Monthly Archives: September 2018

The Life of a Wine Educator

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WSET tastingThis shows just a small selection of the wines I tasted one day earlier this week, as part of a class I was running for a group of students – a couple of enthusiastic amateurs but mainly people already working in the wine industry (in hotels, restaurants or wine shops) – who wanted to further their careers by studying for professional qualifications via the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

They had reached  Level 3 of their study (Level 4 – the Wine Diploma – is the highest WSET course only topped by Master of Wine, of whom there are just a few hundred in the world).  The Level 3 stage is when the class focuses on the question ‘what makes this wine taste as it does?’  That sounds quite simple but, at this fairly advanced point of their journey, it is anything but – for me, also, at times, as their enthusiastic questioning often challenges my knowledge!

As we consider the question, we look at the vineyard – its soil, its slope, the climate, how good is its exposure to the sun – and the decisions taken by the grower – whether to go for quality or quantity and, perhaps most important of all: when to harvest the crop for optimum ripeness.

Then, there’s what happens in the winery: are you going to ferment with whole bunches, grapes only or carbonic maceration – explaining that one is always challenging (I’ll leave it for another day, but you can Google it if you’re interested!).  Also, are oak barrels used to hold the wine or stainless steel?  And how long is the wine kept before it is bottled and shipped out?

And all this while tasting (and spitting out, of course!) more than 20 wines.  Just another day in the life of a wine educator – or student!

Happily, not all the classes I teach are this detailed or aimed at would-be professionals.  For those who enjoy a glass of wine but simply want to learn a little more, I also run regular 1 day events at Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre.  The next one, “Anything but Chardonnay, Anything but Cabernet” is on Saturday 17 November.  Places are still available, but it is booking up fast.  Go to www.bristolcourses.com for more details and to book. 

I hope to meet some of you there.

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The 2018 Harvest

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harvest 2017A few weeks ago, I blogged about the record high summer temperatures across much of Europe and how these might lead to the same problems growers experienced in the heatwave year of 2003.  Then, many wines tasted ‘cooked’ and lacked freshness and most were past their best much sooner than expected.  But, the reports I’ve seen recently suggest that my worries may have been misplaced.  In fact, the word is that, so far, the grapes harvested this year have shown excellent levels of ripeness and volumes are up on 2017.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there have been no challenges during the growing season; many have noted that, as the heat was accompanied by humidity, vine diseases, notably mildew which attacks both leaves and berries, have been a major problem.  And harvesting has had to be careful and painstaking as pickers are often finding healthy grapes and shrivelled, dried out berries in the same bunches.

But the 2018 harvest is only part way through and, where later ripening varieties are involved, things are still uncertain.  Take Bordeaux as an example: there, the white grapes were all gathered in by the end of August and are now safely in the fermentation tanks.  Now, thoughts are turning to the Merlot, which, in most places will be reaching full ripeness.  I’ve not heard that the storms that affected the UK last week had an impact on Bordeaux to any great extent and, hopefully, that variety will be soon be picked and it, too, will no longer be subject to the vagaries of our autumn weather.

More problematic is the Cabernet Sauvignon which some growers are insisting needs at least another three weeks of dry, warm weather to fully ripen.  Will they get it?  There will certainly be nervous eyes looking at the skies for rain clouds.  The decision of when to pick is such a crucial one; too early means the grapes are short of peak ripeness and the wine will taste thin and green but waiting may risk rain, rot and a ruined crop.

The challenges of being a winemaker!

 

 

 

An Elegant Aussie Shiraz

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‘When you find a wine you like, keep buying it’ sounds like good advice.  But things aren’t always as simple as that.  Weather variations might mean that next year’s bottle will taste very different to this year’s.  Also, winemakers move on and their replacement may have other ideas and, over time, styles and fashions change.  And, of course, so might your own taste as you sample more widely.  As a result, the wine you loved a few years ago may not be the wine you want to buy now.

But there’s another reason for abandoning an old favourite:

Langi Ghiran Shiraz

I first tasted Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz more than 20 years ago and loved it instantly.  Although a big, concentrated wine, it was far more elegant than any other Australian Shiraz I had ever tasted.  And, for a good reason: rather than coming from the Barossa or one of the other warm regions noted for the grape, this was from the much cooler, high altitude Grampians region of Western Victoria.  The lower temperatures meant that the grapes ripened slowly, picking up more flavours than would otherwise have been the case, and could be picked at lower potential alcohol levels, resulting in the style I was so taken with.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only person who found Langi Ghiran attractive and, over the years, the price has consequently gone through the roof.  A bottle that could once be (almost) every day drinking is now £50 plus – a figure I only stretch to for very, very special occasions.  But, thanks to the Wine Society, I can still enjoy a Shiraz made by Langi Ghiran: the Society’s Exhibition Victoria Shiraz (the 2014 vintage is currently available for £16) is made by the same producer and, whether it is made from younger vines or bought-in grapes, I don’t know.  But it does give much of the taste and style of the estate wine – at an affordable price.

We recently opened a bottle of the 2012 vintage that had been sitting on a rack under our stairs for a number of years and it was quite delicious with some venison steaks marinaded in sugar and orange juice and with a gin and juniper berry sauce.  It was, however, only just ready to drink (after several hours decanting) so, if you buy the 2014, as I will, do leave it for a couple of years at least before you enjoy an outstanding wine and a real bargain.

 

A Spicy Choice

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Kedgeree was first introduced to the UK from India in Victorian times by those returning from that country after military or diplomatic service.  Then, it was mainly eaten as a breakfast dish in some of our large country houses.  Today, it is more likely to be seen as a lunch or light supper dish – and that’s when my wife and I enjoy it.  But how do you find a wine to pair with a mixture of smoked haddock, pungent spices like cumin and coriander, the sweetness of sultanas and that simple ingredient that is so often described as a ‘wine killer’: eggs?

Let’s start with the basics.  Although I’m not one for sticking rigidly to the ‘white with fish or poultry, red with red meat’ idea, in this case, the tannins of most red wines are likely to make the spices taste much hotter (and so, out of proportion with the rest of the dish) and I can’t see a rosé – even the most assertive example – standing up to all those strong and powerful flavours.  

So, we’re thinking white wine.  But what sort?  You might have heard ‘oaked with smoked’ and I certainly wouldn’t put you off a nice oaked Chardonnay as a match for the smoked fish, but the sweetness and spices gave me another idea: Gewurztraminer.  The word ‘gewurz’ means ‘spicy’ in German and wines made from this variety often have a slightly spicy edge to them.  It’s a grape that is native to both Germany and France’s Alsace region, although it’s now grown more widely – I’ve tasted some lovely bottles from New Zealand, for example.

Turckheim GewurzBut we had one from the excellent co-operative in the Alsace village of Turckheim on our shelf (Corks of Cotham, £12.99) and the cool, aromatic, slightly off-dry taste went fairly well.  But, as anyone who cooks will know, even if you follow a recipe, dishes don’t turn out tasting exactly the same every time.  Perhaps I was too conservative when adding the spices as this Kedgeree wasn’t nearly as flavoursome as I expected.  As it was, the oaked Chardonnay might have worked better – or an Alsace Pinot Gris or even a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. 

Next time I’ll make sure I taste the food before choosing the wine!

 

Crete – for the Adventurous

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If, like me, you’re always looking to be adventurous (with regard to wine, of course!), searching out different tastes and, especially, for unusual grape varieties, a good place to start is surely Greece.   Look back at the blogs I wrote after my wife and I visited the country last October and you’ll read about the delightful reds we tasted made from Xinomavro and the almost unpronounceable Agioritiko.  And then there were the stunning, crisp Assyrtiko whites, the best of which come from the spectacular volcanic island of Santorini.  But, it’s another of the Greek islands, Crete, that has, perhaps, an even wider range of native local grapes. 

We went there – although that was a few years back – and found that almost every restaurant offered bottles made from Vilana, Vidiano, Mandilari, Liatiko or Kotsifali – the first 2 local white varieties, the others red.  All provided pleasant drinking, especially when teamed with the local food, although I might have been favourably influenced by the local scenery and ambiance, too!  But I did note down a couple of names that I thought stood out from the rest and were worth seeking out back in the UK, although it has taken me until recently to follow up on my good intention.

Vidiano

I found Douloufakis’ Dafnios Vidiano in Maltby & Greek (£14.50), although, for my American readers, the label shows that it is also imported by Diamond Importers of Chicago.  A lovely rich and food-friendly unoaked white with delicate orange and apricot nose and palate – a little like a good Viognier.

And we still have a bottle of the same producer’s Liatiko red (also Maltby & Greek, £16) on our wine rack.  I wonder if that will show as well on a cool, wet winter day in the UK as it did on a lovely warm evening in Crete?  Glancing out of my window, we may not have long to wait before finding out.  Watch this space and I’ll let you know.

 

Priorat Re-vitalised

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Most wine drinkers will be familiar with the name ‘Cava’ although, according to a recent survey, surprisingly few who bought it knew where it came from.  The correct answer is, of course, Catalonia, but this region in the north-east of Spain has far more than just the popular sparkling wine to offer.  I’m thinking, in particular, of the marvellous, intense red wines from the remote hills of Priorat. 

Vines were first planted there by Carthusian monks in 12th century and wine has been made there ever since.  But, by the 1980s, Priorat’s vineyards were regularly being abandoned and the area was in danger of disappearing from the wine map.  It was so steep and the stony land so difficult to work that most of the traditional farmers found winemaking there uneconomic and the younger generation were lured towards jobs in the larger towns or the tourist resorts along the coast. 

But a small group, led by Rene Barbier, were moving in the opposite direction.  They recognised the potential in the very old bush vines of Garnacha (Grenache) and Carinena (Carignan) and in the unusual llicorella soil, comprised of decomposed slate and quartz, which reflects the heat and aids the ripening of these late-maturing varieties.  Now, some 30 years later, the area has been re-vitalised and is producing some outstanding wines and, although the most prestigious ones sell for £200 or more, you can find some extremely attractive bottles for a lot less.

PrioratTake Arc de Pedra, available from Majestic, for example (£12.99).  At first sip, you find lovely sweet red fruits but, as it develops in the glass, it reveals raisins, prunes and subtle hints of vanilla and toasted almonds.  As you might expect, this is a big wine (14%) but it is well balanced.  The 2016 vintage that we opened was still showing quite prominent tannins, and although it went well enough with the strong flavours of a venison steak, in truth I probably opened it a couple of years too soon.  But, whether you drink it now or keep it, it would certainly benefit from decanting a couple of hours in advance, a comment that would apply equally to most of the deep, brooding reds from this – happily – rediscovered area.