About Tom Lewis

Tom Lewis is a wine writer and educator from Cambridge with a particular interest in Austria and France. His comments have been published on JancisRobinson.com, Local Wine Events, as well as in the local press in his hometown of Cambridge, UK. When it comes to buying wine, Tom’s philosophy is to buy as close as possible to where it comes from. He writes a regular blog, the Cambridge Wine Blogger which launched in 2009 and is a presenter for the Cambridge Food and Wine Society. To read more of Tom’s work, please check out cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com

Joseph Barnes Wines at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

The Languedoc, according Charles Hardcastle of Joseph Barnes Wines, is a rustic, peasanty land with an ancient and bloody history – a land of impenetrable dialects, heresy and repression.

The strange, earthy character of the region is also reflected in the wines, which tend towards an expressively rustic, spicy charm.

Add to this Charles’ natural showmanship and charisma, a touch of biodynamic mysticism, some meteors and space dust and it was a highly entertaining evening at the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

The Languedoc was historically the source of Europe’s wine lake – gallons of cheap, unpleasant plonk dumped on the market. But quality has been improving for as long as I can remember and it is now a source characterful, well-made rough-and-tumble wines that can be rather serious indeed.

Chateau Le Roc Fronton, NV £30 magnum

This natural wine is in simple terms a pink fizz; more precisely, it is a petillant blend of Negrette and Mauzac made by a single fermentation in bottle according the euphemistically-named Methode Rurale, with no added sulphur and fined only by racking.

A cloudy pink in the glass, there are pear drops and red berries on the nose. The palate shows good acidity and primary fruit aromas of apple and galia melon. Good depth of flavour, but not especially complex and just 9% alcohol.

A very popular seller at Charles’ shop, it was well-received on the evening.

Domaine des Foulards Rouges, La Soif du Mal Blanc 2011, £14

This white blend is a mix of Grenache Blanc, Muscat and Macabeu; a pale yellow in the glass, there are Muscaty aromas of honeysuckled and blossom on the nose.

The palate shows a good leesy depth, with sweet acacia blossom, rounded, lemon-and-lime acidity, more Muscaty florality and a mineral edge.

Suggested food matches were sea bass with fennel or chili and ginger.

Domaine de l’Hortus, Bergerie de l’Hortus Blanc 2011, £12.95

This white is a blend of Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Roussane.

The nose shows pear and orchard fruit, spice, stone fruit, lemon and pineapple and a leesiness. Long on the palate, there is more orchard and tropical fruits, a soft peachy texture, good leesy depth and a persistent finish.

Chateaux Ollieux Romanis, Corbieres Rose 2011, £9.25

Mainly Carignan, but with some Syrah and Grenache, and a pale salmon pink colour, this is made by carbonic maceration which gives something of a bubblegum aroma.

With a savoury, spicy nose, there is watermelon on the palate, prominent rounded acidity, a touch of mint and pepper, minerality and a toasty-yeastiness with a good, leesy finish.

Domaine du Meteore, Faugeres, Les Leonides, 2008, £9.20

A GSM + Carignan blend, this has a rustic charm, with an earthy, funky nose of barnyardy wet hay, plus some spice, coffee and a mix of red, black and sour cherries.

On the palate, there is sour cherry fruit, garrigue herbs and tarriness.

The finish is savoury and this would match well with robust meat dishes.

The name of the domaine is a reference to a crater in the vineyard caused by a meteorite, so there may just be traces of cosmic space dust in the wine.

Ch Ollieux Romanis, Alicante-Bouschet, VdP Aude, 2011, £15.99

This is made from 100 year-old vines from the obscure Alicante-Bouschet grape – the last 2 hectares in France, apparently.

In the glass, it is dark and impenetrably inky – which apparently made it popular in prohibition-era America as it could be significantly watered down and still retain some colour.

With dark berry fruit and mocha on the nose, the palate shows elderberry fruit, peppy spice and mintiness.

It is concentrated and long, with a custardy texture and a lively, juicy acidity.

The finish is grippy, savoury and meaty and it would match well with spicy meat dishes such as tagine.

Chateau de Jau, Banyuls Rimage, Les Clos de Paulilles, 2008, £11.99 (50cl)

The final wine of the night was a Banyuls – Languedoc’s answer to tawny port.

Made from 100% Grenache, but naturally sweet due to fortification up to 16.5% alcohol with grape spirit, it had aromas of raisins and garrigue herbs and a sweetness cut through with good acidity.

Utterly delicious on its own, it was a perfect match with good quality dark, bitter chocolate, and proved very popular on the evening.

Recommended Wine

If you are looking for a reason to visit an independent wine merchant, Joseph Barnes Wines is it; characterful, rounded and quirky – and that’s just Charles Hardcastle.

What struck me was the quality of all the wines – mostly organic, often biodynamic and / or natural, they feel incredibly well-made, both technically and stylistically.

They are also unashamedly crowd-pleasing with lots of personality.

Given all this, it’s hard to pick a best overall wine of the evening but the Domaine du Meteore was especially notable for being both excellent and under a tenner.

Links

Cambridge Food and Wine Society – http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/

Joseph Barnes Wines – http://josephbarnes.webdev.perceptive-office.com/home.aspx

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Tour de Belfort: The Challenge‏ (and an offer)

The other week, I met Muriel Lismonde who, with her family, runs Tour de Belfort, a start-up winery in Cahors.

The Background

The project started when Muriel’s father sold the his Paris-based business and used the proceeds to buy a ruin and some land in the village of Quercy.

I get the sense this must have felt like “another of Dad’s projects” for the family, but with the funds from the sale of a successful business, it turned out to be on a much grander scale than the usual tinkering in his garden shed.

And with the family roped in to help with everything from the restoration of the buildings and the creation of a brand new vineyard and winery, to the selling of the wine directly, there is something of the cult of the amateur about it all.

Part Grand Designs, part The Good Life, the project seems to have gained a life of its own, moved along by the force of Dad’s vision and drive.

Someone I met at a networking lunch the other week told me that he and his wife approached decision-making according to Harry Secombe’s philosophy – I decide all the important stuff like should be in Europe, what our exchange rate policy should be or should we go to war with Russia, whilst she sorts out the minor details like what shirt I’ll wear and what to have for dinner.

I rather fancy that Lismonde P̬re is a little like this Рdeciding on what vines to plant, designing the labels and determining whether the wine should be bio-dynamic, organic or natural and leaving minor matters, such as the actual selling of the finished product, to family members.

The Challenge

As a result of all this, Muriel spends much of her time travelling around trying to sell the wine directly at shows and exhibitions, such as the Three Wine Men, as they have found it so far impossible to break into the UK market.

Selling an unknown wine from a brand-new vineyard from a backwater region of France is no easy task under any circumstances.

However, wines from Cahors and the French south west in general have a reputation for being spicy, a bit rustic and mostly red, so to sell a mixture of reds, whites and rosés that are organic, well-made and balanced is all the more challenging.

Add in a price tag in double figures, a screw-cap closure and a distinctive but rather cheap-looking label and it is almost as if they are making life deliberately difficult for themselves.

And yet, having tried the wines, I have been very impressed; the result of completely organic approach and a strict attention to detail is an extremely well-made and balanced output with great depth of flavour. Not only is the vineyard free of pesticides and herbicides, the winery is almost clinically clean reducing the need for any additives in the wine – just some neutral, organic cultured yeasts and very limited quantities of sulphites to preserve the wine in bottle.

The wines are also low in alcohol, making them very food friendly, but have enough southern warmth to be welcoming and approachable.

As Muriel explained to me the problems in getting UK distribution, it struck me that there is something of a Catch-22 at play here; what would secure distribution is a definite interest, but there cannot be any interest if the wine is not widely available.

The family decided to sell directly via their website, but desperately need to raise their profile generally – and there are only so many hours in the day for everything.

The Offer

After meeting Muriel and hearing her story, I felt that I wanted to do more than just try the wines and write-up the usual tasting note and resolved to get involved in helping bring this wine to the broader audience I think it deserves.

Having agreed a deal with Muriel to cover my time, I negotiated a discount for readers of my blog: look on the Tour de Belfort website and you’ll see the following prices:

– Red (09), White and Rosé: £60 for 6 (delivery extra) / £120 for 12 (delivery included)

– Red 2010: £63 for 6 (delivery extra) / £126 for 12 (delivery included)

However, Muriel is prepared to sell her wines at £60 for a case of 6 (delivery included) or £110 for a case of 12 (delivery included), to anyone who contacts her directly and mentions my blog – the Cambridge Wine Blogger.

Now, I realise I have staked my reputation with two sets of people – firstly with Muriel, since no-one may actually take up this offer and secondly with anyone who does buy the wine, and could potentially be disappointed at my recommendation.

If I’m honest, my greatest fear is that no-one will take up the offer – I’m sufficiently confident in the quality of these wines to believe that people are unlikely to be disappointed by them.

I also think that they are priced more than fairly and that it would easily be possible to spend more money on something less good. (For more detailed reviews of the wines, see here for the red, white and rosé).

So the real issue then is will the thousands of people who visit my blog every week – those in the UK at least – actually do more than just read my wafflings and actually take my advice to buy this well-made, organic, almost natural wine at a tenner a bottle.

I can’t give any satisfaction guarantees or money-back promises like the big internet players do; I won’t be adding in a free bottle of something “sumptuous” that “should sell for twice the price”, or even one of those rabbit corkscrews if you order right now.

However, I am staking my reputation on this. And remember this wine is made by a family outfit with low overheads and no marketing budget, so you are essentially buying it at the producer’s direct cost plus with no middle man – and then with a discount.

And if you need more than just my recommendation, then here’s what a few other wine people have to say:

Isabelle Legeron MW@MurielLismonde is one of the loveliest people I know

Three Wine Men – We’re real fans of @MurielLismonde‘s wines

So, all that remains then is for you to try the wine and let me know what you think of it. And tell all your friends about it, too. And your family, long-lost relatives, dinner party guests, people on the bus, random strangers … what are you waiting for ?

To contact Muriel, call her on 01625 449 031 or 07881 453 100 or email her on muriel@tour-de-belfort.com – just mention CambridgeWineBlogger to get the discount.

Copyright Tom Lewis, 2012

Wirra Wirra The 12th Man Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills

This Wirra Wirra The 12th Man Chardonnay hails from the Adelaide Hills in Australia and is aged in French oak.

Australia was the first country to give us big, ripe, buttery Chardonnay – a style that spread across the (New) World only to be usurped in a backlash against oak first by pungent kiwi Sauvignon and more latterly by the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. It also led to a backlash in the style of Australian whites themselves.

This wine reminds me of what was great about Aussie chardie before it seemed to lose its way becoming either too sweet or too monolithic- or even nowadays, distinctly cool-climate.

Golden in the glass, it has a toasty-yeasty-oaky, slightly pungent nose with vanilla spice.

On the palate, there is ripe tropical pineapple fruit and layers of sweet, toasty, buttery, oatmealy oak cut through with crisp acidity and good leesy depth with added complexity from the wild yeasts used.

Whether you like this wine probably depends on whether you like lots of sweet toasty, buttery oak; personally, I do – especially given that it is somewhat out of fashion at present.

Something of a blockbuster personality, it needs big food to match and would pair well with an autumnal dish of roast chicken or pork with roasted parsnips, butternut squash and mashed swede.

£16.99 from Ocado; provided for review.

Links

Wirra Wirra – http://www.wirrawirra.com/

Ocado – http://www.ocado.com/

This wine at Ocado – http://www.ocado.com/webshop/product/Wirra-Wirra-12th-Man-Chardonnay-2011/65990011

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Wine of the Month – June

Congratulations

And jubilations

I want the world to know I’m happy as can be

“Congratulations” Cliff Richard (1968)

June is a month of multiple celebrations – the Diamond Jubilee, an extra day off work. Plus Wine of the Month is one year old.

And who knows, after the wettest drought on record, the current heatwave might even last over the extended Bank Holiday weekend, so those street parties won’t be a wash-out.

So, feeling all jubilatory, our Cambridge-based wine merchants have decided to push the boat out a bit with a patriotic, celebratory theme.

Carter’s Sparkling Brut Vintage 2009 – £19.95, Joseph Barnes Wines

You can’t get more patriotic and celebratory than English fizz – and this is a superb example by any standards.

Made from a blend of Orion & Chardonnay grapes using the traditional Champenoise method, this is from a 3ha vineyard in Boxted near Colchester, known as Carter’s Farm.

Sipped in the garden on a summer’s eve, this is the colour of an early sunset in the glass.

On pouring, it foams enthusiastically with a fine mousse – initially light and fresh, after an hour or so, it opens up to shows ripe orchard fruits on the palate, a savoury leesiness, food-friendly acidity and a persistent, yeasty finish.

With complexity, finesse, good length and balance, this is a really good bottle of vintage fizz.

Joseph Perrier Brut NV Cuvée Royale NV – £28.95 Cambridge Wine Merchants

Made from a roughly equal blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale is aged for three years in the winery’s Roman-era cellars.

It foams enthusiastically on pouring and is bright with a pale golden tint in the glass.

The nose is distinctly fruity, whilst the palate shows ripe orchard fruits and leesiness; there is crisp-apple acidity, aromas of brioche and a fine mousse.

Long on the palate, it has a persistent, savoury finish and has all the balanced, elegant and complex finesse you would expect of a wine that counts at least two British monarchs amongst its supporters.

Andrea Faccio Moscato d’Asti – £6.99 (half bottle) Bacchanalia

Moscato d’Asti is a low alcohol, semi-sweet frizzante with flavours of ripe peach, apricot, galia melon and a touch of sherbert.

If you are having an afternoon tea and need something celebratory to cover all bases (sweetness and fizz) without breaking the bank, this could be your perfect solution.

It comes in a half-bottle, but packs in plenty of ripe-fruit flavour, and is refreshing enough to drink at a garden party.

Denbies Vineyard Select Chalk Ridge Rosé 2011 – £10.99, Noel Young Wines

This English rosé is made with Rondo, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir. Unfortunately at the time of going to press, there were no stocks available for review, but it is due into Noel’s shop in time for the bank holiday weekend.

Noel describes it as vivid pink in colour, full of tangy cherry, strawberries and cream. Vibrant and just off-dry making it a great BBQ street party wine.

Recommended Wine

With such a range of styles and prices, there is no overall winner this month – just for great wines for street parties and celebrations. Jubilee-tastic.

Links

Bacchanalia – www.winegod.co.uk

Cambridge Wine Merchants – www.cambridgewine.co.uk

Joseph Barnes Wines – www.josephbarneswines.com

Noel Young Wines – www.nywines.co.uk

Image credits – Jubilee Bunting http://www.salcombetrading.co.uk/artisan/weaver/jubilee-bunting-crowns/c-pow0002/

Cake – http://floor-to-ceiling-books.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/1-year-old-today.html

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Villa Maria Pinot Noir

If New Zealand’s Villa Maria is the John Lewis of wine, always dependable and well-made in a middle-class, slightly expensive sort of way, and Pinot Noir is the Alfa Romeo of grapes, capable of greatness and disappointment in equal measure, what then to make of a pair of Villa Maria Pinots ?

For some, good, reliable Pinot is not only a contradiction in terms, but almost an abomination, as there is an unwritten rule that good Pinot should be hedonistic and elusive.

Perhaps I have been insufficiently bitten by the infamous “Pinot bug”, but I find the search for great Pinot a bit too much like hard work.

Either way, anyone unsure and wanting to know what all the fuss is about with Pinot could do a lot worse than check out these two.

For my regular after-work Wine Club, I had two different wines which I put into decanters and encouraged people to try blind and decide which they preferred.

As it turned out, everyone preferred the more expensive example, even if they were less capable of correctly identifying them.

Villa Maria Marlborough Pinot Noir Private Bin 2011, £11.99 from Budgens

Pale in the glass, it has a typically varietal nose with cherry fruit, mushroomy aromas and a touch of spice.

The palate shows red and black cherry fruit, juicy acidity, some spice, good savoury depth and balance.

Good, well-made example of an entry-level Pinot.

 

Villa Maria Marlborough Pinot Noir Reserve 2009, £18.99 from Tesco

With a half degree more alcohol and noticeably darker in the glass, there are some brick red hints of age.

The nose is again varietally typical with cherry fruit and undergrowth, with some vanilla spice, but more complex and intense than the previous wine.

On the palate, it feels bigger and fuller, with ripe cherry fruit, undergrowth, vanilla and roasted dark spice.

It is more rounded and bigger, with a soft mouthfilling texture, savoury depth and a long palate.

Overall, it is balanced, harmonious and integrated with a good finish.

—xxx—

Well-made, typical and reliably enjoyable, these are certainly both good Pinots. But are they great ? I’m not entirely sure.

And there’s the rub – reliability and greatness rarely go hand-in-hand; especially in the case of Pinot.

Then again, I’ve had more expensive Pinots that I’ve been less impressed with, but that probably says more about Pinot as a grape than it does about these particular wines.

And I can’t help wondering if searching for great Pinot is rather like owning an Alfa Romeo – a potential source of great kudos and dinner-party stories, but actually rather tedious in practice.

If you are new-ish to wine, want to try out a Pinot and don’t mind spending £10 – £20 on a bottle, this could be just what you are looking for, but it leads me to wonder whether reliable Pinot can be seen as A Good Thing or not ?

For it is in Pinot’s nature to be unreliable – sometimes great, more often disappointing – and a reliable Pinot is perhaps like an Alfa Romeo that starts every time you put the keys in. If I wanted that, I’d buy a BMW instead – it would be reliable, it would be good, but it wouldn’t be an Alfa.

Unable to resolve this inherent contradiction, I put the question to perhaps the one person I know placed to answer authoritatively as she is both a Marketing Director and a WSET Diploma student; she mulled for a few moments and then said “Villa Maria is not a large winery, New Zealand does not make much wine, so to produce reliable Pinot is no mean feat – yes, it’s A Good Thing”.

For the more pragmatically minded, here are some Pinot quick facts:

– spiritual home is Burgundy, also grown in other cool-climate areas such as NZ, Chile, parts of California and increasingly Australia

– prone to mutation, fussy and low-yielding, it is never cheap to buy and £10 gets you an entry-level New World example

– key characteristics are light, pale colour, soft silky texture and aromas of mushrooms, game, truffles and cherry fruit

– matches typically with game

Both wines provided for review.

Links

Villa Maria – http://www.villamaria.co.nz/

Image credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GraduateDuetto.jpg

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Wine of The Month – May

April showers bring forth May flowers

English proverb

The weather so far in May has been mixed to say the least with the wettest drought any of us can remember and any occasional sunny days being distinctly chilly.

So, this month’s recommended wines from our local independents are an appropriately varied mixture.

La Fornace Gavi 2010 – Joseph Barnes Wines, £10.00

From a small estate Italy’s Piedmont, this Gavi is an example of a well-made modern Italian white with a traditionally fashionable-but-overpriced label. Made from the Cortese grape, it initially seems straightforward and lemony with orchard fruit on the palate, but with a bit of time and air, it really opens up and shows a great leesy depth of flavour and balanced acidity with some grapeskin yeastiness.

It’s the kind of Italian white that makes me think of wild mushrooms in a creamy sauce with freshly-made yellow egg pasta as an accompaniment; it has the body and depth to stand up to rich, hearty peasant food, but also the acidity to cut through heavy, indulgent sauces.

Lovely, really well-made and balanced.

Orion Wines ‘E Solo’ Montepulciano D’Abruzzo 2010 – Noel Young Wines, £7.99

Staying in Italy, this ‘E Solo’ from Noel Young proved incredibly popular a few weeks ago at an in-store tasting. Sealed under screwcap, on first opening it seems full of simple ripe, up-front berry fruit.

With just a bit of air, though, it becomes more complex and interesting, with typically Italian cherry fruit, but also chocolate and some smokiness and oak.

The palate remains ripe, rounded and balanced and over the course of a few days, the nose develops an interesting Pinot-esque mix of vegetal and sour cherry aromas.

Match with tomato-based meaty pasta dishes.

Weingut Werner Mueller Trabener Wuerzgarten Riesling Hochgewaechs 1997, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer – Cambridge Wine Merchants, £12.25

It’s said that life’s too short for a German wine label, but to the initiated, they do really tell you everything you need to know about the wine’s provenance.

This Riesling from Werner Mueller is from the beautiful Mosel valley – the vineyard is wuerzgarten (“spice garden”) in the village of Traben

Starting with the basics, it is a classic Mosel Riesling, with a developed, petrolly nose, pure lemon-lime fruit, and a sweet-sour palate; it is distinctly off-dry, but this is balanced by the high acidity.

Focused, pure and fresh, yet also rounded, balanced and gentle, it is an elegant and superbly well-made wine to fall quietly in love with.

It is light enough to be a garden sipper or match the sweetness and acidity to seafood such as smoked salmon, prawns or sushi. Avoid heavy sauces and don’t overchill the wine – an hour in the fridge is plenty.

It is worth noting that this is technically the best wine here; if you are already a wine geek, you won’t need me to tell you how good aged Mosel Rieslings are, but if you are new to this sort of thing and wondering what all the fuss is about, this is as good a place as any to start.

If off-dry German wines were not so generally unfashionable, this wine would probably cost at least twice what it actually does.

Diez Siglos 2011 Rueda Verdejo – Bacchanalia, £6.99

Unlike Germany, Spain is super-cool in wine making terms right now and just keeps getting better. Yet its lesser-known regions and grapes still remain a great source of well-made, good value wines.

The Verdejo grape originated in North Africa and was brought to Spain around 1,000 years ago; by contrast Diez Siglos, a group of around 70 small-to-medium producers, was formed in 2010.

Aromatic and minerally on the nose, there are aromas of cut grass with hints of fennel; on the palate, the acidity is poised, rounded and balanced by a touch of ripe sweetness of fleshy stone fruit.

The finish is long, minerally and aromatic – a lovely, well-made wine that is great value. Versatile and food friendly, it will match especially well with goat’s cheese or pasta with pesto.

Recommended Wine

Given the uncertainty of the weather this month, it’s very hard to know what to recommend for May drinking, but based on what we have had so far, I suggest some rich, comforting autumnal food matched with a bottle of the wonderful Gavi from Joseph Barnes

Image credit: http://www.ilankelman.org/floodphotos.html

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Limoncello at Cambridge Food and Wine Society (with La Dante)

After I arranged a tasting of Italian wines for La Dante in Cambridge last year, Giulia Portuese-Williams, who runs the centre, suggested we do a joint event together with the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

When, shortly afterwards, I made contact with Steve Turvill who runs Limoncello on Mill Road, everything fell into place and we agreed to promote the event together using our various Twitter accounts and Facebook groups.

La Dante in Cambridge is part of the international la Società Dante Alighieri, founded in 1889 with 440 offices worldwide – it is a national cultural institute rather like the British Council or the Goethe Institute, but unlike these it is not state-funded and so needs to rely on language lessons for its income.

As the old adage goes, I’m sure at least half of our social media efforts were wasted, but I’ve no idea which half; in any case it proved to be the best attended event the Society has held for a long time.

Numbers aside, it also proved very popular with both Society and La Dante members as well as the new guests who came along, including Caroline Biggs who writes an excellent  blog on Cambridge’s hidden past, The Real Cambridge.

After introductions and welcomes, Giulia briefly spoke about La Dante which has recently moved into new offices, describing her experience of British bureaucracy as what she hoped to leave behind when she left her native Italy.

She also made an open invitation for everyone to drop into La Dante to see the new offices and have a cup of real Italian coffee, but I suspect that may not apply to the powers that be that oversee property moves in Cambridge.

We started the event itself with a Prosecco, Villa Sandi Millesimato 2011 Valdobbiandene – with ripe pear fruit, hints of yeasty brioche and good depth on the palate, it had good, food-friendly acidity and a long finish.

The name was familiar and reviewing this blog, I see that I tried a sparkler from Sandi some time ago and checking my notes, was impressed with it then as well.

Steve then invited us to try two different sets of olives – the first cured, the second marinaded; the accompaniment to this was a Sicilian Grecanico, Vinali Roccamora Sicilia. Also known as Garganega in Soave and with just 12% alcohol, it was crisp and fresh. A sandy yellow in the glass, it had an expressive nose, with herbaceous, floral hints, white pepper spice and toasty yeastiness; there is lemony citrus on the palate, and a long, savoury finish

There followed a series of “taste tests”, starting with two olive oils; both had been poured into unmarked containers and we were invited to decide which we preferred – one being significantly more expensive than the other.

For me, olive oil should be strong, fruity and peppery and I was sorry to learn that my preferred, more-strongly flavoured oil proved to be the more expensive one.

This set up something of a pattern as we then repeated this with two types of cured ham – both were very good, but I found myself slightly preferring the (more expensive) San Daniele compared to the Prosciutto.

Next were two lots of balsamic vinegar to try – the first was thick, gloopy and sweet, whilst the second was incredibly complex and quite wonderful, so there were no surprises when #1 proved to be a basic “balsamic glaze” whilst the second was a 25yo, extremely expensive balsamico tradizionale.

We accompanied this part of the tasting with a Sangiovese; with cherry fruit and vanilla spice on the nose, there was juicy sour cherry on the palate which opens up and becomes more rounded with air.

Steve’s chef Paul then made some pesto freshly using a blender which we compared to some from the shop; I found myself preferring the shop-made pesto for its stronger flavour and higher cheese content, but a number of people on the table who are regular visitors to Italy found the more herbaceous, freshly-made pesto to be typical of what they had experienced in Italy.

This led on to a discussion with Giulia about how best to keep basil in Cambridge – whilst I can grow rosemary, tarragon, parsley and chives in our south-facing garden, I’ve never been successful with basil.

According to Giulia, basil needs hot, damp conditions to thrive – essentially a Mediterranean climate, which is not easily reproduced in Cambridge – so I am unlikely to be making pesto from home-grown basil any time soon.

We then moved on to a comparison of three types of cheese – a Pecorino Fresco which had a soft texture, a firmer and stronger aged Pecorino with saffron and black pepper and some shaved parmesan, accompanied by bresaola, marinaded artichokes and various breads.

With this, Steve served an Elvio Cogno Vigna Elena 2005 Barolo; still relatively youthful at 6 years old, it was a pale, brick red in the glass with red and black cherry, tobacco leaf and pepperiness on the nose with cherry fruit, minty eucalyptus on the palate and a grippy finish.

The dessert section of the tasting featured home-made pannetone – better than any shop-bought one I have ever had – and cantuccini biscuits with a Moscato Sicilia; a golden colour, it had a an oxidative nose with a marmaladey palate cut through with fresh acidity.

The final digestivo was, appropriately enough a limoncello – a sweet lemon liqueur; on many occasions when eating out in Italy, I have found a sorbetto al limone con Prosecco a perfect digestivo at the end of a long, multi-course meal and the limoncello served the same purpose here.

With a zesty, pithy nose, it is initially intensely sweet and warming on the palate with a mouthfilling zesty, pithy bitterness that develops over time and a long, citrusy, aromatic finish.

It was a great event and very well received by Society members, those from La Dante and the large number of guests who came along – I put the success down to the sheer quality of the food and wine that Steve brought along for us to try, as well as to the way he ran the event; he is an easy-going, natural presenter and his love of and enthusiasm for all things Italian is very apparent – even if, as he admits, he would not actually want to live there.

For the final part of his talk, Steve explained how he had first got involved with Limoncello; in its previous guise, it had been his favourite deli and when it went bust, he bought the business and ran it as a sideline to his day-job. After a few years, the business was successful enough for him to do it full time and he is now looking to expand with further branches in the Cambridge area.

It should come as no surprise that there were a number of expressions of interest from the audience at this point.

Links

Cambridge Food and Wine Society – website, Facebook, Twitter

La Dante – website, Facebook, Twitter

Limoncello – website, Facebook, Twitter

Review of Limoncello on Wanton Flavours – http://wantonflavours.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/limoncello.html

More on Elvio Cogno from Chris Kissak – http://www.thewinedoctor.com/italy/cogno.shtml

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Let’s Go Punting

A list of the Top 3 Things To Do on a visit to Cambridge would probably include looking round King’s College chapel, seeing The Backs and going punting.

Having lived in Cambridge for over a decade now, I occasionally find myself becoming rather blase about the city’s charms – before a trip to the historic centre reminds me of why it’s such a wonderful place.

With two small children to occupy, school holidays are often a good excuse to explore with them the historic and more picturesque parts of the city, so this Easter, I accepted an invitation from Lets Go Punting to meet one of the company’s founders, Simon, for a chat whilst he chauffeured the three of us up and down the backs.

Passing the usual row of touts on Bridge Street, we followed the boardwalk on Quayside towards Jesus Green and found our host.

Simon has been working independently as a chauffeur for well over a decade now – having tried a day-job for a few years immediately after graduating and finding it not to his liking – and plies a second trade as a tree surgeon for the off season.

Unlike perhaps most punt chauffeurs, Simon is a local, being actually from Cambridge originally, and did not go to the university here; as a result, the bits of talk he gives us as we wind our way up and down the river focus more on Cambridge as a lived-in city, offering a local’s eye view rather than merely a standardised recitation of the splendours of the university; the river as a trading route with the fens, its course and how the water levels have been managed over time.

It is a sunny but chilly day and so, despite it being the start of the season, the river is quiet. The children ask various questions, eat the snacks we have brought with us and have a go at taking photos (which I think they do rather well).

As anyone who has walked by the river on a hot summer’s day will know, there is no shortage of punting touts eager for business, so I ask Simon how Let’s Go Punting plans to tap into the market.

A relatively small start-up, the company’s strategy is to offer something a little different from the usual chauffeured punts for tourists.

Rather, the aim is to go after a more corporate and events-led market with “punting plus”, that is punting plus something else, such as wine-tastings, afternoon teas or hot snacks.

Part of me finds this a little bit gimmicky – combining two experiences does not, in my opinion, make them into a single super-experience, it’s just two experiences put together.

But that’s my pedant’s Old-School approach and the Combined Experience is the very stuff of corporate away-days, significant-birthday parties and the like; wine tasting on a punt is aspirational dynamite and ranks highly for dinner party one-upmanship for the generation that cannot ever merely do one thing at once.

From a business perspective, it’s also a great point of differentiation – there are only a few examples of themed punting events, such as Halloween Punts, so as well as being a talking point, this potentially creating a new category.

The Combined Event also has the potential to be more effective from a marketing perspective as it allows two local companies to market jointly and thus share costs; there is also the potential for the fabled “revenue synergies” or cross-selling; try a wine you like on a punting trip and you are more likely to go back to the merchant to buy more.

And as I wrote in a previous post on branding, events are where it’s at in marketing terms these days with, for example, rock bands making their money from touring rather than album sales.

Back at the quayside, we hop on to dry land, say our thanks and wander down to Jesus Green lock for a quick game of Pooh Sticks, before heading off in search of somewhere that serves mains with chips and ice-cream for lunch.

Links

Lets Go Punting – http://www.letsgopunting.co.uk/

Image credits: King’s College Chapel – http://www.cambridge2000.com/gallery/html/P7117484.html

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Hedonist Wines‏ at Cambridge Food and Wine Society

I first came across Hedonist Wines when owner Anthony Jenkins got in touch after reading an article of mine in the local press in Cambridge.

We exchanged emails and I agreed to review a couple of his wines and was reasonably impressed, so I later arranged for him to give a presentation to the Cambridge Food and Wine Society.

The tasting took place this weekend and in the interim, Anthony has gone from being something of a hobbyist with a “real day-job” to having wine-retailing as his main activity, so clearly something has worked well.

Whilst Hedonist remains a small operation, perhaps what is most interesting about it commercially is that the business model involves buying directly from producers, by-passing the traditional importer-distributor networks; of itself, that is not especially innovative, but it does seem to be part of a growing trend of new, small-ish wine concerns working directly with producers from Europe.

Clearly, the rise of budget airlines, improved, lower-cost communications technology and a more developed logistics industry have a role to play in this, but Hedonist’s price range, mostly priced at a little over £10, says something about wine-drinking habits in the UK.

The wines themselves are sourced from individual producers, mainly in the better-value parts of classic European regions, and the limited list is essentially a reflection of Anthony’s palate and preferences; he describes his typical wine as the sort of wine you enjoyed on holiday from a small, local producer.

All the wines are exclusive to Hedonist and we started with a Cr̩mant de Bourgogne from Domaine Joussier; made from 100% Chardonnay from the C̫te Chalonnaise Рgeographically in the middle of Burgundy Рit had a crisp nose with yeasty brioche aromas.

The palate shows ripe apple and pear fruit with a fine mousse – it feels elegant and well-made if light and not overly complex. It would make a good aperitif or celebration wine and at £11 is reasonable value for a classic French wine with bubbles in.

Next was a 2009 Côte Chalonnaise “En Reviller” from the same producer which had spent three months in oak – with ripe orchard fruits on the nose, it felt rounded and creamy on the palate with fresh apple and pear fruit and a minerally finish with just a touch of oaky buzz.

This was followed by something more unusual – a white Rioja Caecus Verderón 2010 made from 100% Viura with 3 months in oak. Pale straw coloured in the glass, it had a similar profile to the previous wine with ripe pear fruit and a toasty creaminess on the palate, but felt bigger and fuller.

The first red was a Burgundy, a 2008 Mercurey from Joussier – I was a little bit blind-sided by this wine; it is quite dark in the glass for a Pinot and shows aromas of ripe berry fruit, but with none of the typical Burgundian mushroomy, truffley undergrowth I had hoped for.

With good, primary fruit and a depth of flavour it was perhaps more typical of a good Beaujolais than a Pinot – very balanced and enjoyable as a wine, but just not at all what I had expected.

The 2008 Rioja Crianza from Caecus was surprisingly oaky but had a soft, smooth texture with cherry fruit, spice and liquorice on the nose and a grippy finish.

The 2006 Reserva, also from Caecus, had a degree more alcohol and more intense aromas on the nose as a result, as well as more complexity – dark purple in the glass, it shows berry fruit, liquorice and spice and feels riper and more perfumed. On the finish, it feels to have a better balance of fruit and grip.

The two final reds were both from Panizzi, based in Tuscany – the first, a 100% Sangiovese Chianti Riserva 2008, was purple in the glass with a hint of aged brick red; the nose is ripe with dark berry fruit, whilst the palate shows plummy fruit with a distinct smokiness.

An easy-drinker, it feels soft, rounded and mellow.

The Folgore 2003 “Super Tuscan” was a noticeable step-up; with small amounts of Cab and Merlot in the blend, it is labelled as a humble rosso, but was the most complex wine of the night, albeit the priciest at £16.

Intended to be aged for up to 20 years, the 2003 has only just been released. Inkily dark in the glass with an aged brick red rim, the nose shows forest fruit aromas. On the palate it feels mellow, muscular and complex, with good juicy acidity and grip.

Recommended Wines

For me, all the wines were well-made and, as a minimum, pleasant and drinkable even if few were really impressive.

There was no clear consensus either on our table or at the event generally on which ones were most popular – which is perhaps a good sign – but there were plenty of orders made at the end of the event.

And whilst I would happily drink any or all of these wines again, for me, the best was the Panizzi Folgore 2003.

Links

Cambridge Food and Wine Society – http://www.cambridgefoodandwinesociety.org.uk/

Hedonist Wines – http://www.hedonistwines.com/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Noel Young Wines at Annual Austrian Tasting‏

At the Annual Tasting of Austrian Wines in London last month, I caught up with Noel Young and tasted my way through the wines he had on show from various producers.

Wieninger

Based in Vienna, Fritz Wieninger cultivates 33ha of vines on either side of the river Danube – for 2011, conditions were warmer after the cool 2010, with an increase in both quality and quantity.

The Vienna Hills GV 2011 was fresh and light with peppery celery and lentils.

The Herrenholz GV 2011 was fuller, with a creamier texture and a minerally finish.

The Wiener Gemischter Satz Klassik 2011, a field blend of up to 13 grape varieties all grown, picked and fermented together, was fresh, lively and balanced, with prominent GV characteristics (the main grape in the blend).

The Wiener Gemischter Satz Nussberg Alte Reben 2011 was very different from the previous year’s style – now fermented only in stainless steel, it had an aromatic nose, lemon and lime fruit, good depth of flavour and a fresh acidity.

The Vienna Hills Riesling 2011, an unfiltered barrel sample, had a toasty, intense nose, an expressive palate with lemon and lome fruit, a creamy texture combined with a toastiness and a long mineral finish.

The Wiener Trilogie (70% Zweigelt, 15% Cab, 15% Merlot) had a perfumed nose of vanilla, sour cherry fruit and liquorice; the palate shows good bramble fruit and spice with a soft, mouthfilling texture, juicy acidity and some grip on the finish.

Kurt Angerer

Based in Lower Austria’s Kamptal, just outside the Wachau, Kurt Angerer names many of his wines after the soil type they are grown on. Whether any of the differing minerals in the soil actually end up in the finished wine is still the subject of debate, but there are certainly perceptible differences due to the effects of terroir.

Kies GV 2011; grown on mixed soils and not picked until December, this is ripe and rounded.

Spies (“shpeez”) GV 2010; grown on granite, there is lots of classic varietal white pepper, spice, celery and lentils with ripe peach fruit, balanced acidity and good minerality.

Loam GV 2010; flintsmoke, a fleshy feel with some spice, balanced savoury and full, a toasty flintiness develops on the palate.

Eichenstaude GV 2010; complex with ripe peach and nectarine fruit, spice, a mineral buzz and some toastiness, a soft texture.

Zweigelt “Barrique” 2009; sweet cherry and elderberry fruit, pepperiness, rounded moutfeel, intense with tannic grip.

St Laurent 2009 – bright and translucent in the glass, the nose is of berry fruit, coffee and spice. The palate shows ripe cherries, sweet bramble fruit and liquorice, grippy finish. Overall, feels rounded balanced and approachable.

Kracher

Based in Illmitz in Burgenland near the Hungarian border on the Pannonian plain, Kracher is perhaps Austria’s greatest dessert wine maker.

With low hills, warming southerly winds and the shallow Lake Neusidl providing morning fogs, conditions in this region are perfect for reliable botrytis growth almost every year.

The additional warmth also provides suitable conditions for dry reds.

Klassik Illmitz Zweigelt – a perfumey elderberry and cherry nose with liquorice and earthiness; the palate shows sweet-sour cherry fruit, spicy mintiness and a grippy finish. Fleshy and approachable.

Auslese Cuvee 2009 (white blend), light and fresh, with simple fruit sweetness that is initially intense then fades. The savouriness lingers, however.

Beerenauslese Cuvee 2009 (white blend), a real step up, ripe, marmaladey and peachy with balanced fresh acidity and savouriness.

Eiswein Cuvee 2009 (white blend), botrytis on the nose, the palate is sweet-sour, intense and complex with aromas of peaches roasted in butter, more pungent botrytis notes and fresh acidity. Mouthfeel is weighty with glycerol and there is a savouriness on the finish – great depth of flavour and length.

TBA “No 2” Scheurebe 2009, intense aromas of mango and roasted peach skin, weighty glycerol on the palate, long on the palate and finish.

TBA “No 3” Welschriesling 2009, fresher and more fragrant with elderflower aromas, mouthfilling and long on the palate and finish.

Recommended Wines

All the wines here were good-to-superb, but here are my specific recommendations:

Wieninger’s Vienna Hills Riesling for its complexity and depth of flavour.

Angerer’s Eichenstaude GV for its complexity and depth of flavour.

Kracher’s Klassik Illmitz is a great entry-level introduction to Austrian reds, but the main event is the dessert wines, so the Eiswein Cuvee for its complexity and depth of flavour.

Links

Noel Young Wines – www.nywines.co.uk

Weininger – www.wieninger.at

Angerer – www.kurt-angerer.at

Kracher – www.kracher.at

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Wines from Turkey, India, Greece and Georgia at Laithwaites

Earlier this week, I went to a tasting of wines from Turkey, India, Greece and Georgia at Laithwaites‘ HQ, Vinopolis.

In a game of word association, say “Laithwaites” and I will generally think of ripe, fruity, unchallenging wines that are usually overpriced and oversold – I wrote as much in a post last year On Laithwaites, and the Laithwaites wines I’d had since have done little if anything to change my thinking.

So I decided to head along to this tasting with slightly mixed feelings – it was after work and just round the corner, so easy to get to, would score me a few Fringe Wine points for obscure countries and grape varieties and finally it was a chance either to reconfirm my feelings about Laithwaites or be pleasantly surprised. And besides, it’s not every wine retailer CEO that adds a comment to one’s blog and I was keen to meet the man to see if the reality lived up to the persona.

In person, Tony Laithwaite is more restrained than a reading of his tasting notes would suggest – he’s not all exclamation marks and exuberance, but rather told a few, stock-but-amusing anecdotes about his early days and generally has the gravitas one would expect of a company CEO with a headcount of over 1,000 keen to point out that Laithwaites is still a private company with no outside shareholders.

The tasting fell into three parts, with the first being the tasting of the new wines – to be offered from April onwards – presented by buyer Cat Lomax.

Mantra Sauvignon Blanc 2009 – £8.99, India

Of all the countries represented at this tasting, India is perhaps the most interesting precisely because it has almost no modern wine history whatsoever; viticulture was originally introduced to India by the ancient Persians, but India’s wine-making traditions all but died out in the 20th century due to a combination of the after-effects of phylloxera, independence and changes in religious and public opinion.

Mostly tropical, India is not a natural wine-making country; however, as in Greece, the effects of altitude can provide viticultural potential and the grapes for this wine are grown on a plateau just outside Mumbai.

Pale gold in the glass, on the nose this wine shows green capsicum, mixed spice (a suggestive hint of Indian cornershop, perhaps ?) and touch of green chilli bitterness.

On the palate, there is rounded, mouthfilling acidity and a minerally finish.

Overall, surprisingly well-made and balanced – if a little atypical.

Thema Assyrtiko Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – £11.49, Greece

In the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment, Greece is perhaps the most mainstream of all the countries represented at this tasting. A blend of 60% Assyrtiko and 40% Sauvignon, the grapes are grown at altitude in northern Greece cooled by sea breezes.

Pale in the glass, it has a more typically aromatic and herbaceous Sauvignon nose, with stone fruit, crisp rounded acidity and good minerality, especially on the finish.

A good and well-made wine, but not one I’d pay almost £12 for – to say that Greek wines are not generally cheap is to acknowledge that the country offers poor value-for-money and perhaps they would be better not competing at this level, but like Austria, to focus on the higher end of the market where lack of economies of scale is not an issue.

Either that or wait a year or so and Greece may well find itself outside the Euro and with a Drachma currency again that it is able to devalue by 50% to stimulate exports, at which point this wine could sell more easily for the £6 – £8 price that it is worth.

Vinart Kalecik Karasi Syrah 2010 – £10.99, Turkey

The main grape in this wine is the native Turkish Kalecik Karasi, with some Syrah in the blend; the wine shows elderberry and plum fruit, with dark spice, pencil shavings and and inky texture and good tannins.

Tasted blind, this could be a Rh̫ne Syrah Рit is the classiest and most interesting wine here and also represents good value at the price. I am not surprised to learn it has various (if unspecified) Gold Medals.

Tbilvino Saperavi 2010 – Georgia, £8.99

I have had Saperavi on a few occasions before when I have been in Ukraine and recall it as fruity and grippy, but generally lacking in mouthfeel.

From the sub-tropical former Soviet Republic of Georgia, this example of the country’s flagship grape shows cassis, vanilla, spice and liquorice on the nose. On the palate it is smooth and rounded, a ripe crowd-pleaser, finishing grippy and spicy.

Overall, despite a promising start, the palate and finish somehow don’t quite live up to expectations.

Recommended Wine

All the wines here were surprisingly well-made, interesting / unusual and certainly above average for Laithwaites. Not all were great or particularly good value, but I would certainly consider buying the Vinart Kalecik Karasi Syrah 2010.

Afterwards, @HenryGJeffreys commented via Twitter that he thought the Rhône-esque Turkish wine was the best of the evening, but that it was somehow not distinctively “Turkish” enough, which led us to a consideration of typicity in this fascinating article from new JancisRobinson.com writer, Alex Hunt MW – http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a20120220.html

Links

Laithwaites – http://www.laithwaites.co.uk/

Vinopolis – http://www.vinopolis.co.uk/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

A Sunday Morning in Saffron Walden

Last weekend, I took #2 child on a Boys’ Trip out down to the genteel market town of Saffron Walden, which lies just 15 miles or a half-hour’s drive south of Cambridge.

One of the unfortunate things about Cambridge is that, although very beautiful indeed, it is a rather tiny city, surrounded by rather dull countryside – something I particularly notice having spent my teenage years between the hills of the Peak District and the vibrant, buzzy and cultural hotspot that is central Manchester – so it is easy to become complacent at times about the city’s charms.

Most of the surrounding villages and towns near Cambridge are pleasant enough, perhaps even rather nice, but somehow not quite worth the trip out, but there are a small number of exceptions to this (places such as Ely and Bury as well as Saffron Walden) if you are looking for an easy visit somewhere different.

Saffron Walden is actually even smaller than Cambridge so that, whilst a weekend will suffice to see all of Cambridge’s best sights, a morning spent wandering around Saffron Walden’s market square and surrounding lanes is more than enough.

Like Cambridge, the town has plenty of neat and well-appointed historic buildings to admire, with timbered Tudor houses, old coaching inns and elegant Georgian townhouses. It is also relatively hilly – compared to Cambridge, at least.

More notable sights include the parish church dating from 1250 (but mostly built in the late 1400s / early 1500s) and the castle ruins dating from the 1100s.

However, for me, it is the elegance of the market square and surrounding streets that provide Saffron Walden’s charm and a quiet Sunday morning is a good time to appreciate the local architecture (there are 27 Grade II* listed buildings to admire) as the town proved to be almost deserted.

Sadly for us, the town’s coffee shops all seemed to be closed as well and we ended up queueing in a clean and pleasant but uninspiring Costa Coffee chain-outlet for rocky road muffin and juice (Young Man) and a latte and a Bakewell slice (me).

It also made a pleasant change from Cambridge that most of the clientele that day seemed to be locals rather than tourists or visitors which made for a more friendly atmosphere.

For wine enthusiasts, Saffron Walden is also home to Adnams and Joseph Barnes (see my review here).

Links

Saffron Walden Tourist Information – http://www.visitsaffronwalden.gov.uk/

Downloadable Tourist Trail Map – http://www.visitsaffronwalden.gov.uk/pdf/Saffron-Walden-Town-Trail.pdf

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Wine Of The Month – March

For me, early March, when the days become perceptibly longer and the weather perceptibly milder, is a time of hope and optimism, a prelude to the opportunities of a new year after the cold seclusion of winter.

Longer days and warmer temperatures mean a scarf and gloves are not always required when stepping outside, which in itself becomes more appealing and leads to a greater chance of bumping into a friend or acquaintance somewhere.

It is a time to start making plans for the rest of the year – summer holidays, Easter breaks and, for those of us with small children, half-term get-aways.

Despite all the plans and optimism, though, it can still be a chilly old time and so this month’s wines are all warming, spicy reds.

Domaine de Fondreche, Cotes du Ventoux Rouge, ‘Mas de Fondreche’ 2009 – £8.99 Joseph Barnes Wines

This 2009 Ventoux from Joseph Barnes is from village of Mazan in the Ventoux region of the eastern C̫tes du Rh̫ne and made from an unoaked blend of Grenache and Syrah. Whilst very palatable on first opening, really benefits from a decent amount of aeration РI tried it over three days and it was still improving even as we were finishing it off.

On the nose, there are aromas of plum, black cherry  and elderberry, with hints of spice, liquorice and undergrowth developing over time.

On the palate, there is more dark fruit, cool mintiness and, increasingly with air, a wonderfully soft and texture and a rounded acidity.

With a grippiness on the palate, it feels very well-made and pure, if not especially complex, with a persistent finish.

Match with dark plain-roast meat, such as lamb or beef.

Orcia DOC Malintoppo 2006 Simonelli-Santi – £13.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

This Sangiovese from the Orcia DOC in Tuscany is an altogether classier proposition, if priced accordingly.

At six years of age, it is brick red in the glass with cherry fruit and complex spice, cigar box, liquorice and undergrowth on the nose.

The palate shows a lively if slightly stewed cherry fruit acidity (that’s 14.5% alcohol for you), a soft but firm texture and an incredible depth of complex flavour.

It has the mellow harmoniousness of its age and a long finish with peppery grip.

This really is a class act and although the price is well into “special occasion” territory, it is worth every penny given the quality and age.

Whilst drinking well now, it still improves with air after decanting and I’d be seriously tempted to buy a case of this to see how it continues to evolve.

Match with slow-roast beef or darker game such as duck, pheasant or venison.

Opawa Pinot Noir 2010, New Zealand – £10.49, Noel Young Wines

Although best known for Sauvignon Blanc, with its cool climate New Zealand is becoming Pinot’s second spiritual home after Burgundy.

NZ wines are typically technically well-made with good, pure fruit and this wine is no exception.

Pale ruby in the glass, on first opening, this wine shows ripe, red cherry fruit, with more-typical Pinot aromas of woody mushrooms developing with air.

On the palate, the fruit is ripe and pure with a soft, sensual texture, a good depth of savoury flavour and a balanced, lingering finish.

Whilst it may lack some typically Burgundian vegetal, farmardy aromas and food-friendly sour-cherry acidity, this is a lovely wine and provides a good mid-level introduction to what this grape can do in NZ.

Although Pinot is one of the few wines I never decant, as its ephemeral aromas rarely benefit from significant aeration, this wine is still showing well, if not even a little better the following day and I recommended it via Twitter to fellow blogger and Pinot / self-doubter Charles Saunders as an example of what Pinot Noir can be.

Match with game such as duck and pheasant or a Burgundian stew.

Pascual Toso Malbec 2009, Mendoza Argentina – £8.99, Bacchanalia

If Pinot is a dreamy, sensual hedonist, Malbec is a Blue-Collar hero – a macho, peppery, steak-eating, cattle-wrangling gaucho in open check shirt and leather chaps.

Dark in the glass, this Pascual Toso Malbec shows lots of ripe up-front bramble and blackberry fruit with liquorice and vanilla spice on the nose.

The palate is full and ripe with more sweet cassis fruit and spicy, leathery earthiness. There’s plenty of aromas on the finish too and, if it’s a little rustic, it is at least polite enough to wipe its feet on the doormat before enquiring if it left its boots under your bed, ma’am.

A spicy, warm-hearted Big Red with bags of crowd-pleasing, easy-drinking appeal, match it with a juicy steak.

Recommended Wine

This is a really good set of wines and all are worthy of investigation – however, this month’s winner is the Malintoppo from Cambridge Wine Merchants for its depth of flavour, mellowness and value for money as a really well-made, aged Tuscan wine drinking nicely right now for just over £10 with case discounts.

Links

Mas de Fondreche reviewed by Tom Cavanan – http://www.wine-pages.com/temp/osud.htm

Malintoppo reviewed by Vinoremus – http://vinoremus.blogspot.com/2011/07/general-tasting.html

Main image credit – http://www.galenfrysinger.com/cambridge.htm

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Ch̢teau Baccarat РOenology Range Glasses (and a Bordeaux)

Wine-tasting is much more a subjective Art than a definitive Science, but I have a natural inclination to be methodical about these things so when Chateau Baccarat offered me the short-term loan of a pair of their new “Oenology Range” glasses, I saw an opportunity to test out a theory on how much influence the wine glass itself can have on the tasting experience.

My tasting glass collection is fairly limited – a couple of Riedel Shirazes, a set of Bormioli Roccos and some basic flutes for fizz. And much as I like the Riedel glasses, I have always been a little sceptical of their claim that you need completely separate glasses for every grape variety or style of port – in any case, I kept breaking the Sauvignon Blanc glasses when washing them up.

For a proper scientific experiment, I decided that I would need four different glasses and a wine that 1) I already knew 2) was of sufficiently high quality for any subtle distinctions to be apparent and 3) shows a decent amount of aromas on the nose.

For the glasses, I used my usual Riedel Shiraz, Bormioli Rocco and added an ISO tasting glass. The wine was a bottle of the excellent Rousseau de Sipian 2005 from Cambridge Wine Merchants (reviewed earlier here).

I first tried the wine in mid-2010 and was so impressed with it that I bought a couple of cases to lay down – at the time it needed quite a bit of aeration to open up and for the chewy tannins to soften.

Bearing this in mind, I opened up the bottle in the morning to let the sulphites start evaporating but did not decant until around 10 minutes before the tasting.

Swirling the wine in the decanter, there are concentrated aromas of blackcurrant, hints of liquorice and an earthy tarriness.

I filled each glass up to about the widest part, then started by simply sniffing, noting down observations. I followed this with a swirl and a sniff of each and again made notes. I sniffed the wines in the following order: ISO, Riedel, Baccarat, Bormioli Rocco then tried different orders.

Finally, I roped in Mrs CWB to have a go and give me her impressions.

Amidst all this, I also took a few sips as well.

And after an hour of sniffing, swirling, sipping, scribbling notes, considering and trying to discern subtle differences, I finally came to the conclusion that there is no significant, consistently noticeable difference between any of these glasses in terms of the intensity of the aromas on the nose or the perception of the wine on the palate.

They are all an appropriate shape for wine assessment – bulbously tulip-shaped to a greater or lesser extent with a wider base and narrower aperture to concentrate and funnel the aromas – and the differences between them (the ISO is the smallest, the BR the widest) are less influential than their similarities.

The Baccarat glass has a number of theoretical, drawing-board advantages over the other glasses that should make it the most effective tasting glass – it is flat-bottomed and wide, almost like a decanter, with a very narrow aperture – but in practice, in this experiment at least, that did not seem to translate into superior performance.

—xxx—

At this point, dinner was ready and we decided to move on to an assessment of the glasses as household objects for drinking from.

The ISO glass – ideal for use at trade tastings where small quantities are involved and notes need to be taken – was the least convenient for drinking wine with dinner. It is easy to swirl and light for quick sniffing, but the aperture is too small to get a nose-full of aromas when drinking.

The Bormioli Rocco – my usual glass of choice for assessing and drinking at home – in this company, felt like the least elegant; squat, fat and with thicker glass. Its width makes it quite heavy and cumbersome to swirl, certainly with any elegance.

The Riedel is shaped like a larger, more refined version of the ISO – less bulbous, it is tall, simple and elegant and its proportions all feel right. It is the easiest to swirl as it is the least wide as well as the tallest.

The Baccarat is the most visually arresting of all the glasses and looks beautiful; it has the thinnest glass at the aperture, giving it a more sophisticated feel. It is not as easy a swirler as the Riedel given its flat-bottomed width and weight.

Around this point, it occurred to me that the Baccarat glasses are not really in competition with my other tasting glasses – yes they are designed for tasting and appreciating wine, but they are really very elegant dinner glasses and should be compared against other elegant dinner glasses.

It put this theory to the test a few days later when I reviewed a Louis Jadot Marsannay 2008 (see here for the full review). An oaked white Burgundy, it is not the most aromatic of wines and even though I decanted for about half an hour before the meal, it needs significant further aeration before the oakiness starts to feel harmonious and the fruit aromas become more prominent.

Compared side-by-side with a with a Royal Doulton crystal glass – the kind of elegant glass you might use at a dinner party (see image above) but which is not designed for wine-tasting – the difference is quite remarkable; on the nose the aromas from the Royal Doulton are significantly and consistently less intense than from the Baccarat.

Again, neither glass is an easy swirler – the Royal Doulton is not at all bulbous – but it occurs to me that these glasses are designed for drinking in the kind of company where it is not polite to swirl and sniff.

—xxx—

As to post-dinner practicality, whilst I suspect that most people who buy a set of Baccarat glasses will probably have “people” to do their washing up, it is surprisingly easy to wash up, having a wide enough aperture and being not too deep.

The Bormioli Rocco is big, fat and wide and therefore easy to wash up, the ISO is shallow and therefore easy, whilst the Riedel is the hardest – being narrow and deep – and also made from thinner glass is therefore the most likely to get broken by clumsy hands.

—xxx—

Finally, the wine itself: on the nose the Rousseau de Sipian shows (from all glasses) blackcurranty fruit, earthy tarriness and a touch of mintiness.

As I have noted in a post on the wrong type of air, even with over six years’ bottle age, it still develops according to another set of rules after opening, with much greater aromas noticeable after being opened for an hour or so.

On the palate, it shows elderberry fruit, black cherries and some mintiness with prominent, linear acidity which cuts through a roast beef dinner perfectly; it feels mouthfilling with the chewy tannins I remember from the last time considerably softened.

It now feels much more integrated and is starting to show the first signs of some aged characteristics – the intensity is fading and is replaced by a harmonious mellowness – rather like the early wrinkles and salt-and-pepper hair of a dashingly handsome Hollywood star entering middle age.

The Chateau Baccarat glasses are £64 for a single glass, £125 for a pair or £360 for six; the range also includes a tumbler and decanter, all pictured above. They were provided to me on short-term loan.

Links

Baccarat – http://www.baccarat.com/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Wine Buying in Cambridgeshire

City Connect’s wine critic – Tom Lewis, the Cambridge Wine Blogger – shares his thoughts and recommendations on wine buying in Cambridge and the surrounding area.

For the enthusiastic wine aficionado, the most enjoyable way to buy wine can be to get in the car and go to one or more of France’s wine regions and buy direct from the producer. However, the reality for many people seems to be the local supermarket and, faced with rows of wines to choose from, the easiest option is often to pick what’s on special offer.

Is there a middle way? Some way of picking out more interesting and enjoyable wines without having to travel too far? Search the internet and you will find specialists such as Laithwaite’s (who also supply the wines for the Sunday Times Wine Club), who provide lots of glossy photos of beautiful hillside vineyards which can feel almost as good as being there yourself.

However, for those who prefer the personal touch and want to support local businesses, Cambridge and the surrounding areas have many independent wine merchants, educators and even its own Master of Wine and vineyard owners.

Stand opposite Kings College or take a look down the river on Bridge Street and you will be next to a branch of Cambridge Wine Merchants – founded 17 years ago by Cambridge graduate Hal Wilson with business partner Brett Turner, together they now run 4 shops in Cambridge itself, with several franchises beyond the city, and have recently won Independent Drinks Retailer of the year. If that is not enough, they also supply a number of the University’s May Balls, offer professionally-recognised wine courses and have opened a tapas bar in their Cherry Hinton Road branch.

With branches on either side of the river, Bacchanalia was set up in 1997 by Paul Bowles with the philosophy of sourcing the very best drinks the staff could find and selling them at a fair price. Regularly voted amongst the top ten shops in Cambridge, it’s clear that this approach has proved very popular indeed.

South of the city in Trumpington, Noel Young Wines has been in business since 1991 and won many awards over the years and also has a vineyard in Australia.

Outside of Cambridge, Hector Scicluna of HS Fine Wines in Impington, specialises in importing fine Italian wines from small estates, whilst Steve Vincent from Histon runs the Cambridge Food and Wine Society. Slightly further afield, The Old Bridge in Huntingdon is run by Master of Wine John Hoskins, whilst Neil Courtier of GrapeSense in Bury runs a wine education business. Finally, let us not forget that Cambridge has its own vineyard at Chilford Hall in Linton.

All of these offer wine-tastings of one sort or another which is a good way to get introduced to wines of different types and see what you like; the Cambridge Food and Wine Society, a not-for-profit organisation, uses a mixture of outside experts (both specialist educators and vineyard owners) and committee members (who are all experts in different areas from Spain and Austria to the International Wine Challenge) to present its monthly events.

Tickets for a wine tasting usually cost around the same price as two good bottles of wine and for that you should get to sample around 8 wines, pose questions and discuss opinions, possibly with some accompanying food.

Two Food Wines from Bordeaux

I have recently been reviewing my way through a number of wines being promoted as part of the Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux campaign, aimed at promoting mid-priced, easily-available wines typical of Bordeaux.

The wines were selected by the Association of Wine Educators and details of all can be found on the GFWCB website.

However, the two best wines were both from The Wine Society.

Chateau Bourjaud Premieres Cotes de Blaye, £6.50

Made from 85% Merlot and 15%Cab, there is plenty of aroma, but less in the way of tannic structure, whilst the relatively low alcohol level of 12.5% gives this wine a food-friendliness.

The nose shows bramble fruit and dark cherries with hints of coffee grounds, forest floor and liquorice, whilst on the palate the juicy, rounded acidity dominates with dark cherry and plum fruit and more coffee and dark spice hints.

The finish is extremely well-balanced, even if there is very little in the way of grip.

A non-tannic Bordeaux is almost a contradiction in terms, but this is a very pleasant and well-made wine and if chewy tannins aren’t your thing or you want an introduction to cool-climate Merlot, this is not a bad place to start, and with its juicy acidity it will match well with Italian foods such as salami, crostini, roasted vegetables or pasta with a tomato sauce.

 

Perponcher Reserve Bordeaux Blanc 2010 , £8.50

Greeny-gold in the glass, the nose is herbaceous, mineral and clean – on the palate it feels fresh, crisp and poised with crystal-clear acidity, underpinned by good but not intrusive minerality.

There is some ripe, tropical sweetness that gives a rounded feel, whilst the finish is long and balanced, showing more fragrant and herbaceous notes, good acidity and minerality – this is a well-made, balanced and elegant little gem of a wine.

Poised, delicious and very more-ish, it will match well with mozzarella drizzled with pesto, or meaty white fish in a herby broth.

Image reproduced from http://0.tqn.com/d/moving/1/0/D/6/wine_bottles_small.jpg

Chateau Baccarat: Oenology range

Yesterday, I took delivery of a pair of “Oenology” wine glasses, courtesy of Baccarat; one for red wine and one for white.

The Baccarat Oenology collection, launched at Maison et Objet in Paris earlier this month, comes to the UK at the end of February, so this is something of a sneak  preview.

Baccarat claims that the glasses are created “with technical specifications that offer a perfect tasting of any wine or champagne”, so I plan to test them over the coming days and weeks alongside my other glasses to see if they enhance the wine appreciation experience in any way.

I’ll also be assessing what they are like to live with - as well as doing my best not to break them whilst washing up.

My current range of tasting glasses is fairly limited and functional – some Bormioli Roccos, a couple of Riedels, plus some basic flutes for fizz – so these two will certainly be, if nothing else, the smartest glasses in the cupboard.

Prices are £64 for a single glass, £125 for a pair or £360 for six; the range also includes a tumbler and decanter, all pictured above.

Links

Baccarat – http://www.baccarat.com

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Image reproduced from http://0.tqn.com/d/moving/1/0/D/6/wine_bottles_small.jpg

Wine of The Month – February

After the January detox and ritual breaking of New Year’s resolutions, February brings the Romance of Valentine’s Day.

According to Wikipedia, the day is named after one or more early Christian martyrs named Saint Valentine, and was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD, becoming first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer during the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished.

However, of far more importance, is how to woo that special person with something appropriately impressive and indulgent, so here are four wines, all suitable for some serious Valentine’s wooing.

 

Best with food – Angas Brut Rosé NV, £9.50 Cambridge Wine Merchants

This is a classy and elegant pink fizz from Australia, using the two main Champagne grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Like Champagne, it undergoes secondary fermentation in the bottle, giving a rich, leesy depth of flavour.

Salmon pink in the glass, it foams with a fine mousse; there are aromas of red berries and a touch of yeastiness on the nose. The palate is extremely elegant and smooth with a hint of red-berry fruit sweetness, a creamy texture and a fresh acidity.

It finishes dry, crisp and savoury, so will work well as an aperitif or just a Romantic indulgence a deux. However, if you are planning to make an evening of it, it will also match with food such as salmon, meaty white fish or even roast chicken.

Best for sipping – Ameztoi Rubentis, £11.99 Joseph Barnes Wines

This month, we welcome a new-comer to Wine of The Month in the shape of Charles Hardcastle, proprietor of Joseph Barnes wines in the pretty and genteel village of Saffron Walden, just a short drive south of Cambridge.

This Ameztoi Rubentis is perhaps the most unusual wine here – made from the Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza grapes, it is from Spain’s Basque region.

With a petillant spritz, it is pale pink in the glass with aromas of red berries, watermelon and something aromatic.

On the palate, there is also a touch of minerality and just a hint of something bitter – either grapefruit or perhaps quinine, as FringeWine notes – but overall this is a light, easy quaffer with elegant red berries and fresh acidity balanced with a touch of fruit sweetness.

The delicate fruit here will be overpowered by most foods, so plan on sipping this in the most Romantic of circumstances – but if food is required, salmon or tuna sushi would be a good match for the fresh acidity.

Best with something sweet – Innocent Bystander Pink Moscato, £6.99 (37.5 cl) Noel Young Wines

Another wine from Oz in the European style, this Pink Moscato is a dead ringer for an Italian semi-sweet frizzante.

On the nose there are red berries and watermelon whilst the palate shows fresh strawberry fruit, a hint of red fruit gums, a touch of elderflower and a delightful sweetness and fresh acidity; it is almost a grown-up raspberry elderflower lemonade.

With a gentle mousse and a pleasingly balanced finish, this is an elegant and accomplished antipodean wine – think Nicole Kidman rather than Hugo Weaving in Priscilla.

Although light, this wine has enough weight on the palate to match with fruit-based desserts and rather incongruously (perhaps ironically ?), it’s sealed with a crown-top.

Best for making a statement – Piera Martellozzo Rosé Cuvéé, £9.99 Bacchanalia

The most immediately noticeable thing about this this Italian Spumante is the shocking pink / fuchsia foil and label, set against a blacked-out bottle.

Beneath lies a pink, charmat-method sparkler which foams enthusiastically on pouring – there are aromas of pink grapefruit and hoppiness, whilst the palate shows redcurrant fruit and sweet pears.

 —xxx—

Clearly, with their pink hues, bubbles and even sweetness, none of these wines is intended to be particularly serious – but they all demonstrate that making a romantic and frivolous gesture does not mean having to dumb down on quality; they are all good wines in their own right and make for a gentle return to oenology after the traditional month of abstinence.

And as we are all so loved-up this month, it would be churlish to single out any individual wine as a winner – simply choose the one that best suits your occasion, mood and loved one’s preferences.

And don’t forget to buy her some flowers, as well – just preferably not from a garage forecourt.

Links

Bacchanalia – www.winegod.co.uk

Cambridge Wine Merchants – www.cambridgewine.co.uk

Joseph Barnes Wines – www.josephbarneswines.com

Noel Young Wines – www.nywines.co.uk

Image Credit: The Art of Wooing – http://rosebud-design.blogspot.com/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2012

Affordable Italian Wines from Cambridge Wine Merchants at La Dante, Cambridge

Recently, I presented a collection of Italian wines at La Dante in Cambridge.

Giulia Portuese-Williams, who runs La Dante, had asked me if I could select and present some wines from different parts of Italy – and with a budget of around £10 per bottle, I decided that “affordable” was the way to go.

Whilst it is generally possible to find wines from the world’s “classic” regions below £10, at this price point, the less-reputed regions can often outperform; and the classic regions of Italy – Chianti, Barolo and so on – are never bargain wines.

 

However, many parts of Italy, especially the south, are re-inventing themselves as Europe’s New World of well-made, fruit driven wines at under a tenner, so with the help of Cambridge Wine‘s Mill Road branch Manager, Matt Boucher I selected six of the best.

La Dante in Cambridge is part of the international la Società Dante Alighieri, founded in 1889 with 440 offices worldwide – it is a national cultural institute rather like the British Council or the Goethe Institute, but unlike these it is not state-funded and so needs to rely on language lessons for its income.

So my audience that evening was mainly local Italians and Italophile language students plus friends, lending the proceedings a much more sociable and collegiate atmosphere, which suited me fine as it had been a busy weekend in the CWB household and I had not managed to prepare a huge amount to say on each of the wines.

Making a virtue out of necessity then, I simply introduced each wine with a quick overview of region, grape variety and key characteristsics and then started pouring.

La Delfina Special Cuvee Prosecco, £8.99

 

We began with a wine I have reviewed earlier this year, as I had used it as an ingredient in a jelly recipe by Alex Rushmer, chef at The Hole in The Wall.

Fermented in tank rather than bottle, Prosecco is much cheaper to produce than Champagne and also has more primary fruit than Champagne, which proved very popular on the evening; this La Delfina Special Cuvee Prosecco is light and elegant with ripe pear fruit. It will never challenge a good Champagne for complexity, but it is well-made, very enjoyable and much more cheaply priced.

Alpha Zeta Garganega, £6.55

The first still white, a Garganega from Veneto, was crisp and appley on first opening with ripe pineapple fruit but with some air became richer, weightier and more mouthfilling.

A versatile food wine, it would match with light starters, salmon or white fish in a creamy sauce.

Mandrarossa Fiano, £7.99

We finished the whites with a Fiano from Sicily, increasingly a source of well-made, good vale wines; darker and waxier in the glass, this wine had half a degree more alcohol and felt fuller on the palate, showing tropical fruit and herbal, vegetal aromas.

More weighty than the Garganga, this would stand up to cream-based pasta dishes.

Poggio Del Sasso, Sangiovese, £8.99

The first of the reds, a Sangiovese from Toscana, was a Chianti lookalike on a budget, with typical cherry fruit, prominent linear acidity and good grip, but was also a little more easy-drinking and less challenging than a Chianti.

This is very much a food wine and would match well with beef-based dishes.

Miopasso Nero d’Avola, £8.75

Nero d’Avola is one of Sicily’s “signature” red grapes and produces wines with lots of plum, prune and peppery aromas; this wine is made partially with ripasso grapes (i.e. that have been dried on straw mats int he sun for several months to concentrate flavours). This gives the wine an intense perfume and a mid-palate fruit sweetness that proved very popular on the evening and led many people to say it was their wine of the night.

With so many flavours and aromas, this to me is a less versatile wine, but would match well with a game casserole with the sweetness of root vegetables or braised red cabbage.

Moscato Frizzante Piedmonte Volpi, £9.49

Wanting to finish with a dessert wine, I picked this unusual semi-sparkling, semi-sweet, low alcohol (just 5.5%) Moscato from Volpi which had been my wine match for the jelly I mentioned earlier.

Light and elegant, it shows lots of elderflower aromas and, perhaps because of this, can seem sweeter than it really is (the finish is relatively dry); the acidity is nicely balanced and it is a very easy drinker.

It would make a very pleasant end to a meal, or would match with light, fruit-based desserts – or the layered strawberry jelly if you feel like making it.

xxx—xxx

Beyond the social aspect and general interest of presenting the wines, the evening proved instructive in a couple of ways – firstly with a mixed Italian and UK-Italophile audience it gace me the chance to see how these two different nations think about wine.

I have long felt that people who grow up with a “wine culture”, where it is part of everyday life (in places like France, Italy and Spain for example), seem to have a more instinctive understanding of what makes a good wine – unlike Anglo-Saxons for whom wine appreciation is something relatively new, they generally do not have the extensive vocabulary for describing wine, but rather simply seem to know whether a wine is good or not.

By contrast, the Brits have both a greater interest in the stories around the wine and also – in a general audience of so-called average consumers – a greater preference for primary, up-front fruit in a wine, rather than more elusive secondary, or tertiary aromas; this was especially noticeable in the preference for Prosecco over Champagne and also the popularity of the very fruit-driven Nero d’Avola.

Recommended Wine

All the wines here were very good and all proved popular with the audience – however, for me the most interesting was also the most typically Italian was the Poggio Del Sasso Sangiovese.

Links

La Dante, Cambridge – http://ladante-in-cambridge.org/, http://twitter.com/#!/ladantecam

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Families and Friends Dinner at Fitzbillies

Last week, I took the family to a revived Cambridge establishment, Fitzbillies, for dinner.

We had been invited by Old Persean Alison Wright, half of the husband-and-wife team who, on reading of the demise of the the famous source of Chelsea buns via a Stephen Fry tweet, decided to give up their metropolitan careers in journalism and marketing services respectively and re-launch a Cambridge legend, but on a more businesslike footing with a restaurant as well as the cake shop.

The deal from Alison and husband Tim Hayward was this: pay only for the drinks, food is on the house, as long as we give feedback and tip the waiting staff appropriately.

 

We had planned to get there at a child-friendly time of before 7pm, but a combination of various train problems on my commute back from London meant that it was closer to 8pm before we eventually arrived, feeling somewhat flustered and hungry.

However, the welcome from Alison was warm and friendly, immediately putting us at ease as we were shown to a table at the far end of the restaurant near the kitchen and brought menus.

Starting with drinks, the children ordered lemonade in raspberry and straight versions and tucked into some delicious slices of hearty home-made bread with generous portions of butter.

There is no children’s menu and all the dishes have a least one ingredient that might prove unfamiliar or challenging to younger palates; however, #2 child announced he would have the duck to start with, whilst number #1, who was a little cold, opted for a bowl of ham broth, with Mrs CWB also opting for the duck leaving me to try the smoked salmon, but in the end we all tried a bit of everything.

The duck plate came with both smoked and cured duck breast as well as some cooked duck meat – in what was perhaps to set the tone for the evening a little, the duck breast was extremely tasty and very generous; slicing to a third or a quarter of the thickness would have resulted in no less flavour and a touch more elegance. The accompanying picked prunes were also delicious (even if the children turned their noses up) but the thyme croute (a piece of fried bread) didn’t really add anything.

#2 child’s clear ham broth with sherry, chopped egg and mint and ham popovers was a more elegant affair, full of flavour and with the touch of mint adding a delicious and unusual touch.

My smoked salmon came with slices of sweet beetroot, a creamy horseradish and crispy potato plaques – slices of potato toasted in the oven. The salmon / beetroot / creamy horseradish combination all worked very well, but the potato plaques felt a bit “texture by numbers” whilst the horseradish was on the generous side of potent.

We had ordered wines by the glass from a small-ish but perfectly formed and well-thought out list – with around 10 reds and 10 whites and two fizzes, of which three reds, three whites and one fizz are served by the glass.

I fear Pinot Grigio could become to this generation what German Riesling and sherry turned into for my parents’ – a once-popular classic wine that then falls out of favour due to over-popularity and too many poor-quality examples. However, my Italian Pinot Grigio from Bacaro was lovely – well-made, with good rounded acidity and mouthfeel and a restrained versatility – and matched well with the salmon.

Mrs CWB chose a Grand Bateau Rouge Bordeaux which proved to be an equally good match with her duck plate – with low tannins, aromas of bramble fruit and hints of savouriness and soy, it was clearly Merlot-dominated and had a similarly smooth and mouthfilling texture as my wine.

For mains, both child #1 and Mrs CWB had opted for a game-based steam pudding, whilst #2 child had lamb and I opted for braised guinea fowl.

The steamed pudding was perfectly cooked and delicious and came with the autumnal wonderfulness of a braised red cabbage and chestnut accompaniment.

Young Man’s lamb chump was served as several delicious medium rare strips with a pink centre, a Jansson’s temptation (similar to a potato gratin, - very nice) and lamb’s lettuce – aside from the obvious play on words, the lamb’s lettuce worked well as a lighter foil to the hearty meat and potato dish, but the addition of a sharp, wine-unfriendly vinagrette dressing was perhaps a step too far.

My guineafowl was also perfectly cooked and came with a slightly unusual celeriac mash and a sweet, slow-roasted chicory. The earlier Pinot Grigio would have matched well with this, but I was keen to try something else off the wine list, so I opted for a Mahi Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand with the waiter helpfully offering me a sample to see how it would go.

Unlike so many Marlborough Sauvignons, this was was not overly tropical, lush and fruit-driven, but balanced and elegant with a rounded, mouthfilling acidity that is very food-friendly.

By this point, we had little room left for desserts (which did not include the famous Chelsea buns, pictured above), so decided to share two between the four of us – the pink grapefruit and pomegranate jelly had a pleasing, refreshing bitterness that worked very well and reminded me a little of the Italian tradition of ending a generous meal with a reviving lemon sorbet with Prosecco; it also came with dollop of clotted cream and a shortbread biscuit which proved more popular with #1 child.

#2 child and I shared a chocolate and clementine cake with creme fraiche which was just about perfect – beautifully cooked and very well-made (and also very popular with #1 child).

xxx—xxx

 A few days after the dinner, I emailed Alison with our outline feedback and thoughts:

– welcome and service; very good indeed

– food; very good and tasty, good-quality ingredients, well-cooked, portions very generous, mains a bit more pubby than fine-dining (in contrast to the cakes which are very special and elegant)

– decor / atmosphere; overall very good, but a bit chilly and spartan where we were sat at the back

– wines; good, well-made versatile food wines, wine list easy to read and not too long

Ideas / things to consider:

– introduce a set menu

– introduce a children’s menu

– include aperitifs / dessert wines

Fitzbillies is now open for restaurant bookings on Friday and Saturday evenings; the full price of a three-course meal is around £30 per head; table wines cost from £16 – £35 per bottle, or around £4 – £7 by the glass.

We paid £30 for our drinks plus a £10 tip for the excellent service.

Fitzbillies

Fitzbillies, 52 Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RG; 01223 352 500

Links

Fitzbillies – http://www.fitzbillies.com/

Tim’s article – http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/nov/11/fitzbillies-tim-hayward-cambridge

Main image credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/nov/11/fitzbillies-tim-hayward-cambridge

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Three Wines from Joseph Barnes

A while ago, I went to see Charles Hardcastle of Joseph Barnes Wines in Saffron Walden and was very impressed with his range of southern French, Basque and Spanish hand-crafted wines.

At the end of our meeting, he gave me a couple of wines to sample in full and I opened them up at home the other weekend for some guests.

Bodegas Ameztoi, Txakoli di Getaria 2010 – £12.25

Very pale yellow in the glass, it smells of brine, seashells and wet stones.

On the palate, it is neutral, clean and fresh with lemony apples-and-pears acidity and gentle minerality.

With little primary fruit, it is all about lovely purity and focus.

It makes a great aperitif or a wine for seafood or tapas.

Lovers of obscure grape varieties will be keen to learn that this is made from Hondarribi Zuri grape (aka Petit Courbu in France).

Cave de Saint-Etienne de Baigorry, Irouleguy Blanc ‘Cuvee ‘Andere d’Ansa’ 2010 – £10.99

Aged in oak and made from a blend of 80% Gros Manseng and 20% Petit Manseng this smells curiously of take-away fish and chips, with a saltiness and aromas of malt vinegar, some oakiness, floral aromas and a touch of sour hay.

On the palate, it feels quite old school with buttery-creamy-sweet oak, nutmeg and cinnamon spice, toastiness and some oxidative character.

There are also floral aromas and long, apricotty, lemony acidity with more of the same on the finish.

This is much weightier than the previous wine and would match well with heavier fish dishes, such as smoked haddock or salmon mornay.

Domaine Du Meteore, Les Leonides, Faugères 2007 – £9.10

On opening, there is an intense nose of dark berries and tarry liquorice with garrigue herbs and hints of roasted dark spices and dark coffee.

Made from a mix of typical southern French varieties, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, in the glass it is a dark cherry colour, but now running to a faded brick red with age.

The palate is juicy with more dark berry fruit, some vanilla sweetness and rounded acidity.

With a few years of bottle age, it has now gained a degree of harmonious mellowness and after a couple of hours in the decanter, the nose has faded a little and palate opened up showing more garrigue herbs, coffee and dark spices with lots of elderberry fruit and a smooth custardy texture and some grip on the finish.

To me it is like a young Mick Jagger – a brash, eclectic in-yer-face mix of things, but behind it all, actually quite sophisticated and respectable.

Food pairing is relatively straightforward – anything that matches the bitter, herbaceous herbiness will go well, so think rosemary and sage.

We found it matched superbly with starters of beetroot with rosemary cream cheese as well as asparagus wrapped in pancetta and a main of herby sausages.

Recommended Wine

All three are excellent wines and it’s a bit “you pays your money and you takes your choice”. However, taking price into account, the Domaine Du Meteore represents superb value given its price of under a tenner.

Links

Joseph Barnes Wines – http://www.josephbarneswines.com/home.aspx

My earlier review of Joseph Barnes – http://cambridgewineblogger.blogspot.com/2011/07/joseph-barnes-wines-saffron-walden.html

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Wines For Christmas – December Wine of The Month

December means Christmas – and whilst the supermarkets may be vying for your attention and hard-earned pennies with special offers, it’s the independents who really specialise in the wines for special occasions. 

This month, in recognition of the time of year, we have increased the budget slightly and asked Cambridge’s independents to suggest three wines for drinking over the festive season. 

Peter Lehmann Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz, £17.99 , Noel Young Wines

Red Aussie fizz is miles away from Champagne in every sense, but this Peter Lehmann Sparkling Shiraz is bottle-fermented using the Champagne method.

The fruit, from 2006, spends a year aging in old oak before two more years’ secondary fermentation on the lees in bottle.

Disgorged in 2010, it now has a further year or so’s bottle age.

The mere sight of a purple foaming wine will provoke comment and conversation, whilst the wine itself shows plum and prune fruit with some secondary aromas of dark, bitter chocolate, Christmas spice and liquorice.

There is a touch of mid-palate fruit sweetness, but the finish itself is quite dry with a savoury, leesy richness and depth of flavour.

Serve well-chilled as an unusual aperitif, or better still match the fruit and spiciness to gamey cold starters such as venison terrine or Boxing Day cold cuts with spiced cranberry chutney (an inspired recommendation from Mrs CWB).

Domaine A-F Gros, Pommard, Bourgogne, £18.99 Bacchanalia

Red Burgundy is never cheap and spending upwards of £15 is not even a guarantee that you’ll get something memorable.

This Pommard from A-F Gros, however is one of the best red Burgundies I have had in a while and is a great introduction to the delights of Burgundian Pinot  Noir.

Straight out of the bottle, the nose shows complex aromas of cherry, garrigue herbs, woodsy, mushroomy forest floor and a pronounced gaminess.

On the palate, there is cherry and red-plum fruit, whilst the acidity is bright, lively and juicy with a touch of cool mint and a silky smooth texture.

The finish is balanced and lingers with a touch more herbiness.

Match with game dishes, such as pheasant or even with a Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings.

I would not decant this wine before serving as it impresses straight out of the bottle; the delicate aromas will not benefit from large amounts of aeration and there are no chewy tannins to soften.

It also bears mentioning that 2009 was a particularly good vintage for Burgundy generally, so it’s worth making a note of the year. 

Smith Woodhouse LBV Port, 2000, £21.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

After too much turkey and “maybe just one more” mince pie, it may be time to kick back in front of a roaring fire and pour a glass of something sweet and warming.

Late Bottle Vintage is port from a vintage year (declared roughly 3-4 times per decade) that is aged for longer in barrel before bottling and therefore does not need as much aging in bottle as Vintage.

Dark purple in the glass, this Smith Woodhouse LBV has a nose of cassis, herbs, eucalyptus and spice. With a few swirls, the cooked fruit aromas of the added spirit emerge.

The palate is initially sweet and warming before a complex blackcurranty fruit with more cool eucalyptus and hints of dark spice develops.

The finish is long and balanced, with the base wine and the spirit well integrated.

I would either sip this on its own or match with a bitter chocolate and cherry dessert – whilst port and stilton is a classic combination, cheese generally matches better with a less fruity aged tawny with a decade or more’s barrel age rather than a more primary and fruit-driven LBV like this.

It also has a Decanter Trophy.

Recommended wine

These three wines are all a little above “everyday drinking” price levels and unlike supermarket wines right now, there are no eye-catching, gimmicky 25% off / BOGOF / Christmas special pricing or artificial discounts offer to be had.

Rather, what you get here are some really sophisticated, complex and well-made wines with individuality and personality that will impress and are worth every extra penny.

If you have been following this column since it started earlier this year and trying the wines (generally priced at £8 – £12), I’m confident you’ll appreciate the step-up in quality of these three Christmas recommendations – the depth of flavour of the fizz, the complexity and texture of the Burgundy, the elegance and harmoniousness of the port.

There is no overall winner this month – just three great wines for festive drinking to enjoy with good food and great company.

Wine of The Month takes a post-Christmas frugality / de-tox break in January, but returns in February with a Valentine’s theme and a new addition to our line-up.

Until then, Happy Christmas !

Links

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.co.uk/

Main image credit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/tvandradioblog/2007/dec/25/yulelogtv

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Alvear PX Solera 1927 Montilla – Cambridge Wine Merchants

With autumn well and truly upon us, it’s time for big, hearty, warming wines with seasonal food to match. For mains, that means seasonal game dishes and stews - but spare a thought for filling, indulgent puddings with some bonfire night smoke, spice and warmth. If you need a wine to match to a sticky toffee pudding, treacle sponge or spotted dick, this unusual but delicious Pedro Ximénez might just might be the thing – I chose it as a match for a sticky toffee cheesecake recipe given to me by local Masterchef Finalist, Alex Rushmer who now runs The Hole in The Wall in Wilbraham (pictured left).

Alvear PX Solera 1927 Montilla , £12.99 (37.5cl) Cambridge Wine Merchants

Dessert wines are some of my favourites and the trick to matching with a pudding is that the wine should be sweeter than the food, otherwise it will taste tart and thin.

Wines from Spain’s Pedro Ximénez (“PX”) grapes are about as sweet as they come and this one will stand up to the autumnal richness a treacle toffee cheesecake.

PX is most commonly used to add sweetness to dry oloroso to produce a sweet sherry but, as here, is occasionally made into a dessert wine in its own right.

It is made from superripe grapes that have then been dried out on straw mats to intensify the flavours; more unusually, it is also made in a solera, like a dry sherry, that in this case dates back to 1927.

It is a dark mahogany, thick and treacly on pouring – you really won’t need much of this – and has aromas of cooked mixed fruit, dried figs, dates and prunes with hints of dark chocolate, molasses and roasted nuts on the nose.

On the palate it is concentrated and mouthfilling with raisiny fruit and enough fresh acidity to match the sweetness.

The long finish adds hints of bitter aromatics and dark spices from aging in oak.

Links

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

The Hole in the Wall – http://www.holeinthewallcambridge.co.uk/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Wine Of The Month – November

The clocks have gone back, Halloween is out of the way, and once bonfire night is past, there’s not much to look forward to during this last month of autumn except more damp and cold.

And yet, for those of a melancholy bent, those who can see in nature’s riotous panoply of autumnal russet, gold and burnt ochre hues a last hurrah before inevitable decline and decay set in, for those of us in whom the season brings about a sense of introspection and melancholy, late autumn is a stirring, moving, soulful time of the year – a season for Romantic Poets and armchair philosophers alike.

The Romantic or Philosophical amongst us, then, must choose wines and food that feed the melancholy of our souls and speak to our inner wistfulness through their aromas and flavours.

If wine is poetry bottled, then there are few more poetic terroirs than Burgundy whose indulgent, decadent, hedonistic oenology and gastronomy convey a sense of autumnal decay perhaps like no other, and so we start with a white Burgundy.

Macon-Bussieres Dom du Vieux Puits 2008, Domaine Drouin, Maconnais, Burgundy – £12.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

Made from old vines, the nose is toasty with hints of tropical fruit, white flowers and vanilla.

On the palate, there is ripe pear fruit and rounded acidity; the wine feels full and rich from aging in mainly large, old oak barrels with 25% new oak for a hint of toasty vanilla sweetness, whilst time spent on the lees gives a savouriness to the finish.

Neither a blockbuster New World Chardie nor a tropically fruity unoaked version, this is a classic food wine to match with straightforward dishes like plain roast chicken and lighter game such as partridge and quail.

Alternately, match with pasta and wild mushrooms in a creamy sauce.

Tenuta Monticello ‘Operetta’ Rosso delle Venezie IGT – £8.99 Noel Young Wines

A Ripasso-style wine made from 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% of the grapes are ‘appassimento’- dried in small crates in a drying room, with the two parts of the wine vinified seperately and then aged 12 months in French and American oak barriques.

The nose is full of blackcurrant and elderberry aromas with a hint of prunes, cherries, spice and a mushroomy woodsiness. On the palate, there is concentrated fruit sweetness, more elderberry fruit, liquorice, vanilla musk and a sour cherry acidity with soft tannins.

Match with either roast lamb or darker game, such as pigeon or pheasant.

Pinna Fidelis, Roble 2009, Ribera del Duero, £7.99 Bacchanalia

From Spain’s prestigious Ribera del Duero region, this one has a big nose of bramble fruit, tarriness, liquorice, loganberries and vanilla spice with a touch of funky, vegetal forest floor.

The palate feels full, soft and sweet with velvety dark berry and prune fruit, mintiness, vanilla and dark spice, whilst there is plenty of lively sour-cherry acidity.

On the finish, there is more mintiness and some gentle grip.

With air, the decaying, vegetal aromas and sour cherry acidity become more pronounced giving this a Pinot-esque feel; match, therefore, with typical Pinot Noir food such as pheasant, duck and other dark game or meaty casseroles with some clove spice.

These are all good wines, but this month’s winner is the Macon-Bussieres from Cambridge Wine Merchants on a number of counts – the most classical, it matches well with the kind of seasonal autumnal food that brings to mind images of rooting for truffles in the mist and half-darkness.

But more than that, should we find a day this month when the sun shines and the temperatures rise to moderately warm, we need a white wine, albeit a Big White, to match with lighter game or creamy pasta with wild mushrooms and truffles and leaven our diet of Hearty, Spicy Reds, bringing a life-affirming touch of levity, the freshness of a morning mist and the golden hue of a turning leaf.

Links

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/

Drouin – http://www.domaine-drouin.com/en/macon-bussieres-vieuxpuits.php

Image credit – http://www.pashley.co.uk/code-inc/view-gallery-img.php?size=large&id=338

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Farmers’ Market at Cambridge Hotel du Vin

At the weekend, I stopped by Cambridge’s Hotel du Vin for their farmers’ market and barbecue event, organised by the hotel to showcase some of their various food and drink suppliers with both samples and produce to buy.

We were greeted at the entrance by roasting chestnuts and an array of fresh produce from Lenards of Covent Garden, the hotel’s greengrocer, from which we were encouraged to help ourselves; our haul included, amongst other things, a punnet of delicious strawberries which we had on a picnic the following day.

The hotel, a conversion of four townhouses, has a somewhat quirky, if not labyrinthine, layout but this made the experience all the more intriguing as we walked from room.

In the library was Radwinter Wild Game, whose excellent sausages I have reviewed previously at a Cambridge Food and Wine Society event; they were selling a mixture of game, including muntjac, rabbit, hare and squirrel for which there is no closed season as they are pests.

October marked the start of the pheasant season but Radwinter’s spiced pheasant sausages are so popular with customers that they keep frozen stocks to be able to sell them all year round and the ones we sampled were lovely.

Moving past the Kandula Tea Company from Ely who have a range of bespoke and classic whole-leaf teas and infusions as well as being Great Taste Award winners, we met La Cave a Fromage / Premier Cheese Ltd – both essentially the same businesses, the former its retail outlet and the latter a trade supplier – and sampled a 2-year-old Comte which was utterly delicious.

Nicholson’s Herb Farm supplies the hotels herbs, but also had a range of seasonal chutneys and jellies for sale.

Glebe Farm from Huntingdon, which provides the hotel’s flour and sells their range (all stone ground at local windmills) at Cambridge Farmers’ Outlet, had cakes and crunchy granola for sampling.

Grasmere Farm, not actually from Grasmere at all but based in Lincolnshire, supplies sausages, bacon and black puddings had a range of sausages to try – a delicious smoked Rutland, a sharp cider and apple, a herby Lincolnshire as well as a fruity apricot and some haslet.

Moving outside, Bar Manager Stefan had a range of real ales and ciders to sample, all supplied by local wine merchant and beer enthusiasts, Bacchanalia.

We started with a Kipling from Thornbridge Brewery in Derbyshire – called a South Pacific pale ale due to the use of New Zealand hop variety Nelson Sauvin, it was fresh with tropical fruit and pronounced bitter aromatics.

The Jaipur IPA was felt light, despite its higher 5.9% abv, clean and hoppy. Next was a Southwold Bitter from Suffolk brewer Adnams – heavier and darker than the previous beers, it was malty and crisp. Finally, a beer from Cambridge’s newest micro-brewery and one I had not heard of before – Cambridge Moonshine Brewery. Their dark Night Watch Porter was like Bonfire Night in a bottle with smokey, treacley, toffee aromas and is made with honey and wheat as well as the more usual malt and hops.

Picking our way downstairs, we found Head Sommelier Nicolas whom I had met at a cigar dinner a few months ago with a range of wines to try.

First was an English Chardonnay 2010 from Hush Heath Estate – very pale in the glass, it has a touch of oak on the nose. However, the palate provides quite a surprise as it is full of ripe, tropical fruits and feels surprisingly lush after the much more restrained first impression.

Giving the wine a bit of aeration allowed the primary fruit to die down a little revealing good acidity and a minerality on the finish, suggesting that with a bit more bottle age it will improve significantly and become more balanced.

Next up was their rose; with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay in the blend, it was essentially a flat Champagne and proved to be much more as expected, with red berries, some stone fruit, focused acidity and a clean, pure-fruit feel.

The final wine was a Bauduc 2008 Clos de Quinze red Bordeaux. With mostly Merlot in the blend, it was light and perfumed with aromas of bramble fruit, prunes and coffee. On the palate there is sweet vanilla and a gentle grip on the finish, but, personally, I would have liked a little more texture.

Of the three, the rose showed best on the day for its clear, focused acidity, but the Chardonnay has the potential to improve.

Details of future events at Cambridge Hotel du Vin are available on their website – http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx – or by calling the hotel on 01223 227 330.

Selected links

Hotel du Vin – http://www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/cambridge/cambridge.aspx

Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011

Wine of the Month – October

October has been something of a mixed month so far with a late Indian summer to kick things off, some distinctly wintry temperatures a few days later, and a bit of mist and mellow fruitfulness in between.

However, one thing remains constant and that is the need for bigger, warming wines to go with some appropriately seasonal food.

All the wines this month come from the warmer parts of classic wine countries and have a greater degree of ripeness and up-front fruit as a result.

In general, we are looking at grape varieties that score highly in terms of personality rather than for classical restraint and good food matches will be something appropriately full of spicy, herby flavours, such as good butcher’s sausages, spiced game, meaty stews and roasted mediterranean vegetables.

Concertino Corbières 2008 £8.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants

 Made from an unoaked blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, there is smokey prune fruit and eucalyptus on the nose.

On the palate, there is juicy, dark berry fruit with some gentle grip on the finish. 

Vedilhan Syrah Viognier Languedoc 2009 £8.49 Bacchanalia

 This mix of northern Rhone gapes shows dense cassis with liquorice and vanilla spice on the nose.

 The palate is soft and full with a touch of peachiness from the Viognier. The acidity feels rounded and mouthfilling with some vanilla sweetness on the mid-palate.

 Masseria Pietrosa Salice Salentino 2010 Noel Young Wines, £9.25

 From the “heel” of Italy and made from the big Negroamaro grape which is native to the region, this is the most crowd-pleasing wine straight out of the bottle.

 The nose is full of ripe elderberry fruit whilst the palate is rich and warming with sweet fruit and hints of cooked Christmas spices, balanced with good acidity and ripe tannins.

 On the finish, there is just enough grip to let you know this a food wine.

 With such unpredictable weather and temperatures this month, it is hard to make a recommendations based on seasonality – on a warmer day the juciness of the Corbières might suit, whilst the warming fruit and spice of the Salice Salentino will keep any wintry damp and chill away.

However, for me, the most enjoyable wine here is the Veldihan Syrah Viognier for its complexity and soft, peachy texture.

 Links

 Bacchanalia – http://www.winegod.co.uk/

Cambridge Wine Merchants – http://www.cambridgewine.com/

Noel Young Wines – http://www.nywines.co.uk/ 

Main image credit – http://www.sjlshots.com/2008/03/18/october-leaves/

Copyright Tom Lewis 2011