Fine Wine Articles/Interviews Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

An Unhappy Spring

It has been an unhappy spring. The rain has bucketed down, and yet the Met Office has informed us this was the warmest May on record. It’s marvellous how that manage to turn bad news into something comforting. In terms of eating it has been dismal: not a cherry, nor a spear of white asparagus; a handful of sharp-tasting strawberries, and two nights ago, at long last, some minute, albeit authentic Jersey Royals. So I shall begin with royalty: the month began with a promising glimpse of it in the Tower of London, of all places, where I was invited to sample the whiskies made by a distillery I had not come across before: Spey Royal.

I suppose I must have visited at least half of the malt distilleries in Scotland, but I had never heard speak of this one in Scotland’s ski resort of Aviemore. The late and much missed Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion tells me that the modern distillery is better known for making Drumguish, which first ran off the stills in 1991. Its sister malt, Spey Royal, has been reputable in the Far East for some time, but it is unknown here.

The brand is the brainchild of two John McDonoughs, father and son, whose name should appeal to me – indeed, they might even be cousins of mine. They have splashed onto the scene through an arrangement with Historic Royal Palaces which will be selling the malts through their shops at the Tower, Hampton Court, Kew, Kensington and the Banqueting House in Whitehall at the fairly hefty price of £150 for a 70 cl bottle. The 18-year old is a toffee-rich whisky, which a pronounced, almond/marzipan taste. I wish them luck, and I was grateful, as always for the chance to see the Tower at dusk. It was a magical moment: not a tourist in sight, just the tolling of the bells and a few drilling squaddies taking orders from a barking NCO among a jumble of ancient buildings hardly known to us indigenous Londoners. It was a great treat.

Riesling is more in my parish than malt these days and there was a big tasting on 12 May. I only had time to taste the Germans but I noted some of the best Austrian producers were also there. I shall leave them for Vienna later this month. There is rather a dearth of German wine at the moment, with 2012 and 2013 making just small quantities and the bumper harvest of 2011 sold out. Hopes are now pinned on 2014, but severe hail has already eliminated large parts of the crop in some areas, the Ruwer, for example.

Many growers had only 2013s to show, although Steffen Christmann had brought his lovely 2012 Grosses Gewächs from Idig, and I was impressed by a collection of 2012s from Schloss Neuweier in Baden where the best Rieslings are grown on granite. Many growers had brought in special wines from their cellars: Schloss Saarstein, for example, topped a lovely 2013 Auslese with Gold Cap 2006, which was simply gorgeous. Maximin Grünhaus had no new wines, but a lovely Abtsberg Spätlese 2009 and a 2006 Auslese from the Herrenberg (N 14) that was out of this world.

Grünhaus’s neighbour in the Ruwer, Karthäuserhof, has had a change of ownership, but it has had no perceivable impact on the quality of the wines. There were exemplary Kabinetts, Spätlesen and Auslesen from 2013 and as a bonus, a Trockenbeerenauslese from that great sweet wine-year, 2011.

It is quite a privilege to taste JJ Prüm’s Mittelmosel wines. He is adamant that they cannot be drunk young, and the sulphury noses on his 2011s rather bore this out. They will be lovely in five years or so, particularly the Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spätlese with its taste of peaches and pears. The 2008 Sonnenuhr Spätlese is just beginning to give its all now, with its lovely cooling finish of yellow peaches. A 2009 Auslese from the same site added a hint of apricots, evidence of benign botrytis.

SA Prüm also had some decent things, but as ever it is more of a mixed bag. Very good were the 2007 Urziger Würzgarten Kabinett and 2005 Graacher Domprobst Spätlese; excellent the 2010 Erdener Treppchen Auslese. More consistent, perhaps is a Mosel traditionalist like Max Ferd Richter. I enjoyed his 2013 Brauneberger Juffer Kabinett and his 2007 Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett as well as the 2002 Juffer Sonnenuhr Auslese. It is always a pleasure to try the Eisweine he picks from the Helenenkloster vineyard; in this instance harvested on 12, 12, 12. Every year the wild boars lay new plans to make off with the fruit, and every year Dirk Richter has to erect fresh defences to keep them out.

Heymann-Löwenstein is one of the Mosel’s leading terroirists, and his wines require an article of faith. Like many growers from the valley these days, he travels with a collection of stones which he thrusts at you as you taste. They tell you that the flavours of wine are dictated by the rock below the surface of the vineyard. When you sample the 2011 Vom blauen Schieffer, for example, some blue slate is brought out. The wine is stalky, wild and smoky, and yet very long and cooling. The 2011 Roth Lay is the very opposite: almost feminine and quite charming! Possibly the best was the 2012 Stolzenberg.

Another Mittelmosel stalwart is Selbach-Oster. The stars for me were the 2007 Graacher Himmelreich and the 2011 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Spätlesen. There were a couple of properly mature wines too: the Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Auslesen from 1999 and 1995. Reichsgraf von Kesselstadt is always a curate’s egg, but there were some real highlights, such as the 2012 Ockfener Bockstein and 2011 Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Kabinetts, the 2007 Goldtröpfcehn Spätlese and the 2005 Wiltinger Scharzhofberg Auslese Fuder 10.

I passed briefly though the Nahe and Gut Hermannsberg which has reached new heights under its present owners, particularly good were the 2012 Steinterrassen and a 2013 traditional Kabinett. Also beautifully poised was the Steinterrassen Spätlese 2012. There was a majestic echo from the past: a 1989 Kupfergrube Trockenbeerenauslese. The colour was almost black, but it was all oranges and peaches on the palate. The Nahe’s greatest star, Hermann Dönnhoff was represented by a marvellous 2012 Oberhäuser Brücke Spätlese.

Wilhelm Weil in the Rheingau rarely disappoints. There was the 2012 Kiedricher Turmberg and the 2012 dry Grosses Gewächs from the Gräfenberg. The 2006 Turmberg Spätlese was sensational and the 2007 Gräfenberg Auslese wonderfully complex. There was also a wine from Joachim Flick, one of the rising stars of the Rheingau: his 2012 Hölle, which was very promising. From the Rheinterrassen in Rheinhessen came Heyl zu Herrnsheim with a good series of 2013s from its vines in Hipping and on the Brüdersberg. As a reward there was a 1983 Auslese from the Ölberg that seemed remarkably bright and youthful, and tasted of lychees.

The big Jura tasting occurred on the 14th. The region is wonderfully individual. Perched on the heights above Burgundy, the wines couldn’t be more different from those of the Côte d’Or. I think it must be true that it is hard to get grapes to ripen and the acidity levels are consequently high. Much of the wine is subjected to a second fermentation as sparkling wine, which allows for a good dose of sugar to be added. The famous name used to be Henri Maire with his ‘vin fou’. Still I like the light reds Trousseau and Poulsard, and the local Chardonnay. This time I decided to taste only Savagnin, which has an acidity comparable to Hungarian Furmint and which I am sure is some sort of cousin.

A good Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon should have bottle age to tame the acidity. With time an aroma of walnuts predominates. Some of this flavour comes from the ‘voile’, the friendly bacteria that settle on the surface of the wine much like the ‘flor’ in dry sherry. Most growers also make a reductive style where oxygen is banished from vat or cask and which highlights the primary fruit of the grape. Here is a little league table for top Savagnin:


Domaine Hughes-Béguet (Savagnin 2009), Domaine Rijckaert (Arbois Grand Elevage 2010), Cellier des Tiercelines (Savagnin 2011);

Very good:

Domaine Jacques Tissot, Domaine Baud (Cuvée Tradition), Domaine Berthet-Bondet (Naturé, Tradition and Château-Chalon), Domaine de la Pinte (Arbois Savagnin), Champ Divin (Pollux), Domaine Joly (Vin Jaune), Domaine Rolet (Naturé 2011), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Château-Chalon 2007); excellent: Domaine de la Pinte (Vin Jaune), Daniel Dugois (Vin Jaune 2006), Jean Tissot (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Pignier (Vin Jaune 2006), Domaine Rolet (Côte du Jura Blanc 2008, Arbois Blanc Tradition 2008, Vin Jaune 2006), Chais du Vieux Bourg (Vin Jaune 2005), Domaine André et Mireille Tissot (Vin Jaune la Vasée 2007).

It’s not all white. I had some reds this month too! I had two rather lovely Malbecs from Trivento in Mendoza, a sharp-ish Reserve 2012 (£5.99 from Tesco) and a much richer Grande Reserve 2011. The Reserve had a nice high grown acidity about with lots of black cherry tastes, while the Grande Reserve was quite rich and creamy like a dish of rote Grütze, the German version of summer pudding.

Twenty years ago and more, I thought I might make my name as a tea-writer. Patronised by the charming Sethia family of London and Calcutta, I attended the long-discontinued auctions at Sir John Lyon House in London and travelled to Calcutta, Colombo, the mountains of Sri Lanka and Darjeeling. I wanted to go to the Nilgiris and Assam, but the former was dismissed as being ‘too ambitious’ in those days before the Hindu Tiger, and the latter was closed to foreigners due to civil war: they were frightened I might be kidnapped. The nearest I ever got was the airport.

There was civil unrest in Darjeeling too at the time of my first visit in 1991. I recall an envelope filled with baksheesh had to be made over to the policeman in the airport on the Terai before I could travel up to the gardens. I admired the way he was able to weigh it in the palm of his hand to ascertain that it contained the right number of crore rupees.

Although I was able to mug up a good deal about Indian and Ceylon tea, the subject was enormous: there was all the tea in China, African black tea (some of which was very good), Japanese green tea, and all those things which aren’t quite tea such as maté, Roibos and various herbal teas and infusions. I was reminded of the vastness of the subject by a visit to the Amanzi Tea Salon and shop in New Cavendish Street at the end of the month.

Amanzi paints with a broad brush. Using white (unfermented), green (slightly fermented) and black (fermented) forms of tea, maté and roibos, they make a range of refreshing flavoured drinks. They have a few classics too, such as Iron Goddess or Wuyi Oolong, St Margaret’s Hope first flush Darjeeling, a tar-and-bacon-scented Lapsang, sea-weedy Gyokuro, Yunnan Pu-erh, Japanese Gunpowder or Matcha tea. There is a lovely Jasmine tea, and some like Lychee Pomegranate that involve making artful blends of black, green and Oolong teas. They also make exciting infusions to put you to sleep or wake you up, help you to digest or inject you with energy. There are fruit teas and iced teas, smoothies, bubble teas, chais and lattes and a few cocktails – such as Mojito or Mar-Tea-Ni – that might have benefited from a slug of vodka.

I was very impressed by this new flavour-world. It was just the thing for a hot day in May, and better still, I hope for a sizzling June.

 Originally posted by Giles MacDonough on
2nd June 2014

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Giles MacDonogh

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