A reader offer you say? Yes, a reader offer: IWC gold medal tasting

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So the other day the IWC asked me if I would kindly spread the word about their upcoming tasting event for gold medal-winning wines and I thought, why not?

As you might recall, back in November the IWC allowed me to attend one of their judging days and I have been worried ever since not all bothered by the fact that I cocked up their results a little bit. As a consummate professional, I blamed it on the fact they made me taste interminable flights of rough-and-ready Rioja and crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc, rather than my untrained palate.

Now you can decide yourself if I got it right (even though there’s actually no way of knowing which Riojas I judged), rather than take a chance by buying one of those award-emblazoned wines during your next trip to the supermarket.

Not wanting this to read like an advertisement or anyone to be under the impression that I take inducements, the only reason I agreed to do this is because I’ve always been treated kindly by the IWC and its PR team.

So, why not? Here are the details:

The International Wine Challenge is hosting an event that it calls A Taste of Gold on Thursday 26 June. The tasting takes place between 6pm and 9pm at Lindley Hall, The Royal Horticultural Halls, London.

This an annual event featuring IWC gold medal-winning wine and sake, and it is only for producers who have won a gold medal in the current challenge year. They are also allowed to show a selection of other IWC medal winning-wines and sakes from their portfolio, so I apologise in advance if you stumble across the occcasional bronze medal winner (as an aside, a judge once told me that giving a wine ‘commended’ or even bronze medal status is akin to telling the winemaker that it’s crap, but that’s just one person’s opinion).

Tickets for the event are normally £20 but you can get £5 off if you use the promotional code ‘GRAPENUT’. (Note the cute reference to the name of my blog.)

Full disclosure: The IWC has offered me two free tickets to this event. In the spirit of good ethics (and if I actually accept the tickets) I will donate their face value to a yet-to-be-determined charity. Feel free to recommend a charity in the comments section on this page.

And don’t worry, you won’t be stuck in a room full of socially awkward punters and the squirrely folk who run the wineries. The top brass of the IWC will be there too (Tim Atkin, Oz Clarke, Charles Metcalfe, etc).

So, if you have a bone to pick about the medal-winning wines, you’ll be able to hold the senior judges to account.

All the details are here: http://goldmedal.internationalwinechallenge.com/

Domaine Marie Faugeres vs The Real Thing

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Back in the 1990s, one of Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans was to declare that it was ‘the real thing’. This was, of course, intended as a way for Coke to differentiate itself from the imitators out there, something that it has been doing since the late 19th century.

The words never really had much meaning for me. It could have been because I was only 11 at the time. It could also have been because I paid more attention to Cindy Crawford, who adorned their television commercials and billboards at the time. The phrase ‘the real thing‘ was packed full of as much meaning as Fox News’s claim to being ‘fair and balanced’.

What exactly is ‘the real thing’ anyway? Apart from being a tautology, it is also a pointless declaration. Not long ago I discussed the concept of real and natural wine, so I won’t drone on about that again. But what I will do is discuss those times you get the real thing and those times when you get an imposter.

We have all had those moment of success, when that bottle you bought for its striking label it delivered everything you wanted and more.

Perfection.

And then…well then there are the times you found disappointment at the bottom of a rough-and-ready jug wine: something with the consistency of diluted Ribena with a vague flavouring of alcohol.

For instance, Faugeres. This is a small appellation within the Languedoc,  inland of Beziers on the French Mediterranean coast. The production here is mostly red wine from the carignan, cinsault, grenache, mourvedre and syrah grapes, although white wines make up about a fifth of the annual output.

This is a young appellation, having been created in 1982, but like much of the South of France, quality levels are high and consistent these days. Two of my favourite Languedoc wines, Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010 and Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011, both come from Faugeres, selling at £19.50 and £14.50 respectively.

Together they meet all of those expectations that form when opening a bottle of wine: fragrant, rich, earthy, complex and hedonistic.

So to be fair to Domaine Marie Faugeres 2012, it was always going to be fighting an uphill battle. A mere supermarket wine selling for £8.49 at Waitrose could not be expected to be the real thing.

It is lighter in body than the others, big on fruit with a scattering of spices and an easy-drinking style. So what’s the problem? The problem is that it doesn’t quite tick all of the boxes. That it is another affordable wine that falls short of expectations. That I am sure siphoning the essence from the tank of a clapped out Citroen would yield a similar result.

This is one of those wines that reminds you why you should have spent more. It is why people buy a Tag Heuer watch rather than a Timex. One is weighty and expresses quality; the other is light, flimsy and made for mass market consumption.

If you goal is to achieve that slight buzz that only three glasses of wine can produce, Domaine Marie does it just as well as the others. But a fine wine experience it is not.

It appears that in Faugeres, if you want the real thing, you need to spend real money.

 

 

 

When is wine real and when is wine not real?

ID-100146926When it comes to discussion topics, there are three subjects I try to avoid:

1. Religion

2. Politics

3. Natural wine.

Each of these has a tendency to uncover deep-seated opinions and result in a heated debate. My usual instinct is to move the conversation into a different direction or defuse the situation before things go out of control.

But another Real Wine Fair is here and I am feeling a little bit brace. The UK wine world has come a long way in the past few years and now boasts two fairs that focus entirely on real wine: the Real Wine Fair and RAW. This can only be great news.

The problem is, I’m not actually sure what ‘real’ wine is. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain I know what it is not.

Anything poured from a bottle that you would normally find on the bottom shelf of the Asda wine aisle at an overpriced London cocktail bar is probably not real wine.

There are occasions when you should risk it and order the Australian shiraz and there are times when you should play it safe have a martini or a beer instead. At least you know what you are going to get.

With the wine, you know you are always going to lose. Whether it is the pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, shiraz or merlot, you can be certain that the only thing that they have in common with real wine is the fact they were made with fermenting grapes. Apart from that, they are watery, limpid and devoid of enjoyable flavours.

This was the case with my Australian shiraz the other week, a £7.50 glassful of grape juice that tasted as though it had been laced with rubbing alcohol and Varsol. Standard fare for a City of London cocktail bar where people go to see and to be seen, not to appreciate the fluid they’re pouring into their gullets.

I could have used some real wine that evening.

Not long ago the thought of ordering ‘real’ or ‘natural’ wine brought with it worries of oxidised, faulty bottles that were interesting for their curiosity value but not actually enjoyable to drink. Occasionally a local merchant would carry a bottle or two as an experiment, but they didn’t really gain much traction.

A particularly awful natural wine that I drank in a (now deceased) shop in East Dulwich has haunted my thoughts for the past two years. Could these natural wines achieve redemption? It seems so.

In recent months I have noticed a growing collection of natural and organic wines at my local shop, Highbury Vintners.

Whether they are organic, biodynamic, low sulphur or full-on ‘natural’ wines, the increased focus on producing good wines with minimal intervention and sustainable farming practices is reassuring.

Thing is, I don’t actually know where we draw the line between normal wine – that is the wines that don’t purport to be organic, biodynamic or natural – and those that are specifically marketed as being organic, biodynamic or entirely natural. I understand a great deal about them all, but I have seen far too many debates – too many arguments – to be under any illusion that I could describe them in intimate detail.

This is where I lose sight of what makes real wine different from every other wine. Is a wine not real if the grower has to spray once during the year out of necessity? Is a wine not real if they don’t use indigenous yeasts? At what point is a wine real and not real?

I appreciate that this is a serious debate for many people; wine made in large volumes for the purpose of being sold in the mass market is almost never a pleasant thing. The line I hear most often is that real wine is made with the least intervention possible.

When The Winemaker cultivated his grapes each year through blood, sweat and tears, then turned them into a wine that earned him a living. That was real wine. His vines weren’t sprayed excessively with chemicals. But he sprayed what was necessary when the conditions required.

When I was speaking to the owner of Highbury Vintners, I was astounded to hear that their selection of natural wines was the small group of good ones out of a larger group that contained many unacceptable wines. When we think of stepping into a wine shop to buy wines, we think we are going through a selection process all our own, but in reality the shop owner (if it is a good shop) has already done this for us.

On that note, here are a few real wines I have been enjoying lately:

Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres 2010

This is a favourite wine of mine, made of a blend of carignan, cinsault and grenache. It is rich, has plenty of fruit and is reminiscent of the region. Not cheap at £19.50, but worth it.

Clos Fantine Faugeres Tradition 2011 

Another wine from Faugeres, this is fairly funky but again brings with it lots of satisfaction. Think South of France influence, garrigue, a rich palate and plenty of fruit.

Chateau la Villatade NoMa Minervois 2011

This is a producer that uses natural yeasts, keeps their sulphur levels as low as they can away with and avoids pesticides. This is rich and full of dark fruits with a tannic edge and an enjoyable earthiness. Despite its warm climate origins, this is surprisingly fresh.

 

 

 

 

Wine clubs: The good and the ordinary

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Recently I was asked if I would be interested in trying out a new wine club. They would send me a mixed case of wine and I could provide my most honest opinions. Two thoughts raced through my mind at that very moment.

The first thought centred on my concern about the ethical ramifications of receiving the case (and yes, full disclosure, I accepted the case). The second thought was that I was about to experience the inevitable mishaps of Britain’s couriers, who seem to make it their business to infuriate any person who doesn’t lay about at home all day during the working week.

Of course, the courier’s riposte to that is, what did you think was going to happen when you asked something to be delivered to a place where you had no intention of being during working hours? Quite. Of course, I could have provided my office address. But the whole point of having delivered is the delivery itself. If I wanted to carry bottles of wine home from my office, I might as well walk to the shop and buy them off the shelf.

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It took about a week from start to finish to cross the threshold of my home, but finally I was in possession of this case of wine. Specifically, a case of wine from Berry Bros & Rudd, the sort of wine merchant that operates out of a shop that looks like it belongs in the 17th century because it is from the 17th century.

I have dabbled with wine clubs and their variants in the past. There was the time I signed up for The Sunday Times Wine Club because a friend of mine bought from there and it seemed like the thing to do. Apart from receiving a welcome pack in the post, it has lain dormant ever since.

Then I had one of those Wine Bank accounts at Virgin Wines because the prospect of being given 25 per cent off whatever I bought – even those bottles of Dom Perignon – was enticing at the time. But other than those bottles of Dom Perignon (which were truly cheap after the discount) and one or two gems here and there, I found that their portfolio wasn’t for me.

So here I am today. Unlike the cheap and cheerful wines and stark tasting notes supplied by the likes of Virgin Wines, this Berry Bros offering is clearly aiming for something more. Along with the 12 bottles comes a membership pack in the form of a ring binder complete with articles, a who’s who on grapes and regions, as well as a guide to tasting, storing and cooking with wine.

Being a fairly straightforward person who self-identifies as a working-class Canadian, I’ve never been one for anything stuffy or ornate. But when it comes to wine (and bicycles), I can’t help but be absorbed by the culture. I can debate terroir with the best of them.

Most wine clubs want to foist a generic introductory case upon its members, often for less than £10 per bottle, which means most of what you get is at the more ordinary end of the spectrum. Think Sunday Times, Virgin Wines, Laithwaite’s, Naked Wines, et al. The only way you can avoid this is by going straight to your local wine merchant and asking them if they have a wine club of their own. You will pay slightly more for it – the cost of one steak dinner a month – but at least it will be good.

So, how is the wine? The case came with two bottles each of: a South African chenin blanc, a Chianti Classico, a red Rully, a Maconnais, a Ribero del Duero and a Mosel riesling. Not a bad selection, but it ought to be for £180 for each delivery.

I can offer my opinion for only one of the bottles so far, a Signal Cannon Chenin Blanc 2011. With a retail price of £12.50 (or £11.25 per bottle when buying by the case), this is more than your average UK wine drinker would spend on a bottle of white wine, but then again, the average Berry Bros customer spends more than your average UK wine drinker.

As wine goes, this is what South African chenin blanc is all about. Dry but with good weight in the mouth, plenty of tropical fruits and enough acidity to hold it all together. This isn’t like chenin blanc from Vouvray, but it isn’t meant to be either.

The only problem is the price. This bottle would run at a slightly lower price at any other retailer (it is selling for £7.95 at Davy’s), but we must accept that, in some cases, there is a premium to be paid when buying from Berry Bros (that Mayfair address can’t be cheap). And then we have to consider that Berry Bros customers accept a certain quality level at all times, even when understated.

Case in point: while Waitrose sells its Good Ordinary Claret for £4.99, the Berry Bros version runs at £9. If you’re a Berry Bros customer, there is good and ordinary and then there is good and ordinary.

Why public broadcasters shouldn’t recommend only supermarket wine

ID-100133089It was a recommendation that was universally panned by a panel of chefs and celebrities, but was made with the best of intentions. When faced with the challenge of matching a red wine with a venison dish on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen back in November, Tim Atkin MW, the wine expert for the episode, decided on a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.

Good choice. I like Cotes du Rhone and, I suspect, a lot of other people who watch James Martin’s programme like it as well. But there was a catch. This bottle of Cotes du Rhone must be chosen within the confines of a series of counter-intuitive and restrictive BBC rules. Ah yes.

Now, I lack the specific wording of these rules (in other words, I haven’t seen them), but in all the years I have watched Saturday Kitchen, I have a pretty good idea of what they might be. It seems that the wine recommended must cost less than £10 (perhaps even less than this?) and be widely available in the UK supermarkets that have large wine selections (ASDA, Marks & Spencer, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose).

If you’re hoping to see a wine from an independent merchant appear on the show, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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On this particular episode, Mr Atkin’s wine, Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages from Waitrose, sank like a lead weight. The panel, which consisted of James Martin, Jun Tanaka, Bill Bailey and, er, somebody else, showed less excitement for it than a teenager would give to a beige minivan.

Having spent £6.49 on this wine that same evening, my opinion of it was no different from James, Jun, Bill and company. After opening the bottle, the reaction was more of an ‘oh’ rather than an ‘ah!’

Sure, it tasted of wine and fruit, and it even had a very small, subtle hint of those spicy, peppery flavours you’d expect from a Cotes due Rhone. But it had a rough and unpleasant side to it as well, like that cheap jug wine you buy at the side of the road in the Languedoc for 10 euros per demijohn.

There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with it for a cheap Cotes du Rhone. Nothing wrong with it, that is, if you don’t mind red wine that is watery, lacking in any real flavour and encourages you to rinse out your mouth with drain cleaner.

What did we expect when a watery Cotes du Rhone that has all the complexity of distilled water was paired with a rich plate of venison? Words like ‘profound’ and ‘captivating’ were never going to be uttered.

If this wine seems familiar to you, perhaps you have read about it over on the Sediment Blog, where it was described as thus:

It has a blast like a bath cleaning product. That departs to leave a rather acrid yet strangely shallow drink, entirely absent of such declared constituents as fruits,spices or indeed flavours.

This was never Tim Atkin’s fault. He usually recommends good wines and never anything he wouldn’t drink himself. However, given the choice, I don’t doubt he would have selected something a little finer from the Waitrose selection. Or he might have avoided the supermarket altogether and opted for something from an independent merchant.

This final point was brought to the front of my mind this week when I stumbled across two articles on wine selection. First is a piece by Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, who explored the reasons why his readers struggle to find the wines he recommends in his column.

At the same time, I found a piece in Harper’s Wine and Spirits by Joelle Nebbe-Mornod of Aline Wines, who challenged the producers of Saturday Kitchen to recommend wine from independent retailers rather than rely upon supermarkets for all of their recommendations.

Both of these articles outline a major problem – as well as a solution. The problem with wine recommendations on TV or in national newspapers, and Saturday Kitchen in particular, is that they often seem to abide by a BBC rule that demands they choose wine from mass-market retailers, most often the largest supermarkets in the land.

Presumably, this rule exists to ensure the wine recommendations are affordable and easy for any viewer or reader to find. But often this means that the wines selected are underwhelming and boring. And in the case of the BBC’s cookery programme, it seems to break the network’s fundamental opposition to product promotion.

By only recommending wines sold in large supermarkets, it promotes brands and corporations in two ways: the supermarkets that sell the wine and the wines themselves, which are often from large producers.

It seems the BBC believes that, if unique and interesting wines from independent retailers were recommended, the majority of viewers would not be able to buy them. But, as discussed by Asimov and Nebbe-Mornod, the rise of online retailing is increasingly making this less of a problem.

In the UK, online sales made up 12.7% of all retail sales in 2012, statistics from the Centre for Retail Research show. This is not only a larger market share than the rest of Europe and the US, but it is also rising. More people are buying goods online – including wine – and this is only going to accelerate.

We can’t ignore that supermarkets still have the lion’s share of wine sales in the UK and are likely to continue to do so as they drive their sales online, but there is a vibrant and healthy independent sector as well. And this independent sector is selling its wine online as well.

I’m sure if Mr Atkin had been given the chance to recommend a Cotes du Rhone from an independent retailer, his chances of finding a winner would have been a lot better.

Picking up the pieces: Lessons learned from a Champagne sabrage on New Year’s Eve

ID-10082783It was about 4:30 p.m. in British Columbia, Canada, when my sister’s iPhone buzzed merrily to tell her she had just been sent a video on iMessage.

The caption: ‘Four minutes of me and K.N. swearing while I open a bottle of Champagne. Happy New Year!”

Not the most traditional of New Year greetings, but first consider the circumstances. The night began with us savouring bottle of Domaine Jasmin Pinot Gris 2012 from a tiny vineyard on Thetis Island, B.C. Very likely the only bottle from this winery to wend its weary way to the U.K., we were sure to enjoy it while out taste buds were still capable of appreciating what we were drinking.

Then we progressed to the Prosecco, a fine example from Conegliano, which we dispatched in good time. And because we hadn’t yet eaten dinner and the night was still somewhat young, there was the humble but entirely appropriate Bottega Vinai Lagrein Dunkel 2011 to go with dinner. It was at this point that I started to lose the ability to appreciate whatever was in my glass. My head was growing a bit fuzzy and my palate tired. But this was New Year’s Eve and I wasn’t going to let a little fatigue slow me down.

So of course I felt that it was now coming up to just the right time to chop off the top of a bottle of Champagne. And even better, it absolutely must be recorded, I announced with all the confidence of someone who appeared to have done it dozens of times before – but had only ever stood next to someone who did.

I had my moments of doubt, of course, but I learned from my father the trick of closing one’s eyes and just hoping for the best. Using this method, similar to the Hail Mary play in American football, things tend to pan out for the best nine times out of time.

As it happens, sabring a bottle of Champagne is actually incredibly easy. It is also incredibly easy not to put any thought into where the top end of the bottle will be fired. Particularly when you are operating on the pinot gris, proseccco and lagrein that came earlier in the evening.

Note the position of the window in the video below:

When my sister watched the video, by which time it had become distorted and blurred by the compression process needed to sent over the mobile network, she likely didn’t see the look of concern that fell over my face just a few seconds after I popped the cork. This moment, in which my face dropped from pure satisfaction to genuine worry when I wasn’t sure if I had just caused irreparable damage to half of my kitchen, was ultimately too blurry to catch and, thankfully, rather brief.

However, the following are, very likely, not ideal places to aim a bottle of Champagne when deciding to carry out a sabrage:

  1. Windows that you would prefer not to shatter
  2. Wine glasses
  3. Glass tables
  4. Drying racks full of fragile dishes and crockery
  5. Coffee mugs and tea cups
  6. Cats
  7. Small children
  8. Big children
  9. People and living creatures in general
  10. Other people’s cars
  11. Televisions and computer monitors
  12. Light fixtures
  13. Paintings and other works of art
  14. Bedding

In this case, my cork-shaped missile was launched in the direction of numbers 1, 4 and 5 above. It narrowly missed the window and the coffee cups, but I made a direct hit against a large ceramic mixing bowl and the rest of the contents of the drying rack.

Much to my delight, I hadn’t broken anything. But the following day I was charged with the task of carefully unstacking the dishes, sweeping up all of the glass shards that were scattered on the just-wash dishes, a re-washing anything that looked remotely tainted by small flecks of green glass.

Just as the Hail Mary pass can help you get away with a desperate move from time to time, I got away with it on this occasion.

Next time I’ll aim the bottle in the other direction – and hope that it doesn’t fly through our kitchen’s glass ceiling.

Credit: Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net