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Its about wine, naturally

I just spent an enjoyable afternoon learning about “Natural” wines with Kathryn O’Mara of Artisan & Vine and in the pleasant company of Denise Medrano (aka The Wine Sleuth) and Andrew Barrow (of Spittoon.biz).

Natural wine, according to Kathryn, are ones truly ‘made in the vineyard’. Whilst many winemakers might make this claim, Kathryn has selected wines that take this to the extreme. Kathryn’s challenge was to dedicate her wine bar to selling wine with a truly unique story and a dedication to their source.

Artisan & Vine’s wine list is made up almost entirely with wines that are organic or biodynamic, made in small volumes, with indigenous yeasts, many would no sulfur added (others with the smallest amount at bottling), and all of them by winemakers who she feels really believe in making the best wines possible.

If that is gobbledygook to you, don’t worry, it is for most people, including the wine trade. Essentially, these are wines made with the minimum of “extra” anything – just crushed grapes and nature. Most wines, like any other product, are made with certain additives that help to control the process and ensure a consistent outcome. That’s good for the consumer (you get ‘proper’ wines every time) and the winery (they ensure they have wines to sell). However, there are some who feel that this changes the wine and that if you want to taste the real flavours of the grape, the region and of nature, then you must limit ANY manipulation. In general, that’s just bonkers (we’d never have enough wine of an acceptable quality).

However, whilst one can argue the case for wineries in general to be more consumer-focused and aware of wine drinkers preferences around the world, the world would be a poorer place without dedicated mavericks challenging those tastes and broadening our experiences. So it is with wine bars.

The highlights of the tasting for me were the rich Pouilly-Vinzelles, La Soufrandiere 2006 (a Chardonnay from Burgundy), and Clos Milan 2001 from Baux de Provence (a blend of Grenache and Syrah). What amazed me was the concentration of the flavours, yet a very clean finish. Maybe there is something to this ‘natural’ wine after all?

The other wines were also full of personality, amazingly different, and really made me want to explore them further. These were highly unusual wines, such as the Tir a Blanc, Le Casol de Mailloles (which reminded me of wild flowers and cider) and the Contadino #5 (ripe berry flavours, smoky, pungent and something distinctly ‘volcanic’ – it is grown on Mount Etna). Whilst I may not recommend these to everyone, they are something you need to try if you like wine and want to expand your horizons.

That is what I look for in a wine list.

The pricing is fair, though not necessarily cheap, with reasonable mark ups for better quality wines. I encourage you to make the trip to St. John’s Hill, Clapham, SW11 and explore them yourself.

So, …

Q: Do I think most wine drinkers care whether their wine is “Natural”?
A: No!

Q: Do I think most wine drinkers care whether they buy wines from passionate people, made by people who are truly committed to their wines?
A: Yes!
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Not everything that sparkles is a luxury good

Vinho VerdeA couple of days ago I attended a tasting of Vinho Verde wines in the rather posh setting of The Royal Exchange by the Bank of England.

The Royal Exchange has a long history of being a trading floor, one where, presumably, merchants found great deals, did their business and went forth to make their fortunes. Today, the building is home to the exclusive shops of the world’s most famous luxury brands, established names with astronomic price tags that help customers demonstrate their wealth to others.

It occurred to me that, in some way, the current setting was rather incongruous for Vinho Verde wines. These are wonderful wines, full of amazing freshness, drunk young and preferably with fresh seafood to match. They have been famous within Portugal, and with visitors to that country, for many years, but they have not established a major export market in the UK. They are are about as far from famous luxury brands as possible.

In fact, they are more like the raw materials for those luxury brands – the diamonds without settings or the uncut designer cloth, the stuff that would have been traded here in eras past. Someone, somewhere will be able to turn these great materials into something special, and more profitable.

Red wine with some spritzVinho Verde (Green Wines) are wines from the far north of Portugal, wines of great acidity and freshness, and made from an unusual range of grapes (which is what you’d expect from Portugal, home to hundreds of different, and hard-to-pronounce grape varieties). The majority of the wines I have come across are white, but you also get some rose, a smattering of reds, and I have now discovered, also some amazing sparkling wines.

The key characteristic of these wines is their acidity, but the younger wines also have a certain spritz – not sparkling as such, but some light effervescence that really freshens the mouth. They are not anything like the big, juicy, fruit bombs we get from all sorts of countries of the world in UK supermarkets, but they are an experience that wine lovers should try.

There weren’t that many exhibitors at the tasting, but I still didn’t manage to taste all of them, but I did try several different ranges. The ones that stuck in my mind were:

  • Quinta de Lourosa – the traditional white Vinho Verde was very good, but I was particularly taken by the 2005 Sparkling White Vinho Verde made from Arinto (another unusual grape) which was very good indeed. [This Quinta also does some wine tourism and offers accommodation and tours, so worth checking them out if you plan on visiting the area.]
  • Afros – a white and red pair from a brave winemaker Vasco Croft, who is making Biodynamic Vinho Verde and achieving a truly stunning level of concentration on his wines. The 2008 red, made from Vinhao, is inky dark and particularly splendid.

As with many wines from Portugal, the quality of the wines is not in doubt, but getting more people to try them and understand them is difficult because the competition is so fierce. They certainly have the potential to be recognised as a unique style of wines, unlike anything else in the world that are worth exploring, a little like their northern neighbours in Rias Baixas have done with Albariño, and then justify their luxury brand surroundings.

If you are looking for something a little different, especially if you are planning to match some wines to seafood of some form, try selecting a YOUNG Vinho Verde and enjoy!

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Wine for 3 year olds

{An imaginary, although by no means unexpected or far-fetched, conversation about wine with my daughter}

Daddy, why do you drink wine?

Well, darling, I like how it tastes and it is a nice thing for adults to drink with their dinner.

Why?

Well, wine is made in a special way so that it has all sorts of flavours. Some of them are really good to have with this meat, some of them are better with your pasta, but almost every bottle tastes different. I like to taste lots of different ones to see what they are like and which ones are most interesting.

Why?

Good question! We can drink all sorts of drinks, like milk, water, lime & soda, beer or even fruit juices, and wine is like them. But wine is different because it changes depending on how it is made, where it comes from, and who makes it. It means that I can learn a lot about different places in the world and about different ways of making wine that I never knew before. It is like you being at pre-school, every day I learn something new and exciting.

I like things that are new and exciting! Can I have some wine?

No, sorry darling. Wine is for adults.

(wait for it ….)

Why?

Well, because it has something in it that is not good for little girls and boys, but adults can have a little of, just like we discussed about salt. It’s called alcohol and it can make you feel unwell if you have too much. My body is bigger and more used to it, so I can have a little.

You can have a smell if you want?

Yes!

What do you smell?

Mmmm! Nice! … Fruit?

That right, dear! Wines smell of fruit and other thngs, and they are even made from fruit. Wine is actually made from grapes.

Why?

Well, grapes can be used to make wines that taste nice to adults, or they can be eaten by everyone just like you are having. But this wine didn’t smell of grapes did it? It had smells of strawberries and cherries, didn’t it?

Why?

Well, when you make wines, it changes their smell and the way they taste. You can even put it in wooden barrels to make it older and taste better, a bit like when we made that bread and we had to wait before we could eat it. It rested.

Why?

There are so many wines around the world that different wine makers find new ways to make their wines taste different and better, a bit like recipes. So they try new things and then we can see whether we like it or not.

One day, shall we go and see someone making wine?

Yes! And can I eat grapes?

Well, we’ll see! We can ask.

Daddy, one day, when I’m older, maybe when I’m a adult, I’m going to drink wine just like you and Mummy.

That’s great dear! But not too much, OK?

No! I don’t want to be like Silly Sammy Slick*

Excellent! Now, eat your grapes up!

====

This is all a fantasy, of course, but I know my daughter, and this is exactly how the conversation would go.

There are those who would hide their drinking from their kids, fearing they might somehow accidentally turn their little darlings into binge drinking pre-teens, but I’m of the totally opposite point of view. It does much more harm to hide your drinking than sharing your reasons for it. If you are not capable of moderate, responsible drinking, then of course you need to deal with that so your kids do not learn bad habits, but if you can, then share the enjoyment.

Wine, and other recreational drugs, may be an emotive subject for adults, but for kids it is just another part of life that they need to learn about. Not educating them is unfair on them, and stores up trouble for them, and for society, once they are more independent.

I fully expect to have difficult conversations with my daughter about alcohol in future, but it will not be because she has not had a chance to learn about it from me.

I wonder how this conversation would sound like when she is 10, or 15? If I’m still blogging, I’ll let you know.

(check out another recent dad’s take on this at 1WineDude)

* you need to be up on your Dr. Seuss for that line, but Silly Sammy Slick Sipped Six Sodas and was Sick, Sick, Sick!

Comedy, Love and Wine

If I may step down from my soapbox for a moment (I can hear your sighs of relief), I came across an interesting marketing concept only very recently.

[I tried to post about this yesterday, but their site was down, a technological hiccup that happens even to the largest companies as well as us little bloggers]

How to get younger people to learn about wine? One way is to combine it with theatre and comedy. I wish I had been able to do this when I was first learning about wine.

Hardy’s (they of the mega-corporation) have launched a campaign called One Love Since 1853. Part of the campaign is a series of events around the UK being run by Chris Scott of ThirtyFifty (an innovative wine retailer/educator in his own right) which they are calling “sip-along theatrical productions”.

The brief says:

Hardys, known for its straight talking, no nonsense approach to wine, has teamed up with ThirtyFifty to devise a world first in ‘educational entertainment’ – a series of interactive comedy shows to teach people everything they need to know about wine in just 30 minutes!

One of the jokes is that it takes 2 hours (according to the site) to learn “everything they need to know .. in 30 minutes”, so I hope the other hour and a half is spent putting that knowledge into practice!

It is too late in the day to join in as the audience had to request tickets in advance, but one show is happening tonight (19 June 2008) in Manchester and there is a final event in Bristol (26th of June).

There could be tickets left, you never know, so head over to their sites and find out, or if you did attend one of the shows, please let us know how it was and what you learned.

[Update: Click here to read Eating Leeds' review of this event]

Am I qualified to give advice?

Yesterday I was asked THE inevitable wine blogger question.

Wulf (real name), is a friend of mine who happens to have an eclectic mix of subjects on his blog Down in the Den (!), from his jazz band & compositions, to gardening, programming, photography and religion. His latest theme is wine, so I thought I’d chip in, and quite naturally he responded by asking:

“…any advice about developing my palate for tasting and evaluating wine?”

Thoroughly reasonable question, but it fills me with dread. Whilst I like wine and know what interests me, I have no idea where to recommend others should start. I feel like I ought to ask hundreds of questions about his tastes in food & travel, his mood, his knowledge of history, what he had for lunch, … all those things that in one way or another influence my own choices.

Of course, I did what any sensible blogger would do, and sent him to read someone else’s blog (in this case a relatively new blog to me, called Wine Ministry where Rev. Jeff writes about wine with “a theological slant”. Perfect!)

Why do I feel unable to respond to perfectly valid requests for advice like this? I guess it is that as you get realy deep into a subject, you become immersed in the nuances, things that for most people don’t matter but make you “the expert”. They don’t care whether the white wine was barrel fermented. They just want to know if it will it taste nice. Will they like it?

But this is precisely the issue. I know that it makes a difference to the taste, but feel supremely unqualified to tell them whether they will like it or not. I know that I like it.

Do any other wine bloggers out there feel this?

The best wine bloggers, or wine educators for that matter, are not necessarily those who know the most, but are those who know how to communicate with those wanting to learn, without putting them off. Maybe this is why I prefer not to post tasting notes – I can’t make myself believe it matters what I think about the wine. I’d rather tell you about the winery, the region or the country and if it appeals to you, let you choose to try it.

The great thing about blogging, in any subject but wine in this case, is that there are a vast range of blogs, and one or more are certain to have the sort of information that a reader, whether novice or expert, is looking for.

Now the only problem is finding them.

Of course, the simple answer, as I believe Alder Yarrow over at Vinography points out, is “Try lots of them”.

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