Thursday, 31 July 2014

Winery Walkabout

It feels like it has been raining every second day here in Perth lately. I was starting to feel claustrophobic, as I am not an 'indoors' kind of person. So, after some gentle persuasion, I managed to convince my husband that a nice day out and about was in order - no matter what the weather. 

For quite a while now, I have been keen to check out a few other wineries in the South of the Perth Hills and the Peel region ('benchmarking', you could call it). And to make the day a complete round trip, I had discovered there were some nice waterfalls and bushwalks at Serpentine National Park near Jarrahdale. This was my idea of a perfect way to break up the days' wining and dining.

Our first destination was Peel Estate Winery, which is a cruisey 50 minute drive straight down the Kwinana Freeway from our place in Victoria Park. As we took the exit at Karnup road, I noticed an immediate change in scenery. Unlike the scrubby, sandy vista I had been expecting from an area so close to the Indian Ocean, the area seemed more woodland-like with lush, green grass (from all the rain) and Tuart trees abounding. I learnt at our tasting that the limestone soils and coastal influence of the area make for a Mediterranean microclimate.

The Peel Estate cellar door is nestled in amongst the vines of the property in a rustic French Farmhouse styled building. There were even thick spiderwebs hanging from the rafters inside to add to the effect! We were greeted by a friendly Scotsman who sat us down at the beautiful wooden cellar bench. 

Peel Estate Winery
We tasted their three white wines first. I found the Verdelho to be slightly too bitter for my liking, but at least it was a dry version. The Chardonnay had all the right elements - some oak and creaminess with a strong lime backbone. But it was the Wood Matured 2012 Chenin Blanc that really caught my attention. I found strong aromas of lavender and peppercorns in this spicy, aromatic wine which, we were told at cellar door, was inspired by a stint in California (is there anything they don't try with oak over there!). Peel Estate dubs the wine 'a white wine for red wine drinkers', and I would have to agree. The oak influence was there, but was well integrated and suggests some ageing potential.  I think I would need to sit down and mull over this wine for an hour or so to determine whether I actually liked it or not, but it was definitely complex, mysterious and a point of difference for the winery.

Senior Winemaker Will Nairn has a policy of holding his reds back for at least five years before release.  Upon tasting the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Old Vine Shiraz, it was clear that this is a wise decision. It allows the wines to be shown as they are coming into their own; still holding onto some upfront fruit flavours and acidity, but starting to express secondary characteristics such as chocolate and coffee for the Cabernet Sauvignon. Leather and cigar smoke aromas made me adamant I needed a bottle of the Shiraz in my wine collection!

The 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel was a crazy 17% alcohol which was way too over the top for me. It was almost port like, clearly holding some residual sugar, and besides some stewed fruit flavours, I couldn't get much else due to all the hot alcohol in my mouth. 

Finally, we finished with the VIntage Quattro 2006 port.  This wine took me back to my time in Porto, and uses four editerranean grape varieties: Touriga, Tinto Amarilla, Tinto Cao and Souzao.  I have never tried the latter three of these in Australia before, so that was exciting for me.  I walked away with a bottle of this wine which, in true Vintage Port style, should technically be tucked away for a number of years - we will see how I go with that...

As we crossed the Kwinana freeway and headed 20 minutes inland to Serpentine National Park, we both crossed our fingers to try and ward off some threatening dark clouds. Luckily, we had both brought our newly acquired Kathmandu water proof jackets in case of rain. 

Although the track was a bit muddy (and I had one or two embarrassing slips), the two hour walk along Kitty's Gorge was absolutely beautiful. There were lots of little rapids and a few nice waterfalls along the way to break up the hike. I just wished it was a bit warmer so I could jump in some of the larger ponds and shower the mud off under the falls!

I found this national park to have the clearest signage I have encountered in a WA National Park and highly recommend a visit. There are walks to suit all ages and fitness levels and also a lovely picnic area by the river.

The best part about the walk was that it prepared our appetites for a late lunch at Millbrook Winery

Of course, we ensured to go through a full tasting before heading upstairs to the restuarant so that we knew what we would like to drink with our meals. And oh, how amazing those meals were! For entree, I enjoyed the fermented cucumber, sourdough crumbed lamb tongue, confit garlic and Pedro Ximenes reduction.  The recommended red match was the Millbrook Geographe Tempranillo, however I had preferred the Sangiovese, so went with this option as they are were both quite savoury and spicy.  I was definitely happy with the synergy that resulted between the wine and food. 

To ensure I could finish my second dish, I opted for the entree size of the raab and ricotta ravioli, broccoli, hazelnut butter and parmesan. Again, I chose to bypass the suggested wine match of Millbrook Margaret River Vermentino, as I had found this wine to be slightly too full of passionfruit flavours and not as lean and crisp as I would expect in a vermentino (however, I suspect the serving temperature down in the tasting room was too warm, and this could be to blame for my perception). Instead, I opted for the Estate Viognier, which I was aware had some good oak integration and rich fruit flavours, which complemented the rich butteriness and hazelnut in the dish.

My husband enjoyed Viognier braised Baldivis rabbit risotto, pancetta and pecorino for entree, followed by creamed kale, Blackwood Valley beef brisket with wholegrain mustard for his main.  Both of these were beautifully presented and caused me a mild case of food envy.

As you may have gathered from the menu options I have listed, Millbrook's Chef has a real focus on local produce, with many of the vegetables and other condiments being sourced directly from the property. Even the decor in the restaurant reflected this theme, with some less common vegetable varieties artfully displayed and a gorgeous mosaic style painting of a fruit tree dominating the feature wall.    

I found Millbrook Winery to have an extensive repertoire of wines, with grapes sourced from across the regions of Western Australia. There is definitely something for everyone in terms of style and complexity.  As Millbrook Winery is one of four wineries in the Fogarty Wine Group, you can also taste and purchase wines from Deep Woods Estate (Margaret River), Smithbrook (Pemberton) and Lake's Folly (Hunter Valley) from the Cellar Door.

I would definitely recommend that you do not rush when on a visit to this beautiful winery, as there are many wines to taste, good food to eat and stunning views across the lake to enjoy.

To round up, I really did enjoy our little 'winery walkabout'. What the day trip really reinforced for me is something that I am very passionate about: that there are so many 'hidden gems' that many Perth residents are yet to discover sit right in their own backyards. 

Did I mention there was truffle mash?

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Cider and Snags

Although wine is my first love, sometimes I need a night off. Whilst flicking through recipes to find one for my husband's fly-in night, I stumbled upon the instructions for Pork Sausages with Cider Lentils.  It sounded like an inspired combination and I was sold.

Now, what to match with such a dish but... cider of course! Luckily, we had two 'left field' ciders lurking in the fridge that we needed an excuse to discover.  I definitely did not want to waste these in the cooking, so I grabbed a cheaper, more straightforward version from the liquor store to use in the dish.

We started the meal accompanied with a glass each of the Thistly Cross 'Whisky Cask' Cider (6.9%). Thistly Cross is an award-winning producer of farmhouse cider from Scotland. As per its title, the particular specimen we enjoyed was aged in old Glen Moray whisky casks, resulting in subtle hints of oaky whisky flavour - but not too much to overpower the crisp red apple flavours of the drink.

Our second matched cider took us back to Australia. From a tiny former Copper mining town called Burra, Thorogoods are making magic with their exceptional range of cider styles including sparkling, dry, sweet, apple wine, apple stout and apple beer.  According to their website, their products have "...been exported to Texas, Vancouver, the UK and even the Australian Antartic Station". I think those people down in Antartica would have enjoyed the Apple Stout we were sipping, with its 12% alcohol to keep you warm but enough spritz to counteract the bitter, coffee notes synonymous with the stout style.

Cider and Snags
I should mention that these ciders were selected with the expert assistance of the friendly staff at Mane Liquor. If you are willing to step up your price point for a good brew, they definitely have the best selection on offer in Western Australia. Plus, they are right near the airport, which is nice and handy if you travel for work.

If you are keen to try cooking Pork Sausages with Cider Lentils, you can find the recipe on (one of my favourite go-to cooking websites) here.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why is Champagne so Expensive?

Tasted at my recent
WSET Level 2 Class
Have you ever stopped for a moment in your local bottleshop, staring whistfully at the one or two Grandes Marques Champagnes in their elegant bottles, then begrudgingly letting your eyes slide past the exorbitant price tags to a $20 bottle of nondescript bubbly? Your thoughts: "At least it's over $10 and hopefully everyone will have a few and not remember what it tasted like anyway"... 
Been there done that.

Personally, I have found in the past that part of my dilemma was feeling that I was just paying for a name. Not being someone who gains satisfaction from flashing around brand labels (clothing, wine or otherwise), I found the ramped up prices hard to swallow. But over the past year or so, an improved understanding of traditional sparkling wine production methods and exposure to high quality examples has opened my eyes to the story behind the fancy labels.

Now, for the purpose of the discussion, I acknowledge that a significant portion of the inflated price of a well-recognised Champagne (especially any that are from one of the Grandes Marques) is based upon reputation.  But I want to take you beyond this one factor and provide you with an overview of the technical reasons that Champagne costs more.

Production Methods

All wines start their life as grape juice.  The difference with sparkling wines is that the grapes need to have higher acidity and lower sugar (potential alcohol) levels to stand up to not one, but two stages of fermentation. 

For this reason, exceptional sparkling wines must be produced from cool climate grapes and, as has been shown time and time again, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, sometimes with a splash of Pinot Meunier are the most successful varieties. In fact, the aforementioned grape varieties are the only three that are allowed to be used in any wine that is to be designated as Champagne.

Don't get me wrong - the Glera grape, used to make Prosecco, and the Muscat grape, used in the Asti DOCG region of Italy, are just a few other examples of grape varieties that are very suitable for sparkling wine production.  The difference is that they tend to be used to produce fresh, fruity wines that are best consumed young.  

This is achieved using the Tank Method, where the second fermentation occurs in a sealed tank and then the wines are filtered and bottled under pressure to keep the carbon dioxide bubbles dissolved in the wine.  This production method is efficient and does not require very much manual intervention. For the record I love Prosecco and am in no way trying to discount the merits of this wine, simply demonstrate that the production method is less involved.

Champagne Flavours
Comparatively, the bottle fermentation method is much more labour intensive. Basically, a mixture of yeast and sugar is added to a dry base wine, which is then bottled, sealed and stored. I am sure you can appreciate the number of bottles for which this process has to be conducted to reach the equivalent volume produced from one tank.

As the fermentation proceeds in this sealed vessel, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and ends up dissolving into the liquid. Once all the sugar has been consumed by the yeast cells, they undergo a process called autolysis (cell death), which releases certain flavours into the wine.  These autolytic flavours are often described as biscuit, bread or toast aromas.


Now the process does not end there.  The minimum legal period for yeast autolysis in Champagne is fifteen months.  This means that Champagne houses must have a large storage area to keep all these ageing bottles a period of years.  Storing wine at a controlled temperature is a costly exercise, both from floor space and temperature control perspectives. Some lucky Champagne houses have old Roman chalk quarries as their cellars which provide ideal conditions for extended ageing at consistent temperature (how convenient!).

Once the ageing period determined by the Chef de Cave (equivalent to chief winemaker) has been reached, another labour intensive process begins. The bottles are slowly twisted on an angle over a period of days or weeks to encourage the dead yeast cells to slide down into the neck of the bottle.  Traditionally, this is conducted by hand a few times a day in a process called 'riddling'.  Some Champagne houses still employ staff whose soul responsibility over a period of time is to turn hundreds and thousands of Champagne bottles in this manner.  Of course, with modern technology, there are now machines called 'Gyropalettes' which have been designed to riddle upwards of 2,000 bottles at a time.

A Traditional Riddling Rack
The purpose of moving the yeast cells into the neck of the bottle is so that they can be frozen into a 'plug' in readiness for the process of 'disgorging'. Perhaps the most dramatic stage of the Champagne production process, disgorging involves dislodging the frozen plug from the bottle as it is unsealed.  The trick is to do this without letting too much of the precious contents flow out at the same time! Not an easy feat.

Finally, the gap left by releasing the plug needs to be filled with some more wine. Often, a small amount of sugar is added with the wine ('dosage') to counterbalance the high acidity, with the amount determining the sweetness of the end product. Then, finally, the champagne can be corked, caged and labelled, ready for sale.


Ever wondered what the difference is between Vintage Champagne and Non-Vintage Champagne? 

The majority of wines are Non-Vintage, which means that the base wine can be sourced across different vintage years. Due to the fluctuating weather events experienced in the Champagne region from year to year, blending wines from different years together allows the winemaker to produce a more consistent style.  In some cases, there can be in the order of seventy base wines combined to produce the final product. This is how champagne houses amass a dedicated following of loyal buyers - once people find the house style they like, they can feel secure that their purchases from year to year will remain in a consistent style - no nasty surprises.

On the other side of the coin, Vintage Champagne must be made up of grapes from a single year's vintage.  For this reason, many champagne houses only produce this level of wine in good years. Also, Vintage Champagnes are more likely to have been aged for a longer period of time, developing far greater complexity and additional aged flavours such as honey and nuttiness. 

So, for those special occasions that call for something unique, Vintage Champagne is the way to go. I would, however, recommend that you always conduct some research into the producer's style and check the vintage reports for that year prior to forking out. For example, 2012 and 2002 were regarded as outstanding vintages in the Champagne region, whereas 2011 was rather disastrous. You will also want to give some consideration to how long the wine spent on yeast, as this will have a large impact on complexity and flavour profile.

The Method without the Label

Champagne is really a very tiny patch of land, in the big scheme of things.  As such, there is obviously a critical mass of grapes that can be grown in the area. Champagne has high demand and limited supply.  This is another reason for high prices, just like any other luxury commodity.

Made like Champagne,
Tastes like Champagne
There are other regions in France, and other wine producing regions around the world, that produce sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method. If you love the yeasty nuances of a bonafide Champagne but do not love the price tag, this is where I recommend you turn your attention.  

From France, you can find wines labelled Cremant. Also, look for 'Methode Traditionale' or 'Methode Champenoise' on sparkling labels from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and California.  Your best bet are those that are also made from the traditional grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier.

In Australia, I find the current host of Tasmanian sparkling wine to be outstanding.  Labels such as House of Arras, Freycinet, Jansz and Heemskerk already have an excellent reputation for consistently producing sparkling wines with depth, quality and longevity. Go Tassie!

Please note, some sparkling wines are not disgorged in the traditional method but, instead, the bottles are emptied into a tank under pressure and then filtered, dosaged and rebottled.  Although the wine you buy ends up in a different bottle to the one in which the second ferment occurred, there is generally not a huge decrease in quality from this method - but definitely a decrease in production costs.

Hopefully you have now learnt a few tips to assist you in making a more informed decision when buying a bottle of bubbly.  This should allow you to weigh up the aspects of production method, ageing potential and complexity and come to a decision on whether or not you are willing to pay for these aspects. Armed with your new-found knowledge, perhaps you will even discover a bargain! 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

American Food and Wine Inspirations

It all started over a glass of wine at a party.  Isn't that how many great ideas are born? 

Our friends were excited that they had just been on a bit of a kitchenware shopping spree and were keen to try out all their new knives and pans.  I was talking about the latest in my preparations for my overseas vintage in Canada, followed by travel through America. My comment was that I had never really tried any American wine, even though I had read extensively about the different styles and what to expect of them.

And this is how the idea was formed.  Our friends would cook a two-course, American themed dinner and we would provide the wines to match. This was wholeheartedly agreed to by all at the time, but it was not until the day of the dinner that I discovered how few American wines were readily available in Perth bottle shops. To add to the challenge, I needed to ensure the wines matched to a first course of Po'boys with cajun spiced fish and prawns and then a series of BBQ pork and beef ribs, marinated in rum and bourbon respectively.

As we opened each wine throughout the evening, I secretly had my fingers crossed below the table...

Po'boys and Riesling

Due to the spiciness of the first dish, I had actually gone outside the brief, selecting a semi-dry German Riesling from Rheingau (Schloss Vallrads Estate, 2011 Qualitatswein).  We were all impressed by the beautiful, elongated design of the green glass bottle and the novelty of a wine sealed with a glass stopper, which is much less common than cork and screw-cap closures. Even if you do not enjoy riesling, this wine is worth buying just to keep the bottle as a decorative water jug or vase.

Elegant Rheingau Riesling

But for those more concerned about what was inside the bottle: the contents were a deep gold colour and oozed freshly squeezed lemon juice.  I could definitely pick up some of the 'gasoline' or steely aromas typical of riesling as it ages, and this continued through to the palate, which was full bodied with an oily feeling over the tongue.  There was also a slight spritz to the wine, which, combined with the citrus, was the perfect foil for richly spiced seafood.

When enjoyed with the po'boys, some fruity sweetness was more evident.  I have to give merit to the cooks here, the softly warmed buns, crunchy coleslaw and succulent prawns and bream from Kailis were delicious! If you are interested to learn more about what a po'boy is and the background behind this traditional Louisiana speciality, read on here.

Rum Pork Ribs and Chardonnay

Now we settled in to the American wines.  First off the rank was the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve 2012 Chardonnay from California.  I was slightly concerned with the geographical indication only saying 'California', as this could mean that the grapes were sourced from anywhere across a vast array of micro-climates.  I was just hoping that we had not ended up with a wine made primarily from Central Valley grapes (very warm to hot climate), or with overt use of oak, which could possibly result in an overdone wine.

Californian Chardonnay in all its oaked glory

Luckily my concerns were unfounded.  The liquid was of the deepest gold colour, with freshly shaved wood chips, nectarine and greek yoghurt aromas.  On the palate, the wine was luxuriously full-bodied and creamy (think whipped, fluffy butter) but had a spine of tingling acidity, leaving a lemon-meringue style impression. 

With this wine, we enjoyed some rich, slow-cooked pork ribs in a spicy rum sauce.  Obviously, the spiciness of the sauce threw out the balance slightly but, that aside, it was a fairly decent pairing.

Bourbon Beef Ribs and Zinfandel

Zinfandel paired with bourbon-marinated, slow-cooked beef ribs was a bit more of a sure thing.  This grape variety produces wines of intense fruit flavours, full body and high alcohol, which were the exact requirements for matching with such a rich meat dish.  However, my hope was that the Murphy-Goode 2009 Liar's Dice Zinfandel from Sonoma County would not be too 'jammy'.  This characteristic is commonly noted as a less attractive aspect of wines produced from Zinfandel.

The 'Zin' was a medium ruby colour with intense raspberry and red cherry aromas.  There were sighs of enjoyment all round as we all took our first sip, enjoying the fine tannins and rich, resinous fruit. Although the wine clocked in at 15.5% alcohol (9.2 standard drinks in the bottle), it definitely was not overly 'hot' or 'jammy'.  In fact, I found it rather elegant and restrained. 

Zinfandel from Sonoma County

Rum-soaked Raisins and Pedro Ximinez

Dessert time. As I often mention, sweets are not my forte, primarily because I tend more towards savoury food.  But on occasions where I am a guest at a dinner, I will ensure to try the dessert. In this instance, I had the opportunity to provide a wine to match and the selection was a Pedro Ximinez from Gralyn Estate in Margaret River.  The wine had kindly been gifted to us by some friends and it seemed like an excellent occasion to share it.

Originating in spain, Pedro Ximinez is often used to make an intensely sweet, dessert style sherry. Since its introduction to Australia, the most recognised use of 'PX' has been to create rich, luscious fortifieds from the Swan Valley region.   

Gralyn Estate is lucky to have some 100 year old Pedro Ximinez vines, which allows them to make a richly concentrated wine. The wine was deep amber in colour and displayed characteristics that were markedly similar to the rum-soaked raisins, which we were enjoying with vanilla icecream, gingernut biscuits and a salted caramel sauce.  

Although this meant that the flavours were all cohesive, I found that the wine did not really 'add' anything to the dish. In saying that it was a lovely end to the meal and could definitely be enjoyed alone as an after dinner drink, or perhaps with a cheese platter.

Pedro Ximinez for Dessert
A huge thanks goes to our hosts for the evening, who ensured we went home feeling very warm and satisifed, with our belts loosened one notch. It was the perfect way to kick-start the countdown to my overseas adventures in the Americas - only six weeks to go!

Post Script

You may have noticed the cute little critters featured in my wine shots throughout this post.  These came all the way from an art gallery gift shop in Denmark and are such a cute, novel use of corks that I just could not resist featuring them.  They definitely provided us some entertainment over the course of the evening!  If you are just as intrigued by these crazy critters as I was, check out the Corkers website. I dare say they would make novel gifts.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

A Birthday to Remember at Red Cabbage

What an experience (and a relief).  

I felt slightly under pressure when selecting a location to celebrate my husband's 30th birthday, as I wanted to make sure that it was a night to remember.  Red Cabbage had always been on our list of 'Restaurants to Do', so I thought it was worth a shot. I booked us in for a romantic degustation with matched wines and crossed my fingers that it would live up to the occasion.

As soon as we walked through the doors, I relaxed slightly.  The striking feature wall and subtle lighting set the scene perfectly and the welcoming staff quickly made us feel warm and comfortable on such a chilly evening.

Red Cabbage Feature Wall
It was a toss up for me whether or not to have a pre-dinner drink.  I had an early start the next morning and I needed to be on the ball, but at the same time, it was a 30th birthday, and such milestones do not come up every day! I am very glad I crumbled, as the 2013 Singlefile Chardonnay was just gorgeous. 

Singlefile is a winery down in Denmark (Western Australia, not Europe) and on the trip I have made down there, we sadly did not make it there.  I will not make the same mistake next time! Being a cool-climate chardonnay, I found an abundance of citrus and stone fruit flavours on the nose but it was the excellent balance of oaked creaminess on the palate that won me over.

Our palate cleanser was presented impecably. It was a combination of pink grapefruit, ginger and ginger liqueur, with a champagne foam. This bite size morsel really set the scene for the evening, signifying to us that the we were in store for some unique flavours and authentic wine pairings.

Palate Cleanser
Next up was an Amusee-Bouche of salmon pastrami with pickled vegetables, paired with a Verdejo from the Rueda region in Spain. It was only recently, when conducting some background research, that I realised Verdejo is not the same grape variety as Verdelho. The wine was very aromatic and lightly creamy, similar in style to my earlier encounter with the style whilst enjoying Perfect Pinchos. For any of you who think Verdejo is only good for making sherry, I challenge you to give it a second chance: some of the imported examples floating around in Australian bars might just change your mind. 

The salmon pastrami was a clever take on the usually red meat based pastrami and the piquant bite from the expertly prepared pickled vegetables was the perfect offset. The wine seemed to slide seemlessly between these two taste sensations, bringing cohesion and freshness to the dish.

By entree, our expectations were definitely high, but the plump, juicy scallop served with charred corn and avocado puree went above and beyond. This was paired with the Xabregas Artisan Riesling (2011), which I found to be a very smart match.  The charcoal hint from the corn played up the slightly smoky riesling notes. 

The artisan range provides the team at this family-owned Mt Barker estate with an outlet for more technical challenges to enhance the wines, with this riesling having undergone extensive lees work. Honestly though, the scallop was so perfectly cooked that I would have been happy to eat it all by itself!

La Spinetta Vermentino from Tuscany was paired with white fish and 'other stuff' (including truffles).  This dish was less memorable for me than some others throughout the evening.  I do love a good Vermentino and this one delivered the required crispness alongside some interesting herbal tones, however it was not something I felt stood out in amongst the rainbow of colours, flavours and aromas I experienced throughout the evening.

Second Course
For mains, we were offered a choice between a fish and lamb dish. I was ridiculously torn because everything else so far had been 'white' - both meat and wines. In the end, however, it was really the fact that the fish was to be paired with a Marchand & Burch Chablis that swayed me. I am making a concerted effort at the moment to expose myself to as much French style wine as possible, as I am much more familiar with the wines of Italy and Spain than of France and this was a perfect opportunity.

To give you some context, the Marchand and Burch label is a joint venture between friends Pascal Marchand (Burgundy) and Jeff Burch (Western Australia). I have noticed this 'joint venture' style of winemaking popping up in a few instances around Australia over the last few years and I am all for combining tradition, technique and culture to get the best of both worlds! I found a concise and informative summary of this wine and its winemakers here, if you are interested to learn more about their project. 

And in regards to what I thought of the wine? It had all the chalky minerality and citrus fruit I was searching for to stand up to the luxurious puree and beautiful squid ribbons that enhanced the confit style of the dish.

Main Course
Ever had a cheese course? I have definitely had a cheese platter as a dessert alternative, but never a cheese course. I certainly was not complaining though, especially when I discovered that the pairing was a Normandy cider.  I have been all for the lean French and Spanish cider styles (more wine-like, less sweet and bubbly) ever since visiting The Basque Cider Museum in Astigarraga, a small town outside of San Sebastian, which is the heartland of traditional Spanish 'sidra' production.

This was by far my favourite course of the evening, primarily due to the clever use of textures and contrasts.  There was a stunning cheese biscuit crumb that was perfectly offset by a blue cheese that I would almost be willing to die for.  The creamy sorbet could have tipped the dish over the edge in terms of the overall 'dairy' perception, but the Normandy cider was there to add the required splash of acid to cut through all this cheesy goodness.

Cheese Course (or I prefer to say 'First Dessert')
After that, we were certainly in need of another palate cleanser, which promptly arrived, in all its bright red glory.  Unfortunately, I found the rhubarb sorbet too sweet for my taste, especially on the back of a cider (however dry). I can imagine many people with a sweeter tooth than I would have been quite content.

Sweet Surprise ('Second Dessert')
It was a lovely touch that the chef had written a Happy Birthday message on the man of the moment's final course.  I have honestly never seen a beer served with dessert, especially an ale, but I guess there is a first time for everything.  The dessert was essentially a peanut semi-freddo ('parfait'), interspersed with salted caramel and coated in a gooey chocolate sauce.  

The beer: Brooklyn Brown Ale.  Once again, the bitter mocha of the beer was a perfect counterbalance to the sweet and salty elements on the plate. I can see why Brooklyn Brewery claim this beer is 'one of the most popular in the Northeast' of America.

'Third' Dessert
At the end of the evening, I could definitely breathe a big sigh of not only relief, but also satiation. What a classy establishment! It definitely lives up to its reputation as one of Perth's best! I would whole-heartedly recommend that a visit to Red Cabbage should be high up on your Perth Restaurant bucket list.  Consider it for your next special occasion.

Birthday Boy

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Wines and Spirits Course - Italian Grape Varieties

On Monday evening, I felt like something was missing, something just was not right. It was only then that I realised how much my weekly Wine and Spirits Course lessons have been helping me avoid Monday-itis. Unfortunately, this week's session had to be postponed due to a double-booking.  

So, to make myself feel a little bit better about missing out, I thought I would share some of what has been my favourite lesson thus far (from the week before). The topic:  Italian and Spanish Grape Varieties. As there is just so much to tell you about, I will focus on Italian varieties today and leave Spain until next time.

There are two ways to summarise Italian wines - by region or by colour (white or red).  I decided it would be more exciting to go by region, especially for any of you who might be lucky enough to be travelling to Italy and need a quick reference guide as to what to drink where.
Map of Italian Wine Regions (source: Basic Wine Knowledge)

I will start in the north, in the Veneto Region.  A region that has a special place in my heart, as my mother's Italian ancestors migrated from here to Australia. Everywhere, you will find dry, light Pinot Grigio, with its delicate green and citrus fruit flavours.  The variety was originally from Alto Adige and can now be found throughout Fruili also.  

Pinot Grigio

We tasted one of the best Pinot Grigios I had ever tried at the course. Some cheaper wines of this style are known to lack complexity, but this was definitely not the case for this example.  From a producer called Tiefenbrunner, the wine was lemon in colour and displayed aromas of pear, citrus and white flowers. It was medium bodied, not too high in acidity, and the lemon, ginger and pear flavours were rounded out by a slight creaminess, which suggested some lees stirring had occurred.

Some of you may be aware that Pinot Gris is the French name for the same grape variety. It is not only the name that is different though, Pinot Gris, with its heartland in Alsace, is made in a much fuller-bodied and richer format, displaying tropical fruit and spicy flavours.  Also, unlike Pinot Grigio, it is made in dry, medium and sweet versions (you will not likely find a sweet Italian example).

Soave is essentially a sub-region within Veneto, a tiny patch where the hero grape is garganega (although the wines will be labelled Soave or Soave Classico DOC). The garganega grape is a late-ripening white grape that produces a light-bodied wine expressing beautiful floral aromas such as chamomile and iris.

If it is red wine you are after, Valpolicella will delight your senses with its light, sour cherry flavours.  For those who do not enjoy the sensation of grippy, mouth-puckering tannins, this is likely to be one of your best option in regards to Italian reds.  

Although a typical Valpolicella is often light in body, there is a special example which is exactly the opposite:  Amarone della Valpolicella.  Wines with this title are produced using some grapes which are partially dried to concentrate the flavour.  The result is a full bodied and complex wine, with rich, baked fruit aromas - sounds tempting!


The cortese grape is responsible for the Gavi white wines of Piedmont.  I have never tried one myself, but the lesson definitely piqued my interest when I learnt that these light, high acid wines express notes of candied fruit and citrus. I will let you know once I have had the opportunity to taste an example.

Of course, who could go past the big, bold Barolos and Barbarescos of the Piedmont region? It is these wines that have made the Nebbiolo grape world renowned.  The long-lived wines are often described by the term 'Tar and Roses' which can be explained as a descriptor to summarise the floral nose and leathery, aniseed flavours that develop with maturity.  You are not likely to get this expression in the first few years of the wine's life, more likely you will experience a massive hit of tannin, alcohol and acid with red fruit flavours.

For lovers of finer flavours, another excellent variety from the region is Barbera. It is often aged in oak to make up for the low tannin from the grape and balance out the high acidity.  The result is a wine which typically has red cherry flavours, backed by toasty vanilla from the oak.


Many have heard of the famous Tuscan wine Chianti, but fewer know that the dominant grape variety in this wine is Sangiovese. The wines are high in acid and tannins (are you noticing the same pattern I am here?) and show red cherry, red plum and savoury, herbal flavours.  I have heard the term 'tomato leaf' used on a few occasions lately.  
Chianti Classico

The finest Sangiovese comes from the Chianti Classico DOCG and you would also do pretty well if you chose one from Italy's first DOCG wine region - Brunello di Montalcino - where a wine must contain 100% Sangiovese to be labelled Chianti.

A Chianti Classico was poured for us during our lesson.  I found raspberries, violets, sweet vanillin and pepper on the nose. There was a tart currant flavour to this medium bodied wine and the tannins hit middle-ground.


I was very excited to try an Aglianico, as it was my first time experiencing this red wine which is sometimes called 'The Barolo of the South'. It was clear as soon as the wine hit the glass that it was aged, due to its tawny colour.  The bottle stated that it was from the 2006 vintage at Corte Normana, meaning that it was eight years old. 

As soon as I took a whiff, I was blown away by an intense licorice/allspice smell.  When I could calm my nose down to look past this, I found some pink musk, rose and sundried tomatoes. Similar sentiments on the palate, with lingering aniseed or fennel, some leafiness and fresh tobacco. The lack of fruit suggests that the wine is heading towards the end of its life, however I really enjoyed being sent back to childhood memories of licorice allsorts, just in an adult setting!

Aglianico - 'The Barolo of the South'
Clearly there is so much to learn about Italian wine, and I have barely scratched the surface of the delights that can be found in this romantic country. If I were to make a huge generalisation,  would summarise that the majority of Italian white wines are crisp, dry and light bodied and Italian reds are high in acid, tannin and often body. 

Even if you are not jetting off to Italy anytime soon, hopefully this information will assist you in choosing a bottle of wine that suits your taste to accompany your next home-cooked pizza or pasta dish.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Shiraz Benchmark Tasting at Myattsfield

Shiraz benchmark tastings seem to be the flavour of the month around Perth. It is not that long since I attended the Winter Red Wine Benchmark Tasting at Faber Vineyard. And since then, I have found myself very fortunate to be working at Myattsfield for their latest Left Field Club Shiraz Benchmark Tasting.

The format for the Saturday afternoon tasting at Myattsfield was a casual approach, allowing people with all levels of wine tasting experience to feel comfortable.  Upon arrival, guests were invited out into the functional cellar, where a table was set up with the seven 'mystery' wines sitting there, ready to be tasted. Attendees gathered around with their tasting glasses.

Unidentified Shiraz just waiting to be tasted
Josh Davenport, co-owner, viticulturist and one of the three winemakers at Myattsfield, opened up the proceedings by welcoming everyone to the event.  He revealed that one of the wines was a 'traitor' as it was not a straight Shiraz but a blend.  Also, he warned that there was a 'foreigner' in the mix.  We poured one wine at a time, allowing a quiet period for tasting and absorbing, then opening the floor to discussion.

There was much conjecture as to which wines were the 'traitor' and the 'foreigner' and this really added a level of excitement and suspense to the blind tasting format.  In the end, no one guessed the foreigner correctly (it was a Myattsfield wine) but the foreigner seemed to be easily recognisable. It took a series of further yes/no questions relating to the wines to whittle down to one winner, who was lucky enough to walk away with a magnum of Myattsfield Cabernet/Petit Verdot/Merlot.

Here are my summarised tasting notes from the event, in order of tasting (I daresay you would not want to try and translate my actual scrawled version!):

As you can see, I was a huge fan of the elegant Skillogalee 2010 Shiraz.  For me, it stood out as the most balanced of the wines and is definitely drinking excellently at the moment.  The 'foreigner' from Spain was showing its age alot more, but as I like the leather and tobacco notes that tend to creep in over years in bottle, this drew me to the wine. Most interesting to note was that I did not rate the Best's Great Western Shiraz very highly, despite the fact that this particular wine won the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy in 2012! I am unsure whether that is simply because the wine did not speak to me in particular, or whether it has not held up as well over the years as the judges expected.

My reference to the 'reductive nose' on the Fairbrossen Shiraz, could be explained by the presence of hydrogen sulphide in the wine.  This is likely to have been responsible for the 'eggy' nose, which cleared off after a few vigorous swirls.  Hydrogen sulphide can be generated when the yeast lack nitrogen (a critical nutrient for their survival) during fermentation and become 'stressed'. Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP) can be added to replenish the nitrogen supply for the yeast, if the issue is recognised early.  Otherwise, a small amount of copper sulphate can be added to the wine prior to bottling.  Managing this issue becomes extremely challenging when natural winemaking philosophies are applied, and demonstrates just how delicate the process becomes when such chemical additions are off the list of options.

One of the wine bottles displayed notes of 'tinned asparagus' or 'fresh compost', indicating that it had oxidised in the bottle.  Random Bottle Oxidation is not something I have previously experienced, so it was a learning curve for me to be exposed to this.  It appeared that the bottle was not filled up adequately on the bottling line, resulting in a gap that winemakers call 'ullage'. Luckily, we had a spare one on hand to replace it.  I think it was a positive experience for all attendees to compare a good bottle to the oxidised version, allowing them to feel confident in identifying the issue if they ever encounter this fault in future.

Left Field Club tasters discussing their findings
From a personal perspective, it was great to meet all the Left Field Club members and learn about what had drawn them to join the club and, more broadly, to enjoy drinking wine in general. It is lovely to see that many of these people have developed lasting friendships through attending these events and meeting like-minded people.

So how do you get invited to a Left Field Club event?

Left Field Club Members have it pretty good, in my humble opinion.  To begin with, there are no membership fees to worry about. Each season, members are eligible to receive a tasting pack of 6 wines, many of which are limited production wines that are not even available at the cellar door.  The club also provides access to pre-releases and museum stock.

Not only are these wines hand packed (I know all about this, having packed the last bunch myself) and delivered free of charge, but the total outlay is only $120!  Further to this, Left Field Club members are invited to exclusive education and wine tasting events throughout the year.  Other than the benchmark tastings, there are such activities as a vintage breakfast, barrel tastings and a disgorging workshop.

Educating wine consumers at all levels is so important in enhancing the wine drinking experience.  It also instills greater levels of confidence in selecting wine and sharing it with friends and family. Maybe I will see some of you at one of Myattsfield's future events!