Northumbria Food & Wine 2012 – Masterful Talks

As mentioned in the general review post on the 2nd Northumbria Food and Wine Festival the bar was raised for 2012 with a Master of Wine and 2 MW students joining Marta Mateus and Max de Nardo on the bill. Sarah Abbott MW, Karen Hardwick and Helen Savage all included a flight of wines to complement each of their talks, amounting to 8 mini-Masterclasses over the 2 days from professional wine educators.

Sarah Abbott MW is no stranger to the region, having gone to Newcastle University and Durham Business School. She began her career in wine in 1996, specialising in Burgundy, Italy and Australia before becoming a Master of Wine in 2008. Sarah lives in Bedford she where runs Swirl Wine Events and was only at the Festival for the Friday (having to dash back down south to start her summer holiday on Saturday evening) but gave 2 informative and humorous talks on “Getting what you pay for” and “New Frontiers”.

The first was a comparison talk showing 3 pairs of wines which shared a common variety or style. Various aspects and components, including the reputation of the producer or region, affects the quality and price of what you get in your glass and Sarah discussed what to look for when tasting to judge their characteristics .
We started with Sparkling wine styles with a (Passaparola) Prosecco (£10) which was fresh, cool & light with a floral, lemon-citrus sweetness. There was no real depth or length but it was a good value wine to drink in the sun. In comparison a (Edouard Brun) Champagne (£29) had less fruit on the nose, but plenty of structure and texture on the palate with a dry, clean acidity, a little grapefruit and a longer finish. It was undeniably elegant, but at three times the price I’m just not sure whether it was that much better than the Prosecco?

Sauvignon Blanc was the variety of choice next with a New World/Old World match up. In the New corner the 2012 Fairview Darling (£9) with tropical fruit in the aroma and taste, a little thin on the mid-palate but a good balance of flavours and a long finish. Good value, if a bit one dimensional. In the Old corner was the spiritual home of the grape, Sancerre, and the Domaine des Brosses 2010 (£15) with its light nose hinting at sweetness but a contrasting palate showing a salty/mineral taste with clean, sharp acidity and a long, persistent, chalky finish. This was delicious and absolutely worth the trade up, tying in with Sarah’s comment that “a good wine will always give you more”. She then gave an unexpected insight into her thoughts by saying “unripe Sauvignon Blanc is like being whipped”…indeed!

We moved swiftly on to red wine and the Merlot grape, with the Chilean Viña Leyda 2010 Reserva (£10) with its fruity/smoky nose with young, ripe, slightly herbal fruit. Medium bodied with good structure, this was a very popular wine with the audience; balanced, not too tannic and very easy to drink – something Chile has become well known for. Then to France for a 2006 Premier Côtes de Bordeaux from Château Carignan (Carignan in name but not variety, with 70% Merlot, 20% Cabernet-Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet-Franc. £16). The nose was smoky with a touch of liquorice, the flavour was lean at front but developed on the mid-palate and finished with toast and toffee. This time round there was some debate on whether the cheaper wine was actually better (more popular at least).

Sarah was very relaxed and engaging during the talk and that style continued later in the day when she returned to show us some wines not yet available in the UK but that we might be drinking in the future.
She started with the catchy line “Posh Australia is coming” as she poured a taste of the House of Arras 2004 Grand Vintage Tasmanian Sparkling wine. This was excellent quality; red berries on the nose and palate, some herbs and zesty, almost enamel stripping acidity with a long, dry finish. Australia is trying to trade up on its image of cheap bulk brands or fruit driven styles and create a new generation of distinctive wines where quality, style and a sense of place are the driving factors – the House of Arras was doing a good job at highlighting that.
Then to Turkey and a family business, Arcadia Vineyard in Northern Thrace, and three of their wines.
The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc/Narince was smooth, fruity and ripe – so much that I’d have guessed Chardonnay as the variety, but the Sauvignon did come through after a while. Their second offering was a Sauvignon Gris which had a curious, gunsmoke nose with a strong mineral component, full on the palate to start then a tart citrus acidity with a light finish, one for lovers of lean wine. Finally a very pale Cabernet Franc/Merlot Rosé which had a light, sweet nose and a long finish, ending dry and very enjoyable.
Turkey has a long history of wine making which halted under the Ottoman rule but, as one of the most progressive of the Muslim countries, ventures like Arcadia (driven by the female side of the family) are reintroducing Turkish wines to Europe. My only concern is that, with so many indigenous grapes to choose from, the estate has mainly international varieties planted and only a little Öküzgözü and Narince.

Karen Hardwick is originally from Ayr but now lives in York and runs the Wine Academy (winner of 2011 Riedel Wine Educator of the Year) as well as being a fellow MW student with Helen Savage (both are members of the Association of Wine educators). She said at the start that her forté is on the technical aspects of the wine industry and had chosen two themes for her Saturday talks; “Alcohol and why it gives winemakers a headache” and “Why is New Zealand Special?”.

A discussion on alcohol seemed a pretty good subject anyway, but when Karen said that that the UK government wants 1 billion less units of alcohol consumed by 2015 (which I hadn’t realised) then it is even more topical. She first started with options available in the vineyard to reduce the alcohol content in wine.
You can pick the grapes earlier, so that there is less sugar to convert to alcohol (each 17g of sugars in 1l of juice gives 1% of alcohol after dry fermentation) but the danger is unripe tannin (from the grape pips), excessive acidity and underdeveloped flavours will make the final wine unpalatable. Another options is to plant different varieties (such as Syrah instead of Grenache) or change to a less vigorous rootstock to reign in growth and ripening – to use a casserole analogy “slow cooking” the grapes allows for better development of flavours than fast ripening. Unfortunately for the Old World most of the Region of Origin regulations restrict what varieties can be planted and where, even if climate change is starting to make those restrictions outdated.

Once the grapes are picked then other options for reducing alcohol include using alternative yeast strains which don’t ferment to dryness or to stop fermentation, both of which leave residual sugar in the wine. To demonstrate this style a Dr Loosen 2011 Riesling (8% abv. £9) was poured, a comparatively low alcohol wine without any artificial interference. Made in a sweeter style it was zesty with a little spritz, light and enjoyable with the reduced alcohol part of its design and not detracting from the flavour. As a Riesling fanatic I loved Karen’s analogy that “Riesling is Audrey Hepburn – Elegant and Misunderstood”.
A more artificial technique is the Spinning Cone which allows partial vapourisation of wine entered into the system, the more volatile components rising off (and alcohol is very volatile!). The next wine was an example of this, the First Cape Californian Zinfandel (5.5% abv. £5.50 from Tesco). I was unsure of the nose and on the palate it was like a simple fruit juice, there was no texture, no acidity – this was my first low alcohol wine made using this way and I hope to never come across it again!
It wasn’t clear what technique was used for the E&J Gallo Summer Red (10.5% abv. £6 from Tesco) a light see-through, non vintage red with young, almost Beaujolais style fruit which just felt wrong – it was too sweet, too berry, too “nice” in an alco-pop way. Karen suggested it as a dessert wine, which I could sort of see working, but not for me.

Spinning cone and Reverse osmosis are high-tech options to reduce abv. by about 2%. It’s estimated that 400 Bordeaux wineries use reverse osmosis, but it can heighten acidity and tannin. More surreptitiously there’s always the accidental “leaving a hosepipe running in the tank” gambit (illegal in many countries but that isn’t always relevant) which will definitely drop the alcohol, and probably the other taste aspects as well! For high alcohol wines another option is open top fermentation which can lose 0.5-1% alcohol by evaporation (the “Angel’s Share”). Of course lying on the label is another option – or shall we say “stretching the truth” – when it comes to a 17.5% wine that is perfectly in balance and where the winemaker is unwilling to compromise quality by diluting it.

The final 2 wines were examples of higher alcohol levels at 14% abv. (which nowadays is not really that high). Karen reminded us that “alcohol is the glue that binds the flavours together” – in balance it is an essential component of the whole wine experience, out of balance it can detract. I guess as an example of this the Namaqua 2011 Reserve Shiraz (£7 from Tesco) was poured, a meaty wine with tart tannins. Although a little too young it was still enjoyable but on the finish the alcohol made itself known with a touch of heat.
The final red was poured with Karen describing the Biodynamic farming of Domaine Roche Audran in France’s Rhône Valley. Their 2010 Côtes du Rhône (£8 from Tate Smith) is made from 60-80 year old vines and had a powerful nose of cooked plums and winter spice (someone said “the smell of Grenache”). This had strong, firm tannins, good integration of components and a cool finish, there was no overt signs of the relatively high alcohol at any stage of drinking, it was a lovely wine to finish the session on.

(For more on this topic read Jamie Goode’s Lower alcohol wines, A new retail category?)

Karen’s last talk was a celebration of all things Kiwi and was backed up by a quartet of wines from Auckland based producer Babich (also available from Tate Smith). She seems to have soft spot for the country and covered a review of NZ winemaking history with a special focus on Kevin Judd, legendary winemaker at Cloudy Bay (now at Greywacke) whose use of temperature controlled fermentation captured those (now regarded as typical) pungent Sauvignon Blanc flavours. She commented that in the mid-80s access to Cloudy Bay was akin to “scoring” illicit substances!

We started with the Babich Black Label 2011 (£8), a barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc which is Karen’s “House White” and designed to be a restaurant wine rather than a general consumer bottle. It had the rich Sauvignon pungency – Karen suggested green beans – and a pleasant smooth viscosity with a crisp, zesty finish – not as bitter or vegetal as some. The world may be starting to tire of Kiwi Saivignon though, especially with the belt-tightening going on due to the global recession, so producers are now looking to trade up to more profitable varieties and techniques. Mentioning the use of oak she likened it to the Wonder Bra, it can be used “to add curves” to a wine (but also to mask faults), although the next white was an example of a wine that needed no enhancements; the Babitch 2011 unoaked Chardonnay (£9) showed pure fruit (and a touch of reduction) on the nose with fresh acidity on a rich palate.
Pinot Noir next, a difficult grape to grow and referred to as “the Bitch…costly, temperamental, but when she’s good…!”. The Babitch example was their Marlborough 2009 Pinot at £11; a smoky, gamey nose, velvety tannins and good flavour balance with a sweet berry mid-palate and food friendly acidity, a very enjoyable Pinot.
Finally Karen talked about Hawkes Bay and the growing of grapes where nothing else would grow in the Gimblett Gravels – low fertility preventing the vines from overproducing and concentrating grape flavours. The Babitch Gimblett Gravels 2009 Shiraz (£11) had an elegant nose with mellow, soft smoke and a good dash of fruit. Dry tannins and acidity offset a long, sweet finish.

Both Babitch reds were a step up in quality to the whites and well worth the slightly higher price. Karen’s mentioned her taste test for deciding how much you’re going to enjoy a wine – keep it in your mouth until you’re bored with it. I like the idea for reds but trying it out on a sharp Austrian Riesling I feared for my dental health and swallowed instead!
As a sign-off to the talk confirmed what the cognoscenti are already aware of, that with the emergence of Canterbury and Central Otago along with a re-defining of the traditional regions we’re starting to see the very best of New Zealand.

Helen Savage followed Sarah on the Friday and Karen on the Saturday with 2 talks each, 4 in total over the weekend. As well as this she was a seemingly an ever-present support for the festival organisers so it was with well deserved applause that she received a bouquet of flowers on the Saturday in recognition of her work (before she flew back to France to finish off her summer holiday!).
When not in France Helen lives in Newcastle and is well known around the local wine scene; hosting regular tasting events with Carruthers & Kent and Vine Visit and as a regular columnist in The Journal. Helen’s topics started with “How to spot a dodgy wine (Wine Faults)” and “French Country Wines” on the Friday, finishing with “Is Bordeaux worth bothering with?” and “What a summer!” on the Saturday.

I missed the beginning of her first talk but joined as she discussed oxidation and got a taste of a browning French Sauvignon Blanc with plenty of burnt orange, although just to prove the point that wine enjoyment is a purely subjective experience I quite liked it!
Acetaldehyde in wine was discussed next with a wine poured blind show the effects it can create in the glass; dry, tangy-sharp, nutty flavours with a “just chemical” aspect. I’d already realised that Helen was being a little tricky and had poured a wine deliberately made in this style, revealing a Fino Sherry (and a tasty one at that from Dillies, the Valdivia Fino Seco) which still managed to surprise a few people!
Helen then went through a roll-call of the other guilty parties; reductive/sulphur components, volatile acidity, Brettanomyces (“Brett”) and TCA (“Corked”) spoilage. To highlight the shades of grey between some of these being described as faults or flavours she poured a Château Puy 2006 L’Etiquette Rouge Minervois from Tyne Wines, which most agreed as was delicious but had a touch of Brett – the barnyard aspect that some people love, others dislike and American see as an affront to nature.

Helen is an unashamed Francophile with a holiday home in the South West so her second talk was on French Country wines and how they exhibit a “sense of place”. She started with a sparkling Vouvray (Domaine Champaolou, from Carruthers and Kent) which was sharp with good complexity, a great confirmation that sparkling French wines don’t have to come from Champagne.
Staying with the grape and the region was a dry Anjou Chenin from Château de la Roulerie (Dennhöfer) with a non-committal nose showing a touch of sulphur. It was pleasant with honeyed flavours but was a little light and slightly bitter on the mid-palate.
Helen stayed in the Loire but moved onto red with the Cuvée Troisgros 2011 Côtes Roannais from Domaine Robert Sérol, an old-vine Gamay with a youthful nose and smooth, ripe, warm red berries on the palate. It wasn’t particularly tannic or acidic, but didn’t need to be, a  style of wine for enjoyable drinking right now.
The final wine to taste was the Château du Puy 2008 Les Yssieres Minervois (Tyne Wines) with its smoky, savoury nose, smooth taste and raft of secondary flavours, although little tannin – a perfect example that good French wine doesn’t need to come from a region starting with “B”!

Saturday saw Helen staying with France with a look at a region starting with “B”….  🙂
To be fair using Bordeaux as a subject made perfect sense after she commented that there was not a single Bordeaux wine available on the Festival tasting tables! Recovering from this revelation I realised that I shouldn’t have been surprised, most Bordeaux wines on local retailers lists start at double figures and head North with the region’s reputation sending mixed messages to average consumers. Helen commented that Bordeaux’s big problem is that it has some “Posh bits” that get all the headlines, setting the stereotype for price and exclusivity.
For tasting she set a benchmark with a very good U.S. wine made with a classic Bordeaux grape; the Columbia Crest Horse Heaven Hills Merlot (The Hop, The Vine). This had a sweet/smoky nose with some blackcurrant, while on the palate it was smooth with chocolate into the finish – a damn tasty wine! This was contrasted to a comparable Bordeaux Merlot, the Château Haut Maco 2008 Côtes du Bourg with a lifted, perfumed nose although a touch dry and tannic, too young and much too austere after the American.

As a prelude to the third and last wine Helen discussed how a spin-off from the Lincolnshire Pea Industry ended up in Bordeaux (and the rest of the wine world) with optical sorting machines improving the quality of fruit reaching the fermentation tanks (and also reducing labour costs to offset their high prices). One St. Émilion producer using such techniques to improve grape selection is Château Croque Michotte, an organic declassified Grand Cru Classé within spitting distance of Cheval Blanc and Pétrus. The 2005 vintage poured for us was something a little special to show what good Bordeaux is all about. The nose was a delight; lifted, rich and chocolaty with a touch of funk. Tannins were firm but fine, well integrated with subtle, elegant flavours and a long, lingering finish. This was a superb wine – and at £40 you’d expect that! – although Helen said this bottle was actually showing poorly and she’d hoped for better!

Helen’s final spot of the weekend was “What a Summer” with a discussion of changing weather patterns in Central Europe, from Alsace to Hungary, with more extreme seasons making winemaking much more challenging than in the past. As examples she went on a tour of some interesting wines available at the festival, a few of which I’d already tried (for more details of the local retailer wines poured during Helen’s talks look for my next post).
I missed the start so didn’t get another taste of the Stopham Estate Pinot Blanc from Dillies but joined as the Piquentum 2010 Blanc Malvazija from Pacta Connect was being poured with its savoury, musky nose. Dimitri Brečević follows organic principles and doesn’t use sulphur during the winemaking and, although I couldn’t say exactly what that is meant to do to the flavour, it had a purity to it; light, clean and fresh, a touch grapey with a little lime.
To be honest after that I spent most of the time savouring the wines so my notes on the talk tail off after that, but Helen poured one of my favourite whites of the show, the Allram Strassertaler 2010 DAC Kamptal (Austrian Wines Direct) with its mellow, clean acidity and slightly sweet, herbal finish. Finally she moved to a complex Spanish Red, the Giné Giné Priorat (The Hop, The Vine) which had a nose to die for; rich, oaky vanilla and smoky fruit, clean acidity, fine tannins at the edge of the tongue – delicious!

My thanks go out to the NF&WF organisers for managing to bring together 3 generous speakers over the weekend, my only complaint is that I spent so much time listening to the talks and sipping the free offerings that I didn’t around to trying as many of the retailer wines as I might have!

Slainte!

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