Oh Mateus, it’s not enough for me: A tale of two new bottles

A FEW YEARS AGO I was searching for a thank-you gift for a friend of mine who did me a favour.

Me being me, I couldn’t give him a bottle of whisky and be done with it; I had to buy him a gag gift as well just to make him squirm for a little while.

Being a wine geek, he has deeply entrenched views on those cheap, branded wines sold in supermarkets to the masses. The mere mention of Piat d’Or is enough to send him into a rant about what those wines say about the people who buy them. Top tip: If he ever invites you over for dinner, you had better not bring him Piat d’Or.

So there I was in the local off licence looking for something to give my friend a coronary, surrounded by bottles of Blossom Hill, Gallo Turning Leaf, Barefoot, Echo Falls; basically I was in the middle of a motley crew of lowest-common-denominator grape-flavoured alcoholic beverages.

And then that bulbous brown bottle caught my eye.

Mateus Rosé. Hideous in appearance, revolting in flavour. Ah, Mateus, how could I have gone so long in life having forgotten you?

As expected, when I presented the bottle to my friend, feigning pride and gushing about how I wanted to show my appreciation, the look of shock and confusion on his face was obvious, even if he was trying to stifle it.

Drinking it later – after his pulse had settled – we could only muster a few sips before our gag reflexes kicked in. Nothing could save this horrible wine, we thought, and dumped it down the drain.

Luckily Mateus themselves saw room for improvement so they pulled out all the stops here, giving it…an improved bottle design and a screw cap.

Oh.

So what has happened? The firm has decided that it will now be available *only* with a screw cap in the UK (good for those moments when you find yourself in the middle of London Fields without a corkscrew or, if you’re the sort, brown-bagging it at 8:30am on Upper Street).

And now there is also a pink hue to the bottle instead of the traditional brown, a colour reminiscent of the 1970s and Sunday roasts accompanied with ghastly pink wine. Oh, and the motif on the label has been modernised as well – not that anyone ever knew or noticed what was.

This amazing curious news reminded me of Bollinger’s announcement last week that it had changed the shape of its 750ml bottle across almost its entire range to one with a narrower neck and a wider base. This was to make it behave more like a magnum and, therefore, give better cellaring potential for the contents. That, my friends, is the sort of thing I want to hear.

The upside of Bollinger’s decision to use a design that dates from 1846 is to slow down the oxygen exchange in the bottle is that not only does good things to an already great wine (yes that’s my bias coming out), but it is dead sexy as well. As though I didn’t already need a reason to buy it.

On tasting wine when you have a head cold

Blocked sinuses. Muted sense of taste and smell. My body dosed with those ‘all in one’ cold and flu tablets from Boots.

Not the building blocks of a successful competitive wine tasting event. This became apparent on the first wine of the evening, when what I thought was a sauvignon blanc of some persuasion was actually a riesling – from New Zealand. Through the art of blagging we gained points by getting the country, vintage and price correct.

However, the thought going through my mind at this moment was this: oh crap.

I say ‘oh crap’ because I was on the same team as the head honcho of the company hosting the event. Didn’t want to let him down. Didn’t want to look like…a failure.

Next wine. Something white, oaky, elegant and wonderful. Surely it’s a chardonnay, I thought. Surely this is…Burgundy? Someone said viura. I pretended not to hear. Don’t be daft, I thought.

Burgundy it was – a Domain Christophe Buisson Saint-Romain. Maximum points. Hurrah.

Third wine – another white – and I found myself being torn in two directions. First sniff and a taste – I’m thinking this is another chardonnay. Burgundy again? Couldn’t be. Someone said the compère described it as quirky, out of the ordinary. Well that ruled out our option for a premier cru.

By the process of elimination we took at stab at calling it a viognier. But it didn’t *smell* of viognier, I said. Another person tried to call it an albarino. An albarino? Oh dear. Consider all the oak and hint of butter in there, I snapped back. This *must* be a chardonnay, I said. But the team voted for a viognier, so we went with it – and failed.

Chardonnay it was. A Cloudy Bay chardonnay. Oh dear. Victory is slipping away…

Next, the reds. Mild success was had in correctly identifying a Domaine Coche Dury Bourgogne Pinot Noir, then a Stephen Aviron Morgon Cote de Py Beaujolais. And then there was the Peter Franus cabnernet sauvignon, correctly identified after very nearly thinking it might have been Australian, but for the lack of a eucalyptus aroma.

Nostrils letting me down again. Strategic questions posed to the experts on hand keeping us afloat.

Victory was nearly ours but slipped from our hands in the final round. We correctly identified the Chateau Cantermerle, but our guess for the vintage was off by four years. We settled for joint-second and a half-bottle of white Burgundy to take home.

I’ll confess: I’m a sucker for heavy bottles, but I still think we need more plastic

Nothing is more annoying than buying wine and noticing the bottle it’s in weighs more than a Range Rover driven by Johnny Vegas.

A heavy bottle is not only a pain to carry home because it weighs as much as a Norman church, but also because there’s a strong chance it will liberate itself from plastic bag you’re using to carry it.

And of course we know you can never take it to dinner with your hybrid car-driving, thrift store-shopping, vegetarian friends – because they’ll tut at your largesse.

It’s easy to be drawn into the myth those heavy bottles promote. I did just the same thing a few weeks ago when I acquired a bottle of Altair, the high-end Chilean wine. It comes in one of those massive bottles Jancis Robinson is trying to eradicate, yet the first time I held it, I swooned.

It was as though the glass had been chiseled out of diamonds. How could I not lust after it?

Perhaps the most extravagant, and therefore repulsive, wines is Mission Hill’s Oculus. Made by one of Canada’s biggest wineries, it comes in what might be the largest 750ml bottle I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a magnum. But no, it was just a 750ml bottle on steroids, probably made of kryptonite or the cornerstone from some old cathedral.

At CAD $80 a bottle, the price alone tells you it’s a high-end wine. So does the chunk of glass it’s in need to convey that fact? Let me just say this to any prospective buyers: Consider how much more fuel your car will need to burn when driving that behemoth home before you buy it.

I bring up this topic now for two reasons. First, I was walking to work the other day wondering why more manufacturers aren’t using plastic bottles for their cheaper and more cheerful wines. Second, when I was in New Zealand in February I noticed Yealands Estate, the massive wine producer in the Marlborough region, sells one or two bottles of its sauvignon blanc in a plastic bottle that looks, for the most part, like a glass wine bottle.

This issue has been discussed many times before, yet we don’t see much progress. The problem with a lot of wine sold in plastic bottles is they are packed in hideous containers that look like those used for cheap squash or white spirit.

But if someone would just put a good wine in a plastic bottle that looks good, I would buy it. And I would take them on picnics, put them in my checked baggage and carry them on my bike rack without worrying the bottle will shatter into a slurry of glass and wine on the first knock.

English fizz: The Apprentice made me cringe, but don’t be deterred from the wine

IN MY LATEST article for Ella Mag, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and talk about English sparkling wine. (Don’t hate me for selling out.)

Wine drinkers like me have been banging on about English sparkling wine for ages now. Our arguments in favour of the bubbly stuff from the UK’s shores dragged on ad nauseum, although only recently has the drink gained wider attention.

It’s won awards (although I find them largely irrelevant); it tastes much like Champagne (which is what we’re after anyway, right?); it is generally just a great thing to drink.

With the Royal Jubilee not far away and The Apprentice dedicating an entire hour to it, even though the best they could muster were some utterly cringe-worthy TV adverts that made the product look cheap, it seems everyone is talking about bubbly from Britannia.

And don’t think the reasons for buying English wine are based purely upon patriotism (although I should mention I’m Canadian, not British, so you couldn’t accuse me of being patritioc here). This is not a case of me promoting it simply because it’s English while ignoring the fact it tastes of antifreeze. That might have been the case many, many years ago, but not now. It actually tastes very good. Really, it does.

Unfortunately, you’ll pay a lot for it, too, because English fizz isn’t exactly cheap. Quite often you’ll be paying Champagne prices, but more in the mid-range of £20 to £30. But there are a few bargains out there, so don’t despair.

The other week I wrote about sparkling wines from France’s Limoux region and said they could bought for as little as £10. If you find an English sparkling wine at that price, you’re likely buying a pup, so watch out.

Now, there are quite a few producers in the market so it’s important to know who makes the best stuff. Nyetimber is regarded as the best in the country, but you’ll pay more for their wine than most others. Lately it has had stiff competition form several other outfits. Camel Valley could very well be producing the current best sparkling wine in all of England. Same, too, for Ridgeview, which has an extensive range covering bargain bubbles all the way up to much higher-end fare.

Bolney Wine Estate is also highly regarded. In fact, the Bolney Wine Estate Cuvee Rosé, which sells for £23.99, received top markets from Steven Spurrier.

Other producers of note include Chapel Down, Plumpton College, Hush Heath Estate, Gusborne Estate, Breaky Bottom, Coates & Seely, Meopham Valley Vineyard and Denbies Wine Estate. Many of these wines can be bought from the Sparkling English Wine website and, overall, they all get good ratings.

Where English sparkling wine perhaps falls down is the fact many wineries release their creations too soon. Many of the vintages for sale now are from within the past four years, which doesn’t give a wine like this time to mature and develop all those great flavours we find in vintage Champagne. The result is many wines have been criticised for not being quite mature enough to drink, having not developed the deeper flavours and aromas that come about after time in the cellar.

While it would be ideal if the producers would hold back their stock for at least an extra year before releasing to the public, the economic reality of making wine means it’s often necessary to push stock out to retailers in order to keep revenues flowing. As a result, it is best to look for older vintages when possible. And if you have the appropriate space and the patience to go with it, storing the bottles for at least a year will doubtless make a difference.

Wines to try:

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee Vintage 2007 (£21.36 per bottle until 29 May, Waitrose Wine Direct)
This is one of the most famous sparkling wine producers in the UK and therefore one to try if you want a classic. Brioche on the nose, nutty like Champagne, excellent fizz. This was a joy to drink at Christmas.

Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2009 (£17.37 until 29 May, Waitrose Wine Direct)
As the entry-level wine in Ridgeview’s range, Bloomsbury is an absolute bargain but still provides all the hallmarks of great English sparkling wine. A little lighter in style than its more exensive cousin but not lacking in flavour: brioche, nuttiness, great bubbles. If you want a slightly more complete wine, try their Merret Grosvenor (which I happen to have in my cellar) for around £25 a bottle. Also available via Virgin Wines.

Bolney Wine Estate Cuvee Rosé 2008 (£24.99, Bolney Wine Estate)
If you fancy the pink stuff, this is probably the top sparkling rosé in England. It recently placed in second out of a heap of English sparklers rated by Steven Spurrier. Match it with goat’s cheese, olives, peaches or…perhaps a carbonara?

Camel Valley Brut 2007  (£33.99, Selfridges)
Rated one of the best sparkling wines in the country, Camel Valley is produced in Cornwall, far away from the traditional English wine country of the South East.

South Ridge Curvee Merret 2009 (£15.99, Laithwaite’s)
From the makers of Ridgeview, South Ridge is the Laithwaite’s own brand and represents one of the cheapest entry points into English fizz. For something more special, try the South Ridge Blanc de Noirs 2009 for £19.99 a bottle.

This is an edited version of an article written for Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

Bait and switch: When a wine list becomes irrelevant

Dear sommeliers,

Without you, we wine drinkers are nothing. Trips to restaurants, banquet dinners, sojourns to the private members’ club for a swift one; without a sommelier, we’d all probably be drinking Gallo. So we’re grateful for your expertise.

And grateful we are, too, for your attempts to write long wine lists covering wine possibility and probability. Grateful, because you know we love choice, even if it the dizzying array of options paralyses us.

But can I impart some advice?

We’re less grateful, I’m afraid, for the lack a helpful description of what we’re ordering when we don’t have your assistance at the table. You know, those times when we’re at banquets and someone has thrust the wine list in our hands and all we see – thanks to the fog caused by several previous glasses of wine – is a list of wines but nothing that actually stands out as a winner.

What can we expect from that generic Napa cabernet sauvignon nobody’s ever heard of? Dark fruits and leather or a thin and putrid Northern Californian slurry?

Given the likely mark-up from the retail price (ahem) I’m tending towards the latter rather than the former. But that’s just a guess, since I have nothing to go on.

Less grateful we are, again, when ordering a bottle becomes a game of vintage pot luck.

Oh sommeliers. It isn’t your fault; it’s probably the waiter who was assigned to my table.

I appreciate it isn’t always easy to maintain stock of a single vintage at all times. And sometimes it is necessary to list more than one vintage of the same wine because one is likely to run out. But perhaps if this is the case, laminating the wine list was a bad idea.

The other week at a banquet at the Park Lane Hilton in London it was vintage roulette (or bait and switch) when ordering wine. The offending bottle here was the modest Chateau Lamothe-Cissac Vielles Vignes. The kicker, it was listed as “2004/05”.

Ah, I thought, this will be interesting.

What arrived at the table was a 2002. Given the state of everyone else having dinner that night, I was probably the only one who noticed.

Photo: Freedigitalphotos.net

Georgian wine – For those who love the Caucasus

Western Europe is widely regarded as the centre of the wine universe but none of the nations there are actually its spiritual home. (Much as the French would love to labour the point.)

For that, you’d have to travel east to the other side of the Mediterranean, an area few people are likely to associate with wine these days, perhaps because the Soviet era all but wiped out commerce with these countries during the Cold War. Or maybe because too many people had bad experiences with dodgy Bulgarian wine in university.

But Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world; viticulture in the South Caucasus dates to between 9,000 and 7,000 years BC.

Despite this, not much has made it to the UK’s shores over the years. But this is changing. In fact, there is an entire wine society dedicated to Georgian wine, if you’ll believe it.

While the options aren’t quite as wide-ranging as those from the big wine markets, there are enough bottles available in the UK to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.

For a true experience of what Georgia has to offer – one that doesn’t cause you to black out and wake up in a bath tub full of ice the next morning with a suspicious scar where you kidney ought to be – opting for a wine made from the saperavi grape is a good start.

Indigenous to Georgia, this grape’s name translates to “paint dye” in English – which is to say if you spill any of it on your crisp, white jeans, count on never wearing them in public again (but you wouldn’t wear crisp, white jeans anyway, unless you think you belong on Made in Chelsea).

Saperavi produces full-bodied, dark wines with lots of fruit and acidity. Often having plummy flavours, this is a grape that can be made into wines that have a lot of longevity in the cellar.

Examples of these wines are limited on the high street but available. Then there is the Georgian Wine Society. Based in Oxford, the website lists 13 reds, nine whites and one rosé for those people out there who aren’t afraid to admit they love the pale pink stuff (ahem, guest blogger Sara Benwell). Wines are sold either by the half or full case.

Wines to try:

Tbilvino Saperavi 2010 (£9.99, Laithwaites or £11.49 at the Georgian Wine Society)
This is a wine I recently bought to share with a friend during a time when I wanted to try something completely different and was pleasantly surprised. Showing a deep purple colour, the wine is loaded with dark fruits, blackberries, cherries and plums and, while having medium acidity and tannins on the palate, is not short of fruit either. There is also a spicy edge to the wine in the way a Rhone syrah might.

I wasn’t sure what my friend would make of it, but after one sip he turned to me and said, “Wow, that’s actually very nice.” That’s about the extent of his tasting notes, unfortunately.

Orovela Saperavi 2004, (£15.19, Waitrose Wine Direct)
Another full-bodied wine with blackberries, cherries, tobacco and chocolate aromas, there is some vanilla in here from oak treatment and rounded tannins.

This is an edited version of a blog that also appeared in Ella Mag as part of my wine of the week series.