Category Archives: Wine & Drink

Match Of The Day

What wine goes with Asian food’ is a topic that crops up three or four times a week so now instead of spending half the evening debating I can simply refer folk to But before I go too far down the track let me say this is only the considered opinion of a thirsty, greedy geezer with a good few gastronomic miles on the clock. So if you’re quaffing Amarone with your tom yam gung and enjoying it don’t call me a prat.
But do get on the forum and tell me why you think it’s brilliant.

No subject causes diners so much anxiety as the pairing of wine with food. And never is the pain so intense as when the food in question is Asian. What do you drink with your lamb Madras or your Cantonese crispy roast pork? Many wine and some food writers opt to duck that question, referring you instead to beer, fruit juices or yoghurt- based lassi, all very well unless, like most of us, you prefer to drink wine with food.

There are three schools of thought on wine and food pairings. There are the people who say “drink what you like to drink” and I have some sympathy with this view. There is no wine that I would never pair with Asian food, except maybe Muscadet, too lean, or young Savennières too austere.

The second school follows the ‘rules’ developed by wine writers over many years which lay down specific matches – red wine with red meat, white wine with fish. Unfortunately by the mid-20th century these rules became set in stone, offering no solution to a diner seeking wines to complement the vibrant international cuisine rapidly becoming commonplace in restaurants and homes.

The third school, to which on balance I belong, took pains to find elemental matches for these ‘new’ flavours while, at the same time, stressing that there are no perfect pairings and few imperfect ones, or in a nutshell “anything goes, but some things go better than others”.

With most l Asian food I try to choose wines that are fruity and not overly tannic or acidic, the exception being onion-heavy curries where tannins help counteract the richness. Any sweetness in the food, I counterbalance with big, soft rounded flavours – Semillon, Viognier or Gruner Veltliner perhaps in whites and Merlot, Grenache or Zinfandel in reds. I also like the ability of the more rounded New World sparklers to tame fiery heat.

Scientists say the tongue’s taste receptors can detect five aspects of flavour: sweetness, sourness, salinity and bitterness, plus the umami, best described perhaps as a kind of ‘feel good factor’. Similarly, when seeking wine to go with Asian food I like to separate the food into its essential components. The main ingredient, meat or vegetarian in a dish plays a significant role in deciding what I do or don’t drink. For example there’s something in the slightly-sweet succulence of lamb that murders white wine – unless it’s Australian Riesling. The delicacy of breast of chicken, even when teamed with a salty black bean sauce is definitely enhanced by big, buttery oaked Chardonnay. With the secondary ingredients and the saucing there are few certainties. Except that rich casseroles kill delicate creamy whites like Chablis. Conversely, heavily tannic Cabernet Sauvignons tend to flatten cream or yoghurt-based sauces.

It’s when you come to spices that the partnering process gets complicated. Chilli, in particular, is hard to deal with. Californian Zinfandel would be my preference with young, high in alcohol Aussie Shiraz as an alternative. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc stands up well to ginger and coriander. With regard to texture, the heavier the food, the heavier the wine is not a bad generalisation – rib-sticking sauces are best matched with beefy reds.

The sweet/sour combination, so popular in Chinese food, goes well with Gewürztraminer, according to conventional wisdom. However, not everyone appreciates this highly spiced and perfumed grape and as alternatives I would suggest one of the new unoaked breed of Australian Chardonnay or a Viognier, Rousanne or Marsanne from Southern France.

Lastly, a new breed of Indian (and in this I include Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali) chefs have emerged, on a mission to develop the cuisine by exploring regional culinary styles or introducing modern influences. Their recipes are often subtler and less highly seasoned, making it easier to flout ‘the rules’ and drink whatever you like.
Overall, don’t be afraid to experiment. And don’t take things too seriously. Wine and food are fun. So pairing wine and food should be fun, right?

Here are some suggestions
Mild vegetable curries
White: Semillon/Chardonnay, Chenin blanc Red: Beaujolais, Fleurie , New World Pinot Noir
Mild meat curries
White: Semillon-Chardonnay blends, Gruner Veltliner Red: Valpolicella, Merlot
Pullao and biryani
White: Alsace Riesling, Pinot gris Red: Chianti, young Australian Shiraz
Creamy meat curries, korma
White: Gewürztraminer, whites from the Rhône Red: Any light red or rosé
Dry curries, bhuna
White: Chablis, New World Sauvignon blanc Red: Cabernet sauvignon or Syrah
Medium curries with heavy onion base, dohpiaza
White: Australian Riesling Red: Amarone, Northern Rhône, Bordeaux
Medium tomato-based curries, rogan josh
White: Gavi, dry white Bordeaux Red: Chianti, Merlot
Medium coconut-based curries
White: Chardonnay Red: Pinotage
Medium fruit based curries, dhansak
White: Semillon, Gruner Veltliner Red: Merlot
Hot curries
White: oaked chardonnay Red: Zinfandel (or drink beer)
Sweet and sour flavours
White: Semillon, Viognier, Gruner Veltliner Red: Southern Rhône, Zinfandel
Roasted pork, chicken and duck
White: oaked Chardonnay Red: aged Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot noir
Steamed fish, crab, lobster with ginger and scallion
White: Chablis, Sancerre Red: Chianti
Prawns and other shellfish
White: Chablis, Macon Red: Rioja, Valpolicella
Chicken in black bean sauce
White: oaked New World Chardonnay Red: Merlot
Pork or beef in black bean sauce
White: oaked New World Chardonnay Red: New World Cabernet Sauvignon, Rioja
Meat and fruit combinations (lychees, pineapple)
White: New Zealand Sauvignon blanc Red: Merlot
Noodle dishes, mild
White: Alsace Riesling, Pinot blanc Red: Southern Italian
Noodle dishes, spicy
White: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris Red: Chilean Merlot
Casseroles from Northern China and Mongolia
White: unoaked Chardonnay Red: Pinot Noir, Syrah
Satay, barbecued meats
White: Gewurztraminer, oaked New World Chardonnay Red: Chilean Cabernet, Chianti
Green and red curries
White: oaked New World Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner Red: Rioja (not sure why but it works)

Whisk(e)y for Beginners – PART 1

‘Mony’s the love affair I’ve had wi’ whisky’ an Edinburgh publican confided in a rare Burnsesque moment. I know what he meant. One twirl around the dance floor with a honey-blonde Scots charmer, I’m a born-again teenage romantic. One kiss from the dram of my dreams, I get the urge to find a desk and carve ‘Ernie (heart) Talisker’ under the lid. To my new squeeze I swear lifelong fidelity. But a night or two later Jack-the-lad is out romancing some Irish beauty.

Whisky’s story has been shaped by legislation that’s taken the drink in directions it didn’t necessarily want to go since the days when uisce beatha was made by rough mountain men to keep their friends’ and relatives’ minds off their humdrum existence and their bodies from rotting in the rain. Especially significant were the Excise Acts of the early 19th century which regulated taxation, forcing smaller producers to go underground and the thirteen years of prohibition in America in the 20th which left the USA with a raging thirst and the Scots firmly in the driving seat when it came to slaking it.

Dublin excise man Aeneas Coffey’s patent continuous still was rejected by his countrymen who preferred their graceful swan-necked shiny copper pot stills. Undaunted, Aeneas took his invention to Scotland where Messrs. Walker and Bell, Buchanan and Ballentine, whisky barons in the making, lapped up the opportunity it offered to throughput high volumes of grain. Armed by the new process, they created a new Scotch – a blend of malted barley and grain, less characterful than the traditional tipple but smoother, mellower, easier for the casual drinker to assimilate. Global domination was only an ice cube away.

Or alchemy, I suppose, for isn’t that the genius to turn base material into gold? The embryo of whisky is barley that’s been soaked (malted) and dried over a fire or in a closed oven (kiln) to a predetermined degree; grain (malted and unmalted barley, wheat, maize, rye etc.) The raw materials may be used individually (single malts/single grains), or in combination (blends). Then they are introduced to the local water. Chemists tell us that the water used makes no difference to the taste but try telling a whisky lover; we don’t believe them and, truly, the verdict of the fan is irreversible. The whole confection is then mashed like tea, a process that converts the starch in the cereals into fermentable sugars. This liquor (the wash) is tapped off and vaporised (distilled), once, twice or three times according to the prevailing style. The blender has decisions to make at every stage: the composition of the mix; at what point to tap off ‘the run’ and at what point to stop; what malts should be blended and in what proportion; what casks should the spirit be aged in and for how long.

There was not much interest in malts until 1963, when William Grant & Sons decided to put some marketing budget behind Glenfiddich.

Scottish single malts circumscribe 360° of the sensation wheel from soft and floral through lemon peel, spice and heather to honey and butterscotch, pear drops and tangerines, peat smoke and herring oil, even quasi-medicinal qualities are attributed. Malts from ‘the crescent’, a term of my own coinage to link Campbelltown with Orkney and points on or near the coast in between, do tend to take a combative stance, reinforced with aggressive use of peat and the sea tang in these whiskies (like that ascribed to the manzanilla style of sherry) is not unfanciful.

The oft-advanced argument that Speyside whiskies are rich, fulsome, easy-drinking, unlikely ever to offend or shock is certainly tenable. It’s when discussing Islay malts that one becomes aware of the inadequacies of language. One Islay whisky has famously been described as ‘liquid kippers’. Enjoying a nip of cask-strength Laphroaig as I do, all I can say is use your foodie instincts – morels don’t have to taste like raspberry jam in order for folk to savour them do they?

Blends? Some are designed to be all things to all drinkers. Swigged neat from the hip-flask at Murrayfield; through the rocks in a highball glass; Grannie’s generous slug in her tea; the ‘kicker’ in Coke, lemonade, vermouth. Luxury blends are created to appeal, compressing a world of luscious flavours into a single bottle. Other blends come with their own pedigree, traceable through the particular malts in their make-up.

You can sum up the major taste distinction between Irish and Scotch in one word –‘peat’. Scots distillers early on opted to dry their malted barley over a peat fire which imparted a characteristic smoky nose and taste to Scotch. Irish distillers preferred to kiln their barley and, furthermore, often added unmalted barley, in measured quantity. Advocates of Irish say that this judicious addition, coupled with the absence of peat smoke, gives the drinker a better opportunity to savour the subtleties. Talk to an Irish blender like David Quinn of Bushmills about the pleasures of peat, it will be a very short conversation indeed! Triple distillation further enhances smoothness. That said, there are considerable stylistic differences. It’s instructive to compare Jameson with the famed Black Bush: both feature sweet toffee malt, balanced by drier, darker undertones from sherry-casking. Black Bush, though, has a spicy zip, an extra dimension. Asked to say which is the premium whiskey, you couldn’t fail, good as Jameson is. A higher proportion of malt to grain, older malts in the blend, longer wood-ageing are all things that add character (and, of course, cost money). You should try Redbreast 12 year-old, unmucked-about and crafted from quality, aged pot-still whiskies, in my opinion, as traditional as you can get. Ireland hosts some notable single malts too – the 10 year old from Bushmills has evolved from tentative beginnings into something wonderful. The exception that proves the rule is Connemara – as you might expect from those iconoclasts up at Cooley, it’s peated.

I should probably add a rider to the peat theory: Noel Sweeney and the lads up at Cooley who make some excellent peated malts assure me that, in certain areas, peat played a part in Irish Whiskey making. It seems feasible, for a lot of Irish whiskey would have been made in places where peat was plentiful and curing over the local fuel would certainly have made sense. But there’s not much in the way of hard evidence, alas. I don’t much mind, peated or unpeated I love both styles.

The first settlers arrived in Kentucky in the 1770s, bribed by an offer of 400 free acres if they cleared the land and planted corn, which they found made good liquor. The creation of the Bourbon style is generally credited to the Rev. Elijah Craig, hellfire preacher and distiller, though it’s unlikely that he invented the charred barrel, the bizarre innovation that gives Bourbon much of its character. Tastewise, good Bourbon is rounded and mellow, with slight burnt toast overtones from the casking.

America’s other great whisky comes from Tennessee. At first produced in similar fashion to Bourbon, divergence came in the 1820s when distillers in Lincoln County started filtering the spirit slowly through a thick bed of maple charcoal, a technique hitherto only known to Polish vodka distillers. The process removes impurities and by extracting sugars from the maple gives a quality that can only be described as a ‘sooty-sweetness.’ Oxymoronic I know, but every time I sip a glass of Jack Daniels I’m reminded how apt this is.

Canada also makes fine whisky, principally from barley and rye, thanks to Scots immigrants seeking to maintain their tradition in exile. The general style is light and fragrant, with citrus and spice overtones.

Years ago, a friend returning from overseas gave me a bottle of ‘scotch’ called The Real McGregor. According to the label it was ‘made in Japan from all 100 per cent Scottish grapes’. Right. Nowadays Japanese whisky like Suntory Royal, – the name might have been designed specifically to appeal to those tabloid readers who voted for Maggie Thatcher – is smooth and elegant. Tasted blind, it could be mistaken for a deluxe Scotch. Elsewhere the fun element persists. Ankara Turkish whisky is made from ‘malted barley and some other unmated grains’. Welsh whisky? Try Swn Y Don Welsch Chwisgi if you can find it. Old Thomas hails from Estonia but is actually made in Invergordon, Scotland. The French make whisky – like the sparky Breton single malt Armorik. Lastly, one for the pub quiz addict: Which Highland Distillery is not in the Scottish Highlands. Answer: The one in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Whisky tasting is something of a misnomer as most of the work is done with the nose – indeed, professional tasters are called ‘nosers’ for that reason – for smell is our most acute sense. Nevertheless, the palate plays a part. Sensory scientists have detected as many as 300 constituent flavours in malt whisky and estimate that there as many more that have yet to be isolated and described. Almost all whiskies benefit from the addition of water which, by freeing the volatile aromatics, makes the spirit more accessible and pleasurable to the taster.

IN PART 2 – Some whisk(e)y to try

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Whisk(e)y for beginners – part 2


Highland Park, Orkney
Heather and sweet damp moss on the nose. Add six drops of water and enjoy the butterscotch sweetness and the long, long finish, like coming home to a welcoming turf fire.

Springbank, Cambelltown
Big rich “see yu, Jimmy” of a peated malt. Pokey but with huge class.

Glenmorangie, Ross
Initially sweet, getting drier as it lingers. Trademarks are citric zest, almonds and the dead giveaway, mandarin oranges.

Linkwood, Speyside
Hard to find, but worth seeking out. Huge, powerful banana and pear drop nose on the 12 year old, then sherry and honey sweetness tailing off to a biscuit-dry finish.

The Glenlivet, Speyside
Buffs know it as “Smiths”. Wild flowers, spice and a malt-laden smoothness on the palate. Dry finish.

Talisker, Skye
Amazing ‘curried’ nose abates to let you enjoy the honey-and-cream mouthfeel. Smoky finish with Shirazzy black pepper overtones.

Laphroaig, Islay
Peat smoke and medicinal overtones up front then seaweed and salt-spray tang. Will arouse the jack tar or beachcomber in you. I used to love this but I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe its streetfightin’ macho appeal makes it more of a young man’s drink!

Johnnie Walker Black Label
Quintessential luxury blended Scotch, smooth as a politician’s tongue.

White Horse. “What?” I hear you say. Yes, it’s often discounted at supermarkets and airports but WH is a better than bog standard blended Sctoch, made very distinctive, classy even, by the blender lumping in Lagavuilin, the astringent TCP-ish Islay malt.

Redbreast 12 year-old
Dark, dramatic, steely and very traditional. Impressive spicy nose, a huge mouthful of quality pot-still whiskey follows. Stays for ever.

Jameson 1780
‘Dublin-style’ par excellence, though it’s made in Cork. Oloroso sherry nose and vanilla and digestive biscuit finish sandwich rich fruitcake flavours.

Black Bush
Like the Titanic, dogged by ice. In pubs they presume you want it on the rocks and you always end up sending it back. Drink neat and enjoy the classy fragrant nose and the explosive sweetness on the palate.

Tullamore Dew
The ‘Irish-meets-blended-Scotch’ end of the spectrum. Use of grain flattens the spices in favour of mellow caramel toffee. Quite a lemony nose. Interesting, but not nmuch to my taste.

Midleton Very Rare
Expensive-but-worth-every-penny exemplar of the blender’s art and craft. This is bottled annually and the 2000 was the best I have tasted for some years – incredible.
Everyone should have at least one bottle.

Connemara, Irish Single Malt
You can argue all night about whether Irish whiskey was ever peated, but this is very fine gear. An Islay-esque flavour without the iodine.

Green Spot. A luxury Irish, made by Irish Distillers for Mitchells, the Kildare St, Dublin, wine merchants. Firm but not aggressive with pleasing acacia honey notes. Classic pot still.

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Bio-Dynamics explained

Bio-dynamics is not so much a cultivation method, more an agricultural philosophy that sets out to balance the relationship between the land and the plants grown on it. To this end it uses natural fertilisers and treatments and links cultivation techniques to terrestrial and solar cycles.

The founding father of bio-dynamics was Austrian philosopher–scientist Rudolf Steiner whose life’s aim was to bond the material and spiritual worlds through philosophy. He created the ‘spiritual science’ of anthroposophy, which he used as the basis of his school system that persists to this day. Steiner turned his attention to agriculture only late in life. His eight lectures, entitled Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture, were delivered in 1924 just a year before his death, but they set the pattern for bio-dynamic farming. Nevertheless there are a number of modern bio-dynamic growers who would distance themselves from Steiner’s beliefs and teachings.

Biodynamics considers the farm to be a living, self-sustaining system. It also takes into account the pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms. Hence the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right. The very idea of using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is anathema. Instead, they use a series of special preparations to enhance the life of the soil, which are applied at appropriate times in after consulting these seasonal rhythms. The same applies to working the land by hoeing and tilling. In bio-dynamics, whether you hoe in the morning or in the afternoon produces a different effect. In viticulture, the grape grower is the one who decides when to hoe arid work his fields in function of his soil. The organic preparations, (transformed vegetable, animal and mineral matter) many of which are seen by detractors as cranky-verging-on-witchcraft, are particularly essential as growing grapes does not afford opportunity for crop rotation.

Plant disease is seen as a symptom of a deeper malaise within the farm ‘organism’: The theory goes: “correct the problem in the system and the disease will right itself.” If the soil is properly balanced, the plant will protect itself against, or rather not attract, parasites However, the farmer may have to intervene to help keep the plants healthy by using herbal teas, decoctions or homeopathic plant dilutions and, if necessary, natural products such as Bordeaux mixture and brimstone flour.

Grape growing, as any other area of agriculture, is considered as a living organism. Cultivated soil is not a simple support for vines, but rather a living environment, a source of energy for plant life just like its outdoor envi-ronment. In this way, the vine – a median organism – creates and nourishes its soil in this inhabited and living environment that surrounds the root. The exchanges that take place between the root and foIiage systems enable the soil characteristics to be transferred to the grapes – increasing the quality of their flavor.

Bio-dynamic viticulture has greatly increased in popularity, particularly in Burgundy and Alsace. It’s difficult to get a complete listing as opinions on what is bio-dynamic vary amongst practitioners and while some who practice bio-dynamics make quite a noise about it, others just quietly go about their business. Nevertheless, a glance at this list should convince the drinker that bio-dynamics is here to stay!

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (partial)
J.M. Brocard (partial)
Domaine Leflaive
Dominique et Catherine Derain
Thierry Guyot
Domaine Leroy

La Coulee de Serrant

Eric Saurel

Zind Humbrecht

La Tour Figeac

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Add to these fine producers many other French producers, including a clutch of Champagne houses, many good Italians, and further interest in Spain and USA.
Nicholas Joly of La Coulee de Serrant and Michel Chapoutier are perhaps two of the most articulate and persuasive advocates of bio-dynamics and a recent tasting of Chapoutier’s range proved, to me at any rate that mumbo-jumbo it ain’t!

Tough Skins And Tannins

The connection between red wine drinking and health has been known for some time, although the medical profession, with its natural conservatism and caution, has not, until recently, seen fit to champion the cause of drinking wine, even in moderation.

Of course, it all started with the French.What became known as ‘The French Paradox’ was first discovered when epidemiologists tried to find reasons for the low death rate from heart disease in Mediterranean countries, especially France, despite the indulgence in rich, high fat diets. Studies revealed that the risk of heart attacks was 20 to 40 % lower among red wine drinkers. A Danish study, which tracked 10,000 citizens of Copenhagen over a ten year period showed that teetotallers run twice the risk of dying from heart disease as people who drank a moderate amount of red wine every day. Subsequent research, in the USA, where post mortems on alcoholics revealed their general heart condition to be way above average, and in the UK, has tended to back up these findings.

The scientific reasons for this phenomenon are as yet unconfirmed but it looks like a combination of mechanisms may be at work. Credit has been given to the red pigments in grape skins. These are members of a family called proanthocyanidins, powerful antioxidants forming part of a larger category of compounds called flavonols. Also, the tannins in red wine help prevent blood platelets clumping together and triggering a heart attack. It has further been found that any alcohol can raise levels of HDL, the benign form of cholesterol that also helps inhibit platelet clumping.The benefits of proanthocyanidins has been heavily researched in Europe. Scientifically documented benefits include enhanced capillary strength and vascular function, which helps the heart and decreases PMS; lessens the tendency to bruising, oedema from injury or trauma, varicose veins, leg swelling and retinopathy. Other perceived benefits include enhanced immune resistance; increased peripheral circulation; improved vision; reduced adverse allergic and inflammatory responses and even reduced skin ageing and elasticity. Nor is that the end of the good news. Findings from a study in the University of Illinois indicate that a compound commonly found in grapes may be effective in combating some types of cancer. Mice injected with resveratrol developed 98% fewer skin tumors. Red wines are apparently particularly rich in resveratrol.

Will any red wine do? Alas, no. It seems that what is required to deliver the maximum flavonols and resveratrol is a highly tannic wine, made from tough skinned grapes. So poor haemophiliac Pinot is a no-no. Maybe we’ll see a drop in the price of fine Burgundies as a result, but I somehow doubt it. Barolos and Barbarescos can be tannic to the point of unpleasantness, I usually hide them at the back of the cellar until they soften, maybe I should be hoicking them out and drinking them young. I’ve always been more than a touch dubious about the Australian predilection for blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz(Syrah). To me there seems little purpose in squeezing together the world’s two most scintillating red grape varieties – a pointless association, a bit like getting Shakespeare and James Joyce in the same pub for a head butting contest. Most Cabernet/Shiraz blends somehow aren’t blends at all. But wait a minute, maybe those clever Aussies have got it right, leather skinned Cab Sauv meets hi-tannin Shiraz – why am I getting all snotty about the World’s Greatest Health Drink?

Of course, wine bibbers in Ireland have some way to go before they build up their ‘flavs and rezzies’ to credible levels. Per capita/per annum consumption is still under 9 litres, compared to 60 litres in France. Wondering whether the public were actually aware of the health issue I decided to do some ‘vox pop’ research outside my two local wine stores. Analysing the results, it became obvious that only about one person in five had an inkling of the connection between red wine and health and less than one in ten were of the opinion that possession of such knowledge would influence their buying decision. On the other hand, a spokesperson for Searson’s of Monkstown estimated that his retail customers bought two bottle of red for every one of white. He felt that in Ireland, where wine is generally sold into a sophisticated and educated market, the consumer is well aware of the benefits of drinking red. None of the publicans I spoke to could confirm a trend towards red wine. Is there a promotional opportunity that the trade may be missing?

Unlucky teetotallers can apparently console themselves and go some way to reducing their flavonol/resveratrol deficiencies by munching peanuts and grape seeds, apples and oranges, drinking copious amounts of green tea and, best of all, sucking the resin out of pine bark. Now we know what all those multicoloured anoraks are really doing up Wicklow on Sunday afternoons.

Mind you, I know which indulgence I’d prefer if asked to choose between a glass of Ch. Haut Brion and a chunk of Christmas Tree! But hey, there could be another marketing opportunity…raise your glasses to Chateau Resveratrol-Flavonol (50% Cabernet Sauvignon /50% Retsina) smells vile, tastes vile but boy, does it do you good.


First off a likeable red 1999 Ch.Salauze, Minervois (O’Brien’s). Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, quite a lot I suspect, in a pleasing morello cherryish combination, nothing serious but value for money mid-weight drinking. Then a Vire-Clesse, Chanson 2000, very stylish Chardonnay from Macon. Chanson’s output has been a bit dull in recent years but this went a long way to restoring faith. An excellent Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine du Pavilon-Mercurol 1999 (Oddbins), meaty, spicy stuff, with lots more development to come.

I’m still raving about the bottle of Ch. Puech-Haut 2000, Saint-Drezery Tete de Cuvee someone gave me. This wine is made from Roussane, Marsanne and, in some vintages, Viognier from low-yielding vines by Gerard Bru, one of those people who made his fortune in a more mundane sphere then realised his dream of owning a vineyard. Aromatic, opulent, sexy, finely judged acid balance it’s got the lot. Utterly brilliant winemaking, up there with the very best. Alas, not cheap. Rated !!!?*****!! 1999 Wolf-Blass Red Label Shiraz/Cab Sauv. What the hell can you say about these guys? They make good wines, you never get a bummer. You expect a huge mouthful and you’re rarely disappointed. If you see consistency as a virtue (and most people do) you’ll buy the label regularly. If you’re looking for a Wow! Factor other makers are maybe more capable of surprising you. You pays yer money… I won’t complete the phrase.

Now Fetzer. They’re a surprising outfit. Two bottles, a Zinfandel/Shiraz and a Chardonnay/Viognier and I have to ask “Why?” The label only tells you “What…”) These wines are unoaked and maybe here’s the clue. Both the red and the white are blended to be ‘now’ wines – for immediate drinking. Hence the porty flavours that Zin takes on (always a love it/hate it thing) are strangled at birth and all the grape’s exuberance goes into the bouquet which is considerable. On the palate the peppery Shiraz takes over and there’s a decided Rhonesque memory. The white is amazingly European in style, something sparing and Northern Italian about the mouthfeel probably due to the cool climate Viognier in the blend, after the hedonistic bouquet which has all sorts of things going on. Two interesting wines.

Next, a clutch of Chards. The Wolf Blass South Australian Chardonnay 2001 was a typically broad-shouldered example of the marque. My lady who loves the ‘tropical fruit, big & buttery’ end of the Chardonnay spectrum thought it an absolute Wow! I’m always amazed more people haven’t discovered the charms of the Bethany Semillion Riesling Chardonnay The Manse(currently on special at O’Brien’s). This is budget-priced class, holding up nicely with masses of fruit still there but kept under control with sensitive and sensible oaking – Like it a lot. More European-styled and laid back is the Montes barrel fermented Chardonnay 2001. Few people realise just how good Wyndham Estates Bin 222 Chardonnay 2001 is. In fact I think it gets better with each vintage, a good example of how a progressive, caring wine maker tweaks a blend to get a bit more out of the grapes and into the bottle. Mind you it’s easier in Australia where there’s a fairly stable climate than, say, northern France.

The solitary Penfold’s Grange has gone! 1985, the one I won in a bet in Perth WA in ’92. Drunk with Ann, Daughter1 and partner – might put the menu up on the site, we had a great night. Thanks to Mac from Penfolds for the decanting advice and putting up with all the agonising. Was the Bin95 good? Too, bloody true it was – stonking and majestic, with loads of life still left in there. And would I buy it if I had that sort of money? You bet!

Ah what have we here? “Pinotage, ugh!” I grimaced at the thought of a grape I’ve always felt should be dug up and publicly hanged as a crime against tastebuds. But hey, guess what, I’m having to revise my views. Drank two in one night – Die Kram 2000, light and quite elegant, one you could use at a “guess the grape” party. Gone was the “down on your knees licking tarmac” feel Pinotage usually gives me; in it’s place almost a classic Chiantiesque plumminess. The other was more traddy, Durbanville Hills 1999. It announced itself with a fanfare – an enormous bouquet that split quite clearly into two – the first violets, prunes and toasted hazelnuts, the second an amazing old-style burgundy fried steak and farmyard aroma the like of which I haven’t come across for years. The body was absolutely Falstaffian – opulently fat and crammed with cherries, dark plums and figs, haven’t drunk Brunello for a while but that sort of thing. A class act and if you’re looking for a wine to partner Brie de Meaux, Stilton and pungent goat cheese look no further. Rated !!!****++ I’d say this one will keep, too.

O’Brien’s keep hitting the spot with wines, particularly reds, from unfashionable areas. Recently they had a beauty, Vina Borgia, despite the title poison it wasn’t on special with 2 botts for e14.50. Its big brother Borsao, around e8.50 is even better, big but soft and mellow.
Lastly, a little marvel, every wine writer I know is giving this one plaudits so why should I be excluded? Berry Bros Alsace Pinot Blanc 2001, restrained, refreshing, the sort of wine you can open at any time of day, you don’t need food, don’t need a party or an excuse, just enjoy. Entirely non-fatiguing but deadly serious.

No more Sham Champagne?

The CIVC (the Champagne producers’ regulatory body) and other European wine and food trade organisations are engaged in complex and delicate negotiations with US producers to work out how best to protect the use of European semi-generic brand names such as Champagne, Chablis, Sherry, Chianti, Bordeaux, Cheddar, Stilton and many others.
Apparently there’s twice as much fake “champagne” sold in the states as real Champagne. American producers complain of the same thing happening in Europe, with names such as Bourbon used to promote imitation American whiskies.
But there’s clearly no such thing as a free Champagne.
In return the US wants European producers to recognise American winemaking practices such as the use of additives permitted in the US but not in Europe.

Meanwhile, as the relationship between French premier Jacques Chirac and president Bush is reaching unprecedented lows the US Congressional canteen is doing its best to pour oil on troubled flames. It’s now serving “Freedom” fries and “Freedom” toast – replacing the word “French”.

I’m with Les Grenouilles – I’m going home tonight to cook Lobster Oil Baron Naked Aggressor.

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Not much to say about wine, is there?

Only joking. Well, sort of. Judging by the number of books written on the subject, from scholarly biochemical treatises to the ‘aroma of petrol with overtones of ripe mango and wet slippers’ gush, there’s quite a lot to be said. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that there are really only four questions you need to ask when confronted with an unfamiliar bottle.
These are:
• Is the smell agreeable?
• Do I like the taste?
• After I’ve drunk the wine, does it leave me with any lasting impression?
• How much does it cost and would I buy it if I could afford it?
A touch simplistic, I know. but wine is like any other hobby. You can sit back, quaff and enjoy or you can don your anorak and gown and take the pursuit of knowledge to Professor of Trainspotting levels. The choice is yours, but, along the way, don’t be misled by pontificating pseudo-pundits or by reputations. Be wary of domineering bluffers. Trust your tastebuds and learn to make your own judgements. In my former capacity as a wine critic, I was privileged to attend a vertical tasting of one of the First Growth Medoc wines. (A vertical tasting is where you compare different vintages of the same wine, as opposed to a horizontal tasting, where you compare different wines made in the same year, nothing to do with drinking to excess). Albert, the host, had found some bottles of the ’68 in his cellar and thought it might be interesting to throw them in among the majestic ’75s and ’78s. 1968 was one of those vintages that turn up now and again to remind man that he is still a long way from conquering nature so it came as no surprise to find that the ’68 didn’t measure up the grower’s reputation. Nevertheless, I wasn’t prepared for how throat-clutchingly bad it was. I wrote one word in my tasting notes. That word was ‘undrinkable’. One of my fellow tasters was looking over my shoulder at the time. Affronted as if I’d written ‘the guy behind me is an ugly bugger’, he spun me round to accuse me of heresy.
‘You can’t say that. It’s Chateau Bombast. How can you say Chateau Bombast is undrinkable?’ I stood my ground, inviting him to taste some more. He declined, instead going off to drum up reinforcements for his standpoint. He returned with a friend. ‘Algy’, he said, ‘here’s a man who says the ’68 Bombast is undrinkable’. ‘You can’t say that’, said Algy, ‘it costs forty one quid a bottle’. If there are two worse reasons for declaring a wine to be of merit, I’ve yet to hear them.
When matching wine to food, be wary of the exotic imagery school. If the bouquet of New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Chardonnay reminds you of green bananas, almonds, Oil of Ulay and old rugger boots, well and good; but if what you really need to know is ‘will this wine do the business with my Black Sole Bercy?’ A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will suffice. Speaking of emotive language, a wine merchant friend lucky enough to possess one of the world’s most discerning palates had but three categories in which to place wine. These were, in order of merit, ‘crap, sound and fucking sound’. In ten years of tasting with Paul I never found a reason to doubt his judgment.
The old sages of cookery used to dictate ‘red wine with meat, white with fish’, good advice in the days when people, if they drank wine at all, drank awful Liebfraumilch. These days, it’s a more complex affair with every grape variety known to man on the supermarket shelves. I’d rather advise that you:
• ignore the above red/white dictum
• remember Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are not the only grapes. There is a good deal of enjoyment to be had in exploring varietal wine made from Grenache, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo not to mention Syrah (Shiraz), Sauvignon Blanc and blended wines. Live a little.
• drink complex, heavyweight wines with rich foods and light, fragrant wines with delicately flavoured dishes.
• don’t waste money drinking really expensive wines with red sauced Italian food, especially pasta dishes.
• drink a counterpunching wine with Chinese food. Like the robust Piedmontese reds, Barolo or Barbaresco. Or old-style Aussie shiraz. If you prefer white wine drink Gewurztraminer or a big, oaked Chardonnay.
• drink beer, water or lassi (spiced yoghurt) with curry.

Oh, what the hell. If you favour champagne or Johnnie Walker Black Label with filet de boeuf en croute, or with Bangalore Phal for that matter, then go for it. But try to have on hand something a bit more mainstream for your guests.
Any bottle of wine is only as good as your memory of it. And no palate is perfect. I used to reckon mine was pretty good. Until I got into the finals of a competition, held by The Observer newspaper, to ‘Win Your Own Weight in Wine’ *. The twelve finalists had to undergo an ordeal in which we were each presented with twenty four glasses of wine, grouped in threes, and asked questions about each group. As befitting a serious affair, spittoons and palate neutralising nibbles were provided. By the end of the evening I could tell a Bath Oliver from a Carr’s Table Water Biscuit, blindfold. And nothing more.

* about six and a half cases. Winner got claret; runner up, champagne; third place, burgundy. The rest were given one mixed case each. My cunning suggestion that we pool all the prizes, i.e. we depute the three heaviest contestants to make a serious stab at the questions (one fat guy was worth a conservative nine cases), while the rest of us treat the night as a piss up, was turned down by the misery guts who eventually finished twelfth and serve him bloody well right.

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Very nice red, Mas Mouries 2001 from Coteaux du Languedoc, bought for not too much money from French Paradox in Ballsbridge. Great with their excellent duck breast and quails eggs. I’m glad to see its become a part of the scene.
More D’Arrys aka D’Arenberg, I know I got on about them but I really enjoy their style of wine making, uncompromised by fads – reds all big and sombre, even Stump Jump at the base end of the range. But the 1996 Dead Arm I had last night was a real hero.
Reliable good old standby red, Salice Salentino 1999 from Leone de Castris surprised some dinner party guests with its opulence.
Giving the Whitehaven 2002 SB a run in the column – O’Briens are selling it for just over a tenner making it something of a bargain.
I really do like the Riesling in their range, though.
Whizzed over to Ranelagh for a takeaway from the Punjab. While waiting spent far more than I should in excellent Redmonds – among other things got re-acquainted with Hine Signature, always one of my old favourites, one of the fragrant, spirituous “dab a bit behind your ears and go out and pull” sort of Cognacs.
Bottle of Zenato’s Valpolicella in Ely with Katrina. I think the guy is a real star. Not cheap here at euro22, what is it, double the retail? I know the economics of running a place in D2 are tough (tell me!) but I think if they put it out at 17 or 18, people would maybe drink more.
Consumed a half of Brown Brothers Orange Muscat and Flora the other night with the rest of the far aux pruneaux (my recipe’s on if anyone’s interested). Sauternes it ain’t but it’s a very decent uncomplicated ‘sticky’and good value.
Nice bottle of Hamilton Russell chardonnay, really is their key grape. Oxbridge and Man City buddy HM reckons they try to0 hard to be Burgundian and I know what he means. Maybe they should lay back a little and let the warm climate fruit shine through like, say Jordan or Louisvale… but then I rather like it as it is.
PC asked me “best Spanish for under ten yo-yos” and it has to be Borsao (O’Brien’s), big, soft violets and plums like all the best Chiantis and 1985 Vino Nobiles, but with its own expression.
THIS WEEK’s GRIPE: Why is it no restaurant will sell you fino sherry by the bottle or half bottle?