Wine Tasting and Cookery Demonstration at La Cucina Caldesi

9th September 6.30pm – 9.30pm

One thing about blogging that constantly surprises me is how sociable it is. I’ve met interesting people, been to great events and had some lively debates, both on and off line, about all sorts of topics. Which is one reason why I’m very excited about hosting another bloggers evening on Thursday 9th September.  It will be a great chance to catch up with old friends and meet people whose blogs I’ve read.

The second reason is because all the food and wine will be supplied by  ‘Discover the Origin‘. This is a campaign promoting ‘Products of Designated Origin’ or PDO. Like a lot of people I am very keen on knowing where my food comes from and that it is produced in an ethical way. The PDO system does just that.

Discover the Origin promotes five PDO products: Parmesan cheese, Parma Ham, Burgundy wines, Douro wines and Port. It would be fantastic if it did more, but these five are a great start.

The bloggers event will take place at La Cucina Caldesi. Katie Caldesi will demonstrate some Autumn recipes. I’ve seen Katie cook before and she is an inspiring and accomplished chef and her recipes are authentic and approachable.

I will talk through a selection of really delicious Burgundy and Douro wines, plus a few ports. Selecting wines and ports  from two of the greatest wine regions in the world means I am spoilt for choice!

Of course it will also be a great opportunity to chat with friends and meet other bloggers, after all who wants to sit in front of a computer all the time?

Bona fide bloggers are welcome, please send a link to your blog to

Places are limited and will be allocated on a strictly first come first served basis.

To whet your appetite here is the list of canapes:

Parma Ham, Toasted Parmesan Focaccia, Red pepper Jam and rocket Cress
Cornish crab, avocado puree, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese biscuit
Sautéed Artichoke, Parma Ham and truffle Frittata, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese cream.
Smashes pea and mint Tart with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shards
Seared Beef Sirloin, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and truffle oil polenta, Rocket Pesto, Tomato Confit
Raspberry Shortcake with vanilla cream


Does Bottle Aged or Wood Aged Port make the best festive match?

So there’s about a week to go before Christmas, which mean I, like a lot of us, am planning my menu and thinking about what wines to serve. Since my recent trip to the Douro Valley, Portugal, I am giving far more thought to which Port to buy than I have done in previous years.

Broadly speaking Ports fall into two categories: those that are aged in bottle, such as Vintage or Late Bottle Vintage (LBV). They are red/purple in colour and have a black/red fruit and chocolate flavour profile. Then there are those which are aged in wood barrels, such as Tawnies or Colheitas, which are more oxidised so are browner in colour and have a caramel, nut and saline flavour profile.

At Christmas I like to be a generous host which means at various points over the holiday: mince pies, Christmas cake, pudding, walnuts, stilton and my, some would say ubiquitous, Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes will all make an appearance. This means the food that I serve with my port (if I group together the dried fruit baking) will also have three very different flavour profiles. So the big question is: what foods go best with tawnies and which go best with bottle aged ports? Surely this is a question that is worth mulling over! So I decided to do a taste test and I invited two willing friends: Paul and Samantha to join me.

I opened a bottle of Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny, a gift from my charming host at the Quinta do Bom Retiro: Sr. João Nicolau de Almeida. It is a fantastic port with lots of caramel and toffee flavours off set with notes of almonds and seaweed. This is a top-notch Tawny.

The second, W&J Graham’s Late Bottle Vintage 2003, I had bought from my new favourite wine shop: The Good Wine Shop in Kew, London for a very reasonable £15.00. It was sweet and chocolaty with lots of plum and dark cherry fruit. It might not have had the quality of the Ramos Pinto, but then it is a mere 6 year-old colt. It is nevertheless a good example of a bottle-aged style.

For the food we had a festive spread of Stilton, Mince Pies, and a lovely light Christmas Pudding made by professional pudding maker Susan Gardner and this year’s new, traditional favourite, Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes. This is what we found:

W&J Graham’s LBV 2003 Ramos Pinto 30 year old Tawny
Stilton The contrast is too marked. A taste in two halves. A melodious match. The saltiness in the Tawny matches the saltiness in the cheese. The wines sweetness makes a good underlay for all the flavours.
Mince Pies Works wells. A good dark, fruity combination. Less good. The wine becomes over sweet.
Christmas Pudding A terrific match! Juicy and festive. Delicious. Interestingly this makes the pudding taste nuttier than when it is served with the LBV. A good match.
Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes Fabulous! The great marriage of chocolate flavours with a spank of chilli on the finish.

Not so good. The flavours of the two components are individually complex enough; together it is too complicated.

So our conclusions are: go for a bottle aged Port (LBV or splash out on Vintage) with the cake, pudding, mince pies and chocolate chilli cupcakes and a Tawny with the stilton and walnuts. So yes you will need two bottles: no matter it’s Christmas!

Here are a few other ports I particularly enjoyed on my trip to the Douro:


Quinta do Crasto, Vintage 2007

This port has an opaque, black colour which shows how young it is, plus the alcohol is still very obvious on the nose, further proof of its juvenility. But there are a myriad of flavours on the palate: plums, chocolate, raisins and spice and the texture is so thick, juicy and robust that this wine will definitely age and improve for years, perhaps decades, yet.

Quinta da Gricha, Vintage 2007, Churchill Graham Ltd

A sweet smelling nose with notes of dried flowers and hay. The palate has lots of fine damson notes and a touch of spice. An elegant and feminine port which I hope to re-visit when it has aged a little more and no doubt become even more graceful.

Porto Calem, Late Bottle Vintage 2004

A fresh young ruby colour. Rather than having a strong sweet /alcohol fortified wine smell, the nose is quite ‘winey’. The palate has herbaceous notes with a touch of chocolate.

Portal Vintage Port 2003

Far more elegant than an LBV, this port is very juicy with a complex range of flavours: plums and prunes, rosemary and mint, coffee and chocolate. The alcohol is still fairly obvious but will meld into the wine with time.


Quinta de la Rosa, Colheita 1997

A pretty Tawny colour with a nutty, woody nose. The palate is intense and very, very nutty with a long finish. Tasty!

Kopke Colheita 1978

The colour is like beeswax polished wood with a hint of green. The nose has an attractive vegetal/saline note which reminds me of seaweed salad in Japanese restaurants. The palate has notes of pepper, salt and almonds. A distinctive wine.

Burmester Colheita 1963

The colour is of a French polished antique table. The palate has flavours of barley sugar and linseed oil. It is very, very intense.

Portal 40 Year Old Aged Tawny Port

An attractive polished old oak colour with a greenish tinge, typical of older tawnies. The nose is very pungent and nutty with notes of linseed oil. Very rich.

Poet Carol Anne Duffy, was presented with a butt (720 bottles) of sherry at a recent ceremony in Jerez, Spain, to celebrate her appointment as Poet Laureate.

Carol Ann Duffy signs her butt of sherry.

The Sherry Institute of Spain revived the old tradition of paying The Poet Laureate a ‘butt of sack’ when Ted Hughes was appointed Laureate in 1984. Andrew Motion was also presented with more sherry than he could possibly drink when he took up the Laureate mantel in 1999.

The press release that the Sherry Institute sent me includes a rather banal quote from Duffy. ‘With your Third British Poet Laureate standing here, I think we can say that we have a tradition – and a lovely connection between two countries who value both poetry and great Sherry.’

I think Duffy is a fantastic poet – funny, insightful, original – so I was disappointed to read this bland sentence, especially as wine is one of my favourite topics and I love seeing it described in a way that is poetic and full of life. So I pulled my copy of Duffy’s poems The World’s Wife off the shelf and had a look to see if I could find anything about wine.

I did in the poem Mrs Midas. The poem is the story of Midas who is granted a wish by Dionysus, he asks for a special power so that everything he touches turns to gold. When he comes home to Mrs Midas she pours him a glass of wine ‘with a shaking hand, a fragrant bone dry white from Italy, then watched as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.’

Here wine is a metaphor for the simple, everyday pleasures in life, something special that brightens up a quiet evening, something that has now been lost in a foolish pursuit of extreme wealth. It is the sort of witty and intelligent, feet on the ground, writing that has earned Duffy so many fans.

I hope Duffy enjoys her butt of sherry especially as I doubt that she would let such a generous accolade go to her head.

Here is Mrs Midas in full:

Mrs Midas by Carol Ann Duffy

It was late September. I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun

to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen

filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath

gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,

then with my fingers wiped the other’s glass like a brow.

He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.

Now the garden was long and the visibility poor, the way

the dark of the ground seems to drink the light of the sky,

but that twig in his hand was gold. And then he plucked

a pear from a branch – we grew Fondante d’Automne –

and it sat in his palm like a light bulb. On.

I thought to myself, Is he putting fairy lights in the tree?

He came into the house. The doorknobs gleamed.

He drew the blinds. You know the mind; I thought of

the Field of the Cloth of Gold and of Miss Macready

He sat in that chair like a king on a burnished throne.

The look on his face was strange, wild, vain. I said,

What in the name of God is going on? He started to laugh.

I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob.

Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.

He toyed with his spoon, then mine, then with the knives, the forks.

He asked where was the wine. I poured with shaking hand,

a fragrent, bone-dry white from Italy, then watched

as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.

It was then that I started to scream. He sank to his knees.

After we had both calmed down, I finished the wine

on my own, hearing him out. I made him sit

on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.

I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.

The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:

how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.

But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?

It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes

no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,

as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,

I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.

Seperate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,

near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room

into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,

in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,

like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,

the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.

And who, when it comes to the crunch, can live

with a heart of gold? That night, I dreamt I bore

his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue

like a precious latch, its amber eyes

holding their pupils like flies. My dream-milk

burned in my breasts. I woke to the streaming sun.

So he had to move out. We’d a caravan

in the wilds, in a glade of its own. I drove him up

under cover of dark. He sat in the back.

And then I came home, the women who married the fool

who wished for gold. At first I visited, odd times,

parking the car a good way off, then walking.

You knew you were getting close. Golden trout

on the grass. One day, a hare hung from a larch,

a beautiful lemon mistake. And then his footprints,

glistening next to the river’s path. He was thin,

delirious; hearing, he said, the music of Pan

from the woods. Listen. That was the last straw.

What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed

but lack of thought for me. Pure selfishness. I sold

the contents of the house and came down here.

I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,

and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,

even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.

On a recent trip to the Douro I discovered that crushing grapes by foot is still in full swing, however it’s not Port that’s being made but still wines and I thought they were delicious.


If you need some extra special pampering then wrap your toes in rose petals and have a glass of Douro wine.

My friend Stephanie and I recently had a conversation about the ultimate pedicure. We debated various potions and unguents then Stephanie suggested having each toe individually wrapped in a rose petal. I think that sounds perfect and the only way that this could be improved upon would be to drink an excellent glass of wine at the same time. 

One group of people whom I feel are deserving of such pampering (although I am first in the queue) are the grape crushers in the Douro Valley, Portugal. I recently visited the Douro and found out more about crushing grapes by foot than I ever expected to know short of jumping in the vat and paddling about myself.

The Douro is the only place where fruit is still crushed by the human foot (Unless there’s somewhere I haven’t heard of?). Grapes are put into huge concrete baths called lagars and then the crushers get in and set to work. It is easy to assume that immediately a bacchanalian free-for-all ensues.

‘Not so’, says João Nicolau de Almeida, lead winemaker for Ramos Pinto. ‘People have to follow the controller. For the first two hours it is like a military march, very slow, very strict, they have to make sure all the grapes are crushed. Then we all have a glass of wine, the music starts and people can dance and enjoy themselves. The guy playing the accordion has to understand how people need to move to make sure all the grapes are crushed and macerated. Sometimes people form a train, other times they have to go backwards or right into the corners. The different dances and movements ensure that there is the right amount of pressure and the right amount of movement. But all of this is empirical knowledge; it is not something that has been scientifically researched.

Quinta do Bomfin

Quinta de Bomfin - it was a rare treat to stay in such a beautiful Quinta.

In this age where most wineries look like computerised factories there is something folksy and quaint about foot crushing and dancing to accordions. However what surprised me most was not that this tradition continues but that it has been adapted for a relatively recent development: these dancing feet are not only making ports for which the Douro is renowned, but also still wines (i.e. around 13-14° alcohol). Most Quinta (that’s winery in Portuguese) have only started making non-fortified wines in the last decade so it is surprising that they have chosen to continue with this labour intensive method when the rest of the wine-making world advocates hands-off (never mind feet) techniques.

‘Foot crushing is a more gentle method and it is part of our Bacchus culture. It is unique to the Douro. We like it here,’ says João Nicolau de Almeida with a smile under him moustache.

Over the river is Quinta do Crasto a winery that dates back to 1615. They have also embraced still wine making and have five different bottlings.

‘Table wine is becoming more important each year,’ explains owner Miguel Roquette. He is kindly taking me for a bit of a wander around his vineyard, one day I’d like to come back here and hike the Douro properly, but for the moment I’m content with gazing at the stunning views of the terraced vineyards.

Some of these plots of vines are pre-phyloxera. Most are such a salmagundi of varieties that Roquette jokes they are like a ‘fruit salad’. I also heard wines made from this haphazard mix of grape varieties referred to as a ‘field blend’.

My two favourites wines were Vinha Maria Teresa 2007 and Vinha da Ponte 2007.  They are both field blends, hand picked, foot crushed and hand plunged. Vinha Maria Teresa is dark and tarry on the nose with very juicy, cherry and leather notes on the palate. The tannins are nice and soft but still quite obvious; this wine has bags of ageing potential.

The Quinta only made 3,000 bottles of Vinha da Ponte in 2007 so it is a real treat to get to taste it. This is softer than Maria Teresa with lots of raspberry and chocolate flavours. It is a very complex, sophisticated wine.

What I liked about both of these wines is they are not obvious flavours because the ‘field blend’ means that each wine has an individual and unique character. In a world where so many wines can be monosyllabic and ‘do what they say on the tin’ I think this is very refreshing.

Another ‘field blend’ favourite was the toothsome and spicy Quinta de Griche 2007 from Churchill Estates. I’d hoped to visit the Quinta but a dramatic thunder-storm over night meant the road was impassable. So I met up with owner Johnny Graham and winemaker Maria Emilie Campos in a fancy restaurant instead. (Tough!) As they’d also had their harvest party the night before which had included some serious dancing in the lagars they had clearly had a night to remember. If they were worse for wear then it wasn’t showing.

Maria Emilie suggested we ordered the salt cod and also surprisingly suggested red Quinta de Griche 2007 to go with it. They made a terrific partnership both as both were robust, full flavoured and generous.

However I think my most memorable wine from the trip was one made at Quinta de Bonfim called Duas Quintas, Special Reserva ’07.

‘I made this in a special way. It is crushed in the lagar, no filters are used and it is aged in a large barrel called a tonel’, explains João Nicolau de Almeida.

How much wine does João Nicolau de Almeida expect me to drink?

How much wine does João Nicolau de Almeida expect me to drink? Oh alright then...

The wine is very dark and smoky on the nose with liquorice, spice and herb notes. It is very savoury and meaty with big tannins.

‘I was researching for a book I co-wrote called Porto Vintage[1] and I discovered how wine would have been made here 300 years ago. I followed their methods and made Duas Quintas. It is half way between a wine and a port,’ says João.

I’ve read quite a lot on the history of wine and always thought that it is impossible to know how wines would have really tasted, but Duas Quintas is probably as close a replication as it gets. (They drank some good stuff in the seventeenth century!) What it also proves is that the Douro has always evolved and that arguably the ports we know today are not the original wines, meaning that today’s adaptation i.e. table wines are simply the latest incarnation in an on-going development.

I really liked these contemporary Douro wines, I think they’ve got character and are well adapted to modern tastes and drinking habits. However the fact that they are still foot crushed proves that they are very much in-keeping with their region’s viticultural history. I think this demonstrates that winemakers here have a healthy respect for tradition all the while keeping an astute eye on what consumers want. I’m sure that Douro still wines will be around for a while and will probably adapt further. I intend to follow their progress with interest.

For the moment though I’m going to drink a glass of Quinta do Vesuvio 2007 from Symington Family Estates and pamper my feet by wrapping my toes in rose petals. Just a whim of mine.

[1] Porto Vintage Gaspar Martins Pereira and João Nicolau de Almeida, Instituto do Vinho de Porto, 2002.


After walking the Camino de Santiago I headed back to Rioja. I was ready for a good glass of wine.

I may have walked 850km across Spain got to Santiago de Compostelle  but I wasn’t done yet as when I passed through Rioja I hadn’t done any serious wine tasting there. As this woman does not live on bread alone, this was remiss of me. So I retraced my steps, (on a coach this time) back to Logroño, the regional capital of Rioja, so I could visit some wineries. 

When I’d been in Logroño three weeks earlier walking the camino, the whole town had been crawling with pilgrims and as there was no room in the hostel, I, and around 50 other people, ended up sleeping on the floor of a parish building. I was exhausted and was simply grateful for a roof over my head, in the morning I happily donated a few euros to the church fund. But this time it was different I was a guest of the Rioja Consejo and they were treating me to the 4 star Hotel Carlton. I had a room with a proper bed all to myself and, oh halleluiah, an en suite bathroom. This was a reversal of fortune. 

I was also aiming high with the wineries I visited. I’d had some pretty basic food and wine on the pilgrim trail; I needed some gastronomic pampering.



My first trip was to Faustino. Faustino Rioja can seem rather ubiquitous, in Britain Faustino VII is a safe bet if you have to run into the corner shop for emergency rations, but I was not in the mood for the common place so I was delighted when my host brought out a bottle of Faustino I, 1996, Gran Reserva for me to taste.

The company has gone to some lengths to make this wine look high brow: heavy bottle, frosted glass, wire mesh and a portrait of a wily looking Dutch burgher on the label which I discovered was painted by Rembrandt, no less.

The wine itself is everything you want from a top end Rioja: leather, tobacco and cherry aromas and a full flavoured palate with subtle tannins and a smooth long finish. Delicious.



At Salceda I met Nuria Lagunilla and we had a leisurely lunch looking out of the window at a view that made me wonder I didn’t just stay in Spain forever: the vineyards rolled away to the distant mountains and above us the sky was a perfect blue,what’s more the lunch was elegant and delicious. I’d had some pretty rough cooking on the camino so I really relished these dishes. They were made from the same ingredients: christoria or spicy sausage, tuna with tomato sauce and roast rack of lamb with peppers, but we were a world away from the 9€ menu peregrino.

The wine we shared was a Conde Salceda 2001. It has the soft garnet hues of a mature wine and was something of a treat for a grown-up chocoholic. It was very fresh, very elegant very gentle and very juicy. Perfect.

Bodega LAN.

Wood ageing in Rioja is a big part of the wine style, so much so that wines are classified by the amount of time they spend in barrel. Crianza: twelve months in oak and six months in bottle; Reserva: twelve months in oak and two years in bottle and Gran Reserva two years in oak and three years in bottle.

 Bodega Lan. jpegSmall wonder then that Bodega LAN takes wood very, very seriously and has built a huge barrel room which they describe as a ‘cathedral to wood’. As I’d seen quite a few cathedrals on my pilgrimage, culminating in the Barroque exuberance that is the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, I initially thought Lan’s description was self-aggrandising but when I walked into the huge, vaulted, sweet smelling chamber, stacked high with barrels, and felt the room’s quiet atmosphere, I decided it was appropriate.

However all of this emphasis on wood did make me nervous for the tasting, I’ve had Rioja’s in the past which taste like a hit over the head with a 2 by 4 but Bodegas Lan Gran Reserva 2003 was not what I feared. The wood flavours had become very, very integrated and but still brought some terrific spicy notes to the wine, along with the fruit flavours this was as satisfying as a hunk of Dundee cake.


Remirez de Ganuza

 samaniego-from-localBodega Remirez de Ganuza is in the village of Samaniego in Rioja Alavesa. Samaniego is just a small cluster of houses round an early Medieval church.  Somebody drives by on a tractor,  a black cat crosses my path.  This is not a place where you expect to find radical ideas but Remirez de Ganuza has reinvented winemaking to such an extent that they have patented some of their techniques.

 Points of difference start in the vineyard when bunches of Tempranillo grapes are picked, the ‘shoulders’ of the bunches are used for the top quality wines and the base are used for rest. But the clever engineering can be seen in the vats where instead of using a normal press a balloon is inserted into the tank which is filled with water, this slowly presses the wine so there is very little contact with oxygen.

 The fruits of this apogee of pressing can be tasted in Remirez de Ganuza, Trasnocho 2005. It has a meaty nose with lots of dark fruit flavours, smoke and liquorice notes. The palate has lots of dark flavours which are complimented by a fresh note. It is an intense experience.

However the wine I’d prefer to put on my dining table is the Fincas de Ganuza Reserve 2003. It is light and elegant with lots of fruit flavours and an integrated oak flavour which gives the wine an attractive savoury balance and is a pleasure to drink.


It’s a climb up a rough track into the Sierra de Cantabria mountains to get to Remelluri, but it is worth it as this has to be one of the most beautiful bodega in Rioja. It describes itself as being a ‘château’ winery meaning that all the vineyards are owned by the company and grouped around the winery. In the fourteenth century the estate was owned by the Monastery of Toloño, this building is long gone but a sanctuary high above on the Toloño summit still exists.


From the winery to the outlying vines it is a further climb, luckily MD Jose Maria Nieves Nuin can handle a Land Rover. Unusually for the region Remelluri has a selection of white grapes (Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Courbu, Granache Blanc and Muscat des Petits Grains) which make a delicious white Rioja. The 2006  has a lovely glycerol texture like olive oil and, like a Golden Age still life in a well-chosen frame, the fruit flavours are off set by a background of wood.

But this is Rioja and red wines are king, and the crown of Remelluri is is La Granja Remelluri Gran Reserva 1999, which is only made in exceptional years. This is an old fashioned wine which has had some deliberate oxidative ageing that brings some eucalyptus and rosemary aromas to the nose and elegant tobacco and liquorice flavour to the palate.

Ramón Bilbao

This was my last stop before I left Spain. There were two wines that particularly caught my attention here the first being Ramón Bilbao Mirto 2005. Paula Zúñiga, marketing manager, described the wine as being the ‘Formula 1 of the range’. It is made from 70 year old vines, although it comes under the Rioja DOC umbrella it does not fit into a Reserva or Gran Reserva category, making it something of a modern maverick.

On the nose Mirto is fabulously intense, meaty and smoky with a back note of dark damson fruit. The palate is gentle with quite dusty tannins and chocolate, damson and spice notes. Modern and fruity this wine remains firmly Spanish.

 PIC_0351Appropriately one of my last wines in Spain was not from Rioja but from Galicia, where my pilgrimage ended. It is made by Mar de Frades, a sister company to Ramón Bilbao. There is a lovely story that alleges that Albariño is the same as Riesling and was brought to Galicia by monks travelling from the Rhine to Santiago de Compostela. Science has proved this not to be the case, (once again spoiling a good story!) but Mar de Frades, Albariño has a zingy, salty quality that reminds me of the sea at Finisterre. It is fitting that the last stop on my Rioja wine tour reminds me of my last stop on the Way of Saint James.

When I leave the hotel in Logroño some businessmen spot my backpack and scallop shell, the sign of the pilgrim, and shake my hand and wish me well. I know this is the last time that this will happen, I’m about to go back to being a normal citizen, I will no longer be a pilgrim, I have a pang of regret but the stay in Rioja has reminded me of the things that I’ve been missing: fine wine, good food and hot baths. I was ready to go home.

Can a Dionysian revel be improved with a little Apollonian logic? Or it is always good to round off a day in the library with an evening in the bar.

A couple of years ago I visited Nicolas Joly’s vineyard at Coulée de Serrant in Savennières, the Loire Valley, France. His wines are well documented as being some of the greatest, most intellectually pleasing, white wines on the planet. Joly is also one the wine world’s most vociferous exponents of biodynamic agriculture. And he is rather odd.
When Joly and I walked out into the vineyard, passing the long-horned cows, I immediately noticed a row of Tuscan cypress trees at the far end of the vines. Their slim height was such a physical contrast to the row upon row of low-growing vines that the whole vineyard seemed to be transformed into a three-dimensional space. My eye, instead of looking down to find out about the soil, the rock and the vines roots, travelled up to the sky and sun above me. I became aware of the air and the rain.

I wondered aloud about the trees and Joly explained that he had planted them because he divides plants into ‘Apollonian’, or sky-reaching like the cypress trees and ‘Dionysian’ or falling to the soil, like the vines. He wanted the trees to balance the energies in the vineyard. This may all sounds like a load of new-age psycho-babble but when it translates into wine as good as Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 2005 then I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides I’ve always been predisposed to indulge eccentricity.

However to really understand this idea I needed to remind myself of what Apollonian and Dionysian actually mean. When Nietzsche uses these two expressions in Birth of Tragedy he describes them as being:

Apollo (Apollonian or Apollinian): the dream state or the wish to create order, principium individuationis (principle of individuation), plastic (visual) arts, beauty, clarity, stint to formed boundaries, individuality, celebration of appearance/illusion, human beings as artists (or media of art’s manifestation), self-control, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities, creation.

Dionysus (Dionysian): chaos, intoxication, celebration of nature, instinctual, intuitive, pertaining to the sensation of pleasure or pain, individuality dissolved and hence destroyed, wholeness of existence, orgiastic passion, dissolution of all boundaries, excess, human being(s) as the work and glorification of art, destruction.
Or very roughly speaking: intellect v emotion. So how does this translate into wine? Dionysian is perhaps more obvious. It is intoxication, it is en vino veritas, it is the abandonment of inhibitions, hedonism and feasting. But what of Apollonian: order, perfection, exhaustion of possibilities?  If a wine engages me intellectually and does more than just get me a bit tipsy and make me giggle then these ideas are pertinent. If I like a wine because of its aromas and flavours, because it has balance, character and personality, if it is more than just an alcoholic fix, then the idea of a wine being Apollonian is plausible. Anyone who gets addicted to wine because they are curious about how it will taste, where it comes from, how it reflects that place, how it will age, is approaching their glass with an Apollonian head. That fact that this intellectual stimulus comes hand in hand with some Dionysian intoxication is an added bonus. After all a day in the library is always more satisfying if it is rounded off by an evening in the bar.

So back to the vineyard is it possible that a row of ‘Apollonian’ cypress trees can increase the intellectual pleasure of the wine in the glass? I do know that adding other plants, so the vineyard is not a mono-culture, makes it less at risk of disease. I also know that anyone who approaches their vineyard husbandry with this amount of care is going to make a wine that tastes individual and has a complexity that a mass produced wine from a vineyard of uniform plants stretching for miles on sanitised soils can only dream of. I also know that gardens and theatre sets that are three dimensional rather than flat  are more pleasing and all encompassing therefore making them more convivial working environments.

As for a plant being able to channel something as metaphysical as Apollonian energy, I think the idea is so contrary to Apollonian logic that I need some Dionysian intoxication in order to even countenance it. But as I’m currently enjoying a very good glass of Coulée de Serrant, Roches aux Moines 2005, I am starting to get my head round it.

At the Plaimont St Mont en Fête festival I discovered some wonderful and quirky wines and that the true spirit of carnival lives on.

queennunWhen wine co-operative Producteurs Plaimont invited me to attend the festival Plaimont St Mont en Fête in Gascony, South West of France, it would have been foolish of me not to say yes. Not only did I need a break from grimy London but this event would be a great opportunity to visit a part of France that I hadn’t been to before. What’s more, as well as being a wine and food lover, I also have an interest in the carnivalesque. (To see some of my articles on this visit my website) So a weekend of wine, food and carnival: how could I refuse?

But having accepted my invitation and packed my bags I started to worry. One of the key phenomena of traditional carnival is that it is a special occasion, a time where normal social hierarchies don’t apply: the king becomes the fool and the fool becomes king etc. As the St Mont festival is only twenty years old and does not date back to the great carnival era, i.e. the Middle Ages, I worried that the essential ‘liminality’, the ‘other worldliness’ vital to the true carnival spirit, might not exist. After all the carnivalesque is not something that can be created, it happens naturally or not at all.
I worried further when I heard that Producteurs Plaimont own 98% of the Saint Mont appellation and that this festival is also a platform for showing their wines. I was prepared to be disappointed and to drag my way through a blatant wine promotion; the sort of event where promo staff, chosen for their nubile looks over their expertise, pour plastic thimbles of wine for an increasingly drunken crowd.

So you can imagine how delighted I was when standing amongst the throng in Saint Mont on Saturday morning I witnessed a Harley Davidson gang riding into the village and start chatting up a group of local, middle aged ladies, dressed as nuns, who responded with appropriately girlish-glee. Hurrah I thought, this is the true spirit of carnival, the inappropriate flirtation, the triumph of the human. Plaimont Saint Mont en Fête might not be historic but it is a true carnival. I could relax.
The festival centred around a street theatre performance which re-enacted the tale of how the Monastery in Saint Mont was established in the 11the century. To be honest it’s the sort of theatre that only really works if you know somebody in the cast, but I still appreciated the joie de vivre and the moments of incongruity that a group of people dressed as monks and peasants wandering about in the twenty-first century affords. Plus the costumes set the carnival tone and there was a general feeling of conviviality throughout the village.

So after a hearty round of applause it was off to the wine tastings. French wineries are often criticised for operating a closed-door policy.  I have sympathy for both sides in the debate. It’s a tall order to expect a hard working, self-employed, vigneron to break off a day’s work in order to show a couple of tourists, who may or may not buy, round their set up. But equally if you have travelled several 100/1000 miles in order to taste Madiran/St Mont in the place where it was grown, it is easy to feel short-changed by a less than welcoming wine grower.
snoggingnuns10The Plaimont St Mont en Fête is a great answer to the problem. There are tastings going on at the various wineries owned by the co-operative plus there are a number of marquees also offering wines. These tastings are manned by the wine growers and Producteur Plaimont staff, so if you ask a question, you will get a proper response. And while the atmosphere here is relaxed and lively there’s a serious side. Most people are leaving with at least one case of wine in the boot of their car. So this means that a) people are watching their alcohol in take and b) they are making some careful decisions about they actually spend their money on.

Our party ate lunch in another marquee, joining other revellers on long trestle tables and chatting with our neighbours in true carnival spirit. This being the South West we were served duck in various guises: duck soup, duck gizzard salad, duck maigret and best of all a very tasty duck foie gras, cooked in aluminium foil on the grill. (To see my South West recipes visit the Duck Soup recipe page above right).

We had another duck-fest in the evening at Le Vieux Logis restaurant in Aignan before trouping off to a couple of parties. It was here that my sense of carnival failed me. I’ve never been a fan of French rock music and fourth-rate, full-decimal cover versions of Pink Floyd and REM tested my largesse d’esprit beyond its limits, so I headed back to the hotel leaving my more robust colleagues behind. Overall though, a good time had been had by all.

Here are some of my favourite Producteurs Plaimont wine discoveries:

White Wines:

Saint Mont le Faîte 2006
This wine is a true showcase for South West white grapes. Made from 50% Gros Manseng, 20% Petit Courbu, 15% Arrufiac and 15% Petit Manseng. The nose smells of bruised apples and mint. The palate is creamy with a touch of mint, apricots and honey with terrific length. This is a high-brow white wine.

Rosé Wines:

Saint Mont Rosé de Campagne 2008
This is a serious pink. Made from the South West grape variety Tannat plus Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc it has a herbaceous/tea aroma and bone dry strawberry palate making it a great food as well as quaffing wine.
Red Wines:

Saint Mont, Rive Haute 2005
A savoury, rubber-smelling nose, uplifted by some pretty floral notes. This mix of Tannat, Pinnec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes make this a delicious, muscular and meaty wine. It has the bonus of an attractive lick of acidity and very long length. At four years old there’ll be plenty of life in this wine for years to come.

Saint Mont, Château de Sabazan 2006
A beautiful rich wine with lots of leathery, herbaceous notes on the nose and palate. Again this has that typical South West acidity that turns a blockbuster into an attractive and fresh wine.

Saint Mont, Le Monastre du Saint Mont 2006
A more mainstream version of Saint Mont, this wine is softer with a chocolatey note and cherry fruit. But it has a quirky touch of bees wax and violets on the nose and the typical South West freshness making it a true reflection of the region.

Saint Mont, Le Monastre du Saint Mont 2005
A year older and from a hotter vintage than the above, this wine is showing more coffee-chocolate liqueur flavours. These follow through on to the palate but the famed 2005 heat didn’t burn off all the Tannat acidity and the wine remains fresh and appealing.
knightlady4Sweet Wines:
We enjoyed these two sweet wines with a delicious selection of foie gras. Choosing the favourite was a tough call but at a pinch I think the 2002 made the better match.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Saint Albert, 2007
A lovely, light and pretty sweet wine with a complex palate with almond, sultana, apricot and quince flavours. Very fresh.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, La Saint Sylvestre, 2002
Harvested on the 31st December from shrivelled grapes, this is a fabulous, mature, sweet wine. With caramel, linseed oil and ripe peach flavours on the palate. A real treat.

To find out more about Producteurs Plaimont visit:

Next Page »