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We’ve recently returned from a week at Soneva Gili, our second trip to the Maldives resort owned by the Six Senses group. It’s testament to how much we loved the place, that we went back a second time, but this time our holiday exceeded all our expectations.

Six Senses aim for ‘intelligent luxury’ in all their resorts. A great deal of thought has been given to the villas (all of which are over water) and they are consequently well-equipped and very comfortable. Unlike most resorts you could quite happily spend the week in the villa and never leave, as many visitors seem to do.

Anyhow, aside from the snorkelling, the diving, and general lazing about, we found ourselves there – completely by chance – in a week when there were not only two visiting wine producers, showcasing their wines, but also a visiting chef. Perhaps not suprisingly, we were in seventh heaven, and I’ll be posting my notes from these events over the next couple of weeks.

Overwater Bar at Soneva Gili

Even without special events, the food and beverage experience at Soneva Gili is excellent, especially given the location of the island. The brand strives to minimise the environmental impact of its resorts, as far as possible, and much of the fresh produce is grown in house. We had a wonderful lunch one day in the vegetable garden, selecting the leaves for our salad ourselves.

The selection of wines on offer is broad, and eclectic, with many bottles under $100, but a suitable number of classed growths at the other end of the spectrum. The sommelier, Jasper, was extremely helpful during the week, providing an interesting lesson in pairing wines with Asian flavours. The 2007 Toru from Te Whare Ra – a lovely crisp blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris – from Marlborough, was a particularly good example.

The wine cellar itself is underground, and also houses a cheese cave. It has been fitted out with a table (fashioned from a tree trunk washed up by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) in order to cater for wine dinners.

Underground Cellar at Soneva Gili

As repeat visitors, the staff laid on a wine dinner in the cellar for the two of us. The menu and pairings are outlined below, but particular highlights were:

Section 94, Dog Point 2007, Marlborough, NZ
I’ve written elsewhere about Dog Point’s main Sauvignon Blanc, but this is a fascinating example of a wine produced from grapes grown in a small section of the vineyard. The wine has extended lees contact in old oak barrels, which gives it a real complexity. Very fruit driven with strong notes of apricot.

Pomerol, Château de Clèmence 1997, Bordeaux
A wonderful accompaniment to beef. Predominantly Merlot, but dominated by black fruits with soft, silky tannins.

Pinot Noir, Pegasus Bay 2006, Waipara NZ
I confess I’ve not yet caught the Pinot bug, except in Blanc de Noirs champagne. However, this really opened my eyes to the possibilities. Vibrant red fruits, particularly cherries and raspberries, with a hint of caramelised toffee. My favourite of the night.

The menu was as follows:

Amuse:
Olive yoghurt ball, black forest ham, melon chutney
NV Champagne, Ruinart Brut, Reims, France

Soup:
Essence of tomato with scallop and lobster
2007 Section 94, Dog Point, Marlborough, NZ

Appetizer:
Chilli caramel Maldivian yellow fin tuna
2005 Savennières, Les Vieux Clos, Nicolas Joly, Loire, France

Refresher:
Champagne sorbet with pomegranate granita

Main:
Cumin scented Black Angus beef with almond rouille and sauteed rocket
1997 Pomerol, Château La Clèmence, Bordeaux, France

Selection of cheese
2006 Pinot Noir, Pegasus Bay, Waipara, NZ

Desert:
Tropical fruit ‘carpaccio’
2006 Lilly Pilly Noble Blend, Riverina, Australia

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.

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

Quite a bit of the research I’ve been involved with has been around scoring in clinical trials. How to measure the severity of acne accurately, to assess whether a new drug has worked, for example, or how to quantify symptoms in patients with bowel disease. There’s a wealth of literature on how these scoring systems should be used, but more importantly how they should be drawn up in the first place. For example, a score must really measure the severity of acne, ideally including the patient’s perception for example. It must also be reproducible, so that if two assessors evaluate the same patient, they will come up with the same score.

With all this in mind, you might argue that we shouldn’t score wine. Tasting is a fairly subjective process, and there are inherent variations between individual bottles, which makes it difficult to come up with just one score for a wine. Fixation with scores as a marker of quality of wine, in the manner of followers of Robert Parker, also detracts from the whole process of making new discoveries, and above all shaping one’s own personal understanding of wine. Above all, as Jancis Robinson says ‘Once numbers are involved, it is all too easy to reduce wine to a financial commodity rather than keep its precious status as a uniquely stimulating source of sensual pleasure and conviviality.’

However, abandoning both my romantic notions about wine, and my scientific principles, I am going to use a score for wines on this blog. I try to write a tasting note on most wines that I drink, not just for educational purposes, but also to make me appreciate what’s in the glass before I quaff it. I’ve found the European-style scoring system of points and half-points out of 20 (favoured by Robinson, Hugh Johnson and Decanter magazine amongst others) really helpful in evaluating wines. Looking back at my tasting notes, all my scores are between 7/20 and 18/20. However, forcing myself to put a wine in one of seven categories (see below) really helps bring the wine into focus.

0-7 Disagreeable/ Faulty
7.5-10 Sound but dull – no character or appeal
10.5-12 Enjoyable, simple and straightforward
12.5-14 Good but not outstanding
14.5-16.5 Very good – some outstanding features
17-18.5 Outstanding with great beauty and articulacy
19-20 A great wine – spell binding with a sense of wonder

In the meantime, I’ll reserve judgement on whether you can really compare wines in this way. Is a white that scores 18/20 comparable to a red with the same score? I’d be happy to fork out for both though.

Welcome to Carpe Vinum!

By day I’m a junior doctor working in London, but wine has become more and more of an interest over the past couple of years. I’m currently working through the WSET exams, and enjoying tasting my way around the world. Current interests include wines from the Loire, grower champagnes and the process of wine production.

I’m often asked about wine, and enjoy sharing my discoveries with friends and family. This blog will cover wines I’ve enjoyed, as well as observations on the world of wine from a citizen blogger.

Carpe Vinum means ‘seize the wine’ and this blog will be ‘about wine, but not exclusively’ – I will also be touching on wider interests.