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The Importance of temperature

I can`t over-emphasise the importance of serving your wines at the right temperature. I don`t mean the exact temperature. You really don`t need an instrument to tell you what feels right. However, in case you are the sort of wine enthusiast who likes gadgets (I am not) there are plenty around, ranging from colour-coded liquid crystal thermometer strips, to handheld infrared guns which provide digital readings. Consensus offers the following guidelines in degrees centigrade: full-bodied reds 17-18, medium-bodied reds 14-16, light reds 10-12, full-bodied whites 10-12, medium-bodied whites 9-11, light whites 6-8, sparkling whites 5-10, full-bodied sweet 8-12, light sweet 6-10. These are useful numbers to know, but not necessary. What`s key is to understand   wine`s weight, or body, is a factor in determining wine`s ideal temperature. Really only the very light white wines, and especially sparkling light wines, are best served properly chilled from the fridge. What I call “cellar-temperature” is best for almost everything else, when the bottle is cool to touch. A tad cooler for full-bodied whites, maybe. Avoid “warm to touch” bottles and forget all about the red wine serving misnomer “room-temperature”; I think the term must have been invented in Victorian times, before central heating. Wines served lightly chilled, say, one hour out of the fridge, will be about right, just on the cool side of “cellar”.  In my mind, too many reds are drunk too warm, and too many whites drunk too cold. And all too many restaurants take insufficient care to get it right. If you are ever served a warm, sweaty, alcoholic red, for goodness sake ask the waiter to chill down the bottle for you. In a matter of minutes, the smell of alcohol will have abated and the fruit quality improved noticeably. If you are having a summer wedding and it turns out to be a scorcher, have your caterer on red alert!  At home, keep your wines, red and white, in the coolest possible place. And don`t waste your money on expensive wines, only to ignore my temperature advice. Cheers everyone!

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A Taste of South Africa

What a trip! From the moment the plane hit the tarmac to our departure, a kaleidoscope of sounds, colours, tastes and smells.  Our first township: chaotic, overcrowded, sprawling; sheet upon sheet of corrugated metal. Next, ebullient, colourful Cape Town: the Bo-Kaap, Signall Hill, Lion`s Head, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.  The romantic sunset viewed from the top of Table Mountain, and the town`s natural amphitheatre lit up at night.  Then, a drive round the Cape`s rocky peninsular: to Simon`s Town and Boulder`s Beach; our first view of False Bay from the shore, surrounded by hundreds of noisy penguins.  A visit to the south west tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, famously circumnavigated by Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias in 1486, pathing the way for Europeans to trade in Asia.  And our first winery visit, to Klein Constantia where we tasted the legendary sweet wine Vin de Constance. A wine drunk by Kings and Queens. Napoleon drank it on the island of St Helena to find solace in his lonely exile.  Now we were sipping the wine, in this great place dating back to 1685, set amidst ancient trees with views across beautiful False Bay. Then we had a taste of something quite different: the wilderness. The feeling of vastness and the hot smell of dust as we drove through the Karoo with our guide, sighting lion, rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo, springbok, giraffe and hippo. Then, the turn of Stellenbosch, Western Cape`s wine capital, and beautiful Franschhoek, founded three hundred years ago by Huguenot settlers. And we visited one wine growing region after another, each with its stories to tell. Stories of human perseverance, passion and daring. We tasted one wine after another: super-fresh grassy Sauvignon, lemon-meringue Chardonnay, vibrant-tangy Pinotage, cassis-scented velvet Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines I hope to bring home, to Great Horkesley, among them Rustenberg, Rust En Vrede, Catherine Marshall, Kanonkop, Kaapzicht, Darling Cellars, Lemberg, Bouchard Finlayson, Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Paul Cluver. And may these bottles long in the future rekindle many happy memories. Cheers everyone!


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Why are some wines more expensive than others?

I get lots of questions like our heading today. In a way they seem childish, like “How is it the sun and the moon can just sit in the sky?” Yet try answering and you find yourself on a sticky wicket. But I`ll try. The wine question, I mean! First, it can be a simple case of numbers. The economies of scale.  Farming large flat spaces is cheaper than cultivating vines on steep, difficult to access slopes. It`s naturally possible to produce a cheaper product if your vines bear plentiful fruit, as compared to vines which don’t. Further savings are made throughout the winemaking processes, right the way through to large, versus small, bottling runs. Similarly, transporting large volumes of wine represents a cost saving over the transportation of small volumes, an advantage the supermarket chains have over us independent wine merchants. In the end, though, low-yielding fruit and the small-time producer would lose every time if the measure was volume and low price alone. Their bottles simply would not exist on our shelves. In fact, they wouldn’t exist, and us independents likely wouldn’t either. We would be reduced to a homogenous world of large corporate wine producers and supermarket chains. But happily, there are many such wines, and we thank the stars for them. Indeed, many of them are family concerns, passed from generation to generation. Because there`s the second factor in this equation in answer to the titled question: the matter of quality and diversity. Some wines are simply better and more interesting than others, and inevitably more expensive. Producer X has chosen the tricky south-east facing slope despite the high cost of cultivating his vines, exactly because they produce low yields of concentrated, delicious fruit. He then chooses to mature his wines in expensive oak barrels to make the best possible wine. In return we are asked to pay a higher price. It`s simple economics, but if you don`t drink decent wine you may not value the distinction. Mercifully a great many of us do.


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2020 – a golden era for winemaking?

It can be a risky business, winemaking. The pursuit of excellence often requires nerve and daring. Yet more and more winemakers are going to the brink. New vineyards are springing up in areas once considered not practical and far too risky for the growing of wine grapes, such as those at high altitudes, and locations close to the sea. The aim, always, in warm climate countries, increasingly with global warming, is to seek out cool micro-climates for as long a growing season as possible. In this way grapes develop more flavour intensity and complexity, and wines are fresher. Many cool climate countries, conversely, are benefitting from more sunshine days. In England, for example, we are growing grapes such as Chardonnay which, except for the making of sparkling wines, wouldn’t have quite ripened well enough even just a few years ago. Of course, for nigh on two thousand years wine grapes have been grown high on steep slopes, such as on the Douro terraces in Portugal, for example, but in 2020 the practice is worldwide, and think of the winemaking improvements over the centuries, especially the last few decades.   We`ve never had is so good.  Science and technology, and investment in winemaking, have all been a part of this sea change over the years. We are in a mature, evolved place in 2020. We should think ourselves lucky. Extensive clone selection, mature vines, best possible sites. Have you ever visited a modern winery? Pick any. They are a far cry from the romantic image of a horse and cart, dusty old wine barrels and a flat-capped aged winemaker with a fag hanging from his mouth. Yet they produce better wines, truthfully: more elegant, cleaner, and pure of fruit; better with food.  Yet it occurs to me: are we living in the golden age of winemaking? Could global warming tip the wine world off balance in future years?  Just how many new landscapes can winemakers test to escape the heat? And how many of the cool-climate grapes will simply disappear, replaced by warm-climate grapes? Enjoy the good times, folks, they may not be forever.

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Five Sleeps Before Christmas

Have you got your loved one the ideal Christmas present? For me, the perfect gift is a bottle of something special. Perhaps a bottle of red burgundy which is a price he or she wouldn’t ordinarily pay for him or herself. Or it could be the Champagne you both tasted together that first time. Or a wine from Puglia, where you went on honeymoon. Think of the connection which will make your partner smile. How thoughtful. Yet, my wife doesn’t agree with me. How thoughtless (her face revealed) as I presented my gift to her, carefully wrapped in tissue, in a Christmas gift bag, from our shop. The sentiment went right over her head. It was a bottle of Chateau Capion Le Chemin des Garennes Blanc, Languedoc 2016. Earlier that year we had stayed in the Chateau gardens, in a guest house among the vineyards. We had tasted together the exact same wine, overjoyed by its deliciousness with the chicken liver paté. It was a very special “moment”, or so I thought. Which just goes to show how hard it is to strike the right chord. How easy it is to mistake one`s own ideal gift, for that of one`s partner. Had she given the bottle to me I would have been blown away. This year we holidayed in Tuscany, so a bottle for Christmas of the San Polo Brunello di Montalcino, Toscana 2013 wouldn’t go amiss, if you`re reading this, Mrs Borges. Naturally I won`t reveal the nature of my gift to her in this blog, suffice to say it didn’t come from our shop!  Seriously though, if you are struggling to find a last-minute gift, you could do worse than stop by The Wine Centre. We have it all. Over five hundred bottles, hampers, glassware, handbags, toiletries, clothes, jewellery, ticketed events, vouchers. And you can be sure of some fun when you visit us too, with plenty of festive magic and tasty morsels from our deli on taste, perhaps even Chateau Capion Le Chemin des Garennes Blanc, our own private joke, eh everyone. Happy Christmas!


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Austria – single varietal styles

A few people have asked me to post some of my notes on the styles of wine we discovered in Austria. Here goes:

Notable single varietal styles 


I loved the savoury style of the cherry-like Braufrankisch reds. These wines have a fantastic future alongside Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir and Syrah.  All great food wines.

Pinot Blanc

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was how much I liked the Pinot Blanc wines. They had a generosity I enjoyed, with fruit, mineral and acidity in good balance. I noted appealing apricot and pear candied fruit, and almond. I personally prefer this style not to be bone dry, which some were.  Potentially in my view this grape could be a real winner for Austria.


I preferred the Welschriesling as a blend, notably wine # 2 from Schiefer. Generally I thought they offered a fruitiness which was quenching and  a refreshing point of difference from the mineral focused wines.


Schiefer`s orange coloured Traminer wine #6 is worth singling out for its unique perfume and individuality.


An aromatic style which like Traminer has a hint of Turkish Delight about it, especially the sweeter styles.


I had always thought this style of wine made in Austria to be savoury with green notes, celery, white pepper and mineral, on the austere side, very much food wines, as compared to a fruiter style grown elsewhere, in New Zealand, say, where the fully ripened grapes add honeysuckle, orange blossom and peach to a richer style of wine. Well  I was delighted to discover G-V wines on my trip across the entire spectrum.

Sauvignon Blanc

I preferred the Sauvignons which retained some of the grassy fruit character of the grape. I thought these were lovely. I liked the interplay of fruit, mineral and acidity. Not unlike the Sancerre style.  For my own palate too many of them were too serious, all mineral and acidity. Like too many Pouilly-Fumes, for my taste. I think these wines can be elegant without losing generosity. I like their focus on terroir, don`t get me wrong, but when they lack fruit personality entirely, and some did, they can be hard work. In fairness, Sauvignon is not my favourite grape.


I loved the Chardonnays. I would personally like to see a lot more of this style in Austria. Those we tasted were very slick and stylish, mostly along the citrus spectrum. The minerality of these wines played a significant not domineering part, and they were textural and delicious.   Although it was clear the Austrians are aiming for a fresh, food friendly style of Chardonnay (consciously not stirring lees aka batonnage), the evidence was the wines evolve “burgundy-esque”  ricnness nonetheless. Eg.  the last 2011 .. at lunch? [which was this, Claire?}

St Laurent

I liked the wines we tasted. Probably even more like Pinot Noir than Braufraukisch, with cherry and violet to the fore. A little tartness on the finish was quite attractive.


This style, a crossing between Braufrankisch and St Laurent, was full-bodied with its own rustic style imbued with cherry fruit. I quite liked it as a quaffing, barbecue wine.


I liked their Rieslings but personally would like to see more limes and orange blossom and a tad of natural sugar to round them out. I think it was the second wine of the whole trip we tasted which was closest to the mark, from Kamptal, followed by the Steirmark.




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Roller coaster part 2, time for the reds

Follows part 1.

It`s 8.45pm. We are at The Wine Centre around one-third way through our Friday night dinner “roller coaster”. Guests have paid £65 for the evening. In the last blog we covered the aperitif and the first two courses with matching white wines. Now we are being poured our first red wine of the evening, a palate cleanser, without food. It`s Prà Morandina Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy 2018 (£19.99), a fragrant Valpolicella, light and airy, with red savoury fruits and subtle notes of sage, thyme and oak. On the finish there`s a curious bitter twist and taut balancing acidity, which is lovely. There`s a noisy buzz around the shop, as though the wine bottles all around us are reverberating applause.   Our guests are happy and settled. Next up is the rolled lamb breast, a southern French classic, steeped in red wine pearl onion and thyme jus, with grilled baby courgettes & aubergines. It is paired with Boutinot`s `Séguret` Côtes du Rhône Villages, France 2015 (£16.99) from 80% Grenache & 20% Syrah grapes.  This wine is such fantastic value. It is “singing” tonight with layers of red and black fruits, exotic spices, cracked black pepper and vanilla.  Predictably, the lamb dish and red wine blend beautifully. As the plates are being cleared the noise in the shop is broken by the resonating chink of spoon on Riedel glass. The cheese platters are circulated, and our chef Dominic Carter mingles with guests. Meantime an intensely fruity low-tannin red is served: Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha, Campo de Borja, Spain 2017 (£18.99). The wine is a compote of luscious strawberries, raspberries and cherries, amid Provençal herbs, violets and vanilla. It provides an exquisite contrast of sweet red fruits and salty cheeses.  Finally, we finish the evening with Dominic`s light speculoos & raspberry cheesecake, paired with Castelvetro`s `Pignoletto` Spumante, Emilia Romagna NV (£17.99), an aromatic sparkling white wine with bright notes of green apples, lemons and limes. It`s our chance now to clink glass to glass around the table, and the roller coaster comes to an end. It`s 10.45pm.

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A roller coaster ride of the senses

Our wine-tasting dinners can be, as regards all five senses, something of a roller coaster:  For most guests it`s the end of a long week (almost always a Friday night) and they arrive, a tad jaded, at 7.30pm. Most are tired, a little hungry – yet at the same time excited. There`s a palpable feeling of anticipation about the shop, as guests mingle and chatter. The first drink is served: the aperitif. Guests are more than ready. Tonight it`s a white wine (rather, pale green) by talented winemaker Anthony Hamilton Russell, South Africa`s “The Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (£13.99)”. It’s juicy and lip smacking, grapefruit and dill scented, with a thrilling mineral streak. No oak whatsoever. Guests are suitably refreshed, and the tingling acidity of the wine has stimulated their appetites. The evening`s Chef, Dominic Carter, delights guests with an amuse-bouche, of sorts, his deliciously crunchy “Parmesan and Poppy Seed Lollipops”, taking the wine`s acidity away. Now guests are invigorated with a new sense of expectation as they sit down at the table. It`s 8pm and the roller coaster has only just begun. The first course is served: a zesty lime, dill, prawn and crab salad in a crispy tortilla bowl. Another pale, unoaked white wine is served alongside, this time from France: Petit Chablis Domaine de la Motte 2017 (£16.99). Guests tuck in, for a few minutes oblivious to their surroundings. The crisp,  cool climate Chardonnay washes seamlessly over the seafood salad, both light, intense and refreshing, in perfect harmony.   The second course is a richer one. Creamy Tuscan chicken thighs with crisp pastry disc and toasted pine nuts are accompanied by a much deeper golden yellow wine this time, rich, rounded, soft and unctuous, from Chile. It`s a roller coaster around the world no less! The wine is Signos de Origen La Vinilla Estate, Casablanca Valley 2016 (£16.99), aged 12 months in French oak, and a blend of 72% Chardonnay, 12% Viognier, 10% Marsanne and 6% Roussanne grapes. Characterised by its subtly rich creamy quality, the wine is a perfect match with delicious flavours of white peach, butter, almond and walnut. Incidentally, this is surely also one for the Christmas day turkey and all the trimmings! Now, still on the roller coaster, it`s 8.40pm…

The second instalment to this blazing roller coaster of a wine-tasting dinner will be posted soon, following a brief drum roll (like much of this, also left to your imaginations).

Cheers everyone!

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The Hills are Alive…

I recently went on a discovery trip to Austria, wine-tasting my way around the hills and valleys, as you do.  I travelled with strangers from five other independent wine merchants and by day three we were friends. Wine the shared passion. Our journey was south of Vienna, away from the Danube river and the famous wines of Austria; thus, ignoring the legendary terraced vineyards of Wachau and Kamptal and their world renowned Gruner-Veltliner and Riesling dry white wines. Instead we headed for the emerging and up-and-coming wine regions in Burgenland and Styria. In the words of Cat Stevens: “on the road to find out”. But our first port of call was the small town of Rust, and Austria`s Wine Academy, where we were given an in-depth presentation on Austrian wines. It was illuminating and over the next few days we were to discover, to our collective delight, a world of wine we didn’t know existed.  “Orange wines”, for example, are produced in every winegrowing region. These are ancestral “Natural” wines produced with minimal human intervention. They could best be described as weird and wonderful. Sparkling wines are plentiful too, pleasingly fresh, produced by the Champagne method. Their reds are savoury, great food wines, the best of them the Blaufraukisch. The sweet wines, many of them intensely sweet,  ice wines and botrytised wines, are characterised by their balanced concentration of both natural sugar and acidity. And the dry whites, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay (and others), are perhaps best characterised by their minerality. Diverse and of high quality, comparable even to their northern counterparts, what they all had in common is a sense of place for which the Austrians are rightly proud. Before long we will be bringing some of these to Great Horkesley for you to try for yourselves. But I recommend you visit Austria and taste in situ, where you get to feel the chill air in the vineyards at 5-600 metres, meet the charming, very lovely people behind the labels, breath the fresh air, and, of course, where you can take to the hills and sing “the hills are alive” and everyone will think you are perfectly normal!  Cheers all.


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Last word on wine speak, and the virtues of sherry

When learning about wine you take on a whole new language, and over the past months I have tried to cover the essential words and phrases in this blog (feel free to refer back!).  Really, though, it`s only by trying them out yourselves that words and meanings have a chance of sticking. I`m reminded of when I changed the starting motor of my first ever car (a Ford Escort), I was told what a Bendix drive is, and its function. I still remember this 37 years later!  Therefore, my advice is to get stuck in. Take a good look under the bonnet. Maybe even consider taking a WSET exam. It`s a great way of getting into the drinks industry, too, if you think you might fancy a career in wines and spirits. We at “The Wine Centre” are always on the lookout for good people with WSET training, especially diploma graduates. But even taking wine on as a hobby, it`s a good idea to get to grips with the language. You`ll find the more you know, the better you will understand the subject, the greater the enjoyment and satisfaction.

Today`s concluding word from my wine-speak “series of drivel” is, as it happens, one I struggle even to pronounce:  oxidative. A word you will probably come across in the context of making sherry.  It refers to controlled oxidation during winemaking. Oxidative aromas and flavours may be described vaguely as nutty and complex, but really the best way to know exactly what an oxidative wine smells and tastes like is to buy a bottle of decent sherry, an Oloroso, Palo Cortado or Amontillado.  We have them in the shop, though they are not cheap. Indeed, it`s a time-consuming and expensive process, aging a wine in oak barrels slowly and deliberately in the presence of oxygen, a manifestly transforming process which gives us a wholly unique drinking experience. I`ve heard it described as on a par with the process of dry-aging and curing meats in this respect, where the original product is changed beyond recognition. As it happens, they pair fabulously together. Magnifico!