Thoughts, scribbles, travels and photos
THE CHANCELLOR of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, has today announced a freeze on excise duty for all but the cheapest, lowest quality drinks.
Nik Darlington, founder of importer Red Squirrel Wine, responded to the news by saying it's a "heroic boost for an industry that's already been kicked in more sensitive areas than we'd care to mention", while welcoming other policy announcements that could be a big help to the trade, finishing by saying ”if the Chancellor does want to swap his water for something stronger next year, I’d be more than happy to answer the Government’s call and do my duty!”
"The Chancellor opened his speech with a quip about swapping his water for something more alcoholic, but for once the joke isn’t on the UK drinks trade.
"Increasing alcohol duty for the second time in the space of a year would have been a kick in the teeth for an industry that's already been kicked in more sensitive areas than we'd care to mention.
"A hammered exchange rate, extortionate business rates rises and increasingly fragile consumer sentiment are putting enough of a squeeze on importers, distributors, restaurants, bars and independent merchants.
"We are well aware how important the drinks trade is to the UK in terms of jobs, general economic activity and, rightfully so, tax receipts. But the point at which ever-increasing duty becomes counter-productive has long passed. A freeze is a heroic boost at this point in time, but let’s never relent from making the case that duty is already too high.
“The important subtext is the Chancellor linking duty rises to health concerns, and explicitly now separating those drinks that are identified with causing the greatest harm. We all have a duty in this trade to be responsible about the effects of alcohol, and I would be the first to admit there’s more we could do, but this recognition is welcome.
"I also welcome the allocation of another £3 billion to prepare for leaving the EU, while strongly calling for funds such as these also to be considered for easing the inflationary pressures on businesses from fiscal tightening.
“Bringing forward the change in indexing of business rate rises from RPI to CPI by two years should be invaluable to colleagues especially with this inflationary backdrop, as shall extending the discount for pubs for another year.
“We should also welcome the help companies are getting on taxes for diesel vehicles, given how important our logistics networks are to getting great wine into and around the UK. We’ve all seen how currency flux and rising fuel costs have ramped up freight charges, which distributors like us have continued to absorb in recent months.
“Ultimately we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that however much some people want to talk down the economy, and however needlessly damaging the Brexit process is, Britain remains a brilliant place to do business and our wine trade is the greatest in the world.
“Finally, if the Chancellor does want to swap his water for something stronger next year, I’d be more than happy to answer the Government’s call and do my duty!”
You've probably never heard of Fanakolo, but chances are if you're a fan of South African wine you've seen plenty of their work. These guys design some of the best wine labels in the business, including Alheit, Thorne & Daughters, Porseleinberg and of course our very own De Kleine Wijn Koöp, a project they began a few years ago with a bunch of friends.
This year we collaborated with them on a brand new wine, Eekhoring, a white blend based on Chenin Blanc, from vineyards around the Swartland and Voor-Paardeberg. Naturally, they designed a sensational label to stick on it.
Here's how they did it...
Arnold Holzer is the young winemaker behind our bestselling winery, Eschenhof Holzer. For reasons unbeknownst to us till recently, one day Arnold decided to acquire some Müller-Thurgau, an 1882 crossing of Riesling and Madeleine Royale. It's a grape developed to withstand cool climes, and the hardy little thing can ripen just about anywhere. It was the most widely planted variety in New Zealand in the 1980s, and in England in the 1990s, but has fallen by the wayside. It's still the second most widely planted grape in Switzerland, and Luxembourg's number one, don't you know.
So Müller-Thurgau isn't the most prestigious of grapes, but here's what we love about wine, and what makes it endlessly fascinating. You can take something so underrated like Müller-Thurgau, and in the hands of a creative genius like Arnold, elevate it to something quite astonishing.
The Müller-Thurgau grape juice is fermented for a few weeks in contact with the skins, making this a skin-contact white or so-called "orange wine", even if the colour of this wine in particular isn't remotely orange. It's an ever-so-slightly cloudy looking white wine.
What this modish method does is bring texture, tannin and additional flavour to what you'd expect in a white wine. It's pretty cool, and opens up a whole new, unexpected range of flavours.
Why should you care? Apart from the fact this is Müller-Thurgau like you've never seen it before, and it's kookily packaged like a video game cover, skin-contact whites can be your saviour in the modern-day world of fusion cooking and ethnic foods.
These days we eat so much strongly flavoured Asian food at home - whether Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Thai - as well as exotically spiced dishes from north Africa or the Middle East or beyond, we need a new flavour palette for our wines too. Traditional European wine flavours sometimes can't cut it in this cacophony of global flavours, but time after time, 'orange wines' like this can. It's their extra texture, unique flavours, and touch of tannin.
Unconvinced? Try for yourself...
Efforts of late to investigate, identify and categorise the thousands of grape varieties has done a world of good. Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz set the bar in 2012 with their magnum opus, Wine Grapes, and other localised or generalised accounts abound.
Grapes have long become brands, and remain for many people - novice and expert alike - the fundamental gateway to understanding flavours in wine. So an authoritative classification system is useful.
I would readily admit it's made our work at Red Squirrel easier and more attractive to people. For wine merchants like ourselves with a proclivity for the rare and the unusual, modern grape classification has heightened understanding and interest in grape diversity. Everyone loves something new, and we enjoy ticking items off a list. Dare I say it, ampelography has become sexy.
But. The inevitable but. A genetics-led inquiry may have shone a light on prior misconceptions (Primitivo and Zinfandel, perhaps) and solved mysteries (St Laurent's falsely assumed relationship to Pinot Noir, for instance) but it has also encouraged an excessively reductivist approach. An exercise in broadening our horizons has simultaneously bred conformity that can be unhelpful, misleading and, most importantly of all, dull.
I'm never more reminded of this when considering the Ligurian grape Pigato (photo above), a white variety restricted largely to the area between Genoa and the French border (a curious aside: Kim and Tennille Chalmers told me last year they've planted some in their family's nursery in Victoria). At its best, Ligurian Pigato can be one of the world's finest as well as rarest white wines. It is undoubtedly one of the best with seafood, with it's salty, garrigue herb minerality. And nothing rivals it next to Genoese pesto.
Pigato was the first thing we ever imported at Red Squirrel, and we remain the UK's foremost advocates for Ligurian wines: I say so humbly, of course, as specialising in Ligurian wines over here is a bit like specialising in skiwear in Antigua.
But I do therefore get a bit excited when Decanter lands on my doormat containing a rare feature on Liguria - specifically Ligurian Vermentino, alongside Tuscan and Sardinian examples. The author, Richard Baudains, is an acknowledged authority on northern Italians wines and someone whose opinion I respect; nevertheless he paints a misleading picture of Pigato:
"The production norms in Riviera Ligure di Ponente also recognise a variety called Pigato, which DNA analysis shows to be Vermentino. Unperturbed by the scientific arguments, local wineries continue to produce wines labelled as both, but if you've opened a bottle of Pigato, the truth is you are about to drink a Vermentino."
Now I wouldn't claim to know the truth of the matter, but I do know, having tasted countless Pigato and Vermentino wines from Liguria - even from the same producer - that there is a difference between them. Aside from the fact that the grapes just look different (Pigato has spots, its name derived from the Ligurian word pigau meaning "spotty") stylistically I find that Vermentino tends to be fruitier; Pigato is saltier and more mineral. Sometimes it could be argued this is due to winemaking style or vineyard site, but not always.
Bruna, for instance, is a tiny family-run winery in Ranzo, inland from Savona. It was begun in the 1970s by Riccardo Bruna, a key figure in the safeguarding and latter revival of Pigato. It is now reputedly one of the best but smallest producers of the variety and run by his two daughters, who have vineyards of Vermentino and Pigato planted next to each other. I have tasted wines from the same vintage, made in the same way, and it is as obvious as night and day that these are different varieties.
Returning to Wine Grapes, look up Pigato and we're instructed, "See Vermentino". Turn the pages obediently and we are told:
"Morphological and DNA comparisons have clearly established that Favorita (Piemonte), Pigato (Liguria) and Vermentino (Liguria, Sardegna, Toscana and Corse) are one and the same variety.
So yes, it has allegedly been proven that these two varieties are more likely distant clones than separate varieties. Though caveat emptor, Wine Grapes may be the prevailing authority on this subject but it is not infallible (and how could it be, covering such a vast subject with its research techniques still in their infancy?). For example, the authors inform us that Arinto dos Açores is just another synonym for Sercial, but Azorean winemaker António Maçanita has shown me DNA readings suggesting it is a distinct, native island variety.
Moreover, mere mutations such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio are arguably much closer related than Pigato and Vermentino: are we going to tell people that when they drink a Pinot Noir, the truth is they're drinking a Pinot Grigio? Of course not.
The geneticists are probably entirely correct when they identify the DNA of Vermentino and Pigato as identical. I don't dispute that. I do believe that should we reduce the world of wine to DNA molecules we risk stripping out a lot of the history and local culture that makes wine so endlessly interesting. And in certain cases, like Vermentino versus Pigato, the tangible evidence contradicts the scientific.
But I'm fascinated to know what everyone else's views are on this. Perhaps like the seemingly insoluble debate over minerality, there are some things science just can't explain.
What do you think?
Founder of Red Squirrel Wine