‘A Walk On The Wild Side’

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The wine market is a dangerous place to be right now, especially when 99% of products are imported and reliant on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the currencies from whence they come. If you lob a grenade on the value of those key currencies, you have to adapt quickly.

Do you offset the collapse of sterling, continuous inflationary rises and duty, by buying cheaper plonk, or do you accept that you have to drink less but better.

Personally, I don’t think that good wine is expensive, not because I’m rich, but when a couple of cappuccinos cost six quid and a pint of craft ale almost the same, expecting a naturally made, labour intensive, product like wine to cost just a few pence more is living in ‘La La Land’ – to quote a popular movie.

If I’m being forced to pay more for my wine, I don’t want that extra money to go on a factory made brand, I want to drink something distinctly different and jolly hard to get.

Let’s – in the words of the late, great Lou Reed – take a walk on the wild side.

Marcillac is a tiny, obscure, appellation near Clairvaux in Aveyron, north of Rodez,comprising some eight growers making wines exclusively from the Mansois grape, otherwise known as Fer Servadou.

For almost a thousand years vineyards were the base of the regions economy until they were devastated by phylloxera in the 1860’s. 

The style and, more importantly, the philosophy of the wines are closely connected with the area. Violet tinted, brilliantly fresh reds packed with redcurrant fruit, and an underlying, almost medicinal quality. The medieval citizens of Rodez used to drink Marcillac for their health because it was preferable to the local water.

Peirafi is Jean Luc Matha’s special cuvee based on rigorous selection of old vines fermented in open tanks then aged in well seasoned foudres for 20 months. It’s a big mouthful of forest fruits, spices and an almost mineral acidity, angular and refreshing with a sort of haunting earthiness.

Jean Luc says ‘I love working with the vine up on the hill. And just before I come down, I like to watch the sunset and see how the colours change….I breath and listen to the sounds around me…I am in the midst of nature and feel completely content. The earth, the vine, the frost, the rain and the sun. That, for me, is the beauty of winemaking.’
 

Now, that’s got to be worth more than a couple of coffees!

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‘Cos, I Love You’ – reprise

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It’s a gloriously sunny, Easter Day and I’m walking the dog and thinking of what to open with Sunday lunch. There’s a leg of lamb, slowly roasting, on a bed of potatoes with enough garlic to keep the vampires at bay and it requires something good, honest and earthy – with some lively zip n’ grip – and due to the numbers involved, I’m going to need more than a few bottles!

Less than thirty years ago, the vineyards south east of the province of Ragusa, around the town of Vittoria in Sicily, were in dire need of some of Joan Armatrading’s love and affection. In a seemingly irreversible spiral of decline, they had fallen victim to controversial wine laws – still enforced today – which resulted in buyers rejecting the more delicate wines in favour of over mature fruit to add weight to their blends.

These wines would still be unheard of today, were it not for the efforts of individuals like, Giusto Occipinti.

On a shoestring budget, he and two friends began to vinify grapes from their parents and neighbours’ vineyards, buying in used French barrels, in which to age their wines. By the late 1980’s they had started to invest in new oak barriques inspired by the wines of California’s Napa Valley.

But guess what? The resulting wines just didn’t taste authentic. Realising that you sometimes have to go backwards to go forwards they started to re-taste some of their earliest bottlings and were shocked at the difference.

The wines, aged in old oak, were earthy and herbaceous, with a fresh acidity unmarked by the vanilla polish of new oak. By the mid 90’s, when everyone else was investing heavily in new oak, Giusti and his friends were ditching theirs and moving from cement to amphora in the search to reveal the purest expression of their vines

Cos do not use selected yeast strains and have never used chemicals in their vineyards ‘Our goal is to make wines that express our great terroir, not to impress wine critics’.

Don’t expect big or robust wines from Cos, these are delicate, sometimes ethereal wines. Sharp, spiky, edgy, mineraly, ripe but not overripe, rich but not over-extracted. Pretty wines in a nutshell. Fresh, lively, floral and aromatic – even the reds have a distinctly flinty note. They sit lightly on the palate, vibrant and earthy, the antithesis of the much overused term ‘smooth’ – the wine equivalent of ‘tasty’.

Nero di Lupo is 100% unfiltered Nero d’Avola. Fermented in cement vats and aged for 24 months in tank and bottle, full of rich, earthy, leathery fruit flavours, a touch of spice and a rasp of the great outdoors.

That’s Sunday sorted. Spread the love.



‘Remembrance Of Things Past’

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Let’s face it, Vermouth is an old school aperitif. Beloved of James Bond and Leonard Rossiter  it sits neglected in the drinks cabinet of the past, along with Blue Bols and Tia Maria.

Now some things, need to remain in the past; Mateus Rose, Yugoslav Laski Riesling, Afghan Coats, Loon Pants and Babycham – but Vermouth does not, and despite our current obsession with everything Gin, it remains a staple of any hipster mixologist’s arsenal. 

So what is it? Although uncertain, the name probably derives from the German Wermuth, meaning ‘wormwood’ or absinthe. Originally prepared by the Romans, who called it Absinthiatum, it should be made from a wine base, at least 75%, have an alcoholic strength of between 14.5% and 22% – from the addition of alcohol – and must be flavoured with Artemesias or another member of the species.

Most folk came across it through brands like Martini, Cinzano and Noilly Prat and it generally soaked up the entire production of Picpoul. Anyone who loves a Negroni should be familiar with it, but what many of you may not know is that it is great on its own, over ice, with a wedge of orange or even topped up with a splash of Prosecco and Campari as a Sbagliato.

After a sipping Vermut, in Spain, I wanted a remembrance of times past – even if I was wearing a woolly jumper and shivering in the garden – so imagine my surprise on failing to find a single decent bottle in my home town! 

‘Oh no one drinks that stuff anymore’ I was reliably informed by a local independent merchant.

Well, like Johnny Hates Jazz, its time to turn back the clock!  and reacquaint ourselves with this delicious, delightful, but sadly neglected drink!

‘Greece Is The Word’

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Retsina aside Greek wine has never been, nor ever will be, mainstream.

This may, ironically, be a good thing, as there isn’t much of it to go around.

An adventurous few may be vaguely familiar with the Assyrtiko of Santorini, but I’ll bet my Byzantine Bouzouki you’ve never heard of the Robola of Cephalonia. 

The Sclavos family’s Vino di Sasso (wine from the stone) is 100% organic, hand harvested, Robola, from ungrafted vine stock, on precarious limestone scree, from the slopes of Kefalonia’s Black Mountain (Ainos). 
Biodynamic methods have been employed for the last 20 years and the vineyard is accredited by the DIO.
Vinification is with indigenous yeasts, and maturation is for one year in Allier oak barrels. The wines are bottled without filtration, or fining, and no sulphur is added, except in wetter vintages (and even then, only in very small quantities).

So, what’s it taste like?

Well, it’s got plenty of ooomph– which belies it’s 12.5% alcohol – and a broad, creamy, malo mouthfeel that’s cut through with a fresh, spritzy, flintiness. There’s also the kind of herby, scrubby, garrigue-like feel – together with a smidge of pepper – that reminds you of good white Rhone, together with a bitter almond finish redolent of Italy’s Ribolla Gialla – which (despite the odd assertion) is no genetic relation.

As Frankie Valli would say …. ‘Greece is the Word’

‘Hotter Than Greece’

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Here in the UK, we’re extremely fond of weather comparisons: Best summer since? hottest day since? most rainfall since etc, etc. It not only gives us something to talk about, but currently helps take our minds off Brexs**t!

The recent UK weather has been pretty spectacular, so I’ve been tucking into some of this!

Initially, I thought there might be a smidge of Assyrtiko in it – due to a hint of fennel – but it is 100% Aidani, in all it’s peachy, muscaty glory. Fleshy, warm and chock full of rose and apricot flavours, each glug makes the sky seem that much brighter and the view from the terrace that much more like the Durrells.

Hatzidakis wines are perched on the outskirts of the village of Pyrgos Kallistis at a height of 150-300 metres facing nor nor-east – how’s that for seafaring slang – The vines are super gnarly, curled into bird’s nest shapes, on the bare ashy soil, to shelter the fruit from the strong winds coming off the sea.

The Aidani grapes, from non-irrigated, ungrafted, organic old vines, are given some skin, for around twelve hours, before fermentation and maturation in stainless steel, to give a peppery, pin sharp, lushly aromatic, pale yellow white that just oozes class.

And if that wasn’t romantic enough, I’m going to leave you with a snippet about Santorini, from my favourite wine writer Andrew Jefford – a man who, to my knowledge, has never used the word ‘smooth’ when describing a wine!

“Few wines taste of disaster and catastrophe… . It is, for me, the most pronounced vin de terroir in the world. In no other wine can you smell and taste with such clarity the mineral soup and bright sunlight which, gene-guided, structures the grape and its juice. As an unmasked terroiriste, there was no vineyard I was keener to visit… 

Definitely hotter than Greece!

Le Vigne D’Albert

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An Alsatian once said – that’s a native of Alsace, not the dog – ‘Each man has two countries, his own and France’ and much as I love the wines of Italy, France was my first love.

When I go in search of some, much needed, purity and truth – sadly lacking in today’s world – it’s that first sentient experience that I’m trying to replicate, harking back to callow youth, when wine, and indeed life, was nothing but pure pleasure, until forced to grow up, conscious of the need to judge, select, codify, dissect and provide either a score or a medal.

This is a wine that takes me back in time, to those very first vintages worked around Bergerac and the middle Garonne, when flavours and sensations were the absolute antithesis of the over-sweetened, aggressively alcoholic, monsters of today.

It’s not rocket science, just that there’s a lot less profit for the investment made and time spent. The key is the encouragement of the maximum expression of the potential of the grapes in the vineyard. Caring for the soil – so that it isn’t a cadaver – nourishing with biodynamic treatments to encourage microbial activity. Manual, rather than machine, harvesting and selection of only the ripest grapes, only releasing a wine if it meets with the highest of standards, and changing the blend according to the physiological ripeness of the grapes.

I love the wines of Luc de Conti, and Le Vigne d’Albert is a lovely addition with a nod to tradition. Guillaume de Conti’s homage to his grand-pere, Albert. It’s made from a cepage historic to the region, harvested together, from a small parcel of vines planted, by Albert, some 60 years ago. These include Mérille (aka Périgourd); Arbouriou, Fer, Côt (Malbec) and others – all massale selected (look it up wine nerds) – fermented with hometown yeasts, left for six months on lees and zero sulphur.

The young man who grew up to be me would have recognized it, I’m sure Albert would too. I’ll leave it for you to decide.

A la votre!

‘Take Me Away’

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Emmenez Moi Au Bout de Terret

Named after a Charles Aznavour song and roughly translated as ‘Take me along’ or Take me away – to a place in the sun, where one can escape, and forget, the misery of life’ – this ethereal, and nervy, little white from Clos de Gravillas certainly does that!

You can expect the unexpected here, as this is very different from the everyday white wines of Minervois. It’s a lean, green, linear limestone machine, made from organically grown Terret Bourret grapes grown on blindingly white rock from a single hectare plot – Yep that’s one hectare – and aged for eleven months in large Austrian barrels. It’s as fresh as new mown hay, or a new May morn, and picked between the first and third weeks of September.

Gravillas means ‘gravel’ – in the local patois – and the plateau that the Clos du Gravillas occupies has been used – to grow grapes – for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Situated about 300 metres above sea level on slopes beneath the Montagne Noire the vineyards catch the cool evening breezes, allowing the grapes to retain a bright, zippy acidity. The high summer temperatures add the necessary alcoholic oomph to balance that acidity, and create the structural depth and maximum ripeness, concentration and intensity required to make this an unforgettably glorious wine.  


Mad About Malbec

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OK, who’s willing to admit that when they order ‘Pinot’ they mean Grigio – rather than Noir – and when they cry ‘More Sauvignon please waiter’ they expect it to come from New Zealand – rather than its home in the Loire – and every fool knows that Malbec can only come from Argentina!

Once upon a time, when ‘Hector was a pup’, Malbec came from France, and primarily from Cahors, where it’s known as Cot or Auxerrois – not such romantic names I grant you.

It has a long and glorious history, once considered superior to Bordeaux, and exported throughout Europe and Russia as early as the 13th century.

So what went wrong?  Well, first came the protectionist measures inflicted on the Haut Pays by the canny merchants of Bordeaux to promote their own wines. The slight disruption of the Hundred Years War, devastation by phylloxera, and increased market access – due to the railways – to the cheaper wines of the Languedoc.

Isolated and poor – there was little in the Lot – they were still struggling well into the mid 1990’s, and as the only appellation in the South West where both Cabernets are persona non grata, it was searching for an identity somewhere between teeth tingling tannic twig juice, for the old folk, and jammy pap for the modern consumer.

Good vinestock, old clones, low yields, barrel maturation and attention to detail, have ensured that some wines have retained the wisdom of the ages.

Classic Cahors should be inky, rather than black, with a dash of medicinal iodine and jam packed with deep, late summer fruit. Expect touches of fig and liquorice, a lash of spice and tar, and a smattering of herby pepperiness. It’s subtle rather than powerful, classy and understated with a touch of astringency and a lingering acidity to cope with the confit and cassoulet!

I’ll be the first to admit that World Malbec Day is a fiendishly clever marketing ploy to promote the wines of Argentina – but why not buck the trend and go crazy for Cot!

‘Yesterday When I Was Young’

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‘Yesterday when I was young, the taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue’

I’m often asked what it is that I look for when I taste a wine. I cannot recall my exact answer, but I guess it’s something like the late, great, Charles Aznavour is attempting to describe. Perhaps the search for truth, beauty, love and a return to the simplicity of youth – before life gets in the way and makes things just a little too complex.

L’Orphée is an equal blend of Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc and 50% Syrah and expressive of the terroir and biodynamic practices of Mas Foulaquier’s  eight hectares on the northernmost edge of the Pic Saint Loup. 

The soil itself, as D H Lawrence would describe it: nurse of passions, stage of dramas, and habitat of local gods.

It opens dramatically with a bit of oxygen, so give a bit of air, put down the Baudelaire, and marvel as the earthy and floral aromatics come to the fore, exploding with rich dark blueberries, plum, pepper and violets prior to a lip smackingly sapid and softly generous finish with a stony minerality and plenty of concentration.

Like rain upon the tongue!

‘Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know’

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Just what is it, that causes even the most robust of hearts, to flee in the face of a fizzy red? 

Is it the frothy, foaming, cherryade top? The soft, squishy, whiff of summer pudding? the slightly edgy tannic grip? or simply just a fear of the unknown, together with a lily- livered aversion to risk taking.

Back in the day, when be-pinstriped dinosaurs roamed the earth, Sparkling Shirazwas a hard sell, hand sell, kind of wine – it still is – but that’s not because of it’s quality.

I first tried Sparkling Shiraz, in the Barossa at Rockford – early in the morning, with a large plate of bacon and eggs – and if that’s not swashbuckling enough, there’s nothing madder, badder and more deliciously dangerous with a barbie – not the doll!

In a wine world awash with the dull predictability of poor quality prosecco and pinot grigio, a sense of adventure is sorely lacking.

After a swim across the HellespontGeorge Gordon, Lord Byron – ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean – roll’ – and his old mucker Edward John Trelawny, would quaff foaming tankards of fizzy red  – because as Mary Shelley once said ‘Trelawny lives with the living, and we live with the dead’

Fill your fist with a large one, and sing ….

“Shall Trelawny live? Or shall Trelawny die? Here’s twenty thousand Cornishmen will know the reason why!”