20 Dec 2013

Why does wine on TV make geeks angry?

The BBC showed a programme last night called The 12 Drinks of Christmas, presented by brothers-in-law Giles Coren and Alexander Armstrong. I thought it was quite good.

This is a rare thing, a TV programme about alcohol. Surprisingly so, given how much time and money Brits devote to booze.

But one thing's for certain: every single time wine or beer is in the mainstream media, a backlash from experts and enthusiasts will follow.

Keeping an eye on Twitter as the programme went out, many (but not all) wine people were critical of the show.

Exactly the same thing happens with beer whenever it appears in papers or on TV.

They're talking about Blue Moon and craft beer! the beer people laugh. He said Bollinger is the best you'll get for £35! the coloured trouser wearers scoff. And so on.

(I even saw one comment last night bemoaning the fact beer wasn't covered on 12 Drinks, so you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. Though it was a fair comment actually. And interestingly it was suggested beer may've been excluded to avoid conflict with Armstrong's Shepherd Neame advertising deal.)

Why do these shows come in for such criticism? Does it come from a genuine desire for the information to be accurate? Maybe. Or is it a kneejerk response by geeks to separate themselves from the rest; to say I know more than this mainstream show.

I thought The 12 Drinks of Christmas did its job pretty well - it was entertaining enough and there was enough info to get people thinking more about what they taste. Surely this is the important thing for a non-specialist audience: as long as the basic info is accurate, the main point is to entertain, get people into good drinks to begin with, trigger something, and the bigger story can come later if they want it.

As has been said before, you don't have to be serious about something to be serious about something. Maybe sometimes, experts feel threatened by the masses discovering their niche interest, much like an indier-than-thou music geek realising their undiscovered band has gone mainstream.

4 Dec 2013

Campo Viejo Rioja 1976

When you see a star, you're seeing the present and the past at the same time. You're seeing it now but what you also see is how it looked a long time ago.

We uncorked this old wine - the cork gently came apart - and poured it into glinting glasses, that very second smelling aromas from 37 years ago. Beautiful.

The liquid was light red and smelt leafy and herbal, a bit tomatoey, a smell of the earth from all that time ago; like beauty in a star that might already have burst. It tasted mellow and made me think of sage, of cloves and raspberries, and maybe of life and the passing of time.

29 Nov 2013

Starting a sentence with So – why did it catch on?

It's all the rage, starting sentences with the word So.

I see Radio 4's Today programme covered it back in 2011, noting it seems particularly common among scientist types. Other than that, they were at a loss about its origins.

So. I've got two kind-of theories about this bizarre trend entirely plucked out of thin air. One about the reason people started to do it and the other about where it started.

I think people often do it in a bid to convey authority, to take the senior role in a conversation. Maybe this explains the scientists thing and it'd also fit in with the fact I've noticed politicians doing it quite a lot (I'm pretty sure I noticed Grant Shapps doing it in a recent Question Time episode - the one featuring that memorable Mehdi Hasan Daily Mail bit). I'd be interested to see if other types of salespeople aside from politicians use it too.

Just in that one word at the start of your sentence you're showing the person you're speaking to that you mean business; that you've taken firm hold of the conversational baton; that you're not merely having a chat with them but informing them. So, listen to me, this is the important bit, kind of thing. A shorter version of the old politician's favourite "The fact of the matter is…" (which is usually followed by a non-fact).

I wonder if it started on social media, where it might make more sense to use the word So at the start of tweets, blogposts and so on to make your writing seem informal and most importantly to give it a feel of continuity. A shorter way of saying "Following on from my last post yesterday…". Maybe it's served a purpose in the 24-hour connected thing, of giving the impression you're constantly in touch with your online friends rather than giving intermittent broadcasts, and it's spread from there to speech. And now it's there people are doing it unconsciously.

I also have an inkling it's the offspring of the Australian inflection: by that I mean people who do one are likely to do the other. In my limited experience it seems to be used more in the south-east of England and by a professional/aspirational kind of demographic, though I may be wrong.

So where do you think it came from? And does it add an air of authority, or does it just sound condescending?

31 Oct 2013

25% off supermarket wine: Terres de Galets 2012 Cotes du Rhone for £4 and McWilliam's Semillon at under £7

McWilliam's semillon and Terres de Galets Cotes du Rhone

It seems like all the supermarkets are offering 25% off six bottles of wine at the moment - I've taken advantage in recent weeks at Tesco and Sainsbury's.

McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Elizabeth 2005 is really brilliant at £6.75 a bottle, a proper white wine that warranted its original £9 price in the first place. Speaking of real wine, that's how Jancis Robinson described the red I went for to complete the Tesco case with the McWilliam's semillon - Finest Somontano, a Spanish region that was new to me and an unshowy wine that had a savoury finish, like tea without sugar.

Then over at Sainsbury's this week I picked up some of the Terres de Galets 2012, a Cotes du Rhone that makes for a good house red at the daft price of just over £4 a bottle when you buy six. It's a wine I like, especially for the price, but you don't have to take my word for it as a quick Google search shows it's won a medal or two.

Morrisons, Waitrose and M&S are also currently offering similar 25% reductions on their wine selections, so it's well worth stocking up on a few bottles. Depending on your finances, you can pick up some good cheap wines or you can take the chance to try something more interesting than you could usually afford.

These offers are great for consumers - but not without concern for independent wine shops which presumably lose out on a fair amount of trade as a result.

12 Sep 2013

My 10 top tips for buying cheap wine

Cheap doesn't always equal good value. As a general rule, the less you pay for something, the less likely it'll be of good quality. So I'd always say beware false economies and, if you have a bit more spare cash, spending just that little bit more can be well worth it.

But that doesn't mean expensive stuff will always be great, or cheap stuff will always be rubbish. If you don't have much to spend, you just need to be selective, and a bit lucky.

My advice for buying cheap wine is based simply on my own experience - so feel free to agree, disagree or add your own top tips.

1. Ignore half-price wine offers in supermarkets

These half-price offers would be great if they were applied at random and on rotation to all the wines in a retailer's range... but they're not. You can find better value wines not on offer.

2. Use supermarket 25% off promotions

These are applied across the whole range (apart from usually the very high-end stuff) and you typically get the discount if you buy six or 12 bottles. A good tactic here is to mix up a few very cheap (but good) bottles - treat these as your "house" or weekday wines - with a few much more interesting ones with the money you've saved.

3. Shop at specialist wine shops

It's become a bit of a wine writer's cliche to say it, but it's true. This is where the all important concept of value rather than cheapness comes in - you're more likely to find interesting or memorable wines in these shops, as wine is their reason for being - it's their speciality rather than a means of driving sales of other items.

4. Go for France, Spain, Argentina and Portugal

I generally find these countries a good bet for cheaper wines - especially reds - by that I mean around the £5-7 mark. Spain in particular seems a top choice for good value wines at the moment, both for classic styles and more new wave examples.

5. Tread carefully elsewhere

On the other hand, if I fancy trying the wines of, say, the USA, South Africa or New Zealand, I might spend a bit more rather than focus on the bargain end, here in the UK at least. Oz Clarke said similar, and if there's anyone who knows his stuff, it's Oz.

6. Shop around

This might seem a bit obvious, but use different retailers. One day you might pick up a bottle in Selfridges or Harvey Nichols, the next it might be Tesco or Aldi. There's good and bad value all over the place, so keep an eye out and take advantage when you spot a good deal, whether for a fancy or a simple bottle of wine.

7. Use the web

Another obvious one, but it is a brilliant tool for finding the best wine deals. And the beauty of it is that while building up a case online you can open another tab in your browser and Google any wine you're thinking of getting to find out more and see what other people and experts thought of it before you commit.

8. Read, read, read and find wine experts you trust

There's no quick fix for this one, but it'll pay dividends - it'll take time and lots of reading to work out who you like and whose tastes are similar to your own. I regularly keep an eye on the blogs and sites of Jamie Goode, Tim Atkin, Jancis Robinson and many, many others. Not just for individual wine recommendations, but general winey titbits.

9. Use social media

This links in with the previous two tips - make use of social media. Following a mix of experts and enthusiasts on Twitter is a great way to learn more about wine.

10. Get clues from the label

It's true the label isn't always a good barometer of what's in the bottle, but sometimes you can pick up little clues to help you. For instance does the label name the winemaker, does it give specifics about the winemaking site and method (eg it was made naturally, unfiltered, from a specific vineyard etc). This is a tricky area as a lot of these things can easily cross over into marketing bumf, but sometimes you just get a sense this is a wine someone's cared about rather than just churned out.

23 Aug 2013

A brilliant rioja - Urbina Gran Reserva 1994

This wine was beautiful.

Somehow had an understated, cushioned power to it; the sweet smell of a library's old red leather chair.

Highly recommended - we got it for £14.99 from Majestic.

That's the kind of price you might pay for a forgettable house wine in a restaurant.

15 Aug 2013

How cheap should wine be?

What should be the cheapest price for a bottle of wine in the UK?

And should wine critics recommend very cheap wine?

I've been mulling this over after enjoying some pretty decent cheap wines lately with mixed feelings.

You might argue a wine critic's job is to recommend any wine that's good value, and the cheaper the better. The critic is meant to be on the side of the consumer.

But - a big but. What's good for the consumer in the short term - very cheap but tasty wine - might not be good for the winemaker and retailer, and in turn the consumer, in the long run.

What if it's a race to the bottom with winemakers getting less and less income until the decent ones who can't afford to take the losses drop out?

Should we be willing to pay a bit more per bottle to make sure the people who make our wines earn a sustainable living?

Or should we let the market decide: get the best wine we can at the cheapest price we can get hold of it, especially when we have very little money ourselves? After all, spending a few more quid doesn't bring any guarantees of ethical production.

I try to earn a living from writing, so I can empathise with winemakers who feel they're trying to do something meaningful or creative for little reward. I recently saw an advert for apprenticeships for 16-year-old school leavers with a couple of GCSEs, and the apprenticeships paid as well (/badly) as many freelance writing jobs. This is after you've got into debt studying and got work experience over several years; minimum wage territory.

So - I appreciate the frustration of winemakers or anyone else who cares about doing something properly and gets barely a liveable reward.

But in another sense, because of that I feel less bad about buying cheap wine, for now at least. If winemakers are paid as little as I am, I'm pretty sure they might, for example, choose to read a newspaper for free online instead of paying for a print subscription, even though journalists' jobs are dropping faster than vines in a storm.

I suppose what I'm saying is, the chance to spend a few quid less on anything is pretty useful for many people right now. It's a bit depressing, it leaves a bad aftertaste, but is it a necessary evil?

What is a fair minimum price for a bottle of wine?

29 Jun 2013

Wine - what's hot and what's not?

Your non-wine geek friend is over for a drink, you reach for a bottle of red from the fridge, and they laugh.

You can't blame them. Putting a red wine in the fridge probably looks a bit daft.

When wine isn't an obsession, you don't tend to do it. Wine's a rare treat you have on a Friday or Saturday night for a cosy night in, just one or two glasses, treating it in the same way as a brandy in front of the fire. A big, deep, rich and oaky red is perhaps what you fancy more often than not.

But then you get more fascinated by wine, and you drink it more often. And gradually, you don't mind your red wines served slightly cooler.

At least I think that's what I've found. Just lately - maybe it's the warmer weather - when I've opened a red wine it's tasted a bit soupy. It has a certain effect on the feel of a red wine in the mouth when it's too warm - a bit like taking a clothes hanger from out of a shirt and letting it crumple to the floor. Putting it in the fridge for even just 10 minutes seems to freshen it up again, gets the shape back.

Obviously as always it depends on the wine, the mood, the weather and the occasion and there are definitely no set rules. Each to their own; no two people will have exactly the same preferences in anything.

But it made me wonder - has my taste/palate evolved as I've got more into wine, or is it simply that when you drink the stuff a bit more often, refreshment becomes more important? As wine is more of an everyday drink, you want it to refresh you?

It also made me wonder about wine tastings, wine scores and wine awards.

Wine writers, rightly, are always telling us about the importance of serving wine in the right way to get it at its best - not just the right temperature, but also the right glass, letting it breathe, and so on. All of these variables are different for different wines. After all, it's the main selling point for wine glass makers and retailers - certain wines seem better in certain glasses. Different wines also taste better at different temperatures and some need more exposure to air than others.

I've never judged at a wine awards, so I don't know the ins and outs. But I gather that generally every wine is served in the same glass as all the others, and presumably at the same temperature. I don't know whether they're all given the same amount of time to breathe.

At first glance that might look fair, as you're treating them all the same. But equal opportunities isn't about taking a uniform approach. Think about an office building - to give everyone the same opportunities you need to provide different options. A ramp at the entrance; the chance to adjust our chairs to different heights, and so on.

Think about the best drama you've ever seen on the telly. For me, maybe The Killing or Six Feet Under. Amazing TV, but we all need the volume turned up to different levels to appreciate it equally.

Different wines, even within the same category, might taste at their best when given different treatment.

26 Jun 2013

A night of cheese and wine at Sam's Chop House, Leeds

Wine, cheese, good company, a nice restaurant - you can't go far wrong can you?

George Bergier

This was a great night made memorable by the brilliant George Bergier, sommelier at Sam's Chop House and its sister restaurants who gave a masterclass in the art of sommeliering (I'd like to think that's a word). He presented various wines to match the cheeses, constantly nipping out and coming back with a different bottle for us all to try, his generosity and knowledge carried so lightly yet flowing round the table so easily.

For some unknown reason I don't have a photo of the first cheese, though that's probably because it was quickly scoffed. It was a burrata, which is like a super-rich mozzarella made with double cream and it can be eaten sweet or savoury, a bit like mascarpone. It's like a very creamy yogurt, the kind of thing where less is probably more, pretty irresistible really. If you think of the unctuous and creaminess implied in those comically suggestive Danone adverts, and then add a bit, you're in the right ball park. It went very nicely with the lemony, maybe even honey-tinged Le Coste trebbiano.

La Croix Belle 2011

The Old Amsterdam cheese was next, my first thought being it was a kind of gouda/parmesan hybrid. Which is certainly a good thing for me. It seemed packed full of those savoury, umami type flavours you get from parmesan and perhaps a bit of caramel in there too, with George pointing out there was also a pineappley note to the smell. With La Croix Belle chardonnay this was a great match, and it also mingled nicely as an alternative with some good bordeaux - Chateau Bonnet 2008.

Some Swedish cheddar next, if that's not a contradiction. Vasterbottensost came with a legend about a milk maid getting distracted by a man and forgetting to stir the curd - I've heard similar stories about beers where brewers forgot to add hops and whacked a load in at the end - and whether or not it's true that that's how it was invented, either way I'm glad it was. It's a salty, gravelly iceberg of a cheese and it was paired with the aromatic Torres Esmeralda and the Berri Shiraz.

Epoisses. Wow, epoisses. How good is this stuff. The kind of cheese that sags and oozes into the cheeseboard as it sweats at room temperature, easing out its almost animal smell. As is probably often the case its taste isn't as strong as its smell; mellow to begin with in the mouth, slowly building to a crescendo with whatever wine you stick in there with it.
 The epoisses was amazing with the dessert wines George brought out - the Chateau du Seuil 2009, which I loved, and the Royal Tokaji 2007 which, well, I loved too. The French wine smelt clean and lemony and soft in the mouth with flavours of apricot, herbs and lime that went on and on. At least that's what my notes say. And the Tokaji was a dream match, an amazing aroma, old floorboards with a story to tell, but a fresh juiciness on the palate. Amazing.

I'm always a fan of gorgonzola and we had a picante version on the night which I really enjoyed; it had a faintly spicy, nutty note on the tongue.

Another highlight of the night for me was trying the Moon River pinot noir from Hungary - which had a really natural smell to it, if that doesn't sound daft - roses, undergrowth, that kind of thing. A wine of character. In that way it reminded me of the Mas Coutelou wines I've tried. There were little strips of sediment in the bottom of the glass.

I also enjoyed the fresh berry flavours of this sangiovese, one of the bottles George left for us to finish off at the end, rounding off what was a great night.

In the interests of disclosure, I was invited to this event by the people promoting Old Amsterdam and went away with a generous cheesy goodie bag. Which was very much a bonus as I thoroughly enjoyed the cheeses anyway.

At the event I also enjoyed the great company of Breadsticklers, Littleblondlife and Yorkshire Pudd.

22 Jun 2013

Wine and the obsession with choice

Some wine critics are very earnest.

Like a pope standing between the masses and enlightenment, they taste wine after wine after wine and score each one out of 100. The suggestion seems to be it's a totally cold and objective process; they're scoring wines against set criteria for a public duty, a job that a well-programmed robot could surely do one day. Enjoyment doesn't come into it.

Which keeps things nice and simple. You might have a wine rated at 96, another at 94, another at 91 and another at 90.

Why would you ever buy the lowest-ranked wines? By this logic there is absolutely no reason to. Someone with encyclopaedic knowledge, and the memory powers to compare all that knowledge in one sip to within one percentile of accuracy, has told us which are the best wines and which are the worst. Which ones to buy and which to avoid.

This is the Ofsted of wine.

Thatcher's governments (and perhaps Reagan's in the US) - and each administration since - promoted an obsession with choice. And with league tables. Choice in public services. The freedom to choose. You can even choose which hospital to have an operation in. Again, as with the wine, I think I'll choose the good one please.

Supermarkets are masters at this. Shelves packed full with wine, loads at under £7 a bottle. You go into an independent wine shop and there might be only seven or eight bottles under a tenner in the whole store. A lack of choice, so it seems.

We're always chasing something better, sipping a wine while looking over the glass to the next label, and the one after that, wondering if they will be 1% better or worse and forgetting to enjoy the moment.

It's a bit like being lucky enough to experience an amazing event, a live concert or football match say, and spending more time worrying about capturing it on your camera than feeling it.

We're constantly choosing and comparing, and in wine this obsession's been fuelled by the 100-point scores.

The best thing in the world at a brief moment in your life - that fleeting moment - might be a cheap bottle of Cotes du Rhones with a plate of cheese. Whether the wine is a rustic 85 or 87 or a 93 or 95 may be irrelevant. The moment is what it's about, and moments are personal and social, and they're there and then they're gone.

21 Jun 2013

Swillington Organic Farm set to be lost to HS2

I've visited Swillington Organic Farm on the edge of Leeds a couple of times in recent weeks. It's a beautiful, unspoilt bit of land which seems to stand for a lot of what politicians talk about when they speak of the need to change how we live, to become greener, to support small family businesses. The animals appear very well cared-for, there's a walled garden where locals grow their own vegetables, the farm hosts school visits and other activities to help people learn new skills and see where their food comes from. I'd say the farm does a lot to benefit the local area.

But it's set to be demolished. The proposed route for the high-speed rail link known as HS2 runs right through the farm. HS2 is being proposed on the basis it will be better for the environment and the economy, bringing other cities closer to London and taking the pressure off the existing transport network. These claims have been strongly questioned by those against the scheme, who think a small fraction of the project's cost would be better spent elsewhere, like by improving the existing infrastructure.

As the world increasingly connects via virtual rather than physical networks - a train journey itself can be time productively spent - the amount of benefit from cutting, say, half-an-hour off a trip certainly seems debatable or even quaint in the digital age.

No doubt there are many other small businesses along the route facing a similar fate. With any new development like this, where it's unavoidable people and businesses will be affected, we have to be wary of nimbyism, of course. But this is actually the opposite - this is stepping back and looking at the big picture, which looks like lots of tiny dots of people and businesses in local communities interconnected by short lines, a picture that will be redrawn with fewer but bigger dots connected by longer lines. Primarily with a bigger flow of people into the capital. This does not seem like an obviously good thing for local communities outside London.

Where I live in the Kirkstall area, across the other side of Leeds from Swillington, you can tell it was once very green. Development has brought lots of benefits - we wouldn't have houses to live in or convenient shops to shop at if we never built anything - but that doesn't mean we don't have choices about how we build. It seems as though our area is becoming more and more a place that people drive to and drive through, a bit like a big Ikea shopping complex in suburb form, with a weird road network designed for traffic not people. It's as though when the big shops moved in, we were blinded by the light of the new jobs and the convenience and we forgot to make sure we also kept a high street. I'm sure Kirkstall's not unusual in that way.

Isn't there a danger we're making the same mistakes all over again? Or do you think HS2 is too important to drop?

It will be a very sad day if this lovely farm is lost to HS2.

21 May 2013

d'Arenberg The High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

What a beauty, and only for about £7.50 as I picked this up in the recent 25% off promotion at Morrisons (it's usually a little over a tenner).

On first sniff you know this is a big one - I seem to drink fewer "big" reds these days, making it stand out all the more - but in contrast to some full-bodied wines that you might tire of after half a glass, this just seemed to get better and better.

Full-on, yes, but it's beautiful, pure, concentrated stuff, and with a lovely minty note in there - which all makes me think it would be brilliant drunk with some rare lamb.

3 May 2013

Wine jargon explained!

Like any specialist subject, wine has its own weird and wonderful jargon. A quick look at tasting notes and you'll find wines are described in a very funny way - often as though they were people - precise... serious... focused... playful... feminine... approachable.

So I thought I'd do a handy guide to what one or two of these oddities might mean - to help you sort the Lafite from the Graff, if you will.

My tongue-in-cheek guide to funny wine terms.

  • PRICE POINT - price
  • WINE TRADE - wine business, wine industry
  • FINE - usually 1) great; may sometimes mean 2) not heavy in texture; never means 3) decent, not bad
  • SERIOUS - see FINE, above (antonym: quaffable)
  • CROWD-PLEASER - I can see why people with poor taste like it
  • QUAFFABLE or QUAFFER - nothing fancy but does the job
  • OVERDELIVERS - is good value
  • REFLECTS ITS TERROIR or HAS A SENSE OF PLACE - fits my preconceived idea of how wines from this region should taste
  • GOOD TYPICITY - ignore the bit about terroir; tastes how I expect this grape to taste
  • FOCUSED or PRECISE - a posh quaffer
  • ON THE NOSE I'M GETTING... - it smells like...
  • THIS WINE IS SHOWING WELL - this tastes good today

30 Apr 2013

Love this wine: Emilio Valerio 2010, from Harvey Nichols in Leeds

This is so good.

Without wanting to sound too poncey, it tastes like it came from the earth - all earthy and pure; the kind of stuff natural wine fans talk about.

Aromas of rocks, violets and blueberries. Fresh in the mouth, a slip of acidity.

You somehow know it's been made with care.

Well worth pouring this one into a jug for a while before drinking - any aroma you don't want should flutter away, leaving behind the deliciously pure drink. I remember going to an inspiring tasting once at Gaucho in Leeds led by Phil Crozier, and he used the great analogy of opening a teenager's bedroom door to get some air in. That's what you want to do here.

Interesting side note - I don't think I've ever seen as much sediment around a cork as there was with this particular bottle on opening.

I bought the Emilio Valerio 2010 - from Navarra in northern Spain - for around £11.50 at Harvey Nichols in Leeds.

25 Mar 2013

Waitrose signs up Phillip Schofield to promote its wines

Waitrose has signed up TV presenter Phillip Schofield to help promote its wine range, not long after its in-house magazine recruited Pippa Middleton as a food columnist.

The move got criticism from one or two wine writers, but I'm not sure it's totally justified. It is definitely annoying how a celebrity is seemingly attached to everything, whether you want one or not (Alan Partridge's Youth Hostelling With Chris Eubank is totally un-far-fetched now). But celebrity sells - and if nothing else, supermarkets are there to sell.

If wine's a big part of your life, I doubt you go to the supermarkets for your main inspiration anyway. Supermarkets are generalists. If Waitrose thinks a celebrity and experienced presenter who loves wine is the best man to engage mildly interested shoppers via some online videos, then fair enough.

To those strongly against the decision to hire him: Waitrose is a supermarket! It definitely is a supermarket. It sells mass-produced products, it does half-price offers, it sells ready meals, sometimes with celebrity chef endorsements. It has checkouts, it does meal deals. In general it sells better quality stuff than most other supermarkets, its wine range is good, it's usually a nice place to shop, and its ethics are arguably better than most (though not so much if you clean parent company John Lewis's Oxford Street store), but it's definitely a supermarket.

The clever bit about Waitrose though is its customers can forget they're supermarket shoppers. Whether it's good old English snobbery, or simply a desire for a quality shopping experience, it's true. Some of the Phillip Schofield criticism spoke of that illusion being broken.

Brands that manage to make you feel exclusive, or cool - even though you're one of millions of customers buying the same products - have to expand carefully. If Waitrose is opening more stores outside its heartlands and adding to its celebrity element, its profits might well go up as a result. But - big but - is there a risk it becomes any old supermarket? Good news for most supermarket shoppers - it might raise the bar for other supermarkets - but what about its core following who like to feel that their shop, and by extension them, is something different?

Apple's a similar example. I've sensed a few cracks in the sheen recently, a few murmurs that make me think it's not quite the flavour of the month it once was. Apple has enjoyed a cult-like following - even though, again, this is just mass-produced electronics we're talking about; albeit high-quality ones. Nicely designed and generally work very well, but mass-produced in not-so-glamorous Far East factories.

You might argue this is more to do with Samsung, Google and others catching Apple up in quality terms (we recently bought a Note 10.1 tablet and it's blummin' great!). But it's not just about quality - brands are vulnerable to the fashions that made them a success to begin with. Has Apple become too ubiquitous? You can buy Apple products in Argos, in Sainsbury's and in Tesco. When do the cool kids decide a brand has become too popular? A cliche?

I say fair play to Waitrose and Phillip Schofield though - I hope it gets more people into wine.

28 Jan 2013

Handmade Pasta and Italian Wine Night with Yorkshire Wine School

I really enjoyed this event, which I attended as a guest of Yorkshire Wine School. A cookery demonstration from chef Tom Guise and a tasting of six Italian wines with Laura Kent – a welcome glass of Prosecco, three more whites and two reds.

The pasta was absolutely superb. If I'm honest I'm a huge fan of plain old dried pasta dressed in a good sauce – I love pasta – and sometimes find the fresh stuff to be a slight disappointment, but this was just brilliant. Linguine with clams was excellent; later, a small bowl of spiced squash ravioli in sage butter was an absolute beauty - really supremely good, top-notch stuff. Very impressive.

On to the wines. Of the whites, the slightly off-dry Roero Arneis Malvira 2010 (£10.99, Waitrose) from Piedmont was my favourite, evoking warmer climes as it swished around with the clams like a leisurely breaking tide.

My stand-out red - and favourite wine of the night - was the Langhe Nebbiolo Renato Ratti 2010 (M&S, £13.99), again from Piedmont. I love this kind of thing: big, earthy, savoury aromas mellowing and melding together, just calling out for a fireside swirl in a nice big glass and, I imagine, it'd be great alongside a deep meaty stew or a joint of meat falling from the bone.

The other wines we tasted on the night all went down well: the softly textured Greco Sannio 2011 (£6.95, The Wine Society) white wine from Campania represents very good value; the Primitivo A Mano 2008 (Latitude Wines & Spirits, £8.99) a touch on the sweeter and jammier side of things for me but went down very easily; and the Prosecco Collezione NV Brut (£7.99, Waitrose) simply did what Prosecco does and nicely relaxed the tasting muscles for the main event.

As well as the food and wine tasting, an interesting feature of the night was a talk about the 'flavour wheel' and the principles of food and wine matching. Laura said that, while different people will have their own tastes in terms of the kinds of drinks they like to match with different foods, there are certain effects that always tend to take place when you combine different things. For example, eating salty food can make a wine taste less bitter, it can play down the acid and can make the wine feel smoother or "bigger" in the mouth - certainly the clam linguine eaten along with a slurp of Soave Classico Pieropan 2011 (Latitude Wines & Spirits, £12.99) appeared to give the wine a bit more richness, a bit more body than when I tasted it on its own.

It's all really interesting stuff – a good reminder of the fact that, yes foods and drinks objectively have flavour properties, but how we taste or experience those flavours will vary depending on when we taste them. As well as the chemistry that comes into play as in this example of salty foods, there are also psychological factors that sway how we experience flavours. Think of the "holiday effect" when you bring back a case of wine that seemed delicious at the time, but then you taste it when you get back home…

Oh, and one final point, this was also the first time I'd had the chance to taste monosodium glutamate (MSG) in its naked state. A strange experience! Converting flavour experiences into words is notoriously tricky anyway, but with the umami, savoury type thing that MSG is all about, it's almost impossible to put into words. It doesn't taste of a whole lot on its own - although it does taste of something - it's more like a bass note that delivers a bit of oomph to everything else; enhances other flavours as opposed to adding something immediately definable in itself. Parmesan cheese and soy sauce are packed full of it.

19 Jan 2013

Bourgueil Les Cent Boisselees 2003 - cabernet franc from the Loire

I love how a wine that was made 10 years ago can still retain some freshness. More mellow and less lively perhaps than it once was - slippers on, sitting back and settling down for its retirement - but with its own qualities gained over time that a young wine has yet to experience.

This one tasted of strawberries, raspberries and cherries just before they've been left too long, easing out a little juice. It also smells and tastes a bit like vine tomatoes. Got this for somewhere close to a tenner from Majestic.

Vidal-Fleury Cotes du Rhone 2009 on offer at Majestic

I enjoyed the slightly retro label on this one; could imagine them quaffing this at Abigail's Party. Not a bad wine at around £7 on offer at Majestic.

17 Jan 2013

Berrys' Extra Ordinary Claret '09 and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I've just finished reading a very good novel called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which is about an elderly gentleman who sets off on an unlikely walk from south-west to north-east England with the aim of saving the life of a terminally ill friend who is in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

There's a line in the book where Harold says something to the effect of "we're the post-war generation - we don't talk up our achievements". There's a theme running throughout the book that ordinary people might go unnoticed because at first sight they may seem unremarkable, but beneath the surface they're of course extraordinary in one way or another. As the proverb says: "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle." Everyone is so alike, and yet unique. Seemingly trivial things can have the most meaning. Something understated, less obvious, can have quiet depths that are all the more meaningful or rewarding when reached.

This kind of classic red wine isn't loud or showy, but the more you give it the chance to open up, the more you gain from it. Everything in balance.

15 Jan 2013

Exploring loose leaf tea - why is coffee cool and tea isn't?

I've decided to explore loose leaf tea at the start of this year. Try a few different varieties, taste something a bit different.

It's interesting how fresh coffee has taken over so much on the high street but a similar thing hasn't happened with tea - perhaps especially surprising in England, given the history of tea tied in with its colonial past.

Why does the thought of a mega-chain of Costalotabucks tea shops on every street corner seem odd? It's partly a marketing thing - coffee's successfully been sold as a lifestyle choice for the Apple-toting backpacker generation. Tea in comparison seems so last century. It's amazing what marketing can do. Just think of food trends - is there a traditional working class food that hasn't been gentrified in the past year or so in London? If some bare brick, stripped wood and pendant lighting (and good quality meat and cooking, obviously) is all the hotdog and burger needed, then why hasn't tea fully got in on the act?

Or is it not down to marketing so much - is it simply because the difference in flavour between instant and fresh coffee is much greater than the difference between a teabag and loose leaf tea?

The tea in the picture is an Assam. My first impression is there are definitely flavour notes you don't get in teabag tea. A maltiness, a fruitiness almost, and also more of a green tea type feel to it. That's not to say it's necessarily better - some people might prefer one or the other - but it is definitely different.

There's also the ceremony of it: you're giving your drink and the occasion a bit more respect. And there's a lot to be said for that. Although obviously there will be times when thirst trumps ceremony.

I'm looking forward to trying more.

14 Jan 2013

Steak & chips with French red

My version of a January detox: steak, chips, a glass of southern French red wine. Hopefully the French paradox really does exist.

3 Jan 2013

Good value Christmas Wine

Happy New Year!

Here's a quick round-up of some of the very good wines we had over Christmas and New Year. In the spirit of the current financial climate, we weren't exactly necking the Cristal this year. Not that we ever do. Some good value wines lately though.

First up, some Portillo Malbec. Actually, we had this in early December. I remember making a really poor political/geek's joke in my head about this wine - given its name - thinking it might be harsh in its youth but somehow meld into something smooth and easygoing with age. Got this for £7 a bottle on offer at Majestic.

A few days later we went to the brilliant Stockeld Park Christmas Adventure. And then, back home late after a crisp and wintry cold day out, we braved a Morrisons £10 meal deal. For that, you get a main, side and dessert plus a bottle of wine. Yep, that's all a tenner for two people. You don't expect a Michelin starred experience. Then again I bet loads of Michelin starred chefs sometimes eat a McDonald's. Yes you can cook something proper for far less and spend the difference on a real wine to go with it. Blah blah. I agree. But that kind of misses the point here. Horses for courses. It did the job at that moment. That's the wine to the right - origin unknown but bottled in Madrid, I remember from the label. That's about all I remember of it.

Now for some pictures of the Christmas Adventure at Stockeld Park. Why not; it was great. A magical fairy wonderland in a forest; ski trail; ice rink; Santa's grotto.

Back to the wine...

Le XV du President from Laithwaites, received as a present. A hefty 15% - some wine fans might predictably retread the well-trodden ground about high ABVs here - but there's a good amount of freshness here to balance it all out. It's good, and I can see why it's popular.

This next one was very, very good. Been so impressed with a number of Spanish reds around the £10 mark lately. I bought this at Harvey Nichols in Leeds and I think it was about £11. Lovely.

Speaking of Spanish reds, this next one - a 1994 Rioja - was a New Year's Eve treat. Again, only around a tenner for the bottle. Before you say that's a lot for a bottle of wine - go out on New Year's Eve and you'll pay that for two rubbish drinks after battling through a sweaty queue for half an hour. Well worth it for an old wine (old compared to the vast majority of wines we drink).

I think drinking an old wine isn't just about the aroma and taste. This liquid was made from grapes that grew when I was - ahem.. a bit younger. It's then relaxed in the bottle for almost 20 years while I've done stuff in my life, trivial and poignant, before it found its way into my hands and was opened and drunk by me and my wife in the hours leading up to 2013. Lovely stuff - mellow but still amazingly fresh. On the border of the past and the future. I'm really glad we had it.

 I can sense I'm going on a bit now. Here's another good value Spanish wine. Got it for £8 from Majestic on offer. Again if you expect a big wine drowning in over-baked fruit here then you're way off the mark: this is fresh and tasty, with a balancing level of acidity that keeps your lips coming back to the glass as if drawn by a magnet.