Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Independent Winegrowers Assoc. - Portuguese whites

When I think of Portuguese wines, other then Vinho verde, white wine is not what springs to mind. I'm thinking big, robust, tannic, or sweet, thick and vintage. The Portuguese however are really working hard to change our perceptions and expectations of what kind of wine comes out of their vineyards.

I attended a tasting at the Portuguese Embassy not long ago highlighting the top whites of Portugal. The wines were selected by Charles Metcalfe, Sarah Jane Evans MW and David Lopes Ramos, all authorities on Portuguese wine, sponsored by the Independent Winegrowers' Association. There were 61 wines from 51 producers. It's exciting to learn that there are so many new (to me) white wines coming from Portugal. 

The lions share of whites came from the Douro but there were also representatives from most of the other wine producing regions of Portugal, even one from the Azores. What I find most interesting is the sheer exoticness of varietals that are used. Grapes like Antao Vaz, Arinto, Terrantez, Roupeiro, Encruzado, Bical, Cercial, Gouveio, Viosinho, Rabigato, Malvasia fina, and my favourite, if only because of it's name, Maria Gomes. All so alluring and romantic, even more so when said in Portuguese, to these ears that are more accustomed to French or even Italian varietal names.

And overall, the quality was excellent. The wines ran the gamut from light and fruity to full bodied and elegant, with plenty of fruit character but still able to go harmoniously with a meal. Of course, there were wines I didn't particularly care for, but in general all were well made and only the samples at the very low end of the price spectrum were disappointing but then again what can you expect for 2 euros? 

For some new and exciting white wines, Portugal is definitely worth seeking out. 

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Hay Fever

One of the worst things that can happen to someone who tastes wine for a living has got to be hay fever. 

I should know as I am currently suffering from a severe attack. Not only is my nose a red, raw running mess but my eyes won't stop watering and the constant sneezing is giving me stomach cramps. And to top it all off, today I was supposed to sit my blind tasting test for the WSET Advanced Certificate. Needless to say I am in no condition to sip wine, let alone analyze it. I wouldn't be able to tell an Alsatian Gewurztraminer from an Australian Oaked Chardonnay. 

I was also supposed to attend the Definitive Italian Wine Show at Lord's Cricket Ground today but that plan has also been blown to smithereens. Nothing to do now but hope and pray that the claritin will kick in sooner rather then later. This has been going on for 3 days now. I have been reduced to drinking water only. The horror.... 

Raimat Abadia

The Codorniu tasting was a long one. First the sparkling and then the still wines. I have to admit that after all those sparklings, I was beginning to get a bit tipsy, especially since this was an informal tasting session after work. 

But I soldiered on and sampled the wines of Raimat which is the still wine arm of Codorniu. A bit of background on Raimat. They are one of Spain's most progressive winemakers today. Two years ago they brought in a whole new winemaking team and are using the latest technological advances to produce top quality wines. They even go so far as to do satellite mapping of their vineyards to analyze the soil. Raimat Abadia has been repackaged for 2008 to reflect all the new advances being made at Raimat. The vineyards are based in NE Spain, DO Costers del Segre in Catalunya. Their tagline is "Spanish wines beyond Rioja" and I think that they've proved that Spain has a lot more to offer then tempranillo. 

First up was the Raimat Abadia Crianza 2005. A blend of Cab. Sauv., Merlot and Tempranillo, aged 10 months in American oak and then a further 6 months in French. On the nose, aromas of plum and stewed fruits, a bit of spice and toast. A lovely medium bodied wine with more of those plummy fruits and hints of sweet spice and chocolate once I'd swished it around my mouth. I liked this wine, easy on it's own or with a meal. 

The next two wines were whites. The Raimat Abadia Blanc de blanc 07, a blend of chardonnay and albarino. Albarino is unusual for this part of Spain as most of it is grown in the northwest, around Galicia. On pouring, aromas of tropical fruit and what I can only describe as pineapple pie hit me on my nose. This medium bodied wine had loads of pineapple flavours and hints of grapefruit on the finish. Very refreshing and I could imagine drinking it with a plateful of fresh seafood. 

The last wine was a revelation. A 100% Albarino, the first single varietal Albarino to be produced outside of Galicia, or so the promo material said. The first surprise was how full-bodied it was, usually I think of albarinos as being light and zippy. This one was still fresh and fruity but we all agreed that it had something more. There was a lot more then just citrusy aromas on the nose. Throw in dried flowers, spice and vanilla. It was almost like sniffing on a bowl of potpurri but not sickly sweet, maybe more like sniffing a bowl that had once held potpurri many years ago. Anyway, the same followed thru on the palate with hints of dried fruit and a nice citrus finish.  It was a quite full and round, not as crisp as I'd expected but still a new and interesting example of what can be done with Albarino. It won unanimous approval and not just because the rather sexy winemaker was sitting amongst us. 

These wines are all retailing for under £8 which I think is a fair price.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

The Scots have an alcohol problem

Here's an old Scottish joke to start off today. 

"Alcohol is your trouble" said the sheriff to the drunk. "Alcohol alone is responsible for your present predicament." The drunk looked pleased as he said, "Yer lairdship's maist kind. A'body else says it's ma ain fault!" 

Substitute Scottish government for sheriff and you can see how the Scots have come up with these new proposals to tackle alcohol abuse. 

Here are their latest efforts: 

1. Create a separate checkout line at the supermarket. A sort of walk of shame, if you will. If anything this would just aggravate me but I'd still get in line. People who drink til they puke in the streets are probably pretty oblivious to the whole "walk of shame" thing. All that proposal does is inconvenience shoppers. 

2. A ban on sales to under 21's in shops. But only in shops. If you want to nip down to the pub or go to a bar or restaurant and you're under 21 then that's ok. Does this make any sense at all? I've seen plenty of drunken teenagers hanging out of pubs on a Friday nite here in London, I don't think it's any different up North. 

3. The last proposal is a 35 pence per unit tax on alcohol. It's the same old tax and spend. I wonder what that money is earmarked for? Raising taxes doesn't seem to work, all it does is penalize responsible drinkers and add money to the government coffers. What they should do is ensure that supermarket beers, ciders and alcopops are reasonably priced. If you can walk into a supermarket and buy beer for 20p a can, there is something wrong with the pricing policy. Lumping wine into this category is just plain wrong in my view. How many kids get drunk on a Cotes du Rhone or Bordeaux? Cider and beer are cheaper and (from the binge drinkers point of view) taste better and get you drunk faster. 

Rather then coming up with all these silly ideas, what the Scottish government should be doing is looking at the root causes of the alcohol problem in Scotland.  But then, they would actually have to do some hard work addressing the social ills of the country and it's much easier to throw out headline grabbing proposals. 

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Codorniu Cava

Working for a big wine merchant does have it's advantages. Tuesday night the company invited the winemakers from Grupo Codorniu to come down and have a chat and informal tasting with us. There were about 25 of us from various London based shops. 
Grupo Codorniu is a Spanish owned and operated winery group based in northeast Spain, although they do have holdings in Argentina and Napa Valley as well. Codorniu  is one of the big boys in cava production. Cava (Catalan for "cellar")is produced the same way as champagne but can't be called champagne because you know how those Champenois are, they'd start howling bloody murder about copyright infringement and the lawsuits would be flying thick
 and fast. 

Codorniu have been in the wine biz since the 1500's but have "only" been making cava since  the 1870's. They were one of the pioneers in the commercialization of Spanish sparkling wine and have recently brought in a whole new winemaking team to improve their products.  One of the changes they've made is an overhaul of their bottle design. Very sexy now. There's something almost prim
al about the design of the bottle that compels you to pick it up, the slender neck, the way it flares out at the bottom and the sleek feel beneath your fingers. I'm not the only one who's had this reaction to the bottle desig
n. I've heard quite a few comments in the shop regarding that. Kudos to the bottle designer on that one.  

Back to what's INSIDE the bottle. In Spain, the main varieties used are indigenous - xarello, macabo and parellada. Recently, they've started using chardonnay and pinot noir although
 they are again prevented by EU law from putting pinot noir on the label except for pinot rose. 

The Tasting: 
Condesa Blanca Cava is their entry level sparkling. Light and fruity, big bubbles that disappeared fairly quickly, lots of green apple and pears with a hint of nuts and toast on the finish. I was pleasantly surprised at how good this was, esp. since it retails for about £5. 

The next one up is their most popular cava in Spain - the Codorniu Reserva Raventos Brut. Reserva does have a legal definition in Spain, it must be aged on the lees for 15 months. Gran Reserva has to be aged on the lees for 30 months. The Reserva is 60% chardonnay and from a single vintage. It was richer and fuller with more of a toasty, briochy nose. On 
the palate, aggressive bubbles, a bit earthy with lots of lovely green apple and citrus.  This one retails for about £9.

A sparkling rose, Codorniu Pinot Noir Rosado Brut, was next up and it was fab. 100% pinot noir. A very light, refreshing sparkler. It was redolent of strawberries and raspberries, like walking thru a raspberry patch. And the taste was more of the same but not sweet, as a matter of fact it was quite dry, just what you want in a sparkling rose. Small perpetual 
bubbles on this one. Another excellent value at £6 for a bottle. 

The last two were fantastic! First up, the Codorniu Reina Maria Cristina Brut Reserva Vintage. 50% chardonnay, remainder local varieties, single vintage, 18-24 months in bottle before release.  A very soft, delicate, rounded sparkler. The bubbles weren't aggressive, rath
er petite and dainty. They seemed to loll about in my mouth taking their time before slipping down. On the palate it was a lovely blend of apples and pears with a touch of lemon on the finish. Delicious! Unfortunately, it's not available in the UK - natch! 

The last one was their limited production Jaume de Codorniu Brut. Again 50% chard, 50% native. This wine was all about fruit selection and is always made from a single vintage. Bruno, the winemaker, told us that each 
bunch was hand selected to go into this blend and fermented to very exact specifications. He said some other stuff but I was too busy drinking it to really pay attention. Needless to say, this is their p
ride and joy. Named after the founder of the company, Jaume Codorniu. 

The wine's aged for 18-24 months in bottle before release. This one had a very distinctive nose of spice, brioche, and biscuits with hints of apple and green fruits coming thru at the end. Quite a complex nose compared to the previous offerings. On the palate, very fine persistent bubbles with toast, baked green apple and a slight nuttiness all rolling around my mouth. It ended with a s
lightly honeyed finish that seemed to go on for a very long time. A great sparkling wine and one that I would buy for a special occasion, still cheaper then branded champagne, retailing for about £20 a bottle. 

After the sparklers we had the still red and white wines to taste but I'll blog that later. Right now I think I'll open that Codorniu rose I have in the fridge.   

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Aglianico Terredora

Even though it's summer, I don't think you should forget red wine and wait for the Fall to come around before opening another red. With that in mind, I popped open a red Italian this week. An Aglianico from Campania. 

While Italy is probably best well known for Chianti and Brunello (made from the sangiovese variety) and Barolo and Barabesco (the Nebbiolo grape), there are a lot of hidden gems available that are cheaper then the "biggies" but still give you bang for your buck. 

Aglianico is grown mostly around southern Italy in Campania and Basilicata. Like most Italian varieties, this one has been around for centuries and many people think that the Greeks brought this particular variety to Italy oh-so-many years ago because the name is a corruption of Ellenico, Italian for Greek. Aglianico is known for having high acidity and firm tannins - sounds like a perfect food wine to me. Not really something you'd want to drink alone (either by yourself or without food, even though it's only 13% alc). 

The wine we had was an Aglianico Terredora 2005.
Appearance: A dark, inky black color

Nose: I really liked the aromas coming off this one. At first I got hit by this herbal, almost musky animal scent and then the aromas of black cherries, berries and a bit of spiciness, could have been pepper, maybe a bit of sweet spice as well. 

Mouth: Wow! I loved the silkiness of this one, it just coated my mouth with lots of black cherry and ripe black fruit flavors, a hint of toasty smoke and a nice mocha finish to it. The tannins were there but there were never too obvious. I was afraid that this was going to be a monster wine that would blow my taste buds out of the water.  But no, we had this with a big hunk o' meat and it definitely stood up to it without laying waste to my palate.  As I said earlier though, this isn't really a wine you'd want for just sippin' and chillin' out on the patio. Save that for the white, but for dinner, this is definitely a winner. And at around £10, much cheaper then Brunello. 

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Castel in Ethiopia

I get Decanter mag's daily e-newsletter and there was in interesting bit of news in there today about Castel Group, France's largest wine producer, planting vineyards in Ethiopia. Ethiopia??

According to Decanter..."there is a history of wine production...but the industry entered a period of decline after the wineries were nationalized by the military regime and production facilities (were) not upgraded." Ethiopia does produce both red and white wine as well as a centuries old traditional wine called Tej, made from fermented honey and a special kind of hops called gesho. Now, however, the Castel group have been given the opportunity by the Ethiopian government to begin planting international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay. They have acquired 125 ha of land south of the capital and are planting at the moment. The hope is that Castel will lead the way in revitalising the local wine industry. 

Due to the unique climatic conditions, soil and good weather year round in Ethiopia, it is possible to have 2 harvests a year from the same vineyard instead of the usual one. Castel plans to release the first wines in 2011, targeting neighboring African countries. 

I've had Moroccan wine when I've visited Morocco and found they're quite palatable for African wines, now will Ethiopia be able to produce wines just as good? We'll just have to wait and see.