Damp January (05/01/18):|
It’s traditional after the supposed excesses of the Christmas and New Year festivities for many people to at least consider a dry January.
As there was no good reason for any over consumption (go for quality over quantity any day!) there is little proven benefit for abstinence. As noted medical expert Michael Apstein recently wrote “If you think you need to take a month off, you’re either drinking too much during the rest of the year or you have a guilty conscience”.
The human body, specifically the liver, can deal with a small and steady amount of alcohol without problem. It seems to be binge drinking that presents difficulties both medical and social.
One factor that has made it harder over recent years to manage consumption is that average levels of alcohol in wine have steadily increased. Whereas the average strength used to be around 12% alcohol by volume (abv) it is not unusual now to encounter wines with 15% abv. Also beware that wines from the USA are allowed a tolerance of up to 1.5% to that stated on the label.
So, let’s consider lower alcohol alternatives: let’s try moist rather than dry. Most wines from cool climates will not have had sufficient sugar in the grapes to give high alcohol so England, Germany and Northern France are areas of interest. Some sweeter styles from Italy can be as little as 5% abv. Look at the label and query your supplier.
There are more and more alcohol free wines (invariably meaning less then 0.5% abv) on the shelves and I have tried quite a few when undertaking my family duties as designated driver. This has not usually been a pleasant experience. So far, the only producer that would make me consider one of these wine substitutes is Torres from Spain, whose Natureo is for me palatable if not delicious.
Regrettably, alcohol is a core component wine – remove it and you just have grape juice. However, if you know other low or no alcohol wines that you could recommend, please let me know – otherwise I will have to stick my default alternative beverage: water.
Which bubbly? (21/12/17):
At this time of year many of us consider sparkling wine – the celebratory drink par excellence. So, with so many to choose from, why are they different in style and why are they different prices?
The bubbles in bubbly come from a second fermentation, which creates carbon dioxide as a by product of alcohol. It’s how this second fermentation is carried out that gives us the range of sparkling wines we have available.
The traditional method is to carry it all out in bottle, trapping the gas in the container it will be sold in until that joyous moment of release when the cork comes out. As the wine spends months and sometimes years in contact with the yeast and the products of fermentation this affects the flavour.
Expect a creamy texture, aromas and flavours of brioche, nuts or biscuits and noticeable body. These will vary according to the grapes used and the length of maturation, but this is what is offered by Champagne, Crémants, English sparkling, Cava and the best and most expensive sparkling wines made elsewhere.
These products need to be removed from each individual bottle before sale, and this adds to the complexity and cost of this type of wine. For a full understanding of the techniques, you should really go on a wine course.
An alternative way to keep the bubbles is to carry this out in bulk. This greatly lessens the influence of the second fermentation and is suited to grapes and styles where yeast autolysis, as the process is called, would be unwelcome and the winemaker (and by extension the consumer) is looking for more straightforward fruit character, albeit with some friendly fizz.
Prosecco is mainly produced using this cheaper tank method and this has helped make it the most popular type of sparkling with in the UK – more than the combined sales of Champagne and Cava. But do not be mislead into thinking it’s a cheaper version of the traditional type – it’s just a different approach which you may or may not think preferable.
So there is something for most tastes and budgets, and please don’t just think of bubbly for celebrations; sparkling wines can be versatile and surprised many be how food friendly it can be, so enjoy.
Hot stuff (20/10/17):
Winemakers in Spain and Portugal have joined those in California in lamenting losses of vineyards from barely controllable fires in the past couple of weeks.
More grievous has been the loss of 45 lives in Europe and more than 40 in the US and our thoughts are with our colleagues who have lost so much. It is too early to be sure what the longer term impact will be on wine production, but entire vineyards and wineries have been destroyed.
In most places most of the harvest had already taken place, but where the fruit is still on the vine the concern is smoke taint. This can impart aromas and flavours of anything from smoked bacon to ashtrays! I’ll be keeping a close eye (and nose) on wines from these areas.
Give me air (28/09/17):
When making wine, a lot of effort is put into excluding oxygen from grapes, then the fermenting juice, then the wine. From the moment they are picked exposing delicate grapes to air can make them darken and encourage off flavours and particularly in warm climates this can be rapid and damaging.
This is why sulphur dioxide is widely used in winemaking as a preservative and anti-oxidant and tanks and casks kept topped up to exclude air. Otherwise oxygen will cause a wine to go stale and eventually convert to vinegar – literally sour wine. And yes, the levels of sulphur found in wine is miniscule compared to soft drinks or dried fruits so mostly we can ignore the “contains sulphites” on the label.
But there are times when a little oxygen can actually help. Carefully controlled exposure to a little air at the right time can positively affect the development of some wine, while drinks such as Sherry need that exposure to produce the distinctive styles they are famous for.
It is not just the winemaker who can take advantage of some of the positive aspects of oxygen. Many young wines will benefit from a little aeration, especially if they are tannic or otherwise a little “rough”. This is best achieve by decanting – pouring into another container (and back into the original bottle if desired) – rather than just letting it breathe by removing the closure for a few hours which will achieve very little.
I sometimes decant a wine to remove sediment – but generally just to give them a gust of fresh air, and most repay the slight effort involved with a little more style and substance.
Deutschland unter alles? (29/07/17):
Looking at the average price per bottle paid for wine in the UK according to country of origin, Germany scrapes along at the bottom – fetching about 20% less than from other countries.
In supermarkets, about the only German wines you will see are near the floor, low priced, low quality and generally held in low esteem. The assumption is they are all Liebfraumilch type lightweight semi sweet beverages that no serious wine lover would consider. Strange that a country so often associated with quality and technical brilliance should be the poor relation when it comes to wine.
So it may surprise that until the 1940s bottles from the Rhine and the Mosel were as highly prized as top white Burgundy, and that even today one in five of the world’s most expensive wines come from there. It seems only at the top end of the market are their qualities recognised, which is a pity because they do make some exceedingly good wines.
For white wines the noble Riesling grape dominates, which can make a steely dry style or one with luscious sweetness - or indeed somewhere in between. The range of styles is more than many imagine from the driest (often labelled trocken) through to late harvested and even intense and rare eiswein from frozen grapes where nature has naturally concentrated the sugar and flavours.
They will all have crisp acidity which serves to enliven, balance any sweetness and give the ability to age graciously. I am lucky enough to have one remaining bottle of my hoard of the legendary 1976 vintage. I shall be enjoying it (with friends!) later this year and I am confident it will be complex and still fresh even after more than 40 years.
Recent years have seen an upsurge in red wine production to match the demand for wines with more food pairing versatility. They have the world’s third largest planting of Pinot Noir grape (known there as the Spätburgunder) and from the warmer Southern vineyards makes superbly elegant and fruity wines.
Sparkling wines should not be forgotten – and the Germans certainly don’t, being the biggest consumer of bubbly of all kinds especially their own sekt, drinking a heroic five litres a head each year – more than double our consumption even with the recent arrival of what seems a veritable ocean of Prosecco.
One problem for those who appreciate German wines is getting hold of decent bottles. As mentioned, supermarkets only seem to stock the least inspiring and finding a specialist with the wonderful breadth and depth of styles and quality produced can be difficult. Luckily, we found eight bottles of real interest and value to show at our regular monthly first Friday tasting.
Coming up rosé? (21/07/17):
The first sign of summer in my household is me sitting in the garden with a large glass of chilled rosé. Light, pink and refreshing, this style of wine is so suited to enjoying in the sunshine.
Globally, rosé wines are about 10% of total production and about that proportion of wine drunk in the UK. In France however where they make a third of the world’s rosés, they account for about a third of all wine consumption – more than white wines in fact; what else would you sip in sunny Provence looking out over the Mediterranean?
So where does it come from? Many people think that it is made by mixing red and white, and although this is permitted for certain sparkling wines is otherwise strictly illegal. The process is more subtle, and is strongly linked to the production of red wine.
As grape juice is generally lacking in any colour, the colour of red wine comes from the skins of black grapes, and it is the length of time the juice spends in contact with the skins that dictates both the depth of colour and other components present in the skins such as tannin.
So, to make a rosé wine the winemaker starts off just as making red wine- and then acts as if changing their mind – running off the juice (or “must” as it now referred to) with some colour and hardly any tannin which is then fermented like a white wine.
This can have the added benefit if only some must is run off (known as bleeding or saignée) of leaving the remainder as red wine with greater concentration through a high proportion of skins to liquid. Thus the same crop of grapes can potentially be made into four different styles of finished wine: white, rosé, normal red and full red, according to the wishes of the winemaker – or alchemist as I like to think of them.
Pink wine has always traditionally been known by the French term rosé, wherever its origin. Over recent years some producers started calling their products “blush” or even – flying in the face of accuracy – “white”. Whatever the name, try a glass the next time the sun shines and enjoy it as much as I do.
Something fishy is going on. (07/07/17):
It’s time for the annual Midsummer Fish Festival here in Hastings, so what sort of wine should we be looking for to bring out the best in the catch?
The first rule of wine and food paring is to match intensity, so think of how much weight there is in the dish and make sure it is not overwhelmed by the chosen wine.
White wines are the most common choice as they are often less obtrusive, but some have characteristics that can mar a comfortable pairing – heavy oak for example. And always consider all the parts of the dish – will an accompanying sauce or any herbs or spices used clash?
Red wines often have quite high levels of tannin. That’s the mouth drying slightly bitter effect you may have experienced if you’ve ever tasted stewed black tea. This can react badly with many food flavours and why generally such wines are not ideal with most fish.
Also, one must consider texture. Many fishes are oily, in which case a wine with reasonably high levels of acidity will help balance the oiliness. If the fish is cooked in batter or tempura, again that acidity will help in the same way that lemon juice or vinegar are used as condiments.
There are fish dishes that have the weight that would easily go well with light red wines – think tuna steak, swordfish or monkfish. The wine should be light and fairly low in tannin – Pinot Noir rather than Cabernet Sauvignon.
The favourite wine in Mediterranean France to accompany their many varied seafood dishes is the ubiquitous rosés – light, fruity with refreshing acidity and almost no tannin. Rosés are becoming more fashionable in the UK, so a greater choice of decent quality is available.
Of course, sparkling wines are some of the most versatile. Bearing in mind that acidity can enhance fruitiness and reduce the impact of high acidity in wine and salt brings out richness and smoothness, how about some fish and chips with a squeeze of lemon and some sea salt with a glass (or two) of local English sparkling wine? That’s my idea of a perfect match.
What price wine? (23/06/17):
What do we consider when choosing wine for a particular occasion? Well, if it’s for a meal then food and wine pairing harmonies and conflicts have to be taken into account. Then it’s the style, the colour, the acidity, the sweetness etc. Or is it?
I’m sorry but the number one consideration when selecting wine, whether from a supermarket shelf or a restaurant wine list, is the price. Few of us live in a world of money is no object, so affordability is always the watchword.
So why do wines differ so greatly in price, and how can we judge what is good value? Crop yields, selection of only the best fruit, manual harvesting, expensive oak maturation are all significant; small scale craft winemakers where growing fruit can be difficult compared to industrial scale production based in hugely fertile environments is probably the biggest single factor.
Also, in this country, taxes are a significant part of wine costs so as duty and VAT alone count for nearly £2.60 a bottle so the search to find anything drinkable at the bottom end of the price scale can be a struggle for both reseller and consumer.
But it is not all despair. I’m always telling my students that what makes me happy as a drinker are wines that I’d happily pay £20 for, but I’ve just picked up for £5.95. Obviously some knowledge of why wines taste as they do and what areas or grapes can produce wines that suit the individual’s taste is a great help. If you like X, then find Y that comes from the same grape, similar climate and soil, chances are you’ll like it too – especially if it’s not as well known and carries a much smaller price tag.
So learning about wine is not just to appreciate the finer points of that wine you can only afford to buy twice a year – it helps you avoid phoney special offers and overhyped brands and gives the confidence to explore the lesser known regions where real bargains can often be had.
Let’s celebrate. (14/04/17):
What drink would you most like to celebrate with? That’s the question I threw at some students recently and some answers were enlightening.
The obvious choice for most people is sparkling wine – Champagne if the budget allows, or English sparkling wine for the enlightened. And bubbly is a good option; it is lively, spontaneous and forever linked with positive emotions – weddings, christenings, winning races, getting promoted or passing an exam.
But as we drink more of it and more frequently, especially the inexpensive types such as Prosecco (sales up 80% last year!), perhaps some of the exclusivity and cachet has gone. So where else could we look for that something special?
Someone suggested Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (a top quality red from Burgundy) and that would be lovely if it were not for the price tag of around £15,000 a bottle from a good vintage. No, 15,000 is not a misprint! That brings us to the “what if money were no object” wishlist.
Looking at the world’s most expensive wines (and therefore presumably the most valued and desired) the list is dominated by the sweet wines of Germany – the choice of at least one of the class. This may come as a surprise as we are used to seeing everyday German wines languishing in the bargain basement section of supermarket shelves. But the best of these dessert wines have always been considered some of the finest nectar that can be enjoyed.
So, back to reality and of course the answer is as usual my all encompassing “it all depends”. For celebration or not, when asked my favourite wine I respond with: that varies with the company, the food, the weather, the time of day and even my mood. They all play a role in deciding how a particular drink will impact on the senses.
The selection of a drink should always be in the context of who will share it. My personal choice for a general festive occasion would be sparkling - perhaps because of the care and effort what has gone into creating those magical bubbles just waiting to be released end enjoyed. And because of where we live it would have to be English, made in the traditional method just like Champagne and from the same grapes and same soil.
But in the company of an abstainer (yes, I do know some) there would be sparkling water too. Surely there should be no celebration that is not inclusive.
Meat free wine? –That’s fine. (17/03/17):
Consumers often ask what it means when the back label of a wine bottle states “suitable for vegetarians and vegans”. The urban myth – or should it be rural myth – about sheep’s carcases in West country scrumpy aside, does any animal matter actually get into wine?
Well, yes it can. When wine is being made after fermentation there will be lots of tiny particles of grape matter suspended in the liquid which are normally removed by a process called fining. This involves mixing into the wine a substance which will fall through the tank, collecting together all those tiny particles and depositing them on the bottom. Clean clear wine can then be taken off so no trace of the fining agent remains.
So - what substances? At one time dried blood was used (long outlawed), and both meat gelatine and isinglass from fish were common – both an issue for vegetarians. Alternatives such as egg white or casein derived from milk are obviously not acceptable to vegans.
The use of egg white incidentally has the beneficial side effect of leaving large quantities of egg yolks to be used – so where this is the preferred fining agent there is usually an abundance of custardy desserts in the local cuisine.
In order to ensure clarity and stability in wine, the industry has come up with a number of alternatives such as types of powdered minerals, charcoal and even insoluble plastic – all with no animal connection - and wines treated in this way are becoming increasingly common because of consumer demand and the wish not to alienate a large potential market.
Of course some producers will avoid this altogether by choosing not to fine their products, so you may see a warning that the wine may throw a deposit in bottle after time. While many drinkers will accept an old red wine with dark sediment, any wine merchant will tell you they are less forgiving of a white wine with an identical deposit that hasn’t been dyed!
This is especially likely if the wine has not been filtered. Modern filtration can remove every kind of unwanted matter in a wine – but some purists would say it can remove taste or reduce quality. Minimal intervention is the watchword of many quality winemakers but this has to be balanced by the demands of a fussy public who generally will not buy odd shaped vegetables let alone wine with bits in!
Give me strength (23/02/17):
A much overlooked category in the world of wine are fortified wines, and I believe this to be a shame and a great loss to many drinkers as many of these wines not only are interesting and versatile – but often represent some of the best value in quality wines.
Let us start with clarifying that fortification is the addition of alcohol to a light wine. But that is not the point of the exercise; adding alcohol is just another way in which the winemaker can modify the style of the final product. Not just stronger – but different.
Adding alcohol during fermentation will kill yeast and halt the fermentation, leaving some grape sugars and producing fortified wines of varying levels of sweetness; Port is the classic example of this kind of drink. Sherry and similar wines are fermented to dryness, and any sweetness in the finished drink is added.
The secret behind these drinks is in the complex maturation and blending processes which gives us a truly enormous range of styles: dry to sweet, light to full bodied, young and simple to old and complex. Considering everything that goes into the production of these wines us in the trade consider them to be some of best bargains to be had.
What's in a name? (24/01/17):
The United Kingdom Vineyard Association is applying to the EU for protection of the name “British Fizz” for our traditional method sparkling wines.
The traditional method is where there is a second fermentation in bottle and is the most complex and expensive way of production and is accepted as making the best quality. Other popular wines such as Prosecco are made in bulk using a cheaper process.
The problem is we do not have an accepted term to describe our sparkling wines – unlike elsewhere. Think Champagne, Crémant, Cava, Cap Classique – legally protected names for quality sparkling wines from France, Spain and South Africa.
But personally, I think British Fizz doesn’t sound that impressive and having spent decades telling people that “British Wine” is nothing to do with the quality wines produced in England and Wales (in fact, it’s technically not actually “wine” at all!) I’m not alone in thinking it may not be the best. Neither have the terms Bretagne or Merret (after the Englishman who first described making bottle fermented sparkling wine back in 1662) caught on – do you have any other ideas for a catchy name?
Although the name Champagne is supposedly protected it hasn’t stopped “California Champagne” being served at the last two inaugurations of US Presidents – much to the anger of real Champagne producers. There is a loophole that allows Americans who have long used the term to continue despite it being generally outlawed worldwide. Funny old world – or should I say new world?
Making progress (22/12/16):
We wine lovers have much to thank advances in technology. Without bottles and corks ageing would be difficult. Glass making techniques developed in England to produce strong bottles made sparkling wines such as Champagne possible.
More recently the introduction of stainless steel and refrigeration in wineries has changed the production of everyday wine beyond recognition – now relatively easy to control fermentation and produce clean and fresh flavours.
But some processes are ageless. The oldest evidence of domestication of wild grapes and wine production dates from around 6,000 BC in present day Georgia. This area traditionally used large clay jars buried in the ground to moderate temperatures. This method is called kvevri and is recognised by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage.
How much is too much? (28/10/16):
How do you choose Rioja? The label, in common with many Spanish wines, will tell you whether it has been oak aged, and for how long. Traditionally, more ageing equals better quality and certainly cost. This is logical, given that nobody would put everyday wine in expensive oak barrels for years but expresses only one aspect of a wine’s character (see below for actual ageing requirements).
However tastes and fashions change. Old style heavily oaked and tannic white Rioja for example is pretty much a rarity nowadays, and many producers are using French rather than American oak to give more finesse and less obvious coconut and vanilla sweetness.
Now there are proposals (about to be accepted we understand) to introduce labelling that defines region, municipality and individual vineyard – somewhat on the lines of other wine regions that stress locality. Given that red Rioja is usually a blend of four grape varieties and whites of two and that producers may source grapes from all over the 60 thousand odd hectares that make up the region, this may cause some issues.
So, is this a move forward or does it add further complexity and increase potential confusion? As a professional I appreciate the aim of precision and indication of terroir (terruño here in Spain). But I also see the danger of polarising wine consumers into those who have sufficient knowledge to select wine that meets their wishes and those who – faced with the daunting amount of choice available plump for the simplicity and apparent safety of Blossom Hills or Echo Falls and the like.
I’d love to know your opinion about this – and about how much we really need to know in order to buy wine wisely and get good value. As an educator, my job is to provide knowledge, which may be detailed technical for the trade, but in also a form which will be of practical help to consumers navigating the interesting – and sometimes exasperating – world of wine. Do get in touch with your thoughts.
Ageing requirements for Rioja categories:
Jóven – none
Crianza reds – 12 months in cask plus 12 months in bottle (this is 6 months in cask longer than the national requirement)
Crianza whites and rosés – 18 months, no cask ageing requirement
Reserva reds - 12 months in cask plus 24 months in bottle
Reserva whites and rosés- 6 months in cask plus 12 months in bottle
Gran Reserva reds - 24 months in cask plus 36 months in bottle (this is 6 months in cask longer than the national requirement)
Gran Reserva whites and rosés - 12 months in cask plus 36 months in bottle (this is 6 months in cask longer than the national requirement)
Room temperature (25/07/16):
By the time you read this temperatures will have probable returned to a more reasonable level. But the recent heat reminded me of the critical importance of serving wine at the correct temperature.
Those of you who’ve heard me talk about wine service will be used to my complaints about being served ice-cold white wine that is impossible to smell or taste. At least we can do something about that, even if only cupping the glass in our hands to transfer some warmth to bring it alive.
But if it’s red wine and served at actual “room temperature” it will be seriously compromised, as I found the other day when being served a bottle in a warm restaurant on a warm day. One of the essential elements of good wine is balance – and if the temperature’s wrong then the balance will be wrong.
Warmth accentuates alcohol, bitterness and tannin and makes fresh fruit character seem more like something cooked. So, instead of a nicely balanced fruity red, if the room you are in is at 22° or more you get a glass of something fiery, raw and jammy - not my idea of money well spent. At 28° it will be positively undrinkable.
So, what’s the answer? Keep all wine as near to the correct temperature if possible, and if not use an ice bucket with ice, water and salt can quickly chill, as can a short stint in the freezer; at home an ice cube will chill a glass and if quickly removed hardly dilute.
Always er on the side of slightly cool as the wine will warm up at the table, but never cool down.
Referendum thoughts (26/06/16):
As you know, I normally include in my emails some information relating to the world of wine, and this month is no exception. I’ve been asked, naturally enough, what the impact of leaving the EU will have on the wine trade, duties and so on. And, naturally enough, nobody really knows ....
Whatever now happens, let’s hope all the necessary negotiations of trade treaties are completed quickly as The House of Commons Library has stated “Because the UK has negotiated as part of the EU at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), it is likely that it would inherit the EU’s tariff regime at the time of leaving, meaning, at least initially, high prices would be faced by consumers buying imports from the EU and those countries with which the EU has trade agreements. Without any change, a 32% tariff would be levied in imports of wine, for instance.” My emphasis – my alarm.
So, fingers crossed and thank goodness for the increasing success of English wine producers.
May notes (24/05/16):
El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. So, what’s that got to do with wine?
Well, as a result of this phenomenon Argentina has reported its worst pre-harvest grape losses since 1957, with production in 2016 expected to be 27% smaller than 2015 across the country and 39% down in Mendoza – the most productive region. Spring was cold and wet (four times as much rain as usual in April) and thus the harvest late.
There were also problems with mould and mildew – not usually a big issue in South America. ‘People are used to spraying here only twice a year, and this year you had to spray around eight times,’ said a major producer’s vineyard manager. We don’t yet know how this will impact supplies – or prices.
So, we may moan about our weather, but our winemakers don’t have to contend with El Niño (“little boy”) which can cause this havoc elsewhere.
On your bike (01/03/16):
Lots of discussions about Europe of late, so I thought I’d share news of some idiosyncratic behaviour from some of my colleagues across the Channel.
The Chilean wine brand Bicicleta from producer Cono Sur is sponsoring the Tour de France – with a bicycle brand name that would seem quite normal. But – this is France, more precisely Languedoc- Roussillon, and feelings are running high. The local wine makers’ union chief has said “We intend to block the Tour de France at strategic steps if a French wine is not chosen to represent this cycling event, the emblem of France.” Bad news as stage 11 on July 13th is from Carcassonne to Montpellier in the heart of the region.
"Each bottle of American and Australian wine that lands in Europe is a bomb targeted at the heart of our rich European culture," one winemaker has said. And any threat may not be completely idle as in the past the regional winemakers’ action committee (CRAV) has burnt foreign tankers, and placed explosives at wine importers.
The irony of this is that under French law, no alcohol can be promoted or associated with any sporting event – including the French stages of the Tour de France – so only the Swiss and Spanish public will be aware. I’ll be interested to see what happens ...
Dry January - Cautious February (16/01/16):
Those who have attended any of my tastings or classes and listened to the questions asked will be all too familiar with my most common answer – “It all depends”.
That’s because all of the variables associated with wine and its production and appreciation. Nice to see then Dr Michael Apstein, a respected gastroenterologist write in Decanter magazine just that in answer to the question “how much is safe to drink”. Because, again, there are many variables such as age, speed of drinking, combination with food, whether a regular drinker whether it is sparkling and, yes, gender; sorry to say women’s Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) will always be higher for the same intake of alcohol.
One issue for us wine drinkers is that wines differs greatly in alcohol content – then it’s back to “it all depends”. I’ve been drinking Riesling at 7% and Zinfandel at 15% - how many glasses before I’m unsafe and illegal to drive? And how many before you are?
A useful guide can be found here which takes into account weight and gender - but do be aware it is only a rough estimate so read their disclaimer. And the other “it all depends” is that the alcohol level on the label may not be that precise. EU law allows between .5% and .8% leeway but other countries such as the US permit up to three times that level of inaccuracy – so please err on the side of caution.
Admission to the best wine festival of 2016 (31/12/15):
This year has been stunning for the English wine industry – sales of our quality sparkling wines in particular have rocketed and they are recognised as being of world class.
So, 2016 should be interesting for all of us who like wine: the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium is being held in Britain for the first time in May – down the road in Brighton just before English Wine Week.
The second 1066 Wine and Food Festival is also taking place in May starting with the opening on May 14th in Battle Abbey itself - how appropriate in the 950th anniversary year of the most famous date in English history. We have been able to get two free places for our readers – just click here
to enter a draw to celebrate in style and be sent details of the Festival.
My Autumn statement (25/11/15):
The Chancellor’s Autumn statement prompts us all to think about tax. And I wonder not for the first time why we have the second highest duty on wine in Europe.
At a staggering £2.05 a bottle (plus VAT) only the poor Irish pay more, while in France they pay just under 2p. Only 13 of the 28 European countries have any duty on wine at all, so France is not as generous as it may seem. When we were just a consuming country and wine was an imported luxury, this probably made some sense, but now wine is accepted as part of our diet and we have a burgeoning wine industry - especially important here in the South East. Let me know your thoughts.
Vintage times (29/09/15):
I’ve just received the latest list from The Wine Society and was delighted to see they have added an English sparkling wine to their own label Exhibition range, another sign our local wines are accepted into the mainstream.
English wines continue to go from strength to strength and the amount of wine made looks set to double over the coming seven years to more than 12 million bottles, according to new estimates.
Vineyard acreage has grown by more than 10 per cent a year on average over the past decade. There are now 470 vineyards and 135 commercial wineries producing 6.3 million bottles a year, worth £100 million.
The coming days and weeks will see the start of this year’s harvest, so if you’re interested in helping out and learning a bit more at firsthand about how your wine is made, contact your local vineyard to see if they’d welcome a volunteer. We wish all our colleagues in English vineyards every success.
In fact Chapel Down, where in the adjoining Swan Restaurant we hold many of our professional wine courses, started picking today so we look forward to tasting the results when ready.
Serious wine by the glass (02/08/15):
I am often asked about wine preservation: how to keep wine fresh after opening a bottle and how long will it keep in good condition. OK, I know the usual smug answer is just finish the bottle, but for restaurants, wine bars and merchants who want to offer samples it is a real problem.
As consumers, we want to be offered a wide choice, but wines do deteriorate on contact with air – so as soon as a bottle is opened its days (or even hours) are numbered.
At home, many people use devices like the Vacuvin, which extracts some of the air from an opened bottle and, especially if chilled, will extend the life of the wine. In a commercial environment, having to change stoppers and pump the air out after each glass is just not practical so the need is more complex.
Coincidentally, speaking to a number of sommeliers recently they tell me there has been an increase in interest in buying wine by the glass. In Scotland, this trend has been amplified by the new lower drink-driving limit which has discouraged people from ordering a bottle and settling for a glass. The positive thing about this is if you’re only having one glass, you’d probably like something pretty good!
This has led to further investment in methods of preservation with the Enomatic at the high end. This, like many other devices, works by replacing the wine dispensed with a neutral and inert gas so the wine does not deteriorate for some time. This means people can have a glass or just a sample of a wine they possibly could never afford to buy a bottle of.
The downside is these machines are extremely expensive, so alternatives have been sought. The latest device becoming very popular in restaurants (and the home) is the Coravin. This extracts wine from the bottle without removing the cork and again replaces the wine with inert argon gas and because the cork is not disturbed the wine will remain in condition almost indefinitely. At about £270 retail (plus running costs) it is not cheap but can pay for itself in saving waste.
A new inexpensive carbon filter stopper which will keep wine for a week or so – AntiOx – is currently being trialled at the School and I’ll let you know how we get on.
English wine and all that (31/05/15):
Today is the last day of English Wine Week – and what a week it’s been! Each year keeps getting better and better as the industry matures along with the vines.
The UK is now recognised as a premium wine-producing region, with our wines winning many prestigious international awards. There are around 500 vineyards in England and Wales covering some 4,500 acres – many of them in the countryside around our school on the South coast.
Every month I try to give you some useful information – and this month I’ve got more news about the very first 1066 Wine & Food Festival, running from Sunday 21st to Sunday 28th June.
We’re delighted that wine critic and TV presenter Jilly Goolden will talk about English sparkling wine at the gala opening in lovely St Mary in the Castle on Hastings seafront on the evening of the Midsummer Solstice, Sunday 21st June.
Jilly is well known for presenting the long running (and sadly missed) BBC Food and Drink programme and now hosts excellent tasting session at her Wine Room at her home in Ashdown Forest. All the organisers of the Festival have already booked here.
On St George's Day we're world leaders (22/04/15):
I hope everyone will be raising a glass of English traditional method sparkling wine to toast St George’s day tomorrow.
As well as celebrating England’s patron saint and most outstanding agricultural product, there is another cause for rejoicing. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust – whose qualifications we teach for – have won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade in recognition of their success in developing wine training in over 60 countries and in 18 languages.
Ian Harris, their Chief Executive said: “As a country with a historically low domestic production, the UK has always been one of the world’s largest importers of wine. This exposure to different styles and grape varieties has given the British a rich understanding of wines and spirits from all over the world – making us well placed to be world leaders in the industry’s education.
“Originally founded as an organization for training the UK trade, the team at WSET has worked tirelessly to expand its influence overseas and now attracts the interest of keen amateurs as well as seasoned professionals across the globe. It is fantastic to have our efforts acknowledged by HM The Queen.”
I personally am very pleased with this, having in my time at the WSET introduced their awards to the French market – their first non English speaking location. I am also proud to still be a guest teacher at the prestigious London Wine School when not running courses here in Sussex and Kent.
Wine can give you toothache as well as a headache (01/04/15):
A recent study has indicated that wine tasters are exposing their teeth to excessive acidity, which could erode their enamel.
“With professional wine tasters and winemakers tasting anywhere between 20 to 150 wines per day, this represents a significant risk to their oral health,” said an expert from the University of Adelaide’s School of Dentistry.
Now, I don’t mean to alarm anyone as most of you are probably tasting much less than that – and only if you’re seriously tasting (using the structured approach we teach!) does the contact with teeth get maximised.
The advice is drinking plenty of water, not brushing teeth when they are soft after a tasting and perhaps using remineralising agents.
I am going to try a special type of toothpaste containing these minerals, available only on prescription, as I actually do taste the numbers of wines thought to pose a risk – I’ll let you know how I get on with it.
Although tasting might lead to toothache, usually only over-indulgence will lead to a headache, so as ever go for quality over quantity and remember to consume responsibly.
Celebrate Safely (25/02/15):
At a recent tasting I was talking to a couple who had celebrated Valentine’s Day with a bottle of sparkling wine. On removing the wire cage the cork leapt from the bottle with considerable force, leaving a hole in the ceiling.
Luckily, the cork missed both of them but they could relate to the part of the tasting where I had demonstrated the safe way to open sparkling wine – emphasising the average global death toll in doing so is about twenty, and a third of those casualties at weddings!
The problem is the pressure in the bottle is about 90psi – that’s about three times that of a car tyre; also the cork is roughly the same size as a human eye socket – and it’s topped with metal! Another problem at weddings if often the amount already drunk and the propensity for practical jokes, such as shaking the bottle!
So: undo but DO NOT remove the wire cage – this is the safety catch; as soon as it’s loose the cork could come out at any time, so hold on to it fiercely. If the bottle has been chilled (which it should have been otherwise it will be too lively) then it may be wet and slippery – so use a cloth to give grip.
Then, holding at an angle and pointing away from anyone, twist the bottle NOT the cork; this will prevent the cork breaking which would be a disaster. Keep twisting and hold on really tightly as you feel the pressure build behind the cork.
The cork should come out with a gently ‘phut’ and there will be no wine spilled, no injuries and your celebration – be it a wedding or Valentine’s Day – can proceed without a fatality.
Six cases of fine wine, anyone? (27/01/15):
Last night I was a guest at London’s fabulous Guildhall for the annual Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) graduation and awards ceremony: lots of really bright students receiving prizes and scholarships for excelling in professional qualifications. Having been through all these stages I appreciated the amount of study (and tasting) students had done to achieve these really outstanding results – I also appreciated the Fino Sherry and vintage Champagne provided by the generous sponsors!
Amongst the prize winners from around the world who unfortunately could not make the ceremony to receive her award was a certain Pippa Middleton (you know, the Duchess of Cambridge’s sister) who recently passed the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits with Distinction and she was chosen to receive a new prize (including six cases of fine wine) given by six of the country’s top wine merchants. Well done to her – Level 3 is a tough challenge; but If she can do it, what’s stopping you oenophiles out there proving your worth?
You could start with the WSET Level 1 in Wine which is great for those wanting to know the main grape varieties, wine styles, an introduction to professional tasting and food and wine pairing with a practical workshop.
Moving on, the Level 2 is both for the trade and also wine enthusiasts who wish to acquire in-depth knowledge of wines and spirits and want to obtain an internationally recognised wine qualification.
!£$€¥ (new symbol for rip-off alert) Two more so-called wine investment firms have collapsed owing investors millions: European Fine Wines Ltd and Embassy Wine UK Ltd. Can I emphasise that to be safe only buy wine from a reputable source and to know a bit about what you are buying! Reputable wine merchants do not cold-call.
If you (or anyone you know) is approached by anyone selling wine as an investment, PLEASE get in touch so that we can avoid a repetition of these scams.
What's on the menu? (26/11/14):
I’ve just been asked to appear in a video talking about food and wine – a very important element of what we teach and a subject close to my heart. The choice of wine can make a meal superb or mess it up completely!
On our courses, we go through a hands-on (or should it be tongues-on?) practical workshop pairing some basic flavours with different wines. The results are interesting and enlightening. So, this month a quick overview of the elements to think of when choosing wine to go with food:
1: Throw out the rule book – our individual tastes differ and that will influence what “works” best.
2: Most wines will be OK with most foods for most people – so relax.
3: Think about weight. No, I’m not talking about the current suggestions to put calorific values on alcoholic drink labels – rather the body/richness/delicacy of the food and wine. They must match or one will overpower the other and then both will fail.
4: There are two “wine enemies” – sweet food that needs something with equal sweetness otherwise the wine will taste bitter, acidic and less fruity.
Similarly – and ironically – totally savoury flavours have the same damaging effect. Savoury is also known as umami – we use MSG (monosodium glutamate) in our workshops; the stuff they put in pot noodles and the like.
5: There are thankfully two “wine friends” – salt and acidity. Both will reduce bitterness and acidity and bring out sweetness, richness and fruit. The good news is they are both usually available to add at the table in the form of condiments, sauces etc.
6: The trick is balance – know the wine: its acidity, weight, sweetness, tannin etc; and think about the dish as a whole: the cooking method, sauces, accompaniments etc – and match to enhance.
For further exploration of such matters as texture, hot and spicy foods and for that tongues-on experience you’ll have to come on one of our courses.
Flutes out of Favour (31/10/14):
There are thousands of types of wine glass available, some enhance the wine and others are no more than decorative. Wine glasses should generally be clear to assess colour, large enough to hold a decent amount without filling to the brim to allow swirling the wine to release aromas and narrower at the top to hold those aromas.
Generally, the largest glass should be used for red wines, smaller for whites, smallest for fortified and of course flutes for sparkling.
At tastings and classes, we always provide the International Standards Organisation (ISO) tasting glass as it the accepted professional glass so that every wine is compared in the same way. In fact, it is usually the only glass I use at home – even for sparkling wines.
Recently, there have been studies that show I might just be going the right thing; the popular flute glass is not, after all, the best for tasting Champagne and other quality sparkling wines (including our favourite English traditional method sparklers!). Richard Geoffroy from Dom Perignon and Federico Lleonart from Pernod Ricard have both gone on record recently that a standard white wine glass is actually best for the best – only everyday sparklers will benefit from a flute.
The worst possible glass for anything sparkling is the coupe, a wide shallow glass that causes the bubbles to dissipate as quickly as possible. Originally, it is said, modelled on one of Marie Antoinette’s breasts, the latest design based on Kate Moss’s breast – plus ça change and all that but still the wrong shape to drink out of …