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Sparkling Wine and Champagne

December 2017

A record 45 million bottles of sparkling wine were sold in the UK in the twelve weeks up to and over the festive period in 2016 and this is likely to be repeated this year despite the extra cost of all wines sold here. The rising popularity of sparkling Prosecco has contributed to the phenomenal volume of sales of sparkling wine, not just at Christmas but throughout the year. The magical 'pop’ of a sparkling wine cork as the bottle is opened and the theatre of gushing bubbly wine spurting out of the bottle has undoubted made this style of wine one for celebration. All sparkling wine might appear to be the same, mostly white with lots of bubbles, but there is a difference between them, mostly brought about by the way they are made, that is either in the bottle or in a large sealed pressurised tank.


Champagne is by far the most famous sparkling wine. The name ‘Champagne’ can only be used to describe the sparkling wine produced in the region 90 miles north-east of Paris, centred around Reims and Epernay. Other sparkling wines made elsewhere by the same method, such as Cava or Crémants, can only state ‘traditional method’ or ‘fermented in bottle’ on their labels (in the language of their country of production usually). What is so special about Champagne? Cynics would say that there are equally good sparkling wines available and it is only marketing that has made Champagne a luxury item. However, without doubt, Champagne is one of the most complicated and hence the most expensive wines to make in the world and its complexity depends upon on the skill of blending many wines to make the one.


Champagne production is divided into grape growers and wine producers. The 15,000 growers in the region have their grapes graded each year and the 300 or so well-known Champagne Houses – Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, Charles Heidsieck, and so on, pay a price accordingly when they buy them to make their own wine. Some individual growers keep all their grapes to make their own Champagne under their own label, and some groups of growers collaborate to form a cooperative which makes wines. A few Champagne houses such as Krug have their own vineyards to grow grapes to produce their own style of Champagne. If you look at the label on a bottle of Champagne, you will see two letters and a number which are the first two letters of the French words that describe which of the above made the contents:

N.-M. One of the Champagne houses

R.-M. An individual grower and producer

C.-M. or R.-C. Produced by a cooperative group

S.-R. Produced by a group of growers who do not regard themselves as a cooperative (!)

N.-D. Champagne sold by a company that does not make the wine inside the bottle

MA An abbreviation for a UK store own brand made by a producer in Champagne (who usually like to stay anonymous because this is not very prestigious for them!)


Champagne is only made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. If you see blanc de blancs (white from whites) on the label it means the Champagne was made only from Chardonnay grapes and similarly if you read blanc de noirs (white from black) only Pinot noir was employed. In the spring of each year the winemakers of the Champagne houses assemble a blend of thirty to sixty still wines made in the autumn of the previous year. A small amount of reserve wine from other years (20% of each year’s production is retained for future use) may also be incorporated into the blend. There is an enormous skill in this blending process to make a non-vintage Champagne that has a consistent flavour from year to year to maintain the house ‘style’. So-called vintage Champagne is made from wines produced in a particularly good year, weather wise, and the grapes are of exceptional quality in terms of their flavour and sugar content.


The blended still wine is put into the distinctive heavy, thick glass bottle (that will eventually withstand high pressure from inside), some sugar and yeast are added, and the bottle sealed with a crown cap and stored horizontally at constant temperature for a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage, and at least three years, for vintage Champagne. In the bottle the yeast feeds on the sugar to produce a little more alcohol and carbon dioxide gas which is trapped in the bottle and dissolves in the liquid– the bubbles when released. To clarify the Champagne at the end of this secondary fermentation period in bottle, the bottles are regularly turned and gradually inverted so that the dead yeast cells accumulate in the neck. The neck is frozen, the crown top is taken off and the solid yeasty plug is pushed out by the pressure of the carbon dioxide within. The bottle is topped up with some of the original still wine blend and a dose of sugar added to make a Champagne with the desired sweetness, such as brut, sec, demi-sec. The bottle is resealed with a cork, secured with a wire cage, quickly before more gas can escape, labelled and stored for a period to let the ingredients mingle.


There is a lot of marketing in the sale of Champagne to maintain its luxury status, however, when you consider how difficult it is too make it is necessary to achieve a high price to cover the costs. It is ironic and interesting to know that Champagne was developed from what was considered a problem: In the 1600’s in the cool Champagne region the fermentation process did not complete before the bottles were stored over the cold winters and in the warm spring when the yeast got going again the secondary fermentation and carbon dioxide gas pressure caused the glass to break. Wine merchants in England were the pioneers of storing wine in bottles sealed with corks and it was they who developed the secure packaging for sparkling wines we see today; this is why England then the UK developed into the best market for Champagne outside France. It was only in the 1800’s that Cava and other sparkling wines were developed to copy the popularity of Champagne.


Cava which is produced in the same manner as Champagne in the region around Barcelona in north-east Spain is usually made from a blend of wines composed of three local grape varieties Parellada, Xarel-lo and Macabeo instead. Fewer wines for blending purposes are used than in Champagne and the secondary fermentation in bottle is usually carried out for a shorter period at the legal minimum of 9 months. Hence Cava is less complicated in the making than Champagne and they are not similar, least of all in price, Cava retailing at much lower prices. Cava still has the ‘bready’ yeast flavour of Champagne but the fruit flavours are less subtle, more vibrant and citrusy.


There is a group of sparkling wines made in various parts of France called Crémants (sometimes you might see ‘blanquettes de’ on the label, which a is a smaller but the same category) which are regarded to be more similar and so better rivals to Champagne than Cava. They are made by the traditional method again, but usually using different grape varieties such as a blend of Chenin blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet franc for Loire Crémants which incidentally is the largest source of sparkling wine outside Champagne, Alsace Crémants made from local grape varieties, as do Crémants de Bourgogne and those from Limoux.


Prosecco and Asti are not made by the ‘Traditional’ method and consequently have different flavours from Champagne, Cava and Crémants. These Italian sparkling wines are made by the ‘tank’ method in which the still wines undergo fermentation in large pressurised tanks and the resultant sparkling wine is filtered and bottled under pressure. The best Prosecco grapes come from the hills north of Venice around the villages of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (look for these village names on a label for a superior product) and Prosecco sparkling wine made from them is dry, fruitier and less tart than Champagne. Asti made from Moscato grapes in north-west Italy, is still made by the tank method but in this case a very light, low alcohol slightly sweet sparkling wine is made by directly fermenting the crushed grapes in sealed tanks to make sure the primary carbon dioxide gas produced does not escape in the initial fermentation and is dissolved instead into the wine to give its sparkle.


There are sparkling wines made in nearly all the wine regions of the world, either by the traditional method or in a pressurised tank, using indigenous grapes or even those of Champagne to try and capture the same flavours. Champagne is miles ahead in terms of quality and kudos (and price!). Thankfully there are more affordable and equally enjoyable examples of sparkling wine which might suit your own budget. Wherever your next bottle of bubbly comes from to celebrate that special occasion you know now what goes into making it!

Wine, The Weather and Butterflies

November 2017

The Organisation Internationale de la vigne et du vin (OIV) has announced that it expects an 8% decrease in global wine production to 247m hectolitres for this year, a fifty year low. This international producer’s group predicts the worst harvest since 1961 as France, Italy and Spain were hit by adverse weather conditions at different times this year.


In April sharp spring frosts, which also hit British growers, damaged production in some of France’s most famous winemaking regions, including Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The bad weather dealt a fresh blow to the French industry, which had also endured a difficult 2016, with output then similarly falling 10% as a result of adverse weather conditions. The OIV predicts a 19% fall this year in France’s output to 36.7m hectolitres. In Spain production is also expected to fall by 15% to 33.5m hectolitres.

This is bad news for UK consumers who will eventually have to pay more for wine as the wine supply shortage trickles down the supply chain. With the price of the average bottle pushed up by the weakness of sterling since last year’s Brexit vote, the average price of a bottle of wine sold in the UK is now £5.58, up 4% on 2016.


This is another reminder that wine production remains at the mercy of the weather. Although the total volume of wine produced is down, it is not sure at this stage whether the quality of wine will also suffer. This might sound odd, but quality depends upon what type of weather occurs at different periods of times during the year and spring frosts as happened this year will destroy flower buds, which reduces the number of grapes per vine, but fewer grapes can mean greater concentration of flavours in them! (This is why some wine producers will emphasize that their grapes come from ‘old vines’ from which fewer supposedly better-quality grapes are produced and that the wine tastes better).

The type of climate (hot or cool) and the characteristics of the grape variety will determine the overall flavour of the wine. The climate, that is weather as it occurs over a long period of time, has a pronounced and obvious effect on the flavours. A hot climate produces grapes that ripen well and accumulate lots of sugar and intense fruit flavours whereas the cool climate has a slow build up of sugar in the grapes and at a lower final level resulting in a lower alcohol content and less intense fruit flavours, but one could say more subtle flavours.


Any particular year when the grapes are harvested is known as the vintage and when the vintage is good it means that the weather conditions were perfect for producing grapes to make good wine for that year. In the northern hemisphere the harvest occurs in September to October, while in the southern hemisphere it is April, May, so a bottle of wine from countries below the equator with the same vintage date on the label will in fact be six months older than that from the north. Wine producers in the prestigious wine regions such as Bordeaux will ‘declare’ a vintage; that is, when the wine is tasted in the April following the year of its production it will be assessed for its quality and potential to improve with age. This will determine the price at auction and whether wine investors will purchase a particular vintage in order to reap the financial rewards at a later date (year).


The annual growth cycle of grapevines begins with bud break in the spring followed by shoot growth, flowering, flower set with berry formation and ripening and ends in leaf fall in autumn, followed by winter dormancy. Each stage is sensitive to the weather conditions, but it is the overall ‘terroir’ of the vineyard which will ultimately determine the quality of the grapes and the wine made from them. Vineyard managers can only use of viticultural practices like canopy management, irrigation, vine training and the use of agrochemicals to affect the grape quality.


In recent visits to the Baden wine region in Germany and Alsace in France, which are only thirty miles apart and facing each other across the broad Rhine valley, it was very apparent that wines are distinctly different from each of these regions, even when made from the same grape variety. For instance, the Riesling wine from Germany was light bodied and acidic whereas the Alsatian version from France was higher in alcohol and more intensely flavoured. This situation occurs for other grape varieties too which make wines in different locations.


How can the same grape produce such different wines? The French have a word to account for this and it is ‘terroir’ which literally translated into English means ‘soil’ but in France the word accounts for much more. It describes the total environment in which grape vines are grown; it encompasses the climate, weather, inclination of slope of the vineyard and the direction in which it faces and altitude and the soil and soil constituents and last but no means least, the grape variety! In Burgundy, plots of vineyards which are adjacent to each other growing Pinot Noir or Chardonnay can produce completely different wines, one far superior than the other.


In a recent BBC documentary about the weather (Storm Troopers: The Fight to Forecast the Weather), ‘Chaos Theory’ was given as the explanation why very small differences in the start of a process or initial conditions in a complex system, the weather in this case, can lead to widely different unpredictable outcomes with time. The proponent of this theory was Edward Lorenz, a professor in mathematics and meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was trying to predict the weather from mathematical equations that took into consideration temperature, air pressure and humidity. His observations ultimately led him to formulate ‘Chaos Theory’ and what also became known as the ‘butterfly effect’ - a term that grew out of an academic paper he presented in 1972 entitled: "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?" the principle being that a butterfly fluttering its wings on one side of the planet could lead to storms on the other side. A small initial alteration of the environment can lead to big and significant differences in the outcome.


With extremes of weather predicted for the future because of climate change it seems inevitable that we will see fluctuations in the weather affecting not only the quantity but also potentially the quality of our wine in the future with predictability becoming less certain. So next time you see a butterfly watch its wings and think they may be influencing the wine you will be drinking next year in price and quality!


Sweet Wine

October 2017

It is at this time of year (in the northern hemisphere) a little-known mould grows in vineyards to produce something quite exotic – sweet wine. If you have never had a glass of sweet wine, then it is never too late to try. The flavours you will encounter are sublime and will surprise you, especially if you have been used to light thin wines such as Pinot Grigio. So where does all this extra flavour come from?


The white grapes used to make sweet wine are very familiar: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and, the lesser known, Furmint and this might be surprising since the sweet wine made from them tastes nothing like these grape varieties as dry white wines. The key here is where they are grown, in particular climatic conditions and what grows on them!


Perhaps the best known sweet wine is Sauternes from an area to the south of the Bordeaux region where Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc are grown and in late autumn the mornings are misty and damp and the afternoons sunny and warm. These are ideal conditions for the germination and growth of a fungal mould called Botrytis cinerea which appears on the skin of the grapes and develops into a velvety hairy layer. The mould consumes the liquid and nutrients in the grape pulp and the green yellow grapes turn purple to black. This so called ‘Noble rot’ (‘Edelfäul’ in German) makes the bunches look disgusting but from them come luscious sweet grape juice when the grapes are pressed. With the grape juice are the metabolic by-products of the Noble rot which imparts its own characteristic flavour on the finished wine.


The most famous sweet wine of Sauternes is produced at Chateau d’Yquem – if you have not heard of it you cannot afford it! Wines from here are auctioned for £100’s and £1000’s depending on the vintage! Yquem is located on the highest hill in Sauternes and enjoys the best growing conditions in the whole Appellation. The 110-hectare vineyard is planted with 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Only fully botrytized fruit is picked by the 150 highly skilled pickers and yields are so low that each vine produces only one glass of wine! Yquem is fermented in oak barrels (100% new) and is left in barriques to mature for up to 36 months. Intensely opulent when young, Yquem develops an extraordinary complexity and exotic richness when fully mature, with the best vintages lasting for over 50 years. Château d'Yquem is classified as a 1’er Cru Classé Supérieur for good reason.


All sweet wines are risky to produce and labour intensive in the making. In Sauternes and other sweet wine producing areas (the Loire in France, Alsace, the Tokay region in Hungary and some regions of Germany) the weather conditions may not occur for Botrytis cinerea to grow properly each and every year and the production of sweet wine is either reduced or abandoned altogether resulting in a loss for the individual estate. Also, the spread of botrytis is not regular so picking the affected grapes is very labour intensive because each affected grape has to be selected by hand – the pickers make many passes or ‘tris’ through the vineyard, carefully leaving the unaffected grapes and some affected ones too, so the mould can spread effectively - harvest may take as long as ten weeks to complete and as time goes on the risk of adverse weather spoiling the crop increases.


The wine making process for sweet wine is the same as that for dry white wine except that the grapes are much higher in sugar content at the start. Before fermentation is complete while there is there is still unfermented sugar (residual sugar) in the grape juice, the process is stopped by adding sulphur dioxide, which kills the yeast and leaves sweet white wine. If there is enough residual sugar, the fermenting yeast will continue to consume the sugar until a 15% alcohol level is reached, at which the yeast dies, leaving a high alcohol sweet wine. The complexity of flavour in the finished wine, often described as honey in character, is not just attributed to the concentration of grape flavours but the introduction of new ones because of the metabolism of the Botrytis mould. Production of glycerol, gluconic acid, botrycine also occurs which are most obvious in wines produced from the middle tris, when the mould is well established but not exhausted in its activity.


The region around the town of Mad in Hungary has been producing sweet wine known as Tokay (Tokaji in Hungarian) using Botrytised grapes since the seventeenth century – legend has it that this was a ‘dry’ white wine making region until one harvest time the winemakers had to go to war and did not return to their vines until late autumn when they had been affected by Botrytis cinerea. Rather than waste the crop they used all the ‘mouldy’ grapes alongside all those unaffected to make that year’s wine and to their surprise produced a palatable sweet wine as a result. This was repeated the following year until in time the style of sweet Tokay wine was established. The ‘lumping all the grapes together’ method was refined in time such that the Botrytised grapes were harvested separately from normal grapes, the unaffected grapes were turned into dry white wine and the Aszű (noble) sweet grapes added in basketfuls (puttonyos) to a large wooden tank of finished dry white wine or fermenting wine – depending on the number of baskets added, from three to six, the sweetness level of the finished product was controlled. The mixed product was left to ferment further and the final sweet wine subsequently racked (syphoned off to separate out liquids from any solids) and stored in oak barrels. The essentials of this method is still used today, although more precision is taken in measuring the quantities (baskets are not used!) and the sweetness levels are defined more precisely in legal terms in grams of sugar per litre of wine. The terms ‘3, 4, 5 and 6 puttonyos’ still appear on the labels of Tokay to indicate levels of (increasing) sweetness. The thee grape varieties used in combination to make Tokay are Furmint (70%) Hárslevelű (25%) and Sárgamuskotály (5%), each one contributing something of their own flavour to the finished sweet wine.


If you have read the July Blog in this series, you will know that German wine estates produce different wines throughout autumn depending on the ripeness of the grapes. In late autumn some regions where lakes and/or rivers are present, and the aspect of the vineyard create weather conditions conducive to the growth of Noble rot (Edelfäul in German), sweet wine is made using Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese grapes. The Riesling grape variety is mostly used, and the resultant are lighter on the palate than Sauternes because they contain half the alcohol, but are twice as sweet with far greater acidity making them beautifully balanced. German sweet wines are never aged in oak.

Other areas of note which produce sweet wines are the Loire region in France using Chenin Blanc grapes and Alsace in France where Gewürztraminer appears on the label alongside the phrase ‘selection de grains nobles’ – literally ‘selection of noble grapes’.

There are other ways to produce sweet wines. If Botrytis cinerea does not take hold the grapes can be left on the vine to evaporate naturally which concentrates the juice sugars in them (‘Vendage tardive’ in French – late harvest) until they turn into sweet raisins which are then used to make sweet wine. Alternatively, the grapes can be air dried on mats or hung up in barns to concentrate the sugars as in the production of Italian Recioto sweet wines. If left on the wines until well into winter, frozen grapes can be harvested and with the elimination of the water in them as ice the sweet remaining liquid can be made in to sweet wine as in Germany (Eiswein) or even Ontario, Canada which makes excellent sweet ‘Ice wines’.


Botrytis cinerea or ‘Noble Rot’ appears on grapes randomly in a bunch and they have to be picked selectively


English Wine

September 2017

Impulsively one sunny Sunday afternoon I decided to take myself off to Dedham Vale vineyard near Boxted, Essex. It was a good decision. Wandering through a vineyard on a sunny autumn afternoon might not be everyone’s idea of pleasure but I can recommend it. Besides the tranquillity at Boxted and the wonderful surrounding ‘Constable’ countryside, if you like wine, it’s an inspiration to see where it comes from. The vine leaves were turning from green to shades of yellow and red and although most of the grapes had been picked for this year there were still a few rows yet to be harvested. Some Pinot Noir was still ripening on the vine and I had a mischievous taste of a few berries which remarkably tasted of young red Burgundy. This shows as most winemakers point out that wine starts in the vineyard, not the winery.


Twenty years ago, making English wine was regarded as a bit of a hobby with doubtful outcomes – highly acidic with little fruit flavours. Things have changed. Today the English wine industry is booming with more new vineyards being planted every year. Vineyard practises have improved to grow excellent quality fruit and modern wineries are turning that fruit into good wine. With unpredictable weather each year there are many challenges still to be overcome but the fact that more vineyards are being established than ever before it demonstrates winemaking in England is here to stay (and in Wales and even Scotland).


Most of the vineyards are concentrated in southern England, however, whether as a result of climate warming or more adventurous entrepreneurs, plantings of grape vines are taking place further north. Farmers are turning over regular arable land where turnips and other vegetables might have grown to growing grapes on a commercial basis. In Leicestershire Liz Robson at the Rothley Estate has gone from being a part time, small scale wine maker to an award-winning entrepreneur by expanding her business from a hobby to a commercial enterprise. Even as far north as Aberdeen, Alan Smith at Strathdon Winery is planting hardy Russian grape varieties in poly tunnels and trenches to withstand the harsh winters at this latitude, with the expectation of making wine commercially viable in this most northerly region. Organic wine is an emerging business in the UK despite the challenges of growing grapes this way. One producer who has overcome the difficulties is Ancre Hill Estates in the Wye Valley where it's claimed the vineyard has its own unique climate, surrounded by tree topped hills on all sides. These examples indicate that there is a fervent belief that wine can be made in the whole of Britain.


To emphasize this further, there is serious scientific research being undertaken by the combined efforts of The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) based in Cambridge and East Malling Research (EMR) in collaboration with the leading UK vineyards, Bolney Wine Estate, Chapel Down, Nyetimber, Gusbourne Estate and Halfpenny Green. Their objective is to ‘build on the industry’s existing achievements through focused research and development activity aimed at improved quality, reducing costs and creation of a globally recognized UK science-based viticulture sector’. In 2015 NIAB and EMR planted a research vineyard in Kent for both scientific and demonstration purposes to ensure that their research is directly applicable to commercial vineyards. It will provide an essential tool to test future innovative practices or novel ideas of research in viticulture. The areas that will be studied are:

– Resource Efficiency for Crop Production

– Genetics & Crop Improvement

– Pest & Pathogen Ecology for Sustainable Crop Management

This is taking wine production in Britain very seriously. Less serious was the winery reference system at Debden Vale: Each of the fermentation and storage tanks are given a personal name to identify the contents, Alan and Brian were outside for cleaning! The winery was all stainless steel with all the equipment you would expect to find in a modern winery, and eco friendly, since it is powered by wind and sun generated energy. When I was there a woman was leaving a large box of her home-grown grapes which were bought by the winemaker to go into the mix, something we should all consider if the pergola in our back garden is loaded with grapes at this time of the year.


Before leaving I tasted the range of wines on offer. My favourite from the six wines on show was by far the ‘Mayflower 2014’ made using Muller-Thurgau grapes, wonderful floral scent on the nose and excellent apple flavours on the palate, surprisingly good considering this grape variety does not normally produce such interesting wine. The white sparkling wine, DV Sparkling English Brut, made in the traditional method (as in Champagne) from Orion and Chardonnay grapes had a lively mousse and attractive fresh fruit flavours with yeasty overtones. A perfect drink to finish a wonderful day out.

Visit an English vineyard, you won’t be disappointed.


Baden

August 2017

The receptionist on the car hire desk at Baden/Karlsruhe airport said ‘Ah, so you are going to Durbach? You will drink some wonderful wine there!’ I had done my research beforehand and knew that Durbach, a small village in the Ortenau wine district of Baden-Baden was indeed renowned for its vineyards, wineries and wine and should have a broad selection of wines to taste. It was reassuring that although we were 40 miles away, or should I say 50 kilometres, a car hire receptionist was familiar with the place and its wines.


The road to Durbach from the airport ran parallel to the river Rhine south and on the right-hand side there was a vista of flat arable fields growing a mix of vegetables in the fertile soils of the Rhine valley. On the left were the Schwarzwald mountains that loom up from the Rhine valley, and black they were indeed – a vast thick pine forest that runs 150 kilometres from Stuttgart in the north to lake Constance in the south and about 40 kilometres wide along its entire length. These mountains overlook the Rhine Valley to the west and the Baden wine region skirts the forest along its entire length.


I had booked an apartment at the Alfred Huber wine estate lying in a narrow valley just a few kilometres to the south of Durbach. The single-track road from the village wound its way up the valley between vineyards and fruit trees to a very quaint half-timbered traditional ‘Hof’ (farm yard building) with window boxes full of colourful flowers. Here the Huber family have tendered the vines and turned grapes into wine since 1761, this date was inscribed by the original Huber in the sandstone lintel above the cellar door! I was greeted by Carina, the partner of Christian, the next generation of Hubers who are going to take over the running of the Huber Weingut this autumn when his father Alfred retires after forty-five years at the helm. I was offered a glass of cool Riesling wine on arrival, much appreciated on a hot sunny day after a long journey.


The next day I took a long walk among the thousands of vines planted around the winery. You can get a map from the local tourist office in the village indicating the many footpaths in the vicinity and suggestions for walks of different time and length. Besides the inevitable Riesling which dominates all German viticulture there were other varieties planted which one would not necessarily associate with this country such as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. All the wines produced by the Hubers are dry (‘trocken’ in German) because the grapes do not accumulate enough excess sugar before vinification. The terrain here is steep with a mixture of north, east and west facing slopes and as Alfred explained when we had a tasting of his wines that evening, this means that ripeness is an issue at harvest time even in warm summers. On the other hand, the acidity of the wine is in no doubt and this is particularly important for German wines which accompany and cut through the fatty food of the local cuisine.


Germany has a so-called cool climate for grape growing and wine production which means that high sugar content to make sweet wine can only be acquired by leaving the grapes on the vine long enough to accumulate sugars by atmospheric dehydration or by dehydration caused by a mould called Botrytis cinerea, or Nobel rot. The Hubers follow the pattern of wine making that is typical of all winemakers in Germany. That is, a range of grape varieties are grown and depending on the individual circumstances of the vineyards, (steepness, aspect to the sun, soil conditions, annual weather, and so on, known as the ‘terroir’ in France) a different wine will be made from them as they develop in ripeness at different times during the autumn.


The wine maker will harvest the first batch of his grapes which have come to fruition and if they have reached a minimum level of ripeness, as set out in German wine laws, the wines made from them can be labelled as ‘Qualitätswein’- all German wines, no matter what their quality must have the name of the grape variety from which they are made on the label. In years of inferior quality grape production, the wine may be labelled as ‘Qualitätswein mit Anbaugebiet’, or ‘QbA’, a quality wine coming from a particular region or district. Baden is one of the thirteen wine regions (Anbaugebiete) of Germany (the four most important are Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz). Each of these is divided up into districts or ‘Bereiche’ of which Ortenau is one in the Baden region. Ortenau has some of Baden’s most prestigious single wine estates (‘Einzellage’ or ‘Weingut’) clustered in and around the village of Durbach (a ‘Grosslage’, or a local area with a collection of wine estates); there are wine cooperatives (‘Winzergenossenschaft’) too in Durbach.


The terms on German wine labels above may be confusing, but if you can understand some of them you have a good chance of knowing what the wine will taste like. Here are some more which you will see on a German wine label:

Riper grapes make wines that are collectively known as ‘Qualitätswein mit Präditkat’ or ‘QmP’ translated as ‘quality wine with grading’, and the grade is the level of ripeness of the grape which with increasing levels of sweetness and flavour will produce assorted styles of wine – the lowest ripeness level is labelled as ‘Kabinett’ which will give a dry wine, light in body and alcohol traditionally kept in the ‘cupboard’ as an everyday wine to drink with meals in Germany. Next is ‘Spätlese’, literally ’late picked’, wine made from fully ripened grapes, and having greater intensity and alcoholic strength than Kabinett wines, usually dry, sometimes with sweetness (‘halb trocken’ or half dry) with plenty of acidity to counterbalance the sweetness. Then comes ‘Auslese’ wine made from ‘selected harvest’ grapes where bunches are handpicked according to their ripeness which only occurs in the best years; the wine made from them is usually lush with some sweetness. ‘Beerenauslese’ or ‘BA’ wine is rare and expensive: a ‘berry selected harvest’ of grapes which have been affected by the so-called Noble rot, ‘Edelfäul’, which dehydrates the grapes and concentrates the sugars in them, producing wine with honeyed sweetness. Rarer still are handpicked, ‘dry berry selected harvest’ grapes, shrivelled almost to raisins making very sweet intensely flavoured ‘Trockenbeerenauslese’ or ‘TBA’ wines. Finally, if you see ‘Eiswein’ on the label (ice wine) it will be a very sweet wine made by allowing the grapes to linger on the vines until November onwards when the water in them freezes and can be separated from the rest of the concentrated sweet juice to make succulent, intensely flavoured sweet wine.


Whatever the quality level of a German wine, at the foot of the label there will be an ‘Ämtliche Prufungsnummer’ or ‘AP’ number which is registered in official records and will identify the producer, place and date of bottling, should you wish to look it up! The information above should be enough for you to make an educated choice when buying German wine.


In the 1700’s German wine was very popular in Britain, so much so that German ‘hock’ as it was called then, a Riesling wine, was predominately exported to the British market. The popularity of German wine plummeted in the 1970’s when cheap, sulphurous semi-sweet wine was sold in great quantities under the ‘Liebfraumilch’ and ‘Blue Nun’ labels. It has struggled to recover its reputation ever since, although the quality of German wine today has never been better. The potentially confusing amount of information that appears on a German wine label as described above (grape variety, quality, level of sweetness and vineyard, village and district of production) has probably held back new customers, however, there is a trend now for all this legally required information to be placed on the back label allowing for a more market appealing name and logo on the front.


If you ask wine experts, they will often say that their favourite wine is a German Riesling for its complexity and flavour. A good German Riesling is a perfect accompaniment with food and is much admired by wine aficionados. Even if you do not intend to visit Germany put aside any prejudice and do try some of its wine – you might be pleasantly surprised!


I can highly recommend a visit to Durbach. There are good restaurants and cafes in the village and in summer they is an open-air swimming pool to use. There are many places and types of accommodation to stay in, all of which will provide you on arrival with a ‘Schwarzwald Konus’ travel pass that, remarkably, allows you (and your co-visitors) to unlimited free travel on all the trains and buses in the region. Most of the wineries in the region have accommodation nearby if not on the premises. To wake up each morning surrounded by vineyards is indeed a wine lovers dream come true!


Details of my accommodation, visiting hours and wines can be found as follows:

Weingut Alfred Huber

Lautenbach 2

77770 Durbach / Baden

Tel. 0049 (0)781 / 42458

Fax 0049 (0)781 / 440649

[email protected]

www. Winzerhof-huber.de


Alsace

July 2017

Driving west along the very straight N4 out of the hectic metropolis of Strasbourg and its traffic jams one soon encounters the tranquillity of the open countryside, flat plains of arable land spread out to the horizon as far as the eye can see. About twenty miles further west one can make out the Vosges mountains rearing up from the flat terrain. These mountains are densely forested in pine and deciduous trees but on the lower slopes one can make out vineyards, many vineyards. This is the Alsace wine producing region of France. The N4 terminates in the village of Marlenheim at a T-junction where the D1004 road goes north and continues its route in an arable landscape while the D422 meanders south for about 100 miles amongst vineyards which cling to the foothills of the Vosges mountains - a journey known as ‘The Alsace wine route’ along which one encounters most of the Grand Cru wine producing villages of Alsace.


Over the last two hundred years Alsace has switched politically from being French to German four times before settling down as a very French region after 1945. It is not surprising then that both French and German cultures have influenced the wine production in this region. The grapes grown are primarily of German origin (Riesling, Gewürztraminer etc.) and wine labels here can state the grape variety of the contents, unlike the rest of France, but as in Germany. The mild springs, sunny summers and low rainfall (the Vosges mountains protect the vineyards from wet westerly winds) are perfect for these varieties which produce lots of sugar in sunshine yet maintain their acidity in what is essentially a cool climate.


I had come to visit the vineyards and winery of Thierry-Martin just outside the picturesque village of Wangen at the northern most part of the Alsatian wine route. This village is a prime example of the architecture found in all the surrounding villages and those further south, half-timbered, brightly painted houses with window boxes full of flowers lean over narrow winding streets to create a superb quaint and colourful spectacle. The south facing hills above Wangen have been producing grapes for winemaking since 1650 and this tradition of winemaking is exemplified and continued by the Lorentz family, who own and run the Thierry-Martin establishment under the generic title of ‘Vins & Cremant d’Alsace’.


Founded in 1998, Thierry-Martin is the creation of fourth generation of wine makers. Thierry Unterreiner and Martin Lorentz joined forces to create 12 hectares of vines, all within view of their new production and cellar facilities. In 2000, Cécile Lorentz, daughter of Martin Lorentz, joined the winery’s operations after completing her wine studies at Beaune. Cécile became the cellar master in 2004 and two years later, she took over the operations from her father.


I was introduced to Cécile in the winery by her mother who had greeted me at the cellar door wine shop. Cécile had kindly agreed to show me the wine making operation and to tell me her story, in French and fluent English. She recalls how at the age of five she helped her father to gather grapes at harvest time which led her to a lifelong passion for her local ‘terroir’. Asked why so many different grapes varietals are planted here (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Muscat and Pinot Noir), she replies with authority that each varietal is most suited to the different soil types and the soil conditions of the parcels of land thereabouts: calcareous, clayey, acidic, heavy, and so on; the geology of the Alsace region is varied, and soil types can change even within a vineyard. Her knowledge of viticulture comes from practical hands on experience and from the formal training that she undertook in oenology at Beane University. She says she was one of only two women students in her class of fifty and got a lot of ribbing from her male counterparts – winemaking in France, and perhaps nearly everywhere else in the world, is dominated by men! In Cécile’s own words she says: ‘Je suis, sans doute, la premierère vigneronne d'une longue lignée de vignerons dont on trouve les premières traces, à Wangen, vers 1650.’


After going through the wine making process in the winery, we proceeded to the tasting room and shop. The Riesling is first up, aromas of citrus and a hint of lime and a clean taste of sharp apples, reflecting the refreshing acidity for which this grape is famous. Riesling wine from Alsace is a remarkable wine to drink with food (as well as by itself!), because it is so versatile in the way it accompanies most dishes and menus that other wines would struggle to match. The Gewürztraminer is sublime with a nose of ripe tropical fruits and a taste of super ripe sweet melons. A Crémant white sparkling wine is also typical of its type for this Alsace region: made by the same method as Champagne but with a combination of all the local grape varieties. All the wines from Alsace are powerful expressions of the grape from which they are made and the soil they are grown in and blending of wines is rare and so the wines are almost always 100% from the grape on the label. The wines designated ‘Grand Cru’ in this region are recognised as being better than average, where average is already excellent! For a region devoted almost exclusively to white wines it is perhaps surprising that red Pinot Noirs are made here; the Pinot Noir from Wangen was soft with lush flavours of cherries. These are French wines with an unmistakable character that distinguishes them from their German counterparts, just forty miles to the east. As I head back to my accommodation in Strasbourg I reflect with respect and admiration at the technical skill and passion that goes into wine making in this small part of northern Alsace.


For those interested in wine tasting in Alsace, visitors to the Thierry-Martin Winery can either make an appointment or just stop in during their normal business hours. The cellar is on one level, accessible to people with reduced mobility. For groups interested in a winery tour and tasting, contact them in advance to make arrangements. The winery’s seasonal hours are:

September 1st to June 30th: Mon-Thurs (2pm-7pm), Fri (10am-noon and 2pm-7pm), Sat (10am-noon and 2pm-5pm), and Sun (10am-noon)

July 1st to August 31st: Mon-Fri (10am-noon and 2pm-7pm), Sat (10am-noon and 2pm-5pm), Sun (10am-noon)

Vins d’Alsace and Crémant Thierry Martin RD 142 Route Westhoffen 67520 Wangen France Phone: 03 88 04 11 22 Fax: 03 88 04 11 21 Email: [email protected]


Whisky

January 2018

When savouring a traditional  dram of Scotch whisky on 25th January, Burns Night, you may wonder what goes into making that whisky (note no ‘e’ – whiskey is made in Ireland).


The name ‘Whisky’ derives from the old Gaelic word uisge beatha meaning ‘water of life’ (or aqua vita in Latin, a term used for other spirit drinks from around the world). Whisky has been made in Scotland since the end of the fifteenth century and over the centuries each distillery has developed its own style of whisky to be drunk on its own as single malt, or as a blend with other malts or grain whiskies.


Today Scotland can be divided up into four main areas of whisky production: The Highlands, which includes: Speyside, the Lowlands south of Stirling, the tiny Campbeltown on a peninsular west of Ayr, Islay and the Western Isles, comprising of: Jura, Mull and Skye. As a rough guide to the regional styles: Lowland whiskies are the gentlest and sweetest, Campbeltown is fresh and aromatic, the Isles are pungent and smoky (derived from the peat used as fuel for drying the malted barley) and Highland Scotch is soft and smoky.


So what factors in its production influence the final taste of a whisky? The grain from which it is made, composition of the water, the fermentation process, distillation or the final storage? The answer is all of them, to a greater or lesser extent. In brief this is how a single malt whisky is made:

Barley seed soaked in water germinates (malted) and the starch therein converts to sugar. It is then dried (sometimes with peat as fuel) to arrest the germination, soaked in hot water, or mashed, to extract the sugar and the sweet liquid (wort) pumped into tanks (washback) to ferment using natural or cultured yeast.


The resultant fermented beer-like brew at 6-8% alcohol is distilled twice in a pot still, the first to collect the bulk of the volatile compounds, the second to refine the collection to only the middle part of the distillate. Strangely the shape of the still has a profound effect on the taste of the resultant whisky.


The crude whisky is matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks, usually sherry butts or bourbon barrels. Most malts are stored for 8, 10 or 15 years and even longer in the casks where they develop. While maturing, the whisky becomes smoother, gains flavour, and draws its golden colour from the cask. A proportion of the higher alcohols turn into esters and other complex compounds which subtly enhance each whisky's distinctive flavour.


Scotch grain whisky is usually made from 10-20% malted barley and other un-malted cereals such as maize or wheat. The starch in the non-malted cereals is released by pre-cooking and converted into fermentable sugars. The mashing and fermentation processes are like those used for malt whisky, but distillation is carried out in a continuous column still. Grain whisky contains fewer secondary constituents than malt whisky and is accordingly milder in flavour and aroma. Malts are combined with grain whiskies and are then left to 'marry' in casks before being bottled as one of the world-renowned blended whiskies. A blend of a range of malt whiskies, with no grain whisky included, is known as a vatted malt.


It is the objective of the distiller to produce a whisky whose flavour and character remain consistent in all circumstances. This is the true art of distilling, acquired only after many years and often handed down from one generation to the next.

Appropriately (and perhaps ironically) Scotch is a perfect accompaniment with haggis! While reciting an ‘Ode to a haggis’ on the 25th recall all the skill that goes into making that Scotch. Slàinte mhath! or Good Health


Sherry

February 2018

In a recent TV cookery program, the presenter demonstrated how to make a trifle using ‘left over’ Sherry he had found in his cupboard from Christmas, no doubt bought for elderly relatives for whom this fortified wine, usually in its sweetened form, has been a popular tipple for decades. Those of you who had a glass of Sherry with your mince pies will probably never touch another until next Christmas. Which is a pity because this wine has so much going for it, if you look further. In Spain young and old drink their Sherry all year round; it is the essential drink in Spain to accompany tapas. Perhaps we in the UK should learn some more about this much misunderstood, underappreciated and overlooked alcoholic beverage.


Sherry is a fortified wine produced in the ‘Sherry triangle’ region of southern Spain, the area enclosed by the three towns of Jerez de la Frontera, Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. It derives its name from the town of Jerez which has been called variously Ceret, Scheris and Xérèz over the years and the words ‘Jerez’, ‘Xérèz’ and their English translation ‘Sherry’ appear on the bottle today. Sherry, the wine, first became popular in England back in 1587 when London was awash with the stuff after Francis Drake had made a daring pre-emptive attack on the Spanish fleet in Cadiz harbour and made off with nearly 3000 butts each containing 600 litres! Shakespeare referred to Sherry as ‘sherris sack’ through the character Falstaff indicating its popularity at the time; the word ‘sack’ derives from the Spanish ‘sacar’, to ‘draw out’ wine (from a ‘solera’ - see below) and this even appears today on labels, ‘Dry Sack’ Sherry for instance. Although Sherry as we know it today did not evolve until the early nineteenth century.

The taste of Sherry is not like any other wine because of the unique way in which it is made. Sherry is a fortified wine - its alcoholic strength is increased in its preparation to 15.5% or 22% by the addition of grape alcohol spirit. It is then progressively blended and aged in a series of large wooden butts, the ‘solera’, either in the presence or absence of oxygen to produce distinctive styles. After further processing the resultant wines range from dry to sweet and light bodied and yeasty to full bodied and nutty.


The starting point is the Palomino grape which is grown on, sandy, clay or chalk soils in the Sherry triangle around Jerez. This vigorous, pest resistant white grape is used to make a dry, bland, white wine which is then stored in tanks until January after the autumn harvest. It is then fortified to 14.5% and transferred to wooden butts lying on their side, not fully filled, but with a space above the surface of the wine. Remarkably, with thin a few months in many butts a thin layer of foaming yeast starts to form on the surface, called ‘flor’. Without disturbing this spongy layer, the wine is fortified further to 15.5% alcohol, a level at which the flor thrives and goes on to make ‘fino’ Sherry. In some butts the flor does not appear, so they are filled completely with wine and the contents are fortified to 17.5% alcohol and eventually this process produces ‘oloroso’ sherry.


In both cases the wines are stored and aged in the solera system. The butts are kept in rows on top of each other with the most mature wine on the bottom or solera row (suelo in Spanish, for floor) Sherry is drawn off from this row as desired for bottling for market and then topped up (carefully in the case of fino so as not to disturb the flor) by drawing out maturing sherry from the row above. That second row from the bottom is called the criadera #1 (first nursery) and contains the second oldest wine. this is replenished from criadera #2 and the latter row with criadera #3 and so on until the top butts are reached which are refilled with the current year’s wine, the añada, by the same amount. As a result of this fractional blending of one third of the sherry from year to year, the final sherry product is not of any one year (hence no vintage date on the bottle) and has a uniformity of flavour as developed by the individual winery, or ‘Bodega’: famous names such as the large prestigious firms Domecq, Osborn, Gonzalez Byass and Harveys and the lesser known ‘almacenistas’, Bodegas making Sherry on a small scale.


For Fino Sherry this cascading down from one row of butts to another over the years in the absence of oxygen, produces a sherry which is clear, pale and dry with a delicate tangy, crisp flavour of almonds and a hint of bready yeast (from the flor). The Sherry made at Sanlucar de Barrameda is called ‘Manzanilla’ and has an even more delicate flavour than the Fino Sherry made elsewhere. Both are perfect to drink with shell fish and light snacks such as, not surprisingly, tapas. They must be consumed chilled when young and soon after a bottle is opened otherwise their flavours are lost or ruined in the presence of air.


Oloroso Sherry is the result of storing the wine in the solera in the presence of oxygen and has not been influence by flor. Oloroso sherry is dark, dry with full, roasted nutty flavours. They can be stored for a long time without deteriorating, although often served slightly chilled. They were converted to sweeter Cream Sherries for the British market in the 1950’s by the addition of sweet Pedro Ximénez Sherry, which is also made in the vicinity from partially dried grapes of the same name in the same manner. The Cream Sherries are perhaps those which have given Sherry, in general, a poor reputation in Britain and served as libations for elderly relatives at Christmas – sweet, alcoholic and flavoursome and perfect for a wet, dull, British winter, yet not truly representative of all the other Sherry available.


Yet more types of sherry are: Amontillado which is made by the continuation of the Fino Sherry solera process. When the covering flor layer is disturbed or does not survive over time the attempt to make Fino Sherry is abandoned and the butts are filled completely and the wine fortified and aged further to produce a dark, nutty and rich slightly oxidized Sherry. Mainly produced dry, some Bodegas produce sweet versions of Amontillado by the addition of sweet Pedro Ximénez Sherry to complete their range of flavours. Dry Amontillados which are aged for a longer time in the solera convert to a Sherry named Palo Cortado which has the fragrance of a dry Amontillado with the body and concentration of a dry Oloroso.


So don’t let that bottle of Sherry gather dust in your cupboard this year. Overcome any prejudice you may have and explore the variety of styles it has to offer. Sherry is relatively high in alcohol so should be consumed in moderation. Luckily with such intense flavours it can be appreciated in small measures!


Probably the best place to buy and try all these types and styles of Sherries in the UK is Waitrose (www.waitrose.com) which have an enormous range from different Bodegas as well as their own brand. For those of you who are off to Spain sometime and you can spend time in Jerez de la Frontera you can easily visit and tour the Sherry houses there – one to recommend is Gonzalez Byass (www.tiopepe.es) with English speaking guides and lots to see.


So don’t let that bottle of Sherry gather dust in your cupboard this year. Overcome any prejudice you may have and explore the variety of styles it has to offer. Sherry is relatively high in alcohol so should be consumed in moderation. Luckily with such intense flavours it can be appreciated in small measures!


Biodynamic Wine

March 2018

The idea that vine roots grow best when horn manure is sprayed on the soil when the moon is in front of the earth signs Taurus, Virgo or Capricorn might seem a crazy notion, but an increasing number of serious wine producers are adopting this so called Biodynamic method of viticulture.


The father of Biodynamics, and indeed organic farming, is the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who a year before his death in 1924 presented a series of lectures called Agriculture in which he proposed the elimination of agrochemicals and fertilisers in agriculture in favour of natural compost preparations. The organic movement has overwhelmingly adopted this concept. He went further, however, describing the Earth as a living organism with seasonal rhythms receptive to cosmic cycles. The application of special preparations to vines are supposed to coincide with these cycles to make them beneficial for the quality of the grapes. All these preparations are diluted and then activated or energized by a special stirring process known as ‘dynamization’. They might include cow manure fermented in a cow horn, which is then buried and over-winters in the soil. Or flower heads of camomile fermented in the soil. At this point the sceptics wade in with laughs of derision. But is there justification for these ideas? Michel Chapoutier, seventh generation head of Maison Chapoutier in the Northern Rhone thinks so (www.chapoutier.com). Chapoutier’s passion is the idea of terroir, the sense of place for growing grapes, fits perfectly with the concept of Biodynamics. He claims that the Biodynamic soils contain many more bacteria than soils treated with artificial chemicals. These, he claims, are essential for the health of the vines and development of the grapes to give a truly individual taste of the resultant wine. He only uses natural yeasts in the wine making process which might account for the individuality too. The vineyard is treated holistically, as if it were a living organism which needs the tender loving care of the viticulturalist. This same care we often take in our own gardens, and we do not regard ourselves as crazy when caught talking to our plants! It is possible that more attention is given to the cultivation of biodynamically grown grapes and thereby any potential problems, with respect to diseases or faults with the vines, are dealt with immediately and this improves the quality of the resultant grapes for wine making.


In the Margaret River wine producing region of Western Australia, Cullen’s Estate have been producing wines since 1971 (www.cullenwines.co.au); originally employing organic methods of viticulture, in 2003, while attending a Biodynamic conference, Vanya Cullen decided that Biodynamics would add further to the holistic and natural approach to both their viticultural and winemaking practises. They claim that their success in producing excellent wine in this manner is the result of increase in humous in the soil which leads to greater microbial and improved aeration and retention of moisture around the roots of the vines. Biodynamic preparations only used naturally occurring organic matter and therefore avoid the potentially toxic harm of artificial chemicals and sprays used in other vineyards. In the winery at Cullen Wines there is an emphasis of allowing nature to do the work so indigenous wild yeast brings about fermentation and there are no artificial additions of any kind with minimal use of oak and fining. As they put it: ‘We would like to think that in both the vineyard and winery we are working with nature rather than trying to control it. This gives us the land’s best and purest potential of expression being put into the bottle’.


Is there any scientific justification for growing grapes Biodynamically? Well there have only been a few rigorous experiments conducted in the last years, so the jury is still out, but one study did conclude that Biodynamically grown Merlot grapes gave an ideal vine balance for producing high quality grapes, although the exact mechanism for this was not determined. Tasting panels are similarly inconclusive about whether wines produced from Biodynamic grapes are significantly better than their non-organic counterparts. The renowned wine scientist, Ronald Jack, in the latest edition of ‘Wine Science’ is sceptical too stating that it is highly unlikely that such agricultural practises have any effect on the quality of grapes produced. As a pure scientist, requiring provable facts to justify claims this is understandable, however, Biodynamics is based more on belief and results based on belief are harder to disprove.


Vegan Wine

April 2018

At the London Wine Fair in May (www.londonwinefair.com), besides the thousands of wines that will be on display, one importer, Broadland Wineries (www.broadland-wineries.com) will be displaying their ‘Proudly Vegan’ range from Chile with its very prominent front label advertising it as such – even the front label is completely lacking in animal products, right down to the ink and glue! A very specific marketing angle indeed, but many other producers could claim their wines to be vegan too, without the word ‘vegan’ ever appearing on their labels or in their advertising blurb. Vegan wine, or more accurately, wine made in such a way that it is suitable for vegans to drink is, in fact, very common. Vegan wine might be defined as wine which contains no ingredients derived from animals or animal products. It might be surprising to learn that there could be animal products in wine at all when you would expect just grapes!


The answer lies in the process known as ‘fining’ carried out on a finished wine to clarify it. Fining agents may be of animal extraction e.g. egg albumin, gelatin, casein or isinglass (fish bladders!) and therefore not suitable for vegans, or inorganic compounds such as activated carbon (charcoal), Bentonite (a mineral clay), Kieselsol (silicon dioxide) and the resinous synthetic polymer PVPP (polyvinylpolypyrolidone) which are not When wine is made there are various proteins that are naturally present which, over time, may coagulate (clump together) to form a haze or sediment in the wine. Although harmless their affects are unacceptable. Fining is the process whereby these undesirable compounds in wine are removed by the addition of fining agents which bind to them and allow their separation from the wine as large agglomerates (even larger clumps) which can be be separated out of the wine by filtration or centrifugation. It is nearly impossible for anyone buying wine to identify a wine as being fined by a non-animal product, this would only be known by the individual wine producer. The retailer or wine wholesaler should know whether a wine they are selling is suitable for vegans and if not, they should be able to find out for you, so do not hesitate to ask.


Sellers of wine should be aware of the potential of this niche market and its potential for sales because veganism is not just a dietary fad but a way of life, a lifestyle choice which is here to stay. It has come in the wake of and alongside the increasing concern for animal welfare and the environment. In addition, consumers these days are interested in the provenance and content of the food they are eating, especially in the light of recent food scares. People are choosing veganism as a more ethical way of living.

Nesta McGregor, a Radio 1 Extra presenter, went vegan during ‘Veganuary’, (January this year) to understand what it was all about. He was a die-hard carnivore, regularly consuming large quantities of meat at his local Turkish restaurant. He went to various vegan restaurants (including a vegan kebab outlet) and judged that vegan food was certainly not lacking in flavour, contradicting the image of ‘boring’ vegan vegetable dishes. He said that he felt healthier, had more energy and his skin had become clear and smooth only a few weeks in to his new dietary regime (see the BBC Radio 1 Newsbeat podcast – ‘Going Vegan’). He was so taken by this way of life that he rejected his favourite meat feast on the conclusion of his experiment and on the 1st February decided to go vegan permanently.


While this is not statistically significant, with a sample of one, according to the Vegan Society there are 542,000 practising vegans in the UK and 11% of consumers have tried at some point to follow a vegan diet - Nesta is obviously not alone in his new lifestyle choice. There is even a Vegan football team in Gloucestershire called Forest Green Rovers which have vegan practising team members and vegan food outlets at their ground! Other pop celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande have openly pronounced their veganism too.


What is the story of veganism in the UK? Well the Vegan Society was established by Donald Watson in 1944, towards the end of second world war when there was a general food shortage, so rationing was in place. Everyone was encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory!’, a campaign to promote the populace of the UK to grow their own vegetables; all food was scarce, meat almost non-existent, so taking up this non-meat, dairy free diet was not difficult for Watson in a time of frugality. After a slow start membership numbers have increased year on year – the Vegan Society website www.vegansociety.com has much more information about this subject. The acceptance of veganism as an established force was endorsed by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986 when it defined a vegan as: “[a] person who on principle abstains from all food of animal origin: a strict vegetarian.”

Today the Vegan Society’s philosophy is described in its mission statement:

A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude as far as possible and practicable all forms of exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food clothing or any other purpose and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans and animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practise of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.


Veganism is here to stay, and it will not be long before wine producers clearly label their wine as suitable for vegans on a regular basis. Some independent wine merchants such as The Vine King based in Surrey (www.thevineking.com), use their shelf edge labels to say whether the wine is suitable for vegans. Virgin wines, only available online at www.virginwines.co.uk, use the ‘vegan approved’ logo symbol on the descriptions of their vegan wines on offer. The supermarkets in the UK selling wine are helping in this regard too by listing those wines on their websites which are suitable for vegans. Morrisons, for instance, has 105 vegan beers, wines and spirits identified on its website while the Coop has a ‘suitable for Vegans’ button identifying 77 wines as such. M&S (486), Waitrose (252), Majestic (42), Sainsburys (245), Tesco (60) have all identified their vegan wines so there is general recognition of this wine category. So, without the words appearing in large type on the front label it should be possible to buy a wine suitable for vegans without too much effort. 


What is quality wine?

May 2018

I visited the London Wine Fair (www.londonwinefair.com) again this year and it is always a pleasure to be there. Held at Olympia from 21st to 23rd May, wine producers from all over the world gathered to offer their products for tasting with the hope of selling them to various customers who run hotels, restaurants and wine retail outlets. The wines were of various qualities and it was up to the prospective buyers to ascertain what they should purchase and at what price. Generally speaking the price of a wine should reflect its quality; the better the quality the higher the price, but what is quality wine? Is it just a matter of personal preference or is it possible to judge the merits of a wine objectively even if you do not like it?


To answer this question, in part, it was very helpful to be able to taste the gold medal winners from The International Wine Challenge (IWC) which were on display for all visitors to sample. These prize-winning wines are judged by a panel of wine aficionados, experts in their chosen fields of interest, many of whom are Masters of Wine and have been tasting and judging wines for many years. The IWC, now in its 34th year (www.internationalwinechallenge.com) is regarded as one of the most important wine competitions in the world and commercially beneficial for any successful winery. Each medal winning wine is tasted on three separate occasions by at least 10 different judges! Awards given include: Trophy, Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Commended and Great Value awards. The IWC gold awarded wines I tasted, were in my humble opinion, all sublime.


On what basis then do the judges make their conclusions? They as experts have all been trained to look out for certain parameters when tasting and judging wine; they look at the colour of the wine, the smell of its aromas and the taste of the wine. By combining all three observations quality can be measured by assessing a wine’s balance, length, intensity, typicity and complexity. To the trained wine connoisseur any ‘off’ characteristics can be detected almost immediately by just smelling the wine - mustiness, cardboard, vinegar, dull fruit would all indicate a poor quality faulty wine.


Balance is the combination of sweetness, alcohol content and fruit for white wines, and additionally tannins for red wine - they have to be present in harmony so that one component does not overpower the other. You should be able to savour the flavour and aromas of a quality wine long after it has passed your lips; this ‘length’ is a sensory memory lasting after the glass has been emptied. Those flavours should also be subtle and not too intense such that one flavour does not dominate the others, the wine then has complexity. It should also be typical of the place from which it comes from; a Burgundy should taste of the Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes from which it is made, albeit with variations depending on the ‘terroir’ from which the grape originates.


Price often denotes quality. Not everyone can afford an expensive bottle of wine and hence many casual drinkers are looking for a wine that pleases them with respect to taste at a price they can afford and not necessarily something extra special. In addition, for the general consumer, personal preference and expert assessed quality are not necessarily the same thing: some very expensive, aged, premium wines have very distinctive flavours that may only appeal to wine connoisseurs.


It is worth remembering, though, that in the UK, spending a little more for a bottle of wine will generally pay off in terms of quality and value because taxes make up the greater part of the cost of low price wines. If you look at the table below, you will see that you get almost get twice the value of wine from a bottle costing £6 compared with that at £5 (£1.37 vs £0.76). There will be exceptions to this. You can find a bottle of wine at £5 that will taste as good as one for £6 – maybe the wine producer underestimated the price, or the wine buyer got a good deal. Price promotions in UK supermarkets are common and competitive; for price and quality supermarket own brand wines can be a good buy because less is spent on marketing than for a branded wine. With improvements in viticulture and wine making throughout the world, wines produced today have consistently high levels of quality, even for massed produced, usually, branded ones.


Typical costs for a bottle of wine from Australia in a UK supermarket:

Retail Price: £4.00 £5.00 £6.00 £7.00 £10.00 £20.00

Duty* + VAT: £2.72 £2.88 £3.05 £3.38 £3.72 £5.35

Shipping Costs: £0.20 £0.20 £0.20 £0.20 £0.20 £0.20

Retail mark-up: £0.92 £1.15 £1.38 £1.85 £2.31 £4.62

Nett cost: £0.16 £0.76 £1.37 £2.57 £3.78 £9.80

*Duty based on 19 January 2016 - £2.05 per bottle and VAT at 20%


The IWC gold awarded wines I tasted were all excellent, but even so I liked some more than others. I think it is important that you buy wines you can genuinely afford rather than expensive ones which claim to be of superlative quality – there will always be wines on sale of excellent quality within your budget, the problem might be that you have to try many before you strike lucky!  


Burgundy

June 2018

The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (The Bourgogne Wines Board) based in Beaune, France (www.bourgogne-wines.com) were taking Burgundy wines around Britain this month for tastings and sales presentations (I shall use ‘Bourgogne’ and ‘Burgundy’ interchangeably here as both names do appear on bottles). I was invited by Drinks Business (www.thedrinksbusiness.com) to the Bourgogne wine master class in Cambridge presented by the Burgundy expert, wine writer and wine educator Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW.


Celebrated around the world for its wines, Bourgogne is the birthplace of two of the most iconic and renowned grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It is in Bourgogne that they both develop at their best to produce wines with distinctive flavours.


Before going into too much detail of the individual wines to be tasted, Michelle gave a synopsis of the history of Burgundy wines and the current administrative structure of regulating their production:


There is evidence of wine making from archaeological excavations near the town of Gevrey-Chambertin in the Burgundy region since Roman times nearly two thousand years ago. Monks in monasteries in the region in the middle ages grew grapes and made wine, initially for communion then as a general activity for local consumption - Benedictines of Cluny were well known for their wine making skills and Cistercians established clos de Vougeot, now one of the most famous vineyards in the world. The Dukes of Burgundy took control of the majority of vineyards in the 15th Century and were responsible for increasing production and Bourgogne wines which were sold throughout Europe. After the French revolution at the end of the 18th Century the ownership of the vineyards was removed from the French Church and aristocracy and redistributed to the local population.


The law of equal inheritance of children laid down by in the Napoleonic code after the revolution meant that the original owner of a vineyard when he/she died had to distribute the land equally to his/her descendants rather than leaving it to one person - this set out the structure of the vineyard ownership evident today whereby there are many hundreds of parcels of land located within a larger ‘Lieu Dit’ or geographic piece/area of land with grape vines growing called ‘Climats’ or with stone walls around them also known as ‘Clos.’ Some grape growers who own their own Clos might make their own wine under a ‘Domaine’ name, they might form their own Cooperative with neighbouring grape growers or sell grapes to other Cooperatives, or Négociants representing large companies that make wine on a large scale. Yes, it is complicated!


This complex arrangement for making Burgundy wines extends to the quality designations for them. In 1855 a Dr Lavelle compiled an informal classification system identifying the better quality wines which was eventually formalised by the committee of agriculture in Beaune, vinous capital of Burgundy, into the ‘cru’ system with the establishment of the first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in 1936. The best quality wines in Burgundy are labelled as ‘Grand Crus’ of which there are 33 (2% of total production) – these are made from grapes grown in individual vineyards. ‘Premier Cru’ wines, the next level down of quality, 640 in number (11%), are made from grapes grown in ‘Climat’ vineyards around or near particular villages. Then come the 44 village AOC’s (39%) spread throughout Burgundy, and the remaining 7 Regional AOC’s last in the hierarchy.


While Bourgogne is renowned for some of its exceptional treasures (such as Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Gevrey-Chambertin, Romanée Conti), it is also home to a host of other appellations and these AOCs produce wines which demonstrate clearly the nuances and complexity that make Bourgogne’s wines so distinctive. This range of diversity might surprise some, considering the region’s use of only two grape varieties, however, the favoured explanation for this by French wine producers is ‘terroir’; the concept of place, soil, climate and weather which make a unique product from the same grape variety. Michelle presented a selection of Bourgogne wines showing this variation, although underlying this was still the typical flavours of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The differences in flavour result from the variable soils, geology and topography creating many terroirs. The weather in this continental climatic region is typically: Long cold winters allowing vines to rest; mild rainy springs encouraging new vegetation to develop; hot, dry sunny summers during which grapes ripen slowly; autumns cooling slowly causing the sap in vines to fall slowly.


There is a large choice of Bourgogne wines: red, rosé, white and sparkling (Crémant de Bourgogne) which may have a wide range of origins/ provenance, quality and style that is not always clear from the information on the label. The best approach perhaps when selecting a Burgundy wine is to look at reviews or seek recommendations and starting at a price you can risk, try some! If you embark on that vinous journey you enter a world of rich diversity in aromas and flavours.

Margaret River, Western Australia

July 2018

I was lucky enough to visit Margaret River region of Western Australia this month and got to taste some excellent wines.


Margaret River region is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines – gravelly soils, mild winters and warm summers in a maritime climate mirrors the spiritual home of this grape variety in the Medoc Region of Bordeaux, France. Overall the climate here is similar to Bordeaux in a dry vintage year. The Region is less than 19 miles (30 km) wide along its entire 150 mile length and is tempered by the winds of the Indian and Southern oceans.


From Yallingup in the north to Karridale in the south, Cabernet Sauvignon wine is produced in a variety of styles here, all are characterised by tannins which give the wine its longevity in the bottle and overall structure, some light cherry in flavour some more characteristically blackcurrant. In autumn it is the last variety to be picked and this slow ripening process of these tiny thick skinned grapes make for intense flavours that give long length and tannins that provide structure to the wine. The main soil type running in a band from Cape Naturaliste in the north to Cape Leeuwin in the south is gravelly or gritty sandy loam formed from the underlying granite and gneissic rock. The soils are highly permeable when moist but can quickly lose their moisture from sloping sites and overall water retaining capacities are low, again copying the well-drained gravels of the Medoc.


Throughout the Margaret River region there are gentle valleys and abundance of small creeks with a profusion of native trees, shrubs and flowers. This land was originally made up of forests interspersed with green grass pasture, then when wine production took off in this area the forests were felled in order to establish vineyards. Today beef cattle still graze on the lush pasture on land adjacent to vineyards.


Vines were first planted in the region in 1829 with the first settlers of this region of Australia but there was no serious development of the wine industry here until the 1970’s. Dr John Gladstones produced a report in 1965 in which he identified the potential for growing grape vines in the Margaret River region. It was in 1967 that his report led to Dr Tom Cullity to establish the Vasse Felix vineyard and winery. Others followed soon after and their families still have a presence in wine making in this region to this day with notable recognised names such as Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Estate and Cullens.

Caves Road extends from north to south along the length of this region and driving down it, besides vineyards and grazing livestock, you will encounter forests of soaring karri and jarrah woods and lolloping kangaroos, some springing across the road in front of you and others sadly dead at the roadside, those that did not make it across.


The Margaret red wines came onto the international market in the 1970’s; they were perceived to be different from other similar varietals produced in Europe, possibly because malolactic fermentation was rarely carried out which gave them a distinctive flavour. Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine for which Margaret River is renowned. Nearly every winery produces a single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon; typically, the grapes ripen consistently well to produce almost sweet flavours and are never leafy or herbal or bell peppery as would be typical in cooler climates. They are also blended with Merlot too as in the Bordeaux model.


Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are also produced as individual varietal wines or blended as in Bordeaux to produce a distinctive tropical fruit flavoured blend pungently grassy and intense. Sometimes Chenin Blanc is incorporated into the blend to make a wine labelled here as the ‘Classic Dry White’.


Moving away from the Bordeaux template, Chardonnay is also a Margaret River speciality which is usually concentrated in flavour, complex, viscous with a good balance of acidity. A full range of winemaking techniques are employed – fermentation in barrel, malolactic fermentation, oak aging (as in Burgundy now).


The typical wines for this area were well exemplified at Brown Hill winery (www.brownhillestate.com.au) run by the Bailey family in Rosa Brook, a hamlet a few miles east of Margaret River town. A bumpy track off the main road passes bare vines in vineyards (winter here in July!) with a forest in the background and a field of grazing cattle adjacent and leads eventually to a large barn size, grey shed, with a huge sliding door. Inside you discover large vats and wine processing equipment, dormant at this time of year, and a large table propped up on barrels with a line of wine bottles. Behind the table stood Mrs Bailey, senior, Gwen, one of the co-founders of the vineyard with her husband Jim; they purchased the land in 1987 initially for rearing cattle, then in 1995 that they planted their first grape vines.


In conversation I learned that since its origins, while cattle farming has continued, the vineyards have expanded progressively. This was very well demonstrated by the sixteen different wines displayed on the table labelled as ‘Prospector’s’, ‘Reserve’ and ‘Signature’ ranges, with increasing prices, and quality across the ranges as far as I could determine. I met the second generation, Nathan Bailey, who described in more detail the methods by which he produces the Brownhill wines.


As an aside I should also say that Brownhill’s have several marketing initiatives: In 2017 an eminent local photographer Sabine Albers followed the activities in the vineyard throughout the year capturing the life of the winemaker and the wine making process, culminating in a year end exhibition where she displayed her photos, attracting much interest. Food and wine masterclasses at the winery attract customers, so does their own wine club when wines can be purchased at preferential prices. Some wines have been entered for international competitions and have won awards. This winery I predict is destined for greater things as it has a combination of a superb location, that produces good quality grapes, and an owner/ winemaker who takes great pride and utilises excellent skills to turn those grapes into excellent wine. This scenario is typical of the great wines of the world produced on a small scale.


In contrast, the next day I visited Cape Mentelle vineyard and winery (www.capementelle.com.au) a few miles west of Margaret River; this was a completely different experience, still producing good wines but this time on a vast scale from a large estate, the approach to the cellar door is via a well paved drive to a large complex of buildings. Reception was sleek and swish – mood lighting, displays of wines on offer and a uniformed receptionist dedicated to sell wine or book you in for tours. Being short on time I took the short tour with the history display set around the barrel-room. Cape Mentelle began as one of the original local vineyards back in 1970 and shortly after established a sister winery, Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. Today it is owned by the MHLV group and still produces superb Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays for which this region is famous.


This region is a delight: Besides all the lovely vineyards and wineries to visit you can eat well here because there are excellent restaurants scattered about the, many at wineries. There is a wide variety of accommodation with a range styles and prices to match. There is a vibrant local craft community and if you like the seaside the beaches are superb especially if you like surfing. A must see place.

Wine glasses 

August 2018

Glass vessels for drinking wine first appeared in Egypt in 1500 BC. They became common during Roman times when the techniques of glass blowing spread throughout the Roman Empire and wine was drunk from glass tumblers, some with very intricate designs. The Venetians were next to perfect the art of glass making, and their skills were exported throughout Europe and through tradition and in time each wine producing region developed its own shape of glass for drinking wine.


Go shop for wine glasses today and you will find an array of different sizes, shapes and colours to choose from. But does it really matter what glass you use from which to drink wine? Could the shape or size of a glass really have an influence on the perception of taste of a wine? Well the answer is yes. Various studies have been carried out and the results suggest that wine connoisseurs are not merely wine snobs when insisting on using certain types of wine glasses to consume their favourite beverage. Glass size and shape will affect the taste of a wine.


A report from Canada in 2001 showed that the perceived intensity of the aromas of red and white wines served in glasses with different physical dimensions (opening diameter, maximum diameter, height and volume) vary according to the glass used. While research conducted in Germany using 180 volunteers found that tulip and beaker shaped glasses influenced the perceived wine aromas that was not related to the aesthetics of the glass shape. These differences were explained by Kari Russell at the University of Tennessee, who observed a change in the chemistry of the phenol compounds in wine as a result of different degrees of exposure to oxygen which is related to glass shape.


Wine can be drunk from any vessel, but clean glass has the advantage of being inert and if it is clear, allows the taster to appreciate the colour and clarity of the wine. Wine professionals only use one glass, the ISO glass that has very specific shape and dimensions, as shown here. This allows tasting notes to be comparable no matter where the wines are sampled by the experts.


A purist such as George Reidel, an Austrian glass maker, however, has designed over a hundred different wine glasses, one for almost every type of wine available! These glasses are all developed by purely analysing how different taste characteristics are optimised by minute variations in glass design.


Not having enough room to accommodate all the permutations available, many households have only one or two models of wine glass which is perfectly adequate for everyday consumption, however, here are the glasses you should be using for the most popular wines.   

Chile 

September 2018

This month I was invited by ‘Drinks Business’ (www.thedrinksbusiness.com) to attend a talk and wine tasting presented by Emily Faulconer of Carmen Wines (www.carmen.com), who is considered by many to be one of the rising stars on the Chilean winemaking scene. She joined Santa Rita Estates as premium winemaker for the Carmen brand in Autumn 2017 with a focus on producing wines showing specific varietal and terroir identity. She is also responsible for the continuation and strengthening of the internationally acclaimed Carmen innovation projects. The talk was entitled “Technique and Terroir: Exploring the Transformational Changes Taking Place in Chile’s Vineyards and Wineries”, and started off with a history of Chilean wine production since its inception in the 1850’s.


Back then, wine was made in Chile for the Christian religious sacraments and for that purpose French varietals were used. Relatively small scale production of wine carried on from that time to supply the domestic market with none exported. It should be noted that Chilean vines escaped the Phyloxera blight of the 1880’s that so devastated the European root stocks. In the 1970’s, because of political and economic turmoil in Chile many vineyards were grubbed up and wine production declined, however, in the 1980’s when the economic situation improved there was a resurgence in the wine industry and winemakers who wanted to export went for a value for money approach as a marketing tool. This meant grapes were grown in large numbers (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère and Chardonnay) and good reasonably quality wine made and sold at a good price. At this time there was investment in the infrastructure of wineries too, stainless steel tanks were installed to replace the aging wooden vats.


The style of wine made was market led from 1980’s to 2000 in that, depending on the fashion of the moment, that was the style produced – throughout the world with the influence of a wine critic called Robert Parker, that style trend was for increasing the intensity of flavours for both red and white wines and oak was increasingly incorporated into the wine. However, between 2000 and 2010 winemakers in Chile were travelling the world and discovering the possibilities of different styles which could be obtained from the varieties they were growing. The value for money principle was still adhered to, and bigger volumes of wine were produced.


From 2010 to today there has been a change of emphasis in wine production in Chile. The value from making wines from grapes has been reassessed because of economic pressures; the winemakers have to justify to themselves why making wine at a certain cost and profit is more rewarding and culturally important, rather than growing more profitable crops or just selling the land for urban redevelopment. Cities are expanding rapidly in Chile and the demand for land for urban development is swallowing up vineyards which are sitting on land adjacent to the urban sprawl. It is a tempting option for a vineyard owner to sell up and claim the inheritance, rather than pass it on to his or her children who could continue a tradition of wine making.


Carmen has identified this ‘cultural theft’ and are making steps to retain a historic cultural identity by collaborating with some of the longest established vineyards in Chile, some vines of which are 50 – 70 years old; old vines are much prized in other parts of the world and once gone are hard to replace (at least in the short term!).

Carmen has invested a lot of money in new plantings of new vines (eight clones of Cabernet Sauvignon); having made an extensive assessment of potential sites with different terroirs they anticipate growing grapes with different flavour profiles. The vines are thoroughly treated to prevent diseases and twelve rootstocks have been used to suit the different soil types. It was noted that small differences in altitude has a very profound effect on the grape constituents. The idea is to emulate the Burgundy model whereby different parcels of vineyards produce grapes that produce different wines that can be blended to make a final product of choice. Grapes from old vines are also being incorporated in the mix, hence the campaign by Carmen to retain historic vineyards in the suburbs. This is a fundamental change in philosophy in that the vineyard terroir is chosen to make the wine – it is the converse of making the best wine you can out of given grapes.


It is early days for Carmen wines but results so far are promising. In the tasting we were presented with a selection of their recent production. Each very good in their own right. This enthusiastic and engaging winemaker is on a journey that seeks the regeneration and recovery of old grape varieties, explores new terroirs and new wine styles and will also revisit the classics too. I wish Carmen wineries every success in its endeavours.


Wine Education Australia

October 2018

Wine Australia, the board responsible for the marketing of wine throughout the world, has inaugurated a new, bold initiative, an online wine course and information service accessible to everyone with access to the internet. Its mission statement is as follows: ‘The comprehensive, free education program providing information, tools and resources to discover and share Australian wine’


Not only is this a first for Australia, it is a first for any country that produces wine. This online course can be discovered at www.wineaustralia.com/education and there you will be able to learn about wine making, the different varieties of grape, and the wines produced from them, and food and wine matching, all for free! You do not even have to set up an account and memorise login details, a first again! Of course, the whole initiative is to get you more involved in Australian wine and hopefully you will buy some! Even so, there are few free wine information and formal education sources available to the general public and as a result Wine Australia is doing us all a service to learn about grapes and wine.


In the UK the marketing board is located in London at:

Wine Australia

The Australia Centre

Strand

London

WC2 4LG


and it is from there the program in the UK is administered. The education program is beginning with a limited number of wine topics but gradually over the next year Wine Australia will upload information about all the grape varieties grown in the Australian wine regions, the flavour profiles of the wine made from them and what food ideally can be consumed to accompany them. There will be a section on wine making and even one about organic and biodynamic wines, a hot topic for today’s concerned environmentalists. The information on the website can be downloaded as a pdf or a printable version or in the form of a PowerPoint presentation in case you are wishing to present the contents to a group. There are also excellent short videos on each of the topics.


This precedent set by Wine Australia should be copied by other wine marketing boards who certainly would benefit from the involvement of potential wine lovers in their wines. At present they all have some website presence, some of which are more informative than others, but nothing in the detail as that presented by the Australians.

The Australian wine industry has always been innovative in wine making, wine quality and the marketing of Australian wine and the ‘Australian Wine – Made Our Way Education Program’ is yet another example of this.

Wine Education

November  2018

I started teaching a Level 2 Wine & Sprit Education Trust, (WSET), course this month to a group of five employees who work at The Sun Inn, Dedham, Suffolk (www.thesuninndedham.com); they are waiters and aspiring sommeliers. No matter how much you think you know about wine, and its making, there is always something to be discovered so through formal education programs such as those run by the WSET (www.wsetglobal.com) you can cover everything, all the facts, with the confidence that nothing is left out. It is a fascinating subject in its own right, that combines art and science.


The latest figures show that the average household in the UK now consumes over 27 litres of grape wine per year, but most of us do not really know our Bordeaux from our Burgundy and with over 500 different wines to be found in your local supermarket, a little inside knowledge could be helpful. The Cambridge School of Wine (www.cambridgeschoolofwine.com) was set up by Ian Smith after he attended a dinner party and realised everyone was talking about wine, but no one seemed to truly understand anything about it. There is a tremendous interest in the subject but a massive gap in knowledge - everyone loves to drink wine and to talk about it, but few people actually know enough to get the most from the drink. With the bewildering number of bottles offered on restaurant wine lists these days, it would be useful to base your choice on know-how rather than price! It is a fascinating subject which combines art and science.


Besides wine classes, wine events are increasingly used nowadays as a management tool for employee team building – practical and theoretical activities with alcoholic lubrication is a sure way for staff to get to know one another!


Formal wine training for staff in the hospitality and the wine retail trade is indispensable for successful product sales and customer satisfaction. Hotel and restaurant staff can display confidence with customers in the wines they offer if they are formally trained. This will increase sales. Training also retains staff who feel valued by an employer who is serious about their welfare. A good example of this is The Sun Inn at Dedham where all front line service staff are trained to WSET Level 2 in Wines and Spirits; the staff there display pleasure working and have stayed there for years building a career in this sector. The confidence and knowledge of their subject comes across as good customer service, a must for any successful business.

Is Wine Good For You?

December 2018

There have been many claims to this effect but where does the truth lie? This question is appropriate ask at this festive time of the year in the UK when alcohol consumption soars.


Anecdotal evidence implies that alcohol does us no harm: the familiar story is the granny who had a dram of whiskey or glass of sherry every day and lived to be 100! Most scientific reports, however, contradict this and will explain that the grandmother who lives to celebrate a centenary (with Champagne!?) can put this down to her having a favourable set of genes, a healthy lifestyle and good diet! She is the exception and not the rule.


All scientific evidence, however, indicates that there is a direct correlation between excessive alcohol intake causes liver cirrhosis (healthy cells die and are replaced by fibrous dead tissue), stomach ulcers, gastro problems, infertility, foetal damage and a higher risk of mouth, colon and breast cancers. Alcohol is recognised as a depressant, a mood changer and makes people happy, relaxed or euphoric or sad and depressed by switching off part of brain that controls judgement. If women drink above the recommended limits it can affect the menstrual cycle and fertility levels. When pregnant alcohol crosses the placenta into the baby and may give rise to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) – a set of serious problems such as poor growth and physical and/or mental deformities. Particularly adverse effects can be experienced by people taking in excessive alcohol in a short period of time, so-called binge drinking. The medical definition of binge drinking is drinking five or more units in quick succession or in one drinking session. This causes rapid increase in blood pressure and is extremely dangerous for anyone with heart problems.


What are the recommended ‘safe’ limits of alcohol consumption? Doctors say there are no safe limits and that any intake of alcohol can potentially do us some harm. It has been said that if alcohol were invented today it would be regarded as a health hazard and would be restricted or banned! Cynics might say alcohol is not banned because of the economic importance of the wine, beer and spirit industries worldwide, and on a local scale, the importance of the revenue it brings to the government through taxation. Even so the amount of alcohol which is considered safe to consume depends on age, size, gender, genetic make-up and health of the individual.


Women tend to be smaller than men, so their tolerance is lower than men who in general are larger and have more body water leading to a dilution effect. Women have less alcohol dehydrogenase; the metabolising enzyme present in the liver that breaks down alcohol to smaller molecules. The recommended daily limits for men is 3-4 units/day while for women it is 2-3 units/day. A unit is defined as follows:

1 Unit of alcohol = 8g of alcohol (1cl in volume)

From that you can calculate the units of alcohol in any drink by multiplying the % alcohol in the beverage by the volume expressed as a decimal of a litre. For example, for a standard 750 ml (0.75 litre) bottle of wine at 12% alcohol the number of units it contains is:


0.75 x 12 = 9 units


As a rule: 1 Unit = half pint of beer, small glass of wine, one measure of spirits.

For driving on the roads and vehicles in the workplace, forklift trucks for example, there are strict drink/driving laws in all countries. The Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limit in the UK above which an offence is committed is 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood. For the rest of Europe, it is generally 50mg (in Sweden it is 20mg). For men a standard drink containing 10g of alcohol will increase the BAC 20mg for each drink. It will decrease by one standard drink per hour thereafter. For women the BAC increases 20-30mg for each standard drink consumed and decreases by approximately ¾ of a standard drink per hour. The consumption of alcohol with food will slow the adsorption of alcohol but does not reduce the overall intake; similarly, coffee will mask the effects but not affect the amount of alcohol in the body.


In order not to encourage people to drink excessively the EU have brought in laws that affect the manner in which advertising can promote alcoholic drinks. The following rules apply for advertising alcoholic drinks in Europe:


• Must not be aimed at or depict minors consuming


• Shall not link enhanced physical performance or driving skills with alcohol consumption


• Should not create the impression of social or sexual success


• Should not claim that alcohol has any therapeutic qualities


• Shall not encourage excess consumption or present abstinence negatively


• Shall not place emphasis on high alcohol content as a positive quality


Besides potential detrimental health affects alcohol may have, in the case of wine there may be other consequences of consuming it, that is allergic reactions to some of its contents. A food allergy is when the body’s immune system reacts unfavourably to the consumption of a normally harmless substance. For alcohol, symptoms are migraine, headaches, itchiness, rashes, bowel colic, diarrhoea, asthma, swollen features and swollen eyes are all attributed to allergic reactions. These are similar but different to the symptoms of a hangover, that awful feeling after a heavy nights’ drinking. A hangover is not an allergy but caused by excess intake of alcohol. Symptoms are headache, nausea, vomiting, lethargy and dry mouth. It is due to dehydration especially of the brain cells which shrink in the presence of alcohol. Prevention of a hangover is to moderate one’s drinking! Failure to do that the symptoms can be ameliorated by drinking less alcohol and preferably with food and accompanied with lots of water.


Sulphur dioxide, used in the production of wine, may also cause an allergic reaction; sufferers would also react adversely when eating dried fruits preserved with sulphur dioxide usually at much higher levels than those found in wine. Sulphur dioxide may trigger wheezing or in extreme cases, bouts of asthma. The small amount of dead yeast cells present in wine (especially those labelled and aged ‘sur lie’) may also cause an allergic reaction.


Having considered all the adverse effects of alcohol consumption, what then are the benefits, if any, of consuming wine? The famous (infamous?) ‘J’ curve, thinning of blood and the presence of anti-oxidants are the principle claims to the benefits of drinking wine.


A collation of data in France in the 1990’s demonstrated that complete abstinence or drinking in excess of one glass of wine a day caused an increase in the risk of death. This moderate intake, particularly of red wine, was then associated with good health and it is primarily this data (on a graph shown as a line forming a ‘J’) which has been quoted to demonstrate the benefits of drinking wine. What the researchers at the time perhaps did not appreciate is that the Mediterranean diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and the use of olive oil in cooking instead of saturated fats may also have had a significant affect on the survival rate of individuals. It is commonly known today that a healthy diet prolongs longevity and improves health; the maxim ‘you are what you eat’ is held as fact today.

In other historic, and to a lesser extent, more recently, studies show that moderate intake of alcohol reduces mortality caused by Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) by 25-30%, mainly in men aged over 40 years and in post-menopausal women, when risk factor of CHD significantly increase. Alcohol decreases the clotting together or ‘stickiness’ of red blood cells which may cause clots leading to strokes and/or thickening of the arteries walls and veins (arteriosclerosis) which may lead to heart attacks. Alcohol by itself accounts for 75% of the cardio-protective effects of alcoholic beverages. It promotes the formation of High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) which helps to remove Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) which causes blood platelets to stick together and to the sides of the arteries and veins. The LDLs are removed via bile. It has been estimated that one standard drink can confer the benefit and the blood thinning effect lasts for 24 hours and this may be the source of the ‘J’ curve effect.


Various compounds such as resveratrol and flavonoids, predominantly found in red wine, are derived from the pigments and tannins in the skins of black grapes and are given the general term antioxidants. They have a similar effect on the body as alcohol with respect to CHD and they may contribute to the prevention of cancers. Resveratrol and Querticin, antioxidants found in wines are in fact more powerful than the antioxidants vitamins C and E, however, it seems the amounts required to have any significant beneficial effects require and individual to drink at least a bottle of wine a day, which considering the health warnings on excessive intake of alcohol above, the harm to health seems to outweigh the anti-oxidant benefits.


So, in conclusion, there seems to be contradictory advice about drinking alcohol, and in particular wine. Genes, diet and the amount which is drunk on a regular basis or in a short period of time all seem to contribute to health, or ill health! It seems that a combination of a good diet and exercise and a small regular intake of an alcoholic beverage, red wine in particular, can maintain good levels of health and prevent heart disease. Excessive levels of alcohol are dangerous. One drink a day, preferably with a meal, is the ideal. Moderation is the key to a long life!