March 2010


Things have been fairly quiet on here recently as preparations for a work-related interview have cut down not only my spare time, but also our sampling. However, the results of my recent WSET exam (I did much better than I’d expected) gave us cause to open a bottle of bubbles.

I’ve followed the rise of English sparkling wines with some interest, partly because we know the predominant growing area in Sussex quite well. My aunt lives in West Chiltington, where Nyetimber is produced, and it’s been served on family occasions, including our engagement lunch.

I was therefore really chuffed when the Nyetimber 2003 Classic Cuvée was crowned ‘Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines’ back in January in the 2nd annual ‘Bollicine Del Mondo’ competition in Italy. Champagnes and sparkling wines competed against each other on a level playing field, and the Nyetimber was up against Champagnes including Louis Roederer (Millesimè 2000), the Bollinger-owned Champagne Ayala, (Dosage Zero), and Pommery (Blancs de Blanc and Brut Apanage).

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s now almost impossible to get hold of the wine, but I managed to secure a few bottles via Slurp.co.uk.

Nyetimber 2003 Classic Cuvee

The Classic Cuvée is made using the Traditional Method, and the richness of the 2003 vintage is probably due at least in part to the incredibly hot summer we experienced in the South of England that year. The wine is a pale lemon colour, and Chardonnay predominates. On the nose, there were strong notes of green apple, with just a hint of toast. The palate was lovely and fruity with, again, green apple and apricot, plus citrus and a touch of minerality on the finish. A lovely, refreshing aperitif. (16/20)

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In her second selection of wines for under five pounds, Times wine writer Jane MacQuitty’s focussed on reds. Her choices included eight French wines, but also a good range from across the rest of the world, both old and new. Disappointingly, however, only three of the selection were normally priced at less than £5, the remainder being on special offer at the time the article was published. However, once again, she suggested wines to suit a variety of palates, from across the supermarkets.

I’m currently enjoying exploring southern Rhône reds, so picked up a bottle of 2008 Coteaux du Tricastin, Cuvée Traditionnelle, Cellier des Dauphins (Waitrose, down £1.50 to £4.49). MacQuitty describes this as a ‘ ripe, racy, Grenache based, unoaked Rhône, dominated by a seductive, spicy, peppery dollop of Syrah.’ Coteaux du Tricastin is one of the northernmost appellations in the southern Rhône.

Cellier des Dauphins, Coteaux du Tricastin

The wine was surprisingly thin and pale for a Rhône and, whilst I’m not sure it was either ‘racy’ or ‘seductive’ when I tasted it, it was full of red fruit, particularly raspberries, with a hint of cedar and pepper on the finish. A straightforward, soft red for midweek drinking.

In summary, Jane MacQuitty may have convinced me to abandon some of my prejudices about sub-£5 wines, but I think both the red and the white that I sampled illustrate nicely that a few more pounds, carefully spent, would probably buy something a bit more complex and interesting flavour-wise.

After enduring too many bottles of cheap, mainly New World, wine as a student, I freely admit that I’m sceptical about buying cheap wine. Given recent hikes in prices, to me this now means anything sub-£7. It’s just false economy, and often a pound or two more, chosen well, buys something in a totally different league.

I was extremely sceptical then when I saw that the Times wine writer, Jane MacQuitty, was doing a series on ‘wines for under a fiver’. Call me a wine snob, but I really would be very wary of picking anything up at less than £5 full-price, so I was intrigued to see what she would come up with.

On Saturday March 6th, MacQuitty covered white wines priced at less than £5, including one fizz and three pudding wines. Well over half are available from the major supermarkets, although there was also a good selection from Majestic.

It was disappointing, but perhaps not suprising to see that of the thirty wines, 21 (including two of her three top choices) were currently on offer at the time, and were all normally priced at more than £5. She does however, perhaps acknowledge this as the supplement mentions ‘amazing deals this month.’

Anyway, I thought I’d abandon my prejudices and give a couple a go, sticking to the handful of wines that normally retail at sub-£5. Although I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy the £3 Marsanne from Asda – even if it was one of MacQuitty’s top three – my first choice, the 2009 Grand Lopez Airén-Sauvignon Blanc (£4.49, Waitrose), had sold out.

However, the 2008 Pujalet (£4.99, Waitrose), a Vin de Pays from South West France, was surprisingly agreeable. I served it in a chiller collar, covering the label to see what comments it elicited blind and my husband, whose palate is even more choosy than mine, was pleasantly surprised.

Pujalet

A blend of Colombard and Ugni blanc, the wine was light with a lovely freshness. It won’t win any awards for flavour and complexity, but the delicate floral nose and zingy citrus notes on the palate made it a refreshing accompaniment to pizza at least!

Whilst I haven’t set aside my concerns about sub-£5 wines completely, on this basis I will look out for the Grand Lopez, and report shortly on MacQuitty’s recommended reds.

There is a pub near us which intermittently has a board outside, advertising the fact that they have Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc in stock. It saddens me firstly that a pub, in a beautiful location alongside the Thames, feels it needs Cloudy Bay to draw people in, but most of all what a draw Cloudy Bay has become.

I’m not necessarily knocking the wines (although I wasn’t bowled over by a recent tasting of the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc), but I will happily stick my head above the parapet and claim that there are a whole host of other New Zealand Sauvignons out there that are not only better, but also much better value. I’m personally don’t think Cloudy Bay delivers enough to justify its £17.99 price tag.

In certain circles, Cloudy Bay seems to have become a benchmark for the Marlborough region. However, it’s debatable how much of its cult status is more the result of clever marketing: the brand was bought in 2003 by ‘luxury goods firm’ LVMH (Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessy).

Anyhow, below are notes on a couple of NZ Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region that we first enjoyed on a trip to Auckland last year. Both are available in the UK, and well worth trying as an alternative to Cloudy Bay. Over the coming weeks, I’ll also be adding notes on other New Zealand wines, made from grape varieties other than the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blanc.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007
We first tried this, drinking out of mugs in a wonderfully chintzy motel near the Bay of Islands, to the north of New Zealand. Perhaps an illustration that a great wine will shine through, despite! Clos Henri was established in the Wairau Valley in Marlborough by the family of Henri Bourgeois, the renowned Sancerre producer. The first vintage was produced in 2003.

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Although this bottle was almost three years old, the wine had lost none of its freshness. A powerful nose of mango and papaya, which was also reflected on the palate. A wonderfully complex wine with intense flavours of mango, papaya, gooseberries and green pepper, with a crisp minerality on the finish. Overall, a well balanced wine, with lovely well-rounded fruit and a zippy acidity. (18/20)

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009
We came across this one in the bar at the top of the Sky Tower in Auckland, where we enjoyed spectacular views across Auckland Harbour to Waiheke Island. The vineyards of the Ned are located on the southern side of the Wairau Valley and the mouth of the Waihopai Valley. The wine is named after one of the tallest peaks to the south east of the vineyard, and 2009 was just the fourth vintage to be produced.

The Ned Sauvignon Blanc 2009

A very pale wine, with a classic NZ Sauvignon nose of grapefruit and tropical fruit. Crisp minerality on the palate, with hints of passion fruit, lime and gooseberry. Lovely clean finish. Excellent value. (15/20, Waitrose £9.99)

All these wines can be sourced via www.wine-searcher.com

Our local Adnam’s Cellar & Kitchen store has the double bonus of being just round the corner, but at the same time a great source of interesting wines. Last week I attended an in store-tasting of Lebanese wines from the Massaya Estate.

The vineyard is situated in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, one of the oldest wine growing regions in the world. Sami Ghosn and his brother were forced to flee the area in the 1970s with their parents due the war, but returned in the 1990s and reclaimed the estate from squatters.

Massaya Vineyards with Mt Lebanon in the background

In 1998, they sought sponsorship from Dominique Hebrard, previously of Cheval Blanc and Daniel Brunier of Vieux Telegraphe in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with the aim of producing world-class wines. They released their first vintage the following year, in 1999.

Massaya means ‘twilight’ in Arabic and refers to the time of day when the sky turns purple as the sun sets behind Mount Lebanon. According to Ghosn, at 1000 metres above sea level, the altitude of the vineyard compensates for its latitude, with cool nights, sunny days and average temperatures of 25 degrees making for near perfect growing conditions.

Sami Ghosn presented five wines from the Massaya range, a white and a rose, plus three reds, as well as the aniseed-flavoured spirit Arak. The white, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay is vinified in new oak, and the oak flavours were just too strong for my palate. The French influence was particularly evident in the reds, which stood out on the night. My tastings notes on these are below.

Massaya Reds

Massaya Classic Red 2007
A blend of 60% Cinsault, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. A pale, easy drinking wine, with aromas of cherries, summer fruits and black pepper. (12/20 – tasted 04/03/10)

Massaya Silver Selection Red 2005
The top wine of the tasting. 40% Cinsault, 30% Grenache, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Mourvedre. Vinified in French oak. A much deeper colour, with a lovely herby nose – perhaps a hint of mint. Very smooth on the palate with complex flavours of black fruits, green pepper and spice, with terrific length. (16/20 – tasted 04/03/10)

Massaya Gold Reserve Red 2005
The premium wine of the range. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah. Vinified in stainless steel tanks, then aged in French oak. Intense aromas of blackcurrants and sandalwood on the nose. Powerful, full-bodied wine with lots of fruit on the palate and the characteristic spice. (14.5/20 – tasted 04/03/10)

These wines can be sourced via www.wine-searcher.com
Pictures taken from Massaya website

Part of our day in Paris included a quick trip around L’Église de la Madeleine, the church which has links with so many composers, including Fauré, Chopin and Saint Saëns.

Whilst we were in the area, I couldn’t resist popping into Lavinia, said to be Paris’s largest wine store, and possibly even the biggest in Europe. Spread over three floors, it offers some 3000 French brands and 2000 from further afield.

Lavinia - Paris

The bulk of the wine for sale is in the basement, arranged by region and country, with reds and whites displayed together. Decorated with dark wood-effect panelling, which sets the tone for the shop, the mood is smart and sophisticated – streets apart from most UK retailers. The array of wines on display was incredible and frankly quite bewildering, although I couldn’t find any bottles at less than 12 Euros. This seemed a shame, but as my husband reminded me, buying wine for under 10 Euros in French supermarkets seems to be a hit and miss affair these days.

The premium range of wines, including several first growths and the more fragile natural wines, is stored in a climate controlled, separate area off the main show room. Unfortunately this was locked, and as we couldn’t really justify forking out for a bottle of Petrus 1945 to drink on the train home, we were left pressing our noses to the glass longingly!

Lavinia Paris

The third floor housed a quite incredible selection of spirits, particularly focussing on Armagnac and Cognacs, as well as more unusual liqueurs. There was also a full range of Riedel and Spiegelau glasses on sale, and enough wine gadgets to keep a geek happy for hours.

The wine bar sadly proved to be a bit of a let down, not least because single glasses (175ml) were charged at exactly half the price of a 75cl bottle, which limited our inclination to sample across the list. The service was also terse, even for Paris, and the waiter simply filled our glasses up without even showing us the wine we’d chosen, or inviting us to taste it. However, the wine thankfully didn’t disappoint. Michel Chapoutier, Les Mûres Saint-Joseph, 2007 is a white wine produced from Marsanne grapes, a variety native to the Rhone. Chapoutier’s wines are produced biodynamically, an approach to agriculture that employs organic methods but also timetables vineyard activities according to the phases of the moon. The wine was deeply coloured, with a powerful nose, and a lovely balance of apricots, honeysuckle and minerals on the palate. I’m rather sorry we didn’t have time to buy another bottle to bring back.

Les Mures Saint Joseph

LAVINIA 3, boulevard de la Madeleine, 75001 Paris

We love Paris and seize any opportunity for a trip, however short. When it’s not snowing and the trains are running, the Eurostar now makes it possible to get to Paris in time for coffee on a Saturday, spend the day wandering, and then be back home by bedtime. It’s also chance not only for a little injection of French culture, but also to stock up on ‘essentials’ such as cheese and cassoulet that just aren’t the same in the UK.

Taking my parents yesterday for the day gave us chance to revisit La Crémerie, on the Left Bank, which we first discovered last year following one of Rosa Jackson’s fantastic Paris food itineraries.

La Crémerie, Paris

Situated in the St Germain region, La Crémerie is a tiny natural wine store, which has a few tables for diners, and is perhaps a uniquely Parisian experience. The wine is the main draw though, and owner Serge Mathieu stocks over 2000 bottles of mostly organic wines from small producers.

The food, however, is also well worth the trip. Serge and his wife Helene serve mostly cold food, and we enjoyed a wonderful plate of Iberian hams as well as a duck pate. There is usually one hot dish, which this weekend was a goat’s cheese quiche made with mint – an unusual sounding combination, which actually worked really well. The highlight though for us was the huge bowl of, Burrata di Corato, a mozzarella-type cheese from Puglia in Italy. Spooned from the bowl, this was incredibly rich and creamy, and quite unlike any mozarella you’d buy in the UK. To finish, D and I enjoyed quite a spectacular ‘Baba au Rhum’, which must have been steeping in the rum for a while!

There is a short list of 4 or 5 wines available by the glass, and diners can buy any bottle from the shelves to drink with a 6 Euro corkage fee. We started off with a Sauvignon Blanc (Quartz Domaine Courtois Cailloux du Paradis) from old vines grown in Sologne in the Loire Valley, which had a lovely fresh minerality. Our second wine was a dry Vouvray (Catherine & Pierre Breton Vouvray Le Dilettante Sec). Although I didn’t write tasting notes, this had more fruit flavours, and was our favourite of the two whites.

Quartz Domaine Courtois Cailloux du Paradis

As the name suggests, La Cremerie is housed in an old converted dairy and still has many original features, including the beautiful tiled ceiling. The place is unfortunately also tiny, and only seats 12 so, whilst it’s good to see it getting wider reviews, we just hope it remains off the beaten track for a while!

La Crémerie 9 Rue des Quatre-Vents, 75006 Paris, France 01 43 54 99 30

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