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I love Australia!

A couple of years ago before I was an enormously well-respected wine writer with my own column in a prestigious magazine, I replied to something written by Tim Atkin on which wine region or country I could do without. I suggested Australia. It seemed an obvious choice. When the world of wine had so much to offer why would you buy Australian? The burly Australians that my colleagues (or fellow drunks as they were officially known) at Oddbins raved about, Dead Arm Shiraz etc., seemed monstrous parodies of wine.

Now I’m excited by Australia. So what’s changed? Well for starters, I’m less of a pretentious little twat. In the late 90s when I got into wine, I had an indie music approach to drinking. Anyone who read Melody Maker in the 80s and 90s will remember how important it was to hate bands on principle. You were defined more by the bands you hated than the ones you liked. I disliked bands such as the Levellers, Pop Will Eat Itself and countless bands whose names I have forgotten not only because they were crap but because they were popular (then there were the bands who you might secretly like but were completely beyond-the-pale such as Dire Straits.) Just so with wine: in preferring Moselle riesling and sherry to Australian wine, I was sending out a powerful statement about my vinous credentials. Or so I thought, in fact I probably just seemed ignorant. The truth is I did like some Australian wines, Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet, Pewsey Vale Riesling amongst others, just as I had a soft spot for Dire Straits’ first album.

Australian wines have changed too. They are, and this is a huge generalisation, lighter, more perfumed, less oaky, lower in alcohol and drier than they were ten years ago. I now get excited when I see that a wine is from Margaret River or Mornington Peninsula in the way that I used to about Ribera del Duero. Sadly these new Australian wines are not cheap but then when you’re competing with the best from Burgundy you wouldn’t expect them to be. Here are two that have rocked by socks recently:

Moss Wood Chardonnay 2010 (Jeroboams £19.95) – From Margaret River in Western Australia, this Chardonnay combines the steeliness of a Grand Cru Chablis with the creaminess of a Puligny-Monrachet. I found this hugely impressive

Pirie Estate Pinot Noir 2007 (Soho Wine Supply £17.50) – From Tasmania, this one smells of tinned strawberries, if such a thing exists, and in the mouth it’s rich and meaty with not a trace of jam. Will probably get better with time but so good now, why wait?

These are both from cooler regions than the Australian classics of yesteryear. But even the Barossa, the heartland of the Aussie bruisers, is changing. Today I tried the 08 vintage of The Dead Arm Shiraz from d’Arenberg and instead of the porty, syrupy monster I remember, there was something dry, dense and intensely savoury that wouldn’t be out of place in Cornas. There was even something floral. Could it have changed that much or am I just a lot more open-minded? Whichever it is, it’s a good one to drink with early Dire Straits though not with the bloody Levellers.

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Wine articles

Wine of the Week: Weinert Carrascal 2007

My late year resolution is to be more reactive to what’s going on in the wine world (and less reactionary towards everything else). If the main topic of debate is ‘whither the natural cork’ then I’m going to chip in with my tuppence worth. This also means that my recommendations will occasionally coincide with wines that are on offer.

Last night I opened a bottle of Weinert Carrascal 2007 when my old friend , Tom, came over for supper. He’s fond of wines that are a little bit stinky, wines with a bit of character but that don’t cost the earth. Argentina is not normally a happy hunting ground for such things.  In my, admittedly  rather limited experience, Argentine wines tend to be very ripe and sleek, very influenced by top French oenologist Michel Rolland, but not terribly exciting. It’s a shame because I used to drink a lot of Argentine wines in the early 00s. To my untutored palate they had a character that their Chilean cousins lacked. Now the two countries seem to have swapped places with the Chileans making some distinctive wines whilst the Argentines make soupy monsters in the international style.

At Cavas de Weinert they do things differently. All wines are aged in enormous old oak barrels and only released when ready to drink. They’re more like an old-school rioja bodega than a sleek new world winery. The wines are also absurdly cheap. I paid £7.50 for the Carrascal 07 – a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot – from the Wine Society, Majestic currently have the 06 on offer for £6.49 when you buy two. The one we had last night smelled damp and woody, a little like an old cellar. It tasted leathery but with masses of very ripe fruit. There quite a bit of tannic grip but age has mellowed it. It reminded me simultaneously of a nice claret and a traditional Chianti Riserva from a good producer only with much more fruit. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s a lot of wine for the money. Tom is now calling it the Funky Mendoza which makes it sound like a dance craze from the 60s.

Please feel free to write in to contradict me on Argentine wines.

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Wine articles

Affordable Burgundy is not (always) an oxymoron

Red Burgundy is unreliable. The joke is that a cheap bottle costs you £100: that’s £15 for the one that’s decent and £85 for all the disappointing ones you bought getting to the good one; like most wine jokes, it’s not very funny.

I remember the first time I tried this most difficult of wines. It was whilst working as a wine merchant in the late 90s. After work one day, the manager took me into the back office and with a gesture that implied I was being initiated into an arcane order opened a bottle of Mercurey. He poured me a glass and we both took a sniff. It smelt good. Then I had a sip – nothing. It tasted of nothing whatsoever. When I commented on this, the manager just smiled and said ‘that’s Burgundy!’ From then on Burgundy seemed to be some sort of cosmic joke played on the gullible. The number of times I would try wines for large amounts of money and be unmoved. At the time I was discovering claret with its easily decipherable hierarchy, and reliable wines.  Claret – red Bordeaux – made sense to me; you tried a good Chateau in a good year and were rarely dissatisfied.

Eventually I did have a red Burgundy – a 2000 Clos Vougeot – that made me realise what all the fuss was about. It tasted wonderful but even here there was a note of uneasiness for my budding wine brain as I was unable to describe why it was so good. Bordeaux can be broken down into easily describable flavours – blackcurrants, tobacco, leather, pepper – Burgundy’s pleasures are more ethereal. Nevertheless I was hooked. I wanted more of that indescribable pleasure but knew that this habit could bankrupt me. Time and time again, I was told that cheap red Burgundy was an oxymoron.

So why is this? Red Burgundy is made from a grape variety, Pinot Noir, that is to put it politely a bit of a bastard: it’s picky about where it is grown, it’s thin-skinned and susceptible to disease. It turns to boozy jam if it gets too ripe which is why New World examples rarely thrill. This isn’t a problem in Burgundy’s cool climate where it often doesn’t ripen at all resulting in thin acidic wine. Oh and it tastes of nothing if over-cropped (too many grapes from one vine). Pinot Noir is about fragrance which is lost if things aren’t just right. Which explains why good Burgundy is expensive and often not all that good.

Or so I thought.

Earlier this year I went to tasting that made me think again. It was put on a by a company who import wines made with the kind of obsessive care that go into a top Nuits-Saint-Georges but because they are from obscure parts of Burgundy such as Maranges, Epineuil or Vezelay most of them wines cost no more than £15 a bottle (these wines are only comparatively cheap – you’re not going to find them in Aldi) The importer, Fingal Rock, are based in South Wales so don’t have the overheads of a swanky St James’s shop. It’s not easy to make money from these sort of wines because they can’t be bought at rock bottom prices and marked up but nor do they command a premium. They’re the wine equivalent of the midlist author and just as the greatest reading pleasure can come from reading a novel with no hype that you pick up on a whim, these wines provide joy without any of the snobberies and expectations of grander wines. Wines like the following are to drink, not to impress.

Bourgogne Epineuil 2009 Domaine Leger. This comes from right up in the North of Burgundy near Chablis. White wine country you would think, reds will be tart and thin. It’s light, yes, but it’s also got the sweetest fruit to go with the more typical herby flavours of Northern Pinot Noir. This is made from perfectly ripened fruit. Oddly it reminded me a little of the pricey (at least £25 a bottle) Californian Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat. But it’s 11.85! I’m not sure how they do it for the price. It’s amazing. I would buy cases and cases of this stuff.

Maranges 2009 Domaine Claude Nouveau. This is from nearer the heart of Burgundy but it’s still unknown so is sold entirely on its own merits. The smell brings to mind smoke and the whiff of the farmyard (but in a good way). It’s quite tannic and structured but underneath there’s a good seam of fruit. ‘Un vin masculin’ as the producer called it. It’s serious stuff and will repay keeping – £14.75

Santenay 1er Cru ‘Grand Clos Rosseau’ 2009 Domaine Claude Noveau. Another step up in quality – a premier cru from the Cote d’Or  for £17.85 a bottle. This is all grace, perfume and ethereal qualities – ‘feminine.’ The sort of wine to fall in love with and with a finish that goes on for ages.

All the wines above are available directly from Fingal Rock  01600 712 372 (actually the might not be available now as I wrote this article a while back.)

A longer version of this article appeared in the Lady Magazine.

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Wine articles Wine of the week

Wine Grapes and All That

‘Verdelho should not be confused with GODELLO, a variety from Galicia in Spain that is also cultivated in the Portuguese Dao region under the name Verdelho or Verdelho do Dão. . . . It has been suggested that Madeira’s Verdelho is identical to a Sicilian variety called Verdicchio (often erroneously spelt Verdecchio, unidentified, but distinct from VERDICCHIO BIANCO.)’

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‘The Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa. It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).’

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One of these quotes is from 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman and one is from Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. I’m sure readers will know which is which.

We tend to think that learning about grape varieties is as an easy way into wine: Cabernet Sauvignon tastes of blackcurrants and smells of tobacco, Riesling of limes and kerosene. To an extent this is true. Initially it seems so much easier than learning about the French appellation contrôlée system or the German wine laws. The problem comes when you delve a little deeper into exactly which grapes are in your wine.

I bought a bottle of wine from my local wine merchant, Bottle Apostle, a couple of weeks ago called Camillo de Lellis Biferno Bianco 2010 from Molise in Central Italy. I’ve had a few vintages of their red so was curious about the white. I didn’t pay any attention to the grape varieties mentioned on the back of the bottle until I got home where I was disappointed to know it was made from Trebbiano and something called Bombino Bianco. Trebbiano, known as Ugni Blanc in France, is considered one of the world’s dullest grapes suitable only for distillation; it’s used to make Cognac. Still I’d paid for it so I thought I should drink it. Initially it tasted very neutral with just some lemons and a vague nuttiness. After a while I started to notice what a lovely texture it has, a certain sherry-like oiliness. The nuttiness takes on a distinct almondy note and then there are peaches and a little bitter twist like peach stones. Very pretty, reminding me simultaneously of white burgundy and perhaps an aged Australian Semillon or Marsanne. Excellent value at £9.99. So it would seem that Trebbiano in the right hands can be good.

But which Trebbiano? Wine Grapes lists eight different kind. The famously dull one is Trebbiano Toscana. Seeing as my wine is from Molise, it’s probably made from Trebbiano d’Abruzzo which, DNA profiling has shown, is not related to the dull Tuscan variety. In fact, it may be related or even identical to Bombino Bianco, a native of Puglia. The back label to the wine is not helpful as the Italian suggests that Trebbiano and Bombino are the same whereas the translation seems to be saying that it is made from two grapes, Trebbiano and Bombino.

That’s the problem with grape varieties, they’re slippery little bastards. All that Chilean Merlot you drank in the 90s turned out to be Carmenere. Recently the Australian have been getting very excited about their Albariños, a grape native to North West Spain (like Godello). Now it seems that many may actually made from Savagnin – a grape from which Gewurztraminer mutated from. See how slippery they are, one minute you’ve got a Savagnin and then it mutates into a crazy pink grape that makes wine that smells of rose petals and lychees.

According to Wine Grapes, the Pinot family, Noir, Meunier, Gris and Blanc, are genetically identical. In fact more than one type of pinot have been found in the same vine. It’s one of the things I love most about wine is that just when you think you’ve grasped something, it slips out of your grasp. Buy this amazing work of scholarship and you’ll realise quite how little you know.  I’ll be writing more on this book in future.