Tuesday, 22 September 2009

American Beauty

Is it me or is there a distinct chill as the days draw to a close? There is a distinct change of smells, with leaves changing colours, and gusts bringing mini-whirlwinds of russets and gold. Autumn is definitely in the air and getting out warming gilets and scarves come to mind.

And so, with the exception of Dad’s gardener, visiting early this morning (very early), and Ben’s call to say that having partied hard he is now trying to remember when his wallet, amongst other things, was pinched, I managed to make the most of the solitude and the seasonal mood, choosing to cook a hearty supper and to pick some of the last apples from the tree for a pudding.

My take on a seasonal meal is Mutton with flageolet (an Elizabeth David recipe that I have altered to suit myself). The gamey richness of the meat and the muted colour of the beans, lifted slightly by the tomato, create the tone. A light Tarte Tatin to follow, and to go with this? A definite bargain from Waitrose: Hess Syrah 2005, Methode Traditionelle, Monterey County, USA (from £9.99 to £6.49), 14.5% (yes 14.5%! Remember, this is Schwarzenegger country!) I should really have considered Steak au Poivre to complement this punchy wine. However, I had mutton on my mind.

The Hess Collection has several hectares of vineyards (as well as art galleries) in California, mainly in Mendoza. But, sandwiched between other heady names such as Kendall Jackson and the more stellar Robert Mondavi, Donald Hess grows this Syrah in Monterey County. The longer growing time (sometimes a whole month longer than the average grape) and careful irrigation, due to the low average rainfall, influence the slow maturation of the grapes. On top of that, the variety of soils, a mix of loam, clay and sand (in layman’s terms: the baking clay can act as a thermostat, whilst the sand and loam the drainage), help create an excellent microclimate in which to produce this heady wine. Not forgetting that 1985, was considered a particularly good year for Monterey.

So, having said all that; I can return to the bottle and pour the wine into the waiting glass. And what richness of colour! What a bluey-red. What a plumy-ruby-red red. Coloured legs, which hint at the strength of the wine run down the glass. Joyous ‘Lacrima’ (Oh you can’t take the catholic out of the boy!).

On the nose this wine is rich. Rich, rich, RICH! Dark fruits and liquorice hit the senses, the strength of these aromas making the pupils dilate (I told you this was strong!) Spices of anise mixed with the sweetness of the raisins lead to thoughts of the exotic. Woods, especially a cedar-like sweetness, pencil and pencil lead reach out from behind the strong vanilla and cream (this caused in part by the French oak that this wine is aged in).

I am already heady, in part because of putting my nose into the glass enough times to give me a high, but also because this wine is just a pure temptation. As my tongue plays with the liquid fruit, I am seemingly rolling in dark fruit, any dark berry: mulberry, loganberry, that sort of thing. A velvety wrap, a rich compote of dark fruits made more intense by honey, vanilla and cream (think American Beauty, but with me and grapes! Better not, thinking about it, I need to go to the gym). Woodiness and tannins find their way through the smoothness, making the teeth dry and a high acidity leaves the mouth watering intensely. And then it comes: BAM! The syrah punch. Rich pepper, peppery-pepper, peppery spice, almost chilli pepper (did I mention the pepper?), and a really long ticklingly prickly finish on the tongue.

Letting the glass air a bit more, and in the spirit of California, I need to SHARE. Normally, I am not a great fan of many New World Wines. There, I have said it! I feel better now. To me, they are often too big in fruit and too heavy with alcohol; ‘confectionary wine’, sweet and filling, leaving room for little else. Quality is potentially sacrificed for commercial advantage and big flavours; the bigger the better (South Eastern Australian wines being particularly guilty in my mind, with their addition of flavoured staves or essences to increase the oak and smoke flavours).

With the Hess Collection (and many boutique producers), this is not the case; care and traditional methods of wine making mean that they are serious producers offering pleasurable, not ‘party’ wines. And this wine, even though at the cheaper end of their collection, whilst strong, is nevertheless delicious. I am exhausted by that sharing; that openness. Have another drink Lou!

Taking another mouthful; the creamier elements come to the fore with hints of apple (almost dried). A sharper citric tone rather like red apple or raspberry
(but sweeter than cassis which has a sharp acid lemony note to it) makes the mouth water; a top-note flavour that rises out of the deeper darker fruits (think of that top C in Allegri’s Miserere). Some powder on the tongue adds to the rich velvetiness, and the wood and liquorice, give added layers to this jammy wine. It is like having a pudding it is so rich (but I already have my Tarte Tatin in the Aga).

Carefree swinging to the oven to get my pudding, and even more carefree swaying back to the computer (helped by the mellow and soothing voice of Sarah Vaughn on the CD player) I feel as if I have been massaged, wrapped in a duvet and kissed goodnight. I can now slump in an armchair to slumber and digest. For a low end of the range, boutique (and not forgetting New World) wine, I am truly delighted. But for value, I got a real bargain and am gigglingly happy. Goodnight.


  1. you write about wine so well!! wonderful x

  2. Thank you for a lovely comment. I owe you a drink! Lou x