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31 December 2013

S Africa, Italy, France, Chile: 'whites of the mo' Chenin, Fiano, Sauvignon.

Following in the red-tinted wake of my previous New Year-y Italians of the mo type posting, here are a few gratuitous and varied white recommendations sampled recently hailing from the deep Italian south (Puglia, Sicily), South Africa, Chile and France...

The Garden Route Chenin blanc 2013 Western Cape (13% abv) –

30 December 2013

Italian "reds of the moment"

Featuring a couple of well-known names from northeastern Italy and a slightly more senior one from Tuscany (another Tuscan will follow too), all suitably red, full-flavoured and New Year-y...
Le Tobele Valpolicella Ripasso 2011 (13.5% abv) – 'volatile' balsamic notes on the nose, turns to very Italian morello cherry and almond aromas/flavours, floral and fruity with peppery edges; nice ripe cherry fruit with dry yet soft tannins vs fair acidity adding freshness, kirsch notes and perfumed crunchy fruit with attractive bite vs maturing savoury flavours. Nice 'sweet and sour' thing going on, fruity vs savoury balsamic, has good depth too. Went well with a creamy mushroom risotto. €10.99 Lidl Wine Cellar (Ireland, will confirm £ price in UK).
Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2010 (15.5% abv) – the initial nose is a little heady/porty, chunky and austere when first opened too; turning to dried plum with balsamic meaty gravy notes even, thick tannins with a touch of oak texture/flavour, that alcohol's quite punchy vs lush cherry and olive fruit; it's still pretty firm powerful and 'porty' vs attractive sweet/savoury fruit. Quite good, the other dearer Amarone (links to note on that) Lidl 'wine cellar' has is better and finer (and dearer of course); this one's more in your face but is still attractive. Good with chocolate pudding. £15.99, €17.99
Casato dei Medici Riccardi 2008 Brunello di Montalcino (14% abv) – surprisingly herby/earthy tones at first (for its age, this went with airing though) vs mature smoky notes, dried fruits (morello/kirsch) with savoury 'cheesy' edges, balsamic and black pudding too! Smooth mature palate with dried cherries and meaty flavours, melted-in tannins although still has a bitter twist of grip and structure too, a bit of oomph vs balanced finish. Nice old-fashioned red, not 'top top' but reasonable quality and authentic style for £19.99 – Brunello can be mega expensive.

23 December 2013

Roussillon and Languedoc: "festive sweeties and reds, with or without chocolate" (part 2)

Further to these recent words of wisdom on my WineWriting.com blog: Spain v Australia: festive sweeties and reds, with or without chocolate (goes there naturally), which also includes a little insight into fine chocolate making and the different types... Here are some more "festive sweeties and reds, with or without chocolate," this time sourced from the Languedoc and the Roussillon. When talking about "wine with chocolate," many people - okay, wino people rather than normal people at least - think of rugged Roussillon country and its sometimes sublime red vins doux naturels or fortified sweet reds based on Grenache, especially Banyuls from the southeastern corner bordering Spain or Maury in the region's northern flank nudging up against the Corbières hills.

Those famous demijohns, slightly predictable target for a photo, outside at Mas Amiel: mostly empty as this type of traditional 'oxidative' ageing is now only used for a small proportion of their Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) production. Photo: Vi Erickson.
Mas Amiel is arguably the most famous name in the Maury area (with suitably celeb prices to match, you might be tempted to add) and particularly well known for its old vintages. We were treated to their 1980 (in magnum no less, a special millennium bottling aged for nearly 20 years in demijohns and large casks beforehand; 16.5% abv) at the 'wine with chocolate' tasting event featured in the post mentioned at the top of the page (follow that link for more info). I've tasted this vintage before in situ (goes to profile and notes on MA penned in 2007, 2009, 2010 and updated earlier this year), although not sure if it's exactly the same wine, as that 1980 had one of their regular 'Millésime' labels, implying vintage style i.e. aged for a relatively short time in cask and the rest in bottle. In any case, the 1980 "millennium" was delicious and a fine match for the Co Couture chocs in front of us, especially the chilli flavour actually. Browning in colour with intriguing meat gravy vs liquorice nose, rich and concentrated with lush mouth-feel vs nice bite and developing savoury flavours; still alive with complex long maturing finish. Yum. £85 magnum.
Also from Maury, made by the worth-visiting Vignerons de Maury co-op winery found in the village, comes their Cuvée Centenaire (specially brewed in 2010 to celebrate 100 years, obviously; 16% abv), which was quite orangey brown with 'volatile' red-Madeira notes and sweet dried fruits vs meaty mature cheesy palate; particularly good with the ginger chocolate. About £23. More of their wines are HERE (St-Bacchus Awards) and probably elsewhere on the blog too. Banyuls was well represented by one of its top VDN producers Domaine du Mas Blanc with their 2000 Vieilles Vignes label (old vines; 16.5% abv): oxidised intricate mature-cheesy nose, lush vs savoury palate with complex toffee and dried raspberry flavours, long smooth finish. The plain choc and sea salt flavoured one almost freshened up the wine, not so good with the ginger though funnily enough. £27 approx. More on DMB HERE.
Moving on to a few 'regular' Roussillon and Languedoc reds, not deliberately tasted with chocolate (but might have been unintentionally) in recent weeks. Firstly, a pair from Naked Wines. Benjamin Darnault's 2012 La Cuvée Réservée Cotes du Roussillon Villages (Grenache, Syrah; 14.5% abv, bottled in the Aude though?) is deep purple black in colour, a 'modern' style big fruity and spicy red; peppery blackberry with firm grip vs 'sweet' rounded palate, nice dry texture vs ripe berry fruit, liquorice and spice with punchy alcohol on its lively finish. Attractive good+ co-op level red, okay at £8.49 ('Angel' price) but not worth £11.49 ('normal': more here about Naked's pricing). Same could perhaps be said about their 2012 Le Petit Train Syrah (£8.25 or £10.99) made by Katie Jones, although this wine was apparently specially commissioned by Naked after Katie was sabotaged by some jealous thug, who broke in and poured away an entire vintage of her white wine. So, there's an "investment in people" type story behind it (as is Naked's self-acclaimed style generally). Anyway, it's a very nice red showing touches of sweet coconut oak layered with really ripe black cherry/olive even, soft fruity and rounded mouth-feel with a hint of herby spice vs a light bitter twist of tannins/acidity and blast of warmth. Kept well after opening too, turning softer with the oak less obvious and nice sweet black cherry/olive fruit vs light grip.
Finishing off in Saint-Chinian in the Languedoc back-lands, I've picked out just a few of my favourites from a trip last month, which were winners in a "Grand Cru selection" competition I was on the tasting panel for. CLICK HERE for my full-monty St-Chinian special supplement, which costs £3 (about €4/$4.50) as it's not viewable on this blog (emailed as a PDF). Features several leading estates (and places to eat and stay), including Domaines Canet Valette, Cambis, Jougla, Cazal Viel, La Madura, La Femme Allongée, Boissezon Guiraud, Milhau-Lacugue and more! In the meantime then...
Laurent Miquel Bardou 2008 (100% Syrah) – still quite toasty coconut with spicy dark fruit vs nice meaty edges, the oak melts into it adding a touch of chocolatey texture/flavour, nice tannins and concentration for a 2008; still quite young and structured with substance. Good stuff. €19
La Grange Léon D'une main à l'autre 2011 (Syrah, Carignan, Grenache) - herbal red pepper, liquorice and perfumed white pepper; quite lush with ripe berry fruit, soft and approachable with bit of weight, freshness and length. Nice now. €16

Domaine la Linquière 310 La Sentenelle 2011 - lovely wild garrigue notes (= reminds of heathland flora!) plus sweet liquorice vs peppery fruit, soft tasty and quite elegant finish. €18
Borie la Vitarèle Les Crès 2005 (Mourvèdre, Syrah) - savoury touches vs dark cherry, nice 'chalky' tannins with a touch of freshness, tight and elegant, still relatively young really, lovely savoury vs liquorice and spice finish. €18.50

Above prices are cellar door in France, so these are all towards dear wines although among the producers' top cuvées; or would be in the UK, Ireland or US once you slap on eye-watering taxes!

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 north-eastern 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.

And have a look at part 2 of sweet wines and chocolate here (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...

13 December 2013

Spain: Cava guide

Cava mini-guide
"Creative Catalan bubbles..."

"I'm not going to over-bore you with the full-monty geographical or technical stuff, as the Cava region is quite vast and extends beyond Catalunya actually (but there is some of that in it, a hint of winemaking talk and fascinating export stats)... This gradually expanding wee guide, originally published in 2008 and updated a few times a year since, is more about bringing your attention to a few lesser-known sparkling gems and hopefully also encouraging you to explore beyond Barcelona and the region's nice beaches and coastal towns, out into real Cava country... head for those green hills!" Includes wines from these featured stand-out Cava wineries: Llopart, Carles Andreu, Perelada, Parxet, Raimat, Bach, Lavernoya, Mont Àrac, Blancher, Parató, Loxarel, Enric Nadal, Vallformosa, Chozas Carrascal and many many more...
Updated August 2015 - buy this mini-guide for just £3 - click here for more info and to buy it with Paypal...

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