Austrian reds: don't laugh

Supplier: “Hello Matt, what would you like to taste?”

Me: “The St Laurent – I’m just tasting St Laurents at the moment.”

Supplier: (shoots another writer an incredulous look) “Just St Laurents? That’s very…er… specific of you.”

Cue much laughter from the two of them.

 

OK I admit it. It’s a bit niche. I was probably the only person just tasting indigenous red varieties at last week’s annual Austrian tasting. But on the strength of what I tasted, they deserve to be better known.

Think of Austrian wine and what comes to mind? Well for the average person on the street, not much; many people aren’t aware they even make wine, as you don’t often see it in the shops. The more dedicated wine drinker would probably suggest Riesling or Grüner Veltliner. Due to Austria’s cool, marginal climate for grape growing, crisp aromatic whites were always going to be a strong suit. Riesling is planted all over the world now, from Chile to New York to South Africa to Germany. Grüner is still very much an Austrian speciality, but that too is getting better known now, having found its way to New Zealand – so far with mixed results.

But what about its three indigenous red varieties, Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent? Thanks to their high acidity, Zweigelt and young Blaufränkisch are better drunk with food. Zweigelts would go well with game birds, lamb with herbs, duck or goose. Blaufränkisch is a bit more robust and fuller-bodied, so could stand up to roast beef or lamb. The most versatile is St Laurent, which would work in the same way as Pinot Noir, so partnering dishes like game birds, rabbit, lamb breast, roast mushrooms and other earthy yet not too strongly flavoured dishes.

The proportion of red varieties grown has doubled over the last two decades and now represents one-third of Austria’s vineyards. As interest in German Pinot Noirs increases, it won’t be long before people start taking more notice of Austrian reds as well.

Zweigelt (aka Blauer Zweigelt)

  • 6,480 hectares grown, some of the best from Neusiedlersee, south-east of Vienna.
  • The most commonly planted red grape in Austria. Some good wines, but doesn’t seem to quite hit the heights of the other two.
  • A crossing of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, it was developed in 1922 by a certain Professor Zweigelt (no relation to Doctor Zoidberg).
  • When crops are kept low, it can produce some interesting wines that can age for a while, but they tend to be better drunk young and fresh.
  • Can work with oak, but often produced without using any.
  • Typically exhibits sour cherry and spice (cinnamon); low-ish tannins but very high acidity.
  • A bit like Gamay (when grown in the Loire), Dornfelder, or Corvina (Valpolicella).

Blaufränkisch (the Germans call it Limberger, the Hungarians Kékfrankos, the Bulgarians Gamé)

  • 3,230 hectares grown, some of the best from Mittelburgenland, south of Vienna.
  • A characterful grape, this can produce very good wines.
  • The latest ripening of the three reds, it tends to be ready around two weeks after the others.
  • Due to this slow ripening, it prefers a warm site or a slope that faces the sun. Has a tendency to have unripe, green, stalky flavours otherwise.
  • Works with or without oak, and can age well.
  • Medium to full-bodied, again with notable high acidity and medium to strong tannins; blackberry and raspberry flavours and subtle spice.
  • A bit like fuller Gamay (when grown in a Beaujolais Cru like Morgon), Barbera, or Minervois La Livinière.

St Laurent

  • 780 hectares grown, some of the best is from Burgenland, to the south and south-east of Vienna and Thermenregion, just south of Vienna.
  • An ancient crossing of a Pinot vine (probably Pinot Noir) and an unknown, perhaps extinct, variety.
  • The name refers to the Feast of St Lawrence on 10th August, when the grapes usually start to colour.
  • Difficult to grow and doesn’t give much fruit, so not that common.
  • Can work with oak and can age well.
  • Similar to Pinot Noir in character, but slightly deeper in colour thanks to thicker skins, lighter in alcohol, and can give particularly spicy, meaty/gamey flavours in warmer years.
  • Low to medium strength velvety tannins; strawberry, raspberry and plum aromas, good acidity – but not as acidic as Zweigelt or Blaufränkisch.
  • A bit like Pinot Noir (when grown in Oregon/Burgundy/Germany).

 

Some highlights:

Umathum, Zweigelt, 2010
100% Zweigelt grapes from Burgenland, Austria
£13.65, available at Slurp.co.uk

Bright purple. Slightly stinky, farmyard aromas. Medium-bodied with intense bright flavour and a lovely silky texture. A touch of sweetness to the berry fruits that helps to balance the marked acidity, but a long savoury dry finish. 91 points, good value.

Sepp Moser, Reserve Zweigelt, 2008
100% Zweigelt grapes from Neusiedlersee, Austria
£16.60, available at Slurp.co.uk

Dark aubergine in colour. Sweet blueberry and blackberry fruit, touch of spice. Full-bodied, firm tannins and marked acidity. Some complexity from the oak and age. Savoury finish. 90 points, fair value.

Krutzler, Classic Blaufränkisch, 2010
100% Blaufränkisch grapes from Südburgenland, Austria
£11.95 available at Savage Selections

Black pepper, violets and red berries. High acidity, but great purity of flavour. No oak. Vibrant and perfumed. 90 points, good value.

Tinhof, ‘Gloriette’, Blaufränkisch, 2009
100% Blaufränkisch grapes from Burgenland, Austria
£29.50 available at Savage Selections

Pepper, black cherries, and something slightly citric on the nose. Medium- to full-bodied, intense concentration. Perfect level of oak lending complexity and roundness, but not enough to affect the bright, fresh finish. Some spice, particularly clove and a touch of cola. Excellent, very drinkable. 92 points, fair value.

Tinhof, Feuersteig, St Laurent, 2009
100% St Laurent grapes from Burgenland, Austria
£15.95 available at Savage Selections

Juicy strawberry and blackcurrant, slight whiff of something dairy. Medium to full-bodied, with good concentration, medium to long length. Touch of spice. Lovely balance. 90 points, good value.

Pittnauer, ‘Alte Reben’ St Laurent, 2009
100% St Laurent grapes from Neusiedlersee, Austria
£27.85, available at Slurp.co.uk

Medium purple/red. Juicy red berries, raspberry and a touch floral. Also some spicy/smoky notes and pepper. Medium bodied, with young crunchy tannins and good strong acidity. 91 points, fair value.

...and although it is a Pinot Noir, I wanted to include this because it is really good:

Schuster, Eisenhut, Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grapes from Wagram, Austria
£15.95 available at Savage Selections

Pale pinky red. Intensely smoky nose, like roasted spices. Medium bodied with sweet fruit. Cherry, vanilla, strawberry, raspberry and redcurrant. Dry finish. Compellingly interesting. 91 points, good value.


The Art of Spitting

If you go to a lot of wine tastings, it’s easy to forget just how strange the whole spitting thing is. The act of spitting is universally considered socially unacceptable in crowded places, but he we are, all standing in a busy room, spitting into buckets. Tall, shapely, metal buckets, but buckets nonetheless. It’s particularly incongruous at the more upmarket tastings, where gentleman in suits courteously wave elegantly dressed ladies in front of them so they can shoot first.

At least spitting is a controlled form of socially unacceptable behaviour, and one that is tacitly permitted for the duration of the event. The alternative, getting riotously pissed, is a Pandora’s Box of potential indignities. It you’re going to taste your way through more than a couple dozen wines - it’s one or the other. I went to the London Wine Trade Fair, an enormous event in Excel in Docklands, with a young German intern a few years ago. She was too embarrassed to spit. After an hour or so she ended up bursting into sustained uncontrollable laughter then falling over. She got off pretty lightly considering; each year at the end of the fair you spot a couple of casualties in a much more grievous condition.

I tend to only spit during the day, if I’m driving or if I want to taste a large number of different wines. If I’m out having fun, I don’t bother. If you’re a newcomer to the art, here are some pointers:

  1. Practice at home with water first.
  2. Put your head directly over the spittoon. You have to be very skilful to spit from an angle or a distance (I suspect I’m not the only one that finds this secretly quite impressive…)
  3. Don’t dribble. Spit. A vertical dart is easier to direct than a horizontal shower.
  4. Don’t wear anything expensive or white.
  5. No loud hacking beforehand. White or red spit is acceptable. Green is not.

If you’ve got any to add to the list, use the comment box below...


Oregon: Stunning Pinot Noir, suspect Pinot Gris

The most expensive bottle of wine I ever bought was a Pinot Noir. A Burgundy from a great vineyard, by a well-known producer, in an exceptional year. I opened it expecting fireworks; instead it pissed on my bonfire. It barely tasted of anything. I returned to it every day like a jilted lover, hoping it would eventually come to its senses. Still nothing. Gutted. But it won’t stop me buying this variety again. Because when it sings, nothing can touch it.

Pinot Noir suffers serious mood swings. One day it’s attractive, charismatic, easy-going: the next, surly, resentful and monosyllabic. Many wines go through phases as they develop, waves of being open and drinkable or closed and muted, like biorhythms. But nothing fluctuates quite like Pinot. They don’t call it the ‘heartbreak grape’ for nothing. So in a two-fingered salute to Burgundy (who’s the moody one now, I hear you cry) next time I’m going to get my Pinot kicks from Oregon.

Geologically speaking, Oregon is a relatively new bit of Earth. Six hundred miles north of the Napa Valley in California, it rose out of the sea not so many million years ago, and it still bears the scars of volcanoes. To these marine and volcanic soils has been recently added what Howard Rossbach, President of Firesteed Cellars describes as “exotic, old soils from the Rockies”.

Around 14,000 years ago, Lake Missoula, 350 miles northeast of Oregon at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, flooded. The enormous ice dam that kept the water enclosed slowly melted and eventually shattered, allowing a biblical surge of water to escape and race to the sea at speeds of 80 miles per hour, flattening everything in its path. This happened 35 times over a period of 2,000 years, each time depositing a fresh layer of mountain soils throughout Washington and Oregon.

From these exotic soils come countless fascinating Pinot Noirs. It is often said that Burgundy is the most complicated of wine regions, but there is a good deal of subtlety and nuance of style to explore here too. In fact Oregon now has more area planted with this variety than the Côte d’Or, the heartland of Burgundy*. Many still grow on their original rootstocks. The vines are on average 15 years old, and the oldest a mature 40 years (pretty venerable for North America).

Although Oregon would be described as ‘New World’, it has a relatively cool climate; it is on the same latitude as France and Germany, so expect flavours more akin to Burgundy and German Spätburgunder rather than fuller Californian or Chilean Pinots. Stylistically it lies somewhere between Burgundy and New Zealand.

They do grow some other grape varieties in Oregon but nothing comes close to their Pinot Noirs. Of the total area, 59% is planted with Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Gris, 5% Chardonnay, 4% Riesling and the rest with various others. I don’t get on with Oregon Pinot Gris. Admittedly I have only tried around ten, but all too often they have been very full-bodied without the flavour to back it up. Often featuring ill-defined apricot, peach and banana flavours, they have mostly been very boozy and lacking acidity. The best retain freshness and concentration of flavour, and can be enjoyable food wines; the worst are like drinking flavourless alcoholic jelly that has the off-white pinky pallor of a ghost with a hangover. I’ll keep trying, I'm sure I've just been unlucky…

The wines are produced mostly by private estates (there are currently around 450 in Oregon), though there are a good number of contract growers who sell their fruit for others to vinify. This region only exports around 5% of its total production, so although these wines still aren’t as easy to find as Californian wines, more and more of them are finding their way abroad. At least 30 wineries now have UK agents. Take a look on www.wine-searcher.com or email kate@hilltopwines.co.uk for more info on where to find them in the UK. Be warned though: they aren’t cheap.

One sub-region in particular to keep an eye out for is the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area – like the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC). It is almost exclusively planted with Pinot Noir, and some of the finest expressions originate from here. I was told that to pronounce ‘Willamette’ properly, rhyme it with ‘damn it’. Which is something I’ll undoubtedly find myself saying again and again after future moody bottles of Pinot Noir. But I’ll never give up on it completely.

 

Some highlights:

 

Firesteed, Oregon Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£15.45 available at www.slurp.co.uk

Pale in colour, but not lacking in flavour. Earthy cherry on the nose and a whiff of bonfire. Pure red and black cherry fruit with a lick of soft tannin and good refreshing acidity. Nicely balanced. 2008 was a great vintage in Oregon, and it shows. 89 points, good value.

Rex Hill, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2009
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£20.99 available at West Mount Wines www.westmountwine.co.uk 

Ripe strawberry and raspberry, this could easily be mistaken for a Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy). Soft firm tannin, very pure and long. Alcohol shows just a little bit but otherwise well-balanced and very appealing. 90 points, fair value.

Domaine Drouhin, Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2009
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£22.75 available at www.slurp.co.uk

Quite meaty and earthy but perfumed. Long and layered. Slight dirty funkiness giving it complexity and interest. Not unlike a Beaune Champimonts 1er Cru (Burgundy). 92 points, fair value.

Brooks, ‘Janus’ Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£24.95 available at Stone, Vine and Sun www.stonevine.co.uk though not yet online

Smoky bacon on the nose, raspberry and cranberry on the palate. Dry, slightly farmyardy and very drinkable. Balanced and long. Very good. Stylistically akin to a Gevrey-Chambertin (Burgundy). 92 points, fair value.

Shea Wine Cellars, Estate Pinot Noir, 2008
100% Pinot Noir grape from Oregon, USA
£31.00 available at Goedhuis www.goedhuis.com 

A bigger style of Oregon Pinot Noir. Darker fruit flavours, blackberry, plum, hint of leaf tea. Full-bodied, with ripe tannins and slightly sweet fruit flavours. Oak flavours still quite prominent in a cola/cough sweet undertone. Decadent, slightly exotic. 91 points, just about fair value.

 

 

* Burgundy, Côte d’Or: 5, 500ha under vine, 80% Pinot Noir = 4,400ha in total (Source: http://www.thewinedoctor.com/regionalguides/burgundypart07.shtml).  Oregon: 7,600 ha under vine, 59% Pinot Noir = 4,484ha in total (Source: Howard Rossbach, President of Firesteed Cellars, London, January 2012)


Mr Lawrence's: a quietly inspiring wine merchant in southeast London

Sitting down, I ask Mr Lawrence to describe what Brockley was like when he first opened his wine shop and bar. He knows what I’m getting at. Leaning in, he smiles and quietly states “we have very little trouble here”. Looking up at him, it’s not hard to see why – you wouldn’t want to challenge him to an arm wrestle. Nonetheless, you still need to be buzzed in through the inner metal gate to access the old wooden shelves inside the shop.

There are very few wine bars in this part of London. If you’re after a drink, you’re much more likely to come across a traditional boozer. “They were queuing up to tell me I was mad… that I would last about three weeks.” That was in 1992.

Born up the road in Dulwich, Graham Lawrence is the son of a greengrocer. But he always wanted to own a bar. “I tried to open one in 1979, but I couldn’t get a licence”. It was easier to get a restaurant licence back then, so he opened Flashman’s, a licensed hamburger joint in the meantime. Getting a licence for a bar was measured on local need. If it was deemed that there were sufficient places to drink already, the council wouldn’t issue any more.

Although the licensing laws of the time delayed his plans, Lawrence considers the old system more dependable than today’s. He sees one function of a licensee as being “the responsible person in the room”, and his sense of duty towards his customers is still very much in evidence. They come from “all walks of life, all ages, all professions” to enjoy the wines and the communal atmosphere. “No rules; just respect”.

That the bar continues to be proprietor-run is one of its most valuable benefits, says Lawrence. Bars where the owner knows his or her customers offer familiarity and local knowledge. His sister, Linda, helps runs the shop next door, which they opened in 2000. They manage the business between the two of them. The shop and bar are open every day of the week. Unsurprisingly, they have little time for promotional activity. They don’t advertise. They don’t have e-commerce. They don’t do wine dinners or formal tastings. They don’t even have a wine list. They just rely on word of mouth.

Another reason that Mr Lawrence’s doesn’t offer discounts is down to what he describes as respect to his customers. Prices are calculated using a simple formula, so bottles are priced to the nearest penny. They aim to offer a fair price, all year round. When a shop offers a 50% discount on a wine, he says he wouldn’t trust them: “if they can give you 50% off on this wine, how much are they making on the others?” This kind of price promotion is just one reason why he believes selling wine is something more suited to independent businesses rather than supermarkets. He is freer to concentrate on quality and service above the constant push for increased profits. And whereas supermarkets must insist on uniformity of product, he is free to embrace variety and stock the occasional more peculiar bottle.

They sell a range of wines from small estates and good quality larger producers, mostly on the shelves for between £6 and £30. Their average spend per bottle is £9. It is a reasonably classic split of mostly Old World with an emphasis on France, but with the principal New World countries also featuring. It is not a huge shop, so the range is not extensive, but it does contain some interesting wines, not to mention Trappist and craft beers and cigars. Most are sourced from small specialist suppliers. There are several idiosyncratic touches, such as a wide range of Osborne ports and sherries; a number of German Spätburgunders (Pinot Noirs); and no fewer than fourteen vintages of Château Musar from Lebanon. They import a number of estates directly that you won’t find elsewhere, mostly from France, including Gaillac, Roussillon, Languedoc, Loire, Champagne and Cognac; also Rioja, and cider from Normandy.

Over the past few years we have seen a new crop of independent merchants springing up across the UK. This is great news for drinkers of course, as it means a better, broader range of wines to explore. Well-established independent merchants provide even more than this however. They strengthen and nourish local communities; they offer steady, continuous support to small winemakers. Mr Lawrence Wine Merchant doesn’t necessarily have the biggest or the best range of wines in London. But this local specialist has been proudly serving local people in this corner of London for two decades.

 

Mr Lawrence Wine Merchant
391 Brockley Road
London SE4 2PH

020 8692 1550

www.mrlawrencewinemerchant.co.uk

 

Château Lafforgue, ‘Quatre Vents’, 2008
A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan grapes from Roussillon, Southern France
£10.45 available at Mr Lawrence Wine Merchant

First encountered by Mr Lawrence on a market stall in Saint Cyprien, he now imports this estate directly. Deep dark and inky in appearance. Blackberry, menthol, tar, with a resinous herbal tinge. Full-bodied. Dense, lots of ripe soft tannin. Enough acidity to balance the touch of sweetness. Medium length fruity finish with integrated rich oak flavours. Punchy and potent. Would make a nice change for lovers of Argentinean Malbec. 87 points, fair value.


En primeur: How to taste unfinished wines

As months go, we all know that January is a tedious windbag. But what it does have going for it is Burgundy. Every year, various independent wine merchants organise for Burgundy producers to come to London and show off their latest wines; this time round it is the 2010 vintage. Most reports are indicating that it was a very good growing season, and some brilliant wines have been made. So should you buy any? And how do you taste these young, unfinished wines?

The 2010 Burgundies are being sold ‘en primeur’ i.e. the wines are not fully finished or bottled. The benefit for the producer in selling them this way is that they get the money up front, instead of having to wait until they are finished, bottled and shipped. There are two principal benefits to you, the customer. Firstly, wines bought en primeur are usually a bit cheaper than when they finally appear on the shelves (typically around 10% - 15%). Secondly, wines which are made in very small quantities may never reach the shelves; they might all be sold every year to early birds buying en primeur.

There are some risks involved however. The wines might not increase in price, particularly in a below-average vintage; their value might actually drop by the time they are bottled. Certain crafty producers might not be exhibiting wines that are truly indicative of the final blend they will be bottling and selling, it might be a special tarted-up version made for the tasting. And since there is a long wait for the wines to be finished and shipped over, there will be a period of 9 months or so (or even longer when buying Bordeaux en primeur) during which you’ve paid your money but have nothing yet to show for it. If the merchant you are buying from goes bust during this time, you might have trouble getting your money back. Be aware: there are also con artists out there who prey on this time lag between payment and delivery to extract money from unsuspecting wine lovers and then run off with the cash. But don’t let that scare you off, just be careful who you give your money to.

So if you do get the chance to taste unfinished wines at an en primeur tasting, how should you go about it? It depends on the wine to a degree; Burgundy is much easier and more enjoyable to taste young than Bordeaux for example, as Bordeaux tends to be more powerful, with much more aggressive tannin, and exhibited at an even younger stage. Young Burgundy can taste more or less like the finished article; young Bordeaux can taste very raw and actually pretty unpleasant at this stage. Here are a few general pointers:

 

 

How it looks

  • There is rarely much to gauge in terms of quality from looking at the wine at this stage. If a wine is unusually pale or brown compared to the rest, it could denote a lack of intensity or premature oxidation. But not necessarily – tasting is key.

 

 

How it smells

  • The wine should smell clean and fresh.
  • It depends on the type of wine, but the aromas can often be unexpectedly pronounced or a bit closed. This doesn’t necessarily reflect on how the wine will be when bottled.
  • The aromas tend to be quite ‘primary’, that’s to say of young fresh fruits indicative of the grape variety, and perhaps some aromas from the fermentation and any use of oak barrels.
  • The wine shouldn’t smell like a mature wine, showing developed aromas such as leather, truffle or chestnut. If it does, it might be ageing prematurely.
  • There shouldn’t be so much oak that it obscures the other aromas.
  • If the wine smells oxidised, this is possibly a fault of the tasting sample, which can degrade quickly. Taste another sample if you can before you write off the wine.

 

 

How it tastes

  • This is the most important thing to concentrate on.
  • Do a bit of research on the vintage beforehand. Was it a very hot year? Then look out for high alcohol levels or jammy fruit flavours. Was it cold and wet? If so, unripe, green flavours might be a trait to look out for across the board. Look for similar traits in the first few wines you taste when putting together an impression of the vintage.
  • Picking out individual flavours might not be easy at this stage; sometimes they can be very ‘tightly wound’. Tasting en primeur is often more of a case of tasting for the various elements that make up a wine – judging the level of acidity, amount and character of tannins, level of sweetness, etc.
  • It is important to have intensity and concentration of flavour, but without the wine being heavy or aggressive.
  • Are the flavours pleasantly fresh and lively? Or more dull and flat?
  • With whites, keep an eye out for levels of sweetness.
  • With reds, pay particular attention to the tannins. What is the character and texture of the tannins? Are they smooth and ripe – or grainy, harsh, or bitter? How much tannin is there?
  • Don’t forget the tannins gradually drop out of the wine over time, so if the tannin is a bit pronounced to start with, that is actually a good thing. You want some left by the time you come to drink it but when the rest of the flavours have matured.
  • Are there any unpleasant stalky or green flavours from unripe fruit?
  • Keep an eye out for any bitterness, usually more noticeable on the finish.
  • Also look out for unacceptably high levels of alcohol, again most obvious on the finish.
  • As with mature wines, length of flavour is important.
  • Most importantly, are all the elements (acidity, sweetness, intensity, tannin, alcohol, etc) in balance?

 

To find out about these kinds of tasting, get in touch with the larger London independent merchants such as Berry Brothers & Rudd, Howard Ripley, Bibendum, Flint Wines, Jeroboams, Corney & Barrow, Lay & Wheeler, Armit and Lea & Sandeman and ask them about forthcoming en primeur tastings and to be put onto their mailing lists. Burgundy tasting are usually in early January; Bordeaux tastings in April or May.

Finally, a few tips. Firstly, do some research to ensure you are buying in a good vintage. Secondly, buy from a well-established, reputable wine merchant. Thirdly, after tasting it’s no bad thing to get a second opinion from any critics who have long experience in tasting these types of wines, as it takes a while to pick the good vintages from the average. Fourthly, pay with your credit card, which could give you some protection in the unlikely event things do go wrong with your supplier.

For more information on safe en primeur purchasing, take a look at Jim Budd’s excellent site investdrinks-blog.blogspot.com


New Cru: the cream of the Languedoc

Powerful words, ‘Grand Cru’. Referring to a wine or a vineyard of the highest quality, this tiny phrase bestows the stamp of greatness. In all the vineyards of Burgundy, one of the most outstanding wine regions of all, there are only 34 individual sites that have been officially certified Grand Cru. It is the individual plot, the terroir, that is given this distinction; over the years it has proven its potential to deliver superlative wines. Is it a bit early to be marking out the Crus of the Languedoc?

The earliest evidence of winemaking in Burgundy dates back to the 2nd century AD, but it probably goes back long before then. Vineyards first started to be marked out for quality in the 12th and 13th centuries by Cistercian monks, who were given their first vineyard in 1098 by the Duke of Burgundy. The first mention of the Pinot Noir grape (the only red grape used in good quality Burgundy) was in the 1370s.

Evidence of grape growing in the Languedoc region in the south of France also goes back centuries, dating back as far as 125 BC. But here the similarities end. In terms of mapping out the terroir, it is still early days. By the mid 19th century, there was an increasing distinction between the better quality vineyards on the hillsides compared with those on the flat, but most of the principal appellations were only drawn up in the 1980s. The first Languedoc Cru, Minervois La Livinière, was officially sanctioned as recently as 1999. There are many red grapes grown in this region, but the principle ones are Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. Carignan is the oldest of these, though it may be as recently as the 1960s that it was planted in the Languedoc, being brought from Spain via Algeria. Cinsault followed in the 1970s, the others in the 80s.

Compared with Burgundy, the Languedoc is a relative beginner to ‘fine wine’ production. By marking out the boundaries of the best vineyards centuries ago, Burgundy has had ample time to prove that the intrinsic quality in the wines comes from the vineyard, not the individual grower. Many hands have ploughed, pruned and crushed through the centuries; the potential for quality has remained. ‘Fine wine’ making in the Languedoc is a relatively recent pursuit, using grapes which are newcomers to this land. The Languedoc are using the simpler term ‘Cru’ rather than ‘Grand Cru’ on their labels, but it is still a step towards further carving up the current appellations to highlight top quality terroirs.

Given its relative infancy in fine wine-making, I wonder if the land has had sufficient time to prove itself worthy of Cru status, implying an inherent quality that transcends the skill of those who work the land. After all, local winemakers have only been working with these new varieties for the past few decades. What is more certain is that creating these new Crus will bring some focussed attention to this enormous swathe of very varied vine growing terrain.

With many appellations still difficult to tell apart at a blind tasting, it might be argued that each one ought to forge its own character before further dividing them up into Crus. However, with Crus being identified, perhaps this will in fact accelerate the clarification of each different appellation’s unique properties by giving them an ideal at which to aim.

The reputation of a region or an appellation can have a big influence on the amount a producer can charge for his or her wine. The Languedoc has long had the reputation of being a source of some good value bottles, and it still is. For those making really excellent stuff, this reputation can hold them back from charging a higher price, as the wine buying public often aren’t prepared to pay high prices for a Corbières or a Saint Chinian, no matter the quality. So these Cru appellations could help producers charge more – which, given the quality of some of the wines being produced here now, is entirely fair. Some winemakers, like Jean-François Izarn from the excellent Borie la Vitarèle in Saint Chinian, still insist that it is the estate that counts above all: “the most important thing is people”. It remains true that, in the Languedoc as in Burgundy, the most reliable indicator of quality is the name of the domaine.

Winemaking in the Languedoc has come on in leaps and bounds over the past ten years, and now there are a good number of estates across many AOCs making excellent wines. Some fall into the newly designated Crus or the nascent ‘Terroirs d’Exceptions’ and some don’t. The Languedoc is still young when it comes to making fine wine, and it feels very early to be demarcating Crus based on this short history. But if they serve to bring more attention to some of these estates, that’s good for the wine lover and good for the producer. As our knowledge of the region improves, it will be important that the appellation authorities are willing to amend the boundaries of these Crus where it is right to do so. But if you wait until the time is right before you begin, you wait forever.

 

How the new Languedoc appellation system works:

 

Their Cru system is unique in as much as there is a kind of ‘boot camp’ level at which wannabe Crus need to sit before they have proved themselves as exceptional and can be promoted. The levels are as follows:

1. At the top, the Cru appellations – of which there are four so far in total:

AOC Corbières – Boutenac
AOC Minervois – La Livinière
AOC Saint Chinian – Roquebrun
AOC Saint Chinian – Berlou

 

    • When specific sub-regions have asked to be approved as Crus, they are known as ‘Terroirs d’Exception’ and can state their name on the label, but remain in their lower AOCs until they are promoted. There are nine at present: La Clape, Grès de Montpellier, Limoux (still whites), Montpeyroux, Pézenas, Pic Saint-Loup, Saint-Drézéry, Saint-Georges-d’Orques and Terrasses du Larzac. Next to be promoted? I’d put my money on Pic St Loup, La Clape or Terrasses du Larzac…

 

2. The next step down are known as “grands vins” appellations – for example :

AOC Corbières
AOC Faugères
AOC Fitou
AOC Cabardès
AOC Malepère
AOC Minervois
AOC Clairette du Languedoc
AOC Limoux (sparkling and reds)

 

3. At the base, the regional appellation

AOC Languedoc

 

Important details on the juice from another World Class Cru:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrjWsqrVO5Q

 

 

Some great examples of wines from Languedoc Crus or Terroirs d’Exceptions:

 

Mas de la Seranne, ‘Le Clos des Immortelles’, 2009
A blend of 25% Syrah, 25% Grenache, 25% Carignan and 25% Mourvèdre grapes from Terrasses du Larzac, Languedoc, France
The 2008 is available at Tanners at £14.60  (notes below are for the 2009)

Young and vibrant blueberry fruit, very spicy nose. Soft tannins, good acidity. Not hugely long or that complex but very appealing and drinkable. 90 points.

Château Cesseras, 2008
A blend of 70% Syrah, 10% Carignan, 10% Grenache and 10% Mourvèdre grapes from Minervois La Livinière, Languedoc, France
£14.95 available at Berry Brothers & Rudd

Damson and peppery spice on the nose. Lovely smooth texture with zingy, fruity acidity. Long and pure, just about keeping its alcohol levels in balance. 90 points, good value (the 2009 is even better if you can find it).

Château de Caraguilhes, ‘Solus’, 2009
A blend of 40% Carignan, 30% Syrah and 30% Mourvèdre grapes from Corbières Boutenac, Languedoc, France
£15.00 available at Villeneuve Wines

Intense dark fruit and spice with a little hint of something vegetal. Sappy pine and cola flavours from the new oak, with some cocoa and rosemary undertones. Full-bodied, rich and oaky. Very silky tannins and quite pronounced acidity. Good length, grippy finish. 90 points, good value.

Domaine de Montcalmès 2007
A blend of 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 20% Mourvèdre grapes from Terrasses du Larzac, Languedoc, France
£20.05 available at Slurp.co.uk

Deep and very spicy rich, ripe fruit. Aromatic, with hints of tobacco. Intense fruit on the palate with firm, chewy tannins. Ample balancing acidity. Lovely balance of aromatics and fruitiness. Wonderful harmony and restraint. Good ageing potential. This is brilliant. 94 points, good value.

 

 

The trip referred to in this post was kindly organised and paid for by Westbury Communications.


Carignan the Barbarian

The Trailer (1982)

For centuries, the gentle giant wandered carefree amongst the foothills and the mountains of Southern France. But, not so long ago, his strong character became too much for some to bear, and he found himself out of favour with the locals. Unloved and unwanted, he had to hide himself amongst his more charismatic neighbours. But Carignan didn’t care. He believed that, once he was fully mature, his qualities would be recognised and he would once again be welcome in his homeland. One day.

Carignan isn’t the easiest grape to love. For decades it has been maligned, ignored or dug up in favour of ‘better’ varieties. I have certainly encountered some examples over the years that have been unpleasantly pungent, flabby or just plain dirty. But many Languedoc winemakers are now taking a second look at it, and seeing what can be achieved with some extra care and attention. Whenever I used to think of Carignan, I used to imagine Mr Twit from Roald Dahl’s children’s book The Twits; grubby and hairy, sporting an ominous grin. With a bit of TLC however, can it be sculpted into something more like a ruggedly charismatic Conan?

Before

 

After

 

It’s not just Carignan that has been pulled up in favour of other varieties in the Languedoc. Since the early 1980s, there has been a programme to replace traditional local varieties such as Alicante, Terret Noir and Piquepoul Noir with so-called ‘improving’ varieties from other regions: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The first three of these are traditionally grown in the southern Rhône Valley directly to the east of the Languedoc region, and Cinsault has long been cultivated in Provence, further east still.

It’s fair to say that not all grape varieties are created equal. Syrah, for example, is capable – in the right soils and the right hands – of creating some of the most wonderful wines imaginable. The same is probably not true of grapes such as Piquepoul Noir. Fortunately, the Languedoc is historically a region that blends grape varieties when making wine, so there is room for both the ancient and the modern. So in order to create great wines, it is no bad thing to have a bit of Syrah around to help bolster the overall quality of what is being produced. But it would be a shame to lose the unique qualities of the traditional varieties completely. You never know when you might need them.

Let Carignan off the leash and you’ll end up with huge crops, but poor quality juice. It may seem like a good thing to the winemaker to have more bottles of wine to sell to start with, but if the quality is no good, then it’s clearly a false economy. In France they call it ‘faire pisser le vigne’. But this was what the Languedoc was known for, before the changes of the 1970s and ‘80s; quantity, not quality. Some grapes can still perform reasonably well under these conditions, but Carignan isn’t one of them; especially when the vines are young. Perhaps this is where Carignan has got its reputation for poor quality.

On a recent trip to the Languedoc, however, a good number of winemakers were singing its praises. And after tasting a few pure Carignans, and, in particular, some Carignan-heavy blends, I couldn’t help but agree. With smaller crops, older vines, and certain winemaking practices (like carbonic maceration), some of them were very enjoyable indeed. The majority were still powerful, pungent, brambly bruisers, but not without balance and nuance of flavour.

Pierre Bories, winemaker at Ollieux Romanis in Corbières, is one of these Carignan evangelists. To him, “Carignan is a passion”. Bories posited that Carignan was just the lens through which the terroir could be perceived. This theory is more frequently put forward by Burgundian winemakers when talking about their beloved Pinot Noir. I remain unconvinced that Carignan’s broad brushstrokes will ever equal the subtle illustration that Pinot Noir can manage when it comes to reflecting precise definitions between different terroirs. But that doesn’t mean that this burly variety can’t faithfully express the more rugged landscape of its home country. In the right hands, this barbarian grape variety can actually be much friendlier than its reputation suggests.

 

Reds with a good dollop of Carignan in:

 

Château de Caraguilhes, ‘Classic’, 2010
A blend of 50% Carignan, 25% Syrah and 25% Grenache grapes from Corbières, Languedoc, France
£8.06 from Waitrose Wine Direct

A classic, slightly rustic and farmyardy Corbières. Medium-bodied, with dark brambly fruit flavours and a hint of black pepper. Good acidity, medium tannins, very drinkable. 87 points, good value.

Terres Falmet, Carignan, 2009
100% Carignan grape from Saint Chinian, Languedoc, France
£8.50 available at Stone, Vine and Sun

Damsons, dried figs, violets and lilies. Medium-bodied, with soft chewy tannins and balanced acidity. An enjoyable fresh mouthful of wine. 88 points, good value.

Château Cesseras, ‘Cuvée Olric’, 2009
A blend of 60% Syrah, 40% Carignan grapes from Minervois, Languedoc, France
£9.75 available at Berry Brothers & Rudd

A fresh plum and bramble nose with a hint of smokiness and black pepper. No oak. Medium-bodied, with gentle ripe silky tannins. All elements harmonious and balanced. 90 points, very good value.

Clos Perdus, ‘Cuvée 71’, 2009
A blend of 50% Carignan, 35% Grenache and 15% Mourvèdre grapes from Corbières, Languedoc, France
£12.99 available at Nothing But The Grape

Plum, dried fig and apple with a touch of licorice. Ripe tannins, bright, lively fruit. A touch rustic, but concentrated and very appetising. 89 points, good value.

Ollieux Romanis, ‘Cuvée Prestige’, 2008
A blend of 40% Carignan, 25% Grenache, 25% Mourvèdre and 10% Syrah grapes from Corbières, Languedoc, France
£13.99 available at Les Caves de Pyrène

This is starting to develop a complex nose of blackberry and eucalyptus with hints of iodine and tobacco. Medium-bodied, with fresh acidity and ripe tannins. Well balanced with juicy fruit flavours if not hugely long on the finish. 90 points, fair value.

 

 

The trip referred to in this post was kindly organised and paid for by Westbury Communications.

Photo 1 source: http://www.canyonridgeschool.blogspot.com/

Photo 2 source: http://scifi.about.com/od/Conan-The-Barbarian-2011/ig/Gallery---Conan-the-Barbarian---1982-/Arnold-Schwarzenegger-as-Conan.-7fR.htm


Yes, THAT Lebanon

Some countries are on the fringes of wine production, and Lebanon is certainly one of them. Most wine drinkers I speak to aren’t aware this country even makes wine, but they’ve been doing it for 9000 years. Solidly in the ‘Old World’ camp, then; but many of the wines are defiantly modern in style.

Lebanon is a small country (200 miles long and 50 miles across) situated at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, with Syria to the east and north, and Israel to the south. It’s home to 4 million people, and they make just 7 million bottles a year from a tiny smattering of 40 wineries. But production is increasing all the time.

And yes, they’ve had to endure a lot of conflict. The Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990) in particular set the country back in countless ways, its wine industry being just one casualty. During the rapid success of New World wines in the 70s and 80s, in some vintages it was difficult for Lebanese winemakers to even harvest their grapes safely, let alone embark on global marketing campaigns. This would have been the perfect time to get the message out about their wines, but it wasn’t to be; and so Lebanon remains relatively unknown in the world of wine.

With their incredibly long tradition of making wine, I was hoping there would be a wealth of crazy old winemaking practices still in use, unidentified local grape varieties and bizarre styles to get my teeth into. Sadly most of these have been forgotten; the majority of the wines I tasted are made from those famous ‘international’ varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Grenache (plus some Carignan and Cinsault) for the reds; Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Muscat for the whites. They do have a couple of indigenous white grapes – Obaideh and Merwah – but they are not that widely planted.

The reds seem to fall into two camps; the lighter, fresher styles made for early drinking; and the more powerful, intense, deep reds with lots of oak influence. There are enjoyable examples on both sides, but heavy-handed use of oak in the latter style often smothers the more subtle aromatics. The lighter, fresher, cheaper reds, frequently made from the Cinsault grape, are often more instantly appealing. I spoke to Michael Karam, the authority on Lebanese wines, who suggested that Cinsault could be the grape for which Lebanon becomes best known. It does seem to do very well in this part of the world, perhaps even better than in its homeland of Southern France.

The whites again broadly fall into two styles; most of them are highly aromatic wines, making the most of Viognier and Muscat, often in unison, to create weighty but perfumed wines. Again, some of the top-end bottles are too heavily oaked. Having heard some bad things in the past I didn’t expect to be particularly taken with the whites at a recent tasting, but many are fresh and attractive, and well worth trying.

Three wineries stood out for me: Château Kefraya, Château Ksara and Domaine de Tourelles. These were the most consistent producers; I did taste individual wines from other producers that were very good, but they tended to offer more of a mixed bag, with some less successful efforts mixed in with the better ones. If you are familiar with Lebanese wines, the one name you’ll certainly have heard of is Château Musar. This producer has hogged the limelight for nearly 100 years, so that’s why I’m not covering them here. They are a bit of a law unto themselves anyway, so I’ll do a separate post on them in due course.

Tasting through 32 wines from seven different wineries, I was left with the impression that for all its history, this is a wine region still in the process of cementing its own identity. I’m looking forward to watching it develop.

 

Some highlights:

 

Whites

Château Ka ‘Source Blanche’ 2010
A blend of Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes from Chtaura, Lebanon
£11.95 available at Imbibros

Pale lemon in colour, with a zesty lemon and grapefruit nose. Creamy on the palate with a touch of oak. Good intensity of flavour and freshness. Alcohol might be on the high side, but not problematically so. 88 points, good value.

Ixsir ‘Altitude’ 2010
A blend of 40% Muscat, 20% Viognier, 20% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc from Kab Elias, Lebanon
Price and stockist not yet finalised, but should be available soon in the UK

Perfumed but spicy nose. Medium to full-bodied with fresh apricot flavours shot through with good acidity. Fresh and balanced with good length and a creamy fresh apricot finish. 90 points.

 

Reds

 

Château Kefraya ‘Les Bretèches’ 2008
A blend of 79% Cinsault, 7% Grenache, 7% Carignan and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
£10.25 available at Great Western Wine

Lots of cranberry fruit, with some floral and spicy (cinnamon) hints. Medium-bodied, fresh, with good concentration of cranberry fruit and crunchy tannins. Nicely balanced. 89 points, good value.

Karam Winery ‘Maison’ 2010
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot grapes from Jezzine, Lebanon
£13.44 available at www.kingswoodwines.co.uk

More cranberries, but this time with a spicy, peppery kick. Good acidity and crunchy young tannins. Medium-bodied and well balanced, overall very drinkable. 88 points, fair value.

Domaine des Tourelles Red 2008
A blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Chtaura, Lebanon
£14.00 available at Borough Wines

Slightly rough and ready nose with cherries and some dark fruits. Medium-bodied, with expressive and open ripe fruit flavours on the palate. Nicely concentrated, with good length. Tastes not unlike a slightly riper, spicier Côtes-du-Rhône. 89 points, fair value.

Château Ksara 2007
A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot grapes from Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
£17.99 available at Wimbledon Wine Cellars

Brambly fruit, liquorice and vanilla with a little hint of cola. Medium to full-bodied, with soft tannins, firm acidity and medium length. Modern in style but elegant and well-balanced, this should develop nicely for many years to come. 90 points, fair value.

Château St Thomas 2006
A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Syrah grapes from Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
£21.00 available at www.lebanesefinewines.eu

Well developed, slightly gamey nose with hints of cola. Medium-bodied with firm ripe tannins and bright acidity. Medium length, slightly rustic flavours on the palate, but appetising and enjoyable. 89 points, fair value (just).


Why there has never been a better time to get into wine - or Does Decanter magazine make you blush?

There was one magazine above all that I found embarrassing to buy as a student. I used to surreptitiously snatch it from the newsstand and guiltily stuff it into a brown paper bag at the till, in the hope that no-one would see. No, not Playboy; it was Decanter. Now I casually read wine magazines on the tube at rush hour. How times have changed.

That the UK is not historically a wine-producing country has been a mixed blessing for British wine drinkers. On the one hand, we have been open to drinking wine from anywhere, with no blind patriotism holding us back. But on the other hand, because wine had to be shipped from abroad, for generations it was the reserve of the wealthy. You couldn’t just pop to the local winery to fill up like you can in France or Italy. Once upon a time, is was a real luxury. But now, most of those in their 20s and 30s have regularly bought their wine in supermarkets along with the baked beans and loo roll. But for some reason, in the minds of many, it has retained a little of its former status.

As little as ten years ago, wine was still seen by many young people as the reserve of the posh. Its image was snooty, stuffy and excluding. But things have been gradually changing since then, particularly in the last five years. Three things have helped above all others: the internet, tasting machines and big wine events.

A quick search on the web will reveal dozens of wine blogs being written in the UK alone; hundreds in Europe; over a thousand worldwide. The majority that I have encountered are produced by people in their 20s and 30s. Normal folk that you might meet in the pub or the supermarket, that happen to be into wine. They have been vital in dispelling the old-fashioned image of the monocled, strawberry-nosed old duffer droning on about claret. The internet has also made getting hold of good wine much easier. Now you can order from any good independent retailer and get a case delivered to you in no time, whether you have a good wine shop down the road or not.

If you prefer buying in person, the good news is that the last five years has seen a whole new crop of good independent wine shops springing up. Many of these are installing tasting machines as a matter of course. These chrome and glass boxes can keep bottles fresh for weeks at a time after opening, which means you can try before you buy, removing the risk of buying something unexpected. They are often self-service, meaning you can taste a whole load of samples and learn about wine under your own steam, without someone breathing down your neck and asking your opinion of the tannins.

Tasting machines have also given more people access to the finest and rarest wines. When I managed The Sampler in South Kensington we put on Premier Cru Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy and iconic New World wines every week. Selling bottles fractionally opens them up to many more people to try, not just those with big salaries or big cellars.

Even better, you can go to one of the big tasting events that are popping up around London and throughout the UK. I first got interested in wine when living in France in the late 90s, where it wasn’t seen as a particularly strange thing for a young person to be exploring. When I got back to England, many of the tastings I went to would be a sea of tweed with a sprinkling of bow ties. These big new inclusive tastings are relaxed and very social, where you can try a bit of whatever takes your fancy for a small entry fee. They are attracting a younger crowd, and now jeans are far more common than suits.

It’s not that surprising really. Attitudes to food have changed enormously within the last 15 years. Before Jamie Oliver was on our TV screens, most men wouldn’t be seen dead with a whisk in their hand. Who would have thought the Hairy Bikers would have got this popular back then? And if you’re into food, sooner or later you’ll get into wine. Uncorking a bottle is easier and quicker than cooking after all. Although both can offer intense and delicious flavours to enjoy, wine offers wonderful spirit-lifting sensations to go with it.

Many years ago, there was a reason that people thought wine was something reserved for the privileged. It was. But it’s not any more. There is nothing inherently stuffy or formal about wine, just like there is nothing inherently stuffy about whisky, beer or coffee; it’s a drink, not a rulebook. If anything, wine is the opposite of stuffy – hand out a few glasses at a social gathering and the atmosphere tends to loosen up, not stiffen. It encourages relaxation, conversation and laughter. Try if you like to stay serious, it won’t last long.

We’ve come a long way in the last five years, and it’s brilliant that those out-dated notions that have stopped people having a good time are finally being left behind. Sure there’s a little way still to go. But at least now I can buy Decanter without blushing.

 

First published as Does Decanter magazine make you blush? on www.timatkin.com


Wine Drinking No. 2: Biodynamic vs. Conventional, this time in Manchester

Last Friday, I made my way from a foggy London up to Manchester by train with a clinking suitcase full of bottles, the whites wrapped in ice packs. I needn’t have bothered cooling them because it was icy when I arrived into a strangely deserted station. Call it some kind of sixth sense if you like, or some kind of alignment in the heavens, but I had this funny feeling that we might get exactly the same results as my previous Biodynamic vs. Conventional drinking (full write-up here), held in London two weeks ago…

But they were completely different. Just as a quick recap, we all got together to see if a group of non-expert wine drinkers could taste the difference between biodynamic wines and normal ones. In contrast to the London crowd, almost everyone had actually heard of biodynamics. Again, before the tasting they said they felt as if they wanted to like the biodynamic wines more. But this time, the favourite wine from all but one of the five blind pairs of wines was made conventionally.

There was some disparity between the two groups as far as which bottle from each blind pair of wines was the considered the best. With three out of the five pairs of wines, both Manchester and London agreed which was the winner, but on two they did not. Attitudes towards one of these disputed pairs were particularly divergent: the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (New Zealand) from Seresin (biodynamic) was the most highly scored wine of all in London – in Manchester it was the opposite, where it came last and was actively disliked. Its opposite number, a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc by Kim Crawford, came 6th in London – in Manchester it came 1st (though I should point out it was a different vintage). There was no bottle variation between the two Seresins that I could detect, and there was little vintage variation between the two Kim Crawfords. Compared to the more restrained Kim Crawford, the Manchester crew considered the Seresin too intense and overpowering, but this assertive trait was seen as a positive attribute in London. It's often the case with Marlborough Sauvignon – though very popular over the past few years, it can be made in a very pungent style that's not to everyone’s taste.

One wine that was universally disliked was the Chianti Classico ‘I Colombi’ 2009 by Castello di Querceto (Italy). Although generally considered a good estate, it came second from bottom for both groups. It does have prominent oak influence, and it seemed to be this character in particular that many seemed to find unappealing. Perhaps this oakiness will fade with time to reveal more fruit flavours, but at present it seemed out of balance.

At the other end of the scale, one wine was enjoyed very much by both groups (coming 2nd in Manchester, 4th in London), despite being the cheapest of all - the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine ‘Les Grands Presbytères’ 2009 by Nelly Marzelleau (Loire, France). This is a cracking Muscadet made from 50 year old vines with concentration of flavour and a refreshing, dry, mineral finish. Muscadet is never hugely intense in flavour, but is crisp, fully dry, and works well with food – and is often relatively inexpensive. In the North you can buy it at Corks Out for £11.50 and in the South you can get it from Wholefoods Market for £10.99. Highly recommended.

On both occasions the crowd guessed the biodynamic wine correctly with just six out of ten wines. So it seems that average drinkers can’t really tell the difference between normal wines and biodynamic ones from the taste alone. But it's certainly fun trying.

 

Score /100 Preferred wine Bio or Conv Overall Rank Price
Wine 1 Vouvray Brut, Non Vintage, Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, France 61.5 Bio  =7 £16.99
Wine 2 Vouvray Brut, ‘La Dilettante’, Non Vintage, Catherine et Pierre Breton, France 68 Winner Conv 3 £14.99
Wine 3 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, ‘Les Grands Presbytères’, 2009, Nelly Marzelleau, France 76 Winner Conv 2 £10.99
Wine 4 Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, ‘Expression de Gneiss’, 2009, Domaine de l’Ecu, France 63.5 Bio 6 £14.99
Wine 5 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2009, Seresin, New Zealand 59.5 Bio 10 £16.95
Wine 6 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, 2011, Kim Crawford, New Zealand 77.5 Winner Conv 1 £14.95
Wine 7 Bourgueil, ‘Cassiopée’, 2009, Domaine de la Chevalerie, France 61.5 Bio  =7 £11.99
Wine 8 St Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil, ‘Les Mauguerets’, 2009, Domaine de la Cotelleraie, France 66.5 Winner Conv 5 £13.99
Wine 9 Chianti Classico, ‘I Colombi’, 2009, Castello di Querceto, Italy 60.5 Conv 9 £13.95
Wine 10 Rosso Toscano, ‘Monteleccio’ 2008, Sesti, Italy 67.5 Winner Bio 4 £16.95

 

Big thanks going out to Yasminah Beebeejaun for suggesting we do the drinking at her place. Additional thanks to Nicola Headlam (@gastroporn1977) for supplying excellent grub to mop it up, especially the macaroons so moreish they were renamed ‘crackeroons’. Any ideas for themes for the next one in the box below please!