Friday, 29 January 2010

Public sector pay restraint and toothache..... Oh, and some very interesting Californian wines

I just presented my pay slip (from my day job) to Diane. Frankly, I never look at what my pay is, as Diane looks after the finances. She was amazed to see I'd been paid almost £100 more than usual. "Oh", I said, "back-pay". All the way back to June 2009. Yes, the sum total of my 2009 pay rise (including 7 months-worth of back-pay) has presented us with a nett windfall of £100. So much for being an overpaid civil servant. Admittedly, I only work part-time these days (24 hours a week over 4 days, as opposed to my previous contract of 37 hours over 5 days) in order to give me a little more time to administer the wine business. But I ask you - what is the point in such an insulting pay rise? They might as well have told us we were getting nothing - or given it to charity or something. So thanks, Mr Brown and Mr Darling - not to mention our erstwhile bosses at the Land Registry. Thanks for (nearly) nothing.

Having said that - and as Diane quite rightly pointed out - this windfall might go some way to paying for the dental treatment I need. I am not fond of the dentist, having suffered from a combination of weak teeth (it seems to run in my side of the family) and bad dentistry over a great many years. The upshot of which is that I have a few missing and more than my fair share of crowns and bridges. Thankfully, we now seem to have a dentist we can rely on - and she's very pretty too! Nevertheless, on my recent visit I needed a couple of fillings. I was very brave and told her not to bother with any injections. No problem, I thought - until about a week ago, when I started getting sporadic toothaches, around the area of one of the new fillings. So I went back and she did a couple of x-rays. "Well, it's good news and bad news", she told me. "You have an abcess". I'm not sure what the good news was, as I am now on 500mg of Amoxycillin, 3 times a day, and am going back on Monday for the first instalment of root treatment, with what I am told is an 80% chance of the tooth being saved in the long run.

Trouble is, 4 days into the 7 day course, these bloody great horse tablets don't seem to be working very quickly. It might just be my imagination, but the toothaches - which come and go with little or no warning - don't seem to be quite as intense today as they have been for the last few days. So maybe - just maybe - something is happening. I certainly hope so, because the consequences (and the sheer unbelievable pain) of an out of control abcess just don't bear thinking about. And I am speaking from experience - though I'll spare you the gory details.

The one good thing is that I cannot see anything that says I can't drink alcohol whilst taking these antibiotics. So I have been busy over the last few days tasting my way through some very interesting new wines I am about to add to my list, including a handful of wines from Joseph Swan. That's right - Californian wines. Although I have in the past listed a few wines from countries other than France, they have always been odds and sods, which have come and gone. But these wines from Swan are wines that I very much hope will become a mainstay on my list. And if the current releases are anything to go by, they will become exactly that, because they are utterly lovely. I'll be emailing my customers and subscribers in the next few days, with news of these wines, plus some other very interesting new French wines. Watch this space.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

A couple of France trips to look forward to - Vinisud 2010 and my holiday!

Things are coming together nicely for my trip to Vinisud 2010 in Montpellier with my friend and fellow wine merchant Bernard Caille. The return flights were booked a while ago (see my earlier post about the joys of booking via BMI Baby!) and now the car and the hotel are booked. The timing of flights meant that Manchester to Toulouse was the more attractive option than Luton to Nimes (with the equally annoying Ryanair), since it allows us almost a full day longer in France, but the same number of nights.

And for those 3 nights we'll be staying in my very favourite resort of Marseillan, situated on the Étang de Thau between Agde and Sète, just a few minutes' drive from the Mediterranean and around 40 minutes from the Vinisud venue. I can think of no better place to spend a few days, even in February. Marseillan is a relatively quiet resort, even in summer, but is full of charm and - more importantly  full of great places to eat and stay. We have opted for the Hotel Boulevard, which is right in the middle of the town, though still just a 5 minute stroll from the main strip on the harbour. Here's a photo, taken last year, of the view of the harbour, looking towards Sète. OK, so it was taken on a summer's evening, but the view is just as lovely in winter...................

And here's a photo of the main strip, down by the water, taken the same evening.................

As well as the Marseillan trip, and following the usual exhaustive search (which invariably involves weeks of procrastination and indecision) Diane and I have pretty much finalised our plans for our summer holiday. We've opted for a week in a house no more than a stone's throw from the sea, between Cannes and Antibes on the Cote d'Azure. We've never yet ventured further east than Marseille/Toulon on our trips to Provence, so this will be a new experience for us. That will be followed by a week in a house up in the hills near Saint-Chinian, an area which we are far more familiar with. Both of these houses have private swimming pools, both sleep 6 (although there will probably only be two of us this time, as the boys will probably be arranging their own holidays with their friends) and both come in at about £600 per week. Not overly cheap, but certainly not expensive either, given the standard of accommodation we can expect - and we are rarely disappointed.

Anyway, to give you an idea of the beauty of the scenery around the Saint-Chinian region, here's yet another photo from one of our more recent holidays, taken whilst canoeing on the River Orb near Tarassac. Just look at that view!

We have enjoyed countless holidays in southern France (in which we rarely stay in the same place for more than a week at a time, and only occasionally return to the same place in subsequent years). And at a conservative estimate, I'd say we have spent time in over 50 different places and dealt with many different companies, websites and gite owners. Although there has been the occasional disappointment (though never enough to spoil a holiday) we have been lucky enough to stay in some lovely places and have met many lovely people along the way. And of course, all of these wonderful holidays eventually provided the inspiration for our wine business. And seeing as that business is a pretty all-consuming "pastime", I am sure Diane thanks me for it profusely! ;-))

I really must get around to putting this relative wealth of experience to some use by creating some sort of portal on my website - something I have been meaning to do for a very long time. Perhaps this year will be the year.

Friday, 22 January 2010

An enjoyable evening of Loire and Loir wines

Once again, it has been a while since I posted - over a week, as it turns out. So my apolgies to all who tune in on a regular basis (and the stats tell me that more and more people are starting to follow this blog) - I will try to do better in future!

This is a report on a really rather enjoyable tasting of wines from La Loire and its sub region of Le Loir. As is usual for these events, the organiser produces a tasting sheet for us to follow. Unfortunately (as is also often the case) the information provided on the wines tends to be rather rudimentary, to the point where one even has to fill in the gaps on the names, growers, etc. And woe betide anyone that holds onto the bottle for more than a few seconds as it is passed around, in order to fill in those gaps! Hence, some of the details are a little lacking, notably as to the grower(s) on wines 1, 13 and 14. I'm sure they were produced by someone - I just don't know who, at the moment. So if anybody who was there can let me know, I would appreciate it. Prices, where shown, are what presenter Andy Grainger paid, either at the cellar door, or from UK merchants. So to the wines (and apologies for the poor quality of the photo - taken on my mobile phone, since I forgot my camera).........

This week's line-up of wines, with presenter Andy Grainger on the right
and a rather stern looking Stephen Freeland on the left (he's not scary - honest!)

1. Domaine Gigou(?) sparkling Blanc de Blancs Coteaux du Loir - €8.00
Dark gold colour - several years bottle age, perhaps? Wet dog, mineral, talc and citrus on the nose - in other words, classic Chenin Blanc. Palate is rich, full and flavoursome, and agreeably rustic. Lovely acidity and grip. Fairly simple, but delicious.

2. Domaine Gigou Domaine de la Charrière Cuveé du Paradis Jasnieres 2004 - €7.00
Quite perfumed and floral, with hints of menthol, cider apple, quince, cream. The palate is tart cider, lemon, mineral, but the finish is long and even slightly warming, but it is beautifully balanced. Really nice wine.

3. Domaine Gigou Domaine de la Charriere Clos St Jacques Jasnieres 2004 - €8.00
Emulsion paint and menthol, minerals and herbs. Sounds unappetising, but it is actually anything but! This was sent round as a pair with 3a (below) and the difference was quite marked. They both had a distinct tartness on the palate, but this was rich, briny and savoury and very long. Already lovely, but with lots structure and some real scope for ageing. A delicious wine!

3a. Domaine Gigou Domaine de la Charriere Clos St. Jacques Jasnieres 2006
Emulsion and menthol again, butless expressive and complex than the 2004, with notes of rotting apples being the main theme. And the palate is like biting into a very small, very unripe apple, but very light and seemingly simple. It may develop and fill out, but I doubt it.

4. Domaine du Closel La Jalousie Savennieres 2006 - €10.00
This smells like a red wine to me, with some or other red fruit aromas lurking amongst the apples and spices and a touch of caramel. It is fairly rich and long, and perhaps even a touch warm. An enjoyable wine, but atypical.

5. J F Mériau Coeur de Roche Sauvignon Blanc Vielles Vignes Touraine 2004 - €12.00
Hints of reduction and gunflint, well-judged oak, citrus and mineral. This wine has definitely been given the treatment, but it is very well done - but not at all typical of Sauvignon. Rich and honeyed and - as a super cuvée - it definitely works. I like it.

6. Bernard Baudry La Croix Boisée Chinon Blanc 2006 - £12.00
Smells of lime oil, herbs and stone - intensely zippy nose, and with some interesting vegetable/legume notes. Very complex stuff, although undoubtedly some way off from maturity. The palate has apples and quince, and a distinct mandarin note. The citrus/orange quality and the sheer complexity of this wine lifts it above the crowd.  superb wine.

7. Domaine Gigou Coteaux du Loir 2005 Pineau d’Aunis - €6
Smells to me like Beaujolais Nouveau - and tastes like it. Others disagreed, but I'm sticking with that view, since those same people didn't get the red notes in wine number 4, and I certainly wasn't mistaken twice! The bitter-sweet palate was far too obvious and sickly for me. All spangles and flowers and not much to endear it to me.

8. Domaine Gigou, Coteaux du Loir 2006, Pineau d’Aunis - €6
This is more like it! Softer, leaner and lighter that the 2005, but beautifully tart and zingy, without any of the bitterness. Like an ultra-light Bourgogne Rouge from a good vintage. A year or two ago, I wouldn't have enjoyed this sort of wine. But now I do!

9. Domaine de la Chevalerie Peu Muleau Bourgueil 2007 - £10
"Cow's feet", exclaimed Mr Bennett, from the opposite corner of the room. I'm not sure what he was on, but it must have been mind-expanding! Light and soft, with decent balance, though little in the way of tannin. A decent enough wine, but ultimately lacking interest.

10. Domaine de la Chevalerie, La Chevalerie Bourgoueil 2006 - £11.50
This was rich, ripe, balanced, but doesn't really set the world on fireTo me, the acidity seemed unnatural (in a citric sort of way). I have a couple of bottles of this tucked away - I think I'll leave them for a few years, to see if they develop into anything interesting - though I won't be holding my breath.

11. Bernard Baudry Les Grezaux Chinon 2005 - £15.00
Smells of rye bread or perhaps granary, with notes of cedar/old oak, orange, tobacco and bramble. The palate is fruity, but rich, in a slightly fruit-cake sort of way, with absolutely no greenness. Ripe, balanced and complex. A modern wine, but the acceptable face of modern winemaking. Most of us were impressed - including me.

12. Charles Joguet Clos du Chêne Vert Chinon 2001 - £10.00
Hints of brett peeping out from behind the cherry and orange peel aromas. A slight volatile acidity, together with notes of lilies and bramble might have me thinking of an "Hermitaged" Bordeaux. I didn't write too much of a note on this, because I was far too busy enjoying it. A lovely wine. Who would have guessed it could be 100% Cabernet Franc!

12a. Pierre Jacques Druet Clos de Danzay Chinon 1996
Volatile acidity and varnish galore. Quite tannic, austere, oaky. Cedar and pencil lead. In other words, not an awful lot of fruit. Nice acidity, but lacks body and depth, though it is quite enjoyable, in an austere sort of way. Needs food.

13. Jasnières Demi-sec Selection de Grains Nobles 2002 - €14.00
Smells like Jurancon with a generous splash of Calvados, with a similar sort of taste. Slightly cheesy, sweaty and seemingly very mature for its age, with a touch of tartness giving lift. Tangy, so I imagine it would be even better with some cheese or paté. Nice.

14. Vouvray Moelleux, ?Vendanges Manuelle 1989 - £5.00(ish)
Savoury and even more cheesy, but tangy. Not so much moelleux as demi-sec, to my palate, as it is fairly light-bodied, with cracking acidity. Again, would really go well with some cheese. At 20+ years old, this is aged to perfection, and really lovely.

15. Prince Poniatowski Aigle Blanc Vin de Tris Vouvray 1989 - £10.00
A lovely nose that you could sniff and savour until the cows come home. Wet dog/wool, lemon and lime marmalade, herbs. Complex stuff. Amazingly tight and focused for such a mature wine. Again, more demi-sec than totally sweet, with cracking acidity and plenty of depth. Yum!

15a. Domaine du Clos Naudin Vouvray Moelleux 1989 Foreau
This really does smell sweet and honeyed, like a true moelleux. Again cheesy and sweaty (it might not sound attractive, but it is meant to!), with notes of orange, gloss paint and clarified butter. Complex stuff, though with a touch less acidity than the Poniatowski. A nice way to finish the evening.

My overall impression (and I think most of us were in agreement) is that, although a couple of the reds were really very good, the whites were more successful and consistently good. And although it is of course possible to get bad sweet wines in the Loire, the ones we tasted were all lovely.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Sampling the wines of Provence - some established old favourites and a rising star

Winter is "themed tasting" time at the weekly Nottingham Wine Circle and, with a good few blank dates in the diary at the moment, it was an opportunity for me to present a line-up of wines from Provence, whilst also showcasing wines from some of my own growers. It also presented me with the opportunity to taste my whole range of wines from Chateau d'Estoublon side by side for the very first time, whilst also pitching them against other top-notch wines from the likes of Domaine de Trévallon and Chateau Simone. Some recent vintages of Chateau Pradeaux were also up against a much older one, along with another grower's Bandol. And it proved to be a very interesting evening. Not that I ever see an event like this as an opportunity to sell wine. After all, whilst we have a pretty broad range of age groups in the Wine Circle, a fair few are - how can I put this? - somewhat more advanced in years than I am, and have already amassed some pretty amazing cellars from back in the days when top-notch wines could be had for relative peanuts. And none of these wines in this line-up are exactly cheap! But I am a sucker for punishment and am always keen to put my wines through this most rigorous of tests because, if I can get some positive noises out of such a demanding bunch, then I know I must be doing at least some things right. Nobody pulls their punches in this group, when they are passing judgement on the wines. And the same goes for the cheese, too!

The prices shown are either what I paid for them (in the case of the ones I don't sell) or the retail price on my website.We began with some lovely whites;

Chateau Simone Blanc 2005 Palette
I bought this when visiting the Chateau a couple of years ago, for approx 22 Euros. It is also available for £29.95 at Terroir Languedoc. There - who says I never plug the opposition?!
Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Muscat, Ugni Blanc. 13.5% abv. I believe this has seen some oak, but I'm not sure how much. A touch reductive or sulphurous, perhaps even a bit oaky at present, but with plenty of honey, stone fruit, citrus and herby notes and a hint of earthiness. Zingy, yet rich, more winey than fruity on the palate, but very long and spicy. Drinking well now, but will go for another 5 to 8 years. I loved it. As a postscript, I'm just enjoying the last few drops (a full 24 hours later) and a lot of the richness has dissipated to reveal a tightly-wound, quite dry wine that needs further ageing to show its best. Still lovely, though.

Domaine d'Estoublon Blanc 2008 Vin de Pays des Alpilles
This was a sample bottle, but would retail for about the same as the 2006 and 2007 below - £20.50. Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc. Around 13.5% abv. The first in a flight of 3 vintages of the same wine, this absolutely reeks of lime oil and spring flowers - incridibly intense on the nose, but in a way that makes the mouth water. This one is also zingy, but rich and intense at the same time. An immense core of fruit, with lots of spicy nuances. Actually, there are some striking similarities to my Jurancon wines, here, in that there is a remarkable purity and intensity of fruit - less acidity than Jurancon, granted, but still ample. For now, it remains firm and tightly-wound, with an almost tannic grip, but it is very long. An absolute cracker of a wine.

Domaine d'Estoublon Blanc 2007 Vin de Pays des Alpilles - £20.50
Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc. 13.6% abv. A year older and markedly deeper in colour (yellow/gold, with orange tinges) but with a very similar profile. Starting to open out a bit, with extra richness and layers of flavour and complexity by the bucket-load. Another cracker.

Domaine d'Estoublon Blanc 2006 Vin de Pays des Alpilles - £20.50
Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc. 13.6% abv. Yet another year older and this is even deeper in colour, and really beginning to sing. To be honest, there is little to choose between this and the 2007 and 2008 - they have obviously settled on a style and are sticking to it. And it is clearly a wine that improves with some age, and this one still has plenty of miles left in the tank. 5 more years? 10 might be pushing it, but who knows? Suffice to say, I think the white wine of Domaine d'Estoublon is quite simply stunning and - if compared to a top white Chateauneuf or white Trévallon, even at 20 quid it offers a pretty big bang for your buck.

Then we had a rosé and a whole bunch of different reds;

Chateau Pradeaux Rosé 2008 Bandol - £15.50
55% Mourvedre, 45% Cinsault. 13.5% abv. I think I am safe in saying that the wines of Chateau Pradeaux tend (at the very least) to split the jury. In fact, most seemed to be a bit underwhelmed by this rosé. Some said it was a bit confected, but I don't think it is. It is fairly light (as all goos rosé should be) but elegant and even soft, whilst still a bit tight and not yet revealing its true colours. With notes of citrus and red fruits, together with ample acidity and a touch of tannin, it really needs a few years to blossom.

Chateau Pradeaux 2004 Bandol - £19.95
95% Mourvedre, 5% Grenache. 13.5% abv. Notes of blackcurrant leaf, iodine, iron and cedar. There are some strong tannins on the palate which will take a few years to soften, but there is also a substantial core of red and black fruit lurking in there, along with mouth-watering acidity. Despite the fact that it really needs food, this showed well on the night. Give it 5 years to start coming together and another 5 before its peak.

Chateau Pradeaux 2001 Bandol - £26.50
95% Mourvedre, 5% Grenache. 14.5% abv. This is a product of its vintage - big and rich, with fruitcake and prune aromas and flavours, with a hefty tannic backbone. I have had several bottles of this particular vintage over the last 2 or 3 years (indeed it went down a storm at the Wine Circle a couple of years ago) and believe that it is now entering into a bit of a closed phase. My guess is that it will start to emerge again in 5 to 8 years and will reach its peak in 15 to 20 years.

Chateau d'Estoublon Jeunes Vignes 2005 Les Baux de Provence - £15.99
Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. 13.6% abv. This came across as rich and earthy and Grenache-dominated, but it is still relatively young. I like it a lot, although others around the table were less enthusiastic. It also blossoms nicely after 24 hours - indeed, in my experience, it is even better after almost a week(!)

Chateau d'Estoublon Jeunes Vignes 2003 Les Baux de Provence - £15.99
Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. 13.6% abv. This one created a real divide in opinion - basically virtually everyone else's versus mine! I have actually described this elsewhere (though not on my website) as bearing certain similarities to Chateau Musar - a young one, before it has really started to develop all of its famous "faults". This wine is crammed full of raspberry, cherry and bramble flavours, with a touch of volatile acidity which gives it a tremendous lift. To my mind, it is one of the best 2003's I have tasted from any French region. One or two others saw some redeeming features in it, but the rest were fairly damning. I'm not known as a betting man, but I like a good argument, so I will save one or two of these to unleash on the Wine Circle in another 5 or even 10 years - and I'd wager it will blow their socks off! It has absolutely years of development left in it.

Chateau d'Estoublon 2006 Les Baux de Provence - £18.49
Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mourvedre. 13.6% abv. I wrote a glowing note on this one in my post of 10 December 2009 and don't really have much more to add. It showed really well again here, and is a great wine, with a great future.

Chateau d'Estoublon 2005 Les Baux de Provence - £18.49
Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mourvedre. 13.8% abv. With an extra year's development under its belt, this one is really singing and is possibly - if only by a hair - the better of the two vintages. Only time will tell which one wins out, but either way, it is another great wine. And, as with the whites from this grower, offers a fantastic quality/price ratio.

Domaine d'Estoublon Syrah 2008 Vin de Pays des Alpilles
Another sample bottle, which would (if I wanted to sell it) retail for approx £24.00
100% Syrah. Aged in barrique. The information I have from Estoublon is that when they created the “assemblage” for the 2007 vintage, they had 10 barriques made from old Syrah vines with real character, so they decided not to blend them into the main wine, but create a varietal wine instead. I was therefore expecting great things from this wine, but it failed to deliver. I am always loath to dismiss a wine based on one (possibly iffy) bottle, but there was definitely something not quite right about it. It actually smells a bit dirty, even medicinal, as if something has got at the wine and stripped it of its freshness and flavour - and it certainly doesn't display any particular Syrah characteristics. It also seemed a little hot, overly tannic and somewhat blowsy. One thing I am certain about is that it was not corked, although I am fairly sure that some sort of compound or bacteria had affected the wine. So, rather than dismiss it out of hand as a bad wine, I'll just dismiss it as a bad bottle.

Domaine de Trévallon 2006 Vin de Pays des Bouches du Rhone - £33.75
50% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. 13.0% abv. This is my first taste of this vintage, so please forgive the long note, which is designed to go on my website. Slightly transluscent blood red core, with a narrow ruby rim. The nose is classic Trévallon - a touch of pastilley sweetness peeping through on the nose, along with blackcurrant, herbs, polished mahogany and a whiff of iodine. The palate has masses of red and black fruit flavours - almost with a suggestion of sweetness - along with flavours of garrigue herbs, spices, a touch of savoriness. Delve a little deeper and there is a lovely, refreshing cranberry quality giving extra lift and interest. Juicy, almost citrussy acidity and a backbone of firm, but very fine tannins completes the package. Everything is there, in complete harmony - a truly elegant wine. OK, so it is still young, but it is actually a joy to drink now. But give it the benefit of another 5 to 10 years and it will be yet another in a long line of really great Trévallons.

Chateau Pradeaux 1989 Bandol
An auction purchase from a few years ago - probably around £12-£14.
95% Mourvedre, 5% Grenache. 13.0% abv. I loved this, although it again split the jury - which surprised me a little, since there are a good few lovers of "traditional" wines here. There is still plenty of fruit left in this wine, together with plenty of secondary/tertiary/cedary notes and hints of garrigue and that trademark iodine I so often get in Mourvedre. It is in a good place right now, as the tannins are well on the way to becoming resolved and it has utterly delicious acidity. For me (and a few others) a charming old dame of a wine - for the rest, a tired old slapper. But then I am a lover of old, fruity, tannic, acid-laden wines. Yummy!

Chateau de Pibarnon 1990 Bandol
Brought along by Wine Circle member David Selby, who is never less than generous in sharing the fruits of his wonderful cellar. It goes without saying that this 20 year-old wine is of impeccable provenance, having been cellared by David since release. And it provided a fascinating comparison between two different (but mature) vintages and different winemaking styles. Altogether richer and more "generous" than the Pradeaux. Again, there is a whiff of iodine, but also some rich, almost heady bramble and blackcurrant fruit, undergrowth and herbs. However, the palate (for me) shows a little too much in the way of sweetness and - although there are some healthy tannins - the acidity is a bit lacking.Drinking the last few drops, at the end of the evening, it actually felt a touch blowsy. Not a great Bandol, but still a very good one. Ditto the Pradeaux 1989, which just wins for me because of that lovely acidity and touch of leanness.

Conclusions? Pradeaux is (overall) a jury splitter. Then again, I never expected this sort of wine to be an easy sell - but it will find its fans (and hopefully vice-versa). Trévallon still makes benchmark wines (both red and white) and tends to have the widest appeal. It is no longer cheap, though, and I think they need to start reining the prices in a bit, if it is to avoid losing some devotees. Then again, my price of £33.75, compared to something like £55 at Berry Brothers, makes it look positively cheap! As for Chateau d'Estoublon, well I guess I am biased, but I think their wines are very special indeed - particularly the main "Chateau" white and red - not forgetting the super cuvée Mogador, of course, which is simply sensational. A definite star estate of the future, and Trévallon finally has a worthy competitor.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Vinisud 2010 - a whinge about airlines

I've just gone through the less than pleasurable experience of booking a return flight from Manchester to Toulouse, for a trip to Vinisud in February with my friend and fellow wine merchant Bernard Caille. Vinisud is a huge (by which I mean enormous) wine trade fair, held every 2 years in Montpellier. I'll write more about Vinisud itself  in future posts, but for now, I just want to have a whinge about so-called "budget" airlines.

Having done extensive research on the Internet, our choices of airlines/flights/airports (unless we wanted to pay through the nose with one of the national airlines) was either Luton to Nimes with Ryanair, or Manchester to Toulouse with BMI Baby. For a variety of reasons, the main one being that we get the best part of a day longer for the trip, we chose BMI Baby. It was also - on the face of it - about 20 quid cheaper. A per-person fair of £13.04 for the outward journey and £3.04 for the return journey looked perfect - a total of £32.16 for 2 people, return. Unfortunately, "taxes and charges" of £43.90 for the outward journey and £39 for the return journey bumped the total up to £115. Still not bad, I grant you. But then there is the charge for using a card. Or, to be more precise, a charge for using any card (be it credit or debit) other than a VISA Electron card. Now, I ask you, who on earth actually has a VISA Electron card? I've got lots of cards, but none of them is a VISA Electron. Which is exactly the point. I believe the law stipulates that airlines have to offer at least one "no-fee" payment option. And they know full well that hardly anyone has a VISA Electron card - least of all, the sort of person that might want to fly to the south of France in February!

So I was faced with the option of using a debit card (for which they pay a maximum of about 30p) at a charge of £10, or a credit card (cost to them of less than 2%) at a charge of £15. For some strange reason, I chose the latter, making for a final total of £130.06 all-in, for 2 people. Now, I'm a reasonable man, and I appreciate that £130 is not particularly expensive, for a 2,000 mile round trip for 2 people. But why entice customers with so-called "cheap" fares, only to hit them with actual fares that are 4 times the price? It may not be illegal, but these sort of disingenuous practices certainly leave a sour taste in the mouth, and I wish the Government would do something about it. After all, if I'd taken the option of actually booking seats (a further £30) and the non-cattle departure lounge at the airport (another £30) and baggage for the hold (maximum 15 kilos for another £30), it would have come out at almost 8 times the advertised price.

Frankly, I think I'll just go out and buy myself a Lear Jet - it might work out cheaper!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Selling lots of wine, annual computer problems..... and a simply wonderful wine from Provence

For a variety of reasons, it has been a week since I last posted. A frantic 36 hour sale at the end of 2009 meant that most of my New Year weekend was spent selling wine. I'm not complaining, of course, but it is hard for me to explain just how much time and effort goes into preparing a sale list and a mailshot, corresponding with customers, preparing paperwork, assembling boxes, collecting wines, boxing them up, labelling them and despatching them. Around 30 boxes, all told, in a couple of days. On the other hand, I wish I had that sort of workload all of the time, as I would then be making some proper money in this business, rather than just playing at it - and I would have to take on some staff!

Thankfully, I managed to get all the orders prepared and despatched before my desk-top computer conked out - as it always seems to do at this time of year. And, as always, I took it to my friend Karen Gill at KG Computers, who builds, services and fixes computers - as with me, not yet for a living, but in her spare time. And, although my computer(s) get more hammer than most, being in use for a good part of every day, I've never yet had a problem Karen was unable to fix. Which is just as well, because my whole damn life is on there! I do also have a lap-top, but it is not possible to keep that as up-to-date as the desk-top. Of course, I do the occasional hard drive back-up onto an external hard drive (as well as a 1 GB flash "dongle" as an extra back-up for the really vital bits) but I don't do this nearly often enough. But I should do this every week, as a minimum - and I will, from now on. After all, the mere thought of attempting to reconstruct all of my business files, accounting software and website software is just too frightening to contemplate. And then, of course, there are years-worth of personal stuff, music files, photos and countless other documents to consider.

Which really does beg the question....... where would we (or at least I) be without computers? I guess the answer would be back to the dark ages of 10 or 15 years ago, where we all......... erm, had lives! ;-)

Anyway, my life is now complete again (i.e. I have my desk-top PC back!) and I am in the process of catching up on all the things I should have done in the past few days. If I'm honest, those few days were rather liberating because, instead of being tied to my master, I was able to reconnect with the real world of cooking, having proper conversations, listening to music (although I usually do that anyway) and watching some DVD's I got for Christmas. I also have jobs to do around the house, but in this weather, they can wait!

Just before I finish, I'll tell you all about my first truly great wine experience of 2010, which came in the form of a bottle of Chateau d'Estoublon Cuvée Mogador 2005 Les Baux de Provence. This is a new release from Chateau d'Estoublon and I really wasn't sure what to expect. When I placed an order with them before Christmas, I asked if they would send me a sample to taste. They told me that, unfortunately, because the wine is made in very small quantities (only 3,000 bottles) they only send samples to journalists(!) However, if I bought 6 bottles as part of my order, they would send me 2 sample bottles free of charge. Fair enough, I thought - if the wine is as good as they say it is, I'll buy some, and damn the expense (I had to price it at over £40 a bottle - not an easy sell, for an unknown wine). The wine is made from the best (i.e. oldest) parcels of Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), Syrah (35%), Grenache (20%) and Mourvedre (10%). The grapes are not de-stemmed. Fermentation is carried out in large oak tanks, without any added yeasts and with regular punching-down and pumping-over of the must. Following pressing of the grapes, the wine is aged on its lees in used oak barrels for 9 months, before being transferred for a further 9 months to new oak barrels. To be perfectly honest, I was expecting an over-extracted, Parkerised oak monster, with huge gobs of opulent fruit (not my kind of descriptor, but I'm paraphrasing a "Parkerism"!). However, I was in for a wonderful surprise........

I poured it into a decanter and left it for a couple of hours before tasting. It has a medium blood red core, with a narrow-ish raspberry-coloured rim. The nose is hugely expressive (but not huge, if you catch my drift) with all manner of red and black currant and berry aromas, complemented by notes of vanilla, mocha, polished leather and a lick of peppermint. Further notes of forest floor, spices and garrigue herbs all add to what is an extremely complex nose. The fruit on the palate is intense, but beautifully fresh. Although there is noticeable oak influence, it is subtly done and doesn't dominate the fruit - very important, this - and merely serves to add another dimension to what is a hugely complex and multi-faceted wine. There are layers of juicy, tangy fruit flavours (mostly at the red end of the spectrum - redcurrant, cherry, raspberry, even cranberry), with abundant acidity and firm, but ultra-ripe tannins. The fact that the fruits tend towards red, rather than black, heightens the sense of supreme elegance. It is so packed with flavour, but I wouldn't describe it as a "rich" wine - at least not in a Provence or Southern Rhone sort of way - and it majors on fruit, rather than any savoury elements.

I don't really like to pigeon-hole wines, or even compare them to wines from other regions. However, you wouldn't put it in Bordeaux (thankfully) and you probably wouldn't put it in Burgundy (although it possesses great elegance), but you might put it in the Rhone or even Tuscany. Or you might just say that it combines many of the best attributes of all of the above. Ultimately, though, I just have to take my hat off to it and say Wow! - so that is what Provence is really capable of! Despite there being 35% Cabernet and 35% Syrah in the blend, this is a totally different style of wine to its near neighbour, Domaine de Trévallon. But, in its own way, it is every bit as good. I guess it needs to be, because (like Trévallon) it isn't cheap. Then again, it is cheaper than most Grand Cru (and even some 1er Cru) Burgundies and cheaper than most high-class Bordeaux, whilst also comparing favourably with the prices of top-notch Chateauneufs and Super-Tuscans. Comparisons are unfair, though, because this is a truly world-class wine in its own right - and doubtless worth 95+ of anybody's points. We shall find out, eventually, because Chateau d'Estoublon have given me further samples to send out to a few prominent journalists. Watch this space.