Monday, 12 January 2015

Corner shop blending masterclass 2.0

Round two, this is where shit starts to get real.

By shit I'm obviously referring to Jacob's Creek 'Classic' Merlot 2013, and by real I'm referring to it getting into my glass.

I've got ahead of myself, the rationale was fucking on point, the reasoning was spot on. Baroncini, Chianti Riserva 2011 (apparently 100% Sangiovese, though this was something I read on the internet so I'm pinching salt), cheap dirty Chianti, matched with a nice and ripe Aussie Merlot. The only way I could have been more positive about the sheer logic of my blending decision would have been to add a third of Poppers to the blend.

I figured, flabby, overly fruity Merlot, vegetal and tart Sangiovese, a blend matched by the more internationally orientated Super-Tuscan winemakers. How could I possibly go wrong.


Baroncini, Chianti Riserva 2011. We're a bit beyond wicker baskets, but not all that far. Lifted orange peel, bitter cherries, something unpleasantly metallic about the tannins on the palate, possibly a wink of meatiness just as it's slinking out the back entrance. Poor.

Jacob's Creek 'Classic' Merlot 2013. As I've already implied, I had high hopes for this combination. However those hopes were dashed, dashed like an ill prepared ship against the rocks. I wasn't so much tasting the wine as mourning the poor conscripted sailors, salt water filling their lungs, the sharp coastal rocks smashing their skulls. Their dreams passing, drowned, just like my hopes for a second week of blending magic.
A sort of fizzy pop bramble fake fruit nose, this barely tastes alcoholic. A simulacrum of wine, it reminds me of the the paintings and carvings of pineapples you find in old churches that were made by people who'd only ever heard of them. Similar but oh so different. On the palate it's as if the wine knows how poor it is as it disappears, vanishing in an embarrassed flash.

Well onto the evenings blending. I started with a straight 50:50 and you know what it pointed towards a better wine, I could see how a plusher Merlot would have worked a treat, it'd have been like the austere priest straight out of seminary college putting on love handles as he settles down to village life. It wasn't though. The Jacob's Creek was so thin and unprepossessing that it just added nothing, maybe it diluted the Chianti a bit, shit I'm clutching at straws here.

Result. I've given up, I'm cooking with the Jacob's Creek and saving the rest of the Chianti for when I've got something better to ameliorate it with.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Enira or the benefits of cellaring

I'm not the greatest when it comes to placing events correctly in my own personal timeline. I tend to joke that there's been too much wine under the bridge for me to be expected to remember exactly where and when things actually took place. Really, I think I'm just not that great an observer, I tend to enjoy the moment and move on, I think it's the same reason why I'm a terrible photographer, I just don't observe things in that sort of way.
Digression aside, I opened a bottle of 2005 Enira, Stephan Von Niepperg's Bessa Valley, Bulgarian red. It'd been relaxing in my cellar for probably the last five or six years, though to be honest I can't for the life of me remember when I bought it. I can remember where, Caversham Waitrose, it was £15 or £16ish a bottle but on some sort of discount 20% off if one bought 6 or more. I think I bought 6. As always with wines that have aged well, I'm raging that I didn't buy 12 (or 24). Anyway, at the time I knew the mighty Stephan Von Niepperg, the man single handedly rescuing the reputation of cravats and pristinely matched tweed suits. I'm kidding, Clos de L'Oratoire, D'Aguilhue, all the right bank goodness, a bit modern in style but never too garagiste. So seeing a bundle of the man's Bulgarian kit on deal I pounced.
So Enira is resolutely non Bulgarian in its blend, Bordelais varieties, if memory serves a little bit of Syrah, it's firmly Thracian a little way to the East of Plovdiv (Plovdiv, a playground insult if ever there was one) and has classic clay on limestone terroir (or Argilo-Calcaire if you're trying to chat up a French enologiste).
Moving on from recollections and digressions (shit I googled) pertaining to the region etc, the wine itself was showing pretty darn well, sweet clove-spiced jammy fruit, liquorice, beautifully sexy oak integration, a touch of liquorice tinted red fruit. A sort of liquid black forest gateau by way of a Damascene spice market. Being picky it was a touch hot, possibly the 14.5% showed a bit too obviously, but I'm not going to hold it against the wine. Incidentally I remember the early bottles as showing all sorts of dark inkiness and black olive notes married with a fullsome but supple palate.
Anyway, it's a timely reminder of the benefits of cellaring. Now I just need to find the cash to buy a couple of cases of the Zagreus Vinica... Fucking cash flow issues*

*alluded to in the previous post

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Method and Metaphor: A Special Sort of Pickle

CAT RIDING A NARWHAL (specially for Kerstin xx)

What is biodynamics? Over the last ten years or so, anyone with more than a passing interest in wine will have come across wines made from grapes farmed in accordance with Rudolph Steiner’s biodynamic agricultural principles. Delve a little deeper than the standard ‘more than organic' description, and you uncover a bafflingly esoteric world of lunar calendars, homeopathic dilutions of herbal teas, buried horns filled with manure, cosmic energy waves and, in some cases, the etheric Jesus on a journey through the varying levels of the earth and back. What is a rational, educated person to make of all this? A look at the creator of the theory goes some way to providing an answer. 

Rudolph Steiner was born in 1861 to educated parents in modern-day Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was a period of enormous upheaval, with new technologies and industrialization sweeping the population off the land and into the cities. In a relatively short period of time, central Europe witnessed the near-dissolution of the rural peasantry and the creation of an urban proletariat. Steiner, growing up amidst this maelstrom, was a talented student and quite conventional in many ways but he was also convinced that he was clairvoyant. His belief that he could commune with spirits and speak with the dead blossomed into a firmly-held belief that there was a deeper, unseen spiritual world underlying this one. 

Steiner took this curious brew of ideas to the Technical College in Vienna where he also found the time to attend lectures at the main university, providing himself with an introduction to philosophy, literature, medicine and psychology. He struck up a friendship with Felix Kogutski, who became Steiner’s muse and the inspiration behind his theory of biodynamics. Kogutski was a licensed herb-gatherer and, in Steiner's eyes, had a deep spiritual connection with the earth. 

Later in his life, Steiner was to describe how he had sought a philosophy that would touch on and embrace all aspects of peasant life: this was to be one of the central tenants of his concept of biodynamics. The other would emerge from the academic work of his formative years.

Steiner was a renowned scholar of Goethe, and began working on and editing the scientific papers of the German author. Goethe, while most famous for his literature and poetry, had maintained an active interest in science, pursuing detailed studies on the metamorphosis of plants. Goethe’s approach to biological science was holistic: he believed that the standard reductionist approach failed to take into account the complexity of interdependent interactions present in ecosystems.  Goethe spent many springs and summers walking in the Hochwald, studying plants, and looking for what he termed the ‘ur’ plant — the plant that would possess elements of all other plants within its form. He gradually came to realize that this plant couldn’t exist but rather that each plant represented both a whole in itself and an element of the greater whole. His final treatise on the subject is a beguilingly poetic piece of work that demonstrates a profound understanding of how plants grow. Steiner seems to have taken from Goethe the idea that a farm is a system of such complexity that a full understanding of its workings is never possible, but is something to be striven towards; that by constantly observing and trying to open oneself up to the subtleties of the natural world, a spiritual understanding can be reached. 

So, in Steiner we have an esoteric clairvoyant philosopher who has studied science, yet still feels a deep connection with the peasant traditions of the past: an interesting mix, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was late in life that Steiner was asked to deliver his lectures on agriculture. He looked back to the peasant lore that he had long held dear, and arranged it according to a system that owed much to Goethe’s approach to explaining the natural world. He brought this all together by drawing on his polytheistic spiritual beliefs — and so biodynamics was born.

What relevance does this have to modern agriculture, and why in God’s name are so many top winemakers adopting biodynamic practices? Firstly, the prevailing, reductionist understanding of agricultural ecosystems has caused an enormous number of problems. The discovery that potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are the key nutrients for plant growth led to the development of chemical fertilisers. This, in turn, led to a need for more irrigation — a bit like the way you get thirsty after eating lots of salty crisps — and thus to overgrown plants which, like bloated teenagers full of fast food and fizzy drinks, are more susceptible to pests and diseases (the pursuit of ever-larger monocultures did nothing to assuage the pest issue) and so pesticides and fungicides became a necessity. It didn’t take long before farmers were being told that to successfully cultivate the crops which had been grown in their region for hundreds of years, they needed to purchase a veritable pharmacy of expensive agrochemicals. Understandably, this caused many farmers to wonder about the alternatives. Nicolas Joly, a winemaker in the Loire Valley, is a prime example. He  first encountered biodynamics in the 1970s and subsequently embraced its principles on his family’s Savennières estate, Clos de la Coulée de la Serrant. He is now one of the world’s foremost advocates of biodynamics and has inspired many other winemakers to follow suit. “In biodynamics we are connecting the vine to the frequencies it needs: like tuning a radio, we are tuning the plant to the frequencies that bring it life. Organics permits nature to do its job; biodynamics permit it to do its job more. It is very simple.

Biodynamic practices can seem mystical and magical but in fact there is often a rational explanation. One of the most mocked practices is the burying of cow's manure in a fresh cow's horn over the winter months, supposedly while the earth is inhaling energy from the cosmos. It sounds less silly when you view it as burying manure in a partially permeable silica container over the cooler half of the year, allowing very slow bacterial decomposition and leaving stable and highly useable concentrated compost. Taking said compost and diluting it to homeopathic levels while stirring a certain number of times anticlockwise so as to energize the water before the preparation is used also seems to be verging on the batty. However, when making compost teas it’s important to ensure the water is hyper-oxygenated, as the anaerobic bacteria that can otherwise proliferate are pathogenic. The biodynamic focus on maintaining a high level of biodiversity in and around the vines does, in fact, lead to a much healthier vineyard. And the lunar planting calendar, while suffused with astrological nonsense, does make a degree of sense when you realise that a peasant would have put the rhythms of the earth at the centre of their routine. Indeed, all else would have been fitted in around these natural cycles. The lunar calendar, then, is a neat corrective to the desire to make the vineyard or farm follow modern human demands and routines.

I’m not going to pretend that I have exhaustively justified every practice advocated by Steiner, but there are enough that stand up to scrutiny to persuade me that the others may well do the same. Even if they’re not genuinely effective, at least they’re almost certainly harmless — something that can't be said about many conventional chemical practices. All things considered, the biodynamic method is one of the best currently available ways to look after a plot of land. 

There is an old Chinese proverb that states that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. It comes as no surprise to me that among my friends, it's the biodynamic growers - who know their vineyards inside out, and who speak of each vine as if it’s a member of their extended family - that make some of the very best wines I know.

Bargain debasement

It's early January and what with being skint and disregarding any sort of stupid dryathalon behaviour one is somewhat on the short side for decent Wednesday evening drinking (I'm justifying all this on the grounds that the en-primeur Burgundy tastings all start in a day or so). Hence Morrisson's finest (actually cheapest) ropey Italian wines being purchased to accompany dinner (steamed sea bream marinated in a ginger/garlic/oaxaca pasilla chilli paste/lime juice, herby brown rice, broccoli and spinach).
I'll level here, I've always been a bit fascinated with the more mass produced side of wine making. Yes I accept that it doesn't have the romance of single sites and uniqueness of terroir, but there's something quite honest about the intentionality of mass produced wines that I appreciate. They're there to be drunk, not savoured, at best they're going to provide a bass line of acid/minor fruit character to accompany whatever it is that you're eating, at worst they're potable liquid which engenders drunkenness (equally something I've never objected to). I think the lack of falseness is quite appealing, all too often there's a whiff of hypocrisy around fine wine where people pretend that the wine is so exquisite and unique that it's somehow divorced from its actual nature. It's not something to drink, it's something to worship, to extoll and to tweet/blog/crow the fuck about to everyone you happen to know who's got the slightest interest in wine. Yeah, trophy wife wines.
Well tonight, I'm not doing trophy wife wine. I'm going to risk the brick bats of the more righteous side of the internet by doing the opposite (not actually going to continue this metaphor).
Morisson's Italian White Wine. Yep, that's what it's called, 12% alcohol, it's made by C.V.S.C in Ortona, Central-East Italian coast) and that's about all I can tell you about it.
As for taste, it's pretty much a symphony in blandness, on first being opened there's a little CO2 spritz that keeps it a bit sharper than it probably is, the fruit is clean, there's a little bit of residual sugar. Beyond that there's pretty much nothing to say about the wine, hence my score of 9/10*
Following the not-as-ropey-as-I'd-expected-it-to-be white we come to the Morisson's Chianti. Now this is a bit of an extravagance at £4.49**. Oddly I'm finding this a bit of a personal marmite wine, on the one hand I'm quite impressed at how un-bland it actually is, there are some tarry notes, some slightly dried dark cherry notes, a little bit of raisininess, it's got some sharpness. Honestly it's drinkable and actually tastes of something, however it doesn't quite have the same beige accessibility that the white manages to rock. Also, there's something about the extra character that rather invites extra criticism, the alcohol doesn't really sit right on the palate, there's something a little bit fake about the whole thing. Also the wine apparently goes great with 'tomatoey pasta'***
It's odd, the wine is better, and yet if you're going to force me to debase myself with the bargain wines, it's the cheaper £3.99 Italian White that I'll be going back to (chilled to buggery mind).

* Score amended for suitability for Wednesday evenings in January when you're skint on account of its £3.99 price.
** Before you all complain, I'm well aware of the amount of wine that actually goes into bottles that cost £3.99/£4.49 on account of duty/tax etc.
*** See label. Be offended.****
**** I accept that there is a slight lack of consistency with my complaining about wine labels using non-words such as 'tomatoey' whilst happily seeding my own text with such atrocities as 'raisininess'. Well, I genuinely don't care at present so few people read this that I'm regarding any small measure of irateness that I may engender in a reader as being akin to a personalised birthday gift.

(ftr I decided to draw the labels as they were so shit, also it amused me)

Monday, 5 January 2015

Corner shop blending master class 1.0

We've all been there, Sunday afternoon 4.10pm, lack of preparedness that has meant that you've nothing to drink and Morisson's has just shut.*

This leaves one in what I call the corner shop quandary. Obviously the idea of spending a Sunday evening drinking tea and council pop is far too distressing to countenance, so we'll pretend it's was never proposed.

Any way, here we are, surveying the delights displayed at wherever your local cash and carry reseller's located. If you're anything like me you'll find yourself double flanked by rubbish, over-priced wines to the left and more expensive rubbish over-priced wines to your right. Barring the occasional corner shop gem in the dirt (I tweet them when i see them) you're stuck with it.

However, I believe I've discovered a solution. One I really ought to have divined far earlier (I'm blaming the ennui that hits upon the realisation that a corner shop wine trip is the only course of action), for this I can only apologise.

So without further ado I present: Plan of action for dealing with corner shop wine.

Firstly one has to mentally recontextualise the situation. You are no longer a sap buying cheap corner shop wine. NO. Now you're a flying wine maker. The bottles on offer are now the tools of your trade, the marble from whence your masterpiece'll emerge. See that 'Le Pressoir' Corbieres 2013, previously thin, green, over cropped Carignan. Perhaps best destined for the pot, but no, now it has new purpose. The perfect foil for the Castillo del Diablo Shiraz 2011 (confected black currents and fruit pastille chewiness), now, wed together they combine, shine and dazzle. What was previously green, hard tannin now adds underlying structure and savouriness to the simplistic one dimensional fruit of the Chilean Shiraz. Previously overtly plump fruit now delicately swaddles the pleasant acidity of the underripe Corbieres.

I may sound over excited, but I kid you not, this is the intellectual challenge of wine making repurposed for the corner shop generation. Whilst one's wary of sounding overly excited, it would be remiss of me not to finish thusly.

"Wine retail deprived residents of the world unite" "We have nothing to lose but our palates (assuming none of us has any allergies to excessively corrected acidity in our wines)"

* I appreciate that others may be better endowed with local major retailers but I'm not so you can fuck off with your judging my patronising of the North's favourite supermarket chain (as I'm lead to believe they are).

Friday, 21 November 2014


The taxi was taking me and the (then) kittens back from the vets while my charmingly (if a trifle unnervingly) loquacious driver was explaining to me the intrinsic fighting qualities of the Thracians. By his reckoning, the Thracians (a sort of pan-Balkan ancient ethnicity) were the greatest and hardest fighters, it was their genetic grit that took Alexander to the edges of the known world, and were it not for their failure to appreciate their obvious fraternity they'd have ruled Europe for millenia to come.
Now, for obvious reasons, I don't take taxi driver's wisdom as writ, but it did get me to thinking about how I draw arbitrary lines on maps when it comes to thinking about wines and where they come from. In modern times ancient Thracia is split between Greece, Bulgaria and Western (European) Turkey, which puts it firmly in my sights as a wine producing area.
The Greek part of Thrace is known as Drama, and without wanting to be overly dismissive is characterised by far too many people planting international varieties and making dull as dishwater wines for a supposed international market. Something I've precious little interest in. The Western Turkish parts seem to have some interesting things bubbling under, however the few tasting notes I written have been lost in the morass of my terrible hand writing and drunken organisation. So it's left to the Bulgarian representatives to fly the flag for interest, indigenous varieties and all round good drinking.
For some time now my house red has been a Mavrud made my the Zagreus winery (St. Dimitar), it's gloriously drinkable, all red fruits, friendly acidity and a little hint of something herbal to tease the palate into thinking another large glug is the most advisable course of action. The rest of the Zagreus family bears consideration as well; their Reserve Mavrud, while possibly possessing just enough new oak to be on friendly terms with deceitful flattery, is none the less a pretty decent wine. While the Amarone style Vinica Mavrud seems entirely content in its capacity to blow most other wines out of whatever water is being paddled in. However I'm going to overlook my tried and tested favourites (I'll elaborate more on them at a later date, probably after I get to learn a bit more about them from their winemaker) in favour of a terribly unprofessional whizz through a selection of sample bottles from Southern Bulgaria (one has to learn somehow).
Villa Yustina, Monogram (Mavrud, Rubin) 2010. A grower, initially I rather dismissed this as being all ripe fruit and cheap painter/decorator new oak, but returning to it made me think I'd been needlessly harsh in my initial criticism. While there is obviously some very modern winemaking afoot betwixt cork and bottle, there is none the less some pretty decent wine here. Darkish berried fruit (still obviously oak ameliorated) a touch of spice and some nicely balanced oak and grape tannins. My initial concerns that there was a spot of brett appear to have receded leaving me with a pretty sext, albeit mannered, dark cherry and black fruit scented red. It's a bit on the hot side, which stops the palate a bit early, but does have a decent lingering finish.
Orbelus, Melnik 2011. Also from the Southern Thrace valley this is early Melnik, which is also known as either Melnik 82 or 55 and is not as implied on the back label the same variety that was supposed brought to the region in 200BC by Thracians returning from the middle East, but is in fact a crossing of Shirok Melnishka with pollen from Durif, Jurancon Noir and Valdiguié, much less romantic I think you'll agree. However, ampelographical origins not withstanding this is a pretty decent wine. Slightly tarry with notes reminiscent of broken twigs, there is still a decent amount of dark cherry like fruit, mid weight with some slightly pedestrian tannins.
Aplauz, Melnik 55, 2011. Also from near the village of Melnik (where the crossings were made) which is in the hotter southern part of the country.
Dark, slightly earthy fruit nose, quite international in style. On the palette this is fuller bodied with some quite chewy if rough tannins. There's some big liquorice infused fruit characters and a slight anise like finish.
Villa Melnik, Bergule, Ruen 2011. Quite apart from very obvious puns about any visit to the winery surely being a road to Ruen, this was an odd one. Ruen is a cross between Sirovska Melnishka and Cabernet Sauvignon, and as with all these wines it's the first time I've come across it. Dark in colour with a nose that initially gave me some Beaujolais like impressions, before opening up to show some quite lovely strawberry characters. My one slight gripe was a very slight metallic note on the palette which made me wonder whether there was a bit of brett obscuring the fruit.

So Southern Bulgaria. So many crosses of Sirovska Melnishka. I'll be honest and say that I still don't really know what to make of the grape and its progeny. I can't work out whether I've actually tried any of the old original Melnishka (possibly called broad leafed Melnik as well). It seems to work reasonably well with oak (as does Mavrud), and I've certainly enjoyed my little exploration (though I reckon a visit to Thrace is going to be necessary to get properly under then skin of the region and its grapes).

Wines from Theatre of wine and Pacta Connect.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Macedonia (feel free to insert some sort of pun here)

I've had Macedonian wines on my radar for a while now. They're pretty much the heart of the Balkans (everyone has fought over them, and at least 4 countries regard Macedonia as being part of their ancestral lands - an essential part of being Balkan), and they make wine. What more could I want for my list. However, getting my hands on samples and a ready supply has proved harder than I'd hoped (one supplier has now failed to respond to four separate email requests for samples). So it was with some excitement that I reacted to John bringing me a bottle of Bovin Vranec from some North East London deli he'd stumbled across.
Bovin is in Tikves, one of the largest growing regions, it's pretty central and is the driest of the Balkan wine regions, with temperatures hitting 40 degrees in the summer and it being suitably far from the coast to avoid water regulated diurnal cooling I was expecting something pretty ripe and soft.
As it happened I was pleasantly surprised, the nose was elegant, if weighted towards some wild strawberry, creme de myrtle and bramble fruit. Palette wise it seemed a little disjointed, the acidity a little out, the tannins arriving in ever so slightly the wrong places, generally not quite there. That said it was very pleasant. Needless to say, I'll not be confident offering any sort of commentary on the wine and its intrinsic quality until I've had the chance to taste a lot more Vranec.