Category Archives: Tasting around the world

What the bleep do we know… about the wines of Lebanon?

The average wine drinker, probably nothing. The connoisseur will have heard about, and possibly tasted, Chateau Musar. But thanks to Lebanese-born wine expert Michael Karam, who gave a presentation on the subject at the Emerging Regions tasting in September 2014, now we know there’s more to Lebanon than the oxidized Musar bottles that turn up at tastings as exotic examples of wines of the 70s.

Lebanon today produces around 7 million bottles of wine per year. This is very little indeed – any commercial producer will put out more than this. For example, to take a neighbouring country, Israel’s Carmel winery (and Israel is also a small producer) alone makes 15 million bottles annually. So we could call Lebanon a boutique, or even garage, wine country.

The majority of Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, mainly from its western parts and to some extent the eastern areas. The Bekaa Valley, Karam told us, is part of the historic triangle where wine originated thousands of years ago. The Phoenicians here may have been the first wine merchants. But the modern history of wine in Lebanon starts with the Jesuits, in the 19th century. Some monks were making their own wine from grapes brought from Algeria – mainly Cinsaut and Carignan. Then Domaine des Tourelles was established in 1868 by a Frenchman, and the French influence continued after the First World War, when Lebanon became French territory. Winemaking then got another push, and Chateau Musar was established in 1930, 50 miles north of Beirut, to supply the French with wine.

Lebanon gained independence in 1943 but the French wine culture was continued. It was only from the 1990s on that international varieties were beginning to be planted, and more and more new wineries established. Today there are 42 producers in the country, including such new names as Chateau Florentine, Chateau Ka, and Chateau Ksara. According to Karam, it is the Mediterranean red varieties, such as Cinsaut, Carignan, Mourvedre and Grenache, that best express Lebanese terroir and identity.

What future for the wines of Lebanon? With such a small number of producers and bottles, the aim clearly won’t be to conquer the international market, but Lebanese wines can be an exotic, interesting addition to the palette. The whites I have tasted were a bit too obviously oaky and the reds sometimes very tannic but the wines have a lot of spice, which I like. Some are now readily available in the UK (Ixsir, Ksara, Tourelles, and of course Musar) at a reasonable (though not inexpensive) price if you fancy serving local wines with your Lebanese-inspired dishes.

 

 

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Some kosher recommendations

With the High Holy Days round the corner, some of you may be wondering what to stock up with for your festive meals. Below are some Israeli wines I’ve tasted over the past year and recommend heartily. All are kosher and none are mevushal.

 

WHITES

tavor sauv bTabor Adama Sauvignon Blanc 2013

With a wine like Sauvignon Blanc, which is appreciated for its freshness and youthful zing, always buy as recent a vintage as possible. With certain exceptions, mainly oak-aged examples (which should be marked as such, unless they’re French), this wine is not meant for ageing.

Tabor has really hit the nail on the head with this wine. It’s everything a Sauvignon Blanc should be – at least in Agi’s books: starting with an interesting and very fresh nose with a combination of citrus and tropical fruit and some grassiness. On the palate it’s medium-bodied and acidic, and has that prickly nettle component that I love so much and that’s a hallmark of Sauv Blanc. Some minerality on the finish. Very enjoyable and refreshing – certainly the best Israeli Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted.

Tabor winery is in Israel’s Galilee region, at the foot of Mount Tabor. They have also recently started making a lovely Roussanne (I think the first vintage was in 2012). It will be interesting to those of you who are looking for a grape variety that is a bit more unusual and less known to experiment with.

www.twc.co.il

Flam Blanc 2012

A blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, this wine attracts with a buttery, sweet honey nose and peach fruitiness. Lees ageing adds to its complexity, but it hasn’t seen any oak. The palate is restrained, very mineral and shows good acidity. Toastiness from the lees, and a slight prickle – perhaps a tiny bit of CO2 left in there? Peach, apple and citrus fruit. A more complex but still refreshing and crisp white.

www.flamwinery.com

 

ROSÉ

castel rose 2013

 

Castel Rosé 2013

I think I can say this without sounding too biased: everything Castel’s winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken touches turns to gold. The meticulous attention to detail that all Castel wines reflect is a blessing for us wine-lovers, and an example all Israeli winemakers ought to follow. The rosé is a relative newcomer at Castel, the first commercially produced vintage having been 2011. Over the years it’s been moving closer and closer to perfection. The 2013 vintage is even leaner, more delicate and more restrained than the previous year’s. The strawberry and peach fruitiness is still there but becoming more subdued, which results in a sleek, elegant wine with delightfully refreshing acidity.

www.castel.co.il

 

 

REDS

Tulip Syrah Reserve 2011

What makes Tulip winery special is not just their wines but their strong underlying ethical policy: they employ several people with mental disabilities from the local residential community in Kfar Tikvah, near Haifa. But regardless of ethics, Tulip’s Syrah Reserve is a serious and classy wine that I greatly enjoyed. A savoury nose of meaty, mushroomy aromas is followed by a smooth, balanced palate. The savouriness remains, but is complemented by intense spiciness. Long, spicy finish. Very nice, rich wine.

www.tulip-winery.co.il

yatir forest

Yatir Forest 2010

The wine’s name carries a double meaning: on the one hand it’s a reference to Yatir Forest in Israel’s Negev area; on the other it’s very appropriate thanks to the wine’s intense forest fruit character. Lots of fresh berries and blackcurrants will you find on nose and palate, together with coffee and pepper spice from oak-ageing. The tannins are still a bit grainy, but my guess is this one will age beautifully. Yummy.

www.yatir.net

 

 

Southern delights

May and June saw me mad busy studying for my final WSET exam. To take time off, I popped in to a couple of tastings of South African wines. It was time well spent. We tend to associate South Africa with inexpensive supermarket gluggers but how far that is from the full truth!

First of all, there’s a lot of winemaking history here. Did you know about Constantia, for instance? One of the most prestigious dessert wines ever, with a spectacular history going back to the 17th century. Hardly known today but it’s on its way back. More about Constantia later.

The two flagship wines of South Africa are Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. As most New World countries, South Africa also mainly produces varietal wines but this is of course a blanket statement and may not at all be true for certain producers or regions. Winemaking tendencies are changing, which means more restrained use of oak and allowing more room for vineyard expression, for example. But let’s look at the specifics.

CHENIN BLANC

One of the amazing things I learnt about Chenin Blanc is how multi-faceted this grape can be. Anything from light, fruity, easy-drinking refreshment to heavily oaked, aged, complex and rich. The styles are so varied no generalization can be made really. And even the most brilliant cost peanuts compared to Burgundy, although some of them easily compete with a rich and mature Chardonnay.

Rudera de Tradisie CB 2010

A fruit-driven example with sweet-and-sour freshness. Caramellized fruit, oak restrained, well-integrated alcohol. Great acidity and lots of flintiness, which I like. The wine rolls along your tongue as you enjoy a burst of apricot flavours. £16

Jean Daneel Signature CB 2003

One of my favourites at this tasting. First time round I found it way too oaky but as it aired it opened into something much more and the oak withdrew into the background. The wine shows much lees influence but this is well balanced by intense honeyed fruit and flinty minerality, plus fantastic acidity. This vintage is not available any longer so you’ll have to buy the 2011/2012 and wait a few years. £19-20

Beaumont Hope Marguerite CB 2012

A delightful, youthful, fresh wine, and the first in the tasting that I could easily identify as Chenin. Citrusy, green apple aromas on the nose, some oak and some sweet candy touch. The palate has more honeyed, apricot flavours and lovely acidity, paired with a lean body and medium alcohol – only 12.6%, very unusual for these warm-climate wines. £16-18

PINOTAGE

Pinotage is a modern grape. It was created in the 1920s in Stellenbosch by crossing the Pinot Noir and Cinsaut varieties. I guess the idea was to produce a hardy grape that would perform well (meaning high crops) in the warm South African vineyards. As we found out from Greg Sherwood MW, who introduced the wines to us, bush vines are not uncommon among the better producers, and some of them very old as well (meaning the vines, not the producers). Bush training is typically used in hot, dry areas where the grapes need protection from the heat of the sun. It’s a low-vigour training system, i.e. not very economical compared to other, higher-vigour systems, but with a high-yielding grape variety this may actually be good news for quality.

But to come back to the grape. Pinotage has a rather unseemly reputation for a pungent paint / solvent smell, but properly vinified examples do not display the unattractive aroma and can be rich, intense, interesting – and ageworthy. The wines listed below come from some of the top producers of Pinotage.

Kanonkop Pinotage 1999

A fruity and youthful wine, especially considering its age. The grapes came from bush-trained, 55-year-old vines. The fruit is a touch too jammy for my taste but some interesting leathery, smokey notes counterbalance the stewiness.

Simonsig Pinotage 2003

A wine of 14.8% ABV but well made enough for the alcohol not to show. Restrained with a smooth, soft palate. Coffee, smoke and red fruit dominate. Likeable.

Sumaridge Epitome 2009

A roughly 50-50 blend of Shiraz and Pinotage. A chewy, tannic wine with a savoury character. Coffee, mint, toast, and black cherrries. Loved this one.

Aaaaand the bonus: a 1966 Lanzerac Pinotage!

Light garnet, with quite a bit of sediment – understandably. It’s been sitting in that bottle for 48 years! Oxidized, medicinal nose, smokey. Lean body and acidity that is still great. Not much fruit to find here, but you get a strong herbal character and savoury mushroom notes instead. It surprises with an incredibly powerful, smoky (smoked ham, to be precise) finish.

Lanzerac 1966

Sake!

Well, actually, in Japan they don’t call it that. In Japanese sake is quite a generic term, meaning something like ‘booze’. This I found out after sparing no time or effort trying to explain to the non-English-speaking Japanese waitress that I wanted to have some sake. She just pointed at the drinks menu, throwing me a perplexed smile, implying, ‘Look, silly, these are all sakes.’ So, before we even begin, I must teach you the Japanese word for sake: NIHONSHU.

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Very long cordons on high-trained trunks – what an unusual sight!

While in Japan, I tasted a number of different alcoholic beverages, including shochu, a spirit that can be made from grains or fruits, and wine made from the Koshu grape when we visited the Kurambon winery near Mount Fuji. That was also quite interesting, especially to see how they train their vines (I think in an attempt to protect them from humidity and fungus infections). But the wines are made in essentially the same way.

Sake, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. It’s more like making beer (from the limited knowledge of beer-making that I have).

I and my family paid a visit to the Shin-Se brewery outside Kyoto. They weren’t quite used to welcoming tourists, apparently, but the fact that we had come all the way from Europe, and that I wanted to write up the story, seemed to help.

The brewery was a surprisingly old-fashioned plant, and most of its equipment couldn’t be described as high-tech by any stretch of the imagination. This is actually a general observation I have made about Japan. We associate it with the latest cutting-edge technology, which may be true in some sense, but in people’s lives this is not reflected at all. The cars they drive, the trains and buses, the buildings typically give the impression of worn-out objects from a different era.

ShinSe outside

Shin-Se from the outside.

Let’s start at the beginning. What we call sake is made from rice, and rice alone. But sake is a complicated matter, because how you clean the rice will produce several different types. So producers polish their grains to different levels of purity, to get closer to the starchy middle (for more expensive sake) or to include the rest as well (for cheaper products). The result is plain GINJO for less pure sake and DAIGINJO for a drink of purer starch content.

In Shine-Se ten different kinds of sake rice are used. These are fermented separately and produce separate brands or styles. In a high-quality sake, I was told, you won’t have more than two kinds of rice blended (but in commercial drinks anything goes).

sake

The technology may not be the latest, but hygiene is still very important

After washing and polishing, the rice is steamed for about 40 minutes. The water quality is considered very important, just like with beer, and producers tend to have their own source of water. The damp rice is then laid out thinly, in a single layer, on large flat trays and dried so that only the middle remains damp. The rice then undergoes a careful selection process and is then moved to a large flat basin, where it is allowed to pre-ferment for three days. This pre-fermentation serves to hydrolise the starches in the grain – that is, to convert the starches into sugar, which can then be fermented in the next stage. Our brewery uses cultivated yeasts to start the ferment, and temperatures can reach 33-37 C in the process. Temperature control is carried out manually as it is a very nuanced operation, our guide explained. The rice is under constant 24-hour surveillance at this stage to make sure temperatures don’t rise above 45-47 degrees.

When this hydrolisation process is over, the real ferment begins in large stainless steel tanks. 4 parts steamed rice are normally mixed with 1 part malted rice and water is added to create the mash. The tank is called SHUBO, meaning ‘mother of the sake’. The ferment, in various tanks, takes up to a month or so, at low temperatures.

When the fermentation is over, the brew is filtered – or not, in which case we get NIGORI, unfiltered sake white as milk. The sake is then left to rest in tanks (or less commonly in wooden casks) for several months. But some sakes, I was told, are allowed to mature for up to 30 years. Standard sake has an alcoholic strength of 15-16% but some reach 21-22%.sakes

Just like with most spirits and beers, what matters with sake is not the ‘vintage’ but a consistent house style. This is achieved through choice of grain and careful management of the fermentation process.

At Shin-Se we tasted a variety of sakes from cheaper and simpler to more complex and refined. Some were fruitier, others had pungent vegetable flavours and aromas. My favourite was a JUNMAI DAIGINJO, which means that it’s an all-rice sake, that is, no alcohol was added separately, and the rice was polished down to 50% (as opposed to 70% in a less pure plain sake, or 60% in a Ginjo).

One of the difficulties is, though, that all the labels only had Japanese script so it’s very hard to identify in hindsight what the full range was!

tasting away

the flight of sakes we tasted, going from right to left. Don’t ask me what the labels say!

 

Charlie and the Cider Factory

There’s a place in this world that I love more than any other. In fact I might even say I’m in love with it. It’s magical. Remote, but not too much. Quiet, but not deserted. Beautiful beyond words, but in a rugged, real kind of way.

Worth Matravers is a tiny village off the Purbeck coast in Dorset. And in this very special village there’s a very special pub, the Square and Compass, well over 200 years old. It sits on a hill top, looking down over the village and the sea. And the Square and Compass has an owner who makes his own cider, Charlie Newman. IMG00056-20100905-1504

I visit Worth about once a year (would love to go more often), always a different time of year. Most recently I went in March – and was disappointed to hear that last year’s ciders had run out and the new lot wasn’t quite ready yet. It had never occurred to me until then that the pub’s supply of home-made cider wasn’t endless. While this meant I had to make do with something from another local producer, it also gave me a great pretext to visit Charlie’s cellar and find out how he makes his cider.

Charlie’s family has run the pub for over a century now, his grandfather having acquired the licence in 1907. But the cider-making is a recent thing which Charlie started only eight years ago. ‘Beforehand I used to make country wines from all sorts of things. Then at the pub we started having a cider day once a year at harvest time, but it wasn’t going anywhere. In the end I decided to make my own cider.’

The apples come from various places in the area and Charlie now also grows his own fruit. He likes to work with a mix of varieties: he ferments the juice of nine different apples, including Bramley, Redstreak, American Mother, and Dabinett.

When the apples start coming in in September, they are carefully hand-selected and cleaned. Clean is crucial, he says, in order to avoid impurities and infections. The apples are crushed in a mill, put into thick plastic bags and pressed in Charlie’s hand-made press.

Charlie's hand-built cider press

Charlie’s hand-built cider press

The juice is then moved to poly barrels and wooden casks and starts to ferment naturally, on the lees, with indigenous yeast (that is, yeast floating around in the cellar and not artificially cultivated). Since it’s all a natural process and there’s no temperature control, the fermentation slows down and stops over the cold winter months, then recommences (malolactic fermentation) in March, ‘when the trees come into flower’, for a few more weeks. Around Easter-time the cider is normally ready. ‘Cider production suits a lazy guy, because it only keeps you busy once a year for a few weeks,’ Charlie remarks, smiling. But I don’t believe him. My impression is that he spends quite a bit of time pruning and planting and generally looking after the orchard where his apples grow. And then of course there’s the regular tasting and, whenever more cider is needed in the pub, blending.

Three blended ciders are made: sweet, medium, and dry. Charlie has given them pretty unusual names: Kiss Me Kate, Eve’s Idea, and Sat Down Be Cider. Then there are the ‘varietal’ ciders, from American Mother and Red Streak, for example. The oak casks come from France and were mainly used in Calvados production. The alcohol level of the final products is typically 7–7.5% ABV. Eight years ago Charlie started production with 4.5 thousand litres and has been increasing quantities every year. Now he’s reached his maximum capacity at 24.5 thousand litres (the cellar is rather small). How did he settle on the style of cider he makes? ‘The West Country has hard, dry, tannic ciders. The ones in the east are made mainly from eating apples and are lighter. I’m geographically in between the two, so I wanted my ciders also to reflect this in-between position.’

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measuring alcohol levels

We tasted four or five different ciders. Kiss Me Kate, which will ultimately be sweet, is at this point still very dry but Charlie sweetens it back by adding sugar. ‘People like the sweetness’, he tells me. Well I’m a dry cider person… This Kiss Me Kate, by the way, contains 12 different varieties! To me it had a taste of pears actually, and it is still yeasty and has a very interesting perfume. The varietal Dabinette was something else I found interesting, with a slight barnyard aroma, very perceptible smokiness from the oak, a tannic mouthfeel and a slightly sweeter palate than in the others.

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Charlie Newman and the Calvados casks

The ciders should be ready for drinking within a few weeks – may I be able to return soon to taste!

Red – White – Red: Wines of Austria

Even to look around properly was going to take me two days, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board tasting last month was so huge. It wasn’t the best choice for a venue – the size of the rooms unfortunately did not match the number of visitors and there were some very crowded moments. But apart from that, a splendid event and a fantastic showcase of what’s going on in Austrian wine-making. There were over eighty producers, presenting hundreds and hundreds of wines.

Austria is known mainly for its white wine, although it also produces a significant amount of reds. The wine regions lie in the east of the country, along the Austrian-Hungarian border going north–south. There are four main regions: Niederosterreich (Lower Austria), Vienna, Burgenland, and Steiermark (Styria). Within these there are a number of appellations, marked DAC (Districtus Austriae Controllatus, in Latin – but why?). Instead of discussing climate and soil in great detail, I’ll just briefly say that Austria has favourable conditions for growing wine grapes and there are many interesting varieties as well as achievements of the highest standard.

Two examples that quickly spring to mind are Riesling and Gruner Veltliner. Riesling shows fantastically under the responsible care of Austrian wine-makers, and its specimen at the tasting came from all over the country, from Vienna to Kamptal to Sudsteiermark in the south, bordering Italy. They were all well made and offer a very reliable alternative to German Rieslings.

Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian speciality and I enjoyed finding out more about it. It is a medium-bodied, acidic wine with a vertical, nervy structure. Its flavours vary from citrus to pears and apricots to honeyed notes, but it tends to have a unique underlying grassiness or prickliness that I find particularly attractive. The older wines may show some vegetable, herbal character, but typically this is not a wine to be aged. It should be appreciated for its youthful, fruitful zestiness.

The precision-winemaking which seems to characterize Austrian producers really suits these varieties, where, to my mind, transparency and clear definition in aromas and flavours, body and acidity, are essential. So the resulting wines, though differing in style, all rang clear, like a well-articulated sentence. But everything else I tasted, whites and reds, were good, honest wines, made for drinking and not for showing off. Commendable!

To find out more about the wines of Austria, visit http://www.austrianwine.com

Griselda the Kirschmaker

the Keiser property

the Keiser property

It was a bit like walking into a picture book. I was staying with a friend in Zug, a small town just outside Zurich. Knowing how crazy I am about fruit brandies, he treated me to a visit to a family-owned distillery. As we walked up the hill path, the clouds had just begun to lift over the hills surrounding the lake of Zug. Covered in dark wooden planks, the house was your stereotypical Swiss alpine home, and how pretty, how rustic! Especially when you know that something really extraordinary is produced behind those walls…

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a wide range of eaux de vie

We were greeted by a buoyant and very friendly lady with ginger hair. Her name is Griselda Keiser, she told us, and, continuing a family tradition, she produces a range of fruit brandies in her home distillery, on equipment inherited from her ancestors. The most famous brandy around Zug is, of course, Kirschwasser, an eau de vie made of cherries. But you shouldn’t think of normal eating cherries, she tells me. These are smaller, and specially developed for Kirsch-making. But the range of her fruit brandies was much greater: distillates of plums (Pflümli), Mirabelle (a small yellow plum producing the most delicious eau de vie), pear William, quince, and even Kräuter, a traditional liqueur which contains a secret blend of dozens of different herbs. Upon tasting it, the most obvious ingredient was aniseed.

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vintage Kirsch from Zug

Griselda showed us around the property with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately she doesn’t speak much English and my German is not great, either, but I did get the gist of what she was saying. Alas, when she offered us a taste of her different eaux de vie, I didn’t understand what she was saying, and so only ended up tasting the herb liqueur. What a shame. But I had at least become closely acquainted with her 2009 Kirsch, since I have a bottle at home, and it’s the smoothest, gentlest, most delightful drink with a very intense and pure cherry aroma. And yes, Griselda produces vintage distillates. She claims there are perceptible differences between the harvest of each year – and she particularly warmly recommended the 2009.

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the fruit is fermented in wooden casks

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Griselda shows us her traditional pot still

Showing us around the distillery, she explained that the still she uses is over 100 years old and is fuelled with wood. The fruit is hand picked and carefully selected so that only the best goes into the ferment, as blemished fruit will give off-flavours. It is then fermented in wooden casks in her cellar over several months (imagine the smell!), and then in January, when her other business, the sale of flowers, goes quiet, she gets down to the distillation work. Not only the fruit but also the stones go into the pot. These give the spirit an added twist of bitter almonds. Griselda distils twice to ensure purity of the alcohol. It’s a difficult balancing act, distillation. If you distil to a lesser purity, you’re left with richer flavours and texture (this is how traditional fruit distillates, including brandies, are produced). But in some products, for example vodka or gin, you want to achieve the purest alcohol possible, with an almost ethereal texture. It is the distiller’s decision where on this scale of purity and flavour richness they want their product to stand. What can I tell you – the end product at the Keiser distillery is very convincing!

The spirit is then moved to large demijohns (glass carboys), where it matures before being bottled. And if you want to order a gift for someone, Griselda will choose a bottle of your preference and even produce a beautiful, personalized, hand-written label.DSCF2418

If you’re ever in Switzerland, do visit the Keiser distillery. The place is charming, the surroundings stunningly beautiful, the welcome friendly and warm, and the Kirsch amazing!

http://www.zuger-keiser-kirsch.ch