Stakes & Stones

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Hot weather finds me craving a cold, pale, white that smells gently of pears, grapefruit and white flowers, not aggressively aromatic, but cut through with the kind of razor sharp, refreshing citrus acidity and salty minerality that makes you salivate. 

Chablis? I hear you say. Sort of ‘esque’ but considerably cheaper at around £13 retail.

Rueda is the only white wine DO in Castilla y Leon, and its fennelly freshness comes from a distinctly chilly climate and the austere gravelly soils of the high plateau, where most of the vines for the indigenous Verdejo grape – not to be confused with the Verdelho of Portugal – originate.

Angel Rodriguez Vidal only makes one wine, and this is it! Martinsancho has been in his family since 1784 and his almost single handed resurrection of Verdejo was recognized by King Juan Carlos of Spain. Unlike most of Rueda, his vines are bush trained, rather than wire trained, which keep yields very low, with just a few bunches per vine, giving intense flavour as well as precluding mechanical harvesting. Unusually for Spain, the cellars are deep underground, goose-pimply cold and the wine spends a considerable time on its lees.

The label’s a bit dull I grant you – a funky one would help silence any non believers – but its what’s inside that counts and with only around 2000 bottles per vintage you don’t want everyone getting their grubby little mitts on it!

Stone and orchard fruits, a touch of fennel, herbs and rhubarb, a Chablis-esque pebble sucking dryness and punchy acidity of vivacious purity.

As my wife said, in one of her less eloquent moments, “This beats the c**p out of Oyster Bay”!

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My Mate Marmite

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Those of a certain vintage will recall the ad campaign, and rather like Marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it!

It’s that umami thing, a combination of salty, soy saucy, savoury, fermented, yeasty flavours that’s guaranteed to keep the mosquitos at bay!

All you diehard fans of industrially made Prosecco – that cheap n’ nasty sweet stuff, made from soap shavings and lemonade, so beloved of book clubs – need to stop reading now, as Casa Belfi’s Colfondo Vino Biologico is one fabulous, foaming, feisty, feral fizz.

This is real Prosecco, the kind the old folks of Treviso used to drink, and not to be found ‘on tap’ at the local pub!

‘Why is it cloudy’, I hear you ask? Well it’s a natural wine, made from 100% Glera, unfiltered, fined, clarified, or injected with Co2.

It’s not ferociously fizzy, just naturally so, the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, at Easter, before temperatures rise, so the yeasts remain to give it texture.

Shake it or invert it, like a snow globe, to agitate the sediment and release that texture and spice. It’s light bodied, a mere 11% alc, with notes of flowers, pears and freshly baked bread. If cloudy cider floats your boat then this is for you!

The Joint is Jumpin!

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Come in cats and check your hats, I mean this joint is jumpin’….

A rare, recent, glimpse of spring sunshine finds me groping for a glass of something sunny, and Patrick Sullivan’s ‘Jumpin Juice’ gets the roof rocking’ and the neighbours knockin’.

Guaranteed to lift the most jaded of spirits, and awaken those blue winter palates deadened by too much Malbec!

Raspberries, mulberries, a bunch of blackberries and a fistful of cherries.  Whole bunch fermented, neither brand nor bland, it’s the kind of cloudy, savoury and vibrantly beautiful giggle juice that Jean de Florette would have guzzled on his endless trips to the cistern, and although this is a wine of Victoria’s Yarra Valley, it dances to the tambourin of Provence. 

Pinot Noir, with a dash of Pinot Gris, picked and blended at the same time then fermented with natural yeasts – they drop their singular personalities and meld into a true vin de soif  – unfined and barely filtered, light in colour and body, tense, nervy, minerally, oozing with juicy fruit and best lightly chilled, this is just ridiculously easy to drink.

Just add friends! 

Whimsicality killed the Cat

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If wine is so interesting, how come wine writing’s so dull? 

Ok, obviously not all of it, but let’s just say that I have a vested interest and wading through the majority of it fills me with trepidation rather than excitement. 

To give it some context, wine tasting notes are generally written by people who have been through the wine education system. By this I mean a programme or qualification endorsed by a governing body connected to the wine trade, and while they may know an awful lot about wine it doesn’t necessarily mean they have any experience of writing outside their field – there are exceptions of course. 

Wine writing is like any other form of writing. Just because anyone can pick up a pen, or tap on a keyboard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. It’s true that many people have a book in them, but it may be a bad book.

It’s not all doom and gloom. There’s some really good stuff out there but it’s usually hidden behind a paywall – where those who are perceived to do it well dispense their wisdom, from on high, and when not travelling the globe writing reports are feted at trade tastings (by an assortment of winemakers, agents and sales reps) and escorted to specially constructed, gilded thrones, carefully placed near power sockets, to apportion their scores. Which brings me neatly onto the scoring system.

For the uninitiated, wine scoring was initially out of twenty points (Broadbent, Robinson et al) moving swiftly to the American model ( Parker) where wines are scored out of one hundred points. In the latter (universally adopted) system, the majority of wines tasted rarely drops below eighty points, which roughly equates to the original system of twenty. Get my drift? Good, I love you and award you 95 points!

But what about those wines that don’t make the grade? Well, these are then whipped into whirlpools – in an ever desperate attempt to fill them with enough oxygen to reveal some form of discerning characteristic – so that a score may be apportioned, a medal awarded, and a market found.

This is where your writer earns their crust and it’s a tough market. Wine hacks are paid per word, and in these post internet times the income stream has gone from a torrent to a trickle. Money is paid by the highest bidder, which is why five out of every six recommendations, to spend your hard earned cash, promotes the major multiples or large producers. Consequently, tasting notes are often geared to a common denominator of taste, and indeed price. The results are often predictably anodyne – neither expressing real opinions nor provoking thought – after all you don’t get your free wine trips that way. In addition, the majority of readers may have little (or no) interest in anything but the narrow band of products the writers endorse – so you get what you get. 

 ‘Anyone who has had the good fortune of opening a bottle of Côtes du Rhône will find them generous, smooth and a joy to taste. They embody the warm sunshine that floods the region in summer’…Will Lyons ‘The Sunday Times’.

My apologies to Will, as he’s a good writer, but it’s extremely hard to come up with interesting and informative comment in the few column inches available between the recipes and the horoscopes.

So what’s the alternative?

‘Deep yellow straw colour with golden highlights and high viscosity may point to a sweet wine. Presence of botrytis evident, with no rot, indicating selective and possibly manual harvesting point to a wine of high quality. The well balanced fruit, sugar and acidity together with well integrated new (French oak) point to a wine from the old, rather than the new world. Strong primary fruit aromas of stone and citrus together with clean botrytis, marked acidity and high residual sugar, plus slow fermentation, leads to France/Sauternes. Excellent quality, well balanced, still youthful with flavours not yet fully integrated indicate that the wine is around 5 years old and will last at least another 10 years or more’.…blah, blah, blah.

That’s my nerdy note (blind) for Ch Climens 96 under exam conditions. Quite correct (apart from confusing Sauternes with Barsac) but boring! 

As David Sedaris once said ‘Faced with an exciting question, science tends to provide the dullest answer’.

Let’s try a more romantic ‘writerly’ approach;

The contents of the bottle in his hand was a product of a history as unique and complex as that of a nation, or a man. In it’s colour, aroma and taste, it would certainly express the idiosyncratic geology and prevailing climate of its home terrain. But in addition, it would express all the natural phenomena of its vintage. In a sip, it would evoke the timing of that winter’s thaw, the extent of that summer’s rain, and the frequency of clouds. Yes, a bottle of wine was the ultimate distillation of time and place; a poetic expression of individuality itself….Amor Towles ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’

Ah that’s better! Lovely, lyrical, and evocative, but it doesn’t exactly describe what’s in the glass. 

So we all agree that we need a happy medium. Not too techie, but erring on the journalistic side, that’s impressionistic and tells a story, but brief enough for today’s online attention span of two minutes – which may be a minute too far for most wines. Then we have to level the playing field further, or dumb down, to eliminate the aesthetic snobbery attached to wine, as there’s a general assumption that if you write interestingly about wine you are somehow being elitist – because most people don’t think wine is that interesting.

Which leaves us in a bit of a pickle between the exciting (often confined to specialist publications) and the tedious (general) – a sort of wine equivalent of smart casual. I know what you’re thinking, all that romantic stuff’s easy when discussing a fine Burgundy or a stately Bordeaux but what do you do if faced with a wine that smells like the inside of a hamster cage, or worse, nothing at all!

Do we tell the harsh, unvarnished truth? Like hell we do – because that’s someone’s wine and it needs to get sold, and they’re picking up the tab! So we’re left scratching around for adjectives and soundbites to describe boring wines – which poses a cultural question.

 Is wine writing dull because the vast majority of wine is and is a cheap wine as good as an expensive wine if that’s all we’re prepared to pay for?

‘Do The Macchiona’

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Macchiona is the kind of wine that stops you in your blind tasting tracks and asks ‘WTF is that’?

For a moment let’s forget the analytics, debates about quality, merits and demerits, and boring old points scoring, and just accept that this is what wine can, and should, be all about.

Subtle, heady, complex, hard to pin down, a combination of smells and tastes that make you think you are somewhere, when you are not, transporting you to a time and a place where you momentarily want to remain forever.

Half the group thought we were in Bordeaux, others correctly thought Italy, but all agreed we had somehow died and gone to heaven!

La Stoppa is an ancient estate in Piacenza, Emilia Romagna, originally planted over a century ago and owned by the Pantaleoni family since 1973. Vine stock is old and indigenous with naturally low yields from poor soils.

Rare as hen’s teeth, Macchiona is a blend of Bonarda and Barbera, matured for 12 months in Slavonian oak barrels, gorgeous, meaty and a bit raunchy with aromas of wild berries, herbs, bunches of fennel and a savoury-sour cherry finish – Bordeaux indeed!

Do the Macchiona!

Eau Naturel

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I’m here for a winetasting. Set up by a friend in a crusty old gent’s club to presumably add some context and gravitas to the wines on show. ‘You’ll love it’, I recall him saying, ‘It’s right up your street’ – thankfully he didn’t say alley. It’s true, I generally enjoy listening to old relics of the wine trade banging on about Claret, as what they often lack in knowledge they make up for in amusing anecdotes. But this one is different, and I silently curse my (soon to be former) friend while absentmindedly gazing at a clumsily executed seascape and wait for the florid, farm-fresh, magenta faced, red-trousered windbag to stop talking.

As this appears not to be anytime soon, I smile, to feign interest, and settle back into the coma inducing embrace of a faux leather chair, fingering my glass of ‘not so good ordinary claret’ fighting the unripe, unresolved tannins (akin to licking the floor of a long abandoned outhouse) my disappointment growing as I’m told the wines are available in large format bottles and come with their own presentation box – presumably to die in.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the wines of Bordeaux – just not these, and while the windbag extols their, non existent, virtues to his captive, comatose, audience I look for a plant pot to pour mine into, although sympathy for the plant prevents me. Dumbstruck by the bombast and troubling certainty with which Tristram Shandy’s Uncle speaks, I am secretly in awe of his Farage-esque absolutism and the kind of extreme self-confidence that leaves no room for doubt, nor brooks interruption. 

I overlook his use of the words ‘pedigree’ and ‘breeding’ and even his positive spin on Brexit, but when he moves on to the subject of Natural Wine and manages to dismiss an entire movement – something previously done by Jonathan Ray (in an interview with Jason Yapp, who, rather surprisingly, failed to ask him to qualify such a sweeping assessment) and Bruce Palling in the Spectator – my hackles rise, particularly as he outlines his, ill informed, views on organic and biodynamic practices whilst eagerly extolling the merits of the appallingly adjusted and astringent plonk he’s peddling.

Now I must admit to disliking the term ‘natural wine’ as it implies that other wines are unnatural, and is probably an insufficient way to describe a complex ideology that includes organic and biodynamic viticulture, minimal handling and intervention, fining and filtration and extremely radical, yet differing, views on the use of sulphur dioxide. 

Contextually, the movement began as a counterpoint to the fruit bomb driven behemoths beloved of Robert Parker, seeking a return to something more artisanal, both in the vineyard and the winery, with the ultimate goal being to make wine with no other ingredient than the grapes themselves.  

Obviously this requires some firm ground rules: no factory farming, all vineyards must be organic or biodynamic and hand harvested only – machine harvesting however sophisticated damages the vines and compromises cropping – use of indigenous or natural yeasts, no culture corrections, no enzymes, additives, acidity regulation, no additional sugar (to increase alcohol), tannin, sulphur addition no higher than 7mmg/l, no fining, no filtration and absolutely no heavy manipulation such as; reverse osmosis, cryoextraction, spinning cone, centrifuging, rapid finishing or ultraviolet C irradiation – bet you didn’t know all that stuff went on did you?

And that’s just scratching the surface of an industry that regularly uses; tartaric and citric acid, potassium sorbate, gum arabic, carboxymethyl cellulose (to prevent crystals forming) dimethyl dicarbonate (to kill microbes) a dash of megapurple (to increase colour and boost mouthfeel), activated charcoal, potassium ferrocyanide, copper sulphate, pectolytic enzymes, bentonite clay and a soupcon of polyvinylpolypyrrolidone! Now these may not be as dangerous as climate change denial or driving at 30mph in a 20mph zone, but they may go some way to explaining that hangover!

However, if your goal is to take wine back to the Stone Age then you are not going to please all of the people all of the time. I admit to not liking all natural wines. Some are quite frankly volatile, full of brettanomyces, brown as Victorian furniture and, even in youth, smell like a teenagers bedroom, or an old aquarium, and taste like licking the outside of a wet canvas tent. When they are good they are very very good and when they are bad they are horrid. 

A word of advice though before you open up Pandora’s box. Do not judge natural wines against other wines, judge them against others of their type and always on their own terms. In a world of, increasingly, bland homogeneity they make a refreshing change for people with open minds.

Which brings me back to Mein Host whose mind could only be opened by invasive surgery. ‘Right, that’s stumps’, he says, ‘Lovely to chat’ – although he hadn’t – and makes his way into the evening to await the arrival of his sedan chair.

Local Hero

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When you read a lot of wine crit, – Yep that’s crit – you become overly familiar (and indeed bored) with some of the language used to describe it. Such as;  ‘fruit forward’, ‘easy drinking’ or, God forbid, my own bete noire ‘smooth’ or ‘generous even!

I have friends who are both generous and smooth, so a little context wouldn’t go amiss, along with some joy, unbridled passion, desperately needed emotion, and dare I say love.

So I’m going to give you some love, and show you the kind of wine that makes me as deliriously happy as Pharrell Williams.

I first came across the wines of Irouleguy as a young surfer mooching around the coast of South West France back in the fluorescent wet suited 80’s. The drive from Guethary to Mundaka wound its way through the vinelands of the Pays Basque, and you had to be stupid, blind, or both, to overlook its wines, as they were, and still are, some of the most exciting around.

Irouleguy numbers some nine communes dating back to the 11th century and is a sadly neglected area when it comes to both knowledge, and the subsequent promotion, of its wines and their route to market.

‘Peppery as the Welsh, proud as Lucifer, and combustible as his matches’ was Richard Ford’s pithy assessment of the Basques.

Flaming red is their colour, from their tiled roofs to their distinctive berets, piment d’espalette, and the majority of their wines made from Tannat and the two Cabernets. But what folks often overlook are the miniscule examples of white wine made in the region. There are only about half a dozen producers of these and the standard is off the clock!

Arretxea, from the Basque ‘arre’, meaning stone and ‘xea’, house, comes from a six hectare plot planted with Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu – the principle grapes of Jurancon – on steep terraces with sustainable vineyard husbandry and biodynamics.

Hegoxuri is hand harvested, gets a forty hour maceration on skins, followed by partial fermentation in barrique, and has the kind of remarkable golden straw colour that would excite Rumplestiltskin. This leads into a nose of exotic fruits, peaches and honeysuckle, married with full, rich and heady flavours – redolent of great white Burgundy – and marked with an outstanding nervy acidity.

These local wines, for local people, are rare gems, and whilst you have to dig a little deeper down to afford them, are a true testament to the power of geography over greed. 

Topa!

Freisa Good

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As a long term advocate of non-compliance, I love a wine that divides opinion!

Sure it’s got more than a heady whiff of the farmyard, but that never stopped anyone buying Musar.

Decanting is ‘de rig’,  for a good hour before drinking, and the longer you can leave it resting, at room temp, with a bit of oxygenation, the better. This not only reduces the feral, bosky, gamey aromas, but it’s important to remember that this wine has been sitting in bottle since 2003.


Freisa in all its chunky, funky glory is a rare beast.  Robust, earthy, tannic and unafraid to speak its mind. If you’re new to Freisa, it’s first mention in Piemonte occurs around 1799 – so catch up! Burton Anderson describes it as having a kind of sweet – acidic flavour, like lightly salted raspberries. But whatever you do, don’t confuse it with Pinot Noir – that’s just too predictable dahling!  This is Freisa di Chieri, seriously small berried (unlike Freisa Grossa) with bigger phenolics and a similar structure to Nebbiolo.

Altogether now ….Freisa Good, Freisa Good..

Llum’s Yum

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Don’t you just love it when you come across a wine that not only exceeds expectations, but positively confounds them.

Just as I was prepping my palate for a full body massage, and more fat than lean, it rocks up linear, with vibrant, yet delicate, fruit, tons of creamy complexity, an intense, and totally unexpected minerality, cut through with a rapier-like grapefruit acidity.. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of pep and brio, with more than a whiff of the Southern Rhone, but hardly the norm for a white made in the brutal summer heat of the Roussillon.

Le Roc des Anges – I’ll let you work that one out – sits in the village of Montner in the Agly valley, Pyrénées-Orientales, on the northern, exposed, side – and this is the key – of Força Réal mountain. This is tough country, dry and windy with notoriously poor soil, composed of old rotten schists – we all know a few of those!

All vineyard practices are traditional – other than some leaf thinning and essential pruning the ethos is strictly non-interventionist. Majorie (Gallet) describes the wine as a work in progress – but I think she’s being modest.

Simplicity and authenticity are her watchwords. A traditional press is used, vinification is in concrete – with the shape of the tanks, and the level of the fill, determining the gentle extraction – with maturation in concrete – which enhances the aromatic purity and freshness of the wine – and wood (for about 10% of the elevage) in the form of one-to-three year old barrels.

‘Llum’ (meaning light in Catalan) is a blend of Grenache Gris 90% and Maccabeu 10% from 70 to 100 year old vines and is slow to release the full extent of its beauty, only doing so as it warms and broadens in the glass.

Far and away my white wine of the summer – Llum’s Yum!

Granato Foradori

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As you exit the narrow Salerno Gorge, a wide valley covered in vineyards and fruit trees opens near San Michele all Adige, this is the Campo Rotaliano home of the Teroldego grape.

The land has seen tribes and rulers come and go, Romans, Celts, Longobards, Francs, Tyroleans, Austrians, Bavarians and Italians, one of whom Nicolo da Povo was the first to mention Teroldego by name in 1383.

I know it’s just another grape you’ve never heard of, but you should take note as it has the potential to compete with the great wine grapes of Bordeaux

Cultivation of the grape is quite small, with around 400 hectares under vine of which about 75% is DOC. 

Elizabetta Foradori began exploring the grapes diversity back in 1985 and has thus far uncovered around 15 different biotypes which she uses for replanting. These form the qualitative backbone of her wines. Ensuring a vineyards diversity is the best guarantee of obtaining great results as you can propagate by massal selection – using field cuttings from your best vines – as opposed to clonal selection where you buy in clones from elsewhere.

The wines she makes are some of my favourite Italian reds, and if I ever feel a little down in the dumps, they serve as a restorative elixir causing my sense of humour to return, and a sweet little smile of satisfaction spreads across my ugly mug. 

Granato, Vigneti delle Dolomiti Rosso IGT, to give it its full title, is a noble beast. Deep, almost shy at first, it opens to give smells of wild berries, roasted hazelnuts, baked bread, tar and a herby eucalyptus quality that makes you feel you have just brushed up against the vine rows. The grapes are vinified separately and blended to achieve balance and concentration after long ageing in old wood. It is a dignified wine, pure and intense, changing in the glass each time you nose, and from sip to sip. Soft yet penetrating, the sweet fruit balanced with a supporting acidity that weaves its way through the wine like the wind in the mountains.

Romantic or what? You won’t get that kind of wordsmithery in the Sunday Papers.