Wine, work and Waitrose

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For my day job, I write about football for The Guardian. It’s a newspaper. People think my job is fun, they think it’s a laugh, and it’s true that at times it is. But there are occasions, really quite a lot of them, when it really does feel like work. The other night, for example. I reported on a match played between Tottenham and Hull, which went to extra time and penalties, ending at about 10.20pm. After the match I got the chance to ask the two managers whatever I wanted, and interviewed a Tottenham player for an article that was published in Sunday’s Observer. It may sound fun, but there was certainly a certain amount of stress involved in transforming an empty screen into 800 words of vaguely sensible match report over the course of a match that twisted and turned and reared and kicked, and sending it to my office in chunks so it would be ready to go online five minutes after the final whistle, and in the paper 10 minutes later. By the time I left the ground it was a few minutes before midnight. The following morning I started work at seven, and my jobs that day included reviewing the morning papers, appearing on Britain’s (And Finland’s, and New Zealand’s) most popular sporting podcast, and chatting on the phone with the great Australian cricketer Shane Warne. At no point was I having a bad time, but it certainly felt like work.

For my hobby, I taste, and sometimes drink, wine. People think my hobby is fun, they think it’s a laugh, and it’s true that at times it is. But there are occasions, thankfully not that many, when it really is work. A couple of weeks back I went to the Waitrose autumn wine tasting. As a humble, unpaid wine blogger I play by my own rules, coming and going as I please, but some people, your newspaper wine writers, for example, actually have to try every wine there, in case one or more of them happens to be nice enough to include in some future column. For these people, the ones who are actually working, this is absolutely, certainly work.

I respect these people like I respect a triathlete or a marathon runner. After all, it is a marathon, of sorts. The Waitrose tasting featured 89 red wines, 76 white wines, 17 sparkling wines, the same number of fortified wines, 14 sweet wines and a handful of roses, plus nine beers, four ciders and 31 assorted spirits and liqueurs. Even ignoring the other stuff, that’s 217 wines. Most of the wine columnists spent two days there. Splash, sniff, sip, slurp, spit, scribble, a couple of minutes per wine, again and again and again. Not everyone has the natural skill to do it, even fewer have the dedication to hone their skills, and fewer still have the stamina to taste a wine, to judge it, to describe it, and to move to the next one, a hundred times a day or more, and then to wake up tomorrow and do it again.

I tasted all the whites that appealed, a couple of dozen reds, almost all the sweets and a handful of spirits, and then left. I was supposed to go to another wine tasting afterwards, but never made it. I’d already done enough work for that day. As it happens, Waitrose are currently in the midst of their biannual wine megasale, in which they knock 25% off the lot of ‘em so long as you buy either six bottles (instore) or a dozen (online). So, given that I did all this tasting, here’s my top 10 tips, all with full, pre-discount prices. One other tip: if the wine you want is unavailable online, try Ocado, Waitrose’s grocery-delivery partners. One final tip: do it soon – the sale ends tonight!

Domaine du Bourg, Les Graviers 2012 (£13.99)
An excellent Loire cabernet franc, still with a little rusticity. It was illuminating to try this alongside their other Loire cab franc, Les Nivières Saumur 2011, which offered a fraction of the pleasure for just £5.50 less (or £4.12 less if you’re shopping in the sale). Funnily, my bottles when they arrived didn’t look like the one at the tasting (which you can see at the top of this post).

Escaravaills' La Ponce 2011

Domaine des Escaravailles La Ponce 2011 (£15.99 at full price)
I’ve written about this recently. It’s an excellent southern Rhone grenache and brilliant value at £11.99, if you can find it (which to be fair I haven’t – it’s unavailable online and not listed by Ocado).

Craggy Range Te Muna Road pinot noir 2011, Martinborough (£22.99)
This is expensive, but excellent, and I think good value at £17.24. Really well judged, from probably New Zealand’s best area for sub-£20 pinot.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate cabernet sauvignon 2008 (£15.99)
This smoky, blackcurrant bonanza is another £11.99 bargain. A proper wine from a top, albeit quite big, Aussie producer.

Kunstler Hochheimer Holle riesling kabinett trocken 2012 (£16.99)
Yeah, I’m not really giving you many bargains here. I know. Still, this was an excellent, dry, pithy and wildly acidic riesling that made my mouth really quite happy.

La Munacesca 2011 Verdicchio di Matelica (£10.99)
This is just £8.25 in the sale, and a stonking bargain. A very Italian, herbal white wine that would go with all sorts of food but tastes just great on its own. It comes in quite a chunky bottle and sits there looking classy, and does not cease to be classy once you start drinking it.

Librandi Asylia Melissa greco bianco 2012 (£8.99)
Hand-harvested, slightly appley, crisp and fresh. Just £6.75 in the sale and exceedingly good value, I think.

Fonseca Reserve Ruby port (£13.49)
There’s a lot of warming, ripe plummy fruit here. I just can’t see why anyone would not enjoy having this in their mouth for a while, it’s superbly and Christmasely festive and excellent value at a shade over a tenner.

Graham’s 20-year-old tawny port (£36.49)
On the one hand, this is certainly very expensive. On the other, it means that you save a full £9 by buying it in the deal. And it repays your investment with waves of complexity. One to contemplate. Try not to think about the price, but if you really can’t get over the price, buy the 10-year-old version instead (£21.39, or £16.04 in the sale, and I must admit that’s what I did).

Antinori Santa Cristina 2008 vin santo (£11.99 for 37.5cl)
The difference in sugar content among sweet wines is really surprising. This, for example, contains 38.9 grams of sugar per litre, making it the least sweet of Waitrose’s sweets, while the 2005 Anthemis Muscat of Samos (£9.99) has 200 grams per litre and, while pleasantly toffeeish, really needed something to cut through the sweetness, perhaps some blue cheese (though if you think about it that mouthful would basically just be salty fat and alcoholic sugar, and thus nutritionally possibly the worst thing you could ever put in your mouth). The vin santo smells delicious, tastes of caramelised orange peel and toasted nuts and compared with the other sticky options is actually positively good for you.

Waitrose Sauternes 2007 (£16.29 for 37.5cl)
Drop for drop, this costs about as much as the tawny port, which for me wins this particular arm-wrestle, but it’s an excellent Sauternes for a very decent price, made by Chateau Suduiraut from 30-year-old vines.

Quibble of the tasting

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Pujalet 2012 IGP Pays de Gers (£5.49)
On the front label, in big letters, are the words “crisp and fresh”. Inside the bottle are seven grams of residual sugar per litre, making it one of the sweeter dry wines on tasting. For me, “crisp and fresh” means “dry”, and though they certainly look better on a bottle than “flabby and full”, this doesn’t really do what it says on the tin. On the subject of wines that pretend to be something they’re not, I could also quibble about the La Umbra Chardonnay 2012, which is quite clearly pretending to be Italian. In fact it’s from Romania.

Challenge of the tasting

Putting Baileys new Chocolate de Luxe into your mouth and then spitting it out. Not because it’s too delicious to not swallow, although it is surprisingly good, but because it has a weird, heavy, thick texture, a bit too gloopy to effectively expectorate. I swallowed. My notes: “Smells of chocolate milk. Tastes of chocolate milk. Extremely dangerous.”

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I didn’t like: Smirnoff gold flavoured cinnamon liqueur, which has gold leaf suspended in it. It looks mental, it smells disgusting, and I couldn’t bring myself to put it in my mouth. And Chase Rhubarb Liqueur, which even though it’s apparently made using actual, real, locally-sourced (natch) rhubarb didn’t particularly smell or taste of the stuff, but of medicine and random chemical sweetness. If you want a flavoured spirit, go for Stolichnaya Salted Karamel Vodka (£20.31), which smells precisely of what it’s supposed to smell of, and is quite a feat of chemistry. Would make an excellent cocktail ingredient, I’d have thought (some of the more adventurous hacks were mixing it with Baileys Chocolate Luxe for a chocolate-caramel bonanza).

The World Atlas of Wine: a Chateauneuf du Paper

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First of all, a moan about the mysterious world of publishing. When I bought this brilliant, enormous, beautiful tome there were two interesting numbers on it (there are lots more inside). On the back, printed onto the sleeve that the book sleeps in between thumbings, was the figure £75 – the amount it is supposed to cost. On the front, printed on a sticker placed there by the retailer, was the figure £15 – the amount the book actually cost. That’s a titchy 20% of the advertised retail price. Something here isn’t making a lot of sense.

It’s not like this is some dusty old remaindered tome that I intercepted on its way to the incinerator: it’s the seventh edition of a much-loved and widely-venerated publication and was released on 7 October, a couple of weeks ago. It’s just that nothing about books is as fictional as the make-believe prices their publishers print on them, while simultaneously agreeing to charge a pathetic fraction of that amount to any business willing to place a massive order. This leads to comedy price-cutting by online giants, a sense of helplessness among small, independent booksellers and a feeling of confusion and suspicion among shoppers.

There are two editions of this book in the UK, with official retail prices of £40 and £75, the main difference so far as I can tell being that the latter is housed in a presentation sheath and that the words “special” and “edition” can be applied to it (though I see no sign of them on the book itself). Waterstones is selling the £40 version for £30.10, Hive for £26.32WH Smith for £24.80, and Amazon for £19.66. The Book People are selling the £75 version for £15 (it was briefly knocked down to a tenner earlier in the week) but it’s on Hive for £45.26at Foyles for £54.75 and from Amazon there’s no discount at all. It’s absurd for a new publication to be available at such wildly varying prices, and it’s unfair on retailers and consumers. If they’re going to do this, they should also release a World Atlas of Buying the World Atlas of Wine, to help the potential purchaser through the confusion. My message to the publishing industry is clear: Stop it, the lot of you. Right now.

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Fortunately, the book is probably worth any of those prices, and certainly more than the amount I paid for it. It was never going to be, and certainly isn’t, full of hilarious jokes and clever wordplay, but the text is all extremely readable, admirably so given how much work it’s got to do. There’s a mind-bending amount of information here, all assembled with incredible attention to detail and then decorated with innumerable photographs and maps and labels (I’m not sure I need all those wine labels, really) before being spread across a table-vexing 377 pages plus index. It has been written, edited and proofread with unusual care, and my cap is doffed to all concerned. It takes itself so seriously that each page is split into a grid, so that the index doesn’t just point you towards the right map for your entry of choice, but to the specific square inch of utmost relevance.

Beyond the bizarre pricing it’s very hard to quibble with anything about this book. Indeed my list of complaints, and I’ve searched fairly hard because I quite like complaining, has just two entries. First, it’s inevitable that some people will find their favourite wine region under-represented, particularly given that France gets almost a third of the book on its own, but I was surprised to find that the next largest chapter is devoted to North America, which with 37 pages get five more than Italy (even though the Italians make more than twice as much wine) and more than twice as much space as Spain (the world’s third-biggest wine producer). However many pages you’ve got, there are never enough. Second, in the colour-coded map of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s soil types the area known as Orange is predominantly pink, but the area next to Orange is mainly orange. Where’s the logic in that?

There’s more, or rather less, to wine than the accumulation of knowledge, than soil types and geography and average rainfall and prevailing winds. But this ancillary information can also add a joy of its own, and no wine will ever be less appreciated if the drinker reads the appropriate page or two of this book before it’s opened. I have never owned or paid much attention to the six previous editions, and now I find myself awed with appreciation for the effort, knowledge and beauty that I have just acquired. This pristine palace of pages – a Châteauneuf du Paper, if you like – is the most essential of all wine books. Buy it. Just be careful where.

Escaravailles’ Ponce and en primeur bargains

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En Primeur. Two words guaranteed to send the eyebrows of any not-particularly-into-wine person leaping northwards. They either don’t know what it is, but know that it’s foreign, and therefore unforgiveably - and this word is going to crop up a few times today, in various forms – poncey, or they kind of know what it is, and believe it’s a ludicrous mechanism for allowing bankers to acquire Chateau Lafite by the pallet, and therefore unforgiveably poncey. There’s probably a decent chunk of actually-quite-into-wine people who think the second definition isn’t far off the mark. But there’s another en primeur market, far removed from that in first-growth claret, which allows price-conscious punters to snaffle great wine at great prices.

The wine above is one that worked out for me. It’s a Rasteau, an area in the Southern Rhone producing red wine using lots of grenache and bits and pieces of other grapes, from the 2005 vintage, and cost me £68 for a dozen back in the day. When it arrived in the country I paid a further £30.72 in duty and tax. The mathematicians among you will confirm that it worked out at £98.72 for the case, or a smidgeon under £8.23 a bottle, which included delivery. And it’s now delicious – fruity, herby, deep and, although the alcohol does tip the scales at 15% abv, entirely harmonious. It matched absolutely perfectly with braised beef and a dark, wintry Sunday night spent entirely indoors (I do find that grenache-based wines so often work heroically well on chilly Sunday evenings, all the more so if the wind is assaulting the walls and windows while you sip it).

What’s certain is that this is nobody’s eight-quid wine, its value certainly closer to the £16 that recent vintages cost where you can find them (the 2011 will soon be available from Waitrose online and from five actual physical branches (there are 291 branches of Waitrose, so there’s a 1.7% chance of you finding it in your local) at £15.99). If you’d bought that vintage en primeur – and the Wine Society offers it every year – it would have worked out at around £11 a bottle, effectively a 30% discount for advance purchase (though at some point, when Waitrose do their 20% off all wine sale, this will presumably be up for grabs for £12.80, whereupon it would be one of their better deals).

Escaravailles – named after the scarab beetle that decorates their labels – are in my experience pretty trustworthy producer, and you sometimes see their top Rasteau, Heritage 1924, the basic Rasteau or the excellent white Côtes du Rhône La Galopine, all of them worth your attention if you come across them. But I should make clear that bargains aren’t guaranteed when you dabble en primeur: you may one day find your wine in someone’s bin-end sale for less than you paid or, worse, you may find that you actually don’t like the wine very much when it comes to drinking it – after all, it’s six years since I bought this wine, and tastes change. The latter problem can also occur if you buy much more expensive wines, compared with which these bottom-end en primeur offerings represent an enjoyable and really pretty low-risk punt, and presents you at the end with a wine that a) didn’t cost very much, and b) you paid for so long ago that it now basically feels free.

And yes, one of the reasons I chose to gamble on this wine rather than any other was the very vaguely amusing name. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains:

ponce
Pronunciation: /pɒns/
British informal, noun
1 derogatory, an effeminate man.
a man who lives off a prostitute’s earnings.

Phrasal Verbs
ponce about/around
behave in an affected or ineffectual way:
I ponced around in front of the mirror
ponce something up
make overly elaborate and unnecessary changes to something in an attempt to improve it:
they would not let the food alone, they had to ponce it up in some way or other

Sadly ponce means something significantly less amusing if you’re French: that humdrum igneous rock, pumice. But while we’re on the subject of pathetic childish wine-comedy, the other day I went to a trade tasting (Waitrose, of which more another time) that featured an Alsatian pinot gris made by someone called Patrick le B’stard, which was enough to get me chuckling (sometimes it doesn’t take much). In case you want to try the B’stard wine, it’s the Cave de Beblenheim Pinot Gris reserve 2012, available from Waitrose for £9.99, and it’s pretty good: round, full and quite savoury given that the equivalent of 8.5 grams, or just over two teaspoons, of sugar lurk in each bottle. It tasted like it would taste significantly better with some food, perhaps something rich and fishy, or something Thai or even Indian, than it did on its own.

Meanwhile, many of the 2012 Rhone en primeur offers will go out in the next month or so, while The Wine Society and Berry Bros will follow in the new year. They say it’s a good vintage, particularly in the south … perhaps it’s time for another case of the Ponce?

The A to Z of London’s wine fairs

The BBC Good Food Show

It’s coming on Christmas. Honestly, it is. Check your diaries. And thus the nation’s retailers are hunkering down and preparing for our annual frenzy of overindulgence and willful spendthrifterosity. From book shops to bars they’re oiling their tills, hiring themselves some fine seasonal staff and bracing for action. Let’s face facts here: your wallet/purse is about to take a serious battering. The only question is where you are going to choose to batter it, which is why, at this time of year more than any other, people who want to sell you stuff start figuratively jumping up and down and shouting “Me! Me! Look at me!”.

Wine retailers are no different. They know you’re going to buy yourself some seasonal wine, and they want it to be with them. One of the ways they go about doing this – and I must admit I find the idea a pretty poor one, but clearly it’s got something going for it – is by putting on massive wine fairs and making customers not only buy tickets but haul themselves across London and beyond in order to jostle strangers for tasters. Frankly it doesn’t sound much like fun to me, but some of them must be good and I’m slowly working my way through them in search of a surefire winner. For research purposes, you understand. I suffer, so you don’t have to. Anyway, here’s a list of the wine fairs that are a-coming to this fair city. Drop me a line if I’ve left one out.

The Wine Gang
The Wine Gang is a five-headed monster of wine journalism, comprised of the Independent’s Anthony Rose, David Williams of the Observer, Tom Cannavan of wine-pages.com, Joanna Simon, who wrote in the Sunday Times for many a year, and Jane Parkinson of Stylist, and I’ll be at their fair this year. A combination of decent prices, good exhibitors and intriguing bonus masterclasses did it for me. The benefit of me buying a ticket was that I managed to get into the Pichon Baron masterclass for a low price before it sold out. The downside was that a couple of weeks later they offered me a ticket for nothing. It’s too late for me to benefit from their generosity but not so for you: use the code BLOG40 and not only will entry be reduced from £20 to £12, but you’ll get 10% off masterclass tickets too. Which is nice.
Date: 9 November
Venue: Vinopolis, near Borough Market
Tickets: £20 (before discount)
Other venues: Bath (2 November) and Edinburgh (30 November)

Three Wine Men
The festively-titled Three Wine Men are Olly Smith, Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin, all of whom may be familiar off the telly. “The Three Wine Men want to get everyone in the country tasting, experiencing and enjoying new wines and discovering different foods,” they say. “Their events bring together wine and food retailers and producers to show you just how much fun your taste buds can have in a day.” There you go. Majestic, Berry Bros, The Wine Society and, um, Lidl are among their exhibitors, the oft-televised trio will be in attendance and there are bonus masterclasses from as little as a fiver.
Date: 7 & 8 December
Venue: Church House, Westminster
Tickets: £25 (before discount)
Other venue: Manchester (23 & 24 November)

Wine Cellar at the BBC Good Food Show
Food may be the focus of this Olympia-based behemoth, but there’s room for a bit of wine too. So much so that they claim this is “the ultimate destination for wine lovers”. Crikey. “Whether you’re a connoisseur or a novice, The Wine Cellar is the perfect place to stock up for the festive season and explore wines from across the globe,” they promise. There will also be tasting events and tours, for which you’ll need to book separately, as well as samples and sales from “24 boutique, artisan vineyards and importers” as well as an “English Wine Pavilion”. I went to this a couple of years back – that’s the picture above – and after giving up on ever reaching the front of the massive scrum that surrounded anyone offering free wine (except, bizarrely, the one with open bottles of d’Arenberg’s £28-a-b0ttle Aussie barnstormer the Dead Arm Shiraz) I departed, not entirely impressed. I did see Rick Stein, though.
Date: 15-17 November
Venue: Olympia
Tickets: £25.75 (Friday) or £26.75 (Saturday) or £96.75 (VIP) or £199 (VIP Luxe – which allows you to meet Michel Roux Jr and eat his food and drink his wine)

Decanter Fine Wine Encounter
This is the opposite of the BBC Good Food Show. It’s more intimate, the exhibitors are mainly top-end producers from various winemaking outposts – from Catena Zapata in Argentina to Muga in Spain, Chateau Montrose in Bordeaux and Penfolds in Australia – there’s relatively little scrumming and it’s full of people wearing ties who spit rather than swallow. I’ve been to this, too, and found it extremely worthwhile, though for the price of a single entry here you could take the wife, the neighbours and the postman to some of the other events. Anyway, thanks to a happy diary double you’re theoretically able to go to Olympia in the morning and here in the afternoon, which will allow you to experience the full range of human-wine interaction in a single day. You could get away with calling it anthropology, although some would probably use the term debauchery instead
Date: 16-17 November
Venue: Landmark Hotel
Tickets: £55 per day, or £90 for both, plus masterclasses (£95) or more informal bonus tastings (£10)

Virgin Wines National London Wine Tasting
I can’t tell you a great deal about this event, which I’m told will be “in line with their philosophy, ‘Life’s too Short for Boring Wine’”. But I have managed to copy-and-paste this from their press release: “Visitors can choose from around 250 wines to sample from the Virgin Wines range” which will be grouped according to style. There will also be cheese. “During the tasting Virgin Wines’ team of Wine Advisors and Buyers will be on hand to offer hints, tips and recommendations,” they add, “while talented winemakers from wineries in France, Italy, England, New Zealand, Chile, Spain and South Africa will also be on hand and keen to show off their range of wines.” If that sounds good I’ve got bad news for you: it’s sold out. Yes, it could be said that I’ve told you about this one a little bit too late, but let it not be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes: next year’s is on 17 & 18 October.
Date: 11 October (6pm-9pm) & 12 October (12pm-5pm)
Venue: Waldorf Hilton, Aldwich
Tickets: £25 (but you get £25 off any wine ordered while you’re there)
Other venues: Cambridge (17 October), Sheffield (24 October), Milton Keynes (14 November), Nottingham (21 November), Norwich (28 November)

Tesco Wine Fairs
Whoops, this was last weekend. Sorry London. They’re in Bristol this weekend and then Edinburgh on the 26 & 27 October. Both events are sold out on the Saturday but have tickets available at £12 each on the Sunday.

Meet thy maker: Gordon Ritchie, TerraVin

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Gordon Ritchie is wearing a suit. There’s nothing wrong with the suit – it fits well, and given the amount of travelling he’s been doing of late it’s in spectacularly good nick – but there are winemakers who look at home in formal attire and others who don’t, and Ritchie falls into the latter category. Perhaps it’s the hair, shorn rather than styled, or the small silver ring that hoops round his left earlobe, or the fingernails, stripped to the quick, or the thespian tendency that not long ago saw him play the flamboyant emcee in Cabaret at Blenheim’s Boathouse Theatre.

Ritchie is chief winemaker at TerraVin, based in New Zealand’s Marlborough region. There’s not a lot of romance in the TerraVin story, in which the lead role appears to have been played by a 15-person syndicate – “a group of globally connected wine friends and pinot enthusiasts”, as they put it – that united investors from Britain, India, Sweden and Taiwan to create “a wine producer with a focus on high end Pinot Noir and the development of a substantial export business”. The focus on high-end pinot noir is clear, the substantial export business is on its way, with the wines previously being available in Britain only at a handful of top-end restaurants but now on general release.

Gordon Ritchie, TerraVin winemaker

He talks a good game, does Ritchie. He doesn’t like the oceans of Marlborough sauvignon blanc whose aromas “leap out of the glass and attack your nostrils”. I’m with him there. He doesn’t like the dark, sweet style of pinot noir that has made Central Otago’s name – “We’re very happy to harvest pinot noir at the early end of its ripeness scale,” he says. “The further you get down that line the further from pinot noirness you get and the further into just red wine.” I’m with him on that one, too.

Given their backers’ pursuit of profit, I think it probably took some guts for TerraVin – a decision that possible predates Ritchie’s arrival in 2010 – to turn their back on New Zealand’s most internationally successful styles of both white and red wine. One of the investors, though, tells me his focus is “quality, not compromise”, and TerraVin of course are not alone in trying to take the common-or-garden Marlborough savvy in a new direction. Ritchie uses wild yeasts, and ages 20% of his basic bottling in barrels: “We make a rod for our own backs doing that, but we achieve a style we enjoy”. There’s also the Te Ahu, which is entirely aged in large oak barrels for between 12 and 18 months. “What we’re trying to do is take a variety we know and love and see what we can take it to,” he says. “If someone bought this wine expecting a Marlborough sauvignon blanc they would probably be quite surprised.” I like the cheaper sauvignon, but find that the Te Ahu triggers an extremely specific childhood taste memory. And I don’t necessarily want my white wines to make me think of myself, as a shorts-wearing juvenile CF, eating a particular but now-forgotten brand of highly-processed soft cheese.

Terravin’s largest shareholder is “Pinot Investments LP”, which gives another reminder that red wines are the main focus here. “It’s fair to say this is the variety we are super-passionate about,” says Ritchie. “The key things making pinot noir is the choice of site, when you choose to harvest and what you choose to do when it arrives in the winery. It’s often described as being a capricious variety. I’m not sure I agree. I think if you make the right decisions at the right time and you have the right materials to start with, it’s not that easy to mess up.”

He hasn’t messed up. TerraVin’s current pinot noir releases are both excellent, with the cheaper of them – which costs £19.50 from The Wine Society and a bit more elsewhere – a lovely, fresh wine of clear quality. “It’s not a huge, muscular sort of wine and I’m happy with that,” he says. “That sort of wine is not what we’re trying to make.” It comes strongly recommended. There’s more depth in the 2010 Eaton Family Vineyard, a year older, and treated with more new oak – “The fruit is overall a little more intense in its character,” says Ritchie. At £39, again from The Wine Society, it goes down on the regrettably lengthy list of wines that are too expensive for me to enjoy again (though it may be available for less from the importers, Clark Foyster). There was also an appealing chardonnay, though I can’t find anyone selling it in the UK.

It was an impressive line-up, from a producer whose newly-expanded availability in the UK is most welcome. Or, as Ritchie might say, while caked in make-up and twirling a cane, willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.

 

The problem with house wines

Camillo de Lellis Biferno Rosso Riserva 2009

I was thinking about house wines recently, partly prompted by another wine blogger (sedimentblog.com) who recently invested in some, and wrote about it. And what I was thinking, in brief, is thus: ‘Tis a mug’s game. We all want to drink wines that we know to be good, and we don’t want to pay too much for them. But while a generous stock of good, affordable wine is, like a decent shower and a fridge and walls, absolutely vital to any self-respecting household, a generous stock of one good, affordable wine is a fast track to boredom and ennui*.

I understand the temptation well enough. You might happen upon a particularly bargainous bargain and feel the urge to stock up. You might just get tired of having to decide, every time you want a glass of wine, which of all your wines – whether you’ve got half a dozen bottles to choose from or a couple of hundred – you want to open. You might long for a default option. At the end of a long day, when dinner’s on the hob and whatever’s about to start on the telly, decisions might be precisely the opposite of what you want. You want easy. You want simple. You want safe. You want a house wine.

And so you buy one, perhaps a red and a white, maybe a dozen or more of each. And then, well, then they sit there, annoying you with their lingering presence, like the friend you invited over to watch the football and is still in your living room, hunkered down with a sleeping bag, two years later. You might like how the wine tastes, but now you know how the wine tastes does your mouth really need regular reminders? Doesn’t it want, more and more desperately with every cork pulled or cap unscrewed, to know how another wine tastes?

So there will be no house wines in my house, though a couple of rows on my wine rack are dedicated to a constantly-refreshed selection of £6-to-£9 wines which I can try without risk of either boredom or bankruptcy. What I do consider essential, though, is an other-people’s-house wine.

Anyone who knows you well enough to invite you to their house probably knows you like wine, which adds a little pressure: your bottle must be good but it must also be interesting, the choice of someone who enjoys choosing. So it may well be that Cono Sur’s Bicicleta pinot noir, or Casillero del Diablo’s cabernet sauvignon, are always perfectly decent and either quite or amazingly good value, depending on whether you catch them on promotion, but they won’t do at all. Your job is not just to provide excellence, but intrigue.

But obviously you can’t take that one bottle of Chateau Exciting you’ve been looking forward to, in case your hosts don’t open it and you never get to try it. The perfect wine is one you’ve had before, one that is packaged fairly attractively, that isn’t too pricey and that you’re happy to drink again, or not drink, whatever. It’s a tough ask but there are plenty of qualifying bottles – pretty much everything from Portugal qualifies, or Alsace – but my other-people’s-house wine at the moment is the all-box-ticking Biferno Rosso from Camillo de Lellis, which is versatile, friendly without being bland, and sold by the Wine Society for £7.50 (and elsewhere, if you’re foolish enough to not be a member).

Loire Valley sauvignon blanc: long Touraine over us

Two Touraine sauvignon blancs

As of 2012, 8% of wine sales at British off-licenses and supermarkets were sauvignon blanc, and the figure keeps rising. This year it will overtake chardonnay, and of all white grapes only pinot grigio, whose juice flows from Italy and through our aisles and tills in vast, flavourless oceans, shifts in greater quantity. Many of us simply can’t get enough of sauvignon’s grassy, herby freshness. Majestic alone shifts a million bottles a year of a single brand, The Ned, one of the most ludicrously successful of all New Zealand’s ludicrously successful sauvignon stories.

As a whole the UK got through 44 million bottles of the Kiwi stuff last year, each of which had to travel some 11,400 miles to reach these shores. Meanwhile the world’s other great sauvignon blanc-producing area, the Loire Valley, is just 250 miles away from London and sends the relatively lilliputian total – and this is all wine from the region, red, white, pink, sweet, fizzy, the lot – of 11m bottles to the UK each year (though sales of their white wines shot up 14% in 2012 compared with the previous year). Yet at this year’s Concours Mondial du Sauvignon, the annual World Cup of sauvignon blanc wines – this competition really does exist, the main difference with football’s slightly more famous World Cup being that in this one the best position by far is “referee” – Loire wines outmedalled New Zealand’s to the tune of seven to one (though to be fair they were playing at home).

St Martin of ToursMarlborough’s overwhelming commercial victory in the battle of the sauvignons represents one of the most astonishing, unlikely successes in the entire history of commerce (I did no research into the history of commerce in the preparation of that wild assertion). According to legend vines were brought to Touraine, the home of Loire savvy production, by St Martin of Tours – that’s him on the left – in the fourth century. It was another Christian who brought wine grapes to New Zealand (draw your own conclusions) in the shape of a missionary called Samuel Marsen. That was in 1819, but sauvignon blanc didn’t make it to Marlborough until 1973, and the first commercial release was in 1980. In the battle for British affections, the Loire had a 1,600-year, 11,000-mile head start, and still fluffed it. Over in Tours they must look at New Zealand’s share of the British white wine market and feel like victims of an act of most heinous larceny.

The problem with New Zealand sauvignon blanc, though, is that most of it tastes the same, and after a while that taste can get a little, well, testing. Oz Clarke once summed it up as “brash flavours of gooseberries, passionfruit and lime, or crunchy green asparagus spears”. I don’t mind gooseberries, passionfruit, lime or asparagus, but I’m not a big fan of brash. You can search for less aggressive examples – and people are now trying to make them – but the only way to guarantee that you don’t get an angry one is, in brief, to leave the lot of them on the shelf and buy something else instead.

Loire’s wines, by contrast, could never be accused of homogeneity. It’s France’s longest river, flowing for 634 miles from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the east, home of perhaps the world’s most revered sauvignon blancs, and heading west through Touraine and, enclosed within it, the wonderful chenin blancs of Vouvray, past the reds and sparklers of Saumur, the sweet wines of Anjou, once favoured by Britain’s own Henry II (who was born there), before rolling past Muscadet, source of refreshing, reliable and extraordinarily cheap whites, and finally flopping, knackered, into the Atlantic.

Touraine sauvignon blanc food matching: seared tuna, chili and coriander noodle saladI recently attempted some wine and food matching, not usually my sort of thing, with a couple of Touraine sauvignons the liquid part of the deal. I put some actual genuine effort into it. Sesame-crusted seared tuna rested upon a mildly chillified, coriander-heavy rice noodle salad by way of starter; pan-seared cod with a Tomme de Chevre crust, beurre blanc, samphire and crushed potatoes for main. A couple of friends came round. I opened the wine, told them that I’d want to know how they thought it went with the food. They tried the wines, chose their favourites. I served the starter. It was good. They ate it. I asked which wine they thought went better with it, and all of them, every single one, had eaten it all up without pausing between fishy mouthfuls to taste any wine at all. This reminded me why wine and food matching isn’t usually my sort of thing.

My opinion, though, is firstly that savvy goes with most sauce-free seafood, so the tuna wasn’t doing any complaining, that its freshness is a fine foil for some gentle chilli heat, and that because many sauvignons are so full of savoury herb flavours, if you find one that doesn’t go too big on those, you can put those herbs into your food instead and everything marries very nicely indeed.

Touraine sauvignon blanc food matching: cod, tomme de chevre crust, samphire and crushed potatoThe star of the main course was another slab of fish, briefly pan-fried and then spread with a thick layer of special mixture (equal weights of white bread, tomme de chevre and melted butter, mixed in a blender and then stuck in the fridge for a bit) before going under the grill to brown. Sauvignon blanc, as well as being a particular friend of seafood, is also pretty pally with goats’ cheese, and this dish combined the two and threw some of the wine into the beurre blanc to boot. I’m led to believe that they make something similar in the Loire using perch. The wines went very well indeed.

The reason the wines worked so well here was partly because I’d gone to some effort to make sure they ruddy well did, and partly because they were those kinds of wine: sociable, the kind that gets on well with others. They weren’t ego wines, determined to hog the attention, or characterless losers that just want to be ignored. The Loire makes a lot of sociable wines, and then sells them at sociable prices.

Two Touraine sauvignon blancsThe two we had at the table on this occasion, pictured above with added grassiness, were Les Chaumes Touraine Sauvignon 2012, part of the Tesco Finest range (currently £5.99 a bottle online), and Majestic’s Domaine Pré Baron Touraine Sauvignon 2012 (£7.99). The former tasted a bit like you’d just washed your glass out and failed to dry it properly before pouring the wine on top. A bit watered-down, in other words, but decent. The latter I have now tried twice and stood out on both occasions, and I think is a good example of what Touraine does, at a good price. As with all my favourite food wines, it went perfectly with what I cooked, and – just as important – very well without it.