The wine industry is ripe for lampooning, and for good reason: the vocabulary, the affectations adopted when tasting, the obsession with the arcane … the list goes on, and there is so much rich material to mine.
As funny as the clips are below, those involved in the trade cannot but cringe (as I did, too often!) at the worrying familiarity of the sketches. We’ve all been there, from the grand pronouncements and smug assertions to the cripplingly embarrassing faux pas, these clips
Richard E Grant of Withnail & I fame starts us off with this short but sweet clip in which he delivers a fantastic performance dripping with braggadocio overlaid with pretentious classic music and wishy-washy soft focus, a great dig at many vacuous “Beginner’s Guide to Wine” series out there (as well as at some wine personalities you can encounter unfortunately!)
This is from BBC comedy Posh Nosh, which, despite the antiquated quality of the clip, is from 2003 and not the mid nineties as I thought originally:
There seems to be no subject left untouched by Steve Coogan’s excellent Alan Partidge, and here wine gets a look-in as the eponymous Radio DJ tries his hand at some live on-air wine tasting.
I love the interplay between the two: Partridge who is brash, arrogant, but clueless, and the woman next to him who fawningly tries to guide him in the right direction. Both characters are seen with worrying regularity at consumer wine events:
Speaking of blind tasting, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie excellently satirise the process in this vox pop wine sampling from their brilliant eighties series A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
The last clip, of the wine merchant getting caught out, is far too close to the bone for my liking, having once proclaimed (under duress!) that a sparkling wine was Cava when it was, in fact, Veuve Clicquot. It was served warm at a party, OK?! Hardly ideal tasting conditions!
Finally, the best in my opinion. Frasier is one of my favourite TV comedies, and the Crane brothers’ prissiness, pretension and overwrought exactitude is brought to bear on wine, resulting in a hilariously perfect storm.
Niles is the best of the two here I think – few actors can have an audience in uproar simply by saying “jammy, plummy, dense and chewy” with a straight face. Enjoy!
Well, the stretch of summer we were enjoying over the last few weeks seems to have come to an end, meaning that this post is somewhat ill-timed.
During the warmer weather I craved a decent bottle of white, and extracted from the fridge a wine I had been meaning to get around to for a while now: the Torres Fransola Sauvignon Blanc.
But those who know me know I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc generally (and yes, of course there are exceptions), so why did I choose this one?
Well, it’s Sauvignon Blanc, but not as we know it. Firstly, it’s from Spain, a country you’d struggle to associate with Sauvignon Blanc. It is, on the other hand produced by the Torres dynasty, who can’t help but produce decent, and often excellent, wines at all price points.
Secondly – and here’s the rub – it’s partially barrel aged and fermented. “So what?” I hear you say. “Aren’t all wines put in a barrel at some point?”
Well, no, they’re not. Most reds are, yes, but most whites aren’t. This is especially true of the light and fresh ones we love so much here in Ireland – Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and their ilk – which are usually completely vinified in stainless steel vats and bottled as soon as they’re ready so as to keep their freshness.
But with Fransola half the wine is fermented and aged for 8 months in a mix of new American and French oak. It’s an unusual decision – oak use in white wines is more common with Chardonnay, especially those from Burgundy, where the grape’s body and structure welcomes any oak thrown at it.
But Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t apparently take well to oak, with its fresh fruit flavours being washed away leaving thin and insipid juice. That is, though, unless you add a little of something else to provide a backbone to stop this from happening.
In Bordeaux, the historical home of Sauvignon Blanc, they add the fleshy Sémillon that lends some body and helps it withstand a bit of time in the barrel. But Torres, in an innovative and patriotic move, adds about 5% – only a dash – of a local Catalan grape called Parellada.
So Fransola is an interesting oddity in that it’s a popular grape from an atypical location, produced in an atypical fashion in an atypical blend by a world-famous producer. (Yes, I could have Googled some synonyms for ‘atypical’)
So, what’s my opinion on it?
Unfortunately its age is clouding my judgement – this 2007 vintage was bottled in April 2008, making it a little over 6 years old. The ideal drinking window, say Torres, is 3-5 years. Worryingly, Jay Miller in Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate says it should only last 2-3 years. Yikes!
In other words I missed the boat on it somewhat and this bottle was past its peak, meaning I didn’t catch it shining at its brightest. That said its quality and characteristics were still evident to some extent.
It was something like the bastard offspring from an affair between Chardonnay and Sauv Blanc: initially the herbaceous, aged Sauvignon Blanc characteristics of fig and asparagus made a brief appearance before the oaky, creamy, buttery oaked half washes over it.
In truth the creamy oakiness was a bit much and dampened much of the fruitiness, but this was surely due to the age of the wine, with time in the bottle exacerbating these characteristics. It did however finish pleasantly clean with some nice lifted lime acidity.
A testament to its quality is that it lasted four days in the fridge without a drop in its drinkability, with the lanolin creaminess softening out a little and becoming more complex, offering something slightly new every day.
Damn, I wish I drank this earlier! I’ll need to grab a newer, fresher bottle soon and report back. Watch this space.
Has it been five months since my last post? How time flies. And, even then, updates were few and far between in the months preceding The Gold of Naples (and Puglia) - had The Motley Cru reached its sell-by date?
Far from it. I have a good excuse you see, or, rather, quite a few: moving house, getting married, and going on a month’s honeymoon – all wrapped around Christmas and the New Year - has meant that the last 8-10 months have been pretty eventful to say the least.
As a result writing even the most basic blog posts were relegated to the bottom of the To Do pile where wedding lists, holiday bookings and DIY jobs were given precedence. Hence the de facto sabbatical for The Motley Cru in the last while.
But fear not! Christmas, weddings, honeymoons and housewarmings are ripe occasions for wine exposure, so I’ve bucketloads of things to write about. And now that I’ve (a little) more time on my hands I intend to write about them.
So from this weekend it (should be) back to business. I’ve even updated my ‘About’ page too – have a look.
I’ve never asked for feedback before, so now’s a good time to start – what do you like, not like, or more importantly what would you rather see? Are the blogs too long, too short, too irrelevant? Too wordy, too basic, too technical? Let me know, warts and all.
Sometimes, you come across an article so energetically and passionately written it completely consumes you and you instantly want to eat that food, drink that drink or travel to that place in order to share in the experience that the author so emphatically puts across.
I had bookmarked – and only now re-discovered – an article from the website of US food magazine Saveur called The Gold of Naplesin which Keith Pandolfi revisits the home of his “beloved but long gone great-grandfather” to discover the true origins of pizza.
Ostensibly it’s not a terrifically exciting subject, I agree, but you can’t but be carried along by the enthusiasm and zeal with which it is written; the hallmark of excellent writing, in other words. I dare you to read it and not crave a pizza afterwards.
In fact, over the weekend I did indeed cobble together my own attempt at Naple’s most famous export, using Pizza da Piero‘s guiltily excellent pizza bases. To match I had a bottle of Tormaresca Torcicoda 2010, a Primitivo from Salento in Puglia, the ‘heel’ of the Italian ‘boot’, so to speak.
Primitivo is Puglia’s native grape, and in my (admittedly limited) experience tends to be overly hot, spicy, and uninteresting (often due to the aforementioned hot spiciness). Fans of Californian Zinfandel will, without realising it, be very familiar with this grape since they are one and the same: clippings brought to America by a Puglian emigrant were unwittingly believed to be a new variety, and so christened Zinfandel, though no-one knows where that name originated.
Back to South Italian Primitivo though. Tormaresca is the Puglian sub-brand of the Antinori Family’s Tuscan-based empire, and I was confident in approaching this bottle since you can be sure that anything produced by this famous dynasty isn’t done half-heartedly.
Bright ruby in the glass, it was surprisingly more rounded in the mouth than I expected, compared to the number of harsh and angular Primitivos I’ve had in the past. The palate is quite New World Cabernet-like: deep dark fruit with blackberry dominant, with some anise after it opened out and some slight tannic bitterness at the end which called out for food. Ideal for my pizza, then.
In all a plush, glossy wine and highly recommended, though at 14% meant that I had to be careful of just how much I imbibed. But this, alas, was a sample bottle from the winery that I had hanging around and isn’t currently available in Ireland (as far as I’m aware). You can get it in the UK, though. Sorry about that.
I really like Rioja. But to admit as much can prove problematic.
What I’m about to say may sound elitist and hipster, but Rioja is unfortunate in that it’s so popular. It’s on a par with Chablis, Chianti, ‘Bordeaux’ and others in that it’s made in a readily identifiable, appealing style with a name that is easily remembered but exotic-sounding enough to be said out loud with conviction.
So those who “don’t know much about wine but know what they like” order it repeatedly, as it gives them a sense of control over what is inarguably a complex area. This in itself is absolutely no problem, but when Rioja et al are mindlessly chosen simply because it’s a name that can be remembered easily or, worse, because it makes you sound like you’re knowledgeable about wine, then the situation becomes very worrisome.
Many people, it seems, choose these clichéd regions without really knowing why they’re drinking them. But before I am hung, drawn and quartered for being a wine snob, let me take some examples from other areas of our daily gastronomic lives where we have no fear of expressing our opinions.
Ask anyone where the best burger is to be found and instantly a debate is sparked with everyone offering steadfast opinions. Ask why one place is better over another and there won’t be much by way of hesitation there either. I don’t know any burger experts, or those trained in burger production or involved in the burger trade, but what I do know is that everyone I know can put at least one word on why their outlet of choice surpasses the rest in this area. Maybe their favourite place makes them bigger than others, maybe it’s juicier, or the toppings, or perhaps even the chips or the service that edges it for them.
Whatever it is – be it burgers, steaks, chicken wings, films, music – the reality is that though most people won’t be experts in the area they can at least vocalise their subjective opinions on the matter. They’ve tried a few versions of the same thing and from this experience they can compare and contrast.
But when it comes to wine people go numb. Why is that? The perception that it’s a rarefied and impenetrable area? Amble into your local Tesco, Supervalu or even petrol forecourt and you’ll dozens if not hundreds of accessible and cheap offerings.
Is it the fear of wine snobs looming over your shoulder, sniggering at your lack of knowledge? There has been a seismic shift in wine writing and education over the last decade where everyone involved in the trade are bending over backwards to educate and include as much as possible, so this is a wholly unfounded and apparently self-inflicted inferiority complex.
Is it inertia? Maybe indifference? Either way, wine producers spotted this miles off and the more unscrupulous ones now produce tanker loads of cheap, shite wine that only barely scrape into the legal definition of the regions their from. Worse is that they damage the perception of that area, undoing decades if not centuries of hard, honest work.
So what most of the world gets is, well, really shite Rioja – over-oaked, flabby, jammy crap that bares no resemblance to what half-decent Rioja can be like. Don’t get me started on Campo Viejo, and the piss-poor offerings in restaurants struggling to balance margins and the budgets of their clientele is even worse, bad enough to make a grown man cry.
So. What to do? Well, if you like Rioja – or Chablis, Chianti, Fleurie – start there and find out what differentiates one brand from another. You’ll likely already know why you prefer Lindt over Cadbury’s, so why not apply that methodology to wine? Buy one Rioja this week, and another one the next. Compare and contrast. Ask your local, independent off-licence for tips. Start exploring and educating yourself to the differences within your comfort zone and work out from there. You’ll never regret it.
Anyway. I love Muga’s Riojas. Over the weekend I had the Muja Rioja Reserva 2007 – intelligent use of oak means that they avoid the confected vanillin characteristics of lesser wines from the region. Still, it’s rich, full and silky with leathery blackberry notes. A little lighter on the palate too, which again stands it apart from the usual clunky offerings that we’re subjected to. A bit of heat and spice on the back palate, while given time in the glass it becomes more leathery, savoury and saline, crying out for some Jamón ibérico. Delicious.
For all my years dealing with Masi I didn’t realise that there wasn’t really a central focal point for the company per se, beyond their functional offices and the areas seen on our tour which, even then, isn’t available to the general public.
Instead Masi use the Alighieri family’s magnificent estate next door, only about 100 metres away; that is, if you go to Verona looking for the Masi experience then you’ll be deferred to La Foresteria, as its proper name will have it, in order to experience, taste, and enjoy.
But this isn’t a bad thing, In fact it’s a bloody amazing thing – La Foresteria is an idyllic, rambling estate accessed via a pretty cypress tree-lined avenue and consisting of a number of buildings of varying ages, with eight unique apartments that hold a varying number of people and contain kitchenettes and living rooms, all named after native local grape varieties of course. Ours was Corvina.
The estate was renovated in what they call “the aristocratic country house style,” which means, baldly, that the décor of the accommodation on first sight looks quite meagre and basic, but very quickly becomes very homely and comfortable. Precisely the style they were going for I’m sure.
As well as guest accommodation La Foresteria also has conference and banqueting facilities, regularly holding weddings and product launches, as well as a cookery school. I even stumbled across the traditional drying lofts, more exposed to the air in the old-school style rather than the more controlled environment of the nearby Masi winery, and what’s better is that they were actually fully-functioning drying lofts and not something superficial for the benefit of guests.
The estate wraps itself around a couple of picturesque courtyards, the more beautiful of the two containing a fountain and leading onto a small manicured garden. The whole complex opened out onto a gentle slope overlooking the vineyards of Valpolicella, with cypress trees punctuating the distant haze. To say that La Foresteria is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world sounds like hyperbole, but it really is.
It’s here that Masi also have their ‘cellar door’ – that is wine shop and tasting room, where pretty much all of Masi’s wines can be tasted and bought, as well as olive oil, balsamic vinegar, grappa di Amarone (a spirit that really wasn’t to my taste), the Veronese speciality Vialone Nano rice, acacia honey, chestnut spread (another local speciality) and cherry jam – all served up by genial staff.
We bought ourselves a chilled bottle of their Conte Federico Brut 2009 sparkling wine, made of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and had an impromptu alfresco picnic of bread, cheese and meats sourced from a nearby supermarket, settling ourselves out the back of the estate which, typically, looked out onto a fallow field overshadowed by a old Italian hilltop village. I’m really struggling to find synonyms for ‘picturesque here,’ but I’m sure you get the idea.
So without labouring the point I couldn’t recommend La Foresteria more highly. Located only 20kms or so north of Verona it’s a must if you’re in that part of the country. Believe me: you won’t be disappointed.
From there we descended to a couple of unassuming rooms that contained some of Masi’s experimental endeavours. Scores of bottles, both in racks and boxes, were tagged at their necks with hand-written labels and containing ancient grapes resurrected and unusual varieties vinified in various ways.
Oseleta is one such grape that Masi has ‘resurrected’ after having being forgotten or ignored for decades. In typically Masi fashion they have raised this baton and carried it proudly. This is a grape historically disregarded for its difficulty, producing tannic and harsh wines, but Masi have been unafraid to take the bull by the horns and have been experimenting in a multitude of ways in order to coax the best out of what they have come to see as something of a prodigal son returned.
These experimental bottlings sat beside square barrels, another Masi trial but one abandoned given the difficulty of keeping the multiple corners watertight, as well as other regular barrels made of weird and wonderful woods, and cross-sections of a number of soil samples taken at various points in the Veneto in Masi’s effort to identify the perfect sites for their plantings.
From there we descended again to their cellars proper, where hundreds of barrels in various sizes, shapes and woods were spread across a maze of irregularly-sized rooms. These also included walls of bottled Amarone that lay ageing, tightly packed in dark hulking masses, as well as some mosaics, sculptures and some ornate barrels – one of which, filled with Amarone, was to be signed by the winners of the upcoming Masi Prize ceremony only a few weeks after our visit.
The barrels ranged in size from the regular barriques you see in winery photographs and which hold 225 litres of wine, right up to fusto Veronese which hold 600 litres. I think there were some old-school botte that held 1,000L+, but by now my head was swimming so excuse me if I’ve forgotten a few details!
Needless to say it was a fantastic endeavour, but the best was yet to come.
We emerged, blinking, into the bright reception hall of a modest Masi’s villa which sits next to their workaday offices, from where we were led to the left to a dining room where a full tasting session was laid out for us.
I was aware of a tasting of wines at the end of the tour, but not to this extent: a beautifully delicate room complete with walls adorned with frescos of orange trees and windows framing the beautifully hazy Venetian countryside outside held a long mahogany dining table with each place complete with official tasting mats, booklets, pens, pre-poured glasses of wine and packets of grissini to nibble on. Now this is how you do a wine tasting!
After a short video introduction we began with the Serego Alighieri Posessioni Rosso 2011, a blend of Veneto’s Corvina and Molinara with Tuscany’s Sangiovese. Serego Alighieri was a descendent of the poet Dante Alighieri, he of The Divine Comedy fame, and Masi now produce wines on behalf of the current head of the family, Count Pieralvise di Serego Alighieri. Their property in the Veneto was bought as far back as 1353 by Pietro Alighieri, Dante’s son, who had followed his father into exile in Verona from Tuscany and had stayed in the area after the poet’s death. They don’t do history by halves here in Italy.
Anyway, this wine is their entry-level one, and accordingly is a light, fruit-forward, spiced cherry quaffer for every day drinking. A nice simple start to the tasting.
Next was Masi’s own Brolo Campofiorin Oro 2009, the next step up from Masi’s ‘sort-of-Ripasso,’ Campofiorin. This differs from the regular Campofiorin in that instead of the standard Venetian blend of Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara, the latter in this case is swapped out for 10% of Oseleta, the resurrected grape mentioned in my last post.
But I found this to be somewhat ‘hot’ and overpowering, which with a little time in glass gave up some clove and pepper characteristics along with some savoury notes. However this ‘big brother’ of an already powerful wine I think needed some extra time in the bottle to mellow out.
The regular Campofiorin for its part, though not tasted that day, is soft and supple and more easily approachable than the Brolo Campofiorin Oro and is widely available here.
We then moved on again to another Serego Alighieri wine, this time their Valpolicella dell’Anniversario 2009. I had this before and loved it, and this tasting was no different. It’s a really premium Valpolicella, leagues away from the everyday Valpolicellas enjoyed on more casual occasions. Rich, deep and surprisingly aromatic, it had notes of dried fruit due to some of the blend containing apassimento grapes and had fantastic length with a nice bit of subtle grip at the end. On return I got come violet and dried tea. A delight.
Then it was on to the first of two Amarones, beginning with Masi’s flagship Costasera 2008. It has in intensely concentrated nose that with some time reveals tobacco, leather and again some clove and tea leaves. These repeat themselves on the palate which carries an illusion of sweetness due to it glycerine content, which is increased in the apassimento process. A huge, bear-hug of a wine, but one to be approached with caution, both due to its intensity and its alcohol, the latter of which comes in at a whopping 15%.
The next Amarone was the Vaio Armaron 2006 from the Serego Alighieri estate which, though containing the same grapes and undergoing the same apassimento process, spends extra time in wood and bottle, hence the two year difference between this and the Costasera. The result is, if possible, an even more concentrated wine, though more perfumed than the Costasera. However it was slightly rougher, I felt, than the supple Masi Amarone, with more spice and raisin/date notes evident too.
Claudia suggested that while the Costasera is best served with food, the Vaio Armaron is better on its own, but I found myself disagreeing. The Vaio Armaron was that bit more tannic and acidic than the Masi Amarone, which I felt would suit food more, while the smoothness of the latter better befitted sipping on its own.
Finally, we ended the incredible tasting with Casal dei Ronchi 2009, Serego Alighieri’s Recioto, basically a sweet version of Amarone. This was very fruity and generous on the nose with cherry and redcurrant, but it lacked enough supporting acidity to make it that bit moreish. That said it wasn’t cloying, but the end impression was pleasant yet fleeting. Though not available in Ireland, the Italian price of €28 per 500ml bottle meant that the resulting price-quality ratio left a lot to be desired.
In all it was a revealing and worthy tasting, one thoroughly enjoyed, though I didn’t expect half of the six bottle selection to consist of Serego Aligheri wines. Which was no hardship, of course, especially given that we were staying on the incredible Serego Alighieri estate itself, of which more in the next post…