Thursday, 28 March 2013

Modern day booze cruise - a day trip to France with a difference

Banish from your thoughts memories of booze-sodden day trips to France in the good old days of duty free.  Back then it was all double gin and tonics on the ferry over, feverish stacking of hypermarket trollies with litre bottles of vin very ordinaire, before a dash back to the ferry terminal and the last chance to down some cut price booze on the way home.

Gone is the era when Calais resembled a British retail park, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s superstores rubbing shoulders with French hypermarkets at Cité Europe and discount booze stores such as Eastenders piling ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap.  The demise of super-cheap cross channel ferry tickets, the lack of Euro-buying power of the pound and the plentiful supply of discounted wines and beers in supermarkets back home have all conspired to make selling wines to Brits abroad less commercially rewarding.

However, for those who would like to sample a little morsel of life in la belle France – and pick up some bargain-priced wines at the same time – then a quick trip across the Channel could be just the ticket.

Majestic Wine still has two outlets in Calais and they offer £2 a bottle saving versus the UK price on wines (£3 a bottle on sparkling wines).  You may not be able to cross the channel for £1 anymore, but there are still good discounts available, especially if you can travel off peak. 

Calais old town, close to the port, has its charms, especially if the sun comes out.  Restaurant Le Channel, round the corner from the main square, Place d’Armes, is a good place to head for a civilised blow-out cum leisurely lunch.  If it takes a dose of moules marinières for you to know you’ve trodden on French soil, then Brasserie de la Mer, on rue de la Mer, is as good a place as any to head for.  Do not, however, be tempted, as I was, by their long list of alternative ways to prepare mussels.  Moules à la flammande are, apparently, supposed to be sweet – a weird and unwelcome surprise.
Wednesday and Saturday are market days, held, of course, on Place d’Armes.  On other days a quick trip to La Maison du Fromage et du Vin may have to suffice.  And, frankly, what more could you want?

If you have more time or are prepared to do a little driving, then you could venture further than Calais and call in on the Wine Society.

The Wine Society is a wine retailer with a difference:  a mutual society which exists to benefit its customers, who must all purchase a share in order to join (currently £40).  There is a showroom cum shop at their headquarters in Stevenage, but most customers buy over the phone or online. 

The Society’s French outlet is located away from the coast at the genteel town of Montreuil-sur-mer which, despite its name, has not been “sur mer” since the 1300s.  A forty minute drive from the Channel tunnel at Sangatte (count on an hour from the ferry port at Calais), Montreuil is a picturesque town with intact ramparts around the old town in this surprisingly hilly part of the Pas de Calais.  The ramparts play host to an annual “son et lumière” performance of Les Misérables in the summer – Victor Hugo set much of the action of his novel there, following a brief visit years before with his mistress (don’t let me give you ideas).

Walking the ramparts

The Wine Society guarantees a saving of £18 per 12 bottles:  the actual amount can vary with the sterling to Euro exchange rate.  Because of this fixed price discount, you stand to gain more at the lower end of the price range.  If you are paying £1.50 less for a bottle that would cost you £7 back in the UK, that looks like a healthy discount.  £1.50 off a bottle of £50 claret is not going to set the pulse racing.  Therefore, the core range of 200 wines stocked in Montreuil concentrates on sub-£10 bottles.

Members can also use the Montreuil shop to pick up wines that they have pre-ordered in the UK, in which case they are free to choose from the Society’s full list of over 500 wines.

Having got the wine buying business out of the way, the rest of the day is free to explore the dining options of the town.  Choose from the rustic bench seats and rotisserie meat fest at Froggy’s Tavern (nowhere near as cheesy a place as that sounds), to the Michelin-starred refinement of Le Château de Montreuil – and lots more in between. 

Or, of course, you could make a night of it and stay overnight in Montreuil, fitting in a sortie to the well-stocked cheese shop, window shopping at one of the appealing but eye-wateringly expensive chocolate shops – and of course a bracing walk around the ramparts to make up for any over-indulgence the night before.

Names and addresses

Majestic outlets – 1 rue de Judée, Zone Industrielle Marcel Doret, Calais; and Unit 3A, avenue Général Charles de Gaulle, Zone la Française, Coquelles
Restaurant Le Channel – 5, boulevard de la Résistance, Calais
Brasserie de la Mer – 30, rue de la Mer, Calais
La Maison du Fromage et du Vin – 1, rue André Gerschell, Calais

The Wine Society in France - rue de Tripot, 62170 Montreuil-sur-Mer (behind the Hôtel Hermitage on Place Gambetta).  Detailed directions and lots more information are available on The Wine Society’s website:
Froggy’s Tavern – 51 bis, place du Général de Gaulle
Le Château de Montreuil – 4, chaussée des Capucins
Fromagerie Caseus – 28, place du Général de Gaulle
Les Chocolats de Beussent – 10, place Darnétal
Chocolaterie les Misérables –9, rue Pierre Ledent

Friday, 15 March 2013

Do the stars make wines taste better?

Ha!  I bet you thought I was going to return to one of my favourite wine hobbyhorses:  biodynamic wines, where the movements of the moon and planets are used to guide vine growing and wine-making. Mais non, this time it’s the other sort of star, the sort that appears on red carpets.

Does a wine taste better because a big name from the world of sport or entertainment is linked to it?  Well of course not, famous people are just like us (though generally better looking) and do not sprinkle a bit of magical stardust over the contents of a bottle of wine, rendering it more delicious.

And yet many actors, singers and sportspeople seem keen to get into this wine making thing, or at least putting their name to a bottle.  And we drinkers get a little vicarious taste of the celebrity lifestyle by shelling out a few more (or sometimes many more) pennies for a bottle that bears their name.  Or do we?

Here’s a rundown of some of the famous names who have decided to add wine to the list of their credentials. 

Retired Formula 1 racing drivers

Mario Andretti, an Italian American who won many Grand Prix in the 1960s, 70s and 80s is also a “very rich man”, according to his website, which undoubtedly helps him fit right in with the other vineyard owners in California’s Napa Valley (who include film director Francis Ford Coppola, now in control of California legend, Inglenook).

Amorino Pecorino 2009 - £13.50 from Eton Vintners
Jarno Trulli, also of Italian parentage, despite his Finnish name, retired from F1 last year.  He co-owns a vineyard in Abruzzo in Italy.  This is clearly more than a vanity project as Abruzzo is not a region known for grand wines – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, that stalwart of pizza and pasta chain wine lists, is its most well-known wine in this country.  Pecorino is a native Italian white variety and, while this has undoubtedly had plenty of wine-making lavished on it, it remains a well-made, modest quality wine.


Brad and Angelina (surnames not required) have just launched the first wine from their property, Château Miraval, in Provence.  No fools they, they took the precaution of buying a château that already had a reputation for well-made wines and enlisted the help of the Perrin family, who own Château de Beaucastel, one of Châteauneuf du Pape’s most famous names.  Apparently the whole lot sold out in hours last week, though none of the people who ordered it can reaslistically have tasted it yet.

Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2010 - £17.43 from Haynes Hanson and Clark
Sam Neill is often assumed to be Australian, but is, however, a New Zealander and he turned to his native country to undertake his wine project.  Reilly Ace of Spies (now do you know who I mean?) bought a vineyard, named Two Paddocks, in the highly-regarded Central Otago region in the far south of New Zealand’s South Island, where his winemaking team produce a range of wines, including the region’s hallmark variety, Pinot Noir.

Elegant, bordering on austere, it seems Mr Neill is keen to pay homage to the red wines of Burgundy rather than express the piercingly bright fruit that Otago is more usually known for.

Gerard Depardieu, actor, bon viveur, “Russian” tax exile and scourge of flight attendants  everywhere, looms large in many ways.  He lists his profession as vigneron  (winemaker) on his passport nowadays and has wine interests in various regions of France, as well as in Morocco. 


Vida Nova Tinto - £9.29 from Waitrose
Sir Cliff Richard needs no introduction.  Obviously fond of the sun, he has had an estate in the Algarve region in the far south of Portugal for many years, and now also a winery known as Adega do Cantor.  Algarve wines have no real reputation for quality, but Sir Cliff is determined to change that, hiring renowned Australian (but Portuguese-based) winemaking consultant David Baverstock and constructing a custom-built winery.   The red is a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo, locally known as Aragonez and has plenty of southern warmth and ripeness.

Mick Hucknell, the red-haired Mancunian crooner, is using some of his millions making wines from his vineyard in Sicily.  Released under the name Il Cantante (I sense a theme here), the vines are in the Etna region, whose wines are becoming highly valued.   They are not available in the UK.

Olivia Newton-John, country-lite triller turned Eighties lycra and headband-wearing pop princess, produces a sparkling wine in her native Australia called “Let’s Get Fizzical”.  Nah, not really, the truth is much more prosaic.  In reality she puts her name to a South Australian Chardonnay and Shiraz under the Blue Koala label.  I think my idea is better.


Botham Merrill Willis Shiraz 2006 - £15.82 Christopher Piper Wines
This two for the price of one wine label combines Beefy himself with his old pal, fast bowler Bob Willis.  They leave the wine-making duties to the extravagantly moustachioed Geoff Merrill, a long-established winemaker in McLaren Vale, but they do get involved in blending I am told.  Tempting as it is to describe this wine as beefy, it actually has more in the way of bright fruit and crunchy acidity.

Ernie Els Proprietor’s Blend 2010 - £22.99 from SA Wines online
Ernie Els, nicknamed The Big Easy, hasn’t waited for his career to wane before getting stuck into the winemaking business in his native South Africa.  He has a range of wines made at his eponymous winery, which are predominantly red.  Big Easy Red is his entry level wine (available from SA Wines Online for £14.99 a bottle), but you can spend plenty more, up to £40 for his Signature Blend.  The wines are big, certainly, though I wouldn’t describe the Proprietor’s Blend as easy.  It’s dense, structured and needs a hefty slab of steak from the braai to stand up to its fearsome tannins. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

USA: beyond the Golden State

California is the leviathan of US wine, accounting for 90% of production and, despite exporting seemingly limitless quantities of Blossom Hill and Gallo here, making 3 out of every 4 bottles sold within the US.  The state basks in the reflected glory of its nickname, The Golden State, a name that betokens glamour, riches, sunshine and the good life.   However, there are plenty of other wine-making parts of the US, including California’s more northern West coast neighbours :  Washington and Oregon. 

Washington State is perhaps a surprise runner up in the wine production states, though it’s a distant second and hardly clipping at California’s heels, with only 5% of the total.  Its nickname is the rather more homely The Evergreen State – fair do’s, the name evokes the expansive wilderness of conifer forests nurtured by the plentiful rain that falls here (we’ve all seen Frasier, right?).  The state’s highest peak is even called Mount Rainier.

The Columbia River, Washington State

However, if you’ve visited the area around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula and experienced the mile upon mile of forest, including one of the world’s rare areas of temperate rain forest, you might be surprised to find that the state produces any wine at all – it’s too cool and damp, surely?

Vines in arid Washington State

The answer to the conundrum is the Cascade Mountains:  these stand between Seattle and the interior and act as a barrier to the cool, wet conditions that prevail on the coast, sheltering the Columbia Valley, where most wine is made.  They do such a good job that the Columbia Valley has rainfall levels that class it as desert (only 150-250mm annually, compared with just under 800mm in southern England).  The plentiful sunshine means that warm climate varieties thrive here, including Syrah, and Bordeaux stalwarts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Sandwiched in between California and Washington, Oregon is known as The Beaver State.  I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by saying any more on that topic.

On the subject of wine, Oregon is, counter-intuitively, the coolest and wettest of the three west coast wine producing states.  While the Cascades continue south into Oregon from Washington, most winegrowing areas sit between them and the lower Coastal Range, which provides only slight protection from the prevailing weather.  The vineyards are correspondingly cooler, cloudier and wetter than their more northerly neighbours.

Mist in cool climate Oregon

Oregon is largely synonymous with a single variety – Pinot Noir, which represents a staggering 66% of plantings, ahead of Pinot Gris in second place at 14%.  Pinot Noir is renowned as a cool climate variety, so it makes sense that it should find a home here, but it is also a tricky grape to nurture and in these marginal areas vintage variation is marked.

Autumn colour at Sokol Blosser estate, Oregon

Neither of these regions provides the kind of cheap wine thrills that California can, whose size bestows the ability to mass produce branded wine.  Both Oregon and Washington are more boutique-y in feel and the prices of their wines (especially once they’ve been exported here) are more like high end California.  The small scale of producers, especially those from Oregon, means that they generally won’t pitch up on the supermarket shelves and a visit to a specialist independent merchant will be in order if you want to taste them.

Wines from Washingon

Eroica Riesling 2011 – Slurp and Winedirect both have the 2010 for £17.95, Fareham Wine Cellar stocks the 2008 for £19.10
Eroica is a joint venture between Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington’s largest wine producer, and German Ernie Loosen, master of the Mosel and Riesling guru.  Riesling has a bit of a problem, apart from the main one of its unfair image as a low quality variety.  Off-dry Rieslings tend to have bags of fruit, balanced by crisp acidity, but are terribly unfashionable.  Dry Rieslings can sometimes sacrifice the exuberant fruit, leaving searing acidity that sets the teeth on edge.  This wine happily manages to combine the incisive and linear acidity of a dry Riesling, without sacrificing charm and peachy fruit.
L’Ecole 41 Columbia Valley Syrah 2009 – older vintages available from Noel Young Wines (based in Cambridge or online), Winedirect has the 2008 for £23
Columbia Valley is the powerhouse of Washington wine growing, with surprisingly warm and dry conditions that favour heat-loving varieties such as Syrah.  L’Ecole 41 have a well-deserved reputation for quality reds.  This Syrah has beautifully pure blackcurranty fruit with a peppery kick and enough acidity to balance the richness of the fruit.  Beware:  its elegance belies its 15.5% alcohol.

Wines from Oregon

Bergström Old Stones Chardonnay 2010 - £25.95 from Roberson Wine (shop in Kensington or order online)
A classy Chardonnay whose inviting nose promises ripe fruit with its wisp of honey and aroma of yellow Mirabelle plums.  The palate delivers this and more, with savoury, flinty lees character and wonderful freshness.

Bergström also have a delicious range of Pinot Noirs, available from Roberson and Noel Young Wines.

Firesteed Oregon Pinot Gris 2011 - £15.79 from Christopher Piper Wines; Slurp has the 2010 for £14.30
Chardonnay undoubtedly has more cachet than Pinot Gris, but well-made examples like this give plenty of food friendly enjoyment.  And if buying Oregon wines is starting to look like a rich person’s past-time, then this is a relative bargain.  Crisp, juicy tropical fruit with a hint of peach, melon and the variety’s trademark gentle spice.

Sokol Blosser Estate Pinot Noir 2009 – Guildford’s own Caves de Pyrène has the 2008 for £30.36; Noel Young Wines has the 2008 for £25.64 or the 2007 for £35.10; Winedirect stocks the 2009 for £32.50
Oregon’s Willamette Valley (one of my favourite regions in the world to say: it’s WillAMette, to rhyme with dammit) does have variable weather from year to year, so the other vintages may not display the same seductive fruit as I found in the beguiling 2009.  There’s plenty of oak drapery too, but the quality of the fruit shines through.