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.

Wine and location matching: the campsite

Campsite sunset

I’m all for wine and occasion matching, which makes at least as much sense to me as matching food and wine, as preoccupations go. A lot of wine is drunk without any food at all, but I would choose something different for a summer’s evening spent on the patio than for one spent playing poker with “the lads”, or curled up on the sofa with Mrs CF watching a rom-com, or for that matter for one spent on the same sofa with the same Mrs CF watching an action movie. All would seem to call for a glass of something, but not the same something. Different strokes for different folks.

There are lots of wines and lots of occasions, and generally there’s always one, and often very many, to match with the other. But some occasions make life particularly difficult, and camping is one of those.

For a start, if the weather’s good enough to make camping a worthwhile prospect, it’ll be too hot to easily keep wine at a decent temperature. Even if you can harness the magic of iceboxes to manage that, though, you’ll be slurping it from a plastic cup, of a greater or lesser degree of flimsiness. You may have found one which attempts to look like a wine glass, but while it may fool your eyes it will be about an inch thick, reminding your mouth less of the finely-crafted stemware you may well have at home, and more of a plastic beaker your mum used to make you drink from when you were three.

Reader, I have done my best to find the answer. I have spent two of the last three weekends under canvas, or whatever it is that tents are made of these days, and I’ve tried several styles of wine and several styles of camper-friendly bottle-to-mouth facilitators (I can’t really call them glasses, really, what with the total absence of glass). All have fallen short. Even my favourite wines, even at a perfect temperature, are rendered dumb when placed in a chunky plastic pot, or a crinkly, corrugated disposable cup, even more so after the inevitable arrival of the couple of blades of grass that somehow, always, work their way into the equation it at some point.

The fact of the matter is that any good wine drunk in these conditions will be wasted. On the other hand, this is a near-perfect occasion for bottled beers – easy to fit in the ice box, easy to open, easy to serve. It’s also not a bad place for the most basic of cocktails, those whose ingredients can be listed as:

alcohol + mixer (+/- slice lemon/lime)

and whose instructions can be summarised as:

pour into a cup

But then one night, as the sun set and a group of us huddled around a fire with an acoustic guitar, I was handed a, yes, plastic cup containing a healthy slug of Campbell’s Rutherglen Muscat (available from Ocado, Waitrose, Roberson and many independents). Smokey, sweet, dark and warming, fire and wine combined in a fair approximation of harmony, and its scent, which would be defined using official wine-tasting terminology as “pronounced” – in other words, it doesn’t just smell slightly of itself, it absolutely pongs of itself –  wafted determinedly out of its ugly mug, absolutely refusing to be denied. And I was happy.

Then I had to go to sleep on the ground with a pillow made from a sleeping-bag-bag stuffed with dirty t-shirt. You can’t win them all.

Hatzidakis Santorini assyrtiko – a fabulous gift from a grumpy Greek

Hatzidakis Santorini assyrtiko 2011

So it’s summertime again, and not a moment too soon. Spring and autumn, those transitional seasons that start on the last day you’re likely to see frost on the lawn and end the moment you can go to bed knowing there’ll be no need for a coat in the morning – or the other way round – can really drag on. The British year is composed of an immense slog of inclemency that stretches from September until May, or June, or whenever the sun finally decides to get its act together, and a meagre ration of fragile warmth. It’s like a far-too-brief summer holiday, where you spend longer in the departure lounge or the arrival hall than you ever do poolside. The upshot is that, when the sun finally flexes its muscles, you’d better be ready to enjoy it, with a wardrobe full of flip-flops (well, at least two), a bathroom cabinet full of sun cream and a fridge full of stuff that’s cold, dry and zings.

When it comes to wine I’m a fickle fellow (fella, I guess), as I suppose most of us are, to a greater or lesser extent. There can no space in wine for monogamy. Only wild, unbounded promiscuity is appropriate. It’s best to drink around. But I do think it’s OK to have a small vinous harem in whose more familiar embrace you can always find pleasure. And at this time of year it seems I keep coming back to one wine in particular, and that wine is Hatzidakis’ Santorini assyrtiko.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of meeting Haridimos Hatzidakis, the man behind my summer fling, at a tasting organised by Theatre of Wine, whose wildly eclectic selections make them the pimp of choice for north London’s polygamous winelovers. As at the table next door some chap from France wowed a crowd with his fabulous repertoire of excellent anecotes, Harry – as he’s known for short – stood with his arms crossed, scowling. He’s clearly not a man entirely without warmth – I witnessed him share a congenial embrace with Sebastian Payne, winebuyer from The Wine Society, who stock the Santorini assyrtiko* (as do Waitrose) – but to those without a long history of buying his wine in massive quantities he was not precisely talkative. Google images has conclusive evidence that he’s capable of smiling, but here’s my picture of him, in a room full of opinion-makers and potential purchasers, looking at a wall.

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At this point it would be hopelessly cliched to suggest that he lets his wines do the talking, but the fact is that they are remarkably talkative. There’s the taut, mineral, citrus-packed Santorini assyrtiko, absolutely splendid but also straightforward enough to be stocked by a major supermarket, but also the unfiltered, single-vineyard Mylos, which has the grassy lemoniness familiar from the cheaper version but with added sensory thrills – it’s fabulously silky in the mouth – and just brilliant, certainly the finest Greek wine I’ve ever tried (recently spotted at Theatre of Wine and The Wine Society, but wine-searcher currently shows just four stockists in the entire world), and the flamboyantly characterful, spicy, golden-verging-on-orange, ludicrously small-production ancient-vine Pyrgos. All are 100% assyrtiko, all absolutely work seeking out.

As for Haridimos, perhaps I caught him on a bad day – after all, I’m sure these tastings must become execrably dull for winemakers after a while. Maybe he was just hungover – and given how irresistible I find some of his wines, and how many of them he’s probably got in his basement, I could hardly blame him for that. But I must admit to finding it entertaining that the wine I turn to when the weather’s at its finest is crafted by a man whose disposition seems anything but sunny.

* In a move that flies in the face of all known laws of economics and logic, The Wine Society have just moved from the 2011 vintage to the 2012 and reduced the price by a pound, from £10.95 to £9.95, in the process, having apparently significantly misunderstood the direction in which wine prices traditionally move. At Waitrose it’s £10.99, but occasionally reduced by 20% if you’re eagle-eyed.

Champagne and Rioja – compare and contrast

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Another week, another film about Rioja*. Super-Man can however rest at ease: this one though is unlikely to be a box office smash, burdened as it is with the unpromising title Regum Mensis Arisque Deorum. It’s latin, I’m told, for “For The Tables Of Kings And The Altars Of Gods”, and if it rings a faint wine-related bell it’s probably because you’ve been paying too much attention to bottles of Chateau d’Issan (the Bordeaux third-growth for whom it is a motto). The film, or an edit of it, was recently premiered at the Spanish embassy in London, and I was lucky enough to be invited (lucky because there was more to the evening than simply watching a promotional video with an ambassador – there was actual wine afterwards, of which more shortly).

As it happens, I went to another terrific tasting the following morning, the second being devoted to Veuve Clicquot’s various rosé Champagnes, and it was the contrast in the two presentations that most struck me (though the wines were also rather striking, so I’ll come on to them). The way these two historic wine-growing regions, Rioja and Champagne, choose to present themselves could hardly be more different. It started with the locations, one an old building full of oil paintings in gilded frames and enormous tables hewn from ancient oak, the other a modern architectural braindump hidden behind a historical facade, full of glass and bright colours and moulded plastic and little wall-embedded TV screens.

The presentations themselves offered a similar contrast. The Rioja film was full of wizened old souls, not so much wrinkled as viciously corrugated, pruning gnarly old vines with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and crushing grapes using rudimentary antique hand-powered contraptions that look like leftovers from the Spanish Inquisition, when they would have been used to gently crush something else entirely. If you know nothing about Rioja beyond its self-produced publicity, you’d think all that happened there is the practice of centuries-old winemaking techniques by even older winemakers using older still equipment, all of it counterintuitively taking place in brand new buildings designed by Frank Gehry.

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Then there’s Champagne. Here, the impression is of the total absence of effort. Like everyone they send over to London Veuve’s chef de cave, Dominique Demarville (that’s him above), was impeccably presented in an immaculately-tailored suit. Rioja’s representatives need a translator to communicate in English; Champagne’s are born bilingual. Their hair, their clothes, their smiles and their handshakes all ooze class. Even their names do the job: I met the charming UK brand manager of Moët Hennessy, whose name is Arthur de Lencquesaing, a surname of such inherent poshness that you feel it should have its own Wikipedia page, just to be sure that all the world can find out about the history of Arthur’s forebears back to the 16th century. It is unsurprising, then, to discover that the surname has its own Wikipedia page so all the world can find out about the history of Arthur’s forebears back to the 16th century. If you knew nothing about Champagne beyond its self-produced publicity, you’d think that over there nobody ever sweats, most of them produce gently carbonated urine, and that every September or so millions of grapes gently pluck themselves from their vines and roll in an orderly line to the nearest winery, where they politely make themselves into fabulous fizz.

I’m not sure that either path is a particularly good one. Rioja would benefit from fostering a reputation for more than just architectural innovation (and has the wines and the people to do it), but its strategists seem traditionalists to the core. Meanwhile it’s hard to see the recent demand for grower Champagnes, wines made in small volume by real people, as anything but a backlash against the massive houses and their air of perfumed arrogance, even if there’s not yet much evidence of it on the shelves of Tesco.

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After the Rioja film, we were invited to settle around a table of extraordinary immensity to try eight gran reservas, starting with a 2005 CVNE Vina Real – young, modern but really very good – and heading back in time until we screeched to a halt with a 1964 Marques de Riscal, a stupendous and surprisingly youthful wine rapidly approaching its 50th birthday. Notable stop-offs along the way included a pair of 1994s, one excellent (Castillo Ygay), and one markedly less to my tastes (Marques de Caceres), and a fine example of the corner-shop staple Campo Viejo, from 1981, still going strongish (though it had aged faster than its peers, and I doubt it’ll see its half-century in much style).

Rioja continues to produce excellent wine at excellent prices – the Vina Real costs around £20, while the latest version of the Marques de Riscal costs between £28 and £38 pounds, which given that it’s already eight years old and is proven to have the capacity to live for another 40 and more, is not entirely unreasonable. Though you might have to actually go to Spain in order to find one, many gran reservas from, say, the excellent 1970 vintage can still be found for less than £100, which in the scheme of things is pretty good.

And so to the Champagne, where there was also evidence of relative value. Relative, that is, to exceptionally poor value. The basic range of Veuve roses consists of non-vintage, vintage, and La Grande Dame. The first costs around £40 and is a good wine of its type – “a beautiful success”, said Demarville, though I think he was talking commercially; the second in the region of £50-£55 and is extremely good – the latest release, 2004, is “one of the best vintage rosés we’ve ever made” and given the slender mark-up from the basic version is certainly the “value” option in the range; and the third will set you back about £250.

It’s a more refined beverage than its cheaper cousins, sure, but at present even if they cost the same I’d take the vintage over the big woman, in which Demarville detects more quinine (the slightly astringent flavour used to flavour tonic water) and I detect the flavour of humdrum Jewish Passover staple matzah. “This wine will be amazing in three or four years,” said Demarville, which is all well and good but the vintage is amazing already and if you buy that instead of the large lady you’ll save a not inconsiderable sum of money – enough for a couple of 1970 gran reservas, in fact.

There’s also the recently-launched “cave privee” series, which seems to be a way of getting shot of all the old stuff they’ve got lying around the basement. The current release here is the 1989 rosé, with future installments to include a 1990 rosé, a 1990 white, a 1982 white and a 1979 rosé. Demarville describes this as “a wine for connoisseurs, collectors and champagne lovers”, and is entirely right to do so – it’s a different beast entirely to less aged versions, copper-coloured rather than pink and with gentle, geriatric bubbles rather than the forceful fizz of youth. It’s a fascinating drink, and for all its age half the price of the Grande Dame, but is for those who take a particularly cerebral approach to their bubbles.

*I’m referring back to my last post, which you can find here.

‘The moment you describe wine, you are limiting it’

The Rioja Scrolls is a home-made film starring a couple of Masters of Wine, which is responsible for the disappearance of a little over half an hour of my life. It’s occasionally baffling, certainly indulgent and has a strange Indiana Jones-style plot device, which powers its stars through various Iberian japes. “A wine film that dares to be entertaining,” they say. Well, it certainly tries.

I’m not sure I’d recommend that you actually watch it all, but the film is not without interest. Hidden within, though, was an interesting interview with Mercedes López de Heredia, who co-runs Rioja’s excellent and storied bodega López de Heredia (their Gravonia white, released at around a decade old and sold in the UK for about £17, is really amazing stuff). She is asked to describe a 35-year-old wine which she has opened for the cameras, but recoils: “My grandfather never allowed us to describe the flavours in a wine because he said that from the moment you describe wine, you are limiting it,” she explained. “And we are wrong when we try to teach people to understand wine by helping them to describe it.”

It’s an interesting point. On the one hand, hearing or reading a list of what someone else thinks a wine tastes of is almost always exceptionally dull, and any rule that bans people from inflicting their lists on me has got something going for it. On the other hand, I think that tasting notes can be useful so long as you don’t recite them to others like some kind of particularly uninspired performance poet. And more than anything else I think that creating something for people to taste and then denying them the opportunity, and even the language, to describe the experience is bizarre. If you don’t want people to tell each other what your wine tastes of, make wine that doesn’t taste of anything. Remove from wine the ability to enjoy its flavour, to revel in it and consider it and, where appropriate, to discuss it and there’s no reason at all to drink it except inebriation.

The fact is, people like to tell each other about interesting things they see, touch, taste or hear. And we like to use previous experience to help us understand new ones. So we hear Daft Punk’s new album (very good) and we think it sounds like Chic and the Bee Gees. We read a book and consider which other authors use a similar style. So it is with wine, and each comparison helps us understand the subject better. 

But there are problems with describing flavour. One is that we don’t all perceive flavours the same way, and the other is that we don’t all use the same words to describe them. For example, Robert Parker loves to use the word “camphor” in his tasting notes. Camphor is “a white, volatile, crystalline substance, a terpenoid ketone, C10H16O, with an aromatic smell and bitter taste”. I have never seen, smelt, or tasted camphor. When Parker uses the word, I have no idea what he means. Other people might have no experience of other common descriptors – gooseberries, for example, are common in Europe and parts of Asia, but probably entirely unfamiliar to a Fijian or a Peruvian.

Even if two people speak the same language and have had the same previous sensory experiences, there simply aren’t as many words to describe flavour as there are flavours to describe. If we’re very skilled and very lucky we can choose the closest possible matches, but elements of our experience will still be lost, fallen between the cracks. We can say a New Zealand sauvignon blanc tastes of gooseberries and cat’s piss, and that gives you the general idea, but it’s just very vague shorthand. It’s like being hired to paint a portrait of the queen and delivering a stick man. So perhaps, in a way, describing a wine does limit it. In another, the wine simply exposes the limits of language. It’s frustrating, but that’s life – even when it seems sweet, it can leave a bitter taste in your mouth. A bit like camphor, really.

World Sherry Day – the longest day of the year is here

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I write this on the fourth day of World Sherry Day. Yes, you read that right, a day that has so far lasted four days, and there are a few more to come. World Sherry Day is, in fact, seven days long. You may well think that there is a perfectly good unit of temporal measurement that covers just such a time frame. But no, World Sherry Week simply would not do. Forget the Summer Solstice – this is the longest day of the year.

Winey days are all the rage at the moment – Syrah Day and Carignan Day were in February, Malbec World Day was in April and International Sauvignon Blanc Day just last week. Looking ahead World Cabernet Day happens every year in late August or early September, just a week or so before International Grenache Day – but sherry is trumping the lot. Its bloated extension has lead to an unfortunate clash: today, Thursday 23 May, will not only see World Sherry Day stretch beyond its 96th hour but also witness the cork pop on International Chardonnay Day. Rather disappointingly, particularly for fans of Portuguese fortified wine, World Port Day turns out to be an annual maritime event held in Rotterdam.

There is some logic behind most of the scheduling, with white wines celebrated just as the first rays of spring sunshine warm the backs of northern-hemisphere drinkers and red wines toasted as the leaves are pondering their autumnal colour change, or bang in the middle of winter. Forget wine-and-food matching, this is wine-and-season matching, and there is no wine for which it is more important than dry sherry.

If dry wine in general is an acquired taste – just try giving some to a child if you’re not sure (it would probably be wise to ask their parent first) – dry sherry is a taste to acquire after that taste is acquired. I have witnessed seasoned wine-lovers literally shriek with horror at the first sip of a fresh Fino, whose unique flavour comes from the time it spends in a barrel covered – and let’s not beat about the bush here – by a thick layer of fungal growth.

If you want to introduce someone, possibly yourself, to the joys of dry sherry you need to pick your moment. It makes no sense out of context. Supping it while there’s frost at the window would just be jarring, like welcoming dinner party guests by putting the Banana Splits Theme on the stereo, or decorating your child’s nursery with a full-scale replica of Picasso’s Guernica. But sitting outside on a warm afternoon, with a plate or two of something salty – cured ham works well, olives will do, salted marcona almonds are the absolute best – and condensation beading on the fridge-fresh bottle, it’s very fine indeed. If you’re in Spain it’s better still, but you may find almonds easier to arrange.

One of the cool things about dry sherry is the price. Really expensive ones simply don’t exist – they’re either cheap, or very cheap. If the queen decides to have a glass, it will come from a bottle that cost less than £15 (though if I were a trader I’d perhaps be tempted to bump prices up a bit if I saw a customer walk in wearing ermine and the Koh-i-Noor diamond). Hidalgo’s reliably good manzanilla La Gitana costs around £8 for a full bottle, but if we’re talking  royalty, the crown prince of dry sherries, Tio Pepe’s “En Rama” Fino, released each year since 2009 at the start of spring with a warning to have it drunk by the end of July, costs £13.95 at The Wine Society and is equally available from Adnams, Berry Bros, Lea & Sandeman and others. You can buy it by the half-bottle for an even cheaper fix.

Unlike most commercial sherries it is unfined, unfiltered and thus unstable, hence the need to drink up. Not usually a problem – it tends to hang around for even less time than World Sherry Day – but you do really need the sun to turn up at some point. When I met Antonio Flores, the winemaker, he described the En Rama as “wild, untamed Tio Pepe”, but then he’s not particularly scared of hyperbole. He also told me he expects drinkers to “experience a little bit of our cellars – that magical moment when time stops. It’s life in a glass.”

Dry sherry is not for everyone, but sweeter styles are very hard to resist. Having sipped your fino/manzanilla on the patio/roof terrace/postage-stamp-sized London garden with some pre-dinner nibbles, consider coming inside when it gets a bit chilly, sorting yourself out with some tangy cheese, or just some glasses, and opening a bottle of Matusalem, a sweet oloroso sherry from Gonzalez Byass (the people also behind Tio Pepe) that has been aged 30 years (and still costs a thoroughly non-ludicrous £15-£20 for a half-bottle, from Ocado, Tesco online and independents) and is seriously nutty, figgy, luscious and, at 20.5% abv, dangerously moreish. It can be hard to say no to another one, which is quite possibly also what the organisers of World Sherry Day thought when they came to schedule their celebration.