Thursday, 27 May 2010

Appleton Estate Bartender's Challenge at Floridita

It always feels decadent going out on a Monday night. There's something mischievous about it, as if it's scandalously early in the week to be getting the party started, but I couldn't resist an invite to sample Jamaican rum-infused cocktails at Floridita, shaken by the best barmen in the business.

I went with Sebastian Harguindey, who runs the über trendy Argentinian steak house Constancia in Tower Bridge. As Monday is his only evening off work, it proved the perfect excuse for a celebration. There's something special about Floridita – it transports you out of London and into the hotheaded hedonism of Cuba. Pink Martini played on my last visit.

The Cuban pleasure den had a distinct Caribbean twist, from the jerk chicken canapés and plantain puddings to the Jamaican Mule cocktails expertly shaken by the three finalist bartenders, in their respective rival bars dotted about the room.

Each bartender had to compete for our vote, by speedily shaking, crushing, stirring, swirling and eventually pouring perfect cocktail after perfect cocktail to the parched throng in front of them. We started at the Viajante bar – London's most talked about restaurant. There's a big buzz about Viajante at the moment; everyone seems to be going, talking about going, or knows someone that's gone. Head chef Nuno Mendes trained at El Bulli, so all sorts of exciting and experimental dishes are scuttling out of his kitchen.

Moving on to Milk and Honey things got a little wilder. Every few seconds bartender Josh Ivanovic would smash a glass in his ambitious, ebullient, almost theatrical performance. The more excited he got, the further away from the bar people edged, but by the end the crowd was five deep with awe-struck converts marveling in his magic. His Mai Tais were to die for. Ivanovic was deservedly crowned the winner, and will represent the UK in the final of the competition in Jamaica.

Monday, 24 May 2010

London International Wine Fair

The London International Wine Fair, an unmissable fixture in the wine calendar, always proves eventful. You can spot the fair goers as you squeeze onto the ExCel bound DLR in the morning. Enthusiastic Aussies and Italians in immaculate suits chatter, coffees in hand, as the tram swings into action.  

I made it my mission this year to turn up with some sort of game plan. It's chaos if you don't. With hundreds of producers, importers and generics showing thousands of wines, you need to be selective. Yellow speed guide in hand, I scribbled all over my floor plan, mapping out who I wanted to see.

First stop, Romania, where I tried some exciting reds made from the native Feteasca Neagra grape. One tasted like blackcurrant Fruit Pastels and the other like a buttery baked potato. The winemaker took the latter description surprisingly well, and even agreed with me. His wife went on to show me a copy of an Orient Express wine list from the '30s offering a number of their wines. It reminded me that even upcoming wine regions have rich histories.

Next stop: the Access Zone, where I said a quick hello to a very busy (and shattered) Ryan Opaz, founder of Spanish wine blog Catavino. I'd interviewed him in Decanter the week before and wanted to check out his stand. Cameras were rolling, bloggers were blogging, and there was a real buzz about the place.

Portuguese blogger Andre Ribeirinho of Adegga grabbed a bottle of wine and told me to pull up a chair. Whipping out his i-phone he scanned the barcode at the back and it immediately loaded a web page full of information about the wine - reviews, scores, the price, stockists. My eyes were wide, like I'd been given a sneak preview into the future. These guys are at the forefront of change, and are taking the wine world in a very exciting direction.

Before lunch I found time to squeeze in a masterclass on Southern Spain hosted by Peter McCombie, who took us on a tour of the beautiful south, taking in wines from La Mancha, Castilla, Valdepeñas, Jumilla and Jerez. Huge plates of jamón did the rounds during the class, giving me the chance to refuel before heading to the Penfolds stand, where Chris Stroud gave me superstar treatment, taking me out the back, magicking a pair of Riedels and tutoring me through a Penfolds vertical, which ended with the stunning 2005 Grange.

On a Penfolds high, I whizzed round the Gonzales Byass stand and tasted their limited edition new release: Tio Pepe En Rama. Cloudy as apple juice, it had an intense, yeasty nose. Nipping round Spain, I fitted in a quick Chivite vertical, then went to Russia to try Abrau-Durso's much-hyped sparkers. I was quite taken with the Russian script on the labels – Rodchenko and Popova would have loved them.

The white sparkler, that has a splash of Riesling in the blend, had a Sherry-like nose, and the red distinct blue cheese aromas. The young guy manning the stand said it had been described as everything from 'Sangría with an Oxford education' to 'the sweet blood of the revolution'. After Russia I made a quick detour to Lebanon via Château Musar to try Serge Hochar's legendary aged whites. The 1991 was unlike any white I've ever tried. Complex, oxidized (in a good way), waxy and honeyed, it's a wine that lingers hauntingly in the memory.

After clocking up serious amounts of air miles on my journey around the wine world, I hopped back on the DLR and popped into Harrods for their Women in Wine event, where I tried a delicious Pinot Bianco from Frescobaldi, juicy Brunellos from Pinino and 1996 Duval Leroy. My last port of call was the 5th Floor of Harvey Nicks for the launch of their pop-up Tanqueray terrace.

Taking a seat on the bright green astroturf, my friends and I were served classic martinis from the Tanqueray trolly, alongside adorable mini burgers and mini apple pies for pudding. Sipping my martini and looking out onto the London skyline in the Gastby-esque setting, it occurred to me what a charmed life I lead, and how golden these days of my fleeting youth are.

Monday, 17 May 2010

California tasting at Selfridges and Tom's Terrace launch

Things are pretty hectic at Decanter HQ at the moment. We're putting together our Bordeaux guide and July issue – two issues in the time we usually produce one, so heads are down and stress levels are up.

My evening events therefore, are proving a welcome respite from the madness. As soon as I walk down our metal catwalk of a corridor and push the lift button to the ground floor, I feel the tension ooze out of me. And so it was on Thursday night, when I hotfooted it from the office to the towering pleasure dome of Selfridges for a Californian wine tasting, the apogee of a week dedicated to wines from the Golden State.

Rather ironically, in a bid to escape the madness of the office, I'd inadvertently stepped into an equally mad situation. Arriving a fashionable ten minutes late, on making it past the red rope, a glass was thrust in my hand and I was ushered to Table 2, where a besuited man was ebulliently espousing the merits of Californian Viognier. I had to play catch up, swirling, sniffing and swigging my Hawk Crest Chardonnay as fast as humanly possible.

As soon as I'd caught up with the Alban Viognier, we were onto the Meiomi, Bel Glos, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. We were given less than a minute on each wine – it felt like a speed tasting, which for me, took all the pleasure out of the experience. Wine is something to be savoured, not swallowed in a second. I barely had time to consider what was in my glass before we were on to the next thing. I understand we had a lot of wines to get through, but it's difficult to enjoy them when tasting at such speed.

I refused to let go of my Pinot, and instead let it linger in my glass while I revelled in its sumptuous, fruit-forward aromas of rich ripe cherries and juicy raspberries. On the palate it was as round as an O, and had massive weight and flavour for a Pinot – easily my wine of the night. The £51 Stags Leap Artemis however, was disappointing, in the way that so many of the California big guns are. I appreciated its classicism and elegance, but it didn't blow me away the way I hoped it might.

We were allowed to devour a selection of cheeses in between sips, from the gooey Reblochon to the robust Manchecho. And it was then that I fell in love... with Comte. I can't believe I've let this sensational cheese go under my radar for so long, and that its creamy, nutty, deliciousness has been missing from my life all these years. I was so taken with the Comte that the next day I went on a pilgrimage to Borough Market with the soul purpose of buying a hunk of the stuff.

Anyway, back to the wines... the final wine of Table 2, a Cline ancient vines Mouvedre, had lovely herbal aromas and attractive wild notes. No sooner had I pinpointed the aromas, than we were ushered to Table 1, the Shafer table, where we tried their 2007 Chardonnay and a rather delicious 2005 Merlot. On Table 4 we tried a sparkling brut rosé by J Schram at £57 a pop, and Peter Michael Le Moulin Rouge Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia for an eye-watering £105 a bottle. Admittedly, very little is shipped over to the UK, but for me the £32.99 Meiomi was the Oscar winner to Le Moulin Rouge's supporting act.

I never made it to Table 3, as I had to dash off to attend the launch of Tom's Terrace pop up restaurant at Somerset House. Making my way there through the back entrance via Temple tube, I walked through the fountains to meet my friend on the other side. The sound of the music, smell of the sizzling food and feel of the cold water on my skin was an intoxicating combination.

The party was in full swing and Lanson in full flow when we arrived – the man himself, fox-featured Tom Aikens was working the room (well, canopied enclosure) under the watchful eye of his gorgeous wife Amber Nuttall, while cranky critic Giles Coren gesticulated wildly to his flamed-haired wife Esther Walker. Perhaps she'd removed an indefinite article from one of his sentences, making it end on an unstressed syllable. I hope not for her sake...

Sunday, 16 May 2010

L'Etranger restaurant review

As AA Gill mentioned in his recent review of Comerç 24 in Barcelona, our approach to food is changing. In keeping with our impatient times, we want our food to be big, bright and breathtaking, attacking our tastebuds with flavour, and menus across the world have been pimped with exotic ingredients to keep up with the trend.

One way to win on the flavour front is to marry food from two different cultures, bringing the best of both worlds to the table. Sushinho on King's Road is doing interesting things with its Brazilian and Japanese menu, but way before the restaurant opened its doors, L'Etranger was in on the act.

The South Kensington stalwart has been serving up French and Japanese, or 'Frapanese' cuisine since 2002. Head chef Jerome Tauvron, whose CV includes stints with Pierre Gagnaire in France, Alain Ducasse in Monaco and Marco Pierre White in London, isn't keen on the term 'fusion' cooking, as while working together, the ingredients remain separate and distinct platefellows.

The minimal lilac and grey interiors seem to echo Albert Camus' economical writing style in the existentialist novel L'Etranger, from which the restaurant gets its name. Boasting over 1,000 bins, L'Etranger has one of the finest wine lists in London and an on-site wine shop. Perhaps in a nod to the novel's protagonist, Meursault, an impressive 40 Meursault's by the bottle are on offer.

I dined at L'Etranger with a chef friend on a Tuesday evening, and the urbane 50-seater was throbbing with life. Arriving early, our table was soon flanked on both sides by enthusiastic Americans. Manager Dorian explained that they rely on their regular customers and that numbers dipped dramatically during the ash cloud crisis, when a chunk of their affluent clientele were left stranded in different pockets of the world.

L (the chef) and I both opted for tasting menus, with L sampling the £59 'Degustation' menu, while I opted for the slightly more decadent £89 'Opulence' menu, both of which were diligently matched with different wines by Timothy, our eager-to-please French sommelier who looked like he was fresh out of wine school.

My scallops tartar with summer black truffles served in its shell was matched with top Rhône producer E. Guigal's Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (£9.50/glass). The pairing worked well, the ceviche-style citrus in the dish mirroring the remarkable freshness of the rich, complex white Rhône. Light yet flavoursome, it was hard to fault, and the perfect beginning to this epicurean adventure. L's tuna tartare was well executed, but the accompanying serving of sevruga caviar was tiny.

As L's menu was a dish smaller than mine, we both shared the rock shrimp and exotic flower tempura with sweet ponzu; a sauce made from soy and lemon. Served in a Japanese bamboo steamer, the green, orange and purple exotic flowers exploded with colour, and when paired with the sauce, flavour. Rock shrimp tempura is my favourite thing on the menu at Nobu, and I didn't think anything could ever come close to matching its magnificence, but this did, the zesty sauce wonderfully counterbalancing the fatty tempura. Our wine match, 2008 Gatekeeper Chardonnay from the Barossa Valley in Australia (£8.50/glass) was the most disappointing of the night. The wine was rich and buttery, while I was hoping for something fresh and zippy to cut through the fat.

Both the fish dishes impressed. I was envious of L's caramelised black cod and sweet miso sauce, L'Etranger's signature dish, but in the end it was my roast Chilean seabass that shone. While the cod was slightly dry, my seabass was expertly cooked and fell off the fork. Tender and slightly sweet, the flavours were elegant and delicate rather than punchy. It was matched with an exciting, grassy wine from Nantes producer Eric Chevalier made from the region's native grape Fie Gris (£40/bottle), whose searing acidity cut through the oily fish, giving it freshness and lift.

On to the main event, which for me was pampered and preened Grade 9 Wagyu beef fillet with black truffle and sauteed wild mushrooms paired with Austrian producer Anita Und Hans Nittnaus Kurzberg Pinot Noir 2005 (£9.50/glass). I asked for it medium rare, and it came deliciously pink. Soft and tender, the meat was almost silky, and packed with juicy flavour, which harmonized with the savoury, leathery Pinot Noir, that took a back seat to the beef, enhancing rather than overpowering its flavour. When combined with the rich foie gras and heady truffle it made for a soft, opulent mouthful of flavour-rich food. I closed my eyes in pure delight to catch every flavour in my mouth. But at £55 a la carte, it should be damn good.

Pudding was an equally exciting affair. After a tofu ice cream palate cleanser and a glass a ice-cold saké, L's caramel tart with macadamia nuts matched with Ramos Pinto 10-year-old Tawny Port stole the limelight from my more modest pear tartin and sesame ice cream, which matched well with a waxy, unctuous Château Septy Monbazillac 2005 (£9/glass).

L'Etranger clearly knows what it's doing. The food is accomplished and stylishly presented, and the service from the predominantly French staff is attentive without being overbearing. The a la carte will give your credit card a workout, but the 3 course set lunch is amazingly good value at £19.50. Marrying French and Japanese food may sound like a strange exercise, and you have to taste it to believe it, but Tauvron's dishes respect the classic tradition, bringing with them an exciting modern twist.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Tatler Restaurant Awards 2010

My week started in a very civilized manner with the Tatler Restaurant Awards at The Langham hotel in Portland Place. The event has become a staple in my calendar – it's always fun to see the restaurant glitterati out of their chef whites.

The monochrome lobby of The Langham is incredibly grand, and exudes the sweet smell of success. My friend and I shimmied into the ballroom and relieved the waiter of two glasses of Laurent-Perrier Rosé, served in pretty floral goblets.

The room was relatively empty, but soon filled into the customary chattering throng. Sam and Eddie Hart, decked out in boyish blazers, nattered to our left, while angel-faced Chez Bruce sommelier Terry Threlfall worked the room.

A hush fell upon the crowd as Tatler's restaurant editor Jeremy Wayne stepped up to the mic to announce the winners. Floppy haired, bespectacled and immaculately turned out, Wayne could have played Colin Firth's character in A Single Man. His restaurant and hotel review website runs with the tag line 'eat and sleep with me'.

The awards ceremony was wonderfully quick – almost too quick for me to jot the winners down. Nicolas Clerc of Le Pont de la Tour saw off competition from Neleen Strauss of High Timber and Ivo Stoysnov of L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon to be crowned Best Sommelier, while Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley beat Roka and Terroirs to the Best Kitchen award, with Wayne boldy proclaiming that he hadn't had a better meal in the UK in the last 12 months than chez Marcus.

Super seasonal Kitchen W8 in Kensington won Best Newcomer for its modern European menu, and Maggie Thatcher's fave The Restaurant at The Goring bagged the Most Consistently Excellent award. The Taste of London Rising Star Award deservedly went to Stephen Williams for his fabulous food at newly Michelin-starred Fulham gastropub The Hardwood Arms, while the Restaurant of the Year went to Galvin La Chapelle. The Galvin brothers are the Midas's of the restaurant world – every restaurant they touch lines their pockets with gold.

Before we could get back to the serious business of Laurent-Perrier drinking, there was one last award to dish out. Veteran restaurateur Sir Terence Conran was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in founding some of London's most iconic restaurants, including Quaglino's, Le Pont de la Tour and The Bluebird.

'A lifetime achievement award makes me sound like something stale in the fridge', Conran quipped. 'But I'm not. I've got more on my plate than ever before and an awful lot more still to achieve'. I always find it inspiring when people at the top of their game never seem to want to give up. At a time when he could so easily be resting on his laurels, Conran is clearly up with the lark and as fired up as ever to keep working and expanding his restaurant and retail empires.

After the speeches, my friend and I got chatting to a trio of ebullient Argentines: Sebastian, Santiago and Gustavo, who run Constancia, an Argentine Grill on Tanner Street. They were very excited about their debut in the Tatler Restaurant Guide and invited us down to sample their steaks and Argentine wines. I think I just might.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Duncan Murray Wines

With a government left hanging and seemingly no nearer to any concrete conclusions about who should run the country, I left London on Friday afternoon on the 5.30 train to Nottingham, swigging a Red Bull and chomping on a Caramel to keep me awake.

Jumping off an hour later at Market Harborough in Leicestershire, I headed, father in tow, to Duncan Murray Wines on Adam and Eve street for a tasting of their newest wines.

Duncan Murray is something of a celebrity in Market Harborough – he appeared in Come Dine With Me and hosts regular Saturday tastings at his shop. Having worked in the Languedoc in the late '90s, Murray specializes in the region and bares a striking resemblance to fellow Languedoc lover, wine writer-turned-winemaker Monty Waldin.

Passionate about the region, Murray believes the Languedoc still has huge potential, and strives to source wines from hard to find small producers like Domaine du Poujol. Arriving at the shop, I noticed the word 'olé' had been spray-painted onto the window. I liked it already.

There were 21 wines on show from a variety of regions including Campania, Verona, Rioja and Alentejo. The Domaine de Poujol Rosé 2009 was an attractive onion skin colour and had a crisp, melony nose and smooth, creamy palate - a perfect picnic wine. The Conde de Jauregui Crianza 2006 had a lovely savoury, meaty nose, with red fruit, coffee bean, spice and tobacco all mixing on the palate.

My wine of the night was next in line - the Aglianico Terredora 2008 from Campania. At £12.99 it was the most expensive wine on show, but the quality shone through. Imported by Michael Palij MW though his Oxford-based Winetraders company, the nose showed sweet, unctuous red fruit - cherries, raspberries and plums, with a velvety licquorice-filled palate and a grippy, chocolatey body. It was too lovely to spit out.

Other notable highlights included a dusky, damsony Corvina from Verona, a silky, supple Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend from Corbieres, a juicy, cantaloupe fuelled Domaine du Poujol Pico made from a blend of Vermentino, Carignan Blanc and Roussanne, and golfer Ernie Els' coconut and toffee filled Guardian Peak Merlot.

I whizzed round the wines, going back to my favorites for a second sip. It was impressive to see quality and complexity at amazing value, with most of the wines costing between £5.99-£8.99. It proves quality needn't come with an eye-watering price tag. Talking to Duncan and his team gave me a renewed enthusiasm for wine, and the quest to seek out hidden gems from lesser-known regions, providing consumers with an inspiring range of wines beyond the confines of the supermarket.

Small independent merchants are a consumer's link to the great wine regions of the world, and we as wine writers should be doing everything we can to flag up these unsung heroes. Without them, wine buying would be a far duller experience.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Champagne tasting at Leiths

What better way to celebrate election night than with Champagne. After work I hoofed it to the Leiths School of Food and Wine in Stamford Brook for a Champagne tasting hosted by fizz expert Richard Bampfield MW.

Six wines were on show, opening with Laurent Perrier Brut NV, paired with smoked salmon bagels. Bampfield was full of historical nuggets about Champagne – 90% of Champagne produced is non vintage and traditionally most wines made in the region were red and used for mass.

Bampfield went on to explain the different styles, from the bone dry ultra brut (a notch drier than extra brut), to the slightly sweet demi-sec. We tried a non vintage premier cru extra brut from unsung producer Larmandier-Bernier, which I found slightly austere and severe. It even tasted dry, with bitter lemon and sour apple on the palate.

Moving swiftly on, we compared a blancs de blanc – Legras Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Chouilly NV with a blancs de noir: Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV. It was interesting thinking of the two Champagnes in terms of their grape varieties, and trying to spot their differences. The Chardonnay-fuelled Legras was lighter and more feminine than the Pinot-dominant Bolly, with a fragrant nose of lemon meringue.

The Bollinger was immediately striking for its golden colour and powerful nose of alluring autolytic notes: buttered toast, brioche and biscuit. Bollinger is my favourite Champagne - I adore its distinctively rich character. The hallmark of good Champagne is that you don't notice the fizz, which is true of Bollinger and other greats like Krug and Dom Pérignon; they feel more like still wines than Champagnes.

Interestingly, Bampfield pointed out that in blind tastings it's virtually impossible to pick out individual Champagne houses, except for Bollinger, which has a signature style. I asked if he thinks the dramatic discounting that took place around Christmas will damage the Champagne brand. 'I don't think so. Champagne is so strong, it has survived savage discounting before and will survive this time round. Nothing can touch its position in the sparkling wine market'.

Moving on to the final two wines, we got talking about the vintage vs non vintage argument. Bampfield recommends buying non vintage Champagne and laying it down for 18 months. 'All non vintage Champagne benefits from a year or two of bottle ageing', he said, singling out the non-malolactic Lanson Black Label NV as a particularly good example offering fantastic value.

The penultimate Champagne was the trophy-winning Chanonine Vintage 2002. It's easy to see why it won an award - an attractive golden colour, it had bags of flavour with a fragrant, feminine nose and a punchy, toasty, brioche palate. Rich, masculine and robust, it makes a big first impression. Bampfield pointed out that it's hard to award subtlety in wine competitions, meaning a lot of incredibly well made wines fall short of the mark due to the sterile tasting conditions competition wines are subjected to.

Our final wine was Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2003, which, according to Bampfield, changed the game in terms of vintage rosé Champagne. It had an attractive orange hue, and was very light, fresh and fruit-forward on the palate - with strawberries, raspberries and summer fruits in the mix. The session ended with Bampfield urging us to experiment with Champagne and take it beyond the confines of the aperitif, with scallops, oysters, lobster and Pecorino cheese all named checked as great food matches.

We were all given a miniature bottle of LP to take home, which I cracked open while watching the election coverage, calling it a night at 1am. I turned on the TV at 7am expecting to see a newly-crowned Prime Minister, but nothing appeared to have been decided. And it still hasn't.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Fine Wine 2010, Ribera del Duero

The theme of storytelling continued with Ernie Loosen, who urged winemakers to stand for 'quality' and 'tradition' - the backbone of a brand.

He ended with the suggestion of 'marketing through the liver', and the importance for winemakers to tell a story. 'Get out there, tell the story and be the story', he passionately proclaimed.

Next up was Ryan Opaz, creator of Spanish wine blog Catavino, who warned winemakers would miss out if they weren't online. 'Consumers want to feel they matter - your biggest peril is invisibility. If you want to sell wine, you have to get online and connect'.

Backing up the importance of social media touched upon by Mark Beringer, the conference was fast becoming a technofest, with facebook, twitter and blogs all cited as the way forward for the wine world. The press even took to tweeting speakers' comments as they happened, creating up-to-the-second updates for their followers.

Michael Mondavi then took to the stage and optimistically declared that 'we are entering the platinum years of wine, full of opportunity'. Mondavi spoke of the importance of cooperation and family-run wineries. 'The future of the wine industry lies in private ownership and people with the desire to build things for the next generation, not just the first quarter’.

He also warned that restaurants will be in trouble if they carry on marking up their wines by 400%. ‘Consumers know what wine costs. Restaurants have to rethink their pricing policies. High marks ups won’t be able to survive for much longer.’

Speaking of the oversupply crisis in California, Mondavi, who imports fine wine into the US through his company Folio Fine Wine Partners, said foreign imports didn't pose a threat to the domestic market. ‘Fine wine imports are competition for California, but the only thing that will hurt California is bad winemaking in the region.’

Finally, Hunter Valley Semillon pioneer Bruce Tyrrell took to the stage and treated us to such gems as: 'The slightest bit of cork taint on a Semillon stands out like a dunny on a ridge'. Telling it like it is, Tyrrell was quick to admit that Australia is in trouble. ‘A lot of vineyards are being demolished and the coal miners are buying them up, but no great vineyards will be lost. On the one hand we’ve got the government pushing a sustainability initiative, and on the other we’ve got vineyards being turned into mining sites'.

Tyrrell spoke of Australia's need to re-engage with the fine wine market and develop consumer knowledge of regionality. Like Mondavi, Tyrrell stressed that fine wine will come increasingly from family-based wineries, or 'farmers with a face' as he dubbed them, and urged winemakers to make more use of the cellar door as a means of sharing a glass with consumers and telling your story. 'Direct communication with the consumer cuts out the middle man', he said.

Listening to all the speeches, it became clear that the future of fine wine lies in family-run wineries, not faceless corporations who only care about profit margins. For fine wine to survive, wineries have to be kept privately owned, and for them to thrive, they need to engage directly with their consumers through the cellar door and social media.

The world is getting smaller and the wine world can't afford to be left out of the online debate. The internet offers a direct route to consumers, and a chance to listen to what they have to say. Those who fail to take an interest will surely suffer. 2010 will see the democratization of wine, which can only be for the good.

Fine Wine 2010, Ribera del Duero

I've just got back from three intense and exciting days at the Fine Wine 2010 conference in Ribera del Duero organized by market research company Wine Intelligence.

The conference drew some of the wine world's big guns, including Michael Mondavi, Olivier Krug, Serge Hochar and Ernst Loosen, who all tried to define the term 'fine wine' and what it means for the consumer.

Fresh from judging at the IWC, Tim Atkin MW opened the conference with an engaging speech urging for a new definition of the term 'fine wine' beyond Bordeaux and called for an end to the wine world's obsession with Bordeaux, or 'Bordeaux-itis' as he christened it.

Atkin warned about the wine world becoming like Wall Street, accusing investors of losing sight of wine's true purpose: ‘Fine wine is becoming a source of investment. We’ve lost sight of what wine is all about – pulling a cork and enjoying it with friends. Wine is in danger of turning into a commodity to be traded’.

He also accused wine writers, particularly American journalists, of talking about wines with 'an absence of context’ and only considering what was in the bottle. ‘American wine writers have forgotten where wine comes from. I find it unbelievable that Robert Parker only visited Spain for the first time last year.' The speech ended with a call to arms for journalists to travel to where the wine is made and get out into the vines - to experience the terroir first hand.

Fifth generation winemaker Mark Beringer, currently at the helm of Artesa Vineyards in Carneros, talked about a desire for simplicity in winemaking and going 'back to basics'. He touched on the increasing importance of organic, sustainable winemaking, and a growing trend for vegetarian and vegan wines.

According to Beringer, 2010 is a golden time for consumers, who look set to benefit from the dramatic discounting taking place in California. 'There is great value coming out of California at the moment. With less wine bring made at the premium level, the top wines are moving down through the pyramid and becoming more affordable'.

'Pricing is a real issue in Napa as there isn't much middle ground. The top wines aren't selling and are leaving wineries in a mess. It's great news for the consumer. Winemakers are becoming even more selective, and the reserve wines are truly reserve quality'. Beringer ended by stressing the importance of social media as a way of reaching out to consumers, taking a picture of fellow speakers Serge Hochar, Pablo Alvarez and Olivier Krug and posting it on twitter as he spoke.

Serge Hochar of Château Musar described fine wine as 'a state of mind', but conceded that a fine wine needed 'elegance, finesse, complexity and ageing potential' - recurring buzz words during the conference. He spoke of the globalization of the wine world, the importance of emerging markets like China and India, and the need for winemakers to visit these places to tell their story. Hochar also called for transparency in winemaking, and a need to make wines 'without edifice or make-up'.

Pablo Alvarez, of icon Spanish estate Vega Sicilia, spoke of the need for Spain to learn how to market their wines better, and to shout about them more unashamedly. Imbuing wines with personality was paramount, he said, as grape character is the only thing that can't be copied. Alvarez called for Spanish winemakers to get their wines out on the global stage and give them more of a presence, as phenomenal wines are coming out of the country.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Declaration of Ribera '09 vintage at Peñafiel

Told to dress up, on the final night of the conference we were whisked away to a convent in Peñafiel to celebrate the declaration of the 2009 vintage, which we hoped would be 'excelente'.

Stepping out of the coach in my hot pink dress, the paps soon circled our group and started snapping away, while flocks of sharp-suited men hovered around the entrance. It all felt very Fellini.

Up high in the hills stood the Peñafiel fortress; the symbol of Ribera del Duero, whose foundations date back to the 10th century. The name Peñafiel comes from 'peña' 'fiel', the Spanish for faithful rock, having been built to protect the province of Castile. It cuts a fine figure on the hilltop, and I was momentarily hypnotized by its beauty.

We were quickly ushered into the main hall, which was buzzing with animated chatter. Dotted around the room were men in imposing black cloaks and wide-rimmed hats with red scarves tied around their waists. I was informed they were members of a wine brotherhood, sworn in for their work in promoting Ribera wines around the world.

A hush fell upon the crowd as José Trillo, president of the Consejo Regulador, stepped up to the mic. Therein began the speeches. The interminable speeches. In Spanish! The Consejo clearly wanted to milk the moment and eke out the declaration for as long as possible. We had to endure not one, not two, but three speeches before, amid palpable anticipation, the Ribera del Duero 2009 vintage was declared 'excelente'. Cue clinking of glasses and general merriment.

The third 'excelente' vintage in a decade, along with 2001 and 2004, I felt privileged to have witnessed its inception. Trillo was full of good news - consumption of Ribera is up 1.6% on last year, and the region has pumped $1m into a huge marketing push in the US, having just concluded a tasting tour taking in Miami, LA and New York.

After the speeches it was time to party. Legs of jamón were carved to the bone, huge plates of croquetas and chorizo did the rounds and hundreds of bottles of wine emerged. I got chatting to the freshly-crowned World's Best Sommelier Gerard Basset and Texture's Xavier Rousset, both of whom had flown over the night before after judging at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Xavier told me about his latest venture, a wine 'workshop' and kitchen called 28º-50º, named after the latitude at which vines are grown. ‘All of the wines on the basic list will be under £50 and most will be one-offs, so the list will be constantly changing’. He's also devised a ‘collections’ list of high end wines sourced from private cellars, priced with the smallest mark up possible. 'I can’t afford to do that at Texture, so found a way round it by opening a new place’.

Vega Sicilia tasting and tour

Before setting off for Fine Wine 2010, I was told there would be a tasting at Vega Sicilia. Excited by the prospect, I dug up an article by Serena Sutcliffe on the icon estate from the Decanter archives that incluced Unico tasting notes going back to 1924.

My anticipation grew as I read through the notes on the plane - the '85 had 'vibrant chocolate and dates on the finish', the '73 a 'heavenly spice-drenched taste' and the '64 'sweet, melting, violetty fruit', while the '51 was 'like orange caramel' and the '24 'like old, pale Madeira'. By the time I touched down in Madrid I was salivating. Sutcliffe had painted such a vivid picture in her notes of a wine with multiple personalities; a wine never the same twice. She described Unico's unpredictable nature as being more 'Dolce e Gabanna than Ferragamo - cutting edge rather than couture'.

Owner Pablo Alvarez, whose family bought the estate in 1982 - the same year Ribera del Duero became a DO, is notoriously private and rarely opens his doors to guests. Wine Intelligence, the conference organizers, managed to bag us a tasting and tour of the cellars. Alvarez's heart must have leapt when he saw our coach career up the gravel drive and 30 thirsty guests jump out.

I sat next to the legenday Serge Hochar of Lebanon's Chateau Musar on the ride up, who told me proudly he was Decanter's first 'Man of the Year'. He then talked me through his diary for the next month, which took in trips to China, Hong Kong and Japan, with a pit stop in Lourdes. 'I'll try and walk the Great Wall if I have a spare five minutes', he quipped.

Stepping out of the coach into the afternoon sun, it quickly became apparent that they do things differently at Vega Sicilia. The vines are cordened off by barbed-wire fences and the estate patrolled by stern men in khaki green armed with truncheons. We took our places around a series of tasting tables on the decking next to an in-built waterfall. I was beside Hunter Valley Semillon pioneer Bruce Tyrrell.

Four wines were brought out: Alion 2007, Valbuena 2006, released five years after the harvest with an average vine age of 25 years, and Unico 2002 and 1995, only made in great years and usually released after ten years. Valbuena is made almost entirely from Tinto Fino, (Tempranillo), while in Unico the Tinto Fino is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.

Among our group were Olivier Krug, former Duckhorn director of winemaking Mark Beringer, Catavino's Ryan Opaz and Canadian consultant sommelier John Szabo. Aged in 100% new French oak, the Alion was the most Bordeaux-like of the four wines. Although slightly overpowered by the oak, it was elegant and opulent. Balsamic vinegar dominated the Valbuena in a pleasant way, mixing with chewy red and black fruit, violets and licquorice.

Moving onto the Unico, my heart started beating a little faster. I was about to taste what many would describe as the greatest wine made in Spain. But would it live up to its name? Our table had a bad experience with the 2002 - Bruce Tyrrell declared it corked and we all solemnly nodded in agreement. A second bottle was summoned. I found it closed on the nose and struggled with fitting descriptors. A masculine, direct wine with good length and grip, it didn't live up to my high expectations.

Fortunately the 1995 did. It had a lovely developed nose that could only be Spanish, of game, meat and hints of dried fruit. A more feminie wine, it was silky, supple and rounded with excellent body, weight and depth. Opening up further in the glass, its savoury finish was exquisite. I was happy to have been given a second bite of the apple, and for it to have delivered. After the tasting I took myself off from the group and looked out onto the vines, watching the sun slowly dip towards the horizon, turning the sky conch shell pink.