The Infinite Ideas interview with Stephen Brook

9 November 2015 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

Prolific wine writer Stephen Brook, author of The wines of Austria had a quick chat about his favourite subject.

Perhaps the best known Austrian grapes are Grüner Veltliner and Blaufränkisch. What are the characteristics of these grapes that make them best suited to be grown in Austria?
Gruner Veltliner is wonderfully versatile. It can produce crisp, refreshing wines for early drinking, and at the other end of the spectrum, powerful mineral wines that can age for decades, developing great complexity. The variety is grown in the Czech Republic, California, and New Zealand, but it rarely shows the typicity of the Austrian originals.

Much the same is true of Blaufrankisch. It can be produced as a simple, fresh red, rather like Beaujolais, or as a full-bodied, often quite oaky red with structure and weight. It’s a wine that should show good acidity, making it an ideal and versatile wine with food. It is also grown in Germany, under the name Lemberger, But it thrives best in eastern Austria.

What have been the biggest changes in the production of Austrian wine in recent years?
White wines, dry and sweet, have always been outstanding in Austria, but the real progress has been with red wines, which were frankly mediocre thirty years ago, but are improving all the time, especially now that the tendency to over-oak the wines is being increasingly resisted.

In The wines of Austria, you’ve written a lot about the producers of Austrian wine and how there are a lot of family-owned companies. Do you see more producers breaking into the trade? Do you think there is an opportunity for new varieties?
Austria doesn’t really need new varieties. It has a dozen varieties that have been grown with success for many decades, from scarce whites such as Zierfandler to indigenous reds such as St Laurent. Not to mention widely known varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay.

Do you think global warming has affected the production of Austrian wine?
Hard to say, though the climate does seem to have been become more unpredictable.

Do you think that technology has generally been a good thing or a bad thing for Austrian wine production?
Modern technology, competently used, is always a positive thing, but most wineries don’t have the means for costly gadgetry and manage to produce excellent wines without it too.

Austrian wine has had some bad publicity in the past, and despite the fact that it was some time ago, that idea still resonates with many people; how would you convince today’s drinkers that it’s worth trying?
The so-called ‘wine scandal’ of 1985 was a serious betrayal of trust, but nobody got ill or died, in contrast to Italian scandals of the same era that resulted in multiple deaths from adulterated wine. So the Austrians have been published severely for their localised transgressions, but this is now long in the past, and the Austrian wine industry is as tightly controlled as any in Europe.

Wine-tasting is quite a specialised skill. How did you get into it – were you a natural or did you have to learn?
I had to learn, but I was also keen to learn, and paid to attend tutored tastings of top wines to learn how to appreciate them.

Can you tell us about the worst wine you have ever tasted?
Retsina from Greek cooperatives in the 1980s.

Who is the greatest character you have met during your long career in the wine trade? Can you tell us about him/her?
Too many to recall here: Robert Mondavi and Randall Grahm in California, Giacomo Braida in Italy, and, in Austria, the great Alois Kracher, whom I write about in detail in my book.

Other than Austrian wine what is your favourite drink – not necessarily alcoholic?
Top German Riesling.

The wines of Austria is available now, to purchase from Infinite Ideas at a special discounted price of £25.00, please email info@infideas.com or call 01865 514888

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When you’re next buying wine, consider Austria

6 October 2015 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

When you think about Austrian alcohol, you’re probably more familiar with beers and Oktoberfest thanks to the Bavarian influence and how fond they are of a good pint. It’s true, when I was backpacking around Europe, I never thought to order an Austrian glass of wine, rather it was straight for the home brew.

You’re most likely more familiar with the terroirs of France, Australia, New Zealand, even Spain, but most likely not Austria. Yet did you know that Austrian wine has a history dating back to the Habsburgs? Yes, that’s right, while all that furore over land and such was being fought over, it is likely that the winners would sit down with a nice glass of dry white from their own vineyards.

So consider this, the next time you’re throwing a dinner party, why not spend that little bit extra on a bottle of Austrian wine. More than anything it will make you look like a true wine connoisseur instead of going for your usual bottle that everyone’s had before. It will be a great starting point for conversation about wines, travel and the great food that you are more than likely to serve to your guests.

How to introduce the wines of Austria into your dinner parties

If you’re wondering what to serve it with, perhaps some excellent hearty Austrian food such as goulash, schnitzel or, if you’re really brave, offal. Though we suggest that, unless you are actually Austrian, springing offal on your guests is a risky move so perhaps save that for next time or offer them an alternative in case the offal is not to their liking. Surprisingly, Austrian wine goes well with Mediterranean cuisine so, if you’re a vegetarian, perhaps you could cook something much lighter than a hog roast. More information on what goes with Austrian wine can be found here.

Our book, The wines of Austria by Stephen Brook will be published on 19 October. If you can’t wait until then, we have some advice about how to introduce your palette to new wines from our book, Secrets of wine by Giles Kime:

Even on the first leg of the path to vinous nirvana, it is important to expose your palate to other styles of wine without letting them cloud your understanding. There are a huge number of wines that no one except a few hardened wine buffs is aware of. Plenty of wines are made purely for local consumption, such as Austria Gruner Veltliner, Swiss Chasselas, Italian Aglianico, Uruguayan Tannat and Canadian Ice Wine. Though initially you should keep these wines at arm’s length, they will eventually be essential for pushing your taste buds to the extremes – just as the best fitness training programme will exercise muscles that you don’t normally use. The chances are that you won’t like them. But even if you don’t they will offer flavours and aromas that your palate and nose wouldn’t otherwise be subjected to. They will stretch your senses to the extremes of their experience.

The secret to tasting offbeat wines is never to get too involved. You don’t need to know a great deal about wine in order to enjoy it. It doesn’t really matter whether Gruner Veltliner, Tannat, Aglianico or Eiswein is a grape or a style of wine. Nor does it really matter whether they come from Austria, Uruguay, Italy or Canada. What is far more important is that you, your palate and your nose are receptive to them. Of course, when – or if – you find an offbeat wine that you like, that might be the time to investigate the winemaking tradition from which it springs.

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My, my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender

18 June 2015 by in Classic Wine Library, Current events, Wine and spirits

Napoleon madeira waterloo…which means he never got to drink the madeira that he had purchased on his way. Most people would stop off at the petrol station on a long journey, but in times of war, it would seem the French General was tempted by a few bottles of madeira that he purchased in Funchal.

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and what have we learnt since then? Well, firstly, you can make a hit song out of a French navy’s defeat, rubber boots will always be in fashion and the Duke of Wellington is still a very popular military leader. You may wish to commemorate today by re-enacting the battle, or by reading many military history books, or even just listening to ABBA, the only palindromic band to be a success.

Infinite Ideas, however, are huge fans of the pub. We love any chance to celebrate and today seems as good as any. We can’t guarantee that we’ll be ordering a glass of madeira in our first round, but we’re sure it would be appropriate to toast our victory over the French than sipping on a lovely glass.

This legendary wine accompanied napoleon when he called in at Funchal en route to St. Helena in 1815. it was never drunk by the exiled Emperor, nor was it officially paid for, but the British consul henry Veitch was apparently given some gold coins by napoleon in exchange. These were buried beneath the foundation stone of the anglican church (church of the holy Trinity) in Funchal, the building of which was supervised by Veitch. Two years after Napoleon’s death the wine was returned to Veitch, who sold it on to Charles Ridpath Blandy. The wine was left to Dr Michael Grabham who was born in the year the wine was bottled (1840) and whose father was born in 1792. Two dozen bottles were bought by the saintsbury club in London. The following poem by Martin Armstrong, one of the founding members of the Saintsbury Club in London, describes the episode:

On a certain Madeira Boal 1792
The doomed and broken Bonaparte
To thaw the ice that bound his heart
Bore from Madeira to his jail
Islanded twixt sea and gale
The barreled juice of grapes that grew
Twenty-three years ere Waterloo.
But Death was urging to his bed
Him who so richly Death had fed;
Aye, that more grim Napoleon
Was closing icy fingers on
The little body and great brain,
Bidding the haughty lip abstain
From comfort of the anodyne.
The weakening hand put by the wine,
And when at last the hand fell slack,
Homeward the cask was carried back
Unbroached, and when the wine had stood
Nigh half a century in wood,
They bottled it and duly laid Cellared in its native shade.
The heart that hoped the world to gain
A century in dust has lain.
Yet we of these late times may sip
The wine forbid his dying lip.

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Madeira: what a wonderful place to go on holiday

8 June 2015 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

The UK has finally decided that it wants to join in with the rest of the northern hemisphere and be all summery. We no longer have to sit in the office chanting ‘Winter is coming’ while watching the rain pour down the windows. So we’re all about planning our summer break and where better to get inspiration than from our own bookshelves?

Madeira: the islands and their wines offers a rich and detailed history of the islands and includes excellent tips for when you holiday there yourself. Lonely Planet eat your heart out! What’s better than a book that immerses you in the culture of its pages? Catherine is seriously rethinking her trip to Madrid and perhaps needs to take a ‘work placement’ among the vines of Madeira!

Did you know that because Madeira is so hilly that most of the vineyards are on a slope? Over hundreds of years, the volcanic islands have been cultivated to produce a very special type of wine. Make sure that you’re on solid ground, though as fortified wine can hit you quicker than the average bottle.

Blandy's wine lodge

Given that Madeira is basically a very large volcano, there are lots of lava pools to enjoy, hot springs to take a dip in or, if you’re concerned about lava after that wonderful Hollywood classic, Volcano, perhaps you’d prefer to lounge on the beaches, which we think look very nice indeed!

However, don’t forget when travelling to this fantastic island that while there you can literally drink the island! Madeira is growing in popularity and where better to savour the taste than at the source. What is a holiday for, if not to relax and we can’t think of a better way to do that than a vineyard tour and wine tasting. (Catherine recently went to one in Canada, yes, Canada, and can attest that this is an excellent way to spend a holiday). Why not book yourself a wine tour and enjoy what really makes the island special. For hundreds of years, wine has been made on the islands, gaining a global reputation and popularity. Touring the wine lodge of Blandy’s, one of the most successful producers of Madeira, in Funchal will allow you to immerse yourself in the wine and the history of the islands. It should certainly be on your list of things to do when on holiday.

There’s always a come-down when one arrives back in (usually rainy) Britain after a fantastic holiday but at least after visiting Madeira, you can pick up a bottle from your local supermarket and relive the summer once again.

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Madeira: the American connection

28 May 2015 by in Classic Wine Library, Wine and spirits

You may have heard of madeira cake and you might even have been to Madeira on holiday, but what do a few islands off the coast of Africa have to do with America? Well, quite a lot actually. Did you know that it was George Washington’s favourite drink? Did you know that it was used to toast the American Independence in 1776? You could say that madeira is as American as hamburgers and Dolly Parton.

Infinite Ideas recently went to the Big Fortified Tasting in London and we were lucky enough to try some very exceptional madeira (one glass was enough for Catherine as she might not have made it back to Oxford!). The history of this timeless drink is incredibly rich and embedded in many cultures, not just that of Portugal and the surrounding areas.

Jefferson madeiraSo, madeira and America, eh? We certainly didn’t see that one coming. Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “it is a wine which I do not drink, being entirely too powerful”, well that power was enough to spark a drinking revolution in the USA, which it is fair to say, has reverberated around the world. We’ve all been for happy hour cocktails, some of us may have even hosted our very own cocktail parties at home, well madeira parties paved the way for this popular social occasion.

In his new book, Madeira: the islands and their wines, Richard Mayson writes about the origin of madeira parties:

Until the end of the nineteenth century, madeira was the most prestigious wine in north america. collectors held madeira parties to share their knowledge and show off their wines. These were common among high society, whose members lived on the eastern seaboard in cities from Boston to New Orleans including Philadelphia, Baltimore, savannah and charleston. Madeira parties generally took place in the late afternoon with eight to a dozen men sharing and discussing perhaps half a dozen wines over a period of two or three hours. One of the most lavish madeira parties was hosted in Baltimore by David Thomas in 1899 when twenty-six madeiras ranging in date from 1805 to 1854 were served in one sitting. This is recorded in detail by Emanuel Berk in a self-published pamphlet entitled A Century Past, A Celebration of the Madeira Party in America. The madeira party died out, along with the popularity of madeira  wine, as the cocktail took over in the early years of the twentieth century. It lives on in name only, with a range of wines produced by Barbeito for the US market named after the cities where the parties took place. However, since 2012 a group of international madeira aficionados have been assembling annually in New York to taste and discuss twenty rare and venerable wines, some of them from old American collections.

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Madeira by Richard Mayson

22 May 2015 by in Classic Wine Library

New book on the wines of Madeira is essential reading for holidaymakers and wine lovers

They say that a fine wine gets better with age and of no wine is this more true than it is for madeira. Not only does madeira require cask-ageing in order to acquire its unique ‘maderised’ taste but, unlike most other wines, it retains that taste for many years, even several centuries. For heat and air, the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn Madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines as well as the most resilient. Madeira wines from the nineteenth and even the eighteenth centuries still retain an ethereal, youthful gloss. Once the cork is removed, the wine comes to no harm, even if the bottle is left open and on ullage for months on end. If ever there was a wine to take to a desert island this is it.

Madeira front coverAward-winning wine writer Richard Mayson, the author of Madeira: the islands and their wines (published on 22 May 2015), has been exploring the world of madeira for twenty-five years and describes it as ‘one of the world’s most mystical and miraculous wines’. Madeira is indeed a much-loved fortified wine with a history that is as deeply embedded in American as European culture (for instance, did you know that it was George Washington’s favourite drink and used to toast the American Independence in 1776?) and it’s currently making a comeback. In this timeless book on an ageless wine Mayson takes the reader on a thrilling journey through the rich and turbulent history of the islands of Madeira, from its discovery by the Moors in the fourteenth century to the present day and its draw as a popular tourist destination.

Mayson describes the physical character of the archipelago, the state of the vines and vineyards and the way in which the wines are made. A guide to current producers follows along with a detailed appraisal of their range of wines. There is also a chapter for collectors of older wines, many from shippers that no longer exist but whose names live on in bottles of wine that are still found in cellars all over the world. Wines dating as far back as the eighteenth century are featured in the book, along with quality appraisals. There is a short section on the language of tasting madeira as well as information on buying, keeping and serving the wines. The book closes with a travel guide for anyone visiting the islands.

This is the latest book in Infinite Ideas’ highly popular Classic Wine Library and is an essential addition to the shelf of any wine lover.

Madeira: the islands and their wines is available now, if you wish to order from Infinite Ideas, call +44 (0)1865 514888 or email info@infideas.com