Friday, 7 May 2021

Natural Wine & Sustainability

Two concepts have entered the world of wine in recent years which we feel we should update you on; “Natural Wine” and “Sustainability”.  Here, therefore, is our take on them with a quick reminder of a couple of other related terms:

Let’s address the concept of Sustainable Wine first, which we should consider alongside Organic and Biodynamic Wine.  You could think of these three terms as representative of increasing levels of commitment from wine producers towards the environment.  Of the three terms only Organic carries a recognised definition.

The definition of Organic wine (or more accurately wine made from organically grown grapes) differs slightly from country to country and it’s the definition of the country of origin that matters, not the country of sale.  Differences tend to be fairly minor though, with the general acceptance that no synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides are ever used in the vineyard.  There’s a qualification period of at least 3 years for a vineyard to gain organic certification and you are likely to find a badge on the back label of the bottle to let you know if a wine has been made from organically grown grapes.  Our usual caveat applies though in that we have always cautioned that it is perfectly possible to take a beautiful organically grown harvest of grapes and screw it up in the winery. 

The point about Organic Certification is that producers who work towards it and qualify do so because they care about the environment and think that doing so helps produce better fruit.  Although the certification only relates to that which happens in the vineyard, it is not unreasonable to also conclude that equal care will be shown at every stage of the winemaking process.

Biodynamic practices tend to exist at a level beyond Organic and are based on the principles laid down by a chap called Rudolf Steiner.  Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and social reformer who was approached by a group of farmers in 1924 seeking help and advice on the future of agriculture.  Steiner responded with a series of lectures setting out not only what we would recognise from the definition of Organic farming practices, but also going beyond that.  Steiner encouraged the view that a farm should be regarded as an entire self-sustaining organism with every aspect of its agriculture being both self-supporting and mutually supportive of every other aspect. 

Steiner also proposed that the timing of various agricultural activities such as pruning, weeding, sowing and harvesting, should be timed with the phases of the moon and planets to make use of their believed effects on plant growth.  The scientific jury is still out on several aspects of what Steiner proposed, but those who follow these practices do claim that they work.  Winemakers who treat the environment with this degree of respect are surely a good thing, regardless of what you think of the science (or lack of it) behind that.

Sustainable wine has no formal definition but is a sign that a winemaker is looking further than simply what happens in the vineyard – it’s really about being socially responsible in an economically sustainable way.  Running a business with an environmental conscience if you like.  Lengths taken to reduce packaging, minimise a carbon footprint, recycle water, clad all the roofs with solar panels, use rechargeable battery powered fork-lifts and pallet trucks (for instance) could all be considered under the banner of sustainability.  Such steps might be taken in addition to following organic or biodynamic vineyard practices, and there are some organisations in some countries that offer formal recognition of sustainability in wine production.

Central to the concept of sustainability is putting your workforce at the centre of your production, no longer underpaying itinerant pickers and warehouse grunts but ensuring training, a regular year round wage and, in less advantaged parts of the world, making provision of educational and medical facilities.

You may also have heard the term Natural Wine.  It sounds enticing at face value: who doesn't like the idea of wine that sounds so redolent of cleanness and purity?  Sorry, it's not as simple as that.   There is no official definition of "natural" but it is generally accepted that it refers to a “hands off” approach from the winemaker; letting nature do as much of the work as possible.  As long as this philosophy is in the hands of producers who have deep knowledge of their own geology, microclimate and fruit, together with a fastidious brilliance in their winemaking, you should be safe.  However, as produced by growers without the wherewithal and experience to embrace the whole principle of the idea, it can be a very disappointing experience.  Please be assured that Wines of Interest is not interested in sour wines buried in clay pots for ages and paraded in the name of tradition as an ancient craft fully in tune with today's zeitgeist.  Or some such marketing crap. Many winemakers have been doing this for decades before anyone uttered the words “natural wine”, and many continue to do so without feeling the need to jump on this fashionable bandwagon and claim their wines to be “natural”.  To do so would imply that some wines were somehow unnatural.  Less natural perhaps, in the case of some of the mass produced examples, but not unnatural.  Unnatural would be that fluorescent blue stuff sold in night clubs…  Any wine for which the sales stich is," Buy me, I'm natural", should be approached with care and preferably following research.

More recently people do seem to have got something of a bee in their bonnet regarding the “contains sulphites” wording that first appeared on wine bottles back in 2002.  We have always maintained that the precise levels of sulphites in any wine should be stated on the label just as the alcoholic content is, so that consumers could make a more informed buying decision, but we’re not there yet.  Sulphites are actually a natural bi-product of the fermentation process but winemakers generally add a touch of Sulphur Dioxide to wines because doing so brings added protection to the wine from oxidation and bacterial spoilage.  Wine left without this protection is likely to be less stable and spoil more easily but, as with the other aspects addressed in this blog, it’s all about responsible viticulture and vinification.  You may be interested to know that sulphites are also widely used in tinned and processed food, soft drinks and especially dried fruits where the legal limit for their use is ten times higher than the limit for wine.

So, what should you, as someone who enjoys and appreciates a glass of wine or two, do with all this information?  Organic labels are usually easy to spot, but there’s no definition or certification for those following biodynamic practices, or any clues about sustainability.  The solution is to “know your winemaker”.  It quickly becomes evident from their general ethos who the ones are that care for the environment and take a responsible approach to their activities.  You can bet that if a winemaker demonstrates a highly responsible approach to viticulture with organic or biodynamic practices in the vineyard he is likely to be taking a sustainable approach in the winery too, and equally likely to be leaving his/her wines as natural as possible. 

If “knowing your winemaker” still seems a bit distant and unrealistic the next best thing is to “know your Wine Merchant” so just ask them (us) instead, they will know who the good guys are… We currently identify wines made from organically grown grapes on our website (use the drop down box search facility on the left hand side of the webpage called “other” and select “organic” before clicking “search”) and you will find references in tasting notes to those who follow biodynamic practices.  We will also be working towards flagging up those producers who follow sustainable practices so you’ll be able to pick out those as well in due course.  In the meantime, just ask…

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Doing The Right Thing

Some things are just instinctive, like chasing that shoplifter the other day who burst into the shop just before we closed and helped himself to a six pack of someone else’s wine, boxed up earlier that day and awaiting collection.  There was no thinking required, it was just obvious.  It was simply the right thing to do.  Naturally I hadn’t anticipated the cuts, bruises and ruptured Achilles tendon I sustained as I tried to chase him down, nor the extended period which still lies ahead of me with my foot in a sweaty support boot.  However it does present the opportunity to write this long-planned piece on Sustainability and Natural Wines (whatever they are…).  It feels like the right time.

My father was always eager to stress the importance of “doing the right thing”, almost to the point of obsession, and in all my years in the wine trade I have met many wine producers of like mind.  These are people making wine responsibly, from the point of view not only of the wine, but also the environment, their customers, employees and the wider community.  The effects of their irreproachable standards reach way beyond the vineyard; this approach now has a name that’s becoming a buzzword in the trade - Sustainability.

In recent days it has surely become obvious that there are two contradicting ways to react to our planet’s need for us to live in a more sustainable way; we can either dig up lawns, block roads and generally make a nuisance of ourselves in the vain hope that our misbehaviour will persuade others to behave better (still not sure how that’s supposed to work), or we can lead by example with each of us doing our bit towards a more sustainable lifestyle.  I know which I prefer, I know which I do and I know which I think others will find more persuasive.  People choosing the latter course tend not to bang on about it though.  For most wine producers it’s not even a commercial choice to seek some sort of advantage in the marketplace, it’s simply the way it should be done.  I thought it worth illustrating what just one of our producers is doing to help.

Those who have been there (and admittedly I haven’t) say that Emiliana’s holdings in Chile feel more like a nature reserve than a winery.  Organic and Biodynamic practices have been part of their ethos for years.  They also seek to minimise carbon emissions by adding organic matter to the vineyards which helps to stabilise carbon that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere.

Emiliana began their conversion to organic status in 1998 – several years before Saint Greta was born - and are now 100% organic.  They were the first South American winery to produce Biodynamic wines (in 2006) and are now 100% biodynamic.  They produce an annual Sustainability Report and run a Bio-intensive Garden programme which now extends to 12 neighbouring vineyards.  They have an Employee Programme which sees the production of both alpaca and sheep’s wool as well as natural honey and olive oil from their own trees.  Returns from the sale of these products goes directly back to the employees.  Plastic and glass is all recycled and whatever can be composted is.  They track their CO2 emissions and constantly monitor water, electricity and gas consumption.  They don’t harp on about it (though this information is on their website) they simply see their methods as the right course to take.

In many ways it reminds me of the early days of organic wine (or, more correctly, wine made from organically grown grapes) where guidelines eventually emerged that many winemakers realised they were already working to, and which were formalised by a set of rules, policed by a governing body of some sort, with certification awarded for people doing it properly.

We’re not at that point yet with “sustainability”, although embryonic certification now exists, or for that matter “natural wines”, which is the second subject of this article.  Neither concept yet has an official definition, but it is not hard to have a stab at what the terms mean – essentially they both really amount to just doing the right thing.

A few people have had a bash at defining what the term “natural wine” means, though I’ve yet to meet a customer who really knows what they are asking for when they enquire about them.  Some people are preoccupied with sulphite levels, others with fining agents (vegans mostly…one once asked us what the glue was made from that stuck the label to the bottle) but nobody has yet come in with a question about cryoextraction. Any yet-to-emerge definition for natural wines is likely to include such things as the following which is the Natural Wines Charter of one of our suppliers.  In the absence of a recognised definition they drew up their own you see.  Here it is:

·         No irrigation

·         Hand-Picked

·         No added sugars, yeast or bacteria

·         No adjustments for acidity

·         No external flavour additives other than those imparted by barrels

·         Minimal or no fining

·         Light filtration (or none)

·         No heavy manipulation, such as micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone or cryoextraction

·         Total sulphites typically less than 70mg/litre

Now it turns out that many of the people we buy from were already following some, if not all, of the guidelines that potentially govern what a Natural Wine is, they just don’t shout about it.  They’ve never felt the need.  They’ve always done it this way because it was the way their forbears did it and it worked for them, so why change?  In the early days of growing interest in organics, I remember trying to assemble a list of our producers who were growing organically and sent out a barrage of emails, “Right chaps, who’s doing this then? Customers are asking you see…” A few responded but the overwhelming response was silence.  Especially from France.  They just didn’t relate to the question and one could sense the collective shrug of the shoulders from across the channel and mutterings along the lines of “My farzer, ee made ze wine zis way, and his farzer before ‘im.  Zay ‘ad no chemicals or machines.  Just ze soil, ze grapes and ze love of ze wine and zum friends to ‘elp out picking ze grapes.” 

Be careful though folks, it is a common assumption that if a bottle of wine is labelled “natural” it’s got to be better because it sounds wholesome and reassuring but it is definitely not a guarantee of quality.  It can also suggest that any bottle not described as “natural” is somehow unnatural, which is not the case: it’s made from grapes and what could be more natural than a cleanly grown piece of fruit?

What you do, or don’t do to that piece of fruit will affect the quality of your finished wine and there’s an incredibly fine line between “natural” and unstable.  Turn down the sulphite level for instance and the risk increases greatly that wines will re-ferment, oxidise or just be spoilt by bacteria, and nobody wants to drink wines that look, smell or taste as if they’ve been drunk already… You’ve got to be prepared to poke up with sediment, and potentially higher prices which are the inevitable consequence of lower yields.  On the other hand, you’ll be able to count your purchases as part of “doing the right thing”.

This is all very well but it’s important to remember that the Wines of Interest approach has always been one that puts quality above all else.  You would rather buy clean wine of purity and character than some oxidised bottle of lightly cloudy, cidery white that has been buried in clay amphora and costs £18.95, labelled “natural”.  Badges for “organic” or “natural” or even “sustainable” are nice to see certainly, but if the quality isn’t there, and with it value for money, we won’t list it.  “This wine is delicious and, by the way, it happens to be organic”, goes down much better than “This wine is organic but tastes awful”. 

Our priority is for lovely, well made wine first and foremost.  That won’t change.  Good wine and good value first, anything else is a bonus.  That’s always been our approach, but we are seeing an increasing number of producers who are doing the right thing, in terms of the environment, their employees and the wider community and it makes sense for us to tell you about them, as and when they think of telling us…

Monday, 3 April 2017

Value Your Independents...

Here is a tale of woe; a tale of frustration and ineptitude.  My wife really ought to know better than to present me with a DIY job on a Sunday but, despite past experiences, she occasionally still tries to disrupt the usual Sunday routine by expecting me to turn into a jobbing builder for a couple of hours.  It never ends well. 
One of the bath taps had been dripping.  Not much (I hadn’t actually noticed) but it was enough to annoy the wife.  Odd really, because 99% of the time these taps are not used as each of us tends to use the shower rather than the bath.  Oh well.
Our Sundays usually follow a predictable pattern.  We are both church bellringers so the first thing on the list is ringing for Sunday service.  Coffee follows with our fellow bellringers, then we have to walk the dog who will by this stage have had his legs crossed for half an hour.  He gets a trip to the park on a Sunday rather than his usual walk and that takes a bit longer... Then I swing into “chef mode” with Sunday lunch preparation; joint in, veg prep, where’s the Sherry?  All very civilised.
On this particular Sunday I was also asked to tackle the dripping tap.  Water off, tap dismantled, problem identified (cracked washer – but of a variety I did not feel confident about being able to easily replace). Joint in, veg prep postponed, God knows where the Sherry is... Off we go to the nearest DIY store. 
I should at this point take time to explain a deeper problem.  I have many friends who have fathers who did lots of DIY.  One of my closest friends will tackle any plumbing job because he learnt how to do so from his Dad.  Another will decorate and lay floor tiles, carpets and lino in his sleep, again because his father showed him how.  My Dad was a schoolmaster; he taught Geography and subsequently Mathematics.  Give me a simultaneous equation or a grid reference and I’m away!  Sure, I can replace a fuse or change a lightbulb, maybe even put up a shelf (the bastards bought me a drill for my 50th) but much beyond that and I’m stumped.  So, when the tap was mentioned I knew that even if I found the bits, even if I had the tools (both long shots) there was still my DIY ineptitude standing in the way.
I can cook though, so I put the oven on timer so the joint wouldn’t be overdone.  I’d worry about the veg prep later.  Forget the Sherry, at least for now.  The first DIY store didn’t even come close to what I required.  Plenty of taps, plenty of washers but none resembled the bits I had removed.  The second DIY store was on the other side of town.  I checked my watch, the joint would be done in 20 minutes.  They had washers saying they’d fit all types of taps.  This was a lie, but for £1.78 a pack we thought it was worth a punt.  We also bought replacement tap tops and workings (or whatever they’re called).  Once I had deciphered the hieroglyphics that passed for instructions and brought forth my selection of spanners and screwdrivers I set about the task.  First, I replaced the dripping tap.  This went well, but the other tap (this is the one that was working fine) also needed to be changed so that they matched.  It should have been as simple as repeating the process of replacing the first one, but it wasn’t.  Part of it refused to budge but I saw the way round this. Then a tiny washer on the new fitting broke so I couldn’t fit the second new tap. 
In days gone by I would have waited until Monday and toddled off to an independent local hardware store in Ipswich called Martin & Newby.  An Aladdin’s cave of everything any home DIY-er could ever need.  I was a regular (though admittedly infrequent) customer, I don’t really do DIY you see... These chaps knew their stuff though and their advice would always go some way to mitigating my ineptitude.  On one occasion I needed a small metal washer for the carrier on my pushbike.  I took in a similar one from another part of the carrier and the chap behind the counter – sporting a comforting brown hardware shop coat – rummaged in a box of two and produced precisely the same washer.  “How much?” I asked.  “Tuppence each Sir” came the reply.  “Great, I’ll have five please” I responded, thinking it rude to expect change from a 10p piece.  I only needed one, but that wasn’t the point, they had precisely what I needed.  Martin & Newby closed several years ago now because people would go in there to try out the latest drills to buy for their DIY inept friends 50th birthdays and then buy the one they had selected from Amazon because it was cheaper.  Bastards. Nowadays you can’t buy one washer, you have to go to “Bodge It All” for a packet of 50.  I still have four for that pushbike carrier fitting though if ever you need one...
And so, this coming week, I will be driving to the other side of town, back to the DIY superstore, to buy another pair of replacement taps for £13.98, just because I need one bloody washer from that packet to replace the one that broke.  A washer I cannot even find, let alone try to buy, as a solitary item.  I expect to be throwing away two perfectly decent replacement taps (along with the perfectly decent one that is currently not in use that doesn’t drip but, crucially, doesn’t match the new one) minus one small washer.  It is, of course, perfectly possible that I will screw up another part of this job and need another part of the fitting that I’ve re-bought, but my money is on the washer breaking again if anything does.
We ate lunch at 4pm.  The meat was OK if a little dry by then.  The bells got rung, the dog got walked, the bath taps work but no longer match and we never did find the Sherry.  Life would have been so much easier if only we still had that small independent hardware store – people to ask who know stuff and who have what we need instead of doing half a job half as well.  It shut though, because everyone went to Amazon.  Sunday lunch was late, dry, a little cold (unlike the long lost Sherry) and the wife still isn’t happy because the taps we never use don’t match...  Support your local independent shops, trust me, you need them as much as they need you.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Food & Drink Faux Pas

Years ago I was told a tale about a young wife cooking a joint of ham.  It was something she did from time to time because her husband was particularly fond of ham.  Every time she did this she cut a piece off the corner of the joint and cooked it separately.  One day curiosity got the better of the husband and he asked why she did this.  His wife replied that it was how her mother cooked ham and she just did the same as her.  Refusing to be beaten he asked his mother in law the same question yet received the same answer – her mother had also done the same thing.  So it was that the husband directed the same question at his wife’s elderly grandmother and finally the mystery of the piece of ham cut off the joint before cooking was solved.  The grandmother told him that it wouldn’t fit in her pan otherwise.

I’m convinced that life is full of things like this, particularly relating to food and drink.  We do things without thinking and there are a few old habits that could do with breaking.  Here are some we’ve spotted:

Putting milk in scrambled eggs
It’s often said that scrambled eggs are easy to do, but difficult to do well.  Adding milk not only dilutes the flavour but makes them rubbery.  Perhaps the practice dates back to the days of food rationing when the eggs had to go a little further, but there is no reason to do this today.  If you want to add anything try a splash of double cream or butter to help the texture along.  Better still add an extra egg yolk as well for added richness.  Use a low heat, and turn it off before they’re done, the heat left in the pan will finish the job more slowly and widen the window when they’ll be just right!  Texture-wise you need to be short of “fully set” but nicely beyond “dog slobber”... 

Pricking sausages
Another habit from wartime perhaps – when meat was in short supply and your bangers were more likely to burst in cooking?  Maybe there was once some justification for sausage pricking, but not now.  If you prick a good sausage these days you just let out all the juices and your sausage will dry out.  If you think it’s the healthier option because you’re allowing some fat to escape then you might have a point I suppose, but if it’s the fat that worries you why did you buy sausages in the first place?  Sausages contain fat, deal with it. 

Cutting a cross in the base of sprouts
Supposedly done to aid the cooking process yet actually, if anything, you want to slow the cooking process down or you’ll arrive at a pile of green mush before you know it.  I hated sprouts as a lad, but they were so often overcooked and more grey than green.  Yuck. Nowadays I cook them in boiling water for just a minute or two, strain and plunge into iced water to stop them cooking further.  Only a few minutes before I’m ready to serve they go into a frying pan with a handful of pancetta cubes and some butter to both heat them through and give them some nice toasty edges.  They turn into little green toasty and crunchy nuggets of goodness which have converted hitherto hard-line sprout-haters.  If you cut a cross in the bottom before you cook them they overcook to slimy rather than remaining crunchy.

Vinegar on cabbage
A peculiarly East Anglian habit (or so it seems) which is employed by people who don’t like cabbage and don’t mind ruining the flavour of any wine that may be about by chucking vinegar all over the place.  If you don’t like cabbage fair enough (though you could try the aforementioned sprout technique of a frying pan or wok, some butter and a bit of decent bacon) but vinegar? It doesn’t belong on cabbage unless you’ve pickled it.

Keeping all red wine endlessly
It’s one of the questions we most often hear at wine tastings... “Will it keep?”...  Most of what we sell is ready to go now.  If you mean “will it get any better?” that’s a different (and more appropriate) question and the answer may well be “yes” but, just because it’s wine, why assume that you have to keep it for years before you can drink it?  In Australia the average time between a bottle of wine being purchased and being consumed is about 20 minutes.  Makes you think doesn’t it!  It’s almost certainly longer in the UK, but we do need to ditch the misconception that all wine must be kept.  With many wines, “keeping it” is the worst thing you can do, but you need to talk to the chap you bought it from and ask a sensible question such as “if I don’t drink this straight away, when should I be drinking it?”  I will confess to personally suffering from “Last Bottle Syndrome” though.  I have one bottle left of something that was really good, but delay opening it for far too long.  Usually this is because I’m looking for the right occasion, but all too often I realise that I’ve pushed my luck and missed my chance.

Adding salt to our meals before tasting the food
My finger is pointing at my Mother-in-Law here.  I like cooking and like to get it right.  I season as I go and constantly check flavours.  Unlike many, I always add a bit of salt to the water when cooking potatoes, rice or pasta so you don’t need to add more afterwards.  However, taste is a personal thing so I am quite happy to accept that, having tasted your food, you might want to add a little more seasoning.  That’s OK, carry on.  But my Mother-in-Law never tastes a thing on the plate which I have so lovingly prepared for her without first dumping a load of salt on it.  Bloody woman.  I now remove the salt from the table when she’s eating with us to prevent this.  I win (makes a change).

Keeping eggs in the fridge (or not, as the case may be...)
TV chefs tell us that we don’t need to, so why do fridge manufacturers put those little egg holder trays in the door?  We try to buy free range eggs.  Usually they come direct from the farm.  They are neither refrigerated in the shed that we collect them from, nor when they are still inside the chicken.  I guess central heating may be the problem and they last longer when kept cool (don’t we all).  Apparently this is because eggs contain a natural preservative which degrades over time and keeping them cool does slow that process down.  Makes sense I suppose.  I might go quietly on this one...

Opening a bottle of red to allow it to “breathe”
Actually this is usually quite a good idea, but just opening it and exposing an area of wine about the size of a 1p coin isn’t going to make a lot of difference.  If you’re going to bother opening it then at least take the time to get the air to it properly.  Decant it perhaps? Pour the wine into a jug and then pour it back into the bottle?  Just pouring a couple of glasses once you’ve opened it will make a massive difference, just pulling the cork won’t.

Over-chilling white wines
A trade customer once called us with a complaint, there was glass in his white wine and he wanted to send the whole lot back.  Further investigation revealed the “problem” to be tartrate crystals and a careful explanation was required.  The wines we stock are made by winemakers who take a “hands off” approach in both the vineyard and the winery.  They like to let nature do its thing and make the best wine they can.  They only offer their wines a gentle filtration (and many don’t filter at all) so that the wine you drink is as close as possible to that which nature intended.  More goodness and flavour remains than would be the case in the mass-produced stuff sold in the supermarkets.  The trouble with this is that red wines often throw a sediment and white wine, when chilled, might throw some tartrate crystals.  Both are harmless and actually both are a positive sign that the wine has not been over-fined or over-filtered.  Supermarkets will insist on these possibilities being eliminated at bottling (they can’t explain sediment or tartrates to customers you see) so their wines are given maximum filtration to remove this possibility (and most of their character too).  However, before you can filter out tartrate crystals you have to get them to precipitate and you do that by taking the wine down to quite a low temperature for quite some time, allowing the crystals to form, and then filtering.  The problem with the customer in question who complained was not the wine, but his fridge.  He’d been keeping his white wines in a food fridge set at 3 degrees Centigrade, which is just too cold.  Sorry, but it is.  At that level not only will the crystals form but you numb the wine to the point where it won’t taste of anything.  Only sweet whites need to be served as low as 4-6 degrees and fuller, dry whites really ought not to be much lower than cellar temperature (12-14 degrees Centigrade) with lighter, dry whites somewhere in between.  If you are a restaurateur and you’re keeping your white wines in the same fridge as you food, please stop.

Using the wrong glasses
Some (wine glass manufacturers mostly) will have you believe that you need a different shaped glass for each grape variety.  I’m unconvinced by this.  It needs to be the right size and shape certainly, but a different one for each grape variety?  That’s like telling me that I need a different pair of shoes for every trip out of the house (mind you, my wife does...). Personally, I’m looking for a glass of a decent size, with a stem, that allows me to give the wine in it a swirl to release its flavours, and a slightly tightening of the rim of the glass to hold the aromas in so I can enjoy those too.  No cut glass thank you.  No tumblers and nothing too small either.  If you have any Paris goblets in your house please throw them away.

Overfilling wine glasses
If you overfill the glass you won’t be able to enjoy the wine as much.  You need to swirl it, savour it, and allow it to develop its flavours.  Mind you, underfilling is probably worse...

Not being adventurous enough
My problem is that I don’t eat out often enough which means that when I do I tend to stick to the things I know I will enjoy.  This, in turn, means that I’m not sufficiently adventurous with my menu choices – I’d rather be safe and happy than adventurous and risk disappointment.  People have the same problem with wine of course and sometimes things are fashionable because they’re fashionable, like Prosecco where flavour appears eventually when you buy a good one, but I’m buggered if I can see what all the fuss is about otherwise.  Pinot Grigio? Same problem.  More interesting and characterful alternatives of both exist, if only people were bold enough.  I call it “Indian Restaurant Syndrome” – all that choice and I’m having the bloomin’ Jalfrezi again...

Getting the wine choice wrong
Look, wine is made first and foremost as an accompaniment to food.  French wines especially evolved alongside the gastronomy of their own native regions.  The same is true of Spain, Italy and the rest of Europe.  The New World are still catching up.  We are well advised not to bugger this arrangement up by trying to drink red with the seafood from the mouth of the Loire – the locals invented Muscadet for precisely that purpose.  Yes, I know you might prefer red wine, but you’ve got a Dover Sole on your plate (you idiot)...  Be guided, don’t force food and wine partnerships that are just plain daft.   It’s not as simple as red with meat, white with fish, there’s a bit more flexibility than that, and you can be creative as long as you’re still sensible.

Putting ketchup on everything (you know who you are...)
Claimed, by the older generation, to be the best way to get young children to eat their vegetables.  I have to say that it seems to work, though the downside is that they grow up thinking that the world tastes of ketchup and missing out on all those delicious flavours which your kitchen department spend hours creating.  For the same reason the Queen thinks the world smells like paint, because wherever she goes has just been given a fresh coat ahead of her visit...

Making coffee with boiling water
Please don’t do this, it burns the coffee apparently and brings out the bitter flavours.  Tea is a different matter, in fact freshly boiled water is best but it’s a no no for coffee.

Buying pre-grated cheese
I bet you’ve seen them too, on the supermarket shelves, bags of pre-grated cheese.  What’s all that about?  How hard is it to grate a bit of cheese?  You have a grater in the cupboard right? and cheese is a standard item you keep in stock in your kitchen?  So why the hell do you need to buy pre-grated cheese?  It’s just lazy.  I was thinking of starting a campaign to rid all shops of pre-grated cheese but it looks like Donald Trump has beaten me to it.  I heard him only the other day saying that he wanted to “Make America grate again.”

Confusing “this is bad” with “I don’t like it”
As wine merchants we are very clear on the difference between these.  We have to be.  We do a lot of tasting, and I mean A LOT.  We reckon that we taste 30-40 wines for every one that makes it into our selection, even if only briefly.  We weed out the poor, dull, bad value and just plain boring ones so you can be confident that anything that we put our name to is a good example of its type at its price.  So, please don’t tell us that one of our wines is poor.  You might not like it but that’s not the same thing, and not liking it is perfectly acceptable.  Odd as it may seem, we do actually list a few wines which we don’t actually like ourselves, but which we still recognise as good wines.   It is perfectly possible to not like Shakespeare, or cabbage, but just because you don’t like them doesn’t automatically make them bad.

Right, it’s your turn now.  Can you think of any other examples?



Friday, 3 February 2017

What Is It With Gravy Granules...?

Several years ago I read an excellent article by one of my favourite TV chefs, Nigel Slater.  It was about gravy with an understandable focus on the Sunday roast.  He recounted tales from his childhood of his mother making “proper” gravy, starting with the meat juices, maybe cooking off a bit of veg in them (onion especially) then adding and cooking out some flour before straining some cooking liquor (usually veg water).   What resulted was a sauce that was a natural accompaniment to the meat (whatever it happened to be) because the predominant flavour of that sauce was the meat itself.  Slater described the gravy as “belonging” to the dish.  Being a chef of course he also suggests a few possible “tweaks” to add even more character – roasting a couple of garlic cloves to squish into the sauce, a pinch of fresh herbs or even spices maybe, and dare we suggest a slug of wine?  But the point being that, because of its origins, your sauce will still be a natural match, be a better enhancement to the dish and provide more enjoyment.  It makes sense doesn’t it!

Crucially, it is also very easy to do.  The meat has to rest for a bit, and you may have some roast potatoes to wait for so what better way to fill those spare few minutes than preparing the prefect sauce to compliment your roast?  Given this, why is there a market for gravy granules?  My bet is that most people have everything in their store cupboards to make the perfect gravy, yet people willingly spend money buying this superfluous culinary abomination to make a less good sauce.  Why?  Surely it can’t be because all you have to do is just add water?  That’s essentially all you need to do to make gravy properly!

What worries me is that it’s not our cooking techniques which have become lazy as much as our tastebuds.  As one well-known regional brewery says on its advertising (as a taunt to drinkers of bland eurofizz) “Afraid you might taste something Lagerboy?”  Have decades of carvery lunches left our culture with an unnatural desire to cover all varieties of roast meats in a homogenised gloop because we’re frightened of real flavour?

Some wines encourage lazy tastebuds too.  I’m thinking of the mass-produced, pleasant enough (hopefully) but entirely forgettable easy-to-drink anonymous hooch which was probably on a “half price” deal at the local supermarket.  The customer is chuffed because they think they’ve got a deal, the producer is chuffed because, frankly, that’s the only way they’re going to shift it, and the supermarket doesn’t care as long as they get your money one way or another.  If the vast spectrum of wines from all over the world could be compared to the seven colours of the rainbow then supermarket wine ranges tend to occupy about 10% of “green”.  That’s the safe area right in the middle which doesn’t ask too many questions.  Wine for the masses if you like, with flavours you won’t notice unless you’re really concentrating (which you won’t be – it was half price after all).  The reds are bereft of any tannin to the point where UK palates now incorrectly seek to avoid it and the whites will have had a character bypass lest any flavour should offend anyone.  These bottles are vinous equivalent of lift music or the Morris Ital – those with low expectations will be fine, everyone else with be either disappointed or annoyed.  Possibly both.

Of course, we would say that wouldn’t we.  After all, we have a more exciting range of wines made by people with passion and enthusiasm (as opposed to a clipboard and calculator) many of whom fly by the seat of their pants in their constant strivings for that extra bit of excellence.  They want to make something you’ll notice and remember.  You might have had to part with a quid or two more for the experience, but they (and we) want that extra to be worth it, after all, if we didn’t think it was we wouldn’t be selling the stuff in the first place would we!  Generally speaking your extra quid or two goes on flavour and you’ll enjoy it all the more.  It’s a bit like making your own gravy really, ditch the mediocre and go for something that you can have real pride in.   It really isn’t that big a step you know.

Monday, 12 December 2016

We Don't Sell Mead...

My local Chinese Take-Away sells Chinese food.  This may seem rather an obvious thing to say, but my point is that they know their market and they stick to what they are good at doing.  You wouldn’t dream of going in there and asking whether they sell pizzas.  Based on our experience I bet someone has though!  The festive season does seem to generate some odd requests for retailers and I guess Wine Merchants cannot expect to be immune from these.  People seem to think we are the likely source of all sorts of interesting stuff...

I suppose it’s only reasonable that customers should ask, because many retailers do add to their product ranges at this time of year so unexpected items do crop up in unusual places.  After all, garden centres sell beer.  Supermarkets sell insurance and the latest statement from our bank came with a wine offer enclosed (thanks chaps...).

We always keep a mental note of requests for things we don’t stock (a) because you never know, we might be missing a trick (b) for our own amusement and (c) to give a quiet nod of approval to the most unusual request by the end of the year.

Currently the all time winner is a request, a few years ago now, for soap powder.  To this day we are still confused by that one.  There was a rather touching request for cocktail cherries from a dear old chap one Christmas who had clearly spent days scouring the town for some. They were evidently a specific request from his wife and, being an attentive husband, he was determined to find some. He struggled up our steps, wheezed his way into the shop, and popped the question.  We explained that sadly this was not a line we sold.  A good-natured “Bugger!” was his only response though we did point him to a local supermarket where we felt he may find success.  He passed the shop again on his way home giving a cheery “thumbs up” having presumably secured his prize elsewhere.

We are frequently mistaken for an Off Licence and enquiries for cold beers (in the summer) and tobacco are not uncommon.  We don’t really want to sell either.  Advocat anyone?  No... I thought not.  Yes, I know we sell olive oil, but wine and olive oil go hand in hand from the land they’re grown on and through production.  Frequently they are made by the same people, so it sort of makes sense.

Way out in front this year are three requests for mead, all in the last fortnight (so no demand outside the festive season then).  Sorry chaps, it’s a bit off our plot, try your local castle (no, seriously, it’s the sort of stuff English Heritage sell next to ye olde plastic knights helmets and the wooden arrows with the little rubber suckers on the end).  Wine is our thing you see; we love it.  Can’t get enough of it.  Would stock more lines but there isn’t room.  However, we do add a bit to our range at Christmastime, specifically with Christmas menus in mind.

We’ve already flagged up the Mourat wines (some of the Pinot Noir will hopefully be coming my way for the Christmas table) but here’s another new find which would be the perfect partner for those who prefer a fuller red with their turkey, chicken or goose.  Valpolicella Ripasso, a generous red with richness and a bit of oak nicely balanced by fresh red cherry fruit.  It’s on the website now, along with the other 450+ lines we have currently available.

I’ll finish with an account of possibly the most frustrating request we have ever had.  A chap came in the other day saying “I’ve looked at your website and can see that you have a fantastic range of over 400 wines, all individually tasted and selected by you.” (well spotted, full marks so far Sir...) “I wonder... can you get Blossom Hill?”...

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Bathroom Wine Rack

Shower time for the short sighted needs to run on rails.  Once my specs are off I regard myself as virtually blind – especially at that time of the morning – and the stuff I need has to be in predictable places.  Sponge, shower gel, towel... This morning I found myself, wet and blind, with no shower gel.  Bugger.  So out of the shower I got, dripping water onto the bathroom floor, scrabbling around like Mr Magoo in the cabinet where further supplies are usually located.

The problem is that there are females in the house.  Daughter is away at university (and I have enjoyed seeing the resulting expanse of vacant flat surfaces in the bathroom that this has created) but much of that which would be out on display when she is in residence has been put away for safekeeping in the cupboard where the shower gel usually lives so there’s more to hunt through in there than one might expect.  I found shampoo, body butter, facial scrub, handwash (that would do wouldn’t it?) moisturiser, hand cream, conditioner, suncream, after sun... I sensed the trail going cold.  Second cupboard then; baby powder, baby lotion (er...) crème bath, bath foam, anti-perspirant, deodorant, insect repellent, bite ease... trail going cold again. 

There’s always that intriguing bar of fruit soap of course, but it’s new, unopened and seems to have been made by English Heritage. For all I know I might be earmarked as a Christmas present for someone we don’t like.   Besides, I don’t really want to go to work smelling like synthetic mulled wine...

There was only one thing left to do and that was resort to the final cupboard to where all the mini shower gels and shampoos migrate; collected from hotel and B&B stays but never actually finished.  Here there was an assortment of sponges and other body scrubbing devices but buried at the bottom was indeed a selection mini bathroom products.  Mostly shampoo and conditioner only of course, so still no joy.

Eventually I located a part-used mini shower gel which at least solved the immediate problem.  I then made sure that I put it back afterwards though so that the missus, who would surely face the same challenge in an hour or so, would automatically unearth the secret stash of shower gel which surely exists somewhere but I was unable to locate.  She’s efficient you see, so we won’t have run out, it’s just that I couldn’t find what I needed when I needed it.  Hmmm, maybe we have run out?

Domestic wine racks are like this.  You thought there was a bottle of fizz in there for Christmas morning but when you went to pop it in the fridge on Christmas Eve it wasn’t there.  Had you already drunk it?  Had you taken it to that party last month and forgotten to replace it?  And what about some decent wine?  A quick check through the rack reveals some stuff you like but don’t think it quite good enough for the occasion concerned.  Then there are the bottles that guests have brought for you which you’ve not yet been brave enough to open... Did they spend time choosing these especially for you, or were they the free bit of the latest Dine In for £10 deal which they didn’t fancy either?  There’s the better stuff at the bottom of course, but is it ready yet? Or is it already too old?  There does seem to be a growing selection of “bottles to cook with” and it’s Christmas for goodness sake.  These really won’t do!

It doesn’t have to be this way you know.  Just get organised.  Lay in some decent bottles and make sure you label them so they don’t get drunk by the rampaging hoards of returning university students... Check stocks regularly and, crucially, allow yourself the enjoyment of a really good tidy up from time to time when you can open those bottles that you think might be too old and occasionally come across one that isn’t and is really surprisingly good.  Free up space for some new acquisitions and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  Then you’ll have what you need, when you need it.  Once you’ve done that you can chuck out all those part used jars of body butter and bath creme from the bathroom.  If you’re brave enough!