Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A very English way to make a marriage sparkle

How to celebrate the Royal nuptials? 

The Scottish part of me is tempted to suggest Sekt might be the order of the day so maybe it's best we concentrate on Kate Middleton's heritage and focus on English wine.

It's not really a vine-growing nation, England, being half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N). England only makes two million bottles itself. To put that into context, the nation is the world's largest importer, bringing in 1.6 billion bottles of wine.

Almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine. Viticulture is labour intensive and this makes English wines very expensive to make and, like all alcohol, wine is also very heavily taxed so that too acts as a deterrent to local would-be buyers. 

What's more, winemaking in England has historically therefore been very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependant on the income from their wine sales for a livelihood.

Consequently distribution of wine made in England is really poor. Very few wine merchants nor supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in England) even stock English wines: most are sold at the wineries, many of which are also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions.


There is one wine style at which England excels. Really excels. Champagne. 

It can't be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that's what it is. 

Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it's made from the same three grape varieties using the méthode traditionnelle - traditional method - as Champagne. And the grapes are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine, is now world class. 

Surely there isn't a better nor more patriotic way to toast the future King and Queen than with a drink whose possibilities owe so much to the English. 

For it was the English who brought together the scientific understanding of sparkling wine and the durability of glassware that could withstand the pressure inside a sparkling wine bottle and are also credited with the re-discovery of a piece of cork as the perfect bottle stopper.

Top of my list of English Sparkling Wine producers, and virtually on my own doorstep, is RidgeView Winery, high up on the rolling South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names themselves are redolent of Englishness and therefore ideal to toast the woman who would be Queen: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia. And I understand RidgeView bubbly was served at the Queen's 80th birthday party.

No wonder. Bottles can be found in the food halls of London's top department stores Harrods and Fortnum & Mason and on the shelves of leading wine merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose.

RidgeView offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé. South Ridge Cuvée Merret 2007 is named after Christopher Merret, the Englishman who in 1662 published one of the first known scientific papers on the production of sparkling wine. 

As I write, The Sunday Times Wine Club, itself something of an English institution, has Cuvée Merret 2007 on offer at just £15.99 a bottle - which prices it right alongside Champagne - when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory lunch or dinner. 

Other notable English Sparkling Wine producers include Nyetimber, whose 2001 Brut Chardonnay is exceptional and creamy, Gusbourne Estate, Hush Heath from Kent, Camel Valley in Cornwall, Chapel Down and Carr-Taylor. 

Friday, 15 April 2011

If it's Songkran it must be Pinot Grigio. Or Pinot Gris?

I don't quite know how Pinot Grigio came to supplant Chardonnay in the hearts and minds of white wine drinkers - maybe they'd had their fill of blowsy over-oaked Aussie blockbusters  - but it has become the most popular import in the USA and seems to have carved a niche for itself as the tip-of-the-tongue prompted white wine of choice. 

Which is a bit of a shame actually because it's not always an easy drink to enjoy, especially on an empty stomach. Bottled very young, it can sometimes be on the shelves mere weeks after harvest. You might find examples that are quite frizzante, or very heavily perfumed, even pungent, thickly laden with exotic fruit and honey, spicily dry and acidic or cloyingly sweet. 
Tim Adams 2009 Pinot Gris is
available from Tesco for £11

And you might not even know which of its many variations you're getting until you're already committed so you could end up with exactly the lightweight bone-dry neutral Italian style white you wanted yesterday at lunch but which lacks the depth and flavoursome substance of Australia's offerings that you actually need with today's dinner.

Which would be Thai.

Because as I write it's Songkran - Thai New Year - and a great excuse to celebrate with classic dishes from Thailand like Tom Yung Kung (hot and sour prawn soup), Gaeng Kiew Wahn Gai (chicken green curry) and Pad Thai Noodles.

Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris is just the white wine for this. It has either the acidic sharpness to cut through heavily spiced chilli-hot dishes or can provide the exotic perfumery and honeyed weight to complement the richness of tropical herbs, vegetables and fruit that make so much Thai food so distinctively delicious.

Tim Adams Pinot Gris 2009 strikes a happy balance between the two, rose gold in colour with lemongrass and ginger on the nose then dollops of ripe fruit like peaches and lychees giving it a rich and fat feel, balanced by kumquats plus tart passionfruit and crisp Asian pears. 

From Australia's Clare Valley, this structured and weighty example, though at 12.5% ABV relatively light in alcohol, has a refreshing zingy acidity in its lasting finish - it's just the thing to make the most of Thai New Year. Happy Songkran Day. 


Friday, 1 April 2011

Unknown Pleasures

Unwrapping an unexpected wine arrival is one of the great joys of a wine enthusiast's life. Consuming the contents not necessarily so. Hence a degree of trepidation accompanied my approach to the Laithwaites Lucky Dip. 

It's a simple enough offer for most wine drinkers to accept - you hand over a fiver and receive in return a mystery bottle of wine guaranteed to be worth more than £5. 

Connoisseurs hope against hope that they are the luckiest of the lucky dippers and are rewarded with one of the showcase prizes: Château Lafite-Rothschild 1er Cru Classé Pauillac 1983 is worth some £900, Chateau Margaux 2006 costs £360 and Chateau d'Yquem 2006 is £195 a bottle. 

But the odds are against you as that's only three in 500 bottles.

More likely you'll receive a wine you've never heard of, from a producer unknown to you, from a country more famous for giving the world Rubik's Cube.

Such was my lot when I opened my first Lucky Dip. It began promisingly enough with sight of the gold foil of a sparkling wine closure giving momentary pause as I wondered which rarefied Champagne house was about to yield up one of its finest vintages. 

The moment passed quickly as my eyes met the unfamiliar label: Campanula Sparkling Pinot Grigio NV. 

Non-Vintage fizz. Hmmmm. From Hungary.

But that's actually the real joy of it. That's the best reason - the only reason - to buy mystery bottles or indulge in lucky dips or surprise raffles. Because without that random element who would have pulled such a bottle from the shelves, picked it out from a list or even splashed out on such a bargain bin-end?

Without a Lucky Dip I may never have tasted Sparkling Pinot Grigio (currently my least favourite grape) of any kind, let alone Hungarian, and might never have had the chance to share my enthusiasm for it with anybody else.

And I am enthusiastic. Because it's such a great ice-breaker. It's golden with big brassy bubbles, frothy zesty lemon and floral notes on the nose, plus unripe honeydew melon and sharp clean citrus on the palate. Effortlessly gluggable. Affordable at £47.94 for a case of six from Laithwaites.

© 2011 John Alexander