Super NATURAL

There are many elements of the wine world about which I know little or nothing about. One of these is natural wine.

My time in the wine trade was spent working for a huge national retailer and an international producer. Natural wine didn’t have a place in either of these worlds and was often viewed with suspicion and scepticism. This is not an uncommon stance when it comes to natural wine. Along with the terms “organic” and “biodynamic” it can spark controversy and a varied response depending on your audience.

And, indeed, depending on the wine!

Things are changing though and natural wine is becoming more and more accessible. Not only is it more widely available than it has been before – even Oddbins have announced this week that they are rolling out a range of natural wines in selected stores – but winemaking practices have improved and natural winemakers have harnessed a deeper understanding of their craft.

For those of you who, like myself, lack experience in this field then here is a brief description of what natural wine is:

  • Like conventional wine, natural wine is made from grapes, which are crushed and then fermented into wine.
  • Fermentation takes place spontaneously using only yeasts that are naturally occurring in the vineyard rather than cultured yeasts.
  • Minimal intervention in the winery allowing the wines to follow their own natural course as much as possible.
  • SO2 levels are either extremely limited or not used at all except for those that come naturally from the vineyard.

What you’re left with at the end of this process is a wine that is completely stripped back to nature. We have been making wine for thousands of years and it is only recently that science and man have intervened to the extent to which we have all become accustomed.

One of many criticisms of this process is that it regularly results in an unstable wine full of faults, which masks the things that we have come to know wine for such as the grape variety and terroir. But I suppose this depends on your definition of ‘fault’ in a wine. Another is that it is a practice which is still largely unregulated. This is something that will undoubtedly change in the near future and will certainly go a long way to gaining the confidence of both the consumer and the trade.

I was lucky enough to find myself at a portfolio tasting last week full of almost exclusively natural wines. As with any tasting there were some that struck more of a chord than others and some that were just altogether not my bag. But a good handful were some of the most startling, expressive and exciting wines I’ve tried in a long time.

I would urge you to keep an eye out for natural wines when you’re out and about. And if you ever tire of drinking the same old bottle of reliable Malbec then rest easy in the assurance that there is a whole world of arguably more interesting wine out there.

 

Further reading – www.rawwine.com, www.isabellelegeron.com

Further drinking – Duck Soup Soho, The Winemaker’s Club, Terroirs, The Remedy

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Roses – June Wine Club

Summer hasn’t really happened yet. We optimistically decided at Wine Club last month that by mid June we would be sitting outside on someone’s terrace and so Rosé seemed the most appropriate theme. The terrace part didn’t really happen but we soldiered on with the Rosés nonetheless.

Rosé sales in the UK have been steadily on the rise over the last several years. Despite its popularity I am always amazed by the poor selection generally on offer in supermarkets. The options usually consist of the deeply pink (and often deeply unpleasant) brands – Echo Falls, Blossom Hill etc – and the Pinot Grigio Rosés. Unfortunately since everyone finds dark Rosés so off putting it drives up the price on the much paler Pinot Grigio Blush which means you end up paying a lot more than you should for what is essentially a very mediocre wine. I’m happy to pay £6.50 for a Pinot Grigio Rosé but £8.50, which seems to have become the norm now, is a bit of a joke.

For the sake of education we started with the original wine brand and hero of the 1980’s Mateus Rosé. I was quite surprised by how easy this was to find – £4.99 in Tesco – which presumably means it’s still relatively popular. Not quite my scene – deep pink, a very unsubtle spritz, off-dry and fruity – but a good starting point. Apart from giving us nostalgic flashbacks of Albufeira 2007 where we drank an unseemly amount of it over the course of a week in Portugal, it didn’t really do much for us. Next up was the Pinot Grigio Rosé which went down much better. Still for me not terribly exciting but extremely easy drinking and as such ticks a significant box.

We blew past what I thought was quite a good White Zinfandel Rose by Fetzer – I have to admit that no one else seemed to agree with me though. White Zinfandel tends to hail from California and is always medium-dry and again quite a deep pink – it’s this sweetness which put everyone off although as a style it’s really quite popular. I thought this was a good quality example of what it was, although I have to admit not what I would necessarily choose to drink myself on a day-to-day basis. The famous Chateau de Sours Rose took us back to the drier styles again; I’ve never really quite ‘got’ this wine. It was always a firm favourite with the slightly older generation when I was working in wine shops but to me was a bit overpriced.

Provence has it all for me when it comes to Rosé.  That perfect salmon-pink colour and a light, fresh palate of strawberries and cream with a bit of orange peel. Although subtle, these tend to be wines that actually taste, unlike the Pinot Grigio Rosé which I challenge anyone to differentiate from a white Pinot Grigio if drinking it with their eyes shut! We tried the M de Minuty Rosé and this delivered on every level. Granted, they’re not always cheap, normally around £10, but for the elegance and flavour you get it’s totally worth it.

The final wine of the evening was actually a bit of a disappointment for me – the Château Romassan Rosé by Domaines Ott. I’ve wanted to try this wine since forever. Also from Provence it has everything you’d expect for a good quality wine and it looks beautiful but coming in around the £25 mark it’s a lot of money and in my opinion just isn’t worth it.

I don’t think Rosé is something that can take itself too seriously. It can be delicious and refreshing but rarely has much depth or complexity; but then again that’s half the charm of it. Sometimes it’s nice to drink something without feeling like you have to think too hard about it, something that can just be drunk for the sheer pleasure of drinking it. And as soon as the sun comes out again I’ll be drinking  a lot more Provence Rosé this summer.

Italian comfort food and the easiest cake in history

ragu

Winter doesn’t seem to be shifting quite as quickly as we’d like. The problem is that I always forget about February. January I’m prepared for; I protect myself from the hideous post-Christmas-blues and the financial hardship that accompany them by making sure I’m as busy as possible. You don’t mind the fact that it’s colder than December and November put together because January is still ‘proper winter’. But really my patience runs out at about this time of year when it’s still showing only TWO DEGREES (feels like -12) on my Met Office app.

This weather calls for comfort food; something slow cooked and delicious and hopefully cheap (because let’s face it – the financial hardship almost always continues into February). For this particular Sunday lunch I decided to cook a Beef Ragu with Pappardelle. I scouted round for a recipe online and predictably settled on a Jamie Oliver that I think comes from the original book Jamie’s Kitchen. The recipe said serves 4 but we found it more than enough for 6 (with seconds)!

  • One 28-ounce piece braising meat (beef/venison)
  • Olive oil
  • 1 handful each of fresh rosemary and thyme, stems discarded and leaves finely chopped
  • 1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 celery stick, finely chopped
  • 2 wineglasses Chianti
  • 2 tins of plum tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons pearl barley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Pappardelle
  • Unsalted butter
  • 2 handfuls grated Parmesan (plus extra to serve)

Season the meat with salt and pepper and cut into 2-inch chunks. In a hot casserole-type pan, fry your meat in a little olive oil until golden brown on all sides. Add your herbs, onions, garlic, carrot and celery. Turn down the heat and continue to cook for 5mins until the vegetables have softened.

Add your red wine and continue to simmer until the liquid has almost cooked away but left you with a fantastic colour and fragrance.

Add the plum tomatoes, pearl barley and just enough water to cover the meat by 1/2 inch. Make yourself a cartouche (cut out a piece of baking parchment to the size of your pan). Wet it with a little water, rub it with a little olive oil, and place it over the pan. Put a lid on the pan as well as this will help retain as much moisture as possible while cooking. Cook over a really low heat for 2-3 hours depending on the tenderness and type of meat. It’s ready when you can literally pull the meat apart in tender strands.

At this point season the braise carefully with salt and pepper to taste and allow to cool slightly before removing the meat from the pan. Using 2 forks, pull apart all the lovely pieces of meat. Skim any fat from the surface of the braising liquid. Put the meat back in the pan over a low heat. (At this point we felt something was still missing – Mr F suggested I stir a teaspoon of Dijon mustard into the sauce and it somehow brought the whole thing together)

It’s now ready to serve so cook your Pappardelle. Once cooked, drain it in a colander, saving some of the cooking liquid in case the sauce needs a little loosening. Remove the pot of stewed meat from the heat and stir in a large knob of butter and the Parmesan with a little cooking water – this will make it juicy and shiny. Serve immediately with the sauce spooned over the pasta and extra Parmesan on top. We put a pot of basil on the table and mixed the torn up leaves in with the sauce. 

Since the recipe had called for Chianti I decided to keep things simple by serving it with just that. This is a great demonstration of one of the basic rules of wine and food matching – that the wines from a particular country often match perfectly with the local cuisine. Chianti is predominantly made from the Sangiovese grape and is naturally quite high in acidity which goes brilliantly with the classic Italian tomato based pasta sauces. This particular one was reduced to £5.99 in Sainsbury’s and not bad at all with straightforward cherry fruit, and smooth tannins.  

I absolutely cannot finish this post without adding in what we had for pudding as it was so brilliantly simple that it’s going to become my staple ‘easy-pud’ of 2013. It came from Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries and you could adapt it to whatever fruit you happen to have in the house at the time:

  • butter – 130g
  • unrefined caster sugar – 130g
  • ripe pears – 2
  • eggs – 2 large
  • plain flour – 130g
  • baking powder – a teaspoon
  • blueberries – 250g
  • a little extra sugar

Set the oven at 180 degrees. Line the base of a square cake tin with a piece of baking parchment. Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Peel and core the pears and cut them into small chunks. Break the eggs, beat them with a fork, then gradually add them to the butter and sugar. Sift the flour and baking powder together and add them gently into the mixture. Scrape into the lined tin then tip the blueberries and pears on top. Scatter a couple of teaspoons of sugar over the top. Bake for 55mins, then test for doneness with a skewer. Eat warm and serve with cream and/or ice cream.

fruity cake

Recipes taken from Jamie’s Kitchen by Jamie Oliver and The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater.

Spain. But without Rioja

We had the second instalment of our Wine Club last week – what a rowdy bunch! I think having the very good excuse of drinking lots of wine for ‘educational purposes’ provoked a little too much excitement in some folk! Chosen topic of the night was Spanish wines; we decided to leave out Rioja because, let’s face it, everyone drinks Rioja and Spain has so much else to offer. It is a country that has a very traditional history of wine making but which is gradually starting to accept  more modern styles and techniques. Although known for its reds, it produces some outstanding whites and sparkling wines which are now appearing more and more on the international market. The whites went down a storm actually with the Ribera del Duero winning out as the clear favourite among the reds…

Codorniu Brut NV 

Cava is big business in Spain. Over the last couple of decades it has suffered from a bad reputation due to the poor quality product that was often produced. These days there are some really really good Cavas around and they always offer good value for money. Unlike Prosecco they are made using the same method as Champagne and so are often much more similar stylistically. You will often be able to pick out the slightly biscuity notes and even honeyed aromas that you may associate with a much more expensive bottle of Champagne. The key difference, aside from where it comes from, is the grape varieties – Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-Lo. The Codorniu Brut is excellent value, very easy going in style with subtle hints of citrus and apples.

Cuatro Rayas Verdejo, Rueda

Verdejo is sometimes described as Spain’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc; honestly I quite often prefer it. Although dry and with fresh acidity it is much softer than Sauvignon Blanc and with a fuller body. These are great wines to drink by themselves due to this approachable nature and display flavours of stone fruits, pears and minerals.

Albarino Martin Codax, Rias Baixas

A few years ago it was almost impossible to get hold of Albarino. It’s a fantastic grape and widely grown in Galicia but local demand is high and few producers made enough for it to be worth exporting. Martin Codax makes fantastic wine and if you’re ever in that part of the world they are very hospitable towards visitors at the winery. I spent a few days here in 2008 helping with the vintage (grape picking in the sunshine) and it was just brilliant. In terms of style, Albarino is not a million miles away from Viognier; crisp and fresh on the palate but with a real aromatic character of stone fruits and ripe apples. This is a perfect match with the local dishes which mainly revolve around seafood and shellfish.

Escondite Perfecto Mencia Bierzo

Bierzo is being recognised more and more as a quality wine region producing wines from the little know Mencia grape. Honestly I was a little disappointed with this wine. When made well wines from Bierzo can display fantastic depth of flavour and character but sadly this is exactly what this wine lacked. It was perfectly pleasant with lots of upfront fruit and plummy flavours, but that was about it. The alcohol stood out too much and for the £9.99 it cost me I thought it was overpriced.

Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero is a region that is seriously giving Rioja a run for its money. It has the same rules as Rioja regarding the different styles (Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva) and uses the same grape variety – Tempranillo. The high altitude of this region, combined with the warm days and cool nights, mean that the wines produced have fantastic fruit concentration without giving away any of the aromatic complexities that make them the success story they are. As I said – this was the star of the night; dark fruit and dark chocolate are complemented by a smooth texture and upfront yet silky tannins. This will be delicious with barbecued or flame grilled red meat.

Acustic Cellars Ritme Priorat Tinto

This was the interesting one of the night for me. I had to hunt around a bit to find a Priorat but it was definitely worth the effort. Priorat as a region produces some truly outstanding wines and its reputation has continued to grow over the last decade or so. The principal grape varieties tend to be Carinena and Garnacha but some international varieties are also often used. Although it was a little young it nonetheless displayed fantastic complexity; the initial cherry fruit opened up and gave way to a slightly more dried fruit / raisiny character. Its length and complexity were worthy of its £18.99 price point – a lot of money I know but this is the kind of wine you buy as a treat. A great option for an Easter Sunday lunch for example – perfect with spring lamb!

 

 

An Ottolenghi lunch

Ott Lamb

I cooked the most delicious lunch on Sunday. I know this for a fact because my mother told me about 17 times while we were eating it having had a couple too many glasses of Macon-Villages. Still, I’m never going to complain about being over-praised for something so thank you Mum and you’re very welcome.

The trouble is I can’t really take the credit for it. Not really. I have probably mentioned before that I’m not a ‘fussy’ cook. I’m someone who is much happier being able to throw everything into a pot and leave it for a few hours rather than running round the kitchen like a headless chicken with 5 different pans overflowing on the hob. But sometimes, when there’s no pressure, and it’s not for too many people, and I have time (oh how I long for the days when I had time) I love it. In this instance, Yotam Ottolenghi is the man that should be taking credit for our lunch. He is the chap to go to if you want something completely delicious but, more often than not, a little more complicated. As it turns out in this case it was blissfully easy and involved no complicated ingredients whatsoever. Of course I made it complicated myself by what I chose to serve alongside it but that is not the lamb (nor Ottolenghi’s) fault so I will take full responsibility for my actions…

Lamb rack

Marinated rack of lamb with coriander and honey (enough for 4)

  • 1kg rack of lamb, french trimmed
  • 20g flat leaf parsley, leaves and stalks
  • 30g mint, leaves and stalks
  • 30g coriander, leaves and stalks
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 15g fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 3 chillies, seeded
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 50ml lemon juice
  • 60ml soy sauce
  • 120ml sunflower oil
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons water

Separate the rack into portions of two or three cutlets and place in a non-metallic bowl. Blitz together all the remaining ingredients in a blender or a food processor, pour them over the lamb and make sure it is well covered in the marinade. Cover and keep in the fridge overnight or for at least 8 hours.

Preheat the oven to 200c. Heat up a heavy cast iron pan, preferably a griddle pan. Remove the meat from the marinade, shaking off the excess. Sear well on all sides, about 5 minutes in total. Transfer to a baking tray and cook in the oven for about 15 mins, depending on the size of the racks and how well cooked you want them.

Meanwhile, heat the marinade in a small pan and simmer for 5 minutes. Both the cutlets and sauce can be served hot or at room temperature.

Ott Lamb2

When I had stuck my finger in the marinade the night before I had been a little bit nervous that the flavours weren’t entirely balanced. I now feel like a complete idiot for ever doubting the recipe. It was fantastic and we really did have the most stonking lunch. We had it with Ottolenghi’s marinated aubergines (from the same book – I forgot to make the tahini sauce but I don’t think it needed it), baby roast potatoes, spinach and pine nuts and yoghurt on the side (natural yoghurt with grated cucumber, a tiny amount of crushed garlic and ground cumin).

Auberg

I had thought this would go brilliantly with the Barbera d’Asti but with the multitude of flavours in this dish from all the fresh herbs it needed a white rather than a red wine. It was a much better match with the Roero Arneis which had the body to stand up to the lamb but the delicacy of flavour not to overpower the herbs and spices.

I love it when a lunch comes together.

Recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Ottolenghi: The Cookbook