Over the weekend, I found out that I was fortunate enough to win the latest Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC5) that was hosted by Confessions of a Wine Geek. A few of us started the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge this past summer with the desire to promote more creative wine writing. The thought was that we get caught up in tasting notes, winery visits, and the occasional food porn and we soon forget that part of the reason we put in all the hours that we do on these silly blogs is that we love to write!
Sweeney’s Wine Merchants in Glasnevin, Dublin, hold regular wine tastings on their mezzanine floor. A dozen or so of the regulars, including myself, have been socialising together for several years, whether for meals in town or tasting events arranged at each others’ houses (see http://frankstero.com/2013/11/03/glasnevin-fizz-fest-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly/).
For our 2013 Xmas meal we descended upon Beirut Express on Dame Street in Dublin – not because we all adore Lebanese food (though I am a fan myself), but rather because they only charge €3 corkage which is perfect for winos on a budget!
Here is a selection of the bottles we enjoyed last night – and apologies for the poor image quality. My personal favourites were the Chateau Musar and the Yalumba Botrytised Viognier.
Veuve Ambal Cremant de Bourgogne 2011 was the surprise standout from last night’s fizz tasting…crisp acidity and racy citrus fruit against a background of yeast and toast. The balance and development were a happy surprise in such a young and inexpensive wine.
This wasn’t as much of a surprise: Pierre Gimonnet 1er Cru Cuis Blanc de Blancs NV (from The Wine Society) did all of the above and more. Being a Non Vintage it isn’t apparent which years’ harvest the grapes are from, but the developped bready (autolytic for you real wine geeks) nose and flavours were appreciated by all the tasters. I’m hoping I have another bottle or two left!
The two sparklers above were both “Good”, so now for the bad. Jean Louis Ballarin Cremant de Bordeaux is a blend of Semillon and Muscadelle, two of the three standard white grapes of Bordeaux (the third being Sauvignon Blanc). Unfortunately this example was faulty as the main flavour coming through was wet cardboard – yuck! The sibling Cabernet Franc-based Black Pearl was much nicer.
The biggest selling Champagne world wide is The Ugly – or more precisely the Short and Boring. This was served blind and tasters’ guesses as to its origins were all wide of the mark – no one thought it worthy of the badge Champagne.
Offering very little on the nose, muted flavours on the palate a short finish, Moet et Chandon is a triumph of marketing over winemaking. Give it as a present to someone who likes labels, but look elsewhere for good fizz.
I’ve been writing this blog for just over a year now and winning the October Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC4) was by far my proudest writing moment to date. The monthly challenge is a great way to interact with other (real and talented!) blogger/writers and from it comes some fantastic articles on the fantastic subject of wine.
The prize for winning the challenge is to come up with the theme for the following month and although it sounds like an easy task… it’s really bloody difficult!
Now I like fine food, just as I like fine wine, but sometimes I just want something a bit more straightforward, basic… gourmand rather than gourmet. And being a carnivorous male of the species that means a big eff-off steak! Vegetarians should look away now…
Francis Xavier Buckley opened a butcher’s in Dublin in 1930, and the group still maintains FX Buckley butchers along with five steakhouses and pubs. They pride themselves on the quality of their meat which they source directly and dry-age wherever possible. For my birthday we chose to visit their Steakhouse on Crow Street in Temple Bar in the heart of Dublin.
We were shown to our table shortly after arrival; but the cramped layout of the place was such that several other diners had to brush past the back of both our chairs to and from their table – quite irritating to be honest!
As the menus are available to browse online I already had a good idea what my food order was going to be, so I glanced at the specials board and checked out the wine list. The Amaretto Sour cocktail caught my eye as I love almond and amaretto flavours – and it was delicious.
However, when we gave our food orders the waiter almost walked away without asking what wine or other drinks we would like with our meal – what sort of place is this? The wine by the glass selection was fairly limited, but at least it appeared appropriate to the food being served. My wife Jess chose Argentinian Malbec (we have both converted from anti- to pro-Malbec!) and I selected a slightly more modest Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.
As an admitted carnivore I chose Baby Back Pork Ribs, done in a sweet barbecue sauce. Thankfully the sweetness of the Amaretto Sour could handle the sauce as my red wine tasted quite bitter with the ribs.
Jess chose Castlintownbere Mussels – despite having some sort of fish and seafood allergy she seems able to tolerate mussels (and when I say “tolerate” I mean “devour with relish”).
So what does a steak fan order on his birthday? A 22oz Bone-in Rib-Eye, that’s what!
It was amazingly tender and succulent, even better than I’d hoped! And finally the Chilean Cabernet came into its own, a good match for a perfectly medium-rare steak.
My wife is not as greedy as me so she ordered the 10oz 28 day Dry-aged Rib eye, and again it was juicy and flavoursome. She did the taste test against mine (which had the bone in) and narrowly preferred it, but both were excellent. The Malbec was still going well, as you’d expect of a big red wine made in a beef-producing country like Argentina.
After a suitable pause we moved onto the sweet stuff. There didn’t appear to be any dessert wine so I finished my red wine and just drank water with the Double Chocolate Tart. This was fairly, but not overly, sweet and mainly dark chocolate – I find milk chocolate too sickly and don’t even ask me about white “chocolate”.
Jess chose her perennial favourite – Créme Brûlée. This was a success and had a satisfyingly crunchy sugar layer on top.
Once our spoons were down we paid the bill and left – it didn’t seem a venue to linger over coffee.
Great steaks but poor layout and lacking in atmosphere. Not ideal if you are a wine lover.
This post is the first of several which encourage newcomers to wine or creatures of habit to try something a bit different from their usual drop.
It was prompted by a few requests from friends plus some of the twitter debates over the past few months or so, including whether wine expertise is bunkum or not. More precisely, one phrase often declared by novice wine drinkers is “I know what I like”, with the follow on (usually unspoken) being “I know what wine is best for me and I won’t try anything else”. Now, I’m not going to tell those people they are wrong (as such!) – I just want to give those that are hesitant to try something other than their favourite type a path which they could explore.
So firstly, why do people like Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc??
It’s crisp, fruity, fresh, widely available, consistent in quality and reasonably priced – it offers a lot of bang for the buck! In particular “Savvy” has more intense aromas and flavours than often found in white wine.
Of course I should declare an interest here and say that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favourite wine styles, though not every bottle. This article is also an excuse for me to post some of the photos I took on honeymoon in Marlborough in 2009!
So if you’re stuck with the same old bottle, week in week out, what should you do?
Step 1 – Buy A Better Brand
Nowadays most supermarkets will have a gondola end of Oyster Bay or even a made up label where excess production has been bought up at rock bottom prices and then vinified on the cheap. This came to a head when more vineyards came on stream at the same time as the Global Financial Crisis reduced demand for wine in New Zealand’s traditional markets.
Hopefully the glut is over, but there are still brands which are a notch above the bottom, even if they are mass-market.
Brancott Estate used to be called Montana but this caused confusion with American drinkers thinking it came from the US State of that name. Brancott’s everyday drinking Sauvignon Blanc is a great example, and it’s available nearly everywhere wine is sold in the UK and Ireland.
The other go-to label for me is Villa Maria, now sporting a new look for 2013. For many people in Ireland in the late 90s and early 00s this was a treat to look forward to at the weekend. Still privately owned, quality remains consistently good.
Step 2 – Pay More! (Trade Up)
Here I don’t mean pay more for the sake of it. While quality and price aren’t perfectly aligned, you often get what you pay for in New Zealand. There are lots of quality-conscious wineries in Marlborough, both large and small.
Cloudy Bay is the label that put the area and New Zealand as a whole on the wine map for international drinkers. It became New Zealand’s first “icon” wine, and for many years was only available on allocation. Although quality has wavered slightly over the years, especially as production volumes increased, it remains a great drop and is always the one to beat.
Villa Maria make a fine entry level SB, as mentioned above, but their black label Clifford Bay is on another plane entirely. Less immediately pungent but smoother and richer – it’s just sumptuous! In fact I like it so much that it was the white wine I chose to have served at my wedding.
Another well-regarded producer is Dog Point, founded by Ivan Sutherland & James Healy, the former viticulturist and oenologist respectively from Cloudy Bay. Their old boss Kevin Judd, who was the founding winemaker of Cloudy Bay, also left to set up his own firm Greywacke. For his first vintage he bought grapes and rented some winery space from Dog Point, but he moved on to purchasing his own vineyards and facilities.
Other Marlborough producers who are worth trading up to include Astrolabe (particularly their Awatere Valley), Stanley Estate (also from the Awatere Valley), Nautilus Estate, Saint Clair, Lawson’s Dry Hills, Mahi, Wither Hills and Mud House.
Step 3 – Same Again, But With A Twist!
One of the things many people like about Sauvignon Blanc is that it usually tastes fresh and hasn’t seen any oak, whether barrels or staves or oak chips in a teabag. This isn’t the only way of making Sauvignon Blanc, and some of the better Marlborough producers have been following the Sancerre (see next post) practice of either fermenting the must or maturing the wine in oak – or both. The amount of oak used really does vary, and for many wines only a proportion will be oaked, and perhaps with older rather than brand new barrels.
Great examples from Marlborough include Cloudy Bay Te Koko, Dog Point Section 94, Greywacke Wild Sauvignon, and the newly released Brancott Estate Chosen Rows. These wines will often be released a year or so after their unoaked stablemates.
Step 4 – Head Down The Road
In the eyes of many wine drinkers, Marlborough has become synonymous with New Zealand, particularly for Sauvignon Blanc. It does make up the vast majority of Sauvignon production, but if we do a tour of the rest of Aotearoa then we can find alternative expressions of the grape.
Firstly, to Nelson which is also in the north of the South Island. Sauvignons here are often more mellow and a bit weightier than Marlborough, so can be easier to match with food. The most prestigious producer is Judy & Tim Finn’s Neudorf, better known for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Also check out Woollaston Estate (plus their sibling Tussock and Wingspan labels) and Greenhough.
Towards the east coast of the South Island, just above Christchurch, lies the up-and-coming area of Waipara (not to be confused with Wairarapa!) Waipara specialises in Pinot Noir and Riesling but does have some Sauvignon Blanc produced by Waipara Springs and Pegasus Bay under their Main Divide label.
Heading south west but keeping to the eastern side of the Southern Alps, we eventually reach Central Otago, the most southern of New Zealand’s established wine regions. “Central”, as it’s known for short, is Pinot heaven – the unique climate helps make powerful but supple Pinot Noir, primarily, but also Chardonnay, Riesling and some Sauvignon Blanc. The region actually has several sub-divisions, (with recommended producers): Bannockburn (Mount Difficulty, Carrick), Gibbston Valley (Gibbston Valley Winery, Peregrine, Chard Farm), Wanaka (Rippon) Cromwell Basin (Amisfield) and Bendigo (Misha’s Vineyard).
From Marlborough, taking the Inter-Islander ferry over the Cook Strait to Wellington then a short drive north east brings us to Martinborough, part of the larger Wairarapa region. Also celebrated for its Pinot Noirs, it has some fantastic Sauvignon Blanc producers in Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, and Craggy Range (Te Muna Road). These can often be even more tropical than their counterparts in Marlborough.
Further north the long-established region of Hawke’s Bay, which includes the towns of Napier and Hastings, has a reputation built on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Some of these great producers (such as Trinity Hill, Mission Estate, CJ Pask) also make lovely, more gentle, Sauvignon Blancs.
I hope this has given you some ideas of what you could try as your first few steps out of your wine comfort zone. It’s always good to try new wines, you will hopefully expand your taste and find more types you like.
Part 2 will look at other countries’ versions of Sauvignon Blanc – watch this space!
My wife Jess wanted a surprise meal for her birthday treat, somewhere we hadn’t been to before, so I thought we’d try the enfant terrible’s Dublin eatery on Dawson Street.
I mentioned that it was my wife’s birthday on the online booking form and was promised a good seat on the email reply. And so it was…after negotiating the narrow route through the other diners crammed in to the main room we were delighted to have a corner table so we were both able to take in the atmosphere without turning round. Included among the black and white framed celebrity photographs circling the restaurant was Jack Lukeman, a firm favourite of both of us.
I went for Cocktail of Fresh Dublin Bay Prawns, Rose Marie Sauce – quite a retro choice, served in a martini glass, and nice enough but not special. The wine recommended to match was Kim Crawford Spitfire Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – enough acidity to balance the prawns but enough exuberance to cope with the Rose-Marie sauce.
Jess chose Parfait Of Foie Gras en Gelée, au raisin sec – and this was possibly the standout dish of the whole meal. I selected a medium-sweet Jurançon to go with it as a change from the standard Sauternes (and Vendange Tardive Gewurztraminer can also be fantastic as we found out in Alsace last year).
The central part of the menu is the choice of one of three different steaks – 10oz ribeye, 10oz sirloin or 8oz fillet – with seven different garnishes. Every steak lover should find a favourite there! Our waitress – the fantastic Justine from Sydney – let us know that the cuisson is Irish not French, so I went for medium-rare rather than à point. Ribeye Au Poivre Noir, Raisin Sec, à l’Armagnac was my selection, and the recommended match was Cape Mentelle Margaret River Cabernet Merlot 2011. Cabernet Merlot blends are a classic match for steak, particularly from the Médoc in Bordeaux, but the sweetness of the raisins needed something with more fruit from the new world – and it was a perfect combination. So good, in fact, that I had a second glass.
Still from the grill but as a change from steak, my wife chose Grilled Entrecôte of Veal, sauce béarnaise, hand cut chips. Both the waitress and I suggested the Kim Crawford Spitfire Marlborough Pinot Noir 2011 as its relative lightness would be better suited to veal.
After a pause we decided that we did have room for something sweet after all. Of course I had to choose my favourite – Sticky Toffee Pudding and Jess chose hers – Créme Brûlée. To accompany dessert I fancied a dessert wine. I asked how many “baskets” the Tokaji was rated at (the literal translation of the Hungarian “Puttonyos” which refers to the number of baskets of sweet, botrytised Azsu grapes tipped into the fermentation vessel). The waitress didn’t know as it wasn’t stated on the menu, but she brought over another member of staff who was actually from Hungary and so could explain about the wine. He even brought a taste over for me to try – result!