His And Hers

I’m sure I’m not the only one. There must be many others among you who have noticed the domestic temperature moving from “comfortable” to “gentle simmer” on account of wine? No, I mean before you’ve drunk any…

A licorice-textured, black fruit-driven, herb infused Southern French red. It's quite nice.

A licorice-textured, black fruit-driven, herb infused Southern French red. It’s quite nice.

It’s a familiar scenario. Two people are idling around a living room with a glass each of an untried wine. One of them is clearly enthused. He starts tilting his glass to precarious angles, squinting and frowning, scrutinising the colour of the wine, despite the room being lit only by two small lamps and a television set. He takes a sniff, and he’s off! He sniffs again, taking on a pensive look and beginning unconsciously to gurn a little. He rests the glass on his knee, swirls it somewhat unsteadily, and sniffs again, and again, seemingly in an effort to reach aromas from beyond the wine itself. His other half looks on kindly as he purses his lips and starts to frown intently at the wall, the blankness of his outward expression betraying his inner tumult. Eventually he sips the wine, and after whole minutes of facial contortion in the pursuit of some arcane vinous pleasure,  he looks up like an eager puppy, gazing imploringly at his other half until finally she delivers her verdict: “Quite nice, isn’t it?” qualified, rather distantly, by “yes, very fruity.” And straight back to Holby City.

Collapse of stout party! He breathes in and doesn’t exhale, lips pursed and eyebrows furrowed as he seeks a tactful way of asking the question formulating in his mind. He breathes out and repeats the performance, this time more briefly as the only question in his head now is whether he can really be bothered pursuing the matter. Fizzing with unspoken imprecations about the calibre of her choice of entertainment and its ability to distract from the really important matters, he selects a few favourite CDs from a shelf and retreats to the reassuring world of his headphones and his visions of vine-strewn hillsides. After a couple of minutes of inattentive listening, he begins to smile softly to nobody in particular, as he realises that one day, to return the favour, she might make him read Middlemarch. He knows his opinion will be “er, yeah, it’s really good,” and to prove he’s been paying it due attention: “Proper long sentences. Not like nowadays.”  Then Holby’s credits roll, he tops up the glasses, and the dial goes back down to “comfortable.”.

The Ordure Of The Day

Does anything in our shopping basket recycle its own ordure quite as romantically as wine does? While other items find their way to the shelf via the path of purity, the wine route demands wellingtons, and its aisle presents us with a whole glossary of evocative terms which ultimately tell us that we want this stuff because it’s full of gunge. Indeed, the quantity of it we want seems to be in direct proportion to the amount of contributory gunge, delivered in such cunning guises as:

1. Maceration. This gives red wine tannin, body and colour, and entails leaving the wine on the stems, stalks and skins left over after pressing – none of which you’d otherwise have much use for. Least of all putting into your mouth. If you want a big, meaty, deep-coloured and tannic beast of a wine, then the chances are it will have sat for some time on its own detritus.

Mmm, detritus.

Mmm, detritus.

2. The Ripasso Method. This is a popular Italian way of producing often delicious wine, whereby grapes are fermented over the residuum of the production of another wine, usually Amarone. So all the stuff that was unpleasant enough to feature in point one lives to fight another day!

3. Filtration. Many wines will produce some sort of unpleasant sediment, and will need some amount of filtering before bottling. The extent of filtration will depend on the whim of the winemaker, so the consumer might get to enjoy some unpleasant sediment as well!

4. Fining. Even after filtration the wine will need to be clarified, as residual proteins can make it look unappetising. So to get your tummy rumbling it will be treated with ground fish bones, or dried egg white, or even with a clay called bentonite. Yum, perfection achieved!

5. Muscadet Sur Lie. “Sur Lie” translates as “on the lees,” the lees being a layer of gunk produced by dead yeast cells during the fermentation process. The flavours of the wine are enriched by prolonged contact with said gunk, especially if treated to battonage, which is the process of stirring up the gunk from time to time. Idiomatic French speakers might also recognise “sur lie” as a regional dialect term meaning “on gunk.”

6. Riddling. Champagne is produced by the secondary in-bottle fermentation of a still wine, and thus can’t avoid a certain amount of precipitate because the lees form in situ. Riddling is the process, manual or mechanical, whereby the bottles are gently tilted to encourage the precipitate to accumulate in the neck. Mmm, keep talking! And after that…

Riddling in action!

Riddling in action!

7. Disorgement. The goo is frozen into a pellet, the cap is removed and the pressure of the bottle ejects it. All over the place.

8. Crusted Port. Port revels in its involvement with its attendant refuse, but honorary mention can surely be made of the crusted port style. This receives additional bottle-ageing so that more crud can develop, and so that the producer can call the end product “crusted,” while meaning “crud-enriched.”

9. Decanters. Now you’ve been persuaded to pay more for a bottle of wine that’s clearly superior because it’s full of crap, you will be encouraged to buy an expensive crystal decanter to pour it into, because, hey, what’s all that crap? Who on earth would want that?

Well, otherwise it'd go off...

Well, otherwise it’d go off…

10. Flor. While ageing, a fino sherry runs the risk of oxidation. To lessen the risk, a protective layer of yeast residue called flor is encouraged to form across the surface of the wine, offering an attractive seal against the perils of the outside world. This not only adds depth and tanginess to the wine, but it also illuminates a process whereby a wine’s own cack can stop it from turning into cack; a bit like never washing your hair to preserve its nourishing oils. Except it works. But perhaps a Lifetime Achievement Award can go to…

11. Wine Writing. Like wine itself, wine writing is often enriched by a healthy dollop of sludge. It might occasionally leave an unpalatable taste, but without the odd blast of madness, delusion and controversy, wine writing would be a dull and monochromatic documentary, instead of a three-dimensional, technicolour experience that offers a rewarding plot for every different taste and which keeps the audience coming back for more. Keep the crap in there, it’d be horrible otherwise!

Mike Stoddart.

New World Sympathy – The Delights of Modern Australia

 

Why doesn’t Australian wine kick my head in anymore?

 

The thought occurred to me last week at a tasting evening ín Liverpool’s Oddbins, presented to offer a picture of the current state of play with Australian wine. Every wine on show was delicious, and of unarguable quality, but none of them seemed likely to put hairs on my chest, a marked difference form ten years or so ago, when they felt like they were putting hairs on my tongue…

 

Australia’s first vines were planted by the earliest western settlers in the mid eighteenth century, and by the late nineteenth century wine was seeing huge scale production, largely fortified and quite disdained abroad. As immigration escalated after World War Two, it was clear that  people seeking a new and better life didn’t want it to involve dog-rough Ports and Sherries, not even the British, and so developed the familiar style of generously full-fruited, alcohol-heavy, sweetly oak-enriched wines that dominated the country’s output until quite recently. But over the past decade, extremes of weather and a strengthening currency have had an economic impact on the wine trade.  Moreover, the country’s more passionate winemakers have sought to keep abreast of changing tastes, and to craft wines that emphasise regionality, diversity and quality rather than simple bang for the buck.

 

Two of the winemakers under the spotlight illustrated differing approaches to this. Ben Glaetzer comes from a rightly respected and long-standing winemaking family, and his Heartland winery’s Dolcetto and Lagrein blend (£14.00 at time of writing) gave a fine illustration of the move towards Alternative Varieties. A wonderfully rich but medium-bodied red made from two native Italian grapes, it was juicy with hints of cherry and a slight twist of Dolcetto sweetness mixing with tasteful vanilla oak. Australia’s grape menu now lists any number of international side dishes, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo and countless others, to such an extent that Pinot Gris was recently denied a prestigious Alternative Variety award on account of it not being alternative enough!

 

Captain Bob braces himself for another hard day at the office.

Captain Bob braces himself for another hard day at the office.

Robert Oatley, an esteemed sailor and one of the great characters of Australian wine, now seeks to make classically-styled wines from the country’s more celebrated grapes, and the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on show would give their European counterparts a pretty close run for their money. Bob himself, now in his 80s, made his name in the 1960s, by exporting coffee and cocoa beans from Papua New Guinea. As the owner of the Rosemount Estate winery in the 70s and 80s, his experience of international commodity training – unromantic but practical! – set him up nicely to spread the gospel of the country’s generously accommodating wines to the world at large. Bob’s family-run business now owns or controls a great variety of highly esteemed vineyard sites, from which his head winemaker, the much-garlanded Larry Cherubino, coaxes wines that totally reflect their origin and terroir. Two of them were up for grabs at the tasting – the Signature Chardonnay, from Margaret River in Western Australia, is a spry middleweight with fresh and fine citrus acidity, levelled off with a touch of gently unintrusive French oak. Its counterpoint Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, had a juicy strawberry character with a savoury edge, and a soft, mouthfilling acidity that kept afloat a seemingly endless finish. Both wines cost £13.25, and anybody wondering what happened to the Australian bargains of yore might do well to compare either of the Oatley wines to their similarly-priced Burgundy counterparts, or the Heartland blend to a Piedmont equivalent. The bargains are still there, they just cost more. And be honest, do you really want a bottle of wine to beat you up for six pound fifty?

The Basement Grapes

Buying an off-beat Japanese malt whisky in Liverpool nowadays is not dissimilar to buying a record by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in 1979. Discuss, in no more than 790 words…

During my late-70s youth, Liverpool was a fabulous place to spend scrimped lunch money on obscure records, as long as you knew where you were going. Walk along Whitechapel and turn left at Phillips, Son and Nephew and you could marvel at Probe’s breathtaking and curiosity-quenching selection, under the benign gaze of the remarkably informed staff.

Crowds flock to Probe, where a single purchase might change your head forever.

Crowds flock to Probe, where a single purchase might change your head forever.

If they were being a little too informed to bother with you, as was their occasional wont, and your wish list wasn’t too exotic, you might retrace your steps to Rumbelows and NEMS. Here you would wind through a large white goods department to an improbable Narnia of a cellar that could attend to most of your less marginal requests, often politely. But if you really wanted to mystify an out-of-towner, you’d take them to Penny Lane Records.

Even Google Image can't point us to the old city centre branch of Penny Lane records. At least the bags were helpful.

Even Google Image can’t point us to the old city centre branch of Penny Lane records. At least the bags were helpful.

For a start, it wasn’t in Penny Lane. It was, more or less, in one of the side streets off Liverpool’s main shopping drag. If you went down the right one, you could then turn in to a back alley where only one shop existed, through a tiny doorway, down a narrow staircase to a dark basement room which, while minute, seemed to stock every kind of esoterica that could possibly appeal to even the most demanding musical outsider. And some heavy metal. Good job it had a little sign above the door, otherwise you’d think you’d gone somewhere weird.

I was reminded of all this while I looked for a whisky shop in Liverpool recently. While the usual branded drinks are as easy to find in Liverpool as they are anywhere else nowadays, the journey away from the mainstream still requires an A to Z. You can head out of town and find terrific specialist stores in Mossley Hill, Hoylake, Heswall and elsewhere, but the rent-defying city centre independents are still wilfully fighting their small but well-stocked corners. The Ship In A Bottle, a specialist beer shop allied to the Ship And Mitre pub, occupies very few square feet at the wrong end of Whitechapel which it stuffs with beer to some point beyond known laws of physics. Roberts and Henry Fine Wines is flourishing on Castle Street, opposite the Town Hall but a little way up an arcade that you might not notice, and the doyen of the downtown bottle boutique, Scatchards, has moved a little way out of its business-district heartland to somewhere just opposite a Chinese supermarket. Well, who wouldn’t? But the Penny Lane Records award for untraceability goes to a magical emporium called Whisky Business, in just-off-Fenwick-Street. I searched for ten minutes before enquiring in a cigar shop, the lady behind the counter giving me detailed directions to somewhere 20 yards away. Which I still couldn’t find. Down a little mugger’s alley, I found a tiny doorway, opening on to a staircase which led, on the face of it, only to the bottom of the staircase. A twelve inch sign read “Whisky Business.”

This must be the place, then...

This must be the place, then…

And that was that. Turn left at the bottom of the stairs and you’re in a miniscule, cosily dark lobby. This is the shop. At first it looks like there isn’t much in there, but as your eyes adjust, so the range grows before you. Whisky appears all over the place, on shelves, in gift packages, in tasting bottles near the till, joined by a whole gamut of other spirits, liqueurs and weird-and-wonderfuls, all presided over by garrulously welcoming Paul Murphy. If it’s not on the shelf, it’s on the way in. If it’s not on the way in, it’s being chased. If Paul hasn’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist. Good, old-fashioned specialist shopping ethics. The shelf nearest to me displayed five – no, hang on, make that six – Japanese malts. Six! That’s more Japanese malts than Teenage Jesus made records…

Welcome to central Liverpool’s specialist drinks sector. Now you know what netherworld it lives in, no trip to town need end without a bottle of something wonderful. And drop into Probe while you’re at it, as well – they really like people nowadays!

Mike Stoddart.

 

 

(Whisky Business officially lives at The Old Ropery, Fenwick Street, which makes it sound easy. Try whiskybusinessliverpool@gmail.com).

(Probe now lives somewhere nice and shiny, and they’re pleased to see you: http://www.probe-records.com/)

 

Clash City Riojas

 

What does Rioja taste like? “Er, smooth. Yeah, dead smooth. Especially them Gran Reservas. And fruity as well.” Oh. Is that it?

Spain’s most famous red wine has now been with us, in its popular form at least, for around 150 years. Well the evidence suggests that they’ve been at it since Roman times, but the history that concerns us started in the mid-1800s, when crippling outbreaks of powdery mildew and phylloxera sent Bordeaux wine merchants flocking across the Pyrenees in search of wine to fill their depleted reserves. In response, French duties were relaxed, a rail link was built, the French merchants showed how to age the wine in oak barrels and soon enough a whole cluster of bodegas was founded around Haro railway station, the first stop from Bordeaux.

Haro station, just before it all went off.

Haro station, just before it all went off.

During the late nineteenth century, Rioja was exporting anything up to 13 million gallons of wine a month to France, with some of the larger bodegas building their own platforms on Haro station, and some of the smaller ones bringing wine for blending from all over the region, even from the more humble parts of Rioja Baja, by rail, by horse and cart, by wing and prayer! Of course, phylloxera was bound to catch up with Rioja, and by the turn of the twentieth century the boom years were over, with two World Wars and one Civil War doing little for sustained expansion.

The wine itself, as it was widely made until the latter part of the last century, is remembered with fond, perhaps rosy nostalgia by more mature drinkers. The emphasis was firmly on oak maturation and blending rather than fruit quality and attentive winemaking, and the result was a juicy and vanilla-sweet concoction. Bottlers, who seldom owned land of their own, took little control over the farmers who were growing for them, so fruit quality and yield may occasionally have been compromised; fermentation was fast and maturation took longer than may always have been right for the wine, in old barrels that might not always have been of an age and condition appropriate to the vintage. Great and serious wines were still being made, of course, but by the end of the twentieth century, a large number of bodegas and smaller, more progressive wineries began to reconsider their winemaking techniques.

The Luis Alegre winery, resistant both to tradition and to non-panoramic photography.

The Luis Alegre winery, resistant both to tradition and to non-panoramic photography.

So how does the modern day Rioja winery differ? Let’s have a look at one. Just outside Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa sits Bodegas Luis Alegre, founded by Don Luis Alegre in 1968. A vibrant and much-loved local character, by the late 1990s he had realised that the times they were a-changing, and he drafted in a team of young and passionate oenology graduates to help him update his approach. Good move. They didn’t want to stop at a little friendly advice, and they stuck by Luis’ vision of high quality, meticulously created wines until by 2000 they had built a dazzlingly modern winery set into the hillside. Four floors, with gravity doing all the work to keep aggressive handling down and to maintain the purity of the fruit as far as possible – grapes received at the top, fermentation on the next floor down, then down to the ageing and bottling floors. The bodega itself owns 50 hectares of scrupulously attended vineyards – a rarity until recently – and has a further 30 under contract, which it treats as pretty much its own.  All of the fruit for all of the wines is harvested by hand, and staves of French and American oak are dried at the bodega for at least 18 months, where they are continually analysed to make sure their eventual marriage to the wine will be harmonious. Yes, of course there’s a bit of rather unromantic laboratory work involved, but you couldn’t get much further removed from some of the old ways without making light of the region’s tradition.

And the wines? I shan’t bore you with a list, suffice it to say that I presented two comparatively-priced roble Riojas at a recent tasting event. The first, Vina Valoria, was made in the old-fashioned way and had flavours of sweet dark fruit overlaid with creamy oak. Basically, it tasted like blackcurrant cheesecake, not that this was a fault. Luis Alegre’s Koden Rioja, on the other hand, oak-aged for eight months, sat in the mouth and allowed layers of flavour to unpeel from around its core of fruit concentration, blackberry, spice and only the quietest suggestion of vanilla, all helped along by fine oak tannin and finishing with lingering cloves. Thoroughly modern, and utterly delicious!

 

 

 

 

 

The Decadentathlon

Is it nearly over yet? Have the hair shirts gone back into the loft now? Perhaps only a wine seller would notice, but there seems to have been an awful lot of people giving up drink since Christmas. The “Dryathlon” in January kept a lot of people off the pop, kept even more off it in February when they tried to get it right second time around, and has galvanised some into giving it up for Lent! And what, I ask you, is this “Dryathlon?” I’m sure there are many athletes out there who feel their remarkable endurance is humbled by association with the piety of a bloke who can spend a full month pottering about with a cup of tea, and I fancy they’d consider giving it up altogether in the light of the listless Lenten consummation of temperate holiness!

But what of the achievements of the devout intemperate, the sipper for all seasons, his athleticism matched only by the elegant fertility of his imagination? He who can turn a swift half into a four-hour marathon, a tasting sample of wine into ten rounds with the rest of the bottle, the Daley Thompson of occasional squiffiness? To him, or to her, we dedicate the Decadentathlon, ten events for April that would assail the abstemious, knock spots of the spartan and topple the temporarily teetotal, rich with their own challenges and rewards…

1. Shooting. (“I’ll be back in a bit, I’m just shooting down to the pub”)

2. The 100 Metres. (The distance to the aforementioned pub).

3. The 400 Metres. (The distance home, several hours later, from the same pub).

4. The High Jump. (The welcome home from the pub).

5. Cross-Country. (The move from French white to Spanish red).

6. Pole Vault. (The leap of enthusiasm prompted by the suggestion of some Wyborowa vodka shots).

7. Shot Putting. (The swift consumption thereof).

8. Swimming. (A horizontal event, assisted by your bedroom walls and furniture).

9. The 1500 Metres. (The bare minimum of fresh air required to offer even the slimmest chance of getting through the swimming event).

10. Fencing. (The realisation the following morning that you have, between some of the preceding nine events, purchased an item of dubious provenance).

Year-round Decadentathletes, torch bearers of the Vintner Olympics, we salute you! Have a wonderful April. Or should that be Cabernet-pril..?

 

Master of Reality

Friends and Countrymen,

The people at the Liverpool Food and Drink Festival have asked me to host a wine masterclass at their event in the Sefton Park Palm House on Wednesday, 26th March. This is right up my street! What do they want me to do? “Er, you just bring some wines, and, well, talk about them for half an hour…”

So far, so good. I can talk about wine for half an hour, if I leave some stuff out. But there remained a nagging question: when does a class become a masterclass? Is there a line of factual esoterica which separates the men from the boys? When does a piece become a masterpiece? Has a masterstroke ever been just a stroke? Conferring mastery upon oneself is inimical to your modest grape slave, and, I imagine, to many of you reading this. It’s all right if you’ve got a Master’s degree, or even if you’re a Master of Wine, because then the mastery has been foisted upon you by a third party. So in light of my somewhat lower wattage academic performance, should I be hosting a CSE-Class..?

Two of the “masterclasses” I’ve attended over the years spring readily to mind, equally distinguished by their absolute Mastery. The first concerned the wines of Italy, and the host opened with: “I’ve been in the wine trade for nearly twenty years now, and I still can’t get my head around Italian wine…” How could this go wrong? The second saw me looking after somebody from a leading Port house, who did the honours with increasing amiability as he neglected to spit even a drop of his bewitching ambrosia, and who soon found himself quite moonstruck. So moonstruck, in fact, that I had to help him on to a tram from Altrincham to central Manchester, (“get back on the tram, we’re only in Timperley…”) and then steer him into the lobby of his hotel. That moon, eh, it doesn’t half get people leathered!

The reality of the Palm House masterclasses will probably be a little less altered, however. The LFDF wants more than anything to give a platform to local independent wine merchants, who are as close to being masters of their own universe as we might reasonably expect, and who, in a competitive climate, prefer to put themselves forward as at least vaguely professional. Not one of them is likely to tell you that they still haven’t gotten their head around this wine lark, they don’t usually need any help getting home and they have in the main cultivated a reassuring degree of spittoon expertise, in spite of what their insistence upon wearing an apron might suggest. What makes them think that wine might offer any path to economic comfort is a subject for a separate blog post at the very least – maybe even a self help manual – but we must applaud their resistance to retailing homogeneity and their steadfast belief that people want and deserve something better. Would any of us read a book consisting of a sweetened approximation of literature? Would we listen to a glibly professional jazz solo bereft of squeaks, honks and blats? The indies know we wouldn’t, and they’re not about to let us do the same with our wine. So maybe my question’s answered itself, and it becomes a masterclass when it’s fuelled by such belief and delivered by people who don’t know how to stop informing us! I still might think twice about letting them run amok on the Timperley tram, though…

See you on Wednesday,

Mike Stoddart

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