A wedding anniversary. A long-awaited return to a favourite Italian restaurant. A well-known American actor. A discovery about wine glasses.
These are the circumstances that made Jermann Vinnae 2009 a truly memorable bottle of wine [back in 2012*].
It’s a warm evening in June and we’re a bit early for our table at Riva in Barnes, South West London.
Riva is tiny. There’s no music. The two highly efficient waiters have been there forever and the owner maintains a discreet presence at the back.
So, when you are the first to arrive and Stanley Tucci walks in right behind you, you notice.
He sits with his dining companion at the table opposite ours. Then I remember. I’ve seen him in the flesh before. On stage. Absolutely. Stark. Naked. And now he is, right in my eyeline.
Blushing just a little, I get very engrossed in the menu. Crab ravioli – TICK. Baby squid with wild herbs – TICK. A bottle of Vinnae – TICK. Could it get any better?
Well, yes – it could.
I look down and notice that despite our absence of a few years, it’s not just the front of house that has stayed the same. The wine glasses have too. But not in a good way.
Sitting proudly on our table are two short, thick pub-style glasses. Officially called banquet glasses, they scream “cheap” and “catering”. They do not scream “you will really enjoy drinking decent wine out of these.”
Now, I’ve always wondered why a restaurant like Riva (whose prices are not far behind the nearby River Café) has never upgraded. However, I have never asked, never complained and now find myself drinking a wine I love from one of these glasses.
To be fair, the experience isn’t bad. Vinnae is made primarily from Ribolla Gialla, an historic grape grown in the very North East of Italy. Just saying it must give about 20 muscles in your face a workout.
This bottle of Vinnae is silky and rounded with a deliciously fresh kick. I’m having a good time letting the citrus and blossom flavours roll around my mouth. With the crab ravioli, it’s absolute heaven.
But then I notice. Stanley is drinking white wine out of a proper glass. One with a long stem! A tulip shaped bowl! And thin glass!
I call over one of the waiters and point.
“What glasses are they drinking from?” I demand.
“Oh. They’re the tall glasses,” comes the reply and, at my request, they are quickly and effortlessly swapped with our stubby little friends. Well, who knew?
By this time, there is not much Vinnae left but I really, really enjoy the last few gorgeous drops without a thick barrier of glass between the wine and me.
Will I go back to Riva again? Of course! But next time, I’ll know to just ask for tall glasses (or take along a Hollywood star).
So, thank you Mr. Tucci for showing me more than just your splendid bottom…
*This post first appeared in Every Wine Tells A Story 2012 . Stanley Tucci has since married his dining companion, Felicity Blunt, and has just published his second cookbook, The Tucci Table. We’ve still to make a return visit to Riva…
Silvio Jermann’s wines are imported into the UK by Enotria, which sells the latest vintage of Vinnae via Great Western Wines
The role of the wine blogger is something the industry loves to debate. As someone who entered the wine industry late, it’s quite startling to see how much energy is expended on the topic, often by other writers themselves.
The latest misdeed getting everyone’s knickers in a twist (mine included, obviously) is whether bloggers have an obligation to write about wineries who wine and dine them, a response by ex-critic and now blogger Steve Heimoff to an article in trade magazine Harpers accusing bloggers of bad behaviour if they didn’t write anything after visiting a winery who’d paid for their trip.
“In other descriptions of commerce, a one-way transfer of value could also be called ‘theft’,” opined Dr. Damien Wilson, who leads the MSc Wine Business programme at the Burgundy School of Business.
It seems *gasp* that wineries are just like any other client who has spent a bit of money on PR and expects coverage as a result. If you want guaranteed coverage, pay for advertising.
Bloggers have their uses. They’ll often turn up to events that “real” wine writers (i.e. the ones who are paid to do so) are not interested in attending. They’re bums on seats for a PR who needs to show his or her client that they can fill up a dinner table (any PR worth his or her salt will have researched and targeted the appropriate bloggers to invite). And bloggers can create a bit of noise about a launch, event or visit via social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Of course, as it’s been pointed out, not all bloggers are created equal. Some are campaigning, some are more features-led while others are simply logging what they drank and tasted. But I’ve yet to meet a blogger who would invest time to go on a trip and not write anything.
However, this doesn’t mean they write about everything they tasted and everyone they visited. That would be tantamount to sponsored content. The bloggers I know well all look for an angle, a story and use relevant content gathered.
I’m no exception. By way of partial redress, here are the posts I never wrote:
1. The visit to Bodega Trivento last November with Concha Y Toro. I did write three features on the Chile part of the trip, but somehow never got to complete one that involved the Argentinian operation. Perhaps it was because I’d already had a lunch with them in the UK (which I did write up). Perhaps it was because I wasn’t overly fond of the wines we tasted that day. Or perhaps because I’d partied hard the night before and our plane over the Andes was very delayed.
I can tell you this. The asado by the lake in Trivento’s home vineyard was one of the most welcoming sights ever; tasting barrel samples of Trivento’s top end Malbec, Eolo, as it went on its journey from young buck to more measured adult; the tatty, overgrown verge outside the prized vineyard with the old vines growing the grapes for Eolo; the walk in the vineyard as the sun was setting with Eolo winemaker Victoria Prandina.
2. Visits to a number of wineries on a bloggers trip to Western Sicily. For example, tasting Perricone with the engaging Marilena Barbera at the stylishly minimal Cantine Barbera in Menfi.
A fabulous lunch and tasting at Planeta including a trip into the hills to see the ruins of an ancient winery and seeing how well Grecanico can age.
A tasting of older vintages of Mille e Una Notte wine at Donnafugata and realising I preferred the (then) current vintage of Ben Ryé to the 1999 one.
3. Anything from a three-day trip to Friuli apart from the magic of the Carso, which just blew me away. It was just really hard to write anything else. But in this instance, I really, really should have. No excuses. I hope to go back on my own dime.
4. Anything from a trip to the Sevilen winery in Turkey. We’d been promised a vineyard visit at another winery, where we’d pick grapes under the stars. This never transpired (we were taken to an art gallery instead). The masterclass on Turkish wine at the DWCC event I attended were all online. I simply didn’t have enough content to make an interesting piece.
5. Dinner at High Timber with Adrian Vanderspuy of Oldenburg Vineyards in South Africa who was entertainingly less than complimentary about Pinotage. But I knew I had to put my elderly dog down the next day. I should’ve have cancelled, but didn’t want to seem rude and leave an empty chair.
6. A more recent dinner thrown by TerraVin Wines. They wanted to celebrate winning some IWSC trophies. I was interested because the winemaker, Gordon Ritchie, used to work at one of my favourite wineries, Seresin. He wasn’t there. One of the businessmen owners was, and he’d only recently got involved.
Apart from a flabby late harvest Pinot Gris, the wines were very good, especially the whites. The 2011 Chardonnay and the Te Ahu oak-fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2011 were delicious. Beyond that, I found I had nothing more of note to say and began tuning out when I heard that familiar phrase “the passion we have at TerraVin is to make great wines”. I’ll probably now drop off the PR’s list for saying this. I won’t be the first time…
Does not writing the above make me unprofessional or does it make me discerning? I’ve written some seriously dull pieces out of obligation. Isn’t that unprofessional?
Also, as someone with a full time job, I’ve not always had time to write up all the stories that might have been more interesting (see Cantine Barbera). That is the nature of many bloggers. Some in the industry may view this as freeloading. But I see this as part of PR. On most of these trips, or dinners, I was not the only blogger so even if I didn’t write something or make a video about a particular winery, chances are, someone else did.
Having a discussion about the value of bloggers in helping wineries raise their profiles is a valid one. Having been a PR in the tech industry, this was something we did a few years back. But bloggers should be part of the wider PR debate, not THE debate.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a retailer is: “What wine goes with steak?”
The answer? Depends on the cut and how you’re cooking it.
Pinot Noir, for example, works well with a fried fillet steak. There’s not much fat and, frankly, not much flavour to battle it out with the Pinot. Add a mushroom sauce and you’ve got a bit more potential magic.
A chargrilled ribeye can handle something more robust, like an Argentinian Malbec, a gutsy Southern Rhone or a Shiraz. But these are broad brush strokes. There’s no exact science. It depends, for example, on the age of the wine and the style of the producer. And what you’re in the mood for. Still want Pinot Noir? Try a more concentrated style, like one from Central Otago in New Zealand.
I go to a fair few wine matching dinners. Often, these matches are theoretical; this wine should go with this dish. Like blind dates, though, what might look compatible on paper doesn’t always produce sparks in real life.
I reckon Barry Vera, executive chef at STK London, had done a little road testing ahead an evening with Penfolds wines, called Red & Red.
His steak tartare, poached quail egg, caviar and red wine reduction melded brilliantly with Penfolds Cellar Reserve Pinot Noir 2009. I wouldn’t go as far as Penfolds’ UK wine ambassador Sam Stephens and call this wine “Burgundian”. Maybe Burgundian for Barossa. But he was spot on about the dried fruit character in the wine hitting it off with the reduction.
Penfolds, which is celebrating 170 years of winemaking, recently entered a partnership with STK London. We were the guinea pigs trying out a menu STK London is thinking about offering in the private dining room as part of that partnership.
Sam explained how The Cellar Reserve range is where Penfolds’ seven full-time winemakers apparently experiment. Only small amounts are made – a few hundred cases of each “experiment”. And they can fetch some hefty prices. The 2010 Cellar Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is currently £133 a bottle at Berry Bros & Rudd.
The Cellar Reserve Sangiovese 2007 doesn’t quite fetch that money, if you can lay your hands on a bottle. At c£36 online, it’s still in premium price territory. If I’d blind tasted this, I doubt I’d have come close to this being a Sangiovese with its concentrated jammy fruit character. I certainly wasn’t picking up truffle notes – its reason for being matched with Japanese waygu ceviche, pear and… truffle. The softness and fruit intensity worked well though. I went back to the Pinot Noir. No, the Sangiovese was a better choice. I hankered after a truffly old Meursault, to match both the earthiness and citrus notes in the dish. White wine and beef? Yes. I should’ve mentioned this before…
Penfolds is, of course, famous for its Shiraz. The Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz 2011 (£45-£55) is from a sub-region in the Barossa Valley that “provides a contemporary Shiraz alternative” according to its website (though alternative to what, I’m not sure). It still felt young, but has a freshness and verve about it that didn’t overpower the steak it was matched with.
Ah, the steak. USDA prime sirloin. STK London, being of American parentage, has hitched its wagon on this and is probably a reason why many customers go there. It’s a texture thing. For me, though, it’ll never beat the sweet flavour or a grass-fed steak. It did, however, provide a good base for the bone marrow, parsley, caramelised garlic and surprise snails (they weren’t listed on the menu).
Star of the night was undoubtedly then St. Henri 2005 in magnum (about £75 in bond). Once the St. Henri was more popular than the iconic Penfolds Grange. Now it sits in its shadow, but can still hog the limelight on occasion. Both wines contain a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Layers of cassis, menthol, mocha, licorice with a beautiful balance, who cared about the cheese? Or anything after. I had more.
On reflection, it seems churlish to moan too much that there was no Grange on show, even though my invite to the event said there would be (despite asking, I never did receive an explanation).
And while STK London will never be my ideal choice of destination (nor I its ideal choice of customer), I was surprised how good the food was. But then I was in the private dining area being hosted by Penfolds. If STK can replicate this menu, I imagine – being close to the City – it’ll clean up. I wouldn’t, however, miss Grange off the wine list.
Yes, of course I didn’t pay for this dinner. I also used Wine-Searcher.com and a modicum of effort on Google to track down stockists.
My mother, Margaret, died last December after complications from Alzheimer’s following a broken hip operation. Watching her decline has been truly awful, as anyone who has seen a loved one cruelly fade through dementia knows. I wrote this in 2016, when she was still able to enjoy a little bit of wine. It was meant to be a lighthearted piece about drinking the cheaper more commercial stuff, and trying to keep in touch with reality. I just couldn’t post it at the time. Now, I see it as a fond memory of how an average bottle can become quite special when it creates a connection with someone you love.
I’ve done it again. I’ve arrived at my mum’s house without wine. A staggering oversight for a wine merchant, you might think. But I’ve trekked from West to South East London by train and it’s a 15 minute hike from the nearest station. Today, I just couldn’t face lugging a bottle along with my overnight stuff and thought perhaps we could do without. Take advantage of an essential night off the booze. I was wrong.
My mum may be a little confused as to who I am when I arrive – she has Alzheimer’s – but once she’s established that I am related and am here to have dinner with her, she makes a sign with her hand as if she is holding a wine glass. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree…
When I confess that I haven’t brought a bottle to go with dinner, she looks a bit crestfallen. “Would you like me to get some?” “Yes please!” she says, enthusiastically. She’s obviously having a good day. She offers to pay and I ask for a tenner – “buy two!” she adds. She’s still on 1980s prices.
So off I trot off to the local offie as walking to Oddbins in Blackheath Village will take too long. A bottle shop has been on this site since I was a kid and in recent years, became pretty dismal. Perched on the edge of what used to be Ferrier estate (and now glossily rebranded as “Kidbrook Village”) it always looked gloomy behind its caged windows.
But now someone’s having a go at brightening it up and increasing the wine offering. It’s an altar to the big, safe brands: entry-level McGuigan, Gallo, Barefoot – not wines I really want to waste my alcohol units on. On the other hand, I tell myself, it’s good to drink these now and again, so I can keep a handle on what wines most people drink and not disappear up my own wine-geek arse. And I do rather enjoy the challenge of picking out a wine that we might both enjoy.
I scout around the offie and, under the strip lights gathering a bit of dust, I spy a Yalumba Y Series Shiraz Viognier 2013. I worry it’s been sitting under the lights for a while and that it’s getting a bit old. My hand flirts with a more pristine Torres Sangre de Toro (that little plastic bull!), but I decide to go with my first choice.
Now, I don’t know how much Viognier is added to this Shiraz-dominated blend (annoyingly, an online search reveals nothing) but there’s enough to give it a whiff of florality. In my mouth though, it’s licorice a-go-go. The juicy fruits are a tad cooked but not unpleasantly so. It is balanced with a reasonable finish and makes a decent drop with which to wash down a simple bacon and veg pasta dish. Job done.
More importantly, my mum (who has a limited sense of smell) likes it and says so. She drinks very little – it’s the ritual she enjoys. I’ve drunk a generous glass of it, I don’t have a burning desire to crack into the rest of the bottle. I leave the rest for my sister to have with my mum later in the week. I’ve since seen several bottles of this appear in the house over the course of a few months. Tonight, I try the 2014. It feels a bit neutered compared to the earlier bottle I had, and hangs around my mid-palate before petering out. Is it inferior to the 2013? Or is it my memory of the latter – at my relief at finding something I consider drinkable? I’m not sure. But hey – I’ve not brought any wine myself (again), the Yalumba Y Series Shiraz Viognier is there, it’s drinkable and you know what? It’ll do just fine.
They say that good things come to those that wait.
I’m not just talking about the embarrassingly long time it has taken me to write this piece on port (I went out to Portugal courtesy of Quinta do Noval last September). But also that, as a Joanna-come-lately to the wine trade, I finally clapped eyes on the breathtaking slopes and terraces of the Douro Valley. And had my first experience of treading grapes.
At wine school I was told it was hard work. But, by the time I climb into a lagar (a granite vat) of touriga nacional grapes, much of the treading has already done by a regular team (the warmth of the pulp at one end suggests that fermentation has already started) and it’s all pretty easy. The squishing and bursting of the grapes underfoot feels extremely satisfying, if a little addictive. I have quite the pouty bottom lip when we’re told treading needs to stop for fear of extracting to much colour and tannin from the grapes.
This traditional way of crushing grapes for port has, by and large, been mechanised – especially at the cheaper end of the market. Don’t fool yourself that anyone’s feet have been near your £10 bottle picked up at the supermarket. However, many producers do still carry on the tradition for their ‘dated’ ports like vintage, late bottled vintage (LBV) and the best tawnies. Quinta do Noval is no exception, and only resorts to mechanics for its finer ports – to punch down overnight the mass of grape skins, seeds and stems that rise to the top to that they keep in contact with the liquid beneath.
The trodden grapes will spend a few days in their lagar. That morning, we’d seen a vat of grapes that had been stomped three days beforehand, with little bubbles of CO2 forming under the cap. The juice would be separated from its cap the following day and pumped out into a large barrel called a pipa. En route it would pass through a small trough where grape spirit would be added to stop any more fermentation.
On average, the port wine stays in its pipa for up to nine months the following year, but it depends on the quantity of the harvest and the amount of wine made. Then all the young wines are moved downhill in tankers to an acclimatised cellar and blending room carved into the hillside, where decisions will be made on their destiny.
Like all port houses, Quinta do Noval used to ship its wines down river to the cooler Vila Nova de Gaia, which lies across the river from Porto, but wanted to minimise the amount of travelling and upset for the young wines. It claims to be the first port house to build a cellar that was protected from the punishing Douro heat. (Bottling is the only process done away from the quinta, on flat land in Alijo above the Douro hills.)
Inside the cellar lies a hall where barrel upon barrel of tawny port – dating back to 1937 – lies sleeping. Tawnies spend a lot longer in cask than other dated ports, and their slow exposure to oxygen results in figgy, caramel tones. The very best is a colheita (pronounced col-yay-ta) from a single harvest. In other words, the tawny version of a vintage port. It’s a style at which Quinta do Noval excels.
Our little group of wine writers spends a few moments contemplating the deliciousness inside those casks. Our prayers are answered when, that day we have the superbly silky Colheita 2000 after lunch – a little slice of heaven. Then, prior to grape treading, the Colheita 1937, which showed such vitality for a 79-year-old wine and had years ahead of it. I’ll be honest though, from all the Quinta do Noval ports we tasted on the trip, it was the Colheita 2000 which stole my heart. It isn’t just good things that come to those who wait. Great things come, too.
My fears of a future where the windows of wine shops will have to be covered up, and all wine labels utilitarian, may not seem so outlandish after all.
Much has already been written about whether the science behind the guidelines stacks up. There are allegations, too, of political motivations, and plenty of breast-beating from oenophiles about the cultural significance of wine. (I’m writing this in Santa Barbara, a US city where wine plays a big role in the local economy, drawing in tourists like me.)
But as a trade professional and as a consumer I am torn.
On the one hand, I get angry that the mainstream media tends to treat wine simply as booze. No one drinks it for pleasure. They self-medicate with it, to get over the stresses of the day. It could be neat Vodka. It could be Cloudy Bay. It’s all the same. Booze. Everyone’s an alcoholic. Wine is the devil.
On the other hand, I get irritated that going out and getting smashed still seems to be a badge of honour for so many Brits, from all walks of life. Men well into their 30s (and beyond) boasting about their endeavours “I was SOOOO drunk”. The embarrassment of that picture of sprawling Manchester revellers on New Year’s Eve being shared around the world. Non-drinkers feeling castigated. Wine is getting divorced from food (“I want a red wine I can drink on its own,” is a common request) and so smoother, riper, higher ABV wines are becoming the norm.
As a retailer, I’m pissed off at the punitive rate of UK duty charged on wine. Yet, the fixation on cheap wine (deals, bargains, offers) by newspapers and TV critics seem to underpin a supermarket-led culture of “drink more for less”. I have a few customers who say they can’t afford to buy from me everyday. Newsflash: I’d be worried about a customer who bought wine from me everyday.
I rail against Stoptober and Dry January because they don’t teach you anything about controlling your intake of alcohol on a permanent basis. But I do believe in alcohol-free days. At least two, together. For life. Yes, it’s hard to do that week in week out. And sometimes I don’t manage it. Like this week, when I am on holiday in wine country.
I’ve always taken headlines about the health benefits of wine with a pinch of salt. My recent favourite was the one how drinking a glass of red wine had the same benefits as an hour in the gym. Where’s my six-pack? (It was actually about the benefits of resveratrol on the heart.) And I certainly don’t dismiss links between cancer and wine. But to take this in isolation and not look at other factors such as overall lifestyle, genetics and age seems odd. Isn’t cancer a risk of living?
What’s missing in the dialogue around wine – both in the supposed benefits and the risks – is the concept of pleasure. I drink wine because it tastes nice, not to get a buzz. Sharing a bottle or two with friends is fun. Pairing delicious wines (i.e. more than one glass) with food is a highly enjoyable activity. Discovering new grapes and wine regions is fascinating. Tasting how wine develops over the years is enlightening. I could go on, but my point is this: is our purpose in life to live as long as we can? Or is it to actually LIVE?
The guidelines I try to follow are simple:
Don’t drink every day (except on holiday, obvs)
Try to have at last two consecutive days off wine
Don’t drink without food – even if it is only crisps, nuts and olives – or water
Treat wine with respect, choose quality over quantity
I believe I can sustain a business if my customers take this approach too. Drink less, but better.
The Marlborough winemaker was responsible for my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc crush back in the day, when I would pile my Majestic trolley high with Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. When I would smugly inform my passé Oyster Bay-guzzling friends that the winemaker had moved on.
He was also, it turns out, partly responsible for my utter contempt for the tropical fruit-scented gloop that became the dominant style for a while.
At a dinner and tasting at The Merchant’s Tavern London, he owned up to his role in helping make Marlborough Savvy so OTT.
“What made Marlborough [Sauvingon] famous was its grassy herbaceousness,” he said, showing us how he (like many other winemakers) had now reined it back in.
These days Brent, who heads up Marisco, is mainly known in the UK for high street favourite The Ned Sauvignon Blanc, though there are wines under the same label made from other varieties.
We tasted of our way through The Ned range and another Marisco label, The King Series. However, I was there to for The Craft Series, his recently launched super-premium label.
Brent described Marisco as “like having a boutique winery on a commercial scale” and The Craft Series, as the name rather obviously suggests, are wines made with a more artisan, hands-on approach, in limited quantities and a much higher price tag.
The Craft Series Pride & Glory 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, which is aged 500L French oak barrels, and spends part of its maturation on Chardonnay lees, was my pick of the bunch for its texture and complexity.
The Exemplar 2012 Viognier had an enticing nose of freesias and a soft mouthfeel. But it lacked zip, as Vognier so often can. Brent told me I’d see a difference in the 2013 – but that has yet to be shipped to the UK.
Both can be bought via Majestic at £30 a bottle, or £25 if you buy more than two. Anyway, at £25, I think Pride & Glory 2011 is worth it. I’d be less enthusiastic if I’d paid that for The Exemplar 2012.
The third wine in The Craft Series is The Journey Pinot Noir made from different parcels of specific clones, on specific soils, with a specific exposure.
“It is all about bunch architecture and canopy management” explained Brent (thankfully stopping short of the “made in the vineyard” schtick). The 2013 we tried was very much a babe, bursting with primary soft raspberry aromas plus some floral, spicy and tar notes too.
Then Brent dropped the bombshell. Its RRP is £50.
“It’s expensive to make,” he explained. Only 150 cases exist (and none yet in the UK, it seems). But with so many fantastic New Zealand Pinot Noirs occupying the £25 to £45 price range, this did leave me a bit stunned.
Why do winemakers who are so strong and successful in the low to mid range want to get a slice of fine wine action? Is it because there’s a demand? Or because they want to prove the are still artisans at heart (like supermarket stalwart Neil McGuigan, who last year launched a £100 wine called The Philosophy)? Or is it because everyone else seems to be pumping out premium Pinots?
“Brent doesn’t do things to copy others – the ethos behind these wines is to celebrate the Pinot Noir in a vintage that is exceptional – and hence we only release when we feel it is ready. Why can’t there be £50 Pinot Noir from Marlborough? Marlborough is producing fabulous Pinot Noir that should be celebrated,” Siobhan Wilson, Marisco’s Sales and Marketing Manager, told me in a later email exchange.
Well, I didn’t say there shouldn’t be a Marlborough Pinot Noir with a £50 price tag. Seresin’s top Pinot Noir, Sun & Moon, for example, retails for around £53-55, and it is not something I’ve questioned. But Seresin leads you there with a series of delicious Marlborough Pinot Noirs in the £20-40 bracket. The leap from Marisco’s decent The King’s Wrath Pinot Noir (c. £18) up to The Journey feels aspirational. It was good. It just didn’t thrill.
You could argue that it’s never done Penfolds any harm. But don’t most people choose Penfolds because of Grange, the iconic wine on which they’ve built their global reputation? Maybe in 60 years hence, it’ll be the same for Marisco. And maybe I am letting my prejudice as an independent wine merchant, who champions smaller-scale producers, cloud my view.
” We have an outstanding winemaking team with Brent at the helm – and with their experience and passion for wine it was only a matter of time for us to launch a super premium range that would speak to the artisan craft of winemaking,” added Siobhan. “It is not about filling a gap [in the portfolio]– it is about wines that developed in certain vintages where Brent saw something unique and exceptional – and so thought “this wine needs to be nurtured and crafted” .
“Yes we want our customers to ‘move up the ladder’ but also we want to introduce new customers to Marisco Vineyards – and show what our property and winemaking can do.
“Our key retailers are loving it and jumping at the bit to range these wines.”
In a recent episode of the BBC’s Food & Drink, chef and presenter Tom Kerridge visits The Ginger Pig in London’s Borough Market and picks up a 500g of fillet steak. Not a cheap cut, I think you’ll agree.
Later, he cooks two large tuna steaks. No mention is made of how much they cost. No apologies either for using what many people would see as luxury items.
Yet when it comes to the wine matches, much is made of the price. We know first that both are under a tenner. Then we find out that the Jacob’s Creek Pinot Noir is £7.50 and the Casillero de Diabolo Carmenère is “seven or eight pounds, something like that”. If the cost of the food doesn’t matter, why is the price of the wine so important?
Now, I’m not having a pop at the hugely talented and fabulous Joe Wadsack, who is clearly working to a brief set by the programme’s editorial team.
What I am having a pop at is the utter hypocrisy mainstream media outlets (including some print) have with how much wine costs, when that is rarely extended to any of the ingredients they use to make the accompanying dishes.
I’m also having a pop at programmes which seem to always apologise if a wine they feature hits the dizzying heights of £10.
An episode of another food and wine show, Saturday Kitchen (the BBC again) prompted one fellow independent merchant to tweet this:
According to a discussion on Facebook, research suggests that a significant amount of viewers might stop watching if the wine was deemed too expensive. Then there’s the dreaded flood of complaints that programme makers brace themselves for. To me, that seems like an editorial policy based on fear. If producers don’t make a stand and try to change the dialogue, it will be forever thus.
I’m not suggesting dropping the cheaper wines at all. But why not have experts to choose a style of wine and then give three recommendations in different price ranges as examples? One under £8, one under £14 and one under £20. If TV chefs can say “buy the best chicken you can afford” why can’t the same be said for wine? Give people choices. Don’t assume they are all one lumpen mass hell-bent on searching out supermarket wine deals for £5.99 or under.
Another thing: when wines are featured from retailers who are only/also online, give the real price per bottle. Not the price you only get if you buy a mixed case of 12. Or make it clear what this price is based on, and that you have to pay for delivery for one bottle and maybe even for a case. Otherwise it’s misleading. (That goes for newspapers and their magazines too.)
Yes, I am a retailer and you could argue that I have an agenda. But continually reinforcing the idea that it’s extravagant to spend much more than £6 or so on a bottle is not good for the wine industry and its future in the UK, which impacts all consumers, not just me.
And, before you scream “a lot of people can’t afford to spend £8 or more on wine” I’ll say “then don’t feature dishes using expensive cuts like fillet of beef and costly slabs of tuna”. Level the playing field and make everything about how to eat and drink within a set budget.
One final thought: wouldn’t it be nice if all those furious complainers instead wrote to their MPs, asking them to lobby for a reduction in the ridiculous duty we pay on wine in the UK? Then we could ALL enjoy better wine.
You’ve got to hand it to Chablis. A name even those who claim to know nothing about wine can trot out when asked what they like.
But with this brand familiarity comes a huge amount of ignorance. I’m not talking about people who say they hate Chardonnay but love Chablis.
I’m talking about me.
Before my recent visit to Chablis, about the only thing I really knew was the grape, location and soil. The taste? Lean and steely, of course. The rather lush one I stock in my shop had to be an anomaly.
Now, after tasting my way though 100+ Chablis over three days, I may not be a Jedi Master, but I can now feel the force.
Here’s how you can too…
1. Chablis is not just one style. There’s lean and steely, of course. But there’s also fleshy, floral, flinty, smoky, herbal, honeyed, powerful. Over lunch at Jean Durup Père et Fils, Jean-Paul Durup talks about 14 different styles of Chablis and how for every wine lover “there is one that you will appreciate.”
Much of this diversity has to do with where in Chablis the grapes come from, but also decisions by the winemakers such as when to pick the grapes and how the wine will be matured (and how mature it is when you drink it). For example, Domaine Jean Dauvissat Père e Fils choose to pick their grapes later than some others. Their Chablis 2012 feels round and fruity as a result. And they put their Premier Cru L’Homme Mort in oak because, as Fabien Dauvissat explains on our visit, clients wanted an oaked Chablis and he felt wine from this climat could handle it.
Chez Domaine Dauvissant Pere & Fils
2. Ah, climat. It’s a Burgundy thing. In essence, these are single vineyard sites, each with a specific combination of geology and climate that winemakers believe translate into a particular style of Chablis. There are 47 climats in Chablis – 40 have Premier Cru status and seven have Grand Cru. If you want to memorise Chablis Premier Cru, knock yourself out here . However, if you can talk about the flinty precision of Montée de Tonnerre, the diversity of Fourchaume and the richness of Mont de Milieu, you’ll sound like you might know a thing or two. Chuck in L’Homme Mort for novelty factor (FYI some of the best wines we tasted came from this climat).
As for Chablis Grand Cru, Les Clos and Les Preuses are good ones to name check when talking about ageing potential. And Les Grenouilles because the wines from here are approachable from a younger age than some of the other esteemed climats. And, you know, calling a one of the most revered vineyards in the region “The Frogs” is quite funny. Isn’t it?
A Grand Cru view
3. Chablis has four levels of wine: Petit Chablis, Chablis (ie village-level Chablis), Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru. The rest of Burgundy only has three. “Chablis is a little island in Burgundy,” says Xavier Ritton of La Chablisienne, a wine cooperative of 23 families. Not everyone sees the point of having Petit Chablis AND village-level Chablis. One of our party, originally from France, is quite clear on his disdain for the former. I can’t say any stood out during our trip. But then why would they when we were tasting Premier and Grand Cru as well?
Xavier Ritton opens a few bottles at La Chablisienne
4. Only Chardonnay grown on a slope containing the hallowed Kimmerdigian soil (limestone containing fossils of small oysters) can be called Chablis. Otherwise, it’s just good old Chardonnay. The exception is Petit Chablis, which comes from vines growing in Portlandian soil mainly on the plateaux of the slopes in Chablis. At the beginning of the trip, we stand looking at the Grand Cru slope. There’s a copse of trees and above that, vines of grapes for Petit Chablis. The juxtaposition between highest and lowest levels of Chablis is startling.
The all-important Kimmeridgian soil
5. Plain old Chablis may never rise to the magnificence of a Grand Cru, like the succulent, slightly savoury Valmur 2010 we taste at Domaine Vocoret et Fils. But you can find some pretty decent wine in this category.
Chablis AC covers 20 villages and hamlets along the Serein valley on slopes exposed to the north and east. Two we taste – La Chablisienne’s fleshy Les Vénérables Vielle Vignes 2010 and Durup’s chiselled, peppery La Marche de Roi 2013 – show how village-level Chablis can be impressive in different ways. How can you tell the good from the ordinary? Firstly, don’t buy on price alone. Mug up on your producers. And (you guessed it) seek the advice of an independent wine merchant…
Independent wine shop in Chablis
6. There’s a left bank and a right bank. All the Chablis Grand Cru are on one south west-facing slope on the right bank of the Serein river. Slopes matter. Not just the direction but the elevation. The Bourgogne Wine Board (BIVB) give us a handy relief map to try to put the climats and elevations into context.
The left and right banks of Chablis with the Grand Crus in orange
7. Organic and biodynamic viticulture doesn’t appear to be widely practiced in Chablis. Apparently, things are changing, though we get shoulder shrugs from some producers when we ask. At La Chablisienne, we spot two bottles with the word “bio” written on them – the French term for organic produce. And Fabien Dauvissant, one of the new generation of winemakers in Chablis, talks about sustainability and limited intervention. Most vineyards are harvested by machine, not by hand, even parts of the Grand Cru climats. If this if for economic reasons, I’d hate to think how much some of the wines would cost if they were handpicked.
Fabien Dauvissat talks sustainable practices and oaking
8. Chablis is one of the most food-versatile wines known to man. How do I know? Because finally, I found a great match for stinky, highly-flavoured Epoisses cheese. Young, fleshy rounder styles worked best. According to Jean-Paul Durup, his ripe, fruity Château de Maligny Chablis Vielles Vignes 2013 is “good with foie gras” and Chinese food. It’s also rather good with huge slabs of country paté, rilletes and blue cheese, as we discover during lunch in the modest grandeur of the dining hall at the actual Château de Maligny.
Lunch is served at the Château de Maligny
9. You can find sparkling wine being produced in Chablis. While once it bore the name of Chablis Mousseaux, this is now strictly interdit (not even the 100% Chardonnay one). Simonnet-Febvre may now make all their Crémant de Bourgogne in a new winery outside town. But they mature and disgorge it slap bang on the centre. We have fun with the old-style riddling machines and watch some bottles being disgorged. After all that Chablis, tasting sparkling wines is VERY welcome.
Sparkling Chablis? Those were the days
10. You can never eat too many gougères, those heavenly cheesy puffs that appear everywhere during our trip…
There’s lots I’ve left out of course. But I did leave with a copy of Rosemary George’s book The Wines of Chablis And The Grand Auxerrois. She points out that many of us are exposed to Chablis when it is going through a”sulky adolescent phase” when it is 18 months to two years old “just when it can seem inharmonious, awkward and closed.” With a few years bottle age “it will more than amply reward your patience”.
Now I know where I’ve been going wrong all this time.
With the right producer and the right amount of time, Chablis rocks.
It’s 10.30am and, faced with an iconic wine that I may never get the chance to taste again, do I spit or swallow?
The wine in question is Henschke Hill of Grace 1994, currently retailing at £458.90 at London’s Hedonism. (Hurry, they’ve only the one bottle!)
The concentrated black fruit flavours you’d normally associate with a South Australian Shiraz have faded into the background to leave a gamey, savoury quality reminiscent of tobacco, tea and desiccated berries. Compared with the 1994 Henschke Mount Edelstone, from Shiraz grapes grown in another part of the Eden Valley, it’s feeling a bit geriatric.
But, and this is a big but, the vines on which the grapes for Hill of Grace grow were originally planted around the 1860s. They have never been affected by phylloxera, the teeny root-munching bugs that decimated vineyards throughout the world (and still remain a danger) but have left South Australia untouched so far. And its age, suggests winemaker Stephen Henschke, could account for why it has developed faster than the Mount Edelstone, made from vines planted at the beginning of the 1900s. The whippersnapper.
“As far as we know, Hill of Grace is the oldest single vineyard wine in Australia,” explains Stephen.
“The material is very healthy because it’s never seen a rootstock,” adds viticulturalist Prue Henschke (and Stephen’s wife) referring to the fact that phylloxera-affected areas now use vines grafted onto resistant American roots. Henschke propogate new vines from the original material.
I’m tasting these wines at a masterclass with Stephen and Prue, who talk us through the history of the estate from Silesian settlers, following in the family footsteps (Stephen is the fifth generation), the advantages of using the Scott Henry Trellising system on older vines, putting premium wines under screwcaps and how they’ve adopted organic and biodynamic practices.
In front of us are five different vintages of both Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone: 1994, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 (Hill of Grace), 2010 (Mount Edelstone)
“It’s always a bit of fun to compare old vineyards,” says Stephen, as the rest of us pore over our glasses in a silent, serious reverence. “Hill of Grace is deeper, darker and more broody. It has an exotic quality to it.”
Mount Edelstone definitely has a more obvious charm about it. And is a comparative snip to the Hill of Grace. My favourites are the 1994, layers of prunes, cassis, cedar, vanilla and dark chocolate with an airy freshness about it; the 2002 with its menthol, dried herbs and peppery aspect mixed, fragrant fruits and tongue-gliding texture (15% ABV but doesn’t feel it); and the 2010, the latest release, which already has well-integrated tannins and superb balance. I don’t think it would be a wine crime to drink it now. It might be a shame though.
Hill of Grace has the intrigue. What is that taste in the 2004? That’s it – sumac! Tangy middle eastern spicing mixed with bitter chocolate and tobacco leaves. What am I picking up in the silky opulence of the 2002? Allspice! Plus those lovely layers of chocolate and, yes, tobacco plus… dried grass. I just wish I could spend a bit more time unlocking what’s in the glass.
“In your lifetime, there’ll be one vintage that stands out,” says Stephen, of the 2002 and its long, slow ripening period.
And that’s where I take a sneaky sip. It might be the only chance I have to taste the wine in my lifetime.
Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone wines are not made in huge volumes, and are highly sought after. Your best bet is to contact Great Western Wine, the retail arm of importers Enotria, who invited me to the tasting.