Friday, 11 July 2008

HMS Warrior Wine Tasting

There is probably an ancient link between gun-decks and spitting, I thought, as we milled around HMS Warrior’s mighty cannons, tasting a summer selection of Club wines. Not that Members were spitting much. With me it’s a reflex; I sometimes have to restrain myself at table. You can taste so many more wines if you stop yourself swallowing.

On the face of it it’s an odd connection: wine and a warship. But since the Warrior, the first great ironclad sail-and-steam battleship of the Royal Navy and the nuclear deterrent of its time, was rescued from being an oil jetty at Milford Haven, restored and brought to Portsmouth four years ago, she has been an irresistible attraction. And you can’t hold wine tastings on HMS Victory.

Her gun deck is enormous. There is room for 26 of the biggest Nelson-style cannons and hundreds of people. The crew lived round the guns, slung their hammocks above them and messed at the tables between them which we covered with bottles and glasses. We also took breaks from tasting to explore the decks below: the titanic engines, the stokehold with ten boilers and the vast store of ammunition. Victorian engineering is awe-inspiring. A propellor is a brake on a sailing ship. When she sailed it was hauled out of the water; all 34 tons of it. By hand: a job for 600 men.

We were a mere 250, Members and crew. A good number of us, I discovered (and might have guessed from their clean cut jaws and trim rig) were retired sailors who can’t get Portsmouth out of their systems. There is nothing very systematic at Club tastings like this, though: just a freewheeling browse through 40-odd wines picked for variety and value.

We had two visiting producers on board. The young Bernadetta Fabretti, vivacious in the Italian manner, persuaded everyone in range that her Verdicchio and Sangiovese from the Adriatic coast are the world’s best. I thought her Rosso Piceno with Conti Leopardi’s very smart label pretty amazing value: full smooth grippy red for £6.29.

Laurent Onillon (how do you pronounce it so it doesn’t sound like onion?) brought the range of summery bubbly made in Anjou by Langlois-Chateau, part of the Bollinger family. You get a lovely breezy draught of fruit from the Loire for a tenner. I specially liked the bubbly red, Carmin Rouge, made of Cabernet Franc. The Aussies make sweet sparkling Shiraz. This is altogether lighter, combining fizz and tannin to make a really crisp drink. Laurent suggested strawberries as the match; I would think in terms of charcuterie.

New Zealand, nestling between two great black guns, had a zippy Sauvignon Blanc from the Plane Trees Estate, Hunter’s very aromatic Riesling and Stonewall Pinot Noir, which at £11-odd is modest for such a fashionable wine.

The French Classic table showed Chablis from Dampt (I’m almost tired of people telling me it’s their favourite wine), the very different Condrieu, all southern warmth and spice, from Domaine Monteillet, and a super-typical 2005 Pauillac from our own Grand Chai in Castillon, Tony Laithwaite’s model winery on the Dordogne. Nothing could be more classical than 2005 Pauillac.

There was a BBQ table (Italy’s Grande Pavone for refreshment, Patagonian Merlot for authenticity, and Black Stump Durif for exactly what the name conveys). I gather Black Stump outsells all other wine in the tasting. On a table of mixed whites I was surprised by the open cheery style of an Argentine newcomer, Prickly Pear, at a fiver a bottle. I was assured it was made from grapes: ripe and fruity ones, with just enough fresh acidity. On a table of rosés I was much taken by something called Frizzante de Bomberosa from Carinena, dark for a rosé, flavoury and ticklingly half-fizzy.

To top it all off, while we were there the flagship of the modern fleet, HMS Ark Royal, raised steam and sailed from the berth next door. She’d been in Pompey for the signing of he contact to build two more, much bigger, aircraft carriers. So the Navy is sailing on after all.

I’d do it again any time; spit on the gundeck. I’m sure we’ll be assembling there for another session next summer.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Out of Africa ...

It has been a while since the Club President has graced South Africa, much has changed.

Drinking South African wine used to feel almost like a charitable act. In apartheid years it was competently industrialised, but no one drank it in this country for fun. To celebrate liberation we tried to overlook earthy reds and fairly fresh whites in the name of progress. The white wines, all agreed, led by Sauvignon Blanc,crept ahead of the reds. Then in the mid-90s came the shock (I can still remember it) of a totally convincing Chardonnay. Then more surprising still a Pinot Noir better than California’s. Then a series of Cabernets cleansed of earth and iron, juicy, full of ripe currants: the very thing.

I missed the action on the ground, I’m afraid. Shamefully I stayed away for 20 years.I hadn’t much enjoyed my early visits, and there was too much to keep up with elsewhere. South America, not to mention Australasia, loomed larger. I found out just how much I was missing in March this year.

We rented a little house on a big beach in Walker Bay, long famous for its whale-watching (the monsters jump so close inshore they can soak you with their splashes) but only recently famous for its wines. The Walker Bay coast, and the Hemel en Aarde valley leading inland, are Africa’s first Côted’ Or: the grapes of Burgundy ripen here, seawind-cooled, to the same racy, pitched-upflavours. Go-faster acidity is the secret; fresh when they are new, long on the palate, and keeping them zinging until mellowness sets in. Few seem to avoid the corkscrew for that long.

My corkscrew was busy day and night. I Googled before the trip to find a wine merchant with a good range and found The Wine Village in Hermanus. John and Erica Platter, who have helped me for nearly 30 years with my Pocket Wine Book (their own annual guide is South Africa’s standard work) came down from Durban to show us the ropes. My brother, son and other friends from England lent their palates to the task. We hardly found a bottle of wine we didn’t want to finish.

Yes, there are well-established classics. The classic of Walker Bay is Hamilton Russell, the pioneer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Bouchard Finlay son is equally established and respected and their neighbour Newton Johnson, we found, makes Chardonnay at least as well as either. They have to keep pedalling hard, though, with half a dozen serious challengers on their doorstep. Nor are the Burgundian grapes the only ones to benefit from the sea-cooled conditions.Cabernet Sauvignon finds it too cool, but Cabernet Franc, the key grape of St Emilion and the Central Loire, finds its brighther by/minty flavours here. And one surprise was to find a farmer whose father came from Madeira growing Verdelho to make what almost amounts to Vinho Verde. Super-fresh white with a prickle at a mere 11% of alcohol was precisely what we needed for our lunches in the shade.

The most famous vineyards of the Cape lie across the mountains inland from Walker Bay, round Stellenbosch (which feels the sea wind from False Bay) and, higher in the encircling hills, the achingly fashionable St Helena of South Africa, Franschoek. Never having crossed the formidable Coast Range before we set out inland in a direct line north for Franschoek, to find mountain mists among crags worthy of Macbeth. The long windingpass brings you steeply down to a settlement devoted entirely to the stomach: cafes and restaurants without number.There is a Napa Valley air about the fields,but the farms, immaculate, their curving gables pipe-clayed like a Royal Marine’s helmet, have no rivals for crisp and seemly beauty. Nor has their setting of raw rock: crags stark against the sky or trailing long tresses of white clouds. Franschoek has a smattering of French names: Dieu Donné, Cabrière, LaMotte, Mont Rochelle, L’Ormarins. The flavour of Stellenbosch is resolutely Dutchand its manor houses earlier in date, most of them, than the châteaux of the Médoc. Meerlust, Rustenberg, Stellenzicht,Mulderbosch, Neetlingshof, Blaauklippen, Rust en Vrede are the future Rauzansand Pichons and Léovilles, I like to think,of the Cape.

Their destiny, I feel pretty sure, is Cabernet tempered by Merlot: the Médoc recipe. Like Napa wineries they routinely partner it with generous, well-oaked Chardonnay. Somemake fine Syrah; almost everyone feels bound to plant some Pinotage. Pinotage is the Cape’s own cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault, prolific and pungent. One example I tried, expensively pruned for a small crop and raised in French oak, smelt of Turkish Delight, geraniums, ginger… ‘Paint’ is the conventional more humdrum comparison. It has its enthusiastic constituency, certainly,but I fear it does South Africa no favours.

The other grape that the country can almost call its own, so much has it planted and so thoroughly is it integrated, is Chenin Blanc. As the nation’s workhouse white before more alluring alternatives came along (and before Chardonnay even had an entry visa) it was used for Cape sherry, brandy and brews of allsorts – often under the nom de verre of Steen. Happily there is still lots of it, because a careful winemaker can easily make it into the sort of fresh but four square white perfect with fish, and a talented one canfocus its stony white-fruit character assomething deeply satisfying. My view won’t please lovers of Sauvignon Blanc, but after the nasal assault and the gooseberry acidity of these fashionable creations, Chenin brings you back to oenological essentials: balance, mouth - filling substance, andharmony with food.

A surprise, to our party, was how far the Cape has progressed with its champagne method (if I’m still allowed to say that) bubblies. ‘Méthode Cape Classique’ is the official formula. We found at least half a dozen that pressed all the right buttons, a process with no pain at all, either gastronomic or financial. The most we ever paid for any wine, and that a mature vintage of one of the Cape’s finest Cabernets, was £35.

If there is one iconic estate that every visitor should see it is Vergelegen, one of the closest to Cape Town and the country property of the first Dutch governor, Simon van der Stel. The 17th Century mansion, its furniture, its gardenand park with magnificent trees epitomizes the early civilization of the Cape. The modern winery, sparkling white above its vines overlooking False Bay, epitomise the future.And the wines, from bubbly to Chardonnay to what tastes to me extraordinarily like claret, send out a clarion message: South Africa has arrived.

Hugh Johnson,
Club President