FINO’S NOT SO FINE.

 

 

‘AND EVERY YEAR …. IT ISN’T.

 

With Fino as its flagship, sherry is sailing in troubled waters. Every year we’re told: “This is the yeara chilled glass of fino will take the UK by storm.” And every year… it isn’t. To change sherry’s fortunes, Jerez needs to steer a new course.

Sadly, it’s not only in the UK where sherry’s story makes scary reading. The total area of vineyards dedicated to the Palomino Fino vine has shrunk by two-thirds since the early 1980s. Global exports are less than a fifth of what they were in 1979. In 2015, information from Consejo Regulador de Los Vinos de Jerez, sherry’s governing body, revealed that sherry sales had all but collapsed in the category’s top five markets over the last decade, with exports having nearly halved since 2002. Sherry’s golden era has long gone.

Beltrán Domecq, president of the Consejo Regulador, is upbeat, however, “after closing the 2016 campaign at similar volume levels as 2015, growth in volumes is a matter of time”. Mauricio González-Gordon, chairman of González Byass, also hit a positive note at Prowein in 2017. “After a tumultuous few years the fortunes of sherry may be about to turn, with the IWSR predicting sales of premium sherry to grow 18% by 2021,” he announced.

All sherry fans hope that this optimism will bear out, but recent statistics (June 2017-18) tell a further worrying tale, showing that total global exports (32m litres) fell by 3.5%. Europe recorded a fall in sales of 4.3% (to 18m litres) and Asia a fall of 18.53% (to 196,000 litres). Exports to the US and the rest of America rose by 3.42%, but with total sales of 1.7m litres it’s nothing to write home about.

Happily, sherry’s domestic market has remained relatively stable since 2002 and, even though sales fell slightly by 2.9% from June 2017-18, it still accounts for 36.5% of sherry’s total sales.

Weighing in at around 20m litres in 2002, sherry sales to the UK, Jerez’s biggest export market, fell by 1.8% to 9m litres from June 2017-18. Within this period figures show fino exports to the UK totalling 982,000 litres, indicating that the category accounts for about 10.5% of total UK sherry sales.

Martin Skelton, managing director of González Byass UK, whose Tío Pepe is the biggest fino brand on the UK market, notes enthusiastically that sales of the brand have “risen consistently for the past three years – last year saw an increase of 7%”. That’s good news and supports the prediction of a global growth in premium sherry by 2021, but it’s a modest increase in a small sector from a very low base. The fino flagship may be surviving but it’s not thriving.

 

THUMBS DOWN

But there’s something else. For many years a wine course has formed an important part of the coveted Diploma at Tante Marie Culinary Academy in Woking, near London. The course, mostly attended by student chefs in the 18-30 age range from all corners of the world, includes a session on sherry and a tasting of a top-dollar fino.

Fino invariably gets the ‘thumbs down’ from the young international chefs. Many of their exclamations are unprintable.

The word ‘weird’ often appears in tasting notes that cross my desk. Fino’s crisp, citrus, yeasty, flor character rarely makes a friend. It’s an unscientific survey but, from a decade of painful facial expressions, it’s evident that fino does not fall well on the young palate – sadly, just the spot where the Jerez boys are trying to settle.

With many top international chefs passing through the Tante Marie gateway these reactions should also give those who promote fino as ‘food friendly’, food for thought. It is time for a change.

UK Manager Edward Butler is embracing change to reboot Williams & Humbert’s sherry sales. “Fino is a strange taste to many, so we’re giving the younger generation a choice. We’re finding that our 12-year-old oloroso and 12-year-old amontillado are fast gaining popularity in bars from London to Paris,” he says.

Dry oloroso as sherry’s new flagship? Served in large, fine wine glasses, not in those small, silly schooners, its attractive light brown colour, clean, dry, nutty flavours (without a trace of flor or yeast), would be a new blank-page experience to the young consumer. The higher alcohol may be a drawback in today’s health conscious market, but seeing the rise and rise of cocktails in trendy bars this brown beauty should fit well. The promotion of a new kid on the block could also kickstart an interest in other sherry styles.

González-Gordon thinks young consumers don’t understand sherry, saying that “education is its biggest challenge”. Wise words indeed, but the UK wine trade is not too bright when it comes to consumer education, so it’s hoped that any new campaign doesn’t get too clever with its soleras, palo cortados, specific vineyard pagos, and en ramas. No matter what market, ‘keep it simple’ is the name of the game.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. To its credit the switched-on branch of the Jerez Club has realised that pouring traditional styles ‘solo’, be it fino, manzanilla, amontillado or oloroso, no matter how good the wine or the promotion, will not bring back the good old days. The new branch has cleverly embraced the new marketplace – the growing number of Spanish restaurants and bars that are springing up in the UK’S major towns and cities and the capitals of Europe. Among the glitter, sherry is now an exciting part of the colourful and lucrative world of cocktails. “We must not be frightened of new things,” says William & Humbert’s Butler. “The bottom line is that we need to sell sherry and innovation is the way forward. The cocktail scene is a great way to open doors.”

 

NEW GENERATION

The old farts of the UK wine trade who insist that sherry should only be enjoyed ‘solo’ have thankfully fallen silent, no doubt aware that this alternative approach may be sherry’s escape route. They’ve also realised that the modest growth in fino is due, in part, to its contribution to a new generation of cocktails. That said, many still cringe at gaudy cocktail lists peddling Verano Verde (fino), Thunder in Paradise (oloroso), No. 8 (palo cortado), Miracle of 7th Street (amontillado), and Criadare (manzanilla), convinced that ‘hipsters’ are highjacking their beloved wines.

The purists should check sherry’s history, for it’s not the first time that Jerez has gone off-piste to boost sales. Pale cream sherry broke the mold back in the 1960s when International Distillers & Vintners used the name of its port subsidiary Croft to sell sherry from the old Gilbey soleras. The new product, Croft Original, was revolutionary – a sweetened fino, fortified to 15.5% and blended with concentrated sweet Palomino must, resulting in a tooth-tingling 110gs/litre of sugar. The wine was an immediate success, challenging Harvey’s Bristol Cream for the top-selling UK position.

Harvey’s Bristol Cream is still on top. “Harvey’s Bristol Cream takes 30% of the total UK sherry market and we’re continuing to invest in the brand,” says Jen McCormick, head of sherry at Whyte & Mackay. With the cream sherry category taking an impressive 44% of the total UK market (4.1m litres, June 2017-18) it’s evident that a sector often pooh-poohed by many aficionados is playing a major role in keeping the UK sherry market afloat.

It’s interesting to note that cream and pale cream sherries are a ‘UK thing’, for surprisingly they hardly register elsewhere. The US, cream sherry’s second biggest market, takes a meagre 620,618 litres. A marketing opportunity for Jerez?

Croft Original is still part of an important pale cream market that accounts for 24% of total UK sherry sales (2.2m litres, June 2017-18), meaning the cream and pale cream sectors together take an impressive 68%. Now as then, the wine trade waxes lyrical about fino, manzanilla, palo cortado, amontillado and oloroso while Joe and Josephine Public plump for the sweeties. It’s a brave man who suggests cream sherry as the new flagship but…

Gonzalez Byass is looking to kickstart the sluggish sherry market with the introduction of a new product, Croft Twist. A pre-mixed, slightly sparkling fino-based wine with an English ‘twist’ of elderflower, lemon and mint and a lightweight 5.5% alcohol by volume, it’s a reflection of Rebujito, the famous Andalucian ‘long fino’ that’s also benefitting from the cocktail boom. Breaking news: rumour has it that Fino & Tonic is edging favour with the Gin & Tonic brigade.

Hats off to those pushing boundaries to find new expressions of sherry for a new audience. Fino as the flagship isn’t working. It’s time for change and to build on a cocktail revolution that’s throwing a lifeline to a struggling sector of the global wine market. It’s a big ask but, sadly, if it doesn’t navigate a new course, sherry is set to continue its depressing journey.

 

The article first appeared in Drinks International magazine.

QUE KSARA KSARA.

 

LITTLE KNOWN LEBANON.

 

Back in the 80’s Chateau Musar and its winemaker Gaston Hochar caused quite a stir in the UK, “I didn’t know Lebanon made wine”, was the usual reply. It couldn’t have been further from the truth for Lebanon’s ancient people were bottling and shipping wine as early as 3000 BC.

 

Chateau Ksara has now joined Chateau Musar on UK wine shelves. Ksara’s tradition stretches back to 1857 when Jesuit brothers inherited a 25 hectare plot between Tanail and Zahle in the Bekaa Valley and linked their science and agricultural skills to plant foreign, mostly French, grape varieties on Lebanese soil. Chateau Ksara bought the winery from the Jesuits in 1973.

 

Lebanon is a small, mountainous country in the eastern Mediterranean, bordering Syria to the north and Israel to the south. The Bekaa Valley plateau lies at about 1100 metres above sea level and with its backdrop of snow-capped mountains enjoys a continental climate (cold, wet winters and hot, dry summers); a combination that suits the French varieties down to the ground.

 

Chateau Ksara’s vineyards are located in the central and western Bekaa Valley and produce white wines (including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewurztraminer) and reds from varieties that include Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  “Our whites are delicate and aromatic whilst our reds are rich, fleshy and tannic”, notes Ksara’s Chairman Zafer Chaoui.

 

To complete the French Connection, Ksara’s winemaker is a Bordeaux man, “I was at Chateau Prieure-Lichine in Margaux and to be honest, I didn’t expect to be amazed by the winemaking opportunities in Lebanon. I’m now very proud to be a Frenchman making wine in Lebanon”, notes James Palge. He’s in a good place for Bordeaux varieties are major players at Ksara.

 

Chateau Ksara, the flagship red wine follows the Bordeaux line. The 2014, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (30%) and Petit Verdot (10%) from the clay-limestone Khirbet Qanafar vineyard at about 900 metres, was fermented in stainless steel before being aged for 18 months in 50% new oak and 50% first year oak. My notes included red and black fruit aromas with crisp, cherry and plum spice flavours, positive tannins, lovely mouthfeel, with a lingering toasty bramble finish. The older vintages of 2001 and 2008 confirmed that these wines age really well.

 

Chateau Ksara’s Cuvee du Pape Chardonnay 2014 hails from guyot-trained vines planted in the clay and limestone soils at about 1400 metres. The wine was fermented in new oak barrels with ‘battonage’ (lees stirring) and aged for 8 months in new and one year old French oak barrels. “Intriguing and exotic”, I wrote as an opening line, “honey and vanilla overtones to ripe, yet fresh peach, melon and apple flavours with a pleasing finish”, I concluded. Like many of my fellow tasters, thinking of the hot summers of the Bekaa Valley, I expected softer acidity. We also tasted the 1996 vintage which again revealed a refreshing edge to the mellow fruit and honeyed overtones.

 

If you want to treat your friends to a quality wine that’s ‘intriguing and different’ Lebanon’s a great place to start.

DRINKING WINE TOWARDS A HEALTHIER LIFESTYLE!                                                 

EVERY LITTLE HELPS!

 

Alcohol gives pleasure to many but is also a serious problem in our society. The Scottish Government have introduced a minimum cost per unit whilst headlines, television and radio wisely inform us that drinking in excess of recommended guidelines is bad for our health.

Sadly though, nobody offers guidance or even starts a conversation to help us drink less wine, still enjoy a glass or two and encourage a healthier lifestyle. That is, until now. Getting a dialogue started is as easy as one, two, three. Every little helps.

  1.  Discovering good, lower (as opposed to low) alcohol wines opens the door to healthier drinking.
  2.  Pay just a little more to drink far better quality – drinking better wine can help you drink less.
  3.  A little planning helps even more.

 

1. CLOCK THE ALCOHOL LEVELS.

Alcohol levels of wine have zoomed; 14.0% is now commonplace. Back in the day most wines maxed at 12.5%. Top quality, good value lower (as opposed to low) alcohol wines are still on our shelves and getting to know them is a fast track to healthier drinking.

There are hundreds of such bottles from Austria’s Gruner Veltliner at 11.5% to English Sparkling Wine and Champagne at 12%. Muscadet is 12%, Australian Hunter Valley Semillon and Vinho Verde weigh in at 11%, German Riesling even lower at 10%. Moscato d’Asti is 6%. On the red shelf look to France for Beaujolais, St. Joseph and St. Chinian (all 12.5%), and to Italy for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (12%) and Lambrusco Classico (11%). Rose d’Anjou is 10.5%. The alcohol level is on the label so you can easily check it out.

 

2. DRINK BETTER TO HELP DRINK LESS.

To most consumers wine is a complete mystery. The depressing result is that the average UK. bottle price is only about £5.50. Paying more can help you drink less. How?

Few realise that in a £5 bottle there’s only about 30 pence of wine! By the time your £5 pays for Duty (£2.16), VAT. at 20% (83 pence), profit margins and fixed costs (bottle, cork, label, shipping etc.) you’re left with about 30 pence of wine. That’s only 6% of the price tag. Not surprisingly, “30 pence quality” isn’t very exciting and doesn’t give you much to savour and swirl!

Now comes the clever bit!  When you pay £7.50 the Duty and fixed costs stay the same whilst the VAT. and profit margins, being a percentage of the retail price, increase only slightly which means you get about £1.65 of wine (22% of the price tag). So, by paying just £2.50 more you’re getting over 5 times more wine. By the same score, paying £10 gets you 10 times more wine (30% of the price). Paying £20 gets you about 25 times more wine (40% of the price).

Paying just a little more boosts wine quality BIGTIME so with bags more to savour and swirl there’s heightened enjoyment in every sip, helping many to drink less and promote a healthier lifestyle.

 

3.  PLAN YOUR DRINKING WEEK.

The Chief Medical Officer recommends that men and women drink no more than 14 units a week – 2 units a day.   One unit is about 85 millilitres (ml) of wine with 12% alcohol by volume by the way. Doctors say that it’s beneficial to have a day off; so every other day allows us 4 units, that’s two large 175ml. glasses every two days. That’s a fair deal, especially as by paying just a little more we’ll be drinking far, far better quality.

 

So, following simple rules can help us to drink better and less, still enjoy a glass or two of good wine and encourage a healthier lifestyle along the way. Let’s start the conversation. Every little helps.

OLD VINES. NEW WINES.

 

THE BAKEWELL CHALLENGE.

 

A chef recently challenged me to match a wine with Bakewell Tarts, one of England’s favourite cakes. These delicious sweeties have a jam-coated shortcake case filled with sponge, topped with by almond flakes and icing. I luv ‘em. What’s more, Bakewell is a village in Derbyshire not far from my home city of Manchester so, as you can guess, I was up for the challenge.

South Africa’s beautiful vineyards are also very close to my heart. Chenin Blanc’s one of my favourite grape varieties and so, for me, the combination of Bakewell Tarts, Manchester, South Africa and Chenin Blanc really hits the spot.

With the Bakewells I opted for a dry but fruity South African Bush Vine Chenin Blanc 2016 from Klein Zalze; it chips in with ripe yet crisp pineapple and peach melon flavours which, together with the sweet almond overtones of the Bakewell beauties complete an intriguing taste experience.

Zalze’s Chenin Blanc hails from their Stellenbosch vineyards tucked behind Cape Town’s Table Mountain. The bush vine bit refers to the vines being trained as bushes, a historical system often referred to as ‘goblet’. Chenin Blanc arrived in the Cape in the mid 17th century and soon became popular as its versatility produced dry, medium, sweet and sparkling wines. This classic variety also gave the winemaker bags of mouth-watering acidity, so important to balance the riper fruit produced in a warmer climate.

South Africa is the world’s largest producer of Chenin Blanc so it’s not surprising that it’s the Cape’s most planted variety. Chenin therefore plays a leading role in South Africa’s new and exciting ‘Old Vine Project’ which aims to preserve South Africa’s vines with over 35 years on the clock. There are currently about 2,600 hectares of vineyards with vines of this age, “but only an estimated 7% have been identified and resuscitated and result in an identifiable wine brand. The rest are sadly all under threat of being pulled up. There’s a long way to go”, admits the Project’s marketing specialist Andre Morgenthal. Cleverly, the project also has 20-30 year old vines in its sights as these are the ‘old vines’ and great wines of the future.

I was lucky enough to be invited to South Africa House a while ago to taste over 70 wines from ‘the Old Vine Project’, a stunning collection that spanned the Cape’s vineyards from Olifants River in the north to Bot River in the south, from Swartland and Darling in the west to Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo to the east.

Wines of South Africa, ably supported by viticulturalist Rosa Kruger and Andre Morgenthal have championed the ‘Old Vine Project’ but importantly they also have the support of S.A’s top producers including Badenhorst, Alheit, Metzer, L’Avenir, Klawer, Piekenierskloof, Bellingham, De Krans, Morgenhof, De Morgenzon, Simonsig, Reyneke, Gabrielskloof and the Sadie Family. Klein Zalze are also supporters of the Old Vine Project but it’s their Bush Vine Chenin that clicks with the Bakewell.

A friend thought that a red may also lift the Bakewell Tarts so I stayed in the Cape vineyards and opened a bottle of Benguela Cove Shiraz 2014. The wine is 100% Shiraz from the Walker Bay vineyards that overlook the Atlantic Ocean in the Overberg region near the whale watching town of Hermanus. The crisp blackberry flavours went surprisingly well with the tarts, “told you so”, he smiled. It just shows you that when it comes to matching food and wine there are few hard and fast rules. Try the ‘Bakewells’ with the Chenin Blanc and the Shiraz or, push the boat out and pour Klein Zalze’s Old Vine Project Family Reserve Chenin 2015 or one of the others from the exciting ‘Old Vine Project’. Either way, South Africa wins again!

 

 

 

 

SAVE A FIZZING FORTUNE ON NEW YEARS EVE!   

BUT DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT.

 

Times are tight so if you can’t afford Champagne for New Year’s Eve, don’t panic, just grab your passport! With most winemaking countries producing sparkling wine you can now buy a cracking array of fizz and, save a fortune t’boot.

The Kings of Bubble, Champagne (Deutz NV, £35) and English Sparkling Wine (Albury NV, £30), are generally a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. They initially make a dry still white wine which is then poured into bottles with a pinch of sugar and yeast; the result is a ‘second fermentation’ which produces  a little more alcohol and carbon dioxide – the fizz. Most sparkling wines are made in exactly the same way, often from the same grapes. There is one big difference of course, a smaller price tag!

Champagne Houses have been making bubbly in the New World for decades (Moet et Chandon’s ‘Chandon’, Argentina, £12.99) but the locals have also long realised their potential for top fizz. Chile (Montes, ‘Sparkling Angel’ £15.50), South Africa (Graham Beck, £11.99), Australia (Jansz, £16) and New Zealand (Lindauer, £14) are now very happy hunting grounds for the bubble seeker.

Back in Europe, Cava, the Spanish sparkler offers amazing value. Made in the same way as Champagne but from Xarello, Macabeo and Parallada grapes you can pour a crisp Cava (Cordorniu Brut NV) for £8 and often Vintage Cava for not much more (Codorniu Grand Plus 2015, £10.99).

I’m not a fan of cheap Prosecco but this sparkler from Glera grapes grown in vineyards behind Venice in north-east Italy has taken the world by storm. That said, when it comes to Prosecco it’s worth paying a few quid more. Look for the words Valdobbiadene, Superiore and DOCG on the label – better (hillside) vineyards, better grapes, equals better wine (La Gioiosa Valdobbiadene DOCG, £9.99). By the way, Prosecco is made by the Charmat Method, where the second fermentation produces bubbles in a closed tank as opposed to the bottle for Champagne.

Staying in Italy, a bottle of Franciacorta from the Lombardia region of northern Italy will herald 2018 in fine style. Chardonnay is the major player (with Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc) in this wonderful Champagne alternative. It’s not cheap but often has a price tag £10 lower than the Kings of Sparklers.

Shooting back into France opens up a fizz fest. Loire Valley Sparklers have lost a few headlines in recent years which is a pity as Cremant de Loire  (Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay) from the limestone vineyards around the castle topped town of Saumur is well worth searching out (Wine Society, £11.95).

Burgundy often means big price tags but the sparkling wines of this famous region offer great value; classy Chardonnay based bubbly for little more than a tenner, (Cremant de Bourgogne, £10.99).

Cremant de Limoux from high altitude limestone vineyards in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, (90% Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc) will lift any celebration (Les Graimenous Brut 2015, £14.50). 

Alsace’s Cremant d’Alsace (Waitrose, £10) hails from vineyards tucked into the north east corner of France, just up the road from Champagne. Little known in the U.K., it’s interesting to note that after Champagne it’s the most popular sparkling wine in France. ‘So, it’s well worth a try!

To add even more NYE festivity pour sparkling rose versions as the evening unfolds and, as the cheese appears after midnight surprise your guests with a bottle of red Oz Sparkling Shiraz (Jacob’s Creek, £10). Another tip this year; serve your sparklers in normal wine glasses – flutes are so yesterday.

FIVE LIVE WINE FOR A TENNER.

A FESTIVE WINE RIOT…. ON BUDGET.                             

 

‘Just been chatting with Adrian Chiles on BBC FiveLive about Christmas wines for less than a tenner. The fact that we’re paying more than a fiver makes it quite easy … many people don’t realise that after duty, VAT, profits and fixed costs there’s only about 40 pence of wine in a five quid bottle. Pay £10 and you’re getting between 6-7 times more wine for your money. Paying just a little more for the wines will also make for a far tastier Christmas lunch!

Champagne (Deutz NV., Taittinger NV., £36) and English Sparkling Wine (Exton Park NV, Hambledon NV, £28) may be king of aperitifs but if the price tag’s too royal pour a princely Cremant de Bougogne from Burgundy, a sparkling Saumur from the Loire Valley, a Vintage Cava from Spain or an Australian sparkler; they’ll all give you change from a tenner and really get the party buzzing. Be trendy and serve your bubble from normal wine glasses – flutes are so yesterday!

Chablis, the crisp, steely Burgundian (William Fevre 2015, £18.99) is a classic match with smoked salmon but if your budget won’t stretch that far but it still has to be Chardonnay look to Chile’s cool Casablanca Valley (Errazuriz Wild Ferment 2015, £9.99) or South Africa’s beautiful Stellenbosch vineyards (Journey’s End Honeycomb 2015, £9); the ripe citrus apple flavours make for an exotic combination.

Grassy, citrus Sancerre will be as popular as ever but if £15 isn’t, try Touraine Sauvignon Blanc (Domaine Guenault 2016), from just up the road in France’s Loire Valley. It may lack the uummph of top Sancerre but it’s the same grape and it’s six quid cheaper. Staying with Sauvignon Blanc, both Bordeaux (Dourthe 2016, £8.50) and New Zealand (Villa Maria Private Bin 2016, £9) offer super value. A taste-off between Touraine and Marlborough will make great sport around the table!

Adrian asked about a wine match with the turkey, “how about a red”, he asked. Grenache-charged Gigondas and Vacqueyras from the southern Rhone come to mind but at £16 they don’t come cheap. Fear not, under rated neighbour Cotes du Rhone (Chapoutier, £8.75) offers a tasty alternative.

Cru Classe Bordeaux requires a second mortgage so look to the lesser known regions of Bourg, Blaye, Fronsac and Castillon for a very decent bottle for less than a tenner.

Burgundy is generally expensive but a peep into the village vineyards of Rully, Montagny, Mercurey and Givry for Pinot Noir lovers will bring a pleasant surprise. Oh, and don’t forget that although Beaujolais is made from Gamay it’s still ‘Burgundy’ and is often a bargain, (Morgon, Chateau de Pizay, £9.99). Chilean Pinot Noir (Cono Sur, £7.50) will also hit the spot.

Rioja needs no introduction but this Christmas you can trade up to ‘Reserva’ for £10; that extra boost of toasty, soft red fruit is the result of  12 months barrel ageing in cool Spanish cellars. ‘Talking about Rioja, don’t forget White Rioja – several of my friends prefer white wine with the turkey, (Vina Real Barrel Fermented Blanco 2015, £12). Popping across the border into Portugal will also bring rich rewards – there are some cracking, top value reds from the Douro Valley and Alentejo that give you change from a tenner.

A big up-front New World red with goose or duck? Go for Aussie Shiraz from the baking vineyards of Barossa Valley, (Jacob’s Creek Reserve 2013, £7.50). Shiraz is the same grape as Syrah from the Rhone Valley by the way.

Argentinean Malbec has taken the world by storm – its crisp dense black fruit is a steal at £9.99, (Viñalba Reservado 2015). Guests will also have fun comparing an Argentinean Malbec with a traditional yet lesser known Malbec from Cahors in south-west France (Cahors 2015, £8).

Hearty singing normally accompanies the flaming Christmas pudding; the wine match is tricky but little beats the warm, nutty raisin flavours of Tawny Port from Portugal’s Douro Valley, (Noval 10 year old).  At £20 it’s not cheap but it will keep its charms in the bottle until New Year’s Eve – halving the cost to fall within budget – the Dutch serve Port as an aperitif … ‘just a thought as your friends arrive on the 31st.

If you prefer a sweetie with the pud head to Spain, (Torres Moscatel Oro, £9), ‘Down Under’ for an Orange Muscat and Flora (Brown Brothers, £9) or, if you can extend your budget slightly, to Sauternes in Bordeaux where a half bottle of Castelnau de Suduiraut, the second label of Cru Classe Chateau Suduiraut no less, will deliver honeyed heaven at £12.

At the end of a memorable Christmas lunch everybody’s in that wonderful mellow mood …the table’s strewn with half empty bottles, discarded glasses, paper hats and crackers. Now’s the time relax, reflect on some wonderful wines, applaud the newcomers, sip your favourites and …… feel smug at the money you’ve saved.

My best wishes for a Grand Cru Christmas and Vintage New Year.

 

 

COME ON, GET YOUR COAT …..

A STROLL THROUGH BURGUNDY.

From Aloxe-Corton to Chorey-Les-Beaune.

You know the scene. He walks into the wine bar, orders a glass of Macon Villages and spends the next half hour telling you he’s an expert on Burgundy. Well, don’t believe him, Burgundy’s hallowed vineyards hold mysteries far beyond mere mortal’s understanding. That said, the code to this magical region is there to be cracked!

There’s no better way to discover ‘le difference’ than to walk through the Cote de Beaune, the Cote de Nuits’ partner in the fabled Cote D’Or, (the Golden Slopes) past some of the most evocative village names in the world.  Join me on a stroll from Aloxe-Corton to Chorey-les-Beaune. Incredibly, we’ll be walking through some of the world’s most expensive real estate!

Burgundy’s myriad villages, vineyards, microclimates, soils, grand crus, premier crus, and winemakers not only send heads spinning, they send scepticism racing. I remember my early visits when I pooh-poohed differences in vineyard plots only metres apart, ”don’t tell me that one side of the wall is Grand Cru and the other side has a common or garden appellation. Pull the other one”. I was wrong.  Time and an open mind have since taken me on a fascinating voyage of discovery.

Not all things Burgundian are complicated. Talking grapes, in the Cotes de Beaune it’s simply Chardonnay for the whites and Pinot Noir for the reds but, when it comes to the appellations, (the names and pecking order of the wines), things aren’t so straightforward. Mind you, it’s certainly not as complicated as many would have us believe.

Travelling south along the N74 with the ‘golden slopes’ sweeping away gently to the right, the quiet village of Aloxe Corton with its colourfully tiled roofs, gracious chateau, and elegantly spired church takes the eye. It heralds the Cote de Beaune.

The famous saddle-shaped hill of Corton rises above the village and nowhere in Burgundy is the key to the code or the concept of ‘terroir’ better demonstrated.  Just one taste of the wines from different plots dotted around the hill’s slopes will convince the grumpiest sceptic that it’s all about location, location, location.  Around the village, the best climats of Aloxe soak up the sun throughout long lazy ripening days, whilst just around the corner in Pernand-Vergelesses, poorer expositions on the same hill give lighter wines that are only a shadow of their famous neighbour.

Above the village and below a top hat of trees the Corton hill slopes steeply, clearly exposing her beneficial limestone outcrops, perfect for Chardonnay to produce Aloxe’s famous wine, the powerfully elegant Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne. More clay outcrops in the middle slopes provide perfect terrain for the flirtatious Pinot Noir, the result being the wonderfully rich Corton, incredibly the only red Grand Cru in the Cote de Beaune. Where and why Chardonnay vines end and Pinot begins on the magical slope is a never-ending talking point but with the Aloxe Grand Cru vineyards having no less than 200 owners, some of whom own just a few vines, knowing the best plots and their winemakers, not to mention your bank manager, is far more critical when it comes to buying a bottle.

Barely three kilometres to the west of Aloxe Corton and still lying on its famous hill, Pernand-Vergelesses, lives in the shadow of Aloxe Corton. But this time quite literally! Here, the sun’s rays are blocked by the Corton hill itself sentencing many of the vines to a shady existence for much of the day. There is a brighter side, however, for the best red Premier Crus lie on the flatter, sunnier vineyards further down the slope and these, together with the best limestone rich, sun-blessed Chardonnay plots, can make ‘P.V.’ a happy hunting ground for the determined wine sleuth. Many of the wines are sold under the Cotes de Beaune Villages label which is a pity for many deserve to stand on their own.

Fuelling the Burgundy enigma, a clutch of favourable south-east facing vineyard plots and their wines, belie their origin, including the ‘white’ Grand Cru En Charlemagne parcel which is entitled to use the ‘Aloxe name’ of Corton Charlemagne and further along, a small parcel of Pinot Noir whose ‘terroir’ allows it to take on the prestigious Corton label.

Just around the corner from Aloxe Corton and again lying on the same saddled hill, the vineyards of Ladoix-Serrigny face east but, as with ‘P.V.’, sadly do not share the same quality exposure. With the soils also changing as you move around the slope, the wines lack the intensity and finesse of Aloxe Corton.  But it’s not all bad news, some climats are good enough to be entitled with Aloxe’s priceless Corton and Corton-Charlemagne appellations. Many of Ladoix’s wines are sold under the Cotes de Beaune Villages label which makes Ladoix-Serrigny one of the lesser known communes but thankfully these under rated wines are becoming more visible on our shelves; the name may be difficult to pronounce but they give good pleasure for a good price.

When the great winemaker in the sky dealt ‘terroir’, Chorey-les-Beaune was a little unfortunate. The trouble is, it’s on the wrong side of the road and being off the slope, much of Chorey’s vineyards stand on flatter, damper clay soils. Consequently, the village is often a forgotten enclave. With the nearby village road sign also pointing to Aloxe Corton, it again demonstrates how things can change within a stone’s throw.

It’s not all doom and gloom though down Chorey way as some of the vineyards are on sandier soils where better wines evolve. On a personal note I was lifted by a brace of Chorey reds at a London tasting earlier this year and a white Chorey-les-Beaune at a Burgundy dinner last week was for me, the best wine of the night amongst some impressive labels.

Hope you enjoyed our stroll. Now back to the hotel for a glass of …..

 

BORDEAUX QUICKIE.

 

TWO DAYS, TOO FANTASTIC.

 

Over the weekend some friends of mine asked if it was possible to ‘do’ the Bordeaux vineyards in a couple of days. Of course you can, although it involves clever planning and an early start! I accompanied twelve CEO’s on a corporate ‘jolly’, sorry ‘educational visit’ recently … that itinerary, and a chat over a good bottle of red set my friends’ trip in motion. Hopefully, it will inspire you too!

The Bordelais have a reputation for not being visitor friendly but that was completely busted as they opened their doors and their bottles with a broad smile.

We were on the early bird 6.45 B.A. flight (oouchh) but it was worth it as we were on the magnificent lawns of Chateau Palmer near the ‘left bank’ village of Margaux by 10.30 (and we lost the hour!) Our private visit of the cellars ended with a super tasting; second label Alter Ego 2011 (£56) was followed by Chateau Palmer 2006 and 2007. The 2006, made from Cabernet Sauvignon (66%) and Merlot (34%) with its dense blackberry, friendly fine grained tannins and lingering finish made me very happy; that’s if you have a spare £175. “Left Bank?”, I hear you say. For once Wine Trade lingo is useful;  guess what, the Left Bank vineyards are on your left hand side as you sail up river towards the Atlantic.

We then drove north to the village of Pauillac through rolling gravel-soil vineyards, before sweeping into the impressive, towered chateau that is Pichon Baron (pictured). We were greeted with a comprehensive, nay privileged, tasting in their ‘Hollywood’ cellars including 2012 and 2011 (cooler years) and 2010 and 2009 (sunny years and two of the best Bordeaux vintages). My best wine? The 2010 with its ripe fruit balanced with a lovely crisp tannic edge would be my choice but again, at £100 plus you need deep pockets.

After a brilliant lunch at Pichon (more wine!) we didn’t really need a slap up dinner but as dusk fell we entered one of Rick Stein’s favourite restaurants, La Tupina, overlooking the River Garonne in the heart of Bordeaux. The wine list was reasonably priced and a few bottles of Chateau La Garde (£35) from the Pessac-Leognan vineyards south of the city were well received with Tupina’s signature meat dishes.

The next morning saw us on Bordeaux’s ‘Right Bank’, an easy 45 minute drive from our city centre hotel. We arrived early to stroll around Petrus, hallowed ground indeed as these blue clay vineyards in the heart of the Pomerol plateau produce bottles with £1000 price tags!

Spot on time (great coach driver!) we walked up the gravel drive of Pomerol’s Vieux Chateau Certan, another highlight for the excited group. The lofty barrel filled cellar was the venue for an exceptional tasting. The first glass, a barrel sample of 2015 brought applause all round, (my notes were ripe, silky, balanced, long), even though it probably had another 12 months to sleep in the barrels. The team had picked up the softer ‘Right Bank’ style, thanks to the higher proportion of Merlot (80%) in the blend. The other grapes in the 2015 were Cabernet Franc (19%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1%) by the way. Other vintages tasted meant VCC, little known before, is now gracing a few more south of England cellars.

We then drove the short distance to Pomerol’s world famous Le Pin vineyard; at over Euro500 a bottle at the cellar (but not for sale!) the accountants in the team were quickly sharpening their pencils to calculate the annual balance sheets before realising that the production was exceptional but tiny.

Lunch beckoned but first one more private visit and tasting at St. Emilion’s Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Troplong-Mondot. Our lunch at Troplong-Mondot was superb which was no surprise as the restaurant boasts one Michelin Star. As we’d been drinking  Bordeaux for two days we rang the changes with lunch; Puligny-Montrachet, Burgundy’s famous white (100% Chardonnay) was followed by Hermitage, the famous Syrah (100%) wine from the northern Rhone.

After such a wonderful lunch it was time to relax and where better than the square in the centre of St. Emilion with the sun on your back and a beer in your hand. Our flight back home was at 10.00 pm. so we had time for an early dinner in a cracking restaurant just off the square. We arrived home at midnight reflecting on an amazing couple of days. The guys are still talking about it. See you in Bordeaux!

WINE LIST HELL.

 

THE INEVITABLE GAME OF PASS THE PARCEL ……

 

We’ve all been there. You’re shown to your table. You’re feeling good. Then the wine waiter appears with the wine list. The table goes quiet as everybody prays that the inevitable game of pass the parcel doesn’t end with the leather bound tome in their lap.

As the wine list circulates, waves of pressure and an air of intimidation sweep across the white linen. But hold on, why should one person in a black suit carrying a book cause so much hassle on what should be a relaxing night out with friends?

I’ve been travelling the world’s vineyards recently, from Milan to Madrid, from Brisbane to Bordeaux and, guess what, this fear of the wine waiter is universal. These guys in black create sweaty palms the world over. Just how crazy is that?  ‘Been thinking, readers of my blog could lead an international campaign to put the pleasure back into eating out.

Standing up to wine waiters, helping to change wine lists and simply asking simple questions would take the ‘rant’ out and put the ‘rest’ back into your restaurant experience.

Wine waiters. There are some super, customer-friendly wine waiters who put you at your ease – I was chatting to one in London’s Hawksmoor Air Street restaurant yesterday. Thumbs Up! But why are others so snooty? I’ll let you into a secret. Once you remove the cellophane wrap many snooty wine waiters aren’t as knowledgeable as they’d have you believe. So, don’t be afraid to challenge and engage them. Ask them questions, put the pressure back on them! If you have a price limit don’t be embarrassed to tell them; don’t forget that if they were in your seat they’d also know how much they could afford. It probably wouldn’t be as much as you!

Restaurant wine lists also need an overhaul. How can they do that? For a start, make them shorter and simpler. You don’t need an inch thick, leather bound list bulging with Chateaux This, Domaine That, bodegas, cantinas, fincas and quintas. We’re out for a memorable meal with friends not to spend half an hour ploughing through a wine novel in a foreign language.

Just one page expertly written can put customers at ease, help them to make their choice with confidence and increase their enjoyment whilst boosting the restaurant’s bank account at the same time. It’s win-win situation for both diner and restaurant.

Let’s be honest, when we open a wine list our eyes flash straight to the price. With this in mind, one of the cleverest London lists is at Little House in Mayfair. It’s a one pager and has three whites and three reds in each of the £25, £30, £35, £40 and £50 categories. That’s 50 wines folks so there’s lots of choice. It also includes wines by the carafe and glass and, if you want to push the boat out, you can ask for their £50+ list. As you’ll realise, these reasonable price tags reflect a very fair mark up in all three categories. Brilliant!

I was staying at a Hotel du Vin, part of the UK boutique hotel chain recently and was pleased to see a selection of their wines also offered in very handy 500 ml. carafes. The easy-to-read, reasonably priced, one page card lead you effortlessly off the well worn Chablis-Sancerre-Chateauneuf du Pape track and into the challenging realms of Spain’s white Albarino grape from Rias Baixas, to California’s Santa Barbara vineyards for a very quaffable Pinot Noir. Excellent!

Another welcome move away from the traditional but so often confusing ‘wine by country’ are ‘wines by style’ lists. Categories such as ‘zingy whites’, ‘rich, powerful reds’ and ‘creamy whites’ ring a bell with customers and help them choose a wine to match their food.  This ‘stylish’ approach linked to grape varieties also gets my vote.

We can also do without lists that spout long, flowery, repetitive, Wine Trade lingo. A few meaningful words, carefully chosen can work miracles and educate the customer at the same time.

I accompanied a small group of CEO’s to Champagne this year. We dined at the 2 star Michelin Le Parc restaurant within the celebrated Relais & Chateaux ‘Les Crayeres’. To eliminate the wine list wobbles, chef Phillipe Mille has created three differently priced menus that include a different wine with each course so, no hassle and no pass the parcel. It’s good to see that this set menu format so well established in small hostelries is gaining popularity in top restaurants too.

I was recently with a City client in a ‘posh’ London restaurant adding a little ‘between course wine entertainment’ to his stylish networking table when one his overseas guests handed me the bulky wine list, “come on, where do I start”, he asked. It was a confusing, gobbledegook ‘wine by region’ heavyweight so I suggested he turned the pages to countries that represented value for money. Spain, (regions like Valdepenas, Somontano, Catalonia, Andalucía, Rueda), Portugal, (Douro, Alentejo, Dao, Bairrada), Italy, (Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia, Sicily), South Africa, Argentina and Chile are good starting points. The advice hit the spot as the guests really enjoyed the wines and the stories they held whilst my happy client saved a packet on the bill.

One far sighted restaurateur asked me to put my money where my mouth is by creating a ‘John Downes MW, Master of Wine, Personal Selection’ wine list. The ‘keep it simple’ one page folding card comprises eight white, eight red, eight New World, eight Old World wines covering all price points and giving a helpful snapshot of the wine. It’s the first point of call for diners, has no fear factor and offers great wines at a glance. His accountant’s very happy too I’m told!

One more tip. It saves a lot of stress if you check the restaurant wine list online before you leave home; you’ll choose better wines, relax, have longer to chat and, dare I say it, impress you friends at the same time. The wine waiter will also be impressed but probably won’t show it – sadly some are reluctant to let their masks slip!

As you’ve probably guessed, I find many wine lists pretty useless. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My new campaign, is to promote simple, short, exciting lists around the world which include the expected and the unexpected, engage the diner and tell enough about the wine to titillate but not frighten.

Come to think of it, some restaurants must be the only businesses that strive to do just that – frighten off the customer! It’s crazy but nothing surprises me in the Wine Trade … wine list hell is simply part of the global “I’d like to know more but I’m too afraid to ask” wine culture. Come on all my blog readers, we can change all that! Spread the word!

RIOJA ROCKS.

QUICK TIP; PAY THE EXTRA QUID!

 

My mates in the pub always give me stick when I recommend a wine over a fiver in my regular newspaper and magazine columns. They still can’t get their heads around the fact that as there’s only about 35 pence of wine in a five quid bottle it offers poor value. The remaining £4.65? That includes government duty, VAT, packaging, logistics and of course retailers’ profit. So, I had no problem recently, recommending a top bottle of Rioja with a £13 tag … that’s the price of a cinema ticket folks.

The most important thing to remember is that the quality of the grapes is the key to the quality of the wine; you can’t make top wine out of bad grapes, no matter how expensive the winery! I’m hoping that when my mates see how much effort goes into producing a bottle of Rioja they’ll see the light.

Rioja’s long been Spain’s most famous wine which is not surprising as these soft, red fruit favourites are mouthfeel friendly and offer good value, yes, even at £13!

Rioja comes from northern Spain where the region is divided into three districts, namely La Rioja Alta (high), La Rioja Alavesa and La Rioja Baja (low). The wine I recommended in my column was CVNE’s Rioja Reserva 2012. It hails from La Rioja Alta where Tempranillo (85%), Garnacha (Grenache, 5%), Mazuelo (5%) and Graciano (5%) combine to produce a lovely red with warm bramble spiced aromas and flavours, soft tannins (stuff from the skins that dries and puckers your mouth), and a lingering red fruit ‘finish’ (that’s how long the flavours stay in your mouth once you’ve swallowed). Don’t forget that the finish is a really good pointer to quality; the longer the finish, the better the quality. By the way, CVNE stands for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, a company that, founded in 1879 is still family owned. Keeping with tradition, their wines are still made in the company’s original Haro winery.

If you’re wondering what ‘Reserva’ means the best way to crack the code is to look at the red Rioja quality levels from the very top, namely Gran Reserva, the wines that by law have to spend a minimum of two years in the barrel and at least 3 years in the bottle before they can grace our shelves. ‘Reserva’ is next in the pecking order, being wines that have to spend a minimum of one year in the barrel and at least 2 years in the bottle before you’ll meet them on the wine aisle. For the record, winemaker Basilio Izquierdo aged CVNE’s Rioja Reserva 2012 in both American and French oak barriques, (barrels that hold about 225 litres, 300 bottles) for about 24 months before letting the wine rest in the bottle in CVNE’s cool cellars for a further 2 years before release.

“Talking oak”, French oak (oak from forests in France) imparts toasty flavours whilst American oak (oak from forests in America) will give the wine its characteristic vanilla overtones. As CVNE’s Reserva 2012 has been aged in both ‘French and American’ you’ll pick up both toasty and vanilla aromas and flavours in pleasing harmony with the ample fruit.

Completing the Rioja family tree, after ‘ Reserva’ comes ‘Crianza’, reds that have to spend a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels and a minimum of 12 months in the bottle before release. Don’t forget that although Crianza comes in at number three on the status ladder, it’s a quality wine that lines up proudly with its fellow Reserva and Gran Reserva Riojans. If you’re a bit skint this week, CVNE’s Crianza 2014, at about £9 will also make you smile.

So, pull a classic Rioja off the shelf this weekend; I’ll be happy to take the flak in the pub in the knowledge that you’re enjoying a cracking wine and getting really good value.

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