Monday, 27 September 2010

A few days in the Mosel Valley

Ten kilometres from our destination, the landscape all around consisted mainly of gently rolling hills and fields – all very pretty, but not what I expected. With less than five to go, we were driving along winding roads through densely forested hilly terrain. We’d seen the odd stream here and there along the route, but hadn’t caught a single sight of anything resembling a navigable river. I was beginning to think that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but the sat nav usually knows where it is going. Then all of a sudden, with less than two kilometres to go, we emerged from the woods, and there it was.

For some reason, I had expected the final stage of our journey to take us at least a few kilometres along the banks of the Mosel into the town of Piesport. But it had actually taken us straight in, via the top of the Piesporter Goldtropfchen itself. I have seen many photos of this famous crescent-shaped hillside amphitheatre before, taken from both the top and the bottom, but none of them (least of all one of mine) can really do justice to the magical view that greets you when you emerge from the trees and really see it all for the first time. Straight ahead, the view stretches for several kilometres, with vines clinging to every available square metre of the steep hillside. And a full 200 metres (almost 650 feet) below lies the beautiful village of Piesport, which sits snugly between the Goldtropfchen itself and the banks of the majestic, meandering Mosel.

The stunning view from the top of Piesporter Goldtropfchen

I remember driving towards Chamonix for the first time, a few years ago, and catching a disappointingly fleeting glimpse of the summit of Mont Blanc, through the thick cloud cover. Waking up the following morning and opening the curtains to a cloudless sky and an uninterrupted view of the mountain in all its glory was a sight that will stay in my mind’s eye for as long as I live. And it may seem overly romantic to say so – especially to non-wine geeks – but my first sight of the beautiful Mosel Valley, coming as it did from the very top of one of its most famous vineyards, had exactly the same effect. As a lover of wine, coming to one of the most beautiful wine regions on the planet (which also just happens to make some of the finest white wines on the planet) is like a pilgrimage for me. It really is a very special - and very beautiful - place.

Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary - TLD and I will have been married for 25 years. And I can't think of many better places in which to celebrate such a milestone. Obviously, we have lots of stuff to see and do, so the last thing I should be doing is sitting here typing into a laptop. But I'll tell you lots more about our trip over the next few days. Hopefully, I'll also add some more photos soon - something that either my laptop or Blogger seems reluctant to do at the moment. :-(

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Domaine of The Bee - un bon vin

On Wednesday evening in London, I presented a tasting of a selection of my southern French wines made by "outsiders" - Brits, Poles, Swiss, plus a handful from other regions of France. Afterwards, the organiser gave me a glass of red wine made by a friend of his, Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, and asked me what I thought of it. I must admit that I gave it rather short shrift on the night, as it came across as a bit of a fruit bomb with a heavy coating of oak - the sort of wine that tends to impress the critics at trade tastings, but leaves me wanting something a bit more subtle and elegant. That said, it came at the end of a very long, tiring day, so I thought I'd take a glassful home with me, so I could contemplate further and give it a fair hearing. After all, at £20 a bottle, I was hoping it might have hidden depths.

So here I was with a glass of wine that had been poured a full 48 hours ago (albeit sealed under a layer of clingfilm) with no great expectations.

Domaine of The Bee 2008 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes
A blend of old Grenache and Carignan, dry farmed in the hills of Roussillon near Maury and aged for 14 months in new, one and two year-old oak barrels. The colour is dark purple with a tiny rim. There's still a fair amount of new oak on the nose, but it is quite well integrated and doesn't overpower the fruit - bramble and blackcurrant, with hints of garrigue herbs, mint and orange peel, with a touch of eau de vie.Two evenings ago, when I first tasted it, the palate was very oaky and savoury/meaty, very much to the detriment of the fruit. But now, on day 3 - and from the very same glass - the fruit has come to the fore. The wine seems much more together, with those oaky/savoury notes having faded into the background, to be replaced by some lovely sweet and sour flavours. Although rich and warming, and certainly well-extracted, it is also nicely balanced, with juicy lemon acidity and grippy but fine tannins.

To be honest, I wasn't keen to begin with, but after a couple of days of air it has begun to show some class and even a little bit of elegance. If I had a bottle or two (which I don't) I'd probably stick them away for a few years. Five should soften it up nicely, and it will surely go for ten or more, during which time I can see it losing a little weight, but gaining some complexity. Admittedly, there is a slightly modern feel to it, but it doesn't feel spoofy or formulated. Yes, it starts off as a bit of an oak monster, but there is plenty of wine lurking in there too, which just needs a chance to blossom. Stylistically, it feels like Roussillon meets California, and I bet the Americans like it. Actually, I do too, and I'd love to taste it again in a few years' time. My only beef is with the name. Why Domaine of The Bee? Seems a bit pretentious to me. OK, so the wine is made by Brits, but it is a French wine, so why not be true to its origins and call it simply Domaine d'Abeille? Yes, I know, I'm being picky, but I'm a bit of a traditionalist. And yes, I know Johnny Foreigner comes over here and cocks a snook by giving his restaurant a name that is invariably anything but English. But we don't need to get our own back by giving English-sounding names to little corners of Roussillon. As the saying goes, "When in Rome....... (or Roussillon)". ;-)  Nice wine, though.

See the Domaine of The Bee website for more details.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

A glorious Saar Riesling

After a long day on the road yesterday (presenting a tasting in London, plus a few deliveries to customers around London) and back to the day job today, it was nice to relax just a little this evening. Not for long, though, since there is always something that needs doing. Thankfully, although I am still coughing and spluttering, I feel I might just be turning the corner back towards being healthy again. Which is just as well, as TLD and I are off to Germany for a few days at the weekend - a few days of rest and relaxation (and perhaps even a vineyard visit or two) to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. By coincidence, I've just added this beauty to my list, so what better way to get myself into the right groove....

Bright gold/yellow colour, with an enchanting nose of lime zest, apricot, nettle and wet slate, with a hint of fresh root ginger and only the merest suggestion of petrol. I even detect an enticing note of fresh emulsion paint - in fact, a quite remarkable combination of fruit and secondary aromas. And if the nose hints at something beautiful, the palate does not disappoint. Great swathes of lime and lemon fruit caress the palate, with a core of intense, tingling acidity and slatey minerality that is simply mouth-watering. Yet there is also an underlying richness, courtesy of beautifully ripe fruit, with suggestions of apricot, clementine, sweet apples and subtle spice notes. Although late-harvested (Spätlese means literally that) I would hesitate to use the term 'residual sugar' in describing this wine, because that always suggests to me that something sticks out. And in this wine, nothing at all sticks out - it is a wine of stunning purity and focus, with that laser-like acidity combining beautifully with ripe, only fleetingly sweet fruit. It balances effortlessly on the knife-edge. And whilst it already has complexity by the bucket-load, I feel it is only just beginning to get into its stride. So you can drink it now, with pleasure, but you could also tuck some away for another few years and discover the joys of truly great old Riesling. It doesn't get much better than this. And at just £12.75, for a mature Spätlese from the finest vineyard in the Saar, I almost feel like I'm selling it far too cheaply.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Suffering again...... and a lovely pick-me-up red wine

It is not often that I have time off work due to illness. I thought I'd be OK for a while at least, following a couple of days off the other week, due to some sort of virus and throat infection. But I didn't bargain on the cold I picked up over the weekend turning into something really horrible and debilitating. I felt rougher than a really rough thing yesterday morning, but managed to struggle out of bed and off to work. Which turned out to be a big mistake. I don't think I've ever felt so ill at work before and each minute felt like ten. This morning, I wasn't much better, so decided (against my natural instinct) to call in sick. At least I could suffer in the comfort of my own home, though trying to sleep inbetween bouts of coughing, wheezing, spluttering, gurgling and sweating was nigh-on impossible. By this evening, I at least felt well enough to eat something. And in a house full of wine, how could I not open a bottle, if only for a (currently) healthy TLD to enjoy a glass with dinner? So I opened this little beauty, which is so fragrant and flavoursome that it lifts the heart and cuts through my deleted olfactory senses, no problem at all.

The colour is a deep, but vivid purple, with the tiniest dark ruby rim. It lloks imposing, but appearances can be deceptive. The nose is spectacularly fragrant and expressive and - even with my cold - manages to display an array of different aromas, ranging from bramble, blackcurrant and cherry, through orange zest, apples and tea, to lilies and violets. There are also some attractive hints of new leather, polished wood and cigar box - but not in an oaky way. I think it is just the way this particular grape variety likes to express itself. The palate too offers a glorious array of ripe red and black fruits, with liquorice, black cherry and dark/bitter chocolate notes and a lick of allspice. And what structure! Firm, grippy, but extremely ripe tannins mingle effortlessly with the sweet, spicy, almost creamy fruit, and there is a lovely backbone of juicy acidity, giving it real lift and vitality. It really is very moreish indeed. If you are a lover of Loire Cabernet Franc, or even Cabernet-rich Bordeaux, then you will love this - although you may be disappointed at the complete lack of greenness in such a ripe, generous wine(!) Similarly, if you are a lover of wines with a bit of southern warmth - and flavour to spare - you will also love it. I'd even venture that there is something Italian about it, with that juicy, ripe, sweet-and-sour fruit. Whatever, it really is a lovely wine, which was a delight to drink on its own, but also went well with pork chp and pasta with a tomato, herb, onion and garlic sauce. If this were from some or other well-known or fancy appellation, it would be good value at £15 or more. I've just added it to my list at £10.99.
Right - I'm whacked, so off to bed.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Two lovely white wines for a lazy Friday evening - Alsace and Burgundy

After suffering with some sort of throat infection last week, it now seems like open season for whatever virus is going around to attack me - and I now have the beginnings of a common or garden cold. I'm sneezing, have a tickly nose and a bit of a thick head. So I'm using that as an excuse to get through some sample bottles whilst I still have the wherewithal, since my olfactory senses are probably going to be somewhat impeded for the next few days. So, following on from last night's white Burgundy, here are my notes on a couple more delicious white wines - one of which I've just added to my list, and another which will be appearing very shortly.

The colour is bright gold/green, and it has delicious aromas of lime oil, orange zest, wet stone, crushed nettles and mixed herbs. Not to mention, of course, a healthy dose of classic aged Riesling petrol - a gloriously inviting nose! The palate is medium-bodied, tightly-structured and bone-dry, with flavours of peaches and fresh limes. It is beautifully pure and focused, with fabulously mouth-watering acidity, which carries the fruit all the way to a long, citrussy, mineral-laden and herb-tinged finish. At 5 years of age, this wine is absolutely singing right now, but it may get even better over the next 5 or more years. Indeed, it should last for at least 10 years before it begins to fade. Although it would be a shame not to pair it with some spicy Asian food (or even a simple roasted chicken with a lemon or two stuffed in the cavity) I have thoroughly enjoyed a glass or two on its own, whilst writing this tasting note. Since my wife isn't feeling too hungry this evening, I am about to pair it with the remains of last night's spicy/coconutty lamb curry, which will be nice. It is a cracking wine - and, for a semi-mature wine from a top grower, in a great Alsace vintage, a bit of a bargain too. It is now on my list at £13.95, but if you want some, you'd better hurry, as I have less than 3 cases to sell.

Chateau Génot-Boulanger Les Bacs 2008 Mercurey
A pale, limpid gold/straw colour. The nose is a riot of citrus fruits, grated zest and tree fruits, with a strong impression of slate/stone. It is so packed with fruit and mineral nuances, it almost makes the nose prickle. The palate is racy and, like the nose, crammed full of lemon and lime flavours, juicy apples and spice. The flavours are ripe and full, but once again, there is a taut, steely streak of minerality and a core of mouth-watering acidity which keeps you coming back for more. To be honest, if I were tasting this wine blind, its structure and sheer elegance might fool me into thinking I was drinking a wine from the Cote d'Or, rather than the Chalonnaise - it really is that good. This will retail for around £13.50 - again, a bit of a bargain.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Sickness, Internet problems, the mighty Wilco in the Toon, and a lovely white Burgundy

Once again, it's been a while since I blogged. Actually, it has been a funny old week (or more). I went to meet up with my friends Messrs. Bennett, Leslie and Bamford last Tuesday night, to discuss a boys' trip to Burgundy we are planning for next March (or is it April?) and, of course, enjoy a few nice Burgs with some good food in the process. Unfortunately, for some reason, I wasn't feeling my chipper old self, which became more apparent over the next few days, when I seemed to be suffering from some sort of throat infection and general malaise. In fact, to quote an old work-mate's once (in)famous "nature of illness" on his sick form, I "felt rough". By the weekend, I was beginning to perk-up a little, and was about to get blogging again - and then my Internet connection went down for the best part of Sunday. Very frustrating, and it meant that I had a lot of catching-up to do over the next couple of days.

Which brings me to Wednesday (last night) which saw me driving up to Newcastle with my son Alex and his friend, to watch a gig by the greatest rock band that most people have never heard of. Wilco comprises Jeff Tweedy (guitars, lead vocals and 99% of the songwriting), John Stirratt (bass), Glenn Kotche (the finest drummer I have ever seen, bar none) Nels Cline (guitar player extraordinaire), Pat Sansone (guitars and keyboards) and Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards). I've watched this band develop and grow over the past ten or so years, into what I genuinely believe is one of the finest, tightest bands in the world, with a back catalogue that would be the envy of many more famous bands. And with the incomparable Jeff Tweedy at the helm, they can do little wrong, in my eyes. A bit of me is happy for Wilco to remain a jealously-guarded secret, whilst the other bit of me wishes that they would receive the world-wide acclaim they surely deserve, as heaped on many a lesser band. I won't bore you with the details of the gig (this is a wine blog - and I'm no music reviewer) but suffice to say that the band were on superb form and produced a rip-roaring set. And I managed to snaffle Jeff Tweedy's set list from one of the roadies afterwards - a nice little souvenir! If you want an idea of how good Wilco are live, here's a taster from Youtube.........

Afterwards, we got chatting to a couple of fellow fans from Gateshead and went for a couple of pints in a charming little pub just across from the station. We had a good old chin wag about Wilco, music and life in general. The hazy photo below was taken on my mobile phone at gone 11 in the evening. I'd never been to Newcastle before (never been further north than Durham, in fact) but I was stuck by what a lovely place it is - lots of beautiful old stone buildings, clean, safe streets, nice pubs and charming people. So thanks to my new friends Jamie and Andrew - and of course to Wilco - for making my first trip to the "Toon" a memorable one. 

After the gig - Andrew, Jamie, Alex, Paddy

Tonight, it has been a relaxing night in front of the telly, with our favourite home-made lamb curry, rice and naan, accompanied by a rather delicious young white Burgundy;

Domaine Jean & Gilles Lafouge Auxey-Duresses "Les Hautes" 2007
This was a sample bottle I picked up for a song from a local supplier. I suspected it would be good, because I heard that a fellow local merchant friend had taken a bottle to the Wine Circle last night and it apparently went down rather well. Not surprising, as it turns out, because this is a cracking wine. The back label (praise be - a rarity for Burgundy!) for once describes the wine perfectly; "With a rich, heady nose of hazelnut and lime blossom and an intense, mineral-streaked, lemon-edged palate, this wine delivers on all fronts." Spot on, I'd say. It bears certain similarities to the wines of its near neighbour Meursault, with minerally, lime oil-tinged fruit and an underlying richness. There's a touch of oak, but it is very subtley done and one is struck by its elegance and tight, focused structure, not to mention its fabulous depth (and length) of flavour. For a relatively humble village-level Burgundy, it punches well above its weight. It probably has a few years of development left in it, but it is so lovely to drink now, I'd say why wait? I think I'll snap a few cases up - some for the website and a few for myself. And it certainly won't be expensive. ;-)

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Weekend wines - a young Amarone and an aged Californian Pinot

Once again, it has been a week since I blogged, as I've been a bit too busy doing various things. I have more posts to add over the next few days but, meanwhile, here are my notes on a couple of really lovely wines we have enjoyed this weekend.

Giuseppe Campagnola Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2005
This is a wine which I found at a local bin-end supplier a year or so back. I bought (and sold) a couple of cases, but kept half a dozen by for myself. This is the second one we have opened this year and it really is a lovely drop, considering I paid considerably less than a tenner a bottle. The Amarone style is (in general) peculiar to the Valpolicella region of Italy, and is made from grapes which are harvested fully ripe, then air-dried on straw mats for several months after the harvest, before being fermented in the normal way. The resulting wines tend to be rich and quite alcoholic - and often very powerful. But a good one will also be fruity and retain a healthy level of acidity. And this one really does fit the bill. It is a model of restrained power, with fresh red cherry and black fruit flavours, soft tannins and delicious balancing acidity. In fact, it is almost elegant, with a lightness of touch which belies its 15% abv. It isn't particularly complex (yet - though it will gain plenty of that over the next 5 to 10 years) but it is so lovely to drink now. Indeed, it went brilliantly with a dish of lambs liver, sausage, garlic and onions, braised in a good half-bottle of red wine, accompanied by garlic and mustard mash. A lovely combination!

Lynmar Quail Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 1994 Russian River Valley
I picked up a case of this for a relative song at auction a while back and shared a few bottles with friends. A couple of bottles drank previously have been good, but this was sensational. The cork was worryingly saturated (and yet quite brittle) but the fill was high. The colour is a lovely pale ruby, with amber glints, and the nose is simply sublime. The first thing you smell is old, polished leather shoes, but it quickly opens out to reveal a dazzling array of aromas including wild strawberries, clotted cream, freshly-squeezed oranges and balsamic vinegar. There are also some savoury/beefy notes, forest floor and a touch of oak vanillin (which seems like French, rather than Californian oak).The palate is a riot of sweet Pinot fruit and again a certain savouriness, which is very welcome and adds to the complexity. And over the next hour it just gets more and more alluring, with those glorious red fruit flavours augmented by soft citrus, meat stock, cinnamon and clove, with meltingly soft grape tannins and excellent acidity. It caresses the tongue and keeps you coming back for more. This is Russian River Valley Pinot at its most expressive and sublime, and a great bottle of wine for an early Autumn Saturday evening. I had a feeling that it would go beautifully with a lemon-infused roast chicken, but that was on the menu for Sunday, so it had to match our traditional Saturday home-made pizza - and did so, admirably.
Incidentally, I was out on the patio yeaterday morning and just happened to see these beauties soaring overhead...........

Buzzards are by no means uncommon in this part of the world, but more often than not I tend to spot them soaring over the local airfield or the golf course. And in my experience, they tend to hang around in pairs, so it was a treat to see three of them together. Magnificent creatures, and great to see them thriving here in the frozen north.