Thursday, 29 September 2011

Rugby World Cup Wine: England vs Scotland


To my mind Scottish rugby has never recovered from the retirement of Gavin Hastings.

At one blow they lost not one player but three, three of rugby’s greatest players: one of the greatest rugby fullbacks the sport has ever seen, one of its greatest goal kickers and one of the most inspirational captains ever to don the red shirt of the British Lions.

No wine compares to him.

But there is a wine associated with Scotland comparable to another former British Lions captain and Scottish rugby hero.

Finlay Calder was a back row forward so renowned for playing offside that it was oft suggested his number seven should be sewn on the front of his shirt.

Buckfast Tonic Wine is his spiritual equivalent. It’s not made in Scotland, but in England, by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon.

Its association with Scotland came from a notorious BBC television programme that used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that Buckfast received a namecheck in over five thousand crime reports over a three-year period, averaging three crimes a day, of which one in ten was of a violent nature – the bottle itself actually featuring as a weapon on some 114 occasions.

This seemed to support research from an institution for young offenders, which reported that among young men who had been drinking immediately before their offence, over 40% had been drinking Buckfast.

According to scientists it’s not the wine itself that seems to be to blame, but the caffeine it contains – some 281 milligrammes per bottle that is equivalent to eight cans of big brand cola or three and a half cans of Red Bull. And at 15% ABV it’s as strong as unfortified wine is allowed to be in the UK although still well under the 20% limits for sherry and port.

The Scots won’t need any such artificial encouragement when they go head to head with the Auld Enemy on October 1st.

Caffeine and alcohol apart, what’s it like, this notorious tonic?

Effectively a mistella, originally using a Spanish red wine as a base, it now uses French wines. It’s dark and sticky, sweet, blackly fruity with warming leather.

It’s like a big hit from Finlay Calder, when you never saw him coming, round the blindside. Feel the air empty from your lungs. Oomph.

England would probably rather face any other team.

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 or 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.

However.

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 success at a game invented at, and named after, an English public school 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: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia.

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 2008 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 wine institution, has Cuvée Merret 2008 on offer at just £16.99 a bottle, which prices this vintage English Sparkling wine right alongside non-vintage Champagne, when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory lunch or dinner. If England win.

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. 

In winemaking, England has mastered the Champagne flair of the French. But on the level playing field of a rugby pitch Scotland doesn’t need Buckfast to buck the trend – for this is the nation that gave the world Scotch whisky. And that’s a much more powerful argument for a celebration north of the border on Saturday.

But I don’t think they’ll secure the margin of victory they need.

England 21 Scotland 23











Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Rugby World Cup Wine: Fare well Japan


Who knew that while Japan is regarded as a massively important market to both Old and New World producers alike, the islands themselves also have a very significant domestic wine industry of their own, including stunningly beautiful vineyards of tall vine hedges and long cordons growing in the shadow of Mount Fuji. 

The Japanese also have their own, specially developed grape variety called Muscat Bailey-A - traditionally used predominantly in the production of sweet wines but increasingly in blended dry reds more akin to traditional French styles. 

The drive towards greater quality has been marked by the introduction of regional certification, equivalent of the AOC and AVA sytems of France and the USA respectively. In 1983, Suntory took over Château Lagrange in Bordeaux and has for the past 25 years been working with Domaines Barons de Rothschild, proprietors of Château Lafite-Rothschild, the culmination of which will be  the first release of their jointly developed red last autumn.

This is significant. When the Japanese decided to make a sports car, which Mazda product planner Bob Hall described as, "a simple, bugs-in-the-teeth, wind-in-the-hair, classically-British sports car" the modern equivalent of the MGB, they came up with the car known as the Miata or MX-5. With over one million sold it is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling roadster ever.

Look out for the flagship wines from the Tomi no Oka Winery, with names like Tomi, Tomi no Oka and especially Tomi no Uta with its jammy Muscat Bailey-A.

Grace Koshu is a definitive example of Japanese white wine, made from the very pale purple native Japanese Koshu grape cultivated using the traditional Tanazukuri cane pruning system that looks like a beautiful floating carpet of grapes and vines.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Rugby World Cup Wine: Argentina vs Scotland



Think of the Argentinians and you think of beef. That’s what you expect in their restaurants, that’s what you expect in their rugby team and that’s what you expect in their wine.

Malbec is the wine Argentina does best of all. It's meaty like their famous steaks; it's muscular like any member of the Pumas’ eight and it’s memorable.

It can be lush, highly scented, packed with dark damson fruit. But it’s always powerful.

Stick to the 100% varietal too. No need to dilute or soften it with cheap Bonarda or Touriga Nacional as you can find 100% Malbecs at lower price levels anyway. That said, regulations allow up to 30% of blending grapes and you will find that the top quality premium versions often contain less than 100% Malbec, and at fine wine prices too. 

It's a terrific gluggable red. Malbec really is delicious. And it is so consistent. It's often deep purple red, intense, highly aromatic and plummy fruitful.  

Despite its powerful pack of alcohol, frequently up to 14%, it's much too temptingly drinkable, especially with barbecue charred and blackened red meat.

So watch out. Who finished third at the last Rugby World Cup in 2007? Argentina.

Maybe you didn’t expect that. No many people did.
Malbec maintains the standard. Argento and Graffigna each create reliable versions in several ranges at prices to suit most pockets.

If you prefer to drink white, and given the alcoholic strength of typical Malbecs, you might think daytime matches probably demand it, Torrontés is the often equally punchy peachy white alternative.

Torrontés is the white wine grape most closely associated with white wine made in Argentina, and Argentina is the New World winemaking country most closely associated with Torrontés. So it makes sense that to accompany any event with an Argentinian theme, Torrontés would be the only white wine of choice.

It's distinctly aromatic, typically heavy with fruits such as apricots and even lychees on the nose, sometimes with scents of roses, soft and smooth on the palate with low acidity but a weighty and flavoursome finish, often with quite an alcoholic kick.

Argento Reserva is as good a representative as many, born of grapes grown at over 5,500 feet in the premium Cafayate Valley of the prime Torrontés region of Salta, it's floral, spicy with menthol, peach and lemon zest and punchy with alcohol at well over 13%.

To reach the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup in 2011 the Pumas had to beat Scotland.

To my mind Scottish rugby has never recovered from the retirement of Gavin Hastings. At one blow they lost not one player but three, three of rugby’s greatest players: one of the greatest rugby fullbacks the sport has ever seen, one of its greatest goal kickers and one of the most inspirational captains ever to don the red shirt of the British Lions.

No wine compares to him.

But there is a wine associated with Scotland comparable to another former British Lions captain and Scottish rugby hero. Finlay Calder was a back row forward so renowned for playing offside that it was oft suggested his number seven should be sewn on the front of his shirt.

Buckfast Tonic Wine is his spiritual equivalent. It’s not made in Scotland, but in England, by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon.

Its association with Scotland came from a notorious BBC television programme that used the Freedom of Information Act to discover that Buckfast received a namecheck in over five thousand crime reports over a three-year period, averaging three crimes a day, of which one in ten was of a violent nature – the bottle itself actually featuring as a weapon on some 114 occasions.

This seemed to support research from an institution for young offenders, which reported that among young men who had been drinking immediately before their offence, over 40% had been drinking Buckfast.

According to scientists it’s not the wine itself that seems to be to blame, but the caffeine it contains – some 281 milligrammes per bottle that is equivalent to eight cans of big brand cola or three and a half cans of Red Bull.

So what’s it like? Effectively a mistella, originally using a Spanish red wine as a base, it now uses French and at 15% ABV it’s as strong as unfortified wine is allowed in the UK but well under the 20% limits for sherry and port. It’s dark and sticky, sweet, blackly fruity with warming leather. It’s like a big hit from Finlay Calder, when you never saw him coming, round the blindside. Feel the air empty from your lungs. Oomph.

Argentina 16 Scotland 21

Rugby World Cup Wine: France vs New Zealand


They don’t have much truck with outsiders, the French. Their Rugby World Cup squad of 31 players includes only two men born outside France.

The wine shelves of my ‘local’ (I holiday nearby at least once a year) French supermarket tell a similar story.

Among reds some 60% of shelf space is given over to Bordeaux – half of which is simple Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior. 

The 'other' great French red, Burgundy, claims about 30% of the red wine shop window, and, as with so much Burgundy, much of it is of disappointing quality, although in this case it's more to do with the labels – the store's chosen winemakers – rather than the usual problem of the contents not living up to the name of the bottle. 

The rest of the reds sit under wooden signs indicating Rhône or Sud (south), which bizarrely includes a few from supposedly lesser red appellations such as Beaujolais and mostly lightweight reds of the Loire and Alsace.

It's a similar story on the opposite side of the aisle, where the whites hold sway. Wines are arranged by region, including a section dedicated solely to Champagne. 

Chablis, Burgundy and the Loire, including a couple of stray rosés, dominate here, with a positive display too from Alsace and a minor showing from the Rhône. No Sud, but the end of the row carries quite a selection of better-positioned rosés from Provence.

But what's this, in the corner over there, a narrow shelf devoted to, what? Is that really a Rioja? It is, a Faustina.  Presumably smuggled in through Andorra. In fact, there are a couple of Riojas on the shelf. Plus some Chianti and Barolo. Most odd of all, there's a Chilean Merlot.

That’s the French for you. Their wine is their own – exciting (like Bordeaux) and frustrating (like Burgundy) by turns, but at its best, capable of being the very, very best. In the world.

And so is their rugby – exciting (like their two World Cup finals knockout victories over New Zealand) and frustrating (like their 22-21 loss to former Six Nations makeweights Italy) by turns, but at its best, capable of being the very, very best. In the world.

Something similar can be said of New Zealand. But unlike the French you’ll be saying, their wine is not really their own – like the rugby team it’s built on foreign imports. Take a look.

So I did. One born in Australia, two in Samoa. The rest of the RWC 2011 team New Zealanders born and bred.

And that’s the story of the wine too.

Winemaking grapes may seem ‘foreign’ to New Zealand, like Rainbow Trout, Pacific islanders and losing at the national sport, but wine has been made in New Zealand since 1836 and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first hit the headlines in 1977 – ten years before the All-Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup, a trophy that has since inexplicably eluded them.

Yet, as with rugby, New Zealand has taken something from the Old World and somehow made it better in every way.  Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is unarguably a modern classic – a brilliant evolution, revolution, of an Old World variety. Like New Zealand rugby it’s sharp and clean and consistent and so overwhelming and powerful that at times you don’t know what’s hit you.

Time was we couldn't get enough of the stuff, but as with so much in life, familiarity breeds contempt. Not another NZSB. Not another haka. Not another brilliant outside half. Nicky Allen, Grant Fox, Dan Carter. Enough already.

Maybe we’ve had too much of a good thing. A few years back UK supermarkets would carry a single entry level Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Then there were two. We learned to look out for the Marlborough variety, and we usually found the original pioneer, Montana. Now we see three or four, not just labelled Marlborough but also Wairau Valley.  

There have been a couple of sniffy articles in the press. Even Cloudy Bay has not been immune. Soon the fashionistas will jump on the bandwagon. The snobs that ganged up to form the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club will be circling round New Zealand's finest export – Dame Kiri Te Kenawa and Hayley Westernra not withstanding – with the same opportunistic glint in their eyes, looking for the chance to sneer, to be seen to be the champion of the next big thing.

My advice is to have nothing to do with it. Oz Clarke, whose palate is the envy of many a Master of Wine, has suggested New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the best in the world. It probably is. Even everyday easy drinking examples can open up with fragrant herbaceous scents, offer weight on the palate and be fruit packed with zingy and zesty lemons and limes. As you climb the premium ladder the flavours intensify with fresh green capsicums, elderflowers, rich gooseberries, guava, mango, and ripe, heady and pungent asparagus. It is delicious stuff.

New Zealand took something subtle and tricky and unpredictable and made it powerful and distinctive and unbeatable.

Now I can’t remember if I’m talking about the grape or the sport.

New Zealand to win by ten points

© 2011 John Alexander

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