What is a dry wine?

At its simplest a dry wine is one with practically no sugar.  Dryness is the absence of sugar; not a property in its own right.  I would call that the technical definition of a dry wine, and it is the one I prefer to use.

But do you remember what I said in my last blog post about acidity and sweetness counteracting the effects of each other?  When many people place a wine on the spectrum of dry to sweet, they do so on the basis of the perception of dryness or sweetness rather than the actual sugar content.  Thus, a wine with a little sugar but high acidity will be classified as dry.  Conversely, if a wine has aromas of ripe fruit it may also be perceived to be a little sweet, even if it contains very little sugar, and such wines might be classified as off dry.

When large wine merchants (including supermarkets) describe wine by a number on a scale from dry to sweet, I believe it is this perceptual sweetness they are describing.  And they are in good company – even EU regulations allow a wine labelled “dry” to contain more sugar if is it high in acidity.  While designed to be helpful, I find it confusing, which is one reason why I prefer the simple technical definition of dryness.  The other reason is that sweetness and acidity are to me clearly different dimensions, even if there may be some perceptual interaction.

In many cases, the distinction between technical and perceptual dryness is not important, but if you ever feel there is a possibility that some confusion might arise it is best to specify exactly what you mean.

You should also be aware that there are a couple of other ways in which dry is sometimes used/misused…

One is in marketing.  The fashion now is to drink dry wines, and one result of this is that many people say they prefer dry wine because it sounds more sophisticated, even if they actually prefer their wines to be off dry.  This results in wines, usually at the cheaper end of the market, being sold as dry when in fact they contain noticeable sugar.

The other is when people encounter a highly astringent wine, and describe it as dry because the effect of astringency is to give you the impression of having a dry mouth.  The use of the word dry in this context is understandable, but likely to cause confusion if you are communicating with someone who has been taught to distinguish between lack of sugar and astringency.  This is one situation where you might hope that a good wine professional will be able to figure out what is really meant, but I wouldn’t count on it.

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If there is one thing you should learn about wine…

If there is one thing you should learn to increase your enjoyment of wine, without a doubt I would say it is the skill to describe what you taste in a language that is accepted and understood by professionals and other wine enthusiasts.  The main reason is that using a common language should result in you getting better recommendations from merchants and sommeliers.  The main motivation is communication, to enable you to try more wines you enjoy.wset_l2_sat

You do not need to try to emulate the likes of Robert Parker in your descriptions.  Keep it simple.  The WSET Level 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine is the sort of thing I have in mind.  In fact, it could be a lot simpler for the purpose I outlined above – just learn to describe the degree of sweetness, acidity, tannin and body.  If there are any obvious aromas describe them too, but only if they are important to you.  Maybe you detect dried fruit, but do you really care whether it is raisin or sultana?

There are essentially two steps towards getting this basic skill.  One is to recognise, and distinguish between, each of the dimensions of sweetness, acidity, tannin and body.  Then you need to taste a good range of wines to appreciate what is high and low on each dimension. Recognising and distinguishing each of the dimensions is not as easy as you might first think, partly because they do interact, but here are some ideas to help.

For acidity and sweetness, prepare for yourself solutions of lemon juice (1 – 1.5 lemons in 0.75 li water) and sugar (~25 g in 0.75 li), try each solution individually.  Note and remember the sensations, and where on the tongue you personally detect them.  (If you have ever heard of the tongue map, forget what you have learned – it is now discredited!)  Now try mixing the solutions.  Also add neat lemon juice to the sugar solution, and vice versa.  You will, I hope, see how sweetness has the effect of reducing the perception of acidity, and vice versa.

Prepare some strong black tea and let it cool.  Swill it around you mouth and feel how the friction between your cheeks and teeth increases.  That is astringency – the most noticeable property of tannin.  Try adding some lemon.  Does it increase or decrease the astringency?  Opinions differ on what should happen, and it might depend on the details of the situation, but there is thought to be an interaction between acidity and astringency.

Body is a measure of how heavy the wine feels in your mouth.  To be honest, I have problems getting to grips with this concept, but I am told that many understand it intuitively.  Alcohol gives a big contribution to the body of a wine, making a wine heavy, and however intense the flavours are in a low alcohol wine (e.g. a good quality sweetish German Kabinett), it will always physically feel watery compared with a wine of normal strength.

Just a couple of further points.  If you still feel unsure about the language, don’t let it stop you telling a wine merchant or sommelier what style of wine you want anyway – good ones will appreciate any steer they get, and should be able to respond.  The other thing is that, if you want more details, I can strongly recommend the book Essential Winetasting by Michael Schuster.  Or you could perhaps try a course that leads to a WSET qualification.  Both of those options will teach you the basic language of wine tasting, and a lot more besides.

Update: I think the concept of dryness in wine could do with more discussion, so I have covered this in my next blog post.

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Huasa de Trequilemu, Cauquenes, 2012


Pale garnet in colour.  Intense nose that is dominated by Elastoplast, with some fragrant horse manure.  It’s a bit of a brett bomb, but there is also red fruit – perfumed cherry notes.  Maybe rubber and menthol aspects.  Medium high acidity, and low but detectable astringency.  Intense, light and delicate.  Lifted and refreshing.  Great complexity, and great length.  Tingly, fragrant, bretty finish.  This still primary, but I don’t think I would let it age further.  It is best slightly chilled.  Difficult to rate, but if pushed I’d give it ****

This is a challenging wine in more than one way. I first came across it at L’Enclume, offered as a match for their venison with charcoal oil.  I thought it was a great dish with great wine, and the pairing was superb. One of the best introductions you could hope for,  but I still love the wine after drinking a few bottles in more modest surroundings.  However, my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone, and I can understand that.  By any standards the wine is weird, and technically it is faulty.  The dominant smell of Elastoplast is the result of a brett (short for brettanomyces) infection, which is perhaps better known for its farmyardy smells.

But is it a fault if you like the result?  Some would say not, by definition, while others argue that brett is always negative.  In practice, I am not sure how it would be possible to have the same wine, but without the brett, to compare.  So will we ever be sure?  This is in marked contrast to the situation with a corked wine, where you can often open another bottle to compare, and the clean one is always better.  For more on brett, see also this blog post of mine.  Ultimately, unless you get into an argument with your sommelier when you try to return it, I am not sure it matters whether you call it a fault or not.  If you like the wine, buy it and drink it.  Also buy it if you want to be challenged. If you want an easy ride, there is plenty of other Chilean wine to be picked up at supermarkets.

The producer is Agricola Luyt Ltda, the grape País, it’s 13.7%, and I bought it for around £18 from Buon Vino in Settle.  See also this blog post on Luyt and Clos Ouvert by Rob from Buon Vino for a bit of background.

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The perfect wine for Christmas

If things are not “unique” these days, it seems that they have to be “perfect”. At this time of year we are invited to serve perfect food for Christmas and serve the perfect wine with it, preferably a perfect match.

Even setting aside individual tastes, perfection in food and drink is a slippery concept. There may be a degree of pleasure in anticipation and memory, but essentially the pleasure is all in the moment of consumption. And then it is gone. I would argue that the best wine is always the one that is in your mouth at the time, so you should make the most of it. The wine in your glass might get spilled, and that special bottle might turn out to be corked or, a lot more likely, simply fail to live up to expectations.  I suggest you do not seek perfection in food and drink, but just enjoy what you have, when you have it.

The picture above (click on it for details) is relevant.  The still life genre does not principally celebrate perfection; it is often meant to illustrate the ephemeral nature of pleasure.  For example, some fruit may be slightly decayed or a flower dropped to the table, and in the example above someone has already been nibbling at the cheese and biscuits. This message was designed to persuade us to focus on higher values, but we do not have to read it that way. Let’s celebrate the ephemeral – YOLO and all that.

In other words, don’t fret about getting the perfect wine for Christmas day, just buy a bottle or three and have fun drinking it.  Merry Christmas!

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How much do you need to spend to get a decent wine?

Every now and then wine merchants, and others promoting wine sales in the UK, will publish a graphic similar to the one below.  The point being illustrated is that it is worth spending a few extra quid on your bottle of wine, because a much higher proportion of what you pay then goes into the actual wine production, which is assumed to act as an indication of quality.

bottle_price_breakdownThe graphic is my own, but the numbers, which use UK current duty and VAT rates, are taken from The Wine Society. The duty and VAT element is precise and clearly defined, and as the bottle price continues to increase, the proportion paid on tax will taper off towards 1/6 – about 17%.  But what of the other percentages?  The costs are meant to cover the bottle, label and closure, and transportation.  As mentioned by TWS, the costs are roughly constant irrespective of the bottle price, though they seems to have allowed for slightly higher costs as the bottle price increases.  I am not sure where mark-ups come into the calculations, but presumably they are distributed appropriately between the wine and costs elements.  And does the marketing get taken out of the mark-up?  It is probably not worth getting hung up too much on the details.  As TWS point out, the numbers will vary from wine to wine, and merchant to merchant, anyway.

However, the general trend is doubtless valid in that price range, and worth considering when buying wine.  But the trend breaks down for more expensive stuff. Here the price of expensive wine is not determined by the cost of production.  These wines are in limited supply, and the price is driven up by demand. Consider Pétrus, with probable wine production costs of under £50 and a UK retail price of around £1,000.  In fact, in general terms, if you pay much above £20 for a bottle I’d suggest you are in the realm of diminishing returns in the terms of the percentage of that price that goes into wine production, as very little wine costs more than £10 to produce.

What does all this mean in practice?  If we want good value wine, are we condemned to drink in the range £10 to £15 for evermore?  Not a bit of it in my opinion.  If I had to pick wine from a shelf without knowing anything about it but the price, I probably would indeed go for that range.  But in practice I usually buy what I have tasted before, or I take a punt on one bottle, sometimes on the recommendation of a friend or wine critic, and then buy more if I like it.  The price will mainly determine the number of bottles; if I like it and it is cheap, I will buy cases, but the more expensive the wine the fewer bottles I buy.  I don’t worry about trying to hit any pricing sweet spot in terms of value for money, and suggest you do the same.  Remember that the money spent on the wine does not depend on retail price alone.  And even if a lot does go on the wine, it does necessarily follow that the wine will be of better quality, even less that you are going to enjoy it.

Remember the Paparuda Pinot Noir I recommended?  Last time I looked, it was selling for around £5.50 a bottle.  Consulting the chart above that means I should be expecting that only 50p or so of that was spent on the wine itself.  Does my face look bothered? But I’m happy if you think it is too cheap to drink – all the more left for me.

Just to be clear, I do also buy wines for considerably more then £20, but not because I believe a high portion of the retail price goes into wine production.

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A few more local wines drunk when in Bologna

This covers a few non-Lambrusco wines that we drank while staying in Bologna.  For Lambrusco, see my previous blog post.

Wine number one was actually not drunk in Bologna at all, but on a day trip to Parma, in Enoteca Fontana, a wine-bar-cum-trattoria that was absolutely rammed by locals on a Thursday lunch time. I am not sure we chose our wine and food wisely, but the place looked very promising, and I would happily return. The wine was Colli di Parma Rosso DOC, Amadei, and we got it for EUR 2 per glass.  As we all know (ahem) a Colli di Parma Rosso must be 60-75% Barbera, with most of the remainder being made up of Bonarda Piemontese and Croatina.  The colour was a deep purple.  I think there was a little residual sugar, but the acidity was high and the overall effect was dry.  I didn’t think the fruit quality was great, but what can you expect for that price?  I gave it ***.

Now for the first of 2 or 3 Sangiovese di Romagna wines.  This was  Scabi, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOC, Azienda Agricola San Valentino, 2012.  It is what was offered to us at a restaurant when it was clear we needed a red wine, and I later noticed that is graced around 30% of the tables I could see.  I am not sure how much we paid for it, but I see a bottle retails in Italy for around EUR 11.  This was deep purple, with intense dark fruit, attractive and spicy.  The spice added a mouth-watering quality to the nose.  It had medium acidity, and quite a strong but fine-grained astringency.  This was a good, classy wine, which I think will age further.   I thought ****, but I tired of it as I got to the end of the bottle, and it was not a good match for the tomato-based sauce with our ossbucco.  The Bologna restaurant was Drogheria della Rosa.  A A Gill wrote well of it last year, but I was not so taken with the place.  The food was all good, but I did not get on so well with the general atmosphere, nor with the fact that there was no written menu or wine list, and no mention of price until we were presented with the bill.  The bill turned out to be perfectly reasonable, but when ordering I would have liked to consider my options with more time and information at my disposal.

Incidentally, as an aperitivo at Drogheria della Rosa, we were given a glass of Prosecco that I thought was pretty impressive.  From the label, I noted the name as Foss Marai Surfine Cuvée.  Later research showed that this was not particularly expensive, but it had a complexity that you rarely get from Prosecco.  I am wondering if it was the result of a bottle that had been open a while.  Whatever the reason, it was good.

Our final Sangiovese di Romagna wines were at a restaurant not coincidentally called Al Sangiovese, which turned out to be run by the same family who owned the wine producer/brand Condé which is available in the UK.  There was also a tenuous family link to the owners of the hotel down the road where we were staying.  It was suggested that we try their Condé Sangiovese di Romagna Superioré DOC 2010, with the offer of a swap if it did not suit.  I only has a small sip to taste so cannot supply a proper tasting note, but my impression was that of a rather flabby and slightly sweet wine.  I felt a little embarrassed at my reaction to the family wine, but obviously was not very good at hiding my disappointment.  After a brief chat about preferring something with more bite, acidity and tannin, a bottle of Principe di Ribano, Sangiovese di Romagna Superiore DOC, Spalletti Colonna di Paliano, 2012 was brought to the table, EUR 15 on the wine list.  Top marks to the restaurant for listening to what I said, and finding something to my liking the second time round.  This was a beautiful little wine that really hit the spot. Medium ruby in colour.  Intense red fruit, tea and spice. Medium-high acidity, and dry. Medium-low tannin. Excellent length.  Overall, it had a light refreshing character.  Drink now or in next couple of years.  In context, which all my ratings are, this was *****.

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Looking for Lambrusco

In addition to a few days in Bologna, we were originally planning on spending some time in an agriturismo in the countryside around nearby Modena, i.e. the land of Lambrusco, and maybe visiting a few wineries by car.  But the plan changed and we stayed the whole week in Bologna (view from Asinelli tower above) with some day trips by train.  There must be plenty of tasting opportunities there, and maybe some organised trips out to some producers, no?

No, not really.  I did my homework, knew some of the good producers, the main Lambrusco varieties, and (thanks to Ian D’Agata’s  Native Wine Grapes of Italy) the most typical examples of those varieties.  And I knew the locals liked the real Lambrusco, mainly dry, refreshing, frizzante and red; not the sweet pap of UK supermarkets that everyone seems to feel the need to mention when writing about the wine.  I was raring to get stuck into some serious exploration, but felt thwarted on this trip.

I found lots of gushing prose about Lambrusco on the Web but little of substance on the ground.  The Consortium for Lambrusco wine of Modena did not bother replying to my email about a tour that was mentioned on a web page, commercial foodie tours generally offered a tasting of three unspecified wines at an unspecified vineyard, and wine bars and restaurants I found served a maximum of two or three Lambruscos.  Indeed, when it came to Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, supposedly the largest of the Lambusco DOCs, I did not find a single bottle – not a sausage.  I can only conclude that the locals satisfy their thirst for Lambrusco by buying direct from producers.

But we did find and drink Lambrusco, and here are some of the Lambrusco moments on our trip.  Don’t bother reading on if you are only interested in great wines.  There are none here that would retail for much over €€€EUR 10.  They are wines for drinking with everyday food, but they are wines of character.

My Lambrusco of the week was Riservato Agli Amici, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOP, F.lli Bellei.  As with most Lambruscos, there was no indication of vintage on the bottle.  Like all the Lambruscos we had, the style was described on the label was rosso, secco, frizzante.  The grape variety Lambrusco di Sorbara, the dominant variety in Lambrusco di Sorbara DOP, is at the light, fruity and perfumed end of the Lambrusco variety spectrum, and is generally regarded as inferior to the more substantial and darker coloured variety Lambrusco Grasporossa.  But from my limited experience of the varieties, I preferred Lambrusco di Sorbara.  This particular wine exuded raspberry – delicate, bitter, and perfumed.  As with all the Lambrusco’s we had, it was low on astringency.  This one was also sharp, bone dry, and mouth-watering.  I decided the experience, albeit rather low-brow, merited an unlikely sounding *****.  We drank it at the rather old-school Bologna restaurant Diana, which we had seen recommended as being particularly good for some traditional Bologna specialities.  I am not one to judge the food against local standards, but I certainly enjoyed my tortellini in broda there.

The other Lambrusco di Sorbana we had was Leclisse, Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC, Paltrinieri.  It was the colour of a dark rosé wine, lighter than Bellei’s Riservato Agli Amici.  The flavours were rather muted, mainly I think because it was served in a bucket of ice.  Only as it warmed up a little did the red fruit flavours start to emerge.  Another truly dry wine.  A bit unfair perhaps, but this got ***.

At the low end of my Lambrusco enjoyment spectrum was Pra di Bosso, Reggiano Lambrusco DOP, Casali. To be fair, this was a bit cheaper than all the other Lambruscos we tried.  It comes from around a town that is, from a Bologna perspective, a bit beyond Modena, and thus a bit out of the way of the main Lambrusco producing area.  The name Reggiano is the same as that in the cheese Parmigiano Reggiano.   This was in my opinion lacking in fruit, and had a hard character. At one point I was wondering if the wine was corked, but I do not think it was and a glass we had elsewhere was similar, so **.

In addition we tried three wines of Lambrusco Grasporossa: L’acino, Lambrusco Grasporossa di Castelvetro DOP, Corte Manzini; Nero di Nero, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC, Barbolini; and Cardinale Pighini, Colli Scandiano e di Canossa DOC, Cantina Arceto (Colli Scandiano e di Canossa is another lesser-known Lambrusco DOC).   These were all dark violet in colour, with an intense blackcurrant fruitiness.  Medium acidity I thought, and also a touch of residual sugar, despite their being secco.  I prefer the sharper and drier style.  The Nero di Nero was a little oxidised, but that may have been because the bottle we were served from had been open too long, and there is little else I can say to distinguish between the wines – it would have been easier to spot differences if I had tried them at the same time and place.  All three were ***.

So that’s the Lambrusco we tasted on the trip, but we bought the bottles illustrated above back with us, and intend to drink them together sometime early  next year.  Of the wines I tried while staying in Bologna, Ian D’Agata suggested the Leclisse and L’acino were particularly typical of their varieties, and I am bringing back a few other wines highlighted for typicity by Ian: the Monovigno, Cialdini,  Corleto, and Franceso Bellei’s Ancestrale.  I am also hoping that the Vecchia Modena Premium I have is really the Antica Modena Premium, mentioned as being particularly good and typical by Ian.  I am looking forward to drinking these, and intend to report back.

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La Bobal Revisited

No, this is not just a revisiting of the topic of Bobal, but a bit more about Zev Robinson‘s documentary film La Bobal Revisited.  Take a look at the trailer below.  It gives a pretty good impression of the full documentary, but is I think more fast-paced.

The actual documentary is relaxed in many ways.  It is not stuffed with neatly organised facts, but rather provides a voice for the wine people of Utiel Requena and Manchuela, the region in Eastern Spain where Bobal is grown.  The people talk, and seem united even if their views do sometimes diverge, and we are shown a series of scenes from the region in general, and of vine cultivation and winemaking in particular.  Most scenes, while often incorporating movement, seem to have something of the character of a still image, short-lasting and with a dynamic composition that demands attention.  The net effect is the feeling of simultaneous events in many places, and at many levels of detail, and thus the picture of life there is constructed.  The great pleasure is hearing people talking about things that mean a lot to them, and in their own voices.

If you are interested in seeing the documentary, get in touch with Zev by email zevrobinson@gmail.com, and I am sure he will be able to sell you a DVD and/or keep you posted about future screenings.  Finally, I should declare the fact that I know Zev personally, but the only motivation I have in writing this post is to give well-deserved exposure to an excellent documentary, and an excellent grape variety.

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Cien y Pico En Vaso Bobal 2011

en_vaso_bobalFirst, an explanation of the words on the label.  Bobal is the grape variety, Manchuela the region in Spain that gives its name to the Denominación de Origen,  Cien y Pico is the producer, and En Vaso the name of the wine.  En Vaso actually refers to a vine pruning technique, but you’ll have to ask the Cien y Pico marketing people what the exclamation marks and ellipsis signify.

I discovered Cien y Pico En Vaso on the shelves of D Byrne in Clitheroe, and grabbed a bottle because I wanted to learn more about Bobal.  My interest in the grape had been piqued a few years ago by Zev Robinson’s documentary La Bobal y otras historias del vino, recently reworked as La Bobal Revisited, but you do not see a lot of it around in the UK.  I enjoyed the first bottle so much that I ordered another half case, from Byrne’s again as their price of £9.60 seems to be the best in the country.  Now, after three bottles, I feel I at least understand this particular wine quite well.

As with my last post, about Paparuda Pinot Noir, I am strongly recommending this wine, but again it comes with a caveat because I don’t think it will suit everyone.  It is a very different wine to the Pinot Noir, so if that does not appeal this one might.  Here’s the tasting note…

Intense ruby red with hints of purple.  Intense nose, with lots of interesting stuff going on, to the extent that my notes I keep differ quite a bit.  Take your pick: treacly, farmyard, and maybe some smoke from one bottle, or volatile, slightly vegetal, and dark fruit from another.  But on both occasions I had a heavy, rustic wine, quite possibly technically faulty, but nevertheless attractive.  On the palate, high acidity, and big but nicely structured tannins.  Intense ripe dark fruit, but in the presence of the acidity and tannin it has a good refreshing character.  Hints of cocoa and orange on one bottle.  Excellent length.  This is a brute of a wine – big on everything except elegance and subtlety.  Good for drinking now with a big juicy steak or chili con carne, but I imagine it will improve with time *****

Here are other reviews from Jamie Goode, Tom Cannavan and Olly Smith.

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Paparuda Pinot Noir 2013


I discovered this wine at Manchester SITT this year, and am now approaching the end of my second case.  So I am strongly recommending this wine, but read the tasting note below first to see if it is for you – I am sure it will not suit all tastes.

It is a Romanian wine made by Cramele Recas, and has a modest 12.5% alcohol.  The region is not specified on the label, but according to Tanners the estate is “located in the western fringes of the Transylvania/Banat region near the city of Timisoara in the west of the country”.  I got mine from Tanners, who now sell it for £6.80, but Google will throw up a number of alternative merchants.

Light ruby, with a violet tinge. Definite Pinot Noir aromatics on the nose, but equally definitely not Burgundy.  And not like pretty much any other style of Pinot Noir I have encountered before.  Most importantly, it is emphatically not the dire concoction that cheap Pinot Noir usually is. This is soft, light and fruity, and suggestive of carbonic maceration. I would say confected, but that commonly has negative connotations.  There is also a very slight hint of oak. The aromas carry through to the impression on the palate.  Here, it is not at all flabby. The acidity is pretty much middle of the range, and there is noticeable but not obtrusive astringency. Pretty good length. Back in March, I thought this wine had a slight reductive note, but a few months later it seemed to have sorted itself out. Not one for keeping, but with a wine as gluggable as this why would you want to? A very easy wine to match with food.  Try it with anything savoury apart from the lightest of white fish and the darkest of meats.  A slight chill on the wine wouldn’t hurt.  Excellent value for money  ***

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