Wine Myth #2: The Screwcap

24 Feb

If you have ever encountered a wine that is dull and lifeless in colour, has a musty nose, and tastes of mould with hints of wet newspaper and carpet, you probably know what it feels like to get a corked wine. The screwcap was introduced in 2001 as an answer to this problem, which affects up to 15% of all wines, depending on which expert you believe. There is still a popular myth that wine closed with a screwcap means a tacky or inferior product. These days many of the world’s best wine producers swear by them.

The romantics among us (this writer included) revel in the special ritual of cutting away the foil, sinking the screw into the cork, pulling it out with a assertive ‘POP’, intensely sniffing the wood before confidently giving our verdict on its contents (at this stage, to whoever will listen). Sure where is the joy in opening a wine bottle in a matter of seconds like it were a can of coke?

For all the merits of this ceremony you’d wonder if the high spoilage rate is worthwhile. Cork is a product of nature after all, and its inconsistency can lead to significant amounts of air which can taint the wine. Having said that the cork also has the incredible ability to let the wine breathe, something which is important in ageing wines. At this stage we don’t really know how screwcaps will affect wine in this ageing process. Cork is also a green, sustainable product.

While the screwcap is ideal in that it has a perfectly air-tight seal, almost guaranteeing flavour and freshness, this isn’t entirely beneficial. The unpleasant smell of hydrogen sulfide, a by-product of the fermentation process, can become completely trapped inside a wine bottle sealed by screwcap. In general though, the screwcap has an almost zero percent failure rate. This makes it the ideal closure for most wines.

As for plastic corks, forget it. Any obstacle which prevents you from gaining desperate access to the bottle at 4 in the morning without a corkscrew or best efforts of knife, hammer or whatever other blunt instrument ready to hand, is not the answer.

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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.

Wine Myth #1: Legs

4 Feb

Have you ever seen somebody take a glass, swirl the wine around, examine it and wistfully declare ‘This wine has good legs’?

Once accepted as a sign of quality, the legs, or tears as the French call them, are the streaks of wine that cling to the side of the glass as the wine is swirled about. Granted it is a pleasant aspect of tasting wine, and conversation; comtemplating life as the beads of wine run down the glass. The legs actually have nothing to do with the quality of wine – they reflect its alcohol content.

Now for a brief science lesson (stay with me): Legs occur because of the fact that alcohol has a lower surface tension and faster evaporation rate than water. As you swirl your wine around the glass, the bits sticking to the side begin to evaporate. As the alcohol evaporates faster the changed alcohol-to-water mix now has different surface tension areas. Eventually gravity wins, the water’s surface tension breaks, and it falls back down the glass, in tears. Try covering your next glass of wine and see if the legs appear. No evaporation – no legs.

So, next time somebody announces that a wine has great legs, you can attempt explaining the above. Or perhaps nod your head in agreement and suggest what a great ass it has too.

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.