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Goodbye, hello and thank you

Goodbye…

Mixed feelings  — I got ’em. I’ve wound up my wine, beer and cider columns in the Irish Examiner Weekend and the final ones appeared on Saturday October 20, 2012.

Hello…

More to the point, I hope you will join me in offering a hearty welcome to Leslie Williams (see final bullet point at the end of this post) who begins fresh new drinks columns in the Irish Examiner on Saturday, October 27, 2012. His survey of what’s what on the drinks shelves kicks off with his pick of the best from the National Off-Licence Association Gold Star Awards.

Thank you.

° Thank you to everyone who has read my columns, and to those who have responded with complaints or compliments, tips and suggestions.
° Thank you to the importers, distributors, retailers and PR people for supplying samples, pictures, information – and especially tasting opportunities.
° Thank you to groups as diverse as the Sexual Violence Centre, Cork Skeptics and St Luke’s ICA for hosting me at events where I attempted to help unwind the true qualities of our drinks from the sometimes misleading reputations that surround them.
° Most of all, I am indebted to the Irish Examiner’s editor Tim Vaughan and features editor Vickie Maye – and her predecessor, Fionnuala Quinlan – for giving me the freedom to explore this fascinating topic. It has been a privilege and a pleasure and I hope at least some of that enthusiasm has rubbed off on readers.

The above are the main points but there’s a bit more detail below if you want it. 
Wine tasting

Not only are open-ended ‘silent’ wine tastings vital for any decent wine firm – they can be invaluable to us consumers too. Picture: Blake Creedon.

♦ Earlier this year I decided to bring to an end my regular columns about wine and beer in the Irish Examiner Weekend. It wasn’t a sudden epiphany — I had been coming to the conclusion that it was reaching the end of its usefulness. There’s also a practical purpose. I wanted to scale back, for now at least, my working week: Of the various things I do, these columns were the most neatly discrete component and thus the easiest to excise. And so they had to go.

Beer

It’s only when you shed the values imposed by branding that you get a feel for how good your beer really is.

♦ So here ends my affection for wine and beer? Eh… Hardly! I am hoping to continue doing as an amateur one of the things I’d been doing as a pro… I wasn’t joking all those times I recommended readers to go check out open-ended tastings. Seriously. When you begin to actively sniff and taste and compare wines a few dozen at a time, you step into another world. Working your way uninterrupted through a non-tutored tasting is a bit like sending your nose to the movies. As some bloggers will know, for some time I’ve been encouraging bloggers to get themselves invited to such trade & media  tastings, and encouraging wine businesses to invite them – so at least I am being consistent.

♦ I don’t plan to recommence writing in any capacity in the near future. Nor will I be looking for work of any kind with any drinks business. I remain working at various roles in the backroom of the Irish Examiner.

♦ In one way, dropping these columns has been the easy way out for me.  I believe I’ve been most useful as a map, assisting readers get a sense of the lay of the land, rather than as a signpost, directing them towards specific destination bottles. Yes I do believe there is value in the latter, and stand over every bottle I’ve ever highlighted.  But informed scepticism is infinitely more valuable than someone else’s conclusions — no matter how well-placed. That’s true for consumer food and drink, but also with far more serious matters. We are far too eager to hand our sovereignty over to whatever credible-sounding authority figure currently has the mic — with ultimately disastrous results, as will be obvious to anyone observing the Irish economy, abuse cover-ups etc. What’s on your dining room table is hardly as grave an issue as those — but it does entail the same process: credulity versus sovereignty. Feedback suggests I may not have been as successful at nudging readers towards a more sceptical outlook as I’d have liked. If I do go back into the field again, that’s what I’d want to work at.

Finally, I hope you will always have good quality and value-for-money stuff in your glass. Because you’re worth it.


♦ If you have any queries or comments for me, leave a comment below.
If you want the contact details for Leslie and other food & drinks columnists, events listings etc, contact the Irish Examiner Features desk.

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Beer, wine and cider tasting events

Deveney's beer festival

Click for details of Deveney’s festival, one of the events exploring Irish and international beers.

Wine, beer, cider and food are on the menu at all sorts of public events coming up all over Ireland – from highly structured tutored tastings and dinners through to the open wander-aboutery of fairs and festivals..

Many of them are great value, and give us consumers an invaluable opportunity to sample what’s out there. As well as being fun, you could think of it as tastebud gym.

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As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

 

█ Fri Aug 31 – Italian night in Cork

Curious Wines kick off their incredibly busy season of courses, dinners and tastings with an Italian night from 5pm to 9pm at The Bowery on Tuckey Street in Cork. It’s hosted by Francesco Riccardi of  Borgo Magredo, one of whose proseccos I reckon is one of the best-value bubblies around.

It’s a packed programme so for now here’s just the first month’s worth.

█ Thu Sept 6 – Australian Night with Peter Perrin (Bleasdale) at
Meades 126, Oliver Plunkett St., Cork. 7pm to 10pm. Admission free.
█ Fri Sept 21 – McLaren Vale with Scott Collett (Woodstock) at
Hayfield Manor, Cork. 7.30pm-9.30pm. Tickets €15.
█ Thu Oct 4 – Tapas Night w/ Ivan Acebes García, Castelo de Medina at
Cafe Gusto, Washington St., Cork.  7.30pm-9.00pm. Admission free.
I’ll add the rest and more details later.  And see curiouswines.ie.
 

█ Wed Sept 5 – Winemaker Dinner at Donnybrook Fair

César Morales Navia, the oenological manager of Emiliana in Chile is the latest in a pretty illustrious list of winemakers to host a dinner at The Restaurant at Donnybrook Fair at 89, Morehampton Road, Dublin 4. Emiliana produces some outstanding wines, principally the biodynamic Coyam which I’ve occasionally enjoyed down the years. With a well-established nous for making good wines, including a growing acreage under organic and biodynamic grapes, Emiliana’s reputation has been heading in one direction only. Check them out yourself at stockists including O’Briens and independents, or in pleasant company with a good dinner in Donnybrook, all presented by César.

It takes place on Wednesday September 5 at 7.45pm. Book (€60 a head or €100 for two) on 01-6144849, by email at restaurant@donnybrookfair.ie or online if you click here.

█ Sept 5 to 8 – McGuigan City Vineyard, Dublin

From Wednesday to Saturday, McGuigan Wines present their bold and imaginative City Vineyard project in Dublin. Open daily from noon to 7pm, it consists of dozens of living vines transplanted to a temporary perch in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar, Dublin 2.

Also there will be members of the McGuigan family who will present tastings of quite a wide range of their wines. The family’s been in wine business for decades — first under the Penfold’s marque but more recently under their own name, building to their present status as one of the big brands on the market. They’re imported by Barry & Fitzwilliam who mainly sell their Black Label range into independents, and also by Tesco which sells a more extensive range.

The city vineyard is similar to wine dinners: to wine firms, it’s an opportunity for deep marketing; to us, it’s an unusual (and in this instance, unique) opportunity for wine-related fun. If you haven’t gotten round to visiting real working wine lands, this could be a fun and interesting introduction — I reckon it would be particularly attractive to wine fans and gardeners.

It’s free, and you can just turn up. But make sure you check the conditions beforehand on this website. For one thing, no-one under 18 is allowed in, and that includes babes in arms or in buggies. You might brush the hair too as they may be filming for broadcast, and turning up implies consent to being filmed. Also, such is the persistence of the internet, there’s still some incorrect info around the place – the vineyard has been moved from the site originally mooted, across the river at the IFSC.

█ Aug 30 to Sept 9 – Irish Craft Beer Week
█ Sept 7 to Sept 9 – Irish Craft Beer Festival

After its brief turn around the IFSC, the annual Irish Craft Beer Festival returns to RDS in Dublin from September 7 to 9, 2012.

Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne

Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne, one of the breweries pouring good beers and ciders from cask, keg and bottle at the RDS.

This year, the bash in Dublin is the culmination of the first Craft Beer Week when participating pubs, off-licences and restaurants nationwide will have special offers, tastings and expert talks on Irish craft beer. The website below has details of both the week and the weekend festival.

At the RDS event, more than 20 of our craft breweries and cider producers will be showcasing beers and ciders for you to taste. They’re joined this year for the first time by some guest breweries from out foreign — a brilliant move in my opinion, as I think it’s vital for beer fans and brewers alike to keep comparing notes with the wider beer world as we reinvent the traditions we nearly lost.

The whole effect at the RDS is a bit like an Irish take on a Bierhalle, complete with live music and artisan food stalls. At the time of writing, the Irish contingent comprises O’Hara’s, Dungarvan, White Gypsy, Eight Degrees, Trouble, Franciscan Well, Porter House, Dingle and Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne aka West Kerry Brewery. There may be more.

The festival returns to the RDS again this year.

Guest breweries include Sierra Nevada and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. And the night before the festival proper, there will be a beer and food pairing event exploring the character of Irish beers and the food they go best with.
Festival tickets start at €10 per day and you can get them at participating pubs and shops or at Ticketmaster.
Tickets for the beer and food pairing evening on September 6 are available directly from info@IrishCraftBeerFestival.com.
 For more information on both the Irish Craft Beer Festival and Irish Craft Beer Week, see their website at IrishCraftBeerFestival.com.

█ Sun Sept 9 – Clare comes to East Cork

At 6pm on Sunday September 9 at Ballymaloe, Winemaker Dave Palmer, Skillogalee Wines, Clare Valley, South Australia, and Birgitta Curtin, Burren Smokehouse, Co Clare come together to present their respective wine and food under the title ‘It’s a long way from Clare to here – A Taste of Clare in East Cork’.  Get tickets (€18) and more information from 021 4652531,  colm@ballymaloe.ie or www.ballymaloe.ie.  Other events there include…

[] Sun Sept 16, 4.30pm – New Zealand winemakers Larry McKenna, Escarpment Wines, Martinborough & John Hancock, Trinity Hill Wines, Hawkes Bay present a tutored tasting of their wines (€15).
[] Thurs, Sept 27 Margaret River experience – surfing on Shanagarry Strand and cricket with the East Cork Cricket Club, followed by wine tasting and food with Australian winemaker David Hohnen, Ted Berner’s Wildside fire-cooking, and music. €35 all in.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

 

█ Sept 13 to 22* – Oktoberfest Beag, Cork

Kudos to whoever came up with the name. The annual event at the former Beamish & Crawford Brewery on South Main Street in Cork centres on Paulaner, one of the six Munich breweries which host the original Oktoberfest in their home city. And compared to that blow-out, it is small (‘beag’ in Irish). But it’s not to be sneezed at either, being eight days of, well, beer, food and drindl-und-lederhosen-themed entertainment.

It’s €11 in, including booking fee, but you also have the option of reserving seats (which must be taken up by 7pm). For instance, the Gold ticket for €26 gets you in, two drink vouchers, a substantial dish and guaranteed seating. You need a minimum of six people to book a table.

We here in Ireland and Britain tend to associate the great German breweries with just one or two styles (such as hefe and kristall) but they typically make a whole spectrum including seasonal one-off brews. Happily, the choice in off-licences has been flowering. And events like Oktoberfest Beag provide a unique opportunity to try out a wider range. As of now, as well of course as wine and soft drinks, the website only mentions the special Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier, and Paulaner Weissebier. By the latter I presume they mean the one we’re most familiar with, the naturally-cloudy Hefe Weissbier Naturtrüb.  I expect though that Oktoberfest Beag will in fact run out a wider selection of Paulaner’s dozen or so brews. If so, don’t pass up the opportunity!

* The festival runs from Sept 13 to 22 with the exception of Tues and Wed Sept 18 and 19, when it’s closed. Opening hours are 5pm to 10pm each day, apart from both Saturdays when it opens an hour earlier. For more information, phone 0867248284 (9.30am to 5pm), email reservations@oktoberfestbeag.ie and see oktoberfestbeag.ie.

█ Sept 15 – Deveney’s Beer festival

Deveney’s are clearly trying to put me off the scent. Their fourth annual craft beer festival has a new name, new venue and new date – but I’m on to them, the rascals. It takes place this year at Pembroke Square in Dundrum Town Centre on Saturday September 15 from 2.30pm to 10pm. It’s ticket-only and, naturally, over-18s only. But you knew that.

One of the early adopters promoting Irish and world craft beers on a large scale, they promise to have hundreds of craft beers from around the world on offer in the garden marquee, live music, and beer-friendly food from some of the best restaurants in the area including Siam Thai, Harvey Nichols, Cortina’s Mexican, Wagamama and, of course, The Port House. Tickets (€20) include a festival tankard; three beer vouchers and a festival booklet. Book now at www.beerfestival.ie or their blog; by phone on 01-2984288; or in 3-D by dropping into Deveney’s of Dundrum at 31, Main Street, Dundrum, D16.

You can also get tickets at these off-licences and wine shops – Redmond’s of Ranelagh; Deveney’s of Rathmines; Jus de Vin Portmarnock; The Corkscrew; McHugh’s on Malahide Road; The Vintry, Rathgar and Martin’s of Fairview.

█  Fri Sept 21– Beer club in Cork

Paddy Cullen at the No 21 Off-Licence on Coburg Street (at the foot of St Patrick’s Hill) in Cork is still mulling over which beers to sample at the next meeting of the No 21 Beer Club at 7pm on Sept 21.
To give you an idea of what they do, last time round it was a tutored tasting led by Phil Tavey of distributor Four Corners of six beers from the USA (Brooklyn Brewery and Magic Hat) and Scotland (Brewdog).

Get more info and make your own suggestions in store or by emailing Paddy at no21offlicence@gmail.com or on Twitter at @no21cork.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. I’m leaving much of the info I posted here in case it might be helpful. Thank you.

█ Sat Sept 22 – Wine fundamentals in Cork

L’Atitude 51 wine café is kicking off a series of Wine Fundamentals sessions in its beautiful  upstairs room overlooking the River Lee on four successive Saturday afternoons from September 22 at 3.30pm. The price per session is €25, or book all four for €90. You don’t need any prior knowledge to take part. Full details are in a PDF on their new website at  www.latitude51.ie, phone 021-2390219, email them at info@latitude51.ie or just drop in to l’Atitude 51, 1 Union Quay, Cork.

█ Wed Sept 26 – Glassware comparative tasting

The size and shape of your glass has an enormous influence on your wine. Really. There’s more about that over on this post including the reasons I’m more than happy with one range of glasses costing only a fiver a go. But if you can stretch to €60, I think you’ll enjoy and benefit from a glassware comparative tasting hosted by Riedel from 6.30pm at The Miele Gallery, Citywest, Dublin 24. The ticket price (€60 from Mitchells on 01 6125540 or www.mitchellandson.com) includes a Riedel Vinum tasting set which normally costs about €96 apparently. 

█ Weekend beer fest

This weekend (Friday to Sunday August 24 to 26, 2012) an Irish Craft Beerfest takes place in Doolin, Co Clare. Participants include Carlow Brewing; Dungarvan; Eight Degrees; Franciscan Well; Stonewell Cider; Trouble Brewing; White Gypsy. Tickets €5 at the door. Larks and antics a-baa. For more, see their website at www.irishcraftbeerfestival.com.

Wine and beer tastings, and online shops

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

It’s that time of year again, and some interesting and fun wine beer tastings are beginning to be teed-up for the autumn. While still relatively quiet, here are two commendable events. There’ll be more in my column this weekend in the Irish Examiner Weekend.

Beerfest

This weekend (Friday to Sunday August 24 to 26 2012) Irish Craft Beerfest takes place in Doolin, Co Clare.  Participants include Carlow Brewing; Dungarvan; Eight Degrees; Franciscan Well; Stonewell Cider; Trouble Brewing; White Gypsy. Tickets €5 at the door.  See http://www.irishcraftbeerfestival.com/

Meet the Winemaker

l’Atitude 51 on the corner of Anglesea St and Union Quay in Cork.

As part of their Meet the Winemaker  series, L’Atitude 51 on Union Quay in Cork is hosting a tasting on Wednesday August 22 at 6pm. It features wines from Domaine de L’Hortus in the Languedoc, presented by Yves Orliac, and accompanied by bite-sized versions of their French, Italian and Irish influenced cuisine.  Tickets are €12 from L’Atitude 51 on 021 2390219 or at info@latitude51.ie.

The wines are imported by one of Ireland’s longest-established quality online wine shop, Wines Direct. Coincidentally, I’ve been looking at the online presence of wine businesses and have updated a guide to shopping online over here.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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Enjoy a drink in relaxing surroundings

The challenge in this week’s episode of The Apprentice UK (Season 8 Episode 9, Wednesday May 16 2012 and available to watch again on YouTube by clicking here) was to devise an online marketing campaign for English sparkling wine...

The show

Click here to view The Apprentice – English sparkling wine.

So is it about business? Or wine? Not quite. You could view the series as The Office staffed by volunteers or a fish-out-of-water sitcom with a cast of amateur method actors. The business challenge each week is the sit, while the com is provided by watching youngish, inexperienced people jump through hoops while subjected to outlandishly unrealistic constraints, all carefully edited for our slightly guilty viewing pleasure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing the show, and it’s no Big Brother. I reckon The Apprentice could be a great experience – once you don’t mind coming across like a bit of a prat, which seems inevitable on much reality TV.

(If you’re not familiar with The Apprentice UK, it’s a weekly reality show in which contestants complete challenges set for them by entrepreneur Alan Sugar. A flock of camera crews film the contestants as they go about their antics – coming up with their plans, consulting with people who do know the field of business, and putting plans into action. The results are edited down to a package lasting perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. After this is screened, the contestants and Sugar are brought face-to-face in the ‘boardroom’ segment. Drawing on opinions of experts and the show’s in-house ‘aides’ who’ve accompanied the contestants, Sugar offers a pungent critique of each candidate before choosing one to eliminate with the catch-phrase ‘you’re fired’.)

And there’s comedy anguish aplenty.

For instance, one of the competing teams came up with the deathless slogan “Less fizz, more sparkle.” To my ears, this belongs to a genre of advertising prose that older readers may remember with a shudder: a calendar printed on an A3 card surrounded by adverts for pubs, chippers and taxi companies, each bearing some trite, gumpish legend. Enjoy a drink in relaxing surroundings. You’re tried the rest now buy the best. Less fizz more sparkle.

Two contestants are filmed stumbling around Tesco looking for the in-store wine connoisseur. Another of the contestants, Adam Corbally, is apparently pissed as a newt when interviewed after a wine tasting.

But for schadenfreude fans, the show’s highlight was surely the catastrophically, comically wrong advert depicting a bride gagging at the (presumably foreign) rubbish sparkling wine and declaiming this isn’t English Sparkling Wine she’d ordered. Boo. But the advert has a happy ending. Yay. Some guy proffering the desired porduct that no-one’s heard of. The whole thing is redolent of the hilariously amateurish, self-regarding and seller-oriented advertising pitches so mercilessly lampooned in Viz all those years ago. The ad on The Apprentice just about stopped short of saying “At last!!! An end to your lack of English Sparkling Wine misery!!”. It also scored a double by including a priceless tagline modelled on a horrific sexist trope along the lines of ‘what she needs is English sparkling wine’. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

The participants respond to Alan Sugar’s verdict.

So we conclude the contestants are thick? Big mistake. And unfair. While many episodes do seem to reveal some terribly naive misjudgments, I suspect it’s emphasised or even created by the programme planners (by the obstacles and time constraints on the contestants) and editors (for instance by deleting evidence of competence).

When Adam Corbally compared the taste of his sparkler to Christmas cake, Twitter erupted in derision. But hang on a minute. Let’s workshop this. Imagine someone who hasn’t tasted much wine, and now for the first time he’s coached to actively sniff it. Which he does. And he detects a vinous smell he associates with one particular vinous scent he is familiar with, a port-rich christmas cake…

I didn’t taste the bottle he tasted. I wasn’t there. But on the face of it, that soundbite sounds to me like an honest and I imagine a broadly accurate descriptor.  I’d be far less impressed with the guy if he’d parroted what he’d heard other people say. Or if he baulked, refusing to say what he thought, for fear of what others might think. As such, he seems to be doing precisely what I try to do, and what I advocate others to practise. On the evidence of that tiny clip, he appears to listen to what his nose and palate tell him, and reports it honestly. That right there – that’s what I want to see. If I’m right in my presumptions, he surpasses the professionals in France who were caught out a few years ago, describing the tannins in a white wine which had been dyed red. There’s every chance he’d excel as a sommelier if happenstance directed him that way, and he enjoyed a few years’ exposure to lots and lots of wines. I’d happily buy wine from him.

The Christmas cake scene lasted seconds. What was snipped out?  By any chance did his other comments display non-comedy competence? We don’t know.  And then there’s a cutaway to Sugar aide Karren Brady, smiling and shaking her head. She may have been smiling at that comment. Or she could just as easily have been filmed an hour earlier responding to a crew member making some silly gag. We don’t know.

Adam is later shown apparently drunk. At a wine tasting, you whizz through a great volume of wines in a short period, spitting out everything you sample. The spitting out thing doesn’t come naturally and has to be learnt.  So while it may look like he was irresponsibly drinking on the job, it may be that he hadn’t learned how to spit. Big deal.

The social media

For me though, one of the most interesting aspects of the whole experience was not in the programme itself but in responses on social media to it – for instance, the derision that greeted one team’s search for the sommelier in the wine aisle of Tesco. Many (most?) of such criticisms were spot on, pointing out that that’s simply not the way large volume stores work. But some of the comments seemed to be using the opportunity to take a lazy, snobbish pop at supermarkets such as Tesco and effectively the people shop in them.   Those big-volume stores do generally have wine experts working for them – but they’re to be found at head office, at tastings sessions, or visiting wineries, not manning the aisle. In supermarkets. You know, those (hint) self-service stores.

I could be mistaken but think I detected a subtext in some of the comments on social media: they seemed to me to support the oft-repeated calumny that wines sold in supermarkets are somehow ‘different’ and inferior to fancy-pants wine. They’re not: The supermarkets’ mission is to sell lots more of everything to a broader spread of the population than, say, specialist wine stores.

Tesco, Dunnes, Superquinn et al try to address a far broader band of people including, for instance, those who have to or want to shop primarily on price. Similarly, the big stores have to cater to popular tastes, many of which aren’t highly rated by sommeliers. But that range is broad in both directions,  and the supermarkets also sell some of the high-end, highly sought-after and expensive wines, just as the wine specialists do: Champagnes, cult winemakers, gran reservas.  Indeed sometimes they’re the same wines.

The wine

I do occasionally taste English sparkling wines – most recently in April of this year – and found almost all of them perfectly palatable and presentable. I’ve never highlighted any of them in my column, solely because they’re priced in the twenties, thirties and up. They’re lovely and all that but they’re just too dear. I reckon  there’s a niche market of people who have that kind of  money, don’t mind spending it. They are welcome to buy all of it, and I merrily raise a glass to them in the hope they enjoy it.

Which brings me, finally, to an interesting article here in the Daily Telegraph about English sparkling wines. It begins with an anecdote which yet again underlines one of the best-kept secrets in the wine world: Even after we’ve tried and judged a wine, our feelings toward it can be overruled by factors which have absolutely nothing to do with what our senses have told us. The power of suggestion – whether it’s on the label, in an ad, or in suggestions of wine salesperson – is astonishingly powerful, and because it broadly equates price with quality, it’s costing us money.

The Champagne myth is riddled throughout the media, and The Apprentice isn’t immune, right from the first act. The Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station in London, the voiceover breathlessly intones, has “the longest Champange bar in Europe” (meh) “boasting the finest French fizz”. Accompanied by a shot of some moodily-lit bottles including Perrier Jouet Belle Époque 1999. Here in Ireland it’s imported by Mitchells, and it’ll set you back €119. A bottle.

Ah no thanks lads, you’re grand. Really. Bye now.

In the anecdote in the Telegraph, the two factors are provenance and price. And the writer’s point remains true even when you broaden it beyond English wines. Just because a bubbly comes from Champagne and costs €20 or €100 doesn’t mean it’s as good as a well-made cava or Australian chardonnay pinot noir for a tenner. Overpriced wine, you’re FIRED!  ♦

Let’s get fizzical

In last Saturday’s Weekend section of The Irish Examiner (April 21, 2012) I took a look at a recent tasting through some 80 wines at Marks & Spencer.  I mentioned in the column that one of the wines I’d wholeheartedly recommend, Organic Okhre Natur Brut Cava NV (€9.29), comes with a caveat – that the style won’t please everyone – and promised to expand on that here. So here goes.

At blind tastings, many consumers (the majority, I reckon) express a preference for crisp, fruity bubbly uncluttered, shall we say, by a certain yeasty breadiness commonly found in Champagne-style sparkling wines. Caused by the second fermentation in bottle, it’s prized by sommeliers and other wine aficionados who are used to tasting expensive sparklers.

But many of the rest of us find the flavour a bit intrusive. In part, this may be because many drinkers won’t have sensed it in any still wines, and it won’t be particularly pronounced in most good, approachably-priced sparklers. Indeed I believe many people actually misdiagnose it as a fault, linking it to not-entirely-dissimilar musty odours.

So consumers are wrong and must learn to like the bready style, spend more money ideally switch to expensive Champagne.  While the foregoing line is clearly a parody, it is not far from the way some people seem to think.  It is nonsense of course. Who’s in charge? You are, not some buff. Chacun à son goût. I don’t see why one person’s habituation (to bready styles) should trump another person’s (to clearer styles). And anyway, some people who do occasionally taste upmarket, bready, yeasty Champagnes prefer the less breadier styles. Me, for instance.

Arthur Mayne

Mayne's is a new bar in a former chemist's shop

However, in small doses, I do find the effect delicious, offering a contrasting backbeat of grainy breadth to the acidity, adding an engaging and appetising extra dimension to your glass of bubbly. And that is a fair description of what I found in the Okhre Cava at last week’s tasting. I think it’s a terrific sparkling wine by any standards, and great value – but suggest you try one bottle before backing the car up to M&S and filling the boot. By the way, it turns out the branch nearest me (Merchant’s Quay in Cork) didn’t have this particular sparkler in stock on Friday. I expect they’ll have it back in again soon, and will amend this post when I know it’s back.

For now though, over here is a post about Arthur Mayne Pharmacist, a new wine bar in Cork with not one but two twists. And over here are the latest wine and beer tastings and dinners open to all.

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Moveable Feast at Brown Thomas

Searsons, one of Ireland’s old-skool family wine merchants has brilliantly made the transition into the 21st century. They’re hosting a smart wine dinner on Monday April 23 with not one but four chefs at Brown Thomas Dublin. Domini Kemp (The Restaurant at Brown Thomas), Ross Lewis (Chapter One), Paul Flynn (The Tannery) and Graham Neville (The Residence) is the all-star team preparing the five courses, each accompanied by wines from Searsons’ terrific list, presented by the highly entertaining Charles Searson. It kicks off with bubbly and canapés. At €120 per person it’s not cheap, but I reckon it’s really good value for what you’re getting. Book now on moveablefeast@brownthomas.ie.

If you’re involved in events related to beer, wine or cider, please email brief details to me as soon as you have them confirmed.  In general I get all of them onto this blog and /or my drinks columns in the Irish Examiner.  Thank you.

The Loire in Donnybrook

On Wednesday April 25, The Restaurant at Donnybrook Fair at 89 Morehampton Road, Dublin 4 presents a Loire evening in association with Tindal Wine Merchants. Paul-Henry Pelle will present his wines from the Sancerre and Menetou Salon appellations.  Book now (€60 per person / €100 for 2 people) on  01 614 4849 or at http://www.donnybrookfair.ie/therestaurant/winedinners

In-store tastings in Dublin, Carrigaline, Fermoy and Midleton

♦ On Thursday, April 26 from 6.30pm to 8.30pm at Baggot Street Wines (formerly Oddbins at 17 Upper Baggot St, Dublin 4, which was taken over and revived last year by a get-up-and-go team of former staff), Chris Pfeiffer will introduce some of his wines, including a tremendous rich, sweet muscat that I love. It’s free. Just turn up. Baggot Street Wines 17 Upr Baggot St Dublin 4. Phone 01-667-3033.
♦ And on Saturday April 28, Chris will be presenting his wines all day in Karwigs, Carrigaline.

♦ There are in-store tastings of Nugan Estate wines (including the super McLaren Parish Shiraz 2008 which I think is good enough value at its regular price of €17 but which is reduced now to €12) at the following venues.

Friday, April 27 – SuperValu Fermoy from 4pm to 7pm
Saturday April 28 –
SuperValu Midleton from noon to 3pm;
SuperValu Carrigaline from 3.30pm to 6pm.

Riesling in the years

 As of October 2012, I am no longer a drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. CLICK HERE for details. I’m leaving up most of the info I posted then in case it might be helpful. Thank You.


WINE fans in my parish (Cork) may have noticed a few interesting changes for the better recently in that twilight zone somewhere between a few drinks and casual dining. Quite a few places are providing new and improved fun. I’ll return to some others later but because it combines two of my enthusiasms – wine and retro stuff – the last shall be first: a venue that opened three days ago.

Arthur Mayne Pharmacist

Muted tones and shadows in Maynes on Pembroke St, Cork.

Arthur Mayne

7, Pembroke Street, Cork
Telegrams: “Mayne Pharmacist”

You know those time capsule buildings? For instance thisTube station sealed off in 1959 and only reopened in 2010 still festooned with original posters advertising the latest works of Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth and Alec Guinness? Yeah, that kind of thing.  That’s what you need to bear in mind when you go in to Arthur Mayne Pharmacy & Wine Garden.

A bar serving mainly wine, coffees and simple plates of food, it is stuffed to the gunwhales with the stock, fittings and equipment you might find in an Irish pharmacy from the recent to the distant past. Everywhere you look, there are many decades worth of jars and phials, essences and unguents. Registers, ledgers and till rolls. When done well, collections of memorabilia can strike an atmospheric chord in a restaurant or bar. But there’s something special about this particular immersive retro 3D collection – because every scrap you see around you is the day-to-day stock in trade and equipment of the chemists shop that traded from this same building until recently. I mean everything – from the prescription ledgers under glass on the counter, down to the cardboard rolls of coppers (change as packaged and issued by the bank some time before decimalisation) among other ephemera in the front window.

The big difference between the example of the Tube station above and Arthur Mayne premises is that there’s nothing abandoned about the latter. Far from it. It was a going concern until recently (voluntarily ceding its pharmacist’s permit only in February 2011) and the pharmacist and leaseholder since the 1940s, Jim Byrne, has handed over the whole thing – lock, stock and Hai Karate – to Benny McCabe who has made only such changes and renovation as were necessary to turn it into a stylish wine bar. Benny is well known in Cork for the diverse collection of venues he has gradually developed over the years. There are the pubs (The Oval, South Main Street, The Mutton Lane Inn off St Patrick’s Street and Sin É on Coburg Street); a pub and restaurant, The Bodega on the Coal Quay; and the pub /night club, The Crane Lane on Phoenix Street, onto which Arthur Mayne connects.

Each is atmospheric and idiosyncratic: cosy memorabilia-stuffed Sin É ringing with traditional and folk music; family-friendly Sunday lunches amid the bevelled glass and polished wood of the Bodega.

Just before the new bar opened, Tommy Barker talked to Benny and other people behind the transition. As he points out, the chemists shop was a major photo processing lab, once the biggest in Munster it seems. The new venue will be a magnet for photographers, not only because its so photogenic, but because the stock in the display cabinets includes quite an arc of picture-making, from Box Brownies to Polaroid and Instamatics – all technologies which have been eclipsed in living memory. Cameras, projectors, photos and slides. Agfa. Fuji. And as a wistful reminder of relentless change, Kodak, which was folding and fading as Maynes was being renovated, is here too.

You can buy retro stuff by the yard. This, though, is palpably different – not only because its so specific to the site, but also because of the way its been curated. Alongside the dusty aphothecary jars, each with traces of its original contents, are brands of hairspray, razor blades, bath salts and condoms dating close to the present day.  1960s, 1970s, 1980s… Its like a 3D Reeling In The Years. You may betray your age by which brands you recognise. Or even used. Elastoplast, Silvikrin, Rave.

The menu is simple and inexpensive

Theyve all been accorded similar space and the same respect as those ancient generic glass jars, each bearing the dust it has earned down the decades. Theres something lovely about this brand archaeology. It would be a mistake to fetishise the items themselves – theyre only things after all, and wallowing in such sentimentality is surely an abandonment of the real world. But they are tangible mementoes, a dip into a world just as real as ours is, to the people who milled about the location youre sitting in. We live in the present, but can dream of other times.

Unsurprisingly, given the riches in the cabinets, the decor is visually stripped back, all muted tones and shadows. Even the doors on the fridges behind the counter are opaque so we’re spared the glare of fluorescent light bouncing off a platoon of beer bottles: what you can see is the company you’re in, set against a century’s worth of memorabilia bearing the shadows of other people who have passed this way before you.

So. Anyone for a glass of wine?

The enomatic dispencer at Mayne's

The enomatic dispensers at Mayne’s.

Oddly, given its emphasis on the passage of time, Maynes has an up-to-the-minute system designed to press the pause button on time. I’ve long been a fan of the enowine dispenser system and am delighted to see it used in a bar in my hometown. This and other nitrogen-fed systems provide a way to keep wine in the same condition as the moment it was opened. You may be familiar with it from Eno Wine’s shop at the IFSC in Dublin, or at Bubble Brothers in the Marina in Cork. I’ve also seen it at pro tastings such as London Wine Fair. It allows a bar to greatly expand the number and variety of wines it can feasibly offer – after all, a barkeep can’t reliably expect to sell out every left-field minority interest wine every two days – but in a less labour-initensive way than the open-and-reseal systems many wine bars use.

Bottles are lined up in glass-fronted temperature-controlled cabinets. Each has a tube leading from the bottom of the bottle to a nozzle at the front. And as each serving of wine is dispensed, the volume displaced is replaced by a shot of inert gas (nitrogen). No air in there at any stage. It’s as if you’d just opened the bottle each time.

Repeat prescription: Maynes debit card.

But arguably the bigger innovation with the system as seen in Maynes is that it’s self-service, and paid for with a debit card. You charge up your card with a tenner or whatever over the counter and off you go, brandishing your glass, to the wall of enowine cabinets. A little display over each bottle shows the price for each of the three different size measures it will dispense. (Here I have to lapse into uncustomary vagueness: unlike the tastings I attend, which are like a mashup of sensory lab and trade fair, I have absolutely no intention of milling about in a bar wth a notebook and pen. It would be a bit intrusive I think and Id feel like a right gowl doing it. Hence I have neither the precise names of the wines, nor tasting notes, nor the volumes of wine in each measure. I might add them later).

In the absence of numbers Ive named the three measures as follows.

The taoscán Nowhere near what wed sit down to sip, this is a similar measure to what you might pour at a tasting session. Because, crucially, it provides more than enough to judge the colour, smell and taste of the wine in hand. And indeed enjoy a sensory journey. You could really have fun working your way through the cabinets trying each wine one after another, pausing to properly swirl and sniff each. If youve never done it, please do: Anyone whos done so will tell you what a revelation it can be, that it will change the way you view wine for the better. Even wines you dont like the look of: try them. Given that this bar has made it so easy for you, itd be a shame to pass up the chance. And thats the way to choose a wine to settle down with, not the diktat of any expert or me.  Hurrah!
Oh thats a daycent glass This is what I would call a glass of wine. It’s the size I’d choose to pour at home or out and about, and its the size Id drink at Maynes when Id settled on one bottle after dallying with the small taoscáns above. This size also has the benefit of leaving plenty of room in the glass for air – which you should really regard as a component of your glass of wine. To me, this middle size is the Goldilocks serving – neither too big nor too small. Just right.
Ah lads, steady on All right, I confess I havent actually seen this measure. But really I see no point in pouring any more than the middle size. But sure don’t mind me. Suit yourself, you rascal.

In my brief look around I particularly enjoyed some wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero as well as an outstanding spicy torrontés. It’s fitting that Maynes happens to have a torrontés on offer and that it turned out to be so pleasing to at least one punter (me). Because that’s a perfect example of the system in action and the benefits it brings – to bar owners certainly, but also to any of us consumers who get over our reticence and use the opportunity to taste widely (L’Atitude 51 also serves a choice of measures from its extensive list).

I love the  torrontés grape  and coincidentally, I’m recommending one in my column in tomorrow’s Irish Examiner. But it’s a bit of an unknown. I can’t envisage too many people committing to a whole glassful from a standing start. And if they did, many of them wouldn’t like its honeyish apparent sweetness.

But made available for convenient tasting as one of a series, each costing you little over a euro, delightful left-field minority-interest wines like this will find the people who don’t yet realise they love them. And that’s a win as far as I’m concerned.

 
This is all new to me. You won’t find any pub or wine bar antics in the columns I used to write for The Irish Examiner which were almost entirely about home entertaining – off-trade wines, beers and ciders. But a sense that something was stirring prompted me to lunge for the first time into a few posts about bars. A good handful of decent beer specialists have been emerging. From the international powerhouse Porterhouse which opened its Cork outpost on Sheare’s Street in February,  to The Hub (aka The Market Tavern) on Anglesea Street. Remind me to tell you a story about the building it’s in. Plus of course the three old dogs for the long road along the north channel of the river — The Franciscan Well brewpub on North Mall, Bierhaus on Pope’s Quay and The Abbot’s Ale House on Devonshire Street North. Other recent revelations (to me) include L’Atitude 51, where An Crúibín used to be, The Pav on Careys Lane and Le Chateau on Pana. Each has gone a long way to catering for people who have switched to home entertaining and want to emulate that comfort and quality on their increasingly rare forays into town.

Although I have quit writing those columns Long story — see here I might return to this topic.  Broadly in keeping with the way I did those newspaper columns, I won’t be accepting complimentary drinks etc, and if I have any connection with a venue I mention, I will declare that interest. ♦

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