Everybody’s talking about creating jobs, but marketing departments, ever busy, are actually doing something about it. . .
       The Co-Op supermarket chain has introduced a new flavour of crisps (chips, to my American friends), just what a discerning world has been waiting for: Sea Salt and Chardonnay Wine Vinegar.
       Constellation, formerly one of the world’s largest wine businesses, has sold off most of its portfolio, including Australian brands like Hardys and U.S. brands like Paul Masson, Echo Falls, Robert Mondavi, and Ravenswood. The sort-of new company has been renamed Accolade, a name that “reflects our global mission,” say the new owners, who have just launched Echo Falls Spritz, a mix of wine and sparkling water, in cans; there are two flavours so far, Zinfandel and Pinot Grigio.
       Bordeaux is to re-claim the word “claret,” long a British generic term for red Bordeaux wine, and use it for lesser wines, or as a spokesman said, “To re-invigorate the everyday drinking category of Bordeaux.” (Translation: To sell the cheap stuff that even the Chinese aren’t buying.)

South Africa shines

Wines of South Africa laid on a dinner at Ransome’s Dock for sommeliers from Canada and the U.S. last week. Chef Martin Lam’s menu (Lincolnshire smoked eel and fingerling potatoes, duck breast with braised lentils and aromatic vegetables, and apple and Calvados tart) was quite nicely compatible with the wide range of first-rate wines on show. Two whites really stood out: 2007 Sequillo “White” (probably the best possible name for a blend of Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier, which ought to be a muddle, but thanks to the skill of Eben Sadie, is a triumphant, vibrant wine with a seemingly endless finish), and a 2010 Circumstance Sauvignon Blanc—no cat pee and a nice taut touch of gooseberry, amazingly balanced.      
       Among the standout reds was the first Pinotage I can recall  ever pouring a second glass of, Painted Wolf “Guillermo” 2009, made by Jeremy Borg (10 percent of it Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache), and possessed of warmth, robust flavour, and good grip, and Spice Route “Malabar” 2002, a Merlot-Syrah-Grenache blend from Charles Back that managed to be big, bold, and elegant at the same time. Vin de Constance 2005 rounded out a good evening in style, as it always does.

Happy birthday indeed

Steven Spurrier got to be 70 last week, and, as with everything he does, turned it into a stylish celebration. The birthday lunch, by the sea on the Dorset coast, was attended by a convivial crowd—reunions galore, memories revived, good cheer abounding. There were Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher and Isabelle Bachelard, over from Paris, bringing back memories of days and nights on Cité Berryer back in the ‘70s, when we felt like we were in a Jacques Demy movie (but with better beverages), Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent and other grandees, Warren Winiarski, Michael Hill-Smith and other winemakers and, holding it all together, the lovely and indispensible Bella Spurrier.
       Of course, lunch was brilliantly lubricated. Highlights: Mike Hill-Smith and Warren Winiarski brought their Chardonnays (Mike’s Shaw & Smith 2010 M3 a Chablis-like analogue, and Warren’s Arcadia 2008 closer to Meursault); Fattoria Nittardi’s Chianti Classico 2008 (with a label illustrated by Gunter Grass) was vibrantly fresh, and Roberto Bava’s sweetly vivacious “Bassotuba” Moscato d’Asti 2010 a perfect finish. The wine of the day, though, was Chateau Leoville-Barton 2002, a vintage many people wrote off; it was poised, silky, suavely sensuous, supremely elegant, and just right now.
       We also celebrated Steven and Bella’s vineyard, where the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes are about to be harvested for the first time. (It's in the background, behind Warren, Steven, and me) More on that in good time. . .

Rosso di Montalcino wins, Champagne iffy

In a victory for integrity, common sense and good taste, a majority of wine producers in Tuscany have voted down a proposal to alter (some said “dumb down”) the make-up and character of Rosso di Montalcino. As with other areas of Italy, the vineyard plantings have expanded, often to marginal areas, and some producers, especially the newcomers, have pushed for non-native varieties, especially Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to be included in the wines, essentially doing for Rosso di Montalcino what they did for Chianti, to the north. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, but it might be useful to remember that Chianti was always a blended wine to begin with, and Rosso di Montalcino, like its big brother Brunello, has always been 100 percent Sangiovese.
       The argument in favour of blending was that it would allow “consistency,” as if the wine were some sort of industrial product. It may be best to remember Emerson: “”With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do.” I’ll drink to that.
       Meanwhile, however, Champagne is expanding—not horizontally, as vineyard expansion is severely and assiduously restricted, but vertically, sort of: The CIVC, Champagne’s governing trade association, has allowed an increase in yields from the existing vineyards of 20 percent, “to meet demand.” This is the third such increase in a row, raising the output by about one-third. Something to celebrate—if you’re a Champagne producer.

Riesling along with the breeze. . .

Packing a case of Riesling along on a summer vacation may simply be a matter of logic and good taste—no other wine is going to do all the recreational and gastronomic tasks of the season quite as well (in partnership with a few good reds for the charred burgers, spareribs and steaks). We had a couple of opulent Alsatians for the turbot and sole, but the best, most appealing all-rounders, were Germans,  deliciously vivacious and lively companions for the occasion as well as the food.
       Most memorable was a trio by Prinz von Hessen, from the 2010 vintage. It was a difficult one, with a slow start in the Spring, a sharp heat spike in mid-summer, and then long spells of rain. I was surprised, and delighted, at how well the wines turned out. The afternoon and evening sipper was labelled “H,” pleasantly light at 11.5 percent alcohol, with a bracing zip of acidity to match the light residual sugar—the sort of wine you never tire of, and wonderful with fresh crabmeat on thin slices of sourdough bread. The “Kabinett” was vibrant, a little fuller (12 percent alcohol), nearly dry, with a light touch of citrus, a perfect match for plaice, skate, and John Dory baked with a bit of grapefruit and lots of parsley. “Dachsfilet,” from a vineyard on a high slope, was the fullest (12.5 alcohol and partly fermented with the grape skins),  almost unctuous, complex (hints of white peach and a long aftertaste) and, unsurprisingly, the ideal partner for scallops and sea bass.

Summer: The Italian job

Packing up the wine for the summer beach holiday was easy—a case of Riesling from Germany and Alsace, another of Beaujolais 2009, a few bottles of Chablis for serious fish dinners, a couple of Champagne, and a serious red for the thick steaks we get from the local butcher in Cornwall.      
       The red was a no-brainer for us, but a surprise to our guests: Vajra Barbera d’Alba 2008, one of our favourite wines. The usual match for steak, especially grilled, is Cabernet or Bordeaux, I know. Surely not for flavour, though, with those tannins and alcohol rasping against the succulence of the meat? Barbera generally has a better balance of acidity and astringency, and a more amenable mix of fruit overtones, for caramelized, juicy steak, and its restraint doesn’t tire out your palate. No snob value, of course, but a better meal in the end.
       I first visited Vajra 23 years ago, right after they’d finished building the new winery, and the first thing that impressed me about the wines was their balance and restraint. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a glut of French oak, after the ebullient Giacomo Bologna won acclaim for his woody barrique Barberas, so Vajra’s, made in large Slavonian oak barrels (as they still are) stood out as clear expressions of the grape and the soil. If anything, the wines have gotten even better. It doesn’t say so on the label, but the grapes are farmed organically. I’m not surprised.

Catch me a Cab

I went to two parties in a row held by other parents at my son’s school—a gauntlet of Pinot Grigio. I would gladly have rather settled for a beer, but none was forthcoming. By the time I got home, I was in a state, I needed a red wine desperately. Also, I had a duck breast ready, marinated in a hoisin-ginger-garlic sauce all day; grilled, it would char a bit. No wimpy wine here, for sure, but not too dry either, certainly not oaky.       
       Rummaging around, I found a Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon “Cinq Cepages” 2001, labelled as from Sonoma County. So, the five classic grapes of Bordeaux, from different vineyards around the county. Fine. Ten years old, I thought, just right. And indeed it was, classic California Cabernet flavors predominating, classic Sonoma too, slightly less austere than most of Napa, cassis, all the right markers. It was a perfect partner for the duck too, matching it step for step all the way through, vibrant, never flagging.
       It’s where California can have the edge, if they’ll lay off the hang time and oak and extended maceration. Not only for the quality of the fruit, the way the ripeness shines through, but also the degree of fruitiness that will always be different from Bordeaux’s, and that will always be superior with most food—certainly there, but not too much, a touch that illuminates the wine. It’s become harder to find, but it’s a joy when you do.

Wine of the week: Greek to me

Here’s where blinkered vision can take you: I was reading about the severe problem of the Greek economy in the papers this weekend, and, having just had an absolutely superb bottle of Agiorgitiko the night before, my first thought was, “Why don’t they just make and sell more Agiorgitiko?”       
       Of course, the problems of corruption, cronyism, and ineptitude are not going to be alleviated by any amount of wine, however good. In meantime, there is that Gaia Estate Agiorgitiko 2006, from Nemea, in the Peloponnese (the large, scraggly land mass just below the mainland). I’m amazed that the grape doesn’t have a better reputation, but that seems to be because of very high yields in the flatland vineyards that make it something of an ordinary workhorse grape.
       In the hills above (this one is grown at heights of 500-600 meters), the grapes produce a brightly purple, velvety, plummy wine, spiked with a bit of fresh, blackcurrant  vibrancy. Although it’s deliciously distinctive, it was often used as a blending wine, to improve more ambitious wines with color and liveliness. Rather backward thinking. Isn’t that where we came in?

"Natural wine" -- let us begin. . .

The first time I ever knowingly tasted an organic wine, more than 30 years ago, it was poured by a bearded, sandaled, sweetly sincere winemaker in Mendocino, California, and I have never again been so grateful to see a spit bucket. Good manners prevented me from pointing out that the wine might have had a better fate if it had been mixed with olive oil and drizzled over the salad (also organic, of course) rather than poured into a glass for consumption by someone you didn’t loathe.
       The last time I had an organic wine was last week. It was a Chardonnay from New Zealand, bursting with peaches-and-cream vibrancy, and my reaction was a profound sadness that I didn’t own a cellar full of the stuff (for the record, it was Clos de Ste. Anne “Naboth’s Vineyard” 2008).
       It  may well be that you could duplicate a similar set of opposing experiences next week or next year, even during the same tasting, festival, or dinner, but, increasingly, if you are willing to believe that organic grapes and winemaking are the way forward, you’ll never walk alone.
       In fact, you’ll have a lot of company. It may not always be the sort of company you’d wish—there will probably be some shouting involved, even jostling—but the promise of better wine should keep us marching down the road.
       Shouldn’t it?

Malbec: Take three to tango

We tasted our way through a run of Malbecs last week, quite a mixed bag. The rejects went down the drain for what’s becoming the usual reason: Rampant body-building. Most of the overblown, over-oaked, musclebound versions were easy to spot before their corks were pulled, by heavy bottles with deep punts and minimalist designer labels—ego-driven wines, determined to bluster their way into the winner’s circle.
       Three made the cut and livened up our barbecue weekend, with burgers and ribs for lunch, steak for dinner, and a boned-out leg of lamb stuffed with feta cheese and oregano for Sunday supper. Las Moras 2009 was perfect for lunch and Altos “Las Hormigas” 2009 for dinner, both dark and luscious and supple, with buoyant, persistent, plummy fruit, while the Yauquén 2009, a little more serious, tannic, and fuller, matched Sunday's lamb (it could age a while, but its angular edginess is attractive now, and it would be a shame to lose that aspect).
       Malbec has clearly come into its own in the last few years, but with no consensus at all about style—and a lot of attempts to make it into faux-Cabernet big boys--it’s something of a minefield, and not easy to navigate. (Price and effusive back labels offer no real help.) The good ones are worth the search, though.

Mike Lee: A good man gone, heritage intact

Mike Lee, a founder of Kenwood Vineyards, died at the beginning of May. He was an unlikely sort of pioneer winemaker—the son of a San Francisco policeman, very much a city boy, and giving the impression that he’d rather be partying than anything. But when his family bought the derelict Pagani Brothers winery and vineyards north of Sonoma in 1970, he pitched in, taking short courses at the University of California at Davis and walking the vineyards with every grape grower who’d give him the time, and he and his family quietly built Kenwood into a powerhouse, producing more than 250,000 cases when it was sold (for a reported $50-million) in the mid-1990s.
       His philosophy was simple: restraint, “nothing over the top,” he liked to say, and he’d always add, “let the vineyard do the talking.”
       Along the way, he became a convert to organic farming, and adapted many of Kenwood’s vineyards, while encouraging growers whose grapes he bought to do the same. After he retired, he went to work for Patianna Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County, owned by Patty Fetzer Burke, a daughter of Barney Fetzer, patriarch of the leading California organic wine family. He let the vineyard do the talking there, too.
       Now another circle is closing, with the recent sale of Fetzer to Concha y Toro of Chile, one of the world’s largest wine companies. Previous owners Brown-Forman (Jack Daniel’s, etc.) had allowed Fetzer’s commitments to organics, and quality, to degrade, and according to a source at the winery I spoke with, there’s good cheer and optimism about now being owned by a wine company as opposed to booze barons. Perhaps the new owners should have a Fetzer family reunion and really re-start the ball rolling. . .

English wine: sparkling results

Production figures for the 2010 harvest in England have just been announced by the English Wine Producers; 30,346 hectolitres were vinified, equating to just over 4 million bottles. This is the highest volume ever produced, breaking a previous record of 3.5m bottles.
       The increase reflects the rise in planting over the last five years. Since 2004, vineyard hectarage has increased by nearly 75 percent, to 1323.5ha. (This figure understates the true position, as official figures do not account for all the hectarage planted but not yet in production, which, it's estimated, will add another million bottles to the total in a few years.)
       Sparkling wine leads the way. In 2009 approximately 50 percent of total production was intended for sparkling wine, and based on the level of growth of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier plantings over the last five years, the trend will continue: These three varieties account for almost 50 percent of the total area.

Another glass of white. . .

Three times in the last week, in general-news stories, there have been passing mentions, usually scene-setting, of white wines. Once upon a time, the reference would have been Chardonnay; now, suddenly, it’s Pinot Grigio. A harbinger, or a benchmark?
       In advance of the royal wedding, The New York Times ran a story on English sparkling wine, noting the remarkable success of Ridgeview, which won an overall gold medal at last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. It seems that global warming is creating real possibilities for the future.
       Meanwhile, I’ve discovered another: Coddington Pinot Gris, which could also have been called “Pinot Grigio,” as that’s a legal option. The vineyard and winery, established just over 25 years ago, are in Ledbury, just a bit northwest of Cheltenham. They sell by mail order and to a few restaurants. The Pinot Gris is in the style of Friuli, dry and lightly peachy, crisp and lovely. I wish the sparkling-wine producers well, but I’d sure like to see more of this, too.

Rioja keeps on keepin’ on

We talk a lot these days about “the conversation,” whatever the actual subject is, although given the rise of the internet I often think a better word would be “chatter.” Either way, several of the wines that aren’t being talked about are, unfortunately, several of the more attractive ones: German Riesling, for example, or Bourgueil and Chinon, Semillon, Marsala . . . and, most perplexing of all, Rioja.
       “Most perplexing” because Rioja, even across a range of styles, offers bright, moderately elegant flavours and, except for a few overblown Gran Reservas, a suppleness that makes it a pleasure to drink and a perfect partner to a wide range of food. Although the tannins aren’t usually aggressive, most of them can age gracefully. (The lightest, easygoing Crianzas, meant to be drunk relatively young, are also good value.)
       The recent Decanter “Great Spanish Fine Wine Encounter” featured wines from all over Spain, but the real fun was from Rioja, where several intriguing 2001s stole the show. It was certainly a great vintage, and the wines are delicious now, ripe and full and still luscious, still evolving too. Some remain on retailers’ shelves (La Rioja Alta has just released its Vina Ardanza “Especial” and I spotted some Marques de Riscal recently). They're also on restaurant wine lists, and relative bargains. After the tasting, I cracked open my last bottle of Riscal’s Baron de Chirel 2001—magnificent.    
       Now, mid-April, it’s the annual Decanter World Wine Awards judging week, and another magnificent Rioja caught my attention: Baigorri de Garage 2005. It’s made from hand-picked and hand-selected grapes from old vines up at high altitudes in Rioja Alavesa, fermented and aged in new French oak and has nearly 15 percent alcohol, but manages to be balanced and extraordinarily harmonious, simply superb. It won the International Trophy last year, and if there’s a later vintage in the competition (we won’t know till later, when the results are revealed), it’ll be the one to beat.

Slow Food and Wine for the 21st Century

I’m neither technophobe not technophile; I do regret the demise of the idea of picking up a book to find out about things, but that’s how it goes. The world is what it is, and my son explains it to me more and more now ( I think he was more pleased than I when one of my books went onto Kindle). The other day, at a tasting for wines rated highly by Slow Food that introduced their new book, I also got a preview of their nifty new app. It’s terrific.
       The Slow Wine application, which is in English (unlike the book) and compatible with iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, was developed by Slow Food Editore, beginning with the book’s database of wineries (1,830) and wines (8,400) reviewed in the paperback edition, then enriched with new features, enabling searching by specific key words, such as the grape variety, the name of the winery, or the wine. There are also numerous wine maps, with information on the regional agronomic background, all easy to use thanks to an integrated Google mapkit.
       The navigation of the wineries’ descriptive pages is completely (and easily) interactive, from service tools like telephone and email, to the geographical localization on the map, or a link to the winery’s website. Three thematic sections introduce the reader to the stories of the people behind the wine production, vineyards and viticulture, and to the wines, reviewed in a simple manner and linked to technical information.
       Slow Wine is available from the App store in a free trial version, allowing access to the “Everyday Wine” pages (wines that have been highlighted by Slow Food for their excellent price-to-quality ratio), with all the basic tools to save favorites, consult the wine maps, and allows access to the list of reviewed wineries. The complete package can be purchased for £5.99.

Things are looking up Down Under

After years of promotional programs that ranged from somnolent to moribund and allowed much of the rest of the wine world to dictate the conversation, the Australian wine industry has suddenly come awake, and loudly. They’ve remembered they have a good story to tell just in time, too—a tasting panel at Decanter magazine recently declared that Australia has “never been in better form. . . ignore Burgundy and go to Australia for Chardonnay,” and several events at the recent Australia Day tasting in London were standing-room-only; the fact that the subjects covered (and happily tasted) were Riesling, Pinot Noir, and revelations of Terroir certainly proves they’ve turned a page.
       The new endeavor is known as “A+ Australian Wine,” and aims to shift our perception away from the bargain-bin dead end the wines have been stuck in for too long, back toward quality and their progress over that too-quiet time. The immediate result of the campaign? Several large conglomerated wineries have dropped out of the program, on the grounds that it’s not “commercially driven” enough. That may be the good news—it was the “commercially driven” idea that landed Australian wine in the dumpster.
       Take a look at the new, lively, straightforward and quite informative website that carries the revised message. Australia made things interesting two decades ago, and we may be seeing a return to that:

Oregon Pinot Noir 2008: delectable

There has been quite a buzz building over the 2008 vintage of Pinot Noir in Oregon, accompanied by some silliness about Oregon Pinot Noir “coming of age,” and/or proving a point about the quality of the wine there (slightly more than half is Pinot Noir). “Coming of age” is silly because a few decades isn’t that much in the evolution of vineyards, and a lot of the acreage planted is relatively very new, as are the wineries (in the last 20 years, vineyard acreage increased four-fold, and the amount of wineries went up five-fold, to almost 400); for fine wine, that’s just a blink. As for “proving the point” about the quality of Pinot Noir in Oregon, that’s been done as far back as the 1980s; the further points that have been proven since then are that Oregon’s climate can be challenging, and that an influx of new winemakers, whether starting a second career or just generally on a “back to the land” trip, can set the varied styles of winemaking on something of a zigzag course.
       Last week, I got a chance to taste some of those Oregon Pinot Noirs, at the annual tasting of Northwest wines in London. Some are still a bit tannic, oaky and extracted, but most were fresh and lively, blessed with vibrant acidity and relatively low alcohol levels (under 14%, sometimes well under, and even below 12% in a few cases). For whatever reason, not everyone was there, but it was a good sampling. Standouts were two bottlings from Chehalem, “Reserve” and “Ichinnan,” the graceful Benton Lane “Estate,” a slightly funky Sokol Blosser “Dundee Hills,” bolder versions from Argyle “Nut House” and Soter “Mineral Springs Ranch” (both of which had a little more power, but didn’t lack grace—they needed a good 20 minutes to open up and reveal their virtues, as did Elk Cove “Roosevelt,” which seemed indistinct at first, but came around). I’d assume these last three would age nicely. I also liked the very light and pale Erath "Willamette Valley" and A to Z, which were delicious, very fresh and lively, though too light for food. Altogether, an impressive showing.
copyright 2010-2018 by Brian St. Pierre