The roots of biodynamics

Wine drinkers tend to think of biodynamic wine production as organic with bells and whistles: the bells of  biodynamic preparations, and the whistles of a lunar calendar.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by Demeter’s requirements for biodynamic certification, at least in the sense that they are simlar those for organic agriculture but more demanding.   But that is not enough for me. Who came up with all the ideas behind biodynamics?  I knew Rudolph Steiner and Maria Thun had a lot to do with it, but what were their respective roles, and who else was involved?  And when, why and how?

I was initially driven by the urge to examine the evidence that biodynamic agriculture works, especially in the context of wine.  But very quickly I realised that in order to establish how successful it was, I needed to understand what was being claimed on its behalf.  And I also wanted to know the extent to which the claims were based on theory, and how the theory was derived.  This was not an easy task, and even after as fair amount of work spread out over a few months I feel I still have much to learn, but these are my preliminary conclusions.  Feel free to put me right!

While Steiner did not himself use the term biodynamic, or biological dynamic agriculture, its roots are clearly tracable to a series of lectures he gave in Koberwitz in 1924.  These lectures, now known as The Agriculture Course, were given to a small group of people who had consulted Steiner for advice on how to tackle agricultural problems they perceived as becoming increasingly common.  The Agricultural Course is not easy going, and I do not pretend to have read it all myself, still less understood it.  But I do suggest you at least take a look at a few lectures to get a feel for the content.  Steiner’s advice did not come from his agricultural or viticultural expertise, because frankly he had none.  Rather it stemmed from Anthroposophy, his spritualistic philosophy.  The theoretical validity of his ideas stand or fall solely on this intellectual framework.  He introduced what were to become known as biodynamic preparations, and similar remedies for weed and pest control, which supposedly worked because they helped focus various mystical forces.   See Lecture 4 for example, where he discusses the preparations now known as 500 and 501.  Note however that he was not concerned about the chemical content of the preparations fulfilling nutritional deficits in the soil.  Neither was he concerned about the gravitational force exerted by the moon, which some modern day apologists for biodynamics seem to focus on.  No, the atrological calendar was important to Steiner because various heavenly bodies transmitted astral forces differently at various times.

Steiner died soon after The Agriculture Course, but his ideas were put into practice and tested by some of the attendees of his lectures, and by later followers  These tests were not what we would probably regard as scientific, but at least the people involved were real agriculturalists, and they were making empirical observations.  In fact one of the strengths of biodynamic practice is that it emphasises the need to get out into the fields, experiment, and observe.  A summary of some of this research is given here (click on Plant Rhythms on the left hand side).  You can see that this is where Maria Thun comes into the picture with the research on fruit, flower, leaf and root days that gave rise to her calendar  Again, I recommend that you poke about a bit, on the Maria Thun page for example, to get a feel for what these people were doing.

One thing I thought was worthy of note is that only plants grown from seed were used in this early research, and the criterion for success was the size of yield.  Surely these empirical results, even if they are otherwise trustworthy, could not possibly have anything to do with wine viticulture.   Vines are propagated through cuttings and high quality products are normally associated with low yields.  But Steiner probably would not have been concerned about this issue; his criteria for success were on a more spiritual plane than crop yields or a good glass of wine, and he doubtless saw no reason why his methods were not equally applicable to viticulture.  And here I think we have the first evidence emerging of diverging views of those in the biodynamics community.  Some regard themselves as Anthroposophists and fully buy in to Steiner’s ideas; others see themselves as less spiritual, and practise biodynamics primarily because they think it works.

But the practical group is obviously dependent on the spiritual theorising, and not just that of Steiner.  At some point, someone somewhere must have build on Steiner’s ideas to decide how best biodynamics should be applied to viticulture.  And then winegrowers with no real interest in Anthroposophy must have been convinced enough by the proposed new procedures to try them and evaluate the results.  One of the things I find most difficult to take seriously in biodynamics is the way new proclamations seem to be plucked out of mid-air, and stated as fact even if they are based on the flimsiest of evidence.  But it is definitely the case that the biodynamic cannon is being added to constantly, largely by word of mouth, from practitioner to practitioner and not least from consultant to practitioner.

So that is my attempt at a potted summary of the roots and theoretical basis of biodynamics.  Except that I have said very little about organic agriculture.  That illustrates one of the points that I hoped to bring out.  The origins of biodynamics are largely independent of those of organic farming, but the two are now so intertwined you cannot really be biodynamic without also being organic.

Liebherr wine fridge filters

As any owner of a Liebherr wine fridge should know, you are recommended to replace the air filter cartridge every year.  But they are are not cheap: a couple of months ago I bought 4 for £87.64 including delivery from Coolectic Ltd, and you can currently buy one from Wineware for £26.50 plus £5.45 delivery.  When you are paying the price of a decent bottle of wine per fridge on filter cartridges every year, it makes you wonder exactly what the purpose of them is, and if you can do without them.  Strangely I cannot find anywhere in the handbook, or on the web, that directly explains what their purpose is.  There are just vague comments about the filter ensuring that the air remains at optimum quality.

Let me help Liebherr out.  I understand that it is important to keep air circulating through the fridge to prevent the build up of mould.  And given that the air has to be sucked into the fridge somewhere I would imagine that if the air were not filtered you would get a black mark on the bottles adjacent to the air intake.  I can also see that if the filters are not replaced regularly they will eventually clog up and reduce the air circulation.  But the filter cartridges also contain activated carbon.  The only purpose for activated carbon in an air filter as far as I can make out is to remove odours from the outside air, so I really struggle to understand why that is so important for a wine fridge.  If you would be happy storing your bottles outside the fridge from an odour point of view, why would you want to remove odours as the air is sucked in?

So my view so far is that filters may be useful, but I would question the need for activated carbon.  My cynical mind suspects that the activated carbon is mainly there to help justify the high price of the filter cartridges.  The other reason for paying the high price is that the value of the contents of a wine fridge will typically run to over a thousand pounds, and you would not want to ruin all that for the price of a filter, now would you?

Motivated by an enquiring mind and not a little stinginess, I decided to investigate what I was getting for the twenty-odd quid I was spending on a filter cartridge by sawing open an old one.  Here is the result:

At each end is a circle of filter paper that looks and feels for all the world like the filter paper you use in cooker hoods.  And the gap in between is filled with 3mm diameter pellets of activated carbon.  According to the wikipedia article the technical term is apparently extruded activated carbon.  So how much would it cost me retail to get the bits I really need to replace – the paper and the activated carbon?

The filter paper is the easy bit.  I could buy 2 sheets of cooker hood filter paper for £2.81 including shipping from Amazon.  That would be enough for over 150 cartridges.  Activated carbon is more tricky, not least because it is sold by weight, and the carbon in the filter is so light I do not have the equipment to weigh it.  However, according to this table the bulk density of activated carbon is 0.26g/cc and I calculate that I would need 31.4cc per cartridge, which would be 8.478g.  So in a kilo there should be easily enough for 100 cartridges, and I can buy a kilo of 3mm pellets for £9.85 plus £5.25 shipping, £15.10.  I think you can probably see the direction this is heading.  I could buy the contents of a Liebherr filter cartridge for around 20p retail, even including the activated carbon that I am not convinced is necessary.

So most of the £20-£25 obviously covers the cost of the plastic and manufacturing.  Oh, and profit of course.

All I need to do now is work out how best to reassemble an old cartridge with new contents.  I think the easiest thing is not to saw at the flange as shown above, but rather to remove and discard the other end.  Then I could insert a disk of cooker hood filter paper, add the activated carbon, and seal the end with more filter paper, holding it in place with tape around the circumference of the cylindrical bit of the cartridge.  Or I could simply forget about the activated carbon, and sellotape filter paper over the hole in the fridge, or hold it in place with a bit of an old cartridge.

BD or not BD?

But that should not be the question.  It is all to easy to hang the biodynamic tag on a producer or a bottle of wine, and get into discussions about whether adoption of biodynamic winemaking has lead to improvements, or whether biodynamic wines are better than non-biodynamic wines.  It is one of those subjects that has recently hit the consciousness of wine drinkers, and looks like it is here to stay for a while, fuelled it seems by a steady stream of producers converting to biodynamics, and journalists keen to report on the success stories.  There are of course also dissenting voices, often with mumblings of mumbo-jumbo.  And a common standpoint for wine drinkers is that many biodynamic wines are very good, and if biodynamics makes good wine they are all for it.

But no one really seems to be too concerned about exactly what that biodynamic tag means.  Neither is it always clear what criteria they are using for deciding which they prefer.

I hope it is obvious that there is a huge spectrum of non-biodynamic viticultural practice, ranging from the environmental destruction advocated by agrochemical companies in the 1960s, to organic farming.  Less clear maybe is that there is also considerable variation in biodynamic practice.  I have myself heard producers say they are biodynamic, but don’t take any notice of the “astrological nonsense”, or that they do not bother with all the biodynamic preparations. And pretty much all of them seem to take the view that if a procedure urgently needs performing they are not going to hang around for the next leaf day or whatever.  Even Demeter certified producers have a lot of discretion. For example, the Demeter Farm Standard does not require tasks to be performed according to a lunar calendar, and allows mechanical stirring of biodynamic preparations.  On the other hand I have also noticed that some biodynamic winemakers are happy to add to the cannon of biodynamic thought by taking existing theory and extending it to new areas, deciding for example that wine must be matured in wood because a vital energy cannot penetrate steel or concrete.  Another example of a recently invented idea is that the position of the moon affects how wines tastes.

How do you judge the quality of the production method anyway?  Do we need a panel of judges who taste the wines blind and allocate points out of a hundred?  While there are procedural objections you could raise to that approach, I think it is a lot better than having a recently proselytised producer enthusiastically pushing a glass into the hands of a journalist. And what do we compare the wine to?  To other wines of about the same price?  To wines from the same producer and age, but of earlier vintages?  That is always tricky due to vintage variation, and at what age do we make the comparison. Or perhaps it is not the wine that is important.  There is also the quality of the vineyard, and the environment in general.  That is probably even harder to judge, at least if you are comparing with a regime that does not involve chucking chemicals about willy-nilly.  In the biodynamic field trials I can find results for, the criterion for success is a large yield of vegetables – hardly confidence inspiring from a wine point of view!

In truth there are a myriad of different decisions and interventions that are taken in the production of wine, starting with the selection of vineyard, and ending in the release of bottles to the market.  It is those interventions, in conjunction with the weather that nature throws at it, that determines the quality of the wine – not a broad-brush philosophy. My approach would be to judge the interventions one at a time, or in small groups.  We can then design an experiment and start getting somewhere.  An easy one might be to have someone stir one batch of biodynamic preparation in the Steiner-approved manner and another batch that is for example “shaken not stirred”, and to then judge the results by an agreed criterion.

Unfortunately, it is at this point that my incredulity kicks in and I have to ask myself why even bother with the experiment.  Is there any realistic chance of there being a difference between shaking and stirring?  And the same applies to any number of other possible biodynamical interventions you could imagine.  Equally unfortunately, I think I can also hear the voice of biodynamical theorists saying that I have missed the whole point: that biodynamics is about a holistic approach that cannot be judged by science.  Not what most would call conventional science at least.  Steiner based his ideas on Goethean science that emphasises the importance of human consciousness interacting with the world.  So conventional science, by stressing the importance of blind and double-blind trials, seems to run into direct conflict with Goethean science at a very fundamental level.

More on biodynamics later as I find it a fascinating subject.  But for now, I would urge you not to pay too much attention to whether your wine has a biodynamic label, literal or otherwise.  If you really care, you need to be asking questions about the method of production in a lot more detail.

The cult of the natural

For as long as I can remember in the relatively short life of my wine geekdom, the standard temperature advice for long term storage of wine has read something like: ideally around 12 or 14°C, avoid extremes of heat and cold and diurnal temperature variation, but seasonal temperature variation will cause no damage.

So as I was reading Jasper Morris’s “Inside Burgundy” over Christmas, I was rather surprised to see the idea that “Arguably [natural conditions that vary somewhat from Summer to Winter] is to be preferred: it reflects the rhythm of the earth.”  After my standard sceptical harrumph to such notions, I thought little of it.  Until I stumbled across an article by Steven Spurrier for The Wine Society in the Society News January 2011 where I read something similar: “Today (October 24th) my cellar is 10°C and will descend slowly to 6°C by January, rising to 16°C by August. I feel that such variation suits the wines, as a constant temperature cannot be natural.”  What’s going on here?  Since when did seasonal temperature variations not only be harmless, but become desirable?  Did Jasper plant the idea into Steven’s mind, or does the meme originate elsewhere?  Some biodynamical proclamation perhaps?  I bet there is no basis in empirical evidence.

In the absence of that hard evidence, what might science teach us about temperature and the ageing of wine?  Well, many different complex chemical reactions contribute to the maturing of wine.  Each one will progress at a rate that depends on temperature, and as it takes place the products of the reaction become available for other reactions.  Roughly speaking, if you increase the temperature by 10°C the rate of any chemical reaction will increase by a factor of two, so your wine will mature about twice as fast.  But it is not quite as simple as that.  Because the rate of each reaction will respond to the increase in temperature slightly differently, the paths taken by the reactions will never be the same for wine matured at different temperatures, and they will always result in a different wine.  And if you vary the temperature with time, you will get yet another wine.  How big these effects are I wouldn’t like to say.  You will certainly notice a wine maturing faster at a higher temperature, but the difference between a wine cellared at 5°C for 10 years and one matured at 15°C for 5 years is going to be more subtle.

And what is so natural about laying down bottles of wine in a cellar under a domestic house anyway?  Wouldn’t leaving them lying around outside be more natural, and make the wine even more subject to the rhythms of the Earth?  Does that mean the wine would be even better?  In fact maybe we should abandon the nasty industrial glass bottles and revert to goat skins.

OK, maybe I am reacting to a couple of offhand comments with undue sarcasm.  And I certainly don’t really want to single out Messrs Morris and Spurrier for criticism.  It is a trend in wine writing, and also in society in general, to glorify the natural – man-made artifacts and environments are rejected, and natural is treated as being almost synonymous with good.

Meanwhile I am wondering if I need to adjust the temperature of my Liebherrs for the seasons.  I don’t think I’ll bother, but I fear that future models might come with annual temperature programmes as standard.  Until then, 12°C it is.

Beaujolais and the benefits of a good map

There is a myth abroad that the less prestigious straight Beaujolais, as opposed to Beaujolais-Villages and the Beaujolais Crus, originates in the sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region.  In fact I have heard this said so often that I thought it appeared in many introductions to the wines of the region, but when preparing to write this blog post I could only find one textbook, albeit a rather influential one, making the claim in such an extreme way.  The culprit is the WSET Advanced Certificate textbook.  Maybe it has been rewritten now – the most recent version I have is from 2004 – but the damage has already been done.

When I visited Beaujolais, also in 2004, in our hotel and at several producers I noticed a raised-relief map of the region showing the geology and the limits of the various appellations, and after quite a search I managed to buy one – from De La Vigne au Verre, a gift shop in the centre of Fleurie.  There is a picture of it above to show you roughly what I am talking about (be sure to note the invaluable reminder of why there is an “s” at the end of Beaujolais).  The salmon pink areas are for straight Beaujolais, turquoise is used for Beaujolais-Villages, and the other colours for the Crus.  I understand contour lines on maps pretty well, but I must say a raised-relief map makes it so much easier for me to appreciate the landscape.  A quick glance at this map immediately casts doubt on the idea of sandy alluvial plains of the South and East of the region; it is pretty obvious even in the image above.

The alluvial plains lie by the river as you might expect, to the East of the region only, and there is little or no viticulture of any sort on them.  The largest areas vineyards on low lying hills are actually to the river side of the Beaujolais-Villages area; not in the South.  Most of them are classified as straight Beaujolais, but from the geology and relief alone the reason for the location of the border between Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages is not immediately obvious to me.

Southern Beaujolais is actually quite hilly – not noticeably less so than the North.  Some is calcareous, and thus not so good for Gamay, but around 50% of the area is schist and granite.  One can only assume that the main reason the granitic parts are deemed only to be worthy of the lowest appellation is the orientation of the the slopes.  But even then some slopes do not seem to be much less auspicious than many in the Beaujolais-Villages area.  I suspect there are quite a lot of decent wines produced here being sold for not very much money at all.  A few years ago I enjoyed several bottles of a straight Beaujolais called La Doyenne, Domaine des Pierres Dorées **-***. The domaine is based in Le Breuil, which is in this promising-looking area of Southern Beaujolais, and according to Nick Dobson the grapes were from old vines grown on sunny slopes of granitic outcrops.  I see he does not stock it now, so presumably it was a hard sell.

Having dealt with low-end Beaujolais, let’s turn our attention to the Crus, which are exclusively in granitic and schistous areas. Côte de Brouilly stands out on my map literally and figuratively.  The Cru limits are basically defined by the all the slopes of an extinct volcano – even those that are facing North.  And Brouilly is the area around the volcano, some quite hilly and some flat. These two Crus lie to the South of all the others, and are largely separated from them by a river. The Crus of Saint-Amour, Juliénas and Chénas seem a bit detached to the North.  They have as their focus another river valley, and also have slopes facing in all directions.  Most of the Crus however, including the most prestigious ones of Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent, basically lie on one gentle slope that is largely South-Easterly facing.  Looking at the relief map it is easy to jump to the, possibly false, conclusion that it is the angle and direction of the slope that are the key factors in being a top Beaujolais Cru.  That and the granitic soil of course.  Or perhaps there is something more specifically special about the soil and rock on that particular slope.  But if not, it has to be said that other bits of Beaujolais-Villages look hard done by.

While I am in the mood for criticism, I’d like to point out in that WSET textbook from 2004, the map of Beaujolais also leaves a lot to be desired.  The Crus are strung out as a series of dots from North to South like villages on the Côte d’Or.  But they are areas, not villages.  Some don’t even have an obviously associated village, so dots are not particularly helpful.  And even if you can get past that, the dots are not nearly in the correct relative positions, e.g. Fleurie and Chiroubles seem to be inverted.  I am a great believer in the use of maps to illustrate any subject with a geographical element, and that certainly includes any book on wine.  They do not have to be perfect, but should be accurate to extent implied by the map’s scale and level of detail, and to be fair many of the WSET maps are precisely that.  So there we have a good and bad examples of wine maps.  Good ones can be very informative, but beware being mislead by poor ones.

What’s wrong with German wine labelling

Many people complain about German wine classification being too complicated, placing too much emphasis on must weight as an indicator of quality, and confusing punters with the introduction of inferior bereiche and grosslagen with misleading names.

To me the text on a traditional label for a prädikatswein is a model of clarity.  Here’s one I’ve been drinking a lot of recently: 2000 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett.  The information traditionally comes in the same order

  1. Vintage (2000)
  2. Village (Brauneberg)
  3. Vineyard (Juffer)
  4. Grape variety (Riesling)
  5. Prädikat (Kabinett)

Somewhere on the label there will also be the region, in this case Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, which gives some indication of the style to expect, and of course the producer – here it is Weingut Fritz Becker Erben.

If a German wine is dry or medium dry, the label will usually indicate this with the EU defined words trocken or halbtrocken respectively.  Though you may also find the word feinherb used, which is not controlled by the EU, but roughly means the same as halbtrocken.  Otherwise you can pretty safely assume the wine will be sweet, with the prädikat giving some indication of the level of sweetness.  And finally, as a special treat for wine geeks, there will be an ID unique to the particular bottling.  My wine is AP Nr 2 577 015 5 01.

So what is the problem? You have all the key information.   French labels are sometimes criticised for omitting the grape variety and level of sweetness, but that is rarely an issue with German wines.

I suppose having a smattering of German helps a lot.  For example you need to realise that Brauneberger means “from Brauneberg”, and you sometimes also see something like 2000er, meaning “of the 2000 vintage”.  And some of the vineyard names are awfully long and complicated looking.  But they are just names – take them one syllable at a time.  It may well be my geeky scientific mentality coming through, but I really like the orderliness of German labels.  It reflects the strict word order rules in German grammar.

Of course, if you do treat the prädikat as a mark of quality, you are likely to come a cropper at some point or other.  As with all wines, the best indicators of quality are vineyard and producer, and you have that information too.  I simply take the prädikat as an indicator of style.  As such, perhaps it would be useful if there were maximum as well as minimum must sugar levels specified for each one, but even so it provides useful information.

On the issue of grosslagen, as I see it they should be treated like the any other specified vineyard.  Some vineyards are better than others and of course you have to know which are the good and bad ones to make sense of the information.  There’s Google, and plenty of references books, to help you out. And of course price is also usually a pretty good indicator.  If you see a cheap wine with Niersteiner on the bottle, do you really expect it to be from one of Nierstein’s top vineyards?   In that sense it is no better or worse than Burgundy.  The most serious charge against bereiche and grosslagen is that they allow a respectable village name to be applied to vines that may be grown beyond the limits of the village.  Again, I am reminded of Burgundy.  No one seems to get upset, for example, about the name of Beaune being applied to wines from a number of different villages in the southern part of the Côte d’Or.  Not to mention the way several villages on the Côte d’Or managed to acquire the names of their finest vineyard leading to, for example, the name Montrachet featuring in the appellations of village level wines from two different villages.

So as you can perhaps now guess, I don’t think there is a lot wrong with German wine labelling.

Or at least there wasn’t.  But I find the more recent attempts to give recognition to good quality dry wines unhelpful.  How many people really understand what a Grosses Gewächs is?  And if they do, could they explain how it differs from Erstes Gewächs and Erste Lage?  I have just read an article on the subject in The World of Fine Wine and I’m damned if I can without referring back to the article.  There is also a modern trend to simplify labels by omitting information, or using a simplified front label and relegating detail to the back of the bottle.  I also find this unhelpful, as removing context makes it more difficult to work out what the remaining words refer to.  Is that word the village or the vineyard?  Or maybe it is simply a made up brand name?

Anyway, what about this  2000 Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett from Weingut Fritz Becker Erben?  This year I bought a case of it from Cambridge Wine Merchants for the princely sum of £6.50 a bottle, and I am currently in the process of trying to clear them out of their last remaining bottles, but they may have a few left by the time you read this.  £6.50 for a 10 year old wine!  I believe there is some bottle variation, the less good bottles being less intense and a bit tired, but the better ones are beautiful.  A light crisp wine, with apple and lime aromas, a fair whack of petrol, and sweetness in excellent balance with the acidity.  Not a great wine by any means, but very enjoyable if you like that sort of thing.  Some bottles maybe should have been drunk a few years ago, but the better ones are in my opinion spot on now and just about merit ****.

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.

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?