A collection of my monthly wine columns for this southern-UK entertainment and lifestyle magazine.
June 2018 – How The Other Half Live
A well-appointed off license is a godsend to most of us and there’s no reason to assume that the Government feel any differently.
Just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, across Hyde Park, is Lancaster House; the home of the British Government’s wine store. Established in 1908 with the express intent of enabling our ministers to lubricate their diplomatic machinations, over the years this 60 square foot private cellar evolved in to a store of very fine wine. Naturally people began to wonder what indulgent vintages the elite were getting to imbibe, fully cementing a ‘them vs. us’ mentality.
A 2010 edict by the Secretary of State demanded that a full overhaul of the process be taken ensuring that these tax-payer funded purchases became fully self-funded. In these times of austerity where “we’re all in it together” it was a welcome move.
The current Government now offers complete transparency as to how their wine cellar runs (Google ‘government hospitality’ to see the full report) and each year they produce a document giving a full run down of the operation. Firmly ousting the notion of a fine wine gravy-train for the elected, it makes an interesting read.
Well and truly clearing their closet out, a mass sell-off of ‘significant’ bottles was held in 2012 raising the £44k that nearly fully covered the £49k cost of the stocks required for the following year. These annual sales continue, the most recent of which ensured that officials would no longer be tucking in to such gems as Mouton Rothschild or Margaux 1990.
The cellar and ongoing purchases are now guided by a team of Masters of Wine (MWs) to ensure that quality is maintained whilst adhering to the funds available. The average purchase price of a bottle last year was £14.
Consumption year on year is down which also helps to stretch the budget. In the fiscal year 2015/16 some 3,730 bottles were drunk vs. just 3,261 las year. When you weigh up that these bottles will grace the table of more than 200 diplomatic events each year, this divvies up at around 16 bottles per engagement. Some of us may have got through as many in the recent Bank Holiday weekend.
Bottles are graded either A, B or C dependent on what their intended use will be. The top category, those listed as A1, are fit only for banquets attended by Kings and Queens. The majority will be drinking grade C wines: Chilean Merlots and house clarets from merchant BBR for the reds and the Bacchus grape from English producer Chapel Down for the white. Patriotically English wine now accounts for 49% of new wine purchases.
There’s still a handful of exciting bottles tucked away for special occasions and the total stock is estimated to be worth something like £804k, comprising some 33k bottles. Whilst we can applaud the everyday activity we can only dream about the extremes. How about the 1970 Petrus Bordeaux (£2k a bottle), 1962 Chateau Margaux (£450) or their last magnum of the 1964 Krug Champagne (£1,900) for lunch? That’s still quite some collection.
May 2018 – The End Of The Trend?
Whether it’s a drink that makes you thirst or curse, there’s no denying that the biggest sparkling wine success of the last ten years has been the surge in popularity for Prosecco. Majestic recently stated that it was selling ten times more bottles than the well-established Champagne brands.
This wasn’t always the case though and as recently as ten years ago Spain must have felt fairly safe in the knowledge that they had the ‘sparkling-alternative-to-Champagne’ market sewn up with Cava. Made in a similar style to Champagne, but without the prestige of Moét-level brand recognition, they were able to produce fairly similar results at significantly lower prices.
Whilst also a sparkling wine, outside of artisan producers emulating the Champagne style, Prosecco isn’t made in the same way. The bubbles are added by a carbonation process similar to soft drinks, worlds away from the traditional labour intensive Champagne processes. Instead of fermentation (sugars turning to alcohol) within the bottle itself, Prosecco is made in large tanks and siphoned off to each bottle individually.
Without time resting on its yeasty deposits, the creamy richness found in Champagne is lost, but gives Prosecco its youthful and vibrant quality, expressly intended for immediate drinking. This unfussy immediacy, as well as the reduced pricing through simpler production, has proved incredibly popular with the ever cost-conscious buying public.
This is all good for the here-and-now but to ensure a successful future Prosecco needs to side-step the stigma of simply being a cheaper alternative. Adopted by many a girls night out, will the effortless effervescence shortly become a victim of its own success?
For all its perceived snobbery, Champagne has actually done a massive amount to protect its brand and, outside of Champagne truffles and the Champagne named sub-regions of Cognac, you literally can’t label anything as ‘Champagne’ unless it comes from the region.
This makes perfect sense as, when you buy Champagne, you’re buying in to the limited prestige. Prosecco brand preservation seems to have been somewhat side-lined and there is arguably little ongoing value with it being associated with such retail oddments as popcorn, teabags, crisps or nail varnish. Innocently browsing in a bookshop this very week I spotted a Prosecco cookbook – 100 ways to cook with Prosecco. This is a serious brand devaluation.
Price-point is another major consideration. Despite such obvious Brexit factors meaning that we import European goods at a higher price, and the fact that the more popular a brand is the more a producer will charge for it, late spring frosts and an inconsistent summer means that recent crops were severely curtailed or variably-ripened.
Global wine production in 2017 slumped to a 56 year low and there is simply less to go around. Experts estimate that for affected regions, including Prosecco, prices could rise by as much as 30%.
There’s no denying that Prosecco is still very popular but when a brand scales up so quickly there is almost always a quick deflation to follow. Can Prosecco sustain such price rises, lack of availability, and over-exposure through tacky 3rd party products? Is Prosecco now a brand on the run?
April 2018 – A World of Variety
The old saying goes “never judge a book by its cover”, but in the case of ‘Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties’, the plain sleeve and scope couldn’t be much clearer.
Putting each and every known wine grape variety under the microscope and giving the appropriate cultural history and factual DNA make-up, this comprehensive pool of information is accessible to both the scholar and the interested novice.
The novice reader might, however, question where they’re going wrong. Akin to a poorly titled mystery, the biggest surprise of the book has already been given away by the title highlighting that there are an amazing 1,368 different grape varieties out there to try.
A recent survey showed that of the varieties available, only the top 12 (so, less than 1%) were responsible for more than half of the worlds planted vines. That’s an extraordinary statistic; over half of the vine-planted world is given over to less than 1% of the available vine varieties.
Our hit-list contains such favourites as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah (aka Shiraz) for your reds and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Muscat Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris for your white. Any one of these varieties is now in the official ‘comfort zone’.
Clearly there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with any one of the above varieties, which are well-known, successful, highly adaptable and able to give consistent high-yielding results. The point is, there is much mileage beyond.
Readers may now be starting to wonder if they could have been more inventive the last time they reached for another bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, but the blame isn’t entirely on your shoulders. People do indeed go with what they know more often than not, but this is something that supermarkets are well-oiled towards. They don’t want to take too many chances when it comes to the profits. Familiarity is safety.
Wine producing countries new to the game (so, any since the late 70’s/early 80’s) are also well aware of trends and plant their vineyards accordingly. They only want to produce the well-recognised international varieties that will guarantee sales.
This commerce comes at the expense of tradition. Grape varieties adapt to their surroundings and the unknown indigenous varieties that have thrived forever are the ones that truly speak of the history and diversity of the country. Spanish producer Torres is one going to amazing lengths to bring back long-lost varieties from extinction.
On the flip-side, the consumer also needs to have a little more interest when it comes to seeking out what is beyond the obvious. If you can get past the funny and sometimes vaguely un-pronounceable names, there are absolute treasures to be found.
A good range that celebrates this diversity is the Wine Atlas range from Asda. Dressed up in gorgeous labels evocative of the heyday of early 20th century travel, this is your ideal chance to try the lesser spotted Feteasca Neagra, Negroamaro, Grillo or Bobal.
If you’re feeling really competitive you may like to apply to the Wine Century Club. Try 100 or more varieties, Google the club, fill in the entry form, and a nifty certificate will be on its way to you letting you know how unique such a feat is.
March 2018 – First Date Drinks
First dates are one of life’s scary moments, surely ranking alongside other horror appointments such as job interviews and driving tests. Worse still, whilst you’re trying to be all calm and suave, many things you subconsciously do could be giving away all sorts of signals to your date before you’ve even realised what you’ve done.
Whilst you should be able to navigate the obvious pitfalls such as not forgetting the other person’s name, a recent study suggests that what you choose to drink has just as much of an impact as to whether the evening will be a success or not. Nearly half of all respondents suggested that a wrong choice of drink would put them off their date straight away.
Whilst there’s a few easy wins when it comes to your order, such as not getting your courage up by kicking things off with a round of shots, or believing that you ‘get better with drink’ and ordering way too much, how do you judge it just right?
Perhaps playing against initial expectations, the study found that men are actually a touch more picky on the subject of what to drink on a date than women are, with 70% of men making snap judgements compared to just 30% of women.
After shots, which ranked as the most ‘unattractive’ drink you could choose on a first date, the seemingly innocent orders of cider and beer were next up on the no-no list. Potentially because a chap ordering a pint may be seen as too laddish, or maybe because a man may feel intimidated by a woman ordering one, it seems best to steer away from the humble pint on date night.
Strangely, for those playing it super-safe and only drinking soft drinks, this could equally work against you. As alcohol is well known to oil the wheels of a good time, the soft drink option could be viewed as a sign that a person is not really getting in to the date, or that they aren’t a fun person to be with. Sticking to soft drinks could also subconsciously force the other person to opt for them too in order to remain at the same level of sobriety, potentially spoiling their evening.
As perhaps expected, along with the sophisticated Cocktail (don’t order the ones with silly or suggestive names), drinking wine was the clear winner for a date. 90% of those surveyed said that drinking red wine was perfectly acceptable, and a poll-topping 100% of responders said that drinking white wine was absolutely fine.
Even when choosing the wine option there’s probably still a little room for caution, such as not moving too casually on to a second bottle, or choosing the cheapest bottle on the list. Whilst these bottles are not necessarily bad, there’s a solid stigma and some truth to the fact that they don’t offer the best value.
You don’t need to pretend that you know loads about wine either, if you don’t. Allowing your date to choose the wine is not only chivalrous but cheekily delegates the decision, and exploring each other’s wine likes and dislikes is also a great way to find common ground.
February 2018 – Knowing Abruzzo from your Elbow
The long and sprawling supermarket shelves may lead you to believe that the number of different bottles of wine out there are unending, especially when you see that Tesco stock different wines to Sainsbury’s, who stock different wines to M&S, and so on and so on.
Being able to confidently navigate all of these bottles may seem like an impossible task, but there are many hints and tips out there to make things easier, and it’s always good to remember that grapes grow in certain regions for a good reason. They need to ripen successfully to give the winemaker a regular and sizeable crop each year.
Climate plays a massive factor, and applying a little straight-forward logic can mean you already know a little more than you thought you did. For example, the warmer the region, the thicker and darker the grape skin will need to be in order to stand up to the sunshine. The thicker and darker the grape skin, the more robust and ripe fruited a wine will be.
The classic wines of France tend to use their recognised region of origin instead of grape variety, so instead of being listed as say, a Sauvignon Blanc, you will see them listed as Bordeaux, Loire, Rhone etc. A quick tip here is to remember that Chablis is made from Chardonnay (both starting with Ch), and similarly Sancerre is made from Sauvignon Blanc. There have been numerous times I have heard someone saying that they don’t like Chardonnay but are partial to a Chablis, even though they are both made using the same grape variety.
Just like when trying to learn a new language mnemonics can be useful too, with abbreviations particularly helpful when trying to recall, for example, the 20 different wine regions of Italy.
The country covers some 10 degrees of latitude and is split for the wine world in to the north, the central and southern regions. The north can easily be remembered with the mnemonic PLV LEFT. This give you the 7 regions, left to right, of Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto, followed by Liguria, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli and Trentino which run in a row underneath.
For the central regions I recall TUMLA, which indicates Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, Lazio and Abruzzo, and the south is CCSSBP (or 2xC, 2xS, British Petroleum) for Campania, Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, Basilicata and Puglia.
Whilst at first glance this might still seem incredibly difficult, after a bit of practice, and with a healthy dose of interest in the areas, it will trip off the tongue with no effort at all. A key to making things even easier to recall is to make the acronyms relevant to you.
Another quick example is the vineyards of South Africa. Being very much in to my music the western coastal regions of Constantia, Durbanville and Swartland are recalled by thinking of CD’s, and the inland regions of Paarl, Roberson and Stellenbosch have the initials PRS, the same as the Performing Rights Society. If you’re interested in the work of the Physiotherapy Research Society the same trick could work for you too.
Whilst you obviously still need to put in time learning the details for each one of these regions/countries to fulfil the recall, using abbreviations is definitely a learning technique that I would recommend.
January 2018 – Unlucky Number Seven
A ‘Vintage’ wine is made when a producer feels that all of the individual elements have come together perfectly in both the vineyard and winery, and they can craft a wine that stands above others and reflects the year in which it was made.
Despite the radical advances in 20th century wine production technology, one factor still remains untamed; Mother Nature. In the post-war years a producer could expect to make quality Vintage wine in just 3 years of every decade.
A further 3 years would perhaps be considered ‘Good’ whilst the remaining 4 years were written off as ‘Poor’ and not a good representation of the producer’s best work. These days technology facilitates a consistent wine almost every year, even in vineyards sited in dubious climates.
Weather deficiencies are easily counteracted by adding or subtracting the qualities added by the missing elements. In an extreme example one producer, with enough funds at their disposal, deployed helicopters above their vineyards to disperse approaching storm clouds.
Despite such advances I did wonder how the vignerons of Champagne could muster the energy to bring in the recent 2017 harvest when, even though the vintage went well, the odds that they would actually release the wines were already seriously stacked against them.
Taking in to account all external factors, virtually no Vintage Champagne has been declared in years ending with a 7 in over 100 years. Yep, that’s correct, in spite of all the technological advances something nearly always goes wrong if the year happens to end in a 7.
The mid-war vintage of 1917 wasn’t produced for obvious reasons, and the poor weather 1927 vintage has been expunged from the history books altogether. The 1937 which, although rated as ‘outstanding’, was ready to drink in 1939 and fully requisitioned by thirsty WW2 British troops before invading German armies could get their hands on it.
The revered year 1947 is our exception; something of a well-deserved post war miracle that kept many Champagne producers afloat after years of bad results.
Both 1957 and 1967 were lost to the rains of time, their hot summers followed by dismal September harvest conditions. 1977 was as equally poor, garnering the one-word critical appraisal of ‘Unattractive’, even though some commemorative bottles were produced to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. A wet spring and summer in 1987 once again produced sodden and un-useable grapes.
Bizarrely the ripe and healthy grapes of the 1997 harvest slipped through the net as, trailing the 1996 (hailed as the vintage of the decade) and just ahead of the well-publicised final millennial vintages of 1998 and 1999, even the possibility of a great Champagne was largely discarded by many producers.
2007 was once again cold, wet and uneven, with hail decimating certain vineyards. Requiring careful grape selection, Bollinger were one of the few houses to release it. Taking in to account the law of averages which dictates that vintage quality conditions cannot occur every year, what are the chances that, once again, the year ending with 7 suffered the damp fate?
Only 2001 saw similar conditions in the whole decade. Now that the grapes of 2017 are picked and safely maturing, time will tell if it will be the year to break the cycle.
December 2017 – Christmas Food & Wine Matching (and Quiz!)
The perennial wine question in December is “what shall I drink with my traditional Christmas meal”?
For reds, so as not to overpower the dry white turkey meat, and to compliment other meal components such as nut stuffing and cranberry sauce, you need a light fruity wine such as Pinot Noir. Try a Burgundy or Beaujolais from France or a New Zealand example. Working equally well are the Tempranillo or Grenache based reds from northern Spain.
If cooking the dark meat of beef or the traditional birds of goose and duck you’ll need something with more fruit and tannic structure. Cabernet Sauvignon from either Bordeaux or Chile should fit the bill nicely.
In terms of a white wine, Chardonnay is a very good match for all, with its oily buttery lemon qualities matching up to the meat, fluffy potatoes, rich gravy and stuffing.
Sparkling wine can be fitting at any part of the day, from a breakfast treat to toasting Her Majesty’s speech. This year, why not give home-grown English sparkling a chance?
Whatever you choose, I’m sure you will have a wonderful Christmas and, hopefully, a headache free start to 2018.
Another big part of Christmas for me is the excuse to play games of all sorts so, grab the tipple of your choice, and have fun finding the names of 7 white and 7 red grape varieties in this wine based word-search.
November 2017 – Cheese & Wine Matching
If the start of the year is about abstinence, and spring/summer is about finding a wine to match the warmer weather, autumn is surely about finding the right wine to match your festive foods.
Whether planning a smaller get-together with friends or facing the military-style organisation of co-ordinating the wider family, Christmas meals are a focal point of the season and frequently extend out to a cheese course.
A certifiable classic, the words ‘Port and Stilton’ trip off the tongue almost as a single word. Traditional at Christmas, specially packaged sets are easy to find in the supermarkets at this time of year but it’s worth remembering there are many other wine and cheese combinations to try, not just at Christmas, but the whole year round.
So settle down, bring your cheese up to room temperature, and check out the following suggestions.
Matching tip: Contrast and Compare: A wine’s natural acidity acts as the counterpoint to the weight and fatty texture of a cheese and, when suitably matched, will enhance the natural flavour. Like all food/wine matching, your main aim is to avoid one flavour overpowering the other.
Hard Cheese – With as much of the moisture removed as possible the flavours of harder cheeses are magnified, even more so as they age. Pair the cheese with a wine of equal intensity; extra mature or older cheeses will need a fuller flavoured wine, and vice versa for cheeses of a subtler nature.
Try Cabernet Sauvignon with Cheddar or Gouda, the dry, grainy tannins and light herb spices will complement the austere and crumbly nature of the cheese. Nuttier cheese such as Comté will go well with oxidised wines such as Amontillado or Oloroso Sherry.
Soft Cheese – The creamy/fatty nature acts just like a sponge, soaking up and magnifying the fruitier flavours of the wine. In a similar way to a Müller Fruit Corner yoghurt, the dash of pure fruit will expand and create a whole palate of creamy flavour.
The soft, fruit-forward style of a Pinot Noir works splendidly with Brie, as does the fruity citric nature of Sauvignon Blanc when paired with Mozzarella. The bubbles and fresh acidity of sparkling wine go particularly well with Camembert and, if pairing Feta, go for a sweeter wine to offset the saltiness.
Goat’s Cheese – Not to everyone’s taste, goat’s cheese with Sauvignon Blanc, especially the citric style from the Loire as opposed to the riper new world examples, is a majestic combination. Other whites that work well are Albarino from Spain and Picpoul from France.
Blue Cheese – The bold savoury character of blue cheese needs a wine with ‘oomph’ to match it and, although the sweetness of Port is a firm favourite, don’t be afraid to try a sweeter Riesling from Germany or Alsace.
If heading away from the more obvious cheese choices, just as with wider food and wine matching, a good rule of thumb is to match wines and cheeses from the same country, so if it’s a creamy/nutty Manchego you want to pair up, look for a Spanish wine.
Lastly, if you’re planning on eating a ‘stinky’ cheese don’t go looking for a stinky wine! Instead contrast the stronger aromas with something subtle and fresh to cut through the heavier notes.
October 2017 – Wine Myths
This month we’re looking at some of those pesky wine myths that do the rounds and confuse anyone getting interested in the wonderful world of wine buying, tasting and storing. Perhaps the only negative aspect of ‘the grapevine’, let’s set the record straight on a few of them.
Champagne is best served in a flute glass: Visually, long slim flute glasses are spot on for seeing bubbles rise up the glass, but the small rim doesn’t fully allow the wine to open up. Strangely, people are happy to pay £10+ for a red wine and use the wider opening of a standard glass to fully appreciate the aromas, yet pay £30+ for Champagne and use a smaller glass that doesn’t. Try a standard glass instead.
The heavier the bottle, the better the wine: Packaging has no effect on the wine (except for raising the price). At best, it’s indicative of a winemaker showcasing his wine in the best possible way. At worst, it means he is over-compensating for the dross inside.
Champagne corks should go pop: The virtual sound of celebration and, as seen on Formula 1 podiums, a complete waste of Champagne. Chill the bottle down to subdue the pressure and then slowly twist the cork out pressing against the remaining pressure. The sound should be more ‘pfff’ than ‘pop’ and is said to be reminiscent of ‘a well satisfied lady’.
Red wine with meat, white wine with fish: A good guide, but if you love your food and wine it isn’t a robust rule. Well-grilled fish loves a lighter bodied red and meat like pork and veal is absolutely fine with white wine. Also remember that ‘what grows together goes together’ so perhaps go for a Spanish dish with a Spanish red or white.
Serve red wine at room temperature: Certainly true before houses were centrally heated, serving red at today’s room temperature (~21°c) means you’re probably drinking it too warm and soupy. Busting another myth, don’t be afraid to pop red wine in the fridge for 20 minutes to lightly chill it down to the recommended 14-18°c.
Open bottles early to let them breathe: To clarify, some wines need decanting and air will react and draw out additional complexities. Simply taking the cork out and leaving the bottle to stand won’t do a thing as only a 1p sized bit of the wine is in contact with the air. Leaving the bottle ‘airing’ for a couple of hours also means you have to wait longer to drink it!
Vintage is better quality than Non-Vintage: Producers put as much effort in to Non-Vintage as it is blended from a range of base wines in to a house style consistent the world over, year after year. The Non-Vintage is also usually the entry point wine for a brand and, as such, has to be the perfect ‘shop-window’ in terms of quality.
Boxed wine is rubbish: Don’t be fooled by the ability to get a greater volume of wine for a relatively cheaper price. Being more portable, durable and housed in card rather than glass, any cost savings come from cheaper logistics rather than from cutting corners in production. The only downside of drinking boxed wine is that you can’t quite see how much you’ve already drunk!
September 2017 – Phylloxera
The 19th century saw many strides forward in science and technology but, for the wine industry, progression would come at a significant and deadly cost.
Our story starts in 1861 when French wine merchant Monsieur Borty wrote to a friend in New York asking him to ship across American vines to add to his collection of European examples. Happy to oblige, the samples were received and planted in ten neat rows in his garden in 1863.
The following summer M. Borty noticed that all of his European vines had started to wither and die. Simply believing his crop was failing and would thrive again the following year he thought nothing of it, but soon other local growers started to see the same symptoms. With no forewarning of a potential plague approaching they also awaited new growth the following year. They were all waiting in vain.
5 years later exasperated growers invited the best scientists of the day to help diagnose their problem. Dying vines were dug up and examined, their rotting roots suggesting that poor soil was to blame. In response vintners simply moved their vines to different plots of land.
When the same symptoms continued scientists finally looked at the surviving healthy vines and discovered Phylloxera; a tiny yellow aphid feasting on the roots. At 1mm long and almost invisible to the naked eye, the next 20 years would see it kill off almost all of the vines in Europe despite its minimal size.
The newly understood problem required a solution and the government immediately offered 300,000 gold francs to anyone who could cure the malady. Attracting all sorts of absurd solutions including drenching vines in their own wine, burying live toads in blighted vineyards, or wearing chain-mail gloves to forcefully scrape the Phylloxera off, the prize went unclaimed.
Commercial pesticides also failed and Phylloxera continued munching its way through over 6 million hectares of French vines. It was only when a link was made to the original imported samples that scientists were able to fathom a solution.
The aphids had stowed away in the original New York consignment sent to M. Borty and, with the American vines having built up a natural resistance to the Phylloxera, were completely healthy in a way that their European cousins were not.
The agreed solution was to graft the resistant American roots on to the European vines, a practice that still happens to this very day. Whilst some smaller walled or blocked off vineyards managed to escape the Phylloxera blight, virtually all of your wine wherever it comes from is based on an American rootstock. Even the strict quarantine laws of Australia and New Zealand couldn’t keep it out.
The wine world is clearly split by pre and post Phylloxera wine and it’s tempting to wonder if these different roots make a difference to what we taste in the glass. Those lucky enough to buy older vintages at auction say that you can taste it but sceptics use the analogy that, whilst you can cut the legs off a person, the truth of what they think and feel comes from their heart.
Most of us will never know, but your best way of discovering is to drink the wines of Chile. With the Atacama Desert to the north, the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the south and west, Phylloxera never managed to travel there and their vines remain un-grafted.
August 2017 – Cork vs. Screw cap
To cork or not to cork, that is the question.
The bottle closure may seem an indiscriminate means to an end, merely a way of keeping bits from falling in to the bottle or stopping the air turning the wine to vinegar, but the last 20 years have seen screw caps gaining in popularity as a simple and reliable seal. Cork has been dethroned as the de facto king of wine closures.
In its heyday the cork seal was a revolution to the wine industry, replacing the humble oil soaked rag. Along with advances in glass production giving sturdier bottles available in mass volume, it was the birth of wine as we know it today, now able to survive longer than a few months at a time.
In the mid-1970s both trade and customers started to complain that more and more wines were developing damp and musky characteristics. Full diagnosis was a long way off but cork got the blame, giving rise to the condition known as ‘corked’ wine.
Sometimes mistakenly interpreted as bits of cork splitting in to the bottle during the opening process, ‘corked’ wine actually refers to spoiling chemical compounds that survive the boiling process required to make a cork ready for use. For the first time in several hundred years it was time to look for an alternative.
So, why persevere with cork?
Cork branding was originally used when a wine was chateau bottled; a quality seal that what you were drinking had not been watered down or adulterated in any way. The popping of a cork is the soundtrack of a celebration, but with screw cap there is no such majesty – you simply twist and go.
Part of the problem is that cork has been a key closure for centuries, and no one loves wine history and tradition more than the French who have been extremely resistant towards alternative closures. For many, France is wine and wine is France, so if they’re not budging then neither are they.
Others in support of cork are the Portuguese where there is a whole industry surrounding its production. Requiring the warm-but-wet growing conditions perfectly provided by the Atlantic they have 34% of the world’s cork forest and produce over 50% of the world’s cork needs.
The screw cap was pioneered and remains extremely popular in Australia and New Zealand where 80% and 95% (respectively) of their wines utilise the closure. Their clean and fruity wines were among the first to expose the issue of cork taint and, free from the ties of tradition, were at the forefront of finding an alternative.
In its favour, screw cap production is a lot easier than the labour intensive bark stripping of the Quercus suber tree and costs half as much to make. The sterile seal also has no chance of bringing in any foreign compounds.
First used for wine in the early 1960s, the ‘unknown’ prevented a wholesale shift to screw cap, specifically the notion that wine could age as gracefully as it could under cork. Subsequent trials have shown no discernible differences and screw cap can in fact keep a wine fresher in youth. As such it remains a stalwart of cheaper wines or those meant to be drunk in the next few years.
It’s extremely rare that anyone would choose to buy or drink a wine due to the way it was sealed, but for me the one big benefit of screw cap is that when you are out and about without a corkscrew, you can still get at the good stuff.
July 2017 – Visit An English Vineyard
As summer approaches and thoughts turn to al fresco eating and drinking, the warmer months are a wonderful time to visit a UK vineyard. If you’re already partial to a glass of wine it really helps to bring the journey from grape to glass alive, but if you’re just getting interested in the subject there’s no better way to get hooked!
The first UK vineyards date back to the mid-1980s and were at best viewed as experimental and not expected to make a big impact. It’s only since the turn of the century that English wine has really come of age and able to compete on the world stage where they now win award after award, year after year.
So, what has changed?
The south-eastern coastline of England broke free of France and mainland Europe during the middle stone age, but it’s worth remembering that we still share the same sub-soils. In geological terms there isn’t actually much difference between us and the much-revered northern French wine regions of Champagne and Burgundy.
But grapes, like any other fruit, have certain minimum requirements to grow successfully and this includes access to both heat and light. At 51° latitude the southern part of the UK has what was traditionally considered a marginal climate, laying just outside of the perfect conditions for grape growing (30-50°C).
Average UK temperatures have been nudging up just a small amount each year and, when combined with the significant strides forward in wine production technology, we’re now getting riper fruit and of better quality too.
There’s now something like 130 vineyards in the UK, including (a fairly unsuccessful) one as far north as Scotland. It’s early days but it may well be worth saving your pennies and buying up any land for sale in the midlands, just in case!
Not all vineyards are geared up for hosting tastings and tours (you can find a comprehensive list at http://www.englishwineproducers.co.uk) but, in a whistle-stop tour across the counties, here’s my run-down of ones to try.
Camel Valley (Cornwall, visits April to Sept, starting at £8.50 per person). Cornwall’s largest vineyard and another multi award winner. Beat Champagnes Bollinger and Roederer to win ‘Best International Sparkling Wine’ in 2010.
Ridgeview (East Sussex, April to Sept, from £15pp). Nestled within the picturesque setting of the South Downs national park, Ridgeview are one of two official suppliers of sparkling wine to 10 Downing Street.
Chapel Down (Kent, May to Oct, from £10pp). With a brand new state-of-the-art tasting room and wine bar, this producer has just had one of their wines listed as a ‘Star Buy’ by The Times newspaper.
Brightwell (Oxfordshire, Fri-Sun in season, or by appointment). Not too much in the way of visitor facilities, but one of the few vineyards that allows you to help pick the grapes at harvest time (October), which I have done on several occasions.
Denbies (Surrey, March to Oct, from £7.50pp). The highlight is a wonderful 50-minute train ride up to the top of the vineyards to enjoy a glass of something sparkling whilst overlooking the spectacular views of the vines and nearby Box Hill.
All wine is by nature a limited edition product, but it’s worth noting that many of our producers make just a few thousand bottles of each wine each year, so when you drink one you are part of an experience that is truly rare and special. Celebrate and enjoy.
June 2017 – Wine Tasting Evening
Whenever colleagues at work need a bit of morale boosting I always offer to put on a wine tasting evening for them. It’s well known that a bit of alcohol can oil the wheels in social situations, and the event is interactive, exciting and usually very interesting.
Organising your own is easier than it might sound and, with a bit of planning, can cost as little as £10 per person. A bargain for a full and fun night!
Tip # 1 – Ask each guest to bring an assigned bottle of wine
Your overall tasting night would ideally take the form of several mini tastings, with each consisting of 3 or 4 different wines of one particular theme. So, if there are 9 of you attending, that’s 3 mini tastings of 3 bottles.
A theme can be anything that you want, such as comparing the red wines from one country, a particular grape variety produced in 3 different countries, or 3 different brands of the same style of wine.
Work out what themes you want to explore and ask each person to bring a related bottle, otherwise you may end up with 10 different bottles of ‘on-offer’ Sauvignon Blanc.
Tip #2 – Budget
In something of a humorous gesture, a friend once bought a £3 Tetra Pak carton of Rioja to a tasting evening. He was surprised that, by the end of the night, the £3 Rioja had been tasted, then decanted and tasted again, and also tried in various wine glasses ranging from stemless to Riedel.
A tasting isn’t about expensive wine, but more to contrast and compare the differences between each of them. To ensure everyone spends fairly and that any comparisons are across wines of a broadly similar quality, set an appropriate budget for each bottle purchased. A nice round figure is £10.
Tip #3 – Glassware and props
At this point you may be thinking, hang on, 3 glasses per person multiplied by 9 people equals more glasses than I have at home. The good news is that high street merchants like Majestic, and pretty much all of the major supermarkets offer free glass loan (with a fee only payable if any glasses get broken).
In terms of props, white A4 paper is useful as a table/place mat for each guest. The plain white surface also allows you to clearly contrast the colour and appearance of each wine against it.
If you have an atlas or map of the world handy, or can make one viewable on a device, it can help people understand why a wine tastes the way it does. For example, tasting ripe fruit flavours in a wine produced in a warm climate versus leaner fruit from a cooler climate country.
Tip #4 – Food and Water
It makes good sense to lay on a few light bites to soak up the alcohol, and this can be as simple as breadsticks and crisps. If you want to add a further dimension to your night and attempt some food and wine matching you can be more adventurous and lay on some cheeses and meats.
If the food is to be more of a focus you can once again spread the cost and allocate a particular item to each guest, adjusting down the amount spent on the wine accordingly.
Jugs of water are also a good idea, not least for keeping you hydrated, but also to rinse out glasses and cleanse your palate between wines.
Tip #5 – Have fun!
The most important tip of all. If you can’t taste the difference between any of the wines (which may happen towards the end of the night if you’re finishing off the bottles), it doesn’t matter at all, just have fun!
May 2017 – Trading Up In Price
The triggering of Brexit has finally begun and the implications on the pound, the markets and our trade deals are all still unknown quantities. With the majority of our favourite wines coming from within Europe there will undoubtedly be some impact on pricing.
Several years of austerity have already made us tighten our belts and become increasingly price-conscious, so it may seem odd if I suggest that you should perhaps want to pay more for a bottle of wine.
No, I don’t mean arbitrarily handing over more money than you need to the cashier and, with care-free flair, telling them they can “keep the change”, but in much the way that the craft movement has thrown open the beer market and moved many people away from larger mass produced brands, people are increasingly aware that sometimes paying slightly more can mean a lot extra in terms of quality.
Quick question: When you buy a bottle of wine, how much of that cost actually goes towards the quality of what you are drinking? 100%, 50%, 10%?
If you don’t know, read on!
A bottle of wine costing £5.39
£5.39 is a fairly specific amount, but that’s the average cost for a bottle of wine in the UK*. The first slice of the bottle price goes to the retailer who would expect to make something like 22-25% of the value as their profit. The next big slice of the pie goes to the government who will take a fixed amount of excise duty (currently £2.16) as well as VAT at 17.5%.
Once you factor in the packaging costs (labels, corks/screwcaps) and logistics of getting the bottle on to the shelves in the first place, the amount left spent on the actual quality of the wine is a mere 60p.
Yes, that’s right, just 11% of the bottle price goes on the actual wine whilst the government take nearly 60% of your money for themselves. Boo!
A bottle of wine costing £7.50
If you trade up slightly to a £7.50 bottle of wine, what do you get for your extra £2.11?
Well the good news is that most of it goes on the wine itself. As the packaging and logistics costs are exactly the same regardless of the wine inside, and the fixed excise duty doesn’t change, the only percentage increases are the extra VAT and retailer margin.
What this means is that now you are actually paying £1.50 on the contents of the bottle, so well on the way to three times the quality for not much extra cost.
The extra money spent on wine quality allows the winemaker to shun bulk production methods (which can see stalks, vine canes and even insects go in to the vats) and be more selective about what grapes they include. In the long term it can lead to them buying better equipment to produce and mature their wines.
Excluding prestige brands, which can cost fifty times the price and not be fifty times the quality, the good news is that this carries on up to scale. If you’re feeling flush and spending £20 on a bottle of wine, you’re still paying the fixed excise duty and packing/logistics costs and, consequently, a lot more for the contents of the bottle.
Note: Of course it is absolutely possible to find £5 bottles of wine that shine for the price, and sometimes they just need rooting out. Head on over to my website vinesight.me if you want some help locating one.
* Source: Bibendum
April 2017 – Food & Wine Matching
Knowing that I love my wine it’s perhaps no surprise that my dining companions invariably ask me to choose the bottle when we go to a restaurant. In many chain establishments or in pubs, when perhaps there are only a handful of different bottles available, it is good to know that a wine buyer somewhere along the way has taken all of the hard work out by only choosing wines that will pair well with their food offerings.
If you’re going somewhere that offers a greater range or if you are preparing a special meal at home and want to go the extra mile, it’s very true that you can become sufficiently over-whelmed by all of the variety and begin to panic.
Like anything though, there are numerous tricks and tips you can use to get the right wine for your food, and certainly for you to get in the right broad category.
If you follow the below tips there’s a good chance you will probably enjoy your meal more, and it may inspire you to try out new and exciting combinations. Above all, it may just mean you look a bit fancy in front of your friends!
Tip #1 – What grows together goes together
Even if you’re not too hot on your geography this is nice easy way to make a good match. When just dipping your toe in to the world of wine it can sometimes look like anything grows everywhere, but there is a pattern.
The grape varieties that survive and thrive are there for a reason and so, if you are ordering Italian food, invariably a bottle of Italian wine will match best. Great swathes of the Mediterranean have a culture of wine being present at the dining table, and the style of the wine has developed to specifically blend and compliment the food in advance.
Tip #2 – The colour code
So you’ve got the right country for your dish, but which wine do you go for: red, white or rosé?
Even just the colour of a wine can give you hints as to what it will pair best with it. At the simplest level this can be matching a white wine with lighter coloured foods such as fish and pasta, red wines will go well with darker dishes such as meatballs or steak, and rosé is good with salmon or cut meat such as prosciutto.
Tip #3 – How much do you weigh?
No this isn’t a personal question, but more about the weight of the dish you are ordering. I’m going to expand on my above tip to ensure you are matching your wine to the overall weight of your dish as opposed to its main ingredient.
The oft repeated myth that fish pairs with white wine and meat dishes pair only with red can easily be turned on its head by the style of the dish. For example, if you are ordering a well grilled fish, or a meat dish with a creamy mushroom sauce, the opposite of which wine is best is actually true.
Think about the overall weight of the meal and then balance it with the weight of the wine you eventually order. Along the same lines, the sweetness of the wine needs to match the sweetness of the foods, so when heading for the dessert menu, your standard dry wines will be easily over-powered and you’ll need to head for a specifically labelled sweet wine.
By using the tips above you are 90% of the way to choosing the right wine for your food but, like anything, there is a whole level of detail you can immerse yourself in, such as the specific flavours that each particular grape variety will add.
The last thing I will say though is that, in most cases, the best wine that will go with the food you are eating is the bottle you are drinking at the time.