25 Aug 2010

Trapiche Broquel Torrontes 2008 (£9.99, Laithwaites)

Torrontes is a quietly fashionable grape at the moment, and with good reason. Oaky, buttery New World Chardonnay fell out of favour; people started to get a bit weary of pincer-sharp Sauvignon Blanc; Pinot Grigio became ubiquitous but was often bland; so a void was left for a fresh and potentially complex white: step forward Torrontes.

There are actually three varieties of Torrontes, but the higher-end stuff tends to be made from Torrontes Riojano, and that's what's used in this wine. It's almost sherryish on the nose and on the palate it's certainly off-dry, almost Germanic in character, with notes of honey and candied lemon but with a purity of fruit and almost Champagne-esque clean edge that stops it from cloying. It contains 5% Sauvignon Blanc, which probably contributes a crisp acidity that balances out the richness nicely.

In terms of food and wine matching, it didn't work brilliantly with vegetables in black bean sauce. But it would surely complement other lightly spiced oriental cuisine, such as Thai green curry or coconut and chilli prawns. And it worked a treat with some trout fillets, lightly fried in olive oil with garlic and smoky bacon. Trapiche Broquel Torrontes would also make for an excellent pre-dinner drink to liven up the tastebuds.

20 Aug 2010

Le Froglet Shiraz 2009 (£5.49, Marks & Spencer)

Le Froglet (12.5% alcohol) has won a Gold medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2010. It's a pretty impressive achievement for a wine that costs just £5.49 a bottle and was tasted alongside almost 11,000 wines (it was one of 208 entries that took Gold). It's also newsworthy because you can buy it in a single-serve plastic cup with a sealed lid ("cup-a-wine"), albeit at a higher price.

So, what's it like? Well not surprisingly, it's a decent wine, very decent. On the nose it's got that nice, almost leathery whiff that some Argentinian Malbecs have, along with bags of dark blackcurrant fruit and some dark chocolate on the palate, with a characteristic Shiraz twist of spice. It doesn't mention it on the label, but the M&S website lists Grenache as well as Shiraz, so that probably explains the slightly thinner, less tannic quality than you might expect.

As an aside, given that it's from France's Languedoc region it seems strange it's labelled Shiraz as opposed to Syrah (although they're the same grape, the former tends only to be used in the New World), especially given that it's 12.5% alcohol as opposed to your typical Aussie Shiraz of 14%+. I suspect it's more to do with ongoing attempts to re-brand French wines to compete with their New World counterparts, than it is to do with the style of this particular wine.

And I'd probably differ slightly from Decanter editor Guy Woodward in that I wouldn't say it's an overly complex wine - you wouldn't expect it to be at this price - but as an easy drinking glugger for picnics or lunchtime treats or pizza nights, I think it's among the best options on the high street if you've a fiver to spend.

But I must admit I'm surprised it out-performed certain other wines in its category that are surely more complex. Sorry to keep banging on about it, but I think it all comes back to context - judges were tasting hundreds and hundreds of wines over a few days and, for whatever reason, this one came out on top. Perhaps its easy drinking quality made it stand out among heavier, spicier alternatives. Perhaps it was another reason. But I bet if the judges had a couple of glasses of Le Froglet at home, followed by a couple of glasses of certain other entrants, they might come to a different conclusion. It's not a criticism - the fact that your own wants and tastes change from one day to the next is one reason why drinking wine and beer is so interesting and so enjoyable.

Bargain alert: at the time of writing, you can pick up Le Froglet for a mere £3.74 a bottle, if you buy a case of 12 online. Now that is a bargain.

17 Aug 2010

Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow, Leeds

Seeing Michael McIntyre perform live on two separate occasions in the same week, in the same city, is an interesting experience. Firstly on the Tuesday, it's an intimate gig up above The Library pub (really good venue for stand-up by the way); then, on the Thursday, it's for the filming of the latest episode of Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow for the BBC at the Grand Theatre.

Really intriguing to see him on the Tuesday: small clubs haven't been his stomping ground for some time now, and to an extent you can tell. Dan Nightingale is the warm-up act who is more comfortable in these surrounds; a quality circuit comic who puts on a really good show.

Michael McIntyre then takes to the stage. It's not a mesmerising or flawless performance by any means, and much of the show consists of him asking the audience to tell him all about what's been going on in Leeds, so that he has some topical material for his TV show later in the week. It brings to mind someone like David Cameron travelling up north and doing his best to click with the quaint northerners. But then, to be fair, McIntyre has a job to do - and there are snippets of extremely well observed material that remind you why he became so popular. And there is something, just something about him, you can just see why he is made for TV. The shiny suit, the shiny hair, even the facial expressions, everything points to TV. You don't want to go all Simon Cowell and use phrases like star quality, but it's along those lines.

And so it proved on the Thursday, at the much bigger venue of the Grand Theatre. He was a consummate pro; the cameras started rolling, he had a job to do, and he did it. Even to the extent of assertively telling the audience to behave for re-takes (an innocent word like "Manchester" can cause an idiot Yorkshireman to boo - it's a bit like Pavlov's dogs - which can prove a problem when you're filming for a TV show). The Library gig had clearly been a useful exercise, and he'd successfully polished the material over the two days preceding the Grand Theatre show.

It was a very good night of comedy. Having said that, the first performer, Jack Whitehall, was the weakest on the night. A pastiche of Russell Brand but less witty. You suspect he'll become a TV personality or celebrity, rather than a top-drawer stand-up. Not great; perhaps he's still in the process of finding his own voice.

But the remainder of the bill went down a storm. Next up was the dry wit of Mike Gunn. His is the kind of deadpan comedy where, on the face of it, the world is a pretty rubbish place: men don't understand women (and vice versa) and we should all just stop pretending to make the effort. But you just know that below the surface there is a warmth pushing to get out (it doesn't).

Next up, Andi Osho was extremely impressive. Her comedy is fresh and edgy but warm-hearted, her charm carries the audience along. She's one to watch, I think.

Then it was Canadian comic Sean Collins: arguably the class act of the evening. Superb. Just brilliant material, and fantastically delivered. He somehow manages to make a British audience warm to him while making digs at his host country. "I love Britain," he says. "Everything is rubbish - but nobody seems to care." (Or something along those lines.) He continues: "This is the only country in the world where you buy a ticket for one form of transport and you end up travelling on something completely different. People holding train tickets are ushered onto buses, and they don't seem to mind." He does have a point.

Ardal O'Hanlon was the headline act. And again, he was extremely good. He's honed his stuff over a number of years now, and you can tell; he's a classy performer. "Someone once gave me a piece of good advice," he says, "which was to live every day like it's your last. And he was right, it's good advice. I always walk around with an oxygen mask on my face and rosary beads in my hand."

8 Aug 2010

Hobsons Manor Ale (4.2% alcohol)

This is a strange one. I've had other Hobsons beers in the past and enjoyed them, but this beer has a slightly unexpected aroma of dampness. Damp like an autumn walk – not wholly unpleasant, just not the freshness you'd expect. A dodgy bottle perhaps? (Following on from my previous post on context, I should point out I sampled this beer after the Little Creatures, in case the contrast in flavours had an effect.)

A strong flavour of roasted peanuts then comes through in the aroma and in the taste. It's an almost overpowering satay-type flavour, perhaps with a touch of lemon or orange zest.

Then something else interesting: I nip into the kitchen, top up my glass (from the same bottle) and eat a square or two of Green & Blacks Maya Gold chocolate. The beer is transformed. More creamy, coffee, caramel-type flavours, generally more rounded in character – and that peculiar dampness is pretty much undetectable.

Little Creatures Pale Ale (5.2% alcohol)

The Little Creatures brewery is based in Fremantle, Western Australia. But interestingly, the Chinook and Cascade hops in this pale ale are sourced from the US as well as from Tasmania. So depending on your level of beer geekery and whether you're a purist when it comes to regionality, you may or may not like the idea of this multinational brew.

Still it'd be a shame if you passed up the chance to try this pale ale, as it's an enjoyable and nicely balanced example. Probably won't satisfy fans of hop bombs: pouring it into the glass you don't get that in-your-face whiff of pine forest; more the clean scent of Christmas tree at the far end of the room. The delicate, faintly floral aroma continues into the flavour, which delivers a fairly light and summery finish.

Little Creatures Pale Ale would be a good choice if you know someone who usually enjoys elegant dry white wines and you want to switch them on to the joys of beer.

4 Aug 2010

Beer and Wine Tasting: Context

You're on holiday in France, feeling more relaxed and content than you have been for months. You sit back and sup the bottle of red you just bought for a couple of euros in the local hypermarche – which seems like the bargain of the century as you taste it alongside some warm freshly baked baguette and tasty local cheeses, taking in the brilliant views. A couple of weeks pass and you reach the end of your holiday, with a couple of cases in the back of your car to take home.

A few days have passed, you're back home, it's a miserable autumn evening, the weather's depressing. It's been a stressful day at work. You excitedly crack open the first of your 24 bottles. You take a sip and… this can't be the same stuff you drank on holiday can it? It tastes… it tastes like it cost a couple of euros. Not such a bargain.

A simplistic way of putting it maybe, but context really does impact on how we experience flavours, even if it's in more subtle ways than in the example above. When you sample a drink, it might be at the end of a bad day; you might have had a great day. You might have tasted the drink alongside 100 other similar drinks at a tasting event; you might have savoured it all on its own in the comfort of your own home. You might have eaten Michelin-starred food with the drink; you might have had it with cheese on toast.

Whenever I see a drink awarded, say, 17.5 marks out of 20, I wonder about the context of the tasting. I wonder about the context of past tastings of similar drinks by the same taster, and how his or her mind recalls them, and how accurately he or she has been able to mentally compare them all. Perhaps on another day that 17.5 could be a 16, or maybe an 18.5?

Such scores can often be a useful guideline of quality, but is it really possible to be so exact? Can we really become so accurate with our palates (and memories) that we can objectively make these comparisons and award such specific scores?