October 2nd, at 7.45pm precisely, I had a eureka moment. The occasion was the Wine Centre`s long awaited 2020 Christmas party. It was a last hurrah to our Indian summer days in the garden porch. As things turned out, the heavens opened-up and the black sky filled with sheets of rain, high winds, and fluttering leaves. There had been power-cuts in the run up to everyone arriving, so we had candles everywhere (just in case), and sure enough, with fifteen minutes to go, the lights and the electric outdoor heaters snuffed out again. There was a crash and a loud expletive from the kitchen inside (we were also cooking, of course) and now the candles were blowing out as fast as I could light them, with only a phone torch to guide me. Napkins entered the fray, flapping erratically, and I knocked a jug of water over. And then the doorbell rang, and all the lights came back on, and the heaters sprang into life again. “Good evening, everyone!” I beamed, “do come in”. Mercifully, by the time we all stepped into the porch, the storm had abated and now there was just a pleasant flurry of wind and the pitter-patter of gentle rain on its slate roof. At any rate I was in a state of heightened spirits when I opened our first bottle. We were all full of expectation, because it was none other than Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne, one of those big occasion bottles. In the flickering candlelight and iridescent pink hue of the heaters, the sparkling wine appeared to be jewel-like in our glasses. Transfixed, we raised our glasses. The wine`s smell, even in the open air, was perceptively brioche, white flowers, and peach. The palate was a beautiful silky richness; cool, persistent, and intense, its effervescence a light prickle, no more than a tease. Flavours of citrus and pear imploded, then the long, creamy finish, and sense of vigour. There were smiles all around. It was going to be a good night, and everyone knew it. “Eureka”, I exclaimed.
Anyone who read my column last week will know I am somewhat cynical about national and international days of celebration. I made the point there are far too many, and a secondary thinly veiled point that far too many are on the verge of the margins; some of them, frankly, outright obscure. Today, October 15th, for example, incredibly, it`s National Grouch Day, to honour the world`s favourite grouch, Oscar, of Sesame Street. He`s the fluffy green monster who lives in a trash can. Yep, the world`s calendar dedicates one of its 365 days of celebration to a puppet. At any rate, during my research, as I sifted through the weird and wonderful subject matter given to celebrations, I came across this one, and I sat up, suddenly alert. It read: National Champagne Day, October 22nd, 2021. I thought: Now, if ever there`s a reason for a celebration, it`s this one! Many a time I have said, make the bottle the reason for the celebration, and what better bottle than the King of celebratory bottles, Devaux, Cuvée D, Champagne. Ordinarily £49.99 per bottle, for one week only readers get £10 off when mentioning this article. Cuvée D is a unique champagne made with a proportion of reserve wine going back to 1995 and aged on its lees for over 60 months. The result is a rich and complex wine, characterized by its fine bead of tiny bubbles, vibrant acidity, and minerality. The Pinot Noir in the blend (60%) gives body to the wine, while the Chardonnay (40%) provides elegance. It is truly delicious served simply with crispy snacks; alternatively why not get creative and create your own pancake blinis using our Pinney`s smoked salmon? Oysters and mussels are equally delectable, as is Calamari, scallops, and vegetable tempura. But a word of caution: do take care to muffle that pop. Behind each Champagne cork there is, typically, 90-pounds of pressure per square inch; enough to take your eye out. You don`t want to be spoiling your party before it`s even began.
What is it with everyone, nowadays? We seem to have a national day for most everything. Today, October 8th, it`s National Hero Day. Not super-hero, that`s another day. This one is to celebrate those people who inspire us. I wonder how we celebrate that? The worship of false idols is a sin, is it not? Anyway, as it turns out, today is also National Pierogi Day; we`re perhaps better celebrating that. And as if you didn’t know, it`s a kind of dumpling. Yes, we have a day dedicated to the humble dumpling, for Goodness-sake! It`s also, of course, as the title suggests, National Fluffernutter Day, where, in New England USA they pay homage to the childhood sandwich of peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff, squished between two slices of bread. It`s a big deal there, like pancake day here, except its roots are in World War 1 instead of Christianity, and it`s even more sickly. Today is also American Touch Tag Day – like Sports Day for kids in America, without the pressures of competition. ALL THIS, in just one day! LOOK, I don`t want to come across more cynical than I am. I get it, a lot of people want to promote their cause. We do it ourselves, within the drinks industry. Off the cuff: April 17th is Malbec Day, May 7th Sauvignon Blanc Day, May 21st it`s Chardonnay`s turn, August 18th Pinot Noir, and so on. A date for every grape practically. There`s even a more inclusive National Wine Day. Basically, any excuse. How about National Independent Wine Merchant Day? I think that would be a very worthy cause, don`t you? Even better: a week, or a month! But then, cluttering up the calendar is exactly what everyone is already doing, and that`s my point. A day to remember “a thing” has become a blurred nonsense that no one remembers anyway, such is our busy lives, so why not just leave it to birthdays. Stop cramming our lives with phoney dates. And lift a glass of whatever you fancy, whenever you like. Cheers everyone.
I was surprised to learn that Uruguay is the fourth largest wine producer in South America, after Argentina, Chile, and Brazil; surprised, because it is the second smallest country in South America, after little French Guiana. It goes without saying, therefore, that wine is not just important to its economy, but also to its culture. Moreover, it is grown everywhere. I found this quote: “From East to West and from South to North, vineyards can be found all over the country. A land of wines”. Yet, it`s also true that most of Uruguay`s best wines come from the south and south-east, from the hills around its capital, Montevideo, and east along the coast to Maldonado. There, the vineyards are cooled by the Rio de la Plata, the world`s widest river, and the Atlantic. And the vines which flourish most are Uruguay`s most important grape varieties: in red, the Tannat grape, yielding dark, structured wines, ideal for drinking with their great beef steaks; and in white, Albariño, perfect with their plentiful Atlantic seafood. Both are indigenous to Europe`s Iberian Peninsula, brought over by the Spanish colonisers. Bodega Garzón is a family-owned winery in Maldonado which specialises in these grape varieties and has impressed critics, of late, for the purity and character of their wines. We are thrilled to be stocking them, adding these two Uruguayan wines only, for the time being, to the great wall of Chilean and Argentinian wines in our shop. A gem in the South American crown… Garzon Reserve Albariño 2018, £20.99, has a bright yellow-green hue and an intense peach and citrus nose. The freshness and minerality on the mid-palate is superb, ably supported by a remarkable acidity which frames the juicy fruit. Garzon Tannat Reserve 2019, also £20.99, is deep purple in colour, with aromas of black plums and raspberries, and a hint of spice. On the palate, this is a full-bodied wine, with ripe tannins, a solid, fruit core, and notes of chocolate, tobacco, and mineral. Both are highly recommended. On offer in-store now.
Perhaps surprisingly, Argentina is the world`s fifth largest wine producer, one below USA, and one above Chile. Pretty good going considering the generational dominance of Old World wines. Italy, Spain, and France still lead the table, but their share of the market is ebbing away, while the New World is increasing its share, led by Argentina and for the greatest part, a single grape variety. You guessed it: Malbec. What an extraordinary success story Malbec is. Although a French grape – one of six grapes allowed in the making of claret, and still the dominant grape of Cahors – more than three-quarters of the world`s supply of Malbec comes from Argentina. They have made it their own, and it`s been a triumph. Interestingly, the berries are smaller than in France, and it`s debatable why. Some have concluded it must be a specific clone of Malbec, shipped in the mid-19th century; its disappearance in France possibly due to killer frosts. Others point to Argentina`s high altitudes, where Malbec thrives. At any rate, in Argentina these small purple berries produce inky dark full-bodied wines with the most amazing concentration and freshness, seemingly the higher they are grown. The grapes are able to reach full phenolic ripeness there, while retaining their acidity. They have aromas and flavours of plum and violet and juicy, velvety, ripe tannins. The most prestigious, it would appear, come from the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza, in the Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valleys, at altitudes ranging from 800 – 1500 metres. Argentina`s fabulous steaks are the perfect match for the best of these, but they all make ideal barbecue wines. One we recommend highly is Brazos de los Andes, £11.99 per bottle. Of course, it`s not all about Malbec. In Argentina`s province of Salta, for example, in the Calchaqui valley, at some 1,800 metres altitude we are delighted to offer Amalaya Riesling-Torrontés, a zingy, fresh, intensely aromatic white wine which is a bargain for £12.99 per bottle. And, of course, Argentina grows many of the other international grapes also; all worth exploring and on offer in-store now.
I am lucky enough to have visited Chile twice now, and so I have something of a handle on the wine scene. For expediency I will ignore its rich history and get to the nub of where we are today in wine terms, qualitatively speaking, and in respect of its diversity, which is a leap forward from thirty or even twenty years ago, when their wines were still average to middling, quite honestly, or at least, most of them. So, what has happened? Its geography hasn`t changed. It is still the thin strip of land on South America`s west side – the world`s narrowest country – 2,600 miles long, just 110 miles wide. It still has the high Andes at its back, to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Coastal Range between, through which the morning fog and sea breezes are drawn, cooling the grapes. And top and bottom respectively there is still the dry Atacama Desert, and the wet Patagonia fjords. The international wine grapes which so prosper there have also been around a long time. But not everywhere, which is to my point. Because in the pursuit of producing fine wines, brave winemakers have been venturing out these past decades to areas previously unexplored, to new coastal areas, and to difficult-to-navigate high altitude territories. While the main movement is west, others are planting at altitude elsewhere, to the east, and even to the extreme north, bordering the desert, as well as to the extreme south, where it rains cats and dogs, with winds so severe vines struggle to take hold. And yet the potential for making fine wine in these places has proven too tempting. The goal, always, in an otherwise warm climate country, is to plant vines in super-cool temperatures, providing wine grapes with long growing seasons which enable them to develop slowly to phenolic ripeness. It`s what it takes to get concentration, freshness, and character in wine, where warmer climes have always produced mediocrity. We call them extreme wines. I urge you to explore them! On offer in-store now.
Brazil, a personal journey
I recall visiting Brazil as a young man. I travelled from chaotic Sau Paulo to the very south, to Rio Grande do Sul, where Brazil borders Uruguay and Argentina on the 29th parallel south, which is just about cool enough for growing wine grapes, at altitude, as well as in the lower lying coastal valleys. I was both a student of wine, and in the business of selling wine to national outlets. I was escorting the wine buyer for Victoria Wine (remember them?), a young lady called Ann Tonks. At the time I was working for an American company called Heublein Inc. who owned Vinicola Aurora, the biggest winery in all of Brazil. I recall the winemaking at the time was heavily influenced by immigrants from Argentina and Italy. It was some thirty-five years ago, and there had been substantial investment in the winery by the new owner, but viticulturally speaking it was still relatively backward. The wines were okay: fruity, clean, easy-going and of varietal character (vaguely) but without complexity or intensity. My client committed to buying at least a few containers of the best of them, Aurora Castel Chatelet Cabernet, in a partnership which saw the first Brazilian wine sold in the UK. For every bottle sold we made a combined contribution to helping fight the deforestation of the Amazon forests. I recall we had a conversation about the status of Brazil as a wine producing country. We agreed it could swamp all of Europe in volume terms, but qualitatively speaking it would likely always be behind Argentina, Chile, and even its southern neighbour, Uruguay. The second part remains true to this day, the first never materialised; but may still; already it is the third largest wine producer in Latin America, after Argentina and Chile. Moreover, the wines of Brazil are improving, as they are elsewhere, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, even Columbia (despite the poverty). But there is a reason we stock only the wines of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, and that`s because they are better. On offer in-store now.
LATIN AMERICA, land of salsa, merengue, rumba, samba, and tango! Think of the countries and their great cities, to name a few: Mexico City (Mexico), Caracus (Venezuela), Sau Paulo (Brazil), Bueno Aires (Argentina), Santiago (Chile). These names drip with history; hot, throbbing municipalities which are culturally rich and heave with humanity whose thirst requires quenching. For this they drink beer. Cold beer. And plenty of it. Mexico`s Corona Extra is the leading brand still, despite the coronavirus hitting sales, apparently. Barley and wheat are big croppers in both Central and South America, as is sugarcane which has given rise to a heady consumption of spirit-based drinks. Venezuela is one of the World`s best rum producers, my absolute favourite Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva [on offer in-store now] a molasses-based rum distilled in copper pot stills and matured in whiskey barrels. A superlative silky blend of gingerbread, banana, and custard flavours make for a delicious drink served simply on ice. Another spirit is aguardiente, which translates to fire water, a shot in the arm to many a long drink, mostly made from sugarcane, but also from fruit. Brazil`s national cocktail is Caipirinha, sugars and limes, or lemons, dissolved in aguardiente on ice, the spirit there known as Cachaça. Pisco is another – Aguardiente de Pisco – a colourless brandy, of the grape, especially big in Chile and Peru. Both sugarcane and the grape were introduced by the colonising Spanish and Portuguese, as were their languages and cultures. The indigenous folk before them, the Maya, and the Inca, for example, would ferment plants, corn, and the sap of trees, to produce watery beer-like beverages. The grape struggled to take hold across the entire continent, not least because of the tropical climate which centred on the equator, in the north, at Ecuador. Hybrids offered some success, but eventually, finally, it was European Vitis Vinifera vines which exceled when grown at altitude. And in the coastal south, in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, where the South Pacific and Atlantic oceans extend their cooling influences as well, they flourished.
The title of today`s column is one and the same as a French film I saw many years ago, starring a young Mathieu Amalric as the lead character. It was a Woody Allenesque story of juvenile relationships, and it came to mind when I started to write my first line: “Late August…” I was about to embark on the virtues of the late summer seasonal fruits we have been enjoying. These, incidentally, have been mostly strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, on cereals, but we have also enjoyed lemon tart topped with raspberry coulis, recently, for dessert, accompanied by the slightly effervescent Moncucco Moscato d`Asti golden wine; and we had a memorable moment with Mclaughlin`s superb strawberries, which we partnered with Brachetto d`Acqui Rosa Regale pink spumante. I had been meaning to look ahead to “early September…” and the mouth-watering prospect of blackberries, figs, and plums to come. I had been thinking about the fruit tarts my wife likes to make, and how soon there would be pears and apples as well, and my favourite, apple, and blackberry crumble. All OF THIS, of course, leading to a list of recommended dessert wines to go with fruit tarts of every type, and a tip, advocating use of almond for a dream pastry base. I was going to wax lyrical about sweet wines made from botrytis affected grapes, explain how the mould punctures their skins, shrivelling the fruit, while concentrating the juices, simultaneously imparting its inimitable tell-tale marmalade-like flavours. INSTEAD, I was taken by an unbidden thought, about this film, and, as you can see, the article I had started to write sort of wrote itself, taking me on a tangent. In the film young people are recklessly tasting the various fruits of life, sometimes the Biblical forbidden fruit. A strawberry here, a blueberry there. It`s how we find out what we like, after all, not so unlike the journey of wine. And it occurred to me that the young are right to fill their boots. And how, for myself, now, I just like my wife`s blackberry and apple crumble.
There is an abundance of seasonal produce in August, and today we look at the local vegetables, and how they may influence your wine choice. With the old meat-and-two-veg of yesteryear, post-war times, you would likely pair a cup of tea, or a beer. Wine was for posh folk. Later we had the big brands of the 70`s, 80`s and 90`s, such as Paul Masson, Blue Nunn, Mateus Rose, Le Piat D`Or, amongst others. And some of you will remember those overly vanilla-flavoured Chardonnays from Australia. How we loved them, back then. But none of these were much suited to food, and certainly not for fine dining. There were others, of course, which were, and these were increasing steadily in number and quality, beginning to catch on here in UK, appearing in our restaurants and wine shops. Even the pub chains and supermarkets caught on, eventually. But it took decades to spread to any meaningful volumes, and the “with food” concept remained pretty much binary and crude to all except the best restaurants. It was generally understood that red wine went with red meat, while white wine was more suited to white meat, and fish, a rule of thumb which still stands today; except, of course, it wasn’t the extent of it, by half. Nowadays our tastes have expanded, and there is more general recognition of other considerations. For example, what else is on the plate? Is there a sauce? Is it tomato-based, or creamy? Is it a white fish, or an oily fish? What type of meat? And yes, is there a leading in-season vegetable? And why not? The very best example of this is our early summer asparagus which goes so well with Sauvignon Blanc, but in August we have aubergines, peppers, beetroots, broad beans, and peas. These offer great opportunities for interesting wine pairings. Try these: baked aubergine parmigiana, with Cotes du Rhone red, mince-beef stuffed roasted peppers with aged Australian Semillon, beetroot and feta cheese with Sauvignon Blanc, fresh broad bean salad with Vermentino, and pea risotto with Picpoul de Pinet.