Helen’s blog

Thoughts and tastings from Helen Savage, wine writer.

Archive for April, 2010

Chinese Cuisine and English Wine

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

A second fun evening of matching food and Chinese cuisines at North Shields’s Golden Swallow Restaurant gave everyone there serious food for thought. By and large, aromatic, elegant wines, with good fruit, but fairly low residual sugar have proven exceptionally successful companions for a wide range of Chinese dishes – at least as cooked Golden Swallow style, with not a hint of MSG. There are no gloopy sauces here, sauces which are no friends to good wine, just a lightness of touch and a genuine harmony of flavours and textures.

Villa Maria’s Private Bin Riesling 2009, going for a song at Majestic right now, was terrific, but was matched by Chapel Down’s newly released Bacchus 2009. It’s a delightful wine: fresh, aromatic and crisply fruity, but fully ripe and beautifully clean.  An equally happy discovery was Chapel Down’s English Rose 2008, a pink made from a small dose of Pinot Noir and quite a lot of apparently unpromising material such as Huxelrebe. I bought it from the winery last week. Only a few cases remain, but the 09 will doubtless soon be on stream. On its own it was nice enough, scented, even a little herby and still fresh, but it showed an unexpected depth of fruit when drunk with a range of sometimes quite spicy chicken, prawn and pork dishes.

The other great success of the evening, I think, was the terrific Colomé Amalaya 2008, a Malbec blend from some of Argentina’s highest altitude vineyards.  It not only stood up to a fiery Sichuan beef dish, but seemed to lift and spread the spice from the food around the mouth.

Amongst other wines, we also gave an airing to the Jacob’s Creek Rosé that Simon Tam and his team found such an effective partner for abalone at last year’s Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine Challenge. We couldn’t run to abalone, but it seemed fine with all things prawny.  I’m not sure I’d have given it a trophy, I’d have saved if for either of the two English wines that impressed everyone so much.

Henri Jammet

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The story of my first meeting with Henri Jammet and his extraordinary wines will appear, I hope, in The Journal next Friday (and online).

There won’t be enough space there to fill out a few more technical details, or full tasting notes. So here goes …

Jammet has been making wine for over twenty years and as president of the St Sornin Co-operative was responsible for its expansion and  its  reputation for quality. St Sornin produces some of the best red table wines in the Charentes.

His own small vineyard high on the limestone hill to the east of St Sornin at La Fenetre is planted with Chardonnay (his favourite grape) and Chenin Blanc. He is also keen to try Pinot Gris. He uses a horse to plough and work between the vines, which are planted at high density: 10,000 vines per hectare. His yields are fairly low, around 50 hectolitres per hectare. His approach is sustainable rather than organic – he does not believe that organic viticulture would be easy to sustain in his situation, and he also points out that some standard organic practices are of questionable sustainability – like the use of copper sprays.

The 2009 crop was tiny. So far he has only released one wine from it, a moelleux Chenin Blanc. It was made from the tiny secondary bunches that developed after the initial buds were wiped out by a severe hail storm in May. The grapes are extremely scented (a product of the tiny secondary fruits?). They had a potential alcohol of around 16%. Fermentation was stopped (using sulphur) to leave around 50 g/l residual sugar. The wine shows lovely crunchy fruit, balanced by zingy acidity and finishes as it began, with an unusually musky, perfumed intensity. It is a very good wine, though slightly disconcerting.

His 2008 Chenin (his first) was vinified dry – to 14% alcohol. It has a reparkable depth of ripe, spicy, peachy fruit. It was vinified in oak (half in new barrels, the rest in year-old barrels), but the fruit dominates. Weekly batonnage (lees-strirring) during the ten-month stay in barrels certainly helps. It is, I think, the best wine he makes, and a superb bottle by any standard.

He made two cuvéés of Chardonnay in 2008. Both are barrel fermented – in true Burgundian fashion. One from fruit grafted on predominantly riparia stock which ripens first, has a slight musky character. It is otherwise fairly ripe and peachy, with just a little oak at the end. The other cuvée from older vines, planted in 1988 is both more tart and also more  pineapple-like. The oak is also pretty well integrated. Henri believes that it will age longer, though it is less immediately attractive now.

These last two wines have not yet fulfilled Henri’s dream of being the ‘best Chardonnay in the word’, but they are quite the best Charentais table wines I have ever tasted. Unfortunately to buy them you’ll have to visit – La Fenetre is about 20km east of Angouleme. Henri’s phone number is +33 5 45 70 40 06. If you visit the region, make the effort to go, see and taste for yourself. You’ll not be disappointed – unless Henri has sold all his stock!

Cahors: Malbec just keeps getting better

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Although I’ve  bought and enjoyed Cahors for more years than it’s wise to admit, I realise that I still have a lot to learn about it. I’m well aware that the general standards of wine-making have improved markedly over the last twenty years (I remember some real horrors, some of which even found their way into respectable guides like Hachette). Sometimes, however, the recent fashion for very expensive special cuvées has  failed to impress me. I think that they sometimes try a bit too hard. Cahors is an appellation where price and quality do not always co-incide.  Or to be more positive, it’s an appellation in which it’s possible to find some hot bargains. And some of these prove just as satisfying as the big, beefy, ‘let’s imitate Argentina’ specials.

One source of remarkably good wine is the Domaine de la Banière at Caix near Luzech. I’ve not visited for a few years, but I’ve always enjoyed their wines, which are still cheap enough to buy by the case without the danger of breaking the bank.  A few days ago I found a bottle of 1997, which I opened rather imagining that I would end up using it as the basis of a meaty stew. But it was magnificent: full of still fresh, plummy, spicy fruit, perfectly balanced and a real treat to wash down that most south-western of dishes,  a still pink duck breast. Will some of the over-extracted monsters that cost upwards of €25, even at the vineyard,  age as well as this? I doubt it.

One estate which has make a bit of a splash with its big-style wines is Jean-Luc Baldés’s Clos Triguedina. I admit that I did not take at all to the 2003 version of his amazing ‘The New Black Wine’ when I tatsed it last in London, and  I don’t think it’s a wine destined to age gracefully; but when I visited there last week and tasted the 2001 I was far more impressed than I’d expected to be. Maybe just being there helped to soften me a little, but I warmed to its baked fig, damson-jam character. I also liked the more conventional Price Probus 2001, which seemed much fresher and splendidly silky. But the outstanding redwine , for me, is their less exalted Clos Triguedina. The 2005 is magnificent, with bags of spicy fruit, superb freshness and real elegance. It will surely age wonderfully well for at least twenty more years.

I look forward to going back in the summer and learning a little more …

Champagne Moutard Pinot Noir Extra Dry

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

I’m not normally attracted to Champagne in the Extra Dry style, which, of course, is anything but extra dry – it has more sugar than ‘Brut’, but Moutard’s Pinot Noir from their Vignes Beugneux site in the Cote des Bar is a real discovery. Moutard-Diligent  like to do things a wee bit differently as I discovered when I visited the winery three years ago: they make, for example, a single variety old vines Arbane (one of Champagne’s lesser known, but long-established grape varieties).

This Pinot Noir Extra Dry is part of their Terroirs series, that celebrates some of the better sites in the Cote des Bar, Champagne’s southernmost region, where they are based. It is 100% Pinot Noir, which has not undergone a malolactic fermentation and is aged for at least three years sur lattes and then dosed to 15 g/l sugar – in other words it only just qualifies as an ‘Extra Dry’. It is non-vintage, but each bottles bears a dégorgement date. Mine was disgorgorged on 30 April 2009.

The length of time on the lees lends it a creamy complexity, the non-malo style means that the high dosage is barely noticeable. It does not seem unduly sweet. It wasn’t as deeply tinted as I might have expected from a blanc de noirs, but was a pale golden straw colour. Its aroma was delightfully fruity- showing rich red fruits and the flavour was ripe and fresh, with more red fruit, and it had good length. The bubbles were soft and long-lasting.

Blanc de Noirs is often a great style to enjoy with food and this stood up to roast veal stuffed with wild mushrooms brilliantly. It cost less than €30 from a fairly pricey shop in central Paris. I think it’s a great success and I would love to get my paws on some more.