Monday, May 30, 2011

Close Encounters of the Bloodwood Kind

While there will undoubtedly be readers who’d ascribe the recent southern odyssey to the fact that we’d become aware of the existence of Bloodwood Wines, I should point out that Madam was talking about heading towards Canberra in the autumn even before we’d headed off on the trip across the Nullarbor.

Of course, once we’d made the discovery that this five Halliday star winery was operated by people Hughesy remembers from those halcyon days in the early seventies there was no way we’d be leaving Bloodwood  off the itinerary if we were going to be passing.

That’s not to suggest, however, that we were going to be doing the usual Hughesy does the wineries bit while we were there. Under ordinary circumstances once we’re in the vicinity of  wineries there’s an inclination to see how many visits we can cram in, and we can usually manage five or maybe, preferably with lunch at one of them.

At each of those stops it’s a case of wander into the tasting area, sample the range, try to have a bit of a chat with whoever’s on the premises, add the details to their mailing list if we've been impressed and head on to the next one with (maybe) a bottle or two for consumption in the immediate future.

The first factor that had me limiting the number of stops in Orange was the fact that we were going to be travelling from Coonabarabran, looking at three hours on the road to get there, and were going to be heading off early the next morning to get to the markets in Canberra before lunch time on Sunday.

That meant we had, maybe, four or five hours in Orange on Saturday afternoon, so we weren’t going to be able to visit the same number of places you might manage in a full day’s touring and tasting.

I’d had a  look at the other establishments that rated highly with Halliday, of course. All up, there are forty-five wineries listed, and five of them are five star operations. One of those didn’t appear to be open to the public, and one had a cellar door operation in the old Union Bank in downtown Orange, which might have been a dinner venue for Saturday night, so it was a question of whether we wanted to get to the other two, something that might be do-able, but I wasn’t sure it was desirable.

After all, we were calling on people I knew, admittedly from a long time ago, so we weren’t operating in ordinary working the way around the wineries mode as outlined above.

Actually, having tried most of the range already, there would, under other circumstances, have even been a case for leaving Bloodwood off the list entirely to focus on new territory and different tastes.

No, I’d eventually decided, when we call in there we’re not looking at the usual routine. I was interested in finding out what had brought Steve and Rhonda to this point, which was hardly what you'd have predicted some forty years ago and whlle I’d probably be able to try the rest of the range if that didn’t happen it wasn’t going to be a problem.

After all, there’ll be an order for (at least) a mixed dozen going in before the end of the year, so I can catch up then.

Once we’d sorted out the itinerary for the trip I’d called to ensure there’d be someone on the premises on the relevant day, and had been told to call back when we were on the road with an ETA, which was duly done once were headed out of Dubbo.

I got the feeling at that point that we weren’t heading into standard winery territory when that call produced news that Rhonda had customers coming at twelve-thirty, but that we should just wander in when we arrived.

Customers? I thought. Well, then, what are we?

That question was answered after we pulled in to the car park and I wandered in to say Hello. There were a number of people seated around a table inside, and I was greeted warmly and informed that Steve was out in the Riesling block, and had left instructions to head in that direction once we’d arrived.

We’d sighted a figure disappearing into what we later learned was the Riesling block on the way in, but by the time we’d parked the car, greeted Rhonda, done the introductions bit and received the previously mentioned instructions we found him back in the winery feeding Shiraz grapes into the de-stemmer. Brief introductions followed, and while Madam disappeared in search of subjects to point the camera at I stuck around to watch what was going on.

What followed was a couple of hours will stay with me, though it wasn’t one of those experiences that feature moments of blinding insight. It was a case of incremental connections of things I already sort of knew but hadn’t consciously put together before.

Given the nature of the activities, the wandering from place to place between deliveries of grapes to the de-stemmer, there’s no continuous narrative to the experience, more a disjointed sequence of episodes and renewed acquaintance. Forty years leaves a bit of territory that needs to be filled in, and given the nature of an aging memory and the circumstances we were operating in the subsequent narrative is rather more structured than the experiences described.

Once the de-stemming action went on lunch break pause as far as the tractor driver was concerned we were back up to the Riesling block, where Steve was picking the fruit from Cabernet Sauvignon vines located in the middle of the block. There was no explanation for this particular juxtaposition offered, and given the direction the conversation was taking I neglected to ask, and am consequently none the wiser, but a couple of points became clear.

For a start, the Riesling had been picked some time before, and there was still some fruit left on the vines, which gave an opportunity to try a grape or two. Cabernet ripens on a different schedule, and there were only a few vines in this location, so it obviously made sense for the vigneron to pick them himself rather than delegating a paid picker to the task.

Picking the four buckets of fruit, I was informed, had saved him around $26, from which I was able to deduce that:

(a) contract pickers must get somewhere around $6.50 a bucket, and
(b) since you’re not going to get too many bottles out of a bucket that size, you’re not going to be finding too many wines made from handpicked grapes on the discount shelves at your local liquor outlet, or, if you are, that's a sign of a winery that's in a bit of trouble when it comes to moving the product through normal channels.

The grapes, which were smaller than I’d imagined or expected, not having managed to get up close and personal with ripe wine grapes in the past, revealed a surprising degree of sweetness (which makes sense on reflection, since that sugar needs to be there so it can be fermented into the object of the exercise) and the grapes were remarkably tasty, though you’d need to eat a swag if you were after a substantial feed.

Still, given the flavour, that wouldn’t be too difficult.

Between spells of feeding Shiraz into the de-stemmer I also had the chance to try some of the 2011s, which seemed remarkably advanced. I tried the Riesling, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, tried blending the two red varieties, and had a listen to the malolactic fermentation in a barrel revealed the Snap, Crackle and Pop widely associated with a well-known breakfast cereal.

There were also references to the possibility of a wine dinner in the Burdekin or Bowen at some point in the future, though the exact details were indeterminate at that particular point in time.

We were also in and out of the house, which doubles as the cellar door, and the distinction between ourselves and customers became clear. Ringing Bloodwood  to arrange a tasting is, to all intents and purposes, the same as booking a medical appointment, and you’re given a specific time slot rather than the turn up at the cellar door and you’re in arrangement that we’ve become accustomed to.

Someone (actually a party of five) had, however, lobbed unannounced on the doorstep at the same time as a scheduled group failed to arrive, so they’d been slotted in, which in turn had the scheduled crowd and their cab driver cooling their heels in the car park while the interlopers went through the regular tasting arrangement, which is a sit around the table for a guided tour through the range, and seems to take about an hour, including the window for purchasing what you fancy at the end of the actual tasting.

It’s also obvious that what amounts to the Bloodwood cellar door doubles as the Doyle living room, though it can serve as the Bloodwood Bistro on occasion. There’s a restaurant-equivalent kitchen on the premises, and one gathers that there’s the occasional catered dinner. The cooking facilities certainly matched those in any of the restaurant or pub kitchens I’ve encountered, and Rhonda was involved with kicking off the Orange Food Week some twenty years ago.

When the last of the tasters had gone we had the chance to sit down and have a chat to Rhonda rather than the full tasting experience. I had, after all, already tried the Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and their trademark Big Men In Tights Rose, so it was more an exercise in conversation while I had a sample of the Chardonnays, the Pinot Nor and the Merlot Noir, which probably suited someone who’d been hard at the tasting spiel all day.

Discussions revealed that the whole shebang was largely the result of living next door to a bottle shop in Randwick in the seventies and becoming intrigued by wine, a phenomenon I find entirely reasonable and understandable and we escaped from the winery just before sundown, much later than we would probably have preferred. In hindsight I probably should have pencilled in somewhere to go next to get us out of there earlier, but given the nostalgia and other factors we could also have been caught there for quite a while longer.

It's amazing how many things you'd forgotten come flooding back when there's someone in the vicinity to jog your memory.

We’d been back at base for a little under a week when an incoming email suggested a wine dinner in Bowen, which raised issues that had been discussed a thousand kilometres away.

Steve’s from Ayr, and while we were on the premises he’d mentioned the fact that while he has his wines on sale in a number of big name Sydney restaurants (he rattled off a number of familiar names, though I’m not inclined to chance the accuracy of Hughesy’s memory) he’s so far failed to sell any into an outlet in his home town.

More particularly, it seems, whenever he’s approached a restaurant in the Burdekin with an offer to deliver a number of paying diners if he can also provide the wine for the dinner the proposal has been unfavourably received.

Strange. One would have thought that an opportunity to get a number of diners that wouldn’t have been there under normal circumstances through the door when you’re already paying kitchen and wait staff would have been greeted with open arms. A quick check with Steve, who was giving himself a holiday  at Cape Upstart, revealed that I was supposed to organise a venue and rattle up some diners, two tasks  I thought wouldn’t be too difficult.

The venue side of things was remarkably easy. A phone call to Browny at the QB had him go into immediate overdrive, and it wasn’t long before we were looking at a three course dinner matched to a couple of wines that Steve would provide at $55 per head, thank you very much.

That $55 had me scratching my head, figuring it might be seen as excessive to people who weren’t familiar with the winery, but second thoughts suggested that if you went out for a three course meal with several glasses of wine you’d probably be looking at a bit more than $55. Given the fact that you're unlikely to find a main course for under $20, and anything approaching a reasonable bottle's going to be at least that much, I think I can rest my case.

But if the venue was easy, recruiting the diners proved much trickier, since almost all of my wine drinking acquaintances seemed to have a scheduled medical appointment or health related matter in Townsville, Mackay or Brisbane. Browny, on the other hand, has a wider community of acquaintances to draw on, and we ended up with twenty-something diners arranged around three tables to sample a menu that lined up remarkably well with the wines Steve had delivered.

A reduction involving the best part of a bottle of Merlot Noir probably explained the match with the main course, Kimberley Red (Eye Fillet medallions rubbed in a Middle Eastern inspired spice, layered between a colourful melange of marinated vegetables and creamy mashed potato).

The Baked Brie entree, served warm on a sourdough bread with a Rocket and prosciutto salad and a sticky quince and fig jelly worked remarkably well with the Big Men in Tights, and samples of the 2009 Chardonnay, 2008 Merlot Noir and 2007 Shiraz seemed to go down very well with those present.

Close to a fortnight after the event I’m not sure whether the dinner has translated into increased sales of Bloodwood wines, but in any case there’ll be another couple of dozen headed towards the Little House of Concrete before summer hits us with the need for a few Big Men in Tights.

Pfeiffer 2009 Carlyle Shiraz

While phone calls from wineries offering special deals are always welcome in The Little House of Concrete, the failure of the Pikes Riesling & Shiraz Dozen to lob on the doorstep close to three weeks after the order was placed has meant that Hughesy's powering through the April Dozen from Pfeiffer's C2 Club with not quite alarming rapidity but certainly a fair bit quicker than might otherwise have been the case.
Reorder considerations have also been disrupted buy this situation, with orders to Cullen, Lerida Estate, Lark Hill and Clonakilla in the pipeline, so whether this one features in later calculations is anyone's guess.

Pfeiffer 2009 Carlyle Shiraz (4* $?, but presumably $18.50 C2 $16.65) I'm not quite sure why this one found its way into the April C2 Dozen some four months before it becomes available for general consumption, but while it worked rather well and kept me going as I worked my way through a Fred Vargas novel after dinner I'd be more inclined to head for the  Pfeiffer Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz if an order was going in within the next month or two.
Deep red in the glass, spicy pepper on the nose and a long finish it's a hearty winter red, though it'll (hopefully) be well after winter has passed before ordering considerations kick in. A couple of bottles to pad out an order when the 2011 Gamay appears, perhaps? I'd still, subject to availability, be inclined in other directions at this point in time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Pfeiffer 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon

Given the fact that the object of the exercise is to keep track of what I've been drinking ith a view to figuring out future orders it makes sense to complete a stocktake every now and then, and figure out some way of keeping track of what you've actually got.

I've had a couple of attempts at something along those lines over recent years, and each time the wheels have fallen off due to an inability to put things in place to monitor stock levels, and keep track of what's been consumed along the way.

Returning from the recent southern odyssey the first priority was clearing the decks for the new kitchen, which meant that for three or four days we were operating on reduced cooking facilities, which was a fair excuse for hitting the takeaway options and clearing leftovers out of the freezer and an even better excuse for making a bit of space in the wine rack by clearing out bottles that have been there for a while, which usually means they're the last survivors of dozen lots, so in most cases I've already got something along the lines of a tasting note.

With the new kitchen in place it was soon obvious that we were looking at a far better photographic environment when it came to capturing images of wine bottles, and much of the time since the electricians finished their end of the job has been devoted to the photographic side of recording what's on hand. That process isn't totally complete, but with the new database (Hughesy's Cellar) almost up to date and the possibility of a second (Hughesy's Wine Archive) under consideration, most of the stock that's been lurking on the floor of the office relocated to the wine rack and the ability to look at current stock levels by variety, a Saturday night rump with a potato casserole looked like a reasonable excuse to start a serious assault on the April Pfeiffer C2 Club selection.

With winter seemingly upon us and a stock of Cabernet Sauvignon around the dozen mark, starting with the 2009 Cabernet seemed a logical move, given the suitability as a food match and the possibility of needing to build up stocks.

Pfeiffer 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (4.5* $22.50 Wine Club $20.25) Deeply purple in the glass, varietal mint on the nose with blackberry and rounded tannins across the palate, this worked well with the steak and delivered something to savour after the meal was done. Nicely structured, very easy drinking and a definite reorder candidate.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jim Barry The Florita Riesling 2007

I've frequently quoted the old adage that if you open a can of worms, the only way you can re-can the worms is to use a larger can, but had no idea the same principle applies to wine fridges.

There's no doubt that the model lurking in the laundry is far too small for Hughesy's cellaring needs, but I suspect that regardless of capacity any model is going to be too small for my ambitions, so I try to make do with what's there.

Remodelling the kitchen meant the bar fridge needed to move to the laundry, which, in turn, meant the wine fridge needed to be repositioned to make room for the space invader, which in turn meant the thing needed to be emptied.

A simple enough exercise, you might think, but when I had refilled the little devil I found I had a number of bottles that didn't fit.

It's all in the actual arrangement, I guess, and obviously last time around I'd got it right. This time I'd reshuffled things, so, what to do? Empty it again and have another go? Or do a slight reshuffle and take out anything that seemed to be getting close to the Halliday drink-by date or rated below the low nineties in the same source?

It may come as no surprise to learn that I went for the latter option, and one of the obvious candidates for removal was this little number, rated at 89 with a drink by 2014 appended.

Now, it's not as if I'm inclined to view Halliday as the be-all and end-all, but it's good to have a pointer, and I'd rather be trying this one now rather than going for the '05 or '08 which James has going into the 2020s. It's not as if those single bottles are going to last that long, you understand, but they'd arguably have what it takes to go close to the distance.

Actually, talking of distance, here's an example of how far we've travelled in a few short years. Visiting the winery I'd written (in the ensuing travelogue):

a stellar wine made from free run juice (about 40% of the available volume) that was 100% Riesling without a trace of skin, stem or stalk. Quite simply, a fantastic wine.

Two and a half years later:

Jim Barry The Florita Riesling 2007 (4* $40) Maybe I've been getting into a few too many aged (or relatively aged) Rieslings lately, but while this bottle ticked all the appropriate boxes I was comparatively underwhelmed. Definitely developed Riesling, that whiff of hydrocarbon on the nose, pronounced Clare Valley minerality, full of flavour and a very pleasant drinking experience but lacked, I thought, the Wow! factor noted when we visited the winery.

Signs of a changing palate? Perhaps, but I'd put it down to a mixture of that, preconception and recent samples of very good Riesling with a few years bottle age on them. Definitely 4*, but, really, I was looking for something that was closer to 4.5, and had I been in a position to taste this now with a view to buying on this tasting I'd be giving it the flick pass.