My choice for wine’s most useless accessory

WHEN IT COMES to useless wine gadgets, I’ve probably seen them all. Mechanical decanters. Automated corkscrews. Bike-mounted holsters for single bottles.

The list is long and full of completely absurd (not to mention redundant) tools. In other words, it’s a bit like the Canadian Senate (or if you’re British and want to go there, the House of Lords).

Now, we could all rattle off dozens of awful wine gadgets and gifts that leave all of us asking, ‘why?’, but I think the worst wine gadget is simpler than that.

Yes, you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this by now.

Look no further than the Campagnolo corkscrew (pictured).

Campagnolo, as many people will know, makes drivetrain components for bicycles, as well as tools and clothing. As it goes, I love Campagnolo. All of the racing bikes I’ve ever owned have been outfitted with the Italian company’s components.

But if ever there were an argument for a company to stick to what they know best, it can be summed up by the Campagnolo corkscrew. Yes, I get the fact Italy is as synonymous with wine as it is cycling, but seriously?

This is what the company has to say about the device:

“The Campagnolo corkscrew faithfully reflects the genius of its inventor, Tullio Campagnolo.”

It goes on:

“The BIG corkscrew, with its maximum precision in removing corks without raising sediments and without shaking the bottle, reflects all the genius of its inventor Tullio Campagnolo, who gave it a self-centring telescopic bell and a wide sharp screw in hardened steel to consistently ensure a perfect grip on the cork.

“Thanks to the design of its large and unmistakable levers, the Campagnolo BIG has become a symbol for those who want to have at home not only a renowned and reliable corkscrew, but also a piece of the history of Italian cycling.”

A piece of the history of Italian cycling? Sure…only insofar as cyclists back in the day often drank during races to numb the pain of having to climb the Dolomites on bikes with only a few gears.

But what makes this the most pointless and ridiculous of wine gadgets for me is this hideous hunk of metal’s price. How much will you pay for this corkscrew? Anywhere between £100 and £150.

Put it this way. You could buy three bottles of Chateau Batailley 1998 and spend £10 on a regular corkscrew and have change to spare from £150. What would you rather have?

Photo: Campagnolo

Don’t hate me for loving Californian wine

YOU KNOW THAT perfume-like scent of long, dry grass baking in the sun at the height of summer? It has a floral hint to it, along with something…earthy?

That, to me, sums up what I can smell when drinking (decent) wine from California. It’s a smell of all the good things in the Golden State – dried grass, hot air, stone, earth, sea and foliage – coming together in the bottle.

To me, it could very well be that expression of ‘terroir’ the likes of Michel Chapoutier or Randall Grahm bleat about endlessly.

They’re probably right.

But I know what you’re going to say to me here: Californian wine is, for the most part, terrible, isn’t it?

Look no further than the sea of cheap chardonnay and other abysmal wines coming out of California’s sun-broiled valleys, all made to fly off supermarket shelves and satisfy distinctly – ahem – downmarket tastes.

Well, okay, sure. Unfortunately, much of the wine coming out of California suffers from excessively high alcohol levels, too much oak (I drank a Central Coast pinot noir the other day that would have been much more enjoyable had it not tasted as though it was fermented from the oak tree itself), too much sugar resulting in jammy flavours and any number of other faults.

But the state isn’t a sea of stinkers. There are some incredible wines there – unfortunately you’ll have to pay a lot for them because this isn’t a cheap place to make wine.

When done well, I can’t get enough of good Californian wine. When done horribly, I usually have no choice but to seek solace in an Old World Medoc claret so dry and tannic it could knock my teeth out of their sockets.

Any Worlders…

This brings me to a thought I have been trying to develop, although perhaps not very successfully (yet) but bear with me.

When it comes to wine drinkers, there are three types of people: Old Worlders, New Worlders and Any Worlders.

The nomenclature I’ve chosen leaves a lot to be desired (feel free to send me your ideas for a better word), but leaving that aside, these three categories tend to work. There are those who will only drink wine from places like France or Italy; those who can’t stand the acidic, tannic wines of the Old World and prefer only to  drink ‘fruity, oaky chardonnay‘ from Australia or South Africa; then there are those who are agnostic to geography and just want to drink great wine no matter its origin.

I’d fall into the final category. Even though many of my favourite wines come from France these days and I actually like drinking wines that have tannins strong enough to bring down elephant, I have to confess my love affair with Californian wine – when executed properly.

I’m thinking of examples like Ridge, Clos du Val, Sean Thackrey, Tablas Creek, Au Bon Climat, Chateau Montelena and so many more. Yes, plenty are – eep – on the expensive side, but this is not always true.

The best way to explain why I can continue to love wine from California despite its many letdowns comes from this quote from the film Sideways when Miles and Jack were headed to a vineyard known for its chardonnay:

Jack: “I thought you hated chardonnay.”
Miles (to Jack): “I like all varietals. I just don’t generally like the way they manipulate chardonnay in California. Too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation.”
Jack: “Huh.”

Photo: Porbital

Wine of the week: Limoux – France’s first fizz

IF I ASKED YOU to name the main sparkling wines of the world, chances are you will list off Champagne, cava and prosecco.

Such a response would be entirely accurate and similar to what anyone else would say. Sure, sparkling wine is also made in England, New Zealand, California, Canada, Australia and many other regions, but none so far has gained as much prominence as the three above.

But while Champagne is France’s – if not the world’s – most famous sparkling wine region, it isn’t the only one.

In fact, almost every wine-producing area in France has a sparkling wine, often known as ‘crémant’ and  made in the traditional method like Champagne.

The most important of all these crémants is comes from one of the oldest and most important sparkling wine regions of the world: Limoux.

Sadly, most people probably haven’t heard of Limoux as a sparkling wine producer. Yet, like Champagne, most of its wines are of the fizzy variety and, in fact, there are claims that a group of monks at a local monastery produced the world’s first bubbly back in 1531.

This region isn’t exactly in a place you would think fizz would originate. It is almost as far south as you can go in France before hitting Spain, tucked away in the Languedoc region near the Pyrenees. While the Languedoc is known for being a hot corner of France – with the wine styles to prove it – Limoux is a slightly cooler part of this region.

The great thing about these wines is they are much cheaper than Champagne but can offer just as much enjoyment.

Now, the reason I’m writing all of this mumbo-jumbo today is because last weekend as I was headed to Manchester to visit a friend I decided I wanted a sparkling wine as an aperitif. I wanted to find a bargain (not because I don’t think my friend is deserving of expensive wine or anything like that), but beyond that I didn’t have many requirements.

As I was shopping I bounced from an English sparkler to Champagne and then…to a bottle of Roche Lacour Crémant de Limoux.

We can’t say for sure if the monks in Limoux really did produce the first sparkling wine in the world, long before it appeared in Champagne (a competing story says it was invented in England first), but it’s a good story.

Limoux sparkling wines come in two versions: Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux.

Blanquette de Limoux must be made with a minimum 90% of the mauzac grape, also known as ‘blanquette’, with the remainder being chardonnay and chenin blanc.

Crémant de Limoux, on the other hand, can contain 40-70% chardonnay, 20-40% chenin blanc, 10-20% mauzac and 0-10% pinot noir.

Wines to try:

Roche Lacour Crémant de Limoux 2009 (£12.49, Laithwaite’s)
While young for a vintage sparkling wine, this has plenty of yeast and brioche on the nose like you would find with Champagne and nice bubbles without being too fizzy. In the mouth it is fresh with plenty of fruit and, while made in a dry style, has a slight bit of sweetness that makes it great for everyday drinking.

Cuvée Royale Brut NV Crémant de Limoux (£10.44, Waitrose Wine Direct)
Dry with all the richness and biscuity aromas of a sparkling wine made in the traditional method, this is 70% chardonnay, 20% chenin blanc and 10% pinot noir. Fresh and citrusy. Also a bargain at this price.

Tesco Finest 1531 Blanquette De Limoux (£9.99, Tesco)
When a wine is a Blanquette de Limoux, it must adhere to stricter controls on the types of grapes that can be used in the final blend. But this doesn’t mean it is going to be more expensive, as this example proves. This is biscuity and refreshing with apple flavours.

Photo: Rosen Georgiev

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

Sara Benwell: I’ll admit it, I’m a rosé drinker

BEING IN PR I can recognise an image problem when I see one – and rosé wine has one of the worst image problems going. It has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years, but I still find that when you tell people you like a glass of rosé they look at you with a sneer or even disappointment.

But why is this? I’m the first to admit that there are some pretty awful rosé wines out there, but there are some wonderful ones too, and isn’t that also true for both red and white wine?

One of the greatest things about rosé is that it goes well with a whole variety of foods; in fact the closest thing I know of in terms of versatility is champagne. It’s less complex than some reds so it works particularly well with things like pork, chicken and unassuming fish – such as sole – and is often heralded as the wine of choice to accompany a number of international cuisines like Chinese and Indian.

The greatest rosé wines are fresh and lively, best drunk when young and have a hint of fruit that’s almost unbeatable in summer. Typical flavours you’re likely to notice are redcurrants or wild strawberries with hints of dried herbs, spice and floral notes. I also can’t over-stress to you the brilliance of a lot of rosé Champagnes.

So I’m going to bust some of the myths around rosé and try to show you why it’s one of my favourite drinks, particularly with summer (hopefully) just around the corner.

1. Rosé wine is always horribly sweet

I think part of the problem that people have when they think of rosé wine is they conjure up some of the popular sickly sweet wines of the past like Mateus or some white zinfandels.

Let me just begin by saying this: I am a dry wine drinker.  Just ask Geordie, who is constantly on the hunt for the driest white wines available in any given pub, wine bar, supermarket etc for me. So if it were true that all rosé wines were sweet, I’d be the last person trying to convince you to give it a shot. And the fact of the matter is that there are thousands of great dry rosé wines out there.

2. Rosé is for girls

Okay, I’ll admit pink is not necessarily the most manly of colours and rosé wine is definitely pink, but in the new age of metrosexuality (after all, nothing beats a man in a pink shirt) can we leave that aside for one second?

Now I think part of the problem here harkens back to point 1 above, but we’ve already established that not all rosé is sweet, so that deals with that. Even so, if I had a penny for every time a man says “I’m not drinking that, it’s a girl’s drink’ about rosé”, I’d be a very wealthy woman.

I think that anyone refusing to enter the world of rosé wine simply because it is ‘girly’ is cutting themselves off from a great selection of wonderful wines for virtually no reason at all.  These people just don’t deserve your respect.

3. Drinking pink wine is for novices

This is one of the biggest misconceptions out there. People assume that the grown-ups and the wine-buffs don’t touch rosé and therefore they shouldn’t either. Well this just isn’t true. Any wine buff worth his (or her) salt will enjoy rosés as well as reds and whites.

And of course pink wine is enjoyed by serious wine lovers; if they didn’t it wouldn’t be produced by virtually every wine region you can name. The people who are really serious about wine will be precisely those who know how to sniff out a good rosé, and will be the first people to tell you just how good a decent dry rosé can be.

4. Rosé is cheap

Obviously, I’m talking about ‘cheapness’ rather than affordability here, and the assumption many people have is that rosé is synonymous with cheap and nasty – this is false.

Of course there are some cheap and nasty rosés out there, just like there are many cheap and nasty reds, whites, Champagnes, fizzy wines, etc, etc…but we don’t automatically rule out red wine just because there are some cheap reds out there, do we?

What I will say about rosé is that it is often very affordable, which is, generally speaking, a point in its favour. It also means that you can discover a whole multitude of great wines without breaking the bank. And just in case you’re the kind of person who thinks just because something is inexpensive it can’t be worthwhile (I really hope you’re not) then worry not, there are also some very delicious, very expensive rosés out there which I’m sure you will love!

So I want you all to put aside snobbery for the summer, and seek out some really great, fresh, lively fruity rosés, otherwise you’ll be missing out.

Sara Benwell works in the world of PR for a London firm specialising in finance. She blogs about politics, digital, social, finance and wine. You can follow her on Twitter @SaraBenwell


Eulogy for a Bordelais winemaker: 1958 – 2012.

Duke, the Winemaker's dog

WHAT I REMEMBER MOST about the winemaker who owned the small vineyard I visited the past two years were his calloused hands and fingernails blackened by the soil in which his vines grew.

He was a man of few words, going about his business in the winery while we, the English and Canadian tourists, indulged in bike rides through the vineyards and trips to local wine merchants.

But by night, he came alive. He would cook great feasts in his modest kitchen from ingredients that seemed to come from nowhere. We would eat meals that came in waves, each course being given more care and attention than we Brits or Canadians could muster.

On those warm summer nights we would eat and drink late into the night until we started to talk philosophy, then drink more wine until we couldn’t talk at all.

After one of our more memorable celebrations, he clutched my hand and read my palm, his eyes wide open and his words emphatic. We later found him lying on the patio, half passed out and clinging to several of his dogs.

Most of all, he was also a great winemaker who learned the craft just like his father and his father’s father.

I didn’t know what to expect when my friend Trev invited me (along with our friend Tim) to spend two weeks at the Winemaker’s vineyard just outside St Emilion. Visions of grand stone chateaux and long, tree-lined driveways came to mind.

The reality of the vineyard was much more modest. When we pulled up to his humble stucco house surrounded by weathered tractors and ageing cars, it occurred to me the wine trade was not all glamour. He was not making a fortune from the family business, but he made a living and was happy.

If you could measure a man’s wealth by his circle of friends, he was the richest man I ever met. He was a son, a brother, a father and a friend. He was a musician, a performer, an animal lover, a conservationist and, I’m told, a petanque champion.

His house was full of aquariums where he raised fish. He performed in a drumming and dancing troupe and instruments from all over the world lines his walls. He had dogs, chickens, peafowl, pigeons and three donkeys, one of them unruly.

The Winemaker was always an enigma. He could be taciturn and distant. But that’s just how he was. At other times he was generous and cheerful, full of wit and charm.

We heard very little from him during his final eight months. We were at his vineyard when he became ill, complaining of pain in his gut and clearly unable to stand or work some days. He told us his doctors had found spots on his pancreas and liver, but more tests were to come.

And so he would sleep long and often during the day, rising for meals and to do the work that needed to be done.

Back in the UK, we heard nothing. Emails went unanswered for weeks. Those weeks turned into months. And then some news came. On 29 April he had passed away. Pancreatic cancer.

The Winemaker: 1958 – 2012

Photos: Tim James