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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Not-Average Drinking

Oscar Foulkes February 13, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

I had occasion last year to visit a medical specialist, who undertook a lifestyle audit during the course of his examination. I sailed through the bits about smoking, regular exercise, and even elicited a raised eyebrow when he saw my blood pressure and heart rate.

I thought my half-bottle per day consumption (of life expectancy-extending red wine) should earn me a pat on the back. But no, he leaned back, fixed me with a concerned gaze, and told me that this was somewhat above the average. He was not amused when I suggested to him that perhaps there was a problem with the average.

I found myself stepping slightly beyond my own average last week when sipping my way through the greater part of a bottle of The Very Sexy Shiraz. It’s a wine that’s drinking so well at the moment (let’s not even consider a direct examination of the grammar of that phrase, and write it off to industry colloquialism) that I found it difficult to replace the cork once I’d reached the allotted demi-bouteille.

I was a victim of the wine’s deliciousness, without any free choice in the matter.

A New Harvest

Oscar Foulkes January 31, 2007 Uncategorized 2 comments

Between Monday and Thursday last week we had four days of temperatures in the vicinity of 40°C and above. Walking outside was like stepping into an oven. There was no escape from the heat. Sleep was almost impossible.

If this was a sneak preview of global warming it’s a scary future.

Of course, it’s not unusual for temperatures in the Western Cape to touch 40 degrees at various points between December and February. What made this so devastating was that the heat wave continued for four straight days, following on from several very hot days in the preceding week.

Oh, I forgot to mention that we’d started harvesting Pinotage grapes. Dozens of hectares of ripe Pinotage were hanging on the vines awaiting harvest. The pickers (spare a thought for them working in the heat) just couldn’t get there in time; even a team of 500 pickers couldn’t have brought the grapes in before they were beyond the pale.

By Friday, when winemaker Christopher van Dieren took me around the vineyards to show me the bunches of shrivelled berries, we’d lost the equivalent of approximately 150 tons of Pinotage (one ton produces about 650 litres of wine). The high levels of sugar in the almost-raisins meant that the potential alcohol was way over 16%. Even if we’d had a dip at making wine we’d have ended up with jammy, raisin flavours.

Ever the opportunist I considered the possibility of making Pinotage Amarone. In Veneto, where the red wines tend to be quite dilute, the wineries partially dry the grapes, which they then ferment and make into Amarone. This dehydration process increases the concentration in the juice. Perhaps as a niche product, produced in small quantities, there could be a future for Cloof’s Vine-Dried Pinotage Amarone – but 10 000 cases? We left the grapes hanging, and got on with harvesting the grapes that were still healthy.

Which brings me to the juice that’s destined to become the 2007 Cloof Crucible Shiraz. After only a day and a bit on skins the juice is already the most concentrated I’ve ever seen. Clearly the berries lost a fair amount of moisture during the heat wave. One of the dangers of hot conditions is that the sugar goes racing up, without simultaneous ripening of the berries. In the case of this Shiraz the pips were nut brown indicating full physiological ripeness. It promises to be a blockbuster, but first it needs to ferment.

Juice from Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes (potential for Lynchpin 2007) harvested this week is showing good concentration. The flavours are good, so the grapes appear not to have been unduly affected by the hot conditions.

The accelerated nature of this year’s harvest means that we’re already onto Cabernet Sauvignon, a full three weeks ahead of schedule. We’re supposed to be hosting a Harvest Day experience on 17 February. At the rate we’re going we’ll have to ‘borrow’ grapes from a neighbouring farm!

Wine drinking & taxes in Thailand

Oscar Foulkes January 18, 2007 Uncategorized No comments

I have often said that the only way to survive Vinexpo (as a visitor) is to nip outside the interminably long exhibition halls every hour, or so, for a pression – a short draught beer. The 200ml doesn’t affect one’s sobriety, but makes all the difference to a palate that’s being assaulted by dozens of wines per hour. I would probably even admit to hankering after the first icy cold beer at the end of a summer’s day, so my willingness to drink beer is proven.

However, there’s a limit to the number of beers I’m comfortable drinking on any one day, or even consecutive days of drinking beer. Forewarned of the wine situation in Thailand I took the precaution, therefore, of filling 3-litre foil bags with a variety of red and white wines for our three-week end-of-year holiday.

Between import duties and alcohol tax, wine is subject to a whopping 380% surcharge in Thailand. Consequently importers focus most of their attention on the cheapest wines possible – my guess is that the vast majority of wines imported into Thailand leave the cellar door at no more than €1 per bottle.

The wine starts life bad, and doesn’t get any better under tropical storage conditions. The problem is exacerbated by the widely used 5-litre flagons that cannot possibly be consumed before the wine oxidises. The bottom line is an absolutely dreadful wine experience.

Because the wine is bad (and expensive) sales volumes are low, and the wine is guaranteed to go off before it’s left the store.

Fortunately we did most of our dining at beach restaurants. We were therefore able to order a glass of wine, turf it out on the sand, and then surreptitiously re-fill it from the foil bag concealed inside a handbag or rucksack on our laps. Except for the time I mis-aimed the nozzle, resulting in a dribble of red wine down my leg, it worked very well.

I don’t mean to single out Thailand. Many other countries – in Asia especially – tax wine on the basis that it’s a non-essential product mainly being consumed by ex-pats and tourists. Protection of local breweries and distilleries is probably a prime motivation.

But wine is not necessarily interchangeable with beer or bad whisky. And, servicing happy tourists with bad wine can’t be good for business. I wonder, also, what losses are suffered by restaurants, bars and stores in writing off redundant stock.

Let’s take an alternative viewpoint on this. If we take the hypothetical €1 bottle of wine, the Thai government collects €3.80, and the wine costs the importer €4.80 (without logistics costs). If they instead took a flat €2.00, the importer could afford to pay €2.80 for the wine, which would result in infinitely better quality being served.

Or, if he stuck to his original wine, he would be in for €3, and everyone down the line would get a better deal.

In my view, the resulting increased sales volumes would quickly compensate for the duty reduction. More importantly, a country that survives on tourism would have happier visitors (and I wouldn’t need to sneak around with foil bags of wine!).

Cork Problems

Oscar Foulkes December 20, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

I’ve had a really bad run with corks over the past month.

It began during a series of tastings for journalists in London. In one tasting the final three wines (Crucible Shiraz 2003, Lynchpin 2005 and our 2003 Cabernet Franc blend) were not showing well. There wasn’t any obvious cork taint, but in each case the flavour had been stripped out of the wines. The danger, of course, is that I knew there was something wrong with the specific bottles; a stranger to the wines would just have assumed that they were supposed to taste like this. Of course, it is horribly bad luck to have the three top wines at the end of a tasting all suffer from cork problems, and it’s never happened to me on this magnitude before.

The other was a debate I initiated on the basis of a comparison of cork-sealed and screwcapped bottles of 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS. All I wanted to illustrate was how much more slowly wines under screwcap evolve than under cork. In my experience the wines can remain so tight that consumers will need to be educated to decant screwcapped wines. We ended up having a lengthy conversation (that continued on email) about the wine’s alcohol level (in this case only 14%).

It has to be said that the cork-sealed bottle was served at a significantly warmer temperature than the screwcapped one, which would have accentuated the alcohol (even if it had only been 13%). The main difference, as alluded to above, is that the tannins in the cork-sealed wine were softer, which allowed the flavour of the wine to express itself. Very Important Wine Writer was of the (strongly-expressed) opinion that the cork had oxidised the tannins, which made the wine taste flat, and hence throw the alcohol out of balance.

The following evening I dined at a restaurant for which this wine man had written the wine list, and was delighted to discover the Minervois (previously discussed) that – in my view – had unbalanced alcohol. In response to this on subsequent emails, Very Important Wine Writer once again trotted out his ‘cork oxidising the tannins’ thesis.

Never having been able to keep my mouth shut when a contradictory opinion is buzzing around my head, I then entered the lists. Corks don’t oxidise tannins, oxygen does (which of course enters the wine as a result of the imperfect seal provided by a cork). The part of the wine that balances the alcohol (especially in Cloof wines) is the wonderfully rich mid-palate, which is the product of poly-saccharides and glycerol. Neither of these binds with oxygen.

In the case of the Minervois there was no shortage of tannin; in fact, this may have been one of its redeeming features. What was missing was a huge hole in the mid-palate – components that should have come from the vineyard, and didn’t. The joust has not yet delivered a winner. With two equally stubborn people, both of them totally believing in the rightness their own point of view, how could it?

Earlier this week we visited Mannenberg restaurant in Cape Town’s Waterfront (great live music, by the way). We selected the 2004 Robert Alexander Merlot. The first bottle was fine, but we were obliged to send back bottle numbers two and three as a result of them being corked. At this point the manager asked if we didn’t want to order a different wine. I did my best to explain that the wine had been tainted as a result of a chemical reaction with stuff on the cork, and that she’d be perfectly entitled to return it to the supplier for a refund. When bottle number four was also corked we decided to grin and bear it, rather than risk getting thrown out for being ‘difficult’.

We were both shocked and amused a while later to see the owner sharing the sent-back bottles with his personal guests.

Blending Out

Oscar Foulkes December 6, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Playing around with a table-full of samples and a measuring cylinder is one of my most enjoyable activities at Cloof. Even when only one grape variety is involved, the components can be diverse:

– wine from different vineyard blocks
– wine made from grapes at varying stages of ripeness
– wine aged in stainless steel
– wine aged in barrel (further diversity comes from the cooper, or from the age of the barrels)

The permutations become more involved when one is working with multiple grape varieties (each of which can have their own variations, as per the list above).

A case in point is the Cloof Bush Vines CPS 2004. As the acronym ‘CPS’ suggests, it’s made up of Cabernet, Pinotage and Shiraz. Within each of these varieties are batches from different vineyards, as well as a large component that was aged in barrel. The end result is an intriguingly interesting wine. No grape variety dominates, the wine has multiple flavour dimensions, and the palate has a firm structure of fruit and oak tannins that makes it a great complement to many foods.

Having now had the opportunity to reflect on the wine (thanks to numerous bottles consumed slowly over the course of several hours each time), I think it’s one of the most interesting South African wines around. In my view it makes a uniquely Cloof expression.

There’s a growing group of UK wine writers that agrees with me.

Writing in Wine & Spirit, Simon Woods described the 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS as “excellent” and awarded it a score of 90 out of 100:

“The 2004 CPS is rich and fruity, with an earthy berry and plum intensity, but thanks in part to the French Oak ageing, it also shows a more refined and gentle edge, along with a spicy, velvety finish.”

Leading UK wine writer Tom Cannavan selected the 2004 Cloof Bush Vines CPS as his Wine of the Week, making the following comments:

“Given [its] luxurious recipe [i.e. ageing in French oak] the price is very low, but the wine delivers. The nose is dominated by the Shiraz, giving pepper and spice along with bright cherry and raspberry fruit, and a touch of earthy, vegetal, Pinotage character. On the palate a very soft cloak of cedary oak flavours is layered over ripe, juicy cherry and black berry fruits, with plenty of black pepper and clove-like spice and a robust, earthy tannic structure. There is lovely freshness too, with good acidity and the bright fruit profile persisting. Delightful stuff, and well priced.”

Olly Smith, clearly not drawn to verbosity, just said: “Rocks!”

No comment on this wine would be complete without referring to the role played by Pinotage. Without it (i.e. as a Cabernet/Shiraz blend), CPS would gush with fruit and the tannins would be softer. Pinotage not only gives the wine more structure, but also lends a savoury note to the flavour profile. It’s all part of what makes this an interesting wine. But probably harder to sell to a populist market – this is not a wine that ‘blends in’ with the crowd!

Another point of interest is to compare the cork and screwcap bottlings. The latter is much tighter, while the wine under cork has evolved faster. Its flavours are more expressive and its tannins softer.

While I love the reliability of screwcap (i.e. no corked wine), it’s clear that screwcapped wines need to be well aerated prior to drinking.

The Alcohol debate

Oscar Foulkes December 1, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

I suppose I could be accused of having become over-sensitive to certain types of criticism of Cloof wines.

One of the most nonsensical criticisms of high alcohol wines is that one can drink so much less of them. Well, let’s do the maths – three glasses of 15% wine have the same alcohol content as three-and-a-third glasses of 13.5% wine. A third of a glass over three glasses is hardly a lot. In fact, I would say that the reverse is true. Sometimes when drinking a ‘lighter’ wine I have found myself getting close to finishing a bottle – when my regular consumption is a maximum of half-a-bottle of 14.5% red. Paradoxically, one is therefore more likely to consume more alcohol when drinking a lower-alcohol wine.

Let’s begin by saying that I fully accept that wine is an entirely subjective experience, and that – thankfully – we all have our own likes and dislikes. I would, however, expect of an informed taster to be able to say what it is about a wine that makes it unacceptable. Let’s add, further, that I’m not convinced that one’s experience of a wine can be reduced to a numerical score. There is no such thing as an absolute, empirical measurement of a wine’s quality.

All we have are preferences based upon an accumulated taste experience. Following from Edward de Bono’s observation that the mind recognises the familiar, we can become accustomed to just about any flavour experience. An article I read on the subject a few years ago suggested that eating something seven times is all that’s required for a new flavour to become accepted.

It is part of the unique style of Cloof wines that they are significantly more concentrated in flavour than the majority of other wines. An accompanying feature (let’s not at this point call it a benefit!) is that alcohol levels of the red wines are above 14%, and occasionally even above 15%. The wines are a reflection of the soils and climate where the vines are grown – dare I say terroir?

In this sense Cloof wines are no less valid as an authentic wine style than any of the established regions of the Old World.

I accept that the richness and power of Cloof wines can be a little intimidating. However, by the same token, some wines that I regard as being ‘green’ are considered perfectly balanced by others. These are preferences, based upon personal reference points.

The criticism I’m struggling with most at the moment is alcohol; one of the few truly empirical measurements applicable to wine. When printed on the label, it’s nothing more than a bland statement of fact. Once again, subjective judgement is necessary, to assess whether it’s in balance with all the other components in a wine.

It would be the same as saying that a wine that’s been aged in 100% new oak for 12 months is over-wooded. The percentage of new oak, and the length of ageing are both statements of fact, but a subjective judgement of the wine remains necessary.

My opinion is that our alcohols are in balance with the wines’ extract (polyphenols), tannins and acid. In support of my viewpoint (because this is, after all, so subjective) I offer an example of a wine that I believe is out of balance.

Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours working my way through a bottle of 2004 Vieilles Vignes Minervois from Domaine Pierre Cros. The first experience on the palate (admittedly without any ‘burn’) was the soft, sweet sensation of alcohol. This was accompanied by some interesting spicy flavours that dissipated quite rapidly. The texture of the fruit extract was hardly present. The palate was then belatedly attacked by some fairly determined tannins. While the wine was very definitely made up of three different parts, it was only the tannins that offered any kind of redemption from the wine’s awkwardness.

Here’s a wine with a relatively moderate ‘claimed’ alcohol of 14% (it can legally be as high as 14.49%) that is patently so alcoholic that it’s out of balance. Would I rather have a well-balanced 15.5% or an out-of-balance 14%? No contest.

How to deal with wine snobs

Oscar Foulkes December 1, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

cellarblend2004Last week I hosted a UK-based customer, who told me how Cloof Cellar Blend had helped him out of a difficult situation with a wine snob.

One of the guests he’d invited to a dinner party was known to always arrive with a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CNDP). In fact, she also very loudly orders CNDP at restaurants, including – wait for this – when eating Thai food! Drinking CNDP doesn’t immediately categorise someone as a wine snob. I’ve drunk substantial quantities of it myself (all in the name of research, of course!), and would list southern Rhône wines as one of my favoured points of reference.

It’s how she goes about drinking the CNDP that defines her as a wine snob. On this basis, it is clear that it’s also theoretically possible for her to be wine snob when drinking Cloof wines. In that case I’ll of course leave it to someone else to call her a wine snob!

So, having greeted his guests and relieved them of their coats, bottles of wine (including CNDP!) etc, the host offered them a drink. He proudly brought out a bottle of Cloof Cellar Blend, to which Ms Wine Snob loadedly commented “interesting”. Fortunately she was open-minded enough to judge the wine on its merits, and loved it.

Commenting that if she’d known that the host was going to be serving a South African wine she’d have brought TWO bottles of CNDP, she said how pleased she was to be drinking Cloof Cellar Blend. There are no reports (yet) of her carrying Cellar Blend wherever she goes.

Kitchen Disasters

Oscar Foulkes November 14, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Don’t Try This At Home is a book of top chefs’ kitchen disasters. Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Worrall-Thompson – they’re all there. The key point was the way in which they managed to recover. It’s good to know that we are not alone.

Take the wedding I worked at on Saturday night. First, the lemon juice that had been squeezed (from our only lemons, it has to be said), was ditched by mistake. No problem for Jon, who dashed off to the Spar. Then the guests took an extra 30 minutes to take their seats, with the result that the lemon beurre monte I’d made was less liquid than it was supposed to be. So all the little dishes were returned to the kitchen for re-heating, but being made up largely of emulsified butter, the sauce promptly split. Fortunately we had some eggs, and so I was able to convert the sauce to an impromptu hollandaise.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The gas canister for the blow torch had been fitted incorrectly, with the result that it was leaking its gas. Thanks to another caterer based nearby, we were able to get a replacement, and get the crème brulees out on schedule.

All in a night’s work!

18 Hours in Dublin

Oscar Foulkes October 24, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

On a recent Phineas Fogg-type itinerary (6 cities in 10 days) I had occasion to visit Ireland for the first time. My flight from Bradford-Leeds on Ryanair was uneventful, except for the fact that the announcements by the Eastern European hostesses were absolutely incomprehensible. It was at the Immigration desk that I first discovered I was in another kind of country. Unlike the very serious-looking uniformed officials I usually encounter in other countries, these non-uniformed men looked as if they could be pulling pints in the local pub, or even providing the musical entertainment at a similar establishment. Passengers in the EU-queue vaguely flashed passports at the official. Many didn’t bother to do even that.

In the non-EU queue I was preceded by a middle-aged businessman, who dutifully handed over his passport. After studying it for a little bit, the official looked up, pan-faced, and said: “What’s happened to yer head?”

The businessmen looked confused. This wasn’t the usual line of questioning (e.g. Where are you staying? How long are you staying for?).

Still pan-faced, the official held up the passport, opened to the picture (clearly not a recent one) in which the businessman had a full head of hair.

My turn. How long are you staying? I’m leaving after my meeting tomorrow. Standard stuff. But then he caught me – since losing part of my vocal chords earlier this year my voice is not nearly as strident as it used to be.

“So, will ye’ be usin’ sign language?”

Immigration officials do an important job in screening undesirables. But they can also be valuable in getting visitors into the right mood. I thought these guys were great, and encountered nothing but genuinely warm and friendly Irish people in service positions for the rest of my stay.

Harrassed in the Aisles

Oscar Foulkes September 3, 2006 Uncategorized No comments

Wine shopping has become a hazardous experience, especially when undertaken at peak times. On Saturday morning I went browsing for an interesting selection at a large ‘discount’ outlet. I had barely gained my bearings inside the store than a promoter was offering me a taste of wine she assured me was delicious. I managed to shrug off her further offer to assist me in choosing my purchases, and then had to brace myself for the next promoter. With a jinx and a step off the left foot I got past the third promoter, only to find the first promoter positioned between myself and the shelf, once again offering assistance.

Quietly, but slightly less politely, I once again asserted myself, which bought me a minute, or so, of peaceful browsing, before offers of assistance started flowing in again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to accept recommendations from trained professionals (i.e. the people who actually run the store), but having part-timers getting in my space, pushing their dubious wares, was more than irritating.

It doesn’t help that as a wine producer myself I can see what’s happening – difficult market conditions means that we all have to work very much harder to keep wine moving out of the cellar doors.

(Note to self: cancel all Saturday morning promotions)