Death of a Legend

Michael-Broadbent-credit-Christies(photo above thanks to Christie’s Wine Auctioneers)

In these strange and unsettling times when we have to think ‘Coronavirus’ before every action we take, I guess most of us are looking for some good news.   But that’s not what we had last week with the reports of the sad death of one of the most respected names in the wine industry, Michael Broadbent at the grand age of 92. One of the first 25 people in the world to pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine exams, Broadbent was an acclaimed taster, a widely published writer, a skilled wine educator and a long-term director and principal auctioneer of Christie’s Wine Department.

Although I never met him, I heard him often and, when I began to take a serious interest in wine, the first book I was recommended to buy was his ‘Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting’; that was in the mid-1990s and I still have it and refer to it. Like the man himself, the book is elegant and precise but also a wonderful source of useful knowledge combined with realistic common sense.

His wine career began in 1952 but he soon moved to work at Harveys of Bristol before leaving to join Christie’s a decade later. When I followed in his footsteps and joined Harveys more than 30 years after his departure, his influence and particularly his ethos that all staff members should receive good wine training was still in place and my success in the Wine Diploma exams is testimony to this.

He leaves an amazing store of information; early in his career, he was advised to make a note of every wine he tasted – he did so, in small red covered notebooks, about 150 of them, containing details of around 100,000 wines, some dating back well before his birth!

Perhaps tasting that many wines is the secret to long life!

Join me in raising a glass to a wine legend, Michael Broadbent.

Supermarket Bargains

More than half of all wine bought in the UK comes from supermarkets, but I rarely run courses focussing entirely in that area. Perhaps I should do so more often as my advert in Bristol’s Stoke Lodge Centre’s brochure gained an immediate response and the session was fully booked long before the day.

Supermarket customers expect low prices so I set myself a budget of £100 to buy 12 bottles – an average of around £8 a bottle. Among the wines I chose, several were from the supermarkets’ own label ranges, which are often good value and are the result of collaboration between their wine buyers and major producers in the various regions.

So, how did the wines go down? There were 4 clear favourites in the vote at the end of the day:

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The top dry white was the delightfully floral and fragrant Fetească Regală from Romania, part of Asda’s Wine Atlas range (an unbelievable bargain at only £5.25). Apart from its gaudy label, this would be an easy bottle to leave on the shelf, but that would be a mistake. Fetească Regală is a native grape to Romania and rarely seen elsewhere, but is clearly capable of producing delicious wines and Asda have found a real winner here.

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2 wines tied as the group’s favourite red: Tesco’s Finest Malbec (£8) was no surprise to me. Made for Tesco by one of Argentina’s most respected producers, Catena, this is lovely with flavours of blackberries and plums with hints of pepper and spice from brief oak ageing.

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The other joint red winner was Zalze’s Shiraz/Mourvèdre/Viognier blend from South Africa. Rich (14.5% alcohol) and spicy and with attractive black & red forest fruits, this will benefit from a little time and from decanting. Currently on special offer at a ridiculously cheap £6 in Morrisons (£7.50 after the 28 January) although Waitrose shoppers will have to pay £9 for the same wine.

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But the most popular of all was the dessert wine that we ended the day with. Lidl’s Pacherenc du Vic Bilh (£7.99) from south-west France is another bottle that would be easy to pass by. Quite delicate for a sweet wine but with lovely peach and honey flavours, this would be perfect with, say, an apple flan or try it with a blue cheese.

Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable day for all and clear proof that, if you look carefully, there are bargains to be found in your local supermarket.

For readers local to Bristol, my next Stoke Lodge course is on Saturday 7 March and focusses on wines from Germany, Austria and Hungary. For more details and to book: http://www.bristolcourses.com

Voyage of Discovery

Britain is one of the few winemaking countries in the world that drinks more wine that it makes. As a result, everyone else is keen to export their surplus production to quench our thirsts. This is lucky for us as, without too much difficulty, it means we can find wines from all over the world without leaving our shores. In fact, I’ve personally tasted wines from more than 20 different countries this year.

So, when I was asked to put on a tasting showcasing wines from some of the less well-known parts of the world, I was happy to take up the invitation. I called it ‘Voyage of Discovery’.

I chose wines from European countries like Slovenia, Hungary and Macedonia – and England, of course – I couldn’t ignore the home side – alongside some from further afield: Chile and Lebanon. And I looked for some unusual grapes, too, like Furmint, Ribolla Gialla and Pais.

Not surprisingly, the different styles of wine from these countries and grapes provoked some widely different reactions from members of the group – but that’s part of tasting something new. But, when it came to the vote at the end, there was a narrow winner among both whites and reds.

Discovery white

Krasno’s crisp but mouth-filling blend of Sauvignon Blanc with the local speciality Ribolla Gialla (Majestic, £8.49) from Slovenia was the favourite white. Slovenia, part of the former Yugoslavia, has made enormous strides in the past couple of decades, particularly the Goriška Brda region, from which this wine comes, which is so close to north-east Italy that some vineyards actually span the national boundary.

Discovery red

The winning red was also from the Balkans region, although this time rather further south in Macedonia. The Tikveš Vranec/Merlot (a real bargain from Majestic at just £7.99) was, again a blend of a popular international variety with a native grape. This reminded some of a good Beaujolais; quite light-bodied but very drinkable, with lovely clean red fruits and a slightly smoky finish. A wine to drink on its own or with lighter dishes – one of the group suggested baked trout as an interesting pairing.

But these were just the winners – every wine had some supporters and several left the tasting thinking about their own Voyage of Discovery.

£10 or £20?

Could you tell a £10 wine from one costing twice as much? Surely, it should be quite easy – after all, that’s quite a big price difference and you’d hope that the dearer wine would be altogether better quality, justifying the extra money. But, it may be harder than you think; despite the amount lost to the government in tax (about £4 at this price point), £10 wines are generally well above basic quality and most show some character and individuality.

It’s a challenge I posed to a group of would-be professionals and enthusiastic amateurs who had signed on for a mid-level Wine and Spirit Education Trust course. I wanted to ensure they were comparing like with like (apart from the price) and so I chose a pair of Shirazes, both from South Australia.

Shiraz v Shiraz

The cheaper wine, from the reputable Grant Burge team (widely available from many large supermarkets), was rich and mouthfilling, full of red and black fruit flavours with subtle oak hints and, perhaps most importantly very, very drinkable and easily approachable. Everyone agreed it was a most enjoyable wine.

The £20 wine was an Australian classic: Penfolds Max’s Shiraz (from Waitrose Cellar). Unlike the Grant Burge, this was a wine designed for the long haul – Penfolds suggest drinking over the next 9 years. As a result, it was, perhaps, rather less approachable, with significant tannin, greater subtlety and far less of the immediate fruity appeal. Easy to dismiss at first taste as being of poorer quality than its rival. But looking beyond first impressions, its more complex character clearly shone through. Delightful sweet spice and chocolate intermingled with restrained red fruits and a wonderful long finish. But patience would be needed if it was to be enjoyed at its best.

So, it would be quite understandable if most would choose the Grant Burge. It’s clearly the one to take home for drinking today, although I’d want to leave the Penfolds under the stairs to enjoy around 2025.