Category Archives: Food

The importance of being inspired

Sitting in an office day after day it is easy to get caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of emails and spreadsheets and to forget about the bigger picture. Certainly no one enters the wine trade for the day to day minutiae of working life – but rather for a joy of wine itself. And every now and then we all need to be reminded of that.

I have just spent ten days travelling around some of Australia’s wine regions with a bunch of UK and Irish independent wine merchants. It’s been a fantastic trip and I will report on it in due course, but for now I just want to express my thanks to everyone we met along the way who shared their time, experience and passion for wine with us. It has certainly filled me with a renewed energy and enthusiasm.

And it’s not just those of us that sit in an office that benefit from a change of scene. Steve Flamsteed, winemaker at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley, told me about going over to Central Otago to make wine which imbues him with an extra energy – and that he comes back home afterwards buzzing and with a renewed excitement for what he does. And that is exactly how I feel now.

We met so many wonderful people on our travels and to spend some time chatting to them and hearing their stories has been truly inspiring.

Standing in Bernard Smart’s Grenache vineyard in Clarendon in McLaren Vale and hearing about how the oldest vines were planted by his father in 1921, another block was planted by Bernard and his brother in the 1950s and the youngest block was planted by Bernard’s son in 1999 was quite extraordinary. The fact that Bernard at 84 years old is still managing the vineyard himself is just a testament to his family ties to that patch of dirt.

Bernard Smart in his family's vineyard dating back to 1921

Bernard Smart in his family’s vineyard dating back to 1921

Then there was Ken Helm at Helm winery in Canberra, a true raconteur who had us all in stiches within minutes of arriving – and who taught us the meaning of the word ‘trivia’ alongside tasting his delicious Rieslings. An anecdote that will stay with all of us for a long time to come.

In the King Valley the Dal Zotto family’s hospitality was fabulous. Inviting us along to join in their local salami festival, where father of the family Otto Dal Zotto cooked spit roasted porchetta for the 200 or so guests whilst their wine flowed freely was a special experience and made this bunch of poms feel right at home. The fact that we got thrashed by a bunch of aussie kids in a post-lunch cricket match should perhaps be glossed over though.

Otto Dal Zotto's porchetta

Otto Dal Zotto’s porchetta

And then up in the Adelaide Hills we had another long lunch with the Basket Range producers and their various low intervention/natural/organic wines. Of course that’s just one side of the incredibly diverse story of the Hills, but again it was the generosity and back to basics nature of the crowd that struck a cord.

As Steve so eloquently expressed to me, having time out in the vineyards and talking to so may different characters I now feel a renewed energy and excitement – and suspect the rest of the group would say the same. So, I have to say a huge thanks to all of the wonderful winemakers, viticulturists and winery owners we met along the way for reminding us of what a wonderful business we all work in.



Australia vs New Zealand: The Wine Challenge

Roger and Sue Jones are possibly two of the hardest working, most dedicated people in the wine industry. Not content with just running their Michelin-starred restaurant in Wiltshire, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, they also plan, organise and run a whole host of wine and food events both for the trade and their customers.

These events have included everything from setting up and running their own competition for Australian Wine, the Mamba Awards, to hosting pop-up events at wine trade tastings and even taking over top restaurants in far flung countries. Together they make an impressive team with Roger as head chef and Sue front of house – certainly a power duo, but also two of the nicest people in the trade who are incredibly passionate about all things wine and food.

So it is perhaps not surprising that a couple of years ago they set up another series of events – the Tri-Nations Wine Challenge: a series of dinners pitching the wines of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand against each other. Events have been held in Cape Town and Hawkes Bay as well as at The Harrow (see my blogpost on Aus vs SA here) and I believe they are hoping to take it out to Australia soon too.

Over the last 2 years there have been six rounds with the following results:

Win Draw Lose
South Africa 3 2 1
New Zealand 1 2 0
Australia 0 0 3

Not exactly happy reading for the Aussies.

Earlier this month the seventh round took place at The Harrow with Australia competing against New Zealand for the first time. Could this be the chance for Australia to redeem itself?

The dinner consisted of 6 courses, each matched to a pair of wines – one from Australia and one from New Zealand. All we had to do was decide which wine was our favourite in each flight and vote for it – something that sounds very simple but in some cases turned out to be anything but.

Australia vs New Zealand: The Wine Challenge

Australia vs New Zealand: The Wine Challenge


A glass or two of Hambledon’s excellent sparkling rosé kicked the night off in style – an English wine chosen so as not to upset any of the antipodeans present. And then we were off.

First up were two sparkling wines, served alongside ceviche of sea bass and bream with yuzu – a beautifully fresh dish to start. Wine 1 had a really pure, bright acidity to it but flavour-wise was very restrained, shy even. I expect it needs a bit more time in bottle to open up – but will equally age for many years to come. In contrast, wine 2 was much more open in style – quite rich and toasty with a certain hint of sweetness to it. Very different wines but in the end the vote went 26 – 37 to New Zealand.

Wine 1 – Arras Grand Vintage 2008, Tasmania

Wine 2 – No. 1 Family Estate Cuveé Virginie 2009, Marlborough


Roger Jones announcing the sparkling wine winner

Roger Jones announcing the sparkling wine winner


Course number 2 was a pair of Sauvignon Blancs, matched to citrus cured salmon. Of course everyone expected this to go to New Zealand and to taste a classic Marlborough style in one wine. But on first taste it became clear both wines had seem some oak ageing. And so the competition got a bit more interesting. Wine 3 appeared quite closed on initial pouring but after some vigorous swirling it opened up revealing a nicely textured wine with some mealy notes and a herbaceous core. In contrast the oak character on wine 4 was more apparent with some smoky notes and a softer, richer texture. Again, very different wines and this time Australia took the prize 28-35.

Wine 3 – Seresin Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Marlborough

Wine 4 – Larry Cherubino Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Pemberton


Next up was a pair of Chardonnays matched to lobster, scallop and langoustine ravioli with thai basil. And for me this was one of the hardest pairs to pick between: both were truly fantastic wines. Wine 6 perhaps showed a little more oak than wine 5, but both were complex and elegant with beautiful acidity. World class Chardonnay. And so I was more than a little surprised to hear how decisive the results were: 50-12 to New Zealand.

Wine 5 – Neudorf Moutere Chardonnay 2015, Nelson

Wine 6 – Tolpuddle Chardonnay 2013, Tasmania


So that meant the overall score was 2-1 to New Zealand after the whites and half way through the dinner. Time to move onto the reds…

Course 4 featured a pair of Pinot Noirs, served with perhaps one of the best risottos I have ever had the pleasure in tasting – perigord truffle risotto served with Scottish girolles and chicken & cep cream. Happily the Pinots were pretty good too – and similar to the Chardonnays there was not a lot to pick between them. Wine 7 showed a touch riper fruit, whereas wine 8 was a little more savoury – but overall they were both excellent and show just how good new world Pinot Noir is these days. The end result: 44-20 to Australia, taking the overall score to 2-2. With Shiraz and Cabernet to come suddenly the Aussies were detecting the scent of a win in the air.

Wine 7 – Paringa Pinot Noir 2013, Mornington Peninsula

Wine 8 – Felton Road Calvert Pinot Noir 2014, Central Otago


A pair of Pinot Noirs with the tastiest truffle risotto ever

A pair of Pinot Noirs with the tastiest truffle risotto ever


Shiraz was up next, served alongside melt-in-the-mouth fillet of aged Highland x Shorthorn beef. Whereas the last few flights there had been far more similarities than differences between the wines, here we had two that were poles apart. Wine 9 showed lots of fresh dark fruit alongside a real crack of black pepper. Wine 10 was plusher in terms of texture but still had lots of vibrant acidity to it and a lovely complexity. It is perhaps no surprise that Australia took the crown here with their number 1 grape variety, winning 23-41.

Wine 9 – Craggy Range Le Sol 2011, Hawkes Bay

Wine 10 – Yalumba Octavius 2013, Barossa Valley


Onto the sixth and final flight: Cabernet Sauvignon served with a welsh rarebit croquette. Here again were two very different wines. Wine 11 being leaner with some bell pepper notes, wine 12 showing a lovely fragrance and lift with a richer texture.  A drum roll and baited breath greeted the results announcement here: would it be an overall win for Australia or an even draw?

24–38 came the results……to Australia! That gave an overall score of Australia 4 : New Zealand 2. Finally, Australia had made it onto the leaderboard.

Wine 11 – Vidal Legacy Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2013, Hawkes Bay

Wine 12 – Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Margaret River


Despite all of the celebrations and then heading up on stage to collect the trophy on behalf of Australia, I have to say it really could have gone either way. Both countries fielded some truly world-class wines and it seems slightly unfair that there should be a winner and a loser. But I guess that is the nature of competition.

Accepting the award for Australia

Accepting the award for Australia


For me though what the series really does is far more important than celebrating a winning country. Rather, it injects an (often much-needed) dose of fun into wine tasting and it focuses attention on the wine. Which is no mean feat given the quality of food they were served alongside. This is the sort of occasion any winemaker would be thrilled to have their wine served at: where the wine is the true star of the show and the bit that people remember. Long may it continue.


South Africa vs Australia: the Wine Challenge

Australia 1: South Africa 5.

No, that’s not the score from an alternative Ashes series (with an extra test thrown in for good measure). That was the score at a dinner held at the Vineyard Restaurant in Cape Town in January where South African wines were pitted blind against Australian wines and guests were asked to choose their favourite match. A bit of a wipeout for the Aussies and perhaps a result of the locals innately preferring the styles of wines they were more familiar with. So, a rematch was conceived on neutral ground.

The original dinner was the brainchild of Aussie-wine loving Roger Jones, owner and chef at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn (a rather lovely Michelin starred restaurant in Wiltshire) and so where better to hold the rematch than at his restaurant. And so a couple of weeks ago a group of 60 or so attendees converged on the Harrow with taste buds at the ready, primed to sip, sniff and slurp to discern the best wine matches for each course. Who would win the second series? At this stage there was all to play for.

Roger and Sue Jones getting the evening started

Roger and Sue Jones getting the evening started

After a crisp, refreshing glass of Welsh rosé from Ancre Hill as an aperitif it was down to the serious business of dinner and the blind tasting. Six courses lay ahead, each served with a pair of wines: one Aussie,one South African. A numbered tag on each glass meant we couldn’t lose track of the wines and for each pair we simply had to hand in the tag of the wine we preferred. Simple, right? Well, that was the idea.

First up were two sparkling wines served with a pot of Torbay crab and pea mousse. The first sparkler was a rosé, pale pink in colour with delicate berry fruits. In comparison, glass number 2 was a deep gold colour with intense toasty, spicy notes – a complete contrast. This was a tough decision as wine 2 clearly had more complexity, but sadly was just too intense for the food – it overpowered the delicate, summery flavours of crab and pea. In contrast, wine number 1 whilst perhaps less impressive to taste was a perfect match for the dish. So, the first course went to wine 1 for me and also for the room. Round 1 to South Africa by 37 to 29 votes (L’Ormarins Brut Rosé 2012, Franschhoek vs Brown Brothers Patricia Sparkling 2008, King Valley).

Sparkling wine with Torbay crab and pea

Sparkling wine with Torbay crab and pea

Citrus cured salmon with hummus, a quail egg and caviar salt was up next – an intense, deeply flavoured dish that at first taste suggested it might be a tough one to find a match for. We had two Rieslings to match this course, and again two completely different styles. And this is where I began to fear a little bit for the Aussies, for on tasting wine 1 I knew just what it was: an aged Aussie Riesling. A fabulous wine, completely dry with a smoky, mineral complexity to it – quite different to wine 2 which was floral and fruity and just slightly off dry. Personally I thought the Aussie wine was a much better match: the savoury notes complementing the earthiness of the dish – but I also worried that the style might be too left-field for some whereas the SA wine was perhaps easier to drink. So no surprises when the results were announced, round 2 comfortably to South Africa by 41 to 24 (Peter Lehmann Wigan Riesling 2010, Barossa vs Hartenberg Occasional Riesling 2012, Stellenbosch).

Riesling with Citrus cured Salmon

Riesling with Citrus cured Salmon

The Chardonnay course followed, to match Lobster Dumpling served with a carrot and ginger purée and chilli jam. Again, a flavoursome dish. This was probably the toughest pair to decide between – really I could have chosen either. Wine 1 showed a bit more oak influence with a buttery, nutty flavours. The extra body in the wine from the oak meant that it matched the texture of the dumpling really well. In contrast, wine 2 still had some oak influence, but was fresher with brighter acidity and more minerality – something that really helped it to cut through the rich food. As I said, a tough decision. After much deliberation I finally settled on wine 2, preferring the fresher style. When the scores came in it seemed that it must have been an easier choice for many: another decisive win for South Africa 43 to 23 (Waterford Estate Chardonnay 2013, Stellenbosch vs Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay 2013, Adelaide Hills).

Chardonnay and lobster dumpling

Chardonnay and lobster dumpling

Onto the Pinot Noirs and surely it was time for an Aussie superstar? The dish was monkfish tail with chorizo, tomatoes and spinach – a great combination that should be a good match for a Pinot. Wine 1 proved to be a simple, fruity style full of red fruit flavours and a hint of star anise spice and some smoky, baked earth notes. Wine 2 was quite different – a more serious wine with real intensity and concentration. Along with red and black fruit flavours there was a lovely savoury herby flavour and bright acidity. It was a great match for the spicy chorizo. Probably the easiest choice of the night for me and the room agreed. Finally, Australia was on the board winning 40 to 26 (Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2014, Hemel en Aarde vs Dalrymple Single Site Pinot Noir 2012, Tasmania).

Pinot Noir with Monkfish,Chorizo, Tomatoes and Spinach

Pinot Noir with Monkfish,Chorizo, Tomatoes and Spinach

The final savoury course of braised pork cheeks with truffles, morels and mash was served with a pair of Shiraz. Wine 1 was a bit of a monster, full of sweet dark fruit, chocolate, spice and smoky notes. Dense and voluptuous – but balanced by bright acidity. In contrast wine 2 was more medium bodied with red fruit and a fresher style. However, it also had an overpowering charred flavour to it that for me dominated the wine. A shame as otherwise it would have been a clear winner. But, clearly the rest of the room disagreed and once again South Africa took the round – 40 to 25 (Penfolds Bin 150 Shiraz 2010, Barossa vs Eagles Nest Shiraz 2012, Constantia).

Shiraz with braised pork cheek

Shiraz with braised pork cheek

Finally, it was the turn of the pudding wines. Could Australia take back another point? The dessert was a combination of strawberry in different guises – pannacotta, gateau, parfait, macaron – all completely delicious, but all far too delicate for the sticky sweeties. A glass of moscato would have been perfect – as it was I chose the wine then pudding option: all the better to savour the wines. And actually there wasn’t a huge amount in it: both were seriously impressive. Wine 1 was full of dried fruit, candied peel and honey along with a lifted floral note to balance. Wine 2 was perhaps a touch more savoury in flavour – dominating on the caramel, marmalade and toffee notes – but overall sweeter in style. After some serious consideration (well, both were delicious so it seemed only fair to keep tasting them) I eventually plumped for wine 1. And when the results came in it was the closest score so far: 36 to 30 with South Africa taking the final round (Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008 vs De Bortoli Noble One 2009).

So, there you have it – once again South Africa won 5 to 1. Pretty impressive, and I have to admit a bit of a surprise. Personally I think both countries fielded some truly excellent wines and the score could have gone either way. Perhaps some of the South African wines were a touch more easy-drinking and perhaps the large table of (very vocal) South Africans swayed the score. But, that would be taking too much away from the individual wines. The scores don’t show just how much analysis, conversation and interest these pairs created among the attendees. For once the wines were the stars of the night and it was fascinating to listen to what everyone thought, how they argued for their favourites and eventually decided their choices. It wasn’t an easy task and the food definitely took the back seat while everyone discussed the wines. At the end of the day South Africa won hands down – but Australia needn’t hang its head in shame.

And there’s always the next series where they will take on New Zealand…..



Cork taint has been the bane of my life recently, but strangely enough not from the source that you might expect. Corked wine is one of the most annoying of wine faults – an invisible enemy that can strike at any time. There is nothing worse than putting your nose into a glass of wine and getting that unmistakeable smell of musty cardboard, wet dog and something that reminds me of a particular stairwell at school. That is the smell of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole to any science geeks out there) and it basically means the wine is good for nothing other than pouring down the drain. Heartbreaking at any time, and particularly if found in a bottle you have been saving for a special occasion.

But recently TCA has been plaguing me from a completely different source….vegetables. Yes, really.

It all started with a regular pot of mince that my husband had cooked for dinner. Nothing too unusual there, and he does make a pretty mean spag bol. That is until we tasted it….hmmm a little musty, not quite up to scratch. Another taste, definitely something odd going on here. Then it hit us – the mince was corked. Not even funky-around-the-edges kind of corked, but full on mouldy-cardboard corked. Completely inedible and fit only for the compost. But before we consigned it to our food waste bin we decided to do a bit of investigating. And it turned out that the culprit that had managed to taint the entire pot was one measly clove of garlic.

The next occasion happened a couple of weeks later only this time the culprit wasn’t garlic, but instead was a new potato. The other ones from the same bag were fine, but this one in particular was definitely corked. Next up was an evening train journey with some friends where we shared some wine and snacks. This time it was the baby carrots that were at fault. So much for the healthy option to go with our dip…

Then most recently I found myself in a restaurant with a group of friends and was telling this exact story to them. When I said that one of the beetroots in my beetroot salad was corked I think at first they thought I was saying it for effect. That is until I passed the offending piece around and saw the looks of revulsion on each of their faces. TCA at work again. At this point I did consider telling the waiter, but I think sending a bottle of wine back for being corked is one thing. Sending some vegetables back for the same reason…quite another thing.

So where, I hear you ask, does this come from? What is the root cause of the TCA epidemic and is it really on the increase? Well, that leads me into the realms of speculation as I am no food scientist and nor do I have any hard data on the subject.

TCA is formed by fungi in the presence of moisture and chlorinated phenols. In terms of wine, cork taint occurs when naturally occurring fungi in cork bark comes into contact with chlorine – which in the past has been used to clean corks (this doesn’t happen now, hence the decrease in incidence of cork taint versus some years ago). It can also pass into wine via barrels or wooden pallets where TCA can be formed.

In terms of vegetables, it is striking that all of the ones I have had problems with are root vegetables, and so may have picked up fungal spores from the soil which could produce the TCA. As for the chlorine, a quick internet search reveals that baby carrots in particular are washed in chlorinated water as a means to keep them fresh when packaged. Similarly, chlorine can be used in the bleaching process in garlic production. Perhaps then corked vegetables are simply a bad side effect of producing the fresh, pre-washed vegetables people seem to desire these days…

As for whether corked vegetables are on the increase, from my experience it is definitely something that I am noticing more and more. And it is not just vegetables. I have also had the odd corked apple and glass of orange juice – and I’m even finding particular streets to be corked lately. But of course this doesn’t necessarily indicate a causal connection. It is entirely possible that since embarking on the MW course I am more aware of cork taint and have developed a lower threshold for picking up on TCA – and so therefore am just more receptive to it. More data would be needed from a lot more people (nevermind being collected a bit more scientifically) in order to establish any sort of trend.

So, have you noticed musty vegetables lately or picked up on cork taint in unexpected places? I would love to hear if anyone else has had similar problems.

And if so, what is to be done about it? Increased use of screwcaps and altering the method of making corks has certainly helped to decrease cork taint in wine, but as for vegetables…well, let’s just say I am very careful now to gingerly smell every clove of garlic before I cook with it. Prevention may just be more feasible than cure for now.


An Australian lunch in Wiltshire at The Harrow

You might think that working in the wine trade means an endless cycle of wine tastings, lunches and dinners. Sadly the reality is rather more mundane; featuring a computer, a desk and the occasional cup of tea. Not exactly glamorous.

But, I have to admit, every so often the fantasy comes to life – and these occasions are real privileges.

Yesterday, one such occasion took me out into rural Wiltshire to enjoy a stunning lunch matched with a selection of great Australian wines at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn. There, husband and wife team Roger and Sue Jones have created the ultimate in English country dining –laid back and relaxed, and a real haven for foodies.

We started off out in the garden, soaking up the springtime sun and enjoying a glass of Charles Heidsieck NV champagne. Attention to detail is key in any restaurant – and at The Harrow that means that Roger and Sue had kept the champagne in their cellar for a number of months (“a minimum of 6… I prefer a year”) before selling it to their customers. This added bottle age had given the wine a wonderful golden hue and a great depth of toasty notes: really rather delicious and a great tip for any champagne lover.

To accompany the bubbles were two different canapés. First off was a Roger classic: foie gras macaroon. The creamy disc of foie gras with a dollop of salted caramel was sandwiched between a macaroon made with cep powder – an incredible savoury taste sensation that was so different to what you might expect. The second was a little pot of crab with a watercress sauce: delicate and refreshing, and the perfect counterpoint to the richness of the previous canapé.

Then we headed inside to our table to start the lunch properly. Our first wine was a Riesling from the Eden Valley: Pewsey Vale Contours Riesling 2009, served with ceviche of bream with wasabi sorbet. And what a great match that was: the dry, zesty Riesling complementing the delicate fish, and the toasty notes from extended bottle ageing counteracting the slight heat from the wasabi sorbet. Fresh and refreshing: the perfect starter.

Ceviche of Bream with wasabi sorbet

Ceviche of Bream with wasabi sorbet

From there we moved onto Chardonnay – and a wine from Margaret River in Western Australia: Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2009. This was paired with a lobster doughnut complete with red curry jam. Here the richness of the Chardonnay worked both to complement the meaty lobster and offset the curry flavour from the jam. Another take home message: Chardonnay can be a great match for curry dishes, particularly those which are spiced rather than overly spicy.

Lobster Doughnut

Lobster Doughnut

Our final white was much more unusual than the previous two: Aeolia Roussanne from Giaconda in Beechworth, Victoria. Unusual for the fact it is not a very well known variety and also because Giaconda stopped making this wine in 2012: so it is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. Roussanne as a grape variety tends to give rich, textural white wines with a notable savoury edge – and this was no exception.

Giaconda Aeolia Roussanne

Giaconda Aeolia Roussanne

The pairing with a dish of cod, chorizo and squid was really something special: one of those rare occasions where the duo go beyond being a good match and instead become something altogether different. A real case of where the whole is far more than the sum of the two parts.

Cod, Chorizo and Squid

Cod, Chorizo and Squid

Whilst, it has to be said, that was quite the highlight for me – there was more yet to come. The main course of Welsh lamb, Isle of Wight tomatoes and asparagus was served with Dawson and James Pinot Noir 2010 from Tasmania. The dark, smoky Pinot worked a treat with the pink lamb and fresh vegetables: a real array of flavours on a plate and beautiful to look at too.

Welsh lamb with Isle of Wight tomatoes and asparagus

Welsh lamb with Isle of Wight tomatoes and asparagus

Finally, it was time for dessert. Simply titled ‘Rhubarb’ on the menu, this turned out to be a celebration of this classic English vegetable with both rhubarb ice cream and sorbet, rhubarb sponge cake, poached rhubarb and rhubarb meringue. Delicious – and delightfully refreshing after the range of flavours we had encountered throughout the lunch. We didn’t have a sweet wine with the dish, but I would think a sweet, spritzy Moscato – perhaps the Innocent Bystander Moscato – would be a lovely addition.



So, as you can see – not exactly the toughest day in the office, and I can only say a huge thank you to Roger and Sue at the Harrow for their generosity in inviting us out to their little patch of foodie heaven. If you ever find yourself out in Wiltshire (or just take the hour-and-a-bit train from London) – go and visit the Harrow. You won’t be disappointed.


Discovering the wines of La Rioja Alta

La Rioja Alta is one of the best known wineries in Rioja and this year it is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Founded by five families, it is still family owned and managed and now owns 450 hectares of vineyard in Rioja Alta – considered the best sub region of Rioja.

The wine of La Rioja Alta

The wines of La Rioja Alta

They are considered to be one of the few remaining wineries producing ‘traditional-style’ Rioja – meaning the wines are aged for long periods of time in American oak barrels. Interestingly, to make the barrels, they import their own wooden staves from various states in the US and then craft barrels to their specifications in their own cooperage – not something you come across very often.

Last week I was invited along to a dinner, hosted by Adam Wander and Kiran Curtis of WanderCurtis wines, to taste a range of wines from La Rioja Alta – all presented by the export manager, Francisco Corpas.

But before the Rioja started flowing and to get us in the mood before dinner, we were treated to a duet of Champagne, brought along by the importer Tim Hall from Scala Wine. Both were from small growers and they made a fascinating comparison.

Vazart Coquart

First up was Vazart Coquart & Fils Extra Brut – a Blanc de Blancs NV from the Grand Cru of Chouilly on the Cotes des Blanc. The high proportion of reserve wines, coupled with low dosage of 3g/l, made this a really vinous style of Champagne. Rich yet delicate with a lovely creamy texture and soft mousse. Really quite impressive. The second Champagne, Lacourte-Godbillon Premier Cru NV was a Pinot-dominant blend with more standard 9g/l dosage and showed bags of red apple and red fruit character. A more classic aperitif style, but I have to admit to preferring the creamier Vazart Coquart.

Then onto dinner. With our first course of tuna carpaccio we were served not Rioja, but a Albariño from Rias Baixas. La Rioja Alta first bought vineyards in Galicia in the 1980s and they are now the largest single vineyard farmer in the region. We tasted their Lagar de Cervera 2013 – a fresh and zesty style with lots of green melon and red apple fruit. The wine usually undergoes malolactic fermentation to reduce the total acidity – but 2013 was such a great vintage that they didn’t need to.

And then finally we were onto the Riojas, what we had all been waiting for, accompanying a delicious dish of Welsh lamb loin, slow cooked lamb croquettes and cavolo nero. We tasted through the range of different labels and it was really interesting to see the contrasting styles produced.

First up was Vina Alberdi Reserva 2008. 100% Tempranillo with 2 years ageing in American oak – the first year being in 100% new oak. This wine split opinion around the table. Some people really enjoyed the soft, oaky style with lots of sweet coconut and toasted vanilla notes. Personally I found the soft oak slightly out of sync with the spiky red fruit character. A simple enough wine and certainly inoffensive – but when compared to its bigger brothers it didn’t quite stand up.

Vina Arana Reserva 2006 was up next. This has 5% Mazuelo (Mourvèdre) and 95% Tempranillo and has had 3 years ageing in 3 year old American oak, plus a further 2 years in bottle before release. For me, this was much more classically Rioja than the Alberdi. Mid bodied and refreshing to drink with more savoury tobacco notes along with the red fruit character and lovely, silky tannins.

The Vina Ardanza Reserva 2005 proved an interesting comparison. 80% Tempranillo and 20% Garnacha with similar ageing time, this showed more juicy red fruit as you might expect from the Garnacha with a real spicy edge too. Again, mid bodied with notes of sweet oak adding complexity. A lot of people preferred this slightly more opulent style, but the savoury notes and delicacy on the Arana made that the pick for me.

Finally, we moved onto the two stars of the portfolio: the La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 2004 and La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 2001.

The 904 is 90% Tempranillo with 10% of the lesser known Rioja grape, Graciano and is aged for 4 years in 3 year old American oak and a further 4 in bottle. In contrast, the 890 is 94% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano and 3% Mazuelo and is aged for 6 years in 4 year old American oak plus 6 in bottle. According to Francisco, the 2001 is the best vintage they have ever produced of 890, and so they have given it the extra epithet of Seleccion Especial.

Whilst Francisco professed that La Rioja Alta only release wines when they are ready to drink, in reality these two wines are still babies – and whilst you can drink them now, you’d do better to hang into them for a while as they will age superbly.

The 904 was very expressive with bags of dark fruit and a lifted, floral note from the Graciano. Lots of spicy oak giving complexity, but needs time for this to integrate more fully into the wine. A classy wine.

In contrast, the 890 showed a touch more evolution but also needs time for the oak to settle in. It deftly accomplishes that oxymoronic feat of showing both incredible concentration and intensity of flavour, but also great balance and elegance. Fascinating to taste now, but I would love to try this again in another 20 years – when it will probably barely be reaching middle age: this wine has a very long life ahead.

All in all this was a great insight into the wines of La Rioja Alta. It really highlighted the styles of the different labels and also underlined just how surprisingly refreshing Rioja is to drink. And whilst lamb is the classic match for Rioja, as Francisco said, “we drink Rioja with anything”.

Now, it’s probably time for me to get my hands on some bottles of that 890 to lay down for a couple of decades.


The complexities of wine

After 10 years of working in wine, studying through the WSET levels and now making my way through the MW, I would be the first to admit that wine is a complex subject and can be very confusing to many people. But, I do believe that no matter how complicated the subject is we the wine trade have a duty of care when talking to consumers and that bullshitting them is just wrong.

Take this example from a restaurant I was in just the other night:

Customer: “I’d like a glass of white wine, but I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc”

Waitress: “Well, we don’t serve New World wines here.”

The customer here clearly likes wine, knows what they do and do not like and wants some help from the person serving the wine. Great, this should be an easy request to deal with. But the response from the waitress is both confused and confusing. Does she assume the customer specifically doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc from the New World? Perhaps she doesn’t know that France, about as Old World as it gets, is the home of Sauvignon Blanc? Perhaps that is just a line she trots out on the assumption that her customers would rather drink Old World wine anyway.

Regardless of the reason, I can’t but help think she has failed the customer. Even if she didn’t know that Sauvignon is grown in the Old World (which would surprise me, given her position in the restaurant and clear knowledge of Old vs New world) she is still not giving the customer any real help or guidance on what to order. In fact, her response can’t have done anything other than confuse the customer – it certainly confused me. The restaurant had a short wine list, but everything was listed by the glass and the customer just wanted to be recommended something to enjoy.

When I’ve mentioned this incident since then there have been two types of response. The first berated me for ‘publicly bashing’ customers and service staff who didn’t know much about wine. I hope this makes it clear that wasn’t my intention. This really isn’t about how much wine knowledge you have, but rather how you use what knowledge you have – and more importantly, how you help the customer with what they want.

The second type of response illustrates that sometimes we in the trade do like to have a joke at consumers’ expense, making it perhaps unsurprising the first response came up. These comments asked if perhaps the customer would have liked a glass of Sancerre. For anyone confused at this point, Sancerre is a region in France where white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc. Whilst I freely admit to making this exact ‘joke’ myself in the past (using the ‘I don’t like Chardonnay but I love Chablis’ example) – with this type of response it is quite clear why the general public like to label us in the wine trade as snobs.

So, please if you’re in the industry – be careful with how you use your wine knowledge with customers. Don’t fob them off with a half-truth or bullshit them because it’s easier. But equally, know that wine is confusing and if you can shine even the smallest light on one aspect you will be doing both your customer and yourself a favour. And let’s stop mocking consumers because they don’t know as much as we do. That’s ok. Maybe they just want a nice glass of wine.


Have a Little Faith

Recently I took on a challenge that was to give me a number of sleepless nights.  It was a seemingly simple task; to recreate a wine list for a high quality seafood restaurant in Dorset.  Now, when I arrived the list was pretty much par for the course with every other restaurant and pub in Dorset, if not the majority of England.

It boasted a cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc with a more expensive option from Marlborough (along with a whopping 7 other Sauvignon options!), a cheap Veneto Pinot Grigio with a more expensive Italian option in the form of Gavi di Gavi.  It had a confusing array of reds considering it is a seafood restaurant with a hot and ballsy Cabernet from Napa and an equally rich Chateauneuf du Pape.  It was a wine list by numbers, showcasing very little of the amazing wine talent that we have available at all price points.  However, I was assured, as I am at each restaurant boasting a similar selection that ‘this is what the customers want’.  Really?!! They want it? Or it is the only thing they are being offered?   I was warned that there would be some very irate customers if I were to try and change things too drastically.  Bring it on!

Throwing caution to the wind I decided a full make over was in order.  If the customer wanted the very recognisable grapes (Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc) then they could have it by the glass, but it would be a stunning example and certainly not the 2 cheapest wines on the list.  I introduced a beautiful, rich Pinot Grigio from Goriska Brda in Slovenia, and for the Sauvignon, one from the cooler Hemel en Aarde Valley in South Africa (sorry Marlborough, if they want a wine from you they can have a delicious Pinot Gris/Riesling/Gewurztraminer blend).  These were to be the two most expensive whites by the glass.

If they wanted a cheaper option I would offer them something stylistically similar but from a grape they were less likely to be familiar with and therefore more likely to offer great value.  In place of the Sauvignon I introduced a lovely crisp Colombard from South West France, and in place of the cheap Pinot Grigio, a Cortese from Piedmont.  The Merlot met a similar fate; it was replaced by a lovely juicy blend of Aragonez and Trincadeira from Alentejo in Portugal at the lower price point, and a lovely red fruited Garnacha from Calatyud in Spain as the more premium option.

Having removed the wine crutches from the list, the next step was to put it into a format that was going to encourage exploration rather than ordering by price point.  Previously it had been listed according to the type of food it would pair with which was a nice idea until you had two people eating from two different food types.  Instead I introduced the categories of:

‘CLASSIC; tried and tested.  Well known grapes from well known areas’,

‘QUIRKY AND FUN – step out of your comfort zone and be rewarded.  Amazing wines from lesser known regions and weird grapes’,

‘RETRO CHIC – they went out of vogue but these hot producers have revolutionised these wines – modern and exciting versions of an 80’s classic’

And finally ‘JUST TRUST ME – can’t pronounce it? Didn’t know they made wine? You are in for a treat!’.

The ‘Just Trust Me section included some fairly challenging wines such as an Assyrtiko from Santorini, Forestera from Ischia, Treixadura from Galicia, Mencia from Bierzo, Cannonau from Sardinia and Agiorgitiko from Nemea…. the restaurant goers of Dorset were not in for an easy ride, and neither were the poor waiters.  The idea of the list was to encourage dialogue between the customers and the staff who would have to be trained up to their eyeballs on the wines.

The night before the list launch proved to be a sleepless one for me.  Each time I closed my eyes I saw myself being chased down the beach by a mob of angry customers demanding bottles of cheap Sauvignon Blanc.


Thankfully that was not a premonition and my faith in the customers open minded approach to wine was well founded.  Some customers will ask for a house Merlot or Sauvignon but they are more than willing to try something obscure that represents great value when it is recommended.  The more adventurous customers have dived into the ‘just trust me’ section with glee and are discovering the delights of some of the worlds more obscure offerings.

In my humble opinion it is simply not acceptable to offer poor quality wine just because the ‘brand’, be it grape or region, will sell.  It is lazy and disrespectful to a clientele who, no matter how much or how little wine knowledge they have, deserve to get a great glass of wine, at any price point.  It is the job of the restaurant, wine shop or supermarket to give the customers the opportunity to indulge in great and exciting wines.

For the restaurant in question visit:

– Alex aka monkey-on-a-mission

Some of 2013’s top wine moments

There seems to have been a lot of talk lately on twitter and on other blogs about people’s wine of the year. I have to admit to always being slightly amazed that anyone can take a year’s worth of tasting, sipping, slurping and drinking and distill it all down into one wine. One wine to rule them all. How can you begin to compare between any number of completely different wine styles and decide which is best? I certainly can’t. For me, wine is as much about the situation, the people you enjoy it with and possibly the food you eat with it as much as the wine itself. So rather than picking just one wine, here instead are some of my favourite vinous moments of the past year:

The lifestyle of the rich and the famous moment –

A couple of contenders for this. Lunch at Chateau Margaux in February as part of our MW bootcamp week would certainly be up there. Drinking Margaux 1999 with Côte de Veau followed by blinged-up Tarte Tatin in the exquisite dining room at Margaux was something special. But the truly incredible pinch-myself-am-I-really-here? moment was taking a lunchtime cruise on Sydney Harbour in the blazing sunshine on the Robert Oatley super yacht whilst eating canapés and sipping a variety of Robert Oatley wines. James Bond, eat your heart out.


The When Harry met Sally moment –

I am generally of the opinion that most good wine will go with most good food and that sometimes it is easy to get too worried about creating the perfect match. However, I do have to admit that the combination during our epic lunch at The Fat Duck of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party mock turtle soup with La Bota Amontillado was sublime. The nutty, savoury Amontillado perfectly matched the complex soup and lifted the whole dish to another level. I’ll have what she’s having.

Some of 2013's top wine moments

The disappointing moment –

This would have to be finally tasting my very own Purley wine. After such high hopes of creating amazing wine in what is surely the fabulous terroir of Purley, it seems that even when fermenting a thimbleful of grape juice things can go wrong. A stuck ferment plus some stinky reduction problems certainly didn’t result in the greatest wine of the year. Lets hope the 2014 vintage is better.

Some of 2013's top wine moments

The double take moment –

Probably a bottle of Turkish wine I had at my brother’s just a few weeks ago. I have to admit to not having tasted a great amount of Turkish wine before and I was really surprised by how pretty and delicate this one was- medium bodied and full of sour red cherry flavours giving a pleasing crunchiness. The variety was Kalecik Karasi and this wine at under £10 from the Wine Society was a real bargain.

Some of 2013's top wine moments

The raiding the cellar moment –

This year I turned 30 and so the top raiding the cellar moment has to go to when I took a small collection of 1983 wines over to Portugal to enjoy with some friends (many of whom share the same birth year). None of the wines were what you would call ‘top wines’, and certainly some of them should have been drunk quite some time ago, but celebrating our 30th birthdays with birth year wines was pretty special.

Some of 2013's top wine moments

The eye-opening winery visit moment –

Whilst visiting Orange in Australia was eye-opening due to the unexpectedly (for Australia) cool climate, it was Haut Bailly in Bordeaux that was really unanticipated. I don’t count myself quite as Bordeaux-phobic as Lenka, but its not a region thats normally high on my shopping list. We monkeys had a couple of days visiting wineries in Bordeaux back in February before our MW bootcamp started, and whilst the wineries we went to were fascinating, the wines themselves weren’t hugely memorable. That is until we got to Haut Bailly. The combination of almost spiritual-like serenity in the vineyards and wines that sent shivers up my spine with their poise and beauty is something I won’t forget in a while.

Some of 2013's top wine moments

The you only live once moment –

Definitely the bottle of Selosse Initiale I bought to celebrate passing my MW exams. Worth every single penny.

I’ve got a feeling that 2014 will bring some more memorable moments but for now – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!


Celebrating 30th birthdays with a clutch of 1983 wines

This year I celebrated the big 3-0. Whilst for me 1983 was obviously a very important year, in wine terms it was a middling year, with some good wines made in many regions but without the greatness of, say, Alex’s 1982 vintage – hailed as one of the best in Bordeaux. 1983 was, however, a widely declared year for vintage port – something my siblings cottoned onto when they bought me a (delicious) bottle of Grahams 1983 for my 21st birthday.

A few years ago when I was working at The Sampler I realised this milestone of turning 30 was ahead and thought how nice it would be to squirrel away a few bottles of 1983 to celebrate my birthday. If you don’t know The Sampler, it’s a great independent merchant in London which generally has good stocks of older vintages of wine, sourced from private cellars, auctions and the like. So as 1983 wines appeared I would buy the odd bottle and put it to the bottom of my wine rack to keep until 2013 rolled around. Added to this my Dad kindly offered a few bottles out of his cellar so soon enough I had 7 bottles covering white, red, sweet and port. Enough for a good party.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, quite a few of my friends turned 30 this year too and as we were all heading out to the Douro in Portugal for a group holiday this summer I suggested bringing the bottles along and all celebrating together. Which is what we did, carefully packing the wines into polystyrene tubes in our suitcases so our precious cargo would arrive safe and sound.

And so on the Saturday night of our holiday we all chipped in to produce a delicious 4 course dinner and open the wines. In tasting order we had:

Domaine du Closel Savennieres 1983

Aujas Ernest et Daniel Julienas 1983

Chateau Prieure Lichine, Margaux 1983

Lacoste Borie, Pauillac 1983

Chateau Potensac, Medoc 1983

Chateau Liot Barsac 1983

Gould Campbell Vintage Port 1983

First up was the white, served with some home-cured salmon. Savennieres is a region in the Loire Valley of France which produces white wine from Chenin Blanc. Whilst it is known for its age-worthiness and I have had lovely examples at 10-15 years old, I have to admit to being prepared for this to be completely past it. But I am happy to report it was still going strong. There were certainly some savoury mushroom notes hinting at the age, but these were underpinned by vibrant acidity and even some lingering citrus fruit and honey character. A real surprise, just wish I had another bottle!

Next up was the Beaujolais. Again I had real doubts about this wine being drinkable –Beaujolais is usually drunk whilst young and fruity and whilst it can age and develop almost Pinot Noir-like earthy aromas, 30 years was surely pushing it. It wasn’t quite the surprise that the Savennieres was, most of the fruit had indeed faded, leaving the acidity a little clunky and out of balance. But, it was far from undrinkable and still possessed some elegance. Overall an interesting wine to taste, but not one anyone went back to.

The trio of Bordeaux came next, nicely matched by Beef Wellington wrapped in parma ham rather than pastry. The Prieure Lichine certainly had the elegance you’d expect of Margaux, but I felt that it didn’t have the tannins to quite hold up to 30 years of age. It still had some pretty fruit but finished rather short. Enjoyable enough to drink, but not to savour. The next two pretty much split the table for top red of the night. For me the Lacoste Borie pipped the Potensac to the post. The Potensac probably had more lingering fruit – on the front palate there was still a lot of blackcurrant fruit, pretty impressive for a 30 year old wine. However, after this burst of fruit it became a bit bitter and finished quite abruptly. The Lacoste Borie had a lovely mix of more evolved savoury fruit and earth notes and fine tannins and was the one I went back to.

Onto the pudding course – which was actually a very fresh summer pudding and not the greatest match with Barsac so we enjoyed the pudding and then had the wine separately.  Bright gold in colour with honey, marmalade and mushroom notes and bright acidity to balance the sweetness, really all you could want in a pudding wine. A winner for everyone.

Then finally onto the port which we had carefully decanted earlier in the day. Surprisingly perhaps this was the only cork to crumble as we pulled it out, a butlers thief sadly not to hand. You’d think in the home of cork forests that the port would have the best cork of the bunch, but sadly not. Whilst it seemed a bit crazy to bring port to the Douro, it was lovely drinking the wine in the region where it was produced many years before. Velvet textured with layers of dark raisin fruit, savoury earth and spice notes and that warming feeling of port. Delicious and a superb end to a great meal.

Guess I better start collecting wine for our 40ths soon…