Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for January, 2010

If you could choose just four wines …

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

There were just six passengers on my flight to Brussels yesterday (en route) to Porto. I got chatting to the flight attendant and owned up to being a wine writer. I agreed to write a brief descriptive note on the four new wines they stock on Brussels Airlines flights from Newcastle (without, I admit, tasting them!).  No problem: I got a free cheese sandwich as a reward.

The choice if wines struck me at odd and I wondered what I might have chosen given that the ‘list’ was to be just two dry whites and two reds – all inexpensive. What would you suggest?

For the record, they offer La Baume Chardonnay (Vin de Pays d’Oc), Louis Eschenauer Colombard/Chardonnay, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, a Vin de Pays d’Oc Cabernet Sauvignon and a basic red Bordeaux – a Merlot/Cabernet blend.

Odd or what? What  a missed opportunity – even to showcase four French wines (the  look on French wines are their own)!

Cabernet Sauvignon

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I’m not surprised that even in the Médoc, Cabernet Sauvignon often plays second fiddle to Merlot. Its wine can be a a bit of a mouthful – and not a terribly pleasant one.  Very few wineries risk releasing a pure Cab Sav.  Robert Mondavi Reserve ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ 2007, for example,  includes 16% Syrah, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% Sangiovese. The finished blend is not bad at all – but it’s a blend.

To underline the difference between Cab Sav on its own and in a blend, I invited members of class last night to dose a 100% Chilean Cab Sav with a bit of Cabernet Franc. Not everyone preferred the result – but most of us did. It was lighter, fresher, less astringent and rather more fruity.

I also served  a pure Cab Sav from South Africa, new into Marks an Spencer: Sterhuis 2006 from Stellenbosch. It’s a huge wine with masses of herby, spicy black fruit, but also very high acidity, and as Mr Parker would say so inelegantly, ‘gobs’ of tannin. It’s impressive, but 25% Merlot of Cabernet Franc, or maybe Tempranillo would do wonders for it. Thank goodness South African growers are increasingly keen on blends. In this case it might make sense.

An alternative would be to leave the Sterhuis alone for a decade. It is  a shame that too many top South African reds are drunk before they’ve had a chance to develop in the bottle.  Cabernet Sauvignon needs time. Although wine making techniques have changed, even in Bordeaux, since the days when a claret was not deemed worth attention until it was at least ten years old, some Cabernets need be tamed for a decade or more. One such is L’Adagio des Eyssards, a rare 100% Cab Sav from Bergerac.  I bought half a dozen in about 2000 a year or so after bottling (it was aged 12 months in new barriques).  I was very disappointed with it – every time I tried it over the last few years, it was dull and tough as old boots. Not yesterday. At last it has entered the swan phase: sweetly ripe, still powerfully tannic, but long, spicy and satisfying. I wish I’d been more patient.

The best Burgundy stands out

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

There are marked differences of quality in most wine regions between run of mill producers and the best, but the differences can be stark in Burgundy. I was stuck by this at the annual Terroirs et Signatures tasting at Lord’s today, although I readily admit that it can be unwise to generalise to far on the basis of just three hours’ tasting – of around sixty or seventy wines. To be more accurate, although I found few wines that I didn’t enjoy, the really fine wines stood out a mile. I love, for example, La Chablisienne’s superb Vieilles Vignes Chablis 2007, now re-named ‘Les Vénérables’. It knocks spots off many a Premier Cru, with its winning combination of richness, deliciously crisp fruit and clean minerality. The oldest co-op in Burgundy is still ahead of the game.

But the real shock came with my first ever tasting of the brilliant wines of the Domaine Taupenot Merme. There was a quality and depth of fruit here that had me grinning inanely from ear to ear – fabulous, complex and fascinating, but all utterly true to their terroir. I shall find an excuse soon to write more about Romain Taupenot, and his clear-headed ideas about viticulture and winemaking – and his thoughts about when wine tastes best.

It was, of course, a propitious day for wine tasting according to the biodynamic calendar. If had only tasted Romain’s wines I might have given agreed that the calendar was spot on. But I tasted other wines that will surely taste better on other days and in other circumstances.

Flower and Fruit days

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I’m still trying to get my head around ‘When Wines Tastes best: A biodynamic calendar for wine drinkers‘ (Maria and Mathias Thun). This specifies root, leaf (bad) days from fruit and flower (good) days – based on the moon’s passage through the zodiac and the association of each constellation with the ancient four ‘elements’ of earth, air, fire and water. Mad? Maybe – but major supermarkets have deliberately chosen fruit and flower days for their press tastings …

Last Friday after a particularly successful little tasting of Grenache-based wines, I asked the thirty participants which category of day they thought it was. All but two (who weren’t sure) felt that it must be a fruit or flower day. It was a root day – presumably good only for ginger beer or poteen. Yesterday I thought that Viniportugal’s mini tasting in Newcastle led by Tiago Alves de Sousa, a very gifted young winemaker from the Douro, was a great success despite a dark, gloomy day and the stink of coal smoke around Jesmond Dene House. The wines showed very well indeed, especially his own spectacular Abandonado. It was leaf day. Should I have stayed at home and  stuck to tea?

Seriously (if this is worth taking seriously at all – and I really feel that biodynamic wines are far too good to be treated as a joke), how can one set up a reasonably sensible, empirical test to test whether ot not the Biodynamic Calendar has any affect at all on how we perceive wine? At the moment, I’m inclined to think that it’s baseless hogwash, but I hope that the incidence of a fruit day on Thursday bodes well for the Terroirs et Signatures tasting of Burgundy wines at Lord’s on Thursday. Watch this space.

Aussie reds – impressive but …

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

‘Australia’s First Families of Wine’ with its emphasis on the people behind the labels  is a clever approach to marketing.

The twelve happy families include some very big players indeed. They each selected a representative wine to accompany their press release in the UK. Most of them were very good indeed, and the distinctive top whites from Henschke, Tyrrell’s, McWilliams and Tahbilk prompted me to write a longer piece for The Journal (Jan 8). These dry whites, along with Campbell’s stunning Rutherglen Liqueur Muscat are all true Aussie originals. And the dry wines, especially two superb Hunter Valley Sémillons, are refreshingly low in alcohol. Great.

I found the red wines a little less attractive.  Every one was certainly every one packed with flavour, but some have a huge level of alcohol. The biggest wines remind me of one of those larger than life individuals, who with a rather over-inflated ego bursts into a party and insists on being the centre of attention. The noble exception to this is Brown Brother’s ‘Patricia’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, which has a comparatively modest abv of 13.5% and both freshness and elegance of fruit – ripe, black and spicy – or at least, that’s the impression I gained through a bottle slightly tainted by TCA (£22.99 from www.everywine.co.uk ).  Yalumba, ‘The Scribbler’ 2007 – a Cabernet/Shiraz blend is another success and also 13.5 abv. With creamy black fruit and nice hints of cherry and spice, it too has a freshness of fruit and is good value (£9.99 at Oddbins). Wakefield Clare Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 at 14 abv, with cassis, licorice and more sweet, black fruit is probably the hottest bargain of the bunch at Majestic’s special offer price of £6.49 (until the end of the month when it reverts to £8.49).

Jim Barry’s, Clare Valley  ‘The McRae Wood’ Shiraz 2005 is an alcoholic monster at 15.5abv (£9.99 at Majestic).  It’s hugely concentrated and jammy with a liberal dusting of pepper and almost as much toasty oak. There is black cherry fruit too, but it has a struggle to emerge from all the seasoning.  d’Arenburg ‘d’Arry’s Original’ Shiraz/Grenache 2006 (14.5 abv) is also peppery, but has much more obviously fresh fruit – plum and maybe loganberry – and is quite chewy (£9.95 from the Wine Society). Howard Park ‘Leston’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (£14.99 from www.bibendum-wine.co.uk ) is another, big 14.5 abv, black fruit-dominated, mouth-filler, but it has a distinct minty edge and surprisingly crisp, almost malic acidity (did they suppress the malo?).

I’ve tried the last red wine in the bunch, de Bertoli Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2007 (around £16.99 at Oddbins)  a couple of times in recent weeks and come up with rather different notes. Is it one of those wines that really benefits from being in the ‘right’ kind of glass? Certainly, when I popped it into a big round Pinot Noir glass it was far more velvety than in an ISO, when it seemed to have rather leathery tannins. Or maybe I drank one on a ‘root day’ and the other on a ‘flower day’. I must check – I’m having a lot of fun playing with ‘When Wine Tastes Best: A Biodynamic Calendar for Wine Drinkers’ by Maria and Matthias Thun (Flors Books, £3.99). I don’t believe a word of it – yet.

A bit of indulgence … reporting on fabulous Veuve Clicquot Champagnes with fine food

Friday, January 1st, 2010

In my article in The Journal today I had no space – or maybe it would have been an indulgence too far – to describe the matching of rare Veuve Cliquot champagnes with food. On 16 November I was privileged to be invited to dinner at The Manoir de Verzy with François Hautekeur, one of the Veuve Cliquot team of winemakers and Edwin Dublin of Berry Brothers, like me a national finalist in the 2009 Champagne Ambassador’s Award.  With a risotto with cèpes and a fillet of line-caught sea-bass, we were treated to Veuve Cliquot’s Vintage Réseve 1982. It was disgorged in 1989, a blend of around fifty base wines, one third Chardonnay to two-thirds Pinot Noir. A deep coppery gold it had an amazingly intense bouquet of brioche and caramelised sugar. Through fine, persistent bubbles the flavour, which was gentle, rich and dry had refreshing hints of pink grapefruit. It was superb with the risotto. The fish, fine in itself, was almost a garnish too far.

And then with pigeon breast seared with honey and served on a bed of sweet roasted winter vegetables and a hint of truffles we enjoyed Veuve Clicquot Rare Vintage Rosé 1985, which had been disgorged just three years ago. This extraordinary wine has a low dosage – just 5 grams/litre sugar. The blend from 17 Grand Cru and Premier Cru villages is dominated by Pinot Noir (49% – nevertheless a lower proportion than usual) with Chardonnay (36.5%) and Pinot Meunier (14.5%). Still pink tinged, with copper, it was elegant and very rich with fresh acidity and the delicate flavour of preserved red fruits – remarkable for a rosé of such an age. It was a superb partner for the food. Not only did it stand up to the robust flavours of the dish, but its own flavour was undiminished. After cheese (Mimolette) with Vintage 2002, about which I wrote in my Journal piece, we finished the meal with a pineapple, tonka bean and passion fruit dessert with Veuve Cliquot’s Demi-Sec. This has a dosage of 45 grams/litre sugar. François insisted that it was decanted to lower, he said, the appearance of acidity in the wine. It worked!

The whole dinner was a rare and memorable treat. And if it was rather an indulgence to write about it I apologise, but I also hope that it illustrates again, just what a fabulous food wine champagne can be: far more fun, I think, than just as a drink on its own. Happy New Year!