Thursday, 19 June 2014

Lamont's Black & White Monster Dinner

Beautiful Lamont's Bishop House
As I launched into the writing of this post, I suddenly realised that not everyone would know what on earth I was referring to by a 'Black & White Monster'.  I guess wine is probably not the first thing that would spring into most people's mind if they were presented with this phrase.

But, true to this blog, in this case it does refer to wine. And not just any old wine; some absolutely awe-inspiring, powerful and conversation-starting wine. 

To cut a long story short, Lamont's winery is a Swan Valley stalwart, with the first wine (a Cabernet Sauvignon) being produced in 1978. At the encouragement of her father Jack Mann, Corin and her husband Neil Lamont established the winery, where Jack continued to support their winemaking until his death.  Since then, the winery has gone from strength to strength.  

Around 2002, the winery staff began bottling some barrel fermented Margaret River Chardonnay and Donnybrook Malbec separately, and this practice grew up until 2008, when current winemaker, Digby Leddin claims that the two Monster wines, 'really got serious'.

What an honour it was to be personally greeted by Corin Lamont during pre-dinner drinks, soon after we arrived at Bishop's House. She was such a genuine, humble and charming lady, only too willing to answer my multitude of questions and share some insights into the outstanding family business which she has been fundamental in establishing.

Throughout the evening, we were addressed by Digby, who succinctly and passionately presented each wine as it was served. The Black & White Monster dinner proceeded as follows:

Round 1
2013 Mount Barker Riesling
Flinty, gasoline notes.  Zingy lemon zest.

Pairing: Kaffir lime and coconut chicken cigar

Round 2
2013 Fun-Kee-Viognier
2/3 Viognier fermented in old oak barrels, 1/3 Semillon.  The result took me on a whirlwind tour of funky foods - grape must, blue cheese, green splice ice blocks?!

Pairing: Scallops, toasted brioche, broad ben butter and jamon

Round 3
2013 White Monster
5 different French Oak suppliers and 5 different Chardonnay clones culminate in this powerful and complex expression of the style.  The nose was all brioche and butter, whilst the creamy mouthfeel provided padding for acidity and stonefruit.

Pairing: Patagonian toothfish, cauliflower and saffron beurre blanc

Round 4
2012 Margaret River Cabernet
Red and black fruits.  Menthol, mushroom and pepper.

Pairing: Lamb pastrami with wood roasted root vegetables and goat's curd

Round 5
2012 Black Monster
Raspberry, mulberry and plum with beautifully integrated oak.

Pairing: Potato gnocchi with short ragu, Manjimup truffles and kale chips

Round 6
Lamonts Navera
2% of this solera-style fortified is from Jack Mann's 1930s blend.  Enough said.

Pairing: Pistachio and olive oil cake with poached rhubarb and rhubarb ice cream

My overall impression of the dinner was one of attention to detail, resulting from pride and passion.  Each and every food/wine pairing was absolutely bang on, with the food serving as a gorgeously decadent backdrop to bring out the best aspects of each wine's unique character.

Thanks to the Bishop's House staff for their impeccable service (they all seemed so happy to be working there) - I will definitely be back again next year!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Wines & Spirits Course - Cabernet Sauvignon & Sauvignon Blanc

I had mixed emotions as I drove to Week 4 of my WSET Level 2 course. On one hand, I was desperate to learn more about the epitome of the wine world - Bordeaux. Opposing this was my avoidance of Sauvignon Blanc in recent years. My fingers were crossed that the Sav Blancs we would be tasting were not just from Malborough (does this make me a wine snob?).

Whites were first on the agenda for the evening and, besides running through the basic characteristics: high acidity, herbaceousness and affinity for cooler climates, it was interesting to learn just how many regions around the world grow significant quantities of this grape variety. Apart from Marlborough in New Zealand, whose rise to fame in recent decades has been astronomical, the classic heart of Sauvignon would be the Loire Valley in France. It is here, in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, that spine-tingling acidity and smokey minerality are expressed at their best. 

It was a real contrast to try a Sancerre, backed up by a Marlborough version.  The Vincent Panard 'Cuvee Flores' had pear and asparagus on the nose, then tastes of acidic lime, green pepper and stoniness.  Villa Maria's expression was more 'tropical fruit and vegetable' with passionfruit aromas lacing the grassy, tomato-leaf flavours.

As we moved onto the topic of Cabernet Sauvignon (and its long-standing partner merlot), I sat up a little straighter in my chair. We discussed the reason that softly tannic, full-bodied Merlot works so well when blended with highly tannic and acidic Cab Sav. The analogy that is often used is that Cabernet is like a doughnut and merlot's smooth, full mouthfeel fills the hole in the mid-palate. In Australia, a similar feat is achieved by blending with Shiraz instead, although such wines tend to be much weightier in terms of both body and alcohol content.

So what did I get to try? Without giving everything away, let me suggest that the two 2009 Bordeaux wines we tasted are definitely worth giving a go. And they are reasonably priced to boot.

1. Right Bank (85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc):
Seducing nose of red plum, roasted hazelnut and smokey bacon.  Smooth tannins on the palate, with blackcurrant and black and green pepper.

2. Left Bank (unusually Merlot dominant - usually more Cabernet):
Rich, meaty aromas with sweet cherry fruits and mocha.  The palate was quite complex with black olive, bell pepper, cloves, blackcurrant and cedar all coming to light, ending in a luxurious, long finish.

I don't know about you, but I'm off to try some more Bordeaux...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Oxford Hotel Wine, Food and Beer Festival

I arrived at the Oxford Hotel on a gorgeously sunny winter afternoon. There had been much hype about the annual Wine, Food and Beer Festival - I had heard that it gets packed out pretty quickly.  For this reason, I was surprised to arrive at 2pm to a very quiet Oxford Hotel, where the staff informed me that ticket sales were significantly down from the previous year.

Of course, this was not a deterrent - more wine for me!  

To be honest, I'm not quite sure why the event was advertised as 'Wine, Food and Beer' because there were no food stalls and only 2 beer stalls (Nail Ale and James Squire).  In saying that, the nibblies served from the Oxford Hotel kitchen were quite passable - I really enjoyed the spicy calamari and mini shepherd's pies.  

upstairs at the Oxford Hotel
The stalls were set up in a U-shape out in the Garden Bar as well as upstairs in the private function area.  Both spaces were beautiful and added a classy element to the event.  Wineries from Margaret River were predominant alongside quite a few Wine Reps/Distributors.

For me, there were two stand-out wine companies featured on the day:

My favourite was  Miles from Nowhere, an endeavour by Frank Tate (ex Evans & Tate).  His premium range wines under the 'Best Block' label were outstanding.  The Semillon Sauvignon Blanc had a lovely mouthfeel which I am sure could be attributed to the contribution of 12% barrel fermented semillon.  Building from this, the use of oak in the 2013 Chardonnay resulted in butterscotch and caramel notes which played perfectly with the stone fruit characteristics.  And to finish with, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon packed a punch with its surprisingly intense fruit and spice, and length to match.

excellent wines and friendly service at Miles from Nowhere

It was a pleasure to meet Michael Goundrey, who has started some interesting new labels from his vineyards scattered around Denmark, Mt Barker and Frankland River.  It probably helps that I am a huge fan of these cool climate regions at the moment!

Blackberry Hill from Denmark stood out for me.  The lemongrass flavour of the Sauvignon Blanc was outstanding and the Shiraz Grenache was dry, chalky and rustic.  Wild fermented chardonnay from his Serendipity range was also excellent.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Wines and Spirits Course - Chardonnay & Pinot Noir

It was a sad heart that I missed out on the second week of my Wines and Spirits course, as I was on a work trip to Melbourne.  Luckily, the week that I missed out on was all about grapegrowing and wine production. I have my fingers crossed that my recent 3-month vintage experience will stand me in good stead to understand most of the content.

A combination of missing Week 2 and anticipating the topic of Week 3 prevented me from concentrating at work on Monday.  I just couldn't wait to see the chardonnay and pinot noir wines we would be sampling as we learnt about these two classic grape varieties.  

Until a few years ago, neither of these two wine styles would have held any interest for me.  In my naivety, I would have probably told you that chardonnay was for those who were stuck in the 80's and that pinot was just too watery.  But it is amazing how much your palate can change, adapt and learn over the years.  I remember when I made the conscious decision to first tackle chardonnay seriously - when my husband and I went on our first trip down to Margaret River.  

We knew Margaret River chardonnay was a sought-after commodity, so we figured we may as well try the best to train our tastebuds.  And it didn't take us long to fall in love with the stuff!  After ticking off all the big-name wineries, as well as a few boutiques, we were convinced that this unique grape really did have something going for it.  

As I have learnt more recently, the fascinating characteristic of the chardonnay grape is its ability to thrive in cool, moderate and warm climates.  As was reinforced at Week 3 of the Wine and Spirits course, chardonnay's delicate fruit characters and comparative neutrality mean that it can be 'moulded' to the style a winemaker desires.  I think this is what I love most about it - the versatility.

As a good example, on Monday we tasted two Premier Cru (high quality) chardonnays from the Burgundy region in France.  The styles could not have been more extreme.  The first was from Chablis and had the scent of fresh rain and green fruits.  This wine was unoaked but there was some beautifully integrated creaminess from the malolactic fermentation (something I will explain in more detail in a future post).  

Then came the power hit from the Mersault.  This sub-region of Burgundy is significantly warmer than northern Chablis, smack bang in the fabled Côte d'Or (literally, Coast of Gold).  As such, the fruit flavours move from citrusy through to stone fruits (eg. peach, nectarine).  In this particular wine, the fruit flavours were perfectly intermingled with flavours from the oak (toast, charred wood, nuts).  Strangely, I could have sat there for hours just smelling it!

Onto the pinot.  

I am even more of a rookie with pinot than I ever was with chardonnay.  I have always tried to taste it where I can, but have managed to find more 'misses' than hits, resulting in my previous opinion that it was watery and lacking in flavour.  It was not until a visit to Denmark (southern Western Australia, not Europe) last year that I really started to get the concept of why winemakers go through so much pain to perfect this wine and its expression.

Pinot noir is sometimes called 'The Heartbrake Grape', and for good reason.  Quite the opposite of chardonnay, it is extremely difficult to grow successfully due to its thin skins and susceptibility to rot.  Also, it is very picky about climate:  too warm and the result is a 'jammy' wine, too cool and you end up with 'vegetable' characteristics.

Two excellent examples were up for tasting on this occasion, providing the opportunity to compare a classic Burgundy pinot noir to a 'New World' example from the famed Central Otago region of New Zealand.

Burgundy, France
Central Otago, New Zealand
To be honest, I actually had a slight preference for the Central Otago wine.  It was beautifully savoury with a whole host of flavours - redcurrant, leather, mushroom, smoke.  Every time I tried it, I picked up something new and different.

On the other hand, the Gevrey-Chambertin wine was more acidic and tannic (suggesting longevity).  It had earthiness, plum, red cherry and leather but I just didn't find it quite as complex.  

My conclusion: I will drink more pinot - it's the best way to learn!

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Winter Red Wine Benchmark Tasting

Patio Overlooking the Vineyards
Sunday was a cool, cloudy day in the Swan Valley.  A lovely day to stroll through the vineyards, but an even better day to enjoy an epic Shiraz tasting.

Faber Vineyard hold an annual event called the Winter Red Wine Benchmark Tasting, one of their most highly anticipated events of the year.  For those sixty of us lucky enough to attend, this year's event was an opportunity to try Shiraz from the 2011 Vintage, which is known to have been a superb in both the Hunter Valley and Western Australia.

Laid Out for Lunch
I had never attended an event at Faber Vineyard before, but had heard that John Griffiths was an excellent host, and his wife Jane an equally good cook. After everyone had congregated on the back porch with a sparkling wine (Faber have both a white and red option) and a few caramelised onion pinwheels, John and Janet welcomed us all to the event and gave us a run-down of the format for the day.

There were twelve wines up for blind tasting, which had been divided into three brackets of four wines.  The Faber barrel shed had been set up as the tasting venue, whilst the cellar door was beautifully set out for the three courses that would break up the three tasting rounds.

First things first, we headed to the tasting room, where we were introduced to the panel of wine personalities:
Everyone was provided with a tasting sheet, with room to record tasting notes, personal rankings and overall votes.  After each bracket, members of the audience were chosen at random to provide comment on the wines and each panel member also put forward some thoughts and analysis.  Finally, everyone had the opportunity to vote for one of the four wines in the bracket. 

The Tasting Room
After the first round of tasting and commentary, everyone headed back to the cellar door for some homemade Capsicum and Tomato soup, matched with Faber's 2012 Dwellingup Mourvedre.  The herbaceous sweetness in both the capsicum and wine were very complementary.

By the end of the second tasting bracket, I had definitely worked up a hefty appetite from all that sniffing, swirling and sipping. I could smell wafts of Osso Bucco wafting from the kitchen as we walked back to the dining room, and was not disappointed.  The rustic meat was literally falling off the bone and the warming 2012 Riche Shiraz was a lovely accompaniment.

First Tasting Bracket
After the third and final bracket was completed, John Griffiths revealed the identity of each wine.  The top four (based solely upon votes for each bracket) were as follows:
  1. Upper Reach Shiraz
  2. Paul Conti Shiraz
  3. Faber Reserve Shiraz
  4. Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz
So there you have it, the two Swan Valley wines trumped the tasting, with the most renowned Hunter version scraping in to the top four.  I do have to comment that the format of voting for one in each bracket may have biased these results, not to mention the fact that all top four wines were very bold and striking compared to some of the more elegantly reserved wines.  Such styles can sometimes seem slightly washed out in such a comparison.  Still, congratulations to Western Australia for coming out on top!

From my own perspective, I was genuinely impressed with the quality of wine tasted.  Although my voting preferences tended to be for the more 'Australian Style' shiraz, with opulence, oak and black pepper, some of the 'Syrah' style versions displayed simply delightful aromas.  It has been a few years since I last enjoyed some Hunter Valley Shiraz, so it was also good to remind myself of the quality that comes from this region. 

Here is a summary of my tasting notes (as usual, I have tried to minimise the detail to avoid boring/overwhelming):

We left with a few bottles of Faber Shiraz... and some very satisfied bellies!

Special thanks to John and Jane from Faber Vineyard for a wonderful event.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Champagne and Celebrations

Life is hectic. For everyone.

Sometimes it is hard to make the time to catch up with friends, but when you do, it is always worth the effort.

Having been a very slack friend recently, I decided it was time we hosted a weekend BBQ at our place, no particular reason, just to catch up.

I was excited there would be a few champagne lovers there, giving me an excuse to crack open a bottle I had been saving (my husband doesn't have much interest in champagne).

Good Company and Good Champagne

That morning, I managed to find a reason other than just 'catching up' to celebrate. I am excited to announce that, as of this week, I will be taking up a part time Cellar Door Manager role at a winery in the Perth Hills! I have been blessed to be offered this wonderful opportunity to expand my knowledge and understanding of the wine industry whilst spending a few days a week living and breathing wine.

On that note, back to the wine of the day:  
It was a House of Arrras 2001 Blanc de Blancs.  For those less familiar with this winery and the Blanc de Blancs style, this is a Tasmanian sparkling wine based upon the Chardonnay grape. House of Arras are known for using the traditional method of Champagne production, with extensive time spent on lees ('late disgorged').  They claim that 2001 was one of their best vintages of the decade for them.  

I could not believe how fresh, crisp and clean this sparkling still was after 13 years. The tiny bubbles had a dance party in my mouth, interspersed with some grapefruit and fresh sea spritz, backed up by some creamy nuttiness.  

This wine was an excellent expression of Tasmanian, or cool-climate sparkling.  
Even my husband enjoyed a glass!

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Perth City Wine

The advertisements for Perth City Wine have been floating around for a few months now.  I had been tossing up whether or not to go, as Friday night drinks in the Perth CBD tends to involve elbow-to-armpit crowds and long lines for drinks.  However, due to a few reputable sources who were supporting the event, in addition to my unabating desire to try something new in the world of wine, I thought it was worth it. So I dragged my husband along to Urban Orchard at Northbridge for a squiz.

Patrons at Perth City Wine
Luckily, my current city job hours allow me to finish at 3.30pm if I start early and work through my lunch break, which is exactly what my game plan was so that I could earn an early spot at the bar. Upon arrival, my husband and I were excited to hear live music echoing from inside the stylish suite of marquis and were also glad we were neither the first to arrive nor swamped in a crowd of entrants.

We decided to follow the horseshoe shaped series of stalls from left to right, as any law-abiding citizen would be accustomed to do.  There were some old favourites of ours to start off the afternoon, such as House of Cards and Chapman Grove.  These guys really got us going with their 'Queen of Hearts' Chardonnay and Atticus Cabernet Sauvignon respectively.

I was excited by the number of wineries that I had never heard of before, many who do not have a cellar door (yet).  Here are some that stood out to me:

52 Stones
We were interested by the Chardonnay being produced at 52 Stones.  They had three for tasting from 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages.  For me, the 2011 'Mumma' Chardonnay definitely had the best balance between oak and acidity.  52 Stones was formed by a group of young enterpreneurs who decided to start off by getting their chardy right before moving on to producing reds from some interesting plantings.  Look out for some Gamay and Alicante Bouchet coming soon.

Also from the Ferguson Valley area, inland from Bunbury, was Talisman Wines.  I was immediately impressed by their extensive range and professional stall front.  Being a sucker for a good riesling, I was a huge fan of their 2009, which displayed the honeyed, gasoline aromas that develop in quality riesling as it matures.  Their red wines were excellent in general, however I was particularly taken by the forest pine aromas of their elegant 2010 Cabernet Malbec, as well as the luxurious earthiness of their 16.3% alcohol, dry 2011 Zinfandel.

Woodgate Wines
Another exciting winery I would suggest watching out for is Woodgate Wines at Manjimup who had a deep and complex merlot, but more interestingly, are going to be releasing a Pinot Gris and a Barbera later this year.

Having visited all the stalls, many at which we had the opportunity to speak directly to the winemaker themselves, it was time to relax in the beautiful Urban Orchid gardens with a glass of Zinfandel and a tasting plate of pastry goodness from Creative Catering (think lamb and vegetable pie and rabbit rolls).  We even had the opportunity to be serenaded with a Phil Collins golden-oldie, complete with didgeridoo!

My take-aways from the day were:
1. Ferguson Valley is definitely a place to keep an eye on in the next few years.  
2. Western Australia continues to surprise with new and innovative boutique wineries.

Thanks to the organisers and promoters of Perth City Wine for an excellent and educational evening.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Umami Challenge

It is so easy to go a week without fish. Such a week takes a hit on the old Omega 3 levels. I realised it had been a while, so a fish dish was on the menu this evening.

The recipe was Mediterranean Fish. A very easy weeknight cook-up where I baked the kingfish in the oven for 25 minutes covered in olive tapenade, passata and oregano.

The cooking might have been easy, but not so the wine pairing. As I learnt last week at my WSET course, umami is the most difficult wine pairing of all the tastes. And this dish had it in bulk with a big whack of tomato on top of white fish!! The only aspect in my favour was the salty tapenade, which has the ability to bring out the best in wine.

Flametree 2011 Frankland River Shiraz
Based upon what I had learnt about wine and food pairing, I determined that with the salt in the dish, I would have a good chance of tempering a fairly astringent wine.  On top of this, I was really keen to have a go at matching a red wine with a white fish dish.  So I settled on Flametree's 2011 Frankland River Shiraz.  When I bought this wine back in 2012, I had found it slightly lacking in fruitiness so I was hoping the saltiness of the dish might coax out such characteristics.  

If I might say so myself, I was quite impressed.  The wine was a bit closed when first opened and displayed a slight 'animal' aroma.  However, I soon relaxed when spicy cherries and cloves started to jump out at me.  There was a beautifully silky mouthfeel from this opaque, mauve-coloured Shiraz.  The wine neither overwhelmed or detracted from the fish dish.  

Shiraz with fish?  Who would have thought!

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Melbourne Wine Afternoon

I love visiting Melbourne.  Not sure I could live there as I am a 'cold frog', but I definitely enjoy every visit I have to this vibrant cultural hub.  Although this particular trip was primarily for a weekend conference with little free time, I did manage to make the most of my one free afternoon to check out a few wine bars with a good friend of mine (luckily she drinks wine).

Having limited knowledge of the 'go-to' places and being even further limited by the fact that it was a Sunday afternoon (some places on my to-do list were closed), we managed to wing our way pretty well.  Our first stop was Campari House on Hardware Lane in the CBD. It was miserable, drizzly weather on this particular afternoon, so we were definitely keen for some comforting Italian-inspired fare, making Campari House a welcoming option.  

St Hubert's Chardonnay was a nice surprise, as I was not sure of the wine's origin, it being the blackboard special of the day.  Turns out it is a highly rated Yarra Valley specimen.    The wine was elegant enough and ballsy enough at the same time, displaying complex oak aromas to complement fruit flavours of crisp nashi pear. 

We were sitting on outside benches and cooling down slightly, so the next choice was a Tuscan Sangiovese which we enjoyed with chicken liver pate and califlower/gorgonzola croquettas.  Definitely a food wine, it was lovely and savoury.  In a past life I would have avoided this choice and called it 'watery', but thanks partly to my friend Jody being partial to a lighter red style and also to the fact that I think I am developing a much broader appreciation of wine styles, it came off a treat.

Our next destination was a bit of an unknown.  I had noticed a cute little wine bar just around the corner from the hotel at which I had been conferencing, so we headed to Bourke Street to check it out.  The facade is so tiny, it is very easy to miss Ombra Salumi Bar.  On entering, I was interested to learn the difference between 'salumi' and 'salami' from an excerpt on their rustic wall.  Salumi refers to salted and dry-cured meats, whilst salami is a sub-set of salumi, being a cured sausage made from ground pork.  In saying that, both are traditionally foods that maximise the use of every part of the animal and also extend the life of the meat.  This is part of Ombra's philosophy of preservation (both food and culture) and enjoyment.

We decided to start with a white wine (Falanghina) accompanied by Pizza Bianco. Falanghina is reputed to be the grape variety behind the most famous ancient Roman wine 'Falernian'.  It is known for its aromatic, citrus notes, however our example was quite a surprise.  I found it aromatic, but savoury, rather than crisp with acidity.  

Following from our ancient Roman encounter, our red wine of choice was a tangy Barbera d'Alba, kindly served with a free plate of aperitivo to keep us going.  Again, a very red, the conjured up dreams of enjoying a bottle at a small Osteria in Italy, overlooking the Piedmont countryside.

Pelligrini's Espresso Bar
To maintain our Italian theme, we decided to stop in at nearby coffee institution: Pelligrini's Espresso Bar.  Like everyone else, we crammed in at one of the wooden stools and ordered our coffee straight across the bar.  I was transported back to my visit to Italy a few years ago. Coffee was just what we needed to balance out our afternoon of wine and tapas indulgence (plus I was flagging and it was only 6pm)!