"Buy my book about the Roussillon on Amazon UK in paperback or eBook or black & white version, and Amazon USA: paperback or eBook or black & white. OR BUY IT DIRECT FROM ME (UK & EU only). Also available in the US from Barnes & Noble in hardcover, paperback or eBook. For other countries, tap on the link above the cover photo (below right)." Richard Mark James

01 September 2007

Waitrose wine magazine (allegedly)

Last year, I was commissioned to do a few introductory pieces for a possible new wine magazine to be published by Waitrose (for those of you outside the UK, it's a superior supermarket chain owned by the John Lewis Group with a more enlightened wine range than some). Whatever happened between then and now behind the corporate scenes, my purple prose never saw the light of day and Waitrose did launch a funky little drinks mag called Thirst (I only ever saw the first couple of issues so don't know if it's still running...). Anyway, I'm not so surprised they changed their plans as they already produce the glossy monthly Food Illustrated with wine articles by writers such as Andrew Jefford and Tim Atkin; as well as a free mouth-watering little food mag plus features, interviews and recipe matching tips on their website. My four snippets below and opposite were written to a specific brief and are a little déjà-vu / back-to-basics / textbook in style, but I thought somebody out there still might find them an informative read.
Richard James, September 2007.

Winemaking 'master class'

Part 1: How wine is made – the vineyard
Standing among the vines in a dramatic wine region setting can give simple pleasure and peace of mind, yet a vineyard’s location and environment also greatly influence how vines grow and the quality of grapes they produce. French winemakers in particular attribute this to the all-encompassing, slightly mysterious terroir. The word is basically untranslatable into English but has geographical and cultural overtones.
The concept combines specific site – its soil and structure, topography (slope, altitude etc.), water holding or drainage, local climate, suitability to variety planted and how it ripens – with the way the grower thinks, works and thus interacts with the land (nuances of English words terrain and territory) to maximise grape quality. All of this should be enhanced, rather than dominated by the winemaker to convey a unique ‘sense of place’ or typicité to the wine’s actual flavour and consistent character. Terroir is often used confusingly meaning just local soil type: although it’s scientifically dubious you can actually taste soil qualities, e.g. chalky, it does have an important effect on ripening and hence quality.
Taking Château Pech-Latt in the stunning Corbières region of southern France as an example, their 100 hectares (250 acres) are made up of a variety of vineyard parcels, soils and aspects, circled by high hills on the foothills of Mount Alaric. The land contains chalk – good for drainage and limiting vine vigour – and red marl – a mix of clay and silt conferring minerals and moisture retention. The different grape varieties are planted according to site and their needs – red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan; white: Marsanne, Vermentino and Muscat. So you choose the cooler plots for Muscat to preserve freshness and the sunniest for Mourvèdre, a late ripening variety.
Pech-Latt farms organically, which doesn’t necessarily mean guaranteed quality, but organic growers rightly claim it’s also a whole way of life. This philosophy, accompanied by fussy attention in the vineyard, can produce superb grapes. No synthetic pesticides or fertilisers are used, although substances such as copper sulphate (against mildew) are permitted. Sulphur dioxide (a preservative among other uses) levels in winemaking are sometimes (but not always) half that for non-organic. The idea is to foster biodiversity in soil and vineyard and hence naturally healthy vines. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about terroir yet destroy it with potent chemicals!
There are several ways of controlling a vine’s growth, the amount of leaves it has and ultimately how many grapes it yields. Winter pruning is crucial for cutting a vine back to its raw state and how it develops the following spring. You could then remove a few buds and trim it further in early summer to get a balanced canopy – sufficient for photosynthesis and perfect ripening without it becoming a leaf monster. In Corbières, old Grenache is often pruned on handsome bush vines, which need less attention with age and offer protection from sun and wind. Syrah can perform better by trellising it upwards to increase leaf and bunch exposure. Fruit thinning or green harvesting is also practised to reduce the crop.

Part 2: Winemaking – the process from grape to wine
All grapes are hand picked at Château Pech-Latt, which is time-consuming and costly but enables finicky and gentle selection. If the vineyard is set up for machine harvesting, this allows you to make quick decisions and speedily harvest a large area. Nowadays the technology is precise and doesn’t necessarily harm the fruit, particularly for white grapes. Domaine Bégude near Limoux (west of Corbières) picks Chardonnay by machine for Vins de Pays but the best block of Chardonnay by hand for their top wine. Quality producers sort through the grapes again on arrival at the winery.
Processing and winemaking depend on the colour and character of each variety and style and quality of the ultimate wine. Coming back to the kind of Chardonnays made by Bégude, for the drink-young style the emphasis will be on retaining aromatic fruit and fresh acidity. So the whole grapes could be kept chilled before pressing then cold stabilisation (to rack off the thickest solids) and fermentation at relatively low temperature in stainless steel vats. For richer age-worthy Chardonnay, the juice is fermented in barrels and stirred on the yeast lees deposit adding fatness and character. The wine would complete its malolactic fermentation, which softens the acidity, and perhaps aged further in cask to round it out more, without picking up overtly oaky flavours.
Similarly to many estates, Château Pech-Latt handles the red grapes separately, particularly Carignan part of which is whole-berry fermented to bring out its lively earthy liquorice fruit. This batch will then be held in large vats before blending. The other varieties are vinified ‘traditionally’ with extended skin contact before pressing. Methods of colour and tannin extraction range from simple hand or foot plunging, pumping over the juice from bottom to top of vat, to ‘rack and return’ where the entire tank is emptied into another then back again. The winemaker judges the best approach and temperature depending on grape variety, ripeness and quality.
There’s always heated (and slightly geeky) debate on oak barrels, or oak chips even, and their effect on maturation, colour and flavour in red wines. Crudely, oak can add attractive spicy chocolate texture; fundamentally, it’s about oxygen and influence on a wine’s tannin structure and ageing ability. The main elements are age, toast (low or high), size of container and how long. A small new barrel allows more air into the wine, thanks to its surface area/volume ratio and porous grain, giving rounder tannins, sweeter flavours and stable colour. A huge old cask promotes slower maturation yet ironically the wine loses colour sooner.
The term blending is sometimes taken negatively (the French word assemblage sounds sexier somehow), but it’s difficult to think of a wine that isn’t a blend. Even if from a single variety and vineyard, the winemaker skilfully puts together different lots to recreate the desired style. Pech-Latt’s three reds contain Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, but the proportions vary according to vine age, site or vintage characteristics. The best rosés are drained off from red grapes after a few hours skin contact, giving colour, fruit and flesh, then made like an aromatic white wine.

How winemaking styles differ – New World and Old World

Part 1: From a New World perspective
Pushing aside any condescending colonial overtones, the term New World is just as much about attitude as it is geography when applied to winemaking styles. Certainly, in general New World wines can be perceived as delivering big ripe fruit and high alcohol while emphasising ‘technological’ winemaking or easy oak flavours. But it’s too simplistic to generalise about hot climates and iconoclastic thinking, when comparing countries and people as diverse as Australia, South Africa, USA, Argentina or Chile. And nowadays there are plenty of European wines that fit the above description. Four ‘classic’ varietals from the Southern and Northern Hemispheres have been chosen to illustrate the point.
The d’Arenberg winery makes model high-powered Shiraz in McLaren Vale, South Australia (they’ve been around for 100 years by the way); yet their reds aren’t one-dimensional fruit bombs, often expressing something wilder and more exciting as you’d expect from a relatively ‘traditional’ approach. The Dead Arm Shiraz is made from very old vines, whose concentrated fruit is fermented in open vats with foot-treading, pressed in basket-presses and aged in American and French barriques. The result is distinctively Old New World: rich and full with oak undertones yet herbal, peppery and firmly textured.
Jackson Estate’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is consistently one of the leaders in New Zealand for this benchmark grape variety and wine style. It could be argued that New World winemakers reinforced the importance of producing zingy aromatic dry whites using technology to control fermentation temperature and exclude oxygen etc. The same techniques are used for Sauvignon in the European regions of Sancerre or Styria (southeast Austria), yet the wines rarely taste the same, which says a lot about New Zealand’s unique climate and terrain (cool and southerly). It’s that pure just-ripe green fruit intensity mixed with more tropical flavours, crisp mineral like finish yet showing nice weight too, as the Jackson exemplifies.
Zinfandel and California are synonymous (even if the grape variety did originate in Italy or Croatia), although this powerful red wine comes in many guises: soft, raisiny and gluggable; super ripe, oaky and alcoholic; to finely structured and balanced. Ravenswood Vintners Blend is a good example of the advantages of blending fruit from different growers and areas to produce a well-priced typical style every year. New World in its California-ness – yet evoking something equally Mediterranean – it’s up-front with attractive liquorice, pine and earth notes; good fruit in the mouth countered by a touch of tannin and oak then a punchy yet poised finish.
Chenin Blanc particularly excels in two countries: the Loire Valley in France and South Africa, both very different environments and winemaking traditions yet somehow possessing the right elements for this star white grape. Ken Forrester’s FMC from Stellenbosch really is a Cape classic communicating African sun tempered by a maritime mountain climate. The very ripe grapes are barrel fermented and aged giving voluptuous fruit layered with coconut, late harvest sweetness characters set against toasty oak then tight mineral acidity and length, so in the end it doesn’t really taste sweet. Click on the pic. above for more SA CB.

Part 2: From an Old World perspective
Does Old World mean old-fashioned wine style (read no longer appreciated in today’s busy cosmos); or 'traditional' in the sense of classic, inimitable quality, gaining complexity with age and matching the local food? It’s clear that some winemakers in certain areas of Europe, such as the south of France, Sicily or Mediterranean Spain, have adopted ‘New World’ attitude and practices to produce more accessible wines (and rightly so). However, there are still plenty of seminal styles that speak volumes about where and how they are created. As above, here are a few examples of Old World greats and a brief account of why.
There are now many very good sparkling wines made in the same way as Champagne in other regions of Europe and the world. But at the top end, there’s something sublime and so distinctive about delicious Champagnes such as Bollinger. Most of the grapes they use come from ‘Premier Cru’ and ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards, i.e. the best sites. The Special Cuvée is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier; the Grande Année vintage is often at least 65% Pinot Noir (one third from the top village of Aÿ) plus Chardonnay.
Control of acidity is the cornerstone of balance in their Champagnes and ability to mature. In a good year, the first pressing (Bolly only uses this part) has a pH of around 3, i.e. pretty acidic. This isn’t so difficult to achieve, coupled with ripe grapes from vineyard selection, in Champagne’s marginal climate. All of the ‘reserve’ wines – held back from certain years, they play a very important role in the house style and quality of non-vintage Champagne – and Grande Année are barrel-fermented. Special Cuvée is a blend of two vintages with 5-10% reserve wines and three years yeast lees ageing, which add biscuity richness and intricate aromas. Click on JB above for more on Bolly.
You can’t get much more Old World in winemaking styles than Sherry, especially Fino or Manzanilla (even if certain ‘New World’ countries are replicating it). These charming bone-dry fortified wines owe much of their idiosyncratic character to what happens in the cellar, rather than the baking Andalusian sun. By maintaining humidity levels, a yeast called flor develops over the maturing wines protecting them from air and transmitting tangy nutty flavours. A chilled glass of the Solera Jerezana Manzanilla or Hidalgo’s La Gitana is ideal with fresh gazpacho soup, grilled sardines or potato omelette.
Piemonte in northwest Italy has a beautiful mountain backdrop and climate with cold winters and hot summers, which suits the Nebbiolo grape variety well. These elements come together, steered by 'traditional' winemaking, to fashion the unique style of Barolo or Barbaresco. It’s that elusive cocktail of the grape’s quintessential sweet yet savoury/sour delicacy, light colour yet gripping mouth-feel and sometimes high acidity. Winemakers are thinking carefully about barrels, namely their effect on ageing and character for Barolo – new barriques versus old large casks – and especially colour and taming tannins. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether the wine drinker really needs another richly purple wine from a variety that naturally isn’t? Click here for the answer!

Roussillon: Mas Alart

Muscat petits grains from www.masalart.comFrédéric Belmas and his winemaker produce attractive, rather than sensational, red Côtes du Roussillon that can be drunk young while benefiting from a little bottle-age; barrel-matured Rivesaltes Hors d'Age (literally 'beyond age': made from white grapes but slowly turns golden brown, as the Stranglers once sang, over the years) and a lively Muscat de Rivesaltes. The Mas also makes a kind of balsamic vinegar - the smell in the on-site plant (for want of a better word: French has the handy vinaigrerie) is wonderfully overpowering - and a variety of things from organically grown almonds. It's not too difficult to find, off the main road heading out of the village of Saleilles towards Perpignan; easy does it down the potholed rustic track that leads to it.

Tasted mid October 2006:
2005 Muscat sec, la Vigne de Madame - crisp and fresh with lightly perfumed, grapey citrus peel notes; clean mineral finish. 83-85
2005 Carignan vieilles vignes - attractive liquorice fruit, juicy black cherry v dry tannins, quite fine and long. 87
2005 Côtes du Roussillon (Syrah Grenache Carignan) - young spicy fruit, quite concentrated yet elegant, ripe v dry textured finish. 87-89
2005 Muscat de Rivesaltes - fresh and lively honeyed orange peel flavours, nice bite and length v sugar. 87-89
1994 Rivesaltes Hors d'Age - complex rich, oxidised toffee notes on a dried fruit backdrop; good length, 'cut' and maturity v sweet finish. 89-91
Tasted summer 06:
2001 Côtes du Roussillon rouge (13%) - complex maturing meaty tones layered on liquorice and red pepper fruit, soft and ready to drink with a little dry tannin left to finish. Approx €4.50 89
Tasted Sept. 2007:
2005 Merlot, vin de pays des Côtes Catalanes (13%) - enticing plum and cassis aromas with gamey earthy edges, slightly baked/oxidised although this bottle was found on a high supermarket shelf under a light and it had a plastic cork; quite lush and powerful v a touch of extracted dry tannins, not exactly elegant but good with sausages. €3.95 85

Off the D22, 66280 Saleilles. Tel: 04 68 50 51 89, http://www.mas-alart.fr/, frederic.belmas@wanadoo.fr.

01 August 2007

Roussillon Dessert Trophy 2007

This year's sweet-toothed event starts in August, run by the Wines of Roussillon generic body (CIVR) in association with the Academy of Food & Wine. It's a restaurant competition looking for "the most talented pastry chef/sommelier team in Britain," by inviting them to submit a winning combination of a Roussillon Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) sweet wine (white, 'amber' or red) with their dessert fantasy. Eric Aracil, CIVR Export Manager, commented: “The CIVR is proud to support an initiative which recognises excellence in the UK on-trade. The 2007 Roussillon Dessert Trophy puts the limelight on pastry chefs and sommeliers and encourages them to go further in developing their knowledge and expressing their creativity."
Those entering are asked to choose dessert wines off their list from these VDN appellations: Banyuls, Banyuls Grand Cru, Maury, Muscat de Rivesaltes and Rivesaltes. The Roussillon region, or French Catalonia, produces most of France’s VDN wines (see "more wine words" for several articles).
How to enter the Roussillon Dessert Trophy 2007: forms are available from Sophie Brown at the Academy of Food & Wine on 0208 661 4646 or info@acfws.org. Deadline Friday 31st August. If you don't already list Roussillon dessert wines, samples are available from Georgie Hope or Natalie Jeune at Focus PR on 020 7432 9432 or civr-focuspr@focuspr.co.uk.
The final: the trophy will be presented at the Arts Club, Dover Street, London on 1st October 2007. The prizes: the winning chef gets a 4-day course with world champion pastry chef, Olivier Bajard, at the École Internationale de Patîsserie in Perpignan; the winning sommelier spends four days on a guided tour of top Roussillon wine producers. Jury members include Nigel Sutcliffe, restaurant consultant and former director of the Fat Duck, Sarah Jane Evans MW, writer and broadcaster, and Sara Jayne Stanes, chief executive of Academy of Culinary Arts.
Last year’s winning team was sommelier Anke Carmen Hartmann and chef Rebecca Kinsella from Chewton Glen, who paired poached black plums and anise chiboust (what?) mille-feuille with Domaine du Mas Blanc's Banyuls Rimage 2003. Carmen Hartmann enthused: “We enjoyed the challenge of combining flavours with textures and found that, for outstanding results, the dessert needed to be created after the wine was chosen rather than the other way round.”

Update 20/09/07: Dessert Trophy finalists announced
And they are (drum roll...):
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, London
Chocolate Gianduja parfait with roasted pear and pecan, Banyuls syrup with pear and cardamom foam.
Wine: 1996 Banyuls Grand Cru, Cuvée André Magnères, Domaine Vial Magnères.
Chef: Hideko Kawa, sommelier: Naoko Tomita.
Hotel du Vin, Winchester
Dark chocolate mille-feuille, poached cherries, coffee tuiles.
Wine: 2005 Banyuls Quintessence, La Coume del Mas.
Sous chef: Adam Fargin, chef sommelier: Yohann Jousselin.
Roussillon Restaurant, London (I should hope so too!)
Honey mousse with glazed dates, pear rösti and Chinese lemon sorbet.
Wine: 1988 Rivesaltes ambré, Domaine Piquemal.
Pastry chef: Heinrich Greve, chef sommelier: Roberto Della Pietra.
Galvin at Windows, Hilton Park Lane, London
Palet d’or of chocolate with spiced ice cream, spiced crunch tuile, roast fig in Mas Amiel 15 YO and fig purée.
Wine: Maury Prestige 15 Year Old, Mas Amiel.
Pastry chef: Peter Bras, sommelier: Charles Segond.
Call back in October to find out which of these yum-inducing creations is the winner... 

Update 7/10/07: Dramatic drum roll... it's the first one i.e. chocolate Gianduja (what?) parfait with Domaine Vial Magnères' 96 Banyuls Grand Cru, by Hideko Kawa and Naoko Tomita chez Gordon Ramsay.

14 July 2007

Caliterra sponsors Allotment of the Year

In a cunningly original sponsorship deal to infiltrate the very core of things peculiarly British, Chilean wine brand Caliterra has lent its name (and a few bottles presumably) to this most serious of competitions. Run by the National Allotment Gardens Trust, the winners will be announced during National Allotment Week, August 13th to 19th. Being a bit slow in reacting to this news, it's actually now too late to enter so my apologies for that! However, these are the five earth-moving categories:
Best Shed - looking for "the ultimate UK shed, the English allotmenteer’s supreme bolthole."
Best Allotment in the Country - "recognising the most beautiful, individually held plot in the country."
Best Newcomer - "for the person who has been allotment-gardening for less than three years."
Best Community Project - "everything from communal orchards to wild gardens used by special needs groups, an inclusive-minded Eden."
Best Allotment Site - "...in terms of maintenance, cleanliness and organic waste disposal."
With a new British film just out about life on the allotment, 'Grow Your Own', and the UKTV Gardens series, 'Dig For Victory'; this appears to be something that'll run and run. All goes to show you don't need an excuse to have a sit down in your veg garden after a hard day's digging, with a nice glass of wine of course. By the way, I'd stick to spuds and courgettes if I were you: Cabernet vines might be a bit tricky even in these global warming times. Posted 13/07/07. More Caliterra and Chilean wines to follow (see "Chile" page on the right).

13 July 2007

Champagne with potato chips?

"...Zinfandel with your Tex-Mex? Not a problem," says Natalie MacLean, author and sommelier,  who claims to offer no less than 360,000 "daring food and wine matches" in a new feature on her website Nat Decants. So click here www.nataliemaclean.com/matcher and have a bit of fun playing around with it. There's quite a lot of superior rubbish written about which wines should go with what; or, worse still, you know that kind of useless back label stating 'ideal with red meat or cheese.' What I like about Natalie's thing is the depth of options she's included: for example, put in 'pasta' and you'll get a long list of different sauces and ingredients, much more helpful and important when attempting to pair flavours and textures. You might not agree with every suggestion but at least she's spent time thinking it through, and probably done a fair bit of cooking and complementary tasting too! Another good site on this theme is Fiona Beckett’s www.matchingfoodandwine.com.


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