Public tastings at wine merchants can be a haphazard business. As much as you’d like to get an in-depth sense of each wine and increase your understanding of a country, a region, a grape variety, or a style of wine, it’s nearly impossible to accomplish in a crowd-filled room. Judging the colour of the wine in dim lighting is difficult, and swirling wine is perilous amid all the elbows and bottles. You quickly learn to give spitters as wide a berth as the milling crowd will allow, and not to be alarmed by the crunch underfoot of an errant water biscuit. It’s not a contemplative atmosphere – nor should it be. It’s a social event and shopping excursion for most people, with a chance to taste a few wines and buy a few bottles. If most of us struggle to get more than a general impression of each wine at that kind of event, it’s fine. That’s not really the point.
We attended a tasting like that last night. Crowded, genial, full of distractions and, luckily for us, also full of good Australian wines. We made an effort to take a few notes to share.
We have one conversation over and over again as we begin tasting white wines. You are almost always given crisp, inoffensive white wines with a touch a fruit. Always perfect examples of a style or a variety or a particular terroir. And for Daniel, always perfectly uninspiring. There’s never anything wrong with them, but he wants a wine that’s provocative and stimulating, an event all by itself, instead of one that goes brilliantly with seafood starters or is easy drinking chilled as background noise at a barbecue. I suppose I have more patience for wines that only become special with food or at a particular moment in time. You don’t drink wine under laboratory conditions: Sometimes the magic happens in the interplay of wine and occasion, wine and the flavours of foods, and wine and interaction with other human beings. The four wines below all veer, to a greater or lesser degree, towards boring him (he’s nudging me to remind you how many good basic whites he gets to sample at work) and seeming like a good summer drinking to me.
Madfish Great Southern Riesling 2014
This was our favourite white of the night. It has crystalline clarity, clean and zesty citrus aromas, and high acidity, along with mouth-watering lime flavour and very delicate hints of the aromatic and mineral qualities you would expect in a Riesling. If we had one complaint, it was that this wine didn’t exhibit those Riesling qualities a bit more strongly, but we’re prejudiced as great fans of Riesling and that shouldn’t take away from what a fine, versatile dry white wine this is.
Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Marsanne 2012
There’s something uncommon in the aroma of this wine. It has citrus and stone fruit on the nose, but also a mineral edge to the perfume similar to bath salts. The citrus and peachy flavours echo the aromas, but there’s also something honeyed and a bit herbal to it. It’s less honey than honeysuckle, with that dash of wildness and earthiness. Tahblik specialises in Rhône grapes such as Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier, and claims to have the largest single holding of Marsanne vines in the world. This wine also ages well, developing additional richness and complexity.
Blind Spot King Valley Pinot Gris 2014
This wine is one of a group of Australian wines the Wine Society sells under the Blind Spot label, aiming to bring exceptional small producers in Australia out of the wine industry’s “blind spot” and into wine glasses. We very much enjoyed a Blind Spot Champagne-style sparkling wine from Tasmania at a tasting last year, and so we always try other Blind Spot wines with great interest. This is a classic Pinot Gris, with the crispness and easy-drinking qualities you’d expect. It has grapefruit on the nose with flavours of apples or pears, and less of the aromatic quality of an Alsatian Pinot Gris. While this will surely be a fine summer sipper, we couldn’t help wondering what ever happened to that Blind Spot Tasmania sparkling . . . .
Bleasdale Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2013
Bleasdale is an Australian wine producer we particularly like. It’s rare that we don’t have a bottle of the Wise One Tawny around the house, and Bleasdale’s Sparkling Shiraz is one of our favourite sparkling reds. Had we but sufficient cash in the wine budget, we’d keep bottles of 2012 Frank Potts in our collection too. This Adelaide Hills Chardonnay is picked by hand and fermented in French oak with wild yeasts, so fans of oaked Chardonnay will love the toastiness accompanying the stone fruit flavours. This wine should age well for three or four years, and should be very food-friendly.
Blind Spot Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2014
Blind Spot Yarra Valley Pinot Noir was a surprise hit with us both. It offers a bit of cranberry on the nose and blueberry on the palate, with smooth tannins adding structure. It’s light-bodied and elegant, and probably delicious with charcuterie.
Jamsheed La Syrah 2013
This is an Australian shiraz with cherry and bramble flavours that don’t overwhelm the slight spiciness and pepperiness. It’s elegant and restrained, with firm tannins that will stand up to bold or meaty dishes.
Pitchfork Margaret River Cabernet-Merlot 2013
This blend was Daniel’s favourite red of the evening. It’s 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot, with big, dark berry flavours on the nose and lively, juicy flavours. There’s a hint of eucalyptus or mint too, along with good acidity and considerable structure from the tannins.
Bleasdale The Broad-Side Langhorne Creek Shiraz Cabernet-Malbec 2012
Another offering from the fine folks at Bleasdale, this time a blend of 43% Shiraz, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Malbec. Ripe, almost jammy flavours of purple plum, blackcurrant, and blackberry lead into firm tannins that slowly build, a quality that can be a touch of genius when paired with food.
Wednesday I was fortunate enough to attend a staff wine tasting of Hugel wines at the Wine Society. I actually went in on my day off just for the that, which should be an indication of how interested I am in the wines of Alsace and in Famille Hugel wines in particular.
The Hugel family has been producing wine in Riquewihr in Alsace since 1639, which is remarkable continuity when you consider how many times Alsace changed countries and official languages during the same period (six times since 1639, by my count). The Hugel family features prominently in Wine and War by Don and Petie Kladstrup, which, if you haven’t read it, is an collection of accounts of how the French tried to preserve cellars, vines, vineyards and the vintners themselves from the Nazis during World War II. We’ve just finished reading the book ourselves and will post a full review soon, but while many of the stories blur together in the Kladstrups’ descriptions, what happened to the Hugel family really stands out. Two Hugel brothers were conscripted into the German army and one, once he had managed to survive the Russian front and return to liberated Riquewihr, felt he had to go back to Germany and fight again as a soldier in the French army. The two brothers were actually on opposite sides of the fighting at the same time during a battle near Lake Constance. It’s frankly the sort of thing you’d find unbelievable if you saw it in a film. If you’re interested in reading more about the Hugel family during World War II, you can read excerpts on the Hugel website or in Wine and War.
Three generations of the Hugel family were in England this week for wine tastings and to announce the rebranding of the company from Hugel & Fils to the more inclusive Famille Hugel, as well as the launch of the family’s first single-vineyard wine called Schoelhammer. Schoelhammer is made from grapes from just 30 rows of south-facing Riesling vines, and the first release is from the 2007 vintage.
The energetic Etienne Hugel, Directeur General at Famille Hugel, and his son, Jean-Frederic, took charge of the staff tasting at the Wine Society and lead us through the fascinating stories of the family, its vineyards, and the great wines they produce. It’s always a pleasure to talk with producers who are so expressive and in love with their wines and grapes. The father and son team had us nodding and laughing, all the while learning from them in a most pleasant way.
We tasted a variety of Hugel wines, each of them impressive in its own way. The tasting notes below are mine, but the links will take you to the product page on the Hugel website.
Gentil Hugel 2012 (The Society’s Vin de Alsace 2012)
This wine combines noble grapes of Alsace: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Sylvaner. The result is a refreshing wine with a crisp, lively aroma and bright, but not biting acidity. It has good length and generous juicy fruit. Blending the qualities of these disparate grapes also makes this wine a good all-rounder with food.
Pinot Gris Tradition, Hugel 2012
This wine is quite dry and the sort of wine I enjoy most when I have it with food. It seemed to me to have a slightly shorter length than the Gentil. The acidity and the aromatic qualities of this wine would pair particularly well with fattier poultry such as duck and pheasant, or with game.
Gewurztraminer Tradition 2012 (The Society’s Exhibition Gewurztraminer 2010)
Etienne Hugel called this the family’s most curry-friendly wine. In fact, anything with any sort of spice will go extremely well with this. This wine has all the characteristics you associate with a fine Gewurztraminer: the aromatic qualities, the hint of spice, the freshness and delicacy. It’s as good an example of a classic Gewurztraminer as you are likely to find.
Riesling Jubilee 2009
This is one of the most expressive Rieslings I’ve had in a while. There is so much on the nose, with a fine flintiness and acidity. It’s well balanced with ample fruit and floral aspects that promise much for years to come.
Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, Hugel 2007
Etienne Hugel says this sweet wine is perfect with blue cheese. There’s acidity to lift the wine, so it avoids being cloyingly sweet, and while full of perfume and fruit flavours, it shows restraint. The 2007 we tasted was excellent, but we also tasted a 1998 that was divine. It was almost a pity I had to leave and get on with the rest of my day off.
The Hugel family is set to appear in a feature article in Decanter magazine next month, if you’d like to learn more, or the Famille Hugel website is full of additional information and truly beautiful photos. You can also follow Famille Hugel on social media.
It’s Shrove Tuesday/Fat Tuesday and everything’s coming up pancakes in our neck of the woods. We won’t be flipping ours until this evening, although we were a bit tempted by the idea of a big stack of American pancakes and crispy bacon this morning . . . well, one of us is still tempted, but we’ll go traditional English this evening and save the decadent breakfast for another day.
It’s a busy time for holiday eating, actually, what with Valentine’s Day, today’s pancake extravaganza, and Chinese New Year on Thursday (happy year of the sheep!). We recently tasted some 2012 Moenchreben de Rorschwihr Auxerrois from Rolly Gassmann in Alsace and both of us immediately thought how good it would be with a spicy Chinese stir fry or a curry. Auxerrois may be a new grape for you as it isn’t as well known as Alsatian Riesling and Gewurztraminer generally are. It less of the spice you associate with Alsatian Gewurztraminer and less acidity than you usually get in Alsatian Rieslings, but it still had a taste reminiscent of those wines. It has a slight sweetness that offsets spicy food and a great, food-friendly balance of flavours. We ran across a list of wine recommendations for Chinese New Year from Hong Kong wine merchants too, if you’d like a few more suggestions.
And now for the rest of the wine news!
We’re sad to report that Colette Faller of Domaine Weinbach in Alsace has died at age 85. She took over the estate after the death of her husband in 1979, and was later joined in the family business by her two daughters, Catherine and Laurence. Laurence died unexpectedly in May of last year, so we’re especially sad to hear the Faller family has suffered another loss so soon.
Hubert de Boüard, owner of Château Angelus in St Emilion, is calling the 2014 vintage a fruit-forward vintage for consumers rather than collectors.
Over on the Academic Wino’s site, you can find out what effect fungicides have on Monastrell during the wine-making process.
The discovery of charred grape seeds may help scientists learn more about the “wine of the Negev” that was one of the very finest wines in the Byzantine period.
Decanter offers up a travel guide for France’s Jura region, home of Comté cheese and increasingly popular wines.
Mall Walls gives you both a recipe for Poulet Vallée d’Auge, a creamy chicken and apple dish from Normandy, and suggestions for wines to accompany it.
Sagrantino is one of the most tannic wines there is, but that’s not all there is to know about this increasingly popular Italian grape variety. Get the scoop from Alfonso Cevola on Wine-Searcher.com.
Biodynamic winemaker Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant has split from the Loire’s promotional body over unpaid mandatory membership fees and plans to set up his own appellation.
And, finally, Wine Enthusiast posted their list of nine dog-friendly U.S. wineries. Be sure to take a look at the comments section for additional suggestions.
I suppose it shouldn’t really be a surprise that International Sherry Week comes at the same time as London Wine Week and Negroni Week. After all, these events tend to be scheduled for summer and there are only so many weeks to go around. We decided to expend our efforts on sherry.
Neither of us drink sherry, so we took International Sherry Week as a nudge to do a bit more reading and to attend a local tasting featuring 8 different sherries at once, which seemed the best way to get to grips with it. Being able to compare and contrast several at once is much better than tasting one and then months later, on some other occasion, maybe tasting a different style.
We thought we’d read up and remind ourselves of the basics of sherry before tasting. Sherry.org offers an online course in sherry, complete with quizzes after each section, as well as information in less overtly educational presentations and videos. Unfortunately, when we sat down to take the sherry course, we discovered it was all in Spanish. We struggled through one segment and scored 100% on the quiz — also in Spanish only, but couldn’t quite make ourselves struggle through the rest of the segments. Instead you might try Sherry 101 for a good overview or some of the English-language pamphlets available on Sherry.org. We liked this one especially.
At the tasting, we tried the following sherries, and in this order, which was basically from youngest/freshest/driest (fino styles) to oldest/richest/sweetest (oloroso styles).
Herederos de Argüeso Las Medallas Manzanilla
The Society’s Fino Sherry
Romate Fino Perdido
Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado Solera
The Society’s Medium Dry Amontillado Blend
The Society’s Exhibition Mature Medium Dry Oloroso Blend
The Society’s Exhibition Mature Medium Sweet Oloroso Blend
Osborne Venerable Pedro Ximenez 30 Years Old
The first two sherries were tough going. The Herederos de Argüeso Las Medallas Manzanilla: fresh and tangy indeed, and not in a good way, while The Society’s Fino had less flor on the nose and a less yeasty flavour, it was still pretty unpleasant if that’s not a flavour you like. I said it was not to my palate; Janet said it was purgatorial. She also said something about a yeasty codpiece, which I think is a “Pirates of the Caribbean” joke. The Romate Fino Perdido was slightly more agreeable, with more of an oak or barrel taste. It was maybe even a little toasty. It was at this point that Janet said she wondered if these wouldn’t be much different (and much better) with food.
We found the Cayetano del Pino Palo Cortado Solera more interesting. There was vanilla on the nose, and it had a long finish with an aftertaste of vanilla as well. This was the turning point for us, the first of the sherries we could drink with anything like pleasure. The Society’s Medium Dry Amontillado Blend was honeyed on the nose and full of rich, nutty flavours. Janet said she immediately wondered if it might be good with spicy dishes (and a nearby chart confirmed that as a suggested pairing.
The Society’s Exhibition Mature Medium Dry Oloroso Blend was a bit of a step back in that the flor flavour was back, which by now we realised was the note that was putting us off more than anything else.
The Society’s Exhibition Mature Medium Sweet Oloroso Blend, by contrast, was Janet’s favourite of the sweeter sherries. She described it as rich and redolent of dried fruit without the claggy, cloying sweetness she dislikes. I, on the other hand, thought the Osborne Venerable Pedro Ximenez 30 Years Old was incredible and my pick of the evening. The tears on the glass, that deep Coca-Cola or even coffee colour, the deep flavours of raisins and treacle — it is simply outstanding. I couldn’t stop imagining it with ice cream, or even after a meal in place of a dessert. It’s an exquisite drink. Janet, on the other hand, wasn’t passionate about it, mostly because she isn’t passionate the taste of treacle. She doesn’t even like treacle tart. How can anyone not like treacle tart?? It should be noted that you should not expect to taste anything after having tried the PX as it is so thick and coats everything so well that it takes along time to get any sort of normal tasting ability back in working order.
Janet was vexed by the lack of food at the sherry tasting. She wondered if the flor character we found so disagreeable in the first few sherries might not be transformed by even just a handful of roasted nuts. She got home and immediately saw a post on Please Bring Me My Wine that made no bones about tasting fino sherry with food: “Don’t attempt anything this week without the food! Actually scrap that. For full effect it’s best to try the wine without the food, then try it with. The difference is insane!” I suppose if we had planned ahead, we could have smuggled almonds up our sleeves.
We happened to have a dusty bottle of The Society’s Fino in the drinks cupboard at home, so we tried it with roasted salted almonds, garlicky olives, and some Spanish-style meats. For me nothing changed, but she was happy to finish her glass and the rest of mine. She felt there was a slightly tangy alcohol burn at the first sip, cutting through the flavours of the food, and an aftertaste that brought that yeasty tang back again but in a pleasant way. It wasn’t at all the same as her experience from the tasting, and is the only way she’d drink those sherries again.
In the end, what’s generally true of wine is doubly true of sherry: drink it with food and friends. It’s the best way to enjoy it.
Welcome back! There was lots to talk about this week in wine. Here’s the latest:
Last week we tasted English wines in celebration of English Wine Week. We have been advised that it is now London Wine Week, International Sherry Week, and Negroni Week. We’re not entirely sure we should celebrate all of them in the same week, so we’ll point you towards the information and you can weigh your options. Please celebrate your chosen week(s) responsibly.
And on the subject of sherry, I found some fabulous information at www.sherry.org. There are presentations and even an online course as part of the Sherry Academy, an online community — it’s enough to make a person not very interested in sherry slightly interested. But why aren’t we more interested? Tim Atkin offered his analysis of the state of sherry worldwide, and how it’s becoming downright hip in other countries. One American expert he speaks to very sagely noted that there is no image problem with sherry stateside: “Our grandmothers don’t drink sherry.” How long will it be before the UK catches up?
Colombia’s Nairo Quintana won the Giro d’Italia! Ok, it’s not strictly wine news, but we celebrated with a bottle of 2012 Famille Bougrier Rosé D’Anjou, which we loved.
This is not strictly wine news either, but this list of Paris restaurants you can book online looks terribly handy.
And finally, Henry Jeffrey’s has written an oustanding article called “Should Cats Sell Wine?” where he discusses the popularity of cats on the Internet, the barrier wine labels pose to the uninitiated, and what are known as “critter wines” in the U.S. I remember when I was a graduate student in the U.S. and knew almost nothing about wine (or a little, but only about German wines I couldn’t afford), I always took a bottle of Torres Sangre de Toro to parties. It came with a little plastic bull attached to the bottle, and I actually have the last bull in my collection sitting in the aloe vera plant in our English kitchen.
It was good wine, and finding that little plastic bull amid a sea of identical bottles in the shop was like running into an old friend. When I handed over a bottle of Sangre de Toro at a party, the hosts would recognize it and be glad to see it. It was the perfect choice for my circle of friends, my financial situation, my personal taste and my level of wine knowledge at that time. While critics see critter wines as a dumbing down and a gimmicky way of selling terrible wine to the gullible, that isn’t necessarily the case (see, for example, the “Top 5 Critter Wines” on Epicurious, or “Critter Wines: Do They All Suck” on Serious Eats). Surely there’s room for all manner of styles of wine, wine labels and wine drinkers. Why so much indignation over bottle with an animal on it? (End of Janet’s critter wine rant.)
The length of this rosé is as long as Quintana’s winning margin! It’s as balanced as his steady climb up Monte Zoncolan! They should serve this wine out of replicas of Quintana’s pink boots! Nairo Quintana’s sweat in the maglia rosa is probably the same colour as this rosé — except that, like Chuck Norris, Nairo Quintana doesn’t sweat.
I got a little over-excited yesterday when Colombia’s Nairo Quintana won the Giro d’Italia, the first ever Grand Tour win for him and the first win ever by a Colombian. We toasted his achievement with a glass or three of 2012 Famille Bougrier Rosé D’Anjou, which seemed the right colour at least, as the Giro uses the maglia rosa, or pink jersey, to mark its leader just as the Tour de France uses the famous yellow jersey.
It was one of the best rosés I’ve ever tried. It’s so light and refreshing chilled, and dangerously easy to drink. There are loads of red berries on the nose and in the mouth, and the balance is perfect. There’s no heaviness from over-sweetness or the aggressive zing of acidity or alcohol. It’s lively and crisp, and is just as pleasant to drink on its own as it would be with food.
The Famille Bourgrier Rosé d’Anjou is a blend of Grolleau Noir, Gamay, and Cabernet Franc. Rosé d’Anjou is made from a majority of Grolleau, a variety primarily grown in France’s Loire Valley and not permitted in very many appellations. It’s horrifying to think that Robert Parker has actually advocated ripping out all the Grolleau vines and replacing them with Gamay and Cabernet Franc, because while there may be some poor examples of Grolleau-based wines out there, this one suggests to me that it doesn’t have to be that way.
We paid a visit to our local Enomatic wine dispenser to celebrate English Wine Week. It’s a machine I have used before, but Janet hadn’t. It’s a brilliant machine really, but it can be a little difficult to get used to. Janet managed somehow to dispense an English white right into the sleeve of her jacket. I suppose if you’re going to be wet to the elbow during a tasting, you could do worse than Three Choirs Midsummer Hill.
Janet had actually never tasted any English wines before, and so perhaps came to the tasting with fewer preconceived notions of what was going to be on offer. We started with the sparkling wines, and unfortunately tasted the one we ended up liking best first. The 2010 Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rosé was truly delicious: salmony pink, crisp, and missing that aggressive hit of acid you so often find in English wines, whether sparkling or still. Tasting this one first probably made it harder to like the two sparkling wines that followed, which were still both very good. The 2011 Ridgeview Bloomsbury had a more typical level of acidity. Janet said to her it was like getting to the centre of a sherbet lemon, harsh but not unpleasant (especially if you like sherbet lemons, as she does). The 2009 Nyetimber Brut Classic Cuvée was less biting, but still had a bit too much acid for our tastes after having tasted the Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rosé.
Some of the still white wines were available to taste in two vintages, which was a treat. When we tried the Three Choirs Midsummer Hill 2012 and 2013, they both had a grapefruit aroma and flavour, but the acidity was markedly less in the 2012, which has had time to mellow a bit. The same was true of the Chapel Down Pinot Blanc 2010 and 2011, with the 2010 being noticeably smoother, and tart without the intense burst of acid, whereas the 2011 was quite grapefruity again.
We didn’t rate the rest of the English still wines very highly. The 2013 Chapel Down Bacchus was almost completely colourless and was acidic again, but with more gooseberry than grapefruit flavour. The 2013 Three Choirs Rosé has a crisp, but somewhat generic light berry flavour, perhaps lightly strawberry. The 2013 Three Choirs Stone Brook was a bit nondescript in flavour.
We also tasted some of the non-English wines that were featured. For summer barbecues, the 2013 De Martino Gallardía del Itata Cinsault would be absolutely fantastic, and would be excellent chilled. It had a light colour, good length and a nice bit of pepper at the end that just made you think of sausages and burgers and blue skies. The 2012 Silbador Carmenère was rich and spicy and you could hardly imagine anything better with a steak. The aroma of the Society’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo immediately evokes Italy, or at least the best Italian reds you’ve drunk in your life. Janet thought it was fabulous, which I thought a little strange because there were quite perceptible tannins and she usually dislikes that. In this case the tannins were so balanced that the end result was not mouth-drying, but rounded and rich.
The wines we liked less on the day were the 2011 Brouilly Pisse Vieille Durand, which was a very light wine, as you’d expect from Beaujolais, but just didn’t fare well against the other wines we were tasting at the time. Janet said I actually winced at my first taste of the 2012 Hilltop Corvinus Hungarian Red, athough she said she could easily drink a glass or two, and the 2012 Cabardès, Château de Pennautier was quite oaky, smokey, and cedary, and although not to our palates, it’s a fantastic wine with plenty of depth and character.
We were delighted to see sloe gin available for tasting as well. We make it ourselves every autumn and are quite proud of the results, although the commercial bottle for tasting was, to be quite honest, nearly as good. Delicious, sweet and smooth, with that amazing fruity flavour you get from the sloes and none of the taste of the gin at all. Our latest batches of sloe gin have some bottles made with gin and others with vodka, simply to see if the kind of alcohol makes any difference at all.
In the end, it was a great selection of wines from England and elsewhere that we were lucky to try. If we had been buying last night, we would have been happy to take home bottles of Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rosé, Chapel Down Pinot Blanc 2010, and Three Choirs Midsummer Hill 2012 for our English Wine Week celebrations (and probably 2013 De Martino Gallardía del Itata Cinsault, 2012 Silbador Carmenère, and the Society’s Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for other summer occasions). Oh, and we might well buy a bottle of the sloe gin too, just to tide us over until ours is ready.