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21 December 2013

Spain v Australia: festive sweeties and reds, with or without chocolate

Well, not exactly one against the other, but a way of introducing five very different wines from these two diverse wine-lands ranging from essentially dry red to sweeter to very very sweet, started as white ended up brownish. First off, an aged dry red from Penfolds, the 2006 vintage of their Bin 28 Shiraz (about £14 in the UK). This was one of a few stars sampled with different types of chocolate at a recent Northern Ireland Wine & Spirit Institute 'wine with chocolate' tasting, with Deirdre McCanny of Belfast chocolatier Co Couture (a tad more about chocolate making etc. follows the wine blurb). This particular Penfold's 'Bin number' has been going since 1959 apparently, and the 2006 wasn't really showing its age that much. Powerful spicy nose with eucalyptus tones even, sweet blackberry and maturing savoury notes, has a fair kick still vs attractive spice and richness vs meaty flavours and softening tannins. Nice with the 'plain' Madagascan chocolate and the 'smoked sea salt' flavoured one even (read on...); or have with the usual red meat suspects I'd imagine.


Moving on to the Rutherglen region in northeastern Victoria, which is famous for producing one-off sweet Madeirized style wines - deliberately oxidized by a special maturation process - fortified with alcohol (like Port and Sherry) and keeping hold of a large dose of natural sugar. Two different types are mentioned here, a 'Tawny' (the Portuguese won't like that) and a Muscat. Jen Pfeiffer is one of Naked Wines' bespoke winemakers, who's come up with a quirky little number called The Diamond 10 Year Old Rutherglen Tawny (19.8% abv). This showed cooked raisins and pecan nut on the nose, caramel fudge and toffee, oxidized Madeira notes but redder fruit, tangy toasted nuts vs sweet raisins vs punchy alcohol; quite balanced in the end despite all that going on (for a long time). £11.99 'Angel' price, £15.99 'normal' (more about their pricing here). I tasted this one at home recently (still am, a couple of mouthfuls at a time is enough, and it keeps for weeks) rather than at that choco event; try it with a selection of cheeses or mince pies.
Campbell's is a name almost synonymous with this particular style of sticky fortified wine, especially their legendary Rutherglen Muscat (17.5% abv - £13.99 Direct Wine Shipments and generally available in many specialist shops). Probably even sweeter than the tawny, with around 190 grams per litre residual sugar, this had a full-on cooked sultana and marmalade nose, very sweet and lush palate with treacly vs aromatic fruity flavours, the Muscat character does come through all that in the end lending a fruitier, dare I say 'fresher' side. The chilli chocolate worked well giving it a bit of bite; and similarly, the ginger choc also fought back! Was a bit weird with the sea salt one though.
Carrying on with the intense sticky theme, Sherry country in southwestern Spain is responsible for a variety of tasty styles of this fortified aged wine, from very dry (Fino, Manzanilla) to super sweet, such as Gonzalez Byass' extraordinary Matusalem (20.5% abv). Their press blurb describes it thus: "Matusalem is a premium cream sherry aged for 30 years in the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez, Andalucia. Fine Oloroso sherry is blended with Pedro Ximenez (that's a variety not some bloke who works there, whose bunches are dried out lying on mats after picking, massively concentrating the natural sugar) and aged in American oak barrels where the flavours and aromas concentrate."
This is what I scribbled down after trying it a few times at home over a period of days with and without food (makes a nice dessert just on its own, or with dried fruit and nuts perhaps) - again good with mince pies, could be a substantial match for Christmas pudding or smooths the edges on blue and hard mature cheeses; and what about pouring some over vanilla ice cream too? Powerful 'volatile' Madeirized nose with cooked/oxidized and really toasted walnuts and molasses tinged with an almost extremely reduced wine/meat gravy edge! Caramelized soy sauce too vs mega dried fruit sultana/raisin cocktail, huge palate with the same array of flavours plus very nutty sweet walnut/pecan, nice kick/bite cuts through it a little, very intense tangy vs sweet finish. Wow, extreme wine or what. Tastes the same a few days later, another one that will keep for a week or three probably. Luckily comes in half-bottles - £19.99 from Ocado, Waitrose, Tesco, Majestic, Fortnum and Mason, Harvey Nichols, Cambridge Wines and other independents and sherry specialists.
Staying in Spain, I'll come back to an unusual slightly sweet Merlot from Priorat, found down the coast from Barcelona and inland a little on the hills, made by Joseph Puig called Dolc de Lluna 2006 (15% abv, £22.50 DWS). Nicely wacky mix of maturing meaty leather notes and dark vs savoury fruit, had a bit of grip still vs rounded mouth-feel with some sweetness and kick. Different for a Merlot. Again stood up well to the stronger flavoured chocolates even, ginger and chilli, as well as a nice match with the 'plain'.

Talking of that Co Couture chocolate, it seems like a good way of ending this post with a few facts and figures about making fine chocolate gleaned from Deirdre's introduction (hopefully accurate, as it was all scribbled down in a hurry). Cocoa beans are bigger than I'd imagined, although shrink when roasted turning them brown too, as are the pods, which resemble elongated coconut shells without the hair crossed with a shrivelled melon! There are three different varieties used for making choco: forastero, the biggest pod mainly grown in western Africa; Trinitario, a hybrid of the latter and Criollo that's smaller with rounder ends and more susceptible to weather and disease. Criollo is considered the finest, and there's a resurgence in growing this one, Deirdre said, although it's difficult to grow. There's no sugar in the beans but is in the pulp around them, so they're fermented together imparting more flavour into the beans. These are then dried and roasted.
We tasted three pieces of raw beans, all different with bitter vs sweet profile. It should have intensity and tannins but not particularly bitter; if a bean tastes heavily roasted, it means it's poor quality. The final roasted bean is about 50-50 cocoa solids and cocoa butter, which is pressed and separated. The butter is a fat, which does smell like cocoa-infused butter and melts in your hand. For dark choco, they then take 70% cocoa solids (any fine chocolate should be minimum 70%) and add 30% cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla (best fresh). There shouldn't be any other kind of fat, although you can add the useful soya lecithin nowadays. For milk chocolate, you need the cocoa solids blended with milk powder then the rest of the ingredients as above. And white chocolate is just cocoa butter and the rest without the cocoa solids. The solids are first refined to make a smooth paste with no particles. Typically, the darker the colour, the higher the amount of solids although this isn't always the case, e.g. from Madagascar, which can have lovely reddy brown hues.
Rubbing your thumb on the back of the chocolate helps release the aromas. Snap it - a nice 'clean' snap means it's high in cocoa butter. Let it melt in your mouth on your tongue to get more of the flavours. We tried four different types with various origins and styles, although it's not totally clear from my notes what they were each called, so I'll just say I was surprised how different they all looked and tasted (they were all 70% dark), and no real bitterness there either. There are essentially two production styles though, French and Belgian/Swiss (plus everyone else). The French like to taste the chocolate and use less sugar and more butter (better for cooking chocolate too for melting) than the Belgian/Swiss makers.

Look out for sort-of 'part 2' of sweetie wine and chocolate on my other FrenchMediterraneanWine.com blog (links to it, with a touch of Maury and Banyuls), plus more southern French 'reds of the mo' that have come my way from the Roussillon, Languedoc and St-Chinian in particular...

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