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Sep

12

Dezat Sancerre

By mthomas

I revisited the Squid Ink restaurant in Looe last weekend (previous review here) and, although it has changed hands, it is still pretty good. It also has a decent wine list. We were eating various fishy bits and meat so went for a rose’ from Andre Dezat et Fils who have some great holdings around Sancerre. The restaurant had it listed as 2011/12 and I would usually go for the more recent vintage but the 11 turned up and was fine . It is a proper food wine and stood up/complemented pretty much everything from mussels to steak. We asked for the second bottle to be a 12 (to do a bit of a geeky compare and contrast) but it wasn’t available.

Taking the dog to Victoria Park a couple of days later I popped into the Bottle Apostle and lo and behold the 2012 was sitting there. They also stock the white and red so I got a bottle of the former (but not the latter as I am on a pinot noir moratorium because I have plenty in the cellar drinking really well and am also a bit skint). It was predictably fresher than the 11, showed a bit more acidity and fruit forward flavours. However, the 11 seemed a bit more complex so maybe this is a rose’ that can evolve in the bottle. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend cellaring loads though.

The white was equally impressive and a reminder why sauvignon blanc does not always have to be NZ grapefruit juice.  Their Menetou Salon and Pouilly Fume’ are also good (according to a couple of my tasting notes from 07 and 09) but the red perhaps a bit less consistent. Wines from Dezat aren’t cheap and are stocked by quite a few top end retailers including Berry Bros, Fortnum and Mason and Harvey Nichols. However there seems to be quality across their range and it is worth paying the £15 or so for these wines.

Sep

6

Campaigning for lighter wines

By mthomas

A family holiday in the Mani was a great reminder of what everyday wine is all about. On the first night we joined our hosts and 20 or so of their Greek friends under vine awnings for a long and leisurely meal. Every so often a plastic bottle or jug would appear. Without exception they were full of Greek (Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Xinomavro and Agiorghitiko) food friendly, low alcohol country wines. They were all perfect for washing down the spread in front of us which must have taken Helene a couple of days to prepare. Because we took hand luggage, and our hosts were wine fanatics, we didn’t take any wine with us. I always tend to take a bottle to dinner parties but was glad I didn’t have one as it probably would have stood out like a sore thumb. So much of what we drink in ‘the West’, not just ‘fine wine’, is overworked; made to shout out in tastings, ‘varietally amplified’, over-oaked or alcohol soaked.

I am acutely aware of the power of context and have no illusions that the setting, company and food all contributed to the enjoyment. Some of the wines might taste watery and uninspiring in a tasting hall in London but are exactly what our market needs for a number of reasons. Firstly, the low alcohol; we drank copious amounts but were fresh as daisies in the morning.  If we had been drinking 14% wines we would have suffered on the beach the next day. Secondly, food compatibility; these wines do not dominate the taste of foods, they refresh your palate, help to wash down the salt and oil and seem to aid digestion. Thirdly, they have low environmental impact due to limited packaging and transport costs. Fourthly, they are indigenous, varied and interesting in cultural terms. Without drifting into vague metaphysics and moral philosophy they are somehow ‘more honest’. Fifth, they are cheap (also due to the aforementioned low production and transport costs). Sixth, and this could be challenged as overly romantic, they seem to be made with love, or at least respect.

So, within our sophisticated and highly segmented market I hope there will be room for wines like this. Not glamourous or lucrative, just nice and humble enough to accompany rather than dominate food.

 

Sep

20

Personality and wine

By mthomas

I have just had an article on ‘personality and wine’ published by Fine Wine Magazine (here). It is a topic I get asked about a lot but tend to avoid in case I am misquoted. Any comment on personality and motivation can be a bit of a minefield but I hope Obama is not too put out by my speculations about his wine related White House decisions. Nixon, I am not too worried about…

On a similar note (what shapes our tastes and choices), yesterday I was contacted by Tim Hanni an MW based in Napa. He delivers training on food taste preferences and has some accessible content on his website (here) including videos on the topic. His ‘Vinotype’ taste profiler (here) is fun and very quick to complete. Despite a few methodological reservations I think it has something really helpful to say and Tim’s approach aims to empower individuals to explore their own profile and preferences. Always an admirable pursuit.

Feb

5

Whiteout and a white from Savoie

By mthomas

I thought I had escaped the Siberian cold front when I left Geneva on Friday… The temperature in the Alps had been around minus 4, with excellent skiing all week, but minus 30 (with chill factor) was expected so it was perfect timing for a return to balmy London.  However, the coming week in the UK will no doubt be categorized by snow induced chaos. I had hoped to make a tasting tomorrow with Raeburn wines at Hedone but the chances of Chiswick being accessible are as slight as me going to the South Pole on the Jubilee Line.

During the trip (to St Jean d’ Aulps near Morzine) I tried as many local wines as possible as they were a bit of an unknown quantity. I had enjoyed some Swiss Pinot Noir previously and knew there were a myriad of local varieties including chasselas (fendant), sylvaner (valais), gamaret etc.  However, the ‘house’ red and white (both from the Languedoc)  were so good it was hard to justify drinking anything else although there were a few forays into host Mark’s (chilly) cellar.

Pictured is a 2010 Vin de Savoie chosen mainly because it is called  ’Cuvee’ Thomas’! Made from jacquère (a local grape with, usually, high yields and not a great reputation in terms of ‘nobility’) by Jean Noel Blard and described as ‘vielles vignes’ from ‘anciennes parcelles’. It has a bit more minerality than most of the AOC vin de Savoie I tried and makes a decent aperitif but would be ideal with a fondue from local cheeses (such as Comte’, Beaufort or Abondance) and cepes.

Jul

25

Whitstable Oyster Festival

By mthomas

The weather held on Sunday and so we set off for the annual oyster festival at Whitstable. It’s funny that the local oysters, Whitstable Natives, are out of season during the festivities but there is still plenty of seafood, and other treats, to enjoy. I like Whitstable and nearly moved there before the kids were born. It is all ‘vintage this’ and ‘retro that’ now but still retains a bit of character as a working harbour. There is also water sports infrastructure for those inclined towards kite surfing as well as more traditional sailing pursuits. The festival itself is pretty old school with bunting and morris men.

It was good to note the prevalence of English winemakers with stalls for the week. Biddenden, Kent’s oldest commercial Vineyard having been set up in 1969, is well worth a tour if you are in the area.  More recently established is Meopham Valley Vineyard which grows seven different varieties including Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. They were selling their Meopham Valley Sparkling by the glass for £2.50 and it was fine with a pot of prawns. It is made from organic Reichensteiner (created in 1939 in Germany from Muller Thurgau crossed with something obscure) a grape that has proved itself at Sedlescombe Vineyard since 1979 (the oldest organic vines in the UK). My favourite fizz from Meopham though is the 2008 Cuvee pictured. It is a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris blend which is toasty and versatile. A good English fizz for under £20.

Another attraction was the Beer Tent in the East Harbour. Collecting together beers from 5 good breweries;  Crouch Vale, Brentwood, Whitstable, Dark Star and my personal favourite Nethergate (their ’3.9′ is known as Eddie’s Best at my local). The Lemon Head, also from Nethergate, has lemon and ginger added, sacrilege but it actually works and should be a gastropub staple. For traditionalists the Whitstable Native combines Fuggle and Golding hops for a malty honest pint.

Don’t miss the cheese from Cheesemakers of Canterbury (website here). Their soft goats cheese was as good as anything from France, incredibly zingy and moreish. A friend who lives locally tipped us off to the best ice cream available but the oyster flavour didn’t go down too well with adults or kids! The candy floss ice cream was a big hit though and combined well with chucking pebbles at the beach.

It was also fun to watch some of the ‘shows’. The Galloping Cuckoos are a bit bizarre but we loved ‘Hello Sailor’ pictured below. How can you not enjoy a man in a mini speedboat adapted from a mobility vehicle singing a camp collection of sea shanties and lounge music classics. I might book him for my birthday.The festival runs until Friday 29th July. Enjoy!

Jul

3

The Corner Room

By mthomas

I had a wonderful lunch at the Corner Room in Bethnal Green before I went sailing but did not have time to write it up. It really merits a review as I can still recall the meal despite eating out every night last week. Timeout had given it five stars and a rave review and I had high hopes having previously eaten Nuno Mendez’s impressive food at the Loft. The Loft  was his testing ground for Viajante, the flagship restaurant, in the ambitious Town Hall Hotel and Apartments (pictured above). The Corner Room though is a much humbler space accessed through the impressive lobby with its sweeping staircase and quirky modern art.

I think Sommelier Witeke Teppema is one of the brightest stars among young sommeliers in London. She isn’t in awe of Bordeaux and articulates a clear vision in terms of her role in helping people enjoy wine. She also manages to find matches for Nuno’s, often challenging and sometimes exceptional, cooking and has put together a list that is full of good value and interesting wines.

I started with poached artichoke, San Jorge cheese and spinach which showed great confidence in its simplicity. The mustard sauce and little pink radish slices contrasting prettily with the green leaves. It ate brilliantly, no fireworks just great flavours. A glass of Mas des Agrunelles “Fleur Blanche” 2009 (pictured right) recommended by Witeke was a good match. Not a wine I would normally be drawn to but it manages to combine the best aspects of Chardonnay (70%) with the floral fun of Roussanne (30%). It was fresh and citrus with a lovely richness. Almost waxy it is a good food wine and has depth way beyond its relatively humble cost (a fiver a glass). This is further evidence of the great things happening in Languedoc Roussillon and the value of trying a wine I would normally ignore because of my biases.

My main course of pork and ‘Portuguese bread pudding’ was one of the most enjoyable plates of food I have had this year. Top quality Iberian pork with carrots and wonderful buttery fried bread. This dish was clear evidence of confidence in three components’ that, when cooked well, work together brilliantly. Slightly decadent, hearty and satisfying I felt compelled to thank the kitchen and encourage them to keep serving the pork quite rare (as I guess many diners might look at it and be a bit worried by the pinkness of the meat). The Domaine Grosbois “La Cuisine de Mere” 2010 Chinon Rose had a touch of tannin and worked fine to cut the unctuous crispy bread but the Giacomo Borgogno Langhe Freisa 2009 is probably a better bet. The list is small (five whites, the rose’ and four reds) but they are solid and as well thought out as the cooking.

I can still recall the flavours of the dessert of blueberries with goats cheese caramel, brioche and shiso. Pretty as a picture and fresh as a daisy, the shiso granita was a palate tingling joy. Not one for sugar and chocolate freaks but they are well served by the dark chocolate with peanut butter ice cream. The atmosphere was relaxed (the room pictured left is informal and bright), the service was great and I can’t recommend it enough. Luckily this qualifies as local for me and I hope it thrives as I intend to revisit asap and as often as I can, as cooking of this confidence and quality is rarely available at this price.

My great friend Paul was the nominated photographer for the sailing trip and once he gets me some images I will post them. We had an amazing time including a lovely encounter with a pod of seven playful dolphins in the Bay of Palma and some decidedly demanding waves off Dragonera island. Time for emails now and prep for the coming hectic week. I also want a quick spin round the park with Sarah and the kids before we settle down to lunch and the Wimbledon men’s final.

May

14

Enjoyment

By mthomas

I am teaching on the Masters in Positive Psychology programme at UEL later today and am reflecting on what contributes to ‘enjoyment’ of  wine. I have had some amazing experiences recently (see below) and have previously argued that wine enjoyment W(e) can be understood as a function of 3 main variables; features of the wine itself (W),  the personality and physical attributes of the drinker (P), and the environment or context in which the wine is drunk (E). Thus W(e) = f (W, P, E). Positive psychologists work to build on strengths and have useful ways of thinking about the nature of enjoyment and it is interesting to reflect on what I enjoyed tasting this week and maybe unpick why it was so enjoyable.

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited to a vertical tasting of Frank Cornelissen’s wines by David Harvey of Raeburn Fine Wines. Frank is an intense yet very amiable winemaker who settled on Etna as his ideal terroir. He makes wild, exciting wines with names like Magma. He doesn’t align himself to movements, be it biodynamics or natural wine, but has a clear ethical and conceptual framework which informs his craft. He ploughs his own furrow and in doing so produces wines that are individual and expressive. When matched with a menu specifically designed by Claude Bosi at Hibiscus (2 Michelin stars and rated in the top 50 eateries in the world) to match these wines, it is fair to say some of the contextual ‘enjoyment variables’ should be in place.

Frank talked us through his wines, giving us intimate insights into intellectual and emotional aspects of his work, as well as details of how each wine was made. I loved the 2006 Magma Rosso N0.5R Frank has a complex system for designating his wines and when unsatisfied he declassifies them. 2006 was a hard vintage due to the hot weather and his first in a ‘lined’ amphora. In appearance, much lighter than the 04s we also tried (4VA and 5R), it was a racy, perfumed thrilling wine. It was interesting to talk with other tasters as preferences varied greatly, as would scores I guess. There was consensus though  in terms of excitement and respect for Frank’s approach. Thus, in terms of variables, we had wine made with care, love even, great food designed to work with it that was cooked by a highly skilled chef, knowledgeable and engaged people to taste and talk with and the winemaker himself to enrich proceedings. This translated to great enjoyment and a memorable learning experience. I can only apologise to Neil Beckett Editor of The World of Fine Wine for eating his bread…

Another enjoyable event was a ‘Benchmark Tasting’ convened by Joe Muller at Corney and Barrow’s HQ near St Katherine’s dock. Joe put together a list that illustrated the strength and depth of C and Bs range. A 2007 Leflaive Macon-Verzé more Chablis than Puligny showed that you do not have to drink at premier cru level. Interestingly the stand out wine for me was another racy Sicilian red from 2006; the Tenuta di Passopisciaro, (pictured) made on the Franchetti Estate from Nerello Mascalese. It was a joy, light but mineral and thrilling. I am enjoying discovering my affinity for volcanic reds (and whites). Etna is on my must visit list now.

Joe, who manages private wine sales at C and B, encouraged us to relax with his understated engagement with the wines. We tasted a few bottles blind and participants had fun assuming various bodyshapes (hands in the air, fingers on nose etc.) depending on an ‘either or’ choice of variables (old or new world etc.) proposed by Joe.  One managed to rattle a chandelier by throwing up his hands excitedly and another embraced the ‘buttock grasp’ with a bit too much enthusiasm…

Again, my enjoyment at this tasting depended on the combination of good wine and good company combined with someone passionate and engaged with the wines. Joe is a rising star and would be a great choice for anyone wanting someone unpretentious to guide them through a list. Corney and Barrow are maintaining an excellent selection of wines across the price range and this helped matters. They also still provide that personal service which the supermarkets can never match. Long may such variables which are integral to enjoyment, for me anyway, be maintained.

May

9

Birthday and boats

By mthomas

My mum’s birthday on Sunday saw a gathering of the ‘clan’ in Leigh on Sea. The venue was chosen so that we could all admire the boats built by my stepfather Brian, a marine engineer. There were 4 or 5 docked (two pictured left) and a few more came and went during the afternoon. Most are cocklers but he also builds tugs and the odd commission including a really impressive replica of the boat Joshua Slocum used in his ground breaking round the world trip.

We had lunch at Simply Seafood, the name says it all.  Between us we covered most of the menu. My sole was fine and it was good to eat some of the local cockles given the boats we were there to admire. Highlight of the wines was a Macon Lugny ‘Les Genieveres’ 2008 from Louis Latour. Nice green tinge to it and a balance between honey and lemon. Refreshing with a surprisingly good finish. Versatile in terms of matching different fish dishes and pretty good value at £21.45. I am a fan of Macon and in a decent year like 2008 there are bargains to be had. I might order some of this as it is drinking well.

Interestingly I am working my way through a 2002 white Burg from a good supplier. Five bottles in and three have been badly oxidised. Symptomatic and sad because this ‘hit and miss’ aspect of Burgundy really puts people off experimenting and they, understandably, head for the mass produced reliability of supermarket mega brands. I am happy to let the odd bottle go but when half the case is problematic it becomes impossibly expensive to do this. The merchant has agreed to refund in full for the ‘bad’ ones because they understand that not honouring this would destroy trust and therefore valued long term custom.

May

7

Istria

By mthomas

I have loved Croatia since the 80′s when I found myself, at 18 years old, penniless on a beach in Greece. I needed to find my way back to the UK to earn more money to extend a summer spent ‘Interailing’. The first stage of the journey involved a train from Athens to Belgrade with a friend and a couple of Croatian girls returning home. We only just made it through the quite stringent border controls as Yugoslavia was still very insular at this time. We survived on Ouzo and goodwill and I still associate the area with this attitude.

I have been back a few times but had not been to Rovinj (pictured above) before last week. Perched on the Istrian coast it is a sweet little port with a lot to offer, including its proximity to Italy (Venice is a couple of hours by boat) and countless vineyards. It is an area of fish, wine, truffles and game with an admirably simple approach to gastronomy. Its people are relaxed and welcoming, especially ‘off season’. The local currency is Kuna and your money goes a long way here.  The Adriatic is renowned for its calmness and colour so sailing around the unspoiled islands of the archipelago is a big draw, as is nature trekking. I made it to a couple of islands but spent most of the time reading, writing and playing tennis. The tennis infrastructure is excellent and lessons half the price of the UK.

Rovinj now has its first 5 star hotel the Monte Mulini and wine is one of its big selling points with ‘The Wine Vault’ (pictured right).  Head sommelier Emil Perdec has a deserved international reputation and leads a big team by example. The wine list (over 500 bins) is mainly Croatian so it provides an opportunity to really explore the potential of local varieties, or ‘culturas‘, such as Malvasija and Grasevina. The fizz is improving and there are some easy drinking sweet wines such as Prosek made from the autochthonous Hvar grape varieties Bogdanusa and Parand Trbljan.  It is now well known that Zinfandel is the same as Plavac Mali and Croatia’s contribution to the world of wine is really underrated. One successful match at the Wine Vault was Belje Merlot 2008 with a main of goat and asparagus. The local tiny asparagus spears are incredibly bitter but attributed with healthy properties by locals. Small slices of kid liver (sic) were scattered in it and the Merlot stood up well to the strong tastes. A bit on the modern side for a traditionalist like me; 14.6% alcohol but technically good it convinced Decanter medal judges and has done well at blind tastings. Mark up was reasonable and local bottles excellent value compared to French imports.

The best meal of my trip (although pasta with truffles is both affordable and reliably good in Istria) was something called ‘fisherman’s pie’ in a local cafe. This is a simple pizza base folded with anchovy, tomato, onions, garlic and herbs. Doused in lots of the local wonderful olive and wood fire baked it is obviously Italian influenced and passes the quality control of Venetian millionaires who drop anchor nearby. Cheap, honest food (£3), I could have eaten it every day with a glass of house rose’. It is a dish that sums up the area.

Apr

22

Wilunga 100 McClaren Vale Grenache 2007

By mthomas

This Grenache has been scooping awards left, right and centre and its easy to see why. Imported by Liberty wines and easily accessible (Sainsbury’s), reasonably priced (£8), made from old vines using modern techniques and completely gluggable. It overflows with fruit and has a lovely savoury depth. I liked it a lot and it compares well with decent Rhones.

I started with it slightly chilled as the weather was pretty hot and the BBQ sizzling. It’s a really good match for most red meats or sausages you might chuck on the summer grill. It is 14.5% but you can’t have everything. An afternoon siesta is needed if you open this at lunch.

Given that labels are important in the decision making process I will comment on this one as it is cleverly understated. It doesn’t overload with visual information, or text, and shows a confidence in the product. McClaren Vale makers Steve Parnell and Kate May are clearly skilled at blending the different batches of fruit (the soil varies and really influences the expression of the Grenache) to produce a coherent and stylistically consistent product. It is a safe bet and a crowd pleaser. They should be proud of it and stick their names on it somewhere.

The label doesn’t mention the 5% Shiraz added to it and I seem to recall a few discussions about the use of oak (chips becoming ‘aged in French oak’) but nothing really to write home about given some of the deceptions in the wine world. A bit of the bumpf on the back is the usual play on terroir and authenticity (an old Red Gum tree etc.).  Get some in because it is bound to sell out.