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.