Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for February, 2010

Worrying News from Chile

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

You may have seen my feature on Lautaro Wines in Friday’s Journal, written to mark fairtrade fortnight: I had just had the very real pleasure of meeting Raul Navarrete the General Manager of Sagrada Familia, the Chilean co-op that make the wine.

I have just received an email from Zenen Santana-Delgrado from Traidcraft, their UK  partners.

He writes:  “It seems the powerful earthquake that had hit Chile yesterday has affected quite badly the region where the Lautaro Wines farmers & staff live. There is a lot of destruction in the city of Curico; and the villages in the surrounding areas.”

I have asked Zene to let me know as soon as he has more news. In the meantime, please spare a thought for the many other Chilean grape farmers affected by the earthquake – and grape growers in Madeira whose livelihood has been threatened by the recent storms.

Good Value Champagne

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I enjoyed talking to a friendly group of Northumbrian ladies about Champagne at Matfen Hall earlier today. The wine I dug up to be served to them was Henri Chauvet, Blanc de Noirs NV – a lovely rich, fruity fizz made from 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier. It’s a great illustration of how good and especially what good value ‘grower Champagnes’ can be. It’s not designed for keeping but for enjoying young and fresh, and is very food friendly.  Try it with really good quality pork. The domaine – and its grapes are at Rilly la Montagne, on the Montagne de Reims, a  family-run vineyard for over a century.

This reminds me that it’s high time a dropped a note here about some other, maybe even better, grower Champagnes. In the meantime, this wine is available from ‘Private Cellar’ and costs £20.38. (Phone 01353 721999)http//:www.privatecellar.co.uk

The perils of a blocked nose

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

My good friend Neil Pendock panned Jancis Robinson in print for attending a tasting while suffering from ‘flu and then writing up her thoughts – even though she admitted she could barely smell a thing. I gather than Jancis was not amused by Neil’s salty comments.

I feel for Jancis. I’ve had total nasal wipe-out ever since I caught the mother and father of all bugs after sitting for a couple of hours longer than I hoped in a faulty plane at Stansted airport last week (serves me right, I know, for not taking the train). On Monday I attempted to sparkle with knowledge in front of a nice crowd at Jesmond Dene House, who’d come for a Masterclass on Burgundy and the Douro. I did my best – but I couldn’t have told the difference between a decent Burgundy and glass of Dettol. Fortunately the group were reasonably up for interactive learning – they were prepared to tell me what they smelled and tasted, and I attempted to put it into context. And no Dettol was served.

The one wine that did momentarily penetrate my fug was Graham’s amazingly good 20 Year Old Tawny Port.  By a happy coincidence I’d also tasted it very recently when I visited at the lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia. It had, I see from my notes, a huge, complex, distinctly balsamic aroma and flavour with hints of undergrowth and also lovely, slightly (maderised) volatile acidity. I certainly detected the balsam again on Monday. It’s a bit more expensive that proprietary cold remedies, but a lot more fun.

I hope my sense of smell comes in from the cold soon – I have a kitchen side full of bottles waiting to be tasted.

Wine, Gender and Belgian Chardonnay

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I received an email from Vasco Croft the other day – who makes quite the best Vinho Verde I’ve yet tasted.  I gather he’d read my last blog entry and wrote, “I agree that Vinhão  is very much a wild, maybe a macho drink, “difficult” for the delicacy of feminine taste… but that is part of its original nature.”

Well, maybe; but what is all this stuff about ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ wines all about? Do women really prefer different wine to men, and is there any  evidence whatsoever to back up the assumptions the marketers seem to hold (such as pink Zinfandel is not for real men)?

I’m happy to accept that there are sometimes subtle, sometimes quite profound cultural difference that affect our taste preferences; so it’s quite possible that there may be (broad brush) gender differences too. But is there any hormonal or genetic disposition that relates gender and taste?  I still fume every time I see a lorry saying that Yorkies are not for girls …

On quite another tack, I picked up a bottle of Belgian Chardonnay at Brussels Airport last week (I was bored – which is how, I guess, those shops make most of their money). It was not worth 17 Euro, but this gently oaked little brew from North East Flanders: Wijnkasteel Genoels-Elderen, 2006 from the Appellation Controléé, Haspengouw was a creditable effort. It was lemony and clean, though with no great depth of fruit. Maybe it would have been better without its sojourn in oak and I don’t think that Chablis producers should lose much sleep, but I thought it was fun. I might even buy another bottle, though fortunately I pass through Brussels only once in a blue moon.

A few reflections in the bottom of a glass of Vinho Verde

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

I’ve tasted and sometimes enjoyed a few bottles of Vinho Verde over the years, but it has remained pretty much a closed bk to me before I arrived in Porto last Friday. Thank you CVRVV (the local growers’ commission)! Your invitation was generous and your welcome warm.

So what did I learn from visiting more than a dozen producers and tasting the wine of a dozen more?

In no particular order:

Vinho Verde is pronounced ‘Vinyo Vaird’ and not ‘Vino Verdi’. (Verdi had nothing to do with it.)

White Vinho Verde’s USP is lightness, freshness, an enticing aromatic quality, crispness paired with delicious, food-friendly minerality and naturally low alcohol. At its best, it’s spot-on for today’s market.

Unfortunately it’s not all good.

Sometimes it’s very, very good – especially if it’s made (biodynamically) by Vasco Croft (much more about him on another occasion)

It’s possible to buy a 2008 Vinho Verde that’s been fermented after the 2009 crop. Some big companies are so obsessed by ‘freshness’ that they either freeze must or dose it with sulphur dioxide and keep it (cool) for twelve months or more until needed.

Wine made from searingly acidic unripe juice, dosed with sugar and carbonated (to around 1 bar.) should not be sold as Vinho Verde; but a lot is.

Red Vinho Verde is vile – especially that made from the red-fleshed Vinhão (pronounced ‘viniaouwng’ – as if by a malevolent, drunken cat with an adenoid problem). Staggeringly deep, its chief charm is an inky, elderberry-like aroma. Its downside is (no malo), fierce acidity and fearsome tannins. The locals insist that it’s terrific with fatty food. Some even delight in serving it in earthenware bowls to lessen its fruit appeal and boost its tannic and acidic structure. In short, if ever a wine has purely local appeal, Vinhão is it. Forget it, unless you have a passion for Scotch pies.

Fortunately, production of red Vinho Verde is in sharp decline.

Alvarinho (aka Albariño) is not the only northern Portuguese (white) grape variety worth making a song and dance about. Loureiro is pretty damn good and, in the right hands, Arinto can be fun too. And there are others.

Alvarinho’s considerable charms are ruined by fermenting and aging it in oak. There are no exceptions to this rule.

It’s not a terribly good idea to serve such wines with a sweet pudding. Ever.

Good, simply made Alvarinho, from ripe grapes and relatively low yields is a knock-out. It is Portugal’s answer to Hunter Valley Semillon. Whoever suggested that Alvarinho might be related to Riesling?

Some sparkling (by law, bottle fermented) Vinho Verde is excellent – though the regional commission’s recommendation that Loureiro should not be used as a base wine is puzzling. Vasco Croft’s Afros fizz, 100% Loureiro, is utterly delicious. All Vasco Croft’s wines are good. Even his Vinhão is passable.

The DOC Vinho Verde covers a huge area 34,000 scattered hectares. From a UK perspective, it’s Europe’s least well known major, quality wine region.

Despite the horrors that still exist, there are so many very good wines that it’s high time UK drinkers get to know it again.

Pinot Grigio is dead, long live Vinho Verde.