28 Jun 2012

My 15th bike is a KTM Duke 690

Ok, so I've been going on about this for a while, but I have now finally sold my former, fully-repaired and now in very good condition Ducati Multistrada 1000s, and have bought the latest KTM Duke 690, about which I spoke a while ago here .

This latest version of the KTM Duke purports to be the most powerful road-going single-cylinder bike ever produced.They have also civilized the thing a bit, which is fine with me as I am not a stuntman.

Now a single cylinder machine obviously has its limits, one of which has to be high-speed cruising, so I anticipate using it mainly on small roads, which is fine by me as I am not a great fan of riding on motorways: it's just too boring. I am going to Lyon tomorrow to collect it and ride it back to Paris and I am very excited about it! The twisties in the Beaujolais/Burgundy area should be just right for running it in properly. A new bike is always quite an event, and you just don't get tired of such things. It feels like, well, some other very good events. Maybe I would get blasé if I was rich and could buy all kinds of bikes. But I am not, so the event stands out for me.

I suppose this slight tension and excitement has something to do with the fact that I bought the machine over a month ago and have been waiting ever since to find the time from a current heavy load of work to make the 2 hour train journey and probably most of a day's ride back (the machine is running in, remember, and there are suitable stops to be made at the odd winery on the way back).

I like the idea (and the feel, when I tried the bike a few months ago) of lightness on a bike. This is getting harder and harder to find with the growing size and sophistication of modern motorbikes. Now this thing weighs about 150 kilograms dry and maybe 165 wet. And it has 70 bhp down below. Should make for a lot of fun.

Watch this space shortly for a first test report.....

23 Jun 2012

Isle of Man TT racing and golden oldies

Ok, now you've seen it. Feeling scared, impressed, amazed, knocked-out? Thinking that this is just stupid, beautiful, impressive? Probably a mixture of all of these...

This video shows just how hard it is to race a bike on the 60 kilometer road circuit that comprises the notoriously dangerous Isle of Man "mountain" circuit. The fastest guys that you see in the video are AVERAGING 130 mph (that's about 210 kph) over their four or six laps (depending on the category) of the 60 miles road circuit. The Isle of Man TT races (TT, for Tourist Trophy, although these guys are not exactly your average tourists!) are the longest standing and most famous of all motorcycle road races: ie races held on normal roads otherwise used on a daily basis for regular traffic.

The Isle of Man lies between England and Ireland, in the Irish sea. Although it belongs to the English monarch and pays allegiance to the Queen of England, it has a form of independant status and is neither a part of the United Kingdom nor of the European Union. In 1904 the island's parliament authorised the closing of certain roads to hold automobile road races, a procedure not authorised in England. The first motorcycle races were held there in 1907, at that time on a 24 kilometer circuit. The current 60 km circuit was first used in 1911, and the annual races there have never been interrupted since, with the exception of during the two world wars, and once again in 2001, during the so-called "mad cow" epidemic. 

The first bike winner (on the shorter circuit) was Charlie Collier, on a Matchless, who won the single cylinder category at an average speed of 38,20  miles per hour, after 4 hours 8 minutes and 8 seconds racing. The twin cylinder category was won, at a slower speed, by Rem Fowler on a Norton with a V-twin Peugeot engine (mabe this should have been called a Peuton?). He averaged 36.21 mph and took 4 hours, 21 minutes and 52 seconds to complete his race. Note the pedals to help him up hills, and the drive belt. Oiling was done by the hand pump on the side of the tank.

The course has always spelt danger, both to riders and, sometimes, spectators, especially those who go crazy without knowing the course well on what is sometimes calles "Bloody Sunday", between the 2 weeks of racing. In now over 100 years of racing on this course, some 220 racing riders have been killed on it, either in races or in practise. This considerable danger element caused Grand Prix racing to retire from the course years ago, but the TT event continues and is followed by a growing number of fanatics who would not miss it for anything. It also has its specialist riders, about whom more later. I have been there once, as a spectator, back in 1971 if I remember rightly. I was riding a green Norton Commando 750 Fastback at the time and I went with an American friend who was riding a BMW (a 75/5, I think it was). We camped out. It rained a lot but it was an incredible experience. It was amazing to be able, between practise sessions, to ride the same track as the racers and, even at the fairly modest speeds at which we rode (traffic was two way when the roads were open !) it was an impressive road to ride.  

John McGuinness, this year's double TT winner, and now winner of a total of 19 races on the island 

The first week of the event is reserved for practise sessions, with the roads being re-opened to normal traffic in between. A series of races, for various categories, are held during the second week. Because of the nature of the course (narrow roads and many hard obstacles like walles, poles, houses and pavements!) riders start individually at fixed intervals. Since the days of Grand Prix bikes and great riders like Surtees, Hailwood and Agostini, it is superbikes and the like that are used for the races, with different categories. The Senoir TT is the most prestigious event and this was cancelled on account of rain this year. The other races were run however and what struck me was the average age of the winners, who, with few exceptions, all seem to be 40-ish. John McGuinness, for instance, who won 2 races, is over 40, and so is Bruce Anstey, who won 1. The only youngster on the winner's board, for one race, was Michael Dunlop. Michael happens to be the nephew of the record holder for wins on this circuit, the late Joey Dunlop, who has his statue on the island.    

These guys are all unassuming heroes, who do what they like best and take the consequences. They are far from the star system. And if you still doubt the ability of over 40's racers to win at top level in bike racing, just take a look at what 41-year-old Max Biaggi is doing this year on the World Superbike circuit. He currently leads the classification with 3 race wins and a 30 point lead on his nearest follower.

For other posts on the Isle of Man TT races on this blog, you can look here:


and at this one, also on Guy Martin and one of the most popular posts ever on this blog


16 Jun 2012

No appellation please, but a great Rhone wine in the making

It is not often that one has the clear feeling of tasting a series of wines that have every chance of becoming future benchmarks in terms of quality for a whole region. And which are also exemplary in the daring of the project behind them. This happened to me just last week and I feel that I was a lucky man to have been there. The story behind these wines (or, I should say, sketches of what the wines will almost certainly become when they have completed their adolescence) is both interesting and exemplarary. Of course few things are perfect, and the labels, whilst unusual, are not quite in line with the character and the extremely high quality of the wines. I consider that to be a detail given the potential of the wines, but details do count in this world and I hope there will be some changes in this respect. The name of the winery is Les Amoureuses, by the way, and it comes from the Rhône valley, in France. It says MADE IN FRANCE quite clearly on the labels, but more of that later.

my rather poor photo of bottles of some of the wines from Les Amoureuses

When a wine is not only spectacularly good in terms of its taste, but also when the producer has stepped outside the over-rigid constraints that govern wines and winemaking here in France in order to produce it, my levels of curiosity, interest and, finally, respect, are immediately raised. This is not a matter of trying to be different or a "rebel" or whatever. It is simply a growing reject of the stupidities of the French appellation system that tends, far too often, to adopt the "tall poppy syndrome" of chopping off anything that grows about the average wheat patch.

The laws that govern the French appellation system for wines are very often hard to understand in terms of logic, not to mention from a quality-oriented point of view. In fact they too often have the perverse effect of preventing producers from making the best possible wine on their repective pieces of land. Grape varieties, names of wines, planting and pruning methods, wine-making techniques and many more aspects are imposed and controlled by the appellation system. The problem is that the powers-that-be seem more obsessed with the past than with the future in so many respects. Hence they prevent many energetic and enterprising producers from experimenting in order to produce wines that will, in time, make the world flock to their doors. This has happened so often over the past 20 or so years that I am close to considering the French appellation system, under its current configuration, as simply a dead weight that only serves to preserve vested interests of the firmly entrenched and all those who are afraid of trying new solutions in a changing world.

Les Amoureuses is in the mid-section of this map, just to the left of the river and where there are practically no other vineyards

Ok, so now that I have had my little rant, where are we, geographically speaking? In the Rhône Valley, and right in the middle of the stretch that takes it from Lyon to the Mediterranean. Just north of the small town of Montelimar, famed for its nougat, this is a kind of vinous no-man's land in terms of the standing reputation and even existence of the local wines, although the potential is clearly there. Appellations like Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and St. Joseph, which are home in particular to the syrah grape, lie further north, and villages like Vinsobres, Cairanne, Vacqueyras, Gigondas or Chateauneuf, all of which, whatever their "status", use a majority of Grenache, are some way to the south. On the left bank, in the Drôme department, lies the recently re-named and yet unpronounceable appellation of Grignan-les-Adhémar, whereas on the ardéchois right bank, wines can only, at best, claim allegeance to the vast Côte du Rhône appellation.

What I find particularly paradoxical is that, even in such a lowly appellation, people have seen fit to prohibit certain ways of training the vines, not to mention limiting the varieties of grapes, and even the authorised proportions of these. I therefore totally understand and support the initiative of Château les Amoureuses to take two steps sideways (and, I feel, a big pace forwards) and put their wines under the regime of "vin de pays", now known as Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP for short), which allows them far more latitude to plant and cultivate their vines, and then make their wines, in the way they want. As Jean-Michel Novelle, the consultant oenologist in charge of this project said:  " We could not have produced wines of this quality under the French appellation system". Not only do I totally agree with him, I have tasted the proof! They will be sold under the Vin de Pays de la Méditerranée designation and have Made in France clearly marked on the labels. This is a calculated process designed to induce freedom to make what they want in the way that they want. Clearly these wines aim for the top, which their "usual" appellation would not permit on account of silly technical restrictions.

Jean-Michel Novelle

Les Amoureuses belongs to a local business man, Jean-Pierre Bedel, who owns a company called Fabemi that produces building materials. He is a lover of wine and good food and so, having acquired an existing wine estate, he set about improving and extending it. To help him do so, he hired Jean-Michel Novelle, a Swiss winemaker and oenologist, to supervise the project. They currently have about 50 hectares under production and the capacity to double this in time. When I visited it last week, the vast winery, like a concrete cathedral, was just nearing completion, but the 2011 vintage has been produced there and these were the wines we tasted. The vineyards are divided between different altitudes and zones in the Ardeche hillside, giving the opportunity to plant a variety of grapes and havest at different dates. For instance, the spread of harvest dates for the grenache variety can extend over 2 weeks.

photo Jacques Perrin: and here is a link to his excellent blog and article on this same estate and event, in French : http://blog.cavesa.ch/index.php/2012/06/13/205272-naissance-daun-grand-vin

The production covers the three colours, and derives mainly from quality Rhône varieties. Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier are behind the white wines I tasted, and Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Mouvèdre behind the reds. There is also some Merlot, and future plantings will include that great Portugese variety, Touriga Nacional. The only wines that are currently available from the new winery and approach are 2 rosés of the 2011 vintage, which I will describe below. The whites and the reds are still being aged, either in tanks or in barrels, prior to blending in most cases as the final range has yet to be finalised. 

Two young oenologists, Claudia Gomez, from Chile, and Christine Basson, from South Africa, are in charge of the day-to-day supervision of the wines since Jean-Michel Novelle acts as a consultant, also dealing with his own Domaine le Grand Clos, near Geneva, and consulting elsewhere, including for the Abbaye de Leirins on the eponymous island near Cannes, and the Amayna estate, on the coast of Chile near San Antonio. The vineyard team is mainly from Portugal, and so the whole outfit has an international colouring that is very unusual in France. The owners are French, but are clearly daring and open-minded, as well as ambitious and patient! I have known Jean-Michel for some years and have learned to appreciate his honesty, his demanding and pragmatic approach and his attention to detail. A wine supervised by him cannot possibly be banal, and this was what encouraged me to make the trip. 

The first rosé tasted, from the 2011 vintage, is called Loverose. Like its sister wine it has deliberately been bottled in a dark bottle, breaking the usual code of clear glass for whites and rosés. This makes perfect vinous sense as dark glass protects wine from alteration by ultra-violet light, which clear glass cannot achieve. It is made from 100% grenache in stainless-steel tanks.
The nose is tender, making me think of rose petals. The alcool, for a southern wine, seems very moderate and is barely noticeable. Yet the touch is rounded and the flavours delicious. Perfectly defined, this shows character and reasonable warmth. A real wine that can ne enjoyed before a meal or with salads. (note: 14/20)
Novelle explained that this wine, as the other rosé, has had its alcohol reduced by 2 degrees, using the reverse osmosis technique. There seems to be no lack of flavour as a result, and the balance is perfect. Given the rising alcohol levels that especially afflict southern wines here, I wonder why this technique is not used more widely, since few, at least in cooler climates, hesitate to chaptalise their must to increase alcohol?

Rose Vintage 2011 is also made in tanks and bottled in dark glass, but it uses a complex blend of grenache, syrah, merlot, mourvèdre and carignan.
It has a slightly deeper colour than Loverose, and the nose is crisper and fresher, with unusual complexity. I loved the feel of this on the palate, as it has a great combination between its delicate structure and the precision of its fruit flavours. One of the best rosés I have tasted this year. (note 15/20) 

We then tasted a series of single variety barrel samples, both white and red. These wines will be blended later in the year, also using wines made in tanks. Although one could therefore consider them to be anecdotal (and you probably know of my aversion to judging any wine before it is finally bottled) they are very interesting as a means to gauge the potential of this estate and team. And what a potential!

The Marsanne was rich to the point of seeling a bit heavy. It is long, warm and powerful. I would like to see it blended with something lighter.

The Roussanne I liked much better, for its balance, intensity and gentle hint of bitterness that lifted the finish. Although also warm and very powerful, it was vibrant and should provide the backbone for the final blend.

The Viognier is certainly one of the most promising that I can remember tasting outside Condrieu. Well perfumed, slightly oaky at this stage, it has astonishing freshness to go with its length and its warmth. Very promising, maybe on its own or as a minor chord in the blend. 

The real revelation, at least for me, was yet to come with the red wines from the 2011 vintage, also single varieties and barrel samples (with the exception of the first sample). One should remember that, since the winery is brand new, so are all the barrels. This will probably evolve in the future, but it is interesting to note the capacity of these wines to "absorb" that amount of new oak without flinching. Unusually they all come from the same cooperage: the excellent Taransaud firm and their Burgundy workshop.

Grenache (tank sample). Incredible colour and intensity of fruit on the nose, then on the palate. The texture is lovely and the the aromatic intensity very impressive. A bomb of a wine! We are at Châteauneuf-du-Pape level here, without a doubt.

Grenache (barrel sample 1). The oak is marked on the nose. Very smooth texture, and the barrel ageing has clearly added a dimension of depth and complexity to the wine in terms of its texture and its aromatics. The alcohol comes through a bit on the finish, as does a metallic-like feel that tightens and spices up the finish.

Grenache (barrel sample 2). This seems to make a good compromise between the first 2 grenache samples. Greater complexity, more discreet that the tank sample yet with exceptional fruit quality. Very intense and the best balance and length of the 3.

Syrah. Very deep colour. Deep and ripe on the nose, close to cassis but not in an excessive manner. Lovely freshness on the palate with glorious fruit quality. Precise flavours, intense and long. Here we have a wine close to the level of a good Hermitage.

Carignan. This much maligned variety is capable of great things, particularly when the vines have some age. Here is another proof of that. Very savoury and fresh, it is packed with wonderfully rumbling flavours that roll around the tongue. Beautifully sexy!

Mourvèdre. This has just about everything going for it: richness, intensity and fruit quality. Quite magnificent, it took my breath (and words) away.

I then played around with a blend of my own, in a very imprecise and amateurish manner. I found the result quite conclusive, adding intensity and focus, as well as balance. These wines clearly have the potential of being great! Congratulations to the team who produce them. I am impatient to taste the finished products. It is not every day that one is able to observe the first steps of a future great wine. Only time will tell now.....

11 Jun 2012

The beauty of roses, old or otherwise

I like roses a lot, especially the older varieties that smell good and climb all over the place. Actually not all the ones I have planted are that old in terms of their origin, but they should at least smell good. I have planted quite a lot of different varieties over the years around the old farmhouse in South-West France where I try to spend a bit of time. Managed to get there for a long weekend in mid-May this year and here a a few pictures I took of one of the bush varieties that I like a lot and which was just starting to flower at the time.

The problem is I cannot remember the names of most of them. I have a planting map somewhere. This one may be called Fritz Nobis, but I'm not too sure. As I don't really have any serious ambitions as a gardner (I am too erratic and not there enough to really improve on this), maybe it doesn't matter too much. I love the shape and the colour of its flowers. Can't post the smell on here I'm afraid! 



8 Jun 2012

Is faster better? Is more better?

There is an old saying in England that goes like this; "more haste, less speed". I think that we all experience the inevitable truth of this when tying our shoelaces, for instance. We rush into something through pressure or stress of whatever origin, and we find to our dismay that we do not accomplish that particular task as well as if we had taken things calmly and slowly.

I think there is perhaps an analogy to be made between this kind of individual, usually small-scale phenomenon, and what is going on in the world around us. Information is everywhere, forms of media that permit and encourage "communication" constantly emerge, and time spent with them grows to occupy and ever-widening expanse of our lives. Macluhan's prediction of the "global village" seems ever more true. 

But what about the receptors of all this communication? What about us, in other words? How can we possibly capture and sift all this information, even in the accelerated speed mode in which so many of us seem to operate? 

There is no shortage of transmitters, but are the receptors being given enough attention? Remeber that WE are the receptors!  Has the fact that we are aware of tragedies taking place all around the world made us, as individuals, more tolerant? Does the fact that we have assess to newpapers, magzines, books, radio, e-mail, the web, facebook and twitter make us think better? And when do we find the time to think anyaway with all this bombardment? The human brain is an amazing piece of equipment, but do we allow it space enough to work well?

Morning reflections, perhaps to be pursued. (And I am NOT a Luddite)

6 Jun 2012

Which wine to drink with spicy food?

If you just want an answer to this question, you can skip to the bottom of the page!

When I am in my cynical vein, I sometimes feel that the whole topic of wine and food "matching" is simply a good excuse for selling books on the subject. I suppose I should know, as I am responsible for a few of these, as requested by various publishers. Public demand seems to lie behind this spate of "litterature", and I find that questions linked to the topic are indeed among the most frequently asked in the wine classes that I teach. This curiosity (or should we call it "bafflement"?) seems to be quite widespread, and is probably born out by the fact that amongst the 20 or so books that I have written or co-written on and about the subject of wine, the best-selling one is entirely devoted to the subject of wine and food pairing.

(and to assume my cynicism to the hilt, here is a link to enable you French-speakers to buy this book, which I compiled in partnership with a food speicialist, Pierre-Yves Chupin, and which acts as a double-entry dictionary that can operate either from the wine side or the food side)

To be perfectly honest, the more I live and try different wines and foodstuffs together, the less I feel that I have any real certainties about the topic. My only heartfelt piece of advice to anyone would go something like this : "just try what you feel like drinking at that moment with what you have on your plate, or vice-versa. You have as much chance of enjoying the experience as you will by reading all this theory written about the subject of the do's and dont's of wine and food pairing!"

But of course there are some foodstuffs that make matching a wine to them tricky, and one of them is clearly spicy food. Just by chance the other day I was having lunch alone at home, next to my office, after a tasting session on some rosé wines which seem to be all the rage at the moment here in France. Being alone and in a hurry I micro-waved a one stop meal which happened to be curry based. As I had two bottles, one red and one white, open and to hand, I decided to see which one went best with this slightly spiced dish, which used chicken and rice as its mainstay. 

The red wine was a gloriously deep and aromatic thing from the Corbières region of France's Languedoc. Named, rather mysteriously, Atal Sia, (which I understand means "so be it") this is a relatively upmarket cuvée from the 2009 vintage produced by a very reliable estate called Ollieux Romanis, from which I have never had a bad wine. This particular cuvée retails for slightly less that 20 euros. I had tried it the evening before and it was quite glorious, full-bodied without being overpowering, pungent with wild herb and garrique-like aromas, quite smooth in texture yet strongly lingering on the palate. A journey to a wild and rocky place, yet a civilised journey. For those interested, this wine is a blend of various grapes used in the Corbières appellation, with carignan making up almost 50%, the rest being divided between grenache and mourvèdre, plus just a pinch of syrah. 

The white wine was an off-dry Riesling (so many are just that these days, without even declaring their residual sugar, but that is another problem) from Alsace and produced by an estate with which I am not familiar. The estate is called Domaine du Windmuelh (yes, it means "windmill" in the Alsatian dialect of German), and the cuvée is called Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2010. The wine was perfectly good on its own and, probably on account of its slight sweetness that balanced its fine acidity, reminded me more of the delicate German stye of rieslings that the usual Alsace style which tends often towards more alcoholic power and so less sugar. This wine would, I expect, have qualified for the spätlese category had it been German. I do not know what it costs but I suspect in the vicinity of 10 euros.

Some authors recommend going for a rich and slightly spicy red wine to match the spices of a curried dish. I have never found this to be good advice and indeed it didn't work at all in this case. The powerful Corbières red, glorious on its own, lost all its depth and finesse and tasted like a rather ordinary rough red when I tried the curry dish with it. On the other hand, the Riesling just sung out! It fruit was enhanced, its fine acidity balancing the richness of the sauce and its small amount of sweetness was sufficient to master the low-level fire engendered by the curry. The whole experience was refreshing and enhancing for both the dish and the wine. I suppose that puts it close to the elusive "perfect match" category.