Archive for Feature

Toes Black In Lagar

They say that good things come to those that wait.

I’m not just talking about the embarrassingly long time it has taken me to write this piece on port (I went out to Portugal courtesy of Quinta do Noval last September). But also that, as a Joanna-come-lately to the wine trade, I finally clapped eyes on the breathtaking slopes and terraces of the Douro Valley. And had my first experience of treading grapes.

At wine school I was told it was hard work. But, by the time I climb into a lagar (a granite vat) of touriga nacional grapes, much of the treading has already done by a regular team (the warmth of the pulp at one end suggests that fermentation has already started) and it’s all pretty easy. The squishing and bursting of the grapes underfoot feels extremely satisfying, if a little addictive. I have quite the pouty bottom lip when we’re told treading needs to stop for fear of extracting to much colour and tannin from the grapes.

This traditional way of crushing grapes for port has, by and large, been mechanised – especially at the cheaper end of the market. Don’t fool yourself that anyone’s feet have been near your £10 bottle picked up at the supermarket. However, many producers do still carry on the tradition for their ‘dated’ ports like vintage, late bottled vintage (LBV) and the best tawnies. Quinta do Noval is no exception, and only resorts to mechanics for its finer ports – to punch down overnight the mass of grape skins, seeds and stems that rise to the top to that they keep in contact with the liquid beneath.

The trodden grapes will spend a few days in their lagar. That morning, we’d seen a vat of grapes that had been stomped three days beforehand, with little bubbles of CO2 forming under the cap. The juice would be separated from its cap the following day and pumped out into a large barrel called a pipa. En route it would pass through a small trough where grape spirit would be added to stop any more fermentation.

On average, the port wine stays in its pipa for up to nine months the following year, but it depends on the quantity of the harvest and the amount of wine made. Then all the young wines are moved downhill in tankers to an acclimatised cellar and blending room carved into the hillside, where decisions will be made on their destiny.

Like all port houses, Quinta do Noval used to ship its wines down river to the cooler Vila Nova de Gaia, which lies across the river from Porto, but wanted to minimise the amount of travelling and upset for the young wines. It claims to be the first port house to build a cellar that was protected from the punishing Douro heat. (Bottling is the only process done away from the quinta, on flat land in Alijo above the Douro hills.)

Inside the cellar lies a hall where barrel upon barrel of tawny port – dating back to 1937 –  lies sleeping. Tawnies spend a lot longer in cask than other dated ports, and their slow exposure to oxygen results in figgy, caramel tones. The very best is a colheita (pronounced col-yay-ta) from a single harvest. In other words, the tawny version of a vintage port. It’s a style at which Quinta do Noval excels.

Our little group of wine writers spends a few moments contemplating the deliciousness inside those casks. Our prayers are answered when, that day we have the superbly silky Colheita 2000 after lunch – a little slice of heaven. Then, prior to grape treading, the Colheita 1937, which showed such vitality for a 79-year-old wine and had years ahead of it.  I’ll be honest though, from all the Quinta do Noval ports we tasted on the trip, it was the Colheita 2000 which stole my heart. It isn’t just good things that come to those who wait. Great things come, too.


Quinta do Noval ports are distributed in the UK by Gonzalez Byass

Wine In The Time Of Guidelines

Hello, my name’s Paola and I’m a peddler of death. I have a licence – to kill. Entering my shop could seriously harm your health.

An exaggeration, of course. But, if you’re in wine retail, like me, it does feel a bit like, following the new government drinking guidelines.

My fears of a future where the windows of wine shops will have to be covered up, and all wine labels utilitarian, may not seem so outlandish after all. (more…)

Marisco Makes A Crafty Move

Brent Marris has a lot to answer for.

The Marlborough winemaker was responsible for my New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc crush back in the day, when I would pile my Majestic trolley high with Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. When I would smugly inform my passé Oyster Bay-guzzling friends that the winemaker had moved on.

He was also, it turns out, partly responsible for my utter contempt for the tropical fruit-scented gloop that became the dominant style for a while. (more…)

Past The Tucci To The Right-Sized Glass

A wedding anniversary. A long-awaited return to a favourite Italian restaurant. A well-known American actor. A discovery about wine glasses.

These are the circumstances that made Jermann Vinnae 2009 a truly memorable bottle of wine [back in 2012*]. (more…)

All The Wine Blog Posts I Didn’t Write

The role of the wine blogger is something the industry loves to debate. As someone who entered the wine industry late, it’s quite startling to see how much energy is expended on the topic, often by other writers themselves.

The latest misdeed getting everyone’s knickers in a twist (mine included, obviously) is whether bloggers have an obligation to write about wineries who wine and dine them, a response by ex-critic and now blogger Steve Heimoff to an article in trade magazine Harpers accusing bloggers of bad behaviour if they didn’t write anything after visiting a winery who’d paid for their trip.

“In other descriptions of commerce, a one-way transfer of value could also be called ‘theft’,” opined Dr. Damien Wilson, who leads the MSc Wine Business programme at the Burgundy School of Business.

It seems *gasp* that wineries are just like any other client who has spent a bit of money on PR and expects coverage as a result. If you want guaranteed coverage, pay for advertising. (more…)

Steak Me I’m Yours

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as a retailer is: “What wine goes with steak?”

The answer? Depends on the cut and how you’re cooking it.

Pinot Noir, for example, works well with a fried fillet steak. There’s not much fat and, frankly, not much flavour to battle it out with the Pinot. Add a mushroom sauce and you’ve got a bit more potential magic.

A chargrilled ribeye can handle something more robust, like an Argentinian Malbec, a gutsy Southern Rhone or a Shiraz. But these are broad brush strokes. There’s no exact science. It depends, for example, on the age of the wine and the style of the producer. And what you’re in the mood for. Still want Pinot Noir? Try a more concentrated style, like one from Central Otago in New Zealand.

I go to a fair few wine matching dinners. Often, these matches are theoretical; this wine should go with this dish.  Like blind dates, though, what might look compatible on paper doesn’t always produce sparks in real life.

I reckon Barry Vera, executive chef at STK London, had done a little road testing ahead an evening with Penfolds wines, called Red & Red. (more…)

Unlocking The Door To Chablis

You’ve got to hand it to Chablis. A name even those who claim to know nothing about wine can trot out when asked what they like.

But with this brand familiarity comes a huge amount of ignorance. I’m not talking about people who say they hate Chardonnay but love Chablis.

I’m talking about me.

Before my recent visit to Chablis, about the only thing I really knew was the grape, location and soil. The taste? Lean and steely, of course. The rather lush one I stock in my shop had to be an anomaly.

Now, after tasting my way though 100+  Chablis over three days, I may not be a Jedi Master, but I can now feel the force. (more…)

Once In A Lifetime Wine

WHAT a dilemma!

It’s 10.30am and, faced with an iconic wine that I may never get the chance to taste again, do I spit or swallow? (more…)

How A Wine Rack Helped Restore My Writing Mojo

Dear Rich

I’m sorry. Really, really, REALLY sorry.

You sent me a lovely wine rack from Black Country Metalworks to review back in January. And here we are, at the tail end of June and I haven’t posted anything yet.

You see, I was full of great ideas back in January. I could have just written a quick piece about the rack. But I had bigger ideas. Oh yes. Ideas about a wide-ranging feature on wine storage, where I’d skillfully weave in a review of your wine rack. Blimey, I’m even boring myself just thinking about that post. (more…)

The Don of Chilean Cabernet

If you ever get the opportunity to visit the vineyard where Concha Y Toro’s flagship Don Melchor wine starts its life, you are likely to find yourself in a ditch. An actual ditch, dug just so that you can see, close up, the composition of volcanic stony soil in which the vines struggle to survive. Beats being handed a stone or rock by a winemaker, as is so often the case. (more…)