Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Heather A is distinctly stage struck this week, flushed with excitement and over the moon that she has rediscovered her inner rock chick. Abandoning the world of wine, she is heading off on tour, including a night at The Royal Albert Hall singing with The Soldiers. Yes, Heather A is one of the many women - and some men - who sing with Rock Choir.

This Surrey based organization, started by Farnham girl Caroline Redman-Lusher, is phenomenally successful and spreading like wildfire throughout the home counties because it is fun, non-competitive, friendly and has an all-important physical and mental feel good factor. In short, it has soul!

Rock Choir is just one of a number of organizations currently on the rise that appeals specifically to women. Recently both Heathers came across a couple of networking companies that aim to entertain, amuse and empower women. Hens Dancing founder Gill Bentham has given a modern, more edgy slant to what the Women’s Institute was and still is to many women, but without the emphasis on jam-making. The Athena Network, with branches across Surrey and the UK, is one of a host of networking groups which have sprung up of late aimed at connecting business women. What all these organizations have in common is harnessing and capitalizing on the power of women when they come together: socially, creatively and commercially.

According to Dorothy Mackenzie, co-founder of brand strategy company Dragon Rouge, we need to wake up to "Womanomics". The concept is based on the fact that the 45-plus aged women is the fastest growing section of the population and, therefore, is becoming increasingly important in terms of consumer marketing. They have a large contribution to make in the workplace - and money to spend. Savvy retailers are taking notice and starting to direct fashion and products to the grown-up woman.

All very interesting, but what, pray, has this to do with wine? Wine, too, used to be very much a man's world: horny-handed men of the soil made it and pin-stripe suited men sold it, mostly to other men. And men in the press and elsewhere told the rest of us which were the wines and vintages to lay down in the cellar. And, sorry to have to bring this up, we've all come across wine bores over the years – and they don't generally wear skirts!

But now sisters are doing it for themselves in all aspects of wine.

There are female château-owners and female wine-makers showing that you don't need highly-developed biceps to make great wine. And that pinnacle of achievement in wine knowledge, the fiendishly difficult Master of Wine qualification, once a woman-free zone for nearly 30 years of its 50-odd year history, is now looking increasingly pink-tinged.

We have not yet met many women who don't enjoy a glass of wine (could be the circles we move in). But perhaps most importantly of all, women hold the purse strings when it comes to buying wine in the UK. Women now buy more wine in this country than men – largely because over 70% of the wine we drink is bought at the supermarket with the weekly shop, which is still, for the most part, the domain of us lucky ladies. Womanomics indeed.

But wine is not a feminist issue. Our wine recommendations this week may all be made by women – not because female winemakers need to be given preferential treatment, nor because they are intrinsicically better than “man-made” wines. They are just good wines that will give enjoyment to all, whatever your gender.

Women have been involved in wine-making for longer than you might think. Champagne can boast both Veuve Clicquot (the widow Clicquot) and Louise Pommery of Champagne Pommery amongst its most historic names. And Madame Lily Bollinger's legacy includes not just the delights of Bollinger Champagne, but also this charming advice on when not to drink it:

“ I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”

In the present day, Englishwoman Patricia Atkinson has written the fascinating story of how she came to be making wine at Clos d'Yvigne in Bergerac in her bestselling book, The Ripening Sun. You can get a taste of her wines at Majestic, including Le Petit Prince at £9.99 (£8.99 if you buy 2 bottles).

Stephanie O'Toole of Mount Horrocks in South Australia's Clare Valley has the daunting role of of being married to arguably Australia's best maker of Riesling, Jeffrey Grosset. They share a winery as well as their lives and you can't help but wonder what they talk about over the breakfast cereal. Jeffrey may come out on top with his dry Rieslings, but Stephanie's own Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling is a modern Australian classic – richly sweet, but with fine acidity. This and a lemon meringue pie or tarte au citron would be a match made in heaven. Wined up Here of Norbiton list the 2006 for £14.50 for a half bottle.

Half way across the globe from Australia, in what might be considered one of the most macho of cultures, land of the cheroot-smoking gaucho, Susana Balbo is widely respected as one of Argentina's best winemakers. She is responsible for the gutsy, red-meat friendly Ben Marco Malbec, Dominio del Plata, £11.99, £10.99 if you buy two at Majestic.
This is just the tip of the iceberg – the more you delve into wine, the more women you find! Tom Savigar is strategy and insight director at The Future Laboratory, a forecasting and brand strategy agency, with clients including Louis Vuitton, British Airways and Marks & Spencer. His conclusion: the future 's female friendly. Or, to put it in a more lighthearted way:

“Who loves not wine, women and song, remains a fool a whole life long” Martin Luther

Thursday, 1 April 2010

A Spanish Armada of wine - and a local hero

Lord Charles Howard of Effingham (1536 to 1624) was Lord High Admiral and commander-in-chief of the English fleet in August 1587 when he sailed in the English flagship Ark Royal, instrumental in defeating the Spanish Armada (not a lot of people know that). The more famous, game of bowls-playing, Francis Drake was actually under his command.

This rather tenuous connection between Surrey and Spain sprang to mind last week as we attended the annual Wines of Spain trade fair held in Old Billingsgate, London. We managed to sip and spit our way through ninety plus offerings ranging from newly-fashionable varieties such as Mencia and Godello, to the renowned and ever popular Riojas from the north east. Exhausting work! Spain has long held a reputation for its tasty red wines, however, we agreed that many of those on show this year were rather lacklustre. Perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that improvement in quality of Spain's white wines has been remarkable over the past few years. As always, though, there are some goodies to be found and we are happy to recommend the following:

Castillo de Albai Reserva 2005, available from Asda at £8.54 is a wonderful red Rioja (yes, in case you're wondering, there is such a thing as white Rioja) with concentrated elegance and a hint of swashbuckling leather and steel bravado. With Easter fast approaching it makes a great Anglo-Spanish alliance with traditional roast lamb. From Bierzo in Galicia, the green and rainy area made famous by the pilgrim's way of Camino Real de Santiago (St James’ Way), we both liked the Hombros 2006, Casar de Burbia , made from the Mencia grape variety. This intense, almost black wine has a warm gamey-ness and a long tannic finish. Fareham Wine Cellar lists the 2003 vintage for the price of £11.99.

An easier name to remember and to pronounce, is 12 Volts 2008, 4 kilos. 4 kilos is the name of the winery, and apparently commemorates the amount of money the founders invested in their project: 4 kilos is 4 million pesetas, in old money. Regardless of the origin, they were named as winery of the year in 2009 by the prestigious Guia Penin, the most authoritative guide to Spanish wines. But perhaps the most surprising thing about this wine, to the English drinker at least, is where it is: the island of Mallorca. More famous to us as a holiday destination and the home of beefy tennis ace Rafa Nadal, there is more to Mallorca than meets the eye. The wine is a well balanced blend of three familiar grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah - and one we've never encountered before, native to the island: Callet. All those varieties manage to work together harmoniously making for a tasty, balanced mouthful with many layers of flavour. You can buy it from The Vineking (Reigate and Weybridge) for £19.99, or at £17.25 if you buy a mixed case of six wines.

The white wines of Spain have not historically had much international appeal. However, times are changing and we found some suprises of the nicest kind. Cuatro Rayas Verdejo 2009 is available from Bibendum at £7.67 a bottle. It is also listed by Marks & Spencer but you have to buy a case of 12 bottles at £71.88. This 12.5% proof wine has a “fresh flowers in the meadows” acidity, without being Alpine. Pazo Barrantes 2008, Marquez de Murrieta from Rias Baixas, made from Spain's own Albariño grape at £14.95 a bottle from Slurp, (great name) and O Chardonnay 2009, Bodegas Olvena, £109.83 a case of 12 bottles from Everywine, are both worthy of consideration as are the sauvignon blancs. So perhaps it's time to give Spanish whites a try: it's not hard work.

From the vast plains and mountains of Spain and its plethora of wine varieties Heather A tripped along (well so would you), to a tasting with a difference at Le Gothique in Wandsworth. Dark and forbidding, Le Gothique is an architecturally intriguing, turreted former orphanage and possessor of an in-house ghost. During the second world war the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, as it was originally named, became home to M.I.5 and M.I.6., when it was used as a detention and interrogation centre. Prison cells and truth extracting apparatus for reluctant guests such as Rudolph Hess were the furnishings then. Today it is a “Fame” style drama school and trendy restaurant. However, all is respectfully closed before midnight to give the ghost some peace!

This south London oddity was the venue for the inaugural tasting of The Urban Wine Company. The candlelit cloisters led to the presentation of an innovative idea which harnesses today’s emerging community root values with a very marketable and no doubt franchise-able commodity, London grown wine. Major conurbations store heat within the concrete of their buildings, meaning that London is 2 to 5 degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas, creating an “urban island heat effect”. For an annual sub you can join this enterprise and your allotment, back garden or even window box-grown grapes can be added to the harvest. Your own community grown wine plus the kudos of being a part of a very jolly club producing “Chateau Tooting Furzdown Blush”. Yes really, and it’s priceless....! The pale pink wine at this uncorking of the 2009 vintage was eminently drinkable, a soft quaff, and evocative of a Provencal rosé. “Dig for England” now has a new inducement - making wine is fun.
 So, from the Armada of countless big wines from Spain set on broaching our shores, faced with the home-grown English variety, well we all know what happened five hundred years ago...Could this be a similar victory for British enterprise?

“Life loves to be taken by the lapel and told: “I am with you kid, let’s go.” Maya Angelou