Open letter to TONG Magazine

Dear TONG Magazine

On 14th July 2015, I started subscribing to TONG, which at that point was a hardcopy specialist wine magazine. I have the PayPal receipt in front of me now, for €€199.00 paid to Millefeuille BVBA . What exactly was I buying? In the description field on the receipt it reads “Subscribe to TONG (2 years/8 issues)”. So, just over nine months later, how many magazine issue should I have received? Immediately after subscribing I was sent the then-current issue, so by reckoning it should be four. What have I actually received? The hardcopy issue just mentioned, and one issue sent to me by email as a PDF. So my basic gripe is that I am clearly not being given what I paid for. I want a refund, but you insist on keeping my money.

Here is how things played out in more detail after my subscription and initial hardcopy issue…

2nd October 2015 I was informed that TONG was going to be published in PDF format only, and that by way of compensation I would receive ten issues rather than the eight I paid for. I thought “I am not totally happy with that, but will see how it goes”.

5th October 2015 I received an email with a new issue as PDF. I was even less happy when I realised how difficult it was to read online, and how unsuited it was to printing at home, but still didn’t think it was worth kicking up a fuss.

24th March 2016, I realised that as it was a quarterly magazine I should have received a second PDF issue by then. At this point I lost patience and just wanted to cancel my subscription and get a refund for the magazines I had not yet received, something which another high quality wine magazine would do even under normal circumstances. But the only email address I could get a response from was orders@tongmagazinedigital.com, where Filip Verheyden told me “TONG is published by a Belgian company, our South African company only sells the digital [back] issues and we have legally nothing to do with the other company”. Neither could he give me contact details for the Belgian company. I found this response unsatisfactory, as orders@tongmagazinedigital.com was the email address I had received the PDF issue from, and Filip’s email sig still read “Editor and Publisher” with a TONG logo. Also, all communication since 26th January had been, and would be, from that email address.

14th April 2016, I was sent an email announcing a collaboration with the publisher of SABOR to create a journal that will bring “food and wine together in a new publication which will replace TONG as we know it”, and “[s]ubscribers to the printed TONG journal will receive their first issue in June 2016”. So, no more PDFs as proposed before, but another flavour of jam tomorrow. On repeating my request for a refund, Filip wrote that none will be forthcoming “since the publication does not stop. It will only be refreshed”.  That is not how it sounded to me in the previous announcement. Incidentally, judging by its Facebook page, SABOR’s publication track record is not exactly confidence-inspiring – it too switched to PDF publication at one point, stopped for a while, and then restarted in print.

Sadly, PayPal will not help me as my payment was over 180 days ago, and charge-backs on credit and debit cards apparently often have a similar limit. I am sure that Belgium has solid consumer protection laws but I really don’t feel like taking legal action outside the UK for less than €200. So I am stuffed. My one consolation is to indulge myself by whinging publicly 🙂

If you are reading this, Filip, I would like to thank you at least for continuing to communicate politely with me throughout. I do understand that running a specialist magazine is not easy, but alienating new subscribers is not the answer. If you really believe in your new venture, let me make the decision whether to subscribe to it or not; don’t take that decision for me. I subscribed to a different magazine, and for a different time period.

Thank you for reading – if you have been.

Steve Slatcher

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Prince Ştirbey Feteascǎ Regalǎ 2007

stribey feteasca regalaFirstly, let me apologise. I honestly thought I had blogged about this before. But I didn’t, and now it is probably too late to find any for sale however hard you look. So the best I can do is to encourage you to be adventurous in your wine drinking, and find other gems like this. Oddbins sell the 2013, so that might be a good place to start, but I have not tried that vintage yet.

Over a few years I have bought at least two cases of this from The Daily Drinker, at prices that I think varied between £9.00 (on special offer) and £14.00. The producer is Prince Ştirbey, the grape Fetească Regală, it’s from the Dealurile Olteniei region of Romania, 2007 vintage, and 13.5% ABV. It’s a limited edition of 2,400 bottles – 200 cases or 8 barriques – So I am responsible for the consumption of a small but significant percentage of the entire vintage!

There are a few Fetească grape varieties, which seem to be named in the old-school tradition of anthropomorphic wine description, Fetească meaning young girl. Fetească Regală is a royal young girl, and makes white wine. You may also come across Fetească Albă, which is a parent of the young princess grape, and means white young girl. Then there is the black grape Fetească Neagră – you guessed it – she is black.

Ever since I started drinking this wine in 2012, I have noticed bottle variation, but the bad ones were never that bad, and the good ones were excellent. Checking my notes, it seems that I only recorded the better bottles, and the last one was particularly stunning – the sort of experience that makes me wonder why I ever bother with white Burgundy. All my notes seem very much to describe the same wine, so I shall combine them – the net result of which contains a few more descriptors than normal for me.

Medium gold. Intense and complex nose. Seville orange peel, sweet lemon, and fresh apricot. Perhaps a little oxidation, but nothing to worry about. For one bottle I noted honeysuckle, and perhaps Turkish delight. On the palate it is on the high side of medium acidity, dry, and with a hint of astringency. Intense aromatically, generally reflecting what was observed on the nose, but also incense-type notes as it warms in the glass. With the most recent bottle, Sherry, or cherry brandy. Excellent length, with spicy finish that has a liquorice edge. Drink now I think – some bottles are wonderful now, but others have seen better days *****

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Q&A – Food matches for Madeira

QA

Here’s a question I received recently from my Ask me a wine question page:

Hello, I received Madeira wines : 1) Tinta negra de madeira “Natal” 1946 by artur de barros e sousa and 2) special madeira 1988 by cossart gordon and 3) malmsey madeira 1994 by cossart gordon. Can you tell me with what kind of food I can drink them, please ? Regards, Bobo.

It sounds like you have some nice wines, there, Bobo – I presume your “special” Madeira is actually an auto-correct glitch, and it is really a Sercial.

Tinta Negra, Sercial and Malmsey (also called Malvasia) are the names of grape varieties, and also indicate the style of the wine when used for Madeira. Of the four principal varieties in terms of quality and availability, Sercial is used to produce the driest style, though there is usually a little sweetness to take the edge off the acidity, and Malmsey is very sweet indeed. The grape Tinta Negra, also called Tinta Negra Mole,  is not one of those four varieties. It is not so highly regarded, and these days is used to make cheaper Madeiras of any style. Don’t let that put you off – I am sure a 1946 Tinta Negra from ABSL will be good, and quite possibly the best wine of the three – but I have no idea about how sweet it will be.

My honest answer to your question is that I think Madeira is best drunk a glass at a time without food, or possibly with nuts and dried fruit. Madeira also lends itself to drinking like that because open bottles will last for several months. You could even have all three bottles on the go at the same time. If offering to guests, I would choose Malmsey as an after-dinner drink, and the drier Sercial as an aperitif, when it would also work with olives. But if I were the drinker, the Sercial would be liable to be sampled at almost any time in the afternoon or evening.

If really want to try your Madeiras with food, madeirawine.nl offers some suggestions. For the Tinta Negra, you would have to open it first to check whether it is closer to the sweetness of the Sercial or the Madeira. If it is somewhere in between, follow the recommendations for Verdelho or Boal. When you have checked the wines for sweetness, you will also have a much better idea about whether you really want to drink them with food at all. I might be wrong, but the cynic in me thinks that the idea of drinking Madeira with food comes mainly from those eager to persuade punters to drink more.

I hope that helps, Bobo. If you have further questions, do get back to me. Also, if you check back here later, you might find other people have added helpful comments to this post.

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Montesquiou Terre de France 2014

montesq terre de franceThe label is rather impressive, but was it designed especially for what seems to be a one-off wine, I wonder? Or is it Domaine Montesquiou’s generic label for any wine not in its normal range? The official EU label with all the required information is of course on the back of the bottle: Vin de France (what used to be called table wine), 2014, and 14.5%, but still little clue about the contents.

According to Leon Stolarski’s website, where you can find more information and currently buy bottles of it, the wine is 65% Gros Manseng, 30% Petit Manseng, and 5% Camaralet. That is the same blend as Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse – a Jurançon Sec – the difference being that for this wine the fermentation stuck with too much residual sugar to call it sec, and the decision was taken to bottle the wine as it was, rather than restart the fermentation.

It is not something that easily slots into a neat category, and as such it took be some time to figure out my reaction. But as I drank, I got to like it more and more. Here’s my tasting note: Medium pale amber gold colour. Big on the nose. Lime marmalade, or maybe a combination of lime fruit and “normal” marmalade. Possibly a hint of petrol, and some green vegetable, though not in a negative way. Sweet ripe fruit, apricot maybe. My wife thought honey. All in all, the evidence seems to suggest some botrytis. Certainly there was a lot of interest on the nose. On the palate, initially an impression of medium low acidity. Off dry and full bodied. Slightly bitter. Feels like it should be astringent, but isn’t. Excellent length. Seems more acidic on the finish, so now I’m confused a bit – probably actually higher acidity than I thought at first – medium high perhaps? Overall the effect is bracing, despite the sweetness. Weird but I think I like it. No, I do like it, a lot. Difficult to rate, but I think *****

Would I buy more? Possibly. My main reason for hesitation is wondering when I would like to drink it. I had my bottle with Middle-Eastern meze. It wasn’t bad in that context, but neither food nor wine particularly lifted the other. The overall profile reminds me a little of rich Alsace wines, so maybe pork would be the obvious match. It would stand up well to creamy sauces too.

So, well done Leon for importing this. Nearly forgot to mention it costs £11.95, and at that price it is certainly worth trying a bottle. I have enjoyed earlier vintages of the dry Cuvade Préciouse too, so you might like to get some of that at the same time.

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Solid evidence for terroir influence on wine flavour

I recently stumbled across what seems to be solid evidence for some effects of terroir on wine. It is not new research, but for some reason it had managed to elude me, and was only brought to my attention by John Winthrop Haeger’s book Riesling Rediscovered. The research is published in [1] and [2] – see end of this post. As the latter reference is available on Google Books almost in its entirety, that was my main source of information and where I found the figure shown below.

Twenty-five different Riesling vineyard sites were studied: 12 in the Pfalz, and 13 in the Mosel, Ahr, Nahe and Rheinhessen. The substrates yielding the soils of these sites included limestone, sandstone, greywacke, basalt, slate, porphyry, and breccia from the rotliegend age. The vintages 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 were assessed 8 months after the harvest by panels of 13-20 trained judges. The grapes were picked at optimal ripeness, as determined by the estate owners, one portion from each site being vinified as normal by the estate, and one portion subject to a standard winemaking protocol that was the same for all sites. The wine made by the estate was evaluated in duplicate, while standard process wine was evaluated in triplicate.

The results of a discriminant analysis are shown below (click on the figure to get a larger version). If I understand the point of a discriminant analysis correctly, it here means that two functions of the flavour profiles, F1 and F2, were found such that wines of the different rock types cluster when F2 is plotted against F1. Thus, if you know the flavour profile of the wine, you could calculate F1 and F2 and stand a good chance of predicting the rock type by checking where the point lies in the left hand graph.riesling_terroir_differencesNecessarily, there were many details omitted from the conference paper, so it is difficult to judge the quality of the research, but to me nothing stands out as being obviously flawed and I would assume the work is sound. As such, for me it is the first convincing evidence for the soil substrate type having an impact on flavour profile. All the other evidence I have seen has been non-blind and anecdotal, and whenever blind tasting has been used terroir differences seem to disappear, even for people who would generally be regarded as expert tasters.

One interesting question about this research is to what extent the experimental protocol was essential in revealing the terroir effect, and to what extent it would also be clear to expert but non-trained tasters tasting blind. In other words, now necessary is the training and the discriminant analysis in uncovering the important of terroir? Also, more generally, I wonder how applicable the results are to other grapes and regions.

See my previous posts on the subject to understand my mildly sceptical attitude to terroir. I think I would still describe my attitude in the same way, but it has certainly just shifted considerably in the positive direction. However, in the introduction to the article I summarise here it is made clear that terroir is hugely important in marketing, as a unique selling proposition, and as point of interest for punters. Marketing was the driver for this research, and whenever marketing is involved my bullshit detectors start twitching from a heightened sensitivity.

[1] Andrea Bauer et al, “Authentication of Different Terroirs of German Riesling Applying Sensory and Flavor Analysis”, in “Progress in authentication of food and wine”, pp 131-151, American Chemical Society,Washington, DC, 2011

[2] A Bauer and U Fischer, “Factors causing sensory variation in Riesling wines from different Terroirs in Germany”, in “Oeno2011: Actes de colloques du 9e symposium international d’oenologie de Bordeaux”, pp 1087-1092, Dunod, 2011

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Arribes de Ventonia Redux – bottle variation?

Following my very enthusiastic review of Arribes de Ventonia 2011, I snapped up the remaining bottles I could find, and also bought a few from the 2013 vintage, which was a slightly different cépage.

I tried the 2013 first, and it was not a patch on my previous experience. Fruit and oak, but none of the complexity of the 2011. Ah, well – it was after all a different wine. But last night I tried one of the more-recently-bought 2011 wines, and it reminded me more of the 2013 than my previous experience with the 2011. For both recent bottles, it was a *** rating rather than *****. Still not bad for a £9.00 bottle of wine, but not something to make me want to dash out for more.

Bottle variation or taster variation? Under most circumstances I would be very willing to accept that I am the most likely cause of inconsistency. But in this case the differences were so marked that I am leaning much more towards the bottle variation explanation. Maybe the 2011 wines were from different batches, or the storage conditions differed before the wines reached me? Not that I am suggesting there was any heat damage or similar – just that they happened to be not so good for these particular wines. The closure was not natural cork BTW, so a dodgy cork would not be an explanation.

What can we learn from this?

  1. This is the way things are for wine that are more interesting. We have to accept it.
     
  2. When I highlight a single wine in a blog post, it will be one I have tried on multiple occasions or one I have both tasted and drunk at least half a bottle of, with food where appropriate. Maybe I need to hold back on my opinions even more. Not that I feel guilty over this incident – I rarely review freebie bottles, and in this case I put my money where my mouth was to the extent that I doubt anyone else had chance to buy any.
     
  3. As a consumer of tasting notes, I shall be even more sceptical. And I recommend that attitude to you too.
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Daily temperature variations and wine storage

It is often stated that daily variations in cellar temperatures are more damaging to wines than consistently higher temperatures. As far as I know empirical evidence for this is lacking, but that is not to say it is necessarily wrong.

One possible mechanism could be that the resulting pressure variations pump out oxygen-depleted air, and suck in air that is richer in oxygen – or something analogous if the bottle is stored in the correct horizontal position and the cork soaked in wine. Unfortunately, I find it difficult to get a handle on how likely an explanation that might be.

However, the reason most often proffered is that the pressure variation caused by the temperature changes can loosen the cork, making it more likely to leak.  It is a lot more easy to do a quick calculation to establish the plausibility of this explanation. It turns out that a 10ºC variation in temperature will result in a force of around 100g acting on the cork – see the bottom of this post for the workings. That is, for example, the force equivalent to the weight of a smallish apple.

100g apple

A better way of understanding it might be to push on some kitchen scales with a finger until they read 100g. You can then compare that with the force you need to get a cork moving when extracting it with a cork screw. Judge for yourself, but I find it totally implausible that the 100g force would shift most corks – however slightly, and however many times that force is applied. Perhaps very old corks that a cork screw would push into the bottle might be affected, but I am still not totally convinced.

air pressure variation

Ah, but you say there are also pressure variations outside the bottle due to the weather, and when added to the pressure variations due to temperature inside the bottle they could be a lot more significant. Well, above are shown the atmospheric pressure variations measured at the National Physical Laboratory for 2015. It turns out that the pressure variations due to weather are about the same order of magnitude as those due to 10ºC temperature variation – again, see my workings below – and they are lot less frequent than every day, so they will not make that much difference.

So, in conclusion, I don’t know of any evidence for daily temperature variations being  worse for wines than consistently high temperatures. That does not rule out the possibility, but it also seems unlikely that those temperature fluctuations will loosen corks.

If you’re up for it, here’s…

The science bit

Gay-Lussac’s law says that for gases at a constant volume, pressure is proportional to temperature. Here the temperature must be measured on a scale where zero means absolute zero, so we will use Kelvin for temperatures. Room temperature is around 300 K, and we are looking at a temperature variation of 10 K, which is the same as 10ºC. Thus the relative change in temperature is 10/300 – around 0.03 or 3%.

Atmospheric pressure is approximately 100,000 N per square meter, and according to Gay-Lussac the relative change in pressure is the same as the relative change in temperature. So the absolute change in pressure is 100,000 x 0.03 = 3,000 N per square meter. (At this point you might also like to note that the atmospheric pressure variations shown above are also of the order of 3%.)

That pressure change acts on the area of the cork, which is about 1 cm, or 0.01 m, in radius. The area of the cork is 3.14 x 0.01 x 0.01 = 0.000314 square meters.  3000 N per square meter acting on an area of 0.000314 square meters gives a force of 3000 x 0.000314 = 0.94 N, which is approximately 100 g force.

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Gestalt perception of flavour

coffee_cuppingGive your Man On The Street a glass of wine and ask him how it tastes, and you could well get the response “it tastes like wine”. Nothing wrong with that – it is what might be described as a gestalt perception. Wine contains hundreds (if not thousands) of chemical compounds, many of which will individually give rise to different flavours, but overall the impression is clearly recognised as wine. In the same way, when someone is shown a chair they will immediately recognise it as a chair – they won’t say there are four near-vertical sticks of wood supporting a horizontal square board etc.

It is only people who are relatively skilled in wine appreciation that will dive into a more detailed description like “blackcurrant with a hint of coffee on the finish” – and if we are honest “it tastes like wine” is arguably more useful in many circumstances. Also note that, while we might be feeling superior for spotting the nuances our glass, we are saying one of the flavours is coffee. We have an idea of a generic coffee flavour, in the same way as many have a generic wine flavour. But coffee is another complex drink that experts analyse and describe in terms of other flavours. Worse than that: wine is a descriptor that is sometimes used in coffee tasting notes, in the same way that coffee is used for wines. So in an extreme case we could have a wine that happens to taste like a coffee that tastes of wine!

Joking apart, the idea that the human perceptual system can sometimes regard aromas that are chemically complex as a single entity, and sometimes analyse them into component parts, is an interesting one. I mentioned in an earlier post that, when considering the number of identifiable aromas in a wine, a chemically complex recognisable aroma behaves like an aroma due to a single chemical compound. In fact, the researchers reference other work showing that the two aroma types seem to act in very similar way even at a level as low as the olfactory bulb. But surely that cannot tell the full story. It is undeniable that, for some at least, wine does not merely taste of wine. Neither does coffee merely taste of coffee.

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Arribes de Vettonia Rufete Bodegas Arribes del Duero 2011

arribes_de_ventoniaTime for a little light relief on winenous I think. So here is a wine I was drinking yesterday that I thought was remarkably good, and even better value for money.

Arribes DO follows the Spanish bank of the Duero as it runs South along the border with Portugal. I had just about heard of the Arribes region (as the subject of a documentary by Zev Robinson) but had no idea it was also a DO until I saw this bottle for sale. A quick google reveals there is also an Arribes national park, with some of the most stunningly spectacular river landscapes you can imagine. The grape is Rufete, which is mainly used in Portugal. You might know it better as Tinta Pinheira. No? Me neither. It was made by Bodegas Arribes del Duero, the local coop, who certainly seem to know what they are doing. Oh, and it’s 14.5% ABV, and was aged in barriques for 5 months.

Beautiful medium intense ruby colour. Intense dark fruit on the nose, and aromatically spicy. The aromas were mirrored on palate, where there was also a good solid structure – good acidity, and quite strong tannins. Quite bracing. As the wine warmed up, maybe from 13 to 16ºC, I also got some smoky treacle notes, and a little bitter chocolate. Later in the evening, when probably a bit over 20ºC, the wine got a bit soupy and the alcohol and acidity seemed to dominate – something I find with most wines, so not really a criticism. Elegant and subtle it isn’t, but there is lot a going on in the wine, and it made an excellent accompaniment to robust food. I hope that does not sound like faint praise – it is not meant to be. It was sold to me as something to drink by 2016, but I say it is not going to die anytime soon. Would it improve? I really don’t know – it is pretty damned good now *****.

Sadly out of stock now at The Daily Drinker where I bought mine, but Kudos them for finding it and selling me a bottle for excellent price of £9.00. Red Squirrel Wine are still offering it for sale at the same price, and maybe will have a few bottles left after I have placed my order for a case.

Update: See also Arribes de Ventonia Redux – bottle variation?

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Subjectivity ain’t that simple

likeToday we shall take as our text verse 1 of The Nine Attributes of Greatness, a section of Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible:

No one needs a wine book to tell them what they like to drink. Subjectivity in wine is pretty easy. But a wine is not great merely because we like it. Liking a wine is simply liking a wine – it tells you something about what you take pleasure in.

I disagree with most of that. I have also heard others being rather dismissive about subjectivity in wine so, without wanting to single out Karen for a fight, let me respond.

Taking a subjective approach does not necessarily equate to knocking back a glass and declaring whether you like it or not, any more than objectivity involves accepting that each wine has an immutable score. Even if we embrace subjectivity, we have the same basic perceptual equipment that objectivists possess, and we can chose to use it to analyse wine in great detail.

In fact, I would argue that a subjective approach is the more challenging path: after measuring the wine by conventional standards, there is an additional step to decide how much you like it. It may come as a surprise to some but this can be pretty difficult, particularly if you are tasting a less familiar style of wine. Natural wines, for example, fit very much into that category of unfamiliarity for me at the moment. Using so-called objective standards, a fair proportion would simply go down the sink as faulty. But if you believe a subjective assessment is important, it doesn’t go straight down the sink – you at least pause until you have figured out how much you personally like it. Not always easy for an open-minded person more used to conventional wine styles. And how will it be later in the evening, after exposure to air, with food, and at a different temperature? Even harder in such circumstances is explaining the reasons for you like or dislike, as you don’t even have the usual aesthetic language to rely on.

To understand, wine we subjectivists need good wine books as much as anyone else. But we also need to look beyond conventional knowledge. In my opinion that is.

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