Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Monday Night Cab Franc

Of course Monday is Cabernet Franc Night. Didn't you know?

I've sung the praises of Petit Verdot in previous posts, so it's about time I stopped neglecting the other blending grape of Bordeaux. Outside of trendy New World efforts, the grape's home is undoubtedly the Loire. Chinon is the big name, but I picked up something slightly different. 


Bourgueil Les Cent Boisselées, 2005
Pierre-Jacques Druet, Loire, France

At just over £11 from Majestic Wine, it's a steal for a mature red. Bourgueil is a lesser-known appellation, so it's one of those names to remember when you're hunting for a bargain*. 

Cabernet Franc is used to give perfume, aroma, and elegance to Bordeaux blends, so as you'd expect this is a fragrant glass. Pot pourri and bay-leaf sit on top of juicy cranberries, tasting slightly dried with age. There's still a fresh acidity, but enough tannin to stand up to a hefty food pairing. 

A great example of this style of wine, and a fantastic introduction to the grape if you haven't explored it before. 







*France is full of these. I love Rueilly (Sancerre-alike), Lirac/Gigondas/Vacqueyras (Chateauneuf's neighbours) and Bergerac (great Bordeaux Superieur alternative).





Friday, 7 March 2014

Who's Afraid of Marlborough Sauvignon?

The price of success weighs heavily on Marlborough's shoulders.

It may be the most recognisable glass of wine in the world. A tropical slap to the face in a pile of grass cuttings. Arresting acidity and New World intensity by the tonne.

Is the backlash against Marlborough Sauvignon just palate fatigue?We don't always need a punch of flavour, especially one so distinctive. I can start to see the appeal of moving back to the Loire's welcoming whites after such a barrage of guavas and asparagus.

But, the growing assertion that the domination of Marlborough Sauvignon is bad for the world of wine?

Completely the opposite.

In a world of subtle differences between French regions, and impenetrable tasting notes of lavender and mulberry, Marlborough presents a gateway to tasting wine. Anyone can grab a glass and smell the tropical fruit. If they've ever had a Solero or, shudder to think, a Pornstar Martini, they can pick out passion-fruit. If they've ever owned a lawnmower they'll pick up the grass. Forget saline minerality, this wine has complexity that everyone can access.

Even if they don't like it, Marlborough Sauvignon is a wine that anyone can talk about. That intensity is unavoidable, the greenness inescapable, and fence-sitters are bowled over to one side or the other.

I'll continue to point casual wine drinkers to New Zealand. There's no better wine for turning a drinker into someone with an opinion.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Four Steps to Total Wine Knowledge

Wine knowledge is a bottomless pit. You can delve into it for your entire life and still produce a blank look when faced with an obscure Italian grape.

And it gets worse. It’s a terrifying conversational topic, where a single slip-up can cause shocked gasps and dropped monocles. You thought Champagne was made with Chenin Blanc? Oh dear. 

The truth is that the vast majority of people know very little about wine, so just a little knowledge goes a long way. This is where my title is a white lie. You don’t need total wine knowledge, you only need to know the stuff that matters.

These are just four steps to having all the wine knowledge that you’re likely to ever need.

Pour Two Glasses


It’s amazing how many people will go through life drinking one glass of wine at a time. It’s nearly impossible to compare two different wines when you’re drinking them a week apart.

This is best if you have a study partner. Instead of ordering a bottle of wine with dinner, order a different glass each. How does it taste different? Most importantly, which do you prefer?

An even better method is to get together with a group of friends and crack open three or more bottles, having a glass of each in front of you. After trying this a few times, you may be surprised when you decide which grape you like best.

Pick a Grape

Now that you have your favourite grape, stick to it for a little while. Search the whole world for your grape. Does the Argentinian Shiraz taste different to the Californian? How about from Australia and New Zealand?
Sometimes you’ll find your grape of choice in a blend. Even better! How does the Shiraz-Cabernet taste different to the pure Shiraz? Don’t forget that Syrah is the same grape, but how does it taste different?

Chardonnay haters can indulge a personal pet-peeve of mine here. Taste a Chardonnay from Chablis and one from California. If neither of these are appealing to you then you don’t hate Chardonnay, you hate wine.

Pick a Region


So, Shiraz month is over, and you found yourself most impressed by the Rhone Syrah? The good news is that you’re ready to try different grapes. The catch? You’re stuck in the Rhone, with no escape.

No region is a one-trick pony. Bordeaux isn’t all red. There are crisp, dry whites and honeyed sweet wines. If you think New Zealand is all tropical Sauvignon Blanc, try their Pinot Noir, Syrah and Merlot.
The world is far too large to take on at once, so become an expert in your region. What do the wines seem to have in common? What makes them different?

Ask Questions

Now it’s time to talk to someone about wine. Thankfully, the staff at your local wine merchant or bar should be eager to help you, and now you’re talking the same language as them. Tell them which wines you like from your region of choice. Tell them about your favourite grape. This should be more than enough for them to point you to other wines you’ll enjoy.

Now that you’ve shown off your knowledge, test theirs. Ask how sweet wine is made. Ask why Cote Rotie uses a blend of red and white grapes. Ask what Sur Lie and Demi Sec mean. If you leave your wine shop with a good bottle and a new piece of knowledge each time, you’re on the right track.

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Truth About Food and Wine Matching

For those that haven't seen my post over at Dropwines, I've been thinking about pairing wine with food. 

It’s the sommelier’s holy grail. The perfect food and wine pairing. A wine with a structure that perfectly compliments the dish, and flavours that interweave to achieve culinary bliss.


There’s a secret the sommeliers are hiding. It’s really not that hard. Forget about cross referencing flavour characteristics of the wine against each ingredient of the dish. Knowing just a little about your wine tells you what type of dish it matches well with. There are good wine matches for any plate of food. To get to them you need to know how to avoid the bad matches. There are just four rules to remember…

1. Big Wines for Big Food
Intensely flavoured, full bodied wines drown elegant food, and a light, neutral wine won’t stand up to robust dishes. Light wines for light food, big wines for big food.

2. Salt and Acid Tame Wine
You’ve got a hyper-acidic Sauvignon Blanc or a beefy Barolo. These are big characters and don’t always play well with others. When paired with salty or acidic food, these wines are tamed. Suddenly, you can taste the wine. There’s flavour behind the structure! 

Of course, taming isn’t always a good thing. If a wine lacks acidity, it feels thoroughly flaccid when paired with acidic food. Somebody told you not to pair tannic wines with salty foods? They were getting mixed up with our next rule.

3. Sweetness, Umami and Heat Make Wine Angry
Take the same dry, tannic Barolo I mentioned in the last rule. Pair it with a pecan pie or a pizza covered in sun-dried tomatoes and fresh chilli. Now the Barolo is angry. You won’t like it when it’s angry. These tastes make your wine seem more acidic, more tannic and weaken any fruit flavour. These tastes are responsible for some of the horror stories that make food and wine matching so daunting.

Instead, choose wine that isn’t going to rise to anger. Nothing with high tannins or oak. Sweetness in the wine should match the sweetness or heat in the dish. Anyone that thinks lager is the perfect match for a curry hasn’t tried taking on a Jalfrezi with a chilled, off-dry Riesling.


4. Cut the Fat
Oily or fatty food cries out for acidity. A good chef may squeeze some lemon onto the dish, but you should order a crisp wine just in case.

Beyond these rules, sommeliers often pair wines with typically regional dishes and look for traditional flavour pairings. Pork with an apple-flavoured Chenin and duck with a cherry-rich Pinot Noir. These can be effective, but it’s far more important to know how to avoid disasters. One angry Barolo is enough for a lifetime.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Top 10 Wine Label Crimes (Part 2)

Continuing on from yesterday's thoughts. The final five things I do not want to see on the back of a wine bottle.

5 - Passion
Winemaker Jean Forgeron brings an unbridled passion to his craft. Each bottle contains a single tear of joy, shed from his eye as he watches his creation come to life.

Talk about an empty boast. I do believe that some winemakers are more passionate than others. Can they prove it by writing it on the bottle? No. Show the passion for when you get a chance to talk about your wine directly. It might sway customers and clients but text printed on the back of your bottle won't sway me.

4 - Psychological Profile
This Syrah is filled with brooding flavours on top of a seductive texture. A mournful finish leaves a whisper of ambivalence in its wake. It has underlying attachment issues and difficulty forming healthy relationships. 

These can convey a sort of meaning. Brooding probably means it's got smooth, with dark flavours like blackberry and black pepper. Or does it mean tight and closed, needing more age. Is that a good thing to put on your bottle? Maybe it tastes smoky, like the cigarette of a brooding anti-hero. Does it mean all these things? Something completely different?

Never mind. It's useless. Next time tell me what it tastes like.

3 - Good Structure
A good structure is supported by decent flavours and above-average fuel economy. 

This appear similar to "Well Balance" at first. It's actually less helpful.

When a wine claims to have "good balance" I can at least guess that it means medium levels of acidity, tannin and body. This wine doesn't want to commit to having a balanced structure, just a good one.

This is barely more useful than "tastes nice" and even less interesting.

2 - Great with Everything
This wine is a perfect match for grilled chicken, seafood, vegetables, animals and minerals. 

This only places so high because I'm sure it results in more wine sales. I'll give my full thoughts on food and wine pairing in another post, but here's the short version.

There are many meals that will match a single wine, but also many wines that will match a single meal.

Some labels go too far and describe a highly specific meal that pairs well with the wine. Some hit the sweet spot of suggesting a few ideas but not being too specific. A great example is a Riesling claiming it pairs well with Chinese food.

This entry only applies to those winemakers who seem worried that nobody will buy their wine unless their dinner for that night is on the label. I see lots of whites hit the big three; chicken, seafood and pasta. Genius! We've covered just about every meal somebody would drink white wine with.

Think we can squeeze rice in there too so we have Risotto covered?

Now. The worst of all.

1 - Nothing

Okay, 2005 St Emillion Grand Cru. I get it. You're a big deal.

I've learned the grapes you use, as a right-bank Bordeaux. I've learned what that Cab-Sauv/Merlot/Cab-Franc blend should taste like. I've learned that Grand Cru is better than Premier Cru. I've learned that 2009 was an excellent year but you could use some more ageing.

I learned these things because I'm a huge nerd. Anyone that isn't a huge nerd is going to flip your bottle over and stare into an abyss of non-information. No label at all. At best, a postage stamp with a contact address on.

What does this thing taste like? Oh... you don't know already? How embarrassing...

Writing a little about such a fantastic wine should be easy. At least tell us the percentage of grapes. Letting the average consumer know your wine is mostly Merlot gives them a fighting chance.

For all I complain about flowery prose, obscure flavours and history lectures there truly is nothing worse than nothing.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Gin Dram Showdown - Caorunn vs Zuidam

For my Birthday, I was blessed with a hoard of Drinks by the Dram. Master of Malt offer a huge range of their spirits in these small bottles, and it's a great way to try a variety of drinks without committing to a full bottle.  

We started with a pair of gins, going head to head. It's Scotland vs Holland. Caorunn vs Zuidam. Both were tasted neat, and then with tonic. 


Caorunn

Part of the wave of scotch gins that are flooding the market with regional ingredients, breaking the shackles of juniper's dominance and hoping to duplicate the success of Hendrick's.

Here, the ingredients are rowan berry, heather, dandelion and coul blush apple. A typically obscure array of flavours, so the proof will be in the taste.

The gin has a fresh, light quality. Zesty fruit and soft floral flavours dominate, and it makes for a very smooth drink on its own. This would make a fantastic Martini, with a slightly different character.

In the tonic, it stands up for itself more than you might think. The berry-fruit prevails, and the floral aromas never stray too far into perfume.

This is a gin I'd love to have in my collection, and would be most at home in a Martini with a suitably light vermouth and lemon bitters.

(B)

Zuidam

This is a Dutch Gin, boasting highly expensive Madagascan vanilla amongst its other ingredients. These are mostly familiar coriander, angelica, citrus zest, licorice and cardamom.

While the Caorunn was all airy flowers and fruit, Zuidam is dominated by earthy flavours. There are vegetal, woody notes and some sweet licorice. The flavours combine into something resembling the savoury elements of cola. Behind all this, orange zest gives a slight lift. The balance is definitely tilted towards earthiness, but nowhere near the savoury funk of Genever. Even the texture of this gin is thicker than the Caorunn.

The gin reaches perfect balance with a dash of tonic. Now we can appreciate those complex flavours with ease. Continuing the cola comparison is fully intended as a compliment, as the vanilla is now more apparent. and the citrus zest shines a little brighter. Even the oily texture is balanced by the bubbles.


This gin delivers a taste of Genever, with some of the lightness of an English gin. This is a balance I very much appreciate.

(B)


The Winner

These are completely different gins that each fill a different niche. But I'm here to pick a winner. If I can only have a bottle of one, I pick Zuidam. It's a bold mixer that packs a lot of flavour punch, but remains entirely drinkable.

Friday, 12 April 2013

3 Reasons I Still Feel Like a Teacher

Last year I left my teaching career to follow my dream of working in Wine and Spirits. Instead of walking through school gates every morning, I now open up a wine shop. Does this mean my teaching skills can be put into early retirement? Let’s see how many of them I still use.

1. Personalised Learning

Each pupil in your class has their own needs. This pupil can’t form letters. This one is mathematically gifted. This one will fight with anyone in his group. One of the toughest parts of the job is setting the right targets for the right pupil and teaching them in the way that will best help them achieve.

Flogging some wine has to be simpler than that, right?

It’s more subtle, but customers need personalised treatment too. Everybody has a different level of wine 
expertise. Some will want to know the characteristics of the 2005 Bordeaux vintage; others will ask if Chianti is a type of grape. Some will want to know the conditions of the vineyard; others will be happy with “this one tastes good”. Information overload will leave casual drinkers baffled and intimidated, but hardcore enthusiasts crave that extra detail. For them to come back to the shop instead of the supermarket I need to be able to advise them on their level.

2. Tough Marking

Assessing a glass of wine is similar to assessing a piece of work. There are certain criteria you’re looking for. Is its structure balanced? Is there enough flavour? Is it worth the price? Robert Parker wants to give a number to each wine but in the real world there are only really two grades: Buy or Pass. Just as a good piece of work can fail to meet assessment criteria, a good wine isn’t always worth buying.

Chateau St Michelle recently visited our shop for a tasting. Their Riesling was fantastic last time I tried it, and it exceeded my expectations on the day. It’s worth every penny of the recommended retail price. I wouldn’t stock it in the shop. We don’t get many customers buying New World Riesling. The grape is woefully unpopular. Those that come looking for Riesling tend to stick to Alsace. Even open minded white wine buyers tend towards £10 bottles, rather than £15. Assessment means using your head over your heart.

3. Having All The Answers

Pupils expect you to know everything. It makes sense. They wouldn’t send kids here to learn from someone that doesn’t know it all, would they? Of course, they soon catch you bluffing. The truth’s out. Sir is just another human.

I get similar looks of disappointment when customers ask me which grape an Italian wine is made from. Italy is my personal blind spot. I try to sneak a look at the back label but my wine-cred is gone. There’s no end of subject knowledge to learn. I’m progressing through the industry qualifications, but it’s a long way from Master of Wine. Perhaps when I’m finally comfortable with Italy I’ll take a break.