Archive - January, 2010

Sizzling steaks and beefy blokes

Simon Majumdar profile

I don’t claim to be a food ‘expert’ in any shape or form – whether as a taster or cook. However, I do enjoy good food when I am offered it, and especially when I have friends with me who know more about it than I do, and help me learn something about it.

I have met Simon Majumdar, one half of the Dos Hermanos crew, on a couple of occasions. Simon puts on what are probably the most stunning events I know of for bloggers such as myself, under the banner of “Dine with Dos Hermanos” (I strongly urge you to join their facebook group and read the blog to stay in touch with them).

… these guys are DEDICATED TO BEEF!

In the process of talking about wine and food matching at these events, Simon invited me to lunch along with another mutual friend, William Leigh – another accomplished foodie and writer.

Lunch was to be at Goodman, an American style steak house not far from Oxford Circus, and what a lunch it was. 4 ENORMOUS steaks of different provenance and different ages, cooked perfectly, and accompanied by a very nice bottle of Cahors from the wine list (Cahors is the home to the Malbec grape whose more recent incarnation as the ‘signature’ grape of Argentina is generally considered a great match for steak).

However, what really opened my eyes was when we were given a “behind the scenes” tour of the kitchen by Head Chef John Cadieux. Words are not enough to explain this, so thankfully I remembered to bring along my video camera! Do check out my short summary video as John explained the meat, the ageing, the grill and even the charcoal – these guys are DEDICATED TO BEEF!

The great news is that I can put my new-found expertise to good use in about a week when a group of us will gather in Goodman for “Blokes Eat Beef” – so do expect a lot more posts and photos about the food from others too.

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On paper, this is not such great value

I should first point out that I have never read any other Robert Parker book, magazine or web forum (beyond a few glimpses). I will readily admit that the part of the wine business that he normally focuses on, and they way he does it, have little allure for me.

Much as I love wine, and much as I’d love to drink mature quality wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Napa, and so on, I am not a collector of wine ‘experiences’ or points, and I have a limited budget I would rather spend on my family than on such wines. My interest in wine is much more cultural and prosaic.

So, when I was offered a copy of a new Robert Parker wine guide to review by the publishers, I almost automatically said “No!” However, I was intrigued by the title (and flattered to be asked), so I accepted on the basis that I wouldn’t guarantee to publish anything, … and I almost didn’t.

The guide arrived very quickly and I immediately started to leaf through it. Robert Parker’s “Great Value Wines” (seriously good wine at remarkably fair prices) does seem to be my sort of book in theory. Imagine having such a resource?! Great wines at reasonable prices (which means under £20). Superb shopping list ideas and a list of wines to recommend to friends looking for advice.

The country introductions are OK (short and generic), details about regions is limited or non-existent, but it immediately became obvious something BIG was wrong.

This book has a major flaw. It is a book.

Robert Parker has made a career, and considerable riches I’m sure, from minute assessment of wines that need to be tasted and retasted for every vintage and at different stages of their development, mainly so a certain part of the market, the investor, can decide on the ‘value’ of the wines without ‘wasting’ them by actually drinking them. Imagine!?

So, how can he possibly publish a book about specific wines that does not contain any vintage information? Each wine, listed by producer by country, sounds great, but has only one tasting note which apparently relates to any year it might have been made.

[update: don't get me wrong, I think vintage differences in modern and larger volume wines are overstated, but Mr Parker makes his living from this]

The problem, of course, is that this is a book.

It takes months to take a finished manuscript and complete the printing and distribution of a book so as to get it in the hands of consumers. If you are writing a novel that is not much of a problem, but if you are writing about wines that are available now, then it is. Today most wine available is ‘current vintage’ only. Unfortunately for book publishers, this has a tendency to move faster than they do.

Robert Parker is not alone in this as Matt Skinner admitted in November. Skinner was accused of having ‘recommended’ specific wines from vintages he could not possibly have tasted, for the same reason – they would be available when the book was published, not when it was written.

The ‘Great Value Wines’ solution was to include some generic sort of tasting note or description and remove mentions of any vintage, although the results are a little artificial (and peppered with evidence that these were, at one time, notes on specific wines).

If only … this were a website!

This book has the feel of someone’s tasting database, extracted, filtered, with the vintage field removed, and then printed. It lacks cohesion.

Unfortunately it was probably more useful and easier to navigate in a database format.

However, the same data, posted online, could be a great introduction to these wine. What the web could do is link thirsty consumers to pages that offer greater details and differences of each vintage tasted by Mr Parker and his colleagues, updated regularly, and from there to retailers, producers, bloggers, consumer reactions, etc. No need to reprint, just update.

Now THAT would be worth paying for.

Unfortunately I don’t think the paper version is. Sorry!

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Bibendum Annual Tasting 2010 – the Bibendum Times

Today I will spend the entire day in the company of around 2000+ wine professionals, 1000 different wines, 200 producers and, for the first time at such an event, maybe even hundreds of twitterers?!

I will do my best to bring you video, photos and tweets from the tasting, but Bibendum have created a very interesting site for Bibendum Times which will probably be the best place to see all the aggregate content being produced on the day.

Wish me luck and keep an eye on @thirstforwine on twitter!

Lulu Does England

As you would imagine, being a wine lover and living in the UK is great because we have access to great wines from all over the world. The UK is still one of the biggest, and most cosmopolitan, importers of wine in the world.

This situation arose, in part, because we didn’t have the climate to make the range and volumes of wines we wanted to drink. We simply HAD to go abroad to find it.

However, wine has actually been made in Britain for centuries, mainly thanks to the Romans I believe. What is more relevant, however, is that England today is becoming a great centre for the production of unusual whites (like Bacchus wines) and Champagne-like sparkling wines. Who nows what further warming of the climate will allow in future!

I don’t say Champagne-like lightly, because English vineyards are actually similar in many key ways to those of Champagne, they also grow the same main grapes (Chardonnay & Pinot Noir) and make the wines in the same ‘traditional’ way.

In fact many, including Nyetimber, regularly come above many famous French counterparts in blind tastings (as they just did again)

Now Stephen Skelton MW, a leading expert, consultant and educator on anything to do with English wines, has published his latest book on English Wines and Vineyards: UK Vineyards Guide 2010

What is doubly interesting is that it is only available via Lulu.com a self-publishing and on-demand printing site. It means copies are printed only for those interested in buying the book, so none are wasted just to be eventually pulped. It also cuts out certain intermediaries, allowing the author to have a bigger stake in the books success.

I like this business model a lot and hope it is successful because it provides opportunities for other specialist or creative writers to get their writing published. This is not an easy time to try and get a publisher to take on a book about wine.

Two or more very good reasons to check it out, I hope you agree.

The UK Vineyards Guide 2010
(ISBN 978-0-9514703-4-3)
Price £22.95 + postage and packing.
Available ONLY from: http://www.lulu.com (Ref: 7848482) or http://www.englishwine.com

Out with the Old and the New

My Fair Lady Dressed to Impress

Colonel Pickering: How do you do it, may I ask?

Henry Higgins: Simple phonetics. The science of speech. That’s my profession. Also my hobby. Anyone can spot an lrishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue … but I can place a man within six miles. I can place him within two miles in London. Sometimes within two streets.

from My Fair Lady (stage & screen)

An off-hand comment on twitter prompted me to think a little deeper about one of those ‘common knowledge’ aspects of the wine world, that there exists some sort of difference between the Old World and the New World. But what does that mean? More importantly, can it help?

It makes sense to group the sources of the wine we drink into easy to understand and separate groups – its shorthand for helping to make decisions. The simplest has always been “Old vs New” and by definition it is Old = Europe (& the Mediterranean) and New = the Rest of the World. But why?

It is meant to be about how old the wine making traditions are, of course, but even many ‘New’ countries have been making wine for around 300 years.

The question that prompted this soul searching was whether Japan should be considered an Old or New wine producer. China and Japan have very ancient wine traditions (of sorts), but they are not what we normally think of as “Old World”.

How does this Old & New dichotomy help anyway?

What it probably meant when it was first adopted was that the Old world made the wine we were used to drinking in the UK (and other wine drinking European countries) and the New world was the source of the ‘new’ wines; with ‘new’ ways of making them based more on science than tradition and ‘terroir’, and ‘new’ ways of marketing them.

If that is the case, it was probably true 30 years ago, but much has changed in that time. If you’ve ever heard stories about wine tasters that could identify a wine by region, grower, and vintage, (and possibly slope of vineyard, etc.) then many date back to this time. It is MUCH harder today. Henry Higgins would be hard pressed to apply his “scientific” approach to identifying the accent of a wine today!

Much of what was good about the ‘new’ science of winemaking has now been adopted in the ‘Old’ world wineries, and concepts such as terroir and artisan winemaking are making inroads in non European wine producers’ wineries too.

What it means is that the terms Old & New are not so much about WHERE in the world the wine is made any more. It makes more sense to think of them as HOW the wine is made.

It can mean that a wine from Europe is made in a ‘New World Style’ as some aspire to do, particularly in the South of France and Italy and parts of  Spain. It can mean that the history, sense of place, artisan wine making and vintage variation associated with ‘Old World Style’ traditional methods can also be applied to vineyards from beyond the borders of the Mediterranean.

In some ways this is justification rather than criticism for European  regions that apply ‘traditional’ rules strictly. You CAN see it as unnecessary restriction of wine making, stopping the more innovative wine makers from competing with those from other countries. However, you COULD also see it as a means of holding on to a style that differentiates the wines from all those in the rest of the world. Uniqueness sells … to a point.

The world has moved on. People, skills and techniques travel the world. I imagine Henry Higgins would struggle to replicate his neat parlour trick in today’s Covent Garden market, and the same is true of wine.

Old & New I think are still useful, but I think that they if they are used to describe styles rather than geographic boundaries, wine drinkers will find themselves opening the door to a whole new range of wines they might have otherwise dismissed.

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