What to match with a carbonara? Champers perhaps…

LAST WEEK MY fellow blogger Simoney Girard taught the readers of Ella Mag how to cook a generally kick-ass spaghetti carbonara. I’ve not tried it, but judging by the confections she’s brought into the office over the years I’d say chances are good it is more heartwarming than meeting your first-born child for the first time.

Not that I’ve ever had kids or anything like that (that would require having a girlfriend, of course).

Anyway. Back to this carbonara.

I’m told this dish is nothing like the creamy carbonaras we know in the UK. No. This was something more genuine, a traditional version that can be traced back to Napoli, Italy. And before you tell me there is no way a woman named Simoney could possibly be from Napoli, let me tell you you’re right – she got the recipe from her Neapolitan friend.

So there. Except for this recipe mushrooms and pine nuts have been added to suit Ms Girard’s preference. So perhaps it’s not as traditional as I have claimed. But let’s not let that detail get in the way of greatness.

Containing salty pancetta, onion, egg, a hint of garlic, some parsley and either parmesan or pecorino, there are some great flavours working here. This isn’t a deep, brooding, beefy tomato sauce, but it’s rich in that it has the pancetta and the cheese and is light because no single element overpowers it. Therefore, this doesn’t need a wine whose sole purpose is to blast through strong flavours with tannins that could knock out a buzzard.

What comes to mind here is a white or red wine that travels down the middle of the road, having enough heft to take on the pancetta and cheese as well as some decent acidity to knock through the flavours, but not too much.

Champagne

Believe it or not, the acidity and heft of Champagne (or another decent sparkling wine, for that matter) could make a great match for this meal. With pancetta, garlic and cheese all in here, you need something that will cut through those flavours and not fall apart in the process.

Oudinot Vintage 2004 Champagne (Marks & Spencer, £29)
I recently cracked one of these for a friend’s birthday and found it to have great structure. Yeasty, brioche nose, apples and citrus aromas and flavours. This is rich and biscuity, making it a great bargain for vintage bubbly and maybe even a good match for carbonara.

Oudinot Rosé Medium Dry non-vintage (Marks & Spencer, £25)
Why not go for a rosé? This will have brioche, peaches and cream but in a slightly sweeter style than the vintage above.

If you want Champagne on a budget, consider Waitrose Brut Non-vintage Champagne, (Waitrose, £18.99)

White wines

I could recommend some Italian whites, such as a dry, acidic pinot grigio, but I’m not going to. Why? Because I think a something else would work well here. You want something with acidity to stand up to all the ingredients and a good riesling will do that.

Petaluma Riesling 2011 Hanlin Hill, Clare Valley, Australia (Waitrose, £10.44)
Dry, acidic and having notes of citrus and lime, this is a solid riesling with enough fruit character to be enjoyable and the backbone to handle a carbonara.

Red wines

Château de Chénas 2009 Moulin-à-Vent, Beaujolais, Burgundy, France (Waitrose, £10.44)
The great thing about Beaujolais is that it isn’t a heavy wine, so when you need to pair a red with something more delicate like fish it can make a great choice. Fruity and acidic, this can stand up to the sweet and salty flavours of black cod. With Beaujolais you want to choose something from at least the ‘villages’ level, but preferably from the ‘cru’ level like Moulin-a-Vent.

This blog also appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

Photo: Gameanna

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Are wine critics blurring ethical boundaries?

ASK ANYONE WHO is trained as a journalist about professional ethics and you will almost certainly find yourself in a lengthy conversation on the topic. In my experience this is particularly the case if the journalist comes from North America, where ethical guidelines are beaten into budding reporters the moment they first set foot in journalism school.

It is for this reason the recent focus on some wine critics’ activities surrounding tasting events gives me cause for concern. This week James Suckling has been scrutinised for possibly taking payment to taste wines for the Quebec wine board, Société des alcools du Québec. And in late 2011 the wine press was stirred into a frenzy over allegations involving Pancho Campo MW charging Spanish wineries for access to The Wine Advocate’s review Jay Miller, among other things.

Whether or not any genuinely unethical behaviour took place is still to be determined. It might not have happened at all, it could all have been an honest misunderstanding or perhaps the ethical boundaries were so blurred no one thought twice about it. Or, perhaps, it was indeed unethical and those involved thought they could get away with it. It is not for me to draw conclusions without knowing all of the facts.

Nevertheless, this is an issue that clearly needs to be discussed in the wine trade. From a journalist’s point of view, editorial independence is the bedrock of the profession. Without it, we have no credibility.

Being paid to do a job, such as writing reviews for a magazine, is one thing, but to be paid to review wine for an organisation that either produces the wine or sells it is another matter altogether. Such a relationship could lead to biased reviews and, given the value of the wine market, any bouts of impropriety would be damaging to those working in wine journalism.

It is one thing to receive samples from wineries, distributors and retailers for the purpose of reviewing (as is the case for music and film reviewers), but it is another thing to be given freebies and kickbacks that could sway a critic’s opinion.

If the allegations are true, it is a sign the wine press needs to take a long look at itself and consider developing a code of ethics for writers to abide by. This would be no small feat. But if achieved, it would go a long way to setting standards for everyone to follow.

Photo: Patou

Italian reds. Two for drinking, one for cooking

This blog originally appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

LET’S SAY YOU want to cook a lasagne. In itself it’s a fairly big feat; layer upon layer of pasta, meat, sauce and other ingredients require careful attention in order show their best in the final product.

But what to drink with it? And what kind of wine should go in it?

Assuming this is going to be a rich, meaty lasagne with a savoury tomato sauce (as opposed to a creamy, vegetable-based version that might demand a white wine), not just any old bottle will suffice. This calls for something Italian.

If the theory goes that a region’s cuisine developed hand-in-hand with its wine, we could then assume Italian food goes best with Italian wine. I know this rule is not always ironclad, but for the sake of fun, let’s just say it is.

Any number of wines could be selected to go with a rich, meaty lasagne. Italy’s varied geography gives it some of the best vine-growing conditions in the world. It is because of this that viticulture and wine production exists in nearly every region running up from Sicily and Puglia all the way to the mountainous border region with Switzerland, thanks to steep slopes, sunshine and a temperate climate.

For this week’s blog I have opted for two wines plus a wildcard. My two main recommendations are made from the barbera and sangiovese grapes: Barbera d’Asti and Chianti. I will reveal the wildcard in a moment.

Barbera is mainly produced in the Piemonte region famous for Barolo and Barbaresco. It used to be that barbera was considered a ‘common’ grape and, as a result, it garnered little respect from wine drinkers. But these days it is Piemonte’s second-best grape after nebbiolo (which goes into Barolo and Barbaresco) and produces wines that are ready to drink at a younger age and have big, bold flavours that consumers seek.

As a wine, barberas are rich with cherry and plum notes that go nicely with dishes that have strong flavours and seasonings.

Chianti, meanwhile, is no stranger to most dinner tables and might be one of the most famous Italian wines. Produced in the region stretching between Florence and Siena, Chianti is made of a blend of sangiovese, trebbiano and canaiolo nero, although each blend is predominantly made up of sangiovese, if not entirely.

This wine has different quality levels, ranging from basic Chianti, the cheapest of the bunch. The finest of them all is Chianti Classico, easily identified by a label with a cockerel motif on it, but this is also the most expensive example because it is considered one of Italy’s finest wines.

Chianti also consists of other subzones: Chianti Rufina, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Fioerntini, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Aretini and Chianti Montalbiano. However, these examples might be difficult to find in the average British retailer, although M&S stands out as having a good range

The wildcard here is primitivo. One of the predominant grapes of Puglia in the south, this is a wine that can produce high alcohol levels (15% or more sometimes) because of the hot climate where it grows and its tendency to ripen unevenly. But these wines will have flavours of cherries, leather and liquorice with lots of fresh acidity. This could be a good wine to pour into your lasagne recipe given its strong flavours and aromas. If it is not available at your retailer, consider a dry zinfandel from California, since it is in fact genetically identical to primitivo.

Wines to try

Barbera

Olim Bauda Barbera d’Asti DOCG “La Villa” 2008 (£7.87, Marks &Spencer)
Spicy like barbera ought to be, fresh and full of classic plum and cherry flavours.

Walter Massa, Sentieri Barbera 2010 Colli Tortonesi, Piemonte, Italy. (£11.39, Waitrose)
Rich with the typical plums and cherries as well as a herbal aroma. Good acidity to cut through rich, fatty foods.

Vinchio Vaglio, I Tre Vescovi 2009 Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Piemonte, Italy (£8.99, Waitrose)
This is a wine I’ve written about before and earns my approval for offering good value for money. Needs a few minutes of air to let the fruit flavours come alive.

Chianti

Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico 2008, (£14.24, Waitrose Wine Direct, also available at Tesco and various retailers)
Savoury, full of plums but not overpowering,this is a bargain for Chianti Classico and can be found for less than £10 when on offer (recently at Co-op this was £9.99). This may be a better match for lasagne than barbera if you prefer your wines more restrained.

Primitivo

Ogio Primitivo 2010, Puglia, Italy (£4.99, Tesco Wine by the case)
Very affordable, rich, spicy, blackberries and cherries. Medium-bodied and likely a good candidate for pouring into a sauce or a cheeky drink before dinner.

Photo: piyato

WSET Day One – an education in wine

This week I finally started the WSET Level 2 Award in Wine and Spirits. At long last, I’ve decided I can finally afford the course, in terms of both time and money, now that I am no longer studying financial planning exams for my day job.

It’s always a weird experience when I first walk into a classroom full of fresh faces I’ve never seen before. From primary school all the way up through university and beyond, it’s always been both intimidating and exciting to start a new challenge and meet new people – and hopefully make new friends.

Admittedly, much of the first class covered things I already knew about wine, but on the flip side I learned quite a few things I hadn’t been taught before – ranging from the way units of alcohol are coloured to how a wine’s colour is assessed and categorised – so it was a learning experience overall.

Now, to the bit everyone cares about – wine. We tasted three different wines on the first day, one red, one white and one a rosé moscato.

We started with the white wine, a medium-bodied dry verdejo that was loaded with green apples, peach and honeydew melon on the nose. It was high in acidity and had tart green fruits on the palate, mainly gooseberry, more green apple, as well as citrus fruits and floral flavours.

This was the RC de Vinos Lime Leaf Verdejo 2010 (Laithwaite’s, £6.99). It’s a good wine but it left me wanting more. I could see myself drinking this on a hot, sunny day out on the patio, but I probably wouldn’t want to buy it in large quantities. For the price, however, this is good value for money and does everything a fresh, crisp wine ought to.

Next up was a malbec (also known as cot) from Cahors, France. The L’ombre due Cedre Malbec 2008 (Laithwaite’s, £9.99), from Pascal and Jean-Marc Verhaeghe, has been billed as an award-winning wine but seemed to be lacking somewhere.

The wine was clear and bright, showing a medium purple robe. It had blackberries, black cherries, prunes and figs on the nose, along with cloves, cinnamon and just a touch of vanilla to tell us there has been an oak treatment of some sort in this wine.

However, on the palate this wine just didn’t deliver what I had hoped. It was fairly high in tannins – which never scares me off – as well as a lot of acidity. But the fruit and spices that were on the nose just seemed to be missing in the mouth, giving this wine a great big empty hole where all the flavour should have been.

This fruit might have needed some time in a decanter to reveal itself, although I wasn’t confident this was the case. It was an acceptable wine, and would suit anyone who liked high tannins and something that presented a challenge.

The third, and final, wine we drank was a moscato, the Giant Steps Nine Tails Moscato Rosé 2011 (Laithwaite’s £8.99).  This is a type of wine I wrote about not long ago when I covered wines to drink with chocolate. Showing a clear, pale salmon colour, this has a light fizz to it and notes of tropical fruit, strawberries, ripe peaches, lychee fruit and flowers on the nose. It’s medium-sweet and fairly acidic, low in alcohol at 5.5%, with decent length and a light, fruity feel in the mouth.

I personally found this one too sweet for my liking, but I can see how it could be appreciated as an aperitif on a hot, sunny day.

While my heart longs for more complex and interesting wines to taste on this course, I appreciate that it isn’t about wine snobbery and is instead designed so I am exposed to as many different styles and varietals as possible.

White wines best known to be red

This article originally appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

CONTINUING MY theme of looking at white wines (even though the majority of my cellar is dedicated to red wines), this week I want to discuss some great white wines that many people never knew existed.

Mention Rioja or Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the average wine consumer and they are more than likely to think of big, brooding red wines. You know the sort: bold, oaky, full of spice and bursting with the flavour of sunshine beating down on the rocky soil in which the grapevines grow.

Obviously these famous red wines make up the vast majority of the production in these regions, but for every yin there is a yang and, in this case, that is a white wine that can be characterised by profound power and complexity when done right.

White Rioja makes up just a small amount of the region’s annual production, somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent depending on whose statistics you read. This is too bad, because it is a great wine, albeit an acquired taste for wine drinkers who are more accustomed to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay or any of the other popular varietals.

Made from the viura grape (also known as macabeo), which is planted in much fewer numbers than, say, sauvignon or chardonnay, white rioja often displays oxidised flavours that often go against the preferred flavour of a white wine. That is to say it can taste of caramel and a nuttiness, which is most common in sherry.

However, the best white Riojas have a fresh flavour and a pleasant fruity quality to counteract that nutty edge. And because producers are now able to add sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to their blends, the wine will likely take on a more international flavour that is likely to attract more drinkers, even if it means it loses some of its traditional characteristics.

White Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) is an entirely different beast. CdP in general can be made from any combination of 13 different grape varieties, five of which are white. A producer may use just one or all six – depending on how ambitious they feel.

These white varieties are grenache blanc, roussanne, bourboulenc, clairette, picardan, and picpoul. None of these is necessarily a household name for the average wine drinker – much like the viura in white Rioja – although the grenache is probably the most abundant in world wine production.

Because winemakers have freedom to pick and choose white grapes make the final blend in their wines, a white CdP can be quite different from one producer to the next. Clairette may be the main grape in some wines because of its fresh acidity, whereas many producers believe the rousanne should be the main grape because of it tends to have more body and structure than the others.

White CdP is one that divides opinions. Wine collectors say they are short-lived and should be consumed within a couple of years of the vintage, while their producers say they can outlast their red counterparts in the cellar. But that is not the main dig. A lot of wine buffs think white CdP comes up a bit short, but the fact is when they are at their best they can be downright Burgundian and much like a grand cru Chablis.

These wines, full-bodied and lush with fruit, can be fabulous food pairings when done well. Unfortunately, they don’t come cheap. Any CdP selling for less than £15 is likely to be a dud unless it has been heavily discounted.

If your budget won’t stretch to £15 or more for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, go for the white Rioja. You can find the Spanish white for less than £10.

Wines to try:

White Rioja

Cune Barrel-Fermented Blanco 2009/11, Rioja, Spain (Waitrose, £9.01)
Selling for less than £10, this is affordable enough to be a weekday wine but will also go with your weekend dinner. Made in a rich, creamy style and not too overpowering with the fruit,it has notes of citrus on the palate and that nutty, smoky vanilla aroma this wine is famous for.

Rioja Blanco, Barrel Fermented 2009/2010 Marques de Caceres (Majestic, £9.99, Min six bottle order)
This has pear and citrus fruit flavours and the buttery, vanilla notes that come from being fermented in barrel. Made in a dry style, this goes well with food, particularly seafood.

White Cheateaneuf-du-Pape

Clos Saint Michel 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhône, France (Waitrose, £18.99)
Full-bodied, rich and fruity, this is a complex wine as CdPs tend to be. It will go well with food, particularly those from the South of France and the Mediterranean. While many white CdPs are mainly mixtures of roussanne and one or two other grapes, this one is a blend of grenache blanc, roussanne, clairette and bourboulenc.

Domaine des Saumades Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2008, Rhône, France (Berry Bros & Rudd, £23.45)
This wine has a backbone of equal measures of grenache blanc and clairette to make up 80 per cent of the wine, the remaining 20 per cent being mostly bourboulenc and small amount of roussanne. This has the typical notes of peaches and fruits in it for freshness, along with some nuttiness and a creamy quality. It would pair well with fish or cheese, particularly goat’s cheese.

Photo: Stoonn

Champagne redemption. Sort of.

Yesterday I wrote that a wine retailer had sent me the wrong vintage of Dom Perignon and seemed not to be overly concerned about it when I complained.

I was offered the opportunity for a refund for the bottles of 2003 – which were sent to me instead of the 2002 vintage – when I alerted them to the error, but little fuss was made beyond that.

A second phone call to the company garnered the apology and level of concern I had wanted all along. It also came with a promise to do whatever they can to make it right because, as they said, my order was “more valuable than most other customers.”

They offered to either take the Dom Perignon 2003 back and give me a full refund or discount the bottles by crediting my account with cash. In the end, I took the discount because sending the bottles back would have been inconvenient. I received a further £16.66 off each bottle, meaning the final price I paid for them was £49.80, a hefty discount on their £99.99 list price.

To put this in perspective, the best in-bond price for Dom Perignon 2003 through UK retailers on Wine-Searcher today is £73.50. It would be necessary to pay UK duty and VAT on top of that to get the final retail price.

Now, the one thing this retailer did not offer – and I just know Jack and Hugo from that old British comedy series Ffizz would be wrinkling their noses in disgust because of it – is to take back the 2003 and source bottles of 2002 to ensure I had received what they promised.

Unfortunately, it seems the nature of today’s market, which is all about pushing large volumes of goods out of a warehouse to the masses, has no space for such a personal service.

If you want that, you probably have to go offline.