Tuesday, 27 December 2011

A flying visit to Genova

It's not as if we hadn't been to Genova before but thanks to our insider-guide we penetrated the mediaeval city - Europe's largest - for the first time. Here we encountered, also for the first time the magnificent Duomo S. Lorenzo (above) and the Chiesa Gesu with its two massive Rubens paintings. All this is testament to Genova's historical importance which placed it on a level with the greatest cities in the world; a claim not finally relinquished even today with a surviving shipbuilding and refitting industry outstripping anything in the UK.

Verdi was as much an honorary Genovese as he was a Parisian, spending winters here for many years and writing the quintessential Genovese opera, Simon Boccanegra. The main characters names, Boccanegra, Fieschi, Adorno, Grimaldi are to be found on streets, piazzas, palazzos and so forth at every turn in the centre.

Our visit to the Teatro Carlo Felice was the usual mixture of disappointments (mainly to do with the production as so often in Italy) but otherwise life went on as previously with a fantastic headline the day we were in town

(for which Berlusconi had subsequently to apologize apparently) and excellent gastronomic opportunities.

Our Genova insider pointed us in the direction of one of the loveliest and most interesting restaurants it is possible to imagine; a combination of restaurant, library, bookshop and wine store - "Nouvelle Vague" just a stone's throw from S. Lorenzo. Despite being in a cellar this is a warm and welcoming place where you can spend time browsing books

as well as eating and drinking. We ploughed through the white wines by the glass with pleasure even if in doing so we discovered that Pigato is only a synonym for Vermentino (another variety hits the dust). Nonetheless the Pigato/Vermentinos were outstanding as were once again an Incrocio Manzoni and a Satrico which e were led to believe was a grape variety but is actually a blend from Lazio of some very familiar customers.

The following morning after a visit to the council chamber where the famous scene in 'Simon Boccanegra' takes place and a whip around a Van Gogh and Gaughin exhibition in the same building we just had time for an even shorter tour of the Mercato Orientale, one of the finest food markets in Italy.Earlier in our lightening visit, we had enjoyed a glass of Rossese which is indeed a native variety of Liguria. A lovely refreshing and fruity wine in the direction of Gamay/Beaujolais. We intended to buy a bottle at the airport. There was indeed one on offer but only in the collection of Ligurian speciality foods at an unbelievable rip-off price of over E.17. In fact the Duty Fee shop at Cristoforo Colombo airport it otherwise rather good. We found a Malvasia Nera there as well as a sparkling Riesling Italico (Welschriesling) from Oltrepo Pavese (rather good) and a nice sparkling Bonarda from the same area - all reasonably priced.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Trawling London

So impressed have we been recently with what is to be found in Berlin and other European cities that we needed to remind ourselves that London is still a leader in the range and depth of its wine imports even if we sometimes grouse about the narrow spectrum of wine types available here.

In recent days we have found the following gems to be bought from wine merchants and others here;

1. An otherwise totally unknown grape variety from the Veneto, unmentioned in the Oxford Companion to wine - Recantina. This from a wine-bar in Wellington St., Covent Garden called Notes.

Notes is interesting because as well as being a Cafe selling wine and appetizing-looking small dishes "fur die kleine Hunger" as the Germans say, it sells Music and Cinema DVDs in the basement. They have another branch near the London Coliseum.

2. Next up, from a surviving branch of Oddbins of all places, a Spanish white made from the Verdil grape found only in the Valencia region.

Verdil is also absent from reference books.

3. Next, mirabili dictu a Pugnitello from a producer totally other than the San Felice winery which was said to have re-discovered this ancient Tuscan grape variety and to have revived it together with the University of Siena. This winery, Roccapesta claims simply to have found a clump of Pugnitello in a corner of the vineyard and has made a whopping great 15% wine with it. This is available from Handfords.

You will seach in vain for Pugnitello in the Oxford Companion to wine.

4. From Lea and Sandeman, a rarity indeed - a dry Brachetto. Having determined that Brachetto is not the same thing as Braquet in the tiny Appellation of Bellet, we are more than ever keen to try this as the more usual amabile version of Brachetto is hardly something to drink more than once.

5. From a previous trawl, an update on the Graciano we bought from Highbury Vintners a couple of months ago. This bottle was reasonably priced (under £11), not over-alcoholic at 13.5% and absolutely delicious. Quite the best 100% Graciano we have tasted although Marks and Spencer's version runs it a close second.

Both Brachetto and Graciano have entries in Jancis Robinson's masterpiece of course but are difficult to find even so.

Everyday Wines Ltd

The Wokingham Wine Festival was smaller scale than usual due to the absence through illness of Nick Dobson who is based in Wokingham and whom we have thanked many a time for championing the wines of Switzerland and Austria among others and latterly Israel and Portugal too. We hope Nick is fully recovered.

For us a standout exhibitor was a new company called Everyday Wines Ltd. Their wines were imaginatively chosen with many from Corsica. As well as being eclectic and diverse, they have a clear mission to do what their name suggests - supply us with everyday wines.

In pursuit of this aim they have priced the majority of their wines at the single cost of £5.50. Why everyone else has a separate price for every wine we will never know. We have often wondered what is the point of separating bottles by a few pennies. We appreciate that each bottle may have cost the retailer a different amount but there is surely an advantage to be had in telling the customer that they can have x different wines all for one price. They may make a little more or a little less on some bottles but a blanket amount helps to demystify the proceedings and focuses attention on the product rather than the price. At least we think so.

We only took away two bottles from Everyday wines. The first will be nameless only because it was unexceptional. No doubt a good buy at £5.50 but everyday in nature as well as in name.
The second bottle however was a real find; a Muscat Sec from the Cote de Thongue called "Les Larmes d'Alexandra" which was restrained, low in alcohol and more refined than many a Muscat Sec from Alsace.
Very probably there are other treasures to be had at Everyday Wines. We will give them a try as soon as we have somewhere to put them!


Thursday, 22 December 2011

Bordeaux 47 years on

We have just returned to Bordeaux - scene of our first wine experiences - after an absence of 47 years. What took us so long to go back? Well, we could give several reasons such as "events" or "intrigue" etc. but perhaps a contributing factor actually was that we had 'done' Bordeaux (we were there for 8 months) and there were other wine areas to discover, not to mention the fact that Bordeaux was musically a backwater.

Not surprisingly things have changed. The city is beautifully cleaned and restored. The Grand Theatre, previously very threadbare is now absolutely splendid.

The place has a well heeled air and from your arrival at Merignac airport, you are in no doubt as to what you can attribute that!
With less than 24 hours we couldn't visit any Chateaux or appelations so we took our experiences where we found them. First port of call was Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery in the Cours de l'Intendence where you can sample all kinds of Bordeaux

from quite regular Crus Bourgeois

to Chateau Ausone & Co.

At nearly €.40 a snippet we concentrated on the lower end of things which it has to be said wasn't particularly impressive. 47 years ago dry white Bordeaux was a joke apart from a very few honorable exceptions so the discovery of a very delicious if oaky example here at Max was of great interest. This was Clos Floridene, Graves of which Decanter said;
Soft, floral hints, some citrus fruit. A first-class effort, fresh yet complex fruit, excellent balance of acidity, long, ripe finish. Drink up to 2014.
On the Cours Tourny near the Grand Theatre there is a very stylish wine bar called 'Bar a Vin' where entry is only possible when someone on the inside lets you in.

Here we made our second big departure as well as surprise discovery on ordering a Bordeaux Clairet. Another joke from the past: another revelation. This example was from Chateau Lauduc, one of the closest properties to the City of Bordeaux (right bank - Libourne/St. Emilion side). AOC Bordeaux Superieur, 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. What is interesting about Bordeaux Clairet is that it is not a Rose but something between that and a red. It is also a conscious revival of what Bordeaux wine might have been like when exported to England in the olden days. We have since tried another version and been disappointed but Chateau Lauduc shows what can be done in this medium.

In the Theatre bar and at dinner we drank Chateau Biston Brillette, Moulis which outshone anything at Max in its class. It must be said that the nature of Red Bordeaux has changed immeasurably in this half century. Presumably this can be recognised by vertical tasting but it is of course not possible to compare wines from the 60's with modern ones at the same stage of development.

Talking about modern wine, there is a unique wine being made in the Pays de la Vienne near Poitiers - well outside the Bordeaux area - made from Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc by an Australian educated Frenchman called Frederic Brochet under the name Ampelidae. Le K Ampelidae 2005 is the blackest wine we have ever tasted, Cahors notwithstanding. It's what Parker might call a brooding monster (14%). M. Brochet proudly labels it 'Vin Contemporain'. This is certainly the direction in which so much Bordeaux has already traveled. Our Slotovino reader will already know we hope the pendulum will swing back once again - maybe as far as Bordeaux Clairet any century soon?

Thursday, 15 December 2011

A tip for Berlin/Schoenefeld

Halfway through 2012, Berlin/Tegel will close leaving Schoenefeld as the only remaining airport. Nostalgia of a gruesome kind for fascist Tempelhof and more affectionate sort for cold war Tegel will not be tempered by communist Schoenefeld ending up the only gateway to the German capital.

No doubt an extensive development plan will change all this many years in the future. Let's hope as far as the minuscule detail of wine selection at Duty Free shops is concerned, things will be rationalized then.

Meanwhile, don't buy your Dornfelder etc from the official Duty Free shop upstairs but go to Bon Voyage nearer the departure gates where they have a much better and cheaper selection.

Just a tip from Slotovino.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Whisky de Bretagne

Whisky (note spelling!) from Bretagne (not bad either). Why not? Perhaps a French reply to us Brits producing wine? Can David Cameron protect us from this attack on one of our most successful industries? It may need several more vetos.

What the great composers drank

We'd love to know more about what great composers from the past enjoyed drinking. Beethoven, (whose father was a singer and something of an alcoholic) used to drink in the evenings with friends at the “Zum Weissen Schwann” in Vienna. One of these was the amateur ‘cellist Nikolaus Zmeskall who used to work at the Hungarian Chancellery. In a note to him Beethoven wrote "Let us meet at seven this evening at the Schwan and drink more of their disgusting red wine." Apparently this was rough and intoxicating and was made from grapes grown locally on the foothills of the Kahlenberg at the eastern end of the Vienna Woods. It is difficult to say what this wine was. These days only international varieties (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon) and recent crossings such as Blauer Zweigelt, Blauburger and St. Laurent are grown there.
By accident, Schubert once found himself in the castle of Wildbach and was recorded as having very much enjoyed drinking the Schilcher (rose) from Blauer Wildbacher grapes; a wine still very much appreciated and even available in the UK:

"After the weekend, Schubert and Jenger, in the company of Anselm Huettenbrenner and the Pachlers, made a three-day visit to the castle of Wildbach some twenty miles south-west of Graz, which was managed by an aunt of Dr. Pachler, Anna Massegg. Again they made music, assisted by Massegg's eldest daughter, in a beautiful 'blue room' with fine views across the garden; and they were refreshed by generous supplies of the excellent local wine, the Schilcher, a light rose which proved a particular favourite with Schubert."

Franz Schubert, A Biography, by Elizabeth Norman McKay (p.284). Oxford University Press, 1996

The date of Schubert's visit to Wildbach was September 1827.

Schubert's favorite apart from this Schilcher came from the red Kadarka grape, "The Nectar of Szekszárd," There is a legend that it inspired him to write the Trout Quintet. Legends abound concerning Hungarian wine so we should be cautious here.

Not surprisingly, Rossini's 'Gastronomia' is better chronicled but amazingly, he seems to have had a great love of Madeira which he always drank with his Maccheroni. Bizarrely he drank Bordeaux with is fish fillets and Rhine wine with his Turkey.

Rossini knew a thing or two about food so we rushed out and bought a bottle of Madeira Sercial on the assumption that it was the driest kind of Madeira he would have chosen. This example from Barbeito is certainly delicious on its own, as an aperitif. We will certainly try a thimble or three the next time we make Maccheroni (it weighs in at 19%).

Wagner developed a liking for the wines of St. Peray and once ordered 100 bottles to be sent to him in Bayreuth. 100, not 96 or 108.

When Verdi embarked for St. Petersburg in order to present “La forza del destino” at the Mariinsky Opera he brought with him Bordeaux and Champagne rather than the wines of his part of Italy, Emilia Romagna. Wine features in various Verdi operas by the way including Macbeth, La Traviata, Otello and of course Falstaff where there is a famous scene when Falstaff orders ‘una bicchiere di vin caldo” after being fished out of the Thames. It is not always remembered that this wine is later described as being ‘dolce’ – so probably warmed up sweet white wine rather than mulled red or something.

Brahms and Liszt were most famous as cigar smokers: an admirer of Liszt’s even wore one of his cigar buts on the end of a chain in her cleavage. Wine and cognac were Liszt’s other companions throughout his life. Like Schubert, he was also a devotee of Szekszárd wines. The Szekszárd Mass was composed in honour of the region, and Liszt also sent Pope Pius IX Szekszárd red as a personal gift. In old age his doctor told him to drink only Tokaj and water. His other vice was of course Wagner.

A wine connoisseur invited Brahms to dinner and in his honour brought out some of his choicest bottles. "This is the Brahms of my cellar," he announced to the company. After taking a sip, Brahms muttered, "Better bring out your Beethoven." There is a South African wine producer called Brahms.

Among contemporary composers Stockhausen would drink German wine at home. He described himself as a ‘German Composer’. He was eclectic enough though to like any wine that was good including for example a Chateau Marquis de Terme. Henze lives in Marino near Rome and drinks as the Italians do; mainly local wine as a staple but not averse to something altogether more exalted. Pierre Boulez doesn’t drink wine any more but when he did, he was not exceptionally concerned with its provenance and always drank in moderation. So much for "Lunchtime O’Boulez."

Opera singers are more noted for their use of wine in staving off symptoms than in any interest in wine per se. Red wine is either supposed to help or hinder in the case of a dry throat. It depends on whether you believe the great Russian tenor Vladimir Atlantov who says it helps or practically everyone else who warns against it. Eating raw onions is also said to be of assistance in certain cases, so much for that.

So musicians are not so different from the rest of us. Indeed they may be rather more conservative, not having the time to make a passion all-consuming. To show how little time the more obsessive of musicians have to spend on anything but music, here’s a story concerning Stravinsky who returned to Russia in the 1960s for the first time since the revolution having disapproved thoroughly of the Soviet Union.

He was dogged by a Soviet journalist who kept on bothering him for an interview. Finally he gave in. The first question was “Do you have any hobbies?” Stravinsky was nonplussed. “Hobbies? I am a composer. That is my hobby!” The journalist couldn’t let it drop. “But surely you have other interests apart from composition?” Stravinsky. “All right, I am interested in Ornitholigy”. “Ornithology – how fascinating. What is your favourite bird?” Stravinsky: “The Double-Headed Eagle.”

Stravinsky incidentally drank Ballantine's 30 year old Scotch in large quantities never leaving home without a bottle or flask full. It has been described as 'exquisite and expensive.'

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The vineyards of Berlin, London, Paris...

At 52,310 degrees North, Berlin is more northerly than either the vineyards of Meissen or the Ahr Valley. It is even further North than Chateau Slotovino (51.34 N) or even Astley Vineyard, Stourport (Worcestershire) which was at one time England's most northerly vineyard (52.21 N).

All this may be hugely uninteresting were it not for the fact a) that both Meissen and the Ahr Valley make the claim that they are Germany's most northerly vineyard and b) that there are indeed vineyards in Berlin. In 6 districts, there are said to be 10 producers. 11 if you count the patch of vines outside the office of one of the Laender (Pfalz?)

right in the middle of town within sight of the Reichstag. Indeed, the producers had to have a conference recently at Myers Hotel, Prenzlauer Berg.

There is said to be a 700 year history of winegrowing in Berlin and Brandenburg. As well as Prenzlauer Berg where the soil is sandy, Kreuzberg seems to be a prominent area with vines planted around an athletics stadium. Something to be encouraged in our view.

Riesling seems to be the grape grown in all these districts. Germans can obviously not get enough of it.

All this is a bit of a challenge to Chateau Tooting in London In Paris they have the Association des Vignerons de Paris who, like Tooting pool the grapes they grow in plant pots on terraces, balconies and courtyards in the city. Grape varieties of the Paris wine, free of any DOC rules are wonderfully eclectic. Whites include Perlette and Chasselas de Fontainebleau and Reds, Aladin, Alphonse Lavallee and Brant. There are actual vineyards in Parisian spaces including Montmartre (the best known) as well as parks etc. There they grow Gamay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Perlette, Chasselas and something called Perdin.

Paris (Montmartre in fact) is 48.53 degrees North.