Tasting Georgia – book review

This is Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia – A food and wine journey in the Caucasus, hardback, Amazon price is just over £20. It is published by Pallas Athene, and will be available from 6th June. So in the sense that this book has not been published yet, this is more of a preview than a review. It is also a preview in the sense that it is based on a mere 2 hrs or so perusing an almost-final PDF version of the book – sadly I find it hard to read on-screen for longer periods of time.

Firstly, I was struck by the photography, which is also Carla’s work. It is of a very high standard, and the images nicely complement the text to give a feeling for the country and its food and wine. Many of them impacted me emotionally, reflecting the beauty and often-gritty reality of the subject matter. I have recently returned from a visit to Georgia, and my impressions are captured by Carla far better than my own inadequate photographs. At a much more prosaic level, it was also nice to see locations, faces and dishes I recognised.

After a general introduction to the country’s history, wine and food, with emphasis on the food, Carla devotes each major section of the book to a particular region. Each starts with a map and introduction, followed by a number of sections devoted to specific entities in the region – villages, restaurants, food shops, cooks, winemakers and, notably, recipes. There are 70 recipes in total throughout the book, each one attractively presented in a very practical way over a double-page spread, one page to illustrate the dish, the facing page describing how to make it.

The book smacks of good solid, almost classical, design. It is nicely presented in terms of structure and illustrations, and reads very well. A common bugbear of mine is the quality of the mapping in wine books, but I have absolutely no complaints on that score with this book. I could easily imagine going through it linearly from cover to cover – as there is no annoyance of boxes and side-bars to break the flow – and yet the division of the text equally supports diving in to take one section at a time. Finally, it has a comprehensive index. Two in fact, as there is a separate recipe index and meal planner. Am I getting over-excited by the presence of an index? It is something one should expect in a book of this type, but increasingly it is a feature deemed expendable by publishers, and one I miss if absent.

As I am writing on a wine blog, I would add just one note of caution. If you buy this book only for information about Georgian wine you could be disappointed, as Tasting Georgia is certainly no comprehensive guide to its wines and producers, and neither does it claim to be. Nevertheless, I am sure many wine lovers – especially those with foodie tendencies – will find a great deal of interest here.

So, as I said, this is a more preview than a review. I am not sure if I have convinced you about the book, but I have certainly seen enough to know want a paper copy for myself so I can read it properly. In the meantime, I shall be describing my personal experiences of Georgia over the next few blog posts here, so if you are interested in the country please keep in touch.

Update 02/06/17: Carla has added a comment to this post that I think you will find worthwhile reading – some background to the book, her approach to writing, and more about the wine-related sections.

Update 28/11/17: Just a note to say that since writing the above preview, I have read the  physical hardback book in detail, some parts more than once, and have also used a few of the recipes. My respect for the book has only grown, and I still agree with everything I wrote above, though I have just made a few very minor changes, including changing the RRP to an online price. I do however fear that my comment about the book not being a “comprehensive guide to its wines and producers” comes across as too negative. It was not meant to be; but just an indication that it does not follow the standard pattern of wine books, with sections on grape varieties, major producers, and tasting notes. On the other hand the book does cover artisanal qvevri wine production in considerable detail, and profiles many wine producers of that type. I should also point out that I obtained the physical book as a review copy from Carla, but already I have also put my money where my mouth is, and bought a copy of it as a present.

Q&A – Food matches for Madeira


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gourmet Diet

I thought of calling it the Eat What You Want Diet, but I that name might be misleading even if it is in a sense correct.  You can very much8 eat what you like, but possibly not as much as you like.  The point however is to consider what you really want to eat, and focus on that.

Please do not get too hung up on the word gourmet.  It doesn’t mean you have to eat sun-dried tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar all the time; merely that you should be picky about what you want to eat.  You decide.  The fundamental principle of the diet is to figure out what you really enjoy about food – what you like to eat, and when and how you want to eat it.  Try to become more aware of when you stuff food into your face out of habit or boredom, but do not particularly enjoy it.  You do not have to do all this analysis up front.  It is probably better if it evolves over a period of time.

When you know what food you really enjoy, do not even think of giving it up.  Figure out ways of enhancing that enjoyment.  Seek out the best quality.  Learn to cook it yourself.  Go to excellent restaurants to experience it.  Hopefully, for many if not all foods, this search for quality will naturally lead a reduction in consumption, out of budgetary constraints and availability issues if nothing else.  But if it doesn’t, don’t worry too much.  It is life-enhancing, takes the emphasis away from the negativity of dieting, and is only part of the Gourmet Diet.

The other part is learning to stop eating food you do not particularly enjoy.  If you are not sure how much you like something, go ahead and try it when the opportunity arises, and ask yourself if it was worth it.  If not, don’t do it again.  If you are honest with yourself, I think you will find that even food items you thought you liked turn out not to be so great after all.  Find out which foods are particularly calorific, and be particularly discerning with those.  On the other hand, encourage yourself to eat fruit and vegetables.  Realise that you do not die if you remain hungry for a few hours, and that food tastes even better if you delay gratification.

Monitor your weight.  If you have stopped losing weight at any point and are still overweight, tweak your diet appropriately.

Does it work?  Anecdotal evidence suggests it does.  That evidence comes from the inventors of the diet – me and a couple of mates.  I lost weight and kept it down for a decade or so, which was pretty good going, but now I admit I need to refocus.  Apart from this veritable wealth of evidence, it is also very well established that if you cut your calorie intake sufficiently you will lose weight. In that sense, the successful application of the Gourmet Diet is a special case of the Eat-Less Diet, and it is easier to eat less when  you enjoy food more.  That’s how it worked for me anyway.

And what has all this got to do with wine?  It wasn’t my main motivation for writing this, but wine is calorific too and the same principles apply.  Wine enthusiasts are usually very much aware of the idea of drinking less and better quality to keep alcohol content in check.  It works for wine calories  as well as alcohol.

Supper clubs and the wine geek

Whether you are a wine geek or not, if you love good food, and the company of others who love good food, I would suggest you seek out a local supper club.  If you are not sure where to start looking, try following a few local foodies on Twitter.

In addition to good food, you will have the not inconsiderable bonus of being able to eat out with your own wine.  BYO may sound like a mere money-saving advantage, but it is much more than that for a week geek.  It means you have full control over the wine selection, and you can make sure it is served correctly which is a detail many restaurants manage to cock up.

I am sure there are almost as many variations on supper clubs as there are clubs, and I do not propose to give an overview of them all here.  I am just writing from my limited recent experience of two in Manchester.  Although I have only been to supper clubs on 4 occasions in total so far, most of our fellow diners were on their first so I am starting to feel as if I have a wealth of experience to share.

Speaking of fellow diners, meeting new people around a shared table is one of the great pleasures of this form of dining.  I suppose the corollary is that if you are after a romantic dinner or an opportunity to catch up with a long-lost friend, you should probably be booking a table for two at a restaurant.

Below are the two supper clubs we attended recently in Manchester…

Wendy’s House Supper Club

Wendy Swetnam started her Manchester supper club only this year, but she already seems to be more serious than most supper club hosts in terms of growing it as a business.  I would describe Wendy’s House Supper Club as being professional in the very best sense of the word. But do not expect cold professionalism; expect a warm welcome, an informal atmosphere in a cosy house with an intimate table that seats eight, and an unassuming chef. The professionalism comes through in an attention to detail that would be overlooked in many restaurants.

I feel rather inadequate when it comes to describing food, but it is good – very good.  Certainly well towards the top-end of what Manchester has to offer in terms of restaurant food.  But in a way that is to miss the point.  Wendy offers an overall dining experience that is very different to that provided by restaurants, and in many ways better.

Oh, did I mention that only vegetarian food is on offer.  But if, like me, you are omnivorous, don’t let that put you off – good food is good food.  I have attended two of her supper clubs so far, and do not intend to stop now.

For supper club bookings, pricing, and information about Wendy’s other ventures see wendyshousesupperclub.co.uk, or follow her on Twitter @wendyswetnam.  You will find descriptions and images of her supper club food in both places.  For the views of other people I met at Wendy’s see blog posts by RoseBudAnnie and GreedyGuzzler.

Manchester Foodies

If Wendy is professional in the best sense of the word, the Manchester Foodies are amateur, also in the best sense.  Anna and Jamie host supper clubs for the joy of preparing excellent food and meeting others who enjoy eating it.  You can try to find out about plans for future supper clubs on their blog Manchester Foodies or Twitter @mcrfoodies, but do not expect them to be as frequent or regular as Wendy’s, and they will most likely not all be held in their home.

We went to a Manchester Foodies supper club based on Ottolenghi’s book Jerusalem.  The feel was more like popping round to friends for dinner than the more carefully orchestrated evenings at Wendy’s.  And the food was placed in the centre of the table on large plates and boards – again more informal than Wendy’s carefully arranged individual plates, but also truer to the style of Ottolenghi’s Middle Eastern food.  One of the big pluses of the less formal approach was that not only did we get to interact with other supper club guests, but there was plenty of opportunity to chat to our hosts too and get to know them a bit better.

What I remember most about the food was the subtle yet fresh and interesting use of spice in the dishes, and the textures.  All mouth-watering stuff, and a mere £25 for a Middle-Eastern feast.  I’d love to return for another Manchester Foodies supper club given an opportunity, but when (and indeed where) will it be?

Here’s what FoodGeek had to say about the evening.  To prove I was there, you can see me in the second image of the post, just behind the bottle of Musar 99 😉

And the next one for us?

It is looking very much like it will be hosted by seasons eatings @seasoneatmcr.  The food looks great and, it is highly recommended by GreedyGuzzler, which is good enough for me.  Maybe I’ll see you at the Fig and Sparrow one in December.

Azienda Agricola COS

We have just returned from a week staying at Locanda COS – accommodation at the Sicilian wine producer Azienda Agricola COS.  You might already know that I am a bit of a fan of COS wines (see here and here for example), but you probably did not know that we have long intended to holiday in Sicily, amongst other things to take in some Greek temples, like the Temple of Concord at Agrigento shown below. What a great solution it was to stay at COS.


I do not pretend to be a hotel critic or travel writer, so I am not going to dwell too much on the accommodation and the sightseeing.  Let’s just say we would be happy to return, and if you want any more details please ask.  However I feel confident in asserting that we were provided with great breakfasts, dinners and wine.  The dinners, often just cooked for the two of us, were excellent.  It is difficult to describe them briefly, as they varied so much.  In the best possible sense they were rustic rather than sophisticated, and the flavours and flavour combinations were superb.  Great raw ingredients were clearly an important basis for the quality of the food, but they were also put together very nicely.  Our chef was usually Pino, but one evening Angela Occhipinti (Guisto’s sister) stepped in to offer us some local Sicilian dishes.

The wine service was good, and equally varied.  You really have to dine several evenings to get a good picture!  When it was just the two of us, Pino usually opened a couple of bottles and let us get on with it.  On other occasions, I think basically when new people arrived, Joanna joined us and guided us through smaller quantities of a greater number of wines.  By the end of the week, we had worked our way through all the current COS releases (some more than once, but I am not complaining), and a couple of older wines.  A sip of their experimental sparkling Frappato, white and with the base wine fermented in amphora, passed my lips too, but it was sadly corked.  Our dinner hosts, Joanna and Pino are shown below.  They both deserve a big thank you for making our stay there enjoyable.


And here is the view from our apartment (Tramontana), over the vineyards to some mountains on the horizon.  Just out of shot to the right, on a clear day you can see Etna.  You can also see one of the COS dogs, keeping my wife company on an evening stroll. That particular one is easily distinguished from the others by his crazy sticky-out ears.


One morning we were given a tour of the cantina.  Here are some of the amphoras used for the fermentation and initial aging of Pithos wines.  Red and wihite wines are fermented on their skins, and allowed to sit on their skins in amphora for a while after fermentation.  During fermentation the cap is pushed down with specially designed implements.  One can be operated through the small whole in the lid that is clamped to the top of the amphora. For some reason I expected there to be more amphoras – the image shows something like 40% of the total in that room, and there were 4 amphoras elsewhere for the base wine of the experimental sparkling Frappato.  All the ones shown are used for the Pithos Rosso.  Production of Pithos Bianco is relatively small, and occupied only one corner of the room.  The 2012 vintage had already been pumped out of the amphoras, but there was a problem with some of the wine, so it was returned to amphora in an attempt to rectify it – that is why two amphoras are in use with their lids clamped down


But only the Pithos wines are fermented in amphora.  Most is fermented more conventionally in epoxy-lined concrete tanks in a recently designed building.  Again the scale is not huge. You can see there are 4 pictured on the left, and there are another 4 to the right, and that is it.  Gravity drives most of the flow.  You can see where the tanks are loaded from the walkways at the top, which is close to ground level, and the large neutral barrels used for aging some of the wines are at a lower lever level than the fermentation vessels.  Pumps only need to be used to get wine to the bottling line, which is again roughly at ground level.


I didn’t hear the words “biodynamic” or “natural” mentioned once at COS, though I understand both terms apply to their wines.  But there were a couple of hints given in the tour.  One was the constant classical music being played in the main building with the concrete tanks, because the wines liked the vibrations.  The amphora room however survived without – perhaps the amphoras were enough to compensate for the lack of music.  The other hint was the reluctance to use stainless steel as a container, as it acts as an antenna and transfers unwanted energy to the wine.

I vini

Firstly, some brief notes on the designations.  The most important local designation is Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOGC, which can also have Classico appended if the grapes come from a more restricted zone and the wine is aged a bit longer before selling.  It is made from a blend of the local light and fruity Frappato variety, and the better known and more structured Nero d’Avola.  Typical proportions are 60-70% Nero d’Avola and 40-30% Frappato.  The COS Pithos Rosso blend would meet the Cerasuolo di Vittoria regulations, but the amphora vinification means it is not entitled to use the name.  Recently the catch-all designation of Sicilia IGT ceased to exist, so producers now have to use an alternative on their labels – either Terre Siciliane IGT or Sicilia DOC on the label, depending on their wine and how they wish it to be perceived.

The wines were each taken with one or more of the dinners we had at COS.  This was an ideal way of appreciating them, but as the food was different on different occasions, any comparisons must be taken with lashings of salt.  And, as ever, I make no claims to objectivity – indeed, I don’t believe it exists in wine tasting.  The prices are approximate, or estimated, UK retail.

Ramí, Sicilia IGT, Isolia – Grecanico, 2011, 12.0%, £17
Medium deep amber gold. Medium intense on the nose. Apricot and orange peel. Medium low acid. Sweet fruit. Drink now ****

Frappato, Terre Siciliane IGT, 2012, 12.0%, £17
Medium purple ruby. The nose seemed to get a bit lost in the glass. Medium low acid. Medium tannin. Intense confected raspberry fruity. Drink now, or soon. Gave *** on first occasion, but I enjoyed it more subsequently, so ****

Nero di Lupo, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola, 2011, 12.0%, £17
Medium purple ruby. Intense sweet dark fruit. Medium acid. Low tannin. Drink now or leave to age a little ****

Pithos Bianco, Sicilia IGT, Grecanico, 2011, 11.5%, £20
Medium amber. Intense apricot and marmalade. Medium low acid. A little sweetness perhaps, or just ripe fruit. Some astringency. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****

Pithos, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola – Frappato, 2011, 12.0%, £20
Medium pale, purple ruby. Fresh, vague red fruit.  Some vegetal notes, broad bean pods, or maybe raw mushrooms. Medium acid. Delicate. Sweet fruit. Medium low tannin. More attractive on palate than nose. Like Burgundy with a little age perhaps. Sweet fruit on finish. Drink now, but no hurry. The vegetal notes would have cost this wine a star, but I did not get them on subsequent bottles, so  *****

Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Nero d’Avola – Frappato, 2010, 13.0%, £20
Medium pale ruby garnet. Intense light berry fruit. Hint of raspberry maybe. Tad vegetal. Medium low acid. Medium high tannin. As nose. Could be a young non-Burgundian Pinot Noir. Excellent length. Drink now or maybe keep a few years ****

Maldafrica, Sicilia IGT, Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot – Frappato, 2009, 13.0%, £20
Intense purple. Intense Cabernet blackcurrant nose. Medium acid. Medium high acid. Sweet fruit as per nose. Needs more time.  Not really for me, and there are plenty of good alternatives for this type of wine ****

Maldafrica, Sicilia IGT, Cabernet Sauvignon – Nero d’Avola, 2008, 14.0%, £20
Intense, dark fruit. Slightly Smokey. Serious wine. Medium acid. Sweet fruit.  Medium tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry.  A different blend from the 2009, and a big step up in quality *****

Contrada, Sicilia IGT, Nero d’Avola, 2007, 13.0%, £40
Intense purple ruby. Intense mature dark fruit. A little towards an oxidised style, with prune and caramel notes. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Good now, but may improve over several years ****

The notes above are written in my usual telegraphic, rather grumpy, style, but I would like to stress that I enjoyed all of these wines, and was very happy to drink them with food over the course of a week.  Not once did I think I’d really rather be drinking something else.  I brought a couple of bottles of Contrada back with me, choosing that wine largely because it is not so readily available in the UK.  Then, one of my first acts on returning home was to order a case of Pithos Rosso – now only 11 bottles.

Modest Burgundies in Burgundy

Returned from the ACE Cultural Tours Mediaeval Burgundy a few weeks ago.  So not so much focus on wine, and a lot of churches and abbeys.  I would highly recommend the tour if you are into that sort of thing. ACE will doubtless run it again at some point.

At our first hotel, the Hostellerie Le Cedre in Beaune, the food and wine was a lot better than on many of these trips.  Here the food was very accomplished, particularly considering they were catering for a party of 16.  It was excellent and well-presented French cuisine, though not as far as I know particularly Burgundian.  Usually 4 courses, with a varying number of small little extras.  Not quite as fussy as what you might expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but heading in that direction.  The wines were also good, if modest, and they were definitely from Burgundy.

At L’Hôtel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or in Vézelay, the food was typical tourist-grade hotel mediocrity, most things being premade and/or preformed.  To be fair to the hotel, I don’t know what their brief and budget was, and what they are capable of on a larger budget, but I was not impressed by what we got.  The wines were not great either.

We had a good few glasses of wine with each meal, so I feel I had a good chance to form an impression of each one, and I describe them briefly at the bottom of this post.  I was particularly impressed by the Prosper Maufoux wines.  Unfortunately this négociant does not seem to be available in the UK – not the straight Bourgogne AC red and white at least – but I will keep an eye out for them next time I am in Burgundy.  Apart from the wines drunk in our hotels, we had a touristy tasting at Bouchard Ainé et Fils which I don’t feel inclined to comment on further, and a few jug wines for lunch.  Ones I particularly remember were an overly-acidic Passetoutgrain, which suddenly became enjoyable when my steak frites arrived, and an Irancy which reminded me of the Domaine Rigoutat wine described below.  Is all red wine from North Burgundy like this?  I wish I had stuck with Chablis in that area.

At Hostellerie Le Cedre, the wines listed below were €20-30 on the wine list, and as far as I could tell they would retail for around £13 in the UK.  No idea how much the wines drunk in Vézelay would cost in the UK.  Maybe £8.  I would not buy them at any price.

Hostellerie Le Cedre

Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Référence, Maison Prosper Maufoux à Santanay, 2009 – Good Pinot Noir fruit. Medium low tannin. Would benefit from a few more years ***

Domaine Bertagna, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits, Les Dames Huguettes, Pinot Noir, 2007 – Intense varietal Pinot Noir fruit. Hard edge on the nose and palate. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Would benefit from a few more years ***

Bourgogne, Haute Côtes de Nuit, Bichot, 2007 – Intense. Citrus and peach. Medium acid. Drink now ***

Domaine Chevrot, Bourgogne, Pinot Noir, 2009 – Bright intense varietal Pinot Noir fruit. A little rubbery. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now ***

Bourgogne, Chardonnay, Prosper Maufoux, 2008 – Intense. Slightly mature. Slightly oaky. Some citrus. Medium high acid. Drink now ****

L’Hôtel de la Poste et du Lion d’Or

Domaine Rigoutat, Bourgogne, Coulage la Vineuse, 2008 – Sickly cheap Pinot Noir fruit. Coarsely oaked. Awful *

Irancy, Domaine Verret, 2008 – Sweet, icing sugar, Pinot Noir fruit. Medium acid. Low tannin **

Articles I would like to have written

I don’t agree with everything Elliott Morss says in these articles, and some of the perspectives are US-centric, but you might notice that he writes on many of the themes that engage me too.

Not light reading – take them one at a time, and with a mug of coffee to hand.  Must admit I have not read them in detail myself yet, but the mug-of-coffee approach is what I am planning.

China/HK: The New Wine “Vanity” Market for Bordeaux

The Economics of Marketing Wines – Does Region Matter?

The Global Economics of Fashion and Clothing: Part 2 – Fashion

The Taste of Wine – Does It Matter?

The US Wine Market – A Global Economist’s Perspective (Part 1)

How Restaurants Select and Price Wine

Selecting Wines

I discovered the website when seeking out entries for my new blog roll, but decided the articles probably probably fit better here in a post of their own.  If you want to check for new articles, I am sure you can work out how for yourself.

Steak, wine and astringency reduction

As a rule, I am pretty laid back about matching wines with food.  I am normally happy to go with the conventional wisdom in the company I am keeping.  Not because I think that always results in the best matches, but because if people think a wine is appropriate it probably will actually be enjoyed more.  Convention also has the advantage of ruling out some horrendous food-wine clashes, like creamy desserts and dry red wine – a taboo combination I learned the hard way as a student. But I would not be prescriptive – eat and drink whatever you wish!

Having said all that, I do find it interesting to match food and wine.  I can easily imagine combinations of flavours and usually have an opinion on what will and will not work for me, usually in terms of wine structure and basic tastes rather than the details of the aromatics.  As such I was intrigued to learn that Tim Hanni, with his unconventional views, has persuaded the WSET to let him rewrite the food-wine matching chapter of Exploring the World of Wines and Spirits.  I am not going to give a blow-by-blow analysis of the chapter, but rather concentrate on this excerpt:

Many myths have originated from well-intentioned, yet inaccurate, explanations for serving a wine with a certain food. An example of this is the perception that the harsh tannins in red wine is softened when the wine is served with red meat such as beef. Conventional wisdom credits interactions between the wine with protein and fat of the meat for the softening of the tannins. It has now been proven that the bitter-suppressive quality of salt that is put on a steak is responsible for this phenomenon and that without salt, the protein and fat actually increase the intensity of bitterness and the astringent feeling of tannin.

The reason tannic wines are astringent is that the tannins react with proteins in the saliva causing solids to precipitate out.  This decreases the viscosity of the saliva causing more friction between the gums and teeth and gums, which contributes to the sensation we call astringency in wine tasting.   Additional factors could include the disruption by tannins of the production of mucus, and the constriction of blood vessels in the gums. (This is, for example, reported in Ronald S Jackson’s Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, where he refers to original research.)

It is indeed often stated that protein-rich foods tend to soften tannins.  I think the rationale is that the tannins react with the food proteins, leaving your saliva to provide lubrication unhindered.  But, as Hanni says, this could well be myth.  I have personally tested it, using Parmesan cheese, and just about convinced myself.  But for me it was far from conclusive, and anyway Parmesan is also salty.  More importantly, even if I was convinced, it would be at best anecdotal evidence.  I have not found a reference to a peer-reviewed scientific paper that demonstrates the importance of protein rich food in reducing astringency, and Hanni says it has now been proven that salt is the cause.

But hang on a sec… where is this proof?  Hanni refers to no research either, and a quick google reveals nothing.  He is very keen on demonstrating his theories, and will refer to the authority of university researchers, but offers no hard evidence.  For what it is worth (still not peer-reviewed research as fas as I know) it seems that Bruce Zoeklin thinks that salt increases astringency.

I aplaud Tim Hanni for tackling wine myths.  There are plenty around that need to be busted.  But I fear he is replacing them with a new mythology.  Do explore for yourself what foods and wines work together, but if you are going to break with convention do it with a truly open mind – don’t let yourself be prompted as to what might work or not by someone selling ideas.

And please, if you are now torn as to whether to have protein or salt with your tannic red wine, ask yourself first whether you think the astringency needs reducing at all!

A Spring in Majorca – but only one week

Once again I decided there are more beautiful things in life than wine bottles to show pictures of, so here is the Gran Hotel in Palma, designed by Domènech i Montaner who was also responsible for Modernista buildings in Barcelona.

Palma is a fine city, but we were staying in Sóller, at the other end of the scenic railway, and just over the mountains on the North West side of the island. So most of the restaurants mentioned below are in Sóller, though there are a couple we visited for lunch on day trips.

Generally speaking I was a little surprised at how similar the restaurants we tried were in terms of price, menu choice and quality of food.  It seemed to be pretty standard to offer a number of local Mallorcan dishes, along with some with a somewhat more international flavour which normally came with shredded lettuce and other inappropriate bits of salad.  Generally speaking the quality was pretty good, but never much better than that.  Here are the restaurants, together with the wines taken at each place.  The prices are estimated Spanish retail prices for 75cl bottles, converted at current rates.  Don’t take them too seriously, but it will give you some idea the relative prices.

La Vila, Sóller
We had our first evening meal in our hotel restaurant.  Good atmosphere and service. The food was OK, but on the relatively pricey side and unnecessarily complicated.  Scallops were a bit chewy, and the selection of cheeses boring.  Nicely cooked magret of duck in a good orange sauce, but lots of additional faffy bits, and apples with so much cinnamon flavour they overpowered the rest of the dish.

Jean Leon, Petit Chardonnay, Penedés DO, 2009, £9.50
Intense and ripe tropical fruit.  Pineapple, and something with a bitter edge – maybe Seville oranges ***

Ses Nines, La Vila Hotel Sóller Edició Limitada, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Tianna Negre, 2009, £13.50
This was a supposedly a special cuvée for the restaurant.  Intense and brambly, with quite a bit of tannin and a bitter finish.  Good now, but I’d expect it to improve in the next 5 years or so.  A good ***

Es Canyis, Port de Sóller
Had a late lunch here, sharing a starter of grilled sardines and a main of arròs negre.  Simple but very good – probably the best meal of the holiday.  Nice relaxed restaurant and good service too.

Blanc de Blancs, Maciá Batle, Binissalem Mallorca DO, 2010, £5.30
Intense tropical fruit again.  This time pineapple and melon I thought.  Bitter and cloying finish ***

El Guia, Sóller
The most remarkable thing about this place was the service.  Slow and ponderous silver service, with wine top ups every few minutes until they got a bit busier, and a waiter who keeps repeating the order to himself as he returns to the kitchen.  The fish soup  was full of mushy fibres of fish.  Maybe that is how it is done locally, but it wasn’t to my taste.  But I enjoyed very much the local dish llom amb col – pork wrapped in cabbage leaves and slow cooked.

José L Ferrer, Crianza, Binissalem Mallorca DO (Mantonegro), Spain, 2008, £9.00
Sweet sickly dark fruit on the nose – rather unpleasant I thought.  Slightly sweet, slightly oxidised, and quite tannic *

Son Tomas, Banyalbufar
Just had a main course for lunch here – a disappointingly tough grilled monkfish.  My wife’s Mallorcan fish was better cooked, so maybe I was just unlucky. A nice terrace location though.

Alba Flor, Blanco, Prensal Muscat, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Vins Nadal, 2009, £7.50
Another oxidised one.  Lemon, sherry and apples.  Maybe I should have been sending these back, but I quite liked this one.  More interesting than tropical fruit! ***

Cipriani, Sóller
This was not the Don Cipriani you may have read about elsewhere.  It seems that has now folded.  This was a restaurant on the main square.  The food was very good.  I had the sopes mallorquines, which was actually a meal in itself (I had forgotten that sopes was not soup), and the equally local slow cooked shoulder of lamb.  Decent service, and a good outside location.

Ses Nines, Manto Negre Cab Sauv Callet Sirah, Binissalem Mallorca DO, Tianna Negre, 2010, £9.00
Blackberry.   Jammy, and with a certain edge.  Quite tannic, bitter finish.  Not unpleasant.  Despite the same star rating, it did not appeal as much as La Vila’s version of Ses Nines ***

Sa Cova, Sóller
Had a couple of meals here.  Service is a bit rough around the edges but acceptable, and outside tables small with little space around them.  Had battered squid rings as a starter twice.  The first time was fantastic – light and crispy coating with melt-in-the-mouth squid.  Next time was sadly more greasy and chewy.  Had the magret of duck here too to compare.  This time it was in PX sauce.  Bigger portion, also well cooked and tasty, but cheaper and less faff.  This one also came with cinnamon apples, which were more subtly spiced.

ÁN/2, VdT Mallorca, Falanis, Ánima Negre, 2008, £11.60
This is the cheapest of the Ánima Negre red range.  Nicely delineated aromas, vanilla oak, and blackcurrant fruit. Intense and quite tannic.  Spicy, especially on the finish.  Excellent length.  At last we had stopped messing about with wines on this holiday.  Would be even better after another 5 years ****

Victoria, Alcúdia
This has an excellent location on the peninsula beyond Alcúdia – a terrace with fine views.  I had a tuna salad to start with, which turned out to be tinned tuna on a salad you might well get in the UK.  Pleasant enough, but I expected something more exciting.  This was followed by frit mallorquí, a local offal fry-up, which was good.

Bach, Extrísmo, Seco, Penedes DO (Xarel.lo, Macabeo, Chardonnay), Spain, 2009,  £5.00
Citrusy, orange I think, and pineapple.  Good value ***

Café Sóller, Sóller
As suggested by the name, this was less of a restaurant and more of a café that serves food. A rare fillet steak here, correctly cooked.  The place seems to specialise in inappropriate garnishes, so my steak had a huge piece of white asparagus lying across the plate.  My wife’s mozzarella and tomato salad came with a strawberry, and I saw pasta being served with slices of orange and kiwi.

Án, Felanis, Ánima negra, VdT de los Illes Balears, 2001, £50.00
This is the middling priced wine of the Ánima negra range.  Intense mature spicy red fruit. Cinnamon, I think.  Sweet ripe fruit. Dusty tannins. Fantastic length with a bitter finish.  Drink now or keep up to another 10 years.  Easily the best wine of the holiday *****

Bizarrely, in our experience of Sóller, the less fancy the restaurant and the poorer the quality of the wine glasses, the better the wines that were available.  Sa Cova and Café Sóller were the only places to serve anything of the level of ÁN/2, and Café Sóller was the only place to have Án on their list.  Café Sóller also deserves special mention for the reasonable markups on the Án.  They charged €41 for the 2001 and €58 for the 2000 – less than the retail prices I saw for similar vintages.

Why wine tastes the way it does

  1. Environment
    Lots of anecdotal evidence for this one.  Supposedly explains, for example, why rosé wines taste better when you are drinking them on holiday in southern France.
  2. Ambient light
    There is experimental evidence that the colour of ambient light affects taste. People like wine when it is served in blue or red light more than if the background lighting is green or white.  Also, according to Emile Peynaud in Chapter 3 of “The Taste of Wine”, odours are perceived better when the lighting is good.
  3. Music and other sounds
    The pitch of a tone being causes you to enjoy different beers to a greater or lesser extent, and playing different pieces of music also affects how wine tastes.  This is discussed by Charles Spence in World of Fine Wine issue 31. You may note that WoFW 31 was published after the date of this post – yes, I snook in this point, and point 6, on 26th March 2011!
  4. Company
    It is easier to enjoy a wine if you are in good company. I also think it is possible for a group to persuade an individual that a wine is good or bad by exerting a form of peer group pressure.  Similarly I am told that someone leading a tasting can easily persuade tasters.
  5. Mood
    Many wine drinkers seem to think their mood is important for enjoyment of wine, and I see absolutely no reason to doubt it.  Perhaps another reason why wine tastes better on holiday in the South of France.  Some apparently think that the wine itself can have moods.
  6. Activities prior to tasting
    Sleep deprivation raises the threshold for perception of sourness, and sensitivity to taste decreases in the period immediately following a meal.  Discussed in World of Fine Wine issue 31, this time by Francis Percival.
  7. Food
    I think this one is pretty uncontroversial.  But there are two aspects to this.  One is the physical effect of the food, for example the iron in red wine making it a poor match for fish. The other is tradition and culture.
  8. Previous wine
    This is easy to demonstrate for oneself when tasting wine.  If for example you had a very acidic wine immediately beforehand, the one you are tasting now will tend to taste less acidic than it would otherwise.  It is not really too surprising, and similar effects are to be found with the other senses.
  9. Serving temperature
    Clearly this is important, but it is less clear to me that there is an ideal temperature for any given wine.  Surely it is a matter of personal taste.  Many wine writers observe that red wines are often served too warm, and whites too cold.  In the glass, and over the course of an evening the temperature of the wine will probably change anyway.
  10. Degree of inebriation
    As with many other senses, taste and smell are dulled by the effects of alcohol.  It is a lot more difficult to appreciate the wines at the end of a “generous tasting” that those at the beginning.
  11. Palate fatigue
    Even if you do not swallow a drop, after several wines it becomes increasingly difficult to taste properly without a break.  It seems to get easier with experience, but even professionals have their limits.
  12. Attention
    Have you ever noticed that if someone else mentions an aroma you are more likely to find it in the wine?  Presumably that is because you stand a better chance of finding aromas if you concentrate on looking for them.
  13. Wine education
    According to The Wine Trials, tasters who have an educated palate tend to prefer more expensive wines; those who do not tend to prefer cheaper ones.
  14. Physiology
    It is well documented that difference people have very different degrees of sensitivity to TCA.  Another example is the rotundone – responsible for the peppery taste in Syrah and black pepper, and undetectable by 20% of the population. I see no particular reason to expect that there is any less variation in sensitivity to many other aromas.  Then there are supertasters, who have many more tastebuds than most people, and who tolerate acidic and bitter flavours less well, and the 30% of Caucasions who totally fail to detect the bitter flavours of PROP.
  15. Personal preferences
    While physiology may account for some difference in personal taste, I think sometimes we simply prefer different things, probably the result of the associations we make with different smells and flavours from childhood on.
  16. Glass
    Undoubtedly the glass is important.  Certainly wine will taste different in a tumbler that it does in a conventionally designed wine glass.  And wine glasses of widely varying size and shape will also produce different results.  But beyond that, I have seen no hard evidence for different shapes being ideal for wines of different grapes or regions.  Of course that does not mean that a wine won’t taste better in what is supposedly the right glass if you believe it will.
  17. Colour
    In a study by Morrot et al, a white wine coloured with red food dye was characterised by tasters in terms of red wine odour descriptors.  Also the colour of rosé wine seems to be important in determining how good it tastes  – something again reported in Chapter 3 of “The Taste of Wine” by Emile Peynaud.
  18. Bottle ageing history
    Temperature is key here.  Wines will age age faster in warmer conditions, and will not follow the same path to maturity.  And if a wine sees temperatures that are too high it will be destroyed.  Exposure to light is also damaging; it causes something called light strike.
  19. Bottle sickness
    I use bottle sickness here to include wine being under par due to having just been bottled, also called bottle shock, and wine that is not so good because it has just arrived somewhere after a long journey.  More people seem to agree about bottle shock than wine needing time to settle down after travelling.
  20. Time after opening
    Many wine lovers will say that the wine changes in bottle after opening, in the decanter, and in the glass.  It is also often claimed by those who do not finish a bottle at one sitting that wines change over a period of days.  I rarely get a chance to put that one to the test.
  21. Bottle variation
    Probably cork variation would be a better term, as a lot of it must be caused by different oxygen permeabilities.  Possibly varying amounts of contaminants such as TCA are also a factor.
  22. Label
    For some the prestige of the name and vintage on the label is more important than the wine itself.  If they know they are drinking a great wine, they will tend to enjoy it more that if they are drinking it blind.
  23. Price
    This is similar to the label in the way it can influence opinion.  There was a well-publicised study around 3 years ago that suggested that wine is perceived to be better if it is believed to be expensive.  By which I mean actually tastes better; not merely that the tasters felt the need to say that it was better.
  24. Bottle design
    Bottles and labels give all sorts of subtle expectations as to what is in the bottle, and expectations affect perception of taste. Unfortunately marketeers are aware of this, and fancy heavy bottles with well designed labels are now used to help sell inferior wine.
  25. Back-story
    OK, this is another one I can offer no evidence for, but I bet if you told someone that the wine they were tasting was grown biodynamically, pressed by the thighs of virgins, and matured in gold plated barriques, they would think the wine tasted better than if you told them the same wine was produced in an environment that looked like a chemical factory.
  26. Moon location
    Yes, some people believe that the position of the moon in the zodiac affects the way a wine tastes.  I believe that there might be an effect if you are told before tasting where the moon is and how that should affect the taste, but not otherwise.
  27. The liquid put into the bottle, and its age
    And some believe that how a wine tastes may depend on the liquid in the bottle, and the period of time between bottling and tasting.  They write tasting notes linked to this information only and publish them.  Other people read them thinking that they contain useful information.

I do realise you might not agree with me that all of the above affect the actual taste of wine.  But stick with my blog, and I hope to return to argue my case.  Here, I just wanted to gather everything together in a list.

Update: I have added points 28 and 29 in another post.