The multisensory perception of flavour

…that’s the title of an article by Charles Spence  in the September 2010 edition of The Pychologist.  If you think the name is familiar, it might be because he had a couple of articles on colour and wine in recent editions of The World of Fine Wine.  If anything, I think his article in The Psychologist is more interesting.  It is well worth a read, and you can find it here.  It starts on page 21 of this online version.

There are some examples of how vision and sound can affect our palate perception of food and wine, but the most interesting insight for me was an illustration of how closely interlinked our senses of taste and smell are. In winetasting 101 it is drummed into us that we only sense 4 (or was that 5) basic tastes on our tongue, and everything else in our nose.  Well that is still true, but it seems that the brain is not so fussy about where the signals come from when it generates what we would describe as flavours. The two senses are so interlinked that the presence or absence of a taste on the tongue affects our sensitivity to smells.  Putting a drop of sugary water on our tongue, even if the solution is so weak as not to be detectable as sweet, increases our sensitivity to almond aromas.  At least that is the case for Europeans and North Americans, who tend to associate almond flavours with sugar, but not for the Japanese, who rather associate almond with salt.

So there we have yet one more example of how our perception of flavour can vary from person to person – this time in a rather complex way.

A week of Tenerife wine and food

Recently back from my hols on Tenerife. The focus of the holiday was by no means wine, but of course I was keen to try the local wines, and as there seems to be so little written about them I thought you might be interested in my experiences there. I am not going to give a factual summary here of the DOs and grape varieties, but if you are interested in such things you could do worse than looking here.

Casa del Vino

First stop, almost literally, was Casa del Vino de Baranda. Here is a wine museum, a tasting room, bar and restaurant. The museum was full of information about Tenerife wines, actually too much information for me, and the obligatory old bits and bobs of wine making in days gone by. The casa was an old farm house that produced wine, and as such came with a huge lever wine press that now forms part of the museum. You almost got a picture of that at the top of this page, but then I decided Mount Teide was prettier.

The most interesting thing I learned was about the local traditional method of training vines. It is a variant on the cordon system, with several branches braided together and laid out horizontally to grow up to around 3m long. The braided branches are allowed to rest on the ground during winter, but propped up by 50cm or so in the spring. These days a variety of training systems are used, but I did spot one or two vineyards that still used the traditional method.

We hit the ground running in the tasting room, which turned out to be more of a wine bar for locals, than a venue for (ahem) serious wine enthusiasts like us. There was a changing menu of something like 10 wines, which were served with bread and cheese, in proper wine glass sized portions, for 1-2 euros each. We did manage to negotiate half pours, but they were still large for tasting samples, and not a spittoon in sight. If I went again, I would avoid pre-Sunday-lunch drinking time with the locals, make sure no one was driving, and schedule plenty of time and liver capacity to enjoy the wine. Anyway, we finished up sharing 4 half-glass tasters, and then a bottle over lunch from the restaurant.

The wines

For some reason, in restaurants the most commonly recommended wine was Rueda. OK, it is not a bad choice but there are other white wines in the world, including quite a few from Tenerife. We succumbed once and had a couple of glasses, but otherwise stuck to wines from the island. Dry wines only. I understand Tenerife produces very good sweet Malvasias, but we did not seek these out, and none presented themselves in a very obvious way.

Maybe it was the just me, or the wines we tried, but I found the whites all a bit samey. Sweet tropical fruit aromas, mainly pineapple I think, almost pungent, fair acidity, maybe a tad astringent, and with a slightly cloying finish that seemed to be due to the aromatic profile rather than residual sugar. I hope it does not sound condescending – I don’t mean it to be – but I’d say they were characterful and rustic rather then smooth and sophisticated. All pretty solid *** wines, but I was tiring of them by the end of the week. Here are the white wines we tried, with actual or estimated retail prices converted to pounds at current exchange rates:
Marba, Blanco Barrica, Tenerife Tacoronte Acentejo DO, 2009, 12.5%, £7.60
Viñátigo, Gual, Tenerife, Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2008, 13.0%, £7.40
Viñátigo, Verdello, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2007, 13.0%, £10.30
Viñátigo, Blanco, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Spain, 2009, half bottle, £3.00
Viñátigo, Marmajuelo, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, 2009, 13.0%, £8.70
Viña Zanata, Tenerife Daute Isora DO, Viña La Guancha, 2009, 12.5%, £9.00
So that’s one tasting note for 6 wines – no messing about on winenous! Three of these are of the varieties Gual, Verdello and Marmajuelo, as mentioned in the list above. I don’t know about the Viña Zanata, but the remaining two are mainly Listán Blanco – another name for the Palomino Fino of Sherry fame. There is also a Listrão Branco on Madeira, which I assume is the same variety.

I found more variation in the reds – both in style and quality.
Tajinaste, Tenerife Valle de la Ortava DO, 2008, 13.0%, £7.80
Tintilla, Tenerife Ycoden Daute Isora DO, Tágara, 2006, 13.5%, £10.30
Tanganillo, Tinto, Tenerife Valle de la Orotava DO, 2008, 13.5%, £6.50
Arautava, Tinto, Tenerife Valle dela Orotava DO, 2009, 13.0%, £8.40
Monje, Tradicional, Tinto, Tenerife Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, 2008, 13.0%, £9.50
Crater, Tenerife Tacoronte-Acentejo DO, Bodegas Buten, 2006, 13.5%, £14.00
In these names, it is only Tintilla that is the grape variety. All the others are dominated by Listán Negro. In addition to Listán Negro, the Crater has Negramoll and la Hollera blended in, and the Monje has Negramoll. Negramoll is the same as Tinta Negra Mole of Maderia, so together with Verdello and Listán Blanco, we are now up to three varieties in common with that island. All the reds were low on tannin. According to Jancis Robinson in her “Guide to Wine Grapes”, Listán Negro is usually vinified using carbonic maceration, so that could explain the low tannins, and also some of the flavour profiles.

I found the Tanaganillo to be rather dumb and short, tasting mainly of boiled blackcurrant sweets **. The Tintilla was oxidised, but have no idea if it was the wine itself, or if the bottle had just been left open too long. The oxidative notes were of the type I have noticed others liking, but they give me no pleasure, so *. The Tajinaste and Arautava were simple but good fruity blackcurrant wines, with some licorice noted on the finish of the Arautava, ***. The Monje and the Crater were a step up in quality I thought. Maybe it was the DO, which I understand was the first one on the island, or the other grapes blended in with the Listán. The Monje was also blackcurrant fruit dominated, but was more elegant, with a slight green edge, and aromatics that reminded me a bit of Syrah – but still only *** I think. The Crater, was maybe a tad bretty, and in that phase of development where it was starting to develop mature notes whilst still retaining some youthful dark fruitiness – all good things in my book. I may have been partly swayed by the environment where we drank the wine, but I think this scraped ****.

Restaurants – bad, ugly and good

Let’s start by getting some of the bad and ugly out of the way. If you are at the Teide Portillo Visitors’ Centre, don’t be tempted to eat at the nearby restaurant. There we had a soggy spag with packet bol, and a tough Spanish omelette, presumably warmed up out of a packet, and was the worst restaurant meal I can remember. We had lunch another day just up the road, which was better – but to be honest we may just have got lucky by choosing better from the menu – we went for soup at that place.

Also avoid Pomadoro in Puerto de la Cruz – there we had rather unsavoury squid (cooked in bad oil perhaps), tough rabbit, and a tough and overcooked fillet steak. The views overlooking the sea are great, but you can get the same experience next door at Rustica, where the fish dishes were a lot more acceptable, if not particularly great. Also be prepared to be serenaded by a dodgy guitar player, who will then come round asking for money.

The best place we found in Puerto de la Cruz was Régulo – we went there twice. It is what I would call a proper restaurant. Their customers were mainly foreigners like us, but providing tourist troughing did not seem to be its raison d’etre, unlike Pomadoro, Rustica and many other places we saw in Puerto. I had the excellent value fish soup on both occasions, and everything else we tried was tasty and nicely cooked. Huge portions though! I think there is something about Tenerife “entrées” that does not translate properly – they seem to be main course size. And my shoulder of lamb was a whole shoulder (maybe I exaggerate) that even I could not finish. Good wine recommendations there – the Arautava, and the Monje.

We had only dinners in Puerto de la Cruz, and lunches elsewhere on those days. An honourable mention for lunch must go to Casa del Vino, where we had a good but not very exciting meal. To be fair though, we did go for the el-cheapo lunch option for something like EUR12 per head for 3 courses, so we cannot complain too much. And another honourable mention to El Burgado at Playa las Arenas, near Buenavista del Norte in the North-West corner of the island. There we shared a paella, which was OK, but the best thing about the restaurant was the friendly service and the quiet and beautiful location by the sea.

All other meals were dinners, and taken in Santa Cruz. The first night we went to a place close to our hotel that we had a personal recommendation for – Meson El Portón, Calle Dr Guigou 18. I give the address because I saw it in no guide books or similar places you look for recommendations. I noted it was very full at lunchtime, which I took to be a good sign, and we returned for dinner. The place was nearly empty but we were welcomed warmly. No menu was presented, but we were lead to a display of raw fish and meat and, with pidgin English, pidgin Spanish and much finger pointing, we made our choice, – a whole pampona (a local fish) for 2, and we accepted the offer of a salad “para picar”. Wine negotiations followed a similar pattern. The salad – various things including tuna – was good, and the pampona was even better – huge, cooked perfectly and seasoned with not a little garlic. On leaving, we discovered there was an English menu outside, with one intriguing item: “ham broke black woman”. But don’t worry, the Spanish version was “jamon pata negra”. All in all, an excellent and reasonably priced evening!

On the third evening in Santa Cruz we ate at Clavijo 38. We both went for the “local fish”, which turned out to be hake. We had huge portions, a half fish each effectively, and it was nicely cooked. But expensive. Too expensive I think.

But it was the second evening that was the gastronomic highlight of the holiday. We went to Solana. I discovered it recommended on a Spanish wine website, where it seemed to stand out in Santa Cruz in terms of the large number of people willing to rate it highly. No mention in guide books or on trip advisor though. It is a small restaurant with 34 covers, run by Nacho Solana, chef, and his wife Erika Sanz, sommelier and all things front-of-house. There was no evidence of any other staff at all, and the personal touch added a lot to the dining experience. Nacho took it upon himself to explain the whole menu to us in detail, and was clearly truly passionate about his food. Everything sounded great and it was difficult to decide, but it helped that we were allowed to split dishes to allow us to taste more of them. The food was good, but to me not all dishes were equally successful – a personal thing no doubt, as my wife did not always agree with my likes and dislikes. We started with a fois gras mille-feuilles – no pastry, but very thin layers of fois gras and apple. I chose that, but was a little disappointed. The other half-starter though was perhaps my favourite dish – scallops with artichokes on a bed of mushrooms. It sounded like an unlikely combination, and still does, but it worked fantastically. We then moved on to two half-dishes of pork – one from a fully grown pata negra pig, and one with meat from a suckling pig cooked over two or three days. The suckling pig literally melted in the mouth, but I preferred the firmer texture and fuller flavour of the grown-up pig. And for dessert, two half portions of chocolate soufflé and tarte tartin. We asked for wine recommendations.  Erika thought artichoke was too difficult to match, but suggested glasses of Rueda with the fois gras. It didn’t work at all. Maybe it was one of the few white wines they had by the glass?  The local red wine sugestion though was a hit – that was the Crater.  Total bill for all of the above plus a coffee was under EUR130 for two. Another excellent and reasonably priced evening. If you are in Santa Cruz, go there!

(Update: see here for my vinous report on a 2013 trip to Tenerife.)

Is free wine delivery like a free lunch?

Customers never like paying delivery charges, and I believe that now big sellers like Amazon offer free delivery it is going to be more and more a customer expectation.  But delivery is never really free.  The costs are usually very real, in the sense that the merchant has to pay the carrier.  These costs have to be recovered somehow, and of course the price of the goods reflects that fact.

My general view is that if any cost can conveniently be passed onto the customer, it should be done so in a straightforward and transparent way.  When it comes to delivery from a merchant that only sells online, that clearly means charging delivery in full – what the carrier demands, and possibly a charge for packing and organising.  Then it is up to the customer to decide if he really wants that single bottle of Jacob’s Creek sent across the country, or whether it might make more sense to order a case at a time.

But when a merchant operates a bricks-and-mortar shop too, I think things are less clear.  OK, shipping is a real cost, but so is the cost of running a shop.  The online customer is not getting the benefits of the shop, and the merchant need not use the shop to service the online customer.  Perhaps the answer here is to offer an online discount on the wine, and add shipping.  But that starts to get a bit complicated to manage, and in a way it depends on what the merchant sees as his primary way of doing business.  For whatever reason, it is not a pricing model you see.

In practice many merchants charge only a small amount for delivery, and offer free delivery for wine over a certain volume, or based on the value of the order.  Another approach, which I have never really understood, is simply to refuse to ship smaller quantities, whatever the value of the order. Then there is at least one merchant, The Wine Society, that offers “free” delivery for larger orders, but cheekily gives a little-publicised discount if you collect.  But when all is said and done, it is really a question of finding a solution that is acceptable to most customers.

Sometimes however, you can get very close to a delivery service that is genuinely free.  I refer to the the free local delivery that many independent wine merchants offer.  They will often specify an area within which delivery is free, but I have recently been finding that if you are prepared to be flexible about delivery times they are prepared to be flexible about extending that area.  Basically, it seems that merchants out in the countryside regularly make van runs into their nearest big cities, and if you happen to live in the city or en route they are happy to drop of wines FOC when they do the run. They may well draw the line at the above-mentioned single bottle of Jacobs’s Creek, and do not advertise it, but Byrne’s of Clitheroe will deliver free to Manchester addresses, and Buon Vino in Settle will do the same.  I fear life might get more expensive now I know that!  Also you can see on their website that Fingal Rock in Monmouth includes London in their free delivery zone.  These are all excellent wine merchants that deserve more business, and I am sure there are many others that offer flexible local delivery if you seek them out.

The final example of excellent free local delivery I’d like to mention is a bottle of Champagne I once ordered from Portland Wine at around 10.30 one morning.  Now that is truly a local delivery, so nothing strange about that. The excellent thing is that it arrived before lunch the same day.  Unfortunately the lunch was still not free.

Reasons not to pay too much attention to tasting notes

Only two reasons for now – if I put my mind to it I am sure I could find more. In summary they are:

  1. There are often variations, sometime very large ones,  in tasting notes from different authorities
  2. There can be quite large variations in one taster’s experience of a wine – well, mine at least, and I am sure I am not alone.

Perhaps the best known example of authorities having widely divergent opinions is the widely publicised spat between Parker and Jancis Robinson over Pavie 2003.  I don’t want to discuss the rights and wrongs of the disagreement here, but do want to emphasise that the two people disagreeing here are hardly johnny-come-lately wine bloggers.

While this case got a lot of attention, it is not at all unusual for well known critics to have very different opinions.  If you read The World of Fine Wine you will see many examples of this in their tastings section.  Spending only a couple of minutes flicking through the latest edition, I find a notes on a couple of Riojas to illustrate my point.  Here we have three tasters:  Tim Atkin (T), Jesús Barquín (J), and Marcel Orford-Williams (M) – maybe not quite in the same league as Parker and Jancis when it comes to authority and influence, but not too shabby.  It is not explicitly stated, but the implication is that each taster is tasting from the same bottle – not that it makes much difference to the reader, who will be drinking a different bottle anyway.  Here are TN extracts that I hope give an impression of the tasters’ opinions, together with their scores:

CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva 1994
T: Mature, feral… gamey… smokey… sweet oak. 15
J: Spicy raw meat… red fruit… fleshy. 17.5
M: Dumb, quite fresh, hard, dry finish. Coarse. 9

Contino Viña del Olivio 2005
T: Firm, chewy… extracted… super ripe… hard to like. 8
J: Balanced structure: acidity, noble tannins… truly excellent. 18
M: Overdone… overextracted and lacking in charm. 15

In case there is any doubt, I am not criticising WoFW or their reviewers.  Quite the reverse in fact – I think it is good that they allow this diversity of opinion to be visible.  But what a range of tasting notes and scores! How is a poor punter meant to interpret this diversity of opinion?  The stock answer is that you should calibrate your palate against the critics and follow those with whom you share tastes.  But I think that is easier said than done.  OK, one might get an impression of a critic’s likes and dislikes, but I doubt very much anyone actually trawls through their own notes and does wine-by-wine comparisons.  I certainly have not enough tasted wines in common with any one critic to do such a thing, though it might be a bit easier to achieve if you are more into high-end clarets.

I would propose that the answer to understanding a wine is to taste it yourself. But it is not quite that simple, and it brings me to my point number 2: variation in my own palate.

A couple of weeks back I attended an informal stand-up tasting at my local wine merchant.  A representative of the producer was pouring, and providing interesting information about the wines, but there was no hard sell. On the back of a small but unhurried tasting sample I bought a bottle of Langmeil Hangin’ Snakes Barossa Shiraz-Viognier 2007.  I didn’t take notes at the tasting, but as I bought the bottle for £12.50 I must have thought it worth 3 or 4 stars.

On getting the wine home, I realised that I had tried it a few months back at with my tasting group, a more leisurely tasting in a home environment.  Checking my notes I was dismayed to see that I was very dismissive of it.  It got 1 star, and I actually used the phrase “cheap and nasty” – ouch! I also thought there was a whiff of hydrogen sulphide about it, and as our hostess had recently acquired a Vinturi aerator we decided to give it a spin (as it were) with this wine.  When served treated and untreated samples blind, I correctly identified the samples and decided that the machine had made the wine drinkable.

So was I now the proud owner of a £12.50 cheap and nasty bottle that could perhaps be improved by a gadget, or was my quick in-store tasting sample to be believed?  I discovered when I took the bottle to Aladdin it was OK, if unspectacular – a grudging 3 stars I guess.  But tasting it at home, both before and after the restaurant trip, it was transformed back to its cheap and nasty mode – a grudging 2 stars.

No, it was not the glass – not entirely at least.  On the Aladdin evening I used the same glass on all occasions.   It was not cork variation, as these bottles were under screwcap. And it didn’t seem to perform consistently worse with or without food.  I do not usually notice such wide variation in my experience of a wine.  But clearly this does happen, and I urge you to bear it in mind when you read any of my tasting notes, or indeed (dare I say it?)  anyone else’s.  I am usually reluctant to to publish notes anyway, and when I do I like to base them on the experience of drinking several bottles on different occasions, though I have offered a few recently based on much more limited experience.

Having said all that, do tasting notes have any value at all?  Yes, I think they do.  For me, my own notes work mainly as memory joggers about previous experiences.  And if my experiences have been inconsistent it is no bad thing to be reminded of that fact too.  But when it comes to the notes of other people I am not so sure.  In my opinion they are mainly useful as a good starting point for a dialog.

Am I going to buy more bottles of  Hangin’ Snakes?  It might be interesting from a scientific point of view, but I am going to save my liver for better stuff.  And if my opinion still counts for anything at all at the end of this article, I would recommend that you take your money elsewhere too.

Some English wines

At the end of an earlier post on visits to a couple of English vineyards I mentioned I might have more to say after trying some of my purchases.  Well I opened a few bottles last weekend for my small tasting group, and here are some thoughts.  Most wine were bought at the English Wine Centre, which tends to be rather expensive.  Where this is the case I give first what I consider to be the normal market price, so fair price comparisons can be made.

Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs, 2001, £27-ish (£34.50 at EWC): At first I thought this was a 2007, but I was confused by the stroke at the top of the 1.  So the idea of  a mini horizontal with the Ridgeview went out of the window!  Soft and fruity, medium high acidity, with a distinctive touch of honeyed sweetness.  Good to drink now, but would be no problem keeping several more years. ****

Ridgeview, Bloomsbury, 62% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir, 14% Pinot Meunier, 2007, £19 (£24.30 at EWC): Soft strawberry fruit, medium high acid, dryer than the Nyetimber, and with a hard slightly unpleasant finish.  Would probably improve with 10 years or so. I clearly preferred the Nyetimber, but it is only fair to comment here that others thought this Ridgeview was better. ***

Three Choirs Vineyards, Coleridge Hill, English Regional Wine, Madeleine Angevine, Pheonix, 2009,  £8.50 (£9.50 at EWC):  Watery appearance, intensely grassy and herbaceous, medium high acidity, light and slightly off-dry. Length is maybe lacking a bit.  Drink now.   The 2005 Coleridge Hill was the first English wine I bought quite a few bottles of, but at that time it was only £5.50.  I still might be tempted at £8.50 occasionally, as it would make a lovely light summer aperitif. ***

Chapel Down, Bacchus, English Vineyards Quality Wine PSR, 2009, £10.00: Watery appearance.  Pungent.  A lot of cat pee on a small gooseberry bush.  Someone else said “stale sweat on a T-shirt”.  Eek, that’s right, it was not cat pee after all.  Strangely, after having heard Sauv Blanc being described as cat pee a few times in the past, the idea of stale sweat seemed so much more disgusting.  Slightly off dry, and with excellent length.  Drink now.  Despite all the sweat and pee metaphors I did like this. Open a bottle as an alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc sometime. ***

Single Vineyard Wine, Astley, Severn Vale, English Vineyards Quality Wine PSR, 2007, £8.50 (£11.75 at EWC): Watery appearance, citrus, sweet grapefruit, medium acidity, medium dry, lacking in length, and with slightly unpleasant finish.  This is not a style I like at all.  In terms of balance it reminded me of a cheap sweetish Vouvray.  For me a sweet wine has to have good acidity and intense flavours – this was lacking on both counts.  Others at the table liked it more than me.  **

However good or bad the wines were, this was not one of the most enjoyable tastings I have organised.  So many light, rather acidic, white wines in quick succession were rather difficult to stomach.  Whilst a glass might be OK on its own, if you drink these wines in any quantity you really need food.

Trust me, I’m a wine expert

I am fascinated by any scientific study in the field of wine tasting.  So often the results challenge conventional thinking in the wine world and provide much food for thought. Here I shall describe just one piece of research that I think deserves greater recognition.  It is published in The Wine Trials book, and an academic paper that you can download for free.  Do take a look at the paper, but I am not sure I would advise buying the book.  I have the 2008 edition, and most of it is devoted to “100 wine recommendations under $15”.  I enjoyed some of the commentary in the earlier chapters, but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing and even I am not convinced it justifies the purchase price.

The study involved 17 blind tasting events in the USA, held in 2006 and 2007.  There were 506 participants, and 523 wines.  In total 6,175 samples were tasted and rated.   For analysis purposes the participants were classified as expert or non-expert tasters.  Experts were defined as those having had some formal wine training.

The main result is that while the experts’ ratings correlated with price, the non-experts actually preferred cheaper wines.

To give a feel for the magnitude of the effect, the authors give an example of the predictions of one of the models they fitted to the data.  Using the 100 point scale, if there were 2 wines, one costing 10 times as much as the other, experts would rate the expensive bottle seven points higher than the cheaper one, but non-experts would rate it 4 points lower.  The book contains a paragraph of specific results, which I think are useful to put this into perspective: “On the whole, tasters preferred a nine-dollar Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet  Sauvignon to a £120 wine from the same grape and the same producer: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. They preferred a six-dollar Vinho Verde from Portugal to a £40 Cakebread Chardonnay and a £50 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Louis Latour.  And when we concealed the labels and prices of 27 sparkling wines and asked people to rate them, the Dom Pérignon finished 17th – behind 14 sparkling wines that cost less than $15, eight of which cost less than $10.”

There is one very practical lesson to be drawn from this study: if you consider yourself a non-expert you would probably do best ignoring recommendations from experts!

But what is really going on here?  There is probably no single explanation.  A few possibilities spring to mind, but I think the main reason is that the wine trade, from producers to critics, is too inward-looking.  The trade decides amongst themselves what defines a good wine, prices wines accordingly, and then seeks to educate neophytes in the mysteries of the art.  Meanwhile, everyone else feels too intimidated by the whole thing to question the clothes of the emperor.  It seems to me that the negative correlation between ratings and prices indicates that the wine market is organised very strangely.

Does it matter?  Well, yes, it has some very important consequences if sellers of wine are hoping that their punters are readily going to part with more money to get a more enjoyable product.  From my reading of the situation it seems that most drinkers are only likely to trade up if they get so interested in wine that they attend a wine course, or if they decide they need to impress by serving a wine with a prestigious label.

Perhaps that is just the way of the world, but I would be really interested in exploring what non-experts tend to enjoy as a group.  Do they really just prefer sugary pap to Proper Wines?  Or is there a new wine aesthetic waiting to be discovered? Something that future wine makers could aim for with the resources that potential higher prices will yield?

On return from English vineyards

Just got back from a few days in the South East.  Enjoyed Canterbury a lot, both for its cathedral and the three excellent and very different meals we had there: the world’s thickest and meatiest beefburger at The Dolphin, huge pots of sweet mussels at Café Belge, and a Michael Caines good value “amazing grazing” lunch.  What better way to recharge flagging tourist batteries than a good quality leisurely light lunch in a restaurant that manages to be formal and relaxed at the same time?

But I did not intend this to be a restaurant review.  We visited a couple of vineyards, Chapel Down and Wickham, also the English Wine Centre, and I wanted to share some thoughts about them and their wines.  I approached these places as an ordinary punter – a tourist if you like.  I did not phone in advance saying I would like to taste some wines to write up on my blog.  Apart from anything else, that would be lying as I am not exactly going to “write up the wines”.

Chapel Down

There were 13 wines for sale at Chapel Down and we expressed interest in tasting as many as we could.  We were soon disabused of that notion.  You can only taste 3 wines free!   We explained we were perfectly happy to pay for our tasting samples, but no they couldn’t do that – something to do with taxation.  Hmmm.  But if we wanted to taste more, then we could go on one of the thrice-daily guided tours at £9.00 a pop, after which we would get a tasting of 8 wines.  So using that ruse we could taste 11 of their 13 wines – in fact we later realised that as there were two of us, by sharing samples we could actually taste everything.  As a tour was soon due anyway we signed up.

In the meantime we wandered around the vineyards at Tenterden a bit ourselves.  The map we picked up was obviously a bit out of date but enabled us to find our way around.  The oldest vines were Bacchus and Auxerrois from 1987, and the most recent additions according to the map were Bacchus from 2007.  About half the area had been planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay in 2004, and there was also a block of Pinot Noir that dated back to 1999.  A vine of that venerable Kentish Pinot Noir features at the top of this article. All vines were Guyot trained, but to a greater height than I am used to seeing in other places.  I was surprised that several row end posts and nearby vines were on the floor.  I wonder how that could have happened – and how long it will take the vineyard to get around to repairing the damage.

The guided tour was fine, and bullshit free.  We got to see a bit of everything, including a sparkling wine bottling line in action. Only the second one I have seen – they are a lot more fun than still wine bottling lines.  Then, hurrah, we got our tasting.  In fact we only got 7 wines, but after our additional 3 free ones I felt I had tasted enough anyway.  Here are some brief impressions:

  • Vintage Reserve Brut, Sparkling, Reichensteiner, Rivaner, Pinot Noir, £17: Too expensive. ***
  • Pinot Reserve, Sparkling, 2004, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, £25: This is more like it.  Could well be a decent Champagne.  Has depth and interest.  Worth the money, and we bought some. ****
  • Bacchus, 2006, £10: Good acidity and intense fruit.  Closest point of reference for me would be a pungent Sauvignon Blanc.  We bought some of this too. Things were looking up, but unfortunately the best was behind us. ***
  • Flint Dry, 2009, Chardonnay, Huxelrebe, Bacchus, £8: Fresh, but undistinguished and lacking intensity, particularly after the Bacchus. **
  • English Rose, Rosé, Rondo, Schonburger and others, 2009, £10: **
  • Rondo, Regent, Pinot Noir, £12:  Shudder. Why do they bother? *
  • Nectar, 2009, Sieggerebe, Ortega, Bacchus, £13:  Medium Sweet. Shudder. Why do they bother? *
  • Brut Rosé, Sparkling, Pinot Noir, £25: Not impressed, but then I am not a rosé person. ***
  • Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling, 2006, £25: Not bad, but I was expecting more.  Might acquire more interest with time? ***
  • Pinot Blanc, 2006, £11:  Tastes like proper wine. But so it should for the price. ***

Finally, before leaving the site we popped upstairs for lunch at Richard Phillips.  I was surprised to find the restaurant was full considering it was mid-week and the shop downstairs did not seem very busy.  Anyway, we ate in the bar, which was not a problem for us.  The pea and ham starter was excellent – good texture and intense and fresh flavours – but both of us found our main courses disappointing.  A rather bland tasting fish dish, and two parts of my trio of lamb were in various stages of dessication.

That does all sounds rather negative, doesn’t it?  But I actually came away pleasantly surprised.  My only other encounter with an English vineyard – Chilford hall many years ago – had been dire.  By contrast this was a smooth and professional operation that offered some serious wines.  If only they did not put up so many barriers to tasting them!

English Wine Centre, and Wickham

Two entirely separate enterprises, but I’ll deal with them together.  We spent a lot less time at these places than Chapel Down, and the wines I remember from them were all Wickham wines.

The English Wine Centre is not a vineyard.  Most importantly from my point of view it is a shop – though it also has a restaurant, and markets itself as a wedding venue.  We were asked for, and were given, a tasting.  At this point we were feeling a little fussier than at Chapel Down and asked for dry whites and sparkling wines only.  That narrowed the field quite a lot as sparkling wines were not on tasting mid-week, and it turned out that one of the dry whites available was the Chapel Down Flint Dry we had already dismissed.  So we finished up with four wines, 2 of which we didn’t like, and two we did.  The ones we liked were both from Wickham – more on those later.  They had an excellent selection of English wines for sale, and we bought quite a few bottles there.  The main downside was the prices – a good 30% or so over cellar door and other retail outlets. However, if you are intent on buying English wines the convenience of having then under one roof is an advantage.

Next stop was Wickham.  First we had a quick look at the vines by the restaurant.  Not sure exactly what we were looking at, but they were cordon trained and had obviously been tarted up with roses and lights to enhance the view from the restaurant.  They also seem to have been equipped with heaters – a bit like smudge pots, but these were positioned under the vines.  Inside the shop we were offered a no-fuss tasting of all their wines, so top marks for that!  The ones we liked and bought are described below.  I am afraid I can remember little about the ones we did not like.

  • Wickham Vintage Selection Dry, 2009, Faber, £8 (£11 at EWC): Light and herby. ***
  • Wickham Special Reserve Fumé Dry, 2009, mainly Bacchus and Reichensteiner, £9 (£13 at EWC):  Delicately oaked, giving real interest. ***
  • Wickham Vintage Selection Special Reserve, 2009, Rondo and a little Pinot Noir £12.20: Sour cherries. ***

In conclusion

Generally speaking, I had my pre-existing feelings about English wines confirmed by the experience.  The better dry white wines were light and herbaceous – tending towards Sauvignon Blanc aromatics.  On the right occasion I could enjoy these wines.  It is not my favourite style, but I would say that about Sauvignon Blanc too.  At their worst they were acidic and watery.  English sweet wines and red wines I would generally simply avoid.  The sparkling wines made from German crossings were quite pleasant, but horribly overpriced in my opinion – a comparable experience to Prosecco, but at twice the price.  The sparklers made from proper French grapes I thought were comparable in both quality and price to Champagne.  To be honest I think Champagne is overpriced in the UK too, but at least that means the English equivalents can compete.

Perhaps more on English wines later, when I open some of my booty…

Warts and all

Have you ever wondered why you so rarely seem to see negative reviews of wines?  Or indeed other things?  I am very much aware that the first few reviews on my blog have tended to be positive, so I shall start by answering for myself.

Initially at least, I decided only to write about what I know well, and by and large that is what I have done – certainly my restaurant reviews and longer tasting notes have been for restaurants and wines I am very familiar with.  I didn’t want to be proclaiming judgements based on one meal, or a quick slurp and a spit.  But unfortunately a by-product of that policy is that I have only written in detail about things that I like.  I try to show dedication to my blog, but I draw the line at repeating bad experiences just so I can say with conviction that it was truly bad.

The other reason I might feel tempted to put a positive spin on a wine on a wine that was not great, or more likely say nothing at all, is if I know and like the person that supplied it to me.  I hope using the word “supplied” does not sound too much like having a drug habit fed; I use it to cover both being offered wine by a friend, and being sold wine.  Naturally I do not want to sound ungrateful for freely offered wine, and criticising it in public might be taken as ingratitude, but to a lesser extent I find myself reluctant to criticise wine sold by a merchant I know well.  Though having said that, the careful reader of this blog will find some examples of the latter.

As for other critics… well, I know of at least one who thinks that there are so many bad and mediocre wines it is not worth writing about them, and even listing them it seems.  The consumer of tasting notes is thought only to be interested in hearing about good wines.  I am not at all sure about that.  If someone else has tried a wine and found it to be bad, I would rather not buy it myself to make the discovery independently.  And if no one mentions a wine, how am I meant to know whether it is of poor quality, or simply not assessed?

This is also frustrating for the consumer when reading the results of large wine competitions.  We get to know the wines with trophies, medals and commendations, but how are we to know whether DRC again neglected to submit the requisite number of bottles of La Tâche, or it was judged to be unworthy even of a commendation? And this is where I start to get cynical.  Such a large proportion of wines get medals that to be unclassified is not at all good.  And no producer would want to go to the expensive of entering a competition with the possibility of being slighted like that.  So if the competition published the failures, they would not get get anywhere near the number of contestants and probably the competition would not be viable.

To an extent I think the same applies when writers get sent samples or invited on a jolly – er, sorry, fact finding mission – to a wine producing region.  If there were too many bad reviews the offers of samples and trips would slowly dry up – in general, if not for individual writers.  I am not accusing anyone of professional misconduct here, but I think we have to accept that however hard writers and critics strive to be independent it is hard to be totally objective when your livelihood depends on freebies.  Besides which, as I have noted above, it is really difficult to be critical about a product that is associated with someone you have got to know, like the producer you met on that trip.  I think it is also fair to admit that we as consumers of wine writing get what we pay for.  It is all to easy these to expect to get opinions for free on the net, but those who give their opinions for free need the means to get hold of things to write about.

I am sure that part of the knack of getting the truth from a tasting note or more general review  lies in looking for what has not been said, but that sadly is still a bit like looking for wines that do not have medals.  Did the critic not mention the intensity of flavour because it was insipid, or because he did not think it worthwhile commenting on?  Or perhaps it was not intense, but had an understated elegance?  We will never know.

Another trick in tasting note deconstruction is to look at the score.  I did not realise it until it was explained to me, but apparently a score of below 90 means that a wine is not recommended, while anything you should consider buying will be in the range 90 to 100.  But sadly that now means that some critics are reluctant to give 89 points – so even the points cannot always be used as a coded hint that a wine is under-par.

But you can still get some glimpses of warts.  The blind panel tastings in Decanter for example.  There, often you will find first growths and similar summarily dismissed in favour of more modest wines. What I miss there though is an explanation of the thought processes of the taster.  Of course, better wines need more time to come around, but shouldn’t professionals be able to recognise a young but promising wine from a good stable?

Cachumba, West Didsbury

Note that Cachumba no longer exists. I am keeping this merely for historical interest.

220 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester, M20 2LW. Tel 0161 4452479

Cachumba is self-styled on its website as a “Cafe & Take Away”. It certainly does a fair amount of take-away business, but apart from that I’d describe it more as an informal restaurant.  Food is brought to you at your table, though the menus are slipped under the practical glass that covers all the tables at each place setting.   Service, like the restaurant, is informal and friendly.  Be prepared to wait a while for your food if they are busy.

It may look closed, but don’t be fooled – if it’s earlyish evening, then it is probably open despite appearances.  But in marked contrast to most surrounding restaurants and bars, which parade themselves with open doors and outside tables, Cachumba keeps itself to itself.  Behind the screens in the window is a lush red haven, with soft music that is as eclectic as the food. It is a world apart from the currently trendy minimalistic style – a world that is more gentle, and inhabited by a rare, quiet sub-species of West Didsburyite.

It is difficult to describe the style of food, as it comes from around the world.  The focus, if focus is the word for such a vast area, is South and South-East Asia, but there is at least one African dish on the menu too.  Take a look at the menu on their website.  I have my favourites, but I know others that prefer other dishes so I won’t bother recommending anything in particular.  Vegetarians are well catered for. You may wonder, as I did, if it is possible to do justice to such a broad range of cuisines in one small restaurant.  Maybe it is not, and I wouldn’t like to vouch for the food’s authenticity, but it tastes great.  In particular, I am always struck by the vivacity of the flavours, presumably the result of everything being freshly cooked with fresh spices, and I always leave with a pleasant tingling sensation in my mouth.  And I never leave feeling overwhelmed by the heavy greasy sauces that are all too common in Indian restaurants in the UK.

All your dishes will by default be brought to your table more or less simultaneously, so if that does not suit be prepared to ask specifically for staggered servings. The portions are not huge, so you should probably think in terms of a couple of dishes each.  Though having said that, the portion sizes seemed generally larger than normal when I was there last a week ago, and the Vietnamese prawn fried rice dish was huge.

With spicy food, I would naturally tend towards aromatic white wine – well non-Chardonnay whites at least.  It is obvious that the wines were all obtained from Vin Vino, and very modestly marked up.  For example I see that you can buy the Solare Falanghina for £6.30 retail, and you can get it at Cachumba for only £8.95.   Recently I have usually been going for the Kirabo South African Chenin Blanc.  You won’t see it on the wine list on their website, but it is £9.95 (£6.90 retail).  I didn’t take a tasting note, but I remember it being crisp and apply. At various points in the past year or so I have also liked the Falanghina and the Gewurz, but did not get on with the Pinot Grigio – I think they are the ones they currently sell but cannot be 100% sure.  Anyway, Cachumba gets top marks for reasonably priced wines, and top marks for displaying their wine list in the window.  It used to be BYO, but sadly no more.

All in all I would highly recommend Cachumba.  Great food, friendly and relaxed, and a reasonably priced wine list.  I find it strange that it is always as quiet as it is, and think it deserves more recognition than it gets.  If you don’t believe me, here are reviews on sugarvine and onionring.

Contemplation of variety

When I think of wine in the abstract, I often get the same sort of feeling I used to have as a child on opening a box of chocolates: I contemplate the broad range of flavours laid out in front of me.  I am not sure how common the ability is, but I find it easy to imagine the experience of trying these wines, with and without food.  So in my mind’s palate, as it were,  I can flip backwards and forwards through various taste sensations.

Here I am not at all contemplating subtle differences, complexity, cultural roots or anything of that sort of depth – just marvelling at the sheer diversity of aroma, flavour and mouthfeel.  Some I am more familiar with than others, some I like to experience more often than others, but they are all good and my life would be the poorer if I lost any of them.  The joy is not in trying all of the styles within any particular time frame, but it is knowing that they are available should I wish to indulge.  And if you are feeling in the mood to indulge, the flavour experience is easily realised.  It can be as simple as opening a bottle, possibly with a trip to a wine merchant first.  OK, you might need a bit more patience if you are after more mature pleasures, but there is still a huge range of experiences available from younger wines.

So what about the subtle differences in wine you can experience in horizontal or vertical tastings?  Well yes, they can be important too, and the tastings interesting.  But they are not the primary source of the pleasure wine gives me.  Most of the time I’d much prefer to contrast very different styles of wine as I move through an evening menu from aperitif to dessert and cheese.  I prefer the hedonism of that approach to the more academic appreciation of subtle differences.