Gruner veltliner: I still don’t get it

DSC_0189It used to be the height of fashion, but these days you’d be hard pressed to overhear anyone who doesn’t work in the wine trade ordering it at a bar or restaurant.

In fact, there was a time, not too long ago, when it was the sommelier’s darling, a grape few people outside of Austria understood that offered up refreshing wines and something different from the monotony of sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

Then, as quickly as it ascended to popularity, the sommeliers of the world moved on to the next big thing (Assyrtiko? Torrontes? Albarino?). And so gruner veltliner fell to the wayside.

But why?

Maybe it was the name that did it. Gruner veltliner. Can anyone pronounce it? Is it ‘grooner velt-linger’, ‘grunner velt linner’ or ‘grooner velt linner’?

Then again, I can’t pronounce gewürztraminer properly either, but that doesn’t stop me buying it.

Whatever the case, the more I read about gruner veltliner, the more I feel obliged to love it. The only problem with this is that I simply don’t.

A while back I droned on about how I didn’t understand Chilean wine. What we have here is a grape-specific discussion in the same vein, a confession of my confusion when it comes to this particular example of vitis vinifera.

I drink gruner veltliner infrequently, but not by design. For instance, when I’m at a bar or restaurant and the other options by the glass consist of water sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, an over-oaked Californian chardonnay or something that was clearly incinerated by the heat of the Languedoc’s midday sun, my eye diverts to the gruner veltliner in a hopeful attempt to drink something that won’t sear my epiglottis.

Rarely does this extend to buying an entire bottle, either at a restaurant or from a shop. For the most part, it’s because gruner veltliner simply leaves me bored.

Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that I am missing out on something. If it was good enough to become the sommelier’s choice once upon a time, surely this is a grape worth noticing?

Jancis Robinson has described the grape as being “capable of producing very fine, full-bodied wines well capable of ageing”  that “produces very refreshing, tangy wines with a certain white pepper, dill, even gherkin character.”

The wines are spicy and interesting and in general this is because of the grape’s own intrinsic qualities because the great majority of them, unlike chardonnays, see no new oak. — Jancis Robinson

Similarly, Jamie Goode has described it as being food friendly, versatile and able to gain complexity as it ages.

So what have I been missing? Well, it seems that I haven’t exactly been on the wrong track all along. Even Jancis Robinson used to consider gruner veltliner to be a “poor second” to riesling that can lack character when it is over-cropped.

The example of gruner veltliner that I’ve been drinking is Josef Ehmoser Grüner Veltliner Hohenberg 2012. At £16.50 a bottle from Berry Bros & Rudd, this isn’t a weekday wine for the average consumer, but this bottle came to me as a sample bottle in a mixed case.

Now, this is a good gruner veltliner. Who could say it better than Berry Bros themselves?

Finely detailed with delicate, floral and white pepper/stone aromas, there’s a broad, soft, pulpy undercarriage, with salty/sweet, white peach stone flavours that echo those of Sarotto’s Bric Sassi Gavi di Gavi. Very pure, generous, with a distinctly sapid finish; one that cries out for a sea fish platter. — David Berry Green – Wine Buyer

My overly simple way of describing it is that it is floral, has some peach and apricot aromas, tastes of stone fruits (again, peaches) while also being fairly delicate, and finishes quite surprisingly dry despite giving the impression that it might be off-dry. This is definitely a seafood wine, which is to say that it almost tastes salty at times.

It’s good. Very good. And yet it hasn’t exactly made me a gruner convert just yet. In fact, it’s just made me even thirstier for a glass of sauvignon blanc or maybe a Chablis. What am I missing?

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Rosé, merlot and something from the Balkans: Better than you think

This post would have been a perfect round-up of three wines from countries competing in the FIFA World Cup were it not for the fact Bulgaria isn’t even at the event. This is what happens when you don’t actually pay attention to the sport.

So, now that I’ve got the pointless and frankly unrelated mention of the World Cup out of the way, let’s talk about wine.

Let’s start with merlot. It can divide a room. Few grape varieties find themselves on the receiving end of as much revile and hatred as merlot does.

Blame Rex Pickett Alexander Payne. Few people could be considered more responsible for the derision aimed at this grape than the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Sideways. While most of the story was centred on the wonder of pinot noir, merlot was the whipping boy. Pinot: lithe and lovely; merlot: fat and flabby.

Anyone who has sampled a merlot from California’s bad old days will understand. Overbaked, over-extracted, over-oaked and overdone – not much about it was charming. So too the chardonnays.

photo 3This is a real shame because there is no sane reason to be opposed to merlot in the same way there is no sane reason for anyone to have luposlipaphobia.

All of this rushed through my mind when I was drinking a Bulgarian merlot that I found on a shelf at Marks & Spencer. Peach Garden Merlot 2012 didn’t fill me with many expectations; Merlot fromBulgaria excites me about as much as chardonnay from California’s Central Valley.

I’m not going to say this wine knocked my socks off. It was basic, lacking in complexity and not memorable. But, for around £7, you can’t expect too much either.

A few reviews online castigate it for lacking fruit, for being thin, for being the embodiment of all those negative qualities that come with cheap merlot. But I am going to stand up and say that, for a simple, cheap wine, it isn’t that bad. It’s correct to the merlot style. It’s medium-bodied and basic, but it has the red fruit you would expect and an easy-drinking style. If you want complexity, spend more money. If you want a perfectly serviceable wine that you can pour into your gravy and sip on the sly, this one will do.

photo 1And so this brings me to another wine that gets a bad press. Rosé. As was written in these pages some time ago, rosé is one of those wines that can divide a room. This is particularly true among those people whose only experience with the wine includes the sickly sweet Blossom Hill and Echo Falls offerings, it can attract leers.

But this is summer and sometimes we not only want a crisp, cold drink, but we want something that says F-U-N.

And so rosé.

In fact: I love rosé.

Recently I was sent a sample bottle of Gerard Bertrand Gris Blanc 2013. I drank it over two warm evenings.

Many rosés from the south of France are brimming with the pleasant aroma of strawberries and cream with a dry palate that often pairs well with seafood. This one delivers exactly this, although it seems less full-on with the red berry notes than other wines of its type. This one is particularly crisp and a little bit more like a typical white wine, complete with a spritz and a good deal of minerality. For a wine in the region of £8 to £10, this is well worth a look, although it doesn’t seem widely available in the UK just yet.

photo 5Now, moving back to the Balkans.

Croatia might be best known at the moment for its football team’s penchant for nudity, but perhaps it should be better known for its wine.

When I was a teenager, I knew Croatia as a war-torn land that didn’t seem to be a part of the world where anyone would want to do much of anything. I was only a teenager, after all, and the Balkan war was in full swing.

But today, it does wine. It does wine quite well in fact. I could have chosen to feature a wine from any number of merchants, but my own laziness has brought me back to Marks & Spencer, thanks in part to  spate of shopping sprees there on recent lunch breaks.

We have here a bottle of M&S Golden Valley Grasevina 2012. Grasevina is, apparently, the most widely planted white grape in Croatia and offers up fresh, intense flavours backed up by a good dose of fruit and just the right amount of acidity. There is plenty of citrus and tropical fruit here, and this would be good for shellfish. Definitely worth seeking out if your usual choice for wine is a sauvignon blanc or Bourgogne blanc. And I hear their football team is better than Bulgaria’s.

 

 

 

Oranges and Turkeys: If the underpants don’t excite you, the wines will

Looking back at a year’s worth of credit receipts, it seems I really only buy underpants, socks and the odd bottle of wine from Marks & Spencer. I blame this on where I work.

Anyone who has worked in the City of London can attest that there is a dearth of decent wine retailers. Apart from Uncorked up at Bishopsgate, Amathus at Leadenhall Market  and The Wine Library at Tower Hill, there are not many other places you can go for a browse on your lunch break or even after work.

If it’s a wine bar you want, there are plenty. El Vino. Planet of the Grapes. 28-50. The list is long and varied before even mentioning the more corporate offerings. But a mere scattering of wine shops? You can find yourself scanning the same shelves over and over and over again. A man can return to the same merchant only so often.

It turns out some of the most daring wine offerings on the high street are being sold at what is probably one of the most traditional and staid British retailers: Marks & Spencer.

I haven’t exactly discovered something new. We’ve been reading about the wine selection at M&S for quite some time. As far back as 2008, Tim Atkin was telling us how much M&S wine had improved, while also revealing his choice when it comes to underpants (unlike me, he does not buy his pants from M&S).

For a big retailer, the wine options are rather bold. During a single visit to M&S, I counted wines from Brazil, Croatia, Greece, Georgia, Lebanon and Turkey. These are daring offerings considering that the most popular wine brands in the UK include the likes of Blossom Hill, Hardy’s, Echo Falls and Gallo.

I have not drunk any of these big brand wines in quite some time, but something tells me they are nothing at all like a malagousia from Greece, a okuzgozu from Turkey or even a much more conservative Turkish blend of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. This could be because the average M&S shopper is not the same as the average person who buys their wine from their local off licence.

IMAG0927-1Reading that last line, it occurs to me that I have become one of them, a person who seeks out obscure wines and grape varieties and then blogs about them in a fury. It appears I am behind the curve on this one. And I am definitely a long way off making it into the Wine Century Club. I would have to keep track of all the grapes I am trying, for a start.

Of course, M&S isn’t the only retailer offering wines made from the less familiar end of the grape spectrum. There are too many good merchants to name, although I will make special mention of Red Squirrel Wine for carving a niche out of selling wines that are out of the ordinary.

So. Back to M&S. On a recent trip during a rather bored lunch hour, I noticed this Georgian wine, Tbilvino Qvevris 2011. An orange wine, this wine is made by fermenting the grape juice in contact with the skins, resulting in textured, tannic white that has a pale orange colour and a slightly nutty, almost sherry-like characteristic.

In a Daily Mail article about this very wine, people who posted comments on the article said they were disappointed to learn that the wine wasn’t actually made with oranges or that the wine’s actual colour wasn’t the orange they had expected.

IMAG0929I paused after reading this and wondered why people bother to even write comments under these articles. And then I wondered why I was reading about wine in the Daily Mail in the first place.

At the same time I also bought this Greek wine, Thymiopoulos Xinomavro 2011. Made  from the xinomavro grape, this wine is said to be comparable to a fine Italian red. Is it true? I will find out soon and report back.

A few years ago, Greek wine would have been a no-go for most people. Their white wines might have been acceptable, but a red wine? Could it really be palatable? But these days, Greek wine is beginning to hit its stride. From assyrtiko to malagousia and naoussa, the country that for many was known for retsina and little else is beginning to turn heads.

M&S isn’t the only place to find wines like this. Online retailers, national merchants and local merchants have boosted their ranges to include something out of the ordinary. Go to your local independent merchant and give them your support.

 

 

 

 

 

Blasted Church: Canada’s least stuffy winery?

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If there were a prize for being British Columbia’s — maybe even all of Canada’s — least stuffy winery, surely Blasted Church Vineyards would be a shoe-in for the honour.

From the names they give to their wines (Swear to God, Mixed Blessings, OMG) to their distinctly un-winery-like website and their plugged-ing Twitter account, Blasted Church is the sort of wine company that can do something that would paralyse many others with confusion: communicate to the casual wine drinker who doesn’t buy into the snobbery game.

My journey to Blasted Church was spearheaded by a British friend’s request for a bottle of wine. A bottle of Big Bang Theory, to be precise. While travelling western Canada a couple of years back, he tried the wine and decided he liked it — but sadly it isn’t available in the UK. So when he heard I was going to be in the area, he asked me to bring some back.

Now, any wine drinker will know that carrying a bottle back in your suitcase is a big commitment. This space comes at a premium in my life and I normally only reserve it for wines that *really* want to bring home with me. But considering this friend did the noble act of lugging a bottle of shiraz back from Australia for me earlier this year, it would have been churlish of me not to oblige.

Sitting on the slopes of Skaha Lake, Blasted Church is in the sort of location you wish you could live. Just look at the view from the tasting room:

IMG_0211And some more photos of the tasting room, featuring me…

IMG_0221And more shots of the vineyard…

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If  you thought branding suggested poor wines, you will have to think again. It has won over plenty of critics for its white blend, Hatfield’s Fuse, and seems to do well with its red, too.

Hatfield’s Fuse was a bit of a surprise. Looking at the packaging and the price tag, I had few expectations. In the same way I am sceptical of all critter label wines,  I don’t really have high hopes for cheeky branding or silly labels. More often than not, the branding makes up for serious deficiencies in quality (Yellowtail, anyone?), but in the case of Blasted Church, there are some real gems at fair prices.

Hatfield’s Fuse is loaded with peaches, pears, limes, apples and other fruits. This is because it is a blend of at least nine grape varieties. Nine you ask? Yes, nine: chardonnay, ehrenfelser, gewürztraminer, pinot blan, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, riesling, optima and viognier. We’re in the Okanagan, after all, and the growers here still think they can grow everything under the sun. At least when it comes to this wine, it has worked for the best.

Meanwhile, its light and simple Big Bang Theory is another confusing blend of several varieties, including pinot noir, merlot, lemberger, cabernet franc, malbec and syrah, and produces a fruity, enjoyable wine that is perfect for unfussy occasions.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t blown over by all of this winery’s offerings. Hatfield’s Fuse is a bright spot, mixing more grapes varieties than can be remembered into fairly priced bottle. But I was let down by their Syrah, which seemed too smooth and safe for a region that needs wines to be daring and different.

Their Sauvignon Blanc 2012 was in the style of the Loire, offering a simple and fresh palate at a good price, but it wasn’t a revelation. Meanwhile, the Mixed Blessings 2012, a blend of viognier, chardonnay musqué, chardonnay and ehrenfelser had a musky note of gasoline, stone fruits and a floral, peachy note, as well as that buzzword we’re mentioning these days: minerality. It was particularly enjoyable.

For the red wines, I believe the Cabernet Merlot 2010 was one of the better offerings, certainly superior to the Syrah I drank. It had vegetal notes, dark fruits, a nice hint of vanilla/oak and an overall pleasantness. Another strong contender for my preferred red was the straight Merlot 2010, which was full of red fruits, warm stones, oak, mild tannins and two other phrases that I can’t decipher from my notes. Wait, now, I figured out what that says: “Rough around the edges.”

I was also given the chance to try the rather expensive but interesting Amen Port-de-Merlot NV. This was a nutty, oxidised sweet wine that was loaded with toffee/caramel on the nose and red fruits on the palate. It had a mouth-coating effect, but it was fairly light overall. It  was sweet and the finish was long.

Overall, Blasted Church’s wines are fairly decent, but they have their limitations. To an extent, this winery is more about being unstuffy than producing incredible icons, which means it might be a good idea to look elsewhere if you want something special for the table on Christmas Day. Despite their theological theme, this is not a pious outfit. For the most part they make wines that bring a bring a smile to your face at a reasonable price, rather than fleece you on something that has been dressed up as something it is not. And that, in itself, is a virtue.

For more on Blasted Church and an assessment of its 2011 vintage, check out John Schreiner’s wine blog.

And finally, if you want more topics that take the stuffiness out of the wine market, head over to the 12×75.com blog.

How to miss the last train from East Dulwich after drinking too much organic wine

Anyone who lives in London has two concerns on a night out: whether they have to cross the river and whether or not the trains will be running late enough to return home easily.

Being one of those types who lives in North London, my nights out in the southern side of the city have only ever ended one of two ways: either very early so I can catch the final train home, or very late because I have  missed said train (Read: Christmas Eve 2007,  when I walked 12 miles home to Highbury from South Wimbledon).

But sometimes missing that final train home and having to string together a series of buses to reach your bed isn’t always a bad thing.This is exactly what happened following my trip to East Dulwich last week in order to try the food and wines at biodynamic and organic wine specialist Green & Blue Wines.

Now, I have to say I’m lucky enough to have great shops like Highbury Vintners and The Sampler on my doorstep, while English wine specialist Wine Pantry and a Laithwaites outlet are near my office.

I’ve always been polyamorous when it comes to wine shops, however, so I felt no sense of disloyalty making the trip down to East Dulwich after being invited there by Kate, the owner of this shop/restaurant/deli (full disclosure: this dinner and the wine were paid for by Green & Blue wines).

Organics are something I became well-acquainted with growing up on Canada’s west coast, where it was impossible not to have a concern for green issues given it’s an area known for tree huggers and ardent recyclers.

But shops like Green & Blue and all the others I buy from are a bit of a revelation for me.

You see, I grew up in British Columbia where, if I wanted to buy alcohol, I had three options. I could shop at the BC Liquor Store where the stock was dictated by what would make an easy sell at each location, at a cold beer and wine store attached to a pub, or at a VQA wine shop, which sold only specialist wines made in Canada.

So there I was in East Dulwich trying to find my way to Green & Blue. This isn’t a place you’ll have trouble finding. Situated in the middle of the high street, it occupies the width of two storefronts and is painted in a bright, lime green. If the objective was to be noticed, Kate scores full points here.

Now, to the food and the wine.

One thing I love is the idea of merging a wine merchant with a restaurant. This is something I admire about St John Bar and Restaurant, and have noticed popping up among other retailers. If you can do it well, it’s a fantastic plan.

This was the menu for the evening:

  • Roast summer vegetable salad with goat’s curd
  • Sardines with chilli, garlic and dill
  • Slow roast shoulder of lamb with vegetable ragout
  • Dark Chocolate Pot (served with fino sherry)

Forgive me now while I say very quickly the food was superb (and I really do mean it was fantastic and I would recommend it to everyone) so I can move on to the wine.

First up, Domaine Jean Maupertuis Petillant Pink Bulles. This is made from gamay grapes, comes from the Loire and is really just a simple and fun sparkling wine. There isn’t much complexity here; fizz and a medium-sweet flavour dominates. There is some nuttiness, strawberries and lots of fruits, but overall it isn’t a complex wine. This is something to drink very cold on the patio when the sun is shining.

With our starter and the sardines I opted for the next wine on offer, a rosé from Rousillon. This was the Les Casot de Mailloles Canta Manana Rose 2010. Unfortunately this wasn’t showing at its best, but it was very perfumed with a lot of floral tones and red fruits. On first whiff it had the odour of a hair salon, which didn’t go over well, but I have to say it matched nicely with the food. I wouldn’t say I was totally in love with this wine, but I’d be willing to try it again to reassess.

The wine to accompany the lamb shoulder was a very lightly fizzed Vittorio Bera Barbera Monferrato ‘Le Verrane’, which had that classic barbera flavour of cherries and berries, plus the acidic backbone to stand up to the meat. While the slight fizz is common to many Italian wines, I have to say I’d prefer it was completely still, but it was a good wine and definitely worth a try if you haven’t had this style before.

Once we’d made it past these three bottles, I lost track of everything else that was going on. Another bottle of red came out, but sadly I have no photo of it or even a note to tell me what it was like. Events became a blur.

Then when the pudding came out we had a glass of fino sherry to accompany it, but again there is no photographic evidence to back it up. What I do know is fino and dark chocolate can go together nicely even if you think it is all wrong, although I found it better to have a few sips of it rather than a full glass, otherwise the dryness of the sherry overwhelms the palate.

Not only did I lose track of what we were drinking, but I also lost track of time entirely. By the time I’d hunted down and bought a bottle of Qupé Central Coast Syrah 2009 from Kate and walked out the door, it was midnight. And apparently at midnight in East Dulwich it is impossible to catch a train back to London Bridge, which meant I had to wait 15 minutes for a bus to take me north of the Thames, from where I caught another bus home.

By the time I got to bed, it was 1:30 a.m.

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.