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Le Froglet – “Cup-a-Wine” from M&S

13 Jul

Having been exiled to the UK with work for a few months in my completely non-wine-related day job, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see what’s out there in terms of wine innovation and perhaps preview what might be the next thing to hit our lovely green shores. Do forgive me if some, if not all of the breakthroughs that I report on have already reached Eire.

I’ve already spotted a few quirks down in London which I will bring to you as I can, and I stumbled upon another gem in Marks and Spencer in Leeds train station today. No I’m not going to talk about the new Percy Pig yoghurt (which is nowhere near as good as it sounds), or my glee at passing Elland Road once more on the train.

I’m talking about the ‘cup-a-wine’ that M&S have recently launched in their UK stores. It is essentially a sealed plastic glass of wine. Not one for the purists; it was universally dismissed on Dragons’ Den when its inventor tried to hawk them the idea in 2009. It comes in a 187ml reusable recyclable plastic glass (made by Wine Innovations) and is covered with a foil seal which the label states must be drunk within 3 months of purchase. This one is a Vin de Pays D’Oc, oddly called “Le Froglet” and comes in Shiraz, Chardonnay and Rosé flavours. It costs £2.25 a glass.

Never one to shirk a wine challenge, I decided to give all three a go, sure the £6.75 would barely dent my fat daily expense allowance, and hey, Leeds wasn’t exactly buzzing on a dull, rainy evening in West Yorkshire.

First up, the Chardonnay. The initial sniff of the wine nearly knocked me out. They really fill wine up to the brim and I couldn’t swirl it around to release more noxious aromas, so I adjourned to a real glass. This wine had hints of typical Chardonnay on the nose; butter, tropical fruits, lemon. But there was something stale or unnatural overpowering it. I closed my hotel window in case the Leeds air was affecting my judgement but alas no difference. It tasted equally revolting – I first got Lilt which then evolved into paint, the type when in playschool you thought was a good idea to drink. For the record, blue paint was my favourite. It left my mouth tasting like I’d spent the night in Leggs. 2/10

Next, the Rosé. It couldn’t get any worse, could it?! Thankfully it didn’t. Learnt my lesson from the last time and gave it a minute before poking my nose near it. It smelt rather pleasantly of sweet, candied strawberry. This had me thinking it was Grenache-dominated but the 12% alcohol might suggest otherwise. On the palate – not much. Faint red fruits, perhaps a touch of oak. Perfectly pleasant, quaffable wine if I’m being honest. The 187ml reusable recyclable plastic glass turns out to be problematic however – the wine takes on a chemical character if you sip directly from it (must be the sticky stuff the glues the foil to the glass). The rim is also quite sharp, much to my chagrin as the glass took a small piece of lip with it on its way back down to the table. 5/10 (1 mark deducted for assault)

Finally the Shiraz. Its unappealing nose of pepperami, combined with the usual spice, liquorice and black fruit of the grape had me nervous. On the palate – rough, uneven tannins, feeble black fruit, and AGAIN a hint of paint (who the hell was meant to be watching me back then?) No length on the finish; in sum a limp, horrid wine. 3/10

For me the jury’s out on this format – while I don’t necessarily hate the idea, I hated two of the three wines I tasted this evening. And if you multiply £2.25 by 4, your bottle’s worth is costing you 9 pounds, or nearly 11 euro which is a crime for that standard of wine. There clearly is a place for this type of format: at concerts and sporting events (where real glass can be a hazard/weapon); on cheap airlines; and trendy parks and commons around South West London. Whatever the place of consumption, M&S are apparently struggling to meet demand, so to that, I must raise my plastic glass!

Merlot – Magnificent or Mediocre?

9 Jun

Merlot – from the old French word for young blackbird; seemingly the only creature that loves the grape resolutely, unaffected by films or fads or medical studies. Amongst us humans however, it is loved and loathed in equal measure. Bridget Jones influenced a whole generation of Chardonnay consumption, and in a similar fashion Merlot has been a victim of the fickle consumer. Just ask pasta carbonara, or asparagus.

So what is Merlot? Well it’s a black grape, originating in Bordeaux and found now in most wine-producing countres (with clay soils). It typically gives soft, velvety wines with classic aromas and flavours of plum, blackberry and cassis. In comparison with its sistah Cabernet Sauvignon, it ripens earlier on the vine, and tends to mature more quickly. This can make it more approachable to the everyday wine drinker. When they are blended together, like in many parts of Bordeaux, Merlot adds body and softness to the mix, a bit like the Munster midfield.

Merlot really took off after an infamous 1991 US news program broke a story around the beneficial effects of red wine on health. They put forward the ‘French Paradox’ phenomenon; questioning the low rates of coronary heart disease in a country that insists on eating rich, fatty foods. The apparent reason for this contradiction is red wine consumption, namely the presence of the resveratrol chemical. The world subsequently went bananas for Merlot, as it was easy to pronounce and its soft, fruity style was attractive to many wine drinkers. Wine makers could not keep up with demand and plantings appeared everywhere, unfortunately much of it in the wrong places, like in cool climate coastal regions. The Merlot grape would not ripen properly in these areas, resulting in bitter, astringent, vegetal-tasting wine flooding the market. Merlot became the victim of its own early success.

Just when Merlot was rocking; going through the motions like Dublin in an All-Ireland semi final, along came Pinot Noir, a graceful, elegant wine akin to a Kerry team romping home against the boys in blue. The match occurred in California in 2004, and was a film called Sideways. The film’s anti-hero, Miles, a lame schoolteacher and wine snob, hates Merlot, in favour of Pinot Noir. Miles absolutely refuses to drink Merlot. When his less ‘refined’ friend Jack implores him to go with the flow ahead of a meeting a couple of lovely ladies, he roars “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”

The film’s effect on wine industry was profound. By the time the film was awarded an Oscar three months after its release, sales of Merlot in the US had already dipped 2%, with Pinot Noir jumping 16%. People across the country rushed to their local shops and supermarkets demanding the ‘Sideways wine’. Retailers capitalised by running Pinot Noir promotions and festivals. Many winemakers immediately yanked out their Merlot vines and replaced them with Pinot Noir. In fact, in 2003 wine makers in California planted 840 acres of Merlot, but in 2008 only planted 39. Compare this with Pinot Noir plantings in the same period: from 600 acres in 2003 to 1,796 in 2008!

The delicious irony of the whole film is that by the film’s end, *WARNING! PLOT SPOILER!* we see a dejected and depressed Miles in a grotty fast food cafe, drinking his prized bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc from a paper cup. In fairness, Miles wouldn’t be the first person to make the mistake of roundly denouncing Merlot yet lavish praise on a Saint Emilion wine like Cheval Blanc – this particular bottle would have contained 39% Merlot, and 0% Pinot Noir.

Ruling out Cheval Blanc early in the running, I decided to see what was out there in terms of affordable, approachable Merlots. I dropped in to my local Oddbins off-licence and asked for three decent Merlots under a tenner (each). Surprisingly they couldn’t fulfil my request, obviously due to a lack of demand for such a thing, but we compromised on similar wines.

 

Errazuriz Merlot, Curico Valley Chile 2008, 13.5%, €9.99

Enjoyed this. Nice cassis/red fruit on the nose, with super ripe plummy jammy flavours on the palate. Hint of tobacco from ageing in French oak. Great example of Chilean Merlot and good value for a tenner. 7.5/10

 

Cantavida unoaked Carménère, Rapel Valley Chile 2009, 13%, €8.99

Brilliant purple in colour, aromas of ripe cherries and white chocolate. Typical red/dark fruit flavours, low tannins, medium acidity. A straightforward, fruit-driven, fun wine. If you’re set in your ways against Merlot try this. Great value. 8/10

 

Chateau Le Grand Verdus, Bordeaux Supérieur 2006, Merlot/Cabernet blend, 13%, €10.99

Disappointing. Decent nose – dark fruits with a bit of cinnamon. On the palate – dark, dried up fruits, an unpleasant meaty finish which strangely reminded me of queso campesino. Too dry. Past it. Even Paul Scholes has more life left in him. 4/10.

 

To confirm the results of my taste test, I got three of my women around to try them (I DARE YOU to argue the validity of this test!). Two of them preferred the Carménère, and one chose the Merlot. The Bordeaux was still demolished, but only because it was after 10pm and, living in the oppressive nation of alcoholic fiends that is Ireland, the off-licence was shut.

Alsace – Riesling, NOT Pinot Grigio and Riots

25 May

I have always held a special affinity with Alsace. I often fondly reflect on the incredible Erasmus year I spent in the Alsatian capital, Strasbourg, the highlights of which included chasing Racing Strasbourg FC around Europe in the UEFA Cup, and chasing Colombians and Mexicans around the nightclubs of the city. Other must-sees included daily strikes, the 2005 riots in la banlieue and our landlord who proudly declared upon our arrival “Je deteste les irlandais!”. Otherwise Strasbourg is famous for its ancient cathedral, the delightful Petit France quarter, and the honour of being home to the European Parliament once a month, when the bureaucratic gravy train of politicians, diplomats, officials, journalists, researchers and protestors descend on the city, all to satisfy the French’s desire to retain a significant European institution in the country. What I also developed during my year there was a penchant for Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. For in Alsace these wines reach heights of complexity and character that it is almost unmatched anywhere else in the world.

The first thing you’ll notice about a bottle of Alsatian wine is the heavy Germanic influence. Alsace is the only appellation in France which permits varietal labelling, i.e. the law permits that the producer can helpfully print the grape variety on the label. This was a German tradition long before the New World wines were onto it. Every bottle of wine will also come in the traditional German flûte shape. This can be a bit of a nuisance selling wines abroad – the consumer has been slow to change their perception of these wines being sickly and sweet in the old Blue Nun/Black Tower style, while retailers have sometimes had difficulty shelving and displaying the tall and slender bottles. I certainly remember them not fitting into the wine fridge in Donnybrook Fair when I worked there.

So onto the wines themselves. First of all nearly everything is white, 91% of it in fact. You can get a small amount of Pinot Noir (pale and served chilled), and the region’s underrated sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace. The main white wines are extremely aromatic and floral, and really express the terroir from which they come from. As a result these wines never need oak to take on additional flavour. There are four ‘noble’ grape varieties in Alsace – Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat; these are permitted in the production of the region’s sweet wines – Vendange Tardive (VT) and Sélection de Grains Nobles (SGN). These grapes are picked late, so that they are shrivelled and concentrated with a high proportion of natural sugars – the result is a wine sweeter than a Jermaine Beckford strike at Old Trafford.

Riesling is the most widely planted grape in the region, and is probably the best regarded. On the vine it’s a little green grape with freckles (my mom always said they were attractive!). It makes a dry, elegant and powerful wine, with stunning ability to age, taking on oily character with aromas of kerosene. Now you’ll probably wonder how drinking petrol is attractive, but it’s the ultimate and coveted expression of aged Riesling.

Gewürztraminer is a mutation of the Traminer grape, in fact Gewürz means spice in German. This is a big pink grape which is picked when ripe and luscious. It’s best known for its seductive rose petal and lychee fragrance. This wine is well known for its pairing with spicy Asian food, like Thai and Indian. The richness of Gewürztraminer and its slight sweetness on the finish offsets the spiciness of these dishes beautifully.

Pinot Gris is the same grape as the ridiculously over-hyped Italian Pinot Grigio. Back in the early 1800’s Napolean’s soldiers heading to Russia brought Merlot and Pinot Gris cuttings from France and planted them in Northern Italy. You can get complexity and richness in Alsatian Pinot Gris which is rarely found in Italian Pinot Grigio. You’ll have to pay a bit more for it but definitely worth a try if you’re a fan of Grigio and not Gris.

Muscat is the last of the four ‘noble’ grape varieties of Alsace, but sadly doesn’t make it too far away from the domestic market. It has highly aromatic ‘grapey’ character. In my days as a grape picker harvesting technician I recall it being the only wine grape I came across which actually tasted delicious on its own. The others – Syrah, Grenache, Merlot, Carignan, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Chardonnay all tasted watery and bland. Muscat wine is essentially grape in a glass.

One of the best experiences that stuck with me from the year was travelling the Route des Vins. This is a 170 kilometre road taking you through 67 idyllic and picturesque communes that make up Alsace wine country. You’ll pass by fairytale castles, imposing mountains and gorges, mysterious forests, and beautiful rolling golden vineyards, and stop by wineries for tasting and buying of course. But what gives the region most of its charm are the villages themselves – entering places like Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé and especially Colmar you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some sort of medieval time warp. Throughout history Alsace has constantly changed hands between the French and the Germans, and most recently during World War 2, thankfully most of the region’s villages escaped the war’s ravages. So the half-timbered houses, quaint churches and traditional Winstubs still stand, in the exact same way as they have done for centuries. I did the Route twice – once with the college where the objective was to get two busloads of international students as drunk as possible – and then with my parents where we rented a car and took the region in at a much slower and enjoyable pace, stopping to eat and drink at our leisure over the day. It was a truly wonderful day.

Last weekend I spotted a tweet from On The Grapevine in Dalkey and called in, where the lovely Carol took me through the wines she brought back from her recent trip to Alsace. It was great to talk to someone with such passion and knowledge about the region, the wine and the food. That evening I tried my hand at a bit of Alsatian cuisine, you’ll find my recipe for tarte flambée here. I accompanied the tarte with the Domaine Ostertag 2007 Riesling, which Carol picked out for me, priced at €21.99. On the nose it was fruity and aromatic, and was starting to develop those classic oily aromas. It tasted crisp and florally, hints of green fruit, with a lovely honeyed citrus coming through on the finish. They’re doing 10% off all Alsace wines for the month of May, so get down there fast.

Unfortunately Alsace is a pain in the ass to get to, as frequently complained by numerous Irish MEPs doing time in the European Parliament, as there’s no direct flight to Strasbourg from Dublin. We used to get on the Baden-Baden flyer (where the WAGS ran amok in 2006) and get a train up, or else Strasbourg is a two-and-a-half hour TGV from Paris.

Buckfast Tonic Wine

3 May

Ever since Benedictine monks invented the stuff in 1927, Buckfast has been getting students, bums, undesirables, yuppies, miscreants and whoever else “f*cked fast” for years. Its heady combination of alcohol, caffeine, price and sweetness make it an ideal solution to many of life’s problems – whether your intention is a) getting your buzz on before a night out, or b) trying to rid the bottle of its ghastly liquid so as to turn it into a deadly weapon.

Buckfast Tonic Wine is produced at Buckfast Abbey, Devon, and was first made in 1890s by monks using a recipe brought over from France. Originally claimed to have medical qualities, it has now become synonymous with Scottish ‘ned’ culture and Irish students. It is a ‘fortified wine’, meaning it is based on wine with extra distilled proporties added to it. So what’s in it?

  • Red wine, 14.8% alcohol
  • Sodium Glycerophosphate Solution – absolutely no idea what this is
  • Potassium Glycerophosphate Solution – again not a clue
  • Disodium phosphate – a stabiliser and emulsifer, can also be used as a laxative
  • Caffeine – and a whopping 385mg of it
  • Sulphites – these appear naturally in most wines; they act as a preservative

What does this thrilling concoction do to you? Well according to a recent report by BBC Scotland, Buckfast was mentioned in the crime reports of 5,000 incidents in the country in the last 3 years, with the Buckfast bottle being used as a weapon in 114 of these. It also seemed to play a prominent role in a recent mini-riot in Galway. Is this behaviour any surprise? One specky English scientist claimed that each bottle contained 281mg of caffeine – the equivalent of up to 8 cans of coke. The Irish version of Buckfast actually contains more caffeine – I worked out by the same calculation (well my specky housemate did) that Irish buckie has the equivalent of ELEVEN cans. This lethal alcoholic/chemical/caffeine-charged cocktail can lead to varying amounts of aggressiveness and unpredictable behaviour amongst some drinkers. And a very recent email conversation with friends would seem to back this up:

I nearly killed my cousin with a wheel brace last time I drank a bottle. Got the wheel brace after breaking into an abandoned car.  Great night though.

I know lots of people (all male) who won’t drink it because of the affect it has on them. One of them tried to throw a bottle of it at me before, and another used to go wandering on his own after drinking it. Dangerous stuff.

I would be the same [name removed!]. Other than becoming hyper active and demanding to wear other people’s clothes I’m generally fine.

Ahaha!! Ahh yes [name removed!] – you nearly had me convinced to give you all my clothes.

What with my wine blogging career not having reached the heights of eager suppliers offering me free wine to try out, I was forced to head down to my local off-licence to pick up a bottle. However I did not particularly enjoy the disdain and contempt shown to me when I was informed that they didn’t stock any. In the current climate retailers clearly need to embrace all customers, not turning them away feeling belittled. I made a couple of calls and eventually found it in Centra on Pearse Street. It was without doubt one of the more painful €11.49’s I’ve had to shell out in my life, but I was just happy to find it in the end. The nice man at the check-out did not denounce me as a thug or hooligan, instead wrapping the bottle in the customary brown bag, helping me hide my shame on the long walk home.

I apprehensively got out the glasses to taste the Buckfast. First observation was the handy screw cap stopper; so no excuses of cork taint affecting the wine. I poured what turned out to be a dull brown liquid, its legs sticking to the glass like a particularly clingy ex-girlfriend. It had pronounced sweet aromas of flat coke, soap, peachy honey and brown sugar, with subtle notes of Deep Heat. On the palate, it was disgustingly sweet, with low acidity and no tannins. Not a food wine then. The high alcohol burned the back of the throat, again the flat coke taste came out, or rather a brown Mr Freeze when you were young and it melted on you. I got the same stickiness on my hands and around my mouth! I also detected syrupy tinned fruit like pineapples or apricots. The finish was long, but again the sticky sweetness on my gums and teeth dominated.

I was happy to leave it at a few sips, any more and who knows, it may have caused me to return to the aforementioned liquor store and torch it.

Buckfast is available in off-licences located around Trinity College and served fresh in pitchers in the Bernard Shaw pub on Richmond Street. It is NOT available in Tesco and a few other “exclusive” off-licences in the Baggot Street area.

Review: Leggs Wine Bar

14 Feb

Love it or hate it, Leggs Wine Bar is one of Dublin’s most popular nocturnal haunts. The drill is all too familiar. You have enjoyed a great night out but it’s not enough. You glide past security and stumble down those cold, concrete stairs. Abandon your jacket in on the left and you enter battle. No sooner do the wonderful aromas of fast food and carpet hit you, a lovely bell-shaped glass of p*ss is thrust into your hand. It begs the question: HOW have you ended up in Leggs again?

Leggs Wine Bar. The final destination of Dublin’s partying masses every weekend. We wake up the following afternoon and promise ourselves never to darken that door again, only to end up there a short time later. How often have you seen this on Monday morning and groaned?

And how we curse the reason for our woeful hangovers the next day: the wine. Vinegar, p*ss, plonk, we’ve heard it all. Some of us have tried the red, known to be served in classy Champagne flutes. We’ve dabbled in Rosé, even ventured into the Sparkling/Champagne section. But we’re only fooling ourselves; the next day is a write-off.

So is Leggs wine that bad? Or could it be that a rake of pints, shots, naggins, jagerbombs or whatever-your-having, is not the ideal preparation for drinking any wine, whether its Gevrey-Chambertin or Goon. I decided to investigate; a quick reconnaissance mission to Leeson Street on a busy Friday night would suffice. Here are my findings.

HOUSE WINES

The house wine selection is probably what most of us opt straight for, and stump up 36 euros for the pleasure. You may be surprised to discover that the red is actually quite good. I came across it a few years ago while working in a wine store, and it was popular at €11/12 per bottle. The Chateau La Roca is a Syrah/Grenache blend from the south of France. It’s a house wine (at €24) at the nearby Schoolhouse Hotel restaurant who describe it as “A really cracking wine, offering superb value. A Schoolhouse favourite”. High praise indeed for a Leggs wine. If I was really picky it would benefit from a succulent joint of roast beef or lamb to offset the slight dryness of the wine. Sadly in Leggs a glass of Ballygowan, a snip at 9 (yes, NINE) euro, will have to do.

I don’t know much about the house white, a Sauvignon Blanc, other than it can be bought from Irish suppliers for as little as €7.08 a bottle (Ex-VAT), which represents a tidy profit for the owners. It is described as “an elegant, fresh and zingy sauvignon blanc with perfect balance”. If only the same could be said about its drinker afterwards!

As for the house rosé, the menu vaguely states “Rose D’Anjou”. No indication of brand, house, vintage – nothing. In general these are sweetish rosés from the Anjou region in France, and as I have no idea what I’m getting myself in for, I would tend to steer clear. However some people swear by it, which is the only evidence I can offer as to its quality.

WHITE WINES

Nobilo White Cloud. Those three words should send a shudder down the spine of most regular Leggs customers. I wonder if whoever priced this wine at €39 can sleep at night because it is on sale in Sainsburys for £2.80. If you don’t fancy travelling over to the UK for an atrocious NZ Sauvignon Blanc you can pick it up in your local Tesco for €10.85.

There’s also a Semillon/Chardonnay blend from the Australian winemaker McGuigan on the menu, priced at €39. Having consulted the McGuigan website, no such wine appears to exist. It could just be a straight Chardonnay. If you’d like to try before you buy in Leggs, head down to Tesco and after parting with a meagre €6.99, you’ll walk out the proud owner of 1 bottle of McGuigan Chardonnay.

As the price goes up so does the quality of the wine. Above the €40 mark you’ve got wines from well-regarded producers such as Domaine Faiveley and E. Guigal, which perhaps makes it worthwhile to spend an extra few euro for quality. But then again, at the time of the morning, does it matter?

RED WINES

Over to the reds, one option is the De Gras Merlot from Chile. The menu describes it as “full rich and soft with good balance and aftertaste”. If that doesn’t sell itself the menu also notes “A good selection no matter what food”, just in case you were torn between those chicken nuggets or pizza. Equally, the Domaine Faiveley Macon Rouge is “nice with lamb chops, kidneys and grilled food”. Good to know, while in Leggs.

The Concannon Petite Sirah, at €52, may be out of your price range. But the menu tempts you with the interesting fact that “Petite Sirah is unique to California”. Well it’s not, the grape originated in the French Rhône region in the 1870s where it is known today as Durif or Petite Syrah (NOT to be confused with Syrah/Shiraz). It’s the type of fact that should go down a storm with the opposite sex.

The Porter Mill Station Cabernet Sauvignon is a reasonable bet at €36. And again above €40 there are a couple of nice Riojas, a powerful Côtes du Rhône and decent Burgundy to choose from.

SPARKLING WINES/CHAMPAGNE

The sparkling wine is totally overpriced, you shouldn’t be paying any more than 12 euro for a mediocre bottle in the shops yet they range from €55 to €65 here. Serious rip-off territory. You have a Cava, Prosecco and Sparking Rosé so the choice is balanced but very pricey. The flashier customer is catered for with a reasonable Champagne selection in Piper Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Moet and Bollinger. The most expensive item you can waste your money on in Leggs is Dom Perignon (at a flashy €275 a pop).

VERDICT

The wines offered by Leggs, while crazily expensive, are by no means mediocre (with a few exceptions). If you drank a wine costing €12-15 with a meal or just casually with friends, you probably wouldn’t blame your hangover on the wine itself, more the quantity consumed. As the old adage goes; ‘Beer after wine and you’ll feel fine; wine after beer and you’ll feel queer.’ I think this logic holds true here – because of the dehydrating nature of alcohol, the more alcohol you drink, the thirstier you get, which tends to make you glug wine like it was water when you get your hands on it. Many of us are in such a state when arriving in Leggs. So until Dublin comes up with an alternative viable late-night venue, we’ll be reading that overpriced, moronic wine menu for a while to come.

An Alpine Special

1 Feb

The French Alps. Having just returned from there, and for the time of year that’s in it, I think an Alpine Special is the ideal way to kick off My Grape Escape. I’ll get to the wine later, because it would be a culinary crime to ignore the mouth-watering dishes this region has to offer.

Situated in a mountainous corner of France nestled into the Swiss and Italian borders, the Savoie region of France is home to some of the most fashionable ski resorts in the world. Life was totally different here before a local named Henri Duhamel donned a pair of narrow wooden planks in 1878 and raced down a mountain, inventing a new mode of transport for local peasants. Not long later the likes of Courchevel and Chamonix arrived on the scene, firmly throwing the Savoie region into the spotlight. The region boasts a rich heritage in food and wine production. Originally during the long hard months of winter, people survived on a diet of potatoes, cheese, onions and pork products; goods which could be produced locally and stored safely for months on end. These basic ingredients have remained staples of the region’s gastronomy to this day.

For all the exertion and danger you put your body through by day, the Alps richly reward your stomach by night. What better way to celebrate another day alive! Generally for main courses one can decide between melted cheese or grilled meat. For melted cheese you can expect such delights as tartiflette, raclette or fondue. Grilled meats typically come in the form of beef or duck which you can cook yourself with either pierrade (hot stone) or braserade (table barbecue). The chef in the kitchen is also known to cook for you (but where’s the fun in that?).

Tartiflette, perhaps surprisingly, is not a traditional dish. In fact it was invented in the 1980s by the Reblochon trade union as a ploy to increase sales of the creamy cheese. Although recipes vary from village to village in the region, all contain potatoes, cheese and some sort of meat such as lardons (chopped bacon). Last year I picked up a simple recipe for tartiflette in the Sunday Times which you can find here. The outcome should resemble a gratin casserole dish, golden and bubbling and delicious as it emerges from the oven (see left). Try it with a simple dressed green salad on the side, with some charcuterie. I cooked this last weekend for some friends and it was a success. Do NOT let the cheese put you off, when I opened it to cut it up I nearly passed out with the smell, but somehow it melts beautifully into the dish and tastes great. I also used a good-quality Chablis as the white wine ingredient, and then drank it as accompaniment to the dish, with stunning results.

Raclette is a dish native to parts of Switzerland and France. It is a salted, semi-firm cheese made from cow’s milk. Raclette comes from the French word racler, which means ‘to scrape’. The cheese is usually heated in front of a fire or special machine, and scraped onto diners’ plates, where it is accompanied by boiled potatoes, gherkins, dried meats, and assorted vegetables. The emphasis here is on relaxed and sociable dining.

Gathering several people around a fondue pot is definitely one of the more pleasant experiences in Alpine dining. It originated in the late 17th century when peasants began to mix and melt leftovers of cheese, and ate it with stale bread. It was also a way of using up the bread and cheese that were produced in the summer and would go hard in winter. These days fondue savoyarde consists of processed cheese such as Emmenthal, Gruyère or Comté, combined with white wine and garlic seasoning. Diners use ‘fondue forks’ to dip their chunks of bread. Apparently if you drop your piece of bread in the pot, your co-diners will challenge you to a dare which you cannot refuse! Worth trying after a few carafes of house wine.

If a large plate of raw meat is placed in front of you, chances are you’ve (perhaps unknowingly) ordered the pierrade or braserade. A pierrade is a blazing hot stone on which you cook your raw meats; the name refers to the traditional method of cooking this way on hot rocks. The braserade is the next most likely way of injuring yourself at an Alpine dinner table – it’s like a mini barbecue on which you cook your chunks of meat on skewers. Both devices are guaranteed to scorch all those sitting around the table, perfect for getting rid of that goggle burn.

Now, on to the wine at last! The local wines of Savoie are produced relatively in small volumes. The majority of wine here is white, with grapes such as Altesse, Jacquère, and a small amount of Chardonnay. The better-known Gamay grape (of Beaujolais fame) is the most popular red grape. While the vins de Savoie are widely served in the best restaurants of the region, these wines generally lie well below the international radar, so are difficult to find outside of France.

In terms of pairing wine with the food described above, I would tend to go with local preferences. In general I like to stick by the rule that local food and local wines are the perfect marriage. For example, I would always pick Italian wine to go with Italian dishes. Similarly goats cheese and Loire Sauvignon Blanc were meant to be. Muscadet wine and shellfish also stands out as a good example.

Bearing this in mind, if I was to pick a white I would look no further than a nice unoaked Chardonnay – Chablis would be perfect. Most of the wine menus I looked at seemed to echo this – the white wine choice comprised of either the local stuff or Chardonnays. If you want to go down the red route a nice fruity number will do – Beaujolais or Fleurie (made from the local Gamay grape), or Pinot Noir. You don’t want to pick anything overly full-bodied, as the cheese will simply over-power it. For the meaty dishes however I’d go for a more powerful red, such as Côtes du Rhône.

That brings an end to our Alpine Special. Whether you have recently returned from the mountains or have plans to embark on an Alpine adventure of your own, I hope you found the post useful and informative. Next week, I investigate the offerings of our favourite late-night wine bar.