Tuesday 22 July 2008

Back Labels

The best back labels are by Robin Day of Domain Day www.domainday.com.au. They read

“Years of writing descriptions for back labels has left me convinced that this energy is more gainfully employed growing grapes and making wine”.

The vast majority call into question at best the literacy of the people who write them and worse, a picture of those allotted this task burning the midnight oil surrounded by a number of empty bottles.

I could forgive all that if they at least told me something concrete about the wine such as what grapes went into their ‘Red’ or ‘White’. The chances are that if they are so ashamed of them, they might be interesting, but such is the perceived fear that customers might be turned off by the mention of something esoteric that they would rather write meaningless flim-flam.

Monday 7 July 2008

OK Guv, it's a fair cop.

I haven't mentioned Bordeaux or Burgundy so far. I do admit that the world's greatest Red and white wines come from there and yes, ther are made from the boring varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot and Chardonnay: not so boring when they acieve their maximum potential as this evening, thanks to Stephen Fein, a vigneron from the Vaucluse who served me Ch. La Conseillante, 1997 in generous quantities. Long may (and will) such wines prevail. Just let us hope they do not migrate beyond anyone's financial reach to become an item solely for trading or something just for show.

Saturday 5 July 2008

Your heart should never sink again at the mention of white wine

Let’s face it, red wine is more interesting than white but this is a classic example of where a greater choice would transform the picture. Restaurants are offering greater variety these days. Recent additions to winelists have included Picpoul de Pinet and Albarino, impossible to find only a very few years ago. Here is a list of the whites I have enjoyed in recent years and would suggest for any winelist:

Ansonica (syn. Insolia/Inzolia)
Asprinio (syn. Greco di Tufo)
Chasselas (aka.. Fendant in Switzerland)
Coda di Volpe
Fiano del’Avellino
Greco di Tufo (syn. Asprinio)
Gros Manseng
Gruener Veltliner
Insolia (also Inzolia)
Welschriesling (Riesling Italico)

As ever in this blog, I have left out obvious varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc Riesling, Semillon etc. Some of the above names will be almost as familiar to some. I have omitted the grapes I have no liking for (they are listed below; please let me know if I’m missing out on anything) but there is a third category; grapes that are neither good not bad, possibly incapable of making really good wine but otherwise innocuous. My list of such grapes includes names such as Humagne Blanche, Irsay Oliver, Picolit , Vitovska etc). I have also left out some grapes such as Trebbiano, Vuira, Verdejo because although a few wonderful wines are made from them, they are specks in a sea of otherwise mediocre efforts.

Personal hates:
Clairette Blanc
Emerald Riesling

Some Wine Tips

A good German Sekt (yes, really!). Doesn’t attempt to copy Champagne. Think of it as Sparkling Riesling. Originally recommended by Eytan Pessen, head of music staff at Germany’s leading opera house, the Wuerttemburgische Staatstheater, Stuttgart. Eytan is a true connoisseur in all things; Weinmanufaktur Riesling Sekt is from Untertuerckheim, a pretty village just outside Stuttgart.

French Vermentino (Rolle). The white wine of Nice (the red is Bellet). Vermentino is lighter and dryer from the south of France and I reckon preferable to Italian (or Sardinian) Vermentino which can get a little fruity and even ‘ammabile’. Examples from France are also, until now, very good value. I found a perfect example near the Flower Market in Nice for under €4. The Caviste is the venerable Caves Caprioglio where you can also get interesting wine on draft. Try the ‘Folle noir’ which is in fact Fuelle Noir which together with Braquet (now thought not to be related to Brachetto) makes up Bellet, the rather variable and always expensive local wine of Nice.

Insolia Cusumano. Cusumano is an excellent producer. Their Insolia proves why this grape is considered above Cateratto and Grillo, two of the other main indigenous whites of Sicily. Widely available in the USA and Europe, less so in the UK.

Savignin. A Jura grape producing amazing salty dry white. This really stretches the boundaries of White Wine. Good as an aperitif but even I have difficulty drinking it with food.

Matarromera, Ribeira del Duero. I find this a classic Ribera del Duero, not as expensive as some. I have the wonderful Alfonso Aijon to thank for the introduction to this wine. Alfonso runs ‘Ibermusica’ and is an impresario of genius. He is universally liked in the music world, nay loved! He tours all the great orchestras to Spain. Everyone has a great time.

Graciano. Like Ancelotta, rarely found on its own but contributing hugely to blends (in this case Rioja). It holds its own magnificently ‘in purezza’. I’d love to know why it is so rarely produced by itself.

Rioja Contino. This is my classic Rioja discovered after years of desultory forays. Again, not cheap but also not as much as many which I suspect are no better. Horrible to think, but I once heard that the price of wine often has more to do with the producer’s lifestyle than any intrinsic worth and I that is frequently the only explanation I can think of as to why a particular bottle is reasonable or expensive.

Bovin Vranec. I bought this at Lavinia in Paris and was thrilled with my first Macedonian wine; a red. We drank the bottle at one sitting and I then went about finding more. Unfortunately these were a different vintage and not good at all. The final nail in the coffin was the discovery that Vranec, a grape which I considered to have a bright future, was none other than Primitivo.

Pinot Meunier/Schwarzriesling. When I first saw a bottle of wine with ‘Schwarzriesling’ written on the label I nearly collapsed! This surely was the ultimate rarity? It turns out to be Pinot Meunier. OK, still an underrated grape. I had enjoyed Bests Great Western Pinot Meunier enormously and urge anyone who hasn’t tried it to do so. Schwarzriesling turns out to be almost as enjoyable in a very different way. This is obviously from a much colder climate but the examples I have tried have been consistently good. I bought them at German airport shops and in the mall at Leipzig Hauptbahnhof!

Primo Estate Merlesco. I like Joseph Grillo’s whole range of Primo Estate Wines and even visited the old tasting building on our only trip to Adelaide so far. He produces something he calls Merlesco which he says is a Merlot in the style of his Italian forbears which they made when they first came to Australia. Primo Estates also make a Cabernet/Merlot or sometimes just Cabernet in an Amarone style which is magnificent. All their wines are special. Il briccone and la biondina are hommages to other Italian styles and areas but they are not copies and remain true to their Australian origins.

Ch. Vignelaure, Provence is a problematic region; the wine is mostly either good or bad with not much in between. The bad drags the rest down so it has not been able to establish itself as a trustworthy appellation. Chateau Vignelaure is one of the good guys. I have Olivier Cautres to thank for this introduction. He is the manager of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice which plays concerts and opera in Nice and is a Sleeping Beauty of an orchestra, capable of a very high level but generally unrecognised. I toured them to Japan. They had rarely played outside Nice, never mind abroad. Olivier was not interested in most of the contract: his main concern was what his musicians were going to eat in Japan! I later found from my friend and colleague Tonino Howard who tours orchestras for IMG that all the French orchestras are the same.

Alsace Pinot Noir. An acquired taste if ever there was one, but eminently worth it. The wine should be transparent and almost pink. With a low alcohol level. Waitrose sell a quite expensive one by Blanck but this is trying to compete with other Pinot Noirs from around the world so loses what makes Alsace Pinot Noir unique.

Dornfelder. This is that rare phenomenon: a successful hybrid. Designed for German growing conditions it flourishes there and is appreciated by its public for its dark warmth, aging abilities and positive reactions to wood. There is practically a Dornfelder bourse in Germany with some examples fetching quite high prices. Plantings in Germany are on the increase and it is making its way also to England. Definitely worth a try.

Romanian Pinot Noir. Travelling through Romania and Moldova you see vines in everyone’s back gardens and allotments. There are interesting native grapes such as Feteasca Neagra and Feteasca Alba and many more which will no doubt repay investigation. Pinot Noir is widely grown and this is what you are most likely to come across in a supermarket. The prices are always unfeasibly low so the impression is that the wine is also low in quality. This is not the case; Romanian Pinot Noir is a bargain, frequently superior to other wines at twice the price. As well as other obvious international varieties, they grow Hybrids, Russian and Bulgarian grapes and even less prominent vines such as Aligote. Now they are in the EU, I expect standards to get better and a clearer focus to emerge. Meanwhile, I must try some more Romanian wines…

Alicante Bouschet. Definitely a teinturier. An early French crossing, it is used in blends but as ever, it is most definitely worth seeking it out on its own. My first experience was also the best. Unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the name on the bottle but in any case on returning to the same caviste in Toulouse a year later I learned that the wine had been a one-off and was no longer available. According to the mec in the wine shop, the wine was too ‘monumental’ or some other such word. The sense was that it was, if I understood him correctly, too much like a New World wine and too much itself s to say. In other words he and the producers preferred it in a blend. You can get a 100% Alicante Bouschet from various sources in the UK and elsewhere. A quite frequent example appears to be Chateaux Ollieux Romanis Vin de Pays de L'Aude which I haven’t tried but intend doing.

New York State wines. New York used to be considered as equal to California in the days when taste was so undemanding as to accept wines from native Labrusca grapes in the former and ‘Hearty Burgundy’ grown from dubious hybrids in the latter. Today New York still produces a great quantity of grapes and some of them go to making excellent wines. These are wines which you cannot buy practically anywhere outside the state and which are sold in a pitifully small number of restaurants and shops. It is an incredibly interesting story as to how the change was made from Labrusca to Vinifera varieties and why the resulting wines have not made it to the market. A Ukrainian immigrant Dr. Konstantin Frank was responsible for showing growers that it was possible to grow international Vinifera varieties without losing them over the cold winters and a relic of Prohibition has seen to it that until very recently it was actually illegal to sell New York wine to many states and abroad. The next time you are in New York, take a lunch or dinner-time trip to one of Vintage New York’s two wine shops and taste their wines for a dollar a piece, refundable on spending over a modest amount on actually buying a bottle or two. I never come away without buying a bottle of Lieb Pinot Blanc and Pellegrini Cabernet Franc both from Long Island. I have also enjoyed Dr Konstantin Frank’s Rkatsiteli and Petit Noir. I think he even had a blend which included Saperavi once. There are also excellent Rieslings from the Finger Lakes.

Liechtenstein. The luscious Pinot Noir some of which is made by the Hereditary Prince is quite outstanding. A real rarity with high intrinsic worth.

Switzerland. Familiar enough to every tourist and business traveller, the wines of Switzerland have a poor reputation due to the kinds of wine encountered on the way and the prices which seem inordinately high. A particular scandal is the price of Swiss wine at airport duty free shops. Fortunately there is a branch of Lavinia in Geneva where you can find the fascinating and original wines of French and Italian Switzerland at more realistic prices and there are of course wine merchants in other major cities who do the same. Covering the German speaking wines is a lovely old family run business in the centre of Zurich, Gottlieb Welti, Limmatquai 42, 8001 Zurich, Tel: (044) 2527903. In the UK, Nick Dobson Wines is the leading importer.

Israel. I wonder how many other wine areas produce excellent wine but are hampered by similar difficulties as Israel. The main problems include the fact that the Israeli government does not subsidise agriculture. Only when you come across a situation like that do you realise the extent to which wine elsewhere is available for unrealistic prices. Did I read somewhere that 1/6th of France’s agricultural subsidy goes on wine? The next problem for Israel is that everything has to be imported: winery equipment, bottles and even capsules; only the labels are made in Israel. Next, due to the false start in the distant past, clonal selection is rigorously enforced. Only varieties sanctioned by the University of California at Davis may be planted. To get permission for a new variety, the application has to go through numerous committees as well as the UCD. Finally there is practically no Jewish tradition of drinking so until recently Israeli wine was drunk by relatively indiscriminating consumers. Things have changed but only in the last 10 years. Huge strides have been made and there is a flourishing scene with some excellent wineries. The produce is mainly consumed in Israel so wineries are not as desperate to export as you might have thought. The final straw is the strength of the New Israeli Shekel. All this is a great pity because some wines are outstanding in a New World, practically Californian mode. Yarden, Golan Heights and Barkan may be familiar but there are others which could hold up in world markets if they were more easily available. These include Castel, Clos de Gat, Dalton and Margalit which can be found but often with a price disadvantage. Deserving boutique wineries with practically no external sales include Vitkin and Peller. Israel also badly needs a signature wine. Emerald Riesling will not do although this hybrid achieves its greatest expression in Israel rather than California where it originates. Could Carignan be a contender? This is associated with some of the Rothschild plantings in the 19th century and some old vines survive. Carignan is also a grape now recognised to be capable of producing world class wine as in Priorat and Sardinia. The exemplary boutique winery Vitkin is banking on Carignan for the future. If not Carignan, what?

Domaine Mercouri Red. One of my favourite Greek wines. It is a blend of Refosco and Mavrodaphne. At 13% it is not over-alcoholic and is beautifully balanced in other ways as well. What an imaginative and original combination! The result begs the question why others do not attempt such partnerships more frequently.

Castello di Porcia Malbeck (sic), SocietĂ  Agricola Principi di Porcia e Brugnera. I am of the firm belief that Malbec attains its supreme expression not in Bordeaux, Cahors or even Argentina but in North East Italy! The bad news is that it is almost impossible to find there. I have drunk Luigi, the delicatessen on Kings Road out of a heavenly Italian Malbech (as I think it was written) without making a note of the producer. Since then I have sought any other example I could find, not always with such good results. There is a bottle available from the Wine Nazi in Venice which is no good at all. I found the Malbeck (sic) from Castello di Porcia at Rinascimento in the Piazza Duomo in Milan for a price around €5 if I remember correctly. The next time I was in Milan, it had been dropped. I contacted Prince Porcia (I assume it was he) who said he would let me know when the wine would be available abroad. Of course he never did and I can’t see the ‘Malbeck’ on Winesearcher – even the pro version.

The Wine Nazi. My name for a stout party who presides over an enoteca in Venice and shouts at people who touch the bottles. The Enoteca is actually very good and the staff is pretty knowledgeable. He never shouted at me for some reason but did others get it in the neck!

Campanilismo corner

I have experienced some very narrow thinking in the wine world. In Bordeaux they used to greet the mention of Burgundy with ‘Ah yes, they make wine there too, don’t they?’

If you go into a wine shop in Geneva, they will not stock wines from Zurich.

In Canada it is very difficult to buy wines from British Columbia in Ontario and almost impossible to find anything from Quebec there. In the USA it is still illegal to ship wine across some state lines.

Northern taste.
We explain the fact that alcoholism seems to get worse the further North you go in terms of lack of sunlight, cold, damp etc. So the popularity of ever higher alcohol wine can also be down to the fact it is mainly appreciated in North America, Northern Europe, Scandinavia etc. rather than Mediterranean for instance. I believe there is something else going on here, not related to climate, more cultural. My wife was in a restaurant with two friends in America a few years ago. They had finished a bottle of wine half way through the main course so decided to order a second. They waited but there was no sign of the wine. On reminding the waiter he said he had thought they were joking. Typically many Americans have a glass of wine with their meal so the glass should be a ‘mouthful’. And now for something truly wierd. Did you know that a leaway of 1.5% is allowed when declaring alcohol content? What is more, producers frequently raise the acohol level printed on the label by 1% because they believe it will sell more bottles! I would have thought the opposite. What is going on?

I love Robert Parker. Reading about him you would think he was the Clive Barnes of the wine world, Reading Parker himself is another thing altogether. His default setting is one of wonderment at most wines. I find he bends over backwards to say nice things if he can. The harm only comes when people take his marking as a standard for the entire wine world. He would not make that effect if people trusted their own opinions. Of course I pay attention to what he writes but one should exercise as much scepticism as when reading a newspaper. I love him for the facts that I can learn from him and mostly for his mistakes. In his third edition of his Wine Buyers Guide he dismisses ‘Most reds from Emilia Romagna, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Veneto’ as being ‘washed-out, vegetal, thin wines that have little redeeming social value.’ (p.686). If that helped to keep the prices down of all the red wines I have appreciated from those areas, then a big thank you to Robert Parker!

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Wine Links

Excellent ‘Weinlexikon’ with notes on hundreds of grape varieties.

On of my favourite wine writers


Website of Daniel Rogov, authority on Israeli wine

If one was going to start a wine merchant business, it would be like this.

Very good online Austrian supplier. Note their ‘Landesweine’ (country wine) selection.

The site for Swiss wine in the UK.

Some interesting items here including Henri Marionnet’s ‘Vinifera’ Cot (Malbec) Touraine

English winery (formerly Thames Valley Vinyards) making some drinkable wines thanks to Vince Gower, their genius winemaker.

Huge selection of Portuguese wine including best range of Colares.

When in New York sample NY State wines here at $1 a shot refundable if you buy a bottle or two.

Website including details of agencies of the great Sicilian producer of Santa Ne and other marvels

Distributor of Palari wines in the UK

Charming and efficient Frenchman offering amazing bin end bargains from time to time.

Equally charming and efficient specialists in Macedonian wine

One of my favourite Australian wineries. Their whole range should be available in the UK but is not.

Another of my favourite Australian wineries. Any of their wines should be available in the UK but are almost not

The Vitkin Winery is one of the most interesting in Israel. Their wines should be more easily available worldwide.

Blog of a group of young Ramisco growers from Colares. Never updated, no reply from contact messages but this might change

In Portuguese but the photos tell the story of Ramisco grapes grown in Colares

Ideal website telling the story of grape varieties in Australia: every wine country should have one

No longer as good as it was but still one of the best wine shops in the world