Tag Archive - wine

Afros Wine – a sensory experience

What helps a winemaker make a really interesting wine?

Is it the tools, technology and modern training received from experts at the best wine colleges? Or might it be the fact that when they walk through a grove, crunching the remains of Autumn leaves underfoot, to the sounds of the local church bell down the hill, they know the fact that the trees are exactly 107 years old because their grandparents planted them to celebrate their wedding?

Vasco Croft at Afros

Does a biodynamic vintner make better wine because (s)he follows this particular regime, … or does the biodynamic respect for nature stem from a connection to that land that the vintner already has?

This was my second meeting with Vasco Croft of Afros Wine, the first being a Vinho Verde tasting in London where I was rather taken by his wines. This time we met at his estate on a visit during the Wines of Portugal International Conference (#WoPIC) in 2010.

By the way, Vasco, as a fellow visitor remarked, has more than a passing resemblance to a young Richard Gere and certainly seems to embody the ‘vitality’ that biodynamic followers like to discuss. He looks like he could move seamlessly from the winery to leading a local yoga masterclass.

I was taken by the sounds of his place. I’ve been to many wineries recently, from the large and clinical to the small and haphazard. This place was more ‘natural’, more suited to the translation of ‘Adegga’ as ‘farm’ rather than the grander wine term ‘estate’.

There may have been 30 people there, but you could still FEEL the calm, seeing the mountain horses and sheep allowed to roam freely in the vineyards and hearing the specially designed fountain sculpture ‘dynamising’ the water used in the winery and vineyard.

After a brief outdoor tour, past the edges of the vineyards, through the special room for biodynamic preparations, past the fountain and into the grove, we finally entered the recently completed tasting room. Here we matched the rather individual Afros wines to a menu specially designed by the kitchen team at Ferrugem (a well respected local restaurant) that, like the wines, take traditional materials and delivered them in an exciting way.

Our first experience was to match the delicate mouse and fragrantly biscuity Afros Espumante Reserva Loureiro 2007 (sparkling wine) with a spoon of “sarrabulho* sweet, Reineta apple puree and caviar of cherry tomatoes”. Arguably the food flavours were a little strong for the wine, but both were excellent.

sarrabulho sweet, Reineta apple puree and caviar of cherry tomatoes

Sarrabulho sweet and caviar of cherry tomatoes

Next was a superb take on a classic: Pastel de (Bacalhau com) Nata – a light pastry which instead of the traditional sweet cream, was filled with creamy, savoury cod in order to match the floral, crisp Afros white made from the Loureiro grape, Afros Loureiro 2009. A stunning combination, not just of the salty food and crisp wine, but also the creamy softness of the food accentuated the structure of the white wine. Wow!

We followed this with a surprising combination of  red Vinho Verde, made from a grape no-one thought could make ‘proper’ wine, the 2010 Afros Vinhao, with Caldo Verde soup (based on potato and cabbage I think). Lovely! The wine was intense, with that ‘purple’, inky, sharp character I associate with teinturier grapes (with red flesh) but also fresh, with a fruity character of crisp blueberries, red currants and pepper.

Next was the surprising Afros Espumante Reserva Vinhão 2006 sparkling red, made from the same Vinhao grapes, but further enhanced by the second fermentation that rounded out the palate with some yeasty character but also had the bubbles to bring out the fruity aromatics. We matched this to chef’s local equivalent of a ‘surf and turf’ dish of octopus, chestnut and red pepper sauce. So many flavours but well complemented by the wine.

polvo com tinta(o)

It is heartening to see a small business balancing a very modern outlook with a natural approach in a traditional context. Biodynamics, from a traditional ‘estate’ but made with an eye on an international consumer.

This is a small estate, and one of the very few registered biodynamic producers in the whole of the country, but I hope it represents a new wave of ‘artisan’ winemakers that will gain international and national recognition for their dedication, and will raise the profile and standing of their region and country.

Well done Vasco, and well done Portugal

p.s. lots more food and vineyard photos if you see the full set above or click through to my Afros photos on flickr

*as far as I can tell this is a dish made in the style of black pudding, but I have been unable to find out much more – it essentially was a blood-pudding meatball

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Can a cheap wine be too good?

I attended a “Spanish Wine on the High Street” tasting recently. The idea was to showcase the best, or most popular, Spanish wines in the ranges of the UK’s top supermarkets and high street wine retailers (or what’s left of them), as selected by their buyers. There were wines of many styles and prices there, including very expensive ones (and lots of Rioja). I have published some of my thoughts from that tasting on my Posterous blog, but I want to explore a separate question here.

What would you expect for 61p?

Supermarket wine shelves UK
Image by casavides via Flickr

We all want a deal. We all love finding a bargain, where the value for money, the “bang for your buck”, is great – especially if we are the ones to discover it and tell our friends and gain ‘kudos’. But sometimes, things might also look, and taste, too good to be true.

One of the wines was from a region already known to make decent, uncomplicated and good value wines. It was not stunning, but it was certainly drinkable, with nice fruit and a clean finish. The surprise was that it was selling for only £2.70 a bottle.**

Normally, if I even tasted a wine that cost this much, I’d expect something virtually undrinkable, simply because it is not possible to make a wine and sell it at this price. So, what does it mean?

I should say I know NOTHING about the deal that got this wine listed in this retailer, but let’s face some basic facts:

In the UK, on a retail price of £2.70 there is £0.40 of VAT and £1.69 of Duty (which is fixed for ALL wine bottles, of any price). That leaves £0.61

That 61p has to cover the cost of:

  • the glass bottle
  • printing the label
  • cork
  • capsule
  • cardboard cases
  • shipping (from the producer to the UK)
  • distribution (within the UK to all the shops)
  • PLUS the retailer’s margin (the supermarket has to make some money!)**

oh, wait …

  • growing the grapes
  • picking the grapes
  • crushing the grapes
  • fermenting the juice and storing it for a period of time
  • all the processes of ‘filtering’ and ‘preparing’ the wine
  • bottling, corking and labelling the wine
  • getting through a great deal of administration and bureaucracy
  • staff to do all this stuff
  • … and maybe leave some money for the winery?

Does that sound likely?

Wineries do their utmost to make a good wine in such a volume that they can make economies of scale and sell it at a reasonable price, but this is extreme. So what are the implications?

These deals are driven by a certain level of desperation. No winery can make money on it, but there are circumstances where “moving” a wine even if it is for almost nothing, is cheaper than the alternative. If your tanks are full of a good wine you have not been able to sell from last year, and you NEED those tanks for this year’s wine, and you can’t simply pour it down the drain … what can you do?

Retailers will gladly take it off your hand if they can make money from it. They’ll sell it cheap and get folks flocking to their shops.

The knock on problem is that we consumers say “Hurrah!” as the value for money is apparently very high, and we love spending so little.

We are then entitled to think, “well, if that wine tastes THAT good for £2.70 then why should I pay £4, £5 or £6, or even £10+?” But it isn’t economic. Wineries and regions will not survive selling wine at that price level.

All the good work by wine lovers to explain the agricultural, artisanal, low-margin, high unique value proposition of wines is lost in a storm of price discounting.

Selling decent wine at throw-away prices changes the expectations about wine as a whole, and particularly the country that it is associated with. It associates it with “cheap” wine, a moniker that is VERY hard to get rid of later (just ask Bulgaria, Portugal, and even Chile).

Too often they become, and remain the “best wines for not a lot of money” instead of the “best value for money” which they aim for.

I totally understand why wineries can end up in this situation in the short term, and that supermarkets are also commercially driven, but it does wine no good. If this becomes the norm (as, arguably, it has), good wineries that have to sell at properly commercial prices will not find space for their wines and are forced to compromise as well, or go out of business.

At the end of the day, cheap wine is usually terrible, undrinkable, nothing more than slightly flavoured, acidic alcohol. You get what you pay for … generally.

But if you buy that wine, and it actually tastes good, then what incentive do you have for spending more? After all, if we keep spending at this level, more wineries will be desperate enough to sell wine at these prices. Until they all close.

How can we change this situation, if retailers don’t care? Whose responsibility is it? Well, the government is poised to create a “law” to stop selling “below cost” … but how do you define that, and where does the money go? A topic for another day.

I think that good wine CAN be too cheap.

Do you agree? Do those who cannot afford more expensive wine ‘deserve’ good wine at cheaper prices despite what it does to the industry – is it just a case of survival-of-the-fittest?

By the way, for a variety of reasons, I am not mentioning the wine, producer or retailer that occasioned this thought. It is a general point I am making.

** I discovered that the £2.70 was a promotional price during a 25% off promotion. However, as this simply removed one aspect (the retailer’s margin), the general point remains although it would have to be taken into account

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Wine blogging qualifications

I see that an interview I gave on the phone recently has been published in Harpers and I thought it would be better to add a few comments before I might upset any friends in the trade or blogging world.

I was asked, by Gemma McKenna at Harpers in the UK, whether I thought that bloggers “needed the WSET qualification”. The trade in general is very positive about it, understandably, and so most of the others she spoke to were fairly uniformly welcoming. It makes my dissent stand out all the more.

This is how I was quoted (full article is linked above):

What about the blogging community? Do they need formal qualifications?
Robert McIntosh, who runs wineconversation.com and is one of the founders of the European Wine Bloggers Conference, thinks not. “It’s a question that’s being continually asked and no one can agree,” he says. “I don’t think bloggers should have a qualification. The wine trade is really small, but so standardised when it comes to wine communication. One thing that puts consumers off is descriptions of wine that don’t mean anything to them – the average tasting note doesn’t help them understand.

“I personally never finished my WSET Diploma, but I don’t think that’s made a big difference to my life, other than missing out on contacts.

“The WSET tells you there is no right tasting note for a wine, but when you’re examined on a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, if you don’t tick the box “gooseberry” and instead write “it’s like being slapped in the face with a bunch of grass”, you won’t get the marks.

“I’m not trying to do down the WSET, I’d definitely recommend it to people. But if a blogger asks me if they need to do it before they start blogging I’d say no, do it your own way first. If they want to get into some more technical stuff later, then by all means.”

Consumers are telling us all the time that they don’t “get” wine writing, particularly professional tasting notes. What we need to find are new ways to engage consumers and make wine relevant to them. However, if we ALL take the SAME qualifications, we all use the same basis for reviewing wines, we create a uniformity of thinking that hampers our search for something new.

I think that much of what the WSET does, to standardise a general knowledge about the wines of the world and also bring a commercial element to wine learning that makes the trade more “professional”, is positive. It is useful to have a benchmark set for wine knowledge, especially if someone wants to work in the wine “business”.

But the question was, “do bloggers need the WSET”?. This is about wine communication, not wine knowledge.

Bloggers might ALSO be wine buyers, wine sales people and wine marketers. If in those roles they need wine qualifications, then that is a different point. But they could also be lawyers, computer programmers, retired pilots, teachers and much, much more.

I am concerned about their role as ‘people who express their opinions, experiences and knowledge via the means of a blog’. Passionate wine lovers who take the time to share that with others via a blog will generally also try and learn more about the wines, regions and people behind them, but do they all need to study the same curriculum?

I feel very strongly that the world of wine communication would be a poorer place if anyone who wanted to express their opinions about wine had to take a qualification, never mind the same one. If we really want creativity we need to welcome and support alternative points of view, and different ways to express that experience.

Of course, you are entitled to a different point of view.

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Wine, drugs and an unhealthy debate

For an audio version of this post, click here:

I should warn you now, I am a dedicated proponent of a non-communicable disease.

There is only ALCOHOL!

The debate has been stirred by a report by Professor David Nutt, the former UK chief drugs advisor, published in The Lancet called “Drug harms in the UK“. However, it continues a debate we had at the recent European Wine Bloggers Conference as well, on “Freedoms, Rights and Responsibilities”.

What I discovered in that very interesting session in Vienna, with presentations by Adam Watson-Brown (Information Society & Media Department, EU Commission), George Sandeman (representing Wine In Moderation) and Ken Payton (blogger at Reign of Terroir), was exactly how governments and official bodies think of alcohol – and it makes a BIG difference in understanding their approach to the debate.

In this debate, there is no “Wine”. There are no “Spirits”. There are no “Alcopops”, “RTDs“, “artisanal cordials” or even “record-breaking alcoholic beverages”. There is no ‘good alcohol’ or ‘bad alcohol’. There is only ALCOHOL!

ALCOHOL is not a feature of a beverage, a natural by-product of age-old techniques, nor even an industrial process. Alcohol is a drug, and its consumption is a ”non-communicable disease”.

“The World Health Report 2002: Reducing risks, promoting healthy life, identifies five important risk factors for non-communicable disease in the top ten leading risks to health. These are raised blood pressure, raised cholesterol, tobacco use, alcohol consumption, and overweight.” WHO fact sheet No. 273

In other words alcohol is seen as a disease to be eradicated.

It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off

Before I go further, let me state that I agree that alcohol abuse is a problem is many societies, and a factor in many problems, but I believe alcohol is also very different from most of the other drugs listed in Prof. Nutt’s study and so this debate is very ‘unhealthy’. Let me explain how.

The chart we have all seen today is this:

Most harmful drugs - The Lancet

This illustrates that, according to a long list of criteria relating to the harm to the individual and also harm to society, and its widespread consumption, alcohol comes top of the list, delivering to the world’s media the nicely controversial headline: “Alcohol is more harmful than heroine“.

What this chart, and this way of thinking completely misses, in my opinion, is that this is only half of the story. It is like banning bridges because they can be used to jump off.

Take a look again at the list, but from a different perspective. Which of these items listed CONTRIBUTE to individuals and society, if any? Where are the BENEFITS? I think most of us would be very hard pressed to say that Crack, Methylamphetamine and Heroine contribute to society in any meaningful way. [Heroine is interesting. Unlike 'Alcohol', this chart doesn't list 'Opiates' where Heroine = BAD but medically administered Morphine = GOOD]. However, the two ‘legal’ drugs on the list, Tobacco and Alcohol do.

Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol

Another look at Nutt Report on drugs and alcohol

[note: this is my crude attempt at modifying the graph, sourced from The Lancet, for illustration only]

(I’m not going to make the case for Tobacco, others can do that, but even here there are some benefits to society from taxation, even if they are outweighed by the costs.)

But alcohol IS different.

Let’s take wine, but you could argue a similar case for beer and some spirits too. The benefits include:

  • Huge revenue streams from Duty & VAT receipts to the Treasury
  • Vast numbers of people employed in production, supply, retail, marketing and distribution (not just winemakers, but bar and pub owners & staff, importers, wine shop assistants, glass manufacturers, cork companies, shipping companies, label printers, designers, journalists, educators, etc.)
  • Sustainable environmental benefits from land cultivated, often where little else would be viable, and people making a living in rural areas instead of moving to cities
  • Developing tourism infrastructure around regions dependent on wine production
  • Thousands of years of historic and cultural legacies in production and consumption

I’m not even going to touch on the contentious issue of potential individual health benefits from moderate drinking.

I am not in a position to quantify these benefits, but others such as the WSTA might. However, it is obvious that these benefits do exist.

One of the main reasons this needs to be taken into account is because the blunt weapons of punitive taxation and medical warnings can disproportionately reduce the BENEFITS instead of reducing the harm. Raising taxes on alcohol might cut consumption rates, but it also costs jobs and tax revenue. It reduces the margin and incentive to increase quality for retailers and producers because their products are less affordable. This benefits large brands less connected to any local, cultural investments and driven by sales volume growth (which is the opposite of the policy’s aim).

It won’t be just those who are abusing alcohol the most that are affected, but everyone else as well. The approach is backfiring. We already have some of the highest taxes in the world, yet their own evidence shows that things are still not improving.

We have to change the rules of the debate they have set

I went to the EWBC hoping to make the point that wine blogging can have a positive impact on society, through education and reconnecting consumers with the cultural roots of wine enjoyment so that alcohol may be consumed responsibly. I realised, sadly, that the anti-alcohol lobby wasn’t just ignoring us, we weren’t even speaking the same language.

So, how do we engage with the discussion? We have to change the rules of the debate they have set. It is a time for much more concerted efforts by wine lovers and wine businesses.

Unfortunately, printing messages on labels and adverts about “drinking responsibly” are not the answer.

We need clearer data on the benefits of the alcohol trade to individuals, governments, countries and regions. We need to broaden out the debate about dealing with alcohol abuse from the purely medical, to the cultural and economic areas too. And we need informed politicians willing to have a sensible debate about these points without fear of being pilloried by the media.

[UPDATE: 03/11/2010 An interesting follow-up on this debate from an NHS site is here]

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The Pre EWBC Post

It is the final countdown for the start of the third European Wine Bloggers Conference, the annual gathering of wine communicators of all types, and this year representing 30 countries.

There is so much about this event worth sharing but I have to be brief – I’ve a conference to put on and more than 386 wines to taste!

EWBC 2010 Venue
Image by Ryan Opaz via Flickr

First, thank you so much to my amazing partners in this venture – Ryan & Gabriella Opaz of Catavino.net. We’ve got so many ideas of great EWBC related stuff, I am SO excited about what the future will bring.

We are also so glad to have put together the kind of event that can bring together wine lovers from so many different backgrounds and locations. 180+ delegates from 30 countries is an amazing statistic for a young conference in this area. Check out the live streaming page for videos and tweets to follow the event.

We are forever grateful to the sponsors that make these events happen. Our past sponsors, Dinastia Vivanco and ViniPortugal are still involved with the EWBC – that must say something! This year we are so excited to be working with the fabulous team at Austrian Wines and I am REALLY looking forward to learning more about the fabulous wines of this country.

Finally, the full benefit of the event is hard to measure. We hope the visitors learn about, and love, the wines of the sponsors for themselves, but also on their blogs. We hope to see A LOT more content about Austrian wines, grapes, regions and foods in the coming months. But there are also all intangibles, such as the contacts made, the collaborations established and the many new opportunities created when barriers of language and distance are broken down and people find a common cause.

I look forward to sharing some thoughts on the above over the next few days and hope you enjoy reading it – and maybe consider attending next year – we’ve got more exciting things planned for then too.

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