitrose for £8.35. It’s rather more weighty and serious than the Haut Poitou Rouge, so one to have with food.

Pinot Noir is a supremely flexible grape which can suit many different foods and occasions. I recommended it to go with Christmas turkey and I make no apologies for bringing it up again now. Pinot Noir’s low tannin and softly spicy fruit are the keys to its adaptability – it’s great with or without food, and is light-bodied enough to match up to warming weather. Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand is available from Wine Rack at £11.99/£7.99 and is certainly worth the 3 for 2 price. From Chile, Waitrose have Valdivieso Pinot Noir Reserva at £8.99, with plenty of ripe, but not overdone, fruit.

A final note: I’ve checked all prices for accuracy as far as possible at the time of writing. However, due to budget increases on duty as well as rising costs in other areas, wine prices are in a rather fluid state – be aware that prices may have changed by the time you go shopping!

Friday, 4 April 2008

Organic and biodynamic wines

In the Autumn, collect some fresh cow manure, put it into a cow horn and bury it in your vineyard on the Autumn equinox. Six months later, at the Spring equinox, dig up the horn, remove the manure and put it in a barrel of water. Using a long stick, stir vigorously for one hour: the biodynamic preparation 500 (cow horn manure) is now ready to spray on your vineyard, preferably when the moon is descending and in front of a “fruit” or “root” constellation. This is just one example of a variety of preparations used by biodynamic wine growers, used in harmony with the movements of the moon and planets.

Sound a bit weird? Certainly not mainstream and surely only practised by muesli-eating, goat-wool sock-wearing hippie types? Well, the news from the wine world this week is that Domaine de la Romanée Conti, in the heart of Burgundy and makers of the most expensive wines in the world, have converted all their vineyards to biodynamics from the 2007 vintage.

So what is biodynamics and where did it come from? Biodynamic agriculture was inspired by the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (best known in this country for Steiner schools) at the beginning of the twentieth century. In essence, it takes organic cultivation as a starting point and adds elements of Astrology (the influence of the Moon and planets) along with Homeopathic techniques and principles. Despite sounding New Agey, it can be seen as an attempt to return to an earlier era of agriculture, before mechanisation, before agro-chemicals, before calendars even, when farmers relied on the movements and phases of the moon to guide their activities.

What is the difference between organic and biodynamic?

To drastically over-simplify, organic viticulture essentially lists what a grower CANNOT do: they must not use any man-made chemicals to produce their crop of grapes. Incidentally, there is legally no such thing as “organic wine” in the EU: the technically correct term is “wine made from organically-grown grapes”.

Biodynamic growers do not have to be certified organic (though many of them are), but they should use biodynamic preparations, such as the cow horn manure above to ensure the health of the vineyard soils and vines. The annually produced Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar provides information on planting times (based on the position of the moon) and categorizes each day as either flower, root, leaf or root to guide vineyard operations. If all this sounds too wacky to take on, consider this: Thresher’s/Wine Rack, not noted for sandal-wearing tendencies, make sure they run their wine-tastings for the press on fruit days, as they find wines taste consistently better then than on, say, leaf days.

How do you spot a biodynamic (or organic) wine?
Easier said than done sometimes. Some biodynamic growers choose not to become certified by either Demeter or Biodyvin, the two official bodies. Even some who are certified choose not to mention the fact on their labels: their decision to use biodynamics is to make what they consider better wine, it’s not a marketing technique to appeal to the consumer. In general, each country has its own organic certification body, such as Ecocert in France. Again, though, not all organic growers choose to be certified, or to put any official recognition on the label, preferring the wines to do the talking. My own experience leads me to the conclusion that, the bigger the word “organic” is on a bottle’s label, the poorer the wine will be.

So, it can be hard to spot an organic or biodynamic wine, and the most clearly-labelled ones may not be the best. The good news, however, is that you don’t need to fork out for wines from Domaine de la Romané Conti in order to get a taste of high quality biodynamic wines. Here are some of my favourite wines as well as tips on where to look for organic and biodynamic wines.

If buying organic is important to you, then you should head to This online specialist stocks only organic or biodynamic wines (a s well as beers and ciders) and all are clearly identified as biodynamic, where applicable. Les Caves de Pyrène, in Artington just outside Guildford, is a happy hunting ground for those who are interested in what Les Caves like to call “real wines”. They stock plenty of organic and biodynamic French wines, but also have a great range of Italian wines and some crackers from New Zealand – including the biodynamic Felton Road Pinot Noir at £21.27.

Of the supermarkets, Waitrose is the best at offering a wide range of high quality organic and biodynamic wines. I would pick out Domaine Huet’s delicious whites from the Loire, made from the Chenin Blanc grape: Le Mont Sec is £15.25. They also have what is, as far as I know, the only biodynamic Champagne: Fleury NV at £24.99. Vintage Roots stock the entire Fleury Champagne range, including their delicious rosé at £28.

If reading about biodynamic wines gives the impression that only highly-priced wines could possibly be made in this way, think again. Emiliana Organicos is the largest organic and biodynamic winery in Chile and its Adobe range of wines is available from £4.99 at Majestic. Adobe Carmenère and Merlot are great value wines, but if you want to see what a couple more pounds a bottle gets you, check out the Emiliana Organicos’ Novas wines at Vintage Roots.

Australia in general seems to shy away from organic and, especially, biodynamic wine – with notable exceptions including Cullen in Western Australia’s Margaret River. Vanya Cullen’s reds are the stars of her range and you can get a taste of them at Godalming-based merchant Imbibros, who list her Ellen Bussell Red at £10.95.

Chapoutier is one of the best-known producers in France’s Rhone Valley, but many of its fans don’t know that it is also the largest French producer of biodynamic wines. Their top wines, Hermitage, Cote Rôtie and the like are well in excess of £25 a bottle, but Chapoutier make a huge range of wines and Vintage Roots lists their Côteaux du Tricastin for £7.25. Just a word of warning: Chapoutier make wines from their own vineyards, which are all organic and biodynamic. But they also make wines under the Chapoutier label where they have bought in grapes from other growers: there are no guarantees on organic/biodynamic credentials for these wines. It’s not easy to tell which you’re faced with – sometimes it’s not easy being green!