16 Jul 2011

Michael Broadbent and a whiff of merde

The award for tasting note of the month has to go to veteran Decanter columnist Michael Broadbent. In his column in the magazine's August issue, this is how Broadbent describes Louis Jadot's 1999 Charmes-Chambertin wine:

"Though a long-time admirer of Jadot," Broadbent reflects, "I was disappointed. It was showing some maturity; nose low-keyed, slightly meaty, with a whiff of merde. I thought it was better on the palate: sweet, silky, mature."

5 Jul 2011

The War of Terroir: Beer vs Wine

Wine writer Tim Atkin triggered a debate on Twitter yesterday about beer and wine. Although he loves both drinks, he believes wine is more complex, is better suited to food and has a greater sense of place. Some beer fans said they disagreed – and so far I've seen one blogpost in response arguing that terroir does exist in beer.

I'll leave the complexity and food matching arguments (which I touched on here) for another day, but for now I have to say I agree with Atkin on his point about sense of place, or terroir.

What is terroir? Put simply it's the impact that the physical conditions of a specific location have on the grapes that are grown there. So the character of the wine in the bottle will reflect the character of the terroir (to some extent – many other factors such as grape varieties, the use of oak and other winemaker interventions play a big part too). There are so many different aspects specific to a vineyard's location that are said to affect the grape: the minerals in the soil; wind; rainfall; levels of sunlight; altitude; differences in day and night time temperatures. This is partly why wine, old world wine in particular, is often referred to by location rather than by grape type; the location is synonymous with the wine. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja and so on. Just a mention of the words Bordeaux and Burgundy immediately conjure up images of certain types of wines. (For a further exploration of terroir, try here or here.)

Is the same true of beer? I don't think so. Not to the same extent. There are exceptions, but as a general rule a much more useful way of categorising beer is by style rather than by origin. Beer people tend to talk about porters, stouts, pale ales, lagers, bitters; less so London, California, Buxton, New South Wales or wherever. Yes, certain types of beer have traditionally tended to predominate in certain places, but overall with beer it's more a case of anything goes, hence less of a link to the physical locality.

Also, terroir in wine is said to be a very localised thing. You can get two vineyards within metres of each other that produce wines of different character when all else is equal. I'm no expert on either winemaking or brewing, but by its nature, brewing beer doesn't appear to be so intrinsically tied to the specifics of the land.

That's not to say it's a good or a bad thing, or even how significant it is. A lot of drinkers probably don't really care where the drink was made or if the local environment affected what it tastes like, they just know what they like. It's also debatable how much the concept of terroir is exaggerated, like a kind of placebo effect, a desire on the part of the wine lover to feel the soul of a place as they drink its wine. This is a powerful inclination when you really love wine.

It's also worth pointing out that terroir is not the sole reason for wines being very identifiable by region: in order to qualify for local denomination status, winemakers often have to adhere to strict rules that govern things like the types of grape varieties they are allowed to use. This is where human activity impinges on pure terroir. But nevertheless, in new world areas where there are no such rules, winemaking areas still show their distinct characters in the wine.

But beer fans shouldn't feel wholly negative about all this. Firstly, it shows that the beer world enjoys the freedom of the new world. Brewers can make what they like, where they like, and this leads to radical levels of experimentation, pushing at the boundaries of beer. Loads of new British breweries seem to be using exotic hops lately – which might not express much in the way of the terroir of the brewery, but it can produce some very tasty and interesting beer. Secondly, this isn't to say that beer can't ever have terroir. Perhaps if breweries really started to think local in every sense, a growing sense of terroir could develop further. The idea of vintages is already part of some beers, so why not take it one step further? More use of local or wild yeasts and local hops and of telling us how the local water plays its part. From a marketer's point of view as well as a drinker's, it could be a savvy move.

Also, all of this isn't to say that beer isn't hugely important to local communities. It is. But more in a social and cultural sense than a physical one. Like wine, beer brings people together; it melds communities; it smoothes out the rougher edges of life. And it can taste great. But for true terroir, it doesn't yet come close to wine.

2 Jul 2011

Enjoying some local Yorkshire Food at Swillington Organic Farm, Kirkstall Deli Market and Leeds Loves Food

I've enjoyed some great local food events here in Leeds over the past couple of weeks or so.

I visited Swillington Organic Farm as part of an event put on by Harvey Nichols - I got to have a look around the farm before enjoying a meal cooked by Harvey Nics' chefs accompanied by wine from Leventhorpe Vineyard just down the road. Despite the vineyard being as far north as Leeds, I was really impressed by the seyval blanc in particular, a crisp, bone-dry white wine. It might be surprising to hear of a vineyard in Yorkshire, but apparently centuries ago vines were grown at Kirkstall Abbey and even as far north as Hadrian's Wall!

Having a wander around Swillington Farm really brought home how, in cities at least, the people who produce our food and those who buy it have become so distanced, especially with the rise of the supermarkets. We buy stuff without sparing much thought for where it came from. It's a massive change from our grandparents or great-grandparents' generations, who had nowhere near the choice we are lucky enough to have, but at the same time they surely had more of a real connection to where their food came from, especially given more local specialists (butchers, bakers, greengrocers, milkmen etc) existed in those days. 

And then last weekend it was a visit to the magnificent Kirkstall Abbey (pictured above and top - a spectacular 850 years old and one of the best preserved abbeys in the country) for the Kirkstall Deli Market, where there was a good amount of local producers selling their wares - seafood from Whitby, various jams and chutneys and fresh fruit, meat from Swillington Farm, plus the likes of Dough, fish'n'chips with a twist from Fish&, and booze from Latitude. Also pretty sure we spotted Leeds singer Corinne Bailey Rae having a day out there too. A really good event in stunning surroundings - would recommend any locals to visit the next one on 30th July.

Lastly, today was the Leeds Loves Food festival at Millennium Square in the city centre - great weather, absolutely packed, and again the brilliant thing about it was the number of small independent businesses on show. The recent Taste of London event came in for a bit of flak with some saying it was overly corporate, but you couldn't say that about Leeds Loves Food, which seemed to have a really good mix.