Category Archives: wine

some unfinished notes on why tastes might be important to me and quantity is the most difficult thing

I was a fat adolescent. I have obsessed about the amount I eat since the moment I realised, at about sixteen, I didn’t have to be fat. Analysing myself in hindsight, it’s easy to see how I connected limiting the amount I ate with escaping – tentatively, desperately, clumsily – a self-imposed sexlessness, still do. And then in turn, it’s easy to see how not-eating became a false cure for my neuroses: the more I limit what I eat the more I become a successfully libidinous adult!

The line between these queer drives, and the more simple question of how much to eat and drink is still not definite.

On the one hand eating is a basically satisfying experience, apparently the surest affection our senses can achieve. It produces this sensation where something physical is transformed into something mental. It produces this complex state where something is in fact at once physical and mental, both outside and inside mind and body. We can then recall this sensation in our minds at will, or we can actually recall it physically by tasting the same thing again. Memories, through taste, become present, controllable and external.

For me, the first taste of pink-fleshed discovery apples at the end of summer is my annual madeleine. It brings back without fail the repeated tastes of those apples in the orchards where I grew up, and with it, all the experiences I associate with the time come back in an instant. And it’s in this way, rightly or wrongly, that eating becomes in a way existential, a nice practical way to snub solipsistic depressions, solidify memories. The taste of that apple is not just in my mind, but also in the apple! I am, it seems, because I taste.

With wine, something I discovered later, this is perfectly commodified: bottled tastes and memories with labels on saying where they come from and how long ago. With wine certain tastes come from certain places; we drink certain things at certain times; the potential subtlety and nuance of the stuff is infinite, but remains particular to those bottles we buy and drink. And then, we can, if we like, go and buy another bottle of it.

An unromantic example: Sainsbury’s house Muscadet for me recalls one May two years ago so strongly I don’t buy it unless I want to think about that time. It was the wine I bought cheaply and mindlessly to accompany the herb omelettes I’d prepare automatically at about ten at night, after long hours in the library revising for my finals. The taste of this simple, sour, mineral wine is now indelibly connected to that time and experience.

And then perhaps we conflate this experience of tasting with a process of meaning. Apples, wines and words have associations for one person they don’t to another, but they also seem to have something peculiar to them we, as speakers and tasters, can identify. Sense and taste, language and food, seem, if only as analogies, intertwined in this way. When we write about wine and food, we’re not just talking about this stuff we eat and drink and why it’s so great or so awful. The stuff we eat and drink matters because the process of eating and drinking is involved partly, if not essentially, in the same process in which words come to mean something concrete to us.

So, let me talk about my particular difficulty with quantity. How much do I eat? How much do I drink? One drive says: eat and drink because you’ll feel real. Taste things because then you’ll know what you’re on about. Have a tipple, because you’ll stop worrying so much. And yet, still, there’s another drive in my  subconscious, remembering adolescent struggles, that says: eat nothing, drink nothing because you’ll ruin the psyche/personality/sexuality you bodged up for yourself just in time. Or now, more sanely: don’t eat too much food, don’t drink too much wine. It’s bad for your health, mentally and physically.

Too often, the drive to drink, to revel in the taste of wine, has felt like a way to avoid eating, a shortcut to good, specific tastes. But then I miss food, I want food and wine. But how to limit it? One way to resolve all this this seems to be quality. If I am above all discerning about what I eat, I will not have to eat too much, but I can still satisfy that most delightful of my senses, my taste. In the case of wine, this is slightly different, because besides the taste of it I also enjoy, up to a point, the feeling of inebriation. But then, it’s only wine I want, not any old booze. If I can’t have wine I don’t want vodka instead. I want wine, and I want it because of its very special tastes and sensations.

But even if the foods and wines I eat and drink are the best I can procure with the small amount of cash I earn, still it’s hard to stop, and easy to let myself go, to feel I’ll grasp more if I eat more or drink more. I want more of these excellent tastes! In order to keep letting-go under some control, allowing ourselves excess feels necessary, a practical, carnivalesque concession. Overeating and occasional drunkenness are inevitable, because they’re the only path to predominant moderation.

“…Shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again…”


tasting notes: Chateau Rives-Blanques

I should start by saying I’m very fond of this little property in Limoux, and have drunk the wines frequently over the past year. Caryl Panman, who makes the wines with her husband Jan, came to show us the range last November – and I was, if not blown away, then really charmed and impressed.

This evening I’ve got a bottle of Cuvee Occitania on the go. It’s 100% mauzac, and really good. This is the juice that gives structure and acidity to the famous Blanquette de Limoux. You can taste that here: fresh appley tang and salty minerality on the finish. The nose is interesting, reminding me of cooked bramley and quince. And then there is a savoury note, something like celery salt and cucumber or the greenest of melons. It’s barrel-fermented which gives lovely, but subtle, creamy nutty notes to the nose, and a good texture to the palate. The oak influence is so subtle as to be almost distant. This is about clean fruit, minerality, inherent savoury fruit qualities. The complexity of texture and flavour that come from oak are lovely and distinctive – these wines have to be  barrel fermented to take the Limoux AOC. But there’s a lightness of touch and it all tastes quite right.

Oddly, I find it has a slight nail-varnish quality as it warms up, but this ought to be served cold, and I don’t want to do it down, because it’s good. A couple of weeks back, I brought home a bottle of Cuvee Odyssee Chardonnay, which originally I had thought subtle and brilliant, a Burgundy of the South!

On this tasting I found it rather banana-flavouring and again nail varnish. I felt, perhaps, that this was due to it showing badly. I was drinking the 2009, rather than the current 2010. Perhaps this is a chard to drink fresh, or perhaps it was going through a wonky stage. I don’t know.

In any case, these wines are worth trying and worth drinking. The mauzac for me is where the quality lies; it feels correct. Go for Cuvee Occitania, the Blanquette and do try the vintage rose. I haven’t tasted the chenin or the top cuvee “Trilogie” for a while. The unoaked VdP Chenin-Chard blend Domaine Rives-Blanques is also good, for something racy, full and minerally with a bit of punch.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Occitania Mauzac | 13.5% abv | £13 | attractive, 16.5

tasting notes: La Miranda de Secastilla

This is a fabulously oaky white, the kind of thing lots of people think they hate, but how can they! It’s got the fruit, body, alcohol and racy acidity to carry the oak beautifully. Smells of white grapefruit and pineapple, not tropical, just deeply sour and fruity. Toasty, creamy French oak notes. On the palate there’s a lovely fullness and citric acidity and a clean finish. Vv good wine.

It makes you feel white grenache is terribly underappreciated: I haven’t drunk enough of it, except in its Southern French blended mutations. But if you’re looking for a classy bourgogne blanc alternative at around a tenner, go for this, (or something from Limoux). It went fabulously with crab bruschetta, salad, risotto bianco: gutsy but sour enough to cope.

La Miranda de Secastilla Garnacha Blanca 2009 | 13.5% abv | £11 | tippy top

tasting notes: Jean Marc Brocard Chablis 2009

Just a quick post to say that sometimes the few extra pounds can be worth it. The vieilles vignes Chablis by JMB I drank and wrote about a couple of weeks ago is just so much better than this standard Chablis, £4 extra seems a steal. But then this stuff is made by somebody who really knows what they’re doing, and it has to be said that the standard Chablis, if not as fine or complex as its VV counterpart, is still great.

Really stony, lemony, dairy on the nose, sour, salty and milky on the palate, but without the deeply nutty yogurty thing the old vines and a bit of extra age seem to give. Perfect with a good buttery omelette and a green salad, as I drank it this evening. As chablis goes I’d say this was brill. But if you’re going to spend £14, why not £18…

Jean Marc Brocard Chablis 2009 | 12.5% abv | £14 | 15.5, great stuff, exemplary if not extraordinary

tasting notes: Chateau la Noe Muscadet Sevre et Maine Vieilles Vignes 2009

I write these entries too often in the vague haze of half a bottle, thrilling at the brilliance of a particular wine. I’m only proving that to you now by writing about this superb muscadet which is everything a muscadet ought to be and more. I can reel off the classic mucadet notes – it’s flinty; it’s yeasty – but more than that, this has a really satisfyingly full centre of fruit. Melon de bourgogne is so often written off as “crisp”, but this (old vines) example has a lovely fullness that reminds me of chardonnay.

I know that among my last posts was a rapturous appraisal of chablis. It’s unfortunate that muscadet comes so soon afterwards, because the best examples have very many qualities in common. It will seem as if I fixate on a very particular kind of white wine as a standard of brilliance. Perhaps there’s something in that for me though. Like chablis, this is a wine I feel I can really drink. It’s not too high in alcohol, for one thing, and I could pour a glass of this alongside so many of the things I like best to eat: some poached fish and butter sauce, roast chicken, an omelette (which is how I drank it this evening).

This wine is also excellent value for money because people still underestimate this region.

Beautifully limpid; smells of wet flints, fresh yeast, white grapefrut, with a suggestion of something more substantial, a sort of bready, brioche quality that’s not at all rich or sickly. It’s a sweaty boulangere on a morning shift. It’s so everyday, and yet somehow so elegant too.

Chateau la Noe Muscadet Sevre et Maine Vieilles Vignes 2009 | 12% abv | £10 | Love this wine, 16

the everyday drinker: Williams & Humbert Alegria Manzanilla

We just received a new case of Alegria halves at work. Thought I’d stick one in the fridge to bring home while it’s fresh and hasn’t stood on a warm shelf for too long.

I’m glad I gave in to the urge. This is a great little wine for the money. Of course it’s not the most sophisticated manzanilla by any means, but for £4.99 a half you can’t complain.

On the nose: typical fresh chamomile softness, milky almond aromas, cut through with salt, green apple and lemon. There’s also that slightly equine, stable-boy funkiness that I love about this kind of sherry, but it’s very delicate here. On the palate, this is all about the freshest wet almonds, chamomile, and the whip of marine salinity.

Williams and Humbert Alegria Manzanilla | 15% abv | Clean and appetizing, if not the most complex. Undoubtedly a very good value wine. Bring me almonds and prawns! 16

the everyday drinker: Jean Marc Brocard Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2009

I’m pleased to make a return from the holiday season – being on holiday and covering for others on holiday and being tired beyond tired – with this wine. It’s one of those ones that makes me say, This is my kind of wine; I could drink and drink this.

Beautfully deep lemon gold colour. Looks older than it is. Really concentrated chardonnay character. That is just what this wine is: a really local expression of that grape. The nose expresses its best paradox, being very fresh but also nutty, oatmealy, dairy. It reminds me of smelling greek yogurt, sour cream or a very fresh goats cheese or ricotta. It’s creamy with a sour shudder. Flinty is a word that gets bandied around to describe the smell of minerally wines but this smells unequivocally like flint that’s just been rained on. And then there’s the fruit: green melon, lemon juice. What’s so good about this wine is how defined all these elements are, how well they translate from nose to texture and taste, and how beautifully they chivvy each other along.

What’s more, this is a drink you can drink. I remember Hugh Johnson writing somewhere that chablis is the water of the wine world, not to do it down, but to say, This is a wine you can really drink. And I think that’s what I feel about it too. It’s terribly, humbly drinkable, and yet the quality and clarity of expression can be quite moving.

Good chablis is chardonnay as it is nowhere else in the world: racy, savoury, dairy, flinty.

This bottle is a good example. The difference between the £14 standard cuvee and the VV one at £18 is astonishing. The £4 you feel is worth it. I’ve tasted older and better chablis wines, but at the price and the age, this is great stuff.

Jean Marc Brocard Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2009 | 13% abv | £18 | 18, gorgeous, my kind of wine