Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Sazerac Rye

This Sazerac Rye Whiskey, along with quite a few that got delivered to The Whisky Shop at the time, is from the sprawling 149 acre Buffalo Trace distillery. I don't really have a problem with distilleries making lots of different whiskies under different names but sometimes I am a little suspicious as to motives. It happens a lot less under the aegis of single malt whisky, which I think is one of its big appeals, although there are plenty of distilleries that many might think are completely independent of one another which are in fact owned by one parent company. Given the recent takeover of United Spirits Diageo must now own half of Scotland, but at the other end of the scale the provenance of whiskies such as these that are once again being sold under the name Glen Marnoch at Aldi is something of a mystery. Given this situation it's interesting to have a read of this blog post which attempts to detail ownership of American distilleries and brand names.

Back to Buffalo Trace though, and I don't think provenance is an issue, although finding information about other whiskies than the flagship brand is somewhat frustrating. It was fascinating to have a chat today with one of their company ambassadors, Chris Hoy, who was both knowledgeable and forthcoming about how their different whiskies are made - to the point where he was giving out A4 size glossy brochures that go into quite some detail about how each of four different recipes of 'White Dog' become known as first one whiskey and then another as they go through the ageing process, in almost exactly the same way as a scotch from one distillery ends up bottled as a 10, 12 or whatever age. The Sazerac that I bought the other week is the first of the rye expressions, aged for 8-12 years. This makes it the baby brother of Jim Murray's 2013 whisky of the year; the Thomas H Handy - selected from casks at 12-15 years.

As you'd expect from a whisky matured in Kentucky's heat, even at a relatively youthful (in scotch terms)  8-12 years it's got a lot of character from the barrel - there's lots of vanilla oakiness and spice on the nose, along with demerara sugar. On the palate I got cloves and coffee and the finish has burnt toast and a sour kick that tempers that sweetness of the toffee on the palate, giving it dusty cocoa notes. All in all a great introduction to a whole new style of whisky for me, and one I fully intend to re-visit.

Many thanks to Chris for some great reading and research material, and even better conversation. I will hopefully get a more Bourbon-focussed Buffalo Trace post up if I get a chance to try more when I'm not quite so tied up with work.


I should have done this before but I've been a bit busy. In the piece above I suggested the Sazerac whiskies were older than they actually are. This was because of some incorrect information in the brochure I got - see the 'distillery matrix below.

On checking the technical specifications for the Thomas H Handy I realised it's a lot younger than I had been lead to believe. It's six years old, as is the 'Baby Saz.' Thanks to Florin below for pointing out the error.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Morrison Bowmore Tasting

This week we were treated to a visit from Gordon Dundas, the European Brand Ambassador for Morrison Bowmore Distillers, owners of Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and, unsurprisingly, Bowmore distilleries. This meant that Gordon was armed with quite a formidable array of very different whiskies to entertain the thirsty masses of Nottingham.

First up was a pair of offerings from Glen Garioch, the 12 year old and a '95 vintage. The Highlands covers a wide range of styles, making it rather different to pin down. Is there really a genuine Highland style when the soft sweetness and fresh fruit of Glengoyne is bracketed in with the pepper, power and peat of Talisker? Well, if you were going for a traditional Highland style whisky then Glen Garioch is one that you should try; it's all about the creaminess and spiciness - more power than a Spey, but more restraint than the Islands. The two whiskies we tried were from two quite different points in Glen Garioch's history, the 12 from after the '95-'97 mothballing and the '95 the last of the gently peated pre-mothballing era. The 12 is double cask (bourbon/sherry) matured, although the bourbon is by far the largest component, giving it a luscious vanilla nose which is a little deceptive when you get into a surprisingly full-bodied palate brimming with sweet, ripe pear and a hint of toffee. On the finish the spice really kicks in, especially if you are tasting it at its bottled strength of 48% - with a little water the creaminess and fresh fruit is more to the fore. The '95 cask-strength, 100% first-fill American oak was all about that spiciness; white pepper complementing the vanilla-spiced nose, corn and coconut flavours. At 55.3% it's almost scarily palatable even without a drop of water. For me it's the spice that makes these two whiskies. Although there was some peat used pre-mothballing you can see why it was dropped, the whisky doesn't really need that to have plenty of character.

By way of contrast with the Glen Garioch, Gordon then produced a big sherried dram in the form of Auchentoshan 'Three Wood.' This is a personal favourite, one I used to sell lots of back in my Oddbins days, one of my best customers being myself! The Auchentoshan is the last Lowland distillery that is still triple-distilling its spirit, and as a result that spirit is very light, meaning that it will be able to pick up more of the character of the wood it's placed in. It began as a mistake, a whisky that had been in a bourbon cask, then finished in an Oloroso sherry cask was accidentally put into a Pedro-Ximinez sherry cask, but the results were fantastic. It's a mouth-coating, complex, sweet, dessert whisky, jam-packed with golden syrup, toffee, butterscotch and dried fruit. If you're after a whisky to savour after Christmas dinner or with a slice of whisky-fed fruit cake, this has to make the short list.

Last up were three expressions from Bowmore, Islay's oldest distillery, in the form of their 12, 15 and 10 year old cask strength whiskies. While the 'big smokies' of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg let loose the power of peat, Bowmore's approach is more about balance. They keep the peating at a regular strength and let the casks have their say too; in the case of the 15 year old 'Darkest' those casks have an awful lot to say - the two I took a picture of were the 10 year old 'Tempest' and the Darkest. You can see what a difference three years in a sherry barrel can make to a whisky's colour! As a double-distilled peaty base spirit it contrasts markedly with the Three Wood, and even with the 12 year old expression being a marriage of American and European oak casks that character really comes through in the smoky nose, accompanied by what I put in my notes as a hint of something medicinal, like unwrapping a fresh bandage. On the palate the briny maritime influence comes through, and on the finish there's a sweet, dairy, almost buttery quality - it's definitely very smooth. The 15 is a different animal, Gordon broke out a plate of dark chocolate and got us to melt some in the mouth to accompany the whisky. It's another rich, after-dinner whisky, the characteristic Islay smokiness almost overpowered by three years in a sherry cask, but like the chocolate it contrasts sweetness with a dry finish. For me this was the revelation of the evening. Often I find peat and sherry to be an ill-fitting partnership, but for me this really worked because the smoke hides behind the richness, only revealing itself in the umami finish. The 10 year old 'Tempest' is a small batch bourbon cask-only dram, each edition coming out in batches of 1,000 cases compared to the 180, 000 a year case output for the 12. This is more conventionally Islay, the relative youth and cask-strength allowing the peat to shine. It's vibrant and citrussy, with characteristic saltiness and pepper in the finish.

Thank you very much to Morrison Bowmore, and in particular to Gordon for an excellent and informative evening. 

Monday, 3 December 2012

Suntory Whiskies: Tasting notes

I thought I'd put the tasting notes as a separate blog post for those who are interested rather than run it in with the (probably far more interesting) things that I actually got told by Tatsuru, the man who really knows his stuff!

Yamazaki 12

On the nose I found it very floral, with vanilla, butterscotch and a touch of caramel. Others suggested tinned pineapple too. Once you taste the whisky the cedar and sandalwood aromas really envelop you, it's got a dry, oaky bite at the sides of the tongue and lashings of sweet allspice. If it is the Japanese Oak that gives it the floral notes and the bite you can see why they have to use it sparingly or it would become overpowering.

Hakushu 12

On the nose it's got more noticeable bourbon cask notes, lots of coconut and green fruit; under-ripe melon and granny-smith apple peel. It does have some of Hakushu's heavily peated whisky in the blend, but at such a low level that I struggled to pick it up, - more Bunnahabhain than Bruichladdich even - although it does add to that complexity in an ethereal sort of way.

Yamazaki 18

This seemed to be more familiar to me as someone who is used to (and a fan of) big sherried scotch. There's an almost kirsch-like note to the nose, it's big and rich with lots of fudge and dried fruit. On the palate that familiar sandalwood note comes through once you pass the sherry hit, and there's a lovely subtle powdery chocolate finish. It's clearly the big brother to the 12, trying them alongside one another revealed the same Mizunara bite.

Hibiki 12

Light on the nose, I got fresh ginger and honey. The palate provoked a rather prolonged discussion about Pez sweets - not an easy thing to explain to someone who'd never heard of them, but it seemed to fit the profile.

Hibiki 18

On the nose I got marzipan and tropical fruit. It's not as big and rich as the Yamazaki 18, but it does have a high malt content and is very much a luxurious blend. The grain content seems to give it a touch of vanilla which complements the marmalade and what Tatsuru described as 'Belgian Waffle ' flavours; syrup and honey. After we'd tasted this one Tatsuru told us that this it is the 12 year old blend that is a newer addition to the range, and it doesn't sit as nicely alongside its big brother as the Yamazaki 12 does alongside the 18. Not to say that they are not both good whiskies, but they are almost too different to carry the same name - in order to give the 12 more complexity they use plum liqueur casks to finish the whisky, which they don't need to do with the elder statesman.

I'm not sure these whiskies are necessarily for everyone, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. There is such a trend towards big, bold flavours that sometimes it's nice to see subtlety given pride of place. 'Mild, delicate, sweet and elegant.' Indeed, and thanks again.

All available from The Whisky Shop generally and here in Nottingham! Shameless work plug, but if they weren't available at the shop I work in then I wouldn't have got the chance to try them!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Suntory Whisky Tasting

This was a real treat. I had tried some Japanese whiskies before but it was a few years ago in a bar a friend was running, and I didn't really have a chance to do in-depth tasting notes - although it was nice to get an initial feel for them. My over-riding memory was the light, floral style, which seemed to strike a familiar chord when the first whiskies were poured and Suntory's whisky ideal was described as 'subtle, refined and complex', a mantra returned to throughout the presentation. I'll post a write-up in two parts, first up to talk a little bit about the whiskies' points of difference, and then some tasting notes.

First up was the Yamazaki 12 along with a little history of Suntory, its founder, Torii Shinjiro, and the Longmorn and Hazelburn trained man he recruited to start whisky distillation in Japan; Masataka Taketsuru. On a technical note, the Yamazaki distillery operates two mash tuns (one stainless steel, one wooden), six pairs of differently-shaped stills and uses five different sorts of cask. Multiply all that together and you can end up with sixty different whiskies from the one distillery. If it's complexity you're after, then that is certainly a way to get it.

Next was the Hakushu 12, from Yamazaki's sister distillery, which was at peak production the largest single malt distillery in the world. Unlike at Yamazaki they don't use any Mizunara, or Japanese oak, for maturation of the Hakushu. A few years ago Michael Jackson suggested that Japanese whisky didn't really have its own separate identity as yet,1 but it could be argued that the judicious use of the Mizunara really is starting to separate Japanese whisky from its Scottish roots and traditions. As I understand it it is the addition of a small component aged in casks made from the tight-grained, slow-growing Mizunara that imparts the floral and sandalwood notes to the other whiskies in this tasting.

Next came the Yamazaki 18, a whisky with a rather large reputation! Yamazaki is one of the most decorated distilleries in the world, having won competitions wherever you care to look, and this whisky in particular is a previous winner of many a global spirits competition.

The final pair of whiskies were two Suntory blends, Hibiki 12 and 17. Unlike in Scotland there are no real business relationships between whisky companies in Japan, and so to make a blend, with all the implications of consistency that that implies, is correspondingly more difficult. Unless, of course, you have access to the multitude of whiskies that the blenders at Suntory do for Hibiki - hence why this can be a 100% Suntory blend. The grain component comes from a third Suntory-owned distillery located near to the Yamazaki distillery; Chita.

Lastly, many thanks to Tatsuya Minagawa of Suntory whisky for visiting us in Nottingham and hosting a great evening; fun, flavoursome and informative! I'll post some tasting notes on the whiskies when I get a chance.

1. Michael Jackson, Whisky - The Definitive World Guide, DK, London, 2005

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Saint Aubin Rhum Agricole

Rhum? What's the matter, spell-checker not working? Trying to sound like Stewie from family guy? I'll have some rHum with my cool wHip please.

OK, so, lame jokes aside. Rhum Agricole is different to rum in that it is made not from molasses but from sugar cane juice, and generally comes from French-owned islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion as well as Mauritius; which is where St. Aubin is from. Distillation seems to owe something to the French influence over the area, in single column stills similar to those in Armagnac. A low-strength distillate suggests there should be a good amount of character left in there after the process, but let's see.

It's clear as you'd expect a light rum to be, and it's only once you get your nose in there that the difference becomes apparent. It's no shrinking violet of a light spirit, no rum that could easily be confused with a vodka. If you were to confuse it with anything it's more like a tequila it's that vegetal. There's some floral notes there and what I can only imagine is the aroma of cane juice. On the palate it's off-dry and there is a spirity burn, with estery banana lurking in the background. It's a rough and ready style of spirit and I ended up putting a little more water in just to break out the flavours a little.

In conclusion I can only suggest it's a pretty good example of its type because it really has that point of difference to conventional molasses based rum. I went back after trying this and tried it alongside a sample of Bacardi and it was near enough impossible to pick up any flavours from the Bacardi, all I got was its sweetness, the rhum is that powerful - if lacking in subtlety. A fully deserved extra letter I suppose!

The whisky exchange are selling it for £27.25 for a 50cl for a bottle. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

Talisker 10

A colleague of mine has been writing for a while about whiskies that are, in a way, ubiquitous but forgotten. I won't got into too much detail because you can have a look for yourself over at The W-Club blog, but it's an interesting point and I think it applies across many drinks blogs. The beers, wines, whiskies that originally flicked the switch in your mind when you went from thinking 'this tastes OK, it tastes like beer' (or insert beverage of your choice) to 'Wow! THIS is what it can do, THIS is why people rave about it.' often end up forgotten. I think we're all guilty of it, and while comments such as those made by Jamie Goode are perfectly valid, there are an awful lot of in different products on the market, it's easy to forget that without them many people would never start drinking those drinks we love in the first place. It's also why derogatory comments after articles like this excellent one from Fiona Beckett in last week's Observer, someone who has to write about drinks her readers can get hold of, are so galling.

Whiskies like the 'standard bottlings' (hardly a ringing endorsement in itself) from big companies like Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie are met with comments like 'it's OK for a pub malt' and seasoned drinkers forget that it was impeccably made whiskies like these that really switched them onto malts in the first place. For me, Diageo's Talisker was that malt and, credit where credit is due, I have Nick at the Old Worthy brewery up there on Skye for giving me an excuse to re-visit an old friend - I wanted to try it in tandem with their peated Skye beer. It wasn't without trepidation; when people ask me what my favourite whisky is Talisker is up there on the list but in the quest to try something new and interesting I haven't had it in a long time. Would my tastes have changed?

It's clear and bright, amber coloured and the addition of a little water shows some of the oils present in the whisky. On the nose it's clean and pronounced, the malt is noticeable , backed up with smoke, spices and a little toffee. On the palate there is a hefty alcohol kick, but because of the intensity of the flavours and the body the whole package works out well. The phenolic peat comes through a lot more on the palate along with (rather appropriately for today) bonfire smokiness, biscuity malt and some charred oak notes. The finish lingers, a gentle, re-assuring dry-oak caress after the initial power, lulling you into a false sense of security before the next mouthful.

My tastes may have changed, and I'm admittedly on the other side of some magnificent whiskies so I'm less likely to get as blown away as I was years ago, but this is still a magnificent powerful whisky. I love it when peat plays as part of an orchestra of flavours rather than soloing, and this is one of the better examples of it doing this. Hello old friend, glad to have you back.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Isle of Arran 10 Year Old

I tried this as both as a follow-up to my not-too-successful blended whisky tasting, and as an accompaniment to a beer from Arran brewery. There's a post to come over on my beer blog about the beer and whisky combination, but this was just a quick systematic tasting I did beforehand.

It's clear (prior to the addition of water) bright and pale gold in colour. On the nose there's toffee and caramel, along with some gentle dried fig notes. On the palate the alcohol is really well-integrated despite its 46% abv. It's a fresh and uplifting dram, with a touch of citrus and light dried fruit; there's a bit of lemon and sultana in there. Occasionally I got a waft of something a little more polishy but it wasn't enough to be off-putting. The malt complements the vanilla nicely giving it good balance, and the finish is smooth and clean.

I have to say I'm very glad it's not chill-filtered, as a delicate malt it's easy to see how it could be ruined by chill-filtering. This is the sort of whisky that The Famous Grouse hints at being, and I still don't quite see why, if you want a light, approachable whisky, this wouldn't be your first choice over something like a light blend, it's just got so much more going for it without being overpowering or harsh in any way. I guess the price of malt whisky is prohibitive to some, but for me they're certainly worth the extra outlay.

A quick google search put this at around £32 for a 70cl bottle, although that's excluding delivery.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Blended Whisky Tasting

I don't drink, and indeed never really have drunk, blended whiskies. Not really knowing anything at all about whiskies, single malts seemed to me to be a natural starting point; one whisky, from one crop, from one distillery has a certain beautiful simplicity to me. When I worked for Oddbins it was trying different whiskies while trying to learn about the different regions that got me into exploration of the flavours that the distillers could coax from the raw materials. Neither have I tried enough whiskies to feel like I am in danger of running out at any point. I therefore find it intriguing when luminaries such as Jim Murray sing the praises of blends, indeed Ballantine's 17 was his scotch whisky of the year for 2013 in his recently published Whisky Bible. It does make me wonder if I've just missed out a stage in my enjoyment of whisky. After all, even single malts are generally blends of different casks, so blending is all part of the art and creativity of the industry.

I tasted these three different blended whiskies while practising for my WSET Spirits exam but rather than bore anyone with lengthy tasting notes I thought I'd just go through what I see as the stylistic differences.

The Famous Grouse was first up. I picked it more because of a good write up from Jim Murray that its status as one of the UK's best-selling whiskies; to see if I can pick out the qualities that lead to him giving it some 89 points in the Whisky Bible. I have to admit I struggled. I think I'll have to try it alongside another scotch blend, but there seemed to be very little character. The nose was grainy, with the vanilla oak coming through. On the palate there's some grassy freshness, and I suppose if you were dedicated to whisky to the point where you wanted one as an apéritif, this would be one choice.

The Jameson has more toffee and caramel on the nose, and again on the palate. It comes across as sweeter, but it's equally light in body and character, which complements the grassy, grainy palate. Again this gets a massive 95 points in the Whisky Bible but I was struggling to see why; in fact if anything the finish was worse than the Famous Grouse, the caramel leaving something of an artificial taste in the mouth.

Last up, Jack Daniel's ubiquitous No.7. Saviour of supermarket blends? Well, actually I thought it was better than the other two. The nose had more to it, showing multi-faceted rather than one-dimensional oak character; coconut, and maple, rather than simple vanilla. On the palate there's still some grassiness, this is still light if you're used to single malts, but there's more maple and notes of smoke from the char. The finish has almost gone before it starts. It's rough round the edges but it's hard to argue that there's anything unpleasant going on there. 87 points and, for me, the best of the bunch.

I don't think I'll be changing my whisky drinking habits on the back of this particular tasting, but, as ever, the flavour quest continues, and it was certainly interesting to re-visit and re-assess rather than holding to long-held opinions on these whiskies!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

SMWS '35.58' Glen Moray

When I've had Glen Moray whisky in the past (admittedly a more 'standard' bottling) I've found it a bit weak, almost too light, even allowing for the fact that it is hardly distilled as a heavyweight. This one is an ex-bourbon and refill hogshead expression, matured over 26 years, and so it promises to be a little more complex!

It's pale for such an old whisky, pouring a delicate gold colour, but I'm guessing it would have been all too easy for such a lighter style, whisky to get overpowered by the oak so that's no bad thing.

The nose is all butterscotch and toffee, backed up with exotic spices and honeyed notes reminiscent of a good Sauternes, perhaps with a touch of fino sherry. On the palate it is sensually smooth and malty, showing its 26 years in a cask in the form of a mellow warming rather than a spirity burn. The sweet dairy flavours echo the nose, there's lots of fudge there, but the grassy, floral flavours and the dry, oaky, vanilla-spice keep it form becoming too sweet. In the finish the whisky finally succumbs to the oak, the finish is drying and more-ish.

Even at cask strength this is only 41% abv. I hope the angels enjoyed it. I like a little more weight to my whisky, but that is entirely personal taste rather than a reflection on this, because it really is excellent.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Lajita Mezcal Reposado

One of the more amusing aspects of working in the drinks industry for so long is the number of stories that you get to hear that have been passed around, often I'm sure while the passers were under the influence. These stories are told, forgotten, exaggerated and manipulated, and sometimes take on a momentum that is way beyond stopping. Drinks themselves are often the victims of all kinds of myths; you name a drink and someone will tell you something 'everyone knows' about it that is generally far more exotic than the truth.

'Have you ever eaten the worm from a bottle of tequila? It's hallucinogenic!' Given that university students are back in university student union bars up and down the country this week, I'm sure this is one that'll get some vociferous airing. Like the best of them, it's not true on more than one account. The worm is actually a moth larva, it doesn't have any hallucinogenic properties, and if you find one in a bottle of tequila then you've been had - it's mezcal - and not even mezcal has to have the larva in there. Tequila is a sort of mezcal that is distilled under much tighter laws governing area of production and agave variety. Only sotol, another form of mezcal, is as tightly controlled in terms of raw ingredients.

Despite this being a 'reposado' rather than an 'anejo' version of the spirit it has had five years of ageing, a lot more than the rather more delicate Patrón Tequila I reviewed in my last blog entry. I suppose the theory is that the more robust country cousin of tequila can cope with the oak a little better. Let's see.

It's bright, pale gold in colour, with wee floaty bits that I wasn't too keen on getting in my glass - I'm assuming they're bits of moth larva. It's noticeably matured, with loads of barbecue smoke on the nose. There's a little earthiness a and some sweet oak too. On the palate it's dry, with well-integrated alcohol, and the smoke returns with a vengeance, it's a bit like I'd imagine licking a piece of charcoal to be! There's more oak in the form of tobacco and cigar-box flavours, but it's hard to detect any agave character in there. In what is hardly a radical departure, the finish is long and, err, smoky. So therein lies the problem in assessing the quality. They've done a good job in integrating the alcohol and making a smooth spirit but tn the process it's become too one dimensional. Islay whiskies can have as much smoky character, but they always have something to back it up, to counterbalance and add complexity; this unfortunately doesn't. Five years maturation seems too long for this one!

40% abv. £23.45 (70cl) from Master of Malt.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Patrón Tequila

I've got three different expressions of tequila to try, all from Patrón, the self-styled super-premium tequila producers.

First up was the Patrón silver, the un-aged version. There are gentle earthy aromas but these are swiftly overtaken by fresh and vibrant citrus; tangerine, and I got a hint of sweetness, perhaps butterscotch aroma. On the palate it's dry, with only a very slight alcohol burn. The agave flavours are noticeable but they are really fresh, backed up with lemon and a touch of almond. Overall a good, light, pure spirit without  any harshness or feinty notes.

Next, the reposado, or rested version (aged for a couple of months). It pours a pale gold colour with green hints. On the nose there's citrus again; lemon, with a hint of woodsmoke and vegetal agave aromas. It's dry on the palate but the agave flavours are backed up with vanilla sweetness, lime and a lifted orange blossom finish. The short ageing process has allowed the alcohol to integrate into the spirit, giving it a superb balance of sweet oak and savoury vegetal flavours.

Finally the anejo, fully aged over a year. I didn't get much oak on the nose, but it has contributed in a toffee hint, with the vanilla and smoke that I found in the reposado. On the palate it is very dry from the oak influence, the alcohol is well-integrated but I found it to be a little too drying - there's lots of sawdust and oak flavour and the coconut and smokiness dominates the fruit a little, although it does make for a very mellow spirit.

In short (no pun intended), if you think tequila is a rough spirit that only deserves to be fired down with salt and lemon this is the tequila to try to disavow you of that impression. For me the reposado was the best of the three, getting the right balance without allowing the oak to provide character without dominating what is quite a light spirit - although it might just be because I'm not a massive fan of oak flavours in the raw.

All three are 40% abv. Patrón silver is selling for £43.49 at The Whisky Exchange, the reposado for just a pound more and the anejo for £49.49.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Brecon 'Special Reserve' Gin

This is the other sample of Penderyn's 'other spirits' that I picked up form Wales over the summer. With more distilleries springing up over the UK seemingly every week there is a huge number of new gins hitting the market. With whisky taking such a long time to reach a level where it can even be called whisky, gin and vodka allow a faster return on an investment. Of course there is the danger that they become a route to a quick buck, an afterthought rather than something to be proud of. This is definitely not the case with Penderyn, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The gin! It's bright, clear and water-white, as you would expect. It's really fresh and floral on the nose, beautifully clean-smelling. Along with the juniper there is a citrus sweetness - tangerine aromas abound. With the addition of a touch of water the sweet fruit comes through all the more.

On the palate it's just off-dry, with smoothly integrated alcohol. The botanicals give it a bit of body, it's not so light as the vodka. There are spices as well as the citrus popping up again, from reading up on it after tasting they use orange and lemon peel, cinnamon and nutmeg, which lends it a subtle sweetness to back up the fragrant spice. I think this is a cracking gin for the price if you're a fan of a lighter style. It's not a big bruiser like some of the super-premium ones can be, there is a gentle subtlety to the use of the botanicals, and I think it's all the better for it.

40% abv. £19.80 (70cl) direct from Penderyn.

If you are a gin drinker and would like to know more about the new releases as they come out I'd highly recommend a read of The Gin Blog - no prizes for guessing what that's about.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brecon Five Vodka

I picked this one up when I was down in Wales over the summer, knowing I'd have to stock up on the weird and wonderful before my spirits exam in November. I'm a big fan of Pendreryn whisky, so it was interesting to find out what they do with a couple of different spirits (I got the gin too).

Vodka's always a difficult one to pin down for me, but this was an excellent example of a light, delicate vodka. On the nose there's a faint whiff of smoke from somewhere, along with pleasant grainy and flour notes. It's dry, with well-integrated alcohol; which for me is always crucial, any burn and they've not done their job properly. The light to medium body complements the delicate floral and grain flavours. Everything being light means everything balances out rather nicely, right up to the clean cereal-textured finish.

If it were me I'd have allowed a little more character to come through, but then I'm not particularly a vodka drinker - it's very good, but as a recreational drink I'll stick to its big brother I think.

40% abv. £29.03 direct from Penderynn, although I picked up the miniature from Celtic Vision in Narberth, which is to all outward appearances a camera shop - see here for a bit of an explanation.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum

Last time I sat my WSET spirits exam I got this one thrown at me. Painful as it is to admit, I had had it before, although not so much as part of a tasting session as an end of night chaser in the pub I used to run. I didn't recognise it and the crazy aromas and flavours completely threw me off track - hence my 'revenge tasting'!

It pours clear and bright, as you'd expect from a white rum. There's no louching but there is a noticeable oiliness on addition of water, and there are strong legs for a white spirit. On the nose it's clean, without anything noticeably picked up from any ageing. The aromas are of dried banana and candle-wax tempered with a touch of lime. It's not as sweet as you might expect a rum to be, the alcohol is quite well integrated for such a strong (63%) spirit, although I did only taste it with water. The flavours are unsurprisingly intense, there's a load of molasses, with lime, cashew and more a banana. Perhaps a little too much of the waxiness and solvent-like paint flavours for me though.

Overall it's a decent quality rum, although I wonder if going for the extra alcohol as left it tasting a bit feinty to put it into the realms of real quality.

Expect to pay about £25 or so for a 70cl bottle.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

SMWS '93.34' Glen Scotia

This is one of the last three whiskies I got from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before I had to let my membership elapse. As all SMWS bottlings are, it is from a single cask, and bottled at cask strength (55.1% abv. in this case). I'm a big fan of west coast whiskies as a style; Oban, Talisker and particularly, Springbank are some of my favourite 'standard' single malts. Glen Scotia is often somewhat unfairly forgotten as the smaller of the two remaining distilleries in the now sadly almost non-existent Campbeltown region.

The pack of three I got were all quite old sherry-cask matured whiskies, this one having been matured for sixteen years in a refill butt. The sixteen years have allowed the spirit to mellow, at least on the nose, which is all rich chocolate and caramel. On the palate though, the conventional 'age as a mellower' wisdom is thrown right out of the window. It really demonstrates the difference between a sherry finish and prolonged contact - it's less of a touch of sweetness than a full on bonfire effect, the lovely west-coast smokiness is still there but the sherry is no idle passenger, it really drives the toffee and dried fruit flavours forward, a sort of iron hand in a velvet glove.

This was the first of 176 bottles, and, as always, when it's gone it's gone forever, but I'm looking forward to seeking out whiskies like this as the winter nights draw in, with a bit of luck accompanied by some imperial stout and a good film.

A colleague told me about this video of Brian Cox (the actor not the the Professor) demonstrating how to pronounce, and indeed drink, malt whiskies. I can't embed the whole thing since I could only find it on You Tube in its separate parts but it's well worth a listen even if your pronunciation is pretty good. The best bit though is undoubtedly him trying his favourite; Lagavulin.

Enjoy. I am pretty sure Brian did. Sláinte.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Hegarty Chamans 'Cuvée 2' Minervois 2004

When I first started working in Oddbins I got quite into collecting wine as well as drinking it, albeit in a completely haphazard fashion. On quieter days in the shop the discussion would usually turn to the decision of what wine we were going to have after work. I generally used to hot-foot it down the hill after closing to catch the 10 O'Clock film on Film Four - back when it was a superb subscription channel - clutching a couple of bottles; one for the cellar and one for viewing accompaniment.

This is another that I stashed from back then. When the first of the Hegarty-Chamans wines came into the shop it was a big hit with the then Assistant Manager, and it was him that persuaded me to try them, for which I was most grateful, even a few years later.

'Cuvée 2' is an unfiltered Grenache, Syrah and Carignan blend and is decidedly Mediterranean in character; chock full of rich brambly fruit with black olives and a hint of balsamic. The balance between fruit is superbly balanced; teetering on the knife-edge of sweet fruit and savoury herbs, but all the better for having elements of both. The juicy tannins giving the wine a lovely, well-rounded texture.

This wine, or at least a younger equivalent, is available in the UK at the moment from Adnams, for £12.99. Buy at least a couple, and keep one for a few years; you won't be disappointed. They also stock the very good 'Cuvée 1.'

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Jean -Luc Colombo 'Les Lauves' St Joseph 2003

I had this wine back in 2005 when it was very much in its surly youthful phase. It was interesting to see what seven years or so of being kept in the dark did to the unruly teenager.

On the nose there's lots of spicy, almost mulled fruit; black cherry and blackberries. The autumnal, earthy fruit has really come to the fore on the palate, and it really wears its nine years well. Back in 2005 the fruit just wasn't expressive enough for me, but with the mellowing of those drying tannins the wine has become far more elegant.

12.5% abv. £9.49, although this has been cellared since 2005.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Chase Vodka

I had meant to complete this review a while ago but what with a (rather wet) holiday in Wales it rather passed me by.

This is certainly an immaculately presented vodka, as I think they need to be to stand any chance of being recognised amongst the many out there. Even though this is just a miniature it comes in its own box with a magnet seal, and a little union flag tag for opening.

Unsurprisingly it's clear, water-white and bright. On the nose there's an initial crème fraîche aroma and once water is added more of the sweet baked goods; brioche and patisserie cakes come to the fore. On the palate it is dry, with the alcohol being very soft, with surprisingly little burn for the abv (40%). It''s just more than light-bodied with delicate flavours of custard and light sponge-cake, along with a touch of fruit, like it's had a brief flirtation with a white table grape. However, I think it's the texture of the vodka that really indicates its quality; there's no harshness, and it has a silky-smooth creamy feel in the mouth. Highly recommended.

£30.49 (70cl) from The Whisky Exchange.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Viva Portugal

I saw a bit of a worrying article this morning (via André Peres) suggesting that the way forward for Portuguese wine was via international varieties. I genuinely hope not. I'm always recommending Portuguese wines like this excellent Tuella from the Symington Estate to friends and family I think that generally Portugal offers some great wines at some very keen price points. However, in a country where most people buy their wines as another commodity, something chucked in the supermarket trolley along with the toilet roll and the dog food, Portuguese wines are not a great seller. Why? Well people buy the familiar, often through positive association; having enjoyed a Sauvignon Blanc they'll try another, and that's an awful lot more difficult when the varieties are a speciality of a region and you're not going to see very much (if anything) of them elsewhere.

I think it would be a shame if Portugal's unique identity was lost in favour of producing more homogenised wines the likes of which we see from every other wine producing country. Yes, there might be a short term gain in planting international varieties, but in the long term the investment would be better off going into establishing names like Touriga Nacional and Tinta Barroca in the wine drinking public's consciousness. I'm hoping that Portuguese wines, like those of Italy, retain their identity for a long time yet - go on, give them a try!

Tuella Tinto Douro 2009, lots of body and autumnal fruit, and very indicative of what Portugal's native grapes can offer - who needs Cabernet Sauvignon? A bargain at £7.99 from Majestic.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Potato Vodka

At first glance vodka has something of a paradoxical nature. How can you objectively evaluate, which generally implies looking for character, a spirit which is distilled to a strength that guarantees it will have very little character of whatever it is distilled from?

It is argued that vodka simply doesn't taste of very much, which is why it just gets mixed in with something else to disguise the 'flavour' of the alcohol. Will the years of experience of the Cognac master-distiller who was brought in to distill the latest vodka shine through a couple of hundred millilitres of Irn-Bru and ice? I'd say probably not. It's also easy to be cynical about the rise of 'premium' and 'super-premium' vodkas. I think it would be naive to suggest that some brands are anything more than a constructed product that rely more on advertising and creating the 'next big thing' than actual authenticity. Sidney Frank, the creator of Grey Goose vodka, once famously said that vodka was 'just alcohol and water,' and his entire business idea seemed to be creating a brand that he could sell for 50% more than the market leader at the time which was, and still is, Absolut (owned by Pernod Ricard). Frank's plan clearly worked; Bacardi paid $2 billion for it when they bought the company, still the largest drinks brand acquisition in history.

So where does that leave the flavour enthusiast? Should vodka be dismissed out of hand? Well, no, and I think potato vodka provides a good illustration of why. Despite popular preconception, potato vodka is a bit different to the norm. Potatoes are not as efficient a source of fermentable sugars compared to other sources, and as such most vodkas are based on grains; or indeed whatever is to hand where it is made. These base products do have an effect of the eventual quality - the best vodkas are considered to come from wheat, barley, rye and potatoes. In a similar way to the grain character of the Snow Queen vodka I reviewed here, I would expect potato vodkas to have certain characteristics of their own along with the purity you'd expect from a quality vodka. In particular I'd be looking for a rich, creamy texture - like properly done mash, and more body than other vodkas. This character is quite an important distinction. Although the two vodkas I have to sample are from different parts of the world they are first and foremost potato vodkas, it is that that will define their style rather than geographical origin.

The two I've got to taste are the British distilled Chase and Cold River, from the USA. Reviews to follow since I've rambled on a bit here.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Viñas Del Vero 'Secastilla' 2003

I raided the cellar for this one since it was our wedding anniversary on Monday. I was a bit late on the celebration but Tuesday's dinner was far more appropriate to celebrate with than Monday's, and what's a day after three years? Appropriately enough this one's actually from the year we got together.

The Secastilla is made by Viñas Del Vero and it's a single-estate Garnacha from Somontano, a DO in Aragón, northern Spain, almost directly to the East of Rioja. This is at the forefront of something of a Grenache turnaround in the region. Whereas before it had faded into use for rosado production Viñas Del Vero resurrected this particular vineyard in order to take advantage of the old Garnacha vines.

As you'd expect at this age the ruby colour's started to fade and there's a definite brick-red colour to the rim. There's still lots of fruit on the nose; plums and cherries, all backed up with vanilla oak.

On the palate again there's still plenty of fruit; more red and autumnal notes. The tannins are a little dry and dusty from the age but I think that's counterbalanced by dark chocolate and olive flavours coming through. There's an almost Australian finish with uplifting eucalyptus and cherry notes. It's very much a wine still in its prime, and its big Mediterranean flavours brilliantly accompanyied the aubergine lasagne with ciabatta, salad and balsamic dressing.

I've no idea where I bought it but I paid £12.99 back at the end of 2005. I might be wrong but this could well have been from the first vintage under this particular label. I can't see any information about earlier wines, and certainly the prices seem to climb in subsequent years. 14% abv.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Luxardo 'Maraschino Originale'

The reason for spirits appearing on this blog is because of an impending exam I've got coming up in November. It is supposed to be just about spirits but since I got given this as a blind tasting I though it might be interesting to review it anyway. From the outset I was struggling; cherry spirit in the form of kirsch is something I'm not really familiar with, and doing an objective review of its sweeter cousin was going to be even more tricky! I've simply not tried enough examples to be able to compare it. However, at the time I tried it completely blind - so I had no idea at all what the liquid was in the glass. These notes are 'in the raw' so to speak (when I thought it was a spirit) and I'll comment a little more below.

It pours clear and bright, water-white with noticeable legs/viscosity. Oils are obvious on the addition of water but there is no louching. On the nose I thought it was floral, lots of blossom aromas, and quite 'spirity.' On the palate it is medium-sweet and very smooth, with well-integrated alcohol. The main flavour is of candied fruit; glacé cherries and syrup, with hints of marzipan. The finish is short, with the sweetness becoming more dominant. In terms of quality there's no harshness to the spirit, but I'm not sure that it really exhibits a lot of character from the base fruit (for reasons I now realise - see below).

As I mentioned above, this isn't really something I know much about. It was certainly interesting to try, and maybe next time I'll know what I'm looking for! Apparently the marzipan flavour comes from the cherry stones, which are crushed to form the original distillate. Cakes from the cherry pulp (once the juice is removed) are macerated in the original, stone, distillate. This produces the liquid for the second distillation. After ageing in ash sugar syrup is added then allowed to marry (again in ash barrels so no colour comes out) before being bottled.

32% abv. £20.75 (50cl) from The Drinks Shop.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Snow Queen Vodka

Snow Queen is an organic vodka from Kazakhstan, and if memory serves me correctly it's the first time I've drank anything from Kazakhstan - it's certainly not the first country I think of as being a major drinks exporter to the UK, but of course that's not to say that they don't know how to make vodka.

It's an unflavoured vodka, and I tried it blind, so I had no idea what it was when I started. Thus in my notes I put that it's a water-white liquid which shows no louching on the addition of water. I got fresh citrus and a slight earthiness on the nose. It's dry, with well-integrated alcohol; light-bodied with no harshness. Although it was, as you'd expect, a neutral spirit I did pick up citrus and brioche flavours and a grainy quality; it's noticeably a wheat vodka. I thought it was good quality, there's certainly nothing to detract from the purity of the spirit - I'd compare it more to Scandinavian/Northern European styles than Polish vodkas.

40% abv. £22.09 (50cl) from Waitrose

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Havana Club 'Añejo Especial'

This is the real Havana Club; Cuban rum that is still fiercely Cuban, although part-owned and distributed by Pernod Ricard. It's a golden rum, aged but not dramatically so, retaining the integrity of style.

It's a clear, bright, pale gold rum. There's lots of fresh mandarin and other citrus fruits on the nose, more than you might expect from an aged spirit. The ageing is noticeable without it being over-oaky or moving towards dried fruit; there are Demerera sugar notes, along with vanilla and coconut. It has a medium sweetness, with a little burn from the alcohol. It's towards the light end of medium bodied, and along with the expected vanilla and coconut (American oak, suggesting ex-bourbon casks) there is slightly more oak and some citrus and honey flavours. The finish is simple, but mellowing to sweetness. All in all a decent enough molasses based light rum, well balanced with well-integrated gentle oak flavours.

40% abv. Widely available. Expect to pay just short of £20 for a bottle - which I think is a decent price in comparison to what you might get for the money with other spirits.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Reposado

When is tequila not tequila? Well, when it's made outside of the regions of mexico in which tequila is permitted to be made. Tequila is a geographically specific version of mezcal, and is made along stricter rules than its often rougher country cousin.

Hacienda De Chihuahua is different again. It is a sotol, being from Chihuahua in the north of Mexico where local laws dictate that the spirit is distilled from dasilyrion wheeleri or desert spoon plants. These are related, but are not the same species as the blue agave used in tequila production. Both are succulents, as are cacti, but neither tequila nor sotol are made from cacti. Hacienda De Chihuahua Sotol Reposado is apparently fermented using Champagne yeast, and the 'Reposado' of the the title means it has been 'rested' for six months in new Limousin oak to mellow out the flavours. A salt and lemon afterthought to chase up a night of lager it isn't. This is a serious spirit.

So how does it taste? Well it pours a clear, bright, pale gold. The oak is noticeable on the nose and it's earthy, but with citrus fruit coming through too with a pleasant oily lemon aroma. On the palate there are pungent limey flavours, it's clean, and with lots of earthy and leafy vegetal complexity and good length. Overall I thought it was excellent, although never having had sotol before it's difficult to compare it to anything else! Certainly there's lots of complexity for quite a light spirit, and all those different characteristics meld really well together.

38% abv. £35.69 (70cl) from Gauntleys.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Roberts & Speight Spring Wine Tasting: Reds

Yesterday I wrote a post about the whites I enjoyed at Roberts and Speight's Spring Wine Tasting event. Today I thought I'd finish up with a post about what I though were the best of the reds.

Cuvée Guy de la Nine Rouge, Provence,  2006. A Syrah /Cabernet blend with a lovely forest -floor earthiness and spice from the maturing Syrah backed up with good tannic structure from the Cab. Both this and the white were some of the undoubted stars of the evening for me! £21.49
Ch. Coquillas Rouge 2009, Pessac-Léognan. Although this still has a bit of maturing to go I thought it was great. Die-hard Bordeaux fans might find it a bit fruity but I don't see anything wrong with taking some of the better characteristics of new world wines and giving them a French twist. (The white was also good.) £19.99.
Federico Paternina 'Clisos' Rioja Reserva 2005. This is rather modern and fruity but still has big, bruising tannins and almost port-like flavours. Good, but not for the faint hearted. £13.99.
'Il Passo' Nerello Mascalese 2011. For me the best red I tried for the price. Reinforcing my long-held theory that drinking away from the fashionable is where you can get the real bargains, I thought that this was fantastic. Extra concentration is achieved by a viticultural technique similar to that patented by the Grossets in Clare Valley; Cordon Cutting (See Mt Horrocks Riesling). The result of the clipping is a drying of the fruit on the vine, hence the nod towards (if not the DOC rule-infringing use of) 'ripasso' in the wine's name. The fruit concentration is superb, with a lovely perfume and bags of black fruit and dark chocolate flavours and silky ripe tannins. £12.79.
Masard & Brunet 'Humilitat,' Priorat, 2009. A   Cariñena/Garnacha 50/50 blend with lots of red fruit on the nose. The Grenache seems to be the power in the blend, there's lots of juicy, alcoholic fruit in there, it might benefit from a little more bottle age but if you like your wines to be powerful and fruity then this would be ideal. £16.99.
Pago De Los Capelannes, Ribera del Duero, Crianza 2008. Another big, porty, tannic wine - it's still very young! A testament to the amount of ripeness that they're getting in the Duero. Lots of herby spice from the Tempranillo and judicious use of oak. £19.99.
Langlois-Chateau VV Cabernet Franc, Saumur Champigny, 2005. Unfortunately it was a little bit dwarfed by the big Spanish wines I had before it, but still a very good, savoury wine that I thought would go brilliantly with food. Restrained and with a good minerality rather than being fruit dominated. £16.99.

All in all some fantastic wines and a great evening. Most enjoyable and I'd highly recommend it to everyone who can make it next year, I certainly hope to do so.

On a final note, it was great to see that the Wold Top Brewery had a table at the tasting last night, and from what I can see they looked like they were doing great business too. Hopefully this is a sign that beer is gaining the same level of acceptance that wine enjoys in terms of being something with flavours worth exploring rather than being dismissed as less rewarding. Long may the rise and rise of beer continue!

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Roberts & Speight Spring Wine Tasting: Whites

Roberts & Speight are the earliest wine shop (or even off-licence) I remember visiting. They are based within easy walking distance of where I grew up in Beverley, East Yorkshire. Although they've moved away from the first shop I remember as they've expanded the deli and food hamper side of the business, they're now much closer to Beverley town centre, and if last night was anything to go by, they're very much at the centre of Beverley's wine/foodie community too.

Because we only arrived after fulfilling our parental responsibilities we didn't get to try all the wines but I think we did manage to get through quite a few. If there is any criticism it's probably only one born of my wine-geek status. Due to the evening being (understandably) geared towards sales there were lots of wines that from more fashionable areas rather than the weird and wonderful that I look out for. I'd have loved to get to try some of the Alsatian and German wines that R&S stock but I'm not so naive as to believe that Riesling's about to overtake Kiwi Sauvignon as the darling of the nation's palate any time soon. Luckily I love New Zealand wines too! Having said all that there were some wines dotted about that were certainly very different, and from chatting to the various company representatives looking after the tables I sated my thirst for more wine knowledge as well as flavour experiences.

White wine highlights:

Viña Real Barrel Fermented Rioja Blanco, 2010. One of the best everyday drinking whites. The oak was noticeable but not overpowering. £9.99.*
Cuvée Guy de la Nine Ugni Blanc, 2009. From old vine UB and apparently only produced in the best vintages. If you ever wanted to disavow yourself of the impression that Ugni Blanc is only good for making wines to turn into brandy then this would be up there on the list. Lots of generous, soft stone-fruit flavour and good acidity. £18.99.
'Flor de Vetus'  Verdejo, Rueda, 2011. One of a couple of Verdejos I tried, this one being a good, ripe example that did will to retain the acidity and keep its freshness. £10.99.
Greywacke, Marlborough, Sauvignon Blanc, 2011. Head and shoulders above the other Kiwi Sauvignons really. Elegant rather than tropical - definitely a nod towards Cloudy Bay as was expected, although mercifully in a different price bracket. £14.99.
Ch. Bocasse, 'Les Jardins,' Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, 2009. This was definitely one that appealed more to the wine geek in me, from a south-western France appelation I'm not familiar with, made from Petit Manseng and Courbu (amongst others). It's a real fresh fruit cocktail. There was also a late-harvested version, Les Charmes Celestes, which was obviously sweeter, without being cloying, keeping the lime freshness of the dry version but adding another layer of prefume. £11.99.
Dom. Jean-Paul Balland Sancerre Blanc 'Grand Cuvee' 2010. Luxurious, more full bodied example of SB. My wife's favourite of the whites we tried and I wouldn't be far behind her in the queue if more were to be handed out. The gooseberry is there, but subtly complementing the minerality rather than jumping up and assaulting the palate. A beautifully elegant wine. £18.99.
Mud House Marlborough, Pinot Gris, 2009. Another one that I thought was really good value for money at £7.99 as part of a case. Most definitely a nod towards Alsace rather than Italy, with generous fruit and a luxurious, almost oily, quality. £9.99.
Seifried Estate Nelson, Grüner Veltliner, 2012. I've read speculation about Grüner being NZ's next 'big thing' and if this is anything to go by then they might be right. Although I've tried Siefried Estate's wines before (we visited there back in 2005), this is a new one for me. It's got a fresh, sherberty nose and a really tangy acidity. £10.89.
Langlois-Chateau, VV Saumur, 2005. Great to see a Loire Chenin in the mix. Beautiful use of oak to complement and set up the honeyed flavours of the Chenin as it's developing. At over six years old its got plenty to offer; lively cool climate acidity keeping it fresh and youthful. £16.99.

I'll post some more about the reds tomorrow. It's a testament to the quality of the whites that we spent so much time on them that we ended up rushing the reds a bit, but there were certainly some great reds too!

* I've just quoted the price per bottle as listed in the programme from last night just to give you an idea of what price range the wines come in. These are retail prices from the merchant (Roberts & Speight) not the supplier. R&S's discount is at least 10% on a case of 12, and quite often more.

Saturday, 26 May 2012


I had a bit of bad news today, in the form of a letter from the WSET informing me I'd failed the spirits part of my Diploma because of a bad tasting component.

It's back...
This is the last part of the whole level four diploma I need to get through to pass what is a two year course that has gone into a third year. I've passed the theory twice, so I think my basic knowledge should be fine, but I just don't get to practice tasting spirits enough. So the plan is to devote a bit of love and attention to this blog, and turn it into, at least in part, a spirits blog.

So here's to a new adventure, and further education of my palate!

If anyone would like to help me out, please read the Help Wanted! page or get in touch through Twitter.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Barrels vs. Chips

This is a bit of an overspill from my beer blog, but I just wanted to clarify a point I was trying to make on the Aleheads blog. It's essentially why I feel that chips are not as good as barrels with respect to quality wine-making. Brother Barley makes the following point with reference to using oak chips rather than barrels:
First, there’s the problem of stigma. In the wine industry, many (if not most) educated oenophiles won’t even purchase a wine if they believe it’s been aged with oak chips instead of barrels. Even though blind taste tests have proven that wine drinkers can’t tell the difference, there is still a strong belief that wood chips are the “wrong” way to oak-age wine. While this kind of “old-school” mentality is less prevalent amongst Aleheads than oenophiles, it’s still an issue.
Although I'm loathe to disagree with the point that Brother Barley makes in that there isn't a discernible difference between oak chips and a new oak barrel, because I've never been in a position to taste the same wine made using the two different methods. I think the point about it being an old school mentality is a bit of an over-simplification.

The problem is that, in a way, saying you use oak chips is pretty much confessing that your wine is no good in the first place, as would using new oak simply to make up for a lack of character - it's no substitute for making a good wine in the first place. To quote the Oxford Companion to Wine:
Oaky is a tasting term usually applied to wines too heavily influenced by oak flavour, which smell and taste more of wood than fruit, and may be aggressively tannic and dry.*
What you can't do with oak chips, which Brother Barley explains in his following paragraph with reference to "used bourbon-barrels or scotch-barrels," is impart character from the 'previous inhabitant' of the barrel, as it were. In the case of wine-making, this previous inhabitant is invariably wine rather than something else. Because new barrels are expensive and their characteristics not always desirable (they can overpower a subtle wine) they are generally used with moderation, and in conjunction with older barrels - complexity of flavour is the key.

Top wineries that do use a lot of new oak allow the wines an extended period of maturation in the barrels, and I'd suggest this process of slow stabilisation and clarification, along with a mild oxygenation, is at least as important as a simple imparting of wood flavour. Almost inevitably, there are relatively new micro-oxygenation techniques that are designed to replicate even this, but they are yet to be widely used.

* 3rd Ed. p.491

Saturday, 7 January 2012

'Noe' Pedro Ximénez Viejo

If you take some white grapes, ones that would probably make a rather indifferent table wine, then you let them dry out in the sun, make a wine from the juice that's left, fortify it, and generally - in contravention of just about every other rule of wine storage/making you haven't broken yet - let it oxidise over thirty years or so, do you have any right to expect the stuff to be drinkable?

Well that's kind of what the folks at Gonzalez Byass have been up to with this superlative dessert wine. The wine itself is dark and syrupy. Unctuously sweet, viscous, treacly-brown and chock full of fig, date and raisin flavours. It was the perfect match for Christmas pudding, which of course no Christmas meal is complete without, or even just with a cheeky mince pie on boxing day.

At £15 for a half bottle it's obviously not cheap. But I think you've got to put that into some sort of context. Are there many better sherries on the market than this? I'd suggest not, and so what do you compare it to as one of the best examples of its type on the market? £15 won't buy you a lot of First Growth Claret, or Château d'Yquem, or even vintage port. All of a sudden it looks like a bit of a steal - a great treat for Christmas at least. I've already got one squirrelled away for next year.

15.5% abv. £15 (ish) from Majestic

If you're interested in discovering a bit more there's a great piece about sherry at the Wine Anorak.

Friday, 6 January 2012

'Z' de l'Arjolle 2005

2012 is upon us, and I'm hoping to get the opportunity to try more wines this year than last, although I have probably said that every year!

I just wanted to mention a couple of wines I had over the festive period (the next I'll cover in another blog post). The first I had saved for Christmas dinner. Since we had eight adults eating all sorts of different dishes I toyed with the idea of something non-controversial, but then I wasn't sure how much attention anyone would pay to it anyway, so dug this out...

Zinfandel from the Languedoc. I'm pretty sure there's not a lot of that about, it's not a wine that comes under QWPSR jurisdiction, which is probably all the better for us consumers. It also means the vintage has to be kind of disguised as a 'harvest/récolte' 2005 and the grape isn't allowed to be displayed at all - hence the rather cryptic 'Z.'

All EU-driven red-tape aside this is a really excellent wine, still lots of blackberry fruit and peppery spice even six years after the vintage. It's big and full-bodied, but it's not a 16% Californian fruit bomb, and the dryness brings an elegance that can be lacking with trends towards excessive 'hang-time.'

13.5% abv. The Wine Society are currently on the 2007 vintage, selling it for £13.95 a bottle. At that price, I think it's a bit of a bargain.