29 Sep 2010

Secret Wine: The Tasting

There is a great emphasis on terroir in French wine - the concept that wine should have a sense of place, that it should taste of where it comes from - but this doesn't mean that wines from each region necessarily have common defining characteristics that give away their identity in a blind tasting: there are so many variables in winemaking. But each region does of course tend towards a certain style. And what wine lover could resist the challenge of uncovering some secret wines?

So, I tasted the three mystery bottles, mulled it over and posted my answers on the Secret Wine site. It was really enjoyable tasting the wines without knowing anything about them, trying to work out where they came from.

There has since been a message posted by the Secret Wine team to say that a number of bloggers (from various countries) have entered their votes - but as yet no-one has provided the three correct answers. Zut alors.

Here are my findings on the mystery wines.

Wine #079
This was the first wine I tasted, and it was very impressive - it turned out to be my favourite of the three. A really classy wine. Pouring it into the glass it was very dark, almost inky black in colour (triggering a thought of Cahors down in the south west of France, famed for its so-called 'black wines'). An enticing aroma of blackcurrant and plums with a raisiny, almost brandy-like undertone precedes a gorgeously balanced taste of slightly sweet purple fruit, very smooth, powerful yet with a soft mouthfeel. This wine was so good I wondered about Bordeaux, St Emilion perhaps, but opted in the end for the Languedoc region. My answer was Grands Vins de Languedoc - although in retrospect a more specific answer may have been Minervois.

Wine #390
This was the most powerful of the three and I'm fairly certain it was at least 14%ABV. Again a very dark red, purple colour, but this time with an almost syrupy full body. A port-like aroma with meaty and minty notes, with more menthol and herby flavours and some oak coming through in the mouth, with a slightly overpowering alcoholic hit. I toyed with it perhaps being a Chateauneuf du Pape, but settled on Cahors, partly because it reminded me slightly of an Argentinian malbec - a grape common to Cahors (albeit known as Auxerrois or Cot).

Wine #714
Just a touch thinner than the other two this one, and not as powerful on the nose. Aromas of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and black pepper were followed up by raspberry and blackberry on the palate. Fairly easy drinking. In terms of grapes, I half wondered about pinot noir, or cabernet perhaps, but it reminded me of a Rhone GSM (grenache-syrah-mourvedre), so that was my thinking when I opted for Cotes du Rhone.

It'll be interesting to find out how close or far away I am. Looking at other people's answers on the Secret Wine site, most have had similar thinking around the south of France. But who knows. That full bodied #390, for instance, could even be Californian or Australian. I'll report the results when they're announced. We don't yet know who wins the prizes if nobody calls all three wines correctly.

24 Sep 2010

Secret Wine

I've entered into the Secret Wine competition. Wine bloggers have been sent three mysteriously anonymous bottles of wine, with the simple task (ahem) of tasting them and saying which appellation(s) in France the wines have come from. The prizes are a wine tourism stay for two people worth 1,000 euros and cases of six bottles of wine. Like I say, winning these prizes merely involves the simple matter of identifying the birthplace of each wine. Not an easy task, but a fun one, and it'll be interesting to find out the true identities of the wines.

20 Sep 2010

Italian Craft Beer Evening, The Lounge, Leeds

I recently attended a beer and food evening at the Lounge Bar & Grill in Leeds. The Lounge hosts these nights regularly, with the focus on a different set of beers each month, the chef creating a menu designed to complement the beers. This time it was a selection of Italian beers. I was impressed by the quality of both the food and the drink.

Incidentally, as well as the great flavours, what's noticeable about these beers is that they're nicely designed. Not just the striking labels, but the occasional use of swing-top closures, which emphasise the craft brewing credentials, and the 75cl bottles - an apparently growing trend in craft beer. What's significant about 75cl? It's wine bottle size. It's a visual cue that this is a drink to be savoured, and to be enjoyed with food - in other words, to be treated like wine. Craft beer companies must be thinking, if people pay £15 for a bottle of house wine with their meal, then they might be willing to pay around that for a bottle of house beer instead.

Anyway, on to the meal. First up some canapes (bruschetta, crisp chicken livers, fish fritters) were paired with a bottle of La Gradisca (4.7% alcohol). A good solid start, the nibbles washed down nicely by the Gradisca. It's an uncomplicated, refreshing and easy-drinking lager, which is no criticism, with lower carbonation and a touch more flavour than the average mainstream lager. It'd go down very nicely as a thirst quencher at a summer barbecue, or with a pizza.

On to the starter, which was a terrine of local rabbit, crisp pancetta and fig chutney, paired with Isaac (5% alcohol), a wheat beer. The Isaac was served in a wine glass, which suited it. Isaac has an almost sparkling wine type character to it, with its lightly fruity, apricoty aroma. It has virtually no carbonation - it looked like apple juice in the glass - and worked well with the starter, much as a crisp white wine probably would have done. I'd imagine it'd also go well with a seafood starter, something like prawns or scallops.

It was a duo of mains: chargrilled halibut steak with aubergine and crispy onion rings; and spiced fillet of mackerel with crab and potato salad, creme fraiche and lemon. The two beers that arrived with the mains were Open (7.5% alcohol) and ReAle Extra (6.4% alcohol). Open again brought to mind a good white wine and it worked very nicely with the halibut, the aromatic US hops lifting the flavours in the dish, the moreish, hoppy bitterness of each sip compelling another soon after. It's a good example of a hoppy beer that remains balanced: it's not hitting you over the head; it's drinkable as well as interesting.

The ReAle Extra is lighter in alcohol but there's even more bitterness. The story goes that the brewers forgot to add the necessary hops to the brew and were faced with a 30-second window of what to do - so they attempted to save it by whacking in three times the usual amount of hops but just in the last ten minutes of brewing. "From a mistake, the ReAle is now a masterpiece," our guide Giulio tells us as we take a sip. You hear these kinds of stories from time to time in the alcohol world, where the line between marketing myth and historical fact is hazy. But it's a nice story and you like to think it really happened. And mistake or not, this fresh, hoppy beer is another impressive brew.

But the dessert course was perhaps most impressive of all... or was I bound to think that after four fairly strong beers? The Keto Reporter (5.2% alcohol) was paired with a dark chocolate tart and hazelnut praline ice cream - both the drink and the food were superb; not only that but they worked a treat together. This porter is a really interesting one, not least because a handful of Kentucky tobacco leaves are thrown in during the brewing process (five leaves per 2,500l, I think), meaning that those dark chocolate, treacley, rounded aromas you'd expect are encircled by a whiff of smoke. It's a drink to treat as a rare luxury: the smokiness might become too much if you drank a lot or often, but in this context, as a little snifter of a nightcap alongside the lovely dark chocolate tart, it was superb. As Giulio put it: "It's the last drink of the night, you have a cigar, a tiramisu, a lovely lady..."

14 Sep 2010

Magus (3.8% alcohol)

I'd recommend this Durham Brewery beer if you enjoy pale ale. I've never tried it on cask, but in the bottle it's got a lovely lemony-fresh, slightly floral aroma, which follows through into an easy drinking flavour with a surprisingly hoppy finish. It's not every night you want the stormy hit of a massive 10%ABV beer; sometimes a light shower of reassuring light ale is all you need. And if you're in the mood for a light session ale with a decent hit of hops, the Magus is a good bet.

12 Sep 2010

Lagonda IPA (5% alcohol)

Manchester's Marble Brewery have been one of the darlings of beer bloggery over recent months. They're up there with the likes of Thornbridge, if not quite BrewDog, for the amount of reviews and positive comments they've been attracting. As well as knowing how to make good beers, these companies know how to package and promote them - how to engage with the online community - hence the large amount of coverage.

The Lagonda is one of those all-out bitter IPAs, very grapefruity in its aroma and on the palate. In fact the slightly perfumed aroma is so brisk and clean it almost brings to mind the swimming baths, cleaning products even, especially as it has a faint lemony tinge to it. On the palate there are also passion fruit and seville orange notes, with a grapefruity, mouth sappingly bitter finish.

It's a well made beer, with plenty going on in terms of flavour. I wouldn't drink more than one in a sitting though - just half a bottle or so is fine for me before it all starts to get a bit too much, the cleansing bitterness reaching a point where I'm ready for a different flavour - but that's just a personal preference.

11 Sep 2010

Capucine, Les Ollieux 2009 (£8.49, Oddbins)

This is a superb wine from the Corbieres appellation down in the Languedoc in the south of France. It's a region that traditionally had a reputation for workmanlike full-bodied reds, but I'm increasingly finding it to be the source of some brilliant value wines that are sometimes similar in style to ripe Chilean reds, thanks to the hot sunshine the area enjoys.

This wine - a blend of Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet and Merlot - has an alluring dusky aroma of faint bonfire smoke and savoury olives, followed up by bags of pure concentrated fruit on the palate.

A delicious and complex wine, and nicely packaged too. The tasting note on the back label says: "Capucine is a funny wine with flavours of cherry and red fruits, soft spices and a round full bodied palate." Funny in a good way.

1 Sep 2010

Venetian Pale Ale (5.2% alcohol)

This Venetian Pale Ale is so-called because it fermented while my brother Matthew and his wife Angela were on holiday in Venice. They've produced a fine range of ales since taking up brewing: everything from lager to Belgian-style Dubbels and Trippels to a warming Bourbon Christmas Stout (which came in at a whopping 11% alcohol).

The Venetian Pale Ale, their latest creation, has a lovely clean aroma of fresh morning dew with a merest hint of hay. On the palate it's slightly floral and has a touch of Belgian-ness - that enticing suggestion of hay in the background - but with a refreshing and brilliantly clean and crisp bitterness to the finish.

Matthew hopped it with a mix of Centennial, Chinook and Pioneer, and fermented it at 20C with Irish ale yeast - which although is traditionally used for darker beers and stouts, can add plenty of interest to a pale ale such as this one, and it may have contributed to the dry, crisp finish. Centennial is a citrussy variety that's widely used in American IPAs; he opted for Chinook to add a nice burnt, herby flavour; and finally the classically English Pioneer is a sister of Herald and brings in some soft, clean aromatics. An excellent, well balanced pale ale.