Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Small but mighty wines


Small is often seen as a bad thing. No, I’m not going to go there - get your head out of the gutter; but you have “small man syndrome”, “small-minded” or Presidents with suspiciously small hands. The word small seems to convey something that is substandard or under-developed. But is small always a bad thing?

In the world of wine, small can have some positive connotations. Small-batch production, tends to represent artisanal, crafted produce that is made by someone who cares passionately about their produce and aren’t chasing the volume and scale of bigger producers. In addition, small can also come, of course, in the size of the bottle that you buy. I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with the idea of buying half bottles of wine (375ml) or even the quarter bottles that people tend to buy just before they go on a train journey (back when we did that kind of thing). But what are some of the benefits of buying half-bottles and why could this be an interesting area for wine lovers?

Well, I think there are a number of reasons. 

Firstly, in a world where people want to be careful about their consumption due to the effects of alcohol, but also the calorific impact on their diet, a half bottle can be a really good way of promoting moderation. As part of trying to have a healthy attitude towards alcohol I tend to limit myself to two mid-week nights during the week when I’ll have a glass of something nice and save my more extravagant consumption for the weekend. On these mid-week nights I find that a half-bottle is a great way of rewarding you with a nice glass or two, but without pushing the boat out too much (particularly if you have a partner who also doesn’t like to over-consume). 

Secondly, half bottles represent a nice way to explore wines that you are thinking of buying in larger formats at a reasonable price. This is the same rationale that has allowed Enomatic machines such as the ones at The Sampler to flourish, or the use of Coravin in restaurants to allow people to purchase small samples of very expensive wine - you get to see what the fuss is about and then make a decision about whether you’d pay the price for more of the wine. With halves you are usually paying either half or just over half the price of a standard bottle, which allows you to maybe trade up a bit on the quality of the wine that you are selecting. I particularly like it when restaurants have a decent selection of halves (Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham is one such restaurant that has stuck in my mind - I wrote a blog on visiting there a little while ago on my other site) as this can allow you a glass of fizz at the beginning, a half with the starters, a half with the mains and a digestif; plenty of different wines to try, but not going too overboard on the consumption (or price) side. 

I think these reasons are summarised in the maxim that I personally try and extol as often as I can: “drink less, but better”. Drinking should be about enjoyment and satisfaction, but this needs to come with a healthy approach towards moderation. Spending a bit more money on the wine that you drink, but then drinking less of it is I think the right approach and one that can help contribute to living a healthy and happy life.

So, I’ve extolled the virtues of half bottles of wine. Where would I recommend going to get some if you were interested? There are two main suppliers that I would immediately recommend.

The Little Fine Wine Company


I’ll start with The Little Fine Wine Company. This is a company that was specifically set up to promote the sale of half bottles of wine, although they do stock some standard sized bottles and some magnums. However, their main offering is certainly on the half bottles. They have a great range of wines covering most bases from old world to new world, dry to sweet and fortified. The prices range from £7.50 halves all the way to £74.95 for a half of 2014 Domaine Faiveley Grand Cru Clos des Cortons. 

I recently bought a selection of their wines, which I am looking forward to working my way through, but I have already tried a couple of them. Starting with a Nyetimber Classic Cuvée (NV) (price £18.95) which I opened as part of a breakfast celebration for my wife’s birthday recently. We had a whole day of imbibing ahead of us, so I felt that a whole bottle for breakfast would have been a bit too much and this half was perfect. Really did start the day in just the manner that I wanted. 

 In addition, I also opened a half of Kumeu River’s 2017 Coddington Chardonnay (price £15.95). I’m a big fan of Kumeu River’s wines and in particular their Chardonnays - this was showing very nicely under screwcap with the wine already having a lot of butteriness an richness to it. It had a really quite luscious profile both on the nose and on the palate. I served this with some nice mushroom orzo during the week and with my wife only really after a snifter, the half bottle was a perfect size.

Lastly, being summer-time I needed to have some rosé! A half of 2019 Whispering Angel from Provence (price £10.95) was just what I was looking for. The wine itself is quite fresh with some cranberry notes and raspberries. There was great acidity to the wine, which was rounded off with some breadth to the palate, giving it a nice balance. I really enjoyed the nose though, which I felt had an almost strawberry and cream nose - if there’s ever going to be something that screams summer then it’s a rosé that has strawberries and cream aromas!

The Wine Society 


Another merchant that I’d recommend in the sphere of halves is The Wine Society. They also have a great selection, their halves start at £4.50 and you can get many halves of their excellent Exhibition Range wines for under a tenner. Their half range goes up to the heady heights of £295 with a half of a 2001 Chateau Yquem - that’s quite the range of prices there! 

I’ve had a few halves over the years from The Wine Society, but I recently opened a bottle of 2015 Trimbach Riesling (photo towards the top of this page) which was absolutely fantastic: laser-like precision to it with bags of flavour and personality. A great food wine as pretty much all Alsatian Riesling is. Unfortunately I don’t think the Wine Society is stocking any halves of this any more but the full bottle of the 2017 Riesling costs £18.50 (this on their list but currently out of stock). 

Another great reason to open half bottles, is dessert wines. In a household of two, we aren’t really ever going to knock off a whole bottle of sweeter wine in one sitting. So for whole bottles, the Coravin comes in very useful, but so does buying halves of sweet wines. I recently opened a half bottle of the Society's 2015 Sauternes (£10.95), which was not quite golden in the glass, but had a nice rich yellow hue to it. On the nose it had typical Sauternes notes of marmalade and honey, accompanied by fruity aromas of mandarin and a bit of mango too. I would class it as pretty, if not hugely complex. On the mouth it was pleasingly sweet, but with a great big acidic sweep that balances out the sweetness. This is not a big, bold wine like a Beerenauslese or a Trockenbeerenauslese, but is quite perfumed and delicate. I think this would go very nicely with cheese or some lighter desserts. 






What do you make of half-bottles? Do you buy them, would you? If not, why not? Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

#seriouswinesforaserioustime with Tim and James


The word “unprecedented” really has peaked in 2020. Pretty much all emails I receive seem to contain this word in at some point, but it’s hard to disagree really. We do, indeed, find ourselves in a time when things that we used to take for granted can’t be done and many people have had to get used to a completely way of life. In my last post I encouraged you all to do what you can to support small, local businesses as they really are finding things tough right now. But I appreciate that this isn’t possible for everyone, with many people being furloughed or needing to spend their time or resources caring for loved ones.

Against such a seemingly bleak backdrop what can we do here at Vinspire? 

We think that it is important that we continue to give you some levity and vicarious pleasure as we write about things that make us happy - and opening a bottle of wine is just one of those things that seems to bring joy amongst the wine-loving community. Over on Twitter a number of folk (myself included) have been encouraging people to use the lockdown time as an excuse to open a nice bottle of wine and treat themselves. After all, when times are bleak treating yourself can be a nice reward for a hard day battling with homeschooling or interminable Zoom conference calls. We have settled on a hashtag which I think encapsulates this perfectly: 

#seriouswinesforaserioustime.

In this article today, I am collaborating with a Twitter must-follow for anyone with a passing interest in wine - James Hubbard (@jameshubbard113). James has a seemingly endless supply of incredible wine in his cellar, so much so that some people (looking at you, Lee!) have labelled James' wine cellar as “the wine tardis”!

The below are a selection of the highlights that James and I have been sampling over the last few weeks as we look to brighten the gloom with a decent bottle or two.

The Wines


Tim: For Good Friday, the UK-based wine community came together and celebrated English (and Welsh) sparkling wine with the Good Friday English Wine celebration - basically an opportunity to open a bottle of some of the lovely wine that are now getting the recognition that they deserve for quality from around the world. I decided to stay classic and to open a bottle of 2016 Camel Valley “Annie’s Anniversary” Brut which I purchased when I went to visit the vineyard last September for my wedding anniversary. This is a classic champagne-blend wine and has lovely freshness and zip to it, with loads of tropical fruit notes that helped it to sing. This is a great wine, but look out for their rosé too - that really is top-notch!

Tim: One of the most famous white wines in the world is the 2006 Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva Blanco from López de Heredia in Rioja. I treated myself to a case of 2006s at the end of last year and I am keen to see how they evolve over time, but in order to do that I had to open one recently to give it a good try - poor me. This is a really interesting wine as it has an oxidative element to it, something that contributes to that vivid colour in the glass. The nose, however, is all sweetness and light with a pretty floral element to it, which I found very evocative. On tasting, it has a breadth and richness to it that made it a great match for some pancetta-wrapped pork tenderloin that I had cooked with a creamy sauce. The finish was rather complex and had fantastic length. A bit of a thinker of a wine. Look forward to coming back to the rest of these over the coming years!

James: I’ve always loved Trimbach wines, I simply cannot recall a time when I had a bad bottle. This was the first time I had tried this particular offering (2015 Trimbach ‘Selection de Vieilles Vignes’ Riesling), purchased a while back from The Wine Society. A smorgasbord of citrus fruits alongside mandarins and peach, with a smattering of Grüner-style white pepper thrown in for good measure. This was thirst-slaking and utterly irresistible. A wine to put a smile on the face - just joyously delicious!





Tim: Next on my list was a Burgundy from a producer who hails from nearby me in London, Le Grappin’s 2017 “Boucherottes” Beaune Premier Cru. I only had one bottle of this and I was um-ing and ah-ing about whether to open this bottle yet, surely it would be better to wait a few more years on this? I opted not to and to get stuck in for a number of reasons, firstly there are plenty of times when people have held on to a bottle of wine for ages only to find that when they finally open it that it is corked, secondly the whole spirit of #seriouswinesforaserioustime is to encourage people to live for the moment and enjoy that bottle now as you don’t know what’s round the corner! The wine was a joy to drink, pure unadulterated fun with loads of fruit flavours and tannins that are already well ntegrated into the wine. Will this improve with age? Absolutely. I’d love to have a case of this and come back to some of these in 2027 when it will really be singing; do I regret opening it now? Definitely not!


James: This 2017 Sailor Seeks Horse Pinot Noir is a new discovery for me courtesy of The Vinorium. Stuart McCloskey raved about them when I met him at one of their tastings, so I decided to give it a go. I was not disappointed! Tasmania really is cranking out some world-class Pinot. This one is incredibly delicate and aromatic, Burgundy meets Oregon. A lightness of touch but not a light wine. The relative youth meant it needed a bit of time in glass to show off the gorgeous redcurrant and strawberry notes, and as it slowly unfurled I was surprised by how much else came through on the nose including damsons, marmalade and smoked meat. I have a couple more bottles which i am going to try to resist for a few years to see how this continues to mature.


Tim: I wanted something a few weeks ago to go alongside my Sunday roast beef and I was just looking towards the claret selection on my rack when a bottle of 2000 Chateau Musar (from Lebanon) caught my eye. I opted for this and was delighted to do so. Musar’s flagship wine is a combination of international (French) grapes such as Cinsault and Carignan, combined with local Lebanese varietals. The result is a wine of tremendous character and depth. It benefitted from a bit of time in a decanter before serving but was then full of fruit notes, combined with deeper more savoury tastes (dark chocolate and mushroom) as you would expect from a wine with 20 years behind it. This wine has plenty more time on its side, which is all the more impressive when you can pick this up for £30/bottle, for which you would struggle to get such an enjoyable drinking experience from Bordeaux. Get hold of some while you can!

James: The 2012 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah is from one of my favourite South African wineries - Marc Kent and his team have been smashing it out of the park for quite a while now. The attention to detail and pursuit of excellence is on show here for sure. This 2012 Syrah is just entering its (long) drinking window. Rich, pure black fruits underpinned by five spice and pepper. Hermitage-esque levels of complexity. So refined and balanced. Old World style meets New World freshness.


 

 

 

Conclusion


There you have it - some truly wonderful bottles opened as a tribute to Bacchus and to help us pass the time until all of this madness is over.

Have you been opening anything special recently? Let us know in the comments below!

Monday, 20 April 2020

Vinspire recommends wine books to get you through self-isolation

Photo taken under CCL from spiralcellars.co.uk

Hi all

We haven’t published a blog on here in a little while and, well, things have certainly changed quite a lot haven’t they?! Things that we took for granted two months ago like going to the supermarket or popping to your local pub or restaurant to grab a glass of wine or something to eat are now things that we can’t currently do. The effect of this crisis on our beloved wine and spirits trade is truly difficult and we know that many small business are having to make some very difficult decisions with huge uncertainty about when things will recover.

However, as ever, things aren’t all doom and gloom. Many of our incredible independent wine merchants have slipped smoothly into doing online wine deliveries, which means that as a wine lover you can be a bloomin’ hero by ordering wine from them - you’re supporting a business you care about and you are getting some lovely wine to enjoy at home: winner winner chicken dinner! We at Vinspire would urge you (if you can) to spend some of that money that you’re not spending by going out / eating out and ordering from local, independent stores. After all, if you want them to still exist when all of this is finished you need to support them now!

With that being said, time for the main point of this article. The temptation in these unusual times is to find yourself spending a LOT of time reading up about the news on news sites or on social media and I have (personally) found that this can get a little overwhelming. To counter this I have been trying to use some of the evening time to get some reading done and I thought that I would share with you a couple of wine-related books that I have read recently and would recommend for wine lovers.


“The Wines of Germany” - Anne Krebiehl MW

Had to place this book next to a bottle of Riesling!

The first book is Anne Krebiehl’s book “The Wines if Germany”, which although only recently published is already considered by many to be the definitive work on German wines. This authoritative work starts off by covering the history of German wine, which is, naturally, intertwined with the fascinating history of Germany from Roman times, through the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant/Catholic wars of the 17th centry, Napoleon’s invasion, the formation of Germany as a nation-state in the late nineteenth century, to the horrifying events of the 20th century. After charting this in an admirably succinct fashion, Krebiehl then takes on the not-particularly-easy task of trying to explain the complexities of German wine law and regulations and put some sense on the Prädikat system, which I think she does a great job of. There then follow a number of small chapters focussing on some of Germany’s best known wines/grapes: Riesling (of course), Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) and Sekt. It is worth noting that Krebiehl devotes time to other wines/grapes (e.g. Silvaner, Frühburgunder) throughout the book at pertinent points, but they don’t get their own chapters.

This is the spot I have mostly been
reading this book from!
After this introductory segment, Krebiehl proceeds to take each German wine-producing area in turn (in alphabetical order - presumably to show no favouritism!) and then presents a canter around each region highlighting some of her personal favourite producers (again in alphabetical order). It is clear from her writings that Krebiehl has studiously tasted her way around a great number of these vineyards and has personal relationships with many of the people that she is recommending. The producers that Krebiehl puts forward are a mix of legendary names that anyone with a passing knowledge of German wine would recognise (Prüm, Haag, Loosen, Molitor und so weiter, und so fort), but she also puts under the spotlight the new generation of exciting and dynamic German wine producers in their 20s and 30s who are too young to remember the dark days of 80s German wine and are now making interesting and innovative wine, embracing both the traditions that they have inherited and modern thinking around wine making. It is great to see that there are also a large number of female producers presented, something that also represents this perception of a generation that is looking forward.

There is a LOT of information in this book, but for me it really does allow one to get a feel for the contrast, variety, tradition, history and exciting potential of German wine. If you are even remotely interested in German wine then this is an absolutely essential book for you to read. However, I don’t think that this is a prerequisite for you to enjoy this book. I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable book to read, in spite of its erudite nature. Krebiehl’s writing style is very engaging and she uses exceedingly elegant turns of phrase throughout the book - all the more impressive for someone writing in a second (or in her case, I believe a third!) language.

This book is available from The Book Depository for £35.


“Wine - A Way of Life” by Stephen Spurrier 


I’m sure Mr Spurrier would approve of me putting
his book next to a nice bottle of Meursault for this photo!
The second book that I am recommending is in many ways very different. It is Stephen Spurrier’s memoirs “Wine - A Way of Life”. For me Stephen Spurrier has been someone I have been aware of almost from the first days that I became interested in wine. I first encountered him as a contributing editor to Decanter and then I became more aware of him and learned all about the “Judgement of Paris”, a wine competition in 1978 between French and American wines that Spurrier organised, which shocked the wine world to its core as American wines beat Bordeaux at best Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot blends and beat Burdgundy when it came to making Chardonnay. Since I’ve started attending wine events I have met him a couple of times and have now also tried his wines (Bride Valley from Dorset) as he has latterly established a vineyard.

However, from reading his memoirs I have learned a lot more about Spurrier’s life. It really is a fasinacting story and is told with a wonderfully beguiling nonchalance. Throughout the book he drops references left, right and centre to incredible restaurants that he’s visited, wines he’s tasted, people he’s met (my favourite was when he found himself in a room with Jimi Hendrix in 60s London) and places that he’s visited. It’s a truly fascinating story. It must be admitted that Spurrier came from a very privileged background and has had money all his life. Having had money, though, to me gave Spurrier a rather cavalier attitude towards it - and he would be the first to admit that he was never particularly good with it. Throughout the book, the number of business ventures/investments that he enters into is astounding. However, this isn’t the case of someone bragging, Spurrier frequently admits that he invested poorly and was occasionally taken advantage of. In fact in the 80s he was on the verge of financial ruin before Decanter came to his rescue.

This is a very old-school kind of book from an old-school kind of wine chap. It has to be read through the lens of someone who grew up in the time they did, blessed with privilege. There will be some people who read this book and say that it represents everything that is wrong with the world of wine and contributes to its reputation as the stuffy domaine of rich, white men in pinstripe suits. And they may well have a point. Some of the book reads quite painfully through the eyes of 2020; many of the women referenced are characterised by their physical attractiveness, for example. However, despite this I feel that you can’t help be slightly swayed by Spurrier’s generous spirit and, ultimately, his absolute obsession with wine. Spurrier has tasted pretty much all of the important wines there are, knows all the wine royalty and was in attendance for many of the best tastings and events of the last fifty years. It is some tale and represents the important memories of someone who did so much to shape the world of wine that we enjoy today.

I do have one further gripe with this book - I found there to be an unacceptably high level of typos in the print. I very much hope this is corrected in subsequent editions, as they really spoil my enjoyment of a passage.

This book is available from Amazon for £20 (I did try and find a different retailer, but couldn’t!), however it currently seems to be out of stock... 

There you have it, a couple of books that I have really enjoyed reading that you may wish to consider during this lockdown period.

I hope this blog finds you and your families safe and well.

From all at Vinspire. X    

Friday, 13 March 2020

What we opened for Open That Bottle Night 2020


As some of you will know, I have been participating in “Open That Bottle Night” for the last few years (I’ve covered the premise extensively in previous articles - such as this one, if you’re not familiar with the concept), but this year I decided to make more of an event out of it. 

Eight wine-lovers assembled, all issued with the challenge of bringing over a bottle (or more) of wine that they were excited to open in the company of other wine-lovers. This motley crew (actually it was quite a well-dressed crew, but that doesn’t read quite as well) was made of up me and my wife, my brother and his wife, along with wine Twitter big hitters James Hubbard (@jameshubbard113), Lee Isaacs (@wineman147) and Peter Dickens (@pietrosd) and his partner Margaret. As we lined up the wines that we had brought with us to sacrifice in tribute to Bacchus on this fated day for the obligatory photo session, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air - this was going to be a good day!

We started with one of my (I will say my, but they were jointly offered by my wife and I) wines, it felt like a good way to start this epicurean journey would be with some bubbles and if you’re going to do bubbles then you can do a lot worse than a 2009 Dom Perignon. This was everything that you’d want it to be: poised, elegant, fresh, exciting, but also with a real depth and presence to the wine. Equal measures of delicate and powerful. A real delight and the perfect way to get us into the mood for tasting great wine.

 Next up we started with our white wines. The first up was one of Lee’s offerings, a 2012 Weingut Wagner-Stempel Riesling Kabinett (Rheinhessen). Rieslings are always going to be a hit for me, but aged Riesling from a top-notch producer is a recipe for heaven. The additional age on the wine had given it a lovely colour in the glass and really helped with giving it some additional texture and weight. The typical petroleum waft came through, but the steely minerality and lovely fruit notes gave it a brilliant balance.

Time to move to the first of Peter’s offerings, a 2015 Pieropan Calvarino (Soave) - from magnum (everything tastes better from a magnum)! The first thing to notice is what an impressive bottle their magnum was - it looked fantastic, but was quite the challenge to pour from… The wine itself was a wonderful example of how elegant and delightful well-made Soave can be. Lee exclaimed that Soave was Italy’s white Burgundy, quite the claim but on this evdience he was quite right.

I was up again next and we were sticking with our old-world theme, as we moved across to Alsace for one of the region’s premier producers - Domaine Zind Humbrecht with their 2013 Clos Saint Urbain Rangen de Than Grand Cru Gewurtztraminer. This wine was exactly the kind of wine that I wanted to show at this event, it is a complex, beguiling wine that asked more questions than it answered and I was serving it to the perfect group to appreciate it. The colour of the wine in the glass was an almost electric amber, but the nose - oh, the nose! It was fruity, spicy, rich, decadent, exciting all at once. It had a just off-dry presence and was not quite as in-your-face as other Gewürztraminers can be. This was precision wine making as you would expect from a top-notch wine maker and a Grand Cru vineyard! Gewürz can be somewhat of a marmite wine, but the majority decision was that this was a corker of a wine.

James was up next with his first wine of the afternoon and what a wine - he casually pulled out a 1989 Domaine de Pouvray Demi-Sec (Vouvray)! This was like sipping liquid gold, the wine a mere 31 years old retained remarkable freshness and acidity which helped to balance out the sweeter notes. A salient reminder of how elegant Chenin Blanc can be and the ageing potential that it has.

Wow - so that was the whites. By any measure this was already a successful tasting, but we weren’t even half way through!!

We had been slightly remiss in the white wines as we only visited the Old World. We flipped that on the head in the reds, by leaning heavily on the New World. We started with Lee’s second offering, a 2016 Hermandad Malbec (Uco Valley). Lee explained that this wine was from the vineyard nearest to where his wife lived when she was in Argentina and that he drank this wine the night before his wedding; what a wonderful story! The wine was excellent, I am a little sceptical about Argentinian Malbec as there is a lot of pretty nondescript stuff out there, but this was the antithesis of that - cool, precise, elegant, balanced. This was a wonderful wine and really showed how it is worth remembering that just because something is ubiquitous it doesn’t have to be dull (see also NZ Sauvignon Blanc).

Next up my brother and I put on a mini vertical of Cabernets from one of Napa Valley’s most famous producers - Chateau Montelena. Montelena famously beat all of its much-vaunted Burgundian opposition to win the best Chardonnay in the the 1979 “Judgement of Paris” tasting, but their Cabernets are equally good. We compared a young wine (a 2012) against an older wine (1983 - which turned out to be the birth year vintage for three of the attendees, modesty prevents me from identifying them). The older example had matured wonderfully, it had remarkable life and vigour to it, but also possessed those fantastic tertiary characteristics that you expect from an aged Cabernet, more savoury and smoky notes. Still plenty of time on its side, but this was certainly at the peak of its powers. The younger example exuded the cocksure confidence of a banker who’d just been given a rather large bonus - bags of fruit and power, with quite a bit of weight to it. In a way it was quite simple in its offering, although this isn’t to say that it was one-dimensional or boring. There are plenty of people who prefer their wines at this stage of their development, it can be a more pleasurable drinking experience, and indeed some of the group declared it to be their favourite of the two. What a treat to be able to try two wines at different ends of the ageing spectrum in this way.     

We stayed in Napa with our next wine, which was James’ second offering, a 2008 “Relentless” Shafer, which was made from Syrah. This was an absolute blockbuster of a wine. James explained that this had been voted Wine Spectator’s wine of the year in 2012, which is a pretty impressive title. This wine had all the power and structure that you would expect, but with a good waft of finesse to it too. Think of a rugby player wearing a tuxedo. The finish on this wine went on for minutes. In truth this wine could have been cellared for another 10 years or so, but it was an absolute privilege to be able to try this wine - by this point we were grateful to the cheese and charcuterie that my wife had presented so nicely, as we needed some vittels to soak up the wines consumed thusfar.

 If we thought we were going to have a break from the heavy-hitting reds then it was not to be! Peter pulled out another magnum (it seems he only deals in magnums!), this time for something truly unexpected. A 2009 “Two Worlds” wine, which is a fascinating concept of a wine that I hadn’t come across before. The wine is made 50% from Shiraz sourced from Two Hands Wine vineyard in Barossa Valley, which is then sent to Napa Valley where 50% of Cabernet Sauvignon is added from Egelhoff Wines in Napa Valley, which is where the name of the wine comes from - two hands reaching together across the world. A totally unique experience. The result was a wine that left you in absolutely no-doubt that you were drinking it - so much weight, so much texture, so much fruit. This really was a Goliath of a wine, probably too much for us by this point in proceedings if I’m being honest! This was had with some nice, posh chocolate that we’d put out and went down far too well...  

Well. Time for a break! Only joking, time for Lee to pull out a 2016 Corte Sant’Alda Campa Magri Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore. This wine had lovely rich notes of black cherries and strawberries, with a slightly smoky hint from the nicely integrated oak. On the palate there was a great concentration of pretty red fruits and dried raisins, bright acidity and supple tannins which gave rise to a long finish. Actually quite a bit more sophisticated and refined than some Valpolicella that I have tried.

By this point in the evening, it was time to move to something sticky. We did this by going with the “king of wines“ (Rex Vinorum, if you’re into your Latin…), a 2008 6 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszu. Drinking top level Tojaki is one of wine drinking’s greatest and most hedonistic experiences. This had a bit of age to it, so the wine had that familiar marmalade colour to it, as well as also having that marmalade like profile to its tasting experience coming from the botrytis. We’d saved some blue cheese (Stilton) for this wine, which went wonderfully with the wine due to its slightly saltiness which contrasted against the decadent fruit / honey notes that the wine was giving off by the bucketload. 

There’s no point mincing my words here. By this point in the proceedings we were fairly well lubricated. This probably explains why at this point I ran down to my cellar and decided that we couldn’t finish the evening without breaking out a sherry. To this end I pulled out a Bodegas Tradicion 30 year old VORS Amontillado which I picked up when I visited the Bodegas a couple of years ago. This wine was an absolute delight, it is fresh and elegant with some slightly off-dry notes, which are accompanied by really pleasing savoury, nutty and saline notes. The finish on this wine was exquisite - it went on for minutes and minutes.

So there you have it. 13 wines tried over the space of one extremely fun afternoon (and evening!). The wines were beautiful, memorable and everything that you would want them to be - but even better, they brought a group of people together who had a damn good time with each other. A salient reminder that perhaps instead of leaving that special bottle you’ve got lying around for some mythical special occasion; invite some friends around and open that bottle with them!

Now to start planning on 2021’s Open That Bottle Night!

Friday, 3 January 2020

Discovering cognac with the Drinks by the Dram cognac advent calendar


Advent calendars have become big business these days, haven’t they? Gone are the days when you could buy a simple chocolate-based advent calendar for your significant other.

This year I was treated to one of Drinks By the Dram’s excellent calendars by my better half - I had mentioned to her that I was interested in learning more about cognac and their cognac-based Advent calendar was the perfect way to learn about it. 24 individual offerings that came in nice wax-sealed 35ml bottle, what better way to treat yourself on those long December evenings then through sampling a lovely cognac?

The educational bit...


Map taken from Wikipedia under CCL
So, before I start taking you through some of the highlights - what is cognac? Cognac is a type of brandy (i.e. a spirit that has been made from the distillation of grapes), it is important to note that all cognac is brandy - but not all brandies are cognac! Cognac production is protected under the French “appellation d'origine contrôlée” system that is used to designate wine production areas like Champagne (see map to the right).

Cognac must be double-distilled in copper pots and aged for at least two years in French oak barrels in order to meet the criteria. Furthermore, to be known as a true “cru” cognac, 90% of the spirit must have been produced using the Ugni Blanc grape. 

There is a grading system that is used in the production of cognac to denote quality, this will hopefully demystify some of the acronyms that you see on the label and provide a bit of context:

  • Very Special (V.S.), which indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least two years.
  • Very Superior Old Pale (V.S.O.P.), which indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least four years.
  • Extra Old (X.O.), which as of 2018 indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend has been aged in wood for at least 10 years (before 2018 this was only six years). They are going to introduce a new designation “Napoleon” to indicate drinks that meet the previous six year ageing requirement.

As with wine, the general consideration is that extra ageing in barrel allows the spirit to develop more complexity and more depth.

The selection from the calendar allowed me plenty of opportunities to try different cognacs from across the ageing spectrum, which was exactly what I wanted as my knowledge of cognac was limited and I wanted to try a variety of cognacs to help figure out where my preferences were.

Here were some of the highlights (grouped by producer) for me, for brevity’s sake I have not reviewed all 24! All prices quoted below (unless I note otherwise are taken from Master of Malt):

Ragnaud Sabourin


This was a producer that I didn’t know about at all, but I really enjoyed their cognacs. Their No. 4 V.S. was a revelation, it had a rather exotic nose with sweet spices and a little perfume. On the palate it was nice and light, pretty and delicate. When I found a bottle of this online for £37 on a website called Premiers Grand Crus I ordered it immediately!

I also tried their V.S.O.P. which had a red apple nose with a little sweet spice. Quite complex and decent mouth-feel, which featured a bit of heat - despite this it still possessed a certain elegance. 


Naud


Another new producer for me. Their X.O. had a really beautiful and classical nose featuring slightly sweet, caramel-like notes. I could barely detect any heat on it at all. On tasting you could feel the extra quality, there was definite heat there, but it was really refined and poised with touches of caramel to it. You could get this on Master of Malt for £70/bottle, which is expensive but I think given the prices of other X.O.s which are usually north of £100 this represents a good option if you’re looking to splash out! 

The Naud V.S. was quite a gentle drink, refined on the nose and on the palate - rather elegant. Not a particularly showy cognac, but decent (available on Master of Malt for £31/bottle).

Hine


More of a household name this time!

We started the calendar off with Hine’s “Homage to Thomas Hine”, which had a very pretty and delicate nose. Notably low on heat. Nice sweet notes on the mouth. A very enjoyable drinking experience. However, at £105/bottle, this is certainly on the more expensive end of things!

Later on, we had “H by Hine”, a V.S.O.P., which had aromas of apple, as well as slightly sweet spice notes of cinnamon. I found this to be a beautiful drink, really elegant and refined with nice sweet notes. Priced at £37/bottle, this represents fantastic value and is certainly one that I’ll be looking to buy.

Towards the end of the month we had Hine’s Antique X.O., a beautiful nose full of apple and butterscotch, with accompanying notes of cinnamon and clove. Possessed an exceptional mouth feel with definite heat to it but really refined. At £120/bottle, this is a wonderful drink but certainly at the “special occasion” end of the cognac spectrum.

Hermitage


The name of this brand alone exudes class and quality. We finished the calendar with two corkers from this producer, starting with their 20yo Grand Champagne Cognac which had a really elegant and perfumed nose that was very inviting, but not overtly powerful. There was some heat to it, but very subtle. On tasting, it was quite warming with a really long and pronounced finish featuring a little bit of butterscotch. A punchy cognac, with a price of £100/bottle - I think this is warranted though.

The last cognac on the calendar was Hermitage’s 45yo Segonzac Grande Champagne Cognac. The first thing that I noted was that this was very dark in the glass - sitting a nice mahogany brown. This smelt considerably more powerful than the 20yo and featured caramel notes and dark chocolate. On the palate there was a lot of structure and power, with darker notes and a front palate burn of alcohol, which surprised me, before softening into a long, pronounced finish. This is a box-office drink and comes with a price tag to match: £375/bottle, if I’m honest I actually preferred the 20yo so I’ll be more than happy to not purchase this one!

Conclusion


There you have it a guide through some of the cognacs that I enjoyed during December. This is just the start of my cognac adventure as I want to learn a lot more about this beautiful drink over the next few years.

Thank you to Drinks By the Dram for putting together such an excellent selection and, most importantly, thank you to my wife for treating me to this!

Monday, 9 December 2019

Wines to be thankful for with the Theatre of Wine


Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that over the last eight years (!) I have been taking a small group of people from my amateur orchestra (the Camden Symphony Orchestra - we're pretty good, you should check us out...) who form the Camden Symphony Orchestra Wine Society and we make a pilgrimage our favourite wine store - the Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park. Over the last few years we have had some very interesting tasting themes and for our latest tasting, I tried my best to stump the folk at Theatre of Wine by selecting our most esoteric theme yet: wines that celebrate Thanksgiving. Given our tasting was taking place the day after Thanksgiving, I thought it was possible, but I was intrigued to see what they were going to pull out of the hat. Annoyingly (but also thankfully), they put together a really wonderful line-up and somehow managed to give us a thought-provoking series of wines.

The line-up!
We started with a 2017 Marof White (Prekmurje, Slovenia) which had a pretty nose full of peaches and apricots, accompanied by a pleasant lick of butter. On the mouth it was surprisingly weighty without being heavy, as it was offset by bags of acidity. At £15.90/bottle, this represented great value. 
Thanksgiving link: Jason's take here was that this wine was made of a combination of indigenous grape varieties as well as some internationally imported varietals in the blend, which was what Thanksgiving was all about when it was established. Nice!

Next up was one of the wine's of the evening, a 2014 Cornin Pouilly-Fuisse (Burgundy, France) which had a surprisingly quiet nose, but one that danced around a little with life. On the palate though it was decadent and delicious, with tremendous balance between the fresher, fruitier notes and some more buttery, sweet notes. The price tag on this reflected the increased quality, at £34.20/bottle.
Thanksgiving link: Jason stunned us here with the fact that Turkeys take on different shapes depending on where they are reared, which he equated to the properties of Chardonnay which he claimed was the most versatile of all the grapes varieties (I contend that this is Riesling, but I still like the analogy).

We shot across next from France to South Africa next where we had a 2018 Wolf and Woman Chenin Blanc (SA). This bottle featured a rather beautiful label (you can just see it poking out in the image on the left) and is the debut wine from an exciting new producer called Jolandie Fouché. This had a rather delicate nose, featuring pretty stone fruit, with the taste being clean and fresh with a nice, acidic bite to it. At £26/bottle, for me it was a little expensive, but that's probably because this is super small-batch production (only 600 bottles produced). 
Thanksgiving link: This was where we saw the creativity of the team coming to the full fore. Did you know that a version of Thanksgiving was actually a European tradition that was revived by the Americans? Jason explained that this is an example of the "New World" taking an "Old World" tradition and making it their own, just like the South Africans have done with Chenin Blanc! Mind blown...!       

Time to move on to the reds and we started with a classic: 2017 Cline Lodi Zinfandel (California, USA). Had that familiar cherry-cola front to the nose, but with some nice brambly notes to it too. On the palate it was juicy, vibrant and a live, with an interesting herbal twist to it. Brilliant value at £13.50/bottle. 
Thanksgiving link: The facts kept coming here, did you know that whilst people think of Turkeys as being native to the US, they actually aren't? This is exactly the same as Zinfandel, it was thought to be a native wine to the US, but over the last few years vine experts have traced back the origins of Zinfandel through Italy (where it is called Primitivo), to Croatia (where it is called Tribidrag). 

The fine folk at Theatre of Wine like to throw in curve-balls to their tastings and the next wine was a good example of this. A 2016 Castello di Verduno Barbaresco (Piedmont, Italy). Jason contends that this kind of wine benefits from a long decant (c. six hours is ideal) but this had only had an hour. It had a pretty nose with violets, blackcurrants and red cherries coming through. On the mouth it was quite savoury with plenty of acidity, I think it would have been interesting to have seen this wine after a couple more hours in the decanter as it needed to soften up.
Thanksgiving link: Jason explained that for the Piedmontese, their wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are an obsession and that many people outside of this do not "get" what they're trying to do, as the winemakers are rigid in producing what they like. This, according to Jason, can be likened to Thanksgiving in the sense that people outside of the United States are a little confused as to what it is about, but to the people of the US it is incredibly important. Interesting!

Next up was a wine that narrowly was awarded best of the night, a 2014 Dureil-Janthial Rully 1er Cru Vauvry (Burgundy, France). As a more mature Pinot it had those lovely notes of kernel and cherry, whilst on the palate it was soft, luscious and opulent. Frankly a steal at £16.90/bottle, I bought two bottles and only didn't buy more out of politeness to the rest of the group!
Thanksgiving link: Controversially Jason said here that Burgundy and Turkey are both over-priced for what you get - although he did that by showing us that there is good value to be found in Burgundy if you stay outside the most vaunted of communes (e.g. Vosne Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet).

We did try next a 2016 Piombaia Rosso di Montalcino (Tuscany, Italy) which was nice and inky on the nose with a rich, robust and forthright palate to it. Jason put this one on the list for no better reason than he wanted to open it - we were very happy that he did! £22.50/bottle. 

Time to move to the sweets and Jason went for a 2007 Barbeito Single Harvest Tinta Negra (Madeira, Portugal). Now I have been REALLY loving Madeira ever since I visited there a couple of years ago (check out this LINK to see what I got upto), so I was delighted to see this on the list - particularly as I visited Barbeito and they were lovely. This had a lovely, delicious orange nose to it with a slightly oxidative element to it. I describe Madeira as kind of a half-way house between Port and Sherry, and this was the perfect example for this. £30.40/bottle. 
Thanksgiving link: Apparently Madeira was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was a favourite of the founding fathers!

To finish we had a 2008 Signatory Linkwood Scotch (Scotland, UK). This was a rather pleasant scotch to finish, but lacked a little weight / power for me. £47/bottle.
Thanksgiving link: Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a licenced bartender before he became a politician?!

So there you have it. From the most obtuse theme that we have had, Jason and the team not only managed to show us some excellent wine, they managed to tie them to the Thanksgiving theme and help us all to learn a thing or two. What am I thankful for the this year? The continued existence of fine, independent wine shops and the wonderful friendships that wine can bring people together for.          

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Drinks by the Dram boozy advent calendars – the beautiful, the bold, and the bloody expensive





We’ve hit November, which means it’s officially ok for me to start talking about Christmas

And Christmas time means boozy present talk.

I almost feel that these near legendary calendars don’t need an introduction most people I know have already got one on their Santa list. Yes that’s right, it’s Drinks by the Dram advent calendar time

For those of you who don't know... For the 24 days leading up to Christmas, instead of a tiny chocolate treat, you get a delicious 30ml dram of delicious booze to enjoy.

These babies just keep getting better every year. For 2019, there are around 40 different calendars available – one for every kind of booze lover. Although some have already sold out, so you'd better get in quick.

For the fourth year, those crazy folk at Drinks by the Dram have a Very Old & Rare whisky advent calendar for, wait for it, £9,999.95. While that may be beyond the reach of most of us, boy does it sound incredible. Highlights include a Glenfarclas 60 year old (cask 1672), Yamazaki Sherry 2012, and a Glenrothes 1968 (bottled 2018). If you’re not a fan of surprises, you can have a look at the full list here, and be incredibly envious. I was assured it sells out every year...

And it won't look out of place on your mantlepiece. Each calendar comes in a bespoke wooden box handcrafted by a cabinet-maker. It's available in a walnut or Macassar ebony finish. 

If your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, there’s the Old & Rare Whisky Advent calendar for £999.95.

More realistic still, there's the universally loved Gin advent calendar for £124.95, or Whisky advent calendar for £149.95. Or a whole host of whisk(e)y, bourbon, tequila, rum, vodka, cognac, absinthe, mezcal and armagnac options, depending on your tipple of choice.



Indecisive or just love everything? Build your own.

There’s even an escalating heat naga chilli vodka calendar, £99.95, for those brave/stupid souls out there. Did someone say 240,000 Scovilles? Yummy...


That Boutique-y Whisky Company


And in great mash-up news, the folks from That Boutique-y Whisky Company have teamed up with the folks from Drinks by the Dram to bring joy to the world, in calendar form. You get a different 30ml wax-sealed dram of independently bottled whisky from That Boutique-y Whisky Company's collection to open every day. This calendar features the likes of a Cambus 28 year old, Ben Nevis 21 year old and mystery Islay #3 13 year old.

I've got our hands on the That Boutique-y Whisky Company 2019 calendar, so expect a dram a day update from me with reviews of what I'm drinking... I'll probably save it for the evening though. As great as a December breakfast dram sounds, it probably won't make for a particularly productive day.