Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why Champagne from chateaux is expensive

When faced with the champagne section of the alcohol aisle in your supermarket, you may start to wonder why there is such a price difference. So what makes some Champagnes more expensive than others?

Champagne is more expensive than a lot of other sparkling wines because:

  • Champagne method is more expensive than tank method
  • Champagne enforces strict rules on its producers, that other sparklings do not have to worry about
  • Using red grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) means grapes have to be picked by hand so as not to break the skins
Champagne from the Grand Marques (famous houses) is more expensive than other Champagne (e.g. supermarket bends) because:
  • Grand Marques tend to use the best part of the wine (the wash is thrown away, the cuvee is used, and the taille is sold to other producers)
  • Grand Marques ensure their cuvee (house blend) is absolutely consistent year on year
  • Grand Marques only produce vintages in very good years
  • Grand Marques employ remueurs to manage the bottle by hand, where others can use gyropalettes
  • Grand Marques age their wines to develop autolytic flavours, so they need to be able to store millions of bottles
Of course reputation plays a role, and some of the reasons above won't change the quality of the wine (e.g. gyropalettes are just as good as wiggling bottles by hand), but the higher price will no doubt give you higher quality wine. If you can't taste the difference then don't worry about it, buy what you like!

Oh and one more thing, Champagne house tend to keep about two years of wine in stock, as well as the bottles that are currently fermenting, so if you ever feel pressured to panic buy Champagne because the media say they will run out (as they did in the run up to NYE 2000), you should know they won't run out. Although I have it on good authority that Bollinger Rose NV always runs out!

The difference between Champagne and other sparkling wines

The main difference is where its from, but also the grape varieties used, and the method by which bubbles are put into the wine.

Champagne is from Reims (pronounced "Rams" but with a rolling 'R' and silent 'm' and 's') and Epernay in Northern France, and can only be labelled as such if its from the AC region. Only three grape varieties are permitted to be used in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier,and Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir adds structure and weight to the wine, Cardonnay brings finesse and elegance, and the Pinot Meunier provides the fruit. A 'Blanc de Blancs' is a Champagne made only from Chardonnay (white) grapes, and a 'Blanc de Noirs' is only made from the black grapes (Pinot Noir and Meunier). Even though red grapes are used for making Champagne, it is white because the skins are removed before pressing. It is very important not to break the skins while picking the grapes, so must be picked by hand which adds to the cost of the wine. Champagnes is the only AOC in France that allows mixing red and white wine to make rose (rather than maceration of red skins in the fermentation process. Champagne is dry with high acidity, medium body, and light alcohol. Its character is green and citrus fruit, which can be accompanied by autolytic flavours (biscuit and toast). 'Cuvee' will mean the house blend, which will taste the same year on year and comes from a mixture of grapes from a mixture of years, whereas 'Vintage' will mean all the grapes come from the same year and will only be produced in very good years. Vintages 2002 and 2007, particularly the former, should be bought now.

The Champagne Method (for a bottle to be labelled 'Champagne' it has to be done this way) is a double fermentation in the bottle, where the second fermentation follows disgorging (where the yeast from the first fermentation is removed by freezing the neck of the bottle, opening it and allowing the pressure of the CO2 to pop out the yeast) and dosage (topping up the bottle with wine and sugar). Other regions, such as Cava, use this method but must call it the Traditional or Classic method.

Cava is found in North-East Spain and uses local Spanish grapes and uses the Traditional Method. Cava has lower acidity than Champagne, because it comes from a warmer climate, so can taste a bit musty with its neutral fruit and sometimes pear flavours.

Cremant also uses the Traditional Method, but comes from Saumur in the Loire valley and is made from Chenin Blanc grapes. Cremant tastes very similar to Champagne and is a great alternative for getting the autolytic flavours (toast, biscuit) that Champagne is known for. It too has high acidity and green and citrus fruit flavours.

The Tank Method is used for making Prosecco, Asti and Sekt. Here, after the first fermentation, the base wine is sealed in a tank under pressure and dissolved CO2 causes the wine to bubble when opened. This method produces a more fruity sparkling wine.

Prosecco comes from North-East Italy and uses the Glera grape. It has medium body, is dry or off-dry and has stone fruit flavours. The best Prosecco comes from Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG. 'Spumante' means it is fully sparkling and 'Frizzante' means lightly sparkling.

Asti DOCG comes from Piemonte in Italy and uses the Muscat grape. This is a sweet wine with light body and peach and rose flavours. Asti is fully sparkling, but Moscato d'Asti has a light sparkle.

Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine. It is simple and inexpensive. Its character is medium-dry or dry, with light body and s floral and fruity.

English Sparkling wine can be very similar to Champagne, because they use the same grape varieties, and the grapes experience the same climate and soil conditions as in Reims. This is a growing industry with Nyetimber (my favourite), Chapel Down and Ridgeview being the biggest production houses. These houses are very protective of their wine, and Nyetimber didn't produce any 2012 vintage because the wine wasn't good enough. I'm pretty sure they must have sold their wine to other producers though, I'd guess to supermarkets, otherwise it'd be a waste and increase the price of their other vintages considerably.

You can also get sparkling wine in other regions of the world, with Australia producing a lot (French Champagne is too expensive to import), and they even experiment with Sparkling red wine, like a sparkling Shiraz, which can be sweet, but some producers make their dry, giving an interesting alternative to sparkling white and rose.

My advice is to try them all, see what characteristics you prefer and then go on taste rather than reputation. Let's not be snobby, lets just drink wine we like. My pick is Espa, always a winner and I'm helping the UK wine industry to grow.

Please drink responsibly!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

En Primeur and how to choose which wines to taste

I went to an en Primeur wine tasting hosted by Jeroboams recently and I was confronted with 70 wines. How do you choose what to taste? Unless you're a professional like Oz Clarke who wants to taste them all, it can be a daunting task if you're not sure what you're looking at.

First of all, what is en Primeur? En Primeur is when wine producers offer you the chance to taste wine while it is still in barrels before it has been bottled. This is a gamble, because the idea is that you get to buy wine cheaply now with the motivation that once it gets released it will be far more expensive. However, its not guaranteed it will develop well. I suggest if you want to try en Primeur that you go through a wine merchant, because you're pretty likely to bag yourself a bargain, as they will have selected the best producers to recommend to you. Tastings normally happen in November for Burgundy and Bordeaux. Rhone and Port en Primeur is becoming more popular, and other regions are likely to get in on the action in the future.

The Jeroboams 2012 Rhone en Primeur tasting was held at the Royal Thames Yacht club in Knightsbridge, London. Sixty-nine wines were up for tasting, although some were not available on the night, probably because the producers hadn't been able to get the wine to the merchant on time. The prices ranged from £65 for a case to £225 for six bottles, so quite a range.

I knew I wasn't going to taste them all, so how did I select which wines to try? En Primeur isn't like the sit-down tastings where a specialist guides you through the bottles. You need to know what you're looking for. I was given a catalogue, so I was able to have a look through and think about which might be interesting. The idea of trying almost 70 different wines from the same region might make you think "but can they really taste that different?" I wanted to pick a few that would stand out for quality and/or differentiation, but how? Of course if you're very experienced in wine you'll know all the villages, chateaus and possibly blends, but particularly in France its so hard to know them all.

Here are my tips:

  1. Look for villages that are best known, e.g. Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Southern Rhone and Crozes-Hermitage ad Cote-Rotie in Northern Rhone.
  2. Look for wines where several have been provided by the same producer and two/three of them to gauge the difference.
  3. Look for wines that have special belnds, for example, I tried a Cuvee Felix from Domaine Versino, guessing that "Felix" must be someone important to the winery and has specifically chosen this blend. This one in particular I found to be very well balanced and the advice from the server was that once I found a producer I should stick with it.
  4. Look for "Reserve" or "Grande Reserve" as even if it doesn't offcially mean anything for French wines, it will be the best produced by a particular chateau.
  5. Look for wines that are the same producer and same name but two different years, as this will give you something to compare.
  6. Look for "Vieilles Vignes" as this wine will have come from old vines, which produce more complexity in their grapes, which will develop with time. I tried the 2012 Cornas 'Granit 60' from Domaine Vincent Paris and I could immediately tell the highly pronounced nose. With time, I would expect a brown tinge to develop. This was my favourite wine on the night, and was only £240 (£20 a bottle),and I would expect it to fetch a very large price once its on the shelves.
  7. Look for wines that have interesting names. One I particularly liked was the Cornas 'Vin Noir' which definitely lived up to its name, with intense black fruit flavours and an inky consistency.
  8. Try to find out if any are limited release - it may not increase the value on taste, but it means you will get a batter deal, because once its on market it will be at a much higher price tag and you'll be less likely to be able to find it. These are best for investment, or to impress others at the dinner table.
  9. Try something you wouldn't expect, like white from Rhone, as they're only going to showcase their very best at an en Primeur tasting.
My final tip for tasting en Primeur, is don't expect it all to taste nice! This is because you have to remember it hasn't even been bottled yet. You need to find wines that have some fruit so you can expect it to develop with time, and a lot of tannins which will soften and add complexity to the wine. All sorts of drying out and acidic taste is actually what you're looking for... but you still have to like the wine.

Its a fun experience, so if you get the chance, you should try it. Use the spittoons or you'll walk out legless, if that's possible. Consider buying something - once you've paid now and can drink later you'll be really happy when your case arrives, especially as it will taste far better than you remember.

If you'd like to go to Jeroboams next tasting, its usually reserved for customers, but they will let the public come for £25. They also do tutored tastings in their cellars if you prefer to taste wines that are ready to drink now.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Champagne Antoine de Clevecy

Sainsbury's is offering 25% off six-bottle purchases of wine and champagne until 3 November, which means Antoine de Clevecy is only £9.75 a bottle B.A.R.G.A.I.N. Buy buy buy!

See my review here:

And read Decanter's article here for more champagne bargains:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why pay more for wine?

Simply because you'll be getting more wine for your money.

If you think about a bottle of wine, there are many costs involved before you buy it... The wine itself (growing the grapes, making the wine), and then there's the bottling, label design, transportation, storage, marketing, distribution and taxes, plus a load of other costs depending on what the business model for that wine is.

The part of the process that you, the consumer, appreciates most is the actual wine, the stuff in the bottle. So how much wine are you paying for? Here are some examples:

  • Spend £5 on a bottle and you are getting 20p worth of wine
  • Spend £7.50 and you are getting £1.66 worth of wine
  • Spend £10 and you are getting £3.13 worth of wine
  • Spend £15 for £6.04 worth of wine

Shocking isn't it?

This will of course vary depending on various factors including where the wine has come from (transportation or import taxes), to who is distributing the wine (direct will have lower fees than through the big wine & spirit companies, any middle men will add to the cost), to who sells the wine (you'll get more for your money from a wine merchant than from a big supermarket chain), but the figures can be used as a guide.

Thanks to @ozclarke and @Condor_Wines and @robersonwine for sharing.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Wine tastings in London

I go to a lot of wine tastings in London, mostly to try new wines, but its also fun to find out what different venues offer. Here's my pick:

The free one
Majestic. What a fabulous idea - free wine tastings to encourage you to buy their wine. It certainly got me in store. They run these maybe once a month, if you sign up to your local shop's emails, they'll let you know when. Or, if you want to simply pop in, they always have some bottles open for you to try.

The fun one
DVine Cellars in Clapham. £15-25, weekly. In the basement of the shop, there is a tasting table where Greg and Ollie hold tastings. They both know their stuff, and will tailor the tasting to the level of the audience. Interesting facts, informal, so you can ask questions freely, and friendly punters to share your stories with. Opportunity to buy a bottle to drink at the end of the tasting, chill out with your new friends.

The quick one
Sampler Islington or South Kensington £20, Sundays. At the back of the shop, Ben gives a whistlestop tour of a specific region or grape varietal. Chance to try something new that has already been picked out for you. and good for finding out what it is you like about a certain grape or region. You get 10% off any bottles that you have tasted if you want to buy after.

The formal one
Dorchester hotel £39, monthly. You are welcomed with an aperitif and canapes. Ronan gives a lesson on history, geography and geology. Then we get taken through a journey of around 10 wines with Masters of Wine. Good for learning as well as tasting, and they're not stingy on portions. And they really know what they're talking about and give good sommelier tips.

The luxury one
28-50 either in Marylebone or Fetter Lane, £40, monthly. Hosted by Xavier who has a CV that will make you cry (Head Sommelier at Le Manoir and founder of Texture). He set up this restaurant with Agnar Sverrisson to focus on wine. The tasting is very in-depth, and you get to taste some very expensive wines. I was in awe at this tasting and felt privileged to be there!

The indulgent one
Dvine Cellars wine tasting dinner. Price varies depending on menu - the one I went to was £75. Oh my. The menu was designed to match the wine rather than the other way around. Four courses of food (ceviche, ox cheek... fancy!), each with two wines. Then, as the producers were there (what an honour), they brought out the big guns at the end, expensive wines that hadn't even been bottled yet. These don't happen very often and are a jolly good night out. If you're keen, let Greg know and he'll get in touch for the next one.

The classic one
Antique Wine Company £95, or £65 through Stylist magazine/ Emerald Street. Nine wines, an hour and a half, served with a mouthful of matching food. You're greeted with a glass of champagne. Richard Hemming hosted the rose evening, and was a good teacher. It was a shame that Richard left early, and we weren't left to finish the open bottles. Even though I emailed my seafood allergy when I booked, but all dishes contained seafood and they hadn't thought to provide an alternative.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Firmint Royal Tokaji 2010

What a lovely refreshing dry wine from Hungary. The grape Furmint is rarely found outside the country. Lovely alternative to Sauvignon Blanc I'd say.

Very dry white wine with high acidity. Quite a lovely mix of flavours: gooseberry,  honey, wet stone, and deciduous leaf. Light with interesting flavours, a great summer wine, and I'm drinking it on the hottest day of the year. Wonderful!

I'm imagining sitting in the shade of trees near a brook on Dartmoor.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

M&S Rioja for £8

I was going to buy a beautifully oaked Rioja as I'm missing Spain. The bottle I was going to buy was a Reserva at £13, then I thought, no I have to think like you, needs to be cheaper. So I went for the Crianza at £10, but then this non-Reserva, non-Crianza Rioja at £8 caught my eye.

It's far better than I was expecting. It does have some vanilla-oak flavour that I was craving. Although it has quite short length it is rather tasty. I think the Syrah helps balance the temperanillo. I recommend you try a bottle... What have you got to lose?

Well hey, it's a good choice for those of you who like rounded reds with lots of black fruit and something totally drinkable, no effort or wine knowledge required!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Wine in Barcelona

I've just had an amazing four-day trip to Barcelona, and of course tasted some delicious wines while I was there...

The fist night I started with a garnacha (grenache) rose. It was a Castillo de Javier from from Navarro region.  I was in the restaurant Celler de la Ribera, which had inoffensive food, and this rose was very dry, some raspberry and cherry fruit, but was a little tart.

We wanted to go to La Vinya del Senyor, which I had been to on several previous trips to BCN and know them to serve delicious local wines, but it was far too busy, there wasn't enough room for us to stand.

So instead we went to Bastaix around the corner. They serve Catalan food here, so looked like an interesting menu (not just jamon, manchego, and patatas bravas for the tourists like they serve everywhere else). Our waitress Marina explained Catalan food is much healthier than Spanish food, but tourists rarely get to try it. The wine here is divine. They have several bottles open at a time so you can have a glass of a very good wine, not just "una copa vino tinto" in this restaurant! Our recommendation was to have the Portal by Pinol from Terra Alta (in Catalonia of course!). This wine was amazing, you could tell just by the aromas that this was going to please the palate. Dry, lovely rich black fruits, with a balanced tannin/acidity to give complexity and ensure the lovely flavours stay in your mouth a while longer. This winery uses French, American and Hungarian oak to develop the flavours, using a multitude of varietals - this wine was made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Tempranillo, Merlot and Syrah.

On the last night, in Matamala, I had quite a pleasing wine called 2piR from Priorat. As the name suggests, this is intended to be a round wine, and it was indeed a good all rounder - balanced, flavoursome, and easy to drink, probably due to the number of varietals selected for this wine. However, after some of the other delicious wines I had tasted, I felt it was lacking oak depth.

TIP: When you visit a wine region, be sure to try local wines. The people will be happy to give recommendations, and they will be delighted you want to try local produce. And I don't mean just drink Rioja when you're in Spain, try to find local local wines, like I tried to dig out Catalonian wine in Barcelona. The difficulty will be finding local haunts that will give you the good stuff by the glass.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why Malbec is good value for money

I'm drinking a tasty Malbec and thought I'd share some knowledge on this classy wine.

The Malbec grape was originally grown in Bordeaux, until the phylloxera wiped it out. Phylloxera is an aphid that wiped out many grape varieties in Europe in late 1800s, which you hear about all. the. time. when you learn about old world wines. It is now still found in Cahors in SW France, but thrives in Mendoza in Argentina. If you're not a Malbec expert, then Mendoza is the region you will most associate with Malbec - and that's a great place to start!

I also just happen to be reading Nathalie McLean's book Unquenchable which also has a chapter on Malbec, so I'm stealing some points from there too...

Both Chile and Argentina produce wines that are well-priced for the quality. They have warm climates (so better crops), cheap land and cheap labour costs, often making theses wines much cheaper than wines from Napa, Tuscany and Bordeaux.

Malbec is a dark tannic wine, that can look inky, but goes very well with steak

TIP: Argentina is hot and dry, which can be difficult to produce good wines. If you want a more structured Malbec, look for high altitude, you'll find more complex flavours and higher tannins. 

Some producers mix high altitude with low altitude (the Andes range from 1200-10,000 feet) to make a blend, similar perhaps to the Merlot-Cabernet blends you find in Bordeaux. One brings the fruit and flesh, the other structure and tannin. I like that this grape can be so versatile.

The wine I'm drinking tonight is inky, has high tannin and tastes like tar, violets and boysenberries. It's called VinAlta from M&S for £8. It's good. It's a shame its not been aged in oak though, I prefer those Malbecs which are far rounder with lush caramel flavours. But oaking the wine probably would have pitched it over the £10 mark.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to choose an Aussie red wine

The key to choosing and Aussie wine, and indeed many wines, is identifying location, location, location.

In Australia, there are eight main regions for red wines, two cool, two warm and four hot. You need to remember that each region will focus on the grape variety that grows best in the climate/ soil/ water conditions, but they may bottle other grape varieties too. The trick is to choose the region that is best for the grape:

Yarra Valley - Pinot Noir
Mornington Peninsular - Pinot Noir

Margaret River - Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot
Coonawarra - Cabernet Sauvignon
Heathcote - Shiraz

Hunter Valley - Shiraz
McLaren Vale - Shiraz
Barossa - Shiraz

So if you're looking for a more delicate wine, or a wine with low tannin, the red fruit in Pinot Noir from Yarra or Mornington might be to your taste. These wines can also be served slightly chilled if you're looking for a refreshing drink for warm summer evenings. You may even enjoy the Shiraz from Heathcote which should be more refined than a "normal" Shiraz due to the lower temperature.

However, Aussies are known for their BIG reds...

If you like something with complexity (a variety of flavours) and higher tannins, I'd say try one of the Cab Savs from Margaret River or Coonawarrra. One thing I love about Cab Sav from Australia that you don't get in the rest of the world is the flavour of eucalyptus, which gets picked up from the soil and air as the eucalyptus trees expel their oils. It makes these wines fantastic for anything that has red meat and mint/ rosemary/ thyme. The wine has high tannin which is good for steak and roast or grilled meat, and the eucalyptus matches the herbs. Top match for a roast lamb, lamb chops, or even Lebanese/ Greek kebabs.

My favourite Aussie red is a Shiraz. Yum. Big fat blackberries. Alcoholic Ribena. Telly wine. Easy drinking, no food required, warms you up and goes down a treat. Most should have a lovely spicy finish, peppery. I would always recommend a Shiraz from Barossa as a starting point, you can't go much wrong. If you're not a connoisseur then price will mostly make the difference of how long the flavour, and bottle, will last. It's a good idea to drink a Barossa Shiraz slowly as the warm climate tends to encourage a greater alcohol content. Boozy!

TIP: The longer-lasting the flavour of the wine, the longer it takes for the flavour to disappear, and the longer between sips. You/ I/ we tend to take sips more frequently with short-lasting wines.

If you are a connoisseur, then I recommend you move on from Barossa Shiraz and try Barossa Mourvedre, an element in GSM (something everyone should try), and very delicious in its own right. These wines go great with mushroom, veal, beef, pasta, BBQ, duck with cherry jus... or on its own.

You can really get carried away with Barossa wines, I certainly do, as I bought a case + 3 bottles of a wine that isn't available yet + a magnum that cost £100 at the Hewitson & Elderton wine dinner at DVine cellars a few weeks ago. so the best tip I can give you is that so long as the label says "Barossa" on it, it will be a good quality wine. If it says "South Eastern Australia" it won't be a bad quality wine per se, but it means the producer has taken grapes from all over Australia to make the blend. This ensures their wines have consistency, and therefore more reliable (once you find a wine like this you love, you can buy it over and over again, and that's what the big guns are aiming for), but it means they don't have to pay attention to the wine when they make it, and that's what's special. "Barossa" on the label might make the starting price higher, but you can stay low without risking quality.

TIP: If you like big Aussie reds, look out for "Barossa Shiraz" on the label.

My favourite Aussie red is Rockford Rod & Spur Cab Sav & Shiraz. Tip top wine.

If you want to look for an easily identifiable brand, you can't go wrong with Wolf Blass Yellow Label. It doesn't say "Barossa" on the label but it does say "South Australia" and all the Shiraz vineyards I listed above are in South Australia, so its good enough.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Burgundy basics

I had a great time at the Burgundy wine evening at The Dorchester, and it made me realise that there really is a lot to learn about the region (Bourgogne in French). I thought I'd share the basics. Picking a Burgundy wine that you know you'll like can be very difficult, so hopefully this will help.

A white Burgundy is normally made with Chardonnay (if it's not 100% Chardonnay it will say so on the label) and a red Burgundy is normally a Pinot Noir (and sometimes also Gamay, although this is usually found in Beaujolais, and has been banned from Northern Burgundy).

Chardonnay can be affected by many factors (its know as the tart of grapes), it can take on character of the earth it is grown on (also known as terroir), and its flavour can change through techniques like aging in oak and malolactic fermentation (which creates the creamy, buttery flavour), which means it can vary greatly.

Pinot Noir is a light red wine with low tannin and red fruit flavours. If you're not keen on red wines that dry out your mouth, stick to Pinot Noir (or a Beaujolais). Pinot Noir is very difficult to grow, it requires specific growing conditions, so it can be temperamental, and a good one hard to find.

Another difficulty with Burgundy is that it is divided up into many small plots due to the Napoleonic law, where a vineyard is split up into equal parts to the owner's offspring when they die, which still continues today (unless the vineyard is owned by a company). This means that there are many producers all trying to make their mark in an overcrowded marketplace. Plus wines from Burgundy villages can sell for a higher price even if they're rubbish wine, just because of the name.

My WSET instructor taught me that finding a good burgundy is like kissing a lot of frogs to find your prince. And they can be expensive frogs. The trick is to learn by producer, once you find one you like, you'll probably like other wines they make.

What to choose:

  • If you like light and mineral whites, choose a Petit Chablis (cheaper than a Chablis but still very good)
  • If you like a bit more body in your whites go for Cote de Beaune (Mersault is my favourite but can be pricey)
  • If you prefer tropical fruit flavours try Macon (good tip is Les Enseigneres, a cheaper version of Montrachet)
  • For reds, I would go for Cote de Nuits every time

Monday, June 17, 2013

Princess & the Pinot - Tatty Devine in Selfridges

I love my new necklace from Tatty Devine in Selfridges!

Dorchester Burgundy Wine Evening

With Ronan Sayburn and Gearoid Devaney

I love going to wine tastings, I love to see how different people/places pitch themselves, and at what level. So should you bother going to the Dorchester wine evenings? I think if you know quite a bit about wine, and want some more technical info, if you want to learn about the region and varieties, while being served high quality wines, and lots of them, for £39 then this is a great call! It is quite a formal atmosphere, which you'd expect from the Dorchester.

At the Burgundy evening we tasted 11 wines, and canapes were served (although rather high end - smoked salmon and foie gras isn't to my taste, so I stuck to crackers). Maps, geology and history lessons pursued, which were very interesting, but did mean the tastings were a little rushed. It was wonderful tasting wines side by side, but it became difficult to keep track of which were which (perhaps a tasting mat would have helped). I think also being in a spacious suite meant people started their own conversations and lost the thread of the tasting. Above all, however, I was very impressed by the quality of the wines that were presented, and that the presentation was delivered by two highly renowned Master Sommeliers, who clearly knew their stuff. Plus there was no hard sell, the purpose of the evening for them is for us to taste and learn, and create a more positive association of The Dorchester with good quality wines.

This one is very good value for money, so I recommend you go soon before they increase the price, which they no doubt will once this tasting evening becomes established. Maybe I'll see you at the Californian session.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Badger challenge #10

So we finally got around to tasting the tenth bottle of our challenge we set last year.

Villa Maria Gewurtztraminer
Lime, mango and honeysuckle on the nose.
Sharp, bitter coriander and lemon flavours.
Barry said it was "not as interesting as a normal G."
Probably because he chose a New Zealand one and had forgotten.
It's not an unpleasant wine, but not fabulous.
We scored it 3/5 for quality and 3/5 for likeability.

So how does this compare to our other challenger wines?

I chose:

  • Fleurie Georges deBoeuf £10.99 = 9
  • Barista Pinotage £8.74 = 7
  • Gestos Malbec £8.99 = 6
  • Black Cottage rose £12.49 = 6
  • Arca Nova Vinho Verde £7.99 = 6
Badger chose:
  • Shortlist Cabernet £14.99 = 8
  • Brown Bros Muscat £7.99 = 7
  • Dom de Mercey beaune £9.99 = 7
  • Villa Maria Gewurtztraminer £9.99 = 6
  • Nero d'Avola £6.99 = 5
So I won the challenge, thankfully, but the more important lesson to learn here is that even within a restricted price range, price paid isn't the best indicator of quality or likeability. For us the Fleurie was the best value, and we've bought more since, and found it works as a great present or to bring to parties.

If you want more tips on how to choose the wine YOU like, let me know what you like and I'll post some things to look out for on the label when you're buying wine.

Please drink responsibly!

If you want to see how we created the challenge, how we scored our wines and/or want to create it for yourself, please follow this link:

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How to bluff your way to buying a good deal on Rioja

So, Rioja is one of those easy wines. Easy as in easy-drinking, easy to find on the shelves, easy to take to a diner party, easy to find at a cheaper price point... but is it too easy? Most of the time, for a Rioja, I used to just pick one - what does it matter, they're all roughly the same, right? Wrong.

There are four levels of Rioja

  1. Rioja (youngest, with less than a year in oak)
  2. Rioja Crianza (aged for at least two years, with at least one year in oak)
  3. Rioja Reserva (aged for at least three years, with at least one year in oak)
  4. Rioja Gran Reserva (aged for at least two years in oak, and three years in the bottle)
Oak ageing increases the complexity of the wine, making it more interesting to drink  more flavourful and more enjoyable. The oak adds flavours of vanilla, toffee and/or coffee. So you're looking out for a Reserva or a Gran Reserva. It may not say it on the front of the bottle but as producers can charge a premium for it, you will see it somewhere, maybe the neck or back-label.

Rioja is a region in Spain where the grapes are grown. Within Rioja there are three regions within it:
  1. Rioja Alta (high altitude, creates lighter wine, old world style)
  2. Rioja Alavesa (hgh altitude, but fuller body wine)
  3. Rioja Baja (lower altitude, so full colour wine with high alcohol, new world style)
Of course it can be down to taste as to which you'd prefer, but lets think about this on a practical scale. In Rioja Alta, a Gran Reserva is likely to cost around £40, but a Gran Reserva from Baja you can get for £10. The reason being is that the vines in Alta must be hand-picked because the rows of vines are grown close together on a steep aspect. Rioja Baja is machine-picked which means the wine can be produced more cheaply, which gets passed on to you and me. 

So to enjoy the full oak flavour of a Gran Reserva and you want to stick to your £10 budget, look for Baja. If you want less alcohol, then go for Alavesa. If you want fancy-pants then buy an Alta. It may not say baja on the label, but I wouldn't worry, if you're buying a Gran Reserva at a £10 price point, it won't have come from Alta!

Heres the delicious wine I tried at the Majestic summer tasting last week, Torre Aldea Gran Reserva Rioja

If you like more subtle oak flavours, then look for a Crianza. Again, if you go for Baja, you'll be tasting plums, spices and vanilla. For my hen do I did a blind tasting, and had a Baja wine for the first time, I was convinced it was a Shiraz, and told the sommelier so, even argued that he had poured the wrong bottle, but in fact it was a delicious Rioja. So now I know, and so do you. This tasting was at Ten Green Bottles in Brighton and the Rioja was a David Moreno Crianza 2009.

If you want more tips on Rioja, or tips for another wine, please write a comment and let me know!


I went to Pizzeria on the Green for my sister's birthday, a great and cheap restaurant in Clapham, and we had to choose a white wine because my sister has braces, so we tried a Verdicchio. It was a refreshing Italian white wine, which tasted of bitter lemon and chamomile. When we got back, I check my WSET notes, and amazingly it said: expect flavours of lemon peel, fennel and bitter almond. It was a great middle ground, and I found it delicious, although the bitter lemon gives it complexity which can also be challenging, but it worked with pizza! The one we had was Fazi Battaglia. It even comes with a cute little map and story (in Italian) attached to the neck of this unusual shaped bottle.

And by the way the pizza there is delicious!!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wine on Mondays

Great way to start the week, and now even better!

Planet of the Grapes on Bow Lane is a bar/shop. Normally you can buy a bottle from their shop and then pay a £10 corkage fee to drink in their lovely bar. To increase traffic on Mondays they've dropped their corkage fee. So you can buy a shop price bottle of wine for say £20 and drink it for £20. Bar prices are normally 2 or 3 times the price, so its normally a good deal anyway, but this is even better.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Le Clos d'un Jour, Cahors 2008 is made from 100% Cot. I bought this bottle from The Sampler. And it cost £20.

It is deep ruby in colour, has medium acidity, med tannin, and notes of tar, black fruit, black currant leaf, clove, coffee. I would say this is a good quality wine due to the complexity of flavours.

Cot is the Malbec grape, simply known as Cot outside Bordeaux, and in Cahors, it is also known as Auxerrois. There are many local synonyms, since Malbec at one time was widely planted in nearly every area of France. Sensitivity to frost is the primary reason Malbec has declined in France. However, Malbec is the dominant red varietal in the Cahors area. The Appellation Controlée regulations for Cahors require a minimum content of 70%.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Beaujolais Nouveau

This weekend I tried Beaujolais Nouveau for the first time. Ever since learning about it I have wanted to try it, but it’s only available for a short time in the year, as it is released the third week of November and should be drunk immediately (within 3mths).

Traditionally, BN was drunk by the local vineyards as a celebration of the end of harvest. The rules of the region (AOC Beaujolais) meant that historically Beaujolais were only allowed to sell their wine after 15 December of the harvest year. Then in 1951 they relaxed those rules, so the wine released before this date is called Nouveau. Georges Du Boeuf (whose Fleurie I gave tasting notes on a few months ago), and some other producers saw the potential in marketing BN. By getting these bottles out quickly they could sell table wine at a premium, and by selling it early helped with their cash-flow. It was heavily promoted in the 1970s, I’m thinking a Parisian version of Abigail’s Party, and although the celebration of the release has died down a little, the production and marketing continues with fun, novelty and celebration. It is quite popular in the US where it is promoted as a Thanksgiving wine.

The wine is very young and therefore fresh, bright and a little “un-ready”, one wine critic compared it to eating cookie-dough. I tried one from M&S (who say their sales of BN are increasing every year). I found that the texture of the wine dried out my tongue, even though it has no tannins, having the same effect as drinking black tea. It tastes of rosehip tea, Parma Violets and pear drops. It’s very thin and a little sharp, and sits at the top of your mouth. It’s bright pink-purple and you can pretty much see through it.

If you fancy trying it, which I would recommend, even if only once, look for it at the end of November, and watch for the brightly coloured labels, it’s the opportunity for the reserved French winemakers to go a little “fiesta”! 

Beaujolais: a region in France that is AOC and produces light, fruity red wines using the Gamay grape
AOC: Appelation d'origine controlee, which means the wine has strict rules and regulations that the winemakers must abide by
Fleurie: One of the AOC villages in the Beaujolais region

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I didn't point out in my Italian post that you need to be aware of the difference between Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Montepulciano Vino Nobile. The former is named after the grape and is the juicy, jammy red that's almost alcoholic Ribena. The latter is made from Sangiovese grape (as in Chianti) and is named after the location in Tuscany. I prefer the d'Abruzzo, but to be honest you shouldn't be disappointed with either.

Friday, January 18, 2013

So what do I think about Bulgarian chardonnay?

Peach Garden 2011 12% from M&S <£10 Bulgaria

I've not tried much Bulgarian wine before, if at all, but I have been keeping an eye out for more unusual wines on the high street, and when I saw this in M&S I had to buy it!

Well, the flavours are nice, warm fruit, white peach, lychee, is that chamomile? There is a slight bitterness - walnut? No, hazelnut. And very strangely (maybe this is a feature of Bulgarian wine) I taste no apple. They say, if you ever go to a wine tasting and the instructor asks what you can taste in a white wine you should say apple, because there's always apple. Not in this one!

It's very light. And when I say light I don't mean what the label means by "light" (not much flavour, could be a little acidic), it almost flutters on your tongue.

It's short in length,probably due to its low acidity (note: Acidity prolongs the flavour in your mouth because your mouth produces saliva that keeps the taste going for longer).

This wine makes me feel very tall (and I'm not even wearing heels today, wearing wellies for the snow!), like you're reaching for the sun in the sky. Feels like wearing stilts - really enjoying yourself, but it doesn't feel quite right.

This is a great wine to try if you're an ABC (anything but chardonnay).

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Italian wines

Before I started my WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) course, I "didn't like" Italian wines. That is to say I knew very little about them other than Pinot Grigio which I find tasteless, Chianti which I find a little bitter, and Valpolicella which is sour. Now I love them, purely because I know what I'm buying. There are lots of varietals and regions to learn, probably why we don't know much, and they're wrongly seen as "less good" than French wines, which often means you get better value for money. Here are a few you should try...

Hannibal Lecter infamously drank Chianti with liver and fava beans - not a bad choice as it happens! Chianti is made from the Sangiovese grape, which is high in body, acidity and tannin, has plum, earth, tomato and tea flavours. I would suggest this if you like Cabernet Sauvignon and  Bordeaux wines. I'm not saying they taste the same, but should appeal to a similar palate.

If you like Pinot Noir, may I suggest you try the Nebbiolo grape, either in the form of Barolo or Barbaresco wines. Nebbiolo has high body, acidity and tannin, and has red fruit, floral and earthy flavours that might be enjoyed by a Pinot-phile (I've just re-read this and noticed how dreadful that sounds!!). Be aware though, a Barolo can be quite full-on, a "meal wine", and is best enjoyed with (or instead of!) food .

If you love Shiraz, particularly Australian Shiraz, then I would strongly suggest you try Primitivo or Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Both are rich in black fruits, the former with jammy notes and the latter with black pepper and raisin. Yum! (NB. Primitivo is the same family as Zinfandel, but don't let that put you off!)

For white wines, don't bother with bland Pinot Grigio or Soave, instead try something more unusual with a Castelli di Jesi (Verdicchio grape - lemon, fennel, bitter almond) or a Gavi (Cortese grape - citrus, candied fruit). Oh and one thing to remember,  don't buy Trebbiano - this is a mass-produced grape that is used for making cheap blends! The way I remember this is its the white grape with two Bs, for Bad Blends.

Look for DOC or DOCG on the label, this means it comes from a quality wine-producing area.

Quick note on Italian sparkling wines: Prosecco is a good alternative to Champagne, although will have less complex flavours, because it is made using the Tank method. "Spumante" means its fully sparkling and "Frizzante" means its lightly sparkling. The best Prosecco is, apparently, Conegliano-Valdobbiadene DOCG (I have yet to try this).

How to choose cheap wine

Happy 2013!

I have the flu, so haven't posted since the new year, and I suspect people are detoxing after the holidays, so I thought I would give a few simple tips for buying cheaper wine.

  1. If you have a red and a white at the same price point (and have no preference), go for the red as its easier to make red one (white requires more balance of acidity and flavours are more delicate).
  2. If you're buying in a restaurant or bar, and you think the establishment cares about its wines,go for the house wine, this should have been selected to represent their values at a reasonable price. But be sure to check prices for glasses vs bottle, as I recently found two restaurants in London were charging more per ml for the bottle than for glasses, as I suspect they had found many people say "oh lets get a bottle", either that or the people writing the prices on the menus were idiots!
  3. Don't buy discounted wines in the supermarket. They have false deals that make you believe the wine is worth more, but it isn't. Take the deal price as the representation of quality.
  4. Have a price in mind when going in store, have a look at the wines at that price point, but don't be afraid of spending £1 more, for cheaper wines, £1 can make quite a difference in quality.
  5. French wines can be really differentiated, so it might be safer and cheaper to go for an Italian wine (see my Italian wine blog post for tips). My favourite wines at the moment come from Chile and Luis Felipe Edwards have some really great wines at cheaper price points. Winemakers in Chile are trying hard to break the global wine market so you can get some cracking value for money.
Hope this helps!!