James in Spain by Ken Turner
It is always difficult to discuss wine matters without sounding smug, pretentious and slightly snobby but anyway… “Allons y!”
I recently had some very good friends in for dinner at The Last. I won’t name names to avoid any potential embarrassment but let’s call them Rick and Nachel. I recommended a delicious little Spanish number from the Yecla region of Spain, a wine called Castano Monastrell. Monastrell is the Spanish name for the French grape Mourvèdre, a thick tannic grape now hugely popular in Southern France producing big, powerful reds. We went through the traditional pantomime. “Would you like to try the wine?”… “Mmm, yes it’s delicious…blah, blah, blah” and I went on my merry way. Having at regular intervals checked that they were ok, I finally towards the end of the night sat down with my friends who kindly offered me a small glass of the delicious wine they had been enjoying with their meal. The first sniff immediately set alarm bells ringing, a musty aroma immediately tickled the old olfactory zone, and a sip soon confirmed that… drum-roll… The wine was corked!
How embarrassing, what do I do? What is the etiquette? Should I mention it at all? I finally decided upon opening another bottle, pouring them a glass and exclaiming, “This is what it’s supposed to taste like you fools!” (The sensitive and diplomatic approach I think!) They soon realised the notable difference with the uncorked wine offering plenty of ripe fruit flavours non-existent in the previous bottle and were hopefully somewhat closer to being able to recognise when a wine has been tainted. So the seemingly unnecessary rigmarole of giving the customer a taste of the wine before pouring and all the potential humiliation and resentment that this might entail is unfortunately probably a necessary evil, especially if you consider the many different ways in which the wine can be corrupted.
The trick is to make full use of the senses, starting with the eyes. It is always useful if you can observe the wine against a white background and the obvious thing to look for is the clarity of the wine whether it is red or white. If the wine is cloudy it is probably something to be concerned about although many modern winemakers now believe that not filtering or fining the wines will allow more of the original flavour of the grape after fermentation to remain intact. The answer is that, unless the wine-list states that the wine is un-filtered, then it probably shouldn’t be cloudy. In a red wine residual deposits may have been shaken up inside the bottle which is why it’s always a good idea to decant older wines - especially from the old world as the tannins tend to be more abundant and therefore the deposits greater. A cloudy wine can often mean that it is undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle or that it is suffering from bacterial problems, both of these diagnostics can be confirmed when smelling the wine. Note also the colour of the wine, if you have ordered a youthful sauvignon or Pinot Grigio you should expect a very clear, neutral colour with maybe a green tinge to it. If the wine has a deep golden-yellow colour than it is probably oxidized; the wine has had contact with the air and has begun the journey towards becoming vinegar. You can expect this deeper yellow or straw colour if you are drinking an aged Burgundy or a heavily oaked Chardonnay but, again, if the wine is oxidised you will be able to tell with a quick sniff.
Foreign bodies in the wine such as flies etc, although a great opportunity to launch into the time-less repertoire of “Waiter” jokes are generally undesirable, in fact anything floating in the wine should be regarded suspiciously, although occasionally with white wines which have been subjected to a change in temperature, crystals or “tartrates” will form which have no negative affect on the flavour of the wine. If you have bits of cork floating on the top of your wine this doesn’t mean that it is actually corked, just that the bottle has been amateurishly opened but this we all know thanks largely to the sommelier talents of Basil Fawlty.
Look out for small bubbles which although a happy sight if you are drinking Champagne may again be an indication of an unwanted secondary fermentation in the bottle. Occasionally in young white wines such as Muscadet some residual C02 will be left in the wine to maintain freshness.
The next step is to smell the wine. If you get a scent of cat’s pee on gooseberry bush, then don’t complain straight away because this means that you are probably drinking a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc of which this is a classic aroma and the likelihood is that the flavour is going to be great! If the owner of the restaurant happens to have a cat and a gooseberry bush then obviously ask questions. The process should be as follows. Take an initial sniff. Is there anything unpleasantly unusual in the smell? Does it have a “clean” smell, i.e. can you notice any mustiness or chemical aromas or maybe even detergent from the glass wash machine? Then put your glass on a firm base (probably the table!) and swill the wine around in the glass, trying to avoid a Jackson Pollack effect on your new white shirt or indeed of those in your company. This will stimulate all the molecules in the wine and release more of the aromas so that the second smell should give you a much better indication of the quality of the wine. A damp, musty smell, reminiscent of a damp basement, a wet dog or mouldy newspaper means almost certainly that the wine has become tainted. Without wishing to sound too technical this suggests the presence of Trichloroanisole (TCA) which whilst sounding like a triple action remedy for piles is actually the product of a chemical reaction between the wine and the cork. If you getting these kind of aromas then don’t even bother tasting just send the wine back.
Another smell to look out for is Sulphur dioxide although this is pretty much impossible to miss as the pong is fairly aggressive. Sulphur is used as a preservative during the wine making process; usually to a lesser extent with red wine as the skins and stalks of the grape carry their own natural anti-oxidants. During the fermentation process wine will also naturally produce sulphites. When sulphur is used to excess, however, what you will experience is an acrid smell of burnt matches and again this is a sure sign that the wine is undrinkable.
If you smell vinegar then it is as a result of the presence of vinegar and oxygen bacteria together and an indication of poor practice in the winery. Obviously if you’ve ordered chips as a side order you and like a bit of posh vinegar then this may not be an issue.
Another potential problem which is easily recognisable when smelling the wine is when it has become oxidised. Similar to the above development of acetic acid this occurs when the wine has been in contact with the air. This is much less of a problem nowadays with the wide-use of screw tops which obviously have a much more hermetic seal than the porous cork. This is also sometimes described as being “Maderised” i.e. smelling burnt like the wines of Madeira which have this particular characteristic. If the wine is oxidised or Maderised then you will also notice that is has a darker, browner colour.
There are some smells such as that of Sauvignon Blanc which can be very misleading. Descriptions which have a potentially negative connotation are often indications that the taste of the wine will be first class. Obviously the overall smell you are searching for is fruit but you may pick up nuances such as farmyard smells or rotten leaves with Burgundian reds, sour cherries with Italian reds, old leather with some Cabernet Sauvignon reds, vegetal and mineral aromas with many whites. Some of the best wines will have a savoury quality to them which balances out the fruit nicely. Basically, don’t rush into an initial first impression unless you are certain that there is something wrong. After all these preliminaries you are finally ready to take a sip!
The tasting aspect should really be to confirm any suspicions which may have been raised by the eyes and the nose. Although you may be accused of doing an impression of Hannibal Lector a good method to “liberate” the flavours of a wine is to purse the lips and draw air into the mouth, this will open up the wine, releasing the volatile components. You will use different areas of your tongue to pick up the different aspects of the wine. The tip of the tongue will react to the sweetness; the sides of the tongue towards the back will pick up the acidity, and if there is lots of tannin in the wine then you’ll feel dryness on the tongue and gums as opposed to the salivating reaction to acidity.
The next question is whether or not you actually like the wine. If the wine is bland or lacking any depth of flavour or fruit then do send it back as it is likely to be out of condition. Also, a restaurant or wine bar should not be stocking a wine which doesn’t deliver on flavour. A wine will obviously have a certain life span - the trick (or luck of the draw!) is to be drinking it when it is at its best. In a white this will be when you have the perfect balance of fruit and acidity, in a red it is when the levels of fruit and tannin reach their finest harmony. This is something of an over-simplification as many other elements play their part but this certainly serves as a rough guide. A possible dilemma is that if there is nothing wrong with the wine but you just don’t like the flavour. It could be argued that this is tough luck; you have simply made a bad choice, so put it down to a learning experience. However, here at The Last, and I’m pretty sure most places would be the same, we would never dream of leaving a customer drinking a wine that they were not enjoying, so don’t be afraid to inform the staff. A good solution if you are unsure is to ask whoever is serving you to make a recommendation, this then takes all the pressure off you, as the establishment will be forced to deliver the goods so to speak. Also if the staff are any good then they should be able to recommend wines which are not only suited to your palate but also to the food you have ordered.
The best way obviously to broaden your knowledge is to taste as much of a variety of wine as possible and to note the different flavours and fruit characteristics and gradually build up a memory bank of tastes. You will soon have a clearer idea of what the wine you have ordered is supposed to taste like and you will be able approach the tasting part with more confidence. However it is above all important not to be intimidated, to have the courage of your convictions and to always say something if you feel at all concerned about the quality of what you are drinking. Most restaurants will thank you for it and the bottle will be replaced by the wine merchant anyway. It is, after all, just a drink. Those involved in the wine industry can often seem quite precious and elitist when discussing wine matters but at the end of the day it is but a bit of fermented grape juice. A quote from Jancis Robinson which happens to appear at the front of The Last’s wine list seems appropriate and a good way to conclude today’s ramblings.
“The point of wine is to give pleasure. Anyone who suggests otherwise should be treated with scorn. In my experience anyone who claims to be a wine expert invariably has little to offer except prejudices.” Jancis Robinson.
À la prochaine!
James and I recently enjoyed a tasting of Austrian wines at The institute of Directors in London’s Pall Mall (a fairly self-indulgent expedition bearing in mind that particular country’s meagre representation on our wine-list!) so it seems like a good opportunity to explore this country’s contribution to the ever-expanding world of wine.
The first thing to be noted was the sheer size of the tasting, the large number of producers, and how well-attended it was. This reflects Austria’s increasing popularity in wine circles and more generally in the bars and restaurants throughout the land.
Austria has had to work hard to recover a lot of lost credibility following the well-publicized “Anti-freeze” scandal of 1985, when a small proportion of wine-makers were found to have illegally adulterated their wine through the addition of diethylene glycol in an attempt to give them a sweeter and more full-bodied character. These desperate measures were as a result of a need to satisfy the demands of supermarket chains with which certain wineries had long term and obviously financially lucrative contracts.
A popular style at the time was the sweeter “Late harvest” wines which Austria was able to supply at a cheaper rate than Germany. In weaker vintages, however, when the grapes did not achieve sufficient ripeness, the use of diethylene glycol, a form of anti-freeze, was found to not only artificially impart the required levels of sweetness but also to give body to the wine. The advantage of this method is that it is much more difficult to detect than the use of more traditional sweeteners such as “Süssreserve” (itself also illegal in most cases). Sadly, although these underhand methods were only undertaken by a few more desperate wine-makers, the revelation and subsequent legal proceedings of those found guilty was to tarnish the reputation of the whole of the Austrian wine industry. From July 1985 Austria was virtually unable to export any of its wine and 270,000 hectolitres of wine was destroyed as a consequence.
There were, however, some happier consequences as wine-makers in Austria began to instinctively lean towards producing wines of a different style, and so came the re-emergence of the fine dry steely wines which had always been successfully produced in this region but which had become overshadowed by the more commercial sweeter wines. Austrian Rieslings are now held in very high regard despite the high price they can often carry, mainly because of the limited yields they produce in this area. But this only serves to add to the quality. Austrian Rieslings often express more minerality on the palate and have a longer, steelier finish than their Alsatian counterparts.
The rising star however over the last few years has undoubtedly been the indigenous Grüner Veltliner. It doesn’t take a Wittgenstein to work out why this wonderful wine which combines the complexity of a Mozart symphony with the punch of a Schwarzenegger all finely harmonised with Von Trapp precision has become so popular. This wine can offer peachy, spicy minerality with a long, citrus, peppery finish and so is extremely pleasant when drunk on its own, but also serves as a perfect match for many different styles of food. James recently enjoyed a glass of this with the old house favourite of chicken and chips with a creamy tarragon sauce, the richness of this dish allowing the wonderful citrus quality of this wine to shine. For the same reason it is an ideal partner for smoked ham, but also has enough delicacy to suit most fish and seafood dishes. It can basically pitch at most levels and this explains its considerable and ever-growing popularity.
At the Last we stock the 2008 Birgit Eichinger Grüner Veltliner from Kamptal, grown along the Danube on slopes so steep that they can barely retain any soil, resulting in the wonderfully pure, mineral quality as the vines have to dig deep into the sandstone to find nourishment. The steep south-facing aspect also allows them to fulfill their fruition potential, which results in this great combination of richness and steely minerality. Birgit Eichinger, one of Austria’s few female vintners, is making a real name for herself. She has worked her way up to the top in a very short period of time, founding the winery in 1992, and is now regularly picking up awards for her wines worldwide. She has a clear statement of intent when it comes to her wine-making. “To optimize the natural aroma and flavor potential inherent in the grapes by matching varietals and terrain, practicing careful vineyard management and applying painstaking vinification."
Pretty straightforward really, this wine-making lark!
As well as meeting the fragrant Mrs Eichinger at the Austrian tasting, James and I had the pleasure of being introduced to the legendary Willi Opitz, a real charismatic force of nature with an unequalled, eccentric, enthusiasm for his work and a fairly pragmatic outlook on life: “Life’s too short to waste it on bad wine!”
Mr Opitz has the reputation as quite the extravagant showman; he once released a CD of recordings of the orchestral sounds of vat fermentation from his wine cellars. It apparently did quite well in the Austrian charts, narrowly deprived of top spot by a yodeling goat called Enrich.
The flurry around Mr Opitz’s table was testament to the entertainment which he applies to selling his wines. On this occasion we were treated to a wonderful selection of his dessert wines whose qualities were enhanced by his inspired choice of complementing “amuse-bouches.” His delicious Muscat and pinot Gris sweet wines have such a glorious concentration of fruit and his unusual, innovative sweet reds using Zweigelt and Pinot Noir grapes are equally breathtaking. And all the better when tasted in tandem with melon sorbet, mango syllabub, liver parfait, strawberries, chocolate and blue cheese amongst others. It shows real insight and imagination to show these wines in terms of how they express themselves with food and explains why Mr Opitz’s table was by far the busiest.
Austria does also produce some quality red wines despite its Central European climate. The most planted is Zweigelt, a variety which was developed in 1922 by crossing Blaufrankisch and St Laurent. It can produce lovely, easy-drinking cherry flavoured wines when young, but can also age well with complexity, roundness and finesse. Blaufrankisch itself offers spicy, tannic, well-structured reds whilst St Laurent displays characteristics similar to that of Pinot Noir.
Now is certainly a good time to be tippling a bit of Austrian as the curiosity that is the Austrian wine industry’s “rule of nine” comes into play. It seems that every vintage ending with a nine has produced spectacular results both for dry and sweet wines, beginning with a now legendary vintage in 1959, followed and even surpassed a decade later when in 1969 the most opulent botrytis vintage of the century produced some of the best ever dessert wines worldwide. 1979 continued the trend adding an offering of reds with great depth and structure. In 1989 the sweet wines came once again magnificently to the fore whilst 1999 as a vintage was a brilliant all-rounder. It seems that the 2009 vintage is responding to the rule very well producing stunning wines of structure, complexity and generous fruit across the board.
So as James and I wearily make our way round the tables, selflessly sampling all these wines in order to bring to our customers the best examples of what this country has to offer, spare a thought for the work we have had to put in and maybe give Austria a try, if only as a consolatory gesture as we head towards a world cup sadly missing the accomplished vocal talents of the Austrian supporters.
“Allez les Bleus!”
Ecky and James
“Summer Time and my liver is queasy,” as the song goes.
Late June and at the time of writing, Helios’ golden chariot burns boldly in the celestial blue (or less pretentiously, phew it’s a scorcher!) and as St George’s street begins to resemble the promenade at Marbella, with varying degrees of ocular satisfaction, the danger is to get somewhat carried away in a climate which always seems like a good excuse for a refreshing ale, or a cool glass or two of a mouth tingling white or Rosé.
Beware the 14-15% new world rosés which entice you in with their seductive aromas of summery red fruits and then knock your head into oblivion half-way through the 2nd glass.
Beware the zingy, citrus fest of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs which beguile with their fresh, zesty, lip-smacking quaffability and then drag you quickly into a glorious, muddled world of deluded self-confidence.
Why not be radically sensible and try a nice little German number. “German?” I hear you cry, “surely you can’t mean that sweet, flabby alcoholic grape juice as typified by the likes of Liebfraumilch, Niersteiner etc…?”
“Nein” is the answer (and the question isn’t what’s four plus five!).
Germany’s wine industry has in recent times been judged on these mass produced, mass marketed wines whose easy-drinking style, accessibility and consistency of flavour for many years suited the (dare I say), unsophisticated English palate. This style of wine is one which blossomed from a wine industry almost completely devastated following the small matter of a couple of World Wars. Subsequently the great reputation Germany enjoyed for centuries as the producer of elegant, aromatic, pure white wines has been unfortunately over-shadowed. Thankfully the German viticultural reputation for quality is rising once again and few people are contributing more to this renewed profile of excellence than the somewhat reluctant wine-maker Ernst Loosen. The Loosen family for over two centuries has run the enigmatically named Dr Loosen (not a James Bond villain!) estate in the Mosel, and when more recently in the mid 1980’s the Estate found itself without an heir apparent. Ernst Loosen (pronounced Loh-Zen) gallantly took up the baton, having to sacrifice his keen archaeological interests. Ernst wasted no time in learning his new vocation, traveling the world to wherever great wine was being made and emerging with a style of wine-making which respects great traditions as well as the personality of the wine-maker and the Terroir itself.
“What has impressed me most about the great wines of the world, aside from the immense pleasure of drinking them, is the deeply rooted, fiercely held philosophies of the people who create them. The great winemakers I have met invariably possess a clear concept in their minds before the first grape is picked, of what their wines should be. It’s a vision that places terroir over technology, and grape quality over quantity. Their wines are great because they share a dedication to producing intense, concentrated wines that proudly proclaim their heritage.
This is the level of winemaking that we pursue at our two estates: Dr. Loosen on the Mosel and J.L. Wolf in the Pfalz. Our goal is to make wines that are delicious to drink and true to their roots. When I drink a Riesling from a grand cru vineyard like Wehlener Sonnenuhr, I want to smell the blue slate soil that nourishes the fruit. I want to taste the depth of the old vines. I want to experience the character of the vintage. I want authenticity; without it, a wine is simply another beverage.
Of course, the measure of any great wine is not where it begins, but where it ends — in your glass. I hope you enjoy drinking the wines as much as we have enjoyed making them.”
Here at The Last we stock the award-winning 2008 Dr L Riesling. A big favourite of James’ who extols the virtues of its rich grapiness and steely citrus qualities, and at only 8.5% ABV it can be drunk with gay abandon without fear of descending into a rambling, dribbling mess (a condition which Mr Sawrey-Cookson generally seeks to avoid!… with variable success) Great as an apéritif this Riesling is also a good match with spicy foods and maybe more interestingly is well worth trying with blue cheese.
It is certainly no coincidence that most sommeliers and wine experts proclaim Riesling as their favourite grape variety. A grape regarded as being amongst the Nobility in the wine world, it is also considered to be one of the grape varieties which best reflects its “Terroir” or whose unique identity is a result of its specific surroundings. Cultivated in this Germanic region of Europe since the 15th Century, Riesling is a late-budding grape and so works well in cooler climates. This wine has lip-smacking acidity producing zingy citrus, apple and peach flavours when young and developing startling aromas of petroleum and perfumed, aromatic flavours with age. Small, round berries with a greenish-yellow skin when ripe can also produce stunning sweet wines. When a short rainy period is followed by sustained dry weather, the grapes will be sometimes be affected by “Noble Rot” the unusual case of a desirable fungal infection which makes the great wines of Sauternes possible. The resulting concentration of sugars in the grape produces the famous “Vendange Tardive” Rieslings (Late Harvest) in Alsace and the Trockenbeerenauslese (selected harvest of dried berries) in Germany. Although few of us would have the opportunity or indeed patience to test this claim it is reported that some of the best Riesling wines (even of the dry variety) can be enjoyed 100 years after production!
What of the Reds? Well, both Alsace and Germany produce some fine red wines with the Pinot Noir grape, more sharp acidity than its Burgundian neighbour but light and fruity and delicious served chilled with spicy sausage, a dish difficult to avoid in this region! However the real promise from Germany comes from a relative new-comer called Dornfelder, first bred as recently as 1956 and a cross of 2 little known indigenous German varieties (Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe) It is an early ripening grape which displays uncommon depth of fruit and colour for this region and offers rich flavours of plum, cherry and blackberry, well worth looking out for!
The Germans do love their beer, and in this respect, like their British and Scandanavian cousins have a very much Northern European attitude to drinking to which the famous beer-guzzling Oktoberfest is a testament. This however hides a certain sophistication in the art of wine-making which stretches back centuries just as the stereotype of Germany as an efficient, rather stoic, humourless nation belies the great cultural contribution of a nation historically refered to as “Das Land der Dichter und Denker” The land of poets and thinkers… and great wine drinkers!
At Last, the eagerly anticipated second instalment of our wise wine words and latest news from the grapevine. Christmas has come and gone and as we dip our toes tentatively into the first rippling wavelets of 2009, the colour of the moment far from being black seems to be pink!
The growing popularity of rosé wines in the last couple of years has culminated in a veritable explosion at the end of 2008; the reasons are manifold. The emergence of Pinot Grigio as the new Chardonnay and tipple of choice for a new generation of wine drinkers coupled with the easy-drinking style of “blush” wines from California has made Pinot Grigio “blush” a marketer’s dream. “Blush” wines have a sweeter edge to them and with the current popularity of all things Italian (thanks largely to Jamie Oliver) the Pinot Grigio variety is booming.
The obvious attraction of rosé is also that it resolves the dilemma between a choice of white or red. So often when a red is too rich and powerful and a white too dry or acidic, a good rosé seems an ideal alternative. Winemakers in recent years have woken up to the potential of rosé wine and have begun to improve the quality dramatically. There had previously been a sense that rosé was a by-product, an afterthought with the quality of the flavour secondary to its “novelty” value.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for the growth of rosé is the nostalgic value it holds as we try to recapture lazy, languid, care-free days sipping the local rosés of Provence, Tuscany or Catalonia under a warm, comforting sun. Unfortunately the true quality of some of these wines is soon exposed when taken out of this idealised context. The same wine loses its edge somewhat when sampled on a wet Wednesday in Wymondham. (No offence to Wymondhamites, I was just going for all the Ws!)
There are essentially three ways of making rosé wines. Firstly, when black grapes (mainly Pinot Noir) are pressed directly and a proportion of the subsequent juice fermented without contact with the skin, as in white wines. This technically produces what is known as a “vin gris”. This method is rare and often simply a means to add more concentration and colour to the remaining juice which has been left in contact with the skins, creating a more powerful, tannic red wine. However Champagne producers sometimes use this method and it can be recognized on the label as “Blanc de noirs”
Secondly there is the “saignée” or bleeding method where the grapes are de-stalked but not crushed, and then vatted for 12 to 24 hours (the less time, the paler the colour). The juice is then run off and fermented without skin contact. Again, this is often a way of intensifying the juice of the remaining grapes to produce a more concentrated red.
Thirdly, and most commonly, is when black grapes are crushed and the skins are allowed to remain in contact with the juice for a short period of around two to three days. This is essentially an abbreviated red wine vinification. The grapes are pressed but then the skin which imparts the colour is discarded and the pale coloured juice is then left to continue its fermentation separately.
Possibly a big misapprehension about rosé wines is that they are simply a blend of red and white wines. This is hardly ever practiced and would almost always result in a wine of poor quality, with the possible exception of the odd alchemical miracle at a student party.
The “blush” wines are really the result of an accident during the wine-making process whereby the yeast dies off before all the sugar has turned to alcohol producing a semi-sweet, very faintly pink wine. This method which was initially used with the Black Zinfandel grape to produce a “white Zinfandel” soon became very popular in California from the 1980s onwards. More recently in Italy the discovery that the grape variety “primitivo” was essentially a “cousin” of the North American Zinfandel has led to many Italian wine-makers seeking to get in on the act, riding the “blush” wave of popularity and possibly sacrificing a little integrity on the way.
So what are our favourites I hear you ask… Oh go on, please ask!
Well, both James and I share a cautious approach to the new world rosés currently being produced which blow your head off after a couple of sips. The alcohol levels in wines such as Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon rosé hovering around the 14% mark have potential dangerous consequences when drunk on a hot sunny summer afternoon if ever we have the good fortune of being able to enjoy one. These styles of rosé are, however, very popular, showing an easy-drinking abundance of fruit with powerful flavours, and as such are a good alternative to a red wine.
James’ favourite rosé of the moment is one from Corbières in the Languedoc Rousillion region in Southern France: Château Ollieux Romanis Corbières Rosé. Château Ollieux Romanis is situated at Montseret (also renowned for its Rosemary honey!) and has been in the Bories family since the mid 19th Century. The vines are planted on red clay soil and face south-east on a sheltered hill-side. The Carignan grape is king here and this rosé is a blend of hand-harvested Carignan with a little Syrah and Grenache. Spicy with a savoury edge it is ideal with richly flavoured rustic dishes. James has recently enjoyed a bottle of this with a bourride (a rich Mediterranean seafood stew) and suggests it is also a perfect match for grilled meats or indeed can be simply enjoyed on its own. Should this have got the old taste buds tingling then feel free to contact us and we will put you in contact with the charming Monsieur Jérome Lambert of Bijou bottles at Wroxham, who will, in his inimitable style, furnish you with this fantastic wine.
As for myself, whilst not wishing to seem disloyal to my Gallic grounding and bearing in mind James has probably nicked the best one, I would like to celebrate the softness and simplicity of the Rosato Veronese Veritiere, a seductively light wine from the Veneto region of Northern Italy with soft red fruit flavours but with a fresh crispness which means that there is often very little time elapsed between sips. It is made with the black Corvina which is a grape rather than a 1980s wide-boy’s mode of transport. It is the same grape used to make Valpolicella and displays similarly light, summer fruit flavours and at 11% does not leave you incapacitated after a glass or two. This wine is available from Enotria Wine Cellars and is very affordable.
So, at this time of year when cupid sharpens up his arrows and ambitious young men book tables at restaurants in their thousands (often with somewhat presumptuous haste), it has been good to explore the virtues and vices of the romantic rosé. What power this pink product yields! Sexy, seductive, soft and soothing, and just the thing to make a lady blush!
See you next time.
Ecky and James
Welcome ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, to the first of our regular columns celebrating our love affair with the fruits of the versatile, virtuosic, vinis vinifera.
James and I have deliberated, cogitated and often locked horns to bring to The Last’s list a unique identity which reflects both our personalities and our relationship with wine. I grew up in a French environment with pretty much the impression that wine came in two forms, Muscadet or Côtes du Rhone, with an occasional fuss being made over something “special” from Bordeaux which I was never going to get anywhere near -- understandable really considering that, until I was about fourteen, my wine would be served with a significant “splash” of water. So the foundations of my appreciation and evaluation of the thousands of bottles I would one day, for professional purposes (in the most part) have to sample was to be built on watered down cheap red Rhône.
James’ first flirtations with wine, although post-amphora, do stretch back considerably further than mine. He has cloudy recollections of his father, a lover of fine wines, topping up his water bottle with a drop of Burgundy when he was as young as three! A prelude to a young adulthood in 1970s London of bacchanalian over-indulgence, bathing in inviting pools of sleek Mosel Rieslings and earthy Riojas that would sing of the joys of Spain. All this goes some way to explaining his now legendary refined “nose” and finely-tuned palate.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, a common thread between the two of us has been our euro-centric appreciation of wine. The advent of New world wines to the British market, which was to become a full scale invasion in the 1990s, was certainly a mixed blessing. On the one hand it had the very positive effect of introducing wine to a much wider audience with both its easy drinking style and accessibility in terms of price, and encouraging the public to learn more about specific grape varieties. A noticeable change here at the Last, for example, was that regular Liebfraumilch drinkers were very soon to become lovers of Australian Chardonnay. A certain element of snobbery and exclusivity in the world of wine was being challenged, and the simplistic “it does what it says on the tin” approach to the wines and their labeling was to be a welcome change to most people, for whom the confusing, undecipherable labels of the “old world” seemed to require an esoteric knowledge for the initiated only. People began to discover Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon amongst others and recognize their distinctive, different characteristics.
However, it seemed that a certain integral role of wine as being a drink to be enjoyed with food was being sacrificed to give the consumer this “explosion” of fruit. This new wave of wine-making was creating entirely fruit-driven wines which were often little more than alcoholic fruit juices; “gluggable” became the buzz word of the day but in many cases the wines were fairly one dimensional lacking the backbone, structure and complexity to really excite the palate and often with such a high percentage of alcohol as to knock your head off with one glass!
Fortunately we now appear to be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. Traditional wine-making regions such has France, Italy and Spain are having to significantly improve the quality of their wines at the cheaper end of the market to stay in the running, and winemakers in the new world are recognizing the trend towards a more subtle style of wine and also catering for a “going out” culture which is now much more food orientated.
So as James and I wrestle with the task of providing our customers with a balanced, interesting wine list, our aim is to celebrate the great diversity of wine and, more importantly, to show wines which reflect their place of origin, whilst obviously attempting to allow for the broad range of people’s tastes. The many wine tastings we are forced to attend for your benefit can obviously be fairly exhausting and we will often leave these events with our heads spinning with the important decisions to be made. A recent South American tasting had us trying in the region of 80 Argentinian Malbecs, before we could eventually agree on the “Ruca Malen” which is now such a favourite on our list. Tough work I think you’ll agree!
The truth, however, and in essence the beauty of wine is that there are no rules and there is no right or wrong. James and I will make certain judgements of what we think will have a general appeal, whilst obviously allowing ourselves a certain element of self-indulgence. We are though fortunate to have several regular customers who will soon let us know if we have made a mistake (won’t you Ken!). The task of wine-buying is also greatly facilitated by working with good wine merchants of which a list of our favourites appears on the wine list on our website. In the restaurant business as well as in a personal capacity there are great rewards in having a good relationship with a wine merchant who understands your tastes and requirements and who can provide a personal touch which supermarkets fail to deliver.
It is easy to understand how the world of wine can generate so many obsessive enthusiasts. In my younger days I can remember finding the pantomime of wine-tasting and the apparently disproportionate superlatives á la Jilly Goolden (“mmm this wine tastes like the grapes have been gently crushed beneath the sweaty armpits of Spanish fishwives”, and so on) fairly comical. However, the great thing about wine is this ability to stir the senses, to evoke nostalgia, to bring out different reactions in different people depending on their own personal sensory history. It is a subject which is not only inexhaustible and ever-changing but unique to each individual. The opinion of someone drinking their very first glass of wine is as valid as a master of wine who has spent a lifetime of swallowing and spitting (if you’ll pardon the expression!).
James and I, in this regular column, will share our thoughts and personal impressions with you, discussing favourite wines, current trends, wine regions of particular interest, subjects ranging from the benefits or otherwise of screwcaps, to the realistic advent of England as a major wine-producing country. We hope we can very humbly endeavour to be both informative and entertaining.
See you next time,
Ecky and James