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.