Category Archives: Wine

Thanks to the Masters of Wine…

Without doubt, one of the most interesting and enjoyable aspects of my life in recent years has been serving as Academic Advisor and External Examiner for the Institute of Masters of Wine since 2004.  It has been fascinating working with some of the leading figures in the wine industry during this period, and helping them evolve their examination system to ensure that it remains at the cutting edge of good practice in professional examinations (the picture here is from one of the MW training days in Olney). One of the things I have been most impressed with is the way in which the Institute has continued to explore novel and exciting ways to assess understanding of grape growing and wine making, as well as wine tasting skills.  To be a Master of Wine, you really do need to have very considerable depth of knowledge and expertise!

This is rightly a qualification in the old medieval sense of the word ‘Master’, whereby someone only achieves the status when they have served an appropriate apprenticeship, learned the skills and knowledge requisite to become a journeyman, and then produced a master-piece that members of a guild thinks sufficiently highly of to elevate them to the status of a Master.   In this light, the dissertation can be seen as the ‘master-piece’ that all candidates have to produce before they are welcomed into the Institute!

One of the things that most impressed me was the way in which the Institute recently developed a policy of reasonable accommodation and special consideration, that specifically addresses ways through which students with a range of disabilities and other special circumstances can indeed participate in the examination process.

It was therefore with a real sense of sadness – at least for me – that pressures of work in my new role as CEO of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation meant that in the autumn I decided that I could not continue in my role at the Institute.  I was overwhelmed by the generosity of so many members of the Institute who hosted me to a wonderful dinner at The Don in London (not the picture here, which is from a MW gathering in Napa).  Not only that, they each gave me a superb bottle of wine from their cellars, and I would just like to thank them all here for their amazing generosity.  What a wine list this makes (thanks to John for noting them down!):

The challenge will undoubtedly be to decide when to drink these very special wines – or perhaps more appropriately, with whom and alongside what food!

Thanks again so much to the Institute for all that I have learnt, and for the friendship of so many Masters of Wine.

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Re-experiencing Bloodwood

Back in 1994, I had the real privilege to undertake a review of the extension services provided by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) – which, apart from anything else, introduced me to many people who have subsequently become great friends.  If only the UK and Australia were a little closer together! Two of these people were (and still are!) Stephen and Rhonda Doyle.  I distinctly remember being told by colleagues at the AWRI that I really should go and visit Stephen – not least because of his somewhat unorthodox approaches to the wine industry.  Mind you, I still think that many great Australian wine makers are unorthodox!

Stephen and Rhonda were the people who  identified Orange as being a great place to make wine, planting their first vineyard there back in 1983 (the adjacent picture).  They had begun making wine from grapes grown at the Glenfinlass vineyard near Wellington in New South Wales in the mid-1970s, and had subsequently spent the next decade trying to identify the best possible environment for making fine wine in Australia.  Eventually, they hit upon Orange, or more specifically as Stephen recalls “those elevated areas to the West and North West of Orange anchored by Middle Ordovician geology of the Orange Shadforth association of soils. These soils are low to moderate in vigour, warm and free draining gravel based soils which hug the northern edge of the Mount Canobolas volcanic red mountain earth plateau. They provide good air drainage for frost control and provide plenty of opportunity with their red clay base to construct hill side dams for irrigation…”  To find out more, check out Bloodwood’s history in more detail.

So, finding myself with a spare weekend in Canberra, I took the opportunity to get in touch with them, and see if they just might be around.  Wow – what hospitality!  A friend drove me the three-and-a-half hours there – thanks so much Rob! And then Stephen and Rhonda drove me back to Canberra last Sunday.  What generosity.  It was wonderful to see how they have transformed the place in the last 17 years – I took the photo alongside from almost exactly the same position that the 1983 one above was taken from!  Note the tree at the right side, and likewise the one in leaf in the middle left of both photos!

Bloodwood is not only a beautiful vineyard and winery, but it is also one where wildlife – well, most wildlife – is encouraged.  Rarely have I been to a vineyard where the annual sacrifice of grapes to the birds is treated with such equanimity – but as the photos of the landscape and Rosellas below indicate, Stephen and Rhonda have managed to achieve a wonderfully colourful balance.

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And the wines are brilliant too!  Given my love of Burgundy, I have to confess that I like their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs best.  As their latest online list comments:

  • 2009 Chardonnay: “Intense stone and grapefruit blossom introduce the delicate, racy palate of this fine Bloodwood Chardonnay. With flinty minerality at its core and purity of fruit across the palate, this is a crisp, refreshing wine to enjoy with pleasure in the medium term.”
  • 2009 Pinot Noir: “This perfumed, hand crafted Pinot Noir with its subdued sanguine hues and charming cherry blossom aromas entices you into a beguiling and gently delicious blood plum rich world couched in subtle barrel ferment char. Those ladies old handbags are slinking about the palate again, complementing the delicate tannins and distinguished bouquet of this fine wine”

Bloodwood can be visited by appointment – and, staying with them for a couple of days, it was fascinating to witness first hand how Stephen and Rhonda share their love and passion for wine with all their visitors – no matter how knowledgeable or inexperienced they are!

Bloodwood is a truly special place, crafted with amazing love, care and passion by very special people.  It’s scarcely surprising that they make such wonderful wines!

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Becker Vineyards Texas Iconoclast Cabernet Franc 1995

This has to be one of the most surprising wines I have tasted in recent years.  Back in 1997 I was attending the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers held in Texas, and spent some time afterwards in Austin and visiting wineries in the Texas Hill Country – among them was Becker Vineyards, established a few years previously in 1992 by Richard and Bunny Becker.  The first harvest was in 1995 and vintages are aged in either new French or American oak, and stored in the largest underground wine cellar in Texas. I remember being very surprised to find French varietals being cultivated in Texas, but also that the wines tasted surprisingly good.

The visit of two USAn friends on Friday, who had been forced to leave Egypt because of the ongoing political unrest there, and were on their way back to Houston, seemed an appropriate occasion to open this Texan Iconoclast.  I would not normally choose to drink a 15 year old Cabernet Franc – suspecting that it would be well past its best.  However, this wine was quite remarkable – and shows how ripe fruit and careful vinification can indeed produce surprising wines in very unusual circumstances.  It retained a mid-red colour, and had much less browning at the edges than I had expected.  The wine had the distinctive tobacco nose that I often associate with Cabernet Franc, but also retained a slightly woody aroma.  The flavour was delicious, with soft tannins, good depth, and a richness that I had not anticipated – very different from many of the often light, dry Cabernet Franc wines from the Loire that I am more used to. The hot Texan summers had clearly ripened the fruit fully, giving the wine a richness and depth of body that was delicious, retaining a good balance and structure, with flavours of red fruit and tobacco.

So, if you happen to be out visiting the Texan countryside, enjoy the blue bonnets, take a detour up to Stonewall, sample the Becker wines, and put a bottle in your luggage for drinking a decade later! Thanks to Bill Fleming for persuading me to explore Austin’s music scene when I was there! I also look forward to returning to Guero‘s Taco Bar on a future visit – hope it is as good now as it was then!

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Day 3 at ICTD2010

The third day – reminiscent of one of my favourite films, The Third Man. Some serious papers, excellent posters and demos. It was the conversations in the corridors that I enjoyed most…

Thanks to Paul and Michelle for the evening reception – and in case anyone is wondering about exactly which winery Michelle was referring to it was Bloodwood in Orange!

Congratulations to Georgia Tech who will be the hosts for ICTD2012!

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First Drop – wines to look out for

Matt Gant and John Retsas have put together an exciting and eclectic range of wines under the label First Drop.  As their site says, “First Drop is about passion. for life, fun and flavour!… a lifelong commitment to making kick arse booze… wines with flavour and texture, and a splash of funk… eclectic varieties from unique vineyards in the great regions of the Barossa, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale… wines to drink, not just appreciate…”

Typical of the lower priced wines in the range are an Arneis from the Adelaide Hill and a Barossa Shiraz both at around £10 a bottle.    They have also particularly focused on Italian grape varieties, with a Nebbiolo Barbera and a Montepulciano from the Adelaide Hills.  At the top end, their Cream Barossa Valley Shiraz sells for around £40 a bottle, with the Fat of the Land Ebenezar Shiraz going for £30 a bottle. These wines are now available in the UK from New School Wines in Melton Mowbray.

As James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion 2011 notes, “This is a virtual winery, with no vineyards and no winery of its own.  What it does have are two owners with immaculate credentials to produce a diverse range of wine of significantly higher quality than those of many more conventional operations …  When Matt was working at St Hallett he won the Wine Society’s Young Winemaker of the Year Award ’04, and the Young Gun of Wine Award for First Drop in ’07.  John Retsas has an equally impressive CV, working at St Hallett and Chain of Ponds and is now general manager of Schild Estate”.

In a previous life, Matt was a student at Royal Holloway, University of London, and it is great to see what he has now gone on to achieve!

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Voyager Estate, 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

Rarely do I use my blog to comment on a single wine, but exploring my ‘cellar’ over the Christmas period I came across a Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (1995) that I had bought there when I visited the winery a decade ago in February 1999.  I had fully expected it to be past its best, but far from it, this was a rich, delicious wine that was well worth the wait!

The first surprise was the colour – still a surprisingly deep red, without anything like as much browning as I would have expected from a wine of this age.  The nose was very clean, combining the typical blackcurrant aromas I had expected, but with a very distinctive scent of tobacco – a definite touch of Monte Cristo Cuban cigars!

The taste was smooth and complex, with the fine tannins having mellowed and softened – rich, soft blackcurrant fruit with a touch of cedar.  Excellent depth of flavour – and full of subtle complexity that was difficult to describe.

The label had the following account of the wine: “The 1995 season was long and dry.  The vines carried a small crop, with intensely powerful fruit flavours and fine grained tannins.  The resultant red wines represent the ultimate in Margaret River wines. Intense cassis and concentrated mulberry are beautifully integrated with the toasty characters from 24 months maturation in French oak.  Its intense amount of flavour, complexity and abundance of fine tannin augur extremely well for a long and rewarding life.  While it will be drinking well from 1999 it will be at its sublime best in 12 years time and beyond”. [13.9% alc/vol].

So, if you can find a bottle, it is definitely worth buying – and drinking – although I guess there cannot be many bottles left of this really lovely wine!

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Sagrantino – Berlin

The Sagrantino grape makes one of my favourite wines. It has strong tannins and tends to be low yielding, producing wines that are rich, dark, complex and long-lived. The classic area where it is grown is the small town of Montefalco in Umbria.  The Sagrantino di Montefalco denomination has a maximum yield of 48 hl/ha and needs to be aged for 30 months before being sold, 12 of which must  be in wood.  Traditionally it has been used to make a wonderful passito style wine, made from partly dried grapes, but in recent years a dry secco has been introduced.  The Sagrantino grape is also used in making a cheaper, lighter style of wine, dominated by the Sangiovese grape and usually blended with some Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, known as Rosso di Montefalco.

Sagrantino smallSo, when I came across a small restaurant and wine bar called Sagrantino in Berlin in February this year, I was determined to return to see the extent to which it captured the essence of Umbria! Friday evening provided just the opportunity – and I was not disappointed.  Tucked away on Behrenstrasse, just to the south of Unter den Linden and to the east of Friedrichstraße, Sagrantino is certainly worth getting to know.  With several different Rosso di Montefalco wines, as well as the wonderful passito made by Arnaldo Caprai, it is a great place to chill out at the end of a day. Guess this might become one of my favourite places in Berlin!

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Prague – a selection of restaurants

Prague has to be one of my favourite cities in the world!  At any season, and despite the masses of tourists, it is possible to escape and find some wonderful hidden away places.  A short visit over the last couple of days provided the opportunity to explore some new restaurants that I would definitely recommend:

  • ProvenceLa Provence (Štupartská 9) – in the style of a French brasserie, serving really excellent food.  The salmon and steaks were delicious, but the desserts are indeed special: outstanding sorbet (beautifully presented) and fantastic Tarte tatin.  This restaurant is really worth searching out – and beneath the ground floor brasserie, there is a romantic cushioned dining room in the downstairs cellar.  An interesting wine list combines local Czech wines with fine French wines.
  • Mount Steak (Josefská 1) – a very different kind of restaurant from La Provence, and definitely not for vegetarians!  Mount Steak serves an enormously wide range of steaks from kangaroo to crocodile, but also has a good range of fulsome local Czech dishes with plenty of dumplings!  The pork and chicken were really good value and delicious.
  • Černý Slon (Týnská 1) – I first visited here almost a decade ago, and remember enjoying the traditional Czech food and wine.  Little has changed since then!  Hidden away near the Old Town Square, Černý Slon still serves good traditional Czech fare – the duck (with dumplings) is definitely worth trying as an example of old-style Czech cuisine.
  • Breakfast at the Hilton Old Town (V Celnici 7) also has to be one of the best international hotel starts to the day – with excellent friendly service and really fresh food.

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Croatia: seascapes, wine and food

DubrovnikSo, I have been hiding away in the Dalmatian coast of Croatia for the last week – and greatly enjoying the amazing coastal scenery!

Dubrovnik – despite the thousands of tourists – has to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  The opportunity to reconstruct it after the Serbian bombings of 1991-92, when an estimated 68% of the buildings in the old city were damaged, has been grasped imaginatively and effectively – the walk around the city walls is truly magnificent.

VinesI was hoping to explore some of Croatia’s vineyards and wineries during our stay – but with prices of most of the ‘quality’ wines for sale being between$30 and $50 a bottle, I swiftly changed my mind! To be sure, it is indeed possible to find some reasonable  wines at much less than this, but I cannot imagine who is willing to pay such prices – perhaps there are far too many over-rich tourists!  If Croatia wants to establish itself as a  reputable wine-making country, it needs to start making better value wines!

The food was also, sadly, a bit disapponting  – tasty enough, but we did not manage to find any restaurants that really impressed.Konavoski The best – and reasonably priced – was Konavoski Dvori near Gruda to the south of Dubrovnik.  The restaurant is in a restored watermill, and on a hot August day the swift-flowing river that runs past the dining tables provides a very welcome cool breeze!  Meat is cooked in an iron bell on charcoal – which keeps it succulent and moist.  Other restaurants worth visiting include:

  • Dubrovnik: Restaurant Orhan (Od Tabakarije 1) – situated at the foot of the Lovrjenac tower on the edge of a small bay some 200m away from the walls of the old city. Good seafood salads and grilled meats
  • Trogir: Alka restaurant (Obrov 10) – serving customers in the centre of the old town for 40 years, this restaurant has particularly good tradtional Dalmatian beef pašticada (marinated in vinegar, lemon and rosemary, and then cooked wth carrots, cloves, muscat nuts, red wine and prosciutto)

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Lugano grottos and wines…

Smiley smallThanks to Isabella Rega, I had an opportunity  last week not only to learn much more about the exciting research ongoing at the Università degli Svizzera italiana in the field of ICT4D (NewMinE Lab and webatelier.net), but also to enjoy something of the culinary and vinous traditions of Ticino.

Hence, some additions to my periodic listing of interesting restaurants:

  • Canvetto luganese – this really good small restaurant is owned and managed by the Fundazione Diamante, which provides support and work for people with disabilities, integrating them into a diversity of different enterprises.  Since 2003 it has been recognised by the Osterie d’Italia di Slow-Food, and offers a range of delicious regional foods.  Its handmade pastas and ravioli are particularly good, as was the steak tartare!
  • Grottos – the hillsides around Lugano are replete with small restaurants, originally built around caves (hence the name ‘grottos’), but now offering some excellent freshly grilled meats and local foods in open air surroundings.  I particularly enjoyed dinner at the Grotto Circolo Sociale Montagnola, which had really excellent grilled grilled costine, as well as lunch at the Grotto Ticinese, where we shared risotto, grilled meats and salads, sitting under the trees on an otherwise very hot and humid day!
  • In Lugano itself, La Rosa dei Venti is situated on the lake shore by a small yacht club – a heavy rainstorm forced us inside, but the seafood risotto was good!

Barrell smallAs for wine, Ticino often suffers from rain and dampness in October which has a tendency to cause rot – but sadly not of the noble kind – the Botrytis cineria here in Ticino is far from benevolent! Hence, grape growers have been keen to plant early ripening varieties, most notably Merlot.  In recent years,  these red grapes have also been used to make the white wine Bianco di Merlot, which can have complexity and subtle flavours – when well-vinified they have a fresh acidity that goes really well with the local food.

  • Tenuta Bally & von Teufenstein, with vineyards and winery at Vezia, a short distance from Lugano, produces a good range of interesting wines.  As well as a rich and fruity Bianco di Merlot, their red wines (Cresperino 100% Merlot; Riserva Ernesto 75% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon) are generally much fuller and with better tannin structure than many of the rather light Merlots that can be found in Ticino.  Their Tre Api Merlot Riserva from the excellent 2007 vintage is made from old vines, and has fine soft tannins with a real richness of flavours – combining redcurrants, blackberries and violets.  They also make a rosati wine (Sarabanda) and a sparkling Spumante di Merlot, as well as a white (La Piana) that combines Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon, and an 100% Chardonnay (La Sfinge)

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